This morning, following breakfast, our group gave a standing ovation for Asmahan, our housekeeper and excellent cook. We then hauled all luggage to the bus and departed by 8:30 a.m. – a full ten minutes ahead of schedule. Before departure we also gave a heartfelt good-bye to Michael Chacour (Micha), our work crew manager.
Our first destination was Nazareth again (for the second day!) because of schedule changes the previous day. Leaving Mar Elias at Ibillin there were the typical driving challenges of narrow roads, close calls, and simply too many vehicles everywhere. Nevertheless, we successfully made our departure, owing to the skill of our driver, passing interesting sights on our way, which included a rock crusher (!) and a jail for “elite” criminals, e.g. Russian mafia, corrupt politicians, etc. They are provided with quite nice accommodations including TV and access to other amenities. It reminded us of a resort! It’s interesting to look at the destination signs written first in Hebrew, then Arabic, and then English — always in that order. Because of the large percentage of Russian Jews in Israel, there is currently an effort underway to also include Russian as the fourth official language. (Can you imagine changing all the signs in the country to include another language?)
We first arrived in Nazareth, a small town with a population at the time of Jesus of 200 – 300 inhabitants. It is now over 60,000. We visited the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, believed to stand on the site of Mary’s home where the angel Gabriel was said to have appeared to her and announced that she would bear the Son of God. There were many mosaics donated from countries around the world. They appeared on walls inside and outside the Basilica, all of which focused on Mary. We also visited the Greek Orthodox church which believes that the annunciation of Mary took place at a well while she was fetching water.
We then drove on towards our next stop, the town of Jenin (our first West Bank destination), which is considered to be the headquarters of Palestinian resistance. This town is in one of the Palestinian areas designated “Area A”, which is off limits to Israeli Jews. Jenin was the location of some of the atrocities of the Second Intifada, after year 2000, in which there was an Israeli massacre at a refugee camp. Our goal in this town, however, was to visit Canaan Fair Trade Center, an organization begun in 2004 which was basically a union of more than 49 cooperatives of farmers to develop fair trade standards and sell their products. This organization processes and sells many varied products including, of course, its famous olive oil. It even has sold to an outlet in Portland! We were fortunate to be able to tour the entire plant and see how the products were first collected and then processed including the final step of labeling the jars ready for sale. All products are organic including such items as sun-dried tomatoes and cherry preserves. Our guide, an articulate Palestinian woman, Vivienne, represented the powerful mission of this center as regenerating the soil of Palestine and therefore regenerating the self worth. The olive oil pressing in this factory is combining ancestral knowledge with modern science and technology.
Following the tour of the processing factory, our group enjoyed a Palestinian meal. This meant sitting cross-legged outside the plant on mats and eating such delicacies as hummus ma lahem, falafel and bandura…another amazing meal…and then shopping in their gift shop for treats to bring home!
One of the final highlights of the day was a visit to Jacob’s Well in Nabulus (Samaria), thought to be the location where a Samaritan woman offered Jesus a drink of water after which he revealed to her that he was the Messiah. Inside the church of Jacob’s Well we were able to see the well (35 meters deep) and even hoist some water using a bucket on a rope. We all met the priest who was responsible for restoring a church which has been built over the site of this well.
From Nablus, we began our journey south toward Jersulalem and Bethlehem, through the countryside with terraced olive groves, the arid rocky hillsides, lovingly worked into production over centuries. Rami, our guide told us at one point, that we were traveling through the Valley of Thieves, a narrow draw where caravans were often raided moving from Damascus to Egypt on the trade route…such steep hillsides close to the road on both sides…a perfect place for an ambush! We saw our first Jewish settlements as we got closer to Jerusalem, always built by the Israeli government (all alike in a particular location), always built high on a hilltop (for security) and always red-roofed…and always on confiscated land according to international laws and UN resolutions.
Towards the end of this full day, we drove through crowded Jerusalem (right through the center of the city winding up in a traffic jam!) and then shortly to our accommodations, Mount David Hotel, in Palestine. That meant crossing our 6th checkpoint of the day, either guarded by Israeli soldiers or Palestinian soldiers.
But one last event awaited us: a party! Our dinner was celebrated in a large nearby restaurant with a stage in honor of National Elders Day for Palestinians. How fortunate we were to be there at this time. We ate Palestinian food and enjoyed watching (some of us even participated) dancing to very loud, festive Palestinian music. It was a fantastic evening!