Bethlehem itself is quite a small city, and it's governorate includes Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. Combined they comprise about 50,000 people, and they have one of the highest Christian populations in the region - as well as one of the oldest. It felt a pretty calm place, and I didn't feel unsafe whatever time of day. It doesn't suffer from some of the higher tensions and violence present in places like Nablus or Hebron.
The Wall probably dominated my experience of the visit. I had read a good amount of history before travelling and already knew a bit about the area and the current conflict - but the interlinking histories, claims of land, wars and clashes of religion over thousands of years inevitably complicate the debate.
I didn't actually visit the Wall in daylight until the third day. I knew what it looked like from photographs, and knew what it was there for; but nothing is able to describe the actual experience of seeing it and touching it. It is chilling, claustrophobic and nauseating. As British citizens, we are used to being able to move freely - in fact our passports demand freedom of passage on page 1, so it requires a conscious and deliberate act to try to place yourself in the position of the Palestinian people. When we see a Wall, we normally know that we can walk around it - but for the Palestinians the Wall marks where their freedom ends. They cannot pass through, go around or climb over it. It emanates from the ground, and snakes it's way around and through the West Bank - dotted by sinister watchtowers manned by Israeli guards with assault rifles.
Even before we came home I had already decided to return to the West Bank - but next time I will spend time in Israel too. I want to experience the region from both sides of the current conflict, as well the Wall. I want to make sure that I have a balanced view, before I feel as though I can have a proper opinion.
There are over 100 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and it is easy when visiting to see them as an invasion. When reading the history, it becomes harder to define: when and where do you draw the line, what do you call the 'beginning'? Nevertheless whilst there the settlements look imposing. Most are new, modern, expensive looking, with new roads; sitting atop hills surrounded by high walls: the first one I saw looks like an ancient citadel or fortress, rising up above the surrounding countryside.
I asked many of the people I met what they wanted for the area. I was surprised by how many told me they wanted a one state solution for Israel and the Palestinian territories. I had assumed everyone wanted two seperate independent countries. It was when I visited the Aida Refugee camp that I heard the most extreme views: those that propose that the Israelis do not have a claim to a nation there at all. The Aida camp has been in existence since 1948 - when villages and towns were destroyed and populations were left homeless in the Israeli-Arab War. The people are still there 60 years later, no longer in tents but in run down apartment blocks. Nevertheless the conditions are very poor: two thirds of the population are under 18, and the unemployment rate is 75%. Life is very difficult for the people there, and their living rooms look out on the wall that imprisons them - it's no wonder you hear such things there. I was taken on to the roof of one of the building to be shown the patched up bullet holes in the water tanks from the last intifada in 2000-1.
In the same way that I think terrorism can never be defeated or even controlled by the use of tanks, planes and bombs, the Wall seems destined to radicalise moderates in the West Bank, and must therefore be counter productive in its stated purpose of safety, certainly in the long run. It also runs through large swathes of the West Bank, annexing lands to Israel - which must further inflame the tension. I have since found out that referring to the West Bank as Palestine is found offensive by many Israelis - though I haven't yet found out why. Perhaps it is because it appears that one implies that the land does not belong to Israel, and that one supports the creation of an Arab state, one that is independent of Israel.
Our journey home from the West Bank came both fast and slow. I felt as though we'd been there two days and two months at the same time. We were questioned at the checkpoint when passing into Israel. Back at Ben-Gurion airport we were questioned again, our bags were X-rayed several times, cameras and electronics were checked by hand and X-rayed seperately, every item and pocket was swabbed for explosives, wallets searched, trousers and bras removed (though I got away with just removing my shoes) and patted down. We knew for sure that the plane was safe but aware that the extra attention was due to us returning from the West Bank.
I'm left very powerfully moved by the experience and can't wait to go again. I'm hugely grateful to the group and the University for making it possible.