Palestinians at a Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint view visit with skepticism
In Israeli resort of Haifa, travelers wonder if US understands region enough to help secure peace
When US President Donald Trump travels from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Tuesday for the final leg of his fact-finding mission to the Middle East, you can be sure he won’t be taking the bus.
It is a shame. Bus stations, and the travelers you meet there, can tell you a lot about a place.
From Israel to the Palestinian territories, a two-hour journey can take you just a few miles, or to the other side of the country, depending on who you are and where you are going.
Last Friday, CNN went to talk to people waiting for buses at two very different locales, to gauge the mood on both sides of the divide and ask about their hopes for the US President’s visit ahead of his arrival on Monday.
The first stop was the Jerusalem side of Checkpoint 300, the main crossing from Bethlehem to the Holy City, a military checkpoint through the 15-year-old wall that divides the West Bank from Israel.
If President Trump and his entourage choose this way to enter Bethlehem, it will surely be a speedy passage through the concrete barrier – possibly a prototype for the one he wants to build on the Mexico-US border.
The checkpoint is dreaded by Palestinians, turning what should be a short 20-minute walk into a two-hour ordeal.
First they have to take a yellow taxi to the crossing, which consists of a taxi rank with a few hawkers selling food and refreshments or toys and gifts. There, their papers are checked by Israeli soldiers.
If they are among the lucky ones with a permit to cross, they have no choice but to walk the rest of the way through the grim concrete tunnel. Once out on the other side, they then take the 234 bus to Jerusalem.
It was the beginning of the weekend and the main flow of people we met were visiting relatives or heading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City for Friday prayers.
Yara Bahar, 36, is a Palestinian Christian who lives in the Old City of Jerusalem. She has come to the checkpoint with her daughter Rujina, 5, to pick up her son Josef, 13, who was visiting his grandmother in Bethlehem. She has been waiting an hour for him to cross the wall.
“I hope Trump brings peace so both sides can live in peace,” she says. “He will come here, he will see this wall, he will see this checkpoint, but I don’t think he will see what we are going through. I have been waiting an hour to take my son back to Jerusalem and it is a nightmare. I do believe if the wall and the checkpoint are removed we can both live together peacefully. I hope Trump will be able to convince the Israeli side that the checkpoint is useless for peace.”
Alia Malash, 55, is taking her 14-year-old grandson Ahmed to Al-Aqsa – the third holiest site in Islam. She said she wanted to take him now, because in two years he will not be able to freely go.
Under current Israeli regulations, only women and men over 50 and boys under 16 can cross on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, without a permit, for fear of disturbances.
Malash says before the wall went up, she used to walk to the mosque every Friday. She now goes whenever she can for prayer, but not during the Jewish holidays because then she is not allowed. Work on the wall began in the early 2000s, in response to the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
“What can I hope from Trump’s visit?” she says. “I don’t think he will do anything for us – I just hope he looks at the prisoner issue – there is not a single family in Palestine that doesn’t have a relative in an Israeli prison.”
CNN also spoke to six men in their 50s and 60s, all from the same family, who are going to pray at Al-Aqsa. Their journey from northern Hebron should take half an hour but, because of the checkpoint, it now takes two hours.
Two of the men, Ahmed and Mohamed, are Jordanian citizens. “It is not just Palestinian citizens who suffer,” Ahmed says. “Even us as visitors, we also suffer at checkpoints. With a Jordanian passport, I should be able to cross without permission, but what can I do? We hope that Trump can get a sense of our suffering. God willing, he can do something.”
Farmer Mohamed Theeb, 85, made the trip from his village in Hebron to Jerusalem, also to pray. He expresses skepticism about Trump’s visit. “He will come with empty hands and he will leave with empty hands,” he says.
“He will not find a solution for anything, that is very clear and it is obvious that Trump is biased. Look around, this wasn’t here 15 years ago, it’s only getting worse with these world leaders.”
There is a very different atmosphere at the bus terminal in Haifa, 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Jerusalem on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Most travelers here are planning more secular pursuits for their weekend.
A man sells the conservative newspaper, Israel Hayom, owned by the American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is said to have Trump’s ear on the Middle East. Friday’s edition has a picture of Trump in the lead story, part of a special edition for the visit, but not everyone waiting at Haifa bus station knows that the President is heading their way.
Ilan, a 23-year-old computer engineering student from Afula, says he is too busy studying to listen to the news and didn’t know about Trump’s visit.
“I think he can make a change here, but I guess the question is what does he want to change?” he says. “I don’t think he is going for the peace path. I think his going to the other path – supporting Israel being more aggressive. Maybe for us it’s a good thing, because it will give us more freedom. Obama oppressed our government; maybe Trump will give us a free hand.”
Liav, 20, and his friend Yishai are soldiers in the Israeli military and are on their way to a music festival.
“When it comes to Israel, I think Obama was better than Trump because Trump is irrational,” says Liav. “He is unpredictable, you can’t trust a word he says. On the other hand, it seems that he’s more active than Obama, I don’t really know if that’s a good or a bad thing.”
“What value does this visit have? None,” says Shlomit, a woman in her forties who is on her way home to the kibbutz where she lives.
“All people are talking about is will the embassy be in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem. Either way the location of the embassy is just a statement of no real content or value. Politically it would be horrible if the embassy moved to Jerusalem. Because than we would be proclaiming that we are really ‘the chosen people,’ and that Jerusalem is united,” she says.
CNN also asked Sheli, 24, a college student, what she thought about President Trump’s visit.
“He’s very aggressive and I don’t think he is knowledgeable about this region,” she says. “In fact, I don’t think any American really understands what’s happening here but they have that tendency to intervene here in the Middle East from the first second.”
“I don’t think he can bring peace to the region. I think he can bring war – maybe in our world war is what brings about change, but I wouldn’t want that.”
Adi, 29, from Acre, was traveling to Eilat to meet friends for a weekend vacation. He has a more positive view of President Trump.
“He is coming here with a new agenda. Initially I wasn’t rooting for him – but we’ve already tried so many methods and leaders to bring about peace and nothing worked. So maybe it’s time to give him a chance. It will either explode in our face or succeed beyond expectations.”
“Twenty or 30 years from now we won’t be able to keep living like this. Either there will be two states or there will be one state. I don’t really care. Both options will work as long as the occupation comes to an end.”
Fhadi, 39, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who works as a bus conductor, is hopeful Trump will bring a fresh approach to the very old problem of Israel and the Palestinians.
“Many times the people who you least count on turn out to be those who make the difference.” he says. “So I’m optimistic that maybe that will be the case with Trump. Thing about him, he is not coming here for money or for fame, he has it all. All he wants is to surprise the world – show them that he will bring change after all the things that were said about him. He wants to be remembered.”