The people are warm and friendly, many places are remarkable but the politics rule out total relaxation, writes Celeste Gorrell Anstiss.

There are two sides to modern-day Bethlehem: beautiful churches and ugly politics.

By every definition, this city is impressive: architecturally, historically, spiritually. The food is delicious, the people are warm and friendly. It is also only 20 minutes' drive from the bustling hub of Jerusalem, making it an accessible and easy place for tourists to visit.

But Bethlehem is a confronting reminder of the delicate political situation in this region.

There are Israeli military checkpoints, gun towers, and tall razor-wired walls. A separation barrier wraps around the city boundaries.

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Considered by the Israeli Government as a vital tool in preventing terrorism, the wall was built here in 2002. It now zig-zags through the entire West Bank, controversially restricting the movement of Palestinian people.

Harp player in Jerusalem Old City. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss
Harp player in Jerusalem Old City. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

Before heading to Bethlehem's main attraction — the birth site of Jesus Christ — I make a stop at an area of the wall where British artist Banksy and other street artists have painted huge murals in an attempt to "reclaim" ownership of the wall for Palestinian people, and to educate visitors on the Palestinian perspective of the region's recent history.

Heart-wrenching pieces include a white dove in a bullet-proof vest, a target centred on its chest; a glowing Palestinian tourism poster from the early 20th century, overlaid with a modern scene of war; the black silhouette of an Israeli soldier checking the identity papers of a donkey; a masked youth hurling a bouquet of flowers.

A humanitarian project also saw the addition of Palestinian stories painted on the wall. The hours easily evaporate as I make my way around.

From the highest points, the nearby refugee camps can be seen. These were established to shelter people fleeing the Jerusalem area as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The populations of these camps has swelled over the generations — more than 95 per cent of today's residents were born after 1948. If you are up for it, local guides can facilitate visits inside the camps — these places are generally considered relatively safe for foreign visitors, although modest dress and behaviour is essential.

Nevertheless, most tourists in Bethlehem head directly into the centre of the city. Here, Bethlehem's sacred and very beautiful Christian sites provide me with some relief from the provocative and depressing nature of Israeli-Palestinian politics.

Even for someone with only a passing understanding of biblical stories, Bethlehem is an intriguing place to visit. Highlights include the Church of Nativity, which was originally commissioned in 327AD, making it one of the oldest churches in the world. In an underground cave beneath the basilica, the Grotto of the Nativity marks the exact place where Jesus is said to have been born.

Holy site in Bethlehem. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss
Holy site in Bethlehem. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

The site also includes Latin, Greek Orthodox, Franciscan and Armenian convents and churches, as well as picturesque garden courtyards.

Although the edifice retains the elaborate floor mosaics from the original church, the buildings have been damaged by natural and political forces many times in the years since, most recently, by fires in 2014.

The latest significant refurbishment project is due to be complete in 2018 and in the meantime, expect some scaffolding and closures within the complex.

A short walk from the Church of the Nativity, inside a small Roman Catholic church, the "Milk Grotto" is believed have acquired its soft white appearance from a drop of milk that fell from the Virgin Mary. Christian and Muslim pilgrims touch the stone with the belief that it enhances fertility.

Before leaving Bethlehem, it is worthwhile to stop off at one of the olive-wood factories (a seemingly unintentional symbol of peace and hope in the area). Most factories welcome tourists with open arms, allowing you to watch rows of craftsmen turning olive branches into smooth carvings. I buy some stunning gifts to take home. With tourist numbers heartbreakingly low for so many years, these businesses need and deserve visitors' support.

I leave Bethlehem with mixed feelings but overall a sense of sadness. Being a fly-on-the-wall as devoted Christians from around the world take their pilgrimage was a beautiful experience. But it was hard to truly appreciate this Holy Land after having a glimpse into the fraught political stalemate happening just around the corner.

GETTING AROUND ISRAEL AND THE WEST BANK

A trip to Israel and the West Bank is a holiday for getting you to think, rather than jumping for joy. This is a region that showcases some of the worst aspects of humanity.
I saw the hopelessness of the children growing up in decades-old refugee camps. I cried my way through the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. I felt pangs of gloomy irony every time I crossed through the separation wall, which runs through the region like a scar.

There was also the blindingly obvious retreat of the Dead Sea due to global warming and rows of abandoned hotels lining the Red Sea, illustrating an economic boom that never quite happened.

It was a confronting trip but mind-opening.

Kalia Beach, Dead Sea. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss
Kalia Beach, Dead Sea. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

Before you go, it is important to understand that the New Zealand Government's Safe Travel website advises a high degree of security awareness in the region, to keep a low profile and to monitor local information sources to keep up to date with events that could affect security.

Here are my insights into making a trip to this region safer and smoother:

At the borders

Israel's border security has a reputation for being among the toughest in the world — but for most New Zealand passport holders, the procedures are relatively pain-free.

On arrival, officials want to know what your occupation is, where you plan to go, and your reasons for coming. These highly trained, highly cynical officials seem surprised when I say I am "just visiting" and press for much more detail.

It is on departure that the checks get especially interesting. Airlines urge travellers to arrive three hours ahead of their flight out of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport — and for good reason.

Before getting into the terminal, I am checked and questioned twice (once in the carpark entry, and again walking into the building). Heading through to security, the questioning gets much deeper. Staff swing between being friendly and being intrusive.

But they are just doing their job — smile, stay calm and tell them how you spent most of your trip at the beaches in Tel Aviv.

Next is the bag screening. My luggage is carefully unpacked; every individual item poked, prodded, x-rayed and swabbed. Cosmetics are opened and smelt, electronics are turned on.

I get off lightly — the woman in front of me is told she cannot take her shoes with her. She proceeds through the airport barefoot and looking defeated.

Kalia Beach, Dead Sea. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss
Kalia Beach, Dead Sea. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

Driving in the region

Israel boasts a modern highway network and driving between the main cities and tourist attractions is easy. Hiring a car on arrival, I am forbidden to take the vehicle into any "Area A" in the West Bank — this includes places such as Bethlehem. For these parts of my trip, I travel with a Palestinian guide, in a Palestinian car.

My self-guided road trip takes me from my base in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv; north to Rosh HaNikra (near the Lebanese border), down the coast to Unesco World Heritage site Acre, and then on to the Mediterranean city of Haifa, a melting pot where Arabs and Jews live side-by-side in peace.

I also take a trip east to Kalia Beach on the Dead Sea — one of the most reasonably priced places to soak, float and rub yourself in mud. Beware that Google Maps can be wildly inaccurate around this area.

Heading to the southern tip of the country, I park the car in Eilat and cross the border by foot (driving is restricted). Pulling a suitcase across potholed cement in the midday heat, I soon arrive within the confined walls of the Hilton Taba, overlooking the Red Sea scuba diving paradise.

Back in the car in Israel, the highways are generally easy to navigate, although traffic in the cities is chaotic.

Avoid driving through conservative neighbourhoods during Shabbat (Friday sundown to Saturday nightfall). Expatriates recount stories of stones and even dirty nappies being hurled at their car for going against these more orthodox Jewish beliefs. Unfortunately, most train and bus services are also not available during these times — forward planning is crucial.

Venturing into Occupied Territories

Crossing into the West Bank is to cross from the First World into the Third World. On the other side of the separation wall, the roads are rough, and the driving conditions are more challenging. Although self-guided travel is possible, it requires forward planning, research and a good dose of common sense.

The Occupied Palestinian Territories are divided into three categories. Area A is exclusively administered by the Palestinian Authority, Area B is administered jointly by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and Area C, which contains the Israeli settlements, is administered by Israel. The entry and exit points are tense, and tightly controlled by the Israeli military, but as a foreigner you are unlikely to run into problems.

Bring your passport when travelling in the Occupied Palestinian Territories — the Israeli guards will want to see it as you weave through the region's many checkpoints.

Operators offer trips to most areas of the West Bank — in single- and multi-day packages with very small groups.

A trip with Green Olive Tours gives me a good overview of the region: I travel to Balata Refugee Camp, Jacob's Well, Sebastia (featuring spectacular ruins from the Romans and Crusader times), Burqin Church (where Jesus cures the lepers in the Bible), as well as the Freedom Theatre in Jenin (made famous by the movie Arna's Children).

I also take the opportunity to return to the West Bank with advocacy group Machomwatch.

This volunteer organisation of Israeli women is primarily focused on advocating for Palestinian people, and they occasionally run very worthwhile tours to offer visitors a glimpse into daily life and problems in the West Bank.

Part of the Seperation Wall. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss
Part of the Seperation Wall. Photo / Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

Cathay Pacific

offers a one-stop service to Tel Aviv via Hong Kong four times weekly.

Further information: See new.goisrael.com.