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Last Updated: Friday, 5 September, 2003, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
Visitors in a tourist-free zone
Two Aberystwyth University students, Alex Fitch and Susanne Kempe, are spending a fortnight in Palestine with the protest group the International Solidarity Movement. Here, Alex describes first impressions of life in one of the world's most troubled areas - and their quick friendship with a friendly cat.

Israeli soldiers detonate a building in pursuit of suspected Palestine militants
Israeli soldiers demolish a building in the West Bank town of Nablus
We arrived in Jerusalem at dawn after a long monotonous drive along a scar of a "freeway" between Tel Aviv and the capital.

We have been in this almost surreal setting for only a few hours but it seems much longer.

We were dropped off by our friendly bus driver at the Jaffa Gate and after thanking him for his help sat for a while inside the old city walls trying to aclimatise physically and mentally.

Jerusalem old city is a claustrophobic maze of ancient streets - some subterranean - and divided into Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian areas. While lacking any physical barrier between them, each is unique.

Everyone we met said the same thing: life is hard - but at least for the moment these people still have some form of livelihood
Just turning a corner can take you from something modern and slightly sterile into a lively street bustling with shops, people and the rich smell of cardamon.

We have spent the day walking these streets, meeting people and have seen some of the major sights including The Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock and below it the Western, or Wailing, Wall.

Seeing these places in their historical context while beginning to appreciate their contemporary significance will be something which will be important for me as I try to make sense of what is happening here.

Arab demonstrators throw stones at police in Nazareth in 2000
Arab demonstrators throw stones at police in Nazareth
Particularly significant for all those living in Jerusalem and reliant on the tourist trade is the lack of tourists. The streets are almost empty, the shops are stocked with unsold tourist goods and the Christian holy sights are deserted.

Everyone we met said the same thing: life is hard - but at least for the moment these people still have some form of livelihood.

Hospitality here means everything and shopping is a slow, pleasant business conducted over sweet tea or Arabic coffee.

One Palestinian shopkeeper lamented the current situation but told us how he had grown up with Israeli and Jewish friends who despite now doing their military service still come to visit him and with whom he still feels friendship.

All they want is peace.
INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT
Palestinian-led
Their volunteers act as human shields
They say they are non-violent
But Israeli Government views ISM as troublemakers

We are staying in a hostel in East Jerusalem - which is where the budget backpacker-type places seem to be - and have spent the evening sitting discussing the political situation here with a group of other activists from around the world, including one whose family is Jewish-Israeli.

Now our real work begins with a two-day intensive training session.

On the animal front, a very friendly tabby cat has adopted us as her humans. Our gift of Susanne's cheese went down well.


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