Country of Everest

Country of Everest

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October 22, 2009 12:36

 
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Somewhere on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, high up on the mountainside between the Palestinian village of Beit Jala and the Israeli settlement of Har Gilo, sits the unsuspecting, unassuming Everest Hotel. Run for the past six decades by an Arab Christian family, this homey guest house, set in an area not claimed by either Israelis or Palestinians, seems an unlikely venue for forwarding the peace process. But it is precisely because of its unclaimed location that the Everest has become the ideal place for both sides to find some common ground. "My hotel is in its own country," jokes Everest's owner Makram El-Arja, his moustache shaking as a bares a very wide grin. "Everyone from both sides knows that it's safe to come here and they all trust me. "It's the last corner for Israelis to come freely [before they reach areas under total Palestinian control] and Palestinians can also get here without too much trouble," he continues, referring to the myriad checkpoints and security barriers that have sprung up in the area over the last decade. "We are not with the Israelis or with the Palestinians… we are the government of Everest." THE "GOVERNMENT of Everest" might sound like something from out of a cynical Monty Python-esque British comedy, but this no-man's land hotel is playing an increasingly important role in brokering discussions between some of the highest-ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as a serving as a neutral meeting place for nonprofit coexistence organizations that want to work together to forward peace and harmony among regular people long dogged by war. In addition, the hotel offers a safe refuge for Arab families physically divided by the ongoing conflict, who just want to find some normalcy in lives constantly disrupted by terrorists and fighting. "We have a wedding here tonight," says El-Arja, as he guides us through the hotel's dimly lit banquet hall - already starting to be adorned with crockery, cutlery and colorful decorations for the evening's festivities - and into the oversized, industrial kitchen where food for the event is diligently being prepared. "Most of tonight's guests are coming here from Jerusalem and the rest of the relatives live in the West Bank," he explains. "It's much easier for them to get here than to get into Jerusalem. I am helping to bring the two sides together in a safe place." While El-Arja's guests on this evening are staying overnight in the 26-room hotel, the majority of those that pass through Everest's doors these days are not there to utilize the wireless Internet or newly installed air conditioning - though of course, El-Arja is extremely proud of both. Rather, they come to conduct some form of dialogue for peace with their Arab or Israeli neighbors. SHOWING ME around the old-fashioned, rather outdated bedrooms, El-Arja proudly points to rooms that have been utilized by the region's more famous figures, including King Hussein of Jordan, who once stayed here many decades ago. In the lobby, he identifies with equal excitement the couch once sat on by former British premier Tony Blair, who was at the hotel in July for the launch of the first Israeli-Palestinian start-up G.ho.st. The company, which has two offices, one in Modi'in and the other in Ramallah, utilized the hotel to highlight its commitment to normalizing relations between both sides. "It was both practical and symbolic," says G.ho.st CEO Zvi Schreiber, of the conspicuous location. "There are very few places along the [security] barrier where there is a gap and it shows that work can be done across this barrier." While one has to pass through numerous checkpoints on their way to the Everest Hotel, Schreiber says it was one of the few places around Jerusalem where both sides could meet fairly freely together. "It was perfect for what we needed," he says. WHILE El-Arja seems to have successfully harnessed the volatile environment around his hotel, Everest's role in the peace process came about quite by accident, he says, in one of his more serious moments. It was born out of necessity to keep the 65-year-old family business alive with revenue of sorts, explains the personable hotelier. During the second intifada, which started in late 2000, numerous Israeli checkpoints around nearby Bethlehem stymied the hotel's ability to take in mostly Christian visitors who desired a location close to Jesus's birthplace. "Tourists who wanted to go to Bethlehem suddenly could not stay here, because even though it's only 12 kilometers away, it became almost impossible for them to get back through the Israeli checkpoints to here," recalls El-Arja, who also runs a tourism agency that brings Christians here from around the world, including from Egypt. "Then, about four years ago, I started to arrange meetings here," he explains. "At first it was for businessmen, Jews who wanted to work with Palestinians but did not feel it was safe enough for them to enter the territories. "However, when they realized that this was a safe area and that their car insurance would cover them while here, they decided to use my services," continues El-Arja. "The Palestinians could come here, too, without any permission. It was the perfect place." He goes on, "at first it started off being spread by word of mouth but then my hotel became very popular with various interfaith and coexistence groups and Israeli and Palestinian journalists, because I offered them a meeting room at a very low price." Clearly a survivor in a region that has claimed many lives and swallowed countless business prospects, El-Arja remains pragmatic in his goals. "All I wanted to do was to stay quiet and focus on my business. I have only one son after 18 years of trying, and I wanted to be able to give him something of his own when he is grown up." THE land that the Everest Hotel sits on has been in El-Arja's family since the 1930s, when 18 families from Beit Jala, which is located a little further down the mountain, first bought the lot to build a restaurant. "It was my grandfather's idea and slowly, slowly he bought out the other families and we have owned it outright since 1955. We are the oldest hotel in Bethlehem," he says, adding that today the family jointly owns three additional hotels in the Bethlehem area. While El-Arja is proud that the hotel still holds the original 1945 structure at its core, he does not hide his frustration that the area's lack of affinity to any one government has meant countless difficulties in expanding or modernizing the facility. "It makes me very angry that no one really takes care of us," says El-Arja, who simultaneously displays a Palestinian ID card and an Israeli health fund card, and adds that he also holds a Jordanian passport. "We were ignored for so long by both the Israelis and the Palestinians that for many years we did not even have the most basic of municipal services here. Running a hotel, lack of electricity was a big problem for us and very often, if we had an event, we had to turn off all the fridges in the rooms so that the air conditioning would work." Today, the situation has somewhat improved, with El-Arja paying municipal taxes to the Palestinian Authority even though Everest sits in what Israelis define as a military zone. "On the one hand there is not really anyone taking care of us and on the other I am not even allowed to clean or change any of the outside walls," he says, adding "I have not been allowed to make any real changes here since 2000; I am permanently stuck in a situation where I cannot build. "There are eight Israeli court orders calling for me to stop making improvements to my hotel but what can I do? Changes need to be made." As we continue our tour of the hotel, it appears that El-Arja has made his own decision about who should take responsibility for it. He points out eight new rooms that opened for public use last December, all built under the authority of the "Everest government." "Despite everything, I took care of all these improvements myself," he boasts, turning on the newly fitted shower and the air conditioner in a show of victory. From the hotel's rooftop, which offers spectacular views of the area "from Ashdod to Jordan," El-Arja points sadly to the looming gray security fence that snakes across the mountaintop, splitting the land between Beit Jala and Har Gilo. However, just in front of his hotel, the wall stops abruptly and for several meters it appears to be broken into two. He explains that the wall was about to cut through his property and, at the last minute, he managed to persuade an Israeli court that it was unfair and illegal. While El-Arja displays his clear disgust for the unnatural structure on the horizon, its presence next to his property exemplifies the uniqueness of the Everest Hotel's location. The views from either side of the incomplete wall offer an excellent insight into the complexities of this region, especially Jerusalem, and why Everest is so important in bringing the two sides together. On one side of the wall sits Beit Jala, straddling the Israeli "tunnel road" as it winds its way to Jewish settlements in Gush Etzion, while on the other side is Har Gilo, encircled by a barbed-wire fence. Two small houses belonging to Christian clergymen, friends of El-Arja, sit immediately on its perimeters. "This area is a unique," he says fondly, his anger at the wall abating. "I know that people here are angry about the [Israeli] occupation but this spot is the most beautiful in the world. "I have lived in Los Angeles and visited many other places, but while it is good to see them I still love the fresh air and beautiful views in my corner of the world," concludes El-Arja. "People with money go to visit the Swiss Alps but for me, right here, this is my Switzerland."

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