As both Bethlehem and Jericho are within the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, tourists usually engage one of Israel's tour operators to visit both places on a day trip. The tour starts off in the morning from Jerusalem with a 20-minute bus ride to the border.
Once you have reached the border checkpoint, the Israeli tour guide will explain what to expect after going through several border control measures, as he will not be accompanying you over. (This is because Israeli law forbids Israeli citizens to enter Palestinian-controlled areas unless they receive prior approval from the Israeli Civil Administration.)
At the "Rachel's Crossing" Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem, tourists will show their passports to the Israeli soldiers, let their bags be checked by an x-ray machine, before walking through a metal detector to enter Bethlehem. (The same procedure applies when one is exiting Bethlehem to return to Israel.)
After that, there will be a Palestinian guide waiting for the tour group on the other side of the border, along with another tour bus. At the border checkpoint, you can also get a good look at the tall walls that Israel had constructed to separate itself from the Palestinian territories.
Bethlehem, which is a city in Central West Bank about 8 km south of Jerusalem, has a population of about 30,000. While it now has a Muslim majority, it is also home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities. Given that it was the birthplace of Jesus Christ, millions of Christians have visited the city to affirm and deepen their faith.
The first site to visit in Bethlehem is the Milk Grotto Church of the Virgin Mary, which is traditionally described as where the Virgin Mary stopped to breast feed Baby Jesus during the flight to Egypt. (Entrance to the church is free.) The present building around the Grotto was put up by the Franciscans in 1872. Some of the old church mosaics and traces of original walls remain to this day. The church has since been extensively rebuilt, remodeled, and adorned with marble and hand cut sculptures, benches, icons, and engravings. There, you can also see many devotees writing their prayers onto slips of paper to be passed to the sisters to pray on their behalf.
Milk Grotto Church
After that, the tour group will be brought to Shepherd’s Field, which is identified as the scene where the Angel of the Lord visited the shepherds to inform them of Jesus' birth. In fact, there are two rival sites identified by the Greek Orthodox and the Franciscans, which are vying for this honour. Tourists are usually brought to view the Franciscan site, which is a low natural cave or rock shelter in pleasant surroundings and with a fine view of the hills. The cave, with soot-blackened roof, has also been partly enclosed to make a modern chapel.
By noontime, it will be time to visit the Church of Nativity, which is a fortress-like citadel built over the cave where Jesus was believed to be born. (The citadel was built around 330 A.D, though it had been badly damaged by war, riots, earthquakes and fire in the ensuing years.) There, tourists can join the procession of pilgrims, each holding a lit candle as they descend to the basement where one can see the 14-pointed Silver Star which marks the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It can be quite a surreal experience, joining the other congregation members in the ceremony in a rather cramped room, lined with medieval tapestry and religious icons. Regardless of one's religious beliefs, one can still sense the holiness and sanctity of the place.
Before the end of the Bethlehem tour, tourists are encouraged to buy some local handicrafts or religious icons to support the town's economy. You can also take photos of the Occupation Wall (from the Palestinian side) as a memento. Upon returning to Israeli soil, the tourist will be once again “handed over” to yet another Israeli guide for the tour to Jericho.
Church of Nativity
The bus ride from Bethlehem to Jericho takes about 2 hours. The first thing that you experience about the place is its intense hot weather (about 38 degrees Celsius in the afternoon). Similarly, like in Bethlehem, tourist have to first cross the border checkpoint to get to the town.
Jericho, a quiet town of 25,000, is located 55 km from Jerusalem, close to the northern end of the Dead Sea.Touted as the world's oldest city, Jericho is believed to be 10,000 years old. Its main thoroughfare at the city centre is essentially a road full of potholes and lined with small stores and shops by the side. One can see the bustling activities and human crowds (comprising of both tourists and locals) at the main marketplace.
The key attractions of Jericho are the archaeological sites, of which the centrepiece is the Tel El-Sultan. Located about 2 km from the city centre, it is the site of the ancient Jericho of the Biblical times and overlooks the natural spring of Ein Sultan. (Entrance fee is 10 NIS.) Given the temperature, tourists might appreciate a short tour of the site, where the guide provides brief explanations of mounds and holes around it.
Alternatively, one can also visit Hisham's Palace, which is a winter palace built by the Omayyad Caliph Hisham Ibn Abdul Malek. However, shortly after its completion, it was destroyed by an earthquake. The present site now displays ruins of the royal buildings, mosque with its beautiful mosaic floor, and water fountains. (Entrance fee is 10 NIS.)
After brief visits to two archaeological sites, tourists will be ferried to have a brief look at the Sycamore Tree, which was supposedly climbed by Zacchaeus in his attempt to meet with Jesus Christ (Book of Luke). Next to the tree is a Greek Orthodox church which has preserved its religious architectural design and atmosphere to this day.
With that, the half-day tour of Jericho comes to an end. The tourists will then be brought back to Jerusalem around late evening. You can then enjoy a relaxing dinner after a tiring but enlightening day out in the hot sun.