by Emma Walker
As a summer holiday destination, the Occupied Palestinian Territories are rarely perceived as number one - indeed, the hype of western media and the plethora of warning stories parading the Internet meant that I was more than a little apprehensive about my first visit. But after travelling with a friend to Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron, befriending Palestinian locals along the way, I can honestly say that my preconceptions lie shattered on the floor. True, it’s not the same as a jaunt to Italy (though the chat up lines to women are quite bad in both places, while the ice cream in Ramallah, like in Venice, is excellent!) and depending on where you choose to visit there is certainly the potential for tense moments. But despite this, and despite omnipresence of the occupation, one impression kept coming home to me: the West Bank should not be feared; it should be visited.
Our trip to Hebron was initially the source of Internet-fuelled worry. One particular blog post described how a traveler who had entered Iraq during the war and been in the midst of numerous revolutions advised that the one place he would avoid was Hebron. With Jewish settlements right in the middle of the partitioned and half deserted city centre, the 1994 massacre by an extreme right-wing settler still ringing in the collective memory and frequent outbreaks of violence and abuse (such as an IDF soldier kicking a young boy – captured on camera two days before we arrived), we were entirely prepared to spend the whole time hiding in a falafel shop. However on entering the souq we were immediately offered free breakfast by a street vendor in the form of a long thin syrupy pastry each, and from that point things did not seem so bad (strange what breakfast will do). After more free tea in another shop, we accepted the offer of a tour from a Palestinian boy, who showed us the famously empty Shahada Street, the netting covering the narrow alleys of the souq to prevent rubbish being thrown by settlers living on the upper floors onto the Palestinians below, and the roads partitioned for the two groups of pedestrians with ‘Free Israel’ painted, presumably by settlers, on the Palestinian side of the concrete barrier. More tea was forthcoming in a second shop, where we sat and chatted with the Palestinians there about life in the city.
One sight that took me a little by surprise was that of Palestinians exchanging seemingly friendly words with Israeli soldiers. The latter were those positioned in the middle of the road, whose permission our Palestinian guide had to ask before he could cross over the Jewish side and take us to the one Palestinian shop beyond it. While we were having tea, one of these soldiers strolled over and had a brief but pleasant conversation with our host. When I asked whether they always chatted to the soldiers, he replied that it depended who was on duty, but ‘that guy’ was alright, adding that you cannot lump all Israelis, or any nationality, together.
My experiences in the West Bank ranged from the joyful to the upsetting - with the two extremes frequently intertwined. In Bethlehem, we met with a friend of a friend and were warmly invited to eat with her family. Incidentally, this meal was my first introduction to maqluba - and I have never been fuller in my life. We were also invited to two (yes, two) weddings taking place on the same night which we attended in quick succession, and at which there were fireworks - both literal and metaphorical - as the bride walked into the room. We spent two days partying, chatting, and sitting on balconies overlooking the city. You might think the occupation could be completely forgotten.
But even in affluent and joyful surroundings such as these, there is a constant and alarming backdrop - namely the Separation Wall running around Bethlehem. Being around double the height of the Berlin Wall, it is rather hard to ignore. Looking up at it from the Palestinian side it is most reminiscent of a prison, while from some parts of the Israeli side near Bethlehem it is lower because the ground rises up to meet it, and has a clean, sandy sort of colour that would not look amiss in a garden. Especially if unconfirmed media reports about plans to extend at least some kind of barrier around the West Bank along the Jordanian border turn out to be true, the unspoken implication would be that the Palestinian people are all potential criminals who must be contained – an implication that is a most upsetting contrast to the friendliness, evenhanded judgments and warm hospitality I experienced. I felt the sadness of this juxtaposition most acutely when a member of the Palestinian family kindly offered to show us around a section of the Wall with its famous Banksy graffiti drawings. Hardly a pleasant walk for him perhaps, yet his priority was making sure we saw everything we needed to.
Another reminder took the form of an IDF raid on Dheisheh Refugee Camp where we were staying. Once before, in Nablus, we had jumped at the sound of fireworks nearby, but now we know that shelling has an entirely different tone. Hearing it approach along the street outside our window until the closest explosion made the wall shake and all the car alarms in the vicinity go off was terrifying in a very immediate sort of way. Part of the fear came from a feeling of helplessness – not knowing what was planned by those who controlled the mass of military vehicles or why the shelling and tear gas were deemed necessary. The following day we decided that we had been in no personal danger and were convinced enough of our safety that we opted to stay another night. We also spent a good deal of time laughing at our reactions, particularly my friend’s temporary refusal to climb back into the top bunk as it was dangerous there. (It is a well known fact that the IDF always target top bunks.) But as darkness fell, our daytime certainty turned to a fervent hope that we would sleep through till morning. We only had to deal with this kind of thing once, but, according to the people living long-term in the camp, it happens up to three nights a week. No wonder there are so many roadside adverts in the West Bank for stress management.
Arrival into Jerusalem
I did not cope well with leaving the West Bank. Passing through the checkpoint, through the Wall, to place where the people I had partied with were not allowed to follow me, made me want to get off the bus and walk back. Freedom of movement is a right taken for granted by European passport holders, but for Palestinians who do not possess blue Jerusalem ID, the city on their doorstep is out of bounds. It is so easy to come here straight from Tel Aviv and treat the odd trip into the West Bank as a divergence from the norm. The fact that bullet proof buses take tour groups to Hebron embodies what kind of self perpetuating paranoia exists.
Of course there are tensions and some dangers in the West Bank, depending on where you choose to be. But travel there must be approached rationally and with a mind open to enjoying the wonderful and welcoming nature of the people there. Despite everything, Palestine functions; it should be appreciated.