[This post is a touchy one. Please take it all with a fistful of salt. I do not know enough about the Israel/Palestine conflict to speak with much authority, and my view is biased and opinionated. I wrote about what I saw in the West Bank and what I learnt from people along the way.
No visit to Israel is complete without a visit to Palestine. I spent some time getting to a few cities in the West Bank and it was an eye-opening experience and a most beautiful place through which to travel.
My first stop was Ramallah, about an hour’s bus ride north of Jerusalem. It’s here that you pass through one of the checkpoints along the high, thick, ugly concrete wall Israel has built around the West Bank (and in some places further into Palestinian territory than the borders set out). I stayed with a cser who is working in the city as an economics researcher and he patiently explained the history of the borders and described the occupation of all Palestine by Israel. My glimpse was brief but here is what I understood…
A Palestinian territory existed way before Israel was founded. After WW2 Britain and France chopped up the Middle East and the area that is now Israel and Palestine was under British Mandate. The (Western) powers that be agreed to set aside some of that area for a Jewish state. It was actually a much smaller area dotted around the West Bank and Gaza. In 1947 violence erupted between Jewish settlers and Arab citizens and in 1948 it became a full-scale war after which a Jewish state was established.
In 1967 Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria and the war ended six days later with an Israeli victory. Israel occupied Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, Arab East Jerusalem, West Bank and Golan Heights. It’s been pretty much conflict since then, escalating in 2001 and leading to the current Israeli occupation of Palestine, but for a more detailed and reliable history click here.
As is now stands (and forgive me for my superficial understanding) is that all aspects of Palestinian life is under Israel’s thumb. Palestinians cannot move around freely. The economic system isn’t strong enough to support a developing state, and is obstructed by Israel’s high import taxes among other limitations. Palestinian resources are exploited by Israeli companies, including basic access to water. Palestinian land is settled by Israeli Jews who are given subsidies by the government while existing municipalities get very little support. These settlements are constantly being expanded illegally, resulting in the shrinking of Palestinian-controlled territory. There is that giant wall, built inside the agreed-upon borders (meaning Israel is stealing land from the inside and outside), constructed by cheap Palestinian labour and dividing cities – and families – from each other. And don’t forget the discrimination and racism Palestinians are subjected to. I got the distinct feeling that Israel is sneakily squashing the backbone of Palestine and forcing more and more people to flee, to seek better opportunities if they can afford to leave, or as refugees. This article by Sam Bahour describes the economy’s failings and Israel’s siege.
You’d think a nation like this would be full of anger and resentment, but the Palestinians I met were incredibly welcoming and generous and hospitable. From my cs hosts and mutual friends to shopkeepers and passersby, everyone was interested in me as human being, curious and happy to have a conversation without any expectations that I would buy something or engage in a political debate. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of heart I found in the West Bank, and wonderfully surprised by the beauty of the landscape.
Ramallah is a small city, but is the economic hub of the West Bank so is crowded. As a city to visit it’s not high on my list, but I exchanged the sightseeing for history lessons with my cs host. I also had my first falafel here. It wasn’t amazing, but I was hungry, and I ate many more delicious falafels in other places.
A friend from university taught English at the university in Nablus some years ago and put me in touch with some of her friends. I met up with Khaleel, the epitome of Palestinian generosity, and travelled with him from Ramallh to Nablus, a bigger, quieter city built on the slopes of two mountains. Above the city, on the mountaintop, is an Israeli army base and is a constant reminder of the occupation.
From Nablus I bussed back to Ramallh, through the checkpoint (where the soldier man asked me get off the bus and verify my visa, and then no one actually checked it) to Jerusalem, picked up Stace and we headed to Jericho. It’s history is ancient – there are crumbling ruins of an ancient city, a stone temple built on a mountain slope, but the city itself isn’t impressive. Except for the falafel. We also visited the Dead Sea, floating in the salty water and smearing on the mud with all the other tourists. I am a cynical traveller, but I wasn’t impressed with our Dead Sea experience. It may have more to do with the busloads of tourists or the nasty women at the entrance who accused us of lying and then took our 100 NIS (R200) entrance fee, but the beach is a carved out hunk of sticky mud and the salty sea just too oily to enjoy floating in. I may also just have been having a grumpy day…
Our last stop was Bethlehem where we were treated like royalty by our hosts. After the flats of Jericho, walking up and down the steep slopes of Bethlehem took it out of us, but we pottered through the Old City and ventured into the Navity Church, the birthplace of Jesus apparently. Mostly though, we drank wine and played cards with our cs hosts. Sommer like a regular weekend with friends.
All in all, the West Bank was a great surprise. And while the cities may not have a clean cut charm (thanks to poor spending by the Israeli government), the open hearts of the people make it a most amazing place to visit.