To visit Israel, and then the West Bank, is an exercise in cognitive dissonance.
On one hand, there’s a man-made miracle: a modern nation with a supercharged economy and military, built by a people who, after centuries of oppression, found home.
But on the other hand? Is a tragedy. A people, one with ancient footprints on the land, made refugees and hostages. Unable to farm their own plots, live in their own homes, or even send their children safely to school. A people unable to live freely. To breathe.
All because of those who built that man-made miracle here.
I was pretty ignorant about the West Bank (and Palestine in general) before we arrived.
All I knew was that it lay somewhere between terror and oppression. Less a nation than a bumper sticker, really, for each extreme of America’s political spectrum.
I wasn’t sure if we could even visit the West Bank.
I’m so glad we did.
Our brief trips beyond the border wall (and through it) allowed us to experience Palestine’s richness and its daily struggle to exist. It challenged and changed us.
We’ll start with Ramallah. Actually, we’ll start with a checkpoint.
From Jerusalem, Ramallah is a 45 minute bus ride north through the Israeli West Bank Barrier (usually just called “the wall.”)
Or it’s a two hour ride. It all depends on traffic, and the whims of the guards. (Typically, the latter don’t care who goes to the West Bank. It’s coming back that hit trouble).
Life in the West Bank revolves around such checkpoints. Every day, 26,000 Palestinians commute to Jerusalem, many passing through at Qalandiya.
Qalandiya isn’t pretty. Palestinian workers often leave their homes before dawn to cross at this checkpoint, because it can take hours. And the facilities leave much to be desired. The sole toilet in the place consists of a disgusting hole-in-the-ground, while mazes of turnstiles, bars and security cameras add to the dystopian feel.
We crossed via Qalandiya on our return to Jerusalem. On a Saturday night at 8 p.m., the line was relatively empty. Maybe 20 people waited ahead of us.
Yet we waited for half an hour. Only five or six people were allowed through the heavy metal turnstile at a time, to have their documents and belongings checked by a guard.
Much of this inefficiency is due to a hydra-headed management. Checkpoint administration is shared by the Israeli police, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the IDF Civil Administration (which authorizes Palestinian work permits required to enter Israel), and private contractors. This structure allows each group, according to an expert on the topic, “to avoid taking overall responsibility, which increases the burden on the Palestinians who have to go through every day.”
But the inefficiency isn’t the worst part. It’s the degradation that gets to you. Like this:
To signal that the turnstile is “open,” a buzzer and green light flash above it. This is when people flow through. But when the red light flashes and the buzzer sounds again, the door stops turning. And traps an unlucky person inside, between the door and the gate, until the green light flashes again. (Five or ten minutes later).
Imagine doing this every day. It’s no wonder many Palestinians avoid checkpoints if they can. (Indeed, nearly 30,000 cross “illegally” each day from the West Bank into Israel, mostly in places where the “wall” is little more than a chain-link fence.)
We faced no such hassle getting into Ramallah.
The city is Palestine’s capital designate, though less for historical reasons than political ones. Yasser Arafat, the former head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) who died in 2004, based his party’s headquarters in the city. Current PLO leader and Palestinian Administration (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas keeps it there, as a reminder that the West Bank is still “awaiting a territorial solution.”
Their ideal solution is Israel’s return of Jerusalem. Most Palestinians view the Holy city as their capital. (Indeed, the UN and much of the international community recognizes East Jerusalem as such. It’s also worth noting that, even now, there are more Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem than Israeli citizens).
Yet Israel’s government continues to claim Palestine-designated land around Jerusalem, using the wall as its weapon. It cuts through territory widely considered part of the West Bank, separating Palestinian neighbors and families, and demanding they obtain permits to visit one another.
Nearing the checkpoint, we passed the Qalandiya Refugee Camp. Built by the UN in 1949 for refugees forced from their homes in the wake of the 1948 war, it’s currently home to ten thousand Palestinians.
Leaving the checkpoint, traffic worsened. I surveyed the scene around us as the bus inched forward. It was worlds apart from the relative calm and wealth of modern Jerusalem. Pedestrian traffic flowed heavily in and out of stores, which mainly sold sweets, auto supplies, and knock-offs of popular clothing brands like H&M.
The density of people, shops and restaurants only thickened as we neared the station, where we were dropped off in the thick of things.
After getting our bearings, we headed for hummus.
Not just any hummus. Abu Walid’s hummus. It took a game of human telephone with five separate shop owners to figure out where the alleged “best hummus in the West Bank” could be found. (Turns out it was right behind a bustling market.)
Finding Abu Walid was a victory for our tastebuds as much as for our peace of mind. Right from the start, people overwhelmed us with friendliness. No one let language barriers get in the way of helping, even if it meant walking ten storefronts over to find someone who might know where Abu Walid could be found.
Full of hummus and foul (cooked fava beans with oil, cumin and meat), we headed toward Area D Hostel to meet our tour guide. Along the way we also took a few snaps of the scenery, including Jamal Abdul Nassar Mosque, the city’s largest.
Soon after we got to hostel, Mohammed arrived. He’s the reason we were there.
I’ll explain. Just before Greg and I left America, I’d revived my Couchsurfing account, hoping to connect with locals as we traveled. A few days earlier, I’d found Mohammed’s post on the site, offering a “free Ramallah tour” for interested Couchsurfers.
And now here we were, ready to tour. All Mohammed had asked in return were foreign coins. “I collect them,” he said when we’d messaged earlier that day. Given that we’d been lugging now-useless forints and kuna around for some time, we happily obliged.
Like coins, Mohammed collects and treasures experiences with people. His Couchsurfing profile is full of beaming reviews from surfers based everywhere from Brussels to Shanghai, who’d stayed with him, his wife and their three young children while visiting the West Bank.
Mohammed shows us pictures of his children and his favorite surfers as we skirt the busy streets. As we walk and talk, we learn that he’s a high school teacher. A popular one at that. Three of his former students greet him with back-slapping embraces as we weave through the cacophonous market, which comes alive at dusk.
I follow him through the rows of stalls and salesmen, who hold fistfuls of plump tangerines and dates as they shout. “What are they saying?” I yell ahead.
“Ten,” Mohammed replies. “You can get a kilo here for ten shekels. It’s cheaper than in Jerusalem.” He illustrates by taking us across the street to his favorite falafel stand. We try delicious straight-from-the-fryer patties for a fraction of their cost across the border.
“Should we go to Ramallah now?” Mohammed asks as we finish our falafel. This confuses me, until he clarifies that we’re actually in Al-Bireh.
The two cities form a constituency for elections. But their differences are palpable. As we walk toward Ramallah, Mohammed explains why.
“Ramallah is a Christian city. It gets money from charities,” he says. Indeed, Ramallah illuminates its heritage in holiday tinsel draped across streetlamps. It displays its wealth as well with a smattering of upscale bistros and modern apartment buildings.
As we walk deeper into Ramallah, Mohammed and I talk more deeply about our lives as teachers, with their shared highs (students learning and loving to read, and gaining confidence) and lows (crowded classrooms and parent complaints). When I tell him I lost a student to gun violence, he tells me he has too. “The other students, they left his chair open. As a reminder of him,” he says.
We talk of other tragedies, like the injury and incarceration of so many Palestinians. He tells me how, recently, a young woman waiting at the Qalandiya checkpoint got out of her car because it was overheating. Israeli soldiers arrested her as a “security threat.” (Indeed, the IDF arrested over 6,000 Palestinians on ill-defined “security grounds” in 2017. Of those individuals, 453 were held without charge or trial.)
He talks of other injustices too. “My family applies for a lottery every year to get a day permit to visit Jaffa [a holy site on the coast of Israel]. Sometimes I get chosen, sometimes my wife does. But we haven’t gotten chosen to go together.”
Run by Israel’s military administration, this permit system controls Palestinians’ movements in and out of the West Bank. This effectively regulates their lives, since it determines “where Palestinians work or study, whether they can visit relatives or afford to get married, even whom they marry.”
No one quite knows the system’s ins and outs, or how to get a permit. (Reports suggest bribes and kickbacks play a role.)
For Mohammed, this system has meant limited chances to see the world. Which is why he uses Couchsurfing to bring the world to him.
We’re greeted warmly with tea by Zahran, the owner, who tells us that the building was a home for his family and Ramallah’s governor for the last couple of centuries. He’s refurbished it into an art gallery and shop selling Fair Trade products from Palestine, including embroidery, pottery, and jewelry. We tour the space and latest exhibition: a series of boldly colored, modernist works depicting Palestine’s struggle for liberation. The fight for freedom inspires works throughout Ramallah, including the Martyr’s Memorial. The shimmering mosaic shows Palestinians being forced from the land in 1948, and children killed in ensuing struggles for independence. We head back to Al-Bireh for our final stop: a cafe Mohammed frequents. Over shisha and tea, we return to our conversation about Palestine’s youth.
Mohammed laments the impact of Western media, citing examples from violence to types of music (“I’m not a fan of Arabic hip hop,” he admits).
“The kids here think western is the way to be,” he reflects. “They forget their culture. You can be open minded without losing your own culture,” he adds.
After we say our goodbyes, I think about his words. About what it means to be open-minded yet culturally rooted here. What it must feel like, craving the world’s richness, while constantly fighting for the world to accept you and your people, your nation.
I ponder this while waiting for the bus back to Qalandiya. Seemingly out of nowhere, a man approaches. He’s about our age and sports a beard and a smile, even as he greets us with a loud, “Bullshit, man!”
We laugh nervously. For all we know, he could be talking about the cosmos. Or us.
“This government is bullshit,” he clarifies, and we sigh with relief as he lights a cigarette.
“Where are you from?” he asks. When we tell him the States, his face lights up. “America! Your country is so great!” He then launches into specifics about the aforementioned “bullshit:” earlier that day, he’d been released from jail, after forking over several thousand dollars to Palestinian authorities. All for possessing a gram of pot.
“That would never happen in America!” he exclaims. He rhapsodizes about a year he spent working at a fast food restaurant in Missouri. He and Greg swap tales from the Midwest until two of his friends show up, seemingly annoyed at his delay by foreigners. Soon, though, the five of us are chuckling at his earsplitting shouts of “America!” and “bullshit!” at various passerby.
“How do you get back to the border?” he asks us after his friends shoot him a few let’s go glances. When we say “the bus,” he scoffs, then motions us to follow him toward a shared taxi. After exchanging a few words with the driver, he hands him some coins.
“You must visit again. Come to my home,” he says, giving us his number and waving off Greg’s offer to repay the taxi fare. We wave at him as we speed off toward Qalandiya.
While I don’t know that we’ll be able to take him up on the offer, I’m humbled nonetheless. Where else can you find this same generosity? And from people who have experienced so little of it themselves, from the rest of the world?
A week later, we return to the West Bank.
This time, we head to Hebron hills. With a former Israeli soldier.
We’re with Breaking the Silence (BTS). The nonprofit organization publishes testimonies from former IDF soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories, in an aim to “expose the public to the daily reality of the occupation and Israeli military rule over the Palestinian civilian population.”
BTS also leads biweekly tours of the Occupied Territories. This is how Greg and I found ourselves on a charter bus one day with forty other people, headed to the rural outposts of South Hebron.
Bespectacled and scruffy, our guide (let’s call him Ari) has an affable yet serious air as he narrates our itinerary from the front of the bus. He tells us about himself too. He grew up on a rural kibbutz, in an Orthodox family with a long military history. Ari himself served from 2005 to 2008, commanding an elite army unit. He looks no older than thirty.
“Not everyone goes into the army. There are some health exceptions and others. Maybe 70% go,” he clarifies when asked about compulsory military service in Israel. National law requires that women serve for two years, and men an additional eight months.
He also explains the settlements. These are developments built largely by Jewish Israelis on internationally-recognized Palestinian lands.
“The first settlements were built under our left wing government after Israel gained territory in the 1967 War,” Ari clarifies. “They started as military outposts. But then people started building houses and living at these places,” he adds. (Indeed, the government’s complicity in giving land to settlers is widely documented, and shows no signs of stopping.)
Would-be settlers took advantage of tumultuous periods, like the First Palestinian Uprising (Infitada), to build. By the time Israel and Palestine signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, over 100,000 people were living in settlements.
Today, over 400,000 people live in roughly 130 settlements scattered throughout the Occupied Territories. While the international community considers settlements illegal, Israel’s government (save for a few cases) doesn’t.
Who are these settlers? Or, maybe a better question is, why settle? Turns out there isn’t one answer. Some do it for patrimonial or historic reasons, believing they are retaking land seized by neighboring Arab countries in 1948 and 1956. Some do it, as Ari says, “to be hippie types and live-off-the-land.”
“In the areas we visit today,” he says, “the settlers are mostly Messianic and Ultra-Orthodox.” In other words, these are settlers who believe they’re fulfilling God’s will, in preparation for the End of Days. Most disagree with Israel’s secular Zionist statehood, and many come from Orthodox communities in Russia and Ukraine. Some, though, hail from places farther afield, including the United States.
We get a better sense of the settlers at our first stop. The rocky hillscapes, dotted with occasional olive groves, reveal little on their own.
Ari points to one grove surrounded by a small chain link fence.
“This belongs to a Palestinian village, who used it to support themselves,” he says. “There is a settlement close to here,” he adds, pointing to a barely visible cluster of houses in the distance. “Some of the settlers chopped down all the trees in the grove a few years ago. When the villagers replanted, the settlers chopped the trees down again.”
The only recourse the villagers had was through the Israeli courts, which are notoriously unfavorable. All the villagers were allowed to do to protect their grove was put up a fence. The settlers faced no punishment.
This is one example of a running theme in the West Bank. Settlers build, and then threaten nearby Palestinians, in an effort to seize more land (or just intimidate).
And forget about consequences: no Israeli police are around to enforce laws that would make the same activities a crime across the border wall.
What if Palestinians retaliate? In that case, the settlers can depend on full IDF protection. Israeli soldiers effectively run the region, which is known as Area C.
“Area C, B, and A came out of the Oslo Accords,” Ari explains. “Area C is about 60% of the West Bank and, unlike the other two areas, is totally under control by Israel’s Civil Administration,” he adds, referring to the governing body of the West Bank. One of its main tasks is issuing (and denying) Palestinian permit requests: for entering and working in Israel, but also for building. On their own land.
At our final stop in the village of Umm Al-Khair, everything we’ve learned–about the settlers, the soldiers, and the permits–hits home. As we get off the bus, we’re greeted by a few small children, several wide-eyed goats, and Eid.
Bald and somewhere in his early forties, Eid has a resolute and calm presence. It’s a stark contrast to that of a grey-bearded man Eid identifies as his father, who stands close by and erupts into angry bursts of Arabic as his son talks.
While his father shouts, Eid tells us of the injustices Umm Al-Khair faces. Demolition orders are chief among them. These are issued by the Civil Administration, often for no apparent reason.
“We had a chicken coop destroyed because we didn’t have a permit for it. We’ve even had toilets destroyed,” Eid tells us. He then walks us over to an empty pit. Surrounded by stones, it’s about four feet across and two feet deep.
“This was our bread oven,” he says. “The settlers over there,” he adds, pointing to a few dozen single-family homes 200 feet away, “said that this oven, which only works by fire, was causing health damage. So it had to be destroyed.”
“It was our way of making bread here,” he adds. “It was our way of feeding ourselves.”
At that moment something clicks. I realize that this isn’t the first I’ve heard of this oven, or Eid. In fact, I’d read about both, in The Way to the Spring: Life and Death In Palestine by American journalist Ben Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich included a chapter about Eid, a well-known sculptor, and his struggle to save Umm Al-Khair’s oven from demolition. Fellow villagers and international activists joined Eid to rebuild the oven four separate times, making international news in the process. Now the oven lies dormant.
A victory for the neighboring Carmel settlement. And yet another loss for Palestine.
Before leaving, we enjoyed tea under a large tent with our hosts. (A tent that several Carmel settlers threw stones at for months, Eid tells us. For the record, he’s not one to respond with violence, not even to throw the stones back at the settlers.)
Eid thanks us for visiting. He also directs us to a Facebook page for Good Shephard Collective, the NGO he and fellow villagers started to support Umm Al-Khair. We wave goodbye and board the bus to head back to Tel Aviv.
On our return, Ari opens up to questions. We are full of them. What was it like, serving in the military? How does your family feel about what you’re doing now? How do you feel, knowing what Israel is doing to innocent Palestinians? He replies thoughtfully, candidly.
“As a solider, you’re taught to see everyone as a potential threat. And the army’s goal is really to make our presence felt. We are trying to make the Palestinians feel like they are being chased, and to always feel afraid.”
He explains how he helped create this fear. After being given a target home (and no reason to suspect its inhabitants), he and fellow soldiers would burst in at night. Forcing its sleepy, bewildered residents to move to central room, they’d then tear through the house, while yelling at parents to shush their crying children. Finally, just before leaving, he and his fellow soldiers carried out one more order. They made a sketch of the home.
Ari reflects on his first seeds of doubt. “My sketches were pretty bad. But I soon realized it didn’t matter, because our commander never asked us for any of them. He just said to tear them up after. Being there, and making those sketches, was about creating fear.”
He tells us about a pivotal episode. “For a while it was popular to use explosives to get into a house. One time, in Nablus, I was with our commander, and we went to enter the house of a suspect. We threw in an explosive and, when we followed it in, I saw the whole place was ruined. Everything was covered in dust or broken.”
“We walked through the house. And when we got into the bedroom, we started beating up the guy right away. We called it “softening him up.” And just as we were softening him, my commander said, “Oh, this isn’t the right house.”
“So we just left. And later, when I asked my commander if anything would be done to fix this man’s home, he laughed.”
The army culture Ari describes leaves little room for such questions. During his service, soldiers proudly notched Xs on their guns to note how many Palestinians they’d hit.
“The Israeli government wants this occupation. There is no question of that. So I spoke up because I decided the occupation can’t be fixed or explained or justified.”
“Being aware of the discomfort of this occupation, and it’s reality, is so important. The international community needs to be made aware,” Ari adds. With ten thousand people a year taking BTS tours, he’s helping make strides toward that goal. Yet the government and right-wing groups have thrown plenty of road blocks in the way, using public statements, policies, cyberattacks, smear campaigns and even spies to bring down BTS.
Ari tells us to share what we’ve learned today, as he walks the aisle and passes out fresh BTS booklets of soldier testimonies.
“I think you know more about the West Bank than most Israelis now,” he adds as he wishes us farewell.
This saddened me. How many Israelis will never visit Ramallah, or experience the warm welcome of Al-Bireh’s shop owners? How many will never know Umm Al-Khair’s struggles, or its incredible residents, like Eid?
Many won’t. Because Israelis are also made to live in fear. By a government who conscripts them, and tells them that Palestinians are their enemy, when all the Palestinians are doing is trying to live.
It was an unforgettable experience, visiting the West Bank.
I only wish more Americans, and Israelis, could see it for themselves. With their own eyes, and own judgement, free of the politically-charged narratives our media and government would have us believe.
Thank you especially to Eid, Ari, and Mohammed, for your generosity and your work.
Thank you for challenging and changing us.
- The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine by Ben Ehrenreich
- My Promised Land by Ari Shavit
- Testimonies from former IDF Soldiers (via Breaking the Silence)
- Good Shephard Collective. (Learn about & support advocacy in Umm Al-Khair)
- Breaking the Silence (Learn about tours, and ways to support advocacy efforts)