All Quiet on the West Bank Front

Palestine Post:  a postcard of a photo of the coast of Gaza, the description on the back reads “The coast of Gaza is home to the future port of the Palestinian National Authority” [sic]

Names and borders, imaginary or legally codified, contains too many shades of gray to comprehend clearly, especially in this country (Israel) and region (Middle East). Right of Return is a principle of international law codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, giving any person the right to return to, and re-enter, his or her country of origin. For people living in the West Bank of Israel or in the Gaza Strip, this human right means something completely different than to any given Jew in, say New York. On a visit to Ramallah this weekend – the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority in the central West Bank (about 6 miles north of Jerusualem) – I experienced first hand how one country can feel like two, and how a physical border based on imaginary lines of shared history and culture can have the unwelcome effect (for all parties involved) of prolonging conflict. I can’t put the blame on any one group, even with my personal bias; but I can understand more and more why a “peaceful” solution is so far out of reach. I left Palestine and returned to Israel with more questions than answers thinking simultaneously that Ramallah is, on the one hand, no different than Tel Aviv, and on the other a completely different country with an entirely different set of values, history, and dress code. Even the food – Mizrahi food is Arabic food with a differences in a few spices, no? – seemed like sushi v. chicken with broccoli (No.9).

I was told to dress modestly, never expose your shoulders or knees and nothing too revealing, not to speak Hebrew (not really a problem even after 4 months of living here), and most importantly “do not mention that you’re Jewish.” If you’re American you are welcome with open arms, that blue passport gets you through the IDF security checkpoints both directions with no questions asked. Was it safe? – these questions are all relative anyways. In comparison to Gaza, yes, it’s a day at the beach.

Ramallah is a small city, founded by Christians but now mainly a Muslim population with a Christian minority. It is an Arab city (labels are important here). The history of Ramallah and the West Bank is fascinating with roots reaching far deeper than the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 – a monumental year, it can be argued, which also gave birth to the Palestinian national identity as well. Under the British Mandate in the early 1900s, Palestine was promised to both the Jews and Arabs, creating confusion and tension, when both groups realized they each were promised something they could not prove they solely owned. In 1948, the state of Israel was created as a Jewish democracy, which led to the War of Independence, giving Israel control of the entire region previously known as Palestine (coined by the British Mandate with Roman etymological roots). Things got really heated during the First Intifada in 1987, when Arabs erupted in violence because of Israeli Military (IDF) control in their areas. The First Oslo Agreement of 1993 solidified Israeli recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people; the PLO in exchange recognized the existence of the state of Israel and it’s legal right to be a Jewish state. Oslo II in 1995 created the Green Line, which divided Israel from the Palestinian territories, and within the Palestinian territories, areas were divided into sections:  A (strictly Palestinian control), B (mutual control with Israel), C (strictly Israeli control, which includes settlements). A wall was put up and borders were created, Ramallah fell into Area A.

The Settlement Movement: In 1967, the settlement movement gained momentum – Israeli citizens receive government funding and tax breaks to establish communities in Area C. The settlers, acting out of personal ideology – that of Zionism and upholding a Jewish state –  settled on farms, kibbutzim and moshavim nearer to the tension and ignited more Palestinian frustration. Encouraged by the Israeli government, settlements gain more control over these areas heavily populated by Arabs and the IDF gets involved to keep the peace at bay; thus pushing Arabs away while protecting settlers and keeping the war outside of the Green Line, far away from the major Jewish cities in Israel.

In 2000, violence erupts again during the Second Intifada, when Palestinians began bombing Jerusalem – a violent reaction, which is also arguably the only way Israel can dominate it’s main rival group. Food for thought – if the Arabs respond in a non-violent way, Israel would have no idea how to retaliate thereby leveling the playing field and opening the door for possible negotiations? Either way, the Second Intifada was a violent one and Ariel Sharon responds with “unconventional warfare”, leading to more frustration and war. However, it led to the 2003 Disengagement – the unilateral withdrawal policy in the Gaza Strip. Jews living in settlements were asked and forced to leave and Gaza became 100% Palestinian. Yasser Arafat (sitting pretty and mellow in Ramallah) dies in 2004 and Hamas (a religious terrorist organization) takes over in Gaza, gaining support from Palestinians as the authority figure of the nation. read more about heavily publicized 2006 Gilad Shalit kidnapping. This long narrative is just the backbone of the conflict, and mainly just a summary for my personal struggle of wrapping my head around the conflict. The story is subject to interpretation, there is no one timeline, it has no definitive beginning and certainly no end in sight…

Currently, Ramallah is considered the most liberal, affluent, and cultural of Palestinian cities. Going through the security checkpoint into the West Bank from Jerusalem on Arab bus #18 was a breeze. Having an American tour guide (Thea P. teaches English to Palestinians and has lived in Ramallah for a year) was a huge plus. However, three American women stick out in Ramallah, but not really too badly until nightfall, when only men are permitted to live their lives outside of the domestic sphere. We got there right before Shabbat (the Jewish one) on Friday late afternoon, the city was celebrating their day of rest which began the night before at sundown. Things were quiet, a herd of goats passed through the city center near the Clock Tower Square at around 5pm. At dusk we took a stroll in the old city and had a lovely traditional dinner out. Walking home at 9pm was a bit strange and left me feeling very uneasy. We were the only women in sight, but there were groups of men socializing on street corners. The city was alive, music was being played from parked cards, the boom boom of bad techno clubs was heard in the distance, but not one woman to balance the testosterone dominated heavy June air. The male attention seemed to be on us, whilst cat calling and “welcoming” us (sarcastically) to Ramallah, we fumbled for our keys and tried to avoid eye contact. A little boy accompanied by two grown men, grabbed my water bottle from my backpack but ran away and dropped the bottle as soon as I turned around. Thea yelled to him in Arabic that he should be ashamed of himself, he waited until he was safely across the street to yell back, obscenities I’m sure, but it was in Arabic and a lot gets lost in translation.

Back at Thea’s apartment, I learned about the water situation in the West Bank, which will be the subject of my next blog post. But for now, let’s just say that the limited amount of toilet flushes allocated to each apartment per day was a surprise. There was not enough water for all of us to do our business; I went to bed with a full stomach and a full bladder, unable to feel comfortable enough to use the toilet. I had a hard time sleeping – cars honking, flies buzzing, and the energy and sounds of a life, just like mine but not really, outside the window kept me tossing and turning. The call to prayer at 4AM was surprisingly loud and unsoothing, like a painful moan, a yawn; the city was restless, as was I.

The next day started out very normally. Breakfast at an expat kind of cafe, and then on to buy Arabic coffee at the market and some “handmade in Palestine” shoes from Ayman the shoemaker. He and his wife offered us coffee as we tried on pair after pair of high quality shoes (if you ever find yourself in Ramallah, I urge you to visit Rahala Shoes on Al Ersal Street). The city was bustling, alive with commerce. A normal city, maybe a little dirtier than Tel Aviv, definitely smaller, and with less ankles, hair, and shoulders exposed. Needless to say Tel Aviv wins as the trendier and more fashion forward of Middle East cities. We stood out during they day as well, but not as much. Posters and graffiti were all about the same things: “right of return” “free Palestine”. Graffiti of a little boy with his back turned is common all over Ramallah, supposedly he will turn around when Palestine is restored.

 

Leaving the West Bank and getting back into Israel was a bit more complicated than entering the day before, but the blue passport made it easy. Lines at the security checkpoint were short because it was Shabbat on the other side. All we had to do was put our things (coffee, a new pair of handmade shoes, and some choco-date candies) through a metal detector and show our passports to the IDF female soldiers (four women in a glass box), who did not say a word or ask any questions. After walking through the border, we got back on a bus to the Damascus Gate on the border of East and West Jerusalem. We passed more buildings with black water tanks on the roofs, the box like structure of the buildings in Arabic neighborhoods, where generations of families all live in the same building, one floor after another, each floor oozing with stories to tell, histories of perception, religion, ideology, hope. A young Arab man tried to make small talk with me on the bus and was insistent on pointing out, where Palestine was (the other side was not Israel, but it also wasn’t Palestine) – “this is Palestine” he said while pointing out the window at East Jerusalem, “this is not Palestine” he said while pointing to the other side. Sounds simple enough.

Mara (my travel buddy) made a really good point, and I am inclined to agree, Palestinians focus on the past and on a collective perception of having something taken away from them. Israel does not exist, a Jewish state does not exist, they cannot accept Israel’s existence because that would mean giving up the pain, giving up the past, and it is in our HUMAN nature to hold on to what is familiar. Jews do it very well too, but where’s the progress in holding on to what was taken away from you and what someone else did to you (I’m talking to Jews as well – back on the topic of the Holocaust). The posters and graffiti in Palestine make it obvious what is the focus, it’s not on the future of a possible Palestinian state (a two-state solution) and how to make their society stronger and more independent from their oppressors; but instead it’s on the past. I wonder how things were before 1948 for Palestinians, I wonder if things were really better than they are now. No doubt they had more freedom, no doubt that leaders on both sides are making huge mistakes at the expense of their people, their citizens, no doubt everyone is suffering and everyone lives in fear of rockets, hurt and denial coming to an eruption of violence (again and probably not the last time), but what good is it to hold on to the nostalgia of better days?

“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Midnight in Paris (2011 film) Woody Allen

Maybe our energy would be put to better use if we concentrated on developing a separate method of allocating water independent of the oppressor, maybe instead of harping on returning home, home can be made from the present surroundings, maybe instead we can concentrate on improving daily life in small ways (everyone now) instead of wishing for a new/old location? Home is where the heart is… home is nothing but a pair of slippers anyways.

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