We wake up in Jerusalem and the first thing a number of us do is….leave. A separate group of us signed up for a half-day trip to Ramallah in the West Bank. It’s a rare chance to come face-to-face with life behind the Israeli checkpoints of the ‘Green Line’, to see real people whose faces we only hear about and too-easily dismiss. But today is not about dismissing anyone or any issue. Today is a reality check.
The disputed land in Israel is known by various names depending on one’s political and religious perspective. To many in the world, the disputed land is referred to as the ‘West Bank’. To the Palestinians it’s the ‘Occupied Territories’ or just ‘Palestine’. And to many Jews, especially religious ones, the correct name is ‘Judea and Samaria’.
So even the name of the land is a politically charged issue. I suspect that some people reading this now will be tempted to email me and give me their opinions on the correct terminologies (if so, please don’t. I’m too tired for a lecture)
We venture to Ramallah with a new tour guide for the day, a Palestinian reporter who writes for Time magazine. He’s very passionate, bright and articulate. He was educated in the United States and his parents were at one time professors at Harvard. So he’s a very sharp guy with a lifetime of experience.
Passing through the checkpoint into Ramallah, we’re immediately transposed into another universe. Whereas moments before we were in first-world Israel, now we had entered a place clearly broken. Drab, broken, trash strewn all around, chaotic, no traffic lights or even police. There are pictures of Arafat all around, along with, we are told, graffiti drawings of suicide bombers. Palestinian flags are everywhere, and an occasional UN car drives by. There are some pro-Hamas posters and some anti-Abbas ones. We cannot help but to feel uncomfortable and even a bit frightened. I spot a sign saying “Fuck Israel Cowards.”
There are occasional Jewish settlements close by – very close by. At the end of one road is a barbed wire wall and a checkpoint. According to our guide, the settlers will sometimes emerge from the wall, spray toxins on the olive trees and attack the Palestinians, right in the exact spot we were in.
But we also learn about the failure of the Palestinian leadership. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are, we are told, “at war”. He describes multiple instances of Hamas kidnapping and even raping supporters of the Palestinian Authority. Corruption, we are told, is rampart within the leadership.
“Many leaders spoon-feed us hated,” he says, “I hear Palestinians say that the only good Jew is a dead Jew.”
He seems particularly angry and frustrated with religious Jews, who claim that all disputed land belongs to Israel. “But what about me and my parents and my kids? What are WE supposed to do?”
We drive away from Ramallah and pass by the omnipresent concrete walls and barbed wire that delineate the Green Line. The winding wall is huge, ugly and daunting. Sometimes our bus drives right beside it, only a few feet away, and the size seems only more massive.
Later, our Israeli guide tells us that he knows the wall is a horrible sight, but that it is an “imperfect solution to an impossible problem”. Our Palestinian had earlier told us that the wall is terribly demoralizing to the Palestinians, and I’m sure that’s true. But I also know that in the five-year period before the wall there were 1,000 Israeli deaths due to suicide bombers and since the wall that number is now ZERO.
But I don’t claim to have any answers, at least not today. All I know at the moment is that there’s a vicious cycle going on here – the Israeli’s believe that strict measures must be imposed to ensure their safety, and the Palestinians say that violence is caused by the Israeli’s strict measures. So the cycle just seems to be on an endless and tragic loop.
Things here are just so complex. We’re told that before the wall, when suicide bombs were common, people in Israel were terrified to go to a café, or be on a bus or even drive near a bus. “We’d see someone on a bus or somewhere with a backpack who looked Arabic and totally freak out”.
Our Palestine guide tried to explain the Palestinian-initiated violence with a metaphor: “The Palestinians are like a cat stuck in a small box; when you open the box the cat’s only instinct is to scratch you.”
The bus pulls up to a look-out point of a vast region that included the city of Bethlehem in the foreground. It is behind a large barbed-wire fence. Israeli Jews are not allowed to enter. I just stare at it all and try to make any sense of what I’ve seen today, and get overcome with sadness, confusion and hopelessness. What’s going to happen here?! Can Israeli’s and Palestinians EVER peacefully co-exist?
But just then we’re told a story of IDF soldiers at the wall who were recently playfully kicking a soccer ball back and forth over the wall with Palestinian kids on the other side. I picture the soldiers and the kids laughing together. Just a nice, happy temporary moment. It may be not much, but I choose to believe it represents a sliver of hope.
And in Israel, sometimes a sliver is all you need to make it to another day.