If you look from just the right spot outside of Jerusalem’s Old City, you can gaze into East Jerusalem / the West Bank (Západní břeh Jordánu). This is what I discovered just before I went to the film festival.
If you look really closely from that spot, you can see the West Bank barrier (Izraelská bezpečnostní bariéra), which is a bit chilling.
If you don’t know anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you can check out Vox’s very good video for a simple summary. My purpose here is just to detail my experience crossing the green line for the first time.
-the West Bank, along with the much smaller Gaza Strip, are the two parts of pre-Israel Palestine that Palestinians want to incorporate into a state.
-the green line is the “demarcation line” – never intended to be a permanent border – that defines the borders of the West Bank.
I regretted that I didn’t get to visit the West Bank when I studied abroad in Be’er Sheva in 2012, so I decided to go through Abraham Tours. Here was the itinerary:
That’s quite a lot for one day, and 2.5 months later I still haven’t processed the whole experience. It was very different than I expected. Honestly, the main feelings were surprise, confusion, and sadness.
The first confusing thing is that you can pass the barrier wall without even knowing it – and that’s exactly what we did. We were halfway to the Jordan River before I even realized we were in the West Bank.
-the West Bank is made up of 3 areas. Area A is under full Palestinian security and civil administration. Area B is under joint Israeli and Palestinian security and civil administration. Area C, because of Israeli settlements, are under full Israeli security and civil administration.
All cities I visited (Jericho, Ramallah, Bethlehem) are in Area A.
That’s the strange thing about the West Bank. It has modern highways, which make easy access between settlements and Israel. You don’t feel like you’re entering a scary place. There are also security checkpoints, which, if nothing is suspected, you may not even notice. Not once did a soldier come on our tour bus to check our passports- it just surprised me. The one checkpoint where we were stopped, the soldier asked one question of our (Arab-Palestinian with Israeli citizenship) bus driver: “Where are they from?” He said we were tourists and that was that. The soldiers assume that you will have a more nervous reaction if you are hiding something.
My uncle had a dog named Jericho when I was younger. The actual city name is believed to mean “fragrant” (vonný). While there, we saw the sycamore tree from the Jesus and the Tax Collector parable (the very same one! Not. :P) as well as the archaeological ruins of the original, historical city of Jericho, which is believed to be the oldest, continually-inhabited place in the whole world. Nearby is supposed to be a therapeutic spring, and everyone on the tour got to taste the water.
Two things Jericho has in abundance is date palms and peacocks!
I enjoyed Jericho, but it was SO HOT with nothing but sky above us baking us into potato chips. So in my American way, I was quite happy to return to the air-conditioned bus and continue on to…
Ramallah was perhaps the biggest surprise for me. The word that comes to my mind is “normalcy.” Ramallah is the high-altitude, de facto Palestinian capital of the West Bank. Our first stop was the mausoleum of Yasser Arafat – the Palestinian leader, who died in 2004, before current leader Mahmoud Abbas – which is under armed guard.
I honestly wondered what those guards thought of us, coming as tourists to somewhat trivialize an important figure by snapping photos of his grave.
The city is surprisingly secular. I saw women with and without head scarves. There is a bustling culture of shops, restaurants, cafés, and nightlife, and an outdoor market we got to visit. In fact, Ramallah is so normal, that they have 1) a Friends Street, 2) malls, 3) Chinese food, 4) Coca Cola ads, 5) a Cadbury truck driving through [picture on the left]. We also had a yummy lunch of rice, chicken and vegetable pilaf [picture on the right]:
The West Bank even has a knockoff Starbucks, much to Starbucks’ dismay… apparently they tried to sue to no avail. My only regret now is not being able to try their frappuccinos.
Now, none of this “normalcy” talk is meant to say that Palestinian communities are not disadvantaged. However, I was surprised – though perhaps I shouldn’t have been – that between intermittent periods of serious conflict, the West Bank is full of people simply trying to live their lives as best they can under the circumstances.
So, let’s take a breather. In Part Two, I’ll cover the remainder of the trip to Bethlehem – yes, you know the one – as well as the West Bank Barrier.
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