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Saturday, November 8, 2014

11/4: A Different Perspective about Israel

Since we had an extra day on our hands with no ‘plans’ for it, Steven and I decided on the spur of the moment to head out mid morning to the West Bank city of Ramallah, 16 km north of Jerusalem and only 64 km from the Mediterranean. The city’s name is a combination of two Arabic words which mean the ‘Height of God.’ Ramallah hosts most of the institutions of the Palestine Authority which were created in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords.

Our Abraham Hostel offered a day tour of Ramallah and two other West Bank towns for a very hefty 360 shekels each, about $95, but we had left it too late to book that trip and also preferred to do what we wanted as we wanted on our last day in Jerusalem. From the Palestinian Bus Station, we got Bus #19 which left almost immediately for downtown Ramallah and which cost only 8 shekels each one way. The city is only about 30 minutes away by bus from Jerusalem on the way there. (More on the return trip later.).  

Scenes riding the bus into Ramallah: above ,a view of The Wall built by the Israelis.

Can you read the red sign? It says ' This road leads to Area A. Under Palestinian Authority, the entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law.'

As we rode the bus into town, we saw a huge number of painted (graffittied?) walls in Ramallah unlike any other town we’d been in.

The Red Crescent Society is equivalent to the Red Cross.

Our hostel had suggested we stop in at the Area D Hostel just a few hundred feet from the bus station on the off chance they had a map of the city for us as we had no idea what to see or where things where. The hostel came through for us and we repaid their kindness by offering to take some of their business cards and information back to ours in Jerusalem for prospective tourists to Ramallah.

We decided to head over to Yasser Arafat’s tomb first having to navigate our way through the bustling market area with the market vendors exhorting the locals (we were the only tourists, I think) to buy, buy, buy their produce in very loud voices. I bought almost a kilo of what I hope are really soft dates after trying one.

The downtown core was an absolute madhouse with way too many cars trying to get around in too small an area, much like Amman. The walk to the tomb was only about 20 minutes away but of course we needed some sustenance en route! We could smell the oh, so delicious fresh bread smell wafting in the air from this small bakery before we came across it. 

I saw these tiny little puffed up flatbreads just rolling out of the oven on a conveyor belt and asked the owner the cost for one so I could try it, whereupon he gave it to me free of charge. Steven and I both bit into it and were in heaven so I immediately went back and bought more of them so we could devour them on our walk. What bliss!

An MSF/Doctors Without Borders vehicle. There are a lot of NGO’s operating in Ramallah, I understand.
Al Muqata’a, Arafat’s mausoleum, which is part of the Presidential Palace, was heavily guarded but we were the only people anywhere around. Arafat had wanted to be buried in East Jerusalem but the Israelis forbade that so the Mausoleum was built on water to express its temporariness and is meant to be moved in the future to fulfill Arafat’s last wish. Somehow I don’t think the Israelis will ever allow that to happen.

We just spent the next couple of hours wandering through town seeing Lions Square, Yasser Arafat Square and noticed several white UN jeeps while walking around. Interesting to see the influential presence of the Quakers in the city with the Friends Girls School founded in 1889 and the johnny come lately Friends Boys School in 1901. The Girls’ school was also a boarding school and attracted girls from surrounding communities including Jerusalem, Lod, Jaffa and Beirut.
Interesting sign located on a side street just across from Arafat's Mausoleum.

I wonder if he could have carried just ONE more box before everything came tumbling down!
I MUST have been brain dead forgetting to take photos of the shops in Amman’s Gold Souk so can you please just let your mind wander and pretend that these gold shops were in Amman and not in Ramallah!! We didn’t go in any of them so I have no idea how their jewelry prices compared to the stores in Amman. Sometimes, it’s best not to know, I figure!

Yasser Arafat Square

In case anyone forgot what Yasser Arafat looked like, here was another photo!
We should have seen stairs like these as we walked along Rainbow St. in Amman as there wasn’t anything we saw that made us think we’d been on Rainbow St. there!
We’ve never been in a city that is so tough to get around for foreign tourists. Street names have been changed so trying to find some place on an old map is an ‘adventure’ shall we say. We knew there was a Tourist Information Center tucked away on a back street but there were NO signs indicating how to get to it either by car or on foot. We kept having to ask the locals where it was. I asked the fellow inside about the lack of signage and he mentioned that the office has been trying for a long time to persuade the bureaucracy of the need for signage to no avail. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for the tourist office staff to work with such constraints. There was no  written information available either to hand out describing what could be seen.

Not sure if these views are of Ramallah as it’s such a big city or other towns in the West Bank – there was no one to ask.

We stumbled across the attractive Dar Zahran Heritage Building that has been the property of the Ramallite Zahran Jaghab, an Arab Christian family, for over 250 years. The traditional stone building served as a multi generational family home, guest chamber and residence of the Mukhtar or head of the town. It is now a cultural center and art gallery with a souvenir shop selling Fair Trade items made by mostly women from West Bank communities. 

I put the chair in the doorway to demonstrate how very low the arches were. Luckily signs had been put up warning people to duck their heads!
The map shows where the Center’s visitors have come from.
While I wandered through the gallery, shop and museum areas, Steven talked with the family member about his home and how life has changed for Arab Christians in Ramallah since the 1st Intifada. He commented that he's perceived a marked lessening of hope for his people and sees no solution to ease the ever increasing tension between the Israeli Jews and Arabs, especially in the last two years. What a sad situation.

He told Steven that prior to the 1st Intifada from 1987-1993, Jews and Arabs had mingled and worked alongside each other and that Arabs could easily go back and forth to Jerusalem only 20 minutes away. It now takes Arabs living in Ramallah up to 3 hours to go around Jerusalem to get to Bethlehem, also in the West Bank. 
He also indicated his concern that the people realize they have fewer opportunities to eke out a living than in the past and that the Arab extremists are making it difficult for all. He expressed his fear what Ramallah will be like in a year or even two years from now given the decline of hope and opportunities. How very depressing.

I wonder who these men are or were. Saw their stencils a number of places in Ramallah.
Don’t know what these things were - in hindsight of course, I should have tried them so I could tell you!
Sorry these pictures are blurry but they were the best I could do from the moving bus.

Cars lining up to cross over to Israel.

Returning to Jerusalem on the local bus was quite an experience. We were, as far as we could tell, the only non Arabs on the bus. At the checkpoint, all the passengers had to get off the bus and line up in a large cage-like area while the bus returned to Ramallah as it could not proceed through the checkpoint. Steven and I waited for about 40 minutes while the passengers in front of us were permitted to go through a vertical one way turnstile; sometimes 8-10 people, and other times only 3 or 4, were permitted to go through the turnstile before it all of a sudden stopped with no warning whatsoever.

I talked to several young women waiting in line with us and asked them if it normally took them this long to cross back into Jerusalem as they live in the city but need to use this crossing twice a day, 5 days a week, since they go to university in Ramallah. They said that often the crossing only takes a few minutes but this longer crossing wasn’t that unusual. Surprisingly they didn’t seemed terribly fazed by the whole process but I guess that's all they've ever known.

We had previously crossed twice from the West Bank to Jerusalem and had not encountered anywhere near this level of security. We knew that if we had been on a tour bus, we would have faced only the most superficial of scrutiny with the Israeli guard coming onto the bus, looking at us all but NOT looking at anyone’s passports. That was certainly our experience when we’d been on the day tour with the hostel to Masada, En Gedi Nature Reserve and to the Dead Sea. When we had crossed over from Bethlehem on a public bus about 10 days previously, we had needed to get off the bus and go through security but again it was cursory at best.

At the Ramallah crossing, there were no Israeli guards we could see in the immediate vicinity. Once we finally made it through the turnstile, we saw through a glass wall, 2 young Israeli guards, who never talked and never smiled. We knew we had to hold up our passports up against the window so the pertinent details could be recorded yet again. We were then allowed to get on a bus that only goes from the border to Jerusalem. Steven and I found the whole border crossing process this time very degrading and dehumanizing and we had a deeper understanding of what many Arabs must contend with when dealing with the Israelis.
Sheridan, 29, our other bunkmate for our last night at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, is originally from Melbourne, Australia but has lived in London for the past five and a half years working most recently as a food technologist. Steven and I spent a lot of time chatting with her and wished that we had more time to get to know her as she was funny, interesting and delightful!

Final impressions about our trip to Israel: Steven told me he had been surprised returning to Israel from his last visit 40 years ago when he had found the city of Jerusalem to be calmer then than now even though it had been just 2 years since Israel had taken over much of the West Bank in the Six Day War. This visit however, the sense of fervent religiosity, the underlying tension we could sense between the Jews and Arabs, the constant police presence which, instead of giving a sense of peace and security, makes one ill at ease, plus the almost constantly pervasive dour personality of the Israelis, was not pleasant or comfortable.

For us, strangely enough, it was in the Arab communities of the West Bank that we found the people we talked with to be generally much friendlier and far more welcoming than their Israeli counterparts. The Arabs we talked to, or stopped on the streets asking directions, had, if not welcomed our intrusion, certainly never once appeared to mind it. That was totally different from the Israelis on the street who had a ‘Don’t Bother With Me’ look and in short just didn’t look happy. I wish we had an opportunity to speak to Israeli Jews to get their perspective of living with a strong Arab presence in such close proxomity so we could have understood their lives.