Experiences in West Bank

I arrived at Ramallah late in the evening with a Canadian I had met in Jerusalem.  Our attempts to find the hostel were unsuccessful, and neither of us a had a phone.  We knew we were close, but the map we had wasn’t terribly helpful so we stopped to ask directions from a family who had just started to close down their shoe shop in preparation to break the fast.  We sat and chatted for a bit in Arabic, and I showed them the map, but unfortunately, they had no idea where the hostel was either.  Their younger boy suddenly scooped up my backpack and decided he was going to find it for us and ran off down the street.  His father laughed and told us to go with him, so we set off.

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The boy didn’t really speak fusha, so we spent the time going back and forth trying to figure out different words in Palestinian dialect while we walked.  I felt guilty haven’t him carry my backpack and asked for it back, and he begrudgingly returned it.  It quickly became clear he didn’t really know where he was going either, but he seemed very excited about the whole experience so I decided to keep following and just keep my eyes peeled.  It turns at that we had been circling the hostel the entire time, which was made worse by the fact that the building was unmarked, but we eventually found it.  After my experiences in Tangiers, I began to get out some money, thinking that it would be expected.  Besides the kid was pretty cool and very enthusiastic about helping us and I thought it would be a nice gift especially since Ramadan was still going on, but he steadfastly refused any payment.  He said that it was his home and he was just doing what was right and then scampered off into the night.

The hostel was nice, an Ethiopian-American volunteer named Semhal met us at the door and led us to our rooms.  The two brother who ran it, Bobo and Chris, lived in the floors below the hostel with the rest of their family.  There was a photojournalist, Johannes, from Finland there working on a story about Ramadhan in the West Bank, and another aspiring photojournalist named Til.  I spent most of my time in West Bank travelling with Til, Johannes, and Semhal.  We went out later so Til and Johannes could get some pictures of a protest at Minara Square and to find somewhere to get some falafel.  The protest itself was interesting, but we left shortly after as Palestinian Authority Security forces began to crack down

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Over the next few days we did some traveling outside of Ramallah, and our first stop was Hebron.  The tension in the air there was even more palpable then in Jerusalem.  We met up with a friend of Chris and Bobo’s who took us to a friend’s house at the edge of territory that settler’s had staked a claim to.  His house was surrounded on three sides by settlers territory and his roof was topped with barbed wire to keep people out.  He showed us some videos of a settler climbing onto his roof to remove his flag and yell at him and crowds of settlers protests outside of his house.  A short distance from his rooftop, an Israeli soldier manned an outpost.

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We continued on through a market in the old city that was screened in above by chainlink fence to catch garbage and rocks that were thrown down from above at vendors.  One section on a side street was filled with closed shops that had been shutdown after security cordons reduced traffic to that area, and most of the doors were covered in graffiti.  After passing through a checkpoint we visited the Cave of the Patriarchs, but to be honest we weren’t able to see anything worth seeing.  We stopped by a shopkeeper’s shop who showed us some older pictures of what Hebron used to look like before parts of the city were cordoned off by security forces.  We made our way back to the central bus station, but not before we heard the rattle of gunshots in the distance.  We never found out who was doing the shooting, but given the atmosphere in the city, it honestly wasn’t surprising.

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Our next trip was to visit Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin camp that Johannes had heard of.  To get there, we to a taxi to Jericho, and then hitchhiked back along the highway to get to the camp.  It was kind of a miracle that we were able to get a ride, considering there were four of us, but we figured we could split up into groups of two if necessary.  Fortunately, we managed to a get a ride from a man from Jericho whose sisters was married to one of the Bedouins at the camp.  He introduced us to his sister and went off and found the boss of the camp.

The Bedouins were vastly different than the ones I had met in Oman.  A little of the disregard for the rules was there (several were smoking or drinking tea during the day in Ramadhan), but they were not giving camel rides to tourist.  The camp itself was the largest of many in the area, but still quite small.  They didn’t have access to utilities, but had set up solar cells and generators with the help of an NGO to provide electricity to a central meeting place in the camp that housed a refrigerator and an old tv.  He showed us some pictures of him with foreign dignitaries who had visited his camp (including Ban-Ki Moon) and some reports the UN had put out regarding loss of land by Bedouins, then took us to see the school that had been built by another NGO.  It was a construct of tires and concrete that had been decorated by the children of the camp, but its still in danger of being demolished so that the highway can be expanded in the area.  Semhal and one of the Bedouin women exchanged jewelry and goodbyes and we made our way back to Ramallah.

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Johannes had mentioned wanted to visit a beer brewery and restaurant in the Christian village of Taybeh, so that was the next trip we took.  It was a short trip from Ramallah, maybe 20 minutes.  We grabbed some Musakhan and a few beers and enjoyed the view of Jordan in the distance, before heading on to the brewery.  The brewery was closed by the time we got there, but owner’s wife happened to spot us wandering around outside.  In another instance of Palestinian hospitality, she postponed a dinner out with her husband and some friends to take us on a personal tour of the brewery.  

As far as brewery tours go, this one was pretty standard, although some of the adversity they have to go through to do business was interesting.  Because they are allowed limited access to water, they have to do many of their activities on one day out of the week when they can use it.  Because of the difficulty marketing and shipping their beer its often made to order, so extremely fresh.  They don’t really export to many countries, I believe she said Sweden and Japan as of right now, but they do decent business in Israel and Palestine.  Its also probably easily the best beer I had while I was traveling.  After the brewery, we hitchhiked back to Ramallah.

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On another daytrip, we traveled to Tent of Nations, a farm run by a Palestinian farmer in West Bank whose slowly being surrounded on all sides by settlements.  He’s been fighting in court for some time to retain his land, and its been a battle despite him having documents from the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, and Jordan establishing it as his families.  Getting there was difficult as quite a few taxi drivers didn’t want to travel in the area due to the large concentration of settlements, but we found one driver who would take us.  After climbing over a pile rubble blocking the road to the farm, we hiked to the front gate where we were met by Daher Nassar, the current owner of the farm.

He showed us a summer school he had set up in a cave where he teaches refugee children and the tents that he housed volunteer workers at.  I asked him about the tents and the caves and he responded that he wasn’t allowed to build any new structures on his land.  His orchards were home to apricots, apples, carob, figs, grapes, and other kinds of fruit which he would periodically pull from the trees to give to us.  He relied heavily on volunteers to help him keep the farm going and ran the program as a way of educating people to live renewably on the land.  The volunteers we met were largely from Germany, and many were Lutheran, like Daher, though he accepted anyone (the kids from the refugee camps were mostly Muslim).

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My time in Ramallah itself was largely spent getting hookah with Johannes at a place near Arafat square, and hanging out with people he knew in the city.  One of his contacts was an editor for al-Hayat al-Jadeeda, the PA newspaper, so we visited a protest with him so the could take pictures.  The protest was a march on Qalandiya checkpoint from Ramallah and quickly turned to chaos while we were there.  Khaldun, the editor, was able to help us stay safe during the protest as Palestinian youths exchanged fireworks and rocks for Israeli bullets and tear gas.  We talked politics for a while, as Khaldun had majored in Hebrew studies and political science at university, so I was able to get an interesting perspective on the current political situation in Israel and Palestine.  After the protest, he drove us to the hospital where his wife was giving blood, so Johannes and Till could get pictures.  The death toll was only three, but the injured were in the hundreds.

The most interesting thing about the protest was how organised everything was.  The crowd would surge forth and move back as one with the increases or decreases in firing from the Israeli side.  People carrying boxes of chopped onion would move through the crowd dispersing it to be rubbed under ones nose to reduce the effects of tear gas.  Men would run down the center of the street clearing the crowd so ambulances could move towards the front as other groups of men would move the wounded away from the front lines.  The ambulances themselves would stay uphill out of the line of fire (although several had windows blown out by the end of the night) until needed and then would come surging down to collect the wounded.  Not surprisingly, the Palestinians seemed to have distilled the act of protest down to an art.

The city when not protesting is a lot smaller than I thought, considering its the de facto capital (both the Israelis and the Palestinians consider Jerusalem their capital).  I looked it up on wikipedia later and apparently the population is only 27,000.  Because it serves capital any embassies are located there, though there aren’t many.  Similarly, most embassies in Israel are located in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem.  The government operates out of a complex called the mukataa that also houses Arafat’s tomb.  Despite its small size, there’s a shopping mall, and both Arafat Square and Minara Square are bustling centers of commercial activity.  There’s also an incredible Mahmoud Darwish Museum that I would recommend checking out.

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My trip back from Ramallah took me back through a now scorched Qalandiya checkpoint.  Its a pretty disheartening experience, with the journey through the checkpoint building forcing you through a series of cage-like lanes before getting to an xray scanner.  Johannes made it through fine, but I had to unpack my backpack and run everything through the scanner individually.  Unfortunately, only a few people are allowed into the scanner at a time, so as I was held up by security, a line formed behind me.  After finally making it through, I headed back to Jerusalem to get ready to fly home.

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