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A Weekend In Ramallah (no, not Ramla)

07 Feb

This was a typical conversation I had last week.

– “So where are going this weekend Thomas?”

– “I’m thinking about going to Ramallah.”

– “Where? Ramallah?” they would respond confused. “No, you must mean Ramla.” (another city in Israel)

– “No seriously, Ramallah”, knowing full well how bizarre an idea this would be for any Israeli. “Since I’m not Israeli it’s no problem for me to go to Ramallah”

– “Are you serious?” they would ask with an even greater sense of disbelief. “Well if I don’t see you next week then I know what’s happened to you”, they would jokingly remark – hinting that I was likely be kidnapped or worse once I ventured into enemy territory. Enemy territory being the Palestinian controlled West Bank.

Ramallah - a city so close, yet so far from Jerusalem

It’s strange. In all my visits to Israel not once has the idea of going to the West Back ever come up. Partly because Asya, along with all Israelis are forbidden from entering Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank, but also because over time I too had, unwittingly, come around to the Israeli trepidation of all things Palestinian.

Thankfully I was able to put an end to this misplaced apprehension when last I week I travelled the short distance from Jerusalem to Ramallah.

It’s a cliché, but as soon as I stepped onboard the Palestinian bus from Jerusalem to Ramallah I really did feel as if I was entering a different world. A feeling no less accentuated by the mystique-laden evening call to prayer that emanated out from mosques across East Jerusalem as we drove through the Arab side of the city. Although a world a part, Jerusalem and Ramallah are basically two parts of the same city. Indeed, were it not for the separation wall – a monstrous concrete wall dividing Israel from the West Bank – you would have little idea when you were leaving one city and entering the other.

However, as I arrived in Ramallah the notion that I would somehow arrive in a totally different and indeed unsafe world turned out to be misplaced. The previous weekend I had visited the largest Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth (yes, of Jesus fame). In Ramallah I soon realised that Ramallah felt no different from Arab-Israeli towns in Israel proper; the hustle and bustle more evident of a prosperous community rather than a city at the heart of the world’s longest standing conflicts. As I was shown around and spent hours in Western-style coffee shops, restaurants, and bars; any feelings of apprehension increasingly inappropriate.

A view over Ramallah with Israeli settlement perched on the hilltop in the background.

It wasn’t long, however, I ended up a discussion on the realities that exist out in the Palestinian hinterland, out beyond Ramallah’s peaceful façade – stories of occupation and Israeli misuse of power, stories that wouldn’t make pleasant listening for any Israeli. Living in Israel – the land of the supposed occupier – I strangely found myself by default having to answer their accusations, this despite my sincere empathy with the Palestinian cause.

Even if I do disagree with much of Israel’s policy towards Palestine, living here has at least allowed appreciate their side of the story, to realise that there is so much more positive to my new “home” than the damning news coverage that has become emblematic of present day Israel.

Back in Israel I always feel uncomfortable discussing the politics of the occupation. Not only because it would more likely than not end in disagreement, but also a non-Jewish foreigner what right do I have to tell Israelis what is right or wrong in my mind. So despite the biased tone of the discussions it was still great to be able to sit around a table and enjoy a good old political conversation without any of my self-imposed limitations.

Yasser Arafat's grave

Away from the politics I managed to do a bit if sight-seeing as I wondered around the streets of old Ramallah, passing the by Yasser Arafat’s grave along the way. After a week of bitter cold weather, the sun was back out in force…lovely.

On the way back to Jerusalem we had to pass through the Qalandia military checkpoint – a brief gap in the concrete barrier and home to an extensive Israeli security station. Part border, part security checkpoint the crossing can prove to be the most frustrating and time consuming of experiences. I guess I can only count myself lucky that I was able to pass through it in 20 minutes. Great photos and a detailed explanation of what Qalandia checkpoint is really like can found here: A Trip Through the Qalanadia Checkpoint.

Palestinian Mural Art

Well this enough waffling from me for now. I am definitely looking forward to seeing more of Ramallah and other part of the West Bank (be it Israeli settlements or other Palestinian cities). It’s a great learning curve and one I feel pretty fortunate to experience first hand.

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