The border is a large and imposing concrete wall. Nestled in the valleys between the many hills of the Judean Mountains, Israel’s border with Palestine feels out of place. From atop one of the many hills near Jerusalem, the landscape is breathtaking. Within shouting distance, a hill begins where another hill ends. White stone houses appear as a natural extension of the bright yellow sand and dark green vegetation. The bare concrete wall is topped with a fence and intermittently broken up by towers. I would assume a couple Israeli soldiers are stationed at each tower, but I don’t understand the need for such a vantage point. Did people try to climb the 30 foot fence? I learn from my taxi driver that the border increased its security to quell the threat of Palestinian terrorism in Israel. Apparently the barrier has been effective in reducing the number of suicide bombings: in 2002 there were over two hundred bombings, but since 2008 there hasn’t been a single act of terror on Israeli soil.
After fifteen minutes we arrived at the Bethlehem border crossing. Traveling alone is truly a unique experience. I am more intrigued by watching and understanding the people than by waiting in line at a shrine to take a picture of where Jesus allegedly had his first beer or double stuffed Oreo (I did touristy stuff too). Entering the West Bank was quick and unofficial. No questions were asked and I was free to roam around behind the notorious border. I turn around and look at the wall. It is a canvas for colorful art and poetry made by Palestinians. I hop into the front seat of a taxi and direct him to the address of my tour group in Bethlehem.
Ayman greets me with the traditional Arabic salutation – “salaam” [“peace”] – and I quickly respond – “wa alaykmu salam” [“and unto you peace”]. Our conversation in Arabic ends there, as I’m unable to understand what he says next. Ayman switches over to English – “Where are you from?” I clear my throat and answer – “New York”.
I had been through this conversation on a daily basis during my first couple weeks in Israel. I was working as a research assistant at Tel Aviv University. Each interaction always started with Hebrew until they realized that I was not Israeli. For some, the conversation turned towards New York and their impressions or connections to my hometown. For others, my answer was not enough given my Middle Eastern descent: “Were you here with Birthright? Are you learning Hebrew?” I would smile at them through the rear view mirror and clear the inquiries with “No, I’m Catholic”.
Upon hearing that I’m from New York, Ayman is visibly excited. A pair of massive, knock-off Armani sunglasses covers his eyes, but his smile stretches across his face. He takes it upon himself to welcome me to his land. The taxi ride would last less than 20 minutes, but within that time Ayman shared his hopes and anxieties. I learn that he’s a history student at Bethlehem University. He points out where he lives, a modest looking home. He asks me if I’m married and shares his reluctance to find a wife. He buys me a cup of Turkish coffee from a cart on the street, and we continue our trek.
“My dream is to go to Miami”, breaks the momentary silence while I manage my hot coffee. He explains that he wants to see the ocean. Apparently, he had applied for a visa but it was refused after a couple months despite having all the documentation. His dream is loftier than many expect. Simply entering Israel or even Jordan for a day is a feat in of itself. When we arrive, it hits me that Ayman has never left the West Bank. As a man with no official country, he is trapped within the borders of his homeland, left hoping that one day he will be given permission to see what is behind the wall. I would reconnect with Ayman upon my return to Palestine two weeks later.
The tour consists of our Palestinian guide Amir, two Danish college girls, and an American who sold her condo in Dallas and her belongings to travel the world. On our way to Hebron, the West Bank’s most populous city, our guide Amir explains how the West Bank is divided administratively into three areas: A, B, and C. Area C is about 75% of the West Bank and controlled by Israel; Palestinians are prohibited from developing the land, and the 300,000 Palestinians currently living in Area C lack the basic infrastructure and care that Israel provides to the 350,000 settlers. Area B, about 22% of the West Bank, is civilly led by Palestinians, while security is coordinated between the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Finally, Area A is comprised of the West Bank’s major cities and is controlled solely by the PA.
Amir makes a conscious effort to remain objective for the tour and routinely corrects his use of “we” with “Palestinians”. Without Israel’s exceptional system of agricultural irrigation, the Palestinian soil appears barren. A smell of burning rubber and garbage fills the air. We drive through Area B, passing by Palestinian towns. These were the lucky ones who still somewhat felt a sense of autonomy. Across an imaginary border, the road remains part of Area B but the surroundings have become Area C. We drive by gated communities with all the amenities of a Florida timeshare. The stationed IDF soldiers and waving Israeli flags made it obvious that these were “the settlements”.
As we enter Hebron, Amir explains that it is the only city in the West Bank where Israelis have settlements. Militarized checkpoints are found throughout. To access Abraham’s Tomb, a place of worship for both Jews and Muslims, Palestinians must go through two security clearances. Just twenty years ago, an American-Israeli walked in to shrine during Ramadan and had time to fire off enough shots to kill 29 people and wound another 125.
Entire streets have been barred off from Palestinians in accordance with H2 (the equivalent of Area C within the Hebron city limits),. Former shops on the streets are boarded up because Israelis chose to buy from their government-subsidized stores. The 250,000 Palestinians that live in Hebron are second-class to 500 or so settlers that claim Hebron as their home. Likewise, over 20% of the city is reserved for Israeli settlers.
All of a sudden we are separated from Amir because he cannot pass the checkpoint for the road we take next. He and all other Palestinians walk amidst a graveyard. Past the checkpoint and down an empty street, we see an Israeli couple enjoying the afternoon with their child, and then a group of Israeli teenagers carrying automatic weapons on their backs. Amir later informed us that it is common for Israeli settlers to carry guns for protection.
Up the road we see our destination for lunch. A small home seems engulfed by the chain-link fence that surrounds it. A couple yards away there is another IDF tower, though it appears empty. In the other direction a home that belongs to settlers, whom I suppose send their children to the newly renovated Jewish school down the ghost street. Our host, Anwar holds a masters degree in political science and has had the opportunity to leave Palestine on a trip to the University of Michigan. He is the proprietor of a small home and few nut trees. Anwar recounts how his bruised eye and sunken cheek are the result of the blunt end of a gun; shows us videos of Israeli mothers calling his wife a whore in Arabic and blockading their home with dead branches while IDF soldiers protect the settlers. Over lunch, he explains that his home is threatened by the expansion of the nearby settlement.
Why doesn’t he leave? Shouldn’t he take compensation for his home and run? Where could he go? Would he become another refugee? Anwar explains that Palestinians are proud of their home, and abandonment succumbs to the menacing occupation of the Israeli Defense Force. In the off chance he were to find land elsewhere in Area A or B, he would not be accepted by his fellow Palestinians. Our lunch comes to an end as Anwar offers us a couple nuts from his tree to tie the meal together. It’s difficult realizing that there is little optimism in Anwar’s situation: he must sacrifice his life in the hopes of justice for his people and freedom in their home. But does he have a choice?
On the long road back to my home in Tel Aviv, the beautiful Israeli landscape felt tainted. I spoke to friends in Tel Aviv who support the Palestinian cause, denounce increasing settlements and are ashamed by the settlers. They would go to the West Bank but are weary of feeling unwelcome by Palestinians. North of Tel Aviv, Nazareth and the Golan Heights offer hope. Arabs, Jews, and Christians live together democratically. Despite the area’s history of conflict, Arab mayors work alongside their Jewish counterparts.
Hebron was on my mind that entire week. I (along with the entire group) had caught food poisoning from our lunch with Anwar. This could never have happened from a home cooked meal. I suspected foul play. Could it be the settler neighbors that poisoned Anwar’s nut tree? Or could it have been caused by the tons of feces and urine that settlers drop from their homes onto the Arab market? Either way, I felt unable to defend myself, as vulnerable as a pawn in a chess match. Life as a Palestinian is tough and filled with disappointment. I was only beginning to realize this.
Click through some pictures of Hebron below: