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The West Bank, Occupied Palestine, Middle East

 

Occupied Palestine is not perhaps the top of anyone’s travel itinerary yet on a recent visit to Israel, Dumfriesshire Farmer, Mathew Aitken discovered it on his.

 

 

 

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What is a “must see” when visiting Israel?  This was an email discussion that my son, Doug, and I had before my 10 day visit to the country to see him and some of the sights.  Doug had been working at an Israeli university as part of his PhD for several weeks.  I had thoughts of biblical and historical sights while he, it seems, had other ideas.  “I have sent you a draft itinerary” said his email and went on “sorry, but it is a bit Palestinian”.  The suggested itinerary did include visits to Jerusalem, Nazareth and Masada but a significant chunk of our time was allocated to the West Bank.  My, then, vision of the West Bank involved riot police, soldiers with tear gas, bomb-damaged buildings and masked terrorists - not my idea of a relaxing break!  But, with slight misgivings, I bowed to Doug’s superior knowledge of the situation and his itinerary was agreed.

 

Entering the West Bank is surprisingly easy (the Israelis are much more concerned about people going the other way).  You catch a bus from the Damascus Gate just outside the old city walls of Jerusalem and about 25 minutes later you are at the border.  Once the bus has negotiated the snarl of traffic caused by reducing several lanes to just one, it is soon driving through the outskirts of Ramallah.

We tend to hear of Ramallah in the news when there are riots or a disturbance but what we found was a noisy, lively Palestinian city.  There were shops and markets, traffic lights and roundabouts, banks and coffee shops.  Actually, Ramallah appears to be a pretty normal city.  We were taken with the friendliness of stall holders who shouted “welcome” to us (it was not hard to spot us as tourists – a fairly rare sight in Ramallah) and were intrigued to see a giant chair by the main roundabout in the centre of the city.  This is a symbolic UN chair indicating that Palestine believes it should have a seat at the UN. These things apart, Ramallah appeared quite unremarkable.

In Ramallah, we hired a car – not a noteworthy occurrence under most circumstances but in the West Bank it pays to have local knowledge.  Doug had been forewarned to ensure that we hired a car with Israeli number plates but to hire it in the West Bank.  Cars registered in the West Bank have West Bank plates and these cars are generally not able to leave the West Bank.  Cars hired in Israel, while having the Israeli plates, tend not to be insured for driving in the West Bank.  Just one of the many annoyances that go with living in the Occupied Territories.  With some assistance from a helpful local, we tracked down a hire company with Israeli plated cars.

 

Driving within the West Bank was relatively straightforward.  We had some local guidance so were able to avoid routes where there were checkpoints that were likely to result in significant delays.  The roads, though often poor by British standards, are quite easily negotiated.  Directions are, however, more of an issue.  We were working from a poor quality road map and tended to rely on road signs – a very unreliable source of guidance.  Directional signs appear to be Israeli-controlled so while there are good signs to Israeli towns, villages and settlements, Palestinian cities the size of Swindon or Norwich often do not to merit a mention. 

As we travelled through the Jordan Valley, we noticed many military, live firing, zones.  These occupy large swathes of West Bank land that are no longer, safely, accessible to the local people.  The signs at regular intervals along the edge of these zones (in three languages) state Danger Firing Area - Entrance Forbidden.  The size of these areas acts as a significant restriction to the lives of the locals and we saw villages that were within these zones – with the villagers at risk of being shot because they happen to live in a live firing area.

Israeli settlements are obvious throughout the West Bank.  They ranged from a collection of houses surrounded by barbed wire fences on a hilltop to what appeared to be large farming communities (again surrounded by barbed wire fencing).  Going by the lush vegetation, the settlements had copious supplies of water in a very arid environment while the Palestinian farms tend to rely on water bowsers.  Palestinians that we met view settlements with great concern.  In addition to taking land (illegally according to the UN), they also have access to disproportionate amounts of resources including water and electricity.

Not all settlements are alike.  We were advised to visit Hebron but warned that it was shocking and intimidating.  We were met there by a Palestinian friend of a friend, a native of Hebron who had agreed to show us round the city.  Hebron is a very unusual city - the way into Hebron city centre is through a checkpoint.  Around 30 years ago, an Israeli settlement was created in the city and this now means that virtually all streets leading to the centre are blocked, either with metal grating or concrete walls.  The only access is on foot and through one of the few checkpoints.

 

We were, by this time, quite accustomed to checkpoints.  Every time you go in or out of the West Bank (and sometimes on roads within) you pass through a checkpoint.  This checkpoint, however, was unusual.  It blocked a city street and was particularly quiet – very few Palestinians now enter the old city.  The occasional Palestinians that do enter the centre are clinging onto their homes within the Israeli controlled-centre.  Most people, and all shops and businesses, have moved out leaving the centre to some 400 settlers and the 2,000 soldiers that protect them.

Once through the checkpoint we entered a different city.  Gone was the noise and bustle of shops, cars and stalls while, instead, there was deathly quiet and eerily deserted streets.  Actually, not quite deserted - there was an occasional Palestinian making their way home and, sitting on a wall, a young and very bored Israeli soldier, clutching his machine gun.

We walked through the streets of apparently empty houses and barricaded shops until we reached a soldier beside the road.  Our guide explained that he was not able to go any further down this road because he is Palestinian and, by way of a demonstration, asked permission of the young soldier to take further into the centre.  While the soldier was on his phone asking advice, three young men came down the road at a jog – they were dressed for jogging apart from the large machine gun carried by one of them.  They took control and told us that we could continue but our Palestinian guide could not.  Shocked, we turned back.

Away from the city centre, Hebron is a busy, chaotic city.  It has a very limited tourist trade but apart from the fascinating, if disturbing, centre, there are two amazing glass-blowing factories producing stunning work.  Most visitors tend to travel to Hebron as a day trip from either Jerusalem or Bethlehem and accommodation in the city is extremely limited.  We stayed in Hebron Hotel, the only hotel in a city with a population of 165,000.

Leaving the West Bank is harder than entering.  On one occasion our hire car was searched for about 40 minutes and on another we had to wait in line for about 20 minutes at a turnstile.  These gave us a small taste of the daily frustration, and sometimes humiliation, that some Palestinians have to endure on a daily basis.

Our visit to Israel was amazing and fascinating and the time spent in the West Bank incredible and sometimes shocking.  Both Doug and I are seriously considering a return visit  and next time the itinerary will be even more Palestinian.

 

 

 

 


 

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