Saturday was a day of contrasts as we left Herzliya for a stay in Ramallah on the West Bank. The West Bank of the River Jordan has been a disputed territory since the creation of the State of Israel. The UN declared it an Arab zone in the partition plan for Palestine, but it was occupied by Jordan (to the East) after the war which followed the birth of Israel in 1948, and taken by the Israelis during the Six Day War in 1967. Both the West Bank and Gaza have been offered to the Palestinians in various peace deals in the past, but
the Palestinian leaders refuse to accept the offer as they, and other Arab countries (with the exception of Jordan and Egypt) reject the right of Israel to exist.
Our route, following that taken by Mark Twain and the Protestant Evangelicals, was to take us south from the Galilee through the West Bank, so a visit was necessary. Ian suggested that we stay in Ramallah, the most important town, (and HQ and last resting place of Yassar Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation from 1969 until his death in 2004). I was slightly nervous, and made more so by the attitude of Israelis, especially Israeli women, when we said we were going there. They mostly shuddered and said we should stay away. However, our friend from Haifa, Yonah ben Tal, visited us on the boat and I asked him if it was safe to go. ‘Oh absolutely’ he said. ‘The only thing to worry about is the driving and the terrible roads. With the people you will be completely safe and they will be very pleased to see you. ‘ (Yonah volunteers with an organisation which helps Palestinian farmers with their olive farms and spends two days a week there between the autumn and spring.)
So, reassured, we set off on Saturday afternoon. As it was the Shabbat and everything shuts down from sunset on Friday until late Saturday afternoon, we had to wait until 4pm to take the bus to Jerusalem. The bus was on time, new, clean, air-conditioned and the 45 mile ride to Jerusalem took less than an hour and cost about £4.50 each. On the way we drove through the flat and featureless coastal plain, but no part of it was uncultivated, as it has been irrigated and planted with citrus and olive groves, vineyards and fields of wheat and corn. As the road climbed towards Jerusalem, we saw forests of pine trees, some of the millions planted by the Israelis.
West Jerusalem was completely quiet. We walked to a hotel to find a taxi to take us to East Jerusalem and the Qalandia checkpoint. The only people we saw on the street were Orthodox Jews wearing an extraordinary array of costumes. Particularly striking were men wearing wide cylindrical fur hats, a black satin ¾ coat, with white leggings and black shoes. Seen from faraway, walking up and down the Jerusalem hills, they looked like figures in a Russian painting, circa 1800.
The Jerusalem Gate Hotel, where we ordered a taxi, was full of Orthodox families, meeting for the Shabbat. Their dress varied between the familiar black fedora hats, jackets, trousers and white shirts, with white fringes hanging down from under their jackets, to white caps with black embroidery, white shirts and embroidered white and black shawls, and that was just the men. The women either wore smart black longish dresses if they were young, or neat flowery suits if they were older. Young couples arrived, each seeming to have six children, the boys with long hair and side curls, and the girls in matching long dresses. Everyone looked immaculate. In a room above, a religious service was being held and we could see black fedora hats swaying from side to side, while a rabbi in a white shawl read from the Torah.
The taxi driver drove us a few miles to the checkpoint, and we had our first site of the infamous wall, snaking across the landscape, about 25 feet high, built of concrete, with coils of barbed wire on top. The reason for building the wall is claimed to be security, and since it went up there have been no suicide bombings in Israel, although it has caused an enormous amount of hardship for the Palestinian people. Villages have been cut in half, farmers are unable to get to markets with their produce, a whole system of permits to enter in and out of Israel has been introduced, and while Palestinians find it hard to get out of the West Bank, thousands of Jewish settlers continue to move in. The wall often takes a circuitous route to include the settlements. We feel sorry for both sides and as usual, it is the fanatics, either the suicide bombers, or the settlers, who are leading the agenda, rather than the ordinary people. We saw settlements on almost every hill top. There are neat rows of houses and gardens. The settlers don’t mix at all with the Palestinians and travel around in convoys of buses. Many of them, both men and women, carry guns. On the slopes of many hills we saw groves which had once been planted with olives, but which had been cut down to stumps. The settlers chop down the olive trees as they have discovered an old Ottoman law which says that if a field is fallow for three years it can be claimed by anybody. Thus they are stealing the Palestinian land.
A long queue of cars waited to pass through the wall. The Palestinian women in the cars with their husbands and families wore long skirts, long sleeved shirts and headscarves, and once again, as at the Jerusalem Gate Hotel, I felt inappropriately dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, but Ian said ‘Don’t worry, you’re a foreigner’. A pretty little girl, sitting in the back of a car with her two brothers, leaned out of the car and shook my hand. Then she beckoned me to come nearer and she gave me a kiss on both cheeks. I was very touched by this spontaneous display of Arab charm and friendliness.
As foot passengers we had to go through three immense and forbidding steel turnstiles , which felt as though we were either going in or out of a prison, and at the other side we were back in the Arab world we had left in Syria – poor, scruffy, chaotic, but very lively and friendly. We got into a yellow mini bus which was going the short distance to Ramallah, but soon we were the last passengers left on board and we had ended up in a sort of souk, and were lost, so the driver took us to our hotel.
The Grand Park is the best hotel in town and we were very comfortable there. It belonged to a company which went bankrupt, but it has been taken over by the government of the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, and is comparable to any modern 4 star hotel. On the first night we were the only diners in the slightly drab hotel restaurant, but after our usual dinner of humous and bits, we walked down to take a look at the swimming pool, where a big wedding party was taking place. The bride and groom danced in the centre of a big crowd. The crowd were dancing and clapping in a sort of Scottish reel which we had seen before in Syria. A group of guests standing at one side saw us in the shadows and invited us to join them for a glass of beer.
Everyone we met in the West Bank was charming and friendly. Although predominately Muslim, they do not seem very religious and a lot of women wear Western dress. Most Palestinians speak English and we learnt a lot from conversations with taxi drivers, staff at the hotel and a Christian tailor in the town. Ramallah once had a large Christian population and we saw one big new Christian church, but also a lot of dilapidated monastery and chapel buildings. As in Lebanon, the majority of Christians have left, going particularly to the USA and Canada. They send money back to the country which, (a taxi driver told us) accounts for a lot of new buildings we saw going up. Everyone hates Israel. The main bones of contention are the wall and the settlements.
The sad truth is that whereas Israel has had many brilliant leaders, who have been prepared to make concessions to achieve peace, the Palestinians have been poorly served by their leaders who have always been virulently anti-Jewish. After the defeat of the Ottoman Turks and the British mandate from 1920 to 1948, their leader was the Mufti, the title of the Muslim religious leader based in Jerusalem. He was a member of the Husseini family, the most important Palestinian clan. He preached nothing but hatred against the Jews and inspired many massacres , although the Arab and Jewish populations coexisted peacefully for most of the period. He left Jerusalem on the outbreak of the second world war and moved to Germany to be near his hero, Adolf Hitler.
The next important Palestinian leader was the Mufti’s nephew, Yassar Arafat. He brought the attention of the world to the Palestinian cause with scores of terror attacks, including the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He renounced terror as a tactic in 1988 and went to the Camp David peace talks arranged by Bill Clinton with Ehud Barak. He was offered the West Bank and Gaza, including a land link between them to set up a Palestinian state. He was offered East Jerusalem as a capital, and a fund of 30 billion dollars to compensate the Palestinian refugees and resettle them. Although the Israelis agreed to the plan and the Palestinian negotiators also wanted to accept it, Arafat turned it down and the terror campaign started again.
The West Bank is more prosperous than we expected, although it is definitely Arab. It seems aid money is pouring in – from USAID, the EU, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. These were the ones whose posters we saw, but there is probably a lot more than that. Brazil has donated a magnificent tomb and memorial to Yasser Arafat which we visited on the outskirts of Ramallah. The tomb is on a military base, next door to the compound in which he spent his last days, which was eventually bulldozed by the Israelis. (The barman at the hotel thinks Arafat was poisoned by the Israelis. They have certainly been very adept at bumping off terrorist leaders.) We wondered where the aid money goes – there are very good roads, lots of hospitals and schools, and dozens of government quango-type buildings in Ramallah. Ian visited a refugee camp, which is rather like a vast council estate in England. People are poor, but nobody works, so presumably they are fed by the PA, using aid money. Most people recognise that the government is corrupt. Yassar Arafat regularly appeared high on Forbes Rich List during his life, and his deputy, who is now head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is also said to be corrupt, although this is not seen as a bad thing in the Arab world, more a sign of success.
The landscape occasionally reminded me of illustrations in the cherished Bible which I read as a child. We saw a lot of donkeys and goats, and on the way to Jericho and the Dead Sea, a lot of Bedouin camps and a few camels. What are described as ‘villages’ are usually ugly modern small towns. I suspect the old villages either fell down or were blown up in one of the many recent wars. Jericho was a bit disappointing, a small fairly modern town, but close-by is an excavated site where it’s believed the ancient town of the Old Testament, whose walls came tumbling down, was situated. The excavations have revealed settlements going back to 9,000 BC, making Jericho the oldest continuously inhabited site in the world, and the lowest, as it’s 1000 feet below sea level. Jericho is in an oasis, surrounded by date palms and noticeably green after driving miles downhill into a moonscape of white rocks, dust and dry semi-desert.
I thought I should swim in the Dead Sea, but it was not a great experience, as it’s like taking a bath in hot mud and on the afternoon we were there, the ‘beach’, which is grey mud, and the ‘Sea’, which is a large lake, were crowded with coachloads of Russians from Israel, plastering themselves with mud. The beach site was run by Israelis from a nearby settlement and everything was charged in dollars.
Apologies for the very long blog! Is it because I am spending too much time sitting on board? (It’s too hot to go anywhere during the day and, without many other distractions, it’s hard not be become absorbed by Middle Eastern politics.) Next time I will write about the Gaza Strip about which I have a lot of info………!
A plan agreed by the UN in 1947 gave the coastal strip from Acre in the north, to 25 miles south of Tel Aviv, plus the whole of the Negev desert, and the western side of the Sea of Galilee, to the Jews, and the west bank of the Jordan, plus the area known as the Gaza Strip, to the Muslims, for the creation of an Arab state. Jerusalem and its suburbs, which are within the area known as the West Bank, was to be an international zone, with a UN peacekeeping force looking after the interests of a population of around 100,000 Jews, 40,000 Muslims and 25,000 Christians. The plan was accepted by the Jews, but rejected by the Palestinians and the other neighbouring Arab countries.
The partition plan was announced in November, six months before the British, who had been given the responsibility to prepare the land the British called ‘Palestine’ for independence.