Travelling from the Israeli side of the wall into the West Bank does not require any stopping of the bus. The checkpoint looks very similar to a border crossing. In a way, I felt as if I was passing from Washington into Canada. The border police don’t even check documents as you pass into the West Bank. You simply drive right on through.
The bus dropped me off at the Manara Circle in downtown Ramallah. Again, I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but downtown looks like any normal Arab city. There are multitudes of people lining the sidewalks, restaurants and businesses abound. Tea vendors stroll the streets ringing their bells and calling for your money. Truthfully, it just looked like a more active version of East Jerusalem, cacophony and all.
I met my friend Sinan when I exited the bus, and we entered a decrepit looking building. Climbing to the top story placed us in a nargileh (hookah) lounge with pictures of Arafat on every wall. There were absolutely no women in this place. A conversation with my colleague Julia the next day revealed to me that women are usually barred from such places due to social convention. At this lounge were my friends Marwan and Hasan, and another Brandeis student.
Our next stop after leaving the lounge was the Ramallah maqaatah, a government property that houses the mausoleum of Yasir Arafat. Outside of the tomb itself is a large statue with a poem by Mahmoud Darwish written in Arabic calligraphy. The tomb is a beautiful stone structure with two guards standing behind it at all times.
A conversation that arose upon leaving the maqaatah brought forth Sinan’s idea that if Arafat were alive today, there would be much more peace between Israel and Palestine. I am personally unable to speculate as to the validity of such a statement, but I do know this; if Arafat were alive today, the Palestinians would be a much more unified group. Arafat is a beloved figure among the majority of the Palestinian community. He was able to manipulate the sentiments of his people, and he would likely keep Hamas in check in Gaza. These conversations are not productive, however, since Arafat is dead.
As the evening progressed, it came time for me to return to Jerusalem. I said goodbye, and boarded a bus right outside of the Manara Circle. The process of crossing back into Israel is slightly more complex. The bus drops the passengers off about 100 yards from the checkpoint. The passengers must then pass through the checkpoint on foot, which requires metal detectors, x-ray machines and a passport scanner.
I did not cross through the checkpoint immediately after exiting the bus. Some graffiti murals that adorned the wall caught my attention, and I approached them in order to get some photos. There were two boys sitting at the wall, who initially requested that I do not take their picture. Eventually, they asked that I take a picture of them. When I complied, they promptly approached me in order to review the image. I was slightly taken aback by their haste, and a sense of fear rushed through me. I was not afraid for my safety, but rather that of the camera. I guess I’m just very protective of that thing.
After snapping a few photos, and avoiding the theft of my equipment, I proceeded to the checkpoint and put my backpack through the x-ray machine. The officer on duty could have cared less about checking my passport, and simply waved me through to what I refer to as the “holding cell.” Basically, once you pass through security, you haven’t completed your visit to the checkpoint. You must subsequently wait for a door to open, and this door is only open for 5 or so minutes at a time. As a result, there is a corridor full of Palestinians trying to get out of the checkpoint compound. I was among that group, and the only white boy in the bunch.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in Ramallah, and I know that it will not be my last trip to the West Bank. I will likely be making trips to the various ANERA offices in Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah, and I am scheduled to do various site visits in Jericho in the near future. For those of you who may have the opportunity to visit the West Bank, but feel intimidated by the prospect of doing so, take my account as reassurance. It’s certainly worth the 6.50 NIS.