Past the Qalandia checkpoint and through the 9-meter barrier wall that cuts the West Bank from Israel, I landed in downtown Ramallah to meet my old friend Mais. Over the next week I tried to get a feel for life in Palestine's most lively city, from shawarma on Rukab Street to argila at Mais's upscale Arab cafes to sampling Taybeh at expat hangouts stacked with NGO workers. For lodging, I bounced around from guest house to hotel to a night back in jerusalem to some quality couchsurfing time, where I helped my host, Trevor, move into a new place downtown, complete with a spacious roof, bullet holes from an intifada and plenty of cheap shawarmers just around the corner. I could see myself living in this city.

While everyone else went to work, I took off on day trips around the West Bank.

With the city's top rap trio as my guides, I toured Nablus in the north, a city known for its kunafa, soap and gays. Ammar, Adly and Kaied shared a greasy sampling of the former after a wander through the old quarter of town, its walls smothered in shahid posters, rows of young martyrs posing with guns all photoshopped in front of the Dome of the Rock. The central flashpoint of the Second Intifada, Nablus has seen more than its share of violence and demolition, breeding more than its share of suicide bombers, both before and since the uprising. Ammar told me how the Israeli army had swept into the Old City on many occasions, including as recently as 2008. Sometimes it's been in response to actual attacks on Israel, but the Israeli strikes are most often pre-emptive, thanks to Hamas and Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades cells in the West Bank bragging about their constantly-improving rocket technology. Still, while thousands of rockets from Gaza have landed in Israel, not a single rocket has ever made it from the West Bank. On a broad patio overlooking the city, we joined a hip hop crew practicing their dance moves, part of a USAID-sponsored program to make Palestinians like us, before taking a taxi up the hill to Sama Nablus, a viewpoint high on the north side of town. The white concrete blocks of the city stretched all down the valley and up the mountain ridge to the south, while an old Ottoman tomb sat crumbling on the hillside to the east. Ammar was against climbing for fear of getting a rubber bullter from the Israeli outpost on the top of the hill. I took Ammar and Kaied's new facebook profile pics before heading back down to catch my bus back to Ramallah.

With Mais I rode down to Jericho, checking out a resort that would soon host her USAID-sponsored Arab Idol-style event, another US tax-paid project aimed at making Palestinians like us. Before heading back up into the barren hills, we wandered the spacious grounds of Hisham's Palace, built by the Umayyad Caliph.

Alone, I headed to Hebron. In walking down the old Arab souq towards Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the Cave of the Patriarchs, I saw a bustling Arab city much like dozens of others I'd wandered. In speaking with the locals, however, a different story emerged. Several shopkeepers pointed up to the fence draped over the bazaar, riddled with trash, bottles and even rocks, tossed by some of the city's 500 settlers living in the apartments above. The chicken-wire fence unfortunately doesn't protect against the occasional sprays of sewage. Like many Palestinian cities, Hebron has been hotly contested since before the Crusades, but as the second holiest city in Judaism and the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the battle here is hotter.

Jews in favor of the settlement claim it as their rightful property, pointing to the 1929 massacre of more than 60 of Hebron's Jews, then living on the outskirts of town, a 1968 grenade that killed 47 Jews, and dozens more attacks throughout recent decades, including a 1980 shooting of 6 yeshiva students.

Meanwhile, Arabs and all opposed to the Hebron settlement, including large numbers of Jews, point to daily harrassment, indiscriminate shootings, home demolitions, and the closure of a large swathe of the old city to Arabs. NGO workers and Israeli soldiers are forced to escort Palestinian kids to school due to the religiously-motivated settlers' violent tendencies, illustrated most dramatically in Baruch Goldstein's 1980 massacre. Widely denounced as insane by Israelis, the Brooklyn-born doctor walked into the Ibrahimi Mosque and opened fire, killing 29 praying Muslims and wounding over a 100 others. 25 more were killed in suppressing the protests that followed. Apparently, extremists still sing praises to Goldstein.

After some falafel, juice and honey-drenched sweets, I laid back in a rooftop park over the old market with a good book, waiting for the running of the bulls, as Trevor had called it. Just about every Shabbat, the Jewish settlers leave their fortress to parade around the old city, surrounded by soldiers decked in their olive green, full combat gear.

When the gates finally opened around 4pm, the soldiers began to move at the head of the procession, pushing back the handful of tourists that watched. We kept a small distance as the kippah-capped crowd marched towards us, clapping and singing hymns. A group of young men came first while the women and families followed, a line of grim-looking soldiers taking up the rear. At one point I stepped into a nook with a couple soldiers, one aiming his weapon up the adjacent alleyway. A settler held out a hand as he passed. "Welcome to Israel," he said, with genuine friendliness but no smile.

Thanks to a couple young, keffiyeh-clad British activists provoking the soldiers, a small handful of us were rounded up and threatened with arrest if we came close to the procession again. Fortunately, by this point I thought I'd seen enough and headed back to Ramallah. Unfortunately, upon my return Trevor helped me realize I'd missed H2 and the notorious Shuhada Street, the most intensely guarded section of town, where the 500 settlers live alongside 30,000 closely-monitored Palestinians.

My flight from Amman fast approaching, I got a ticket on the night bus from Tel Aviv back to Eilat. In my few hours there i joined a trio of Dutch girls at an Ethiopian diner near the bus station. But for the Hebrew signs and Arabic graffiti, I felt I could have been walking through Lagos. Sleeping refugees filled the park as we headed towards one of the girls' homes. I chatted with her boyfriend, Kidane, until the time came to catch my bus. Having sneaked his way across multiple North African borders, getting shot at by Egyptian soldiers and being rounded up by Israeli soldiers in the Negev after jumping barbed wire fences and narrowly avoiding Israeli bombs during a desert drill, he had plenty of stories and I was all ears. Although nothing out of the ordinary for refugees, his experiences cast my 100% legal border crossing hassles into a different perspective. By the time I'd hopped off the bus in Eilat, walked across the border, piled in with a shared taxi to Amman, hitched the last 50km when the shared taxi broke down on the highway for the second time and finally wound up in downtown Amman, I had only one day remaining before I was all clear to re-enter Europe on a fresh 90-day Schengen visa.


ej510 said...

AMAZING photos. Love them.

breanne said...

If I had known that you were visiting the West Bank, I would have stopped by and said hello! Beautiful pictures. I am surprised that the soldiers let you take pictures of them. They are all from Hebron, right?

Shery said...

I am so happy and jealous that you got to see Mais and spend some good times with her. I miss her so much:-(. The photos are amazing as usual. My fav. is Mais's:-).

Anthon Jackson said...

Thanks everyone. Breanne, I didn't know you were there either but glad to hear you're back in the area. I hope to be back soon. And yes, most of the photos are from Hebron.

breanne said...

Yeah, actually I live in Beit Sahour (next to Bethlehem). I have to tell you that you take pictures that I wish I had the nerve to take. Your non-politically themed pictures are beautiful, too!

If you come back to the West Bank before July, let me know. I'm here until the end of June. And good luck with the rest of your travels!

Kristen said...

I want to hear more about your rap artist tour guides. I rolled my eyes when I read about the USAID project...I wonder what the point really is of doing that. I guess I'll see a lot of things up close next year and will hopefully have a more educated opinion on that.

I think we need to skype soon. Get online!