Israeli Life: So Near, So Far
After the Six-Day War, Palestinian towns were nearby recreation spots for Israelis, places to explore—even meet a few Arabs. The two intifadas changed all that.
We sat on the patio of a café in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, late on a summer afternoon. From the café’s arched stone entrance wafted recorded music—a soprano voice, a flute and an oud. A waiter brought me a glass of lemonade, pungent with the scent of fresh-squeezed fruit and crushed mint.
Three women in their twenties walked by on the narrow street outside. Their hair was uncovered; they wore short-sleeved blouses and slacks. Had I been on a main street of Arab East Jerusalem, I would have expected to see scarves covering their hair. The women were a quiet statement that Ramallah is a more liberal town than East Jerusalem, more European. I jotted furiously, wanting to record every detail about a city from which I had been absent since the start of the second intifada.
I had come, with a translator from East Jerusalem, on assignment for a major magazine to interview a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Two weeks before, on the same assignment, I had traveled to Paris and London. Arranging the European visit required a few minutes online to buy tickets. The three-hour train trip from Paris to London disconcerted me slightly. I learned at a young age that Britain is an island; you don’t get there by train.
In my revised map, england belonged to the Continent. Ramallah, less than an hour’s drive from my Jerusalem home, was on the dark side of the moon. My Palestinian interviewees could not come to Jerusalem. For me to visit them took a week of red tape and preparations. As an Israeli in the West Bank city, I was beyond rare. There are reasons, written in blood, for this separation. But Israelis and Palestinians have become strangers. Their pictures of each other have become outlines, lacking features, tinged by fear. As a writer, as an explorer of people, I needed to cross that gap.
Like other major cities in the West Bank, Ramallah is in Area A. Under the Oslo Accords, Area A refers to pieces of the West Bank under full control of the PA. In Area B, Israel has security responsibility while the PA handles civil government. Area C is under full Israeli rule and includes all Israeli settlements. Since the start of the second intifada an Israel Defense Forces order forbids Israeli citizens from entering Area A. There is a loophole for journalists, but it requires both the reporter and the hiring media organization to sign some fearsomely worded legal papers. My editor had to check with managers and insurance agents. Eventually, signed documents arrived, and I set forth for Ramallah.
Other magazines have preferred to drop assignments rather than to take legal responsibility for a freelancer’s fate in Area A.
Once, things were entirely different. For two decades after the 1967 Six-Day War, travel between Israel and the West Bank—and Gaza—was virtually unrestricted. Moshe Dayan, the defense minister after the war, aimed at erasing the Green Line, the prewar boundary, and his policy lasted even after he left office.
Officially, Israelis ceased needing permits to visit the West Bank in daytime from November 1967, but people didn’t wait for the change in rules. My friend Yaala, who was 6 that year, remembers her mother quickly taking her for trips to explore Jenin and Nablus. They ate in a restaurant in Jericho, bought handcrafted glass souvenirs in Hebron. For secular Jews, she says, West Bank towns were “a place where you could go on Shabbat, where you could eat out” when businesses were closed in Israel.
When I moved to Jerusalem 10 years later, the place to buy bargain furniture was Bethlehem. When I began going to Palestinian towns as a reporter, I took the Arab intercity taxis from outside the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem and walked around freely. A secular colleague wrote a story about going dancing on Friday nights at Bethlehem discotheques. A partly Christian town, Bethlehem was Western enough to have discos—and sufficiently conservative that you had to come with a date.
The other side of Dayan’s policy was allowing Palestinians from the territories to enter Israel and work there. Arabs took the place of Jews in construction, farm work and other manual labor. Dayan assumed that Palestinians would accept permanent Israeli rule as long as their living standards rose. His ideas aroused bitter criticism from his Labor Party colleague, then-Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, who denounced the “social, political and moral danger” of exploiting Arab labor and warned that Palestinians would not give up aspirations for independence.
But for a while, Palestinians and Israelis saw each other in everyday life. It wasn’t Eden. Social boundaries remained sharp, even if business associates occasionally invited each other to their family celebrations. Israelis were least likely to meet educated Palestinians because they rarely worked in Israel.
A Palestinian political activist in his midthirties from Beit Jalla, south of Jerusalem, tells me that as a child, his picture of Israelis was mostly of soldiers and settlers—but he also remembers going to the beach in Eilat and camping near Tiberias, “so we were open to seeing other aspects of Israeli society,” he says. One layer of strangeness was stripped off.
But the idea of low-maintenance Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza collapsed with the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987. Stonethrowing protesters confronted troops daily. West Bank roads became dangerous for Israelis. Concerned about terror attacks within the Green Line, Israel changed the rules during the first Gulf War in 1991. Now West Bank and Gaza residents needed permits to enter Israel.
The requirement was easy to evade, but attitudes had shifted in a complex way. More Israelis accepted the idea of negotiating with Palestinians, a change that led to the Oslo process. But one source of support for the agreements was the promise of physical separation, of “they’re there and we’re here.”
Through the 1990s, israeli farmers and contractors shifted to hiring workers from abroad in place of Palestinians. Israel also built roads to settlements that by-passed Area A, so that fewer Israelis drove through West Bank towns.
Yet if you wanted to go, it was entirely possible. Friends of mine who live in Jerusalem were regulars at the Flamingo, a Ramallah club where Israeli and Palestinian jazz musicians played. Before Israel’s 1999 elections, a wonkish group of Palestinian political activists invited me to Nablus to lecture on Israeli politics. They surprised me with their detailed questions, and with their disappointment that a politician convicted of corruption, Aryeh Deri, was still popular in Israel. They wanted independence quickly—but they also saw Israeli democracy as a model and did not want it soiled.
That summer, researching fundamentalism, I interviewed a Hamas-linked Islamic cleric near Ramallah, then headed downtown to shop for Islamic pamphlets in a department store. My East Jerusalem translator left me there; he had a girlfriend to meet. The sidewalks were crowded with young people out for the evening. I tell these details because they form no simple picture. The beauty of being there was that generalities evaporated.
With the second uprising, far bloodier than the first, the barriers—legal, physical and psychological—grew much higher. Even before two Israeli reservists were lynched in Ramallah in October 2000, the Army banned visits by Israelis to Area A. With checkpoints on roads into Israel, the military sought to keep Palestinians from entering without permits. As terror bombings became frighteningly frequent, the government decided to build the security fence, dividing most of the West Bank from Israel.
The division isn’t absolute. Palestinians still enter Israel, some with permits to work or visit, some slipping in illegally. The major exception to separation is Jerusalem, where Palestinians have the status of Israeli residents. They still work and shop in Jewish parts of the city. Israelis can visit Areas B and C, but almost none do, except to reach settlements via bypass roads. Israelis like to travel—but they are more likely to visit the beach resorts of Turkey than East Jerusalem.
So for most Palestinians, everyday life in Israel is just a memory—or, if they are young, something they have never even seen. The average young Israeli citizen will see the inside of a Palestinian village as a soldier, or not at all. Media coverage has also faded: A colleague who reports from the West Bank notes he can “count on his fingers” the number of journalists still doing so for the Israeli media.
Surface familiarity is not enough to bring peace. That is actually one moral of this story. Dayan was mistaken: People can work for each other, eat in each other’s restaurants, while the deeper issues remain raw and unresolved. Yet the barriers, however unavoidable, have turned Israelis and Palestinians into abstractions for each other, and that is a loss.
I would rather have the conversations that reveal people’s contradictory views. I would rather see where they live than talk to them on the phone. In Dura, south of Hebron, I recently saw a truck with Palestinian plates and the Hebrew logo of an Israeli company delivering soft drinks to groceries, a reminder of how intertwined our economies still are.
In a nearby village, I visited a young man whose home consisted of a shed built onto the side of his brother’s house. On his wall, he had taped magazine pictures of women pop stars, American and Arab, in low-cut clothing. In his CD player, he had a disc of speeches by an extreme Islamic preacher. I do not think he knew whether the singers or preacher moved him more. This confusion cannot be seen at long distance.
And on a summer afternoon in Ramallah on that café patio, I met a Palestinian legislator. The café was a Fatah hangout. A friend of his greeted him with a kiss on both cheeks. He dropped two cellphones and his keys on the table, in a gesture that reminded me of brash Israeli businessmen. On the phone, I could have heard his political views, which fit the preconceptions neither of the Israeli left nor of the right.
Only in person could I see the smile of a politician used to making friends instantly. I had to come to the dark side of the moon, an hour from home.