BROWSE COUNTRIES/ TERRITORIES
“You can't escape politics here.”
In the West Bank, a Sunday morning stroll through the hills is never just that, and being arrested would actually be the least of the troubles.
It is past midnight but that should not stop anyone from having a good time, not the guests occupying the lower floors of my hotel anyway. I just heard “Happy Birthday!” being played as the clock struck 12. Now they have reverted to Arab dance music, and the DJ sounds like he is getting quite a good response from the revellers.
This is Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian West Bank, where the late Yasser Arafat spent his last days under siege before succumbing to illness in 2004. It may be just ten kilometres from East Jerusalem, but it could well be a world away.
While East Jerusalem appears like most Middle Eastern cities – busy, cluttered and bustling with life – away from the centre, the Ramallah that we encountered was quiet, with tasteful limestone bungalows that had their own gardens of lovingly-tended rose shrubs. The roads were paved and in good condition. I spotted a black Audi TT Coupe and a few BMWs on just one street. Apartments had their own security systems and views overlooking the areas around Ramallah.
Life under occupation was looking rather good.
Residential buildings in Ramallah
And of course it would. Property prices, according to Raja Shehadeh, a local Palestinian lawyer and author, are comparable to New York. It was starting to make sense. You had to be relatively well-off to live in these parts of the West Bank, which explains the secured apartments and bungalows, the imported cars and the coffee houses.
According to Shehadeh, it is so difficult to acquire land in Ramallah that when you do, you build on it. Construction must be done with stone, which explains the understated style. There was none of that mismatched gaudy Baroque styles favoured the world over by the nouveau riche.
Raja Shehadeh lives in Ramallah and apart from being a lawyer, he writes and is an avid walker. He wrote a book entitled simply Palestinian Walks and today, we went on one of the routes described in his book.
The Ramallah Hills
It's called the Ramallah Hills but the terrain was not steep as much as it was tedious. The paths were a fitting imagery of the figurative life on the ground in the Palestinian areas. They were rocky and full of thorned shrubs whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to get into the socks, shoes and pants of anyone who passed, and draw blood or at the very least, cause great annoyances and inconvenience. While it was not the most picturesque of trails, but the walk was pregnant with implications, most of them political.
The route had been carefully planned out to avoid regions called Areas C. These are strictly off-limits to Palestinians, and are guarded by Israeli soldiers. Palestinians are restricted to Areas A and B, which are differentiated by the level of control the Palestinians have in them.
Construction of this Palestinian building project on the hilltop was halted by Israeli authorities who said it was illegally done in an Area C location, off limits to Palestinians
As we walked, Shehadeh pointed out an access road that served a Jewish settlement, built without permission and financed by an American Jewish lobby group. The settlements are areas inhabited by communities of Israeli settlers, who believe their right to reside in the West Bank stems from their claim over it, a region they consider the biblical Judea and Samaria, lands promised to them by God. These settlements are guarded by the Israeli military.
The illegal road leading to the settlements financed and built by an American Jewish lobby group
The walk of over two hours took us to a small Palestinian village. There we realised that we were in full view of an Israeli military outpost on the next hill. It was decided that the best cause of action then was for our group of some 30 foreigners with not the remotest chance of passing off as locals to move out of sight.
On the distant hill are a Jewish settlement and an Israeli outpost tower overlooking this Palestinian village
Bassam, another avid Palestinian walker, told me the story of how he once led a group on a walking trail and landed up close to an Area C locale. The settlers complained and the soldiers arrived, checking identification. With more than a few foreign passports among the documents handed over, the group was released without further hassle, including the Palestinians among them like Bassam.
The fear for Palestinians was not so much being arrested. It had more to do with meeting a Jewish settler who would probably be armed with a gun. Hence Palestinians know to watch where they take a Sunday walk.
“You can't escape politics here,” explained Bassam, with a shrug.
The evening session of the festival saw two accomplished Palestinian writers share their experiences under the occupation. One of them was Raja Shehadeh from the walks, and the other, Saud Amiry, a warm and engaging Palestinian architect whose writing career began, when she was stuck under curfew for 42 days.
Shehadeh read an excerpt from his book where he imagined a conversation with a young Jewish settler that he met on a walk. The exchange strained to be cordial; the chasm between them seemingly unbreachable.
“A settler can shoot at a Palestinian with impunity,” said Shehadeh. This unbalanced relationship does not a friendly chat make.
From left, Panel discussion moderator, Rachel Holmes, Palestinian writers Raja Shehadeh and Saud Amiry, and British writer Michael Palin
Amiry then spoke about her upcoming book Murad Murad, where disguised as a man, she went with a group of Palestinians who stole across the newly-constructed wall dividing the West Bank and Israel for work. She read the account where the Palestinians, upon reaching the Israeli side, immediately doused themselves with hairgel, changed their clothes and donned sunglasses to appear Israeli.
The transformation took five minutes.
Those who live here are able to tell them apart almost immediately, but most outsiders would be hard-pressed to differentiate between a Palestinian and an Israeli. Perhaps if a transformation takes only five minutes, the two people may not be as different as their divisions suggest?
Israelis talk about the threats they face from hostile Arab neighbours and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Amiry too raised the point how Palestinians too feel insecure.
“Palestine keeps changing on us and that is a sense of insecurity for us.”
While change in most other countries happens in years or decades, in Palestinian areas, it could be a matter of days. When she moved here in 1981, she knew every street. Now Amiry gets lost trying to get between towns, because access on the roads keeps changing according to new Israeli regulations.
After figuring out the route between Points A and B, the time taken then has to be measured, and this has nothing to do with the distance between them, as opposed to the number of Israeli checkpoints between them.
In light of all this, Amiry went to write a laugh-out-loud book called “Sharon and my mother-in-law”, which included her experiences with her mother-in-law when they were both kept together under a recent late 2001-2002 curfew imposed by the Israelis.
“I was under occupation both inside and out,” she joked.
Judging from the giggles from the audience, it would have appeared that the discussion was on anything but a topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which most may consider no laughing matter. But perhaps as British travel writer Michael Palin – of BBC's Monty Python fame – noted as the third speaker on the panel, “A sense of humour would do good in resolving the problems of the world.”
Until the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been pronounced dead, it may be premature to start crying for a funeral.
At the end of the day, if a Palestinian like Amiry who has to live under occupation and oppression can still retain her sense of humour, the rest of us have no reason yet to beat our chests and declare the end of hope.
Dan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.
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