Discovering the Palestinian territories
Most Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, could live in secure peace with each other, if only their leaders gave them a real chance.
Palestinians dance in Ramallah festival [file] Photo: REUTERS
Almost every visitor to Jerusalem knows about the Central Bus Station. It is
beautifully built, made from white Jerusalem stone, and a large clock sits in
the center against a background of dark blue windows. What many tourists (and
Israelis) do not know, however, is that there is actually another Central Bus
Station in Jerusalem. This station is not as grand, fancy, or comfortable as the
first, but its buses go to destinations that only they can reach.
the Central Bus Station in east Jerusalem. For almost 30 years, on dozens of
visits to Jerusalem, I was ignorant of its existence. Yet on many occasions I
stood less than 100 feet away from it. On my most recent visit, solely by
chance, I finally discovered it.
One day, after touring the Old City, I
exited through the Damascus Gate. That day, curiosity led me to explore Nablus
Road, which pretty much juts straight out from the gate. To my astonishment, I
encountered an active and lively bus station. Learning about this station led to
a most amazing journey.
It is amazing how one can live in complete
ignorance for so many years. Although I am a curious person by nature, I never
really wondered how the nearly 300,000 Arab residents of east Jerusalem get
around. Egged buses are certainly not commonly seen on the streets of east
Jerusalem. So, if they do not walk, and do not have a car, how do they traverse
the “other” half of Jerusalem? The answer is east Jerusalem bus
The station, however, does not only deal with intercity travel.
Buses also depart to all the areas of the West Bank that are under Palestinian
control. For less than seven and a half shekels, you can find yourself walking
around in Ramallah. The ride, which takes less than an hour, takes you to a
completely different world.
It is strange how most tourists in Jerusalem
are likelier to travel to Eilat (312 km.) or Meron (197 km.), than to a city
only 14 km. away.
Why would someone travel so far north to see the grave
of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the second most visited religious site in Israel,
when it is far closer and cheaper to visit Joseph’s tomb in Nablus (63km.)? Of
course, traveling that short distance can be quite difficult. Not because of the
walls, checkpoints or barriers, rather, the most difficult hurdle to overcome is
As an American Jew, an ordained rabbi, and a fervent
Zionist since early childhood, my focus was never on Palestinian cities. For
many years, I even believed that the term “Palestinian” was an invented
description hijacked by the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and
Discovering the ease and simplicity of travel to Ramallah led me to
want to go there myself. Usually, however, travel is more enjoyable with
company. Therefore, I started thinking about who would accompany me. I contacted
everyone in Jerusalem I knew, but not even one person was willing to join me on
this trip. I went anyway.
The data show that reluctance to travel to
Palestinian-controlled areas is common. Unfortunately, finding exact statistics
for tourism in the Palestinian areas is extremely difficult.
for the same periods in both Israel and Palestinian cities is that much more
However, 2008 is one year where a semblance of data is
available for both locations.
That year, the total number of tourists
arriving in Israel was 2.6 million people. Jewish tourists accounted for 25
percent of that number, or roughly 650,000 people.
For the same year, an
estimated 1.3 million tourists visited the West Bank. How many of those tourists
were Jewish? It is hard to know, but data collected in Bethlehem, one of the
most visited Palestinian cities, during the months of July and August indicate
that only about 1% of tourists were Jewish. Such data were unavailable for
Ramallah or other Palestinian cities, but they can be assumed to be roughly
Why would people who spend countless dollars travelling the
world ignore a vibrant and interesting culture that is so close to Jerusalem?
Practically every tourist to Israel visits Jerusalem. The Western Wall is in
fact the most visited tourist site in Israel. Once in Jerusalem, why do these
same tourists not even consider traveling the short distance to Ramallah, or any
of the other Palestinian-controlled cities? I think the answer, in a single
word, is fear. Of course, nothing in life is as simple as one word. For Israeli
citizens it is actually illegal to enter Palestinian-controlled
Though it is not the Palestinians who prohibit their entry, but
the government of Israel. Still, the multitudes of foreign Jewish tourists who
visit Israel do not entertain the idea of visiting Ramallah, or even Nablus and
Jericho for that matter.
The last two cities have significance to
Judaism. They include, respectively, the burial site of Joseph and the Prophet
Elisha’s well (as described in the Bible), among other sites. Even if the
tourist was completely uninterested in anything Palestinian, there are enough
sites important to Judaism to justify traveling there.
Jews travel to
Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and other Arab countries to visit Jewish heritage sites.
Yet the thought of visiting sites that are less than an hour away does not cross
What prevents them? Why would none of my American friends
join me? In fact, most told me I was foolish to go, and some even predicted my
death. Again, I think the reason is unfounded fear. For so many years,
Palestinian and Israeli leaders have been demonizing the other side that it has
become very difficult to differentiate fact from fiction.
emotion that exists now is blind fear. Is it possible, perhaps, that
Palestinians would welcome Jewish tourists, especially given the economic boost
that they provide to the Palestinian economy? I had a positive and welcoming
experience in all the Palestinian areas that I visited. Over a few days, I
traveled to Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and two refugee camps. Not once was I
intimidated or frightened. In most places, I was greeted with open arms, and the
locals eagerly directed me to the sites I sought. I even met two
English-speaking Palestinian university students who gladly accompanied me to
Nablus in a shared taxi, and made sure that I saw the important sites, such as
I believe that both sides have become so used to thinking
in broad, overarching terms, that the common, individual person has been
forgotten. Does every single Israeli or Palestinian like each other? Probably
not. But most, I believe, could get along just fine. Most are able to view each
other as fellow human beings. Most can interact with each other without being
afraid that they will be murdered because of their religion or
Perhaps, most importantly, most Palestinians and Israelis,
Jews and Muslims, could live in secure peace with each other, if only their
leaders gave them a real chance.
The writer, a frequent visitor to
Israel, is an ordained rabbi and practicing social worker who lives in Brooklyn,