My visit to the Mukata: Perception versus reality

Could an American-Israeli with an Israeli press card and government ID – and a car with Israeli license plates – just drive into Area A?

Maayan Hoffman at the Muqata (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Maayan Hoffman at the Muqata
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
As my colleague and I drove into Ramallah on Sunday, my Waze navigation app flashed a red warning sign. “You are entering a potential danger zone” it let us know, as we made our way around crowded roundabouts surrounded by stores and apartments.
The area looks so “normal” I mused, as we passed a fruit and vegetable market on our right. The buildings are made out of Jerusalem stone.
I had signed up to attend the Foreign Press Association’s briefing with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with anticipation, knowing I would have a chance not only to meet the elderly president, but to hear what he had to say two days before the launch of the US-led economic conference in Bahrain, which his government has been heavily condemning.
But once I registered, I began contemplating how to get there. Could an American-Israeli with an Israeli press card and government ID – and a car with Israeli license plates – just drive into Area A?
Area A is approximately 18% of the West Bank and completely under PA control. In 2000, a Palestinian crowd killed and mutilated the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces reservists, Vadim Norzhich and Yosef Avrahami, who had accidentally entered Ramallah in the West Bank.
I shuddered at the thought of getting lost in Ramallah, and then decided to drive to the nearby Kalandiya checkpoint – the main checkpoint between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem – and take a cab from there. At the last minute, a fellow journalist, who has been there many times, volunteered to drive.
In 45 minutes, we were in Ramallah and parking in the small lot across from the presidential compound.
The Mukata was built in the 1920s during the British Mandate by British engineer Sir Charles Tegart. Then, it was used as a military headquarters, a court of law and a prison. In 1948, it fell to Jordan. After the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War, the military took it over – until 1994, when the PA was established. In 1996, Yasser Arafat set up his West Bank headquarters there, turning Ramallah into the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat is buried in its courtyard.
And it is surprisingly large and luminous and white.
As I entered the Mukata, the security personnel were kind and smiled. The staff left out juice, water and coffee. All of Abbas’s staff introduced themselves and asked where I worked. Some people spoke only Arabic, but most were comfortable in English or even Hebrew.
The briefing was interesting but uneventful – until we left and ended up stuck in the parking lot surrounded by a sardine can of cars. I worked to file my stories from the passenger seat as the sun went down. Various people entered the lot, tipped their heads and smiled.
Finally, enough drivers came and went, and it was our turn to exit the parking lot. But the maneuver was tight. A Palestinian noticed our struggle and hurried over to assist us – pointing my colleague driver to the right, left and eventually straight out of the lot.
It has been nearly two decades since I had been in Ramallah, but truthfully nothing has changed. It was a city, like any city. There was nothing scary, nothing dangerous.
What was I expecting?
A FEW years ago, I used to visit Bethlehem periodically after I met a Christian Arab tour guide who befriended me following a tour of the Church of the Nativity. I would ride into Bethlehem on the blue and white Palestinian buses. Each time, I would get worried that I had missed my stop – just like I do when I ride the green Egged buses – and I would start to panic, asking the people sitting near me: “Can you remind me when to get off?”
I would ask in English. Once, a rider got off the bus to show me where to cross the street to meet my guide, who would take me for coffee. The coffee in Bethlehem is so good. And the falafel and hummus smell so good, piping hot and smothered in tahina.
No one looked at me funny in Bethlehem, and I felt totally safe.
Then one day, I got out of the bus at checkpoint 300 with the other Arab Israeli and Palestinian riders for inspection – as I always did – but instead of grabbing my American passport, I accidentally pulled out my Israeli identity card. The soldier began to scream at me, “You’re Jewish! They’ll kill you.”
He would not let me get back on the bus to Jerusalem – and left me instead at the checkpoint to find my way back to Jerusalem by hitchhiking.
I remember breaking down in tears – I was terrified of this soldier.
At the time, I so badly wanted to write a piece about standing at that checkpoint, about how humiliated I felt by that soldier. His anger and assumption that no Israeli could ever travel with Palestinians without getting killed is such a big part of our problem.
No, I am not naive. As news editor, I am acutely aware that there is no utopian dream. But I also believe we will never move forward if we don’t know each other and tell stories of coexistence.
There are Palestinian medics who treat Israelis on West Bank roads after traffic accidents – more than the number that throw rocks or shoot at Israeli cars. There are countless examples of economic collaboration in the West Bank. Israelis and Palestinians in these areas often shop at the same supermarkets and fill up their cars at the same gas stations.
And Palestinians in Ramallah help Israelis like me find my way in and out of parking lots.
Why don’t we talk about that?
We have to get over the anger and pain for negotiations to be restarted – and for the distance between the people of Jerusalem and Ramallah to be as short as the car drive is in kilometers.
If anything, my visit to Ramallah underscored that.