An Israeli living in Ramallah?

Flouting convention – and the law – one artist finds inspiration across the Green Line.

Hillel Efflal sits in front of his mural at the Hostel in Ramallah (photo credit: MAX SCHINDLER)
Hillel Efflal sits in front of his mural at the Hostel in Ramallah
(photo credit: MAX SCHINDLER)
It’s illegal; the IDF prohibits Israeli Jews from entering Palestinian cities in the West Bank.
Yet that doesn’t stop one man from crossing checkpoints to live in Ramallah.
Mounting a bike in east Jerusalem, Hillel Eflal pedals hard as he rides up and down winding roads in the Judean hills. Palestinian boys gawk, shout and laugh at him. Few others cycle in the West Bank. Moreover, he is treadling a custom-made “tall bike,” his head riding three meters in the air.
A painter, Eflal, 33, has lived in Ramallah for most of 2016. He’s one of the only non-journalist Israeli Jew residing here. And he’s your quintessential young sabra.
Eflal was born and bred on Kibbutz Yiftah.
All day long, he chain-smokes fat spliffs – part tobacco and part hashish. He seems eccentric, like a post-army boy who treks to the Far East and meditates in an ashram.
He isn’t your normal Israeli. Tall and blond, he speaks English like a New Yorker, despite growing up in the Holy Land. He chose to not serve in the army. And he paints Palestinian political murals for commission.
Eflal’s part-time home town, Ramallah, sitting amid a sea of Israeli settlements and military checkpoints, is also the bustling provisional capital of the Palestinian Authority.
So why would an Israeli Jew to live in Ramallah? “Curiosity,” he said in an interview with the Magazine.
“I knew I could speak to people and to meet people. I didn’t just come here to eat falafel.”
Family and friends tried to talk him out of the journey.
“I don’t think it’s wise to go,” Eflal’s father warned him upon returning to the kibbutz for Shabbat dinner. “It’s very dangerous; the situation is very tense now.”
Eflal chuckled, dismissing their safety concerns.
Arriving under the guise of a Canadian tourist, he does indeed carry a foreign passport – courtesy of his German grandfather who fled just prior to the Holocaust – but he has yet to use it in Ramallah. It contains no visa, since he’s an Israeli citizen.
He wasn’t happy to keep mum about his Israeli heritage.
“I don’t like to lie about this,” he said, especially with people he actually knows.
He thought of crashing for a night at the run-down, yet charming, Hostel in Ramallah.
His stay there would soon turn into four months, as Eflal found no need to hide his identity.
Palestinian friends surprised him “by how much they actually didn’t care,” and they seemed supportive.
If anything, they wanted to hear what Israel was like.
“I’ve met friends here who’ve never gone to Jerusalem and they’ve lived here their entire lives in Ramallah. I mean it’s crazy; Jerusalem could be 10 minutes away by car,” he said.
Recognizing the risk if he were exposed as an Israeli in the wrong crowd, Eflal seemed to think out loud.
“It’s something I never got a chance to test with people I don’t trust,” he said, smirking.
Not entirely off-limits Very few other Israeli Jews live in Ramallah.
One is Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass.
She avoids driving through the Kalandiya, checkpost, Hass told me last year, in an effort to avoid a legal imbroglio. Instead, she breezes through Israeli-only roads, claiming settler residency.
By residing in Ramallah, Eflal, Hass and others defy an Israeli military decree barring Jews from entering Area A (autonomous cities in the West Bank governed by the Palestinian Authority). The decree – issued in October 2000, during the early days of the second intifada – came after two Israeli reservists mistakenly entered Ramallah. A mob lynched the two, killing them and mutilating their bodies.
Yet the decree is mired in a legal black hole – the restriction stays on the books, despite a Jerusalem district court ruling in April 2013 that says Israeli civilians failing to comply may not be arrested.
Locals refer to the city as a “bubble” of tranquility amid a sea of unrest. The PA maintains security coordination with Israel – which includes preemptively arresting would-be Palestinian terrorists who could attack Israeli soldiers or civilians.
While Eflal and I chat, he pinches loose-leaf tobacco, creasing a paper to roll a crisp cigarette. He puffs and talks without pause. He wears a tattered plaid shirt with holes etched into the armpits. He owns two or three shirts here; the rest of his clothes are back on the kibbutz.
It takes approximately an hour and a half to bicycle from downtown Jerusalem to the heart of Ramallah. The roads are “primitive” and the terrain is tricky. Eflal pedals in and out of Ramallah by avoiding the main Kalandiya checkpoint, which separates Jerusalem from the West Bank.
Instead, he traverses checkpoints that are mostly for Israeli settlers.
Why not drive a car? “It’s easiest to cross” from Israel into Palestinian Area A on a bicycle, he argues.
“It’s a vehicle I don’t need to park, it doesn’t have a license plate, it just looks like this person can’t do any harm.”
The first time he came to Ramallah, he cycled through the main Palestinian crossing at Kalandiya. When trekking back to Jerusalem, soldiers recognized his oversized bike. The commander beckoned him to the pillbox.
“We spoke a few words in Hebrew. He asked to see an ID. I told him I didn’t have one because I entered [Ramallah] with my foreign passport. He looked at my bike, looked at me, and one of the soldiers told him that I had passed there two weeks ago before that. So with an angry look on his face, he told me to get the f*** out of here.”
Hillel’s life story Eflal was born in 1983 in Kibbutz Yiftah, next to Kiryat Shmona and the Lebanese border.
He recounted the security situation.
“I grew up hearing gunshots and bombs on a regular basis all the time. It was normal.”
Yiftah privatized in the early 2000s. Prior to that, it had a communal dining hall, laundry and a kibbutz store.
“Yet it still feels like a kibbutz, it looks like a kibbutz and people act like it is,” Eflal insists, recounting the many volunteers who used to flock north.
Even today, he returns to the kibbutz Shabbat dinner every two to three weeks.
Hillel is the eldest, with two brothers and a sister, along with a half-brother.
The two brothers live in Jerusalem and his sister resides on the kibbutz. Hillel’s youngest brother, a professional musician, did not enlist in the IDF. His sister was a teacher in the army.
Hillel’s parents, Sara Hefrei-Eflal, and Boaz Eflal, are both retired from working on the kibbutz. Sara used to teach literature in high school and later published two novels and a compilation of short stories.
She served in the army as a sergeant.
Boaz worked as a clerk and in insurance work around the kibbutz, along with dabbling as a farmhand. He served as a paratrooper in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars. Through Hillel’s childhood, they kept an M16 in the house for kibbutz reserve duty.
Sara’s family hails from Hebron, living there for at least six generations until the 1929 riots. Boaz is a typical “yekke” as his family all come from Germany.
Hillel attended elementary school in nearby Kibbutz Kfar Blum. For high school, he attended three different schools in Jerusalem. He never got his diploma, preferring to do his own thing. He then trained for one year in practical and classical painting at the Jerusalem Studio School, run by Israel Hershberg.
Afterwards, Eflal chose not to serve in the IDF.
He convinced the enlistment officer to let him off the hook by faking a hefty drug history.
“I made it very clear to them that I don’t get along with authority,” he said, adding that few if any political motives were at play.
Most of his close friends did not serve either, both for ideological and personal reasons.
“I don’t know how much it’s known but it is a hidden statistic that a lot of guys don’t serve, that it’s not too hard to get out of the military.” [About 50% of young people, male and female, serve in the army, IDF Manpower Directorate, Maj.- Gen. Orna Barbivai estimated in 2011.] At age 21, Eflal moved to New York City. He initially sought to break into the city’s hypercompetitive art world by painting nonstop. But he became jaded with the business of gallery art, “eating crackers and drinking wine and socializing and then selling the painting for a price nobody could afford.” So he painted for himself.
He then worked under the table – cooking and waitering – overstaying his tourist visa for more than 10 years.
During his New York days, Eflal became passionate about cycling. In his spare time, he tinkers with bicycles.
He owns no vehicle, preferring to bike wherever he may live.
An (a)political mural? Today, as guests ascend the stairs to enter Hostel in Ramallah, Eflal’s oversized masterpiece comes into view.
Inspired by old Bezalel posters from the early 1930s, the mural depicts seven windows to the West Bank; Nablus, Bethlehem, Sebastiya (a site of Roman ruins), Jericho, Jerusalem (al-Quds), Hebron and Ramallah.
Attempting to conjure a neutral, almost biblical depiction of the West Bank, Eflal sought to exclude modernist stylistic influences and opt for “gentle symbolism.”
In other words, in an effort to avoid “being overly political,” the mural’s symbolism seems obscured behind shapes and colors.
Only well-read observers can interpret the painter’s message.
Eflal sought for his mural to bridge the gap between blunt symbolism and visual beauty.
“Even if it is a political piece, it should contribute to the aesthetic value and serve to bring color and life to people walking down the street. Make people’s days a little more interesting.”
When describing the mural, Eflal avoids the word “Palestine,” because “that name has different meanings to different people.”
He prefers “West Bank.” Politics is a subject that he shies away from.
“I don’t think this is the best place to go into these things.”
When cajoled, the painter opens up. But barely.
“I don’t see myself as a left activist, as a peace activist,” he said, in a humorously liberal attempt to evade labels. “Even though I would be, I guess, classified as an extreme lefty in the Israeli political spectrum. I think I’m just a person.” As he sees it, “Every side thinks ‘my side is right’,” he said, adding, “it’s very important for your personal development to break bubbles… break that spell and see from a bird-eye’s view.”
Breaking bubbles aside, the mural is why he stayed in Ramallah.
Hostel owners Chris Alami and his brother, Muhab, desired an entry mural.
They kvetched how they couldn’t find someone suitable. Eflal overheard them and whipped out his portfolio.
A deal was struck – room and board in exchange for a sweeping mural of Palestine.
He finished the mural and is now looking to start on his next project, painting political and commercial murals with the “Broken Fingaz Crew,” a collective of avant-garde urban artists.
From their first endeavors just over a decade ago, tagging on the streets of Haifa, and later Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Broken Fingaz has expanded into a tightly organized unit whose works encompass graphic design and artist promotion, facilitated by today’s hyper-connectivity.
And, aside from art, Eflal invites Israelis to visit Ramallah.
“If you come here in civilian dress and with a certain humility and respect for the locals, there’s no real danger to you.
I think that’s truly an act of peace. It has nothing to do with politics. It’s peace on the most real level.”