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.

Ramallah dance festival 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ramallah dance festival 370
(photo credit: 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.
This is 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 lines.
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 psychological.
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 Gaza.
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.
Finding data for the same periods in both Israel and Palestinian cities is that much more difficult.
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 similar.
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 areas.
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 their mind.
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.
The only 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 Joseph’s tomb.
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 nationality.
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, New York.