It’s a breeze getting from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem – the ten-person yellow taxi (monit sherut) drops me outside the bus station (a stone’s throw from the Damascus Gate). From there, I’ve been told to hop on the number 18, which will take me straight to Ramallah. As the crow flies, it’s a simple journey of 15 kms. But there’s something I forgot to factor in – Friday noon prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque. To compound the problem, it’s five days before the beginning of Ramadan, so the bus station is now mobbed with people who want to get on…the number 18. Well, lucky I’m in no hurry.
Standing next to me are two guys, in their late 20s and soon we’ve fallen into easy conversation, lamenting the dearth of number 18 buses. They’re Palestinians, brothers, both born in Denver (their father left Ramallah 35 years ago and has never returned). They tell me that they decided to make the move to the West Bank (leaving their comfortable Colorado lives behind) a couple of years ago – they’ve set up a jewellery business (both are engineers by profession so this is a leap in the dark for them) and bought land, on which they’ve built homes. They tell me that they are determined to give their kids something they didn’t have – the chance to grow up speaking Arabic without an accent!
I can relate to much of what they tell me, especially the culture shock they describe, leaving the West for the East. Like me, they abandoned an easier life for the unknown. Like me, they value good manners and queues. And like me, they can’t think of anything better than a cold coke on a hot day. One of them runs over to the kiosk and picks up three cans from the freezer there. I haven’t even got to the West Bank yet and I’ve already made two friends! Almost an hour later, we elbow our way onto a bus.
The journey to the Qalandia checkpoint takes little more than 15 minutes, winding its way along the wall/fence/separation barrier (call it what you will). I feel many different things as I look at. I wish there were no need for it, but I’m also glad it’s there. I hate what it stands for but I’m also a realist. I believe in the creation of a Palestinian State (based on the 1967 lines) but I’m also a committed Zionist.
I have a lot of problems with the way the wall is eating into land well into the Green Line (more right-wing elements in our country used its erection, I think, as an opportunity for a land grab) but, when push comes to shove, I know that it’s keeping me safe. I don’t want to return to the dark days of the Intifada when, each time I boarded a bus or walked into a cafe, my heart was in my mouth. The wall has prevented many terror attacks, there’s no doubt about it. But the price that ordinary Palestinians (who don’t support terror) have paid, in return, has been high and for that I am sad.
Amazingly, at the checkpoint itself, there are no guards from either side of the divide. It really is an 'empty' order. I walk through a dusty, dilapidated area (that, for some reason, reminds me of an abandoned cow shed on my friend’s kibbutz). No-one asks for my passport, where I’m heading and whether it’s business or pleasure. All I see is a sign, stating that Israeli citizens should beware, as they are now entering Area A which, technically, is illegal.
Now, I have dual nationality, holding both an Israeli and a British passport, which I’m relying on to get me through, if needs be. Not that I think it will come to that as, having asked around extensively, I’m pretty sure the current law isn’t actually being enforced.
The absence of security personnel here only confirms what I've been told. Moreover, I’ve heard that, in recent week, certain high-up personnel in the Israeli Army have come out in favour of the ban on West Bank travel being rescinded, since they don't regard it as particularly risky. After all, Israeli journalists, political activists and those interested in doing business in Ramallah all travel there regularly. Furthermore, I've heard that for some time groups of Israelis have been visiting Ramallah, courtesy of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research & Information. Not a single tour has been turned back.
As I thought, I saunter through and, at the other side, I see my yellow bus and its driver at the wheel, reading his paper. I jump back on and a few minutes later, the engine revs up. From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump down the road to Ramallah’s main square. Having exchanged emails, I leave my new friends behind, promising to look them up on my next visit, as I'm only here for a day this time. The whole journey (admittedly, not factoring in the Al Aqsa prayers chaos) has taken little more than 25 minutes. And as I look up, and see a Palestinian flag fluttering above me, I know its for real. I'm not in Kansas anymore.