“You’re crazy” yelled the first of my friends, when I told her.
“I think it’s too dangerous” added the second. “Do me a favour, and stay in Jerusalem.”
“Going to protest?” quipped a third, cynically.
“Ramallah?” remarked the fourth, genuinely curious. He paused for some time, letting my words sink in. “The truth is…Ramallah’s off my map.”
I couldn’t get his words out of my mind. Let me clarify – all four are good friends of mine, three of them pretty close to me. We have a strong understanding, and all are people I admire. They’re open-minded world-travellers (between them they’ve criss-crossed the planet and lived in places as far-flung as Malawi and Argentina). They’re secular, sophisticated, cosmopolitans – your typical “Tel Avivis”. They’re the last people to judge.
And politically, they’re in my camp. They’re not gung-ho nationalists, who support the current right-wing government, and the continued building in settlements beyond the Green Line. All are doveish in inclination, three of them real lefties, and each is -unequivocally- in favour of peace negotiations. The first, whom I’ve known 15 years, even took her children, when young, to play at an Arab Community Centre in Jaffa. Why? Because, she told me, she wanted them to know the Arabs are not monsters. They feel like I do – that not only do we, as Israelis, have to make serious political compromises for peace, but we need to understand better the human dimension of the current conflict.
What better way to do that, then, than to get to know our neighbours a little better?
Their responses, however, were telling. Admittedly, none of them expressed outright hostility to my plan, or tried to talk me out of it. In fact, once I’d reasoned with my oldest friend she even warmed up to the idea. Still, though, I was all too aware of the fear implicit in their voices. Why the wariness, I asked myself, the tacit assumption that crossing this fence was tantamount to taking my life in my hands? Would they have responded the same way, had I told them I intended to spend a weekend in Benin, Brazil or Bhutan? What was it about my impending trip just an hour up the road that filled them with secret, and irrational, dread? Why, as Jonathan commented, was Ramallah “off the map” for us?
As things currently stand, the law here states that Israeli citizens are forbidden to travel to Ramallah (ominous signs at checkpoints often state that “Entering Ramallah is not just illegal but dangerous.”) But for dual citizens (I also own a British passport) the situation is a little more ambiguous (you aren’t really supposed to cross, but you’re more likely to be “let off the hook” if challenged about your breaking the law).
In truth though, even without a second passport, the political situation is far calmer now than a decade ago (throughout the Second Intifada, particularly after the violent lynching of two Israeli reservists, the entire West Bank was off limits). The chances are, now, if you turn up at the East Jerusalem border, either (a) you’ll be able to walk through to the other side, without being challenged by soldiers from either side (b) any Israeli soldier that might question you is most likely inform you that you are entering the Palestinian Authority “at your own risk” then wave you right through. The fact is, the current law is rarely being enforced. And for groups, it’s even simpler. In the last few months, the Israel Palestine Centre has begun offering organised tours to Israelis (and, according to them, the response has been very positive). So if Ramallah is this close to home, this easy to visit and this safe, why still the aversion?
I know it’s not simple (the understatement of all time, here in the Middle East). And I know that I wasn’t raised here (I grew up in a green and pleasant land where, back then, not even the police carried guns). I know therefore, it’s that much harder for me (maybe even impossible) to understanding the unbearable grief that friends of mine feel at losing a husband, father or son in this conflict. But I’m living here now, and also spent a fair few months here during the Second Intifada. It was a dark time, back then, and I know I can’t face returning to that. We’ve got a window of opportunity here, but it’s closing. And we can’t turn our heads away any longer from a stark reality – that the futures of our two peoples are inextricably intertwined. We have to deal with that fact, not just practically but emotionally. All of us. We can’t just talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk.
So I’m ready. I’m ready to get beyond my unconscious irrational fears, and start confronting this deeply-entrenched myth that that the Palestinians are blood-thirsty monsters, our eternal enemies, each one intent on drowning us Jews in the Mediterranean (after they’ve cut our throats first, of course). I need to see things from their side for a bit, and put a few faces to names. I need to connect to these people on a human – not intellectual – level. And how hard can it be? It involves nothing more than leaving my favourite Tel Aviv coffee shop for a weekend, and travelling south an hour. There’ll be coffee shops there too, I’m sure. Caffeine addiction is a global phenomenon, I’m told.
I’m ready. I’m packed. It’s time to to see if good fences really do make for good neighbours.