Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dear all,

I am posting something my dearest Peter wrote about Jeff's question: "How safe is it for foreigners to visit Palestine?"

Peter is from the US. He worked at the same Agency I'm working at in Bethlehem, Ma'an.
I assumed it would be good for Jeff and other wonderers to get an answer also from a foreigner like them, so the impression created wouldn't be "oh, she's Palestinian. of course she'd say it ain't dangerous"

Pete wrote:

I'd be lying if I claimed that my nerves were at ease when I first entered the West Bank. I paced nervously on the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge imagining myself dodging mortar rounds as I surveyed taxi prices to Ramallah, where I assumed things would be even worse. "Will I make it out of here alive?" I wondered. I thought about the levels of injury I could sustain and wondered if visiting Palestine was worth spending the rest of my life drinking meals through a straw. Sitting here, one year later, I am amused by those imaginative concerns.

I feel no shame in admitting my fears about spending time on either side of the Palestine-Israel Green Line. As an American, I grew up on media that insisted that life in the Near East was nothing more than timing the short intervals between car bombs. Upon arrival, I feared the heavily fortified checkpoints in the West Bank and thought twice before stepping onto crowded buses in Jerusalem's center. The exclusive media emphasis on the region's conflict limited my ability to understand that the war is but one aspect of Palestinian-Israeli life. Believe it or not, the majority of people on both sides of the divide are thinking about other, more mundane things.

This is not to suggest that danger does not exist. Terrible things do occur and with far more regularity than those of us who live in peaceful societies are accustomed. These incidents, however, typically occur in areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are known for such things. These days, one is more likely to encounter heavy clashes and/or Israeli operations in Jenin or Nablus than Ramallah or Bethlehem. While heavy street fighting between armed Palestinians and Israeli forces is relatively common in the former, it is, at present, a rarity in the latter. Travel through areas where Palestinian armed brigades are more active means that the likelihood of a violent Israeli operation is significantly higher.

Even the most dangerous areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are relatively accessible to foreigners. The biggest challenge is passing the myriad Israeli checkpoints that rigidly encircle areas in which armed brigades are exceedingly active. While foreigners have at times been abducted by Palestinian brigades in the Gaza Strip, these incidents never result in injury or death and are often shortlived. The longest recent detention of a foreign national in Palestine took place last August when a French-Algerian soundman was held captive for eight days. Such a long detention was and remains highly unusual. Most abductees are released, unharmed, within hours of their disappearances. Furthermore, foreign abductees often report exceedingly humane treatment by their captors.

A far more likely scenario is what regional expats call being "kidnapped by Palestinian hospitality." This entails being approached by one or many Palestinians in a city or camp area, given the full tour, replete with personal stories, and then invited home for tea and food. Expats refer to this as "kidnapping" because once engaged, it becomes exceedingly difficult to refuse the onslaught of generosity. There is always one more friend or family member to visit, one more cigarette to smoke and several more cups of coffee to share before parting ways. Last October, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, some friends of mine and I were "kidnapped" in the Qalandia refugee camp near Ramallah for more than seven hours. We waddled out of the camp after being stuffed with more dates, mansaf and sweets than any of us could handle. It was a terrific day.

Apprehension prior to traveling in Palestine is completely normal. The West Bank and Gaza can at times be hot war zones in which F-16 fighter jets drop munitions on civilian areas and tanks patrol the streets. At the moment, however, this is not the situation. A trip to the region at this time will expose a foreigner to a beleaguered Palestinian populous living under complete and total Israeli control. One will get a clear sense of the power disparity and blatant racism that characterize Israeli rule over the Palestinians. One will discover the unparalleled kindness and generosity imbedded in Palestinian culture and realize how ridiculous Israeli claims of barbarism truly are. One will uncover the difficulty of progress and reconciliation while gaining simultaneous exposure to the hopefulness of common people on both sides of the divide. One will feel things strongly as certain situations are perfect illustrations of human suffering and humiliation.

The rewards of travel and interaction in Palestine far outweigh the risks necessary to attain them.

9 Comments:

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Original_Jeff said...

Peter,
Thanks for your detailed and informative reply!
I think you idenitified it exactly--my perceptions about Palestine come entirely from the fact that the only news we ever get about Palestine is when there is violence.
I sure hope both peoples can find a way for lasting peace.
But, of course, now I am confused because the party who won the most votes in Palestine recently is opposed to peace (as I understand it).
Perhaps when burdened with the responsibility of governing, it will be discovered that this strategy (no peace, no recognition) is of limited value?
Or, perhaps this question is too sensitive to comment on in public.

 
At 5:01 PM, Blogger Haitham Sabbah said...

And here is another type of experience:


http://sabbah.biz/mt/archives/2006/03/30/palestinian-going-home/

 
At 11:16 PM, Blogger Edward Ott said...

Thanks for such a great description of life in the West Bank.

Salam
Ed

 
At 1:09 AM, Blogger Charlotte said...

As I am myself preparing to stay in Ramallah for some time, to work on a final thesis..This blog contains some beautiful writings,
so thank you all, hoping to read more...and to be able to write about it myself soon..
Charlotte

 
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At 8:28 AM, Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for your story Pete. As a foreigner who has travelled in Palestine a few years ago (at the height of suicide bombers and such), it's nice to see that I was not the only one who had fear, but upon my arrival realized how silly and news-induced those fears were.

I have to say though, my hubby had a job interview in Ramallah last year and it sent warning bells off in my head, but when I read past the bombs and guns, I realized that there weren't any there.

We are currently living in Dubai with our 3 small children (closer than we were before in Canada) and hope that soon we will be living in our homeland of Palestine.

 
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