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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2004, pages 44-45

Delegation Trip

From Amman to Ramallah

All photos by Michael J. Keating

Settlement construction continues unabated outside Jerusalem.

Settlers have destroyed over a million Palestinian trees since September 2000.

A wedding in Ramallah is proof that closures, checkpoints and the wall cannot stop Palestinians from enjoying life.

THE TRIP FROM Amman to Ramallah, which used to take about an hour, took us all day. When we crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into the West Bank on July 16, 2004, we noticed two things: The Jordanian side was brown and parched, while an expanse of green lawn adorned the Israeli-controlled side; and the Jordan River was barely a trickle.

Formalities on the Jordanian side were merely bureaucratic. The Israeli side was an exercise in sweltering heat, unpredictable lines, arbitrary security measures, and unintelligible human dramas. As some of the diplomats waited for an Israeli guard to return from his break in order to complete a body search, we watched an elderly woman emerge from a booth weeping after a similar search by a grinning female soldier.

By the end of the two hours spent in various lines, some Israeli guards took time out from their gossip to interrogate us as to the purpose of our visit. The Israelis finally concluded correctly that six former U.S. diplomats, average age 70, and the editorial staff of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,on Middle East Affairs were not a security risk. They punished Alia, the teenage daughter of our Palestinian-American escort, for bristling at their questions about the purpose of her visit. She was sent off to wait in a side room, then reprieved after an hour. The now weary and frazzled group thought our worries were over. We were wrong.

Utter chaos awaited us in the baggage area. Luggage which had been left on tidy carts before we entered reappeared scattered across a warehouse—computers separated from bags, camera equipment wedged under an immobile baggage carousel.

Miraculously we retrieved our bags and boarded the bus to travel to Ramallah, hoping to have a late lunch in Jericho on the way. After numerous cell phone calls it became apparent that Jericho was completely closed. No Palestinian could enter or leave the city without a permit from the Israeli military, and our Palestinian-American escorts had suddenly lost the rights usually afforded to American passport-holders. So no lunch.

As we climbed above sea level the ramparts of Israeli settlements and military camps became visible on the hilltops guarding Jerusalem. The settlements had spread enormously in the past 20 years, and the strategic intent of their planners had become unambiguous. The cities of the Palestinian heartland were dominated by Israeli hilltop suburbs designed to cut them off from any expansion toward the Jordan valley and toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem was now firmly linked to the Jordan Valley by a chain of Israeli suburbs, while the Jerusalem-Ramallah road connection was hemmed in by a thicket of Hebrew signs advertising luxury hilltop villas for $150,000 and up.

Because we traveled in a small van with a yellow Israeli license plate, we were able to travel on roads barred to Palestinians whose cars had blue or white plates. These Israeli-only roads were far better than the thin strips of asphalt that connected one Palestinian village to the next in the old days. The new roads, however, bypassed Palestinian villages, with a vacant 150-yard security strip or walls on either side. Travel from Israel to its new suburbs in the Palestinian West Bank was thus easy for everyone but Palestinians.

From the settlers’ road there is a VIP checkpoint granting access to Ramallah. It is reserved for diplomats, international organizations, a select few Palestinian Authority officials, and Israelis with a permit to enter the Palestinian areas. Holders of American passports generally could get in—if they were blond, blue-eyed, and not born in Palestine. Our group failed to qualify. More long mobile phone calls by the driver were to no avail, so we retraced our steps and bumped along the Palestinians’ road to the main checkpoint at the Kalandiya refugee camp, by the West Bank’s defunct landing strip.

Getting into the Palestinian preserve was easy enough once we knew our place. The wall, here a 20-foot-high concrete edge cutting the landscape like a cleaver, is designed not to stop Palestinians from entering, but to keep them from leaving. An Israeli soldier at the checkpoint gave our passports a cursory glance. There was no entry control at all for pedestrians, who simply walked, carrying grocery bags, suitcases, and babies, down a dusty corridor to where taxis waited on the Ramallah side.

But the line-up of cars waiting on the other side to pass out of Kalandiya toward Jerusalem was at least two hours long. Most Palestinians with a permit to leave Ramallah preferred, we could see, to save an hour by leaving their vehicles and crossing on foot via the passport check and metal detectors, then taking one of the vans waiting on the Israeli side.

We finally pulled up to the Grand Park Hotel, which sits on a ridge in the southern outskirts of Ramallah a half hour’s walk away from the city’s bustling center. The climate was remarkably pleasant—dry and breezy—for mid-July in the Middle East.

One could easily understand why Ramallah was Palestine’s summer resort. One could also begin to guess that living in an Israeli settlement guarding the Palestinian highlands need not be an expression of nationalist self-sacrifice. A tax-free, low-interest hilltop villa in a settlement might be preferable to sweltering in an apartment block in the humid plains around Tel Aviv.

By the time we gathered on the Grand Park Hotel’s terrace to eat lunch it was dinnertime. Israel’s wall and the obstacles it poses to American travelers, much less Palestinians, had taken away our appetites anyway.

Suddenly we heard music, singing and laughter. Behold, in the street below the terrace a wedding procession was wending its way past the hotel. Palestinians dressed both in traditional dresses and in their finest suits danced with their children behind a pickup truck, horses and a little raucous band.

Our spirits and appetites returned. Checkpoints, soldiers, occupation...nothing was going to keep Palestinians from carrying on with their lives.