My wife and I begin our last Sunday in Israel outside of the Jerusalem YMCA, a magnificent structure that in terms of grandeur rivals anything built in the Jerusalem of the 1930s. The “Y” is where we are supposed to meet our tour to Jericho and the Dead Sea, but when we arrive, we see no tour bus parked outside, and no congregation of waiting fellow tourists. We wander aimlessly around the “Y”, asking ourselves if the tour has been cancelled. We finally locate a young woman with a briefcase open on the sidewalk outside of the “Y.” She hands us a tour brochure and points to a waiting taxi. “He will take you to your tour guide, at the checkpoint,” she explains. Checkpoint? I feel like I’m in a John le Carré novel. When I hesitate, the representative gestures back to the taxi. “The rest of your tour is waiting.” “The rest of our tour” is a young couple from Bucharest, sitting in the back seat of the taxi.
Our “alternative” tour of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank has begun.
I consider retracing our steps, returning to our Jerusalem hotel, and going back to bed. When I signed up for this tour, I did not imagine having to meet our tour guide at a “checkpoint.” Perhaps I should have known better. That Sunday, the Australian government’s “smarttraveller” web page says point-blank “Do Not Travel” in the West Bank, with an exception for a few cities such as Jericho where the advice is the friendlier “Reconsider your need to travel.” Canada’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development web site recommended “a high degree of caution” when traveling to Jericho, as “the potential for political demonstrations and military incursions remains.” The Canadian site advised against “non-essential” travel to the remainder of the West Bank, ignoring that it’s impossible to reach Jericho without travelling roads passing through this “remainder.” The U.S. State Department site OKs travel on the roads in the Jericho vicinity but contains its own odd brand of over-caution, as it prohibits U.S. personnel from using Israeli public transit, advises tourists in Israel to “familiarize themselves with the location of the nearest bomb shelter,” and warns that these tourists must procure their own gas masks “if desired.”
Of course, the kind of tourist that would read official government travel advisories is probably not the kind of tourist who is travelling to Jericho this particular Sunday. My wife and I figured we’d be safe on a “tour” run by a company that receives the highest possible rating on Trip Advisor. Besides, after having spent nearly two weeks in Israel, we’d grown accustomed to disorienting experiences. We’d already accidentally crossed into the West Bank. We’d already walked the contested streets of Ramat Beit Shemesh (where my brother lives with his family), past the site of some infamous strife within the Orthodox Jewish world. We were growing familiar with the unfamiliar.
Besides, we’d paid for the tour in advance.
We join the couple from Bucharest and our cab takes off, heading east on the main highway from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. About 10 minutes out, I see a checkpoint on the other side of the road. The checkpoint looks like little more than a toll booth, but after nearly two weeks in Israel, I know it’s not there to collect tolls. It indicates we have passed into Palestinian territory. It seems odd to me, that this border is not marked with a sign on our side of the highway. “Welcome to Palestine,” it might say. Or, “Leaving Israel, Hope You Enjoyed Your Stay.”
But it might take a year’s worth of negotiation to figure what such signs might say. True, we have technically crossed from Israel into Palestine. But this part of Palestine is Area “C,” the area of the Palestinian West Bank most firmly under Israeli control. Area “C” covers most of the West Bank’s land and natural resources. The traffic on the highway seems to be mostly Israeli: Israelis travelling east for a day trip to the Dead Sea, or Israeli “settlors” who live in the controversial “settlements” located throughout Area “C.” Many of these settlements are visible from the highway – from a distance, they look less like outposts in a hostile land, and more like upper-middle class housing developments. These settlements have swelled in size so that their inhabitants now outnumber the Palestinians in Area “C” by a 2:1 margin. True, there are not many Palestinians resident in Area “C” – this “Area” contains only about 5% of the West Bank’s Palestinian population. But the large amount of land contained in Area “C” effectively slices up and isolates the primary Palestinian population centers in Areas “A” and “B.”
We turn right onto a road leading to an Israeli settlement, and pull into a complex with a gas station and large convenience store that looks like an Israeli 7-11. Evidently, we have reached our “checkpoint.” Our taxi stops. Our driver points out his window and says his first and last three words to us:
“Go with him.”
Standing by his Hyundai is our guide for the day, Assaf (not his real name). His broad smile reveals broad gaps between his teeth. His English is heavily accented, and it takes my ears some time to adjust to the way he speaks. He gives us a brief orientation, from which I pick up a few key ideas: he will be our guide and driver. Time is important. He will drive slowly, because why hurry. But there’s a lot of what he’s saying that I’m not understanding. I’m sure that our companions from Bucharest are understanding even less.
I take my wife aside. I know she’d expected an accomplished accredited guide like the ones we’d read about on the tour company’s web site. Are you all right with this, I asked? She looks a little stunned. But she’s OK. Meanwhile, Assaf is pointing out the large Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which sits on a mountaintop to the west, like some kind of suburban Acropolis. Ma’ale Adumim is home to 40,000 settlors, and is the location of the controversial SodaStream factory that employs 500 Palestinians among its 1000+ workers. But Assaf does not mention SodaStream.
(More on SodaStream … and SodaStream spokesperson Scarlett Johansson … in an upcoming post.)
On this tour, our gas station point of origin is the closest we’re going to come to any Israeli settlement. Our tour company’s web site proclaims their tours as safe, but warns that the most dangerous possible thing our tour might encounter is an Israeli settler. It’s obvious that Assaf wants to stay as far from any settlements as possible, and for the moment at least, this is one point where Assaf and I are in agreement.
We get into Assaf’s Hyundai and continue our journey east towards the Dead Sea. It is clear why Assaf wants to drive slowly – he has no choice. 40 miles per hour is about as fast as his car will go. We are continually passed on the left by Israeli drivers with their yellow license plates, and by Palestinian drivers with their white license plates. Assaf keeps up a steady stream of chatter, pointing out Bedouin camps on the side of the road. These camps look more like shanty towns than anything traditional or nomadic. “Look how those people are forced to live,” Assaf says, blaming the Israelis for their plight. It’s hard to know what to say to Assaf in response. Clearly, the Israelis can and must do better for the Bedouins. Just as clearly, the Bedouins do not want to live in condos in Ma’ale Adumim.
We are driving gradually downhill. Jerusalem is about 2,500 feet above sea level. Signs on the highway mark our descent to sea level, and below. Jericho is about 850 feet below sea level, and when we reach the Dead Sea, we’ll be 1,250 feet below sea level. Assaf tells us how lucky we are to be visiting the area in February. In summer he says, the typical temperature in Jericho reaches 50 degrees. I convert to Fahrenheit – that’s over 120. I wonder what happens to Assaf’s Hyundai when his passengers require air conditioning.
Out of nowhere, Assaf brings up the topic of “the Jews.” He has nothing against Jews. His problem is with a subset of Jews: the Zionists. He pronounces “Zionist” as if this is a rare and peculiar group, like Albino Jews, or Jews from Tibet. To make his point, he mentions a group of Jews in Brooklyn who are every bit as opposed to Zionism as he is. He might have mentioned that such Jews live in Israel too. He might have mentioned that there are many forms of Zionism, and that a Jew can be a Zionist and a passionate advocate for Palestinian rights. But I doubt he believes this latter idea is possible.
I think. The tour company’s web site advised us to consider that the people we will encounter in Palestine have lived under military occupation for many years, and to “be sensitive when discussing related topics.” But I had not imagined that I’d need to be this careful with the tour guide! I make a quick decision. This tour is not an opportune time for a frank exchange of differing opinions. This tour is meant for harmony and friendship between the Palestinian people and the pilgrims/tourists of the rest of the world. Or more particularly: I dare not risk discord between the Palestinian driver of the Hyundai and the Jewish occupants of the Hyundai who are counting on the driver to return them safely to the gas station/checkpoint at the end of the day. If our guide asks if I am Jewish, I will tell. If not, not. I am not here to negotiate peace. I am here to learn.
Assaf makes a left turn off the main highway, onto the road leading to Jericho. The land is dry and desolate. There are no checkpoints on either side of the road, but as we reach the Jericho border there are two large red Israeli signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English: we are entering Area “A”, under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Earlier, I had desired road signs, but these weren’t the signs I had in mind. According to these signs, entrance into Area “A” by Israeli citizens is forbidden, and entrance into Area “A” by anyone is “dangerous to your lives.” I think of the signs Dorothy sees in The Wizard of Oz as she enters the Haunted Forest: “I’d Turn Back if I Were You.” But I’m not the one driving this Hyundai.
“Israeli propaganda,” Assaf sneers at the signs. He clearly feels more comfortable in Area “A” than Area “C.” But if the red signs are Israeli propaganda, then the travel advisories I’ve read online are propaganda from Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., and Assaf is probably giving us Palestinian propaganda. At a certain point, one person’s propaganda is another person’s “I told you so.”
I check my watch; it’s 10:00 a.m. 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday seems like a safe time to be almost anywhere. I figure we’re going to be OK. Probably. I figure I’m rationalizing. Probably. I figure there’s no turning back. Definitely.
(Keep tuned to this space for more about our adventures in Jericho and the Palestinian Territories!)