The Banks of the West Bank (Part 5 of Our Adventures in the Palestinian Territories)

(In part 1 of this series, I detail how my wife and I end up in the old Hyundai of Assaf (not his real name), a well-meaning Palestinian guide, for a tour of Jericho and the West Bank. In part 2, we enter Area “A”, the area of the West Bank under Palestinian control, and pass a failed hotel and casino project that symbolizes the short-lived hope of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation following the 1993 Oslo Accords. In part 3 and part 4, we enter Jericho and visit the ruins of Hisham’s Palace and the walls of Jericho, and I learn that Assaf is willing to detour to visit a church but not a synagogue.)

8452423151_06ffd039cbWe return to Jericho less than three hours after we left. The setting sun adds a redder appearance to the red signs of warning placed by the Israelis on the Jericho border, but the warning itself remains clear: entrance into Jericho is “dangerous to our lives.” It was bad enough to have encountered these signs once, at mid-morning, when we first came into Jericho as part of the tour schedule. Our second visit to Jericho is unscheduled. I feel like visiting Jericho twice, in one day or one lifetime, may count as one time too many.

Four hours earlier, our Romanian tour companions Gabi and Dorin (not their real names) had asked if the tour could stop at an ATM. I had assumed that they needed cash to reimburse our tour guide Assaf for the entrance fees Assaf had paid (and continued to pay) for us during the tour. But Assaf had waited until the tour was over to compute what we owed him. He did it in the front seat of his Hyundai, parked at a Dead Sea “beach” (really, more of a “dock”) where the tour concluded, on a little scrap of paper, from memory. According to Assaf, Gabi and Dorin owed Assaf almost 1000 shekels (roughly $300), and Stephanie and I owed Assaf nearly the same amount. How could this be? Assaf could not have possibly paid $300 in entrance fees. We had been to Hisham’s Palace. We had been to Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even if there was a cost for visiting the “beach,” how could Stephanie and I have incurred $300 in entrance fees?

Assaf looked over his figures. The entrance fees were only 200 shekels (around $60). The remainder was the cost of the tour itself.

“But we paid in advance!”

“Huh?”

“By credit card,” I insisted.

“When? Last night?”

“No. A month ago, before we left the United States.”

Assaf assured me that he’d confirmed what we owed the night before with the tour operators, but he was happy to call the tour company again, and get the business of our payment straightened out. He then proceeded to drive us back to Jericho. Why? Well, for one thing, his cell phone couldn’t pick up a signal outside of Jericho. Also, there was the matter of finding an ATM for Gabi and Dorin. Evidently, the closest West Bank ATM that Assaf knew about was located in Jericho. That made a certain kind of sense. Assaf was not going to drive us into a West Bank Israeli settlement to search for a Bank Hapoalim.

But why couldn’t he have taken Gabi and Dorin to the ATM when we were in Jericho the first time, earlier in the day? When it wasn’t a half-hour drive out of our way? Before it had started to get dark?

I know nothing about night-life in Jericho. Actually, that’s not true. I know one thing: I don’t want to experience night-life in Jericho. Whatever was the “danger to our lives” referred to on the Israeli highway signs, that danger had to be greater after sundown.

When we arrive in downtown Jericho, the tourist buses are long gone. But late in the day, the streets in town are livelier – which makes sense, in a town where the temperature can hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit in mid-day. The center of town covers maybe four city blocks, two on each side of a traffic circle. The stores along the street appear threadbare – mostly small grocery stores and food stands. There are a lot of young men just standing around.

Assaf heads north from the traffic circle, arriving at a building with an ATM machine inside of glass doors. I watch Gabi and Dorin enter the building, thinking to myself, this is the first time any of us have left Assaf’s Hyundai to experience the West Bank on our own. We’ve either been in Assaf’s car, or following him through an historic site, or left in a facility devoted solely to tourism. This may be as close as any of us will come to “real life” in Palestine – a few minutes alone at an ATM. I feel nervous for Dorin and Gabi, and I try to watch what they are doing. The next person to use this ATM might well be me.

Assaf tries to reach the tour company. Evidently, his phone still cannot get a signal. Stephanie and I each have Israeli cell phones, and Stephanie tries to reach the tour company, but she cannot get a signal either. Do Israeli cell phones work in Jericho? I don’t know. Like everything else in this part of the world, cell phone service in Palestine is a complicated business.

This I know: if I have to bargain with Assaf over what we still owe for this tour, my bargaining position on the streets of Jericho at nightfall is not going to be very good.

Dorin and Gabi return from the ATM with bad news. All that’s available from the ATM are Jordanian Dinar.

“Of course,” Assaf tells them. Dinar are one of the three currencies used in Palestine, along with dollars and Israeli shekels – not that I knew this at the time.

“We don’t know what we owe you in Dinar,” Gabi tells Assaf.

“Let me figure it out for you.”

Assaf makes more calculations with pen and paper. I wonder, am I also going to have to pay Assaf in Dinar? I have no idea what a Dinar is worth. Neither, apparently, do Dorin and Gabi.

“Can’t you take us to an ATM where we can get shekels?”

Assaf shakes his head no. And I think, Assaf has been paying for us in shekels all along! He has to have gotten those shekels somewhere.

Dorin and Gabi are insistent. They cannot bank in Jordanian Dinar. It’s not clear why not. When I get home, I find that many U.S. banks do not permit their ATM cards to be used in Romania, because of a perceived “high risk for fraudulent activity.” If you try to use these cards at a Romanian ATM, the transaction may be blocked, or just maybe, the ATM will confiscate your card. Perhaps Dorin and Gabi are worried that something like this might happen to them in Palestine.

“Don’t worry,” Assaf tells Gabi and Dorin. “A representative from the tour company will be here in a few minutes.”

“What?” I asked. “I thought you couldn’t get a cell phone signal!”

“I left a message.”

A message? “Did you get a message back?”

No.

“Don’t you think you better call again?”

Assaf calls again. He speaks into his phone in Arabic. He hangs up. “Someone from the tour is coming. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“How many minutes?” I ask.

“Twenty.”

Great.

I try to think ahead. If no one shows up from the tour company in the next half hour, I’ll take Gabi and Dorin aside, pool our available cash and make Assaf an offer to get us out of Jericho. But what if we’re short of cash? Do I risk the Jericho ATM? I think: Gabi works for a bank. If she doesn’t want to use this ATM, then neither do I.

What might I offer Assaf if our pooled cash is not enough? My watch? I don’t have anything else of value with me. My lawyer brain is in overdrive, thinking of various “what ifs,” trying to think a few moves ahead. So, I am not paying attention to the conversation in the car, which has drifted to Assaf’s time in the Americas. But my ears perk up when I hear Assaf mention Guatemala.

“Guatemala? You were in Guatemala?”

“Yes,” Assaf reiterates. “I was in business there.”

This floors me. Assaf has spent the day painting a picture of the Palestinians as an oppressed people. For certain, the Palestinians are an oppressed people. But it’s not part of the story of an oppressed people that they travel half-way round the world to go into business.

I don’t know what to say. So I say the first thing that comes into my head.

“Did you like it in Guatemala?”

“It was beautiful,” Assaf replies, a little wistfully. “But it was too violent there. You wake up in the morning, and there’s a dead body in the street.”

So … Assaf moved back to Palestine for the relative tranquility? The peaceful life? This tour has gotten a little too weird.

20110107 Bethlehem Taxi, Manger St, BethlehemA car pulls aside Assaf’s Hyundai. It is an odd-appearing old Mercedes Benz stretch limousine, looking something like the car pictured to the left, only all in white. An Arab man exits the driver’s seat, walks towards us and briefly speaks to Assaf in Arabic. He then approaches a back seat window and introduces himself. His English is confident and has only a trace of accent.

“Oh!” Stephanie says from the back seat. “You’re the man from the tour company I’ve been writing to by email.”

The man from the tour company smiles. Everything is going to be all right.

The man explains to Stephanie. Yes, they did take our credit card when we booked the tour. But no, they only charged us a deposit. The rest of the cost of the tour is supposed to be paid in cash, at the end of the tour. Hadn’t anyone explained this to us? No problem then. They can take the balance by credit card. I reach for my wallet, but the man shakes his head. No need. We can call the tour company office in the morning, and pay the balance then.

Next: Gabi and Dorin. “This ATM only dispenses Dinar,” Gabi explains. Nothing more needs to be said. The man from the tour company tells Assaf to take us to an ATM that dispenses shekels. The two Arabs converse in Arabic. Meanwhile, a few Asian tourists exit the white Mercedes to look around. They seem very excited. Unlike me, these people are delighted to have an unscheduled stop in Jericho at the end of their tour.

The Arabic of the tour company representative sounds heated to me. He points in a vague direction, to what I assume is a better ATM, then gathers his Asian charges and drives away. Assaf looks distinctly unhappy. He drives us to a different street, and pulls over. On the other side of the street is a branch of the Bank of Palestine. Dorin and Gabi exit Assaf’s Hyundai, to try out this new bank’s ATM.

For the first time in the trip, Assaf looks nervous. I wonder why. What’s wrong with the Bank of Palestine? Wouldn’t a Palestinian be proud to show off their national bank? Assaf decides to make a U-turn, so that we’re parked on the same side of the street as the bank. To do this, he must first drive up to the next intersection, where we temporarily lose sight of Gabi and Dorin. I wonder if they have seen us drive away. I am thinking, I would feel nervous if it were me standing inside of the Bank of Palestine, and I saw my tour guide drive away.

But Dorin and Gabi never seem to lose their cool. They emerge from the Bank of Palestine duly impressed by the experience. The ATM there dispenses dinars, dollars and shekels. It is a veritable vending machine of currencies. “We must go,” Assaf tells them, and we’re off as soon as Gabi and Dorin can take their places in the Hyundai. We head back to the Jericho traffic circle … and it occurs to me that I’m not sure of our next step.

I ask. “Assaf, how are we getting back to Jerusalem?”

“By taxi. It is arranged. From the checkpoint where we met this morning.”

It is now past 5 p.m. The tour was supposed to end more than a half hour ago. I ask the obvious question.

“Assaf. How long will the taxi wait for us?”

“He will not wait.”

Great.

Assaf gets out his cell phone, to call for another taxi for us. He drives slowly, approaching the traffic circle. There is a Palestinian policeman at the entrance to the circle, directing traffic. He extends his palm towards Assaf, signaling him to stop. But Assaf’s attention is on his cell phone. He is driving slowly, but he’s not slowing down.

He doesn’t see the traffic cop.

“STOP!” the four of us scream in unison. Assaf immediately hits the brakes. He does not run over the traffic cop. But he’s come close. The cop’s outstretched arm extends across the hood of Assaf’s Hyundai.

What follows is proof that they must be doing something right at the Palestinian police training facility, because the Palestinian traffic cop is about the most professional traffic cop I’ve ever seen. I say this without understanding a word of the conversation that follows between the cop and Assaf. The cop is stern, but unfailingly polite. His smile communicates a calm authority. He never raises his voice. There is never a question: whatever he asks, Assaf is going to do. And what Assaf does is … drive slowly around the traffic circle, pull over, and complete his phone call. And apologize to us.

With that one last incident as a capper, our tour comes to an end. Assaf drives us back to the checkpoint/gas station parking lot where we’d first met him. We shake Assaf’s hand, and wish him well. We wait about 15 minutes for our taxi. We are back in Jerusalem in time for drinks at the King David Hotel. It does not take long for our day in Jericho to start to feel unreal to us.

* * * *

Is there a moral to this story? A neat, pithy and clever way to sum up a day that began at a West Bank checkpoint and ended in the bar of a Jerusalem hotel that had once served as the headquarters for British colonialism in Palestine? No such ending occurs to me.

A simple conclusion to this story might be: the fates of the Palestinians and the Israelis are intertwined. For sure, Palestine must be independent of Israel, just as peoples everywhere have a right of self-determination. But this is a tiny land, and any border we draw to create two states will divide something that wants to be whole. It will separate families, rip farmlands in two, and prevent both Jews and Muslims from reaching their holy sites. It will also leave approximately 1.6 million Arabs living as Israeli citizens (more than 20% of Israel’s population), and some as-yet unknown number of Jews living under Palestinian rule.

One point I’ve made throughout: nothing is simple in this part of the world. I’ve told the story of our day in Jericho at length, not because we did so much, but because the stories behind the stories are so complicated. A visit to a church requires me to learn something about the politics of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Even a missed cell phone call is a long story. I’ve already made the point: the archaeological answer to who owns this land depends on how deep you’re willing to dig. The same is true for how you come to understand day-to-day life in Jericho, or anywhere else in Israel and Palestine. There are stories behind stories, as deep as you’re willing to dig to find them.

The drawing of an Israeli-Palestinian border is only a first step. It will then fall to the Israelis and Palestinians to determine what kind of border it will be. Inevitably, the first border will be built of concrete and barbed wire. We will need to work hard (or if you prefer, dig deeper) to replace this border with something of a different intention, something that allows for trade and tourism, and eventually for reconciliation and friendship. And if what I’m describing will take 500 years to achieve, all the more reason to get the project started now.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Thank you for this series, Larry.
    -anthony