Ramallah was more vibrant than most of the Palestinian towns we had visited. The streets were lined with shops and the sidewalks bustling with people. It had a very cosmopolitan and worldly feel to it. We stopped at a European-style café and ordered a delicious apple pastry. Next to us was a table of young women whose headscarves and knee-length coats couldn’t hide their sexiness—the designer jeans, makeup, and eye-catching smiles. Ramallah seemed different. More promising. More open to the world. Less like the rest of Palestine.
From Ramallah to Jerusalem it is a mere 15 kilometres. Actually, to be more precise it is 14.7 kilometres. I know this because of the small signs with the distance between the two cities placed throughout the city. A reminder how close, yet how so far away Jerusalem is for Palestinians. In fact, on several occasions it was said that it is easier for Palestinians to get to the rest of the world than it is to get to Jerusalem. For most Palestinians, a trip to Jerusalem involves an onerous approval process, which can be denied at the whim of an Israeli bureaucrat.
Crossing the Israeli checkpoint from Ramallah to Jerusalem was relatively easy—despite the world media erroneously reporting that Israel had closed all crossings into and out of the West Bank for a week during the Jewish Passover. Neighbours, yes, but it was like traveling to the far side of the world. In contrast to Ramallah, Jerusalem’s streets seemed more orderly. There was less honking of car horns, and pedestrians waited their turn at traffic lights. There was little trash on the sides of streets. And stately stone buildings stood next to manicured boulevards. On several occasions during our stay, we ambled along Emek Refaim Street in the city’s German Colony neighbourhood. A delightful thoroughfare lined with quaint restaurants, bookstores, shops, and cafes. It was comfortable. In fact, we could have been in Zurich or Munich, or Brussels. Here, the people seemed more prosperous, and full of life, even though unknown to me at the time, the Café that we fondly visited twice (they make a delicious tuna sandwich) was the site of a terrorist bombing seven years ago, in which 12 were killed and dozens injured. Yet, that seemed in the distant past. Forgotten, on the surface, anyway.
In Jerusalem, and maybe even more so in Tel Aviv, where Israelis filled beach side bars and restaurants, played volleyball and other games next to the Mediterranean, and where families (both Arab and Jewish) found a piece of green space in the many parks along the beach for a picnic, or to watch the sun set, the vivid contrast of life in Israel and Palestine, was never more clear.
As I saw people running leisurely next to the ocean in Tel Aviv, I realized that jogging is a luxury. A luxury, you wonder? Well, if you have the time to go for a jog, it means that you’re not toiling away somewhere, trying to eke out an existence, and your job (because you have one) isn’t backbreaking and arduous. In contrast, the feeling I got from spending two weeks in Palestine was one of despair, hopelessness, and a disheartened future. Throughout the country (okay, I know it’s not officially recognized as such, but I wish to give them some respect and hope), the stories are the same. While Jewish settlements in Palestine (deemed illegal by the United Nations) flourish with abundant supplies of water and electricity, Palestinians in neighbouring villages languish with inadequate and unreliable access to these very same life-sustaining necessities. In so many ways, Palestinians are at the mercy of Israel, an occupying force, which controls much of their lives. It’s not fair, are words I heard more than once.
I overhead one Palestinian say: “Are some Palestinians lazy? Yes. Do some Palestinians lack imagination? Yes. But what we need are more role models, so we can lead ourselves and be successful.” Isn’t this really what any self-respecting people would want?
While I’m not suggesting that there aren’t sounds of laughter in Palestine, surely there is, a future full of hope and prosperity is made more difficult with overcrowded refugee camps, staggering rates of unemployment, and masses of idle young people, who have lived their entire lives under occupation.
The history of this ancient land is complex, and seemingly so too is the solution to ending this conflict that has raged on for more than 60 years. An Israeli taxi driver put it this way: “we’re both living in a prison.” Indeed. Israelis live in a prison of fear. And Palestinians live in a prison surrounded by concrete walls and checkpoints. Both deserve a better future.