VISITING THE WEST BANK from Nazareth
Going to the West Bank is rewarding, safe and easy. Distances are short and crossing the border checkpoint into the Palestinian Territory is easy. Exiting is not so easy. Palestinians are happy to see foreigners and eager to talk to them. Prices are much lower than in Israel. There are two completely different sets of rules and regulations for Jewish Israelis and Arabs (even if you are an American Arab).
The Oslo Accords of the early 1990s divided the West Bank into three zones: Areas A, B and C. Area A is under the control of the Palestinian Authority and includes the major cities of Ramallah (the capital), Jenin and Nablus. Area B, mostly smaller mid-sized towns is jointly under the control of Palestinians and Israelis. Area C, the rural communities, is under full control of Israel. In the mid 1990s, there were hundreds of military checkpoints but now there are only a few.
Big red signs warn Israelis to not go here because as they view it dangerous (and it might be for them). The sign reads “THIS ROAD LEADS TO AREA ‘A’ UNDER THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY. THE ENTRANCE FOR ISRAELI CITIZENS IS FORIDDEN, DANGEROUS TO YOUR LIVES AND IS AGAINST THE ISRAELI LAW”. The intent may be to simply keep Palestinians and Jews apart. But Palestinians have little hostility to foreigners and indeed are much friendlier than Israelis. However, the lack of English can get in the way of really talking to people in order to get a sense of what their life is like. Often the brief conversations end with ‘welcome’.
Transportation: There are several ways to get around.
Rental Car. This may be the most efficient way to see the most towns and things but are comparatively expensive and give you no feel for Palestinians. You also have to find your own way, easier with GPS and a good map. Rent from the local companies, not an Israeli national company who usually forbid crossing into Palestine.
Sheruts. These shared taxis are ubiquitous and the main way locals travel. Inexpensive (15-30S per trip depending on distance traveled), they leave when full and stop frequently to pick up and let off passengers. You are also traveling with the locals. Get off at the sherut stands so that you know where to catch the next one. Often the stands going to each individual town are separate. Simply ask around and the locals will happily give directions.
Border Checkpoints. Getting in was surprisingly easy. The sherut first stopped at the walk through gate and the two Palestinians got out and the van with Israelis drove around to the car entry. Everyone held up their passport or identity card and that was it. Then we picked up the Palestinians.
Getting out was considerably more difficult. The sherut stopped at the border and dropped me off. It was 2:30pm and I was told the gate would not be open until 3 but it still wasn’t at 3:20. I tried to hitchhike the whole time but didn’t have an offer until 3:20 despite there being many cars with yellow license plates (Israeli are the only ones who can cross; Palestinian license plates are white for personal vehicles and green for taxis and sheruts). A few cars were going slowly enough for me to say that I was Canadian, but they all said it was too dangerous to give me a ride. In fact it was simple to cross in a car. They only asked why I visited Jenin.
JENIN – From Old City Nazareth, catch the 8am sherut that goes to Jenin across the street from the main bus stop on the main street. Arrive at 7:30 to ensure a seat. The yellow van holds 10 people and cost 25S. Despite slow traffic before Afula, and a few detours to pick up passengers, it was only 45 minutes to Jenin. Crossing the border was easy. The two Palestinians were dropped off at the walk-through entrance. The rest of us drove through and only had to hold up our passports/identity cards. Then we picked up the Palestinians when across the border.
Ask to be dropped off at the large sherut stand in the center of town so that you know where to go to catch the next one to Nablus. Saturday is a good day to visit as it is market day. There is no main market per se but the whole center of town is a market. Carts piled with strawberries and nuts are in the middle of the streets. Tables stacked with goods cover the sidewalks and encroach out into the road. The large vegetable market is NE of the sherut stand. The quantity and quality of vegetables was impressive. I simply walked around, asked questions and got a feeling for the town. The streets were very busy with a slight sense of chaos. Roads were narrow, garbage is little more common, pavement more broken. There are no tourist sights here. By 9:30, I was off to Nablus.
NABLUS. Traveling SE, the sherut climbed high up over the rocky hills. Villages dot the hillsides and valleys. Olives seem to be the main crop and everything is terraced. We passed one short section of the barrier that dipped incongruously to the edge of the road. There was a large quarry for the yellow limestone characteristic of the area and several businesses were processing the stone.
A fellow on the sherut took me to the stand for Sebastiya. In a small falafel and coffee stand, I had a chance to talk to a Palestinian. He had worked as a chef in Tel Aviv for 15 years but could not work in Israel any more. “The wall and check points make our lives very difficult. Life is hard with unemployment and low wages. We can’t enter Israel. But none of us will leave, this is our home. We will always live here, no matter how hard it is. We hate the governments of Canada, the US and Britain but not the people. Your governments support Israel but not Palestine. We call our selves resistance, we are not terrorists. Look at all the mountaintops around Nablus – every hill has an illegal Israeli settlement or outpost. Israieli soldiers raid our houses in the middle of the night and terrorize the teenagers who often spend the night in jail.”
I visited the 800-year-old soap factory (on one corner of the main square) and the market (much larger than Nazareth’s), but not the kanafi factory or Jacob’s Well. I had two falafel sandwiches for 3S each (20S each in Israel). In the main square was a peaceful demonstration of teachers protesting the Palestinian government and their low wages (3000S or US$750 per month). They’ve been on strike for the last 4 weeks. There I talked to 2 English teachers. One has children attending university in Istanbul and Palestine, but he could send them no money. Another said that we don’t call it the barrier wall but the apartheid wall.
SEBASTIA. 12kms NW of Nablus is this village with ruins on the top of the hill (acropolis). There is evidence of occupation of the hill since the early Bronze Age (3200BC), Iron Age, Assyrians (722BC), Persians (538-332BC), and Alexander the Great (circular tower). The Romans were here from 63BC to 324AD when the city was part of the province of Syria. Emperor Octavian (who was renamed Augustus in 27BC) gave it to King Herod in 30BC to govern in the name of Rome and Herod renamed it Sebastos (or Augustus meaning ‘great’ or ‘revered’). The Romans constructed the city wall, a collonaded street with 600 columns, the basilica, forum, theatre, temples of Augustus and Kore, the stadium and aqueduct. The Byzantines (324-636AD) built 2 churches dedicated to John the Baptist, the Muslims a mosque and the Crusaders a cathedral.
I took a shurut back to Nablus, found the shurut stand to Jenin (about 2 blocks north) and had a great ride with 6 young guys. Two spoke good English and we had lots of laughs. We passed through one military checkpoint. The young, black Israeli soldier was extremely rude with a big scowl on his face. The stand for the shurut to the border is a couple of blocks north east. A young guy walked me there. I have already described my experience crossing back into Israel. The first hitch hike drove me to the highway intersection going to Afula and Nazareth and it took two more rides to get to a bus stop for Nazareth. Then I got bus 354 but it didn’t go to the Old City so needed a city bus for the final leg.
It was a wonderful day. The best experience was simply seeing the towns and countryside and talking to a few Palestinians with good English. I have huge sympathy for the Palestinians. Israel is making their lives as difficult as they can. Tourist sites per se are not great.