By Ben Hartman
As an Israeli and a Jew, Ramallah once seemed to be as distant as outer space. So joining the crowds celebrating the Palestinian UN bid was like a small step for a man but a giant leap for my mind.
Friday 30 September 2011
The scene in al-Manara Square in Ramallah last Friday night was electrifying and fascinating, mainly for the feeling that you were witnessing history, even if it is history that may turn out to be of no consequence whatsoever.
The Palestinian Authority-orchestrated celebrations before and after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the UN went off without a hitch, and for the most part there appeared to be a rather restrained and harmless celebratory mood.
Ramallah first entered my lexicon following the October 2000 lynching of IDF reservists Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami in a police station in the city. The images from that day are still among the most iconic of the second intifada: a Palestinian man brandishing his blood-soaked hands to the mobs below, the battered dead body of a reservist being tossed out of the station window and instantly swarmed, beaten, and mutilated.
Even though that incident was followed by scores of bombings and shooting attacks with much higher death tolls, the lynching remains for Israelis one of the most traumatic events of the second intifada, and for many, a “where were you when you heard” moment.
The fact that the two soldiers died such horrible deaths simply for taking a wrong turn seared into my mind the lethal danger of finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time in Israel and the West Bank, and the realisation that such a mistake could result in cruel and certain death in an instant.
Back then, walking on the moon seemed more likely than strolling through Ramallah. The entire West Bank was for me a black hole, no-go zone populated only by settlers, the Israeli army, and Palestinians, all of whom could have been located in outer space for all that they affected my life.
Today, I still wouldn’t walk around Ramallah or any other Palestinian city and say I am Israeli or Jewish, and would make sure no Hebrew passed over my lips. Nonetheless, there seems to be some psychic barrier that has lifted and Ramallah, East Jerusalem, and other Palestinian areas no longer seem to be the sum of all fears 11 years later.
In addition to the almost complete cessation of Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and within the Green Line, much of my sense of security has come with working in journalism. When I’m working I tend to feel a certain sense of impunity, and that I have an ironclad excuse to be where I’m not known and not wanted. A press card doesn’t make you bulletproof or invisible, but having one does seem to have helped me break down the barrier of fear in my own mind and allow me to walk (somewhat) more freely in places I never ventured before. Along the way, I’ve found myself filling in dozens of my blind spots between the river and the sea, most of them Palestinian, but also Israeli.
At the risk of sounding like an Orientalist, I’ve learned in the past couple years that there is something strangely seductive and fascinating to me about visiting or passing through Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank. Even the remote and thoroughly boring areas of the West Bank bear an attraction.
It is the realisation that you can drive such a short distance from Tel Aviv and enter what is, with or without the statehood bid, a thoroughly foreign entity, an area that is so completely Palestinian and so entirely not us. It’s also the very real awareness that regardless of how much you may or may not support Israel or identify as a Zionist, that there is, to some extent, a foreign nation within the area we control. In Ramallah, Palestine’s largest and most lively city (other than East Jerusalem) the awareness of this foreign nationality is even more apparent.
I don’t know what I make of the Palestinian statehood bid, and I’d rather not express any sort of opinion whatsoever about who is more to blame for the current impasse. Still, even though Mahmoud Abbas couldn’t bring himself to mention Jewish ties to the Holy Land in his speech before the UN and the Palestinian people, and without being able to predict how the statehood bid will turn out, I’m encouraged by the fact that the Palestinian leadership is pursuing the diplomatic path over violence.
When I think of last Friday, I’ll be able to say I witnessed this particular chapter of the world’s most intractable conflict, a conflict that has left nearly everyone involved almost completely jaded by its routine cycle of violence and failed peace talks. Whatever happens as a result of this chapter, it’s one of the rare international media events dealing with this conflict that (so far) did not include violence or failed negotiations in Maryland.
Last Friday, it felt good to walk on the moon in Ramallah and return to earth in Tel Aviv later that same night.