A neat, little village sits atop the gentle, olive shrouded slopes of a rounded hill, the terracotta tiles of the homes’ roofs gleam in the warm, Mediterranean sun. This pleasant, pastoral view could be almost anywhere in southern Europe, where the middle classes from further north come to invest in holiday homes and fatten their bellies on local cuisine. On a neighbouring hill sits another village, a bit older, less ordered, less terracotta, more concrete, but never the less very much at one with the surroundings; populated more by farmers than wealthy retirees you’d imagine. Much of rural Palestine looks like this and to the oblivious tourist, believe me they do exist, all looks right with the world. You might even look at all the signposts in three different languages, Hebrew, Arabic and English and imagine how nice it was that different people could live side by side.
Even in the larger towns, much seems well: streets throng with eager shoppers and modern cars glide over smooth tarmac. The more observant viewer might pick up on the rougher edges of the view at times or notice a bit more fencing than you’d have back home in the countryside, maybe some police look a little over-equipped, but still, very little looks drastically out-of-place. It’s only when you near the Israeli border you’d have to ask yourself what the concrete watchtowers were for, why there were more fences and why had the police become soldiers, nonchalantly clutching assault rifles, Finally you see the imposing malevolence of the concrete separation wall, an 8m height of grey stretching off into the distance and you are sure that all is most definitely not well.
The owners of those tidy rows of terracotta tiled homes didn’t come bearing a bottle of Beaujolais in search of the rustic cheese from the local market, they came with an army and a righteous sense of entitlement to the land, evicting the farmers that had ploughed the fields and harvested the olives for more generations than could be counted. The fences are more than a simple boundary demarkation, more than just a claim to the land, they are a statement, one that unashamedly declares, “this is just the beginning”.
Palestine is a salutary lesson for the travel writer or blogger who has ever tried to divine the mysteries of a place by using only their eyes. Unless you talk to people, your intuition could be worth little more than wild guesswork, flailing in the darkness.
This lesson hit me hardest on a walk with a local resident around Daheisheh refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. As with much of the countryside, your eyes are given only a glimpse into reality: having been established for decades, the term refugee camp seems inappropriate, for this collection of assuredly permanent homes looks more of a suburb than a camp. Although only a fool would fail to divine the relative poverty of the neighbourhood, I have African friends who could only dream of living in such solid, two or three-story houses with mains water and electricity, even though the supplies are rendered rather erratic by the Israeli authorities. The profusion of graffiti is enough to reveal that it is home to a political struggle even if the nature of the arabic letters remain a mystery. Stencilled and painted faces of young men adorn the walls: those who have died or are imprisoned for resisting the regular incursions of the Israeli military into the camp.
A smiling, doddery old man offered me some falafel, a gesture typical of the friendliness I encountered in the camp. It transpired we had just passed the images of his two sons who are languishing in an Israeli jail. He had made repeated requests to the authorities to visit his sons in jail but had always been refused. Well aware that he didn’t have many years of life left in him he just wanted to see his sons one more time before he died. Of all the accounts of injustice to Palestinians I have read over the years, this petty, bureaucratic maliciousness leaves me more tearful and angry than any other. Even if his sons had been nailing old ladies’ cats to their owners for fun and setting light to them, it’s no reason to inflict such anguish on a gentle, old man. I am sure you could all read about far worse examples but meeting a victim face to face adds a poignancy that the printed word will never achieve.
Few places travellers visit will have such difficult, contested and problematic politics at the heart of everyday life but the lessons of the value in research before you go and of truly opening your eyes and ears to places and people is one we ought to take everywhere.