It was a lot harder to leave Ramallah today than it should have been. A thirty minute trip took two hours because our Palestinian bus was not allowed to drive the direct route through Jerusalem and one of the checkpoints out of the city was temporarily closed. Today this gave us a chance to see much more of the countryside and observe how people live with all these checkpoints, walls, and hassles from the Israeli military. But if I had to live like this every day, never knowing how long it would take to get from here to there or whether I could get there at all, I would lose my mind. Mustafa told us that these days Palestinians are allowed inside the illegal Israeli settlements to work, but the kind of work they are allowed to do is the same sort of labor that immigrants new to our country have to settle for. Even then, they are not allowed to drive inside the settlement. Their employer must pick them up at the gate or they have to get a taxi to go further inside. All Palestinian phone calls and internet activity is monitored and recorded by the Israeli government. Even with all these precautions, problems can occur. One settlement of 800 settlers is currently being guarded by 2,000 soldiers. The Israeli settlers are afraid to share public transportation with the Palestinians. So a special bus system plies the roads that Palestinians are not allowed to use, even though these buses are traveling through land that is supposed to be theirs. They have to take shared taxis, which they pay for. Since the Oslo Accords were signed, the Palestinians were not allowed to charge retail taxes. This motivates the Israeli’s to shop in Palestinian towns, even though they are posted with ominous red signs warning them that it is illegal and dangerous to do so.
OAT, our travel organization, encourages its travelers to learn about controversial topics, so we were not surprised to hear that we had a stop on today’s itinerary in Efrata, an illegal settlement of 13,000 settlers where an Israeli would speak with us about this situation from their point of view. Mustafa did not come inside, although as our guide I think he could have. He just did't want to hear it. As soon as we walked through the community gates it felt like we were in another world. The homes were prosperous looking and the gardens green and well kept. The speaker spent the first thirty years of his life in Chicago, but moved to Israel and raised his family there. It’s too hard in this limited space to go into the reasons he felt there was nothing wrong with how they are treating the Palestinians these days. Some of us argued with him and you could tell that he enjoyed trying to enlighten us. We value the separation of church and state in our country, but it was clear that religion was the fundamental reason why the Israelis feel entitled to every inch of land here that they can take. He deplored the corruption of the Palestinian leadership and then we went back to the hotel TV to see that Netanyahu has been arrested for the same thing. We certainly lack the context that he had, but we know what we have seen about Palestinian life these days and it is easy to see why Israel has earned world condemnation for its current policies. They have really squandered the sympathy that the nations of the world felt for the Jews after World War II.
We stopped in Hebron to visit a mosque/synagogue that contains the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, revered patriarchs for Muslims and Jews. In 1994 an American born Jew came into the mosque and killed 29 men and boys who were worshipping there. This incident was so provocative, the United Nations got involved and the building was partitioned. We spent most of our visit in the Ibrahimi Mosque where I was thrilled to wear sort of a hooded bathrobe that made me feel like I was in the Handmaid’s Tale. The tombs were arranged so that you could see them from either side, but the worshippers never got near each other. On both sides men and women worshipped separately as well.