Coming to Israel and the Palestinian Territories has been a unique experience, to say the least. For one thing,it's the only place I've ever been where having a camera tackily strung around my neck makes me feel more secure, not less. Here, I'm not concerned about appearing as a tourist—in fact, were it not for looking neither like a Jew nor an Arab, I would probably go somewhat out of my way to make clear that I was a visitor. As we were to learn, most Israeli Jews don't even think about going to the Palestinian areas—the West Bank and Gaza—and the Arabs living in these places for the most part simply can't come to "Israel". As tourists, we basically have 'safe passage' to and from both.
Within our first few days in Jerusalem, we decided to go out to a nearby Arab town in the West Bank, called Ramallah. Gregg and I had found out about a project initiated by folks at the computer center of Bir Zeit University (a Palestinian university just outside Ramallah) to get Palestinian refugee camps wired with Internet access. We got in touch with the University webmaster, Adam, and arranged to visit him.
The ride to Ramallah was less than one hour long. We took an Arab-run bus from East Jerusalem and experienced no delays with security checks. Arriving in the center of town we felt as though we'd returned to the 'Arab World' without ever having really left it. The scene was familiar—aggressive drivers aggressively dodging oncoming traffic, colorful fruit and vegetable markets, falafel/shawarma stands on every street corner, shops with the same inventory of nylon backpacks adorned with random English. Streets were choc-a-bloc with restaurants, coffee/tea shops, and shopping malls. Ramallah definitely had a pulsing vibrancy to it.
We met with Adam and agreed to spend the rest of the afternoon collecting information on as many internet cafes in Ramallah that we could find to help them update an online guide to town. We found five, half as many as we were told there are, each well-equipped with a dozen machines and decent connectivity rates. Not bad for a city of 18,000.
Later we chatted over a beer (a beer!) with Adam and asked how regularly he got to Jerusalem. He said he seldom goes—he's usually busy with work or friends in Ramallah. Besides, there was no point unless he wanted to go alone—as an Australian-born Palestinian, only he had a passport that enable him to get past the security check point; he would have to leave his friends behind.
It wasn't until a few days later when we met with a reporter for a daily Jewish paper, Ha'aretz, that we'd really gotten a sense of how segregated Jews and Arabs choose to or must live. This reporter had found our website and wanted to include us in a story about Internet and travellers. We met with her in the port city of Haifa and she treated us to an all-American burger at a restaurant called 'New York'. She'd been living abroad in England for a few years and had only just come back to "this crazy place" to live again. When she learned that we'd gone to Ramallah, she was shocked. How did we get there? Was it dangerous? Is it a modern city? Why did we go. She said she would never consider going to see for herself; it's too dangerous and not a risk worth taking. In her mind, Arabs would be able to tell straight away that she was an (Israeli) Jew. She's probably right.