All Photos by   Bernard Chazelle   Copyright   2008      home          Essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
My Trip to the West Bank

by Bernard Chazelle

In March 2008, I visited three Palestinian universities, Birzeit, An-Najah, and Al-Quds, and two in Israel, Tel Aviv and Hebrew U. The purpose of my visit was to explore avenues of collaboration with Palestinian universities. What follows is a report on the West Bank portion of my trip. (All photos by me © 2008)

Roof of US Embassy in Tel Aviv

For all the Americanization of Israeli society, Tel Aviv is very much a European city, not an American one. I hadn't been there in a decade and I was struck by the changes: not so much the glittering skyline of shiny high-rises but the stunning Bauhaus buildings renovated to their former glory. Tel Aviv is easy to like: it is a city of cafés, beaches, conversation, and cats—and, for me, friends and memories.

The bus ride to Jerusalem was packed with religious passengers. It was so eerily quiet on that bus I wondered if perhaps I hadn't volunteered by mistake to join one of those Jewish monastic orders known for their vow of silence. Then I remembered there was no such thing, so I relaxed and dozed off. Once I reached my destination, I got past the metal detector and left the bus depot for my next stop, Damascus Gate.

Sharon paid a call

"Fifty shekels!" shouted the cab driver. I said fine but warned him that, for that price, it had better be an interesting ride. It was. The driver, an immigrant from Morocco who had served as a tank crewman in the Six-Day War, let me in on his peace plan: "Kill them all! Men, women, and children: all of them, like you did in Hiroshima." The local humor had darkened quite a bit in my ten-year absence, or so I thought. But this was no joke. "In '67, it was 'Shoot first, ask questions later.' Today, first you've got to ask them gently 'Are you a terrorist?' and then only if they say 'Yes!' can you kill them. This is crazy. In Lebanon we were about to finish off Hezbollah when your Condi Rice imposed a cease-fire on us." Ah, my Condi and her birth pangs, always getting in the way of a good fight. But I hesitated to acquiesce too noisily. My driver liked to punctuate his sentences by taking his hands off the steering wheel and wiping them against each other, as if to say "Problem solved." With so many cars whizzing by, I didn't think feeding his exuberance would give me (in an evolutionary sense, that is) much selective advantage. Let's just say I was grateful to get a peace plan for only 50 shekels and, more important, to survive it.

The writing on the wall

If going to Ramallah was easy, returning was not. I'll fast-forward a few days and tell you why. The bus stopped at the imposing Qalandiya checkpoint and several passengers got out for X-ray screening. The line inched along at a snail's pace until a female soldier boarded the bus to check our papers. She was strikingly beautiful, a sort of James Bond girl in training. She stepped in and smiled gently at the children in the front rows. Then suddenly, unprovoked, she metamorphosed into a rottweiler, barking orders at the parents in Arabic. Why a 20-year-old would feel the need to yell at older people sitting quietly is a mystery to be filed under "Pathology of the Armed in the Presence of the Unarmed." She singled out an elderly couple and ordered them off the bus. The man protested meekly and followed his wife out. I turned around and through the rear window watched the old couple shuffle away in the dark, carrying their belongings in small garbage bags. They would have to wait for a bus back to Ramallah. Not sure if it was the old age, the hobbled walk into the night, or the raggedy plastic bags: all I know is that it was a sight of crushing sadness.

A checkpoint outside Ramallah

The Bond girl saw my US passport and smiled. Finding nothing kinder to say, I asked her to save her smile for those who needed it. She didn't understand, which was probably just as well. We waited an hour and a half for unknown reasons and then drove off to Jerusalem. Well, not quite. Southbound from Qalandiya is a one-way road that borders the walled section of the separation barrier for a mile or so. Half way into it, we were stopped by a military patrol and ordered back to the checkpoint. After some heated back-and-forth between the driver and the guards, we went right back to our earlier parking spot. Another hour elapsed before the bus was allowed to start again on its merry journey. By then I had convinced myself we were headed back to Ramallah, but a miracle happened (they don't call it the Holy Land for nothing) and off to the Old City we went. The Ramallah-Jerusalem trip took 3 hours and 45 mins. The two cities are 6 miles apart.

Ramallah's Abrahamic heritage

I lucked out. The next day marked the end of the 40-day mourning period for Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyah, a bad guy assassinated in Damascus. This prompted Israeli authorities to close off the West Bank for 4 days. The unpredictability of travel is the norm: a day-long visit can easily become a two-week exile with no advance notice.

He got his monument
but not his country

Ramallah is a small, bustling city dotted with mosques, churches, and, perched on the surrounding hills, the sumptuous, empty villas of the Palestinian diaspora. It is called a 5-star prison. My hotel accommodation matched the starry part of the description: a palatial suite with Internet connection, two TVs, and a minibar stacked with every conceivable alcoholic beverage. To be offered the grandest room in the house might have been the perk of being one of the hotel's only guests. There are no tourists in Ramallah, just consultants, journalists, and UN employees. The city has an air of normality, but scratch beneath the surface and you'll find a war zone.

“ I'm not against peace;
peace is against me ”

Less than a day after I had arrived, I was awakened in the middle of the night by loud explosions. Israeli troops had rolled into town. This was soon followed by the rumble of military vehicles climbing their way up Jaffa Street. I looked out the window and saw the convoy stop right underneath my window. Of all the windows of all the buildings of all the towns in the West Bank, the Israel Defense Forces had to choose mine as the spot to rest their deafening hardware at 3am! My astonishment was soon interrupted by the sight of a white car barreling down toward the convoy at high speed. It came to a screeching halt, barely avoiding a collision with the head humvee. (Not to nitpick, but the convoy was moving uphill on the wrong side of the divided street.) Confusion ensued. Troops shouted orders and the two occupants got out of the car and raised their hands in the air. Three soldiers walked slowly toward them: one of them searched them; another inspected the car; the third fidgeted with his machine gun. I watched.

None too thrilled to see my camera

That's when my hiding skills failed me and a fourth Israeli soldier spotted me through the window. While pointing his automatic weapon in my direction, he ordered the driver of one of the humvees to turn his vehicle sideways and train its headlight on my balcony. I quickly retreated and chose another window (of my gigantic suite) for my observation post. Twenty interminable minutes must have passed before the Palestinians were allowed to go. To my relief, the hotel was not searched. Only later did it occur to me that the soldier who aimed his Uzi at me probably thought I was a sniper. Picturing myself as a shooting target doesn't come naturally to me, even after all these years in academia.

Street intersections in Ramallah are manned at night by Fatah forces armed with AK-47s. Our car was pulled over once, but my driver knew the magic words and got us out of that. Another incident involved a crowd of agitated youths who surrounded our car and began spitting on the windshield. Seeing the look of concern on my face, the driver assured me they were just rowdy sports fans. Perhaps they thought I was an Israeli rooting for the wrong team.

Remodeled by the IDF

The Nimrs have paid their dues. Sa'ad spent 8 years in an Israeli prison. His sister Sonia, a professor of oral history at Birzeit University and successful author, spent 3 years behind bars for PLO activities. (Noam Chomsky advocated on her behalf in the New York Review of Books in 1977.) At lunch, Sonia told me about her ongoing field work in the Palestinian countryside to record folk culture. She spoke of her prison experience, too. There she befriended a Jewish Israeli woman serving time for a common criminal offense. On her last day of incarceration, her Israeli friend stopped by her cell to say good-bye: "Sonia, if you see me one day in an IDF unit trying to take over your land and you have a gun, will you shoot me?" Sonia replied, "Yes." The Israeli woman turned around and left without saying good-bye. "You see, Bernard, all these years of friendship, and she still didn't get it."

Over wine and beer at her apartment that evening, we talked into the wee hours, joined by her husband (a filmmaker), her brother Sa'ad, an Egyptian friend, and the Al-Jazeera & BBC veteran Arthur Neslen. Sa'ad Nimr is a close confidant of Marwan Barghouti, the popular Palestinian leader currently serving 5 life sentences in an Israeli prison. He heads the Ramallah branch of the "Free Marwan Barghouti" campaign, which counts Nelson Mandela on its board. The release of Barghouti is a divisive topic in Israel. Advocates point out that he is the only leader capable of uniting Palestinians. Opponents object for precisely the same reason. Uri Avnery calls him the Palestinian Mandela. (Who's then the Israeli de Klerk?) While Abbas and Haniyeh would score evenly in a presidential contest, Barghouti would trounce both.

There are only 611 others

Sa'ad Nimr embraces a binational state, an opinion shared by a quarter of all Palestinians. His view that Oslo was a sham, however, is consensual. Did he feel bitter about prison? "Bernard, hating people is a waste of time. We have to learn to live with the Israelis. We're not going to push them into the sea [...] It was never about Jews, remember this, only about Israeli occupiers." Sonia added, "We have a saying in Arabic we used to repeat all the time: Will it happen before we die?" Sa'ad was doubtful: "Maybe our children or grandchildren will see peace in Palestine." Both of them condemned suicide bombings unequivocally: "Devastating to the Palestinian cause!" What about nonviolence? Someone suggested a march of 20,000 unarmed women through Qalandiya: "The Israelis wouldn't know what to do. They would freak out." It's never been tried.

Deep in the heart of the West Bank,
someone is trying to say something

Well, there was the first intifada. Which led to Madrid and Oslo. Some Palestinians will say, "Cool, nonviolence got us a doubling of the settlement population." Others will point out that it got Israel's Labor government to warm (ever so slowly and unevenly) to the idea of a two-state solution. Indeed, and then to lose the premiership to rejectionist Bibi Netanyahu, the man who heads the Israeli version of Hamas, also known as Likud.

Like many conservative societies, Palestinians put a premium on hospitality. They share with Israelis an acute sense of victimhood and a surplus of warmth and generosity. My Birzeit host, Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology Adnan Yahya, opened his home to me for meals with his family. To my new buddy Omar, his 8-year-old son, I quickly became Uncle Bernard. His big disappointment was not to join us on our expedition to Nablus but, instead, to go to school. In addition to mom and dad, little Omar has three older siblings doting on him, for a total of 5 parents. Whatever necessities might be missing from this Palestinian childhood, love is not one of them.

In Abu Dis, Palestinians
live on both sides

Everyone in the West Bank has a story to tell: a 20-year-old who has spent his entire life 15 miles from the Mediterranean, yet has never seen it—he jokes to me that all this talk of a big blue sea nearby is the biggest lie he's ever heard; another one who has always lived 10 miles from Jerusalem but has never been able to visit. A woman reminisces about her high school friend who had to run the "beauty line" gauntlet at checkpoints. Israeli soldiers would divide up the women's line into two: the "pretty girls" line and the "ugly girls" line. To spice up the fun, they would force the women to choose the suitable line and shove them to the "correct" one if necessary. Another woman tells me how a guard ordered her to kiss the men in the line. And so on. Humiliation is the dominant theme.

Hope it works better this time

A man mentions his childhood friend who will be dead in a few months because he cannot get cancer treatment in Ramallah. He lives only 10 miles from state-of-the-art hospitals in Israel. In a private conversation, Abu Walid Dajani, the man at the heart of an epic battle to keep Jerusalem's New Imperial Hotel in Arab hands, had nothing but praise for Israeli health care. Hospital facilities in the West Bank, however, are appallingly ill-equipped, and any serious disease can be a death sentence. A few non-Jerusalemites or lucky patients with referrals are granted access to Israeli hospitals, but these are the exceptions to the rule. Everyone has a medical story about checkpoints: a pregnant woman they knew who gave birth on the dusty asphalt and lost her baby; a diabetic relative who was held up too long and fell into a coma; an An-Najah student who tells me about being held up 6 hours outside Nablus and getting to his dying mother's bedside too late.

Then I was ordered to put away my camera

If Ramallah is a world apart, then Nablus, 35 miles north, is a distant galaxy. To get there is hard; to come back can be a harrowing experience. I was lucky to make it to Nablus. Closures are frequent and unpredictable. Along the way, the IDF gives you many opportunities to meet its soldiers one on one. For up-close-and-personal encounters, there's nothing like the Hawara checkpoint. Travelers split into three lines: women; men under 35 (often denied entry); others. The mood in the line is somber. The soldier who checks my US passport comments, "You were born in France, it says here." He pauses, then asks, "Why?"

Why? "You know, those things happen," I reply ruefully. He smiles. He is young, friendly, and completely out of his depth. He seems distraught, fearful, and, perhaps, ashamed. He shakes his head in disbelief as, a few feet away from us, a frail elderly woman is being verbally abused by soldiers while she stands squeezed in a dusty cattle chute, waiting to be processed. Guards laugh as they turn away a large family.

And the yelling. What's with the yelling? Apparently, they don't teach soldiers spoken Arabic—only shouted Arabic. The checkpoint is a bleak jumble of concrete lanes, narrow gates, and tin roofs, all stuck in the middle of nowhere. Virtually no vehicles are allowed across, so people get to Hawara by car, walk half a mile, squeeze through tiny turnstiles, and line up until their ID cards have been inspected. For those who don't make it across, there are taxis waiting to take them back. For the sick and the handicapped, the journey is not an option. No cargo is allowed across, so everyone carries small plastic bags.

For most Palestinians, abusive guards are the only Israelis they'll ever meet. For the young soldiers manning the checkpoints, the assignment is dangerous, stressful, and dehumanizing. The decent bloke who smiled at me looks morose and anguished. The bullies appear to have a grand old time. I doubt they do. In fact, I wonder if turning a rotten job into a hazing ritual isn't merely a grotesque defense mechanism. It may come back to haunt them.

A constellation of 612 checkpoints and roadblocks dissect the landscape into small enclaves within which Palestinians are confined. Their sole purpose—don't believe the official line—is to protect half a million settlers and their private network of roads, bypasses, bridges, tunnels, and security belts. All Palestinian cities are surrounded by settlements: 14 of them around Nablus alone, plus 26 outposts and 10 checkpoints with waiting times measured in hours. Labeled by Israel a hotbed of militancy, Nablus is cut off from the rest of the world; only 50 private cars are granted permits to cross city limits. Abbas's inability to deliver any relief has helped Hamas gain ground locally. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has many priorities; the welfare of its people does not appear to be one of them.

Nasrallah promises victory
for the resistance

I am standing by the main gate of An-Najah's old campus in Nablus. A group of 3 students have offered to take me to the casbah. They proudly describe it as the "most heroic place in the West Bank." While I am hoping we won't make it any more heroic than it already is, each student in turn reassures me that "I am in safe hands." Their oddly contrite tone sounds a bit like the pilot of a 747 who apologizes to his passengers that, because of that big fireball you can see on the left engulfing the engine, the chicken dinner option won't be available. I am told we can't stay past sunset. I'll find out later why.

The souk features the kind of pop art that would send alarm bells ringing at the Department of Homeland Security: hundreds of decorated photos of "martyrs" adorn walls and markets stalls. The juxtaposition of kanafeh (a local delicacy) and pictorial elegies for dead young men takes some getting used to. The place bustles with activity during the day and turns into a ghost town at sundown. That's when the IDF makes its nightly incursion and detains, or on occasion kills, anyone it catches outdoors. It's the time local boys make it to the poster boards.

The Nablus art scene

Strangers rarely walk these grounds with friendly intentions; my presence, quite clearly, is an eye-turner for the casbah dwellers. Shrieking children rush toward me to have their pictures taken. An olive oil soap maker insists on showing me around his workshop and offers me a sample of his wares. As we enter the ancient Turkish baths, we pass people drinking tea and smoking nargila. We step into a private home and climb on top of the roof only to discover, in the most unexpected spot, a giant palm tree. I get the heroic part now: for the hunter and the hunted alike, there isn't a better death trap. The casbah has the scars to prove it. Around every corner lurks another bombed-out building.

Meet my new friends — and
pray they don't end up on a poster

The neighboring Balata refugee camp is a sprawling slum whose crowding and squalor bring me back to India. The West Bank's 19 camps were set up to house some of the 700,000 Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948. I took an extensive tour of the Jalazone refugee camp further south. The median age in Israel is 29; it is 17 in the Palestinian population (two key numbers); it is only 15 in Jalazone. During the first intifada, Israeli troops sealed off the camp and shut down the electrical power and the main water supply for a month and a half. Besides the abject poverty, the most jarring sight is that of the luxurious Jewish settlement of Beit El, with its elegant red-roofed houses, winery, open spaces, and private roads. The two communities are kept separated by guard towers, security gates, and a barbed wire fence: two hostile worlds living side-by-side. The settlements are easy to spot: look up pretty much anywhere and you'll see one on a hilltop. Religious settlers can often be seen from the Palestinian roads praying in the wilderness. I look at them and wonder if the misery they inflict on millions ever comes up in their daily chats with God.

The Jalazone refugee camp

Despite the title, "Computer Science as the New Math," the main Birzeit auditorium was packed. Either the thirst for entertainment verges on desperation or my lecture's announcement in Al-Quds, the Palestinian New York Times, drew the crowds. Anyhow, heartened by my newfound celebrity, I cracked some excellent Bush jokes which, I'm happy to report, went over much better than when I tried them at the University of Texas two years ago.

The view of Beit-El from Jalazone

Later in the day, Birzeit University President Nabeel Kassis walked me through the turbulent history of his institution. Repeatedly closed down by Israeli authorities, the campus would often relocate inside professors' homes so teaching could carry on. A theoretical physicist by training, Dr. Kassis is former Minister of Planning for the PA and Geneva-Initiative negotiator. He is keenly aware of the harm caused by the international isolation of his university. (I later explored avenues of collaboration with Provost Abdul Latif Abu Hijleh.) He echoed the earlier complaints of Dean of Graduate Studies Lisa Taraki about the hardships of the community: several students are currently in administrative detention, ie, imprisoned without charges. The parents of one student have been locked up ever since he was a toddler. (There are 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons and one Israeli in Palestinian captivity.)

The An-Najah campus in Nablus

Most of the women on Palestinian campuses wear headscarves. All agreed that the popularity of the hijab was a recent phenomenon, though everyone had a different explanation for it. Palestinians are highly knowledgeable about politics. In fact, they protested too much that they were actually capable of discussing nonpolitical subjects. Of course, I didn't fall for that nonsense. I remembered Paris in the sixties all too well, when every conversation topic was allowed—so long as it was politics.

Law School

I sat on a panel at An-Najah University to discuss computer science curricula. Nearly all Palestinian universities and colleges were represented. A video link-up with Gaza helped make up for the fact that no physical contact with them had been possible in months. Much of the discussion centered around the distribution of computing courses across disciplines and the need to target niche markets; in other words, nothing notably different from academic preoccupations elsewhere.

Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh and his provost, Hassan Dweik, invited me to visit and lecture at their institution. The head of computer science, Professor Rashid Jayousi, was my host. Like Dean Yahya at Birzeit, Professor Jayousi and his colleagues went out of their way to make me feel welcome. The Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds should be a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem; because of the wall, it is an hour away. The initial plan was to have the 30-foot concrete wall cut right through the sports fields of the campus, but a battle with the authorities, joined by many supportive Israelis, prodded Condi Rice to lean on IDF planners to alter the design. The current wall borders the campus but does not encroach onto it; however, it divides families with relatives on both sides. On the day of my visit, students demonstrated against Israel's refusal to recognize Al-Quds diplomas: a complex accreditation issue which demonstrates how nothing in the region is apolitical.

Marching for recognition at Al-Quds

Al-Quds maintains academic contacts with Hebrew University. The president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Menahem Yaari, explained to me how his organization IPSO (cofounded with Nusseibeh) raises funds for international collaborations at all levels. The challenges are greater for Israelis than for Americans or Europeans because visiting the territories is not an option for them at the moment. Not to mention that collaboration with occupying forces does not have an enviable pedigree and many Palestinians are flat-out against it. So are, for different reasons, many Israelis. It is beyond dispute, however, that the intentions of Nusseibeh, Yaari, and their partners-in-crime are admirable. Even more so is the courageous stand of Israeli students who choose to go to prison rather than serve in the territories. Anyone tempted to boycott Israeli academia should, first, think of them. To quote Professor Jayousi, "This would be boycotting the wrong people."

Keeping up the faith...

The mood in the region is one of deep pessimism. While Hamas commands grudging respect among Palestinians, the PA is increasingly drawn to the small pleasures of a corrupt, collaborationist police state. Society is being so torn apart by these intramural feuds that several West Bank residents expressed to me their wish for a return to direct Israeli rule ("to clear the air").

... against the westerly winds

Israelis, meanwhile, are frozen in an existential funk. They used to worry about the next day—blowing up on a bus—but not about the next decade. Today, it's the reverse: they linger nonchalantly in Tel Aviv's hip cafés, wondering if their country has a future. The security barrier has curbed terrorism but, for 6 years now, Qassams have come crashing into Israel unimpeded. Add to that Hezbollah's katyushas and the mad ravings of Ahmadinejad, and it's easy to understand the angst of a nation that, as luck would have it, is saddled with quite possibly its most corrupt, mediocre political class ever. (During my visit, Israeli papers were abuzz about a $38,000 pleasure trip to London that Bibi took at the height of the Second Lebanon War. At the time of this writing, they're all over Olmert's umpteenth police investigation.) The heady days of Oslo are long gone and Annapolis is a sham: a cynical exercise in drafting a "shelf" agreement (as in "to be shelved") that bypasses the unbypassable, Hamas. The only prediction that draws a consensus on both sides is that a third intifada is not a question of if but when. The "al-Aqsa" generation is exhausted but, make no mistake, when the kids of Balata and Tulkarm reach their late teens, it will be war again.

"Do you see a future for us out there?"
                Click here to read my essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict