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September journey part 3: Invisible cities

Staying on the move in Israel and the Palestinian Territories through a month of trial. Second excursion: to the old neighborhood and beyond, far beyond.

I grew up on a settlement, not one inhabited by fierce ideologists, not even one that is recognized as a settlement by the Israeli people or their government, but a settlement nonetheless.

Yes, it looks good.

“French Hill” was built after 1967 in East Jerusalem. It is a “citadel” settlement, overlooking the Palestinians from a high vantage point. Guess who was assigned to the watchman’s position? Yours truly, at ten years of age. From the window of my childhood room, with its poster of the Beatles, volumes of a children’s illustrated encyclopedia and Commodore 64 PC, All of east Jerusalem was visible, crowned with the golden dome of the rock.

We uses to go down there every so often, to buy cheap shoes on Saladin st. Then, when I was eleven, the first intifada began and like many Israeli families, mine too feared East Jerusalem’s wrath. The city outside the window became forbidden, unattainable, and consequently very alluring. a realm of mystery.

I have summoned the courage and ventured into East Jerusalem since. My exploring, however, was always of the old city and its environs. In honor of September, I decided to kick off this morning on French Hill and head north, into the dense Palestinian suburbs and scattered Jewish communities separating Jerusalem and Ramallah.

In my opinion, the old ‘hood is a beautiful place. The typical Israeli apartment blocks, when dressed in a cloak of Jerusalem stone, turns out quite fetching. And the streetscape around these blocks, made up mostly of pedestrian-only paths, is a no less than a flowering paradise.

A typical French Hill building with greenery

I go by the old house, hoping to recapture that dramatic view to the city, but new blocks were built and it is obscured. At least the old neighborhood deli is still here, 25 years of age now. I go in for moussaka and a chat with the owner.

Tziona's Deli, looted ahead of Shabbos

A lady buying large amounts of stuffed vegetables waits by the counter while the owner packs her purchase. I ask her what he foresees for September’s politically flammable end. She mumbles a typical “I don’t know, let’s hope for the best”. Oh well. I finish my side dishes and head for the other side of the hill. The view to the north had become obscured by a dense sucsession of short pines. somehow I find a gap between them and stand before a practically treeless cityscape engulfed by a massive grey wall.

How can Israelis be expected to foresee their own destiny if they can’t physically see their neighbors and their condition? The wall of separation was drawn deep into Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, in order to keep some of its more impoverished Palestinian neighborhoods to its east. What lays beneath me is the head of a fjord in the concrete coastline. the checkpoint separates blue ID holding Jerusalemites from blue ID holding Jerusalemites.

This is actually easy to cross, as long as your heading away from central Jerusalem

The other side of the wall is not as nicely maintained by the city of Jerusalem as French hill is.

A street in Israel's capital city.

I walk through unbelievable amounts of trash before reaching the sign – that sign – the one that always lets you know you have reached a place of great despair and of great anger: the blue sign inscribed “UNRWA”.

I have reached the Shuafat refugee camp. The only refugee camp that is under the jurisdiction of the city of Jerusalem. UNRWA estimates that 20,000 people live here, in various degrees of poverty, and in some of the most imposing refugee camp high rises ever seen: some buildings reach eight and ten floors. Many alleyways are topped with structures, makes the tent a de facto single urban organism.Israel never provided for this place and when the wall came about, had it barred off from the rest of the city. I have never been here. I have never seen this. I grew up less than one kilometer from here.

Shuafat refugee camp. Municipal stone-coating laws do not apply.

In fact, I never would have heard about this place if not for an Italian humanitarian aid volunteer I met in Jordan. She told me: Don’t go there. They don’t want you there.

Too late. I head into the tunnels.

De profundis, Shuafat refugee camp.

The kids are naturally there to walk me through.

Refugee camps bring out the preschool teacher in me.

Many of them are armed with toy guns, even a few of the older ones. One younger kid, Mohammed, aged 12.5. Assumes that I’m a foreign journalist or volunteer and asks me whether I like Israel. I try to think of a safe answer, this is, after all, the time of the Friday prayer, the voice of the imam echoes through the camp and there are people listening on.

“Not any more than I do most places.”

‘I hate all Israelis and all Americans,” he says.

“Why so?”

“Because they kill us.”

We’re standing at the edge of the camp. From here the neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev, similar in its lush middle class comfort to French Hill, is clearly visible across the wall. Israelis Can’t see the Palestinians because they have managed to effectively hide them away by means of gardening. Palestinians can’t see the Israelis through the residue of hurt, anger and simplified politics that gathered over the decades. I am too sad to stay here and ask the kids where is the gate.

I’m referring, of course, to the checkpoint, but they misunderstand me and point to a concrete pipe running under the wall, the one through which they escape.

I decide to do as Romans do and head down to the pipe, only to find out it is filled with sewage. Despite being proud of my Polish Jewish roots, I decide to skip on it, and walk along the wall towards the desert to the east.

"The gate"

A “service” van picks me up from the nearby village of Anata and I continue to Ramallah, where my presence will be illegal by Israeli law. Next to me sits a friendly construction worker from Hebron. I pull out my big September question, and get another: “Dunno, hoping for the best”. We are all but toys in the hand of politics out of our control. The landscape around us is full of checkpoints, watchtowers, walls and fences, mosque minarets, half constructed buildings, donkeys and graffiti… it would take a lifetime to figure out what is going on here right now, not to mention three weeks from now.

Ramallah is sleepy on a Friday afternoon. I walk to its miniscule and rather unfetching old town. There is a pleasent cafe here which serves as the haunt of the neighborhood’s christian men. It also offers the best Nargileh tobacco of anywhere I know, imported directly from Egypt.

I show Suleiman, the owner’s son, some photos I took in Shuafat. He’s shocked by the cupious amounts of unremoved garbage seen in some of them. Shuafat isn’t only invisible to Israelis. The view to it from Ramallah is also rather limited.

At Al-Jamal (left to right): Randy, Nader, Fareen and Suleiman

I learn from the rest of the clientele that Turkey sent its Israeli ambassador back home. There’s some talk of that, then of the tent protests.

“You will win,” says Fareed, the owner.

“You think so?”

“I’m sure of it. This is clear cut. You pay too much to live. I got a pass to go to Jerusalem last week. I wanted to buy – you know – a popsicle, chocolate vanilla. It cost 10 sheqel there. the same popsicle here, made by the same company, Strauss, it costs one sheqel. Now with all due respect, you don’t make ten times what we do. It can’t go on like that. Other issues are less clear cut. What do you think, for example, will happen with the UN vote at the end of the month?”

Not having seen this coming, I laugh. I have given up on any predictions on the trip into town, my mind is indeed empty.

To my relief an elderly gentleman interrupts and offers his own view. “This is all wrong,” he says, “They’re trying to solve the problem from the back. The UN is a fine establishment, but this problem should be solved from Tel-Aviv.”

He must be referring to Jerusalem, being the seat of our government, but the mention of Tel-Aviv does ring a bell. Israelis are trying to change political paradigms, and the heart of the movement is in Tel-Aviv. So far, anti-occupation sentiments are taboo in the struggle, but this struggle’s impact on political discourse will doublessly reflect on this issues as well.

I thank everybody, pick up my bag and begin heading back to my city. Tomorrow the “March of a Million” is to take place. Will it break the code of invisible cities and make Tel-Aviv at last truly visible from Ramallah? Only one way to find out: to effectively dodge the checkpoints, to make it to town for the big show, and in a few days – to return.

For more of the September Journey, click here

Thanks for reading and taking part in the adventure. If any of you would like to pitch in for my travel and food, please do so using the “donate” button at the top of this page. Please be sure and specify that you are contributing to Yuval’s September Journey.

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    1. Palestinian

      @ Yuval Ben-Ami

      I thought Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital city !
      Its kind of you to show Palestinian dishes and cuisine served in Jewish holidays.

      Reply to Comment
    2. James

      Interesting how the older generations of Palestinians have a more open mind to the conflict undersanding that coexistence must come from within, whereas the younger generation have more of a “I hate all Israelis” attitude. I hope these kids aren’t being taught purely to hate. Nothing will be solved that way.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Daniel Davis

      Excellent! Really touched my heart.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Tamar

      Thank you. Your travelogue is teaching me much. Question: Why do you think the “planners” of the Jerusalem Light Rail system included three stations in Shuafat?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Jalal

      A great piece Yuval, thanks for narrating the journey as you saw it.

      But hey, you said: “I have reached the Shuafat refugee camp. The only refugee camp that is under the jurisdiction of the city of Jerusalem.”
      Qalandia refugee camp is under the jurisdiction of the municipality of the city of Jerusalem too. Actually, situation in Qalandia might be even worse, they suffer broken sewage, bad roads, no Garbage trucks or even trash containers…It is really bad, and someone should shed a light on that too.

      @James Older generation are not more “Open minded” and younger generation are not “taught to hate”. Unfortunately, those who suffer most in this conflict are the children, they are not to blame for what they say. What would you expect a child to say when he sees the IDF raiding his village every night? Arresting family members, friends or even him? Shooting and killing people he might have known very well? or even torturing him in detention? that is the case with many Palestinian minors from Palestinian villages and cities.
      Don’t expect them to say “We love you”
      you have to be open minded to understand what they go through

      @Tamar: Light Rail passes through a very small part of Shufat, the bigger part of Shufat lies behind the Israeli apartheid wall separating neighborhoods from each other there.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Sam Smith

      Yuval, you’re a wonderful storyteller.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Thanks much. The world, everyone in it, is better served by contact than by isolation, whether the wall or BDS.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Thank you all. Tamar, your question makes perfect sense. The Shuafat refugee camp should be distinguished from the neighborhood of the same name, which is mostly middle class and is situated on the west side of the wall.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Deïr Yassin

      Mr Witty as always knows what’s best for the world, and particularly the Palestinians.
      That the BDS is a Palestinian initiative has NO importance compared with Mr Witty’s extensive knowledge on the subject.
      After 10.500 comments on Mondoweiss on ‘Jewish self-determination’ and ‘blame it on Hamas’, the Witty-machine’s comments now are mostly against the BDS. Heading for another 10.000 on that subject ?
      A guy who’s incapable of condemning the Gaza blocade – in the name of “Jewish self-determination” – has the chutzpah to say the world is “better served by contact than by isolation”. A two-legged joke ….

      Reply to Comment
    10. Yoni

      A great read (all pieces so far). And in addition to the quality of the writing, I think it’s a very important angle you are brining, with no better timing.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Ben Israel

      I would be curious to know if you asked any of the Palestinians you encountered what they would do if they were the head of the Palestinian Authority. What would they ask for from Israel? What would they be willing to give up in order to reach a compromise peace (i.e. recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, just as Israel was required to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people, the right of return of the refugees, territorial questions, etc)? Do they want a compromise peace at all?

      Reply to Comment

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