Team Talk - Shirley: Guns, Settlers & The West Bank
We spent the first couple of days in Jerusalem getting our bearings, locking off our accommodation in Ramallah and just generally trying to get over our brutal jetlag. Each morning before dawn we were woken by the calls to prayer, which started the roosters, who kicked off the dogs, followed closely by the cats.
Aaaand then the bells.
It’s all a bit of a blur now, but to summarise; I’d had a sniper trained on me as I entered Damascus Gate, automatic rifles casually waved at me as I walked through the Old City, got to bicker with a moneylender trying to blatantly rob me while changing my $$ into shekels (he put up a good fight but visibly wilted once I got my ‘Aunty’ on), learnt the hard way about agreeing on a taxi fare before climbing in, and watched in stunned amazement as a group of young Pakeha men walked around the crowded East Jerusalem streets, rifles casually slung over their shoulders, jeering and trying to bait any Palestinian that looked up at just the wrong moment.
Turns out they were Jewish settlers. I’d heard about them and been warned to keep my distance. Christ. This was only day #2 and I hadn’t even been to the West Bank yet! I headed back to the hotel and ended up having an early night, I was starting to overthink things.
The next morning we got the hotel taxi guy, aka the most overpriced ride in the Middle East #ishityounot, to take us into Ramallah. It was meant to be a 20min ride, but turned into nearly an hour owing to one of the kajillion marathons that Palestine and Israel have each year (who knew that 50yrs of a military occupation would turn them into a nation of runners?!).
We drove through the largest check-point in the West Bank. Qalandiya. There were huge red signs looming over as we drove towards it, essentially forbidding Israeli citizens from entering as per Israeli law and yet every piece of info available told us that it was the Palestinians that didn’t allow the Israelis in. I had the lie reinforced a week later in Tel Aviv when I invited a Jewish musician I’d met to come back with us to Ramallah to meet our friends - he declined; the Palestinians do not allow it, it isn’t safe. I tried to tell him otherwise but he laughed me off.
Getting into Ramallah was simple, we literally drove straight through a kind of frankenstein barbed wire toll booth looking thingy manned by dozens of bored looking young people carrying guns. Again, I was struck by their age and apparent disinterest, a common theme was emerging…
We spent the afternoon celebrating another NZer, Dr. Alan Kerr, a paediatric cardiac surgeon who works with the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund (PCRF) to mend little ones who aren’t given permits into Israel for treatment. An unassuming man who clearly didn’t enjoy the attention but the tenderness in his face when I saw him quietly watching the kids running around afterwards made my heart ache.
As we were packing up to leave, one of Paula’s PCRF mates sorted us a driver for the ride home. He literally choked on his coffee when we told him how much our ride in had cost and then introduced himself, “Louai”. These days he’s basically whanau; him, Ayman and Mohmad, but that’s a story for another time.