“Thanks! Er, toda!” I called over my shoulder as I stepped out of the car. The two Israeli soldiers who’d given me a ride to the Palestinian border just shook their heads as they turned the car around. I’d had to explain to them where I was going three times, and the misunderstanding had nothing to do with a language barrier. So far every Israeli I’d spoken to thought I was crazy for going to Hebron.
As I walked down the street toward the checkpoint, I started to wonder if I was indeed crazy. Despite it being the middle of the afternoon, the street was deserted, and I’m not talking the kind of deserted you get after businesses close for the day, but rather the kind you get when businesses close forever. It was a ghost town.
A few minutes later I spied four Israeli guards lazing around the checkpoint. They were drinking coffee and laughing at something on one guard’s smartphone. I was ready with my passport, but they just waved me through the metal turnstile—clearly I wasn’t a threat.
And so, with sweat dampening my underarms despite the chill of the evening, I entered the West Bank, land of war and terrorism, bombs and refugees, death and destruction.
Except that it wasn’t any of those things.
I caught a cab at the next corner. The driver didn’t speak any English, so his near-fluent cousin jumped in with us. They were both smiling widely, and passersby stared openly when we passed them. The driver said something in Arabic, and his cousin translated.
“He says he wishes he knows English so he can talk to foreigners like you.” I told him I wished I could speak Arabic for the same reasons.
The cab took us along smooth, paved roads lined with shops. Now that we were on the Palestinian side of the city the sidewalks were busy with people running errands. The women in Hebron were dressed much like the women in Cairo, with modern, stylish clothes topped off with a headscarf. The driver’s cousin pointed at a glass-fronted shop full of sparkly dresses fit for prom.
“That is my shop,” he beamed. “Dresses for parties!”
They dropped me off at an apartment near downtown, where I stayed for the next two nights with Mo, an amazing Couchsurfing host, and his equally awesome American roommate, Anna. We drank tea on the balcony while the sun set over Hebron. Fireworks for a wedding popped in the distance. The city looked like a forest of white buildings reaching up into the golden sky. It was beautiful and I was surprised.
I asked Mo where all the bomb craters were. “Don’t you know Palestine is supposed to be a warzone?” I asked in mock seriousness. He just laughed.
The Western world is utterly out of touch with what life looks like in the West Bank. Out of curiosity I typed “West Bank” into Google Images. After an entire page of maps (apparently people are really confused about the location of the West Bank), the first four pictures are these:
In fact, after scrolling through pictures for five minutes, I only found a handful that weren’t of warfare, protesters, or the wall. If you’re judging by appearances, as most outsiders do, the West Bank looks like hell on Earth filled with rabid Muslims who do nothing but fight. There’s a reason I didn’t tell my parents I was going to Palestine.
What I found instead was a city doing a damned fine job of living normally. Mo went to work in the morning while Anna and I explored a nearby town. We cooked meals in, or we ate out at restaurants. We walked through the market, bought freshly ground coffee at a gourmet coffee shop, brushed shoulders with students around the Hebron University, and played with kittens.
I’m not trying to say that the West Bank is a content and settled region of the world, full of butterflies and rainbows, safe for one and all, free of conflict. It is not that, it hasn’t been that in generations, and it may never be. Palestinians, no matter how sane and peaceful, can’t step foot into Israel. Assuming they can get a visa to travel somewhere, they can only leave the West Bank via Jordan. Visitors to the West Bank have to pass through a gauntlet of armed Israeli soldiers at barricaded checkpoints. Mo has empty tear gas and percussion bombs hanging on his wall. There’s nothing normal about that.
But the people, the daily life, all that—very standard. Mo says the people of Hebron just want to live normal lives, get away from all the fighting, move on. “But,” he said, “Palestine is like a dry forest. No matter how many people want peace, it only takes a spark to set everything off again. And there are too many people who want to make sparks.”
The point of all this isn’t to support the Palestinian cause, or to try to explain the West Bank, or even to present a complete picture of Hebron. I simply wanted to show my readers the relatable human side of this complex region. So next time you see pictures of death and destruction in the West Bank, as you surely will, try to remember there’s a lot more to Palestine than all that. If I’m able to give just a hundred people a different perspective on the culture they fear so greatly, I’ll consider that a good start.