In the Land of Milk & Honey Part 3: On the Other Side – Palestine

We were all a little apprehensive the morning we crossed over into Palestine. At the border there was a big sign that warned Israelis not to cross for danger of their lives. So we had to lose our Israeli tour guide and driver for the day, replacing them with Palestinians. Any of those in our group with Israeli citizenship left those passports back at the hotel.

Driving through the streets of Palestine’s capital Ramallah, the contrast to Israel was apparent. Ramshackle buildings were interspersed between new builds under construction, which were all technically illegal, with no planning permissions, but offered cheaper accommodation. Massive drums on rooftops turned out to be water reserves, as there was a water shortage – a daunting prospect in that burning hot weather. Still the city was bustling and buzzy; it wasn’t the war-torn ruin some people feared it would be.

I would say our experience of Palestine was highly sanitised. We did not walk through the streets and though much of what we heard about life there was sad and troubling, the voices that spoke to us were highly privileged ones, so I think we got the lite version.

First we visited a start-up accelerator, which was fascinating and inspiring, but I will talk about that more in another post. What I really want to talk about is where we went next.

Our coach stopped on an abandoned roadside to pick up a very handsome, well-groomed and well-dressed young man named Mahmood. He clearly had had a foreign education, from his fluent American English, and the aura of wealth that oozed from his every comely pore. He was to be our charismatic guide for our next destination: Rawabi, a brand new city being built from scratch on one of Palestine’s many hills.

Mahmood worked for Massar, a private company that is one half of the funding source for Rawabi. The other being the country Qatar. As we learnt from Mahmood’s commentary, Rawabi is a massive, ambitious project to build a new city for young working families. With a hospital, mosque, synagogue, school teaching the Cambridge English system, shopping district and even a zipline, Rawabi is set to be a fully self-sufficient and rather luxurious community – but not a gated one. The idea is to service the surrounding (less privileged) towns too.

As we drove up the winding road leading to Rawabi, Mahmood explained that they needed a permit to access this road, which had to be renewed yearly and could be revoked by the Israeli authorities at any moment – “we’re under occupation”. When I tore my eyes away from him to look out the window I saw the roadside was lined with signposts displaying familiar international western brands names, which seemed to sit incongruously with the surroundings: Ralph Lauren, Juicy Couture, Converse.

I almost choked when we were quoted the price of a brand-new, three-bed apartment – $120,000? Sign me up – I wanted to buy property in Rawabi!

As our coach wound laboriously round the narrow Rawabi streets, specifically designed to minimise wheeled traffic and keep the city pedestrian-friendly, Mahmood talked us through some of the town’s features. Every detail had been thought out, down to the special enclosed balconies for hanging out clothes, thus avoiding ruining the town’s aesthetic with unsightly laundry lines.

It was a bit like wandering around a ghost town, as the streets were eerily deserted. Mahmood explained that most of the few hundred residents were at work, and naturally many of the houses had not yet been filled.

We were taken to a beautiful gigantic outdoor amphitheatre built in the Roman style. Though on the outside it was flawless and complete, when I went up to one of the stage’s balconies for a photograph, there were piles of rubble on the stairwell. Apparently they also had an equestrian centre for horse riding and were building a water park. I couldn’t help but think about the country’s water shortage.

Next we walked through the retail district, past shiny and empty shops such as Armani Jeans and Mango, to stop off at a café. There we met the founder of Rawabi, Bashar Al-Masri. He was a friendly and self-assured man in middle age whose plastic surgery perhaps belied his true age, and he answered some of our questions. His oratory was full of positivity and one couldn’t help being swept up in the hope for a better future. We ran out of time before I could ask my question: “what are the challenges you face?”

After a couple of photo calls with an official Rawabi photographer, it was back on the coach and back over the border.

Aside from these privileged and promising prospects, the only other Palestinian voice we heard on the trip was that of a young man named Noor who was part of an initiative called Roots, which seeks to encourage Israeli/Palestinian dialogue, non-violence and cooperation. Roots was based in a charming and rather dilapidated centre located at a roadside in a space policed by neither Israelis nor Palestinian authorities, and where many violent incidents had occurred.

Noor’s story seemed very far removed from the opulence of Rawabi. It was a tale full of injustice, senseless violence and personal tragedy, but also compassion and hope. It brought the human consequences of the conflict to a startlingly intimate and immediate light. Small though the Roots project is, its very existence seems to me to be of colossal importance.

At various points on the trip, each and every one of us felt crushed by the seeming hopelessness and endless complexity of the situation there. The long legacy of pain, struggle and bitter injustice suffered by both sides that continues to this day was difficult to face. If more peaceful coming together of both sides could be fostered, then a solution might eventually, eventually be reached.

Crossing in to Palestine brought up a complicated mix of feelings. From what I could see, life can be hard and unfair, but they are not mere victims over there. Incredible things are happening on the other side too, and we can only hope that they will truly bear fruit.