West Bank Road Trip

CASEY BRUNELLE  –  Jul 15, 2021
While studying in Israel, I have been fortunate enough to see much of the country, its geography, and its people, as well as, more recently, that of the Palestinian-administered areas in the West Bank. Recently, I travelled to the cities of Ramallah (the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority, or PA) and Nablus, both situated in 'Area A' of the West Bank. 

A segment of the barrier wall that surrounds the West Bank, accessed through an East Jerusalem checkpoint controlled by the IDF. (Photo: Casey Brunelle)

To note, the West Bank (also known as Judea and Samaria) is divided into three districts, as per the 1995 Oslo II Accords, with Area A (primarily the built-up city centres of Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, and others) being exclusively Palestinian Authority-administered. Area B is under joint security administration between the Israeli government and the PA, with manned Border Police/IDF checkpoints and sentry outposts situated at critical junctions. And finally, the contiguous Area C, which consists of the majority of the West Bank (60% of its land area), administered solely by Israel and incorporating its various settlements (legal, according to Israeli law, and otherwise) as well as the strategic positions in the Jordan Valley. Accordingly, the territories under the civil and security administration of the PA consist of an "archipelago of islands" within the West Bank.
The Israeli border police and transportation officials strongly discourage travel to the West Bank, even when one is booking the train ticket to West Jerusalem, but I was assured that it was perfectly safe for cautious and situationally aware tourists, students, and the like. As someone who has studied the region, its peoples, and its various sociopolitical and security issues for some years, and yet had never had the chance to visit it in-person, it was a remarkable experience to actually take in the myriad sounds, scents, and sights.

One of the many warning signs installed by the IDF at the edge of Area A territory. (Photo: Casey Brunelle)

I took the train from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem city centre, then a tram to East Jerusalem, immediately outside the walls of the Old City, and then a sherut (a shared taxi bus) from Jerusalem to Ramallah, with IDF checkpoints between each city and town of Area A. I stayed there, in the Palestinian capital of Ramallah, and even watched the Italy-England final in an upscale shisha bar in the city centre. I travelled with two Americans, a Brazilian, a German, and a Pole, and so we found ourselves rooting for the underdogs of Team England, while the many patrons of the establishment in which we were watching were unapologetically pro-Italian (perhaps understandable, given the legacy of the British foreign policy in the region). 
We then embarked on a regrettably brief trip to Nablus in the north of the West Bank, which is more rustic and conservative when it comes to Palestinian nationalism, comparative to Ramallah. Martyrs' Square, in particular, was a memorable experience; as the loudspeakers ran through the names of fallen suicide "martyrs" amidst omnipresent calls of Allahu Akbar, while people went about purchasing or selling their wares from the open market.

A small portion of the expansive souk in the Old City district of Nablus. (Photo: Casey Brunelle)

Even compared to Ramallah, the handful of us were quite certain that we were the only tourists and the only non-Palestinians in the ancient city of 150,000. By and large, the Palestinian people in both cities were exceptionally kind, welcoming, and, especially, hospitable. The majority of the vehicles on the roads are very new, maintained mechanically and aesthetically to a degree not often seen in the West, and the populace is largely impeccably dressed, continuously proclaiming their clearly-earnest welcomes to their city, specifically, and to Palestine, in general.
One of the most memorable by-chance occasions was when the males of our group were welcomed into two mosques consecrated in the earliest years of Islam – As-Salahi Al-Kabir Mosque and Al-Naser Mosque. There, we were all-but-rushed inside amidst enthusiastic embraces and the cleansing of face, hands, and feet, before being shown around the mosques, themselves, and told of their incredible histories, belonging to that of the Romans, Byzantines, the early Islamic caliphates, Frankish crusaders, Ottoman Turks, and, finally, concluding in the challenging political maelstrom in which the region finds itself to this day.
Notably, the traditional cuisine was even better than I had been told it would be. Much of the preparation and cooking is done in the open streets, with spits of well-seasoned and delicately-prepared chicken, beef, and lamb on display for passers-by, as well as all sorts of falafel, flatbread and pizza, shawarma, rice, turnips, pickles, and onions, not to mention various salads being freshly mixed just inside the storefront, amidst an impossible variety of seasoning, primarily sumac and oregano. Many such places still employ ancient clay ovens (a tabun oven, used primarily for baking bread), which are communal, and in which one places their pots for long-term cooking from a few hours to even days, and which volunteers (predominantly, women) maintain.
Ramallah, in particular, is a relatively liberal city, with stores selling 'Canadian Club' and all assortments of locally-produced beer, Arak (a Levantine spirit), as well as imported alcohol, and a significant minority of women who chose to not don the hijab, chador, or niqab.
The markets (souks in Arabic and shuks in Hebrew) are particularly lively social spaces. From the simplest flatbread to more intricate dishes, the flavours are remarkable and we often found ourselves invited to try food and drink, to sit down and converse, even if our host did not speak English or French or German, and most of us only knew the bare bones of Arabic. Running for tunnel after tunnel and covered alleyway after alleyway, children and merchants labour (often with success) to sell you every trinket imaginable, with modified Chanel and Gucci brands or traditional, hand-crafted Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian clothing and jewelry, as well as goods from the Nablus soap factories (of which unfortunately there remain only two) with materials being imported daily from Israel. Amidst the mercantile bedlam, entrepreneurial young boys endeavour to sell shopping carts and trolleys to those foreigners who seem to be in need of them, whether they actually need them or not.
It is admittedly odd to find myself enjoying an early-morning falafel and Turkish coffee under the awning of a street-side restaurant, across the way from buildings adorned with the black and yellow flags of prominent militant groups. The mausoleum of Yasser Arafat, founder of Fatah and long-term chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), was a particularly notable experience. In the middle of Ramallah, the ornate and yet simple tomb of Arafat rests within an oasis of ponds and palm trees, adorned with traditional stonework reminiscent of the pre-Islamic civilizations of the region. The armed paramilitary guards, as well as the groundskeeper (who was sporting a red and white "Canada est. 1867" t-shirt) were, as per the norm, among the most welcoming and helpful people I have met during my travels.

A protest in Ramallah against the Palestinian Authority, following the death of outspoken activist, 43-year-old Nizar Banat from Hebron, who was in PA custody at the time. (Photo: Casey Brunelle)

One notable observation about Ramallah (and, to a marginally lesser extent, Nablus), is that it is a dirty city, littered with various refuse in the public streets, sidewalks, and plazas, amidst pristine motor vehicles and luxury clothing among shop-goers. Garbage collection and transportation remains a significant problem for the densely-populated "islands" in Area A, and negotiations with the Israeli authorities to improve the situation remain elusive. Accordingly, illegal open-air dumps have sprung up by necessity throughout these cities. Store-owners sweep and mop the litter into the middle of the street. The boulevards and walkways of the Palestinian capital are largely covered with garbage, compost, plastic, animal carcasses (that used for consumption or simply strays), as well as discarded vehicle or industrial parts. In Nablus, a large open-air dump is situated in the middle of the city, the deep pit surrounded by a tattered chain-link fence, and in which young children were playing with stray cats.
For a territory in which over half the population is under the age of 20, it is particularly disheartening to see children growing up in these conditions, and it is no great leap to see that their future opportunities remain severely constricted amidst the political deadlock. Certainly, the policies of Israel alone cannot be unilaterally to blame for the situation; rather, it seems to be a combination of corrupt, complacent, and non-democratic leadership in the PA, the seemingly unending interference of foreign powers, and the desire of neighbouring Arab states to keep the refugee problem as a "problem," rather than as a pressing incentive to find a long-term solution. Perhaps a mutual fear of Iran's growing influence will continue to force the region's powers together, although it remains likely that the Palestinians will be left behind. 
With both the Israelis (Jews and Arabs, alike) and Palestinians long-since having found their voice and long-since having lost their patience for the politicians to find yet-thus-far elusive answers, it seems that strictly-tactical "Band-Aids" like the Iron Dome aggravate the political problems and prolong the diplomatic stalemate as the people on each side suffer. It also seems likely that, were another crisis similar to that of May 2021 happen again, the cost will be greater, in not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also in Israel, itself.
Regardless of such geopolitical forecasting, it is evident to even a casual passer-by, that the status quo is not tenable. A solution to the stalemate afflicting the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, amidst the larger neo-"Great Game" of Middle East Cold War politics, requires political willpower, rather than strictly dominance through conventional military means and an increasingly volatile descent into violent extremism.
CASEY BRUNELLE is an intelligence and strategic studies consultant with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors, specializing in counterterrorism, public safety, and geopolitics. A regular contributor to
FrontLine Magazine, he holds an MPhil in international relations from the University of Cambridge, an honours BSocSc in international development from the University of Ottawa, and is currently studying security and diplomacy at Tel Aviv University in Israel.