A trip into the heart of Palestine

A journey to the land that has seen many changes, where Arabs and Islam once prospered, is exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time

  • Pages of history Remains of a Roman street in Bisan, now called Beit She’an. Although a lot has changed over tImage Credit:
  • Keeping a legacy alive Boats at Jaffa, c 1911. An Arab population still exists hereImage Credit:
  • Story in pictures Images are projected on the Damascus Gate in the Old City during the annual Festival of LighImage Credit: REUTERS
  • As time goes by A Palestinian man washes his horse in an irrigation canal in Jericho. The city has undergone sImage Credit: AFP
  • Changed scenario View of Tiberias, c 1926. The city is now a popular tourist destination for Jews who come to Image Credit:
Gulf News

Dust flew as I kicked the ground, little particles of dirt slowly settling around me. It was then that I realised I was standing on the land of Palestine — a land that I was away from for the past 30 years, a land that’s a distant memory.

After nearly two decades of refusing to give in for fear of being branded as getting close to the enemy, I eventually applied for an Israeli tourist visa through a travel office in Amman. For me, this was the ultimate irony. A Palestinian going to Occupied Palestine, where the doorkeeper is Israel.

The visa was actually only for places in Israel. But everyone, including the Israelis, knows that Palestinians in Jordan circumvent the rules and head straight to their towns and villages on the West Bank — driven by an inseparable bond with their land, homes and kin.

Tourists, such as us, don’t go to the normal border posts but to the Jordan River Crossing point between Jordan and Israel up further north. It was set up after the signing of the 1994 Wadi Araba Treaty to establish peace between the two countries.

After the passport checks, our journey quickly began. We were in new territory characterised by its rich agriculture. There are vast patches of green and an abundance of water. Capitalistic methods and special Israel-made fertiliser have turned the fate of this sector, and crops here are protected, or so we are told. However, it was the plentiful water that made us all envious.

The place we come from is parched, where every drop of the precious liquid counts.

The first stop was a city that goes by the Arabic name Bisan, which in the course of history was hastily renamed as Beit She’an. The tourist guide informed us this Arab town was depopulated in 1948 and its inhabitants were forced to leave and become refugees on the land where they had lived for centuries.

Bisan no longer has that Arab character. The people who live there now are mainly oriental Jews from Morocco. Later, we passed through Tiberias which we were told was now a Jewish city, with its Arab population also chased away in 1948. Tiberias, we were told, is now a tourist destination because of its famous lake, which is frequented by Israelis on weekends.

The bus continued. We made a quick detour to Jericho, one of the Palestinian cities in Gaza where the peace process was initiated in 1994, the year Palestinian self-rule started from here. The town, one of the oldest in the world, seemed uneventful. The city has undergone many changes since the 1990s.

We saw the hotel that once housed the Oasis Casino, which was established in 1998 to attract rich Israelis known for their appetite for gambling. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian president at that time, had purportedly said, “Why let Israelis travel to places such as Cyprus when we can provide top quality service around the corner.” The casino closed down when the Second Intifada started in September 2000.

Our group of 16, including my mother and sister, was heading to our base in Occupied east Jerusalem. It was a magnificent hotel atop a mountain that directly overlooks the golden Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque.

It was heavenly to be standing at a place where Islam, Christianity and Judaism once coexisted but now barely tolerate each other because of politics and Israeli heavy-handedness.

The first night some of us, too excited to rest our limbs after a gruelling journey, strolled down to the religious complex in time for the Isha prayer and finally reached the Dome of the Rock. Seeing it in person instead of on TV was an awesome experience. Notwithstanding the scaffolding for ongoing repairs, we prayed together inside.

It was past 9pm. People, although few, where still moving about. Our experienced and knowledgeable guide told us about the many wells in this vast, holy compound.

They number no less than 33 and were dug to supply water to the sloping compound. He said this was a major architectural feat as they were dug to reach the same level of a vast reservoir of water underneath. He said a lot of engineering and mathematical calculations went into ensuring that the depth of each well was the same.

Our real journey into Occupied Jerusalem, however, started the next day. We were not going to miss the rare opportunity of listening to the Friday sermon and pray at Al Aqsa Mosque at noon. We started early, going through the Damascus Gate, one of the 11 gates that surround the Old City.

It was heavenly to be there, with lively souks around the city leading to the religious compound, the third holiest shrine in Islam after Makkah and Madinah.

Vegetable stalls, shops that sold shoes, bags, mobile phones and trinkets, bakers, vendors selling fruit juice and others catered to all kinds of visitors from all over the globe — Germans, Filipinos, Indians, Americans to name a few, strolling in groups.

On each street, Arab outlets seemed to dominate over the few Jewish shops marked by the Israeli flag. An Arab vendor mischievously smiled and made a cheeky remark as we passed: “Walk under the Israeli flag.”

Jewish shop-owners frequently call upon their Arab counterparts, asking them to sell their shops for obscene amounts. An Arab owner of a popular café told us he was offered $8 million (Dh29.4 million) for it but he casually declined, saying it was not for sale. However, not all are as nationalistic. The house of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was bought from an Arab family, we were told.

By the time we arrived at the Al Aqsa compound, it was teeming with those who had come to pray. I am not just talking about inside the many mosques in the compound. People sitting on their prayer mats, on the grassy patches and elsewhere, were keenly listening to the sermon on loudspeakers.

In the afternoon we made our way to Howara on the Occupied Jerusalem-Nablus Highway. One of our relatives came to receive us.

Being a Palestinian, he is banned from entering Occupied Jerusalem because, according to restrictions imposed by Israel, one has to be over 55 years of age (50 in case of women) to do so. So he waited for us at an adjacent precinct.

This was the first time we right in front of Israel’s so-called “Apartheid Wall”, which is a tall combination of grey concrete and barbed wire. Some of its sections are electrified. Israelis have long attempted to isolate themselves, I thought.

Just on the outskirts of Occupied Jerusalem was the first security check point with young Israeli soldiers scrutinising ID papers and visa. That done, we were on our way, bypassing roads, Palestinian villages and mountains over which were Israeli colonies.

I haven’t seen so many of these. There was a time I thought it was one-for-one — for every Arab village at the foot of a mountain, there was a colony on top. The last time I visited the West Bank was in 1985, when such colonies were quite low-profile.

But now, they were mushrooming. This is despite the new era of peace, seemingly fraught with hurdles, that saw the Muqata, the centre of Palestinian government, being set up in Ramallah. However, there is little else with comprehensive peace remaining ever elusive.

In Howara

There has been a total transformation since I was here last. One can see a buzz of activity at the shops, restaurants, offices and cafés on either side of its streets. This wasn’t the sleepy village I saw long ago. Buildings, villas, mosques and rest areas have been constructed everywhere. There is even a swimming pool.

This was certainly not the picture I had in mind. This was not the picture the media presents — of Palestinians surviving on daily wages of $2 as pointed out by the World Bank, of high unemployment and pockets of poverty. The people I spoke to here said many worked as labourers in Israel and were paid high daily wages. This is how they could build their houses, they told me.

My trip to Palestine/Israel enthralled me. I had mixed emotions. For the first time, I wanted to see what is inside the so-called “green-line”. From Occupied Jerusalem, we passed through villages from where Arab inhabitants have long been driven out through fear and massacres such as those witnessed in Deir Yassin and Kufr Qasim. There were others that were given Jewish names, such as Beit Dajan, now called Beit Dagan, or Yafa, pronounced as Jefo and Jaffa.

I was told Tel Aviv was actually called Tel Al Rabieh, or a “Mount of Spring”, before Israel changed its name. Nevertheless, it is a modern capital replete with industries and skyscrapers. It’s nothing special, it’s just like any other modern international city, you could say.

Next to it is the beautiful town of Yafa, where an Arab population continues to live among the Jews. Yafa actually become an extension of Tel Aviv, or perhaps it was the other way round. However, this little town has maintained its traditional, indigenous character.

We walked on its beach, passing people talking in different tongues, have ice-cream, quenching their thirst with bottled water and soft drinks. I saw an odd mosque here and there, and even heard the call for noon prayers, giving me a momentary sense of elation that Islam will always be here.

It was a quick trip. We were back in Occupied Jerusalem by late afternoon. I made my way back to Howara, with a long list of relatives who have grown wearily accustomed to Israeli occupation. It is slowly taking a back seat but there’s a constant reminder that you are being watched. The next day I stayed put, just to unwind and ponder over the multitude of changes that have occurred in this little town. It has become a hub for the villages around it, whose inhabitants flock here to buy their daily needs. I was told that when the lights were turned on at night, Howara would glitter.

I also took this opportunity to visit Nablus, one of the largest Arab cities on the West Bank that was handed over — in a rather odd manner — to the Palestinian National Authority with its headquarters in Ramallah. My uncle and then my in-laws had taken me there. I first visited this city in the 1970s and 1980s, but coming back here, I was in for a series of culture shocks, especially at the economic changes.

The Nablus downtown was essentially the same. Walking its streets again filled me with a sense of nostalgia, déjà vu that I’ve been here before, at the souks, markets, the small green plots. But there was something else as well. Buildings had grown bigger, with shops, offices and banks occupying the streets.

Besides, entire residential blocks, villas and houses where growing upwards, structured and tightly built on the mountains surrounding the city. Everywhere you looked, there were “white” facades, reflecting the growth in the Palestinian population, which many Israeli politicians are fearful of. This is truly an Arab and Palestinian area. Even though the colonies on the mountains are not visible, they do exist.

At the end of the week, I was introduced to a panorama of images. My final trip with the group was to Haifa, an essentially Jewish city that was quickly put together into a mishmash of a modern urban conurbation. To say otherwise would be doing injustice to it. We more or less passed through it, just as we had done at Tel Aviv.

It was as though we were hungry for traces of the Arab-Palestinian character and made a blinded sojourn to Akka, a traditional Arab city incorporated into Israel after 1948. The first thing Israel did was to alter the population mix of the city. Today, only 25 per cent Arabs live in Akka. The rest are Jewish, mainly from Morocco. Israel changed its name to Akko, or Acre in English.

Akka was fascinating, with the waves washing its coast. It’s traditional character is still alive in its squares, alleyways and corners — all reminders of the past. As we walked, we could smell the place’s history, the eras past, going as far back in time as the Greek and Roman cultures thrived here.

We offered the noon prayers at Al Jezzar Mosque. Built in 1781, this mosque is named after Ahmad Pasha al Jezzar, the famous Ottoman governor who repelled Napoleon in the Siege of Acre in 1799. It towered as a symbol of Islamic dominance despite political, economic and social upheavals resulting from the establishment of Israel.

I always wanted to go to Akka, a wish reinforced by the charming lithographs of the city by David Roberts. “Well, here I am in the middle of centuries and centuries of history,” I thought as I returned to the bus to Jerusalem.

For me, this was one of the best trips that I had in a long time. I was reinvigorated to see the new Palestine and old Palestine, although in very different political circumstances than I would have wished for. I was glad I didn’t watch the depressing news that week. I say it without fear that I was dazzled with what I saw — a Palestinian community and nation being built despite the Israeli transgressions in the area.

Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.

Loading...