Monday, September 5, 2011

One Month in the Holy Land

By Evan Barton

I arrived in Israel about a month ago, just before the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av. I spent my first few days in the region in West Jerusalem, where most stores and restaurants observe the Jewish holidays and the religious strictures concerning work and food. While in Jerusalem I stayed in a hostel, and the staff there told guests to make sure they had enough food for the day because most restaurants would be closed. I had never heard of the holiday, although a retired teacher from Queens - who was also staying at the hostel - filled me in: Tisha B'Av commemorates the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple, the last of which fell in 70 AD.

One of the benefits of being here has been the ability to witness the extent that religion affects society as a whole. Regardless of whether you are secular or observant, events from the ancient past bear significance on people's identity and culture.

The organization I am working for provides coverage on Palestinian issues and events in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Although it is officially based in Jerusalem, the editorial office is in Ramallah, which is a few miles north of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Since the Oslo peace agreements, Israeli citizens have been discouraged from going into Palestinian-controlled "Area A" towns in the West Bank, so Ramallah-bound travelers often have to go to Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem to find a taxi or shuttle-bus that can go through Qalandiya checkpoint and into the city. Sometimes taxis only go as far as the separation wall, forcing travelers to go through the checkpoint and search for transportation on the other side. Fortunately, on my way to Damascus Gate I found a taxi willing to take me all the way to Ramallah. It was expensive although I had so many bags that loading them onto a cramped shuttle-bus would have been too much of a hassel -- I was pretty happy with the deal.

Once in Ramallah, I realized that Ramadan was well underway in the West Bank. During the month of Ramadan, observant Muslims are required to fast from from dawn until dusk -- a difficult task during summer time. A lot of Muslims I have met here did not observe the fast, although the holy month affects everyone to some degree. Most restaurants and many convenience stores close during the day, and you cannot eat or drink anything in the streets. Even if you are Christian, people see it as really disrespectful to eat or drink in public during Ramadan -- and if you do they will have no qualms calling you out on it.
About half of my office was fasting, so it seemed a little rude to eat a lot during work. I never fasted, although I ended up eating more than average for breakfast and dinner, and less for lunch.

One of the issues in the conflict is that both the Palestinian and Israeli governments want their capital in Jerusalem. Following the 1967 War, however, Israel annexed East Jerusalem into Israel (this is a big sticking point in international relations between Israel and other nations, with Obama reaffirming the American position that Israel should return to the pre-1967 borders), so the Palestinian Authority is effectively based in neighboring Ramallah.
In addition to the government, a lot of NGOs and businesses are based here, and there is a college in the neighboring town. People from all over the West Bank commute to the city or have moved here permanently because of their jobs. The standard of living is higher in Ramallah than in many other parts of the West Bank, although food and housing tends to cost more than in other places.

Despite the relatively cosmopolitan vibe in the city, one big difference between Ramallah and Jerusalem is that there is no bus transportation within the city. Ramallah is much smaller than Jerusalem of course, although the Israeli cities I have visited all have fairly extensive bus systems traveling between cities and stopping at points within the city. In Ramallah, there are buses that take people to more distant points in the West Bank, although people traveling to Ramallah from nearby cities take the "service," which is a van-sized shuttle that fits about 10 people inside of it. Traveling within Ramallah, you have to take the "taxi service," which travels from outlying areas to the center of town. The price is less than a dollar USD although the taxi drivers invariably take four passengers in the car. It is a cramped way to travel - especially if you are the middle - but it gets you close to where you need to go for much less than a private taxi.

Israel has attracted a lot of international attention in the past few weeks, with the bus bombing in the Negev, Israel's retaliation resulting in the death of 5 Egyptian soldiers, "social justice" protests in Tel Aviv and other cities around the country, Palestine's UN bid to become a unified nation, and the increased tension between Israel and Turkey following Israel's unwillingness to apologize for the deaths of several Turkish citizens on the"Freedom Flotilla" to Gaza in May 2010. Turkey expected an apology following a UN commission's report finding the military's use of force in boarding the flotilla "excessive."

The JMCC uses a newswire to publish a lot breaking news, so I have been doing a mixture of some breaking news, along with updating background articles on the website and writing up smaller events and less time-sensitive stories.*

With so many things happening at once, you never really know what is going to happen next or how it will all turn out. People here are fond of making guesses, however, and I have found both Jews and Arabs in the region are quick to give their opinion regarding the conflict. This is definitely an interesting place for journalism.

*Here are two examples of stories I have written over the past few weeks
Protest at Qalandiya checkpoint:

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