A Window on the West Bank

Article excerpt

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There was a period, a window, in the mid-1990s when fieldwork on the West Bank was reasonably safe. The window opened about 1993, by which time the Intifada of the preceding five years had run its course, and it closed in October 2000, when the second, or Al Aqsa, Intifada began. "Reasonably safe" is subjective. After the first Intifada, Israelis rarely if ever considered the West Bank safe. They pointed to many continuing acts of violence, and they said that Arabs were temperamentally volatile--friendly one moment, explosive the next. Many Palestinians, too, thought it was crazy for a foreigner to walk around some West Bank places--the Hebron souk most of all. Yet I wandered through that souk many times, and almost nothing bad happened. While the window was open, in fact, I spent three summers on the West Bank and three or four shorter periods at other times of the year--and almost nothing bad ever happened.

Almost? A few boys outside the spectacular but isolated Mar Saba monastery pick up some grapefruit-sized rocks and threaten to break my head if I don't give them money. A friendly Palestinian trucker flags me down and warns me that if I drive farther along this road I'll run into flying rocks. (This is on the approach to Si'ir, a proud town that generates its own electricity rather than accept the dependency implied by a hookup to the Israeli grid.) Palestinian security thugs accost me in Hebron, where they are briefly suspicious that I am seeking to buy property on behalf of Jews. Other Palestinian security men detain me for a while in Jerusalem's Haram al Sharif, where my scrutiny of certain Herodian flagstones they have always ignored suggests that I am investigating something that might, somehow, threaten their control of the place.

But what are incidents like these, alongside the thousands of West Bank miles that I drove? People stared for a moment at a yellow-plated (Israeli) car lost in the maze of dead-end streets in the core of Nablus, but they were mostly bemused, especially when I returned a minute later, sheepishly backtracking. Other people--even in Si'ir, where I eventually became a frequent visitor--checked me over twice, then forgot about me. I helped them, by driving with my windows down and my elbow resting conspicuously on the windowsill. Danger, I wanted them to think, was the last thing I had in mind. Besides, I wanted to distinguish myself from settlers, who often drive in vehicles whose windows are not only closed but whose glass has been replaced by heavy, rock-deflecting plexiglass.

Nobody ever threw a rock at me. Beginner's luck? Maybe, but if that's what it is, I had an awful lot of it. Car-rental agents at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport would be aghast when I said I was going to the West Bank. "They'll burn it," they said--and warned that all the car's insurance would be void. But nobody ever touched my car, except for those boys near Mar Saba, who decided to top off their haul with a windshield wiper.

Fieldwork on the West Bank was not just reasonably safe, it was easy--at least it was easy if by that word you mean that powerful material comes flying your way. One might expect all kinds of suspicion and hostility from people who feel profoundly victimized by Israel and its supporters--which is to say, first and foremost, by the United States. But however much suspicion and hostility Palestinians feel, those things are more than counterbalanced by traditional Arab hospitality and by the acute need many Palestinians have to talk about the disruptions that are so much a part of their lives.

Starting at the University of Bethlehem, where I had a serial-research Fulbright fellowship, I worked through three or four contacts to find a good place to stay. It didn't take long. Within a day or two of my first arrival, I was introduced to a family in Beit Sahour, a town on the east (downhill) side of Bethlehem. The family consisted of four brothers, their mother, and all their wives and children. …