London Bridge to the West Bank city of Nablus in around nine hours is certainly the biggest culture shock I’ve experienced.
Arriving in Tel Aviv on an EasyJet plane is odd in itself. But my one hour taxi drive from the airport to Nablus provided a crash course in what makes this place unique.
My taxi driver, Khaled – an Arab, living in Israel, working for an Israeli taxi company while studying English and accountancy at Tel Aviv University – proved an appropriate guide to the complexities and fragile state of this region.
Khaled was the second person I met in Israel, the first being an Israeli immigration officer. Despite warnings that I could be questioned for anything up to a few hours, I was granted a visa without anything more than basic pleasantries. [Others aren't so lucky and speaking to other volunteers here tonight, I certainly seem to have got off lightly.]
As we drove towards the West Bank checkpoint, Khaled suddenly pointed to our left where there was an Israeli town and, then, immediately to the right where an Arab town of similar size also sat. Arabs and Israelis living relatively peacefully side-by-side, or so he said.
Through the checkpoint, into the West Bank, things were immediately different. And you could sense a shift in Khaled’s tone. He became increasingly passionate as we passed Israeli settlements where “bad people” lived, protected by IDF soldiers. At the same time (and as top of the range Israeli cars sped along the same motorway, groups of Palestinians who work in Israel during the day were making the long walk home down the hard shoulder.
At one point I commented on the impressive state of the road we were travelling down. Ah yes, Khaled said, that’s because this road leads to a settlement. The further we ventured into the West Bank, the less impressed I became.
Arriving in Nablus, as the beauty of the setting sun was matched by the Islamic call to prayer, the culture shock was complete.
“If I could live anywhere, I’d live here in Nablus,” said Khaled. “These are nice people, friendly people.” But with a wife and two small children, he feels job prospects and the future is brighter living in Israel.
It was interesting how he spoke of Israelis and Arabs living side by side in Israel and yet uttered such rage at Jewish settlers in the West Bank. And while his taxi with Israeli yellow number plates is allowed freely into both territories, if his vehicle had the green and white plates of Palestine, then he wouldn’t have been able to make this trip at all.
While London to Nablus is certainly a strange juxtaposition, I suspect that, as Khaled illustrated time and time again, there are perhaps even greater contrasts to be witnessed right here.
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