How to get around in Palestine

Grassroots organisations for volunteers in the West Bank can be found in the previous blog. Palestine was my first volunteering experience and I would recommend travelling there to anyone; it’s an eye-opening experience in a beautiful country. I know every tourist has one place which they claim to have the friendliest people on earth, but I’m not sure any of them compare to Palestinians.

I was invited to a wedding but got lost alone on the way, and ended up in the wrong part of town from where I needed to go. While I was looking confused and trying to get directions on my phone, a woman came out of a nearby house and, without either of us being able to speak the other’s language, she gathered that I was lost and insisted I come inside. I got introduced to the whole of her family and given a cold drink (much needed after being lost in the hot sun!) while I looked up the way to the wedding. There are obvious safety issues with Palestine as a state under occupation, but the people around you will be eager to help.

That said, it’s best if you don’t get into any sticky situations to begin with, so this post will give a bit of advice on how to get in and around the West Bank safely.

Jerusalem from the roof of the Austrian Hospice.
Jerusalem from the roof of the Austrian Hospice.

Some controversial advice on border control

You have a few options for getting into the West Bank. You can enter via Israel (through Jerusalem) or Jordan (across the King Hussein/Allenby bridge). You can also enter via honesty or dishonesty.

Israel has a policy of refusing entry to “activists”, which in practice includes a broad range of people ranging from French music students to the UN Special Rapporteur. Sources like Area D advocate being honest about your intentions to volunteer, as being found out to be lying can lead to deportation. However, telling the truth is also fairly likely to end in removal, so if you are questioned I’d suggest using a cover story if you can get away with it.

Enough individuals and small groups of people enter Israel as tourists each year to make holidaying a fairly obvious alibi. One possible exception would be if you have an Arabic name or heritage. When I went to the West bank our group of 20-odd volunteers had 5 detainees on arrival at Ben Gurion Airport: the four Arab-British members of the group, and one white guy with a beard.

Means of transport in the Jordan Valley.
Means of transport in the Jordan Valley.

So, if you’re either Arab or beardy, you might want to tell the truth and hope for the best. To increase your chances, take down any mention of Palestine from your social media before you book a flight, and clear your phone and laptop before travelling. That includes going through emails and instant messages — this article is a sobering glimpse of how little privacy detainees are given.

I realise this is likely to sound either paranoid or daunting, and I hope it doesn’t put anyone off. The majority of people enter without a hitch, but being prepared will increase your chances. Getting into Israel is kind of an introduction to life under occupation. It’s scary, but worth experiencing to be able to meet people who will deeply appreciate your presence and solidarity.

Welcome in Palestine!

If you make it through border security and over the green line, you’re going to get used to hearing this idiosyncratic phrase from friendly passers-by.

From Ben Gurion Airport, you can catch a bus or train to Jerusalem, the capital city of both Israel and Palestine. That situation is a political clusterfuck, so the administrative capital of Palestine is actually Ramallah, where a plethora of NGOs and grassroots are based. They give the city a much more Western feel than other parts of the West Bank. There’s even a hipster woodland bar with a swimming pool (and it’s awesome).

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s surprisingly easy to get to Ramallah from Israel by bus. It’s getting back that’s the problem.

Buses to the West Bank leave from East Jerusalem bus station, a minute’s walk from Damascus Gate. The number 18 or 19 bus will go to Ramallah bus station. There are multi-tickets if you’re going back and forth frequently. Take a seat and the bus will go right through Qalandia checkpoint and into central Ramallah.

The way back is slightly more convoluted. The bus will drive to Qalandia checkpoint and stop. Palestinians with green ID cards will get off and go to the walk-through checkpoint. Blue ID holders and foreigners can stay on… and drive 3 more metres.

Then everyone gets off and goes through the drive-through checkpoint. A cage-like turnstile will let everyone through a few at a time. You need to put your bags through the scanner and show your passport and visa to the guard. The drive-through isn’t pleasant but it’s usually pretty quick.

At least once in your trip, you should choose to experience the walk-through checkpoint. Get off with the green ID-holders when the bus stops the first time (don’t walk back from the second bus stop – it looks suspicious to be on the road near a checkpoint). Cross the road to where the large car park is. You’ll see people going in and out of a large entryway beside the checkpoint.

A walkway at Qalandia checkpoint.
Women queue to enter a walkway at Qalandia checkpoint.

Inside there are four caged walkways, leading to several turnstiles and manned bag checks. It’s the same process as the drive-through, but it can take anything from thirty minutes to five hours, depending largely on the mood of the guards. People start crying or shouting. Some have appointments to keep. Some of them do this every day to get to work or school.

The difference in security between entering Israel and the West Bank is one of many fun little discrepancies you’ll get to enjoy during your stay.

The Jordan Valley through a (grimy) bus window

Crossing the Holy Land

Even if you’re volunteering in Ramallah, you’ll want to get out and see the rest of the West Bank. There are so many beautiful spots, most of which have incredible Biblical history. Luckily it’s easy to get between towns by bus or shared taxi (servis).

There are a few servis stops around central Ramallah. Just ask a driver to find out which transport you need. As the servis only leaves when it’s full, it can take some time before your car departs. The bonus is that they’re pretty excellently cheap.

One problem with getting around is the lack of Google Map, which doesn’t cover Palestine. Instead, you’ll have to download an app like Maps.Me. This will help orient you, but bear in mind that most locals don’t use, or even know, street names! If you need to get a cab somewhere you’re better off knowing a local landmark, or even a popular restaurant, to direct the driver to.

Parts of this guide might sound a bit scary, but I hope it’s informative. Every country has something beautiful about it, but Palestine surprised me with how much I fell in love with it. I’d love for more people to travel there — especially volunteers! See the last blog post for some ideas.