More Israel impressions

Blogger Steve Kelman reports on a visit to the West Bank (and adds a World Cup twist).

Our group visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank and (among other things) heard from the Palestinian Authority prime minister, about which I will report in my next blog. But I want to note how different the West Bank looks from my expectations -- at least the areas near Jerusalem and just to the east of the Israeli border as Israel winds northward on its very, very thin territory.

My image of West Bank “villages” (the general phrase used) was that they consisted of semi-dirt roads with small, makeshift concrete hovels with corrugated metal roofs, tiny street vendor stalls everywhere and goats in the street. I had images of teeming refugee camps in my mind. This is not even slightly close. Instead, they consist mostly of quite modern stucco apartment blocks (perhaps 4 or 5 stories tall), private homes (also quite modern and often quite large) and fully paved streets. They look more like Mediterranean suburbs than Indian farming villages. There has clearly been a lot of construction here in recent years. The term “village” is misleading, both because these places are generally moderately large and because the dominant construction is apartment buildings, not small individual houses. Looking at these towns made it clear to me that, if the sides can only make peace, the opportunities for economic cooperation and growth are very large.

I was also surprised by features of the Palestinian Authority’s government compound, where we met the Prime Minister. There was clearly security, but we didn’t even go through a metal detector to get in – though there were Israelis in our group, and we were visiting Israel sponsored by an American Jewish organization. No armed security person was inside the Cabinet Room where we had our meeting, although there were several outside. We were met inside by two young, attractive women who were not even wearing headscarves – although a member of our group reported most of the women seen inside some offices on the way out had full face coverings. In the Cabinet Room, bottles of Cappy brand fruit juice – manufactured inside Palestinian Authority territory by Coca-Cola (with a Coca-Cola logo on the bottle) – were served.

We saw surprisingly few Palestinian flags in the Palestinian Authority areas. By contrast, Israel beats the U.S. as the country with the most flags I have ever seen flown, not just in public buildings but in a very large number of private homes and even out the windows of apartment buildings.

Speaking of flags, one also sees a fair number of Argentinian, Brazilian, and other flags around Israel – representing countries people are rooting for in the soccer World Cup (Israel itself was eliminated earlier). There are a moderate number of Argentinian Jews in Israel, but few Brazilian ones. I have been told that people often simply pick a country to root for just to make watching the matches more exciting.