For about a week I haven’t been able to withdraw any cash from the ATM and I’m starting to run out of money. This morning I head for Salfit, the nearest large town, to sort it out in person at the bank.
After some time spent sitting in the manager’s office drinking coffee and even more time on the phone to the UK, it turns out that my bank does not do Palestine. The man in London mutters something about ‘sanctions’ and ‘risk,’ although his geopolitical knowledge seems somewhat hazy. When I tell him I’m in the West Bank and I can’t withdraw cash, he seems to think I’m calling from a financial institution. ‘Why don’t you try somewhere else?’ He suggests. I explain it’s not convenient for me to cross a national border every time I need to get cash, but after a long time checking with his boss, he comes back to me and apologises. ‘We just can’t do anything, it’s policy.’ he says. This is a real problem.
Then I remember that we are right next to the large Israeli settlement of Ariel, which will surely have plenty of Israeli banks. It’s just a question of getting there. It’s a 10 minute taxi journey where from I am, but a car with Palestinian numberplates will never be able to enter an Israeli settlement and I’m not keen to try to pass through the check point on foot as they will certainly search my bag, which has Arabic literature inside it, and potentially ask me all kinds of awkward questions.
I call Becky, one of the experienced volunteers, who suggests that I head for the junction outside the settlement and catch a bus past the checkpoint. This turns out to be a challenge in itself as she has mistakenly given me the wrong name of the junction and I have to keep my ultimate destination a secret from the taxi driver. Eventually, after lots of misunderstandings, I find myself at the Israeli bus stop near Ariel.
This is all taking ages. It’s early afternoon and I still haven’t managed to get any cash. I comfort myself that at least once inside I will probably be able to buy a cup of Western style coffee, something I really miss.
At last a bus arrives. There are a few religious people on the bus, but most of the passengers seem to be immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Not all Israeli settlers are religious fundamentalists – many of them are secular people, especially recent immigrants, who have been encouraged to settle there by government financial incentives.
Ariel is in the size of a town. Travelling through it on the bus also gives me an opportunity for me to begin to answer a question I’ve had since arriving – the existence and expansion of these settlements, which are illegal under international law, make the lives of many Palestinians a misery – so what are they actually like?
As I ride past, I notice the civil niceties: the disabled parking spaces, recycling collections, community centres, the neatly-trimmed parks. After the village, it’s a culture shock: everything is so uniform and ordered. In the village, everyone knows everyone elses’ business without the need for community centres, and children don’t play in parks, but in orchards and family-owned land where they pick and eat food from the earth and the trees. Constructed quickly, Ariel feels artificial and soulless.
As I don’t know my way around, I miss the town centre and end up somewhere on the outskirts. Only then do I realise that it’s the first night of Passover and everything is closing early as everyone heads home for the seder. I pass a cafe which probably sells delicious takeaway coffee, but it’s closed. This could be a problem, as the buses will stop soon.
I withdraw cash at last, then try to find a bus stop. I wait and wait. Nothing comes. This is not good. It’s hot, my water has run out, and nothing is open. Even if I’m happy to pass the checkpoint on foot, I’d still have to find it, and I think it’s probably miles away. The number of cars passing and people in the street is getting less and less, and it’s not as if I can even call anyone to come and pick me up, as I have no idea where I am and Palestinian vehicles can’t get in here anyway. The sun is starting to set, and I’m going to end up stuck here. This isn’t funny.
Then I see some religious people, who I saw earlier trying to hitch a lift, getting into a car across the road. I run towards it and catch the driver just before he closes the door. I have the same problem as before, which is that I can’t actually tell anyone where I want to go. By now I just want to get out of here. Safely past the checkpoint, I ask to be dropped off. The other passengers are looking at me very strangely.
I make it back to Deir Istiya before dark.