From East Jerusalem to Ramallah

It's not hard to guess why when we went to Ramallah I kept reciting under my breath the poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream" by American poet Wallace Stevens. Stevens' short poem describes ice cream being made in house of mourning. Though there is ever-present sadness the poet still wishes to "whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds."

The Palestinian people, in addition to their other hardships, have been cut off from East Jerusalem by a gigantic concrete wall and a series of checkpoints which prevent easy passage between Israel and the territory of the West Bank, occupied in violation of international law since 1967. East Jerusalem is a city of over 300,000 Palestinians, which -- though it has never been their political capital -- has been their cultural, economic and artistic capital for countless generations.

A short fourteen miles away, in the hills to the north of Jerusalem, lies the acting political capital of Palestine, Ramallah. When we visited Bir Zeit University in the morning one of the students told one of the Muslims in our delegation who had been praying at Al-Aqsa how she too longed to go to East Jerusalem one day; later that evening one of the Israeli students from Hebrew University told me that he had heard many wonderful things about Ramallah.

They're all true. Ramallah is a wonderful, vibrant town, bustling with energy and verve. Where else in the world is a city in which one of the main streets running through the center of town is named after an ice cream parlor? And on Rukab Street, down a shadowy staircase there is an English language bookstore where shone up at me from a book table the face of Suheir Hammad, Palestinian-Brooklynite poet. Later on the street, hanging in a store window: a charcoal drawing of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who made Ramallah his home when in 1997 he at last returned to Palestine after a lifetime abroad.

After our visit to Bir Zeit University we were able to talk with activists from Gaza via a teleconference system. The seven young activists, all between 18 and 22, most of them women, were able to tell us about their various democracy building projects in Gaza. We had to strain to make out their grainy faces in the low-resolution project, and strain also to understand their heavily accented English but it moved me nearly to tears to hear the hope in their voices, see the commitment and kindness in their faces.

The Palestinian people have been divided in four and none of the four can meet, create cultural commerce or find political unity as a people. Scattered by war, they are now scattered by "peace." There are the Palestinian-Israelis who live inside the "green line," the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel. There are the Palestinians who live, sealed up in Gaza, without adequate construction supplies to repair any damage caused in the siege of Gaza, many of them living without electricity, access to fresh water or medical care. There are the Palestinians who live in the cities and towns of the Occupied West Bank and then of course there are the approximately 4 million members of the Diaspora who have no legal status as Palestinians per se. Though legally some are permitted to travel, the onerous system of checkpoints makes a twenty minute drive turn into a three or four hour journey.

In East Jerusalem I was constantly aware of the fact that, though beyond the "green line" and so not a part of the internationally recognized State of Israel, we were in annexed territory. I had no sense of the Palestinians here as a sovereign people. There are urban settlements inside the city and a set of settlements ringing the city to the east (and so inside the Occupied West Bank) that are cutting off the Arab city from the rest of Palestinian territory. As we drove out of Jerusalem toward Ramallah we had to drive through a checkpoint past the high concrete wall. This wall ostensibly divides Israel from the Palestinian territories but the wall is far inside the West Bank, cutting off parts of what is legally considered to be Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.

One thing that has haunted me on this trip through an unsettling region with two names is how complicated the situation is, how many views there are toward solving the seeming myriad of issues that face the Palestinian and Israeli people. One issue seems basic: there can never be a functioning and vibrant Palestinian polity until there is freedom of movement for the Palestinian people. The wall must come down, the blockade of Gaza must end and the checkpoints in the Occupied West Bank must be removed and transit between Gaza and the West Bank restored.

There are a range of complicated issues that face the Palestinian people about which there is lively debate and discussion but three concerns seem to be the most basic ground point from which to begin a true movement toward peace between two equal partners, two nations devoted to finding common ground and a way toward justice over part grievances and shared prosperous future: there should be a full withdrawal by Israel from Palestinian lands illegally occupied since 1967 (Gaza Strip and the West Bank), full equality for Arabs living inside Israel and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

In Ramallah somehow I felt free. In Ramallah I felt like I was in a free Palestine. The people around me behaved like free people -- they were angry, funny, passionate, disturbed. They were vocally critical of their own government, introspective and thoughtful about the future, all while being distracted by the wedding dress in the shop window. They make brilliant art and literature and music. They dream -- as their Israeli sisters and brothers did once -- of returning to Jerusalem.

When the Berlin Wall ringed that German city one side of it -- the East German side, the side of the closed and undemocratic regime -- was bare and imposing. But the other side -- the West German side, the side that longed for a free and open society -- was littered and licked and lavishly covered with the brilliant graffiti of freedom. As we drove past the bare Israeli wall, past the checkpoint and past the now-closed airport that used to serve the Arab towns in that area, we saw the other side of the wall, the Palestinian side: first the brilliantly painted portraits of Palestinian leaders, then slogans, poems, and then the touching silhouette of a little girl with braided hair clutching a bunch of balloons being borne skyward, up over the wall, toward the blue sky, toward a space beyond the boundaries and checkpoints and separations.

In Ramallah the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.