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Curious about Palestine, Israeli visitors return

Thursday - 4/17/2014, 12:45pm  ET

In this photo taken Wednesday, April 16, 2014, a female member of an Israeli and foreigner's group tour that is organized by IPCRI, an Israeli Palestinian group promoting co-existence, listens to a Palestinian guide while visiting the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah. This bustling center of Palestinian life is just a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, but for Israelis it might as well be on the other side of the world. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

KARIN LAUB
Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- This bustling center of Palestinian life is just a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, but for Israelis it might as well be on the other side of the world.

Since a major round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting more than a decade ago, Israelis have been kept out of Palestinian cities by the Israeli military and their own fears. But after several years of relative calm, a few have begun trickling back in tours led by Palestinian guides and guarded by plainclothes Palestinian security agents.

On Wednesday, about two dozen visitors, Israelis and a few foreigners, visited the mausoleum of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a shrine to national poet Mahmoud Darwish -- though hopes of talking to local residents went unfulfilled.

The trip fell in the week of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and those observing religious tradition unwrapped matzo, or unleavened bread, during lunch at a local restaurant, as Arabic music played in the background.

The tour also came as another U.S. attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal appeared doomed.

Gershon Baskin, an organizer, said such trips are needed, nonetheless, to foster understanding after years of enforced separation that deepened the divide between the two peoples. "There will never be peace in this land unless the people living on the land talk to each other and ... drop these walls of fear, animosity and hatred," he said.

While some Palestinians, especially shopkeepers, would welcome large numbers of Israeli visitors to their towns, others dismiss the possibility of normalizing relations while the Israeli military occupation continues.

"Normalization is the attempt to deceptively project something abnormal as if it were normal," said Omar Barghouti, co-founder of a Palestinian-led movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), aimed at ending occupation and what it considers other violations of international law.

"Ethical co-existence can only come as a result of ending oppression and injustice," Barghouti said in an emailed comment. "Israelis who support comprehensive Palestinian rights under international law and 'co-resist' oppression are welcome."

One of the stops on Wednesday's itinerary, the village of Nabi Saleh, was canceled at short notice because of an internal Palestinian debate over what constitutes acceptable relations with Israelis.

Like several other villages, Nabi Saleh has been holding weekly protest marches against Israeli practices in the West Bank, including the confiscation of land. Israeli and foreign activists often join those protests.

"Usually, we accept these (visiting Israeli) groups," said Bassem Tamimi, a Nabi Saleh protest leader who has repeatedly been arrested and jailed by Israel. He said Wednesday's visit was called off because there was a sense that Palestinian public opinion is largely against Israeli visits to Ramallah and attempts at normalization.

The Israelis came to Ramallah with their own issues, including security concerns, but also a lot of curiosity.

"The Palestinians are our neighbors," said Tel Aviv resident Gavin Gross, 52, an immigrant to Israel from New York City. "We are right on top of each other. Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, they are short drives from Jerusalem, and I can't sit here and think that there's something there that I am not allowed to see. That's why I'm here."

Gross said he last visited Ramallah in 1999, spending an enjoyable evening at a jazz club. It was a time when the two sides seemed close to a deal on setting up a state of Palestine alongside Israel.

However, U.S.-sponsored talks on a partition of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River collapsed in 2000 and were followed by several years of fighting.

Those years marked the bloodiest period since Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem -- lands the Palestinians want for a state -- in the 1967 war. Several thousand Palestinians were killed, including in clashes with the Israeli army, while hundreds of Israelis were killed in bombings and shootings by Palestinian militants.

An event seared into the collective consciousness of Israelis came shortly after the outbreak of fighting. On Oct. 12, 2000, two Israeli reserve soldiers who had made a wrong turn en route to their base were beaten to death by a Palestinian mob that broke into a Ramallah police station where the two were being held.

Since 2000, Israel's military has barred Israelis from entering Palestinian towns and cities, with large red road signs in Hebrew warning those ignoring the ban that they break Israeli law and put their lives at risk. At the same time, about 550,000 Israeli settlers live on occupied lands, including about 350,000 in the 60 percent of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control.

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