A West Banker Goes to Haifa
My husband and I took this opportunity to go visit our friends in Haifa and Shfa Amr, since my husband has a three-month permit, which Israel granted to most Christians in the West Bank. I had been to both Haifa and Shfa Amr previously, but my husband had never been to either in his last 26 years living in the West Bank. It surprised a lot of people to hear that it was his first time visiting Haifa, particularly since it’s only an hour away from Ramallah (without checkpoints, etc.). Most people in Haifa and the North don’t understand the lack of opportunities that West Bankers have to visit 1948 Israeli occupied areas such as Haifa.
Besides the pain of obtaining a permit to enter Israeli areas, and besides the checkpoints and humiliation that a West Banker has to endure, they are also denied the right to drive in all Israeli areas. This means that they only have two options to get to places like Jaffa, Haifa, and Akko.
1) Public transportation: This option takes double the time needed to travel by car, especially since there is no direct public transportation from West Bank areas to cities like Haifa. People like my husband would have to take a bus from the checkpoint to Damascus Gate of the Old City in Jerusalem, take the light rail to the Central Bus Station, then take a two hour bus ride to Haifa. It’s extremely uncomfortable and almost traumatic for West Bankers to be on a bus for this length of time, surrounded by soldiers wearing their military uniforms and carrying their rifles.
2) Private transportation: This is a much more convenient option for West Bankers, since they can arrange for a private taxi to pick them up after they cross the checkpoint by foot, and then go directly to Jaffa, Haifa or Akko.
The only problem is it’s extremely expensive! A family of five would have to pay at least 800 shekels ($250) for private transportation to Haifa. This does not include the cost of staying at a hotel or guest house, and the cost of food and leisure activities. Taking into consideration that an average family’s income in Palestine is less than 2,000 NIS per month, this becomes an unfeasible option.
In spite of all the financial and physical obstacles, some West Bankers do manage to get to Haifa and its surrounding areas every once in a while. These are the things that surprise them about this beautiful region on the Mediterranean coast:
1) Arabs and Jews live side by side: Without denying the blatant inequality and racism towards Arabs in Haifa and other Israeli areas, in general Arabs and Jews get along, especially in Haifa. For example, if you’re an Arab living in Haifa, you most likely have a Jewish neighbor, a Jewish colleague and a Jewish classmate.
2) People are friendlier: Jews don’t give Arabs that rude look when they hear Arabic. Many of the Jews living in Haifa actually speak Arabic, and don’t mind Arabs so much, unlike Jerusalem, where ethnic tensions run high.
3) There are excellent Arab restaurants: Although there’s a stereotype that Arab restaurants have the worst customer service, in Haifa, some of the best and busiest restaurants are the Arab ones.
4) There’s no need to go to Paris or Rome: Haifa has the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. From the Bahai Gardens to Stella Maris to the sandy beaches and the beautiful churches, Haifa is filled with the most breathtaking views.
5) Palestinian villages have the same feel wherever they are: Entering Shfa Amr, which is a town between Haifa and Nazareth, my husband pointed out that it feels like going to Nablus or Jenin, which are two cities in the West Bank, north of Jerusalem. Palestinians are dressed the same, talk the same, and have the same traditions wherever they live. There isn’t a huge difference between West Bank villages and villages in Israel, except the roads are better in the latter.
In general, our trip was something to be remembered, and there will certainly be another visit to beautiful Haifa before my husband’s permit ends!