Before serving in the army I had spent next to no time in the West Bank, certainly nowhere near as much as I have in the past month. My army service is with CoGAT, and for the last month I was stationed at the field headquarters outside Ramallah. The offices were a former Jordanian hospital, and the rest of the base is the typical thrown-together assortment of tin-roofed trailers and temporary outbuildings. Just one hundred yards from where I slept, a mosque on Ramallah's outskirts blared the call of prayer (waking me up regularly at 4 and then 5am. What astonished me most how close I was to the rising construction cranes and broad avenues of downtown Ramallah, and yet how far and detached everything on base seemed. Though surrounded by Palestinians, there we were, managing the affairs their government should, spending our time, effort, and money on things Israelis don't benefit from.
Driving to base on the 170 bus only reinforced that impression. After crossing through the Hizme checkpoint, we bypassed every village on the way as if they were leper colonies, only to stop at a lonely gas station near Psagot to unload and take on passengers. The winding roads that hug the hillsides weave their way through the Samarian hills, past terrace upon terrace of olive trees and dull beige clusters of farm houses, and meander upwards to lonely Jewish outposts of concrete and trailer homes crowning fog-blanketed peaks. What would ordinarily be a forty-five minute ride in a car takes two hours on a public bus, for they service each of these thousand or two strong settlements nestled above their Arab neighbors. The names of these villages proclaim the religious beliefs and heritage of those inhabiting them: Shiloh, Eli, Brachot, Psagot, Ariel.
While topographically there is no difference between the hills around Jerusalem and those around Nablus or Ramallah, there is a wholly different vibe. Palestinian license plates and flags merely demarcate an already clear divide between Israel and the West Bank, a divide that transcends political nuance. No amount of religious or political demagoguery can convince me otherwise now that I've seen it for myself. Though beautiful, it is foreign.