My West Bank visit left me optimistic, despite my host

He lost me at “ethnic cleansing.” That was the term the Palestinian ambassador used to describe Israel’s actions in the West Bank: ethnic cleansing. Right. Just like Bosnia.

Sitting there in the bustling city of Ramallah, I thought to myself, “While Israeli construction in the West Bank is a legitimate issue for debate, how will we get anywhere when Palestinian leaders use outrageous terms like that?”

I’ll back up. This encounter took place during my trip to Israel last month, which included three days spent traveling with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, making his first visit to the region. Our itinerary took us across Israel and, for one day, into the Palestinian territories.

Immediately after crossing the border, I noticed a landscape different from the cultivated farmlands of Israel. We passed olive groves behind razor wire fencing. Goats meandered on rocky hillsides. Closer to Ramallah, I saw roads, factories and homes under construction everywhere, with as many orange-vested workers as I see everyday in downtown San Francisco.

Wending through Ramallah traffic, I saw out of my bus window girls in hijabs laughing on their way to school, shopkeepers sweeping sidewalks, women toting shopping bags down busy avenues. The city hummed.

We finally stopped along a wide boulevard and filed into a small government office. Waiting for us there were former Foreign Minister Nabil Sha’ath and Husam Zomlot, ambassador-at-large for the Palestinian Authority.

Sha’ath, 78, welcomed us, telling his visitors he loved San Francisco so much he honeymooned there. Then he got down to sound bites. “The Holy Land is not in peace. It is in pieces,” he said.

Though he still believes in a two-state solution, he said, “You cannot negotiate land for peace while your occupier takes your land piece by piece.”

His answer? Turn the matter over to “the international community,” i.e., the not-at-all-hostile-to-Israel United Nations. I disagreed, but appreciated Sha’ath addressing us with respect, knowing we were Israel supporters.

Not so much the next speaker. Younger and more incendiary, Zomlot let it rip. He called out Israel for ethnic cleansing, an absurd charge given the large-scale development we had just seen. The World Bank tracks Palestinian GDP at $12.7 billion and an annual population growth rate of 2 percent. Clearly Israel sucks at ethnic cleansing.

During a Q&A, Zomlot was asked about the incitement against Jews so prevalent in his society, incitement that lauds stabbing attacks and makes martyrs of those who kill.

“I am here to incite,” Zomlot replied, shocking his audience. “We incite against occupation, against daily violations of human rights. It’s not a choice; it’s an obligation.”

I felt dispirited afterward. Zomlot is no tunnel-dwelling jihadist. A graduate of the London School of Economics, he lectures around the world, including addressing J Street gatherings in the United States.

If someone with such a résumé could bandy around phrases like “ethnic cleansing” and cheer on the incitement that leads to terrorism, how will the two sides ever make peace?

After Ramallah, we toured Rawabi, a $1 billion planned Palestinian community still under construction. Eventually the city will house up to 25,000 people, but first developer Bashar Masri will have to persuade Palestinians to sign on.

He has a long way to go. Because he was pragmatic enough to work with Israeli building suppliers, some Palestinians see Masri as a traitor and have urged a boycott of Rawabi. He has also had disputes with the Israeli military, which has jurisdiction over water rights in the region. No water, no Rawabi.

Still, I left Rawabi impressed by Masri’s optimism. He envisions a brighter future for his people, one that does not require incitement or intifada.

My visit to the West Bank was brief, but I was glad to have had a glimpse of Palestinian life. My sense was that these were proud, smart people who deserve happiness and security. If the Husam Zomlots of the world could just see the same in their Israeli neighbors, maybe we would get somewhere.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at