Curious about Palestine, Israeli visitors return

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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)

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)

In this photo taken Wednesday, April 16, 2014, a member of the Israeli and foreigner’s group tour, that is organized by IPCRI, an Israeli Palestinian group promoting co-existence, takes a photo of the Palestinian national flag during their visit to a museum dedicated to national poet Mahmoud Darwish, at 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)

In this photo taken Wednesday, April 16, 2014, members of the Israeli and foreigner’s group tour, that is organized by IPCRI, an Israeli Palestinian group promoting co-existence, visit the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, at 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)

In this photo taken Wednesday, April 16, 2014, Israeli members of a group tour, who are observing religious tradition, pull out containers with matza, unleavened bread, to eat alongside plates of hummus and olives, as the trip fell in the week of the Jewish holiday of Passover, during a lunch at a local restaurant following their tour, that is organized by IPCRI, an Israeli Palestinian group promoting co-existence, in 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)

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, looks on toward a Palestinian neighbourhood 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)

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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 matza, 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.

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