STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Paul Salopek has been walking the path of early human migration from East Africa, across Asia and beyond. He's taking years to walk thousands of miles, discovering stories in a different way as he goes. And most recently, he reached the Middle East. Just before the latest Mideast conflict, he was walking through the West Bank and Israel.
PAUL SALOPEK: At one point, we stumbled into a protest that was between a Palestinian village and the Israeli Defense force, and the soldiers started firing at us because they thought we were protesters. Compared to the months of walking through empty horizons in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, this has been a very head-spinning change for me.
INSKEEP: Tell me more about the soldiers firing at you. Were they firing live ammunition?
SALOPEK: No, they were firing rubber-coated steel rounds and also shooting gas canisters and stun grenades, too. So it's a ritual that happens in this part of the West Bank near a village called Nabi Salih, and it usually happens on Fridays. My guide Bassam Almohor and I were walking through on a Wednesday. We had no idea that there would be an eruption of violence that day. And we literally turned the corner in a road, and bullets started chunking into the ground in front of Bassam's feet. So we beat a hasty retreat.
INSKEEP: Are these protests about the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict or about local issues that are some subset of that conflict?
SALOPEK: They're both. The local issue is an Israeli settlement that has encroached on a local well that belongs to the Palestinian community, but they're staging these protests to the larger Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
INSKEEP: How did the atmosphere changed when you crossed through the checkpoints onto the Israeli side?
SALOPEK: The best way I can frame it as a walker is what you carry on your back. When I entered the West Bank, I soon discovered I didn't need to carry a lot of water and food because it's basically a village economy - much of it, and there are people who sell three oranges on the side of walk in front of their house that you can buy or cup of tea. When I crossed the checkpoints into Israel proper, I basically walked into California, which was a car-driven economy - big highways, industrial agriculture. And I suddenly had to assume a lot more weight in my pack to walk between minimarts and truck stops.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you about that, Paul Salopek, because you walked a long time on both sides of that dividing line as an outsider - but sometimes, outsiders see things that insiders do not - and then you walked away. I'm curious if you think people on each side of that border understand the other and how they live.
SALOPEK: I'm - I'm really stunned, actually, by the psychological barriers between Israel and the West Bank. In the West Bank and in Israel proper, there's a flow of people every day. There are workers - Palestinian workers. There are, you know, Western and Israeli activists going to the West Bank. But they live in separate realities. So you have settlements on top of fields. You have Palestinian communities in the bottoms and valleys, and they look at each other as if they're living on different planets when they're only a few hundred meters apart.
INSKEEP: Did you find that, in conversations with people, that the conversation would just go in a completely different direction depending on which side the person was on?
SALOPEK: Yes and the conversations were petrified because they'd been polished and faceted over so many years. I would tell a Palestinian sources or guides that I just visited an Israeli settlement to interview families there, and they would say, well, what was it like? And it was within sight. It was, you know, ringed by razor wire and a cyclone fence, but you could see it. And they were asking as if I'd just come from the planet Mars.
INSKEEP: We got a sense of security or the lack of it on the Palestinian side. What about on the Israeli side? There are rockets being lobbed at Israel from time to time, obviously.
SALOPEK: There are and I think life goes on in Israel. It - it - I may say it looks like California. It has sidewalk cafes. It's got a night club culture in Tel Aviv. But people do live under the threat of violence. It might be less ever present as it is in the West Bank, but it's there. The whole region is shimmering with this kind of tension. It's very strange, Steve. I think something I was mentioning to one of my guides as we were walking through these kind of golden hills - it was this very bucolic setting in the West Bank with olive groves and silver leaves and, you know, blue shadows. It was paradisiacal. And it would be the most coveted real estate in the world even if it weren't the center of three great faiths. But, you know, every day at some point, you'd hear distant gunfire. And so you have this very surreal disconnect between the beauty of the place and the hard political reality of it.
INSKEEP: Did people on either side, in conversation, give you a sense of what they thought of the long-term future.
SALOPEK: I got a deep sense of weariness from both sides with very little hope that there would be a transition to a peaceful solution soon. A lot of the people I spoke to in towns and villages when I walked through the West Bank expressed the desire just to lead normal lives again. But then again, look what's happened in the last couple of weeks, and it is just like touching a match to tinder, and things explode all over again. And it's very hard to have a normal life there.
INSKEEP: Paul Salopek, always a pleasure talking with you.
SALOPEK: Thank you so much. It's great to be with you.
INSKEEP: And walk safely.
SALOPEK: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Paul Salopek walked through the Middle East just before the latest escalation of the conflict. He's a National Geographic fellow. His work is featured in this month's issue of National Geographic Magazine, and we'll continue checking in as he continues his walk.