Thomas Hill, a native of Sacramento, California, lived in Russia on and off for nearly a decade, spending his final years in the beleaguered republic of Chechnya, where he was a country director for the International Rescue Committee. The opportunity to return to the US was hard to pass up. So when the IRC offered him a job as executive director in Los Angeles, he jumped.
“On the surface it would seem to be a big smog-laden, gun-fighting, traffic kind of place,” says Hill of LA, who bounced between neighbourhoods before settling down in West Hollywood. “You get [the neighbourhood] right, it’s awesome.” It was there that he met actor and writer Genevieve Parker, whom he married in 2012.
But last spring, just a month after their wedding, Hill and Parker moved to the Middle East, settling in the Palestinian territories via Israel. “We decided to become very minimalist . . . we got here with two bags and my camera gear,” he says. “If we get something new, we have to throw something out.”
The couple arrived last May, when Hill became director of programme operations for Save the Children, an NGO with projects across the region, taking him all over the West Bank and Gaza. At first, the couple tried to live in West Jerusalem, but life on the city’s Israeli side wasn’t an option for an aid worker, says Hill. “Politically it looks bad, especially if you’re here to help the Palestinians and then living in a whole different world.”
So they explored East Jerusalem, the Arab side of town. But as beautiful and romantic as East Jerusalem’s ancient streets and sights are, Hill says the checkpoints and movement restrictions make it an awkward place to live. “You go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and never know what to expect,” he says.
Frustrated, Hill and Parker passed through the security checkpoint, Kalandia, gateway to the Palestinian town of Ramallah, in central West Bank, and just five miles north of Jerusalem. On a bad day, the process can take two hours.
But the wait was worth it, at least for Hill and Parker. Prices in Ramallah were more reasonable than in Jerusalem. For $1,000 a month they found two- and three-bedroom apartments that would have cost three times as much across the border.
Similar to LA, they also discovered that comfort hinged on finding the right neighbourhood. At first, they lived on “Embassy Row”, far enough from basic city services that Parker had to take a taxi to get to yoga classes. Those early weeks were tough and isolating.
Hill says he had been spoiled by Russia, where a larger and more itinerant expat community was more open to new arrivals. “‘You’re here, welcome, join us at whatever bar,’” he says, recalling his first weeks in Moscow. Ramallah, meanwhile, is a town of only 50,000, made up of locals, Palestinian-Americans, NGO workers, activists, and students, many of whom have lived there for years and are protective of long-term friendships.
The couple relocated to a flat just three minutes’ walk from the town square. On the ground floor is a bar and café, with Guinness on tap and a supply of organic baked goods. Hill and his wife became friends with the owners, a Palestinian-American from New York and his Californian wife. The café hosts movie and music nights, and when the weather is good, which is almost always, Hill enjoys hosting people on their balcony.
Recently, Hill planted onions in garden beds on the roof. Looking down at the surrounding land, he describes trees laden with figs, oranges, olives and lemons. He has even begun making cheese, and there are plans to install solar panels.
Such a quiet home life contrasts with Hill’s work, which finds him travelling weekly to Gaza, Hebron, Nablus and Jerusalem, braving checkpoints and often relentless traffic. In a region where travel is so difficult, Hill’s ability to move around so widely is rare and gives him a good perspective on the region.
Travel problems aside, Hill says he is yet to feel frustrated with the situation. “Things here are inconvenient, but it’s safe – with the exception of the random air strikes.”
His job also keeps him in touch with the Israeli security apparatus. “You have to worry about spectacular events, but you kind of know when spectacular events are going to happen.” From his time in Moscow and Chechnya, Hill can speak Russian and listens to news in that language – a sizeable Russian diaspora dots the area – and though he learns a lot, he says the tone is often dispiriting.
Hill says that Israelis and Palestinians know very little about each other. He was amused by a recent article in the New York Times, which described a visit of four dozen Israelis to Ramallah, part of a programme to expose Israelis to life in the West Bank. But Ramallah residents were frustrated, Hill says, when they saw the Israelis had visited the city’s “worst café,” and weren’t actually permitted to talk to any Palestinians. There were better cafés, Hill says, including one place that serves “really good Italian”.
Still, the region is stunning and there is much to see, from the beaches of Tel Aviv to ancient Jericho. On a recent weekend, the couple hiked to a peak above Ramallah, taking fresh cheese, and eggs from chickens that roam their garden. They made a fire and relaxed. “On one side was Israel, the other Palestine,” Hill says.
Sometimes, it must feel like he is caught between the two. After all, there are only two ways out: if Hill has a flight from Amman in Jordan – about 80km away – at 5pm, for instance, he must leave Ramallah by 9am in order to cross the Allenby bridge, which can take five hours. For a 5pm Tel Aviv flight, he can leave at noon. But on that route his wife has been strip-searched twice.
Hill says he smoked his way through some stressful years in Russia. He quit in LA but has taken up the habit again. When the summer arrives, he hopes to cut down. “I have a baseball bat and a glove. I’m just trying to find a team.”
Buying property in the Palestinian territories is incredibly difficult, expensive and risky. Establishing title of land is a time-consuming process and there are potential political complications due to continuing land disputes with the state of Israel.
What you can rent for ...
$1,000 per month A centrally located two-bedroom/one-bathroom flat with multiple balconies
$3,500 per month A two-storey villa on the edge of town with five to seven bedrooms and stunning views of Jerusalem
● The food is fresh, local and flavourful
● The weather is dry, sunny and rarely cold enough to shut the windows
● The friendliness of the people
● Crossing Kalandia, the fearsome checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, can take up to two hours
● Frequent water outages
● Political instability
This article has been subject to corrections