RAMALLAH, West Bank -- A man from Haifa recalled taking his children here in the 1970s, to buy products not yet available in Israel: Ovaltine, licorice, 7-Up, Wrigley's gum. A woman who lives in a Jerusalem suburb said she used to come in the 1980s, for political demonstrations.
Maya Bar-Hillel, a psychology professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, last visited in August 2004, accompanying a journalist for a rare audience with the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasir Arafat, on what turned out to be his final birthday. Noam Rumack, 26, went even more recently, in 2006 -- but "as a soldier," he said. "Inside a tank."
These four Israelis were among about four dozen who made an unusual recent pilgrimage to Ramallah, one of several Palestinian cities that have been officially off-limits to most Israeli citizens for more than a decade. To make the trip, organized by the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, they needed special permits from both the Palestinian Authority and the Israel Defense Forces.
The outing occurred before President Obama's visit to the region, but it could almost have been a response to one of the memorable lines in his Jerusalem speech: "Put yourself in their shoes," Mr. Obama urged his Israeli audience, referring to the Palestinians. "Look at the world through their eyes."
Doing so has become more difficult. With the peace process at a standstill and Israel's separation barrier and network of checkpoints long a fixture of the landscape, contacts between the two peoples have dwindled. Fewer Palestinians work inside Israel. Dialogue groups have broken up. Camps connecting children are harder to find. The communities increasingly function as if in alternate universes.
Outside army service, Israelis who do visit the West Bank generally stick to the Jewish settlements; ominous red signs posted outside cities like Ramallah since 2004 warn that, for Israelis, entering is not only illegal but dangerous. Typical Tel Aviv residents grow wide-eyed at a mention of a visitor's going shopping in Jenin or driving through Hebron. Did you feel safe? is a common refrain. What is it like?
But when the Israel Palestine Center announced this year that it would take Israelis on Saturday tours of Ramallah, the current center of Palestinian government and cultural life, 150 people signed up in 24 hours. "Israelis crave to meet Palestinians and to go to the West Bank," said Goldie Orlan, who is managing the project, which also takes Israelis to Jericho and Bethlehem. "They just want to walk the streets and talk to normal people about their daily lives."
But they had to settle for walking through a sales center at Rawabi, a city-to-be of high-rises and homeowners' associations being erected in the empty hills. As for talking, it was mostly to their guide, Husam Jubran, whose liberal mix of opinion with fact led some to describe it as a "propaganda tour."
Many who made the trip were retired: academics and lawyers, a real estate broker and an actress of some renown. Some were veteran political activists; others were students like Mr. Rumack, just off their army service and whose worldview has been shaped by the violence of the second intifada, or uprising.
Some said they joined the tour to test their politics. "We need to see, we need to learn -- not lying on the sofa and saying, 'I'm leftist,' " said Suzy Ben Dori, who lives in Tel Aviv and works in tourism. Sammy Berls, an Australian-Israeli and the one who brought his children for treats in the 1970s, saw it as a way to see how accurate Israel's "rampant stereotypes" are.
For most, it was a matter of simple curiosity.
"Just to see them," said Eran Lador, 26, who is studying economics in Beersheba. "It's like 20 minutes away from my home, but it's another land, another country, another way of living."
For $50 each, the visitors got the sales pitch at Rawabi; a photo op at Mr. Arafat's tomb; time in a new museum honoring the poet Mahmoud Darwish; lunch at a local hummuseria; a stop at a troubled neighborhood surrounded by the separation barrier; and a bus ride through bustling Manara Square, led and followed by Palestinian security vehicles.
"I used to drive into these places at five o'clock in the morning, when it was pitch black," said Mr. Rumack, the former soldier, who is now training to be a tour guide. "It's nice to see it alive."
What they did not get is to meet Palestinians. At Samer Restaurant, the group was shuttled upstairs to waiting plates of falafel, pickles and spreads. The regulars stayed downstairs, and the men bringing refills and pouring thimbles of coffee did not engage them. When David Groman, 75, asked if he might go into some nearby shops -- "I just wanted to look at the goods. I wanted to see the price levels, see how people live," he said later -- he was told no way.
At Mr. Arafat's tomb, the rifle-bearing soldiers were stone-faced. "I talked Hebrew, and I thought, 'O.K., they can kill me at any given moment,' " said Roy Dayan, 25, a biology and humanities major at Hebrew University.
At the Darwish museum, Smadar Tsaban, 59, thought it "a pity" that the Hebrew translations of the poet's work were not among the eight languages on display.
"But I understand why it's too much for them," said Ms. Tsaban, the woman who frequented Ramallah for demonstrations decades ago. "We are, here, the bad guys, no matter what we think about the conflict."
Ms. Orlan of the Israel Palestine Center acknowledged the limitations of viewing a society mainly through bus windows. But, she said, it is better than not going at all.
Throughout the six-hour journey, the Israelis rushed to snap pictures through those windows: at sheep grazing in medians, at fast-food restaurants like KFC and Pizza Hut, at any sign in Arabic. They asked Mr. Jubran basic questions: What's the currency? (The Israeli shekel.) Do you have your own stamps? (Yes.) What does "Ramallah" mean in Arabic? ("High place of God.") What is its altitude? (About 2,500 feet above sea level, just like Jerusalem.)
The Oslo Accords, signed by the Israelis and the Palestinians in the 1990s, divided the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. Most Palestinians live in Area A, where Israelis have not been allowed to go since October 2000, after the mob killing of two reserve soldiers at a Ramallah police station. It comprises 13 percent of the West Bank and is under full Palestinian control.
At one point, Mr. Jubran asked the driver to pull off the road for a closer view of one of the red signs marking the city's borders. "The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden," it said. "Dangerous to your lives. And is against the Israeli law."
The guide objected to the wording. "They're saying it's like a zoo inside there," he told the group. "Animals are living there, so it's dangerous for you. It just gives the very, very bad image about the Palestinians."
Most Israelis just see the signs as they drive past. This group, at least, went in, even if it was mostly left to look out the windows.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.