This Ice Cream Shop Is So Good that Israelis Sneak into Palestine to Eat There
"The ice cream is stretchy, like melted cheese. It makes me so sad that I may not have that ice cream ever again.”
Photos by Christopher Beauchamp
On my flight to Tel Aviv, an Israeli woman sitting next to struck up some polite conversation.
“Where are you staying in Israel?”
“I will be in the West Bank. We are staying in Ramallah.”
As Ramallah is the administrative city of the Palestinian National Authority and considered a no-go zone for Israelis, I suspected my words might inspire a change in the passenger’s friendly tone. Instead, her eyes lit up.
“Oh my goodness, you are so lucky,” the woman said. “When you are there, you must go to Rukab Ice Cream shop. I used to go there when I was a little girl. The ice cream is stretchy, like melted cheese. It makes me so sad that I may not have that ice cream ever again.”
According to the Oslo II Accord that was signed in September of 1995, sections of the West Bank and Gaza Strip were broken up into officially designated divisions; Areas A, B, and C. These areas would be recognized and honored by both the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority. Cities like Ramallah fall under Area A; in these locations, both civil services and security is provided by the Palestinian Authority. Although Israeli Defense forces regularly enter these areas to conduct raids and arrests of suspected militants, it is illegal for non-serving Israeli citizens to enter. Area B is under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, and ‘technically’ should not include Israeli settlements. Area C is any location within the West Bank that is under full Israeli control; this includes both military outposts and settlements.
Official signs leading to Area A locations like Ramallah warn: Entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives, and is against Israeli law.
This also applies to people getting ice cream.
Ramallah, located just six miles north of Jerusalem, is considered the most liberal Palestinian city. The unofficial center of the city is Al-Manara Square, a traffic circle with five stone lions perched in its center. More than just a landmark to find one’s way around town, Al-Manara is also a de facto location for protesting against the Israeli government. Spanning out from the square are bustling streets that in the evenings fill with both citizens and tourists visiting restaurants, nightclubs, kebab stands, and bars. Roughly three blocks east of the square, on the aptly named Rukab Street, is Ramallah’s most revered confectioner: Rukab’s Ice Cream Parlor.
Open late into the night, the landmark shop has been in business since 1941 and established a name for itself selling homemade dondurma, a Turkish-style ice cream that is made with mastic. A resin gathered from the Pistacia lentiscus tree, mastic is referred to as Arabic gum in the States. The hardened droplets of resin that are hand gathered and shipped from the Greek island of Chios give Rekab’s ice cream its trademark elasticity and unique flavor.
As soon as you enter the shop, you’ll see counter-men whipping colorful frozen strands as if they are pulling taffy. Banana, strawberry, and pistachio are just a few of the locals’ favorite flavors. Although all varieties contain the mastic resin, I am drawn to the Rekab’s Arabic Gum, which is the original recipe. Made with milk, sugar, mastic, and not much else, its cool creaminess is followed by a clear, woody finish, lending the original recipe the best qualities of cedar and pine. Pulling a mouthful of dondurma from a cone is a dance within itself. The eater’s mouth must follow the elastic strands back to the cone, and pinch it off with a quick scissoring of the teeth.
Current co-owner Jimmy Rukab instructs me on proper ice cream-eating etiquette while waxing poetic about his family’s legacy. “My grandfather opened this shop in 1941, but he was selling ice cream for a long time before that from a street cart. His father used to work in the orange orchards in Jaffa and one day died unexpectedly. My grandfather was only fifteen and the family had to fight to survive. His mother (my great-grandmother) had an old Turkish ice cream recipe that used the mastic resin. She would make a bucket every day that my grandfather would go out and sell in the street. It all grew from that need to survive.”
The shop, perched on a cobblestone corner with a pink neon sign, looks like it could be out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Upon closer investigation, one can find collateral damage inflicted to the exterior from recent street conflicts. Jimmy points out 30 dirty spots where their op has been hit with both rubber bullets and live ammunition.
“The other night, the Israeli Army came to Ramallah to confiscate some chemicals from a bookstore that sells supplies to schools for chemistry classes. The Palestinians threw rocks, and the army shot rubber bullets and a few live rounds. Four people got hit. I came into work and there were a few big pools of blood on the sidewalk. Then the next day, it was as if it never happened. This is the cycle here.”
Jimmy went to a Quaker High School in Ramallah after which he attended UMASS Boston for business. Although a US citizen, he chose to come back to Ramallah to help the family business grow and to be part of what he calls an ‘optimistic new generation of Palestinian entrepreneurs.’. However, new political developments continue to put the city and region on edge. Jimmy believes his shop’s sales serve as a litmus test to gauge the level of tension in the city.
“When Donald Trump decided to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, it created a lot of tension here, and it made it even worse that they are planning to do it on Nakbe Day. When the news broke, protesters lit fires in the streets and had some major clashes with the Israeli army. A lot of us feared there would be a full scale uprising. When these things happen, the shop gets very slow because every day Palestinians start to squirrel away their cash. If you are afraid a war is going to start, the last thing you are gonna to do is spend money on things you don’t need.
You eat ice cream because you want it, not because you need it. Our store is very busy. When it gets slow and people are not buying the ice cream, it usually means something bad is going to happen. ”
Around the corner from Rukab’s is a popular kebab stand that stays open late and offers unlimited free homemade pickles (in roughly 15 varieties). Everyone hanging out seems happy and offers a friendly hello. Jimmy assures me that Palestinians are smart enough to know that most Americans do not like Trump or his policies. I ask whether it’s true that Israelis sneak into Ramallah to visit the shop.
“Every once in a while, a group of Israelis will sneak into Ramallah with Canadian passports so they can have my ice cream. Even though they try to blend in, I can always pick them out from their accents. We just created a new banana caramel ice cream based on my sister’s toffee recipe. People all over are hearing about this new flavor and are kind of freaking out.”
Once back at the shop, Jimmy insists I take a road cone filled with the banana caramel madness. When the night ends, there are still a few men standing around eating ice cream and talking politics. Jimmy sighs at the region’s continued uncertainty.
“Working in the shop, I get to hear all of the conspiracy theories floating around the community. It is a strange time because we really do not know what is coming next. Some people are saying that the leaders of both Israel and Palestine are friends and have a big plan to make peace. They are just doing it slowly so everyone can adjust to the changes. Maybe Israel‘s capital will be West Jerusalem and Palestine’s capital will be East Jerusalem.
“Whatever the plan is this time, I just hope it works.”