Originally published on 13 September 2016.
What is it like to visit friends and see the sights in the shadow of guns and bombs? To be stared down by soldiers, witness the high walls of apartheid and discover graffiti that is less about artistic expression and more about resistance?
As the departure date for my trip to Palestine grew close, I got a mail from Q apologising for her delayed response as her mother had broken her leg. She had broken her leg, Q explained, as she was passing by the (in)famous Qalandiya checkpoint (the largest in occupied West Bank) when clashes broke out. As Q’s mother jumped to the side to avoid being run over by a racing car, she saved her life but broke her leg. Because of the clashes, there was no public transport and so Q’s mother had to walk for a kilometre on her broken leg to reach her workplace, where they finally got her medical help.
I told her these would be my first travel notes on life in Palestine.
As I planned my visit to friends in the West Bank, I had two possible entry routes – I could fly to Tel Aviv, in occupied Palestine and cross into West Bank from the Qalandiya checkpoint, or I could fly to Amman, Jordan and cross the border at the King Hussein Bridge crossing over from the east to the west bank of the Jordan River. I chose to fly to Tel Aviv for several reasons, finances being a crucial one. With an Indian passport, as I boarded my plane from somewhere in West Asia, I was only to get a tiny tip-of-the-iceberg glimpse into the territory I was about to enter. An extra layer of private security guarded the boarding gate to Tel Aviv. These security agents are trained to socially profile passengers to ‘randomly’ check those that seem like they need more thorough checking.
On landing in Tel Aviv I saw my first Israeli flag. Little did I know how many hundreds more I was going to be bombarded with in the next two weeks. Hundreds. And this is not an exaggerated figure to make the point. I was to head straight to the village of Birzeit in the West Bank, to the north of Ramallah.
Unsure about how public I could be of my intentions to go straight to the West Bank on arrival in Tel Aviv as a tourist, I scouted around for the best means to head south east. I took a shuttle to the Damascus Gate Bus Station in the Arab quarters of Jerusalem, from where buses leave for the West Bank. I sat cautiously and quietly in the shuttle, observing my surroundings, my fellow travellers, the landscape outside and anxious to see my friend. But I was excited when I saw a sign pointing to Ramallah. I couldn’t believe I was here. As I stifled a smile, a second later, I was jolted by the unexpected view of the wall far at the back. It was almost as if I had forgotten about the wall in the midst of the anxiety and excitement. The woman sitting next to me saw me jerk in shock. I checked myself and casually turned the other way. They mustn’t know my allegiances, I told myself.
With the help of a fellow traveler I got off at the bus station in Jerusalem and boarded a bus to Ramallah. I can’t recall now whether I felt the sense of relief I was to feel in the later days of my travels on entering Arab areas, but I do remember letting go of the need to hide my intentions of going to the West Bank. We were all headed to Ramallah.
As I sat in the bus continuing to observe my surroundings, wondering when I was going to reach and anxious to get off at the right point, I forgot about the wall again. Even though I remained alert, knowing I had to get off the bus at Qalandiya and not go all the way to Ramallah, I forgot about the checkpoint. But even so. No matter how many photos you may have seen, how many stories you may have read and how many presentations you may have heard about the wall, I’ll tell you this: Nothing prepares you for it. All of a sudden we were headed on a road and at the end of the road stood a massive wall, towers at the point of entry and guarded by Israeli soldiers armed with their guns. My fellow traveler smiled and pointed ahead and said to me, “There it is.” Unprepared, I stared in shock. Overwhelmed. Tears. Dumbfounded. Nothing prepares you for that moment you see, in flesh and blood, the apartheid wall.
Entering is easy though. The Israelis are not concerned with who enters West Bank. They are worried about who leaves it. I had to quickly gain control of my senses and get off the bus with all of my luggage. As I waited for my friend to find me, I stared at the graffiti on the wall, still in disbelief that I made it. I had to do this crossover on my own, and I’m glad I did it like that, because Q is not allowed to exit West Bank into what most of the world refers to as Israel. Here they call it the ’48 lands. The reference is to the lands taken over and forcibly occupied by Zionists by ethnically cleansing Arab Palestinians of it, in order to establish the Jewish State of Israel in 1948. Alternatively, it’s called the ‘inside’. After a bit of back and forth, and help from the man who worked at the gas station, she found me, and we hugged in disbelief – a recurring feature throughout the trip – that I was finally here. We drove through no man’s land that lies just beyond Qalandiya, passing by a refugee camp to get to Ramallah and finally to Birzeit.
The village of Birzeit is historically a Christian majority village, although today it is about half Muslim and half Christian. It is known for being home to the Birzeit University. As we walked around the older part of the town, recently restored and marked off as the historic district, I saw that typically West Asian old Arab architecture, much of it made with Palestinian stone. In niches in the buildings, scattered here and there, were stencilled graffitis of martyrs. Meandering along, we bought bread from an old bakery and walked over to have a delicious breakfast of fried tomatoes, fried cheese, hummus and salad.
On my third day in Palestine I went to a demonstration in Ramallah called by several trade unions and civil society groups demanding better provisions for Social Security in Palestine. As I attended that, I bumped into Palestinian friends I’d met in India and new friends of Q I met on the first two days of my trip. Afterwards I spent the rest of the afternoon being part of that familiar activity, in an unfamiliar space, of reviewing the demonstration. Even though I didn’t follow most of the conversations that took place in Arabic, I caught a few drifts here and there with the English bits. I watched their expressions and body language as they argued passionately with each other, just as we do at the end of an action. As an activist, I thought of how familiar all of this was on the one hand, and on the other, I would be constantly reminded of the difference when stories of jail, arrests and torture would find mention every now and then. In social gatherings it was the same. On the one hand we were so similar. And there some dark humour about torture while in custody of the Israeli Defense Forces.
Israelis celebrate 15th May as Independence Day, the day the British Mandate ended and the State of Israel was established formally. Palestinians mark the same day as Nakba Day, the day that marked the death and forced exodus of thousands of Palestinian Arabs out of their homes and into refugee camps.
That evening, a couple of days before Nakba Day, Q, her cousin and I were to head to Jericho and spend the following day seeing the city and swimming in the Dead Sea. As I met with friends in Ramallah that afternoon, they expressed surprise and concern at the plans. It’s not a good idea, they told me. You have to use settler roads and today many of those roads will be blocked and others are not safe. Why, I asked. They celebrate Israeli Independence Day today (there seemed to be confusion about the dates) and Palestinian cars often have stones thrown at them. Q joined us after the day’s work and repeated the same. We canceled our plans of leaving that evening, and decided instead to start out early the next morning.
We began the day at 5.30 am. As I think about writing about our drives throughout the West Bank and Q’s constant commentaries on sites and structures along the way I am reminded of a part of a text I had read many years ago, written by Subcomandante Marcos. It is an introduction to Chiapas, a state in Mexico. As I think about the description of our rides, I realise I have heard this before. Read this passage from the introduction, for instance:
“[T]here are seven hotel rooms for every 1,000 tourists while there are only 0.3 hospital beds per 1,000 Chiapaneco citizens. Leave the calculations behind and drive on, noticing the three police officials in berets jogging along the shoulder of the road. Drive by the Public Security station and continue on passing hotels, restaurants, large stores and heading towards the exit to Comitán. Leaving San Cristóbal behind you will see the famous San Cristóbal caves surrounded by leafy forest. Do you see the sign? No, you are not mistaken, this natural park is administered by…the Army! Without leaving your uncertainty behind, drive on…Do you see them? Modern buildings, nice homes, paved roads…Is it a university? Workers’ housing? No, look at the sign next to the cannons closely and read: “General Army Barracks of the 31st Military Zone.” With the olive-green image still in your eyes, drive on to the intersection and decide not to go to Comitán so that you will avoid the pain of seeing that, a few meters ahead, on the hill that is called the Foreigner, North American military personnel are operating, and teaching their Mexican counterparts to operate radar.”
For our part, we drove along the al-Muarajat road, the long and winding road connecting Jericho and Ramallah, a settlement to our left, an army base to our right, walls topped with barbed wire, a tower at the entrance, a soldier seated inside. Along came a bedouin camp, with no infrastructure, no water, no electricity, no sanitation. Behind it, a water tank, guarded by Israeli soldiers, that takes the water to the army base and the settlement. These camps often provide cheap labour to neighbouring settlements.
On entering Jericho we passed by the famous Palestinian Authority prison that was attacked and raided by Israeli Defense Forces in March 2006, even as the US Army kept ‘watch’ over it and British forces withdrew just in time. The attack was planned to abduct Palestinian national leaders being held there, including the General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Ahmad Sa’adat. It is a curious place where fierce battles are fought over which state has monopoly over the right to detain, arrest and torture. Once destroyed, the prison was re-built with the support of USAID, “a gift to the people of Palestine from the people of America”, the board outside the gates of the prison says.
As we approach the Dead Sea, the banks of which make up the food bowl of the West Bank, we are met with settlement agriculture on both sides – entirely appropriated and occupied by Israelis. The coast is fenced off for the most part so that the only entry to the Dead Sea, that sea that we all read about in school as the densest water body on earth with the highest salt content, is a segregated one – Arabs to the left, Israelis to the right, at a cost of 70 Shekels per person. Nevertheless, we found another way in. And in we went. Q who hadn’t swum in the Dead Sea in the last seventeen years. Fifteen minutes into some blissful floating as the sun beat down on us, we heard a siren. It was the settler police. The area was marked as a wildlife reserve, he told us, and we weren’t allowed to simply enter the Dead Sea here. We had to leave, to find the only other entry was the segregated paid one. And so we were on our way home.
On our way back, exploring the coast for another entry, we chanced upon a board, proudly pointing to the first Hebrew settlement 1933-1948, followed by a dead end fence warning for mines. We were back on the settler road, two Israeli flags on every alternate street lamp. Then came another checkpoint to the left, recently vacated after a bomb exploded even as the Israelis attempted to defuse the bomb, further ahead the Hizma checkpoint where a brother and sister were shot dead two weeks earlier. We were back at Qalandiya, marked by its charred walls with a faint mural of Arafat in the background, no man’s land, refugee camps.
I then decided to venture into the ’48 lands, making a pit stop at Jerusalem to visit another friend, AK. She lives in the Palestinian Arab village of Shuafat in East Jerusalem, nestled between four settlements – Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaakov, Rekhes Shufat and French Hill, also called Givat Shapira. Her cousin was the young 16-year-old kidnapped by settlers, and beaten and burned alive in the Jerusalem forest in 2014. We entered the old city of Jerusalem through the Damascus gate. More recently, since the last two years, it has been called the Marcher’s gate.With the rise in stabbings of Israeli soldiers by Arab Palestinians, this part of the old city (the Arab part) has seen many Palestinians shot dead by Israeli soldiers, allegedly while attempting to stab them. Meanwhile, I was told, through CCTV footage it was found that in several instances knives were later placed in the hands of the men shot dead. As I was to confront many more Israeli flags in the Arab quarters of occupied Jerusalem, AK pointed out that this was a way of marking a house appropriated from Palestinians and occupied by settlers. Throughout my travels I was constantly baffled by one question: why would settlers, why would anyone want to live like this, with such a sense of insecurity and hostility, guarded by soldiers, fenced off in settlements?
We walked through the souk, the market in the old city, and took a turn towards the entry of the Al-Aqsa mosque. Three Israeli soldiers stood at the corner. Overhearing us talking in English, they approached to ask us where we were going. This, because there are two entrances to the Al-Aqsa mosque, one for Muslims, and another for non-Muslims, which sort of translates into one for locals and the other for foreign tourists.
We were headed to the Muslim entrance. Assuming we were tourists, they probably wanted to tell us we weren’t allowed entry from this side. As they approached us, AK retorted, “why?” They asked us where we were going. Why are you asking us, she snapped back. Where are you from, they insisted. It’s none of your business. We are trying to help you, they responded. We didn’t ask for your help. We walked away. One of them walked ahead of us and into the mosque. We stopped to look at an Afro-Palestinian neighbourhood. We then walked over to the entrance of the mosque where we were stopped and asked if we were Muslim. We were asked to recite a verse from the Quran. Neither of us could. After a short altercation we returned.
As we approached the same corner again, one of the two remaining soldiers called out to us. AK snapped back again. He stopped us and asked where she was from. I’m Palestinian, she answered back. Can I see your ID, he responded. AK has a Blue ID because she resides in Jerusalem. Those living in West Bank and Gaza have a Green ID. She handed over her ID in anger and told him to keep it because she wasn’t going to sit around and be made to wait for hours as they harassed her. She had broken no law and there was simply no need for her to be stopped, she snapped and walk off. I followed her silently, wondering what would happen next. Don’t you need your ID to cross the checkpoint to go to work tomorrow, I asked. Yes I do. She called her cousin who ran a juice shop in the same market and turned around to get her ID back before the soldier disappeared with it. When we returned to the corner he told her she needed to stay there until he was done with her. She asked what his problem was again. So hurt simply because I wouldn’t listen to you? As she carried on, enraged, he snapped back, “Ok you need to shut up now.” At this point she lost all cool that she had left and demanded to see his captain.
I stood a couple of feet away, silently watching, not sure what to do. Anxious and yet surely standing by her. A crowd gathered. A glass bottle came crashing down. I flinched. The soldier went to his post, put on a helmet and readjusted his gun. I asked her what was happening. Probably kids throwing a bottle at the soldiers, she shrugged. Her cousin arrived, as did the captain, who spoke Arabic. After a few more exchanges he returned her ID to her and we all left the spot. Her cousin ran back to his shop that he had left unmanned in panic. People get shot here, he explained.
We continued walking around.
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that houses Christ’s tomb, we bumped into AK’s 21-year-old sister who has also showing an Italian friend around the city. I got into a fight with a soldier, she told them. Oh yeah? So did I, her sister responded. We all laughed. I called him a cow, she added. We carried on.
I saw a wall with an iron grill and emptiness behind it. What is this, I asked. The Jewish quarter, she responded, that’s where we’re going. And just like that, we turned a corner and there we were. You need a moment. It was a Saturday. Sabbath. And so the streets were quite empty. But it is another place. From the familiar chaos of the market and people bustling in all directions, you enter a quiet, peaceful, beautiful, old, and white neighbourhood.
We walked around until we reached a view of the famous Wailing Wall, behind it the Dome of the Rock to the left and Al-Aqsa mosque to the right. Below is the entrance to the Wailing Wall. There is a room where guards check your IDs. Entry for Arabs is prohibited. The wall is divided into two, men to the left, women to the right. A covered wooden pathway has been constructed by the Israelis for archaeological work. They are presently digging dangerously under the Al-Aqsa mosque to search for remains of Solomon’s Temple. We sat for a while and chatted there, as couples and families would quietly stroll by.
I see a ‘covered’ Arab woman, as women in the hijab are commonly referred to here. Arabs mostly come to this part only on Saturdays because it is so empty, she explains. We carry on walking, and just like that we are back in the Arab part. As we were leaving the market on the Jewish side, I entered a shop to buy stamps, for postcards to send to friends. I asked the salesman if I could buy stamps. For which country, he asked. India, I responded. We don’t have stamps for India. I left the shop. Q explained to me before I left her home to explore the ’48 lands – you will have some privilege as a foreign tourist, but not that much because you are brown.
I planned to head to the Golan Heights this morning, to a village called Majdal Shams. It is inhabited by the Syrian Druze, an Arabic-speaking ethnoreligious group. They have refused Israeli citizenship as they assert they are Syrian and are given Blue IDs as residence permits. Of the 164 villages that existed in the Syrian Golan Heights following its occupation by the Israelis in 1967, Majdal Shams is one of the five remaining. It lies at the border with Syria and is home to something called the Shouting Hill — a hill separated from Syria by a UN-controlled ravine from where locals communicated with neighbours and family members across the border using megaphones. The village and its political context make for the background of the film The Syrian Bride. I got a few contacts from AK’s family and left. I took a tram to the Central Bus Station in West Jerusalem from where I was to take the bus north to Qiriyat Shemona. Arabs are few. Guns abound. I had a two-hour wait in the station and I counted seven civilians carrying guns. I don’t know much about guns but from the little research I did, I am given to understand they were M16 rifles, seemingly the same as the ones the umpteen young soldiers carried with them.
With my period descending, I was in pain and cranky. The two women who had been perfect assholes to me didn’t help. Neither did the guns. I didn’t want to interact with anyone, and I wanted to get out. While I was waiting for my bus to arrive a conservatively dressed Jewish woman sat next to me. She opened a book in Hebrew and inside was a pamphlet in English. It was titled – ‘Who should rule over Jerusalem – Jews or Muslims?’ It went on to list out the antiquity of the nation of Israel and the only recent use of the term Palestine. She nodded in silence as she read along. I waited restlessly for my bus.
The journey lasted a little over three hours and as we approached our destination, it hit me: I was about to arrive in a settlement. Getting off the bus, I looked around. Israelis, armed civilians, soldiers. I wondered how I was going to get to Majdal Shams. I was to find shared cabs going to the village. Get off the bus, I was told, and ask an Arab, not a Jew.
Where I got off there were no Arabs and no shared cabs. I walked out of the bus station and stood on the road wondering what to do next. Disinclined to talk to anyone, I wasn’t sure of how to leave. I saw a shop across the street with its name in Hebrew and Arabic and walked over. Before asking for help, I waited for two soldiers to get their food and leave. The man at the counter told me to check for buses in the bus station, and if not I could only go by car.
I crossed back to the bus station and noticed a taxi stand at its entrance, taking note of it as backup. As I re-entered the bus station I avoided eye contact with anyone, noticing the stares all the while, and looked for an information desk or even just information while trying not to look too lost. Walking quickly through the whole station I found nothing in English, no open counter, soldiers everywhere, watching. Reluctant to ask for help I decided to check the taxi stand instead. They would take me for 150 shekels and I agreed. I wanted to leave. As I turned to enter the taxi, I realised I was about to enter a car with two little Israeli flags on either side. It is a common feature here to mark settler cars. Squirming, I entered, eager to get to Majdal Shams.
I was told the people in Majdal Shams are wonderful, and that I would have no trouble there. I tried the telephone number of the contacts I had, but wasn’t able to get through. Having done my research on the village I knew exactly where I wanted to go when I reached. It was a bar called Why? — the first in Majdal Shams. It used to be called Undefined when it first opened, to indicate the status of the Syrian Druze in Israel. I found the bar, hungry and excited to be in the Golan Heights and ordered myself some food and beer. In the background, Manu Chao’s “Clandestino” played and I smiled, thinking of all the interconnections and my own bizarre arrival in this little village.
As I was finishing my meal I asked the waitress about a place to stay and her colleague made a quick call to a friend and found me a room. His friend could come and pick me up when I was done. Before retiring for the night, I walked over to a nearby grocery-cum-coffee store to buy a few things. It was run by an old man who began talking to me. He asked where I had been so far and the moment I recounted places in the West Bank he warmed up to me all the more. He spoke of the Israeli occupation and the annihilation of more than 150 villages in the Golan. We spoke for a few more minutes until my host arrived to take me to the guest house.
As we reached his home, the lower portion of which was converted to a guest house, his father came down the stairs to greet me with some Arabic coffee. He shook my hand. I’m Assad, he said. I smiled and shook his hand.
The next morning I was greeted by a woman who I assume was Assad’s wife with a typically huge breakfast. Syrian bread, hummus, olives, labaneh, egg, pickles, jam and some tea. As I ate to my heart (and stomach’s) full content and joy, in came some coffee and sweets. I left the place with no plan but a broad sense of direction to the centre of the town to find the old man’s shop. I had one thing on my agenda – to see the shouting hill.
Impressed with my sense of direction, I soon found the grocery store I had visited the previous day and entered to meet a man who may have been the old man’s son. He spoke little English and as I sipped coffee I wondered how to get to the hill. In came his friend and we began talking. I asked him how to get to the hill and he offered to take me. I accepted. He drove me to the hill, showed me Syria. He was a farmer by vocation and Majdal Shams is famous for its apples and cherries. This was cherry season and so we drove to his brother’s farm and picked some cherries for the ride, saw the Syrian border city of Hadar from a distance and drove through the few Syrian villages remaining in Israeli-occupied Golan – the ’67 lands. After one final coffee at his home that had the most stunning view of the hills, he dropped me off to the bus stop from where I could take the bus back to Qiriyat Shemona. People are nice in Majdal Shams.
After a long wait at the bus stop just as I was beginning to lose faith in the arrival of any bus, I jumped at the sight of a pedestrian to ask for help. It was to arrive in just a few minutes, he assured me. He was an Iraqi student living in Majdal Shams and studying at a university in Tel Aviv, after having graduated from Oxford in something that sounded like Conflict Studies. We chatted along through our bus ride and I arrived back in Qiriyat Shemona, armed with the knowledge of which bus to take so I wouldn’t need to ask. I was on my way to Haifa.
Eager to get to Haifa, but also anxious about returning to the ’48 lands and almost yearning to be back in the West Bank, I met an Indian woman on the bus ride. She was a migrant worker based in Haifa, working in the area of care work of the elderly and domestic work. There’s a large proportion of Indians, Sri Lankans and Thai migrant workers employed in this area of work in the ’48 lands. She worked for an Indian Jewish family. Her employer, or more specifically the elderly patient she worked for, had passed away about a month ago and with her passing away, her work visa had expired. Care workers may get a work visa for four and a half years at first, when they can freely choose employment with any employer they please. However, if they wish to stay on and continue work they may apply for a special visa, seconded by a specific employer who expresses the desire to employ the said worker. Under this visa the worker is bound to the same employer until his/her death, also determining the duration of the visa. In the case of death of the employer, the worker may apply for a second special visa with a new employer, or return to their home countries on account of the expiration of their work visa.
My fellow traveler was awaiting the more than half her wages owed to her by the Israeli government in the form of social security, before returning back to India to be with her family. On reaching Haifa I bade her good luck and gave her my good wishes for a speedy return home.
I spent all of one night and half a day in Haifa. Haifa is an important historical Palestinian town taken over by the Israelis in May 1948. It is still home to Arab neighbourhoods, but is today a bustling large Israeli city, home to Haifa University, the port and is popular amongst tourists for its beaches. It was my first experience of visiting a city in the ’48 lands.
I felt my body tighten up. I am struggling to articulate what being in these lands did to me — an involuntary clamming up of sorts. Don’t get me wrong. I am no anti-semite or Jew-hater. People were helpful when I got repeatedly lost, some spoke to me particularly nicely and I was thankful and grateful for the help. But that is not the point. I struggle to articulate it because it was a question of my being, my existence. It was as though to feel the history, violence, and oppression of the occupation all at once. I could not control my own body’s reaction to my presence in the ’48 lands. I tried to calm myself down. Anger, outrage, these are emotions I had the luxury of allowing myself to feel as a foreign tourist, a luxury locals do not have, for the tribulations of everyday life do not allow for it. I was in a space where, once again, I did not want to be, badly wanting to run away and in no mood for interaction with anyone.
Hungry, I reached Haifa at night and searched for a restaurant that didn’t have three Israeli flags hanging on each. I tried hard to calm myself down. I reminded myself of my arrival in this city, in a rare instance, far from home, coaxing myself to explore it. I couldn’t imagine putting my bathing suit to use here. Beach time was a repulsive idea. I found a place to eat, ordered myself a beer, lit myself a cigarette and focused all the energy I had left in me to reign myself in, gain control. I couldn’t. Finally, it was only exhaustion that night that put my body to sleep.
That night I had a dream. Its beginning is hazy now. I didn’t take any notes during my travels to be on the safe side — the paranoia of traveling in militarised war zones — and so some things I have lost to memory. But the end of the dream is vivid. We are in struggle, in a context strikingly similar to Palestine’s, and we are walking towards a confrontation, and we are agitated. I see rocks and I move to pick them up and gesture to the others to gather them, but they stop me. We musn’t use violence, I am lectured to — a reflection of the burden of Gandhi’s propagation of non-violence. We walk on, as a friend’s brother and I have decided to quietly attempt an attack. A gathering. A soldier. He tackles the soldier to wrest his weapon and use it against him. They are engaged in a tussle for a few seconds. We all stand by and watch. I cannot move my hands and feet. I am glued to the ground and watch him get overpowered by the soldier. In a swift move the soldier slashes his stomach almost cutting the body in half. I remain in my condition of immobility watching in shock. He is dead. I move away from this scene and am walking to his house with his mother, staring into nothingness, immobilised and muted by the shock. His mother blames me for his death but is kind in a nerve-wrecking way. Cold and deadly numb, she doesn’t look at me, she doesn’t cry, she tells me not to worry, it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t know what I was doing. As we walk along and approach the house I feel an upsurge of tears that I am trying hard to hold back. I am hardly listening to her. As we are almost home, I can no longer hold back and I bawl, and I continue bawling. A release of complex emotions that have hit the brim. My eyes open. I am awake.
That afternoon I left Haifa and longed to be back in West Bank. On our way out of the city we passed by a detention camp, marked as a historic spot or tourist site, I wasn’t sure which. On arriving in Jerusalem at the Central Bus Station, I was quick to exit, crossing over to the tram station and headed back to the Damascus Gate Bus Station. As I stepped out of the station I was back in the Arab quarters of Jerusalem. I felt every nerve and muscle in my body relax. It was not a conscious reaction. It may well have been a reflection of my politics, of my solidarity with Palestine and of standing against the Zionist occupation of these lands, but it was not an active political reaction. It was a bodily reaction, equally out of my control. I headed back to Ramallah and could not have been more relieved to see Q. It was good to be back home.
I was left with four more days of travels. We were going to see Nablus, Hebron and Bethlehem.
We started with Nablus. There are pages and pages to be written about Nablus, but my visit was a short one. Crossing the Huwwara checkpoint, a smooth crossing for us, and nothing like it would have been a decade ago when Palestinian cars were prohibited from passing through, we entered the city of Nablus.
On our agenda for the short visit was a quick tour of the old city, a city that is often likened to such cities as Damascus in its antiquity and historic character. The old city had been a hub of resistance in the Second Intifada that began in 2000. While the Intifada is said to have ended in 2005 with a supposed ceasefire or hudna, the city of Nablus, the old city in particular, remained under siege by the Israeli forces till well after 2007. The stories of curfews, incessant attacks, violence, murders, torture, arbitrary destruction of homes and families, detentions of civilians as well as aid-workers, Israeli-induced hunger and sickness, are countless and harrowing to say the least.The old city with its little alleyways and streets, and houses crowded together in a dense maze-like formation is marked at every nook and corner by homages to martyrs killed during this period, here marking the home of the martyr, there marking the spot where he was killed, photos and posters of militants abound, there a graffiti of Handala, the representative cartoon of a Palestinian child refugee created by Naji Al-Ali over three decades ago, with an AK-47. At a roundabout just outside of the old city flies a flag of the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, paying homage to martyrs of the Palestinian people’s struggle for the liberation of their land.
Just outside of Nablus lies the refugee camp of Balata. It is the largest in West Bank, home to about 27,000 people in a small area of 2-3 sq km. Refugee camps in the West Bank have been set up by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), a UN body formed in 1949 following the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 and the large-scale expulsion of Palestinians from their homes.
UNRWA’s role in the establishment of the camps was to provide the land and free tents for refugees. The concrete structures and little infrastructure that exists has all been built over generations by the residents themselves. Balata was established in 1952, around the same time most camps were set up. The UNRWA website states it was originally intended to accommodate 5,000 residents. Refugee camps are often important hubs of resistance, and therefore, also subject to constant harassment by Israeli Defense Forces. Balata, being the largest, played a central role in the two Intifadas and is home to a life of constant threat and violence.
It wasn’t safe to enter, Q explained, the camp was in a state of rebellion against the Palestinian Authority. As we were leaving the city after a taste of the decadent Knafeh dessert that Nablus is famous for, a sugar syrup-soaked cheese pastry, we overheard gunshots. We were passing by Balata. My friends, in an attempt to assuage any fears I might have had, assured me it was probably just a wedding. Once we were back they clarified, it could’ve been anything.
Hebron was next. I had heard much about Hebron from various people and was waiting to see it in concrete. Vertical segregation was a first for me. A conservative city, Hebron is a stronghold of Hamas. It was the commercial hub of the West Bank until the 90s, but was to take a hit with the second Intifada and the occupation of the old city of Hebron by settlers. It is the only one of its kind. The dense and historic old city of a big bustling Palestinian town in the heart of the West Bank taken over by settlers. They are known to be of the worst fascist kind. There is no other way for a people in numerical minority to willingly enter the heart of such hostile territory, to then be protected by soldiers that outnumber the settler population ten times.
The old city of Hebron is vertically segregated. Palestinians on the ground floor, settlers above. Black sheets cover the alleyways to protect Palestinians from the incessant attacks and harassment from above, glass bottles, babies made to pee out from the window into the streets below, etc. There is so much to be said about the constant state of fear, subjugation, violence and humiliation that forms a part of the everyday lives of Palestinians here. Young settler children are taught to harass, beat and insult from an early age on. A good read for a better understanding of this reality can be found at Electronic Intifada.
Settlers are said to purposefully provoke Palestinian residents: numerous testimonies of continuous harassment have been collected from several Palestinian families such as the Abu ‘Aisha, the Shamsiyeh, whose 8-year-old daughter’s hair was reportedly set alight by a settler, and the Azzeh. Peace activists stationed in the area report frequent threats or acts of settler stoning at both activists and local residents who venture there, or who try to work their lands. Palestinians cannot adequately defend themselves, because the settlement is defended by an entire company of the Israeli Defense Force. An English graffiti reading ‘Gas the Arabs’, said to be the handiwork of the Jewish Defense League, has been sprayed on one of the streets.
Q and I reached Hebron city in the morning and were to meet with other friends hailing from the Southern Hebron Hills, from the village of Samua. As we expressed our desire to go to the old city, R was discomfited. It is too dangerous, he explained, you can randomly get shot. We accepted, although he later decided we could get a sneak peek at the edge. As we approached the market, we parked our cars close by and walked over. Walking through a flourishing market area selling clothes and other things, we arrived at a local market of fruits and vegetables.
With me being the exception, every woman was ‘covered’. A little self-conscious, I carried on alongside my friends, taking cover with them. Slowly the market began thinning, the shops ended, an empty street lay ahead, an old ATM machine stood on one side, long in disuse and testimony to the once bustling commercial prosperity that had since been destroyed, shutters pulled down over shops long been shut, and graffiti that said “Hamas yas, Isril no”.
Q and I walked ahead with sure and yet anxious steps, the emptiness and silence making for an eerie pause before entering the black sheet-covered old city. We kept walking, as people around watched us curiously. They are not used to visitors. The street was dotted with little shops catering solely to local consumption. A few more steps ahead and we decided it was time to turn around. Yes, it was scary. As we walked back and exited the covered street, to the left lay a big iron gate, beyond it houses lined with umpteen Israeli flags. A Zionist settlement. I casually gazed around to suddenly catch sight of a wall, barbed wire, a tower, an Israeli soldier watching us. I looked ahead and continued walking. We walked in silence until we exited the market and were at a safe distance from the entry.
Our next stop was Samua where we visited R’s family and were fed a wholesome meal after a long day. We were to spend the night in Beit Jala, just outside of Bethlehem and were anxious to reach before sundown. The settlers on this route are known to be the worst, and we weren’t as sure of our way. After a quick tour of Samua and R’s family’s agricultural land, we hurriedly departed, already behind schedule. On reaching Beit Jala, we spent the rest of the evening, huddled in the cold, sipping on our nightcap, and chatting about the most wide array of things until exhausted, we fell asleep.
Bethlehem was our next destination. Being a Friday we planned the day so we would cross Qalandiya before 1.30-2 pm to get home to Birzeit in order to avoid the possibility of being caught in any clashes, a frequent occurrence here. The highlight of Bethlehem — no it wasn’t the Church of Nativity — was the refugee camp of Dheisheh. After a sumptuous breakfast at the famous Afteem’s Restaurant in the historic centre, we proceeded to the camp.
Dheisheh was established in 1949 by the UNRWA to accommodate 3,000 Palestinians. Its population exceeds 15,000 today.
As with most refugee camps, it was a hub of resistance during the two Intifadas and subject to attacks and detentions by the Israeli forces. Dheisheh has a strong PFLP base, besides Fatah supporters, the liberal political party established by Yasser Arafat, among others, that is presently in government in West Bank. Its walls are filled with murals of leaders, martyrs and revolutionaries. It is one of the few places in the world you will find a mural of Saddam Hussein, amongst others. The Iraqi government has supported Palestinians in the past with fully funded student fellowships along with a living stipend. For this reason a large number of Palestinians of the previous generation have been educated in Iraq, as well as in Syria, whose government similarly supported Palestinian students. I grew tired of taking photographs as every nook and corner was covered with graffiti, murals, slogans and posters. After a brief stroll around the camp, we started our journey back to Birzeit.
I was at the end of the trip. I was to leave for Jerusalem, bid farewell to AK, and head to Tel Aviv to take my flight out. By this time I had crossed into and out of West Bank twice already and Qalandiya several times on the West Bank side of it. At Ramallah before boarding the bus to Jerusalem, the farewells were to begin. I hugged Q and her mother goodbye, her mother who at all times kept us well-fed on the most delicious of meals despite her healing but broken leg. I was on my way.It was a Saturday and so traffic was bad. Vehicles moved particularly slowly at Qalandiya and as we waited for several minutes to cross over, I was face to face with Arafat’s mural once again. I stared at the charred wall and there it was again. The reality of it all hit me in the face when I was least expecting it. The stories are at times so hard to fathom, they become somewhat surreal. And then suddenly, in just a moment, real again. Just as I could feel the tears surging again, our bus moved ahead. We had reached the checkpoint and it was our turn to be checked. As procedure mandated, foreigners do not need to get off the bus and instead, two Israeli soldiers got on the bus to begin their task of checking our papers.
I was in an odd spot I had never encountered before. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t afford to because I would have to explain my tears to the soldier. And how would I have done that. So I pulled out a tissue, wiped my eyes and shook myself to get a hold. He came to me and I handed over my passport. Your visa expires in a day you know, he said somewhat cheekily as he handed me back my passport. I’m leaving, I retorted. Meanwhile foreign migrant workers and others with green IDs were told to get off the bus either for further frisking or being denied entry into the ’48/’67 lands. We then crossed over to change buses on the other side of the checkpoint, where I moved my bags, entered the bus, and then buried my head in my bag and wept.After a quick visit to AK and her family, I was finally on the way to Tel Aviv. Her uncle drove me to the airport in his cab. Encountering a traffic jam, he decided to take an alternate route. It’s a big headache to take this route, he explained to me. The other one is simpler, but there is too much traffic there. They will stop us and ask you where you are coming from, who do you know, lots of questions, just a headache. Don’t tell them you know me, he said. Tell them I picked you up from a hotel in Jerusalem, he suggested. Otherwise they will stop you and ask you a whole lot of questions. Just a headache. I nodded and said OK.
We slowed down at the checkpoint and as the Israeli soldier bent over to look into the car, I looked on, not bothering to give him or the checkpoint any attention. He let us pass without a question. It really is as irrational as that. They will choose who looks suspicious enough to be stopped. On 1st July, into the last 10 days of Ramazan when a large number of Muslims go to the Aqsa mosque to offer their prayers, and settler violence on Palestinians increases in the old city of Jerusalem, all men from the West Bank under 45 years of age were prohibited from crossing over at the Qalandiya checkpoint.
As a foreigner woman I probably didn’t fit into the category of ‘suspicious’ people. At the airport, however, more questions. Regular procedure though. Did I know anyone in Israel? Did I accept any gifts from anyone? Am I carrying anything in my bags whose contents I’m not aware of? At the security check I was thoroughly checked, every item in my handbag removed and checked multiple times and thoroughly. Next was the immigration control. As I stood in queue awaiting my turn, two Thai boys ahead of me proceeded to two counters. It seemed like they didn’t speak much English, and probably no Hebrew. The officer at the counter gave him his exit card required to proceed to boarding and snapped, don’t come back.
It was time for me to go.