Palestine Day 6

I was told that it would be easy to get through the check point to return to Jerusalem, for a day of touring, and then Tel Aviv, to fly home.

It wasn’t.

My amazing taxi driver, Ez, arrived promptly at 9 am on Friday to get me. He said we’d be back in Jerusalem in 15 minutes. When we arrived at the checkpoint, a young, wiry, agitated looking soldier with very dark circles under his eyes aggressively demanded Ez’s documentation, and after clearing him, came for my passport. After I handed it to him he began to yell and wave both his gun and my passport around, and threw it back at me. He then told Ez something in Hebrew that clearly upset him.

He sent us to another check point, and Ez kept saying “He’s crazy. This is not right. This is the right checkpoint for foreigners…this is where you cross.”

We had no choice. We drove to the other checkpoint, which was a walking bridge. I had to leave all my bags in the car and he said “I’ll get you in 5 minutes, on the other side.” When I began to walk, feeling vulnerable, I encountered a line that was so long I couldn’t see the other end, and other taxi drivers said “its 1-2 hours. This line is not for you.” The line was full of Moslem pilgrims headed to the Holiest Mosque in Israel for Friday prayers. I didn’t mind walking, nor waiting in line, but it was pretty clear to me that I might do that and be turned back, because it was a “humanitarian” line for locals. It was also clear to me the soldier had ordered Ez to take me here after seeing my baggage—clearly to much to haul across a footbridge.

I called Ez and said “It will take 1-2 hours” and he said “come back.”

We then wound our way for 20 tense minutes through the mountains to an outpost checkpoint that clearly made Ex nervous to cross. It was not a usual place for either a Jerusalem-based Palestinian, nor a foreigner, to cross back into Israel.

As we approached he said “Don’t say anything. If they push you, tell them you have to make a flight.” I became very nervous, knowing that my ticket showed a next day departure and that if I got caught in a lie, I might not get across here, either.

A beautiful young woman was guarding this check point, and with her colleague, a friendly looking young man, we were given passage after barely a glimpse at my passport. I began to cry, realizing only then how tense I was. Ez grabbed my hand and said “Good. Good team!” He was clearly, deeply, relieved.

There is a part of me that wanted to go back to that unreasonable, mean-spirited soldier and say FUCK YOU. Fuck you for making me drive around looking for a way back to Israel. Fuck you for sending me to a line that you knew was very, very long (as it always is on Fridays) after seeing all my bags. Fuck you for not allowing us the passage I, and my driver, have absolutely the correct papers for.

Poor Ez had never had a hard time with a foreigner (and especially, he said, an American). It isn’t good for him to have these run ins and risk losing his permit for Jerusalem–and his livelihood.

I am still trying to find the kind of compassion I have heard Tibetan friends and clients of mine, tortured at the hands of the Chinese, express for their torturers “because they must suffer so much to inflict this much pain on another human being.” I keep thinking of that soldier, how agitated and mean and frankly scarily crazy his facial expression and demeanor was, and how crummy, perhaps, his obligatory service is, manning a checkpoint in such a tense and disputed area.

I am conflicted at the anger I feel because this incident was just wrong, and it might put Ez at risk for more trouble at the border area. I feel sad, deeply, deeply sad, that this ancient holy land, just minutes from where someone as significant (Jesus Christ) to the 3 major religions represented here (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) was born, and died, is the site of so much fear, hatred, misunderstanding and inhumanity. I have been to Rwanda, Darfur, Haiti many times after terrible catastrophic events, Indonesia after the fighting and the tsunami, even New York after 9/11…and I have never been so affected by the plight of a people. Perhaps it is because there have been refugees from Palestine since 1948–an endless life of flight and limbo. Perhaps because Palestinians are, in many ways, a people without a name, and certainly a people without a voice, because their claim to a homeland is not recognized, and there are peoples and places that do not acknowledge Palestine as a country. They have tremendous resiliency, hope and pride–and are beaten down daily, by the lack of access to a sacred and historically meaningful site like Jerusalem, to the ocean, to travel into the greater world. This slow strangle is unbearable to breathe in and out–and yet, I only did so for 4 days. My single incident check point struggle is a daily reality for all of them.

As I begin my journey home, I pray that Ez never has another difficult encounter like that again, and I pray that the young man whose story I heard someday gets to the sea, and that the lovely, inspiring students I taught can travel to the places they dream of–be it Jerusalem, or be it Canada to take university courses—with the same relative safety many of us take for granted.

As Christmas approaches, more and more Pilgrims travel to Bethlehem. Tourism is increasing there, as the area settles down and the Palestinians work hard to make it an attractive, safe and desirable place to visit. I wish that anyone who has dreamed of going there will make the journey, because by doing so, by standing on this land, we recognize the existence of this people and this place, who have really been there longer than many of our societies and cultures. Our visit can support them to belong.

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