Sightseeing in the Apartheid State
This May, I traveled with nine other U.S. faculty members to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Part of a region where every millimeter comprises contested space, this land, together with Gaza, is referred to by the United Nations and other international bodies as the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or oPt - Palestinian land under Israeli Occupation. Over the course of our eleven days in the oPt, we met with students and faculty members from five different Palestinian universities, toured towns and refugee camps in the West Bank, visited various organizations, and attended cultural events. On our last morning, Ben Gurion Airport and its “security” system on our minds, our talk over breakfast turned to the impact of the Israeli Occupation on the ability to travel inside and outside of borders that are ever-expanding for Israelis, and constricting for Palestinians.
On the one hand, such talk had been stitched into almost every conversation during our entire time in the oPt. We had met with many Palestinians - students, faculty members, administrators, mayors, directors of research institutes, artists, musicians, writers, bus drivers, activists, teachers, hotel managers, store-keepers. Not a single one of them was without a story of violation experienced if not at Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv (Israel denies most Palestinians living in the West Bank access to this airport, as well as to Jerusalem), then at checkpoints that some of them crossed daily as they took hours to travel - or found themselves unable to move across - distances that should have been traversable in minutes. The West Bank contains 98 fixed military checkpoints, 58 of them internal, and several hundred more “flying” or ad-hoc checkpoints and obstructions at any given time
As a result, every person had stories of crossings that involved humiliation, and, often, physical violence. These stories, central to daily life under Israeli Occupation, permeated every conversation, even as the Separation Wall that winds for hundreds of kilometers in a crazy cement serpentine stranglehold around and through Palestinian agricultural lands, towns, villages and homes, was rarely out of sight. At Al-Quds University, located in Abu Dis, a short distance from our hotel in East Jerusalem, the Separation Wall presses right up against the University at points. While there, I told a fellow English professor about a hip-hop concert we had attended the night before at the French Consulate in East Jerusalem (it took the French government’s intervention to get the artist MC Gaza a special permit to travel from Gaza to East Jerusalem for the day).
This Al-Quds professor commented that, though he would love to attend cultural events in East Jerusalem, like most West Bankers, Israel does not allow him entry into Jerusalem, and although Abu Dis is technically in Jerusalem, the Wall has cut off his access to much of the city. Upon returning to Honolulu, I read of a home demolition in Abu Dis that had prevented the students we met from entering the campus to take their final exams.
Students and faculty at Birzeit University told us of how they have to leave for campus hours ahead of time to travel distances of only a few miles because they are regularly unable to cross or are held-up at checkpoints. In Hebron, we witnessed how Palestinian residents cannot cross from one side of the street to the other to enter their homes. Instead, they must follow circuitous routes to arrive home while remaining within the yellow or white lines that demarcate the parts of the street upon which they are allowed to walk. Once home, they must enter through back doors to minimize contact with the Jewish settlers.
In our brief time in the oPt, we did our best to grasp the byzantine structures that, despite their seeming incomprehensibility, systematically make movement impossible or extraordinarily difficult for Palestinians. We learned about Palestinian identity papers that trump US passports and make travel even within the oPt extremely limited, and about color-coded license plates that prohibit Palestinians movement through checkpoints. Mile after mile, we traversed roads running in tandem with the massive, often barb-wired, Wall that separates Palestinians from their lands, homes and family members. We also witnessed, on the Wall itself, resistance to it in the form of beautiful murals (a tractor denting but not breaking a big red heart); spray-painted words of protest (“With Love and Kisses - Nothing lasts forever,” “Stop funding this wall!”); posters of true stories (one of a man getting to work by moving through a drain pipe); all variously-expressed iterations of the reality that for Palestinians, “to exist is to resist.”
Meanwhile, our group traveled freely. Carrying American passports aboard a bus with Israeli plates, we moved fairly quickly through checkpoints in a separate lane. Unlike Palestinians passing through the checkpoints, as full US citizens we could stay inside our bus rather than wait and walk our way through iron gates and locking turnstiles, undergoing interrogation by Israeli soldiers who, with their machine guns, looked frighteningly young. Even from our privileged vantage point, the violence was palpable, whether ideological (Israeli signs in Hebrew and English warning Israeli Jews that to enter the West Bank was to risk their lives), or physical. At a checkpoint leaving Nablus, we witnessed a small girl lying on the ground, attended to by a group of Palestinians, some of whom rushed our bus, with its Israeli plates, and pounded on its sides, as we were stopped. As we pulled quickly out of the checkpoint, we saw a settler in a black top hat and long black coat get into his car and speed off - an all-too-real apparition, and one that returns to me when I read, as I did a few days later, accounts of settlers running down Palestinian children on the roads .
I had my own, small, checkpoint experience. On my way back to East Jerusalem from Ramallah, where I had travelled by bus to meet with a friend, I snapped photos as the bus approached the Qalandia checkpoint. An Israeli soldier stopped our bus, boarded it, and approached me, asking for my camera. After looking through my photos (comprised of shots of my friend’s beautiful garden green with vegetables and herbs, as well as the grim grey checkpoint), he demanded that I delete my photos of Qalandia. The sun was slanting down as I took the photos, and, given the glare of the bus window and the fading light, they had not captured the menace of the scene, peopled with Israeli soldiers with machine guns. Indeed, this scene remains more vivid in my memory than when captured by my camera.
I was tempted to ask the soldier why he felt the need to delete the photos, but I was scared, and kept quiet. My compliance itself was part of why this experience so unsettled me, and the dilemma I experienced gave me the smallest window into the kinds of choices Palestinians must make every day, and with far higher stakes. Given the protections of being a white woman holding an American passport, I did not fear getting physically abused or imprisoned if I spoke out against this tactic of intimidation - consequences that our Palestinian hosts, many of whom had themselves spent time in prison, told us result regularly from acts of resistance, including those as small as my imagined confrontation. As the soldier exited the bus, the elderly man behind me leaned forward and said, “Welcome to our democracy.”
So, on our last day in Palestine, our breakfast conversation as we uneasily anticipated entering Ben Gurion was nothing new - the hazards of movement had been much on our minds. The airport stories we had been hearing, however, filled us with dread. Even as we recognized our extreme privilege as US citizens - at worst, we realized, we would be strip-searched and interrogated, probably not long enough to miss our flights - anxiety hung over the breakfast table, as we exchanged stories we had heard. One concerned a Palestinian woman who, when strip-searched at the airport, not only had to remove her tampon, but was then not allowed to replace it. When she boarded her plane, blood-stained, she met with insults over her “dirtiness” as an Arab.
Another story concerned a man who, when his shoes were held for a prolonged time after they were x-rayed, told the airport security if they were going to keep holding onto them, then he didn’t want them. They took him at his word, and he boarded his plane with his feet wrapped in plastic bags. I told my breakfast companions of my discussion at dinner the night before with a US scholar who now, taking an extra two days of travel, enters through Jordan to conduct her archival research on the Israeli prisons. She had told me of her computer being seized for two weeks, and of hours spent naked in the airport, undergoing endless and repetitive interrogation. We knew anything we were likely to experience would be mild in comparison, and the gap between our relative freedom and the daily assaults to freedom and basic human rights that our new friends underwent was at once humbling, incomprehensible, and a source of outrage.
Following advice from US scholars from previous years who had experienced difficulties at the airport, we uploaded our photos into dropbox and wiped our cameras. Due to the computer stories we had heard, we had not brought our laptops, though a few of us had tablets. We disabled our mail accounts, and made sure our facebook profile pictures could not identify us. We also took a trip to the Educational Bookshop’s stationary store on Salah Eddin street (right across the street from the bookshop itself, with its wonderful collection of books on Palestine). There, we purchased supplies to mail home materials we could not have bought in Jerusalem. The man behind the counter told us how the store formerly belonged to Edward Said’s uncle. Explaining that the store used to be three times as big, he cut cardboard circles to lengthen the tubes we had bought from him, so we wouldn’t have to squish the large maps detailing the oPt settlements and Separation Wall that we had acquired from the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ), or our prison posters. These posters, featuring the words “Peace on you” written above a shackled hand holding an olive branch, had been gifted to us by our guide Mohammad Jamous, himself a former political prisoner, at the end of our tour of the Abu Jihad Museum for Prisoners, located at Al-Quds University.
In the envelopes we bought, we put our personal notes; brochures from the universities of Birzeit, Al-Quds, Bethlehem, An-Najah, and Hebron; cds and fliers we had bought from Ramzi Abu Redwan, director of the Al-Kamandjati Music School; literature from the Women’s and Children’s Center located in the Al-Amari Refugee Camp in Ramallah; faculty bios and research notes; cds from power points documenting the architecture of Occupation. As it turned out, this protective measure was not enough for one of my colleagues, a cultural anthropologist, whose package arrived minus her field notes and a cd of classical Palestinian music.
That night, with four colleagues on the same flight to JFK, I took the hour-long drive to Tel Aviv, and arrived at Ben Gurion the requisite 3.5 hours early to allow for the security measures. Upon arrival, we fanned out in accordance with our agreement to pretend not to know each other, and to say we had been visiting Jerusalem as tourists. The other white woman in our group and I sailed through the various levels of security with minimal questioning.
As I waited in the check-in line at Delta, I nervously observed the two black women in our group standing while their suitcases were swabbed for explosive residue and explored in minute detail, and then, for mysterious reasons, retained until the check-in process started. A friendly man with an East Coast accent kept catching my eye as I myself tried unobtrusively to keep an eye on my friends, then tried to strike up conversation with me, wanting to know if I was on a heritage trip - if I had been in Israel to reclaim my roots. As I passed through the various x-ray and passport checks, all the security personnel were pleasant to me.
The ease of my experience as a white Jewish woman in what was a site of terror for everyone I had met during the past eleven days was itself disturbing, along with the erasure, in the airport itself, of Palestinian existence. As I walked through shops and restaurants, killing time, I was struck by the total absence of Arabic language or Palestinian presence, by the packaging of foods and goods as Jewish and Israeli (lots of Stars of David and Hebrew). My walk, earlier that day, into West Jerusalem served as preparation for the Ben Gurion airport. It took my companion and me less than ten minutes to walk from our East Jerusalem accommodation, the Christian-Palestinian run Golden Walls hotel near Damascus Gate, to the light rail tracks, which we followed up Jaffa Road into West Jerusalem. Within minutes, we entered an entirely other world, one with no visible signs of Palestine, Palestinians, or Israeli occupation. We walked along broad, pristine, tree-lined streets that featured sidewalk cafes, Hebrew bookstores, shops featuring expensive jewelry advertising “birthright” sales, frozen yogurt and coffee chains (Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf), and cafes advertising Israeli hummus and falafel.
Our brief expedition dramatically conveyed to us the extreme separateness of Israeli Jewish and Palestinian lives. The only rule-proving exception was the tagging we spotted on an alley wall: “They say Apartheid. We say fight back!” In West Jerusalem and in the airport, I understood in a new way the structures of Apartheid that govern what is seen and unseen (including Palestinians still living inside the green line), and why every Palestinian we met supported the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.
I have been home a week, and each night, still jet-lagged, I awake multiple times, often to take myself out of dreams of Hebron, and our tour of the Old City, given by the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH). Armed Israeli soldiers stationed above us, we walked under the protection of several TIPH volunteers from Norway. As we made our way through the Old City, we walked beneath netted metal overhangs that protect Palestinians from the rocks, dirty diapers, and garbage - but not the acid and sewage and insults - that settlers, living in houses that butt right up against the shops beneath them, rain down upon Palestinians as they do their best to live their lives. In particular, I am haunted by the red words we saw spray-painted onto the wall of a residential neighborhood: “Shalom, Arabs! Gas the Arabs. - JDL.”
Although, unlike the residents of Hebron, I can awaken from these nightmarish images, they are part of the still-unfolding history of ethnic cleansing and Occupation, which often takes less dramatic and more bureaucratic forms. To resist, in whatever ways we can, this multi-faceted Occupation and the many forms of support for it in which we are implicated (for US citizens, to the tune of eleven million dollars a day) is something each of us can and should do. For me, such a position, far from being anti-Jewish, is one to take in the name of our own humanity (and with this “our” I include the humanity of Jews), as well as in solidarity with Palestinians whose every step is taken within as well as against Israeli Occupation.
This article was published earlier in Portside.