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Four Days in Palestine (some language) (1 Viewer)

velo

Retired Supervisor
My friend and I sat on the patio of the corner cafe, the sun warming our faces. A middle-aged woman in a grey sweatsuit jogged along the street, her small dog’s tiny legs struggling to keep up with her modest pace. The waiter, a young man in a crisp, black apron delivered our cappuccinos with a bright and genuine smile.

It was what many people would consider the most normal of settings for a weekend morning. Would it surprise you to know that this utterly banal scene took place in the West Bank of Palestine?

I was fortunate enough to spend four days in the West Bank as a guest of a friend. In my short time there I was given the tiniest of glimpses into the day to day reality of what it’s like to be a Palestinian.

I will never attempt to equate the frustration, fear, anger, and resentment I felt at times because of the way I was treated, in what ended up being minor inconveniences in the grand scheme, to that of the average Palestinian. My only point in relaying my minimal experiences is to illustrate that if I, an American citizen with far more legal protections in this foreign land than those who live there, was treated this way in just four days try to imagine the indignities and terrors felt every day by the Palestinians.

My short stay in the West Bank also allowed me to walk away with a new and intimate understanding of a people I’d previously known little about. I got to see a people rich in culture and dignity who struggle every day for the things you and I take for granted. I got to see the human side of Palestine that so few outsiders do.

The western media tends to portray Palestinians with a narrow brush: terrorists, insurrectionists, bombers of bazaars and storefronts, etc and so forth. The ‘news’ regarding Palestine is often little more than the one-dimensional pablum of propaganda with a dogmatically Zionist slant. There is never a mention of the vast numbers of Palestinians who, while justifiably angry at the Israeli occupation, simply want to live peaceful and productive lives. There is never a mention of the artists, scientists, doctors, and peace-makers that live there. There is no consideration or empathy given to a people stripped of their rights and freedoms. The Palestinian parents who work and struggle for their children the same as we do are never notable or newsworthy until they are a poignant photo opportunity as they wail and clutch the shrapnel-riddled and lifeless bodies of their children atop a pile of dusty rubble that moments ago was their home.

There are exceptions but if one looks at the sum total of coverage the Palestinians are almost always portrayed as the antagonists and Israel as a frightened victim despite the massive military and technological imbalance that puts Palestine at an extreme disadvantage.

Are there Palestinians that engage in violence? Of course there are, no one is denying that. The real question is, why do they feel the need to? Perhaps the more appropriate question is to ask what has pushed them to that extreme and why do we not call them ‘freedom fighters’ vs the other labels the media prefers for them?

Arrival

In 2010 I was working as a defence contractor in Kuwait. The previous year in the US I had met a friend who was Palestinian. She was in the US studying at an Ivy League university on a prestigious scholarship. When she learned I would be in the Middle East she offered to show me her homeland the next time she returned.

As direct air travel from an Arab state to Israel is not possible, I flew from Kuwait to Amman, Jordan. I hired a cab to take me to Allenby Crossing, about a 45 minute ride. There I queued at the kiosk, handed over my passport, and waited for several hours for the bus to come. The officials handed out our passports and we boarded the bus for the long trip down the hill towards Jerusalem.

My friend, Reem, had given me strict instructions to not tell any official that I was going to Palestine, only that I was visiting Israel.

At several points Israeli military checkpoints we were asked to debark the bus and have our passports inspected. Eventually we reached the actual border crossing where a long line of people snaked out from the brick building. Around the periphery there were several heavily muscled men in plain clothes with MP5s that exuded a palpable air of calm lethality the likes of which I had never, nor since, experienced.

When it was my turn to speak to the border agent I handed over my passport and military orders, explaining I was an American working in Kuwait for the US government. Without those orders I would likely have been turned away with a Kuwaiti visa in my passport. When asked, I said I was visiting Jerusalem on holiday.

I was told to sit and wait for additional questions and my anxiety began to grow. After an hour, the same border agent came over to me, handed me my orders and passport, and said I could go with no further information.

Out the door I followed my friend’s instructions to a makeshift transit centre where a mass of small, 20-person buses waited for passengers. I found the one headed for Ramallah and boarded.

The driver stopped me. “My friend, this bus goes to Ramallah. You are sure you wish to go there?” I said yes and he shook his head but let the matter drop.

It was another hour of travel, going through several military checkpoints where I had the unpleasant opportunity to look directly down the barrel of mounted machine guns as the gunners panned their weapons back and forth over the length of the bus.

Eventually I was dropped off on a street in Ramallah and I called Reem to let her know I had arrived. I had spent nearly an entire day to travel just a few miles.

She came to pick me up, dropped me at my hotel to check in, and let me know that we had been invited to a friend’s house for dinner.

Hospitality

Inside her friend’s home was a sharp contrast to lengthy, annoying, and often threatening border crossing process I had just been through. It was inviting and filled with conversation, laughter, and amazing food. I was welcomed as warmly as I could ever expect to be from an old friend let alone someone I just met. We talked about our careers, our families, hopes and dreams, all the normal things anyone talks about.

But winding its way through every topic was the underlying anger of living in an occupied state. There was no fist-shaking or raging expostulations demanding retribution and the deaths of the oppressors, it was the anger of people who simply want to be free, to be left alone to live their lives in peace, but who are in a constant state of fear for their security and even their lives in a supposedly sovereign land where their rights dwindle nearly every day.

The evening was enlightening for me. I watched this utterly ordinary family go about the utterly ordinary process of entertaining guests while at the same time realising this is a land and a people suffering under the thumb of an occupying oppressor who sees them as less than human.

Though I had always suspected the one-sided, pro-Israel propaganda I’d grown up listening to wasn’t fully accurate, I now realised that it was complete and utter bollocks. These were not the masked terrorists shown in lividly garish footage on the evening news. These were people like you might see in New York, or Paris, or London. Reem is a highly educated, well-traveled and urbane woman with an intense intellect and we were in a house owned by an equally cosmopolitan and lettered professional couple with two children eating delicious, homemade baklava. These were people that threatened no one and merely wanted to have peace and self-determination. Despite all this they lived under the constant threat that Israeli troops could come crashing through their door and upend their lives in terrifying ways.

Tourists

We said goodbye and Reem dropped me off at my hotel. The next day she showed me around the city. Like most Middle Eastern cities I had been to, Ramallah was simultaneously dirty and dusty in some places and achingly beautiful in others. What I wasn’t used to was the occasional bomb crater or rocket-collapsed building that had yet to be cleared.

There was an exhausted and wary look in everyone’s eyes and yet, in all my travels over the globe, few people I have encountered were as open and welcoming as the Palestinians.

It astounded me that these people still had the capacity for joy.

That night we were invited to a party at a club. One of Reem’s friends was an artist celebrating a recent opening at a gallery and the place was filled with revellers toasting to her success. It was no different than such an event would be in the US. There were many artists, of course, but also scientists, lawyers, authors, and other professionals. Everyone spoke excellent to impeccable English and had traveled extensively. It was as high-brow of a crowd as you would expect at a gallery opening anywhere.

The next day we set out for Jericho. We traveled east through wind-carved canyons of rock layered in more hues of tan and orange than I thought possible. All I knew about this city was it was the place where Joshua supposedly marched his army around the walls for seven day to have them fall at the command of God.

The word ‘ancient’ does not properly describe Jericho. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet, the multitude of springs bringing fresh water to the surface have made Jericho a lush and verdant oasis in the desert, and a haven for human beings, for at least the last eleven millennia.

From there, we went to the Monastery of the Temptation high on the sheer cliffside. We later swam in the Dead Sea, where the water is so saline you have to fight and work to keep your legs below the surface and where Muslim and Jew swam side by side with no, at least to my outsider’s eyes, friction.

The night of celebration and the following day of rather touristy pursuits were entirely pleasant and without incident. Though the scenery was awe-inspiring and the locations literally Biblical in nature, it was just a day trip with one friend showing another around her home like millions do every year.

This was not the Palestine I’d grown up hearing about.

Occupation Forces

As we traveled through the desert Reem showed me the infamous Jewish settlements. You can’t see the actual settlement from the outside as they are surrounded by imposingly high concrete walls with rows of razor wire lashed to the top and bottom. Large lights facing outward top the walls and there were surely armed guards patrolling the inside, though I could not make them out.

The settlements are illegal incursions into Palestine by Israel. There is no other word for them than ‘occupation.’ They are built on Palestinian land for Israelites. Palestinians are not allowed inside or even near them. The settlements take natural resources from the surrounding areas with no regard for the local population. Reem told of some Palestinian villages that had their entire water source diverted for the settlements’ use leaving the villagers in crisis and drought.

After nightfall we encountered a military checkpoint where bright spotlights nearly blinded us. Even so, I could make out what I presumed to be a .50 caliber machine gun trained on us from behind a wall of sandbags off to our right. I was not used to the car and misunderstood the hand signals from the soldiers. Reem said they wanted me to turn off my lights and I inadvertently engaged the high beams. This seemed to cause some tension and a soldier came up to my window and began speaking in impatient tones, the muzzle of this rifle pointed not quite at me but clearly at the ready. I got the lights off and we were asked for our papers.

In Nazi Germany, and many other oppressive regimes, having to present ‘papers’ for simple travel from place to place is one of the tactics used to keep a populous under tight control and create opportunity for the slightest excuse to bully and harass them. The irony was not lost on me. The soldier inspecting my passport and visa was from a people who, less than seventy years prior, had been the oppressed and were now using many of the same tactics on another population.

We were let through the checkpoint to make our way back to Ramallah.

The next day we wanted to go into Jerusalem. Given what I’d already seen I questioned Reem’s judgement when she suggested we go through the main checkpoint. She insisted that my American passport would get us through easily.

“Trust me, it will be fine.”

I acquiesced. That day we were driving another friend’s car. He had graciously offered to let us take it with no expectation of money or other recompense. We approached the checkpoint, which looked like a multi lane tollbooth on a highway, into Jerusalem and I got out my passport. Reem had her driver’s license from the US.

A young, female soldier took the documents, only briefly glancing at mine, and leaned down to peer past me to my friend in the passenger seat. The soldier asked Reem where she was from and she replied in the most hilariously nasal and bland American accent saying she was from the state shown on the license. The soldier said Reem’s name out loud and followed in broken English with, “This is Arabic name, go there.”

After parking the car in the appointed spot we had our passports and phones taken. We were each escorted into separate “tollbooths” where we were questioned.

Most of the soldiers were very young as Israel has mandatory military service for all its citizens. When asked why I was being detained a young male barely old enough for a wisp of facial hair to have grown on his upper lip answered, “You try to go to Israel with a Palestinian, you commit crime and must go to jail.” He said this with a poorly concealed smile and gleam of humour in his eyes. He was greatly enjoying this exercise of authority and power. There was no doubt this was a daily sport for him.

The older, more experienced soldier leading the cohort was named Y’naev. He questioned me about my name, why I was traveling with a Palestinian woman, were we carrying any weapons, did I intend on harming the State of Israel or any of its citizens, etc and so forth.

Though I had no real experience in this part of the world I know when I’m being fucked with. This was clearly a game and the soldiers were enjoying every minute of it. Even so, I was in no way comforted by this and images of languishing in an Israeli prison danced unstoppably through my head.

What I didn’t know at the time was that they didn’t have the authority to detain me at all. I later learned that, at the time, the law was that a US Citizen can only be detained upon credible belief of criminal activity and must be granted access to US officials during questioning. As it was, merely passing through a checkpoint with a Palestinian person was not enough justification to be detained let alone threatened with imprisonment. Despite all this they had guessed correctly that I wasn’t very well connected, didn’t understand the full extent of the law regarding the situation, just wanted to leave without any further drama, and was scared I was in deeper shit than I actually was.

There were several soldiers milling about in the booth while Y’naev questioned me. I could see Reem across the lane in the other booth having the same experience. After a while Y’naev told me to wait and not leave the booth and walked out. The other soldiers followed him.

I took stock of my surroundings and noticed with disbelief that one of the soldiers had left their rifle leaning against the counter near the door. It was clearly bait to see if I’d do something stupid. I have no doubt they were watching out of the corners of their eyes and had I laid one finger on the weapon I would have had a dozen more rifles pointed at me within seconds. Then I surely would have been charged with a crime at the very least. If I had to guess, I’d also bet the rifle they left behind was unloaded but there was no way to tell.

I went to the doorway and in my loudest, ‘angry American’ voice I yelled for Y’naev. He looked at me and I growled at him to “Get over here, NOW!” He clearly knew what was happening and sauntered over in a forced display of calmness. He entered the booth where I had made a point to position myself as far from the rifle as possible and pointed at it yelling, “What the fuck is that?”

Y’naev was a terrible actor. He tried to look shocked as he called his soldiers over in Hebrew. The ‘negligent’ soldier stepped forward and secured the weapon and Y’naev gave him the weakest dressing down I’ve even seen in my life. The solder was also a bad actor, his smile was impossible to hide.

I can’t speak for the entire Israeli military, but this platoon enjoyed making people afraid and tried to bait them into doing things they could be arrested, or worse, for. I also have no reason to think this was an uncommon occurrence.

The full truth is that if I had picked up that weapon, and there were cameras in the room should they need proof of that, they would have immediately been justified in shooting me. I sometimes wonder if that’s really what they wanted.

Yet it was clear I was being treated better than Reem. I could see her distress from across the way. It surprised me when, after the ordeal was over, she told me that she was actually treated more civilly than she expected, likely due to the fact that she was traveling with an American.

After another four or five hours or sheer boredom Reem and I were escorted into an armoured vehicle. The back was haphazardly littered with open metal boxes and truck tyres which doubled as seats for Reem and I, Y’naev, and two soldiers. I asked where we were being taken and the solider, the same one who had smilingly told me I had committed a crime, said we were being taken to the police to be charged.

There were no windows and the road was rough. After perhaps fifteen minutes the vehicle stopped and my friend and I were taken at gunpoint to separate chainlink cages under a metal roof. We were told not to talk but when the soldiers walked away were able to speak quietly for the first time in nearly half a day. It’s funny to think about now but I was quite angry and while I don’t recall exactly what I said I’m sure “I told you so” was part of it.

Across an empty area there was a trailer-like building with several doors. One was open and through it I could see a man in civilian dress wearing a shoulder holster. Y’naev handed him a folder. The man opened it and looked at our documents, looked at Y’naev, and looked back at our documents. His body language clearly projected annoyance, how much of this was for show I have no idea, though we could not hear anything they said. In less than a minute he had handed the folder back to Y’naev and waved him off with a dismissive gesture.

The cage doors were unlocked and we were casually handed our passports and phones.

“What’s going on,” I asked.

“The detective said you are free to go.” There was no surprise or frustration in Y’naev’s voice; he knew what the outcome would be all along. This was just another Palestinian he got to harass, this time with the bonus of getting to mess with an American.

Back at the car, we were told to go back to the Palestine side of the checkpoint and that we would not be allowed to enter Jerusalem this way. Reem knew another way, through the ominously named Valley of Fire.

This was a back door of sorts into Jerusalem. The dirt road was the most dangerous I had ever, and have yet to, travel on. Descending into the valley the road was extremely steep and every section pitched towards the open side creating a constant sense of vertigo. The switchbacks were extremely tight, so tight I feared the wheels of the small sedan were precariously close to the precipice on many occasions. Reem informed me that many people died on this road but if they weren’t allowed through the checkpoint this was the only way they could get to and from Jerusalem and Bethlehem even if they had legitimate business. Thus it was well-traveled despite the risks. For the Palestinians, this double standard is a way of life.

We eventually made it into the city though by then everything we had wanted to do was closed. We found a place to grab some food and went back the way we came. It was now pitch dark and what seemed like a risky journey through the valley in daylight was absolutely treacherous at night. I creeped the car very slowly down and then up the valley road and so it was quite late by the time we came out on the other side.

The highways used by the Palestinians are in high contrast to those used by the Israelis. The latter are smooth tarmac with excellent lighting. The road I found myself returning to Ramallah on was pocked full of holes, entirely unlit on a moonless night, with no shoulder or lane markers.

When the tyre blew out in a pothole I did not see until too late we were miles away from the nearest source of light in the desert. Our phones were the only source of illumination in the near pitch blackness and they were both on single digit percentages of remaining power.

Somehow we got the small ‘get home’ or ‘doughnut’ spare tyre on but it didn’t last long. By the time we were on the long hill going down into Ramallah it, too, had flatted and I was inching my way on rim as there was no other option but to press on.

It was late, perhaps 2200hrs, and the part of the city we were in was mostly shut down. We were still miles from my hotel when the road curved and, inexplicably and miraculously, there was a bright light blazing over two men sitting on piles of tyres. Literally the only thing open we could find was a tyre store and it was the one thing we most desperately needed. The men happily made short work of repairing the main wheel, I overpaid them in gratitude, and I went back to my hotel exhausted.

The next day we met and went to return the car. I was nervous about telling Reem’s friend that we’d blown out his tyre and destroyed his spare. His reaction was surprising in every way and showed me even more of the depth of this oft-maligned people. Reem had told him about our experience at the checkpoint and our harrowing drive and he actually apologised to me for the treatment we received. He seemed shamed and embarrassed at what we’d had to endure when surely this was nothing compared to what he must deal with on a daily basis.

To this day I remain overwhelmed at the meaning behind that man’s embarrassed apology for acts he had no control over.

Coffee

For the remainder of our time in Palestine we chose to stay in Ramallah, quietly spending time with friends or relaxing. Knowing that I love shawarma, and fulfilling a promise she had made to prove to me that West Bank shawarma was even better than Lebanese, Reem took me to a small shop near a shopping area where I could test her claims. Her point was made. The shawarma was, and remains, the best I’ve ever had. It was served as a large sandwich and was entirely filling but it was so good, and knowing I’d likely not be back here for a long time if ever, I ate another.

On my last day we went to the cafe where the woman had jogged past with her tiny dog. It was, as I described in the beginning, a scene one might expect to see in any middle class neighbourhood in any of a dozen western countries. Save for the one thing I didn’t mention in the first paragraph- down the road a few hundred metres was portable road barrier with a blue sign in Hebrew and Arabic. Behind it stood two Israeli military men with automatic rifles next to an armoured personnel carrier. Reem told me these temporary barriers were often put up at random locations to remind the locals who is really in charge.

This wasn’t Israel, it was Palestine. Yet the Israeli military patrols and harasses the population on a daily basis and far, far worse. It is, by any definition, an occupying force.

The West Bank of the new reports is filthy, often with fires raging, people screaming, and explosions flashing across the night sky. The West Bank I saw was delicious food, friends laughing, children playing in parks, and old men sitting on benches arguing happily with each over who knows what. It was a man in a suit speeding past in a car late to work. It was a queue of young people outside a popular restaurant. It was shopping and cell phone ads on billboards. Most of what I saw was people just trying to be people and wanting nothing to do with war or conflict.

My experience at the checkpoints, seeing the interactions of the Israelis with the Palestinians, the settlements, and hearing the stories of so many people all gave me a new clarity into the tensions involved in the region. I came away not with re-affirmed belief in the Zionists’ moral superiority, as so many podium-pounders in US politics seem so strangely convinced of, but to see them for what they are in actuality- land-grabbing bullies doing to others what was once done to them.

The Palestinian people have been having their homes and land taken by force by western powers for generations. The British first tried to create a Jewish State after WWI. Then, in an understandable but not without consequences, attempt to assuage the guilt of the entire human race for the Holocaust the former Allied nations formally created and chartered the Nation of Israel. In true Colonialist fashion the Allies don’t seem to have considered that people already lived in what they now chose to call Israel and that yet again stealing a people’s homes and land could only end in conflict.

It is clear to me that Palestine is a land occupied by a foreign aggressor. It is a land where ethnic and religious heritage determines an individual’s rights, access to resources, and even whether or not they can be imprisoned or killed with impunity.

If the forces of another country came into mine, took away my land and rights, and forced my people to live under subjugation and inequality I would fight back. Every American I know would say exactly the same thing. So why do so many say it’s wrong for the Palestinians to defend their home and liberties?
 

PiP

Staff member
Co-Owner
Wow, you know how to write, Velo. Your story is gripping and kept me on the edge of my seat until the last sentence. You should have submitted it to a mag or newspaper.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I can remember 20 or 25 years ago the terrorist organizations among Palestinians took a long break from murder as a political or resistance tool. Things like the Munich murders and other frequent terrorist outrages had long kept world opinion far from their court. But after a few years of relative peace, world opinion--I thought--was beginning to sway, including mine. Then, out of the blue, suicide bombers began committing mass murder again at places like restaurants. Infiltrators began penetrating communities and homes to commit murder. World opinion hit the brakes.

It's a no-win situation. Palestine needs a Ghandi, not an Arafat, or now, an Abbas.

I completely, truly, understand that the average Palestinian resident is a family-oriented, peace-loving person who would never dream of violence. So was the average German citizen in the 30s and 40s. The mayor of Gotha toured the Ohrdruf concentration camp after its liberation, then went home and committed suicide. If I recall correctly, his wife joined him in that supreme act of shame. Palestinians must, once and for all, shut down the murderous elements of their "leadership", or their cause will never advance. They'll never prevail on "what's fair". They can only prevail on world opinion as sympathy, and they can never garner sympathy with societal elements dedicated to terrorism.

I can understand both sides ... neither of which can, under the status quo, ever feel secure. I can enjoy a meal on a restaurant's outdoor patio with never a thought of a bomb ending lives. I can visit another state without checkpoints and delays and investigations. Israelis and Palestinians live a different reality, and I grieve for them.

Velo, your story was a refreshing, but cautionary, look to balance what we see and feel at a distance. Thank you for it, and may two peoples in one of the slowest moving and intractable conflicts in history finally find common ground.
 
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vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Wow, you know how to write, Velo. Your story is gripping and kept me on the edge of my seat until the last sentence. You should have submitted it to a mag or newspaper.
I concur. It's a well written truth that is gripping and moving. And yes, I can conceive of numerous outlets which would give it serious consideration.
 

Phil Istine

WF Veterans
My friend and I sat on the patio of the corner cafe, the sun warming our faces. A middle-aged woman in a grey sweatsuit jogged along the street, her small dog’s tiny legs struggling to keep up with her modest pace. The waiter, a young man in a crisp, black apron delivered our cappuccinos with a bright and genuine smile.

It was what many people would consider the most normal of settings for a weekend morning. Would it surprise you to know that this utterly banal scene took place in the West Bank of Palestine?

I was fortunate enough to spend four days in the West Bank as a guest of a friend. In my short time there I was given the tiniest of glimpses into the day to day reality of what it’s like to be a Palestinian.

I will never attempt to equate the frustration, fear, anger, and resentment I felt at times because of the way I was treated, in what ended up being minor inconveniences in the grand scheme, to that of the average Palestinian. My only point in relaying my minimal experiences is to illustrate that if I, an American citizen with far more legal protections in this foreign land than those who live there, was treated this way in just four days try to imagine the indignities and terrors felt every day by the Palestinians.

My short stay in the West Bank also allowed me to walk away with a new and intimate understanding of a people I’d previously known little about. I got to see a people rich in culture and dignity who struggle every day for the things you and I take for granted. I got to see the human side of Palestine that so few outsiders do.

The western media tends to portray Palestinians with a narrow brush: terrorists, insurrectionists, bombers of bazaars and storefronts, etc and so forth. The ‘news’ regarding Palestine is often little more than the one-dimensional pablum of propaganda with a dogmatically Zionist slant. There is never a mention of the vast numbers of Palestinians who, while justifiably angry at the Israeli occupation, simply want to live peaceful and productive lives. There is never a mention of the artists, scientists, doctors, and peace-makers that live there. There is no consideration or empathy given to a people stripped of their rights and freedoms. The Palestinian parents who work and struggle for their children the same as we do are never notable or newsworthy until they are a poignant photo opportunity as they wail and clutch the shrapnel-riddled and lifeless bodies of their children atop a pile of dusty rubble that moments ago was their home.

There are exceptions but if one looks at the sum total of coverage the Palestinians are almost always portrayed as the antagonists and Israel as a frightened victim despite the massive military and technological imbalance that puts Palestine at an extreme disadvantage.

Are there Palestinians that engage in violence? Of course there are, no one is denying that. The real question is, why do they feel the need to? Perhaps the more appropriate question is to ask what has pushed them to that extreme and why do we not call them ‘freedom fighters’ vs the other labels the media prefers for them?

Arrival

In 2010 I was working as a defence contractor in Kuwait. The previous year in the US I had met a friend who was Palestinian. She was in the US studying at an Ivy League university on a prestigious scholarship. When she learned I would be in the Middle East she offered to show me her homeland the next time she returned.

As direct air travel from an Arab state to Israel is not possible, I flew from Kuwait to Amman, Jordan. I hired a cab to take me to Allenby Crossing, about a 45 minute ride. There I queued at the kiosk, handed over my passport, and waited for several hours for the bus to come. The officials handed out our passports and we boarded the bus for the long trip down the hill towards Jerusalem.

My friend, Reem, had given me strict instructions to not tell any official that I was going to Palestine, only that I was visiting Israel.

At several points Israeli military checkpoints we were asked to debark the bus and have our passports inspected. Eventually we reached the actual border crossing where a long line of people snaked out from the brick building. Around the periphery there were several heavily muscled men in plain clothes with MP5s that exuded a palpable air of calm lethality the likes of which I had never, nor since, experienced.

When it was my turn to speak to the border agent I handed over my passport and military orders, explaining I was an American working in Kuwait for the US government. Without those orders I would likely have been turned away with a Kuwaiti visa in my passport. When asked, I said I was visiting Jerusalem on holiday.

I was told to sit and wait for additional questions and my anxiety began to grow. After an hour, the same border agent came over to me, handed me my orders and passport, and said I could go with no further information.

Out the door I followed my friend’s instructions to a makeshift transit centre where a mass of small, 20-person buses waited for passengers. I found the one headed for Ramallah and boarded.

The driver stopped me. “My friend, this bus goes to Ramallah. You are sure you wish to go there?” I said yes and he shook his head but let the matter drop.

It was another hour of travel, going through several military checkpoints where I had the unpleasant opportunity to look directly down the barrel of mounted machine guns as the gunners panned their weapons back and forth over the length of the bus.

Eventually I was dropped off on a street in Ramallah and I called Reem to let her know I had arrived. I had spent nearly an entire day to travel just a few miles.

She came to pick me up, dropped me at my hotel to check in, and let me know that we had been invited to a friend’s house for dinner.

Hospitality

Inside her friend’s home was a sharp contrast to lengthy, annoying, and often threatening border crossing process I had just been through. It was inviting and filled with conversation, laughter, and amazing food. I was welcomed as warmly as I could ever expect to be from an old friend let alone someone I just met. We talked about our careers, our families, hopes and dreams, all the normal things anyone talks about.

But winding its way through every topic was the underlying anger of living in an occupied state. There was no fist-shaking or raging expostulations demanding retribution and the deaths of the oppressors, it was the anger of people who simply want to be free, to be left alone to live their lives in peace, but who are in a constant state of fear for their security and even their lives in a supposedly sovereign land where their rights dwindle nearly every day.

The evening was enlightening for me. I watched this utterly ordinary family go about the utterly ordinary process of entertaining guests while at the same time realising this is a land and a people suffering under the thumb of an occupying oppressor who sees them as less than human.

Though I had always suspected the one-sided, pro-Israel propaganda I’d grown up listening to wasn’t fully accurate, I now realised that it was complete and utter bollocks. These were not the masked terrorists shown in lividly garish footage on the evening news. These were people like you might see in New York, or Paris, or London. Reem is a highly educated, well-traveled and urbane woman with an intense intellect and we were in a house owned by an equally cosmopolitan and lettered professional couple with two children eating delicious, homemade baklava. These were people that threatened no one and merely wanted to have peace and self-determination. Despite all this they lived under the constant threat that Israeli troops could come crashing through their door and upend their lives in terrifying ways.

Tourists

We said goodbye and Reem dropped me off at my hotel. The next day she showed me around the city. Like most Middle Eastern cities I had been to, Ramallah was simultaneously dirty and dusty in some places and achingly beautiful in others. What I wasn’t used to was the occasional bomb crater or rocket-collapsed building that had yet to be cleared.

There was an exhausted and wary look in everyone’s eyes and yet, in all my travels over the globe, few people I have encountered were as open and welcoming as the Palestinians.

It astounded me that these people still had the capacity for joy.

That night we were invited to a party at a club. One of Reem’s friends was an artist celebrating a recent opening at a gallery and the place was filled with revellers toasting to her success. It was no different than such an event would be in the US. There were many artists, of course, but also scientists, lawyers, authors, and other professionals. Everyone spoke excellent to impeccable English and had traveled extensively. It was as high-brow of a crowd as you would expect at a gallery opening anywhere.

The next day we set out for Jericho. We traveled east through wind-carved canyons of rock layered in more hues of tan and orange than I thought possible. All I knew about this city was it was the place where Joshua supposedly marched his army around the walls for seven day to have them fall at the command of God.

The word ‘ancient’ does not properly describe Jericho. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet, the multitude of springs bringing fresh water to the surface have made Jericho a lush and verdant oasis in the desert, and a haven for human beings, for at least the last eleven millennia.

From there, we went to the Monastery of the Temptation high on the sheer cliffside. We later swam in the Dead Sea, where the water is so saline you have to fight and work to keep your legs below the surface and where Muslim and Jew swam side by side with no, at least to my outsider’s eyes, friction.

The night of celebration and the following day of rather touristy pursuits were entirely pleasant and without incident. Though the scenery was awe-inspiring and the locations literally Biblical in nature, it was just a day trip with one friend showing another around her home like millions do every year.

This was not the Palestine I’d grown up hearing about.

Occupation Forces

As we traveled through the desert Reem showed me the infamous Jewish settlements. You can’t see the actual settlement from the outside as they are surrounded by imposingly high concrete walls with rows of razor wire lashed to the top and bottom. Large lights facing outward top the walls and there were surely armed guards patrolling the inside, though I could not make them out.

The settlements are illegal incursions into Palestine by Israel. There is no other word for them than ‘occupation.’ They are built on Palestinian land for Israelites. Palestinians are not allowed inside or even near them. The settlements take natural resources from the surrounding areas with no regard for the local population. Reem told of some Palestinian villages that had their entire water source diverted for the settlements’ use leaving the villagers in crisis and drought.

After nightfall we encountered a military checkpoint where bright spotlights nearly blinded us. Even so, I could make out what I presumed to be a .50 caliber machine gun trained on us from behind a wall of sandbags off to our right. I was not used to the car and misunderstood the hand signals from the soldiers. Reem said they wanted me to turn off my lights and I inadvertently engaged the high beams. This seemed to cause some tension and a soldier came up to my window and began speaking in impatient tones, the muzzle of this rifle pointed not quite at me but clearly at the ready. I got the lights off and we were asked for our papers.

In Nazi Germany, and many other oppressive regimes, having to present ‘papers’ for simple travel from place to place is one of the tactics used to keep a populous under tight control and create opportunity for the slightest excuse to bully and harass them. The irony was not lost on me. The soldier inspecting my passport and visa was from a people who, less than seventy years prior, had been the oppressed and were now using many of the same tactics on another population.

We were let through the checkpoint to make our way back to Ramallah.

The next day we wanted to go into Jerusalem. Given what I’d already seen I questioned Reem’s judgement when she suggested we go through the main checkpoint. She insisted that my American passport would get us through easily.

“Trust me, it will be fine.”

I acquiesced. That day we were driving another friend’s car. He had graciously offered to let us take it with no expectation of money or other recompense. We approached the checkpoint, which looked like a multi lane tollbooth on a highway, into Jerusalem and I got out my passport. Reem had her driver’s license from the US.

A young, female soldier took the documents, only briefly glancing at mine, and leaned down to peer past me to my friend in the passenger seat. The soldier asked Reem where she was from and she replied in the most hilariously nasal and bland American accent saying she was from the state shown on the license. The soldier said Reem’s name out loud and followed in broken English with, “This is Arabic name, go there.”

After parking the car in the appointed spot we had our passports and phones taken. We were each escorted into separate “tollbooths” where we were questioned.

Most of the soldiers were very young as Israel has mandatory military service for all its citizens. When asked why I was being detained a young male barely old enough for a wisp of facial hair to have grown on his upper lip answered, “You try to go to Israel with a Palestinian, you commit crime and must go to jail.” He said this with a poorly concealed smile and gleam of humour in his eyes. He was greatly enjoying this exercise of authority and power. There was no doubt this was a daily sport for him.

The older, more experienced soldier leading the cohort was named Y’naev. He questioned me about my name, why I was traveling with a Palestinian woman, were we carrying any weapons, did I intend on harming the State of Israel or any of its citizens, etc and so forth.

Though I had no real experience in this part of the world I know when I’m being fucked with. This was clearly a game and the soldiers were enjoying every minute of it. Even so, I was in no way comforted by this and images of languishing in an Israeli prison danced unstoppably through my head.

What I didn’t know at the time was that they didn’t have the authority to detain me at all. I later learned that, at the time, the law was that a US Citizen can only be detained upon credible belief of criminal activity and must be granted access to US officials during questioning. As it was, merely passing through a checkpoint with a Palestinian person was not enough justification to be detained let alone threatened with imprisonment. Despite all this they had guessed correctly that I wasn’t very well connected, didn’t understand the full extent of the law regarding the situation, just wanted to leave without any further drama, and was scared I was in deeper shit than I actually was.

There were several soldiers milling about in the booth while Y’naev questioned me. I could see Reem across the lane in the other booth having the same experience. After a while Y’naev told me to wait and not leave the booth and walked out. The other soldiers followed him.

I took stock of my surroundings and noticed with disbelief that one of the soldiers had left their rifle leaning against the counter near the door. It was clearly bait to see if I’d do something stupid. I have no doubt they were watching out of the corners of their eyes and had I laid one finger on the weapon I would have had a dozen more rifles pointed at me within seconds. Then I surely would have been charged with a crime at the very least. If I had to guess, I’d also bet the rifle they left behind was unloaded but there was no way to tell.

I went to the doorway and in my loudest, ‘angry American’ voice I yelled for Y’naev. He looked at me and I growled at him to “Get over here, NOW!” He clearly knew what was happening and sauntered over in a forced display of calmness. He entered the booth where I had made a point to position myself as far from the rifle as possible and pointed at it yelling, “What the fuck is that?”

Y’naev was a terrible actor. He tried to look shocked as he called his soldiers over in Hebrew. The ‘negligent’ soldier stepped forward and secured the weapon and Y’naev gave him the weakest dressing down I’ve even seen in my life. The solder was also a bad actor, his smile was impossible to hide.

I can’t speak for the entire Israeli military, but this platoon enjoyed making people afraid and tried to bait them into doing things they could be arrested, or worse, for. I also have no reason to think this was an uncommon occurrence.

The full truth is that if I had picked up that weapon, and there were cameras in the room should they need proof of that, they would have immediately been justified in shooting me. I sometimes wonder if that’s really what they wanted.

Yet it was clear I was being treated better than Reem. I could see her distress from across the way. It surprised me when, after the ordeal was over, she told me that she was actually treated more civilly than she expected, likely due to the fact that she was traveling with an American.

After another four or five hours or sheer boredom Reem and I were escorted into an armoured vehicle. The back was haphazardly littered with open metal boxes and truck tyres which doubled as seats for Reem and I, Y’naev, and two soldiers. I asked where we were being taken and the solider, the same one who had smilingly told me I had committed a crime, said we were being taken to the police to be charged.

There were no windows and the road was rough. After perhaps fifteen minutes the vehicle stopped and my friend and I were taken at gunpoint to separate chainlink cages under a metal roof. We were told not to talk but when the soldiers walked away were able to speak quietly for the first time in nearly half a day. It’s funny to think about now but I was quite angry and while I don’t recall exactly what I said I’m sure “I told you so” was part of it.

Across an empty area there was a trailer-like building with several doors. One was open and through it I could see a man in civilian dress wearing a shoulder holster. Y’naev handed him a folder. The man opened it and looked at our documents, looked at Y’naev, and looked back at our documents. His body language clearly projected annoyance, how much of this was for show I have no idea, though we could not hear anything they said. In less than a minute he had handed the folder back to Y’naev and waved him off with a dismissive gesture.

The cage doors were unlocked and we were casually handed our passports and phones.

“What’s going on,” I asked.

“The detective said you are free to go.” There was no surprise or frustration in Y’naev’s voice; he knew what the outcome would be all along. This was just another Palestinian he got to harass, this time with the bonus of getting to mess with an American.

Back at the car, we were told to go back to the Palestine side of the checkpoint and that we would not be allowed to enter Jerusalem this way. Reem knew another way, through the ominously named Valley of Fire.

This was a back door of sorts into Jerusalem. The dirt road was the most dangerous I had ever, and have yet to, travel on. Descending into the valley the road was extremely steep and every section pitched towards the open side creating a constant sense of vertigo. The switchbacks were extremely tight, so tight I feared the wheels of the small sedan were precariously close to the precipice on many occasions. Reem informed me that many people died on this road but if they weren’t allowed through the checkpoint this was the only way they could get to and from Jerusalem and Bethlehem even if they had legitimate business. Thus it was well-traveled despite the risks. For the Palestinians, this double standard is a way of life.

We eventually made it into the city though by then everything we had wanted to do was closed. We found a place to grab some food and went back the way we came. It was now pitch dark and what seemed like a risky journey through the valley in daylight was absolutely treacherous at night. I creeped the car very slowly down and then up the valley road and so it was quite late by the time we came out on the other side.

The highways used by the Palestinians are in high contrast to those used by the Israelis. The latter are smooth tarmac with excellent lighting. The road I found myself returning to Ramallah on was pocked full of holes, entirely unlit on a moonless night, with no shoulder or lane markers.

When the tyre blew out in a pothole I did not see until too late we were miles away from the nearest source of light in the desert. Our phones were the only source of illumination in the near pitch blackness and they were both on single digit percentages of remaining power.

Somehow we got the small ‘get home’ or ‘doughnut’ spare tyre on but it didn’t last long. By the time we were on the long hill going down into Ramallah it, too, had flatted and I was inching my way on rim as there was no other option but to press on.

It was late, perhaps 2200hrs, and the part of the city we were in was mostly shut down. We were still miles from my hotel when the road curved and, inexplicably and miraculously, there was a bright light blazing over two men sitting on piles of tyres. Literally the only thing open we could find was a tyre store and it was the one thing we most desperately needed. The men happily made short work of repairing the main wheel, I overpaid them in gratitude, and I went back to my hotel exhausted.

The next day we met and went to return the car. I was nervous about telling Reem’s friend that we’d blown out his tyre and destroyed his spare. His reaction was surprising in every way and showed me even more of the depth of this oft-maligned people. Reem had told him about our experience at the checkpoint and our harrowing drive and he actually apologised to me for the treatment we received. He seemed shamed and embarrassed at what we’d had to endure when surely this was nothing compared to what he must deal with on a daily basis.

To this day I remain overwhelmed at the meaning behind that man’s embarrassed apology for acts he had no control over.

Coffee

For the remainder of our time in Palestine we chose to stay in Ramallah, quietly spending time with friends or relaxing. Knowing that I love shawarma, and fulfilling a promise she had made to prove to me that West Bank shawarma was even better than Lebanese, Reem took me to a small shop near a shopping area where I could test her claims. Her point was made. The shawarma was, and remains, the best I’ve ever had. It was served as a large sandwich and was entirely filling but it was so good, and knowing I’d likely not be back here for a long time if ever, I ate another.

On my last day we went to the cafe where the woman had jogged past with her tiny dog. It was, as I described in the beginning, a scene one might expect to see in any middle class neighbourhood in any of a dozen western countries. Save for the one thing I didn’t mention in the first paragraph- down the road a few hundred metres was portable road barrier with a blue sign in Hebrew and Arabic. Behind it stood two Israeli military men with automatic rifles next to an armoured personnel carrier. Reem told me these temporary barriers were often put up at random locations to remind the locals who is really in charge.

This wasn’t Israel, it was Palestine. Yet the Israeli military patrols and harasses the population on a daily basis and far, far worse. It is, by any definition, an occupying force.

The West Bank of the new reports is filthy, often with fires raging, people screaming, and explosions flashing across the night sky. The West Bank I saw was delicious food, friends laughing, children playing in parks, and old men sitting on benches arguing happily with each over who knows what. It was a man in a suit speeding past in a car late to work. It was a queue of young people outside a popular restaurant. It was shopping and cell phone ads on billboards. Most of what I saw was people just trying to be people and wanting nothing to do with war or conflict.

My experience at the checkpoints, seeing the interactions of the Israelis with the Palestinians, the settlements, and hearing the stories of so many people all gave me a new clarity into the tensions involved in the region. I came away not with re-affirmed belief in the Zionists’ moral superiority, as so many podium-pounders in US politics seem so strangely convinced of, but to see them for what they are in actuality- land-grabbing bullies doing to others what was once done to them.

The Palestinian people have been having their homes and land taken by force by western powers for generations. The British first tried to create a Jewish State after WWI. Then, in an understandable but not without consequences, attempt to assuage the guilt of the entire human race for the Holocaust the former Allied nations formally created and chartered the Nation of Israel. In true Colonialist fashion the Allies don’t seem to have considered that people already lived in what they now chose to call Israel and that yet again stealing a people’s homes and land could only end in conflict.

It is clear to me that Palestine is a land occupied by a foreign aggressor. It is a land where ethnic and religious heritage determines an individual

That was an interesting insight into a part of the world we only seem to hear about when military problems flare up. Generally, I found the piece easy to follow. - a plus for someone like me whose concentration often wanders. There was the odd spot where I felt a sentence was a little convoluted and I might have punctuated differently. Also, some parts might have been a bit punchier had you used active voice rather than passive. However, none of that detracted from your account that I found quite absorbing.
 
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