Palestine Part 3: Enter at your own risk!
This is part three in our four part series on Palestine. These reflective thoughts are written by Adhila Mayet. Thank you for the courage to share your thoughts. I'd also like to thank Saadiyah Mayet for pictures used in this post.
Jerusalem - referred to as the old city - is a bustling market place, tourist destination and holy land all wrapped into one. Every square centimeter is rich with history.
Our venture out of Jerusalem was confined to a single day – mostly because one had to be escorted by an experienced local to navigate Israeli check-points that pepper the roads. We piled into a bus of at least 40 South African tourists early in the morning to begin our journey, which started with the drive to Khalil (also known as Hebron). Khalil is a Palestinian territory that is home to Ibrahimi Mosque – a mosque built by our Prophet Ibrahim where he and a few other important religious figures are buried. We left Jerusalem and I watched the images outside the window change drastically as we entered into “Israeli” occupied areas. I was struck by the absolute normalcy and calm of Israeli areas – we passed pretty townhouses, schools, skyscrapers and, in essence, a normal, functioning first world country.
We were stopped at our first check-point, which is not unlike a typical toll-gate, except the gate keepers are armed defense force officials. Our tour guide, a jovial Palestinian named Sheikh Saleh, warned us as we approached the gate not to provoke the army, to remain in silence, and, the golden rule, not to take photos of the guards (a different tour group breaking this rule was led to a long detainment at the check-point previously, Saleh mentioned). We were to keep our passports and visa’s out and visible at all times. Two Israeli soldiers boarded our bus and chatted easily with Saleh. When he mentioned that we were South African, one of the soldiers lit up and said, “Ah! Nelson Mandela!” although Saleh laughed it off, I fumed internally at the irony of this claim. It stung hearing Mandela's name being used in a deeply unequal context which goes against what he believed and fought for in S.A, and vocally stood for in Palestine in later years.
The appearance of one of the soldiers surprised me – he had familiar teenage acne and was clearly very young. I later found out that conscription was forced in Israel at the age of 18. Although I had been confronted with the Israeli Defense Force many times already, I started to think about the individuals within the group – young, impressionable, and perhaps not entirely excited to be part of the organisation. At a later check-point, after the same passport-checking fuss, Saleh politely asked the soldiers to be quick about their business as we were all tired – one of the soldiers responded, “Yes, we are tired too.” I won’t soon forget his resigned sigh and loaded answer.
Our success at passing the first check point was soon forgotten as Saleh brought on the next lot of warnings. Although Khalil was “Palestinian”, Ibrahimi Mosque was an area of regular conflict and therefore was guarded by the Israeli Defense Force. There have been shootings previously – the forces are quick to react and we were warned to leave all bags in our bus, or at the very least, not remove anything too quickly from our bags, lest we are mistaken for fetching weapons. We were to remain as a single group, and one of the guys on the group was given the task of making sure the last people got through. One of the mothers on the group later told me how her 7 year old daughter was shaking from fear at this point. We pulled up at the mosque and I wanted to ask, and still wonder, why the Israeli army was concerned with guarding a heritage and religious site that clearly and solely belongs to the Palestinian Muslims – what interest does Israel have with a mosque, where Muslims pray? We passed through metal detectors and walked passed the armed guards before being allowed to enter.
After our very brief tour of the mosque, we left. I was distracted by some Palestinian children returning from a soup kitchen nearby – I stopped to buy beaded Palestinian flag bracelets in support, and very nearly got left off of the bus. We breathed a collective sigh of relief as the visit ended without event. The visit to Khalil was my first brush with the real fear of an army – our interaction with the army to that point was disturbing but mostly benign. This was another shuddering realisation of what Palestinians must endure daily.
At this point, I want to explain to you what it means to be a “Palestinian Territory”. We consistently saw that these towns were clearly marked with large boards issuing a long-winded warning to all Israelis that you enter at your own risk. If that is not unsettling enough, the streetlights have several mounted security cameras – my sister and I marvelled at this and wondered how unregulated and “free” Palestinians lives were in their supposed territories. The rest is mostly normal, Arab towns, vibrant with activity. Yet again, the resilience of people in the face of hardship never ceases to amaze me. One clear difference between Israeli and Palestinian settlements was the existence of large black tanks on the tops of Palestinian homes. When we enquired as to their purpose, Saleh told us that Palestinian settlements only received water once every one to two weeks, and the tanks were used for storage. This was deeply unnerving, especially seeing the Palestinian areas directly next to the Israeli areas – it was obvious that the restrictions had little to do with lack of infrastructure.
After Khalil, we drove through Bethlehem (or Bayt Lahm – the Arabic name) but could not stop as it was not safe to do so – there had been a very recent conflict. We picked up a friend of one of the members of our group, who drove with us until we reached the end of the city – she could not travel further with us and her reason made the purpose of the check-points clear to us. Every Palestinian carries a pass, mostly in the form of a letter on a number plate and his or her ID, which will define where the Palestinian may travel. The friend expressed wide eyed envy that we were staying in Jerusalem – her pass did not allow her to travel to the area, and although she was born in Palestine and had lived there her whole life, she had never been to the important Al Aqsa mosque. We dropped her off as we left the town, all confused and disheartened by the arbitrary restriction of free movement of the Palestinians.
The rest of our day’s activity included travelling further west, where we stopped at orphanages in Palestinian areas and handed out aid packages we had put together. My favourite experience was meeting two teenage sisters at the orphanage, who reminded me of my own sisters and I at that age. Their hair was done in trendy braids and they spoke with excitement of dreams to become engineers and artists. I was touched by the universalness of being a hopeful teenager – regardless of circumstance. We excitedly exchanged social media accounts and invited them to South Africa.
Exhausted and feeling mixed emotions, we headed back to Jerusalem. Our last stop was Jaffa – a port in Tel Aviv that had been “won” by the Israelis during the tumultuous history of the area, and is now a waterfront tourist and local attraction. It is situated in the heart of Tel Aviv, and no sooner had we stepped out in the first decidedly non-Palestinian territory, the sheer discomfort experienced by our group was voiced and we promptly returned to the bus, and drove back to Jerusalem.
Reflective thoughts and questions;
1. Freedom of movement is often compared with freedom of speech in its importance in terms of basic human rights; its restriction is deeply impactful on both the day-to-day lives and the psyche of the Palestinian.
- In the "global community" that we live in, especially because of the Internet & social media, is the restriction of freedom of movement as effective as it may have been previously? Or is it even more apparent and frustrating?
2. How does your context actually dictate what seems normal and acceptable to you? Check points for example, feel intrusive and humiliating, but this is someone's reality & to some extent status quo, does it get to a point where something that is objectively "wrong" just becomes a part of life and we continue to go on because that's just how life is?