Palestine; what's really going on over there?

This is part one in our four part series of Palestine. These reflective thoughts are written by Adhila Mayet. Her strength of character and willingness to voice her opinion on that which breaks her heart continue to inspire me.

I spent my December break in the Middle East. 

That sentence alone was enough to throw many of my colleagues, friends and some acquaintances off completely. I saw momentary panic on the faces of many, or was greeted by blank looks and sheer inability to know what to say next. This was before I even had a chance to say that one of the destinations was the controversial country known as Palestine. 

The conversations that ensued were filled with every response, ranging from comfort in ignorance, cautious curiosity to a deep desire to know what's "really going on over there?" This spurred me to write and share a little about my experience, specifically in Palestine. I do not profess to be extremely well versed on the politics; this piece mirrors the personal experiences I had. Person to person, here is my story. 

My family and I left for Palestine in a group of about 11 nervous South Africans. The purpose of our tour was religious - the first mosque ever built is located in Jerusalem; performing prayers in the mosque is on the bucket list of most Muslims around the globe. Beyond the mosque, the area is filled with a rich history of all Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) - but more on that later. Beyond spiritual fulfilment, I hoped to see for myself what was truly behind the emotionally charged media hype that shrouds this ancient land. 

We arrived at Ben Gurion airport - which is situated in Tel Aviv, and the minute we stepped off the plane, the conflict and tension was evident. Challenge number one was getting through border control - visas for "Israel" are obtained at the airport and have been known to be difficult to obtain. Our group queued at the immigration line and after being asked rather odd questions individually (who is your grandfather?), one by one we were sent to a detainment area, where we were to be questioned further. My mum had a particularly unsettling experience - she was asked where she was going during her stay in Israel. Her naive but straightforward response was "Palestine". The security guard disdainfully responded that no such place exists. 

We gathered in the detainment area, which consisted of a few chairs and was guarded by two amiable guards. We were greeted by many sympathetic people also under detainment - many of whom were from France. They related stories of their experiences in hushed voices - some had been through intense questioning and many were well into their 5th hour of waiting for a response. My sister and I fretted that we had not deleted our social media accounts, which were full of support for Palestine, as another member of our tour group had done. 

Two elderly Christian ladies from France told us how they had been questioned individually. They had boldly stated to airport officials that they are pro-Palestine, and the purpose of their trip was to take part in nativity activities in Bethlehem. They were denied access into the country. They began to chant "free Palestine" in firm but shaky voices in the detainment area. I sat listening, in silent support, but was afraid to voice it. I willed them to know that I agreed and thought they were a lot braver than I was. Soon after, two angry airport officials brought their bags and their tickets back to France to them. The women refused to go; their chanting became louder and more desperate. They were then roughly handled by the officials; still the frail women stood their ground. The now irritated officials offered them a choice - board the plane back to France, or be jailed. One of the woman boldly and clearly said : "throw me in jail". Sure enough the women were escorted roughly to what I hope was a temporary holding cell. All the while their chanting echoed through the airport. 

Free Palestine. Free free Palestine!

I won't soon forget their brave souls. 

My father was called for questioning in a private room. He was asked many questions, varying from the mundane (how many children do you have) all the way to the controversial (what is your position on the Israeli Palestinian conflict). He responded as neutrally as he could - especially after the scene we had just witnessed. After 40 minutes of intense questioning he was released back to our section. My usually calm and laughing father was clearly shaken and was convinced we would be denied access. He quickly tutored us in a low voice on what we should say if we were questioned. A painstaking four hours after our arrival, we were told that we were granted access. We were flooded with relief, but the mood was sombre. Not more than 6 hours into our trip and we had been confronted head on by conflict and heartbreak. I have never felt so deeply unwelcome in a place as we waited in the airport for our transport. Finally, we boarded our bus and it felt real - we were in Palestine. 

At this point I'd like to explain a bit about how I saw Israel and Palestine existing. The entire country is known to most of the world as Israel. However, some isolated villages or areas (referred to, ironically, as settlements) are known as Palestinian areas. These areas are clearly demarcated with big signboards declaring that you entire at your own risk- the Israeli authorities will not come to your aid if anything happens to you in these areas. Then, there are a few areas that are contested - they are neither clearly Israeli nor Palestinian, and people of both 'nationalities' coexist in relative peace in these sections. One such area is Jerusalem, or Al Quds, which is where we stayed during our visit. The most contested area is Gaza - much as I tried, I was unable to visit this section. The area is a war zone - no local would willingly take you there.

Reflective questions: 

1. To what extent can a people be held responsible for the choices of their government? Should individuals be held to a higher account than their leaders, or can you justify moral wrongs under the guise of strong propaganda?

2. Do we leave issues alone because the controversy around them is too high? How often is the Israeli-Palestine conflict brought up and discussed in your circles/on your timelines?

3. What metrics are we using to measure what counts when talking about social justice? Is it the number of deaths which will make us recoil and revolt? Or do we start at a deeper human level; is it enough that a group of people's freedom is being completely disregarded? 

4. Are we applying enough scrutiny to how the history of Palestinians is be written and told?

5. What does a progressive future look like for both Palestinians and Israeli's? What will this future look like for our future generations?

Resources: 

Poetry:  Rafeef Ziadah - 'Shades of anger', London, 12.11.11

Rafeef Ziadah - 'We teach life, Sir', London 12.12.11