Two days ago I spent the day in Jerusalem. It was amazingly easy. From campus, I took the bus to Ramallah and then a direct bus to Jerusalem (only for Jerusalem residents and foreigners). Others have to go through a lengthy search and checkpoint via a different route. The drive took 40 minutes or so, and much of it was all along the infamous wall that Israel has built between it and the Palestinian territories. The “fence” as some Israelis call it, is a HUGE, very permanent structure in look and feel and surrounded in barbed wire, lights, and communication posts. The Palestinian side is littered with graffiti. My first thought was that it looked like a prison. Then I realized that it looked just like the protective barriers around the green zone, except this one was much higher.
It was quite surreal to be driving in what felt like a huge prison and to see kids near the wall and normal life proceeding apace. I couldn’t imagine what these kids felt and thought having grown up with this.
The wall is a constant topic among Palestinians and there are regular demonstrations and protests on parts of the wall Israel is still building. In many parts, the wall has separated Palestinians from their families, farmers from their farmland and has cut through large swaths of what is considered Palestinian territory. It also presents a psychological barrier for Palestinians to the outside world and a symbol for a deep-seated resentment towards Israel. There’s nothing like a wall to create a clearly defined and delineated divide—a barrier to interaction, communication, understanding, collaboration—all such necessary qualities for a community, relations, and especially, peace…
As we drove up to the checkpoint and approached the soldiers, I felt this strange feeling of shame or guilt mixed with fear. Like I had done something wrong but I knew I hadn’t, like I was one of the accused. And that created a feeling of resentment and anger because I knew I wasn’t, that I had every right to be travelling there. This feeling intensified when the soldier boarded our bus and checked everyone’s identity cards. He gave me a hard time because apparently the official who questioned me at the airport hadn’t given me any paper indicating I had a visa for Israel. In the end, he let me go, but I have no idea how to move around Israel with no visa!
In Jerusalem, I met up with several friends for the day and walked around both East Jerusalem (the Arab side) and West Jerusalem. The differences were amazing. East jerusalem is a lot like Ramallah, as in chaotic and cramped, with goods and people spillling on to the streets. West Jerusalem is incredibly green, spacious, orderly, modern. I gawked at the change in dress, tank tops, short skirts. My Israeli Jewish friend with whom I spent the afternoon, said the two parts of the city are truly “different worlds”. In East Jerusalem, I was the only tourist that I saw and I was stopped by Israeli special forces, who asked me where I was from and what I was doing there. My Arab friend later told me these forces have free reign in Arab areas and he and all his friends are terrified of them. They can question, imprison, intimidate anyone they want with impunity.
As usual, I had lots of conversations about politics. In West Jerusalem, I talked with some folks in a restaurant who talked about the huge change in the relationship since the first intifadah, how they used to be able to travel freely to the Palestinian areas and vice versa and regularly enjoyed going to Ramallah. Now, Israelis are forbidden by the Israeli government to travel to the West Bank (for their safety, they say) and Palestinians are likewise forbidden to enter.
The owner of the restaurant however, was the first truly optimistice person I’d heard. He believed people would soon tire of fighting, two states would emerge, and over time would develop normal relations with each other.
On the other side, my Arab friend from Jerusalem and I talked about Hamas. I questioned why Hamas was so dumb as to refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel is smart, I said. They may in reality continue to deny Palestinians territory, rights, and want the whole land themselves, but they don’t say that. Hamas on the other hand has no ability to destroy or make war against Israel, but they say something so outrageous that the international community could never accept. I was dumbfounded when he got very agitated at this. We don’t recognize their right to exist! They’ve only been around 50 years. Somehow, with weapons or resistance or even God’s help, we will kick them out because they kicked us out. This is not their land. Sigh, back to square one.
As an aside, on this topic of saying vs. doing, I thought that it’s interesting that in the West we are accustomed to believing what our government says. In the Middle East, however, there is so much propaganda and conspiracy theories that no one believes what governments or politicians say, they look much more to actions. (Conspiracy was actually the first Arabic word I learned in Iraq!) This different perspective gets both sides in trouble. For example, in Iraq, the US seemed to believe what politicians said, (especially if they spoke to us in English), rather than what they were actually doing on the ground. Meanwhile, we also think in regards to our own actions, “Well, we’ll just tell them the truth, tell them what we want to do, why we’re here.” This didn’t really matter, because what Iraqis saw was so different than our words of democracy and development.