Opening Up the Middle EastPurchase 'Opening Up the Middle East'
Chapter 15 - Behind the Wall, Inside Palestine
First, we had to get out of Jerusalem, and Israel itself. Perhaps a little prophetically, it was noticeably cooler weather, and the first properly cloudy day I had experienced in weeks. The unbudging grey skies contributed to a sense of moody edginess.
Without thinking, I was carrying a copy of the Jerusalem Post newspaper with me, using it to broaden my perspective on current events. Barely a day goes by in this region of the world, without some major news incident or other. I always like to keep abreast of what's happening elsewhere in the world, but it was the same old international stories – Iraq and Bush. I wisely chose to discard this Jewish orientated newspaper, since the sight of it was unlikely to go down too well on the other side of the Wall, which the Israelis were building to divide their territory from the Palestinian territory.
By public bus we arrived at the checkpoint outside Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital. Palestine – I would be passing through a country, which doesn't officially exist after visiting a country, Israel, which did exist, but I didn't want it to register on my passport…if you follow!
Here, for the first proper time, I could see the notorious wall, which the Israelis were hastily erecting to "prevent suicide bombings". It loomed in front of me. It was as blandly non-descript as a wall can be. But this was the wall, which was jutting deeply and repeatedly into Palestinian territory. The wall was ugly in appearance, and ugly in effect.
But it was more than just a single wall. Often up to 100 metres wide, and about 8 m high, it consisted of concrete walls, electronic and razor-wire fences, trenches or ditches, plus three roads: one to trace infiltrators, another for army patrols and a third wide one for tanks. The overall cost was close to $1 billion. "This wall, it is a wall of shame," one local Palestinian man told me well out of earshot from the Israeli soldiers, as we queued to be let out of Israel.
"You can be sure of Israelis for two things," he continued, "they never give back lands they take from you, and they never pull down the walls they build."
In theory, the wall might represent the dividing line, for what is arguably the most scrutinised conflict in the world, but as always in this part of the world, things are a little more complicated.
According to B'tselem, an Israeli human-rights lobby, 210,000 Palestinians living in 67 Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps had been “directly affected” or trapped by the construction. Farmers had been cut off from their own orchards and farms. The land falling on the Israeli side happened to be some of the most agriculturally fertile and contained important water resources. A UN report stated that 80,000 olive and citrus trees had been ripped up along with tens of kilometres of water pipes.
But, the central focus grabbing my vision were the cold, metallic turnstiles, through which everyone must be herded, if they want to reach things like schools, hospitals and government services, for example. Silver rings of barbed wire decorated the steel and concrete, like overbearing shiny tinsel perched from an xmas tree. I looked through the wire as I approached and saw a crush of Palestinians, probably about 40 deep and 10 wide, surging towards the turnstiles, from which they were drip fed, one by one, into Israeli territory by soldiers bristling with ferocious looking military hardware.
It didn't apply to us, since we were leaving Israeli territory, and were able to stroll through the opposite way, bound for Ramallah, a short bus ride down the road. There would be no avoiding this crush on our way back into Jerusalem though, it seemed.
We were soon deposited onto the main street through Ramallah's centre and initially, I was slightly apprehensive about what I might expect to encounter here. However, the city appeared to be economically busy and bustling, teeming with vibrant life just like several other Arab cities I had been through, perhaps even more so.
Traffic choked the streets; traders seemed to have a steady flow of willing customers in the shops and markets. For a city where movement into and out of it is so strictly controlled, it even gave off an impression of relative prosperity in places. Ramallah was no refugee camp.
However, the bus station, like one or two other bus stations, was a bit of a hole. Located up a steep ramp inside a dingy, gloomy multi-storey concrete edifice, it seemed to be a classic location for an aggressive robbery or mugging to occur. Toilets and sinks were smeared with excrement, and the resulting powerful smell of strong chemicals was too intense to endure for more than a few seconds. Nonetheless, a couple of people inside were amazingly accommodating and helpful, in arranging the next stage of our complicated multi-stage journey towards Jenin.
In familiarly Arabic tradition, some fairly heated debate ensued on whether or not we would be let through the Israeli military checkpoints. After plenty of toing and froing, a decision was made, a price agreed and we installed ourselves inside a bright yellow taxi limousine vehicle, which offered plentiful spacious interior comfort. I could think of few more unexpected modes of transport to inconspicuously enter, what was defined by Israel, as a virtual war-zone.
But these things could motor along and before long, we had escaped Ramallah's bustle, and were bumpily hurtling through the undulating Palestinian countryside, penetrating very unfamiliar territory for tourists. Large sprawling villas on Ramallah's outskirts had large 4x4's parked outside. One local man in particular, named Iyad, was extra helpful and keen to go out of his way by accompanying us safely to our intended destination. He sat in the front seat and became a de facto guide.
Again somehow, the scenery was not exactly what I imagined it would be. It was surprisingly mountainous and served up some pleasantly stunning views from the winding road. Towns of white buildings were perched on steep hillsides. Rocky fields of olive trees sloped gently, sometimes dramatically, into valleys. It was in many ways, a very pleasurably scenic journey, which almost detached me from the reality of the lives of people living here. After an hour or so, this reality sunk its teeth into action.
Descending down another mountain bend, a sizeable queue of stationary traffic on the road ahead told us what to expect – an Israeli checkpoint. Iyad thought it best for Dave and I to corroborate a simplified story about what we were doing, and where we were going, so not too many awkward question would be asked of us. Officially, all of us in the vehicle would be travelling to the village of Deir Sharaf, which I have probably spelt incorrectly, and could not properly pronounce either. It was like being prisoners on the run trying to avoid detection. Iyad lowered his voice, and told us how the Israeli soldiers sometimes treated very full looking Palestinian cars and trucks more favourably, than emptier looking ones, the theory being vehicles with more people in were less likely to be blown up.
Anyway, our fairly empty looking yellow limo slowly edged to the front of the queue of vehicles. We watched people from the cars ahead being thoroughly semi-stripsearched at gunpoint by two Israeli soldiers, stood very cautiously and alertly at a safe distance away from them down the road. All passengers were ordered out one by one, and made to stand well away from the vehicle, with hands held in the air. Everyone might be a potential suicide bomber.
We were no different, as their guns started pointing in our direction. Israeli soldiers were indiscriminate in who they aimed their guns at. We nervously stepped out of the car. Just like the others, I was made to lift up my shirt and bare my midriff, turning around 360 degrees so they could clearly see no bombs were strapped to me. Iyad mentioned that is not uncommon for some men to be stripped fully naked at roadblocks. Even respectable looking men in suits in front of us, who may have been returning from work, were made to undress at gunpoint, but they did it in a manner, which suggested they were used to doing the same thing everyday.
As Dave performed this manoeuvre, he performed a little jig, which might have lightened the faces of the jumpy soldiers, and they allowed us to approach them. I needed to relieve myself in the central reservation ditch of the road, and when I belatedly came up to show my passport, everyone seemed to be making light-hearted jokes and debating the merits of Victoria Beckham without referring to her musical credentials. Our passports were quickly skimmed through and they let us move on.
"Every day, 4 years, I study English on Internet," Iyad proudly boasted to me. Somehow, I don't think they teach you to say the words he was calling the Israeli soldiers when they were safely disappeared from our rear view mirror.
"Palestinians all live on our land in one big Israeli jail," he turned round to tell us, as if what we had just witnessed was not enough proof. The mood of Iyad and our driver had been uneasily tense, tersely quiet and very on edge before the roadblock. But now their mood transformed wonderfully to merry joking and singing as we came out the other side. I could almost sense the huge nervous weight sliding from their shoulders. A short distance down the road we disembarked at another rambling collection of buses and taxis, all looking reasonably well maintained and modern, for another change of vehicle. This time it was a minibus to reach the town of Jenin.
Darkness was closing in on the Palestinian countryside and its increasingly bumpy roads were proving testy on our stomachs. From the very tops of the hills, I could enjoy an expansive view towards the bloody remains of the sunset sky to the west and just about make out the outline of city skyscrapers, which I guessed belonged to the Mediterranean coastal city of Netanya. Luckily, there were no more checkpoints, or choke points as a local man on the bus sitting next to us called them.
We were approaching Suicide City.
It was too late. Another life lost cheaply, another grim statistic to add to the tally of victims. There were many unanswerable questions to spring into my mind:
Where do you draw the line between what is and what is not legitimate? Where does resistance end and terrorism begin?
How broadly can terrorist infrastructure be defined?
In responding to the terrorist threat, what is proportionate force?
When does collateral damage become collective punishment?
The questions are easy to ask. The answers are not universally clear cut. If the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality of retaliatory revenge continues, ultimately, everyone will become blind and toothless. Perhaps, it is true that the more you find out and understand, the more sympathetic you become to the Palestinian cause.
When we reached the Ramallah crossing point back to the Israeli side, we found ourselves slowly sweating and stewing in a thick queue with tens of other Palestinians. All of us were squeezed in like battery hens against the tall wire mesh, which was only broken by a single, silver beast of a turnstile. In the short, sudden surges towards the turnstile, arms and legs became redundant; it was torsos only in the crush.
Like an oasis mirage in the desert on the other side I could make out buses waiting, which would eventually transport us back to the relative normality of Jerusalem. One Palestinian businessman, squeezed by my side, told me the journey from Ramallah to Jerusalem used to take him 30 minutes a few years ago. Now he had to allow over 4 hours to get across. Most people remained quietly dignified as their dignity is stripped away from them, but this changed the closer you got to the front where frustration levels were heating up in the form of pained grimaces and useless shouts. Being in the middle of it all, I could see they had a point. They were being treated no better than pieces of meat.
Behind the wire the young, unflinching Israeli soldiers, wrapped in hi-tech armour, were calmness personified. They assumed the passive aggressive pose with the butt of their weapons right back in the shoulder, the tip pointing downwards aiming at the legs. No one get any special favours. They were just going through the motions like efficient robots.
I got thoroughly searched and questioned. They wanted to know what I had been doing in Syria and Lebanon. "Tourist, tourist!" I made sure I spoke clearly and would not be misunderstood as I tried to stop sweating. Stepping out the other side felt like walking out of jail into fresh air. It had taken the best part of an hour and Dave and I were both glad to see the ordeal come to an end.
However, for those people who must do this every day, or every week, just to see family, or make a living to feed their families, the ordeal of testing their human dignity and resilience doesn't look like ending soon.
From Israel, the journey goes back into JordanPurchase 'Opening Up the Middle East'