On Palm Sunday I met my friend Stefana in Jerusalem (a Romanian student who is taking Hebrew courses here) and we trekked up the Mount of Olives to the village of Bethpage. As neither of us has exactly stellar navigational abilities and we always have to factor an extra ninety minutes into all our plans to cover the ‘getting hopelessly lost’ part of the programme, I was worried that we might miss the start of the Palm Sunday procession.
I have been dipping into the Velveteen Rabbi blog for at least nine years, which Rachel Barenblat began writing when she was a rabbinical student (“When can I run and play with the real rabbis?”). She is a beautiful writer, covering all sorts of rich and varied topics, from poetry-writing to parenting her young son. I especially appreciate her weekly commentaries on the Torah portion, as many Christians tend to neglect these Old Testament books and we miss out on a lot. And even if her blog weren’t so interesting, I’d like it anyway because of the pun in the name.
Yesterday evening, as the heat was finally receding and the sun dusting the sky with pink, I met my friend Deema. She is a children’s social worker in East Jerusalem, and one of the most creative and insightful specialists in children’s mental health whom I’ve ever met. “I love the way they think, children,” she has told me more than once. “They can take a simple incident, like seeing an ant walking by, and make it into a big story.” As we hadn’t seen each other in far too long, she invited me to join her family for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, and to spend the night with them in their house in Jerusalem’s Old City.
At Damascus Gate she descended on me with the velocity of an avalanche. Being hugged by Deema is enough to get you sent to the spinal injuries unit. “I’m so excited to see you! You look good, habibti! Where have you been? What have you been doing? I’ve missed you!” – and I struggled to draw enough oxygen into my lungs to wheeze out, “Tamam, alhamdullilah,” before she pulled me into the intricate maze of little alleyways and courtyards that surrounds her home.
She lives in a rooftop apartment, the front door of which opens onto a steep staircase that totters unevenly down to street level. As she rummaged for her keys, I noticed that something was different about that door. Half of it was missing. The frosted glass had been replaced by strips of cardboard and matting. “It was the army,” Deema said wearily when she saw where I was looking. She pushed open the dilapidated door and guided me into the courtyard. “Some boys in our neighbourhood were throwing stones, you know how it is. So they came looking for them.”
“It was one o’clock in the night when they came. They wanted to climb on our roof, because we are the highest. We were sleeping. We woke from the crash of the glass when they broke the door. Then they came in with their guns, and we were all here in our pyjamas.” Deema’s ten-year-old sister nodded. “I was in bed,” she added, before losing interest and poking open a tin of crayons. And did they get you out of bed themselves, Zeynab, or did they let your mother do it? I almost asked, but I didn’t. It would have done her no good to tell. It would do me no good to know.
I remembered an incident when a young border policeman had stopped Deema in the street, asking for her ID. She had given him an ominous stare, like the one a python might bestow on a particularly wholesome-looking rabbit, before swelling up with characteristic indignation. “You want my ID! You want my ID!” His commanding officer had hastened over to rescue him, only for Deema to turn the full of force of her attentions onto him. “‘Give me your ID!’ he says to me. ‘Give me your ID!’ He will fall over if I blow one breath on him, and he says, ‘Give me your ID!’ Why do you send this child to say ‘Give me your ID’?! He is like a – “
But what else he was like neither the magavnik nor his officer waited to find out. I imagined the army having to confront Deema in her pyjamas and for once I found some sympathy being diverted to the army. “What did you say to them?”
“I laughed at them. And they said ‘Why are you laughing?’ and I told them, ‘Look at yourselves’.” She shrugged slightly as she pulled off her headscarf. Her usually animated face was suddenly tired. “Laugh. What else can we do?”
I’m too tired to write a detailed account of today’s thrilling journey to Jerusalem and back (and the content would be predictable anyway) so I am posting this song instead.
It’s an accurate summary.
Conscription of teenagers is a wicked thing.
If you pray at all, please pray for them.
And on that note, goodnight.
The other day I had to be in an unfamiliar place in Jerusalem for nine o’clock. To allow for my tendency to get lost even in my own neighbourhood, I was up at five and out of the door by six.
My careful plans didn’t work out. As I reached Bab Zqaq, a crowded bus swung across the junction and onto the road for Jerusalem. I had missed it by about two minutes. I gnashed a tooth or two. The timetable is erratic, especially in the early mornings, and I had no idea when the next bus would arrive or when it would depart, especially as the driver waits for it to fill before he goes anywhere. My only option now was to shlep over to the big checkpoint, cross it on foot, and catch one of the more regular buses from the other side. (Yes, it can take a great deal of time and precision-planning to get to a city that’s five miles down the road.)
To enter the checkpoint, you pass through these caged chutes, which are sometimes so tightly packed with people that it’s barely possible to move. I hate waiting in that crush. It’s hot, there is always the irritation of cigarette smoke, it’s noisy, it’s claustrophobic, and you have no idea when you’re going to get out, because it all depends on the mood of the guard. As a non-Palestinian, I have the option of bypassing the cages and walking straight into the terminal on the specially marked ‘Tourist/Humanitarian Lane’ (no bars on this one). It’s not an option I’m prepared to take. Privileging people on the basis of the colour of their skin (or their ID card, or their passport cover) is a tad outdated now, or it should be.
I entered the machsom with about twenty-five Palestinians. The guard at the first turnstile didn’t bother to check our documents. He looked half-asleep. As I headed towards the main checkpoint building, the tarmac already warm beneath my feet, I could hear shouts and screams floating out into the newly minted morning. Arabic? Hebrew? Over the loudspeakers it’s hard to tell what language they are using until you get close. The guards often manage to make both languages sound quite unlike the ones I hear spoken around me, and it’s not just the loudspeakers that achieve that affect. Stop, shoes off, shut up, wait, go, go back, stop old woman, stop boy. In a blog post about her decision to sail to Gaza, the author and Civil Rights activist Alice Walker described the memories that witnessing the Israeli border police in action brought back for her: “In the Southern United States when I was a child, they would have said: Boy, or Girl, I want to talk to you…”
In the search area there was a lot of yelling from men with guns and a lot of people hurrying to get through, and I put my head down and hurried with them, knowing that I had no reason to be jittery – these men can’t really do much to me. A Palestinian who relies on his work in Jerusalem to feed his family and who must arrive on time if he doesn’t want to be sacked has far more to worry about. And at the final documentation check, where the Palestinians have their hands scanned and their permits inspected and where I just flash my passport, a long queue. A guard in a booth was checking the papers; another one was superintending the line, his weapon tapping against the metal of the turnstile whenever he moved slightly. I put my headphones in and prepared to wait, irritated by the way that the woman behind me kept nudging my back. Now if there is one thing I hate, it’s being nudged when in queues. It’s a British thing. I turned round to give her the famous frosty stare, and she nodded towards the guard with the gun. I looked at him and he gestured to me to come to the front of the queue.
Privileging people on the basis of the colour of their skin (or their ID card, or their passport cover) is a tad outdated now, or it should be.
I went over. (After all, I reasoned, I’m running late. I have to be in Jerusalem for nine, if I make a fuss they’ll probably just take it out on the people queuing with me, what can I do about that, I will make a different choice a different time, but today I have to be on time…) The guards were friendly to me. They smiled. They tried to make pleasant chitchat: “Good morning. Where are you from?” Somehow I think I was the only person in that line to receive a good morning that day. I wanted to ask them why. Why do you yell at that man for not moving fast enough for you, but you smile at me? Why don’t you wave him to the front of the line when it’s obvious he’s old? You’re not soldiers, you’re civilians, so why did you even accept a job here? You chose it. Why? And the questions to myself: why didn’t you stay where you were? Why did you just do what they told you? You chose it. Why?
All Palestinian adults from the West Bank or Gaza require a special permit to enter Israel. The permit often specifies the roads they are allowed to use, the window of time in which they can travel, how many hours they may remain at their destination, whether they can stay overnight (a rare privilege), and so on. Riding on Bus 21, the Palestinian bus that goes between East Jerusalem and central Bethlehem, I have witnessed soldiers boarding the bus and detaining passengers who had overstayed their allotted time in Jerusalem by half an hour. The rules on permits form an intricate web, but so far children have been relatively free of its tangles. The rule was that any child under sixteen could travel freely within the Green Line providing they were accompanied by a close relative who had a permit. But not any more.
Last year we noticed the changes creeping in. In April 2011, a toddler in our neighbourhood received his own permit. I burst into incredulous laughter when I saw Jenny’s photograph. I was sure that it was a spoof. But it wasn’t. This Christmas, my colleague Toine’s two children – the youngest of them nine years old – also received permits. Many of their classmates were left out. This week, Toine’s wife Mary noticed that a permit had been issued for a two-year-old when she checked the lists to see if she and her family would be celebrating Easter in Jerusalem this year.
The use of the permit system to divide up families during what should be times of celebration is nothing new. As I wrote in my last post about checkpoint fun, it’s the norm for everyone in the family to get a permit but the grandfather and the eldest daughter, or the mother and the uncle. It’s arbitrary. The one consistent thing is the pitiful agitation that descends on each Christian family as Easter or Christmas draws near. (Muslim families experience the same thing during Ramadan and Eid.) They’ve got friends and relatives on the other side of that wall. Will they be visiting them, or won’t they? It lies in the hands of the military. And the justification for this is that it is essential to Israeli security.
Is it for security that permits are being issued to Palestinian children? This measure has not been implemented during a time of heated conflict. It has not been preceded by a wave of atrocities against Israeli civilians, masterminded by nine-year-old Tamer and perpetrated by two-year-olds who are barely toilet trained. It has been quietly implemented during a time of quiet. No one can look at this and justify it in the name of security, because if the two things were remotely related, why is it only happening now? And it has not happened without thought. It has been phased in slowly, smoothly, as is normal with so many of the rigid laws that govern every aspect of Palestinian daily life. “The method creates uncertainty,” Toine told me. “It gets people used to the new law before they implement it fully, it softens the will to resist.”
When a Palestinian Christian couple are given permits to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem, but their young children are not, what will they do now? Find babysitters and celebrate the holiest days of the Christian calendar away from their children? Choices like this make it harder to move around even when you have permission to leave Bethlehem, and the ties between West Bank Palestinians and their families, friends, and holy sites on the other side of the wall are slowly and quietly being eroded.
This is what military occupation looks like. And no, it’s not about security.
When Jenny saw the toddler’s Palm Sunday permit last year, she wrote, “I thought ‘speak now, or forever hold your peace’. If we, Christians of the Holy Land, do not stand up and defend our rights to enter Jerusalem just like Jesus Christ did, then our children and grandchildren will never have the chance of even walking in the Old City. If a child needs a permit now, the worst is yet to come.” Her decision has been to boycott the permit system entirely. This means either sneaking into Jerusalem illegally, or confronting the soldiers over her right to pass.
Many people in Bethlehem have become desensitised to the occupation. I have good friends who are too afraid to fight for fear of losing what privileges they have. They cling to their permits like lifebelts; they don’t want to end up on the blacklist by confronting a soldier. Others just don’t see how a fight is even possible. They’re numb. But now a murmur of dissent is rising in Bethlehem. As I heard Palestinian friends discussing the new rules this evening, a song from Les Miserables came to mind:
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
At AEI we are responding to the change in the rules by designing permits for tourists, which will look exactly as Palestinian permits look, and give the holders the privilege of visiting the Church of the Nativity between the hours of three and five o’clock on alternate Thursdays or some such thing. This is to raise international awareness of local people’s difficulties; many tourists breeze through Bethlehem in their chartered coaches without learning much about the inhabitants’ lives. I would like people to take the opportunity to issue permits of their own design to the occupying soldiers at the checkpoint too, but this idea has been met with fear. I may have to do it myself. My Hebrew is almost up to it now. “I’ve noticed you sitting here, day after day, never having permission to go anywhere! And it’s just not fair, when you are so kindly allowing all these Palestinian people to walk through this gate (or be pushed through, like that one-year-old whom you’ve just cleared to go). Now you can have a permit too, instead of being restricted to this box! Go and see your friends! Look, we’re allowing you to reach them on one of two highways, and we’ve been generous with the time – you have a six-hour window for travel. Break it and you’ll get blacklisted.”
I outlined this plan to a Palestinian friend. She practically choked on her coffee. “Vicky, are you trying to get yourself deported?”
“No,” I said serenely. “I don’t think they’ll do that. You have to be assertive and sincere, that is key. But it would be much better if you did it, as you’re the one whose movement is restricted. Lots of people need to do it for it to be effective. And we could do to have the women’s choir marching with us, singing that song from ‘Les Mis’…”
This is not the first time I have suggested that the Sumud Choir sing in the checkpoint. Music and resistance go together very naturally. Once again, my suggestion was blackballed. “Vicky, I told you before, if you sing in the checkpoint then I am sorry for the army. For the first time in their life they will have a real security threat.”
“Certain high notes can shatter glass,” I said thoughtfully, choosing to ignore this inconsiderate slur on my abilities. “I wonder what it takes to bring down concrete?”
On the separation wall near my house, someone has left a pair of red handprints on the wall, with the optimistic instruction ‘push hard’ scrawled underneath. As of tonight we don’t have an answer. But we’re going to find one.
Just after Christmas I started to feel restless. I was dissatisfied with how things were going with the youth group. Late last year we lost our youth house in Bethlehem (one of three premises) because we couldn’t afford the rent and upkeep, and now the youth have to squash themselves into what was originally an office and practically sit on each other’s laps when they want to meet. I decided that they needed something to perk them up a bit. A field trip seemed in order.
If you are a tourist or pilgrim who arrives in Bethlehem via Checkpoint 300, the first thing you will see as you turn into the street is the concrete barrier that slices it in half, severing the neighbourhood from Rachel’s Tomb and the military base that lies adjacent to the holy site. Get closer to the wall and you will find the women of the neighbourhood waiting to meet you.
One of the simplest but most important aspects of my organisation’s work is providing a space where people can tell their stories. One day Toine had an idea: why not turn the wall itself into that space? We could collect short vignettes from the women who use the centre and hang them on the concrete. The stories would be like windows: tourists on their way to see Nativity Church or eat dinner at the optimistically named Bahamas Fish Restaurant would be able to catch a glimpse of Palestinian life.
One evening late last summer, as I walked home from a day spent in Dheisheh refugee camp, I was stopped at a flying checkpoint. (These are blockades that pop up unexpectedly for a few days, or even a few hours, as opposed to the permanent checkpoints.) I took off my jacket so that they could search the pockets and waited patiently. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. What was unusual was the age and appearance of the ‘soldiers’. The eldest of them was nine. She is a little girl who lives just round the corner.
“Shoes!” she said imperiously, in a magnificent imitation of our local IDF, and I removed my shoes. She had a long wooden stick slung across her body in the manner of a gun. She made the motions of scanning my shoes, and then demanded, “ID!” To my horror, I didn’t have my ID on me. I stood and waited while they discussed what to do with me – would they just refuse to let me pass, or would I have to be interrogated first? Should I be arrested? In the end, needing the toilet rather badly, I bribed the occupation army by proffering a squashed packet of Oreos that I may or may not have sat on at some point. They accepted cheerfully. After I had dashed in to the bathroom, I came back out to them, and we spent a happy evening playing tag and hide-and-seek.
“Are you mentally handicapped?”
“He’s too low IQ to give a proper response.”
“I’m sure you’re retarded.”
The use of cognitive disability as an insult has always bothered me. It’s demeaning and hurtful to people who have such disabilities, and it shows a lack of understanding of how these conditions actually affect a person. When these insults are flung about in a discussion on the conflict in Palestine and Israel, my usual distaste is tinged with a sense of something very like irony as well.
Before I started work in Bethlehem, I had a job in a residential college for young adults with learning disabilities. Most of the students were eighteen or nineteen when they came to us, although the college could accept any student between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. It was a marvellous place, set in one of the wildest and most beautiful counties of England, with a river flowing beneath it and a ruined castle in the grounds. Also dotted about were several little cottages (once the houses of farmhands) where the students lived together in groups of half a dozen.