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.
Permit issued to a neighbourhood child for Palm Sunday 2011. Photograph by Jenny Baboun.
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.
Graffiti on the separation wall in Bethlehem.
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.