This is a long blog post about my recent trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. I still have trouble articulating what I saw, how I felt about what happened, and what all of this means.
When I first moved to Qatar, I wrote about my feeling that it was important to listen and to learn. Now I think I have found my voice.
1. My tour guide, my brother, and I go to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. We walk towards the mosque and through a tunnel ending in one of those metal rotating doors used in prisons. At the checkpoint before we are allowed to enter the mosque, people are removing coats and handing purses over to the Israeli guards. My brother removes his coat to hand to the guard, and I get ready to give him my purse.
“Americans?” he asks, and we hand him our passports. He glances at them and nods. “Do you have any weapons or sharp objects?” When we say no, he tells us to go on through. John tries to hand the guard his coat, but he waves us on impatiently. He then pats down our Palestinian tour guide’s coat, feeling around deep down in the pockets before he’ll let Yamen through.
2. After we see the mosque and the tombs, we walk outside to a market street. There’s only about five or six shops open – some touristy trinket places, a small cafe that advertises juice and coffee, and several boarded-up doors sprinkled throughout. Storefronts are even more deserted down the street, where the only signs of life are a cautious orange cat and two Israeli guards with AK-47s at their waist. “There used to be a wall here,” Yamen says, indicating a line between the sidewalk and the street. The wall separated Palestinians on their way from the mosque and Israelis on their way to the synagogue on the other side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Now both groups can walk on the street, but Palestinians have to turn left at the next block so that they don’t go near the Jewish settlements at the top of the hill. That’s why the guards are there.
Yamen encourages John and I to walk down the empty street in order to see the settlements better. He stops at the end of the block, since he won’t be allowed to go past the guards, and John and I continue past abandoned buildings. The guards ask to see our passports and then wave us on. We only take a couple of steps before one calls me back. His face is obscured by a scarf covering the lower half of his face, but his freckly skin and fair hair remind me of someone in his early twenties – my students’ age when I taught in the US.
“Don’t listen to him,” he says, pointing towards Yamen, who is leaning against a wall and texting on his phone.
3. Yamen, John, and I walk back towards our car, and we take a shortcut through an alleyway that also serves as a souq – an Arab marketplace that feels familiar to me after my time in Qatar. Instead of a tented or stone ceiling, the alleyway has chainlink fencing hung from the tops of shops. This makeshift cover sags in places from the trash that has been thrown in it by Jewish settlers who live above the souq. A nearby shopkeeper shows us where a settler threw an egg and damaged his display of pashminas. He tells us that sometimes, the settlers rain down what he euphemistically calls “dirty water.”
“Muslim, Christian, Jew – we are all human! Why do they treat humans like dogs, with this trash on us every day? All we want is to be treated like a human, like a brother.” The shopkeeper points out an Israeli guard on the top of the next building, sitting in a camouflaged structure. “They see how we are treated, and they do nothing.” I ask him about his family, and he spends the next ten minutes singing the praises of his two sons – one is an engineer who sends money back home to support the family, and the other is in school getting top grades.
4. The next morning, John and I meet Yaniv, our Israeli guide for the day. As we walk through the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem/Al Quds, Yaniv points out police officers in civilian dress. I wouldn’t have spotted them otherwise, but they look very much like cops in the US – burly guys with clubs and pistols hanging from their belts. We pass one guard holding an ID card while a woman in a hijab answers his questions.
As we go through the tunnel that will lead us to the Western Wall and divides the Muslim quarter of the old city from the Jewish quarter, we put our backpacks and purses on an X-ray machine. No one asks for our passports, and we stride through a metal detector as the guards stand by, chatting in Hebrew. All of us – John, Yaniv, and I – are treated equally.
5. I am asking Yaniv about how he came to learn all the things that he knows about the history of Jerusalem, given that he was taught the state-sanctioned version of events growing up. Really, I am wondering how he managed and continues to manage what must be a difficult internal conflict between the ideologies he was taught in this culture and the realities he understands about how his people treat Israelis. I want to know when he realized what his country was doing to its residents. Did he serve his three-year mandatory stint in the Israeli army while recognizing the injustices he and his fellow soldiers were doing to Palestinians? Does he share his political knowledge with his friends and family, such as his stance that current Israeli archeological digs are a tool for the state to justify its existence?
I suspect that these questions are maybe a bit too personal for a guy I just met 45 minutes ago, so I’m asking more about his sources of information, given that I am starting to understand the Western bias in reporting on this region of the world. Like Yamen, he relies on local media, and he appears to be incredibly well-read on scholarly sources in history, archeaology, and geopolitics, among other things. Ignorance, he says, is one of the main reasons Israeli policies continue to discriminate against Palestinians, and he doesn’t feel like the violence (“a symptom of the problem”) will go away until Israelis realize what’s going on and change their policies. “And what if someone tells an Israeli about these sources and shows them what life is like for Palestinians?” I ask.
He says, “if you’re an outsider, you’re called an anti-Semite and that’s the end of that.” But what if you’re an insider, I wonder. Yaniv gives me a sad smile but doesn’t hesitate. “Then you’re a self-hating Jew.”
6. We’re almost to the airport in Tel Aviv. I’m sad to be leaving – I feel like I learned a lot and want to learn more – but I’m honestly a little overwhelmed by what I’ve experienced and the sadness and anger I’ve felt about the injustices I’ve seen. Our driver Rami is better than any GPS; he knows the names and history of all the villages we pass. That used to be Arab, this is an Israeli settlement within city boundaries but that Arab village next to it is not in the city boundaries, here is where a famous battle occurred in 1967 – he keeps a running commentary as I keep trying to make sense of all I’ve seen. When we reach the entrance to the airport, he tells us to be ready for the guards to stop the car. “They will ask where you’ve been in Israel,” he says. “You can tell the truth – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, yes. Hebron? Ehhh …” From what I saw in Hebron, I gather that it’s not very touristy and that I, a white American woman, would not have been there if I hadn’t been Up To No Good, aka listening to the stories of people living under occupation.
Sure enough, Rami, a Palestinian, is pulled over at the gate, and the guard looks at our passports. “You went to Jerusalem?” he asks, and I nod without adding any further information. On the other side of us, an Arab husband and wife are brought into the guard building for further questioning. They are wheeling a suitcase and dodging all the Israeli cars whizzing by.
7. Inside the airport, we join what we thought was a line for the ticket counter, but airport staff are checking everyone’s passport and flight information before they’ll let them through. When John hands our passports to the staff member, he zeroes in on the two Qatar residency permits in my passport, as well as the large sticker in Arabic identifying me as an employee of a university in Qatar.
He starts asking questions. What is the relationship between you two? Where are you from? When did you enter Israel? Where did you go in Israel? Where did you stay?
Do you have any other siblings? What’s her name? What are your parents’ names? How do you pronounce your family name? What’s the origin of that name? Do you speak Hebrew?
He waves at a supervisor, and she comes over to continue the questioning. What’s this sticker on the back of your passport for? Where do you work in Qatar? What do you do there? What do you teach? What are the nationalities of the students who attend this university? Where are your colleagues from? Where do you live in Qatar? What are the nationalities of the people living in this building? What’s the name of one of your colleagues?
Do you know any locals? (I ask for clarification for what she means by “locals,” and she tells me she means Arabs.) What are the names of your local friends? How often do you meet?
The Arab husband and wife from earlier pass us in the line; the airport staff have been trying to find them so that they won’t be late for their flight.
Where are you two going once you’ve left Israel? What will you be doing there? Why did you take the job in Qatar? Couldn’t you get a job in America? How long have you worked there? When are you going back to Qatar? Are you planning on living there for a long time? Congratulations on the new job in Singapore, when are you leaving Qatar? Did you meet anyone here in Israel? Were you with a tour?
In over twenty minutes of questioning, I’m trying to keep my answers short and I’m trying really, really, REALLY hard not to be a smart ass. I realize that these questions are not about terrorism; if you think I’m up to no good, go ahead and scan my bag. I think this is about my sympathies with Arabs, my associations with the beautiful and wonderful and diverse ethnic group I’ve come to know more intimately in the past year and a half. I think that this is about the story I’m going to go back and tell other Americans about what Israel is really like. It’s about intimidating me and silencing me because they don’t want me to share that story with you.
I didn’t go to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in order to get in touch with my own cultural roots of Christianity and its ties to the other Abrahamic religions. I came because I wanted to know more about the realities in this part of the world and about the everyday life of the people who inhabit this land.
So I’m not sharing these stories because I want you to know more about me or I want you to think of me as some kind of great noble crusader. I want you to hear these stories because the people who live here can’t share them. Or they have been trying and the Western media makes it into a different kind of story or you won’t listen because it doesn’t fit into what you thought you knew of the world.
I want to tell you about a world that looks deceivingly like our own, but this is a world in which it is acceptable to shoot rubber bullets at Arab children playing in the street, it is acceptable to make people live in a delapidated, “temporary” refugee camp that has been in existence since 1948, it is acceptable to declare martial law in Arab areas so that you can move Israeli settlers into that area and claim it for yourself (also violating international law in the process), it is acceptable to deny some of your population electricity and water and sewage treatment and social services and yet provide another portion of the population with first-world style amenities for the same needs.
This is a world that we are responsible for. I used to think that both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, were equally culpable for the conflict. After all, that’s all I ever heard on the American news. These Palestinians died because these others kidnapped Israelis, those Israelis were shot because these others were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I feel guilty about the ignorance I spread when I held that belief, and I will feel guilty if you, my readers, come away from this blog post not understanding the depth and the power of the injustice, oppression, discrimination, bigotry, racism, and human rights violations I saw being conducted against Palestinian Arabs on an everyday basis. I will feel guilty if I can’t, in some small way, do something to change that reality.
Stories like the ones I listened to in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories disrupt that narrative I tell myself: that this is a world where all of us have the choice to go where we wish, to do what we like, to live in peace and harmony, to laugh, cry, love, protest, argue, and develop our minds and our consciences with other people. I hope that the stories I’ve written here are one small step towards making that world a reality.
This trip hurt my heart because I know we are all capable of justice. I have been privileged to experience equal treatment from people of many different religions and cultural backgrounds, Judaism and Muslim included. It is easy for me to live my life not understanding nor caring about the thousands of invisible markers that allow me to walk through checkpoints all around the world. This trip showed me the importance of the stories of the oppressed who do not have these invisible markers, how they speak despite the world telling them that they are worthless, how they refuse to be silenced by an authoritarian government, and my role in sharing those stories with others.