Erez faded away slowly behind us. A panicked search for my watan, homeland, gripped me as I took in my first glimpses of Palestine. The driver, having uncovered my unacquainted introspection of my country, quickly assumed the role of a tourist guide.
Tourist, I say, because this is the role I had to take up in so many instances in order to be present in places I am ordinarily not allowed to set foot in according to racist Israeli policies.
I say tourist too because I was unable to recognize Palestine in European immigrants chatting on the phone as they nonchalantly waited at bus stops, or in streets that were named after Jewish “national heroes.” Palestine did not come into being in Hebrew ads splattered everywhere I looked around me.
Looking for traces
The foreignness of the landscape was most shocking when the driver introduced Givat Shaul, a small village whose character is predominantly right-wing, as the site of one of the most horrendous massacres in Palestinian history. Part of Givat Shaul was Deir Yassin.
I looked around for traces of Arab presence, a graveyard perhaps or a still-standing house, but all I could see were glamorous cars and rabbis in long white beards and black suits leaning on canes as they crossed from one side of an ever-modern road to the other. Deir Yassin disappeared irrecoverably.
I sat back in my seat disappointed in a place I thought was mine but, paradoxically, was unable to recognize. This was a new geography beneath which lie layers of uprooted Palestinian life, a life forever buried under a coercing façade of normalcy that brutally disregards a people whose entire existence was wiped out.
The only structure I could identify with throughout the ride from Erez to Jeeb checkpoint — a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah — was Deir al-Latrun, a nineteenth-century monastery southeast of al-Ramla, another ethnically cleansed Palestinian city.
Deir al-Latrun stood on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem, its ancient vernacular features at odds with the forced Europeanization of everything surrounding it. It was only then that I saw Palestine for the first time as it exists in my grandmother’s recollections.
This momentary (re)connection with my identity relieves and torments me each time I try to describe so wrenching an experience as finally feeling “in place” twenty-two years after I was born, alas for no longer than a fleeting moment.
Erased and excluded
Today, Latrun’s Arab history is completely erased on the tourism section of the Israeli government website, an invitingly delusional line on the upper left hand corner of which states: “Come find the Israel in you.” The same website makes reference to Jewish and Christian sites in the country. Muslims and their sites are unequivocally excluded.
Latrun grew smaller in the distance and I took my eyes off it only when it became no longer visible. About an hour later, we stopped at Jeeb, a VIP checkpoint separating “Israel” from “Judea and Samaria”—the occupied West Bank.
I cannot remember how the soldier guarding the checkpoint might have looked like or what he might have said or done. I was perplexed by the stark contrast between what lay before the checkpoint, where we had just been, and what was ahead of us, where we were going.
“Israel,” as I described, looks very European, its roads paved, bus stops, benches and stunning gardens everywhere one looks. The landscape there attests to generous supplies of water, electricity and restless innovation and infrastructural development.
These breathtaking monuments immediately disappeared just as we entered the “other side” of Jeeb and were suddenly replaced by slums, dilapidated buildings, broken roads and boys playing in the sand. ”Apartheid” was the only word I saw fit.
We drove into Ramallah; here, at least, the familiarity of the “bubble” was manifested in five-star hotels, fancy cafes, and in Haras al Rais (presidential guards) who dotted the roads and stood in front of ministries and foreign offices like formidable walls.
Even though I was conscious of the westernized outlook of Ramallah and heavy presence of the Palestinian Authority police, I still loved the old terraced houses and could barely resist feeling “at home” whenever I looked at them. At first sight, I could not fully comprehend why friends in Ramallah deliriously called it a “bubble” more often than “Ramallah.”
Outside the “bubble”
This appallingly shallow view of mine was soon to be reversed. It only required a trip outside Ramallah for me to confront the realities Ramallah was so detached from, so unforgivably oblivious of, and deliberately so.
In the coming paragraphs and next piece (or two), I am going to refer to individuals I met and learned so much from only in first or nicknames. I do this at their request and out of new awareness I developed that the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence apparatus is always lurking behind these incredibly courageous people, ready to harass them.
About two hours after I arrived in the “bubble,” Ziyaad and Ahmad, two friends living in Jerusalem and Ramallah, respectively, were pointing out colonies on hilltops around Ramallah. To my embarrassed ignorance, I did not know how settlements actually looked like from afar and so I thought them beautiful Palestinian houses on Ramallah hilltops, only to be shown otherwise.
This incident would remain with me each time I was about to be fascinated by lighted clusters I saw from my hotel room.
Ziyaad and Ahmad took two other friends and me for a trip to Jericho and Bethlehem. In order for us to reach Jericho, we had to pass by Qalandiya checkpoint, the site of clashes that extended for three consecutive days following the murderous Israeli killing of three Palestinian youth in Qalandiya refugee camp on 26 August.
Everyone I met in the West Bank referred to the masked young men who throw stones at Israeli occupation forces as the shabab. The way the term — which in classical Arabic means “young men” — is used in the West Bank intrigued me as completely different from the way it is used in Gaza; here, it’s commonly used to describe young men who sit idly in cafés or watch football games.
When we passed by Qalandiya, clashes were just ending, tires were still burning, stones splattered across the area, and masked shabab in sleeveless undershirts and jeans were walking back home, or so it seemed. “Doesn’t it look like a war zone?” Ziyaad remarked.
Jericho’s dry air marked my first encounter with the Palestinian desert. The euphoria that swept me was toned down abruptly when I learned that Bedouins there are threatened with expulsion, a Prawer Plan that does not “show up” in the media.
I saw the Dead Sea, but only from afar because we Palestinians are forbidden from entering Israeli resorts. Despite Ziyaad’s Israeli-licensed car, which we could have used to pretend to be Israeli, the presence of two friends who wore headscarves was guaranteed to get us in trouble, if not arrested, merely because we were Arabs venturing into fancy Dead Sea resorts.
Upon entering Jericho, a checkpoint controlled and maintained by the Palestinian Authority “welcomed” us. When the Israeli army decides to arrest someone from the city, Ziyaad told us, the PA police manning the checkpoint disappear from the scene hours before the Israeli invasion occurs.
We left Jericho after sunset. I was totally shaken by a beauty from which I had been deprived for years, feeling “in place ” — I, a native Palestinian, there on a permit issued by the Israeli government.
A ghetto that Israel did not need
“Bypass road” and “apartheid” are two phrases I have always used in my essays, but now, I found out, I really understood neither. To this minute, I am still unable to comprehend how I so conveniently assumed myself to have had a “sufficient” background knowledge when I only fell into awkward silences as Ziyaad explained.
On our way to Bethlehem, we drove through Eizariyah, a Jerusalem neighbourhood on the Palestinian side of the apartheid — I say “apartheid” confidently now — wall. When the wall was built after the second intifada, Eizariya was cut off from the rest of Jerusalem because, it seems, Israel did not “need” it.
Most Palestinians living in Eizariya are bearers of blue Jerusalem ID cards but because they are no longer considered to be Jerusalem residents, they will eventually lose their residency status.
The Israeli authorities revoke residency status of Jerusalemites when they have “left Israel and settled in a country outside Israel.” This “outside Israel” includes residence in the West Bank, Gaza and undefined Jerusalem suburbs like Eizariyah.
Today, Eizariyah is a Palestinian ghetto that is neither under Israeli nor Palestinian Authority jurisdiction. It is a marginalized neighborhood with zero or minimum municipal services, its dilapidated structures and uncollected garbage clear evidence of its underdeveloped status.
Just parallel to Eizariyah is Maaleh Adumim, the biggest Israeli settlement around Jerusalem, glimmering with lights and adorned with Stars of David at its entrance, trees around it, and Israeli police offering protection. I switched my eyes between Maaleh Adumim and Eizariyah, the contrast between both impossible overlook.
A road for us only, to Bethlehem
No direct roads for us to Bethlehem. So we took the dark and terrifyingly steep bypass road, a road for Palestinians only that USAID paid for. I remember a giant lorry in front of us, a feeling of an imminent slide down taking over our thoughts as we helplessly tried to surpass it. A soldier at a checkpoint beamed a blinding flashlight in our direction, then, as if this is how it should be, waved us through.
The serenity of Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity enveloped me. Tourists were ubiquitous, there at their convenience, unlike me, a fugitive in my own country tracked down by a consulate that wanted me in the hotel “right away.”
Although tempted, I refused to walk into souvenir shops lest I behave like a tourist, lest I not be “at home.”