Even now, more than five days after crossing the formidable walls of Erez, I am still unable to let go of the weight of my first-ever glimpse into Palestine (outside Gaza).
The experience of the crossing itself was enabled not by my being Palestinian, but by a foreign consulate.
Everyone I met in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and 1948 Palestine (present-day Israel), asked me how I, a bearer of green Palestinian ID card and Palestinian Authority passport, was “able” to “travel” like this. It was a question that both embarrassed and infuriated me.
For years, I tried every way I could to get myself a permit, making up whole sets of pretexts, sometimes trying to convince old people I know into accompanying them on their visits to Hadassah, an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem, an offer they, knowing my intentions, always refused. I tried to reach out to doctors to persuade them, in vain, to write me medical reports that diagnosed the worst of illnesses in me, ones that required medication at Israeli hospitals.
I share these failed attempts here to justify why I not only applied for a program for whose agenda I have a great distaste, but also to explain why I, to the consulate’s consternation, ignored the schedule of the program the minute I arrived in Ramallah.
For me it was a frantic search for a place where I could finally feel at home since Gaza, where I have always lived, has always been a place I cruelly rejected and reject now even more. My peers at the program and program organizers rightly saw me as a delinquent as I constantly dodged them, ignored their calls and, eventually, did not apologize.
“You came to be part of the conference, and we trusted you to attend and treated you like a professional. We are very disappointed,” a program organizer wrote me in a text message on my way to Jerusalem. “How could you?” said the same organizer on the last day as I timidly waited in the lobby for the bus that was to drop us in Erez. “How could I not let myself see Palestine?” I retorted with fake confidence.
Although I am compelled to use this post to describe my various experiences of Palestine — Palestine, it seems, cannot be a single experience — I am rather impelled to share in this first post of a series — perhaps two more to come — some observations I managed to take note of as I crossed Erez.
The stark personal and linguistic contradictions that accompanied my crossing of Erez still haunts me as I write this post. In less than twenty minutes, I had to strip from myself and wear two different characters, one the complete opposite, indeed the rival, of the other, neither one my real self.
On the morning of 27 August, through a mesh gate, I was carried to the first stop of the Palestinian side of Ma’bar Erez, the one Hamas controls. I remember disembarking from the car with worried excitement, chattering with Sameeha, my friend, though I cannot recall anymore what we talked about. One officer there struck me as very foreign in his disposition with his green eyes, white skin and silky blond hair. To my confused mind at that point, he suddenly embodied everything Israeli and I stared at him until he asked me in Arabic why I was going to Ramallah.
I answered the question in the most restrained language I could muster, avoiding any mention of the consulate that invited us and pretending to be going there for one strict and depoliticized purpose. Mentioning consulates, judging from acquaintances’ past experiences, often stirs suspicions and leads to prolonged sessions of condescending interrogation. Having been successful, I then proceeded to the second and final stop on the Palestinian side: the point administered by the Palestinian Authority.
The presence of this point has been made necessary by the fact that Israel does not recognize Hamas (except as a terror organization), thus no direct coordination between the two sides is allowed. I walked towards a small room and, through its only window, I handed my hawiyyah (ID) to a middle-aged man standing behind it. The question about the purpose of my visit was echoed again here. This time, however, I saturated my language with liberal rhetoric. I repeated the words “consulate” and “NGOs” and inserted English words as if I were too “modern” to speak proper Arabic.
The 45 minutes I waited there offered me my first practical insight into an “authority” that is incapable of making independent decisions, one that always beseeches the approval of the Israelis. The level of coordination between the Palestinian Authority side and the Israeli one is startling. I heard PA officials inside that small room exchange names and numbers of individuals in Hebrew. What seems to happen is that the Palestinians communicate names to the Israelis who then either approve them for entry through the Israeli checkpoint at Erez or send them home. I was approved.
The PA hall is connected to the Israeli checkpoint by a 1.5 kilometer-long tunnel. Electric carts were available to carry passengers to the gate, but I, insisting that I “live the experience” and “document,” decided to walk. For six years, I had not seen an Israeli face to face. I had only seen them shell places and people I knew from afar. All of a sudden, I was walking a tunnel that was neither in Gaza nor Palestine. I was in the nowhere zone, marching a long path, summoning as much confidence as I could to offset the intimidation of cameras, walls and watchtowers that surrounded me.
I arrived at the gate, Palestine collapsing in a sign that read: “Welcome to Israel — Erez Terminal.” I sneaked a picture of the sign or two, pulled my luggage and entered the “terminal.” A wide empty hall, a row of tables, and a man behind them: a Palestinian. I threw my suitcase before him and unzipped it with disgust. “Pictures are forbidden,” he said rather authoritatively. “This is not their place, this is ours [I said “ours” thinking he was a poor Palestinian worker] and I can take pictures,” I hit back. “Whose place is this?” he demanded, daring me to repeat my answer, which I, taken aback by his reaction, did not dare to repeat and murmured something instead.
Erez is all gray, empty and impersonal. Armed Israeli soldiers behind protected second-floor windows give orders via “Arabs” on the ground, and we, also Arabs, are, in practice, subject not to Israelis, but fellow Arabs. One “Arab” ordered me to step into a revolving X-ray machine. I looked at him as if to say a contemptous “How could you?” But it was no use since he did not even seem to notice. I was ordered to spread my legs, raise my hands and look “directly” in front of me. But my arms were not raised enough, so I had to raise them “more.”
Israeli soldiers above looked down on us with scorn. A soldier in plain clothes and a heavy machine gun strapped around his body walked back and forth inspecting us, with his eyes, in the most humiliating manner possible. I returned the looks, registering pathetic wins as I forced them to avert their eyes before I did. They, after all, were “letting” me see my country.
Some suitcases “required” extra checks. Before our luggage was rampaged through, a young woman in uniform put on disposable gloves and even bottles of water were inspected with a device. It all took place before us, only a plastic barrier in the middle.
I dragged my suitcase and lined up, one line for Arabs, another for “foreigners.” A female Israeli officer waved me through the final gate of Erez. An incomprehensibly indifferent look accompanied her face as she tucked my light-blue permit into my ID card casing. I feigned unworried, mocking airs, and made my way out. “Entrance to Israel,” a sign read.