Free postcards at a pub in West Jerusalem. One of the postcards shows a labyrinth. My Danish colleague Maria laughs and claims that the postcard is a map of the West Bank. To make her statement evident she takes out a pen and writes the words “checkpoint”, “road block” and “occupation” all over the postcard. The crowd laughs at this cynical interpretation of the free postcard.
The laughter however dies when I find myself in the Old City of Hebron. Suddenly, I find myself in Maria’s enlarged version of the free postcard depicting the labyrinth. The Old City in Hebron is encircled by 12 permanent checkpoints. In addition, the entire Old City is filled with numerous road blocks, obstructing any kind of movement. I feel as if I am walking around in a fictitious world that reminds me of the computer game Doom - where I am walking around in narrow alleyways and where danger lurks around each corner in the shape of barbed dead ends or hostile soldiers.
Hebron is a city in the south of the West Bank inhabited by approximately 150 000 Palestinians. In addition, there are some 400-500 illegal Israeli settlers who have settled in the Old City, in the heart of Hebron. The settlers are protected by approximately 700 Israeli soldiers and many of them are manning the 12 permanent checkpoints which form an iron ring around the Old City. The whole situation resembles a war zone where soldiers sneak along house walls and are posted on numerous roof tops in the Old City.
There is a curfew for Palestinians of the Old City in Hebron. My colleagues and I are walking around the desolate alleyways of the Old City on route to Ibrahim’s mosque situated on the other side of the Old City. After numerous attempts in crossing several checkpoints we are informed by the soldiers that all checkpoints are closed. When we ask how we should get to Ibrahim’s mosque, one of the soldiers replies with a sneer: “Ask the Arabs. They know.”
And they do. Like there are secret pathways and gateways in Doom that work as shortcuts to higher levels of the game, there is also a secret pathway in the Old City leading out from it.
After having wandered around aimlessly we finally, via contacts, track down a lady who in popular speech is referred to as the “Ladder Lady”. Ladder Lady’s house is located on the outskirts of the Old City and has two entrances - one opening from the Old City and one leading out from the Old City. Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Palestinians have used her house as a passage when the Israelis have imposed curfews on the Old City. So do we.
When we have stepped our way up the staircase and passed through Ladder Lady’s house, soldiers are posted right outside on the street. They say nothing. No measures are taken as a reaction to our illegal passage. The situation is ridiculous. With one of the checkpoints located approximately 30 metres down the road, where we were previously not allowed to pass, the absence of logic becomes evident.
We find ourselves again at the main entrance to the Old City. We ask the soldiers if we may pass to the right of the Old City. We may not - for security reasons. What those reasons are based on we never receive information on - as usual. To grossly curtail freedom of movement, a legally protected human right, does demonstrably not have to be motivated.
I catch a sight of an elderly Palestinian man. He is attempting to pass through one of the barbed gates which barricades a street leading up to the main entrance to the Old City. The man is visibly upset and shouts and gesticulates at the soldiers. Suddenly, the man is fed up and grabs hold of the gate and heaves himselves over it.
One of the soldiers runs up to the old man and I wonder what is going to happen next. Two other soldiers join up and an exchange of words continues for a couple of minutes. The man is then released and disappears into the labyrinths of the Old City. The principle of arbitrariness is in rule. Today it worked - tomorrow perhaps the old man will get arrested. It all depends on the discretition of the individual soldier - as often is the case.
Doom’s fictitious world containing playing boards that resemble the Old City of Hebron one can leave whenever one gets tired of the game. All labyrinths have an exit nothwithstanding that they may be difficult to find.
Palestinians living in the labyrinths of the Old City cannot legally - according to military regulations of the occupying power - leave the Old City when there is a curfew. They have to seek alternative routes in the shape of secret exits and to rely upon the good will of fellow human beings - people like Ladder Lady.
I, on the other hand, can shut off the computer game, pull out my passport and leave the labyrinths of the fictitious world and pass into Swedish reality where the realities of the Old City in Hebron are best left in the shape of a free postcard.
Lydia Gall works as an eccumenical accompanier with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel under the framework of the World Council of Churches. Currently based in Ramallah, Gall travels extensively throughout the whole of the West Bank, including Hebron. In Sweden, she works as a human rights lawyer.