14 August 2003 — “Don’t remind me,” says Mary. “I’ll go if I have the courage.” I asked her about visiting Etzion, the office near the Gush Etzion settlement between Bethlehem and Hebron where the Israeli ‘Civil Administration’ is located and where Bethlehemites have to ask for their tasreeyeh (“permit”). We are preparing ourselves for a holiday to Cyprus together with the kids and Imm Hannah and Janet, Mary’s mother and sister. Jara and Tamer have Dutch passports, Mary and her family however not and they therefore need a permit to enter Tel Aviv airport.
The stories of people trying to get a tasreeyeh are numerous and bitter. A supermarket owner was called twice by Etzion to be told that his tasreeyeh was ready but the first time he went there it was not yet issued, and the second time he got a refusal. The aging and sick mother of a colleague of Mary at Bethlehem University was refused a tasreeyeh on “security grounds.” A man who submitted the application papers for a tasreeyeh at window 5 of Etzion was told to go to the (police) window 1, where to his own surprise he was taken into custody and released only days later. Most people try to get a tasreeyeh by showing medical documents but it is not clear exactly what documents you have to hand over. After somebody brought a medical statement of the illness of her sister abroad whom she wanted to visit, she was told to bring a medical statement about her own health problems if she wanted to be able to travel.
One soldier exclaimed after receiving piles of medical documents from a visitor that Israel should better build a hospital at Tel Aviv airport. Meanwhile, persistent rumours suggest that by paying $50 one can “buy” a tasreeyeh but the source of that rumor is not clear. Visiting Etzion, Mary saw the joy in the eyes of a laborer who succeeded in getting a tasreeyeh not for the airport but for traveling between Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Afterwards she stayed repeating: “How could he be glad about that? It’s unbelievable, unbelievable — the stage Palestinians have reached.” But it is true: the permit system is gradually extending. Even medical doctors from Bethlehem nowadays need to have a permit to visit patients in the Hebron area.
So we try our luck at the heavily barred windows of Etzion. The first time Mary backs off after waiting for hours in the heat and the pressure of the queue, the second time the soldiers at the window refuse the submission without saying why. Jara, who joined, starts to cry loudly “I want to go to Limassol!” — more in anger than in sadness. The third time Mary tries her luck not at the windows but at the gate where, for some unknown reason, the soldiers are more polite and accessible even though their orders are apparently not to deal with requests and to refer visitors back to the windows.
One soldier is relatively understanding (“life is difficult”) and tells Mary to come back a week later. So a week before the scheduled holiday Jara and I join Mary for the fourth visit, all just to get the papers submitted. First we stay in the row in front of the window. There our submission papers are refused after being studied uninterestingly by a female soldier who had her legs lazily pulled up against the table in front of her. Mary fumes. Then again back to the gate. After half an hour, we are able to contact our last hope, the polite soldier of the previous visit.
“Listen,” Mary says to him. “I want to be frank with you. I don’t have medical documents. My mother does not need medical treatment abroad. But it’s no life here. We want to go on a holiday. She is 82 and she simply wants to breathe.” “I know that life is difficult in Bethlehem,” says the soldier, “but we don’t have peace yet and I think that only your mother because of her age will get a permit and not you or your sister. Why don’t you go through Jordan?”
“Do you think that King Abdallah will intervene for us?” Mary responds, but the soldiers is strangely enough convinced — the facts tell otherwise — that it is possible to make arrangements within a few days, if at all, to enter Jordan. While waiting, Jara sings a nationalist song (“governments are tyrants”) and on the background she skillfully gesticulates with her arms suggesting a conversation in which she shows her exasperation with the soldiers: “If you do not give the tasreeyeh, I stay waiting here for you till 12 o’clock.” And she threatens to strike the soldiers with a little stick if they do not concede. On Liberty TV, the commercial station, she already saw an enticing photo of the holiday house and now she is determined to complete the mission.
Are there alternatives to traveling abroad? The question becomes urgent. Some Palestinians join semi-legal excursions to Eilat. It’s not quite clear whether the tour agents succeed in obtaining all the required permissions, and it happens that Israeli intelligence is searching the hotels where the visitors stay. In a recent journey, the bus was stopped and returned at the third checkpoint on the way south to Eilat.
My colleague Elias recommends any journey inside Israel. During the feast of St Elias in June, some thousands of Bethlehemites (Christians, that is) were permitted to go out of Bethlehem for one day to visit the shrine of the prophet Elia in Haifa, an opportunity which many took to rather go to the beach in Tel Aviv or Tiberias (where it was forbidden to take glass Cola bottles on the boat in the lake apparently because they could be used as Molotov-cocktails, returning youths reported). But it happened that in the early morning the buses were thoroughly checked and that many had to wait for 3-4 hours before they could leave Bethlehem.
“Why should we not try to get out of Bethlehem without a permit?” I propose. We could take an escape route such as in Beit Jala exists. In a phone call to Mary’s sister Norma in Paris I explain how I could help to orchestrate the operation by standing on top of the small but steep hill barring the exit and signing or calling the family that the road on the other side is free of soldiers. If so, Mary’s mother could then be supported by her two daughters - she walks slowly because of a stroke years ago. But second thoughts creep in. What is a holiday when you have to be all the time concerned about police or intelligence checking beach houses?
What is the correct name for such journeys, I ask myself. Technically speaking, they are excursions or pilgrimages or tourist outings but those words have become as inappropriate as calling the Pope a bachelor. Rather, they are forms of escape to “breathe a little”, as in Mary’s favorite expression.
Lately she has become more tense. In her swimming lessons the strokes don’t work out, she feels stiff. She is also afraid to cross the Jerusalem-Hebron road on the way to Etzion. In Bethlehem you don’t have busy roads and after staying closed up in town she has become unaccustomed to fast cars. Her dreams, too, have become more fearful. In one of them she saw herself invited to an unknown house of an Israeli in a quarter of Arab houses occupied by Israelis after the war of 1948. The Israeli offered her to help in obtaining a tasreeyeh. The house was beautifully renovated, and the host welcoming. Yet she didn’t want to enter and woke up screaming at the doorsteps.
She is fighting against this feeling of dependency. It is not her nature to be dependent, to resign to the situation or to make excuses. It is the last time, she says, that she will wait so long at Etzion, she can’t bear the humiliation, the begging. In another night she woke up after seeing in her dream a row of soldiers and in front of them poorly clothed Palestinian workers on their knees, begging, calling, making strange sounds.
Jara announces that if the trip to Limasol will not work out, she will go to the moon. She wants to travel, whatever cost. And why not to Eilat, she begs, after all, in Israel everything is beautiful. Here it is poor. And by the way, what does God think of all this? Mary has difficulties in answering.
If God thinks this is OK, I don’t love God, Jara concludes. She wants to go to the theater, yes, let’s build a theater at home, she says gaily, “with a soldier to check the tickets.” But Tamer laughs no to her, breaks things down and goes on top of things, climbs on top of Jara and does otherwise everything what is dangerous.
Another tooth comes through and it is difficult to get him asleep. Like Scheherezade, I need to keep entertaining him, when I stop singing he starts crying. We give up on our joint holiday. The polite soldier calls to say that Imm Hannah will get the tasreeyeh but not Mary and Janet. Thank you but no thank you, we think.