Today, on my way to Jordan and my flight home, I did something no Palestinian from the West Bank can do. I woke up in Ramallah (in the West Bank), went to Jerusalem (already impossible!), got on a bus and rode eastward and then northward THROUGH the West Bank’s Jordan river valley and into northern Israel without having to stop at any checkpoint or show my ID to anyone. How did I do this amazing thing? Answer: I was travelling as an “Israeli.”
While Palestinians were suffering out of sight on backroads and at checkpoints, I enjoyed comfort, efficiency, and arguably, relative safety. We sped past Jewish settlements in our modern air-conditioned bus, stopping for no one. Every once in a while, I caught a glimpse of people in the “Palestinian” mode of transit: beat-up yellow Mercedes taxis, packed with passengers, moving along the settler road on some hiatus between checkpoints. Their journey is probably shorter than mine in distance but assuredly much longer in duration. As we speed by Ma’ale Adumim settlement I see Palestinian vehicles routed this way around Jerusalem. They struggle to cover the 15 miles from Ramallah to Bethlehem in 1.5 hours. In the same amount of time, I will fly with my fellow Israeli travellers across more than half the length of the West Bank and into northern Israel, without even seeing a checkpoint.
Everyone on my bus was, I’m quite sure, Jewish, and most of them were soldiers, most of them armed. I observed them as we waited at the bus station, and noted unsettling contradictions: Young girls and boys heavly armed, yet barely past what we would call high-school age. I watched them chatting on cell phones, wearing cool sunglasses with their military uniforms, seeming almost adolescent as they nap against their bags and each other on the bus station floor. Their facial features are innocent and unthreatening. A young woman with freckles and braided reddish blonde hair talks with her heavily armed girlfriends. Giggling and chatting, she has the typically insecure gestures of a teenage girl, although here they include fidgeting with her assault rifle.
I am conscious of the sexism in my idea of innocence embodied in youthful femininity, but in fact I am equally struck by the boy sitting next to me on the bus, who still has what you would call “baby fat” on his brown, moon-shaped face. He naps against the window in his boots and fatigues, and is awakened by his cell phone blaring a cute ringtone: “Lollipop lollipop ooh lolli-lollipop.”
Every so often the bus stops at a military camp or settlement in the Jordan valley, and a handful of these kid-soldiers heave up their backpacks and their M-16 assault rifles and dawdle down the aisle toward the door. In the isolation of this moment, it seems that innocence has been bizarrely, inexplicably dressed up as brutality. I feel angry at the situation, and wonder how a society of parents, who I think should know better, send their children off to such a brutal, and immoral duty.
Wandering between seeing these people as kids and as soldiers, my mind hangs on their uniforms and guns. This bus is FULL of soldiers, but departed from a civilian bus terminal. I’ve seen it before … it’s a pretty sure bet that you can find soldiers on any bus, and sometimes they’re the majority, particularly in the West Bank.
Although fascinated, I loathed my unexpected trip with soldiers across the West Bank. I had naively assumed that this civilian bus departing from the central bus station in West Jerusalem would not cut through occupied territory when travelling to another Israeli city. But the occupation of the West Bank provides a nice shortcut from Jerusalem to northern Israel. Why should any self-respecting Israeli stay out of the West Bank if it makes their life more convenient?
Ben Sharpton is an activist with “Boston to Palestine”, and teaches sociology courses at Emerson College.