For Palestinians in Gaza, the answer to “Have you ever been to Jerusalem?” is usually a complicated one.
I first went to Jerusalem in 2000 with my parents, grandmother and older sister. I was staring at a crowd of rabbis through the window of the bus that carried us to Jerusalem. They all were all dressed the in the same black outfits and black hats with long, straggly beards and their hair curled at their temples. I asked my mother who they were. “Religious Jews,” she answered.
My parents held my tiny hands as we unboarded the bus with the other “tourists,” many of whom were Palestinians like us. I was too young to realize that this visit could be the first and last time I would walk in my country’s capital.
We went to al-Aqsa Mosque and I was fascinated by the grandeur of the Dome of the Rock as it proudly basked in the sun, which made it look even more beautiful. My mother handed me a prayer rug and prayer gown and told me to pray. I unrolled the rug, wore the gown and made my prayer in the yard of al-Aqsa under the blue sky.
I also remember relishing the special flavor of Jerusalem when eating Nabulsi kunafeh (a traditional Palestinian and Arab dessert) at a shop in one of the markets the Old City.
My other memory is of my mother, sister and grandmother trying to remember the name of the gate where we were to meet my father. “Al-Qat … al-Qat… al-Qataneen!” I yelled, thrilled to be the one who remembered the name, and they cheered for me.
We had to go back to Gaza the same day, in accordance with the conditions stipulated on our permits. I was not more than a tourist in my own land.
My second trip to Jerusalem was in 2007, the year Israel imposed its siege on Gaza. I was in a group of young, privileged Palestinians who were chosen to participate in the Arab Digital Expression Camps in Cairo for three weeks. We were given permits to leave Gaza via Israel through the Beit Hanoun/Erez crossing, and then on to Jordan. Mubarak’s regime did not allow us to cross to Egypt directly through the Rafah crossing and spare us the humiliation at Erez. Our adult leaders were banned from accompanying us and we had to make it all the way from Erez to Jordan on our own.
The taxi dropped us off meters away from the gate. Under a hot August sun, we dragged our feet and our luggage toward the gate, which looks more like the entry to a prison complex than a gate of a crossing point. Beyond the gate one finds at first glance that one is under heavy surveillance. Cameras are everywhere, to tell you they are there, to punish you if you act in a way that might bother the Israeli officers. Large posters on the walls offer millions of dollars to those who will report to Israel the location of a captured Israeli soldier.
A long fenced road leads to a series of x-ray machines and metal detectors at the checkpoint. You must leave your luggage on the machine, take off anything that contains metal, even a necklace, and pass through the metal detector. If it signaled, you’re in trouble; if it didn’t, you go to the next one.
One particularly intimidating machine was much larger than the others. Once I got inside it, a woman ordered through a loudspeaker to raise my hands and stand still. The woman’s voice with a distorted English accent ordered me to get out of the machine and re-enter. She screamed at me, saying that I was not raising my hands the way I should had been doing. She made me go in and out of the machine five times. When she let me out, I thought there was no doubt that the radiation from the machine would give me cancer.
We were then forced to pass through many gates. If the gate beams a green light, one pushes it and goes on to the next. If it beams red, which is what happened to me, it is another story.
I was taken to a special room with an x-ray luggage detector, a woman officer and a table with a metal detector wand on it. The officer ordered me to take off my pants. For a moment I thought I had misunderstood her.
“Did you hear me?” she demanded. “Take off your pants and put them in the machine.”
I felt humiliated but forced myself to pretend that I was totally fine. She picked the wand and approached me. “Are you scared?” She sarcastically asked. “No,” I retorted, although I was soaked with fear. The device ran across my body. At that point I was wondering what one could hide under his or her skin or underwear!
When she let me out, I found the rest of the group waiting on a bench. I burst into tears; it would be tormenting to an animal to be treated this way, and I am a human.
Suddenly I burst out with laughter. The situation was absurd.
Our luggage was unpacked and mixed together. We spent hours separating our stuff and repacking our bags. In the end, we walked out of Erez and rode the bus to Allenby Bridge in the West Bank that leads to Jordan.
In the bus we screamed out of excitement, ecstasy and shock. We were in the occupied West Bank. We asked the driver to take us to Jerusalem and let us step on the ground of the holy city. Alas, to step foot on our land we needed a permit from strangers! We could only pass by Jerusalem and see a glimpse of the Dome of the Rock. But even seeing it from afar made me ignore, at least for a while, the treatment I had received at Erez.
And thus, we were led to the bridge, across to Jordan, from which we flew to Egypt.
Despite the news of Rafah crossing opening to Palestinians in Gaza, the reality is that Palestinians are still denied their right to go to wherever they want across all of Palestine. We are allowed to leave our home but not enter all of its rooms.
Rana Baker, 19, a student of business administration and a member of the Gaza-based BDS organizing committee. Rana’s blog is ranabaker.wordpress.com and she can be followed on twitter at: @RanaGaza