3 February 2005 — The Jericho Intercontinental is a very posh hotel built next to a casino, both of which were finished just as the Second Intifada started and thus never really opened. But they dusted themselves off and offered a New Year’s Eve party, a night in a big lavish room, and two meals for $90 each. Several Palestinians and internationals jumped at the chance, eager for a change in scenery and atmosphere.
I loaded up with some Palestinian officemates and friends into a service taxi on New Year’s Eve, and we made the long journey bypassing the Qalandia checkpoint. The detour added more than an hour to the trip. If we’d been Jewish settlers, we could have breezed right through.
It was a lovely drive, though. The soft hills were thinly, vibrantly green from the rains, and shepherds and their flocks were out in force. There was hardly a green hill without a group of trotting goats or grazing sheep. One flock appeared to be high on a cliff ledge with an almost sheer face above and below. I asked the girl next to me, who is from Gaza, “How did they get up there?”
She said, “I don’t know. But it’s beautiful, isn’t it? It makes you wonder what all of this was like a thousand years ago.”
The Israeli government and the newspapers keep saying they are minimizing checkpoints in the run-up to the elections, which is simply a lie. Even if they have taken out some fixed checkpoints, which I haven’t seen or heard of them doing, they have added a lot more ‘flying checkpoints,’ which can show up anywhere. Flying checkpoints are even more nerve-wracking than fixed checkpoints because they are so unpredictable.
We hit a flying checkpoint near the entrance of Jericho, and the girl beside me crossed her fingers and said, “Let’s hope nobody gets turned back. Including me.”
She has a Gaza ID, which is a different color from West Bank IDs. As a Gazan she’s not even supposed to be in the West Bank these days, where she works and lives and studies, according to the arbitrary rules of the occupier. At any checkpoint, at any time, she can be turned back, arrested, or deported. (Then again, so can anyone and everyone, for any reason or no reason. An Israeli border guard once admitted to me that they could say the word ‘security’ and do anything they liked.) In essence, she’s in house arrest in Ramallah.
A lot of Gazans are in the same boat and haven’t seen their families in Gaza for years, missing weddings and funerals, birthdays and holidays, because they are afraid that once they leave the West Bank, Israel will never allow them to return to their West Bank colleges, careers, and friends.
To try to get past the checkpoints surrounding Ramallah, my friend brought her Palestinian Authority-issued passport instead of her Israel-issued ID. The passport says she’s from Gaza in small letters in English and Arabic, but it doesn’t scream GAZA like the ID.
The soldiers at this checkpoint didn’t notice my friend was from Gaza, but one of them read that my passport was issued in San Francisco. He grinned broadly. “Pamela Jane! You are from San Francisco. You know the SuperSonics?”
I had no idea what he was talking about - aren’t the SuperSonics in Seattle? - but I smiled and nodded. He smiled back, and then, still grinning, came to my window. I looked down, kind of mortified, and we were allowed to drive off.
We all agreed he was kinda cute, but I said, “Does that ever work? Picking up chicks while you are oppressing them? Does he think his gun is sexy or something?”
My friend from Gaza said, “Who knows? Why do construction workers whistle at girls who pass by? Does that ever work?”
“I don’t know… I guess men with big metal objects in their hands get overconfident or something.”
“ ‘Hey, you are from San Francisco! You know the SuperSonics?’” My friend mocked the soldier and giggled. “ ‘And hey, you are from Gaza! You know Ahmed Yassin?’”
I’d just about put my passport back in my purse when the driver made the general call for IDs again. Another checkpoint. It hadn’t been 50 yards.
We went through the same stress, the same waiting in line, the same nonsense again.
And 50 yards on there was another one! Triple shot. I said, “How can three checkpoints within ten feet of each other be for security?”
“They’re just trying to make our lives easier,” said my friend from Gaza.
The lobby floor of our hotel was in lovely cut-marble patterns under large crystal chandeliers. Each of our rooms came with a huge bed, a beautiful bathtub, and an amazing glass-walled shower. The weather was perfect, too, warmed by a thick blanket of below-sea-level air.
We were some of the first ones to arrive, and the place seemed deserted. Only about 100 people were scheduled to show up to the enormous hotel all told. It was very The Shining.
When everyone else arrived, we exchanged checkpoint stories. Ours wasn’t even the worst. Another friend of mine, who also has an ID that Israelis don’t like to see outside of Ramallah, had to get out of her cab and bypass the checkpoint on foot. But the Israelis saw her, and she was terrified because a lot of people have been shot on sight for less. They questioned her and the driver, their guns trained on them, and finally let them go. Then they caught up to them, stopped them again, harassed them again, and let them go again, all the while pointing guns at them. And then they did it one more time. About fifteen minutes of terror each time.
I ran into two guys I knew at the pool, an American and a Swede, and they informed me that Jericho was one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world along with Damascus. The Swedish guy said it was one of the most-often-destroyed, too.
“And no wonder. It’s in the middle of an indefensible valley. You’d think after a while they’d say, ‘Listen, guys, I don’t think this location is working out…’”
Now this unlucky location can’t even fill a hotel on New Years. And Israel’s Annexation Wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice, a ruling which Israel has ignored, is set to surround it completely, not like the Canaanite walls, for defense, but like the Qalqiliya walls, as a prison-like ghetto.
The New Year’s party at the hotel was more like a wedding than anything with people sitting at long tables enjoying nice food and dancing to music turned up way too loud. It was an even mix of Palestinians and foreigners. We put on party hats and popped our champaign poppers at midnight. Most of us were exhausted from elections work, though, so we turned in pretty early.
I got in the elevator with a man who looked like a hotel manager. “Happy New Year,” I said.
He smiled graciously in thanks and said, “Hopefully a better one.”
“Insha’Allah khair,” I echoed.
The next day we rented bikes and rode around Jericho, a neverending garden. Jericho is also known as Medina al-Qamr, the City of the Moon. The hills to the immediate west are dessicated and look lifeless. You can’t quite see the hills to the east in Jordan through the haze. And the desert all around looks about as dusty and empty as a moon.
But Jericho itself is green, green, green, a garden city, wall-to-wall groves and greenhouses irrigated by springs, one lush tropical food source after another.
I yelled over my shoulder once, in an old but classic joke that still has currency because too many people still believe the old propaganda, “Who says Arabs can’t make the desert bloom?”
We decided to go back to Ramallah through Qalandia checkpoint, which everyone must walk through on foot. Just as I got to the other side, my phone rang, and I was informed that one of our volunteers for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi’s campaign, a 17-year-old high school student in the Gaza Strip, had been shot dead near Rafah by an Israeli soldier while putting up posters two days before.
All the happiness and celebration of the past two days turned to dust and I felt crushed by helpless horror. I must have looked it because my friend from Gaza asked me, “Did you know him?”
“No,” I said. “What difference does it make?”
When I got back to the office, I had the sad duty of writing a press release on New Year’s Day.
Pamela Olson is an American who lives and works in Ramallah, West Bank. She served as Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi’s foreign press liaison during his recent bid for Palestinian president. She can be reached via her website www.pamolson.org. This article was first published in Counterpunch.