Getting in, and getting out, of Palestine – June 19, 2019

first published in Mondoweiss

Installation at the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, Photo by Alice Rothchild.

In late March and early April 2019 I traveled to Jordan and the West Bank (Palestine) with two colleagues, Sonia Dettman and S. Komarovsky, first to attend the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman and then to explore and better understand the lives of refugees and the workings of UNRWA, with a focus on the status of refugee health. This is the final essay in the series.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Traveling while Palestine

The night is filled with the anxiety that any interaction with Israeli security triggers; we are leaving for the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan into Israel/Palestine at 6:30 am. Of course daylight savings time starts in the middle of the night, so we lose an hour and the call to prayer occurs three times starting at 4:30ish, probably because it is Friday. I am awake almost hourly checking to be sure I have not slept through the alarm, which I have never done in my life. The death toll in the occupied territories is rising. Gazans are preparing for the year anniversary of the Great March of Return on Land Day tomorrow. Israeli reservists are being called up. Netanyahu is facing the election in a few weeks and I worry he thinks he needs a war. The Palestinian Authority is once again out of money and has cut salaries in half because the “Zionist entity” refuses to release its taxes. Welcome to Israel.

We leave all of our suspicious material on Palestine, human rights, and any evidence of an interest in justice in an extra bag in Amman to retrieve on our return, and arrive at Allenby Bridge at 7:30 am. The Jordanian officials sip tea, smoke cigarettes, poke and prod their computer, and hand stamp forms back and forth without any sense of urgency. Exit fees are paid, children squirm, and we wait for enough people to arrive to fill a bus. Finally, with just enough low-level chaos to cause a rise in blood pressure, we are on our way, after the Jordanian official calls out each of our names and hands us our passports. I am sure that violates some HIPPA type rule about privacy, but what do I know about international relations?

The landscape drifts into military installations and desert as we approach the rushing brown stream that was once the mighty Jordan. More stop and go and we cross the bridge into the hands of Israeli security. Blue and white flags flutter. Guard towers are covered with camouflage netting, plainclothes men wander back and forth with fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons. I flunk the metal detector due to my new and improved knees and go sit. And sit. A man repeatedly talks into his shirt. Finally a woman takes me in for a vigorous pat down and sweep of the metal detector which reveals that my knees (and my boots) actually contain metal. (Like I said.)

I am reunited with my passport and wait in the chaotic, uneasy crowd for the luggage to emerge from the x-ray screening. At passport control I am asked why am I here? (Visiting a friend in Tel Aviv). Why did I come from Jordan? (Medical conference). Am I a doctor? Am I Jewish? (Yes.) Israeli? Any Israeli relatives?

A brief wave-through by the Palestinian Authority and three hours from start to finish, into the hands of hungry service (pronounce ser-vees) drivers. This is all an upgrade since my last visit, but still qualifies as a third world experience. We need to catch a bus to Jericho which requires buying a ticket. As we try to board the bus, we discover we need to pay a luggage fee as well. (Who knew?) Back to the little ticket man where he tries to scam me out of 39 shekels by making me pay for the tickets again. I explain, calmly, not so calmly. A lovely man says it all in Arabic. Ticket man yells, I yell. He grabs my tickets. I reach into his glass booth, grab my tickets and my money and run to the bus. (Welcome to occupation and shattered nerves.)

From Jericho, after another encounter with the PA, passport screening, papers stamped and passed from official to official, luggage unceremoniously removed and then returned, we head north to Nablus to visit old friends. The service does not leave for a half an hour, until all the seats are full. As I gaze out the window, I am flooded with emotion. Massive Israeli date palm plantations and carpets of green vegetation sweep by. The distant hills are hazy, the sand hills massive and stark. We pass a sign for Na’ama herbs (Israeli), more stark desert, and purple-blue mountains in the distance. The signage is in Hebrew, Arabic, and English (the Arabic being a transliteration of the Hebrew), but only Israeli settlements are identified and Palestinian towns are geographically invisible.

More bursts of wildflowers. I am told the tiny yellow blossoms are called Yasmeen. The landscape is striking, large milk-chocolate chunks of rocks, Israeli vineyards covered in netting, goats munching on the lush vegetation. The Judean Hills are in their peak greenery as our ears pop and we wind north. Blankets of purple flowers, signs to the Jewish settlement of Ariel, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv/Yafo. Past rocky terraces and a massive industrial park and the settlement of Ma’ale Efrayim, and the Palestinian village of Osarin, as we hurtle along route 60 to Nablus. Huwara checkpoint, a jumbled shadow of its former major military installation, with two IDF soldiers, lolling about, fingers on their triggers. We pass through a town, shops, sides of goat and sheep hanging on hooks, and finally into Nablus, a sprawling city surrounded by hills and military installations.

After a warm and loving visit and an immense amount of good food (including melt-in-your-mouth cheesy kanafe), we head south in a taxi (this being Friday when everyone goes home and travel is challenging) to Bethlehem and Aida Camp. A bird flutters low on the highway and I hear a thud. The driver winces. My heart sinks. The scenery tells a story if you know how to read the language. We pass charming villages, a mosque in Madama with a golden dome and a tall thin white minaret. Tura winery (Israeli obviously). Caravans, (of Jewish settlers) on hilltops and signs for settlements. We see an IDF jeep with a group of soldiers facing a cluster of Palestinian boys crouching in a ditch. Over two hours we encounter five more IDF jeeps, each time the cab driver says, “Israel, very dangerous, very dangerous.” Two more wineries (Gua’ot, Psagot) on occupied land. Palestinian mega mansions and wide swaths of Jewish settlements spilling down hillsides. A Palestinian quarry. A large red sign warns travelers on the roads to unnamed Palestinian villages, “This road leads to a Palestinian village. The entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous.”

Gradually there is more concrete separation wall marching across the landscape, tall concrete slabs, concrete topped by a wall of wire fencing, on the right, then the left, then both sides. In Hizma the concrete is right up against the highway. The road dips under a bypass road. A little boy tends sheep next to two IDF soldiers and a jeep. The settlement of Ma’ale Adumim totally dominates the landscape, covering the crest of miles of hills. A large key is mounted at the Azaria rotary, dead cars are piled in the strip between lanes, garbage and poverty is everywhere. We pass signs to Al Quds University (in Jerusalem) and then enter Wadi Al Jeer, a major vertiginous highway built by USAID, also called the Container Road. Also thought to be US funding for an apartheid road. We pass the container checkpoint with guard towers and soldiers, pass a Palestinian Authority soldier, and into cluttered and charming Beit Sahour, Bethlehem and nearby Aida Camp.

Outside the camp we have a planning meeting at a recently opened bar, Rewired, which throbs with music and hip young people drinking wine, beer, and signature cocktails. This is new. And now I would really love to fall asleep, but every few minutes an Israeli jet screeches across the sky and dogs howl as if protesting the military occupation of their land.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Getting out

I have finally succumbed to the level of exhaust, perfumed cleaning products, and cigarette smoke in these parts and I am actually wheezing (bought an asthma inhaler for 15 NIS (about $4)) and now laryngitis has set in and I can barely talk. Perhaps the Mossad is gripping my vocal cords.

At 10:30 am we leave our welcoming hosts in Doha, the neighborhood next to Aida Camp. Although we already had breakfast, we are offered fried eggs as the taxi pulls up, Allah forbid we might go hungry. At 11:30 we arrive at Allenby Bridge and begin the tedious dance of the vehicles. We wait until our driver finds another taxi with yellow plates that allows us to go directly to the Israeli checkpoint and skip the Palestinian Authority, not that they have much authority at these borders anyway. Then we get on line. There are two lanes as far as I can understand, one for trucks (there is a steady stream of large trucks, especially cement mixers) and one for the rest of us. We inch along behind tour buses and yellow plate cars and taxis. Other tour buses are parked in a lot near the checkpoint and periodically the soldier/traffic director stops our line and invites a tour bus or two to cut ahead for the 20-minute-long screen, mirrors under the bus, various doors open. Did I mention the tour buses are all empty and it is getting hotter and hotter, this being the Jordan Valley?

Alice Rothchild

Our taxi driver is getting agitated, he steps outside to smoke a cigarette, talk with other fellow sufferers, and plot his strategy. He gets inside, abruptly backs up and gets into another lane. A cement truck backs away, a grey van, “Allenby Serves,” cuts ahead, maybe VIP? Cars with some sort of business designation also jump the line and don’t seem to get checked. We move closer to the checkpoint, then soldier/traffic director makes us back up to let another empty tour bus in line. Truck after dusty, sandy truck passes us in the left lane. A military vehicle covered in metal grills and is driven by a female IDF soldier scoots by.

At 12:10 pm we reach the vehicle and passport check. The girl soldier with the bullet proof vest actually asks, “Do you have any weapons?” Really??? And we are on our way to the next hurdle. The taxi zooms through striking desert hills and wildly-sculpted mountains with a thin fuzz of greenery here and there until we arrive at a terminal building for Israeli passport control. We pay something like 166 shekels, get some pieces of paper, and get on another line.

A very large crowd of folks from India arrive just before us (maybe pilgrimage to Baha’i temple in Haifa?) so the room is suddenly filled with men and women and a collection of wiggling children and babies in brightly-colored long dresses and tunics, red, blue, orange, green patterns, full skirts and scarfs. The men wear white skull caps.

When I finally get to passport control the older Ashkenazi officer looks at me with a smile and with a contemptuous colonial shrug says “Indians.” He might as well have muttered, savages.

I smile back and sail through the checkpoint (deeply appalled but masked in my white Jewish privilege), track down my luggage and get into the bus. At 1:05 pm the bus pulls out of the military camp and into Jordan.

We pass some Jordanian security five minutes later and at 1:15 two Jordanian security guys board the bus and collect all of our passports. Two Israelis are told to get off, something about needing a visa. The bus moves past the checkpoint and we pass a man in a sand yellow truck with a large weapon mounted on the roof. We travel through desert, collections of houses, and date palms and arrive at Jordanian passport control at 1:25. It takes 35 more minutes to work our way through the various lines and windows and then we are off to Amman. Two-and-a-half hours, not bad given the possibilities.

My traveling companion with the smart phone tells me Jewish settlers just shot to death a young man at Huwara checkpoint in Nablus and the soldiers let him bleed to death as they watched. It was filmed by folks who are sure to upload it to the internet should you want to watch the gory details. Another youth was injured but survived. The settlers allege the youth had a knife, although they have proven to be a deeply unreliable source of information when it comes to knives. There are somethings that are so unspeakably haram that it is hard to write without a moment of deep silence and horror. I think about the two young men who undoubtedly have experienced a life filled with Israeli military aggression and may or may not have felt defeated and hopeless enough to take revenge on the people who have tortured them. I think about the grieving mother, the enraged father, the traumatized brothers and sisters, another life lost to Israeli occupation, and the audacious fascistic brutality of the settlers who steal Palestinian land and kill Palestinians with impunity.

Hours later we enter Queen Alia Airport and breeze through all the levels of security, ticket lines, passport control, X-rays. No one is rude or brusque, no one takes me aside to interrogate me, no one wants to unwrap my halvah to check it for explosives. The whole experience is remarkably civilized and a striking contrast to Ben-Gurion airport where two years ago after harassing me for working in Gaza (“Why Gaza? There are starving children in Africa, you know”), they took my computer for an hour “for security.” Then they confiscated my husband’s entire suitcase “for security,” leaving him to stuff his belongings in a blue plastic bag as he headed home. How that kind of behavior is related to keeping Israel safe is utterly unclear to me and it doesn’t do much for their shrinking reputation as the villa in the jungle, a little piece of civilized Europe in the savage Middle East.