Monday, December 17, 2007

A Day in Hebron

A few days ago, I went to Hebron with a friend and her parents. They were going to buy clothing for my friend's children for the upcoming Islamic feast, the Eid al Adha (the feast of the sacrifice - more on this later this week). It is part of the custom to buy new, fancy clothes for one's children for this multi-day festival/feast. We went to Hebron to shop, because my friends mother likes to go there and the clothing is cheaper than other places.

I went along thinking I might buy an old style Arab coffee pot from one of the market. I did end up getting a beautiful new dress for 130 shekels (which is about $30 USD).

Here I am in my new dress. :)

I have only been to Hebron twice before and that was about 6 years ago. Its been a long time since I've been into the occupied West Bank proper, through a 'real' checkpoint. The checkpoints are a really horrible experience. I often wish that every American citizen had to go through one of these checkpoints just one time. I believe if that happened, American foreign policy in the middle east would change... instantly.

One our way towards Hebron, the Israeli checkpoint had only one lane (of 2 or 3 available) 'open' for checking people. As we arrived, there were about 10 cars in front of us. No one was being 'allowed' to pass. No one was moving. The 4 or 5 Israeli Soldiers (kids of about 20 years old) were standing around smoking cigarettes, laughing and talking. The 'gate' was down in front of the first car, preventing cars from moving. There was no 'reason' for the 'closure.' We were going towards the West Bank after all, not trying to enter Israel. It was just a random and temporary halting of the traffic flow. Traffic began to back up. The line behind us got longer and longer. Still no one passed. The soldiers considered their little break, as the people in the cars, simply trying to get where they were going, started to grow more impatient. People started honking their horns. The driver of the vehicle I was in started to get really agitated. I was very time conscious this particular day, because I had engagements in the afternoon. The delay we were experiencing was going to cause me problems later in the day. I thought of all the people simply trying to go about their day, caught in this random act of 'power tripping.' We waited about 20 minutes. All of a sudden the gate went up. The soldiers barely even glanced at the cars as we all went cruising through the checkpoint. They didn't stop anyone. They didn't talk to anyone. They just... let us go. Why were we all stopped and held there for 20 minutes?

The day in Hebron was fairly uneventful, but very interesting. Many women were out shopping for their kids for the Eid. The clothes on display for the little kids were really ornate and festive. Women were selecting these outfits for their kids as though it were a life and death decision! :) Everyone wants the perfect outfit for their sweet children.

I enjoyed watching the goings on... and was happy to help carry the many bags of goodies that my friend and her mother were purchasing. We found lovely woven trays with metal edges for 10 shekels each (about $2.50). My companions bought many of these to prepare gifts to give friends and family for the Eid. I bought two as well, because they were quite pretty! I will do something with them at Christmas time!

My friend's father finally picked us up after about 4 hours of shopping, and we headed back towards Jerusalem. We stopped at a produce stand, and the women got out and purchased 8 bags of fresh fruit and vegetables to take home.

As we were driving along, my friends parents were chatting in the front seats. My friend and I were in the back seat. Suddenly out the driver's side of the car, I noticed some soldiers crowded around a military jeep. One of them had a large gun pointed up towards a building on a hillside in front of them. They were using a bull horn and yelling in Hebrew at someone in the building. The soldier started shooting his gun when we were right next to him. It was completely surreal. The people int he front seat of the car didn't even bat an eyelash. They seemed oblivious to the fact that there was someone shooting a giant gun right next to them. I was shocked, both by the fact that this was unfolding as we whizzed on by, but also by the fact that this is so 'normal' for these people, that they didn't even respond. My friend in the back seat flinched, ducked a bit, and let out a little distressed noise, but that was it. We went on by, and not a word was spoken about it. I have no idea what was happening there.

Then... came the second encounter with the checkpoint. Heading towards Jerusalem is an entirely different story. The 'checkpoint' is a huge structure with about 6 or 7 lanes established for cars to travel through. Some are labeled for commercial vehicles, some for private vehicles. As we approached the checkpoint, there was a huge backup. My friend's father was being particularly aggressive about driving around the right side of the backup to get as far forward as possible. As we got closer, it was obvious that only one lane, the far left lane was open to traffic. All the others were closed, even though their signs (directing certain kinds of vehicles to particular lanes) were all lit up as though to signal operation. If you tried to follow the signs, you were hosed. You would end up at the end of a lane that went no where. All the lanes were having to merge into one lane. Further more, much like the 'closure' that we experience earlier in the day, there were times where no one was allowed through for many minutes. Then suddenly they would let about 3 cars, sometimes 10 cars 'burst' through, then they'd stop allowing cars through again. At one point they switched the lane that was open to one that was several lanes over... just for fun evidently. So, all the people who had fought their way to the front of the line, were now in an impossible situation where they couldn't even get to the open lane. Then they switched it back. It was unreal. People in the lines were angry. Every once in a while people would lay on their horns in pure frustration. You could feel the tension and the anger rising. It was a situation ready to explode. I have no problem understanding how frustrated people get over being detained for such a long time for NO reason.

Once we got up there, the soldiers barely looked at us. They just waved us through. They just randomly start and stop the flow of traffic, because they can. It is simply unbelievable. Power tripping. Because they can.

We were at that checkpoint for almost an hour. If my friend's dad hadn't been super aggressive (and a bit rude) it would have taken us at least 2 hours to get through the checkpoint. The drive from Jerualem to Hebron without the checkpoint is 30 minutes. It took us almost an hour an a half to do the trip.

As we finally were 'released' from the checkpoint, my friend's father muttered angry words at the soldier as we drove away. Talking to him after he was out of ear shot, when it couldn't cause us any problems. Defiance... from a safe distance, because this is part of daily life for most Arabs in Israel.

I'll say it again. If every single American had to suffer the indignities of these checkpoints here and could see what Palestinians go through every day of their lives... I really, honestly believe that American foreign policy would change instantly.

Most Israelis never go through these checkpoints either. They don't go to the territories (unless they are settlers or are visiting settlers). In fact, it is 'illegal' for Israeli citizens to go to Hebron (and other parts of the West Bank). I find that amazing. Think about that. It's illegal for them to go there! Why? I wonder how much of it is 'safety' concerns and how much of it might be because they would rather that their citizens not see the conditions that the Palestinians are experiencing at the hands of their government on their behalf. I wonder.

Most Israeli citizens don't see what is actually happening to an entire population who are simply trying to live their lives. I think if they actually saw it, they might be moved to change it as well.

That was my day in Hebron. It reminded me of what is actually happening and how little most of us in the world know about the truth of life here.

I honestly don't know how people can stand the humiliation and the delays on a daily basis. I was frustrated with just one round trip. I can't imagine what it would be like to need to do that daily. My crossings were completely easy compared to what CAN (and often does) go on at these checkpoints. Sometimes, you simply aren't allowed through. Period. No matter what the reason for your trip: work, school, medical treatment, business. If they say 'no' you don't go. Wow. I can't even imagine.

Freedom is a precious thing. Guarding one's freedom is really important. Equally important to me is never to deny anyone else their freedom. I want no part of that... ever.

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