Monday, March 16, 2009

When the Wall Applies to You

On my last day of my most recent trip to the Middle East, I took a journey into the occupied West Bank in Israel. I had a business meeting that I needed to attend in the Palestinian town of Ramallah, which is only a few miles from Jerusalem. Because I knew that I would need to cross the Kalandia checkpoint (going both ways), I decided not to drive my own car. For one thing, it is against rental car company policies to take your car into the West Bank. If anything happens within the occupied territories you are 100% responsible for the damage. They have their ‘reasons’ for having those policies. To me, it is just one more way to marginalize the Palestinian people.

I hadn’t been to Ramallah in 7 or 8 years and didn’t want to try to find my way to my destination. For those reasons, I decided to take the “Sherut” or mini-bus to Ramallah. I’m not a big public transportation user. I don’t say that proudly. I grew up in a place with poor public transportation. It was also a very rural area where everything is spread out. Public transportation wouldn’t have made a lot of sense there.

Taking public transportation anywhere would be a new experience for me, but doing it in a place where I don’t speak the language and where I would encounter a checkpoint made it a little intimidating for me. I was proud of myself for leaning into it (with help from a couple friends who dropped me off, picked me up and told me roughly what I could expect) and making the trip.

As you drive from Jerusalem to Ramallah, you get an up close and personal look (from a few feet away) of the ‘security’ wall that has been gradually choking off the Palestinian people from free movement, their farm land, hospital access and even friends and family. The wall is made of huge concrete blocks that tower up to 25 feet high, with razor wire coils along the top in some places. It is intimidating and ugly.

As we sped along the wall in the Sherut, I was on the side with the ‘wall.’ I actually got a little motion sickness because I couldn’t see anything besides the wall whizzing past. In the old days I would have been able to see rolling hills, buildings and people as I looked out the window. Instead, on this day, I saw nothing except a giant barrier that was sending a clear message to me and everyone on that bus. “You are not welcome here. This is not yours. You are not worthy of freedom or humane treatment. You are not one of ‘us.’ We will wall you out because we can.”

It was a horrible feeling. Even though I’m not even in the targeted group (well, not completely – although standing up for Palestinian rights does put me on the ‘wrong’ side of the wall as far as Israeli governmental policy is concerned) I still felt that stinging, degrading message. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to have that message literally ‘in one’s face’ each and every day… day in… day out… month after month and year after year.

The wall is one thing. The checkpoint was another experience I’ll never forget. I’d never been through this particular checkpoint. Going in to Ramallah wasn’t too bad. Our bus didn’t get stopped, although the traffic was choked up getting through. Coming back towards Jerusalem however, where Israeli controls the checkpoint, was an entirely different story.

A lot of times if you are on a Sherut, you cannot drive through the checkpoint. You must get off the bus on the Palestinian side, walk through the checkpoint and be ‘processed’ and then get on a different bus on the Israeli side of the checkpoint. That’s what happened to me on my trip. I was a little nervous, partly because it was a totally new experience for me and I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and partly because it truly did give you the impression that you were a criminal… or somehow not worthy of respect or dignity to be treated this way. All the people around me were used to this. That made me sadder than anything else.

The bus driver directed us to get off the bus in the middle of the grouping of cars lined up to cross the checkpoint. I was actually already standing right next to the door because the bus was totally packed – all seats taken and many of us standing up. I got off the bus and stepped to the side so I could follow some of the people from the bus (so I would know where to go and what to do.)

We maneuvered through the traffic jam of cars, on foot and made our way to a building. First we had to line up single file and go through a narrow channel with metal bars on each side of us. I’m not a large person, but the bars were close to each side of my body. There was barely enough room for one person to pass through. There were several of these channels next to each other, but only one was ‘open.’ You stand in the channel, and suddenly a turnstile unlocks and becomes mobile. This is not simply one little turning bar like we’re used to seeing in the states, but a cage that has lines of bars going from the ground to the top of the cage (far above your head). A certain number of people get through and it locks again. Often times a person is caught in the compartment (think of a revolving door, but much smaller with horizontal bars in front of you and behind you instead of clear glass windows. I had to pass through two of these and got ‘caught’ in them both times. What a sensation, to be locked in a metal turnstile! I can tell you it is not a good feeling.

As you made your way out of the first locking turnstile you go stand in one of any number of lines to wait to go through another locking turnstile. People run from one to the other when they perceive that one is moving faster, or a new ‘locking turnstile’ suddenly unlocks. I got in line behind some of the women from my bus and watched to see what the procedure was for this turnstile. 2 people were basically let through in sequence, and then it would lock. After getting through this turnstile you put your bags on a conveyor belt/x-ray machine. Israeli guards are in a locked room watching you. You pass through a metal detector. Sometimes I guess they look at your ID, although they didn’t look at mine (or anyone else I was near) on this particular day. My jacket set off the metal detector, and I had to go back and take it off and pass it through the machine. An elderly Palestinian man in front of me held up the line for a really long time because he kept setting off the alarm. No one else was allowed through the turnstile until he cleared the x-ray machine.

I got through that process and was confronted with a couple of additional turnstiles (these weren’t locked at the moment. I wasn’t sure which way to go (all the signs were in Hebrew) so I asked some women and followed them. We went through another turnstile and were ‘free’ on the Jerusalem side. I’ve never felt so ‘controlled’ in all my life. It was a horrible feeling. The process felt as though it was created for livestock: The cages, the bars, the locking mechanisms that would suddenly ‘unlock’ and then ‘relock.’

The irony is, there are plenty of ways to get into Jerusalem without passing through this checkpoint. There are ways to drive around it (though greatly inconvenient) and there are ways to walk around it. Would someone with bad intentions really come through this checkpoint? Think about it!?!?

I made my way to the right numbered bus and got on. This time I got a seat. We sped away and were in Jerusalem within a few minutes.

I was shocked at my physiological response to the experience. I was literally shaking! Some of it, I know, was just the newness of the experience in general, not being able to respond to instructions (in Arabic or Hebrew as the case may be), etc. Something more sinister, however, was at work within me.

Feeling that I was being treated as some sort of sub-human was disturbing at a very deep level. It feels bad to be looked at with suspicion and lack of respect. The entire system at the checkpoint sends an unmistakable message. The people passing through that checkpoint aren’t really people at all. They are a risk, a danger, a nuisance, dispensable. They are treated as though they have no value as human beings. It is repulsive and heart breaking at the same time.

I was feeling that within me after only one trip through. Can you imagine what toll that would take on a psyche over the course of days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime?

The way that the local Palestinians handled it was with obvious distain, but a lot of humor. They have obviously found ways to deal with it internally so as to not lose their minds. My deepest hope is that they are not internalizing the message sent by the system to which they must submit themselves to make a simple trip of a few miles for work, school, health care, shopping or visiting friends and relatives. I don’t know how they do it!

When the wall and the ‘security’ procedures apply to you… it is a truly horrible feeling. To know YOU are the object of these mechanisms sends a signal that is impossible to miss and difficult to not internalize.

I look forward to the day when human beings don’t treat other human beings this way. I yearn for the day when power is not abused to try to attain ‘security’ for exclusive groups at the expense of dignity, respect and quality of life for other groups. If my security requires the abuse of other people to attain it, I don’t want it.

Lots of graffiti appears on ‘the wall.’ A lot of it was in Arabic, so I couldn’t understand it. One message resonated with my heart:


I certainly hope we don’t have to wait too long. I hope the cages go with it when it falls!

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