As my wife and I were preparing for our vacation in September, people often asked where we were going, and we’d say, "Palestine!" Leave it to Muslims to go vacation in war zones, but that’s where our families are; that’s where our roots are. "Besides," I’d say, "I’ve been there five times, and it’s really not that bad."
Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv is always interesting. Being Muslims qualified us for V.I.P. treatment from the Israelis. Everything from asinine questions like "what is your occupation in the States," to the scanning of our luggage through an x-ray machines, again, after the bags were off the plane. It was as if we smuggled a bomb from Washington and didn’t intend to explode it 40,000 feet over the Atlantic, but rather wait until we landed and passed through the airport before transferring the bomb to the West Bank so that someone could bring it back to Haifa or West Jerusalem and use it to blow up a bus.
Leaving the airport was like being released from jail, but our parole was short-lived as we drove into the West Bank and confronted some of the Israeli army checkpoints that have diced up the land into an archipelago. I was used to the soldiers stopping people who were trying to reach Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but I don’t recall having ever been stopped trying to get into Ramallah.
Before Oslo, one could drive straight down the main road from Ramallah to the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem without impediment, and in about 20 minutes. When the Oslo peace process started in 1993, the Israelis erected a checkpoint in the northern Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina, mind you at that time not one suicide bombing had taken place yet.
After the Intifada started in 2000, the Israelis further segmented the Jerusalem-Ramallah road and set up a checkpoint at Qalandia. Instead of people taking a shared taxi from Ramallah all the way to Jerusalem they now have to take a taxi to Qalandia, enter the checkpoint on foot and have their ID’s examined and bags checked. Many don’t make it past the checkpoint due to the lack of army-issued permits. Those who do pass must walk through the traffic mess that the checkpoint fosters and hop into another taxi that takes them to Jerusalem, but not directly. The Beit Hanina checkpoint is so slow, and often closed to vehicles, that taxi drivers have to drive 5-10 miles out of their way and pass yet another checkpoint before they may enter East Jerusalem. These days, the trip from Ramallah takes about one hour, if you’re lucky, and costs double what it used to. I have heard accounts of it taking people sometimes four or five hours to make the journey.
Standing in line to cross the Qalandia checkpoint while baking under the hot sun was torture. If you stood in line long enough, you would begin to hear the frustrations of people being vented via curses at the soldiers, the U.S., Yasser Arafat, and the kings and dictators of the Arab world. This distribution of blame by average Palestinians is rather intriguing when you stop to think about the historical context of such statements, but there is no time for theoretical contemplation at the checkpoint, you have to keep your guard up against someone trying to nonchalantly cut in front of you, as if you were never even there.
A professor friend of mine arranged for me to speak about American government and politics at Al Najah University in Nablus, and so we headed out on a bus to the West Bank’s largest city and encountered four checkpoints along the way. At the last checkpoint outside of Nablus, the soldiers refused to let us pass. I was astonished since my American passport had gained me unfettered passage on previous trips. Like any American would do, I flaunted my nationality and demanded to speak to a supervisor, as if I was at a department store back home complaining about poor service.
My attempts were futile as I was confronted with more of that awe-inspiring Israeli logic. I was told that because we had tourist visas, we were barred from touring Nablus. At that point, I felt what millions of Palestinians feel everyday, helplessness.
Behind the helplessness, frustration, and rage, there is courage, determination, and resiliency. People refuse to let the checkpoints end their lives. Students pass the checkpoint daily to get to school, while those few who are lucky enough to have the proper identification endure the long lines behind the wheel to get back and forth to work.
Palestinian women, clad in hijab, seem totally un-intimidated by sneering soldiers dressed in full battle gear with their fingers on the trigger.
Back at the Qalandia checkpoint, economic activity is brisk. Dozens of taxis wait on either side to ferry people to their destinations, which often times is yet another checkpoint. People have set up stands to sell everything from fresh fruit to hair curlers. You can even purchase live roosters at the checkpoint flea market, which is ironic for Palestinians who have become confined by the chicken coup-like checkpoints of the Israeli army.
The World Bank estimates that unemployment among Palestinians is at 50% as people can’t get past the checkpoints to go to work, and young men are in constant fear of being detained, beaten, or even killed at the checkpoint. Towns and villages are cut off from one another, leaving small business owners without business and consumers without goods, As a result of this high unemployment, and frequent Israeli closures or blockades, the number of Palestinians now living below the poverty line is 60%.
Yet the Palestinian people continue to struggle. Everyday is a struggle. The real jihad in Palestine is not fought with bombs or bullets. The battle is fought with the unconquerable human spirit of the mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, the young and old, the able and feeble, determined to go on with life irregardless of the forces surrounding them that threaten to destroy their very existence. It is this unconquerable human spirit that will destroy the Israeli occupation like no bomb ever could; it’s only a matter of time.