The road to Bethany

I woke up early excited about my trip to Bethany; it has been a while since I have visited the Orphanage (Jeil Al Amal é Generation of Hope). I got on the treadmill for the usual 45 min exercise wanting to make sure I was completely stress free. Not even the Calundia checkpoint would alter my good mood today.

The clown show presented by Heart to Heart/Family International was to begin at 11:00 and I was supposed to meet the group on the other side of Calundia at 9:30-10:00. Not willing to take any chances; I left my house in Ramallah at 8:30 even though the entire trip would only take me 20 minutes. In a few minutes I was at the unbearable degrading checkpoint. Traffic was backed up for about a quarter of a mile. Not bad I thought to my self I should be through in about an hour.

While tolerating the agonizing wait, I started to take pictures of the people walking by. It had rained the night before so it was muddy yet all the people were going on like it was normal, women carrying their children, business men with their brief cases, old men and women, young men, no one was spared the humiliation.

At 10:00 I got a call from James (Heart to Heart) “where are you?” I could not bear to tell him that I have been waiting for hours and still am not half way through. “I should be there in a bit, I will call you”.

At 10:15 I had one truck and two cars in front of me, a man approached my car. “Madam could you please help us. My mother is very ill and the Israelis will not let me through.” I did not know what to say to the man the last thing I need is to be turned back after waiting all this time. He pointed at an old woman that was leaning against a cement block in the middle of the road. “She has all her papers but is unable to walk. Please let her ride with you. A car is waiting for her on the other side to take her to the hospital.” How could I say no to a sick woman that is old enough to be my grandmother. “OK, no problem I will be happy to help.” He and two other men assisted the old woman into my car. “I am sorry to burden you” the old woman said. I could not speak there was a huge lump in my throat and it took all I could do not to burst into tears. I just smiled – neither one of us said a word, it was clear she was in severe pain and I had no idea how to deal with it.

Half-hour later, it was my turn to be checked through. Three young Israeli soldiers were there, without saying a word I gave the one in the middle my passport. One was sitting on a stool; he started to speak to me in Hebrew “English please” I said. “Are you trying to run me over?” he asked “Not really” I responded “Then why are you so close to my foot?” Purposely trying to antagonize me. I simply replied “you should not have your feet in the road, you might get hurt, you need to be careful.” He continued to talk. “Are you being funny, are you trying to hurt me? Do you want to hurt me?” I ignored him and waited for my passport to be handed back, which took a few minuets. Finally, at 10:50 I had crossed the Calundia checkpoint!

I dropped off the old woman and rushed to pickup the group. Once they were in my car I assured them that we could make it on time. I had no idea there was a new checkpoint. “Oh yeah members of our group told us they (the Israelis) setup this roadblock last night” James informed. It would take us 15 minuets to get through this checkpoint. The clown show at the Orphanage has been delayed for a while.

At 11:15 we were in Bethany, only to discover the road has been blocked with a makeshift wall. Our alternative route is Adomim Settlement, which could take us another 40 minutes or so. Frustrated knowing the orphanage was only 3 minutes beyond the wall; I asked if there is anyway we can cross on foot. We were told yes but we would have to climb the wall.

I worked out a deal with a near by gas station in order to park my car in a safe place. Then we were directed to the point of the wall where we would climb. It was so unbelievable, as usual; the Palestinians have quickly adapted to the reality of climbing the wall and even put steps out of rocks. We waited in line for our turn to climb. There were scores of men women and children climbing up one side and down the other. The narrow passage could only host one person at a time and it was difficult to switch directions once a stream of people started the climb in or out of Bethany.

We finally got our turn to climb only to learn after walking about 30 feet in mud, we would have to do another climb, this time down to the street. Then we took a taxi and made it to the Orphanage at 11:45.

The clown show was fantastic; the 150 kids had a great time. They have not been able to leave the school in months and this was a nice change for them. The director of the school explained how depressed the kids had been since they did not have Christmas. Apparently an international group that could not make it due to closures sponsored the party. There was no party, no presents and no Christmas.

The show lasted 45 minutes and I was ready to go home. The trip back to Ramallah was more of the same, complications of climbing walls, roadblocks and being humiliated by young Israeli soldiers empowered by their weapons. Once beyond the final checkpoint into Ramallah, I realized that I have just left the prison of Bethany and entered the prison of Ramallah. I finally made it back to my home at 4:00.

What should have taken a total of 2 hours (max) had taken me 7 and é hours. The trip was possible because I carry an American Passport and I have yellow car tags. Most Palestinians in Ramallah or other towns are not permitted to leave no matter what the circumstances are. I am privileged.

Maha Sbitani is a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah, next to Yasser Arafat’s compound.