The West Bank: Occupation Tourism
I travel to experience. I travel to learn; to visit a place in time and observe how others live. I walk through cities, I hike through the countryside, I eat the local cuisine and I try to meet people along the way. And when I visit a country uniquely different from my own, I seek to explore that difference. In Tanzania, it was drinking banana beer in straw huts with locals, talking politics. In Vietnam, it was a trip to Sapa, staying for a day with the Red Zoa. In India, it was traveling to Agra, watching children play with monkeys out the train window. In Greece, it was marching with Greeks, protesting against the government. And in the West Bank, it was experiencing the Israeli occupation first-hand.
Although not as strict as it was four or five years ago, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank still intimately affects daily life for all residents of the West Bank. There are less check points, which allows greater freedom of travel, but those checkpoints that remain still inhibit travel. There are still soldiers scattered throughout; manning posts, manning lookout towers and protecting settlements. There are still settler-only roads and settler-only buses that Palestinians cannot travel on or in. And there is the barrier wall that separates Israel from the West Bank–a large concrete structure that reaches twenty-six feet in height at certain points. It was built to stop suicide bombings within Israel. It has been effective. But it also appropriated over eight percent of the West Bank inside Israel proper, cutting off villages from farm land, splitting neighborhoods in half and separating families and historical communities. The massive structure can be seen from miles away and makes it nearly impossible for average Palestinians to visit East Jerusalem, their alleged future capital. Moreover, it turns short trips into long excursions. Ramallah to Bethlehem should take no more than fifteen minutes, but having to drive around the wall makes it closer to fifty.
In our two-plus days in the West Bank, Thomas and I had encountered the wall on numerous occasions. And, throughout our time there, it would provide an ever-present backdrop. The anti-occupation, anti-wall graffiti covers the Palestinian side of the wall. In places, it is little more than spray-painted words. In others, it is beautiful artwork. Indeed the famous European graffiti artist Banksy has at least nine pieces of work on various sections of the wall, all subtly addressing his disfavor with the large barrier’s effects on the Palestinian population. Banksy and other artists have turned the barrier wall into a living work of art–an ever-changing reflection of the souls who have experienced the eastern-side of the wall.
Thomas and I were beginning our third day on the eastern-side of the wall. Lorenzo made tomato omelettes. I went to the local bakery and ordered savory pastries, some filled with potato, others with cheese. We sat in Steve’s living room, eating our breakfast and discussing our plans for the day–a trip to Hebron. We wanted to witness the starkest example of Israeli occupation first hand. We had heard the stories. Four-hundred Israeli settlers occupying the central district of the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank (over 200,000 residents). Over two-thousand Israeli soldiers stationed throughout the city to protect those four hundred settler. In turn, Palestinian residents are no longer allowed on the main north-south artery of the city. Check points on either end of the street prohibit Palestinians from entering. Snipers on rooftops and patrolling soldiers ensure this segregation. Sadly, this separation has resulted in hundreds of Palestinians being evicted from their homes and businesses. The main north-south artery of Hebron’s old city was once a thriving Palestinian commercial area. Now, we were told, it’s a ghost town and what is left of this commercial district, outside the segregated area, is affected by the radical settlers, who have been known to throw garbage and human excrement down upon the Palestinian businesses below. As described, it was a sad situation. And we wanted to experience it. We wanted to walk the streets to better understand the lives of those in Hebron.
The day before, Steve had invited both Rafaella and Rami to come with us to Hebron. Thus our group was six. We needed two cars. Rami was the only other person with a vehicle and he offered to drive. “But I can’t take the Israeli roads to Hebron. We will have to go the long way,” Rami admitted. The occupation was affecting our journey before we even left. Rami, with his Palestinian license plates, was not allowed to pass through the separation wall and take the direct route south to Hebron. This despite the fact that Rami, as a lawyer for a large international accounting company, had working papers that allowed him to enter Israel. Before beginning our journey, Rami offered to stay behind so we could fit five in Steve’s car and make it to Hebron faster. We rejected this offer. We were in this together.
On our way to Hebron, Thomas and I rode with Rami while Lorenzo and Rafaella joined Steve in his car. Our original route took us down a stretch of road near the Kalendia border checkpoint that separates Ramallah from Jerusalem. Steve and Rami both referred to this area as a no-man’s land. Before the wall was erected, this area was technically a part of the Jerusalem suburbs. As such, residents have Israeli license plates and Jerusalem ID cards. But when it was cut off from Israel proper, Israel, despite retaining authority over the region, stopped providing services. Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority, not wanting to incur further costs, also refused to govern the area. As a result, the garbage is rarely picked up and the main road is ill-kept. In fact, at one point, a couple of years prior, the road fell into such disrepair that USAID decided to repave it instead of waiting to see if Israel and the Palestinian Authority could come to a resolution on the issue. To this day there had still been no resolution. And it’s seen in the lawless driving that dominates the road; with no fear of retribution, drivers freely hop curbs, traverse the median, drive on the shoulder or occupying the wrong lane.
While we drove down this ungoverned patch of road, we came to a large traffic jam. We were in the lane that headed toward the Kalendia check point. Although we were not crossing the Kalendia border, we were sharing the road with many vehicles that were. At times, depending on how many cars are trying to cross and how many soldiers are on duty, the Kalendia crossing can cause massive delays in local traffic. Fifteen minutes into a standstill we realized this was one of those days. Already having to take the longer route because of Rami’s Palestinian license plates, we decided to pull a U-turn at our first available option and find a different route that did not involve the Kalendia border traffic. Twenty minutes into our wait, we had crawled up to an intersection where Rami and Steve took illegal U-turns without thinking. We were finally on our way to Hebron.
Our back-road trip to Hebron took just under two hours. At times we had to stop and ask for directions. The road signs often only indicated where the multitude of Israeli settlements were located and did not mention Palestinian cities such as Hebron. The trip was beautiful. It was a sunny, warm day. We drove with the windows down, taking in the fresh late-autumn air. Rami played American alternative rock on the radio and chatted with Thomas and I. Rami’s family was Palestinian Christians who had lived in Ramallah for hundreds of years; since it was a small Christian village outside of Jerusalem. He was not overtly religious, however. And felt a kinship with his Palestinian Muslim countrymen. He saw no difference between them. They were all subject to the same occupation. Rami told us about his job as an attorney for a large international company. His work sometimes took him into Israel and he had a work permit that allowed him access. I asked him if he had any Jewish-Israeli friends, as a result of his work, or if he ever went into Israel to see the ocean. Rami thought about it for a moment. “No, I don’t have any Israeli friends, but there is one guy at work that I am friendly with. He’s a good guy.” He then added that he almost never used his work permit to travel into Israel for personal reasons. “It doesn’t seem fair. Why should I have access to Israel and the ocean when other Palestinians don’t? Just because I have a job with an international company? It makes no sense.” Rami was conflicted about the preferential treatment he received because of his job. Not all our conversations were serious. We also discussed a girl that Rami was interested in and how he should move forward. Thomas and I would give advice, but Rami already has his plan. “I’m a powerful man,” he said with a grin, adding, “I know she likes me.”
We arrived in Hebron two hours before sunset. The large city was cumbersome to navigate. Rami took the lead and stopped multiple times to ask locals where we could find the old city. It was helpful having a native Arabic speaker and not having to rely on my broken version of the language. Following the helpful directions, we eventually made our way to the city center. Our first stop was to meet a Palestinian man named Badia. Badia is a member of a group of non-violent protesters that call themselves the “Freedom Riders.” The Freedom Riders are a group of Palestinians that board settler-only buses and ride them toward Jerusalem until they are arrested for their illegal presence. The point is to highlight the segregation that exists in the West Bank. They also have been known to enter settler-only grocery stores and try to purchase food.
On this day, Badia was giving tours of the occupation in Hebron. We were to meet him at the top of a hill that overlooked Shuhada street, the main north-south artery that Palestinians are prohibited from entering. Our group of six, approached the main checkpoint leading to Shuhada street. The check point was a large trailer that cut off Shuhada street from the rest of the city. As we walked to the trailer, a group of young Palestinian kids tagged along trying to sell us little souvenirs. The children followed us into the trailer. Two Israeli soldiers were on duty, manning a metal detector. We showed them our ID’s and were allowed to pass through. Rami was also allowed to pass, but instructed that he was not allowed to walk down Shuhada street; he was Palestinian. The young children passed through the checkpoint as well. Judging by the soldiers’ reaction, these kids were often passing back and forth and did not need to be reminded that they could not venture down Shuhada street. On the other side of the checkpoint, we turned right and walked away from Shuhada street. The road led uphill. We followed the incline till we came to a dirt path on the left. We walked down the path through an olive orchard of ancient trees and found Badia standing on a hill giving a tour to two foreigners.
Badia stepped away from his original tour, to give us background on the occupation in Hebron and his work. He spoke of his journeys as a Freedom Rider and his quest to tell the rest of the world of the segregation that exists in Hebron. He then pointed to the compound behind us–settlers–the dirt path before us–made for settlers–and Shuhada street that sat a hundred yards down below us–only settlers allowed. Badia also began to point out the numerous soldiers that surrounded us. All armed with machine guns, body armor, grenades and assorted tools of destruction. They stood on rooftops, they walked through the olive orchards and they manned check points. They were everywhere. Badia gave us the official numbers; over 2,300 soldiers stationed in the heart of Hebron to protect less than 500 settlers. Most of the tutorial concentrated on Shuhada street, the main thoroughfare of the city where Palestinians were forbidden to go. How this situation had decimated the local economy and had de facto evicted hundreds of Palestinians from their homes and shops that lined this now forbidden street.
After Badia’s discussion, we decided to explore Shuhada street for ourselves. That is, we, except for Rami. As a Palestinian he was not allowed to walk this street. We parted ways a couple blocks from Shuhada street, Rami went with a local youth who was to guide Rami to the checkpoint on the opposite end of the street from where we entered. We would meet him there. Rami kept up an inscrutable exterior, but I knew within he was pained by this humiliation. I know it hurt me to have to part with my friend because he was of a different nationality.
Thus Steve, Lorenzo, Rafaella, Thomas and I walked down the deserted street. What was once a bustling commercial zone was now a quiet street with a few dozen settlers sitting out on patios, drinking beer, lounging in green spaces and staring at us intently. We began to take pictures of the boarded up buildings where Palestinians once lived. Almost immediately we were confronted? “What are you doing? What are you taking pictures of?” an Israeli-settler in his twenties asked as he approached Rafaella. I intervened. “We’re just here checking things out, man” I responded. “Yeah? Well where are you from?” The young man inquired. “We’re from the States,” I said pointing at Steve, Rafaella and myself. “He’s from Italy,” I said of Lorenzo. “And he’s from Canada,” I said of Thomas. “Cool. I’m from the States, too. Memphis, Tennessee,” the young man responded. “How long you been here?” I asked. “My family moved here over a decade ago,” he said before adding, “So why are you guys here again?” I answered, “Just to see things.” “Cool, I just thought you were taking pictures of us,” he added. “No, man. We’re just taking photos,” I said, as we walked away. The young man, who had a beer bottle in his hand, was extremely defensive. He knew why we were here. There was no other reason to walk down Shuhada street other than to experience the occupation’s segregation.
We strolled down the street at a slow pace. We saw a group of young Israeli soldiers at a bus stop, joking with one another. One group speaking in Hebrew and another answering in perfect American English. We saw religiously dressed men and women walking down the street and a class of small children being led by what I assume was their teacher. But the large, long street was a ghost town. The old Palestinian store fronts and apartments were shuddered. Some had signs in their windows explaining the segregation. As we walked, we saw Israeli snipers on rooftops staring down at us, we saw pro-settler and anti-settler graffiti and we spoke with one another about the benighted nature of all we saw. We arrived at the opposite checkpoint with the sky nearing dusk. We were again approached by some foreign-born settlers and an Israeli soldier–Gabe from Ohio. We were confounded by how many Americans were in this settlement; living and soldiering. Gabe was young, polite and gregarious. We had a nice ten minute conversation before excusing ourselves to find Rami. On the other side of the checkpoint we looked for Rami. He was not there. He was at another exit point off of Shuhada street where Palestinians could not pass. After some confusion, we found him.
Maybe it was the approaching darkness, or the sad results of segregation we had just walked through, but when we met up with Rami he seemed dispirited. His eyes showed a sadness that mirrored what we had just seen. Two sides of the same coin. The segregation treated Palestinians and Israelis differently, but, in the end, everyone suffered from it. Everyone was worse of by the militarized separation. Back together, we walked down the old marketplace adjacent to Shuhada street. We saw up close the make-shift roof that the Palestinians put over the street to protect the shops from the settlers’ garbage and human excrement. Indeed as we looked up at the roof garbage was everywhere. The roof was doing its job of protecting the Palestinians below, but it did nothing to stop the littering of the settlers above.
We wended our way through the market as dusk turned to night. We walked mostly in silence, all of us reliving our experiences of the past hour. And when we arrived back at our cars, we drove through the busy new town of Hebron. The farther away we drove from Shuhada street the better our spirits became. Fifteen minutes away, we stopped for dinner at the alleged best falafel in the West Bank, The Falafel King. It did not disappoint. Two falafel sandwiches later I was stuffed and we were on the road heading through the blackened West Bank back toward Ramallah.
That night, Thomas, Rami, Steve and I went out drinking till nearly four in the morning. We spent much of our time at a bar named Beit Aneesah. Initially, we spoke mostly of our day in Hebron. Rami spoke of all the problems in the West Bank and how difficult it was to experience how the Palestinians in Hebron live; surrounded by thousands of soldiers and constantly having to pass through check points and pass by snipers just walking down the streets near their homes. But as the alcohol flowed, we spoke of happier things. We spoke of the girl Rami liked and Thomas and I gave continued to advise him on how best to pursue her, regardless of how “powerful of a man” he was. We spoke of our time in Beirut. Rami and I spoke of Austin and what a great a place it was to live. And later in the evening, we met two of Rami’s friends–one lived in Ramallah, the other Jerusalem. They were friendly and welcoming and great conversationalists. Both owned their own businesses. It was nice to end the day meeting Palestinians that were working to make a life for themselves in the difficult situation they lived in.
The next day, Thomas and I wondered the streets of Ramallah. We stopped at a shwarma cafe and ate beef, chicken and turkey swharmas. We also befriended the young man who worked the cash register. He was excited to learn we were from America. He had a cousin in Long Island. We would return to the same cafe the next day as well, continuing to communicate with our friend through his broken English and my broken Arabic.
After lunch, we made our way to the Kalendia checkpoint. We had experienced the occupation in Hebron and now it was time to experience it at the famous Kalendia border crossing. We had heard the stories about Kalendia from Jumana, while we were in Beirut and they were corroborated by Rami and Steve. Kalendia refers to the checkpoint that bisect the direct route from Ramallah to Jerusalem. It is the busiest route between the two cities and is heavily guarded. Crossing by foot can be an hours long ordeal that is filled with multiple dehumanizing interactions. Luckily for Thomas and I, we crossed midday during a weekend. There was a very small line and the process did not take more than fifteen minutes. But we could see how bad the crossing would be when thousands are attempting to cross at the same time.
The crossing begins with pedestrians having to enter into a small cage structure that I can only describe as a cattle-shoot with a roof. It is very small–no higher than seven feet and less than four feet wide–making it impossible for people to stand side-by-side. The pedestrians wait in this cage until a green light flashes. At that point, the turnstile at the end of the cage is unlocked and the pedestrians can pass through till the light turns red again, locking the turnstile. While you wait for the turnstile, Israeli soldiers sit behind a bulletproof glass pod monitoring the cages and barking orders from time-to-time. When you get through the turnstile, you line up at one of the metal detector stations. The metal detector is behind another locked turnstile. Thus the waiting continues. When it is your turn, you place your belongings on the scanner, go through the unlocked turnstile and then walk through the metal detector. At which point you approach the Israeli soldier behind the bulletproof glass and place your ID or Passport against the window so they can look at it. They may ask you questions. They may let you go through. I was allowed to pass, but only after the soldier took down my passport information. There is no real human interaction at any point. And the sterile, concrete and metal surroundings with multiple locked doors and soldiers separated by barriers gives the crossing the feeling of a maximum security prison, which was exactly how Thomas put it as we walked out the other side and back into daylight.
The whole process reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which twenty-four male students were randomly selected to play guards or prisoners. The psychologist behind the experiment, Dr. Zimbardo, wanted to find out whether the mere act of being a prisoner or a guard affected how an individual acted. The results were astonishing. The guards took their authoritarian role to the extreme, psychologically torturing some of the prisoners. Meanwhile the prisoners took on their roles fully, passively accepting abuse and abusing other prisoners at the behest of the guards, until some prisoners revolted. The conclusion of the experiment was that situational attribution accounted for the participants behavior. That is, the situation, rather than the individuals’ personalities, caused the participants’ behavior. The Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian pedestrians were playing the roles of occupier and occupied. This dynamic affected every aspect of their interaction, especially when that interaction was through a bullet-proof glass window in a building that looks more like a prison than a checkpoint. Neither side was afforded the opportunity to experience the others’ true personalities. The soldiers did not know the pedestrian was sarcastic and witty and enjoyed American music. The pedestrian did not know the soldier was a musician, that loved standup comedy and took care of his old grandmother when he wasn’t on duty. Neither knew that in a different context they would be the best of friends.