I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks with groups of people who enjoy more privilege here than perhaps any other group – American Jews. We can relatively easily pass through walls, fences, gates, checkpoints, “terminals” and other obstacles, moving from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Ramallah to Haifa and back to Jerusalem without a second thought. Unless we think. Unless we call our Palestinian friends on the phone and try to explain what we’re doing. Unless they ask us, “Where are you?” and we debate whether to lie or to tell them we’re in their capital city that they haven’t been able to reach for the past 5 years.
Last week my host family was looking at some of Dunya’s pictures of the terminal and the Wall, and my 11-year-old host brother looked at one photo and asked, “That’s the Wall?” “You haven’t seen it?” I asked incredulously. “Once or twice,” was the reply, “but not recently.” Freedom of movement is so limited that people who don’t have the permits to leave their ghetto have no reason to even approach its walls.
A couple days ago I asked the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS) landlord if he is still able to drive to work in Salfit from Hares, a village separated from Salfit by the settlement of Ariel and roadblocks and checkpoints. For now, he told me, he can drive there, but the checkpoint at Zatara is being made bigger. I said, “Yes, I know, it will be like the new checkpoints at Bethlehem and Kalandia.” “No,” he said, “the Bethlehem checkpoint is easy to get through.” Instantly I realized that he hasn’t seen the new terminals, because he isn’t allowed on one side of each of them. So he goes around the long way, through a huge valley that steers clear of Jerusalem, and ends up back in Bethlehem, in order to attend a conference on nonviolence. And the checkpoint in the valley, he says, isn’t so bad. He’s a well-connected man with ties to the Palestinian government, and still I know more about the institutionalization of the checkpoint structures than he does, at least on the physical level of having seen and experienced them. If you separate an entire population into small disconnected enclaves, it makes it difficult for people to organize against the magnitude of the system. This is not a new concept for the Israeli government. This is not coincidental.
And then there’s the less visible, or, for internationals like myself, invisible. I’ve been traveling north and south and all over the place for the past two weeks, and I found out only two days ago that nobody from the northern West Bank has been allowed south of Zatara checkpoint (in the center of the northern West Bank) for the past several weeks. 800,000 people in Jenin, Tulkarem, and Nablus cannot travel to Ramallah because of this Israeli closure. People like me can travel without knowing this, because our taxi drivers from Ramallah or Jerusalem can come north and bring us south. We never have to know, but the same is not true of my Israeli friend who is married to a Palestinian from Nablus. They were traveling back from Nablus to Ramallah after Eid Al-Adha, one of the biggest Muslim holidays of the year, and they split at the checkpoint so my friend could come meet our group in Ramallah while her husband twisted and turned through unpaved dirt roads to try to get home without being turned back at checkpoints. Or another man I know from Jenin who works at a human rights organization in Ramallah. He had gone home for the holiday, and it took him more than 5 hours to return to Ramallah. It should have taken about 2 hours, and that’s already taking into account the separation of land and roads due to settlement expansion. I asked him about his father, who I know is sick, and he told me the family has moved him to a hospital in Jericho, though none of them live there, because it’s the only place that different family members can go check up on him without too much hassle.
The division of the West Bank into tiny disconnected cantons is the most recent method of separation the Israeli government has employed, beginning in 1967 and intensifying continuously until today. But I’ve also been especially conscious these weeks of the more existential separation that still haunts people to this day – the loss of 78% of Palestine in 1948, the expulsion of more than two thirds of the Palestinian population, and the separation of families that have never been reunited. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Palestinian who is able to have regular family get-togethers. Some of them are in the West Bank or Gaza, some in Lebanon, some in Syria, some in Jordan, Bahrain, Dubai, Russia, Venezuela, London, Montreal, Chicago, Houston… Everywhere but together.
I’ve been especially conscious of this dispersion these past weeks because Dunya and I are beginning a new project today that I wish wholeheartedly we had no reason to do. We will try to take kids from a refugee camp to their holy sites in Jerusalem, to the sea in Yaffa, and to the villages that their grandparents fled in 1948. We wish they could just go with their parents and grandparents, that they could visit the land, picnic on the land, build a new house on the land if that’s what they chose to do. But they have no choice. So we will go with them for a short visit, though it breaks my heart when people in the older generations ask us to call them on the phone from the villages so we can describe what we see and they can tell us where we are, what houses used to stand there, where the children used to play.
It breaks my heart when we talk about the project to other Palestinian friends and they ask if we can do the same with their children. It breaks my heart when I tell a 17-year-old friend about the project and she says, “I wish I were younger so I could come… But I’m not sure if I wish I were a refugee.” She just wants to come to the beach. Just to see the sea.
Sometimes my work with refugees, my work connecting Palestinians on either side of the Green Line, feels like a sloppy symbolic attempt to sew back together what my people have torn apart. Sometimes if feels like repentance. Except it’s not about me, and most Palestinians don’t particularly care about my identity as a Jew or as an American. It’s about power and trying to dismantle it. It’s about injustice and trying to fix it. It’s about my 17-year-old friend’s response to a question last week about what message Americans can take back to the U.S. from Palestine. “Revolution,” she said. “If all the people in the world overthrow all the governments in the world, we’ll have no problem living with each other in peace.”