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Travel Advisory: Prayer may be Hazardous to your Health in East Jerusalem

by Lucretia and Sunbula

Outside the Faisal Hostel opposite Damascus Gate/Bab’al-‘Amoud, there appeared to be about one cop for every two Palestinians. There were regular police, along with the dreaded and despised Special Units and Border Police, who are well-known for “breaking” pesky troublemakers. They looked like they were prepared for war.

There is a small square where Palestinian men who can’t get into Al-Aqsa often pray on Fridays. It had been taken over by some police on horseback who were forcing anyone standing around to move. The horses were defecating all over the square, making it impossible to pray and it seemed to be almost a deliberate tactic by the authorities to add insult to injury by not letting the Palestinians pray even outside the walls of the Old City. Horseshit was everywhere and people were complaining. Sunbula and I began taking pictures of the mounted special forces strutting around. I walked up to one of the police on horseback and calmly asked him, “Hey, people pray here, are you going to clean up this shit?”

Of course I didn’t expected to get trampled for mouthing off to a cop, but he grabbed the reins and jerked the horses head so that it hit my head and the horse barged straight into me causing me to fall over backwards and under the horse, which stepped on my foot.

Somehow I wasn’t seriously hurt. Sunbula began screaming at the cops and about four of them jumped on him and started pushing and hitting him even as he tried to photograph them misbehaving. We were both screaming at them to leave us alone and fortunately some guy showed up snapping pictures which I think caused them to stop being violent. We left as soon as we could get away.

We were really shaken and stopped on a grassy area under the wall of the old city to rest and make a few phone calls and decide what to do from there. There were men gathered there to pray with a volunteer imam and volunteer muezzin so it was a small consolation at least for us. After crying for a little while together and for this stupid, messed-up war, all the people who have died, and the inhumanity of Zionism as it convinces the whole world that it is the victim, we decided to continue our errands.

We went to the post office and noticed about 50 cops surrounding some men praying in the street from all sides. It may have been a demonstration or maybe it was because they couldn’t go to the mosque to pray. The street was cordoned off by barriers and every male going in and out was having and ID check and being searched – a most ridiculous sight…

The post office in East Jerusalem was closed so we decided to go to the one in West Jerusalem. The surreality of the contrast between Arab East Jerusalem and Jewish West Jerusalem was even more astonishing than it usually is. There was hardly a cop in sight in this upscale neighborhood filled with American tourists sporting Israeli Defence Force tshirts. We passed one girl wearing a tshirt which read “Everybody Loves Jewish Girls,” and “Don’t worry, Be Jewish.” A bunch of teenagers were playing the guitar and blowing bubbles in Zion Square while people half a kilometer away down the hill were living under apartheid. The post office in West Jerusalem was closed too, as was the camera shop.

Sunbula wanted ice cream, fresh homemade ice cream and there was none to be found anywhere. It seemed as if nothing we wanted today was going to be granted to us. Ok, we give up now. enough, ok ?

Well, not yet…

We ended up at the American consulate where I decided to file a complaint against the police in Jerusalem as well as against the police in Hebron for failing to do anything about the settler assaults on us (the US citizens working in Tel Rumeida). The people there were pretty nice, one of the security guards was a Palestinian originally from Hebron and he sympathized with the situation there. I did end up feeling a bit silly for making a fuss about this when people in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon are being arrested, assassinated, kidnapped, murdered and bombed.

An employee at the consulate asked me, “Where are you staying in Israel?”
“Hebron,” I replied.
“You know there is a State Department travel advisory against Americans traveling to the West Bank ?”
“Yes, but I live there.”

She was kind enough to give me a printed copy of the travel advisory, a paragraph of which is quoted below:

“In recent months, citizens of Western nations, including Americans, involved in pro-Palestinian volunteer efforts were assaulted and injured in the Occupied Territories by Israeli settlers and harassed by the IDF. Those taking part in demonstrations, non-violent resistance, and “direct action,” are advised to cease such activity for their own safety.”

Of the three security guards hanging around, two were Palestinian and one was Israeli. Oddly enough, they were laughing and joking with each other and slapping each other on the back. I asked them how they found the situation in Jerusalem today. They said with confidence that they felt very safe in Jerusalem, no one was going to bomb it because it was the holy city for the three religions. This statement seemed in such contrast to the tension just a few blocks away. I for one certainly don’t feel very safe there. But then again, I thought to myself, I don’t have a cushy job in the confines of the American consulate.

We were both exhausted and angry and decided to go back to Hebron. On the bus back, a Palestinian guy saw Sunbula reading Nizar Qabbani and started talking to us as most Palestinians have here, wanting to know the low down on who we are and what we do. He kept teasing us by asking “Don’t you like the Jews?” and “aren’t the settlers in Hebron wonderful? I think the Arabs are lying about them!” Neither of us had the energy to get into this discussion not really due to our part Jewish origins, but due to exhaustion. Sunbula being the better Arabic speaker had to keep him entertained and field other interesting questions such as “do all of the foreigners sleep together in the same room in your apartment?”

After arriving back in Tel Rumeida, we heard some really loud fireworks across the street that sounded more scary than the sound bombs in Bil’in. Someone was apparently very happy about their exam results, but the settlers and army didn’t want to partake in the happiness. Instead they came skulking down to Tel Rumeida street to “investigate” what was going on by barging into a family’s house opposite our apartment and going onto the roof. We had the privilege of witnessing the appearance of Mrs. Baruch Marzel herself who called us “dirty nazis” and said we doing Hitler’s work here. She’s apparently forgotten that he committed suicide in 1945. We followed the soldiers into the terrified family’s house and stayed there as they hung out on the roof for a few minutes. Not finding any terrorists up there, they left fairly quickly.

It’s now approximately 10pm at night but our story is not quite over yet. As if enough already hadn’t happened in one day, we got an urgent call from the Abu Haykal family near the olive groves – soldiers had come into their house and made everyone go outside, confiscated their cell phones, in order to “look for photos” (?) What photos? That is a “military matter”. The family wanted us to come over so we did and began filming and questioning the soldiers about what they were doing there. One of the soldiers in a slow frat boy drawl told us to go back to America to our homes and said we wanted to help the people who kidnapped Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese border. We told them that we are invited here whereas they aren’t and that this isnt their land. They apparently didn’t find what they want and left after about 20 minutes, threatening they would be back. Three of our volunteers stayed the night in their house in case of any late night mischief.

My Kung Fu teacher taught me an Arabic proverb saying something like the most miserable things in life are the funniest ones. This day was both miserable and hilarious for us, a small microcosm of how absurd life can be sometimes in occupied Palestine.