By Philip Weiss
The anxiety hit when I least expected it tonight. We had finished a traditional meal in an organic restaurant in Bir Zeit that was playing techno music, then were walking up the narrow stone road in the old city, under a clear starlit sky, when my friends said I had missed the last bus out of Ramallah to East Jerusalem. So the non-Palestinians said that they would drive me.
Then all the questions arose. Did I have my passport? No. You can explain it, you were stupid, you left it in your hotel.
But what were you doing on the West Bank? We will say we went to the Dead Sea, that’s good. Alright, but what did we do there? Had dinner. But where? What is the name of a hotel by the Dead Sea?
The friends said this was routine, but there was anxiety in the front seat too. One of them was Israeli, and it is illegal for him to be here, in Area A. The law is there to protect him, he said with mockery–it is dangerous for Israelis to be in Palestinian areas. So he’d lie about being an Israeli, he had a passport from another country. As for the European in the car–well, we would have to go out of our way to her place and get papers. Oh but the car was not registered in her name–
We did our strategizing as we drove. My Israeli friend called another friend. It was agreed that Qalandiya crossing wouldn’t work. They were sure to ask too many questions. He might be arrested, and given an 8,000 shekel fine (about $2500). It was much better to go through Hizma crossing. That was used mostly by settlers, and so there would be fewer questions. The guards were more likely to shrug at my NY driver’s license.
The drive took an hour. We had to go around the Israeli settlements and the wall jutting into the West Bank, we had to drive back into the Judaean hills. The European woman said that another journalist had done a story about this– is it possible to drive from Ramallah to Hebron, these two big Palestinian cities in the land of the future Palestinian state– is it possible to go even one minute in the heart of the future Palestinian state without seeing an Israeli presence? The journalist found that it isn’t. You can’t go even one minute…
We drove by many soldiers, marking the boundary of Area A and Area C between Ramallah and Qalandiyah, and then again near Hizma crossing. There was a big checkpoint in the road to keep crazed Israeli Palestinians from driving out from East Jerusalem into the settlement roads. A soldier stood strangely bent over a semiautomatic weapon, gleaming in the streetlights. “Pure racial profiling,” said my Israeli friend.
I didn’t even notice the soldier’s wave, as we slid through the checkpoint. He did this with his hand, my friend mimed, because we looked Israeli. Behind us a car with the woman in the hijab got pulled over for questioning. But we were free, in Jerusalem.
What a different kind of space we had entered. Like an inner suburb in Europe. Broad avenues, brightly lit. Big curvilinear sculptures on the side of the road. A sculpture of a cat and a kitten. Grass verges on the road. The new electric tram to bring settlers into the city.
Do you see how much effort is spent to separate the Palestinian area we were in—in Bir Zeit and Ramallah–from the man who lives here, in Pisgat Ze’ev? said my friend. It’s the bubble, I said. No it’s more, it’s psychic, they have no idea of that other world, and they have pushed it away, and they have been doing it since ’48.
And though I say Jerusalem, the municipal border is miles east of the Green Line. We passed through several gleaming Jewish neighborhoods built to encircle the city– Givat Benjamin. French Hill. Pisgat Zeev. Now and then we went flying along the wall, cutting off a piece of the West Bank. And the minaret over barbed wire. The West Bank is also a prison, my friend said.
From the back seat I offered that when liberal American Zionists come out here and go back home and say that the two state solution is over or in danger, it is Jerusalem that has hit them over the head, this sprawling enmeshing extension of the border. My friend said, The architecture of it is breathtaking, you just have to study it. I said that always call it Jim Crow, to be safe for American readers; but really when you are driving an hour out of your way past the hilltop settlements and the divided roads, and the barbed wire festooned with tattered plastic bags and the wall and the guard towers, you think of apartheid, and of ancient ghettoes in Europe. Though I am not sure who is more ghettoized….
My Israeli friend despairs for the Jews. There are so few of us in the world; and look what we have done here. I reminded him of the Zygmunt Baumann interview that had appeared in the Hebrew press not long ago, the Polish philosopher who survived the Holocaust, and what for me was the most haunting line in it. Israel is achieving what Hitler dreamed of: he wanted the world to hate Jews.
The world is here. That’s one surprise about my first day in Israel and Palestine. I am seeing more international journalists than ever before. Italy. Sweden. France. England. Some have come for the statehood initiative– the big billboards that say, We can dismantle injustice. These journalists love the story. And really it is an amazing story– just the architecture of East Jerusalem, of racial separation and colonization and cultural anxiety and persecution. Some day the American press will discover it.