Friday, January 27, 2012

Checkpoint story

Yesterday I learned what it's like to travel from Area A to Area C with an Israeli in your car. Lesson learned: one of you is breaking the law, and that one needs to hide.

Background: Under Israeli law, Israeli citizens can't enter Area A of the West Bank without pre-approval from the army. These are the urban areas: Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nablus, etc. Some Israelis defy this law, saying it's only in place to keep the majority of Israelis ignorant about what the army is doing to Palestinians in the Territories.

So here's the story.
*names have been changed


I was in Al Aqaba village on a Thursday afternoon. This meant that the weekend was starting, and I was itching to head into the city (Ramallah or Jerusalem).

That night there was a concert at my church in Jerusalem. If I took public transportation, the trip would take about three and a half hours (Al Aqaba-T ubas-Nablus-Ramallah-Jerusalem). I was hoping to catch the last taxi out of Tubas, and it was already 4:30.

I dropped into Haj Sami's office to let him know I was leaving. I saw that there were two men from Jerusalem interviewing Haj Sami. Since my taxi hadn't arrived, I sat in on their conversation, which I couldn't understand, because it was mostly in Hebrew.

I introduced myself to the two guests. One was Israeli, from Jerusalem. The other was Palestinian, also from Jerusalem, and he spoke Arabic and Hebrew. I told him I was going to Jerusalem, and he said, "excellent, come with us, just wait until we're finished." I was thrilled to cut down on time/money/effort and hang out with these guys, so I took out my laptop and did some website work until the interview was over. Then we said goodbye to Haj Sami, who was surprised I was going to Jerusalem so suddenly. It's never easy to say because he isn't allowed into Jerusalem with his West Bank ID. He told me to tell everyone about the demolition orders, which the Israeli army had just issued the village. I said I would. Then I got in the car with the Israeli and the Palestinian.

As we left Al Aqaba, we exchanged stories. Eyal*, the Israeli, was doing research for Oxfam on the Jordan Valley. He lives with his partner in Germany, and does freelance research. Oxfam picked an Israeli, he presumed, because he had access to settlers. So he'd been doing interviews all over, partly in response to an effort by the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture to double the size of the Jordan Valley settlements, and increase their water allocation, which is already disproportionally high.

We were driving through Tubas, and headed to Nablus. This was the route I would take in a Palestinian taxi. I knew it was illegal for Eyal to be passing through Area A, so I asked him where this lawlessness came from. He laughed. He was born into a very liberal family in Jerusalem. I asked him if he'd served in the army, and he said no. He faked insanity. I couldn't imagine this nice-mannered man coming off as crazy, so I asked him how he did it. He said it wasn't that hard. If you take your political views, and stretch it into paranoia....the point is, the army doesn't want to recruit someone who isn't motivated, so they don't expend much energy on combing through the fakers. I asked Eyal if his "insanity" shows on his record, and he said he had to re-take a driving test, but the only implication now was that he couldn't get a job at the Ministry of Defense. Not a big loss.

"Not for the self-haters," I said. He laughed.

I was able to converse with his friend, Mohammad, a little bit in Arabic, but mostly I spoke to Eyal in English, and he translated to Mohammad in Hebrew. We talked about normalization and the Knesset and the occupation. I made a reference to Arab Israelis and he corrected me, "most of them prefer to be called 48 Palestinians." Ok, that's the first time I was lefted by an Israeli...

We stopped in a village so Mohammad could pick up some vegetables at a roadside stand, and Eyal told me about his brother, who wanted to start up a publication to save Hebrew from Zionism. He wanted to undo the transformation of religious Hebrew into a colonialist language. I asked him if where he would draw the line, and how the language would get filled in without that transformation. He said it would be difficult. He said he thought Hebrew wasn't a very important language anyway, and it would probably die out soon.

"Wow, that's a very controversial statement..."

"Haha, I'm just saying, I wouldn't mourn it..."

He added that a lot of American Jews are taking an interest in Yiddish, because they want to get in touch with their Jewish roots without being Zionist. I'd heard from someone else that Yiddish is a much richer language. I only know it from movies, where people throw bits of Yiddish in with English. Eyal said it was a very humoristic language. I could see that.

Mohammad got back in the car, laughing, telling us that the vegetable vendor referred him to a stand down the street where he could get a better price.

We took the road that skirts the city of Nablus, and headed towards the Israeli Huwarra checkpoint, which sits between Area A and Area C. We would be traveling on the big Area C (Israeli-controlled) highway the rest of the way.

Most of the time, I don't see soldiers standing at the checkpoint. Usually there's one or two soldiers protecting the settler bus stop, but none in the circle itself. This time there were 5 or 6 soldiers, and as soon as they spotted Eyal in the front seat, they started waving their hands and yelling "whoa! whoa! whoa!"

I thought we were going to pull over, but Mohammad didn't stop. He just kept going. I thought, that's risky. But would they chase after us? Mohammad put in a CD and started blasting it. What was that for? Eyal said maybe him and I should switch seats. In case they come after us and are looking for the Israeli in the front seat. Mohammad agreed, so he climbed in back, and I climbed in front. Shit, I thought, what had I gotten myself into?

Mohammad explained he was playing music so he could say he didn't hear the soldiers. No one came after us. Twenty minutes passed. We were headed for Tappuah junction, an even bigger checkpoint, so I guess it was good that Eyal was less visible now. As soon as we approached the junction, the soldiers were in front of us, waving for us to pull to the side. One of them was on the phone. The soldiers at Huwarra had called them.

One of the soldiers came to Mohammad's window. They were arguing about whether Eyal and I had switched seats. Eyal was identified as "Jehud," Jewish. I wondered, what if he wasn't Israeli? No big deal, send him on his way?

Mohammad was identified as being from Jerusalem. They asked for my ID, and I opened up my purse carefully and took out my driver's license. I did have my passport, but I'm not obligated to show it if I'm not leaving the country, so I don't. A soldier asked me to open up all the compartments of my backpack, and my duffle bag, and my purse.

I could hear them interrogating Eyal and Mohammad. Their excuse was that they'd been in a settlement, Elon More. I was trying to keep up with what they were saying, in case I was asked anything. Maybe I could say I was Couch Surfing in Elon More (??) or that I was hitch-hiking and they'd picked me up.

Immediately I decided I can't lie. Not only am I terrible at it, but the chances of matching our stories on the fly were slim, and I was opposed to the idea of lying about my life here. It goes against the whole reason I'm here, which is to be honest about what I'm doing, because there's nothing wrong with it. Just like there's nothing wrong with Eyal conducting research in the West Bank. He didn't even do his research in Area A, he just had to pass through it. I wanted to tell him that I met Eyal in Al Aqaba village, and they were giving me a ride to Jerusalem. But I couldn't. They were lying their asses off to avoid getting arrested. And with every added suspicion, they just looked worse. Now the soldiers probably thought they were in Area A, and they were lying about it. They must have been up to no good. No! Actually, the man was just doing research that implicates your government in land and resource theft!

I checked myself. Who was I trying to save by telling the truth? These soldiers are told to catch Israelis in Area A and then who knows what, they get arrested or fined or something. Obviously, this had never happened to Eyal and he wasn't sure how to handle it.

I had no qualms about telling the soldiers I live in Al Aqaba, and I'm headed to Ramallah, I could even give them crap for making me miss my Wednesday night Lenten Soup and Study night in Jerusalem, which was actually true. I want them to know I live a semi-normal life under their occupation. That's a small, but not insignificant victory for me. But I couldn't let them arrest Eyal. I made my mind up right there not to say a word. I hoped I had the right to remain silent.

All in all, I was really pissed off. I watched the cars and army jeeps in the roundabout in front of us, I watched the settlers going to and from the bus stops, and getting on settler busses covered in Hebrew letters, and I looked at the giant metal menorah that had been blazing like the Olympic torch over Hanukkah. You're all acting like a bunch of children. You, soldiers, standing around with your guns looking for people who look like Jewish traitors. You, settlers, whom the soldiers would consider "good Jews," standing at the Jewish-only bus stop, hopping on Jewish-only buses. You, Mohammad and Eyal, lying about the music being too loud and doing research in Elon More. Tell them you drove through a Palestinian city!

While we were waiting quietly in the car, I wondered out loud, "what if there was a huge wave of Israelis who went to Area A and drove out of the checkpoints, and all got nabbed, and all got sent to prison...that would send a big statement, wouldn't it?" Eyal smiled, and told me not to hold my breath.

A senior-officer-guy opened my door and asked to search my bags. He asked me basic questions like do I speak Arabic and where I'm from and what I'm doing here. I found it really difficult not to answer. Fortunately, he didn't ask me how I knew Eyal and Mohammad. After an hour or so of waiting, he decided he believed their story, but warned Mohammad about going into Area A. Why Mohammad? Why the Arab?

Mohammad told me, and Eyal translated, that it did help that we switched seats.

I decided against going to Jerusalem. Souli was in Jaffa for a few hours and had asked me to meet up with his Polish couchsurfer, who was wandering around Ramallah, and I was exhausted from working on the village website the whole night before. So it was home to Ramallah.

They dropped me off at Jaba checkpoint, where I caught a yellow Service to Ramallah, and walked to Souli's. 

And that's where I am now, clicking away. I was going to go to Bil'in, but it's too tempestuous outside. I don't even want to leave the apartment. As fun as adventuring is, sometimes you just need a place where you can lounge around in pajama pants. Especially after an experience like that.