Coexistence…with bulletproof glass: an interview with a student who visited the West Bank during their year abroad

Obviously, your identity is not used for this interview but I noticed that you posted on social media (outside of Instagram) acknowledging your visit to the area. What made you decide you wanted to put your thoughts out there, at least once?

On Instagram, many people sent me private messages regarding my Palestine/Israel posts telling me that they had gained an insight into a world that is not seen by many. I believe Palestine is often talked about superficially or not even talked about, disregarded as ‘it’s such a complex issue’, especially due to the fear of being labelled ‘anti-Semitic’ when discussing the occupation. Hence, I decided that I wanted to make a more public post about the ‘separation barrier’ or ‘apartheid wall’. I want people to realise how ridiculous it is to have an 8m wall in the 21st century which ‘protects people’ but really just isolates communities instead.

 

You were interrogated on entry to Israel and joked in one of your posts that it went well ending in a Ramadan Kareem – what do they typically focus on in the interview? How long did they interview for?

The first time that I passed the border, I was asked my father’s name and my grandfather’s name. Subsequently, my passport was taken away and I had to wait as a woman made a report of my life and interrogated me on the visas that I held in my passport (from other Middle Eastern countries). It felt intrusive and humiliating, despite there being no cause for embarrassment, as the officer also asked me to declare what religion I believed in and the religion of my friends (we were stopped due to our being ethnically ambiguous and having ‘foreign’ names). We were at the border for two hours.

The second time I crossed, my passport was taken away at the border again. Border officers again focused on my religion and the reasons for which I was going to Palestine/Israel. I was a bit surprised when one of them asked me how I could be Muslim if I wasn’t wearing hijab… as well as asking me whether I was planning on visiting the West Bank. To pass through the border one has to lie about visiting the West Bank, or else the border officers can reject you as they only want you to visit Israeli territories and consider people who wish to travel to the West Bank a threat. Another odd question that I was asked was whether or not I had been to Syria. This time around my passport was taken away for 1.5 hours before I was given it back.

 

You commented on American biblical tours? How are they structured? You suggest they avoid recognising anything but superficial aspects of the area? How do tourists navigate the community?

This segregation is not only a temporary tourist problem, but a permanent local policy too; Israelis are forbidden from visiting Bethlehem as it is located in Zone A (fully Palestinian controlled). Interestingly, there seem to be many young tourists who want to see the ‘other side’ in Palestine, and travel to Bethlehem and Hebron as part of a tour to see the occupation. Although it is important that people are interested, some Palestinians are exploiting this tourism and charging a lot to see Banksy’s murals in Bethlehem, for example, as well as encouraging people to graffiti whatever they want on the well-known separation barrier in Bethlehem (for a fee) which detracts from being a place of Palestinian protest and instead is filled with the graffiti of random people’s names and stencils.

 

When visiting one of the markets, you wrote about settlers throwing rubbish/concrete onto Palestinians below – how many markets were covered by the net/how often did it happen? Does this stretch across the West Bank?

From my brief experience in the West Bank, Hebron was the only city which had its market covered by a net. Usually illegal settlements (internationally condemned) in the West Bank are comprised of a typical ‘American-suburb, heavily IDF guarded’ type residential area, easy to distinguish as they are quite built up whilst the rest of the West Bank is made up of poor infrastructure. Hebron is the only city where settlers actually live inside the city as compared to most illegal settlements which encircle Palestinian cities. Post-1967, Hebron was under Israeli control which led to more Jewish settlers moving into Hebron, occupying upper areas of buildings whilst Palestinians often lived below. Currently, there are 800 Jewish settlers living in Hebron and 2,000 IDF soldiers to protect them. Hebron is a large Palestinian city and its famous Al Shuhada street, which used to be Hebron’s main market and a source of income for many Palestinians, has now become an Israeli-only territory. Many Palestinians have lost their jobs and moved away from the area. The atmosphere in the city is quite tense in the old Hebron market today, as Jewish settlers throw rubbish, rocks and faeces onto Palestinians below, items which are trapped in the netting in the market area.

 

You visited the tomb of Prophet Abraham (which is shared between the Jewish and Palestinian people) – is this ‘co-existence’ but with necessary security measures?

The Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque is not an example of co-existence. Despite consisting of important figures for both Islam and Judaism, the complex is split unevenly between Jews and Muslims. There is bulletproof glass within the tomb room of Prophet Ibrahim dividing the Muslim and Jewish sides due to the 1994 massacre carried out by American-Israeli, Baruch Goldstein, where 29 Muslims were murdered. Moreover, when Muslims visit the mosque, they are required to pass through metal barriers and every time Palestinian men want to visit they have to remove their personal items and lift their shirts to the soldiers.

 

There is separation to the point where your parents were refused the chance to ride an Israeli bus despite one of them having a foot problem – was this a common occurrence? Were you/others barred from anywhere else?

In Hebron, my father asked IDF soldiers, guarding the Cave of the Patriarchs, if my mother could take an Israeli bus that travels via illegal settlements back to Jerusalem as it is the fastest option. Palestinian buses not only have to go through multiple checkpoints, but are also denied use of most main roads, making a 30-minute journey up to two hours long. The soldiers refused and this was the only time that we were clearly not allowed to use their buses. We spent most of our time in Jerusalem and the West Bank but when we travelled to Jaffa, we used Israeli public transport and there were no problems. However, once after Taraweeh prayers (special prayers during Ramadan), we went to visit the Western Wall and the guards stopped us and had to verify with other guards whether or not they could allow us in. I have been to the Western Wall a couple of times before and was never stopped – only told in a rude manner that I must be Muslim and asked again where I was really from after a guard was unsatisfied with my answer when I replied that I am British.

 

You shared graffiti-ed symbols in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s old city – what did some of them mean and did you find them elsewhere in the city?

A lot of the graffiti in the old city of Jerusalem is of the Kabaah (the point towards which Muslims pray in Mecca) as families decorate their houses with them after they have performed either pilgrimage: Hajj/Umrah. Another common symbol found throughout the old city is the Dome of the Rock. This shrine has become a prevalent and significant symbol in the Palestine/Israel conflict as both Jews and Muslims hold the site to be holy and thus each group claim it as their own. Similar to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Dome of the Rock is a complex area of tension between Palestinians and Israelis.

 

You encountered a family only able to travel into Jerusalem for Ramadan. What sort of limitations on travel are there outside of Ramadan?

During one of the iftars (time to break fast at sunset) that we spent at the Dome of the Rock complex, we were offered food from a family who were from Jericho, West Bank. They told us how they face restrictions and were only allowed to visit Jerusalem during Ramadan, only once a year, due to the specific permits they have from living in the West Bank. Shockingly, Palestinians living in the West Bank need a permit to visit Jerusalem, including Palestinian students on placements in Jerusalem and have to pass checkpoints every day. The permit application process varies in difficulty, but it is not as simple as it should be. Meanwhile, senior citizens are allowed to travel to Jerusalem throughout the year.  Although some people in the West Bank can pass checkpoints to visit Jerusalem, people in Gaza do not have the option of freedom of movement at all.

 

You often reference apartheid, how often do people use this discourse to talk about the settlers?

It depends on who you talk to as apartheid has strong connotations. I doubt Jewish Israelis would refer to the occupation as apartheid as, in some people’s eyes, the strong military presence is justified, as is the quelling of any opposition from Palestinians who have been living there for generations. But many people aware of the inequalities that strike the Holy Land’s population daily would draw a comparison between the situation today and South Africa in the last century, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

 

What did crossing checkpoints require when entering the West Bank?

Despite Jerusalem being 70km away from Amman, the border crossing process takes at least half a day to complete. Crossing the Allenby Bridge land border is like passing through an airport. The only difference compared to other land crossings is that the interrogation here is much more intense when compared to other border crossings. This is largely because it is the only crossing through which Palestinians of the diaspora may enter Palestine.

 

Closing remarks

Many Palestinians are trying to get on with their daily lives as the occupation is their reality, and while I do recognise that Arab Israelis have more freedom, they are still considered second-class citizens in the ‘Middle East’s only democracy’.  This is not to say that the conflict is straightforward, there is and has been wrongdoing on both sides. But, importantly, those in power retain the strength to keep those they wish restricted.

 

Image: Interviewee (anonymous)

Related News

One Response

Leave a Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Coexistence… With Bulletproof Glass | The Student

Say something

The Student Newspaper 2016