Sunday, March 13, 2011

Border Crossing in Israel

Here is an e-mail received from a friend who is still in Nablus, teaching English with Project Hope. As you will see, he once worked on a Kibbutz, and wanted to go back there...

"I have tried. I have really tried, to understand Israel and the Israelis. I have tried to put myself in the shoes of people who want a home land. I have tried to feel what it must be like to want a peaceful life, but to live in fear of rockets and suicide bombers. I have tried to put myself in the position of someone whose country feels it is in a constant state of siege. It has not been easy.

Each time I try to understand, I cannot help but feel that I am in the wrong. I might want a homeland for myself, but I don’t think that that excuses me taking away someone elses homeland! And, when I think about my fear of someone else attacking me, I realize that those attacks would be legitimate attempts to fight back against what I or my nation, have done. I feel unable to justify injustice perpetrated by me or on my behalf, just because it suits my needs and whims.

Of course, I may not be a good example! After all, in my own country, I have tried to fight against injustice, inequality, racism, injustice and oppression (not that it got me very far!), so it’s probably inevitable that I would balk at what Israel has done. Maybe those of you out there who are less left or less political than myself can find good cause and understanding. I just can’t!

I am writing this after being escorted to the toilet by an armed security guard (more on this later). He took the opportunity to try to educate what he clearly presumed to be an ill-informed westerner, about the situation which Israel faces. First of all he told me how dangerous it was for me to have been in places like Syria because, if I got stabbed the ambulance would take half an hour to get to me, whilst in Israeli it would only take 10 minutes. The he said that what had happened in Egypt (the overthrow of Mubarek) was very bad because, soon, the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power. Israel is like a bubble of the west in the Middle East, he said (and so, presumably, we should like them). He warned me that we should not trust the Arabs. In Turkey, I was warned, the Muslims are playing a clever game, because they look as though they are being moderate, whilst the generals had been good because they kept the Mulims out of power. Hammas is clever, because they do things for the poor, but then, when they get to power, they are like Iran. The Americans, he told me, had supported the downfall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, and look where that got them – the Ayatollah. Now (clearly he meant foolishly), Obama supported the removal of Mubarek!

I don't know what will happen in these countries, now that they are throwing off the yoke of dictatorship: maybe the regimes will hang on with different faces (and Israel will be happy), or new bosses with new deals, or even extremist islamic groups, or, possibly something really representative of the people, but, what was very clear from this man (and, I believe he represented the dominant thinking in Israel and its government), is that it is not just the Palestinians whose oppression can be justified for the sake of Israeli security! He was clearly happy that oppression should happen all over the Middle East for their sake. There is no limit to which some people are prepared to go for their own sake (Ghadaffi is a case in point). And, as they are the people in the Middle East who actually have nuclear weapons, it’s quite scary. More to the point, in my view, it’s wrong!

Anyway, one of the ways in which I had hoped to reach, at least a less hostile attitude to Israel, was to go to the kibbutz which I had been to some 30 years ago. I doubt if I would have met any of the people who were there then, and it is even less likely that anybody would have remembered me, but I did think that seeing the place where I had had such a good time all that long ago, might remind me that there is something positive, something which can be salvaged from the abomination that is Israel in my mind (of course, I might have found myself in some terrible conversation which simply entrenched my feelings, but I didn’t want to think that!).

The Kibbutz was located just the other side of the wall from Tulkarem, only 20 minutes by servees from Nablus. The first time Jane and I tried to go it was raining heavily and the journey seemed to be more complicated and more costly than we had expected, so we turned back. Consider it a recce! The second time it was Shabbat and I didn’t think that we would have any problem visiting the Kibbutz, what I didn’t realize was that the checkpoint would be closed! The third time one of my classes was cancelled due to holidays and I made arrangements for another to be covered so that I could go on my own.

A Terminal Experience:

The checkpoint at Tulkarem is not like the ones you come across within the West Bank. They are usually where the road is subdivided into lanes, each guarded by one or more guard post. The lanes can be blocked and vehicles can be stopped, but, mostly, these days, you can drive through under the watchful eye of an armed soldier or two. The Tulkarem checkpoint is a gate through the apartheid wall and is more like Qalandiya or Bethlehem, which give access to Jerusalem, only more so! High metal fencing channels people, cattle-like to a bank of football-style turnstiles. They are electronically controlled, with red or green lights to indicate if they are open. Unfortunately, when I arrive, they are all on red, there are Palestinians already waiting. Nobody tell you anything – you just wait patiently for the lights to change. We wait maybe twenty minutes: I am in a good mood and just take things in. I take some photos of normal Palestinian life for the folks back home.

When the lights do change I am fortunate enough to be one of the dozen or so who are able to get through. I have entered what they euphemistically call the terminal. There are no signs of welcome or direction as far as I can see, just exhortations to ‘Keep the terminal clean’, so I just follow the others. There is, however, a loud voice booming over the tannoy, presumably telling people what to do – a contrast to the silence while we have been stood waiting. We walk up corridors through 3 electric gates, one after another. Each one is also on red, fortunately we do not have to wait long, but there is no way of knowing. Then comes the normal airport terminal stuff.

There is an x-ray machine which you put your bags and stuff through, and there is a walk through metal detector, there is also a security woman who tannoys excruciatingly loud instructions from behind armoured glass. She doesn’t like my bag: she tells me to put it through the ‘makina’ another 3 or 4 times; then I have to take everything out of the bag and show her and send it all back through the ‘makina’. She likes the camera even less: I have to take it out the bag and send them through together; then I have to do it again, but placed differently; then I have to do it again; then I have to take the batteries out. It’s Jane’s camera which I am using especially for the visit – I can’t open the batteries! I have to have help from a Palestinian. I put it through again, but she’s still not satisfied; I have to put camera and batteries on a plastic tray at least three times before she is satisfied. All this time the other Palestinians who were with me have had to wait (as well as those outside!). All the Palestinian men travel light, with no bags and only necessary hand held things like phone, money, ID and essential documents; they also take off their belts. I want to tell them that I am sorry for delaying them and for not knowing the ropes – I nod apologetically, but I am too embarrassed to try Arabic. At last I can go!

Through another electronically controlled turnstile, to another airport terminal thing! This time the xray makina is accompanied by a more sophisticated scanner and more tannoyed shouts from behind armoured glass. The Palestinian who helped me with my batteries tells me what to do. I take my belt off and everything is on the machine apart from my ring, necklace and watch. I stand feet apart on orange foot prints with arms raised (as in surrender); the makina closes and scans me; then I have to turn side-on and stand on the pink foot prints and surrender to the makina. The tannoy woman behind the glass doesn’t like my camera, nor does her friend – they want it. My Palestinian friend places it for them in a separate secure side-room. They want to know what I have been taking photos of: “Our travels.” “Have you taken any pictures here?” “Yes, when I was waiting to come in.” Two things occur to me: one that they have cameras watching all over, and probably saw me taking pictures and they didn’t like it; and, two, that they are scanning our pictures and probably copying them. What I don’t remember is that many of the other photos are of Palestinians – maybe they will cross-check them later. Eventually I am allowed through; fortunately, while I have been waiting the Palestinian have been allowed past. I am allowed past, but they are not finished with me yet – there is still the ID check.

One of the advantages of being a foreigner is that you usually get preferential treatment – at Bethlehem and Qalandiya you get passed through with barely a glance (Bethlehem even has an express tourist gate), whereas the Palestinian ID is carefully scrutinized. Here, as well as their ID and a sheaf of accompanying documents, the Palestinians had to provide an electronic hand print, nonetheless they got through quicker than I! I am asked the purpose of my visit and what I was doing in Tulkarem; when I tell them I wasn’t in Tulkarem, but Nablus they want to know why. I tell them Jane and I were staying with friends we’d met in Jerusalem. They ask me to wait then call me back for more questions; this happens several times: “What have you been doing in Israel?”, “How did you get to Nablus?”, “What checkpoint?”, “What were you doing inSyria?”, “Where were you staying inNablus?”, “”What is the address?”, “Who have you been staying with?”, “What are their phone numbers?”, “Why do you want to go to Israel?”, “Do you know anybody on the kibbutz?”, “Where is the kibbutz?”, “Why DO you want to go to the kibbutz?”, “Did your friends give you anything to take to the kibbutz?”, “What do they do?” They ask for and get mine and Jane’s phone numbers and my email and they want information about who I say we have been staying with and all details about them – I am not very forthcoming on this, but give them some basics. After maybe half an hour of this toing and froing they tell me that tourists are not supposed to use this check-point. I said that I didn’t know that. Later I ask how I am supposed to know that and she tells me frankly that you don’t! Eventually she says that she is going to see if she can get permission for me to go through, and leaves her cubical. It is now 3 hours since I first arrived at the ‘terminal’!

It is while I was waiting between questions that I noticed the guy with the guns. They are not IDF (or Israeli Offence Force as the Palestinians call them) but private security firms which man the terminals and sometimes the checkpoints (one of my escorts told me he had come from Nigeria to find work: the political fall out if one of these dies is not as great as if an Israeli soldier dies) . They are prowling on gantry walkways which criss-cross above our head. (When I get home, my landlord tells me that he had got a permit to enable him to go to Tel Avi for his business. He was in the hands-in-the-air-legs-apart-makina and had a cigarette packet in his pocket which was detected by the machine. The next thing he knew was a red laser dot tracing up his front to his forehead and his being told that if he make a wrong move he will be shot. He was directed to a bombproof room with no roof, where he had to strip before being scanned and let go. He said that his permit is still valid for a few days, but he is too frightened to go back just now and will have to apply for another permit.) While I am waiting one of them keeps his beady eye on me and one has to escort me when I need to use the toilet.

While I am waiting a steady stream of Palestinians passes through, mostly, now, heading back from Israel. Many are people who go o Israel to work, though that is discouraged in Israel nowadays, many of them are carrying sacks of oranges on their back. I am reminded of the line of lorries which was queueing at another gate, while we were waiting to enter, and wonder how long they have to wait for. There are Palestinians who go back and to through this checkpoint every day.

Several hours of waiting later I have concluded that they are not discussing whether to let me through a non-tourist checkpoint. I begin to wonder if they are going to deport me. They don’t like the fact that we went to Syria, they don’t like the fact that I was in the West Bank, and they definitely didn’t like me taking the photos. Maybe they are taking so long because they are making arrangements to deport me? Why did they want our phone numbers and my email – what will they do with them? If they are planning to deport me then I have nothing to lose in telling them that I’ve been working for Project Hope, engaged in the treasonous activity of teaching English! At least I’ve had a good innings!

She returns with an armed escort (I am clearly potential dangerous) and tells me that I have to speak over the phone to the security services. More question, about Syria, about where exactly in England we are from, our jobs etc, over and over again. Eventually I tell him that I am teaching at Project Hope. He wants names. Apart from the manager and our landlord, I refuse.

I arrived at 11.20am, I am refused entry six and a half hours later, at 5.50pm. It would have been too late to get to the kibbutz and back by then, anyway, but for some strange reason, the desire to go had somehow ebbed away. I went to the Kibbutz, 30 years ago, ignorant of the real situation, now I am not. I am no longer willing to make the effort to get there (via Jerusalem this time) and I no longer have any belief that my feelings towards Israel can be redeemed. – well done Israel!!!"

This is the sort of on-the-ground information which needs to be spread far and wide, in order that we understand what is happening in that part of the world. Treating other human beings like cattle, or worse, is not going to bring about peace. And I think one party in this 'conflict' knows that full well...

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