Another week of contradictions, ironies, craziness; what ever you want to call it, there is no logic, no rational and too many discourses within this one confused context.
The British JewA telephone call from an old friend. He is in Tel Aviv. A British Jew who is here visiting family and manipulating foreign bureaucracy. Something about a Russian visa being easier to obtain in Israel. Irrelevant. I want to see him and invite him to stay:
"Well its not that I'm a coward…but my parents would kill me if they knew I'd been to Bethlehem".
"Well out of respect for them I shouldn't come".
Ok. But it's fine here. There's no problem of 'security'. It’s a shame. You should visit. There's even a good show tonight – a Jewish Comedian is in town.
"I have been to Bethlehem before".
What when you were six?
"Well seven actually". "Its not that I'm a coward" he repeats.
Why bother? He won’t come. God (of all people) only knows where he thinks I live. I suggest Jerusalem as an alternative meeting point and then add (just for the hell of it):
To be honest I feel safer here than I do in Jerusalem.
"Well I know my parents went mad when I went to Taba".
I didn’t mean because of the suicide bombings. I meant because of all the soldiers.
All the Israeli youth walking round with guns slung over one shoulder and a little handbag or rucksack on the other. Or the other "Israeli" youth - the settlers riding bikes with even bigger guns over their backs. Another pause in the conversation as small kids from the local school wander past laughing, smiling and shouting "Shalom". A shame. It would be good to show him where I live and work. But instead I'll meet him in Jerusalem.
I went to Jerusalem last weekend, which was when the settlers were threatening a visit to Al-Asqa mosque. A shame because peace will not come between Sharon and Bush but between neighbors. My land lady was horrified when she heard I was going to Jerusalem. But why? It isn’t safe today. You shouldn't go. Ironic, when only 8km away my friend is thinking the same about Bethlehem. I go to Jerusalem. The army and police are everywhere. Everywhere. No trouble. But the atmosphere is tense.
I meet another friend – or rather a Nicaraguan diplomat studying at my old department in Oxford
He is over for a holiday and I booked his accommodation in Jerusalem
prior to his arrival.
We've never met and when I introduce myself he looks horrified:
"Bex? Your Bex? Really? I can't believe it?"
He smiles and then laughs. "Well when you said you worked in the Occupied Territories I presumed you wore a head scarf [I think he means hijab..]..that you were a Muslim".
As if only Muslims are human rights activists. Or if only Muslims live in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs). I ask him about his trip. He complains that he prefers Ramallah to Jerusalem:The Palestinian Israeli
In Ramallah I can walk around a free man, I can stop and chat to people who warmly welcome me.
But in Jerusalem whenever tries to leave the infamous Old City the soldiers ask him for his id. "They don’t believe I'm from Nicaragua!" He points to his skin and shrugs his shoulders.
They ask me to speak in Spanish.
They think he's "a Muslim"... "It’s a beautiful city, but I just can't walk around".
His experience is far from unique. I visited another friend from Oxford
on Land Day.
This friend is working for a human rights organization in Haifa
. He lives with a 'Palestinian Israeli' who coincidently wants nothing to do with politics.
He speaks fluent Hebrew and complains that "they stole my identity as a Palestinian"
. Meanwhile my friend is rediscovering his.
His father is Palestinian. His mother is from Kent
. We walk down the main street. The Israeli police drive by.
They turn around and pull over.
They call the two men over. They ask them for the ids. My friend asks why?What's the problem?
The police reply in the broken English, "we just need to see if your good people"
And your computer will tell you if I'm a good person?
The ids are returned. They must be good people. We walk on. No-one asks for my id. I meet their friends. Other Palestinians living inside Israel; other young people, very bright and many of whom are working for human rights organizations. They are working within the system to change the system:
"You work in Bethlehem?! But isn't it dangerous".
A pause. What? You haven't been?
A shame…The girl defends her difficult dilemma:
"I've been to Ramallah. Once. Years ago, before the first intifada [when you were seven?]. But all we see is the Israeli media, and they make it appear to be so dangerous".
One of the most effective forms of oppression is removing their will to resist. Palestinian Israelis are bordering on second class citizens. The youth I met in Haifa were forever striving to be treated as 'normal' Israeli citizens. They were determined to fight for equal rights through the weighted judicial system, unable to see any alternative:
"I have never been on a demonstration" the girl confided. "I can't. If I do, they [the Israeli security] will make problems for me and my family. It will stick to my record 'this Palestinian Israeli has been on a demonstration against the state' and I will have security problems".
At least that’s one luxury the Palestinians in Bethlehem and the rest of the OPTs have and that’s the 'freedom' to demonstrate. To demonstrate and be 'controlled' with sound grenades and tear gas or even worse, to demonstrate in front of no-one except for ones own neighbors. Perhaps witnessed by the local media or side by side in solidarity with international activists but far away from the international arena. After all that’s not in the interest of their governments who instead deny their responsibility to fight for the legitimacy of international legislation and instead leave a handful of 'radicals' to do it on their informal behalf. Meanwhile, the Israeli security label solidarity groups as 'collaborators with terrorists' and takes every available opportunity to dedicate a significant percentage of their workforce to deporting them, turning them back at borders or if all else fails subjecting them to hour upon hour of senseless questioning during the forced 'visa runs'. Who would have thought it would have been hard to support international legislation and universal human rights in a democratic country such as Israel? Irony after irony. Contradiction. Confusion.
When I told a friend from Bethlehem that I had been on a local demonstration for to demand the right for Palestinains to travel the 8km between Bethlehem and Jerusalem freely he asked why?
"We have to learn to live with the wall. This is our reality. The Israelis are strong. They have the power. They have the backing of the US. Who do we have? You?"
He smiles but continues in the same tone:
"If we keep trying to fight it we will never be able to continue living. We have to accept our fate".
This friend – like many others from Bethlehem – knows all to well the consequences of the separation Wall. His wife has a Jerusalem id and he has a West Bank id. He cannot go to Jerusalem without a 'special permit' and yet she is not legally allowed to retain her Jerusalem id if she lives in Bethlehem and therefore she forfeits her right to travel there.
What are we meant to do? Get a divorce?
The IsraeliAnother friend from Tel Aviv sends a text message:
What are you doing for Pass over?
Pass over? When?
My mother's reserved you a seat so you have to come.
That’s very sweet. But I can't I already have plans.
My friend is sweet. He lives his life in Tel Aviv like my friends in London and Edinburgh do and like those his own age in Haifa, he rarely talks about politics. I wonder when he was last asked for his id? I remember our last conversation. It was relaxed; the television was on in the background. He was asking my about my opinions of the situation now that I'd been here a while. I was cautious but it made no difference. He talked about Liberalism, Democracy, Cultures, Muslims and of course suicide bombings; 'to me all Arabs are animals'. I don’t think he meant to say it quite like that. But the television he watches does.
Last night I was sitting with another friend, who is from Beit Jala. She had given me a present, a little teddy bear. It ignited memories of my old teddies. Likewise, she talks about her old bear, which she used to carry everywhere. She was holding it when her family returned to Palestine
Refugees who are forever refugees. They returned in 1991 because Iraq
had just invaded Kuwait
. She was watching when the border police dissected it 'to check for bombs'. She was nine years; "I never had another teddy after that. I never really wanted one."