LETTER FROM BETHLEHEM (71)
Toine van Teeffelen
November 16, 2005
On this Palestinian Independence Day I decide to take a break and go and visit the zoo in Jerusalem together with the children. Mary, who of course cannot join because she doesn’t have a permit or a foreign passport-with-a-three-month visa as I do, puts fruits in the bag for me and for Jara and Tamer. Should we put a knife in the bag, to cut the fruits? Better not to have an iron knife, but a plastic one, we think, because the soldiers at the checkpoint may become suspicious. I make a quick check on the Internet to see whether there are problems to be expected on the road. The Bethlehem taxi driver tells us that today the new terminal is in use. We approach not a checkpoint but rather something that resembles an international border. The people had heard that it would open one of these days. Ironically it happened on Independence Day. For sure no coincidence. As if the message is: If you want to have your independence, we will be happy to grant you that by establishing an international border and lock you up.
I count four inspection moments. First, at the gate in the Wall, where a soldier checks whether I have a passport. I wave it. Then we enter, through iron corridors, into the terminal itself. We pass a glass booth where a soldier quickly checks the passport. A Palestinian woman wants to enter a revolving fence but does not have a tasreeh [permit]. A rather loud-speaking soldier at the other side of the fence refuses her entry. The kids and I pass, somewhat overwhelmed by all the iron and stone around us and by the huge size of the hall. It reminds of Eretz at the Israeli entry to Gaza. Months ago I read in Haaretz about an army representative who stated that the terminal would make it possible for people to wait quietly, without being disturbed by heat or rain, and that toilet facilities would be available. Indeed, we pass by male and female toilets. Everywhere huge signs that people should keep the place clean.
The hall is a combination of iron revolving gates, corridors and high roofs, and big and small signs. We are waiting for some minutes in front of another revolving fence with a red light on top of it. Through the fence we watch a Palestinian trying to understand the Hebrew-spoken orders of a female soldier. She apparently wants him to take his belt off. Or is it his shoes? She speaks through a loudspeaker from behind glass. The loudspeaker speaks very loud, with an echo due to the size of the hall. Like at Eretz, the feeling is that cattle rather than humans are inspected. Although not quite, because of this emphasis upon cleanliness. But modern cattle places are also rather clean, I ponder. How will the place look like after some months?
Another woman links up to the queue. She giggles nervously. Usually people waiting at checkpoints are angry or passive but the iron and technology and size are so overwhelming here that they must primarily feel themselves out of place. Jara starts panicking because we forgot to take the bag with apples and now she thinks that the soldiers will ask us why we are bringing a knife without fruits. The light turns green and we pass the revolving door. The soldier lowers her voice when she sees me and Jara, with Tamer on my arm. I remember that long ago Mary used to try to enter checkpoints with baby Jara on her arm, so as to soften the soldiers’ mood. That now looks an almost romantic past. No way that you could talk yourself here through. I put my things in my bag which is X-rayed. "Don’t bring your hand too close to the bag," the soldier warns. She is perhaps instructed to be strict during this first day of the opening of the terminal. Jara is relieved that the plastic knife stays hidden in the bag. Through the loudspeaker the soldier tells me "Have a nice day," but much too loud. That is the third time to hear this, I count.
Everything is here out of place and out of proportion. We then go to inspection point number four. The passport goes through the glass window and is thoroughly looked upon from all sides. Have a nice day, we hear again, mechanically. Relieved we walk out of the terminal. Jara pulls my arm and whispers in my ear that she sees a soldier doing pee-pee behind a pillar. She giggles and asks why he is doing so. Don’t they learn to go to a toilet?
On the way to the zoo Jara gasps at the greenery alongside the roads. How beautiful it is here, she exclaims. When walking through the zoo, the comparison with the terminal presses itself upon me. The various sections in the zoo are small-scale, human, diverse, and clean. The play garden hosts imaginative stone animals with two heads and other funny features. Animals walk freely in the children’s zoo. You can breath, there is no tension.
When there are some Israelis next to me watching the animals, and Jara and Tamer are shouting in Arabic, I feel a little tensed, as if this is not the right place to talk Arabic loudly. Don’t think stupidly, I tell myself. But this time there are more Arabic-speaking people in the zoo, it seems. The zoo in fact advertises that it is a meeting place for Jews of all different backgrounds as well as for Arabs. That is, Arabs from Jerusalem and Israel. I remember that half a year ago or so I talked with a headmaster of a school in a West Bank village near the Israeli border. Her village is going to be located on the wrong side of the Wall – hemmed in between the Wall and the Green Line. She said that the Israelis had approached the Palestinians to give school classes in the village the opportunity to take the train that runs along that village once a day in order to visit the zoo. A nice offer but, I suppose, intended mainly for propaganda purposes and photo opportunities, so as to show that Palestinian kids affected by the Wall don’t suffer too much. I frankly sympathized with the negative response. Palestinians need rights, not favors.
On the way back from the zoo to the Bethlehem terminal, the Israeli taxi driver says that he cannot put on the meter because the area towards the checkpoint is not within the boundaries of Jerusalem. It’s a trick to get more money. I hear myself arguing that at least according to Israeli law the checkpoint area is very much within the boundaries of Jerusalem, and that he therefore should put on the meter. I feel hopelessly hypocritical; after all, both the zoo and the terminal are on lands of Beit Jala and Bethlehem, that is, West Bank lands, not Jerusalem lands.
Then back home through the terminal. The kids and I now know where to go. I talk a little with the soldiers so as to make the atmosphere less hostile for the children. After going through the Wall gate, I turn around and see a huge painting on the Wall, showing an American lion with dollar signs and oil installations on its skin. It devours a Palestinian lamb. Next day I hear from Palestinians that they were waiting at the new border for 1.5 hour and also that tourist groups were separated from Palestinians. Soon Bethlehem will be enclosed by the Wall on three sides – the north, the south and west – with the desert on the east.
(Photo from Maan Independent News).