Sunday 30 June 2019

A Recollection of 24 Hours

As I descend the steps leading off the plane, waves of humid heat greet me and accompany me to the interior of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. My first views of Jerusalem come from inside a shared taxi as it drops off tourist after tourist at their respective hotels. When my stop comes, the taxi which will take me the rest of my journey across the border to the town of Abu Dis awaits me. Abed, the coordinator for Dar as-Siddaqa, explains later that he could not come and greet me himself; like most Palestinians, he doesn’t have the military authorisation from Israel to enter Jerusalem.

I had expected the border between Jerusalem and Abu Dis to be prominent - a checkpoint where Israeli soldiers stood, or a big gate of some sort, slicing the land in two. This was not the case (Abed would later point out that I was leaving Jerusalem, and driving in the opposite direction would be a different story). Instead, my indicators that we were crossing into Palestine were the roads phasing from smooth, unworn concrete to those dusted with a layer of sand, and massive signs in Hebrew and English warning that the road we were on continued into territories dangerous for Israeli civilians. A certain dehumanisation in these signs struck me - the way they warned of this unnamed danger which lay just outside of the city confines. What is it like to grow up near such signs, the connection slowly forming in your mind between Palestine and danger to Israeli civilians like yourself? What lies beyond those roads remains unclear, but you are taught that it seeks to harm you.

We drive on. As we do so, the writing on storefronts goes from Hebrew, to Hebrew and Arabic, to only Arabic, and Jerusalem’s metropolitan sheen quickly fades from the buildings as we enter the West Bank.

25 minutes after setting out we’re in Abu Dis, and Abed is showing me up to the apartment. Our first conversation is him telling me of the event which took place an hour before my arrival: the Israeli military shot a Palestinian of my own age, 21, and left him to bleed out and die. I learn the day after this that the Israeli military is withholding the man’s body from his family. First, they must sign contracts placing restrictions on the number of people who can attend his funeral. Any breaches will result in hefty fines and punishment for his father. Death is not the only tragedy for this family - it is the trigger for a series of events which exacerbate the pain felt by those whose freedoms, or lack thereof, are at the whim of a foreign military even on land internationally recognised as their own.

Abed and I stand on Dar as-Siddaqa’s balcony the next day looking down at Abu Dis’ main road. We’ve just had some coffee brewed in, according to him, the objectively correct manner (note: do not make a latte in Abed’s company). I have spent the morning hearing about Palestine’s history and current situation. I have learned about the three zones which the Israeli military classifies Palestinian cities, suburbs and countryside into in order to designate things such as the agency of the Palestinian authorities in an area, and who is responsible for schools and hospitals. The Israeli military can flexibly change an area’s classification, allowing for increased control of it or decreased responsibility for it as is convenient for the military’s goals.

I also learn of the five different Palestinian ID cards assigned by Israel. Each has unique restrictions on where Palestinians can travel to and live, and whether they can vote. When the Separation Wall was built, around 800 families were cut off from each other due to these IDs – some family members’ IDs only allowed them to reside in the West Bank and not to enter Jerusalem, while other members’ IDs declared them as Palestinians living in Jerusalem, and thereby prevented from living in the West Bank. The borders cut people off from those close to them, along with vital services and community hubs: Abu Dis’ three nearest hospitals and main market all now lie across a largely impassable border for the Palestinians of the West Bank. Even a medical visit to a hospital in Jerusalem requires prior military permission for most West Bank residents, and their permitted length of stay is limited to several days.

Prevented by the border from accessing their old jobs in Jerusalem, many West Bank residents now face unemployment. In certain places such as Abu Dis, unemployment has skyrocketed to levels nearing 40%. Abed laments the stunted economy, and relates it to the importance that Palestinians place on education: “Education is central to the life of Palestinians because we have nothing else to invest in.”

The rest of my day is spent with a biology teacher who teaches in Abu Dis and has lived in the nearby town of al-Eizariya, biblically known as Bethany, her whole life. She takes me on a trip here, where I see Lazarus’ tomb and centuries-old churches. We drink fresh grapefruit juice at a nearby shop where we get in to a conversation with the light-hearted owner about Arabic dialects.

Later, over some tabbouleh and fattoush, she tells me of her love of snakes and taxidermy and we exchange photos. I show her my family and some of the Vermont landscapes near my university, and she shows me photos of food she has made for her students - a pizza representing a cell, and the various toppings its inner contents; a virus cell in the form of a cake; cucumbers and tomatoes carefully cut to reflect the workings of a nerve cell - along with pictures of her siblings and beloved nieces and nephews. A picture of my young cousin makes her light up, and she expresses her love of children to me.

A few minutes later, I ask her how her family has been affected by the occupation. She cites a cousin that the military imprisoned, and then tells me about the many years she had ovarian cancer: Al-Eizariya is right next to the wall, and since it was built in 2003, what used to be a five minute trip to the nearest hospital has become a two and a half hour long affair. Lengthy journey times made treatment for her cancer inaccessible. When her bleeding became incontrollable and hope of treatment deteriorated, she had her uterus removed. With it went the possibility of her having children. Her love of children is poured into her nieces, nephews, and students, but I watch a shadow cross over her face as she mourns the mother she could have been if only for reasonable access to healthcare.

She closes her eyes, shakes her sorrow off with a sigh, and meets my eyes again with a smile.