October 31, 2013 by cosmoakacitizensmith
Hello. I’ve been away a for a few days getting ready to go to Palestine. I’m here working for a group called the ISM. More about that in a bit.
In order to get to Palestine you need to be a bit slippy. You can’t fly direct so you have to go through Israel. If they suspect you’re going to Palestine at the border they may give you a grilling. This could include trawling the net to find out all about you, or demanding access to your emails and Facebook profile. So I took down my website, disabled my social network accounts, made up a sham story about being a tourist and crossed my fingers.
The plane journey was tense but lively. There were a fair amount of Orthodox Jewish families on the plane and everyone was very talkative. I’d boarded with two other ISM volunteers, Jules and Jean, but we strategically decided to pretend we didn’t know each other.
The plane landed and I was shitting myself. I really had never done anything like this before. I reckoned it might be a bit like using Jedi mind trickery to get into a music festival back home for free. Or maybe not. If they suspected anything, I’d be on the first plane back home after a serious load of verbals. In an immigration unit. In a country I’d never been to before.
The weird thing was, despite a few cursory questions at the border, I got through. After all the sweating and trying to get my story right in my head, I needn’t have worried. I was walking on air.
I managed to find Jules and Jean, my two traveling companions, and before you knew it we were speeding towards Jerusalem in a servis taxi though the arid, breezy Middle Eastern evening. At various intersections, there were military checkpoints with soldiers, sometimes in their early twenties pulling over vehicles. Luckily we didn’t get stopped.
Jerusalem, or Al-Quds in Arabic, has been a cross roads of religions and cultures for centuries. Or should I say pile-up? It’s certainly a tale of two cities: the gleaming, sleek metropolis of today and the ancient, walled city of the Bible, the Qur’an, the Torah and so much myth, legend and history.
We arrived in the city at the Damascus Gate where we found our hostel. It was night time but the streets were still vibrant with stalls. There were kids playing, hustlers hustling and shops open late. Intense smells ran into one another and intermingled: food cooking, piles of vegetables on sale, honeysuckles on archways…. It was full sensory immersion. After grabbing some dinner at one of the street restaurants, we wondered through the beautiful old city, vowing to come back in the morning as we had some time before we headed off to Ramallah for our activist training.
The Western Wall, by the old city’s Jewish Quarter, is a holy site according to Jewish tradition. It is all that remains of a temple that was destroyed in 70AD and acts as the foundation stone for the Temple Mount above it. There you can find the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This in turn is a sacred site for Muslims as it is believed to be the place Mohammed took the spiritual and physical journey of Isra and Mi’raj. Christians also claim it as the location for various Biblical scriptures.
To access the Western Wall from the Damascus Gate, you have to go through the old city with its covered stalls, (think of the market scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Walking through it, you can find the Stations of the Cross, the places where Jesus is said to have stopped on the way to his crucifixion. Soldiers guard the entrance to an Armenian Church building. I never did find the reason why.
We had no problem getting to the Western Wall. However, when we tried to get onto the Temple Mount to see the gold-covered Dome of the Rock, we had to wait nearly two hours. There was intense security on the bridge up to the summit. Two armed guards sat further up from the metal detectors, where we had to present our passports. At the top of the bridge were loads of riot shields. Apparently it all kicks off sometimes.
We had about twenty minutes on the Temple Mount and then we had to leave. It appears that the Israeli authorities are not going to make it easy for people to go. Many adherents of Judaism don’t enter enter the Temple Mount as they may tread on the unknown site of the Holy of Holies, a section of the original temple that only selected people were allowed to enter.
We hurried away. Religion, language, culture and people cheek by jowl in a centuries-old battle for supremacy left us feeling the heat.
We headed off to our next stop, the city of Ramallah. It lies behind the so-called “peace wall”, a massive barrier that the Israeli government put up on its border with Palestine. Only it’s not really on the border, it’s well into Palestinian territory and has in effect annexed a load more land.
The contrast with Jerusalem is immediate. There is a military checkpoint and the traffic comes to a halt, with the wall looming high above us. The cab driver knows a short cut so we end up driving through a dusty dirt track that takes us through a refugee camp. We enter a bustling highway that has no traffic controls. It is no-man’s land and there are no traffic signals. The Israeli government will take no responsibility for it, and the Palestinian authorities aren’t allowed to. Finally we get to out hotel and go out in search of food.
A man called Hassan welcomes us to his restaurant and lays on a massive spread. It is a welcome change from the tourist trap rip-off antics we had witnessed in Jerusalem. He tells us his story in an American drawl – he’d been exiled there for six years and on his return was told wasn’t allowed to leave Palestine again. He seems angry. “You know, the person that starts a revolution is never the same as the asshole that finishes it,” he says bitterly of the government. “It’s all about the money now. There’s no solidarity anymore, know what I’m saying?” His eyes appear glazed. “These prisoners released tonight as part of a deal should have been released by Israel years ago. I mean, what the fuck?”
Later that night, as we try to sleep in our rooms, we hear cars manically beeping their horns. People cheer and celebrate the release of the prisoners. Is it gunfire I hear or fireworks going off? I’m not sure.
Welcome to occupied Palestine. There’s a lot to take in.