Getting to Bethlehem
June 27, 2013 // 4:42 AM
In the past 20 hours or so I have traveled across the globe to a part of the world that I have never set foot in before, although I have thought about it almost obsessively for the past year … and extensively over my thirty years. This, so far, is my greatest excursion in terms of distance, and emotional will power… or at least that’s how it felt getting off the plane in the Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport. I had been mentally preparing for my arrival for these past months, but can you ever really prepare yourself for your first time anywhere? Especially not for a place like Palestine, which has been built up in my imagination since childhood by my mother’s stories of her time their with my father in the 1970s, by the faded pictures in the stacks of worn photo albums, and by the occasional glimpse of my father’s childhood narrated over dinner or in the car triggered by some tangentially related conversation topic or other. So, I hadn’t expected my heart to be beating so hard as I descended from the plane into the corridors plastered with advertising in Hebrew and English. The sense of otherness and absence from myself that seized me as we neared the “Foreign Citizens” gate to have our passports checked. I grasped for my mother’s hand, who was returning for the first time since 1975. The young Israeli guard smiled vaguely as he took our passports. “Have you ever been to Israel before?” How long are you staying?” “Are you here to visit family?” The final question was the one I hard prepared for and yet still managed to fumble over. “Yes, family.” And then, “well, family and friends. Friends too,” I added. He smiled (or smirked) at my correction, and then stamped the passport. I had been quietly terrified for months that the questioning process would be gruesome and long, like that experience by other members of my family. That they would ask why I was staying for such a long period, what I was doing in Israel, do I know Arabic. But that didn’t happen. The guard acknowledged that we were there to see our Palestinian relatives, and that we were guests in Israel, and that was it. I didn’t know whether I should feel relief or guilt … but mostly I just felt relieved, and then I felt exhausted.
We walked out of the gate to find Abu Sami holding my mother’s and my name on a paper sign, and suddenly we were out of the airport. In Israel. In Palestine. And the joy swept over me. The car ride with Abu Sami was a intermingling of joy and sorrow. We laughed as my mother recalled memories of her previous time in Bethlehem some 40 years ago, and were silent when she gasped at the extreme change in the landscape. Abu Sami took us on route 443, an alternate route towards Bethlehem, so that we could both avoid the road blocks, and more importantly see what Israel-Palestine looks like to those who live between and within the walls, barriers, and blockades. With a yellow Jerusalem license plate, Abu Sami can take the restricted Israeli-only roads that cut across and through the West Bank territories. After only a few kilometers he tells us that we have entered the West Bank, and yet we are traveling on an Israeli owned road – that is a road restricted to Israeli use. As we are driving he tells and shows us repeatedly: “Look, on your left, and on your right, Palestinians live there. We are in the West Bank now, and Arabs live on both sides of this road, yet they can not access this road”. Abu Sami shows us where the roads have been blockaded – off ramps and on ramps within the West Banks territory that would allow Palestinians access to these faster, more directs routes, with gates and wire fencing blocking them off.
I had read about the fast growing settlements, the restricted and segregated road systems, and separation of Palestinian and Israeli life by gates, wire fencing and walls, but it was an entirely different experience driving through it.
As we near Ramallah I see a high wall rise from the landscape that looks just like the images of the separation wall I have seen. “Abu Sami” I say, “is that the Wall?” “No” he replies, “That’s a prison. They built the prison on Palestinian land, and its detainees are Palestinians only.” Abu Sami also pointed out as we passed the now closed Atarot airport: “This is where I flew out from in 1967. It was nice. I flew to Cairo several times from that airport.”
We transfer from the 443 onto the 1 as we get closer to Bethlehem, but then change routes again as we decide to take a longer way around Jerusalem so that we may drive through Beit Sahour, and avoid another checkpoint. We have now driven past too many settlements for me to keep track, all of which have been constructed in entirety within the past 10 years. “Can you imagine that?” Abu Sami says, “A complete city constructed at once? Hardly any inhabitants in a number of them.” They are high rises and homes waiting to be filled, towering on the tops of hillsides, peering across gated, private roads or walled-off and looking down over Palestinian towns and villages. Next to each other and yet entirely separated. Divide and conquer – a sure fire way for breading distrust and fear through ignorance on the one side and oppression on the other. We drive past the Shepard’s Field where the sheep herders were told of Jesus’s birth. I can’t believe these two great mysteries – the birthplace of God’s message of divine love and and the current resting place for the epitome of human indignity – can exist in the same place.