I arrived here 11 days ago, to return to work at Ibdaa Cultural Center, a children and young people's empowerment project. Ibdaa is located in Dheisheh Refugee Camp near the city Bethlehem. I lived and worked here in 1999-2000.
In the short time since my arrival, I have already witnessed and heard so much of the terrible situation. I am already a bit overwhelmed and not even sure how to begin, but will try to convey stories and voices of the people the best I could during my summer in Palestine.
Hope you are well and enjoying your summer.
Sketches from Roadblocks
"How was the road?" - this is a new common greeting in Palestine. Nearly 3 million Palestinians have been trapped inside small enclaves under severe restriction of movement since the current Intifada began 9 months ago. The closure of the territories worsened to the extreme after the Tel Aviv suicide bombing. "This hurts more than military strikes," comment many of my friends. Each journey to work, school or errands, no matter how short it may be, means taking an absurd and painfully long route by avoiding soldiers and by finding a road that still remains open. It means going around roadblocks and trenches that seal even the remotest routes, risking physical assaults by soldiers and settlers, and worse, facing random arrests. Knowing the latest news about roads is to measure up the shrinkage of physical space Palestinians are confined into, and at the same time, to grasp the shrinkage of hope and freedom in their life.
Yesterday afternoon, I was among hundreds of people walking along the fence outside of Jerusalem airport, weaving through massive congestion of Palestinian traffic. In the middle of the main Jerusalem-Ramallah road, Israelis had erected a new checkpoint (known as Kalandia checkpoint, as it is located near Kalandia refugee camp) several months earlier. Traffic in the both directions was locked into chaos of cars trying to make their way ahead. At the roadblock, Israeli soldiers inspected each car and driver, letting only few of them to pass. As soon as shared-taxis (a common public transportation in Palestine) came to a halt, passengers would get off, walk through the traffic, and catch another shared-taxi on the other side of the checkpoint. What used to be 15 minutes on a single ride between Ramallah and Jerusalem was now a major fiasco. Under the burning sun, everyone - children, elderly people, families with large grocery bags, mothers with a baby in their arms, students, professionals in suits - was making this trek in the cacophony of honking, inhaling car exhaust and dust, while being watched by armed soldiers on both sides of the road.
Suddenly, someone hurled a rock from behind the traffic at the soldiers in the airport runway. Then followed an empty bottle of Coke. Several rocks flew above my head and landed over the fence, near the soldiers. Alerted, the soldiers held up their weapons, pointing at our directions. Young girls next to me let out a small scream and started to run behind the cars. With their guns at ready-to-fire position the soldiers kept on looking for the rock-throwers who had disappeared into the sea of traffic.
Earlier in the day, I was crossing into Jerusalem from Bethlehem checkpoint. Although the flow of Palestinian traffic was always tightly regulated at this checkpoint, there had been cars and pedestrians traveling before the Intifada. The Bethlehem side of checkpoint used to be lively with street vendors and transportation for workers crossing back into West Bank from their day labor inside Israel. Today, with the complete closure of the territories, the checkpoint is deserted. Only the lucky few with Jerusalem residency or foreign passports can make their way out of West Bank. As I approached the roadblocks, Israeli soldiers were inspecting a medical vehicle that belonged to Palestinian Red Crescent Society. In front of me were several college-aged women, protesting the soldier's rejection to let them pass. A group of old women in their traditional dress were also denied to pass, and shook their heads and started to walk back. The soldier took down information from my Japanese passport and gestured me to pass. I snatched my passport back from him and walked away, while anger boiled inside of me.
The people at Kalandia and Bethlehem checkpoints still had more mobility than most Palestinians, for they were able to make their way out of their villages and refugee camps to Jerusalem-West Bank borders. Most Palestinians haven't left their community for months, for they are physically blocked from all directions by Israeli roadblocks, trenches, settlements, bypass-roads, and military posts.
Few days ago, I drove by the villages of Hosan and Al-Khader on Israeli bypass-road (the road system linking settlements and Jerusalem). Both villages are located near Dheisheh camp but might as well be in Alaska, as the closure has completely cut off these communities from one another. The two roads leading to Hosan village were destroyed and sealed with a mound of earth and concrete blocks. The entrance of Al-Khader villages was sealed in the same manner, and armed Israeli soldiers monitored villagers climbing over by foot the mound of earth to make their way in and out of the village. On a nearby hilltop situated a military tank, with its cannon directly pointing at the direction of Bethlehem. Tonight, flash news on TV reported that a woman near Nablus died for failing to reach the hospital in time for medical treatment. Later came in another report that Hosan was under attack by Jewish settlers.
My friend Rashid from Dheisheh is discouraged from going to his university in Abu Dis (in the east of Jerusalem), after the only route connecting north and south of the West Bank became no longer available. The route, named Wadi Nar ("Valley of Fire"), was a dangerous, winding valley road, and was the only alternative detour route for Palestinians who could not travel on the regular, safer and faster road for the lack of permit from Israelis. Following the suicide attack at a Tel Aviv disco, Wadi Nar was destroyed in several places by Israeli army. Rashid, like many other Bethlehem area students, woke up at 5AM and tried 'the alternative to the alternative' road, which was far more dangerous than Wadi Nar and could only reach some kilometers away from the university, leaving passengers to trek on hills for half an hour. After two hours of traveling (Abu Dis and Bethlehem/Dheisheh are less than 10 kilometers apart) Rashid arrived at the university and found the place nearly empty. "I would never want to travel on that route. The ride really made me carsick. Besides, it travels too close to settlements and that is very dangerous," he said.
The Palestinians under the occupation never had full freedom, even before the Intifada. When I lived here in 1999-2000, most of my friends were not able to go to Jerusalem, and various restrictions controlled every aspect of their life. Yet those days almost seem like a good dream today. My Dheisheh friends used to be able to visit Ramallah through Wadi Nar, although it was ridiculous to drive for an hour and a half instead of 35 minutes on a regular road. My friend from Hebron used to take a two-hour commute to Ramallah through Wadi Nar, but it still was better than not working at all today. My young friends from Dheisheh used to take me to hike on the hills of Artas, a scenic agricultural village behind the camp. Today, they inform me: "Shirabe, we can't go there anymore because there is an Israeli tank. The soldiers will shoot us."
"It's like dying slowly from inside everyday," my friend Awatef sums up the life under the prolonged and worsening siege. "Every morning as I walk through Kalandia checkpoint on my way to work, I try telling myself: I am going to have a good day, I am going to have a good day."