is fast overtaking weather as Londoners’ favourite gripe, and in
this respect, many of us have a love-hate relationship with mayor
Ken Livingstone - we love him for condemning occupation, oppression
and injustice, but hate the worsening state of commuting.
traffic wardens, endless road works, the congestion charge,
perpetual tube delays, the rising cost of public transport…we have
a lot to complain about, right? Months ago I would have agreed, but
working recently in Palestine for the UN
Development Programme really put things into perspective, and made
me realise how lucky us Londoners have it.
will share with you my first journey out of Ramallah to visit
relatives in Jerusalem, not because it
was worse than any other, but because it was a shock to the system
that prepared me for what would be a weekly ordeal.
ride on the “service” (shared mini-van taxi) got progressively
bumpier as we drew closer to the newly “upgraded” (i.e. more
prison-like) Qalandia checkpoint, with pot-holed roads turning into
are not allowed through checkpoints, so everyone had to get off
before crossing. The scene was chaotic. Cars were stuck in a traffic
jam as far as the eye could see. The wall Israel is building on
Palestinian territory dissected the entire landscape, with slabs of
concrete dwarfing everything in the vicinity, separating the local
community, forcing shops out of business and swallowing up what was
once a Palestinian airport. A huge paint-bombed sniper tower watched
over the masses. Vendors sold “caak” bread that had hardened and
dried under the blazing sun.
human traffic leading to the checkpoint was immense, claustrophobic
and intensely uncomfortable in the sweltering heat. Though the queue
was not moving, everyone seemed remarkably calm, resigned to their
powerlessness. Teenage Israeli soldiers sat on large concrete blocks
in the shade, pointing machine guns at the crowd below, laughing at
the elderly, men carrying heavy bags and women holding crying
babies. Once in a while, the soldiers would let four people at a
time through a set of revolving bars. The place resembled a cattle
market. I spotted someone I knew who told me he had to go through
this twice a day for work.
almost an hour, I was let through to the queue at the second stage
of the checkpoint. After some time, a female soldier said something
to me in Hebrew that I did not understand. She repeated impatiently,
her pointed machine gun making me extremely nervous. A Palestinian
told me I had to empty my bag and pockets, after which I was waved
through to the queue at the third stage of the checkpoint, where
soldiers check your passport and papers.
there was just one other person in front of me, an Egyptian who was
told he did not have the right papers. He explained that this was
his first time here, he did not know what papers he needed, and he
had been waiting for ages. “It’s also your last time,” said
the soldier abruptly, “so turn back”.
gave the soldier my British passport and UN card. “How are you?”
asked the soldier. I did not want to lie and say I was fine, but I
did not want to vent my frustration, so I said nothing. “I said,
how are you?” he repeated sternly. “I’m very late for an
appointment,” I replied. “You don’t know how tough it is for
us here,” he said. I stared incredulously, but bit my tongue.
proceeded to ask me a barrage of questions, the answers to most of
which could easily be found in my passport and UN card. What is your
name? Where are you from? Are you an Arab? Do you speak Arabic? Do
you have Arab friends or relatives here? Where are you staying?
Where are you going? Why are you here? Who are you working for? How
long have you been here? How long are you staying? These questions,
and many more, were repeated ad nauseum, as if in an attempt to
catch me out. Eventually the soldier seemed to get bored. “Have a
good day,” he said sarcastically.
walked through the checkpoint towards the depot of banged-up
“services”, women begging on the dirty ground for shekels.
“Services” do not leave until they are full, so having boarded
one to Jerusalem, we had to wait almost half an hour, baking in an
oven of dust, flies and religious music. As we started passing
Israeli military vehicles, I was never so thankful for a breeze.
10 minutes, we crawled to a halt in front of a line of other
“services”. A Palestinian passenger, noticing my curiosity, said
this was another checkpoint. My heart sunk. After some time, a
teenage Israeli soldier boarded, demanding to see IDs. Hands raised
immediately. He stared at my passport and UN card, which stood out
among the rest. I thought, naively, that these would assure my
passage, but the soldier gestured with his finger for me to get out.
He led me to a stone-faced soldier in a booth, who while looking at
my documents, asked me again and again exactly the same questions I
had answered earlier, though this time I had the pleasure of another
soldier behind him laughing at me continuously.
laughter became uncontrollable when I explained I was working for
the UN. “Who?” asked the soldier. “The United Nations,” I
replied. “Who are they?” he asked. At this point I snapped.
“What exactly is so funny?” I asked. The laughter stopped
immediately. “Don’t worry,” said the soldier, “we can send
you back if we want,” at which point he threw my passport and UN
card at me. They hit my chest and fell to the ground. I picked them
up and returned to the bus, deeply embarrassed that I had made the
other passengers wait 45 minutes in the heat. However, they showed
me no hostility – they had all been through this before.
approached huge hilltops with pristine rows of houses. “Are we in Jerusalem?” I asked my
neighbour. “No, these are settlements,” he replied. All of a
sudden, there was nothing impressive or beautiful about them. These
are illegal colonies on Palestinian land, overlooking Arab slums,
completely surrounding East Jerusalem and cutting it
off from the rest of the West Bank. It is easy, in
fact logical, to think of settlements and the wall with hostility,
but nothing prepares you for the bitterness one feels when seeing
them in real life.
walked in to my relatives’ house drenched in sweat, furious at my
journey and frustrated that they had waited several hours to take me
to the Dead Sea, when Ramallah
is only 20 minutes drive from Jerusalem. The sun was
beginning to descend, but they insisted on going anyway. On the way,
I recounted my experience. “This is nothing,” said one of my
cousins. “You’re British. Palestinians have it much worse.”
But my anger was fuelled precisely by my awareness of this fact,
this daily, tortuous degradation and vice-like control that is not
deemed newsworthy in the West.
swim in the Dead Sea and a picnic
with family put me in better spirits. The sun may have gone down by
the time we got there, but every star in the universe seemed to be
out that night. However, I was plunged back to frightening reality
when we packed our things and my cousin and I walked back towards
the car. We were the last to leave the beach, and as she spoke to me
in Arabic, an Israeli military jeep started circling around us. The
five soldiers stared at us expressionless as I started hearing rapid
clicking, the sound of them firing empty machineguns pointed at us.
the first split second of hearing that sound, I went cold and my
thoughts turned immediately to British photographer Tom Hurndall,
who was killed by an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip while
shepherding Palestinian children to safety. We had no witnesses. The
soldiers could have killed us and claimed we were attacking them -
another needless, grim reminder of the powerlessness of being an
Arab in the Holy Land.
said nothing on the way back to Jerusalem. I was deep in
contemplation at the events of the day. Though I had to be at work
at the next day, I
had to stay in Jerusalem overnight
because it was too late for “services” to take me through the
journey was to repeat itself every Friday for the three months I was
in Palestine, to the point
where as much as I wanted to see my relatives, I hated leaving
Ramallah and usually arrived in Jerusalem in a bad mood.
Bear in mind that for all the hassle of travelling, I never actually
entered Israel – the troops
I endured should never have been there in the first place, confining
and controlling another people against its will.
I guess I should count myself lucky that I could travel at all –
my local friends in Ramallah could never accompany me to Jerusalem. In fact, most
had not left Ramallah, a town you can drive through in 15 minutes,
since the intifada started. One good friend could not visit her
mother who was dying in a Jerusalem hospital.
for those who have to go through checkpoints everyday for work, it
is easy to see how hatred builds up. Indeed, just a few days after
my first trip to Jerusalem, the Qalandia
checkpoint was car-bombed, after which European Jews were replaced
by Ethiopians. To add to the injustice, this most pervasive aspect
of the occupation is perhaps least known to the outside world, where
concern for Israeli security seems to over-ride the daily human
rights violations inflicted on a captive civilian population.
I have painted a clear enough picture of life in the occupied
territories, transport yourself back to London. Do we still
have it so bad? At least our wardens are not heavily armed and
trained to kill. At least London is not dotted
with checkpoints manned by people from another country. At least we
are able to leave our neighbourhoods, go to work, meet friends, see
relatives, do the everyday things we take for granted, that every
human being should take for granted. At least our city is not being
forcibly colonised or ripped apart by a grotesque wall. Ariel Sharon
for mayor, anyone?