*NEW* Search Our Team Reports! Type a word/phrase in the box below (hint: try "settlers').


“Allah Loves Gentleness in all Matters”: one peace worker’s experience at an Israeli checkpoint

On the day that my teammate and I left the West Bank we took a bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem. Just before the bus arrived at the checkpoint it stopped, and two armed Israeli soldiers boarded and began to check everyone’s identification. As one soldier turned to talk to another passenger, his machine gun hit my teammate on the shoulder. He didn't seem to notice, and I do not think that this move was intentional, especially since international travelers usually are treated with much more courtesy than is extended to Palestinians. Still, even when it is by accident, being hit with someone’s automatic weapon is unnerving.

After the soldiers checked our passports, they told us to take our bags, get off of the bus and proceed to a nearby building. In order to do this we crossed a yard with more soldiers, more weapons, a view of the high concrete separation wall, barbed wire, and a vehicle so heavily fortified with military accessories that it looked more like a tank than a jeep. When we reached the building we waited in a line that was not long, but moved slowly. I saw a Palestinian woman who had gotten there ahead of us walking away from the checkpoint and back towards the West Bank. She held what looked like a green-colored passport and seemed upset. I wondered what had happened.

When we got to the front of the line, large metal turnstile doors were turned on electronically to allow my teammate to enter the building. After about ten minutes I was admitted as well. I then put my luggage through the screening machine and gave my passport to an official who was standing behind a thick glass window. At this point, my teammate was told that there was “a problem with her passport” and that they would have to “check on it.” MPT teams stay together in such situations, so we were both instructed to “step aside.” From where we were told to stand, we could not see the security personnel.

We had no idea how long we would have to stay there or what was wrong. It seemed like we waited for a very long time, although in truth I do not think that it was more than a half an hour.

One of the officials appeared and instructed us to proceed through a heavy door. We were then left in a metal, windowless room that could not have been more than five feet long and five feet wide. What I found particularly strange and somewhat unsettling about this space was that it had a grate for a ceiling. It felt very much like being in a cage. Once again we were told to wait for an unspecified amount of time and without any explanation. I wondered what would happen next. Would there be more rooms? Would there be some sort of interrogation?

I remembered the story told to me just a few weeks beforehand by an elderly woman I met in Jerusalem. I will talk about her in general terms as I know that she would be terrified if she thought that anyone might suspect her of criticizing the Israeli state. She is Jewish, speaks fluent Hebrew, and loves Israel where she lives half of the year. She also holds a passport from a Western country that supports Israel. All of these factors work in her favor as far as Israeli officialdom is concerned. However, she was born in an Arab country, and this makes her suspect in their eyes.

She will insist to anyone who questions her that she cannot help where she was born and that she holds no Arab sympathies, but this did not stop airport security from detaining her for four hours the last time she tried to enter Israel. She told me how during that time she was kept in a room so small that it was impossible for her to sit while one official after another interrogated her. Sometimes they posed questions that were ordinary but repeated over and over again. Other times they made outlandish accusations. She confided her story so that it might serve as a warning to me, and at one point in the conversation she leaned forward and spoke with an intensity and seriousness that startled me; she said “be very careful of what you say, you never know who is listening.”

I then thought of the abuses that Palestinians often suffer at checkpoints, well- documented by humanitarians and peace workers (Israeli, Palestinian and international), as well as the many accounts of Palestinians who have been tortured in Israeli prisons and have the scars to prove it. I knew that as an American citizen, there was little danger that I would suffer any such fate, but how long would I have to stay in this building made of metal and concrete that seemed designed to intimidate, and what might I be forced to see or hear while I am here?

I decided that this train of thought was not helpful, so I tried to calm my mind by focusing on my breath and a tiny spot on the zipper of my suitcase. Just as I was starting to feel as though I was prepared mentally to face the worst, the silence was broken by a voice that came over the intercom above our heads. It instructed us to take our bags and leave. When we got to the other side of the door, my teammate asked one of the guards what the “problem” with her passport was, but no explanation was given. Again we were told to leave. We then went to the parking lot on the other side of the building to wait for another bus to take us into Jerusalem.

When the bus arrived it was ordinary and not particularly luxurious, but when I stepped onto it I felt like I was stepping into a sanctuary. Finally, I was free of the checkpoint. I cannot tell you what type of music was playing on the radio, all l I remember is that it seemed incredibly soothing. After I took my seat, I noticed a sign above the driver’s head. It said “Allah loves gentleness in all matters.” I am not a Muslim[1], nor would I describe myself as a religious person, but I found this message to be extremely comforting. I let my gaze rest upon it. It was as if the bus driver knew that all of the passengers had just experienced a form of low-level, but nevertheless anxiety-producing, violence at the hands of a military state and wanted to reassure us that our relatively meek and nonaggressive response to it was not a sign of weakness nor was it reason to be ashamed, but rather praiseworthy behavior.

Suddenly I felt a connection with the bus driver, the other passengers and with the thousands of Palestinians who must pass through checkpoints every day, for some twice a day, and maintain a calm exterior despite whatever feelings of helplessness, fear or anger that might arise. I looked at the Palestinian women and men in simple, loose-fitting clothing. They sat quietly. Some looked out of the windows. Soon they would gather their belongings and begin the day in Jerusalem. “Allah loves gentleness in all matters” - why doesn’t this type of story ever reach the headlines?

[1] It should be noted that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, and Muslims consider it to be the same God as that of the Christians and the Jews. While it is often associated with Islam it is not exclusive to Islam.

No comments: