The AIC is a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization and has offices in Israel and in Palestine. As part of my work for the AIC, I “commute” to the Jerusalem office from Beit Sahour in the West Bank at least once a week to meet, discuss stories, and collaborate with colleagues. Last week after a long day in Jerusalem, I headed back to the bus station to catch bus 21 that goes straight to Bethlehem. Usually this is a pretty uneventful, beautiful bus ride from the Old City’s Damascus Gate through the hills of Jerusalem to the center of Bethlehem. It is one of the more comfortable ways to move between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. There is only a short stop at the military checkpoint where, according to your status, you either have to get off or can stay on the bus to have your papers checked. Of course it is always a tense experience when someone in military uniform and an assault rifle slung around their shoulder enters your bus. However, belonging to the tourist category I had quickly gotten used to the brief interruption that lets you forget how difficult the same journey is for Palestinians, be it for travel, to visit relatives and friends, or to pray in Jerusalem.
This time was different. From the bus station for Palestinian busses we drive about 500 meters where Israeli soldiers stop the bus. One soldier gets on and moves slowly from person to person, looks at one document after the other, comparing faces to ID photos, looking for proper permits, searching for something out of the ordinary. People slowly unfold each individual document. An old man next to me fidgets with his prayer beads. Heads are turning, quietly checking in on each other. Seeing if everyone is ok, checking if maybe someone on this bus doesn’t belong here. But what would it mean not to belong? To pass through checkpoints Palestinians need permits, which are often denied. Even with permit most Palestinians can’t use this bus but must wait in long lines at the main checkpoint to be searched and have their belongings checked.
The soldier slowly makes his way up the aisles towards me. Despite knowing that I have nothing to fear as a foreigner, my throat starts closing up. The soldiers on the way in usually only pass by me with a quick glance at my dark red passport. So I jerk back a little when this time the soldier grabs my passport out off my hand. Why? What is he looking for? If even I with my European passport get nervous, how do Palestinians feel every time their documents are checked – every time doubting if the soldiers will find some reason to make them wait or to not let them pass.
The soldier hands back my passport. He remains next to my seat while looking at the permits of two families with small children in the last two rows. My gaze is fixed on his rifle. Having grown up in Germany, where the military is not allowed to operate in domestic matters, it is incredibly strange for me to see soldiers with weapons every day. Here soldiers have guns with them all the time, on duty and off duty, manning a checkpoint, waiting at the bus terminal, walking down the street. Only the safety and one small movement of a finger away from going off.
Finally the soldier turns and heads to the front of the bus. He exits with three ID cards still in his hand. Why? What is he checking outside? Some try to doze off, trying to pass the time, they have probably witnessed similar events many times before.
The head of the soldier pops up at the front of the bus. He calls out one name. A young man in the row right in front of me gets up. He walks towards him and they disappear to the outside.
Why? Will he return? Is something wrong with his ID? Has he done something? What about the other two ID holders that were not called up?
I am sitting on the edge of my seat staring at the front of the bus as if it could make the young Palestinian reappear to the empty seat I am so close to. I am still not sure what they are looking for. I can feel my muscles tensing.
Finally he returns with the other two IDs in his hands. He gives them back to their owners. When he sits back down in front of me I ask him if he speaks English. He says no but keeps looking at me. So I ask what happened. “Government. Check.” And points to his papers. I ask in Arabic: Why? He just shrugs his shoulders.
On the way back, I saw the wall for the first time. Of course I had looked at it a dozen times before. You really can’t avoid it living in the Bethlehem area since it almost encircles the city. But this time the grey cement just stood out a little brighter from the green hills. Cutting through the houses and trees a little harsher. Curving over the landscape a little higher. Containing the city within the limits of its concrete confines.
Posted By Mona Niebuhr
Posted Jul 22nd, 2013