You look out the window of your bus and looming ahead is a huge concrete wall, stories high, topped by an ominous-looking guard tower. You might be leaving Bethlehem just to travel the few miles to Jerusalem, but every time you want to go in or out of Bethlehem you must go through a checkpoint because this small city has been walled off by Israel, surrounded almost completely, and is dependent on the disposition of a few youthful soldiers posted at the gates. Your vehicle pulls to a halt; there is an ominous pause. Then a college-aged person in uniform, carrying a large automatic weapon, sidles slowly up to the driver’s window and a few words are exchanged. Your Palestinian driver answers some questions in Hebrew and perhaps produces some papers. Then another pause – sometimes only a moment or two, sometimes longer. The bus is waved on and begins to move. Suddenly you realize you were holding your breath, figuratively if not literally. And then you remember you are an American citizen and you have very little to fear in this situation. The people at risk are Palestinians who are forced to go through this scenario day after day – for access to work, college exams, hospitals, friends, family members, and the olive groves that have been in their families for hundreds of years. Sometimes the result is that they are very late for work, or not allowed through at all. Sometimes a person who is very ill is unable to reach the hospital in time; a baby is born in a car or someone dies of pulmonary edema, waiting at the checkpoint. As you pass through the high wall you see again the artwork and commentaries by Palestinians -- expressing objection, hope, or humor.
But the checkpoints are not simply in areas where Palestinians cross into Israel proper – as one might expect, since Israel claims such measures are for purposes of security for the Israeli population. If this is so, then why are there checkpoints within the West Bank itself, between one Palestinian village and the next? We asked our guides and we asked the human rights workers we met. One answer we received was, “Who knows?” The implication is that this is another form of harassment, a way to make life a little more uncomfortable for the indigenous population. As we traveled around inside the West Bank itself we encountered what the locals humorously refer to as “flying checkpoints”: by the roadside an army vehicle, a few soldiers, a line of Palestinian vehicles and taxis waiting in the sun. The drivers are questioned; often they are made to get out of the vehicle, along with any passengers, and told to empty the contents of their bags on the ground. It has been documented on film and in interviews that some soldiers take the attitude that it is their job or even duty to harass Palestinians. The rules are made up on the spot but the overall philosophy comes from the top. Israel claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” and the US gives Israel support to the tune of $19 per every American citizen every year, but I was reminded of the Kafka novels The Castle and The Trial – in which life is portrayed as a maze and there are no explainable events – Kafka’s critique of mindless totalitarianism.
The idea of a maze is further substantiated by the impossibly complex way the land of the Palestinian people is divided into three areas: A, B and C. The smallest is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the largest by Israel, and in between is an area of joint control. Although the PA is in control of one of these areas, it is important to keep to understand that any control the PA has must be understood in the frame of Israel’s ultimate control. The Palestinian Authority is not an autonomous governing agency, but something more like the oldest child who is babysitting for younger siblings -- in charge, but only as an extension of the parents. This kind of confusion about authority and lack of any semblance of democratic process in the larger society is a constant feature of life in Palestine. In each of the three areas mentioned above, there are differing rules and regulations. If a Palestinian travels to the next village he may suddenly find himself subject to entirely different laws, which may be broken without even realizing it. Further, if you are Palestinian and have lived in this place your entire life – as did your parents and grandparents back through many generations – you dare not go anywhere without your identity papers, and the repeated experience of being examined as though you were an interloper.
The average tourist is insulated from all this, traveling on Israeli-only roads and having no exposure to the people living under occupation. They may possibly go to Bethlehem for a few hours, but we stayed in a Bethlehem hotel for five nights, and with local families for four more. Our exposure to the living situation was not sugar-coated. And yet, the culture, the hospitality, the accommodations – all were utterly appealing and genuine. Here is an entire population living without enough water for daily needs along with scarcity of work, deep poverty and never-ending rules that prevent freedom of movement and subject entire neighborhoods and towns to violence from the army and illegal “settlers.” Yet they begrudged us nothing, were friendly and generous, intelligent and knowledgeable.
There are many water issues in this area as might be expected, and I am not an expert, but I will make a few observations. Israelis are able to build large homes in the places where Palestinian homes on Palestinian land have been demolished; Israelis have water in abundance, and, like the upper-middle-class Western societies from which these expectations emerge, water is available in such abundance that they build swimming pools, plant king palms that require 300 gallons of water per day to thrive, and – as they so proudly claim-- turn the dessert into green lawns. One can tell where the Palestinian homes are located because they have to put rain-water collector tanks on top of their roofs in an effort to supply daily needs, since they generally receive only a few hours worth of water daily, and sometimes less. The Jordan River is disappearing as the water table decreases. Until the creation of the state of Israel, the indigenous population lived carefully within the parameters of the natural environment, taking only the water that was needed, growing and eating the foods that appear there naturally, not stressing the water table nor forcing the land to grow what is not natural to it.
Not only were we shocked to learn of the blatant discrimination against the Palestinians with respect to the water-access, but we were stunned to find much evidence of deliberate acts such as the following: on the edge of Bethlehem we visited a church with gardens in which the monks have carefully grown vegetables for generations. It is an ancient place and backs up into a hillside. In recent years Israeli “settlers” (a polite word for the colonizers who build illegally on Palestinian land) have built on the top of the hill and run their sewerage down the hill to pollute the gardens of the church. This was not a small thing, as the effluent was observable all over the area above and abutting the church’s land, and, depending of the breeze showed it’s nature by the odor. Perhaps this image is a metaphor that describes the attitude of Israel toward those whose land it occupies: despotism and lack of accountability are key. While the damage is apparent to those who are occupied, less apparent -- yet real -- is the hidden effect on the occupier. In our meeting with B’tselem, the premier human rights organization of Israel, which carefully documents the abuses of Israel toward the Palestinians, we heard this theme: Israel cannot continue in such wanton lack of simple decency toward others and not have it effect profound destructive changes within itself.
One final item, pointed out to us with especial clarity by B’tselem, and by the Palestinian justice organization Addameer. Israel applies one system of civil justice to Israelis and another system – that of military courts – to the Palestinians. By virtue of the fact that Israel is an occupying power, civilian Palestinians are subjected to a system of military justice that is harsh, inscrutable, and arbitrary. To apply a military system to a civilian population is one more of the illegalities of the Israeli occupation – to say nothing of the inhumanities. One effect of this bifurcated system is easy to encounter if you get to know a few of the local people: almost every Palestinian male has been arrested and imprisoned. The profiling is simple: any male Palestinian between ages 15 and 45 is automatically suspicious. And there are thousands of hidden laws to catch them in. It is illegal to display the flag of Palestine. That does not mean that every time the flag appears, someone disappears, but it does mean that this law comes in handy any time the Israeli Defense Force wants to incarcerate someone. In fact there are so many small laws that can be broken that a Palestinian is always in danger of incarceration. It reminds me of the expression “driving while black” – a reference to racial profiling that occurs in our own country, but is not, any longer, enshrined in law. That’s a step. But for Palestinians there are thousands of small laws that amount to nothing more than the infraction of “living while Palestinian.” For example, the requirement to check with authorities before you plant something in front of your house, and the law against transporting anything by donkey, which I think would have made life even more difficult for Joseph and Mary.
When we sat for a couple of hours at the Jenin crossing, we decided that if Mary and Joseph had been required to go through what local people encounter in travel today, their trip from Nazareth would have taken so long that Jesus would have been born in Zababdeh, or maybe Nablus.
On the more serious note of the plans that Israel has for the little town of Bethlehem, we need to become more aware of what may occur in the future and how the wall and illegal Israeli acquisition of land may eventually prevent any of us from visiting the place of our savior’s birth.
The Rev. Rev. Branwen L. Cook is Chair of the Massachusetts Conference Israel-Palestine Task Team and Pastor of the Roslindale Congregational Church, UCC.