This time last year, I was ready to get out of the Holy Land. I was sick of the intensity, the thickness of the Jerusalem air. It was time to go. But before I did, I was determined to squeeze in as much as possible and I set hesitation aside for the last week of this first leg.
But an overpowering sense of ‘now or never’ led me back to Silwan, one last time, to bear witness to the destruction of the neighborhood community center. The building I had sat in a few weeks ago lay spread in front of me on the asphalt, twisted metal, a crate of chickens, Foosball tables and green onions. The video had been sickening to watch but I could not look away as the crane tore into the tin roof and dragged metal around aimlessly across the ground. In person, it was heavier, emptier, no crowd gathered to shout and protest, instead neighbors peered cautiously from shuttered windows.
I felt empty as I walked out of the valley with the sunset.
Last year on this day, 25 people were given a choice on the side of a highway in the West Bank: get back on the bus or be arrested. One of those choices was mine to make and with little hesitation, I climbed onto the bus and watched as many of my companions were taken into custody.
A half an hour before that, I had been talking to a Palestinian girl on our way to the weekly protest in Bil’in. She told me how her parents did not like her going to the protests for fear she would be arrested or injured. When our bus was pulled over at the flying checkpoint, I described what was happening outside and when they collected our IDs, she passed me her papers and I handed them over along with my American passport. I guided her into the aisle when they ordered us off the bus. I did all of these things because she was blind.
When we were given the ultimatum at the guardrail, she stayed, I left. I felt a bit like I had abandoned her, but I stand by my choice today. There was a great distance between us in that moment. It is even greater now.
I took this picture during a trip to the West Bank for the sole purpose of using it as a decoy in case the Israeli police were to search my camera at the checkpoint. Cleverly, I thought, I used a separate memory card to photograph (badly, on purpose) this obscure Christian holy site. My plan was to swap out memory cards on the bus and pretend I was a religious pilgrim if questioned.
I was later informed by a Palestinian woman with considerably more experience in such matters that my tactics would have failed utterly because I was far too young to be a credible pilgrim.
Was she right? I will never know. Working this way definitely made me feel more paranoid, but also more badass. I think it was a reasonable trade-off.
I shot this from the hip as part of a multimedia project for which I rode the Jerusalem Light Rail end to end. The storyline I witnessed was predictable and everything fell into place during my ride. The transit police boarded as we neared the green line, and started harassing people who wore headscarves or were not white shortly thereafter. I don’t know what the result of this exchange was, but it was not the only one I witnessed on the 40-minute tram ride.
I felt embarrassed in my knowledge that I would not be asked for more than a quick ticket check.
Our bus of Israeli and international activists was stopped en route to a demonstration in the village of Bil’in this morning at a temporary checkpoint in the West Bank. Because of police action, we were denied the right to demonstrate at the seventh anniversary of the world-famous protests against the wall in Bil’in. A police officer boarded the bus at 11:25am and collected everyone’s identification for a “routine check.” For myself and other internationals, this meant reluctantly handing over our passports. We sweated it out for about ten minutes on the bus, before being asked to disembark. An experienced international activist called the other foreigners together and discussed with us the merits of attempting to walk through the checkpoint sans passport. It could, he argued, confuse the police and force their hand, which would probably result in us getting our passports back, and possibly result in our arrest. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose because after another five minutes or so, our IDs were passed back unscathed.
However, this did not mean that our path forward had been blessed by the police. On the contrary, we had been deemed a potential security threat and were ordered to return to Jerusalem. A loud discussion in Hebrew ensued, while more officers arrived on the scene and began filming us, recording our faces for posterity. I’m not sure what, if anything, will become of this footage. There wasn’t much to see. We were just standing there. They already knew exactly who we were from our passports. I’m sure they had already updated our information in whatever huge database the Israeli police are maintaining on its population and those who enter their country. Even so, I put on sunglasses and ducked a bit.
Then, the police gave us an ultimatum: get back on the bus in five minutes, or be arrested. All of this in Hebrew. The internationals were getting spotty translations from anyone with a spare ear and the presence of mind to think bi-lingually. Then our party began to splinter apart. A few attempted to walk forward, sat down, and were arrested. I got back on the bus with a handful of others. Another man sat down and refused to move. Four officers carried him to a police car. All in all, eight activists were arrested, Israelis and internationals alike. They squeezed seven people into the police cars (over capacity, I believe), and one man, an Israeli-Palestinian, was left behind to wait for another vehicle to take him away. I don’t know what happened to him.
About ten of us remained on the bus, but our adventure with the police was far from over. They had kept the drivers’ ID, and were holding it until we were back in Jerusalem and they were satisfied that our venture in the West Bank was spoiled. We had no choice but to follow a police car for perhaps 20 minutes until they finally let us go somewhere in North Jerusalem. During the ride, I learned that the police had known of our plans (unclear how) and set up the checkpoint specifically to intercept us. We had received a very unusual military order, only valid in the West Bank, featuring a map with a red box drawn around Bil’in. The police were preventing “suspicious” people from entering this area. Another bus (maybe from Tel Aviv) was also stopped.
We headed to the police station in Giv’at Ze’ev where the other members of our party were detained. We learned that the detention center only had room for half of the people they had detained, so some were inside, while others waited outside in the increasingly nasty weather. Clouds blew in and the temperature dropped. There were rumors of snow in Ramallah later on, and we were all expecting rain. We also learned that the majority of the activists had just been detained, not arrested, and they could only be held for three hours. However, it is subjective when the three hours starts, so we worried that the activists waiting outside might not start their three hours until the first group was released and they could be moved inside. With Shabbat approaching, this could make things unpleasant for getting home that evening.
Some of the activists were making phone calls to lawyers, another pair ran off to buy food for the detainees. We waited for maybe an hour and a half, and the suddenly most of our companions were released. The Israeli-Palestinian, who had actually been arrested “for refusing arrest” was not among them. By this time, food had arrived and it was 3pm. We tore into the bread and fruit outside the station as it began to rain.
It was extremely frustrating to be prevented from going to the protest in Bil’in, especially because this was my one and only chance to attend. However, the experience reminded me of a paper presented at a Border Conflicts conference I attended last Fall which argued that modern borders are being moved back into countries, manifested in airports, cities, and of course, checkpoints. They are no longer geographically tied to the borderline itself. This paper was based on the situation in Ukraine, but the theory was demonstrated clearly today in Israel/Palestine. What better case study than a country where borders operate on a de-facto basis and are still being formed and defined? The police who stopped us at the checkpoint today represent a wall that is every bit as real and physical as the concrete blocks that loom in the West Bank.