Palestine and Israel have been prominent in the news again lately and I’ve been reflecting on how stories are reported, the language used, and of my last visit.
At the end of May I left northern Palestine through a checkpoint that I hadn’t been through before. I was with my Scottish friend Jane. We were two women of middle age from over here, going through a system over there that was not designed to process the likes of us: There was no ‘international channel’ as with checkpoints in areas where more tourists or foreigners pass through, like Jerusalem-Ramallah. Our departure from Palestine reflected, in a practical sense, that of thousands of Palestinians going through the same process twice a day, several times a week, most weeks of the year.
When we first arrived at Al-Jalama checkpoint near Jenin around 11.30 on a hot Friday morning, nothing was moving and no one was going anywhere. The other people already waiting there told us they had been informed that the gate – a huge turnstile – would open again at midday. It was unclear how this information had been passed on as there were no officials, nothing like an information board, no one in any kind of uniform with any kind of obvious role. Everyone was at the behest of a faceless system. Jane and I joined the groups of men and a handful of women waiting, first of all sitting down on a metal bench and then moving closer to the gate, as advised by someone who wanted to give us a friendly tip-off.
Around midday everybody else began to gravitate towards the turnstile. A few minutes after 12 a green light lit up above the turnstile and, in an instant, a man who had been leaning in on the gate since we’d arrived was through to the other side. The gate clicked firmly shut behind him. We all pushed. The gate didn’t move. The green light was no longer lit; the red one was. A few minutes went by. Some people raised their eyebrows. Most looked resigned. Then, as if randomly, the green light lit up again and around twenty or thirty of us were able to pass through the gate. Jane and I tried to keep up but most other people were soon way ahead of us.
It wasn’t obvious where to go but a Palestinian woman showed us the way, which turned out to be through five more turnstiles, down a long, grey, partitioned channel and into a cubicle with high sides, no view and a locked door. At this point, a voice barked over a tannoy. Instructions were being given about how many people could progress through at a time to the next stage, but we didn’t know that. We turned to the woman next to us. “What did they say?” we asked her. “Seven”, she said, “seven can go through at a time.
Just then the disembodied voice became intelligible to us as we realised English was now being spoken. What was being said was now being directed specifically to Jane and I. We looked up, turned around; still we could see no face, no person, no body. Just a sound, a distorted voice: “Where are you from?” “Scotland”, Jane answered. “Scotland is very beautiful”, pronounced the voice and then asked, “How do you like Israel?” “It’s beautiful”, Jane replied, to the thin air, having little choice in how to respond and with no idea to whom she was speaking.
Next we were directed to step into another cubicle, to empty our pockets of our phones and passports, and to step back out again. A few minutes later we were asked to go back and pick them up. All of these instructions were relayed over the tannoy. At no point were we able to see who was seeing us. After this, we went through one more door, looked right and left at a line of empty booths, and proceeded to the far end, to the one staffed booth, where somebody in uniform took our fingerprints and looked over our passports again. We were then free to go.
The woman who checked our passports was the first official we had set eyes on during a process which took an hour – a relatively short time since it was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer in Palestine, and so a day when not many Palestinians cross to Israel to go to work. For me, this one-off experience of being herded through countless gates, cubicles and corridors, with no human engagement or visible presence from those controlling the security process was the most de-humanising I can remember.
Recently there has been escalating violence in Israel with more deaths on both sides. Hearing about yet more loss of life, whether Israeli or Palestinian, saddens me so deeply it is hard to know how to articulate my response. While condemning violence of all kinds, a word I would not choose to use in describing a perpetrator of a violent attack, however, is ‘beast’. This kind of language, used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few days ago in relation to the recent attacks, goes a long way to destroying any chance of a dialogue between people – human beings, all – who share the same needs, desires and hopes but who do not enjoy the same freedom of movement, access to resources and range of opportunities.
Recently I was listening to a talk by meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. He told the following story to illustrate a point he was making about the place and power of compassion. When Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, was under house arrest for all those years in Burma, she was asked by a journalist at one point about how she must – surely – want to ‘bring down’ the generals at the forefront of the military regime there. She replied that no, she didn’t want to bring them down, she wanted to bring them up.
Helping people up, rather than bringing them down by using systems and language which are reductive and de-humanising; this is the way forward, surely?