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Egypt

The Bitter Taste Of Israeli Oppression At The Border

Getting past the Israeli checkpoints into Palestine is a humiliating experience. Reflections of an Egyptian writer.

At a checkpoint near Bethlehem
At a checkpoint near Bethlehem
Omar Robert Hamilton*

-Essay-

CAIRO — I used to feel sick for days before traveling to Palestine. I would rehearse my answers, shut down my Twitter page, print off hotel reservations, eject SIM cards. I spent four years' worth of interrogations claiming to be making a film about the restoration of a church in Nazareth. This time, I would think each time, they'll Google me. This time, the Israelis controlling the border will turn me away.

For eight years, we've been bringing people to the Palestine Festival of Literature, on whose board of directors I serve. International authors, artists and publishers arrive in late spring, put on a festival in English and Arabic with their Palestinian counterparts, and leave having understood what decades of spin and lies and obfuscation have worked so hard to hide. They leave understanding how simple it is, what's happening here.

For eight years, the visiting authors' first experience of apartheid is at the border. White faces and northern names cruise through with welcomes and visas, while strange southern names and un-white faces sit and wait to answer questions about their lineage. They are led through interrogations probing for inconsistencies, nervousness, a reason to be turned away. Every year, without exception. Call it security if it makes you feel better, but I won't.

I've been doing it for eight years, and it's always the same. So much has happened in the world, but the border stays the same. When they ask what I have come to do, I use words such as "arts," "culture" and "workshop" in a variety of floral combinations. Words that sound harmless to these men with guns.

Are they, in fact, harmless?

Maybe they are Googling me. Maybe they know the whole truth. I wish, sometimes, that they would turn me away.

Denying a people

They want Palestine to disappear. To keep people away. The old will die and the young will forget. And they think it's working. There is no airport to fly to, no arrival stamp in your passport, no website with travel tips you can trust. Google Maps doesn't know the names of the streets in Ramallah or how to drive to Nablus. It will only direct you toward the settlement cities and military prisons.

In this age of nation-states and EasyJets, Israel works to fracture both the land and the idea. Palestine is the West Bank, Palestine is Area A, Palestine is not Gaza, Palestine never existed, Palestine is a confusion. You cannot understand it. You must forget it.

But it is the idea that is strongest. Palestine is every breath from the Galilee to the Naqab, Palestine is every child born in a refugee camp, Palestine is Ferguson, Baltimore, Tibet and Western Sahara. Is that a strength — being strongest in idea? Or is it the last breath before death?

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Te Wall seen from Bethlehem's Aida refugee camp — Photo: Paolo Cuttitta

The idea of the Apache, Inca, Arawak were strong once, too. Are strong today.

"Just go to Israel," I could say, when people ask me how to get to Palestine. "Just go and talk to a Palestinian and you'll be in Palestine." But what would they see? If you drive north from Jerusalem to Haifa, you will see a rolling grassy hillock to your right. You wouldn't know that the Wall runs underneath it. You wouldn't know what it looks like from the other side.

Israel is a colonist's exercise in landscaping on a national, messianic scale. And so the landscape has to be translated for the visitor. This, I would tell you, is a road that only settlers can drive on. These are rooftops from which Palestinian flags are banned. This is an olive grove burned by settlers. This is a well that has been filled with cement. This is my friend who cannot come with us for dinner in Jerusalem. And these trees hide the ruins of a village taken in 1948, and there, on that hill, is an apricot farm. And there, on the other side of the Wall, is where the farmer lives.

Defined by war

Driving through the West Bank, I look up at the settlements, small cities coiled around the top of the hills, watching, waiting. Palestine is the topography of war, the exodus of people up the mountain, the valley a tank can't cross, the coastal plain to flood people down. The land is defined by war, and Israel shapes the land for the war to come. The settlements wait for the signal from their higher ground.

The watchful visitor will soon understand that every inch of the land is monitored, controlled, prepared for. Every dimension of life is mapped and manipulated. Air, water, electricity, money, food, movement, education, ideas, love — none are free. The occupation of both the present and the past is a complex operation.

But it is more complex to hide a simple truth: that one people are trying to wipe out another. That, in the end, is all there is to it.

When you cross Qalandia checkpoint, it all becomes clear. The first time for me was in 2008. I was stunned by its brutality, the explicitly dystopian design, the razor wire and video cameras. By the inescapability of it. There are four tight metal corridors, each leading to a revolving steel gate. The metal is close, pushes up to your shoulders. Two people cannot fit in this animal run. There's no way back, no way sideways, no way to talk, just wait your turn, wait to see what lies beyond that steel gate. There is only you in the metal corral and your own existence between the bars that strip you of pride or philosophy and leave you only as a body, a body facing forward and being herded in toward a reckoning.

In a slaughterhouse they don't let the cows see what's waiting for them. They don't want to scare them. It's bad for the meat. Not here. Here your humiliation is laid bare. You must all stand and watch each other, grow weaker through each other's weakness. The metal gate at the end stays locked. You wait together for permission to move, for the green light to buzz, to step forward into the deeper bowels of this slaughterhouse of dignity.

I cried the first time I got through. I came out into the sunlight and broke into tears.

Qalandia hasn't changed in eight years. But other things have. Gaza, BDS, Netanyahu, Obama. Years of Palestinian deaths and Israeli words and American excuses. Enough has changed to fill a book with words. And yet nothing has. One people are still trying to drive another out of existence.

*Omar Robert Hamilton is an Egyptian filmmaker and writer. He is on the board of the Palestine Festival of Literature and has worked as festival producer since 2010.

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