My Two Weeks in Palestine
By Alex Antioco
“Shalom, Welcome to Israel” says the flight attendant as a plane full of Zionist starts to clap and cheer as if they were finally home. I sat back in my seat and looked around in disdain at the thought of being surrounded by occupiers, settlers and quite possibly members of the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF). They were celebrating coming home to a land not theirs but one that was forcefully and brutally taken away from the Palestinians. This was my first time in the region and prior to this trip I had only done research on the conflict as well as hear personal accounts from people who lived under the occupation. But I was here now and getting a first hand experience of an occupied Palestine as well as seeing the decimation my tax dollars being an American citizen helps fund.
As soon as I landed there was no time wasted when my friend came to pick me up and took me straight to Qalandiya checkpoint, this checkpoint takes you from Jerusalem to Ramallah in the West Bank and is controlled by the Israeli military to oversee and or subjugate Palestinians coming into Israel. On our drive to Qalandiya I couldn’t help but stare out the window in awe, as I couldn’t believe I was finally here. It was a mix sentiment of wonder taking in all the beauty of Palestine as well as indignation once we got closer to the West Bank and you could start to see Israeli military trucks, watch towers, soldiers, settlements and the wall. The large grim Apartheid Wall is a continuous reminder that Palestine in all its natural beauty is still a prison.
Driving through Qalandiya wasn’t a problem, but upon looking to the opposite side of the checkpoint where Palestinians leave the West Bank is jam-packed traffic. The Israeli military makes it very difficult for Palestinians to leave the West Bank and those who do leave must have permits to pass. Palestinians can wait hours in traffic to get through this checkpoint and all they want is to get to work, school and maybe even see a doctor. Driving through Qalandiya you can see the streets and apartheid wall look charred and this was due to the huge demonstration held at Qalandiya checkpoint on July 24th, 2014. This demonstration hardly got media coverage but it was one of the largest since the last Intifada with 48 thousand Palestinians demonstrating against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. That night Israeli soldiers fired live ammunition on protestors.
Walking through the Qalandiya checkpoint is no different in terms of the wait except the conditions are far worse. As I would later see for myself, Palestinians walking through Qalandiya checkpoint are detained and caged in a single file before they are allowed to pass through to Jerusalem. Upon first entering Qalandiya the first thing that comes to mind is they’re treating human beings like caged animals. Imagine having to wake up hours before your supposed to get up for work, only to be met by hundreds of people literally caged in a narrow single file line getting ID’d and frisked, bombarded with questions and maybe even turned back if that soldier feels like it that day. The same goes for the over 500 flyby checkpoints in the West Bank that can be easily compared to what Blacks and Latinos go through with stop and frisk in the United States.
On numerous occasions we were stopped by Israeli soldiers, without any provocation from us just the fact that there were Arabs in the car. Instead of Israeli soldiers asking to check your bags or car the first question aside from seeing identification is let me get your cell phone. Which is odd because if you stopped someone because you feared they were a threat to security wouldn’t you check the person, the car and their belongings first. Why go into their cell phones first? This just shows that the checkpoints are a means of controlling and degrading Palestinians more so than they are about a security check.
The whole system is racist. When they stop you, you are met by sarcasm, aggression and at times mocking. In one incident at a checkpoint they came to the window guns in their hands shouting at us, when asked why we were being yelled at in such an aggressive manner the two soldiers who looked no more than 18 years of age shouted even louder and proceeded to tell my friend that he was in charge not her. When she told him he was treating her like she wasn’t human, he began to mock her and laugh with the other soldier. Their behavior was not only racist and demeaning but also that of a child with a big gun in his hand. That’s who was in charge that night.
Being in the Old City in Jerusalem was one of the first times I truly felt the intensity of the conflict. The Old City is beautiful and quaint with narrow streets lined with vendors and crowded with tourist as well as those who live there. One of the most important things to take note of while in the Old City is how freely the settlers walk around with their rifles as if it were a bag. These are not men in uniform, these are average civilians walking around with guns who get away with not only stealing land from Palestinians but from constantly harassing and abusing them. They walk around the streets of Jerusalem as if they are patrolling the streets, meanwhile there are soldiers at every corner staring down everyone who passed by.
As you walk the streets of the Old City you see settlers coming out of homes that used to belong to Palestinians. It makes you angry to see them get away with this and walk around arrogantly. Walking down these streets as much as you enjoy meeting the people and sight seeing, the reality is that there are rifles all around you. Settlers and soldiers are not to be trusted with them, much like its hard to trust police officers in the United States. It’s so intense they walk very close to your back with rifles as if to remind you of their presence, they did this to my friend and I.
Hebron 2 or H2, which is the Israeli controlled part of Hebron (H1 or Hebron 1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and surrounds H2), was the most tumultuous city I went to because this is where Palestinians live side by side with the most violent of settlers. The checkpoint at H2 wasn’t crowded or as tedious as the others have been but the soldiers were much more short tempered. As we walked down the street in H2 you can see all the empty homes that used to belong to Palestinian families but were pushed out by Israelis, it was a ghost town. As you reach the end of the block a group of settler kids start to group up arms crossed as if to convey the message that no one is allowed any further if they are not Israeli, these kids were also protected by another soldier carrying a rifle. Tensions were so high you could cut a knife through the air. As we made a turn to the more Palestinian part of H2 we met up with a Palestinian family who have gone through so much and truly felt the repercussions of this occupation.
As we sat in their homes drinking coffee they told us about the constant abuse they face under the occupation. It was heartbreaking to hear a father’s account of how his children get beat up and bullied on a weekly basis by settler children and then if he tries to defend his children he is met by aggression from adult settlers who hold more power than soldiers. Settlers are like vigilantes, and they answer to no one. One can only imagine the shame and embarrassment a parent must feel trying to defend their child only to be brutally attacked by the same aggressor in front of their child, it’s inhumane and deplorable. In H2, Palestinians live in what looks like a city below a city where they are covered with tents because settlers who live up top throw anything they can at Palestinians living below even their own feces and live snakes at children. As we walked further to another families house, settler children proceeded to throw glass at us from up top, thankfully nothing hit us but unfortunately for Palestinians living there this is an everyday struggle.
Bil’in is a village that has fought long and hard against the construction of the Apartheid wall in the West Bank. Israel keeps attempting to push the wall further into Bil’in, but the people always resist and every Friday they hold demonstrations against this construction in which Israeli soldiers shoot tear gas canisters at them.
The day my friend and I went to Bil’in it was not a Friday and we were not going to a demonstration, to the contrary we were attending a picnic for a friends birthday that lives there. As we drove to the picnic area close to the apartheid wall you can see Tel Aviv right over the wall. As we started to walk around the picnic area my friend and I started to collect all the old (some still looked fresh) tear gas canisters that were shot by Israeli soldiers on protesters from over the wall. As we continued to gather tear gas canisters, all I had on my mind was that these tear gas canisters were manufactured in the United States and paid for by myself and every other tax paying U.S. citizen.
As we sat down with our friend to have the picnic, everyone hears something pop. No one says anything immediately but the expression on everyone’s face showed that something was up and that’s when smoke started to release itself. The IDF continued to shoot several tear gas canisters even after we let them know that this was a picnic not a demonstration and showing them that we had a baby with us. They didn’t care; shooting at us was fun for them. Our tax dollars (3.1 billion every year) are spent for the violent if not deadly recreational use of Israeli soldiers rather than building or investing in schools and hospitals. Instead the U.S. invests billions of dollars into funding Israel’s military, which in turn is used to murder and try to dehumanize Palestinians.
My time in Palestine was a great learning experience, as I witnessed and encountered the effects of the occupation, but aside from this I long to go back. I have met so many of the most strongest and resilient people, people that have lost their businesses, many loved ones and most of their childhood and continue to find the strength to keep going, fighting and resisting. It was so hurtful leaving Ramallah to go to Haifa and being smacked with the reality that your friends in Ramallah can’t come with you to the beach in Haifa. It’s heartbreaking to know I get to go as I please and they are still stifled by this occupation. There is so much life and beauty in Palestine and the people truly showed me an amazing time through laughter, dancing, music and tears. They made me feel at home in a distant land, I am grateful.