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First-Hand Reports

Feeling Palestinian

Kate Raphael
International Women's Peace Service
September 13, 2003

Today, I had a strange experience. I was crossing A-Ram checkpoint, the second checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem (because one isn’t good enough). There were many cars waiting to cross, but few pedestrians. The people walking through were mostly not waiting, but just flashing their IDs. Usually, foreign women do not have to stop, and it is my policy not to stop at checkpoints unless there is a line or someone tells me to. So I started to walk through. The soldier yelled, “Hey, hey,” which is apparently Hebrew for “Stop.”

I turned back.

He said, “Hawiyya,” which is what the Palestinian ID card is called, and I pulled out my passport copy, in the green hawiyya folder. (All Palestinians and Israelis are required to have ID on them all the time. The color of the folder tells the soldiers what kind of ID the person carries, which in turn tells them what kind of rights the person has or doesn’t have. West Bank Palestinian ID cards come in orange or green folders; the orange ones are old, new ones are all green. Jerusalem Palestinians and Israeli citizens carry blue ID cards, and only people with blue cards are allowed into Jerusalem, unless they have a special “permission,” which would normally be on a separate piece of paper. Last spring when I was in Ramallah, I bought a green hawiyya folder, and I carry the copy of my passport and visa in that...)

“Tasrih,” he barked, which means either visa or permission, depending whom you ask. I opened the folder and held it out so he could see the visa. He said, “Truki,” “get out.”

I didn’t move, and he said in English, “Go back.” I went to the end of the short line. He said, “No, get out. Go home to Ramallah.”

I walked up to him. “I don’t live in Ramallah.”

Several soldiers started yelling at me in Arabic. “Btikhki Arabi?” one of them asked.

“No, English,” I answered.

Then something, possibly habit, made me say, “Well, schwei Arabi,” “a little Arabic,” as if I wanted to try to have a conversation with them in Arabic.

The tallest soldier said something to me in Hebrew. “I don’t speak Hebrew either,” I said. “If you want to talk to me, you will have to do it in English.”

“Go back to Ramallah,” the first guy, sitting down with sunglasses on, said again.

“I didn’t come from Ramallah, and I’m not going there.”

I was holding out my ID but no one even took it.

I started to walk through. They jumped into action. Two of them came after me, and as in the past when this has happened, I wondered how it can be that two men can surround someone. Don’t I have four sides? But they have it down. In the States, they would simply have grabbed me. But Israeli soldiers as a rule, do not touch women, and they don’t need to. One guy was to my left, and the other in front of me and to the right. As I looked at him, he put his finger on the trigger of his gun and brought it up to touch my chest.

Would he have shot me? I really don’t know. I do know that if his finger moved on the trigger, accidentally or deliberately, he would not have hit anything but me. Was it loaded? I don’t know that either. But it was effective. I stopped.

The four men crowded around and finally someone decided to look at my ID. The first guy, the asshole, looked at it and without taking out the visa, tried to figure out what it was. “What is this?” he asked.

“It’s a visa,” I said.

He seemed genuinely surprised at that, but he still didn’t take it out.

“No, its not,” he insisted.

I tried to reach over and take it out for him, but he jerked it away.

“Where’s your passport?” he asked.

“I don’t have it on me,” I said. “I left it in Jerusalem.”

One of the others took the ID. He looked at me and said, “Zeh tsilum.” “This is a copy.”

I wanted to say, “Tell me something I don’t know,” but I wasn’t admitting to knowing Hebrew at all, so I said nothing. He finally took out the visa and looked at it.

“It’s no good,” said the first guy.

“Yes, it is, it’s perfectly good. I use it all the time,” I said.

The tall one, who must have been the commander of the unit, asked, “Where’s your passport?” I wondered if it is like the airport, where they ask you the same question over and over to see if you give the same answer every time, or if he was hoping I would come up with a different (better) one, or if he didn’t even hear me answer it already for the other guy. I answered the same as before, “I left it in Jerusalem.”

He put everything back in the folder and handed it to me, and gestured with his gun for me to pass.

Once I was through, I realized how scared I had been for a minute. The embarrassing thing about it is that I have technically been in that situation any number of times. I have had guns pointed straight at me, even touching my chest like that. Maybe their fingers weren’t on the trigger, but I wouldn’t say that they weren’t. The big difference was only that this time, unlikely as it seems, they thought I was Palestinian. That simple fact put my life in danger in a way that I don’t think it ever was, even when I walked up to tanks in Gaza, even when I was standing in front of armored personnel carriers in Bethlehem, or walking into an occupied house in my village. If I had been a Palestinian, would I be sitting here writing this now? Would I be in prison, or dead or in a hospital? I don’t know.

I do know that I would not have spent the day in Jerusalem, which the Palestinians call Al Quds, drinking cappuccinos with my friends. When I was waiting for the bus this morning, a lovely young woman standing nearby introduced herself as Inam. She works at the Palestinian Ministry of Interior, in Salfit, speaks good English, and about a year ago, she did some translation and other work for our team. She is a very tough and strong woman. She comes from the next village, Kifl Hares, which is across the street from the entrance to Ariel settlement. She told me that she had to come to Hares to catch the bus, because the settler security guard chases her off the road in front of her own village. She told him, “You are supposed to patrol Ariel, not Kifl Hares.” She asked me if we could not do something at the crossroads there, and I said we will come tomorrow and see. She stands up to the guard, she says, but she cannot do it by herself. When I said I was going to Jerusalem, she got a wistful look on her face. “I want to go to Jerusalem to pray,” she said. “There is something holy about the air there. You can feel it. It is magic.”

Inam cannot go pray in Jerusalem. West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have not been allowed into Jerusalem, except under extraordinary circumstances, since the beginning of the Oslo period, years before the first suicide bombing inside Israel. I thought of Inam when I was walking in the Old City. I would have liked to bring some of the air back for her. I wished she and I could have walked through the checkpoint with our green hawiyyas, together. Or better yet, that we could walk into the city, with no checkpoints to go through, under or around.

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