What a pity being asked if you have ever been to your capital city and all that you have to say is: 'I would love to go there one day,' or that the last time I visited Jerusalem I was nine years old. There could be a third way to answer this question: yes, I passed by it, but I was not allowed to step out of the bus because I didn’t have the special permit required for such visits.
Indeed, the first picture my mind summons for Jerusalem was 11 years ago, in 2000, when I went there for the first time with my parents, grandmother and older sister. I was staring at a crowd of Rabbis through the window of the bus that carried us to Jerusalem. They looked alike: dressed in black outfits and black hats with straggling beards and two curls dangling from their whiskers. I asked my mother who they were. She answered “religious Jews”.
My parents held my hands as we all got out of the bus among other “tourists,” many who were Palestinians like us. I was too naïve to realize that this visit could be the first and last time I walk in the Holy Land for many years to come.
I don't know what happened next, but I remember that we went to al-Aqsa Mosque. I was fascinated by the grandeur of the Dome of the Rock as it proudly basked in the sun, which made it look even more beautiful. My mother handed me the prayer rug and prayer gown and told me to pray. I unrolled the rug, wore the gown and made my prayer in the yard of al-Masjid al-Aqsa, under the blue sky of the Old City.
I remember relishing the special flavor of Jerusalem embedded in its Nabulsi Kunafeh (an Arab Palestinian dessert) at a shop in one of the Souqs of Jerusalem’s seven-open-gates old City.
The last scene I can summon is my mother, sister and grandmother trying to remember the name of the gate by which we were to meet my father. “Al Qat…, al-Qat…, al-Qataneen!” I yelled with joy for being the one who reminded them of the name, and they cheered for me.
After all, I had to go back to my house in Gaza the same day, in accordance with the conditions stipulated on our permits. I was not more than a tourist in my own land.
The second trip was in 2007, the year the siege on Gaza was imposed. I was in a group of young “privileged” Palestinians who’d been chosen to participate in the Arab Digital Expression Camps in Cairo for three weeks. We were given permits to leave Gaza through the Bait Hanoun border (Erez crossing), travel via Israel to Jordan, then fly to Cairo. It was impossible with Mubarak’s regime to allow us to cross to Egypt directly through the Rafah crossing and spare us the humiliation at Erez. Our adult leaders were banned from accompanying us and we had to make it all the way from Erez to Jordan on our own.
To reach Erez, your taxi will drop you meters away from the gate. We dragged our feet and pulled our luggage under a hot August sun toward the gate. Not a gate like the one you might be picturing. It was more like jail rods than a gate of a crossing point. Beyond the gate you could see at first glance that the whole area is bugged. Cameras everywhere to tell you they are there to punish you if you act in a way that might bother the Israeli officers. Large posters on the walls offered millions of dollars to those who will report to Israel the location of Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in Gaza.
A long fenced road led to many searching machines at checkpoints. You must leave your luggage on the machine, take off anything that contains metal, even a necklace, and pass through the checkpoint. If it beamed, you’re in trouble; if it didn’t, go to the next.
One machine was much larger than the ones I’d “gotten used to.” It’s the one with the X-rays that reportedly causes cancer. The one I had always heard about. Once I got inside it, a woman ordered through a loudspeaker to raise my hands and stand still. The machine too was bugged!
There was something wrong with me. The woman’s voice with a distorted English accent ordered me to get out of the machine and re-enter. She screamed at me saying that I was not raising my hands the way I should have been doing. She made me go in and out of the machine five times. When she let me out, I thought there was no doubt I will get cancer.
Through many gates we were then meant to pass. If the gate beamed a green light, push it and go to the next. If it beamed red, what will happen to you is identical to what happened to me.
I was taken to a special room with an x-ray luggage detector, a female officer and a table with a metal detector wand on it. The officer ordered me to take off my pants. All of a sudden I thought I didn’t not understand.
“Did you hear me?” She inquired. “Take off your pants and put them in the searching machine.”
I felt humiliated to the extent that made me force myself to pretend that I’m totally fine. She picked the searching device and approached me. “Are you scared?” She sarcastically asked. “No” I retorted, although I was soaking in fear. The device ran across my body. At that point I was wondering what one could hide under his/her skin or underwear!
When she let me out, I found the rest of the group waiting on a bench. I burst out in tears.
Suddenly I burst out with laughter; it was the absurdity of the situation.
Our luggage was unpacked and mixed together. We spent hours separating our stuff and repacking our bags. In the end, we walked out of Erez and rode the bus to Allenby Bridge that leads to Jordan.
In the bus we screamed out of excitement, ecstasy and shock. We were in the Occupied West Bank. We asked the driver to take us to Jerusalem and let us step on the ground of the Holy Land. Alas, to walk on our land we needed a permit from the strangers! We could only pass by Jerusalem and see a little spot of the Dome of the Rock. But even seeing it from afar made me ignore, at least for a while, the treatment I had received at Erez.
And thus, we were carried to the Bridge, Jordan and eventually flew to Egypt.
I really wonder how a minor’s body can cause a threat to the security and well-being of the state of Israel, “The only democracy in the Middle East.”
The news of opening the Rafah Crossing cannot yet refute the following fact: Palestinians are still denied their indispensible right to move freely within their own land, their own home.
By Rana B. Baker - Gaza