Pilgrimage

Could we ask you a few questions?" By the looks of her uniform and ID, she must be an airport security officer. I have heard this question many times, always from a uniform: police officers, security guards, airport security. I become a distinct target for questioning, "fit a profile" the authorities are looking for. Is it the way I dress? Or my walk? The beard? Or the "shifty eyes?" Mostly, I think, it is my race. Or more specifically, the race I am perceived to be. In my neighborhood I could be a Latino or Black kid running the streets with baggy jeans and a bandana on my head; but as I walk through passport control at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, I become an Arab ever so quickly.

"Why are you coming to our country? Don't you know it is dangerous?" I have to think fast. I can't say I am on a delegation of activists from the Boston area on a fact finding mission to see the realities of the situation in Israel and Palestine.

"I am a student."

"What are you studying?" I think saying that I am on a fact finding mission to the Palestinian territories would be the wrong answer.

"Religion. I am really interested in all the religious sites of the Holy Land, I have always wanted to go to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazereth." I got them now, how could they turn away a young student eager to see the ancient sites of the three major world religions?

"Don't you know it is dangerous now? There is a lot of terrorism, bombs, attacks. Why did you come now?" That's a good point, I am coming six months into the Al-Aqsa Intifada, not the best time to be sightseeing in the Holy Land.

"Where are you from?" A second security officer joins the questioning, flipping through my US passport.

"America. Boston specifically." I almost never use this answer when I am asked this. The security officers don't seem satisfied. They look through my passport and point to a visa for India. "Yes I have been to India."

"Where is your family from?"

"India."

"So you are Hindu?" The question I was waiting for. They just want to know if I am Muslim or not. That is what this whole interrogation is about. I look like an Arab, probably a Muslim, so I must be stopped and interrogated. I didn't want to let these young women win. I didn't want them to get the information which I knew they wanted, but I conceded.

"Yes." The tension dropped from their faces; they smiled at me for the first time. After re-scanning and re-searching all of my luggage, I was free to enter Israel. It seemed a very American welcome; it almost made me feel at home.

The experience of this type of personal racism was a constant anytime I was in what is now Israel, or anytime I was face to face with Israeli soldiers. In the eyes of most Israelis I am an Arab, thus I am always suspect. In Jerusalem I was constantly watched by Israeli soldiers armed with M-16's. Finally one approached me and began barking at me in Hebrew and then in Arabic. I responded with silence, which only angered him further. He put his hand on his M-16 and angrily asked "Where are you from?" in English. "America," I said, feeling a bit guilty. That magic word, and showing him my US passport, saved me from further harassment. What if I was a Palestinian -- without magic words or a fancy blue book with "United States of America" in gold lettering? I felt, for a moment, what it is like to be a Palestinian, what it is like being treated like a stranger in your own land.

At the center of everything is Jerusalem. It is a microcosm of the whole conflict. It is a city that holds the holy cites for Muslims, Jews and Christians. It is a city two people claim as their capital, and one nation is making its capital. The old city of Jerusalem is a maze of tunnel-like streets lined with shops and markets. Different churches abound in the old city, every denomination of Christianity seems to have its own place of worship. I loved walking its streets, hearing its sounds, feeling the life. But at the same time there is always a tension. The Israeli military patrolled the streets, special units escorted religious Jews to the Wailing Wall, what remains of King David's Temple. I stood by Palestinian shop owners whose fluttering conversation stopped as Israeli troops walked by. In Jerusalem, and in the rest of the sites of conflict, the main question seems to be who has the right to the land. Israel claims Jerusalem as the rightful capital for the Jewish people. Palestinians claim it as the future capital of their future state. This dispute has yet to be resolved, but Israel has decided to resolve it for itself. As we toured Greater Jerusalem with Jeff Halper, an Israeli activist who works with the Committee Against House Demolitions, we saw how the state of Israel has systematically seized land from Palestinians to create new Jewish neighborhoods. Israel has created a legal system by which they can demolish Palestinians homes and clear that land for the development of roads, military bases and new settlements for Israelis. Palestinians living in Jerusalem are being slowly squeezed and surrounded by Israeli settlements.

What is an Israeli settlement? Picture a gated community on top of a hill. California red roof houses, manicured lawns, playgrounds, schools, swimming pools, all enclosed by walls, tanks, jeeps, and the Israeli army. Other settlements are homes in which Palestinians used to live, but have been forced out and are replaced by mostly right-wing religious Jews. After 1967 when Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza and began its continuing military occupation, the Israeli government began a consistent policy of building settlements in the occupied territories. By all international law these settlements are illegal. Just as the United States pushed west to displace the native population and transplant its own white citizenry to "settle," Israel has pushed east toward the Jordan river dotting the West Bank and Gaza with Israeli settlements. With new homes at cheap prices, new highways which connect these settlements with Israel proper, and tax incentives; the Israeli government has brought many secular Jews and moderate Israelis to the occupied territories. In addition to Israelis moving into the occupied territories and taking more land from the Palestinians, these settlements also justify Israel's continuing military expansion into these territories. In order to protect the settlements Israel builds new roads, for settlers only, and military bases. This settlement activity has carved up the West Bank into small Bantustans of Palestinian control surrounded by Israeli settlements and Israeli military control.

Saleem knows all too well what the Israeli occupation means. I met Saleem with Jeff Halper during our tour of "Greater" Jerusalem. We had to leave our van and walk on foot through this Palestinian neighborhood outside of the city. After about five minutes on foot over a dirt road with houses scattered about, we came upon Saleem, with a bright smile upon his face and lunch ready and spread out for us under a tree. Next to the tree was an empty pit where Saleem's house used to be. Saleem had bought this plot of land, but had been unable to get a permit from Israeli authorities to build a home. Like many Palestinians he built his home anyway. The Israeli army came in one morning, gave him, his wife and children about 45 minutes to collect any belongings and then proceeded to bulldoze their house to the ground. Saleem, with the help of Israelis like Jeff Halper and the Committee Against House Demolitions, rebuilt the house a second time and also worked on getting the legal permit. But the house was destroyed again in the same manner. They built it again and also got two signatures away from getting a permit, but the Israeli army again showed up one morning and destroyed the house along with the foundation. I was amazed at the hospitality and good spirits of Saleem as he served us lunch under a tree next to his home which had been destroyed three times. Palestinians put everything into their homes, for many families their homes are symbols of their right to their land and their history. The Israeli policy of destroying homes, olive trees and orchards attacks the very soul of what it means to be a Palestinian.

"We are not good victims" -- A Palestinian in Gaza.

Gaza is a sliver of land on the Mediterranean which is only about 140 square miles; 1.2 million Palestinians live on 58% of this land. The remaining 42% is controlled by the Israeli military to protect 6,000 Israeli settlers. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on the earth. For Palestinians, Gaza is a prison. Palestinians in Gaza can not travel to visit family in the West Bank or to Egypt, which Gaza borders. The Israeli army controls all movement of people within Gaza and from Gaza to Israel and Egypt. We entered Gaza through the Eretz checkpoint which is the only way in or out. Every morning at around 4 a.m., when there isn't an Israeli imposed closure as there is during this Intifada, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians line up at this checkpoint to enter Israel to work. The facility looks like a huge animal pen. There is a fenced maze through which people are herded to get checked by the Israeli army. This process can take anywhere from two to four hours or even longer. The Israeli army is able to control the flow of Palestinians out of Gaza completely. In addition to movement in and out of Gaza, there are Israeli checkpoints within Gaza itself. These checkpoints are able to cut Gaza up into four parts and restrict the movement of people from one part to another. This means that a Palestinian could wait hours to travel from one part of Gaza to the next, or perhaps never get there at all.

Checkpoints are not only a violation of a basic human right of movement, but this system of multiple checkpoints attacks all aspects of Palestinian life. Israel can stop Palestinians both from entering Israel to work and from moving from one part of Gaza or the West Bank to another to work. Ambulances are routinely stopped, and people are severely injured or die because they are unable to reach a hospital. Anything that needs to move from one part of Gaza to another can be extremely slowed or stopped altogether. Food can't get to the market, workers to jobs, family to family, doctors to the sick. In addition, these checkpoints demean Palestinians who are subject to humiliating searches, harassment and interrogations. I have faced routine searches and checks when I enter the US from another country, or now when I travel inside the US; but imagine being unable to get from one part of town to another, being unable to make it to work when a fifteen minute drive turns into three or four hours. All of this happening in your homeland, where your family has lived for generations, that is the most humiliating part. This is what life is like under occupation.

Chaos. A flurry of people rushing back and forth, sirens of police cars and ambulances blaring, reporters and television cameras -- and rubble, silent stone rubble. It was all too much at first, it took me time to adjust and focus on what was going on around me. We were walking through what was left of part of Khan Younis Refugee camp in Gaza. The night before, Israeli forces shelled the buildings of the camp facing an Israeli settlement. A whole block of houses were destroyed, the families were picking through some of the rubble and reorganizing their lives in tents near where their houses once stood. Our hosts took us to one particular tent where a family was making tea on a portable gas stove. They asked us to come in and listen to their story. Like most families in Palestine, this one was big. It was hard to tell where the immediate family ended and the extended family and friends began. We were seated, welcomed and served tea. The hospitality to us was beyond gracious. One might have expected some reservations at hosting such a diverse group of visitors, including Jews. But throughout our time in Palestine there was no hint of animosity towards us because of religion, race or nationality. After tea was served the family began to tell their story. The parents switched back and forth, relating the night when they heard explosions and shelling and had to evacuate their home with all of their children. We tried to express our regret for what had happened, but words are hard to find in the face of such tragedy. Then one of the young daughters of the family, no more than eight or nine years old, tugged on her mother's sleeve and asked to be able to speak. She then stood up and made a speech about what happened to her family and why she never wants to leave Palestine. This young girl, named Noor, stood defiantly and said that her grandfather was forced to leave his home and flee to Khan Younis camp, but she would not move, and would not be moved.

Many talk about the threat to the existence of the state of Israel, but few in the media talk about the much more real threat, in my opinion, of the destruction of the Palestinian people. Checkpoints and Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank kill any hope for a Palestinian state. This young girl standing in a tent next to the rubble of her house destroyed by Israeli tanks is fighting for the cultural and political survival of her people. Forcing a people from their homeland is an attack on that people's culture and a threat to their survival. When the US pushed indigenous people off of their lands and onto reservations it was an attack on the survival of native people in the US. Over six million Palestinian refugees are fighting to return to their homes because their land is a part of who they are. Any ripping them from their land destroys part of who they are. But this young girl has never seen her land. She has never seen the hills and olive trees that her grandfather knew. She lives her life in a refugee camp, in supposedly Palestinian controlled (under Oslo) Gaza, and she is still under attack. But rather than wanting to flee or leave, she wants to just go home.

Our Palestinian driver from Jerusalem, Hassan, who was usually calm and collected, was tense. He mentioned that his family is from right outside of Hebron, but they moved to Jerusalem. He asked us to take the time we needed but no more. We drove into what seemed to be a ghost town. We parked just outside of the burial place of Abraham, the father to the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. But we saw no Muslims going in for prayer. The Ibrahimi Mosque was closed, but the Machpelah synagogue was open and we saw a few religious Jews going inside, many carrying M-16 rifles slung across their shoulders.

We walked around Hebron with two young Americans from the Christian Peacemakers. They wore red caps and along with a UN observer force (who patrol Hebron to observe the Israeli army, but who cannot intervene in anything, and whose reports are secret) were the only people walking around the center of Hebron. Except for Israeli soldier and a few Israeli settlers. The center of the city was under curfew, which means that no Palestinian could be out on the street. This means children cannot go to school; people cannot go to work; there is no way to buy food; all activity stops and Palestinians are confined within their homes. Hebron is constantly under curfew. As we walk through the empty streets we see a different sort of graffiti. Usually in Gaza and the West Bank, the walls of refugee camps are filled with political slogans and messages. But here in Hebron the graffiti is in the form of the Star of David and "Kill All Arabs," spray-painted on Palestinians shops and homes. Conservative Israelis Jews who claim Hebron as their rightful home occupied the center of Hebron. We met some of these settlers, about three, who were sitting at tables having some sort of peace demonstration. I was taken by a young, white, Jewish woman who spoke in a distinct American accent, sitting at this table talking about the "violent Palestinians." I finally had to ask the woman where she was from. "Chicago." I asked why she is living in Hebron, when she was born in Chicago? She said she felt she had a cultural connection to the land. It is not useful to judge who has more connection to which land. But it was a strange image to see this young Jewish woman from Chicago explain her cultural connection to the land, while thousands of Palestinians are locked in their homes to protect her claim to the land.

It aches my heart even more now when I think about the collective experience of many Palestinians, because in many ways it is a part of who I am. Where my family is from in India, people have the same connection to their land, to the village they are from, to the earth from which their ancestors walked and lived. Your home is a deep part of your being, not just a place you live. That connection to the earth around you and that feeling of being a part of that earth is something that indigenous people around the world can understand. Being ripped from your ancestral land and not being allowed to go back is the most painful experience I can imagine for a people.

Being South Asian, I know what that feeling is, what that love for the earth from where you came from is. I feel the deep love for my motherland, like Palestinians love their homes in Palestine. When you are ripped from that land by military force by a foreign power, you want to be able to return someday and reestablish your home, reconnect to your history and lineage, and stand on the earth which claims you and which you claim.

For that one week in April of 2001, I traveled through Israel and Palestine with a group of activists from the Boston area. We went to refugee camps, met with families, community organizations, government officials, journalists, lawyers, nongovernmental organizations and friends. I stood in the places that plaster the news -- Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Hebron, Gaza. I listened and spoke to Palestinians and Israelis, soldiers and stone throwers, settlers and refugees, parents and children. I found something new and different than anything I have ever known, but at the same time I found some of my own story and the story of the lands to which I belong.

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