Locked In

The other day my three year old asked, ‘are we Palestinian?’ Sadly, for us, we are very much British, but it was sweet to see that she understood a bit about where we are.  The next day she said ‘I just heard a Palestinian’ when she meant the call to prayer, so her definition was edging closer, but it still needed work.  

It can be hard to explain the lingo and terminology to adults, let alone to kids. The crazy thing I have found here is that people’s identities are often defined by the level of freedom they have been granted. This is a man-made, entirely dispensable, sliding scale of oppression.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the experiences of Palestinians living in Jerusalem. There is a completely different story to be told for West Bank Palestinians.

Downtown Ramallah

In some ways being a West Bank Palestinian means living fully in Palestine and being able to surround oneself with the natural beauty and culture that this entails. Sure, an illegal Israeli settlement is never far away but there isn’t the daily hustle for space that happens in Jerusalem.

There is quite a bit of money rolling around Ramallah and for every beat-up rust bucket car there will be a flash Mercedes. For every humble falafel stand there is also a posh coffee bar or a trendy shisha lounge.

The families we have visited around Ramallah have been extremely hospitable with enviable-sized apartments. Both partners usually work, and they can afford a nice lifestyle.

Despite this, all of them are hostages of the system. Israel controls all borders through an aggressive system of checkpoints and permits. Unless you are deemed a useful worker to Israel, then getting a permit is very difficult and you are locked in.

Here are just a few ways that this system impacts West Bank Palestinian people that we know every day:

  • Unable to visit Jerusalem – Bethlehem is only 10km away from Jerusalem and Ramallah is 15km away, yet people we know have gone years, and in some cases decades, without seeing Jerusalem. They are simply unable or ineligible to get a permit. This denies people access to their special Holy sites and cuts them off from an important part of their heritage. At a trivial level, it means we can never repay our generous friends by hosting them at our house which is unfair.
People making the most of the natural springs at Al-Bidhan in absence of the sea.
  • No access to the sea –   Palestine is entirely landlocked except for Gaza which is on the coast but that isn’t accessible to anyone. I recently discovered that most Palestinians can’t swim and why would they. There aren’t many leisure spaces or public pools so without the beach there is no incentive to swim. Jaffa used to be one of Palestine’s favourite beach spots and it now sits firmly in Israel.
  • Circuitous routes – the Separation Wall provides 708km of physical barrier designed to cause as much difficulty as possible to Palestinians. Journey’s that should take 15 minutes may take 2 hours. This is the case for our friend who lives in an East Jerusalem suburb that has been cut off by the wall. He now needs to make a lengthy journey to work each day to travel only several miles. Similarly, Palestinians in Bethlehem wanting to visit Ramallah have to drive the long way round through a bottleneck rather than coming through Jerusalem. It causes fragmentation and cuts people off from their friends and family who aren’t that far away in distance. And it is an ugly wall intended to separate. In 2020! Hard to believe isn’t it.
  • Trade is stifled – There are some cracking Palestinian products, but export is at the whim of Israeli bureaucracy. Take Taybeh brewery for example, a small micro-brewery in the town of the same name. The manager there explained to us that the process of exporting beer is painstakingly slow and involves a long overnight lorry journey followed by unpredictable scrutiny at the port which often ends in the beer being left out in the sun for hours on end and being ruined. They persevere with expanding their international market, but the odds are stacked against success.
  • Leaving is difficult – Most West Bank Palestinians are unable to travel via Israel so must travel overland to Jordan if they want to fly anywhere. This adds time, money and uncertainty to all journeys.   
Part of the Separation Wall in Bethlehem

Ironically, sometimes yielding control can serve to reinforce it. So it was at the start of August when the checkpoint at Tulkarim went unmanned for several days and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flocked to the beach. Was this a reward or a reminder of who was in charge?

These are not unusual stories and they are in fact the softer side of the impacts. I know a lot worse happens every day.

There is a strength of character and personal identity in being Palestinian that is far greater than the political reality of Palestine. The famous Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish summed this up when he said, ‘The metaphor for Palestine is stronger than the Palestine of reality’.

I hope it will not always be so.

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