Aspiring to freedom: a journey in Palestine

The human right concept of Freedom of movement asserts that a citizen of a country "generally has the right to leave that state, travel wherever he is welcome, and, with proper documentation, return to that state at any time; and also (of equal or greater importance) to travel to, reside in, and/or work in, any part of the state the citizen wishes without interference from the state". Well, Palestine is the exception.

My arrival at Ben Gurion airport marked my first time in the Middle East and enabled me to experience what freedom of movement meant for the Palestinian people.

Very soon, my excitement and enthusiasm were crushed by one hour and a half waiting in an exclusive little room in the airport. Even though I was aware that I was privileged because I had only waited for one hour and a half, for a 22-year old student in International Relations, full of hope and willingness to change the world, I was a bit resentful. When, for the third time, a different Israeli officer – this one was doing a BA in chemistry at Tel Aviv University and was probably younger than I, asked me for all my documents, I just could not help it. One tear. Then another. I became very emotional and asked why I was subject to such an investigation. "Don't worry, this is a common procedure," he answered.

In the private room, there were four Palestinian-American students who were born and raised in Washington D.C. and had been waiting for four hours, and were obviously going to wait longer since I heard an Israeli officer telling one of them: "Oh come on, you have only waited for four hours." There was one young French tourist, Mehdi, originally from Algeria; two British who were going to Gaza to deliver humanitarian aid; and myself, a Moroccan girl with a French passport. Obviously, this was not a common procedure. This was targeting specific people: Palestinians, Arabs and all the others willing to help Palestinians. "Well welcome to Palestine. This is our daily treatment," James, the Christian Palestinian at the front desk of Azzahra hotel in East Jerusalem told me.

Experiencing the notion of restricted freedom of movement for the second time compelled me to open my eyes to an unpleasant reality. After going through the checkpoint at the entrance of Bethlehem, here it is. Overwhelming. Horrible. Real. Here is the Wall of Shame. Staring at an apartheid wall, right in front of you, is almost unbearable. Just as the naked truth is. In the Ayda refugees camp in Bethlehem, someone has drawn the nastiest pig I have ever seen and wrote “Cultivating:” For this Wall cultivates resentment and bitterness.

"What does freedom mean for you?" I asked. A silence. Some thought he had to translate into English. And he replied: "It doesn't mean that you have everything you need. It just means that you can have it. Nobody tells you 'No'."  

It was a Saturday afternoon at Kalia beach, on the shores of the Dead Sea, a private place of entertainment full of tourists, laughter, and people covered with the sea mud, known for its benefits for the skin. Not that far ahead, you could see the breath-taking landscape of the Jordanian mountains. I was surprised to see just a few Palestinians and hear many people speaking Hebrew. Taoufik, a 25-year old Palestinian taxi driver from Bethlehem explained me that Saturday was a Jewish holiday so Palestinians were not allowed to go to the Dead Sea, unless they were taxi drivers bringing tourists. For there is a schedule for Palestinians to enjoy the freedom of spending a day at the beach: Sunday to Friday.

When Taoufik tells me his story, many of his sentences start with "in the movies I saw…" I am struck to see the extent to which you can be in contact everyday with people from all over the world, while being recluse in your own life. Since the construction of the Wall, he has not traveled to Jerusalem because he cannot get a permit. He is not allowed to work in other cities of the West Bank, such as Ramallah or Jericho, where the tourism business is more flourishing.

After giving me a tour of Hebron, Taoufik took me to his family's house in a small village overlooking the city of Bethlehem. "Eat! We have plenty of food," Taoufik told me. I was so embarrassed that he thought I didn’t want to eat because of the conditions this family was in – this was a four-room house for 7 people, that I replanted my fork in the maglouba, a very tasty Palestinian meal with chicken, rice, cabbage and potatoes. After lunch, Taoufik took me to his friend Oussama's narguileh shop. We sat and smoked apple chicha. A picture of Yasser Arafat and a Palestinian flag were hanging atop the bar. Taoufik and his friend were staring at the traffic in the street through the window, silent. This was a common day for a normal Palestinian.

Of course, it would be much easier if the reality was black and white. Of course, it would be more convenient if the IDF soldiers sitting in their jeep or at the checkpoints were the "bad guys." When you look closer, you can grasp all the different shades of gray, all the complexity of this conflict. These Israelis are just 18-to-21-year kids. I am sure that, no matter how much they are willing to defend their country, they would rather be with their family and friends instead of in the army. My point is that peace and freedom can only be achieved if there ceases to be a demonization of the Other. For the Other is just the mirror of our own self. Palestinians are just like Israelis. They do what nothing else can be done: They nurture hope. Both the Torah and the Koran refer to not doing to others what you would not do to yourself. With all the genuine compassion I have for Jewish people’s suffering throughout history, I cannot help but wonder: How can people, who went through such an awful past no more than 65 years ago, repeat History?

"Give them justice. They will reward you with peace" is written on the Wall.