Upon reaching the age of 16 Palestinians are issued an identity card, and with this card, Israel overwhelmingly restricts the movement and life of Palestinians to and from the Occupied Territories. And though Palestinian children are allowed to travel into ‘Israel’, they still face the travails of restriction, as they can only travel while accompanied by a person holding a foreign passport.
As a result of Israel’s arbitrary laws, I recently volunteered as a chaperone with the organization Birthright Re-plugged and accompanied 20 children from Jenin Refugee Camp to visit Jerusalem, Haifa, and the villages surrounding Haifa – which their grandparents fled in 1948. Most of the children we accompanied are 15 years old. Soon Israel will issue them an identity card, at which point they will never again be able to leave the West Bank to go into Israel. So, to add gravity to an already emotional experience, the children knew that this trip would simultaneously be their first, and last. They will probably never again pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque or see the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea.
The journey began with the volunteers of Birthright Re-plugged spending the night at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp. Half of the camp’s population is under the age of 18 and so the theatre’s role in the camp has been vital over the years in enhancing the children’s lives. We met with Juliano Mer Khamis, the founder of the theatre, and the children from the camp; all were anticipating the journey from Jenin to Jerusalem, and then to Haifa. Toward the end of the night, after the sun had set and ambient noise transitioned to the roaring of Merkava tanks (Israel’s nightly incursions into Jenin), it was our turn to anticipate the next day’s voyage. What if the Israeli soldiers don’t allow the children to pass through the checkpoint, do we have an alternate plan? Where do we say we’re going? Surely not to Jerusalem and Haifa.
Just as we were contemplating and discussing our worries, a young man that works in the theatre received a phone call. “There’s been an operation at ‘Anabta checkpoint,” he said. Although the details were unclear at that moment, we eventually heard from another source that a man from the camp opened fire at Israeli soldiers, only to be gunned down seconds later. This was a problem for us and for the children. The checkpoint was closed down, and they weren’t allowing anyone into or out of Jenin. Of course, for the residents of Jenin this was nothing new, as it has become a recurrent exasperation in their occupied lives. But for us, it was something both new and frightening. At the same time we could think of nothing but the children and the smiles on their faces, and what their reactions would be if we had to tell them the trip was canceled.
Regardless of the operation that occurred at ‘Anabta checkpoint we decided to attempt the crossing in the morning, otherwise we would have to cancel the trip. We left the camp at 6 a.m. and drove to the checkpoint, where the organizers of the trip exited the bus to talk to the soldiers. There was no breeze that morning, and being the restless person that I am, I decided to get off the bus to walk around and cool off. I noticed there were stained patches of dry blood dispersed over the concrete – it was the blood of the Palestinian man that was killed the night before. I trembled with a sudden reaction of heaviness and quickly got back on the bus. Finally we were told that the children were granted permission to pass. Upon crossing the checkpoint a great flood of relief washed over the children, as they temporarily left their hardships behind.
The drive into Jerusalem was unforgettable. We gave each child a camera to document the trip through their eyes – snapshot after snapshot recorded for their remembrance. For the children, who had only seen the Al Aqsa Mosque in photos, the first glimpse of the gold dome, illuminated by the sunlight, brought them joy, and some were even moved to tears. From Orthodox Jews dressed in their garb to Israeli police barricading the streets –the children walked around with wide eyes. After passing through waves of tourists, we managed to get through the narrow alleyways of the Old City without losing a child.
After the children prayed, we headed north toward Haifa. None of the kids had ever seen the sea before, nor had they been in a city where Palestinians and Jews lived side by side. The snapshots began as soon as we drove up to the shore, but when the children saw Israelis prancing around in bikinis and drinking beer, wide eyes changed to looks of bewilderment as they trudged along the shore. We managed to convince some of the kids to ignore the apparent culture clash, but it was especially hard since they live such a restricted life in Jenin refugee camp.
Just as the children of the camp gazed at others, it was noticeable that others were looking intently at them. An old Jewish man in a Speedo walked up to us and in Hebrew asked where we are from. Soon after, several Israeli policemen came and specifically asked about the girls wearing hijab. Juliano and others argued with the policemen and convinced them the girls were from a village near Aqqa, but the policemen were not entirely convinced and lingered around to watch our every move. It was an uncomfortable situation for us, but even for Palestinian citizens of Israel racism pervades nearly every level of the society – from legal discrimination to violation of cultural rights.
Not too far away from the sea were the villages that the children’s families escaped in 1948. We visited the remnants of six different villages, all destroyed soon after the families fled. The children handled it well though, ending the trip with a bittersweet memory as they walked through the empty fields of thorns and bushes. But for the children without a title, this extemporary feeling will soon cycle back into a life of restriction, violence, and harassment from Israel’s regime.
SOUSAN HAMMAD, a Palestinian-American, is teaching English and freelanching in Ramallah, Palestine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org