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It is one of those hot Ramallah days.
By ten in the morning, which is the time I arrive, the place is teeming with hopeful applicants. Most have been there since 8:30, when the gate is opened. The Israeli “civil administration” outpost on the edge of the settlement of Beit El consists of a few shacks with corrugated tin roofs topped by sandbags, barbed wire, and an empty watchtower which has seen better days. No cars are allowed into this compound; supplicants and applicants must walk a stretch of the once-flourishing Ramallah-Nablus highway by foot, after scaling some dirt mounds softened and worn down by thousands of feet leading to the compound from the desolate “parking lot” on the Ramallah side of the road.
A concessionaire has been granted permission to dispense coffee, cold drinks and nuts in exchange for sweeping the courtyard. The public toilets are unspeakably filthy, and a healthy swarm of flies enjoys unhindered access to the teeming multitudes.
There are four windows with faded signs in Hebrew and Arabic indicating where different kinds of permits can be applied for and received.
A big crowd of men of various ages and a few women waits patiently at the windows marked “magnetic cards.” My window, a multi-purpose window for various kinds of permits, is in chaos.
A burly young man who has situated himself at the top of the line by the window, is a self-appointed translator for the rest of us ignorants. He is trying to push the pile of applications gathered from the crowd since 8:30 through the small opening of the “window” (protected by iron bars) so that the soldier-clerk on the other side will begin processing them. By ten o’clock, he is lucky enough to have the clerk receive them. I heave a sigh of relief that my application for a permit to use Ben Gurion airport for a trip abroad is among the papers. Or so I think at the time.
I decide to use my waiting time for ethnographic inquiry. A good cross-section of society is represented here. I note that the gender balance is quite acceptable, and follow intently the politics of the gendered body (how much space is allowed a woman to approach the window; what weight the age factor has here; the benefits and drawbacks of the various forms of dress worn by women: full hijab, modified hijab, token hijab, full western dress with jeans, modified western dress with skirt, etc., etc.). The vast majority of the applicants are here to get “checkpoint passes,” given out for varying durations (a few hours to several days, for internal checkpoints).
A smattering want “Israel passes,” permits that allow you to enter Israel. Some, like me, are waiting for airport permits. A young couple from Gaza living in Ramallah are hoping to get permits so they can visit their families in Gaza (have not been able to do so for two years). At 11:40 they announce that the soldiers are going on a lunch break, will reopen the curtains at 1 o’clock sharp.
Lots of comments about the kind of food to be consumed by the soldiers and wishes for good digestion float about. At 2:35 sharp, the curtains on the other side of my window rustle. A huge crowd of hopefuls readies their ID cards waiting for their names to be called. This turns out to have been a false alarm, caused by a careless soldier brushing against the curtain. At this point, a young man strategically situated at the window tells me that he just saw my papers with the new pile to be submitted after the window reopens after lunch. I am crestfallen, thinking they were submitted with the 10 o’clock batch. But one can never be sure.
At 2:45 the curtain is pulled aside. Within fifteen minutes, the soldier has received the new pile of applications, and the applicants remark victoriously that now that they have been submitted it will be only a short wait until the results are out. By 3 pm the names are called out (but from the morning batch of applications). But who can hear their names being called out with so much commotion around? Our tireless interpreter saves the day, shouting out the names.
The most common word shouted out after the names is marfoudh (refused). Others, more lucky, are told to buttress their applications with doctors’ reports, employers’ testimonies, and the like, and to come back the next day.
By 4 pm it is clear that my papers were indeed in the afternoon batch. A quick succession of marfoudhs, and then nothing.
A young man reassures me that they call out the rejectees’ names first. So the fact that I have not been called is a good omen. At 4:50, I hear my name over the din. But how to approach the window with the multitudes of men swarming there (some have climbed up on top of the railings in order to get a better view of the goings-on behind the iron bars). But the gallant crowd allows the right amount of space for a woman to approach the window. The soldier barks out something in Hebrew; by this time a new translator (the first one has departed with his marfoudh) saves the day. I try English. “You are rejected.” Thank you very much. A productive seven-hour day spent in scientific observation with lots of notes for further inquiry.
As I leave the compound, a foreign woman pulls up confidently in her yellow-plated car. The soldiers yell at her to move the car to another place away from the entrance. I know instinctively that she is there to get airport permits for Palestinians invited abroad by her organization or government but in need of a little intercession with the army so they can depart through the airport and not suffer the indignities of the route through Jordan. I had the same idea, of course.
“I am not responsible for the occupation,” she says when I point out that I wished the hundreds of people over there had this same privilege.
“Well, examine your conscience and see if you are not perpetuating it,” was my parting shot as she went into the compound and I set off on my journey back to Ramallah over the dusty trail leading from the “parking lot.”
But who can be sure she or he will not be tempted to use a little intervention sometime?
But then again, what is a VIP under occupation?
LISA TARAKI is an associate professor of Sociology at Birzeir University on the West Bank. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org