What a pity to be asked if you have ever been to your capital city and all that you have to say is, “I would love to go there one day,” or that “the last time I visited Jerusalem I was nine years old.” There could be a third way to answer this question: yes, I passed by it, but I was not allowed to step out of the bus because I didn’t have the special permit required for such visits.
Indeed, the first picture my mind summons up for Jerusalem is from 11 years ago, in 2000, when I went there for the first time with my parents, grandmother and older sister. I was staring at a crowd of Rabbis through the window of the bus that carried us to Jerusalem. They looked alike: dressed in black outfits and black hats with straggling beards and two curls dangling from their whiskers. I asked my mother who they were. She answered “religious Jews”.
My parents held my hands as we all got out of the bus among other “tourists”, many of whom were Palestinians like us. I was too naïve to realise that this visit could be the first and last time I would walk in the Holy Land for many years to come.
I don’t know what happened next, but I do remember that we went to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I was fascinated by the grandeur of the Dome of the Rock as it proudly basked in the sun, which made it look even more beautiful. My mother handed me a prayer rug and prayer gown and told me to pray. I unrolled the rug, wore the gown and performed my prayer in the yard of the Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa under the blue sky of the Old City.
I remember relishing the special flavour of Jerusalem embedded in its Nabulsi Kunafeh (a Palestinian dessert) at a shop in one of the markets of Jerusalem’s seven-gated Old City.
The last scene I can summon up is of my mother, sister and grandmother trying to remember the name of the gate by which we were to meet my father. “Al-Qat???, al-Qat???, al-Qataneen!” I yelled with joy for being the one who reminded them of the name, and they cheered for me.
After all, I had to go back to my house in Gaza the same day, in accordance with the conditions stipulated on our permits. I was no more than a tourist in my own land.
The second trip was in 2007, the year the siege on Gaza was imposed. I was in a group of “privileged” young Palestinians who had been chosen to participate in the Arab Digital Expression Camps in Cairo for three weeks. We were given permits to leave Gaza through the Bait Hanoun border (Erez crossing), travel via Israel to Jordan, then fly to Cairo. It was impossible under Mubarak’s regime for us to cross to Egypt directly through the Rafah crossing and spare us the humiliation at Erez. Our adult leaders were banned from accompanying us, and we had to make it all the way from Erez to Jordan on our own.
To reach Erez, a taxi will drop you metres away from the gate. We dragged our feet and pulled our luggage under a hot August sun towards the gate. Not a gate like the one you might be picturing. It was more like a jail than a gate of a crossing point. Beyond the gate you could see at first glance that the whole area was bugged: cameras everywhere to tell you they are there to punish you if you act in a way that might bother the Israeli officers; large posters on the walls offered millions of dollars to those who would report to Israel the location of Gelad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in Gaza.
A long, fenced road led to many search machines at checkpoints. You have to leave your luggage on the machine, take off anything that contains metal, even a necklace, and pass through the checkpoint. If it beams, you’re in trouble; if it doesn’t, go on to the next.
One machine was much larger than the ones I’d got used to. It was one with the X-rays that reportedly cause cancer. The one I had always heard about. Once I got inside it, a woman ordered me through a loudspeaker to raise my hands and stand still. The machine too was bugged!
There was something wrong with me. The woman’s voice with its distorted English accent ordered me to get out of the machine and re-enter. She screamed at me, saying that I was not raising my hands the way I should have been. She made me go in and out of the machine five times. When she let me out, I thought there was no doubt I would get cancer.
We then had to pass through a succession of further gates. If the gate beams a green light, push it and go to the next. If it beams red, what will happen to you is identical to what happened to me.
I was taken to a special room with an X-ray luggage detector, a female officer and a table with a metal detector wand on it. The officer ordered me to take off my trousers. All of a sudden, I thought I didn’t understand. “Did you hear me,” she inquired. “Take off your trousers and put them in the searching machine.”
I felt humiliated to the extent that made me force myself to pretend that I was totally fine. She picked up the search device and approached me. “Are you scared,” she sarcastically asked. “No,” I retorted, although I was soaked in fear. The device ran across my body. At that point I was wondering what one could possibly hide under one’s skin or underwear.
When she let me out, I found the rest of the group waiting on a bench. I burst into tears. Then, I suddenly burst out laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
Our luggage was unpacked and mixed together. We spent hours separating our stuff and repacking our bags. In the end, we walked out of Erez and rode the bus to the Allenby Bridge that leads to Jordan.
On the bus we screamed out of excitement, ecstasy and shock. We were in the occupied West Bank. We asked the driver to take us to Jerusalem and let us step on the ground of the Holy Land. Alas, to walk on our land we needed a permit! We could only pass by Jerusalem and see a little spot of the Dome of the Rock. But even seeing it from afar made me ignore, at least for a while, the treatment I had received at Erez.
And thus, we were carried to the Bridge, Jordan and eventually flew to Egypt. I really wonder how a minor’s body can be considered a threat to the security and well-being of the state of Israel, “the only democracy in the Middle East”.
News of the opening of the Rafah Crossing cannot yet refute the following fact: Palestinians are still being denied their indispensable right to move freely within their own land, their own home.
Rana B Baker is a 19-year-old student.