The JETT Bus from Amman to the King Hussein Bridge border crossing leaves at 7:00 AM every day. The five of us arrive at the half-empty terminal around 6:30, still half-drunk from last night’s Fourth of July party in a friend’s apartment, which had broken up only three hours before. Earlier that week, we had decided to travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah, to see the old city and to learn about the tensions in the Holy Land firsthand. No three-day trip can make one an authority on any subject, nor illuminate the years of claims and tensions that surround the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That being said, we wanted to see firsthand the reality of the situation, unfiltered by the variously biased media outlets of the United States.
We aren’t going in without our own inherent prejudices. As a student of Arabic, one inevitably studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more often than not from a Palestinian viewpoint. The lens through which most of us view the conflict is less than sympathetic towards Zionism. There are five in our group, myself and my roommates, Jon, Jacob, and Mark, and Saim, a friend from our Arabic program in Amman.
We board the bus and almost immediately fall asleep. Aside from maybe six or so other foreigners, the bus is populated exclusively by Arabs. The trip to the bridge is about an hour, crossing through the Balqa Governorate and offering scenic views of the Dead Sea. We miss the view completely. The King Hussein Bridge is not the way to get acquainted with Israel. There’s extra scrutiny here, as this border crossing is the sole entry and exit point for all residents of the West Bank. No Israelis are permitted to cross the border here. Security, in comparison to our later exit at the Northern Border, is infinitely tighter. The Jordanian side of the border looks worn and tired in comparison, with fading signs and decaying buildings.
When the bus reaches the Israeli side, the difference is palpable. As we drive up, we are stopped at a checkpoint so the bus can be searched for bombs. To the side of the bus, a man in a bucket hat and shorts hastily dons a bulletproof vest before searching the undercarriage of the car with an extendable mirror. He looks, for all the world, like a frat boy stereotype. Behind him, another border guard, dressed similarly, wears a bulletproof vest and has a hand resting on the body of his M4. After a few minutes, we are allowed to cross to the processing area of the border. A large sign in Hebrew, English, and Arabic reads “Welcome to Allenby.” On the Israeli side, the border is named for an Ottoman Era bridge that a British military officer once erected there. In comparison to Jordan, Allenby is a shining utopia of a border crossing. The first grass I’ve seen in the Middle East is here, watered by the only sprinklers I’ve seen in the Middle East.
Jon has been in Amman since January, and went to Jerusalem a few months ago with his girlfriend. As he’s been through all of this before, Jon gives us a rundown of what to expect. There are three rounds of questioning at the border. Four of us pass through the first two rounds fairly seamlessly. Saim, a Pakistani-American, gets pulled aside after the second round of questioning, and is made to wait. After an hour, his things are returned to him. “This is the hard part,” says Jon. There are 8 or so booths, each containing a border agent. The terminal is crowded with Arabs and a few foreigners. I wait in line for about 20 minutes before I am questioned. The customs agent looks tired, haggard. Wikipedia says about one million people cross this border every day. I am probably the hundredth person she’s seen today.
“What are your doing in Jordan?” She looks up at me through the glass booth.
“Where are you going in Israel?”
“Jerusalem, for three days.”
“Do you know anyone in Israel?”
“I have a few friends who did Birthright, and I think some of my friends are working in Tel Aviv this summer.”
She prints out my visa, and I am let through to the other side. The conversation lasts maybe two minutes at most. Three other friends have a similar experience. Not Saim. He is asked three times at the booth if he has a passport other than his American passport (he doesn’t). He is sent back to wait again. We wait just outside the questioning area for five hours, as Saim fills out forms and waits to be questioned. Some few hundred Palestinians pass us as we wait.
After five hours of waiting, he is taken into a side room and questioned individually. He is asked about his friends, his family in Palestine, his Facebook friends, and a whole mess of other things for an hour. Two highlights include: “How do you feel about ISIS given that they believe in the same God that you do?” and “What would you do if a homosexual person came up to you?” After another half hour, he is finally released, and we walk out of the terminal and into the West Bank.
Outside, we negotiate a price with a local cabbie, and board a minibus full of Palestinians. We are the only foreigners on board, and the only foreigners in the immediate area that I can see. What are we actually doing here? I’ve no connection to this land, no personal stake in the conflict taking place here. How can coming here be justified? At worst, I am a tourist of suffering, watching years of an unimaginably complicated conflict play out in a visceral, physical way. Intent is all here. Coming to Palestine means being a witness to the things that take place here, and becoming responsible to make the world aware of it, too.
About twenty minutes outside of Jerusalem, we are pulled over at a checkpoint. Other than the five of us, there are six other people on the bus, all Palestinian. Two IDF soldiers board, each carrying an M4. Our papers are demanded. The five of us present our passports with little issue. In front of me a young Palestinian boy of around eight is sitting with a woman, presumably his mother. Everyone has presented their papers, save the boy. The IDF soldier begins harassing him, shouting, evidently demanding some form of identification. He either has no form of ID or has forgotten it. He sits wordlessly, and this shouting goes on for a minute before a man sitting across from him intervenes on his behalf. They reach some kind of agreement, and the soldiers exit the taxi. We continue on our way to the city.
East Jerusalem is a city under siege. While East Jerusalem is largely regarded as the capital of the Palestinian territories by the international community, it has been occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967. As a result, the Arab population is made to pay Israeli taxes while not benefitting from the same amenities as Israelis in West Jerusalem. Trash covers the ground throughout East Jerusalem, and in certain parts of the Old City, the sewers have begun to spill over into the street. Living in Jerusalem is like dancing on the edge of a knife. IDF soldiers armed with assault rifles stand behind a metal barricade in front of Damascus Gate and watch us walk into the Old City. Some look younger than twenty. Less than thirty feet from the soldiers, a group of Palestinian children play with toy guns next to a closed storefront that has the words “Free Palestine” spray-painted on it.
We drop our things off at our hostel and spend the day exploring the Old City. We’ve arrived the day before Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan, and the holiest day in Islam. We go for Kanafa at Ja’afar, a Jerusalem staple and arguably the best kanafa the Middle East has to offer. On our way out, we hear the sounds of loud chanting. We walk towards it, rounding the cobblestone streets until we approach a river of men and women processing though the city.
“Allaahu akbar! Allaahu akbar! Laa ilaaha ill-Allaah, wa Allaahu akbar, Allaah akbar, wa Lillaah il-hamd!”
“(God is the greatest! God is the greatest! There is no God but God, and God is the greatest, God is the greatest, and to Him is all praise)”
These words, in the minds of many Westerners, have become synonymous with terrorism and are enough to strike fear into the hearts of many. They are a central belief in Islam. These people are traveling to Al-Aqsa Mosque, to pray before Eid. Two IDF officers run over and join us. Both keep their hands resting on their guns. After a few minutes, the end of the procession reaches us. The soldiers follow.
We walk out through Jaffa Gate, on the west side of the Old City, to get our first real look at West Jerusalem proper. The difference between the two halves of the city is stark. The ground is immaculately clean, and as we walk out through the gate, we’re greeted with a scene reminiscent of Europe. There’s a large, open air mall with high end stores. Delicate string lights arc between buildings, and a few clean-cut musicians busk for shekels. We pass Parisian cafes, where coffees are sold for 18 or so shekels. Across the city, a few shekels can get us a meal. Arabs are few and far between here. There is laughter and music here, but the shops are quiet. Jon looks physically unsettled. We decide to walk back to the hostel.
On our way back, we see three swastikas spray-painted on one of the locked gates of a storefront.
“Shit!” Jon points them out to us. “That’s fucked.”
Most things here are.