To the West Bank
I hesitated about going to the West Bank. The territories are still under occupation by Israel, thus making me question the ethics of my going there, and I also wondered what my Palestinian friends thought about people visiting “their” country. I had met many Palestinians living in neighbouring states, their families having left in 1948, 1967 etc. How do they view foreigners, like me, visiting the country to which they themselves do not have the right to travel?
I questioned friends about this, and whilst they were frustrated that they could not cross that border, they encouraged me to go and see what the situation was like there.
It was also complicated by the fact that if my passport got stamped, or there was any trace of travel to “Occupied Palestine” (as the visa forms of Arab states tend to term it), a fatal blow would be struck to my plans to travel through Africa via Sudan.
The Allenby/King Hussein border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank provides a solution to this. It is the West Bank’s only “international” border, linking it to Jordan. Here, the Jordanians do not stamp passports, and whilst it is the Israelis who still maintain control over the Palestinian Territories’ borders, it is possible to have their visa issued on a separate sheet of paper.
My passport, however, would do little to enamour me to the Israeli border officials. It contained visas from their three greatest enemies: Iran, Lebanon & Syria. I was, therefore, expecting a lot of questioning and was prepared for the event that they may not let me enter. I had spoken to several friends who had made this same crossing, and who had tales of hours spent being questioned, a thorough examination of luggage, and strip-searches by less-than-friendly officials.
References to Palestinians in my diary were therefore ripped-out, “Arab” names from my phone were deleted, I offered any books discussing the occupation to friends in Syria, and prepared myself for the questioning. And not without reason. Following the presentation of my passport at the window, I was asked to step-aside, and somebody would come to speak to me.
I forwent the strip-search, but I was subject to a rather arduous interview—I hesitate to use the word “interrogation”— where I was asked what I had been doing in those other countries, what I would be doing in Israel and whether I planned on visiting the West Bank. I was tempted to point-out that it would be difficult to step outside of the building without going into the West Bank; the territory, as defined under international law, stretches from here to East Jerusalem. But I held my tongue.
So, what books did I have in my bag? (I’d kept only the novels.) Did I have any relating to Palestine? (“Well, the Lonely Planet discusses the region”, I naïvely proffered.) What were you doing in Syria for three months? (This & that.) What were my political opinions on the situation? (I feigned total ignorance.) Did I have any Palestinian friends? (Who?) And again, was I planning on visiting the West Bank? (No, sir.) Are you sure? (Yes, sir.)
I felt like a dirty liar, but I had to play the game. Their game. When they finally granted me leave to enter the country, I felt that this was not the end. There is an overwhelming sense of surveillance and mistrust in the place.
The smooth, air-conditioned ride in the minibus from Allenby to Jerusalem on well-maintained roads seemed a world away from my habitual shared-taxis and servees buses bumping along pot-holed roads.
Approaching East Jerusalem the bus stopped at heavily guarded check-point and my documents checked. There was very little difference in this from my experience of approaching Beirut, where it was the Lebanese army who were leafing through my passport. Just that the Israelis bore more fire-power, and their uniform was more smartly pressed. That, and the fact they they were breaking international law. The Lebanese had a right to be stood on their road.