LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Worst. Border crossing. Ever.
30 June 2005
I went to Wadi Rum in Jordan this weekend (the desert
from where Lawrence of Arabia marched on Aqaba) to
renew my visa. Very nice -- sweet tea, rock climbing,
desert sunsets, moonlit dunes, undercooked chicken,
and lute music. And my Bedouin guide awkwardly
hitting on me. The usual.
The border crossing, both in and out, was a breeze. I
was in and out in 15 minutes. I couldn't believe my
luck. The only problem was a Jordanian official who
stamped my passport on accident even though I asked
him not to. He immediately cringed, apologized, and
put a big X through the offending visa stamp. "See?"
he said. "Cancelled. Not obvious."
Coming back in, I cleared security without a fuss, but
the Israeli passport control girl told me once again
that they were out of paper and therefore couldn't
possibly give me a stamp on a separate sheet of paper.
But this time I had some time to kill, so I just kept
saying, "I know, but this has happened to me before,
and it's a BIG PROBLEM for me if I don't have a visa
stamp." I said it over and over, about ten time in
the same unflinching tone of voice, until she finally
caved in and went to the next room to grab a visa
paper for me. So it's all good.
On the news front, I have to admit that the
anti-disengagement riots by extremist right-wing
settlers in Gaza and Israel are a lot of fun to watch
from this side of the Green Line. I hate when people
get hurt, and Lord knows I hope they don't succeed.
But we've always known these guys were crazy nutcases
who regularly act this way toward Palestinians. But
harassing Palestinians isn't usually considered
Settlers fighting IDF soldiers and throwing nails onto
busy highways in Israel, on the other hand, is quite
photogenic. Anything that exposes the dark side of
Israel's government's policies (i.e. coddling,
funding, and handing stolen property over to maniacs
in the name of ethnic cleansing and dispossession
until they became uncontrollable) in such a public
manner is warmly welcome.
West Bankers and Gazans have for so many years borne
the brunt of these state-subsidized crazies, and now
they are taking their psychosis out on Israel. Why?
Because Israel dares to take a couple of their
beachside villas built on stolen Palestinian property
away, even though they're doing it in the name of
expropriating even more Palestinian property in the
West Bank. It's fascinating how abjectly brazen and
delusional they are. It's a circus.
But the best part came on CNN last night when PM Ariel
Sharon criticized these people, whom he armed, built
houses for, and gave so much money they don't even
need to get jobs and thus have all the time in the
world to block intersections, glue government building
keyholes shut, and hole themselves up in abandoned
buildings cum bunkers in the Gaza Strip. (All the
money that's been drained into the settlements has
also done a lot to destroy welfare and health care in
Israel, where 20% of kids go to bed hungry every
Even 12-year-old girls are getting arrested for
rioting and attacking police officers, and sometimes
the parents refuse to identify the incarcerated kids
and pick them up, supposedly as per the child's
request. Of course the kids shout lots of inciteful
slogans at the police officers during the day, but
it's reported that they cry a lot at night.
Anyway, on CNN last night, Sharon said plaintively,
"These hooligans are lawbreakers and disruptors of the
peace. They do not represent the majority of
settlers, who obey the law."
My Palestinian American roommate and I nearly fell on
the floor laughing. In the context of Israel a
settler is, by definition, an illegal squatter on
stolen property. Having the gall to say on
international television that the majority of settlers
obey the law is... impressive.
Unfortunately, some settlers have used their
anti-disengagement sentiments as annother excuse to
attack defenseless Palestinians. An attempted
lynching yesterday by settlers in Gaza, who bludgeoned
and tried to beat an 18-year-old Palestinian boy to
death while IDF soldiers looked on, actually got some
press coverage in Israel because an Israeli
correspondent saw the whole thing.
Other settlers more quietly terrorize Palestinians in
the West Bank, knowing the police are too busy with
riots in Israel proper to even contemplate doing
anything to stop them. Police almost never stop
settlers from harassing Palestinians anyway, but now
that the insanity of the extremist settlers is making
headlines, their stepped-up harassment of Palestinians
just makes Israel look even more like a chronically
lawless mess that has now created a monster it can't
Hopefully it will wake Israelis up enough to get them
to rally and actually start building a more reasonable
Israel that can live in peace with its neighbors. The
first step in curing any disease is recognition. The
settlements are clearly a disease.
Speaking of reasonableness, here's something that made
me feel very proud to be an American - an exhibition
in New York of portraits of Americans who spent their
lives using America's ideals to fight America's
established powers. Without these people we would
have far less of the truth, democracy, equality, and
freedom that are the pride and treasure of our
My favorite quote from one of the paintings:
"Kids don't have a little brother working in the
coal mine, they don't have a little sister coughing
her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of
the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke
the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have
child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts
from enlightened management. They were fought for,
they were bled for, they were died for by working
people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that."
I'm also proud of the people today who are working
hard to keep the current regime from taking so many of
our hard-won rights and freedoms away.
Anyway, since I don't have time to write about new
developments, I'll just send something I wrote in
December and never managed to send out. It's about my
border crossing at that time, when they held me six
hours on the way out and seven hours on the way back
in. Compared to many of my friends' stories (like a
German friend who was interrogated for fifteen hours
in the basement of Ben Gurion airport) it was a walk
in the park. Just goes to show you.
Worst. Border crossing. Ever.
The funny thing is, it wasn't even all that bad. It
was horrendous for me, but the minute I tried to gripe
to a Palestinian about my woes, I was shamed, as
usual. There's something demoralizing about never
winning the "My day was worse than your day" contest.
No matter how bad I feel about the things I see and
experience under this depressing occupation, I can
grab any random Palestinian off the street and his
situation is a thousand times worse and he complains
And here I am complaining about my lack of opportunity
to complain. I guess I should count my blessings.
I got to the Jordan River border crossing in good
time, around 11:30 a.m., on a brisk December morning.
The taxi ride up to Beit Shean was surprisingly
pretty. The parched hills along the Dead Sea and the
Jordan Valley had turned soft shades of green from the
I couldn't wait for the drive down through northern
Jordan to Amman once I crossed to border. It's
usually gorgeous anyway, and now, after the winter
rains, I figured now it would be some kind of
technicolor green Biblical fantasyland.
Unfortunately, I would never find out.
The border guards asked the usual inane questions:
"Do you have any weapons?"
"Why were you in Israel?"
"Why are you going to Jordan?"
"Who do you know? Where have you been? How did you
finance this trip? What's your mother's shoe size?
Has your cat been properly spayed or neutered? By
whom? Where were you the night of October 22nd,
It would be as tedious to write them all down as it
was to sit through them.
Apparently my bags didn't have enough stuff in them to
make me look like a real backpacker, and my story
didn't seem quite kosher either. They continued the
interrogation for an hour, down to the very last
detail of my last three months in "Israel", my life
before that, and my plans for the future.
I'd gotten up very early and hadn't eaten all day, and
my made-up story didn't hold water. I just wasn't
prepared for this kind of grilling. They caught me on
a number of inconsistencies. Looking self-satisfied,
they called be back to the interrogation rooms for a
Looked like the spiders had caught themselves a fly.
First they did one of their famous gratuitous full
body searches. They didn't go as far as making me
strip entirely, but they didn't leave much up to the
imagination either. I've been to my share of Sigma
Chi and Synergy parties, but I still felt violated.
Did they have the right to do this? Do they have any
reason to do this besides trying to make me feel
gross, violated, and intimidated? Almost certainly
But there was not much I could do about it. If I
refused anything, they could detain me indefinitely or
even deport me. I didn't know my rights exactly, and
I didn't have the money to sue anybody if I did. Even
if I knew my rights and had unlimited funds, that kind
of thing would mean months of delay, which would
defeat the whole purpose. And I'd lose anyway. For
all practical purposes, all they have to do is say
'security' and it's open season. Either I submit or
leave. Unless they put me in administrative
detention, in which case even leaving wouldn't be an
They took me into another room where they went through
every compartment of every bag I had, rifling through
my things like it was a clearance table at Dillards.
Shaking my clothes, opening every little compact and
bottle, reading my daybook, jacking with my cell
phone, even going through the secret inner lining
pocket of my purse.
The cell phone was the worst. 80% of the names in my
phone are Arabic, like Mohammed, Mustafa, Ahmed, etc.,
and it was awful to see them clicking through all my
friend's numbers and even reading my SMS messages
right in front of me. I walked over to the kid with
my phone, and he said, "What do you want?"
I said, "I'm just curious what you're doing with my
"Curious?" he said. "Or scared?"
Someone's a Shin Bet wannabe.
Another was reading every page of my day planner. I
wanted to scream. At least I hadn't taken my journal
through. That would have killed me.
When they were intently reading a scrap of paper from
my purse, I couldn't help but walk over to see what
they were looking at. The guard looked at me up
through his eyelashes.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"Can I help YOU?" I asked right back. These are MY
"Sit down and wait."
I'd gotten cocky. For other crossings I'd removed
every single tiny trace of anything that suggested
Arabic or Palestine from my things before I went, and
I tried to pack heavy so they didn't get suspicious.
But it was a pain carrying a heavy pack around, and
during the last three crossings they hadn't looked
much further than a quick glance at the main
This time they found a Qur'an verse a friend had given
me in California, a drawing some kids in Jayyous had
done of me with my name written in Arabic next to it,
my Bravo Supermarket card with its Al-Bireh address
printed in Arabic, my Arab Bank ATM card, and, most
damning of all, a Palestinian Red Crescent identity
card with my picture affixed to it, my name on it, and
an Arabic stamp covering the picture.
"Er, what's that doing in there?"
I managed to 'explain' it all in a way that almost
kinda fit, but it was more convoluted than Bill's
dissembling about Monica. I heard them say something
in Hebrew that sounded like, "Definitely ISM."
Activists for the International Solidarity Movement
(ISM) are routinely blacklisted and deported, their
materials (photos, reports, etc.) routinely destroyed
as they try to leave the country. This was not good.
They told me to wait, after which I spent three hours
on a cold metal bench in a cold room staring at the
clock. I could describe the wait in detail: being
hungry and thirsty, my stomach twisting into hard
little knots as I thought about all I had to lose. My
life here. My friends. My plans. The new apartment
I'd just started fixing up. The dates I'd made. The
Nazareth restaurant where I get my spicy chicken
sandwiches every other day. Ziryab, the artsy coffee
house where I spend too much time. Al-Silwadi Juice
where I get my carrot, pear, and ginger cocktails.
The view of the gorge and the Muqata'a on my way to
work. They could take all that and a million other
things away from me if they felt like it. My fate was
entirely in their hands.
After the first hour and a half they asked me for my
cell phone PIN number so they could turn it back on
again. I had no choice but to give it to them. I
know they took it completely apart, because the clock
was unset when I got it back. They also erased at
least one of my phone book entries. And later I found
out that they had questioned an acquaintance of mine
based on information they'd taken from my phone. I
felt ill and violated. I felt foolish and like I'd
let people down.
After two hours I asked to talk to them again, and
after another hour they agreed. They asked if I
wanted to change my story. I said yes. I told them
that everything I'd said was technically mostly true.
But I had neglected to mention I also work for a
health development institute in Ramallah.
I expected the worst, but they just clucked at me and
said, "Lies have no legs," and that now the security
check would be a bit faster. After another
excruciating hour and a half or so I was released to
cross the border.
At passport control, I was stopped again. The
passport girl said I would have to wait. By now it
was after dark, almost 5:00 p.m. I was nearing my
sixth hour in Borderland.
"Listen," I said, "I've already been checked very
thoroughly, and they said it was OK."
"I'm sorry, but they are security. We are...
"What are you?"
I'm a bad liar myself, and I know one when I see one.
She was sweet, but she wasn't budging from procedure.
So I stood there while at least 20 people got their
passports checked and stamped.
Then she called me up again and spent several minutes
squinting at my passport and then at the computer
screen, as if both contained immense reams of coded
information about my life, plans, habits, pasta
preferences, affiliations, and which shoe I put on
first in the morning. Or maybe as if there were
several pictures of me wearing subversive T-shirts,
and she couldn't quite make out what they said.
I could see the computer across the way, which was
identical to this one. It looked like it was from
about 1992, and its screen showed nothing but a few
glowing orange strings of Hebrew characters.
Then she told me to wait again.
I said, "I HAVE BEEN VERY THOROUGHLY CHECKED ALREADY.
THERE IS NO REASON TO KEEP ME HERE ANY LONGER." Just
like that. In all caps but with no exclamation point.
I wasn't hysterical or anything. I was just tired of
this asinine crap.
The next time I was called up, she asked me if I was a
tourist. Half-delirious from hunger and frustration,
I said, "Yes," as much out of habit as anything.
She said, "OK," and stamped me and let me pass. I
blinked. What kind of game was this? Had she even
talked to security?
Whatever. At least it was over.
And then I discovered that my Arab Bank ATM card and
daybook were missing. I was half-tempted to leave
them, I so dread going into that room again, but I
found a guard who eventually found my card stuck in my
daybook that they had so enjoyed leafing through.
And I was free.
The Jordanian border was by comparison a pleasant
spring breeze. And riding in the taxi to Amman, 100
km at a stretch without being asked who you are or
what you're doing or who you know or why you're there
-- aaaahhhh. A free country.
And by now a dark country. I missed the green
northern Jordan springtime show entirely.
I got to my friend's hotel in Amman, where he laughed
and said he was about to get suspicious he'd never see
me. I said I'd been held six hours. He said, "Only?
You were lucky."
He told me they'd probably bugged my phone, so I'd
better junk it.
A Belgium professor who had just finished a stint at
An-Najah University in Nablus (in the northern West
Bank) was sitting in the reception area with us. He
heard my border story and said that one of his
friends, an Israeli woman, had done years worth of
research on the Bedouins and their dispossession by
the Israeli government inside Israel. And then at an
Israeli border, the guards had confiscated her
computer and erased the hard drive. She lost
everything. It was a catastrophe.
The Belgian guy said, "Israeli people just don't
expect their own people to treat them this way."
Try being a Palestinian.
I told them about the office I work in in Ramallah and
how it was occupied and trashed in 2002, coffee poured
down the copy machines, computer hard drives twisted
beyond recognition and pissed on, graffiti on the
walls, photos vandalized, even the roof was busted up.
The Belgian professor went on to describe how every
other day in the refugee camp near Nablus, like
clockwork, Israeli tanks and Jeeps would go in,
provoke the young kids until they started throwing
stones, shoot and kill one of the kids, and then
leave. And each time it got reported in the papers
that "Another terrorist was neutralized."
He said, "It's like a ritual."
The next day I went shopping at the Mecca Mall in
Amman. Later, back in downtown, I bought a kilo of
Toufahteen nargila tobacco for a friend in Jayyous and
some Bahraini rose and melon tobacco for myself.
Fayez and I had dinner together and then went back to
his office to chat with the ever-changing bunch of
Arabs and foreigners, politicos and tourists,
activists and Iraqi drivers who hang out at the Al
Sarayya. Fayez told me he suspected I'd be at the
border the next day for about eight hours. But he was
wrong. Off by one hour.
After chatting too long with some British backpackers
at breakfast, I arrived at the King Hussein / Allenby
Bridge crossing around 11:30, my entrails sodden with
It went pretty much as expected. They knew who I was
and where I was coming from. They had a document full
of the details I'd given the guards up north. They
jerked me around and made me wait and asked me
ridiculous questions and tried their best to make me
feel like a criminal. After several hours I asked to
speak to a lawyer, but they pretty much ignored me.
Worse yet, a white-haired fiftysomething security
chief behind a big desk with a massive Israeli flag
displayed behind him tried to get me to name every
person I knew in Palestine, including the people I
worked with. I assumed that the next step would be
asking me details about them. But there was no way I
was even going to give names. Who knew what kind of
list they might be put on? For all I knew they might
be harassed at their next checkpoint, or arrested, or
beaten, or, God forbid, targeted based on the fact
that I'd given the authorities their name. Going back
to Palestine wasn't worth that possibility.
I said, "Well, I know Mohammad, Mahmoud, Ahmed..."
He narrowed his eyes. "What are their last names?"
"I'm really sorry, I'm terrible with last names. I
He was not amused. "Look. You can go to Ramallah
tonight, or you can go back to Amman. It's up to you.
But it's also up to me. So maybe you should be more
specific when you answer my questions. Now what are
their last names?"
That threat pretty much shut me up as far as griping
about my rights being violated, but I still wasn't
going to give out the names of innocent people just
because some jerk leveled a threat at me, which was
probably illegal on his part anyway. No way was I
going to give satisfaction to some wank with a
computer full of my personal information due to a
gross violation of my privacy based on nothing except
suspicion. He was trying to intimidate me into being
or at least feeling like a collaborator. I guessed
he'd just have to send me back to Jordan.
I told him I still didn't remember anyone's last name.
He asked again, but nope, still couldn't recall.
Apparently I'd called his bluff, because he finally
just sighed and went on.
Later he asked me, challengingly, how I'd ever
summoned the utterly impudent audacity to lie to
Israeli security services.
I said, "This. This is why. Waiting hours and being
questioned and treated like this for nothing. We both
know I am not a threat to Israeli security. This kind
of thing has no place in my life or anyone else's. I
have better things to do." I remember being half out
of my chair with agitation at this point. He nodded
and wrote some notes.
"This is wasting your time, too," I reminded him,
trying to highlight our shared plight in this
diabolically retarded game.
"Yeah, but I'm getting paid."
I was left to wait again. One of my waiting
companions was a twentysomething whom I took for a
European. His accent was unidentifiable, but he was
wearing a nice suit and designer glasses, and his
English was impeccable. He allowed me to gripe for
several minutes about my plight before I thought to
ask him where he was from.
He looked at me strangely. "Here."
"Here?" I said, surprised. "You're Israeli?"
"No, I'm Palestinian."
He was a lawyer, it turned out, named Abed, and he
gave me his number in case we got separated or he got
through first and I ran into more troubles.
We talked for about an hour until I got called up for
questioning again. He told me a few stories about his
life under occupation, about his girlfriend at Bir
Zeit University who had gotten gravely ill from
complications that arose from inhaling too much
Israeli tear gas at a university demonstration. She
had disappeared into Jordan for treatment some years
ago and probably died. He hadn't heard from her
since. His baby brother had also been run over and
killed by an Israeli settler bus. His brother had
been six years old at the time, around 1995, and Abed
had witnessed the whole thing. The settler bus hit
the boy, flung him into the air, and then ran him over
when he landed. It never even slowed down.
Abed did manage to get through the border while I was
in my next interrogation. And then I was left to wait
alone. I asked one of the guards if I could at least
find out what charges were being brought against me.
Abed had told me that Israelis are technically not
allowed to hold Palestinians longer than three hours
without bringing a charge against them. This rule is,
of course, routinely violated, but I thought maybe
they'd balk at an American who knew her rights.
The guard said this rule didn't apply to Americans,
only Palestinians, and when it comes to foreigners and
security issues, Israel pretty much has a blank check.
I said, "So you can just say the word 'security' and
do anything you want?"
He stared into space a few moments as if he'd never
thought about it that way before. Then a smile lit
his face. He looked at me and said, "Yes."
They don't even need a reason to harass or spy on
someone. There are no rules. Welcome to martial law
in the Age of Ashcroft. Just say 'security' and the
world's your Abu Ghraib.
There was more questioning, more waiting, more stomach
knots, more wondering. At one point, while I was
waiting, tears stung my eyes and I couldn't seem to
hold them back.
I tried to figure out why I was crying. I'd heard so
many horrible stories that this was purely nothing.
These two wasted days of nervousness and humiliation
were horrible, but they were nothing.
And then I thought, maybe that's it. Hearing all
these awful stories about wrongful arrest, detention
with no trial, Ammar's 32 hours tied up at a
settlement and psychologically tortured, about houses
being smashed and kids being killed... you can't let
it all in, because any one of them is too much, and
all of them together is like a thousand-foot waterfall
landing in a small paper dixie cup.
But here was just a taste of it, just a sampling of
what it actually felt like to be treated like a
criminal, your rights trodden on, the time of your
life wasted just because of who you were. And it
cracked the dam of my defense mechanisms.
Anyway, obviously I got through, with a three month
visa no less. And the next time I went through they
had no idea who I was.
Later I was talking to a friend about the experience,
and about cruel, senseless, and unforgivable things in
general. I said it seemed like after a while you
would have to start going numb to injustice, otherwise
it would drive you crazy. But I told him I didn't
seem to have the capacity to stop being outraged about
things I feel like I should be outraged about. "I
always get... amazed."
My friend said, "Yeah, me too!"
"But I have to. I mean, because otherwise they win.
I can't just accept things that I shouldn't accept."
"Yeah, because then it becomes normal... it becomes
the baseline, what is expected, and then..."
"And then you forget that it isn't normal, that you
have to fight it. Even in America, they put people in
these shitty miserable jobs and act like that's the
best anyone can do."
"People forget what is possible."
"Yeah, it sucks. In this world, as it is, either you
are in constant pain, or you become an asshole."
"I know. How do you find a balance?"
Considering their circumstances, I think the
Palestinians do an amazing job for the most part. No
matter how bad their day was, at the end of it they
find a group of friends and sit around and talk and
laugh. But some have told me that they are laughing
with their mouths only. They don't feel it. And
whenever there is silence, the horrified misery of
this life creeps in again. I really have no idea how
they stay so reasonably cheerful, at least on the
surface. All I can figure is that they have no
It's impossible to explain what it feels like to be
occupied by a foreign military. It's just something
you have to experience. It's pretty much an
unqualified bad if it's not asked for, and it
invariably involves brutality and humiliation beyond
the previous scope of my imagination. Knowing what is
going on here, much less living it, is constant pain
if you don't find ways to block it out. And blocking
it out feels bad, too.
In a Palestinian population half that of Oklahoma,
three people per day have been dying violent, horrible
deaths for four years, and many more mutilated, and
this while land is being stolen, honest livelihoods
and people's homes are being destroyed by the dozen,
and the world's press, as the final kicker, blames the
victim and vilifies the Palestinians as a bunch of
It's a pretty typical scenario. Bush the Elder blamed
the Kurds, Clinton ignored the Rwandans, Europe
whistled while the Bosnian Muslims were being raped
and massacred, etc. Which makes one feel all the more
jaded. And all the more resolved not to take refuge
in becoming jaded, and not to stand by silently while
things you consider unforgivable are happening.
The following is
adapted from "The Farmer and the Cowman should be
Friends" from the musical OKLAHOMA!
The Arab and Israeli should be friends
Oh the Arab and Israeli should be friends,
Yes the Arab and Israeli should be friends.
One man buys an F-16,
The other grabs a rock and sling,
But that's no reason why they can't be friends.
Holy Land folks should stick together,
Holy Land folks should all be pals,
Rabbis dance with jihadists' daughters,
Mullahs dance with the settlers' gals.
I'd like to say a word for Al-Aqsa*,
Their sexual frustration makes them thuggish,
They run with all their might
If soldiers come in for the night,
But when asking for PA pay, they're not sluggish.
I'd like to say a word for the settler,
His life's built on intolerance and pillage,
He roams in Palestine
with just his Uzi and some yine**,
And poisons wells and fields in every village.
Oh the Arab and Israeli should be friends,
Yes the Arab and Israeli should be friends.
One man builds a bomb with ease,
the other mows down olive trees,
but that's no reason why they can't be friends.
Holy Land folks should stick together,
Holy Land folks should all be pals,
Rabbis dance with jihadists' daughters,
Mullahs dance with the settlers' gals.
* Kita'eb Al-Aqsa, or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades
- a particularly annoying militant faction of Fatah
who generally ruin everything.
** Hebrew for "wine"
Next: From 'Gook' to 'Raghead' - Thoughts on Iraq