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New Year's in a Garden on the Moon

(p. 192)

The Jericho Intercontinental is a posh hotel built next to a casino, both of which were finished just as the second Intifada started and thus never really opened. But they dusted themselves off and offered a New Year's Eve party, a night in a lavish room, and two meals for $90. I jumped at the chance, drained from campaign work and eager for a brief change of scenery and atmosphere.

Several friends and officemates loaded into a service taxi on New Year's Eve. As usual we bypassed the Qalandia checkpoint, a detour that added more than an hour to the trip, before rejoining the main road to Jericho.

It was a lovely drive, though, through the wilderness east of Jerusalem. The voluptuous, parched hills were thinly, vibrantly green from the first winter rains and striped by innumerable paths made by grazing animals. The sky was deep azure and the air stingingly clear. Bedouin shepherds and their flocks were out in force. There was hardly a hill without a herd of trotting goats or grazing sheep. One flock appeared high on a cliff ledge with an almost sheer face above and below.

I asked Abir, the woman sitting next to me, "How did they get up there?"

"I don't know," she said. "But it's beautiful, isn't it? It makes you wonder what all of this was like a thousand years ago."

We soon hit a flying checkpoint. The Israeli government maintained that they were minimizing checkpoints in the run-up to elections, but the claim bore little resemblance to the reality on the ground. They had taken out a few fixed checkpoints, but they'd added many more flying checkpoints, which were even more nerve-wracking because they were so unpredictable.

Abir crossed her fingers. "Let's hope nobody gets turned back," she said. "Including me."

She was from Gaza, and her ID was a different color from a West Bank ID. Her permit to work and study in the West Bank had expired, which meant that at any checkpoint, at any time, she could be arrested and deported back to Gaza. Many Gazans were in the same boat and hadn't seen their families for years. They missed out on weddings and funerals, birthdays and holidays, and the childhoods of their nieces and nephews, afraid that if they visited Gaza Israel might not allow them to return to their colleges, careers, and friends in the West Bank.

Abir had brought her Palestinian Authority passport instead of her Israel-issued ID. The passport said she was from Gaza in small letters in English and Arabic, but it didn't scream GAZA like the ID. The soldiers at this checkpoint didn't notice she was from Gaza, but one saw that my passport had been issued in San Francisco. He grinned broadly.

"Pamela Jane!" he said. "You are from San Francisco. You know the SuperSonics?"

I had no idea what he was talking about—weren't the SuperSonics in Seattle?—but I smiled and nodded. He came closer to my window, still grinning. "You like to travel, huh?" He hoisted the shoulder strap of his M-16 into a more comfortable position. "It is a very good life, I think. Look at us, stuck here in the sun all day."

I tried to look sympathetic but was thinking, You're complaining? You're the one stopping us! But he was, after all, just a teenager. Wars and occupations are innately abhorrent things, poisoning the soul and society of all involved. Here was another kid caught in the maw of it, standing at a checkpoint instead of off at college somewhere studying and partying. It seemed like such a pointless waste.

"Every Israeli has to serve for two years, right?" I said.

"No, three years! Two for the girls. It's not fair. They do the same work we do."

Another soldier gave the signal that we were allowed to pass, and our driver took off.

Abir and I agreed the soldier was cute, but I said, "Does that ever work? Picking up chicks while you're oppressing them?"

"Who knows?" said Abir. "Why do construction workers whistle at girls who pass by?"

"I guess men with big metal objects in their hands get overconfident or something."

"Hey, you are from San Francisco! You know the SuperSonics?" Abir mocked the soldier and giggled. "And hey, you are from Gaza! You know Ahmed Yassin?"

I was just putting my passport back in my purse when the driver called for our IDs again. I looked up. Another checkpoint. It hadn't been two hundred yards. We went through the same stress, the same waiting in line, the same nonsense again.

Two hundred yards on was another one. Triple shot. I said to Abir, "How can three checkpoints within a quarter-mile of each other be for security?"

"They're just trying to make our lives easier," she said.

"Didn't they say they'd minimize checkpoints in the run-up to elections?"

Abir snorted. "They say a lot of things."

* * *

The floor of our hotel lobby was covered in cut-marble patterns under crystal chandeliers. Each room came with a huge bed, a massive bathtub, and an gorgeous glass-walled shower. The weather was perfect, warmed by a blanket of below-sea-level air. We headed straight to the pool, where I ran into two guys I knew, an American and a Swede. They informed me that Jericho was one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world. The Swedish guy said it was one of the most-often-destroyed, too.

"And no wonder. It's in the middle of an indefensible valley. You'd think after a while they'd say, 'Listen, guys, I don't think this location is working out...'"

Now this unlucky location couldn't fill a hotel on New Year's.

As more guests arrived, we began comparing checkpoint stories. One woman who had an ID that didn't allow her to leave Ramallah without a permit tried to get out of her cab and bypass a checkpoint on foot. Two soldiers spotted her and trained their guns on her. She was terrified. Many Palestinians have been killed for less. The soldiers questioned her and the driver, their guns trained on them all the while, and finally let them pass. It was fifteen minutes of sheer terror. She had literally risked her life to get to this party.

The party that night was more like an Arabic wedding than anything else, with everyone dressed to the nines and sitting at long tables enjoying food and booze and dancing to music turned up way too loud. We put on party hats and popped our champagne poppers at midnight. Most of us turned in afterwards, exhausted from elections work.

I got in the elevator with a man who looked like a hotel manager. "Happy New Year," I said.

He smiled graciously in thanks. "Hopefully a better one."

* * *

The next morning we rented bikes and went on a ride around town. Jericho is known in Arabic as Medina al Qamar, the City of the Moon. The hills to the west and the desert all around look as dusty and barren as a moon, but Jericho itself is dazzlingly green, a garden city, wall-to-wall groves and greenhouses irrigated by ancient springs, one lush tropical food source after another.

I yelled gaily over my shoulder once, in a riff on a classic piece of propaganda, "Who says Arabs can't make the desert bloom?"

* * *

We returned to Ramallah via Qalandia and crossed the checkpoint on foot. Just as I got to the other side, my phone rang. It was the officious administrator again.

"Hello, Pamela? I am sorry, but you need to come to the office right away."

I rolled my eyes skyward. "What happened now?"

"One of our volunteers in Gaza was killed by an Israeli soldier."

I froze on the gravel path. All the happiness and celebration of the past two days turned to dust, and I felt crushed by helpless horror. I must have looked it because Abir asked me, "Did you know him?"

"No," I said. "What difference does it make?"

When I got back to the office, my first duty of 2005 was to write a press release about a high school student named Riziq Ziad Musleh who'd been shot while putting up posters for Dr. Barghouthi's campaign near the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. There were no clashes. There was no warning. The bullet, which came from the nearby Rafiah Yam settlement, lodged in his heart. He died in the hospital that night.

Our campaign filed a complaint with the European Union Election Observation Mission, for what it was worth. Nothing seemed to have any impact.

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Copyright 2012, Pamela J. Olson

You are welcome to contact me -- pamolson @ gmail dot com