Text and photos by Andre Vltchek, with reporting and support by Lynda Brayer.
If someone would say: “Israel, Palestine and Golan Heights! And you have only two seconds to describe what first comes to your mind.”
Then I would immediately put into words two images that would enter my mind: “Mental asylum, and enormous bag full of the intertwined professional wires.”
Mental asylum, because how else to describe those long decades of lies, half-truths, and deceptions? How else to describe the state of things when the language loses its meaning, words turn to fragmented squeaks and shouts and people just don’t seem to get through to each other.
The wires would come to mind, because I am not only a writer, but also a filmmaker and photographer. Not by choice, but simply because sometimes, actually quite often, I also feel that the words do not suffice in describing reality. While working, I have to use wires, many of them. And I hate wires: all those chargers and fire-wires, the USB wires and other stuff. You put them to one bag and they tangle; you can never separate them, straighten them, and find two ends.
And that’s what this ancient part of the world became: an enormous web of wires, coated with insanity.
Let’s not talk politics, for a while. Let’s address the most practical issues – how to move from point A to point B.
How do I go from Rafah to Ramallah? You see, even now, my Word is giving me a two spelling errors for both names, so maybe they do not really exist or they carry no significance?
How do Palestinians travel from Bethlehem to Gaza City?
How do men and women from Israeli occupied Golan Heights go to their homeland – Syria, and how do they meet their relatives? And let’s not make any technical mistakes – by international law the people of Golan Heights are actually de jure living in Syria as no government recognized the Israeli occupation. They are also incorporated into Israel, unlike those inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank.
But we all know, of course, that in order to reach Majdal al-Shams, the biggest town of Golan Heights, one does not fly to Damascus but to Tel Aviv.
Are you getting headache, already? Take a deep breath, as it gets much worst.
What do Jordanians or Saudis enter if they decide to visit West Bank? Do they enter Palestine or Israel? Saudis could hardly even pronounce the word ‘Israel’ (a dirty word, although, paradoxically, one of their de facto close allies in the region), let alone travel there. And could they, at least theoretically, enter West Bank?
If you have Israeli stamp in your passport, you can never visit most of the Arab countries. But West Bank is Palestine, although it is still occupied and fragmented and controlled by Israel. So what do you get stamped into your passport? Would a Saudi visitor get the Star of David stamped into his or her refined passport pages?
As a foreigner, I can land in Tel Aviv and go to Gaza or West Bank. Israeli citizens cannot!
I remember, at the beginning of the last Intifada, I hired a car driven by an Israeli Communist driver, a brilliant student of history, who dropped me at the fortified border with Gaza and right away began his epic fight with the Israeli border guards, calling them names and repeating one simple and legitimate point, in English, certainly for my entertainment. It went like that: “Assholes, we are bombing this place from my and my parent’s tax money. I have the right to go and see how my own army is murdering civilians!”
The conversation eventually mutated into Hebrew, and I couldn’t follow. But I got the point.
Israeli border guards eventually let me pass. Not that I had a ball in Gaza, mind you! Not long after the crossing, my shared taxi got under fire from an Israeli helicopter, and just a few hours later I found myself working in notorious Shifa hospital, full of men shot through their testicles, heads and limbs.
Several days later I managed to cross to Egyptian Sinai, while poor Palestinians in Gaza were pickled, sealed and unable to go anywhere. Their brand new airport was first closed down, and later destroyed.
While Israelis cannot go to the West Bank or Gaza, except in their armored vehicles and with the guns sticking in all directions, people of Gaza and West Bank can go, at least in theory, to Israel. But only if they manage to secure necessary permits. And to get them, for the inhabitants of the West Bank, is difficult and humiliating, while for the population of Gaza – the process is sadistic, insulting and the outcome almost impossible.
“They made Palestinians fully depend on Israel”, explained Tami Sheleff who is helping Palestinian people to get Israeli work permits. She is a volunteer in a Jewish volunteer organization called Border Watch. “Whether you live or die often depends on whether you work in Israel or not. One poor man recently told me: ‘I know I should not cross illegally. If they catch me, I am finished! But I have no choice.’ And even if you get the permit, life does not always get easy. Workers are at the mercy of their bosses: both Jewish and Arab, and Arabs do not necessarily make better employers. Arab collaborators are often those who hire Palestinian workers. Then, they have absolute power over them.”
It is all a total mess. My annoying imaginary wires are replaced, in real life, by razor-sharp border wires, by several layers of high-voltage wires, by the wires ‘decorating’ tall concrete walls dividing entire communities, dividing schools from towns, towns from towns, fields from towns.
I wrote that for the Israelis it is forbidden to enter the occupied territories, except when they come on board their tanks. But of course even for Israeli civilians, there is one exception: they can go to Palestine if they grab Palestinian land and become the ‘settlers’, which many of them choose to do. In that case, they can use special roads and flash their special ID cards.
As we are driving on toll road 6, from Haifa to Jerusalem, my CP colleague and human rights lawyer Lynda Brayer is obviously beginning to harbor some secret desires to murder me with her bare hands.
I see Palestinian towns on the left side and I am demanding that we leave the motorway and drive on the local road. My argument is that I need to drive through Palestinian towns, again and again, to get better feel of the situation. Lynda’s point is that ‘we would never make it to Jerusalem’, as there are endless checkpoints on the secondary roads passing through the West Bank.
We argue. Lynda yells: “My children googled you and they warned me that if I work with you, I would probably return home in a body bag”. Satisfied with the fact that my good reputation reached all the way to Israel and Palestine, I adopt a reconciliatory approach. I ask: “Why on earth can’t we take local road, really?”
“I can’t go there”, she replies. “You can, but not me.”
At some point we leave Route 6 and enter Route 423. And I get what I was asking for: The visuals of the insanity of the occupation. The motorway is squeezed between two tall concrete walls, so tall that the Berlin Wall would look like a midget in comparison. Watch towers are everywhere – tall and mean – and the barbed wire is like an icing on the cake, decorating all those monstrosities.
We have to go through the checkpoint. Then, few minutes later, Lynda explains: “Here, the school you see on the left side… Children have to go through the underground tunnel to reach it from their homes. There are Jewish settlements in between, and kids are not allow to pass through them.”
I see more wires, wires everywhere. I can hardly recognize the school.
From the terrace of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, one can enjoy two brilliant vistas: one of the Israeli secret service headquarters, and the other one of the monstrous wall, which is encircling a Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
By now I am tired of walls; sick of the walls; walls make me want to vomit.
For several days we were covering Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with almost nothing but walls and wires. There are several layers of barbed high-voltage wires between the occupied Golan and Syria, between Israel and Lebanon. There are wires and minefields; there are rusty old wires and shiny new wires, all sorts of wires. Israeli steel industry must be doing tremendously well!
After days and days of facing the wires, you begin wondering where are the people – they appear to be so small; they are hiding somewhere behind the wires, they are humiliated by the wires, intimidated by the wires, separated by the wires.
At some point you begin getting crazy from all those wires, you wonder how would it feel to wed a wire, to make love to a wire, to have some cute wire as a pet.
Then you know it is time to leave Israel and the occupied territories; and to leave them very quickly. Of course you can do it, any time, but the Palestinians cannot! They are stuck with those bloody wires!
During my last evening, which I spent in this part of the world, before returning to Cairo, I was wondering around the old city of Jerusalem. As always, the city was magnificent, one of the greatest urban areas on earth.
Jerusalem or Al-Quds? According to the Word in my computer, it was definitely Jerusalem, because ‘Al-Quds’ was, as were all Palestinian cities, underlined in red, therefore shown as an error.
But even Jerusalem was divided. Here, wires were imaginary, not real, or at least most of them.
I asked an Arab shopkeeper for the directions to Al-Aqsa Mosque. He asked me whether I am a Muslim. I replied that I have no religion, but I wanted to see the mosque. He began shouting insults in Arabic. Then I was approached by a kid who offered to take me to the Temple Mount and to the Dome of the Rock. Some old woman overheard us, and began scolding the kid; lecturing him that taking me there would be haram.
Eventually, I walked alone, asking for the directions. I found the main entrance, manned by two Israeli guards. “Are you Muslim?” they asked. “No”, I said, “no religion”. “You can’t go”, they replied: “It is only for them.”
I called my friends. “They will not let you through”, they explained. “Few days ago, a group of Jews entered Al-Aqsa Mosque and they tried to pray there”.
‘That would be normal during the Caliphate of Cordoba’; I was going to utter, but changed my mind. These were very different times.
I felt mistrust and heavy, stiff atmosphere all over the old city.
At some point I reached one of the gates leading to the Temple Mount. A sympathetic guard let me come as close as the entrance. “Don’t cross. Don’t enter.” Perimeters were everywhere, some imaginary, some real; and prohibitions, piling on top of each other.
To reach the Western Wall or ‘Wailing Wall’, one has to go through elaborate metal detector, through the real security.
As I walk, I wonder whether this city will ever live in peace, whether it will feel comfortable.
Near the Wall, in a small café, I ask for the directions. I am meeting Lynda at Salah ad Din Street, which is in East Jerusalem. The owner gives me a dirty look. “No idea where it is!” he replies, rudely.
I walk, and then I ask an Arab looking vendor for directions. “Just walk straight, all the way to the end, for fifteen minutes,” he replies. “Exit through the Damascus Gate and follow the ancient wall.”
I follow his advice. I exit; I walk through Damascus Gate and then I see the Wall – beautiful and historic. But I don’t care. At this point, to me, a wall is a wall. They all make me feel sick, nauseated. My stomach is revolting, I feel like throwing up.
I lower my glance; I apologize to this wonderful wall, which is part of UNESCO designated world heritage site. But there is nothing I can do – this wall is one too many. I walk, quickly, towards the street named after the great anti-imperialist Sultan who, many centuries ago, drove Europeans from these tragic lands – the Sultan Salah al Din.
“Let’s dash to Bethlehem; to Palestine”, I suggest, to Lynda, when she picks me up with the car in front of the police station.
“I can’t”, she says. Then, after a few moments of hesitation “OK, let’s; I know back roads.”
It is dark and we have to stop on the highway, at one more of those sophisticated checkpoint. We make a U-Turn, then exit motorway; drive up to the hill. Police stops us. Lynda speaks Hebrew. An elaborate hat is covering her headscarf. They think we are two Jewish settlers and they let us pass.
“I used to live here”, explains Lynda. “I was the lawyer who set up the ‘Society of St. Yves; Catholic Human Rights Center’”.
We made it. Now we are driving through Bethlehem and Lynda is swearing. “They changed everything. All these roads are one-way, now. I don’t recognize anything.”
But now I am just laughing. After days in Golan Heights, after all those walls, the relics of occupation, and after the latest gadgets of the occupation, it is the most logical thing to do, to end my work here – in Palestine – at night.”
“We will now splurge”, Lynda informs me. “Let’s inject something into the Palestinian economy. It is my treat. Let’s visit the magnificent Jacir Palace hotel, built during the Ottoman Empire and more than one hundred years old”.
She shows me her Human Rights Center from which the Roman Catholic Church summarily removed her because Israel thought she was "hostile"! And we stop for a few seconds at some roundabout.
Then I see it. “Damn it!” I scream. There is THE WALL, the Israeli wall, from the Palestinian side. It is enormous, it is bigger than life, and it is sicker than any wall I ever saw before. There is a watchtower incorporated into it. Somehow it looks like piranha, only without the teeth!
There is graffiti. “This Is Illegally Occupied Land. State of Palestine. 194.”
Then few more of the signs like: Leave This Palestine – End Up Terror!”
And: Revolution Started Here! And will continue…”
I think about Egypt, about Port Said, Tahrir Square and the fights in front of the Presidential Palace in Cairo. I think about President Morsi and his government, which, with absolute spite for the Palestinian people, just recently inundated the tunnel connecting Gaza and Sinai. He destroyed the only lifeline that people of Gaza had been counting on. ‘What solidarity!’ I think. Revolution Started Here!
In Jacir Palace, which now belongs to the Intercontinental chain, a waiter – Hassan – tries to put into perspective all this insanity, the restrictions, prohibitions, and divisions of the occupation.
“When I do, I travel on my Palestinian passport”, he replies to our question. “I cannot travel to Israel without the permit.”
What about to the capital of Palestine – to Ramallah?
“I can go, via Wadi Naar, the ‘Valley of Fire’, through Israeli checkpoints. It can easily take almost 2 hours, although it is very near as the crow flies.”
Lynda mutters that just to get from Ramallah to Jerusalem for those who have the permit, it can sometimes take three hours! One way!
What about when you want to go to Gaza?
“That’s of course quite a different story. We cannot go, unless we get Israeli permit, which is close to impossible.”
“We – Israelis – cannot go at all,” says Linda. “You can go, in theory, but you have to get a permit and that requires the effort of Sisyphus.”
“Do you know anyone from here; from Bethlehem, who managed to travel to Gaza?” I ask.
“No, I don’t”, replies the waiter.
We are told that during the high season, this magnificent Ottoman-style hotel is filled with Russian, Korean and Japanese visitors. But there are hardly any Arabs coming here. Can they come or can they not?
My head is spinning from all those wires, walls and restrictions.
We walk by two Palestinian police officers.
“Take a photo”, says Lynda. I photograph two young boys in uniforms, helmets in their hands. They smile; they are even posing for us.
“Welcome to Palestine!” they smile.
“Thank you,” we reply, as our eyes fall on the humongous Israeli watchtower just a few steps away.
Later, late at night, inside the car, as we are approaching the Israeli checkpoint before entering Jerusalem, I ask Lynda:
“When you are in Tel Aviv or in Haifa, you may shut yourself from all this reality and live in one of the richest and the most comfortable countries on earth, right?”
“That’s correct”, she replies. “If you forget about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and others, you can have your high culture, sophistication, and comfort.”
“Do people know? Do they care?”
“Most of them live in denial”, she replies. “They prefer to live in what is called here "the bubble!" I consider them selfish. They prefer not to see, not to know.”
For a while we drive in silence.
“All those walls that we saw”, I say. “All those wires… It will not be easy to dismantle them.”
“Not easy at all”, she agrees.
“That’s where non-fiction fails”, I suggest. “So many people know, in theory, that this is wrong. We can give them numbers, analyses, the UN resolutions backed by the whole world but blocked by the US… We can state and repeat all those moral conclusions, over and over again… But such an approach has failed for years and decades. Nothing changes.”
“So what would help?”
“I have no idea. Poems, songs, films”, a fiction…” I think out loud. “The wall, The Walls; they don’t feel real, do they? They don’t exist, do they? If they do, it would be too insane. Maybe we should try to prove that they exist only in our imagination; that they are not real, just a nightmare. And if we manage to prove it, they could, eventually, disappear…”
“Try it”, she says.
“It is just an idea,” I say. “We are all running out of schemes, don’t we?”
Departing Israel, I felt suddenly loved, understood and appreciated.
Two Mossad (or whichever agency they belonged to) agents wanted to know all about my life. How many children I have, all about my marriages and divorces.
They wanted to know everything. They studied my passport, my press cards, my residency cards, my driver’s licenses and my ground passes.
“On this”, one of them said, with a melancholic smile, pointing at the ID of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand, “You don’t look like yourself…”
“You know”, I confessed, “This one was taken 9 years ago… I have aged.”
“Oh no”, they both began consoling me. “You look great! It’s just that the photo somehow does not match…”
We discussed my childhood, my youth, my books, and my films.
They asked questions, and they listened. I was never in a relationship with any woman who would ask so many important and personal questions and who would listen so attentively to all my answers. These people were even taking notes!
It all lasted some 30 minutes, at least. Their boss arrived and asked me more questions. We cracked some jokes. They acted as if they were my mates.
After they concluded that they have learned enough about me, they allowed me to proceed towards the Royal Jordanian counter. I felt a bit disappointed: I was beginning to enjoy our conversation about my books and films. But by then I already felt pure; moved almost to tears. Like after a confession. Not that I know much about confessions, as I have no religion… But that’s how I imagined it must feel…
“Now,” I thought, “All is pronounced and forgiven. All sins disappeared into thin air.”
So now, dudes, we can start from the very beginning. I will kick your backsides, with all my strength, until you let your colonies go free. Until we meet again; until the next confession!”
“You can return the car”, I sent a text message to Lynda, my CounterPunch mate, my ‘Jewish mother’. “And tell your children you are coming home in one piece, not in a body bag.”
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Expathos. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.
Lynda Burstein Brayer, a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Law Faculty, practiced as a human rights lawyer in Palestine/Israel resides in Haifa, Palestine and now writes political and critical law essays. Today she knows that human rights were invented in order to circumvent inalienable political and economic rights and is an anti-zionist dissident waiting/hoping for Baladi Shams. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org