As we trudge through the terraced land, ducking under branches of olive trees and trying to avoid prickly bushes, I think about landscape, consciousness, and memory. We are walking through the land because Israeli soldiers are blocking the road ahead. They are blocking the road ahead so as not to allow people to arrive in the Palestinian village of Bil’in. We are going to Bil’in in order to protest the confiscation of the village’s land for settlement and wall construction. At Bil’in’s demonstration a week earlier, 36-year-old Jawaher Abu Rahme inhaled a lethal dose of tear gas. Her brother Bassem was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier at a protest in the village just under two years ago.
So we traipse through the olive groves, only slightly out of view of the soldiers on the road, and a line by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish comes to mind: “If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.” Bil’in has become a battleground, the surrounding landscape a stage for a risky game of cat and mouse. What kind of consciousness does the land have? What would it say if it could? The wall is often described as a scar through Palestine, but right now it is more of a fresh wound. When the wall falls, will the scar left be permanent?
Two days before this protest, our group wakes up at the Yafa Cultural Center in Balata refugee camp, Nablus. We eat breakfast, thank our hosts, and get in a bus with the right color license plate, driven by a driver with the right color ID card, and head towards the city of Yafa. The Yafa Cultural Center is thus named because the vast majority of people living in Balata refugee camp come originally from Yafa and the surrounding area. Most of these people have never seen their original villages, or have not been back since their displacement in 1948. I am hesitant to tell our hosts where we are going, knowing that my visit to Yafa – and their inability to join us – is emblematic of the injustice I try so hard to fight.
On the way, we encounter another fresh wound / scar-to-be. We have split into two vehicles, and I am driving a small rental car with two Palestinian women from the West Bank, and two of our whiter and blonder American group members. When we see the checkpoint ahead, we take a deep breath, but we have no reason to believe this will be any different than the many other times I have used my undeserved privilege to “smuggle” Palestinians into parts of their own country that they are not allowed to visit. But this time is different. A soldier or security guard (it’s hard to tell the difference these days) signals for us to stop, and my trick of waving and continuing to drive is thwarted by a new metal bar that the soldiers operate. It looks like a toll booth, only the highway employees are armed and the context much more insidious. When she asks for our passports, we stumble a bit before saying we left them in a hotel in Tel Aviv. We say we are five American tourists. She is skeptical.
We are ordered to pull over and get out of the car. It continues from there: questioning, searching, rapid fire questions to the two Palestinian women about their names, their parents’ names, where they are from, whether they speak any languages other than English. It is maddening and terrifying, and I am standing there wishing we had prepared better, wishing my privilege-driven arrogance – which is often what helps me get through checkpoints – had been mitigated at least enough for us to have had a plan, a story, a mindset that might help us get through this. We tell the guard we had been in the Israeli settlement of Ariel, visiting a friend. I am making it up as I go along. She wants my friend’s name and phone number. I quickly call an old Israeli friend who doesn’t even know I’m in the country. He is surprised and happy to hear from me and asks, “When did you get here?” “There’s a security guard here who wants to talk to you about our visit to your house in Ariel,” I say. “I don’t live in Ariel,” he says, confused. “We’re at the checkpoint on our way from your place to Tel Aviv,” I respond. He catches on.
At this point I’m only trying to get us out of here, not even to get through, but with every question from the guards/soldiers, our story has more and more holes. Finally we talk our way out of the situation and are allowed to “return” to Ariel (where we have not been). Hearts are pounding. I am feeling guilty for my arrogance, and my Palestinian friends are feeling humiliated. They are not entirely surprised by the way they have been treated, but are deeply upset at the degree to which it has affected them.
We drive south, towards another checkpoint that is easier to get through, and I think about how much pain and injustice a people and a place can hold. None of us share exactly what we are feeling – probably none of us are able – but we make a tentative plan for the next checkpoint. We drive through without stopping, and have a small celebration in the car. But we feel uneasy. We are still nervous about being caught. My friend who would at this point usually take off her hat and put back on her head scarf does not do so quite yet. We feel the occupation in our bodies, in our minds. I am not experiencing anything close to what my Palestinian friends are, yet my visceral reaction offers a fragment of understanding of how this system is able to function.
We arrive in Yafa and go first to the sea. One friend has not seen it since she was a child – except as a reminder from the hills of Nablus on a clear day – and her eyes immediately fill with tears. She thanks me. I am speechless. The last thing I want at that moment is to be thanked for bringing a friend to her own land.
As we walk around Yafa and Tel Aviv, I am struck by a sense of permanence. Although I know that the Jewish presence in this city is only a hundred years in the making, while the Palestinian presence is thousands of years deep, it is hard now to imagine the undoing or even the transformation of this place. There are other parts of the country in which it is hard to imagine the continuation of an exclusively Jewish state, but in Tel Aviv, I often feel an overwhelming sense of the opposite.
A couple days ago I was talking with an Israeli friend who works with Zochrot. The organization raises awareness about the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) of 1948. They visit destroyed villages and place signs there with the villages’ original names; organize art exhibits and lectures; facilitate workshops for school children; and engage in other activities to affect the Israeli collective memory. My friend was telling me that he will soon start to focus even more on outreach to the Israeli public. A few minutes later the topic turned to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He excitedly told me that he has hope in this movement, that it’s clear from his perspective that the international movement is growing, and that only pressure from the outside can change the reality on the ground. “Then why do you want to focus more on the Israeli public?” I asked. He thought for a minute, and then responded: “My work is not going to have an immediate effect on the political situation here. What I’m doing is preparing for the day after Zionism.”
May we all be strong enough and imaginative enough to envision justice: to see roads without checkpoints, to remember when Bil’in was a village and not a battleground, and indeed, to work together to bring about the day after Zionism.
Hannah Mermelstein is a Palestine solidarity activist and aspiring radical librarian based in Brooklyn. Since 2003, she has spent more than two years living and working in Palestine, and is co-creator of Birthright Unplugged and Students Boycott Apartheid. In New York Hannah works primarily with Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel.