Being in Jerusalem for Yom Kippur, I sought to experience the policy of closures for religious holidays. I wanted to see for myself: What are the differences in freedom of movement, for the Muslim and the Jew, in this occupied city on a high holiday?
On Friday afternoon, the holy day of the week for Muslims, I left the research institute that I stay in in East Jerusalem and walked to the Damascus Gate. I faced two checkpoints. At the first, in the Nablus Road a block from the Old City, a dozen Israeli soldiers stood at barricades, guarding a 30-inch passage in the middle of the street. Dozens of Muslims stood on my side, evidently unable to go through to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. I sauntered up, and two women soldiers eyed me up and down and then one jerked her chin, allowing me to pass.
The next checkpoint was not so easy. Just outside Damascus Gate, two soldiers stopped me at another barricade and demanded my passport. They seemed nervous. “What are the rules?” I said with fake innocence. “There are no rules for you,” a beefy blond soldier said, returning my papers.
But for Muslims, men must be over 45 years old to enter– the usual restrictions Israel imposes to staunch protest.
A sense of Israeli control pervades the Old City on Fridays. The absence of youth diminishes the scene. The place seems drained of life. I stopped into a rugdealer’s in the Christian Quarter and when he learned I’m a journalist, the owner angrily directed me to write about the closure. “I blame the Muslims of the world,” he said. “1.5 billion of them. They should all come to the border and demand to pray. Let the Israelis shoot them. Let them kill a few hundred thousand– then they could come pray. Let them kill a million. Hitler killed 6 million. So– let them do as Hitler did. I would go to the border. I told my son today that I would.”
I’ve been in Palestine long enough to know that this kind of expression of bitter rage is not unusual. It is typical. Everyone feels the humiliation of occupation. They hate the occupation, as you would hate it, as any human being would hate it, and it gnaws at their souls. And they demand to make a witness of any foreigner.
Yom Kippur began that night at sundown. I walked into West Jerusalem to attend a service. It was 9 when the service ended, and then I walked with pleasure through the empty streets. So did hundreds of other worshipers. In one street corner, teenagers gathered to sit in the intersection and sing. Old couple strolled along the white line in the middle of the biggest streets. What a great liberated feeling.
Though it expresses sovereignty too. The idea of a sovereign community. We should all be sovereign.
On Saturday I planned to go to the West Bank so I could break my fast with Jews in Ramallah. But everyone I spoke to said that I would not be able to get in to the West Bank because Israel shuts the checkpoints for Yom Kippur.
Allison Deger got in touch with the Ministry of Tourism and told me not to come. “It appears that all checkpoints are closed tomorrow. Qalandia won’t open until late Saturday.” I checked at the Mount Scopus Hotel in East Jerusalem and they told me the same thing. Qalandia is closed. And don’t even try and get a cab to go through the Hizma crossing. The settlers of Pisgat Ze’ev will stone your car. The Palestinian super at the research institute also told me not to go to Qalandia, I would never get in. His son said the same thing. Another friend told me to try the Dead Sea entrance to the West Bank.
Still, I resolved to go. I had a story: They won’t let you travel on your holy day, and they won’t let you travel on their holy day either.
As it turned out, at 2 o’clock on Yom Kippur, I got the 18 bus in East Jerusalem and went right through Qalandiya checkpoint. No problem. No traffic.
A soldier waved our bus through. In the opposite lanes, I could see Palestinians in a line of cars, waiting to get in to the Jerusalem side. Many seemed to be getting through.
My friends in Ramallah all marveled that I had gotten in. And today when I returned to Jerusalem– passing under gunpoint this time at Qalandiya, called on to produce my passport– folks here did too. So you got through! they exclaimed. No! The super at the research institute shook his head in puzzlement. “We never know,” he said.
At first I thought I had no story. I had moved wherever I wanted on Yom Kippur.
It was when the super shook his head and said with a hapless smile, “We never know,” I understood that the contempt was the story. No one on the Palestinian side had any idea of the true conditions. They subsisted on rumors and speculation. They were told by authorities that Qalandia would be closed. But Qalandia was open.
They were not citizens seen worthy of receiving correct information. They were subjects, under an arbitrary sovereign.