By Kristin Szremski
Under the façade of normalcy, it’s the eyes that reveal the heavy burden Palestinians carry with them day in and day out. You see it in children’s eyes. In adults, even eyes framed by laugh lines can’t hide the vestiges of grief, sadness or the weariness that are the result of living under Israel’s senseless and depraved occupation of Palestinian soil, from which the very roots of their Palestinian souls are derived.
I noticed this acutely one unusually hot October day waiting in line at the Tantur checkpoint in Bethlehem. Actually, waiting in line doesn’t describe the degrading experience that amounts to begging permission from a heartless oppressor to move about freely in one’s own country.
On Friday morning – the day of obligatory mosque attendance for men – Tantur was teeming with people wanting to go to Jerusalem to attend prayer at Al Aqsa, the third holiest site for Muslims. On this Friday, the majority of the men were over 50 because Israel prohibits entry to the mosque to men younger than that.
Jerusalem is a mere six miles from Bethlehem but for so many Palestinians the city and Al Aqsa are as far removed from their reality as is flying to the moon.
In their families, these older men mostly likely are revered and respected for their years of experience and wisdom. But in the checkpoint’s “holding pen,” Israeli policy reduced them to the status of a nameless and dehumanized ‘other.’
Instead of addressing them with the honorifics they so deserved, young, snot-nosed soldiers barked at them to press their travel permits up to a
bullet-proof glass window, behind which sat another young, inexperienced soldier, who then ordered these elders to place their hands in electronic biometric scanners. Finally, the armed kids gave the patriarchs permission to continue through a turnstile and then through a lengthy, narrow passageway that resembled an elongated dog kennel made of cement and iron bars.
The process would be repeated again in Jerusalem.
While waiting in line, the elders, dressed in traditional thobes and kufiyah, waited patiently. They spoke among themselves; some even joked. But their eyes never smiled. Even the young men I saw that day who approached the Apartheid Wall, razor wire, security cameras, heavily armed soldiers – all part of the checkpoint apparatus – with a sense of patient resignation couldn’t belie the pain in their eyes, no matter how jaunty their gait.
A woman, a bit disheveled with her headscarf slightly askew, wandered listlessly about until her gaze settled on mine and she sidled over to cut in line. She smiled up at me shyly and it was then I noticed. Her eyes held nothing at all.
But the eyes that haunt me the most belong to a man from Khalil, one of the most oppressed areas in the West Bank.
Israel’s security apparatus has all but choked all Palestinian life from this once vibrant ancient city many know by the name of Hebron. The military has blocked – in some cases even sealed off – all entries into the old market area except one, and has ordered the shuttering of numerous shops. The merchants who remain sell their wares on tables on the cobbled street in front of their stores, now padlocked by military order. Palestinians are not allowed to cross Martyr Street to reach merchants on the other side, nor are they allowed to go beyond a certain intersection with Martyr Street. Armed soldiers stand guard to make sure they don’t.
Commerce in that area has nearly come to a halt.
I initially wasn’t allowed to cross Martyr Street, either, despite my American citizenship, because I wear a headscarf. I am Muslim. That was the only reason the soldier from the “only democratic state in the Middle East” needed to keep me off the street.
All of this to keep the street clear for Jews, who are living illegally in apartments above the market and in settlements down Martyr Street. The Jewish settlers routinely throw their garbage, feces and urine onto the Palestinians, who have erected nets above the streets to catch the bulk of the refuse.
During our tour of Khalil, I was approached by a man peddling cheap beaded bracelets. I was out of money except a few dollars worth of American coins. I dumped it all into my hand and offered it to him, but he refused. Coins would get him nowhere, he said.
I felt helpless and all I could offer him was a weak apology.
“Sorry?” he asked, staring directly into my eyes. “What am I going to do with ‘sorry?’ How am I going to feed my family?”
He was angry, but his eyes spoke a different language.
His eyes were wracked with anguish. They will forever haunt my memory.
And there is nothing I can do except to come home and tell his story, and the story of countless others. I can continue to try to make people aware of Israel’s illegal and unjust policies toward the Palestinians. I can work to try to change U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Because it is my tax money, in part, that is responsible for that man’s anguish and for his children’s hunger.
The U.S. gives Israel $3 billion per year in unconditional military aid. The amount is actually billions of dollars higher when loan guarantees, other grants, and free or reduced-cost military weaponry and
machinery are taken into account. The U.S. continually vetoes measures against Israeli policy in the United Nations Security Council. Our money and our weight as the world’s only superpower allows Israel to violate international law and to deny Palestinians of their basic human rights with impunity.
We must pressure Congress to hold Israel accountable. We must pressure Congress to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian soil. We must pressure Congress to pave the way for the refugees to return home after 62 years of exile. Until this happens, we, as Americans, have no right to claim we stand for liberty and justice. We have no right to that claim at all.