It was a long month of working in Tulkarem a city which, like many Palestinian cities, suffers from becoming getoised; surrounded by walls and check-points, crowded and lacking infrastructure. For one month we, a group of Palestinians and internationals, came together to create a space to show a possibility of hope for Palestinians. Together we worked on sustainability education projects, focusing on food, energy and water.
After a full month under conditions of separation and listening daily to stories of struggle and hardship, in front of the advanced Israeli war machine, it was a gift to be able to leave. As a group we were looking forward to leaving not because the difficulties and the intensity of being under these conditions but mainly because we wished to unite with our friends on the other side; a group of Israelis and internationals who work on the same ethical basis, creating living models for peace.
We were happy that on this occasion eight Palestinians were to join us for another two weeks in the desert. Two days before we were due to leave we found out that only one of them got a permit to enter Israel; the others were all refused. The reason given for the denial was that they were active in the public resistance against the occupation. The one Palestinian who was granted a permit, Ishmael, was given it by mistake. He had also been in jail few times but something went wrong in printing his name on the application. He was very happy to be able to join us.
We had hired a small bus for our journey South. Ishmael, a man of about forty with an irresistible smile, is a unique person. Despite all the years he spent in jail, he walks the way of forgiveness. His face shows the damage of plastic bullet wounds that he got from the army. Ishmail was happy to travel with us. He sat in the front seats of the bus, taking every opportunity to take photos; so excited to be in the desert for the first time in his life.
After less than half an hour we arrived at the Israeli check point, one of more than 500 that separate what is left of Palestine and Israel. Many of these check points have, over the years, become formal border crossing stations within the separation wall. When we entered Tulkarem there was a huge red sign telling Israelis how dangerous it is to enter Area A. From the other side, at the entrance to Israel, another sign lists who is allowed to enter Israel. Reading this, our passengers who are mostly Germans, tried to understand why such signs are needed. As they read our bus was stopped and directed to the side of the road to be checked.
A young female soldier entered the bus and asked for I.D. She took a short look at this interesting combination of internationals. She looked at my I.D and gave it back with no interest, only asking where I had been. I gave a short answer, a name of a nearby settlement, and felt ashamed that I could not say the truth, “We have been in Tulkarem, just there”. She walked toward Ishmael, now sitting in the back of the bus. I guess she could recognize from far away that he is Palestinian. She asked in a very harsh way, in broken Arabic, “Jeeb al hawiyah” (Give me your I.D.) Ishmael handed with his I.D the permit that he got by mistake, fearing that he might lose it. The soldier took it and said with no hesitation, “Get out! You cannot cross from this check point; you must cross from a one that is made for Palestinians.”
We all were shocked at this news and tried with all means and logic to change it but nothing could change the soldier’s orders. She suggested two options: we drive him back more than one hour to a crossing that he could leave from and then we could all cross from this one or he should take a taxi to a closer check point, which would take half an hour. In this case we should wait for him at the other side.
I looked at the soldier and I saw a young, beautiful, woman with a harsh uniform covering her beautiful body. Under her military hat I saw long black hair tied in a horse tail. Repeatedly and with sharpness she said no and I listened to her hair saying yes. She moved in one way and her hair moved differently. Confused by her female presence and her tough appearance, I could see a woman who is trapped in a role that she does not like. I could see that in this case she could not do anything differently as she was watched by the other male soldiers nearby. I spoke to her core. I tried to connect with a point in me that was beyond my anger at the situation. I did not judge the human standing in front of me. I saw that the situation was complicated and I asked, “Can you find a way to help us? We have to join our friends in the south and we have to do it fast. This is my group and this man is part of it; we will not leave without him. Can you help? I can see that you want to help.”
She looked at me and she moved her gun, a huge black metal ugly thing, which hung from her thin and tall shoulders; shoulders which were made to carry a child not a gun. She moved the gun and I saw a bunch of keys, cold and big. She said, “You see that gate? If he crosses it quickly and calmly he can walk 5 minutes and then take a taxi for another 5 minutes. You can meet him at the other side in a short time.”
I saw the opening and I wanted to honour it. I said, “Yes, thank you, let’s do it.” We walked towards the gate. I tried to calm Ishmael and promised him that we would wait for him, no matter how long it might take, at the other checkpoint With each step I held inside me the healed core of this soldier. I told her briefly about what we do in our lives and why we are together as a group.
I told her about the women in Palestine and she told me how difficult it is for her to wear the uniform.
She opened the gate; it sent a cold noise through the air. The soldiers from the check point looked at us. She let Ishmael go fast, closing the gate quickly behind him. At that moment he was in Palestine and we stayed in Israel! I still smelled his perfume, I saw his smile and watched him walking and asking again, “You will wait for me?”
The soldier looked calmer; something became easy and she went on talking. I was surprised by her opening and again I wished to honour it. I listened; she walked slowly towards the bus, “I hate this. I hate to tell all these men to go away when they are looking for a way to feed their children. They train us to close the heart; to be harsh, cold, inhuman. I hate it. I hate all these gates and checkpoints. I spend the whole week in this ugly uniform and then at the weekend I go to my family. My mother cooks and spoils me with all good things and I forget how to respond to my mother. I forget this state of being her child, receiving her love. My heart is closed the whole week; I cannot open it at weekends. Then we go with our friends to the city. They smile and ask me to smile but I have forgotten how to smile; it does not belong to my mask. I want to be in the world, to be out meeting people, to learn languages.
I looked at the young, dark, slender little girl in front of me. She was young enough to be my daughter; my heart went out to her. I had never had feelings toward soldiers. I also was trained to hate them and suddenly she was standing in front of me with the same question that I face in my life: how to open the heart? How to keep the heart open in the face of all this pain? Suddenly all walls between us melted and I saw the core the light; I saw a women.
I became curious about this woman, I wished to ask about her hair, what is the story? I was convinced that this hair had its own language. She said, “It is my reminder that I am a woman. I am born into life to love. I tend to forget this under this uniform. My hair then slaps my face; it blows and reminds me that I am a woman. No one can bury this fact under any kind of uniform. When I am out of here I will work for peace, like you. Now that she was speaking the same language as her hair, the hair was soft, calm, powerful and knowing.
We stood together looking ahead, no checkpoint; no wall; no barriers in our sight. These are of the dream of fear not the reality. The reality is made by long black hair waiting like a seed under a layer of asphalt. Time to sprout; time to be free.