Why my Palestinian guide can’t take his seven year old to the zoo and other thoughts on being on the West Bank

SurfingPoem/grafitti on the Palestinian side of the Wall in Bethlehem

by Lynnell Mickelsen

We’ve spent the last two weeks in Israel, a country I long vowed to avoid until its government started doing right by the Palestinians.

It hasn’t. We came anyways. And I actually don’t regret it because I’ve learned a lot.

A preface: I know it’s risky to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the recommended method is to carefully and delicately parse every word because, after all, the Holocaust was horrible; both sides commit atrocities, and a lot of people grew up with the whole “Land without a people for a people without a land” story via the young, blue-eyed Paul Newman as the heroic Ari Ben Canaan in “Exodus,“ (circa 1960) and really, who wants to mess with that primal piece of mythology?


So in America, we mostly don’t talk about this conflict, which, not coincidentally, tends to serve the status quo.

Anyhow, my response is as follows: It is complicated. Both sides have done horrible things. Anti-Semitism is alive and well.

And the current level of injustice is starkly lopsided. The numbers of dead, injured, jailed and dispossessed are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side of the equation and Americans in particular almost never hear the Palestinian side of the story.

Soooo…. with all that as a preface: we spent our first three days in Israel traveling in the West Bank with a great outfit called Green Olive Tours.  I don’t know where to begin, so let’s talk about license plate colors, water tanks and walls.

1) The color of your license plate really matters. Israeli citizens get yellow license plates. Yellow plates rock. With a yellow plate, you are free to move about the country.

In contrast, Palestinians in the West Bank get white (or green for cabs) license plates. White or green plates are a drag because it means you aren’t allowed to drive on Israeli roads without a special permit from the Israeli army, which tends not to grant such things very often.  In the map below, Israeli plates get you onto yellow and red roads.  Palestinian plates keep you on white roads or carefully-watched on red ones.


image from TheOtherSite

But it’s not just about cars. Palestinians in the West Bank also aren’t allowed to walk on Israeli roads or take public transportation into Israel without the special permit.

For the record, we’re not talking about a small number of people. Three million Palestinians currently live in the West Bank. Under Israeli rules, they spend most of their lives confined to a chunk of land about the size of the state of Delaware. An additional two million Palestinians in Gaza live under even harsher restrictions in an even smaller space. But we didn’t get to Gaza, so in this post, I’ll just talk about the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The inability to freely move around makes it hard for Palestinians on the West Bank to hold a decent job or participate in any kind of modern economy. I mean, they are cut off from all major Israeli cities. Even working in tourism based in the West Bank is difficult.

For example, our Green Olive Tour to Hebron and Bethlehem started out from Jerusalem because that’s where almost all tourists are staying. But our guide couldn’t meet us there. Muhannad has a car and lives a mere ten miles from Jerusalem, but he’s not allowed to enter Israel’s second-largest city.

So in order for Muhannad to do his tour guide gig, Green Olive, which is committed to using West Bank guides, had to hire a driver with a yellow Israeli license plate to make the 20-minute trip to the military checkpoint where Muhannad was waiting for us. We transferred to his car, which was parked next to this large, scary red sign with a message in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

West Bank red sign

“Okay, just for starters. the Palestinian Authority doesn’t ban Israelis from traveling into the West Bank.”  Muhannad said, pointing to the sign. “The Israeli government bans them, in part because it doesn’t want its citizens to see what happens here. And it puts this sign up in English to scare as many tourists away as possible and convince everyone it’s too dangerous to be in the Palestinian territories.”

Muhannad is a trim man in his early 40s who speaks quickly and in perfect English. He was born near Bethlehem. He and his wife have two sons, ages 7 and 9. Like so many Palestinians stuck in the West Bank with its high unemployment rates, they went overseas to find work. Their nine-year-old son was born in Denver and is a U.S. citizen.

Muhannad and his wife loved living and working in Colorado. But they missed their families and as Palestinians they also felt torn about living abroad. Ever since capturing the West Bank in the 1967 war, the Israelis have been squeezing Palestinians economically and hoping they’ll immigrate. Living abroad felt like a form of capitulation. So they came home.

But it’s not easy living in a place where one’s daily life is subjected to the whims of the Israeli army, imposed by soliders carrying automatic weapons, most of whom are young men in their late teens and 20s with all the wisdom and maturity that implies. And as his kids get older, Muhannad sometimes wonders if coming home was the right choice.

“For example…. our seven-year-old son is just learning how to read and is crazy about animals,” he said. “So he went online and discovered there was a zoo in Jerusalem that had lions and elephants. He begged us to take him there. It’s only 10 miles away.”

Muhannad and his wife are Christians; the Israelis traditionally allow Palestinian Christians to apply for travel permits to Jerusalem twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. So they figured that was their best chance to take him to the zoo. “But he’s just a little boy,” Muhannad said. “So he kept saying ‘why do we have to wait until Christmas? Why can’t we go this weekend?’”

Which brought Muhannad and his wife to the dilemma that every Palestinian parent in the West Bank and Gaza faces: at what age do you tell your children that they are effectively sealed in? That simple trips like going to a nearby zoo…or playing on the sand beaches of the Mediterranean which are a tantalizing 50 miles away are difficult or impossible for them…simply because they’re Palestinian?

cycle palestine 2015 317photo: emtainbikeblog.blogspot.com

2) Ye shall know them by their water tanks. If you drive around the West Bank for any period of time, you’ll notice that in some towns, every house has a big black plastic water tank on the roof. We saw this on multiple trips and our Palestinian guides said it was because the Israeli government controls the water supply and regularly cuts off the water to Palestinian homes without notice.

So people use their water tank reserve supply until it goes back on, which is usually in 24-72 hours. The tanks are plastic because a) they’re cheaper; b) if bored Israeli soldiers decide to shoot holes in your family’s water tank, people have learned it’s easier and faster to glue on a plastic patch than try to weld on a metal one.

Cut-offs can happen weekly, so most Palestinians carefully ration and monitor their water use, especially in the hot summer. On the West Bank, no one takes long, leisurely showers.

Actually, let me re-phrase that. No one with black plastic water tanks takes long leisurely showers. About 400,000 Israeli Jewish citizens also live in the West Bank in so-called “settlements” where the only tanks on their roofs are small, white solar water heaters. Cut-offs don’t seem to happen in the settlements; their water runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Thus the fastest way to tell if a West Bank community is Jewish or Palestinian is to just look at their roofs.

A few years ago, Muhannad said he came home to find his wife near tears. It was a hot summer day and their sons wanted her to fill up their bathtub with cool water and let them play. But she was afraid to risk using so much water—there had been so many cut-offs, they needed to save as much as possible just for drinking.

Look at us, his wife said, we can’t even let our kids play in a bathtub. Meanwhile, the children in the settlements have swimming pools.

The word “settlement” makes these communities sound quaint and rustic, but they look more like large, sprawling gated suburbs, albeit surrounded by high walls and razor-wire fences, and guarded by soldiers. Settlements can easily have 10,000 or more residents. They often come with their own shopping malls, office buildings, schools, libraries, public parks, beautifully irrigated gardens, tennis courts, artistic fountains in roundabouts, and swimming pools.

settlement poolHilltop water tower (no tanks necessary), apartment buildings, and public swimming pool complex at Ma’ale Adumim, a West Bank Jewish settlement, population, 37,000, photo from 972mag.com

Under international law, none of these Israeli settlements are legal because they’ve been built on Palestinian-owned land illegally seized from its owners and controlled by an occupying army. But the Israeli government continues to seize land and build more.

In addition to the 400,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, another 350,000 settlers live in houses and land in East Jerusalem, almost all of it illegally taken from Palestinian owners. Combine the two areas and you have three-quarters of a million Israelis living on Palestinian land, in violation of international law.

The settlements are a huge barrier to any hope of creating an independent Palestinian state. Which is precisely why the right-wing Israeli governments keep building more.

The stark contrast between the lives of Palestinians (whose families have lived on the land for hundreds, if not thousands of years) and Jewish settlers (who are often recent immigrants from the U.S. or Russia) can make the military occupation even more unbearable for the Palestinian side.  Jewish settlers get yellow license plates and are free to commute back and forth from Jerusalem on yellow-plates-only roads like this one we took to Nablus:

The government builds these special highways to let settlers more easily drive around or through Palestinian areas. It posts thousands of soldiers and guards at military checkpoints, to make sure Palestinians stay in their restricted zones.

And then there’s the Wall. Even though I’ve read a lot about the Wall, I was still shocked by the massive barrier that snakes, and stretches, and envelopes the West Bank.

West Bank wall yahooWest Bank Wall; photo: Yahoo News

3) With a length of over 400 miles, the West Bank Barrier is four times longer than the Berlin Wall; nearly half the length of the old barrier between East and West Germany. Built at the cost of $2.6 billion, it’s the single largest infrastructure project in Israeli history.

The Israeli government started building the wall in 2002, during the second Palestinian uprising when Israelis were being terrorized by suicide bombing attacks. The government first said it needed it for security, but it soon started also using the wall as a way to advance and secure more settlements, which is why the wall has kept expanding.

The wall has made the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank even more miserable and prison-like, cutting off more roads and turning what was once an easy ten-minute commute to schools or work or to visit elderly parents into hour-long detours.

LM Bethlehem wall jpggraffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem

But has it worked for the Israelis?

In the short run…. maybe. The suicide bombings have drastically decreased, although whether that’s due to the wall or better security and infiltration of terrorist groups by Israeli’s Shin Bet is hard to say. Hundreds of Palestinian laborers regularly sneak over the wall to take day jobs in Israel, so it would still seem possible for someone to climb over with a vest full of explosives. And random acts of violence still happen here—as they happen all over the world.

In the long run…honestly, I don’t know see how any of this is sustainable.

In two months, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its “victory” in the 1967 Six-Day War, which led to its capture of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. But how has that victory turned out?

For 50 years, Israel has kept millions of Palestinians in these captured areas in limbo; not allowing them to become citizens of Israel or a free Palestinian state; controlling them ever more ruthlessly; and building bigger, longer walls. But this the process has also transformed Israel into a country that veers ever farther from functioning as a democracy and ever-closer to an apartheid state.

Jerusalem, South Africa Bag

Israel is also facing a demographic dilemma. This year, the number of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and Israel proper is about 6.5 million—or roughly the same number as Israeli Jews. But Palestinians have a higher birth rate; by 2020, they are predicted to outnumber Israeli Jews, putting Israel on a collision course with the very reason for its existence.

Israel was founded as Jewish state; it gives preferential treatment and refuge to Jews, who have historically suffered from discrimination around the world.  This systematic bias has always been problematic. But what will it look like as Jews increasingly become a powerful, well-armed minority that denies basic human rights to the majority of people it controls?

I’m writing this in Jerusalem during Passover, when Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh and it’s hard not to ponder how things change over history and roles reverse.

A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem

And I’m writing this on Easter morning, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, one of the biggest plot reversals in human history. And it’s hard not to wonder about how death becomes life and vice versa.

little Palestinian boy

This is a place with a history that goes back thousands of years. So 50 or 100 years is just a blink of an eye. I don’t know what will happen next or when. But as W. B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem: the center cannot hold; the ceremony of innocence has drowned.

Meanwhile, Muhannad’s nine-year-old son is  thinking about his Second Coming. He was born in Denver. He knows he’s an American citizen. He’s already imagining a life without checkpoints and soldiers. His dream, says Muhannad, is to live in a country where he can drive to the beach.

——Lynnell Mickelsen

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