Welcome to Palestine
Our group split up for the first time on our second day in the West Bank. Scott and I decided to head back to Bil’in while the others stayed in Ramallah, catching up on work and emails. We had only been in Ramallah for a few hours, but we thought our presence was more valuable in the town than in the city. As the shared taxi pulled out of the Ramallah station, the hijab-clad woman sitting next to me wordlessly offered some of the pita she had just bought off the street. I smiled and mutely gestured that I was all set. “Shukran.” After the short drive through the rocky hillside, we got dropped off at the local mosque. On the outer wall facing the street, a sign in Arabic was hung with a picture of Yasser Arafat on one side and Mahmoud Abbas on the other. After leaving our bags at the international house where we were staying, Scott and I took a walk through the town, retracing the tour we had taken the previous day with Iyad. On a nearby wall, someone had written in green and black graffiti, "Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine." As we climbed a small ridge, we turned and looked back when the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, broke the silence. For the first time since being in the Muslim world, it sounded to me more like a sacred song, a hymn, than a recited prayer. The melodic incantation drifted up in the direction of the full moon, gleaming in the twilight.
Further along on our walk, we stopped near where the old wall had stood, looking out at the new one snaking through the hills. A few minutes passed, but we didn't talk much. What was there to say? As we joined up with road again, two young men walked passed us. “Welcome to Palestine,” the one in a hot-pink t-shirt called out to us. He took a few more paces and, without turning back around to face us, added as an afterthought, “Be careful.” The road ended suddenly. Not more than 30 yards ahead, a 15-foot high concrete wall ringed with concertina wire stared back at us. The road here was scorched black from the demonstrations held at this spot every Friday afternoon to protest the settlement. I tried to imagine myself as a Palestinian. How would I cope with being forced to confront such a visible sign of my oppression every day? I didn’t know, and still don’t know, the answer.
But then I peered into the settlement, picturing in my mind’s eye its residents deep in prayer. (Iyad had told us the day before that this was an Orthodox settlement. "They don't join the army," he informed us, twice. "Just praying.") My thoughts started to wander from one side of the border to the other. Over here, the Muslims bowed; up and down, shoulder to shoulder, touching their foreheads to the ground in unison. Over there, the Jews mechanically rocked back and forth, clutching their scrolls, mumbling under their breath in the language of the Bible. There were no disturbances that night, no calls for us to come witness a raid. As I drifted off to sleep, I kept replaying a scene that had caught my attention during our evening stroll. From where we stood on the road, I knew that off in the distance, just out of sight, was the settlement. In the foreground, flapping idly in the breeze, was a Palestinian flag. It was torn in half.