Updated: Mar 30, 2021
By Irisa R. and Tahmina R.
'Since when has Jerusalem been a city like any other city?’ you ask me and I answer, ‘since the soldiers in it came to outnumber its holy sites a thousand times over’ - Mourid Barghouti.
In January of this year, two of our writers went to Jerusalem to visit the Al Aqsa mosque. As Australian citizens, they were allowed to enter Jerusalem, a liberty not afforded to millions of Palestinians living in exile and unable to return to their homeland. The atrocities of the occupation are countless and the writers cannot speak for Palestinians or for their resistance, but they seek to answer the question that so many people were too hesitant to ask: how was Palestine? Here is a collection of anecdotes written to honour and thank the people we met.
We are constantly reminded how every Palestinian’s experience at the border is unique in its humiliation.
Usually when we pack for a trip, we’re packing and unpacking, trying to fit all the things we probably won’t need into a suitcase until we choose a larger one. But packing for Palestine is strange because we aren’t sure if we will even be allowed to enter. It’ll be up to the Israeli soldiers who control the border on whether they feel like interrogating us and then rejecting us, or interrogating us and then granting us a visa. We are warned that as two young, Muslim law students, who had been to refugee camps three times in one year that the odds may not be in our favour.
The wait is four hours long. Surrounding us are strangers from many different countries with one thing in common - our last names all identify us as Muslim. We talk between ourselves, eat two-minute noodles, play backgammon, and all the while we are acutely aware of the gaze of the soldiers sitting back and watching us. At one point a young lady with a clipboard walks over to the waiting area and calls our name. Mum instinctively stands up to go with us when the lady gestures for her to sit down and says, “oh no you don’t need to come...we won’t hurt them.’ We are granted visas after answering a few questions about where we live and what we study in Australia.
Later in the trip we speak to an elderly woman who recounts her experience trying to enter, ‘They held me there for hours and hours asking me why, why, why.’ Exasperated at even repeating these questions she exclaims, ‘Why? This is my home, this is my land and you ask me why,' and she chuckles. She eventually quietens and says, ‘I came to spend some time with my brother, he was very, very sick’ and ends with, ‘I could only stay long enough to bury him.’
We are constantly reminded of how every Palestinian’s experience at the border is unique in its humiliation. The very few Palestinians who are allowed to enter Israeli occupied territories must first prove their ancestry three generations back, including the details of the area their family is originally from and if they intend to travel there.
An estimated six million exiled Palestinians make up the global diaspora. For us, as tourists and non - Palestinians, seeing Palestine was as simple as booking a tour. We planned to fly to Jordan, drive from Amman to Allenby Bridge crossing and enter occupied Palestine, also known as the ‘West Bank.’
Amman is grand in all the ways that tie up a cosmopolitan city, but further down south, tucked between ancient rock formations, lies the Lost City of Petra. It’s so mesmerising that we imagine a paintbrush following every contour with a violet and orange wash. We stand marvelling at the colours when our guide, Ibrahim, interjects our sightseeing with his gentle voice.
On hearing that we were leaving for Jerusalem, he shares that he’s Palestinian, born in a town that was once a twenty minute drive from where we plan to stay and that his wife is from Ramallah. He continues on by sharing that he doesn’t feel he is Palestinian enough because he has lived most of his life in Jordan and that he doesn’t know how to speak to his children about it. “Should I tell them that they are Palestinian or Jordanian?” He pauses briefly, then finishes with, “how can I tell my children that they have another home when they may never see it?”
The conversation dies but what he shares plays over in our minds. How can it be that we’re able to enter Ibrahim’s land, when he has spent fifteen years dropping people off at the border to his home, unable to go back himself. The Israeli government does not recognise Palestinian refugees’ right to return and prevents Palestinians from returning to their ancestral homes because this is seen to be a threat to the growing Israeli majority in annexed lands.
Al-Quds, known as Jerusalem in English, is a city as ancient as it is holy and at its centre lies a mosque.
The monotonous thudding of our boots hitting the stone floor sounds too sharp for a place like this. We had grown accustomed to the ambience of a mosque at Maghreb, the sun casting its last few rays of golden daylight, corn cobs crackling on grills and juice vendors languidly crushing pomegranates at their stalls.
The call to prayer can be heard booming from speakers atop every mosque, rising in a crescendo that echoes through an entire city. This sound can no longer be heard in Jerusalem. Three years ago Israel banned mosques from amplifying the adhan in all of the occupied territories, including from the Al Aqsa mosque.
Al-Quds, known as Jerusalem in English, is a city as ancient as it is holy and at its centre lies a mosque. The mosque is an octagonal masterpiece covered inch by inch with veined marble and blue tile, with dolomite pathways that have been smoothed by the footfalls of centuries of Palestinians and pilgrims, that spill out into a vast compound of gardens, fountains and several smaller mosques. Tonight, we are amongst the millions that have come before us to pray.
“It wasn’t always like this, you know”
As we approach one of the towering stone entryways, we are met with a group of stoic Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers. We are asked to present our papers and after a few cursory glances over our passports, visas and some back-and-forth between the soldiers, we are allowed to enter. There are always at least thirty-two fully armed soldiers stationed at Al-Aqsa.
When our media attempts to dilute the last seventy years of conflict into one universal “truth” that 'this land has always been contested so it's a complex problem without a clear solution’ they create a narrative that is as dangerous as it is untrue. Some of the holiest sites in Islam, Judaism and Christianity have stood within five hundred metres of each other. These religions have co-existed in Palestine for a thousand years.
Only in the Muslim quarter do you see soldiers dressed in camouflage and military boots, wearing bulletproof vests, with IWI Tavor Assault Rifles slung across their chests and handguns holstered to their hips as they check the identity cards of every person, young and old, entering the compound to pray. The guards outside the Holy Sepulchre Church and the Wailing Wall, by contrast, are unarmed and appear harmless, chatting with tourists that pass by.
In a compound vast enough to hold thousands, we should be seeing hundreds of people rushing in through all five gates, removing their shoes, and moving to stand shoulder to shoulder at the call of the adhan. Instead, the complex is eerily silent. Our guide, Abdul, turns to us and says, ‘it wasn’t always like this, you know, but... Anyway let’s go have a look inside.’ This silence is the combined effect of millions of exiled Palestinians and the six hundred checkpoints littering the roads between Jerusalem and all the other cities in the occupied West Bank.
Looking around, the men are dressed in black blazers and elegant keffiyehs and the women wear coloured abayas and scarves. As our mother finishes praying, a lady dressed in a pale blue abaya and white hijab turns toward her with a beaming smile, clasps her hands and whispers, “Welcome to Palestine, thank you for coming, and I hope you enjoy it here.” After learning where our family is from she asks, “is Australia beautiful?” To which our mother replies, “yes, but this is much more beautiful.” The lady laughs, “oh if only you saw it before - one day, InshaAllah!”
On the 2nd of June this year, exactly six months after we stood in Al Aqsa, Israeli soldiers forcibly entered the mosque in the last three days of Ramadan and released tear gas grenades, sprayed rubber bullets and arrested a number of Palestinians.
Teenagers holding guns like toys.
Everywhere we went we saw soldiers. They are stationed at every checkpoint and every street corner. They stand around in groups, laughing and talking - all while fully armed. Israeli conscription laws require all Jewish and non-Arab citizens over the age of eighteen to serve in the military for at least two years. So the vast majority of IDF soldiers littered throughout checkpoints and the West Bank are young.
Younger than us - most are eighteen, nineteen, twenty with threadbare beards and lanky arms wielding larger-than-life rifles. They appear trigger happy, drunk on power, teenagers holding guns like toys. Their carelessness in this moment is a stark contrast to our concern. This moment encapsulates so many of our encounters with the IDF soldiers. Inconsistency, callousness; a juxtaposition of things that should and should not be.
The only place we didn’t see soldiers, was in Jericho. This is one of the few places still under Palestinian control.
The Blue ID
Unsurprisingly, a GPS’s estimation of the time to a destination is redundant here.
The car comes to an abrupt stop on the outskirts of Jericho, commonly called “the oldest city in the world.” Peeking through the bushes are the arches of a mosque, nestled between unfinished construction work and a dirt road, with a few camels grazing. Our driver, Abdul, encourages us to pray here and he warns us that the drive to Jerusalem may take longer than expected. Unsurprisingly, a GPS’s estimation of the time to a destination is redundant here.
As we wait for our family to finish praying, we ask, 'so, where do you and your family live?’ He meets our awkward enthusiasm with a knowing smile and points to his blue I.D. He explains that as a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, he is required to carry this I.D wherever he goes and if for some reason he loses it, he could be jailed, deported or killed. Once he starts speaking, he can’t stop. The words pour out, each sentence detailing the occupation in more excruciating ways.
He barely breathes between words and we scatter “oh God” and “that is horrific” like loose change throughout the conversation. Anything we intend to say loses all its meaning before it’s said. He emphasises that living under the occupation is a constant battle with his own sabr (patience) and that every time a new camera is installed on a light pole near his house, a street name is changed from Arabic to Hebrew, or he is expected to be warm to the soldiers at the checkpoint - that he needs to remain patient. He says, “what is right will always be, Palestine is and will always be for Palestinians and there is no fight for the dignified.”
What we did not know then was that all Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem have Blue IDs whilst Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have Green IDs. We saw this ID system being used throughout the trip; at checkpoints, at the border, on major roads leading to Jerusalem and, of course, at the entrance to Al Aqsa. Israel touts this Blue ID as a privilege, but Palestinians face regular humiliation and invasive searching at checkpoints.
As we drive towards the city we see settlements loom on the hilltops. They look like European-style houses with white walls and gardens that have been watered until they are bright green against the arid backdrop. These clusters of houses are surrounded by high concrete walls, fenced and signed. Abdul explains that we couldn’t enter the settlements even if we wanted to, saying ‘we are on the Palestinian lane, and the road going there is only for Israelis.’
There are ninety-nine fixed checkpoints in the West Bank protected by fencing and advanced surveillance, with fully armed soldiers guarding each one. We have to pass through three on our way into Jerusalem. On arrival we were told that the city is split into Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters. The unofficial curfew in the Muslim quarter means that after sunset, the streets are silent.
It’s easy to dismiss the cruelty of the occupation when you’ve never seen it.
Damascus Gate is one of the grand entryways to the Old City in Jerusalem and the name honours the Syrians who would make the journey from Damascus to Jerusalem by the millions. As we enter we pass a plaza with fruit vendors and then the streets narrow into alleyways. As Mohammed, our guide, trails a path toward Ja’far Sweets (because we asked him to take us to the best Knafeh in Jerusalem) every turn we take opens up to more souks with small shops selling fruits, bags and rugs. Mohammad kindly asks us to buy from Palestinian businesses as their stalls are rarely visited by tourists.
Street markets are usually filled with the sounds of bargaining and banter. Yet here, it’s just us. The only other tourists we see are looking at their maps and appear to be lost, frantically trying to find their way back to the other quarters. Israeli run tour companies purposefully avoid the Arab quarter so their guests can leave the city without ever having to speak to a Palestinian, taking with them a clear conscience. It’s easy to dismiss the cruelty of the occupation when you’ve never seen it.
We are making our way through the markets when an elderly man dressed in black trousers and a blazer ushers us into his stall. As we step inside, the man lifts his hand to his heart and gives us a resounding, ‘Assalamualaikum!’ When he learns we are from Australia he becomes incredibly exuberant with his gestures and whispers, ‘Please don't leave the Palestinians alone, we need you here. The Israelis want us to leave, but we can't- this isn't just our land to give away. Al-Quds is not for Palestinians, it's for everyone and they have to come, but people aren’t coming. Thank you for coming!’'
When he asks us what we do, we mention that we are both studying law. He breaks into laughter and with the ease of a child, kneels behind his small cabinet, pulls out a photograph and flips it around so we can see. In the photograph a young man stands with a medal around his neck and a graduation cap. We squint to see that the young man in the photo resembles the man in front of us - they share the same smile, just fifty five years on. He exclaims, pointing to the photograph, ‘It’s me! I was a lawyer, I studied in Damascus, and I came back here, and I practiced but…” He trails off, and tries a few different ways of saying it before settling for, ‘after it... I wasn’t allowed to practice anymore.’
When we are about to leave, he asks us to wait. He pulls open his first drawer and lays out four velcro bracelets, each with the Palestinian flag printed onto them. He lets out a small chuckle and shares, ‘I shouldn’t be giving you these but I want to.’
The New Law
“The law is introduced as of this moment.”
On our exit we have to cross the Allenby Bridge checkpoint. The occupation distorts the usual time it takes to travel somewhere and again, a five minute drive is extended to one hour. Three IDF soldiers stop us at the checkpoint and say there is a new law that has been enacted that says no private cars can pass through the checkpoint. He elaborates by saying, ‘the law is introduced as of this moment.’
As we wait on the side of the checkpoint, our parents grow more and more anxious by the minute - we see at least ten cars filled with tourists pass through. Abdul later explains that the vans are owned by Israeli tourism companies so, ‘the law will never apply to them, only ever to us.’
While we're waiting, they check an ambulance (and every vehicle that follows) for arms with a metal detector. The soldier doing this looks barely eighteen. His skin is flushed, his limbs are lanky with youth and he has round glasses perched atop his nose. Abdul keeps repeating, “this isn’t you, it’s because of me they just want to make my life harder.”
After a few phone calls, Abdul explains, “they will let you go in taxis, so you need to split into two groups.’ Our dad goes quiet, becoming quite stressed as we see our grandparents and mum drive through the exit while we sit and wait for the taxi to return. In these fifteen minutes, Abdul explains that, “the only reason they are harassing our group is because they are trying to make it harder for Palestinians, like me, to run businesses, and probably also because they are bored.” A five minute drive becomes an hour long.
I had never truly understood the concept of صبر (the best english translation is patience or endurance) before but I've witnessed it now.
We enter Al-Aqsa for Maghreb as the sun is dipping. The IDF soldier gives us “salaam” at the gate. Before we can stop ourselves, out of habit we return his salaam and instantly regret it as he raises both his hands as though making du’a and murmuring, while the others laugh at his mockery. As we pass through the tall stone archway, we hear some young boys run up to the gateway after us.
The four guards we just passed, armed to the teeth, demand the young Palestinian boys show their papers. They each pull out a blue sheet from their coat pockets, the guards concede, and the children laugh as they walk into the complex. As they climb the stairs, taking them two, three at a time their boyish voices yell ‘Allahu Akbar’ (“God is Great”) into the sky as they run away to play. It’s grey-blue outside and their laughter mingles with the sound of the birds chirping and circling above the golden dome.
*Every name has been changed to protect the identity of those we met.
*Everything in quotation marks is written exactly as it was told to us.
Lead Editor: Palwasha A.