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Palestine 1st-Hand: A Gazan's Visit to Jerusalem (Abusalama)

Shahd Abusalama --- artist, blogger, English literature student, and daughter of a former Palestinian political prisoner, living in Gaza City --- writes of the adventure, tension, and exhiliration in reaching Jerusalem, if only for a few hours:

The long hours of waiting inside the bus without moving gave me a backache, but I couldn’t complain with many elderly and sick people surrounding me. An old woman sat to my right. I could read many stories of struggle and suffering in her wrinkles, her traditional Palestinian dress, and her tight eyes. She wore a brace around her neck. I could hear her muttering prayers.

Due to Israel’s apartheid checkpoints, it took us a day to reach Jericho, which is roughly one hour from Allenby Bridge. I waited eagerly, imagining myself walking around the old city of Jerusalem before heading to Gaza. We wasted over four hours waiting for the Israeli soldiers to let us pass through their checkpoints. Being from Gaza made my crossing procedures even more complicated. I spent the whole trip to Jericho counting minutes and hours. The more time we wasted, the less likely it became for me to tour Jerusalem. The time limit that Israel imposed by closing Erez at 7:00 pm made me stressful.

At sunset, I finished all the crossing and security procedures. I hurried to the exit to find my taxi driver sweating, standing by his parked car next to the door waiting for us. He rushed me inside the car, saying that he had to drive me to the District Coordination Offices (DCO) right away to get a permit to leave before it was too late. People from Gaza get permits to cross through Erez back to Gaza there, and people from West Bank get permits to enter Jerusalem and other “Israeli” territory.  

On the way to Jordan, I tried my hardest to stop in Jerusalem and visit the Odeh family, whose son Loai was deported to Gaza after his release in the Shalit swap deal. Loai and I became close friends as soon as we met. Before I left Gaza, I promised him that I would do my best to visit his family and give them a hug on his behalf. I couldn’t on my way to Jordan. But I  was persistent to make it happen when I returned.

I endured a stream of silence and frustration. Then my telephone rang. It was our travel coordinator from Gaza. 

“Listen carefully,” he said in a very serious tone. “The DCO closes at 4:00 pm, and now it’s 5:30 pm. You won’t be able to go home tonight. You’ll have to stay at a hotel, or at a relative’s or friend’s house in Jericho. Keep in mind that you’re only allowed to move within Jericho. No one but you will pay its price for anything outside its limits.”

I said nothing in response and acted as if I was taking his words seriously, but smiled, because only then did I sense how lucky I was. I hung up, turned to the driver excitedly, and said,  “I won’t go home tonight. I’m supposed to stay in Jericho, but I’m not going to fear anyone. This night will come once in a lifetime, and I’m not going to spend it restricting my footsteps and worrying about Israel’s racist rules or anyone’s orders.”

He smiled and said, “I’m dropping you in Jericho.” I screamed, refusing to accept what he said, but he interrupted me, raised his voice, and continued, “This is what ‘they’ will assume, but not what will happen! I’ll pick you up from Jerusalem tomorrow morning to go to the DCO.” I made sure he meant it before I got too excited, then I burst into screams and tears of happiness. We drove toward Jerusalem while singing one of my favorite Fairouz songs, about Jerusalem: “For you, the city of prayers, I pray.”

The driver warned me of the dangers I might face if I entered Jerusalem. We knew there were risks, but we decided to take them . The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Jericho was the problem. No car can enter Jerusalem without going through it. If we passed it without being stopped by Israeli soldiers, then we were safe.

We put sunglasses on and began chatting and laughing as if everything was normal. We passed without the soldiers noticing anything “wrong”. When the checkpoints disappeared from sight, we shouted, “We made it!” The first person I called was Loai. “I’m now heading to Jerusalem, to meet your family!” I screamed with happiness. “Let the driver drop you at the Jerusalem Hotel, where my brother Obay is waiting for you,” Loai said laughing.

I couldn’t be more grateful to a person than the driver, who put himself at risk to make my dream come true. He dropped me near the hotel, made sure that I was safe, and left me to enjoy the rest of my time in Jerusalem, before the next morning when my adventure would end.

I had never met Obay, but I felt like I already knew him. We talked briefly once when Loai was in Egypt. He introduced us on Skype. Loai had told how special their relationship was, especially after they were reunited in prison. They shared a cell together for over two years before Obay, who was detained in 2002 as a child at the age of 17, was released in 2006. They met again in Egypt last January. I could see many similarities Obay shared with Loai – appearance, behavior, way of thinking and even their expressions –  that made me feel closer to him.

The first thing we did was take a walking tour inside the old city of Jerusalem. I can’t describe how good it felt to be there. I took a short noon tour there last June, but the city is even more magnificent at night. I could hear history, authenticity, and solidity narrated by every stone, every wall, every street, everything. But at the same time, I recalled how Loai once described his city: “Jerusalem is a sad town.” It’s true. I could touch the anger, the sorrow, and the challenge everywhere while wandering its ancient alleys.

The people who remained in Jerusalem suffer the most from Israeli occupation and apartheid. While wandering around, we saw many people sitting outside their homes chatting. I passed by a group of girls in a courtyard. They were very welcoming and loving when they learned I came from Gaza. I asked them about the occupation, with which they interact daily. “We will never leave our homes even if it costs us our lives,” one of them replied. “Israel offered to buy these old, small houses with unbelievable amounts of money, but we never gave them up and never will. Our resistance is to stay here, despite all the mocking, humiliation, and violations of our rights.”

I was thrilled by her answer. A young girl among them grabbed me to introduce me to her family. I was shocked to see how narrow her house was. They had only one room, where nine people, including her parents, live.

I kept walking. I could see Hebrew graffiti on the walls and Israeli flags. It’s not only a sad city, but also an angry one. I could sense its anger shaking the floor beneath me, as if it was saying, “My tongue is Arab and my identity is Palestinian.

In the old city of Jerusalem, it is easy to tell where Palestinians and settlers live, even without Israeli flags flying on roofs or Hebrew written on the walls. The Palestinian homes are very old and narrow. They’re not permitted to be renovated. Electrical wires are uncovered and tied to the ceiling. Israel tries every way to pressure Palestinians to leave their houses with the neglect of the civil services and the increase of taxes. On the other hand, the settlers’ homes appeared to be in good shape and enjoyed good electricity and other public services. Settlers are allowed to extend and refurbish their houses.

I followed Obay wherever he went. We climbed snaky stairs until we reached a roof, where an Israeli soldier suddenly came outside to ask why we were there. Obay answered calmly, “Just to see the city from the top.”

I didn’t know exactly where I was, and the soldier, who was monitoring screens connected with cameras spread all over the city, made me nervous. Then Obay pointed. I turned to where his finger stopped to discover that the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were right in front of me. I opened my eyes wide and sighed. The exceptional beauty of the golden dome glittered and lit up the dark sky.

No matter how long I meditate on this magnificent view, my eyes will stay thirsty. But we had to leave. Obay had a nice plan to make use of my only night there. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that our next destination was Jaffa. It was always a dream, but one in the back of my mind, which I thought would be impossible to reach. We headed there in the car. Being in Jaffa increased my longing to return to Beit-Jerja, my original village, where my grandparents were ethnically cleansed in 1948. The refugees’ return is a right, not just a dream, and it will be fulfilled someday.

The first thing we did in Jaffa was have dinner in a restaurant that overlooking the beach. We were starving after an hour driving and over two hours wandering around Jerusalem. In Gaza, the last thing I would order is fish, as even it is imported. The Israeli Navy occupies our sea and prevents fishermen from going farther than three nautical miles, cutting down Gaza’s wealth of fish. In Jaffa, I didn’t hesitate for even a second to try the fish of our Mediterranean sea, and I didn’t regret it! I can’t tell you how succulent it tasted.

Immediately after we finished eating, I ran toward the seashore in my bare feet to wet them and feel the warm waves. I kept walking, paying no attention to time or distance, while breathing Jaffa’s pure air and collecting beautiful seashells to keep as souvenirs. It felt so harmonic and spiritual. I never stopped thinking about my people in Gaza, who were very near, but could never reach this side of the Palestinian beach.

I wished I could watch the sunrise there, but we had to go back to Jerusalem a little earlier, as Loai’s father was worried about us. I couldn’t complain about anything. I received more than I expected. I repeatedly described how happy I was this way: “I am afraid I will die from too much happiness.” I hoped for at least an hour in Jerusalem, and unexpectedly, I had a whole night in both Jerusalem and Jaffa.Alhamdullah, God was very generous to me.

It meant a lot to be at Loai’s house. His pictures hung everywhere, even in the garden. I caught only two hours of sleep before I had to leave the house to get a permit from the DCO. Before I said goodbye to Loai’s family, I took pictures of every corner of the house to show Loai the place where he was raised, since he had almost forgotten its appearance after ten years of detention. I also picked two branches from a beautiful tree in their garden. He was very happy to receive these photos and branches.

All these adventures felt like a dream, one so happy that I never wanted to wake up. But my return to Gaza was obligatory. I spent seven hours in the DCO, waiting for the Israeli soldiers to issue my permit to return to Gaza through Erez. As I arrived in a Gaza blackout, I was welcomed by a very loud bomb that exploded near Beit Hanoun. I was scared at first, but then I burst out laughing and shouted, “Welcome back to Gaza!

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