Even though the purpose of the trip, for me at least, had always been to see Palestine and Israel, I fell pretty hard for Jordan. The people were amazingly warm and friendly and when the time came to depart for Palestine, I was not really ready to leave. I felt for the people we had met and how much they wanted us, as Western tourists, to be there. But my husband helped me keep my eye on the prize and we realized that we already had done a lot for Jordan’s tourism industry bringing four other adventurers along with us to the country. With a heartfelt promise to return, we departed for the border with Israel.
I had done my research on the crossing. I felt like I knew what I was getting us into, and I knew we had a long journey in front of us even though Amman and Jerusalem are only separated by just over 70 kilometers. And it was an experience, that is for sure. We began with a Jordanian border patrol officer looking over our passports, after which he stamped and kept them. Handing over your passport and walking away is never a good feeling for a traveler. We then sat in a waiting room for our bus across the no-man’s zone to arrive. We were the only people waiting for a while, which was also unnerving. But eventually others joined us and then we were loaded onto the bus. As we pulled away from the border our passports were returned. Off we went, past machine guns nests abandoned after peace was declared between Jordan and Israel in the 90s, weaving between spikes meant to destroy the tires of any vehicle trying to cross the border on its own. Then another passport check and we were no longer in Jordan. And the real waiting began.
We arrived at the first Israeli stop where men and women wielding machine guns used mirrors to search under the approaching vehicles for bombs. Our bus was a lucky winner that got pulled to the side-for what reason I still do not know. We waited there as others were searched and allowed to proceed for a period of time long enough that I got bored and played numerous games of solitaire on my phone. Finally one of the men with the guns waived us forward and the gate was lowered for us to pass. At the next border control point we sat and waited again, and waited, and waited even more. Our driver got annoyed and forced his way up to the gate, where he was quickly turned back. I have no idea what that wait was about either, as eventually the surly looking girl motioned our bus forward. We joked that she must have been on her lunch break. Now we could finally see the Israeli border control building, but even when we were directly outside of it we could not get off the bus. More waiting, and finally the doors opened.
We grabbed our bags and stepped into line. More waiting. We handed over our passports, the border control agent asked for my whole name over my husband’s shoulder, the bags were x-rayed, and back into line. More waiting. Finally it was time for the questioning. We had a plan for this part. Knowing that if the questions got too pointed I would probably be unable to keep my cool and my knowledge and opinions on Palestine and Israel would become apparent, my husband would do all the talking. I would sit quietly and try to avoid any attention. Unfortunately between my poor husband being unable to understand the heavy accent of the officer and me not prepping him enough on the details of the trip, this plan did not work. Luckily, the questions asked did not get too intense: how do we know each other, where are we going, how long will we be in Israel, ect. But I did have to answer where we were staying and for how long when my husband was unable to answer quickly enough. I still feel like this must have been suspicious, but somehow we managed to pass-no secondary screening required. And out the door we went into Israel.
I was feeling a little worried, like we must have missed something, when a fellow passenger from our bus who was on his way to Gaza to work for an NGO also appeared outside in the Israeli sun. He also seemed to be shocked by his relatively easy arrival; earlier he told me others with his group had faced lengthy interrogations before being allowed into Israel. Later reflection between my husband and I lead us to wonder if our easy treatment was due to the fact that the bus that arrived before ours had been completely full of Muslims. It probably did help us, in hindsight, whether it was because our passports are the magical blue American ones in contrast to theirs, or due to the fact that all of the secondary screening rooms must have been full by the time we got to the front of the line. Either way we got on the sherut destined for Jerusalem and we did not look back.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at our first checkpoint. It of course would not be our last. As with everything in Israel/Palestine, there are two sides to the checkpoint story. Israel believes the checkpoints protect their citizens from dangerous Palestinians coming to kill them. Palestinians believe that the check points are meant to degrade and humiliate them. Either way, the checkpoints keep Palestinians from freely moving around Israel, and more importantly, the West Bank. This particular check point was pretty tame, our bus, as it was technically entering Jerusalem from the West Bank, was forced to pull over. Two heavily armed people entered and checked the passports or residency cards of each passenger. As we had been waiting for the sherut to leave the border an older woman in a hijab approached the bus. I asked my husband to help her with getting her luggage into the bus. She was so grateful, a huge smile appeared and she greeted us with the Islamic greeting, which I responded with the Islamic response in broken Arabic. The smile actually widened and she took my hand and patted it in much the same way my grandmother had for years. The language barrier was overcome and I loved her right away. Now at this checkpoint as our passports barely got a glance her residency card was given the thrice over. This of course was tame in comparison to what was waiting for us during the rest of our trip, but it was an introduction to what was to come.
We took the rest of the evening easy, especially after I got us a little lost on our way to the apartment we rented in Jerusalem. We had Israeli beer and shawarma. And we prepared ourselves for the adventure to come.
The posts that will come describing our adventures in Palestine and Israel will be set up a little differently. We were incredibly lucky that our travels were safe, but that is not because there was not trouble while we were there. Basically everywhere we visited, at least one Palestinian had been killed the day before. Whether is was because of my crazy planning, or because someone was watching over us, we seemed to follow the violence at a safe distance. So, in addition to my stories of the things we saw each day, I will also discuss the events of the previous day in the areas we were visiting. I feel that these stories are just as important to be told, and to be heard. And hopefully I can accurately describe why my heart will forever reside with the Palestinian people we met along the way.