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Identity: Stranger in a strange land

The overnight bus from Cairo drops me in Taba early in the morning, as the sun climbs over the Jordanian mountains to the east, bringing out the pink-yellow sandstone beauty of the desert at dawn. There is no one at the bus stop to give directions. Tourism in Taba is yet to recover from the October 2004 bombing of the Hilton Hotel, in which at least 34 people died. But there can be no mistake about the way to the border: the transparent waters of the Gulf of Aqaba are a couple of hundred metres to the right, there are cliffs to the left, and a well-maintained road stretches ahead.

Egyptian border guards are obviously not morning people. I have to hunt around for someone to stamp my passport before I’m waved on my way. As the road beyond the departure hall narrows, a rocky outcrop creating a pinchpoint almost to the beach, the atmosphere changes. The Egyptian and Israeli flags jostle each other on the crag above the road, on their respective sovereign territories but close enough to be bumping chests. In a touch of whimsy, someone on the Israeli side has placed life-sized cut-outs of mountain goats below the wire that marks the boundary between barren Arab and Israeli Sinai rock. Yet entering Israel is no laughing matter.

If the mostly middle-aged Egyptian guards are still waking up, their younger Israeli counterparts seem wired on caffeine. As my foot touches Israeli soil, a tough-faced young man in a leather jacket appears from behind a wall and accosts me for my papers. A dour young woman scrutinises my passport as if it were a weapon and demands my airline tickets to prove that I am returning to Australia. Another checks my bags. There are no smiles. No welcomes. No bonhomie. Outside there is just one taciturn taxi-driver, who, as I discover later, rips me off extraordinarily for the ride to Eilat bus station.

For the first time in my 49 years I have arrived in Israel, the land to which, as a Jew, I have under Israeli law the ‘right to return’. Every year my forebears had raised the traditional toast, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now I am on my way to that city. For others, this might be a moment in which to rejoice. So why do I feel like a stranger in a strange land?

When I was young, my grandmother took my older cousin Debra to Israel to visit our great-uncle. Jealously, I hoped that my turn would come. I had no idea where Israel was, or what it represented—it was a place that existed only in mentions at weddings and bar mitzvahs—but the idea of travelling appealed. By the time I was old enough to go, my grandmother was too old. The opportunity was missed; I was not to be bonded to my unknown, unseen ‘homeland’. In 1973, I returned from a summer of backpacking to be asked by my mother if I had considered throwing in my holiday and going to Israel to fight in the war against Egypt. The question seemed more odd than the idea itself; in hindsight I now realise how profoundly disconnected my life was from the concept, let alone the reality, of Israel.

The bus trip from Eilat to Jerusalem takes just over four hours, including a smoko at a Red Sea resort. Looking later at a map, I realise that half the trip has taken place inside the West Bank. Somewhere, the immaculate road rolled over the line between ’48 Israel and ’67 Israel—between land seized in a founding war and land seized in its tragically inevitable offspring. Commentators speculate about peace treaties and the possibility of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a state based primarily on the West Bank. The bus trip illustrates a simple truth, however: it doesn’t matter on which side of the historic line I look out of the window, there are no Palestinians to be seen. It is not until the outskirts of Jerusalem that the first Bedouin encampments come into view, two hours after the bus has entered the putative state of Palestine.

The sleepy bus station at Eilat promotes a false impression of Israeli normality. The Jerusalem bus station is another world entirely. Leaving the bus involves queuing for a baggage X-ray and going through a metal-detector gate. It’s the same for the crowds entering from the street outside. And everywhere there are guns. Guns in the hands of security guards. Guns on the hips of civilians. Sub-machine guns slung over the shoulders of young men and women in uniform milling around the station, waiting for buses, moving between postings and leave.

It comes to me: the only thing I can compare this to are scenes from a dozen half-forgotten World War II movies. This is a country mobilised for war.

With the guns comes the attitude. During my visit just one person shows basic courtesy, stopping on the street to ask if I need help with directions. It’s a single life line in an ocean of sour indifference. Rudeness seems the norm. I ask myself why, and the answer comes back: fear.

I first meet Palestinians and their supporters at university. Looking back, they could have ridiculed me for my naivety. They could have abused me for being Jewish and, for want of knowing anything other, Zionist by default. They do neither; instead they talk, they illustrate, they persuade, they compel with their simple argument: how can the oppression of one people justify their oppression of another? I read and argue, argue and read. I think. I realise, slowly, that the establishment of a Jewish state in and at the expense of Palestine is intrinsically oppressive, inherently militaristic.

The fear in Jerusalem comes in two forms. One is self-evident: it is the fear of the bomber. I have coffee and cake in a café in West Jerusalem, the ’48 and therefore Jewish side of the city. The next day I read in the Jerusalem Post that two men have been found guilty of helping a suicide bombing there in 2003, which killed seven people. All but the smallest businesses in central West Jerusalem have armed security guards on the door, although racial profiling means that someone like me—pale-skinned—can pass without let or hindrance. A walk of a few hundred metres down King David Street, a pedestrian mall filled with souvenir shops and eateries, takes me past seven people with sub-machine guns. Crossing the road from my hotel to buy a paper I pass more guns before being challenged by a guard on my way back.

There is now a monument to this fear. It is called the security fence, or apartheid wall, depending on which side of it you stand. I can see it from the 11th floor of my hotel, snaking along the hilltop between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I cross it on the way to Ramallah, the Palestinian city just a few minutes’ drive to the north—if you didn’t have to get out of one bus, cross the ‘border’ and find another one. The tall concrete wall sweeps up to the checkpoint from the west; it is still under construction to the east. In front is a corridor perhaps 200m wide, full of bulldozers, dust and noise. I assume the Israelis are building a freeway along the line of the wall. I am wrong. A Palestinian friend in Ramallah explains that the open area will be a free-fire zone.

On the way back to Jerusalem, it is my turn to feel a little fear. Coming through the checkpoint, I am bailed up by an Israeli soldier, a black woman who, even in full metal jacket and helmet, barely comes up to my chest. But she has a big gun and a tense expression. She barks at me in Hebrew and I freeze, worried that in my incomprehension I might antagonise her. She switches to English, tells me to put my bag down and then changes her mind, telling me to go through. Visiting Hebron, to the south, I go to cross a checkpoint—a tall turnstile gate. The person in front of me goes through, but as I enter the metal contraption, it clicks shut, holds me for a few seconds, and then clicks open—the Israeli soldier there just letting me know that I pass only with his permission. I am a tourist. What can it be like to be Arab, to put up with this indignity every day?

In 1977, I visited Lebanon, to see the Palestinian diaspora. In the mountains above Beirut I got drunk with Syrian soldiers. They were amazed to find that I am Jewish and support the Palestinian cause. They had never thought it possible. And why should they, when every government in the region, Arab and Israeli alike, talks of Jews and Arabs as rivals, apparently incapable of sharing a society?

Then there is the other fear, that one day Israel’s bluff might be called and the edifice of its society might crumble, the way white colonial states did in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa. The enclaves of European consumerism and culture are possible only at the cost of holding a gun to the head of an entire people. Acknowledged or not, the reality eats at the decency of Israeli life, a cancer that distorts and hollows out its civil society.

My friend in Ramallah, an educated man from a middle-class family, can travel no more than 10 minutes by car in any direction before being blocked by a checkpoint. You cannot travel more than a few kilometres across Jerusalem without seeing young Arab men being stopped and questioned by police or soldiers. Israeli cars drive through random road checkpoints; Palestinian buses are stopped and searched. Between them, the government and the settlers are seizing Arab land, sometimes a house at a time, sometimes a suburb, sometimes an olive grove.

Yes, I had coffee in a café hit by a suicide bomber, but I also stood on the spot in the Mosque of Abraham in Hebron where the Israeli doctor Baruch Goldstein opened fire, killing 29 Muslims and injuring 100 more. And in death—he was effectively a suicide gunman, let us not forget—he was the victor, succeeding in having the mosque cut in two to form a synagogue, and revered by extremist settlers whose fortresses in central Hebron are guarded by Israeli soldiers … down payments on settlements to come.

I leave Israel as I entered, estranged, full of trepidation and sorrow. I had hoped to be surprised, but I depart more convinced than ever: the oppression of a people cannot justify their oppression of another.      

David Glanz is a freelance writer. Photos by Daniel Loughlin.



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