Finding a Wall of Paranoia and Fear in Israel

01/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Where is your Palestinian ID card?!" A soldier stationed at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah demanded as she dumped out my purse onto the hood of an armored Jeep.

"I don't have one," I protested. "I'm American--I live in New York!" When I'd first been asked to get out of the car on my way into Jerusalem, I was scared. As a Palestinian-American, traveling through Israel and the West Bank is an especially unpredictable experience. The Israeli soldiers who patrol the checkpoints between cities can choose to treat me as either an American or as a Palestinian. The former entitles me to some degree of respect; the latter, significantly less.

That night, it was the latter.

"You're lying!" She insisted. "What is your Palestinian ID number?" Another soldier stood behind me, searching the car for a Hawiyya, a Palestinian identification card.

By now my fear had given way to exhaustion and annoyance. "I swear to God, I don't have one!"

"Allah won't help you now," said a third soldier who approached. "It's OK. Just relax."

I had crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel several days earlier, and at the Israeli customs desk, I'd asked the official not to stamp my passport. Because some Arab countries, including Lebanon and Syria, refuse to recognize the state of Israel, they deny entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp on their passport. I visit Lebanon frequently, hence my request.

The customs official agreed to place the stamp on a separate piece of paper, which I'd handed to the soldiers at the checkpoint. Apparently, they didn't realize that the paper held my tourist Visa, and instead assumed I was a West Bank resident who happened to have a U.S. passport. Because residents are forbidden from entering Jerusalem, had I been one, I would've been turned back.

"She's not a resident- she has a Visa from Allenby," said Mohammad Siam, a 29-year old Palestinian stockbroker who I'd recently befriended, and who was with me that night. Mohammad is originally from Jerusalem and thus has a blue identification card, which grants him access to the much-contested city.

The third soldier recognized the Visa, and took the others aside to explain the situation to them. Moments later, he walked over, handed me my passport, and permitted us to cross.

As Mohammad and I drove through Jerusalem, I was still shaken. It was my last night in the West Bank, and over the few days that I had been there, I'd encountered many manifestations of the Israeli occupation that's existed for over forty years.

In Ramallah, which is where I was staying, I barely felt that I was in an occupied city. The town was bustling with activity, and the political situation seemed relatively stable: a pro-Western government was in place, investment opportunities existed, and restaurants were filled each night with patrons, many of them foreign aid workers.

But just a few years earlier, the city was under siege. In April 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli tanks rolled into Ramallah and declared it a closed military zone. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) made wide-scale arrests, imposed a curfew on all residents, and shut down schools and businesses.

Mohammad, who lives in Ramallah, spent days blockaded in his office during the Operation. He continued to do his job, and was in the middle of a business transaction when a bullet shattered his office window. The memory of the city's tumultuous past keeps him from getting too comfortable with the present calm.

The situation in Nablus, my family's hometown, is significantly worse. As I pulled up to the Hawara checkpoint, the main entryway into the city, I felt a sudden urge to go back to Ramallah. The scene was chaotic; hundreds of taxis idled in an unpaved lot, vendors weaved in between them, and Israeli soldiers with machine guns periodically sauntered by.

Entering the city was easy. I simply walked through a full-length metal turnstile that locked behind me. Once inside, I saw hordes of people lined up like cattle, waiting to get out. My stomach dropped at the sight of them, and I immediately felt trapped. Then I remembered, with a tinge of guilt, that I had a U.S. passport. I wouldn't have to wait nearly as long to get out as Nablusi residents would. For them, the line could take anywhere from a few hours to a full day to get through. Those who worked in other towns had to wait at the checkpoint each morning, a process that often ended up costing them their jobs. And unfortunately, the chances of finding work within the city are low, given its over 50 percent unemployment rate, .

From afar, Nablus is still beautiful. The city is located between two mountains, Ebal and Gerazim, which are lined with stone houses and olive trees. But up close, it is completely run-down. Couches lie in the middle of the road, buildings are boarded shut, Arabic phrases spray-painted across them. I didn't remember the situation being this bad, but then again, I hadn't been there since the start of the second intifada in September 2000.

Frequent raids by the IDF occur in Nablus. Israel has designated the city a terrorist stronghold, which is why the State has clamped down so strongly upon it. But I fear it's the latter action that might beget the former: at the Hawara checkpoint, I witnessed the frustration and indignation that could lead to acts of violence.

There are, however, attempts there to keep young people from turning to extremism. In the center of town is a new youth center sponsored by an American non-profit organization, Tomorrow's Youth. During the summer session, 500 kids are bused to the Center each day from the city's three main refugee camps, Askar, Balata, and Al-Ayn. The kids receive basic elementary-level education in subjects including health, music, and technology. Volunteers from Nablus' An-Najah University come here to help enable others to have a childhood that they themselves could not have.

But despite these efforts, hopelessness hangs over the city. Years of economic stagnation, curtailed freedoms, and constant oppression have had a visible effect there, and the residents' daily lives have worsened significantly in the years since the second intifada.

In Israel, the atmosphere is characterized by paranoia and fear. I felt it most when entering the country. At the Allenby Border Crossing, after handing off my luggage to be searched, I was called aside. I knew I would be--not only because of my Palestinian heritage, but because nearly every other page of my passport is adorned with Lebanese stamps, which makes me especially suspect. The questions I was asked during the interrogation ranged from arbitrary to pointed: "What was the last class you took at school? Who pays your rent? What were you doing in Lebanon? Do you have a weapon?"

When I got to customs and asked that my passport not be stamped, I was again pulled aside. About an hour later, an Israeli official approached me. I'd been instructed by family to say that I was going to Jerusalem for tourism; somehow, I found myself admitting that I was planning to stay at my uncle's house in Ramallah, and to visit friends there. I went through several more rounds of questioning, during which I was asked for the names and phone numbers of the people I intended to see there. Later I found out that they'd all received calls.

While I waited, I got out my journal and began writing. Moments later, a young man dressed in black walked by and kicked my foot. "Where are you from," he asked, frowning.

"Why?"

"Because I am security, where are you from?"

"The U.S"

"What are you writing?"

"Nothing," I mumbled, closing my journal. I was surprised that a democratic nation, one that supposedly values freedom of expression, would be so suspicious of someone jotting down notes.

The same official who'd questioned me earlier came around again, and told me that I probably wouldn't be allowed through. As I tried to convince her that I had no intention of harming Israel, she cut me off mid-sentence: "Are you planning to protest in Naalin?"

Two days earlier in Naalin, a West Bank village, the IDF had shot a 12-year old Palestinian protester in the head, killing him.

"Of course not," I answered.

"OK, wait here a few more minutes."

I was left waiting until the end of the day, after the border had closed. Eventually, a customs official started calling out names, and finally, I heard mine. I approached her desk, and watched in anticipation as she closed my passport, took a piece of paper out of a drawer, and then hurled the stamp down upon it. I exhaled as I walked to where the luggage was held, retrieved my suitcase, and stepped outside into Jericho.

Once inside the country, I found the physical manifestation of Israel's fear to be its security barrier, known to the rest of the world simply as "the wall". In recent years it had grown dramatically, despite a 2004 World Court ruling ordering Israel to abandon and dismantle it.

Besides being oppressive, the wall is primitive: societies have spent the last century tearing down walls that separated families, cultures, and civilizations. Putting one up is the antithesis to progress and peace; a way to avoid dealing with the root of the problem, namely, the occupation. Going through my digital camera recently, I came across a picture I'd taken of a portion of it with the word "Palestine" painted across it. To me, this writing represented a non-violent form of resistance, one that unfortunately, oppressed groups don't often choose.

On my last day in the West Bank, back at the Allenby Border Crossing, I waited in line at passport control behind a Palestinian woman with five young children. After checking all of their identification cards, the Israeli official turned and began chatting with the others behind the desk. The Palestinian woman gently tapped on the partition window and asked, in Arabic, "Can I go through?"

The soldier snapped back, "yes, go through, get out of here!" The woman scurried past the desk, pushing her kids in front of her. As I stepped up to the counter, I wondered according to which of my two nationalities the official would choose to treat me.

It doesn't make sense that a democratic nation would discriminate against others on the basis of ethnicity. But this behavior isn't specific to Israel; it happens in other democracies as well. Here in the U.S., minority groups are often treated as second-class citizens (just think back to Katrina), and we've even been building our own security fence along the Mexican border.

But as long as a country upholds oppressive policies, no amount of security can make it feel safe. For Israel, this policy is its military occupation of the West Bank, which is a cause of violence, not a solution to it. Though tragic and inexcusable, acts of violence are often a means of resistance; as long as Palestinians are denied basic rights and freedoms, Israel will likely remain vulnerable. And no checkpoint, military operation, or wall, will protect it from the force of its own injustice.