Sudden Journeys: Israel’s Intimate Separations—Part 1

26 September, 2022
Cameras From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem


Dear Civ­il Sirs, I regret to inform you that I may have fall­en in love with the wrong person…


Jenine Abboushi 


A Thou­sand Plateaus: Cap­i­tal­ism and Schizophrenia

A hun­dred years must have slipped by since I last returned to Pales­tine with my chil­dren. Israel’s fever­ish col­o­niza­tion has cre­at­ed unre­al cities, set­tle­ments, and “ter­ri­to­ries.” And for all inhab­i­tants in this small land, one or more of these realms is unat­tain­able in every sense. Who­ev­er tries to pass through Israel’s com­plex bar­ri­cades expe­ri­ences how phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed and yet entwined Pales­tin­ian and Israeli lives have become. Israeli encroach­ment on Pales­tin­ian land, water, towns and vil­lages, espe­cial­ly from Hebron to Nablus, nav­i­gat­ing through Jerusalem and Beth­le­hem, is so intense that the Israelis are now liv­ing on top of the Pales­tini­ans, often quite lit­er­al­ly. And the mea­sures Israel takes to mar­gin­al­ize and con­ceal Pales­tin­ian worlds from inter­na­tion­al, and espe­cial­ly Israeli cit­i­zens’, view,­ have cre­at­ed ever more unten­able align­ments of space and peo­ples. For all its inhab­i­tants, Israeli and Pales­tin­ian, it is a land of pro­lif­er­at­ing divi­sions (by restric­tions, reg­u­la­tions, block­ades) that require micro-man­ag­ing to a repres­sive degree, like “can­cer­ous” bod­ies with­out organs — the result of an ambi­tious human exper­i­ment gone south, like the one that philoso­phers Deleuze and Guat­tari envi­sion in A Thou­sand Plateaus: Cap­i­tal­ism and Schiz­o­phre­nia.

With ever harsh­er restric­tions, Israeli pol­i­cy divides Pales­tini­ans into many cat­e­gories, and each cat­e­go­ry into curi­ous sub­clas­si­fi­ca­tions. One cat­e­go­ry — on the mar­gins of the news at the moment — is Israeli bor­der con­trol of “for­eign­ers,” or what Israel calls Pales­tini­ans like me, who have no hawiya, the iden­ti­ty card required to reside in the West Bank, and for­mer­ly also Gaza before the Israeli with­draw­al and block­ade (Israel had cut off all nation­al and res­i­den­tial rights to Pales­tini­ans who were abroad in 1967). The “for­eign” Pales­tini­ans like­ly to face even more restric­tions are those who con­fess to amorous rela­tion­ships with West Bank Pales­tini­ans (or who are proven to be in rela­tion­ships), or who have imme­di­ate fam­i­ly liv­ing there, or who own prop­er­ty or stand to inher­it prop­er­ty, or who were pre­vi­ous­ly barred from entry into the coun­try, and so on. In oth­er words, we now have dif­fer­ent sta­tus­es with­in the cat­e­go­ry of “for­eign” Palestinians.

Before fly­ing to Tel Aviv in late June of this year, I had to wade through the new bor­der reg­u­la­tions for such “for­eign­ers.” Mys­ti­fied by the restric­tions I read in a 97-page doc­u­ment titled “Activ­i­ties in the Ter­ri­to­ries File of Stand­ing Orders,” I solicit­ed inter­pre­ta­tions from jour­nal­ist friends and even trav­el agents. I was try­ing to find out if I could fly into Tel Aviv, or whether I would be forced to cross the Allen­by Bridge from Jor­dan to Jeri­cho, at 381 meters below sea lev­el, and at what cost. Ibrahim, a class­mate from my Ramal­lah Friends School days who now prac­tices law in Boston, stud­ied the doc­u­ment and con­firmed that the new reg­u­la­tions are delib­er­ate­ly con­vo­lut­ed. Even­tu­al­ly itakalna 3la Allah, as we say, hop­ing for the best, our plan was to all meet in Ramal­lah, implau­si­bly and cheek­i­ly, for a class reunion.

Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians by J.M. Coetzee.

But until the day we were to trav­el to Tel Aviv air­port or by land to Jeri­cho over the Jor­dan Riv­er, we con­tin­ued to try to deci­pher the more alarm­ing trav­el require­ments, such as the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being ordered to sur­ren­der large sums of mon­ey (7,000 and 20,000 euros) to the Israelis at the bor­der. “The Head of the Pop­u­la­tion Reg­istry Unit at the Civ­il Admin­is­tra­tion is autho­rized to require a guar­an­ty of up to 25,000 shekels,” and “The Head of the Doc­u­men­ta­tion and Reg­is­tra­tion Depart­ment at COGAT is autho­rized to require a guar­an­ty of up to 70,000 shekels,” and final­ly, rais­ing the amount to indef­i­nite heights, the “Head of the Oper­a­tions Depart­ment at COGAT is autho­rized to require a guar­an­ty of more than 70,000 shekels” (COGAT, or the Coor­di­na­tion of Gov­ern­ment Activ­i­ties in the Ter­ri­to­ries, is the “civ­il” Israeli admin­is­tra­tion in the Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries). After we leave the coun­try (“we” being who­ev­er had such mon­ey to spare), the said sum would be returned to us by mail if the Israeli author­i­ties judged us to have fol­lowed all reg­u­la­tions dur­ing our stay; oth­er­wise, they would “con­fis­cate” the amount, offer­ing us 45 days to appeal and prove their assess­ment erroneous.

Iron­i­cal­ly, Israel enact­ed these new reg­u­la­tions in pur­suit of its goal that Israeli cit­i­zens be allowed to enter the Unit­ed States with no visa require­ment. The US gov­ern­ment (prob­a­bly with pres­sure from Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can advo­ca­cy move­ments) asks that that Israel cease to harass Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­cans try­ing to enter the West Bank to vis­it fam­i­ly, study, teach at the uni­ver­si­ties, and pur­sue pro­fes­sion­al activ­i­ty. The Israelis promised the Amer­i­cans to clar­i­fy their pol­i­cy in (the ancient king­doms of) “Judea and Samaria,” their archa­ic term for the West Bank. The bib­li­cal name of course is part of a set­tler-colo­nial project to fab­ri­cate indi­gene­ity, and to efface over 2,000 years of sub­se­quent civ­i­liza­tions. It is also akin to fun­da­men­tal­ist imag­in­ings of oth­ers, like those who attempt to dress and behave like a prophet and live in his times. More fre­quent­ly, Israel’s new bor­der reg­u­la­tions refer to what land remains of the West Bank, where over three mil­lion Pales­tini­ans live today, as “The Area” (using the lan­guage of dystopi­an sci-fi). Pales­tini­ans are either “res­i­dents” or not of “The Area.” Most of the document’s ref­er­ences to peo­ple and places resem­ble those of nov­el­ist J.M. Coet­zee in his imag­ined exem­plar of all empires — the abstract, unnamed, and unlo­cat­able “empire of pain” of Wait­ing for the Barbarians.

Almost per­verse­ly, then, instead of “clar­i­fy­ing” their reg­u­la­tions for the US gov­ern­ment, the Israelis added many restric­tions and require­ments that did not pre­vi­ous­ly exist, mak­ing bor­der cross­ing for Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­cans, for exam­ple, even more dif­fi­cult than it was before, and in many cas­es impos­si­ble. The newest ver­sion of the Israeli reg­u­la­tions has been reduced from 97 to 90 pages, thanks to minor revi­sions. The Euro­pean Union (which has some sway over the Israelis because they ben­e­fit from excep­tion­al amounts of Eras­mus fund­ing), in addi­tion to the Biden admin­is­tra­tion, made the Israelis remove the quo­tas for “for­eign” stu­dents and teach­ers allowed in. But both the Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans seemed to have no prob­lem, for exam­ple, with the guar­anties the Israelis can require at the bor­der, or the harass­ing and unin­ten­tion­al­ly hilar­i­ous appli­ca­tions for entry, through which the Israelis vet stu­dent and fac­ul­ty cre­den­tials like wannabe Ivy League uni­ver­si­ties. The Israelis also appar­ent­ly had to take out the des­ig­nat­ed 30-day dead­line — as it appears in the first ver­sion of the doc­u­ment — that is giv­en to “for­eign­ers” to inform COGAT should they start a rela­tion­ship with a West Bank Pales­tin­ian. If this is the case, these minor revi­sions will unfor­tu­nate­ly abort artis­tic projects-in-the-mak­ing — video or let­ter con­fes­sion­als to the author­i­ties, as in, “Dear Civ­il Sirs, I regret to inform you that I may have fall­en in love with the wrong person…” 


I filled out an online form and received per­mis­sion to land in Tel Aviv air­port — but with no guar­an­tee, stip­u­lates the autho­riza­tion, of entry into the country.

Before I flew into Tel Aviv, I already knew from my trip with the chil­dren in 2015 that I had bet­ter reserve a hotel room in Jerusalem for the first few nights before going to Ramal­lah, so that I would not run the risk of get­ting barred from the West Bank, or from Jerusalem and the rest of the coun­try (entry rules dif­fer). It is expen­sive for Pales­tini­ans to trav­el, as they can­not take con­ve­nient flights (like the direct El Al one I, with my for­eign pass­port, could have tak­en, but did not — not want­i­ng the guar­an­teed strip-search and foul inter­ro­ga­tion in a French air­port before even board­ing). To trav­el, West Bank Pales­tini­ans have to fly out of Amman, tak­ing a labo­ri­ous and cost­ly two-part trip.

I filled out an online form and received per­mis­sion to land in Tel Aviv air­port — but with no guar­an­tee, stip­u­lates the autho­riza­tion, of entry into the coun­try. Walk­ing to and fro in the air­plane aisle, I was unsur­prised to observe that I was per­haps the only Pales­tin­ian on board. Upon arrival I found that the air­port was unrec­og­niz­able, ful­ly ren­o­vat­ed since I had last entered, with no spe­cial lines for the natives, and no appar­ent infra­struc­ture to inter­ro­gate and strip-search us (because Pales­tini­ans with hawiyas have for years been pro­hib­it­ed from fly­ing into Tel Aviv, and can only enter the West Bank over the bridge from Jor­dan). It turned out that the new reg­u­la­tions were sus­pend­ed until Sep­tem­ber 5, and now, as I write, until Octo­ber. I may soon be barred from fly­ing into Tel Aviv, despite my for­eign pass­port, and con­se­quent­ly have to trav­el over the bridge, espe­cial­ly if I stand to inher­it prop­er­ty, or if I cou­ple up with a hawiya type.

Sur­veil­lance Cam­era Tree, Nablus Road, Jerusalem.

But my bor­der-cross­ing this time was dif­fer­ent. Once in Tel Aviv air­port, we inched down an attrac­tive­ly designed slope to pass­port con­trol, in an unat­trac­tive­ly lengthy line, for what I esti­mat­ed was a three-hour wait. A mov­ing walk­way right next to this line allows those who just showed up to cut ahead of every­one. This illog­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, and the oppres­sive wait, was some­what reas­sur­ing to me, as I hoped to slip through the gaps. And sure enough, soon a bor­der police­woman arrived to pass out a stack of small, mag­ic blue papers, ask­ing each per­son the pur­pose of their vis­it before pass­ing them a blue slip. She looked me in the eye and hand­ed me one with­out a word and with­out even glanc­ing at my pass­port. I could just leave. I won­dered if I had already been iden­ti­fied, by means of the bio­met­ric con­trols used before and after pass­port con­trol, which take head­shots repeat­ed­ly with a cam­era that seems to pierce the eyes, or by the pre-trav­el online appli­ca­tion. Prob­a­bly I was ful­ly iden­ti­fied, and the police did not both­er inves­ti­gat­ing at that bor­der, per­haps because I have long passed the age of invincibility.

I rode the train to the cen­tral bus sta­tion in West Jerusalem. The tram that takes trav­el­ers from the bus sta­tion to a stop near Dam­as­cus Gate was not work­ing. I asked a young woman about the bus, but she had nev­er heard of the Old City, or Dam­as­cus Gate. Lat­er I thought per­haps she could have direct­ed me to the Wail­ing Wall. Her igno­rance of any­thing out­side of her world and just down the road made my sur­round­ings feel even more unre­al and disorienting. 

Dur­ing that first evening in Jerusalem, I walked all over the old city with a friend, who remarked that Pales­tin­ian resis­tance is fin­ished in the Old City because of the sur­veil­lance cam­eras, with the excep­tion of the Bab Hut­ta neigh­bor­hood adja­cent to Al-Aqsa Mosque. As we walked through the Old City, he point­ed out the unimag­in­able num­ber of sur­veil­lance cam­eras. It is as if the city now serves as a dis­play win­dow for Israel’s glob­al busi­ness in secu­ri­ty sys­tems (which for decades has also includ­ed train­ing many coun­tries’ police, mil­i­tary, and var­i­ous secret ser­vices in tor­ture, sur­veil­lance, racial pro­fil­ing tech­niques, and forcibly dis­pers­ing demon­stra­tions). If any Pales­tini­ans attempt acts of resis­tance and flee, dis­guis­ing them­selves, the chains of com­put­er­ized sur­veil­lance cam­eras through­out the city recon­struct images of their body parts cap­tured on cam­era dur­ing the get­away. A young man tried to stab an Israeli that day in the Old City, bare­ly wound­ing him. “How long will he be impris­oned?” “About 18 years.”

We chat as we wind along. The Israelis have their eyes on big prop­er­ties in the Old City, and offer Pales­tin­ian own­ers vast sums of mon­ey for them, my friend explains. Sev­er­al such Pales­tini­ans have sold their homes to Israelis. But if some­one tracks down just one per­son who sells prop­er­ty to the Israelis and then makes off to the US to hide out with their rich­es, there would like­ly be no more sales to the Israelis. For now, these new res­i­dent Israelis move into the heart of the Old City to live in their mil­i­ta­rized out­posts, behind thick met­al doors, sur­round­ed by unwant­ed neigh­bors. The Israeli res­i­dents hire pri­vate secu­ri­ty guards, exces­sive­ly armed, to walk them to their bunkers, and even escort their chil­dren. I saw an ultra-Ortho­dox man under heavy guard pass into Hosh el-Shaw­ish alley­way car­ry­ing bags of toi­let paper, veg­eta­bles, and bananas, and pass­ing in front of us as we drank cof­fee right up against his met­al door. The Pales­tin­ian who runs the lit­tle café, stuck in an elbow of this nar­row path, described to me the inside of their mas­sive space. He knows it well, as every week the fam­i­lies who live behind the met­al door ask him to come in and turn off, and then on, the lights before and after their Sab­bath. They live in inti­mate exchange, to say the least. And with the tens of thou­sands of sur­veil­lance cam­eras strung through­out a Jerusalem teem­ing with sol­diers, infor­mants, and troops of pri­vate secu­ri­ty guards, all is well! And the Pales­tini­ans grow more dis­pos­sessed by the month.

In the late evening, we got some mint tea in paper cups from a cart in Mus­rara, just across from Dam­as­cus Gate, run by a ven­dor nick­named El-Dawi (and he lights our way!). We sat on the stairs of Dam­as­cus Gate. As the evening and the city spread out before us, we felt this fortress of Suleiman the Mag­nif­i­cent become a Pales­tin­ian liv­ing room. We par­took in the gath­er­ing, con­ver­sa­tion, and sahra, in our soft evening togeth­er. The Israeli sol­diers in heavy gear, hov­er­ing in their ugly implan­ta­tions at the top of the stairs and at the entrance to Dam­as­cus Gate, did not drag off any young peo­ple to beat and arrest that evening. No one paid them any heed.

The Pales­tini­ans of the Old City are increas­ing­ly impov­er­ished, liv­ing in cramped quar­ters, so the cool night and beau­ty of the city felt refresh­ing. A father played with his lit­tle boy on the steps, hug­ging and wrestling him right next to us, as he con­versed with his wife. We felt we were invit­ed into their home. Two young teens this fam­i­ly knows called out in glee from atop Dam­as­cus Gate, the cen­ter bat­tle­ment, arms raised gal­lant­ly, and they are the kings of Jerusalem! Jerusalem belongs to them.


Read the con­tin­u­a­tion of this col­umn in Part 2: From Jerusalem to Ramal­lah and Ein Qinya, com­ing Octo­ber 31, 2022.


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Jamal Nassar
Jamal Nassar
2 months ago

Excel­lent nar­ra­tion of a sad situation.