The Road to Jerusalem, Then and Now

15 November, 2020

Downtown Ramallah, present day (Photo: Getty Images)

Down­town Ramal­lah, present day (Pho­to: Get­ty Images)

Raja Shehadeh

It was eight in the morn­ing when I left my house in Ramal­lah armed with my cam­era three weeks after the begin­ning of the Israeli occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and began to cycle to Jerusalem. I had just turned six­teen and want­ed to cap­ture through pho­tographs the dam­age that had been caused by the June war of 1967 to prop­er­ty along the Ramal­lah-Jerusalem road.

The Israeli army invaded Ramallah in March 2002. A tank stood at the end of Raja Shehadeh's road; Israeli soldiers patrolled from the rooftops. Four soldiers took over his brother's apartment and then used him as a human shield as they went through the building, while his wife tried to keep her composure for the sake of their frightened children, ages four and six. This book is an account of what it is like to be under siege.

The Israeli army invad­ed Ramal­lah in March 2002. A tank stood at the end of Raja She­hade­h’s road; Israeli sol­diers patrolled from the rooftops. Four sol­diers took over his broth­er’s apart­ment and then used him as a human shield as they went through the build­ing, while his wife tried to keep her com­po­sure for the sake of their fright­ened chil­dren, ages four and six. This book is an account of what it is like to be under siege.

The road I cycled on was a minor two-lane thor­ough­fare built in 1901 dur­ing Ottoman times and had no mil­i­tary val­ue. The approach to Jerusalem in the First World War was not through here.  The Allies’ path was well to the west of this, through the vil­lage of Nebi Samuel with its impos­ing mosque that I was able to glimpse from var­i­ous points on the road.

A few weeks ear­li­er, on June 6, Colonel Moshe Yot­vat’s brigade, enter­ing the West Bank through Latrun, cap­tured Jerusalem Air­port with­out a fight. Then the Israeli army moved towards what they believed was the road to Ramal­lah. To be sure, they ordered an old Pales­tin­ian man to be their guide. Mean­while the con­quest of Jerusalem was pro­ceed­ing through the west­ern part of the city.

The army entered Ramal­lah with a bat­tal­ion of tanks in the evening of that cursed day. Per­haps to our good for­tune they did not wait for a bom­bard­ment to soft­en us up. They crossed and re-crossed the city sev­er­al times shoot­ing in every direc­tion. We were in the house, hud­dled in a cor­ner, think­ing the army would break in at any moment and shoot us all. As we wait­ed father told us: “The rea­son for the shoot­ing is because the Israeli army is ascer­tain­ing whether there’s resis­tance.” I won­dered how he knew this and was of two minds. I want­ed the shoot­ing to stop yet at the same time felt weighed down by the demor­al­iz­ing expec­ta­tion of defeat.

When no one returned fire the shoot­ing stopped. There was no resis­tance. In a few hours the Israeli army’s con­quest of my city was com­plete. Three weeks lat­er I was on that nar­row road cycling on my own towards Jerusalem, which had been cap­tured a day after Ramal­lah fell.

For the pre­vi­ous 19 years of Jor­dan’s rule over the West Bank, this road was Ramal­lah’s only link to Jerusalem. East­ern Jerusalem, under Jor­dan­ian rule, pro­vid­ed the vil­lages to the north with spe­cial­ized hos­pi­tals, good restau­rants and shop­ping out­lets. When I was young we would take bus num­ber 18 to get to Jerusalem. It was bedecked with signs: Do not spit, Do not talk to the dri­ver and No smok­ing of Shee­sha [a foul smelling cig­a­rette filled with a cheap, high­ly odor­ous weed]. The turn sig­nal was a man­u­al­ly oper­at­ed met­al rod. When it was returned to its place I could hear it rat­tle. The whole bus clanked and rum­bled as it made its slow way south to Jerusalem, mak­ing it pos­si­ble for me to look out of the win­dow and observe the fields sur­round­ing the road. My grand­moth­er had friends in the city and I often accom­pa­nied her on her vis­its to them. She would warn me against touch­ing the handrail in front of the seat because she said it was cov­ered with germs from oth­er pas­sen­gers’ dirty hands. Mon­ey also was full of germs and I always had to wash my hands after han­dling it. When I was old­er I would take the shared taxi to Jerusalem, enjoy­ing the dri­ve with the live­ly music the dri­ver played on his radio. I would lis­ten to the ani­mat­ed pas­sen­gers exchang­ing news about what they did on their vis­it to Jerusalem, being socia­ble, friend­ly and open. In warm weath­er I rel­ished the clean, fresh breeze blow­ing, espe­cial­ly at dusk as the col­ors were chang­ing. There was much to look at on the way, rock-strewn fields, graz­ing flocks of sheep, pass­ing traf­fic, and the occa­sion­al fan­cy build­ing proud­ly flank­ing the side of the road.

A short time after the end of the war my father was one of the first Pales­tini­ans to go back to his beloved Jaf­fa, though only for a brief vis­it. But his sis­ter, Mary, who had stayed in Akka after the Nak­ba, was long gone. It was a bit­ter­sweet expe­ri­ence. He was real­iz­ing what for a long time he had been hop­ing – to see, just to see, Jaf­fa – and yet his return was as a defeat­ed Pales­tin­ian who had now lost the rest of Pales­tine to the ene­my. Jaf­fa was in a dilap­i­dat­ed state, a sad sight so unlike the vital city he remem­bered. When lat­er on we vis­it­ed it with him he point­ed out the var­i­ous cafes, once so busy, now aban­doned. It was dif­fi­cult for me to imag­ine how it must have been in the past. Per­haps the vis­it made him real­ize that there was no pos­si­bil­i­ty of a real return or com­pen­sa­tion for what he had lost. How could that be? What could pos­si­bly com­pen­sate for the years of grief and depri­va­tion that he lived through on the oth­er side of the border?

In a dazzling mix of reportage, analysis, and memoir, the leading Palestinian writer of our time reflects on aging, failure, the occupation, and the changing face of Ramallah. More .

In a daz­zling mix of reportage, analy­sis, and mem­oir, the lead­ing Pales­tin­ian writer of our time reflects on aging, fail­ure, the occu­pa­tion, and the chang­ing face of Ramal­lah. More.

After leav­ing Ramal­lah I first cycled to Bireh, Ramal­lah’s sis­ter city, pass­ing by the Am’ari Refugee Camp, a crowd­ed place with main­ly con­crete hous­es and nar­row lanes where I had nev­er set foot. I left the town and con­tin­ued south to the old Ramal­lah-Jerusalem road.

Just after leav­ing Bireh I cycled past the Jubran fam­i­ly’s arak dis­tillery at the Mal­oufieh on the out­skirts of the town. Drink­ing arak while nib­bling on the numer­ous small savory plates of mez­za in a gar­den cafe was a favorite pas­time for res­i­dents of Ramal­lah. With all cafes and restau­rants now closed this plea­sure was one of the casu­al­ties of the occu­pa­tion and was bound to add to the mood of gen­er­al gloom.

The dis­tillery which was also shut lay at the edge of a low-lying val­ley sur­round­ed by hills. Close to the top of one of these to my right stood a lone­ly stone house with pine trees next to which was a spring where young men came to hunt birds and vis­it the cave there. Just above this at the top of the hill was a plot of land father had bought with the inten­tion of one day build­ing a home. When he took me to see the land I had imag­ined the pala­tial house that we would some­day own, perched over the hill over­look­ing the val­ley below. But moth­er, who did not dri­ve, felt she would be an exile atop that hill with no neigh­bors around to vis­it and total­ly depen­dent for her com­ing and going on father. What also made it an unac­cept­able loca­tion for her was that the hill was “wilder­ness” and clear­ly unsafe. She reject­ed that project and the house was nev­er built. Except for a mod­est win­ter house in Jeri­cho, my par­ents could not agree on the loca­tion, size or any con­cep­tion of their dream house. Nor could they agree on the sort of life they want­ed to live.

After cycling some four kilo­me­ters from the start of my jour­ney I arrived at the Sami­ramis Hotel on the left of the road where King Hus­sein was rumored to stop to rest and drink lemon­ade when he drove from Jerusalem for his occa­sion­al vis­it to Ramal­lah. From there a nar­row road led to the attrac­tive vil­lage of Kufr ‘Aqab up on a hill with a pop­u­la­tion of some 420. From the road the hill was vis­i­ble and one could just see some of the old hous­es and the minaret. We lat­er learned that one of the offi­cers in the Jor­dan­ian army who died defend­ing Jerusalem, Muham­mad Ali Suad Jamil, came from there. Oppo­site the mod­est hotel at the inter­sec­tion the road to the west led to the few hous­es in an area which had the unflat­ter­ing name of Um Alsharayet [the moth­er of rags].

I cycled on pass­ing the Jal­lad flour mill, one of three in the whole of the West Bank. Wheat was cul­ti­vat­ed and ground local­ly, sup­ple­ment­ed by some imports of flour. There were sev­er­al sifters one on top of the oth­er, which had become so rusty that I imag­ined fine rust pow­der rather than flour now pass­ing from one plat­form to the one below. Jal­lad’s daugh­ter, Claire, and her fam­i­ly, the Kass­abs, lived across the street from us until they moved along with their fac­to­ry to Amman. They had three daugh­ters one of whom was exact­ly my age. They all called their father Papa not like the rest of us who said Baba. They relo­cat­ed to Amman just before the occu­pa­tion, as though they knew what was coming.

At the mill the road forked. I took the one going north­east. Just a few years ear­li­er we used to dri­ve straight ahead towards the run­way of the Jerusalem Air­port. When a plane was tak­ing off or expect­ed to land we had to wait at the bar­ri­er. We would watch the pro­pellers turn­ing to gath­er steam, then the excit­ing moment would arrive when the plane was ready to move and it zoomed right in front of our car and began its ascent. We also had to stop to wait for an incom­ing plane. I rel­ished these delays and watched care­ful­ly every move­ment of the plane, try­ing to remem­ber how it had felt when I was in one trav­el­ling to Beirut for vaca­tion. I always hoped there would be a plane to watch when we passed by on our way to Jerusalem. Often when we drove on this road I would look up at the land­ing planes that seemed like large birds about to swoop down and land on top of our car.

When Raja Shehadeh first started hill walking in Palestine, in the late 1970s, he was not aware that he was travelling through a vanishing landscape. More .

When Raja She­hadeh first start­ed hill walk­ing in Pales­tine, in the late 1970s, he was not aware that he was trav­el­ling through a van­ish­ing land­scape. More.

Then a new by-pass was built to the east which cir­cled around the east­ern edge of the run­way. This was the road I took. The tri­an­gle between the old and the new roads was full of green­ery, main­ly pine and cit­rus trees.

An Israeli cus­toms check­point was check­ing cars for goods from the West Bank into Israel. The Israeli offi­cials looked puz­zled as I cycled past. I was not a car and it was obvi­ous that I was­n’t car­ry­ing any­thing so no rea­son to stop me. After­wards I passed a car on the side of the road that had been flat­tened by an Israeli army tank dri­ving over it. I stopped and pho­tographed it then con­tin­ued cycling up that incline. There were more destroyed cars along the way, more expen­sive mod­els than those I had seen ear­li­er, Opels and Mer­cedes-Ben­zes. I stopped to pho­to­graph them. But this time before doing so I took my time to exam­ine them. I was cer­tain that they were all crushed by a tank dri­ving over them. How does it feel to exer­cise the pow­er to turn a lux­u­ry car into a flat pile of met­al in only a cou­ple of min­utes, I won­dered? Did the tank dri­ver and his com­pan­ions cheer every time they drove over anoth­er car? Did they then direct the dri­ver to anoth­er car parked next to anoth­er of the posh hous­es on this street that they can crush? The Pales­tini­ans on this street owned far more expen­sive cars than was with­in the means of most Israelis. Did they want to destroy them out of envy, or was it revenge? We are the vic­tors so we can do what we like to the van­quished. Was this the point when the destruc­tive atti­tude that has last­ed for over half a cen­tu­ry began? And what about the own­ers of these cars. Did the sol­diers look at the win­dows to see their anguished faces as they watched their prized pos­ses­sions being crushed? Did they enjoy that? Sure­ly there were ele­ments of all these emo­tions present because there was no mil­i­tary neces­si­ty for this activ­i­ty. It was mere­ly for the recre­ation of the Israeli sol­diers at the expense of the Pales­tini­ans. The scary thought then came to me whether from this point, hav­ing lost the war we did­n’t fight, we would become like put­ty in the hands of the Israeli mil­i­tary, which start­ed to believe that they could do what they liked with us with full impuni­ty? The more such thoughts passed through my mind the more appre­hen­sive I became of the future. I had to put a stop to such debil­i­tat­ing thoughts, and ped­alled on.

Then the east­ern­most end of the air­port run­way came in sight. It was on slight­ly ele­vat­ed ground from the road. Before I got there I passed the UNRWA Voca­tion­al Train­ing Cen­ter across from which was Qalan­dia Refugee Camp, anoth­er crowd­ed area of con­crete hous­es crammed next to each oth­er with nar­row lanes in between. The con­trast with the Cen­ter which had a lush gar­den was strik­ing. I turned my eyes from the tree­less area of the camp and looked through the wrought iron gate of the Cen­ter at the trees, much loved by birds which were always so plen­ti­ful on the trees that lined the long dri­ve­way lead­ing to the school build­ings, fur­ther down, that were not vis­i­ble from the road. Except for the crowd­ed camp which sloped down­ward to the east there were no oth­er build­ings in that area.

The refugee camp was qui­et, seem­ing to be in deep slum­ber. Or so I thought. I was total­ly unaware then of the emo­tions that were rag­ing there among the refugees of 1948 in response to Israel’s resound­ing vic­to­ry over the Arab states. Nor was I pre­pared for the reac­tions to years of pas­siv­i­ty that were to be sparked by the rise of the PLO abroad and the resis­tance to Israel. Voic­es would be raised that had nev­er before been heard over the past 19 years. For now it seemed qui­et, defeat­ed, despon­dent. I had nev­er been inside this or any of the oth­er refugee camps around Ramal­lah. To me they were closed areas out­side my scope of vision or expe­ri­ence. I passed so often by them yet nev­er real­ly saw them or was curi­ous about the nature of life with­in them.

What I did see was the air­port, the gate­way for my antic­i­pat­ed escape from Ramal­lah, with its run­way on raised ground reach­ing all the way to the new road that now encir­cled it. That new curv­ing road built to avoid dri­ving across the run­way was poor­ly designed, ren­der­ing the turn dan­ger­ous if one was speed­ing. Father who often drove too fast once skid­ded on it but then man­aged to regain con­trol of his car, arriv­ing home with only a bump on his head.

Across the road I saw the blue flag of the Unit­ed Nations flut­ter­ing over the camp school also paint­ed light blue, that bor­dered the road. My neg­a­tive view of UNRWA was influ­enced by father’s posi­tion towards the orga­ni­za­tion. His opin­ion was that it was cor­rupt and its main ben­e­fi­cia­ries were the high-salaried for­eign staff rather than the refugees themselves.

Imme­di­ate­ly after the Nak­ba in 1948 and until 1954 my father had worked assid­u­ous­ly on the ques­tion of the return of the refugees. Until he gave up hope. His strug­gle end­ed bit­ter­ly. This was yet anoth­er area where he failed. 73 years have gone by and the refugees have still not returned home. By 1954 my father had come to under­stand that it was not only Israel whom one had to fight regard­ing this prob­lem but also the Arab lead­ers and the UN, both of whom sup­port­ed Israel in this while mak­ing a fee­ble effort at sup­port­ing the Pales­tin­ian cause, achiev­ing lit­tle more than keep­ing the refugee issue alive.

Per­haps that was why I did not see the camps or the men, women and chil­dren liv­ing in them. Father was block­ing their pres­ence from his sight and I was fol­low­ing suit. This despite the fact that we our­selves were refugees from Jaf­fa. Yet father would not accept to reg­is­ter the fam­i­ly with UNRWA and nev­er received any of the aid that the orga­ni­za­tion offered, so angry was he at the inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion for turn­ing the case from one of rights to a mat­ter of relief and human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance, with all the con­se­quences of long-term dependence.

Our house in Ramal­lah over­looked the dis­tant Mediter­ranean coast and I often saw my father look­ing towards his Jaf­fa on the hori­zon. He must have won­dered what had become of his city. I can imag­ine how dif­fi­cult it must have been for him com­ing from Jerusalem to a metrop­o­lis like Jaf­fa where he had no con­tacts, set­ting up a law office, and suc­ceed­ing. He did that then lost it all. The home he left was so close and yet so far, impos­si­ble to reach. Yet know­ing him he nev­er gave up hope. For a long time he con­tin­ued to think that it was impos­si­ble that the day would nev­er come when he would be able to return.


The ancient vil­lage of Qalan­dia, which gave its name to the camp that stood on land that had once belonged to it, was some dis­tance away, out of sight from the road. In the midst of the cen­tral high­lands this was an unusu­al­ly flat area. This fea­ture must have been the main con­sid­er­a­tion for sit­u­at­ing the air­port here. Bor­dered on the east by a small hillock, the low ter­rain spread east­ward unim­ped­ed. The high­est and most strate­gic point on the hori­zon was the hill of Nebi Samuel, over 885 meters high, which was vis­i­ble from here. Fresh gen­tle winds always blew across this open plain. This swath of low­land was so unlike the sur­round­ing hilly ter­rain around it as to give a feel of unbound­ed space to the landscape.

Before the war when a plane was about to land it was not uncom­mon to see boys from the neigh­bor­hood stand­ing on the hillock over­look­ing the east­ern end of the run­way to watch the air­craft land­ing. No build­ings where allowed here. The whole area around the air­port was open and airy and the run­way ensured an attrac­tive swath of emp­ty flat land with very gen­tle rip­ples extend­ing west­ward into the dis­tance. I enjoyed cycling around the east­ern tip of the air­port and wel­comed the oppor­tu­ni­ty of tak­ing a clos­er view of the aban­doned run­way. After cir­cling its east­ern bor­der the road veered towards the south­west and con­tin­ued down a slight slope.

From the ear­ly days of the occu­pa­tion one of the prin­ci­ples that served as the basis of the expan­sion of Jerusalem’s bor­ders was to extend the bor­ders of the city north­ward to include the Jerusalem Air­port. Israel had hoped to turn this into an inter­na­tion­al air­port. Although it was declared as such no coun­try would rec­og­nize it or agree to oper­ate inter­na­tion­al flights to or from it. This was because they refused to rec­og­nize the annex­a­tion of Jerusalem to Israel. The air­port remained a small domes­tic facil­i­ty serv­ing region­al traf­fic and some­times planes used by UN offi­cers and sol­diers. Then dur­ing the first Intifa­da it served as a park­ing lot for cars con­fis­cat­ed by the army. There were very few hous­es by the side of the south­ward slope. As I cycled down I was enjoy­ing the unim­ped­ed open­ness of this area and the soft refresh­ing wind that cooled me down.

Fur­ther ahead the land to the right of the road was sep­a­rat­ed by a small basin. Near­by in an old build­ing by the side of the road, a tense, wiry French Jew, years lat­er, estab­lished a horse­back rid­ing school where I and a few friends learned to ride. When we got more pro­fi­cient we would gal­lop through the hills cul­ti­vat­ed with olive trees until we reached the steep climb up to Nebi Samuel. Along the way we had to maneu­ver our hors­es to avoid get­ting knocked out of our sad­dles by the low lying branch­es of the trees. It was an exhil­a­rat­ing ride. It was for­tu­nate that I, an inex­pe­ri­enced rid­er, did not fall and break my back.

After 1948 and in the course of the 19 years of Jor­dan­ian rule over the West Bank with no access to the sea, roads went through the bean-shaped ter­ri­to­ry of the West Bank from north to south. The south was reached by pass­ing through the north­ern sec­tion of Jerusalem then cir­cling around the south­ern parts of the city which were under Israeli rule. Pri­or to 1948 Jerusalem had been con­nect­ed to the coastal region by the road that went through Bab el-Wad. It was pos­si­ble to trav­el to Jaf­fa from Ramal­lah with­out pass­ing through Jerusalem, which real­ly was periph­er­al and had no strate­gic impor­tance for the rest of Pales­tine. But with the estab­lish­ment of Israel on most of the land sur­round­ing the West Bank, the Ramal­lah-Jerusalem road became vital as a main con­duit between the north­ern and south­ern regions of the West Bank. As I was grow­ing up I knew no oth­er road for reach­ing Jerusalem and the cities and vil­lages in the south oth­er than this Ramal­lah-Jerusalem road that I was cycling on now. And so I was inti­mate­ly famil­iar with every detail of this short road. This of course was not the expe­ri­ence of my father. How often he must have trav­elled from Jaf­fa, where he had set up his office, to see his father in Jerusalem, using the Bab el Wad road. But when he came from Jaf­fa to take refuge in Ramal­lah in 1948 he must have trav­elled on the road direct­ly link­ing the two through Latrun. After 1948 that road was closed.

Father’s expe­ri­ence of Pales­tine was entire­ly dif­fer­ent from mine. For him the whole coun­try, the coastal region, low­er and upper Galilee, Gaza and the Jor­dan Val­ley had been open, the coun­try’s cities and vil­lages con­nect­ed by roads that did­n’t have to cir­cle around to avoid bor­ders. I did­n’t know these past con­nec­tions and so did­n’t miss them. How dif­fer­ent and skewed has been my expe­ri­ence of the coun­try and how reduced my exis­tence. I grew up think­ing the road I’m on now was the only road, life as I lived it in the land-locked West Bank, the only life.

With the occu­pa­tion of the West Bank by Israel the whole of geo­graph­ic Pales­tine was once again open to all the inhab­i­tants, Pales­tini­ans and Israelis. The place revert­ed to how father’s gen­er­a­tion had known it. To me and my gen­er­a­tion it was all a new expe­ri­ence. Yet it was not to remain so.

If I were to cycle now to Jerusalem I would be stopped at the Qalan­dia Check­point some 500 meters from the Voca­tion­al Train­ing Cen­ter. This has since come to mark the bor­der between Israel and the West Bank. It was built near the east­ern side of the run­way which is now enveloped by the four-meter high annex­a­tion wall. The once almost emp­ty strips of land on both sides of the road from where the cus­toms point had been to the Cen­ter are dense­ly built and are in a mis­er­able state, the road going between them con­stant­ly clogged with cars either try­ing to enter Jerusalem or con­tin­u­ing east­ward to dri­ve to the south­ern part of the West Bank through the vil­lage of Jaba’. As you approach the check­point you’re con­front­ed by the con­crete four-meter high wall that Israel built to sur­round the run­way and sep­a­rate it from the rest of the West Bank. This sec­tion is smeared with lay­ers of graf­fi­ti. An image of Yass­er Arafat wear­ing his kuffieh can be dis­cerned with anoth­er of the much younger, impris­oned leader Mar­wan Bargh­outhi. The wall then con­tin­ues on the oth­er side of the check­point. It looks like some­one had tak­en a felt pen and drawn a thick line around every area where Pales­tini­ans live. Then a con­crete wall with watch­tow­ers was con­struct­ed fol­low­ing the line encir­cling all the dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties and vil­lages. What was once an open unen­closed area has been turned into a series of iso­lat­ed zones, trap­ping the Pales­tin­ian com­mu­ni­ties and sep­a­rat­ing them from Israel.

The hill that was used by the neigh­bor­hood boys as a look­out to view the run­way has been most­ly lev­eled to accom­mo­date the offices and park­ing lots asso­ci­at­ed with the check­point. Only a small part of the hill remains, the rest is gone, trans­form­ing the area from an attrac­tive expanse of land into one that is stran­gled by the wall with its watch­tow­ers. From the road no part of the run­way is now visible.

Qalan­dia Check­point has become the new Man­del­baum Gate which used to sep­a­rate the two parts of Jerusalem. This bar­ri­er sep­a­rates the West Bank from the expand­ed bor­ders of east­ern Jerusalem. Israeli fears of and cal­lous­ness towards the Pales­tini­ans are amply evi­dent here, both in the way the wall is designed and in the path its takes. It is a far more for­mi­da­ble wall than that which had marked the divi­sion of Jerusalem after 1948. It has Israeli sol­diers on both sides. Hold­ers of Jerusalem res­i­den­cy cards are the only ones allowed to pass through the cross­ing point. Cars with West Bank license plates can no longer cross and must dri­ve east. They must cir­cle around expand­ed Jerusalem through the new­ly con­struct­ed bypass road that skirts the vil­lage of Jaba’, then dri­ve south­ward through Wadi Nar [val­ley of fire], nev­er enter­ing any part of expand­ed Jerusalem or the sur­round­ing vil­lages that were annexed to the city after 1967. Often the road from Ramal­lah lead­ing to Qalan­dia gets clogged up with the lines of cars reach­ing all the way to Kufr Aqab which I had passed near the start of my cycling journey.

A short time after I cycled past Kufr Aqab, Israel annexed this sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed ham­let along with 28 oth­ers, join­ing them with Jerusalem. The annex­a­tion fol­lowed a hap­haz­ard line avoid­ing the areas most pop­u­lat­ed by Pales­tini­ans while includ­ing unde­vel­oped Pales­tin­ian land. The west­ern side of the road I was cycling on was incor­po­rat­ed with­in the city while the east­ern side includ­ing the refugee camp remained in the West Bank. This meant that those liv­ing on the east­ern side of the road were con­sid­ered res­i­dents of Jerusalem but not those on the west­ern side.

The new bor­der of expand­ed Jerusalem reach­es to the out­skirts of Bireh. Kufr Aqab and sec­tions of Um Alsharayet where only a scat­ter­ing of hous­es once stood were includ­ed in greater Jerusalem. With the scarci­ty of hous­ing for Pales­tin­ian res­i­dents of the city, over the years many Pales­tin­ian res­i­dents who need­ed to live with­in the bound­aries of Jerusalem to avoid los­ing their sta­tus as res­i­dents moved to these areas, caus­ing a build­ing boom and turn­ing Kufr Aqab and Um Alsharayet, which the Israeli author­i­ties did not care to plan prop­er­ly or to pre­vent build­ing vio­la­tions in the area, into vir­tu­al urban jun­gles. The mass of new build­ings has swamped the small attrac­tive vil­lage that I could see in 1967 at the top of the hill to the east as I cycled by. This was also the fate of that soli­tary house on the hill sur­round­ed by the pine trees on the west­ern side of the road where father’s land lay. All the trees there were felled and replaced with a for­est of stone build­ings stand­ing next to each oth­er. It was for­tu­nate father had not built a house there.

That morn­ing in June 1967 as I head­ed to Jerusalem I could not have antic­i­pat­ed that the Man­del­baum Gate that stood between the east­ern part of Jerusalem that I grew think­ing of as my Jerusalem, and the west­ern part under Israel which was total­ly unknown to me, would come to be moved to Qalan­dia, as had the wall that until 1967 divid­ed the east­ern part of Jerusalem under Jor­dan from the west­ern part under Israel.

My father had had his share of harsh expe­ri­ences at that gate. His sis­ter was liv­ing in Akka (Acre) and he could only see her at Christ­mas if she man­aged to get a per­mit from the Israeli gov­ern­ment to cross over for a few days to cel­e­brate the feast with us in Ramal­lah. The anx­i­ety-rid­den mem­o­ries of that must have been on father’s mind when he heard of his broth­er’s cross­ing to Amman. He feared being sep­a­rat­ed from and los­ing his broth­er as he had lost his sis­ter. How would it be now, what would it take to get to see his broth­er again for a vis­it? Whom would he have to peti­tion to obtain the nec­es­sary per­mits?  Now once again his broth­er was forc­ing him into the posi­tion of a peti­tion­er ask­ing for favors to allow his return from across the new bor­der. This made him very angry.

But I under­stood none of this that morn­ing in June when I cycled to Jerusalem.

After pass­ing the east­ern tip of the run­way I coast­ed quick­ly down the slope where there were no hous­es on either side of the road. This brought me to the “Halfway Bridge”, so called because it is halfway between Ramal­lah and Jerusalem. By then I had cycled around six kilo­me­ters, almost half the dis­tance to Jerusalem.

The June sun was get­ting stronger but a refresh­ing cool breeze con­tin­ued to blow. In rainy weath­er a good stream flows under the bridge. The small vil­lage of Er-Ram [small hill] rests on a mound just beyond this bridge to the north. By the side of the road near Er Ram is a clus­ter of new hous­es known as Dahi­et El Bareed [postal ser­vice dis­trict]. This was one of the rare hous­ing coop­er­a­tives and it belonged to employ­ees of the postal ser­vice in Jerusalem. The same man who was behind this pio­neer­ing ini­tia­tive had also pro­mot­ed anoth­er hous­ing coop­er­a­tive on a flat tract of land some four kilo­me­ters from the cen­ter of Jeri­cho on the way to the Jor­dan Riv­er. Father had joined this project. After many years the cement hous­es each with a gar­den all around were com­plet­ed. It was 1962 when our fam­i­ly became the own­ers of a win­ter house in the warm cli­mate of Jeri­cho in which we spent week­ends when­ev­er we could man­age it. I kept a bicy­cle there and would ride it around the project on the flat land that was so unlike hilly Ramal­lah. At times I would cycle all the way down to the banks of the Jor­dan Riv­er. We spent many a hap­py week­end in our win­ter house. Its gar­den had all kinds of cit­rus trees and veg­eta­bles which with the mild win­ter and plen­ty of water grew like mag­ic, so unlike our gar­den in Ramal­lah where the pine trees made the soil acidic. After the 1967 war we got news that the house had been bro­ken into and loot­ed. A num­ber of the mid­dle-class fam­i­lies who owned hous­es there were from Amman and now they would sure­ly not be able to use their homes. Many oth­er own­ers from the West Bank had also left for Jor­dan. There was a sharp deple­tion in the mid­dle class after the war. As is often the case they are the first to desert. As for us, those times when we moved in win­ter between Ramal­lah and Jeri­cho along with oth­er fam­i­ly friends would sure­ly also come to an end as will my excur­sions to the riv­er, the new for­mi­da­ble, unap­proach­able fron­tier. Such was the expect­ed dis­rup­tion of our old way of life with the onset of the Occupation.

Close to Dahi­et El Bareed along the oth­er side of the road, was the vil­lage of Bir Nabala with its many springs and rich agri­cul­tur­al land hence its name which means the well of Nabala. This vil­lage was reach­able via a slight detour from the Ramal­lah-Jerusalem road.

For a num­ber of years the Halfway Bridge was the loca­tion of the check­point before it was moved fur­ther north to Qalandia.

I remem­ber when the Annex­a­tion Wall was being built along this road. I saw the first blocks of con­crete being placed right in the mid­dle of the road. I did­n’t believe that was where they were going to build it. I thought it’s impos­si­ble that it could be built there. Of course that was where it was actu­al­ly erect­ed and where it has remained.

This sec­tion of the Annex­a­tion Wall which begins at Qalan­dia con­tin­ues south­ward, bifur­cat­ing the Ramal­lah-Jerusalem road right in the mid­dle. Trav­el­ers to Jerusalem now dri­ve in the shad­ow of the Wall. At the bridge it curves east­ward sep­a­rat­ing Er Ram from Dahi­et El Bareed and encir­cling the for­mer, leav­ing it on the West Bank side. It then con­tin­ues east­ward keep­ing the set­tle­ments of Nevi Samuel on the Israeli side and the Pales­tin­ian vil­lage of Jaba’ on the Pales­tin­ian side. It also stretch­es west­ward block­ing the entrance to Bir Nabala and encir­cling the town. Above that closed entrance a high­way pass­es con­nect­ing the Jerusalem set­tle­ments to Tel Aviv and the coastal region. In that cul-de-sac an Israeli com­pa­ny, Green­Net, oper­ates a large facil­i­ty sort­ing the waste col­lect­ed from Jerusalem. A per­ma­nent foul smell per­me­ates the area.

Before the wall was built, the town of Er Ram had grown from a small attrac­tive vil­lage on top of a small hill (hence its name) into a sprawl­ing small city where many of Jerusalem’s Pales­tin­ian res­i­dents reside because of the short­age of res­i­den­tial homes for Pales­tini­ans in east­ern Jerusalem. Now that Er Ram lies entire­ly behind the wall, in the West Bank, those who want­ed to keep their Jerusalem res­i­den­cy had to leave and find a place to live with­in the area rec­og­nized as Jerusalem. The exact same fate has befall­en Bir Nabala.

As I write this, 53 years lat­er, the area where the Qalan­dia Check­point stands that used to be an open space, caressed by a soft wind, afford­ing a wel­come con­trast to most of the land­scape sur­round­ing it, has now been trans­formed into a dirty, tor­tured place, lit­tered with trash, enclosed by a wall smeared with graf­fi­ti, shack­led by gates and mis­er­able turn­stiles too nar­row to allow easy pas­sage for many pedes­tri­ans who are over­sized. The Jerusalem Air­port run­way has become a park­ing lot hemmed in by the Annex­a­tion Wall and no longer vis­i­ble from the road. Plans are in the mak­ing for the con­struc­tion there of hous­ing for Israeli Ortho­dox Jews to com­plete the encir­clement of east­ern Jerusalem by Jew­ish settlements

When Israel decid­ed to close off Jerusalem from the West Bank after 1991 the process was grad­ual. At first they put the check­point much fur­ther to the south. It slow­ly crept fur­ther north, mov­ing clos­er to Ramal­lah until it set­tled in its present posi­tion in Qalan­dia where it assumed the role that the Man­del­baum Gate once played—only this time it has Israeli sol­diers on both sides of the check­point which has come to sep­a­rate the expand­ed Jerusalem under Israel from the West Bank.

Raja Shehadeh (Photo: ©Mariana Cook 2010)

Raja She­hadeh (Pho­to: ©Mar­i­ana Cook 2010)

Raja She­hadeh is a lawyer and writer and the founder of the pio­neer­ing Pales­tin­ian human rights organ­i­sa­tion Al Haq. She­hadeh is the author of sev­er­al acclaimed books pub­lished by Pro­file Books includ­ing the Orwell Prize-win­ning Pales­tin­ian Walks, as well as Strangers in the House; Occu­pa­tion Diaries; Lan­guage of War, Lan­guage of Peace; A Rift in time; Where the Line is Drawn and his most recent book Going Home A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occu­pa­tion. He lives in Ramal­lah, Palestine.