August 20, 2001 - Humanity on Hold: Ten days in Ramallah By Morocco RPCV Jessie Deeter

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Ten days in Ramallah By Morocco RPCV Jessie Deeter

Ten days in Ramallah By Morocco RPCV Jessie Deeter

Ten days in Ramallah
By Jessie Deeter

Jessie Deeter is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker who has reported on the Middle East from Lebanon, Jordan, and Morocco, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Her work has appeared in, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, and Passionfruit, among other places. Most recently, she was the associate producer for Frontline's "Blackout," a documentary on the energy crisis. This trip to Ramallah was sponsored by a Mellon grant, which Jessie received to finish a Master's thesis for UC Berkeley's International and Area Studies program on the Palestinian Right of Return. While in Ramallah, Jessie also took the opportunity to report on a story about the mothers of shaheeds and on Internet cafes, stories that she hopes to see published in the American press.
*All pictures were taken by Jessie.

Monday, August 20, 2001

My plane touches down at the Tel Aviv airport just after four in the morning. I begin to worry that my ride from the airport won't be able to find me, because in my haste I have forgotten to make sure that we have some arrangement. I also worry that my bag won't show up. I had wanted to travel with carry-ons only, but I have come bearing enough gifts from relatives in America for my host to fill one bag, necessitating another backpack, and thereby exceeding my one-bag economy class limit. Then I worry that I will be held going through Israeli customs, because I am a terrible liar, and will have to tell the officers that I am staying in the West Bank town of Ramallah. I have been advised to say that I'm here as a tourist, staying in Jerusalem. It just sounds like a lie to me.

My checked bag is one of the first out, so I feel lucky.

The girl who questions me at Israeli customs can't be more than 19 or 20 years old. She asks me what I'm doing here and I tell her that I'm a journalism student, working on a Master's thesis, which is true. She asks me more questions about whom I will visit and where I will stay. I tell her that I don't know the address, because I have a driver who will take me to the house. Also true. After more questions about why I am going to the West Bank, she is clearly tired of me, and leaves to consult with a man. Some minutes later, he waves me on.

My Palestinian driver is waiting with a "Deeter" sign. He's the only one in the crowd holding up a piece of paper, so he's easy to spot. I thankfully hand him my bags. As we get in his mini-van, he tells me that he used to live in New York, but he feels that God wants him here right now. He is Christian, and carries pamphlets titled, "The Road to God" in his car. That's about all the Arabic I can read. He says that early in the morning is a good time to travel, before the cars and trucks really back up at the Israeli checkpoints. We pass through one quickly, and he tells me that this is a sort of alternative route to Ramallah, an easier way since the Israeli-imposed closures. It takes us about 45 minutes to reach my host's house.

There, I begin my first interview, since I won't be able to sleep for hours. Later, my host shows me my lodging, at his sister's house in the center of town, and helps me buy a phone card for the cell phone I just bought from a friend who was living in Ramallah. We ask a shopkeeper to add the card credit to the phone because neither of us knows how.

Tuesday, August 21, 2001

I slept poorly last night. I had to stay at my hosts' house in the hills just outside of town because by the time we finished talking it was too late for him to take me home. I heard sporadic shelling all night. Apparently, the locals wait until night to head to the nearby Israeli military camp, and there "the boys start to play," as my host put it. He was referring to the Palestinian practice whereby gun-carrying males go to the camp and exchange fire with Israeli soldiers, who are believed to see targets less easily at night. Although I knew that I was in no immediate danger, each time I heard the guns fire, my stomach clenched. Many people have told me that you just have to get used to it. My host still goes to the window when the shelling begins, though. He keeps a pair of binoculars on the ledge.

The rest of the interviews begin.

A journalist who used to be my teacher calls and suggests we meet for drinks at the American Colony in Jerusalem. Between his work and children, 8:30 tonight is the only time he can see me, and even that is stealing precious hours from his family.

I think of my husband, who supports my trip but cautioned me to think more of my safety than is my usual wont, and my mother, still blissfully unaware that I am in the West Bank.

"Uh, what if I can't get back in to Ramallah?" People had spoken of checkpoints closed for no other apparent reason than some Israeli's whim. "Do you think it's safe?"

"Hmmm…I hadn't thought about that. Do you have a press pass?" No press pass. "Well, they seem to let press through, but I don't know about your case," he says. But he doesn't sound too concerned, and I wonder whether I am being overly cautious. My friend, however, is a veteran of this war, with flak-jackets, helmets, and bullet-proof windows at his disposal, whereas I have to rely on the local transportation, the service, either mini-buses or extra-large Mercedes, that fill with a group of people going to a given destination.

I decide to look elsewhere for my answer. We establish a tentative meeting and I tell him I'll call if I'm not coming.

"Hell no, I wouldn't go," says my host. "I don't go anywhere at night." That seems pretty definitive. Although probably not in any direct danger, he would rather stay at home than risk becoming an incidental casualty of clashes between his people and the Israelis.

The British and American girls at Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute (HDIP) are more encouraging. "I don't think it's any more dangerous at night then it is during the day," says one. Oh. Great. They cheerfully concur that anytime you cross any border in this place, you take your chances. "But I would be afraid of the service drivers," adds the other. "Oh, that shouldn't be a problem," says the first, "it's just that a friend of mine was kidnapped by a service driver-she had to jump out of a moving car." That said, she thinks that I will probably be all right, as long as I don't get into service alone. I am not generally afraid of Palestinian men, but can see their point about getting into a situation where I am powerless. As an American woman, I am not used to feeling powerless, although lately it hasn't been very safe for me to walk the streets of Berkeley (California) alone at night, either.

I think of the Swiss Army knife I carry at all times in my backpack and feel a bit better.

My first interviewee is on the fence. "I really don't know." The next guy I meet, the tissue paper king of Ramallah, doesn't share my concerns. He travels in his own car, and tends to stay in Ramallah at night. He has friends who recently went to a nearby city to visit family, and their experience has left him disinclined to nocturnal adventure. They left the city at 11 p.m. and a drive that used to take minutes lasted hours-they got home at three in the morning. At least they got home.

I decide to sleep on it. I try to take a quick nap but am unable to sleep; each time I close my eyes I see checkpoints and empty service taxis.

At 6 p.m., I decide to go. I don't know why, but I feel that I should go. I had been told that I should allow three hours to get into Jerusalem, so I know that I am cutting it close.

I walk to the local service station and climb into a yellow Mercedes taxi for six. Noting my camera, the white-headscarved woman I sit next to asks if I am a journalist. I say yes. Palestinians are so used to journalists chronicling their lives that in the smallest villages you will hear "sahafeeya," as you pass. I am not one of those journalists, though. Real, affiliated journalists travel in SUVs with a huge white "TV" on the hood and roof, to make sure that people on both sides of the fray don't mistake the Western observers for prey. Lacking the sponsorship of a larger organization, I try to downplay my journalist status.

Two shekels (about .50) each later, we are on our way. My fellow travelers are quiet. We drive for about 10 minutes, passing out of the still-bustling Ramallah, through streets that get progressively bleaker, vaguely residential, with more garbage and fewer people on the streets. As we drive by people selling dates still on the branches, I think it must be date season here, and wish we could stop. Ever since I lived in Morocco, fresh off-the-tree dates are among my favorite treats in the world. But I have no idea how long the checkpoint will take.

As we head to the Qualandia checkpoint, we see a group of about 20 boys stumbling down a hill before we can hear the gunshots. At first they don't seem real. A lazy pft…pft…pft. But there is a real wire fence, and behind the wire fence are real IDF (Israeli) soldiers.

When coming from the airport, I asked my taxi driver his opinion of the difference between this intifada and the first. The answer, he said, was simple: "This is war."

I notice the soldiers only briefly. Enough to get flashes of green uniforms and helmets. I am too interested in threading my way through the thicket of people and cars and mini-vans that are blocking my path to the next mode of transport. Most of the cars and vans turn around, declining to even present themselves to the border guards because they don't want the hassle. Time spent at each side of the border waiting in line is time that they could be earning fares.

Still, there is a long line of trucks that have to make it to Jerusalem. I assume that it's Palestinian traffic going out, although the only license plates I see are yellow with black letters, Israeli, not the green on white of the Palestinian plates. These days, with few exceptions, only those Palestinian drivers lucky enough to have Israeli license plates (from being born in what is now Israel, marrying Israeli Arabs, etc.) can travel in and out of the Occupied Territories. And although the cars and trucks creeping through the checkpoint have Israeli plates, I know that their drivers are not Israeli. Israelis don't go into Ramallah any more.

As we scurry across I almost step on a boy with a crew cut who comes up to my navel. "Ramallah?" he asks. "La, shokran (no, thanks)." I reply. "Afwan (you're welcome)," he says, and continues on his way. Impressed by the boy's polite composure, I hustle through a maze of concrete barriers, past an Israeli soldier in camouflage who leans on a block with what appears to be a pair of pants on his head.

Fortunately, there is a free orange-yellow minibus waiting to take us to Jerusalem. This time I sit by a woman with a short-sleeved shirt, a short skirt, and too many tired children for me to count. She holds a squirming little girl in her lap, and keeps raising her hand as if to slap it, saying "tsana (wait)." On my other side is a plant that the girl keeps trying to reach over my lap to pet. For her part, the distracted mother is trying to rouse, "Rami," a child slouched on the floor by the window, either in a coma or dead, it isn't clear. Although the general shared-taxi idea is that it comes from one place and goes to another, with no stops in between, it's a flexible system, often bent. The mother asks the driver to turn off the road, then go up a hill, just a little further, no, a little further, please, until we are right in front of her destination. The children jump out, and Rami is pulled semi-conscious from the car.

I get lucky, and happen to notice the American Colony on our street as we are driving by. The driver stops, and there I am, with an hour and a half to spare. Now, sitting on a comfortable couch in the lobby, I fall asleep.

My journalist friend looks tired. He tells of his disillusionment with the whole process. But he lights up when talking about his beat, the Israeli Arabs, and gives me valuable names and numbers for my stories. After several hours he has to return to his children and I have to make my way home.

The trip back is scarier. It's eleven at night, and there are no more service, so I pay a private Palestinian driver 50 shekels (about 12 dollars) to take me from Damascus gate in his white Mercedes sedan. Something about the cleanliness of the white Mercedes convinces me that he means me no harm. He tells me that it would cost me 100 shekels to go all the way to Ramallah because it's dangerous. I decided to try my luck with the service at Qualandia when we reach the border and I can see them waiting on the other side. There were no gunshots, which is almost worse, because I've already come to expect them, from both sides.

A minivan service is waiting. I unwillingly take the soldier-side window, noting that the father of the family sitting behind me does the same, guarding his women and children, I suppose. I miss my guardian. We all pay two shekels and off we go. I marvel at the difference of price between the Israeli and the Palestinian legs of my journey, too tired to make a coherent connection.

This driver seems determined to go out of his way for his passengers. He asks us all where exactly we want to go, and off-roads down a hill of dirt -no road, no nothing-to get the people where they want to be. I hear him sigh something about this life, but don't understand the whole thing. He drops me at the Ramallah minara, the central lions, and I walk down the empty street alone. Here, for now, I feel comfortable and safe.

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Story Source: Humanity on Hold

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Morocco



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