Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Zababdeh... And a Run-In with Soldiers

Right before Christmas, I took a trip to Zababdeh, a little village about two hours north of Bethlehem, with the College Choir as they put on their Christmas concert (I know this post was a little delayed, but I wanted to wait until the Choir had finished touring to write about it, and then my computer broke, but NOW IT'S FIXED and I'm one happy camper). The Choir was kind enough to let me (and my friend Courtney, a volunteer here through the Lutheran church [funny story: we actually went to college together, but never met until we got here, even though we have plenty of mutual friends]) travel with them to see a little bit more of the country.

First, I feel like I should clarify something that I'm constantly asked about regarding my placement. I work for the Shepherd Society, which is the humanitarian branch of Bethlehem Bible College. My office is at the college, and so I spend a lot of time with students, professors, and college staff. I often refer to "the college," and when I do, I'm referring to BBC, the place I spend 8 hours every day.

So anyways, Zababdeh! Courtney and I got on the bus with the choir. We headed up to the village. On our way, we ran into some cows and had to stop while they migrated off the road.

I was the official photographer for the concert (translation: terrible idea!). The Choir sang a mix of traditional Palestinian songs, and Christmas carols, while I desperately tried to take good pictures without good lighting. The place was absolutely packed! Everyone was so excited to have us, and the community was so welcoming. We finished, ate dinner, packed up, and headed home.

One of my favorite pictures from the evening.
Now, this should be the end of the story. But because this is Palestine, it's only the beginning.

At this point, it's about 10pm and we're about 45 minutes away from home. We're all quite excited about this, because it's been a long day and we're all tired. We're all chatting and laughing; we're happy because the concert went well. Everyone was also relieved, because on the previous trip (just the day before), the bus was attacked by Israeli settlers.

Here's the video from the evening prior (Munther, the guy speaking, is the vice-academic dean of the college, the choir director, and also one of my favorite people! He's intelligent and hilarious, a great combination, and he's my office neighbor so I see a lot of him):

We were well past where the bus was attacked last time, and so we expected it to be smooth sailing from there on out. All of a sudden, the bus starts to slow down. We were about to head through an Israeli military checkpoint, which isn't uncommon in the West Bank, even though we were in Area A, which legally is supposed to be completely controlled by the Palestinian government and police force (because Palestine doesn't have a military) - for more information on Area divisions and how that works, click here. But I mean, who is going to go up to these Israeli soldiers and tell them that international law clearly states that they are outside their jurisdiction and they need to leave? Absolutely no one.

As we approach the checkpoint, David, one of my good Palestinian friends, started to get a little nervous, and so I asked him what was wrong.

"Last time I went through this checkpoint," he said, "I got arrested and held for ten days in prison." 
"WHY?" I asked, "What did you do?" 
"I did nothing wrong. My family is from Gaza, and even though I am here legally and had the papers to prove it, the soldiers claimed that they were fake and that I was a terrorist. They arrested me and held me in prison, without filing any charges, until the Bible College found me a lawyer and got me out." 
I was obviously confused. "How is that legal? How are they allowed to just hold you for no real reason? They need to have proof of illegal activity before they arrest you! They can't just deprive you of your human rights on a hunch! Why did you let them take you?" 
"It’s not legal," he said, rolling his eyes at me, "Nothing here is legal. But what was I supposed to do? Argue and get shot? No, your only real option is just to do what the soldiers say and hope that they don't hurt you. We're not in America, Meredith, and we don't have fancy blue passports to get us out of trouble. We don't have rights like you."

I was absolutely stunned and quite humbled. I felt about three inches tall. Here I am lecturing people about their human and civil rights through my American lens, when the rules are completely different here. These rights that I take for granted? They don't exist for people here. They wouldn't exist for me either, except for the fact that my government has enough clout to force this government to treat me with respect. If the United States lost its position as one of the World's superpowers, I would probably lose the privileges that I have here, including the right to be treated fairly.

All conversation ceases as the bus slows down to a stop. We had been motioned to pull off the road by the Israeli soldiers. Out come the passports, ID cards, and documentation. On trudge the soldiers with their machine guns and full body armor. One soldier stands in the front of the bus with his gun pointed at us while a second one walks down the aisle checking identification. Neither says a word. The ID checker points at certain people as he walks, and as he finishes, yells out something in Hebrew and motions for them to follow him. Off go the seven guys he pointed at. One of the other men started to object and question the soldiers, so they pulled him off the bus too. Now, I'm used to riding buses here, but typically they have a mix of tourists and Palestinians on them, which means that the soldiers are a whole lot nicer than when there were just Palestinians and two Americans on the bus. These were not the soldiers I'm used to; the ones who are fake-friendly, who smile at the tourists and casually ask where you're from and how you're liking Israel. These were the real soldiers; the ones that Palestinians see every day.

At this point, I'm shivering uncontrollably. The adrenalin is pumping, and I'm afraid. These aren't some random faceless, nameless strangers that are being taken off the bus, these are my friends. These are people who I just worshipped with. These aren't terrorists! These are well educated Christians who have jobs and families, and who are contributing members of society. It's the middle of the night in the desert, in the middle of December. It's freezing. Where could the soldiers possibly be taking them? Well luckily, not far.

The soldiers take them off the bus, line them up, confiscate their documentation, and one of them goes off somewhere, presumably to call someone and check them out. Now, the first panic point is that their documentation is gone. Here, if you are caught without documentation, you can automatically be arrested. I've heard plenty of horror stories about soldiers confiscating documentation and refusing to give it back, just to terrorize people.

The only thing I could think was "I NEED TO TAKE PICTURES OF THIS! NO ONE IS GOING TO BELIEVE THAT THIS IS SERIOUSLY HAPPENING UNLESS I TAKE PICTURES!" Unfortunately, we apparently are not allowed to take pictures at the checkpoints for "security reasons." Everyone on the bus desperately wanted pictures, but were all too afraid to take them because they could get in a lot of trouble.

"Well," I figure, "I might as well put these double standards to work. I'm an American, so I won't get in trouble if I get caught taking them. Worst case scenario, they confiscate my camera. Best case scenario, I get some pictures of a situation that we usually aren't able to capture. Risk? WORTH IT!"

So I snapped away… sneakily.

Seriously, can you believe this is real life? They ended up questioning one of the guys individually, and after about 45 minutes of standing outside in freezing weather in the middle of the night for absolutely no reason, they let them back on the bus, and off we went toward home.

The most infuriating part of this whole situation was that I was the only one who was shocked. The guys reassured me that this happens all the time, and they were just glad to get their IDs back and be sent on their way without more trouble. Don't get me wrong, the guys were upset, but they were also resigned to the fact that there is nothing they can do to change the situation. "It could have been much worse," I was told repeatedly. Maybe it COULD have been much worse, but how does that make what did happen any better? How can we ignore the problem, just because it's not the absolute worst case scenario?

Oh, you broke your leg? Well, we're not going to put a cast on it, because at least you didn't break both legs! It could have been much worse.

Oh, your mother was murdered? Well, we're not going to open an investigation, because at least your whole family wasn't murdered! It could have been much worse.

Oh, you were raped? Well, we're not going to press charges, because at least you weren't gang-raped! It could have been much worse.

Oh, you were stopped at an illegal military checkpoint, racially profiled, held without cause outside in the cold for 45 minutes, harassed, blatantly disrespected and degraded simply because Israeli soldiers like to remind you that they have absolute power over you and can do whatever they want with no repercussions? Well, we're not going to do say anything or do anything or really care about it at all, because hey, at least they didn't shoot you too! It could have been much worse.

Do these examples seem ridiculous and horrible? Absolutely. So why do we continue to allow people to be degraded, disrespected, and denied basic rights? Just because there was potential for it to be a worse situation? Does that strike anyone else as INSANE?!

I was furious, so incredibly saddened, and a bit shaken. What if the soldiers had decided to arrest one of the guys? What if someone had been shot or beaten? What if they thought we all looked suspicious and hauled us all away for questioning? There would have been absolutely nothing that I would have been able to do to improve the situation. I was completely powerless. It's one thing to feel completely powerless when you're in a line at the DMV that just doesn't seem to be moving, or when you're arguing for a higher grade and your professor just won't listen, or when the politician you voted for lost and you feel like the country is going to hell in a handbasket... it's an entirely different thing to feel powerless when you're in front of a machine gun knowing that the soldier who wields it can do anything he wants and get away with it.

After we were released, the bus went straight to the college, and there was no more laughing or chatting or singing. The entire atmosphere had changed. The reality of where we were crashed back down on us, and there was such deep sorrow. It's easy to slip into thinking that everything is normal until you're confronted with one of the devastating realities of life here, like the reality that there is an entire group of people who have absolutely no rights.

I went home from the college and sobbed. Every time I think that my heart cannot possibly break any deeper for these people, every time I think I've seen the most ridiculous part of this occupation, every time I think that nothing can possibly surprise me anymore, something else happens to show me just how wrong I am.

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