Easter in what 'The Holy Land' has become

By Robin

A second update in a matter of minutes! I had entirely forgotten that my intention had been to write about Easter here, and that will seem much less relevant if I leave it a few more weeks.

Several people have asked me what I did for Easter last week, bearing in mind that I was brought up as a Christian and that I am currently living in the Holy Land .

Conscious of these facts, I intended to go to Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is thought to mark the spot upon which Jesus was crucified and buried. The orthodox services, which I was most keen to go to, were early in the morning. I missed them all though because the Israeli checkpoint at Qalandia was particularly slow that day, for no apparent reason, and took me nearly 1h30 to get through, making the 15km trip from Ramallah to Jerusalem take a total of 2 hours.

When I did get to Jerusalem, I went to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives, and then on to the Holy Sepulchre. When I first came to Jerusalem, a little over two months ago, I found that I was more moved by these places than I had expected to be. This time though, being there made me sad. I was surrounded by pilgrims and tourists (mostly, I think, the latter) from every corner of the world, with one notable exception. There were almost no Palestinians there (Christians make up a sizable minority of the Palestinian population. The biggest numbers are, unsurprisingly, around Bethlehem and Jerusalem ).

The reason for this absenteeism was not through choice on their part. It was because they required permission from the Israelis to be allowed to come and this permission was almost universally denied. Most were not granted permits. Those that were found, on arrival at checkpoints, that they were not being honoured. Even Palestinians living within Jerusalem itself, who therefore had no checkpoints to pass through, were barred from entering the Old City, around which the holy sites are all to be found.

So I left, and went to sit with my Palestinian friends in Sheikh Jarrah. It feels painfully ironic to hear people speak of ‘the Holy Land’ when one sees what a brutal and nasty place it has in so many ways become. On Palm Sunday, 15 people were arrested attempting to follow Jesus’ route into Jerusalem with a donkey (there is now, of course, a big wall and a big checkpoint making this impossible for most Palestinians). In a clear sign of racial discrimination, the four Israeli and one American activists arrested were all released that day with no charge. The ten Palestinians – arrested for doing exactly what the others were doing – were held in prison for five days, and are now bailed to reappear in court on the 19th April. (The donkey is, as far as we know, still in Israeli custody).

The cruelty and sadism of Israeli checkpoints has been described better by my friend Ellen than I could hope to describe it, and she has kindly allowed me to use her description here of a crossing through Qalandia last week which sums up just how awful that place can be:

“Jerusalem and Ramallah are 15 kilometers (9 miles) apart. The trip can take over two hours. A sometimes daily commute, the trek includes Qalandia checkpoint terminal. Imagine a version of hell in which sadistic 18-year-olds control an airport security station with the climate of a slaughterhouse and the aesthetics of a prison. Imagine Palestinians of all types—grandmothers with shopping bags, teenagers in groups, men late for work– held up pointlessly in steel cages as teenage girls laugh and chat behind bulletproof glass.

The recent high school graduates, charged with controlling access to Jerusalem, show up to work with both their M-16s and the particular ennui and fanged apathy that only teenagers possess. I have watched, feet aching, having stood motionless in a narrow metal chute for thirty minutes, as a girl aimlessly brushed her hair with such disinterest I thought the brush would fall from her hand. I have peeked in the window to see what’s holding up the line, only to notice that the person charged with operating the scanner has dozed off. I have watched, almost in tears, as elderly women fought each other in a panic to get through the turnstiles in time for Friday’s noontime prayers. Friday mornings are always excruciatingly slow; during rush hours frequently fewer lanes are open.

Today the lanes are segregated by gender. Men run the men’s lane with relative efficiency; ours is frozen in time. Robin gets through in about 15 minutes. My line hasn’t moved by the time he’s back on the 18 bus headed to Sheikh Jarrah for a meeting.

We think it’s possible that they were drunk this particular evening. Maybe they always are. The loudspeakers, which are usually utilized to screech incomprehensible commands, are torture devices tonight. Childish songs, gibberish and direct taunting of those in line reverberate through the empty cages of bulletproof glass and cement. As the men are processed routinely, our line stands captive to their taunts. Mothers with several children, teenagers dressed up for a night on the town, grandmothers hunched over canes, and me.

Generally, groups of three are let into the scanning area at a time. Bags are passed through an x-ray machine, people walk through a metal detector, and IDs are shown to the automatic-rifle-armed children behind the glass. West Bank Palestinians must have special permits, such as family visit, medical, religious or work. Some must give fingerprints every time they pass through, and many have a small time window they must return by or lose their permit status.

The West Bank is routinely placed under “closure”, barring nearly all permit holders from entering Jerusalem. Closure causes people with severe medical conditions to miss appointments, turns back women in labor, and prevents religious Palestinians from observing significant holidays. The 10-day Passover closure prevented Palestinian Christians from entering Jerusalem to observe Easter.

This evening, closure means a nearly-vacant terminal. What should have taken twenty minutes is stretching infinitely, as the lane barely creeps forward. A metal click every five minutes or so allows three to pass.

Suddenly, an announcement screeches over the loudspeaker. Everyone looks up, sighs, and turns around. The lane’s closed. We shuffle back out of the corral and down to the now-open one. The line’s disrupted. The women who have been here the longest are now at the back. I feel conscious of my American passport and let everyone cut. The metal gate clicks, and three pass through.

Thirty minutes of tedium later, the line closes and we’re back to the previous one. Twenty minutes after that, it’s time to switch lanes again. Some women try standing in the men’s lane; I join them. After fifteen minutes, the first woman reaches the window. She’s turned back, and we re-join the end of the massive women’s crowd again.”

Ellen did get through in the end. Frequently, Palestinians don’t – they get turned back with no reason, meaning they miss their hospital appointment, or noon prayers, or whatever it might be that they needed to get to.

As ever, please everyone feel free to pass on anything I write to as many people as possible. The same goes for Ellen’s words. If you’re a member of any faith group, please tell them what their Holy Land has become.