Snagged at ‘The Line,’ expert
driver makes brilliant save
The tomb of Yasser Arafat greets visitors to Ramallah on the main entry road. There is no sign whatsoever on the building to indicate its contents. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
RAMALLAH, West Bank – The view of the world from Palestine on Thursday morning was remarkably different from just a few miles away in Jerusalem – or any western nation, for that matter.
An air of hopelessness and helplessness is evident throughout the capital city of the Palestinian National Authority, where the tomb of Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Yasser Arafat greets visitors arriving by the main entry route.
My visit included a heart-pounding 15-minute detour after I was denied re-entry into Israel because I did not have my passport.
My expert driver and guide, Akram Halwani was forced to make a U-turn at the security checkpoint, but quickly found another at which we were simply waved with a smile into Israel.
There was barely a mention of the Syrian crisis or the worldwide uproar about plans for an American air strike against Israel’s northern neighbor.
Due to my need for Atonement and travel time, posting will be light for the next few days.
“[PRESIDENT] OBAMA cannot help Palestine,” said construction worker Salim Jaber, 37, whom I found in the Ramallah Café smoking a hookah pipe and reading Alquds, the Arabic-language daily newspaper.
“The new peace talks are rubbish. It is impossible to make it better,” he said.
Salim Jaber is seen with his copy of Alquds, the Arabic language daily, on Thursday morning in the Ramallah Café. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
As if to emphasize the point, he held up the lead story in the Sept. 12 Alquds paper. With a graphic picture of bulldozers on the left, the right hand top story he translated was about Israeli forces demolishing homes of Arabs in an unknown location.
“We are paying the price because America is not fair between the strong and the weak,” Jaber said.
Of note, Jaber said he lives with his two children in Abu Gush, a mixed Arab-Israeli settlement about 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem. “It is the only village in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together,” he said. “It is an example of peaceful coexistence.”
The last remark led to a theme I have heard repeatedly in the Holy Land: How most of the folk on all sides want peace, but they are held to ransom by radical fringe elements that force their governments to make war.
Jaber said he lives in Israel because “it is better for Palestinians. [Here] we live under occupation. It is so difficult. There are no jobs here,” he added.
A FEW MINUTES LATER, this last point was raised anew by 21-year-old student Mohammed Leftwi, who is working as a salesman in the men’s clothing store Milano.
Twenty-one-year-old student Mohammed Leftwi works in a men’s clothing store in Ramallah on Thursday morning. He sold me a belt. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
“It’s very hard to get a job,” he said. “If you search, you will get one.”
Leftwi is an economics major at Najah National University, in his third year, he said. Like so many others, he works and attends school. He only has a vague idea of what he will do when he graduates.
“I will get a job. I will stay [in Palestine], but I won’t work for the government,” he said, his personable demeanor shining through.
He will make a good salesman, if he chooses, but clearly his opportunities are limited, especially with a qualification in the ‘dismal’ science.
My guide for the adventure, expert driver Halwani, lives in the Mt. Olive neighborhood of Jerusalem, where he was born in the Hadassah Hospital.
Two of his daughters live in San Francisco, which he has visited, while two others – a son and daughter – attend school in Jerusalem.
He has two houses: a second one in the West Bank. “It is no problem to have a house in both places,” he said, about his dual residency.
The worst problem is one Americans will easily recognize: the traffic! On Thursday, it was light in both directions at the main security checkpoint on the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah.
Expert driver Akram Halwani served as both guide and muse on my adventure behind the line. His Mercedes is air-conditioned. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
“You can wait an hour-and-a-half here sometimes, specially on Saturdays, when people are not working,” Halwani said.
Approaching from the Israeli side, a large red sign warns motorists: “Entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden. Dangerous to your lives and is against Israeli law.”
This doesn’t seem much of an obstacle to cross-border traffic, however. There were as many Israeli license plates as Palestinian ones visible on the streets of Ramallah, although that is no indication of the nationality of the driver.
The transition is like night and day.
An oddity explained to me by a relative took on new meaning here. Every house in this arid, ancient land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River has a water heater perched on its roof.
The homes of Jewish residents have water heaters painted white; the Arabs paint theirs black.
The effect is stark. In Jewish Jerusalem, almost every house is topped by a white water heater; across the divide, the houses all have black heaters.
A few miles from the checkpoint on our way into Ramallah, we stopped for me to snap the shot above of Arafat’s tomb. It is unmarked.
Without being told what it was, I would never have suspected. As you can see in the image, there is no sign whatsoever on the exterior of the building.
IT WAS ON OUR RETURN TRIP a little after noon that the real adventure began. Just a few seconds after I snapped an image of the security checkpoint from the West Bank side, I was prevented from re-entering Israel.
You raconteur is seen in front of an unknown monument in the middle of Ramallah’s main shopping district on Thursday morning. Photo by Akram Halwani. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
My California driver’s license, which I had believed was sufficient proof of identity, did not have my visa on it. The two young guards, one a man the other a woman, were adamant.
I could not re-enter Israel without my visa.
There was some back-and-forth in Hebrew between my guide and the guards. I sat helplessly in the passenger seat, smiling and showing my press pass.
“You press?” the male guard asked.
“Yes,” I said.
He was totally unimpressed. “You must have a visa,” he said.
It was only a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity; the female held onto both our ID cards while Halwani drove into Israel to make a U-turn and return on the other side of the checkpoint, where she returned the cards to us.
“We’ll try another gate,” Halwani said, calmly as we drove off south and east toward Jericho.
My heart was pounding, trying to imagine not escaping from Palestine. I dialed my sister-in-law.
“I may have a slight problem,” I said, as calmly as I could, and explained the situation.
It could not have been 15 minutes later that Halwani veered off the main road to the right. Seconds later we were approaching much smaller security checkpoint on a much smaller road.
As I reached into my back pocket for my ID card, he said: “Wait,” and motioned to me to sit still.
He drove slowly up to the checkpoint. The young soldier peered at us intently through the windshield.
I held my breath.
Then she smiled and waved us through.
“You are one helluva smart man,” I told Halwani after I started breathing again.
“We’re in!” was all I said to Rochelle when I called her back.
That was just two hours ago. I need to go for a long walk, do a lot of deep breathing, before this story is prepared for posting. Be assured, I will and I am.
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