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At least 65% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are now unemployed; 75% are under the poverty level ($2 a day); 30% of their children under five are chronically malnourished. Obviously few of them still have the means to travel. But even those who do have the resources are frequently not allowed to leave. In our region, the Israeli military's District Coordinating Office (DCO) at Salem is the gatekeeper, the arbiter of all requests from Jenin District residents for permission to move within the West Bank, to go to Jerusalem, to leave the West Bank.
We have been to Salem. From a distance, you can see and hear the bulldozers working feverishly to dig a trench alongside a high concrete barricade. This is the starting point of the Wall, the twenty foot high, 230 mile long, three million dollar per mile barrier being built around the West Bank to prevent uncontrolled entry of Palestinians into Israel. Controversy surrounds the Wall, particularly about its location, which does not follow the "Green Line," the internationally acknowledged border between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Rather, it is winding its way deep into the West Bank, effectively annexing another 10% to 15% of the Territories, cutting towns off from their farms, water, and each other as it goes.
The entrance for Palestinians to the DCO at Salem is a soon-to-be-electrified
gate, which has been closed every time we have been there. Instead, Palestinians
seeking permissions currently have to negotiate their way along a six-inch
wide crumbling dirt path between the gate and the six-foot deep Wall trench.
Most hold onto the fence to keep from falling until they can get to the
edge, and then swing themselves around and into the military camp.
From there, its ID checks at a concrete bunker then up to the queues.
One line is for purchasing magnetic IDs, another for getting travel permissions,
and yet another for families and lawyers of prisoners held there.
Equipped with metal benches, the waiting area is open on two sides, topped
with a large tin roof, offering minimal protection from the summer heat
and winter cold.
Yvonne went back to Salem on Sunday, leaving vacant her usual place in the church's front pew. The offices were open, and the lines long. Eventually, she presented her documents – a paper with her doctor's request to go to Nazareth to see a physician following recent surgery – along with a copy of her ID. That was at 9:00. The soldier took them and placed them on the gathering pile of applications. Some, like her, were trying to go to doctors – in Jerusalem, in the Galilee. Others were trying to get permission to travel within the West Bank itself, to pass from Jenin to Ramallah, for example. Some applications were not accepted for this or that detail – the hospital in Jerusalem had written one of the digits of the ID number incorrectly, there was no date on the Palestinian doctor's note, no confirmation of an appointment from Nazareth, a name was spelled incorrectly in Hebrew. Yvonne's was taken, though, and she was told to wait. "How long?" she asked, but the queue had pushed her aside by that time, so she took a seat with dozens of others on the metal benches.
Hours went by. A young Palestinian man who spoke good Hebrew was constantly called up to translate. He joked that he should open an office: "Of course, I'd need a different permission to do that." Folks in the magnetic ID line were getting turned away, too, for a reason that seemed extremely capricious. In order to submit their applications, they had to buy stamps worth thirty-eight shekels as a fee. When the stamp office ran out of thirty-eight shekel denominations, they started selling thirty-nine and forty-shekel stamps. The soldier receiving applications would only accept ones with thirty-eight shekel stamps. Those who had overpaid were turned away. They were less than pleased, and were sharing their frustration with whomever would listen. The irony of it all being that these people who come to Salem, who come and wait hours and sometimes days and are regularly turned away, are the compliant ones, those who are trying to follow the rules of the Israeli Occupation. And they feel punished for doing so.
Yvonne continued to wait, periodically checking on the status of her application. "It's with the captain." "It's with the intelligence." "It'll be a little while longer." After five hot, dry, dusty hours, her application was handed back to her. "It's incomplete." She climbed down the stairs, back across the construction site, swung her way around the fence, and caught a taxi back home.
Last December, before the Wall was in construction, Marthame had visited
the bureaucratic black hole of Salem on behalf of "Laila." With a
broad smile and long wavy hair, Laila was enjoying her first year in college.
Her studies did not stop her however, from deep involvement in church activities,
especially as a leader in the parish's scouting program. Laila was one
of two Palestinian scouts invited to the World Scouting Jamboree in Bangkok,
Thailand, a worldwide gathering of 30,000 young people. All of the
arrangements were made, tickets purchased, and visas acquired. One
thing remained: permission for her to travel to and through Ben Gurion
Airport near Tel Aviv. Despite verbal promises from Israeli authorities
that her application would be accepted, she didn't get permission.
Laila didn't go.
"Jameel" is one of our favorite students. A tall boy with an excellent singing voice and a winning grin, he is bright, confident and polite – a refreshing combination for a ninth grader. He was among the handful of students whose dedication and academic promise brought them to the Roman Catholic Seminary in Beit Jala, where students receive an excellent – and virtually free – education as they discern the possibility of going into the ministry. The seminary was closed this past academic year, for the first time in its 150-year history. The Israeli government refused to issue or renew visas for the Latin Patriarchate's foreign Arab priests or students, comprising a majority of the school. While we enjoyed having these bright young men back in Zababdeh, we are hoping that the Israelis will issue these needed visas, and that the Seminary can re-open this fall. Last month, Jameel headed down to the Red Sea with a group of Palestinian and Israeli students for a peacemaking program in Egypt. The Israelis had granted the Palestinian students the necessary travel permits. At the border, however, the Egyptian officials refused entry to the Palestinians. Jameel didn't go.
These are only a few stories from a very small village in a remote part of the West Bank. But it illustrates a general reality here for Palestinians. Those who have the means to travel are regularly prevented from doing so, even within the West Bank. As we write this, "Fadi" is preparing to begin his freshman year in Chicago. One of our brightest students, he has a scholarship waiting for him at North Park University. The visa process has been extremely difficult and slow, and he has yet to have the requisite interview at the US Consulate in Jerusalem, an appointment which will require travel permission from the Salem DCO, as will his permissions to leave the country, once the visa is secured. If history is any indicator, Fadi will need a miracle to get to his freshman year on time.
May God grant safe passage to us all this summer.
Elizabeth and Marthame
At the end of 2003, we will be leaving Zababdeh and returning to the States for an itineration period of six months. We hope to be able to visit a large portion of the country, sharing our experiences and those of our friends and neighbors here in the Land of the Holy One. Until we leave, we are busy at work on a documentary film about Christian life in the Northern West Bank. Several churches have sponsored the project, and we have been blessed with professional equipment and experienced assistance in its making. This film will be a major feature of our itineration visits.
At this point, we need to hear from you. If you or your church would like to have us come to speak with you, please let us know. In particular, if your church has mission events or other relevant activities during the first six months of 2004, we'd be happy to participate.
Thank you, and we hope to see you soon!
Elizabeth and Marthame