I recently attended a wedding in Ramallah. A couple of us clergywomen were invited by a friend of ours from Gaza whose friend’s son was getting married, and it was such a gift to be able to share in the joy of the women gathered for the occasion.
I’m going to bore you briefly with some travel details. But stick with me, dear friends. I have a point… eventually.
Getting to Ramallah from Tiberias isn’t entirely straightforward, but it’s not terrible either. The journey to Jerusalem takes two to three hours depending on traffic, and there are two main routes: towards the coast via Tel Aviv or down through the Jordan Valley and the twisty road up to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea. The former has no checkpoints and the roads are high-speed motorways or toll roads most of the way; but some of the drivers are seriously psychopathic. Seriously. The latter is a smaller road, less well-maintained, curvy, and hot. It takes you into the West Bank, so you pass through a checkpoint as you enter the West Bank and then again as you enter Israel.
I take both roads, making my choice depending on how hot it is, whether I have the patience to be stuck behind a lorry for miles on the Jordan Valley road, or whether I have the courage to deal with the traffic and crazy drivers between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Unless it’s late at night or Shabbat and the motorway is empty, both can be pretty hellish, to be honest.
From Jerusalem, my friend and I decided to take the bus to Ramallah since neither of us know it well enough to drive. It was easy enough and very cheap — only about £1.50. But of course to get into Ramallah by bus, you have to cross through Qalandiya checkpoint. In my experience, going into the West Bank through a checkpoint has never been difficult. Often the soldiers don’t even look at you. Once or twice, I’ve been asked where I’m going. The bus joined the queue of traffic, drove through the checkpoint, around and through a maze-like section of the wall, to rejoin the road we had just been traveling on. What would have been a distance of about 100 metres had we been able to go straight, took nearly 20 minutes to wind through because of the separation barrier.
A taxi then took us from the bus to our hotel.
Coming out again was easier than I anticipated. Maybe because of the day of the week and the time of day, Qalandiya was particularly quiet. But it only took about five minutes of queuing before soldiers boarded the bus, checked our passports and the permits of the Palestinians, and waved us through. We boarded another bus which was also collecting the people who had walked through the checkpoint, some of them still repacking their bags and buckling their belts after going through a security queue more unpleasant than the worst airport security queue you can imagine (just do a quick Google video search for Qalandiya or Checkpoint 300 and you get a good idea of what these two busy checkpoints can be like).
To get back to Tiberias, I chose fast psychopathic drivers on a wide road over slow lorries on a hot narrow curvy road.
Now, the point of all that tedious description is to say this: I have a choice. I can choose which road to take. I can move with relative ease between Israel and the West Bank. I show my British passport when asked, say a couple of words in Hebrew, smile, and am ushered on my way.
But the friends we met at the wedding …
Well the week had started with attacks on Gaza after a rocket fired from Gaza exploded in one of the nearby Israeli towns. So we didn’t know if things might escalate or how the latest bout of violence might affect their border crossing. There was a chance we wouldn’t be going to the wedding at all if they were stopped.
Thankfully they got through without a problem. But they’re amongst the lucky ones. Because of their work, they have permits which allow them to travel, and they were attending a number of business meetings on the days around the wedding. Had they applied for a permit solely to see family or go to the wedding, travel could have been much more difficult and uncertain. Even so, I don’t know how it will be for them as they travel for their meetings, some of which are in Israel and some of which are in the West Bank. There are roads they can’t travel on, checkpoints they can’t cross, areas they can’t enter.
Even the location of the wedding itself was chosen because it would be easier for the guests from Gaza to attend. Travel to the bride’s hometown would have involved crossing at least another couple of checkpoints, and at each checkpoint, there’s always a chance of it being closed, or people getting turned back.
The wedding itself was a joyful, exuberant, loud, colourful affair, with lots of music and dancing. (Men and women were segregated, with the groom coming and going between the two parties, and apparently the men’s gathering is far more sedate than the women’s…) But as we discovered after, the joy so evident in the room was not just at the union taking place between bride and groom, but also at the reunions amongst guests from Gaza and family members and friends in the West Bank. Because of travel restrictions, some family members were even meeting for the first time.
Now, a lot could be said about The Situation, as we often call it here. A lot of ink has been spilled analysing it at every level from the local to the international.
But this is what I know:
On both sides of the wall, I have friends who long for safety and security for their loved ones.
On both sides of the wall, I hear stories of fear, grief, injustice, anger.
On both sides of the wall, I have heard propaganda, shallow interpretations of The Situation, and hate-filled rhetoric.
On both sides of the wall, I have heard nuanced criticism of all the governments together: of Israel, of the West Bank, of Gaza.
On both sides of the wall, I have met with people willing to ask the hard questions of themselves and to be prophetic voices within their own communities.
On both sides of the wall, I have felt my heart ache at the heartbreak endured by others.
As an international, I hold the privilege of choice: I am able to choose which side of the wall to be on.
And therefore I choose both.