Coming Home

At passport control at Washington DC’s Dulles Airport, the border officer took one look at my children’s and my US passports and stamped us through with a smile. We were, after all, technically "home" and countries normally treat their citizens with dignity and respect. The ease with which I entered (and later exited) the United States was shocking to me, given the difficulty with which I enter and exit my own country each time I travel. But this simple act –” for me, entering my birthplace, America –” as opposed to my ancestral homeland Palestine –” epitomizes everything the Israeli occupation represents. And this, I find extremely disturbing.

The individual stories of Palestinians entering and leaving the country are harrowing to say the least. Israel finds excuse after excuse to turn people back at the border, take away Jerusalem IDs or hold people up for hours for no particular reason. Palestinian are allowed to enter or exit certain borders according to the color of their ID cards and there is no guarantee that Palestinians living abroad will be able to return to their homeland when if and when they decide.

The fact that I –” as a Palestinian-American –” can travel so freely and comfortably through Europe, the United States and basically anywhere else, but have the hardest time coming back to my own house, infuriates me to no end. The point, however, is not about me personally. Nor is it only about crossing borders. It is about Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians and the blind eye most of the world is turning towards it. Nowhere is this clearer than right here in Jerusalem, where Israel truly bears its teeth.

Assuming that Palestinians have access to Jerusalem in the first place – in my case, this is a precarious privilege –” once you’re in, you need to find a place to live. For Jerusalemites, it is an uphill battle at all times. Israel is squeezing Palestinians in Jerusalem into smaller and smaller quarters, taking over areas already heavily populated by Palestinians. Just the other day, the decades old Shepherd Hotel, home to Haj Amin Husseini, one of Jerusalem’s most prominent Palestinian figures, was razed to the ground by Israeli bulldozers. The hotel sits in the heart of Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah, one of the few affluent areas of Jerusalem not apprehended in the 1948 war. Still, Israelis cannot keep their hands off of it. For years, settler groups have taken over Palestinian houses there, literally throwing the inhabitants and their belongings out into the street.

Now the hotel has been reduced to rubble to make way for one of Irving Moskovitch’s projects in Arab Jerusalem, which is the construction of 20 Jewish only luxury homes. The move was met with condemnation by the European Union and even the United States not to mention the ire of the Palestinians. But the fact remains that on the ground, until these powers actually do something to stop the demolitions and take over, there is less and less room for the Palestinians. And this, we all know, is exactly what Israel wants.

It is all a vicious cycle that starts right at the beginning. When my kids were born, it took months to register them with the Israeli interior ministry, the authority that issues birth certificates. Because I am a West Banker, it took paper upon paper to prove we were living in Jerusalem before they gave the babies legal certificates of birth. I on the other hand, have yet to be granted a Jerusalem ID, forced to settle with an around-the-clock permit of residency to be renewed every 12 months.

If for any reason, my family should move out of Jerusalem, all of these permits and residency rights can go up in smoke. If we live outside the country, our right to reside in Jerusalem will also be jeopardized. Even in our own home, Israeli authorities or settler groups may try to put a hand on our house, or that of our neighbors, just like they have in so many other areas of Jerusalem (the Old City, Sheikh Jarrah and Wadi Joz to name a few). One could live freely in a foreign country for years only to find that upon returning to their country of origin, they are turned back at the border for not providing this or that paper or because they have been away for "too long."

In all of this, the Palestinian Authority (our government) has no say at all. At the Allenby Bridge, Palestinians are obliged to hand in their ID cards to Palestinian officials before and after crossing the border between Israel and Jordan. "Has anyone been returned by the Israelis or Jordanians?" they ask. The question is rhetorical because they are powerless to reverse a decision at either end. This, in turn, renders Palestinians powerless in the face of these two countries. And it drives home the painful point that we really don’t have a country to call our own.

Standing outside the White House last week, I couldn’t but draw parallels. Here I was, before the most powerful bastion of democracy (however flawed) in the world, one that I can also claim to be part of. But the luxury of being an "American" was short lived. After another courteous smile and swift stamp in my passport, I left the "home of the free" only to be harassed at the borders of my real home, the very occupied, still very un-independent Palestine. Once inside the borders, the anxiety of being home remained with me –” sending my children alone in a cab from the Israeli border crossing designated for east Jerusalem residents; traveling alone to the Qalandiya checkpoint to cross with my Jerusalem permit and meeting up with the kids on the other side; and finally checking my permit’s expiry date to see when I would have to set up another rendezvous with the Israeli interior ministry to make sure I was still allowed to sleep in my own bed, in my own house, and in my own city, Jerusalem.