Wishing Qalandiya Away

My eight-year old summed up her three "genie wishes" the other day in a way that made me want to cry and laugh all at once. The first wish, she said, was to have her grandfather cancer-free "forever". The second wish, she said, was that the "checkpoint" –” she was referring to the Qalandiya crossing between Ramallah and Jerusalem – would disappear, again "forever". Eight year olds tend to speak in absolute terms where "forever" is basically as long as she is around to remember it. The third wish was the only one with any hint of childish desires. "I wish we would all grow wings," she said very matter of fact. Satisfied, she looked at her older brother, who only had one very specific wish. "I wish I had loads of money."

The sentiments made me tear up, not only because I knew my baby girl had developed a sense of compassion (in this case for her grandfather) but also because I understood the injustice that invoked wish number two. In what kind of world do we live in where a little girl felt she needed to spend her second precious genie wish on ridding her and her family of a military checkpoint? I thought wishes at that age revolved around having a castle, finding a prince or at least having Rapunzel-like hair? Or at least, like her older brother, to "have loads of money."

But this is the hard reality we Palestinians find ourselves in today. My daughter –” or any other Palestinian child –” should not have to worry about crossing a checkpoint to get home or whether her mother’s permit will be renewed by the Israeli interior ministry. But these I realized, are tangible concerns for her, real fears that obviously take precedence over wishing for a castle or for her prince charming.

As the diplomatic wheel keeps spinning in place, it is hard not to think of the futility of the entire "peace process" while waiting in line at the checkpoint my daughter (and I) despise so much. It is not only a waste of time, an obstacle and a source of humiliation for Palestinians, but it is a strong political act of oppression Israel ensures is in place for the Palestinians to understand.

Take for example, the recent "scandal". Israeli authorities turned back three Palestinian firefighters scheduled to attend a ceremony to honor their participation in the firefighting efforts last week in Haifa. The ceremony, of course, had to be cancelled given that the guests of honor were not allowed to attend. Israeli army sources said it was a "bureaucratic mistake" that the permits were not issued, claiming work was underway to secure the men’s permits as soon as possible.

Talk about humiliation. These are men who risked their lives to save the trees of Al Carmel, to "fight the good fight" alongside Israeli firefighters for the sake of the environment. To be turned back at a checkpoint because their names were not on the "list" of those allowed in is beyond horrendous. Israel had no problem letting them enter when it wanted the Palestinian Authority’s help in killing the blaze. Now that it is time to honor the men, the system of segregation is firmly back in place.

But back to the wishes of babes. It breaks my heart to know that our children are forced to deal with realities far older and far too harsh for their little bodies and precious souls. On a particularly bad day at Qalandiya, we had to walk half the distance to the checkpoint because the traffic was so backed up it would have taken us triple the time if we stayed in the car. Once inside the corrugated-iron covered checkpoint with its turnstiles and bulletproof windows there was even more to come. We waited and waited and waited as the soldiers inside made women take off their shoes and men their belts and jackets in the biting cold weather because they "beeped" through the metal detector. The soldier would bark orders through a microphone, then wait a few minutes before opening up the turnstile again for the next three "checkpoint-goers" and bark more orders. By the time my kids and I finally made it up to the window, we were all exhausted, frustrated and frankly ticked off at a system that allowed such oppression.

"Are these your kids?" the young pimple-faced soldier who barely looked out of her teens yelled at me.

"Yes," I answered curtly, not even wanting to make eye conduct. Like she didn’t already know.

"Show me their ‘koushan’," she spat. Their birth certificates. I keep a copy of them with me at all times in the event these absurd moments arise. I stuck the birth certificates to the window so the child-soldier could ensure that I was not smuggling children who were –” God forbid –” not my own or even worse, who were born in the West Bank, into Jerusalem. When she was finally satisfied, she allowed us through with a dismissive wave of the hand, like someone shooing away a fly. As we crossed the second turnstile back into civilization I realized that the only way to survive this on a daily basis is to rise above. This is not personal and it will not bring me down.

I can say that to myself but I cannot expect this same mature resolve from my children. For them, the checkpoint and Israel’s system in place means that mommy can’t drive a car in Jerusalem, that she is late from work every day because of the checkpoint and that in order to get home from Ramallah, this is a necessary evil that we cannot circumvent.

When I think of it like that, it is no wonder my little girl decided it was worth to ask her imaginary genie to eliminate the Qalandiya checkpoint. It may not be your normal eight year old girl’s wish, but my daughter hardly lives in a normal eight year’s old world. If I had a genie, I would surely have wished the same thing.