Fear and Loathing in Qalandiya

Before today, I never imagined I would be quite so relieved to not understand Arabic.

That’s because today, I visited a small portion of the West Bank with my wife and infant son courtesy of the lovely folks at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. I’ve interned at T’ruah in the past, back in the States. But this semester I’m in Israel – and was excited to connect with the work they do here. Today was a tour of the West Bank with an eye toward understanding the daily life of Israelis and Palestinians who live here – one of our destinations was the checkpoint at Qalandiya.

Qalandiya is the largest crossing in the Separation Fence near Jerusalem. Something like twenty thousand Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem pass through Qalandiya each day – numbers so great that queues to pass through on foot often begin at 3 or 4 am.

I’d heard of Qalandiya before – mostly from Palestinians who talked about it in the sort of fusion of fear and anger that devoted Tolkienites might discuss Mordor. It’s surely achieved a semi-legendary status among those for whom it is a daily experience, and I was conflicted about the possibility of seeing it up close.

During our stop at Qalandiya today my wife and I got briefly separated from the rest of the group because we had to stay on the bus for a few minutes to change our son’s diaper. In the walk through the parking lot of the pedestrian crossing we were harassed, followed, spit-on, and screamed at. The emotions which these Palestinians felt towards us were clearly complex – there was anger, there was resentment, and there was hatred. We were the enemy, we were the ones responsible for the death of the young man whose face was plastered across countless posters in Qalandiya – a martyr, killed in a clash with the IDF and now depicted holding a weapon and Photoshopped over an image of Al Quds, Jerusalem.

There is lots of information out there on the different problems that have arisen in Qalandiya – and if you want some facts, look here. But the experience of Qalandiya for the Palestinians who endure it and the experience of it that I had briefly today are much more than facts. Commentators on ‘The Conflict’ (apparently the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has earned a definite article) tend to be overly concerned with facts and figures – and for good reason. The ability to actually quantify the situation, especially in the West Bank, continues to elude us – and even a task as simple as producing a map creates an image resembling more gorgonzola than geography. Perforated by settlements and traced by roads and multicolor lines, any map of the West Bank ultimately fails to do what a map is most meant to – convey information.

Well, if data fails us, then perhaps the best way to receive information about the state of things here is through the senses. Seeing the Separation Fence cut a swath of countryside, smelling the stench of sewage that has been left untreated because neither Israeli administration nor PA administration want to deal with it, hearing the groans of all those people waiting in line, after line, after line. These are definitely things which I have found as valuable inputs in assessing the conflict. The palpable feeling of security which one can feel in Jerusalem post-Separation Fence, the hum of tanks patrolling the borders of a country which could be crossed by modern war-machinery in minutes, and the lighthearted banter of Israeli soldiers more at ease than they have been in a long time – all these contribute to one’s perception of the conflict.

However, the input I received today, the information which helps form my opinion of the conflict, was not strictly that of the senses. Definitely I saw the dilapidated condition of Qalandiya, saw the queues that resemble cattle pens more than anything else, heard the heckling, smelled the exhaust from so many cars waiting to pass through a gate. All of that sensory information was still present – but layered on top of it and compounded with it were the emotions that I felt and that others felt towards me – anger and fear.

As John Kerry works for peace, as the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority work for peace, and as I work for peace in my own small ways – the swiss-cheese maps and endless haggling of borders will all eventually give way to that omnipresent superstructure that lies beneath the conflict itself – anger and fear. Until we can replace the effects of anger and fear with those of forgiveness and trust, no meaningful peace can really occur. That may very well mean that peace is much farther from us than we like to think – or perhaps much closer. Regardless of its feasibility, we have to recognize that there are layers to this conflict, that our facts and figures are the most superficial, and below them is our experience and our sensory perception of the nature of the conflict – but beneath both of those is emotion, emotion that is more powerful and more dangerous than any internationally-drawn border or territorial concession. A man on our trip at one point said, “The feeling and the tension and the hurt on both sides is so deep at this point that we are never going to be able to just agree to a map and then grab a beer and go hang out at the beach together afterwards. But at some point, who knows?”

It is emotion that must eventually be used to make a lasting peace, it is emotion that I have experienced as the single strongest factor in people’s opinions of the conflict, and it was emotion that inspired words of hate and disgust towards my family and I – words that made me grateful, at least for a day, to not understand Arabic.

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4 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Qalandiya

  1. Adam,
    First, I would like to thank you for sharing your experience. Those of us who have not had the opportunity to travel to “The Conflict” region appreciate those that share the real life experiences.
    My question about your experience has to do with your reflection on the palpable emotions you experienced. You expressed relief that you could not understand the Arabic word that were being spat at you, and I wonder what would have been different had you understood? One possible solution to bridge building is forming significant relationships. By building those relationships we put faces on the ‘enemy’ and they can actually no longer be an unknown adversary. So had you had the opportunity to approach those individuals, shake their hands, and offer to buy them a beverage while waiting in that line, what possible difference could that have made?

  2. I agree with Ellie that one needs to put a human face onto the other, and most importantly, try to wear a human face. Adam, what do you think might have happened if you smiled at those Palestinians who were angry at you and whom you feared? A smile would have soothed you and perhaps done magic at the other side. I would have helped if you said something like “I am sorry you are suffering” while you smiled at them, even though they might not have understood English; they would definitely understand your emotional expressions.

  3. Dina and Ellie,

    Thanks for your comments and your perspectives. I did make an effort to surpass my own feelings of fear and defensiveness and smile and respond (we were speaking Hebrew) with the men harassing us. Unfortunately, I fear that although often such gestures can often do a lot of good, they can also appear as condescending and insincere, especially when performed by someone who is in the indisputable position of power in a biased or unfair hierarchical system.

    I like to think that such small gestures do help, and I honestly believe that they do – but I also feel that often times, people will use their own experiences and justify things by saying, “Well I was nice! That matters!” to forget about the larger problems of structural inequity. My wife and I both smiled at and greeted the men who then began to follow us, but I don’t think the take-away from that experience was the smile: I think it was the fact that there is hurt, anger, and frustration and those are the things that need to be addressed on a larger, structural system. If only it were that easy.

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