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The shortest and quickest way by car from Ramallah to Jerusalem on January 17, 2009, required me to circumnavigate the Qalandia checkpoint, the largest checkpoint for Palestinians travelling between the two cities that hold most import to their daily life: one for business the other for religion. Qalandia ranks high on the list of most wretched experiences for any human, entailing waiting in lines of immovable traffic, being aggressively hawked cheap wares by ten-year old boys and playing bumper cars with impatient drivers as multiple lanes of traffic merge into a single-file line where cars are siphoned off one by one as Israeli guards shout out your car model allowing you to progress to the checking area of the checkpoint.
Dust, emanating from a nearby stone quarry, layers every visible inch of the concrete which surrounds Qalandia on three sides. Cars ramble over the pot-holed road whose lanes are demarcated by concrete barriers, the separation barrier towers towards the sky, its grey concrete graffitied with Banksy images, and the concrete guard towers stand stoically despite the pox-marks from the stones thrown by protesting Palestinian youth. I had the urge to wash my hands and face after I’d pass through Qalandia. It was the checkpoint of last resort. But I drove my work-issued white Chevy Malibu towards it that day on a mission to meet my parents who were staying a few days in Jerusalem while on a ten-day guided tour of the Holyland.
I had just departed the office. It wasn’t unusual for me to be working on a Saturday during Operation Cast Lead, a three-week Israeli military action against Gaza during the winter of 2008- 2009. It was the first of several operations that would take place with disturbing regularity in the years to come, always beginning by what seemed like some tit for tat between Israel and Hamas played out with war heads. I had been working sixty hour weeks since the Operation began, fielding calls from international donors, my staff in Gaza and private entities offering to donate food and other humanitarian needs for transport to Gaza. My job in Ramallah was to coordinate life-saving humanitarian assistance for a US-based international NGO and to prepare the documentation allowing this assistance to be purchased with US government funds and to pass Israeli security screening en route to enter Gaza for distribution to the most-needy.
The only unique detail of that Saturday were the widespread rumours that Israel was about to declare a unilateral ceasefire, ending three weeks of intense violence between the warring factions in which well over 1,000 people were killed. Israel considered the Operation a success and win, as did Hamas. What had been a quiet, funeral-like quality throughout the West Bank at that time would return to a normal pace of life, but not after a few clashes at the checkpoints where Palestinian youth would celebrate a ceasefire with protests and rock-throwing and the Israelis would celebrate by banning all Palestinians from entering Jerusalem and respond to protestors with tear gas.
I had sat for hours that day in an unheated conference room, taking notes as colleagues mapped out a distribution strategy. My 6-year old son played with the secretary in the adjoining room. I was eager to finish the meeting. As we wrapped up details, a Palestinian colleague from Jerusalem walked in and with a brusque wave of the hand and a slight sigh, declared the checkpoints as “clear” – an adjective used to mean a variety of things: light in traffic, perfunctory security checks and free from protests, rubber bullets, stone throwing and tear gas. I had been living in Ramallah for 5 months and still had a lot of trepidation about crossing through these security checks, even though most of my colleagues passed them each day on their way to and from work. I packed up my computer, grabbed my son and headed out on the 8-mile drive to Jerusalem.
The car I drove donned a yellow license plate, demarcating that the driver was somebody who had formal permission to travel on the web of roads in the West Bank open to either Israelis exclusively, to Palestinians exclusively, or to both. It also indicated that I had a right to drive that car into Israel. Palestinians who don’t have those right drive a white and green plated car.
My sunglasses were stuffed at the bottom of my purse which sat on the passenger seat beside me. I had been unable to find them when I left the office. I joked to my son that I carried around a Mary Poppins’s purse – it never failed to contain that one odd item needed in a parenting emergency of all sort, which made it impossible to find keys, tissue or sunglasses on a daily basis. I wore a thin winter coat over a cardigan, t-shirt and jeans, standard dress in a Middle Eastern winter where the indoors was usually colder than the outdoors. As I approached Qalandia, a group of a dozen youth who had congregated in front of a stack of tires moved out of the road to make way for me. I carefully meandered my Malibu around them, oblivious to the meaning of the crowd, the tires or the road void of other vehicular traffic. My son, overdressed for the warming afternoon, was secured into his booster seat in the backseat chatting about what he would say to grandma and grandpa when he saw them. The sky was clear blue, the clear that comes when rain has washed away the hazy ozone.
There was an itch. I blinked my eyes. No, it was my nose. That was an itch. But wait, it was a burn. No, the burn was in my eyes. Or was it a scratch? No, the scratch was in my throat.
Oh gosh, I couldn’t open my eyes. I felt a warmth emanate from my middle belly, up towards my heart, down towards my groin and quickly into the digits of my hands and feet. My shoulders relaxed downward. My mind shut out all distractions. I no longer saw the bright sun nor felt the lack of winter heat. I didn’t feel the bump of the car on the road below my legs. I didn’t smell the scent of place.
I guessed it was tear gas. But couldn’t understand how. The only imagine I had in my brain was of nebulous clouds of it being hosed onto protestors. I instructed my son to get to the floor. I said it twice in a hormone-induced calm. He unbuckled his seatbelt without a word and scrambled down behind the passenger side seat. I stopped the car. I told him to cover his face. He did as instructed, without a word. How unlike him to question my orders. My voice carried my logical thoughts forward from my brain before any nerve in my body could censor them.
I opened my eyes through the burning tears and saw five Israeli military jeeps with woven security grates covering their windows. I tried to make out through my half-opened eyes if they were coming towards me. I couldn’t say for sure. I made out a hazy outline of the tear gas cannons sitting atop one of the vehicles. Nothing was coming out of it, but I was clearly sitting amidst a cloud of recently-sprayed gas. I had two options.
Adrenaline throws everyone into slow motion movements according to most people’s recall, but beyond that each person’s reaction is individual. The rush of hormones lull me into a calm, calculated state. I never yell. I never scream. I never panic. Those reactions are saved for my more everyday mundane curveballs. In a crisis, I’m the person who you want to have around. I’m the person who will get you out alive and safe.
At that moment though I didn’t know which direction beckoned safety. My yellow plates could signal to the Israeli jeeps that I was headed to my intended direction, towards the checkpoint to Jerusalem. But if there was a protocol in such situations I was not familiar with it.
What if they took me for a menace and I was met with rubber bullets? I did not want to be like the young woman who had recently lost an eye at a protest.
I could head back in the direction I came from but that entailed its own challenges. First, I had to navigate my car into a u-turn and continue back into oncoming traffic since the road was divided by concrete barriers. And, I had to do that while half-sighted at best. Then, I had to make my way past the protestors in a way which would also signal to them that I meant no harm.
My son began to moan in a high-pitched voice. His throat was hurting. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. My mother’s instinct in hearing his pain counteracted the calm of the adrenaline’s chemicals. I thought only of his physical safety and more so, later, of his perception of safety. I had committed my life to living in service to that thin layer of being which holds uncertainty and security in balance. It’s where I found my self and joy. I wanted my son to retain a similar eagerness when he would chose his own vocation. Perceived insecurity breeds fear and immobility.
Turning back the way I approached Qalandia seemed the better option. At worst, I’d be pelted by the protestors’ pebbles which might crack a windshield but would do no bodily harm compared to the onslaught of a rubber bullet. Through my watery, half-opened eyes, with the method I had learned in high school driver’s education class, I checked my side and rearview mirrors and maneuvered the car into a 3-point turn. When my car was faced in the direction from which it hand come, I noticed that the protestors, who had gone out to flex their muscles as what they interpreted as their win of the Gaza operation, had returned to the center of the road and had set the tires on fire. Rubber smoke began to fill the air. Bandanas covered their mouth and noses. A detail I found odd only because I hadn’t noticed the paisley-spotted coverings when I had initially passed. The power of adrenaline.
I creeped the car towards the protestors, holding up the two-finger peace sign hoping that it translated across cultures. They seemed unbothered both by the tear gas and the black smoke rising from the tires. My gesture was well received with cheers as the youth parted to let me pass back towards Ramallah and into safety.
As Qalandia faded in my rearview mirror, I pulled over onto the unmarked shoulder. I pushed the gearstick into park, removed my seatbelt and turned to face the backseat. My hands raised my son from his fetal position on the floor.
He asked me what happened. The adrenaline fogged my everyday logic. When I didn’t answer, he repeated the question. I told him to be quiet, reassuring him that I would explain. I needed a few moments for the adrenaline to dissipate before the answer I was searching for would come for the forefront.
We passed the checkpoints weekly to go shopping in Jerusalem or to spend a day at the famous Biblical Zoo. Animal-watching was my son’s favorite pastime. I worried this incident would instill in him an intense phobia of the checkpoints. There was unnamable irony in the fact that I wasn’t worried about myself and I would eventually develop a psychosomatic eye tick that plagued me each time I approached a checkpoint during my six years to come in the region. I felt a need to provide him with an explanation that would not demonize either side of the conflict. I wanted him to remain open to understanding both sides of the conflict so that one day, in his adult years, he could research and analyze the conflict himself and come to his own conclusions. But I did not want to provide an answer to him which would miscommunicate an ignorance of the actual danger we had been him. He was too smart to swallow a rose-colored half-truth.
I began in the present, explaining to him that we were, at that exact moment, safe. I explained that one of my main roles as a mother was to keep him safe, that I took that responsibility seriously. I narrated the impact that tear gas has on the body. He cried a little. I remained sympathetic but stoic as my body reabsorbed the adrenaline and diluted back into my bloodstream. I dug the sunglasses out of the bottom of my purse to disguise the tears in my eyes now half emanating from my own emotions. We went home. We inhaled the juice of an onion, as we were instructed to by friends. We stripped our clothes, stood in our hot showers and let the dramatic events of the day wash away.
I am often asked by friends who have never travelled to Israel or Palestine if I felt safe while I was there. For the most part I did, because of what I refer to as the “Tear Gas Incident.” That day taught me the context-specific clues of danger: protestors, Israeli Army jeeps, burning tires. And in those slow-motion picture minutes, I learned that adrenaline gives me the super power of calm. In the eye of the storm I don’t freeze and I don’t panic. I act in the name of safety and care. I navigate conflict.