The bus screeched to a halt, its right wheels upon the raised platform that constituted the sidewalk of the checkpoint, a structure so ordinary that I originally mistook it for a toll barrier. Without a word, the majority of the passengers – girls in hijab, girls with bare heads and big crosses hanging from their necks, grown men, youngsters sporting Mohawks – stood up and dismounted. The boy sitting to my left tapped on my shoulder, pointed the aisle with his chin and made me understand that he needed to get off as well.
I looked around and, of the 90 or so that we were, only half a dozen remained: another couple of tourists, a lady, two men engrossed in Arab newspapers, and us. Even the driver had descended, trading the whooshing aircon for the unrelenting Bethlehem sun.
My eyes locked with those of the person across the aisle from me, a white-bearded, sunburnt man who would’ve made a passable Santa but who, instead, wore a Borussia cap and clutched the slightly old-fashioned German passport. “What do we do? Shall we get off as well?” he asked before I could say the same.
Temple mount checkpoint, Jerusalem
Behind us, Arab newspaper no. 1 lowered, revealing a man in wire-rimmed spectacles and button-down shirt, the universal uniform of a doctor, or an optician. A weary smile ran across his lips. “No, you don’t. Israelis and tourists don’t, only under 15s need to.” Then a pause.
I saw the rest of the bus – the under 15s, the Arabs – being corralled in a single line into a nondescript building with the ease that comes with practice. They were replaced on bus, now almost private in its emptiness, by two border guards.
They mustn’t have been older than 25, young enough not to have enough facial hair to grow a decent goatee, no matter how hard they tried. One – the one in front – was in green uniform, the other in black. Both had a badge with a smattering of Hebrew and the outline of a concrete outpost, one of those towers that pinpoint the Wall. Both were in body armour and the one in front held an M4 rifle with both hands. A few days in Jerusalem taught me that most off-duty soldiers kept their rifles at the ready, with two magazines in their belts but with none in the weapon itself, the bolt closed by a vividly-coloured clip linked, via a wire, to the trigger area. The boy in green had a magazine in the weapon and no green clip visible, only black and chrome where the paint had been worn off.
Thuggishly, they demanded my papers. They flickered through the passport, boy in black craning over his mate to check one of my stamps – yes, the elaborate Omanite one, next to the American visa – then they started the questions. A rapid inquisition on board a Merkavim bus outside Jerusalem, the eyes of boy in green firmly planted into mine, as he must’ve been drilled, and as I’ve been drilled as well by many an interrogation from senior partners at work. Satisfied with my replies, they only gave the briefest of glances to the other tourists’ documents – Germans are reliable, after all – and descended. Hot on their heels, a throng of under 15s and Arabs, our travel mates, returned.
Up until that day, at the checkpoint on the motorway between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, I had never had to sample with my hands how privileged I am for being the proprietor of a piece of paper, filigree and convoluted designs with “Repubblica Italiana” printed on it. And I never felt the shame that goes with it, but that day was different. Being able to sit in the cool of the air con made me feel nothing less than one of those white planters drinking quinine and gin from a terrace whilst coolies laboured before his eyes, with the exception that I felt bad about it.
View over East Jerusalem
As we pulled off, speeding away from the border post as if we were running away from a bad encounter, I looked at my seatmates: none of them seemed in the slightest bothered by what had happened; the most I could read into their eyes was a mild annoyance, the same feeling that Londoners felt every time a Tube train hit a red signal. For them, this (as beautifully explained by Jack Pitman-King) this was their normality.
We entered Jerusalem’s suburbs and got off in our neighbourhood, Baka’a. We stopped at a restaurant, ordered two monumental salads and endured the silent check from the flat-chested, kippah-wearing security guy who also happened to have a handgun snugly tucked in the back of his Roy Rogers. Dad droned on about Bethlehem and how nice it was to have finally been where Jesus was born, in those caves, but I wasn’t listening. Finally, I dropped the beer and said:
“It felt like entering fucking Jurassic Park”.
For a moment Dad thought he’d lost me, possibly to a heatstroke, but then he also realised, for that one was our second encounter with the Orwellian creature that goes by the name of Israel’s security service.
We had arrived in Jerusalem straight out of Ben Gurion in the proper immigrant way, on a sherut, me sandwiched between a dirt-covered glass pane and a Haredi Jew who’d put his Sandisk MP3 player so loud that even I could hear a man’s voice hammering through the Torah. The day was murky, the biggest sandstorm in months was blowing from the desert, but it didn’t take long to see it.
It started pretty tamely, with brick walls crowned with barbed wire, then escalated in the full shebang of look-outs, concrete towers, armoured vehicles of the kind that I only saw on reportages about Iraq, then helium balloons anchored to the ground, slung with all sort of cameras, then the full-fledged wall: tall concrete slabs, taller and meaner than those built by Khrushchev in Berlin. A few dirt tracks left the motorway, leading to miserable encampments of shacks with the occasional mule and flock of goats huddled together. Inevitably, the start of those tracks was marked with a bright red sign, in three languages, which read “This road leads to a Area “A” under Palestinian authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous for your lives and is against the Israeli law”.
Police car, West Bank.
Everything, from walls to cars to bus inspections, was meant to instil awe. Israel was flexing its muscles, deploying more young men with rifles than Range Rovers in Richmond, to tell its people that they were tough on security and to everyone else not to even try fucking with them. There wasn’t any innocent until proven guilty, no goodwill: you either followed the rules, or you were out.
True, one can argue that all this machismo, all this concrete, barbed wire, all this melange of sci-fi technology and old-fashioned brute force has a purpose, for it’s a country defending its citizens. In the 3 years before the completion of the first bit of the Wall, 118 attacks made 447 victims in Israel; from 2004 until now, only 26 happened, claiming an equal number of lives, and no attacks have been recorded since 2008 (source); make no mistakes, there is no doubt that, should the Wall magically disappear tomorrow, those numbers will again increase.
It’s just that, as I sat in the Baka’a café sipping my beer, I couldn’t help but feeling that I had driven through the big gate of Jurassic Park, those big gates with flames blazing on either pillar, safe in the knowledge that I was protected by sturdy fences from whatever lurked outside.