Leaving

Getting ready to leave the West Bank to go overseas is a huge faff. The chances of being questioned and searched at the airport are high, which means that every last Arabic bus ticket must be found and thrown away, every last photo of Palestine uploaded into a dropbox and deleted from your camera. By the time I am finished everyone else has left the house to go to Friday demonstrations and I am alone.

I lock up the house and walk through the village for the last time. It’s midday, hot, and apart from the sound of the muezzins in full voice, the village has a chilled out Friday feeling. I’m wondering how I’m going to make the switch from village pace to London pace on Monday.

I get a taxi to the junction and we drive past the flying checkpoint that appeared at the entrance to Kifl Hares this morning, complete with smelly skunk tank, and past the sign warning: ‘This road leads to a Palestinian Village. The entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous.’ These signs can be seen all over the West Bank, sometimes adding ‘entrance is dangerous to your lives and against Israeli law.’

In fact, the people  most in danger in Palestinian villages are Palestinians themselves, but these signs reveal something about the way a culture of fear is encouraged among Israelis. A widespread Israeli and sometimes even international perception holds that Palestinians, or even Muslims and Arabs in general, are innately more violent than other people. But during my time here I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Palestinians are any more or less violent than anyone else, or that they harbour a special hatred towards Jews or Westerners – they just have rational objections to the theft of their land, the arbitrary arrest and detention of their children, and the US backing that supports this.

This area has been my home for the last few weeks. Even the watchtowers and soldiers have started to feel familiar. I look out at the elegant green hills, so calming and grounding, and wonder if it is these, along with the sense of community and the sunshine, which keeps the people here sane.

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I’m planning to tell airport security that I have been here on a religious pilgrimage, so when I get to Jerusalem I spend a few hours taking pictures of churches and religious sights. I even buy a Holy Land bookmark for added effect, and by the time I arrive at the airport I have an imaginary itinerary to account for my entire four weeks here. I’ll say I got to Tiberias, ate a dodgy falafel, and spent several days in bed with food poisoning – that will kill 3 or 4 days out of the 28. I also spent a lot of time here in church or reading on the beach  – another 10 days. I even devise a couple of imaginary friends, Maria and Sylvie, devout Christians who I travelled with to various holy places, and who have scribbled down their email addresses on the back of some tourist brochures.

Old City of Jerusalem in the morning light

Old City of Jerusalem in the morning light

In the event the questioning turns out to be rather half-hearted. I get extra questions and my suitcase is searched – this always happens to me, as I think it is standard for anyone who is travelling alone and has Arabic stamps in their passport. But the security man looks distracted as he asks me questions about my time in Egypt, as if he is just going through the routine. They ask to see some extra photo id, as my passport photo is nearly 10 years old, so I show them my driving licence, which is even older, and this seems to satisfy them. When my suitcase is searched they don’t even bother to take all my things out.

As I wander through the departures lounge trying find stuff to buy with my last 30 shekels, I start to feel emotional at the thought of returning somewhere where me, my family and friends are able to get on with our lives free from fear of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture.

My flight home involves a brief stop at the airport in Paris. It’s grey and raining. A woman queuing to board the London plane is reading the Daily Mail: ‘Diana Fund Hijacked By The Left’ panics the headline. On board the plane the pilot announces: ‘the weather in London is as awful as it is here.’ I arrive at Heathrow and walk straight through passport control and onto the tube. It’s good to be no longer foreign or illicit.  As I head home, I walk down streets where army jeeps never drive and past houses where soldiers never bang on the door at night to take anyone away.

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