We stood on a bridge covering a stream. We had followed David Mendelson, a Montreal native, raised in an ultra-Jewish household with Yiddish being his first language. He was a master of social connection with a PHD in socio-linguistics. His story is complex and interesting enough for a post of its own. Having challenged his parents’ religion by the age of thirteen, he quickly integrated himself into French-Canadian public school and floated into the Mohican (yes, they still exist) group by learning the language. From that point on, language has been his way into the various communities that he has found himself in, today being the Jewish and Arabic communities in Israel/Palestine. And that’s where our group of fifteen found ourselves, on a bridge covering a stream, in between Israel and Palestine.
David had led us to “more than friend” Raed, who was discussing issues and telling anecdotes. While the words he spoke were certainly captivating, the scene around us was what captivated me. Through our journeys in East Jerusalem (which again, are for another post) we had been stared at by just about everyone. We looked like tourists and acted like tourists. We probably smelled like tourists too. Being an “outsider” is a feeling that I’m not used to, as this was my first time overseas, and passing glances from strangers in school hallways don’t count, as I found out. Everyone we passed stopped to take a look at the Americans taking a look at the place they called home.
To understand the scene, you must first understand the situation. Barta’a is a town that has been split in half by the Green Line, the UN sanctioned 1948 border that distinguished Israel from Palestine. One half of the town is literally Israel, with citizens receiving Israeli citizenship and yellow Israeli license plates, while the other half is Palestinian territory, with white license plates and Palestinian citizenship. Quite a unique anomaly has occurred in the Palestinian section of Barta’a. The residents are West Bank Palestinian citizens, but cannot enter the West Bank, having been cut off by the Separation Wall. They also cannot enter Israel, due to lack of citizenship. So, they are effectively stuck in Barta’a, free to dabble in the Israeli portion of town as long as they’re not caught, but restricted from crossing into Israel. The bridge that we stood on was the Green Line, separating the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the same land.
We had lunch in the Israeli section of Barta’a after a long conversation about the implications of language, culture, and stereotypes in Israel/Palestine. The delicious food could not distract from the fact that we were strangers, and I certainly felt it. Amused children gathered around to watch us. The bolder ones even squeaked marhaba at us. Hi. But as we stood on that bridge, that Green Line, we were watched. Palestinian children gathered around us, curious, but most likely surprised by the tourists that rarely made it or even tried to make it to this part of Barta’a. They called their friends and played no more than five feet from us, pretending to be war heroes with their plastic guns. The children were ogling us, but we were the true spectators.
As we moved through the Palestinian Barta’a, it did not feel much different from the Israeli Barta’a. There were the same stores selling the same shoes, sodas and carpets. The children were all timid; the store owners were all set on selling us their stores. Without a prior knowledge of the situation, and without the differently colored license plates and different styles of homes and skin tones, one might walk through Barta’a and see a united town. But Barta’a is still a town very much plagued by its differences. Even if the town itself is immune to the restrictions which normally hamper Palestinian liberties, such as checkpoints and Israeli military, its people aren’t. As Raed told us, “A Palestinian mother told her daughter-in-law, ‘Here are four loaves, two whole and two broken. Don’t break the whole bread and don’t eat the broken bread.’” Watching the sun set on Barta’a, David embraced this paradox, stating that in thirty to forty years, if there were equal rights in Israel/Palestine, the Arabs in Israel would become the demographic majority in Israel and vote in an Arabic Prime Minister, creating a true democracy. It’s funny to contemplate these things standing on a bridge over a stream, with two feet in two different lands.