Persecution at an Israeli Military Checkpoint
We approach the checkpoint leaving Hebron without much expectation of a problem. Tour buses only occasionally get stopped. But three Israeli soldiers pull us over, each of them barely out of their teens, if that. The one in charge is belligerent, angry. He demands our passports and orders Tony, our Palestinian driver out of the large van.
Our leader Bob Holmes hands over his passport and makes a joke, "I hope you like it." The soldier has no patience for humor. He mocks Bob, a man in his 70s, then asks, "Do you think I like this? Look at what I'm wearing! It's hot!" We agree, because what else can you do, and it's true.
By now Tony has descended from the driver's side, and the soldier starts yelling at him. Tony replies, and goes to open the back. Their voices go up, and the soldier begins to say one word over and over. Tony's face darkens and his response is angry. We learn later that the soldier was calling him a donkey. I look at the two other soldiers. They look uncomfortable, embarrassed even at their companion. But they say nothing.
Tony is ordered over to the side of the road with his hands behind his back. They make him sit on the rocky ground in the sun facing us. I can see the stress on his face, and I find myself gripping my seat, but he catches my eye and winks. I think, he must have done this dozens of times before - faced harassment and winked at his wife, his daughter, his sister to reassure them he is alright.
Bob exits the car, and politely engages the soldier, asking him what the problem could be. The soldier doesn't even try to find an excuse. "I don't like the way he talks to me." Tony tells us the soldier wanted him to open the bags at the back, but he had told the soldier to ask us since they were our bags. We offer to open them, but the bags are not, and never have been, the problem.
The problem is that Tony is Palestinian. His race is the problem. His existence is the problem. Although his family has lived in this land as far back as memory allows, he is not considered worthy of human consideration by people like this soldier.
One of the other soldiers calls their captain. I leave the van and go over to talk to him. He's from Nazareth, and I think truly unhappy about the way this episode is going. Bob has gone to talk to the aggressive soldier again, but to no avail. Tony is ordered up off the ground, but keeps his hands behind his back as he too argues his case. It doesn't matter because there is no case.
We wait, trying to make conversation with the soldiers and touch their human side. One of my companions offers them plums but they refuse. Tony is ordered back into the sun, but he refuses, a small act of defiance which the soldier must let go under our watchful eye. A half hour goes by and the captain arrives. Again Tony must stand in front of them with his hands behind his back. Bob tries to talk to the captain but he will not answer him. I talk to one of the other soldiers and find out he is only twenty. My daughter is twenty.
Tony has returned to us and urges me to talk to the captain. I approach but none of the soldiers will even make eye contact. They walk away, gather the nail studded chain they have laid across the road, and all of them depart with Tony's ID.
We are left on the side of the road, and Tony tells us it will be at least another hour before they return with his ID. They want to make him sweat, but he told them to take 8 hours if they want, he doesn't care. He has reached his limit for today. Earlier, as we walked through Hebron, he had already been detained and harassed. It's ongoing he says. They want the Palestinians to leave or die. He tells me he has watched soldiers hit his wife and children, and threaten them with guns. "Why?" he asks, "Why?" He talks in his broken English of the stress he faces every day, and clenches his fists to his chests to show the feeling it provokes. And he is just one of millions of Palestinians who face this every single day.
It is somewhat unusual to have a bunch of tourists stranded by the side of a highway in Hebron, and cars pause to ask what we are doing. One car stops and two Palestinian men get out. They are appreciative that we have come, and listen to what we are doing. One tells me that nothing we can do will resolve the situation here, that it's up to God, but still we must do it. And their act of solidarity puts their words into action. They take a few of us to pick up drinks for the group, even though they themselves cannot drink since this is Ramadan and they fast during daylight hours. They wait an hour with us, talking and making music on a flute one of my fellow travelers has bought. They talk to Tony, and help ground him in ways we cannot.
I sit on a rock by the road, looking out over the scrub brush toward the city and begin to journal. We are prepared to wait, all of us, as long as is necessary. After about an hour and fifteen minutes, a military vehicle pulls up in front of one of my companions and without a word hands her Tony's ID. The soldiers drive off before she can say anything. Tony's ordeal is over, but only for now. He may get stopped again before he reaches home. And tomorrow. And the day after that.
I wonder if it was like this in 1930s Germany when the Nazis persecuted the Jews? We have already seen graffiti today written by Zionist settlers in Hebron that proclaimed, "Gas the Arabs". The city is tense, with 520 Palestinian family businesses closed because of the occupation, soldiers on rooftops, and frequent harassment. The soldiers are there to protect the settlers, not the peace. Settlers throw refuse, excrement and eggs down on Palestinians in the Souk with impunity. They carry guns. They beat up Palestinians. But less than 0.3% face arrest.
I wonder where God is today. And then I remember Tony's wink, and the men who stood with us. I remember that Jesus was oppressed in an occupied land - this occupied land. I am rattled tonight, frustrated and upset. I can't imagine how Tony lives with this. But he is not alone. Wherever the poor are found, wherever the oppressed suffer, wherever violence threatens, the non-violent Christ will be there, offering solidarity, hope and love.