Dispatch 7: Those Whacky Canadians

Separation Barrier, Bethlehem

Coming out of the West Bank at the putative birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I pass through the intimidating maze of concrete that is the Bethlehem checkpoint.

The checkpoints that dot the Separation Barrier between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are exacting places for locals. Most Israeli civilians aren't allowed to enter the Occupied Territories, and Palestinians can only enter Israel if they have the right paperwork. Most Palestinians are not allowed into Israel at all. And with frequent checkpoint closings, Palestinians who are supposedly allowed into Israel often can't get here.

The Separation Barrier has imposed considerable personal and economic hardship on Palestinians, separating families from each other, separating communities (in places, the Barrier runs right through the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods around Jerusalem), separating workers from their jobs, and separating farmers from their fields.

Meanwhile, the Barrier has also separated terrorists from Israelis, substantially reducing the number of Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Israeli buses, cafés, civilians, children, and teenagers like the late Daniel Wultz, a sixteen-year-old American tourist who succumbed to his wounds several weeks after the April 17 Tel Aviv bombing. (You can read articles about him, two of which I wrote, via the links on the main "Dispatches" page.)

So, like everything else here, the Barrier has at least two sides.

However, despite the Barrier's function of separating populations, the 50-foot journey through the Bethlehem checkpoint, from the Palestinian Authority to the state of Israel, is fairly easy for an American to make. I wave my passport, the soldiers glance at it, and I cross the border that lies between two enemies.

(Crossing the checkpoint is even easier if you're going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; the checkpoints are controlled by the Israelis, and they're worried about who's coming into Israel, not who's going into Palestine.)

Since I've just said Israelis aren't generally allowed to go to the West Bank, you're probably wondering what all those tens of thousands of Jewish settlers, who are always in the news, are doing there.

Well, they use roads in the West Bank that only Israelis (and a few Palestinians with special permits) can use, and they live in communities in the West Bank that only Israelis can live in. When driving on an Israeli road in the West Bank, you're technically on Israeli rather than Palestinian land, as long as you stay on that road; ditto if you're in an Israeli settlement there. Under international law (a vague and fuzzy authority indeed), these settlements are illegal; nations aren't allowed to build on and settle in occupied territory. One gathers that such prohibitions were written precisely because occupying powers have a tendency to settle down and move in, just as the Israelis have done.

Imagine life in Detroit, for example, if everyone got evicted from their lakefront property because the US had lost a war with Canada in 1967 (which was when Israel occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank), and the Canadians moved in, took over various neighborhoods, decided only Canadians could use certain roads, and denied building permits to Americans while building like crazy. And imagine how much attention those whacky Canadians, having decided to do all this, would pay to the United Nations flapping its wings and saying, "Er, hang on. I say. Should you really be doing that? Now see here, chaps, we have a resolution that forbids this behavior."

There are good reasons you really don't want to be on the losing end of a war.

When Israel sets its final borders, which the Kadima-led government has vowed it will do by 2010, some of the West Bank will become Israel. One of the reasons for this is that some of those West Bank settlements are by now big, permanent towns. The largest, Maale Adumin, now nearly thirty years old, is a substantial, shiny city of high-rises and is inhabited by tens of thousands of people. Realistically, that's not the sort of investment the Canadians are going to turn over to Detroit when determining a permanent boundary between Ontario and Michigan. Ergo the accusation that Israel is trying to seize portions of the West Bank when determining its final borders. It'll be a sort of "good parts version" of the border, from Israel's perspective.

The smaller, outlying Jewish settlements in the West Bank will be dismantled and abandoned by Israel, as were the settlements in Gaza last year. (And we all remember how smoothly that went.)

So, okay, imagine that some rather emphatic Canadians have built homes in downtown Detroit, in violation of international law. They live there in heavily armed communities, where the locals hate them and want them dead. Imagine these Canadians have chosen to bring their children to live in such conditions. Imagine they've moved there because some ancient texts claim that a deity promised downtown Detroit to ancient Canadians and their descendants.

Now imagine trying to reason with these people.

Yep, once Canada decided to start building in Detroit, its eventual withdrawal from the Motor City was bound to get pretty complicated.

*****

I've crossed the Barrier several times, at different checkpoints, while working on articles here. Since I was doing interviews, I had no time for sightseeing; but I had high hopes of going back to the West Bank on my own time later on, after finishing my journalism internship and before leaving Israel at the end of June. The whole area is thick with famous religious sites and shrines,  archaeological ruins, and ancient cities like Jericho, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Nablus. And the word I heard most during the brief afternoon I spent working in Bethlehem was, "Welcome!"

However, the violent years of the second intifada destroyed tourism in the West Bank. And now the empty P.A. treasury, the lack of infrastructure, the logistical problems created by the Separation Barrier, and the standoff between Israel (where the international airport is) and the P.A. since the election of Hamas earlier this year have all combined to keep tourism numbers very low in the West Bank. (Meanwhile, despite some optimistic building of seaside hotels in the 1990s, there is no tourism at all in Gaza.)

Unfortunately, though, the chances of my returning to the West Bank now seem slim.

*****

A standard tourist visa allows you to enter Israel for three months. I'm staying for four months. According to both my guidebooks, getting a standard visa extension at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior is "easy." And I figure that since I can show them my departure ticket, as well as evidence that I have sufficient funds for my additional month here, of course it should be easy.

Well, it would be easy if this were Canada, anyhow.

The Ministry's website doesn't mention anything about issuing visa extensions. It does, however, list four phone numbers. I call them all. Two ring without anyone ever answering. (I have long since learned that this is amazingly common at Israeli ministries and government offices.) The other two have recorded announcements, in Hebrew only (which I do not speak), and do not allow callers to leave a message or request assistance.

So I go in person to the Ministry of the Interior in downtown Jerusalem. They won't let me in. But a sign on the door—finally!—says they deal with visas here. You can only see them by appointment, and the sign lists a phone number (one I haven't seen before) that you must call to make such an appointment.

I phone the number. It's answered by a recorded announcement, in Hebrew only, and does not allow callers to leave a message or request assistance.

I keep phoning this number regularly for the next 2-3 weeks. I never get anything but this machine.

When consulting people who live here, I'm told that going to the Ministry of the Interior is a big mistake, I shouldn't do it. I should instead find a fixer who will, for a fee, take my passport and, through means of his own, come back with a new visa stamp in it.

Giving up my passport to an uncredentialed stranger so that he can acquire a new visa that I'll never be sure is actually legal... strikes me as a terrible idea.

Okay, if I'm going to be squeamish like that, I'm advised that the next-best course of action is to forget about it. Just go around Israel with an expired visa and hope I don't get caught.

This strikes me as an unrealistic suggestion in a country where I have only just recently had to show my underwear, once again, to several total strangers in a security check.

The final suggestion is that I go to Jordan or Egypt for a few days; on my way back into Israel, I'll get a new 3-month visa stamp in my passport. I look into this suggestion, but the least-expensive trip I can find, a 36-hour jaunt from Jerusalem to Jordan, where I'd have a chance to see Petra, the Nabatean "rose-red city half as old as time"... would cost me two weeks worth of living expenses.

I think this seems a little excessive compared to—oh, say—walking downtown to the Ministry again and asking for help.

Meanwhile, during the 2-3 weeks I've been repeatedly phoning the Ministry, my visa has finally expired. So now I set out for the Ministry on a hot, sewage-smelling morning in Jerusalem, determined not to come home without that "easy to get" visa extension.

Inside, the Ministry of the Interior has all the grace and decorative flair I normally associate with public bathrooms at bus stations. And it operates with all the clarity and efficiency of a cattle stampede. After being sent from room to room for a while by scowling civil servants who tell me I have no right to speak to them, I find the woman in charge of helping foreigners with their visa extensions.

From the moment I enter her office, she starts shouting at me. I don't know why. It can't be because she doesn't like my reasons for coming; she won't let me state what they are. As I keep trying, without success, to finish a sentence, my exasperation grows. But she's shouting so loudly at me, she can't even hear me asking her to let me finish what I'm saying.

As it happens, I have recently made a vow to myself that I will not let Jerusalemites drag me down to their level. I will not become a scowling, snarling, pushing, shouting, shoving, rude individual like the people I see all around me everyday in this city. (I'm always amazed at references to the "spiritual" atmosphere of Jerusalem. Unless you define the post-game riots at a soccer stadium as "enlightened," I am at a complete loss to understand what anyone see as spiritual about Jerusalem or its inhabitants.) I have promised myself that I will maintain my self-respect and treat people here with the civility that's appropriate between adults.

(This is apparently a socio-cultural difference. I have read and have been told, more than once, that many Israelis value direct, frank speaking and consider courtesy to be superficial and equivocating. Well, I, too, value direct, frank speaking. However, a key difference is that I believe that candor and courtesy are not mutually exclusive, and that being polite to and considerate of others is the obligation of any responsible adult or well-raised child, as well as a sign of self-respect. Consequently, I struggle with a deep sense of offense, even repugnance, at the common Israeli habits of interrupting me, snapping at me, shouting at me, pushing and shoving me, stepping on me or bumping into me without ever apologizing, and roughly elbowing me aside to enter elevators, buses, doorways, queues, and rooms before I do. I was also raised to believe that fights among couples, families, friends, and co-workers should be addressed in private rather than in public places, at high volume, in front of strangers, acquaintances, and subordinates. And I'm not too crazy about the way Jerusalemites would rather throw their garbage into someone's yard than look for a trash can. But I digress.)

Where was I? Oh, yes, being screamed at, for some reason, by the woman in charge of helping foreigners with their visa extensions.

Now, as I keep trying to explain my reasons for my visit to the civil servant who's screaming at me, I begin to realize why, everyday here, everywhere I go (including my flat), I hear Jerusalemites screaming at each other. Because once one person in the conversation chooses to scream non-stop at the top of his or her lungs, the other person can't carry on in a normal tone of voice as I am trying to do. The screamer can't hear you, you're no longer part of the debate if you're not willing to scream like a banshee, too. So I seem to be faced with a choice between screaming or leaving, since attempting to speak like an adult to this Ministry employee is no more effective than trying to reason with a rabid raccoon.

However, I try a third alternative. I wait. When she gets tired of screaming, I remain standing in her office. I make it clear I don't intend to leave. So she finally sends me next door.

Once I get into the next office, I realize—oops!—sending me here was her "third alternative." The woman in this office is a much louder screamer. Also less inhibited. Within moments, she exercises the classic Jerusalemite tactic on me, one that I see several times a day here. It's where an adult goes into full-tantrum-mode, exactly like a four-year-old child: screaming, wailing, banging on things, making threats, etc. (The woman who lives next door to me does this several evenings per week. And she's got stamina; she sometimes carries on for forty minutes this way.) 

I'm still struggling with deciding whether I want to give up on my vow to myself and just start shouting. This hesitation is my fatal weakness. She sees it, she knows she's got the advantage. She's also quite hefty, and it doesn't take her long to get up and physically throw me out the door.

As she's doing this, I think about hurting her. I think about it very seriously. But I really don't want to get arrested for assaulting an Israeli civil servant. I see that story ending badly for me.

So I leave the Ministry without a solution to my problem—indeed, without ever even having had the opportunity to explain my problem or ask for help.

And since I'm now (as recommended) walking round Israel with an expired passport stamp, I can't go back to the West Bank. Legally, Palestine is still an occupied territory rather than a separate country, so you don't get a passport stamp when you re-enter Israel—but they do check your passport. And the last thing I need is to get held at a West Bank checkpoint because I'm here on an expired visa.

With no idea how to solve this problem, my only plan at the moment is to do my best to avoid situations where I'd be required to show my passport. I will, of course, have to show it when I leave the country at the end of the month. At that point, I'll tell them I tried very, very hard to get a visa extension, I'm sorry I don't have one... but, to make up for this, if they'll let me out of their country right now, I promise never to stay this long again.

At any rate, I think Canadian border guards would agree to this.

Until next time,
Laura
Jerusalem
June 5, 2006

P.S. If any Israeli law enforcement, immigration officers, civil servants, or government officials should happen to read this, please get in touch—and tell me how to get a goddamn visa extension in this country.