Since Wednesday's bomb blast we are still banned by our Office from traveling to Tel Aviv or using any Israeli public transportation. Therefore, my only choice of spending my day off o Thursday was either to go Ramallah or Hebron. Strange as it may sound, to both of them I could get with Palestinian transport. Obviously I could have stayed in Jerusalem, but after all - I always feel a deep urge to do something. After Wednesday experiences, where Mohammed and I got caught up in Tel Aviv during the bomb blast and after we found ourselves stuck on the motorway in Ashdod way too close to rockets from Gaza, I decided to take it 'easy' and just go Ramallah. Ramallah is a stone's throw from Jerusalem. But distances, as we learn here, mean nothing for the Palestinian and Israeli twisted geography.
In Ramallah the atmosphere was of a celebration and the city was in a party mode. Clearly the ceasefire has been seen by many Palestinians as a victory or at least a particular way of 'talking back' to the experience of humiliation that many people face every day under Israeli occupation or blockade. Ramallah is crazy and I never quite get it - it's intense, it's messy and it bursts with energy. But also until you know where you are going it makes you feel like you are in a carousel of similar images of shops, coffee bars and food stalls just blurr so it's difficult to differentiate one street from another.
After 90 minutes of wandering I got a call from Mahmoud, my arabic teacher and decided to head back to Jerusalem for an arabic class.
I fall asleep on the #18 bus to the sounds of Mecca preyers broadcasted live on the bus. I woke up to the sounds of bullets. We were stuck just before Qalandia checkpoint next to the Wall with huge Arafat murals. Just in front of us there was a group of around 20 heavily armed soldiers clearly in the 'middle' of their action - shooting, running, screaming. As I looked back I saw a bunch of Palestinian youth throwing stones. Ah, so here I was, right in the middle of clashes in Qalandia in a first day of 'effective' ceasefire agreement.
My first thought was of a regret that I do not have a big camera. Than, people started leaving the bus - women would hold bits of their scarfs right next to their lips and noses. A light smell of teargas was up in the air. I decided to stay on the bus along few people. Not because I felt brave, mainly because I did not want to give the satisfaction to the soldiers of allowing them yet again to destroy my 'normal' routine. If they start shooting towards us, I will just hide behind the seat - I thought to myself and than I thought I was sick. Keryn called and just told me to take some good photos and call her back. We were taking later how surreal it was. But in a way, living in the occupied territories, you get used to a constant presence of army, police, guns and violence in our life that after a while you just choose to ignore it.
Because this is exactly what was happening in Qalandia - in front of us and on our right - there was a heavy exchange of hostilities between soldiers and teenage boys. On our left, people were selling duvets, pastries, newspapers and coffee - makers with their pop up coffee stalls were brewing coffee observing carefully what was going on. And we were stuck right in the middle of it, just because soldiers decided to put two big stones on the street to stop all traffic. And the traffic is just insane in this place.
And than, out of the sudden, our bus driver, a 30-something man with a long beard just stepped out of a bus and approached the soldiers as if they were not holding guns, as if they were not in the middle of rather scary action. And than, our bus driver (Palestinian of course!) started explaining to the soldiers in a flawless Hebrew : My job is to drive bus and to get these people home. You cannot stop all traffic just because of bunch of kids throwing stones. You cannot punish everyone, just because of some kids. Now please, let us drive - somebody on a bus was translating for me and we were all frozen in fear, respect and admiration. Suddenly, he was taking to them an equal man. Suddenly a Palestinian men would talk to bunch of Israeli soldiers without a slight element of fear. He completely disarmed them. Without a single bullet. He was no longer a victim of an unjust collective punishment. He was a free man reducing the soldiers to the silly executors of disproportional force.
It took us another 20 minutes to finally enter Qalandia checkpoint. It took us another 20 minutes to drive through Qalandia. Wow, your Hebrew is very good from what I could tell ... - I told him in admiration, which was also supposed to tell him that I was really impressed the way he talked to them. Do you think I am a bus driver?Well no, I am a microbiologist, I work with Jews, I work in hospital in West Jerusalem. But every afternoon I also have another job as a bus driver to sustain my family.
As we finally passed Qalandia checkpoint, we drove to a bus stop, where our driver quietly left the asking another man to replace him. He went on the side of the bus and started praying.
After few minutes he was back on the bus and we finally drove off to the preyers from Mecca on the bus TV. Sorry it took us so long today - he said when I was finally leaving. Your probably will not go to Ramallah ever again. It took us 2 hours 20 minutes to pass the 18 km distance between the two cities.
I went directly to a bar in West Jerusalem, to a place called Shraga just of New Gate. It took me 5 minutes walk to get to the place in which the whole #17 experiences sounded surreal to my Israeli friends, who run the place. Surreal, to the point where your realize people who you talk to do not imagine, do not realize. Five minutes which make the experiences of occupation completely unknown, unfamiliar, unrelated ...
Meanwhile, this is exactly how the 'back to normal' looks in the occupied territories. The ceasefire might be in effect, Gaza might have dropped from the international headlines, but the quiet, non - reported violence continues on the daily basis, being an integral part of experience of thousands of Palestinians. Everyday.
In these 'normalized' experience of occupation - shots at Qalandia are 'normal' in a strange way normal: a ritual exchange of 'love' between the IDF holding guns and Palestinian kids throwing stones. Rubber bullets and gas cisterns. Like loveletters flying between the parties that cannot get away from this hostile embrace.