Checkpoints and Guns and Walls…Oh My!

I’ve never been in an occupied territory, at least not knowingly. I’ve heard stories about apartheid in South Africa. I’ve seen images from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. I’ve studied slavery and heard the stories passed down from one generation to the next about what it meant to be considered less than. But I’ve never experienced occupation and restriction of movement as a personal reality. Today my story changed.

I arrived first to Tel Aviv. I had about a two hour wait for the rest of the group to arrive and spent time people watching. It’s always interesting being in airports around the world. Aside from the languages spoken and bathrooms (more on the second topic later), one airport looks like any other. I didn’t feel like I was in Israel, though I’m not sure what that was supposed to feel like.

The group’s plan arrived at 12:39 pm but it would be another two hours before I actually saw them. I started to get worried but just sat and people watched as the minutes passed by. Finally, I saw a few familiar faces come out of customs and I went over to greet them. They explained that one of our group members was being detained by Israeli security because of his last name, which happened to be Arabic. Our group leader had stayed behind with him and it would be another hour before they emerged from the interrogation room. All was well, but there was a sense that group recognized that this journey was going to a difficult one.

We finally loaded our bus, met our driver and were on our way from Tel Aviv to the Lutheran World Federation Guesthouse, which is located on the Mount of Olives. Technically, the guesthouse is in East Jerusalem. The trip from the airport to our guesthouse put everything into perspective.

At first glance, the road that we took didn’t look different from any other road and scenery that one would find in the western United States. I even commented that much of the landscape reminded me of my home state of Texas. As we continued along our route, I began to notice things. The road didn’t have regular on and off ramps. Access to it was very limited. The closer we got to Jerusalem, the more fences I saw. I’m talking barbed wire fences that seemed to be guarding the road. I noticed differences in the houses. I was told that the ones that looked nicer and were finished were part of Israeli settlements. The ones that looked older and had black water reservoirs on the roofs were Palestinian villages.

We went through our first checkpoint and were promptly pulled over by Israeli police. They boarded our bus and asked to see our passports and visas. One by one they reviewed our documents and looked at each of us. The most disconcerting thing about this encounter was that the police had machine guns. As I sat in my seat, I could only stare at the gun and wonder, “Is the safety on?”

After about 30 minutes, we were able to pass through the  checkpoint and continue on to the guesthouse. Once we arrived and were settled in, we took a tour around the campus, which included the Augusta Victoria hospital which is a premier Palestinian medical facility supported by the Lutheran World Federation. We ended our time at this hillside chapel overlooking the Jordan Valley. Talk about breathtaking….

As we reflected on our day, our group leader Pastor Ray read the story of the Ascension from the bible. This was significant as we are staying on the Mt. of Olives, in a place that is said to be where Jesus ascended from. It was a holy moment, one that reminded me that this trip is about so much more than I could have ever imagined.

As the text concluded, our attention was drawn to the view in front of us. From our vantage point, we had a clear view of the West Bank, Palestinian land that is slowly being taken over by an Israeli settlement. And from high on a hill, I got my first view of the wall… and I got chills. Just seeing the structure that separated the communities and wound its way around the settlement and through the land was overwhelming.

I am in an occupied land. One that has a complex history. One that is keeping the people apart. Oh my…

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