Palestine and the Cruelty of Permits
Paperwork as a tool for occupation
First, thank you for reading my last piece on #SaveSheikhJarrah and what is happening in Palestine right now. You have no idea how much it means to me to get your e-mails, see you reposting on Instagram to your friends and followers.
Since this newsletter is supposed to be musings on love and borders, I thought it might be a moment to share how I observed the ways that the Israeli occupation of Palestine control the freedom of movement of ordinary Palestinians.
After all, a real estate dispute between friendly neighbors shouldn’t affect the freedom of movement of an entire population that much. Right?
Palestine is the first place that I realized how much a passport shapes the life that you can lead. While I should have realized this much sooner, a combination of birthright citizenship in the United States and an American upbringing meant that it took a long time to understand the privilege a passport can bestow, and the way that Americans (and people of other largely western nations) are oblivious to the doors that it opens for them, and what life might be like if those doors transformed into prison walls instead.
For me it started in the airport. I had been told to lie through my teeth, not mention Palestine or Palestinians, make up a story about spending time with an Israeli friend in Israeli cities. Even though this is in and of itself a bit of erasure, I took the advice and came up with an alibi that could cover me from the crime of being interested in visiting Palestine and spending time with Palestinians. Of course, this is a lot easier for white people and I was almost immediately detained.
It was a true brown people room (as those rooms often are) and while I was eventually released (at least, that time), I couldn’t stop internalizing the shame they made me feel for speaking Arabic to a Palestinian man that I was detained with, or the suspicion for simply looking like I could be Middle Eastern. Later in life it made me think about the ways that international organizations are complicit in the occupation by playing its games, often not daring to fully bear witness as it might jeopardize their ability to work in the country.
But at that time my question was, if I felt this way as a racially ambiguous US citizen, what was this like for Palestinians?
As a journalist in Palestine, I met people who told me stories of Israeli Defense Force soldiers storming their homes, of Israeli settlers moving in next door. People who had been injured at protests, but kept going every Friday anyway because it is what they did—resisted the occupation. Women whose husbands and fiancés had been arrested for crimes they did not commit, and imprisoned in Israeli jails where they could not visit.
Teargas, during a demonstration in Nil’in. Source: Blunderbuss
I also made friends whose experiences did not fit as neatly into articles, but were just as visceral. While any foreigner visiting Israel or the occupied territories by in large has the right to travel throughout the country, most Palestinians living in the West Bank do not—instead they have to apply for permits to visit land that their ancestors likely cultivated, seas that it should be their right to swim in. Many had stories of being humiliated at checkpoints, on giving up even applying for permission to move when it felt like it was stacked against them.
What is more, many of the areas that they did live were being encroached on by settlers. It was easy to see where these were, always the most desirable plots of land, the ones that dotted hills and had vast, endless vistas. We used to picnic and play music late into the night in some of these places—to occupy it, if you will—and enjoy the natural scenery as long as it was that, and not a sprawling development that acted as a gated community whose illusion of protection depended on the criminalization of those who had once enjoyed the land.
Every story was a story of a homeland that was shrinking bit by bit, closing in around them. Papers and permits were weapons designed to limit their imagination, to crimp and curtail the life that they could lead, to make it nearly impossible to visit embassies to apply for visas to go abroad or visit land that they knew was rightfully theirs.
With this in mind, one element of the Al-Aqsa story that has been under-reported is the particular cruelness of the timing of the attack. It happened during the last Friday of the Holy Month of Ramadan, the holiest day of the holiest month for Muslims around the world. For Palestinians living in the West Bank, it is one of the few times that they can hope to get a permit to travel to Jerusalem, justifying it for religious reasons—though they shouldn’t have to “justify” it at all.
The Israeli authorities had already restricted travel permits only to people who were fully vaccinated—a decision which feels both understandable, and double sided as many countries have used the pandemic as an excuse to control their borders and Israel in particular lead the world in vaccinating Israeli citizens, but noticeably left out many Palestinians. However, those who were able to go were experiencing a special moment, a rare opportunity to pray near the spot where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended into Heaven.
That’s when the attacks happened.
For me, this feels uniquely cruel—and can only be described as an act of terror by the Israeli police forces in how calculated and deliberate the timing appears to be. While I have previously written about the absurdity of the language used to describe such attacks, perhaps here I want to write about how witnessing Israel’s violence during the time I spent in Palestine shaped my view of violence in the world. While Israel’s occupation tactics feel particularly harsh and hostile, perhaps due to their unapologetic and even proud acknowledgement of racism, they are neither new nor particularly original. Europeans invented settler colonialism when they came to the Americas (and elsewhere), and the US government proudly continued that legacy, creating laws and policies that forced even more Indigenous tribes off of their native land, starving them of the resources from the land they once lived on as they corralled them on paltry reservations. I don’t know nearly as much about these histories as I feel that I should, but one piece of knowledge that has always stuck out to me is that fry bread—thought as the “quintessential” piece of Native American cuisine—is not actually from Indigenous traditions, but all that could be made with US government rations, which have lead to diabetes and other diseases that can lead to death. It seems telling that fry bread is what is “Native American” rather than the unique foods of individual tribes from vastly different parts of the country.
It is not just the settler colonial movements of the past, either. Using words like “eviction” and “real estate dispute” makes me think of all of the ways that capitalist landlords and real estate moguls use paperwork to push people out of their homes, and make room for richer, often whiter and “more desirable” tenants. It’s a form of colonialism, expansion, manifest destiny and entitlement which is rooted in supremacy—White, Christian, Wealthy, and in the case of Israel, Jewish—which slowly (or sometimes even quickly) eviscerates communities with no regard to the roots they have built, or where they might go next.