‘Don’t raise your voice — you’re not in Britain anymore’

Hamza Ali Shah

+972 Magazine  /  August 29, 2023

From the Jordan crossing to the Jerusalem checkpoint, my return to Palestine was marred by the daily humiliations of life under Israeli occupation.

For a long time, I had my heart set on returning to Palestine for the first time in a decade. While being born and raised in Britain, I treasured my Palestinian identity — keeping a keen eye on news coming out of Palestine, maintaining close contact with family back home, and trying to visit when possible. My mother also frequently travelled back to visit her family, whose forebears were originally from Jerusalem, but most of whom now reside in the occupied West Bank. But each time I tried to do so myself, a hapless logistical obstacle forced me to drop the idea.

That changed earlier this year when I received an invitation to speak at a conference in Jerusalem. Yet as the date crept closer, the unmatched excitement at the prospect of entering my homeland at long last was supplanted by a deluge of thoughts characterized by dread and uneasiness. Will I be detained or vigorously questioned by the Israeli authorities? What are the “right” answers to give to border officials that won’t provoke suspicion? How safe will I be travelling alone to the western side of Jerusalem, having never entered it previously? Do I have the resilience to witness the realities of occupation up close again?

Before even setting foot in Palestine, the travel process crystalizes the inferior status to which Palestinians are relegated. Israel’s stranglehold on Palestinian movement means that they are prohibited from having their own airport, and those with Palestinian IDs who are not residents inside Israel are denied access to Ben-Gurion Airport. As a result, I was forced to enter from Jordan via the King Hussein Bridge (also known as the Allenby Bridge), crossing multiple checkpoints manned by Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian Authority forces in the process.

Despite it having been more than a decade since I last went through the crossing, I still distinctly remembered how taxing the ordeal was, and prayed for a smoother encounter this time. No such thing transpired.

The degrading treatment Palestinians face on the Jordanian side of the border is well documented. And yet the onerous experience still paled in comparison to my treatment at the hands of the Israeli border security.

Particularly infuriating to witness was when Israeli security personnel randomly pulled an elderly and fragile Palestinian man for a forensic search. When another man became visibly indignant about the situation, a mother waiting in line with her two children advised him in Arabic: “No. Don’t. It’s not worth it. This is all done deliberately to get a reaction and give them an excuse to dehumanize us further.”

The words were spoken in the tone of someone lamentably accustomed to the intricacies of occupation and humiliation. Her advice was nevertheless heeded. “What threat could someone that old possibly pose?!” the man muttered quietly to himself.

I had to remember the Palestinian mother’s warning just moments later, when it was my turn to have my possessions searched. I watched in silence as the contents of my bag were abruptly poured out and searched repeatedly by multiple staff in the most deliberately prolonged and languid manner. “Just don’t react,” I kept telling myself.

‘Your life is more important’ 

Unfortunately, I failed to take my own advice days later at a different checkpoint. I was on my way to Jerusalem from the West Bank to attend the conference where I had been invited to present; my aunt had kindly offered to drive me there.

When, upon first arriving in the occupied territories, I had renewed my expired West Bank ID card, I was informed that travel beyond the 1967 borders was illegal unless I had a specific travel permit. So, at the Az-Za’yem checkpoint just outside Jerusalem, when our vehicle was stopped, I showed all the necessary documentation — including an official signed conference invitation and my British passport — to the armed Israeli soldiers.

They bluntly waved these away. “You’re not allowed to enter,” they said. The only important document to them was the green West Bank ID.

I tried countless times to explain that I had been invited for work purposes. It fell on deaf ears. I called the conference organizer, who had told me to contact them if I experienced any trouble crossing over. I thought that perhaps if they spoke to the security forces in Hebrew, it might make a difference; instead, the soldiers demanded I hang up the phone.

By this point, I was visibly agitated, my voice involuntarily increasing in volume. “You’re not entering, end of story,” one of the checkpoint guards told me sternly, tightening his grip on his weapon. “And don’t raise your voice — you’re not in Britain anymore.” My aunt in the driving seat of the vehicle looked at me in the mirror, conceding defeat.

As we headed back into the West Bank, my aunt’s words of counsel chillingly captured the hard reality of crossing an Israeli checkpoint as a Palestinian: “Your life is more important than any conference.” Indeed, at a time when extrajudicial killings and shootings of Palestinians have intensified, Israeli checkpoints have increasingly become death traps, adding to the arenas where Israeli forces have carte blanche to murder and maim.

My encounter at the hands of Israeli occupation forces was an eye opener, and yet I knew it was miniscule compared to what Palestinians living under permanent subjugation endure daily. The denial of entry into the city my grandparents hailed from, because I did not have “permission” to visit by an occupying power, was a metaphor for the land theft and colonial oppression that has been Israel’s modus operandi since its birth.

I did, nonetheless, end up attending the conference, having been snuck into Jerusalem by a relative. But I had to overcome ample barriers simply to attend, and while I was in Jerusalem I could not shake the unpleasant feeling of constantly looking over my shoulder, avoiding eye contact with any police or security forces — effectively being a stranger in my own country. It served as an unavoidable reminder: there can be no such thing as peace, freedom, and true liberation as long as the ethos and structures of apartheid exist.

‘The cost of giving up hope would be worse’ 

Once the conference concluded, I spent the remainder of my time in Palestine with my family in the small town of Al-Eizariya (Bethany) in the West Bank — where every second is a sample of the tragedy of the occupation.

Out of the window of my grandmother’s house, where I stayed for the duration of my visit, the view was obstructed by Israel’s separation wall, only a stone’s throw away. From certain heights inside the town, it is possible to see a distinct view of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the eastern side of Jerusalem. And yet for a sizable chunk of the town’s population, that view represents the closest thing to tangible access to the city.

“You live in London and you’ve prayed in Al-Aqsa more than me,” my uncle jokingly remarked. As the crow flies, it is only a few kilometers away. In the bleak reality of apartheid, it is wholly unreachable. 

As one begins to venture outside the town, the other aspects of Israel’s settler-colonial rule are equally unavoidable. Driving off, one is immediately greeted by the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. One of the largest settlements in the West Bank — all of which are illegal under international law — its buildings dominate the scenery, overlooking the surrounding Palestinian areas in what is illustrative of the asymmetry between their residents.

During a trip to Jericho, the city in which my late paternal grandmother’s home in Palestine was located, my aunt informed me as we passed Ma’ale Adumin that she had recently heard a rumour the Israeli authorities had granted Palestinians permission to visit some of the settlement’s green spaces. We scoffed at the insulting proposition: expropriating land, forcibly displacing entire communities, and then granting the indigenous population the luxury of temporary access.

Such deplorable circumstances became the norm for Palestinians long ago. For that reason, visiting my maternal grandfather’s grave in Al-Eizariya brought home an avalanche of solemn feelings. I had only ever met him in person twice, and yet the bond was always unshakeable.

“We’ll be back.” That’s what my grandfather’s mother told him, and it is what he always told me and my mother. “God willing, the next time you visit will be in a free Palestine,” he always said at the end of our video calls together. He dreamt of returning to his home in his beloved Jerusalem in a liberated country. Instead, his final breath was under occupation — a tale that is painstakingly familiar to Palestinians amid the never-ending Nakba.

Yet despite this unforgiving reality, every interaction with Palestinians in the various  communities I visited radiated a refreshing sense of resilience and strength. The daily life of torment, impediments, and humiliations designed to wear Palestinians down mentally and physically ostensibly failed to generate the desired outcomes. From falafel stands in Jericho to knafeh parlors in Ramallah, the feeling was unanimous: frustration but not hopelessness, pain but no surrender.

“You’ve seen the fatal cost of the occupation. It’s clear,” said a vendor in Al-Eizariya, as I drank my final coffee before heading towards the King Hussein Bridge to make my journey back to London. “But believe me when I say the cost of giving up hope would be worse. Worse than all of this.”

Hamza Ali Shah is a British-Palestinian political researcher and writer based in London