Last Christmas Day I visited Bethlehem with some friends from France.  It’s illegal for Israeli citizens (i.e. me) to visit Area A of the West Bank, but fortunately I’m first and foremost American.  I shed my Israeli identity for a day, left my Hebrew at home, and celebrated Christ’s birth on location. (Yes, I’m Jewish, but hey, Jesus was a Jew, and Christmas is fun.)

christmas tree

The first half of our day was full of typical touristic merriment.  We bought Santa hats, olive-wood products and aromatic coffee, sang carols and toured the Nativity Church. The locals later told us that this holiday season was rather bleak compared to previous years, which I suppose isn’t surprising.

After visiting most of the main attractions in the city center, we decided to go see the wall that separates Israel and Palestine.  It was built by Israel in order to protect Israelis from the countless terror attacks that killed scores during the Second Intifada. Palestinians live on both sides of the wall, in Bethlehem and in East Jerusalem. We were almost there when, all of a sudden –

Part One: Tear Gas

My eyes started to sting and tears streamed down my face. At first I didn’t understand what was happening, and almost rubbed my eyes in an attempt to get rid of the pain. My throat was on fire and I began coughing asthmatically.  Should I breathe into my scarf? Maybe that’s why they all wear keffiyehs on their faces, I thought humorously. I tried that but it didn’t help.  I smelled gunfire and heard shots, more than I’ve heard all at once since I got released from the army two months ago.

To our right was a billowing cloud of gas. Within it I could make out a crowd of young men, who I assumed were out demonstrating and causing mayhem. In the sky above them bullets rained down, shot by the army to scare and scatter the crowd.  We started running, pounding on every door we saw.  Finally we found an open one and stormed in, coughing and crying, red-faced and numb with shock.

We found ourselves in a pita factory. One man was running the machine that spewed out warm bread, and another packed them all into bags of eight.  They ushered us in, asked if we needed water and brought us rolls of pink toilet paper to dry our faces with.

“Thank you so much! How do you deal with this?” We asked.

They were unfazed. Later we learned that this is a weekly occurrence – post-prayer protests and clashes with the armed forces near the separation wall are a Friday afternoon tradition.

We sat down, finished coughing and waited for the effects of the spray to subside. Every couple of minutes one of the bakers stuck his head out the window to check the air quality.   After some time had passed he said “it’s clear,” and we got up to leave.  “Wait, wait,” they stopped us, and handed us each a pita for the way.

“Have a good day” They said with a smile.

“You too!”

Part Two: The Soldier(s) on the Bus

At around five o’clock we boarded the 231 bus back to Jerusalem. I found a seat near the back.  The ride into the West Bank that morning had taken barely half an hour, and there were no stops, but entering Israel I knew there’d be a checkpoint. Sure enough, fifteen minutes into the drive the bus stopped. Onto it stepped a comely young woman. She was probably nineteen or twenty years old, and clad in the same olive-colored uniform I’d been wearing every day for the past two years.

Checkpoint

Her waist-length raven hair was in a braid (army dress code: all hair must be up at all times, no more than one braid and no pigtails), and she wore two silver rings on her right hand (army dress code: a female soldier may wear up to two rings, one bracelet and a necklace whose pendant is no bigger than a half-shekel coin.)

On her torso was a lumpy, heavy green vest (I know it’s heavy because I’ve had to run in it on several occasions), and lying rigidly along her side was an M-16 gun, the same gun I learned to disassemble and reassemble with my eyes closed during basic training, the gun that left black and blue bruises on my hip during those long hours of guard duty.

Two-to-three year military service is compulsory in Israel.  I know she hasn’t seen her family in a week, and won’t see them until next weekend. This is undoubtedly the umpteenth bus she’s checked today. Each time she boards one she probably clenches her stomach in fear of getting stabbed. I feel for her and admire her bravery.

Tension replaced the chatter that had filled the bus up to that point. Head-covered women with children, young and elderly Palestinian men, tourists from all corners of the world, and I, an Israeli under cover, were all at the mercy of this beautiful young soldier. She started going through us one by one, checking permits, ID’s and passports meticulously. In this chaotic time when Israeli civilians are victims of daily stabbing attacks, her job is not to be taken lightly.

It was my turn. For a second, I was tempted to swipe out my army release card instead of my American passport, out of anger and spite. I was angry at the daily humiliation of the people sitting around me, who, like me, had probably spent their afternoon choking on tear gas and whiffing gunfire.  I was angry, because in Bethlehem shawarma costs twelve shekels (compared to twenty-five in Tel Aviv), in part because of how the occupation restricts the economy: some of these people need permits just to get to work each morning. I wanted to spite this young woman who was in no way at fault: who was, in many respects, just like me.

I took out my American passport and handed it to her silently.

“Where is your visa?” She asked.

“I just got this one reissued here, I need to take care of it.” I calmly stated my pre-prepared lie.

“You need to take care of it.”

“I know, I know. I will.”

That night I went to bed in my rented Tel Aviv apartment, and fell asleep reflecting on the day I’d had.

The soldier on the bus went to bed on base, in a cramped, fluorescent-lit room with seven other girls.

The two pita bakers went to bed in an occupied land, citizens of nowhere, ready to face another routine day.

And the protesting Palestinian teenagers?  I assume they went to bed with revolutionary spirits and nothing to lose.  Next Friday they’ll once again march out towards the wall to fight for their futures.

Meanwhile, the young soldier girl will trace another X on the days-till-I-get-released chart hanging above her cold, steel bed, counting down the days until her own freedom.