When Issa Ba’bis and Qamar Hamati walk past the library on the campus of Bethlehem University, they see a crater left by the impact of a rocket fired by Israeli soldiers more than a decade ago.
As if they really needed a reminder of the pain and suffering people from both Israel and Palestine have felt for the past half-century. The two sides are still at odds, and signs of the struggle rise up across the landscape.
Military checkpoints. A 20-foot-tall concrete border wall. Jewish settlements in the distance. Soldiers with automatic and semiautomatic weapons…everywhere.
Despite all of these reasons to lose hope, Issa and Qamar are striving to make the West Bank a better place to live for themselves and future generations of Palestinians. We drove past the border wall and armed guards to meet them on a cold and rainy day in Bethlehem. Being tourists, we snapped photos of soldiers’ guns and the red signs posted by the Israeli government warning Jewish Israelis to stay out of the West Bank because it is illegal and dangerous for them.
I was apprehensive about being in the West Bank until I sat down for a familiar lunch—meat, french fries, and broccoli—with Issa and Qamar. I was put at ease by their well-spoken English, welcoming smiles, and familiar clothing—blue jeans and winter jackets, much like we were dressed.
Issa donned a stocking cap against the cold, and his trimmed beard made him look like someone I might find on the Wabash campus. A recent graduate of Bethlehem University [BU], he majored in tourism and hotel management and mentioned he’d be running in a marathon for the freedom of movement of Palestinians on April 11.
Qamar is Jordanian, in her third year at BU, and is majoring in accounting. It was hard not to be intrigued by her dark eyes, long dark hair, and broad smile. She was more soft-spoken than Issa.
After initially struggling to pronounce their names, and Issa’s joke about our stereotypical Western ones, we settled in. We had heard that BU is 70% female, mentioned that 100 percent of Wabash students were men, and asked: “Why is BU predominantly female?”
The answer, like everything there, was multifaceted. Most families in the West Bank are very conservative; they are comfortable allowing their sons to go abroad to study, but are not as willing to allow their daughters to leave. A double standard, as Issa and Qamar pointed out, that they are trying to overcome. Issa told us how unfair it was that guys could go out to clubs but brothers and fathers punished daughters who went out and did the same things.
Then the conversation shifted to a more typical college topic—the cost of education. Issa said that a semester at BU costs a hefty US$900. Compared to Wabash’s $35,000 yearly tuition, that number seemed like nothing. But in a country with 25 percent unemployment and little infrastructure, $900 is a fortune. Take into account that nearly 45 percent of people from the ages of 20 to 24 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are jobless, and a college education hardly guarantees prosperity.
Even as we ate lunch we became hungrier for more information about life for Palestinians. We had seen dozens of checkpoints during our trip. What were these like for them?
We learned that our common experience ended there. Whereas we can freely travel the world with a United States passport, Issa and Qamar can seldom even drive 15 minutes into Jerusalem to find a job or worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Very few Palestinians have the coveted blue Palestinian ID that allows free access into and out of Jerusalem. Instead, most have green IDs that show their Palestinian citizenship and require special permission for travel into Israel.
Issa explained that if he and his family want to travel to Israel to worship on Easter or Christmas, they must apply for a special permit. Generally, the whole family does not receive said permission. Even when his father receives the permit, he might be harassed and not allowed through by the young and restless Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints.
After lunch we all pulled out our cellphones and exchanged contact information. We boarded our bus and scoured Facebook for their names and sent the much-anticipated friend requests that would allow us to stay linked in the future.
But on the way back to Jerusalem, one of our own students got a small taste of the Palestinian experience. At a checkpoint, our bus was stopped by an Israeli soldier and her bodyguard. They singled out Kalp Juthani ’15 because of his skin color and checked his passport before letting us through. Our guide, Habib, joked, “Israel is the only country where you will see soldiers with their own bodyguards,” and Kalp passed through without further incident. I doubt Issa and his family ever have it so easy.
The next day at Shabbat dinner in the Jewish household of our host, Ben, we heard similar stories about border crossings. Ben told us that the Israeli people racially profile. We were surprised to hear it put so bluntly: A blonde-haired man originally from Ohio had just condoned racial profiling?
“What else would you expect us to do?” he asked. “We all know someone who has been killed or who knows someone killed by a bombing at a cafe or diner by Palestinians.” We might try not to profile in America he said, but it is a way of life in Israel.
On back-to-back days we dined with kind people who seemed more like us, and each other, than different. Yet we all felt alarmed at the easy attitude toward racial profiling—and the tragic if understandable distrust we heard about and experienced. Two meals with new friends who showed us a side of a struggle we had never seen in a story we thought we knew.
While our class was in Israel, Hamas sent rockets into the southern part of Israel and Israel responded with a strike on 29 targets in the Gaza Strip. This was international news.
A Jordanian judge was shot and killed at a checkpoint between Israel and Jordan. That event proved fairly newsworthy.
But days later a death occurred that did not make the news at all. An 18-year-old Palestinian college student was shot by Israeli forces while herding his sheep in the West Bank. No one outside the West Bank heard about that, and certainly no one here knows the stories of Palestinians like Issa and Qamar. I know I didn’t.
We left Jerusalem Saturday night and in doing so we left Issa, Qamar, and Ben in our rearview mirror. I was ready to return home, but at a checkpoint on the way to the airport in Tel Aviv, our bus was forced to pull to the side. We waited in the dead of night as a soldier boarded our bus. We sat calmly and were not forced to exit the bus, but to our right a couple stood outside of their vehicle as six or seven soldiers checked every cavity of their car. We left before they did; I don’t know what happened to them.
After a few long flights we made it back to Indiana and I settled back into my routine. I had begun to forget about these people until, driving through the fields of central Indiana on the way to golf practice, I heard a song on the radio that reminded me of the same club mixes we’d heard in Israel and Palestine.
I thought of Issa’s voice, Qamar’s smile. I don’t want to forget their faces or the hope for peace they keep in spite of overwhelming odds. Their hope, and mine, is that the next generation of young Palestinians can receive an education and find ways to change the leadership and conditions in the West Bank through places like Bethlehem University.