It is late spring 1999. I am nearing the end of a year-long stay in Palestine with my two sons, age three and six, near the city of Jenin in the West Bank. Palestinians there are still living under Israeli occupation. The failure of the Oslo Accords to lead to two states living in peace side by side has led to frustration and disillusionment among Palestinians and Israelis alike. Tensions are mounting steadily as the occupation becomes increasingly normalized and Palestinians experience ongoing control over their lives. I want this story to end where both sides can live in dignity.
“Do you speak English?” I offer as I take my final steps toward the front of a long line of cars and trucks, the Israeli soldier gripping his M16 across his chest. My flowing black skirt and matching vest are blowing in the breeze, my creamy knit top reflecting the bright morning sun.
The soldier’s shoulders relax slightly as the M16 slides down his chest a few inches. His eyes soften. He can’t be much older than eighteen. He answers me matter-of-factly in perfect American English as if citing well-rehearsed lines from a school play, “The road is closed. You can’t get through.”
“What do you mean I can’t get through?”
“Just what I said. It’s closed.” He tightens the grip on his M16 as he regains his stiff soldierly composure. “Let me see your ID.”
I reach into my purse and hand him my passport.
He lets his M16 hang loosely for a moment. “Ah, you’re American,” he says. He returns my passport. His hands grip his M16. “We have shooting practice today. You’ll have to go back.”
“But there are two roads. One of them has to be open. I come by here every day. I know.” I am outside the city of Jenin past the Christian village of Zebabdeh on my way to the Arab American School where I am working as an educational consultant.
“Both are closed today. You’ll have to go around.”
My frustration is mounting. I check the time on my cell phone. It’s 9:50 a.m. “There is no ‘around’. This is the only way through.” I can see the school grounds in the distance and point. “I have to get over there to the Arab American School. Look, you can see it from here. I have a meeting in ten minutes.”
“Sorry, you can’t pass today.”
His familiar American English doesn’t match the intensity of the situation. I soften my brow and ask him casually, “So where are you from?”
I cling to this connection we share like a lifeline. I continue as if I am reconnecting with a long lost friend. “Really? My sister lives in California. What are you doing here?”
“I live here now.” He pauses. “And you?”
“I live here too with my children. My husband is from this area.”
“Yes,” I reply. He seems surprised, and his face hardens. I am one of them.
“Listen, I’m going to be late. You’ll have to open the road.” I have a meeting with the school director at 10:00 a.m. to talk about teacher reviews I have been preparing for end-of-year teacher evaluations.
He chuckles at my naiveté and tilts his head apologetically. His tone is friendly. “Sorry I can’t. You see them shooting down there. It’s not safe.”
Yes, they are practicing to shoot the people in the line of cars behind me, I think. I can hear the shooting in the background. Again I regain my composure. I block the sound of gunfire out of my mind, look past his olive green helmet and uniform and the M16 in his hands. It is just me and him. I loosen my arms, letting my hands fall open, palms facing upward.
“Come on, haven’t you ever had somewhere to be at a certain time? I need to get through. And so do all these other people. We all have somewhere we need to be.”
“Look, I know you can. You just need to call someone to let you open the road. There is no other way to get over there. There is no going around.”
He shifts his weight in his heavy steel-toed black boots, mulling my words over in his mind. Finally, he pulls out a walkie-talkie from his belt as he steps aside. I can hear him speaking in Hebrew. While he is on the walkie-talkie, another soldier comes over. They carry on a tense exchange, occasionally looking in my direction.
I stand there with my arms folded, waiting in the already hot morning sun. Am I wasting my time, pleading with a soldier? Isn’t he simply doing his job? What makes me think they will listen to me? Because I am an American, outside of the conflict? I glance back to my left at the growing line of cars creeping into the distance behind me. My eyes meet some of the drivers within view. Waiting is resistance. I give them a brief smile and turn back to the soldier. He puts down his walkie-talkie.
“Ok, you can pass.”
I don’t know what to think. Is he serious? Can I trust his words? Skeptical, I probe, “You’re going to open the road?”
“Yes, just for you.”
I look again at the long line of cars. The absurdity of the situation has my mind racing. My heart is pounding in my chest. I can’t accept that they only open the road for me. I reply slowly, adding weight to each word, “No, we all need to pass.” Fear now surges through my veins, the sweat prickling under my fitted silk shirt. What am I doing? This is my chance to pass, to get on with my day. But I don’t care about my meeting anymore. It is not about getting through.
He stands there for a moment, sensing that I am not going to back down, that it is no longer about the road. “One minute,” he offers as he raises his index finger and steps aside again. He returns to his walkie-talkie and has another exchange in Hebrew with the soldier next to him. The second soldier seems annoyed by my request.
The first soldier returns the walkie-talkie to his belt and takes a few steps toward me. “Ok, ok, we will open one of the roads.”
“For everyone?” I insist.
“Yes, yes, for everyone.” He sounds exasperated. “Now go get back in your car.”
I let my arms fall to my sides in relief. I can hardly believe it. They are actually going to open the road and let everyone pass. I look the soldier in the eye with gratitude. “Thank you.” I really mean it.
I make my way back to my car. As I pass the unsettled drivers, I carefully utter under my breath so each one can hear me, “Biddu yiftah it-tariq – He will open the road.” I see their brows soften at the prospect of getting through. I get back in my car, start it, and wait for the line to begin moving. The brake lights ahead of me go out. I put my car in drive. Moments later I reach the point where I had been standing minutes before. I give a final wave to the young soldier from California and smile as I pass him. He waves and smiles back.
As I proceed along the road, I look back at the long line of cars coming through, bumper to bumper, a cloud of dust trailing behind them. I am torn between feeling proud that I was able to convince the soldiers to open the road, and a deep sense of anguish knowing that if any of these drivers had tried to do what I did, they would be beaten, detained, or shot. Was I able to break through that barrier because I was a woman? An American? Both?
I arrive at the school by 10:30 a.m. Another day in Palestine.
Christa Bruhn is a writer, educator and culinary artist who has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East. Her passion for equity and social justice locally and globally has led her to explore numerous contexts where power and privilege are at play. She has a BA in International Studies and an MA in North African & Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is currently working on a memoir exploring intersections of culture in Palestine. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Encounter is an excerpt from her memoir.