For photos relating to this report, see
http://community.webshots.com/album/552434280awoKqs. Most of the photos are
July 21, 2006
Najah knocks on the bedroom door. It’s time for the three of us to wake up.
She’s probably slept for two hours at most, we’ve slept for about three.
She’s dressed and ready to go, ready to begin her daily commute from
Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem to Jerusalem. A distance of six miles
becomes immeasurable. I am reminded of dozens of West Bank Palestinian
friends who have told me that we in the United States live closer to
Jerusalem than they do.
Najah has worked at an old age home in West Jerusalem for thirteen years.
The first seven years she was able to reach work with little difficulty.
Then the second Intifada came, and with it came checkpoints, roadblocks, and
a strengthening and enforcement of the system of permits and ID cards. So
she began to leave earlier for work. Then came the Wall, first in little
sections around Bethlehem, and now completed. Then sections of the Wall
east of Jerusalem. And now she’s left with one opening in the Wall that is
not yet complete. She says when it is complete she’ll find new ways to get
to work, that it just may get even more difficult and expensive. I can’t
imagine it getting much more difficult than the four hours of driving and
walking that she does each day, but a lot of things here are unimaginable
until they happen.
Najah usually leaves for work around 3:00 am, to arrive by 7:00 or 8:00.
Because we are accompanying her, we leave instead at 2:00, because the first
car we take needs to return to pick up the rest of the women Najah usually
We walk out the door into the night, and get in the taxi that is waiting for
us. We drive out of Dheisheh, out of Bethlehem, through a few more villages
and then a massive valley, the circuitous route that West Bank Palestinians
must take to go anywhere north these days, since they are not allowed in any
part of Jerusalem, east or west.
We arrive at “Container” checkpoint. One large truck full of goods is
stopped in front of us. We don’t see any soldiers. They’re probably
sleeping, we decide. We sit and wait.
A number of shared taxis drive through from the other side of the
checkpoint. It seems the soldiers have waved them forward. The truck in
front of us goes through and we do too. The soldiers are inside a small
building, laughing with each other. They barely glance our way as we drive
We arrive at our first destination, the taxi drops us on the street and
turns around to go back for the other women. Several vans are parked on the
side of the road, waiting to fill up and then veer off the road onto an
agricultural path through the village’s olive groves. According to Israel,
this Palestinian village is half in the West Bank and half in Jerusalem.
A few drivers are hanging around. Most workers have not arrived yet. We
sit and wait.
A car full of women and men arrives and the car we’re waiting in quickly
fills up. Older women bring heavy sacs of vegetables that they’ll sell in
the market of Jerusalem’s old city. The people and vegetables pile in the
car and we begin to drive a road that we’re told is impossible to drive in
the winter. It’s bumpy, rocky, dirty, and steep, and simply does not stand
up to rain.
The car drops us in what seems to be the middle of the path, on the
outskirts of the village’s houses. We begin to walk. The older women on
their way to the market pile their vegetable sacs on their heads and walk
just a few meters before stopping at a place where they say another taxi
will eventually come for them. They can’t walk further with all their
goods. The rest of us continue on our way, seven Palestinian women, one
Palestinian man, and three internationals. We walk on the path for a minute
or two, and suddenly the group turns and walks down the stairs onto
somebody’s porch, then out through their yard, down more stairs, and so on.
We silently weave in and out of people’s porches and gardens, avoiding the
checkpoint that is directly above us. We can hear the call to prayer
beginning from the mosques in the distance. Najah tells us this is the
place that soldiers often throw tear gas and sound bombs at them, that we’re
lucky it’s not happening to us today, probably because we’ve come a little
earlier than usual.
We continue to walk, up and down on uneven paths in the dark. The women are
sure of their steps, having done this walk so many times. The other
internationals and I are less sure, and stay near the back, probably holding
the group up slightly.
After about a half hour of walking, we arrive at the main road, where
soldiers tend to patrol. The women and man run across the street and
towards a bus that is waiting, engine on. They jump on the bus and it
starts to move. The woman in front of me is whispering, “Come on, get on,
hurry, we’re moving.” Najah and my friends are still behind me, so I tell
the woman I’m waiting for them. The bus begins up the street, and suddenly
people are emerging from all directions. They are running onto the bus from
behind each olive tree, each stone, each house along the road. Within the
span of 100 meters or so, the bus goes from nearly empty to overflowing with
people. It speeds off.
I turn around and walk back to Najah and the others. She walks over to a
nearby house, goes through their gate, and sits on the couch on their porch.
The army drives by and we duck. Najah borrows my phone and calls the
first taxi driver to make sure the other women had been picked up, dropped
off, and are on their way to the spot where we now waited. We sit and wait.
I ask Najah if the people whose yards we sneak through know about it. “Of
course,” she says. “Sometimes they take us in when the army comes looking
for us.” She tells us that the army threatens them with a fine of 10,000
shekels (more than 2,000 dollars) for harboring “Arabs without permits,” but
they do it anyway.
We see jeep lights on a road below and Najah tells me it’s the “security
road” next to the path of the Wall. We see more jeep lights coming our way,
and again we duck. It is clear that the army is not trying very hard to
catch people. There is nothing sneaky about their patrol. We spot them
from a distance and hide if necessary, and they simply drive up and down the
road every few minutes.
Another bus leaves suddenly, completely empty when it starts moving and then
quickly filling up with people emerging again from the trees. We have
missed the bus. Two other buses wait, one large and one small. Najah
decides to get in the bus, so as not to miss it when it leaves.
A jeep is driving down the road. Najah gets out to run back to the house
where we’ve been hiding, tells us to stay because we have passports and it
won’t matter if the army sees us. The jeep stops at the larger bus in front
of us. We can’t see what they’re doing.
People begin to tentatively get on our bus, Najah comes back, and the bus
starts to go, hoping to drive past the other bus and the jeep without being
stopped. No such luck.
A soldier stops our bus and Najah quickly takes her ID out of her purse and
hides it in her shirt. The soldier boards the bus and asks for IDs. There
are only a few of us on the bus at that point. My friends and I have
passports so we’re fine. Najah tells the soldier she left her ID at home.
She doesn’t want it taken or her name recorded. The soldier tells her to
get off the bus and go home. She gets off, and we start to get off with
her. The soldier tells us we can stay. The people on the bus tell us we
can stay. We wait a minute and then get off. We see Najah, and she says,
“Get back on, hurry, I’m getting back on.” We’re perplexed, but we board
the bus again, and she comes with us. She has just walked around the bus.
The soldiers are still right there, right behind us. They choose not to
The bus begins driving, and once again the people are running towards it
from all directions. It becomes crowded, and people are yelling, “Go,
quickly, let’s go!” “No, wait for those people who are running this way!”
The bus drives slowly enough that most of the people who want to get on
manage to do so. The door closes and we speed off.
We arrive at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem without encountering any more
checkpoints. We get off the bus and see the two older women with the
vegetables arriving at the same time. Their taxi did come after all. They
ask why we’re so late. Najah tells them we missed the first bus and had to
A woman approaches us and greets me warmly, then turns to Najah and says, “I
told her to get on the bus with me, I said ‘Come, daughter, let’s go’ but
she didn’t come.” I smile and say, “I was waiting for Najah, I wanted to go
with her, but thank you.” She turns to us and says, “I watch the news each
night and I weep. Children are dying, Arabs and Jews, and I just weep.” We
listen, I offer her the cake Najah bought us for the journey, she offers us
the bread she just bought, and she continues:
“I am 70 years old and I have seen war all my life. In 1948 I was a young
girl. My brother was four years old. My mother strapped him to her back,
took my hand, and led us out of our village.”
She pauses. I ask her where she is from. Elar. A destroyed village very
close to Bethlehem, where she now lives. I ask her name. Fatima.
Najah tells us it’s time to go, to walk up the street to catch the Israeli
bus to where she works. We say goodbye to Fatima and begin to walk.
Najah removes her hijab (Muslim head scarf) and replaces it with a Jewish
head covering, to look instead like a religious Jewish woman.
The bus comes and we get on, riding out of East Jerusalem and into West
Jerusalem, though the buildings are all old Palestinian neighborhoods and
thus virtually indistinguishable from each other except for the newly placed
Hebrew signs in West Jerusalem.
We get off the bus and we’re in the Bukhari neighborhood, a religious Jewish
neighborhood right next to the even more famous religious Jewish
neighborhood Mea Sharim. Najah tells us the Bukhari area used to be part of
the Bab al Amoud (Damascus Gate) neighborhood of Jerusalem, before 1948.
Part of the area is also the land and buildings of people from the village
We see a few Orthodox Jewish men on the street but it’s still too early for
most. One market vendor is beginning to set up. Najah greets him and tells
me that all the market vendors in the Bukhari neighborhood are Arab, and all
the people who live here are Jewish.
She shows us the building where she works, but we don’t get too close
because she says they won’t let us in and she doesn’t want to get in
trouble. She shows us back to the bus because she has an hour before she
needs to begin work, and thus an hour before she can even enter the
building. We part ways and get on the bus back to Damascus Gate, where we
will then take another bus to the West Jerusalem neighborhood where one of
We have left the second bus and are walking towards the apartment where
we’ll crash for a few hours. We are across the street from the apartment.
I see Palestinian people and wonder if they live in this neighborhood or if
they just work here. We are walking past a house and a Palestinian woman
says hello. We look over and it’s Fatima, the 70 year old woman we have
spent half of the morning with. She is washing the stairs of a building.
“This is where I work,” she says. “This is where I live,” my friend says.
Fatima will be washing the stairs of a couple buildings and then cleaning a
third house before going back home. We invite her to come over after work.
She thanks us and we part ways. We know she won’t come.
We are inside the apartment. We change into pajamas and get into bed. Our
work for the morning is over. Najah’s is just beginning.
Hannah, you have no idea where Najah works or what
she is doing? She doesn't need to disguise herself
as a Jew to work in Jerusalem and could be involved in terrorist activities.