The video clip I received to my cellphone contained 29 seconds of waves breaking on rocks. “We’re in Tel Aviv,” my friend wrote me. How much excitement was compressed into those few words.
She is from Nablus. She, her husband and their two children did what tens of thousands of Palestinians from throughout the West Bank have been doing in recent weeks. They left through a breach in the separation fence and entered Israel.
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This was the first time her 25-year-old son had crossed the Green Line and seen Palestine’s sea. “He didn’t want to leave,” my friend said. “He went crazy over how beautiful the sea is.”
As chance had it, they exited through the breach at Far’un, east of Taibeh, about half an hour after I left that exact same spot. Like them, I saw the soldiers standing on the road and watching as masses of people crossed on foot from the fence to waiting minibuses or taxis.
I saw entire families, groups of young people, couples, babies in strollers and toddlers trotting along the dirt road after their parents. Some went down the sides of the narrow wadi and climbed up toward the breach. Still others chose the longer but easier, paved route there.
It went on all day and all evening. They came from cities, villages and refugee camps. Some headed to Acre and some to Netanya. Some planned to spend the night in the Galilee or the Triangle region, others would go home at midnight. The excessive price for a taxi ride angered them, but didn’t deter them.
And as usual, there were small-scale entrepreneurs there. One was selling masks. Another lugged a canister of cooking gas all day, back and forth, and sold coffee or sage tea. “I’m afraid the soldiers will shoot me, because they’ll think the canister is a weapon,” he said. But the lure of some income was stronger than his fear.
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These breaches in the fence are no secret, and B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories has documented cases in which soldiers shot and seriously wounded laborers who entered Israel through them. Yet the army, the lord and master on the ground, hasn’t closed them.
It’s also well-known that these breaches have multiplied since the coronavirus pandemic began. They are now spread out along the entire length of the fence.
Before dawn, laborers come through them. Israel needs their work, and they need a livelihood. Farmers whose land is locked away on the other side of the separation barrier also come through them. That way, when they go to and return from their fields, they don’t have to wait for soldiers to open the gate.
And over the past two weeks, even before the Eid al-Adha holiday on July 31, they have been joined by a never-ending stream of vacationers – people who long for normalcy, freedom of movement, fun and visits to friends. “They’re hungering to travel around their homeland,” said Ehab Al-Jariri, editor and host of one of Palestinian radio’s most interesting talk shows.
I decided to wait with the story and pictures of this exodus. I was afraid that any attention to it from the Israeli media would hasten the closure of the breaches. An opportunity for another few thousand Palestinians to exercise their right to travel around their homeland is much more important than any journalistic report.
For the same reason, photographer Oren Ziv of +972 Magazine, whom I met during one of my visits to Far’un, decided to temporarily shelve his photographs. But now that the story has already been told on Israeli television, we have been freed from this decision.
When so many breaches have remained open for around half a year, it’s clear that this is a decision from above. Israeli security officials have made some sort of cost-benefit calculation, once again proving the extent to which Israeli control over the Palestinians is present, invasive and capricious.
In the morning, soldiers actually do lie in wait near the breaches in some parts of the West Bank and fire tear gas canisters at people as they pass by. Why? It’s not clear. Palestinians have been busy speculating about why the breaches haven’t been closed and why soldiers sometimes fire tear gas at them and sometimes don’t. Indeed, by Tuesday morning reports from along the fence were telling about soldiers shooting tear gas and closing some breaches.
The fear or the dangers the vacationers may face are dwarfed in comparison to the possibility of freeing themselves of the usual suffocation and stress, if only for a day. Even if afterward, the feeling of being imprisoned in West Bank enclaves merely grows stronger.