And then, they took her. The fact that she was in wheelchair made it easier for them to do so – they merely had to wheel one person from a group to another place, hidden from view.
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At first, I thought her suitcase had been lost and that she had been taken to the lost-luggage counter at her own request, or that the taxi driver who was supposed to take her to Ramallah had grown impatient and so they whisked her away without even a goodbye to the others lingering around the baggage carousel. I wanted to say goodbye to her and ask how her injured leg was doing, since it had swelled considerably during the days of the conference from which we had just returned. I started to follow her, but the airport worker was pushing her wheelchair at too brisk a pace for me. I couldn’t catch up. She waved to me and laughed. Yes, it was a bit funny, that mini chase.
And then I understood that she had been taken for interrogation. Even though the permits for her trip had been signed, even though her return to Ramallah after she landed was all arranged, even though she has no history of security offenses, even though she is a young journalist who works with Israeli newspapers and has many Jewish friends. Why? Because she’s a Palestinian.
So we stood there, we privileged ones with our Israeli passports, who had never in our lives felt so privileged, and we waited. Every member of the Palestinian delegation who succeeded in getting through passport control and avoiding a similar fate did something to ease the tension, embarrassment and despondency – those feelings that anesthetize the body when it is a witness to injustice. Not murder or the arrest of children, just a small crime against a member of your own sex who is also a human being, and the chilling knowledge that under different, completely arbitrary, circumstances, it could have been you being taken away for interrogation.
“If they hadn’t been part of the delegation, they would all have been detained for hours,” members of the Palestinian delegation told us. They were offended and worn out, but also pleased. Finally, the veil of politeness and façade of equality that had thus far prevailed – after all, we had spent several days at the conference, arguing, working, eating and drinking together – had been cracked. Finally, here, beside the luggage carousel, we, the Israelis, were seeing what it is to be a Palestinian. What it is to be immediately suspect, to be detained automatically, to never have time to buy cigarettes at the duty-free shop because of the lengthy security checks.
And then it grew late, and passengers from other flights flooded the luggage carousels, and the taxi drivers waiting for us were calling us repeatedly.
“Maybe the rest of you should go,” suggested the travel agent who accompanied the Israelis to the conference. No way, we’re staying, we answered in unison, then fell silent under the cloud of exhaustion, shame and sorrow, aside from one journalist who found the strength to argue.
And then another worker emerged pushing the wheelchair. He returned her to the place whence she had been taken and waited silently for her to get herself out of the chair. Someone handed her crutches to her; someone else bent down to fold in the footrests so she wouldn’t get tangled up in them and fall. The worker didn’t get involved.
“Perhaps you’ll escort her to Ramallah,” one of the Palestinian delegates teased him. “What? I’m dying to,” he cringed in disgust and disappeared the moment the wheelchair was empty.
And then a few days pass, and you’re watching the festivities in Ramallah in advance of the prisoner release, and the enormous suffering of the bereaved families in Israel. And amid this emotional chaos, a delay of an hour or so at the airport no longer seems like such a terrible thing. That physical response that filled you with such intolerable sorrow just a few days ago now seems like the response of a disconnected bleeding heart – almost like participating in a conference for Israeli and Palestinian journalists. You forget what your body told you. And you realize that you’ve been forgetting what your body tells you for 45 years now.