I traveled to Jerusalem on Saturday for lunch with a friend who was visiting from Iraq. Just 15 miles separates downtown Ramallah from Jerusalem’s Old City. The trip took one hour. The crossing resembles an international border. Someday it may be.
Starting in 2002, the Israelis began building a permanent checkpoint in Kalandia, a West Bank town just south of Ramallah. Then, they build the wall, which recently was linked to the crossing. The Palestinian area to the south of the checkpoint is now considered greater Jerusalem. Since 1967, Israel has been building a ring of Jewish settlements in Arab areas to the north, east and south of the city in the hopes of bolstering a Jewish majority.
My journey included two service taxi vans and a walk along a fenced gravel walkway, through a metal detector and passport check, controlled by Israeli soldiers. Only Palestinians who carry a Jerusalem ID card, identifying them as residents of Jerusalem, may cross. All other Palestinians must obtain special permission from Israel, which is rarely granted.
Jerusalem, of course, holds special significance to Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike, as the spiritual center of Palestine. It also is envisioned, perhaps quixotically given recent facts on the ground, as the future capital of a Palestinian state.
For five years, Israel has barred Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza from traveling to Jerusalem. Merely visiting is a dream, much less staking a Palestinian flag there. This absence pushes Jerusalem of the mundane and everyday to the recesses of Palestinian memory and infuses Jerusalem the symbol with yet more power. On the service taxi from Birzeit the other day a Palestinian university student asked me if I had been to Jerusalem. "Yes," I said, without much thought. "Oh," he said, "it is so beautiful, isn’t it?" It’s just another city, I thought, and I much rather prefer Ramallah. But, that wasn’t the correct answer. "Oh, yes," I said. "It is. Very beautiful."