Across Palestine, two worlds exist side by side, with guard towers next to homes.

Andrew Olson

Across Palestine, two worlds exist side by side, with guard towers next to homes.

My Life: American Road Trips vs. the West Bank

A Student Reflects on Freedom and Movement in Palestine

The myth of the road trip captures the American imagination, that exploration of open spaces a siren song to our subconscious. But the notion of traveling through places unbound, unlimited, and unrestricted left me struggling to conceptualize life in the West Bank, where I’ve been studying since January.

To start, the scale is different — the Bay Area, for instance, is almost three times the size of the West Bank. And unlike in America, you can’t “go west” when life feels crowded — “west” is across the wall, which no Palestinian may enter without a permit. Nor can you move out of town to start a family, for that’s Area C, which is under Israeli control, where you have as much a chance of getting a building permit as winning the lottery.

Andrew Olson

The thrill of an American road trip is that any location on the horizon is a possible destination. But from the café where I type, I see three areas where most Palestinians can’t go: the several hills covered in red-roofed homes of an exclusively Jewish community (a “settlement”), the de-facto Israel territory beyond the line of fencing and the “separation wall,” and the bridge to Jerusalem beyond the wall.

Citing security, Jerusalem has recently been closed to all Palestinians without residency, a onetime day pass, or one of the scarce work permits. Since the city’s economy previously employed many from the region, men like my host father are now out of work. For them, the shining spires in the distance might as well be across the sea.   

Across Palestine, two worlds exist side by side. In Bethlehem, a United Nations refugee camp, set up after the 1948 war, butts up against the security wall, these “temporary” concrete tenements against “temporary” concrete towers. I used to wonder how there could be so many clashes when Israelis were on one side of the line and Palestinians on the other. I learned that it’s not so clear-cut. It’s all on top of each other. Guard towers and homes. Settlements and cities.

As I walked to class one recent morning, I paused on the curve of the main road. In the foreground stood an abandoned apartment. In the background, blazing in the sunlight, stood a settlement less than an hour’s walk away yet forever out of reach to the locals passing me. Hidden by the hill was a walled freeway from which they were excluded.

Waiting up the hill were my classmates, Americans whose eagle-emblazoned passports allowed them entry as far as their eyes could see. For us, a road trip could be a reality. At the end of the week, we would walk across visible and invisible lines and enter the city of Jerusalem.

I tarried, briefly paralyzed by the realization that those who fed, housed, and clothed us for the last two weeks lacked the same freedom we had so unknowingly taken for granted. Never have I been so grateful for my freedom or so heartbroken at the confinement of others.

The author is a student at Westmont College.

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