The buses plying routes most used by Palestinians in Jerusalem are comfortable, reliable, efficient and relatively inexpensive. Being small, they run regularly, zipping along eagerly from one stop to the next. The only thing that seems to halt their journey is when they are stopped by the police or military, who undertake random checks looking for Palestinians who Israel determines to be in Jerusalem illegally. Palestinians who live in the West Bank and lack an Israeli permit to enter Israel, for instance, are not allowed to visit Jerusalem. If caught they face the prospect of a fine or even imprisonment.
Soldiers questioning a Palestinian bus passenger outside Tantur, July 30 2005.
Today the bus I was on, which runs from beside the old city to Bethlehem, was stopped for such a check. A policewoman boarded our bus. Her job was to collect the identification papers of everyone on board the bus bar the driver for her colleague sitting outside to examine, which she did with all the enthusiasm and joy of someone thoroughly unhappy with their job. She took a lazy glance at my passport, and collected everybody else's papers . She returned in a few minutes with the papers, and we were on our way.
Closer to Bethlehem, our bus was pulled over a second time, this time by the military. A super buffed up soldier entered the bus, his olive green shirt struggling to contain his incredibly muscular and attractively tattooed arms. His hair was cut very short, and his orange sunglasses were resting neatly on his green beret. His automatic weapon was slung over his powerful shoulders like a small toy. He talked to us loudly and enthusiastically in Hebrew, a happy smile and cherry tone of voice putting everyone at ease. The two Palestinian women sitting in the seats in front of me smiled. Having been through the routine many times, I had my passport opened at the page with my photo. He saw I am from New Zealand, laughed loudly, and said in English with a thick American accent "A kiwi!' The two women smiled again. He took my passport from me and briefly thumbed through it. He said I must be a photographer given I was wearing a vest. He was right, and I showed him my camera. He positively beamed and asked if I was going to take photos in Bethlehem or Hebron. I told him I was merely going to Tantur, just down the road. As he moved down the aisle onto the other passengers he methodically checked the overhead racks for anything suspicious, singing a tune from the early 80s as he did so. He may have been jolly but he was certainly thorough.
When the soldier finished checking the other passengers, he said "Ok Mr Kiwi, come with me off the bus please." Mr Super Buff then asked the driver to refund my bus fare before escorting me off the bus to be interviewed by another soldier. The bus left. Like the first soldier, the second soldier was also of American origin, jolly, and buffed. He was not quite as buffed as Mr Super Buff, but he had obviously spent hours in the gym like his buddy. As he looked through my passport, he began a series of questions. What was I doing in Israel? Photographing my classmates, I said. I pulled out my Notre Dame student ID. Where was I going? Tantur, I replied. What was I going to photograph there? I said I was staying there. Then the interesting questions began.
"You have been to a lot countries this year, and you cannot tell me that's for tourism," he said.
I said he was right, explaining that I was taking photographs of peace studies students doing their fieldwork for an exhibition to be held at the University of Notre Dame, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. I began listing each country I had been too, and the names of my fellow students -- Hala from Lebanon, who is in Cambodia. Maria Lucia from Colombia and Tania from Sri Lanka, who are in the Philippines. Mark and Lisa from the United States, and Lison from India, who are in South Africa. Alicia from the United States, YatMan from China, and Patrick from Zimbabwe, who are in Uganda. He interrupted me and I jokingly asked if any of the students are from the United States. And then came the important question.
"What were you doing in Pakistan," he asked, "also photographing students?"
"Attending another classmate's wedding," I said, grinning. "I got detained at the airport for seven hours because of that."
He laughed and said "Yes, you will get questioned after being in a country like that. Those other countries are weird enough, but Pakistan, now that's something else."
"It's a complex society," I said. "You should visit it. I have a Jewish friend working in the World Bank who visits all the time "
"No way, I am happy here!" he said as he handed my passport back.
I hopped on the next bus, whose passengers had already been checked by the first soldier, and made my way home to Tantur.