Israeli policies preventing Palestinians from entering Israel and limiting Palestinian movement within the 1967 occupied territory — collectively termed “closure” — have shaped Palestinian society, economy, and politics in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for decades. Closure is made material not only in checkpoints and roadblocks but also in the green license plates of cars registered to holders of Palestinian Authority identity cards (’67 Palestinians). It is less often recognized that Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship (’48 Palestinians) or East Jerusalem residency permits have access to yellow Israeli license plates that allow them to move freely across much of Palestine/Israel, with the exception of the Gaza Strip.
I have been especially sensitive to movement across the Green Line that divides the West Bank and Israel as a ’48 Palestinian (albeit one born and living in the United States) with strong connections on either side of the Green Line. In many hours logged on the road, I’ve learned that driving is a site of embodied, everyday politics — a kind that is too often overlooked in favor of official or formal political statements and stances. The very nomenclature of ’48 Palestinians and ’67 Palestinians shows how the Nakba is at the root of Palestinian fragmentation, and the road network is a prime instrument of their separation from each other.
Bethlehem to Al-Araqib
On the Palestinian nationalist holiday of Land Day in 2011, I set out from the West Bank city of Bethlehem with two friends — an activist ’48 Palestinian I call Bisan (all the names in this post are pseudonyms) and a European photographer — to attend a rally in Al-Araqib. Al-Araqib is a Bedouin village in Israel that has been destroyed over 100 times because it is not recognized by Israel, and the state refuses to allow its original residents to live there, despite their continuing protest. Al-Araqib was an important site for a Land Day demonstration. Still, I left Bethlehem with a certain sense of guilt. We were going into Israel even though almost everyone else we knew in Bethlehem was prohibited from doing so. As though to underscore the point, moments after effortlessly passing through a checkpoint with our yellow license plates, we traveled through the lands of three villages that, before the Nakba, had been home to the families of close friends who were now refugees in Bethlehem.
We soon faced the practical problem of finding the unrecognized village. Unsurprisingly, given that Israeli authorities had repeatedly tried to physically erase it from the land, no signs pointed us to Al-Araqib. We asked directions from a Bedouin man working at a gas station, and he told us to look for a dirt road beyond an intersection. We made the turn-off and persevered, but soon, on the crest of a hill on the dirt road, we were lost again. We ran into two Bedouin men in a pickup truck, and they led the way until we could see buses and cars parked in the distance. Asking for directions was part of a Palestinian sociality that built connections and trust among Palestinians across differences of class and urban-rural difference. This was a practice that resisted Israel’s colonial politics of fragmentation and disorientation and cooperatively reconstituted the landscape.
After the Land Day rally wound down, I followed Bisan back behind the large gathering, where some families were still living much of the time despite the repeated demolition of their homes. A group of children were gathered around a van with Hebrew writing on its side. They showed us new kittens and eggs laid in a nest under the hood. They showed us mattresses stacked up in the back of the van. This was where they slept, they said, when they stayed in Al-Araqib. An apparatus of mobility — long disabled, it seemed — had been turned into a shelter of last resort for children displaced from their homes in this village.
We headed back to our car where it sat in a makeshift parking lot made from hard-packed dirt. The monochrome of the yellow plates — the absence of green Palestinian plates — stood out to me only because I moved back and forth between Palestinian and Israeli areas. To those in Israel, it was simply the norm.
Bethlehem to the Galilee
For West Bank Palestinians, traversing the Green Line is much more fraught. In the summer of 2013, Jalila, a ’48 Palestinian living in the West Bank, made several journeys across the Green Line with ’67 Palestinians. All of these trips were illegal. In future months, as the political situation deteriorated, absolutely no one of this group was willing to continue making these trips. Yet, for one summer, this was a mode of experimentation that increased knowledge of the road network.
First, Jalila and her West Bank friends strategized about how to smuggle the ’67 Palestinians into Israel. Their best option was to take the chance of driving a yellow-plated car through a checkpoint on one of the many bypass roads that service Israeli settlements while circumventing and fragmenting Palestinian communities (green-plated cars are often barred from bypass roads). This checkpoint is visible from the road on a hill Palestinians use regularly, so while West Bank Palestinians never passed through the checkpoint, they could often glimpse it. Once Jalila and her friends began these conversations about crossing, her friends began paying more attention to the checkpoint, making their own observations about its operation: “They don’t stop every car!”
Later, when they actually passed through the checkpoint, they took a roundabout route that made it harder for the soldiers to discern that they were coming from a Palestinian area as opposed to nearby settlements. Jalila wondered if Israeli authorities had set up cameras to monitor who took this extra loop. It would be an easy indicator of who was trying to avoid detection. One element of the kind of informal research Palestinians conduct on Israeli systems of repression was the acknowledgment that despite detailed documentation of the system of closure, there were limits to how much they could know. By comparison, Palestinians often assumed that Israeli officials had many ways of knowing what they wanted to know about Palestinians. When I asked a West Bank human rights lawyer whether, in writing about these journeys, I should avoid discussing the smuggling strategy of Jalila and her friends, he told me it did not matter — surely, if the Israelis were concerned with knowing about this back route, they already did.
Jalila and her friends did not look up the penalties for crossing illegally or for smuggling someone into Israel. They knew from other people’s experiences that they were arbitrarily applied. The first time someone is caught inside the country illegally, an Israeli border patrol might simply return the person to the West Bank. Detention or interrogation might precede the return, and the detainee would likely be forced to sign a piece of paper saying that the next time she or he was caught entering illegally, she or he would face time in prison or a fine. People also know that Israeli soldiers sometimes take the matter of penalties into their own hands, detaining or beating Palestinians; the soldiers are almost never held responsible for abuses. Again, Palestinians’ systematized knowledge of closure had to take into account the lack of systematicity of military rule and the possibility of arbitrary brutality.
After passing through the checkpoint, West Bank Palestinians continued their informal study. Often, Jalila and her friends were surprised by how little attention the soldiers at the checkpoint were paying: “If we’d come through with green [Palestinian] license plates, he would not have noticed!” Another time, soldiers stopped the car in front of theirs. After they passed through without incident, Jalila remarked, “We were lucky this time.” Her companion retorted, “No, we weren’t lucky — the people in the car in front of us had come directly from [the Palestinian city], and changed lanes at the last moment to appear that they were not. Plus, one was wearing hijab.” His vehemence belied the basic fact that they were lucky each time they passed safely. This was knowledge gained by the skin of one’s teeth, uncomfortably and in fear.
Still, that fear was at least partially balanced by the delight of having broken through. Not only did passengers feel temporarily free from years of closure and restriction but, in addition, passing through the checkpoint without being inspected seemed to debunk the myth that closure was about Israeli security rather than about dividing and oppressing Palestinians.
While on the road inside Israel, West Bank Palestinians continued their analysis of the territory. From Highway 6, the newest north-south highway in Israel, attentive passengers can see the West Bank city of Qalqilya behind the Separation Wall. Speeding by, a West Bank passenger commented, “It would take twice as long to get to Qalqilya from Bethlehem in the West Bank, because the roads are so much less direct and are badly maintained!” In contrast to the Israeli infrastructure, Palestinians analyzed the de-development of their own roads.
Although Israeli soldiers check cars reentering the West Bank via the main terminals on the edges of Palestinian cities, they almost never stop cars reentering via checkpoints used by both settlers and Palestinians. Still, return trips to Palestinian areas of the West Bank were jarring for Jalila and her companions. They pulled from fast, open roads onto luridly circuitous ones. They also experienced the faint shame of return, a kind of payback for the joy of leaving. Even though Jalila and her companions were taking risks to illegally enter Israel, doing so felt like a betrayal of those who had not been invited.
Geographic fracture has been one of the prevailing forces in Palestinian politics since 1948. Israel’s system of closure divides Palestinian citizens of Israel from Palestinians of the 1967 territories and clearly affords Palestinian citizens of Israel more rights. Yet, examining how these groups actually move suggests important similarities in their circumstances. Both groups relate as subalterns to the Israeli state and to the road infrastructure that is one of the state’s most common manifestations.
For both Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the West Bank, journeys lead to political analysis, explicitly stated or implicitly packed into jokes or offhand comments. In crossing the Green Line without being stopped, both groups gained the sense that Israel’s security strategies are more effective at perpetuating a logic of separation and racist demonization of Palestinians than at actually preventing Palestinians from the West Bank from entering Israel. Our Palestinian connections to place are forged through anxious, angry, and urgent forms of political knowledge, because the places themselves are created by way of colonialism.
This article is an edited excerpt of “Driving while Palestinian in Israel and the West Bank: The politics of disorientation and the routes of a subaltern knowledge,” American Ethnologist 42(1), February 2015, pp. 33-54.