After three weeks of anxiously waiting to get a permit, my grandma finally left her home in Gaza at 4 a.m. May 22, got on a bus full of other older people and began the journey to Jerusalem. They were finally going to be able to pray in Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site for Muslims worldwide.
In an unfair twist of fate, Palestinians must seek permission from the occupiers of their former home just to visit the land that once was their own. Palestinians need permission to visit occupied Jerusalem and to pray at their own holy sites. A huge raft of rules and regulations apply, supposedly to protect Israel's “security." Even when permission is granted, after a long and drawn-out process, Palestinians from Gaza only are allowed a short visit, enough time to briefly pray in the mosque before being forcibly bussed back to Gaza.
Upon her return, I asked my grandma how old I would have to be before I would be allowed by my occupiers to visit Jerusalem.
"60 years old,” she said with a sigh. “Even if you are a day under 60 they will reject your request."
I felt hopeless after hearing this. I asked her about the “procedures” Israel made her go through on her journey. She told me her group had arrived at the Erez Crossing into Israel at 6 a.m. Palestinians must pass through an elaborate series of steel gates and narrow metal turnstiles, while unseen Israeli guards bark at them through a loudspeaker—echoing in the cavernous terminal. They then were taken through advanced body scanners, so that the Israeli soldiers could check them more thoroughly. After that came the identity checks, during which Israeli security officials, indifferently glaring from behind a thick bank of windows, monitored the process from their offices. Finally, they were allowed to enter Israel, but without their IDs and permits. It was an entirely humiliating process.
"They spoiled everything by rifling through our bags to make sure we didn't have any harmful belongings that might, in any way, threaten Israeli security,” my grandma said. “I lost a toy I’d bought for my grandson and couldn’t find my phone for some time before an Arab worker helped me to look for it. Some other people even had to throw away their food after the Israelis spoiled it."
Yet despite all of the travel troubles, my grandma continued to tell us with bright eyes of her journey to the Holy City. "A sense of awe spread into our souls as we finally passed through the Erez Crossing on our way to Jerusalem. Yet, a feeling of torment and anguish also sank deep in our hearts since it's our own land; we can't enjoy its beauty, while the occupier can."
Grandma told me how another woman on the bus said she had been crying ever since receiving her permit, so strong and deep was her longing to visit Jerusalem.
The bus drove by some of the original towns from which these elderly Gazans had been expelled in 1948 during the "Nakba" – catastrophe. Grandma described how the air seemed so fresh and the land was covered by a lush green everywhere they looked. In Gaza, there is such a shortage of water, you never see such expanses of green. It was overwhelming. They could almost taste the smell of their land and everyone on the bus was feeling nostalgic. Everything was breathtaking; it was a bittersweet experience for them all.
“Can you hide me in your bag if you have the chance to go again?" my brother Mahmoud, who is 19 years old, sarcastically wondered while she was telling us the story.
He jokes, but the thought of waiting until we are 60 years old to make that same journey seems exhausting. We have to wait for decades just to be the age Israel has decided we should be. And then wait again for Israel to give us permission to worship in our mosque in the way our Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) told us to. In one hadith (prophetic narration) he said: "Mounts are not saddled except to (travel to) three masjids: Al-Masjid Al-Haram (in Mecca), this masjid of mine (in Medina) and Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa (in Jerusalem)." Thus, every Muslim would love to pray in Al-Aqsa.
"One of the women had to use a wheelchair to get around," my grandma added, confirming my concerns about going as an elderly woman.
In addition to religious reasons, all Gazans have personal reasons for wanting to visit Jerusalem. For example, my grandma was desperate to see my uncle—her son—who lives in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank. She had not seen him for 15 years. "I have always wanted the opportunity to see him again," she told us. He had applied for a permit to visit Jerusalem at the same time so that he could be with her when she visited. (Yes, even Palestinians who live in the West Bank must get a permit to visit Jerusalem, even though it so very close.)
Finally, their dream to be reunited came true and my grandma got to see, touch and embrace her eldest son, his wife and their five children. She had tears in her eyes as she recounted hugging them all. This was the first time my cousins got to meet their grandmother. After that, they prayed together in Al-Aqsa Mosque before she had to leave. Their reunion didn't last long simply because Israel doesn’t allow Gazans to be there after 2 p.m. Throughout their reunion, they were surrounded by Israeli soldiers with guns.
As soon as grandma left Jerusalem, she started counting, not the days, but the years until she can get another permit to visit Jerusalem. Until then – no Jerusalem, no son, no grandchildren. Just constant waiting.
She ended her reminiscence of her visit to Jerusalem by saying, "Mararah ya sitty," an Arabic expression of desperate bitterness.
I will have to wait 37 years until I am allowed to visit to Jerusalem, which is my own land.
But Jerusalem, for you I will wait forever.
Mentor: Hanan Chehata