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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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January 6, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 38

  Problem: When is smuggling not smuggling?
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Editor's Note: This article is the second of a four-part series on the way the lives of people are being affected by the political maneuverings around them. To read the first intallment, follow this link: When stepping backward becomes a step forward

I've never thought much about "the right of assembly." It was part of the Bill of Rights, I knew, but surely a most benign one. Now I know better.

One of the most implacable obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remains freedom of movement or, to be more specific, the problem of the Palestinian checkpoints. Israelis fear that without these roadblocks suicide bombers will destroy Israel. In fact, over 1,000 have already died.

Palestinians point out that the Israeli army has killed at least three times more Palestinians than the number of Israeli casualties incurred by bombers. But whatever the numbers, for now at least, thanks to the checkpoints, Israel has the more dominant hand. They move easily in and out of Palestinian territories while Palestinians can hardly move at all, even to their own villages.

The walling in of an entire people in retaliation for isolated attacks is a violation of the Geneva Conventions which argues that group punishment, national punishment, for the crimes of a few, is itself an illegal act. But the checkpoints remain. They are a daily irritation, a daily threat to human dignity and a mockery of human trust.

Palestine is being treated as if it were a foreign country but given none of the rights of a foreign country -- the right to make treaties or develop alliances or regulate airspace. Instead, documentation and entry permits are required on a day to day basis for women to shop and men to go to work on the other side of the "border" and for families to come and go between the two territories to visit a grandmother on one side, a sister on the other. Worse, there is no guarantee that anybody can do any of these things if they can't get a permit to get to them.

As a result, at least 30 infant deaths have been reported at checkpoints because their pregnant mothers did not have a permit to cross the day they were about to give birth and could not get to a hospital.

Brothers are separated from brothers in nearby villages because those territories, still under Israeli control, are not open areas.

Some past columns: "From Where I Stand"
Sept. 23, 03 With Isaac and Ishmael in mind Joan Chittister's first encounter at a checkpoint
July 1, 03 The common cry: Let my people go Two women Joan Chittister met at the Woman's Partnership for Peace in the Middle East
June 24, 03 Unleashing a power such as the world has never seen The first meeting of the Women's Partnership for Peace
Sept. 30, 03 Don't forget that it's your wall, too An earlier trip to Israel and Palestine
So contentious is the checkpoint question that Israeli women themselves monitor the most trafficked of the crossover stations to document cases of intimidation -- or, on the other hand, to defend young Israeli soldiers against charges of brutality.

Now here I was in the midst of the situation, going through these very same checkpoints myself in order to work with women on both sides of the border. Which is how I discovered how easy it is to become a smuggler.

Our hope was that in the course of the meeting of the World Council of Religious Leaders we would be able as well to spend a few hours with one of the Palestinian participants in the Women's Global Peace Initiative. At the same time, we also wanted to visit some of the holy sites. It was a pleasant happenstance. She taught at Bethlehem University; we wanted to visit the church of the Nativity there. All we had to do to get there, they told us, was to take a cab.

Our Arab driver was a bright man, a father of four children under the age of 12 and the holder of a degree in archeology. But archaeological digs had become irregular since hostilities had increased. To support his family, he was driving cab now. Since he had a Jerusalem work permit, he could take us to Bethlehem, stay with us for the afternoon and bring us back. He was happy for the fare. It would be a 20-minute ride.

But then we hit one of the movable checkpoints that crop up without warning in the area. "There are a hundred cars ahead of us," our driver said. "We can't go this way or you will never get back to Jerusalem in time for your meeting tonight. I will go another way." He gunned the car out of the line, spun us around and headed back in the opposite direction. "Crazy," I thought. "Bethlehem is a straight shot down this highway. Where could we possibly be going?"

A mile or two from the checkpoint, the cabbie pulled the car over to the side of the road, parked in another line of empty cars and told us to wait in the locked car. He would "check the other side," he said. And disappeared. When he showed up again, there was a smile on his face. He was standing on the crest of the hill in front of us and waving us forward.

It was not a very high climb but it was not an easy one either. I hung on to his arm on the path and let him pull me up the incline. Part of the hill was mud, the other rock. People had clearly gone this way before us, packed the mud into clay and reached the top of the rise. But the way was anything but defined, anything but clear. There were no signs, no real road, no clue of connections.

Yet there, on the other side of the rise, was another line of empty cabs. He gave his car keys to one of the drivers there and went with us to another cab that carried a Palestinian license plate. We were now on the way to Bethlehem on back roads, through villages, behind and around and beyond the checkpoint. We were smugglers, in other words, in a very well organized culture of smugglers.

But Bethlehem was dark and empty. A few shopkeepers sat in dark stores waiting for people who did not know how to smuggle themselves in. Most of the vendors had never bothered to open their stores at all. Over 70% of the people of Bethlehem, we were told, are unemployed.

When we returned the same way hours later, we picked up a woman and her daughter who had also climbed the hill to smuggle themselves into Bethlehem to see her mother and, if necessary, walk over the hills to get back home. Much in the style of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the way to Egypt, I imagine.

Then, on the way down the highway in the dark, I noticed three boys dart across a six-lane highway, jumping barriers as they went, until they disappeared through a garden gate that spanned both sides of the next checkpoint another 100 yards away. They were smuggling themselves around the Israelis, too, the driver told us -- on the way to see their families, or their friends -- or maybe just their girlfriends.

Smuggling had become a way of life here, the driver told us. There was no other way. His own cousin, he told us, had done it to see his aging parents the month before but he had not been so lucky then as we were today. Discovered without papers at a random checkpoint, his cousin had been jailed and the cab, his only livelihood, impounded for a month.

From where I stand, "the right of assembly" has taken on new meaning. Clearly it is a fundamental human right. It has everything to do with forging a nation, sustaining its families and organizing its people. In the meantime, to deny it is only to stoke the smoldering fires of enmity, give support to more terrorism and retard even more the coming of peace. Surely this is not security. Surely there must be a better way.

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