This sea is mine

Jalal Abukhater

Walking through the hot sand on the beach at Caesarea, Ammar turned to me and said, with a big smile on his face: ‘Jalal, you might not realise it yourself, but for me this is the only good day of 2020, the best day.’ He picked up his girlfriend, Reem, and ran down to the sea for the first time in years. Ismat meanwhile hadn’t wasted a moment, but was already in the warm Mediterranean waters.

As a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, with my Israeli-issued blue ID card and yellow Israeli number plate, I am allowed to travel across the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. My Palestinian compatriots who live in the West Bank, however, all three million of them, are denied that freedom. With their Israeli-issued green ID cards and white number plates, they aren’t allowed through the checkpoints except for work or medical reasons, which require a special permit.

The residents of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank can drive to the seaside in a mere 30 to 45 minutes along their exclusive roads, while a generation of Palestinians have grown up unable to get to the coast.

In August, however, reports started circulating on social media that Israeli soldiers weren’t stopping Palestinians who were crossing through gaps in the apartheid wall to go to the beach. The gaps are more often used by Palestinian labourers going to work in Israeli cities.

A few weeks ago, a colleague who lives in Nablus shared a photo of himself standing by the Israeli-built fence near the city of Tulkarem, wearing a tank top and shorts, and carrying a large cooler. ‘Felt like having a few cold ones at the beach,’ the caption said.

Three friends of mine, residents of Nablus and Ramallah, got in touch to say they were planning to cross the wall at the village of Far’oun, south of Tulkarem. I agreed to meet them on the Israeli side with my car and drive them to the sea.

But when they got to Far’oun, early in the morning, the gap had just been closed by the Israeli military. Still, they were determined to cross. They made several attempts, but each time were stopped by military jeeps or tear gas, and ordered to stay behind the fence.

At noon they called to say they would try to cross one last time, through a gap north of Tulkarem. I drove up there and found the roadsides busy with Palestinians: adults pushing strollers, carrying coolers or beach chairs, children with inflatable toys at the ready.

Eventually I found my friends. They were relieved to get into my car. Ismat had blood dripping from his leg, caught on the barbed wire while crossing the fence. Ammar told me about an eight-year-old girl with a pink swimming ring they’d seen during one of their failed attempts to cross, rebuffed by tear gas.

As we reached the coast, Reem, sitting next to me in the front, pointed to the chimneys of the Hadera power station, Israel’s largest. ‘Those are the towers we can see from home,’ she said.

Ismat, in the back seat, was less pleased at the sight of the power station. He preferred the Roman ruins at Caesarea Maritima, which he took as a sign of the ancient connections between the sea and cities such as Nablus and Tulkarem.

We went on to Haifa’s German Colony, and in the evening I drove back to Tulkarem, where my friends had left their car. Crossing back into the West Bank is easy. I drove unimpeded through an Israeli checkpoint south of the city, dropped my friends off, and turned back towards Jerusalem. On my way out, through the same checkpoint, I was stopped, and my car and belongings thoroughly searched. (Not that having to put up with a fifteen-minute delay at a military checkpoint can begin to compare with what most Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation.)

Nablus has deep ties to the sea; in the 19th century, when the city was a regional hub of trade and industry, Jaffa was its port. Sitting on the beach, Ismat and I talked about how weirdly unsettling it is that residents of Nablus today are more familiar with the sight of a heavily armed Israeli soldier than with a Palestinian resident of Jaffa. But that afternoon, for once, there we were. ‘This sea is mine,’ we said, as we looked out at the water, quoting Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘Mural’. هذا البحر لي. This sea is mine.