"Checkpoint in the Church Aisle", a closure story from Birzeit University - Birzeit student Tanya Saleh relates the saga of her brother Charley's wedding
Birzeit student Tania Saleh (right) and her family were right in the middle of preparations for her brother Charlie's wedding when bombs ripped apart the Mahaneh Yehuda market in West Jerusalem on 30 July 1997.
Charlie, a Jerusalemite, and his fiance Tania Bandak from Bethlehem were going to get married in a ceremony at a mass in Jerusalem on 9 August 1997, followed by a party in Bethlehem. One thousand guests had been invited from Jerusalem and another 300 from Bethlehem. Yet, in the wake of the attack, the West Bank and its towns, including Bethlehem, had been sealed off both from each other and Jerusalem immediately after the attack, making movement impossible between the various areas.
Knowing that it is generally easier for Palestinian Jerusalemites to move during closures, it was decided to move the ceremony to Beit Jala, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, to make it easier for the bride's family and friends to attend. Tania Saleh and her family began looking at ways of solving the problem of getting 1,000 guests into Jerusalem. They contacted the Israeli authorities, who told them that it would be possible to make an exception to the closure, on the condition that each of the 1,000 guests from Jerusalem submitted their name, military ID number, father's name, grandfather's name and great grandfather's name in advance, and came together on 5 buses. They aslo wanted the licence numbers of the buses and the names of the drivers, their father, grandfather and great grandfather, all in advance.
"It was our brother's wedding," said Tania Saleh, "what could we do? We were prepared to do anything to make it happen. Nothing was impossible." The only way to contact the guests in time was by telephone. "Imagine the time it takes to ring up a house," she said, "to get the full names of all the people coming, the ID number of each, their father's name, their grandfather's name and their great grandfather's name! They even wanted this 'security information' for children as young as three." Tania's family rang up a bill of 2,000 shekels ($570). The five buses would also cost an unplanned $2,500.
With the Herculean task completed, the process of getting the actual paper permission from the Israeli authorities began. Another one of Charlie and Tania's brothers visited the Israeli Ministry of the Interior with their father and submitted the list of 1,000 names. They were told to "come tomorrow." This went on for several days.
At noon on 7 August, two days before the wedding, The Ministry finally gave them an answer: "No."
Charlie was at his stag party when his brother and father returned from the Ministry. Everyone was dancing and enjoying themselves. They couldn't bear telling him. It didn't take long. As the guests saw their faces, they stopped dancing and Charlie came over to his father. "What happened?" he asked. "They said no," replied his father, "I'm sorry."
"There was no way we could cancel it in two days," said Tania,"It was impossible. We decided to try at the checkpoint on the day. It was a nightmare, people were ringing us up 24-hours before the wedding asking us where it was and if it was still on.
They arrived in the five buses at the main checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem at 3:00pm, three hours before the ceremony. "You are not allowed to enter," an Israeli soldier told them. As they were explaining the lengths they had gone to to coordinate the wedding plans with the authorities and were pleading with him, a second wedding party turned up. They too were stopped.
An Israeli captain came over, saying, "Because of the trouble you have gone to, I'll try to help you. Go round to the Beit Jala checkpoint. I can't help you in front of these other people."
At the Beit Jala checkpoint, however, the guests were prevented from passing through. "You can't come in here. There are clashes," said a soldier. When they began to argue, soldiers approached them with clubs. "It was unbelievable," said Tania, "They were so angry. They looked like they were going to beat us up. 'We just want to pass through for a wedding,' we told them, 'that's all.'"
Eventually one of the soldiers calmed the other soldiers down and agreed to let them pass. "You can go, but each person must write down their name, their father's name, their grandfather's name, their great grandfather's name and the licence number of the bus or car they came in. And they must return in the same car with the same people." The guests took five hours to pass, the last finally arriving at the party at 8;30pm, having missed the wedding.Some guests who arrived separately at the checkpoint were told by the soldiers, "Going to Charlie's wedding? It's cancelled!"
When the wedding party ended, people began leaving at different times. Janet Saleh, Charlie's grandmother, 85 years old, decided to stay the night at the family of the bride. The driver who brought her to the wedding, a doctor, was told to go back and pick her up as he would not be allowed back into Jerusalem without her. "But I need to go there, I have work, I am a doctor," he replied. "Go and get her!" ordered the soldier. This happened to another driver, who had left behind a three-year-old neice with the family in Bethlehem. "A three-year-old?" asked Tania, "How could that hurt anyone?"
"It was unforgettable, the whole experience," said Tania, "How can they treat people that way? It's normal to be angry when this happens. Any normal person would be angry. Our people are suffering, they are losing their jobs in Jerusalem and they are becoming poorer and poorer because of the closures. Why do they call us 'terrorists'? The Israelis are the ones who put hatred in us. Of course people will react to this kind of repression"
Tania shrugged. "The other wedding was cancelled," she concluded, "Their happiness was stolen from them. The Israelis are thieves."