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The day the Dead Sea died

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Thursday, 9 December, 2010

"At that moment, the cashier at the entrance to the Dead Sea was but an advocate for segregation - an apostle for the apartheid system." Sari Freitekh describes the day his darker-skinned Palestinian friend was denied entrance to a Jewish-only beach in the West Bank.

Ramzi is a very handsome Palestinian who hails from the Tulkarm Refugee camp in the northern West Bank.

Ramzi has never seen the Mediterranean – merely 10 miles from his home – but he loves the sea. His ideal vacation has always involved summer, sand and the sea. Perhaps this is why his typical suggestion to "what shall we do this weekend?" is always "let's go to the Dead Sea!"

I’m not always enthusiastic about going to the Dead Sea because of the lack of services, the lack of chairs, the expensive entry and the overall feel that the place is not well taken care of. But I always comply because the Dead Sea is the only saltwater body Ramzi has access to.

Since the Dead Sea shore is divided, the southern beaches are inside the internationally-recognised borders of Israel and the northern beaches are Israeli-run but inside the Occupied West Bank. Ramzi can only travel within the West Bank because he carries the Palestinian Authority ID.

Ramzi always picked northern beaches that "allowed Arabs” – run by Israelis in an area that the Palestinian Authority has no control over – regardless of the fact that one can see the cheaper and better quality northern beaches on the other side. Those are Jewish-only beaches.

I never really gave this form of segregation much thought. I went there because Ramzi wanted to go there and because I liked hanging around with him.

It was not until my best friend Carla, an Argentine, decided to visit me in Palestine for the first time. "What shall we do this weekend?" Ramzi's response was very clear. Off to the Dead Sea we went. But this time, we chose Kalia beach because we wanted Carla to feel comfortable wearing her bikini – rarely seen on the beach I always go to which “allowed Arabs”.

We reached the entrance. I, a pale-skinned-Palestinian-holder-of-an-Israeli-passport, paid my ticket. Carla paid her ticket. Now it was Ramzi's turn.

Ramzi, a holder-of-Palestinian-ID-with-an-Arabian-prince’s-face-and-darker-features was stopped by the female cashier.

"Show me your ID," she demanded.

He turned around and looked at me. "Ok, we're screwed, let's just leave".

I was dumb-founded. Only then did I finally realise what this was all about.

The West Bank is segregated. Here’s a land of two people who, by design, never come across each other unintentionally. The Palestinians and the Israeli settlers. Racism here is systematic. There are streets that are designated for Jews only. At checkpoints, there are entrances for Israeli cars and entrances for Palestinian cars, subjugating them for humiliation and careful examination, sometimes for hours.

And to me at that moment, the cashier at the entrance to the Dead Sea was but an advocate for segregation – an apostle for the apartheid system!

In a moment of rage, I stepped forward, and demanded that she accept my friend's money and allow him in. She refused. I insisted. My voice started growing louder as the rage grew even wilder.

My friend was clearly upset, but I doubt he even thought for a second that what happened was morally wrong. Palestinians grow too used to living in daily humiliation. In a way, they have to find out for themselves that they live under apartheid – the term “occupied” replaces the term “racially segregated”. It is not until one leaves, one observes, and one compares, that one comes to such a conclusion.

The system is simple yet complicated at the same time. Palestinians are placed inside “autonomous” enclaves in order to make room for Israeli settlers to expand, flourish, and go to the beaches unbothered. The UK’s Independent newspaper reported this in 2008, stating the “Palestinians are being regularly and illegally barred from reaching Dead Sea beaches in the occupied West Bank, according to a Supreme Court petition filed by Israel's leading civil rights organisation.” The petition was filed by the Association of Civil Rights (ACRI) in Israel. I did not realise how humiliating it would be to undress in front of security guards and defend my Jerusalem ID to teenage Israeli soldiers, until I went through that process.

Ramzi did not fully comprehend my rage, nor did the woman behind the cash register. Neither of them saw what I saw.

To me, the woman was an employee at a beach, not a security guard at an immigration office. Her job was to admit people, regardless of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, or nationality. It was her job to hand any peaceful client his ticket with a smiling face. My friend was so peaceful he was actually standing in his swimming briefs as this was happening.

I finally told the woman off, I cursed and I took my money back. I told her that what she was doing was racist; after all, the beach sits on occupied land. Her response was, "When you take 'Shkhem' (Nablus) and Ramallah how will you act?!" I did not get her theory. As we left, my troubled Argentine friend was asking, "What year do they live in?"

That day, I learned that the West Bank is Israel's backyard where it hides its most disgraceful secret: apartheid. Ramzi will not be able to contact anyone for help; he will not be able to hire a lawyer to compensate for the humiliation. He will have the one choice to go back to his canton, his territory, his Bantustan, but never to the sea.

We never made it to the Dead Sea. That day, the Dead Sea went down on my list of "Things to Boycott". That day, the Dead Sea died.

Sari Freitekh is an Arabic-language writer and translator with a degree in Economics from the University of Houston in Texas, where he assisted with the Arabic-Language division at the Classical and Modern Languages Department. He divides his time between Nazareth and Ramallah where he lives and works at a non-profit organisation.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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