Thursday, January 14, 2010

Living in hell

Alice Rothchild

On January 12th, we drive to the southern West Bank city of Hebron. This city is literally drowning in a complex, traumatic, and violent history, that has given birth to the outrageous situation we see today. Most people start the story with the burial of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives several thousand years ago, followed by multiple invasions, the Arab massacre of Jews in 1929 one week after Zionists raised a Jewish flag at the Wailing Wall (with many question regarding the role of the British in this catastrophe), and Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Moslems praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the middle of Ramadan in 1994.

We are touring Hebron with Hisham Sharabati, the uncle of our local co-leader, Lubna. He explains that he went "to the college of the Israeli prison during the First Intifada' and that after a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets, he was shot in the leg and sustained a fracture, requiring crutches for 1 1/2 years. He is clearly articulate and educated; suffering has made him strong.

We start in a central open area of the market, old stone buildings with green metal doors on the ground floor, a small square with a palm trees, women in colorful hijabs sitting on poured concrete seats under umbrellas, and a steady circle of traffic and rambunctious young boys, racing around, playing, and harassing us, with unrelenting requests to purchase a variety of Palestinian trinkets. On quick inspection, I notice multiple security cameras and a few guard towers mounted on the tops of the buildings as well as an IDF checkpoint with a swinging yellow metal gate and a solid metal gate guarding the entrance to a Jewish settler area with a soldier perched above. All the ground floor doors, formerly markets, are closed, some welded shut by the IDF, and there is a second floor apartment completely encased in wire to protect the windows as well as the inhabitants from rocks thrown by Jewish settlers. .

As we sit down for the usual lunch of felafel, hummus, pita, and a collection of vegetables, Hisham begins to speak, his style sincere and serious with an ironic sense of humor. Shortly, we notice a commotion at the checkpoint site and it appears that a number of the teenage boys have been apprehended by the soldiers, their intimidating automatic weapons ready, and are being taken one by one inside the metal door for questioning after their bags are checked. We move closer and can only peak through a crack in the tall concrete blocks around the checkpoint. The local population does not seem to pay much attention to this encounter, it is clearly an everyday affair. I do not know what happened to the boys, although several were released and came out, tucking in their shirts and resuming a slightly subdued teenage swagger. The little boys watched with curiosity and at one point, two Israeli soldiers came out from their bunker, wearing what appeared to be a significant amount of battle gear, hands always on their weapons, and spoke with the little boys. I suspect this is the only kind of interaction these children have with Israeli Jews.

Hisham explains that after 1967 a group of very right wing Jewish settlers came to a hotel in Hebron and declared they would never leave. A deal was struck with the IDF that they could settle next to a military facility. There were further deals and expansions and ultimately the settlement of Kiryat Arba was officially established in 1971.These settlers have a history of particularly violent, racist, ugly attacks against their Palestinian neighbors, often observed and sometimes even promoted by the local Jewish soldiers. These are the settlers that spray paint: "Death to the Arabs!" or "Gas all Arabs," on the walls of Palestinian homes and taunt children and women, calling the women "Whores." Much of this has been well documented by Palestinians with video cameras, many provided by the Israeli human rights organization, B'tselem in their "Shoot Back" campaign. It is soldiers from Hebron who started "Breaking the Silence," when they felt guilty and haunted by their violent racist behavior patrolling this city. The local Palestinians have responded with repeated nonviolent resistance, including strikes and demonstrations, and some of the local leadership have been arrested by Israeli authorities and deported. In the 1970s and 1980s there were also armed attacks against the settlers as well as an attack on a nearby settlement called Beit Haddassah.

In the 1990s, a group of 400 settlers, (which included 250 yeshiva students), decided to move into the old city, into homes that they claimed were originally Jewish and these settlers have repeatedly attacked the local Palestinians and destroyed their market and ability to live a normal life. There are 150,000 Palestinians in all of Hebron and 35,000 in H2, the area of the city under strict Israeli control, "taken hostage on behalf of the settlers." The UN OCHA has documented 98 different kinds of restrictions of movement in an area that is just one square kilometer. 512 Palestinian stores, spray painted with red and black dots, have been closed by military order, there are repeated prolonged closures and curfews, and Palestinians are only allowed to walk on certain streets, even if their homes are on these streets. These people access there homes by traipsing through other backyards or by walking from roof to roof, up and down ladders, to get to their homes. The central bus station was taken for "security" and given to settlers and the Yeshiva was built above the Palestinian market on top of a Palestinian school.

We wander through much of the market, some of it ghostly quiet, some bustling with vegetables, fruit, clothes, and crowds of people. Above the market Hisham points out a metal wiring creating a protective barrier as settlers living above, throw garbage, bricks, stones, plastic bags of urine and feces, and other offensive items down upon the Palestinians. At one stand he points to a plastic covering with a ragged hole above the market area. Here the Jewish settlers threw acid which burned the plastic and caused havoc below. Suddenly we see three Palestinian young men spread eagled against the wall, one kicked by a solder, and several soldiers, patting them down. We move closer, hoping our presence may contain the violence, and after what feels like an endless harassment, the young men are set free. Welcome to the daily Hebron patrol and as one delegate said, the mass psychology of fascism.

The most painful part of this tour is the visit to Hisham's friend, Hashem Aza, who not only can not access his house from the main street, but also lives next to one of the most rabid anti-Palestinian settlers. He has been told, "If you want peace, go to Gaza, Egypt, Saudia Arabia," been cursed viciously, and particularly after the severe curfews from 2000-2003, many of his neighbors gave up and left. He states that there is a 90% poverty rate and minimal available employment. We clamber up a rocky hill, through several back yards and back stairs until we reach his home. He points to the stone stairs and garden that once were his backyard, but this has been repeatedly destroyed by his Jewish neighbors who not only have attacked his home and his family, but they have also cut his fruit trees, water and electricity lines. They too throw garbage and once hurled a washing machine that we see rusting amongst the trees. Only recently has he acquired water again and we see a new bright blue pipe snaking through the various backyards. His little boy comes scampering outside chasing a pink ball, watched carefully by his wife. In his home he shares more horrifying personal stories, shows us a series of videos documenting racist, violent attacks against Palestinians, primarily women and children, often by settler women and children, with no response from the police or IDF nearby. A committed nonviolent activist, he and his wife and nephew have been personally attacked, their home repeatedly trashed, his children suffer from bedwetting and other signs of PTSD, and he has unsuccessfully pursued his case in Israeli courts. He is determined to persevere, to document the realities in his beloved city, and bring this to the attention of the international community. We listen stunned and drowning in shame, outrage, and heartbreak.

Our sobering taste of life in Hebron includes other devastating stories and experiences with Israeli guard towers, camouflage netting, checkpoints, a wall spray painted with graffiti that includes a tribute to the Golani brigade, one of the IDFs most aggressively violent units and to Betar, a right wing youth organization. I pass a concrete block obstructing the road, spray painted with an arrow and the words: "This is apartheid." There are occasional Palestinian Authority police, but the consensus is that they are mostly useless.

So what do we do with this shameful reality? While most Israelis do not support these settlers, they receive full support, protection and encouragement from the Israeli government and military, and this has not changed in the past 42 years, no matter who is in power. They have made the lives of the Palestinians in Hebron a living hell, and they have never been held accountable. This does not happen by accident. From the moment Goldstein massacred the Palestinians in the mosque, it was a political decision by the Israeli government to put the Palestinians under curfew and protect the Jewish settlers who now celebrate his murderous actions. While these settlers are clearly the most racist, religiously fanatic, possibly deranged, and fascistic element in Israeli society, they both use and are used by the government as a wedge in the never ending land grab and Judaization of the West Bank.

Given the blather that mostly passes for news about the settler issue in the US and Netanyahu and Leiberman's blatant support for the settlement project and utter disregard for the the welfare of Palestinians, BDS is looking more and more like a reasonable imperative. I take my inspiration from the nonviolent activists who shared their painful reality with us. Such is the impact of a day in Hebron. .

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

We still have hope

It is 7 am and I am surrounded by a large, warm, welcoming Hebron family that can't stop feeding me. Foolishly I thought if I got up early enough, I could blog discretely by myself, but this is not the way of the surround-sound/love/talk/prayer/eat that is the norm here.
So, a bit of information about the issue of refugees. (Quick confession: I am learning how to write with the din of human activity all around me and I am beginning to reach toxic levels of hummus which may affect my ability to think clearly.)
On January 11, we visit with Mohammed Jaradet of the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. He speaks in a deep, resonant voice and has sparkling olive green eyes that twinkle as he presents. He explains to the delegation that today 2/3 of Palestinians are refugees, mostly from 1948, and some from 1967. The more than seven million displaced Palestinians constitute the world's largest and longest standing case of forced displacement; thus any political solution must include a solution to the refugee crisis as well as other well known issues.
Mohammed has been involved in a variety of technical teams, campaigns, and conferences, beginning with Oslo and moving forward. He notes that in the 5000 pages of the Oslo Accord, only one sentence focused on the question of the refugees. "If you want to kill a tree, you dig up the roots." Thus he sees that one of the primary problems, Palestinian refugees, has repeatedly during the "peace process" been left to be dealt with later or is entirely out of the conversation.
In 1994 a popular campaign was begun and in 1995, the first popular conference was held in the former detention center, Al Faran, where many of the attending Palestinians had previously been imprisoned. 1500 people attended from Israel, the West Bank, and the diaspora, and this conference established the principle that the Palestinian struggles are not really about statehood, but rather about human rights.
In 1998, BADIL, (which means alternative), opened its first office in Bethlehem to focus on:
1. campaigns (education, youth, boycott, divestment, sanctions)
2. development of intellectual resources
3. legal and advisory work.
Mohammed easily admits that he does not care about sovereignty, but rather about human rights and international law, including UN Resolutions. He explains that the right of return, enshrined in UN Resolution 194, states that refugees who wish, have the right to return and/or to compensation. Clearly he has explored the realities of such an option. He explains that return or restitution is a human right. On the other hand, the options to integrate into the host country or to integrate into a new host country are a privilege that is granted by the host country. He understands that most Israelis find this argument crazy and say something to the effect that we have one small country and the Arabs have 22 countries, let the Palestinians go there. He replies that Palestinians have one hope and no state and they have clearly not been welcomed in Lebanon, Egypt, many of the Gulf States, and so forth.

He also notes that Israel is largely vacant. 84% of Jewish Israelis live on 16% of the land defined by 1948. So there are options for return. Palestinians could build new towns at the sites of destroyed villages that are not inhabited; they could live near the sites of their previous homes; they have no desire to destroy what has been built since they left or to create new injustices for the generation born in Israel. And he is ready to be creative. He suggests that the descendants of the town on which Tel Aviv University was built be given free tuition as compensation. His focus is on people rather than institutions, and he notes ironically that states have been built and destroyed over the centuries but the people remain; he has dedicated his life to people, prosperity, and living together equally.

This sentiment leads him directly to the boycott, divestment, sanction (BDS) struggle which is occuring in the context of this conflict. He explains that boycott involves individual consciousness around issues of state aggression and apartheid and the avoidance of products that are produced by the Israeli state. Divestment involves ethical behavior by companies that refuse to profit at the expense of destroying another people. Sanctions occur on a governmental level and he notes that George Mitchell just recently stated something to the effect that the US will freeze grants to Israel if there is not movement on negotiations and the freezing of settlement growth. As the Israeli government is very sensitive to public opinion and very dependent on international support, this kind of talk is extremely threatening and indeed these comments created an uproar. He also refers to the Goldstone Report and remarks that if not for US protection, much of the Israeli leadership could end up accused in International Criminal Courts. I remember hearing that some Israeli leaders are cautious about traveling outside of the country for fear of arrest or international accusations of misdeeds.

The Palestinians themselves are also in crisis with two devastated, fragmented leaderships, neither of which represents the consciousness of their communities, which Mohammed reminds us includes the diaspora. This is a "schizophrenic situation." People say the Palestinians "elected Hamas," but neither the Palestinians in exile nor the 1.5 million in Israel voted. The consensus of election analysts is also that this vote was primarily a revenge against Fatah, rather than a vote for Hamas. Mohammed states that he was on the election committee and when he saw Christians and secular people voting for Hamas, "Part of my hair turned white." Palestinians are proud of their secular democratic society. If there had not been international interference and blockade of Gaza, Mohammed predicts that Hamas would have failed at governance in two to three years as they are primarily a charitable organization for their members rather than a service organization for the whole people. He found himself forced to defend Hamas because they were the peoples' choice (not his) and also notes that Abbas is not the worst of leaders. "Even a genius in this conflict would look stupid because he is weak and has huge pressures from Israel, the US, Europeans, and the quarter of a million employees of the Palestinians Authority who went without salary for two years due to the international boycott.

He notes that civil society organizations are increasing in power and BADIL has "a very argumentative relationship with the Palestinian leadership." They helped change Abbas' mind regarding his dismissal of the Goldstone Report "in 24 hours." He also notes that Hamas is not an authentic Palestinian movement, but
rather a part of the Moslem Brotherhood and accountable to outside pressures.

Mohammed continues to review the conditions on the ground. He states that the Oslo Agreement in 1993 forced Palestinians to cooperate with the Israeli authorities on security, but there was no attention to social affairs, development, etc. The Occupied Territories were divided into Area A (18% of the West Bank, under Palestinian Authority control), Area B (22% of the West Bank, under Palestinian Authority civil control, Israeli military control) and Area C (60% of the West Bank, Israeli control), but functionally the entire area is under Israeli military control and the Israelis reserve the right to invade at any time and the "Palestinians stand like good boys turning their face around. This is a humiliation." In another instance he notes that if their is a business dispute between a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian, the Israeli court can ask the Palestinian Authority to arrest the Palestinian, but the Jewish businessman can never be arrested by the Palestinian Authority. He also sees that the US only pushes "democratization of the Moslem world" when it suits their political and security interests, but they readily support a repressive leader like the Egyptian President who works closely with Israel, the CIA, and the US military when it comes to the Egyptian/Gaza border at Rafa. He adds that Hamas leadership in Gaza are living well, but the people are paying the price and ultimately, they will not submit to this kind of leadership.

After our discussion, I remember that an old friend, Shawqi Issa, a human rights lawyer who spent time at Harvard several years ago, has an office upstairs. Luckily for me, he welcomes me into his office, and I remember his big picture window with a view of the large Jewish settlement of Gilo covering the horizon. We are soon sipping thick Arabic coffee and talking about his growing children and his latest legal cases. Two things he says are particularly disturbing. First he explains that in 2000 the Palestinian Authority contracted with Israel to provide for all the expenses of Palestinians housed in Israeli prisons. An Israeli company provides goods for the prisoners at exorbitant prices and the PA pays, thus the Israeli authorities are making a profit from the Palestinian prisoners. In addition, if a prisoner makes any mistake (like shouting at a guard) then the prisoner is fined and the PA pays the fine to the tune of millions of shekels per year. The profit made from this arrangement then funds the expenses of the military courts, judges salaries, etc. So the very people who put Palestinians in jail financially benefit from their imprisonment. Shawqi is working to end this corrupted relationship with a number of civil society groups and he feels that if this can be changed, the population of prisoners will drop dramatically. The difficulty is that the PA also provides the prisoner's family with a subsidy, so this is a difficult topic for Palestinian politicians to touch. Shawqi argues that the Israeli authorities should be responsible for the upkeep of their prisoners.

As we move on to other topics, Shawqi mentions that he is working on the Goldstone Report, "great!" and the upcoming presentation for the UN. He then notes something very disturbing. The news in the US has lately been about Netanyahu's willingness to halt settlement growth (except for East Jerusalem and a list of other exceptions), but Shawqi notes a dramatic increase in settlement activity and Palestinian house demolitions in the past two months. His phone rings continuously as we talk, many of them reports of new demolitions or settlement trouble.

He smiles warmly, his hair prematurely greying (surely one of the effects of the occupation I think) and states, "But we still have hope." He notes that BDS is now the most important activity that needs to be developed in order to encourage Israel to change its behavior. He shrugs his shoulders and gestures, "War is stupid, shouting is useless, law is useless, BDS works."

As I head down the seven flights of stairs, my head is spinning and I am trying to imagine, why is this so difficult to discuss in the US? And I realize this all comes down to the Zionist dream which by definition privileges Jews over Palestinians, and thus, by definition does not treat Palestinians as equal human beings with rights and dreams and mistakes and aspirations. It feels to me that it is this first step that is the hardest to take, and the obvious consequence of taking that first step, is the questioning of the concept of a Jewish state which by design can never be truly democratic, is committed to maintaining a Jewish majority at any cost despite demographics to the contrary, and by design will always be in conflict with the indigenous people that paid the price for its existence. Spending hours with Palestinians active in civil society, committed to democracy and human rights, continuing to work against all odds for justice and the implementation of international law is an uplifting and mind-altering experience. I wish I could explain this to my cousins in New York who think Amnesty International is an anti-Semitic organization or to my anxious friends in Israel who think I should be traveling with an armed guard as "these people are dangerous." They are really missing out on some incredible partners for peace.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Take me back to my homeland, even as a rose

Today in Israel, a center for culture and science, medicine and high tech, religious revival and literature, famous nature reserves and gorgeous beaches, I learned how to step across coils of barbed wire. It is critical to walk cautiously, to place your foot firmly at the intersection of several coils simultaneously to avoid the spring-like action in the wire, or the grip of the rows of sharp knife points, waiting like shark's teeth for a hapless victim. As you move forward, you must lift your foot slowly to avoid catching the back of your leg or ensnaring the person behind you when the coils spring into place. This is not the kind of skill that makes me particularly proud to be a Jew, but I am getting ahead of myself because I neglected to explain that the large curls of wire were placed around a mosque in El Ghabsiya, just south of the Lebanese border in northern Israel.
But why, you ask, does a mosque need to be wrapped in barbed wire?
I have just taken the train from Tel Aviv to Nahariya to meet with two attorneys, Wakeem Wakeem and his brother Salim, their father Elias, and colleagues Dahoud Badr and Suhail Miari. In Wakeem's office just beyond the train station there is a poster with the caption: "Take me back to my homeland, even as a rose." And so the story begins. These men, all Israeli citizens, work with groups including the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth and the Association for Defense of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Israel and I am here to document some of their story.
As we drive through the area, they point out various Jewish towns and cities, such as Shelomi and Shlumit, as well as Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948. They point to a crumbling mosque and palm tree, formerly the Arab village of Zeeb. The mosque has been closed since the war, but the local Jewish population uses the land adjacent to the mosque for festivals, parties, alcohol is served, and as one man explains, this feels like a deliberate desecration, "It hurts the feelings."

I am well aware that during war, many ugly events occur, but there is a painful personal reality to the stories that I am told. The older man, Elias, explains that in 1948, the town of Al Bassa contained 3000 people, 2/3 Christian, 1/3 Muslim, and was a famous village and transit point on the border with Lebanon, for people and goods. "In 1948 we thought we can give up to make agreement with the Israelis to enter the village peacefully and we also thought to them, we can give up our weapons." Agreements were made and broken, collaborators misled the villagers, and in May, soldiers attacked, leaving only the northern border open so most of the villagers fled to Lebanon. During further negotiations, Elias reports the Palestinians were told, "We ask the Jewish settlers why you attack us and they said 'We want the land without the people.'" The Palestinians became further victimized in Lebanon and have endured generations of suffering, with the the Christians moving to the Rashidia Refugee camp, the Muslims to the Dbaya Refugee Camp.

Elias tried to return three times because his mother and aunt had fled to Nazaria. "I ask the Israeli authorities when they arrest me [for the third time], will you give me my mother and aunt or give me permission to stay here?" He was granted permission "on humanitarian grounds," married in 1952, moved to nearby Miilyia, and had eight children. We drive to the sight of Al Bassa and I expect to see fragments of ruins and clusters of spiky saber cactus, but the area is completely built up with industry and the local kibbutz has confiscated large tracts of farmland. What is left is a crumbling neglected church, a Christian cemetery, also poorly maintained, family crypts with gaping holes, fragments of bones visible, a mosque surrounded by barbed wire and tall white metal fencing, also in disrepair, and a neglected Moslem cemetery. For years the mosque was not closed and the Jewish Israelis used the building for goats, cows, and sheep. It seems that one sheep has found its way into the grassy area beside the mosque and blankly stares at us as we peek over the fencing. Despite multiple legal and political efforts, the Israeli authorities have forbidden the local residents to maintain or to use any of these facilities. It seems that even the dead cannot escape the consequences of the Nakba.

We are now standing in front of the mosque from the town of El Ghabsiya where I have just had an intimate acquaintance with the perils of barbed wire. Daoud Bader explains that the story of the town of El Ghabsiya is slightly more complicated and has become a symbol of the failure of justice for Palestinians living in Israel. He speaks deliberately with a quiet passion, I am afraid he will start to weep. In 1948, the village had 700 inhabitants and a prominent town leader made an signed agreement with the Haganah that they would cooperate in exchange for a promise not to attack. In May 1948, the Jewish forces entered the village and as the soldiers approached, Daoud Zaini climbed to the roof of the mosque waving a white flag. The Jewish soldiers shot him dead and killed eleven other residents despite the lack of any resistance. The inhabitants fled, not even having time to bury Daoud.

In most cases like this, Palestinians who were expelled from their villages but remained within the borders of the State of Israel were declared "present absentees," a Kafka-esque category that designates villagers as internal refugees, people and their descendants who were driven from their homes in 1948 and thus considered "absent" when the determinations of land ownership were made by the Israeli authorities. Often present absentees who are Israeli citizens live a few miles from their original homes and farm lands which are now state land and made available only for Jews.

Unlike most internally displaced Palestinians, the residents of El Ghabsiya were allowed to return less than 12 months later. In August 1951, Prime Minister Ben Gurion declared the village a closed military zone and the residents were expelled for a second time. For six years the residents fought to return through protests and legal petitions in the Israeli courts. In November 1951 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the residents had a right to return to their village. As the residents prepared to enter their town, they were met by Israeli military forces who refused to honor the Court ruling. In 1955 and 1956, Israeli bulldozers leveled the town, leaving only the mosque standing. In 1995 former residents of El Ghabsiya began weekly efforts to pray in the long neglected mosque. The Israeli Land Authority responded by sealing the windows and doors, erecting a two meter high barbed wire fence, and finally a metal wall.

Today various parts of the metal sheets lean at odd angles and with a bit of chutpah and caution it is possible to penetrate the barbed wire and enter the ruins of the mosque, crumbling stones, trees growing in the courtyard, the school dark and filled with rubble. Treading along the top wall, we look out on the former village, now lush green trees, and beyond we can see the farmlands claimed by the local kibbutzim.

For me, there are so many upsetting aspects to this fragment of Israeli history, the first being the utter lack of respect for religious institutions and cemeteries that are not Jewish. I can only imagine the international uproar that would occur if I was describing a synagogue or a Jewish cemetery. And then I am constantly appalled by the underlying racism that is such a prominent feature of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. Lastly, I suspect that Israeli authorities are fearful that if internally displaced refugees are allowed their "right of return" this will open the flood gates to Palestinian refugees everywhere. I am impressed as I talk with these men that while they have moved on, become well educated, well traveled, and lived full and challenging lives, they remain dedicated to their commitment to their right of return. But they are also extremely reasonable and practical.

First they are working to have access and control over their religious institutions and cemeteries, surely this is the mark of a tolerant and democratic society, a standard to which Israelis publicly aspire. Secondly as the land of El Ghabsiya is now forest, they want the right to rebuild their village on land that is not inhabited, seemingly not an unreasonable request. But this is the point where the tortured Israeli land policies, the long history of deception and dispossession, and the inherent contradictions of building a state for Jews when 20% of the population are Palestinians become painfully obvious.

I wonder, perhaps, if this is the place to start a new chapter for these decent and resilient Israeli citizens.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

Two years ago I stood on corners all over Seattle collecting signatures for I-97, an initiative calling for the city of Seattle to divest from institutions affiliated with the State of Israel. Although I knew that divesting was an important action towards ending the occupation of Palestine, I did not believe that Seattle would even humor the idea. Sure enough I was right. Before our team could even collect the necessary signatures to get I-97 on the ballot, the opposition crushed our case and for logistical reasons, the city ruled that our specific call for divestment was illegal and could not be brought to a vote.

I walked away disheartened but not surprised and other then my own personal boycott of Israeli goods and services, I did not pursue additional actions in the divestment movement.

My perspective has drastically changed after meeting with multiple Israeli and Palestinian organizations all calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) of Israel as a crucial means of resisting Israeli occupation and the brutalization of Palestinians.

The call for BDS was formally issued in July 2000, signed by the majority of Palestinian civil society organizations to be applied until Israel:
1) Stops the occupation of the Palestinian territories
2) All people, including Palestinians enjoy equal rights within Israel
3) Israel acknowledges the right of return as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

10 years later, this movement is growing and organizations all over the world have endorsed the Palestinian BDS call. "We should send a clear message [to the Israeli authorities] that there is no more business as usual", argues Ronnie, an Israeli citizen and member of Boycott: Supporting the Israeli BDS Call from Within. For him, "BDS is a no brainer."

The Palestinian call clearly states that this action is not against Israeli people, it is against Israeli policies and the occupation of Palestine. It is about institutional not individual boycott. Of course, argues Yonaton, another Israeli activist in favor of BDS, " we want to stop the Israelis from killing and harassing innocent people, but we don't want to shoot the soldiers." Yohan, a member of Who Profits? shared Yonaton's concern and fear of negatively affecting Israelis; however, the role of occupier is psychologically and socially more destructive and both agree that without a drastic change in Israeli policy, the citizens of Israel will suffer far greater harm.

I return home with a terrible fear that my community will reject the idea of such a movement while Europe, Arab countries, and Israelis definitively demonstrate their support for BDS. How can I help to show my community how destructive this occupation is on Israeli society and the longevity of the State of Israel and all it's people? How can I convince my community of Americans and Jews who fear the word anti-Semite and stand with Israel without question, that their blind support is far more destructive then taking a stand? How do I help them see that it is with our tax dollars that this bloody, illegal occupation is carried out? I must remind them that it was the BDS movement of South Africa that brought an end to apartheid. "Money speaks."

On January 10th, 2010 the Cairo Declaration was issued by citizens from 42 different countries calling for BDS. I add my name to the long list of individuals who support BDS and I accept my responsibility as an American, as a Jew, and as a human being who has witnessed horrible suffering to guide my community to support BDS out of love for all humankind.

Nablus - Alan, 7 January

We’ve just finished our three-day visit to the Farah Center, the Palestinian Medical Relief Society’s outpatient rehabilitation facility in Nablus. Nablus is the home of Dr. Allam Jarrar, PMRS’ director of rehabilitation for the northern West Bank, and our good friend. He briefed us on our arrival and coordinated our itinerary. Alice, Ellen, and Peter headed off to Tulkarm to work in the PMRS polyclinic there; Jon, Marc, Sonia and I worked at the Farah Center.

This is the only such resource for disabled children in the northern West Bank, and an example of how civil society organizations are working to change Palestinian society. They not only care for the disabled, they advocate for their rights and for their acceptance into the wider society. They are very clear about their mission; they recognize the tendency for Palestinians to isolate the disabled, to ignore their basic human needs, let alone their special needs, and they work to change it. Across town, PMRS operates a training center for Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) workers, young women who come from villages around the West Bank for training, then return to their communities where they identify and outreach to the disabled, connect them to services, and advocate for them. The eagerness of the CBR workers and the Farah Center staff to learn is striking. On Tuesday, Jon led a discussion of PTSD at the CBR center with about 20 staff and CBR workers – participation was lively.

Today I presented an overview of child development to the group – this was really fun, as all these women had lots of experience with small children, and some of the concepts were new to them, and with Allam and Haya translating for me, it lasted over three hours.

The Farah Center staff includes physical, occupational, and speech therapists, a psychologist, and a pediatric neurologist. As always, they were warm, welcoming, and appreciative. They had arranged for us to see particularly problematic patients: for me, developmentally disabled children with nutritional problems, and for our mental health group (Jon, Marc, and Sonia) individuals and families with psychosocial issues. I saw a series of children with devastating conditions: severe brain damage from birth anoxia (lack of oxygen); genetic disorders; a four-year-old girl who at 18 months had choked on food while in the care of a babysitter and was left blind, spastic, unresponsive.

There were some unifying themes here: the families I saw were devoted to these children and were spending enormous amounts of time and energy trying to adequately feed and care for them. But all of them were seriously malnourished, and none

of the families knew how much their children needed to support normal growth. Most of them would benefit from a feeding tube placed directly into the stomach; it would allow for adequate nutrition, which would maximize their developmental potential, and would make life much easier for their families. I raised this with each of the families and their responses were varied: some could not bring themselves to consider it, some thought it was a good idea but felt that other family members would reject it; and some welcomed it. A seven-year-old boy, devastated by birth anoxia, had had a gastrostomy tube placed, and his father was quite comfortable with it. He told me that many Palestinian families would be ashamed of such a disabled child and hide them away, but he loved his son and kissed and hugged him throughout the visit. Most of them had serious sleep disturbances and severe constipation. All were seeing doctors outside the Farah Center, but it appeared that they weren’t getting the kind of care they needed, care that could make their lives a little easier. This presents a problem, since the Farah Center is not a primary care facility. I asked each of the parents if they’d like to meet other parents with children who had similar kinds of conditions, and all were positive. One mother told me she already did talk with other mothers while in the waiting room at the Farah Center, and it was very helpful. We discussed this with Allam and the staff; they were planning to begin such groups this year, they all agreed this was an important means of providing psychosocial support, and they were going to include this in their plan for the new year.

En route from Nablus to Tel Aviv, we passed through a checkpoint that in the U.S. would be taken for a toll plaza. Our van was pulled aside and we had our passports examined and our baggage scanned; it might have been an airport but of course there were no planes around. Security men and women in plainclothes were everywhere, toting automatic weapons and shades. This is an example of how Israel is attempting to normalize a very abnormal situation: privatizing their security operation, making it appear like other civilian institutions – toll booths, airport security – tempting the casual observer to overlook the underlying dynamic of repression and control.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

If only the Palestinians had a Gandhi

Alice Rothchild

Part Three

On January 4th, the health and human rights delegation is scheduled to meet with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, Legislative Council member, former Palestinian Authority Minister of Information, and founder of Palestinian Medical Relief Society. We arrive at the modern PMRS offices in Ramallah, only to be informed that he is attending a rally at the Ofer Prison to call attention to the case of Jamal Juma, Coordinator of the Palestinian grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign. Jamal Juma is a human rights activist from East Jerusalem who was arrested approximately three weeks ago and has yet to be charged. In East Jerusalem Palestinians have Israeli residency cards, but not Israeli citizenship. This was to be his first hearing in the process.

We are told that Israeli authorities have moved Jamal's hearing outside of Jerusalem where a more accountable legal system exists, to a military court in the Ofer prison which we can see through the wire fencing and yellow sliding barrier as a long, ominous, concrete building in the distance. We have heard that conditions at Ofer have been compared to Guantanamo.

Approximately 50 people mill about, chanting in Arabic, waving Palestinian flags and holding a large sign demanding Jamal's release, as well as other anti-wall prisoners. They urge Abbas and Hamas to work for the release of prisoners and ask the prisoners to have patience. Dr. Barghouti adds his voice to the chants and talks with reporters. Two well-dressed men in suits urgently plead with the soldiers to allow their cars entry through the checkpoint that leads to the prison. They are both lawyers. A woman in a hijab and long dress anxiously waits to pass through the gate as well. I wonder if she is a prisoner's mother or wife. We learn that at this point, no charges have been brought against Jamal although documents have been collected in a secret file, and ultimately the hearing is postponed until January 7, (and on January 7 postponed again), a common tactic in these situations.

In the U.S., this demonstration would have been an example of free speech, the right to assembly, the right for peaceful groups to join together to make their voices heard. But this is Israel, "the only democracy in the Middle East," and for Palestinians, much of what is happening this morning is not only immensely frustrating and dangerous but also illegal.

Ala Joradat, the program manager of Adameer, a Palestinian human rights organization that focuses primarily on prisoners, legal aid, and monitoring, meets with our delegation and tries to unravel the complex civil and human rights issues that face Palestinians, particularly those who choose to protest the conditions of the Israeli occupation. He explains that the prisoners are both a product of the conflict and a cause for the conflict. Since 1967, 800,000 Palestinians have experienced detention, representing more than 53% of the population over 18. Because mostly Palestinian males are targeted for arrest, 60-70% of adult males have been to prison. To me this feels somewhat parallel to the disproportionately large number of African-American males currently incarcerated in the US.

I wonder if this reflects a huge number of militants and fighters in the OPT, or are there more subtle political forces at work. Ala explains that arrest and detention are based on military orders that have been in effect since 1967. The military commander issues and cancels orders, heads the civil administration, and assigns the prosecutors, judges, translators, etc, so the entire "justice system" is collegial and the military court is a division of the Israeli Defense Force. Ala emphasizes that military orders are designed to control the population, ranging from what road a Palestinian can use to whether he can dig a well for water. I am stunned at the list of mind boggling potential security offenses which include:

1. reading the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet who gave voice to the anguish of dispossession and exile
2. reading "The Collection of UN Resolutions on the Question of Palestine 1948-1982"
3. associations of parties, factions, charitable societies, NGOs, unions, and student associations. (After Oslo, defacto the PLO and Fatah were legitimized, but in Israeli law they are still listed as "illegal terrorist organizations.")
4. wearing political symbols, including the cartoon character "Handala"
5. carrying a Palestinian flag (which is the flag of the PLO which is technically still an illegal organization)
6. protesting the seizing of your land
7. throwing stones at the separation wall (destruction of state property)
8. throwing stones at a soldier (attempted murder)
9. assisting an injured person at a demonstration, including medical workers, (assisting a terrorist)
and the list goes on.

Functionally what this means is that the IDF can control the lives of people and organizations and use the thousands of potential security offenses in an unpredictable and arbitrary manner. According to Ala, an Israeli soldier, policeman, or even civilian can detain a Palestinian for 8 days without a specific reason, no legal review, and and at the end of this initial period, Palestinians appear before a military judge where they can be released, prosecuted and charged, placed in administrative detention, or most likely sent for interrogation for up to 180 days, with no access to a lawyer for up to 90 days. Ala notes that the interrogation centers are located in police stations or prisons, are controlled by the Shin Bet, and report to the prime minister without external monitoring. Most of the torture that has been well documented by a variety of Israeli and Palestinian organizations occurs in these settings. The methods have changed over the years, but any statements obtained under torture are admissible in court, even if torture is proven. The prisons are also rife with collaborators; if a prisoner denies he has committed any crimes, then other prisoners suspect he is a collaborator. If the prisoner boasts of criminal activities true or false, to prove himself to the other prisoners, this is all reported back to the Israeli authorities and held as evidence without any external investigation.

These are the kinds of cases Adameer has represented for years. Ala further explains that charges are also often so vague, without clear times and places, they are difficult to disprove. He sites an example of a case where three men were accused of shooting an Israeli vehicle north of Ramallah. Two confessed and one did not and Adameer took the case. During the trial, it was revealed that the event occurred in July, 2004. The prisoner stated he was in Jordan for the month of July. This information was brought to the attention of the military judge. Because the Israelis control all the borders, the judge could have easily accessed the security computer systems and determined if this man had left the country in July. Instead, the judge asked the Adameer lawyer to prove that the prisoner was in Jordan. The lawyers then brought evidence of stamps and papers that revealed that the prisoner was telling the truth. The military judge then demanded that the lawyers prove that the stamps were not fake. The man was subsequently found guilty in what sounds to me to be a kangaroo court.

Another dark side to this military justice system is the well documented use of collective punishment, demolition of the homes of prisoners, prohibition of family visitation, isolation of prisoners, and neglecting to provide adequate health care to prisoners. Ala also urgently wants us to understand administrative detention, an unlimited detention that can be renewed for months at the judgement of the military commander. If a military judge deems that a prisoner is a potential threat, his source of information is a secret file that neither the prisoner or the prisoner's lawyer has access to, and there is no limit to how often the administrative detention can be renewed. Ala describes cases where the detention was renewed just as the prisoner was leaving the prison, or even once he got home. What this means is that all people "of suspicion" can be imprisoned without evidence indefinitely. In the past 21 years, one Palestinian man has spent 17 years on and of, in administrative detention, effectively destroying him as well as his family.

The most significant point for me in this legally and ethically disturbing discussion is that the vast majority of people in administrative detention are nonviolent civil society activists. Additionally the IDF has a history of assassinating or imprisoning the more moderate Palestinian leadership.

So what are the implications of this system? Clearly the Israeli authorities are very threatened by nonviolent resistance and a powerfully organized civil society movement. This concept challenges the very idea of the unrelenting Arab threat that is the foundation of the Israeli security industry and foreign policy. Judging from the legal system in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a tortured and unjust legal system is strangling the leadership as well as the foot soldiers in the nonviolent movements that continue to persevere and sometimes flourish under the most difficult of circumstances. I can only wonder how many Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings, and Mandelas are rotting in Israeli jails today.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Coming Home

Tonight I sleep in the home of two feisty Israelis. Their water runs hot. Their electricity powers the television, computer, fridge, phones, lights, clock, heat, stereo. There are thick walls and big glass sliding doors that look out onto a green veranda and I can see stars in the clear Yaffa sky. This is one home I have visited today.

Earlier this afternoon I found myself in a different home, a ghost of a home. This house did not have running water or electricity. It's walls were drafty and instead of a ceiling above my head I saw nothing but tops of trees. My guide Mr. A, a resident of the town Al-Lajjun in the north of Israel lead our group into what appeared to be a beautiful wooded area with yellow dandelions and blood red tissue paper poppies studding the florescent green grass. Without my guide I would have stopped to enjoy the fresh smell of the air and the tall trees, removed from the busy highway and congested city of Ramallah, Nablus, Yaffa, but Mr. A painted another picture of this land. "We built a meeting room here. I remember it well because it was beautifully decorated". Prior to 1948, on this site stood the village Al-Lajjun with 480 plots owned by 480 Palestinians. There were schools, a mosque, a cemetery, animals, families, and homes. In 1948, the townspeople of Al-Lajjun were violently driven from their houses and took refuge in the fields surrounding the village with plans to return to their homes as soon as it was safe. They took very little with them, only what they could carry, and they fled. Despite Palestinian legal ownership of the land, Israel has confiscated all 480 plots, bulldozed every single building and used the cemetery as a dump, an action denied by the Jewish Israeli authorities. Megiddo kibbutz was built on the land and the kibbutzim plow and sow the fields. There is a fence around the mosque and no Palestinian Israeli is permitted to enter. Finally, to cover up the scars of this demolished village, the Jewish National Fund has planted hundreds of non-native fast growing evergreens to create a man-made forest that erases the recent history of this farming town.

The residents of Al-Lajjun were granted Israeli citizenship after 1948, and fled to the neighboring city of Um il Fahm. They have been subjected to countless home demolitions (11 in 2009 alone), lack of infrastructure, curfews leading to the subsequent loss of jobs and land, and general harassment by the Jewish Israeli authorities. They have been continually denied the right to return to their land and compensation for the loss of property, despite aggressive court cases. Tonight they do not sleep at home.

This morning I crossed the border between the West Bank and Israel with our fearless and unstoppable Palestinian guide. Mr. M has West Bank residency and travel outside of the Israeli controlled boarders requires a permit which is very difficult to acquire. Mr M's permit was granted the night before our departure; however, the travel dates were wrong making the permit useless.

This morning Mr M pulled a hat over his face, pretended to sleep, and chose a seat in the far corner of the bus. Half of our group left their passports in the trunk. After intense anxiety, we smuggled him across the border. As the Israeli soldier checked my passport and waved us through, I fumed over the ludicrous injustice; me, a tourist moving freely at my whim, my peaceful guide who has committed no crime is restricted from coming and going from his own country, a prisoner in his own home.

Tonight as you drift off to sleep take a moment to appreciate your house and consider those here who are struggling for their right to go home.

If only the Palestinians had a Ghandi

Alice Rothchild

Part Two

As I continue my journey into the West Bank, I find examples of Palestinian nonviolent resistance in the most unexpected of places. At the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem, I wander into a lushly decorated traditional living room, floor to ceiling photos and artifacts, a furnished Bedouin tent, a collection of priceless traditional wedding dresses, an exhibition space for old artifacts and a gift shop. Posters attest to the many awards the Center has received for its continuous efforts to revive Palestinian heritage and to promote Palestinian culture., There is even a picture of the Pope wearing a robe embroidered by Bethlehem women.

I find the founder of this center, Maha Saca, juggling customers, visitors, and me with a generous and focused manner. Maha is the kind of glamorous woman wearing beautifully embroidered clothes and jewelry, who just laughs when I ask her how old she is. Finally we sit alone in the decorated living room at the back of the Center and she begins to tell me her story. She was born in Beit Jala just south of Jerusalem, the oldest of six, to a politically active household. Her father, Jires Saleba Rumman, fought the British, the Jordanians, and then the Israelis, "Never with guns. All struggling by culture and heritage, no weapons." Her mother, Elaine, served as the unofficial social worker of Beit Jala, frequently volunteering to care for people in need, especially children. Her family had an elegant house with gardens, Cypress trees, fruit and olive orchards. Some of the olive orchards have more recently been declared part of Jerusalem and are now surrounded by the Jewish settlement of Gilo. Maha can visit her olive trees if she can get a permit, but last year she hired an olive picker who slept in the orchard and awoke with a gun in his face, harassed by an armed settler, and she has not returned to the land this year.

As a young woman, Maha developed a love for her home, "It is part of paradise," she smiles warmly, and was politically outspoken at school demonstrations against the Jordanian occupation before 1967. Her father became a major figure in the PLO, but was expelled from the country in 1967 and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. When her father died in 2002, Maha recalls asking for a permit from the Israelis to fly from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel to attend his funeral. She was informed that permits were granted for illness,not funerals. There was no time to arrange a cumbersome exit through the Allenby Bridge and Jordan and she still deeply regrets missing his funeral.

Her siblings left to live with their father and Maha stayed behind with her mother and youngest brother until 1969 when an ambitious young engineer, Nader Saca asked the Rumman family for the hand of the 19 year old Maha. They first met on their wedding day and are happily married today with three grown children.

Maha became interested in researching the traditional Palestinian embroidered dresses as a key to maintaining cultural roots and identity in the face of expulsions, refugee camps, and an extensive diaspora. She explains to me that she found 40 different villages represented at the Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem and interviewed the older women, documenting their particular dresses and embroidery styles, their pill box shaped hats lined with gold and silver coins, mostly prepared for weddings. "Each dress tells a story." She shows me one hat where much of the gold is replaced by silver; the mother would remove a gold coin every time the family had a financial emergency and replace it with silver.

She is still upset that so many Palestinians sold their treasured dresses, hats, and jewelry to Israelis after the '67 war, out of desperate poverty and a lack of appreciation for the value of their cultural heritage. In 1987 during the First Intifada, Maha opened a Palestinian cultural heritage center in Bethlehem "as part of the struggle." She continued to be politically active in the anti-occupation movement and shows me a scar on her leg where she was shot in a demonstration by an Israeli soldier in 1988. She recounts the protests and the tear gas, "many times, even in the Nativity Church and Manger Square." In 2000 during an Israeli incursion, she remembers being home alone with Israeli F 16s bombing nearby and shattering her windows on impact. She describes the occupation, "I feel myself in jail."

Despite all of these challenges, over the years she has built this cultural museum and shop, continued her research, taught countless women embroidery skills, and employed women in the refugee camps. "This is good work for women, They do it in their house."

We continue the interview in Maha's family home after a tour of the grounds which includes a cold cellar where 100 people hid under the house for 3 days during the 1967 war. She recounts the fear and the terrible conditions, the Israeli loud speakers urging people to flee to Jordan or face death, the stream of poor desperate refugees moving eastward. She remarks forthrightly, "It is better to die in your house than to leave." She has learned the lessons of 1948 well. She keeps picking herbs for me to smell and explaining the various teas and recipes she loves. She stops to smell a white rose bush in full bloom.

Maha Saca laughs easily, her hair is beautifully coiffed and honey blond, and she is feeding me an excessive amount of tasty stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis which I am happily consuming. A Christmas tree twinkles beside the couch and her home is wall-to-wall treasures, mostly Palestinian and Syrian. Despite all the trauma and the losses she has experienced, she is clear, "I don't believe in weapons. You are more strong by speaking than by the bullet...We can be friends with the Jewish people. We are against the occupation. Israel is very lucky to take [over] half of Palestine." She urges Israelis to stop seizing land, destroying houses, and imprisoning the Palestinian people. "If they do not do this, then one day there will be no State of Israel."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Working with the Palestine Medical Relief Society in Tulkarem

Posted by Peter Sporn

5 January 2010

Today, the second full day with the HaHRP delegation in Palestine, I went to assist in providing medical care to patients at the Palestine Medical Relief Society clinic in Tulkarem. A small city of 60,000 people in the northwestern section of the West Bank, Tulkarem sits at the border with Israel, hemmed in and divided at its western edge by the Israeli Apartheid Wall. The Palestine Medical Relief Society (PMRS) clinic in Tulkarem is located near the city center, above a dress shop, whose manikins in brightly-colored garb line the staircase to the clinic entry. It is a modest facility, run by Dr. Mohammed Shaban, a specialist in chronic diseases (similar to a family physician or internist in the U.S.) and a dedicated, cheerful staff. I was accompanied by another member of our delegation, Dr. Ellen Isaacs, an internist and cardiologist from New York.

After introductions and a brief orientation from Dr. Shaban, he, Ellen and I began seeing patients. We worked as a group, with Dr. Shaban translating to and from Arabic. Together, we saw a whole range of patients, mostly adults and a few children, some well-known to Dr. Shaban, and many new, including patients who had come to the clinic to be checked the “doctors from America.” At least half of the patients who came had respiratory complaints, which suited me fine, since my specialty is pulmonary medicine. Out of about 15 patients we saw, 5 (3 adults and 2 children) had bronchial asthma, which was poorly controlled in all of them. While a variety of factors may have contributed to their difficult-to-control asthma, I learned from one of the patients about a major problem in Tulkarem that adversely affects them all. Mr. O.A. (not his real initials), a 43 year-old journalist who has never smoked (unlike most Palestinian men his age), reported suffering from chronic wheezing and breathlessness, despite being on a combination of medicines that should work well for his asthma. In fact, he had already been prescribed (and was taking) a trio of inhaled medicines nearly identical to those used to treat severe asthma like his in the U.S.

Mr. O.A. explained, however, that he lived downwind of the Gishuri chemical plant, which released chemical pollution into the Tulkarem air that continually exacerbated his condition. He also explained that many people living near the Gishuri plant suffered from respiratory ailments. He told me that the plant had been built by the Israeli company years ago in Palestinian territory at the edge of Tulkarem, after it was determined that it would be too toxic for it to built within Israel. Later, after finished with our patients and being treated to a delicious lunch by the clinic staff, we were taken on a driving tour of Tulkarem by our PMRS driver, Abdul (not his real name). Abdul drove us by his house, which sits just across the road from the Gishuri plant, and from the Apartheid Wall, which runs along the outer perimeter of the factory. When I got out of the van to look at the plant (see picture at right), the foul and irritating chemical smell was strong indeed. While I have no idea what the chemicals were that I smelled, the strong sulfur and organic odors left me with little doubt of their toxic potential for the respiratory system, and likely other body systems as well.

Back at the hotel in the evening, a quick Google search revealed that the Gishuri facility was built in Tulkarem in 1984, after the company was denied a license to build it inside the Green Line in Telmond, Israel because it was considered too dangerous for the environment and human health (according to the Wafa News Agency, cited in a report by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel; Since the plant began operating in Tulkarem, in addition to sickening the nearby population, it has devastated much surrounding farmland due to the toxic effects of airborne and effluent chemicals on trees and crops, and seriously polluted groundwater. And Gishuri is not the only factory built by Israel in the Tulkarem district that has polluted the area. Other factories include for a solid waste recycling facility and an oxidation plant, both relocated from inside Israel, and a liquid fertilizer facility, all built in the nearby village of Irtah since the late 1980s (PENGON/Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign; Each of these facilities has severely affected health and the environment in the Irtah region.

A little more about our experience at the PMRS clinic. All the patients we saw and their family members were very grateful for our care. And after we finished seeing Mr. O.A., a cameraman suddenly appeared, and Ellen and I were interviewed for the local Tulkarem TV news. I expect that means even more patients will come to the clinic to be seen when we return tomorrow morning. I’m looking forward to it.

If only the Palestinians had a Gandhi

by Alice Rothchild

Part One

As I travel in the West Bank and see the ravages of the Israeli occupation and the disintegration of much of Palestinian hope as well as a functional political process, a question keeps haunting me. In the US, people who know only about suicide bombers and militant resistance, who only see Hamas violence on CNN and hear Israeli anxiety about the inexplicable rage of "those people," often ask me, "Why don't the Palestinians have a Gandhi? A Martin Luther King? Some civilized leadership committed to nonviolence?" But on the ground, I see a totally different picture that is much more from the grassroots and deeply woven into people's consciousness.

At the Al Rowwad Children's Theater in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, the founder Abed Abusour, talks determinedly of "beautiful resistance," of fighting hopelessness and violence with childrens' theater and dance, women's sewing and embroidery groups, classes in aerobics and yoga, computer labs, a study hall and library. The center sits a few blocks from the grotesque separation wall with garbage piled high, skinny cats darting in and out. One entry to the camp is framed by an enormous key with the words in Arabic and English, "NOT FOR SALE." Of the 4000 inhabitants, all descendants from the 1948 expulsion from Palestine, over half are children. There are no playgrounds or green spaces, the UNRWA school is poorly funded with often 40-50 children in a class, a lack of books and supplies, many of the men are unemployed. There are bumpy winding open streets and narrow alleyways, newer housing in pink/orange carved stone with wrought iron gates and graceful balconies, and more austere apartments desperately in need of repair with multiple families and generations living in close quarters. Bullet holes and fractured solar panels attest to earlier Israeli incursions. Al Rowwad has built an open air theater adjacent to the wall. At the base of the platform someone has spray painted a welcome sign to the Pope who recently came to see the children's performance. The Israelis insisted the actual stage be located slightly distant from the wall, as if turning one's head could possibly hide its ugliness and implications.

Abed refers to himself as "a social entrepreneur," working 7 days a week, his desk piled with reports, several computer screens, and cups of tea. When we visit, he is meeting with accountants and bankers trying to plot the upcoming annual budget at a time when funding is scarce and an Ashoka grant has just ended. His business plan feels part hope, part luck, and mostly sheer perseverance. When he speaks, his vision of beautiful resistance is passionate and solid, but the desperation in the camp, his fear of losing another generation of children, and the crisis in funding are clearly weighing on his mind.

Abed's wife, Nahil, a science teacher with an East Jerusalem ID and a second family home in East Jerusalem, is upstairs working with a group of women to create a display of the camp's exquisite traditional embroidery: bags, jackets, small zippered cases with delicate stitchery in reds and blacks, deep blues, greens and yellows, patterns reflecting the Star of Bethlehem. There is a warm camaraderie amongst the women. They are clearly proud of their work. My daughter and I stay with the Abusours in their newly built home about 1 1/2 miles from the camp, which is overcrowded with no room for growing families. Abed refers to the cluster of families in this new neighborhood as "the extraterrestrials, no one wants us." The house was started 8 years ago and is not quite done; a full apartment on each floor, a modern kitchen with attractive cherry cabinets Nahil picked out of a US catalogue and then had built locally. There is heavy, dark upholstered Palestinian furniture and embroidered pillows. The house echoes with the sounds of five boisterous children, 1 1/2 to 9 years old, drawing, laughing, watching TV (Their favorite movie is "Shall We Dance?") fighting, jumping on beds, and taking care of each other. The bathroom has a cup with 5 little toothbrushes and animal stickers on the mirror. The 1 1/2 year old toddles around pointing and chirping, wearing her coat most of the time, which seems to be her security blanket. We are presented with a collection of drawings: butterflies, neat houses with rows of flowers and a bright yellow sun, a boat in the sea surrounded by fish. I note that the children have never actually seen much of these scenes. This is the globalization of TV imagery, the Disneyfication of the childhood imagination, but as the parents remark, better than the drawings a few years ago, of guns and tanks.

Nahil maintains an incredible serenity in this organized chaos, chopping various greens, preparing traditionally spiced chicken and rice with toasted almonds and the ubiquitous olive oil, setting herbs to dry, throwing in yet another load of laundry. She sits for a moment to strategize how we could help to find catalogues to order experimental kits to start a science club at school, "bugs and things, no explosions." Earlier in the day she tried a Flamenco class led by a Japanese volunteer, but she admits she really preferred the yoga class my daughter taught later. "More relaxing, less difficult."

I am unprepared for how healthy and normal this family feels. They have an additional layer of stress beyond their refugee status. Due to Israeli family reunification laws, Abed was unable to obtain a permit to legally live with his wife and growing family in East Jerusalem for six years. His wife and children do not want to lose their precious Jerusalem IDs because it gives them access to better health care, schools, work, and extended family. Abed describes years of harrowing attempts to sneak into the city, beatings, and an occasional arrest. Now the family splits its time between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem but Abed has to travel separately through the Bethlehem Terminal while his wife can take the children through in her car with the yellow Israeli plates. At this point the children still think this is normal.

I can never fully walk in the shoes of the Palestinians who share their stories with me, but it seems obvious that Abed and Nahil, and the invisible people living in the Aida camp must make a powerful committment to nonviolent resistance every day of their lives under incredibly challenging and harsh conditions. CNN, when will this make headlines?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Caution: Vehicles from Both Sides

Welcome to Israel
For me, a flight to Israel is fraught with an intense mixture of excitement, angst, despair, and a powerful feeling of political solidarity. The Delta flight from New York catches me by surprise with pot-bellied bearded men praying in the aisles, their wives with wigs or tight scarves in a bun, negotiating flocks of children, a large Hassidic black hat stowed in the overhead luggage. Arguments break out between the steward and several passengers, and I feel that strange sense of belligerence and entitlement that has become a caricature of Israelis today.
I struggle for tolerance; slow breathing, two glasses of wine, and massive fatigue finally descend. Eleven hours later the overhead announcements morph into Hebrew. We are entering Israeli airspace and can no longer leave our seats. I wonder if a full bladdar could mean certain death. I feel as though everyone passively accepts that these security measures protect us from the ubiquitous "terrorist threat." I think of my friend who observed that Israeli security is the" best," but it tends to collide with human rights. As I sit passively in my seat, (wondering, am I a threat?), I understand that this double vision is a guiding principle for me.
On the walkway from the airplane, there is a poster of the first Italian (a smiling Mona Lisa), the first Dutchman (a troubled Van Gogh), the first Israeli (a big green Sabra cactus), sharp and prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside. In the dazzling Ben Gurion airport, "Welcome Brightright" flags greet us. Clearly some people are more welcome than others. My daughter and I take the sleak new train to the Hahaganah station where a friendly, slightly agitated Jewish taxi driver tells us he was born in India, his family made Aliyah in 1949. He describes living in a tent for seven years, when the government finally moved his parents and their two sons to a two room house, with no electricity or water for another year. He keeps stressing that life in Israel is very hard; but he is pleased to have produced three children, six grandchildren, with two on the way. We search for a lighter topic and he offers that he loves the Boston Celtics, watches the game in the middle of the night, US time. Offering an friendly response, I say, "I hear Israel has a good football team." He retorts with bitter irony, "Israelis are not good at sports. We are only good at war."
Bridge 4 Peace
The next day we find the bus to Bethlehem across from Damascus Gate in the Old City. The conversation is all Arabic, chattering on cell phones, women in hijabs, breaking off chunks of "kayk," or Jerusalem Bagel, covered in sesame seeds. Young boys offer older women their seats; there is a sense of graciousness as well as resignation as we wait in traffic and take on more passengers. A street sign catches my eye: "Caution: Vehicles from Both Sides." I cannot help but feel the metaphor. Perhaps the next sign should read: "Caution: Collision Ahead."
A sign at the Bethlehem terminal announces: "Pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Bridge 4 Peace." The terminal is an intimidating, ugly affair, with its concrete walks lined by barbed wire and narrow turnstyles. I have a brief interaction with an anonymous young Israeli behind a wall of bullet proof glass, glancing at my US passport. We go down another long narrow corrider lined by barbed wire on one side and the concrete wall on the other, into the arms of the hungry taxi drivers.
On the way to Aida Refugee Camp we keep confronting the eight meter high graffiti convered wall, now made famous through the internet and Youtube. We are clearly now in prison with omninous watch towers breaking the undulating concrete wall. We turn into Aida Camp and the Al Rowwad Childrens Theater. After introductions and settling in, we return to East Jerusalem to celebrate New Years eve with two physician friends and their five week old baby.
This time the Bethlehem terminal has a long line snaking back and forth at the first turnstyle, roughly dressed laborers, elegant women, a variety of head scarves and long robes. After a delay, the light flashes green and one person is allowed through. A certain resigned camarderie develops, a young woman and an older man share the nightmare of being married to a spouse in East Jerusalem, of being unable to get permits to live together or to travel together with their families. The young woman receives a phone call, her children are crying in the car with yellow license plates owned by her husband, waiting for her on the other side. She says, "This life is like heaven on earth, only the opposite." She explains that she runs an arts festival in East Jerusalem and is interested in my daughter who is a dancer. Two men get into a shouting match, one cut into the line, tempers escalate, others shush and implore, patience. The word pressue cooker comes easily to mind as I think of the Palestinian workers lining up at 3 am to get through the checkpoint for their jobs at 8 am in Jerusalem. When my turn comes, I am ready, shoes off; bracelets, earrings, hair clips, coat, scarf, jacket, everything under the x- ray machine. But my body keeps setting off the metal detector. With a mixture of anxiety and frustration, I start removing more: is it my glasses? wedding ring? spare change? The crowd from the other side of the turnstyle are amused but encouraging. The turnstyle will not open for them until I am cleared. Finally I remember my money belt tucked safely under my pants, fling it off, and then I am free. Fifty minutes waiting at one turnstyle on one late afternoon. Welcome to Israeli security.
The Greater Jerusalem Agenda
My friends live in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood of 40,000 now part of "Greater Jerusalem," high on a hill with a glorious view. They explain that the Jewish settlement of Ramor, built on the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa, is visible from their balcony as well as Ramallah in the distance and the nearby community of Shu'afat. Shu'afat Camp has many Palestinian refugees expelled from East Jerusalem in 1967 and is a center of poverty, drugs, and criminal activity, often called "The Chicago Camp" after our own Mafia run city. Poverty and occupation have a terrible price.
The post 1967 stretching of Jerusalem boundaries eastward towards Jericho, to create a Greater Jerusalem that blurs the boundaries between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is a complicated and personal affair. As we drive down the Ramallah/Jerusalem Highway, once a major connector and now a small secondary road, Dr A, a very well respected physician in East Jerusalem, points to a major highway stretching over the road. This highway divides Arab neighborhoods and also is a spot that is easy for Israeli security to create a checkpoint and lock down the entire area, a common occurrence on Jewish holidays he explains. He also comments that here, Jewish youth come to stone the Palestinians. The Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods are multi-layered politically and historically. We drive through Jewish French Hill, once a well-to-do Palestinian neighborhood, and the new dorms of Hebrew University, all formerly the Arab village of Lifta, pass the Mormon University on the Mount of Olives, and Ammunition Hill where the Arab League built tunnels to fight the Israelis in 1967. This is now a park and Israeli army museum. After a huge municipal police headquarters and then another headquarter for the border guards, it is clear the Israelis are ready to defend their claims here. As we emerge through a tunnel, Dr. A points to a large house in the former neighborhood of Jorat Al Ennab. He explains this was his grandfather's house. It is now an Israeli cinemateque. Each street and home feels like an intimate puzzle piece in the struggle for an Israeli "Unified Jerusalem," or a Palestinian" future capital." Traveling with a Palestinian, each neighborhood breathes with a story of loss, yearning, and defiance.
A Kind of Resistance
I have known Dr. K since she was a medical student at Al Quds University, smart, feisty, ambitious. She began attending Seeds of Peace as a young teenager and is well- versed in the art of dialogue and reconciliation. She did clinical rotations at Columbia University in New York and Harvard University in Boston and obtained a Masters in International Health Managment at Brandeis University in Waltham after a residency in Beirut evaporated in a war. She dreams of becoming an ophthalmologist, but cannot train at Saint Johns Eye Hospital in East Jerusalem because the Israeli Medical Association does not recognize her MD. She tried again to train in Beirut in 2008, only to be defeated by the outright hostility towards Palestinians that she faced in the hospital. Palestinians face a host of barriers in Lebanon, including restrictions against work and owning property.
Her husband, Dr. A, is an accomplished obstetrician-gynecologist, has worked with numerous NGOs, Palestinian governmental hospitals, Israeli hospitals, private clinics, headed ob-gyn departments, trained for five years in England, and had further training in the US. When we talked just before he left Beirut with his wife in 2008, he expressed despair at ever having a family, "We would be raising Bedouins."
Both of these physicians are deeply committed to their work, to the betterment of Palestinian health care and society, and to creating a hopeful life for their five week old daughter. From my vantage point, any hospital would be lucky to have them.
But their dream now is to leave Palestine, to turn their backs on the governmental corruption and cronyism they find rampant in the Palestinian health care system. The checkpoints, the restrictions, the IDF raids, the difficulties over water and electricity, have poisened their hopes and their futures; they are now living in a state of suspended rage and despair. They also cannot tolerate working in the Israeli health care system which feels like one arm of the monster that is destroying their lives. Dr. A admits to "a kind of PTSD. I can't take it any longer." In a few weeks, Dr A leaves for a long awaited interview in Australia.
If successful, he will take his wife and baby thousands of miles away from her close knit family, from the familiarities of language, food, spices music, and cultural expectations. She is already applying for training programs and prerequisite exams. They talk about return in the future with Australian citizenship.
Dr. A gestures emphatically, "You know, this is a kind of resistance." The refusal to be destroyed.