Saturday, June 29, 2013

Symbolism meets solidarity: the Saturday mobile clinic 6-22-13 #13

Blog Saturday 6/22/13 Symbolism meets solidarity: the Saturday mobile clinic
I have to interrupt this message:  Last night around midnight, the streets all over Palestine erupted with joyous crowds, cars honking in a delirious cacophony. A young man from Gaza, Mohammed Assaf, was voted the winner of Arab idol and either Abu Mazen or UNESCO (not clear) named him an Ambassador of Good Will. A victory for Palestine, and I might add, a victory for the entertainment industry and adoring women everywhere.

Bright and early, three of us take a service (a van that takes multiple passengers) to Khalil (Hebron) through open checkpoints and ominous but quiet guard towers.  We meet up with Dr Othman, a dentist and Dr Hassan Abu Amro, an optometrist trained in Saudi Arabia, in preparation for traveling to the village of Idha, eight kilometers from Hebron, just along the Green Line. We are traveling to the Saturday Mobile Clinic with Physicians for Human Rights Israel and Palestinian Medical Relief Society. We start with familiar stories. 

Idha is surrounded by three Jewish settlements including Adora and Telem. Because of permits and checkpoints, travel in and out has become extremely difficult. The quantity and quality of their water is problematic due to the large allotments going to the neighboring settlements, and the village is plagued by rats which can be seen jumping amongst the vegetable stands. Poverty is on the increase and the separation wall has wreaked havoc with the economy and people’s personal lives for the past five to six years.

In desperation, the villagers started collecting garbage, metal, car parts, and burning tires to get the metal and sell the metal to the Israelis.  The burning garbage and tires created a massive, toxic smog and predictable health problems. Combined with the polluted water, PMRS is seeing more diarrhea, asthma, miscarriages, diabetes, hypertension, and smoking. “That’s stress.”  PMRS and Red Crescent clinics, the private sector and Ministry of Health Hospitals cannot handle the community’s medical needs. Hassan also notes that no one wants to talk about cancer but the Dimona nuclear reactor is near Hebron.  Israelis nearby receive some kind of prophylactic pills (?thyroid) to reduce their risks, but nothing is offered to the local Palestinians. 

More fragments of conversation: Yesterday 15 settlers with guns blocked a nearby road, threw stones and were protected by the IDF for two hours. This also happened in Beit Ommar.
The IDF is becoming more aggressive (how can this be possible?) and are training dogs to attack when they hear certain words like Allahu Akbar (Did you pray today?)
There is a proposed law in the Knesset to make it legal for settlers to fire on Palestinians (which of course they are already quite adept at doing), a sort of legal white washing stand your ground.
Both men are thoroughly disgusted with the Palestinian leadership and elite power holders. They are “thieves;” they have stolen international aid money and will steal more if Kerry reinvigorates the (useless) negotiations and aid programs.
Nabil Shath, a Palestinian negotiator, recently explained to his Israeli associates that the PA is spending more money on Israeli security than on Palestinian health and security combined.

Hassan is warm, obviously intelligent and insightful. He worked in Saudi Arabia for 17 years, and lived in a special compound so his wife and four children had more personal freedoms than those outside the compound.  If they left, he had to drive his wife; she had to cover herself, etc. They came back in 2000 because he felt there was going to be a state and he wanted to serve his people, but now he worries, “For my kids and their lives, their futures.  What should I tell them? Sometimes I stand stunned. Am I going to create more hate? But still they can see what is on the ground.” His 23 year old son, trained as an electrical engineer in Egypt and now unemployed, feels totally frustrated and wants to leave.

We drive into the village and see large bales of hay and huge mountains of charred metal fragments.  For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the mobile clinic is being “honored” by a large number of fully armed Palestine National Security forces who line the streets, direct the vehicles, and line up for photos with clinic staff. We crowd into a large room and on the stage there are municipal and PA dignitaries, Saleh who directs the mobile clinic from PHR Israel, and Alan, one of our doctors, sitting in front of a large photo of a smiling Arafat. We hear a history of the town and a thousand thank yous in Arabic and Hebrew as a large crowd of patients gathers outside.

And then we start seeing patients.  How can I describe this? A local family doctor who will be my interpreter and see obstetric patients, a nurse from the US, and I set up our “office” in a classroom.  We have a real exam table, an ancient ultrasound machine, and I have brought a flashlight, large bottle of Purell, various surgical instruments (to remove IUDs, sutures, etc), and a measuring tape.  I suddenly realize there are no drapes (not unusual) but even more striking, no gloves and no speculums and no basic lab work. A challenging moment for a gynecologist.  (The gloves are finally located.)

And then the work begins, a veritable flood of women in hijabs, blue, black, plaid, sparkling decorations,  and long jilbabs, buttoned up to the neck and long sleeves, one naqap totally covering a lovely woman’s face.  She flips it back when she enters the room.  I try guessing ages and realize that everyone ages prematurely under the stress of poverty and occupation.  The heat is oppressive, and we are dripping with sweat.  I feel for the women who are covered.  The women present alone, in twos and threes, some with small children, some argumentative, some focused, and everyone has an earnest story and a long list of medical issues that frequently include back pain, abdominal pain,  vaginal discharge, symptoms of urinary tract infections and hot flashes.  There are questions about irregular bleeding, pain on intercourse, infertility.  Everyone who is not trying to get pregnant has an IUD.  I try to reach across the language and cultural barriers; instead of, “Are you sexually active?” I ask, “Are you married?” I already know that many women take hormones to delay menses when they travel to Mecca.  I am listening carefully, empathically, woman to woman.   There is no medical charting, no vital signs, no prevention, but soon we are in a rhythm of brief history taking, strategic exams, lots of education and empathy, and then a wild search through the available donated medications and decision making for referrals for a variety of testing.  I am sure many symptoms are stress related and there is no simple treatment for that. My basic strategy is: Is this very serious? What is the most likely diagnosis given an utter lack of adequate information? What is the most we can do quickly here?  The hardest part for me is the women with menopausal symptoms.  I have always wondered how women covered in multiple layers deal with hot flashes and it is a challenge to give culturally appropriate advice. And of course we have lots of antibiotics and antifungals, and steroid ointment, but no free hormone therapy and I have no idea what is available in local gynecology offices.  I have heard there is a rich herbal tradition in Palestine, but that is way beyond my US first world experience. 

Hours later, the clinic is over and the women still waiting are angry and disappointed, but turned away by PA soldiers with guns.  I have seen 24 patients and the entire staff has seen over 700.  I feel a bit run over and my pregnant colleague is looking more than tired. The organizers are pleased and we are hosted by the village with chicken, rice and Turkish coffee with more officials and more men with guns.


The power of working in this Saturday clinic for me, year after year, is hard to explain. Symbolism meets solidarity.   There were women who actually received appropriate care and I found one woman with a breast mass and one with a pelvic mass who definitely need further care. But more importantly, the women understand that a doctor from some faraway place came to their forgotten village to provide care and see them as deserving human beings. They are not invisible.  I am also working in solidarity with the Israelis (Jewish and Palestinian) and the West Bank clinicians who are swimming against the cultural and political tides of their own societies and I want to stand with them as well.  It is really the most concrete thing I can do.    




Thursday, June 27, 2013

A True Story of Bovine Resistance, 6/21/13 Beit Sahour #12


Blog #2 6/21/13 Beit Sahour, A True story of bovine resistance
Iyad Rishmawi appears to be an older respectable kind of gentleman, balding, neatly dressed, but the guy clearly has a sense of humor. He wants to talk about the First Intifada from the point of view of the people rather than the politicians, but first he wants to show us a documentary film, “The Wanted Eighteen.”

It seems that in 1987, the people of Beit Sahour wanted to protect 18 cows so their children could have milk during the Intifada. They established a cow farm, represented in the film by cute cartoon cows with very human expressions.  Real human old men tell the story of the cows, “We can produce our own milk if we have cows.”  When the first calf was born, people were thrilled and celebrated as if it was a firstborn child.  Now the 19 cows made the Israelis unhappy because they symbolized Palestine self sufficiency.  A large Israeli force took pictures of the cattle farm, pictures of each cow, threatened the men, and told them they had 24 hours to shut down the farm or the place would be demolished. The men were told, “Those cows are a serious threat to the national security of Israel!!” (I am not kidding! Really!) So the people of Beit Sahour decided to hide their cows in different homes, basements, wherever it was possible (not an easy task as you might imagine) and people who knew  nothing about cows or milking took the animals into their homes and figured it out.  Israeli troops and helicopters were sent in looking for the cows but they could not find them.  It became patriotic to protect the cows from the IDF and the cows obviously agreed because they continued to produce milk. Bottles of milk were distributed secretly from house to house despite curfews and incursions and the milk kept coming.  The IDF searched for four years and never found the animals and the people of Beit Sahour stood proud, with a feeling of dignity and accomplishment.  A true story of bovine resistance.

When we got over chuckling, Iyad made some serious points which I will focus on here.  The First Intifada was a spontaneous, public mass movement of the entire community; a tipping point that started in 1948 and finally exploded in 1987.  He reminds us that Ilan Pappe wrote that the Israeli generals in the 1950s called the War of Independence, the incomplete war, so the ’67 War and the seizing of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem had been on the to do list for a long time. After 1967, Iyad asks, “What kind of practices would Israel take, given that our memories have not faded about ’48?”  The Intifada was the answer to all the Palestinian questions.

“Why are they making hell for us, business, life, so many difficulties, permits, drivers license multiple permits.  You must be cleared by intelligence service, true for phone line, or if want to start business.
Then value added tax.” The Israelis made selective use of Ottoman, British, Jordanian, and international laws and if there was no law they needed, they issued a military order that became law.

At the end of day, people were fed up and couldn’t live under these conditions.  He explains that he established the first pharmacy in Beit Sahour and it took ten years to get a phone line, because the intelligence service would not give approval.  All these measures were to complete the incomplete war and Palestinians responded with, enough is enough; no to occupation! Iyad states that Palestinians must restore their pride; Israelis cannot make peace with slaves.

Beit Sahour was an important center for popular resistance.  There was a unified leadership in the First Intifada, made up of all the factions of the PLO except religious movements. There were weekly leaflets  explaining activities and Palestinians responded positively, forming neighborhood committees. Despite the central leadership there was a high level of democracy. 

In 1988 there was a call to stop paying taxes to Israel and 90% of the population responded.  Iyad was involved and was rounded up with three other pharmacists, arrested, taken to military headquarters in Ramallah and then to military court for ten days.  After his arrest, the tax revolt started and he was arrested a few more times.  In 1989 there was a major attack on Beit Sahour. Tax collectors and soldiers removed everything from people’s homes.  When they came for his pharmacy, there was nothing to take, so they went to his house and took everything.  He refused to be bribed to get his possessions back.  He recalled a lady ran after the soldiers, yelling that they forgot something. When they stopped, she threw the TV remote at them.

Iyad talked about how the IDF demands to see IDs first and if you do not follow orders, they will not return your ID.  The people of Beit Sahour started bringing all their IDs and throwing them onto the table of the military governor. Iyad was there.  He called friends in Jerusalem and in one hour, TV stations, CNN, NBC, piled into Beit Sahour.  He was translating for reporters and by 4 pm, thousands and thousands of people had gathered in front of massive piles of IDs. The military governor sent soldiers around 5 pm, the army surrounded the town and all the streets full of people.  When the soldiers arrived, Iyad noted special squads, headed by a military deputy who told the people to go home.  But the people sat down, no stones were thrown, and the deputy was stuck, so the deputy ordered his soldiers to start beating people, using tear gas, putting people in prison and administrative detention.  He smiles, “But they never figured out the leaders.” Iyad’s son adds this was a rare instance for Beit Sahour when Israelis were reacting rather than Palestinians.  At all levels of society there was a feeling of dignity. He boasted in school that his father was in prison and his little sister tried to break curfew a few hours later.  She wanted to go into the street, to get arrested to see father. I am reminded that some Israeli official recently remarked, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.”

Because the goal was to break the people’s will, their pride and dignity were the biggest threats, so that even intelligent resistance was intolerable.  Thousands were killed, mostly children.  Iyad recalled one child was shot for writing graffiti.  Another innocent young man was caught by two soldiers who shot him point blank with rubber bullets and he died.

In 1988 the Reproachment Center was established when 35 Israeli families came to visit Beit Sahour. “We celebrated breaking bread, not bones. Accepting the other was part of us.”

Iyad clearly mourns for those days, “That feeling is now gone.  Today is totally different, we had hope and dignity then, we believe in what we are doing and we are right, behaving according to humanitarian law, we are here to exist and not meant to harm your existence. This was part of inner feeling…Today we are not like that, internal unity within community is gone.  We moved back to a tribal system of community, reactions for self protection of each family.”


When we asked him if he saw signs of hope, he thought long and hard but the inspiration in his voice was missing.  Clearly the struggle has changed and the people have experienced several more decades of oppressive occupation with all of its negative consequences.  I suspect that it is time for younger generations to bring their creativity and steadfastness to the forefront and time to internationalize resistance as well.  This time, in our global community, it is clear we are all responsible.   

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In Search of Jaffa

by Amal Salem, Health and Human Rights Project Delegate

As I was waiting to board the plane to Tel Aviv , the flight attendant spoke in English then in Hebrew announcing that our flight was delayed.  I sat next to  a young woman who asked me if I spoke Hebrew.  I said no but told her I planned on learning, to which she replied, if you speak Arabic , it would be very easy to learn Hebrew.  Our conversations continued and I soon learned she lived in New York City and was going to visit her parents in Jaffa.  By now, the young woman knew I was Palestinian and was traveling to visit my family in Palestine.   I knew she could relate very little to the hassles I was bound to face on my trip just by virtue of my Palestinian background.  She may never have thought about the fact that Palestinians do not have their own airport and have to fly through Telaviv, to be subjected to unwarranted interrogations, bodily searches, only to consider themselves lucky if they get to leave the airport.  If they make it through the airport, they then may find themselves on a bus  to Jerusalem and then on to Nablus or Ramallah,  not without going through one check point after another. I know she probably did not know that the average travel time is close to 30 hours for a Palestinian comparing to 15 hours to the Israeli.  As our conversation continued, I asked her where in Jaffa her parents lived.  She told me they live in a flat on the second floor on Salemeh street.  I could not help but feel a chill creep through my spine.  Salemeh is the town where my husband was born.  What a coincidence.  Here I was, having a casual conversation with a young lady, the daughter of Jewish parents who emigrated to Palestine, who could possibly be living in my husband's house or next door to it.  I told her my husband was born in Salameh which was just 4 miles away from Jaffa.  I told her about my trip to Salameh last year when my husband, son and I went looking for my husband's house.  I told her we couldn't find anything that remotely resembled his home in Salameh except for the street named Salameh. The same street where her parents lived.  The same street where my husband lived until he was driven from his home in 1948.  

The young lady's face turned red and was speechless for a moment.   She quickly changed the subject and said she never had time on her visits to get to know Jaffa to find out who is living where.  Soon after she told me this, the young girl's group number was called and she said good-bye, wishing me safe travels.   Her face remained red, her anxiety seemed to be somewhat relieved by being able to part ways from me.  I could not help but be reminded of a young Jewish man who stopped us in Jaffa last year, during the trip we took to find my husband's home.  He saw the group of us wandering aimlessly and kindly asked if he could help us find something.  I sadly told him we didn't have an address, what we were looking for no longer seemed to exist.  Silence ensued which my son broke by saying "The thing is, my father was born here a long time ago and he has not been here since 1948.  We were hoping to find his house and the cafe that was on the corner of his street in Salameh".    The young man hardly mumbled a few inaudible words and quickly scurried off. The young lady from New York's reaction reminded me very much of that young man's red face and anxious reaction. 

My brain flooded with thoughts and I felt a deeply aching pain.  Pain for my husband, for my family, for the numerous Palestinians who have similar stories to share.  I boarded the plane feeling an overwhelming sickness and nostalgia.  I know the young lady from the plane and the young man who asked to give us directions did not know, and perhaps did not want to know, what he, my husband, and we, the Palestinian people have endured. They did not know, and perhaps did not want to know, what happened the day my husband and his family left their home. I recalled conversations I had with my husband's sister, who described the excruciating details from the day they were forced to leave Salameh.  My husband was only 4 years old at the time.  After a while, as they walked away from their home,  my husband could not carry on walking.  His 13 year old brother carried him on his shoulders.  Somehow, during this process, he and his brother were separated from the rest of the family and ended up in another town.  His family frantically looked for he and his brother in every town they passed by.  In the process of trying to find the two brothers, their third son, who was 18 at the time, was killed.  The family temporarily forgot about the two lost brothers as they mourned the death of their third son, who had just been accepted at the American University in Beirut.   Later, by chance, the brothers were reunited with their family.  My husband's sister described the vivid details of that day on several  occasions...the sights and smells of the towns they passed by, the fear as they ran away from the firing guns over their heads, the tragic death of her brother, the blood on his white shirt and his mother holding him tight to her chest as she let out a blood-curling scream.   I often wonder what the young man in Jaffa and the young lady from New York really were thinking and feeling when they learned more about my husband's displacement.    I wonder if they ever think about the people who built and lived in the homes they moved in.   Did they ever think of the children who lived there  and what kind of life and memories they had in those homes?  Did they think about many of those children who never made it as they tried to flee their homes?   But, more importantly, did they want to know?

I wonder if their red faces and the anxiety they projected was a result of them feeling guilty or simply an expression of their discomfort with the conversation.  Maybe I will never know.  But I know it inspired me to continue my struggle to raise awareness around the injustices that was done and continues to be done to my people. 

Battir, The colonization of the conifers 6/21/13 Friday #11

Blog # 11, Battir, The colonization of the conifers 6/21/13 Friday
We are staying in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, in a guest house which started in 1948 as a place for poor women to sew clothes, then became a childca

a
re center, and now a renovated guest house. Everyone is talking about who will win Arab idol and will it be Mohammed Assaf, the sweet faced guy from Gaza, Rami Hamdallah, (the prime minister replacement after Salam Fayyad resigned) quit after two weeks on the job, (and what does that mean?) and Fayrouz is crooning on the van radio.  Another day in Palestine and we are off for a hike in Battir, southwest of Bethlehem.

Our guides, Hassan and Hamad, are movie star handsome as far as I am concerned and that is distracting enough for me. They explain that the town of Battir has natural water springs that were developed during Roman times in a complicated and clever irrigation system including aquaducts and carved tunnels for the surrounding farms and orchards.  In 1950 the source spring was rehabilitated to provide fresh water for drinking, washing vegetables, and a Turkish bath for men.  Ancient and modern systems were combined, water was divided equally between the farmers using an “eight day week,” as there were eight families. In the summer the water was divided according to the percentage of water volume available for each farmer, measured by a stick dipped into the collected water pool.  Hassan explains that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is largely about water and now the Palestinians are allowed to store 5-10% of their water and the rest is collected by the Israeli companies and sold back to them at high prices.

There is lots of inspiring history here. Deir Yassin, the site of a horrific massacre in 1948, is four kilometers away and many of the villagers fled in fear after the killings. Approximately thirteen elders stayed in the village, “to live or die,” and one man decided to resist. He collected clothes and house supplies and placed them in the houses so they would appear to be inhabited. He lit candles and oil lamps at night and asked people to collect wood. He made fires and built wooden symbols that looked like people and put sticks in their hands that appeared to be guns, silhouetted in front of the flames.  The village fooled the Jewish forces for eight months.

Another critical piece of information is that there is a famous rail road track that runs through the fields of Battir, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, once connecting Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Part of the 1949 agreement with Jordan was that the village of Battir could keep ownership of the land on both sides of the railway tracks as long as the train was kept safe, as the Israelis really wanted control.  But 1967 brought new rules, a buffer zone 200 yards on each side of the tracks; the only people allowed to cross are the farmers. While there were incidents in the Intifadas, no attacks have occurred since the 1990s. To complicate matters further, in 1993 after Oslo, 30% of Battir ended up in area B and 70% in area C which means that the villagers are no longer permitted to store water or repair the irrigation systems (that have worked brilliantly for centuries) which are mostly in area C.

We are traipsing up and down stone paths with the odd sound (for Palestine) of rushing water at our feet as we follow our guides who seem part gazelle in terms of grace, speed and agility.  The next disaster Hassan tells us about as we look into the valley, the sweep of the tracks, the lush plots of vegetables, the crisscrossing of irrigation systems, is the threat of the separation wall. The wall is to be built on the village side of the rail road tracks, assaulting an idyllic landscape and isolating the houses, land, and schools on the other side. Palestinians unsuccessfully submitted a proposal to have this area named a World Heritage Site and in a few weeks will have a hearing at the Israeli Supreme Court. Hassan notes that the village has honored the security agreements for 65 years and there are already cameras on the hills watching every move, 24/7. We can see a white military vehicle watching our every move, perched opposite us on a nearby hill and a Jewish National Fund Forest up the hill with more guard towers. A train comes zooming by and Hassan notes that the Battir train station was demolished years ago. I stare intently at this magnificent valley with the sinking feeling that the next time I visit, there is a good chance that it will have been raped by the Israeli military machine and my heart will break, once again, for this land and its people.

Now that we are all exhausted, overwhelmed, and dripping with sweat, the hike begins!  Hassan and Hamad are involved in a group developing ecotourism. They have designed hiking trails that are respectful of the history, the farmers, and the environment; through terraced olive groves, fruit trees, cool caves, Byzantine tombs, and soaring hills. Despite my creaky moving parts and pounding heart (hot sun, dehydration, and uphill paths), the scenery is awe inspiring.

But the conflict is never far off. The Jewish National Fund Forests (which by the way are not indigenous, grow quickly, are easily flammable, and change the soil pH so that local herbs and trees cannot survive, except for the hardy Saber cactus), are doing battle, the colonization of the conifers.  Apparently, the wind carries the seeds in the pine cones, so the forest is spreading through the valley. The surrounding hills are all topped by creeping Jewish settlements and the associated bulldozers, walls, and barbed wire. Hassan and Hamad have placed hiking markers (like the blazes in US national parks), but the settlers, who occasionally use these same paths, have scratched off the marks and placed blue and white blazes (which are international symbols for land and water, but really!) so now we have the battle of the blazes.

Hassan points to a huge tire perched in a bed of twigs near the path and admits, this is “from us.” With the collapse of civil infrastructure, garbage collection became (and still is) a huge problem in the West Bank and a 17,000 cubic meter dump site developed on the hill above us. This was a huge challenge, so a  group of 45 farmers and younger men cleaned it up, topped it with soil, plantings, and a supporting wall. This tire is an educational reminder.

We stop to catch our breath at a future rest area that has a massive stone that Hassan scales easily. There are a number of theories about this stone, but it probably fell from the surrounding cliffs and was used as a security lookout centuries ago.  Nearby is a large unnatural pile of white stones.  The ever environmentally thoughtful Israelis were building a bypass road above and dynamited the area and these rocks came tumbling down, crushing trees in their path.  A falcon soars gracefully in the blue sky, one of the few creatures around here that can move freely.  I stumble across a young olive tree staked to a dead branch from a JNF pine tree; the cones are intermixed with the olive leaves. It’s as if the trees are locked in a symbolic fatal embrace, I am relieved that at least the pine tree has already died.

I am getting closer to the end of my cardiovascular reserves, as Hassan walks briskly ahead explaining that there are 258 houses in the fields that serve as watch towers and places for farmers to stay during the harvest. As we head up the hill, Har Gilo becomes clearer, built on the lands of Al Walaja and Beit Jala.  I can see a bulldozer busy at work.  When we finally get to pavement, (short of breath, flushed, and vaguely alive), I see a wooden sign with a red heart, “Hosh Yasmin Organic Farm.” Soon we are seated on the covered balcony, enjoying the sweet breeze, smell of thyme, good beer, gorgeous view, and some excellent food.  Not your every day hike. 




Monday, June 24, 2013

Deir Istiya: A little taste of paradise 6/20/13 #10

6/20/13 Blog #10 Thursday Deir Istiya: A little taste of paradise
Amal, one of the Palestinian-American members of the American Jews for a Just Peace - health and human rights project, has invited us to visit the village of Deir Istiya where she was born in 1948.  We drive through an unusually lush valley, olive and carob trees densely growing everywhere, and there is a joy in her voice, eyes glowing with a mix of pride and excitement.  She explains that she is the sixth generation to be born in the village and two more have followed. She went to Cairo for university and now lives in St Louis.  Her father finished high school in the town and ultimately became the mayor of the town.

We are greeted by the current mayor of the town, Auob, who is Amal’s cousin.  She seems to be related to everyone we meet, either by blood or by marriage. Auob is a warm and dignified man with laughing eyes, bushy eyebrows, and muscular arms. He explains that 4,000 people live here and 10,000 are out of the country. The village had a school in 1918 and prides itself in a very educated population (that tends to leave). Deir Istiya has a very unusual old city dating back to Roman, Byzantine and Mameluke times with multiple streets, rooms and apartments all clustered together, clearly a wealthy and well constructed town.  In the 1990s, with the support of the UNDP, USAID, and a Palestinian Ministry, a project to renovate the city was begun, in the hopes of bringing in commerce and tourism.

There is a peachy golden shimmer to the old stones in the blazing Mediterranean sun, glorious views,  winding streets, ancient doorways, something close to a lush, magical paradise.  Amal is beaming as she points out where various relatives lived, where she played as a child, where she is renovating her house in the newer district of town; everyone is warm and happy to see her. Her uncle gives us a detailed tour, explaining the holes in the walls for guarding the city, Roman style archways, stone insets for oil lamps, geometric tiles, water wells, and the massive renovation projects for private homes as well as guest houses and larger facilities. One building was owned by the ruling Qasim family and they had very low doors constructed, so that visitors would have to enter bowing down to them.  I can feel his big dreams coming to life. His dreams are looking for funding.

But this is Palestine and there has to be a catch.  The village owns 36,000 dunams of land and is the second largest village in Palestine in terms of land. They are known for their extra virgin fair trade olive oil.  87% of the village land is in Area C, (Israeli control) while the village itself is in Area B, (joint control).  We climb up uneven steps to a high roof, the thin graceful minaret in view, white stone houses of all shapes and sizes surround us, tall dark blue cedars point to the sky.  By standing in one spot and rotating around, in the distance I can see five Jewish settlements on the surrounding hilltops: Ariel, Emmanuel, Nofim, Revana, and Yaqir.

Auob reports excitedly that they are attacked by settlers daily, farmers on donkeys have been hit by cars, there are repeated attacks during the olive harvest, orchards have been confiscated or uprooted, farmers have been hit by cars, run over and shot, harvested olives wrapped in large bags have been stolen.  Once again I am taken aback by the behavior of settlers, their aggressive lawless arrogance and immoral racist behavior towards the people who have lived here for generations.

We drive out of the village and turn into a valley, a bumpy road surrounded by terraced olive groves.  This is Wadi Qana, part of the food basket for the Salfit District.  This is also where the Jewish settlements on the surrounding hills have dumped their raw sewage, contaminating the water and driving out the 40 families who used to live here. A delicate hudhud bird with a bright orange body and zebra like stripes on its back flits between the lemon and orange trees. Goats cluster on the rocky walls. Aoub says there are 13 natural springs in the area that have provided water for centuries, but the Israelis have dug deep into the reservoirs, lowering the water levels so that only three springs are functional. In 1987 houses in the orchards were demolished and trees uprooted.  In 1993 the area was officially declared a Nature Preserve.  This means that the Palestinians cannot fix the road which is deteriorating as the valley floods with water during the winter.  Many families have small houses tucked around the trees where they live during harvest time.  Since 1967, no renovations have been permitted, trees are planted secretly (on Jewish holidays), and court cases are threatening the farmers.  Because of the decrease in available water, the farmers have been changing from orange and lemon trees to olives that require less water.  We pass a cave where some people live, others stay here by day and leave by night.  We see the stream running down the valley, green with sewage.  To add insult to injury, the Israelis have released pigs (?wild boars) in the area and they are eating the small olive trees and vegetables. 


We get to one of the springs contained by stone walls.  Families sit in the shade, barbequing, and small children are laughing and playing in a clear stream that leaves the green, pooling water.  I worry about the bacterial count in the water, but for a moment, life almost feels normal.  On Jewish holidays, volunteers come to maintain the area as best they can and last Land Day, 3/29, for the first time they held an event with 500 people who came to do clean up, and enjoy cultural events. Auob smiles and says this is a free open space available to the local villagers and he clearly appreciates its natural beauty, an incredible treasure under threat from the settlements and the egregious behavior of the settlers. 


Friday, June 21, 2013

Balata: the occupation of body and mind - Thursday 6/20/13- #9

Blog #9 - Balata: the occupation of body and mind - Thursday 6/20/13

Visiting and staying overnight at the Balata Refugee Camp in the Yafa Cultural Center guest house is always a sobering reality check and every year the camp feels more desperate.  Mahmoud, the 47 year old head of the health unit at the camp says nothing that changes my mind.

Balata, one of the camps just outside of Nablus, is the most populated Palestinian refugee camp and is a mirror of all the other camps where generations of refugees have waited and fought and survived for decades. It was established in the early 1950s by the UN after the 830,000 refugees had lived without official support for two years all over the West Bank and surrounding Arab countries, in caves, in the mountains, churches, schools and mosques.

UNRWA, first established in 1949 ostensibly to deal with the temporary refugee crisis, built the primitive tent camps. They rented one square kilometer for the 5,000 refugees that came to Balata, most having fled from the Jaffa area. We see a photo from 1953, a clearly temporary arrangement: rows of tents with a stately camel standing in front.  After five years, UNRWA started building small units, three by three meters for each family, (that is probably the size of your smallest bathroom). Imagine a mother from a middle class family from Jaffa, torn from all that she knows,  trying to deal with her many, many children, a humiliated and unemployed husband, minimal resources, food handouts, poor sanitation and a recent massive amount of trauma.  And then crowd everyone together in a totally inhumane situation. That is the history of Balata. But the human spirit is strong and gradually families expanded their living spaces and added rooms in an unplanned jumble of construction.

By the mid 1960s (this mother has been struggling now for more than a decade) an infrastructure began to develop, a sewer system evolved, but horizontal expansion reached its limits and families started building vertically.

Mahmoud’s grandfather was born in Haifa and came to the camp when his son was around ten years old.  He had owned a successful restaurant and guest house, but fled when the bombing started, attempted to return for his belongings but was unsuccessful, then fled with his family to Jenin, Nablus, living in the mountains until he arrived at Balata. This proud, wealthy businessman had lost everything and was now totally dependent on UNRWA. Mahmoud’s mother was born in August 1948.  Her family (including the very pregnant wife), walked from the area near Lydd to a cave in Rafidia where she was born.  After a year living in the cave, the family moved to Balata Refugee Camp where his grandfather sold vegetables. Mahmoud’s parents met in the camp, had seven children living in a 60 square meter house with family and grandparents.  Because of the desperate living conditions, many of the refugees have left for Jordan, other cities in the Middle East, the Gulf, Europe, and the US.

According to UN statistics, everyone in the camp is officially registered as a refugee and by the end of 2012, some 29,000 people were crowded together, each house 60 to 80 square meters, three to four generations in a house, no privacy and no space. The houses are all attached to each other so, “You hear everybody’s business, privacy is nonexistent, don’t even know what it means, everybody is in everybody’s business.”  Most houses are dark and humid, and there is mold and other health hazards.
This creates much social stress, disputes, and psychological problems.

Not surprisingly, Balata became the political leader of refugee camps and has a long history of uprisings, demonstrations, and encounters with the IDF.  The First Intifada started here and the first martyr died here. During the Second Intifada, there were large numbers of militants and guns, and a high level of violence within the camp and against the camp, 246 people were killed, and almost every adult male has been in Israeli prisons.

The camp was largely a working class area before 2000; 60% of the men worked in Israel.  After 2000 and the start of the Intifada, the camp was totally shut down, surrounded by barbed wire, all entrances closed, soldiers were everywhere, curfews from one to 100 days were common.  We became, “a gated community,” Mahmoud remarks ironically.  In 2002, every three days, the curfew was lifted for a few hours so that families could get food, the UN could bring in supplies, the sick could get medical care. The children did not attend school and the educational system was destroyed. Workers were unemployed, snipers were everywhere, and the separation wall began its intimidating construction, permits were virtually impossible.  “We were guilty until proven innocent.”

By 2006, things started to calm down, the Palestinian Authority restored some security, but it became clear they were protecting the Israeli settlers more than the local Palestinians. Settlements expanded and the restrictions on the movement of Palestinians became tighter. The camp is clearly a pressure cooker waiting to explode as the economic and living situations get worse and worse, there is more corruption, poverty, and unemployment.  There is no functional economy, the Israelis control birth certificates, business licenses, export licenses, etc. While income has remained stable since 2004, prices have increased five to six times. In 2004 one kilo of bread cost one shekel; it is now four shekels.  Businesses are shutting down.

More recently laborers have been able to get work permits into Israel but never more than 10% of the men who apply. 5 to 10% of the workers sneak into Israel illegally, the PA hires 25-30 % of Palestinian workers, the private sector employs 10-15%.  Unemployment in Balata, however, is currently 46% and higher in people under 29.

There are three UNRWA schools from first to ninth grade with 6,000 children ages 6 to15. After ninth grade students go outside the camp for public education.  As you can imagine, the classes are overcrowded, underfunded, and inadequate to the needs of the students.  The enormous numbers of young people is a serious problem; there is no space in the camp, no playgrounds, they “can’t breath.” The children born in the First Intifada were the fighters in the Second Intifada and have known no other life. They have witnessed or experienced more arrests, killings, bombings, suicide bombings, and social problems than we can possible imagine.

Mahmoud then focuses on Palestinians in general in the West Bank.  He notes that amongst the educated, unemployment is 56%. “I have 252,000 young people in Palestinian universities, when they graduate, how many will get a job?” They rarely can travel and there is no functional economy. He talks about area C (under full Israeli control), where the PA had plans to build a new city, there were blueprints, money was raised, engineers were ready, and on the day the project was due to start, the IDF declared the area a closed military zone.  A large part of Jericho is very fertile with dates and palm trees.  2,000 Palestinian families lived there, but the Israelis seized their land, leaving 5% to the Palestinians. “What kind of businesses can you create here?” So much for the former prime minister’s plans for an economic miracle.

“In the past, the Gulf was our Mecca, but after the first Gulf War, they kicked us out of Kuwait.”  Instead of help from “my Gulf brothers,” obtaining passports and traveling have become more challenging. So Palestinians feel increasingly cornered by Israelis and Arabs, with no options.  “What will happen, they becoming suicidal, very violent.” This is the first time I have heard of suicide in Palestinian society except for the rare suicide bomber, but now it is becoming more common.

Mahmoud runs a psychosocial project; their biggest target is the youth, particularly in the boys’ school, fifth to ninth grade.  I can hear the anger and frustration in his voice when he explains that the schools are awful, with high levels of violence, little education, a 50% illiteracy rate.  School means nothing; the students have nothing to look forward to, there are problems at home and in the street.  There are increasing difficulties with all kinds of drug abuse and more children are committing suicide.   He tells us a chilling story of a child who tried to enter an Israeli settlement, unarmed. “Why? Suicide is forbidden in Islam, but if killed, then becomes a martyr.  If not killed, then he goes to prison, is fed, smoking, hanging with friends. This happens daily, because there is no solution, no future.”   Another chilling story: two nights ago, the Israelis arrested four young people, this happens twice a week. “But nobody is doing anything and nobody is even paying attention.  Why are they getting arrested?”  All four students were about to take their high stakes high school diploma exam; now their lives are effectively destroyed.

Mahmoud’s program provides psychosocial support, individual and family counseling inside the school. In each school there is one counselor for 2,000 children (almost all have some PTSD).  They provide lots of activities, music therapy, psychodrama, literacy.  He finds the illiterate are the trouble makers, but, “They are lost,” often getting up early to work in the vegetable market to support their mothers before coming to an increasingly irrelevant school.  Most violent kids are sons of martyrs. Now these children  beat their parents.  They have experienced the humiliation of their parents at the checkpoints, the night time arrests, where the whole family is terrorized, beaten and the father and mother are humiliated in front of their children.  The Israeli forces have effectively attacked the psyches and sanity of Palestinian children and destroyed the functions and authority of previous healthy families.

Mahmoud explains that in the past, they did not have those problems, respect for his parents was absolute.  He got out of Balata through education, a degree from Birzeit University. “There is no other inheritance.” He has three sisters and three brothers, all well educated: a nurse, a lawyer, a marketer, a hospital director, an advisor for Fayyad on media, and one living in Rome, practicing alternative medicine.  The next generation from Balata will not have these strengths or these options. “I will never live in Balata again, I will never raise my children in Balata.  This is a very bad place, anyone would leave if given the opportunity.  65 yrs is too long.”

At this point we are leaving for a walking tour of the camp and I am feeling profoundly sad and the trauma, rage, and despair makes me physically ill.  The dirty streets, barefoot children, narrow stone paths, houses leaning over us, the look of hopelessness in many mothers, shopkeepers, makes me put away my camera. The words, “occupation tourism” passes across my thoughts; I cannot look any more, but I cannot turn away. Perhaps all I can do is to share my outrage with you, and perhaps the next time someone says the question of refugees is “off the table,” you can tell them about the resilient and tired men, women, and children of Balata Refugee Camp.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

We are the stones - Nazareth 6/19/13 #8

We are the stones  - Nazareth 6/19/13  #8 
Jonathan Cook is not yet done with our unconventional tour of Nazareth and we soon find ourselves listening to Abu Arab, a dignified 78 year old man who is part of the Saffuriya Center for Cultural Heritage. Standing in a large room in an otherwise nondescript apartment building, we see rows of relics, clay pots of all sizes, cooking and farming implements, faded dresses.  Hind is translating and we are soon transfixed by his intense story.

In 1948 Saffuriya was a thriving village of 7,000 people, two schools, three mosques, one church, olive presses, around 120,000 dunams of agricultural land, generous amounts of water and a vigorous community of people  with  prolific crops and animals. On the sixteenth night of Ramadan, the Zionist forces attacked and 80% of the village fled in a haze of terror and bullets. The next day the surrounding villages were occupied.  Abu Arab’s family fled and kept walking until they reached Lebanon, (picture the frightened children, the hunger, the thirst, the blistered feet, the total loss and fear).

The 800 people who remained were counted after two weeks and received Israeli ID cards. They were told to collect all the remaining furniture and possessions and load them into trucks.  After eight months they were told to gather and given 24 hours to leave or be killed. Those who refused to leave were forcibly evacuated. (The most moral army in the world?)  The group took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court claiming citizenship type rights related to their possession of Israeli ID cards. The court cancelled the hearing, relied only on the testimony of the Israeli military, and the town was declared a closed military zone for the next 18 years.

Hind is having increasing difficulties translating; the tears are starting to flow and as I look into the faces of our delegates, those who come from Palestine are quietly weeping as well. We are all feeling a tremendous sadness as Abu Arab’s words sink in.  He keeps placing his hands over his heart and I wonder if that is where he stores his all too painful memories.

His family stayed in a Lebanese village and after three months, his sister Hazal became ill and died . The whole family was traumatized and his mother stopped functioning and spent her days at her daughter’s grave. I wonder, how much loss can a mother tolerate in one lifetime? After ten months, his father talked with his three sons and said they had to leave for Beirut or Palestine or the mother will go crazy.  They chose Palestine.

They walked towards the border for one day and two nights, reached an Israeli village where they stayed for six months until they could get Israeli ID cards. I can hear the outrage in Abu Arab’s voice when he comments on Herzl’s famous quote, “A land without a people….”  We are here bearing somber witness to that lie.  He never finished fifth grade, “Every day we prayed the school would fall down, but when it did, we cried.”

Like many Saffuriyans, his family moved to Nazareth.  In 1978 there was an Israeli assault on one of the five cemeteries in Saffuriya and many dunams were destroyed.  After a long battle and negotiation, the town’s members and descendants have obtained the right to fence in and maintain their historic cemetery.  After Oslo, like many former inhabitants of destroyed villages, Saffuriyans joined an Organization for Displaced Villages.  They demand their right to return to their village and live in their homes as citizens of the country.

Abu Arab’s face is brown and wrinkled with a thick head of graying hair, a pack of cigarettes sits in his neatly pressed white shirt. In a calm determined voice he explains that real peace depends on the Zionist recognition of their crimes against Palestinians. The victims need to be compensated and refugees inside and outside the country need to have their right of return.  Because these issues have been eliminated from the international conversation, “The Zionist mentality has the seeds of its termination…” Peace will come, “If not for us, then our children or our grandchildren.”  He explains that he is against Zionists, not Jews, and that he remembers a time when Jews and Palestinians lived together peacefully.  He admits 30 Jewish families now live in the village. “They do not have to leave; we want to live with them.”

For 45 years, Abu Arab has had a small shop in old Nazareth and 30 years ago he noticed that people were throwing away things that he felt ought to be saved.  He started gathering artifacts and helped start this museum so that his people will remember the villages they came from. He reminds us of
Golda Meir (or was it David Ben Gurion’s?) famous quote, “The old will die and the young will forget.”  He assures us that they were very wrong and reminds us that if Jews can remember something for 2000 years, surely Palestinians can remember 65. “We are against war and the shedding of any blood.”  He warns that the Israeli dependence on power and war is not sustainable. “Many regimes have fallen… Nothing remains in a valley except the stones.  We are the stones.”

Jonathan takes us past a moshav that is mostly Bulgarian and Romanian, to the site of the old Saffuriya. One house remains in the distance, converted into a guest house and there is a working orphanage. There is a Jewish National Fund forest but the area is a fenced off closed military zone. I feel like we are walking in a ghost town:  piles of hewn stones, disappeared houses and schools, voluptuous towering saber cactus, an old church without a roof, a buried reality for a people that refuses to forget.  

The Law of Unintended Consequences, Nazareth Illit - #7 6/19/13

Wednesday 6/19/13 Nazareth
The Law of Unintended Consequences, Nazareth Illit
Dripping from the penetrating sun, we board our bus with Jonathan Cook and begin the winding uphill drive to Nazareth Illit.  We are greeted by enormous Israeli flags flapping listlessly in the inadequate breeze and a brilliant view of the region. The Plaza Hotel (built to draw tourists and their shekels away from Nazareth) dominates part of the landscape. We stop at a lookout and can see Nazareth crowding up the opposite mountain slope and the valley below; Jonathan begins. Nazareth Illit was built as a development town, but the old housing is “grotty” and a bit dilapidated.  We can clearly see the modern “ring road” that separates Nazareth Illit from the dangerous Arabs below.  The Judaization of this area has been whitewashed and is now called the development of the Galilee, a program also occurring in the Negev. The Ministry of Development sends 99.8% of its shekels to the Jewish community. Why am I not surprised?
Per the usual patterns, the land was taken for “national purposes” and in 1956 the Supreme Court backed this plan and rows of chunky concrete houses were built. Military documents clearly show that the goal of building this city was to swallow up the graceful and historic city of Nazareth and make Nazareth Illit the center of activity, making Nazareth a future ghetto much like Lydd. But Nazareth had capacities that gave it unusual resilience.  Currently Nazareth has a population of 80,000, remains a cultural center, and Nazareth Illit functions more like a settlement with a population of 50,000. On the other hand, the same old rules apply to break up, dominate, and fragment the Palestinian communities, so the presence of Nazareth Illit has made it impossible for the surrounding Palestinian villages to join together to form a more powerful political force. Nazareth Illit was actually built with octopus-like tentacles, with the physical intent to create separation between villages. The Israelis also moved the District Court and administrative services from Nazareth up the hill, thus redirecting funds to the Jewish side of town. A bypass road was built to separate the two communities and then a “ring road” around the governmental buildings and that land was then “annexed” to Nazareth Illit. The army maintains a large base in the Nazareth, (land then annexed to Nazareth Illit) which Jonathan states is illegal, and there are other surveillance towers and of course the police department.
In keeping with these obviously racist plans, Nazareth Illit was given resources to develop a major industrial center, including the well known Illit chocolate factory and other industries located near the Zipporia area, that land then annexed to…. Nazareth Illit.
The 1965 Building and planning law forbid new Palestinian construction despite a population that has now increased 5 to 6 times. In fact, a blue line was drawn around every city in Israel outlining the limits of future building growth and (I know you will be shocked) the lines around Palestinian villages/cities hugged their current boundaries and the Jewish communities were given generous space to grow.  Palestinians in Nazareth are only allowed to build up to four stories, so they have nowhere to build and thus are forced to build beyond the “blue line” which is illegal.  Due to the constant surveillance described above and Jewish “look out” communities built in the Galilee that monitor Palestinian construction, 40,000 homes in the Galilee (remember these are Israeli citizens) live under demolition orders.  In order not to attract an international outcry, only about 500 demolitions (which is 500 traumatized dispossessed families with more PTSD than we can imagine) occur per year, but the threat is always there. The remaining homes pay an annual penalty that amounts to an extra tax that only postpones the demolition.
The problem, Jonathan admits, is that Nazareth Illit is not that nice a place to live.  The mayor has called Nazareth, “a nest of terror,” so that might not be a selling point for the new neighbors. Thus new immigrants were sent to Nazareth Illit, arriving at the Morganthau Reabsorption Center, and then moving into permanent housing. But now there are no new immigrants and the old ones are more economically stable and ready to leave.  But who will buy their houses in such an undesirable place?  For the past ten years, middle class Palestinians in Nazareth who are desperate for housing, have been purchasing these houses, so now 1/4 to 1/5 of the population in Nazareth illit is Palestinian! This is possible because this city is not a cooperative town so there is no admissions committee to turn the new neighbors down as socially unacceptable.  In the free market system, no one wanted to sell to Palestinians, but there was no competition from Jewish families, and money ultimately talks.  Isn’t that how the market is supposed to work?

The mayor, now in a frustrated rage, hung ginormous Israeli flags along the road like giant keep out signs.  Haaretz also reported that he sought the advice of a rabbi from Hebron (take another deep breath) to develop a strategy to stop these trends.  First the rabbi set up a Yeshiva for the national religious (ie fanatical Jews with guns) so there are now 50 armed religiously fundamentalist Jewish men living in Nazareth Illit (our own little Taliban!). Then the mayor began building a new neighborhood (with schools and synogogues and call centers for the women to work) for the Haredim who typically have eight to ten children, so the population is expected to jump by 30,000. These folks tend to be very aggressive and there are now reports of viscious  attacks, including beatings, destroying shops, and throwing acid on Palestinians.  (All of course in the name of the Almighty). I might also add that these crazies are also endangering secular Jews who resent being stoned as well. Thus the mayor has effectively stopped Palestinian migration into his city. But now, who will buy a former Jewish now Palestinian home?  What will happen to them?  Secular Jews do not want to live here and the ultra-Orthodox will not live in integrated neighborhoods; so much for the dying myth of the liberal Israeli  democracy. What can the mayor do now?


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Nazareth, 6/19/13 Wednesday #6

Blog 6/19/13 Wednesday Nazareth,
The logic of Israeli citizenship and nationality, down the rabbit hole again
The Al Mutran Guesthouse  in Nazareth is a charming old Arabic home transformed into an simple but elegant guesthouse with open patios, pink geraniums and embroidered wall hangings.  Journalist and author Jonathan Cook arrives filled with energy and a wealth of knowledge about history and politics. Originally from the UK and now an Israeli citizen, he is married to a spunky Palestinian woman with Israeli citizenship, who interjects, “No, I am ’48 Palestinian.”  He explains that he works as a journalist so his children who are Israeli Arabs will not have to live as second class citizens.

Jonathan notes that discrimination inside in Israel is not informal; it’s systematic and institutionalized with practical implications that are obvious today. Nazareth is a unique Palestinian city, the only one inside of Israel that is not “mixed.” As we have learned, Haifa, Akko, and Lydd are Jewish cities with Palestinian ghettos.  They also have Palestinian citizens who are primarily not native to the city, ie, many in Lydd are Bedouins brought in to build Tel Aviv after the ’48 expulsion.

In 1948, Nazareth was the only Palestinian city with the potential to become the Palestinian capital inside of Israel and thus it represented a huge threat. After the war, approximately 200 Palestinian villages remained, but Nazareth was the only city standing.  The villages survived sometimes because they were Christian (and Israeli leaders were concerned about their international reputations), and some had work relationships with the local kibbutzim and moshavs.

The 1965 Planning and building law identified 124 Palestinian communities, leaving 80 unrecognized villages where all housing was declared illegal, and there were no services, electricity, or roads.  These harsh conditions were the reality for 10% of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Jonathan notes that Nazareth is different, and enjoys privileges that the state has been unable to eradicate, largely due to the important Christian churches. There are three hospitals founded by religious orders so there are qualified medical personnel and a supportive middle class. There are a dozen high quality private schools also founded by religious orders, so Arabic children can be well educated and then they become the doctors and the lawyers that maintain the middle class. The segregated public Arab schools in Israel are so underfunded that the average Jewish student receives 4 to12 times more funding.  The state controls the curriculum which is so narrowly Zionist that there is no chance for a foundation in Palestinian identity, culture, history, international literature, or ancient Islamic poets. The children in Nazareth are spared that intellectual and emotional death.

He discusses a host of other laws that mirror the Israeli behavior that later occurred in the Occupied Territories after ’67.  In Nazareth, Israeli citizens lived under a military government for 18 years, they needed permits to travel and there was a network of collaborators that provided the eyes and ears of the Shin Bet. Once a person became a collaborator, (often out of fear), then the family and children became involved as well. With the Fallow lands law, if land is not attended for three years, the state seizes the land, thus Palestinians were also incentivized to become collaborators to protect their lands.  In the public schools, both teachers and students were informers, producing “a reign of terror” in the classroom. 

Jonathan had a friend teaching English in a nearby village, one pupil asked, “What is the PLO?” This was a dangerous question so she answered in a neutral manner. The next morning, she received a call from the Shin Bet who knew everything and she lost her job.  This also can happen if someone goes to a demonstration or a march.  This degradation of pride and respect erodes any sense of pride in the education system.  Your head teacher may be the biggest collaborator in the school. Since the majority of Christian and Muslim children attend the dozen private schools in Nazareth, they are spared this humiliation and leave with a solid education.

For me, the most eye opening part of Jonathan’s comments revolve around the issues of citizenship; this gets a little crazy, so bear with me.  The Law of Return states than any Jew from Brooklyn to Mumbai can become an Israeli citizen because he is Jewish. Jonathan became a naturalized citizen because he wanted protection from expulsion or deportation and he did not want to wait for the threatened loyalty oath requirement. His wife, Sally, is an Israeli citizen because she is a Palestinian whose family stayed within the ’48 borders and in 1952 the citizenship law declared such people citizens. When they got married, it took Jonathan eight years and a host of legal threats to obtain citizenship.

Now take a deep breath.  In Israel, there is a difference between citizenship and nationality, everybody here is a citizen but there are *137 nationalities* per the interior ministry.  The courts refuse to recognize an * Israeli nationality*, but there is a *Jewish nationality*. So why is this?  If there was an *Israeli nationality* then this would be a state of its citizens who are all recognized equally and Jewish exceptionalism would disappear.  By maintaining the different nationalities along with citizenship, Jews can continue to have rights that are not granted to other citizens.  To add to the craziness, Israeli nationality is listed on Israeli passports, but that is only for the benefit of the border guards.  The blue Israeli ID card is also secretly coded: there is no mention of Israel: if are Jewish your birth date is written using the Hebrew calendar, if you follow Jesus or Mohammed, the date is in the Gregorian calendar.  If you are confused, then read this again very slowly.

So who exactly is really a Jew? Under the Law of return, a person is recognized as a Jew if one grandparent is Jewish.  Perversely, this is the same criterion the Nazis used. Jewishness as defined by religion, requires the presence of a Jewish mother.  With this contradiction, many “Jews” arrived claiming to be Jewish, but then were not recognized by the rabbis who control Israeli Personal Law. This came to an explosive crisis in the 1990s when one million Russians arrived on Israeli shores, but think about it.  The husband is Jewish a la the Jewish mother definition, but his Christian wife and four children are not.  Suddenly the state is faced with one new Jew (yippee) and four non-Jews (not yippee). This has caused major social problems and it is currently estimated that more than 350,000 “Jews” from the Soviet Union are actually not really Jewish.  Confused yet?

Jonathan reminds us that this is really different than, let’s say, Britain which is a Christian state (God save the Queen!) but also a state of citizens with equal rights under the law.  In Israel, there is no symbolism to the Jewish in Jewish state. In the 1990s, post-Oslo, the mantra for this dilemma was all about separation and the logical outcome was the building of the wall and a tightening permitting system that made it increasingly difficult to marry across the Green Line. Palestinians have struggled to obtain citizenship when marrying partners in Israel, but have faced a judicial maze, endless delays, and changing laws that have ultimately functionally outlawed marriage between lovely Israeli Juliettes and their West Bank Romeos on the grounds of “security” (a reason second only to God) and to stop the right of return, “through the back door.” This has to be understood through the mindset of the ever present threat to the “Jewishness” of the Jewish State and the perception that Palestinians are not just fellow human beings trying to follow their hearts and minds, but actually conniving Trojan horses, ready to set off the demographic time bomb. So remember that “Jewish” is a nationality to make sure that state resources stay in the hands of the Jewish population and the system is designed in mind boggling detail to keep it that way. In Israel, according to Jonathan, in 1992 the Law of dignity and freedom was passed, but there is no law of equality. Anyone have problems with this out there in the modern democratic world?

Extremely loud jets repeatedly streak across the sky and we wonder if we have missed some important news item. Jonathan explains they are spying on Lebanon and Hezbollah, most likely trying to decide when to make their next moves.

It is intriguing that Nazareth should be a major tourist city (remember the Angel Gabriel and the immaculate conception?) with graceful churches and a charming Old City. But this was thwarted through the mechanics of Israeli tourism, (read Jewish tourism). The authorities created tourism zones and nearby Tiberias was given a Zone A with big tax breaks for building fancy hotels which were then not built in Nazareth where the real tourist attractions are actually located. This also means that the profits from even Christian tourism go mainly to the Jewish tourism industry so people stop at the local kibbutz, swing through the Basilica of the Annunciation and then spend their tourist shekels in Tiberias.

This only changed in the 1990s when the Pope decided to visit when Nazareth was spiffed up, but not without resentments and conflicts between Christians and Muslims manipulated by the Israeli government, the Pope, George Bush, and Ariel Sharon. Then the Intifada broke out and the hopeful Renaissance Hotel was converted into a prison.  This was also a useful temporary prison for the foreign workers imported during the Intifada to replace the banned Palestinians.  These folks married Israelis, and when they got deported, they needed a temporary place to stay as well.   Only recently has there been a rejuvenation of tourism in the Old City, for visitors and the growing middle class, but it continues to be fraught with legal barriers. The old souk is mostly filled with cheap products from China and Taiwan and it is still recovering from being shut down for three years for renovation.  The temporary market was set up in adjacent Nazareth Illit and is now a permanent and competitive fixture for that town. 


Walking briskly along Jonathan’s wirey frame, we learn more about the 57 laws overtly discriminating against Palestinians.  There was a recent report on higher education that found 14 obstacles designed to prevent Palestinians from reaching higher education. `He talks about the current state of political parties and comments that there is basically a Revisionist, Jabotinsky, Netanyahu type politics that acts more colonial and plans to beat the Palestinians into submission and then give them minimum rights. He feels that the Labor party and its allies are actually more racist since they openly admit Palestinians will never settle for this life of discrimination, they want equality, so they must be separated and walled in. This brings us to the next phase of our day with Jonathan, a fascinating tour of Nazareth Illit, translated as “upper” ie up the hill, and “morally superior,” translated as Jewish only.



Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Love and sex in the age of apartheid #5

Blog Tuesday 6-18-13 Haifa
Love and sex in the age of apartheid
We arrive in the stunningly beautiful port city of Haifa, a muggy heat descending over steep hills winding to the port, towering cranes like gigantic blue  flamingos perched along the shore, the over the top Bahai Temple and Gardens shimmering up the terraced mountain at the end of the German Colony area where we are staying.  Our first stop today is with a group of dynamic women from Muntada: The Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health, and Aswat, Arabic for Voices.

Safa Tamish  (www.jensaneya.org)  is the intense and lively director of Muntada, a community based, feminist group founded in 2000, devoted to working on sexuality and sexual rights for Palestinians in Israel.  This started as a project within an Israeli family planning organization, but became independent due to the complex intersections of sexuality, national identity, cultural sensitivity, occupation, and the consequent spoken and unspoken dynamics of power.

I suspect that most readers share the Western view of a repressive patriarchal Palestinian/Arab culture where women are characteristically dominated by their fathers and husbands and sexual issues, let alone queer issues, are off the agenda.  We learn quickly that the culture is far from monolithic and there is a tremendous amount of nuance and complexity that needs to be understood.

Safa has a huge dose of chutzpah and creative energy.  She describes going into different settings, starting with student councils, working on projects based on listening and respect for the local community, learning from each other.  Once there is obvious mutual respect then much is possible.

Working in a Bedouin community, she understood that every mother has to explain to her child the predictable questions about sex, birth, etc. Using nonthreatening interactive training, with techniques such as role playing, she never encountered opposition, despite working in conservative villages.  In the course of her work with girls in tenth to twelfth grade, she found that almost 90% of the tenth grade girls were engaged and by twelfth grade, many were married.  After Safa’s program, none of the girls married while still in school.  She believes in community empowerment, done respectfully and quietly.

The projects and conferences grew and by 2006 Muntada became an independent Arab association.  She found that Zionist funders had no interest in Arabic projects and Arabic funders had no interest in working with Israelis.  The original name was associated with family planning, but due to all the talk about the demographic threat from procreating Palestinians, this name also became political poison.  Additionally, contraceptives were already available through the national health insurance.  The group also wants to work with Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab world and thus became an independent organization with 28 volunteers.  Their first funding came in 2007 through the Global Fund for Women and later other internationals, the European Union, Oxfam, local ministries for social welfare, and the Ministry of Education.

They are now developing culturally sensitive school programs; there are no models in the Arab world, and the western models are sometimes useful but culturally tone deaf.  So how does this work in the real world?  Safa told us that it is often tough, men are often gender insensitive; they need to be challenged without being imposed upon.  The tolerance of the women gets tested and this then  challenges the men.  Last year, there was a two day training on sexuality in Nablus.  All the men sat on one side, all the women on the other, two women were completely covered and two men were sheikhs with long beards.  They stated that Sharia Law has all the answers and this project is funded by the west, with a western agenda.  Safa thanked them for their comments and began the program unintimidated. The next day they were role playing and she asked the sheikh to explain to his daughter, “What is  masturbation?”  When he refused, “I cannot do this!”she explained, “But she is your daughter, do you want her to learn this from the internet?” He replied no, blushed, and then finally did the role play. Others in the program reported that this experience has created dramatic changes in the school and the sheikh is now recommending the program to everyone!

With her lively expressive face she tells us another story.  The group wanted to teach puberty to seventh graders. First they got the permission of the principal, then invested in training the teachers, obtaining credits from the Ministry of Education.  After the training, they evaluated the program and found that little had changed. So they developed a questionnaire for the students asking them what topics were of interest and who and what were their resources.  The sixth and seventh graders asked questions about oral sex, anal sex, contraception, and pornography!  The next step was to develop a letter for parents explaining the need for the program.  When the outraged parents objected, Safa presented the parents with the results of the children’s questionnaire! So the strategies include developing the training, working with teachers, children, parents, and following up to check the outcomes.

When she asked the teachers, what was most useful outcome, one reported that she had been teaching the poetry of love in an intellectual way, but now she began talking more comfortably.  During these discussions she discovered that one of her 15 year old girls was involved in a “casual marriage,” an arrangement with an older man, and many girls were having sex with taxi drivers.  The teacher was really able to talk about love and relationships and felt she had reclaimed her educational role as a teacher in this course.  She also reported that she was now hugging her husband in front of her children and that the family was much less cold and more physically intimate. Such are the many surprises in this work.

The group, Muntada, develops manuals and materials for schools and last year created a youth program for 16 to 19 year olds on sexual rights as human rights.  The students made films on the topics which included premarital sex, and wanted to have a big public launching ceremony.  Safa admits she was terrified at the community response, but the films opened in the cinema in Nazareth in front of over 2000 people.  The audience responded positively and one parent told her, “I am so proud you.”
Their website is growing and includes professional questions and answers, sex therapists, gynecologists, and Arabic translations of scientific articles.  They had 370,000 hits last year, the majority from Saudi Arabia.

Safa has started similar work in the West Bank and Muntada has just graduated their third group. West Bankers were once open minded but have become increasingly conservative. The youth have lost their ability to dream; not only are they physically occupied, but their minds are occupied as well, there is a sense of internalized defeat.  Safa does not believe in partial liberation.  She sees personal and national liberation as equally necessary.  During the Arab spring, young people demonstrating in Ramallah demanded personal and national liberation.  Sexual liberation she explains is intimately tied to fighting checkpoints, apartheid laws, and repressive family reunification prohibitions.  It seems the personal is political, even in Palestine.

Things are even more challenging for the LGBT community.  A woman I will call Suhair explains that the organization, Aswat, means Voices, and is a feminist social change organization of gay Palestinian women that is also part of the overall political struggle.  The group was started in 2003 by eight women to create a safe space and address challenges and aspirations. Cofounding members were activists in Israeli LGBT organizations and other progressive organizations.  They were at first welcomed in Israeli organizations but had to keep their national identity closeted. They found that the vast majority of LGBT organizations, (despite the Israeli branding of tolerant gay tourism), do not support Palestinian rights.  These women  did not feel they could prioritize their rights. Thus they created a discourse that combines resistance to all oppression including occupation and homophobia.  At the same time while Palestinian queer women are not unique in the challenges they face, they cannot begin to think of sexual freedom without the right to be free of occupation.

Suhair shares her own personal story as a teenager, questioning her sexuality, without any venues, Arabic sources, supports in school, at home, or with friends.  She discovered a phone support in Tel Aviv called White Line which was important to her, but their only suggestion was to get out of Haifa and come to Tel Aviv. She finished high school, got into Tel Aviv University, had “the best time in my life” out of the closet, but still felt she was the only lesbian Palestinian in the world. She had many Jewish friends, but then something weird happened. When invited to parties, friends told her she didn’t look Palestinian and suggested she change her name to sound Israeli.  She tried to be cool, but was choking inside.  Her friends advised they just wanted her to have a good time, no hassles. One day, she packed up her stuff and went home to her more conservative family and culture.  “Gay haven Tel Aviv is not a gay haven for Palestinians.” “The soldier at checkpoint does not care if I am gay or straight.”

As a high school teacher, Suhair notes that Palestinian society has been living at the margins of marginality for decades. The total investment in education for Palestinian students is 1/3 of their Jewish counterparts, from age three to 18.  The budgetary discrimination affects how kids are exposed to sexual education, what manuals, directories, and websites are written in Arabic, what opportunities are available for the educators and the educated. This is further complicated by a generally conservative society and segregated schools.

A woman I will call Layla, also a member of Aswat, agrees that Palestinian society is far from monolithic; but that it is difficult to be a lesbian in a Palestinian organization, or a Palestinian in a Israeli Jewish gay organization.  She always felt a need to hide one of her identities until she found Aswat. She talked about the complexities of the Palestinian community, the homophobia and realities of occupation that are embedded in her mind, the lack of modern writings on homosexuality, the fact that sexual freedom is only possible with economic freedom.  She works with women to write and publish their personal stories, to join with intellectuals and other feminist organizations like Muntada to support each other in solidarity and sisterhood. There are also joint efforts with the boycott, sanction, and divestment campaign, Palestinian Queers for BDS, Al Qaws, and the promotion of the rights of queer Palestinians by the BDS movement.

As the three women talk, we learn that amongst Palestinians, their language has been transformed into a shallow mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and English that is the consequence of settler colonialism and occupation.  In this Arabic, most women have no name for their genitals, that vague “down there” place, unnamed, untouchable. “Everything starts with words,” Safa exclaims. “In Arabic literature there are 990 names for the genitals, each animal has a different name for its genitals, poets in the ninth century wrote about homosexuality and bisexuality and it was acceptable.”  In Amman same sex marriage is allowed!  Fortunately people are being transformed by what is happening around them.


They also reflected on issues related to men who are part of their work. In a male dominated society, to believe in your partner’s rights requires a willingness to give up some of your own privilege; not all men are ready to do that. But male privilege for Palestinians is extremely complex for they too lack privilege; suffer from economic discrimination and humiliation, much like marginalized men of color in the US.  Thus the conversation quickly encompassed issues that included gender, race, and class. This provocative discussion ended with a comment from one of our Black women delegates about the need to build a more just society, “But it is not your responsibility to build that in a dominate culture.  It is my burden as a Black women to educate my oppressors, but white men need to hold white men accountable.”  In Israel/Palestine, where Palestinian men are far from the dominant culture, the rude reality of second class citizenship and occupation makes that struggle incredibly more difficult.