Monday, June 30, 2014

Blog # 13 June 20, Friday Bil’in From tear gas to maqluba

Blog # 13 June 20, Friday Bil’in             
From tear gas to maqluba
Feigning bravado and an ambivalent sense of group confidence, our delegation sets off for the West Bank village of Bil’in (see the documentary Five Broken Cameras), for the weekly demonstration against the separation wall. There is no direct travel service on Fridays, so this involves several taxis and lots of negotiation.  A group of Palestinians from Ramallah who hold annual conventions, (usually in someplace like Detroit), for all the former inhabitants and descendants of the city, is celebrating in Ramallah this year and they are unusually joyful, keeping their memories alive and grappling with today’s ugly realities.  One uninitiated 20 something was shocked to learn that there are Palestinian refugees, camps, and other inconveniences his protective and perhaps traumatized parents had wished to avoid. Black flags and posters are everywhere portraying a strong man breaking his chains over his head, in solidarity with the prison hunger strikers that are very much on everyone’s minds. We hit one massive traffic jam, a combo of a checkpoint and a wedding and an army of frustrated testosterone driven drivers.
I think how much our delegation has really been traveling in a bubble.  We have had calls from a variety of frantic family members, basically demanding, “Do you know where you are and what is happening there????” Our next door neighbors, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon are imploding in various dangerous ways, the Israeli press and the Palestinian street are full of calls to avenge the missing Yeshiva boys and as usual every Palestinian is a suspect.  Every cab driver we talk to thinks this whole episode is a ploy to give the IDF reservists some target practice before the big post-Kerry bang. We have had almost no checkpoint delays, no anxious humiliating interrogations (expect of course for our Palestinian leader, but that is normal for her which just shows how distorted normality is around here). We slept through the night house raids, were too far away to hear the first Israeli raid in 14 years at Birzeit University which involved rounding up (and emasculating) the university security guards and confiscating flags, banners, and posters from the student union, as well as searching the campus. And we live with our unconscious mostly white American privilege, presumptions, and passports that allow us to walk the streets of cities that our Palestinian hosts can only dream of.  Why we are not hated is still unclear to me, but the warmth and generosity is truly genuine.
So today we set off for some blunt reality, an unarmed resistance march against the separation wall in the town of Bil’in. Mohammed Khatib, one of the leaders of the organizing committee wearing a tee shirt that says “Water and salt = dignity,” a reference to the diet of the hunger strikers in Israeli jails, meets us at the entry to the town. He explains that Bil’in has 2,000 inhabitants, and another 2,000 living elsewhere, and 5,000 dunams of land. 3,500 was confiscated by the wall, 1,500 returned after a long struggle. Soon we are sitting under a tarp on plastic chairs in his patio, sipping mint tea, and admiring his beautiful stone polished home that he has poured years of work into creating.  I see a modern kitchen, a sunken living room with a poster of a young Arafat, and an amazing fireplace carved into an ancient dead olive tree. His five-ish year old daughter coyly joins him, wearing a traditional embroidered dress. Our cab driver joins us too, this is after all a grassroots struggle.
The story of Bil’in is the common tale of land confiscation, the building of a wall starting in 2004, the massive growth of an expanding Jewish settlement, Modiin Illit, (later we can see the cranes and high rises).  In 2005 the Palestinian villagers started to get creative, tying themselves to their olive trees, placing themselves on the land in cages, coffins, and shocking the Israeli soldiers with their nonviolent resistance.  This drew media attention but no changes on the ground. They built a caravan on the land taken by the settlements (reminiscent of the right wing Jewish hill top youth that often stake out claims before the official settlement is approved) which slowed the construction; the IDF said that mobile homes are illegal (except of course for Jews). So in one frenzied night, they built a fixed home with a door and windows, to the appropriate specifications, and this stopped settlement growth for one year.  Ultimately the Israeli construction company actually went bankrupt. (A victory for our side!) Then the route of the wall was changed to return some of the Palestinian land and the settlement construction resumed.  The Palestinians are still not allowed to work their land that they won back, though they built a (truly shocking) brightly colored playground on it, (you never know what these terrorists will do) so I am not yet calling this a victory, especially since the battle is really about the end of the occupation.
Mohammed has a sense of humor born of struggle. While much of the world was focused on the World Cup in Brazil, (sorry sports fans), he helped organize a soccer match in front of the Ofer Prison where prisoners are on a serious hunger strike. He was arrested a day before an action to block highway 443 which cuts through the West Bank and when the police asked him for information, he referred them to social media, (I always worry that the FBI and Shin Bet just sit in their offices reading our facebook posts).  When they were surprised by the action, he said, “There are no secrets, but there are surprises.”
Today many will not be at this march because there was a call to pray and march at Beitunya in support of the Ofer prisoners.   We set off in a row of battered cars, a motley crew of muscular looking Palestinian men with flags, press with large cameras and face masks, women of all varieties, internationals, and Israelis, and parked under some olive trees.  After a short discussion on safety (avoid getting bonked on the head by a tear gas canister, do not rub your eyes, do not run, cover your face with a scarf-done! do not panic, tear gas will not kill you, it will only make you feel like you are about to die, your eyes will tear and your throat will burn, sniff an onion, an alcohol swab, anything with a smell, and DO NOT walk down wind.  The IDF only use rubber bullets when stones are thrown and nobody dies from a stun grenade.) That seemed like a pretty long list to me, but we set off. We began the march down the dusty, hot, rocky road, my brain giving me fairly strong messages about getting the hell out of there ASAP and my legs inspired by the struggle against a long list of historical injustices.  My knees were sort of in between.
Before a stone could be thrown, the tear gas started and was blown up the hill to the stragglers like me, I cannot imagine how it felt at the front of the line. Europeans remarked that this tear gas seemed much more powerful than they were used to and others mentioned that Israelis are always field testing new weaponry.  Great! I found myself a cluster of olive trees and some other less than brave protestors, and tried to remember the rules of engagement.  There were single canisters and then showers of canisters, the occasional stun gun (very loud boom) and then rubber bullets.  I am told that the Jewish settlers on the other side of the wall, cheer the soldiers on and play inspiring music while they do battle with the dangerous terrorists on the other side who would like to plant their vegetables, tend their olive olives and otherwise lead normal lives. If the wind (and the tear gas of course) is blowing towards the settlers, (one can only hope), then the IDF moves more quickly to rubber bullets.  The settlers consider the blow back as some sort of badge of courage in the fight for Zionist domination. (This I confess is my own theory).  I make my way across the rocky field to where people even more frightened than I are watching, when tear gas spirals through the air and lands 10 feet from me.  This keeps happening, reminding me again that there is actually no safe place and that the soldiers have been known to come into the town and throw tear gas into people’s homes.  Last week one child was shot with a rubber bullet and injured. The important thing to remember about a rubber bullet is that it is indeed a bullet.  Such lovely people, these soldiers, “the most moral army in the world.”  Sometimes the hot canisters start small brush fires in the dry grass. 
The demonstrators feel that the soldiers have been more vigorous due to all the tension around the missing boys, (remember not a single stone was thrown), and the aggressive incursions and arrests that are going on all over the West Bank.  Everyone talks about how these weapons are made in the US and that the solution to the conflict lies in changing the policies of the US. Congress, are you listening? This is really important if you can take time off from fundraising and getting ready to bomb the next people in need of democracy!
The demonstration finally winds down, although that burning feeling in the throat drags on for a while and suddenly we find ourselves invited for lunch at another organizer’s house where his wife just happens to have maqluba (remember that chicken and rice dish from yesterday?) and salad for some 15 people,  (she must shop at the Palestinian version of Costco). So we gather around, eat to our hearts content, buy Palestinian embroidery from the women’ cooperative, and struggle to make sense out of the insanity of occupation, land grabs, racism, hatred, entitlement, military hardware, and the power of determined resistance by ordinary people desperately trying to create political change and to build the kind of lives that we take for granted.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Blog # 12 June 18, 2014 part two Lyd, (Lod in Hebrew) Scarlet Johanson has gas

 Blog # 12, resuming the blog by dates....
Scarlet Johanson has gas
Spending a few hours with Tamer Nafar, the hip hop artist for the group DAM, (see the incredible  documentary, Slingshot Hip Hop) is always a trip. The drive to Lyd where he lives involves passing Ben Gurion Airport, built on the lands of Lyd, speaking of dispossession. Lyd is a “mixed city” with an ancient bloody and complicated history without any of the touchy feely reconciliation stuff that “mixed” may imply today. I always think it should be called a “mixed up city.” The place consists of Palestinians (excuse me we are in Israel so they are officially Arabs) and a mix of Jewish Ethiopians, Moroccans, and other Jews from lower socioeconomic groups.  We are on a bus touring the area and Tamer never seems to age; he reminds me of a tiger about to pounce; he speaks his mind freely, crackles with sarcasm and energy and has no verbal sensors, (in keeping I suppose with being a well-known hip hop artist!) though he seems a bit tamer now that he has a wife and son.  Parenthood will do that.
We see more blaring signs on busses: “Bring back our boys!” The political frenzy is heating up and I fear what is coming.  We start in a dusty, run down center near the Great Mosque where Palestinians were first rounded up in 1948 and massacred by the Stern Gang.  130 people died and one survived buried under the corpses. The mosque was closed until 1994.  Tamer remarks that an Israeli reporter noted that the walls of the reopened mosque were washed, but the blood soaked floor was just covered with carpets. And to think I grew up knowing that Jewish soldiers only fought noble and moral wars; we did not massacre, we protected women, children, and fruit trees, we learned from our history….. the making and unmaking of founding mythology is powerful challenging work.
Tamer reviewed much of the city’s history and the various neighborhoods and their related ethnicities and socioeconomics, (no surprise, the whiter the Jews, the more services, sidewalks, clean streets, the more Arab, the less of everything).  If we look at today, he sees the main Zionist dilemma is one of demography. The cry now is to build a new “clean” city, “Yehud Lud,” bring in the extremist Jewish settlers, (some from Gaza, some from France) and place them in the middle of Palestinian neighbors. Palestinians facing poverty, hostile Hassids, and little hope are faced with selling their properties to these settlers or to the drug dealers that dominate many of the neighborhoods.  These are not good choices.  And thus the Palestinian presence is steadily disappeared. Part of a Jewish apartment complex is located on a Muslim cemetery, so Tamer can no longer visit his father’s grave.  According to Tamer, approximately 90% of the funding in Lyd is budgeted to build housing for Jews.  He notes ironically, that of $12 million, $2 million is for Jewish schools and services, $2 million for Jewish neighborhoods, $6 million for a separation wall (!) in the city, and $2 million to demolish Arab houses. Trends?
The neglected poorer parts of the city are infested with drug dealers, (he points out one with an “ATM” ie a hole in the wall where you put your shekels and get your drugs, I did not try it even in the interests of journalism) and the only rehab center used to be owned by a drug dealer whose son committed suicide and then the father changed his tune.  Mostly folks are using crystal meth, coke, and pills; the dealers are often Arabs and Bedouin clans, as Tamer says, “not a tasty salad.”   
The confounding disaster is of course racism.  Tamer explains that intellectually he feels sympathy for Ethiopian Jews who are also on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder; but then he “has to be fucked over by an Ethiopian (Jewish) policeman who is trying to be soooo Israeli.” Recently there was a scandal when it was found that hospitals were throwing out blood donations from Ethiopian donors and that Ethiopian women were being sterilized without consent.  Racial purity anyone?
With his family and a successful music career, Tamer has moved to a nicer neighborhood; his son is attending an Arabic preschool and speaks fluently  The parents are now teaching him Hebrew at home; after all he does need to speak the language of the colonizer. Tamer fears that if he went to a Jewish pre-school, he would lose his Arab identity.  These are tough issues to negotiate.
We meander towards the “wrong side of the tracks” where there is a railroad station, originally built by the British for Palestinian workers. Now the neighborhood is only visited by junkies, police, and settlers, “They have the country, we have the streets.” This impoverished shanty town is limited by a nearby Moshav (a Jewish community), the train tracks, a highway, and a Jewish neighborhood.  While there are successful doctors, and lawyers, there is mostly lots of poverty and unemployment. These folks are not accepted in Jewish neighborhoods, 150 Palestinian houses (remember all citizens of the great democracy of Israel)  have been demolished due to lack of permits, but since these are unrecognized neighborhoods there is no system to apply for anything, not that that would work anyway.  And each group blames the group less fortunate: Ethiopians and Moroccans are part of the problem and they blame the Palestinians.  It would create about half a million shekels to create a public housing system and plans, it takes the same amount to demolish one house.
Tamer notes this whole insanity is actually about Judaizing Lyd. He quips that the Jews are always complaining that the Palestinians want to throw them into the sea, but in actuality it was the Jewish forces who pushed the Palestinian civilians into the Mediterranean.  Tamer’s grandfather was” thrown into a boat” in 1948 and there are plenty of historical photos that document that frantic expulsion.
But there is a bureaucracy to racism and Judaization. Palestinian land was declared “frozen” and cannot be developed. Ten years ago, Jewish Russian neighborhoods were built on frozen land with full infrastructure and no permits.  They received their retroactive permits two years ago.
And then there are the railroad tracks, all eight of them, 250 trains a day, We hold our breaths and watch kids scamper across the tracks as the lights flash and the rails come down.  Well before 2006, there were no lights and no guard rails, some 15 children were killed. Tamer made a video with the late Juliano Mer Khamis (actor and founder of the Jenin Freedom Theater), and took Israeli rock stars to this neighborhood with the media in tow, creating intense public pressure, and poof, lights and guard rails.  Can you imagine such a situation in a posh neighborhood in Tel Aviv.  But then they would have moved the train tracks…..The promised pedestrian tunnel or bridge has yet to materialize, but no one else has been crushed by an oncoming train.  I counted four trains in the few minutes we had this conversation.
We head into a dirt path, concrete walls, corrugated metal walls and roofs, piles of trash, open sewerage, bedding hung in the sun, purple bougainvillea flaunting itself. Where are we? A shanty town in Brazil? South Africa? A ten-ish year old girl offered our bus driver a nice drug purchase. Israel the big success story, the start-up nation, the light unto the nations? This is shameful.
One positive development Tamer explains is that at the site of a previous demolition a new shiny school, the Ort School Science and Engineering, has been built, his wife teaches here, the principal is an Arab. She describes herself as apolitical, but she knows how to work the system, she is well respected, she goes out on the streets and talks to the drug dealers, and she gets excellent results. All of her students are Palestinian.
Our final stop is the Shamir neighborhood, a Palestinian area adjacent to a moshav that demanded a separation wall of their own to protect them from the unwelcome Arabs. Activists took them to court and they said it was a an acoustic wall due to the trains (not), then the wall was partially built for seven to eight years. A beautiful multi-story Palestinian apartment building was built in the neighborhood without a permit (obviously since there are no permits), and some wierd deal was made, not to demolish this apartment building in exchange for completing the separation wall. A very weird legal system indeed.
I ask Tamir, who is this strange mix of high energy, outrage, and cynicism, what are the main barriers for the Palestinians digging themselves out of this economic, drug trafficking mess and he replies: “Our tribal mentality.” (It seems we are all suffering from our tribal disorders, only mine has all the big guns.) But Tamir continues the good fight, pushing the boundaries, getting in everyone’s face, calling things as he sees them in all their contradictions and ugliness and sarcasm.  He is releasing English language hip hop songs: “Mama, I fell in love with a Jew,” and “Scarlett Johanson has gas,” (a reference to the Soda Stream campaign she promoted, Soda Stream is produced in an illegal Israeli settlement). He is planning a full album and is writing a script on Palestinian hip hop. And he is using his powerful music and his sharp tongue to continue to create political change and wake up the international community through the language of hip hop.
I leave both inspired and appalled at the consequences of the Zionist dream: of the price of privileging Jews over everyone else, white Jews over brown Jews, of the self-destruction of communities that are pushed to the edges of society, of the terrible cost of the racism that has always been part of the fabric of this contradictory place.

Blog # 11 June 28, 2014 Saturday Who is the terrorist

Alice asked that this be sent out asap so note that blog # 11 is out of sequence for the dates of her blogs.  I will resume sending in date sequence with blog # 12.

Blog # 11 June 28, 2014 Saturday      Who is the terrorist

I have been thinking a lot about collective punishment and military force and the cost of fear. I am not going to reveal the identity and details of individuals in this story out of respect for their privacy and safety, but several asked me to write about recent events in their village.  Let’s just say Bani Nayim is a large Muslim village of 20,000, east of the city of Hebron, a region known for large stone quarries and miles of vineyards. I have been visiting an extended family where most everyone is well educated, teachers, businessmen, doctors, people with degrees in education who cannot find employment and “jump the wall” to find work in Israel or to get visas to do graduate work in the US, or do online PhD programs in Islamic religion and Quranic studies.  Families tend to be large, babies tend to be loved and plentiful; it seems that everyone we meet is related. Their idea of a good time is sitting on a balcony with each other at sunset, drinking Turkish coffee, eating sweets, talking (we have some really serious discussions about politics and medicine and health),  and smoking Nargila. The main issue with the view (besides the stone quarry) is the Israeli military base in the distance and the spy balloon, (I thought it was a kite) that hangs above the hills over the fanatically racist Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. 

The houses I visit are beautiful, meandering, white stone Arab homes surrounded by patches of olive, almond, lemon, fig and apple trees, gardens with water starved flowers and aromatic bushes like lavender and something called cologne (I think) that just bursts with aromatic perfume when the sun sets.  The love of the land and its bounty is palpable. Far from the center of town, there is a larger field with a greenhouse, (where I see rows of happy Mlokhyya (Jew's mallow) that gets concocted into this great green soup with rice, and a field of wheat; much has been passed through the generations.

The living rooms of these houses have big screen TVs and often some totally discordant American cowboy movie with Arabic subtitles or an overly dramatic soap opera from Saudi Arabia playing in the background. It is stunningly hot and periodically someone talks about the four feet of snow that fell last winter and paralyzed the village. The land is hilly with single homes here and there; throw in some goat herds and minarets and if you keep looking you can see the Dead Sea and the purple hills of Jordan.  It is all pretty spectacular.

This is the kind of family that warmly welcomes me into their home, the mother has prepared a ginormous meal of extraordinarily good food which is made of rice and chicken and stuffed grape leaves and stuffed zucchini, and yoghurt and spices to die for; everyone is behaving as if I have not eaten in days.

We retire to a living room filled with stuffed chairs and stuffed people, and after more sitting and smiling and Sprite and Coca Cola, I take out my Origami directions and a 100 sheets of colored paper. Shortly thereafter there is a whole collection of family members of all ages and all levels of education, making boxes and struggling over cranes and helping the kids get the creases right.  This goes on for an hour and there is so much laughter and good fun; it is just a simple pleasure and feels so good in some primordial, mostly nonverbal human way.

My host then suggests that the family watch my documentary on the Nakba, Voices Across the Divide, and I wonder how will that play, a documentary produced by a secular Jewish woman for a US audience sharing the Palestinian story in a room full of devout Muslims, (is this chutzpah or foolishness?)  And so we talk and talk and I say, they have to be honest with me. Everyone wants to see it and so they invite over more relatives and soon everyone is glued to the TV and we are not watching Bonanza.

I am a bit freaked out since they keep talking and I can't tell if this is good or bad, but it turns out this is a totally talkative enmeshed family and they are just having a big group experience; they recognize the two college girls holding the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction sign towards the end of the film and of course the village of Beit Ummar over the hill; they are debating the different family names, who knew?  When the documentary ends, I hold my breath, and then the father speaks and says the film is an excellent portrayal of the Palestinian experience and then everyone chimes in and we have this amazing discussion about all of their stories and the making of the film and the American Jewish community and Zionism, and Islam, etc, etc.  As you may imagine, this is a pretty stunning, cross-cultural experience, and I am so relieved; I feel embraced and welcomed despite my clear differentness. (I am given a bed in a room by myself and the entire family sleeps on long cushions on the floor in the living room). Perhaps I need more tea and how about some nuts?

So why am I telling you this story?  When you hear a news report, these are the “they,” the “Muslim other,” the “Palestinian militants near Hebron,” the faceless families that are being terrorized by Israeli soldiers every night since the three boys, (or settlers, or soldiers, or who knows what or all of the above) disappeared.  The day after the disappearance (I will call it a kidnapping when I know that is what it was and, FYI, I am not asking Netanyahu for the real story), The Islamic Center and School for Boys next door, was ransacked by the Israeli soldiers and the imam was detained for a few hours and then released.  Years past, his two brothers were “martyred,” one was in a militant group and died in a gun fight when the house was crushed with him in it and the other was killed as “collateral damage.”  

After our movie night and the sunset over Kiryat Arba, as we prepare for bed, I am informed that the Israeli Defense Forces have attacked the town, they are at all the entries and have started going house to house. The village has a facebook page which is suddenly the focus of everyone’s attention.  Someone reports that three to four buses of fully armed soldiers are walking through the town, some take control of one house and put a sniper on the roof. TV news is talking about an IDF attack on Raffa, the southern border of Gaza. The electricity flickers on and off, why? The family is anxiously awake until the middle of the night, tracking the soldiers on facebook and on a local radio program. The father finally goes to the mosque to pray when the muezzin calls at 4 am, (yes I am awake dissecting every sound), and then he comes home and goes to sleep.  I learn that like many Palestinian men, he has been arrested twice and was in administrative detention for two months and released without any charges.  He has obvious reasons to be anxious; he is a Palestinian male while Muslim, which is an arrest category in itself. No arrests are made here during the night, but everyone’s nerves are a bit shattered and no one sleeps well. The youngest son is curled across his mattress and is in a deep stupor.  I wonder how this all impacts him and his sense of safety, his parents’ ability to protect him.  The press is reporting hundreds of arrests, many more injured (collateral damage?) and a steady number of killings. Hamas members (including legislators) are clearly targeted.

We pass one of the big “Bring Back Our Boys” signs, (it hits me that this is supposed to resonate with the violent kidnapping of girls in Nigeria).  I try to imagine a society[A1]  where that slogan would mean all of our boys, not only the three snatched last week, but the thousands of mostly boys and young men lost in Israeli detention centers without parents or lawyers or the legal and human rights protections of any decent society.  And then there are all those boys who have lost their humanity, breaking into houses night after night, terrorizing families, turning into frightened, dehumanized monsters.  And I realize, we need to bring them back as well.

Blog # 10 June 19 Thursday Aide refugee camp The tigers, the butterflies, and the birds

Blog # 10  June 19 Thursday, Aida refugee camp
The tigers, the butterflies, and the birds
Our host father and his two young daughters begin the tour of the Aida refugee camp In Bethlehem after a breakfast we prepared together with is his wife. My tomato chopping skills are definitely improving. He smokes constantly and like most men, has done his stint in Israeli jails. After two years, he was released and given a permit that limited his movements to Bethlehem for life. His family has had many Israeli home invasions and the IDF killed his brother and sister and bombed his mother’s house. He has many skills in construction and is a skilled electrician, has no paid work currently, but dreams of building his wife her cooking center to raise money for their disabled son and help empower other women.  IDF soldiers visited our street last night and this morning, we can see the spirals of tear gas 100 meters away as young boys run down the street toward the archetypal entrance to the camp (a large house key over the gate), the massive grey concrete wall at the entrance to the camp is surrounded by garbage and a grey IDF guard tower completes the trilogy. (Think the photo of the Pope praying at this wall, saying to the world, THIS EXISTS!) It appears that the tear gas is also in the vicinity of the boys UNRWA school and they are taking exams.  Our host mentions that the IDF soldiers use the boys for target practice. The boys run towards the conflict, grabbing stones, the girls run home.  The young daughter is handing out geraniums she has picked.  The site of this skirmish is where the Pope stopped to kiss the wall and pray.
The camp has no green space and tons of children who need to play and release the rage, frustration, and fear that infuses the air and tear gas they breathe. We hear the history of dispossession in 1948, the UNRWA tents, the UN houses, (30 single rooms, one per family often 6-10 children and grandparents, and one bathroom for all 30 homes. Think about that for a minute;  we are talking ten kids, poverty, trauma, depression, and appalling overcrowding.)  Many men went to work in Israel to provide food for their families. My host explains that he is afraid for his children. He tells them to stay away from the soldiers; he deeply cares for them, the soldiers do not.  “We want peace.” He has Jewish Israeli friends and occasionally they visit him.   He of course cannot leave Bethlehem which is really an extension of his life time prison sentence.  The frequent tear gassing affects everyone and is reported to increase the risk of miscarriage.
More tear gas, more boys dash by.  We stop at the mosque and kindergarten.  There is a painting of a fierce orange tiger and the words: “Here only tigers can survive.” On the adjacent wall are two orange butterflies and the words, “Here only butterflies and birds are free.” Another young boy races past. We see a church in the camp and then cautiously look at the wall a few blocks from the guard tower.  There is an enormous graffiti of a boy with a slingshot. On a nearby crumbling wall of a house, someone drew an open mouth with a dove, a key in his mouth, flying out.
I spot Arabic graffiti supporting Fatah but surprisingly little related to any political party. There is a general sense of disgust for all political parties around here. I see a wall of a house with a painting  of Al Aqsa and Mecca. Roosters are crowing and a haze of tear gas hangs over the houses. My host talks about wanting his children to get a good education and go to “the best universities.” He like many  fathers, has great hopes. He points out the agricultural land stolen when the wall was built; land his father would have given to him as the next generation of sons. I see teenage boys collecting small stones, begging us for dollars, cigarettes.  My host pats them on the head and mutters, “Simple,” and tries to dissuade them from throwing stones.  They do not listen.
We make a quick friendly stop at the Al Rowwad Childrens’ Theater to visit our friend Abdelfattah Abusrour.  We have been here before (my daughter taught yoga and dance), the dabke and theater troupe have performed in the Boston area and Europe. We squeeze into Abed’s office and I scan the photos of the Pope, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Einstein, and piles of books and files.  On the wall, the poster; ‘The Right of Return is Not Negotiable and Not Subject to any Compromises.” Abed’s father was born in Beit Natif and his mother in Zacharia, both now destroyed villages.  The family fled in 1948 to what became the Aida Refugee Camp where Abed was born.  For an in depth biography of this extraordinary man, see the website of my documentary, www.voicessacrosssthedivide. Abed can trace his family back ten generations and his name means: “The one who shall return.” With a PhD in biology from a French University, he got “outside the box” and decided to return home, to dedicate his energies to using the arts, dance, theater, photography, and creativity to strengthen the youth of Palestine.  He returned in 1994 naively ready to “save Palestine.”
He reminds us that despite the representations in the media of the Palestinian as terrorist, that in fact 99% of Palestinians have never carried a gun and resistance has been almost entirely unarmed and nonviolent and dates back to the Ottomans and the British.  He reminds us that Palestinian women formed the first women’s union back in 1920 when they demonstrating against the British Mandate and then the Zionists in 1929 by surrounding Jerusalem with 120 cars and honking up a storm.  And that was a lot of cars for those days!
 In 1998 in founded the Al Rowwad Center based on the idea of Beautiful Resistance.  There are currently 6,000 refugees crowded into 10 acres of the Aida Camp. “Nobody wants a child martyr. Children should walk in their parent’s funerals, not the other way around.”  “No country can live on the corpses of its people.” He encourages the international community to support the center through the Friends of Al Rowwad which is a tax exempt organization with volunteers and partners in the US, EU, and Norway.  We take a quick tour and the center is looking much more spiffy and modernized than my last visit, an inviting library, computer room, women’s center with sewing machines, embroidery, exercise area, progress is being made against all odds.
We hurry home because our host is going to give us a cooking class which she organizes with other women twice a month to raise money to support their disabled children.  She is dressed in a lovely traditional embroidered dress and hijab.  We set to work chopping cauliflower, carrots, onions, eggplant; there is laughter and friendly camaraderie in this room full of women. We are making Maqluba (vegetarian and chicken), an upside down rice and vegetable dish and for dessert, basbussa, a dangerously delicious moist cake of semolina, eggs, sugar, vanilla, coconut, lemon, and more, baked in an oven.  (She prefers her ancient gas fired metal oven in the hall to her modern electric one.) The house is soon filled with savory and sweet smells and high expectation. A few bits of advice: she did not measure anything, but you know you have enough chicken broth in the pot of rice and veges when the spoon you stuck in the rice tilts over,  always salt the eggplant so it will not be too bitter or squooshy, use homemade yogurt.  And of course it helps if she is standing next to you in the kitchen!
After this phenomenal meal, we make the rounds to say our goodbyes and I find the grandmother sitting alone with her Maqluba in a separate part of the house.  I take her hand and she starts to weep, tears streaming down her lined face.  We have no words, so soon I wrap my arms around her and she weeps uncontrollably as I blot the tears off her cheeks.  I can only imagine that her deep well of grief is overflowing: the loss of her home, the suffering in the camps, the deaths of her children, the humiliations, curfews, challenging grandchild, the life that she lost through no fault of her own. And her knowledge that she will never see justice in her lifetime. My tears linger with hers.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bog # 9 June 18, 2014 Yaffa The world according to Sami

Blog # 9   June 18, 2014 Yaffa,
The world according to Sami
Last night when we left Elbeit Alnisa’i for dinner, the nine of us wandered off into the dark streets of Beit Sahour, past churches and statues of the Virgin Mary, tempting pastry shops, and a clear starry sky, challenged by sidewalks begging for unsteady ankles. A small elderly woman with a twinkle in her eye who hosts us at the hostel with a steady stream of mint tea and Turkish coffee, took Hana by the elbow and led us determinedly up and down the hills and winding streets to a lovely restaurant complete with sappy music and the World Cup on a large screen.  Later, overstuffed once again by tasty rice, cauliflower, eggplant, watermelon, and more, we set off on our uncertain course home and immediately found ourselves in the midst of ten or so teenage boys on bikes doing various testosterone driven things that boys do.  In any other city I would have felt afraid but we soon found ourselves surrounded by these young men who carefully herded us back to our guest house, leaving us with the customary, “You’re welcome!”
Tonight I am writing from the bosom of a family living in a refugee camp in Bethlehem and once again the extraordinary decency and generosity is overwhelming.  The house is multistory with various adjoining apartments, kitchens, bathrooms, a large room filled with rubble which is under construction, and a spiral staircase in the kitchen that seems to lead to another apartment where the four girls sleep.  There is definitely a baseline level of calm organized chaos. The parents have two more sons, one who is busy studying for final exams; the other who is severely disabled with cerebral palsy, partly related to a premature birth and then another episode of severe oxygen loss while hospitalized, maybe from  infection. Mostly he sits curled in a swing in the hall that seems made from a seat in a car, and rocks back and forth, making various cries and calling “Ma.”  His mother tenderly explains that she understands him as do his siblings.  At night, he sleeps curled up with her.  He attended a special school for a while, but the family wanted him home because the teacher did not understand him and he cried all the time.  He is also 14 years old and tall for his age, increasingly difficult to carry and facing an educational system with inadequate resources or understanding for children with multiple severe problems.  There are 50 children now at home in the three Bethlehem camps with disabilities and enormous needs, mostly met by their unbelievably supportive families. 
I meet the paternal grandmother who like me was born in 1948, but unlike me, looks like a fragile 80 year old who has lived through an inordinately large amount of stress.  She smiles, enjoys holding hands, and prays quietly with her beads.  She asks me why I am traveling without my husband and lets me know that if I was her daughter, I would be killed.  I give her a quick rendition of a modern American marriage and assure her that my husband and I love and respect each other very much. Everyone seems impressed that I am a doctor.  This seems to put the issue to rest  
Various nieces and nephews drift in and out and I think the family is also caring for the son and daughter of the father’s brother who was killed ten years ago.  Pictures of the martyred uncle adorn the living room where we drink tea and then chop a mountain of tomatoes, baked eggplant, and onion. Caution: large wonderful meal ahead. The puzzles, finger puppets, origami, and magic markers emerge from our bags and suddenly the children are very preoccupied. There is a lot of touching and cooperation, laughter, playful shoving and hugging, and a sweetness to the interactions.  At dinner, the disabled son is carried into the dining room and is hugged, kissed, and fed by a variety of family members , (much like a baby bird with a broken wing in a nest with foragers bringing back delicacies).  They all  clearly  love and accept him and are not at all distracted by his movements and behavior.  Somehow, this kind of full acceptance and support makes me want to cry. 
I have been trying to keep track of the events that are heating up all around us.  Three Israeli settler boys from Hebron (read right wing ultra-Orthodox) were apparently kidnapped and while this is to be utterly condemned in general, their disappearance is being used to whip the county into a wild xenophobic, Hamas hating, unity government hating mood.  Everywhere we see large signs on busses, “Bring our boys home!” and there are special hashtags and quite a media frenzy.  Prime Minister Netanyahu seems convinced this is the work of Hamas despite what seems to be a lack of carefully collected evidence, the IDF are making massive arrests, people have been injured and shot by the soldiers, a friend of mine was hit by a tear gas canister while protesting the force feeding of the hunger strikers in Israeli jails, and we keep hearing that the city of Hebron is under closure, with a massive military presence throughout the West Bank.
While I understand the terror and horror of kidnapping teenage boys, Palestinian children and teenagers have been detained and arrested, (isn’t it kidnapping if it is done by an arm of the state acting in an utterly egregious manner????) often in the middle of the night in front of terrified mothers and fathers, no lawyers, often no charges). Big surprise, there has been no public outrage for these Arab children, and obviously no collective punishment of Israeli families whose sons have been beating and cuffing and interrogating frightened kids, ignoring international law, and common decency.  It all feels different when the victim and perpetrator are flipped, doesn’t it?

So we are back in what is often called ’48 Israel, ie the Israel contained within the increasingly  phantasmagorical Green Line, and we are meeting with one of my favorite academics/ activist/former city councilor, Sami Abu Shehadeh. The focus is Yaffa and the subtitle is mixed cities and racism. Sami notes that the poet Darwish once said that most wars end with “we are here and they are there,” but in this war, no such separation occurred. More than 90% of the historical Palestinian population lives in total separation from the Jewish population, but the boundaries are very messy.  Until recently, he explains with his ironic mix of deprecating humor and truth telling, there was no need to legalize the process of separation, but in the past decade, Arabs (Israelis deny that there are Palestinians in Israel, so they are called Arabs), have tried to move into Jewish areas, (better housing, better schools, better services) and because there were no racial laws in Israel, a new criteria was invented.  People can be excluded from communities because of “unsuitable compatibility.”  Who are we fooling here? At Tel Aviv University, a professor noted that Tel Aviv is the only Western city without an Arab community and also the Western city with the closet Arab adjoining community in the world, ie Jaffa.
As we wander the streets of Jaffa, through shabby neighborhoods and gentrified streets and glorious views of the Mediterranean and elegant, expensive old Arab houses now developed or bought for foreign embassies, wealthy Jews, etc, Sami explains there are two main narratives around a particular point in the run up to the’48  war and they are in total disagreement, as is much of the discourse in Israel.  The Zionist narrative states that in January 1948, two months after partition but before the war, this central market area where we are standing had buildings housing Arab terrorists, threatening Tel Aviv, and two heroic Stern gang soldiers brought a truck loaded with explosives into the central market and blew the place up.  A major Zionist victory.
The Palestinian narrative states that while there was a lot of violence resisting British occupation and Zionist expansion, there was no Palestinian army, and Arab armies could not reach Jaffa.  The Saray House in the market place was used by ordinary people and in fact held an orphanage which was blown up by Zionists terrorists, murdering innocent children. A major Zionist massacre. Framing is everything.  
As we find refuge in the shade, Sami reflects on the historical importance of Jaffa which was even mentioned in the Old Testament when King Solomon brought cedar from Lebanon through Jaffa to build the temple, and then the prophet Jonah had that unfortunate incident with the whale and got spit up on some lonely Jaffa Beach.  Not that any of this matters for the present, right?
He notes that there are two types of Palestinian historians.  Those who believe Palestinians are Europeans who immigrated from Crete and settled in the Levant and those who are pan-Arabic. Palestinians arrived from the Arab peninsula, and oh by the way, that was around 12,000 years ago. Everyone else then arrived to occupy this spot, the perfect seaport, the center of commerce, the gateway to Palestine. Jaffa was occupied some 30 times and obviously had its times of success and times of neglect. But Palestinians were clearly here first: not that any of this matters for the present, right?

The big deal happened in modern history with the famous Jaffe orange export business. Apparently some stroke of genius or luck, led to the production of a thick skinned orange that could be shipped anywhere, the Shamuti orange, carefully wrapped in special paper; so an enormous industry was created: the growers, the pickers, the wrappers, the guys who built the special boxes, the transport to the port, the boats, you get the picture. In the 1930s, five million boxes of oranges containing 400 million oranges, passed through the port of Jaffa. (So much for the Arab’s inability to make the desert bloom or their backward agricultural processes!) Tel Aviv was founded in the late 19th century as a neighborhood of Jaffa with some 100 Jewish families.  As Sami notes, “Before 1948, people came to work in Jaffa from all over the Arab world and now we Palestinians leave to work all over the Arab world.” The ebb and flow of history, and it is clearly not done with the ebbing and flowing part.
This all ended with the 1948 war when Jaffa was largely depopulated of its Arab population. After the war, Israelis passed an aggressive program of Judaization, changing Arabic signage, destroying the Old City, and disappearing the history and culture of the Palestinian majority that had existed for centuries, (I think this part is important for today, right?). With British support Tel Aviv became a city in 1909, by 1919 there were 2,000 Jewish inhabitants and by 1948, the number had reached 200,000.
In the unforgiving sun, we admire the famous Clock Tower built in 1901 by the Ottomans, across the street was the Ottoman prison which became the British and then the Israeli police station. (must be a trend?) It is slated to become a fancy boutique hotel with its northern wall adjacent to the mosque of Jaffa.  The history of this city is embedded in its architecture and sometimes I feel the walls are weeping when they are not outright screaming for our attention.  We wander through the old covered market, now mostly cheap Chinese imports, a herd of Birthright kids, there are signs for a Lady Gaga concert, and tattooed bikers and rainbow hair. We are standing in front of 300 new apartments, this is gentrification on steroids, upscale bars and cafes now appear like mushrooms after a spring rain.  Sami teases, there are now hair dressers for dogs and in Tel Aviv more couples have dogs and cats than children.  Welcome to the twenty first century where pet adoption and doggy day care are the norm, but no one has the money or motivation to support a severely disabled Palestinian boy.
We wander by the Scottish Church, the Old French Hospital, Saint Joseph’s School for Boys, (soon to be a boutique hotel) the colonists and religious institutions were busy for a long time; there are a long list of stories about Jesus and his disciples, miracles, visions, angels, etc that relate to Jaffa. The impact of that is now mostly a very strong tourism industry, focused on visiting all the cities of the New Testament. Religion in the service of capitalism.
Sami notes sarcastically, “Then there was the most important real estate invention: The View.”  We pass by the upscale Andromeda Hills project, the most expensive housing project in Jaffa, gated illegally, tied up in court battles, and now for the past ten years gated “for the public safety.” Really? He notes ironically, in the past at the sea, poor people used to smoke hashish and now rich people spoke Hashish. Rents are often $20,000 per month and houses sell for millions
We look up at a large poster of Handala done by the cartoonist and political activist, Naji Al Ali. In the poster, an American in Lebanon is asking for the religious identity of an Arab, (I think there are 16 types of religious identities in Lebanon), and the guy replies, “I am an Arab and you are a donkey.” Subtle? The Handala character stands nearby with his back to us and spikey cactus hair. Naji, a Palestinian living in Lebanon, left for his own personal safety to Kuwait and then to London where he was assassinated in 1987.  There are so many theories about who pulled the trigger. He pretty much offended everyone by speaking the truth to power. Sami explains that Handala came to Naji in a dream, a small child who will help him tell the truth. Naji said he left Palestine when he was ten and Handala will only grow up when Naji returns. He turns his back to the viewer because the world has turned its back on Palestine. His hair is spikey because reality is bitter. He is now the most famous Arab symbol of perseverance and resistance in the world.
This brings us back to the Palestinians of 1948 and the neighborhood of Ajami, (see the film of the same name and my previous blog posts). In 1948, the remaining Palestinian inhabitants were rounded up and put into the neighborhood of Ajami; their houses were declared neglected, and they were declared present absentees (see previous blogs), or they kept their houses and had to share with incoming Jewish immigrants. Sami’s great grandfather was a soldier in the Ottoman Army; he was not willing be a refugee so he stayed, was sent to Ajami, and lived surrounded by fences, soldiers, and dogs.  Even the European Jews called it the ghetto.  They should know.
These refugees (3,900 left out of a population of 120,000) experienced the dispossession of the Nakba and the loss of all friends, family possessions, libraries, teachers, doctors, hospitals, language, (“the biggest armed robbery in the twentieth century”).  They experienced the fact that if the Israelis wanted cheap labor, Palestinians were present, but if Palestinians wanted their homes back they were absent. This was a humiliating personal and economic loss that led to decades of depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, and criminality. In 1950 Jaffa was annexed to Tel Aviv and was now run by Jews and planned for Jews “in this liberal democracy of Israel.” Until 1993, they were not even statistically counted as a separate group. Haeen Zubi, the Palestinian Knesset member who recently criticized the hyper response to the kidnappings of the Yeshiva students, is now facing death threats and being called a traitor.
So how does this segregation and racism look up close and personal.  In the mixed cities, there are three kinds of schools: secular Jewish, religious Jewish, and Arab. Some 20-25% or Arabs go to secular Jewish schools where the education is better, though completely Zionist. Jewish parents complained when the Arabs reached 50% of the student body, so the school divided itself into two schools, Arab and Jew. Then the parents demanded a wall down the middle of the playground.  The municipality refused and used words like multi-culturalism, so the Jewish parents took their kids out and sent them to schools in Tel Aviv, or to the right wing national religious schools. The Israelis do not even seem to have the inclination or institutional or legal building blocks to build a multicultural society, let alone face the glaring endemic racism.
It is late and I am too tired to continue.  Let me just say that I knew I was in Israel ’48 when I ordered a Turkish coffee and a lovely cappucino arrived.  I didn’t want to complain, so I grabbed the cinnamon, sprinkled the steamed foam liberally, only to discover that it was actually pepper.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Blog # 8   June 17, 2014 Imwas

The stones do not lie

After a frightening moment with a billowing forest fire, we meet Umar in the village of Imwas in the middle of Canada-Ayalon Park, a major Jewish National Fund nature reserve, popular for picnics and strolls in the woods amongst the “Roman ruins.” Arabs here date back to 638 AD when they
arrived along with the bubonic plague. Archeologists think the bath house dates back to the third century. The village was built hundreds of years ago and along with Yallo and Deir Ayyoub, comprised a strategically important area called the Latrun.  Israel forces tried
and failed to seize the Latrun in 1948 because the local Arabs put up fierce opposition,
and thus the Israelis lost a direct route from Jaffe to Jerusalem.  The generals called their alternative route The Burma Road, mimicking the Allies terms fighting the Germans. (Remember the
Arabs became the new Nazis) The capture of Latrun was one of the first goals of the 1967 War.  Much to my amazement, (and I am pretty hard to amaze at this point), the village was occupied in 1967 but never annexed like East Jerusalem, so the area is technically still in the West Bank as occupied territory.  Nonetheless, Israelis frolic freely in the park, and inhabitants of the three old villages have to obtain permits to visit the sites of their former homes, schools, olive
groves, desecrated cemeteries, etc.   In 1967, the villagers, by the way, gave no resistance;
the IDF rounded them up in the central yard, reassured them they would return soon, and then forcibly marched the bewildered families toward Ramallah.  “Yalla to Ramallah.” A few hid in their
homes, a few fled to a Trappist monastery, but a total of 7500 villagers were ethnically cleansed.  Umar shows us photos that look eerily like 1948, and dare I say, other catastrophes that have
befallen people we all know.

Once the inhabitants were gone, the army bulldozed the houses, but the stones and protruding pipes and metal remain as well as a six century Byzantine church, a crumbling Roman bath house, and three neglected cemeteries.  After the Six Day War, the inhabitants were directed to walk back but were met by IDF who shot over their heads and turned the hungry, thirsty, frightened, families away. According to Umar, Israeli commanders explained to the nearby kibbutznics, “There are some
things you will never understand.  [ie this is about revenge for 1948]. How do you expect us to let Arabs stay close to the highway?  We need the area clean.”  Even using the word “clean” to mean “free of Arabs,” dare we say “Arab-rein,” is shocking if you give it a moment’s

In another mind boggling tidbit of information, the area is administered by the civilian administration which is part of the military administration for the West Bank, so somebody in power knows that this is the West Bank. Palestinians treated the baths (which were partly covered) as a holy shrine dating back to a sheikh who was a friend of the Prophet Mohammed. Except for one sign in Hebrew demanded by Zochrot, (that has been now replaced three times, and blackened once,) there is not a single acknowledgement that this lovely forest with its JNF trees and graceful olive groves (olive groves???) and house foundations and olive presses dates back to a recently destroyed Palestinian village. An Israeli soldier photographed the destruction and the forced march in 1967 and finally got the where-with-all to publish his pictures in the 1980s.  No one cared.

Across the highway, is the more polished version of the park.  Paths are neatly lined with square
stones taken from the destroyed homes.  Lovely walls enclose a playground, the stones again from destroyed homes. There are circles of panels made from the same stones celebrating the donors to the park:  They include Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King and lists of wealthy Canadian Jews and
congregations. The JNF sponsors olive festivals to encourage Israeli children (read Jews) to connect to the land and the olive trees.

 So how does a lie get created and sold as the truth? History as well as people can be disappeared,
particularly when they are voiceless, colonized, Arab, Muslim. How do the survivors of the European catastrophe throw people out of their homes and set them off on forced marches, leaving them with nothing? How are false memories born and rebirthed until only the dispossessed and a few hardy souls who refuse to forget can demand to tell the whole story.  It is a powerful reminder to touch the rugged stones of Imwas, to walk with the ghosts, hear their voices in the welcomed breeze, and feel the presence of people who refuse to disappear.

I come from a people that stands proudly and says, “We will never forget.” Every catastrophe is unique in its own right, but how can we expect others to feel any differently than we do. Palestinians too will never forget. The stones do not lie.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Blog #7 June 17, 2014 Lifta Walking with ghosts

Blog # 7 
June 17, 2014 Lifta    Walking with ghosts

The gunfire stops around midnight and we sleep well at the Yaffa Cultural Center in the Balata Refugee Camp.  In the morning we learn that the Israeli military made an early incursion into the camp, arresting about ten young men, beating one and trashing a house. This is apparently so normal that children are smiling, holding hands and walking to school in their blue and white uniforms, men are opening their shops, and women hurry by.  There is an air of total normalcy in a totally abnormal place.
We cruise through a variety of checkpoints including the once onerous Huwarra checkpoint which is totally deserted.  I watch the signs:  Pisgat Zeev, Newe Yalakov, Moshe Dyan Street, the east and west-ness of Jerusalem is no longer about location but rather about where exactly Arabs and Jews are currently living. We meet up with Umar Ighbariyah from the Israeli organization Zochrot, (Remembering) for a poignant, powerful tour of Lifta. The sign at the top of the valley says En Leftoah (a Biblical reference to a place that may or may not have existed here) with Lifta (in parentheses).  Lifta is an example of the estimated 650 depopulated Palestinian villages from 1948, but every town has its own particular tragic history.  Many are unaware that the depopulations continued into the early 1950s (after the war was over) and included Zacharia and al-Majdal Asqalan.  Roman tax documents document the existence of Lifta from the 12th century, it was liberated from the Turks by Saladin in 1189, and later occupied by the Ottomans, the British, and then…
In the British partition plan in 1947, Lifta was supposed to be part of the international zone consisting of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but the Zionist forces wanted an open passage between Jaffa and Jerusalem.  Lifta is much greater than the classic photos of stone houses hanging on to the hillside; it actually extended up near Jaffa Street, the walls of the Old City, Mount Scopus, and included land that now houses the Knesset, the Prime Minister’s House, the High Court, and part of Hebrew University. Hana, one of our tour leaders, notes that her family still has the deed for that land. This is no longer a theoretical historical event.
In January 1948 (before the beginning of the war), members of the Irgun attacked a Lifta cafĂ©, killing six and injuring seven.  Frightened families retreated into the center of the village.  This was a large wealthy town of 3,000 people with extensive agriculture, gardens, pools, and irrigation. The following month there were more attacks by the Irgun and Haganah and gradually the families fled in terror mostly to East Jerusalem and Ramallah. After ’48, subsequent inhabitants included Jews from Arab countries placed on the “periphery” (after all the Ashkenazim would not live here!), Jewish squatters, drug users, even a Jewish terror cell that planned to explode the Al Aqsa Mosque and did successfully bomb a bus to Hebron.
We stand at the top of the valley avoiding rumbling trucks at a massive construction site that is destined to be a fast train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, there are two tunnels in the distant hills that will soon connect; interestingly the tracks are supposed to go through Imwas which is our next destination. Below this site is the continued “secret” construction of the bunker designed for government officials in the case of a nuclear holocaust. There is something supremely ironic about this location for that. (Will the whole country someday be a disappeared village?) Turning slowly 360 degrees, Umar points out the locations of other former villages such as Colunia, Deir Yassin, Ein Karem as well as the Jewish settlement of Romama, and the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem and Biddu in the West Bank. (forgive my spelling errors, it is close to midnight here and my spelling brain is sleeping) Umar explains that the Jewish settlement of Ramot which is on the way to Ramallah, is actually located in the ever expanding Jerusalem, 90% built on Palestinian land. This area of patchwork claims and identities is both strategically located, and in 1948 was perched on the dangerous armistice border with Jordan. The border is now marked with a line of Jewish National Fund forests.  Ben Gurion is reported to have said with satisfaction, “The area… is clean of strangers [Arabs].”
We start the hike down the dusty rocky valley, gracious stone ruins with magnificent arches, domes, and towering saber cactus still stand as living testaments to the past.  I can almost feel the women with their bread, the men returning from the olive orchards, the children washing in the pools, the ghosts of Lifta breathing life into painful memories.  Fig trees, expansive oaks, fruit trees bear witness as well.  We meet an older mustached man, beaming with happiness.  He is from here, but now lives in San Diego and is exploring the park with his nephew who has just been released from 13 years in prison after being arrested for involvement with the PFLP. We watch him bear hug an olive tree and start singing and dancing.  He tells us he wishes he lived here so he could invite us to his home for dinner and reminds Hana in Arabic not to say anything bad about Jews! His joy is infectious and his nephew appears quietly pleased and supportive. We learn that the nephew was in a prison near Gaza; recently he was awakened in the night, put into a jeep, and dropped off in the Negev.  He was found by Bedouins and gradually made his way home. He had never seen a cell phone.  His mother and father were both arrested when he was released so that they would have difficulty searching for him. Does this sound strangely barbaric to anyone in the modern democratic State of Israel?
Young ultra-orthodox boys run down the path to the pools which date back to the Romans, for a refreshing dip and splash. I summon up my tolerance but all I can imagine is that (even in their brightly colored underwear and wet payus, the tzizit, tallit, black hats, and dark suits hanging from trees) they are from some other planet; perhaps a lost lunar landing that does not see or appreciate the history and  treasured beauty of this sacred space. Or is that sensibility entirely lost when a person believes so deeply in Zionism and the path Israel has taken? Do we even have a common language?  Do we even see the same people?
The city plans to throw out the remaining squatters and drug users living in the ruins, and build a large complex of luxury hotels and malls. I am sure the ads may be appearing in the New York Times in the near future, but the plans are frozen in the courts.  White butterflies flit by as if to say, you are planning what?
Umar’s family history dates back to a village near Nazareth; attacked in 1948, villagers fled to the forests for two years, a few houses were destroyed and vandalized, the cows were stolen, the sugar and oil trashed, one donkey was killed, (soldiers will be soldiers after all).  The families were then allowed to return but in one of those ironic moments, at the Rhodes agreement with Jordan, the Israelis wanted more land near their armistice line, so the King of Jordan dipped his thumb in ink, pressed it onto the map, and poof, Umar’s village was included in the state of Israel. 45,000 Palestinians were annexed in this fashion and then had the privilege of Israeli citizenship and military rule until 1966. The French representative reportedly took his green pen and drew the armistice line, and hence the Green Line. Colonial powers can be so artistic and thoughtful!
Working with Zochrot, Umar notes that the media and the public has a much greater awareness of the Palestinian nakba, although many feel that it was justified, war is hell, etc etc. I suspect that the ghosts feel otherwise.  They watch every Nakba Day, when inhabitants from Lifta now living in East Jerusalem are allowed to clean up the cemetery, honor their dead, and try to save some remnants of this magnificent city gone to ruin. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Blog # 6 June 16, 2014 Balata, Nablus The Main Course

Blog # 6   June 16, 2014 Monday, Balata, Nablus
The main course
The Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus is a concrete maze of twisting narrow sometimes shoulder width paths, two main streets for the schools and the markets, and a jumble of houses leaning towards each other at odd angles, obliterating the sunshine as the residents search for nonexistent space for growing families and multiple generations. The camp started in 1950 with a lease from the town of Balata for one square kilometer of land for 5,000 refugees mostly from Yaffa from the 1948 war, which explains the name of the guest house where we are staying. The United Nations set up tents that turned into one meter square, one-room houses and finally this jumble of construction. Sewer and water arrived in the 1960s.  The houses are dark, small, (mostly 60 x 70 square meters per family which is typically large and multigenerational), fairly stark, wires dangle between buildings and the rare geranium. Bright graffiti adorns some walls and Japanese artists have painted a kaleidoscope of flowers near the girl’s school which has 2,100 students and a boy’s school of 1,000, (if they actually graduate).  After ninth grade the students study outside the camp.
So, let’s stop a minute.  Ten years without sewer or water? There is no privacy between or within houses, there is no more room to build, (forget green space and play grounds), there is massive unemployment (estimated at 56% in a population of 30,000) and little hope or opportunity.  It is hard to escape this environment, so people live their lives, marry their sweet hearts, have families, take care of each other, and struggle from day to day.  If you have the misfortune to suffer from a heart attack or ruptured appendix or a bleeding pregnancy, you have to be carried (I am not talking on a gurney here) down these twisted concrete paths, often turning sharply angled corners, the stone surfaces irregular and rocky, to get to an ambulance.  If you are dead, the corpse sometimes is hoisted roof to roof across houses to get to a wider street. If you are in a wheelchair, if you are trying to bring in newly bought furniture, if you are having a seizure or a stroke, the hurdles are unimaginable.
Remember this the next time someone discussing the “peace process” says nonchalantly, “Oh the refugees are off the table.” The refugees are actually the main course. You can imagine why Balata was one of the leaders in the two intifadas; even the dead are angry.
We sit around a long oblong table and Mahmoud, breaks into an engaging warm smile.  He is a successful son of Balata. Born in the camps, he received an excellent education from UNRWA schools and as the oldest child, went on to higher education at Birzeit University and studied and worked all over the world including the US; his siblings are high level professionals.  He presents us with a very worrisome report that mirrors are discussion the last time he spoke to our delegation: years of Palestinian dehumanization and resistance and Israeli retaliation; thousands injured, dead, imprisoned; generations of children traumatized by violence, and the frequent experience of Israeli soldiers, tanks, artillery, and apache helicopters.
As I write this blog, my thoughts are interrupted by repeated bouts of rapid gun fire.  I am starting to fear this is not a wedding celebration.  After all, Hebron in the south is under curfew after three Jewish Yeshiva students were kidnapped (no one mentioned the six Palestinian boys disappeared from their beds in the tiny town of Asira last week, but I digress) and people are a little edgy. Netanyahu is ramping up the rhetoric and arresting Palestinians, one was reportedly killed. 
Mahmoud is not optimistic.   In Balata, “life is a war.” The children who were out of school for months during curfews during the Second Intifada, are the teenagers who are now illiterate, violent, and difficult to engage.  Mahmoud runs programs for youth: music, art, crafts, computers, film, photography, psychosocial support. He sees the depression, the rising drug abuse, and the suicidality, (boys walk unarmed into Jewish settlements hoping to be killed and martyred). He notes that especially with boys age 10 to 15, 50% of ninth graders are illiterate and cannot even write their names. The girls do better; they are more protected, have less exposure to the street, and in general are more focused, resilient, and studious. And then those folks who actually get employed barely make a minimum wage; most people in Balata are becoming vegetarians. One kilogram of meat costs 50 shekels, many men work all day for 40.  So who is going to buy meat? Mahmoud worries about the future. “Look around at the radicalism taking over the world, even in Denmark where 27% voted for an extreme right candidate. Craziness brings craziness, fanaticism brings more fanaticism.”
He admits that his well-educated brother does not know how to deal with his own son. This is a very angry generation that does not see a future for themselves. Even Mahmoud’s seven year old son, who lives in a nice apartment with trees and a park outside the camp, said to his father, “’I want you to get us out of this country.  This is not a country, there is no happiness here. Everybody is sad, nobody laughs.’  Of course, he is right.” He thinks of the struggles his parents endured, his father working as a bank employee barely able to feed his six children, all of the energy and effort that went into educating the next generation, the immense suffering and trauma his mother experienced.  Born in 1948 from parents who fled the area near Ben Gurion airport, she was born in a cave, had seven children herself, cradled them when they were shot, injured, imprisoned, and she herself was beaten during the Second Intifada while trying to stop the IDF soldiers from invading her house. Mahmoud says softly in a broken heartfelt voice, “She has never had justice.”
The future? He is more optimistic about women, their strength, focus and perseverance. He urges us to educate our communities in the US, to vote and pressure our governments. “We do not hate Jewish people, we want justice and peace for everyone…the voices of reason all losing the ground.”

The rounds of gun fire are now accompanied by throbbing boisterous music.  I am voting bachelor party.
Later in the day we tour the Old City of Nablus which dates back some 4,500 years, (the Romans and Ottomans were clearly here), and is surrounded by mountains splattered with houses, mosques and twinkling lights. Much like Jerusalem, there is a maze of stone streets, halls, walkways, arched roofs, endless markets selling trinkets, fruits and vegetables, electronics, schlock Chinese products, Palestinian pastries, dresses, hijabs, and an occasional gem.  There are rows of mannequin heads, each wrapped in a more creative and alluring scarf; I guess you make your fashion statement where you can.  There is a musty smell of dank stones, scrawny cats, human sweat, and the occasional miraculous spice shop where we lose ourselves in the sacks of aromas and flavors while sipping bitter coffee and sniffing soap flavored with cinnamon and pomegranate. Young boys wheel carts stacked mountain high with fresh pita and we stop to fill ourselves with crispy, cheesy knafe soaked in rose water. This is my kind of shopping.  Most everyone is polite and solicitous and begins and ends the conversation with, “Your welcome.” Little boys ask where we are from and how old we are.  I keep spotting splatters of old bullet holes from previous battles engraved into the ancient walls and metal doors.
At one point we stop to visit the restoration project of Khan Al Wakala, a former market place dating back to the Romans, now owned by the Nablus Municipality.  In the 2002 Israeli invasion, part of this extensive building was bulldozed by Israeli tanks to create an opening for tanks to enter the old city.  (They weren’t made for the winding stone paths.) They took destroyed  numerous other ancient buildings to make an opening for their machinery of war. The renovation is spectacular with rows of columns and a lovely open floor space (formerly for animals), rooms for businesses, meetings, a restaurant, a hotel, and incredible roof top vistas.  We take in the hills of Nablus, spot the Israeli security tower that apparently has an unobstructed view of all of us in the city, (that’s me with the floppy hat and water bottle taking your picture)  as well as all the way to Iraq.  On another hilltop there is a massive orange/pink palace that is owned by the gazzillionare brother of the guy who is funding the city of Rawabi.   The view is breathtaking and there is a brave little kite flying serenely above all of this chaos and insanity. 
The only hitch is that the Municipality has not found an investor to finance and develop this very good idea. Any millionaires out there interested in socially responsible investing? I highly recommend this as an investment opportunity, the craftsmanship is excellent, there is an up to date institutional size kitchen with shiny modern equipment, lovely stone tiles in the bathrooms, you can even see the original Roman tiles and the old well….oh, but of course, this is Nablus.
We drag ourselves back to the Yaffa Guest House, a few bites of kenafe has a way of slowing us down, and we are met by a pack of ten year olds pointing plastic guns at us, making shooting sounds, and demanding our money. But this is Balata where real children have guns and real people die and this was a little too real for me.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Blog # 5 Sunday June 15, 2014 To exist is to resist: challenging the occupied mind

Blog # 5
Sunday, June 15, 2014
To exist is to resist: challenging the occupied mind
Today our health and human rights delegation of nine energetic women in various states of jet lag is about to encounter walls: the kind that occupy minds, create concrete barriers, instigate wars, enhance legal institutions, and undergird international accords. In Ramallah, Mahmoud Nawajaa from the organization Stop the Wall, takes us through a speedy overview of the last 100 years of Palestinian history. While much was familiar (see blog last year), the bits and pieces that struck my frazzled brain include:
1.     The 1948 war resulted in the expulsion of 45% of the indigenous Palestinian population.

2.     The Herzliya Conference in Israel which started in 2000 laid the foundations for the development of the Galilee, the development of the Negev, the expansion of Greater Jerusalem, and the disengagement plans for the West Bank and Gaza.  What is happening now is all part of a greater plan, little happens by accident.

3.     As places like Tel Aviv become increasingly gentrified and expensive, there is a strong motivation to move into the Jewish settlements in the West Bank where much is free or subsidized and the environment is less crowded, and thus we are seeing this steady population shift into the occupied territories by Jewish Israelis who think they are moving east to live in a nice Israeli suburb.

4.     Before 1967, Palestinians had a strong growing economy with an agricultural industry in the north, a touristic and pilgrim industry in the center, dairy and grape production in the south, a strong cross border trade, food processing industries in the West Bank and Gaza and minerals from the Dead Sea.  This has all been effectively destroyed by Israeli occupation and military incursions and the severe restrictions with which we are now familiar.

5.     The Palestinian Authority, Israeli government, and international groups cooperate on creating industrial zones in the West Bank in Jenin, Hebron, Jericho, Gaza, and on developing border industrial zones and agro-industrial zones in the Jordan Valley that do not comply with Israeli labor and environmental laws.

6.     Palestinian women play a major force in the resistance and often protect male protestors, putting their bodies between their men and the Israeli soldiers.

7.     Youth resistance is the vision for future political change.

But there is nothing like walking in the dust and rubble of reality and we are soon off for a tour of Qalqilya, the first walled city in the West Bank.  We rumble by clusters of yellow taxis, incessant honking, and blasts of music; past the Mukatar where Arafat was once humiliated by Israeli troops and is now memorialized in grand fashion. There are pyramids of watermelons, and dark melons mounted on upside down cans, looking like rows of canons.  I spot signs for Rawabi, the new city being built for locals  by a Palestinian developer with shady connections whose general counsel is Dov Weinglass, the Israeli official who famously said: "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger." The highway to the city is being built on Area C (Israeli control), funding is from the Palestinian Authority and a Qatar real estate firm, and partnering with the PA, the land was bought out from Palestinian farmers and olive growers  have lived there for generations. Rumors are that the apartments will be for returning refugees (who are obviously not from Rawabi because it is new) but the condo prices are out of reach for even some Ramallah yuppies. The Jewish National Fund has generously contributed 1000 trees. With friends like these…..

While we are hurtling along at over 60 miles per hour on winding hilly roads, I try translating the environment around me. Coils of barbed wire, look for a nearby settlement or military road. I see the large sign for the Jewish settlement of Halamish and a tiny sign for the village of Nabih Saleh which is engaged in a bitter struggle over lost land and water. The barren, concrete high rises of Rawabi erupt on a hill surrounded by cranes while small Palestinian villages with pointy minarets and mosques, surrounded by gorgeous rocky hills, terraces, olive groves, children running along the road, donkeys braying, feel at one with the ancient landscape. The word organic comes to mind. Straight, well paved bypass highways with lights and guard rails lord over us as we zoom through the tunnels below, countless Jewish settlements pop by, Kirya Netafim, Azzun, etc cluster on high places.
Suhad Hashem, the guide from Palestinian Medical Relief Society in Qalqilya, is in a rush; the farmer’s gate is only open from 1-2 pm and we are late. We now enter the alternative reality of occupation. There are rows of trucks, open carts, bedraggled horses and donkey drawn carts, and mostly resigned farmers and young boys waiting. Barbed wire curls in each direction and the main gate is opened only for vehicles and carts after permits (for human and beast or vehicle) are checked. A smaller gate to the left is for the townspeople whose farm lands are beyond the walls. They negotiate lines, a turnstyle, and a security clearance every day, coming and going. Suhad notes, “I hate this a lot, I can see my father’s land and aquifer, but I can never get there.  I have been doing tours since 2004.” Her eyes look teary. Turning around I can see the Jewish settlement of Alfe Menashe spreading across the landscape. Everything is up close and really personal. The Israeli soldiers manning the gates, are dressed for mortal combat.
At another point, Suhad points to the settlement of Mattan which has crept across the green line onto private Palestinian land which is now green and flourishing with the stolen water as well. They also have a tall security tower looking down on Qalqilya. We meet with a farmer who once had one of the largest nurseries in the area and admire the long rows of fruits trees and olive trees and hear his story of land loss at the hands of the bypass road.  The rest of his land is on the other side of the highway which requires permits and planning; it is hard to find workers willing to put up with this hassle. He says with a bit of a twinkle in his eye and a brown weathered face,”Even if you have your land, you can’t be sure of everything.” His two sons have gone to medical school; he does not know what the future will hold.
We return to Suhad’s office where she talks about her work with Al Mubadara, the Democracy movement headed by Dr Mustafa Barghouti.  Suhad works to improve women’s conditions in sewing factories challenging low wages and long hours, as well as to improve their access to health screenings.  She is also active in the schools urging students to boycott Israeli products. “Each shekel comes back to us as bullets or settlements.” “Don’t buy from the occupier.”
She explains that Qalqilyians have lost so much land that they are considered as refugees and receive services from the UN with UNRWA schools and hospitals. They are also located on the largest water aquifer in the West Bank.  She talks about the towns caught between loops of wall and the green line, which are not recognized, have no services, and are not even allowed to bury their dead. She talks about the settlers from nearby Azun Atma who refuse to ride on buses with Palestinian workers. Her daughter is studying swimming training for women at an Najah University in Nablus.
We head back outside, past the zoo, and the open market to the checkpoint where 5-7000 men pass every morning and evening after standing in (cattle) chutes and going through a humiliating security check.  We watch them streaming out at the end of the day and confirm that many started their days here at 3 am.
Our final stop is at the gracious home of Munira and Hani Amer in the town of Mas’ha. They moved into their home when they married 31 years ago. The original Israeli plan was to bulldoze their home and farm lands to make way for a Jewish settlement that now looms beside their property and up the hill.  They refused to leave and after a prolonged struggle that included international support and media, the Israeli authorities built a concrete wall and military road adjacent to their land and surrounded the other three sides of their remaining property with metal fencing and gates. (How do you wrap your brain around this kind of cruelty and racism?) The first time I visited them they had to request a soldier unlock the gate in order to leave home, but they now have their own key to a smaller gate. Munira greats us smiling, wearing a long black robe and hijab.  She has a dimple on her chin and laughing eyes and frequently covers her face with her hands when she finds something funny. I do not know why she is not psychotic.
Over mint tea, we recount the bizarre saga and admire the lush fruit and vegetable garden she has recently planted.  Plump pomegranates hang over our heads and the tomatoes, corn, and olive trees in the raised bed that is now her front lawn (the Israeli forces removed the top soil) are looking pretty delirious. Gorgeous purple and pink flowers hug one of the house’s stucco walls. A military jeep stops, unlocks a gate, and speeds through. The settlers from El Kana frequently harass her, throw rocks, enter her property, or attack the crops in other family land where her husband is now working. They have raised four sons and two daughters, have four grandchildren, and she is in remarkably good humor.  She makes some of the best zatar I have tasted. She has planted red and yellow flower beds around the outside of the house.  A sweet cooling breeze blows across the patio and small grey birds flit in the bushes. The sky is pale blue and glows where it reaches the land. Munira talks about drawing her strength from her land, her hands have the brown thickness of a woman who knows the earth.
I kiss her both her cheeks and thank her for the honor of visiting.  I try to grapple with this utterly insane situation: A garden of Eden blooming in depths of hell.