Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Alice Rothchild: 3/23/15 part 1 / post #6

Running On Empty

I first met Dr. Mona El-Farra several years ago in Washington DC and I have followed her work and reports primarily through the Middle East Children’s Alliance. The taxi takes me to the Red Crescent Society main hospital through grid locked streets, aggressive nail biting moments that remind me once again that in this part of the world, there is very little personal space, especially when it comes to cars. Mona and I find a book lined office to talk: she has a head of thick black hair, a white and red patterned scarf, pearl earrings, and a turquoise bracelet. There is a fierce look of determination about her, but I sense an immense fatigue in her eyes. She lost nine relatives in the recent war.
Dr Mona el-Farra and me at Red Crescent Hospital in Gaza 
 She explains that during the Israeli attack, the hospital was bombed. “I have been negatively affected by the bombing. I am fine but it was a very hard time, but there is a feeling of uncertainty, it may happen again.  Besides that I am trying to travel to see my children in the UK, I have been invited to three conferences, but no permits, so I am stuck, maybe a trip to Seattle in May.” She will miss an upcoming conference in Ireland; there is a totally understandable stress and tension in her voice and I am trying to imagine the reality of a physician’s life trapped in Gaza and assaulted by repeated military attacks and human tragedy.
Mona takes phone calls while we talk, the man who is sharing this office with us is smoking. He is in charge of fighting illiteracy, a daunting concept when so many schools have been damaged or destroyed.
poster of literacy campaign at Red Crescent Hospital in Gaza

 Mona explains that she is the deputy chair of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society of the Gaza Strip and the director of Gaza projects for the Middle East Children’s Alliance. She is also a prominent human rights and women’s rights activist born in Khan Yunis, Gaza.
“The current situation is miserable, on the edge of collapse, there is no reconstruction, thousands of families need homes, water is difficult and salinated and of poor quality, next year there will be no water in the aquifer, so the problem is building. 96% of the water is currently unacceptable for drinking this year, there is no regular electricity, only 2-4 hours per day.  After the war, the hospital got donations for a generator, but there is not enough fuel.” They need the generator to work the MRI machine 24 hours per day and this is very expensive.
She continues, “400,000 children are traumatized after the attack due to eye witness experiences according to the UN and UNICEF.  I see that those kids, age five to 16, who are suffering this trauma, were eye witnesses of the attack, are the future youth, those kids will be the future negotiators.  When Israel hits Gaza, it hits the psychological well-being of those kids. They will either be very, very radical, filled with hatred…so hatred and lack of peace.” [Netanyahu, are you listening?] She describes the terrors that these children have seen: “war, killing of parent, home bombing, running in the streets, killing of civilians.  They currently need programs like MECA, Play and Heal Program of MECA, clinics for kids and families for psycho-social support, so this is the extra burden.”  She admits to feeling strained with a lack of resources, “Nobody takes care of me, I suffer extra systoles, high blood pressure, no one cares for me. I need a break, needs rest for one month. It was not good before the attacks, so now there is more work.  To help people, lots of pressure.” Her supports are her friends but they need support too.  “For example, I am trying to leave.”  Amazingly, she had the chance to leave during the war on her British passport, “but it was my duty, but after attack I couldn’t leave.” She tried to get a permit via Erez checkpoint but was refused for “security reasons.” “This is the case for 95% who try.”
Mona remarks that she is managerial, “but during the war I saw patients, the bombing was heavy across the road from the hospital, it was affected, I came daily to emergency, all kinds of staff who could get here,”  Some worked 24 hours, some did a tele medicine service for patients who couldn’t reach the hospital. “They talk directly to the doctor for advice and this worked, we had many calls, then we received injured patients.” They worked in cooperation with Shifa Hospital which was overloaded, equipment was not working, issues around MRIs, CTs, xrays. Patients who were injured were discharged from Shifa, and came for follow-up care of their injuries to Red Crescent.  The team as well went to chronically ill patients who lacked medications, who needed help at home.  They made field visits under fire, in ambulances went to see diabetics and cardiac patients. Some areas had two to four hours of electricity, some mobile phones were functional and in other areas there was no telecommunication.  
The second week, Israel started a ground attack in Shuja’ieh (or Shejaia depending on the map) in the northeast.  “75,000 people left their homes under intense attack, like a flooding of people.  It reminded people of 1948, early in the morning, people killed in streets, rubble, they went to schools for safety, came to the hospitals for medical help.” She coordinated with the UNRWA schools, started doing clinical medicine, there were 700 cases per day. “I worked as GP, gynecologist, dermatologist, asked other centers for volunteers, but we were well organized.’
The trauma and bitterness poured from her troubled memories.  “A child age seven on the second day of [the attack on] Shejaia came with blisters on his foot, walked a long way, hungry and thirsty.  He came to the clinic with his parents, a nurse accompanied his mother to the MRI machine, his mother was watering plants and was hit.”
“A child age five came to the clinic, with a head injury, we asked his name, ‘unknown.’ He was  comatose, whole family died.  Anything about him? We don’t now, the whole house destroyed, even which house he came from, he did not survive.”
“There are1800 orphans just from the last war.”
Dr. Mona’s face deepens with sadness. Her cousin in Khan Yunis, Abed Melek, a 65 year old farmer, ran into the street with his grandchildren when his house was hit. “He was killed, four children killed in their pajamas, five adults were killed, another ten were injured in his family…. I have story of myself which reflects the situation of Gaza, no place was safe. When shelling was heavy in my neighborhood, I went to stay with friends.  Then there was shelling in their area, people were running from place to place, but I went to the hospital daily, running with clothes on your back.  Diabetics did not take their meds.” I feel like I am sinking under her grief and her stress. “People had no IDs, there were unbelievable bombs, shaking, maybe sound bombs, no white phosphorus.  This time there was a warning rocket on the roof, [but] this can kill people. Another Khan Yunis cousin was given 15 min notice and then the house was demolished.  A nurse here from Red Crescent Society Gaza hospital, her daughter, son-in-law and two grand-children died, she still suffers.  Two of the staff lost homes completely, a nurse and an administrator.  All of them ran from place to place, so not enough food, suddenly you have 40 people in your house.  MECA responded directly. I bought food and clothes and was later repaid by MECA.”  Mona got food, milk, biscuits, blankets, and water tanks and coordinated with MECA volunteers.  She found that the markets trusted her even without paying.  During the cease fire, she went to schools for school activities with children, music, but she also distributed while there was shelling in Gaza, Beit Hanoun, etc, using the Red Crescent car.  When medications ran out, MECA said, “Buy what you can from pharmacies.”
Mona finds “Netanyahu no worse, they are one politics, very bad to look at Israeli society…I don’t like to call it war, humanity failed, civilians were attacked, there was slaughter, thousands were injured, handicapped, women and children killed, all of these are people.  It was crazy, no outcome, during the attack people supportive of Hamas, defending them, so Israel is stupid.  At the moment, people are unhappy with domestic issues due to lack of reconciliation with Fatah. [Any way out?] But not for the time being, this land should be for all, this is not easy and it needs a lot of work and lots of organizing for unity to Palestinian people and for Israel to admit what happened in ‘48, with racist and colonialist state like Israel it will be very difficult. We need one state, one vote, the middle east is chaotic but things change, like the collapse of the Soviet Union, [but] the children now will not be good negotiators [later].
As if that were not enough, Mona states, “19 health workers were killed in the Gaza Strip, clinics, ambulances were destroyed.  If you want to talk about international law, even if there was one militant in a school, you must respect international law.  Schools with displaced families (like Jabalia) where attacked, [displaced people] fled only to die inside the school, now 10,000 people are living in schools. MECA supports kindergartens.” After the big massacres, Mona “went to Shejaia during a cease fire, I could smell death everywhere, destruction, [she sighs deeply].  Our role is to continue to support people, I am MECA director, but I need someone to support me, we all need a break, a break from thinking it may happen again, it will be the end of Gaza.”
And then there is the environmental catastrophe. “Water reservoirs were hit in the north and this affected water in Gaza, electric plants, schools for disabled, streets, and there is no reconstruction.  Because of the instability re: the next Israeli attack, international donors will not give.  My home, shattered windows, I didn’t live there for one month.  I moved to another area also dangerous and the nearby buildings were hit.  I couldn’t sleep, worked twelve hours, stayed with friends, communicating with MECA with thanks for their generosity, it was lifesaving.  The schools used the MECA water unit, the MAYA project, a desalination project, supervised by engineers. All Gaza drinks desalinated water.”
“This is not about people who were killed, it is about us who were waiting for death every minute. I do not pray, I used to walk, (had pneumonia), I feel low.  I usually fight depression with walking, but my toe hurts, I had bronchitis, there is a lack of electricity, with no lights at night I do not feel safe.”
Somehow, Mona finds the strength to continue to worry about all the needy people around her.  It seems that women jailed in Hamas prisons, have no access to medication. She hands me two scripts, I can decipher two meds for yeast and BV. Could I possibly see if we brought in any of these medications? The women are in jail as thieves collaborators, whatever, “but they have their rights, men have no medicine either.”

I free associate to that bizarre and frightening comment made by Dov Weisglass, advisor to then prime minister Ehud Olmert, back in 2006 about putting Palestinians on a diet , but not letting them actually die of hunger. Well folks, Palestinians are now facing starvation, not only economically but also emotionally and spiritually, and the compounding tragedy is that their dedicated, exhausted health care providers are starving with them as well. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Alice Rothchild 3/23/15 – (Parts 2, 3, 4)

part two: Kindergarten: see German definition: Children’s garden

Wejdan Diab, Marwan Diab’s sister, welcomes me to the Meera Kindergarten in Gaza City where the walls are painted Disney bright; I spot many photos, and murals of dolphins, giraffes, a windmill in Holland (?) with a pond and a duck, dress up clothes including large yellow and white flowers, dabke outfits. The school has morning and afternoon shifts. It all looks quite “normal” but this is Gaza where gardens of any kind are actually quite hard to sustain.
Wejdan’s face has this disarming blend of joy, laughter, and intense tragedy. Behind the raucous din of children playing, singing, and rote repetition as teachers and children shout to be heard, she shares photos of the destruction of the school during the last war: broken glass, bullet holes, and fractured building parts.  She explains that if a child is six years old, he has already experienced three wars, or perhaps his mother was pregnant during the first one.  “It was very difficult for all of us, every day thanks God I am alive.  The bombing was terrible everywhere, my kindergarten was partially destroyed, including windows and doors.”
In July 2014 the Israeli forces repeatedly bombed the city of Shejaia, east of Gaza, to Dresden-like conditions. Sixty survivors sheltered at the kindergarten, the traumatized children destroyed many of the toys, were tormented by nightmares and bed wetting, but Wejdan and her staff worked hard. “I wanted the children to be safe, we made arts and crafts to help children.  They had no toys, these children are suffering.” The survivors brought bits of toys from under the rubble and they painted them, a guitar singing, a child living in a tent drew her toy on fire, one placed her doll’s head in the center of a picture surrounded by death.
Every day the kindergarten staff made parties for the children, brought in clowns; some children refused to go outside, some were afraid of the sky or particular noises, but they are now getting better.  And then there are the kids who lost their parents, one father who was a journalist was assassinated by an Israeli missile. He was covering a multi-missile attack in Shejaia which included attacks on two ambulances and rescue workers.  A quick look at the internet reveals this: [http://globalvoicesonline.org/2014/07/31/warning-graphic-video-from-gaza-documents-the-killing-of-journalist-ramy-ryan-by-israeli-missiles/]
His child brought the father’s helmet to school and “drew the father at paradise eating apples.” The journalist was active in the school, teaching the students to use cameras and be reporters. Wejdan’s heartbreaking collection of photos are stored in a big plastic folder, Mickey Mouse and Friends on the cover with Daffy Duck and Goofy. Wejdan urges me to follow the kindergarten on facebook: meeragaza. [FYI dear reader, it is 9:00 am at the Marna House where we actually have running water, guilty hot showers, a decent restaurant….and the electricity is flickering on and off. I lose internet connection with each disconnection; the simplest things are most challenging.]
Wejdan takes out a plastic folder stuffed with papers; she conducted a survey when the fighting ended and sent the letters to the fathers and mothers of the children.  We scan through the letters as I feel the heavy weight of human suffering in its most intimate details: These are the experiences of kindergarteners.
After war, is anybody injured? Anybody having bad feelings? Is anyone is scared? What happened to homes?
Answers: Cannot sleep. God I do not want to die. We hold her. When she sits alone she talks to herself about dying. The home was destroyed and she is afraid of bombing. She doesn’t want to go alone to any room. Noises frighten her and there is a lot of crying.  A lot of stories in their minds and they are talking about what they see on TV and the dead and the bombing. Daughter has strange behavior, stressed, nervous, sad, afraid the war will come again. She says that maybe the teachers will not be able to help the children, only feel safe with mother and father. Nightmares, going to the doctor because of bad feelings. Kitchen is destroyed, living room destroyed.  Bed wetting, crying, afraid at night
Wejdan is counterintuitively cheerful, chuckling while recounting the horror. “I left my home near here. There is an Islamic University branch nearby and maybe it will be attacked.” She joined her relatives at her family home. And then she adds: “All the children are suffering, 170 children were at the school,” some were unable to talk, became mute and their hair fell out.
I am ready for quiet sobbing in some small dark place, but we take a tour of the school where the children are energetic, lively, curious, and each child who experienced some horrific trauma or loss is invited to come up and shake my hand.  I do not know if they understand why. The brightest moment comes with a high spirited performance of a kindergarten dabke troupe, the boys and girls are in costume, beautifully synchronized, high stepping, waving their arms, music blaring, celebrating their national heritage.  I feel the nurturing of samoud and a kind of determination to endure that will serve these children well in this most traumatic of places.
Wejdan invites Kareema Raian, the mother of the murdered journalist, Ramy Raian and the grandmother of two children who are at the school to talk with me. Kareema’s eyes betray a sense of deep sadness and loss and the tears come quickly.  She explains that her son was going out to take pictures of the Israeli destruction, to expose the truth; she prayed, “allah akbar,” and begged him not to go.  He pinched her cheek and “that was the end.”

Kareema explains that they were told there would be no firing from 3:00-7:00 pm “so they said you can take stuff from the markets, so he went to the market.  He has no gun or anything, he is journalist only and when he take pictures, the plane killed him with 17 other people, three of them from one family.” She sits in her black abayah and hijab, dark lines under her eyes, and talks about the other people killed, one had a pregnant wife who later named her newborn after the infant’s dead father. Her hands twist at her tissues as she recalls Ramy’s wife calling him for lunch and “he said no, I want to take pictures, alhamdulillah. I will eat with the other journalist.”  An hour later he was dead, but she first thought he was injured, there were multiple phone calls, people coming to her home, and then her nephew saw the murder on television. She has no electricity, but that morning she dreamt that he died and saw him in a white jacket. “I prefer I dead, not him. He didn’t smoke, he was polite, he had two boys and two girls.”  She married him off at 17 because he was an only son and she wanted grandchildren.  The five and six year olds come in to the office, somewhat subdued and clearly still swimming in loss. Old souls already.
And the Israelis are already discussing the “next war.”

part three: Patriarchy, addiction, poverty and the crushing culture of violence: The constriction of women’s bodies and minds
The UN OCHA data is blunt: The 2014 military operation in Gaza left 302 women and 582 children dead, 10,870 wounded, (2,120 women and 3,303 children), and more than 450,000 people displaced from their homes, mostly women and children.  That humanitarian catastrophe was compounded by a severely distressed society strangled by years of blockade and siege, increasingly more fundamentalist Islamic culture and religious practices, and dramatic restrictions in options for everyone.
So how does that look up close and personal? Mariam Abu al-Atta, management administrator, and Israa Al Battrikhi, project coordinator, welcome me to the Aish Association for women with husbands who are mentally ill or addicted; these are the living and breathing families who have literally fallen off the curve. Fourteen women wait for us at a U shaped conference room with one girl and one boy snuggled close; the women are sketching on paper with colored pencils as part of their intake process. I estimate the age range is 30 to 50, although I could be monumentally off as women not surprisingly age prematurely under occupation and repeated trauma.  Everyone wears a hijab, most of the faces are not covered, everyone has a chance to tell her story and in subsequent weeks there will be group and individual sessions, various counseling, legal advice, job training, and other supports offered. At some point, almost every woman begins to weep, clutching tissues, and towards the end even our interpreter also bursts into tears. I am glad that even she has a limit to what she can absorb before losing her professional distance. Despite the lively persistent voices, the occasional twinkle in an eye or laughter (“maybe it would be better if our husbands just stayed in bed sleeping”), the amount of accumulated suffering in this room is stunning. 
I will summarize some of the themes that develop, though every woman’s story is intimately her own.
1.      Many of the men were diagnosed with mental illness either before or after marriage (don’t worry he will get better) and this was often compounded by drug addiction and disabilities, some related to work accidents.  Tramadol seems to be the drug of choice although there is some hashish as well. Many also had seizure disorders and a variety of mostly head injuries due to repeated falls, leading me to wonder about how diagnoses are made, the adequacy of treatment, and medical and psychological follow up which obviously in a health care system that is repeatedly assaulted and in a chronic state of collapse, is likely less than optimal.

2.      Many of the men steal from their families, lie, even sell their UNRWA coupons, and connive in various destructive ways to support their drug habits.  This leaves women responsible for the household without any economic means.

3.      The children also suffer from more than the average level of disease burden, probably related to the high level of marriage to first cousins and other close relatives, (big problem in Gaza where few can get a permit to leave and check out the rest of the gene pool) the unhealthy environment and toxic load from war (may of the young children have already lived through three major assaults), malnutrition, and lack of quality care.

4.      When women marry (often in their teens, some with extreme family pressure), they tend to move into their husband’s already overcrowded homes where grandparents, (think controlling mother-in-law who cannot see any fault in her son), multiple other siblings and their growing families are vying for a shrinking amount of space without privacy or healthy boundaries, jealousy and competition abound.  I think of the animal experiments where rats or was it fish or hamsters….are placed in shrinking cages until all end up attacking each other.  Well guess what happens to humans, especially when you throw in some addiction, war, death, and PTSD?

5.      Every woman reports verbal abuse, physical beatings and sometimes sexual assault from husbands, brothers-in-law, fathers-in-law and verbal and physical abuse of their children whom they try unsuccessfully to protect. One woman’s arm was bandaged due to a fracture after being pushed down the stairs.

6.      Poverty is rampant with husbands who are unable to work, families already stretched economically, and a reliance on the social affairs department. Women have sold all their nuptial gold to survive. There is no backup plan.

7.      The women are clearly depressed, one thinks of suicide, but then she thinks of her children, “We are not a normal family; all I want is one room that I own.” Even now, her children “only get one meal per day, using UNRWA coupons,” which her husband tries to sell. Many talked about wanting to educate their children in university and the difficulty in financing those dreams. Some see their children turning violent, out of control, addicted, and mirroring their fathers. The mothers desperately want to save them from that fate.

8.      The war in 2014 led families to move repeatedly, face extraordinary financial hardships, some babies were born, some were lost, families face marked reductions in electricity and drinkable water.

9.      The last woman had a daughter who married a man who became a drug addict. The daughter fled back to her family and hired the Palestinian version of a coyote who smuggled her and her five children through the tunnels to slip onto a boat to Italy and freedom.  The ship sank and the family was lost.  At this point we are all weeping.
When I sink into stereotypical thoughts about tyrannical Arab families and dominating mother-in-laws, and the repressive role of fundamentalist Islamic family relationships, I quickly remember the sexual abuse of children that has poisoned the Catholic Church, the 25% of women in the US who report sexual abuse, the rampant rape of women in our armed forces and college campuses, the appalling prevalence of domestic violence in our lovely enlightened Western societies, not to mention the unspoken crisis of domestic violence amongst ultra-orthodox Jewish families from Brooklyn to Jerusalem.  Let us not judge. What we do know is that the more crushing the economy and political landscape the more oppressed and constricted the lives of women will be. This is the task for feminists and all people who understand the intersections between war, patriarchy, psychological illness, domestic violence and the cultures that make this all possible.  The dedicated women of Aish are taking the first steps on a long and challenging journey and deserve our sisterly support.

part four:  I want you to see what is beautiful!
Through some personal connections in Detroit, I end up calling two cousins who live in Gaza City, planning to share with them my documentary film, Voices Across the Divide, which features some of their family, and to deliver a small gift from the Detroit branch of the diaspora.  Two well-dressed men arrive promptly at Marna House where I am staying; we sit together while I nosh on humus and lentil soup, although they do not eat, and soon they are inviting me for dinner the following evening.
(side note: while I am writing this at 1 am the hotel has just lost its electricity and it is really dark.  Where is that flashlight?)
After an arduous day, I plan to be “off” in the evening, but there are some moments that I need to share with you, if only because they contradict any preconceptions 99% of Americans have about those terrorists in Gaza who want to run Israel into the sea when they are not busy strapping explosives to their babies.
So, a man in a dark suit, with a warm face, thick black eyebrows and mustache, (I will call him Ahmad), arrives to take me to one of his family members.  It turns out he works in the Ministry of Health and had something to do with the granting of our permits to Gaza. He has advanced degrees in business administration.  (I never did actually figure out in this family who was related to whom but let’s just say they are all related or engaged and soon to be married.) The first striking thing about walking the irregular streets of Gaza at night is that there is no electricity; generators parked on the street roar and grind, burning hundreds of dollars of fuel to illuminate an apartment here and there or, just imagine, your refrigerator.  This is a real problem if you only have electricity 4-12 hours per day and forget about internet or TV, checking some tidbit on your smart phone (they do like to do that) or completing your engineering or English literature report for university due tomorrow. This also means that no elevators are working in case you are elderly or obese or disabled.
The apartment of relative #1 is richly decorated with lush green curtains and decorative upholstery, I am warmly greeted by Ahmad’s cousin who owns a toy store downstairs, and his playful, sniffling one year old son, sweet wife, new baby, mother, sister, and fiancé, a nurse at Shifa Hospital, (bombed in 2014) who offers me a cigarette. The conversation is all about family, the recent engagement party, the upcoming wedding.  I look at their photos and videos, they look at mine. When I show them a photo of my daughter’s chicken coop in Seattle, the response of these city folk is a big chuckle and “They look like angry birds!” Apparently phone games are more common than our clucking egg laying friends here). I drink Coca Cola and then tea with mint and protest the fancy glazed cake with all sorts of sugar frou frou that they have bought in my honor.  I guess in Gaza it is always best to eat dessert first. This visit is notable for its generosity and warmth and for its profound ordinariness, a normal family sharing a pleasant normal evening, lots of laughter, with a guest from a faraway land that they cannot possible reach.
We walk several irregular blocks, using the flashlight from Ahmad’s phone, past occasional clusters of young men and racing cars. I briefly consider the risks of being kidnapped, (I am told not by Hamas, but perhaps by some aberrant militant group in need of ransom money).  I am immediately embarrassed by such thoughts, but you know, it is really dark and I do not have a clue as to where I am going.
We hike up to Ahmad’s house, creep up irregular concrete stairs, which he has rigged with special bulbs that run off a battery and he proudly shows me the Rube Goldberg contraption that provides his home with regular electricity. His attractive and friendly wife is wearing ear muffs, (no hijab) because the newly acquired apartment is cold and bare, save for some plastic chairs and a table. A twinkly 1 ½ year old boy sprints and hops around the apartment at break neck speed.  He has some fascination with all things electrical or panels with on/off switches.  The kid is in constant motion and has a totally engaging smile. I love him instantly. He vaguely understands how to play ball, dances to some Disney song from years ago, but cannot stay still long enough to watch me perform my epic The Itsy Bitsy Spider. Maybe I have lost my touch.  I try sitting on the floor to no avail and soon name him Little Monkey. Ahmad’s wife serves coffee and we talk more about children and the lack of electricity, and how things felt during the war.
Apartment # 3 is a brief car ride away and this time there is a great leap forward in the number of relations, but let me say, the older wife looked beautiful in a turquoise hijab and heavily embroidered black and turquoise Palestinian dress, the men tended towards suits or some level of respectability, there were a lot of businessmen types, a lawyer who cannot practice since he has no recognized papers or credentials, and the two youngest college students could have stepped out of Harvard Square. There was much talk about how each person ended up in Gaza, was it a laissez passe, a travel document from Egypt, crawling through the tunnels, expulsion from you name the Arab country, some trained in the US, in any case, everyone is now trapped in Gaza and angry and frustrated about that, along with the lack of electricity, the wars, the crazy dysfunctional politics.  People want to talk about how much ISIL has nothing to do with Islam, how Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance; how Jews and Palestinians can easily get along and have in the past. There was a lot of reminiscing about the good old days of shopping in Tel Aviv and Israelis getting a good deal in Gaza City. When they found out I was Jewish, everyone was warm and accepting.  “You are shining, you are beautiful, you look like…(I think she was looking for something culturally appropriate here)…a menorah!” People support the BDS call and were in general utterly disappointed with the elected and non-elected leadership.   Everyone is sick of war and dreams of travel. 
The mother who is also a teacher has made a classic totally over the top food for an entire army Palestinian kind of meal: pre-meal frozen strawberry/lemon/sugar/vanilla thing (their own strawberries), then drink water, juice, and approach the bulging table cautiously.  Large platters piled with some kind of fried, breaded? chicken cutlets with garlic/olive oil/lemon sauce, rice and strips of beef with toasted almonds and delirious spices and some yogurt type sauce, two different salads with greens from their garden, divine thick French fries with parsley, some other meat ball (maybe or was it chicken) baked in a sauce…. And so it went.  I find a total of three different people heaping things on my plate if I let my guard down for an instant. I am assured that everything is healthy and they never throw food away, they eat it tomorrow.  And would I come out to the porch to sniff and admire all the herbs and petunias that are having a party out there too?  The mother explains she no longer cooks fish (spoiler alert, the entire Gaza Strip is on the sea coast and a major source of livelihood used to be fishing) because the fish are now all too small and polluted. Thank you Israeli navy and the ever shrinking fishing zones.
This family’s daughter is gorgeous, diminutive, helpful, and a university student studying IT. Her hair is thick and beautifully coiffed. The son, also very deferential and polite, has a thick bush of vertical hair ? a bit Elvis in the early years without the greasy kid stuff and everyone teases him.  He likes to be different. He feels very cat like, ready to pounce into action, his phone constantly ringing.  Because of the electricity shortage, friends call each other whenever anyone has internet and then everyone goes over to that apartment.  Sort of like electricity Bedouins I muse.  I am almost moved to tears when he tells me he is an architect student at university and I say to him, “How can you study architecture when you have no concrete?” He is filled with ideas to make Gaza a more beautiful place, to get rid of the boxy concrete buildings, he wonders if I have ever seen Central Park in New York City, he google mapped it and felt totally inspired.  I tell him about Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace in Boston and he is eagerly awaiting the next burst of electronic juice to get on the interweb.  He dreams of studying in Italy or Germany, “the birthplaces of architecture.”

His college friend who trained at the American International School in Gaza and looks like he could be from Minnesota, drives us all home in a clunky old van, through the dark brooding city.  He asks me when I will be free.  He earnestly explains that he wants to give me a tour of Gaza, the port, the beaches, “all the beautiful places” that no one ever sees. Now that would be really lovely. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Alice Rothchild 3/22/15 parts 1 & 2

Mish mushkela, No problem

The drive to Erez checkpoint is deceptively bucolic as the rain trickles through lush rolling farmland, vineyards, fruit trees, wineries reminiscent of the valleys of California; but the signs for Ashdod, Asheqelon, and Sederot lend that ominous feel: memories of Israelis, bomb shelters, PTSD, and Qassam rockets. Beyond these troubled border towns, sprawls the ominous military terminal that is the only way currently to get in or out of Gaza from Israel if you are not a vegetable or an approved piece of construction.  
Erez was built to process 35-40,000 travelers a day and currently does a tenth of that when things are quiet.  I am hoping for quiet. Last November, the Physicians for Social Responsibility delegation waited for three hours at the first checkpoint, today we are literally waved through.  Then there is a large open plaza with particular places to enter for particular papers and stamps.  While everyone sails through, I am asked to wait for some extra security checks, I can see one of the computers but it is all little boxes and Hebrew.  I so wished I had paid more attention in Hebrew school.  Finally, the security officer asks me about my trouble at Ben Gurion airport, (so this is what they know!) and I explain that yes I have had a Jawal phone card, that I am involved with an exchange program with Harvard and Al Quds medical students and yes I do like to go visit the students I get to know in Ramallah but you know that is how doctors are, smile smile and gee, how many hours do you work in this box, it must get really, really tiring, gesundheit, are you getting a cold?…. She stamped my passport. (So here is a persnickety question: if Gaza is no longer occupied and Gaza is not part of Israel, then why do Israelis get to decide who gets to go in? Academically speaking of course).
Forgive me if I do not get this exactly right, but after passport control, we drag our bags through grey Metal Door 6.  There is a huge open building like a big half-finished warehouse and then a series of long walkways, hallways, turnstiles (although they agree to open a metal door for us each time since we have a ridiculous amount of luggage carrying supplies for Gaza and squeezing through the turnstiles would have been a humiliating joke.) Cameras are everywhere. We finally emerge into a corridor on the other side of the concrete wall and gun towers surrounded by a sea of bright yellow flowers defying the dangers of the buffer zone/no man’s land where several brave and probably desperate shepherds follow their munching curly cream colored flocks at the risk of being summarily shot.  We are met by a cluster of tuk tuks, load up our bags and cases of 1 ½ liter bottles of water, (remember we are heading to the land of salinized water, depleted aquifers, and bombed sewer treatment plants), and start the ¾ mile walk down the wire fenced corridor to the Hamas version of passport control and a search of all the luggage. There is a large ominous poster warning Palestinians not to collaborate with Israelis. A smiling woman paws through my bags, but her eyes are laughing and friendly, another man also in uniform grins and says, “Welcome to Gaza.” Then another short taxi ride and finally, the vans from Gaza Community Mental Health Program are waiting and a nimble, sun-browned man, probably in his sixties, scampers up to the roof rack and starts piling up our luggage.  I learn a new very helpful Arabic word: mish mushkela - no problem.

Eretz Crossing
Eretz Crossing
Eretz Crossing
No Man's Land - shepherds
Hamas border control - 'Don't collaborate'

No time to mourn

I first saw the spanking new administrative buildings for the Gaza Community Mental Health Program in 2005; ten years later there is a rusty shabbiness to the exterior but the people working inside are energetic and spectacular. The property fronts a road and then a glorious sandy beach and the crashing grey blue waves of the Mediterranean.  Young people cluster on the sand and horses gallop along the shore. The Israeli navy shelled this area last July and it was on a nearby Gaza beach that four boys, aged two to eleven, were killed by an Israeli gunboat in front of a group of horrified journalists during the last invasion.  In any other country, this would be a resort.
We gather in a conference room with the breath taking view and are greeted by Dr. Yasser Abu-Jamei, the psychiatrist and executive director who has taken the helm of the center since the death of Dr Eyad el Saraj.  He welcomes us warmly to “planet Gaza,” announces that it is “pizza time” (as in red and white checkered boxes containing Domino taste-a-like pizza) along with sweet orange and grape drink. No humus and pita? 
After the kissing and compliments and the tribute to our strong partnerships, the serious talk begins. Yasser notes that “after the agony,” “people are walking around, they are not obviously in shock; people are carrying on; it is uplifting.” “This is a nation of survivors, there is no other chance.  We are under occupation.”  75% of Gazans are refugees and everyone is subjected to the siege. “This nation has no other choice, we are freedom fighters, we have all the international resolutions but that doesn’t change the fact that we are still under occupation.  We were subjected to three different offenses in six years and we are still under siege.  Construction materials are not allowed to get into Gaza; people who have totally lost everything are scheduled to get funds ‘later’ so the worse the damage the less the help.” He notes that “Israeli citizens are cheated by their leaders,” that the idea that “Palestine will be a danger to Israel is nonsense. Occupation will never continue forever, we will have our own state.”
Yasser is equally harsh on the topic of the conflicts within Palestinian leadership.  “We do not even have a pizza to fight over…. We are closed minded people, we need new leadership.”  He shares a current joke making the rounds of the Middle East: Netanyahu is a new *Arabic* leader, “He makes big high tone speeches with empty meaning!” When things get politically tight, he manipulates just to survive. Privately I think it would be more funny, if it were less tragic.
We are worried about how Yasser and the staff are doing after the July/August 2014 invasion. After the joking, “terribly good,” he describes 51 days of intense fear and insecurity for adults and children, the daily fear of death. The GCMHP staff were urged to stay with family until the cease fire, but staff called each other once or twice per week, “so we are like one family.” During a small truce, staff returned to work, small management teams stayed in direct communication.  When the war stopped, “our work started, everyone give help.”
They found an enormous basic catastrophe, but also worked to stay sensitive to the amount of intrusion people could tolerate. Visiting a devastated family may expose them more than is helpful, their privacy is gone, the wreckage of their home and their lives is too public. Despite a financial deficit the GCMHP continued to function.  Donations came in, capacity and referrals increased. Yasser explains that the challenge is that with this level of trauma the normal capacity of people to overcome horrendous experiences is crippled, the political conditions are not improving, the environment is not improving, there is no reconstruction, people are depleted, they have no coping strategies, and no hope for improvement.  This is a form of continuous PTSD (or as I like to say, it can’t be “post-traumatic stress disorder if it is not yet post.”
Despite all this pessimism, there are fundamental shifts in the US post the Gaza wars, in Obama, and in Netanyahu’s speech to congress.  Husam el Nounou, the administrative director, explains, “We are winning the battle over Israel, occupation, colonialism, racism, this will not prevail, everyone who comes here is changed.” Unfortunately, Palestinian politics is linked to regional politics, so there is much proxy behavior as well as influence between the US (via Saudi Arabia) and Iran.  “We Palestinians should have one Palestinian leadership that can agree on a national project. Interestingly, the GCMHP supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement, “this is the most important thing, boycott as an occupation not as a state of the Jews. We have nothing against Jews for being Jews.  BDS is increasing internationally; this will result on political pressure.”
The big challenge is how to link mental health with human rights, a fundamental belief of the founder and late Dr. Eyad. International peace is the basis for Palestinian peace.  Husam explains that ISIS is filled with anger, frustration, desire for revenge.  In general people are heavily frustrated and hopeless and this is a recipe for violence which can take the form of violence against self, family, children and women, as well as communal and tribal violence, shootings in the neighborhood.  All of this is increasing, most of those who cannot express their anger are like a time bomb, “young, poor, hopeless is time bomb, easily maneuvered by more militant groups…the environment encourages this, we need to diffuse [the anger], open the borders, improve the economy.”
Yasser talks of intervening as early as possible, working in schools with students and teachers, with people who are subjected to oppression or bullies in school, teaching teenagers other ways to deal with anger, it is important to listen and hear,.  If someone is showing anxiety and depression, people need to talk, make themselves hear themselves and hear it in a different way. “Your ability is limited because the environmental conditions are so bad, with 40% unemployment overall, much higher in the 25-30 year old age group.”  He sees people are desperate, fleeing to Italy by sea.  “Is this suicidal or trying for better life, or join ISIS?” The media he notes is often less than helpful.  He notes that even Israeli generals are advising Netanyahu to lift the siege for the sake of the Israeli government.
But Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt complicate the picture and he is not optimistic.  Even when the border with Egypt opened up, 200,000 Gazans left to shop, see families, etc, but when asked to return, they complied. If all the necessary reconstruction materials were to reach Gaza and a vigorous Marshall-like Plan enacted, it would take ten years to rebuild, but otherwise the estimates are more like 50 years before an improvement in living conditions, barring further wars. Between dysfunctional Palestinian leadership, Israeli control, and Turkey’s wavering, political conditions do not exist that would allow a positive future; Gazans cannot even rebuild their destroyed homes.  Yasser is strongly in favor of the boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns.
On a more personal note, Yasser explains that he lived in the UK, but returned to Gaza with his wife and children because, “this is my country and my children deserve to live in a dignified country where their grandparents live.”  He was born in Saudi Arab, but feels Gaza is “my land.” He talks of changing the very constructs of people’s mentality. “With a patient, I cannot offer something I cannot have for myself, I can only offer containment of fears and processing of trauma and direct him to a better future, get him back to school, help abusive parents, etc.” It seems to me, in Gaza the therapists are suffering at similar levels to their patients.
Husam relates a troubling story; he was driving his car ten years ago and there was a rocket that landed in front of him and his son, a huge BOOM. The child grabbed his neck, but Husam was able to reassure him and drive home.  Two days later the child developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).  Husam tried to help him.  I week later he told his father, “I want to die, I want to be a martyr. You cannot understand how you feel. I am a bad father, I cannot help my children, why?  What is the meaning of life if you can be killed for nothing? So kill and be killed for something.  I was in a big moment of confusion, it is good to die for home/people but it is much better to live for it. Need to convey this message, so containment and love from extended family and religious faith” is critical. He continues that in Islam, “it is said everything comes from God, and if it is good, be grateful, God will reward you.  If it is bad, be good and God will reward you.  This gives you strength and power. The lucky ones come to our clinics.  I am really concerned for the thousands who cannot come to our clinics.”
We ask, so how do providers care for each other? Yasser tells us a story of Hassan al-Zeyada, a staff member whose family was killed.  “It was something very unique.  I have 24 years of experience. I hear bombardments continuously.  You do not know who is dying and who is living. I had to maintain good internet connection and smart mobiles do the trick. They keep you all the time connected good and bad.”  When the IDF bombarded the compound with people, Hassan left immediately.” The family received a warning missile he explains pensively.  “I know that Hassan’s family lived there, born there, raised there, I didn’t know what to do… and the mobile phone was ringing…They all died of the shelling.  That was a question.  What to do.  The news was really shocking… it is very dangerous.  They were destroying everything, what to do?” He spoke with another staff member and then talked to Hassan. “I didn’t know what to say, I lost some of my cousins, but it is not like losing your mom.  I heard him breathing, and crying, I couldn’t speak.”
“‘Hasan, I don’t know what to say,’ Yasser said, ‘I know,’ some words you try to say; that was one of the most intense phone calls during the offensive.  I had to call, we have 65 staff, I try to call them all (every week or two). When the place is more affected than another, you start to worry.  We were thinking of creating toll free hotline operated by male and female hotline.  I picked the male, social worker, ‘How are you?’ ‘I am fine.  How is everything?’ Yasser finds that the colleague’s whole building is not there anymore, he is staying with colleagues, in the north of Gaza, (close to a dangerous area).” Yasser asks how can a staff person who has lost his house, “What would he offer someone? How could he contain the sorrows?”
Some staffers appreciated the phone calls and text messages, the attempts to stay in touch. But it was difficult to be the person making those calls. “I cannot never forget the moment that Hassan was on the phone.  I really couldn’t meet him until the truce….” “The other thing our receptionist, Osama Al Ramlawi, he lost his brother and his house was partially affected.  His brother was a member of our crisis team, a social worker after the second offensive (2012).  Yasser planned to hire him after the most recent assault.  “At least he could have some income, he has two children, he said it was early morning, they decided to leave the neighborhood of Shigaia. Ahmad decided to stay in a few minutes, he was standing in front of his house doing nothing.  He was killed at that moment by shrapnel and suddenly he was not there and it happened after Hassan…”
“I left one day pass, gathered myself and I called him, I know what happened, I couldn’t come to you, there nothing we can do.  We talked about religion, Osama was weeping. His twin brother, that brother used to bring happiness to the family and I remember…. So suddenly Ahmad is not there.”  Osama had an extremely difficult time, “we stayed with him, more than once, he needed lots of support.   A few months ago [his wife] gave birth to a boy and they named him Ahmad, after the brother who was killed.  So you live with such people, you work with such friends, and you have community but you have no other chance but to go on.”
We discovered that it was impossible to observe a traditional mourning period due to the Israeli assault, “because they were targeting any gathering immediately, like praying in a mosque, going out together and it happens like that they were bombarded, no mourning at all took place.  My grandmother died, 95 years old for natural reasons, she passed away, we took her from the hospital to her daughter’s house and then to the cemetery, everything happened in 10-15 minutes.  People were targeted in the cemetery.” Yasser explains, “that something delays the processing of PTSD, because even natural ways of grief and closure does not take place, people couldn’t say goodbye to the dead.” He feels “crazy but I come to work everyday.  We have one million nine hundred thousand crazy people.”
Husam adds that the desire for life, family, and religion along with the responsibilities and supports of family have kept the Palestinian community from collapsing over the past 70 years. “The bad effects of trauma, trauma makes you stronger and stronger, for sure there is something changed in you, more power to cope with the difficulties in your life.”  His grandmother is from Lod, (now Lyd in Israel) and his mother was born in Yaffa. His family fled south and he remembers the stories of the Egyptian refugee camps, and life in Gaza.  “You have these memories born in the camps, had to face the difficulties, the trauma, the poverty, at the end they are different, they are strong, they have an innate capacity to survive.”
Yasser questions, “What could we do? If people here are given the chance to become productive, things will become a thousand times better, but it is unfortunately not allowed.” He reviews the growth in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, “It is not logical.”
Husam adds that peace is critical and that when it comes to genuine politics, the details of the right of return for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is negotiable.  Every Palestinian knows they can never go home,” even his 75 year old mother does not want to return to Jaffa because she has children and grandchildren, but an acceptable compromise needs to be developed. Netanyahu’s recent election does not bode well for Palestinians, “He is a fox, a liar, excellent with making money and it just got better.”
According to the Gaza Community Mental Health Program website:
Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei has reportedly lost 28 members of his family when an Israeli air strike on July 21 flattened the house in which they were gathered for the evening meal at the end of the daily Ramadan fast.

Other GCMHP staff members who have reportedly also suffered personal losses include Hassan al-Zeyada, Osama Al Ramlawi, and Marwan Diab.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Alice Rothchild - 3/19/15

Schmoozing East Jerusalem Style

Friday is a get-over-jet-lag schmooze-with-friends-and-colleagues kind of day, much of it spent in a lovely modern apartment in the Germany Colony, a neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem established in the second half of the 1800s by the German Temple Society and populated by Christian Arabs as well. The Germans were run out by the British as Nazi sympathizers and the Arabs dispossessed in 1948, leaving a pleasant blend of Ottomon and art deco architecture and homes conveniently “emptied” for Jewish immigrants. In the bad old days, one of the main streets, Emek Refaim, was the site of a horrific suicide bombing during the Second Intifada in 2003 and another nearby bombing on bus #14A. Emek Refaim is now a trendy, gentrified area with excellent coffee shops, a decent burrito place (although they do not know from corn chips, try lost in translation fried pita) and a host of yuppie shops reminiscent of a combo between Harvard Square and Newbury Street. Except for all the Hebrew signage, I could feel right at home. Our host with her bright eyed delicious baby, talks about her exposed bulging belly being poked and wanded for explosives at a previous ridiculous day at airport security.  Did the Israelis seriously think there was a bomb in her uterus or is that just the metaphor for another non-Jewish baby in the demographic wars? And she is not even Palestinian. She reports the kid kicked back.
The rest of the day we drink coffee, tea with mint (ahh), and nibble on Arabic salad in the  unexpectedly trendy Gallery Café in Sheikh Jarrah, near the Mount Scopus Hotel (currently closed), where a steady stream of activists, medical folk, journalists, and friends of friends just happen to be passing by.  So we schmooze.  It is Friday after all.
I learn about attempts to establish an ob-gyn department on convent land at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, a Christian hospital (do we hire veiled women?) where 90% of the patients are Muslim, the ten year fight to get a license to build, (this is East Jerusalem after all).  And then there are the struggles of recently trained docs and old fashioned more hierarchical types, issues of gender discrimination and establishing competency, the dynamic of a hospital under the Israeli Ministry of Health staffed mostly by West Bankers.  Add to this the challenges for Palestinian women with East Jerusalem residency IDs (and no Israeli citizenship) with Israeli  medical insurance coping with the institutional racism of high quality Jewish hospitals like Hadassah and orthodox Jewish hospitals like Shaare Zedek where the care is technically excellent but culturally insensitive. Is it possible to have a modern, high quality ob-gyn hospital with Palestinian staff speaking Arabic, culturally appropriate, credentialed by the Israel Ministry of Health? Insha’allah, time will tell.
Then we meet a longtime Israeli activist and a young Norwegian journalist just returned from a protest in Azaria near Bethany and Abu Dis on the other side of the wall that slices through this city where refugees are under threat of displacement again. Norway tends to be sympathetic to the concerns of Palestinians, but the young man explains almost apologetically, they were responsible for the Oslo Accords as well! He talks about a family “self-demolishing,” a mind boggling practice where Palestinians destroy their own homes in order to save whatever personal belongings and family treasures they can grab and to avoid the heavy fines imposed by the occupiers when a bulldozer does it for you and sends you the bill.  Honestly, I cannot make this stuff up.
An Egyptian journalist born in Libya stops for a cup of coffee as his young son runs around the café and garden.  The father animatedly talks about his responses to the special interrogations he routinely receives in Israeli airports, “Israel is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  These intrusions are illegal!” When he challenges the security, sometimes they back down, sometimes they don’t. He is a bearded “Arab” appearing male with a charming British accent and a quick and passionate mind.  Obviously a threaten to your average 25 year old Israeli security person, steeped in the stereotypes that buttress the educational system in this modern democracy. This conversation drifts into a fascinating discussion about racism: the usual Jewish Israeli of course I am fine with Arabs, my gardener is an Arab variety, to the Palestinian form where the Arabic word for a black Arab is “a slave.” Racism in every society also intersects with class; the professional academic Indians living in London (the Empire comes home) fare far better than the poor Arab immigrant families from Algeria and Morocco unemployed and angry in the suburbs of Paris. But the Egyptian via Libya argues that 9/11 changed everything, Islamophobia became acceptable. (Yes I know Muslims are not a race, I am talking concepts here). In essence, Islamophobia is now an acceptable form of racism. If you don’t believe me, substitute any derogatory comment using Muslim with Jew, Black, gay, etc and you will see what I mean.
We wander back through the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where an unrelenting process of Judaization has been occurring since 1967. A cluster of hardy protestors stand on the corner across from the sign to the Shimon HaTsdadik tomb, holding posters in Hebrew and English: “No to the Occupation,” “Stop the settlements in East Jerusalem.”  I recognize Arik Ascherman, founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, and Nasser al-Ghawi who with his family was dragged from his longtime home in 2009 along with the Al-Hanoun family by Israeli security, police, and fanatical Jewish settlers. The Palestinian homes are scarred with graffiti, the Star of David now a symbol of racism, hatred, and entitlement.  In the 1950s Palestinian refugees from West Jerusalem and beyond were offered homes here by the UN and the Jordanian government in exchange for giving up their refugee status and since 1967 a quasi-legal, violent, and tortured battle has been fought in the courts and the streets around the this is mine/no I was hear first and here are the manufactured documents to prove it variety. Currently 500 Palestinian families face the threat of eviction. Nearby, young Jewish boys with peyos, in short black pants, black jackets, and white yarmulkes, munch chips and play before the Sabbath services in one of these acquired-by-Jewish-settlers buildings, while down the dusty street tens of Palestinians families, victims of evictions and home demolitions, have established a squatters camp devoid of basic services (like water and electricity) in a large white stone edifice, glass shattered, in poor repair, protected under Islamic Law as a wafq, just a block from the upscale American Colony Hotel where I can bet no one chooses to see this crushing disaster. Contradiction upon contradiction. Injustice upon injustice.

We pick up a collection of maps from the UN OCHA building (Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs), not the usual google map types, but a set of damning, crisscrossed, multi-colored affairs that present a visual of the tortured realities of occupation, walls, land confiscation, checkpoints, (more on that later). We complete our journey, picking our way through trash  strewn streets (see non-existent garbage collection and no recycling bins in East Jerusalem), torn up roads (a small portion of the municipal services goes to East Jerusalem compared to West Jerusalem and did I mention that East Jerusalemites pay the same taxes as their West Jerusalemite neighbors and get a fraction of the city budget in this the united capital of the State of Israel?) to the lovely Educational Book Store run by the Muna family on Salah Eddin Street.  They have a fabulous collection of books in English on Middle Eastern culture and the Arab/Israel conflict.  Mahmoud welcomes me at the door, Ahlan wa Sahlan, and I see my book, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion prominently displayed in the front window.  Oh happy days! I feel a little less invisible in this crazy making place on just another typical Friday afternoon.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Alice Rothchild - 3/21/15

 History in the Hills: what keeps me up at night

The Shabbat streets are quiet and a cool cloudy day soon punctuated by a more serious rain greets me and my colleague as we take a taxi to Neve Shalom/Wahat Salam/Oasis of Peace to join the delegation leaving for Gaza tomorrow. We are basically heading west in the direction of Ashdod and will then drift south to Erez checkpoint in the morning. This is the kind of trip where the landscape is a fascinating historical document if only you know how to read the clues. The Palestinian taxi driver provides many of the details, while bemoaning the poor quality of Arab public schools in Israel, the need to send his children to private schools for a top notch education, and the prohibitive price of these educational institutions.
This could just be 45 minutes zooming in the rain through some classic Middle Eastern cityscape and countryside but I invite you to open your eyes and see what I see. In the distance we easily view the West Bank Jewish settlements of Gilo and Giv’at Masu’a, looming white apartments built (illegally according to International law) on the Palestinian lands of Beit Jala and Beit Safafa.  I think about how invisible that fact is to the vast majority of folks speeding along the highway with their yellow Israeli license plates and lack of historical memory. I flash back to Baltimore last week at the national Jewish Voice for Peace conference, where speaker after speaker acknowledged the native lands on which the Hyatt Hotel was built and our role as privileged white people in the dispossession of Native Americans. (I know my grandfather came from the Carpathian Mountains in the early 1900s and was a presser in a sweat shop, but I still need to own my white privilege and power if we are to begin to understand each other).
Six imposing apartment buildings arise from a hilltop like giant defiant white fingers, the driver refers to this as the Holy Land Apartments, and then we fly through tunnels, pass hotels like the Ramada and the Jerusalem Gardens, the Israeli Knesset, an area called Kiryat Ben Gurion, and then I spot the decaying village of Lifta, stones houses resiliently clinging to the steep, green  hillsides. In 1947 the wealthy town of Lifta was supposed to be part of an international zone between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but before the ’48 war began, Zionist forces repeatedly attacked the town until more and more of the inhabitants fled, leaving abandoned graceful homes, a mosque, irrigation system, extensive agriculture, gardens, pools, and a sophisticated irrigation system. The Jewish settlement of Ramot is perched on a hilltop on the opposite side of the highway, and between loops of highway and pine forests most likely planted by the Jewish National Fund, I can see more of the remnants of Lifta and the gigantic concrete structures being built for the train system that will bisect this treasured and painful historical landscape.
The taxi driver points out the cemetery built on Deir Yassin, the site of a horrific massacre on April 9, 1948 by Jewish paramilitary troops, where over 100 men, women, and children were brutally killed.  This massacre became a pivotal event that led many terrified local Palestinians to flee their homes. On the opposite hilltops are the Jewish settlements of Moza and Mevaseret and a sign to al-Qastel, a key position in the 1948 war and site of fierce battles between the Arab Liberation Army and the Jewish Palmach and Haganah which resulted in the death of the Arab leader al-Husayni and the capture and destruction of the town by the Palmach.  In the same area, a large mall beckons with familiar brands and bright lights and the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh boasts excellent restaurants and a gleaming new mosque.
The driver points out a valley to our left where a Palestinian killed a busload of Israelis, one of the opening salvoes of the First Intifada. We pass a kibbutz, Sho’eva, built on the village of Saris, destroyed in 1948, and the skeletons of Israeli tanks, a vestige of the several battles for the Latrun area where Israeli forces unsuccessfully fought Jordanian troops in 1948, only to successfully capture the area in 1967.
Soon we see rolling green hills, a distant monastery and acres of vineyards and olive groves, Tel Aviv ghostly in the distance. The sign for Neve Shalom/Wahat Salam beckons us and we arrive at the only intentional Jewish/Arab community in all of Israel.  The landscape a la history lesson is over as I prepare for the next step in our journey with a good night sleep, if the hills and stones will only be quiet enough for me to fall into sleep.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Alice Rothchild blog post 3/19/2015

Guilty as charged: I did once have a Jawal Card.

Two weeks ago when the permit to Gaza finally arrived the travel nightmares began, lost luggage, harsh Israeli interrogators, forgetting a flight, the neurotic pulsations of an anxious mind already on high alert.

The flight from Boston to Newark has the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. The tight lipped stewardess races the drink cart down the aisle as the plane lurches and pounces through the air, cups and plates clattering wildly as I brood over the striped suit sitting next to me, white knuckled, grimly gripping the seat ahead.  I briefly ponder my short but meaningful life. Is this another message from the angry travel goddess?

As expected, C 138, the terminal for the flight to Tel Aviv, is hidden behind a food court at the end of a long corridor, blocked off from general traffic, “SECURED GATE HOLD AREA.” I can feel my pulse leaping, a tightness in my chest, as the smatterings of Hebrew, Spanish, and the twang of New Jersey and New York meld with the drawl of southern accents.  We line up for the second bout of screening, (see message: all the world hates us, Israeli security is our most important product), but the cursory bag inspection and spread eagle wanding seem more for show than anything else.
An eager young man wearing a yarmulke pours over a heavy organic chemistry text book.  He explains to me that he had gone to Israel and “gotten religious” and now he dreams of medical school, do I have any advice for getting in?  

I watch the steady stream of bearded men with tall hats, some schlepping big hat boxes for the flight, some wrapped in long fringed tallit, tsistit dangling from their shirts, a variety of peyos, the long banana curls dancing off their shoulders.  One young man, pink cheeked with a scraggly beard filled with aspiration, twirls his big hat on his finger like a Frisbee.  A particularly other worldly older character wears pantaloons and for all I can tell, black tights and shoes that remind me of the Pilgrims. He prays continuously. At the proscribed moment, the men line up, rocking and davening, facing Jerusalem like a row of black crows on a high wire.  There are wives, mostly of the frumpy variety, in wigs and scarfs, along with squirming children, modern Orthodox, and a collection that reminds me of The Hadassah Ladies of my youth. One woman in a bright yellow hijab laughs on her phone. A sparrow frantically flits between the seats, another message from the travel goddess? Fly away while you can.

I am searching for my “beloved community” and bumping up against my own intolerance; the sound of Hebrew - the voice of the oppressor, the ultra-religious feel like settlers, Netanyahu’s re-election though not a surprise, is doubly awful because of his last minute appeals: a pledge not to create a Palestinian state (even of the Bantustan variety currently contemplated) and racist comments about the dangers of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship voting in droves. Swinging unabashedly right. I think, the mask is off, what will J Street and Obama and the nice liberal Zionists do now? Are any of these folks here in turmoil over this?  Is my compulsive blogging any different than their compulsive praying?  Are we all just dealing with our spiritual and political angst the best we can?
My seat mate on the plane explains that her son made aliyah nine years ago and she is traveling to her grandson’s bar mitzvah in (the Jewish settlement of) Modi’in. She is upset about the election results and worries, “there will be no peace.” She asks, “Do you think we still have hope?”  When she meets my traveling companions and learns that we are all doctors on a “medical humanitarian mission” (we leave out the part about Gaza) she responds, “That’s great! You know, Israel is the start-up nation.” I am beginning to feel like I come from a different planet.

Airplane dream: I look out the window and see trees and it is clear that we have landed on a long dirt road next to a forest on the edge of a farm.  The airline captain is not upset. We are greeted by cheerful villagers who want to sell us Palestinian embroidery. They have prepared an immense feast for us which oddly includes an entire roasted pig, cut up with the crusty skin glistening in the sun.  In my half-conscious state, I know I am certainly flying to a strange land, a place where the abnormal is normal, perhaps that ham hock is my subconscious awareness of the desecration of Palestine?   
Passport control is another story. It takes 45 minutes to get to the woman in the box.  She peruses my passport abruptly. Why are you here? Tourism, medical volunteering.  Where? Physicians for Social Responsibility? Where? (Can she see my permit in the computer?) Gaza. My Muslim American fellow doctor/writer and I are sent to a bench where we wait like children given detention.  We pass the time looking at pictures of her two grey kittens. Over the course of the next hour, we are both interrogated.  Name? Father’s name? Grandfather’s name? Phone number, US and Israel? Email? Purpose of visit? Where are you staying? How long? Will you go to the West Bank? Have you been here before? What did you do? Go sit down.

Another official comes out and aggressively accuses me of having a Jawal phone number, the sim card that is used in the West Bank.  He has this smug, I got you look, on his face.  I look at him (this is the worst you can find?) and explain I have traveled here annually for many years, I have a pile of sim cards, I have no idea which work and I have no idea what my Jawal number might be.  He presses further but it is clear that he will get nowhere with me on this one.  What I have learned is that they actually have a record of all my sim cards, and now they know my current phone numbers and email.  That should make surveillance really easy. 

I can’t tell what annoys them the most…. A Jewish “traitor” like me or a Muslim “enemy of the state” like my dear friend and colleague.

Our passports are finally returned and soon we are in a cab with a cheerful driver from Abu Tor, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood south of the Old City of Jerusalem.  He is apologizing for the behavior of the airport security apparatus.  “You know, it’s all about the occupation.” His brother who owns the cab company, calls as well, apologizing again and offering us a cup of coffee to make up for the delay. Clearly, no partners for peace here.