Transitions and Transfers

Tomorrow morning I leave for one last look at Jerusalem; my luggage and I will be transferred, as they say, from the guest house here in Beit Sahour, and from Jerusalem I will take the sherut to the airport. I hope to have time to visit the Educational Bookshop on Saladin Street, which is highly recommended. I’m sure I will at least manage one last cup of Turkish coffee. My flight leaves Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv in the late afternoon; I will join Whit and Gerrit in Geneva for a few days of decompression.

Right now we are having a late-night snack of sliced cucumbers and glasses of Arak, an anise-flavored liquor from Bethlehem (Milada has brought out her private stash).

Earlier we had a lovely dinner with George and Michel, from the Siraj Center, at The Grotto — a classic meal of salads and mezze, with a local red wine. We talked politics, politics, and more politics. Some notes will follow in the coming days.

We spent the day in Hebron with our excellent guide, Mr. Mohammed Baraket. On the outskirts of Hebron, we met with a settler in the Efrat area of Gush Etzyon. The settlement is green and lush — a “leafy suburb,” you might say. The settler, who rejected the term “settlement” as being too political, drew his entitlement to the land from the Bible. “I didn’t write it,” he said, as if he were only following a higher command by seizing this land. He insisted that the American media is pro-Palestinian. My travel mates paid him the courtesy of listening for over an hour; I walked out after twenty minutes.

Hebron is one of the flashpoints in the occupied territories. The old city has been occupied by Israeli settlers who have built homes on top of the stalls of the old souk (marketplace); nearly all the Palestinian shopkeepers have been forced out by Israeli military orders. There are 420 Israeli settlers currently in Hebron; they are supported by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. The settlers themselves walk down the street with M-16’s on their shoulders. They are not a friendly bunch.

There are streets that only settlers may walk upon, and no Palestinians may drive vehicles into the old city. We met a shopkeeper who has been petitioning for months for a permit to have tiles brought to his shop so that he can install a new floor before the winter rains come; he has heard nothing from the Israeli authorities.

We met with members of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, who are trying to revitalize the old city center and restore the ancient homes above the marketplace. They are forced to bring construction materials in on horses and donkeys; at least three apartments they have prepared for rehabitation by Palestinian families have been destroyed by the Israelis. This is not easy work.

As I leave Palestine, there is still much to write about: the demonstration at Bi’lin, where we caught a bit of tear gas and met with the leader of the local non-violent resistance; our dinner with Ra’fat and his family; our meeting with the Al Rowwad cultural group at the Dheheish refugee camp; the settlers we saw at the junction of Newe Daniel and Patriarchs Way who were claiming a new outpost, just beside a Palestinian family who were tending their grape vines (we were photographed by a settler as we photographed them); the kindness and hospitality we have experienced for the past ten days from ordinary Palestinians; the many cups of Turkish coffee and sweet mint tea and the wonderful meals we have been offered.

I will continue this journal in the coming weeks, trying to make sense of it all. There are so many stories left to tell, and so many pictures to post.

Please keep reading.

Salaam Aleekum.

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Apartheid Wall

There is no other name for it. It is brutal, ugly, disruptive, disorienting, and irrational. Israel openly admits that at least 20,000 illegal workers find a way around the wall each year into Israel-proper to work at bus stations, construction sites, and the like. If someone wants to blow himself up in Tel Aviv or Haifa, he will find a way.

So what is it good for? For one thing, it adds another layer to the system of surveillance that is already in place. There are watch towers and cameras. There are crossing permits that can be had — for a price, which amounts to willingness to cooperate with the IDF and help them keep an eye on your neighbors.

It rises up not only between Palestinian towns and illegal Israeli settlements. It separates Palestinians from Palestinians. It separates workers from their jobs, children from their schools, farmers from their fields, brothers from their sisters. It creates pockets of isolated homes as it snakes around populated areas, saving the arable land for Israelis and discarding as much of the Palestinian population as possible. The wall loves land, not Palestinians.

It unpredictably redraws borders, leaving ordinary Palestinians wondering, what is next? Will our home be next? Will our field be next? Will my business be stifled because the road to my shop has been closed to make way for more concrete?

The wall allows freedom of movement and stunning views for the Israeli settlers, while it starves the Palestinians in its shadows of air and sunlight and an adequate water supply. It oversees a system of roads and tunnels that prevents even the most ordinary contact between Israelis and Palestinians — they never have to pass each other on the highway, they are not allowed to see how the other side lives. It breeds ignorance and indifference on one side, anger and insularity on the other.

To have built this wall is to deprive two peoples of their humanity. It seems to say, there is no turning back.

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“Where the sidewalk ends”

That’s how our guide, Yahav Zohar, described the difference between Jewish and Palestinian quality of life in Jerusalem. Zohar, a member of the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD), led us on a tour of the modern parts of the city, focusing on contrasting conditions in the Palestinian neighborhoods and the illegal Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. But that description — where the sidewalk ends — applies to so much I have seen this week.

First, since I was away from the computer for a couple of days, let me back up and tell you a bit about our experience in a remote village outside the town of Sabastia, where we stayed overnight with a family, picked olives, and visited with some village residents. The village is remote enough that it is not bothered by illegal settlers; in fact, it is a calm, quiet, close-knit community of farmers. The man who invited us into his home, 28-year-old Khadir Khadir, seems to be the most well-off farmer in the village, with a three-story home that accommodates his wife and their three children, his brother and sister-in-law and their daughter, as well as his parents. There are several sheep. too; they have their own quarters on the lower level.

A member of the Palestine Fair Trade cooperative of olive farmers, Khadir owns 1,000 olive trees and a few hundred almond trees, in addition to the sheep and some chickens. He works hard around the village, sometimes volunteering to help the older farmers with arduous tasks, and sometimes accepting paying jobs. Joining the cooperative was a smart move for him financially, too. (More about Palestine Fair Trade on another day.) Khadir recently renovated a large living-room where the entire clan can gather when it is too cool to linger in the stone courtyard of the house.

The courtyard is typical of the Arab-style house, as are large patios and open-air spaces on the upper levels. Palestinian homes grow as the family grows, with a son typically building a story on his parents’ home when he has his own family, and so on. Sometimes aunts, uncles, and cousins are included in the mix, if need be. While we only spent one night and part of the next day with Khadir and his extended family, it seemed that they genuinely enjoyed the communal aspects of this traditional way of life. In the U.S., we often complain — sometimes jokingly, sometimes not — about having to spend time with our parents or in-laws. But Khadir’s family seemed joyful together. The children were always present and received much attention. True, Khadir has done well for himself and his family; they seem to have enough and then some, and that extra margin of security, no matter how small, certainly makes a difference in family dynamics. Their circumstances are better than many Palestinians. Still, I have witnessed a great love of family everywhere we have gone this week, and wonderfully affectionate scenes between parents and children.

We also experienced the wonderful hospitality of several other villagers, who invited us into their homes and served us the traditional small cups of sweet tea with fresh mint leaves. Every home we visited had a ready supply of extra chairs (usually plastic) and small wooden or plastic tables for resting beverages and the ever-present cigarettes and ashtrays.

So things aren’t all bad “where the sidewalk ends,” as you’ll see in these photos.

I will save my report on our tour with Yahav Zohar from ICAHD for tomorrow. His talk was full of information and it deserves more energy than I have at this late hour!

Salaam from Beit Sahour, where Milada at the Arab Women’s Union guest house, El Beit, is taking care of us like we are family! We love Milada!

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From Nablus to Sabastiya

Today, we toured the old city of Nablus, built on top of Roman ruins (the Roman name for the town was Neopolis — new city — or Nablus in Arabic). There, we stood in front of the home that was bulldozed by the IDF in April 2002 (during the Second Intifada). The eleven innocent family members who were inside at the time, including an infant, were buried alive. The IDF soldier operating the bulldozer claimed not to have heard the screams. He went unpunished. There is now a memorial to the family at the scene, as well a commemorative plaque for the seven other Palestinians who were killed during that April incursion into Nablus.

The old city is much like that in Jerusalem, with a maze of small living spaces rising above ancient stone paths. Lining the paths and tucked under low, centuries-old arches, are the merchants’ wares — as in Jerusalem, everything a resident of the city would need, without as many cheap trinkets for the tourists. The marketplace in Nablus lacks the crowds of pilgrims found in Jerusalem, but it is dirty and the residents seem starved of fresh air.

From the old city, we drove through the heights of modern Nablus, where ostentatious homes are being built and flower pots hang from courtyard gates. Before we knew it, we were looking at dire poverty once again in the form of the Balata Refugee Camp, established by the United Nations in 1950 to house refugees from the nakba who were forced off their land in surrounding towns; there is also a sizeable group of Bedouin residents at Balata. Originally meant to be temporary, this camp as well as dozens of others in the West Bank, began with families living in tents. As the prolonged nature of the refugees’ displacement began to emerge, crude concrete structures were built. As families expanded, levels were added above. In this 2.5 kilometer area filled with nearly 23,000 residents, the only place to build is up. There is one main paved road through the camp; what appear to be no more than narrow alleys between buildings are the camps’ streets, on which children play and tired women seek fresh air. There is little fresh air in Balata.

Tonight we are staying in the ancient village of Sabastiya, with a fascinating history. Our guest house is part of a 12th Century mosque built by Saladin’s nephew, Husam ed-Din Muhammad, on the site of a Byzantine cathedral that houses the tomb of St. John the Baptist (recognized as a prophet by Muslims). The cathedral was built on top of Roman ruins, and a joint archaelogical project between the Palestinian Authority and the Italian government has unearthed and preserved ancient columns, stones, and roadways. Every few hours, we hear the call to prayer played on loudspeakers throughout this Muslim town.

It has been a difficult day, filled with scenes of poverty and confinement contrasted with wealth and opportunity, and too many stories of death.

I am missing my own family. From this evening’s perspective, it feels like there is a very long week ahead.

Tomorrow we move to Jenin.

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“The Police Are Drunk!”

Or so we thought rounding a sharp corner returning to our guest house after dinner at the Grotto restaurant in Beit Sahour. I was sharing a ride with two of our new Palestinian friends, and as we approached the local police booth late in the evening, it appeared that the two officers on duty had “kicked back” for the evening, taking little notice of our careening SUV.

Our group from Global Exchange has met up with a wonderfully interesting group from Dubai. With members from England and South Africa, the group is run by three Palestinian refugees who were born in Kuwait after their parents were forced out of Palestine during the war of 1948 (called the “nakba” or catastrophe by Palestinians). We have shared conversations and food and wine and e-mail addresses — and many laughs over just two days.

We all needed some relaxation last evening after our busy days. Ron, Jean, and I spent the day with George Rishmawi, one of the directors of the Siraj Center, who accompanied us to meetings with the communications directors of StopTheWall.org and the Palestinian Negotiations Unit at the PLO headquarters in Ramallah. I felt like I was back in school, taking notes and asking questions — a great feeling to be so engaged and to have such generous presenters. We also visited the Presidential compound and saw Yassir Arafat’s tomb.

Of course, it wasn’t all work. After our meetings and a lunch of shawarma, hummus, and salads at a small restaurant in Ramallah, we stopped by the Oktoberfest in Taybeh. Yes, the Oktoberfest. The Taybeh Brewery is owned by a Palestinian Christian family, and they make a wonderful beer. There was music (traditional and hip-hop) and dancing. So much fun!

I know some of you are eager for more photos. Trust me, I am taking a lot, but haven’t had time to download and post yet. Please be patient until the end of the week. We’re heading off for the village of Sebastia for a couple of days and I’m not sure what the internet access will be.

Salaam!

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From Jerusalem to Beit Sahour

Spent a long day touring the old city of Jerusalem with our excellent guide, Mr. Mohammad Barakat of the Siraj Center. Saw the Israeli settlements within the walls of the old city, and the house that Ariel Sharon bought but never lived in; the Israeli presence extends from within the old city outward in rings, as if daily life has become a military operation of surround and secure.

Life within the old city bustles, nonetheless. It is an ancient citadel with everything residents need within its walls: food, clothing, toys and trinkets, medical care, and places of worship. Most of the shops are owned by Muslims, though some Armenians and Israelis have shops too. While the array of cheap souvenirs and high-priced antiquities is vast, there are also all the needs of homemaking to be found down one alley or another, even shops that sell bolts of fabric, coffee pots, and ironing boards. Above narrow, winding stone paths, tens of thousands of Muslims, Armenians, Palestinian Christians, and Jews live; beneath these dwellings, pilgrims walk the last steps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, and ordinary tourists try to make sense of the layers of history and narrative surrounding them. It is dizzying.

On the way out of Jerusalem, we visited two families in a Palestinian neighborhood who are being threatened with eviction from their homes — to make room for Israeli settlers. Already there are settlers on their narrow street; we encountered a large group as we talked with the Palestinians outside their modest homes. (In one small home, twenty-five members of an extended family live, including elderly aunts and uncles and several young children.) There was no visible interaction between the Palestinians and the settlers, but it was a very long moment as we watched the Israelis, all dressed in the fashion of orthodox Jews, ascend the steps into their equally modest dwelling, a house that only a few months ago had been the crowded home of more than one Palestinian family. Soon, I will post notes from one of our conversations with a Palestinian father, as well as the photos he graciously allowed me to take.

For now, we are staying in a lovely guest house in the village of Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. There is no wifi connection here, only a PC for the guests to use — so I won’t be able to upload my photos until we are in a place where I can use my laptop.

That’s all for now. We have an early day tomorrow!

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Tonight

I smoked the houka, ate like royalty, and heard some wonderful traditional Arab music. The hospitality and spirit of the Palestinians are unrivaled.

More tomorrow . . .

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