Wednesday, October 26, 2005

ISM Training

Sunday I spent 11 hours at nonviolent resistance training with ISM. It was a very, very long day. The first half of it was pretty boring because it was all cultural awareness training – which is sort of unnecessary after 2 months of living in the Occupied Territories. The second half was very useful, we learned and practiced some techniques that might be useful with difficult soldiers at checkpoints and talked about power and privilege in our lives and as internationals in the Palestine. The training stressed the importance of not dehumanizing Israeli soldiers and of maintaining calm in all situations, if at all possible.

Another important point is that ISM only works in areas where they are invited by the local Palestinian community. All of the initiatives come from Palestinians and not internationals. It is not the place of an ISMer to criticize any Palestinian’s actions, even if they are throwing stones at a demonstration – it is their right to resist the occupation, according to international law. The trainers really focused on the point that we are here to support the Palestinians, PERIOD.

It was interesting to see how nonviolence techniques are taught, and which definitions are used by ISM. For example, ISM does not consider the destruction of the Wall to be a form of violence, but many other proponents and practitioners of nonviolence would argue that any destruction of property is violent. The second day of training should be even more useful because that is when the legal section will be covered which will include what our rights are as internationals as well as what Israeli soldiers rights are in dealing with us. For example, who can arrest us, who can take our passports, which threats are empty, which actions by soldiers are prohibited by their own laws, etc . . . This is the main reason that I organized this training session – I want to know what the rules are and what the consequences of breaking those rules are before I engage the Occupation Forces.

I would love to work regularly with ISM, but since I’m on a fellowship from the government at the moment it seems like a bad idea. So, this trip I will watch and learn and hopefully next time I will have the opportunity to be more active.

In unrelated news, I have decided to stay in Palestine for Christmas so that I can help with the preparations for the Nonviolence Conference in Bethlehem at the end of December. I won’t be back in DC until the end of the first week of January – probably. I was seriously thinking about staying here for the spring semester as well, but I have resisted the temptation. I know perfectly well that if I stay I will spend my time volunteering and not writing my thesis.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Freedom of Movement

It is cold here. Not Syracuse in the middle of January cold, but cold enough to make me wish that I had brought more long sleeved shirts with me. Heat is luxury here, so we’ve just been adding extra blankets to the beds and wearing our jackets indoors for now. Eventually our landlord will supply us with little electric heaters, but in the meantime, it is chilly. I can deal with the cold, but I didn’t shower for two days because there wasn’t any hot water, or lukewarm water for that matter. Our water heaters are solar, so if there isn’t any sunshine, then there aren’t any showers either. On the third day our landlord stopped by and showed us how to switch the water supply from the solar water tank to the electric water tank, but he also warned us that it is extremely expensive to use the electric tank. By day three I was so happy to shower that I didn’t care how much it would cost. M and I were joking about checking into hotels bi-weekly during the winter just to take long, hot showers.

Otherwise, the week was pretty uneventful until Friday when I went to Bethlehem to meet with Holy Land Trust (an NGO) and see how I could help them prepare for their Nonviolence Conference in December. Turns out they need lots of help, so I should be very busy over the next two months. They actually asked me if I would consider moving to Bethlehem and volunteer full time. Although I would love to, I am already committed to my program at Birzeit, not to mention my thesis, so I had to turn them down.

As always, the most interesting part of my trip was traveling to Bethlehem. I crossed three checkpoints and had to show my passport 5 times between Ramallah and Bethlehem. I was on a bus at the second checkpoint (between Kalandia and Jerusalem), and the soldiers actually pulled a Palestinian woman and myself off the bus to question us. They let me back on after a couple minutes, but they kept the other woman and the bus left without her. I had to switch buses in East Jerusalem to head to Bethlehem, and I literally walk right past the Damascus Gate to old city on the way to the second bus stop. It was Friday morning, and droves of people we heading into the old city to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In order to get to the gate you have to walk down steps arrayed in a half-crescent shape. Israeli soldiers were fanned out along the half-crescent so that you had to walk between them to head down to the gate. I had a little extra time, so I decided to go down to the gate and watch the flow of people. One of the soldiers stopped me as I was passing him and asked to see my passport (I must have FOREIGNER stamped on my forehead). I handed him the passport and he read my name out loud, then he asked me if I wanted to go inside. I looked at him for a minute then I said, “Well, I was headed in that direction until you stopped me – What do you think?” I was kind of surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth . . . he just handed me back my passport and waved me on.

After I poked around the old city for a couple of minutes I headed over to the Bethlehem buses and caught a bus. This bus was pulled over by Israeli police, who again demanded to see everyone’s passports. When I finally got to Bethlehem I walked through the checkpoint without any trouble, which is good because I was running a little late. As I walked past the checkpoint and towards the Wall, I could see about 60 people waiting in line to cross the checkpoint in the other direction heading towards Jerusalem, presumably to pray at Al-Aqsa. That line wasn’t moving at all.
After entering Bethlehem I caught a ride to HLT and ended up spending the entire day there working with the staff. In fact, I lost track of time and had to hurry to make it back to Jerusalem before Iftar (breaking of the fast). I was also fasting (albeit by default) and it was pretty cool to be in Jerusalem right before Iftar. Everyone was running around like crazy, so I popped back into the old city, thinking I’d find a seat and watch the show. I ended up wandering around and found myself at one of the entrances to the Haram Al-Sharif. It is the first time that I’ve been that close to it, and I could actually see the golden dome through the archway at the end of the passageway. I was just moving with the flow of traffic towards it, excited, and I didn’t see the soldier to my left. He grabbed my arm and told me that I wasn’t allowed to enter. I was so angry. I tried to argue with him, but he wasn’t hearing it, so I headed back towards the Damascus Gate and grabbed a seat on the steps (where the soldiers had been that morning) and watched the sun set. It was a really beautiful moment . . . the entire city was quiet while people were breaking their fasts and the Ramadan lights were lit around the gate. I was really enjoying myself until two teenage Palestinian boys sat on the steps directly behind me and started hitting on me by singing bits of songs in Arabic and using the word habibty (my sweetheart) over and over.

After that I stopped at the Jerusalem Hotel and broke my involuntary fast. While I was there I met a British activist named Glen and hung out with him for a while before heading back to Ramallah.

In unrelated news, I heard an unconfirmed rumor that the Israelis are planning to raid Bethlehem soon in retaliation for the three settlers that we killed this week. There were certainly more soldiers there than usual, and they’ve added two checkpoints at different entrances to the city . . . I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Rabbis for Human Rights

Sunday morning MA and I went on an olive harvest with Rabbis for Human Rights. We were in Bethlehem, so in order to get to Jerusalem by 6am (which was the obscene hour that the bus was leaving) we had to leave Dheisha Camp at 5am. I woke up around 4 am when the mosque (which sounded like it was in the same room with me) started the call to prayer. I fell back asleep for about 15 minutes, during which time I dreamt that I was standing at a soft serve ice cream machine, but when you pulled the little lever showerma and falafel came out and fell into a waiting pita pocket.

MA and I were at the Bethlehem checkpoint by 5:10, and we stood at the checkpoint for about 15 minutes watching the soldiers in their little stand smoke cigarettes and ignore the steadily growing line of people. No one is allowed to approach the soldiers until they call for you – trying is a good way to get shot. Eventually they decided to let us through and we walked about a half a mile until we could catch a cab to Jerusalem.

We found the meeting place for Rabbis for Human Rights with a little difficulty, but we still made by 6 am. We spent the next 3 hours on a bus heading for Yamoun, a village outside of Nablus. Now, Israel is not that big of a place, but because we were specifically trying to avoid the infamous Hawara checkpoint (known for long waits and pissy soldiers) we took the scenic route. Close to our destination we saw a big settlement on the top of the hills; we also saw orchards of olive trees that had burned by the settlers. Apparently this village has had a lot of trouble with the settlers, and with one in particular who the local Palestinians call The Sheriff because of his posturing and way he uses Palestinian farmers as target practice.

Rabbis for Human Rights sends internationals out to help Palestinians during the harvest season for two reasons: First, because the Israelis only give Palestinians a limited amount of time during which harvesting is permitted; Second, because settler’s are much less likely to shoot, beat or otherwise injure an international than they are a Palestinian. Thankfully, the day was uneventful. The only visitors that we had were the Israeli media who decided to shoot some footage of internationals harvesting olives. As for the actual harvesting, it wasn’t that bad. I mean, it was hard work, but the weather was nice, the countryside was beautiful and the conversation was diverse. I met a black man from South Africa who is working with the YMCA in Bethlehem. While we were working, I asked him what he thought of the situation in Palestine compared to the Apartheid system in South Africa. He said, in his opinion, the situation in Palestine is much worse than it was in South Africa, particularly in the area of freedom of movement. He also pointed out that the anti-apartheid movement had the support of the international community, which is something that the Palestinians do not have.

After about 6 hours of reaching up to pull olives off trees and crouching down to pick the fallen olives – mind you this is during Ramadan – I was ready to head home. To be fair, no one seemed to be observing Ramadan very closely, including the Palestinians who were with us, but I was still happy to head back to Jerusalem for a meal. Once back in the HC (Holy City) MA and I met up with a friend of hers and ate at a restaurant in East Jerusalem. I thought my adventures were over, but I’d only been on the bus heading towards the West Bank for about 5 minutes when MA called me from her taxi to say that 3 settlers had been killed in the West Bank that afternoon and that she’d heard the West Bank was being closed down. While I was talking to her our bus was pulled over by Israeli soldiers who came onboard and checked all of our IDs (this is common on the way into Jerusalem, but not on the way out). I called a friend in Ramallah to check on the situation, but luckily things were quiet in my direction and I made it home.

Since then things have gotten interesting . . . old checkpoints are being reinstated and the Israeli government was threatening to completely shut down Bethlehem and Hebron (that is where they think the shooters came from) but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m supposed to go to Bethlehem on Friday to meet with Holy Land Trust about working with them . . . hopefully I will be able to.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Strip Searches and Refugee Camps

The last couple of days have been hectic, to say the least. My friend MA, who I met last summer at AUC, traveled across the King Hussein Bridge on Saturday and I met up with her at the Dheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. She lived in Jerusalem this summer and worked with ISM, and is currently working in Amman. I spent the first part of the day just sort of hanging around, waiting to see if MA would make it across the border (she was arrested while working with ISM, so the chances of her actually getting into Israel were pretty slim). Luckily, she called me at 1:30 in the afternoon from the bus to Jerusalem – after 5.5 hours at the border and a strip search, to tell me that she made it.

It took me two hours to travel from Birzeit to Dheisha, and luckily I made it just in time for Iftar with a fantastic family in the camp. MA is sponsoring one of the daughters (S) in the family to study English at Georgetown University this January. She has already been accepted to the program, and a big part of why MA braved the border crossing was to sort out the visa paperwork and get everything in order for her trip.

I stayed the night with the family, and practiced my Arabic a lot. S’s father is a political leader in the camp and was deported to Jordan during the mid-80s. There were allowed to return to Palestine sometime in the 90s. He was been imprisoned more than 10 times. S has an older brother who has been in Israeli detainment for 22 months without a court date. Her grandmother was one of the first casualties of the First Intifada . . . you get the idea. In spite of all of these hardships, it is obvious that the family is very close, and also very open to outsiders.

There was a bit of a conflict going on between S and her father when I arrived regarding her upcoming studies abroad. In fact, they hadn’t spoken in a month because he was so angry at her. He was angry because she was beginning to have doubts about traveling to the US and was considering turning down the opportunity to study at Geirgetown. Now, S has traveled to the US before, she was in a documentary called Promises that was nominated for an Academy Award. This 18 year old from Dheisha Camp has been to the Academy Awards . . . I’ve never even been to LA.

MA and I talked to S for a while, trying to figure out exactly what the problem was with studying abroad. At first, I thought it was the distance from home; then I thought it was the cultural differences, but I was way off base. Turns out, the last time she traveled away from home was when the Israelis placed Bethlehem under curfew and had the siege at the Church of the Nativity. She was stranded abroad while all hell was breaking loose at home . . . the Israelis entered the camp repeatedly and at one point entered her home and shot it up. She is afraid that something similar will happen while she is studying abroad and she won’t be with her family when they need her.

After a while of talking – not persuading, just discussing options and fears and life in America – she decided that she wanted to go ahead with the study abroad. She will be arriving in DC in January if the visa process goes smoothly, and I have promised to show her around and introduce to the cool places and great people that I know in DC (translation: I will need people to show me cool places so that I can take her to them).

I also think it is really amazing that MA, who is only an Assistant Professor at a university in the US, has put aside enough money to fund S and her studies, not to mention arranging housing and dealing with the mountain of paperwork necessary to get a Palestinian student a visa, not to mention the paperwork necessary to get a Palestinian from Bethlehem permission to go to Jerusalem for an interview at the American Consulate. Did I mention that Bethlehem is less than 20 minutes away from Jerusalem, but most residents aren’t allowed to travel to Jerusalem? It makes me wonder about what other things I can do to help out, even if it is only helping one person at a time.


Sometimes I think the most interesting part of traveling in Palestine isn’t the places I’m visiting, but the actual process of moving from point A to point B. M and I went to Jericho Thursday afternoon, and returned today. We went to Jericho, aside from the obvious historical and tourist reasons, because M is an avid birdwatcher and the Palestinian Wildlife Society has a small conservation area in Jericho. Of course, first we had to get there . . .

Our little misadventure started with a miscommunication. M was under the impression that A, her connection to the subculture of Palestinian birdwatching, was driving to either Birzeit or Ramallah to pick us up. Unfortunately, he thought that we would to finding our own transportation. So, around 3pm we realized the problem and started the process of traveling to Jericho, and on Yom Kippur to boot.

First, the service from Birzeit to Ramallah, then another service from Ramallah to Kalandia, then a third service from Kalandia to Jericho. To add to the fun, it is Ramadan, which means we had to get to Kalandia and catch a service early enough that we would arrive in Jericho before Iftar, or the breaking of the fast at sunset.

Luckily, we made it to Kalandia in good time, and there wasn’t a flying checkpoint (I was worried because of the Jewish holiday that things would be even more complicated than usual) and we caught a service to Jericho in just enough time to make the trip and arrive before sunset.

Our service was a dilapidated old station wagon, but this is not unusual in the West Bank, so we just hopped in and hoped for the best. Unfortunately (I will be using this word a lot in this entry, btw) there was an accident blocking the only road from Jerusalem to Jericho. There are in fact other routes, but they are closed to Palestinians and reserved for Israelis and settlers. Our driver decided that instead of sitting in a traffic jam for two hours, it would be a better idea to go off-road in this decrepit, low riding station wagon. Now, I have become accustomed to the Palestinian service driver’s idea of safety, but poor M is still adjusting . . . so we were bouncing along this little sandy path next to the Wall and M is trying to tell to the driver to slow down in Arabic . . . it was pretty funny.

Our first path turned out to be dead end, so we reversed down the path – imagine a sheer drop to the left, the Wall to the right, and cars in front of and behind us reversing simultaneously – and then drove around the wall (so much for security) onto the Israeli side and around the accident. This part didn’t really faze me, but when we got onto the Israeli road and started passing other cars on the windy, uphill road (he was passing them by going off the road onto the sandy curb next to another sheer drop-off) I got a little nervous. I think this is the first time in about 10 years that I said the Lord’s Prayer (or what I could remember of it).

After surviving the scary part of our trip, I was able to enjoy the scenery. For such a small country, Israel/ Occupied Territories has amazingly diverse terrain. Driving through the mountainous desert region was beautiful in a distant, moonscape kind of way. Unfortunately, this was disturbed by the Bedouin encampments along the road. These Bedouins used to live in the Negev, but their land was confiscated by the Israeli Army for “military security” and is now occupied by settlements. The Israelis moved the Bediouns to a small, waterless strip of land next to the highway and overlooking a dumping site. That said, the descent from the mountain region into the valley and the oasis of Jericho is stunning. The climate in Jericho is sub-tropical, so the first things that you see when approaching Jericho are the palm trees and green areas. This is also a sad story because most of the Palestinians who live in the region used to make their living by farming various fruit crops, including bananas and dates. Now, Jericho is surrounded by three large settlements which have taken away a lot of the Palestinian farmlands. There used to be 84 wells in the region for Palestinian use (it is an oasis, after all) but now the Palestinians only have access to 17 of them. This means that many of the people who used to make a decent living from farming their own land now have to work as hired labor in the settlements to make ends meet.

Apparently Jericho is a little over a kilometer away from the Jordan River, and also very close to the Dead Sea and the King Hussein (Allenby Bridge) crossing to Jordan. Unfortunately, Palestinians aren’t allowed to go down to the Jordan River because it is a military zone. All traffic entering and exiting Jericho has to go through an Israeli checkpoint, and they checked my ID both times. This was a little weird because on the way in, the only ID they checked was mine . . . guess that is what you get being the only woman in the service under 30 – or maybe it was because the soldier couldn’t decide if I was Palestinian or not . . . who knows?

As for the actual purpose of the trip – birdwatching – I won’t bore you with recounting the events aside to say that I got out of bed at 5 am, ate stale bread that was crawling with ants (after knocking the ants off, of course) and wasted 4 hours of my life that I will never get back. M admitted that it was an extremely boring day, even by birdwatching standards. I can officially say that I am not now, nor will I ever be a bird watcher. I’m all about recycling, avoiding pollution, and animal protection, but I think I will stick to my current hobbies of politics, beer drinking and writing. We also visited Hisham’s Palace and a monostary, but honestly it was so hot and my mind was so numb from the birdwatching that I didn’t take much in.

In conclusion, my advice to anyone who is invited to go birdwatching is – DON’T DO IT. If you must, make sure your first trip will be a short one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Village Excitement

Today I had a surprisingly productive day – meaning I learned a lot about Critical Language Discourse, and I even did my Arabic homework the day before it was due. In celebration of my productivity, M and I went to the local bar for a pint. We sat at a table with the owner and his cousin and conversed in a bizarre weaving of Modern Standard Arabic, colloquial Arabic and English (this has become my specialization, btw). The bar was surprising full considering that it is Ramadan, but there is a large Christian presence in the village, and not all Muslims are observant anyway. We were just sitting there chatting when I noticed that about half the men in the bar (okay, maybe M and I were the only women in the place) were standing and looking out the window behind me. I like to think of myself as a moderately observant person, but Palestinians are very honed into their environment and particularly activity on the streets – it is a necessity for survival here.

So, like a good little foreigner I turned around about 3 minutes late and watched a rapidly growing group of young men walk up the street and around the corner. As the flow of men (most of whom were university students) increased, some of them started running. After about 30 minutes, the flow of men reversed and came back down the street – but now they looked like they were marching with a purpose.

Meanwhile I’m sitting having a conversation with J about the refugee situation in Palestine, and about his feelings regarding raising a son in Occupied Palestine. He is a born and raised Birzeiter, and his family has been here for hundreds of years. J said he didn’t think that the refugees would ever get their land back, and that the PA was just using the camps to soak the UN and the international community for money. He also said that he applies for a visa every year to the US or Europe in the hopes of getting his son out of Palestine before he becomes a teenager, and a target. He really dotes on his son, George, who just turned 4. Every time I see him he tells me about George’s latest adventure, whether it is requesting a disco cd or singing karyoke at the restaurant/ bar.

While we are having this conversation, I hear 5 or 6 gunshots, all coming from the direction that the mob of young men had marched toward. Apparently, one student stabbed another student. The stabbed student is from the north (Qalquilia). Within minutes, thanks to cell phones, the better part of the male student population from the northern parts of Palestine were in the streets, trying to find out what happened and looking for a fight. The student who did the stabbing is apparently from a Birzeit family with connections in the PA, so the mob of students marched to the police station to demand that he be moved from Birzeit to Ramallah, where his family connections are less influential.

Of course, this is all hearsay, but it highlights some pretty serious issues. First, successful Palestinians are leaving to raise their kids in safer places (not a shocker). Second, the refugee situation is viewed as hopeless by at least some Palestinians, and I would guess that most Palestinians who aren’t refugees don’t really think the refugees will ever get their right to return. Thirdly, there is a high degree of corruption in the PA and lawlessness in the streets. Fourth, violence is normal here. Gun shots don’t phase people – once the people in bar established that the excitement on the street wasn’t from the IDF, they settled back into their beers and conversations immediately. Even I wasn’t really fazed by the gunshots, aside from hoping that none of the students had been hurt. The normalization of violence here is amazing. I realize that I come from a privileged and sheltered background – but I can’t image trying to raise a family in this kind of environment. It makes me wonder what 4 year-old George who likes to sing karyoke will be like when he’s19 if he grows up here.

On a different note, I will probably be traveling for the next 5 or 6 days, so my blog and email will be quiet. I’m excited about my upcoming trip, and if it pans out I’m sure I’ll have some interesting stories to tell when I get back.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Khalil (Hebron)

The next morning we visited the Church of the Nativity, then headed for Khalil. We heard that the Hebron checkpoint was completely closed the day before, but we decided to give it a try and see what happened – luckily we didn’t have any trouble. Khalil is one of the biggest, if the not the biggest city in the West Bank. It reminded me of Qalquilia in that all the women we saw were wearing the hijab and very modestly dressed. The economic situation was obviously not good. We headed straight for the Old City, which is really beautiful. Just full of windy stone alleys and tunnels – truly a hide and seek paradise. As we walked into the old city we passed a building on the right with Israeli soldiers and machine guns on the roof, watching us. To be fair, we stood out a lot since there weren’t many (any) other tourists.

After we passed the soldiers, we came to a fork in the road and you could see that the souq (market) used to be down both streets. Now, the street on the right was closed off and gated -- all the Arabs have left their stores and homes. Why, you might ask? Because of the harassment they received from the settlers and soldiers. Admittedly, the Israeli technique of occupation does not usually involve Israelis and Arabs living in the same city, but in 1967 one Jewish family came to Hebron to celebrate Passover, boarded themselves into the hotel they were staying in (in the center of the city) and refused to leave. Today the settlers control 1/3 of downtown Hebron, with about 500 settlers and 4000 soldiers to protect them (Christian Peacemaker Team figures). There are about 40,000 Palestinians in the remainder of the city.

Back to my story . . . so the road on the right is closed because there are too many settlers living in the buildings above the souq. This is a problem because they throw their trash, feces, and whatever else they can think of onto the Palestinians who work below them. So, that side of the souq was completely emptied. On the left side, the side we entered, there are also problems with settlers, but apparently it isn’t as bad as the other side. The locals have set up fencing above their heads to catch the trash, and in some places they have put boards over the fence which block out any liquid trash that might come their way, but also, unfortunately, blocks out the sunlight.

We walked along the souq, then we came to a checkpoint where they had set up more of the revolving metal cage thingees. I hate these things. They have them at Kalandia as well, and trying to get through them with a backpack is annoying, never mind with a suitcase or a small child. The soldier there didn’t bother to look at our passports, so we continued towards our goal, Haram Brahimi. Once we reached the base of the Muslim entrance to the mosque we went through another checkpoint. This time they searched our bags, we walked through metal detectors, and they looked at our passports. They also asked each of us what religion we are. The guide said that we were all Christians (which was not true) but I went along with it since I have no strong religious affiliation and I wanted to see the inside of the mosque. Then we had to go through another checkpoint before we could actually enter the mosque, which was more of the same.

Once inside, we took off our shoes and the women put on shapeless brown robes with hoods that covered our hair, bodies and hands. Finally we were able to enter the mosque. This place is important because it is believed that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Joseph are buried on this sight. It is also important because in 1994 a crazy settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque during Ramadan and killed 29 Muslims while they were praying – most of them shot in the back. After the massacre a 24 hour curfew was imposed on the Arabs of Khalil, while the settlers were allowed complete freedom of movement. Muslims were not allowed to pray in the mosque for 9 months, and when they returned they found it had been partitioned into two sections: one for Muslims and one for Jews. The mosque is very beautiful, despite the bullet holes in the walls and the Israeli security cameras set up all over the place. BTW the settlers consider the nutcase who opened fire in the mosque to be a martyr and people make pilgrimages to the place he is buried. His wife actually tried to sue the Muslims who disarmed him and killed him after he had killed 29 people and injured close to 200 people.

We visited the Jewish side of the site as well, but in order to get there we had to pass through 2 more checkpoints. Again we were asked if there were any Muslims in the group, and again our guide said no. This time one of the Muslim girls got really upset with him, and almost refused to go into the Jewish side. I don’t blame her. I don’t even consider myself Muslim but I was offended as well. Both by the guide and by the fact that our religion is considered enough of a reason to discriminate against us. She was actually in tears as we approached the first checkpoint to enter the Jewish section, and I was worried that she was going to say something to the soldiers as they searched her bag. She kept her cool, but the internal struggle she was going through was obvious. I offered to wait with her instead of going inside, but she refused.

So we went inside, and saw lots of people praying – exactly the same as what we saw on the Muslim side . . . The irony of this conflict is just ridiculous sometimes. Next we walked through the section of the old city where the settlers lived. It was like a ghost town. Most of the homes are owned by Arabs who left after years of harassment and killings, although many of them refuse to sell their homes. It doesn’t really matter, settlers just move into the ones that they want. Our guide was very nervous (he is a Palestinian Christian) and we moved quickly through this part of the city. At one point we saw a group of Palestinian kids coming home from school. They are escorted to and from school by Christian Peacekeepers to try and protect them from the settlers and the soldiers.

After leaving the Old City we stopped at a restaurant to grab some shawerma and we heard that there had been shooting in the Old City, probably less than 5 minutes after we left. We finished our meal, and the rest of the group headed out to visit the Hebron Glass Factory, but I split off to talk to our guide some more and have my own adventure on the way home, which I talked about in an earlier entry.

Refugee Camps and non-bullet proof windows

Last weekend I visited Beit Lehem and Khalil (Hebron) with my program. In Beit Lehem we visited two refugee camps and got spoke with a representative from the Rapprochament Center. At each of the camps we met with volunteers/ tour guides who showed us the camps and talked about life in the camps. One of the camps, Aida Camp, is literally right next to the wall – in fact, the wall cuts the refugees off from the only open area of land that was available to them. The land is owned by one of the local churches and was used as an area for children to play, students to study, and just as a place to get away from the camp, where people live stacked on top of each other. From the roof of one of the buildings in the camp and next to the wall, you can see over the wall, and all that empty space just sitting, unused.

On our way from the first camp to the second camp, Dheisha Camp, we passed an interesting sight. Rachel’s Tomb was on the end of the street that we were walking on, but it is blocked off by Israeli soldiers, so we couldn’t go to it from inside the camp. We noticed two Israeli soldiers roughing up a Palestinian man in handcuffs. We all stopped and watched, and the Israelis moved the man so that he was behind a concrete slab and we couldn’t see him. We stood there for another 5 minutes, and they finally let the guy go. Our guide called him over and asked him to tell us what had happened. I didn’t catch the whole story, but apparently they pulled him off one of the checkpoints at about 6 that morning. Then, the soldiers took him up to their watchtower and made him stand next to a sleeping Israeli soldier. The other soldiers apparently took turns calling the sleeping soldier’s cell phone until he woke up and found this Palestinian standing over him. Then, of course, he attacked him. When we met this guy, who was probably in his early or mid-twenties it was early afternoon. They’d been playing with him for at least 6 hours . . .

Dheisha refugee camp was twice the size of the first – it was something like 11,000 people living on a ½ square kilometer of land. We walked around the camp, whose roads are so narrow cars can’t fit down most of the streets. Both refugee camps have a type of welcome center, and they rent rooms out to internationals who are visiting or want to work with the camp . . . which surprised me. The welcome/student center at the second camp is full of beautiful murals depicting the lives of the refugees before and after 1948/1967. The camps sponsor trips where they send grandparents and their grandkids to the sites of their old villages, so that their true homes and history can be passed from generation to generation . . . Which is just heartbreakingly sad.

Before this trip I had considered the right of return to be something impossible for the refugees. I mean, how on earth can they go back to villages that aren’t there anymore, or are filled with Israelis? Seeing the way these people are living, and have been living for over 30 or 50 years while they wait for their chance to return to homes is truly an educational experience. And they have continued to live like this because they have to maintain their refugee status to qualify for right of return under international law. If they leave they give up on their past and the suffering their families have endured for the last 2 generations – if they stay they give up their futures. They are trapped by international law and the PA uses the refugees as a pity card . . . not helping them too much so that they can hold them up to the international community and say, “See how our people are suffering”. Meanwhile the PA officials live in style and comfort. The whole situation is just sickening.

At the Reapproachment center we learned about nonviolent methods of resistance the local people have organized. It was a slightly more upbeat note to end of the day on, but we were all pretty weary by the time we headed to the hostel. We stayed at the Arab Women’s Union, which I highly recommend to anyone who needs a cheap, clean place to stay while they are visiting Beit Lehem (although it is actually in Beit Sahour). The only problem with our room at the hostel was the bullet hole in the window, although the glass had been carefully taped around the hole. Just a reminder that Beit Lehem and Beit Sahour were under siege not so long ago . . .

Monday, October 03, 2005

my first attempt at nonviolent resistance

This weekend I visited Beit Lehem and Khalil (Hebron) with some of the other students in my program. I saw a lot of things, some of them uplifting, but the majority of which were disheartening if not downright depressing. I’m not sure where to start, but I think I will start at the end and work backwards, because the end of the trip left the most lasting impression on me, by far.

After our tour of the Old City in Khalil, I split off from the rest of my group and returned to the souq with our guide, R. One of us was going to have to return separately anyway because there weren’t enough seats on the service we were using to legally pass through Israeli checkpoints (8 seats, 9 people), so I volunteered because I wanted to quiz our tour guide about the organization he works for, Holy Land Trust. I was planning on contacting HLT anyway, because I worked with their sister organization, Nonviolence International, in DC. So . . . R and I hung out a while, I think I made a new friend (he invited me to stay with him and his wife in Beit Lehem anytime) and then I caught a service headed from Khalil back to the Kalandia checkpoint.

The ride was fairly uneventful until the end – me crammed in the middle seat and the middle row of a station wagon, with a elderly Palestinian woman dressed in traditional clothing on my right, and a large Palestinian man on my left trying desperately to stay far enough over on his side that there was no bodily contact between us. Our driver chain smoked, played with the radio station, and navigated the incredibly steep and dangerous road we careened along simultaneously. This is the only road open for travel to Kalandia without going though Jerusalem (which is forbidden for West Bank vehicles), and I have no idea how anyone navigates it in the winter . . . it is narrow with hairpin curves, no guardrails, and it is ridiculously steep. Just before we reached Kalandia we were stopped at a flying checkpoint (not a permanent checkpoint, just a place where an Israeli Army jeep pulls over and starts checking IDs. No one knows if there is any rhyme or reason to when and why they set up the flying checkpoints. . .

There were three soldiers with the jeep: one sitting in the jeep smoking and talking on his cell phone, one who came to our car and asked for everyone’s IDs, and one up high in the back of the jeep with a machine gun. From my seat, I could see a Palestinian kid they had already pulled out of another car, sitting on a rock next to the jeep. He was wearing a red long sleeved shirt and jeans, and had his back turned to the soldiers and angled away from the road. He was nervously fidgeting, wringing his hands, putting his head in his hands, and talking to himself (I can only assume he was praying). He was about 16 or 17 years old and looked completely terrified.

After a couple minutes, the soldiers pulled a young guy out of our car, probably about 22 or 23 years old, and told him to sit on the rock next to the other kid. Before getting out of the car, he reassured his family that he would be okay and told them to just leave him. Then the pulled out the man next to me, but he returned to the car after a couple minutes. The boy from our car looked less scared than the other kid, and his sister who was in seat behind me with his niece said he had already spent 5 years in an Israeli jail. After about 5-10 more minutes, the soldiers waved our car on, but because they still had the boy, the taxi driver pulled over just in front of the flying checkpoint. The driver got out of the car to smoke a cigarette, and we just sat there in total silence.

I also wanted a cigarette, so I decided to take a gamble and I got out of the car. I sat on a rock, not next to the boys, but close to them, and I pulled out a cigarette. I knew the soldiers knew that I was American because they had already looked at my passport. I looked over at the two boys, one still obviously scared, and the other quiet and I smiled at them both and nodded, they both nodded back. The soldier on the jeep with the machine gun was watching me, with his gun pointed at me during this 20 second interaction.

I took a deep breath, lit my cigarette, and settled onto the rock as if I was completely comfortable. I hadn’t even taken the second drag from my cigarette when the Israeli soldiers released the boy who had been in my car and told us to drive away. I hesitated for a second, because I didn’t want to leave the other boy by himself, but the taxi driver started yelling at me to hurry up. I hadn’t even gotten into the taxi before a second Israeli jeep pulled up (I assume border police, but I’m not sure), and we drove away.

Once I was back in the taxi and we had driven away from the checkpoint, everyone wanted to know my name, where I was from . . . They knew, as I did, that the Israelis had let the boy go (or at least let him go sooner) because I, an international, happened to be in their service and because I made my presence very obvious to the soldiers. They obviously hadn’t picked him up for anything in particular, because they wouldn’t have let him go so easily if he was actually wanted for some crime or political affiliation.

The sad part is, I didn’t even do anything. I just got out of the car and started to smoke a cigarette – exactly what I would do at home if my car broke down. I didn’t try to approach the soldiers, or the boys . . . I considered doing both of those things, but I was afraid that I would make the situation worse for the boys and I wasn’t sure what I could/should say that might have helped. I am repeatedly struck by the lack of rights and power that the Palestinians have, and that I, as a foreigner, have more influence than the average Palestinian citizen and resident. It also scares me, because with that power comes a responsibility that I feel very clearly. I don’t know if I handled that situation well, or if there are other, better things that I could have done. I can’t get the face of the boy in the red shirt out of my head. He was younger than my youngest brother, and he looked so scared but was trying to be brave at the same time.

I think that I am going to try and get some ISM training. I want to participate in the olive harvest, and I think that it would be a good idea to talk to more experienced people about how to handle these situations. If I have a clearer idea of what my rights are, and what the boundaries are for the soldiers, maybe I will be more effective – and less scared – the next time I find myself in this sort of situation. Unfortunately, I don’t doubt that I will find myself in these situations, regardless of whether or not I want to be in them. I think that it is privilege to help Palestinians in these situations -- and a responsibility -- but I want to do it in the most effective way possible . . .

I have a lot of other things to say about my trip to Beit Lehem and Khalil, but I think I will save it for another day.