Saturday, January 21, 2006

More on the New Checkpoints

It's not all in the details
By Amira Hass

Each detail described here, every shred of reality, is liable to be
considered as a whole, which would dim its severity. Detail:
hundreds of people gather each morning at three narrow steel
revolving doors, and the gates do not turn because some unseen
person has blocked them by pushing a button. The number of people
crammed behind them grows and grows, and they wait for an hour, and
the anger at another day being late for work or for school is piled
on top of previous residual tensions brought on by anger, bitterness
and helplessness.

However, it is not the crowdedness and waiting and anger that define
the checkpoints and roadblocks, or in this specific instance, the
new Qalandiyah checkpoint. Nor is it the crowdedness and compressed
atmosphere of the rest of the inspection route, before the
magnometers and the closed rooms in which the soldiers sit and
inspect documents, or the other revolving doors. Or even the
other "details": the cameras that make the soldiers and commanders
seeing and unseen, the snarling voice in the speaker that issues
commands in Hebrew, the terrifying concrete wall above and around,
and the devastation left by Israeli bulldozers and planners outside
the cage that Israel calls a "border terminal," in what was once,
and no longer is, a continuous stretch of residential neighborhoods,
soft hillsides and the Jerusalem-Ramallah road.

Nor are the 11 "detainees" at the inspection route's exit an
adequate detail: nine teenage boys aged 18 and under, one adult, and
a 23-year-old university student, all of whom committed a serious
crime on Monday: After waiting in vain for the steel gates to turn,
which would lead them to the inspection route, on their way to
classes and work, they decided to jump over the fence - one hoping
to get to an English test on time, the other fearful of being fired
if he again arrived late to the printing press where he works. But
they were caught. The student was handcuffed from behind, and was
sat down next to a guard booth in the closed military compound. The
other ten were placed outside the compound, in the mud that became
thicker with every drop of rain. And the soldiers demanded that they
sit down. They could not sit, because of the mud, and only went into
a kneeling position. After half an hour, the bent knees begin to
hurt more and more, and the pants are soaked with water and grow
tight over the knee. The hands turn cold, but the soldiers don't
change their tune: "Sit, I told you. Sit."

But the cold and the rain are not the story, nor is the soldier
eating his combat rations and watching the detainees apathetically,
nor the telephone calls by this writer until after two hours they
are permitted, how compassionately, to stand up, nor their release -
including that of one individual whose frozen hands are imprinted by
deep red cracks from the handcuffs, nor the fact that the 14-year-
old in the group had to wait another 20 minutes after his release
until the soldier who took his birth certificate (after all, he does
not yet have an identity card) could be found. The question of
whether the detention would have continued longer had the writer not
been present is also marginal.

Also of secondary importance is the decision to open
the "humanitarian gate" (which is intended for the passage of those
in wheelchairs, parents with baby strollers, and Palestinian
cleaning workers employed by a contracting firm), in the morning to
women and men above the age of 60. Another detail that in itself
diverts one's attention from what is important.

What is important is that the army and the Israeli citizens who
design all of the details of dispossession - and the roadblocks are
an inseparable part of this dispossession - have transformed the
term "humanitarian" into a despicable lie.

Through the checkpoints, road closures, movement ban, and traffic
restrictions, through the concrete walls and barbed wire fences,
through the land expropriations (solely for the purpose of security,
as the High Court of Justice, which is part and parcel of the
Israeli people, likes to believe), through the disconnecting of
villages from their lands and from a connecting road, through the
construction of a wall in a residential neighborhood and in the
backyards of homes, and through the transformation of the West Bank
into a cluster of "territorial cells," in the military jargon,
between the expanding settlements - we Israelis have created and
continue to create an economic, social, emotional, employment and
environmental crisis on the scale of a never-ending tsunami.

And then we offer a little turnstile in a cage, an officer who is
briefed to see an old man, a bathroom and a water cooler - and this
is described as "humanitarian." In other words, we push an entire
people into impossible situations, blatantly inhumane situations, in
order to steal its land and time and future and freedom of choice,
and then the plantation owner appears and relaxes the iron fist a
bit, and is proud of his sense of compassion.

However, even the important matter - that is, the humanitarian
deception - is only one detail in a full set of details in which no
single detail is representative in itself. Isolated fragments of the
reality are read as being tolerable, or understandable (security,
security), or may make one angry for a moment and then subside. And
among all the details, the reality of colonialism intensifies,
without letup or remission, inventing yet more methods of torture of
the individual and community; creating more ways to violate
international law, robbing land behind the legal camouflage, and
encouraging collaboration out of agreement, neglect or torpor.

New Beit Lehem Checkpoint

New Years Eve I traveled from Beit Lehem back to Ramallah. I finally took some pictures at the new Beit Lehem checkpoint, so you can all see how awful these new border crossing terminals are. I was the last person to leave of the international conference staff, so I hit the checkpoint by myself. I got there around 10am, which is apparently a quiet time because I was the only person there. I took pictures of some of the signs around the checkpoint; my favorite is the one advertising for the Israeli Ministy of Tourism and is pasted ONTO the Wall. I also got a couple of good pictures of the turnstiles that people have to go through.

When I got to the turnstile, there wasn’t anyone in sight. No soldiers to be seen, no voices, nothing. And, of course, the turnstile is electronic and locked so that I can’t go through. These new terminals are creepy because the soldiers are completely kept behind bullet proof plastic – so you have no actual contact with them – but there are surveillance cameras everywhere. I knew that they could see me, even though as far as I could tell I was alone. So, I did what any American would do. I started yelling “Hello” at the top of my lungs after about 2 minutes of waiting patiently (and taking more pictures). When that didn’t get a response I tried “Shalom” (Hebrew) and finally, just for fun, “Marhaba” (Arabic).

Eventually an unseen finger pushed a button and the light above the turnstile changed from red to green, so I was allowed to pass through to the next section of the checkpoint. Next, I had to put my bags through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector. Only, the little conveyor belt on the x-ray machine wasn’t on. Now, I could see the soldier, sitting in her little plastic cubicle, ignoring me. So, I decided to walk through the metal detector with my bag. The soldier didn’t like that, so she told me to go back in Hebrew – I waited until she said it in English – then she turned on the conveyor belt. So, I put my bag through the x-ray machine and walked through the metal detector again.

As I was pulling my bag off the machine, I noticed a second plastic soldier cubicle. In this one, the only thing that you could see was feet in the window because the soldier was sleeping while on duty and using his desk as a footrest. I took a picture of him.

Needless to say, that didn’t go over well. There was a second set of turnstiles that I needed to go though, and the female soldier locked both of them and started yelling at me that pictures aren’t allowed. I thought that was interesting because she had been watching me take pictures on her surveillance camera since I entered the facility. So, I’m not supposed to take pictures of sleeping soldiers, I guess. Now she was pissed at me, so I had to wait almost ten minutes for her to unlock the turnstile.

After that turnstile, I finally got the area where they inspect your passport and visa. Again, there was total silence and no one around. I was seriously considering just jumping the barrier when I realized that there was a soldier slumped down in one of the booths, asleep. I was debating how I wanted to wake her up – the thought of landing in an Israeli jail the day before I was supposed to leave wasn’t really that appealing, so I opted against hopping the barrier – when the mean soldier from the previous section walked though and banged on the plastic separating me from the sleeping the soldier.

She sat up, rubbed her eyes, then waved me through after giving my passport a cursory glance.

This is security?

Once through the checkpoint I caught a bus to Jerusalem and said goodbye to city. Then I headed to the new Kalandia checkpoint, which is exactly the same as the Beit Lehem checkpoint except that it was crowded so it took forever to get through the damn turnstiles.

Then I went back to Ramallah. I had just enough time to pack up the rest of my stuff and finish my errands before it was time to celebrate New Years Eve.

Celebrating Nonviolent Resistance

I wanted to write about the Celebrating Nonviolence Resistance conference in Beit Lehem – but all I can remember of it clearly is a chaotic endless blur of running, a freezing cold building, three days of working from 7 -11 and then drinking beer before turning around and doing the same thing again. It was good.

I think, overall, the conference was a success, although we definitely a few less than graceful moments that could have been avoided with better planning and a little foresight. I ended up working really hard – I was running the schedule and schedule updates for 300+ people by de facto . . . I was also creating/ running the film festival and then working as everyone else’s personal slave. I also became the coordinator between HLT and Abuna Marwan (Father Marwan) who was in charge of the facility we used for the conference. It paid off though, both literally and figuratively. Holy Land Trust decided that I did such a great job as a volunteer that they are going to pay me for my time – WOOHOO – and I was encouraged to apply for a paid internship when I get back to DC by the VP of the NGO. All in all, I think the slave labor paid off.

We had a good turnout for the conference, between 350-400 people, about half of the participants were internationals and about half were Palestinians. I managed to convince the ISM kids to come, even though there is bad blood between HLT and ISM (someone said something ages ago and no one can remember who said it or what it was but now they don’t get along), and I helped get two of them time on panel discussions, in order to inject the ISM experience into the dialogue of nonviolence resistance at the conference. After all, ISM utilized nonviolence in Palestine on a daily basis, and is arguably one of the best known movements in Palestine. It just didn’t make sense to have the conference without them.

We also had some big names: Gene Sharp (the academic heavyweight on Nonviolence), Bernard Lafayette Jr., Mary King, Cindy Corrie (Rachel’s mom), and Mubarak Awad. I didn’t get to participate in most of the conference activities because I was working, but I did manage to sit in on part of Gene Sharp’s workshop and all of the Corrie discussion. On the last day of the conference the participants marched from the conference hall to the main checkpoint in Beit Lehem and managed to march into the checkpoint without being stopped by soldiers. The next day, ISM managed to march completely through the checkpoint in Nablus. Funny, I don’t think any of this made the news.

High points

  1. Satisfaction of a job well done, and getting paid for my efforts
  2. Internship offer
  3. Meeting Rachel Corrie’s parents
  4. experience in planning/holding an international conference (now I know why everyone groans at the thought)
  5. They used some of my photos of olive trees as the background for the program/ info booklet and all of the big banners and displays.
  6. I know have the contact info of people in Gaza who can help me get inside the next time I am in Palestine
  7. My Arabic was actually very useful on several occasions

Low Points

  1. When the woman from the American Friends Committee screamed at me (so much for nonviolence) because her movie wasn’t on the film festival list).
  2. When Michael Beer blamed me for a mistake that he made to the VP of the company that later told me to apply for an internship.
  3. The building was so cold that by the last day my feet were swelling (lupus) and I couldn’t go on the march to the checkpoint
  4. There were a lot of speakers that I wanted to see but couldn’t.
  5. When I was told to stop speaking Arabic because it is easier for everyone if I stick to English. That really hurt my feelings. (it is frustrating because one minute I’m complimented on my Arabic, and the next insulted.)
  6. I’m glad I was there, but I would have liked to spend my last couple days in Palestine traveling, and not working my butt off.

Honestly, I’m relieved the conference went as well as it did – I was envisioning total disaster (as was at least one employee at NI). It also makes me feel better about the status of my thesis – a positive professional experience was in order after all of my difficulties with Palestinian academics.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Some asked me recently

where my favorite place in all of Palestine was. I've seen some heartwrenching landscapes and met amazing people, but this is my answer.

jersualem sunday
by Suhair Hammad


three muezzins call idan
where one’s allah begins another’s
akbar ends inviting the last
to witness mohammad’s prophecies

church bells ring the sky
an ocean shade of blue above
christ’s tomb and the stones
of this city witness man’s weakness

boys run by the torah
strapped to their third eye
ready to rock their prayers

the roofs of this city busy as the streets
the gods of this city crowded and proud

two blind and graying
arab men lead each other through
the old city surer of step than sight

tourists pick olives from the cracks
in the faces of young and graying
women selling mint onions and this
year’s oil slick on the ground

this city is wind
breathe it
this history is blood
swallow it
this sunday is holy
be it

Christmas in Hebron

On Christmas Day, we decided to go to Hebron. We were all eyeing the weather cautiously – none of us wanted another experience like the day before – but we decided to risk it. I had already visited Khalil (Hebron) once before, but I wanted to try and replace some of my pictures from that area (lost them when my computer got stolen). We took a service from Beit Sahour to Khadar and from there we picked up a second service to Khalil. This was my first time in Khadar, although I had heard of it before. It is the equivalent of a service bus station in the West Bank. By the time we reached Khadar it was pouring down rain again, and we trudged through the mud and between dripped vegetable stands to find our service to Khalil.

Now, I’ve been to Khalil before, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the old city. As one does in these situations, I asked. The man who answered insisted that we visit his home, have tea with him and his family, and then he would show us how to get to the Hiram Ibrahimi. He also paid for our service ride (for all 5 of us). In order to get into his neighborhood the service had to drive on the sidewalk, just barely squeezing between a wall and the cement blocks that the Israeli Army out put in the street to stop cars. His house looked like it was falling apart from the outside, but was actually very nice on the inside (although cold). We had tea with him, his mother, and his five month old daughter named Noor (light). From his sitting room window we could seem the mosque and a big part of the old city of Hebron. Inside the sitting room, he showed us where stray? bullets had come through the window and chipped the marble stonework, the walls, and furniture. I guess that is the price you pay for a view of the old city in Khalil. He insisted that we have tea, then coffee before we left. While he was out of the room, I spoke with his mother about life in Khalil . . . she said it was hard to stay, partially because there weren’t any jobs. Her son, the man who paid for our service fare, has been out of work for months.

After thanking the family profusely, we left, heading for the Hiram Ibrahimi. We went the wrong way, and ended up walking towards a checkpoint with very unfriendly soldiers. As soon as they saw us walking from the Arab neighborhood they had their guns cocked and aimed us, and were screaming at us to stop. Sadly, after 4 months in the West Bank, having a gun pointed at me didn’t really faze me. After a few minutes of yelling that we were Americans the soldiers let us approach. They examined our passports and wanted to know how we had gotten into the Arab neighborhood. We lied and said that we had gotten lost. The soldier replied that we were lucky we didn’t get killed in there. The Arabs gave us tea and coffee, the soldiers pointed guns and screamed at us – yet we should be afraid of the Arabs?

They let us through without too much trouble and we walked towards the mosque. Unfortunately, we arrived at the mosque during prayer time and we weren’t allowed to enter. The guys went over to the Jewish side of the mosque, but I didn’t. I had been once before, and the last time I had to lie and say I wasn’t Muslim to get in. While I’m certainly not a practicing Muslim, I don’t like being forced to lie about my religious heritage either . . . So I went to an Arab gift shop (the only one still open) next to the mosque and waited for them. The men in the shop were very hospitable. They insisted I sit by the heater and gave me a cup of tea. I talked with them about the situation in Khalil while they were painting new pieces of pottery to be sold. I decided to buy a gift for my father from them. The least I could do is spend a little money for their kindness, plus my father can’t visit the Hiram because of his citizenship, so I thought he might like a present from there.

After I met up with the guys we went into the Muslim side of the mosque, and then walked through the old city. Everything was closed because of the weather, but at least they got to see the fencing above the souq to keep the trash from the settlers from hitting the Palestinian storekeepers. Some Palestinian kids took us up a treacherous stairway to their rooftops. From there we could see the settlements, soldiers in a stand less that 50 ft away (also on a roof), and the mosque. It would have been a fantastic spot for pictures if it hadn’t been pouring down rain. And, to be honest, I was a little nervous about taking pictures of soldiers in their little hut on a rooftop in Khalil. They probably wouldn’t do anything, but I didn’t want to find out . . .

I’m still amazed that I managed to climb down that slick staircase without falling and breaking something, but everything went well. We left the old city and caught a taxi back to Beit Sahour.

Later that night, I met up with some of the staff from Nonviolence International who had arrived in Bethlehem the day before in preparation for our conference: Celebrating Nonviolent Resistance. I’ve been working with Holy Land Trust for the last couple months, but I worked with Nonviolence International before I came to Palestine, so I’ve been working on this conference for a while. I was particularly excited because my friend Sean who is in my MA program was also in town. So, I had a chicken sandwich for Christmas dinner and caught with the NI folks for a while.

Christmas this year was certainly different from any previous year. It was the first time I’ve spend the holidays away from my family. It was also the first time that I didn’t spend December 25 opening presents, giving presents, cooking, eating and laying on the couch after eating too much food. This Christmas I was cold and wet and I spend the holiday showing other foreigners some of the realities of Israeli Occupation in Palestine. I feel good about that.

Come All Ye Faithful

On Dec 23 my friend Ben, and three of his friends, traveled from Beirut to Ramallah. They got held up at the bridge for 6 hours, and were only given 7 day visas, but they made it eventually. On Christmas Eve we traveled to Beit Lehem – after all, where else would you spend Christmas Eve in Palestine? We stayed at the Arab Women’s Union Hostel in Beit Sahour, which is a great, cheap place to stay as long as you aren’t too picky about hot water. We walked from Beit Sahour to Manger Square in the early afternoon; at that point it was still sunny, although cold. We caught the end of the parade, which consisted of boy and girl scouts and a marching band. Unfortunately, you had to reserve tickets in advance to attend the midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity (they are free), and we didn’t realize that we needed reservations in time to get them. Our plan was to hang out in Manger Sq., enjoy the festivities and try to sneak into the church around midnight.

It was a good plan, until the weather changed. Freezing rain does not really promote standing outdoors for 8 hours. So, we alternated between sitting in coffee shops to thaw/dry out and hanging out in the Peace Center which is where the performances had been moved because of the weather. The Peace Center was also freezing, but it was dry, so we were all happy to settle down in there . . . until we realized that the Peace Center was only allowing internationals and VIP Palestinians inside to take shelter from the cold and wet.

(As an aside, I’m writing this in Amman, and I’m listening to the WORST call to prayer I’ve ever heard. Ever.)

Of course, I felt horrible about staying inside the Peace Center after that, so I went outside again. Around 8pm we decided to attempt to get into the church. We snuck around the side of the church and made it to the door of the church just before the security guards blocked that entrance. I was standing in line, in the rain, ticketless and with no idea if they would let me in. While I was waiting the people around me were pushing and shoving, swearing, calling the priests names for making them wait outside . . . I left. I’m not a religious person at all, but the idea of spending Christmas Eve with people who were acting that way on the doorstep of the Church of the Nativity made me sick. If I had stayed, I would have gotten in – or at least I assume so because my friend Anselm made it in.

Also, after my experience at the Peace Center, I noticed that most of the people waiting with tickets to the midnight mass were internationals. Again, Palestinians were not allowed to participate unless they were VIPs. So, I went and got a cup of chicken soup and a beer, and then we decided that after all that time in the rain we could at least try to get into the church, even if we weren’t in the mass. Luckily, they let us in just before midnight, so I hung out with my friends and a bunch of Palestinians in the main hall of the Church of the Nativity. We found a place were we could head part of the mass, and I was surprised to find that it was Arabic. I guess I thought that it would be in Arabic. Then we went down to the place where Jesus was born . . . After that we called it a night.