Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Journey to Palestine, February 2011

Ramallah 2/2/11  "A Beautiful Reunion: A Fifty Year Wait"

We arrived in the West Bank last evening. It was a long day of travel as we had
to taxi 150 miles in Jordan and then get processed out of Jordan, and then
processed into Israel and the West Bank at the Hussein-Allenby bridge.  All in
all the crossing into Israel and the occupied territories was not overly
problematic.  Along the way in Jordan we drove along the Dead Sea and had an
engaging conversation with our taxi driver. We talked about the high cost of
living in Jordan,  the lack of jobs, and the recent demonstrations in Amman.  Like
many Jordanians he has great faith in and admiration for his king; he thinks the
king will solve the problems facing his country.  As soon as we arrived in our
hotel in the West Bank, what do we hear?  That Abdullah, the King of Jordan, has
dismissed his government and is appointing a new one to deal with the economic
and job crisis. Where this goes is most uncertain, as is the situation in Egypt,
where Mubarak will certainly go, but what follows in Egypt is conjecture at this

Arriving in the West Bank is perhaps the end of or a new beginning of a journey
that began over fifty years ago. On a warm summer day in September of 1958 I was
enrolling as a new eighth-grade student in a junior high school in the suburbs
of  Washington D.C.  I had just moved to the area from Wisconsin and had never
known a person of color, never knew anyone who was Jewish, nor had I known any
Arabs, except what I had learned in the "Arabian Nights." I registered for
school and proceeded to my physical education class, and as I walked up the
steps I noticed a swarthy looking kid bouncing a soccer ball off the wall with
his head. I was amazed and watched him do it until he reached 500 consecutive
head balls. Two days later the P.E. teacher was having eleven on one soccer
drills against this same guy, eleven of us clumsy kids against Samir.  Samir and I
quickly became best friends, skipped school together, went to sock hops on the
week ends, went camping in Rock Creek Park, and shared stories about growing up
in Wisconsin and Ramallah.  What I learned from Samir at that time was that he had
come to the U.S. only two years before from Ramallah, which at that time was in
Jordan.  He told me about the young king of his country, Hussein, and lots of
stories about conflict and the 1956 war. I also learned that he had older brothers
that had participated in the 1948 war, and that he had vague memories of that
great disaster for the Arab peoples of Palestine, for he was six years of age at
the time of that great disaster.  He shared those memories with me.

Two years after meeting Sami my family moved back to Wisconsin and I lost
contact with him. At some point in the mid 1970s I heard that Samir had returned
to Ramallah in the early 1960s and that by the 1970s he was in an Israeli
prison. In the 1980s, in part based on what I had learned from Samir, I became
active in issues related to Palestinian rights.  I made an attempt at that time
to find Samir, but no luck. In 1998 I posted a message in a Palestinian-American
Internet message board. I found him! We began to correspond and exchange emails
and planned a visit that began to finally unfold yesterday.  Five minutes after
arriving at our hotel Samir was on the phone.  Finding Samir is truly a
life-affirming experience. Today we talked about his eight and a half years in Israeli
prisons, his years as a labor organizer in the West Bank, the current situation
in Egypt, the leaked Palestinian-Israeli documents, and the general world
political crisis. Before the day was over, we were on the Internet looking up
our teachers and friends from the 1958-59 school yearbook (found on the web).
Moreover, over great food and drink, we met Samir's family and shared stories of
our children and grandchildren, all from his beautiful hill-top home in Ramallah
overlooking a beautiful city, yet illegal Israeli settlements were off in the distance.



West Bank to Jerusalem 2/8/10

We left the West Bank Sunday afternoon. We said goodbye to my friend Samir and
pushed off for Jerusalem. We had a great visit with him, renewed our friendship,
but it was also a very sobering and learning experience, particularly as I
became more cognizant of the deep scars that war and occupation has brought to
the West Bank and people like Samir over the course of the past forty-four
years. On Saturday, a demonstration was organized in Ramallah by about 500
Palestinians in support of the protesters on Tahir square in Cairo and their
demands. Our bus ride on Sunday, like all bus rides in the West Bank, was filled
with some anxiety and fear, particularly as we neared Jerusalem. As you approach
that ancient city, the road follows the so called twenty-foot high ''separation
wall'' between Jerusalem and the West Bank. There are huge piles of
concrete-laden rubble along the road, vacant lots stand scarred where houses
once stood, olive groves are cut to the stumps, people are standing along the
road, and a depressing bleakness dominates the landscape.

As we approach the check point passengers begin to retrieve their identity
cards; we followed suit and retrieved our passports. A young Israeli soldier
with an automatic rifle boarded the bus and began to check the Palestinians for
the their identity cards and permission documents, as West Bank Palestinians
need Israeli permission to travel to Jerusalem. My friend Samir, for example, is
not allowed to go. The soldier asks for our passports and visas. He then wants
to know how old we are, we tell him and then he moves on. We had had heard on
the street that the Israelis were preventing Palestinian men and foreigners
under age fifty from going to Jerusalem as a measure to prevent demonstrations
in support of the Egyptians. We were slightly flattered that the soldier even had
to ask us our age.

When we pulled into the bus station in East Jerusalem we felt a sense of relief;
we had vacated perhaps the world's largest open-air prison. The experience
vaguely reminded me of the security protocols I endured when teaching at a
maximum security prison in Alaska. We were lucky though, for we had passports
and were able to leave.  Palestinians are not so lucky, for on a daily basis
they have to face check points, personal searches, soldiers with guns, roads for
Israelis, separate roads for Palestinians, separate license plates, razor wire
and armored personnel  carriers protecting illegal Israeli settlements, and on
and on it goes.

But, it makes no sense! For as you travel in Israel and meet its people you find
a people who are educated, sensitive, and who share the same hopes and
aspirations as people elsewhere around the globe. Moreover, you find a people
who know their history and understand, perhaps better than any people in the
world, oppression.  But, almost four-hundred thousand Israeli settlers live in
compounds scattered throughout the West Bank, settlers who are given low or no
interest loans to live there, settlers who themselves live a fearful existence. There are
also more than 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem, historically the Arab part
of the old city.  The settlements and occupation of Palestinian territories is a violation of
international law and pronouncements of the United Nations. The New York Times
summed it up quite well recently when it stated  “the international community
considers all settlement building in lands won by Israel in the 1967 Middle  East
war, including East Jerusalem, to be illegitimate.” (NYT December 23, 201-).
 Israel cannot go forward and win the respect of people throughout the world unless
it steps back, withdraws from the settlements and supports the creation of an independent
Palestinian state. If it chooses not to do so, surely it will continue to provoke fear, resentment and retaliation on the part of the Palestinian people,  retaliation that is often grotesquely violent and takes the blood of innocents.



"The Garrison State and Three Israeli Women" 2/16/11

We arrived in Jerusalem and began to explore an ancient city that seemed similar
to other large Middle Eastern cities that we had visited. It is a city of
massive stone walls, central markets and the cultural footprints of many
generations. Jerusalem is not unlike Damascus, although once you leave the Old
City you are in familiar European surroundings.  The layers of previous
generations in Jerusalem are many: Canaanite, Helenistic, Isralelite, Roman,
Byzantine, Ummayad Islamic,  modern Arab and modern Israeli. Yet Jerusalem is
different, for it is only in Jerusalem where the three great religions of
Abraham meet, and meet in a way that occurs nowhere else in the world.

Within a two hundred meter squared area you can see the place where Christians
believe Jesus was buried at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and then ascended
to heaven;  you can walk across the Temple Mount where ancient Jewish tradition
has it that Abraham prepared to sacrificed his son Isaac;  also, at the Temple
Mount you will find the foundations of the Second Temple, built by Soloman, but
destroyed by the Romans in 66 A.D.  On the Temple Mount, overshadowing everything
else rests the magnificent gold plated mosque, the Dome of the Rock, built in
691 by the Ummayads, the place where Muslims believe Mohammad's night journey
began and he briefly ascended to heaven.  But, accessing these holy places is
not an easy chore, as security is very tight and the hours of visitation are
limited, for Jerusalem is a contested place.

The Second Intifada (uprising) began at the Temple Mount in 2001;  Jerusalem was
a major place of warfare during the Six Day War in 1967. Moreover, it has been a
contested place at least since the time Jews were  first driven out in the 6th
century B.C. by the Babylonians.  It became the focal point of the Crusaders in
the 12th century, as European Christians sought to "recapture" the historic city
for Christendom. As you explore Jerusalem and most places in Israel, you become
very aware of the ubiquity of Israeli security, for Israel is a garrison state,
a modern Sparta of sorts. As you board buses and trains in Israel you see armed
and unarmed soldiers everywhere; many are pimple-faced and pony-tailed teenagers
fulfilling the terms of their required military service. Often these young people are assigned duty throughout Israel, but some are garrisoned to protect West Bank settlements on Palestinian
lands.  Many of these young people seem happy and carry out their service with
alacrity. When they finish their service they reenter civilian life with a new "certificate of maturity."

After leaving Jerusalem we visited Tel Aviv, Acre and Jaffa. Tel Aviv is European, with all the attributes of liberal European culture, great neighborhood markets, excellent restaurants, Bauhaus architecture, good newspapers, storied nightlife, a working parliament,  and excellent parks, schools and hospitals.  Jaffa, right next to Tel Aviv is an old Arab city with a
restored and beautiful port. Acre is the site of a Crusader castle in Northern Israel, but still remains a divided city, as the old city is entirely Israeli Arab, while the new city is entirely Jewish. But the garrison state unfolds in all of these places.  Israeli soldiers with machine guns guarded the old castle at Acre; Israeli soldiers guarded the banks, post offices, and schools
everywhere.  Each train car we rode in had at least three or more soldiers going home for the weekend. Will the Israeli garrison state ever end? Will  fortress Israel and the culture of fear that fuels the garrison state ever disappear?

The source of all that fear, of course, lies in the contested geographical and political terrain that is Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Right now a deadlock of fear permeates the psyche of everyone, and we hear that it is getting worse. The young Israeli soldiers are socialized to fear Arabs, whom they fear may be terrorists, which in some instances has been true. In turn, the occupied and colonized Palestinians fear their Israeli military tormentors who restrict their,movement, occupy their land and create garrisoned communities amongst them.

In the midst of all this fear and hatred we were fortunate to discover an
Israeli family that is meeting this environment of fear head-on. We belong to a
membership-based travelers organization, whereby members stay in each others
homes as they travel about the world. For six days we stayed with three members
of the same Israeli family, three days in Jerusalem and three days in Tel Aviv,
with a mother and separately with her two daughters. Ranging in age from their
40s to their 70s, they are all committed activists. They are descendants of of a
Jewish family that came to Palestine one hundred-fifty-years ago.  They are
veterans of the Israeli military and have a deep understanding of what is
happening in their country, and are concerned about the continual slide to the
political right in Israel pushed by the forces of Jewish fundamentalism. The mom
helps edit a magazine that focuses on the settlements and occupation; and, while
still working part-time teaching Hebrew to adults, she helps organize Jews and
Arabs in Jerusalem to stop the illegal dispossession of Palestinian residential
homes and land. The oldest of the two siblings has recently completed a book (in
Hebrew) that narrates the story of the depopulation and disappearance of over
400 Palestinian villages during the 1947-1948 war, and then reviews the current
historical memory of that grave event.

The youngest of the two siblings is now involved with a group that organizes two
person teams (one Israeli Arab, the other Israeli Jew) to visit Palestinian villages in the West Bank and within Israeli settlements to take statement from Palestinians and Israeli settlers about problems, and incidents that have occurred between Palestinians and Israelis, statements which can be used in court. All three of these women do this as volunteers, and still maintain their
normal working lives.  Their goal is to bring about reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, end the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, and eliminate the culture of fear that dominates that society today.  Their task is large, but these women are courageous and look forward to a fearless society.