Today our health and human rights delegation of nine energetic women in various states of jet lag is about to encounter walls: the kind that occupy minds, create concrete barriers, instigate wars, enhance legal institutions, and undergird international accords.
In Ramallah, Mahmoud Nawajaa, from the organization Stop the Wall, takes us through a speedy overview of the last one hundred years of Palestinian history. While much was familiar (see my blog entries online from 2013), the bits and pieces that struck my frazzled brain include:
1. The 1948 war resulted in the expulsion of 45% of the indigenous Palestinian population.
2. The Herzliya Conference in Israel which started in 2000 laid the foundations for the development of the Galilee, the development of the Negev, the expansion of Greater Jerusalem, and the disengagement plans for the West Bank and Gaza. What is happening now is all part of a greater plan; little happens by accident.
3. As places like Tel Aviv become increasingly gentrified and expensive, there is a strong motivation to move into the Jewish settlements in the West Bank where much housing is free or subsidized and the environment is less crowded, and thus we are seeing this steady population shift into the occupied territories by Jewish Israelis who think they are moving east to live in a nice Israeli suburb.
4. Before 1967, Palestinians had a strong, growing economy with an agricultural industry in the north, a touristic and pilgrim industry in the center, dairy and grape production in the south, a strong cross-border trade, food-processing industries in the West Bank and Gaza, and minerals from the Dead Sea. This has all been effectively destroyed by Israeli occupation and military incursions and the severe restrictions with which we are now familiar.
5. The Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government, and international groups cooperate on creating industrial zones in the West Bank in Jenin, Hebron, and Jericho and in Gaza, and on developing border industrial zones and agro-industrial zones in the Jordan Valley that do not comply with Israeli labor and environmental laws.
6. Palestinian women play a major force in the resistance and often protect male protestors, putting their bodies between their men and the Israeli soldiers.
7. Youth resistance is the vision for future political change.
But there is nothing like walking in the dust and rubble of reality and we are soon off for a tour of Qalqilya, the first walled city in the West Bank. We rumble by clusters of yellow taxis, incessant honking, and blasts of music; past the Muqataa where Arafat was once humiliated by Israeli troops and is now memorialized in grand fashion. There are pyramids of watermelons, and dark melons mounted on upside down cans, looking like rows of canons. I spot signs for Rawabi, the new city being built for locals by a Palestinian developer with shady connections whose general counsel is Dov Weissglass, the Israeli official who famously said: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” The highway to the city is being built in Area C (Israeli control), funding is from the Palestinian Authority and a Qatari real estate firm, partnering with the PA, the land was bought out from Palestinian farmers and olive growers who have lived there for generations.
Rumors are that the apartments will be for returning refugees (who are obviously not from Rawabi because it is new), but the condo prices are out of reach for even some Ramallah yuppies. The Jewish National Fund has generously contributed one thousand trees.
With friends like these?
While we are hurtling along at over sixty miles per hour on winding hilly roads, I try translating the environment around me. Coils of barbed wire, look for a nearby settlement or military road. I see the large sign for the Jewish settlement of Halamish and a tiny sign for the village of Nabi Saleh, which is engaged in a bitter struggle over lost land and water. The barren, concrete high rises of Rawabi erupt on a hill surrounded by cranes, while small Palestinian villages with pointy minarets and mosques, surrounded by gorgeous rocky hills, terraces, olive groves, children running along the road, donkeys braying, feel at one with the ancient landscape. The word organic comes to mind. Straight, well-paved bypass highways with lights and guard rails lord over us as we zoom through the tunnels below, countless Jewish settlements pop by, Kirya Netafim, Azzun, etc., cluster on high places.
Suhad Hashem, the guide from the Palestinian Medical Relief Society in Qalqilya, is in a rush; the farmer’s gate is only open from one to two p.m. And we are late. We now enter the alternative reality of occupation. There are rows of trucks, open carts, bedraggled horses and donkey-drawn carts, and mostly resigned farmers and young boys waiting. Barbed wire curls in each direction and the main gate is opened only for vehicles and carts after permits (for human and beast or vehicle) are checked. A smaller gate to the left is for the townspeople whose farmlands are beyond the walls. They negotiate lines, a turnstile, and a security clearance every day, coming and going. Suhad notes, “I hate this a lot, I can see my father’s land and aquifer, but I can never get there. I have been doing tours since 2004.” Her eyes look teary. Turning around I can see the Jewish settlement of Alfe Menashe spreading across the landscape.
Everything is up close and really personal. The Israeli soldiers manning the gates are dressed for mortal combat.
At another point, Suhad points to the settlement of Mattan, which has crept across the green line onto private Palestinian land which is now green and flourishing with the stolen water as well.
They also have a tall security tower looking down on Qalqilya. We meet with a farmer who once had one of the largest nurseries in the area and admire the long rows of fruit and olive trees and hear his story of land loss at the hands of the bypass road. The rest of his land is on the other side of the highway, which requires permits and planning; it is hard to find workers willing to put up with this hassle. He says with a bit of a twinkle in his eye and a brown, weathered face, “Even if you have your land, you can’t be sure of everything.” His two sons have gone to medical school; he does not know what the future will hold.
We return to Suhad’s office where she talks about her work with Al Mubadara, the democracy movement headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. Suhad works to improve women’s conditions in sewing factories, challenging low wages and long hours, as well as to improve their access to health screenings. She is also active in the schools, urging students to boycott Israeli products. “Each shekel comes back to us as bullets or settlements” and “Don’t buy from the occupier.”
She explains that Qalqilyans have lost so much land that they are considered as refugees and receive services from the United Nations with UNRWA schools and hospitals. They are also located on the largest water aquifer in the West Bank. She talks about the towns caught between loops of wall and the green line, which are not recognized, have no services, and are not even allowed to bury their dead. She talks about the settlers from nearby Azun Atma who refuse to ride on buses with Palestinian workers. Her daughter is studying swimming training for women at Najah University in Nablus.
We head back outside, past the zoo and the open market to the checkpoint where five to seven thousand men pass every morning and evening after standing in (cattle) chutes and going through a humiliating security check. We watch them streaming out at the end of the day and confirm that many started their days here at three a.m.
Our final stop is at the gracious home of Munira and Hani Amer in the town of Mas’ha. They moved into their home when they married thirty-one years ago. The original Israeli plan was to bulldoze their home and farmlands to make way for a Jewish settlement that now looms beside their property and up the hill.
They refused to leave and, after a prolonged struggle that included international support and media, the Israeli authorities built a concrete wall and military road adjacent to their land and surrounded the other three sides of their remaining property with metal fencing and gates. (How do you wrap your brain around this kind of cruelty and racism?) The first time I visited them they had to request a soldier unlock the gate in order to leave their home, but they now have their own key to a smaller gate. Munira greets us smiling, wearing a long black robe and hijab. She has a dimple on her chin and laughing eyes and frequently covers her face with her hands when she finds something funny. I do not know why she is not psychotic.
Over mint tea, we recount the bizarre saga and admire the lush fruit and vegetable garden she has recently planted. Plump pomegranates hang over our heads and the tomatoes, corn, and olive trees in the raised bed that is now her front lawn (the Israeli forces removed the top soil, which she has replaced) are looking pretty delicious. Gorgeous purple and pink flowers hug one of the house’s stucco walls. A military jeep stops, unlocks a gate, and speeds through. The settlers from El Kana frequently harass her, throw rocks, enter her property, or attack the crops growing on other family land where her husband is now working.
They have raised four sons and two daughters, have four grandchildren, and she is in remarkably good humor. She makes some of the best za’atar I have tasted. She has planted red and yellow flowerbeds around the outside of the house. A sweet, cooling breeze blows across the patio, and small grey birds flit in the bushes. The sky is pale blue and glows where it reaches the land. Munira talks about drawing her strength from her land; her hands have the brown thickness of a woman who knows the earth.
I kiss both her cheeks and thank her for the honor of visiting. I try to grapple with this utterly insane situation: A garden of Eden blooming in the depths of hell.