January 16, 2011 Final Thoughts

Dread and loathing at the airport

Last night I purged my belongings of almost all evidence that I had been on the West Bank or that I had associated with NGOs or dissidents in Israel. I took the battery out of my camera and hid my memory cards and minidisc cassettes in rolls of socks. I emailed myself all the contact information contained in the many cards people had pressed into my hand. I permanently deleted everything I had written with a handy program called file shredder. When I packed, I strategically placed , “Let’s GO Israel!” on top of all my clothes (which smelled suspiciously of the bags of zetar wrapped in my sweaters). The guide to boycotting settlement products and cards from the Al Rowwad Children’s Theater, were on the bottom, concealed in a bag with shoes. I needed to look “clean,” to look like a nice Jewish lady on a nice visit to the nice country of Israel.

The cab driver picked me up at 3:15 am from a lovely Palestinian friend in Ramallah, a graduate student in the US whose father lost his Palestinian ID during a university sojourn in America. My friend has a US passport and is fighting to get a Palestinian West Bank ID which ironically will make it impossible for him to go to Jerusalem or fly out of Ben Gurion airport, but will guarantee his right to return to his home, family, and friends in Ramallah.

The cab driver (who is from East Jerusalem) said we would avoid Kalandia checkpoint where I would be required to get out and go through security, despite his green license plate, and we circle around and sail through Hizma with a quick shalom. He immediately starts advising me what to say. “Do not say you were in Ramallah. I picked you up at the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem, you were visiting Jewish friends. Do not say you were in Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalqilyia.” He keeps rehearsing the script with me and at the first security check near the airport I stick to the story. I even name my Jewish friends, (pretty good for 4:00 in the morning).

There are multiple security checks within the airport where I could have tripped and ended up with vigorous questioning, various levels of strip searching, and other aggravations. All my Palestinian friends have had to take their clothes off to get out of Israel. I have often been asked to recite a Hebrew prayer, name my synagogue, list Jewish holidays, etc, etc; what I call the incredibly offensive, “Are you Jewish enough to be trusted?” screening. But I was lucky and I had rehearsed my lines: tourism, visiting friends, volunteering with a medical group, smile my nice Jewish smile and say my respectable Jewish last name. I am sure a few gray hairs worked in my favor as well. The intense racial profiling in this country should at least work in my favor here.

And so it was “no problem,” as Palestinians frequently say in moments of extreme disaster. But I am left wondering, what kind of country requires someone like me to scheme and lie in order to leave without being harassed?

January 15, 2011 My last quiet day

I thought my last day in Ramallah would be a reflective, low key day to catch up, finish blogging, look at my 700+ emails, and pack, when my host asks me to join him and the US student he is mentoring on an extraordinary visit to the village of Al Walajeh near Bethlehem. Soon we are in a taxi hurtling along Wadi El Nar Road, with hair-raising rollercoaster curves and more USAID road building projects. My friend reflects on the changes underway in the West Bank: in particular a huge NGO, donor, and governmental focus on security. I have noticed the PA forces in their fresh new uniforms standing on many corners. He tells me that under the guise of “law and order, justice, and building prisons,” there is now one Palestinian policeman, security agent, or intelligence officer for every 50 West Bankers. Prime Minister Fayyad, the World Bank trained technocrat, is getting everything under control. During Eid this year, my friend reports that every kid wanted a plastic gun, wanted to be powerful.

The village of Al Walajeh originally was 17,000 dunams in size. In 1948, the location of the Green Line split off 11,000 dunams for Israel. The settlement of Gilo took 152, and more has been seized for the expansion of Har Gilo and the separation wall which is being constructed through the village, leaving 2800 dunams for the original Palestinians. The local villagers had given land to a convent and when the placement of the wall was announced, the nuns did not protest and are now on the Israeli side, living on their donated land. We arrive at the home of a woman I will call Suha, her house perched on the edge of a rocky road, the separation wall under construction across the street.

Suha is spunky, energetic, smart, went to Najah University and holds a masters degree in peace and development and another masters in human rights. She was working for the UN on gender, race, and violence in Sudan, and is currently between jobs and working at the local children’s Ansar Center. The student wants to talk with her about justice and the right of return.
Suha tells us her family story while pouring tea and stuffing us with delicious spinach pies. After news of the Deir Yassin massacre which occurred close to this village, in 1947 the women and children went to Jericho for safety. Gradually they trickled back to the village, but then war broke out, they are forced to leave again and went back to Jericho, spending six months in the Alarroub Refugee Camp. She describes her grandmother as a “wild spirit” who married reluctantly at the age of 28 as a last resort. The grandmother left the refugee camp and returned back to the village which is mostly rocky uncultivated land used for sheep. After 1948 the family lived in a cave down in the valley for 12 years. Then her mother, another free spirited woman, decided to take her children to family in Jerusalem, renting a house in Beit Jala so the children could get a good education. In 1961, the grandfather started building two houses in the village for his two sons. During the 1967 war the family fled back to the cave as the adjacent land was a Jordanian army station.

During this conversation, cherubic young nieces and nephews keep popping in with their plastic back packs, looking for hugs and then running out. Suha explains that like all of her village, she has refugee status, but she also has a Jerusalem ID, and her Israeli travel document states that she is Jordanian. She is at risk of losing her Jerusalem ID by living in the village, but she uses her father’s and brother’s addresses in the Shafat Refugee Camp. As an unmarried woman who is not demanding any services, she is pretty invisible to the authorities.

So on to the question of justice. Suha explains that there is a word in Arabic that means: justice is purely give me what is mine at any cost, justice is undoing the injustice even if that means creating an injustice to someone who had nothing to do with the original offense. In this context, she argues that there is an individual and collective right of return for Palestinians and that what she does with that right is her problem. Having the right does not necessarily mean exercising it, “I do not think we can undo Israel but Israel does not have the right to exist on Palestinian land. They gained the right by the fact that they exist.”

She moves on to the question of compensation which she sees as not only payment for seized land, but also payment for suffering, both individual and collective. She states that Israelis used Palestinians for construction projects like the port of Haifa, that the British took Palestinian gold when they left. There are lots of questions that need to be addressed.

She continues saying, “There is an Israeli state. I do not want to fight all these fights and then be an Israeli.” She points out that Palestine does not exist on any official national or international form. “I want to exist.” She adds that symbolic gestures are important and that Israeli acknowledgement of the Nakba and the creation of the refugee crisis are critical. “Jews invented this concept. What applies to you, applies to us.” She is not sure an apology actually matters, “I don’t know if I will accept an apology.”

Suha says that she never lost a relative in the conflict, but she lost 12 friends in the Second Intifada. She describes the pain of erasing their numbers from her phone and her inability to attend their funerals because of lack of permits. “What is not natural is our daily life. I do not want to live this life.” She wants to be working on legislation, women’s rights, or just watching TV, but she cannot even decide where she will go tomorrow, if she can keep an appointment. “This is what I can’t forgive. I couldn’t study law, so Israel decided my life…I don’t think I can forgive for that. I even gained weight because of them,” she adds laughing. “If I am sad and angry, I need sugar. They made me angry all my life.”

Suha has thought extensively on how to actualize the right of return. She states that refugees need to be offered options and they need to be in control of the decision making. Firstly, “You are allowed to go back and you can get compensation.” She thinks this would be a gradual process, maybe 20,000 allowed per year on some time schedule. Those who choose to stay where they currently are would get more money. Those who choose to move to a different country would get less. She adds poignantly, “Coming back is another leaving.” Clearly she is thinking of a comprehensive and regional solution. She also explains that nobody wants to be a fighter all their lives, “This is burden.” She believes that the number who would choose to return would be minimal, mostly those who are fighters or people with deep emotional attachments to what they had, and experimental types who want to try it and will probably leave. This was also documented in research done by the Khalil Shikaki Center in approximately 2005. She feels that living in Israel will be too problematic for most Palestinians given the racism and economic hardship. People in refugee camps will most likely want to go to a better place like Canada or Australia. “Palestinians are exhausted.”

This solution needs to be funded by those who are responsible: Israel, the British, and the international community. She also blames the Palestinian leadership who have failed the refugees miserably. She thinks that the refugees themselves should come up with meaningful solutions, present these to the international community, and step out of the victim role. “We are lucky that Jews are news. Otherwise we would have been dead a long time ago.”

Suha also points out an interesting possibility for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. She explains that in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrar, the Israeli courts have established the precedent that a Jewish family can claim ownership of a house bought in the 1920s (many claim the documents are bogus) and throw out the current inhabitants. She proposes that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship use this precedent and go after their stolen property.

The interview is over and I am filled with more questions, but instead we discuss which checkpoints we can pass through, apparently some are not open to people with foreign passports, (another one of those weird unexpected quirks). Back in the cab, my friend continues the conversation about the new Palestinian security forces. Apparently Palestinian police working in Area A (Palestinian control) have to cover their flashing lights if they have to travel through Area B (“joint” control) to another Area A and get a permit from the Israeli DCO, thus the police are effectively emasculated by their occupiers. It seems that Fayyad is busy building a pretend state. As my friend explains, the prisoners are polishing their beds and folding their clothes, but they are still in prison.

Passing the Jalazon Refugee Camp and an UNRWA school on the left, we end up in a wealthy village outside Ramallah where Palestinians who emigrated to the US and did very well have come back and built huge Disneyland mansions. We are invited to a “barbeque” where a staff of four has prepared a magnificent and generous meal. I count five living rooms and one elevator but never got an official tour. I look out across the family land to the imposing Jewish settlement in direct view. I am told that the family has good relations with the settlers, they pay them to leave them alone.

January 14, 2011 An NGO is not a health care system

For the second week of the delegation, we divide into different interest groups and the medical folks are based in Nablus, working with Palestinian Medical Relief Society. On the second day we are standing in the waiting area of the Community Based Rehabilitation offices when a staff member, a beautiful somewhat demure woman with large black eyes and a graceful white hijab framing her face, beams and offers us chocolates. I decline, (I am still recovering from breakfast), but she insists. “You must, my father just got out of prison and we are celebrating.” We learn he was imprisoned for four years. I take the chocolate.

A nurse practitioner, another ob-gyn and I spend four days working and observing in PMRS clinics in Qalqilyia, Tulkarem, and Mythaloon (near Jenin). PMRS provides 40% of the health care in the Occupied Territories and as I have previously described, is a major NGO working on empowerment and education issues as well.  This experience provides us with the opportunity to work in solidarity with Palestinian colleagues and to bear witness to their lives, as well as to see a very intimate picture of health care and women’s lives in this society.

The daily morning van or car rides involve bumpy travel through stunning scenery, terraced hills, rows of olive trees and other crops, checkpoints that are rarely staffed, and Jewish settlements perched on hills, surrounded by barbed wire, walls, and security apparatus. There are massive USAID road building projects which I am told ironically legitimize the double road system in the West Bank, one for Israelis (Jewish settlers) and this one for Palestinians.

The incredible fragmentation of care between PMRS, the Ministry of Health, UNRWA (for refugees), and the private sector is staggering. Pregnant patients may get free care at an UNRWA clinic, but stop in at PMRS for a prenatal ultrasound. Labs are done at a variety of locations (with variations in quality) so communication and follow up are problematic. Some of the private care that patients reported is best described as creative and unrelated to general medical practice, but clearly lucrative. A 42 year old woman was given a fertility drug to treat abnormal bleeding because her ovaries were “too small.” Bizarre. There is no preventive care outside of pregnancy. Drugs prescribed are often not taken due to cost and lack of insurance. Patients may deliver in an UNRWA hospital, Ministry of Health or private hospital. Fortunately PMRS, in conjunction with a number of other NGOs and organizations, created a prenatal record that each patient carries with her and theoretically contains all her critical information and testing. This is totally dependent on the clinician. They do not get delivery summaries from UNRWA hospitals. There are a variety of protocols for care which seem to be followed differently in each center.

The women all wear hijabs, occasionally their faces are totally covered except for their eyes, and they flip back the cover when they enter the office. The patients sometimes come alone or often with children, a sister, mother, mother-in-law, or husband, and their level of empowerment is reflected in the interactions that even I can understand. For the exam, the relevant body part is revealed and there is a general reluctance to have pelvic exams. There are no clean drapes and the general level of hand washing and office hygiene is fairly third world, and there is minimal privacy. It seems that IUDs are popular for family spacing, with some women also choosing birth control pills. Condoms and withdrawal are also occasionally mentioned. Tubal ligations are forbidden for religious reasons and permission is sometimes sought from the local mufti who usually refuses. In the more rural areas, some women are second or third wives (I am told the maximum is 4, but Bedouins may have more, official and unofficial wives) and this seems to be a complex societal phenomenon, frowned upon by the more educated.

I observe that women are valued primarily as wives and mothers and there is intense social pressure to be married and pregnant, sometimes as young as 15. I am told that a young wife is more easily controlled by her husband and mother-in-law. Then there is the expectation that the woman will produce sons, and if there are daughters, infertility, or multiple miscarriages (which are common as many marry close relatives and have genetic issues), a man may take another wife. I am told that in Hebron, each wife actually chooses the next one. (There seems to be a lack of understanding as to who is really responsible for the gender of the child.) In some areas there is a shortage of available men due to deaths in the Second Intifada and marriage may appear to offer a young woman freedom from her father and her brothers and financial security. Then there are economic reasons for more wives and children, commonly seen in rural agrarian populations. In general the women we see are having large families. To me, the newly married women look very young, often unprepared for sexuality, childbirth, and parenting, but they exist within an enmeshed and involved family system. It seems to be that sometime in their early thirties, women often appear to age rapidly, a combination of many pregnancies and their enormously difficult lives.

The three doctors we work with are very different: one from Rumania, who married a Palestinian when they were both in training, one Palestinian born in Kuwait who spent years getting a Palestinian ID and lived illegally in Tulkarem, one from the area and trained in Jordan. The Rumania doctor has a gentle caring style and her patients clearly relate well to her. She travels every day from Tulkarem and describes the daily checkpoint feeling of humiliation “like an animal in a cage, I feel like a cow,” as if her soul was branded by this experience. In the past she has waited for hours at these checkpoints, or hiked through orchards to get to work, but lately the checkpoints have been easier. She does antenatal and postnatal care, gynecology, family planning, and treats sexual problems, occasional domestic violence, and bedwetting in children. She is trained by UNRWA to treat children if they come with their mothers. She says that it is very difficult for women in this society to be open about their family problems.

This doctor has lived in Palestine for more than 20 years and arrived as a young wife, totally unprepared to be greeted by the First Intifada and a strict mother-in-law. She was determined to work and described herself as “a kangaroo,” bringing young children to the office and seeing patients and mothering simultaneously. She has three children: a doctor son in London, a doctor son in Egypt, and a daughter studying architecture in Tulkarem. She talks about Palestinian men’s “stupid proudness.” She has a Palestinian ID and has retained her Rumanian passport, “my only chance for freedom.” She also works with her gynecologist husband in a private clinic in Tulkarem. There is a wistfulness in her voice, a sense of pain, frustration, resignation, and perhaps a profound ambivalence about the life choices she has made and the patriarchal society in which she has found herself. She talks about her “Romeo and Juliette” experience in Rumania as a young woman. She keeps shaking her head and reiterating that her family comes first and that she has done everything for her children.
I have described the other two doctors more extensively in my book, Broken Promises, Broken Dreams.

The first two women do more listening and explaining, the third is very business-like and sees a large volume of patients efficiently. They are all dedicated and hardworking and have faced many struggles as working mothers. The style of medicine is this strange combination of first and third world with the restrictions of occupation and poverty added to the mix. I learn that much that I am seeing is called the “syndromic approach,” developed by WHO for resource poor areas. Nonetheless, I find it somewhat bewildering that almost every woman receives and expects an ultrasound exam, (very first world), but there are none of the very inexpensive materials needed to correctly diagnose vaginal infections. Basically the recommendation is to treat for everything that is likely and if that doesn’t work, to do a “high vaginal swab.” I wonder what the risks are of such an overuse of antibiotics, suspect that it would be cost effective to diagnose and treat more accurately, and I still do not understand the high vaginal swab concept. Clearly coming from the first world, I am trained in evidence-based medicine whenever possible, quality improvement programs, and closer monitoring and training, which clearly are not possible here.

We learn that breast cancer is common amongst Palestinian women and is seen in women sometimes in their 20s. Good statistics are nonexistent. Because there is no preventive care, diagnosis usually occurs when the disease is advanced, and mastectomy is done most commonly. There is no radiation treatment available in the West Bank as the Israeli government does not allow radioactive medical materials to enter the region, another example of health care being highjacked by the occupation. Treatment is hard to get in Israel and expensive in Jordan. Chemotherapy is available but there are limited supplies and frequent shortages. Five months ago USAID brought in a mobile digital mammography van which is supposed to do widespread screening. I am told that there have been problems with patients getting their results and it is unclear how successful this program is, although it is promising. The Ministry of Health is also developing mammography programs in the major cities.

One of the most uplifting experiences is meeting with two health workers. These women seem feisty, savvy, and well trained; their job is to make home visits and do family care, addressing both physical as well as mental health needs. One who describes herself as a political activist, smiles and says, “The women are ruling these days.” The other talks about how she has to build a relationship with the family in order to understand their issues. She describes a young boy who developed bedwetting, personality changes, phobias and stuttering when his home was invaded twice by the IDF when they arrested two of his older brothers. She mentions a case where a young boy was sexually abused by a 15 year old cousin, and a big problem with crystal meth in Qalqilyia. She has had success in treating all of these patients.

We leave the clinic in Tulkarem and decide to have lunch in a local restaurant that looks like a cave with a huge mosaic/three dimensional clay relief of the Old city. There is a large family enjoying themselves in the restaurant as well. When we are finished, one of the men comes up to us and asks if we are from Machsom Watch, the Israeli women who monitor checkpoints. We explain what we have been doing and he explains that he is a member of the Bereaved Parents Circle, Jews and Palestinians who have lost family to violence and who come together to heal personally and within their own communities, educating about the need to end violence. Despite our protestations, he insists on paying for our meal, thanking us for caring about Palestine, bearing witness and hopefully making the lives of invisible people more visible to the international community.

January 10, 2011 Qalqilyia: On a clear day I can see Tel Aviv

Qalqilyia, a bulge of land protruding westward against the Green Line, was the first city in 2002 to be fully enclosed by the separation wall, with one checkpoint, like the neck of a bottle, emptying the inhabitants into the West Bank. Once known as “the city of peace,” Israelis from Kfar Saba used to shop in Qalqilyia and there was a vigorous commercial and agricultural relationship between Palestinians and the nearby Jews. I first visited the area in 2005 and I am happy to see Suhad Hashem again who offers to take us on another tour of the area.

Her personal story touches me deeply, a human face on painful political realities. Dipping into distinctively spiced foul and humus, smoking an Imperial cigarette (made in Palestine), she reminds us that 2002 and 2003 were very difficult times as the Israeli military invaded much of the West Bank and the city was largely under closure or curfew. She remembers empty shops, patients unable to get to doctor’s appointments, and cars unable to leave the city. Suhad, who grew up in Qalqilyia, was living in Nablus at the time, when her 62 year old mother had a heart attack in Qalqilyia and was taken to the local UNRWA hospital. She needed to be transferred to a higher level hospital but this was not possible. “One week later, she died.” Suhad took a Palestinian Medical Relief Society ambulance to be able to get to the funeral. On 3/21 her family gathered to mourn, and she then found herself trapped in the city for six weeks.

The day Suhad finally got out, she trekked through the mountains at 4 am, was caught by an Israeli patrol who took her IDs and made her sit on the side of the road next to snarling black dogs. She and her young daughter were released, continued their hike through the mountains, sometimes walking and sometimes driving off road through the rocky hills in a car. Once they reached Anon they took donkeys, were stopped again in Jit by the IDF, took more donkeys and the entire effort lasted six hours.

She later returned to see her grieving father in Qalqilyia, again in 2002, got caught up in the closure, and did not return to her flat in Nablus for one year. After these terrible experiences, she decided to devote herself to working in Qalqilyia on political issues and educating internationals about the conditions. Her underlying hopefulness led her to purchase an elderly childless aunt’s land which is beyond the wall and currently inaccessible. She wants her daughter, now 17 and taking exams for university, to have clearly documented land that she will inherit Her elderly father, a former citrus grower and merchant has only one wish: to see his land before he dies. She adds that she spent her childhood playing in those fields so the Israelis “have confiscated my childhood…My story is everyone’s story.”

So what was happened in the last five years? The poverty level in Qalqilyia is second only to the Khan Younis Refugee Camp in Gaza. Many families have lost their land or their ability to work in Israel so there is a “passive transfer” occurring with families moving deeper into the West Bank cities or sometimes outside of Palestine. She pointed out one house where the owner is forbidden to go up to his roof because it allows him to see over the wall. Qalqilyia is 12 kilometers from the Mediterranean and now surrounded by 12 settlements, so the Jewish settlers are now than half the population in the Qalqilyia Governate. Because the city is on top of the largest water aquifer in Palestine and has rich agricultural land, Suhad fears that the Israelis are squeezing Qalqilyia so that in a future land swap this area would go to Israel.

Suhad is involved in the boycott, divestment and sanction movement supported by NGOs, working with Al Mubadara, (the Palestinian Initiative). She pulls out a collection of documents and animatedly tells us that the West Bank is the second largest market for Israel. She works with students and adults to increase awareness that “even one shekel” is important. Her message is to buy Palestinian whenever there is an alternative. For instance, Israelis sell $35 million of milk, $17 million of ice cream, $6 of Acamol (like Tylenol), $25 million of cigarettes, and $8 million of cosmetics to the West Bank annually, but there are alternative products. The numbers are impressive. She argues that even a 5% decrease in consumption of Israeli goods will create the opportunity for 100,000 new jobs in the West Bank and will impact the financing of the military machinery of the occupation as well.

We hire a cab for a driving/walking tour of the city: the busy souk filled with brilliantly colored piles of fruits and vegetables, the zoo (now open), donkeys trotting briskly by, goats, cages of chickens and doves, acres of cabbage, cauliflower, Jawafa fruit, avocado and thick, wet, red dirt. Suhad takes us to the latest development in this walled city. The Israelis have built a worker terminal, rows of chutes where workers from all over the West Bank come, starting at 4 am, to wait on the slowly winding lines, and to pass through the turnstiles and three security checks. 5,000 day laborers make this journey every morning, many working in the black market in Tel Aviv where they need to be by 7 am. The checkpoint is intermittently closed and the laborers are largely seasonal, without job benefits or security. As we photograph the familiar barbed wire fences and yellow gates, a soldier yells at us from a guard tower. “Who are you? You can’t be there.” Five years ago, annoyed IDF soldiers shot live ammunition over our heads, so I guess you could call this an improvement.

The iconic eight meter high concrete wall is surrounded by demolished homes and farms, but since 2005 there is a new development. A farmer living in the southern neighborhood of Qalqilyia can now go to an administrative office in northern Qalqilyia, and apply for a permit (separately for himself, his car, or his donkey) to farm his lands that are often visible from his home, but inaccessible due to multiple electric fences, barbed wire, and bypass roads. If successful (often only the grandfather or one member of the family gets a permit), he then has the unique privilege of returning to the southern area and taking a tunnel under all of the previously described obstructions into the equally inaccessible town of Habla. In Habla there is a checkpoint (two metal fences, barbed wire, yellow gate, turnstile) that is open briefly and somewhat unreliably three times per day that allows farmers to reach their vegetables and fruit trees imprisoned between the walls. Suhad points out her family’s land and the land she bought for her daughter. She has no permit and mentions that whenever she takes a delegation here, she feels a choking sensation in her neck. This arrangement is apparently more efficient than the long trip through the main checkpoint on the east.

I am haunted by new graffiti on the concrete wall. There is an enormous snarling pig (Ariel Sharon) growling at a huge baby in a bottle (the children of Qalqilyia). I think of the many Israelis I know who have told me they are really sorry the wall has “inconvenienced Palestinians” but security comes first. I would like to invite them to Qalqilyia to feel the consequences of that thinking and to meet this dynamic and hopeful woman.

January 09, 2011 East Jerusalem

What is this, delusional?

We were in the midst of a political tour of East Jerusalem with journalist and activist Abu Hassan, trying to comprehend the bizarre realities in the Sheikh Jarrar neighborhood. We stand in front of the house of the evicted al-Ghawi family who I met last year living in a tent outside their property. In 2009, 800 soldiers and police evicted 37 members of this family from their homes. We watch a man with a large black hat and long black coat rush, head tilted down, (is he feeling shame or fear?) into the apartment which is topped by a gigantic menorah. The Palestinian family still receives the water and electricity bills as they refuse to change the registration. What kind of insanity is this?

An elderly Palestinian woman has been evicted from her home where she lived for many decades with her family, extending the one story building to accommodate her children and grandchildren. During the recent eviction, Jewish settlers were moved into the front portion of her house, now draped with a large Israeli flag with Stars of David painted around the front window. This poor woman is now forced to live in the back portion of her house with her son and grandchildren. They are watching cartoons when we arrive and a deadly depression weights the air. Their case is in the Israeli courts where there is little chance they will be treated favorably. At any time this family, like others in the neighborhood, can be evicted forcibly by Israeli military and put out on the street with their meager possessions. An International Solidarity Tent stands in the garden, so it seems they have some international support but the tent is empty.

A friend of Abu’s arrives and shows him a photo on his cell phone. A demolition is underway nearby at this very moment. Abu Hassan explains that the former house of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem which then became a hotel and then a center for the Shin Bet and collaborators, is being demolished in order to build 500 homes for Jewish settlers. We hustle back into the bus and drive to the area which is crowded with cars and press. The scene is absolutely surreal. A metal fence topped with barbwire partially hides the multi-story building, but the large yellow Volvo bulldozers can be seen smashing at the walls, creating clouds of debris. Peaking through metal bars in a gate, I see a crumbling old structure set back from the road. A crowd of reporters, cameramen, and angry protestors quickly gathers. An older woman with a purple hijab talks and gestures animatedly to a white haired man, Elisha Peleg, a member of the City Council. The general tone of the crowd is one of frustration and rage at yet another land grab in East Jerusalem, another violation of international law, another nail in the coffin of a Palestinian state. Elisha argues that this demolition is all totally legal, citing a variety of administrative procedures. “We have a right to have Jewish families in this unified city. I am very proud of what we are doing.” He says Arabs can easily get permits to build in West Jerusalem (not) and then accuses the protestors of racism, of being paid to come, and angrily questions if any Arabs have papers to prove they were evicted from properties in Jerusalem, had gone through the proper channels, etc etc, very legalistic. (Does he actually believe himself?) This provokes hostile responses from a number of Arab men who clearly had personal experiences with dispossession and experience with the Israeli permitting and court systems. People start chanting, “Shame, shame” and I notice heavily armed security guards in civilian clothes (thugs?) moving closer. At one point a women yells,” You are delusional!” He looks at her and said, “What is this, delusional?”

Violations of international law or the Judaization of East Jerusalem are very intellectual concepts, but to see it happening in real time, surrounded by the people who are watching the Israeli government irreversibly colonize their land which the international community recognizes as occupied territory, is a sobering and emotional experience. The future will clearly be built by the steady march of Israeli construction. The silence of the international community is particularly deafening.

But let me take you back to the beginning of this extraordinary tour. Abu Hassan meets us in front the Jerusalem Hotel for a walking/bus tour. He notes that he has been trying unsuccessfully to get a tour license and his case is now almost at the Supreme Court. Consequently he operates his business under the aegis of the Hotel. Palestinians from East Jerusalem are residents of the city, not citizens of Israel, are allowed to vote in municipal elections only. In 1967 when they were occupied by Israeli forces, they refused to accept Israeli citizenship as that would have negated their political rights to the city. Israeli law then became more restrictive and any Palestinian in East Jerusalem has to prove that he actually lives within the Jerusalem borders to retain his residency ID. In 2004, the Israeli government stopped all residency applications. This has caused a host of problems; for instance, if a man from East Jerusalem marries a woman from the West Bank, she cannot legally live with him in East Jerusalem and if he moves to the West Bank, he will not be able to return to East Jerusalem. Hundreds of Palestinian families have “weekend relationships” with each partner retaining residency in his or her place of origin, shuttling themselves and their growing families back and forth.

Abu Hassan’s family has lived in Jerusalem for generations, but an uncle of his lived in the neighborhood of Abu Dis and in 1967, the Israeli government declared his part of the neighborhood as part of the West Bank and he lost his East Jerusalem ID and is unable to return. The Palestinian towns of Aram and Deiht Albareid were among the five East Jerusalem towns that were declared part of the West Bank as well.

We are now on #1 Road (formerly Mandlebaum) which was the border between east and west. Since the Israeli government established East Jerusalem in 1967 as part of a “unified city,” 40% of the land has been confiscated as a military zone or as green space which is then developed as a Jewish settlement or colony. The disappearance of Palestinian visibility continued with the building of a bridge 13 years ago so that Jewish settlers could avoid traveling through a Palestinian area; a tram is now being built to shuttle settlers in East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem, ostensibly to “unite” the city, but in actuality to avoid contact with the Palestinian population.

Abu Hassan points out the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, established in the 1980s and now one of the biggest colonies in East Jerusalem with 34,000 Jewish settlers, built on land from the villages of Shu’fat and Beit Hanina. The separation wall near Pisgat surrounds villages and the refugee camp of Shu’fat; 60,000 people have one entrance and they need to have an East Jerusalem ID to pass. In this bizarre and complicated world, 20% of the inhabitants within this curve of the wall have West Bank IDs and are married to East Jerusalemites so they have two options: stay on that side of the wall or move to the West Bank. Passive transfer in action. Make life miserable.

I feel like this is some nefarious Alice in Wonderland world run by some crazed Queen of Hearts masquerading as a double headed Netanyahu- Lieberman monster. East Jerusalemites pay the same taxes as the West but receive 20% of the public services. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City is clean and well kept as opposed to the grime, garbage and disrepair in the Arab sector. Abu Hassan points out the roof tops: Jewish houses have a white water tower for hot water, Palestinian houses have the white tower, but also a black water tower because their water supply is not reliable. In addition, they pay five times as much and in the West Bank, Jewish settlers get more water for their animals than Palestinians get for themselves. Racism anyone?

We drive into the expanding Pisgat, rows of neat well groomed apartments, a mall and good transportation, modern local services, playground and swimming pool. On the contrary, Palestinians are faced with a severe shortage of schools and have applied to build another school. For the last 2 years, 150 Palestinian children have been unable to find schooling. The Catch 22 is that when the child is 16 and applies for an East Jerusalem residency ID, the parents have to prove that the child attended school within the Jerusalem borders by providing a yearly diploma and documentation that both parents are from East Jerusalem.

To bring this up close and personal, Abu Hassan explains that he is married to a German woman. He struggled for 12 years to get her a residency ID. For the first five years she was not allowed to leave the country or work and thus had no health insurance as well. After five years, the residency laws changed and he had to start the process all over again. The lawyer’s fees amounted to $15,000, but now he is assured his four children will be able to get their IDs. This feels like an attempt to wear people down by sheer aggravation.

On the other hand, if you are Jewish, the Israeli government encourages you to buy an apartment at 1/3 the market value and collects no taxes for five years. A very strange democracy indeed, and an inherently unsustainable political situation.

On the right we pass a cascade of grey houses, the Shu’fat Refugee Camp, established in 1967 when families mostly of Moroccan descent who had lived in Jerusalem for generations, were removed from the area adjacent to the Western Wall. 17,000 people crowd into one square kilometer. They started with the UNRWA tents, then moved into concrete houses and are now expanding vertically. The refugees are surrounded by walls and can see the beautiful Jewish settlements, the land confiscation, the water. Many of the citizens of Pisgat are from Brooklyn, Kahanists famous for their violent racism. Abu Hassan reports that there is now a Jewish Defense League that waits for Palestinian youth at the mall and attacks them. The police do nothing. When do we call this fascism? Jewish terrorists? How do you think this feels to the Palestinian children living under these devastating conditions? What is the message from the Israeli government? How long can this last? Obama are you listening?

Abu Hassan says, “Life here is impossible.” When he goes to work, “anything can happen.” The next settlement we see is Neve Ya’akov, established in 1969 and now actively building new apartments. This is the location of the Union of Shas Movement, a very fanatic segment of Israeli society and a danger to the unwelcomed Palestinian population.

Abu Hassan suspects that Netanyahu is trying to provoke another intifada with the rapid settlement growth and weekly killings. Then he will have an excuse to fight “the terrorists.” In this context, the word terrorism seems to lose its meaning. Abu Hassan mentions that he first went to jail at the age of 13 for the crime of throwing stones for which he was not guilty. He was released six months later, but by then he was severely traumatized and had “lost my childhood.” He said he became more and more hateful and was involved in physical attacks against Israeli soldiers. At 16, after his brother was killed by settlers, he joined the PLO and was arrested and sentenced to eight years. He served four and was released in a prisoner exchange. Then at 22 when he was a student at Birzeit University and a member of the Student Council, he was arrested again and sentenced to 12 years, but released during the Oslo process in another prisoner exchange. He describes his imprisonment as very difficult, every six months he changed jails, he was tortured repeatedly and continues to have back problems. Now he channels his militancy and resistance into these tours, educating visitors to Jerusalem and opening minds and hearts to the Palestinian tragedy.

Last year his seven year old daughter asked him why there is a separation wall. “For me it was so painful, I tried to hide it but she is very smart.” He finally explained the realities to her, but hopes very deeply for a better future for his children. He explains that his conflict is not with Jews, in fact his family took care of an Iraqi Jewish woman in their own home for years. His conflict is with Zionists who clearly want to push the Palestinians out of the land they have called their own for generations. East Jerusalem is clearly one of the battlegrounds and the Palestinians are losing in the face of byzantine administrative rules, outright lying, brutal violence, a society that has grown increasingly racist and supportive of right wing ideologies and an international community that has completely abdicated its responsibilities. As one Israeli said to me: “Save us from ourselves.”

January 08, 2011 Pieces of the puzzle

This is a cozy scene. Three members of the delegation are bent over a Ravensburger Puzzle, Crystals of Enchantment, sorting through the thousand tiny pieces with 11 year old Ahmed and 17 year old Sundus (who loves languages and speaks excellent English) and their mother Fatma. Their father Hisham is smoking a cigarette and watching a football (soccer) game between Egypt and Uganda. To everyone’s pleasure, Egypt wins by one goal. Fourteen year old Jusef is playing computer games on his cell phone and the five year old sister, Aisha, is asleep. Another sister is studying in Jordan. We have started by looking for edges and corners and the project feels daunting, much like the day. This week school exams start and the children have spent hours studying. When puzzle pieces fit together, there is a collective cheer of satisfaction. We have just completed a tasty and filling meal of Maqluba, eating from plates on the floor with newspaper spread out as a “table cloth.” We sit around the edges cross legged, trying not to drip yogurt on our pants. When we feel we cannot eat another bite, Fatma brings out the sweet tea with mint and her homemade pound cake. There is a relaxed, loving warmth between the children and their parents and frequent laughter and physical affection. When I think the feeding frenzy is over, Fatma comes in with a tray of dense Arabic coffee in tiny cups.

The normalcy of this family is a miracle to me because they are living in Hebron, in H2, in the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida where 45,000 Palestinians are held hostage by 600 very racist, armed, and violent Jewish settlers. Their neighbor up on the adjacent hill is Baruch Marzel, a well known Kahanist leader who they tell us brags about two signs in his house: “I already managed to kill an Arab, and you?” and “God gives us the right to kill Arabs and we love it.” He has threatened all of the family members and has said to Hisham, “One day I will kill you. Every dog has its day.”

Before dinner Hisham told us that in 2006, Baruch attacked nine year old Yusef and smashed his teeth with a stone. The family brought a complaint to the Israeli courts and 40 days ago (please note over four years after the attack) finally got to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. The case was postponed and when they returned to Hebron they were stoned by waiting settlers again.

Relaxing after dinner, (now bananas and apples appear) Hisham mentions casually that in 1992 some Palestinians placed a flag on an electrical tower. Israeli soldiers threatened Hisham and told him that he had to climb the tower and remove the flag or they would kill him. He scaled the tower and was severely electrocuted with major damage to his left arm and hand; he fell to the ground and the soldiers fled. He was taken to the local Allia Hospital and then transferred to Augusta Victoria Hospital where he was hospitalized for 1 ½ months. As his arm developed gangrene, the doctors wanted to amputate, but his brother asked that they wait until he regained consciousness. He awoke and refused, “From Allah, the blood returned.” He was then transferred to Mokassed Hospital in East Jerusalem where he underwent ten reconstructive surgeries to restore hand function with moderate success. In 2007, internationals in Hebron saw his hand and arranged for him to be treated in Tel Aviv at Tel Hashomer Hospital where a surgeon performed four reconstructive surgeries using tendons from his leg. She explained that he then needed physical therapy and when he told her that he cannot easily return to Tel Aviv, cannot afford PT, cannot get assistance from the Palestinian Authority, and has no such opportunities in Hebron, she started to cry. He found the hospital staff welcoming and helpful. Now he works in a dress shop, “It’s our life, what can we do?” His wife brings in a large bowl of hot salty popcorn smiling graciously.

I remind myself that while the majority of Israelis are appalled by the settlers in Hebron, the Israeli government and soldiers provide them with full support and protection and thus are fully complicit in their dangerous fascistic behavior. Last night the IDF broke down the door of a family in Hebron, surprising his wife who was praying, and shot her sleeping husband multiple times in his own bed. The IDF subsequently issued an apology, it turns out they were on the wrong floor and killed the wrong man. They did not apologize for their policy of extrajudicial assassinations. This is a democracy?

This morning feels like it began several days ago, in a funky hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem. We took a taxi to French Hill to meet up with volunteers for the Saturday Mobile Clinic run by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel in conjunction with Palestinian Medical Relief Society. We join a larger gathering of volunteers at a gas station in Tayibe, a Muslim village on the Israeli side of the Green Line not to be confused with the Christian village of the same name in the West Bank that is famous for Tayibe beer. This mobile clinic is always fascinating on multiple levels. First there is the issue of getting to Tayibe which involves traveling down Highway 443, sometimes called the apartheid road. This highway passes through the West Bank between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and can only be used by vehicles with yellow license plates (read Jewish only roads), except following a Supreme Court ruling, there is a segment of the road, book marked by checkpoints, that Palestinians can use to get to their own towns and parallel set of roads. (Apartheid come to mind?)

The medical volunteers include a dedicated nun and nurse who has devoted herself to work with PHR Israel and Bedouin issues. She explains that PHR’s latest focus is on refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. 10 to 15 new arrivals appear at the PHR Open clinic two times per week and there is increasing evidence of human trafficking, torture and rape (with requests for abortions) by a combination of the Egyptian army, IDF and Bedouin smugglers involved in an international network of traffickers. (see the PHR Israel website)

There are four US medical students from the Sachler School of Medicine, a program at Tel Aviv University for US students, taught in English. Many do not ever study Hebrew. They are incredibly ebullient about the wonders of Tel Aviv, the unique opportunity to live and study abroad for four years, and the lower levels of stress at this med school compared to the US (note author’s amazement). They have come for a variety of reasons ranging from, “This was the only place I got in,” to an unblemished love for Israel. Their MD degrees will be fully recognized by the US medical board and they are not treated as other foreign medical students are with special requirements and testing in order to qualify for residencies in the US. (please note author’s amazement). There are three Israeli medical schools that have this arrangement and I presume that it is another facet of our “special relationship” with Israel. The students are enthusiastic, but I suspect fairly oblivious to the political realities, so I think that it is important that they join the clinic. I am afraid though, that without context, they may be coming to help the poor Arabs in Palestine who cannot fend for themselves, a form of occupation tourism.

We spot a rainbow arching through the dark clouds as we drive out heading toward a tiny town in the most northeast corner of the West Bank. I sit next to an acupuncturist, (originally Israeli, lived in London for 20 years and then came back) and a massage therapist (originally from London, came to Israel “because I needed a change.”) They have both worked in a Barta’a, a Palestinian village located in the seam zone, the area between the Green Line and the separation wall where thousands of people are virtually trapped without services. We are unable to settle our disagreements about BDS but have a lively exchange.

After a massive traffic jam in Jenin, and miles of huge patchwork farms, we arrive in Faqua’a, a village of 4,000 that lost acres of land to the wall and has an unemployment rate of 60%. They have a small clinic staffed by a physician once or twice a week, but their main health/public health/agricultural challenge is lack of water. The multilingual nurse on the mobile clinic translates: their water source is now located on the Israeli side of the wall, during the summer they are dependent on expensive water tankers, in the winter they are dependent on rain. The amount of water is inadequate and the quality is poor so they have high levels of gastrointestinal disease.
Located in a school with an Israeli ob-gyn in the next room, we set up an office, one desk, a circle of chairs and a mattress on a table. I have brought a flashlight, hand sanitizer, and some minor surgical instruments. The women mostly have back and pelvic pain, vaginal discharge, and bladder concerns. They tend to have many children and are embarrassed about pelvic exams. We have endless negotiations about the exam, but the most difficult issue for me is that here we are, a few miles from a country with one of the most advanced medical systems in the world. By contrast, in this village, I have none of the tools that a modern physician needs to provide optimal treatment, starting with the most basic tests for gynecology. For instance, I have access to an ultrasound, but I cannot do any microscopy, preventive health care, or mammography. The right to health is both a basic human right and one of the cornerstones of the work of PHR Israel and PMRS. This right is one of the many casualties of the occupation.

January 07, 2011 Tear gassed in the Holy Land

If you are going to be tear gassed, I strongly suggest you rub Vicks Vapor Rub in your nostrils, bring an onion to smell, or alcohol swabs although fragrant baby wipes work fairly well, and don’t forget to bring a scarf and good running shoes. Needless to say, this was not on our delegation itinerary.

As you may be aware there have been weekly Friday demonstrations in the village of Bil’in seven miles west of Ramallah since 2005 to protest both the course of the separation wall and the stealing of village land by Israeli settlements. This protest has attracted international attention as a symbol of Palestinian resistance and Israeli brutality. Last week a woman named Jawaher Abu Rahmah died after a toxic exposure to tear gas at the demonstration. Her brother had been shot dead by Israeli soldiers a few years earlier, also at the Friday protest, and there was a call for people to come this week to express their outrage at her death and to support the continued struggle of the people of Bil’in.

Despite my strong aversion to physical danger, my aching back and less than optimal knees, this felt important to do. Our group reviewed the dynamics of previous protests, possible IDF responses to young Palestinian men throwing rocks, the consequences of tear gas and the real risk of physical injury. Everyone wanted to come. My plan was to stay at the end of the march. Way at the end.

Our bus started out on a main road, traveling though stunning countryside, white stone terraced olive orchards, small villages, and occasional villas, but came to a flying checkpoint ( a jeep parked across the road) early on. We backed up and turned onto a bumpy dirt road through an old olive orchard on the edge of a steep rocky hill, the gorgeous views marked by a large Jewish settlement, Modi’in Illit, on the next major hilltop with over 46,000 people. Again we were met with a road block and had to turn back. Our driver was constantly on his cell phone and talking with others on the road about strategies to penetrate the Israeli blockade. It dawned on me that a grassroots struggle means that the bus driver and every local Palestinian participates in some way, there is a tremendous sense of unity of purpose. Bil’in youth telephoned that they would lead us through the fields into the town. Once again we were winding up a rocky road, passed men praying at a mosque, more consults with a truck driver and then we could see another Israeli military vehicle ahead.

We backed away and then parked the bus out of sight and quietly got out, clambering into an old olive orchard, rows of twisted gnarly trees with silver-green leaves, rich red soil, tiny begonias and daffodils erupting in little crevices. We were breathless and climbing uphill over each terrace and on to the next rock wall, the next row of trees and then up again over the piles of stones. We are joined by local Palestinians leading us ultimately to a paved road beyond the checkpoint.

Ahead of us lay the small village of Bil’in, graced by the minaret, and the expansive Jewish settlement to the left. A taxi picked us up and drove us into the village. The march to the separation wall had already begun and we could hear boisterous political Arabic music from a loud speaker. I started meeting up with friends from the US, the Coalition of Women for Peace, Combatants for Peace, Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights, Mustafa Barghouti from Palestinian Medical Relief Society, as well as hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis of all ages carrying banners and flags and wearing political T shirts. There was a significant press presence, including camera men and reporters in gas masks. Two ambulances awaited the injured. At least one person was taken out later.

The march went down the hill from the town to a valley and then up towards a wide loop of metal fencing. In the distance, Israeli soldiers were amassed on the right and left arms of the loop and the protesters were approaching the soldiers. I heard the pop of the tear gas firing and suddenly my eyes began tearing, my throat started to burn and there was a searing acrid smell wafting up the hill. I can only imagine how this felt to the protestors in the valley and up on the hill, directly challenging the soldiers, shouting, and throwing rocks. Tear gas canisters were sometimes shot into the air, spiraling down to hit the ground creating a huge white cloud of gas. Sometimes the soldiers shot directly at protesters, I could see them crouching and taking aim. There was also a large white truck that repeatedly sprayed a huge arc of white liquid that smelled like a cross between skunk and feces and is apparently difficult to get off one’s body once sprayed. (I suppose this is what the defense companies mean when they say weapons are “field tested.”) When the tear gas was too thick, everyone moved back up the hill and then down again for more defiance and more tear gas. The more active protesters were directly in the line of fire, running, ducking from canisters, coughing, eyes running and red. A reporter from FOX news was even on the edge of the action and when someone handed him an onion to smell, he started chewing on it and then rubbed his eyes with it, clearly he hadn’t gotten the directions right. At one point the soldiers came through the fence as a wedge and as the protesters then retreated, some of the press got up close and personal with the soldiers. Protesters coming back from the direct interactions brought back empty tear gas canisters labeled “ CST,” a weapon made in the US.

I was crying from the tear gas and from my sorrow and rage at the Israeli government (with US support, thank you Mr. Obama) for its continued endless land grab and brutality towards its Palestinian neighbors and for Palestinians resiliently and bravely fighting back despite endless losses. They are desperately in need of international recognition and more importantly international pressure against the behavior of the Israeli government. I was particularly pained by the many Palestinians wearing yellow stars with the word Palestinian inscribed on it, evocative of the Jews in the ghettos of Europe forced to wear yellow stars. So now in the modern western democracy of Israel, Jewish ghettos dot the West Bank landscape while Palestinians themselves are further ghettoized by the machinery of occupation and colonization.

What have we learned?

January 07, 2011 Breaking the siege of Gaza with SKYPE

A torrential rain sweeps through Nablus, the city of hills, and the street is briefly turned into a rushing river as we come to meet Dr. Allam Jarrar, our friend and partner at Palestinian Medical Relief Society. He looks fit and cheerful, but I notice rivulets of sweat beading on his face as he discusses “the situation” which has grown increasingly difficult, especially over the last 6 months with the failure of the Obama “peace process” and the explosion in settlement growth.

Allam reviews the usual disasters:

1 ½ million people in Gaza are completely cut off from the world with the Rafa checkpoint in the south controlled by Egypt (with Israeli blessings) and the Erez checkpoint in the north controlled by Israel; maybe 12 Gazans are allowed to enter daily into Israel, mostly for extreme medical needs and sometimes forced to become collaborators in exchange for the permit. (This is well documented by multiple sources.)

There are now 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and ever expanding Jerusalem, and over 200 settlements, with Israeli control of 60% of the area. The Palestinian Authority “controls/administers” the remaining areas A and B, but in actuality everything is under Israeli control. Twelve Israeli governmental Ministers currently reside in settlements and the Israeli government is increasingly right wing.

Some 600 checkpoints (according to the UN OCHA) damage the geographic and social integrity of the West Bank.

Palestinians have been divided into three political, social, and economic entities:

1.East Jerusalem with 220,000 “residents” who carry an East Jerusalem ID,

2.West Bank where Allam describes a pass system reminiscent of South Africa. This does not include the areas around the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley as those areas are a closed military zone (where a Palestinian was recently killed at a checkpoint )and includes 2 million people

3.Gaza with 1 ½ million people

He explores the various social movements around the separation wall, settlements and in East Jerusalem and the growing nonviolent resistance that is becoming a major feature of the Palestinian struggle. There was even a recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz about reviving the pacifist movement based on ethical values within Israel to join Palestinians. Allam is also encouraged by the BDS movement which is now supported by Palestinian NGOs as a strategy that will make the Israeli policies more visible. “Israel can’t hide; there is a price for its behavior.” He worries about the talk of Israel launching attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Iran.

Allam explains that Palestinian Medical Relief Society was established in 1979 by volunteers to address the needs of marginalized communities and to build an infrastructure of resistance and steadfastness against the occupation. It is now the biggest health related NGO with 25 health centers and focuses on direct care, women’s empowerment, disability, health education, youth development, school health programs, training first aid workers, emergency interventions, support during curfews, and more. I notice in the office a woman receptionist with severe scoliosis and another working in a wheelchair. They practice what they preach. Funding comes from European and US NGOs. Allam notes that Palestinians have the worst record for international dependency, approximately $800 per capita of foreign aid. This is the end result of the occupation and the repeated destruction of the infrastructure of the society and economy. A painful example is the destruction of the Gazan fishing industry by the Israeli’s repeatedly shrinking the miles that fishing boats are allowed to go out to sea. These families then become dependent on international aid.

And then we begin our meeting with colleagues in Gaza. SKYPE is set up and the images are projected on the wall, faces flickering, sometimes fragmented Picasso –like, but definitely present and in conversation with us in Nablus. Amjad from the International Seige of Gaza and PENGO (a Palestinian civil society organization) outlines the horrific consequences of Cast Lead and the siege of Gaza. Thousands of houses cannot be rebuilt due to lack of materials, the recent opening to construction materials is for UNRWA construction only. 20,000 people remain homeless and 100,000 housing units are needed. 80% of the population depends on international agencies for basic needs, 40% of the population lives in severe poverty. UNRWA schools run 3 sessions per day and sometimes use containers for classrooms. 3,800 factories are not functional and there are no exports, 35% of agricultural land has been confiscated by the IDF often for “buffer zones,” the once vigorous flower and strawberry industries are decimated. 90% of the water is undrinkable. He notes that there are still daily incursions, 140 people have been injured in the past few months with several deaths, and the IDF arrested 3 fishermen today for fishing 3 miles from shore, well within the latest limits and well beyond years of previous regulations. He adds that Israel is trying to demonize Gaza and make them totally dependent. Tens of thousands of university students are now graduating with no possibilities for work, so there is also a brain drain along with no hope and no unity. His first priority is ending the siege and he strongly supports the BDS movement.

Aed Yaghi, an administrator for PMRS, then discusses the failing health sector. There are currently 180 essential medications unavailable, equipment cannot be maintained due to lack of parts, there are frequent losses of electricity, patients are unable to leave for advanced medical therapy and hundreds have died due to lack of referrals. PMRS is trying to cover the needs of patients with chronic illness. Since June 2010, some patients are able to leave via the Raffa crossing in Egypt (250-300 people per day) which is open five days per week, 8 hours per day, for the eight hour trip to an Egyptian hospital. (Imagine being critically ill, having to jump through hoops to obtain a permit to leave Gaza, getting to and waiting at the Raffa Crossing and THEN, making an eight hour trip to reach a hospital. This almost sounds like a death sentence to me.) The rare patients that get permits to leave through the Erez checkpoint are interrogated, may be forced to become collaborators in exchange for passage, can still be denied access and if traveling by ambulance, there are 400 meters between the Palestinian and Israeli ambulances. (Can you imagine when you are in pain, have cancer or severe heart disease, or you are a child whose mother could not get a permit and you are traveling alone? And let’s say you are receiving weekly chemotherapy treatments in Israel, you have to do this each time and if you are delayed and miss your appointment there is no recourse.) What ever happened to the universal right to health or the Geneva Conventions regarding health care personnel and access?

600 NGOs were destroyed or damaged during Cast Lead, including the Gaza Community Mental Health Center. Food enters from Israel day by day, there are bread shortages and malnutrition and only Israeli agricultural products are permitted. The tunnel system between Raffa and Egypt was built out of sheer desperation and provides basic food, cooking gas, medications, sheep, cows, etc. Even the fish is now imported from Egypt through the tunnels. 150 people have been killed from tunnel collapse. Aed claims that the Israeli government uses the tunnels and the products that then end up on the shelves of local markets as proof there is no problem. But there is a corruptive black market, high priced, often low quality, that only contributes to a small number of Gazans enriching themselves and the lack of a viable economy. He reminds us that a humanitarian crisis needs a political solution and this particularly applies to Gaza.

While this information is readily available on a variety of websites, there was something so powerful for me that we were actually talking with colleagues in Gaza despite the intense siege, listening to their concerns, asking questions, bearing witness, promising to bring their voices to our communities, verbally and visually breaking the blockade . Who ever thought SKYPE could be such a powerful political tool?

January 06, 2011 Who profits from the occupation?

As we learn more about the BDS movement, a critical question emerges: what companies are involved with which activities that ultimately sustain the occupation? In Tel Aviv we meet Dalit Baum, an Israeli member of the Coalition of Women for Peace and specifically, the group Who Profits? She explains that the organization was developed to understand the economics of the settlement project. A short haired woman with intense black eyes and an ironic sense of humor, she states that the project aimed to investigate corporations directly involved in the occupation, to figure out the specifics, the financial interests, and who is making money from whom. After meticulous research, four years later they have a website, whoprofits.org, that has a partial data base listing approximately 1000 companies.

The criteria for inclusion on this list involves work in building settlements, marketing settlement goods, using industrial space within settlements, providing crucial services to settlements such as transportation, and providing equipment to the military such as for building walls and checkpoints. She notes that Israel has exploited the Palestinian labor pool and the Palestinian market, it is a captive market where Israeli policies have shut down much of the competition. For example, Palestinians are only allowed to grow agricultural products that are not as profitable as Israeli products and do not compete in European markets when compared to Israeli goods.

Who Profits is a unique grassroots organization that does impeccable economic research with careful documentation using concrete proof with governmental and company documents. They are very careful to stay within the letter of the law, as any suit for damages would be disastrous in the Israeli courts. An example of their work involves “Crossing the Line,” a fast train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that crosses the Green Line into the West Bank in two sections. The Israeli neighbors did not want the train and noise near their property so the project was moved and this will entail almost the entire destruction of the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa. Painfully there is now a petition to the world from the Palestinian village to put the train on land that is ALREADY expropriated. The train is being built by European and American companies.

Then there is the issue of financing of the occupation. All six Israeli banks are directly involved in supporting settlements. Dalit reminds us that you cannot separate the economy of the occupation from the economy of Israel from the economy of the US for that matter. For instance, Soda Stream, an Israeli company that makes carbonated water, just went public on Nasdaq.

She turns her attention to what does it mean to boycott settlement markets. She describes 18 tycoons that control the large corporations that are involved and notes that if they start losing money, they will pull out of the settlements. She describes living in Israel both as frustrating but “We feel effective.” As an example, her group will go to a checkpoint, they will document the infrastructure, the telecommunications, etc, and then google the companies, do the appropriate research, and put the information on the website. “Direct action with no gas! We use our privilege to see the occupation.” They also go to security industry exhibitions and meet with people eager to sell a host of weaponry. She focuses on crowd dispersal, what is called in the business, “nonlethal weapons” although everyone knows that these weapons can be lethal in high enough doses or with direct impact. For her she feels this is personal, as an activist who has been faced with tear gas and other methods used at demonstrations.

Another aspect of this macabre business Dalit describes is weaponry produced in the US. Because the US gives Israel an enormous amount of money to buy American military equipment, there are now Israeli entrepreneurs who establish companies in the US and then benefit from the largesse of our tax dollars. Thus there are many forces within the US that have strong economic interests in maintaining this lucrative arrangement where the US is basically financing its own war industries. This lead a group of activists, after a demonstration, to return empty tear gas canisters to the US ambassador. They were promptly arrested for possession of weapons, but the charges were later dropped.

Dalit reminds us that there is a lot to be done in the US and any effort contributes to the cause. It is important to pick strategic targets that also involve an educational component. She feels boycotting computer companies or generic drug companies, for instance, are not strategic activities. She is very optimistic, both because this movement is lead by Palestinian activists and because there is a response in the Israeli Knesset that implies that people in power are worried. The Anti BDS law in process will make individuals personally liable for any damage to companies. The Association Law aims to outlaw any NGO that provides information to foreign entities that might lead to charges of war crimes against Israelis. The Fighting Terrorism Law targets any Israeli or Palestinian activist who does any activity against Israeli soldiers or State symbols, and vaguely and obscurely defines all of these activities as terrorism. This could include nonviolent, legitimate resistance to the occupation. The Prohibition on Instituting Boycott Law will criminalize Israeli citizens who support local and international BDS activities. Recently the Knesset began an investigation of the funding of NGOs.

Dalit sees these rightwing trends as plunging into fascism and of particular concern is that these anti-democratic assaults are originating in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, which is supposed to be the cornerstone of a democratic society.

I leave this meeting with the sense that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in the US which is actively enmeshed with the military machinery and corporations that make the Israeli occupation possible. In addition, the “only democracy in the Middle East” seems to be heading rapidly in an dangerous direction; I wonder how many “Israel right or wrong” supporters fully appreciate this and when will supporting the actions of the Israeli government become untenable to a wider group of people. I am impressed that a small group of thoughtful and dedicated activists can have such a significant impact on the process. I only hope that the next time I visit Israel, I will not be visiting them in prison.

January 06, 2011 The skeletons in the closet

I have been reading about the Israeli governmental criticism and talk of censorship of left wing academics in Israel and I am eager to meet a professor who has been under fire. Professor Yehouda Shenhav of Tel Aviv University has a way of exploding the assumptions that frame many of our understandings of the conflict. A brilliant and provocative thinker and author of “Bounded by the Green Line,” he describes himself as a member of the radical left. An older man in a light blue sweater and jeans, he starts out stating that peace negotiations are useless, the two state solution is a menace to Jews and Palestinians, and he believes in one space, (not necessarily a state) for two people.

He has definitely caught my attention. He argues that there is no political theory on which to base the end of the conflict except the symbol of the Green Line which was an arbitrary ceasefire line that most use as a litmus test for further conversation. He notes that the Green Line has been erased by settlements, yet leftist political theory is founded on this vanishing line. He asks rhetorically, can you evacuate 500,000 Jews, or if you leave out Jerusalem, 350,000 Jews, or if you make border corrections, 135,000 Jews. Not going to happen.

The concept of a Jewish state is problematic as long as a Jewish state is a recipe for the future transfer of Palestinians. He explains that these racist, fascist tendencies are a continuation of 1948. The Jewish state was based on ethnic cleansing, with the destruction of villages, massacres, and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians. This is the Israeli skeleton in the closet. “Whoever holds on to ’67 as the beginning of the conflict is hallucinating and this is the Israeli left.” They participate in masking the atrocities of ’48 and thus keep that particular skeleton deep in the closet.

He further explores the ubiquitous refusal to deal with the refugees from 1948 and the anomaly of having Arab citizens of Israel who do not have equal civil rights with their fellow Jewish citizens. Israel is thus an ethnic/racial state which denies the rights of the Palestinian national collective within it. Sovereignty, territory, and identity are all interconnected. He then tells us this painful story of a Palestinian student of his who bought a house in a Jewish settlement on the Green Line. She asked Professor Shenhav if he would be the formal landlord so that she will be safe in case there is land transfer; she wants to be sure her children have access to their home.

Professor Shenhav reminds us that within the origins of Zionism there was tremendous debate on how to emancipate the Jews and the meaning of a Jewish homeland. He emphatically states that Jews have a right to live in this region. He notes that in 1942 in New York at the Biltmore Convention, the Zionist movement for the first time, clearly stated that it wanted a sovereign Jewish state. That decision led to ethnic cleansing and to the homogenization of identity, but Palestinians and Jews remained entangled. He adds, we live in one state with apartheid, not only in the Occupied Territories, but also within Israel, and this critical point is not understood by the Israeli left. This is a grave mistake. He questions, “What is the difference between a settlement in and out of the Green Line? Nothing.” He does not suggest that all Jews return to Europe, he is in fact from Iraq, but he feels it is important to acknowledge that these are all settlements as well. Israeli is a “wannabe” democracy, based on a state of exception with emergency rules, a legacy of British imperialism and Jewish legislation. He reminds us that from 1948-1966 Palestinians within the Green Line lived mostly under a military regime, with permits to move, do business, etc. This is colonialism. Since 1967 the colonialism has extended into the West Bank and Gaza, so Israel cannot exist as a democratic state without military rule of Palestinians. As examples he cites a series of racial laws that are percolating through the Knesset: the rules against teaching or commemorating the Nakba, the loyalty oath to the Jewish state required of all citizens, demographic laws such as family reunification that prevent partners of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship from moving into Israel. He argues that this is a continuation of the 1948 war by other means.

He asks, “How does a Jewish racial state cope with non-Jews? There is no difference between Meretz and Lieberman except in degree of sincerity. When threatened, all Jews become [Avigdor] Lieberman. In his analysis, many progressive intellectuals speak from a position in the map of Israeli identity politics as “white Jews.” Meanwhile 60% of settlers are from the lower strata of society. A few months ago in Sweden he was asked what is the best welfare state and he replied, “West Bank Jewish settlements.” They have full employment, housing, education, health care; this is a very attractive deal for Mizrachi and Orthodox Jews. Should these folks then pay the price for peace when the Israeli government has sent them there and supplied them with electricity, housing, internet, etc? He argues that the liberal Israeli community defines itself through “othering” the settler community that is supported by the government.

Provocatively, he also believes that while Israeli liberals are proud to be secular, being here is not a secular decision, a Zionist inherently cannot be secular. Jewish nationality is by definition religious and Hebrew is a religious language. In his classes he teaches that there is no “Jewish secularity,” even Barak was not willing to give up “the Holy Places” although he probably did not believe in them.

He begins to explore the Arab Jewish story, and states that the Zionists used violent methods to get people like his parents to leave Iraq. In 1951 an agreement was made between Israel and Iraq to “denaturalize the Jews of Iraq,” as they had little interest in coming to Israel. Ultimately six bombs went off in five months (one placed in a synagogue) and ultimately the 120,000 Jews of Iraq left; there is a lingering theory that the bombs were placed by Zionists, but the government of Israel claims these files are confidential. The Iraqi Jewish property was subsequently confiscated (somebody profited from this forced migration) and the immigrants arrived in Israel to find themselves second class citizens. The Jews of Iraq were highly educated, even more so than the Europeans, but after ten years of life in Israel, they were at the bottom of the Israeli educational ladder. This discrepancy has only gotten worse and he notes that in Tel Aviv University, 9% of the faculty is Mizrachi and 0.5% Palestinian.

He then explores the strange case of the recent Russian immigration which has unexpected consequences and shows that it is difficult to divide nationalism from religion. “What does it mean to be a Jew?” Professor Shenhav queries. Today some 300,000 people who came from the Soviet Union are not Jews but where brought here by the Law of Return. Professor Shenhav states that this is the mirror of the Nuremberg Trials: Hitler declared that if a person had 1/6 Jewish ancestry then he was a Jew. Ben Gurion used the same criteria. So now in Israel there are women from Kazakhstan who are Jewish by nationality and Muslim by religion! He hypothesizes that this may create fissures between nationality and religion as well as strange alliances. He sees right wing Mizrachi Jews in alliance with left leaning but ultranationalist Barak and wonders why the Israeli left supports an apartheid system? “If I have a right of return to a Jewish settlement, then why can’t a Palestinian have a right of return from Nablus to Jaffa?” He thinks it is important to rethink sovereignty, a 17th century concept that began with national borders. He claims this concept does not apply here, instead we have a continuous civil war. He speaks of a shared sovereignty that crosses borders, land, and populations where populations and territories can be in a space together with “horizontal sovereignty;” where for instance, a Palestinian in Galilee picks one or dual citizenship. This sounds intriguing, even if this is a bit hard to comprehend.

I am even more amazed when he states that he doesn’t like identity politics, but he thinks that we have to be focusing on what are the rights of Jews in the region. We all know that the rights of Palestinians are being violated, but who has defined the rights of Jews? He sees that the Israeli right has a totally military solution to that question. But, he states, we need to reverse this. How do we protect Jewish rights when the space is democratically organized? This was first discussed by Martin Buber who famously warned that the first victims of the Jewish state would be the Jews themselves. Professor Shenhav wonders if Jews are much like the crusaders, arriving like crusaders for a limited time, terrorizing the local population with no intention to integrate, and ultimately destined to be kicked out. The white supremacist aspect of Israeli Jews believe that Israel is a branch of Europe. “How many Jews speak Arabic?” he demands. This is all about power relationships.

Out time is up and we are filled with questions. Clearly this man has many provocative and exceptional observations that rile up Israeli authorities and lead me to want to read his books and understand his views further. If he loses his right to work or to speak and is branded a traitor, then that will be a sad day for whatever will be left of free speech in Israel.

January 06, 2011 How I became a human smuggler

I have to confess, we were not prepared. We were not even aware of the white-faced American mostly Jewish privileged skin in which we were living. Our bus left the tiny village of Mas’ha, heading past Ariel to the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffo, or Jaffa as our Palestinian friends say. We had a yellow license plate, the seats were comfortable and the seat belts functional. Life was good.

In a smaller car, 3 Americans (one tall bearded guy who could be mistaken for a settler and one very blond woman) and 2 Palestinian women, university students, who had not successfully obtained permits to leave the West Bank and were passing as Americans, drove in front of us. One of them had done this several times before without getting caught. The other had never seen the Mediterranean Sea. You might call this an exercise in human smuggling Israeli style.

A private security company pulls the two vehicles over at a checkpoint near the settlement of Ariel for a “routine security check.” I wonder, is it the obvious Arab face of our driver or just part of the mechanics of control. Why would a group of non-settlers be driving down this highway? We watch with trepidation as our friends get out of the car and are led into the checkpoint. A smiling woman in uniform enters our bus, “Who is the tour guide?”

“Me (gulp).”

“What are you doing?”

“Tourism.”

“Where have you been?”

“Nablus.”

“What did you do?”

“We like old things, we toured the Old City.”

“Where did you stay?

I know I cannot say the Balata Refugee Camp. “Yaffa Guest House.”

“OK, passports, come with me.”

I step out of the bus and a snarling dog, a Belgium malinois known for good scent detection, is chewing on the leash with its handler next to the bus. I discover that this little checkpoint, is fully equipped with x ray equipment, FAX machines, and computers. All our bags are x-rayed repeatedly as suspicious items like books, notebooks, tape recorders, etc. are removed and re x-rayed. The questioning keeps up and I have no idea if the group will keep its story straight. I am acutely aware that in my bag are BDS stickers (we all have them), materials about BDS, brochures from the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee and two copies of my book which would instantly get me in trouble. I keep turning them over so the title is not visible. And then there are pages of incriminating notes and hundreds of easily accessible photos. Usually before any security check, I “cleanse” my belongings and make the evidence difficult to find. I have been careless. The other wild dynamic I observe is the white, clearly Ashkenazi woman who is in charge, and the younger Ethiopian woman who receives her barking orders and unpacks and repacks our bags obediently: race and class in action.

As anxious as we are, our main focus is on the two Palestinians who are insisting they are from the US, have quickly made up names and fake histories, and are acting their parts flawlessly. They are aided by the performance of our group leader who plays the innocent but helpful Jewish tourist, so apologetic about the forgotten passports. The main problem is of course the issue of identities. Oh we forgot our passports in our hotel in Tel Aviv, we didn’t know we had to have them, etc, etc. A quick phone call to a fellow activist, Hello, so wonderful visiting you in Ariel, would you talk to security about our visit….The story is being fabricated in real time and the fear and anxiety in the group for the two brave Palestinian women is gripping us all. As we sit in the waiting room, we pretend we do not know each other as that would definitely blow our cover. While maybe I might face an angry security guard, a fine or deportation, these two women could get arrested and go to jail for the crime of visiting Jaffa with a group of activists.
The bus finally passes inspection and we have to drive off not knowing the fate of our friends. After a prolonged interrogation and much dancing around, I think the head security woman knew something was not right, they are turned back. We all cheer when we learned by cell phone that they sailed through Hizma checkpoint without being stopped.

When the group is finally reunited for a tour of Jaffa, one of the Palestinian women runs down the beach and into the water, soaking her boots and pants, crying, breathing in the smell of the sea for the first time in her life.

January 06, 2011 The nuances of BDS, How can Israelis boycott themselves?

Because most Israelis are opposed to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement, I am very interested in hearing from Kobi Snitz, a thin, intense man active with Boycott from Within and Anarchists Against the Wall. Meeting with the delegation in Tel Aviv, he states that the Palestinian BDS guidelines are clear in principle, refined and legalistic, but the applications are subtle. For a supportive Israeli, what can he do? Quit his job? Stop eating? Obviously not, but there are many nuanced decisions to be made, for instance in the world of universities. Kobi outlines some of the intricacies:

International academics can work with Israeli academics but not build institutional cooperation.

If an Israeli academic wants to publish in an international journal, this always includes his or her institutional affiliation which then lends prestige for the institution, but this is OK if the article is more about the academic than the institution.

Internationals can hire individual Israelis but not build cooperative alliances between two institutions.

Giving a scholarship to an individual Israeli is OK, but allocating a general fund for Israeli students is not advised.

The Boycott from Within group also turned its attention to the cultural boycott, writing letters to individual artists urging them not to perform in Israel. This turned out to be much more successful than expected. Sometimes artists highlight why they refuse to perform, although usually artists make various excuses to cancel their tours. Like the Pixies, the Tindersticks and Elvis Costello, we only hear of the artists who have already advertised their tours and then cancel. Although the reaction to cancellations is often to call the performers anti-Semites, the political connection (ie, this show was cancelled due to the attack on Gaza) is being made more often. While he expected the cultural boycott to be much harder as artists are not usually particularly politically brave and are concerned with their reputations, this aspect of BDS has become a leading edge. Kobi claims that every artist now knows that coming to Israel is a political decision and it might just be easier not to come.

A handful of academics employed by universities have signed the BDS call. Kobi explains that there is now a letter in the Israeli Higher Education Council addressing this issue. The letter talks of the sanctity of intellectual freedom but states that the call for academic boycott goes beyond the limits and institutions should act appropriately (ie get rid of those faculty). Kobi notes that no one who supports BDS can get tenure and tenured faculty find their lives made unpleasant, do not get promotions, are given the worst courses, cannot get to conferences, (a kind of passive transfer for Jews I wonder). In general, universities are proud of their contributions to the security industry. He explains that the Technion is really an extension of Rafael, a big security company outside of Haifa. Tel Aviv University has a Shabak headquarters (otherwise known as Shin Bet, the Israeli FBI) on the edge of campus. The Middle East department is actually an extension of Shabak, doing political research and intelligence.

The group Who Profits? does economic research into the involvement of Israeli companies in profiting from the occupation. Kobi notes that not only is this easier to do, but this gets to the heart of the Israeli economy as practically every company has some involvement, especially the big high tech and construction companies.

The Knesset has recently formed a committee of inquiry into the sources of funding for leftist organizations, so “things will be interesting.” The Boycott from Within is mostly interested in letter writing campaigns and research, they don’t expect to convince most Israelis, and are looked at very negatively. He finds the media hostile but interested. He has learned to approve all written interviews prior to publication and to do only live radio and TV interviews, in order not to have his opinions misrepresented. They are now approaching Zionist groups, moving into the world of socially responsible investing, hoping to add Israeli settlement companies to the non-kosher screen along with tobacco and guns. He argues that the settlement economy is the same as the economy of the occupation and wants letters of support from organizations like Peace Now that publically want to end the settlements. If 60% of Israelis support evacuating the settlements for peace, will they be willing to support a socially responsible investing screen that includes settlement products?

I wonder about Tobi’s personal life as he is a mathematician who works at the Weizmann Institute in neurobiology. His family is supportive and his colleagues are not hostile. The Weizmann Institute was involved in security in the 1950s with the nuclear program, but now does not have that focus. He is excited by the growing BDS movement and finds his work dynamic and hopeful, a refreshing comment from someone on the often discouraged Israeli left.

January 06, 2011 Balata Refugee Camp, Existence is Resistance

The Yaffa Guest House in the Balata Refugee Camp just outside of Nablus is new. There are quarters for men and for women, a well equipped kitchen with refrigerator, microwave, washer/dryer and a living room with WIFI and piles of magazines that leave a record of previous guests. Ironically, there is a “Cosmopolitan” on top of the pile with the alluring article “Secrets of Male Sexual Arousal.” We climb into our bunk beds, crank up the heat and collapse into deep sleep.

In the morning after a breakfast of Mu’ajanat, a dough with eggs, cheese and zetar, we meet with a thin young man named Faisal. He was born in Saudi Arabia in 1986 where his father went for work. His family came from a small village near Jaffa and escaped to the mountains near Nablus after 1948 until they came to live in the Balata Refugee Camp in the early 1980s. Faisel went to UNRWA schools and studied journalism at Najah University in Nablus and now works in public relations for the Yaffa Cultural Center.

Balata was founded in 1952 and 90% of the refugees are from Yaffa and surrounding villages. The UN announced the establishment of the camp by loudspeaker and in an area 1000 square meters, set up rows of tents, one tent per family, 5-6,000 refugees, with scattered public bathrooms. Because everyone was sure this was a temporary arrangement, they lived in tents for eight years until the UN started building housing, one room for each family. Sewer systems, water, and electricity were finally established in the 1970s. As the population grew, people expanded their homes vertically, literally on top of each other in a maze of winding dirt and stone paths and stairs, second floors jutting out into the airspace of the paths, no fresh air, no privacy. Residents can hear and smell everything. Balata is now the largest camp in the smallest space in the West Bank with more than 25,000 residents, UN offices, a cemetery and market. The land is rented by UNRWA from the village of Balata for 99 years.

After 1967 60% of Balata workers became laborers in Israel. Balata also has the reputation for resistance. In 1987 the First Intifada started in this camp. In 2000 there were many clashes in the camp, 230 people were killed, many in their homes, and thousands were wounded. Israel closed the border and now only 3% are able to work in Israel. This has all resulted in high levels of frustration, depression, psychiatric problems, violence, and trauma. Faisel discusses the damage done by IDF soldiers breaking into homes, through walls to the next house, Palestinian children losing their childhoods to war and teenagers seeing no opportunities.

The cultural center was established by Balata residents to encourage children to release their energy in a positive fashion through the arts, Dabke dancing, theater, drawing, reading, storytelling, etc. The teenagers are involved in programs for leadership, women’s rights, photography, journalism and there is a recently built theater facility. Faisel says education is the main vehicle; sometimes there is no hope, but there is a need for optimism. “I am very optimistic because I believe in young people.”

We ask why people stay in Balata and he replies that they have no place to go, no financial resources, and the UN helps them with education, housing, and health care, although these supports have been diminishing in recent years. Food distribution is less frequent and there is one medical clinic with one doctor and one nurse. UNRWA covers 1/3 of the medical care if a patient needs to go to the local hospital. As we hear over and over again, refugees also still dream of return to their former villages. Faisel talks about the seven million Palestinian refugees all over the world and the international laws that guarantee the right of return and compensation. I have had these conversations before, the need for the Israeli government to recognize its role in the displacement of refugees and its responsibility to engage in creative solutions for return and compensation.

We begin a walk through the camp where 70% of the population is less than 18 years old. We look down on the school yard where hundreds of little girls in blue uniforms and pants are playing and when they see us, waving enthusiastically and yelling hello. The paths between the grey concrete houses are often two to three feet wide with uneven surfaces and I try to imagine the disabled children who must be carried to school, the laboring pregnant woman or critically ill patient physically carried by two men through the maze to an ambulance waiting on the street, the difficulties bringing anything from food to furniture into the homes. Laundry hangs from windows and balconies and the poverty is obvious. There are patches of brightly painted graffiti: Love Palestine, Hate Racism, 1 People, 1 World, Those who make peace impossible make violence inevitable, Existence is resistance, if you are not willing to die for it, take the word freedom out of your vocabulary. Posters for political factions plaster some areas.

I think about the many conversations I have had about Palestinian refugees and the many generations that have known no other life. Clearly Balata is bursting with people, there is tremendous unemployment, a huge focus on education and youth, but the future is bleak unless there is some resolution to this unsustainable situation. As I recently heard, humanitarian crisis require political solutions. I wish my friends who refuse to discuss the plight of refugees could walk these winding streets and look into the eyes of these children. They deserve a better life than this.

January 05, 2011 Settlement products: Boycott PA style

Many US activists are becoming increasingly involved in the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement as a nonviolent tactic to change Israeli policy through economic and political pressure and creative education and actions. Much is available on the internet, including the 2005 BDS call from Palestinian civil society and the PACBI call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Our day in Ramallah started out with a presentation and discussion with Omar Barghouti, a political analyst, cultural critic, electrical engineer, former dancer and choreographer, and one of the founders of PACBI. Although he gave an elegant and compelling analysis, much of his work is readily available in the US so I am going to comment on our next meeting.

Hitham Kayali, the general coordinator of Al Karameh National Empowerment Fund, an engaging and articulate 30 something, sat at the end of a long conference table and presented the Palestinian Authority’s plan for Palestinians to boycott all Jewish settlement products. In April 2010, the Law to Ban and Combat Settlements Products was passed as part of a governmental plan to build functional state institutions, a functional economy, and to encourage local Palestinian produce. Ironically as my attention is distracted by a rooster crowing, I notice a large Jewish settlement visible from the window. Because there has never been an official economy, settlement products in Palestinian shops are often outdated, expired, or without quality control.

Hitham outlines the challenges starting with the settlements which utilize Palestinian land and resources and block Palestinian production through unfair competition and false labeling. I am amazed to learn that settlement dates are even marketed in Iran with Palestinian labels! Settlement industries get special tax breaks and also are famously known for dumping their industrial waste into the adjacent Palestinian lands, circumventing environmental laws and threatening the health of Palestinians. Only 16% of the “Palestinian consumer basket” is local produce. Thus, a fund was created by the Palestinian private sector and matched by the PA to create the legislation prohibiting purchasing settlement products. At the political level there is total consensus that settlements cannot be part of a peace deal.

The next step was a public awareness campaign to educate and motivate the population. I peruse through the “Guide to Combating Settlement Products,” a glossy brochure with pages of over 100 products, with the identifying company and settlement. I am caught by the many US companies that have branches in the settlements or products that are frequently in our own stores: Nature Valley granola bars made by General Mills in Atarot, pastry and flour made by Pillsbury in Atarot, Brita water filters made by Soda Club in Mishur Adumim, carbonation machines made by Soda Club in Mishur Adumin, cosmetics by AHAVA in Mizpi Shalom. The lists include food, wine, furniture, electronics, and building equipment. Globalization is starting to have an even more sinister feel for me. I am also struck by the amount of industrial production that occurs in the settlements which frequently have new Jewish or Russian immigrants looking for work or poorly paid Palestinian workers.

The next step in the project was door to door campaigning and in May 2010, the Fund reached 70% or 350,000 homes in the West Bank. There were approximately 3000 volunteers starting with Prime Minister Fayyad and other governmental officials. They also targeted all Palestinian shops, gave them product guides, and introduced the Medal of Dignity if the shop was free of settlement products. A competition was created for 5th to 7th grade students to express what to say to Palestinian business men who continue to market settlement products and are using the best 50 messages for future education.

As of last week, Palestinian markets were free from settlement products and this will be monitored by various consumer protection and health and agricultural ministers.

The next challenge is to cut off other economic ties to settlements as 20,000 Palestinian workers are compelled to take settlement jobs, despite major risks, due to the lack of employment in the West Bank. We learn of the 23 year old Ahmad Draghmeh who was killed 1/2/11 at the Hamra checkpoint near Nablus on his way to work in a settlement. Initially media reports said he tried stabbing the soldiers, then the IDF confirmed that he was not armed, but was holding a glass bottle, then the story morphed: the soldiers were scared he might try to stab them with the bottle. Now all is “under investigation” which usually goes nowhere. The man was on his way to work.

The PA has created a grace period in recognition of the lack of work alternatives and another labor fund has been established to reintegrate laborers into the Palestinian economy.

While I sympathize fully with these efforts, it is difficult for me to fully understand how Palestinians can establish a viable economy when the Israeli government controls all imports of raw materials, construction materials, building permits, movement of workers, and exports. Hitham explains this is all part of an international campaign. In 2009 the Norwegian pension funds had four billion dollars invested in settlement products alone and now the pension funds are actively involved in the divestment movement. Hitham jokes that “Avigdor Lieberman is the biggest blessing for Palestinians” because he is open about his racist anti-Arab intentions and generates support for Palestinians.

The painful irony is that Palestinians will still have to buy many Israeli goods, partly because of Israeli control of all imports and partly because they are bound by the Paris Protocols which forbid boycotting Israeli products. Hitham comments, “Whoever signed that was drunk.” Another disturbing fact is that the vast majority of goods now trickling into Gaza are settlement products as well.

Another bizarre twist in this story is that there is support for this effort within Israel by liberal two staters who are against the settlement project and see this as a challenge to the settler movement.

While I hear much criticism of the PA on the ground, and a sense that this effort is perhaps too little too late, I suspect that boycott PA style is an important piece in the puzzle to create political change in this impossible place.

January 04, 2011 The very arbitrary, extreme banality of power

We return from Ramallah to East Jerusalem to join the health and human rights delegation and once again I am taken aback by the daily outrages that have now become ordinary. Sitting on the #18 bus, windows caked with mud and grime, we reach the massive traffic chaos at Qalandia checkpoint for the bizarre ritual of getting through. West Bank Palestinians with permits leave the bus for the walk through “security,” half an hour? two hours? Go home? An elderly gentleman with a blue ID card for East Jerusalem stays on the bus explaining that he does not need to leave because of his ID. A muscle man with sunglasses gets into the bus and I hand him my passport. He explains that he is “security” and stands legs apart in the bus, trying to look fierce. A bearded baby-faced soldier then enters the bus and has some argumentative conversation with the driver. He gestures to the old man to leave and the man shows his blue ID, muttering, “Is there now a new law?” He tells us he also has a US passport, “I have everything,” and never goes through security. Frustrated, he is forced off the bus for the never never land of security lines. We drive through the checkpoint and pick up Palestinians on the other side who have crossed the hurdles. A man with piercing green eyes explains that the soldiers told him he could not pass and they started arguing. He demanded, “I talk to your commander!” and the soldier relented. He is still clearly seething with rage and frustration. Suddenly I realize that I am holding my breath as if even the air is suffocating.

A very alternative tour

There are now opportunities to take “Alternative Tours” of Jerusalem and the delegates meet up with Ghadar who starts our tour in front of the historic Damascus Gate. There is an Israeli plan to close, rebuild, and modernize this main gate for the Arab population. This will drastically affect access, housing prices, and the 275,000 Palestinians now living in East Jerusalem, with the goal to reduce the Palestinian population to 50,000.

Walking through Herrod’s Gate, Old Jerusalem is a kaleidoscope of history and communities as well as a reflection of the active Judaization of the Old City. There are now 500 security cameras to protect the Jewish settlers who are buying up homes in quarters that have traditionally belonged to Christians and Muslims for many hundreds of years, as well as encircling the city with Jewish settlements beyond the ancient walls.

I had no idea there was an African community until we are ushered into the tiny living room of Ali Jadha. He explains that in 638 Africans from the areas of Senegal, Niger, Sudan and Chad came to Jerusalem after pilgrimages to Mecca as part of their devotion to Islam. Ali is a handsome dignified man who speaks with a deep voice and a twinkle of humor and is fluent in eight languages. He holds a cigarette in his left hand while placing his right black gloved hand carefully on a table. I wonder if he was injured. He explains that the African quarter is not on the map. His father came from Chad and married a second generation Palestinian Christian from Morocco. Because his father was very religious, he was given a home near the Al Aqsa Mosque.

We are sitting in a room built 800 years ago by the Mamluks for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. After the Turkish-Arab revolt from 1914-1917 this section become a prison and then was subsequently controlled by the British, Jordanians, and now Israelis. Ali was born in an adjoining room and attended French School until 1967 when the occupation interfered with his studies with frequent harassment and beatings from Israeli soldiers and loud dancing and singing by Israeli civilians celebrating their victory.

Ali felt he lost both his personal and national identity and became increasingly politically and militarily active, joining the PFLP, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1968 at the age of 18, as a reprisal for an Israeli bombardment, Ali placed a bomb in West Jerusalem, injuring nine Israelis. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and released in 1985 in a prisoner exchange. He began working as a journalist and in 1981 moved back to his home in Jerusalem. By 1994 he explains, “I have a dirty tongue. I have a dirty pen. I cannot work as a journalist.” He cannot tolerate lies. He initiated alternative tourism in the Old City and in refugee camps and began lecturing, exploring the meaning of Palestine.

He explains he will never plant another bomb, not because he is afraid of jail, but because he has five children, “I am not ready to harm others,” and also because he is finding Israelis that are serious about peace. “The work I am doing is more effective than the bomb I placed in 1986.” A turning point occurred for him when he went to Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem to pay respects to a “martyr’s” family. He asked the mother what she would do if she saw a wounded Israeli soldier. The woman replied that she would help him. Ali responded, “But they killed your son,” and the woman said, “But don’t forget, I am a mother.”

Ali is fearful that a third intifada is brewing as he has a network of contacts and is in touch with the mood on the street. The majority of Palestinians are fed up with the current rightwing Israeli government and he fears this next intifada will be more dangerous as Palestinians have lost everything and feel betrayed by the entire world. He notes European silence after the Gaza invasion was devastating and he has no patience for all the talk of Israeli democracy. Obama (“He is a coconut,”) may have good intentions, but the US is not one man. Palestinians need to know that they are not isolated, that there is somebody in the world who cares about their future.

Ali reminds us that the main fight is back home, “You have to be honest with yourself if you really care about human rights.” Although he favors a secular democratic state, he is aware that is a utopian idea and that Israelis and Palestinians “are in need of time to overcome the long history [of hatred]. We need to relax. We have to talk, build bridges, both of us are responsible.” He smiles, “My dream is to put my head on the pillow and have a nice dream.” Instead he wakes up anxiously looking for his ID card, worries about his children getting home from school safely, and is afraid to be outside after 8 pm for fear of being beaten. But still, “I love Jerusalem. Jerusalem is my girlfriend.”

His voice turns serious as he looks around the room. “I don’t deny the Holocaust. Because of the Holocaust you were supposed to be the most sympathetic people,” but instead Israelis have committed terrible aggression against people who were not responsible for that catastrophe. He is also clear that the occupation is terribly destructive to Jewish Israelis; the young soldier serving in the Territories is affected by the brutality and brings this home, often in the form of domestic violence. He quips, ‘Sharon is in coma; even the devil doesn’t want him.”

Ali warns that Israelis never understand until they lose physically, “so please don’t push my people into a corner.” When the conversation turns to the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, he states emphatically the BDS should be total. Israelis need to feel the impact to change.

We emerge from this intense interview into the winding stone streets of the old city, the bustling shopkeepers, hordes of tourists, women in hijabs, men in high hats and peyos, nuns in long habits. Some of the walls are decorated by Muslims who have just come back from Mecca. Ghadar asks them not to do this because this city is for everyone.