I am sitting in Ben Gurion Airport watching all the Christian pilgrims leaving the Holy Land. We are traveling on the Sabbath so we are avoiding the ultra Orthodox Jews and yes, I am doing my own racial profiling, but they look like goyim, have southern accents, are smiling in that unambivalent kind of way, and this is, after all, Israel. So forgive me. Last night I shredded all my computer files, hid my camera memory card, placed anything from the West Bank at the bottom of my suit case under the dirty underwear, all in preparation for the are you Jewish enough and politically kosher testing that often occurs in the multiple layers of Israeli airport security.

As we approach the airport, we are stopped and the taxi trunk is searched. Our driver explains this always happens when the driver is Palestinian, which is totally determined by the face, the accent, the look in the eyes, since the car has yellow, ie, Israeli, license plates. In the airport, a sincere young man explains to me that someone may have put a bomb in my suitcase, (how about in my brain?) and wants to know if I know anyone in Jordan, but with my nice Jewish face and nice Jewish name, and a few gray hairs, I have no trouble.

I spent the last three days in the West Bank working/observing in three Palestinian Medical Relief women’s clinics in Qalqilya, Kufor Lakef, and Tulkarem, where medicine and occupation and the fragmentation of health care all come together. One doctor is a lovely Romanian woman who met her Palestinian husband when they were studying in Romania, another is a Russian with a similar story and the third is a West Banker who studied in Bulgaria, also with her doctor husband. They all have children and challenging lives. Tragically the first doctor’s husband was sitting on a balcony last year when it collapsed, leaving him a paraplegic. The Russian woman, who is seeing all the men, women, and children who show up because the family doctor did not make it today, introduces herself and then states, “I am not happy.” I cannot tell if that is a comment about her impossible day or her impossible life. I get the sense that the women who came here for love, all got much more than they bargained for, and their perseverance and dedication is impressive. Last year, many clinicians were not paid for months when the Palestinians were punished for daring to ask for recognition in the UN. That can be demoralizing as well as financially catastrophic. “We cannot plan for our futures.”

The clinics are all a strange mix of first and third world medicine and the medical problems are like health care issues anywhere with an overlay of occupation and cultural traditions. The scale is prehistoric, obviously not calibrated, and the women are weighed with all their multiple layers of clothing. How accurate can that be? There are many pregnant women and just about everyone pregnant or not pregnant, gets an ultrasound. The ultrasound machines are all ancient, some covered with grime and gel, the doctors quite skilled but rushed, (no one has a full bladder which is imperative for a quality exam), the indications seem more social than medical. Women frequently present for vaginal issues, refuse a pelvic exam, then get an ultrasound and a script for yeast medication. This seems somewhat dependent on how the doctor presents the need for an exam, but, from my first world vantage point, this is practicing gynecology without the data for a correct diagnosis. Mostly it feels to me like a waste of resources and a prescription for incorrect diagnoses and repeat visits. I also notice an overuse of antibiotics, a mix of patient expectation and best guessing. On the other hand, since patients pay for testing and for medications, the doctors are making financial decisions in terms of how to give the most care for the least shekels. So it is complicated at best and I can see that the essentials are covered: pregnant women are taking folic acid and iron, they have prenatal records they bring to each visit wherever that may happen, IUDs are inserted using sterile technique, etc.

There are apparently various protocols that do not make much sense to me, such as women with IUDs are expected to have an ultrasound every six months, and problems related to the upcoming Ramadan. Women do not want to have their menses during Ramadan because they will not be able to fast while bleeding and then have to fast to make up after the holiday. Progesterone and birth control pills are dispensed freely to bring on early menses or to delay menses according to where women are in their cycles. A teenager is seen wearing a tee shirt, “Honolulu Wild Surfing is a Way of Life.” I am sure he has never seen the sea and I want to cry. A young boy comes in covered with healing chicken pox pustules and then the next patient is a two week old baby. I jump up and say that we must put a clean drape on the table. Chicken pox can kill newborns. The clinic has no scale to weigh the newborn, critical data in terms of adequate weight gain and breast feeding, but the mother is clutching a scrap of paper with the baby’s weight taken two days ago at a Ministry of Health clinic where such data is collected. Big sigh. Another woman was seen at a Ministry of Health hospital, was told she had a urinary tract infection and given Xanax, an antianxiety drug rather than an antibiotic. Another women made the probably arduous trip to a Ministry of Health clinic for a mammogram and was turned away after being told that mammograms are only done on day five of the menstrual cycle! (Really?) There are certainly big issues here with medical standards, quality of care, and coordination.

Most women wear colorful hijabs, some with all sorts of decorative sparkles, matching shoes and coats, there is actually a lot of fashion going on, a few are covered with a niqab which they flip back on entering the room, some come with mothers or aunts, or an occasional husband. I study each face, the young often heavily made up and gorgeous, the prematurely older women mostly look tired and weary. One totally covered woman with a sweet, very pale face asks me, “How is America? Is it comfortable?” She wants to go live with relatives in Michigan. Exactly what can I tell her? There are tragic stories of long term infertility which is very bad in this culture, labs of dubious quality, medications are costly and sometimes just not available.

In the midst of one visit, a slick male drug representative drops in and dumps a pile of free samples on the desk; these will go to the very poor. At the mobile clinic in Kufor Lakef, one of the community based workers is leading a breast feeding support group. (Yeah!) There are no prenatal classes, that is what mothers and grandmothers are for, no pain relief in labor, and lots of advice from village women, like taking birth control pills for polycystic ovarian syndrome will cause infertility rather than treat the underlying disease. PMRS has piles of excellent patient education handouts and the doctors do their best given the time available. There are postpartum home visits if women do not live too far from the city. At the clinic in Tulkarem, we are offered a steady stream of juice, water, tea, coffee, and finally a huge plate of hot manakish, delicious dough that is baked with za’atar and cheese, piled in the midst of the charts and medical paraphernalia.

In our journeys to these three clinics, most of the checkpoints have hot, bored looking soldiers but we are not stopped. At Anabta checkpoint at 9:00 am we see the traffic slowing as we approach the guard tower. The soldiers are setting up “slow down” signs, the military are loaded down with all sorts of guns and gear ready for mortal combat amongst all these civilians trying to live their ordinary lives, and mostly we sit and wait for no particular reason. Maybe because this is a good way to disrupt people trying to get to work? After twelve minutes, we are waved through without even checking our passports. I count 52 cars and trucks waiting in the opposite direction. This is how the IDF maintains total control; because you never know when you will be stopped, turned back, for how long, etc, etc; planning anything is basically a crap shoot.

Our last day with PMRS ends with a discussion and reflection on how to support the Farah Rehabilitation Center where my other colleagues have been working for three days with an amazing dedicated staff and devoted parents, and then we go to a “barbeque.” This involves a bouncing ride to Beit Furiq, a rural village maybe 30 minutes outside of Nablus where the brother of one of the PMRS staff is building a magnificent stone house, all hand carved. We wander around the unfinished three floors, gasp at the stunning views in all directions, and marvel at the love, skill, and craftsmanship that he is pouring into his future home. He is an incredibly skilled stone mason. The house has already been spray painted by nearby settlers as part of their “price tag” policy. They want him to know they are watching; they are offended that he is building on his family property, they may come back, burn his car, trash his house, who knows? The family remains, undaunted by this threatening behavior.

The brother has a zareb, an oven that is a deep pit in the ground where he has created a bed of coals and then lowered down a many layered basket holder, each filled with aromatically flavored chicken, potatoes, carrots, and onions. They cover this with a concrete top and seal it with dough along the edges. After 2 ? hours of baking, this is all opened up and we watch and taste and smell the magnificent meal as it emerges. Then we pile into the cars, shock absorbers challenged, gears grinding, and arrive at another family home where tables are pushed together and the barbequed food is added to an extraordinary array of bread, pickles, and salad and a most amazing Basmati rice/almond/carrot/corn/onion thing all steamed in chicken broth dish. (Big wow) The mood is generous and happy, we are repeatedly welcomed and fed and fed some more. We soon discover there are no plate boundaries and more food than the crowd of guests and family can possibly consume.

Three sisters live here with 18 children and two husbands. The third husband left for another wife who could provide him with sons. Traditional society still hasn’t figured out that the sperm carry the “x” and “y” genes, but I digress. His first wife is clearly a survivor; she opened a minimart, anchored herself in the bosom of her extended family, and raised her daughters. Her face is both warm and proud and she looks much older than her 50 years. The men retire to the living room to smoke nargila, talk men talk, and the women rearrange the tables and chairs for our coffee klatch and kanafeh, a famous Nablus sweet cheese concoction. Children of all ages are constantly in and out, sitting in laps, taking care of each other, sharing candy, crying, laughing, playing. There is lots of love and physical contact with the little ones.

Back at the airport, there is always a fascinating exhibit of large photos after customs and security, as travelers walk towards the food court. This year, the exhibit highlights Israeli sports, “A story in pictures.” There is the tribute to the eleven slain athletes in the Munich Olympics and lofty text about how sports are part of the “national ethos,” part of the Israeli culture of struggle and winning. The images are inspirational and multicultural: women swimmers and weight lifters, girls in hijabs playing football, various wheelchair athletes, coed rowing, but mostly strong, handsome, powerful men doing great athletic feats. This is the message the Israeli tourist authorities want us to leave with: a vibrant, struggling, modern, democratic country that knows how to win and win big.

On the other hand, I am thinking about the meaning of resistance: the kind that involves getting up every morning, taking care of your children, picking your olive trees, celebrating every wedding, waiting at checkpoints without losing your mind, refusing to bend. I think about the Palestinians and Israeli supporters who are stubbornly working on the boycott, divestment, sanction movement, (McDonalds just announced that they will not open shops in the settlements); the students I met in buses and guest houses, studying English literature or communication at Birzeit University, getting their masters degrees, plotting PhDs in London, refusing to be hopeless; the film makers telling the stories over and over again. I think about the women coming for prenatal care, IUDs in, out, creating the next generation that will live on this land, deeply connected to place and history. This is a powerful stubbornness.

I fully understand that the political and societal issues for Palestinians are vexing and complicated. Everyone I talk with speaks of the current political leadership with a mixture of disgust and cynicism and there is definitely a weariness and hopelessness present much of the time, but there is also joy and creativity and determination. For me, being on the ground, bearing witness, and joining in solidarity work, this refusal to bend is really inspirational.

Today, I notice that I do not have my usual gut gripping airport anxiety, maybe because I have chronicled this struggle each day, hit the cathartic “send” button, using my voice as the most powerful weapon I have. My traveling partner is wearing a tee shirt she bought that is emblazed with “Free Palestine” and a big graphic of Handala, the backward facing little boy who is a symbol of resistance. She has it on inside out so security will not find it in her suitcase, but she is standing proudly in line and I know it is there. Another piece of resistance. I deeply believe that every bit counts; this is about moving mountains one rock at a time; about using these rocks to build bridges rather than walls, about using our American privilege to support the people that are engaged in a struggle that is far more critical to the survival of everyone in this region than the sky diving, archery, and acrobatics highlighted in the image making that bids us goodbye.

June 25, 2013 Qalqilya: The Ariel Finger

After seeing patients in a PMRS clinic in Qalqilya, a northern West Bank city located against the Green Line, I join Suhad Hashem, an extraordinary, feisty activist for a “wall tour” of the city, the first city to be completely encircled by the separation wall in 2002. This is my third tour in nine years and the “prison” has certainly evolved. We pass a shabby UNRWA hospital, and she informs me that the people of Qalqilya were given refugee status even though they were not technically refugees, because they lost so much of their land located on the “wrong side” of the Green Line in 1948. They also have the only zoo in Palestine! All sorts of metaphors spring to mind: the animals in a cage, the zoo keepers also caged; my bet is the animals receive better treatment than their care takers.

We walk towards the North Gate through a bustling souk filled with fruits and vegetables. From 2002 to 2005, no permits were given to allow workers to leave the city to work in Israel, a form of collective punishment to the entire population. In 2006, it became possible for workers to leave through this military terminal: metal corridors like cattle chutes, much barbed wire and fencing, a guard tower, then a security building, a total of eight turnstiles, and Israel on the other side. 5,000 laborers from all over the northern West Bank line up at 3:00 am to get through every day. This was all built inside of the West Bank, annexing twelve kilometers of Qalqilya to Israel. The men must present permits, their bodies are checked and a handprint is taken every time. Suhad has gone through this gate and found it utterly humiliating. She reports that usually there are young female soldiers to increase the humiliation for the older Palestinian men. The laborers are picked up by an Israeli bus, for Arabs only, (think Selma, Alabama), and then are taken to the Tel Aviv industrial areas, or to black market industries, or to sorry no work today. The workers have no protections from trade unions and there are many stories of terrible abuse, but people are desperate for work, any work. At the Azzun Atma crossing, a different bus also stops at the Israeli settlement of Oranit but the settlers objected to the presence of Arabs on the bus, so the police enter the bus, take all the Palestinians’ IDs, throw them off the bus, and the men are forced to walk a distance to another site where their IDs are returned. (What century are we living in? Liberal Zionist folks in the Tel Aviv bubble, is this okay with you? Apartheid anyone? )

Suhad reports that 50% of the Palestinian permit requests for access to their own land are rejected by the Israeli authorities, or permits are only given to one family member when it takes the whole family to work the land. Where the wall is a fence, it consists of barbed wire, a military road on each side, a trench and then more barbed wire, again more land seized to create a no man’s land. Recently the Israelis have allowed Palestinians to farm right up to the wall area, so I see neat rows of crops and plantings now where there used to be rubble. Before the wall, this was a major greenhouse area, Israelis shopped in Qalqilya, and there was a vigorous agricultural export business. That abruptly ended with the wall and that area is now a parking lot and the garbage strewn souk in which we are standing. Thus wealthy families have been reduced to poverty. Suhad’s family owns land on the other side of the wall and she remembers their lush lemons and orange groves; it pains her now to buy these in the market because she cannot reach her own trees.

We walk down Western Street, once a vigorous commercial area, now dead, and visit the Asharqa School which has the misfortune of being located adjacent to the wall, the eight meter high, three meters under the ground concrete version. She tells us stories of Jewish settlers dumping sewerage into the yard of (?another) school adjacent to the wall, and destroying part of the school yard. The children in these situations live with the wall shoved in their faces; they are the first to see the IDF incursions, the first to choke from the tear gas, and they have predictable psychological difficulties. The Israelis have added electrical fencing on top of the wall and security cameras every few hundred feet. On the other side of the wall, the land in front of the concrete barrier has been filled in and planted with trees so the wall is virtually invisible to those who choose not to see.

Qalqilya has flooded twice since the wall was constructed and the rain and sewerage mixed together to create an awful soup, so there are now some grated drainage openings at the base of the concrete. As we walk along the military road, trying to grasp the ugliness and consequences of this imposing prison, there are pools of open sewerage and the foul odor of dormant puddles.

Suhad speaks with a mixture of urgency and outrage. The big reason for all of this land grabbing, she explains, is that Qalqilya sits upon the largest water aquifer in Palestine, 52% of the water in Palestine, and the Israelis want to control the water sources. People say that water is more important than oil and gold in these parts. We are looking at the latest graffiti on the towering cement walls. There is the famous one of a child in a bottle, Qalqilya, and a snarling pig, Ariel Sharon, and a giant hand with keys and chains dangling from the fingers. There is an elegant mansion opposite this site, adjacent to the olive samplings in the no man’s land, and the house is under demolition orders because it is too close to the wall which was obviously built after the house. The owner’s child died of a chronic illness because he was unable to get a permit to continue the child’s high level treatments in Israel. The authorities have punished the home owner and he is no longer allowed to be on his roof, where he is able to look over the wall at the flourishing settlements and bypass road. Suhad herself lost her 60-year-old mother, a vigorous woman who had a heart attack and died when she could not get through the checkpoints to a high level hospital in Ramallah or Nablus.

There are two newer developments she explains with a pile of maps and lots of pointing and squinting into the sun. The Israelis have built a tunnel from the walled city of Qalqilya to the walled city of Habla that goes under the wall. Life is further complicated for some Palestinians, like the village of Arab Abu Fardad, who live on land in between the loops that encircle the settlements, keeping the Jewish settlers with full access to Israel and modern bypass roads and totally isolating the Palestinians who are living on “the wrong side” of the loops of the wall. She then gives a detailed explanation of the bypass roads that have been built to link the settlements deep into the West Bank with Israel, (like the “Ariel finger,” I can only think, so which finger is that???). These fingers are then linked up so that they extend all the way to the Jordan Valley on the east side of the West Bank, dividing the territory in two. The Palestinians trapped in these fingers of land and roads are under threat of dispossession; they have no water, no schools, cannot bury their dead, are severely restricted in terms of what they can bring to market, etc, etc. In other words, they are being targeted for silent transfer: making life so unbearable that they are forced to leave in order to survive. Such a nice liberal democracy, this Israeli state.

We are now on the road towards the walled town of Habla which is three kilometers from Qalqilya. Under international pressure, the Israelis not only built the tunnel, but also a gate that is open three times a day for 30 minutes to 1 ? hours. We get there at 5:30 pm and children, laborers, and tractors, are gathering for the ritual of crossing over. I can see the high rises of Tel Aviv in the distance. Suhad tells us of a man who tried to cross, but the computer in the security terminal indicated that he was already on the other side, a soldier had failed to enter his data, and he was forced to prove that he was actually on the side that he was actually on. How is this different from mass psychosis? She says if you argue, you lose your permit for one year, so everyone is fairly subdued. The IDF arrives on the other side in a jeep and one man and two young women, fully armed for combat, get out. One of the women has long blond hair cascading down her back, flowing out of her menacing helmet. They are laughing and kicking the locks and clearly taking their time while the prisoners on each side wait patiently. They finally open the gates and tell us we cannot stand in the road where the photographic opportunities are optimal. When Suhad asks why not, the woman replies, “Because it’s the rules.” I look at the size of her gun and decide now is not the time for an argument.

In the taxi back to the service to Nablus, I ask Suhad where she finds hope. She speaks eloquently of the power of survival, of refusing to leave, of replanting the crops, rebuilding the homes, educating the children. She also talks about the critical importance of international attention and pressure and the power of the boycott movement, which is her other focus of activity. Clearly, she does not have the privilege of despair.

June 24, 2013 Nablus: Resilience and Resourcefulness

The drive to Nablus is uneventful, unlike the experience of two of our delegates who got stuck in a massive four hour happening at a checkpoint that involved many IDF and tanks and lots of waiting and cigarette smoking and no clear explanations. The Al Yasmeen Hotel on the edge of the Old City, seems to have perked up since our last visit, with many more guests and meetings, although, despite an attentive and friendly staff of attractive young men, and five separate attempts to book our rooms, they managed to screw it up anyway. Small potatoes in the occupied territories.

I have been looking forward to my day with Dr. Khadejeh Jarrar, the head of women’s health care from Palestinian Medical Relief Society. We are going to three villages with a team from Medical Relief, UNDP (United Nations Development Program), a representative of the Palestinian Authority, and members from the local community councils to discuss how to create a more organized system of health care between three towns that are trying to collaborate. Since I am always stunned by the disorganization of health care delivery in these parts, the NGOization of different compartments of care, and the consequences to patients living in this disjointed and confusing world, this should be interesting to see in action.

Nablus is a gorgeous old city built on the palm and up the fingers of mountains that hold it like a giant cupping of hands. The traffic is of the chest pain variety, there are billboards for all sorts of international companies: two happy, handsome guys drink Coca Cola, blond women with hair flying sell all sorts of products including sexy wedding dresses to the covered women in the streets, and Israeli military bases dot the hilltops. There are mountains of pita bread and water melons on every corner and a clear feeling of being watched by the guys above us.

We head to the town of Burin, population 10,000, where part of the mosque is in Area B and part in Area C so there is a threat that it will be demolished; this kind of humiliation and downright meanness takes real creativity. We enter the local community health center where the hallway is lined with mostly women who represent the community or work professionally in the clinic, plus the representatives of the previously named organizations. The Director of the Burin Charitable Association seems to be chairing. The clinic is trying to provide services to the towns of Burin, Madama, and Asira al Qiblia. It seems that there is a lot of physical community support for the center, (painting, curtains, etc) but there are many complaints and conversations of the following types:

1. The doctor comes to the clinic two times per week, which is an inadequate number of days and which results in a stressed out doctor, crowded clinic, short visits, and inadequate care, patients get angry, urgent patients cannot be seen quickly and there is a high level of frustration. The UNDP representative explains that their role is to support marginal communities to get access to care and given the occupation, perhaps they can build on the capacities of PMRS and the Ministry of Health working together. The nurse suggests that many services do not need a physician and that, for instance, the clinic had figured out how to provide vaccinations. If fact, much of primary care that involves monitoring, height, weight, etc can be done by a nurse or midwife.

2. For pregnant women, there is no female doctor, no reliable ultrasound; Burin currently is seeing 35 pregnant patients, but they predict that number should be 75, so women are going elsewhere.

3. There is a lack of available medications. I think back to my trip to the West Bank in October, 2012 when I struggled to find digoxin, a basic cardiac medication, for an older US delegate whose medications were stolen. (I finally located a private doctor who had a secret stash and we traded other hard-to-get medications for a week of digoxin in what felt like an illicit drug deal). A patient who is on the council tells the story of her epileptic son who was unable to get his (not sure if free or inexpensive) medications from the Ministry of Health, she was told to drive to Nablus, so she just paid for it herself in a local pharmacy. Another person discusses the lack of insulin, a basic medication for diabetes, to be found in the Ministry of Health pharmacies. Once a medication arrives, it is distributed to all the Ministry of Health clinics, but how does it get to the patients? The clinic uses a computerized data base and can easily organize home visits and screening. Another person talks about how time consuming it is to make a referral to the Ministry of Health and wonders if they could have direct computer access to their appointment system. (I have certainly had many conversations back in the US non-health care system that remind me of this one.)

4. Several complain that there is no ambulance, no public transportation, and private transportation is expensive. If someone fractures a bone or goes into labor, it is difficult to get all the way to the Ministry of Health hospital in Nablus. One diabetic, hypertensive man called an ambulance which never came. He was taken in a private car and died on the way to the hospital. It seems there is little coordination between the Red Crescent and the Ministry of Health. One elderly lady was hit by a settler and injured; the IDF told them she was stable, but the Red Crescent ambulance took her anyway. Yesterday, a motor vehicle killed two people and injured four on the main road of Nablus.

5. Then there is the special issue of the nearby Jewish settlements that frequently block access between the villages, burn farms and olive trees, grow wild pigs and release them into the Palestinian farms where they cause massive destruction, and no one knows how to get rid of them. The biggest complaint is the frequent Israeli settler attacks; the lack of available ambulances, the PA police are paralyzed and afraid to do anything, safe transport is desperately needed. I discover that the clinic does not even have a phone land line.

Everyone agrees that the health committees should empower the local people to demand their rights for quality services and PMRS supports this idea. On the positive side, the Director of the Charitable society proudly shows off his computerized records for all the activities in the center: the monthly visits monitoring patients with chronic diseases, the educational consults for the kindergarten teachers, the cooking and breakfast programs, the theater that is being built, safety awareness programs, summer camps, the machine that is available for villagers to make honey. The PA representative is from the fire department and talks about the civil protection, safety courses, first aid and CPR courses, the volunteer teams that support the villagers during settler attacks, the training for evacuating the entire village in case of emergency. We visit a room filled with handmade soap, handicrafts and pickled fruits. This is a pretty impressive and well organized village.

Madama, on the other hand, is in crisis. Their main source of water has been taken over by settlers and they are reduced to carrying water of questionable quality from a well in the town in large plastic buckets by hand or on donkeys. We meet with the village council and besides the water disaster, contamination from the sewer system, and the prevalence of infectious diarrheal diseases, all the complaints are worse. Although PMRS and the Angelican Hospital both have clinics two days per week, they are on the same two days, there is little coordination between all the players, the Ministry of Health is hopelessly bureaucratic, there is little available medicine, and no capacity for supports such as fire departments and ambulances. The stakeholders at the meeting agree to set up a committee, create an action plan, and learn from the more successful experience in Burin.

Asira al Qiblia is the poorest and most marginalized of the three villages, a small, dusty, crumbling town. It seems that there are no health councils, paved roads, or water. They suffer from daily settler attacks and attacks on their water system and infrastructure, so the villagers have lots of injuries and a generation of traumatized children. Of the 3,500 villagers, (350 households) approximately 100 families have health insurance. They buy water at exorbitant prices, a tank of 3,000 liters for 30 shekels which lasts 5 days. The monthly cost of water per family is more than their total monthly incomes and many have sold their cattle because of the lack of water. In addition there are three nearby stone quarries, so there is the issue of dust related respiratory diseases and allergies as well as large trucks loaded with stone lumbering through the town.

This is where I tend to shake my head in utter despair, but instead we are all invited to one of the women’s homes for a feast. Palestinian resilience is always a source of inspiration for me. The living room is filled with stuffed couches and chairs, and decorated with intricately embroidered pillow cases, lamp shades, and scenes of traditional weddings. We are soon sitting around a long table facing enormous platters of mujadara (some kind of fabulous grain and lentil combo) and thin cigar shaped yalanji (grape leaves) along with the usual labneh (yogurt), flavorful salads, pita, pickled vegetables, water, Sprite, aromatic tea flavored with mint, and small cups of Turkish coffee and a crowd of women all encouraging us to eat more; sounds of my grandmother.

These village women are warm and tough. One speaks good English, went to college, and tells us that women in the countryside want to improve their lives and have projects like making honey, growing herbs, and raising sheep. Many of the women attended university and many of their men are unemployed. In Asira on January 14, 2013, 70 women formerly registered an organization called The Palestinian Foundation for Women; they are fixing up a donated house that has no water, electricity, or plumbing facilities, and they are creating a women’s center for training in crafts such as embroidery and knitting as well as how to use more modern methods to make olive oil soap. She tells me most married women are working, particularly as teachers, and they all giggle and kvell about the new Arab idol from Gaza. The older woman who cooked the vast quantity of food will not let us leave without doggie bags for the road, (God forbid we feel hungry), and will not take no for an answer. The fact that I do not have a refrigerator and am likely to face more vast quantities of food at my upcoming visits does not seem to matter. I give her a thank you gift of an olive oil hand cream made in Davis, California by a friend of my daughter’s and she gets out her local version in a plain white bottle but smelling fragrantly of almond and apricot oil which is pretty divine. Despite the challenges this village is facing, it seems that the self esteem and integrity of the women is solid. They are not looking for charity; they just want the opportunity to raise their families and live productive, creative lives which seems utterly reasonable.

Just as I am promising myself never to eat again, I discover that tonight’s social activity is a family dinner with one of the main organizers of the Farah Center in Nablus where many of the delegates are spending their clinical days. A few hours later I am in the arms of another warm and welcoming Palestinian family, four lively children, a stunning view of the sun setting over the Nablus hills as lights start twinkling in the dusk, and of course a tasty dinner of overwhelming proportions. We laugh and joke into the evening playing a goofy, fast paced card game called Uno. Another resilient family refusing to be silenced in the midst of occupation.

June 23, 2013 Lifta: Eracing History part three

I have seen many photos of the destroyed village of Lifta, which dates back 1,000 years and has tax records from the Ottoman Empire. The photos show a famous, archetypal vista of fragmented houses, piles of stones extending into a valley at the edge of Jerusalem, but Omar from the Israeli organization Zochrot, (Remembering) has much to teach us. He has us rotate around 180 degrees and look at a conglomeration of modern buildings extending up the hill. These were all built on the land of the destroyed village of Lifta. He points out a little building hiding under a big billboard; this was once the school of Lifta and is now a Jewish school. So the village is far more than its famous ruins and actually encompasses much of the land around it. Close to old Jerusalem and on the road from Al Quds, the Arab name for Jerusalem, to Jaffa, this was a busy area for the locals, religious pilgrims, and tourists. The village actually dates back to the Canaanites, and has Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew roots. Lifta means “The Gate,” (of Jerusalem).

The sign reads En Neftoah (Lifta), and Omar explains that Neftoah is a Biblical place somewhere around here and that the Israelis added “En” to Hebraicize the name as well as give it an ancient reference. We scramble down a steep rocky path, past a dusty construction site which is part of a new project to build a train track to Jaffa that will include bridges and tunnels through this area. He points out nearby destroyed villages such as Biddu and JNF forests near the Jewish settlement of Ramot. We see a mosque at the top of a mountain which was attacked by settlers who wanted to turn it into a park and synagogue. Facing the other way towards the construction is the site of Deir Yassin, now a Jewish neighborhood. Beyond that is Ein Kerem and other Palestinian villages all occupied and mostly destroyed in 1948 with the creation of thousands of Palestinian refugees. There are also a scattering of Palestinian homes at the top of the valley that are now Jewish homes. The Knesset and many governmental offices, the high court, and even parts of Hebrew University are all on Lifta. I am in one of my feeling particularly hostile to ultra-Orthodox Jews in general and settlers in particular moods (this is happening fairly frequently), and note that many boys with kippahs, dangling payos, (the long curls on each side of the face), and tzitzit bouncing from their shirts as well as girls in long skirts and long sleeved blouses are walking on these paths as well. I can feel the bitterness in my throat and a twitching in my commitment to passivism.

Omar explains that before 1948, Lifta included 10,000 dunams with 40,000 more cultivated and a population of 3,000 which was a big, wealthy town for those days. There were many olive trees and vegetables planted from seed and it was a lush and prosperous place. 50 of the 400 houses are left. Other villages such as Ein Kerem and Ein Hod were not destroyed and are now Jewish towns, but 95% of the villages were completely demolished to eliminate the possibility of return. Strangely enough, in 1949 Jews from Arab countries were brought to live in Lifta, it probably looked a lot like home, but they left after a few years because the village was near the Green Line with the Jordanians on the other side and it was slightly dangerous, plus these Arab Jews had no water and no electricity provided to their homes. Jews from Arabic speaking countries were second class from the start. And did I mention that this area is crawling with Orthodox boys and girls and occasional older men with big hats and stern faces? (For me, this is how I know how bigotry feels. My hostility is growing and we haven’t even started arguing with each other.)

Almost immediately, various green organizations asked that Lifta be left as a park, a green spot in Jerusalem, but even today, most Israelis do not see the relationship between a park with graceful ruins and the Arabs that once inhabited them and are now deafeningly absent. As we scramble, walk, jump, trip around the stone paths and in and outside of crumbling homes, the sunset creating a shimmery streaking light, the extraordinary beauty of Lifta is painfully obvious. The stones range from grey white to orange. There are wells and aqueducts, the original fig trees and lush saber cactus, ancient terraces, amazing architecture with graceful archways and floors built on top of each other dating from different centuries and now crumbling from age and neglect. Each family also had a smaller house for baking bread. At the base of the valley we come across two pools with a predominantly orthodox group of youth playing in the water with a few guys in their underwear and girls in bikinis thrown in for dramatic effect. The first pool is cleaner and was originally for washing dishes, etc in the homes while the second pool, which is utterly disgusting, was for the animals to drink. Canals lead from the pools to water the various gardens below and each family had plots for figs and almonds, apricots, vegetables. This seems to me like an approximation of the Garden of Eden.

In 1947 the UN Partition Plan was announced and Jewish militias immediately started to occupy villages beyond the partition line. (Remember this important tidbit, this is before the state was declared, the Arabs attacked, etc). Lifta and Jerusalem were supposed to be international zones, but clashes with the Irgun started in 1947 and in early 1948, Irgun fighters, (shall we say terrorists?), dressed as tourists came into a Lifta coffee shop and shot six people, wounding seven. This created a wave of fear and the families living on the edges of town fled to East Jerusalem and Ramallah. A month later the Irgun bombed all the empty houses and then started attacking every few days to weeks. The inhabitants were terrified and fled to Ramallah but 30 to 50 young men stayed with some meager ammunition and guns. The Haganah and Irgun attacked again and Ben Gurion famously declared that you can now enter Jerusalem through the Lifta area, “without seeing any strangers” (read Arabs).

Then on April 9, 1948, 120 men, women and children were massacred in nearby Deir Yassin and the Jewish soldiers took a group of captured women on a “victory tour” around the city and then dumped them at the Jaffa Gate. The Arab population panicked and fled to Ramallah. The Israeli forces declared all the fleeing home owners “absentees” and confiscated all the property for the state.

As Lifta decayed, it also became a home for squatters, the homeless, and drug dealers who had been pushed out by the police. In the 1980s there was also a Jewish terror cell called the Lifta Underground that was plotting to bomb the Al Aqsa Mosque and the mosque in Hebron. (Yikes!) The Lifta mosque, one of the oldest buildings made of stone and mud mixed with ash, is cooler with a courtyard, trees growing stubbornly out of the stone walls and stairs. There are two rooms in various states of ruin, the prayer room and the school. Palestinian groups still come here to pray and Lifta survivors living in East Jerusalem come to pray and clean up the cemetery. In many of the rooms with high arched ceilings the keystone at the top, which is critical to the architectural stability of the stones, has been removed, thus contributing to the future collapse of the ruin.

At one point as we walk soberly through one stately house after another, gracefully arching windows, floors sticking out into nowhere, Omar tells us to put away our cameras. We peer across a roof and there is a gigantic construction site. “Haaretz” reports that the Israelis are building a massive bunker and underground tunnel that will connect to the prime minister’s house and be a functional government in case of nuclear war. Ultimately this will all be planted to appear as a garden. It seems that everyone around here is preparing for the apocalypse. Security is a bit touchy about us taking pictures of this not so secret project.

There is now a plan to finish the destruction of Lifta and build a posh new Jerusalem neighborhood and while there is a campaign fighting this proposal, Omar predicts construction will start in a few months. When he says this I am seized with a wave of grief and rage, and start taking photos of every stairway, crumbling wall, olive press, desperately trying to document the world that may soon be erased.

Omar explains that Zochrot started twelve to thirteen years ago to document the Nakba and to create a new memory of 1948. He reminds us that in the early days of the state, Ben Gurion asked academic researchers to create a history that stated Palestinians made the decision to leave voluntarily and the researchers have done an excellent job creating that illusion. Zochrot has studied 58 destroyed villages and has documented a total of 672 lost villages and small towns. 800,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled one way or another and 100,000 stayed. Omar was lucky. His village was attacked, one donkey was killed, homes were destroyed, and the remaining houses were totally ransacked, sugar poured into the olive oil, flour spilled on the floor, deliberate chaos, but the families returned. The village was located in the Triangle Area controlled by Jordan, but in the agreements at the end of the war, the Jordanians gave the Triangle Area as a gift to Israel, so by quirk of fate Omar is an Israeli citizen

Omar is proud that Palestinians continue to persevere and refuse to be erased from history and he is drawn to the work of Zochrot as part of that ongoing struggle to be seen and acknowledged within Israeli society. My eyes sweep across the ancient beauty and dignity of this rich valley, imaging the bustling community that once lived here. As a student of the Nakba, this is as close as I come to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

June 23, 2013 Wadi Aliam, the largest unrecognized village in Israel part two

We are back on the highway with Thabet from Adalah and I am puzzled why Israeli authorities are putting so much energy into displacing the Bedouins. He explains that the Naqab (Negev) is half of Mandatory Palestine, 60% of Israeli territory and contains 8% of the total Israeli population. Currently 1/3 of the population of the Naqab is on 2% of the land and if all the Bedouin land claims were honored, that amount would be approximately 3.5% of the Naqab which is really not a big deal. What this means is that land is a matter of identity, (the same love and passion for land is expressed in Hebrew as in Arabic songs), as well as colonization. I note that the Ottomans and the British accepted the Bedouin, but Israeli policy involves the claiming of land for Jews and the de-Arabization of that land.

In 1948 some Bedouins were evicted from the Naqab and in the 1950s the state gathered the Bedouin into the “Sayig,” a designated area which was declared a closed military zone, and then the Israeli State declared much of the area as agricultural which meant they were not allowed to do any construction. In the 1960s, the state become more aggressive and gathered Bedouin into a number of townships, punishing those who refused by declaring their homes as unrecognized villages. It should be remembered that the city of Be’er Sheva was founded in 1900 with the purchase of 200 dunans (approximately 50 acres) from the Hazazin tribe.

We are about to visit Wadi Aliam, the largest unrecognized village in Israel, some 10-15,000, all under threat of displacement. The Israeli authorities have announced the closure of the schools starting August 23rd, transferring the children to pressure their parents to move. The students are on a general strike. We are meeting with the traditional leader of the local committee which is the political organization of unrecognized villages.

Such villages are not on any maps, some existed before 1948, some are the results of previous dispossessions and now they are under threat again. Thabet explains that since 1948, Israeli policy has included:

1. Concentrating Bedouins into small reservation areas and restricting their movement, think Native Americans

2. Urbanizing the Bedouin in the name of modernization without any respect for their identity and culture and destroying a traditional way of living

3. Finalizing land claims. Of the 90,000 pre-1948 Bedouins, 10,000 remained after the war and the population has grown to 200,000 people who claim 3.5% of the Naqab. Since the 1948 dispossessions and transfer to the different reservations, the Israelis have created seven planned towns for those who lost land or live in unrecognized villages; this will involve the destruction of 20-25 villages, uprooting 35-75,000 people, and the loss of land claims. The Bedouin look at these townships as refugee camps and strongly prefer agricultural villages with livestock and herds.

He notes sadly that the Bedouin are not being given any options, while Jewish Israelis are welcome to live in cities, towns, kibbutzim, moshavs, or individual farms and get full support. Some Jews from Tel Aviv are attracted to the rustic rural life and are setting up individual farms in the Naqab with full governmental services provided.

As we drive down Route 40, a modern highway, on our left are clusters of shanty towns and on our right is sandy, rocky, uninhabited desert. We are 30 kilometers from Gaza and that side of the road has been totally “cleansed” of Bedouin towns and is now a firing area for the military. I see a sign that says: “Beware of camels near the road.”

Tahbet explains that villages are made up of a tribe with clusters of clans subdivided into families. The Bedouin want to keep these relationships intact and will never violate tribal law, even if it conflicts with Israeli law. I am horrified to learn that many of the unrecognized villages are located adjacent to the most poisonous chemical/industrial parks in Israel. We turn onto a rocky, bumpy pot holed (I can’t really call it a road) path towards Wadi Aliam which is built adjacent to a gigantic electrical plant. Massive high voltage electric towers and wires crisscross over and in between patches of houses as far as we can see. (Isn’t that supposed to be a major health hazard?) Again the painful irony is that none of these houses are actually connected to the electrical grid. There is a certain cruelty to this whole mess.

We learn that the 50 year old tribal leader we are meeting, Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Hafash, like many Bedouin, used to serve in the IDF under the belief that serving his country would result in a better future, (just look at the benefits for Jewish soldiers) but post army Bedouins returned to their poverty and villages without water and electricity and nothing changed. This man was wounded in the service of his country and is now one of the leaders of the Islamic movement of the Naqab. (Connections anyone?)

We are soon seated in a square of long red rugs and pillows on the ground in a large tent on hard packed dirt, with the same arrangement of plastic sheeting supported by wooden planks, the cooking pit, but also a sink and what appears to be a gas burner in the back. A refreshing breeze cools us a bit and the meeting with the Sheikh begins with the rituals of coffee and tea. His face is sun brown, he is wearing a long grey robe, and tells us the village includes 50,000 dunams and 20,000 people and the state provides no services except a school which is under threat. In 1953, Bedouin in the surrounding areas were gathered up and put in an area called The Fence where they stayed from 1953 to 1988 without interference. Then the Israeli Land Authority announced that the Bedouin were illegally occupying the land where they had been transferred by the government. This was followed by a long and tortured court fight, deceptive legal maneuvers, multiple judicial decisions which ended with the decision in 2002 that the Bedouin could stay until a new agreement was reached. The government has shown no interest in agreements and lots of interest in removing them. He says that a few days ago, a few Jews came and asked the Bedouin, “to be loyal.” He replied, “We are as loyal as we are treated. The state treats us as a knife in the back, so how do they expect to be treated?” He states that the Israeli media also joins in the lies and distortions.

Much of the battles are around water for which the Bedouin pay the highest amount and then are responsible for building the infrastructure to carry that water. International solidarity groups have helped install solar panels, so they are generating their own clean electricity. In addition, the IDF has designated their land for training, a military area with no shooting. He claims that the Israelis want Bedouin in the IDF so they can be the human shields in the front lines, but now less that 1% serve and they are looked down upon by their communities.

Suddenly, it is time for the Muslim prayers and the Sheikh leaves us. Four Muslim women in our group ask if they can go to the mosque and the answer comes back in the negative, this culture is not known for its progressive approach to women. Shortly thereafter, our Muslim sisters are praying at the back of the tent. Thabet explains that Bedouin society is very traditional and patriarchal; women are totally separate from men but derive their influence through their relationship with their husbands. The community can meet at the communal tent where we are sitting, but not in people’s homes. One third of Bedouin are polygamous with up to four wives, each with a separate household, and the number of wives is a mark of prestige. There are usually 10 to 15 children per family, (each a blessing), but families up to 40 are not unheard of. Nonetheless, society is changing and the majority of Bedouin in the universities are female. The women have associations involved with weaving, embroidery, and other traditional crafts. In Be’er Sheba, all the demonstrations are led by women. Israeli policy has forced women into the streets. As we leave the tent, he points out a huge gas storage facility in the middle of the town, again another major health hazard.

We are back in the van and I am marveling how people can survive under such harsh conditions, what kind of toughness emerges living in the desert, what will happen as they struggle to survive in such a racist and unsympathetic country. As Thabet continues the discussion, some pertinent pieces of information strike me:

There is already a bill in the Knesset to make the road we are on a military road and this will effectively criminalize all the Bedouins who refuse to leave; they are known for their resilience and stubbornness. Every Sunday, the Sheikh, his wives and many children demonstrate in Be’er Sheba reminding people they are here to stay.

In the town of Alssir, part of the southern district of Be’er Sheba, the Bedouin inhabitants have already been displaced a number of times, many have served in the IDF and although they are technically part of Be’er Sheba, they receive no services and live under the dangerous high voltage wires.

When rockets from Gaza were landing in this area, which has no shelters, the Sheikh laughed and said, “He’s asking about rockets? I am looking for water. I was a soldier in the Israeli army, I served my country.” When it is time for Allah to take him, he is ready.

When reviewing the volume of health risks to this society, let’s not forget the Dimona nuclear reactor which is 30 miles away. Thabet remembers a time when they were told the reactors were “textile factories,” but no one was allowed to investigate due to massive security.

Adalah takes many petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court and often wins, but implementation is always a problem. It took the state six years to build a Bedouin school which consisted of a row of caravans. He predicts that in five years all these villages will be cleared and Jewish towns will be built as part of “developing the Negev,” but there is obviously enough room for everyone, this is the same process going on in the West Bank in Area C. These areas are the ancestral lands and villages of the Dirat tribe that existed long before 1948. Bedouin are people of the desert, they have had their own villages for 300 years, they wander with their herds, but then return to their homes. Maps from 1945 show fertile cultivated Bedouin villages. Now not only are they being asked to prove their ownership, but if they do, they are offered 17% of that land. The Bedouin are not interested in compromise.

We stop and drive up a small hill that in another perverse irony has several huge water storage tanks that do not feed the surrounding villages of course. Sand storms dance across the vista below. In the distance we see another important piece of this puzzle, the Nevatim military air base that has plans for expansion. The location of this area is critical to prevent any demographic contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank. (Take a big “Ah ha” moment).

Shortly thereafter, the only Bedouin MK in the Israeli Knesset, a lawyer and former mayor active in the Islamic movement, Ibu Arar, pulls up in his car wearing western dress, short hair and a beard, neatly pressed shirt. Standing in the wind with the highway below and the water tanks above, more sand storms, like mini tornados, dance across the clusters of villages. He talks about all the expected issues regarding the racism in Israeli society, the treatment of Bedouin, the discriminatory laws in the Knesset, and notes ironically that the state is spending twice as much money to expel the Bedouin as it would to recognize them. He asks, “If Israel can’t make peace with its own citizens, how can it make peace with Palestinians outside?” His family was displaced in the 1980s to build the military airport, the villagers were promised 10,000 dunams to move and they received 7,000. His allies in the Knesset include Meretz, a few MKs from Labor and the Arab parties, 20 out of 120 parliament members. His is a lonely battle.

We pass the town of Nevatim, population 2,500, a (segregated I might add) Jewish settlement from India. Thabet gets agitated when he points out there are three signs along the road to a small Jewish cemetery and not one sign to any of the many villages for the living. He talks about the politics of fear, fear of the other, of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Abu Mazin, there is always a new target. “Fear is the centripetal force that binds Jews together.”

Thabet reminds us that the Bedouin are stubborn and strong and will continue to fight. He states the Arabs are part of the Israeli landscape and have learned to, “Play the game.” They are very encouraged by solidarity groups and they are also not split by borders. For instance, half his family lives in the Jabalya Refugee Camp in Gaza. He has an 85 year old aunt and he has not seen her in 15 years. He was once arrested for sending her 200 shekels a month, “supporting the enemy.” His family are refugees from Ashkelon. I am so inspired by his final insights: “We perceive the homeland as one place and we are willing to share. I am a minority in terms of numbers, but I have a majority mentality, all Palestinians, all Arabs. But the Jewish majority has a minority, siege mentality. They can militarily win, but they still have no sense of security.” The new post-Nakba generation is not afraid; they have nothing left to lose.

June 23, 2013 We shall not be moved: Bedouins in the Negev part one

Today we take the long drive south to the Naqab (Negev) to tour with Thabet Abu Ras of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, www.adalah.org, to meet with Arab Bedouin communities facing displacement.

I am always learning from the landscape and I am familiar with the renaming of everything Palestinian that has happened since 1948, but today I learn a new twist to this linguistic erasure. Along the highway, we see signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. It turns out that the Arabic names are actually transliterated from the Hebrew, thus engineering a process to create a different word in Arabic, deArabizing the names of historic places. Thus Jerusalem in Hebrew is Yerushalayim and in Arabic a transliteration of Yerushalayim, rather than Al Quds which is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. If you think about this, the messaging is that not only are Palestinians invisible, but they are actually immigrants who were not really here before the State of Israel got around to naming everything.

We meet up with Thabet, a political geologist and director for the southern office of Adalah, waiting along the highway with two interns. The land is fairly flat, bone dry, and clearly desert. We turn off the modern highway to the unmarked, unrecognized village of al-Araqib, bumping over an unpaved road of rocks, packed sand and deep potholes, past rows of recently planted eucalyptus trees on one side and a cemetery and cluster of Bedouin tents and shanties on the other. We stop at a large, flat topped tent made of wide sheets of plastic and wooden supporting planks and sit down on the ground on the oblong created by long rugs and pillows. We are introduced to the Sheikh and to Haia Noach, the executive director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (www.dukium.org) . The Sheikh is wearing a long black robe, Arab headdress and when his cellphone rings, it is a familiar tango jingle.

As we are served bitter coffee prepared in a pit in the center of the floor, the Sheikh explains to us in vivid detail, the many “crimes against humanity” that have been committed against his village which has been demolished 52 times and rebuilt 52 times. In 1999, the Israelis started crop dusting his fields with poisonous chemicals, and repeated the process five times. The chemicals affected the fields, animals died, and there was an increase in miscarriages. “Where was the UN protecting human rights?” he asks. We are invited to download a video of the village before and after the crop dusting from a computer that is plugged into an electrical socket tacked to a supporting beam. He suggests that it is the racism in the Israeli medical system that has hindered any research into this medical catastrophe.

On June 2, 2010, Israeli forces arrived assisted by helicopters, dogs, and horses, and leveled the village. He calls this, “A Nazi crime.” His thick brown hands gesture as he speaks. He describes the demolition where houses were leveled, and food, milk, medicine destroyed, 4,500 fruit and olive trees and grape vines were uprooted. “We are people. We have zero unemployment. We live from the fields.” He says it is amazing that the Israelis want to change them from independent farmers living in the desert to poverty stricken factory workers controlled by Jewish bosses in reservation towns. Another round of coffee and tea. Six months after the village was demolished, 40 trucks arrived and removed all the rubble and the court ordered the Bedouins to move into their cemetery. The Israelis killed 100 sheep and 16 Arabic horses. Currently the only secure place for the families to live is the cemetery we passed on arriving, and they live there without water or electricity. “The dead protects the living.” The Israelis then planted the Bedouin land with rows of eucalyptus trees, the Ambassador Forest, and foreign ambassadors are encouraged to plant trees here in the name of their countries. The Sheikh was visited by the South African ambassador who condemned these policies and refused to plant a tree. With bitter irony, a large water tanker arrives and starts watering these fledgling trees, but there is no water for the people; in fact, Jews and Arabs are forbidden to provide water to the Bedouin. The Bedouins were fined by the courts for police costs involved in the attack. Another water tanker arrives.

The Sheikh states he has documentation to prove the Jewish National Fund is responsible for this tree planting on their historic lands. Having lost their lands, he asks, “Where do we live? How do we eat?” They also have no roads or schools. The children have to travel to a distant town of Rahat, “a failed refugee city,” and the families continue to dig wells in search of water. He questions, “Would Israel do this to a Jewish citizen?” In fact, individual religious Jews have been acquiring farms in the area and the government provides them with full support. “Israel treats us like we are a security threat like Iran.” The Sheikh states there are currently 58 cases in the Israeli courts against him, all for the crime of sitting on his own land. He urges, “We want to live with Jews, the criminals are the government and the police.” Many Israeli NGOs support the struggles of the Bedouin. For instance, Adalah petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to stop the crop dusting; the material used was Round Up, made in the USA.

The Sheikh’s son, Azziz, explains that the village of al-Araqib was first demolished in 1948, but the people stayed and asked for recognition. They were mostly ignored until 2010 when efforts to totally demolish the village got serious. He describes the soldiers arriving at 4:00 am, demolishing 65 homes, 4,500 olive trees, leveling the village. Before that there were 573 persons. “Before we were employed, working cultivating the land, wheat in the winter, olive oil, cheese, milk, all organic.” Every family had small side jobs; he and his wife had 400 chickens and sold eggs, bringing in 600-700 shekels per week. Now the Bedouins have been changed to slaves, working 12 hour days, missing their wives and children. The Prawer Plan which was designed to regulate the settlement of the Bedouins in the Negev and ignores concepts in International Law such as transitional justice, semi-nomadic property rights, and native rights, “Means to kill us. We shall not be moved. There is no option. If we leave, we will die.” The police are threatening to destroy the cemetery which was built in 1914.

We are introduced to Haia Noach who talks about advocacy and awareness campaigns. She has been arrested a number of times for protecting the Bedouin. She states most Israelis do not want to know, deny the occupation and racism in their society. The Prawer Plan is a new frontier for a conflicted area: taking control of large tracts of land by planting trees through the JNF, creating industrial zones and army bases on expropriated land. The discussion of the morality of forestation projects is now at a standstill and hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted. There is even an evangelical group that is planting one million saplings with the JNF to hasten the apocalypse. She reminds us that that the land laws that allow confiscation if land is not occupied for a certain period of time were unknown to the indigenous population, that Bedouins often lack titles, or only have traditional titles that are conveniently ignored, and the courts are snarled with cases and counterclaims. She is hoping for a legal breakthrough as there is a growing awareness about the rights of indigenous peoples. Quietly I think to myself, “Insha’allah.”

June 22, 2013 Symbolism meets solidarity: the Saturday mobile clinic

I have to interrupt this message: Last night around midnight, the streets all over Palestine erupted with joyous crowds, cars honking in a delirious cacophony. A young man from Gaza, Mohammed Assaf, was voted the winner of Arab idol and either Abu Mazen or UNESCO (not clear) named him an Ambassador of Good Will. A victory for Palestine, and I might add, a victory for the entertainment industry and adoring women everywhere.

Bright and early, three of us take a service, a van that takes multiple passengers, to Khalil otherwise known as Hebron, through open checkpoints and ominous but quiet guard towers. We meet up with Dr. Othman, a dentist and Dr. Hassan Abu Amro, an optometrist trained in Saudi Arabia, in preparation for traveling to the village of Idha, eight kilometers from Hebron, just along the Green Line. We are traveling to the Saturday Mobile Clinic with Physicians for Human Rights – Israel and Palestinian Medical Relief Society. We start listening to familiar stories.

Idha is surrounded by three Jewish settlements including Adora and Telem. Because of permits and checkpoints, travel in and out has become extremely difficult. The quantity and quality of water in Idha is problematic due to the large allotments going to the neighboring settlements, and the village is plagued by rats which can be seen jumping amongst the vegetable stands. Poverty is on the increase and the separation wall has wreaked havoc with the economy and people’s personal lives for the past five to six years.

In desperation, the villagers started collecting garbage, metal, car parts, and burning tires to get the metal and sell the metal to the Israelis. The burning garbage and tires created a massive, toxic smog and predictable health problems. Combined with the polluted water, PMRS is seeing more diarrhea, asthma, miscarriages, diabetes, hypertension, and smoking. “That’s stress.” PMRS and Red Crescent clinics, the private sector, and Ministry of Health hospitals cannot handle the community’s medical needs. Hassan also notes that no one wants to talk about cancer but the Dimona nuclear reactor is near Hebron. Israelis nearby receive some kind of prophylactic pills (?thyroid) to reduce their risks, but nothing is offered to the local Palestinians.

More fragments of conversation:

Yesterday 15 settlers with guns blocked a nearby road, threw stones and were protected by the IDF for two hours. This also happened in Beit Ommar.

The IDF is becoming more aggressive (how can this be possible?) and are training dogs to attack when they hear certain words like Allahu Akbar (Did you pray today?)

There is a proposed law in the Knesset to make it legal for settlers to fire on Palestinians (which of course they are already quite adept at doing), a sort of legal white washing stand your ground.

Both men are thoroughly disgusted with the Palestinian leadership and elite power holders. They are “thieves;” they have stolen international aid money and will steal more if Kerry reinvigorates the (useless) negotiations and aid programs.

Nabil Shath, a Palestinian negotiator, recently explained to his Israeli associates that the PA is spending more money on Israeli security than on Palestinian health and security combined.

Hassan is warm, obviously intelligent and insightful. He worked in Saudi Arabia for 17 years, and lived in a special compound so his wife and four children had more personal freedoms than those outside the compound. If they left, he had to drive his wife; she had to cover herself, etc. They came back in 2000 because he felt there was going to be a state and he wanted to serve his people, but now he worries, “For my kids and their lives, their futures. What should I tell them? Sometimes I stand stunned. Am I going to create more hate? But still they can see what is on the ground.” His 23-year-old son, trained as an electrical engineer in Egypt and now unemployed, feels totally frustrated and wants to leave.

We drive into the village and see large bales of hay and huge mountains of charred metal fragments. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the mobile clinic is being “honored” by a large number of fully armed Palestine National Security forces who line the streets, direct the vehicles, and line up for photos with clinic staff. We crowd into a large room and on the stage there are municipal and PA dignitaries, Saleh who directs the mobile clinic from PHR Israel, and Alan, one of our doctors, sitting in front of a large photo of a smiling Arafat. We hear a history of the town and a thousand thank yous in Arabic and Hebrew as a large crowd of patients gathers outside.

And then we start seeing patients. How can I describe this? A local family doctor who will be my interpreter and see obstetric patients, a nurse from the US, and I set up our “office” in a classroom. We have a real exam table, an ancient ultrasound machine, and I have brought a flashlight, large bottle of Purell, various surgical instruments (to remove IUDs, sutures, etc), and a measuring tape. I suddenly realize there are no drapes (not unusual) but even more striking, no gloves and no speculums and no basic lab work. A challenging moment for a gynecologist. (The gloves are finally located.)

And then the work begins, a veritable flood of women in hijabs, blue, black, plaid, sparkling decorations, and long jilbabs, buttoned up to the neck and long sleeves, one naqap totally covering a lovely woman’s face. She flips it back when she enters the room. I try guessing ages and realize that everyone ages prematurely under the stress of poverty and occupation. The heat is oppressive, and we are dripping with sweat. I feel for the women who are covered. The women present alone, in twos and threes, some with small children, some argumentative, some focused, and everyone has an earnest story and a long list of medical issues that frequently include back pain, abdominal pain, vaginal discharge, symptoms of urinary tract infections and hot flashes. There are questions about irregular bleeding, pain on intercourse, infertility. Everyone who is not trying to get pregnant has an IUD. I try to reach across the language and cultural barriers; instead of, “Are you sexually active?” I ask, “Are you married?” I already know that many women take hormones to delay menses when they travel to Mecca. I am listening carefully, empathically, woman to woman. There is no medical charting, no vital signs, no prevention, but soon we are in a rhythm of brief history taking, strategic exams, lots of education and empathy, and then a wild search through the available donated medications and decision making for referrals for a variety of testing. I am sure many symptoms are stress related and there is no simple treatment for that. My basic strategy is: Is this very serious? What is the most likely diagnosis given an utter lack of adequate information? What is the most we can do quickly here? The hardest part for me is the women with menopausal symptoms. I have always wondered how women covered in multiple layers deal with hot flashes and it is a challenge to give culturally appropriate advice. And of course we have lots of antibiotics and antifungals, and steroid ointment, but no free hormone therapy and I have no idea what is available in local gynecology offices. I have heard there is a rich herbal tradition in Palestine, but that is way beyond my US, first world experience.

Hours later, the clinic is over and the women still waiting are angry and disappointed, but turned away by PA soldiers with guns. I have seen 24 patients and the entire staff has seen over 700. I feel a bit run over and my pregnant colleague is wilting, more than tired. The organizers are pleased and we are hosted by the village with chicken, rice and Turkish coffee with more officials and more men with guns.

The power of working in this Saturday clinic for me, year after year, is hard to explain. Symbolism meets solidarity. There were women who actually received appropriate care by my first world standards, and I found one woman with a breast mass and one with a pelvic mass who definitely need further care. But more importantly, the women understand that a doctor from some faraway place came to their forgotten village to provide care and see them as deserving human beings. They are not invisible. I am also working in solidarity with the Israelis (Jewish and Palestinian) and the West Bank clinicians who are swimming against the cultural and political tides of their own societies and I want to stand with them as well. It is really the most concrete thing I can do.

June 21, 2013 Beit Sahour: A True story of bovine resistance part two

Iyad Rishmawi appears to be an older respectable kind of gentleman, balding, neatly dressed, but the guy clearly has a sense of humor. He wants to talk about the First Intifada from the point of view of the people rather than the politicians, but first he wants to show us a documentary film, “The Wanted Eighteen.”

It seems that in 1987, the people of Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem, wanted to protect 18 cows so their children could have milk during the Intifada. They established a cow farm, represented in the film by cute cartoon cows with very human expressions. Real human old men tell the story of the cows, “We can produce our own milk if we have cows.” When the first calf was born, people were thrilled and celebrated as if it was a firstborn child. Now the 19 cows made the Israelis unhappy because they symbolized Palestine self sufficiency. A large Israeli force took pictures of the cattle farm, pictures of each cow, threatened the men, and told them they had 24 hours to shut down the farm or the place would be demolished. The men were told, “Those cows are a serious threat to the national security of Israel!!” (I am not kidding! Really!) So the people of Beit Sahour decided to hide their cows in different homes, basements, wherever it was possible, not an easy task as you might imagine, and people who knew nothing about cows or milking took the animals into their homes and figured it out. Israeli troops and helicopters were sent in looking for the cows but they could not find them. It became patriotic to protect the cows from the IDF and the cows obviously agreed because they continued to produce milk. Bottles of milk were distributed secretly from house to house despite curfews and incursions and the milk kept coming. The IDF searched for four years and never found the animals and the people of Beit Sahour stood proud, with a feeling of dignity and accomplishment. A true story of bovine resistance.

When we got over chuckling, Iyad made some serious points which I will focus on here. The First Intifada was a spontaneous, public mass movement of the entire community; a tipping point that started in 1948 and finally exploded in 1987. He reminds us that Ilan Pappe wrote that the Israeli generals in the 1950s called the War of Independence, the incomplete war, so the ’67 War and the seizing of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem had been on the to do list for a long time. After 1967, Iyad asks, “What kind of practices would Israel take, given that our memories have not faded about ’48?” The Intifada was the answer to all the Palestinian questions.

“Why are they making hell for us, business, life, so many difficulties, permits, drivers license multiple permits. You must be cleared by intelligence service, true for phone line, or if want to start business.Then value added tax.” The Israelis made selective use of Ottoman, British, Jordanian, and international laws and if there was no law they needed, they issued a military order that became law.

At the end of day, people were fed up and couldn’t live under these conditions. He explains that he established the first pharmacy in Beit Sahour and it took ten years to get a phone line, because the intelligence service would not give approval. All these measures were to complete the “incomplete war” and Palestinians responded with, enough is enough; no to occupation! Iyad states that Palestinians must restore their pride; Israelis cannot make peace with slaves.

Beit Sahour was an important center for popular resistance. There was a unified leadership in the First Intifada, made up of all the factions of the PLO except religious movements. There were weekly leaflets explaining activities and Palestinians responded positively, forming neighborhood committees. Despite the central leadership there was a high level of democracy.

In 1988 there was a call to stop paying taxes to Israel and 90% of the population responded. Iyad was involved and was rounded up with three other pharmacists, arrested, taken to military headquarters in Ramallah and then to military court for ten days. After his arrest, the tax revolt started and he was arrested a few more times. In 1989 there was a major attack on Beit Sahour. Tax collectors and soldiers removed everything from people’s homes. When they came for his pharmacy, there was nothing to take, so they went to his house and took everything. He refused to be bribed to get his possessions back. He recalled a lady ran after the soldiers, yelling that they forgot something. When they stopped, she threw the TV remote at them.

Iyad talked about how the IDF demands to see IDs first and if you do not follow orders, they will not return your ID. The people of Beit Sahour started bringing all their IDs and throwing them onto the table of the military governor. Iyad was there. He called friends in Jerusalem and in one hour, TV stations, CNN, NBC, piled into Beit Sahour. He was translating for reporters and by 4:00 pm, thousands and thousands of people had gathered in front of massive piles of IDs. The military governor sent soldiers around 5:00 pm; the army surrounded the town and all the streets full of people. When the soldiers arrived, Iyad noted special squads, headed by a military deputy, who told the people to go home. But the people sat down, no stones were thrown, and the deputy was stuck, so the deputy ordered his soldiers to start beating people, using tear gas, putting people in prison and administrative detention. He smiles, “But they never figured out the leaders.” Iyad’s son adds this was a rare instance for Beit Sahour when Israelis were reacting rather than Palestinians. At all levels of society there was a feeling of dignity. The son boasted in school that his father was in prison and his little sister tried to break curfew a few hours later. She wanted to go into the street, to get arrested to see her father. I am reminded that some Israeli official recently remarked, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.”

Because the goal was to break the people’s will, their pride and dignity were the biggest threats, so that even intelligent resistance was intolerable. During the Intifada, thousands were killed, mostly children. Iyad recalled one child was shot for writing graffiti. Another innocent young man was caught by two soldiers who shot him point blank with rubber bullets and he died.

In 1988 the Reproachment Center was established when 35 Israeli families came to visit Beit Sahour. “We celebrated breaking bread, not bones. Accepting the other was part of us.”

Iyad clearly mourns for those days, “That feeling is now gone. Today is totally different, we had hope and dignity then, we believe in what we are doing and we are right, behaving according to humanitarian law, we are here to exist and not meant to harm your existence. This was part of inner feeling?Today we are not like that, internal unity within community is gone. We moved back to a tribal system of community, reactions for self protection of each family.”

When we asked him if he saw signs of hope, he thought long and hard but the inspiration in his voice was missing. Clearly the struggle has changed and the people have experienced several more decades of oppressive occupation with all of its negative consequences. I suspect that it is time for younger generations to bring their creativity and steadfastness to the forefront and time to internationalize resistance as well. This time, in our global community, it is clear we are all responsible.

June 21, 2013 Battir: The colonization of the conifers part one

We are staying in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, in a guest house which started in 1948 as a place for poor women to sew clothes, then became a childcare center, and now a renovated guest house. Everyone is talking about who will win Arab idol and will it be Mohammed Assaf, the sweet faced guy from Gaza, Rami Hamdallah, (the prime minister replacement after Salam Fayyad resigned) quit after two weeks on the job, (and what does that mean?) and Fayrouz is crooning on the van radio.? Another day in Palestine and we are off for a hike in Battir, southwest of Bethlehem.
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Our guides, Hassan and Hamad, are movie star handsome as far as I am concerned and that is distracting enough for me. They explain that the town of Battir has natural water springs that were developed during Roman times in a complicated and clever irrigation system including aqueducts and carved tunnels for the surrounding farms and orchards.? In 1950, the source spring was rehabilitated to provide fresh water for drinking, washing vegetables, and a Turkish bath for men.? Ancient and modern systems were combined, water was divided equally between the farmers using an “eight day week,” as there were eight families. In the summer the water was divided according to the percentage of water volume available for each farmer, measured by a stick dipped into the collected water pool.? Hassan explains that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is largely about water and now the Palestinians are allowed to store 5-10% of their water and the rest is collected by the Israeli companies and sold back to them at high prices.
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There is lots of inspiring history here. Deir Yassin, the site of a horrific massacre in 1948, is four kilometers away and many of the Battir villagers fled in fear after the killings. Approximately thirteen elders stayed in the village “to live or die,” and one man decided to resist. He collected clothes and house supplies and placed them in the houses so they would appear to be inhabited. He lit candles and oil lamps at night and asked people to collect wood. He made fires and built wooden symbols that looked like people and put sticks in their hands that appeared to be guns, silhouetted in front of the flames. ?The village fooled the Jewish forces for eight months.
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Another critical piece of information is that there is a famous railroad track that runs through the fields of Battir, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, once connecting Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Part of the 1949 agreement with Jordan was that the village of Battir could keep ownership of the land on both sides of the railway tracks as long as the train was kept safe, as the Israelis really wanted control.? But 1967 brought new rules, a buffer zone 200 yards on each side of the tracks; the only people allowed to cross are the farmers. While there were incidents during the Intifadas, no attacks have occurred since the 1990s. To complicate matters further, in 1993 after Oslo, 30% of Battir ended up in area B, (joint control) and 70% in area C, (Israeli control), which means that the villagers are no longer permitted to store water or repair the irrigation systems (that have worked brilliantly for centuries) which are mostly in area C.
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We are traipsing up and down stone paths with the odd sound for Palestine of rushing water at our feet as we follow our guides who seem part gazelle in terms of grace, speed and agility. ?The next disaster Hassan tells us about as we look into the valley, the sweep of the tracks, the lush plots of vegetables, the crisscrossing of irrigation systems, is the threat of the separation wall. The wall is to be built on the village side of the rail road tracks, assaulting an idyllic landscape and isolating the houses, land, and schools on the other side. Palestinians unsuccessfully submitted a proposal to have this area named a World Heritage Site and in a few weeks will have a hearing in the Israeli Supreme Court. Hassan notes that the village has honored the security agreements for 65 years and there are already cameras on the hills watching every move, 24/7. We can see a white military vehicle watching our every move, perched opposite us on a nearby hill and a Jewish National Fund forest up the hill with more guard towers. A train comes zooming by and Hassan notes that the Battir train station was demolished years ago. I stare intently at this magnificent valley with the sinking feeling that the next time I visit, there is a good chance that it will have been raped by the Israeli military machine and my heart will break, once again, for this land and its people.
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Now that we are all exhausted, overwhelmed, and dripping with sweat, the hike begins!? Hassan and Hamad are involved in a group developing ecotourism. They have designed hiking trails that are respectful of the history, the farmers, and the environment; through terraced olive groves, fruit trees, cool caves, Byzantine tombs, and soaring hills. Despite my creaky moving parts and pounding heart (hot sun, dehydration, and uphill paths), the scenery is awe inspiring.
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But the conflict is never far off. The Jewish National Fund forests (which by the way are not indigenous, grow quickly, are easily flammable, and change the soil pH so that local herbs and trees cannot survive, except for the hardy Saber cactus), are doing battle. I call this, the colonization of the conifers.? Apparently, the wind carries the seeds in the pine cones, so the forest is spreading through the valley. The surrounding hills are all topped by creeping Jewish settlements and the associated bulldozers, walls, and barbed wire. Hassan and Hamad have placed hiking markers, like the blazes in US national parks, but the settlers, who occasionally use these same paths, have scratched off the marks and placed blue and white blazes (which are international symbols for land and water, but really!) so now we have the battle of the blazes.
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Hassan points to a huge tire perched in a bed of twigs near the path and admits, this is “from us.” With the collapse of civil infrastructure, garbage collection became and still is a huge problem in the West Bank and a 17,000 cubic meter dump site developed on the hill above us. This was a huge challenge, so a group of 45 farmers and younger men cleaned it up, topped it with soil, plantings, and a supporting wall. This tire is an educational reminder.
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We stop to catch our breath at a future rest area that has a massive stone that Hassan scales easily. There are a number of theories about this stone, but it probably fell from the surrounding cliffs and was used as a security lookout centuries ago.? Nearby is a large unnatural pile of white stones.? The ever environmentally thoughtful Israelis were building a bypass road above and dynamited the area and these rocks came tumbling down, crushing trees in their path.? A falcon soars gracefully in the blue sky, one of the few creatures around here that can move freely. ?I stumble across a young olive tree staked to a dead branch from a JNF pine tree; the cones are intermixed with the olive leaves. It’s as if the trees are locked in a symbolic fatal embrace, I am relieved that at least the pine tree has already died.
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I am getting closer to the end of my cardiovascular reserves, as Hassan walks briskly ahead explaining that there are 258 houses in the fields that serve as watch towers and places for farmers to stay during the harvest. As we head up the hill, Har Gilo becomes clearer, built on the lands of Al Walaja and Beit Jala.? I can see a bulldozer busy at work.? When we finally get to pavement (short of breath, flushed, and vaguely alive), I see a wooden sign with a red heart, “Hosh Yasmin Organic Farm.” Soon we are seated on the covered balcony, enjoying the sweet breeze, smell of thyme, good beer, gorgeous view, and some excellent food; not your every day hike.
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June 20, 2013 Deir Istiya: A little taste of paradise part two

Amal, one of the Palestinian-American members of the American Jews for a Just Peace – health and human rights project, has invited us to visit the village of Deir Istiya where she was born in 1948. We drive through an unusually lush valley, olive and carob trees densely growing everywhere, and there is a joy in her voice, eyes glowing with a mix of pride and excitement. She explains that she is the sixth generation to be born in the village and two more have followed. She went to Cairo for university and now lives in St Louis. Her father finished high school in the town and ultimately became the mayor of the town.

We are greeted by the current mayor of the town, Auob, who is Amal’s cousin. She seems to be related to everyone we meet, either by blood or by marriage. Auob is a warm and dignified man with laughing eyes, bushy eyebrows, and muscular arms. He explains that 4,000 people live here and 10,000 are out of the country. The village had a school in 1918 and prides itself in a very educated population (that obviously tends to leave). Deir Istiya has a very unusual old city dating back to Roman, Byzantine and Mameluke times with multiple streets, rooms and apartments all clustered together, clearly a wealthy and well constructed town. In the 1990s, with the support of the UNDP, USAID, and a Palestinian Ministry, a project to renovate the city was begun, in the hopes of bringing in commerce and tourism.

There is a peachy golden shimmer to the old stones in the blazing Mediterranean sun, glorious views, winding streets, ancient doorways, something close to a lush, magical paradise. Amal is beaming as she points out where various relatives lived, where she played as a child, where she is renovating her house in the newer district of town; everyone is warm and happy to see her. Her uncle gives us a detailed tour, explaining the holes in the walls for guarding the city, Roman style archways, stone insets for oil lamps, geometric tiles, water wells, and the massive renovation projects for private homes as well as guest houses and larger facilities. One building was owned by the ruling Qasim family and they had very low doors constructed, so that visitors would have to enter bowing down to them. I can feel his big dreams coming to life. His dreams are looking for funding.

But this is Palestine and there has to be a catch. The village owns 36,000 dunams of land and is the second largest village in Palestine in terms of land. They are known for their extra virgin fair trade olive oil. 87% of the village land is in Area C, (Israeli control) while the village itself is in Area B, (joint control). We climb up uneven steps to a high roof, the thin graceful minaret in view, white stone houses of all shapes and sizes surround us, tall dark blue cedars point to the sky. By standing in one spot and rotating around, in the distance I can see five Jewish settlements on the surrounding hilltops: Ariel, Emmanuel, Nofim, Revana, and Yaqir.

Auob reports excitedly that they are attacked by settlers daily, farmers on donkeys have been hit by cars, there are repeated attacks during the olive harvest, orchards have been confiscated or uprooted, farmers have been hit by cars, run over and shot, harvested olives wrapped in large bags have been stolen. Once again I am taken aback by the behavior of settlers, their aggressive lawless arrogance and immoral racist actions towards the people who have lived here for generations.

We drive out of the village and turn into a valley, a bumpy road surrounded by terraced olive groves. This is Wadi Qana, part of the food basket for the Salfit District. This is also where the Jewish settlements on the surrounding hills have dumped their raw sewage, contaminating the water and driving out the 40 families who used to live here. A delicate hudhud bird with a bright orange body and zebra-like stripes on its back flits between the lemon and orange trees. Goats cluster on the rocky walls. Aoub says there are thirteen natural springs in the area that have provided water for centuries, but the Israelis have dug deep into the reservoirs, lowering the water levels so that only three springs are functional. In 1987, houses in the orchards were demolished and trees uprooted. In 1993, the area was officially declared a Nature Preserve by the Israeli government. This means that the Palestinians cannot fix the road which is deteriorating as the valley floods with water during the winter. Many families have small houses tucked around the trees where they live during harvest time. Since 1967, no renovations have been permitted, trees are planted secretly, often on Jewish holidays, and court cases are threatening the farmers. Because of the decrease in available water, the farmers have been changing from orange and lemon trees to olive trees that require less water. We pass a cave where some people live while working on their fields; others stay here by day and leave by night. We see the stream running down the valley, green with sewage. To add insult to injury, the Israelis have released pigs, probably wild boars, in the area and they are eating the small olive trees and vegetables.

We get to one of the springs contained by stone walls. Families sit in the shade, barbequing, and small children are laughing and playing in a clear stream that leaves the green, pooling water. I worry about the bacterial count in the water, but for a moment, life almost feels normal. On Jewish holidays, volunteers come to maintain the area as best they can and last Land Day, March 29th, for the first time they held an event with 500 people who came to do clean up and enjoy cultural events. Auob smiles and says this is a free open space available to the local villagers and he clearly appreciates its natural beauty, an incredible treasure under threat from the settlements and the egregious behavior of the settlers.

June 20, 2013 Balata: the occupation of body and mind part one

Visiting and staying overnight at the Balata Refugee Camp in the Yafa Cultural Center guest house is always a sobering reality check and every year the camp feels more desperate. Mahmoud, the 47-year-old head of the health unit at the camp says nothing that changes my mind.

Balata, one of the camps just outside of Nablus, is the most populated Palestinian refugee camp and is a mirror of all the other camps where generations of refugees have waited and fought and survived for decades. It was established in the early 1950s by the UN after the 830,000 refugees had lived without official support for two years all over the West Bank and surrounding Arab countries, in caves, in the mountains, churches, schools, and mosques.

UNRWA, first established in 1949 ostensibly to deal with the temporary refugee crisis, built the primitive tent camps. They rented one square kilometer for the 5,000 refugees that came to Balata, most having fled from the Jaffa area. We see a photo from 1953, a clearly temporary arrangement: rows of tents with a stately camel standing in front. After five years, UNRWA started building small units, three by three meters for each family, (that is probably the size of your smallest bathroom). Imagine a mother from a middle class family from Jaffa, torn from all that she knows, trying to deal with her many, many children, a humiliated and unemployed husband, minimal resources, food handouts, poor sanitation and a recent massive amount of trauma. And then crowd everyone together in a totally inhumane situation. That is the history of Balata. But the human will to survive is strong and gradually families expanded their living spaces and added rooms in an unplanned jumble of construction.

By the mid 1960s (this mother has been struggling now for more than a decade) an infrastructure began to develop, a sewer system evolved, but horizontal expansion reached its limits and families started building vertically.

Mahmoud’s grandfather was born in Haifa and came to the camp when his son was around ten years old. He had owned a successful restaurant and guest house, but fled when the bombing started, attempted to return for his belongings but was unsuccessful, then fled with his family to Jenin, Nablus, living in the mountains until he arrived at Balata. This proud, wealthy businessman lost everything and was now totally dependent on UNRWA. Mahmoud’s mother was born in August 1948. Her family including the very pregnant wife, walked from the area near Lydd to a cave in Rafidia where she was born. After a year living in the cave, the family moved to Balata Refugee Camp where his grandfather sold vegetables. Mahmoud’s parents met in the camp, had seven children living in a 60 square meter house with family and grandparents. Because of the desperate living conditions, many of the refugees have left for Jordan, other cities in the Middle East, the Gulf, Europe, and the US.

According to UN statistics, everyone in the camp is officially registered as a refugee and by the end of 2012, some 29,000 people were crowded together, each house 60 to 80 square meters, three to four generations in a house, no privacy and no space. The houses are all attached to each other so, “You hear everybody’s business, privacy is nonexistent, don’t even know what it means, everybody is in everybody’s business.” Most houses are dark and humid, and there is mold and other health hazards. This creates much social stress, disputes, and psychological problems.

Not surprisingly, Balata became the political leader of refugee camps and has a long history of uprisings, demonstrations, and encounters with the IDF. Reportedly, the First Intifada started here and the first martyr died here. During the Second Intifada, there were large numbers of militants and guns, and a high level of violence within the camp and against the camp, 246 people were killed, and almost every adult male has been in Israeli prisons.

The camp was largely a working class area before 2000; 60% of the men worked in Israel. After 2000 and the start of the Intifada, the camp was totally shut down, surrounded by barbed wire, all entrances closed, soldiers were everywhere, curfews from one to 100 days were common. We became, “a gated community,” Mahmoud remarks ironically. In 2002, every three days, the curfew was lifted for a few hours so that families could get food, the UN could bring in supplies, the sick could get medical care. The children did not attend school and the educational system was destroyed. Workers were unemployed, snipers were everywhere, and the separation wall began its intimidating construction, permits were virtually impossible. “We were guilty until proven innocent.”

By 2006, things started to calm down, the Palestinian Authority restored some security, but it became clear they were protecting the Israeli settlers more than the local Palestinians. Settlements expanded and the restrictions on the movement of Palestinians became tighter. The camp is clearly a pressure cooker waiting to explode as the economic and living situations get worse and worse, there is more corruption, poverty, and unemployment. There is no functional economy, the Israelis control birth certificates, business licenses, export licenses, etc. While income has remained stable since 2004, prices have increased five to six times. In 2004 one kilo of bread cost one shekel; it is now four shekels. Businesses are shutting down.

More recently laborers have been able to get work permits into Israel but never more than 10% of the men who apply. Five to 10% of the workers sneak into Israel illegally, the PA hires 25-30 % of Palestinian workers, the private sector employs 10-15%. Unemployment in Balata, however, is currently 46% and higher in people under 29.

There are three UNRWA schools from first to ninth grade with 6,000 children ages six to15. After ninth grade students go outside the camp for public education. As you can imagine, the classes are overcrowded, underfunded, and inadequate to meet the needs of the students. The enormous numbers of young people is a serious problem; there is no space in the camp, no playgrounds, they “can’t breath.” The children born in the First Intifada were the fighters in the Second Intifada and have known no other life. They have witnessed or experienced more arrests, killings, bombings, suicide bombings, and social problems than we can possible imagine.

Mahmoud then focuses on Palestinians in general in the West Bank. He notes that amongst the educated, unemployment is 56%. “I have 252,000 young people in Palestinian universities, when they graduate, how many will get a job?” They rarely can travel and there is no functional economy. He talks about area C under full Israeli control, where the PA had plans to build a new city, there were blueprints, money raised, engineers were ready, and on the day the project was due to start, the IDF declared the area a closed military zone. A large part of Jericho is very fertile with dates and palm trees. 2,000 Palestinian families lived there, but the Israelis seized their land, leaving 5% to the Palestinians. “What kind of businesses can you create here?” So much for the former prime minister’s plans for an economic miracle.

“In the past, the Gulf was our Mecca, but after the first Gulf War, they kicked us out of Kuwait.” Instead of help from “my Gulf brothers,” obtaining passports and traveling have become more challenging. So Palestinians feel increasingly cornered by Israelis and Arabs, with no options. “What will happen, they becoming suicidal, very violent.” This is the first time I have heard of suicide in Palestinian society except for the rare suicide bomber, but now suicide is becoming more common.

Mahmoud runs a psychosocial project; their biggest target is the youth, particularly in the boys’ school, fifth to ninth grade. I can hear the anger and frustration in his voice when he explains that the schools are awful, with high levels of violence, little education, a 50% illiteracy rate. School means nothing; the students have nothing to look forward to, there are problems at home and in the street. There are increasing difficulties with all kinds of drug abuse and more children are taking their own lives. He tells us a chilling story of a child who tried to enter an Israeli settlement, unarmed. “Why? Suicide is forbidden in Islam, but if killed, then becomes a martyr. If not killed, then he goes to prison, is fed, smoking, hanging with friends. This happens daily, because there is no solution, no future.” Another chilling story: two nights ago, the Israelis arrested four young people, this happens twice a week. “But nobody is doing anything and nobody is even paying attention. Why are they getting arrested?” All four students were about to take their high stakes high school diploma exam; now their lives are effectively destroyed.

Mahmoud’s program provides psychosocial support, individual and family counseling inside the school. In each school there is one counselor for 2,000 children (almost all children have some PTSD). They provide lots of activities, music therapy, psychodrama, literacy. He finds the illiterate are the trouble makers, but “they are lost,” often getting up early to work in the vegetable market to support their mothers before coming to an increasingly irrelevant school. Most violent kids are sons of martyrs. Now these children beat their parents. They have experienced the humiliation of their parents at the checkpoints, the night time arrests, where the whole family is terrorized, beaten and the father and mother are humiliated in front of their children. The Israeli forces have effectively attacked the psyches and sanity of Palestinian children and destroyed the functions and authority of previous healthy families.

Mahmoud explains that in the past, they did not have those problems; respect for his parents was absolute. He got out of Balata through education, a degree from Birzeit University. “There is no other inheritance.” He has three sisters and three brothers, all well-educated: a nurse, a lawyer, a marketer, a hospital director, an advisor for Fayyad on media, and one living in Rome, practicing alternative medicine. The next generation from Balata will not have these strengths or these options. “I will never live in Balata again, I will never raise my children in Balata. This is a very bad place; anyone would leave if given the opportunity. 65 yrs is too long.”

At this point we are leaving for a walking tour of the camp and I am feeling profoundly sad and the trauma, rage, and despair makes me physically ill. The dirty streets, barefoot children, narrow stone paths, houses leaning over us, the look of hopelessness in many mothers, shopkeepers, makes me put away my camera. The words “occupation tourism” passes across my thoughts; I cannot look any more, but I cannot turn away. Perhaps all I can do is to share my outrage with you, and perhaps the next time someone says the question of refugees is “off the table,” you can tell them about the resilient and tired men, women, and children of Balata Refugee Camp.

June 19, 2013 We are the stones part three

Jonathan Cook is not yet done with our unconventional tour of Nazareth and we soon find ourselves listening to Abu Arab, a dignified 78-year-old man who is part of the Saffuriya Center for Cultural Heritage. Standing in a large room in an otherwise nondescript apartment building, we see rows of relics, clay pots of all sizes, cooking and farming implements, faded dresses. Hind Awwad is translating and we are soon transfixed by his intense story.

In 1948 Saffuriya was a thriving village of 7,000 people, two schools, three mosques, one church, olive presses, around 120,000 dunams of agricultural land, generous amounts of water and a vigorous community of people with prolific crops and animals. On the sixteenth night of Ramadan, the Zionist forces attacked and 80% of the village fled in a haze of terror and bullets. The next day the surrounding villages were occupied. Abu Arab’s family fled and kept walking until they reached Lebanon; picture the frightened children, the hunger, the thirst, the blistered feet, the total loss and fear.

The 800 people who remained were counted after two weeks and received Israeli ID cards. They were told to collect all the remaining furniture and possessions and load them into trucks which drove away with their belongings. After eight months they were told to gather and given 24 hours to leave or be killed. Those who refused to leave were forcibly evacuated. (The most moral army in the world? Jewish soldiers recently victims of the identity cards, dispossession, ghettoes, firing squads of Europe?) The group took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court claiming citizenship type rights related to their possession of Israeli ID cards. The court cancelled the hearing, relied only on the testimony of the Israeli military, and the town was declared a closed military zone for the next 18 years.

Hind is having increasing difficulties translating; the tears are starting to flow and as I look into the faces of our delegates, those who come from Palestine are quietly weeping as well. We are all feeling a tremendous sadness as Abu Arab’s words sink in. He keeps placing his hands over his heart and I wonder if that is where he stores his all too painful memories.

His family stayed in a Lebanese village and after three months, his sister Hazal became ill and died. The whole family was traumatized and his mother stopped functioning and spent her days at her daughter’s grave. I wonder how much loss can a mother tolerate in one lifetime? After ten months, his father talked with their three sons and said they had to leave for Beirut or Palestine or their mother will go crazy. They chose Palestine.

They walked towards the border for one day and two nights, reached an Israeli village where they stayed for six months until they could get Israeli ID cards. I can hear the outrage in Abu Arab’s voice when he comments on Herzl’s famous quote, “A land without a people?.” We are here bearing somber witness to that lie. Abu Arab never finished fifth grade, “Every day we prayed the school would fall down, but when it did, we cried.”

Like many Saffuriyans, his family moved to Nazareth. In 1978 there was an Israeli assault on one of the five cemeteries in Saffuriya and many dunams were destroyed. After a long battle and negotiation, the town’s members and descendants obtained the right to fence in and maintain their historic cemetery. After Oslo, like many former inhabitants of destroyed villages, Saffuriyans joined an Organization for Displaced Villages. They demand their right to return to their village and live in their homes as citizens of the country.

Abu Arab’s face is brown and wrinkled with a thick head of graying hair, a pack of cigarettes sits in his neatly pressed white shirt. In a calm determined voice he explains that real peace depends on the Zionist recognition of their crimes against Palestinians. The victims need to be compensated and refugees inside and outside the country need to have their right of return. Because these issues have been eliminated from the international conversation, “The Zionist mentality has the seeds of its termination?” Peace will come, “If not for us, then our children or our grandchildren.” He explains that he is against Zionists, not Jews, and that he remembers a time when Jews and Palestinians lived together peacefully. He admits 30 Jewish families now live in the village. “They do not have to leave; we want to live with them.”

For 45 years, Abu Arab has had a small shop in old Nazareth and 30 years ago he noticed that people were throwing away things that he felt ought to be saved. He started gathering artifacts and helped start this museum so that his people will remember the villages they came from. He reminds us of Golda Meir’s famous quote in reference to Palestinians, (this is usually also erroneously attributed to David Ben Gurion, but the messaging for both is indeed accurate): “The old will die and the young will forget.” He assures us that they were very wrong and reminds us that if Jews can remember something for 2000 years, surely Palestinians can remember for 65. “We are against war and the shedding of any blood.” He warns that the Israeli dependence on power and war is not sustainable. “Many regimes have fallen? Nothing remains in a valley except the stones. We are the stones.”

Jonathan takes us past a moshav that is mostly Bulgarian and Romanian, to the site of the old Saffuriya. One house remains in the distance, converted into a guest house and there is a working orphanage. There is a Jewish National Fund forest but the area is a fenced off closed military zone. I feel like we are walking in a ghost town: piles of hewn stones, disappeared houses and schools, voluptuous towering saber cactus, an old church without a roof, a buried reality for a people that refuses to forget.

June 19, 2013 Nazareth: The Law of Unintended Consequences, Nazareth Illit part two

Dripping from the penetrating sun, we board our bus with Jonathan Cook and begin the winding uphill drive to Nazareth Illit. We are greeted by enormous Israeli flags flapping listlessly in the inadequate breeze and a brilliant view of the region. The Plaza Hotel (built to draw tourists and their shekels away from Nazareth) dominates part of the landscape. We stop at a lookout and can see Nazareth crowding up the opposite mountain slope and the valley below; Jonathan begins. Nazareth Illit was built as a development town, but the old housing is “grotty” and a bit dilapidated. We can clearly see the modern “ring road” that separates Nazareth Illit from the dangerous Arabs below. The Judaization of this area has been whitewashed and is now called the development of the Galilee, a program also occurring in the Negev. The Ministry of Development sends 99.8% of its shekels to the Jewish community. Why am I not surprised?

Per the usual patterns, the land was taken for “national purposes” and in 1956 the Supreme Court backed this plan and rows of chunky concrete houses were built. Military documents clearly show that the goal of building this city was to swallow up the graceful and historic city of Nazareth and make Nazareth Illit the center of activity, making Nazareth a future ghetto much like Lydd. But Nazareth had capacities that gave it unusual resilience. Currently Nazareth has a population of 80,000, remains a cultural center, and Nazareth Illit functions more like a settlement with a population of 50,000. On the other hand, the same old rules apply to break up, dominate, and fragment the Palestinian communities, so the presence of Nazareth Illit has made it impossible for the surrounding Palestinian villages to join together to form a more powerful political force. Nazareth Illit was actually built with octopus-like tentacles, with the physical intent to create separation between villages. The Israelis also moved the District Court and administrative services from Nazareth up the hill, thus redirecting funds to the Jewish side of town. A bypass road was built to separate the two communities and then a “ring road” around the governmental buildings and that land was then “annexed” to Nazareth Illit. The army maintains a large base in the Nazareth, (land then annexed to Nazareth Illit) which Jonathan states is illegal and there are other surveillance towers and of course the police department.

In keeping with these obviously racist plans, Nazareth Illit was given resources to develop a major industrial center, including the well known Illit chocolate factory and other industries located near the Zipporia area, that land then annexed to?. Nazareth Illit.

The 1965 Building and Planning Law forbid new Palestinian construction despite a population that has now increased five to six times. In fact, a blue line was drawn around every city in Israel outlining the limits of future building growth and (I know you will be shocked) the lines around Palestinian villages/cities hugged their current boundaries and the Jewish communities were given generous space to grow. Palestinians in Nazareth are only allowed to build up to four stories, so they have nowhere to expand and thus are forced to build beyond the “blue line” which is illegal. Due to the constant surveillance described above and Jewish “look out” communities built in the Galilee that monitor Palestinian construction, 40,000 homes in the Galilee (remember these are Israeli citizens) live under demolition orders. In order not to attract an international outcry, only about 500 demolitions (which is 500 traumatized dispossessed families with more PTSD than we can imagine) occur per year, but the threat is always there. The remaining homes pay an annual penalty that amounts to an extra tax that only postpones the demolition.

The problem, Jonathan admits, is that Nazareth Illit is not that nice a place to live. The mayor has called Nazareth, “a nest of terror,” so that might not be a selling point for the new neighbors. Thus new immigrants were sent to Nazareth Illit, arriving at the Morganthau Reabsorption Center, and then moving into permanent housing. But now there are no new immigrants and the old ones are more economically stable and ready to leave. But who will buy their houses in such an undesirable place? For the past ten years, middle class Palestinians in Nazareth who are desperate for housing, have been purchasing these houses, so now a quarter to a fifth of the population in Nazareth illit is Palestinian! This is possible because this city is not a cooperative town so there is no admissions committee to turn the new neighbors down as socially unacceptable. In the free market system, no one wanted to sell to Palestinians, but there was no competition from Jewish families, and money ultimately talks. Isn’t that how the market is supposed to work?

The mayor, now in a frustrated rage, hung ginormous Israeli flags along the road, like giant keep out signs. “Haaretz” also reported that he sought the advice of a rabbi from Hebron (take another deep breath) to develop a strategy to stop these trends. First the rabbi set up a Yeshiva for the national religious (ie fanatical Jews with guns) so there are now 50 armed religiously fundamentalist Jewish men living in Nazareth Illit, (our own little Taliban!). Then the mayor began building a new neighborhood with schools and synogogues and call centers for the women to work, for the Haredim who typically have eight to ten children, so the population is expected to jump by 30,000. These folks tend to be very aggressive and there are now reports of viscious attacks, including beatings, destroying shops, and throwing acid on Palestinians. (All of course in the name of the Almighty.) I might also add that these crazies are also endangering secular Jews who resent being stoned as well. Thus the mayor has effectively stopped Palestinian migration into his city. But now, who will buy a former Jewish now Palestinian home? What will happen to them? Secular Jews do not want to live here and the ultra-Orthodox will not live in integrated neighborhoods; so much for the dying myth of the liberal Israeli democracy. What can the mayor do now?

June 19, 2013 Nazareth: The logic of Israeli citizenship and nationality, down the rabbit hole again part one

The Al Mutran Guesthouse in Nazareth is a charming old Arabic home transformed into an simple but elegant guesthouse with open patios, pink geraniums and embroidered wall hangings. Journalist and author Jonathan Cook arrives filled with energy and a wealth of knowledge about history and politics. Originally from the UK and now an Israeli citizen, he is married to a spunky Palestinian woman with Israeli citizenship, who interjects, “No, I am ’48 Palestinian.” He explains that he works as a journalist so his children who are Israeli Arabs will not have to live as second class citizens.

Jonathan notes that discrimination inside in Israel is not informal; it’s systematic and institutionalized with practical implications that are obvious today. Nazareth is a unique Palestinian city, the only one inside of Israel that is not “mixed.” As we have learned, Haifa, Akko, and Lydd are Jewish cities with Palestinian ghettos. They also have Palestinian citizens who are primarily not native to the city, ie, many in Lydd are Bedouins brought in to build Tel Aviv after the ’48 expulsion.

In 1948, Nazareth was the only Palestinian city with the potential to become the Palestinian capital inside of Israel and thus it represented a huge threat to the Jewish establishment. After the war, approximately 200 Palestinian villages remained, but Nazareth was the only city standing. The villages survived sometimes because they were Christian and Israeli leaders were concerned about their international reputations, and some had work relationships with the local kibbutzim and moshavs.

The 1965 Planning and Building Law identified 124 Palestinian communities, leaving 80 unrecognized villages where all housing was declared illegal, and there were no services, electricity, or roads. These harsh conditions were the reality for 10% of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Jonathan notes that Nazareth is different, and enjoys privileges that the state has been unable to eradicate, largely due to the important Christian churches. There are three hospitals founded by religious orders so there are qualified medical personnel and a supportive middle class. There are a dozen high quality private schools also founded by religious orders, so Arabic children can be well educated and then they become the doctors and the lawyers that maintain the middle class. The segregated public Arab schools in Israel are so underfunded that the average Jewish student receives four to twelve times more funding. The state controls the curriculum which is so narrowly Zionist that there is no chance for a foundation in Palestinian identity, culture, history, international literature, or ancient Islamic poetry. The children in Nazareth are spared that intellectual and emotional death.

Jonathan discusses a host of other laws that mirror the Israeli behavior that later occurred in the Occupied Territories after ’67. In Nazareth, Israeli citizens lived under a military government for 18 years, they needed permits to travel and there was a network of collaborators that provided the eyes and ears of the Shin Bet. Once a person became a collaborator, often out of fear, then the family and children became involved as well. With the Fallow Lands Law, if land is not attended for three years, the state seizes the land, thus Palestinians were also incentivized to become collaborators to protect their lands. In the public schools, both teachers and students were informers, producing “a reign of terror” in the classroom.

Jonathan had a friend teaching English in a nearby village; one pupil asked, “What is the PLO?” This was a dangerous question so she answered in a neutral manner. The next morning, she received a call from the Shin Bet who had evidence of the interaction and she lost her job. This also can happen if someone goes to a demonstration or a march. This degradation of self-esteem and respect erodes any sense of pride in the education system. Your head teacher may be the biggest collaborator in the school. Since the majority of Christian and Muslim children attend the dozen private schools in Nazareth, they are spared this humiliation and leave with a solid education.

For me, the most eye opening part of Jonathan’s comments revolve around the issues of citizenship; this gets a little crazy, so bear with me. The Law of Return states than any Jew from Brooklyn to Mumbai can become an Israeli citizen because he is Jewish. Jonathan became a naturalized citizen because he wanted protection from expulsion or deportation and he did not want to wait for the threatened loyalty oath requirement. His wife, Sally, is an Israeli citizen because she is a Palestinian whose family stayed within the ’48 borders and in 1952 the citizenship law declared such people citizens. When they got married, it took Jonathan eight years and a host of legal threats to obtain citizenship.

Now take a deep breath. In Israel, there is a difference between citizenship and nationality, everybody here is a citizen but there are *137 nationalities* per the interior ministry. The courts refuse to recognize an * Israeli nationality*, but there is a *Jewish nationality*. So why is this? If there was an *Israeli nationality* then this would be a state of its citizens who are all recognized equally and Jewish exceptionalism would disappear. By maintaining the different nationalities along with citizenship, Jews can continue to have rights that are not granted to other citizens. To add to the craziness, Israeli nationality is listed on Israeli passports, but that is only for the benefit of the border guards. The blue Israeli ID card is also secretly coded: there is no mention of Israel: if are Jewish your birth date is written using the Hebrew calendar, if you follow Jesus or Mohammed, the date is in the Gregorian calendar. If you are confused, then read this again very slowly.

So who exactly is really a Jew? Under the Law of return, a person is recognized as a Jew if one grandparent is Jewish. Perversely, this is the same criterion the Nazis used. Jewishness as defined by religion, requires the presence of a Jewish mother. With this contradiction, many “Jews” arrived claiming to be Jewish, but then were not recognized by the rabbis who control Israeli Personal Law. This came to an explosive crisis in the 1990s when one million Russians arrived on Israeli shores, but think about it. The husband is Jewish a la the Jewish mother definition, but his Christian wife and four children are not. Suddenly the state is faced with one new Jew (yippee) and four non-Jews (not yippee). This has caused major social problems and it is currently estimated that more than 350,000 “Jews” from the Soviet Union are actually not “really Jewish”. Confused yet?

Jonathan reminds us that this is really different than, let’s say, Britain which is a Christian state (God save the Queen!) but also a state of citizens with equal rights under the law. In Israel, there is no symbolism to the Jewish in Jewish state. In the 1990s, post-Oslo, the mantra for this dilemma was all about separation and the logical outcome was the building of the wall and a tightening permitting system that made it increasingly difficult to marry across the Green Line. Non Israeli Palestinians have struggled to obtain citizenship when marrying partners in Israel, but have faced a judicial maze, endless delays, and changing laws that have ultimately functionally outlawed marriage between lovely Israeli Juliettes and their West Bank Romeos on the grounds of “security,” a reason in Israel second only to God, and to stop the right of return, “through the back door.” This has to be understood through the mindset of the ever present threat to the “Jewishness” of the Jewish State and the perception that Palestinians are not just fellow human beings trying to follow their hearts and minds, but actually conniving Trojan horses, ready to set off the demographic time bomb. So remember that “Jewish” is a nationality to make sure that state resources stay in the hands of the Jewish population and the system is designed in mind boggling detail to keep it that way. In Israel, according to Jonathan, in 1992 the Law of Dignity and Freedom was passed, but there is no Law of Equality. Anyone have problems with this out there in the modern democratic world?

Extremely loud jets repeatedly streak across the sky and we wonder if we have missed some important news item. Jonathan explains they are spying on Lebanon and Hezbollah, most likely trying to decide when to make their next moves.

It is intriguing that Nazareth should be a major tourist city, (remember the Angel Gabriel and the immaculate conception?) with graceful churches and a charming Old City. But this was thwarted through the mechanics of Israeli tourism, read Jewish tourism. The authorities created tourism zones and nearby Tiberias was given a Zone A with big tax breaks for building fancy hotels which were then not built in Nazareth where the real tourist attractions are actually located. This also means that the profits from even Christian tourism go mainly to the Jewish tourism industry so people stop at the local kibbutz, swing through the Basilica of the Annunciation and then spend their tourist shekels in Tiberias.

This only changed in the 1990s when the Pope decided to visit when Nazareth was spiffed up, but not without resentments and conflicts between Christians and Muslims manipulated by the Israeli government, the Pope, George Bush, and Ariel Sharon. Then the Intifada broke out and the hopeful Renaissance Hotel was converted into a prison. This was also a useful temporary prison for the foreign workers imported during the Intifada to replace the banned Palestinians. These folks married Israelis, and when they got deported, they needed a temporary place to stay as well. Only recently has there been a rejuvenation of tourism in the Old City, for visitors and the growing middle class, but it continues to be fraught with legal barriers. The old souk is mostly filled with cheap products from China and Taiwan and it is still recovering from being shut down for three years for renovation. The temporary market was set up in adjacent Nazareth Illit and is now a permanent and competitive fixture for that town.

Walking briskly alongside Jonathan’s constantly moving wiry frame, we learn more about the 57 laws overtly discriminating against Palestinians. There was a recent report on higher education that found 14 obstacles designed to prevent Palestinians from reaching higher education. He talks about the current state of political parties and comments that there is basically a Revisionist, Jabotinsky, Netanyahu type politics that acts more colonial and plans to beat the Palestinians into submission and then give them minimum rights. He feels that the Labor party and its allies are actually more racist since they openly admit Palestinians will never settle for this life of discrimination, they want equality, so they must be separated and walled in. This brings us to the next phase of our day with Jonathan, a fascinating tour of Nazareth Illit, translated as “upper” ie up the hill, and “morally superior,” translated as Jewish only.

June 18, 2013 Haifa: Love and sex in the age of apartheid

We arrive in the stunningly beautiful port city of Haifa, a muggy heat descending over steep hills winding to the port, towering cranes like gigantic blue flamingos perched along the shore, the over-the-top Bahai Temple and Gardens shimmering up the terraced mountain at the end of the German Colony area where we are staying. Our first stop today is with a group of dynamic women from Muntada: The Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health, and Aswat, Arabic for Voices.

Safa Tamish (www.jensaneya.org) is the intense and lively director of Muntada, a community based, feminist group founded in 2000, devoted to working on sexuality and sexual rights for Palestinians in Israel. This started as a project within an Israeli family planning organization, but became independent due to the complex intersections of sexuality, national identity, cultural sensitivity, occupation, and the consequent spoken and unspoken dynamics of power.

I suspect that most readers share the Western view of a repressive patriarchal Palestinian/Arab culture where women are characteristically dominated by their fathers and husbands and sexual issues, let alone queer issues, are off the agenda. We learn quickly that the culture is far from monolithic and there is a tremendous amount of nuance and complexity that needs to be understood.

Safa has a huge dose of chutzpah and creative energy. She describes going into different settings, starting with student councils, working on projects based on listening and respect for the local community, learning from each other. Once there is obvious mutual respect then much is possible.

Working in a Bedouin community, she understood that every mother has to explain to her child the predictable questions about sex, birth, etc. Using nonthreatening interactive training, with techniques such as role playing, she never encountered opposition, despite working in conservative villages. In the course of her work with girls in tenth to twelfth grade, she found that almost 90% of the tenth grade girls were engaged and by twelfth grade, many were married. After Safa’s program, none of the girls married while still in school. She believes in community empowerment, done respectfully and quietly.

The projects and conferences grew and by 2006 Muntada became an independent Arab association. She found that Zionist funders had no interest in Arabic projects and Arabic funders had no interest in working with Israelis. The original name was associated with family planning, but due to all the talk about the demographic threat from procreating Palestinians, this name also became political poison. Additionally, contraceptives were already available through the national health insurance. The group also wants to work with Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab world and thus became an independent organization with 28 volunteers. Their first funding came in 2007 through the Global Fund for Women and later other internationals, the European Union, Oxfam, local ministries for social welfare, and the Ministry of Education.

They are now developing culturally sensitive school programs; there are no models in the Arab world, and the western models are sometimes useful but culturally tone deaf. So how does this work in the real world? Safa told us that it is often tough; men are often gender insensitive; they need to be challenged without being imposed upon. The tolerance of the women gets tested and this then challenges the men. Last year, there was a two day training on sexuality in Nablus. All the men sat on one side, all the women on the other, two women were completely covered and two men were sheikhs with long beards. They stated that Sharia Law has all the answers and felt that additionally this project is funded by the west, with a western agenda. Safa thanked them for their comments and began the program unintimidated. The next day they were role playing and she asked the sheikh to explain to his daughter, “What is masturbation?” When he refused, “I cannot do this!” she explained, “But she is your daughter, do you want her to learn this from the internet?” He replied, “No,” blushed, and then finally did the role play. Others in the program reported that this experience has created dramatic changes in the school and the sheikh is now recommending the program to everyone!

With her lively expressive face she tells us another story. The group wanted to teach about puberty to seventh graders. First they got the permission of the principal and then invested in training the teachers, obtaining credits from the Ministry of Education. After the training, they evaluated the program and found that little had changed. So they developed a questionnaire for the students asking them what topics were of interest and who and what were their resources. The sixth and seventh graders asked questions about oral sex, anal sex, contraception, and pornography! The next step was to develop a letter for parents explaining the need for the program. When the outraged parents objected, Safa presented the parents with the results of the children’s questionnaire! So the strategies include developing the training, working with teachers, children, parents, and following up to check the outcomes.

When she asked the teachers, what was the most useful outcome of this work, one reported that she had been teaching the poetry of love in an intellectual way, but now she began talking more comfortably. During these discussions she discovered that one of her 15-year-old girls was involved in a “casual marriage,” an arrangement with an older man, and many girls were having sex with taxi drivers. The teacher was really able to talk about love and relationships and felt she had reclaimed her educational role as a teacher in this course. She also reported that she was now hugging her husband in front of her children and that the family was much less cold and more physically intimate. Such are the many surprises in this work.

The group, Muntada, develops manuals and materials for schools and last year created a youth program for 16 to 19 year olds on sexual rights as human rights. The students made films on the topics which included premarital sex, and wanted to have a big public launching ceremony. Safa admits she was terrified at the community response, but the films opened in the cinema in Nazareth in front of over 2,000 people. The audience responded positively and one parent told her, “I am so proud you.” Their website is growing and includes professional questions and answers, sex therapists, gynecologists, and Arabic translations of scientific articles. They had 370,000 hits last year, the majority from Saudi Arabia.

Safa has started similar work in the West Bank and Muntada has just graduated their third group. West Bankers were once open minded but have become increasingly conservative. The youth have lost their ability to dream; not only are they physically occupied, but their minds are occupied as well, there is a sense of internalized defeat. Safa does not believe in partial liberation. She sees personal and national liberation as equally necessary. She notes, during the Arab spring, young people demonstrating in Ramallah demanded personal and national liberation. Sexual liberation she explains is intimately tied to fighting checkpoints, apartheid laws, and repressive family reunification prohibitions. It seems the personal is political, even in Palestine.

Things are even more challenging for the LGBT community. A woman I will call Suhair explains that the organization, Aswat, means Voices, and is a feminist social change organization of gay Palestinian women that is also part of the overall political struggle. The group was started in 2003 by eight women to create a safe space and address challenges and aspirations. Cofounding members were activists in Israeli LGBT organizations and other progressive organizations. They were at first welcomed in Israeli organizations but had to keep their national identity closeted. They found that the vast majority of LGBT organizations, despite the Israeli branding of tolerant gay tourism, do not support Palestinian rights. These women did not feel they could prioritize their rights. Thus they created a discourse that combines resistance to all oppression including occupation and homophobia. At the same time while Palestinian queer women are not unique in the challenges they face, they cannot begin to think of sexual freedom without the right to be free of occupation.

Suhair shares her own personal story as a teenager, questioning her sexuality, without any venues, Arabic sources, supports in school, at home, or with friends. She discovered a phone support in Tel Aviv called White Line which was important to her, but their only suggestion was to get out of Haifa and come to Tel Aviv. She finished high school, got into Tel Aviv University, had “the best time in my life” out of the closet, but still felt she was the only lesbian Palestinian in the world. She had many Jewish friends, but then something weird happened. When invited to parties, friends told her she didn’t look Palestinian and suggested she change her name to sound “Israeli”. She tried to be cool, but was choking inside. Her friends reassured her they just wanted her to have a good time, no hassles. One day, she packed up her stuff and went home to her more conservative family and culture. “Gay haven Tel Aviv is not a gay haven for Palestinians.” “The soldier at checkpoint does not care if I am gay or straight.”

As a high school teacher, Suhair notes that Palestinian society has been living at the margins of marginality for decades. The total investment in education for Palestinian students is 1/3 of their Jewish counterparts, from age three to 18. The budgetary discrimination affects how kids are exposed to sexual education, what manuals, directories, and websites are written in Arabic, what opportunities are available for the educators and the educated. This is further complicated by a generally conservative society and segregated schools.

A woman I will call Layla, also a member of Aswat, agrees that Palestinian society is far from monolithic; but that it is difficult to be a lesbian in a Palestinian organization, or a Palestinian in an Israeli Jewish gay organization. She always felt a need to hide one of her identities until she found Aswat. She talked about the complexities of the Palestinian community, the homophobia and realities of occupation that are embedded in her mind, the lack of modern writings on homosexuality, the fact that sexual freedom is only possible with economic freedom. She works with women to write and publish their personal stories, to join with intellectuals and other feminist organizations like Muntada to support each other in solidarity and sisterhood. There are also joint efforts with the boycott, sanction, and divestment campaign, Palestinian Queers for BDS, Al Qaws, and the promotion of the rights of queer Palestinians by the BDS movement.

As the three women talk, we learn that amongst Palestinians, their language has been transformed into a shallow mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and English that is the consequence of settler colonialism and occupation. In this Arabic, most women have no name for their genitals, that vague “down there” place, unnamed, untouchable. “Everything starts with words,” Safa exclaims. “In Arabic literature there are 990 names for the genitals, each animal has a different name for its genitals, poets in the ninth century wrote about homosexuality and bisexuality and it was acceptable.” In Amman same sex marriage is allowed! Fortunately people are being transformed by what is happening around them.

They also reflected on issues related to men who are part of their work. In a male dominated society, to believe in your partner’s rights requires a willingness to give up some of your own privilege; not all men are ready to do that. But male privilege for Palestinians is extremely complex for they too lack privilege; suffer from economic discrimination and humiliation, much like marginalized men of color in the US. Thus the conversation quickly encompasses issues that included gender, race, and class. This provocative discussion ends with a comment from one of our Black women delegates about the need to build a more just society, “But it is not your responsibility to build that in a dominate culture. It is my burden as a Black woman to educate my oppressors, but white men need to hold white men accountable.” In Israel/Palestine, where Palestinian men are far from the dominant culture, the rude reality of second class citizenship and occupation makes that struggle incredibly more difficult.