March 22, 2015 part two, No time to mourn

I first saw the spanking new administrative buildings for the Gaza Community Mental Health Program in 2005; ten years later there is a rusty shabbiness to the exterior but the people working inside are energetic and spectacular. The property fronts a road and then a glorious sandy beach and the crashing grey blue waves of the Mediterranean.  Young people cluster on the sand and horses gallop along the shore. The Israeli navy shelled this area last July and it was on a nearby Gaza beach that four boys, aged two to eleven, were killed by an Israeli gunboat in front of a group of horrified journalists during the last invasion.  In any other country, this would be a resort.

We gather in a conference room with the breath taking view and are greeted by Dr. Yasser Abu-Jamei, the psychiatrist and executive director who has taken the helm of the center since the death of Dr Eyad el Saraj.  He welcomes us warmly to “planet Gaza,” announces that it is “pizza time” (as in red and white checkered boxes containing Domino taste-a-like pizza) along with sweet orange and grape drink. No humus and pita?

After the kissing and compliments and the tribute to our strong partnerships, the serious talk begins. Yasser notes that “after the agony,” “people are walking around, they are not obviously in shock; people are carrying on; it is uplifting.” “This is a nation of survivors, there is no other chance.  We are under occupation.”  75% of Gazans are refugees and everyone is subjected to the siege. “This nation has no other choice, we are freedom fighters, we have all the international resolutions but that doesn’t change the fact that we are still under occupation.  We were subjected to three different offenses in six years and we are still under siege.  Construction materials are not allowed to get into Gaza; people who have totally lost everything are scheduled to get funds ‘later’ so the worse the damage the less the help.” He notes that “Israeli citizens are cheated by their leaders,” that the idea that “Palestine will be a danger to Israel is nonsense. Occupation will never continue forever, we will have our own state.”

Yasser is equally harsh on the topic of the conflicts within Palestinian leadership.  “We do not even have a pizza to fight over…. We are closed minded people, we need new leadership.”  He shares a current joke making the rounds of the Middle East: Netanyahu is a new *Arabic* leader, “He makes big high tone speeches with empty meaning!” When things get politically tight, he manipulates just to survive. Privately I think it would be more funny, if it were less tragic.

We are worried about how Yasser and the staff are doing after the July/August 2014 invasion. After the joking, “terribly good,” he describes 51 days of intense fear and insecurity for adults and children, the daily fear of death. The GCMHP staff were urged to stay with family until the cease fire, but staff called each other once or twice per week, “so we are like one family.” During a small truce, staff returned to work, small management teams stayed in direct communication.  When the war stopped, “our work started, everyone give help.”

They found an enormous basic catastrophe, but also worked to stay sensitive to the amount of intrusion people could tolerate. Visiting a devastated family may expose them more than is helpful, their privacy is gone, the wreckage of their home and their lives is too public. Despite a financial deficit the GCMHP continued to function.  Donations came in, capacity and referrals increased. Yasser explains that the challenge is that with this level of trauma the normal capacity of people to overcome horrendous experiences is crippled, the political conditions are not improving, the environment is not improving, there is no reconstruction, people are depleted, they have no coping strategies, and no hope for improvement.  This is a form of continuous PTSD (or as I like to say, it can’t be “post-traumatic stress disorder if it is not yet post.”

Despite all this pessimism, there are fundamental shifts in the US post the Gaza wars, in Obama, and in Netanyahu’s speech to congress.  Husam el Nounou, the administrative director, explains, “We are winning the battle over Israel, occupation, colonialism, racism, this will not prevail, everyone who comes here is changed.” Unfortunately, Palestinian politics is linked to regional politics, so there is much proxy behavior as well as influence between the US (via Saudi Arabia) and Iran.  “We Palestinians should have one Palestinian leadership that can agree on a national project. Interestingly, the GCMHP supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement, “this is the most important thing, boycott as an occupation not as a state of the Jews. We have nothing against Jews for being Jews.  BDS is increasing internationally; this will result on political pressure.”

The big challenge is how to link mental health with human rights, a fundamental belief of the founder and late Dr. Eyad. International peace is the basis for Palestinian peace.  Husam explains that ISIS is filled with anger, frustration, desire for revenge.  In general people are heavily frustrated and hopeless and this is a recipe for violence which can take the form of violence against self, family, children and women, as well as communal and tribal violence, shootings in the neighborhood.  All of this is increasing, most of those who cannot express their anger are like a time bomb, “young, poor, hopeless is time bomb, easily maneuvered by more militant groups…the environment encourages this, we need to diffuse [the anger], open the borders, improve the economy.”

Yasser talks of intervening as early as possible, working in schools with students and teachers, with people who are subjected to oppression or bullies in school, teaching teenagers other ways to deal with anger, it is important to listen and hear,.  If someone is showing anxiety and depression, people need to talk, make themselves hear themselves and hear it in a different way. “Your ability is limited because the environmental conditions are so bad, with 40% unemployment overall, much higher in the 25-30 year old age group.”  He sees people are desperate, fleeing to Italy by sea.  “Is this suicidal or trying for better life, or join ISIS?” The media he notes is often less than helpful.  He notes that even Israeli generals are advising Netanyahu to lift the siege for the sake of the Israeli government.

But Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt complicate the picture and he is not optimistic.  Even when the border with Egypt opened up, 200,000 Gazans left to shop, see families, etc, but when asked to return, they complied. If all the necessary reconstruction materials were to reach Gaza and a vigorous Marshall-like Plan enacted, it would take ten years to rebuild, but otherwise the estimates are more like 50 years before an improvement in living conditions, barring further wars. Between dysfunctional Palestinian leadership, Israeli control, and Turkey’s wavering, political conditions do not exist that would allow a positive future; Gazans cannot even rebuild their destroyed homes.  Yasser is strongly in favor of the boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns.

On a more personal note, Yasser explains that he lived in the UK, but returned to Gaza with his wife and children because, “this is my country and my children deserve to live in a dignified country where their grandparents live.”  He was born in Saudi Arab, but feels Gaza is “my land.” He talks of changing the very constructs of people’s mentality. “With a patient, I cannot offer something I cannot have for myself, I can only offer containment of fears and processing of trauma and direct him to a better future, get him back to school, help abusive parents, etc.” It seems to me, in Gaza the therapists are suffering at similar levels to their patients.

Husam relates a troubling story; he was driving his car ten years ago and there was a rocket that landed in front of him and his son, a huge BOOM. The child grabbed his neck, but Husam was able to reassure him and drive home.  Two days later the child developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).  Husam tried to help him.  I week later he told his father, “I want to die, I want to be a martyr. You cannot understand how you feel. I am a bad father, I cannot help my children, why?  What is the meaning of life if you can be killed for nothing? So kill and be killed for something.  I was in a big moment of confusion, it is good to die for home/people but it is much better to live for it. Need to convey this message, so containment and love from extended family and religious faith” is critical. He continues that in Islam, “it is said everything comes from God, and if it is good, be grateful, God will reward you.  If it is bad, be good and God will reward you.  This gives you strength and power. The lucky ones come to our clinics.  I am really concerned for the thousands who cannot come to our clinics.”

We ask, so how do providers care for each other? Yasser tells us a story of Hassan al-Zeyada, a staff member whose family was killed.  “It was something very unique.  I have 24 years of experience. I hear bombardments continuously.  You do not know who is dying and who is living. I had to maintain good internet connection and smart mobiles do the trick. They keep you all the time connected good and bad.”  When the IDF bombarded the compound with people, Hassan left immediately.” The family received a warning missile he explains pensively.  “I know that Hassan’s family lived there, born there, raised there, I didn’t know what to do… and the mobile phone was ringing…They all died of the shelling.  That was a question.  What to do.  The news was really shocking… it is very dangerous.  They were destroying everything, what to do?” He spoke with another staff member and then talked to Hassan. “I didn’t know what to say, I lost some of my cousins, but it is not like losing your mom.  I heard him breathing, and crying, I couldn’t speak.”

“‘Hasan, I don’t know what to say,’ Yasser said, ‘I know,’ some words you try to say; that was one of the most intense phone calls during the offensive.  I had to call, we have 65 staff, I try to call them all (every week or two). When the place is more affected than another, you start to worry.  We were thinking of creating toll free hotline operated by male and female hotline.  I picked the male, social worker, ‘How are you?’ ‘I am fine.  How is everything?’ Yasser finds that the colleague’s whole building is not there anymore, he is staying with colleagues, in the north of Gaza, (close to a dangerous area).” Yasser asks how can a staff person who has lost his house, “What would he offer someone? How could he contain the sorrows?”

Some staffers appreciated the phone calls and text messages, the attempts to stay in touch. But it was difficult to be the person making those calls. “I cannot never forget the moment that Hassan was on the phone.  I really couldn’t meet him until the truce….” “The other thing our receptionist, Osama Al Ramlawi, he lost his brother and his house was partially affected.  His brother was a member of our crisis team, a social worker after the second offensive (2012).  Yasser planned to hire him after the most recent assault.  “At least he could have some income, he has two children, he said it was early morning, they decided to leave the neighborhood of Shigaia. Ahmad decided to stay in a few minutes, he was standing in front of his house doing nothing.  He was killed at that moment by shrapnel and suddenly he was not there and it happened after Hassan…”

“I left one day pass, gathered myself and I called him, I know what happened, I couldn’t come to you, there nothing we can do.  We talked about religion, Osama was weeping. His twin brother, that brother used to bring happiness to the family and I remember…. So suddenly Ahmad is not there.”  Osama had an extremely difficult time, “we stayed with him, more than once, he needed lots of support.   A few months ago [his wife] gave birth to a boy and they named him Ahmad, after the brother who was killed.  So you live with such people, you work with such friends, and you have community but you have no other chance but to go on.”

We discovered that it was impossible to observe a traditional mourning period due to the Israeli assault, “because they were targeting any gathering immediately, like praying in a mosque, going out together and it happens like that they were bombarded, no mourning at all took place.  My grandmother died, 95 years old for natural reasons, she passed away, we took her from the hospital to her daughter’s house and then to the cemetery, everything happened in 10-15 minutes.  People were targeted in the cemetery.” Yasser explains, “that something delays the processing of PTSD, because even natural ways of grief and closure does not take place, people couldn’t say goodbye to the dead.” He feels “crazy but I come to work everyday.  We have one million nine hundred thousand crazy people.”

Husam adds that the desire for life, family, and religion along with the responsibilities and supports of family have kept the Palestinian community from collapsing over the past 70 years. “The bad effects of trauma, trauma makes you stronger and stronger, for sure there is something changed in you, more power to cope with the difficulties in your life.”  His grandmother is from Lod, (now Lyd in Israel) and his mother was born in Yaffa. His family fled south and he remembers the stories of the Egyptian refugee camps, and life in Gaza.  “You have these memories born in the camps, had to face the difficulties, the trauma, the poverty, at the end they are different, they are strong, they have an innate capacity to survive.”

Yasser questions, “What could we do? If people here are given the chance to become productive, things will become a thousand times better, but it is unfortunately not allowed.” He reviews the growth in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, “It is not logical.”

Husam adds that peace is critical and that when it comes to genuine politics, the details of the right of return for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is negotiable.  Every Palestinian knows they can never go home,” even his 75 year old mother does not want to return to Jaffa because she has children and grandchildren, but an acceptable compromise needs to be developed. Netanyahu’s recent election does not bode well for Palestinians, “He is a fox, a liar, excellent with making money and it just got better.”

According to the Gaza Community Mental Health Program website:

Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei has reportedly lost 28 members of his family when an Israeli air strike on July 21 flattened the house in which they were gathered for the evening meal at the end of the daily Ramadan fast.

Other GCMHP staff members who have reportedly also suffered personal losses include Hassan al-Zeyada, Osama Al Ramlawi, and Marwan Diab.

March 22, 2015 part one, Mish mushkela, No problem

The drive to Erez checkpoint is deceptively bucolic as the rain trickles through lush rolling farmland, vineyards, fruit trees, wineries reminiscent of the valleys of California; but the signs for Ashdod, Asheqelon, and Sederot lend that ominous feel: memories of Israelis, bomb shelters, PTSD, and Qassam rockets. Beyond these troubled border towns, sprawls the ominous military terminal that is the only way currently to get in or out of Gaza from Israel if you are not a vegetable or an approved piece of construction.

Erez was built to process 35-40,000 travelers a day and currently does a tenth of that when things are quiet.  I am hoping for quiet. Last November, the Physicians for Social Responsibility delegation waited for three hours at the first checkpoint, today we are literally waved through.  Then there is a large open plaza with particular places to enter for particular papers and stamps.  While everyone sails through, I am asked to wait for some extra security checks, I can see one of the computers but it is all little boxes and Hebrew.  I so wished I had paid more attention in Hebrew school.  Finally, the security officer asks me about my trouble at Ben Gurion airport, (so this is what they know!) and I explain that yes I have had a Jawal phone card, that I am involved with an exchange program with Harvard and Al Quds medical students and yes I do like to go visit the students I get to know in Ramallah but you know that is how doctors are, smile smile and gee, how many hours do you work in this box, it must get really, really tiring, gesundheit, are you getting a cold?…. She stamped my passport. (So here is a persnickety question: if Gaza is no longer occupied and Gaza is not part of Israel, then why do Israelis get to decide who gets to go in? Academically speaking of course).

Forgive me if I do not get this exactly right, but after passport control, we drag our bags through grey Metal Door 6.  There is a huge open building like a big half-finished warehouse and then a series of long walkways, hallways, turnstiles (although they agree to open a metal door for us each time since we have a ridiculous amount of luggage carrying supplies for Gaza and squeezing through the turnstiles would have been a humiliating joke.) Cameras are everywhere. We finally emerge into a corridor on the other side of the concrete wall and gun towers surrounded by a sea of bright yellow flowers defying the dangers of the buffer zone/no man’s land where several brave and probably desperate shepherds follow their munching curly cream colored flocks at the risk of being summarily shot.  We are met by a cluster of tuk tuks, load up our bags and cases of 1 ½ liter bottles of water, (remember we are heading to the land of salinized water, depleted aquifers, and bombed sewer treatment plants), and start the ¾ mile walk down the wire fenced corridor to the Hamas version of passport control and a search of all the luggage. There is a large ominous poster warning Palestinians not to collaborate with Israelis. A smiling woman paws through my bags, but her eyes are laughing and friendly, another man also in uniform grins and says, “Welcome to Gaza.” Then another short taxi ride and finally, the vans from Gaza Community Mental Health Program are waiting and a nimble, sun-browned man, probably in his sixties, scampers up to the roof rack and starts piling up our luggage.  I learn a new very helpful Arabic word: mish mushkela – no problem.

322aEretz Crossing

322bEretz Crossing

322cEretz Crossing

322dNo Man’s Land – shepherds

Hamas border control – ‘Don’t collaborate’

March 21, 2015, History in the hills: what keeps me up at night

The Shabbat streets are quiet and a cool cloudy day soon punctuated by a more serious rain greets me and my colleague as we take a taxi to Neve Shalom/Wahat Salam/Oasis of Peace to join the delegation leaving for Gaza tomorrow. We are basically heading west in the direction of Ashdod and will then drift south to Erez checkpoint in the morning. This is the kind of trip where the landscape is a fascinating historical document if only you know how to read the clues. The Palestinian taxi driver provides many of the details, while bemoaning the poor quality of Arab public schools in Israel, the need to send his children to private schools for a top notch education, and the prohibitive price of these educational institutions.

This could just be 45 minutes zooming in the rain through some classic Middle Eastern cityscape and countryside but I invite you to open your eyes and see what I see. In the distance we easily view the West Bank Jewish settlements of Gilo and Giv’at Masu’a, looming white apartments built (illegally according to International law) on the Palestinian lands of Beit Jala and Beit Safafa.  I think about how invisible that fact is to the vast majority of folks speeding along the highway with their yellow Israeli license plates and lack of historical memory. I flash back to Baltimore last week at the national Jewish Voice for Peace conference, where speaker after speaker acknowledged the native lands on which the Hyatt Hotel was built and our role as privileged white people in the dispossession of Native Americans. (I know my grandfather came from the Carpathian Mountains in the early 1900s and was a presser in a sweat shop, but I still need to own my white privilege and power if we are to begin to understand each other).

Six imposing apartment buildings arise from a hilltop like giant defiant white fingers, the driver refers to this as the Holy Land Apartments, and then we fly through tunnels, pass hotels like the Ramada and the Jerusalem Gardens, the Israeli Knesset, an area called Kiryat Ben Gurion, and then I spot the decaying village of Lifta, stones houses resiliently clinging to the steep, green  hillsides. In 1947 the wealthy town of Lifta was supposed to be part of an international zone between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but before the ’48 war began, Zionist forces repeatedly attacked the town until more and more of the inhabitants fled, leaving abandoned graceful homes, a mosque, irrigation system, extensive agriculture, gardens, pools, and a sophisticated irrigation system. The Jewish settlement of Ramot is perched on a hilltop on the opposite side of the highway, and between loops of highway and pine forests most likely planted by the Jewish National Fund, I can see more of the remnants of Lifta and the gigantic concrete structures being built for the train system that will bisect this treasured and painful historical landscape.

The taxi driver points out the cemetery built on Deir Yassin, the site of a horrific massacre on April 9, 1948 by Jewish paramilitary troops, where over 100 men, women, and children were brutally killed.  This massacre became a pivotal event that led many terrified local Palestinians to flee their homes. On the opposite hilltops are the Jewish settlements of Moza and Mevaseret and a sign to al-Qastel, a key position in the 1948 war and site of fierce battles between the Arab Liberation Army and the Jewish Palmach and Haganah which resulted in the death of the Arab leader al-Husayni and the capture and destruction of the town by the Palmach.  In the same area, a large mall beckons with familiar brands and bright lights and the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh boasts excellent restaurants and a gleaming new mosque.

The driver points out a valley to our left where a Palestinian killed a busload of Israelis, one of the opening salvoes of the First Intifada. We pass a kibbutz, Sho’eva, built on the village of Saris, destroyed in 1948, and the skeletons of Israeli tanks, a vestige of the several battles for the Latrun area where Israeli forces unsuccessfully fought Jordanian troops in 1948, only to successfully capture the area in 1967.

Soon we see rolling green hills, a distant monastery and acres of vineyards and olive groves, Tel Aviv ghostly in the distance. The sign for Neve Shalom/Wahat Salam beckons us and we arrive at the only intentional Jewish/Arab community in all of Israel.  The landscape a la history lesson is over as I prepare for the next step in our journey with a good night sleep, if the hills and stones will only be quiet enough for me to fall into sleep.

March 20, 2015, Schmoozing East Jerusalem style

Friday is a get-over-jet-lag schmooze-with-friends-and-colleagues kind of day, much of it spent in a lovely modern apartment in the Germany Colony, a neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem established in the second half of the 1800s by the German Temple Society and populated by Christian Arabs as well. The Germans were run out by the British as Nazi sympathizers and the Arabs dispossessed in 1948, leaving a pleasant blend of Ottomon and art deco architecture and homes conveniently “emptied” for Jewish immigrants. In the bad old days, one of the main streets, Emek Refaim, was the site of a horrific suicide bombing during the Second Intifada in 2003 and another nearby bombing on bus #14A. Emek Refaim is now a trendy, gentrified area with excellent coffee shops, a decent burrito place (although they do not know from corn chips, try lost in translation fried pita) and a host of yuppie shops reminiscent of a combo between Harvard Square and Newbury Street. Except for all the Hebrew signage, I could feel right at home. Our host with her bright eyed delicious baby, talks about her exposed bulging belly being poked and wanded for explosives at a previous ridiculous day at airport security.  Did the Israelis seriously think there was a bomb in her uterus or is that just the metaphor for another non-Jewish baby in the demographic wars? And she is not even Palestinian. She reports the kid kicked back.

The rest of the day we drink coffee, tea with mint (ahh), and nibble on Arabic salad in the  unexpectedly trendy Gallery Café in Sheikh Jarrah, near the Mount Scopus Hotel (currently closed), where a steady stream of activists, medical folk, journalists, and friends of friends just happen to be passing by.  So we schmooze.  It is Friday after all.

I learn about attempts to establish an ob-gyn department on convent land at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, a Christian hospital (do we hire veiled women?) where 90% of the patients are Muslim, the ten year fight to get a license to build, (this is East Jerusalem after all).  And then there are the struggles of recently trained docs and old fashioned more hierarchical types, issues of gender discrimination and establishing competency, the dynamic of a hospital under the Israeli Ministry of Health staffed mostly by West Bankers.  Add to this the challenges for Palestinian women with East Jerusalem residency IDs (and no Israeli citizenship) with Israeli  medical insurance coping with the institutional racism of high quality Jewish hospitals like Hadassah and orthodox Jewish hospitals like Shaare Zedek where the care is technically excellent but culturally insensitive. Is it possible to have a modern, high quality ob-gyn hospital with Palestinian staff speaking Arabic, culturally appropriate, credentialed by the Israel Ministry of Health? Insha’allah, time will tell.

Then we meet a longtime Israeli activist and a young Norwegian journalist just returned from a protest in Azaria near Bethany and Abu Dis on the other side of the wall that slices through this city where refugees are under threat of displacement again. Norway tends to be sympathetic to the concerns of Palestinians, but the young man explains almost apologetically, they were responsible for the Oslo Accords as well! He talks about a family “self-demolishing,” a mind boggling practice where Palestinians destroy their own homes in order to save whatever personal belongings and family treasures they can grab and to avoid the heavy fines imposed by the occupiers when a bulldozer does it for you and sends you the bill.  Honestly, I cannot make this stuff up.

An Egyptian journalist born in Libya stops for a cup of coffee as his young son runs around the café and garden.  The father animatedly talks about his responses to the special interrogations he routinely receives in Israeli airports, “Israel is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  These intrusions are illegal!” When he challenges the security, sometimes they back down, sometimes they don’t. He is a bearded “Arab” appearing male with a charming British accent and a quick and passionate mind.  Obviously a threaten to your average 25 year old Israeli security person, steeped in the stereotypes that buttress the educational system in this modern democracy. This conversation drifts into a fascinating discussion about racism: the usual Jewish Israeli of course I am fine with Arabs, my gardener is an Arab variety, to the Palestinian form where the Arabic word for a black Arab is “a slave.” Racism in every society also intersects with class; the professional academic Indians living in London (the Empire comes home) fare far better than the poor Arab immigrant families from Algeria and Morocco unemployed and angry in the suburbs of Paris. But the Egyptian via Libya argues that 9/11 changed everything, Islamophobia became acceptable. (Yes I know Muslims are not a race, I am talking concepts here). In essence, Islamophobia is now an acceptable form of racism. If you don’t believe me, substitute any derogatory comment using Muslim with Jew, Black, gay, etc and you will see what I mean.

We wander back through the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where an unrelenting process of Judaization has been occurring since 1967. A cluster of hardy protestors stand on the corner across from the sign to the Shimon HaTsdadik tomb, holding posters in Hebrew and English: “No to the Occupation,” “Stop the settlements in East Jerusalem.”  I recognize Arik Ascherman, founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, and Nasser al-Ghawi who with his family was dragged from his longtime home in 2009 along with the Al-Hanoun family by Israeli security, police, and fanatical Jewish settlers. The Palestinian homes are scarred with graffiti, the Star of David now a symbol of racism, hatred, and entitlement.  In the 1950s Palestinian refugees from West Jerusalem and beyond were offered homes here by the UN and the Jordanian government in exchange for giving up their refugee status and since 1967 a quasi-legal, violent, and tortured battle has been fought in the courts and the streets around the this is mine/no I was hear first and here are the manufactured documents to prove it variety. Currently 500 Palestinian families face the threat of eviction. Nearby, young Jewish boys with peyos, in short black pants, black jackets, and white yarmulkes, munch chips and play before the Sabbath services in one of these acquired-by-Jewish-settlers buildings, while down the dusty street tens of Palestinians families, victims of evictions and home demolitions, have established a squatters camp devoid of basic services (like water and electricity) in a large white stone edifice, glass shattered, in poor repair, protected under Islamic Law as a wafq, just a block from the upscale American Colony Hotel where I can bet no one chooses to see this crushing disaster. Contradiction upon contradiction. Injustice upon injustice.

We pick up a collection of maps from the UN OCHA building (Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs), not the usual google map types, but a set of damning, crisscrossed, multi-colored affairs that present a visual of the tortured realities of occupation, walls, land confiscation, checkpoints, (more on that later). We complete our journey, picking our way through trash  strewn streets (see non-existent garbage collection and no recycling bins in East Jerusalem), torn up roads (a small portion of the municipal services goes to East Jerusalem compared to West Jerusalem and did I mention that East Jerusalemites pay the same taxes as their West Jerusalemite neighbors and get a fraction of the city budget in this the united capital of the State of Israel?) to the lovely Educational Book Store run by the Muna family on Salah Eddin Street.  They have a fabulous collection of books in English on Middle Eastern culture and the Arab/Israel conflict.  Mahmoud welcomes me at the door, Ahlan wa Sahlan, and I see my book, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion prominently displayed in the front window.  Oh happy days! I feel a little less invisible in this crazy making place on just another typical Friday afternoon.

March 19, 2015, Guilty as charged: I did once have a Jawal Card.

Two weeks ago when the permit to Gaza finally arrived the travel nightmares began, lost luggage, harsh Israeli interrogators, forgetting a flight, the neurotic pulsations of an anxious mind already on high alert.

The flight from Boston to Newark has the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. The tight lipped stewardess races the drink cart down the aisle as the plane lurches and pounces through the air, cups and plates clattering wildly as I brood over the striped suit sitting next to me, white knuckled, grimly gripping the seat ahead.  I briefly ponder my short but meaningful life. Is this another message from the angry travel goddess?

As expected, C 138, the terminal for the flight to Tel Aviv, is hidden behind a food court at the end of a long corridor, blocked off from general traffic, “SECURED GATE HOLD AREA.” I can feel my pulse leaping, a tightness in my chest, as the smatterings of Hebrew, Spanish, and the twang of New Jersey and New York meld with the drawl of southern accents.  We line up for the second bout of screening, (see message: all the world hates us, Israeli security is our most important product), but the cursory bag inspection and spread eagle wanding seem more for show than anything else.


An eager young man wearing a yarmulke pours over a heavy organic chemistry text book.  He explains to me that he had gone to Israel and “gotten religious” and now he dreams of medical school, do I have any advice for getting in?

I watch the steady stream of bearded men with tall hats, some schlepping big hat boxes for the flight, some wrapped in long fringed tallit, tsistit dangling from their shirts, a variety of peyos, the long banana curls dancing off their shoulders.  One young man, pink cheeked with a scraggly beard filled with aspiration, twirls his big hat on his finger like a Frisbee.  A particularly other worldly older character wears pantaloons and for all I can tell, black tights and shoes that remind me of the Pilgrims. He prays continuously. At the proscribed moment, the men line up, rocking and davening, facing Jerusalem like a row of black crows on a high wire.  There are wives, mostly of the frumpy variety, in wigs and scarfs, along with squirming children, modern Orthodox, and a collection that reminds me of The Hadassah Ladies of my youth. One woman in a bright yellow hijab laughs on her phone. A sparrow frantically flits between the seats, another message from the travel goddess? Fly away while you can.

I am searching for my “beloved community” and bumping up against my own intolerance; the sound of Hebrew – the voice of the oppressor, the ultra-religious feel like settlers, Netanyahu’s re-election though not a surprise, is doubly awful because of his last minute appeals: a pledge not to create a Palestinian state (even of the Bantustan variety currently contemplated) and racist comments about the dangers of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship voting in droves. Swinging unabashedly right. I think, the mask is off, what will J Street and Obama and the nice liberal Zionists do now? Are any of these folks here in turmoil over this?  Is my compulsive blogging any different than their compulsive praying?  Are we all just dealing with our spiritual and political angst the best we can?


My seat mate on the plane explains that her son made aliyah nine years ago and she is traveling to her grandson’s bar mitzvah in (the Jewish settlement of) Modi’in. She is upset about the election results and worries, “there will be no peace.” She asks, “Do you think we still have hope?”  When she meets my traveling companions and learns that we are all doctors on a “medical humanitarian mission” (we leave out the part about Gaza) she responds, “That’s great! You know, Israel is the start-up nation.” I am beginning to feel like I come from a different planet.


Airplane dream: I look out the window and see trees and it is clear that we have landed on a long dirt road next to a forest on the edge of a farm.  The airline captain is not upset. We are greeted by cheerful villagers who want to sell us Palestinian embroidery. They have prepared an immense feast for us which oddly includes an entire roasted pig, cut up with the crusty skin glistening in the sun.  In my half-conscious state, I know I am certainly flying to a strange land, a place where the abnormal is normal, perhaps that ham hock is my subconscious awareness of the desecration of Palestine?


Passport control is another story. It takes 45 minutes to get to the woman in the box.  She peruses my passport abruptly. Why are you here? Tourism, medical volunteering.  Where? Physicians for Social Responsibility? Where? (Can she see my permit in the computer?) Gaza. My Muslim American fellow doctor/writer and I are sent to a bench where we wait like children given detention.  We pass the time looking at pictures of her two grey kittens. Over the course of the next hour, we are both interrogated.  Name? Father’s name? Grandfather’s name? Phone number, US and Israel? Email? Purpose of visit? Where are you staying? How long? Will you go to the West Bank? Have you been here before? What did you do? Go sit down.

Another official comes out and aggressively accuses me of having a Jawal phone number, the sim card that is used in the West Bank.  He has this smug, I got you look, on his face.  I look at him (this is the worst you can find?) and explain I have traveled here annually for many years, I have a pile of sim cards, I have no idea which work and I have no idea what my Jawal number might be.  He presses further but it is clear that he will get nowhere with me on this one.  What I have learned is that they actually have a record of all my sim cards, and now they know my current phone numbers and email.  That should make surveillance really easy.


I can’t tell what annoys them the most…. A Jewish “traitor” like me or a Muslim “enemy of the state” like my dear friend and colleague.


Our passports are finally returned and soon we are in a cab with a cheerful driver from Abu Tor, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood south of the Old City of Jerusalem.  He is apologizing for the behavior of the airport security apparatus.  “You know, it’s all about the occupation.” His brother who owns the cab company, calls as well, apologizing again and offering us a cup of coffee to make up for the delay. Clearly, no partners for peace here.

319a 319b

Welcome to Israel, Bien Venue

I often encounter some metaphorical weirdness on my flights to Israel, and, true to form, on my layover in Toronto, my flight leaves from gate E69, but arrows point in opposite directions and the obvious glass doors to the indicated area are locked shut. Alice in Wonderland? Where is the white rabbit when I need him? A helpful information lady explains that that section of the airport is locked until shortly before check-in. Ahhhh. I settle into an anxious, watchful stupor, and once the doors open, I notice that E69 is also cordoned off and that another (mild Canadian style, sweep of the wand across my potentially explosive laden palms) checkpoint is required to enter the now safe-from-terror zone that is the flight to Tel Aviv.

The passengers are an eclectic group: a number of Christian religious tours, gold crosses draped around necks, tee shirts quoting Isaiah and scripture, a “Walk with the Bible” group, folks on the “Jesus Trail,” lots of prayer and blessings in general conversation, a large unnaturally enthusiastic Taglit Birthright-Israel team complete with name tags and youthful happiness, eager to fall in love with the great Zionist outdoors. Families wearing yarmulkes, kids alternating “Daddy” and “Abba,” tee shirts in Hebrew, a woman in a hijab with five children, a man with thick grey hair reading a Russian newspaper.

Eleven plus hours later, at passport control, the lines are full, hot, sweaty and slow moving. A family from the United States behind me is coming for a wedding. The father is insisting that Israel is an egalitarian society and his determined teenage daughter argues intently that he is indeed wrong. There is a bank of security devices all made by Hewlett Packard, a US company. Two little Chinese ladies in big hats chat with another Asian woman on yet another Christian holy sites tour. They are inexplicably turned away from passport control and led away to some unnamed place. I watch my passport official carefully; she takes her job seriously, asks lots of questions, and is constantly on the phone. An ominous sign for me.

I review my spiel: nice Jewish lady, loves Israel, meeting friend who speaks Hebrew, plus check out my last name. Rothchild. It seems to me that almost everyone sweating in the foreign passport queue is on some kind of pilgrimage: looking for Jesus, or for a love of Zion and a tan muscular Israeli soldier to play with in the great outdoors, or for family connections; and then there is me, looking for the contradictions in this booming, high tech, flawed, complicated so called democracy.

I am trying to resist stereotypes, but as I board the sherut (the shared taxi to Jerusalem), the bulky probably Russian driver and an elderly Orthodox Jewish woman begin what appears to be a pretty intense argument with loud, angry yelling. She is soon joined by her bearded husband in a long dark coat and yarmulke, wearing wire rimmed glasses, and this noisy argument continues for a good fifteen minutes into the drive. What happened to civility and “using inside voices,” as I used to tell my children? (My slightly sleep deprived fantasy is that he does not want to sit next to a strange woman, and I have already decided to take a moral stand: I will not give up my single seat, but that apparently was not the issue. My paranoia relaxes, but the tension in the van is still palpable.) I can feel this peculiar cultural insanity creeping into my pores. Shortly thereafter, the couple begins chatting (loud but friendly) with another older man in a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish. It seems all the personality disorders are now under control.

The heat is thick and there is a haze over the landscape; tall cities cluster like stark giant grey Legos, the fields and hills are turning from green to straw-brown. We turn onto Highway 443, past Modi’in, acres of Jewish National Fund pine forests (often covering destroyed Palestinian villages), young Israeli soldiers wait at bus stops, gigantic cranes and concrete cities mushroom everywhere. We are soon on the segment that it is actually in the West Bank (does anyone else in the sherut know this???) The metal fencing begins; Palestinian houses in the distance have black water tanks on their roofs due to the erratic water supply; looming grey Israeli guard towers flash by. The ancient hills are terraced, bleak and magnificent; rugged, graceful olive trees hug the soil. The separation wall is now concrete, there is more rolling barbed wire. We stop briefly at an Israeli checkpoint and then are waved through. I guess we passed the ethnic profiling test. I see an ominous grey prison just near the turn off to Ramallah, probably Ofer Prison. I think of all the Palestinian hunger strikers protesting in Israeli jails. The walls along the highway are now turning more picturesque, patterned brick designs (making the occupation pretty?) and then more imposing concrete as we near the Holy City.

We return to Highway 1 and head into Jerusalem and begin a brief tour of the Jewish settlements. The two older “yellers” are met in Ramat Shlomo by their happy family and four grandchildren, all modestly attired. They leave their Yiddish buddy with a friendly “Yalla,” which is Arabic for “Let’s go.” We are then off to the Jewish settlements of Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill, a former Arab neighborhood, an older Orthodox man shouts at a car that has stopped in the cross walk, gesturing fitfully. We pass the refugee camp of Shuafat. More opaque walls. I watch with my x-ray vision, all the history, the conflict, the players, the demons are all here in living color, if one only stops to look. Is anyone looking?