A not so slow genocide – July 11, 2017

first published in The Globe Post

While the world is appropriately focused on the massive humanitarian crises in places like Syria and Mosul and South Sudan, two million Gazans face a growing manmade disaster that is largely invisible. After 50 years of occupation, a decade of strangulating siege, and multiple high and low-intensity Israeli assaults on an almost daily basis, a power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, aided and abetted by the Israeli government, now threatens the very lives of these beleaguered people.

The longterm Israeli policy of severe restrictions and closure is being exacerbated by a cynical manipulation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority which has resulted in a 40% reduction in the already limited supply of electricity by Israel. This comes on top of a dramatic 30-50% cutback of salaries for the estimated 58,000 PA civil society workers in Gaza who were ordered to stop work in 2007 when Hamas came to power while continuing to receive their salaries. In Gaza, unemployment rates of 44% are already among the highest worldwide with rates up to 60% among educated youth, a number that will only rise with the loss of salaries.

These facts and the ensuing health risks are mind numbing. There are deficiencies of essential medications, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and sewage treatment. In the midst of the hot summer months, most Gazans are receiving erratic electricity two to six hours per day and water six to eight hours every four days while desalination plants are functioning at 15% capacity. The UN reports that 34% of essential drugs at the Central Drug Store in Gaza are out of stock. 186 critical facilities providing health, water, and sanitation, and solid waste collection services are being supported by emergency fuel delivered by the UN reserves which are expected to last until October. More than 108 million liters of untreated sewage is flowing into the Mediterranean daily due to electricity and fuel shortages, and the damage to infrastructure from recent wars.

While permits to leave Gaza for medical care have been severely restricted for years and sometimes available only through collaboration, the referrals of hundreds of patients for medical treatment outside Gaza have been disrupted since March 2017, following the PA’s apparent suspension of its payments for this service. Operating on largely backup generators, medical facilities are facing an imminent lack of fuel and thus only critical surgeries and emergency services are being provided.

There are cutbacks on sanitation and sterilization of equipment, patients are being discharged prematurely from hospitals, and essential machinery such as neonatal incubators, ventilators, imaging and dialysis machines are breaking down as a result of frequent, intermittent power outages as well as the lack of maintenance and replacement parts. Health care has also suffered from years of de-development and restrictions on professional training outside the Strip, as well as direct targeting of infrastructure by the Israeli military during the war.

Visiting Gaza as a physician in 2015 and 2017 made these statistics tangible. What this means in real life is that computer work, answering emails, taking exams, refrigerating food or medications, running dialysis machines or respirators, cooking dinner, cleaning, and a thousand things that 21st-century people expect to be able to do are now not reliably expectable. There are reportedly only two functioning mammograms; women with breast cancer are routinely treated with mastectomy due to the lack of other options. There is no plastic surgery, lumpectomy and radiation are not available. Gazan women with breast cancer are dying at two to three times the rates of women receiving first world care.

What this also means is that the shortage of power and fuel to operate water and wastewater treatment facilities and the subsequent reduction in access increase the risk of waterborne diseases. The limitations on water pumps and desalination plants have led to a decrease in water consumption and standards of hygiene. The decrease in sewage treatment has led to increased pollution along the Gaza coast (which by the way, does flow north to Israel) and an increased risk of sewage back flowing onto streets, creating additional flooding, displacement, and disease.

There are also the psychological costs to living in this environment. In January 2017, Dr. Yasser Abu Jamea, executive director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, noted that patients treated for PTSD post one war easily relapse with the first reminders of bombing in the next war. Children who were doing well are suddenly bedwetting again and waking screaming in the night. The cues for the traumatic events are everywhere and can trigger trauma that goes back to the occupation in 1967. He calls this “delayed onset PTSD.” The war in 2014 was the worst and was experienced by a population with an accumulation of traumatic events and an inability to escape the war which has been continuously present. Patients talked of reliving traumas back to 1948.

A Gazan human rights worker said to me, “It is not burning us out. What burns us out is the repetition of what we are doing, the endless journey, never, never the last round. Either by the Israeli bulldozers, the lack of coordination with Ramallah, the mission is never accomplished. People are suffering from food insecurity; they can’t access their land. If they do, they can’t access resources. If they do, then there are land restrictions and they are afraid of rockets. If they do, they are not sure if the harvest will be a good profit at a local market because Israel will not allow the food to go outside. It is endless.

“That is the source of our frustration. We should have burnt out a long time ago. We believe the people in Gaza deserve that we just keep working to keep them standing. In Gaza, we [UN] are supporting 1.3 million people.”

The right to health requires a functional health care system and public health infrastructure and is internationally recognized as the responsibility of the occupying power, Israel. The power battle between Hamas and Fatah is also unconscionable and undoubtedly manipulated by powerful outside forces as well as internal dysfunction. The steady deterioration of the lives of the people in Gaza in the face of occupation, siege, internal discord, and the willful blindness of the international community can only be described as a not so slow genocide that is obvious to anyone who chooses to see.

Radiation and ringworm: a tale of social policy, racism, and health care – July 9, 2017

first published in Mondoweiss http://mondoweiss.net/2017/07/radiation-ringworm-social/

On June 14, 2017, the Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, published an extraordinary report documenting medical experiments on mostly Yemenite children who subsequently “disappeared”; those who died were autopsied without parental consent, the parents were often not allowed to see their dead children, and no death certificates were provided. Since Operation Magic Carpet, 1949 to 1950, when 49,000 Jewish Yemenites were airlifted to Israel to grow the Jewish population and counteract the procreating Palestinians, there have been three official inquiries exploring egregious and unethical patterns of behavior towards Yemeni children by the medical and social service communities. Previous Israeli committees concluded that no children were kidnapped, although some children died or were adopted by Ashkenazi families without the birth parents’ consents. Parents were simply told their children had died. Israel Hayom also documented an experimental treatment on four malnourished babies who subsequently died from the injection of a “dry protein” created from plasma as well as an attempt to prove (using faulty assays and assessments) that Yemenite children were of African descent by testing dead children for sickle cell anemia, again without consent. (There was no evidence for sickle cell but the researcher published a scientific paper before he was proven wrong.)

Despite the Israeli state’s efforts to delegitimize and silence this information, (no investigation, no crime), the kidnapping of up to ten thousand Yemenite babies in immigrant absorption camps for adoption by Ashkenazi families was well documented in 2013 and 2014 by the Israeli webzine +972. In the 2013 article, the information is based on the 2009 book by Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair. While the Israeli press largely stood by the official state narrative (nothing could have happened and besides, data was classified or lost), this attitude was reinforced by racist stereotypes towards Yemenites as primitive, ignorant, and uncaring towards their children. In short, adoption was “doing them a favor.” Additionally, the fact that the cover-up persisted for decades reflects the continued racism within Israeli society and the medical establishment. The forcible transfer of babies is also defined by the UN as genocide and clearly no one in Israel is going to admit to that.

The 2014 +972 article is centered on revealing and painful interviews with adoptees about their experiences, abducted from their families via a variety of official and unofficial mechanisms, (shall we just call this human trafficking?) devoid of a paper trail, with devastated parents searching for years for their biological children, a theft unchallenged by the legal system. Some adoptive parents even registered their childrens’ birth certificates as their own biological children, retroactively with collusion from Ministerial clerks. Of course there was always the problem for the pale skinned Ashkenazi parents trying to explain their connection (which was usually loving and healthy) to their dark offspring and that was how the secret was often revealed.

Richard Silverstein in his June 15, 2017 blog added more tortured details: because Yemenite parents did not speak Hebrew and medical staff did not speak Yemeni-Arabic, children were assigned a number rather than a name, numbers were sometimes lost or confused, leading to further mistreatment and misidentification. More significantly, he notes the scandal involved the US National Institutes of Health “which paid Israeli hospitals nearly $1-million (in current value; then it was 160,000 Israeli lira) to provide fetuses of dead Yemenite babies and corpses of adults which were used in medical experiments to determine why Yemenites did not develop heart disease.”

Silverstein references the corollary tragedy of the Ringworm scandal which led me to his 2014 blog. I was vaguely aware that newly arrived Yemenite children were treated with radiation for ringworm, a benign fungal infection that resolves spontaneously during adolescence. This treatment caused longterm adverse consequences, but I have to admit, I had no idea of the gravity of this crime. Silverstein links to The Ringworm children, a damning investigative documentary that won the award for “Best Documentary” at the Haifa International Film Festival and was featured as a documentary at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2007. (Don’t say you did not know.) In the 1950s, approximately 100,000 Jewish immigrant children from Arab countries were taken from their parents and without parental consent, their heads were shaved, their hair was plucked, they were placed on a table, sometimes in restraints, and given radiation doses up to 600 rads. The dangers of leukemia were known in the 1920s and by 1952 scientists understood that 0.3 rads was the maximum safe weekly dosage. The now adult victims speak with sorrow and rage of the thousands who died (buried in unmarked graves), either as children from radiation poisoning or in early adulthood from cancer, of a lifetime of scalp pain, open sores, high cancer risk, epilepsy, infertility, and social and psychological damage. It was gripping testimony that left me in tears and shock and I am hard to shock. It is worth watching.

The program was run by Dr. Shiba, Director of the Health Ministry, Division of Social Medicine, who was not only obsessed with ringworm as a contagious fungus, but more as a symbol of a social disease, a “black plague,” and of children that needed to be decontaminated, medically and socially. He was part of the Israeli medical establishment that viewed eugenics as a positive force and described Moroccans as “primitives,” “backwards,” “human rubbish,” and “defective people.” He believed that Ashkenazi Jews were genetically superior to Mizrahi Jews and that health disorders reflected a genetic weakness in the susceptible population.

Dr Shiba traveled to the US to fundraise and acquired a collection of Picker x-ray machines, old, outdated, and possibly army surplus. Treatments were performed by nurses with no training in radiotherapy and the machines were certainly not designed to treat ringworm with high dose radiation. In 1952 the Israel Radiologist Union acknowledged the safe doses for radiation, based on experiments in Nazi Germany, data from Hiroshima, and other countries such as the US. According to the documentary, radiation was used in the US to treat ringworm in the 1930s, but by the 1950s, the medical establishment was well aware of the medical harm, radiation damage, and ensuing court suits.

Beyond the obvious ethnic discrimination and undervaluing of the human life of children of color, the other sinister issue raised by the film involves the US military’s desire post-Hiroshima to understand the effects of high levels of radiation exposure. (Remember US troops were used as guinea pigs.) When that became socially unacceptable in America, the documentary suggests that Israeli officials might have been willing to offer some of their “human rubbish” as research material. Very strangely, during a time of economic impoverishment and rationing in Israel, more money was spent on the ringworm radiation “treatments” than the entire Israeli national budget, and these numbers are “off the books”. It seems records were hidden or filed under state secrets or “lost,” what appears to be an official conspiracy of silence. Picker still supplies Israel with x-ray machines and efforts by victims to open records, prove state culpability, and receive compensation have been stymied by the Knesset and the bogus Ringworm Victim Law.

To put this in historical context, eugenics was very popular in the US in the early 1900s, in fact we were a model for the Nazis. Lower doses of radiation were used to treat ringworm elsewhere in the world and elite Ashkenazi Zionists continue to share their racist views toward people of color and Arabs in particular with much of the Western world. US health care is guilty of many egregious practices. During my residency in the early 1970s we fought against sterilizing poor women, African Americans, and Native Americans without their consent, and then there were the decades of forced sterilizations of people with low IQs, “imbeciles.” And let’s remember similar racist and outrageous adoption practices for Native American children in the US who were wrenched from their “inadequate” families. Many recall horrendous medical experiments in the US like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study where for decades, African American men, without their consent, were observed rather than treated for syphilis which is a devastating disease.

Beyond these human, social, and political tragedies, important questions remain. Internationally, the Israeli medical system is considered first rate and the source of significant therapies and research, but no amount of success can mask the egregious treatment of Yemeni children and the subsequent cover-up. How can the adoption and radiation victims gain access to whatever records remain? If this is how the Israeli establishment treats Jews from Arab countries, can we imagine how they treat Palestinians? What is the US contribution to and complicity in this crime? And for me as a physician, why didn’t one doctor just say, NO.

Between Life and Death: The Propaganda of anti-BDS Campaigns May 30, 2017

first published in Palestine Square, Between Life and Death: The Propaganda of anti-BDS Campaigns

Between Life and Death: The Propaganda of anti-BDS Campaigns
May 30, 2017 Alice Rothchild News & Analysis

A May 19th Boston Globe full-page ad from the AJC Global Jewish Advocacy, an organization claiming to “advance human rights and democratic values in the United States and the around the world,” has used a photo of an ill child and worried parent to undermine BDS, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement for Palestinian human rights. The dramatic visual asks “could an academic boycott put a child’s life at risk?” The advertisement uses fear and misinformation to oppose the growing international academic boycott of Israel and the more immediate state and national legislation to criminalize the call for boycott under the accusation of anti-Semitism and delegitimization.

An anti-BDS bill masquerading as an “anti-discrimination bill” will soon have a hearing in the Massachusetts legislature. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), an umbrella organization consisting of independent groups including the AJC, just sent out an urgent action alert in support of the bill, and their own lobbyist described it as an “anti-BDS legislation” needed to “support Israel.”

Bill S.1689/H.1685, “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts,” purports to target discrimination, but actually is intended to penalize BDS activism. Republican Sponsor Steven Howitt said “this bill clarifies to businesses that either support BDS or who boycott Israeli-owned businesses and products that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not engage in commerce with them.” The JCRC action alert states: “The S.1685/H.1685: Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts bill prohibits the state from contracting with companies that are engaged in discrimination, including those that boycott Israeli businesses solely based on their nationality. Singling out and refusing to deal with a business owner based on an immutable characteristic —national origin in the BDS context— is a form of discrimination and taxpayer funds should not be used to subsidize this conduct… This bill echoes similar anti-BDS laws passed in several other states as well as an executive order in New York and underscores the strength of the Massachusetts-Israel relationship.”

However, the bill is likely unconstitutional as the right to engage in peaceful boycotts for political purposes is protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment.

Equally problematic is that neither the advertisement nor the bill is accurate. Many Israeli universities and businesses are complicit in Israeli policies because they are involved in developing weapons systems, military doctrines, and moral frameworks for the Israeli occupation; are often located on stolen Palestinian land; and have aided policies that violate human rights and international law. Such policies include continued settlement growth in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, extra-judicial killings of Palestinians, a brutal siege of Gaza, and a host of other serious concerns. Palestinian civil society organizations have called upon the academic world to boycott Israeli academic institutions to focus attention on these issues, to counter normalization efforts (which lull the international community into accepting the unacceptable), and to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies.

The call for boycott explicitly rejects censorship and supports the universal right to freedom of expression; this is not a boycott of individuals, but a boycott of institutions complicit with Israeli occupation and human rights violations. Individuals who are recruited as part of an effort to “rebrand” Israel (the multibillion-dollar Israeli hasbara campaigns) or who have agreed to act as a representative or cultural/academic ambassador of the state (and thus have promised not to criticize state policy) are also subject to boycott as they are actively part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

There is no question that “[Israeli] life science and healthcare academics engage in life saving research that drives medical breakthroughs,” as the advertisement explains. The problem with this statement is with the politics behind it: Who benefits from these breakthroughs? Why are children hungry, dying, and desperately in need of medical care just miles from these medical miracles? Why are Gazans asked to be collaborators in exchange for permits to receive medical care in Israel? Why are health care professionals who are so concerned with health not concerned with the lack of drinkable water in Gaza, the contamination of Gazan agricultural land by a host of newly tested Israeli military armaments, the chronic malnutrition due to the siege, the fruits and vegetables rotting in the sun at Israeli checkpoints, and the women giving birth and sometimes dying at checkpoints? Surely these are major health issues that cannot be ignored.

And what about “delegitimization?” How do countries acquire legitimacy? Do countries have a “right to exist”? Countries exist due to a complex coalescence of military might, aspirations, mythology, and historical movements. Legitimacy is derived from the behavior of the state. The real question is: What is tarnishing the reputation of Israel as a Western democracy with aspirations for acceptance in the modern world (not that Western-style democracies are doing that well either)? What does it mean to be a Jewish state? What happens to the 20% of the population who are not Jewish and the millions living under an endless military occupation? Can a Jewish state ever be democratic if, by definition, Jewish exceptionalism, chronic wars with neighbors, and suppression of indigenous Palestinians are part of the very foundation of the state?

A growing number of academic associations, faculty unions, and student governments are finding the boycott to be a powerful strategy. If academics involved in the life sciences and health care are really so concerned with lifesaving research and academic breakthroughs, then they need to be equally concerned with the political context in which they work. They need to be championing the cause of Palestinian academics in the West Bank and Gaza who struggle to obtain grants, scientific materials for research, permits to bring in visiting professors, and permits for themselves to travel to outside scientific meetings.

The AJC advertisement cites a letter that was signed by more than 100 prominent life science and health care academics. This letter worries that the academic boycotts “single out one nation, Israel, while overlooking all others.” Israel is being singled out partly because Palestinian civil society has called for an international boycott in response to longstanding egregious and anti-democratic behavior. Israel is also singled out because it occupies a unique position in the universe: the country receives billions of dollars in military aid and for years the US government has bowed blindly to the pressures of the pro-Israel lobby, providing Israel with political cover at the UN despite its serious violations of international law. So yes, Israel is a special case and deserves special attention. The fight for Palestinian human rights is also central to resolving many of the conflicts that now roil the Middle East and beyond, and there is a desperate need for creative nonviolent strategies like BDS to address these problems.

The AJC letter ends: “Without offering an opinion on any given conflict or political debate, we believe that academic boycotts aimed at advancing narrow political interests do great harm to the work we do and the integrity of the institutions that we serve.” Fighting a 50-year-old occupation is not a “narrow political interest.” Academics need to consider the individual and public health of Palestinians with the same urgency and passion as the health of Jewish Israelis and the institutions that serve them. Palestinians need human rights as desperately as they need medical care.

A tale of two cities – May 22, 2017

published in Mondoweiss, May 22, 2017

A tale of two cities

The invitation was warm and welcoming and came via twitter, this being the twenty-first century. A teacher at a prestigious private school in New England asked me to present as part of a speakers’ program in an informal coffee house setting that usually attracts 20 to 30 students and adults in the community. He said he tries to offer educational experiences “outside the ‘bubble,’” beyond the world of the classroom, and cited as previous invitees a Vietnamese author and a Peace Corp volunteer. He stated that he was particularly interested in my work on Israel/Palestine and refugees and assured me it would “be a great experience” for the students.

This seemed like an excellent opportunity to open young minds and I set to work updating a presentation I had recently given at a college in Washington where I explored the dominant narrative on Israel: the thriving democracy, haven for the oppressed, center for culture, arts, universities, high-tech, gorgeous beaches; the remarkable success story in a dangerous neighborhood Israel. I suggested that this framing is the narrative of the victor and that much important history has been lost or deliberately expunged. Inspired by the words of James Baldwin, I noted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” and then I plunged deeply into the contradictions, institutional racism, and violations of international law that are screaming for attention when it comes to the realities of the 1948 and 1967 wars and their consequences.

My main thesis is that the current occupation is actually a continuation of more than 69 years of colonization of Palestine, of treating Jews as more deserving, more human, than Palestinians, and of Palestinians periodically (like many indigenous peoples) fighting back. I analyzed the inherent inconsistencies in the idea that Israel can be a democracy and at the same time be grounded in Jewish privilege. I included the new McCarthyism that has seized college campuses and the odd post-Trumpian development of the alt-right that is both anti-Semitic (white supremacists who want to make Amerika white, Christian, and male again) and “pro-Israel.” These folks blindly support the policies of the Israeli government both because encouraging Jews to leave the US for the “homeland” solves the “Jewish problem” and because Israel is a shining example of a very successful, militarily powerful country whose goal is ethnic purity. Plus of course everyone hates the Muslims.

Arrangements seemed to be going along swimmingly when the teacher wrote that while we were definitely “on for that night,” the administration wanted to view my PowerPoint first. That seemed suspicious to me and I voiced my concerns around the question of censorship. I have had too many experiences where local Jewish groups or rabbis or alumni have pressured institutions to cancel my talks because I do not approach Israeli policy as something that needs to be supported right or wrong and I do not blindly support Jewish exceptionalism. I also explained that my message about understanding the dominant paradigm and exploring how historical events are framed is a useful political lesson when learning about any historical event. I was reassured not to worry and reluctantly sent off the potentially inflammatory material.

Almost on cue, the apologetic email arrived. The presentation had been shared with more administrators and “it seems that they do not believe our students are educated enough on this topic/situation to be able to truly understand your position on this issue (as they do not have the story from the other side at all really). [As if there is not a multiple billion dollar Israeli messaging industry that permeates the media, cultural events, politics, and the very air we breath.] They wanted to postpone the talk, “to arrange for a more in-depth speaker series that may involve activists that approach this situation from both sides. They see this as a polarizing issue and want to ensure that we educate our students fully/from all sides so they can be knowledgeable and form their own opinions.” Is there any other historical moment where all that dancing around is considered necessary?

Why am I not surprised at these developments? I responded to the chastened teacher that there are some lessons to be learned here, that the current tendency is to shut down any discourse that is outside the mainstream. I wondered if there were Jewish donors who might have been offended or a threatened faculty person who stands with Israel, right or wrong.

And then I went on to explain:

The tragedy for me is that first there is this framing that there are “two sides” when there are actually many sides, this being a complicated historical time, and that anyone who says, let’s step back and look at the forces of colonialism, ethnic cleansing, explore the narrative of Palestinians, question the framing and dominant paradigms of the Israeli government, AIPAC, Christian Zionism, this person (who is often me) is immediately perceived as causing conflict or needing to be balanced by the “other side”. I suspect that if you had invited someone from the Israeli consulate who was going to present on the glorious history and accomplishments of Israel, no administrator would have said, “But what about the Palestinians, the devastating siege of Gaza, the growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and their support by the Israeli government, we need to educate the students more generally so that they can make thoughtful, intelligent decisions.” There is always a double standard when it comes to this conversation.

The other tragedy for me, is that my power point was designed to be an object lesson for studying any historical moment, the importance of exploring primary sources, the narrative of the folks who lost the war, the way the media frames the issues. I was hoping to help the students learn to think independently about events, to ask how we understand what has happened, to look at our biases in the context of mainstream messaging.

In other words, I wanted the students to be educated, thoughtful citizens. By contrast, several years ago I tried to show my documentary film, “Voices Across the Divide,” at a New England public school but administrators were also nervous and there was talk of the need for “balance” and probably concern for the fragile psyches of the Jewish students who had grown up on Israeli hasbara. But sometimes things change. So it was with excitement and a bit of trepidation that I accepted the invitation to show the first 20 minutes of my documentary film which highlights Palestinians talking about their lives before the 1948 war, (this was not a land without a people by any stretch of the imagination) and their dispossession and losses in the years that followed. An independently minded history teacher lined up six freshmen and sophomore classes and the following day I repeated the presentation in four more classes.

The very good news is that the sky did not fall, no administrator came by, no parent called to protest, and a very diverse group of students engaged in thoughtful, civil conversation about challenging issues. There were kids with families from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain (one branch were Muslims and one branch were Jews and they all converted to Catholicism probably around 1492). There were Asians from a variety of places, some probably adopted from China into Jewish families, some from all varieties of mixed marriages, as well as African Americans,

Hispanics, and white kids. In other words they looked like America. I talked about dominant paradigms and the framing of history, the importance of language (War of Liberation versus al-Nakba, the Catastrophe, Israel as refuge and homeland versus settler-colonial state). I asked, what happened to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who stayed in Israel and what happened to the 750,000 who fled? I talked about the critical importance of developing a “usable past,” a term promoted by Howard Zinn that avoids a past steeped in glory and patriotism and searches for a past that is truer, more honest and attuned to the dynamics of the powerful and the voices of the weak. I argued that it is this kind of history telling that allows us to truly understand social movements and events and also provides us with the tools to address present day issues. We cannot understand the Black Lives Matter movement if we are not thoroughly grounded in the facts of slavery and institutional racism in the United States.

The questions and discussions reflected a wide range of knowledge and sophistication ranging from the young student who said, “I’m Jewish but you mean there were people living there and we came and took their land away, that doesn’t seem fair,” to students who had lived in Israel and were able to spout the usual “talking points” but often lacked the depth to reflect on questions like indigenous and refugee rights, state terrorism and brutality, democracy and Zionism. “Arab towns in Israel like Abu Ghosh are flourishing because they didn’t fight against the Jews in 1948,” i.e., peaceful villages were rewarded with economic investment. “So are you suggesting that the indigenous population should not have resisted losing their land? Do you think people who are oppressed by a colonial power have the right to resist?” One student literally almost fell out of his chair when I mentioned I had been in Gaza in January and when I asked why, he explained that you can only get in through the tunnels from Egypt and another noted that Hamas were terrorists, so what is there to talk about. One student was shocked to learn that our taxes are used to fund foreign military aid and wondered if you had to pay your taxes. We discussed nonviolent resistance, tax revolts, and the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement. Another who was very happy with the class said that when he asked his parents about Israel “when I was young, I mean eleven,” they showed him a video. He described the messaging as: “If the Jews disarm there will be a bloodbath and if the Arabs disarm there will be peace.” Even at that age, he knew that could not be the whole story.

Many felt that history really came alive when they heard personal stories and watched BBC and UN footage from the war and saw the photos of large Palestinian families who were abruptly displaced from their lives and looked eerily like the photos of great-great-grandparents from Eastern Europe. Some students were energized and very positive about the class, a few (being teenagers) dozed through the film. We talked about anti-Semitism, the Armenian genocide, and the reality that the high school was built on Algonquin Native American land. We explored Zionism and the global military-industrial complex. We reflected on Jewish trauma and victimization and the pattern where traumatized people inflict trauma on others. We talked about Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardic Jews and their very different histories and the impact of racism within Israeli society. In other words, we talked about everything and the students and teachers listened and argued and grappled with a history that begs to be understood in all of its complexity. And that was fine, and in fact, that is how education should be.

It was very heartening for me to know that it is possible to have an open conversation about Israel/Palestine, that educators and school administrators with courage and patience can facilitate challenging and complex conversations. I found that students did not necessarily agree with each other, but they were mostly curious and thoughtful and able to tolerate confrontations with their world views and questions about Israeli hasbara. My hope is that we can reach a place where it is possible to study Israel/Palestine like we study other countries and areas of conflict, without fear of censorship or false ideas of “balance,” that together we can create a usable past that helps us think about the present. This is a source of hopefulness and inspiration to me and a sign of the changing times.

– See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2017/05/a-tale-of-two-cities/#comments

A Hint of Trouble: How “Pro-Israeli” Organizations Work to Suppress Freedom of Speech – March 27, 2017

Alice Rothchild March 27, 2017 News
A Hint of Trouble: How “Pro-Israeli” Organizations Work to Suppress Freedom of Speech

published in Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies


Why Gaza? – January 20, 2017

Writing as therapy. Shabak, if you planted a bug in my computer, listen up! But I am jumping ahead of myself.

Yesterday afternoon was lost in the ritual of endless slowpoke uploading of photos and blogs and notes and the cleansing as best I could of any evidence of the past two and a half weeks. I am returning to my nice Jewish grandmother with the nice Star of David identity, with the added nice husband with a nice Jewish name and a crinkly white beard.  We should pass but this is a challenge given the level of rage and despair that has kept me up much of the night.

This morning we set off for Ben Gurion airport over three hours before our flight. The first brush with a security officer, leads to her calling the next level up.  He is a tall, thin, brusque young man who is unhappy that I have done volunteer work in Gaza. Never lie. “Why Gaza? There are poor people in Africa.” (I have heard that line before.) “Why not?” I reply. “Did you wear the Mogen Dovid in Gaza?” Yes, I was openly Jewish in Gaza.  That lost me some credibility.  “Do you work with groups? What groups?” Is he really expecting me to say Hamas? How about: the Gaza Community Mental Health Program that provides psychotherapy for all the young people you have bombed and maimed? Take a deep breath. Then there are the: are you Jewish enough questions: “What organizations do you belong to, what holidays do you celebrate, what special foods do you eat on Yom Kippur?” I knew that was a trick question because you are supposed to fast on Yom Kippur. I mean, really? He keeps coming back to the question of why Gaza.  I talk about health care and helping women and making peace.  He is not happy.

Turkish Airlines welcomes us and we trek three floors up and fall into the alternative universe of more airport security, Israeli style. The bags are opened, all electronics and devices removed and the people are x-rayed. But because this is Israel, the bags are then laid out on tables and every zipper and pocket is opened, the underwear and plastic bags of medications and embroidered pillows are fondled and swept for explosive material repeatedly. Medication caps are unscrewed, cameras turned on. A small jar of Vasoline and two tubes of prescription medication for arthritis are removed.  I demand to talk with the supervisor and he assures me, “It is forbidden.” End of discussion. My blowup lumbar support pillow seems particularly problematic.  My computer is taken to another area “for more x-rays.” Why do I doubt that explanation?

The process is excruciatingly slow, the staff dawdle, consult, re-swab, there is no sense of urgency or privacy.  We are captives in this tiny hole of paranoia and control. A kind of bureaucratic torture or at least a bureaucracy that wants us to know who has the power.  For unclear reasons (no explanations are offered for anything), they confiscate my husband’s new backpack and give him some cheap plastic bag to stuff his belongings in. “We do not explain our procedures.  It is for security.” It is not a home demolition, but it is collective punishment nonetheless. He seems to have terrible luggage karma, but he is traveling with me and I am obviously trouble.  The security agents claim that this innocent bag will go out on the next flight and show up in lost luggage in Boston.  Insha’allah.

More waiting, another x-ray of my dangerous boots, another x-ray of my dangerous body, a pat down and it is finally over.  We get to the departure gate one half hour before boarding. At least I didn’t get a body cavity search, although I suspect my poor computer may have suffered that indignity.

At passport control I discover I have a biometric passport with a computer chip (who knew?) so if I smile just like my passport photo they will let me out.  I do.

As a student of the Israeli messaging industry I am always intrigued by the final exhibit on the walls leading into the duty free shopping area.  This year it is a gift from the heavens: inspirational murals and statements celebrating “120 years of Zionism.” The history lesson headers include:












Nicely laid out, very thorough and consistent, truly inspirational, the graphics are fabulous, evocative, multi-cultural. They really know how to sell a product.

That final quote is from Herzl. 1904, “For Zionism…encompasses not only the hope of a legally secured homeland for our people…but also the aspiration to reach moral and spiritual perfection.” This is a problem.

I am just going to give you a taste of the panel titled MINORITIES:


The Zionist movement sought to establish a model society in the Jewish State, where non-Jews as well as Jews would enjoy complete equal rights.


The Law of Citizenship (1952) granted full citizenship to all residents of Israel. All minorities enjoy complete freedom of religion and worship, and are free to participate fully in the countries society, economy, culture, politics, and legal system. Arabic is recognized as an official language of the country.

There is much written about a tolerant, progressive culture, a Jewish and democratic state, a just society, the two thousand years of yearning for Zion. I cannot find the “P” word (Palestinian) anywhere, and needless to say, there is no colonialism, no Nakba, no dispossession of 750,000 indigenous people and destruction of over 500 villages, no ghettoizing the Palestinian citizens with fences and checkpoints until 1965, no stealing of Jewish Yemini babies for adoption.  And of course, no occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and no siege of Gaza and no right wing fundamentalist Jewish settlers living like megalomaniacal fascists in the ancient city of Hebron.  Dear lovers of Israel, this is a real problem for me. How can we imagine the future if we cannot agree on the past?

I pick up a copy of The Jerusalem Post, it is the only paper in English. The big headline is: “Donald Trump to become 45th US President today,” (as if I can forget – my plan was not to be in actual physical touch with planet earth during the inauguration), with the sub-header that the US embassy is moving to Jerusalem soon. Palestinians (and anyone with a vague understanding of the complexities of history) are protesting. Jewish groups are marching on Washington fearing an attack on civil liberties.  Bedouins allege that Yacoub Abu Al-Kaeean, the teacher who was shot by police (documented on video) and then lost control of his car and killed Erez Levi, a police officer, is being framed.  Israeli spokespeople are calling him a terrorist possibly related to ISIS. They demolished his house and ten others as part of a plan to build a Jewish village on the site of Umm al-Hiran. A Jewish democracy? Equal rights?

A great wave of sadness sweeps over me. I weep for my people and I weep for the people we are destroying one by one, son by son, house by house. And I fear for my country which is about to plunge into an even more dangerous direction than usual and cause even more havoc in this fragile, contested, precious, and battered place.

A war against Arab citizens – January 19, 2017

It is 5:30 in the morning and I am awakened with another nightmare.  Israeli soldiers are cutting off my hands and feet.  I am negotiating while they’re hacking through my lower leg, all my muscles and tendons are hanging loose and my foot is only attached by the bones. I feel no pain, I am quite upset, but I still have my voice.

My last meeting during this visit to the Holy Land is with Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, located in a nondescript office in Jaffa. This is another extraordinary group doing critical human rights work in an utterly hostile climate with very little resources. There is a staff of 28, 3,000 clinician volunteers with a few hundred active clinicians and an involved board of directors. Ran Goldstein, the executive director, explains that PHRI is expanding, continuing to work in the West Bank and Gaza (only the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are allowed into the forbidden Strip). They provide medical teams, perform surgery, training, and conferences. They still run a Mobile Clinic every Saturday in the West Bank, providing health care in some needy village in conjunction with Palestinian colleagues and local residents.

PHRI is monitoring the denial of access and outright attacks by Israeli forces against medical teams (which is against international law). Just recently he notes there was a case at Kalandia, a woman was accused of stabbing a soldier, she was injured, and the medical team was denied access. PHRI documents these incidents and complains to the military police or the border police or whomever, but it is not actually very useful in the immediate sense.  “Mostly nothing happens, sometimes investigation, but rarely any accusations.” The main purpose of this work is to clearly document the extensive lack of accountability of the security forces. The media may pick up the story and this is important; occasionally a case makes it to the Supreme Court, and this may also contribute to cases brought before International Courts in the future, although that is not part of the strategy or work of PHRI.

Another PHRI focus is on the prison system, particularly prisoner hunger strikes. The Israeli prison health service is planning to establish a new hospital inside the prisons that is supposed to be for hunger strikers.  This is bad from a human rights perspective and also from a medical perspective. Most likely, the physicians in the prison service will not know how to handle the emergencies and necessary intensive care that is needed when a person refuses to eat and is near death. The new hospital may become a tool out of the public eye to force feed prisoners, a tool to break the strikers.  Force feeding is recognized as a form of torture and despite a new law permitting the practice, no force feeding has occurred since the 1980s. Israeli physicians in general refuse to participate (which is good) and at this point, Israeli security really does not care if someone dies.  Ran comments, “It is not a big public relations disaster.” Sometimes the Israeli authorities will make deals with the prisoners but it is not always good for the prisoners.  A journalist, Mohammed al-Qiq, launched a hunger strike while in administrative detention, (which can be extended indefinitely, no charges, no trial), and he struck a deal, finished administrative detention with the agreement that he would not be rearrested. But he was rearrested anyway.

PHRI has also issued a report on the use of solitary confinement. The international legal framework has changed and confinement is now increasingly used, not only against political and security prisoners, but also against Jewish Israelis with mental health problems.  There have been cases of solitary confinement lasting several years, which is pretty much guaranteed to make someone psychotic if they are not already deranged and raises serious human rights issues, not to mention just basic decency and common sense.

PHRI receives 300-400 calls per year, 70% from security prisoners.  PHRI issues complaints, defends the prisoners right to health, and works to get them to doctor’s appointments and assist with a more humane transport system.

Asylum seekers and refugees are served in the PHR I Open Clinic.  Israel provides good health access in the public system and PHRI is working to change the policies so that asylum seekers and refugees deserve national health insurance. These folks are treated in the Clinic and then their cases are submitted to the Ministry of Health to find solutions, to treat their cancer or kidney disease.  In many cases, the state will take responsibility, but it is always in the framework of being the exception to the general policy. Ran is hopeful that this all may be changing. Additionally the 40,000 foreign migrant workers receive private insurance from their employers, but this is hugely problematic, the treatment is limited, and the workers are often sent back to the Philippines or Sri Lanka or whatever poorly resourced country they came from where there is no treatment available. Israeli employees only want these workers when they can work and then they are discarded like workers all over the world.

PHRI is also working to close the gaps in healthcare in the periphery of the state, especially in the south of Israel. The South Health Forum for the past ten years has offered training advocating for justice and equal rights in the south; they offer courses to Bedouin women, Jews from Beersheva, kibbutzniks, and develop projects. PHRI is working with civil society, more on the policy level.  Today a group is going to the area of yesterday’s shootings and house demolitions in the south to express solidarity to the community that is repeatedly on the losing end of resources and justice.

Another focus for PHRI is in the area of medical ethics with the education of medical teams, students, social workers and in other university settings to talk about racism in health.  Their general approach is to say, “You are not isolated from your outside world.  If in society there is racism, then there is racism in the health care.”  He points to the kidnapping of Yemini babies in the 1950s where nurses and doctors were involved in stealing the newborn babies and offering them for adoption to families deemed more suitable. In the last two years there has been much attention on this grave transgression and two weeks ago confirmatory archives were released. The medical community (like many medical communities) tends to be conservative and the students (like many students) tend to be more open to examining these difficult ethical challenges. Of 80 students in Jerusalem that had to choose a volunteer placement, 40 chose PHRI. He sees social work students educated by PHRI calling for advice once they are in the workforce, facing violations of human rights and trying to figure out how to behave in a complex and fragmented society.  Ran believes in the power of education to highlight medical ethics and change clinicians’ behavior.

Last year the Israeli Medical Association changed one of its ethical codes, “Charity begins at home,” which is translated to mean that in the case of mass casualty events, when faced with injured Jewish and enemy (read Arab) patients, the Jews get taken care of before the “enemy” Arabs, no matter the severity of disease or injury. This is in violation of basic medical ethics and was changed in 2015.  “The doctor is not judge or police.” Health care must be offered in a human rights framework, the sickest get care first; it does not matter if someone is the attacker or the victim of the attacker.

Another social issue is the segregation of maternity wards between Jews and Arabs. This is not hospital policy, but obstetric patients represent a profitable and steady source of income so hospitals are eager to please these women. When a Jewish woman demands a Jewish roommate because she feels “more comfortable” or just doesn’t like Arabs, the hospital complies. PHRI contends that this is racist behavior and is working to establish with hospitals that this behavior is unacceptable.

In particular, they are also working on educating staff about racism in health care with Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba where the patients and staff are mixed, the hospital is near many Arab villages in Israel.

Ran is concerned with the changes in Israeli society, the attacks against NGOs and their funding. He notes that Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli soldiers that collect testimonials and are critical of the occupation, is facing opposition to entering schools and they have received personal threats and death threats. When they started in 2005 they were celebrated as the conscience of Israel, invited to speak in the parliament.  Now they are considered enemies of the state. The government is a leader in this rightwing phenomenon, monitoring progressive groups, taking statements out of context, and leading attacks. With the training in southern Israel to promote equal rights, the Beersheba municipality pulled out of the effort after pressure from rightwing groups. There is less tolerance for human rights organizations, not only those working against the occupation.

The NGO Law passed last year states that if your funding is more than 50% from foreign governments (like the EU or foundations related to the government) then you have to declare yourself as a foreign agent.  This is mostly an attack on progressive organizations and leaves out the right wing groups that receive many millions from the likes of Sheldon Adelson and Christian Zionists who are obviously not governments (yet anyway). This kind of hostility is also reflected in the PHRI Facebook page.  When there is information about the health of Israelis, they get lots of positive comments.  If they focus on the health of Palestinians, they are showered with hostility and branded as traitors. It is difficult to challenge racism in a society when institutional racism is normative.

Ran leaves for a meeting and Dana Moss continues the conversation.  Today there is a general strike in Arab towns in response to the demolition of eight houses in Umm al-Hiran and to troubles in Qalansua. The Arab schools are open but the teachers will take two hours to talk with the students. (FYI there are Arab and Jewish towns; Israel is a highly segregated society.) The general feeling is that the Israeli government has launched a war against its Arab citizens.  The latest killing of the school teacher hit a nerve as he is being framed by the government as a terrorist when he clearly is not. This is provoking anger in Israeli Arab society and the Negev is a very sensitive area after 70 years of suffering, lack of infrastructure, inadequate health care, or even ambulances.

In the occupied territories PHRI deals with the right to health in its widest interpretation. One of the projects focuses on freedom of movement for Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank. 200-300 cases per year apply for medical permits and are denied, and then ask PHRI for intervention to change the Israeli authorities’ decisions. PHRI collects the details, talks with the army, sends letters and puts pressure on the authorities. In 2014 they succeeded in 47.5% of the cases, 2015 62%, but in 2016 25% (due to policy changes). Patients are generally denied “for security reasons. We understand most decisions are arbitrary, there are no security decisions to deny a cancer patient or a pregnant woman treatment.  One of the problems is the interrogations of patients. Patients are ‘invited’ to a meeting with Shabak and clearly told that if they want their permit for medical care then they have to be collaborators with the Israeli authorities, spying on family and friends. Patients who refuse are denied the permits and do not get desperately needed care.”  PHRI not only deals with specific patients, but collects general information and reports trends to agencies and diplomats.

The monitoring of attacks on medical teams started in October 2015 after the Palestinian Authority, Ministry of Health, and Palestinian Red Crescent Society reported a large number of assaults on medical teams, more than 400 physical attacks.  (So let’s stop a minute.  You are a Palestinian doctor or an ambulance driver or a nurse attending to patients that are bleeding or have broken bones or are unconscious and you are at risk for being physically attacked doing your job because your patients are viewed as less human, less deserving, less less…. in the democratic State of Israel). This is clearly a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of medical personnel in conflict settings. PHRI collects the stories and information, sends complaints to the investigatory departments in the army and police, details that they are not responding according to local and international law. Lately, the army sent them a letter nine months after 18 complaints were submitted.  Dana states, “This was attributed to a ‘technical delay.’ This is very problematic.  The same with the police.” PHRI does this work to highlight the culture of impunity, to bring this to international groups and the press. Dana feels “things are getting worse. This is the beginning of a very dark period.”

Between Netanyahu and Trump I couldn’t agree with her more. There is so much to do, from protecting the right to health of the individual to creating a healthy, less racist society. Ran and Dana want to know if I have any ideas for funding.  Ah…. NGOs….Perhaps we could get another one of those tanks…..

previous blog posts about PHR – I

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

June 30, 2014 Zionist Doctors and Jewish Values part one

Guilty until proven innocent – January 18, 2017


I awaken early with a nightmare.  I am at Ofer Prison and the security guards have flushed my clothes down the toilet.  I am very freaked out.

News: Today two Palestinians and one Israeli police officer were killed and a Palestinian Israeli MK (member of the Knesset) was shot in the head during a home demolition in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev.  The Israelis are talking ISIS and terrorism, the Palestinians are saying this is ridiculous, a beloved teacher and father of twelve was killed by the IDF, there was no car ramming, he was shot by the soldiers and lost control of his car. The Bedouin should not be dispossessed from their lands.  This is an old story that happens daily.  Protests are planned all over the country and in particular at the Clock Tower in Jaffa where I am headed in the afternoon.



First, Ivan Karakashian, advocacy unit coordinator of Defense of Children International Palestine (DCIP), is taking me to that very Ofer Prison, an Israeli military pretrial detention center just outside of Ramallah.  This is not a usual stop on the Holy Land tour, but I am particularly interested in military detention and in particular, arrests and detention of Palestinian children and those who are doing the holy work of trying to keep them safe.  DCIP consists of an office of three lawyers who handle 140 cases per year. The children are tried in military courts, but one lawyer covers East Jerusalem so he works through the civil courts, because Palestinians in East Jerusalem are technically not under occupation. As we drive from Bethlehem, Ivan explains that children who are convicted serve time at Megiddo which is the only Israeli military prison that has a juvenile section that usually houses 60-70 children at a time. The children are in the care of four adult Palestinian prisoners who are serving long sentences. This arrangement is considered preferable since they are less abusive to the children than the Israeli guards. Of course they have no special training but they have a lot of useful experience surviving in the so called military justice system. The older prisoners accompany the children to the medical clinic or to lodge a complaint. Most of the documented torture happens in the first 24-48 hours after arrest before children actually get to Megiddo.

In prison there is minimal psychosocial support or rehabilitation. The prison provides teachers (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) who are permitted to teach Arabic, Hebrew, and math.  Topics like history and literature are considered too dangerous (ie. potentially political and actually useful) to offer. The children are divided by the teachers’ assessment of their intelligence level and then all the high functioning students of all age groups are grouped together, midlevel together, etc. Unfortunately the education is pretty basic and students who miss more than 30% of the school year at home, (two months), are required to repeat the entire year.  Stone throwers on average serve three to twelve months.

Because of the trauma, many children on release do not ever return to school; they feel too adult to be in a classroom with younger students and tend to do vocational training, entering the market place at a young age and easily exploited. Some do continue and Ivan notes that many of the DCIP staff are former prisoners who have law degrees or are human rights activists.

During the sentencing phase, the child may receive a custodial sentence, a fine, or a suspended sentence. The average fine is 1,560 NIS (approximately $390) and if the family is unable to pay, the child receives an additional four weeks of imprisonment for every 1000 NIS. You could call this a money making racket; Palestinian families support the system that imprisons their sons and daughters. The suspended sentence is like a probation period for two to five years during which time if the child commits another crime, he faces significantly more imprisonment. Many of the families are already impoverished, “the children are almost street children,” so this represents significant shekels.  The suspended sentence has had an unexpected impact; many children are so afraid of arbitrary arrest, they refuse to leave their homes. “So the children imprison themselves.” Some lawyers argue for longer suspended sentences in order to reduce the length of imprisonment. It’s hard to know what is worse.

DCIP has found that torture and ill treatment of children in Israeli prisons has decreased, but there are more children in prison overall.  In February 2016, there were 440 Palestinian children in Israeli military prisons, the highest number since they started collecting statistics in 2008. Approximately 700 children are arrested, prosecuted, and charged per year. Even more are arrested and detained sometimes for up to a week, but not charged.

2016 has also been the deadliest year for child fatalities, 32 dead children from the West Bank and Jerusalem. In 2013 there were five. In 2015 the Israelis reintroduced administrative detention for minors; a policy of detaining people without charge or trial for indefinite periods of time. (think, maybe Guantanamo?) This is legal when a person presents a threat to the security to the state, the “ticking bomb,” but these children have been detained for much less substantial reasons. Five were interrogated about Facebook posts. Then three months later they are released without follow up, so exactly how dangerous can they have been?

Ivan also notes that children are sometimes held in solitary confinement during interrogation before charges are made; this is legally recognized as a form of torture, isolating the accused in order to break them to make a confession. There were 161 cases of child solitary confinement in 2016. The longest a child was held was 26 days; in 2015, 45 days.  This is mostly used against 16 and 17 year olds, which brings us to the question, who exactly is a minor? Around 2012, the Israeli military defined a minor as a child less than 18 years of age, although “criminal responsibility” beings at twelve. But sixteen and seventeen year olds who are convicted are sentenced as adults. There is no consistency.  This is, after all, military justice. Younger children are detained, harassed, and released, but traumatized nonetheless.  Every child in military court has to have a lawyer, but children are denied a lawyer prior to interrogation in 97% of cases.  The same numbers apply to access to their parents prior to interrogation. So again, imagine the frightened 14 year old, he may or may not have thrown stones at a passing jeep, maybe his cousin implicates him, he is told to confess, he has faced two days of intense interrogation and psychological pressure, and all he wants is to see his mother and father.

We arrive at Ofer Prison, a large concrete wall topped with barbed wire and guard towers encasing the prison where pretrial hearings are held.  Behind the central structure is a maze of caged corridors, turnstiles, and security checkpoints.  Ivan advises me to leave my watch, rings, phone, paper, and pen in the car, just bring my passport.  My first impression is of the crowd of families waiting to pass security, the fear and fatigue etched on their faces. Some have traveled for many hours to see their loved ones have their moment in court. A loud male voice barks on the speaker, ordering them to back away from the security system. After the metal detector and the x-ray of my coat, I am patted down by a security guard who interestingly, apologizes. Does she apologize to the Muslim mothers and sisters or does she see them as terrorists? She makes me toss out my tissues and cough drops, apparently grave threats to the great State of Israel.

We enter an open cage bordered by metal wiring where family members who have been told by their lawyers that this is the day of the hearing, wait and smoke and pace and wait.  They are not given a time for the hearing. The space is bordered by planters with unhappy geraniums that are mostly squashed from people sitting on them.  There is no way to make this place beautiful. Periodically an upscale looking lawyer (definitely class distinctions here) comes through and is swarmed by anxious family members. Beyond the turnstile are seven large caravans where the court cases are heard, and clusters of military prosecutors in green, military police in black, and the swanky men and women (ie. lawyers). The mood is mostly bleak and intense, with occasional gallows humor.

Ivan finds a lawyer who agrees to our sitting in on a hearing and we enter one of the caravans and sit in the back.  Four young men sit behind a wooden bannister, their legs shackled. Children are also shackled and I am told appear wearing the bulky adult jackets as there are no clothes their size.  I try to imagine being a skinny 15 year old in a giant overcoat with shackled legs appearing before the crunch of guards and judge and lawyers, meeting a lawyer for the first time, scared and lonely.  One man is also handcuffed when he leaves. The military judge wearing a kippah sits on a raised platform with a stenographer, both pretty much glued to their computers.  The military prosecutor, (a young woman with a long pigtail), sits opposite; they are not actual lawyers, but military people trained in military law. In the middle are a cluster of real lawyers and guards that go in and out.  The translator is a soldier, often a Druze who serves in the army. There is nothing that resembles a “trial” going on here.  No evidence or witnesses are called. Some lawyers know their cases; others are meeting their clients for the first time. There are several groups that provide lawyers, like DCIP, as well as private lawyers and they spend a lot of time striking deals with the judge, negotiating with the prisoners. There are smiles, angry voices, frustration; it all appears pretty chaotic.  In minutes, major life decisions are made by the powers that be and the prisoners leave.

We return to the big group cage and talk to some of the families. Some are here for the first time, others have done this trip many times as cases are often postponed. If a family member is unable to attend, the child’s case is postponed. We talk with a girl who was arrested in front of the Ibrahimi Mosque, detained for one day, and released without charges. Basically Palestinian children are guilty until proven innocent. A woman’s son has been in detention for four months on seventeen charges. Ivan explains that charges can range from throwing a stone at the wall, a jeep, a soldier, insulting the honor of a soldier, attending a political protest, to being a member of a political group. The lawyer and the prosecutor could not agree on the plea deal so the case was postponed. Two other women are here for their brother who was arrested four months ago.  Initially they couldn’t locate him and they do not know what the charges are. There are no happy stories here.  I am mostly struck by how routine and banal this whole process feels.  The Israeli military has succeeded in normalizing the arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of children and adults who are resisting an oppressive occupation that is strangling their lives and their futures. And the Palestinians arrested understand that a good day is when a deal can be struck, maybe prison for five rather than ten years, maybe a suspended sentence and huge fine that devastates the family but let’s the guy go home in six months rather than six years. No one asks if children throwing stones at a heavily armed military force is a crime deserving months to years of imprisonment.

I am feeling very weary, watching families waiting, watching the comings and goings through the turnstile, some smiling, some in tears.  We return to the car and I ask Ivan about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the arrested children.  The data is anecdotal, but support is offered through the Palestine Counseling Center and the YMCA Rehabilitation Program.  The latter reportedly visits 80% of released children, but there is no referral system and no long term care.  “The family fabric provides support and shared experience with older kids, [prison] is seen as a rite of passage.”

Ivan notes that children arrested for crimes like stealing, rape, and murder of another Palestinian are taken to PA prisons and are not celebrated by their communities like those in Israeli jails.  They are a source of shame for their families. The Palestine juvenile justice program is improving.  In 2016 the Protection Law was created with an emphasis on rehabilitation, reintegration into society, and alternatives to detention, in keeping with international standards. But many in the justice system are unaware of these changes and organizations like DCI and Unicef run capacity building programs to inform those who provide juvenile care. There are now juvenile police officers who treat children well, but arrests are still being made by those ill equipped to do so.

Unfortunately the Israeli military justice system is not a proper legal system according to Ivan.  Military commanders issue orders that are added to the rules, but there are no amendments to older conflicting rules; there is no body of case law and precedents on which to build a system. DCI has been working on cases for the International Court of Justice and in two years they will complete their preliminary investigation.  It takes up to 15 years to come to a final recommendation so this is very much a long haul kind of effort.

Ivan drives my husband and me to Jerusalem; we take a sherut and then a taxi to Jaffa where we hydrate, shower in lovely hot water, (which aquifer in the West Bank was this water stolen from?) and enjoy the luxuries of a first world double shot espresso. I am having trouble traversing so many worlds in one long afternoon.

At 7:00 pm we are at the Clock Tower with a group of chanting Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and a scattering of lefty Israeli Jews and children. I spot the Palestinian actress Ruba Blal in the front lines. The crowd grows to almost 100, mostly young Palestinians, and the police presence grows as well. There are undercover agents and several officers tasked with filming the protest and taking photos of each of the participants. People are drawing handmade signs, “We are all Umm al-Hiran,” and the chants are all about freedom from occupation, racism, dispossession, and Israeli domination.

The crowd moves into traffic as the cops begin to converge, but retreat before there is trouble and return to the Clock Tower, apparently this tactic annoys the cops but prevents them from taking control of the demonstration.  After an hour, we march into the street, but the demonstrators reach a phalanx of police officers who are clearly creating a barrier.  More chanting and tension; we return to the Tower where it all fizzles out.

A general strike of the “Arab sector” has been called for tomorrow. An older Jewish Israeli activist notes that the younger Arabs in Jaffa are so brave to demonstrate; they are finding their voice and refuse to be intimated. A longtime Palestinian activist tells me, “We do this for ourselves.” He is not optimistic that the Israeli state is going face its racism and aggression anytime soon.

What do we say to our daughters? January 17, 2017


Today is the funeral for Qusay Hasna al-Umour, killed yesterday just outside of Bethlehem.  I keep hearing comments like, “This is our life,” “What can a stone do to a jeep?” My cousin was killed like this two years ago.” The rage, agitation, and despair are brewing just below the surface of what is now normal in Palestine.

Today I am meeting with a group of women at Al Rowwad for a health education session and general discussion. We set up two tables end to end, the juice and wafers are distributed, and seventeen women from the camp arrive, chatting, quiet, or giggling nervously, and a couple of children who are encouraged to leave. Staff from Al Rowwad and a friend from Ramallah provide translation and we set the tone: a confidential open conversation about women’s health issues.  Periodically a tour comes through or a photographer stops by and we all go quiet, waiting for the intruders to leave. Slowly the discussion grows as the women become more comfortable, the married women much more willing to talk than the unmarried women. I learn that reproductive health and sexuality only seem to begin for many at the time of marriage and they are often ill prepared for what lies ahead.  Their mothers are their chief sources of information and much of it sounds more folkloric than fact based, with due respect for the rich tradition of herbal treatments and women helping women. Soon we are deep into the topics of menstrual cramps, infertility, Clomid treatments and IVF, cupping therapy for back pain, premenstrual syndrome, menopause, postoperative cesarean section pain, and using contraceptive pills to delay menses during Ramadan. (If a woman has her period, she cannot fast, and must make up the time later, so many try to delay their period with hormones.) There seems to be less concern here if a virginal woman is taking pills for a medical reason.  This is new.

There is a burst of interest when one woman asks how to deal with facial hair which seems quite prevalent in this crowd, everyone starts talking at once.  So I begin with basic genetics and standards of beauty in this culture, (ie. no hair). I review hormonal disorders, various treatments and the use of electrolysis and laser.  No one can afford those treatments and waxing seems popular.  It seems to me the underlying problem is a lack of acceptance and love of their faces as they are, a desire to look like the airbrushed models that they see on TV soap operas and female newscasters. This is a universal female dilemma and soon someone comments that it is actually a problem with the men who want women to look a particular way and make them feel ashamed when they appear as they are.  Another universal dilemma. There is an enthusiastic response to this comment and lots of talk, women educating and empowering each other.

Soon a young woman asks, with obvious laughter and embarrassment, what exercises can she do to do to prevent breasts from sagging after nursing. The crowd gets pretty raucous. I explain basic anatomy (the breast is a gland not a muscle), and one woman loudly suggests wearing an uplifting bra which provokes lots of laughter and chatter. Again the conversation quickly shifts to the male partner, “This conversation should be for the men!” and the expectations that are placed on women and their bodies: to be the alluring sexual partner, have many children without any consequences, and always look sixteen.

A member of the Al Rowwad staff wants the women to focus on their own empowerment and the education of their daughters and sons. One woman asks about pain with intercourse and I can see several younger women listening intently as I openly discuss sexual issues, vaginitis, and pelvic pain. The staff member questions: “What do we say to our daughters? Even about periods?” She suggests that there is an individual and collective responsibility to educate the children about these intimate matters. “Mothers neglect their daughters, don’t talk about this. Old Islamic literature and folklore deals with these issues. It is not an issue of lack of information.” She explains that in this culture, young women may experience harassment and even rape and that is their first exposure to sexual experiences and then they are not allowed to discuss their trauma.  They take that trauma to their wedding night. Some of the younger (virginal) women say that intercourse sounds disgusting and they don’t want to talk about it. I privately wonder how many of these women are afraid or have experienced some trauma, or if the assumption of heterosexuality does not work for everyone, but exploring such issues would require a lot of work and trust. The staff person urges the women to talk to their sons and daughters about safe and traumatic touch, to raise awareness amongst their sons not to assault women and in fact to protect them. We discuss some recent studies about rape and molestation amongst family members and one woman urges the group to be vigilant with how the father plays with his daughters.

I am honored and amazed that the women are willing to delve into such challenging topics and to trust each other with this conversation.  Consciousness raising 101.  I am told that ten women sent their apologies.  They were unable to come because, as families of martyrs, they needed to attend the funeral of Qusay Hasna al-Umour who was killed yesterday. As often happens in distressed societies, women’s concerns always come second. The facts of occupation make women’s liberation even more challenging than just facing a conservative culture largely dominated by men and their unreasonable expectations.

Cultural resistance and throwing stones – January 16, 2017

News that you probably have not heard: Today a 17 year old named Qusay Hasna al-Umour was killed by Israeli soldiers in Tuqu, a village just east of Bethlehem. He was 17 years old, throwing stones.  He was shot three times, the first bullet to his heart. There is a photo circulating amongst my friends here showing four fully armed soldiers carrying his limp body, one man holding each extremity as if he were an animal, some kind of prey just shot in the wild. This is clearly a blood sport and the IDF are out to kill and maim as many angry, frustrated, hopeless men as possible. The photo reminds many people of a similar episode in the Second Intifada. According to the Ma’an News Agency, the Palestinian Red Crescent claims al-Umour was detained for an unspecified amount of time after he was shot before he was handed over to the Palestinian paramedics for treatment. J Post had the following headline:

Border Police shoot and kill Palestinian stone-thrower near Bethlehem


Trolling the internet I find a report by WAFA:

Forces used live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades toward residents, shooting and injuring at least five people, including a female, with rubber baton rounds.http://english.wafa.ps/page.aspx?id=DfORbJa52114187268aDfORbJ.

FYI: Stone throwing Israeli youth (read Jews) do not get shot or even arrested for that activity. Their parents are called, maybe there are charges, a lawyer is hired, but their lives are not ruined or extinguished. The racism is screaming at us.

The Al Rowwad Cultural and Arts Center is located in Aida Camp in Bethlehem and we are greeted by Ribal Alkurdi, the energetic executive director, who started as one of the young participants and participated as a dabke dancer for years.

Founded in 1998 in two twelve-meter square rooms, the current building was begun in 2006 with support from groups in Germany through the UNDP and Norway.  In 2004, Israelis built the eight meter high concrete wall surrounding the Aida refugee camp and north of the city of Bethlehem.  66% of this camp’s population of about 6,000 is under 24 years of age.  There is minimum employment and no room for expansion.  Are you feeling like throwing a stone yet?

The activities of the center have moved beyond the camp and now reach all of the West Bank, providing benefits to 35,000 children in 2015. In 1998 it was only a theater and in 2000 with the start of the Second Intifada, they began developing many departments including art, theater, dance, music and choir, developing cultural resistance through the arts.  There is a women’s program with education, embroidery, artisan crafts, a fitness hall started in 2006 and now servicing 250 women (when trainers are available or affordable). Images for Life is a central program that teaches women and children photography and documentary film making as well as photo development. The educational curriculum offers Arabic, math, and English, volunteers teach classes for one week to three months and there is a creative new library with 3,500 books. The Playbus travels through the West Bank offering the children educational games and enjoyable activities. I look around the jumbled office and on the wall there are quotes from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela, a very respectable heritage.  The work of the center is grounded in “beautiful resistance,” a respect for human rights and the right of return for refugees. The newly renovated library includes a welcoming reading space, educational game area, and computer lab. A smart board and tablets are coming soon.

We learn there are two UNRWA schools in the camp, 550 boys and more than 800 girls up to ninth grade.  After that students can go to public school or to private school (which is unaffordable for these families).  This week is school vacation so the center is filled with boisterous children doing Winter Camp. With the emphasis on Palestinian culture, the walls have paintings of May Ziadah, (Lebanese-Palestinian poet and essayist), Edward Said, (Palestinian-American professor of literature at Columbia who wrote extensively on Orientalism and post-colonial studies), and Fadwa Toqan, (Palestinian poet). We walk into the Image for Life department where women and youth learn how to do photography and documentary filmmaking to chronicle the life in the camp, the impact of the wall, and the yearning for the right of return. We pass a museum with traditional dresses, pottery, and artifacts, a multipurpose women’s fitness hall lined with sewing machines, the main hall for dance and theater, and the gift shop.  There is a pile of empty brightly colored pots, part of an UNRWA project to brighten the camp with potted plants. The center has grown impressively since I was last here three years ago.

We start a walking tour with Ribal that begins with a stunning bit of information.  Residents of the camp have water every 20 days or so for six hours during which time they are able to fill the dense collection of water tanks that crowd every roof. 

Even with restrictive water usage, there are often two weeks towards the end when there is no water before the central distribution is turned on again. We wend our way down dusty crowded streets with no open green space, hardy trees competing with houses and parked cars; children are everywhere, playing, sitting, bicycling, kicking soccer balls, twirling a sling shot.  They are teargassed by the IDF on a daily basis. Is that stone looking more reasonable?

Ribal unlocks a metal door and proudly invites us into an impressive six story construction project, the new building for Al Rowwad. We tour each floor, stepping around rebar and sandy floors and piles of construction materials and roughed out stairways.  In the downstairs there is an amazing collection of sophisticated woodworking machinery: a computer controlled machine with a 3-D cutter that can be used for making furniture, games, and puzzles, a panel saw, machinery to mill and sand wood.  Someday this will be a training workshop and source of products that can be used in the center as well as a source of income. We go further downstairs into the future museum, an evocative cave that was used by the Palestinian resistance before 1930.  Ribal sees a future history and science museum in an imaginative and historical setting. We creep up the unfinished stairs and bear witness to the dreams of the founder Abdelfattah Abusrour: a women’s department and showroom, media department, recording studio, radio by internet (Rowwad194) produced by children less than sixteen years old, computer room, phone repair room, guest house, soup factory, training kitchen that morphs into a restaurant in the afternoon. He envisions vocational training, future employment, cultural and educational opportunities, and women’s empowerment in a self-sustaining center.  It is a grand vision that has the potential to change the lives of many residents of the camp and beyond. They need $500,000 to finish the structure and then more to fill it with the necessary furniture and equipment. I wonder, a common battle tank costs $8.5 million, surely the US military wouldn’t miss one of those hulking monsters and think of what these folks could do with that money. A military jet would work just as well. They hope to have the women’s department, guest house, and kitchen finished in 2017. Abdelfattah is in Vienna to receive the (well-deserved) Stars Foundation Impact Award.  http://www.starsfoundation.org.uk/blog/2016-stars-impact-award-winners-announced.

We walk onto the roof and look at the tumble of houses, military towers, and the imposing concrete wall that snakes around the camp and through the community.

Back in the street, Ribal tells us that of the 538 villages destroyed in 1948, 41 villages are  represented in Aida Camp. He, like many from the Abusrour family, is from Beit Natif. They represent one sixth of the camp’s inhabitants. The land was rented by UNRWA for 99 years from a cathedral in Beit Jala. No one knows what will happen when the 99 years is up. Hopefully the occupation will be over before then, but the trends are not that promising.



Some of the walls of the homes have been painted bright colors in an attempt to mitigate the grey, over crowded housing. The UNRWA boy’s school is right near the wall and has been repaired ten times since the Second Intifada due to IDF attacks.


The school finally covered up the windows with sheets of wood but there are still bullet holes in the metal doors.  And you ask why children hate the Israeli soldiers?

Shortly we are facing the apartheid wall in all its immense ugliness. The ominous guard tower is blackened and no longer used, but this is the area where the pope was welcomed to Aida Camp in 2009. The Israelis insisted that the performance stage be moved away from the wall as they did not want the international community to see the oppressive concrete as the backdrop, but it is difficult to hide.

Amongst the towers of burned garbage, the wall looms with its painful and defiant graffiti: “We can’t live, so we are waiting for death,” beside a mural of a blindfolded Palestinian being arrested by two Israeli soldiers. To the right of this is a large mural of a young man with a slingshot aimed at the burned out tower. “One day the sun will shine on a free Palestine,” “We are more powerful than they can possibly imagine.” Much of the graffiti dates back to my last visit in 2014.  Not only have conditions not improved, they are in fact getting worse.

A row of black train cars is parked against the wall; in 2016 the Freedom Train packed with refugees drove from the nearby Deheisha Camp to Rachel’s Tomb where they were met with teargas and bullets. https://972mag.com/photos-palestinian-return-train-is-stopped-at-israels-wall/119356/. Stones anyone?


Our tour continues along the wall at the entrance of the camp with its famous enormous metal key symbolizing the right of return for refugees, “nonnegotiable and not for sale.”





The faces of twelve Palestinian men are painted on the wall, all arrested in the two intifadas, some released during the Shalit prisoner swap, and some still in prison. Adjacent to this is a partial listing of the children killed in the 2014 war on Gaza and then the UNRWA distribution center. From this corner we can stare directly down the street to the apartheid wall and the blue metal gate that opens to let soldiers, jeeps, and tanks invade the camp.

In 2015, thirteen year old Abdul Shadi was standing in the street with his friends when an Israeli sniper lifted his weapon, aimed, and fired, the seventh child of Aida Camp to die since the encirclement by the wall. A poster with his young, slightly goofy, wide eyed face stares from the corner where he died. “My soul will remain here chasing the killer and motivating my classmates.  I wonder whether the international community will bring justice to Palestinian children.” And he hadn’t even thrown a stone.

Our next stop is just down the street at the Lagee Center which has programs such as a library, computer lab, cultural tours, recreation, excursions in the West Bank, summer camps, arts, media, and sports.

I am particularly interested in their environmental focus, garden and water project. We meet with Amani, the coordinator of activities, who started at the center when she was ten years old and is now studying law and human rights at Al Quds University.  She is hopeful that now that Palestinians have state status they will be able to use the International Court to focus attention on the occupation and human rights violations. She tells us of the Our Voice project. Amahl Bishara, a professor at Tufts and a Palestinian with an Israeli ID, organized a visit in 2007 of children under sixteen who do not yet have IDs to travel to Israel, to visit and document the villages of their parent’s and grandparent’s. Amani was fourteen, visited Beit Mahsir which is seven kilometers from here, and still remembers this as a very emotional and defining experience, “Each person has three to four dunams. Now everything is stolen, very depressing.” She visited, the village of the center’s director and brought him back a piece of saber cactus which is now growing wildly at his home in the camp. The Israeli authorities understand this knowledge is dangerous. It is no longer possible to bring children without IDs into Israel, the land their families fled in 1948.

We visit a large room where ten students are diligently playing ouds, qanuns, violins, tambourine and tabla, rehearsing a folkloric Palestinian song with a patient teacher. The musicians and the dabke group have toured in Scotland, Ireland, and England. There is a media unit and a football academy for boys and girls.  The soccer team has also played in Scotland.

We are particularly interested in the Lagee environmental programs and the gardens, playground, and soccer field that were developed with support from a US group, 1for3.org, and we are joined by Shatha Alazzeh, the lively and focused director of the Environmental Unit.  She also started as a volunteer, began studying biology and medical science in university, and started collecting water samples in the Aida Camp as part of a project with Tufts University graduate students. After her BA she started working full time at Lajee.  She now has twenty students, ages thirteen to fifteen, involved in science and environmental lectures, recycling organic and nonorganic material and creating compost. The latter two are very strange ideas in Palestine which is littered with plastic bags, tires, and garbage and minimal to no garbage collection. They are also working on a project to build rooftop greenhouses in order to build food security as there is no space for gardens in the camp which is 0.71 square kilometers.

There are now ten greenhouses feeding fourteen families. She takes the children on educational field trips to cities and villages in areas A and B to explore the biodiversity in Palestine.

The water testing project extends to four refugee camps and Aida was found to have contamination with e coli. This is complicated by episodes like last month when the IDF soldiers deliberately put sewerage in the water lines.  75% of their water is bought from the semiprivate company Mekerot and 25% is from the Palestinian Authority.  Palestinians are not allowed to dig wells or collect rainwater in a well. In the summer they tend to have six hours of water every three weeks or so, the camp is divided into four areas which have to fill sequentially. Besides an inadequate supply and issues around contamination, the water pipes are fifty years old and sometimes mix with sewerage.  The Lagee center has created educational brochures about water quality, cleaning the tanks, disinfecting the water supply, adding chlorine tablets and now the water quality is markedly improved. The water project includes collecting rain water from roofs into a cisterns, filtering the water and then distributing the water to homes via a water truck. The program will be operational in 2017.

The Israeli authorities do not allow the Palestinian Authority to have waste water treatment plants so the waste water is transferred to the Wadi Nar valley where it is treated and used by Israelis. In another example of water policy as a weapon, the nearby Jewish settlement of Gilo dumps its waste water into the camp near the wall where the children play and in front of the Lagee Center. Shatha also notes that the repeated spraying of putrid skunk water, (which the Israelis claim is nontoxic, organic, and even drinkable), has killed all the trees in front of the center.

Shatha was born in the nearby Askar Refugee Camp and moved to Aida when she got married.  The IDF arrested her husband two weeks after the wedding and held him for four months, accusing him of making a political statement on Facebook.  She traveled 14 hours for a 45 minute to visit him.  “We had a honeyjail not a honeymoon.” She describes her husband being beaten by the soldiers and her desire to stay strong in front of them.  “My story is nothing.” She witnessed little children visiting their fathers’ in prison and crying because they could not touch their hands.

Shatha has a masters in environmental studies and trained for one semester in Sweden, “The first time in my life to see the sea.” When she explained she was from Palestine, Swedes would look at her funny and say, “Where? Pakistan?” She adds, “It is important to change, the culture, the bad things, to bring the generation to be environmentally friendly.” She was working in the Lajee summer camp for children and only when she threatened to spy on them and fine them, did they stop throwing trash in the garden.  Old patterns are hard to change, but she is inspirational. “We want Palestine to be clean, first clean from occupation, and a new generation thinking environmentally friendly.”

On the roof of the center we can see the Jewish settlement of Gilo, the winding concrete wall, six military towers; 23 surveillance cameras keeping close watch on the 6,000 refugees imprisoned within. By contrast, the garden and playground below is a breath of fresh air, brightly colored, appealing, and bordered by a soccer field that has netting to protect the children from tear gas canisters. Brightly painted recycled tires form a border.  Between the playground and field and the ominous guard tower and wall is the cemetery where those who have finally given up can have a moment of peace. On the roofs we can see three large plastic greenhouses.

In the front of the center we spot the main cistern for the camp that holds the water from Bethlehem.  On a nearby wall are 33 martyrs killed since the First Intifada. Shatha explains that five hundred men and four women have been arrested by the IDF since the Intifada. Resistance and death are everywhere. She takes us past a mural which documents the modern history of Palestine; reminding us that children must never forget.

for more information from previous blogs:


Farah Center: Big accomplishments, minimal resources – January 15, 2017

We drive from southern Bani Na’im (northeast of Hebron) to the northern city of Nablus.  The taxi is 40 minutes late and I practice slow breathing and accepting a fluid Palestinian concept of time. Everyone assures me it will be okay. For the two and a half hour drive I think about the families we have been visiting, the options for educated children, the limits for educated daughters, the fear of daughters studying abroad and falling in love with foreigners,  the fierce enjoyment of small and intimate pleasures (a torrid love, passion, honor, and testosterone driven Bedouin soap opera from Jordan, a campfire under a full moon, all of us sitting on mattresses in a dry lunar landscape, the hills of Jordan glowing to the east, the loving intensity of family relationships). We head up route 60, get stopped at a flying checkpoint, the IDF sets up spikes in the road and then waves us through, we creep through multiple traffic jams.

Every Jewish settlement is marked but there is rarely a sign to the Palestinian villages that have been here long before 1967, a kind of geographical dispossession and erasure.  We pass multiple army jeeps, guard towers, soldiers glued to their smart phones but always ready to spring into action, the combo of youth, boredom, and brutality.  The landscape is dotted with villas (Palestinian Americans coming home) and villages, archeological sites, monasteries, and Bedouin encampments steeped in poverty and a deep attachment to the land. I think about the crazy up and down roads with their death defying hairpin turns, and miles of highway that Palestinians are “allowed” to travel and the resulting excess air pollution, challenged shock absorbers and brakes, and the endless waste of time and money that is the result of a system that keeps Jewish settlers separate from the indigenous population.

We speed through the once formidable and oppressive Huwarra checkpoint with its empty turnstiles and pens and cattle chutes (which can be reactivated any time) and enter Nablus, a dusty bustling city with a rundown feel, a central green park aspiring to grace, and snarling traffic, all sitting like a bowl amidst a circle of striking mountains, white apartments rising from the hills with IDF bases dotting the summits.

We are visiting Raja Abu Rizik Khalilih, the powerhouse of a physical therapist and administrator who runs the Farah Center for Rehabilitation. The center has long accomplished extraordinary things particularly in the world of autism and speech pathology, with very little resources and faces frequent funding crises as a private NGO that offers free care to an impoverished population.  Founded by Allam Jarrar, a visionary physician who worked in rehabilitation, public health, and was a leader in the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, (PMRS), the center is now directed by Dr. Mohammed, director of Rehabilitation Program for PMRS and has the same neurologist, Dr. Elana and staff that we have met before. In 2016 they served 366 new children with neurological illnesses. Raja explains that the Farah Center is unusual as it focuses on education and training for the mothers of the affected children.  They offer workshops with preschools and families as well.

They plan to offer intensive programs and group activities and are hoping for better cooperation with the Ministry of Health. Their main support comes from the Diakonia Foundation in Jerusalem, they used to receive $60,000 per year, last year they received $39,000 and a surprise donation from American Jew for a Just Peace made it possible for programs and staff to continue their work.

The general situation creates additional challenges. Last year there were many closures around Nablus and children as well as three staff from Jenin could not get to their appointments. They have an active Facebook page with education, videos and communication with their families. Raja says forcefully, “We are strong with you. We have future plans, we will keep in touch. If we achieve local contract, we are hoping for bigger developments, hoping for new building for five years.  We are number one with pediatricians and families and education.  This is new for our culture, the responsibility of the family, networking with the child, as well as establishing an appointment system (rather than walk-ins).” The center has many students who ultimately attend university and Rajah feels comfortable with the level of local control they have.  She takes responsibility for administrative reporting and financial management. “Farah is home for us.” Even her own children have started volunteering at the center.

All too soon it is time to go to the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, leaving from the chaos of the main service and taxi station, after raucous negotiations and strategic planning and consultations with a cluster of drivers. Everyone has an opinion: go through Ramallah? Kalandia? Direct? The driver is smoking and seems angry about something. I decide to attach myself to a guy who speaks a little English and is heading to Bethlehem and pile into the van. The service fills up and soon we are off, a bundle of Palestinians and two Jewish Americans heading south across occupied Palestine.


Dreaming of a Jewish Judea and Samaria and Arab-rein streets – January 13, 2017

Two news items that you probably will not hear about:

GAZA CITY (Ma’an) — Amid widespread protests Thursday night regarding the electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip, reports have emerged of Hamas security forces assaulting journalists covering the protests, as well as temporarily detaining an opposition leader in the besieged enclave.

Crowded marches had set off in the northern Gaza Strip, mainly in the Jabaliya refugee camp, demanding a solution to the power crisis which has left the besieged coastal enclave with less than half of the electricity it needs.

Witnesses told Ma’an that during the marches, Gaza security forces opened fire in the air to suppress protesters “to prevent protesters from reaching the electricity company in Jabaliya.”



Email from Iyad Burnat:
I am in the hospital with my son Abdul Khalik after the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces] shot him in his head by rubber coated steel bullet at Bil’in demo today . We still in the hospital the doctor said today he will be more days in the hospital . The bullet caused the destruction of a simple skull and slight bleeding which affected his right hand

Pray for him.

I cannot find any news reports on this incident, but a graphic video is posted on YouTube and I recognize some of the farmers and family I joined for lunch yesterday.


I do not know if I could keep my deep commitment to nonviolence if the Israelis were shooting my children. How do people stay nonviolent in such a violent world?

I awaken in an apartment in Al Bireh just outside of Ramallah and a frosty dense fog surrounds the building.  The kitchen window looks out on a beautiful hill that is usually topped by the Jewish settlement of Pisagot with a bypass road at the base, but this magical morning, the settlement is enveloped in fog and has virtually disappeared.  For a pre-coffee moment I think, perhaps the settlers have gone home and the two state solution is really possible, but then the sun comes out and shines on blunt reality.

We are heading south on route 60 to Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, in a service past the traffic hell of Kalandia checkpoint and rural villages, donkeys, innumerable Jewish settlements, barbed wire fencing with tall watch towers, lush invasive Jewish National Fund forests, and concrete walls to the left and the right. We see a police action with a cluster of Palestinian men, IDF soldiers overlooking a cliff above the road, pass a military base and many Bedouin villages with more trucks than camels, and tenacious olive groves hugging the terraced landscape. The highway is filled with twists and hairpin turns, ups and downs, and the driver is racing at top speed. We are tossed back and forth as he flies around the corners and I work on accepting my fate and clutching my seatbelt. Insha’allah takes on a whole new meaning. I see a huge USAID sign: “This project is a gift from the American people to the Palestinian people,” and I wonder if gifts like this are improving road conditions for Palestinians or making apartheid roads official or maybe a bit of both.  On the other hand, at least USAID thinks there is a Palestinian people, as opposed to folks like Golda Meir and the history deniers who followed her.

Of the five checkpoints, only two are manned, but the soldiers seem busy chatting and do not stop us. We fly past mountains of junked cars, the fanatical settlement of Qiryat Araba, and finally reach the Old City of Hebron.  We are staying in the Lamar Hotel, a project of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, a semi-governmental organization that attempts to maintain the cultural heritage in the Old City, renovating infrastructure, encouraging the Palestinian presence by developing economic activity.

They also provide Palestinian residents who persevere in the Old City, despite the aggressive Jewish settlers and military forces that protect them, with electricity, water, and health care, although some are still leaving as life is so impossible. The hotel is a renovated, abandoned, once elegant Palestinian home with thick white stone walls, high ceilings, graceful arches and not quite enough hot water.

Hisham Sharabati is an activist and journalist who works with Al Haq, an NGO founded in 1979 to protect Palestinian human rights and the rule of law.  He also manages the hotel and meets us for a tour. He is limping and using crutches after recent surgery to correct a leg injury years ago when he was shot by Israeli forces.  We start by climbing up to the roof for an expansive view of the city of Hebron, the largest city in Palestine.  Hisham begins to decipher the sea of cream to grey white buildings, the occasional Israeli flag, minaret, a swath of green olive trees, and a large Muslim cemetery, and once again I am plunged into the horror of aggressive, racist settlers and the soldiers who dominate the alternative universe which is Hebron and the desperately oppressed Palestinians who have the misfortune of being their neighbors.

This is a brief summary as I struggle to wrap my brain around a flood of overwhelming, outrageous information. We see a large Israeli flag over a building in Tel Rumeida, the site of the first settler enclave.

This building has 16 apartments and was constructed in 2002 despite the area being an archaeological site with restrictions on new building. Palestinians in the area are not allowed to build and thus have only been expanding vertically to accommodate growing families. In November 2015, the IDF declared Tel Rumeida a closed military zone; if a Palestinian has permanent status in the area (residency or business) he or she can stay. But, for instance, if the Palestinian’s daughter marries and lives elsewhere, she is no longer allowed to visit her parents. Friends of Palestinians are obviously forbidden. Jewish settlers, on the other hand, can have visitors any time, and indeed thousands come during Jewish holidays. Internationals like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) had an apartment in the area which was raided by the army and the activists were expelled, leaving a virtual no man’s land without non-Zionist eyes and ears, without the press or NGOs. Hisham explains, “This is committing a crime without a witness.”

He recalls the extrajudicial assassination that happened in 2016, an Israeli soldier shot a wounded Palestinian. Hisham heard the shooting and was able to interview and film the guy who filmed the killing and to collect testimonials.  The soldiers claimed that Abd Al-Fattah Yousri Al-Sharif and Ramzi ‘Aziz Al-Qasrawi were attempting to carry out a stabbing attack against a soldier in the old city of Hebron. Al-Sharif was running, holding a pocket knife, after stabbing a soldier and slightly injuring him. He was shot twice from a distance of 10 meters and fell to the ground.  The same soldier then shot Qasrawi in the head from a distance of three and a half meters as he lay bleeding on the ground from a previous bullet.

According to the report by Al Haq:
Four ambulances arrived to the scene and provided medical assistance to the injured soldier but not to Abd Al-Fattah or Ramzi who were both bleeding heavily. Settlers arrived to the scene, called Abd Al-Fattah and Ramzi “dogs” and “terrorists” and pointed out to the soldiers that Abd Al-Fattah was still alive. A soldier then shot at Abd Al-Fattah’s head from a distance of approximately three metres. The soldier had spoken to a higher rank officer before he shot Abd Al-Fattah. (Al-Haq affidavit no. 213/2016)            http://www.alhaq.org/documentation/weekly-focuses/1037-the-killing-of-al-sharif-and-al-qasrawi-in-hebron

According to eye witnesses, only one of the killings was captured on video and received some international attention, but both men were shot while lying on the ground bleeding and posing no threat to the soldiers. This is what passes for normal behavior around here.

And then there are all the personal assaults and restrictions of movement that Palestinians face. In the Old Quarter, 520 Palestinian shops have been closed by military order since the Second Intifada, their metal doors welded shut, around 800 have closed due to lack of customers (who would shop in a closed military zone?) and local residents are frequently stopped by Israeli soldiers, despite protests Palestinian women are reportedly frisked by men, and all residents who must register for special permits to negotiate the 18 military checkpoints, are subjected to repeated body searches. There is another Jewish settlement called Beit Haddassah and the stairs opposite the building provide a short cut for many Palestinian residents going to school or home. Now there is a gate on the stairs which is open in the morning and afternoon for the school children, but people who live in the area have to travel all around the city and through olive groves to get from one point to the next.

For over fifteen years, the IDF has tried to issue permits to the local Palestinian residents.  Because they refused, in late 2015, there were massive home raids and a “census” of sorts was created, the Palestinian ID’s were marked, “so people became numbers.” Now at each checkpoint, the soldiers check their census registry and decide who gets to pass.  Frequently local residents are told they are not registered and then they are shut out from their businesses or homes and they wait on the street, hoping the next shift of Israeli soldiers will allow them to enter. Fifteen families have left in the past year; they couldn’t stand these conditions any longer.

Because their homes were empty, Jewish settlers tried to break in and occupy them.  Al Haq took the break-ins  to the courts and recently won the case, but the settlers are still occupying the homes.  They are counter suing using an old Ottoman law that states inhabitants who do renovations then have a priority for the right of purchase. Ethnic cleansing one house at a time. During the olive harvest, these same lovely settlers steal the olives from the local Palestinians. The District Coordinating Office (DCO) determines which days the Palestinians are allowed to harvest their own olives.  This year went smoothly except for the stoning of Spanish volunteers and the family of Hashem Azza (who died earlier of all the complications of living here. The final blow was tear gas inhalation.)


The famous covered market is behind Beit Haddassah where Palestinians are forced to cover the souq with chicken wiring and sheets of metal because the settlers throw garbage and excrement on them.


We see soldiers on roofs and Hisham explains that there are three military authorities here: The IDF who have no jurisdiction over the settlers, often agree with their egregious behavior, and just stand by while Palestinians are harassed and attacked.  As soon as a Palestinian resists, the soldiers move in to arrest him for attacking the settler. The Blue Police and the semi-military Border Police have jurisdiction over the settlers, but their presence is minimal in Hebron.  Functionally the IDF are everywhere protecting the Jewish settlers doing their criminal activities. Theoretically the majority of Hebron is H-1 and under Palestinian control, and the Old City and surrounding area is H-2 under Israeli control, but that is of course theoretically.

Hebron is a city drowning in the tears of a history that dates back to Abraham and Sarah. Hisham explains that in the last century it was a Muslim/Jewish city. In 1929 after Zionist immigration (ie the folks who decided that Palestine was not to be shared), there were the famous riots here where 67 Jews were killed.  What is never mentioned is that 59 of these folks were Zionists and not locals and that more than 100 Palestinians were killed as well. After that catastrophe, the British (in their colonial wisdom) evacuated all the Jews and the buildings remained empty until settlers arrived in 1968 for Passover and refused to leave. Ever.

After various deals and negotiations and living in military bases, Kiryat Arba was established, (we can see the metal towers, military intelligence units located right up against Palestinian homes) and the settlement has been expanding ever since. In the 1980s, Palestinians were kicked out of the central bus station area for “military use” and obviously the placement of another Jewish settlement.  In the past three months, more settlements have been approved, so the process of expulsion and ethnic cleansing has been moving along rather nicely if you think that God gave this to you and everyone else can go to hell. There are now even two military bases in H-1, the area that is supposed to be under Palestinian control. We can see the guard towers, concrete wall, and base up the hill just behind us.

And then there is Shuhadeh Street, formerly a major market area, which we can see from the roof. Of 1,300 meters Palestinians cannot use 900 meters of the street and there are a host of residency and age restrictions (no young to middle age males) as well. And then there are twelve  kilometers of streets that Palestinians can walk on but not drive.  So think about this: you are elderly with severe arthritis, young and having severe abdominal pain, extremely late for an appointment, carrying home a ton of groceries or maybe a new couch…. And you cannot drive down the street where you live?

Hisham points out more settlements than I can keep track of and talks of the ultimate plan: A Jewish Hebron.  The settlements are all growing and will link up with one of the most fanatical settlements of all, Kiryat Arba. Active and passive transfer.  We see the latest graffiti: “Free Israel.”  Apparently the ancient Jewish/Muslim city of Hebron needs to be freed of its indigenous population who are actually the intruders.  History turned upside down.  We spot a mobile cafeteria driving up the hill, “My brothers coffee shop,” an internationally funded settler run truck that distributes food and coffee free to the lovely Jewish soldiers who make this all possible. Hisham has been involved in a campaign to “Free Shuhadeh Street” which has been renamed: “Dismantle the ghetto: take the settlers out of Hebron.” Freed from the European ghettos, the settlers move to the Land of Israel where they create their own ghettos and ghettoize others.  God’s plan.

Hisham recounts a mindboggling list of ongoing humiliations and aggressions. During a march in 2012 protesting the conditions in Hebron, mourners appeared carrying a coffin.  The demonstrators separated, respectfully giving the funeral space to pass, but the IDF sprayed the mourners with teargas and skunk water forcing them to drop the coffin and run for cover.  Who approves of such actions? The skunk water is an awful smelling concoction that is difficult to remove and made in the USA.

He shares a bit of very old history as we leave the hotel and drive towards the area around the Ibrahimi Mosque.  A zillion years ago Abraham left Iraq, (does that belong to the Jews as well?) and came to Hebron.  He bought a cave for a burial site. “So who did he buy it from? He bought it from me.  Arabs and Canaanites. My blood is a mix of all the invaders.” He suggests that Abraham had two sons, Ishamel and Isaac, and their descendants should have equal rights. The tomb was a cave where Abraham, Sarah, and some of their descendants are buried and the mosque and synagogue are built upon that historic site.

We wander through a virtual ghost city and end up at the Ibrahimi mosque/synogague, passing through two turnstiles and a clutch of armed soldiers who seem bored and distracted.  Hisham explains they had “a busy morning.” Because there is a Moslem entrance (for Palestinians and tourists who are not Jewish) and a Jewish entrance (for Israeli Jews and tourists who are not Muslims), he tells us, if asked, here we are Jewish, but over there we are Christian, then back to Jewish. I am trying to keep my fake identities straight when an aggressive IDF soldier barks, “Who are you?” and my husband and I obediently answer, “We are Christian.” I am hoping I got that right. Then we poof into Jews, climb up the endless stairs, and enter the synagogue area which is a collection of rooms filled with books and Judaica and Torahs.  It is hard to imagine the amount of blood that has been shed to retain control of this. But then again, the whole experience just confirms my devout atheism.

After our military dance with religion, we wander again, visiting the pottery shop in front of the mosque/synagogue, one of the oldest in Hebron, the room warm from the kiln, the Palestinian owner one of the few allowed to be there.  There are Jewish only Arab-rein  streets that allow the local and Kiryat Arba settlers to get to the synagogue without seeing “the other”, Stars of David spray painted on metal shop doors (evoking Swastikas painted on the shops of people we know and love), white lines painted on the street where Palestinians are stopped for inspection and 15-30 year olds are frequently forbidden to pass. There are clusters of heavily armed soldiers, men in shorts and kippot jogging the streets, a little girl thinks we are settlers and grabs her sister and clutches her mother’s hand, clearly terrified.

Palestinian homes and shops have windows covered in metal screens to stave off the damage from all the settler rock throwing. Palestinians painted a mural in front of a school dating back to the Ottoman era (1911), Jewish settlers painted over it and wrote, “Free Israel.” A playground was confiscated for a parking lot for tour buses, so the Palestinian children play in the detritus of the streets.  When they go to school there is a checkpoint that is congested with kids in the morning, the kids get bored, some angry ten year old throws a stone, and then the children are tear gassed and sprayed with skunk water and gas.  That could ruin your day and make you yearn for revenge, particularly if you are ten years old.

Hisham knows exactly where he can walk and where he is forbidden, though there are no signs, so Palestinians live in this kind of existential fear when they are in the Old City. He greets a smiling six year old girl near a new green “fence” separating a street leading to Kiryat Arba into Jewish and Arab sides.  Her bicycle was confiscated when she scooted down the “wrong side.” The soldier grabbed her bike, stomped on it bending the frame, and tossed it into the bushes.  How does a Palestinian mother explain this to her child?

We pass two disputed Palestinian houses occupied by settlers and now a closed military area, Beit Lea and Beit Rachel. Between them is a little house.  During the three years of curfew (Second Intifada) children raced roof to roof to get to school.  They would them gather at this little house, wait until the soldiers weren’t looking, then lower a ladder and run to school.  The home owner was called “the Ladder Lady.” Sometimes this strategy worked and of course sometimes it didn’t.

And that is a taste of Hebron where the dream of a Jewish Judea and Samaria is culminating in an explosion of racism, dispossession, provocation, and some kind of mass insanity grounded in a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism and supported by the state in the name of the Jewish  people.  I am filled with horror and shame.





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Organic arugula? We are expecting demolishment – January 12, 2017


Joining me in Palestine, my husband’s 11 pm flight to Istanbul was delayed (snowstorms) seven hours resulting in two lost nights of sleep and lots of anxiety, which culminated in the loss of his luggage. Then on our bus ride from Jerusalem to Ramallah, the bus sideswiped a car resulting in the loss of electricity for the bus and the jamming closed of the baggage compartment door where my bag had been safely stored. It seems that our luggage karma is unusually bad. Maybe the goddess of benighted travelers has deserted us after the last election.

Today we set off for the village of Bil’in, population 2,000 and the topic of the famous film, 5 Broken Cameras. The air is cold and the sun is shining on the roller coaster streets and the impressive, shining building boom of Ramallah. Passing Beituna and heading south we see gorgeous views of rolling rugged hills, terraced olive groves, clusters of children walking to school. We drive through Ein Arik, a small village with a tall thin minaret, famous water wells, houses dotting the hillsides.

Suddenly we come upon a flying checkpoint, three IDF jeeps parked across the road with nine heavily armed soldiers wearing oversized head gear blocking all traffic. They are looking for children and teenagers to “invite” for interrogation.  At the prison the children are not allowed to have parents or lawyers for the “talk;” interrogators break the weaker ones to name names and report on their friends. We creep along and are finally waved through. The young doctor driving us to Bil’in was pulled aside when he returned to Ramallah, but they did not issue him an “invitation.”

Iyad Burnat, the leader of the popular struggle in the village against the aggressive encroachment of the Israeli settlement, Modi’in Illit, and the massive concrete wall built on the land of the villagers, meets us at the mosque and drives us in his battered old car through Bil’in, winding up and down streets to a cul de sac of homes. The original village is hundreds of years old. Some of these newer homes are elegantly finished, some partially built over years of effort, with lovely white stone, balconies, arched windows.  They are all owned by members of his wife’s family.  His land was taken by the settlement. Sitting in the sun with chickens clucking and cats meowing in the background, Iyad looks tired, he is suffering from dizziness and I worry about all the stress and trauma that he and his family experience on a daily basis.


We meet his wife, a 17 year old son, a younger daughter, a dynamo of a three year old boy who wakens from a nap, snuggles with his baba, and then charges into constant motion, usually carrying two sticks and chirping a stream of imaginary scenarios. His oldest son Majd attends Birzeit University; every day taking several services to school so he is not home.  In 2014, he was targeted and shot in the leg by Israeli snipers. Now, he has difficulties walking. His father bears the weight of knowledge that his son was not targeted by accident and that now he is worried about his 17 year old who “plays” with the soldiers with the lack of vulnerability that is characteristic of teenage boys who have experienced more than their share of violence and trauma.

Iyad explains that the flying checkpoints around the village have become a daily interference; that the Shabak takes the youth’s IDs, and then they have to report to Ofer Prison for interrogation. The scare tactics are designed to produce collaborators. “Do you know this guy? What is he doing? Demonstrations? Throwing stones?” The frightened boys either talk or lie and are then caught in their lie. In 2006 three children were arrested and the next week 30 children and adults were arrested. The most recent three children arrested were detained for three to four days. The villagers have educated the children on what to do, mostly to answer, “I don’t know.” “What is your name?” “I don’t know. You have my ID, you know my name.” Iyad’s brother was jailed for ten years.  When he was released he studied law, “he saw the injustice.” Now he works at Ofer Prison defending the arrested. Iyad describes his 17 year old as “good but crazy,” he is “distracted by the wall.” Both of them keep snapping their finger joints, the tension is palpable. The young man is interested in studying computer engineering. Last year the IDF called him on his cell phone and said, “Be ready, we want to visit you.” Most of these “visits” occur at night, terrifying the child and the entire family. The son was accepted at a US university and has support from friends in the states but needs an additional $10,000 per year which is almost impossible.

The teenager lights up when he sees his baby brother and is soon playful and affectionate.  Iyad shows us a series of extraordinary photos. Two weeks ago, the three year old led the weekly Friday demonstration, carrying a Palestinian flag.  The commander told him, “Go back.” He replied, “No, I want to see the jeep.” The IDF soldier repeated his command, but the defiant three year old marched forward and sat down in front of the jeep.  Then he picked up a gas bomb strewn on the ground and said, “I don’t like this, it is yours,” and handed the empty cartridge to the soldier. Iyad is clearly proud and terrified. He explains, “The Zionists say that you teach your children to hate. This is not the way with Palestinian children.  We have lots of Jewish visitors and friends.  We teach them to talk with the soldiers and not to be scared.  More stronger not to have a gun than to shoot from far away.” I give the child a puppet and a box of crayons which he clutches to his chest, but he is soon screaming when we leave with his father.  He is, after all, only three years old.

We head towards a newly paved road that leads to the fields and the wall; the road is under demolition orders. On our left Iyad points out areas B (Palestinian civil control, Israeli military control) and C (Israeli everything). That means that in area C Palestinians can farm, but they cannot build anything, sheds, water pumps, water pipes, electricity, fences.  On the right is a shrine to Bassem, a beloved activist who was killed by Israeli forces. We see piles of large rocks, the site of the previous apartheid wall that was moved closer to the settlement after years of struggle.






Grapes and olives have been replanted and there is a garden and new playground, both under demolition orders. Adjacent to a previously destroyed farmer’s house, there is structure with canvas walls, a table, couches, a gas burner where meals and coffee are cooked.

A group of farmers, including Iyad’s brother Emad, the filmmaker, are talking and smoking. Gorgeous rows of spinach, cauliflower, and broccoli are growing happily with drip and sprinkler irrigation. The water is bought in the village from the Israeli company, Mekorot, and then pumped into the fields. In winter there is enough rain, but in summer, water is necessary even though farmers plant less water hungry crops. This winter is unusually dry. As we approach the western lands, the massive settlement of Modi’in Illit, population 60,000, and its extension eastward, increasingly dominate the landscape.

For me the contrast between the mammoth building project and this rural Palestinian landscape is frighteningly horrific. Huge cranes hover over massive apartment buildings stacked aggressively up the hills in various states of construction.





There is a Yeshiva and huge bulldozers and earthmoving equipment, mountains of dirt. The settlers are primarily white Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews, many from New York City, who feel they are fulfilling God’s promise to reclaim Judea and Samaria. The tone is aggressive, dominating; architecture as military maneuver.  Iyad explains the green hill to the left will soon be covered by more settlement construction. In the valley between this city and the village is a bypass road and the concrete wall snaking along as far as I can see. And then there are the towers and the cameras able to surveille every detail of village life, as well as the distant pounding of machinery.

We walk through the incredibly rocky soil and Iyad talks accomplishments and dreams.  “We are farmers. I love to grow food from the land.” He wants to plant his food, feed his family, live in peace, and to support other farmers in reclaiming this land and making it fertile and functional again. His father had 250 sheep and an intense attachment to the land as well. He keeps squatting amongst the plants and snapping a bit of fava beans or parsley or cilantro or peas or cauliflower; we munch happily as he explains.

The soil is rejuvenated after years of neglect and the detritus of toxic weaponry by adding new top soil and manure.  He is working on a proposal to reclaim a dunam of land for each farmer in need, build a greenhouse, fence each area against animals, and offer the farmers in the village the possibility of growing enough food to feed their families, summer and winter crops, having viable work, and the ability to sell their grapes or vegetables to pay for meat or water and electricity.  There are 40-50 farmers in the village who have lost their land and another 50 who have taken other jobs.  Preparing each dunam costs $12,000. Maybe Trump could hold off on the next war plane and donate to the cause. One would certainly do it.

We sit with Emad and he talks of his film which had an amazing amount of success but didn’t appreciably change his life, he is still a farmer fighting the effects of occupation and settlement building. The Friday demonstrations ebb and flow in the various villages, in Bil’in they are down to 20-30 people marching, chanting, and running like hell when the teargas and skunk water rains down. He continues to travel extensively, has been to the US, has talked with Dustin Hoffman and Madonna and screened his film at the Sundance film festival.  Michael Moore asked him, “Do you have a gun?” He replied, “Why I need a gun?  I don’t want to kill people.” He just returned from South Africa where he met Nelson Mandela’s son. He says he found a positive response in South Africa because of the “similarities of the struggles,” but notes that in South Africa you still feel apartheid, see it every day. But you fell progress.” He adds, “You have to continue to tell the people about the struggle.  If you stop telling your story, people forget.” But travel is exhausting and he has medical issues.  Ben Gurion airport was 20 minutes away in the old days, but since Oslo, the airport is haram and he has to travel through the Allenby Bridge and Jordan which exhausting and time consuming.

We embark on the expected conversation about US foreign policy and our impending disaster of a president. He notes, “The US is not a democracy for the rest of the world…US makes enemies everywhere.  Who pays? The people in the US. People don’t know about the world…government and media finance terrorism, they don’t understand why.” He thinks 9/11 was not perpetrated by Al Qaeda, it was used as an excuse to destroy Iraq and Afghanistan. “I saw an American soldier, he was in Iraq. He was telling the truth to the people. The rich want us to kill poor people to be more rich.”

We meet Gibreel his now teenage son who was the star of the film. He’s got black rimmed eye glasses and a firm handshake and is in his element with the other boys, riding bikes, checking the water, and being a part of the land.

There is a debate going on of critical importance: shall we eat lunch with the farmers, freshly picked spinach and arugula and tomatoes and cauliflower, cooked on the flame in the blackened pot that serves as the kitchen or shall we return to Iyad’s house to eat maqluba with his wife and family. They decide he will drive back home and he will return with the maqluba and family and we will all enjoy the feast, sitting, standing in the tent or out in the sun.

As we wait, I meet Kefah, a curly haired local guy with a law degree who has returned to the family lands to create an organic farm with raised beds and a variety of vegetables and a greenhouse. We had just been admiring the lush rows of arugula, peas, parsley, clusters of sweet smelling narcissus. Reddening tomatoes peek out from under the greenhouse plastic walls. Sitting on old lumpy couches and uncomfortable white plastic chairs, he explains that an American citizen born in a refugee camp in Gaza, studied in the United Arab Emirates, came to visit the West Bank, and then the Israelis in their infinite wisdom refused to let him leave due to his Gaza ID.  So he looked for land to start an organic farm that would be owned by the people who work on it, and found a plot here owned by Kefah’s uncle.

They started in February 2016, convincing local farmers that they could farm and make money, rejuvenating the land.  He was joined by Kefah and a friend with business knowledge. They were modeling the structure after community supported agriculture (CSA’s) in the US. Because this flourishing organic garden is in area C where everything is forbidden except “agriculture,” there is a demolition or stop work order on every aspect of their project. “We are expecting demolishment. We went to the Israeli court, not sure they will accept the case. We are here every day.  The Israelis only focus on this one area.  We are activists here, we are ready for that and we will rebuild and rebuild.” I can’t tell if this is incredibly inspirational or somewhat delusional or maybe both.

He admits they are still learning, water is expensive, there are strong winds and an endless supply of stones, plus thousands of tear gas canisters, gas bombs, and the unknown chemical burden of skunk water. The other challenge is a reliable source of seeds which is difficult to impossible to import.

Iyad arrives with his wife and a huge pot of maqluba which she expertly flips over and a crowd gathers to enjoy the steaming feast. I sit opposite an elderly grandmother who looks to be in her 80s. She has a very wrinkled face, is missing teeth, gasping a bit for breath followed by a sigh, and clutching a bag of pills.  She wears a traditional embroidered dress and is holding her seven month old wide eyed dumpling of a grandchild who captivates me with her endless eyelashes. I almost grab the kid from her lap, given my lonesome heart for my own eight month old granddaughter, and soon the dumpling snuggles in and proceeds to fall asleep. My heart melts.  I learn that the grandmother had twelve children and is 69 years old. Many pregnancies and a life under occupation will do that.

We return for a tour of Iyad’s home which he designed and built with his family. In his backyard is a industrial size plastic bag filled with the remnants of devices for shooting over 200 teargas canisters at a time. One night his wife heard some noise and went out to the balcony where she saw IDF soldiers in her yard.  One of the lobbed a tear gas canister into their open bedroom window. The most moral army in the world.

Guilty by reason of zata’ar – January 11, 2017


Today we leave Gaza, quickly through the Hamas and Palestinian Authority bureaucracy, down the long caged corridor through the no-man’s land bordered by the 8+ meter high concrete wall, guard towers, and surveillance systems. At our first interaction with an Israeli, an Arab appearing man somewhat apologetically paws through the luggage, peaking into every pocket and corner, confiscating our doggy bag from dinner, my almonds from Whole Foods, several large bottles of water, and my chocolate bars (future gifts) from Trader Joes.

He takes this precious water that we purchased in Israel, schlepped into Gaza, and are now returning, and pours each bottle unceremoniously on the pavement. I can already feel the rage rising up in my body. I look at the list of forbidden items listed on the wall and chocolate is not on the list, so I argue and finally he throws up his hands and lets me put the chocolate back. I need to establish that although I am utterly powerless, I will not capitulate easily. My only consolation is that he does not find the lovely bag of za’atar I bought for my daughter and a pigeon poops on his sleeve while he is doing his job.  I think the cooing pigeons in the rafters are laughing conspiratorially.

The next stop is a room with large trays where all the luggage is opened again and shuffled through again, my computer top is opened, every zipper unzipped, our passports and money and IDs taken. The whole dangerous caboodle is put through an x-ray machine and disappears off into the never never land of the Erez military terminal, protecting the vulnerable Israelis from the dangerous people in Gaza.

We wander into the next room (each step is controlled by a locked door and it only opens when the light is green). There is a lot of meaningless waiting. I practice my slow relaxation breathing, but feel this slow restriction squeezing my chest. As we pass through the x-ray machine I realize I still have my money belt under my clothes but the security guy is fine with my holding it in my hand over my head, spread eagle during the x-ray. We pass through a series of small locked cubicles, each with the green light/red light thing and finally get to a larger area where we wait for our wandering luggage. More waiting.

It appears in dribs and drabs, everything has been opened and examined for the third time and horror of horrors, the incriminating za’atar has been discovered.  A security guy is clearly mad and lectures me about how this is forbidden.  Then he says, “Take this back to Gaza.” I am not sure I have heard him correctly but he makes it clear I have to go back through the terminal to the other side and return the offending spices to the dangerous Gazans on the other side. I argue that he has my passport and my IDs and how will I get back in? He says, “Don’t worry.”

“Me worry?”

So…. I go back to the area where people are attempting to enter into Gaza and start the maze of doors and turnstiles, feeling kind of naked and vulnerable without my passport and phone and shekels, when I come upon a Gazan family returning home and voila, the solution to my criminal activity.  I give the little boy the za’atar knowing it will soon be home.  The Israeli guy sees me do this and now is really pissed off and makes me take it back and of course it is now on a cart at the bottom of a pile of luggage.

I dig out the guilty egregious spice and continue my journey, wondering if I should take them up on their offer and just keep going. Earlier, having left Gaza without the thousands of people waiting for a permit for chemotherapy or their Fulbright or a visit to their dying grandmother, fills me with grief and a powerful sense of betrayal. But before I start down the long caged corridor a more friendly type intervenes, takes the bag and then just lays it down on a nearby chair.  I suggest he take it since it is really first rate and then I begin the re-entry process, nothing to check, no luggage, enter the x-ray area and…. They want to re-x-ray me. That is when I realize that I have put my money belt back under my clothes, but this time, there is no forgiveness and I am sent back to the luggage x- ray area where my lonely little money pack is placed in an enormous plastic case and sent off to x ray land.

I return to the body x-ray area and they insist on re-x-raying me, but each time, a disembodied female voice says, there is problem, do it again.  As I get increasingly agitated, I notice that two floors up there is a glassed-in area where command control lives and four soldiers are laughing and looking at their computers and staring down at me.

By the fifth time, I say no. “What are you looking for, five x-rays is too much.” That is when the voice snaps, “Repeat the x-ray or you go back to Gaza.” I think they are really serious.  I negotiate for only one more, but this process of do it again there is a problem/argument/re-x-ray is repeated a total of seven times before I “pass.”  The lowly security guard is looking sheepish, shrugging apologetically, “I’m sorry.” Even he is helpless in the face of the arrogant and ridiculous command control.

After the series of locked cubicles, I return to my friends and my disheveled luggage. I am questioned one more time about a plastic container, a fiber product. Angry voice, “What is this?” “This is for constipation to help you poop, a medicine, do you need some?” Everyone in the line is trying to explain the concept to the suspicious security agent, perhaps this is an orange flavored explosive? But finally he backs off and I reassemble everything and head to passport control  The glassed in lady is friendly, she has green nail polish with rows of sparkles at the tips.  We go through the usual: Why are you in Gaza? How many times? Where are you going? Do you have relatives in Israel? Do you have Israeli citizenship? How do you pronounce your name? When I tell her I am meeting my husband in Jerusalem she says, “I hope you can enjoy yourself now.” I reply, “Absolutely.” She smiles warmly and adds, “You know, it is never too late to make aliyah.”

Aliyah? Are you kidding?” (Obviously a private communication.)

One and a half hours after beginning the process, we emerge into the sun to look for our taxi driver who has been waiting for three and a half hours.

Sometimes it is really too late.