A Victory for the First Amendment
Blog published in Palestine Square, a Project of the Institute of Palestine Studies.
A Victory for the First Amendment
A Victory for the First Amendment
Blog published in Palestine Square, a Project of the Institute of Palestine Studies.
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
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:
THE “STATE IN THE MAKING”
IMMIGRATION AND ABSORPTION
A PEOPLE RETURNS TO ITS LAND
SETTLEMENT AND AGRICULTURAL DEVELOPMENT
THE REVIVAL OF THE HEBREW LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
WOMEN BREAK NEW GROUND
ISRAEL AND THE DIASPORA
DEFENSE AND SECURITY
ZIONISM IS AN INFINITE IDEAL.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
BIL’IN, WEST BANK
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.
For more information from previous blogs:
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.
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.”
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.
The goodbyes at Marna House are warm and heartfelt. Dr. Yasser presents us with gifts and there is talk of how important it is to the people living in Gaza that internationals come and offer support and witness. There is also the usual ritual of group photos, as if to say: Look, here is the documentation. We Exist! We Live! We are more than war!
Alaa, one of the administrators, a high energy, very competent young woman with two children age two and four, a husband, a household to manage, a complicated job, and aspirations to get graduate education in international relations in the UK, takes us on a tour of northern Gaza. It is a beautiful sunny day.
After a brief shopping spree for the gorgeous embroidery created at the Atfaluna School for the Deaf, we head towards Shejaia, a city that was bombed into oblivion in 2014, decimated in the last war with tens of thousands of people fleeing “like it was ’48”, running over dead bodies, body parts and a vast crumble of buildings, losing children and minds in the chaos and killing.
Donkeys and horses pull carts piled with huge lunar cauliflower, grasses for the Bedouin sheep, bags of cement and building materials, little children play in the streets. The big difference from my last trip in 2015 is that there is some reconstruction underway. Cement is more available and less expensive, but much of the building is being done with muscle and sweat, rather than sophisticated machinery. We see piles of concrete blocks, Gaza gold.
The rebuilt homes are painted a bright red, orange, or brown, someone’s idea of a tribute to recovery. Alaa says the colors are just another trigger, a reminder of the horrors of war. The vast expanses of rubble have been cleared, some of the areas are now fields, others have buildings and factories in various states of repair and construction.
The UN supervises refugee homes, a Qatar foundation focuses on non-refugees and another organization is devoted to businesses and factories. We drive by the bombed out crater of a chocolate factory, (a chocolate factory?) and other mostly food related industries including biscuits and Coca Cola.
There are the familiar piles of tangled rebar that is straightened and reused. Alaa notes that “No matter how much they help, it is not like before.” Thousands of people lost all their possessions, photos, furniture, clothes and items like these are not included in the recovery budget.
We pass a number of Bedouins and families: When people fled for safety to the UNRWA schools during the war and then were bombed and killed, many Bedouins arrived with their entire herds of sheep and goats. Conditions were horrific. Just seeing these awful scenes and hearing the stories, I am awash in a feeling of re-traumatization from my visit in 2015, and I did not even experience the actual war. Imagine what it is like for the people who did. We pass a built up checkpoint run by Islamic Jihad that monitors the neighborhood at night and keeps people safe. We pass a cluster of camels in a pen. For Alaa, these scenes bring back the smells of fire and war. In between the destruction are lovely olive groves, a testament to what was here before. The road becomes much more rutted and muddy and we pass mountains of metal and burned out cars. With all the poverty and unemployment, child beggars are becoming an increasingly critical problem. The vehicles are a motley collection of battered over stuffed cars, donkey and horse carts, and various motor cycle style vehicles with creative carts to haul bundles of children or building materials. The taxi creeps along, trying to avoid the deep holes, and the dust that is begin to cover everything.
We turn to Beit Hanoun, also a disaster in the war, and the scenes are the same, some reconstruction or repair, some piles of bombed and shelled buildings, a badly damaged mosque. Green Hamas flags hang in rows crisscrossing with red PFLP flags. We stop to view a caravan neighborhood, Katrina style metal structures with inadequate water, electricity, heat, plumbing, housing large multigenerational families frozen in a postwar existence. A fruit seller drives by with a loud speaker: “Five kilos of apples for ten shekels.”
Alaa lives in this area and her memories of the war are triggered by the scenes she is sharing with us. I feel my tears coming at any moment. She talks about her near death experiences, (she was pregnant and with a small child), that life and death were uncertain and unpredictable; “It was all up to fate.” She is much more philosophical than I am, but that is clearly a survival mechanism. I do not think a person can get up every morning and make coffee and feed the children and deal with the traffic and the on and off electricity with the level of pain and rage that is currently percolating in my soul. She turns to the ongoing water crisis: 95% of Gaza water is not safe for drinking although much of the population cannot afford to do otherwise. Her family buys a 250 liter tank of water that is supposed to be from an underground source and filtered but she has her doubts and worries for the health of her children. The erratic and unpredictable electricity has also affected her family’s rhythms. When she comes home from work, if there is no electricity, everyone goes to bed. Then at 9:00 pm or midnight or 3:00 am whenever the television suddenly springs to life, the family gets up, she makes dinner, does the laundry, the kids watch TV and play and then they go back to bed. She explains that everyone is much happier with this plan.
And much too soon, we reach the crossing into the alternative reality that is Israel.
For blogs on post war conditions in Gaza in 2015 please see:
Humanitarian workers in Gaza have a unique window on the impact of the political and economic realities on Gazans and I am meeting with such a worker whose passion and dedication brings me to tears. He says that there have been some successes, the most vulnerable have basic services, food, water filters, some psychological interventions and assistance to children, but people are basically hanging on and unable to be independent. There is a huge dependency on humanitarian aid and massive displacement due to the destruction of housing, the cumulative effect of three major attacks in six years. 18,000 homes are still flattened, 55,000 people are waiting for their homes to be rebuilt; there is a critical lack of funding and crushing Israeli restrictions on bringing in necessary materials. That combination is making it impossible for many people to rebuild.
The homeless are living in rented accommodations with UN funding, or with host families, in caravans (a la Katrina only worse), and makeshift structures. This is the third cold winter in the caravans and there is an attempt to find more durable solutions for these families, these people are suffering unnecessarily. He notes that there is no reason why Israel should not allow materials for rebuilding homes. There is plenty around to build tunnels, (the Israeli excuse for the restrictions), so these policies are strictly punitive for the general population.
Additionally, 95% of the water is not drinkable. He asks, “How is this related to Israeli security? How will Israeli security be threatened if children drink clean water or farmers export strawberries or build houses, all under UN supervision? The people are still being left behind.”
The most immediate crisis today is electricity, a good day has eight to twelve hours, but these days the maximum is more like six hours. “Everything is reduced to a minimum, heating is a minimum, water is a minimum. So who is to blame? Hamas? PA? All of them?” He states that the people are too weak to be heard and to challenge all of the responsible parties, that there needs to be a political solution. It could be solved quickly with the political will along with medical referrals, access to the sea, and to farmlands. “Our problem is politics, but it presents as a humanitarian crisis.” People’s days are consumed with survival and covering basic needs, like obtaining cooking gas. Even he has difficulty despite all the connections and knowledge that he has. In this setting, “no one will mention Palestine or basic rights.”
Gazans need permits for students or patients to leave or to develop a clean water supply. “The problems are fixable. Someone decides how a Gazan day will go. If the Karem Crossing was open [for supplies from Israel] we would have gotten fuel and Gazans would have had more electricity, but the crossing was closed.” This is because of Hamas, the PA, and Israel, “but the people pay a heavy price, more than 50% are kids, they never voted for anyone or met an Israeli. They are still forced into depravation, unemployment, and aid dependency. The Israelis are giving Hamas a secret weapon.” There are an enormous number of educated unemployed youth. “Hamas recruits them cheaply to build tunnels when they could do better. The solution is easy. Open Gaza up. People should be busy with something else.”
He notes that in 2013 there was a building boom and the lowest number of bombings or trouble. The tunnels were open, the economy was flourishing (on Gazan terms), people wanted to live their lives, they turned away from resistance. Then everything turned around when the tunnels closed and Israel keeps repeating this vicious cycle. “People need a chance to live their lives. This cycle will be harmful to Israelis as well.”
“People should think about how to look at Gaza as an opportunity not a problem. Gazan youth should be making production and functional for a good future, this will bring peace, not tanks and guns. Food rations will not provide peace; compromising people’s dignity will never bring peace; depriving people of basic rights, this will not bring peace. When Israel denies women with cancer chemotherapy and radiation, how will this bring peace? Or a sick baby cannot be accompanied by his mom or dad, how will this challenge Israeli security?”
“This is the story, all about giving the humans their dignity, their human perception and dignity. Every day Israel pushes people to compromise their dignity. Lose electricity, compromise their dignity. Resort to primitive means of cooking, compromise their dignity. When to queue for food rations, compromise their dignity.”
We turn to US politics and he is not too scared of Trump. He “will bring consequences to the US, people will try to stop him and see through his policies. He will not be protective to Israel. If you feed the violence you will create more violence.” He feels that Trump will “first hit American society, it might become worse in Palestine.” As the situation becomes worse in the US, he will bring “a certain divide to Americans and then they will be busy with their own internal issues so he will leave us alone.” He reminds me that Defense Minister Lieberman famously said, “Just give me two days and I will eliminate Haniya (of Hamas) and bring back the captive soldiers. They talk big. Trump said he will help Israel bring down the recent UN resolution (condemning settlements). Let’s see how successful he will be on the 21st of January.”
This humanitarian worker sees his job as working to preserve the “humanitarian space that is entitled to people. It is not an easy job because of the necessity of aid and being able to support people. Need to snatch it, fight for it. I am spending hours and days on education, negotiating, fighting to make sure that you are provided with humanitarian space. It depends on how strong and active you are.”
“It is not burning us out. What burns us out is 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 are supporting 1.3 million people.”
But he notes that he is scared. “The last summer a guy from an NGO was accused of financing Hamas. This caused a huge amount of trouble for humanitarians, we are standing on our toes, accused by all parties, there is so much polarization.” For instance, if he is seen as understanding some Israeli position, then Hamas accuses him of being a collaborator. Our hands are not as free as we want, but we have to speak with everybody. We only see the situation is going bad to worse, people are locked in. How can they see a positive change, stuck with the rubble, food needs, psychological stress. It is getting really worse, getting to exploding point.” Because electricity is a seasonal problem, he does not think this current crisis will be the trigger. “People are coping well with power cuts, batteries, it is not the number one worry. The number one worry is stopping the escalation. In August Israel massively showered Gaza with bombs, oh my God, what is going to happen? Stop any possible escalation. We walk a stream into a new violence cycle if the situation doesn’t change.”
I ask about the need for caring for the care giver and he says unfortunately this is not happening in Gaza. “We thought of it, an individual manner. Everyone finds his comforting resources but there is no one program designed to protect humanitarians. Each agency has its own programs, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) does debriefing sessions and the UN has a stress counselor. We use them. We try to get our families to use it as well.”
He states that his family is fine. He has three children, two have lived through three wars. “They are sort of fine, can easily remember it, but it is not as much a part of their life as it used to be. They are stressed because they are stuck. My thirteen year old son visited Jerusalem once in 2015, coordinated by the US consulate. It was a chance to see Israel and Jerusalem, it was a fantastic experience for him. There is Israel, Jerusalem, West Bank, his world was only Gaza, war. He never believed that in Israel there is more than this; they have markets, they have schools, they are speaking Hebrew without a uniform. He saw clean streets.”
My friend has been unable to get him another permit and his son is really upset. He asks repeatedly, “Why Israel occupying Palestine? Why Erez checkpoint? Why permits? Why no electricity? Why permits? All these questions come to our dinner table at least once a week. He changed the minute he saw that in Israel there is more than the army. People can coexist, talk, create common grounds. Being deprived of this, Israel keeps reacting very violently. I don’t know how his future will be. I try to keep my kids away from polarization. They are at the American School. How will they be reacting when they reach seventeen? Who will grab them? Peace or violence? But peace is too weak here, I am really afraid, need to give these children a chance for the sake of the Gazan children and the Israeli children. We will not go anywhere, many of our neighbors move to Canada, Cairo.”
“We can move but this is our home, we will never leave home even if we move temporarily to another country. We are Palestinian and we deserve Palestine. But Israelis will also remain, we have to find a way to stay together. All their attempt to kill us, we will stay, as simple as this. That’s it.” His third child is only three months old. “It is very hard and emotional to be a father here, bringing kids to this very difficult situation. I want to be hopeful. My wife tries to be the same way, grow up normally, not an easy stuff, but you have to try. There is no home better than home. You will never get bored of home. This is human nature.”
“If you are forced to leave your home and someone is happy that you left, then there is [a sense of] defeat. We are only Palestinians. In Israel everyone came from another home. Yesterday in Israeli media, they were talking about the killing of soldiers. Two victims are American citizens. If they are American citizens, they shouldn’t be in an Israeli uniform. He hit them only because they look like Israeli soldiers. If you are an American citizen, then go home.”
He deplores the fact that Israeli leaders “try to frame us as ISIS, they need to frame Palestinian resistance into ISIS and link to [attacks in] Germany and Nice and global terrorism.” Interestingly for me, he is not worried about ISIS taking hold in Gaza. “Hamas is not that extremist, almost liberals. Hamas police come and smoke sheesha in this hotel.” He classifies Hamas as the far right of liberals. “It is haram for women to go without a scarf and for men to smoke or women to be with men, but this is tolerated here. If someone tried to harass us, he would be imprisoned. Hamas is fighting ISIS and Salafists, they arrested 200 of them, putting them under extreme pressure. In 2008 a guy tried to declare a caliphate in Rafa and he was killed with 28 supporters. There is zero tolerance for Dai’sh. The world doesn’t want to see that. Hamas is presented as extremist and fundamentalist.”
“The society went conservative maybe because Hamas delivers a speech every Friday and has strong influence in people’s thinking and in school But there is no law to wear a scarf, but in school your teacher will tell you it is inappropriate not to wear a scarf. This is a society rule rather than a law.” He agrees that there are so many problems around gender and women’s needs. “Hamas is awful and problematic, but don’t put everything on this factor. Poverty is a factor, unemployment, many women put the niqab on to grab attention to Hamas to get assistance. Her husband is looking for a job with Hamas or the police and they want a good record. When society feels helpless and hopeless, it goes to the unknown stuff, this is all about human freedom.”
He asks me what I would do if I lost my keys. “If you went home and tomorrow you want to leave home but you lost your keys, you shout, climb out the window, try to get a response. If no one pays attention, you will shout louder. Ultimately you will smash the door. We want to smash the door, we want the world to notice us when the world is turning completely blind and deaf. But now you want to blame us. We are too weak to be blamed. Israel imposed the blockade hoping that people will topple Hamas. I you want to achieve this, how come every day you weaken the people, cut the water, hit the schools, police stations, roads, homes. How can that topple Hamas? If my children do not have food, I will go to fight for food. The blockade is super counterproductive.”
He has to leave, but he wants me to know, “Much of this is the responsibility of the international community. The UN resolution [condemning settlements] was so fantastic to me. Tiny Israel is trying to punish the whole world. How can a country get such power?”
For more information from OCHA in 2015:
I am back in the taxi driving north to a center in the middle of Gaza, Al Zahraa. They are housed in a snazzy new building that is still under construction. We walk through an elegant entrance with a sandy floor and piles of construction material into an upscale center and meet with Zeanab Fayez Joudah who explains they moved in February 2016 after many struggles awaiting project approvals and funds. The center provides vocational training for the middle areas of Gaza and works with other women’s and human rights groups.
They have a three month training program with 40-50 women to learn beauty and cosmetics, ceramics, mosaics, knitting, and embroidery. Funding is a major concern.
Four women join us in the office, they are concerned about asking female questions in front of my translator who is single (translation, virgin, unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the functions of the female body). I assure them that she has already had quite an education translating for me and there is a bit of blushing and giggling. So we dive in with the first woman asking a lengthy question about her missing periods. I think there is something lost in translation as she has had five successful pregnancies and now has an IUD, mostly she wants to be reassured that she is healthy.
The next lady complains of pains and infections in her ovary “like a headache.” She is unmarried (translation: officially virginal) and suffers from right sided pain relieved by Trofin 600. For me the main clue is that she was in Shejaia in 2014 and is probably suffering from the trauma of that horrific attack. I can assure her that her ovaries are probably fine but I am unclear which of her symptoms are physical and what is stress related. Women worry about medications they took in pregnancy, one child has a streak of white hair. Did the mother do something wrong? They want to know if too many pregnancies make a woman weak and that gives me an opportunity to provide some basic education about anemia, nutrition, and spacing of pregnancies.
The last time I was here, the women in the vocational unit offered to do my hair and makeup and I plopped myself in a chair for an hour of cross cultural personal improvement, laughter, and sisterly exchange. They are unhappy that I do not have time for a makeover on this visit, (I think they see me as a benighted western woman much in need of cosmetic improvement), “at least let me do your eyebrows.”
After the formal session, I chat with several women, all presenting very conservatively wearing hijabs and long coats. One women excitedly wants to show me her engagement pictures. Soon we are peering at photos on her phone; she is dressed in a slinky low cut red dress, her hair coiffed, movie star style, with a heavy dose of kohl and exquisitely shaped eyebrows. Her facial expressions remind me of a seductive actress, a femme fatale draped over her man, the only man surrounded by similarly dressed sultry women in miniskirts and longer, tight-fitting, sexy dresses.
I marvel at these conflicting cultural messages: the expectation that women will present very modestly in public, guard their precious virginity; the contrasting seductive women’s parties, the fierce strength that is required for women to demand their rights and their liberation in a conservative society. How does women’s liberation and empowerment look in Gaza? How has it been crushed by siege and war? Are women trapped in contradictory messages or comfortable with the safety of covering up in public and the freedom to let go in private? Is the seductiveness of women seen as a danger or as a desirable part of being female to the men all around them? So many unanswered complicated questions.
Soon I return to the taxi driving north, back to Marna House to meet with an administrator from the Gaza Community Health Program to plan several articles on the conditions in the Strip, to try to document the medical, mental health, and human rights costs of the siege and repeated assaults.
For more information, see 2015 blog http://alicerothchild.com/2015/03/march-28-2015-sisterhood-is-still-powerful/
According to a human rights worker I spoke with today, Israeli forces broke into a home in Nablus in the middle of last night, awakening the terrified family, argued with the screaming mother, and then shot her son five times. Dead. This is an extrajudicial assassination. This will not appear in the news today and it is absent from my usual internet sites. Needless to say, this death does not get the attention and outrage it deserves because the victim is a Palestinian and this kind of killing is normal, commonplace, and thus not newsworthy. Think about that.
Today is another sunny, ice cold day in Gaza that started with a not so sunny ice cold shower. I am pleased that we actually have water which is a privilege around these parts. A hotel staff person said I should just run the water and it will turn hot. This seems immoral in a place with a severe water shortage but this morning I am feeling just desperate enough to try and so I let the water run and wash my critical areas with the cold water and wait a bit and wash some more until my conscience can no longer handle the extravagance of waiting, my feet are faintly blue, and I give up.
My translator whom I will call Beesan and I are soon heading south along the Mediterranean Sea for a women’s health session at the Wefaq Society for Women and Child Care in Rafa. I learn that she has been accepted to a program in Egypt to develop educational programs for refugees and today her father is going to the civil administration to apply for a permit. She is very excited. The sea is fairly placid with gentle waves against the white sand. There are a scattering of fishing boats, some reconstruction from the severe bombing attacks, and lots of damaged and destroyed areas. We pass through several perfunctory Hamas checkpoints of questionable value. I think they are trying to give the impression that they are doing something but it is not quite clear to me what. My toes and fingers feel like blocks of ice. There are large posters selling coffee and Coca Cola which now has a franchise in Gaza. How it got past the siege while items like sugar and flour and cement and medications were held back would make an interesting story about power and influence.
Rows of green cabbage appear in fields along the road and soon the smell of sewerage permeates the car as we pass an area where raw sewage flows into the sea. We pass resorts in various states of repair, the sites of former Jewish settlements, and ironic names like 4 Season Hotel. There are makeshift shelters of metal and cloth on the beach that people use during the summer. We see a UN school with a mural that is both historical and cartoon characters, long open stretches with no evidence of reconstruction from the war, clusters of young men on school vacation and rows of palm trees. Besan explains that Deir al Balah means Monastery of Palms. As we approach the Khan Yunis area, a red crane and slabs of concrete come into view, noticeable because that is a rare site.
We drive through further south, the area is becoming more rural, there are rows of onions and a green house, two branches of Ql Quds and Al Aqsa University, and an amusement park. I spot a large collection of cream colored apartments built by the Saudis and other smaller crowded housing developments.
We are now in Rafah where I can see some reconstruction from the utter devastation, but clearly no occupational safety measures, a rope dangles from a roof while workers hoist up large stone panels and buckets of material above the sidewalk, and there are many wheelbarrows and shovels and men carrying beams and materials, using sweat and muscle rather than modern machinery.
We locate the Wefaq center and sit down in an office area with Samaher Abu Zayed and another staff woman who does legal work. Samaher explains that Wefaq was developed as a support center for divorced women in need of psychosocial and legal support and awareness. They coordinated with the Sharia Court to open a family center so that children who are in the custody of their father can visit their mother in the center rather than at a police station. “We struggle to get legal representation with support from UNDP to get kids back to their mother and for alimony.” Their new project, Action Aid, works on advocacy, awareness, and partnership with Community Based Organizations (CBOs) in marginal areas to develop legal awareness for vulnerable women.
She describes an action where divorced women created two human chains in front of the Sharia Court in Rafah demanding access to legal rights. After much maneuvering by the powers that be to block the action, it was announced by loud speaker in front of the court and the women found this action very motivating, “to achieve something real with absence of legitimate council decisions, to say we want to change the legislative council, a first step.” The women felt very proud demanding their legal rights. “No more silence.”
Wefaq has initiated other legal initiatives against gender based violence. I understand that they created a kind of guerrilla theater using bicycles as symbols for gender discrimination since culturally women are not allowed to ride bikes. She assures us that her daughter rides a bicycle. Samer talks of initiatives for widows’ legal rights and the creation of a “recreational day for emotional discharging.” They took over a resort in the middle of Gaza for 40 women to “swim in the pool, play, do ice breaking activities.” They wore shorts and shirts to swim. The women brought a daughter or a son. We laugh about how next time, maybe they will be wearing burkhinis. She notes that people live under continuous threat of “the next aggression” from Israel so everyone feels insecure all the time.
Their next goal is to work on reproductive health with the support of WHO. My mind immediately turns to contraception and reproductive control, but I am astonished by the immediate reply to my question: “What do you want?” The “biggest need is privacy during delivery.” There are shortages in primary care, no coordination between UNRWA and the Ministry of Health, the medical staff is primarily male, and there is an inadequate amount of postpartum care. They need more psychologists to provide awareness to women. They are working on special tools for emergency situations, a Dignity Bag which contains sanitary pads, birth control pills, towels, and things women need in shelters. She notes that most women in Gaza do not have contraceptive awareness or control, birth control decisions are made by the husband and the family.
There is also a high rate of breast cancer in the south of Gaza, especially in the border areas. No research has been done, but she suspects this is related to the environmental toxins, inappropriate use of fertility drugs, and genetics. Many marry first cousins. Breast cancer is treated by removal of the breast; there is no plastic surgery, lumpectomy and radiation are not available (thanks to Israeli restrictions). Women with breast cancer also need more psychosocial support as they are often abandoned by their husbands. Women are seen as “corrupted” when they get breast cancer, they are in essence blamed for the cancer.
We talk more about marriage and divorce and she explains that most people do not marry for love and that if the relationship fails, divorce is better than separation where women are “held up,” unable to have the benefits of marriage but unable to remarry. Men do this to their wives to force them to give up their legal rights and their access to their children. She explains, “I married for love,” and “anyone exposed to Western society is not really welcomed in Gaza.”
I take a deep sisterly breath and move to a larger conference room. It is now time for the women’s health class and I am surprised to see a man sitting at the table with ten women and also one of the male staff I have met earlier who seems open minded and supportive also attending the session. I try joking about the presence of the unidentified man and I am quickly assured that he is a doctor. I do not find this reassuring, but this is not my decision. The first woman to speak says she had a C section three weeks ago for a breech baby and returned to work after 18 days. This is her second child and she is nursing. When I express shock at her quick return to work and admiration for her strength, she says she is okay, so we discuss postpartum, postoperative, and breast feeding advice and concerns. A 23 year old midwife who has just graduated talks about her unhappiness with her training, the lack of privacy and confidentiality, the big open wards, the short curtains between beds that provide little cover, the equipment shortages. This unleashes a torrent of complaints from the group about the quality of care and the doctor keeps nodding in agreement. When we discuss prenatal and postnatal education, I learn that a woman’s mother is her main source of information, which is both good and bad.
Much of the discussion focuses on the extreme inadequacies of care and resources and the condescending attitudes of clinicians and the challenges of a conservative culture: A woman with a pulmonary embolism sent home on heparin one day after her C section due to the lack of hospital beds, a woman with ten children and a husband suffering from hepatitis who cannot get a permit to obtain treatment and medications outside of Gaza. The husband is dying and she has no resources. A woman with celiac disease who cannot afford the alternative flour and foods; although she has refugee status, these are not covered by UNRWA. A woman who has had irregular bleeding for two years, a medical workup and a doctor who has told her she is normal. The bleeding continues. She refuses to have a D&C because “I am not married.” I suspect she may never have had a pelvic exam.
We talk a lot about the failures of the system, the possibility to crowd fund for smaller projects (like making longer curtains), and the inadequacies of small solutions. I sense that the presence of the men has affected the conversation, there is minimal emotional content besides frustration and despair. At one point the doctor says that the high levels of domestic violence are due to the high levels of unemployment and the extreme demands of the wife. No one challenges him.
Much to soon it is time to drive to our next women’s center and another health session in the middle area of Gaza.
For more information, please see 2015 blog: http://alicerothchild.com/2015/03/march-30-2015-part-two-here-death-there-death-but-let-me-do-something-useful-for-people/