Getting in, and getting out, of Palestine – June 19, 2019

first published in Mondoweiss

Installation at the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, Photo by Alice Rothchild.

In late March and early April 2019 I traveled to Jordan and the West Bank (Palestine) with two colleagues, Sonia Dettman and S. Komarovsky, first to attend the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman and then to explore and better understand the lives of refugees and the workings of UNRWA, with a focus on the status of refugee health. This is the final essay in the series.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Traveling while Palestine

The night is filled with the anxiety that any interaction with Israeli security triggers; we are leaving for the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan into Israel/Palestine at 6:30 am. Of course daylight savings time starts in the middle of the night, so we lose an hour and the call to prayer occurs three times starting at 4:30ish, probably because it is Friday. I am awake almost hourly checking to be sure I have not slept through the alarm, which I have never done in my life. The death toll in the occupied territories is rising. Gazans are preparing for the year anniversary of the Great March of Return on Land Day tomorrow. Israeli reservists are being called up. Netanyahu is facing the election in a few weeks and I worry he thinks he needs a war. The Palestinian Authority is once again out of money and has cut salaries in half because the “Zionist entity” refuses to release its taxes. Welcome to Israel.

We leave all of our suspicious material on Palestine, human rights, and any evidence of an interest in justice in an extra bag in Amman to retrieve on our return, and arrive at Allenby Bridge at 7:30 am. The Jordanian officials sip tea, smoke cigarettes, poke and prod their computer, and hand stamp forms back and forth without any sense of urgency. Exit fees are paid, children squirm, and we wait for enough people to arrive to fill a bus. Finally, with just enough low-level chaos to cause a rise in blood pressure, we are on our way, after the Jordanian official calls out each of our names and hands us our passports. I am sure that violates some HIPPA type rule about privacy, but what do I know about international relations?

The landscape drifts into military installations and desert as we approach the rushing brown stream that was once the mighty Jordan. More stop and go and we cross the bridge into the hands of Israeli security. Blue and white flags flutter. Guard towers are covered with camouflage netting, plainclothes men wander back and forth with fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons. I flunk the metal detector due to my new and improved knees and go sit. And sit. A man repeatedly talks into his shirt. Finally a woman takes me in for a vigorous pat down and sweep of the metal detector which reveals that my knees (and my boots) actually contain metal. (Like I said.)

I am reunited with my passport and wait in the chaotic, uneasy crowd for the luggage to emerge from the x-ray screening. At passport control I am asked why am I here? (Visiting a friend in Tel Aviv). Why did I come from Jordan? (Medical conference). Am I a doctor? Am I Jewish? (Yes.) Israeli? Any Israeli relatives?

A brief wave-through by the Palestinian Authority and three hours from start to finish, into the hands of hungry service (pronounce ser-vees) drivers. This is all an upgrade since my last visit, but still qualifies as a third world experience. We need to catch a bus to Jericho which requires buying a ticket. As we try to board the bus, we discover we need to pay a luggage fee as well. (Who knew?) Back to the little ticket man where he tries to scam me out of 39 shekels by making me pay for the tickets again. I explain, calmly, not so calmly. A lovely man says it all in Arabic. Ticket man yells, I yell. He grabs my tickets. I reach into his glass booth, grab my tickets and my money and run to the bus. (Welcome to occupation and shattered nerves.)

From Jericho, after another encounter with the PA, passport screening, papers stamped and passed from official to official, luggage unceremoniously removed and then returned, we head north to Nablus to visit old friends. The service does not leave for a half an hour, until all the seats are full. As I gaze out the window, I am flooded with emotion. Massive Israeli date palm plantations and carpets of green vegetation sweep by. The distant hills are hazy, the sand hills massive and stark. We pass a sign for Na’ama herbs (Israeli), more stark desert, and purple-blue mountains in the distance. The signage is in Hebrew, Arabic, and English (the Arabic being a transliteration of the Hebrew), but only Israeli settlements are identified and Palestinian towns are geographically invisible.

More bursts of wildflowers. I am told the tiny yellow blossoms are called Yasmeen. The landscape is striking, large milk-chocolate chunks of rocks, Israeli vineyards covered in netting, goats munching on the lush vegetation. The Judean Hills are in their peak greenery as our ears pop and we wind north. Blankets of purple flowers, signs to the Jewish settlement of Ariel, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv/Yafo. Past rocky terraces and a massive industrial park and the settlement of Ma’ale Efrayim, and the Palestinian village of Osarin, as we hurtle along route 60 to Nablus. Huwara checkpoint, a jumbled shadow of its former major military installation, with two IDF soldiers, lolling about, fingers on their triggers. We pass through a town, shops, sides of goat and sheep hanging on hooks, and finally into Nablus, a sprawling city surrounded by hills and military installations.

After a warm and loving visit and an immense amount of good food (including melt-in-your-mouth cheesy kanafe), we head south in a taxi (this being Friday when everyone goes home and travel is challenging) to Bethlehem and Aida Camp. A bird flutters low on the highway and I hear a thud. The driver winces. My heart sinks. The scenery tells a story if you know how to read the language. We pass charming villages, a mosque in Madama with a golden dome and a tall thin white minaret. Tura winery (Israeli obviously). Caravans, (of Jewish settlers) on hilltops and signs for settlements. We see an IDF jeep with a group of soldiers facing a cluster of Palestinian boys crouching in a ditch. Over two hours we encounter five more IDF jeeps, each time the cab driver says, “Israel, very dangerous, very dangerous.” Two more wineries (Gua’ot, Psagot) on occupied land. Palestinian mega mansions and wide swaths of Jewish settlements spilling down hillsides. A Palestinian quarry. A large red sign warns travelers on the roads to unnamed Palestinian villages, “This road leads to a Palestinian village. The entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous.”

Gradually there is more concrete separation wall marching across the landscape, tall concrete slabs, concrete topped by a wall of wire fencing, on the right, then the left, then both sides. In Hizma the concrete is right up against the highway. The road dips under a bypass road. A little boy tends sheep next to two IDF soldiers and a jeep. The settlement of Ma’ale Adumim totally dominates the landscape, covering the crest of miles of hills. A large key is mounted at the Azaria rotary, dead cars are piled in the strip between lanes, garbage and poverty is everywhere. We pass signs to Al Quds University (in Jerusalem) and then enter Wadi Al Jeer, a major vertiginous highway built by USAID, also called the Container Road. Also thought to be US funding for an apartheid road. We pass the container checkpoint with guard towers and soldiers, pass a Palestinian Authority soldier, and into cluttered and charming Beit Sahour, Bethlehem and nearby Aida Camp.

Outside the camp we have a planning meeting at a recently opened bar, Rewired, which throbs with music and hip young people drinking wine, beer, and signature cocktails. This is new. And now I would really love to fall asleep, but every few minutes an Israeli jet screeches across the sky and dogs howl as if protesting the military occupation of their land.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Getting out

I have finally succumbed to the level of exhaust, perfumed cleaning products, and cigarette smoke in these parts and I am actually wheezing (bought an asthma inhaler for 15 NIS (about $4)) and now laryngitis has set in and I can barely talk. Perhaps the Mossad is gripping my vocal cords.

At 10:30 am we leave our welcoming hosts in Doha, the neighborhood next to Aida Camp. Although we already had breakfast, we are offered fried eggs as the taxi pulls up, Allah forbid we might go hungry. At 11:30 we arrive at Allenby Bridge and begin the tedious dance of the vehicles. We wait until our driver finds another taxi with yellow plates that allows us to go directly to the Israeli checkpoint and skip the Palestinian Authority, not that they have much authority at these borders anyway. Then we get on line. There are two lanes as far as I can understand, one for trucks (there is a steady stream of large trucks, especially cement mixers) and one for the rest of us. We inch along behind tour buses and yellow plate cars and taxis. Other tour buses are parked in a lot near the checkpoint and periodically the soldier/traffic director stops our line and invites a tour bus or two to cut ahead for the 20-minute-long screen, mirrors under the bus, various doors open. Did I mention the tour buses are all empty and it is getting hotter and hotter, this being the Jordan Valley?

Alice Rothchild

Our taxi driver is getting agitated, he steps outside to smoke a cigarette, talk with other fellow sufferers, and plot his strategy. He gets inside, abruptly backs up and gets into another lane. A cement truck backs away, a grey van, “Allenby Serves,” cuts ahead, maybe VIP? Cars with some sort of business designation also jump the line and don’t seem to get checked. We move closer to the checkpoint, then soldier/traffic director makes us back up to let another empty tour bus in line. Truck after dusty, sandy truck passes us in the left lane. A military vehicle covered in metal grills and is driven by a female IDF soldier scoots by.

At 12:10 pm we reach the vehicle and passport check. The girl soldier with the bullet proof vest actually asks, “Do you have any weapons?” Really??? And we are on our way to the next hurdle. The taxi zooms through striking desert hills and wildly-sculpted mountains with a thin fuzz of greenery here and there until we arrive at a terminal building for Israeli passport control. We pay something like 166 shekels, get some pieces of paper, and get on another line.

A very large crowd of folks from India arrive just before us (maybe pilgrimage to Baha’i temple in Haifa?) so the room is suddenly filled with men and women and a collection of wiggling children and babies in brightly-colored long dresses and tunics, red, blue, orange, green patterns, full skirts and scarfs. The men wear white skull caps.

When I finally get to passport control the older Ashkenazi officer looks at me with a smile and with a contemptuous colonial shrug says “Indians.” He might as well have muttered, savages.

I smile back and sail through the checkpoint (deeply appalled but masked in my white Jewish privilege), track down my luggage and get into the bus. At 1:05 pm the bus pulls out of the military camp and into Jordan.

We pass some Jordanian security five minutes later and at 1:15 two Jordanian security guys board the bus and collect all of our passports. Two Israelis are told to get off, something about needing a visa. The bus moves past the checkpoint and we pass a man in a sand yellow truck with a large weapon mounted on the roof. We travel through desert, collections of houses, and date palms and arrive at Jordanian passport control at 1:25. It takes 35 more minutes to work our way through the various lines and windows and then we are off to Amman. Two-and-a-half hours, not bad given the possibilities.

My traveling companion with the smart phone tells me Jewish settlers just shot to death a young man at Huwara checkpoint in Nablus and the soldiers let him bleed to death as they watched. It was filmed by folks who are sure to upload it to the internet should you want to watch the gory details. Another youth was injured but survived. The settlers allege the youth had a knife, although they have proven to be a deeply unreliable source of information when it comes to knives. There are somethings that are so unspeakably haram that it is hard to write without a moment of deep silence and horror. I think about the two young men who undoubtedly have experienced a life filled with Israeli military aggression and may or may not have felt defeated and hopeless enough to take revenge on the people who have tortured them. I think about the grieving mother, the enraged father, the traumatized brothers and sisters, another life lost to Israeli occupation, and the audacious fascistic brutality of the settlers who steal Palestinian land and kill Palestinians with impunity.

Hours later we enter Queen Alia Airport and breeze through all the levels of security, ticket lines, passport control, X-rays. No one is rude or brusque, no one takes me aside to interrogate me, no one wants to unwrap my halvah to check it for explosives. The whole experience is remarkably civilized and a striking contrast to Ben-Gurion airport where two years ago after harassing me for working in Gaza (“Why Gaza? There are starving children in Africa, you know”), they took my computer for an hour “for security.” Then they confiscated my husband’s entire suitcase “for security,” leaving him to stuff his belongings in a blue plastic bag as he headed home. How that kind of behavior is related to keeping Israel safe is utterly unclear to me and it doesn’t do much for their shrinking reputation as the villa in the jungle, a little piece of civilized Europe in the savage Middle East.

Empty chairs in Amman as Gaza doctors are denied permits to medical conference on Palestine – May 30, 2019

first published in Mondoweiss

The 10th Annual Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman, Jordan. (Photo: ICPH/LPHA)

In late March and early April 2019 I traveled to Jordan and the West Bank (Palestine) with two colleagues, Sonia Dettman and S. Komarovsky, first to attend the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman and then to explore and better understand the lives of refugees and the workings of UNRWA, with a focus on the status of refugee health.

The 10th Annual Lancet Palestine Health Alliance (LPHA) conference titled “Health of Palestinians inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territory” was part serious scientific meeting, part determined act of political and cultural resistance, and part joyous celebration. The meetings were organized by the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University in collaboration with the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut and hosted by the Jordan University of Science and Technology. Professor Rita Giacaman, Director of the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit, is the visionary spark that brings scientists from all over the world to present, critique, debate, and stand in solidarity, particularly over rather large amounts of excellent food, this being a Palestinian event, and a presentation of the Palestinian History Tapestry project.

The conference was held (like scientific meetings all over the world) in the Grand Hyatt in Amman, Jordan (which I learned after multiple attempts to communicate with the Uber driver is called the Grand Hy-yett with an accent on the second syllable – see cultural confusion). After the formal opening speeches, the schedule included topics like “Appraising the methodological quality of the Clinical Practice Guideline for Diabetes Mellitus using the AGREE ll” (Mahmoud Radwan from Tehran University) and “Anti-D versus immunoglobulin for the treatment of Acute Immune Thrombocytopenia in children: A 10 year Palestinian experience” (Mohammed El-Habil from Al-Rantisi Pediatric Hospital, Gaza).

But there was much that I would not see at a medical conference anywhere else in the world: “Health attacks and protection strategies during Gaza’s Great March of Return: A mixed methods study utilizing data from WHOs Surveillance System for Attacks on Healthcare” (Walaa Shehada and Hyo Jeong Kim from WHO West Bank and Gaza Strip). Or “Executions and maiming of unarmed demonstrators during 30 weeks of the Great March of Return” (Khamis Elessi from Islamic University, Gaza). Or “Spatial Agency among children living in Dheisheh refugee camp: engendered space and place as risk and protection from political and military violence in a refugee camp in occupied Palestine” (Guido Veronese from University of Milan). The extensive poster sessions also reflected this broad look at health from a more traditional to a global/political/contextual lens. The researchers from Gaza were mostly not able to obtain permits and their absences were noted by empty chairs at the time of their presentations or blank walls at their poster sessions. Some were able to deliver their papers via the internet which was an act of resistance in itself, a symbolic breaking of the siege.

Professor Graham Watt of Glasgow University and chair of the steering committee for the LPHA, described the alliance as a loose network of Palestinian regional and international researchers engaged in advocacy-based science that meets once a year to share research, network and inspire. He summed up much of what has happened to Palestinians over the past decade with the quote: “Smile they said, life could be worse. So I did and it was.” He sees hope in new female leadership and I also found the number of young female presenters impressive. He noted that as Einstein is said to have commented, “Not everything that counts can be counted, not everything that can be counted counts,” suggesting that the job of the Alliance researchers is to develop scientific methods and research that is culturally sensitive and specific for Palestinians, and to increase the capacity of research and collaboration in this de-developed area of the world. He noted that the survival and growth of the Alliance is a major achievement and an important point of resistance.

The Lancet conference in Amman, Jordan(Photo: ICPH/LPHA)
The 10th Annual Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman, Jordan. (Photo: ICPH/LPHA)

An obvious example of this kind of out-of-the-Western-box thinking lies in basic definitions. Can a Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if the trauma is never really “post?” How do you name and treat the anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and bedwetting that is epidemic in Palestinian children? Is an anxious, angry, hyperactive child exposed to repeated tear gas, shootings, and death in a refugee camp mentally ill or responding appropriately to a sick environment? Does structural violence always lead to psychological disorders; how does that relate to agency and life satisfaction as protective factors in this setting? In the West there is much talk of “caring for the caregiver.” How do you do that for a health care provider in Gaza who is not only dealing with a massive amount of young men with multiple explosive, fragmented bullet wounds to their legs, not to mention a steady stream of dead children and pregnant women, but is also at risk for being shot and killed herself while doing this work? The intersection between disease, wellness, politics and war becomes painfully obvious.

I had the opportunity to interview Professor Watt after his talk. The starting point for the Alliance began with Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, after he visited Palestine over ten years ago and bravely decided he wanted to publish information about the injustices he saw in the journal. The pushback was and continues to be fierce and unrelenting. Working with Dr. Rita Giacaman and Professor Huda Zurayk, an internationally recognized scholar on reproductive health and health in the Arab world at the American University of Beirut, it took two years to produce five articles with 37 authors, of whom 19 were based in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Lancet has published about half of the LPHA abstracts after appropriate peer review and Professor Watt noted that there is a learning curve for researchers, both in the quality of research and analysis and in how to write for scientific publications (in English). Much of the work in the region is surveys and reviews: the Palestine Center for Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) tend to have good data. Iain Chalmers, one of the founders of the Cochrane collaboration, (a research tool that is one of the foundations of evidence-based medicine), worked in Gaza as a young doctor and continues to work with Gazan doctors, so the Strip is actually ahead of the West Bank in the use of evidence-based medicine and clinical audits.

The Lancet conference in Amman, Jordan. (Photo: ICPH/LPHA)
The 10th Annual Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman, Jordan. (Photo: ICPH/LPHA)

Unfortunately, health care in the occupied Palestinian territory is fragmented with the Ministry of Health, UNRWA, NGOs, and private clinicians all providing care with duplications, gaps, and chaos complicated by the priorities of international aid groups and donor agendas. The conference developed in an attempt to address many of these issues. If this was not Palestine, people would have founded a national scientific organization, gotten funding, and become an official group, but that is not possible in this world. Professor Watt explained that there is little culture of collaboration between Palestinian institutions, partly because they have no experience and everyone is guarding their turf and funding, plus travel is hard and unpredictable and one never knows who will show up. Additionally, when studies find important research findings, it is often impossible to implement changes: the siege of Gaza continues, the IDF continues its aggressive military policies, people continue to die.

Professor Watt explained that the main success of the LPHA is existential, “We exist,” and the data adds to the Palestinian narrative in a new way. He noted that it is ironic that we are having this conversation while bombs are dropping on Gaza, a medic was shot in the Deheisheh Refugee Camp today, and a medic was killed in Gaza 12 hours earlier. “This is a long term game. Palestinians need to hang on. They need to be still standing when Israel falls or changes.” He felt that doctors on the frontline have responsibilities because they bear witness but, “Anger without discipline is mere cursing. We must have passion with rigor. As a scientist, all research is passionate but disciplined.” He noted “This is an academic effort with an implicit signing up to the use of the scientific method to gather data. Our voice is getting bigger and stronger and more connected. We need to move from the unsatisfactory present to the future. You do not negotiate for power, you fight for it.” I usually don’t hear such opinions from a very respectable older looking gentleman sitting elegantly in a tie and suit in an upscale hotel.

Mads Gilberg, at the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance.

Dr. Mads Gilbert, the Norwegian surgeon famous for his work in Gaza in 2008 and 2014 and for his painfully graphic books, “Eyes in Gaza” and “Night in Gaza”, has a different style. At the LPHA he sponsored a disturbing poster describing unexpected findings from war-related extremity amputations in Gaza. We sat down for an intense interview during a brief break in the afternoon. Dr. Gilbert talked about how he seeks to describe reality using scientific tools, what he calls “evidence-based solidarity,” to strengthen advocacy and justice. As opposed to humanitarian work, this “medical solidarity” involves, “going there, working under Palestinian leadership. They say ‘When you come we are not alone.’” His goal is to do medical care, gather data, and tell the world what he has seen in a systematic way. “As an activist, the tool is evidence; medicine and science may be more dangerous to the oppressor than slogans. We produce irrefutable evidence.” Collecting data and demonstrating how there are violations of international law serve a larger effort than just strict science.

He found the LPHA a perfect meeting place for sharing knowledge and it is now an important movement to reinforce Palestinian studies done by Palestinians, and to educate and inspire Palestinians who define research objects and tools to build the field of Palestinian research. He noted that Giacaman and Horton’s objective was, “to build a movement of the international community of key academics for solidarity in order to change the world.” Research is thus not only a way of obtaining clear answers to clear questions, it is also a basis for values- based advocacy and for pursuing social justice and peace, to “be intellectually calm in the midst of our outrage.”

He began his amputation studies (examples here and here) and drone studies in 2006, exploring the effects of the Israeli attacks on Gazans). He found that with so much need for medical care in Gaza it was difficult to do research, but the LPHA gave Palestinians an opening, “Oppressed people can define their medical reality in a scientific way.” Dr. Gilbert disliked the term “giving voice to the voiceless.”–“No, they were made voiceless, they were muted. Our job is to de-mute them.”

He said he works as an academic and an activist, “to transition despair and shouting, to document and describe atrocities. Health workers, in particular emergency staff like myself, have a particular responsibility because we are working in ‘the fog of blood’ and we would betray our ethics if we don’t ask, how can we stop this bloodshed, not just patch up the wounds and soak up the blood on the floor. And the simple answer is: stop the bombing, lift the siege, end the occupation of Palestine[…]This is – in fact – not a ‘difficult conflict’ – this a difficult and unbearable occupation! The relief industry never questions the root causes of the disaster; this is the colonial morphine of oppression.”

People are kept oppressed by “denying access to the root causes, i.e., Israeli apartheid.”

Dr. Akihiro Seita, at the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance.

I think about the American Public Health Association, (APHA), probably the most progressive medical society in the US, where it has been impossible to successfully organize a statement to the effect that the Israeli occupation is a public health problem. I think about the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (IARPP) which prides itself in focusing on the individual’s relationships in society, (“committed to doing away with privilege and discrimination in our field”), and has scheduled its next international conference in…. Tel Aviv. I think about the remarks by Dr. Akihiro Seita, head of health care for UNRWA, where he outlined the successes and challenges facing UNRWA, the political and social determinants of health, and the need for data. Then he said, “Life without LPHA: no network, no scientific papers, no advocacy, no moral support, no friends.”

Not your usual medical conference. Next year in Birzeit.

In Jerash refugee camp, 2-minute doctor’s appointments and rage at American visitors – May 27, 2019

first published in Mondoweiss

In late March and early April 2019 I traveled to Jordan and the West Bank (Palestine) with two colleagues, Sonia Dettman and S. Komarovsky, first to attend the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman and then to explore and better understand the lives of refugees and the workings of UNRWA, with a focus on the status of refugee health.

Even “ex-Gazans” have more trouble

We Uber over to the UN Headquarters again (Uber just bought Careem in the never ending cycle of capitalism). We are heading north to Jerash Camp (aka Gaza Camp), with Julia McCahey and several Japanese and German/Iraqi interns and analysts. In the van we learn that in Jordan, where 42% of Palestinians live, there are ten official and three unofficial camps which accommodate less than 18% of the total refugee population. The aspirational UNRWA microfinancing program was largely cut in the latest financial crisis. There is a Department of Palestinian Affairs in Jordan; the UNRWA camps are owned by UNRWA or rented for about 1 Jordanian Dinar per year, either from the state or leased by the state from local landowners. The EU and the Saudis are providing funding to upgrade buildings which are often dilapidated and desperately in need of renovation and repair.

It seems that financial allotments to each clinic depend on need, plus local field officers approach donors and funds get earmarked for special projects like education. The 2018 and 2019 budgets for UNRWA were $1.2 billion per year. With the budget cuts, UNRWA launched the #Dignityispriceless campaign in 2018 to raise money for health and education. The reasons for the extreme disparities of resources and structures in the different camps still feel murky to me. I suspect it’s complicated. Jerash may give us a clue.

The weather is cold, rainy, and grey as we pass City Mall and Mecca Mall which feature swimming pools, cinemas, bowling alleys, and a wealth of international brands. In front of us is a truck with tens of bunches of bananas tied to its back, like a giant Big Bird. We travel through green rocky hills and the sun starts shining as we edge north towards Irbid. There are piles of pottery for sale, rows of olive trees, irregular terraces, solar panels on large structures, nurseries with stacks of plants, eucalyptus trees, and an increasing amount of garbage on the streets, junkyards, and goats wandering along the road. Our ears start popping from the hills.

As we head north, the scenery turns gorgeous with rolling hills that remind me of the West Bank along with increasing signs of poverty, markets piled with scallions and watermelons, villages of narrow winding streets. We are witnessing the economic extremes that are characteristic of the Jordanian economy. FYI, we are some 37 miles from Amman’s new downtown central business project, a $5 billion residential, entertainment, shopping, and business space in Al Abdali neighborhood with glamorous boulevards, shopping smalls, and tall glass and steel high rises.

But that is another world. Away from the hype of Amman, we chat with Julia who explains some of the challenges UNRWA faces. For instance, for unmarried pregnant women, UNRWA must provide care: this is a very rare situation but is very sensitive. The women’s IDs state whether they are married or unmarried, so the clerk in the clinic can see when an unmarried woman is registering for prenatal care. There is little privacy in the camps and a pregnant unmarried woman brings shame and danger to her entire family. This is a legal issue for the UN as a whole, both in Jordan and internationally. New technical instructions are being developed that ask women their preferences for the ID, collaborate with protective services, connect to counseling, and financial aid.

We arrive at the camp, five kilometers from the phenomenal Roman ruins of Jerash. Also another world, trust me, I explored them both. The camp was set up in 1968 to provide food aid, sanitation, health services, and education for 11,500 Gazans fleeing from the 1967 War (some displaced for a second time). It covers 0.75 square kilometers and is currently home for 30,000 “ex-Gazans.” There are a total of 158,000 Gazans living in Jordan, and the government has taken measures to limit the numbers. Jerash is the poorest of the Jordanian refugee camps for Palestinians, with over half of the population living below the national poverty line, 88% without any health insurance, and 97% without a social security number. The camp looks pretty bleak, densely crowded, mostly one-to-three story concrete structures, pot-holed streets, broken tarmac, crisscrossed with sagging electric wires, small markets with piles of strawberries and bananas, a rare straggly tree. The place is haunted by extreme poverty.

We are warmly welcomed by Dr. Maher Badr and Jumana Khader, the head nurse, and sit around a long wooden table with flowery curtains rippling in the breeze. Much of the conversation confirms what we learned yesterday. Once again I struggle with the concept of “ex-Gazans” who arrived in 1967 during the war and are not recognized as refugees by the Jordanian government, are granted temporary two-year Jordanian passports, but do not hold a national ID number. Because of the cost (200 JD), the refugees often cannot afford to renew and if the passport has expired for more than two years, it cannot be renewed without approval from the Ministry of Interior. These folks are often officially stateless and unable to access governmental services. Fortunately they have UNRWA. Fifty percent of the clinic’s employees are ex-Gazans.

Dr. Maher reviews UNRWA’s impressive achievements, the institution of an electronic medical record, the family health team approach to care, the preventive services, care for women (IUD inserts on Saturdays) and children, curative care, with a focus on noninfectious chronic diseases (NCDs). There is a pharmacy in the clinic as well as a laboratory, dental hygienist and two dentists, a pediatric clinic and a breast feeding room.

There are particular challenges with this population: Vitamin A is given as prevention for eye disease and measles complications every six months per WHO recommendations for refugee children. Mental health and psychosocial care will be embedded within primary health care, but this is rolling out soon; the needs are enormous. Health education is critical regarding marriage between close relatives and the increased risk of congenital problems. The incidence here is high. Some men have up to four wives, there are 1,200 women receiving family planning care, 700 receiving prenatal care, and 3,500 children ages newborn to five.

The sweet tea arrives perfumed with sage as Dr. Maher notes that the work loads are high, there are four doctors and two teams; each doctor sees 100 patients per day in six hours, two minutes per consultation, 25,000 patients in each doctor’s caseload. If one doctor is on leave, then his load is divided amongst the others. One midwife follows 700 pregnancies and sees 25 women per day. And today the electricity will be off from 9:30 am to 2 pm for repairs, although there are generators for the computers and the refrigerators.

Dr. Maher has worked at UNRWA for eleven years, the nurse for 20. He says he knows all his patients, he types into the electronic record, listens and examines the patient (in two minutes total remember). There are seven nurses who have five to seven minutes for taking a history, vital signs, labs, and education. The nurse says, “When you know that you deal for people who have no choice you will give everything, you will give the best,” and Dr. Maher adds, “I know all the family so it is very easy for me to see if this family has congenital malformation or noncommunicable disease so I will screen another from this family.”

With mental health issues, he can refer to a psychiatrist who has at least ten to fifteen minutes for consultation. Suddenly, a young man in a leather jacket, smoking a cigarette, calls at the open window. The doctor responds and closes the window. “Fuck you Israel,” the man yells in English. The doctor says the young man wants another psych drug, his current prescription is not enough. He appears at another window yelling, “Fuck you Americans,” and the doctor explains, “We have too many mental patients.” The electricity switches off. He says the patient wants psychosocial support. “Many of our patients are very poor, there are limitations with staff, drugs, many shortages. We do the best we can, for such cases we can speak with the patients, but we have a problem with the budget and the shortage with the drugs.” We sit in the dim room feeling the tension, the level of desperation and need.

Dr. Maher explains that IUDs and injectable contraception are popular and can be given without the husband’s approval, but persuading women to accept birth control can be a big challenge. If the woman wants contraception, the staff talk with the husband, but ultimately, they observe the woman’s privacy. “But the mother-in-law may monitor the door [of the family planning clinic] and rush in demanding to know.” Privacy in a refugee camp and the desire for large families is a tough dynamic.

Diabetes is common but people don’t want to use insulin. “It’s difficult to work with limitations, always an issue of shortage of drugs and staff members. Despite all, we work with love with every patient, what can we do?” The unemployment rate is high (he quotes 70% – but accurate numbers are hard to get and complicated by numerous variables. UNRWA cites lower numbers, but a wide range depending on many factors including gender, educational level, age, etc.). A 2014 UN report states most men work in agriculture, harvesting olives, on local farms. Girls are married between 15 and 18, and many have two babies by the time they turn 18. If they are not pregnant in a year, then they are diagnosed with infertility. UNRWA can offer lab analysis, a gynecological appointment, but the facilities are limited. Many go to a private doctor or the husbands take a second wife. “In our culture, always the problem is with the female, and the male may refuse any analysis.” UNRWA does not pay for infertility treatments.

The Caesarean section rate is 50%, in the private hospitals physicians are paid 300 JD for a normal vaginal delivery, 700 JD for a C-section. UNRWA covers 75%, up to 100 JD, the patient pays the difference (like 600 JD for the C-section). “This is a big problem.” He claims the women do not want C-Sections, but they are clearly preferred by the doctors. And then we are off for a tour of the clinic, symbolically done in the dark.

There are many educational posters about pregnancy, sexual exploitation and abuse, chronic disease, and a really creepy image of a heart with smoke pouring out of all its major vessels. The pharmacy is neat and orderly with piles of boxes of medications lining the shelves. We learn that a central UN pharmacy places the orders, each health center submits their quota, and the medications come from the World Health Organization’s list of essential medications, the Ministry of Health, and local and international donors. When they run out of anti-hypertensives, insulin, and antibiotics (yes this happens), then the patient has to buy it from private pharmacies, no prescription required except for narcotics, or go without. This is obviously a recipe for chaos. The laboratory has basic equipment for blood and urine tests.

We watch patients register and get a number and a time, (a big improvement from the past when everyone arrived and just sat much of the day waiting for a turn). The patient population is much darker-skinned by and large than at Nuzha Camp (a reflection of the Gazan Afro-Palestinian population). A brief bit of a long history: Folks from Senegal, Niger, Sudan and Chad arrived in the Holy Land as far back as the seventh century, often after making pilgrimages to Mecca. There are pockets of Afro-Palestinians in Jerusalem, Jericho, the Negev, and Gaza. And now the “ex-Gazans” in Jerash.

Many of the women are totally covered with niqabs and sometimes a full burka (with veil covering their eyes), often attending to a collection of young children.

We peek into the pediatric clinic with four scales, one in each side of the room, and lots of kids. A child squirms as he gets a vaccine. We greet a tired looking internist sitting at his desk, with a computer screen, a sphygmomanometer (for measuring blood pressure), a small pile of papers, and an exam table, scale, and the smoking heart poster behind him. There are lots of mostly women and children sitting in the darkened waiting areas, just waiting. We really don’t want to bother the clinicians who are busy doing the two minute visits, so we leave, thanking the staff and apologizing for the interruption.

If You Want To Fly With Eagles, Don’t Swim With Ducks

We walk over to the UNRWA school just as the morning and afternoon shifts change. The grey-white building with blue on the metal trim crisscrossing the windows is old and the concrete wall along the perimeter is peeling with white paint and graffiti. There are waves of children, all the girls wearing white hijabs. Suddenly a group of boys starts throwing stones at us and hitting our legs with sticks, yelling, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” After the initial shock, all I can imagine is, what they see is another parade of white people dropping in, clutching notebooks and cameras, for what? They have a right to be enraged.

The school principal is apologetic and appalled. She explains this behavior is highly unusual. We try to explain, no harm done, they are understandably angry. In Jerash there are four double shift schools and one single shift school for grades one to ten (which means the number of hours of classroom time has been reduced). There are girls’ and boys’ schools in the camp and one boys’ school outside the camp. After tenth grade, students go to government schools. The approximately 5,000 students in Jerash Camp are very well prepared for governmental schools and score higher on the Tawjihi, the General Secondary Education Certificate Examination, than the general population. That is something to be proud of. To put that in perspective, however, according to UNICEF, educational outcomes in Jordan are low in both basic and secondary education and students do poorly on international standardized tests, including mathematics and science. So this is both good and bad news for the ex-Gazan students.

Each school shift has its own hierarchy of principals, administrators, teachers, etc. Most students are “ex-Gazans,” and the principal explains, they can get a temporary national passport but no ID and no health insurance. They are not considered refugees but are called displaced persons per Jordanian law. Sometimes they can get a visa to travel. She says the main challenges are poverty, unemployment, and lack of resources. There are eight UN branches for microfinance, three in Irbid, mostly used for things like personal loans, minimarkets, and crafts.

The principle explains that 1,462 girls are attending this shift and there is a big focus on education among their families. At university they are charged as foreigners and sometimes can get scholarships from the Palestinian embassy and businesses. After graduation, unfortunately it is very hard to get employment because the majority don’t have a national ID. They can’t even get a driver’s license, or own a taxi. While men mostly work in agriculture and raising animals, there is still a strong societal motivation to get advanced degrees. Most of the teachers at the school are ex-Gazans.

We visit classes, still in the dark, and smile at rows of girls in a variety of styles of white hijabs. The girls are very engaged, sparkly, eager to ask questions. We see classes studying financial education and the renaissance. The school reminds me of a big, loud urban school in a poor neighborhood somewhere in the US. The level of disrepair, we are told, is a reflection of the lack of upkeep for two years due to budget cuts.

The walls are decorated with colorful displays done by the children, packed with lots of thoughtful advice.

When people throw you stones, it’s because you are a good tree full of fruits. They see a lot of harvest in you. Don’t go down to their level by throwing stones, but throw them your fruits so the seeds of yourself may inspire them to change their ways.

If you want to fly with eagles, don’t swim with ducks.

Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.

We walk through the crumbling streets, back to the van. There is no green space and piles of litter gather along the walls of buildings. Thanks to Trump’s budget cuts, the 43 workers collecting garbage have now been reduced to ten. I ponder Trump’s comment that Palestinians are not grateful and respectful enough. We see crowds of lively children lugging backpacks, with no place to play, living in a place where 52.7 percent of the people live below the poverty line, surviving on a dollar a day. At 6:15 pm I discover that Israeli forces are bombing Gaza and it is snowing in Petra. The world feels upside down.

We end up at a lovely restaurant in Amman, sipping white wine and the local beer. In the bathroom over the toilet is a sign: “Do not flush toilet paper, phone bills, goldfish, or your hopes and dreams down the toilet.” Strangely, that feels like solid advice.

‘Refugees are a tool of war’ — the view from the Syrian border – May 17, 2019

first published in Mondoweiss

March 26, 2019

Aerial view of Za’atari refugee camp.

In late March and early April 2019 I traveled to Jordan and the West Bank (Palestine) with two colleagues, Sonia Dettman and S. Komarovsky, first to attend the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman and then to explore and better understand the lives of refugees and the workings of UNRWA, with a focus on the status of refugee health.

We leave the Collaborative Repair Project and drive north to Mafraq, near the Syrian border. A highway sign catches my attention as it points in the various directions we might go: Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore.

We zoom through rolling, barren desert hills, a palette of mottled yellow and brown, pass universities, a stretch of buildings once used for military housing, concrete factories. Lights twinkle on the horizon. Over an hour later, as the sun sets we reach Mafraq, a sprawling, bustling city with many poor neighborhoods and we are told, a cross roads for drugs from Jordan’s neighbors.

We have come to meet Reverend Nour Sahawneh at his Mafraq Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. As we settle into his office, he tells us we are 15 kilometers from Syria. There are 80,000 Syrian refugees living nearby in the Zata’ari camp, now one of the largest “cities” in Jordan, just east of Mafraq. He says there are 100,000 more Syrian refugees in Mafraq and 40-50,000 in nearby villages. The city tripled in size due to the influx with the onset of the Syrian civil war. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) approximates that 670,000 registered Syrian refugees live in Jordan, as of March 2019. While most reside in cities and towns, around 17 percent live in three refugee camps—Azraq, Zaatari, and the Emirati. A further 41,000 live in ramshackle unofficial camps splayed across the isolated desert in northeastern Jordan near the borders with Iraq and Syria, known as the Rukban.

To keep this in perspective, according to UNHCR, Jordan has the “second highest share of refugees compared to its population in the world, 89 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants.” Lebanon tops that list with 209 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants and the US sinks towards the bottom with 0.84 reported in 2015. With a population of 327,000,000, the US (in all its racist and xenophobic wisdom) has set a refugee limit for 2019 of 30,000. Do the math.

In the three square miles of Zata’ari camp, 20% of the families are headed by women, more than half of the population is under 24, and 20% of the population is under five. UNHCR estimates that 6,500 refugees work for cash inside the camp and 9,000 refugees have work permits and are able to work outside the camp. There are 21,400 children enrolled in 29 schools. In 2017 there was a dramatic improvement in the camp when 40,000 photovoltaic panels were installed, providing electricity 12-14 hours per day. The Jordanian government partners with a host of governmental organizations and NGOs including international, church, and UN based, to provide services to the camp residents.

We sit in Rev. Nour’s crowded office with shelves loaded with jumbles of papers, panels of security cameras, awards, and posters. He was born in Jericho in 1965, and fled with his family in 1967. He tells us that he has a son who is a freshman in university, a daughter studying pharmacy, one studying civil engineering, and one daughter in the ninth grade. His wife was a lab tech and manager and is now retired.

In Mafraq the church has focused on refugee aid in the city and in two villages. Their efforts started in 2011 with 300 people, but then the numbers exploded; many Syrians are stuck here and afraid to go back. All the refugees are Muslims. Relief includes:

Food packages to 400-500 families per month, costing $35 each, consisting of rice, lentils, oil, etc.
A welcoming kit with items for eating, cooking, sleeping, like cooking stoves and mattresses. The church has supplied 9,000 families, goes to door-to-door assessing what each family needs. The cost is $300 per family and the church uses warehouses storing relief supplies.
In winter they supply 4-5,000 families with a gas heater, gas coupons, etc. at a cost of $200 per family.
Supplies of milk, diapers, eyeglasses.
Connections for patients with hospitals.

Rev. Nour tells us that Syrians are no longer coming to Jordan and those who have returned home are full of regret. The Jordanian border was closed due to the threat of ISIS, but now the border is open again, though few Syrians are able to get in due to security issues. Some leave the camps to find work in the city. Many work, including children, under-the-table, paid below minimum wage, in the agricultural sector, as Al Jazeera reported.

Funding for this relief work comes from the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, which was started in the US in 1881. Their suppliers are mostly local, some sent by church organizations. They receive money and in-kind donations as well. Initially the US church sent missionaries to Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan. Then in 1948 Mafraq started a Bible study group that grew into the church which is now also a multipurpose building, currently under renovation.

The community center sponsors English programs, sewing and handicraft training, and trauma meetings for women. Rev. Nour explains that there is no counselor; the women do not talk much about their own trauma but “mostly work on forgiveness.”

Rev. Nour Sawahneh

He explains that in the refugee camp we would see an expanse of cream-colored caravans stretching in every direction, crisscrossed by rocky, dry dirt streets, a hospital, schools, and markets, run by groups such as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) with the Jordanian government. There is a collaborative effort between Jordan and “the donor community, UN agencies, international and national NGOs, community based organizations, refugees and host communities.” This includes local Islamic organizations and mosques.

The big challenges for refugees, who have experienced a huge amount of personal trauma, are daily living and healthcare. UNHCR is no longer paying for health care. For a detailed Amnesty International analysis of Syrian refugees and their struggle for health care (as an example of the challenge and complexities facing the refugees and their host country), read here.

Refugees are able to obtain IDs but not citizenship, and they are able to work. Rev. Nour believes that Jesus heals but clearly there are major unmet challenges in this physical world. The Syrians in Mafraq are mostly from villages, they are Bedouins and, “Hide when asking for help.” When the Muslims enter the church building, their kids play in the playground, the parents register for services, and drink tea. They are treated with respect. That is the beginning of building a relationship.

Many of the households are headed by single mothers. The husbands have disappeared, have died, or are fighting. The husband may also have taken a second wife. There is an average of five children per family, no birth control, and a general lack of education. In the family, men are in control.

Rev. Nour notes that the refugees are victims of war and displacement and are “victims of themselves.” Many marry at less than 18 years old, with girls sometimes as young as 13 or 14. Many do not have legal papers in Jordan. “Their lives are a disaster. They are a tool of war. They became a subject in a war, not a people to help.”

We meet the international volunteers who staff the church programs; Rev. Nour says he is “fully pastoring the mission and the church.” There is a Friday church service for people from India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka who are working in nearby factories. He notes that 30% of factory workers are non-Jordanians who are paid less than Jordanian citizens, live in compounds, and are recruited by manufacturers, much like Mexican migrant workers in the US. Construction workers are also Egyptians who make money and then return home. He explains that garbage collectors are Egyptian and Syrian; Jordanians won’t do this type of work. Palestinian Jordanians are often businessmen. He describes this as a “tribal effect…who will marry me if I collect the garbage?” There is also a big focus on getting an education and going to university.

When we ask, “How will this all end?” Rev. Nour explains that there are one million Syrian refugees (documented and undocumented) waiting for a resolution. He says that Syrians are hard-working, there is a big market in the camp ironically called the Champs Elysees, where in 3,000 shops and businesses refugees sell gold, mobile phones, refrigerators, vegetables, falafel, everything, as well as run restaurants. He describes this as a tribute to Syrian entrepreneurship and determination. At the same time, the camp is a haven for drug and weapon smuggling. “War is business.” He adds that Syria is a lab for Russian weapons. He nods and explains, as the Bible says, “Love of money is the root of all problems.” In all the Arab countries, he sees a battle for control and revenge, proxy wars and shattered societies, rich countries reduced to extreme poverty, and civilians caught in the catastrophe.

A not so slow genocide – July 11, 2017

first published in The Globe Post A not so slow genocide

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

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

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

While permits to leave Gaza for medical care have been severely restricted for years and sometimes available only through collaboration, the referrals of hundreds of patients for medical treatment outside Gaza have been disrupted since March 2017, following the PA’s apparent suspension of its payments for this service. Operating on largely backup generators, medical facilities are facing an imminent lack of fuel and thus only critical surgeries and emergency services are being provided. There are cutbacks on sanitation and sterilization of equipment, patients are being discharged prematurely from hospitals, and essential machinery such as neonatal incubators, ventilators, imaging and dialysis machines are breaking down as a result of frequent, intermittent power outages as well as the lack of maintenance and replacement parts. Health care has also suffered from years of de-development and restrictions on professional training outside the Strip, as well as direct targeting of infrastructure by the Israeli military during the war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two news items that you probably will not hear about:

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

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

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


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

Pray for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: