Chapter 5.  West Bank Stories

 

…the kings and rulers, have no pity on anyone. 
In fact, we ordinary people don’t have much pity for each other either:
we didn’t exactly have pity for the little Arab girl who died at the road block
on the way to the hospital because apparently there was some
Cardinal Richelieu of a soldier there, without a heart.
A Jewish soldier –but still a Cardinal Richelieu!
All he wanted was to lock up and go home, and so that little girl died,
whose eyes should be piercing our souls so none of us can sleep at night,
though I didn’t even see her eyes because in the papers
they only show pictures of our victims, never theirs.

Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (183)

 

Under the olive trees, they raised their arms –
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olive trees bobbed peacefully
In fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread
And white cheese,
And were happy in spite of the pain,
Because there was also happiness

Naomi Shihab Nye
“Different ways to Ppray in 19 varieties of Gazelle”
Poems of the Middle East


The school for peace and democracy education, the settlement and the wall

I was visiting a school in Bethlehem that works for the education of Palestinian children in conflict-resolution, peace and democracy. It is the only school in the West Bank to be recognized by UNESCO for its innovative approach to education in a conflict situation. The son of the school’s original founder and current director, Nader, was showing me around. Nader is devoting his life to the mission of peace education despite the fact that he and his father grew up in a refugee camp, his own house was mistakenly partly demolished by the Israeli army and he was also for some time mistakenly jailed. He explained that the school had received a demolition order some time ago because it would be in what the Israeli government calls the “security zone” around the “separation wall” being built in the West Bank. Thanks to the school’s energetic advocacy and the support of the Israeli left and international friends, the Israeli army agreed to spare the school. “The cafeteria, however,” Nader said, “still has a demolition order and it is important because, below it, is the school’s water source.” He appeared sad and tired in the heat of the day, as if some days he felt his burden was too much to bear.

I looked out the window and saw some modest houses near the cafeteria. “What about those houses?” I asked. “They also have demolition orders,” Ibrahim explained.  “Will the families living there receive compensation?” “No,” Nader said, “they won’t. This is the way it is done.” Beyond the little houses, the wall was closing in and, on the other side, were some very good-looking homes. “What are those?” I asked. “That is the settlement of Efrat. The wall is being built around it.” I stared at the distance in sadness, anger, and shame. In the glimmering sun, this horrific man-made landscape looked surreal, like something out of a nightmare.  I remembered a conversation I had had with a settler during which I had asked him what his settlement was like. “It is idyllic!” he had replied dreamily. As I learned in my college class on literary utopias, utopias should be avoided because one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.

How can you be a religious Jew and not believe that G-d gave us the land?

Moshe lives in a West Bank settlement. He was invited to give a lecture to us during my ulpan. Although it was supposed to be on the weekly Torah reading, it was mainly on how the whole land of Israel belongs to Jews. The link of this idea to the Torah reading was lost on me. There are quite a few parts of the Torah that can be used to convey this message, but not the one we were reading that week. It was clear that Moshe was intent on giving us a message, regardless of what the Torah said that week. At the end of the day, Moshe drove back with a friend of mine and invited her and I to spend a Shabbat with him and his family in their settlement. I told my friend to thank them on my behalf, but decline the invitation. Moshe was persistent, though. On a day when he was back at the ulpan, he personally invited me. I again politely declined. He asked me why I did not wish to go and I explained that it was because I felt uncomfortable. That answer never seems to be sufficient, as I had found out from prior experience.  Moshe finally asked me why I was uncomfortable –“Is it ideology or security? “, he asked, “Ideology,” I replied, though in my view it is really about ethics. Moshe said we needed to speak. I was torn between trying to avoid the conversation and wishing to find out what his line of thinking was.

As it turned out, I was unable to escape and I finally agreed to the discussion. “Is it not written in the Torah that we need to settle the land?” Yes, I said, but we do not take our guidance to behavior from the Torah, but from the Talmud. He counter-argued that this principle only applied to relations between people, but not to relations between G-d and people. I told him that, in my view, settling the West Bank had enormous implications on people and hence clearly fell under that category. What I found most jarring about our conversation was the fact that Palestinians just did not figure in the equation. Settling the land is an issue between Jews, G-d and the land. When I mentioned Palestinians, his facial expression was the same as that of another settler I had had conversations on the topic with –a mixture of disdain and disgust, as if I had mentioned a really unworthy and annoying topic. He dismissively said that Arabs had many countries and Jews just one and that Palestinians already had a country –Jordan. It also struck me that he had had no compunction in making his arguments to me in front of Palestinians (first in the cafeteria, as I was standing right next to two Palestinian doctors, and in our subsequent sit-down conversation when a Palestinian lady who worked in the premises was cleaning). It was as if they were invisible to him.

The problem with shooting…

I was in a school near Bethlehem where I was volunteering and it was the Friday morning after the director’s brother’s wedding. Nader seemed tired, but I did not attribute it to more than a late night of partying. As it turned out, there was more to it than that. That night had also been the first since the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had dissolved the government and created an emergency one after chaos took over Gaza and some violence had erupted in the West Bank. Maram, Nader’s wife, told me that she had not slept all night. Hamas and Fatah supporters had been shooting at each other near their house. Later in the day, Nader started speaking casually to the other volunteers and me: “The problem with shooting,” he said, and he stopped to take a breath. Impolitely and impulsively, we burst out laughing. To westerners like ourselves, “the problem with shooting” is obvious and does not need to be explained. Nader continued undeterred by our lack of sensitivity, “The problem with shooting is the children. My daughter did not know what was going on. She was crying and I had to hold her all night to give her a sense of security.” Our laughing stopped. I remembered a young refugee living in Nablus whom I had met at an encounter between Israelis and Palestinians. He had explained to me what living in Nablus was like. Among other things, he had recounted how his little sister cried at night every time there was an Israeli incursion with its concomitant shooting. Since then, I remember both and often think about how many other Palestinian children cannot sleep at night and how many parents hold them tight to try and protect them while shooting goes on outside their homes.

Why did you convert to Judaism?

Rami is from Nablus and he comes from a well-to-do family. He is warm and open. I met him at a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians with his friend Ahmed. They are both university students in Nablus. Ahmed is more reserved and had a more cautious look about him, perhaps because his older brother was killed by the Israeli army. They were the first Palestinians I met at that meeting. I introduced myself to them and they asked me where I was from and whether I was a Christian –which my name seems to indicate. I told them that I was originally Christian, but that I had converted to Judaism. They were visibly perplexed, but remained polite and interested. As the meeting formally began, we were asked to choose a couple for an ice-breaking exercise. Rami approached me with a smile asking me if I wanted to pair up with him. I said I would be very happy to. The exercise consisted in asking our partner questions the answers to which we would relate on his/her behalf in a larger group. Rami told me a story I would hear from other Palestinians later, but that I particularly remember from him for being the first time. He explained that things were hard in Nablus. How there was not much work and very little money, how professors were often not being paid and their performance at the university sub-par …The worst, however, was the constant control and the incursions by the Israeli army, especially the night incursions, shelling and demolitions. He recounted how often it happened, how it was hard to sleep at night because of it and, especially, how his little sister was so afraid that she would cry all the time. I listened attentively, trying to control the sadness that was rising in me, and asked him some further questions.

When his turn came, he asked me “Why did you convert to Judaism? Jews are doing horrible things to us.” It was the hardest question I have ever been asked about my conversion. Whenever asked, I enthusiastically explain how I was inspired by the example of the Jews I had met as well as by the Jewish history of pursuit of intellectual achievement and social justice. Sitting in front of Rami, however, I felt humbled and I knew in advance I would not be able to communicate properly what had inspired me and what was continuing to drive me to that day since his own experience with Jews had been so utterly different. I still tried to explain while tempering my usual enthusiasm. He listened politely, but I realized I had not succeeded in communicating. When Rami had to recount my story, he explained that I had converted to Judaism because I thought Jews were smarter than Christians. It was obvious I had failed in my attempt to explain and tried to clarify. What was obvious, however, was that the idea of Jews fighting for justice had not struck a cord with Rami and that all he could remember was a simplified version (also possibly due to language barriers) of Jewish intellectual excellence. How could I blame him?

Conspiracy theories

One of the things which has surprised me the most about Palestinian society is how pervasive conspiracy theories are. Ahmed, a young and intelligent college-educated man from a refugee camp told me with full conviction that the Americans had blown up the twin towers themselves in order to have an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and start waging a war on the whole Muslim world. A university professor, when asked by a European diplomat whether Palestinians favored Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the democratic primaries, answered: “Obama, of course. We all know Hillary is Jewish” (something which would be news to her). A Palestinian teacher told me that there were rumors that the Taliban were Jewish and another friend explained to me that many people believed that Arafat was in reality a Jew. That was perhaps my favorite of all the conspiracy theories I had heard. “A Jew? You have to be kidding!,” I told him. “Well,” he explained, “people say no one knows where he was born and where he really grew up. He said he belonged to clans who deny that he was part of them and he grew up in a part of Morocco where a lot of Jews lived. Plus, how else can you explain the poor service he did to the Palestinian people?” I thought that was amazing. Unfortunately, I am familiar with many arguments on how Jews are to blame for many things and yet, hearing how the failures of the ultimate Palestinian national leader were imputed to his being Jewish caught me by surprise. I am not sure what accounts for how many conspiracy theories float around in Palestine and for the fact that so many people who one would not expect to believe them, do believe them. Whatever the reason is, it is a disturbing phenomenon because it reflects both a great abundance of preposterously false information and a great willingness on the part of the population to believe it.

Everybody wants to solve our problems for us

It was a beautiful summer afternoon and Ashraf, Mohammed and I were sitting on the grass by the Eiffel Tower soaking in the view and the good weather. Mohammed is from Algeria and he was leading a group of teenagers in a trip to France, just like Ashraf had done for Palestinians. I had joined them for a few days in Paris. Mohammed and I were speaking to each other in French (our common language) which meant that Ashraf (who communicated with Mohammed in Arabic and with me in English) could not participate. At one point, Mohammed and I started discussing the situation in Palestine and I told Ashraf that that was what Mohammed and I were speaking about. “I am used to it,” Ashraf said nonchalantly, “everyone wants to solve our problems for us.” I felt that, as usual, he had hit the nail in the head in a very direct and simple way. That had been the problem throughout a lot of recent Palestinian history. Everybody had been involved in trying to “solve their problem,” from Jordan and Egypt, to the Arab world at large, the US, the Europeans, the UN…and the list could go on. Palestinians have clearly had enough of others “trying to solve their problems for them.” As frustrated as they are with their leadership, they know that the only sustainable solution to their problems will be one championed by their own people and their leaders. While we discuss their problems, we should remember that too.

Keeping things running smoothly

I was invited to a family home in Jerusalem during the afternoon of a Jewish holiday. The oldest daughter of the family had finished her army service and was now working for some time before going on to university. The family knew I had the unusual job of working at a Palestinian University in Bethlehem. They told me that, during her army service, their daughter was an officer in charge of the Bethlehem region, a large region covering two of the biggest settlement blocks in the country –Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim. I was curious. She is a beautiful, charming and gregarious girl, born of American parents and thoroughly American-looking and sounding. I asked her what her job was. She told me gingerly: “Keeping things running smoothly!” I asked her for more details. She explained how she and her team would collect as much information as possible on what was happening in that area, anything, any kind of information, in a very thorough manner and recording it. Their records were so comprehensive and reliable, she explained, that the Shabak, the Israeli secret service, would use them for their work. She was clearly proud of that. I tried to insist and asked what that thorough information-gathering work was for, what was the objective? As she seemed not to understand my question, I tried to help her by asking whether it was for security reasons. She proudly repeated her earlier explanation: “To keep things running smoothly!” She could have been avoiding giving me a fuller explanation, but my strong sense was that, in the Orwellian world of the occupation, keeping things running smoothly was truly considered all the explanation that was needed.

I love Palestine

I was spending a few days in a small town in the West Bank with a Palestinian friend and his family. They introduced me to San’a, a beautiful, lively and sharp Palestinian teenage girl. She was dressed with a long skirt and a hejab, but in a style that –were it not for the head-covering—could be found anywhere in the West or in Israel. It was not only the style of her outfit that stood out, but also its color –a beautiful light green matching her skirt to her scarf. We were driving in her town one evening with her parents and my friends and chatting. San’a asked me whether I liked her town. “Of course,” I said. “It is a beautiful town and people are kind and hospitable.” “I don’t like it” she said with a smirk on her face. “If you do anything different here, everybody talks about you. If the style of your outfits is different, they talk. If the colors are different, they talk.” I listened to her and nodded in understanding. She then caught herself and felt she needed to tell me, “But I love Palestine!” “Of course you do,” I told her, wondering what one thing had to do with the other. “There are always things we do not like in our own country and that does not mean that we don’t love it,” I tried to explain.

It seemed to me that, in the world she lived in, criticism of “tradition” and “traditional forms” was often construed as a critique of things and ways Palestinian and hence as anti-nationalist and almost traitorous. I wished more people had her free spirit and her ability to, in her own small way, stand up and be herself in the midst of enormous pressure to conform. I also remembered that quite a few friends had told me how different Palestine was fifteen or twenty years ago, when few hejabs could be found in the streets and women’s dressing styles were much more varied. Why would the turn backwards to older ways not be considered treacherous to the more dynamic, modern and open Palestine that existed at that time? I thought.

Orange ribbons

We were having dinner with a group of students from my Hebrew class. Ahmad, a charming and sharp young Palestinian engineer, was telling us about some of his experiences working and living in the West Bank. “During the disengagement from Gaza,” he told us, “West Bank settlers would put an orange ribbon in their cars to protest the disengagement.” He paused for a second and then continued: “We put two!” he beamed. “Why would you do that?” I asked him thinking that the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the surrealism of the occupation did not cease to amaze me. He gave us a knowing smile and said: “It really helped at the checkpoints.” We all burst out laughing. “But then, the soldiers caught a car with orange ribbons carrying some Palestinian workers without permits and they started checking again” he said with resignation. The occupation sometimes seemed like a tragicomic game in which more and more obstacles would be placed in front of a group of people who had to constantly come up with ways to surmount them so as to keep a semblance of a normal life only to see the other group come up with yet new ways to control them. Next time I see an orange ribbon, I won’t make any assumptions I thought.

Shabbat Shalom!

My friend Mohammed is a Palestinian Jerusalem ID holder with a very light complexion, who speaks excellent Hebrew and takes care to dress, as he says, “western.” It is indeed a fact that he cannot be told apart from an Ashkenazi Jew, something which tends to make his life in Israel much easier. It also sometimes places him in unusual positions, as when he drives through checkpoints. “Soldiers just assume you are Jewish, right?” I asked him one day. “Yes” he said “They just wave me through and, sometimes, they even give me Shabbat candles and tell me Shabbat shalom!” I laughed and asked him what he did. Mohammed shrugged his shoulders and answered: “I take them and answer Shabbat Shalom!”

The de-development of the Palestinian economy

During my second sabbatical year, I was working on a chapter for a book on the Palestinian economy. At that time I realized that, if anyone had planned to come up with a strategy to destroy an economy and render it completely dependent on its occupier, one could not have done much better than what Israel had done with the Palestinian economy. Prior to 1948, the Palestinian economy was an integrated whole. It had the traditional centers of agriculture and trade in the hilly interior of the West Bank, the relatively internationalized economy of Jerusalem, and an increasingly modern and dynamic area along the coast (especially in the Jaffa/Tel Aviv and Haifa areas) that was becoming progressively integrated with world markets through international trade. The West Bank had strong ties with both the East Bank (contemporary Jordan) and with the coastal area (what is contemporary Israel). All three areas, together with Gaza, were part of the British Mandate of Palestine. At that time, the West Bank was more developed than the East Bank and it was slowly modernizing under the catalytic influence of the coastal areas.

1948 was a rude shock for the Palestinian economy. All of a sudden, the country was divided in three –Gaza fell under Egypt, the West Bank and the East Bank under Jordan and the coastal area under the newly-founded State of Israel. This led to a severe dislocation of the economy, as the West Bank was cut off from its historical connections to the coastal area and lost sea access. Moreover, Jordan favored the East Bank and relatively neglected the West Bank. Hence, the West Bank had to re-structure its economic ties eastward toward Jordan as it no longer could work and trade with its traditional coastal hinterland.

1967 brought yet a new shock. The Israeli invasion and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza cut off these areas from the ties they had established over the previous twenty years with Jordan and Egypt respectively. Slowly, the West Bank and Gaza re-oriented their economy again toward Israel and became increasingly dependent on it. During the first twenty years of the occupation, Israel fostered the use of cheap labor from the West Bank and Gaza for its own economy. Palestinian salaries went up and some years of economic growth ensued. That economic growth, though, was highly vulnerable and completely dependent on Israel. It was fueled by consumption from the salaries of unskilled Palestinian labor working in Israel. Skilled Palestinians, on the other hand, not finding work opportunities in Palestine (or Israel), emigrated to the Gulf countries where they received good salaries at the time of the oil price boom. Investment in Palestine was meager and productive capacity declined.

This phase of consumption-based euphoria but real de-development finished with the onset of the intifadas and was accelerated by the Oslo process. Thus, after the Palestinian economy had been destroyed, Israel shut off the access of Palestinians to the Israeli economy. They did so by reducing permits to Palestinian labor and establishing closures to the movement of goods and people. Access of Israeli goods into Palestine, on the other hand, continued unabated. This phase of dependence on without access to Israel has lasted to our days and is being sealed by the building of the wall and the full closure of Gaza. In short, the Palestinian economy cannot create jobs because wages are twice as high as those of Jordanians and three times as high as those of Egyptians and Palestinian workers are barred from entering Israel. If one adds to this confusion about the country’s legal framework, insecurity and high and uncertain costs to the movement of people, goods and services, one can understand that the Palestinian economy is not moving. It is hard to think of a better plan to de-develop an economy.

Despite all of the above, the Palestinian economy has three great assets which it should be able to bank on upon independence. First and foremost are its people. Palestinians are, by far, the most educated people in the Arab world. The law of unintended consequences has worked to provide Palestinians with the opportunity to study long and well. The  great Palestinian focus on education comes from the fact that there are meager job opportunities, not many places to go and no other assets to rely on than human capital –as settlements expand, Palestinians have less and less land and there are no natural resources in Palestine. Second, Palestinians have great international exposure, which is critical to openness, creativity and growth. Much of the Arab world is rather secluded and inward-looking, missing great chances to learn from the most economically dynamic regions of the world from the West to East Asia. On the other hand, Palestine and Palestinians, because of their ordeal, have benefited from a lot of international participation in the country through international development agencies and NGOs. There are some among the Palestinian Diaspora who have lived abroad and decide to return to Palestine bringing with them great international exposure and know-how. Third, Palestine has a strong, organized and educated Diaspora across the world which should be tapped on to build what could be in the future one of the most modern economies of the Middle East.

Moving to the moon

Majed is a charming Palestinian man in his mid-thirties. He is a physician and active in Palestinian politics. One day, I was discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with him when he said “Sometimes, I feel this place is just too small for both of us and that the conflict will only finish when one of us ends with the other. Maybe one of us will just have to move somewhere else” “Like where?” I asked him. “Like the moon,” he answered only half-ironically.

A White One

Khaled and Amin are Palestinian men in their early 20s. They are good friends and live in a refugee camp in the West Bank. The three of us as well as some others were strolling near their home one afternoon and I was having a conversation with Khaled about marriage. He told me how he was not keen on marrying soon. The social demands in order to marry and after you marry in Palestinian society are such that one completely loses one’s freedom, he explained. “What about Amin?” I asked. “Amin really would   like to marry soon and he has been saving in order to be able to do that.” “What kind of woman would he like to marry?” I asked. “A white one” said Khaled. “A white one?” I repeated in amazement and with impolitely undisguised disapproval. “Yes,” Khaled insisted with self-assurance, “a white one. He is dark and he very much wants to marry a white woman. You can’t speak. You don’t know what it is like to be dark.” I did not know what to say. He was right. I do not know what it is like to be dark, but one’s skin color is a characteristic of such irrelevance to one’s character, that I simply could not contain myself in my reaction. I imagine in his world “a white one” would be the equivalent of a westerner saying “a beautiful one.”

And yet. The prevalence of the preference for light skin –especially for women—which I have witnessed everywhere in the world I have travelled –from Africa to Asia, Latin America and now, the Middle East—seems like the most consistent and arbitrary prejudice I have encountered regarding physical appearance. I remembered a Valentine Day’s article I had read in a Tanzanian newspaper about skin-lightening creams. The article’s writer was lampooning a proposed government law to outlaw skin-lightening creams. “Who is the Government,” the writer was asking, “to diminish the chances of marriage of a dark-skinned girl?” One day, I hoped, these creams would be irrelevant and young men like Amin –together with the rest of us—would be able to look at people’s physical beauty regardless of the tone of their skin and, beyond that, to their minds and hearts.

Palestinian humor

Palestinians, despite the dire situation they live in or perhaps because of it, have a wonderful sense of humor. Sometimes I think it is the only tool they have to withstand the big and small ignominies they are forced to go through on a daily basis. Not only do they have an excellent sense of humor, but it is what I would call a “Jewish” sense of humor (which Israelis seem to have long lost). It is the sense of humor of the oppressed and powerless, who become self-deprecating and use irony to distance themselves from their situation while highlighting it in their jokes. This was most obvious to me one day, riding on a cab in Bethlehem with Rami, one of my students at Bethlehem University. The town was teeming with Palestinian Authority policemen. The international community is banking —not unwisely—in the strengthening of the PA’s security forces so that, eventually, they can take care of extremists on their side themselves leaving no defendable reason for Israelis to stay in the West Bank and Gaza. Also understandably, Palestinians resent these priorities and the pressure that accompanies them. Is it not enough that the Israelis are beating up on them? Do they need their own to start doing the same? Will it not strengthen intra-Palestinian strife and weaken their struggle for independence? Is that in any way a Palestinian priority in a context where money is needed desperately for schools, hospitals, welfare and a thousand other issues? And how do you defend it while settlements continue to expand on a daily basis? I believe these are some of the questions in Palestinian minds as they witness the massive focus of the international community on “security spending” for the Palestinian Authority.

At one point of our drive through Bethlehem, Rami and the cab driver engaged in a dark and witty repartee. “Look! We have Bolice!”(Some Palestinians have trouble pronouncing the sound “P,” which does not exist in Arabic). “Do we have a state?” asked Rami. “Are you kidding?” answered the driver. “Do we have an independent government?” Asked Rami “Of course not!” said the driver. “Oh, but we have bolice!” exclaimed Rami. They went on. “Do we have roads?” “Hardly” “And water?” “None!” “But, we have bolice!” they concluded in a chorus. They seemed amused and pleased at their ability to make fun of what was in fact a seriously distressing situation. They made me laugh with them while helping me see reality through their eyes.

Walk slowly toward the soldiers

It was a weekday evening and I had been invited to a gathering at the home of one of my students in Bethlehem. I had always gone to the West Bank during the day and either returned during daytime or stayed overnight. This time, I went after my Hebrew class was over (at around 8:30 pm) and I was returning past midnight. Normally, I go to Bethlehem by bus, but there are no buses at these times of the night. Not going by bus or one’s own car meant that I could not go through the “easy” checkpoint for Jerusalem ID holders, foreigners and settlers, but rather through the harder walk-through one, by the wall, reserved for West Bankers. I was much less familiar with that checkpoint and its procedures, as I had only been through there once.

One of my students drove me to the checkpoint and I ordered a taxi to pick me up on the other side. As I tried to go in, however, I realized it was closed. Bethlehem was deserted at this time of the night and, in the dark, the soldiers’ towers, the wall and the checkpoint felt particularly eerie. There were just two Palestinian men near where I was, one of them leaning on his taxi. I asked him how I was supposed to get through to the other side. He told me to go around a bend of the road and come back on the left. During the daytime, I would just have done that, but at night, it felt daunting. I asked the cab driver if he could drive me there. He agreed. He drove around the bend of the road, but when it was time to turn left toward the soldier’s tower, he told me he would not get closer to the checkpoint and that I needed to walk. I could tell he did not feel safe driving there at night. I was so focused on my mission ahead that I got out of the taxi without paying him. “Hey, you did not pay me!” He said. “Sorry!” I apologized. I got back into the cab and paid him what we had agreed. Before I set out, he warned me: “Walk slowly toward the soldiers. It is night-time, they can’t see well who is approaching, you are carrying a large back-pack and they may be afraid.” I was carrying a bulky backpack indeed—it contained my Hebrew notebook, two Hebrew textbooks, a hefty Hebrew-English dictionary and Hebrew grammar book. I had not thought of any of that.

Diffidently, I started to walk slowly towards the soldiers. Suddenly, a strong flood of light was thrown on me from the watch-tower. The soldiers yelled something I forget in Hebrew. I thought quickly what was the safest language to use –I did not want the Israelis to think I was Arab nor the Arabs to think I was Israeli. English! I thought quickly. “Can I come?” I asked. “Yes, come!” They said. The checkpoint is a Kafkaesque maze of cement corridors, lights and turnstiles. First, I again went to the wrong place. No one was there. It was complete emptiness. I had to go back on my tracks and explore till I finally found a place with a turnstile and an X-ray machine for our belongings. You could not see anyone. I tried to turn the turnstile. “Wait!” Said a disembodied voice of someone I could not see. I waited for what seemed like a long time, but was probably only 7 or 8 minutes. “Come!” finally said the voice and the red light above the turnstile turned green. I put my belongings through the X-ray machine. My Hebrew learning materials successfully went through. I went on through more corridors and at the next turnstile with a red light, where I had to stop again, was a German man in his thirties who seemed as puzzled as I was. We waited patiently. Again, after a while, our light turned green and we were able to pass. The last step was to give our passports to an officer whose only body part we could see was her hand as she reached toward them.

I was finally done, but the whole operation had not taken the 5 minutes I had anticipated, but rather more like a half hour and felt like an eternity. My taxi was no longer there when I got to the other side of the wall. I had to call again. They complained that I was not there when they came to pick me up the first time around. I explained that it had taken a long time to go through the checkpoint and that I was there now, waiting, and needed to get home. It was close to 1 am by then. They unhappily agreed to send someone again to pick me up. About 10 minutes later, a cab arrived to fetch me. When I got into his car, he told me it had been a difficult evening for traffic as there had been a “pigua” or terrorist attack in Jerusalem. I was shocked. I asked for the details. My driver, a dour Israeli Arab, told me, impassively. When I heard the attack was at a school and that children had been killed I was particularly upset. He gave me a look of disdain and drove me home. I told myself I would not go through a walk-through checkpoint at night again.

The Good Samaritans

There are still Samaritans in the Holy Land. The most prominent Samaritan communities –to my knowledge—are in Jerusalem and outside Nablus. When I was visiting Nablus, I heard the views of Palestinians from the city on the Samaritan community. I was told that, before the Israeli occupation and despite some mutual suspicions, Muslims, Christians and Samaritans got along quite well. Since the Israeli occupation, however, things had changed. Israel offered to Samaritans the option of becoming citizens of their state and afforded them much preferential treatment compared to other Palestinians. As a result, Samaritans became suspect in the eyes of Palestinian Muslims. Now, their tiny community on Mount Tabor outside Nablus had to be protected by the Israeli army. I wish I had visited one of the Samaritan communities. Unfortunately, I did not and to this day I wonder what it must be like to have one’s world turned upside down and be suddenly confined to a little hill in the middle of the West Bank surrounded by the Israeli army and an increasingly hostile Palestinian environment.

 The checkpoints made us all equal

I was discussing the occupation with Majed, a Palestinian friend from the West Bank now married to a Jerusalemite and living in East Jerusalem. He told me how the occupation had had the unintended consequence of blurring class barriers among Palestinians. “Wealthy Palestinians used to treat us, country people (fellahin), like animals. The occupation and the checkpoints have made us all equal” he said. I thought that was an interesting statement and I am sure that there is some truth to it. Foreign oppression tends to unite and the Israeli occupation has certainly helped in strengthening the Palestinian national consciousness cutting across class barriers. Furthermore, it seems that specific instruments of the occupation such as the checkpoints have had an especially strong effect as, in front of an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint, a Palestinian is a Palestinian, and this has helped unite them as a people.

So they don’t shoot at them

I had woken up early that morning to attend the presentation of a survey on the attitudes of Palestinian youth at a think tank in Ramallah. I arrived early and sat myself down to start browsing through the documentation available for the session. A young man was sitting next to me and we started up a conversation. He was an American who was living in the West Bank and working for a reputable Palestinian news agency supported by various EU countries. We were discussing the impact of the occupation on Palestinians in the West Bank. He asked me if I ever went to demonstrations. I told him that I did not. He said he did: “I go so they don’t shoot at them.” If I had just arrived in Israel/Palestine, I would have doubted what he was telling me. “Israel? Shooting at peaceful demonstrators? This must be some made-up story” I would likely have thought. Even then, I doubted. It is still hard for me to believe Israel is really doing a lot of things it is doing.

Later that same week there was an article with an accompanying video clip in Haaretz which dispelled my doubts. The clip was showing a young unarmed Palestinian who had been pulled out of a demonstration, handcuffed and blindfolded. An Israeli soldier had him against a wall and was first pretending to shoot at him in order to scare him and then actually shot him on his feet. The injuries of the young man were shown in a separate picture. Also in Haaretz, I read that the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner –himself a Jew—was visiting a hospital in Nablus when a group of young Palestinians who had been shot by the Israeli army while demonstrating were brought in. Minister Kouchner, who is a medical doctor, stopped his visit to help operate on some of the young men because the hospital was short-staffed. The bullets he extracted from their wounds were not even rubber bullets. He complained to the Israeli government who told him that the bullets could not have been real. Minister Kouchner kept the bullets. They were real.

Our brightest people

I was having a conversation with a Palestinian university professor from Ramallah and we were discussing the career options of Palestinian graduate students. “The first choice,” he said, “is the development industry. It is what pays best –international development agencies and nongovernmental institutions. Second is the private sector. The problem is that there is not much of a private sector. Government is the last choice. It pays badly and it is often corrupt. Students do not have faith in it. Our brightest people do not wish to work for the government.”

The Palestinian Authority has made enormous progress in “cleaning up its act” since the demise of Yassir Arafat and it is now probably above average in its governance as far as developing countries are concerned. It is not yet, however, where it should be and the population probably still holds perceptions shaped from years past. I have seen this kind of problem in many countries in the developing world. Countries where government is weak and corrupt and where it is perceived to work for the interests of the few, young well-qualified people are not interested in working there. Even in countries where governments have a better reputation, it is often hard for the public sector to compete with the higher salaries of the development industry and the private sector. However, there are always altruistic young professionals willing to work for less in their government if they feel they are helping their country. If, in addition to earning less, they feel they are not helping their country, the career choice becomes obvious.

ID and Love

Ibrahim is a Palestinian man in his mid-thirties. He is strikingly handsome and charming, elegant, polite and a doctor and university professor. In a normal country, he would have no problem finding a woman of his choice to marry. Unfortunately, things are different in Palestine. Ibrahim met Rawa, a young woman in her mid-twenties from Jerusalem, and they very much liked each other. They met a few times and Ibrahim, as is the custom in Palestine, asked Rawa’s father for her hand. Rawa’s father, however, refused because Ibrahim, despite his obvious qualities, was an undesirable husband for his daughter. The reason for Ibrahim’s undesirability is that he has neither Israeli citizenship nor Jerusalem residency. Instead, he just has a “West Bank I.D.” This severely limits what Ibrahim can do, where he can go and what rights he has. It would take years for him to get Jerusalem residency after marrying Rawa –if he ever got it—and, meanwhile, Rawa could lose her Jerusalem residency with the advantages it entails. Because Rawa’s father does not wish her daughter to be constrained by such limits, he refused her request to marry Ibrahim.

Rawa’s father is not the only one to feel this way. Palestinian friends have told me how the ID one holds is one of the first questions people ask when they look for potential marriage partners. Palestinian IDs are divided between Israeli citizens, Jerusalem residents, West Bank ID holders and Gaza ID holders, at the very bottom of the social ranking pile –a hierarchy courtesy of the Israeli government. It is the typical “divide and rule” policy of occupying powers and it has a scathing impact on the everyday life of Palestinians, impacting work, mobility, and even love and marriage. Ibrahim and Rawa held out against her father’s wishes for two and a half years. In the end, Rawa was unable to resist the pressure from her family, who forced her to choose between them and Ibrahim. As a result, they broke up. Rawa is now engaged to a man with a Jerusalem ID and Ibrahim is still in love with her.

Breakfast in Jenin

I went to visit Jenin, its university and its sadly famous refugee camp. I spent the first day and night at the American University of Jenin, which has a beautiful campus surrounded by a lovely view including some of the last remaining settlement-free landscape in Palestine. The next morning, I went into town. The town is small and quiet, unlike the more bustling Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus or even Hebron. It also felt very traditional. This included all the good Palestinian traditional values, such as politeness, generosity and hospitality. I was invited by a group of professors staying in the same building as me to join them for dinner. I was walked to places I could not find by random passersby whom I asked for help and my bus fee from Jenin town to Jenin University was waived as a gesture to welcome me in my first trip to the area.

I was also afraid, though –and thought I could feel—that this traditional environment also included some radical Islamist politics. I had breakfast at a café in town where I was the only woman, but was able to enjoy my hummus, pita and tea with mint undisturbed. I continued on with my visit to the Freedom Theater in Jenin’s refugee camp, a wonderful institution that offers children and youth relief, culture and leisure in an environment of tension and violence. In the afternoon, I went back to the university and, after a grueling trip across the West Bank going around Nablus –in order to avoid Hawara, the country’s toughest checkpoint—eventually returned to Jerusalem. The next morning, as I read YNet news, I realized that some of my suspicions had been right. In the afternoon of the day I had left Jenin, Israeli forces assassinated a member of Islamic Jihad at a café in town. I wondered whether it was the same café where I had had breakfast a few hours beforehand.

The horse rider at sunset

I had spent a day in Nablus and was in a bus on my way back to Ramallah. It was a gorgeous and mild late winter afternoon and the sun was starting to set. The dark yellow and pinkish hues of approaching dusk were coloring the beautiful landscape around us. I looked out the window and saw we were driving by a picturesque village in a valley. I noticed the pastoral view of an older Palestinian man with the traditional Arab head-dress leisurely riding on a horse as he enjoyed the late afternoon’s peace. It was a picture perfect scene which, for a few seconds, made me think of what Palestinian life must have been like before the Israeli occupation. As I raised my eyes, though, I saw that the top of the hills at whose feet the peasant was riding were occupied by a settlement. I felt a wave of sadness invade me and wondered what this elderly man felt as he saw it, how the change in the landscape around him over his lifetime had affected him, what life must have been like for him before that hostile world started to close in around him and whether, despite everything, he was still able to enjoy his winter afternoon horse ride at sunset.

Picnics at the checkpoints

Outside Palestine, the only form of resistance to the Israeli occupation we seem to hear about is violent resistance, including terrorist activity. During my time in Israel/Palestine, however, I became aware of the fact that there is a great deal of non-violent resistance. This type of resistance, however, neither gets much press nor does it seem to have much impact on Israelis. I have seen young girls and teenagers marching peacefully in Bethlehem to protest IDF assassinations. I have heard of civil disobedience campaigns in the form of non-tax payments in Beit Sahour, demonstrations in Ramallah against the Gaza war, and numerous activities –often joint with Israeli NGOs—against the separation wall (to name just a few).

In Nablus, as I visited twenty-five-year-old Khaled and his NGO, I heard about some of the most creative anti-occupation activities I would come across. One of them was letters written by Palestinian school children to Israeli soldiers asking them not to serve in the army (at least in occupied Palestine). Another such activity was the “picnics at the checkpoints.” When Khaled mentioned this activity I first thought I had misunderstood. “Yes,” he repeated, “we organize picnics at the checkpoints. We bring blankets and food, set up shop by a checkpoint and try to start our picnic.” Most of the times, the soldiers will break up the picnic and ask the participants to clear the area. The Palestinian participants have no choice but to leave. However, as Khaled explained, by the time they leave they have made their point –that this is their country and they have a right to a picnic.

Terrorist city

I was visiting an NGO run by Anne, one of my students, and Khaled, her husband, in Nablus. She is French and had originally arrived in Palestine to volunteer. She ended up falling in love with one of the founders of the NGO, a young Nabulsi activist, marrying him and staying in Palestine with him. Anne and Khaled were telling me about their NGO. It organized social activities for children, young people and women in Nablus in the educational, social and political arenas. I was impressed with their work. When I asked them whether it was easy for them to find funding, the reply was disappointing. “No” Anne explained, “It is not easy.” “Why?” I asked her “there is so much need and your programs are so thoughtful and creative.” “This is terrorist city” Anne said with a smirk on her face. “What do you mean?” I asked “I mean that the donors think of Nablus as a center of terrorism and are wary of funding any activities here” she explained. It seemed to me that, if Nablus is indeed a center of violent resistance to the occupation, it is all the more important to have centers to support children, young people and women and, to the extent possible, try to channel the anger and political discontent through other social and educational activities. Anne and Khaled’s NGO had plenty of participants and a myriad creative ways to support and engage young disenchanted people. I wished donors would be wiser.

24-hour service

I was in Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem and was being taken around by Mira, a student of mine, and Mahmoud, her brother-in-law. They were telling me about the toughest times in Deheishe during the 1980s, when curfews were routine and the camp was entirely surrounded by barbed wire. I saw the pictures. It looked like a huge animal cage at a zoo. Mahmoud was explaining how Israeli soldiers were constantly in the camp and how it was difficult to go out of the house to even get food. Mira added that it was the women who would often violate the curfew to go out and get food for their families. Their stories made obvious that the presence of the soldiers was ubiquitous at all points in their lives. I made a comment to such effect. Mahmoud smiled sadly and said: “Yes, we have 24-hour service from the Israelis.”

2 am

I was teaching my class at Bethlehem University and, during one of our breaks, I went over to Imad, one of my students, and started chatting casually with him. He told me how that day he was not as focused as usual because he had not been able to get a good night’s sleep. I asked him why. He explained that, at 2 a.m., Israeli soldiers had knocked at the door of his home in Beit Jala. Beit Jala is a small town outside Bethlehem with a large majority of Christian population, like Imad. That night, Imad recounted, Israeli troops had gone from home to home all over the town looking for weapons. The fright of being woken up in the middle of the night, the terror of the children, the sheer disruption of one’s intimacy and one’s inability to get a good night’s sleep were some of the consequences of the search. “In the end,” Imad continued with a shrug, “they told us they had gotten the wrong neighborhood and left.” By then, though, it was too late for anyone in Imad’s family (and in much of the rest of Beit Jala) to go back to a restful sleep. As I learned from many of my Palestinian friends, this is “normal life” in the West Bank.

The Pony Tail and the Beach

It was Saturday evening and I was in Beit Sahour at an activity organized by a joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO. After the activity, most of us stayed behind to talk to each other. I was speaking to two young Palestinian men in their twenties. They were from the nearby refugee camp of Aza. We were sharing experiences and discussing the difficulties arising from all the restrictions on movement imposed by Israel on Palestinians. Hani, a tall, self-assured and handsome young man told me how in the summer he and a couple of his friends wanted to go to the beach. The summer is hot in Palestine and Palestinians have been completely cut off from access to the sea, even the Dead Sea. This was not going to prevent Hani from a swim in the Mediterranean, though. “How did you manage to go through the checkpoints?” I asked him. “We dressed up like Israelis” he answered. “What do you mean?” I retorted. “Well, I have a pony tail, see?” he showed me “and I made sure to dress in low-cut jeans and a T-shirt. “I look Israeli this way” he said, proud of his ruse to access the water. “I am even thinking of getting an ear-ring” he finished with a twinkle in his eye. I imagined a group of young Palestinians trying to figure out how they could make themselves to look “Israeli,” and driving to the sea in a hot Palestinian summer day. I smiled. Hani smiled back.

Normal people

I was on bus number 21 on my way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. An American man in his fifties was also riding on the bus and he engaged me in a conversation. He said he was a medical doctor who had been living for years in Venice, Italy, and was now visiting Israel/Palestine. We discussed how distorted the view presented of Palestinians in the US media was. “They look like normal people” he said looking carefully around the bus. “They are normal people” I replied defensively. “I know” he said. “I was just kidding” he continued: “All we see in television are men in hoods launching rockets.” I told him that I had felt the same way when I had first arrived and started meeting Palestinians. I realized that I had only seen Palestinians in TV killing or dying, but not simply living or trying to live. The media tend to show Palestinians as they are killed by Israelis or killing in internecine fighting, through terrorist attacks or launching rockets from Gaza.

On the other hand, we see hardly anything of the daily lives of Palestinians under occupation. We see very little of what it means to live in a refugee camp, for a child to try to get to school, for anyone to sell a product or to get to work from one part of Palestine to another through the odyssey of separate roads and myriads of checkpoints. We see very little of the humiliations and sheer lack of respect imposed on Palestinians of all ages by Israeli soldiers on a daily basis –though some of this is starting to surface thanks to the images of the cameras distributed by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. We also see very little of the many virtues of Palestinian society and culture, of this people’s wonderful hospitality, of the solidarity that binds extended families together so that homelessness is non-existent despite widespread poverty, of the Palestinian people’s resilience, patience, warmth and faith. These are some of the many qualities of the Palestinian people who would like, perhaps more than anything else, one day to be able to truly be just a “normal” people in a “normal country.”

A Birthright Story

It was a beautiful summer day and I was on my way to visiting my friend Ibrahim in Ramallah. After crossing Qalandya checkpoint, as we always agreed, I called him to let him know my bus was nearing Ramallah. “Rosa, I want you to meet an American Jewish friend” Ibrahim told me. “Sure” I said. “That will be nice.” American Jews hardly ever travel around the West Bank and I was curious to meet Ibrahim’s friend. He did not disappoint my curiosity. Jon is an American in his mid-twenties, smart, self-assured and outspoken. We met at a café and started by talking about the situation in Palestine and the occupation and, later on, we moved on to his own personal story. It featured a fascinating turn of events. Jon had first gotten to Israel as a teenager on a Birthright tour. He was the son of an Israeli father who, as a committed Zionist, had come to the country in its early years as an academic. As his father’s son, Jon was nothing but supportive of Israel.

During one of their Birthright outings, he and his fellow Jewish teenagers were taken on a trip to the West Bank. At one point, the bus started to come under a rain of stones thrown by Palestinians. Jon was shocked and recounted that he had no idea what was going on. He wondered why anyone would want to throw stones at them. “I was completely clueless” he explained. “But this was a turning point.” He explained how he started to enquire as to what was happening in the West Bank and he began to find out. He went on subsequent trips to Israel/Palestine, met Palestinians and travelled extensively in the West Bank. Eventually, he decided to spend a year at Bir Zeit University and live in Ramallah. That was quite a daring decision. Bir Zeit is a very nationalist and politically active Palestinian university –not the most natural place for a Jew to study at. I asked Jon how it was. He said it was great and that fellow Palestinian students even knew or assumed he was Jewish. His neighbor in Ramallah also knew he was Jewish and kept on hosting him and feeding him, Jon recounted gratefully. He said he was not the first American Jew to go to Bir Zeit. During that year, he became even more committed to the Palestinian cause and started making films on various aspects of the occupation.

When I met him, he was working on a documentary on the victims of administrative detention. In the West Bank, Israel operates as a military government and there are no limits to administrative detention. As a result, Palestinians are routinely held for periods running from days to years without ever being informed of the cause or being formally charged with any crime. Jon was interviewing Palestinian men who had been in administrative detention and the families of some of those currently under detention for his documentary. “Do you ever go to Israel when you are here?” I asked Jon. “Yes,” he answered, “I am actually going to visit my relatives in a settlement this week.” “What a crazy life” I thought to myself. “What do your relatives think of you?” I asked him. “It depends” he answered: “Some of them think I am insane and some of them understand it.” As I left Ramallah after spending the day with Jon and Ibrahim, I thought how surprised the organizers of the very Zionist Birthright program would be to learn of such an unlikely story.

The Girl from Pizgat Ze’ev

I met Ibrahim at Hebrew ulpan. Ibrahim is originally from East Jerusalem, but like many well-to-do families from the city, he and his family moved to Ramallah for a less oppressive presence of Israeli forces and a greater semblance of normality. Ever since I had known him, he was looking for a wife. I was supposed to be tasked with helping him to find one, but failed miserably. I would keep up with his various dates and asked him how they went. One Sunday I called him, “So, how was your date last night?” “Horrible” he answered. That was unusual. Normally, he would answer in a more nuanced manner pointing out what he liked and what he did not like about the girl he had met. This time, though, the judgment was strongly expressed and wholly negative. “Why?” I asked, “What happened?” “She was from Pizgat Ze’ev and she is proud of it! Can you believe it?” he answered. Pizgat Ze’ev is an Israeli settlement in the West Bank on the way from Jerusalem to Ramallah. It is one of the ring of settlements that Israel has built to cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

I knew there were some Palestinians who lived in those settlements, but had never met one. “She was so snobbish about it.” Ibrahim went on “She thinks it is cool to live in a settlement with Jews and she is not interested in things Palestinian.” At that point, I wondered which bright mind had decided to introduce them to each other. I personally thought it was somewhat humorous and even healthy –at least there were some Palestinians living in areas that Israelis were building just for Jews on Palestinian land. I felt it could be seen as a low-key subversive strategy for Palestinians to slowly take over the settlements. I also thought that it was really “the world upside down” that a Palestinian should have to be ashamed of living on Palestinian land where she was from. And yet, I also knew what Ibrahim meant.

Let’s have the full occupation back!

The room of maneuver that the Israeli government has given to the Palestinian Authority from its inception has unfortunately been meager. This is so to such an extent that it tends to de-legitimize the PA’s standing in front of the Palestinian population. The continuous expansion of settlements, the confiscation of water, the building of separate roads and the ongoing “incursions” of the Israeli army even into areas formally controlled by the PA put the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people into a very difficult situation. Moreover, the PA is tasked with the difficult job of raising revenues –in a stifled economy whose borders and transportation routes it does not control—and with catering to the social needs of the population, which are enormous given the state of the economy, and with trying to control armed activists against Israel.

In my view, the PA is the nascent government of a future Palestinian state and the only real hope for the Palestinian people, for Israel and for the resolution of the conflict. Israel’s policies, however, make them look in the eyes of some as Israeli puppets. Their precariousness is so extreme that some people believe the whole exercise is counterproductive. A Palestinian academic once said so to me in unequivocal terms: “This is not worth it. Let us have the full occupation back. At least back then it was clear who was in charge and the Israelis had to pay for public services in Palestine.” Another Palestinian friend put it in the following terms: “The Palestinian Authority right now is in charge of administering the occupation for the Israelis. Why should they do that?”

Free Palestine!

I was teaching my class at Bethlehem University and my students were doing group work. The subject was the impact of the existing customs union between Israel and Palestine on the Palestinian economy in the context of the occupation. The effects have been devastating and have turned the Palestinian economy into a mere appendix of the Israeli economy, completely dependent on Israel for imports, exports, electricity, access to the outside world and work. Traditional industries have decayed and nothing has come to take their place. In addition, Israel controls all the border points and collects all trade taxes for Palestinians –which account for 60 percent of their total budget. Although the treaty between Israel and the PA envisages no cases under which Israel is allowed to withhold trade taxes from Palestinians, in reality it happens whenever Israel wants to put political pressure on the PA. I asked the students to think of solutions that would improve the Palestinian economy. After some time of discussion, one of the students said: “I think I have the answer: “Free Palestine!” he said smiling. He then stopped for a couple of seconds and continued, not completely rhetorically: “or is that too idealistic?”

Jericho

Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It is located in the West Bank and, to this day, it boasts ruins dating back to the beginning of urban civilization. One can also take a beautiful cable-car ride–the longest in the Middle East as advertised— up a steep cliff to a fascinating Greek Orthodox monastery on the Mount of Temptations. That mountain is the place in which Christians believe that Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting and was tempted –unsuccessfully– by the devil. The mountaintop has a maze of caves, private rooms for monks, chapels with gorgeous Greek icons and lookouts over a steep cliff and down the desert plain below. The view is breathtaking. A lonely monk runs the complex. The city also has a number of other tourist attractions that I did not get to visit, such as Hiram’s palace and a hotel with the reputation of being the best in Palestine.

Despite all of this, when my friend Moattaz and I visited the city, it was absolutely empty. One would have thought it had been deserted. It was the summertime and Jericho, which is pleasantly warm in the winter, is hot at that time of the year. Even with that, I simply could not understand how, with all the treasures there were to visit, the city had no tourists. Moattaz and I asked a friend of his who was running the cable car why there seemed to be nobody in the city. “The Israelis tell them not to come” he answered “that it is dangerous.” It is indeed a sad occurrence that all tourists visiting the “Holy Land” do so from Israel, are typically only taken for a morning or an afternoon to quickly visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and are taken back to Jerusalem immediately after. In this way, they miss out enormously. They do not get to stroll through the beautiful old streets and markets of Bethlehem and they do not visit the oldest city in the world and its treasures. Because of this, they miss out religiously, they miss out as tourists, and they miss out on the opportunity to make even a small contribution to the people who most need it in the Holy Land.

Two falafels in Hebron

The norm regarding population relations in Israel and Palestine is one of separation. This separation includes a ban by the Israeli government on Israelis traveling into Palestine – a ban which, with no little amount of irony, excludes soldiers and settlers. As a result, in practice, those Israelis who are banned from going in are the nice ones, those who are not going there to occupy the Palestinians. Despite this regulated separation, some of these “nice Israelis” do make it into the West Bank. These are the few left-wing Jews that are interested enough in the fate of the occupied Palestinian population to risk their lives by going into what is in reality occupied enemy territory. These people are motivated by a sense of responsibility, a willingness to help fellow human beings and a sheer desire to try to keep in touch with people who had for years been their friends. They are journalists, human rights activists, people who participate in dialogue and peace initiatives. They are also mere individuals who have friends on the other side of the border/checkpoint and know that their friends need them.

I once met one such man and heard of another one. The man I met –Yoav– was a sabra in his fifties who had for years been coming to visit friends in a village near Hebron and had continued to do so after the Israeli government had imposed its ban on travel. I met him at the home of a common Palestinian friend. I asked Yoav what he did when he came to Palestine. He said he just visited his friends. That they invited him to family celebrations –this time around he was in for a wedding—and that he helped them obtain goods they could not obtain in Palestine. I asked him if it was not dangerous for him as an Israeli to be driving around Palestine –with his visible Israeli license plates—in the current political situation. He said it was not, that everybody knew him in the area, to which our Palestinian friends assented.

Another time, I heard of Ron –a young Sephardic man –- who often visited the most tense of West Bank cities –Hebron. Hebron is suffocating under the maze of checkpoints, soldiers with machine guns on every rooftop and the siege of the most violent of Israeli settlers. Going into Hebron as an unarmed Israeli civilian seemed to me like an invitation to attack. Rami, a young Palestinian man from Jerusalem who had gone with Ron to Hebron, felt the same way I did. He recounted in a mixture of fear and awe how he and Ron had driven to Hebron for some human rights work with a nice, recently-arrived young European activist still clueless to the dangers of the region. Rami explained how Ron had nonchalantly parked his car next to the main market in Hebron and asked him and the European visitor whether they wanted falafel. Ron was so scared of what could happen, that he just muttered that he actually preferred pizza. “You are such an Ashkenazi!” Ron the Sephardi snapped at him and he got out of the car, dove into a sea of people in the Hebron market, and a couple of minutes later, emerged triumphantly with two falafel sandwiches.

 

Olives

Olives, olive trees and olive oil are an essential part of Palestinian culture. The olive tree is revered, treated with great deference. A student of mine at Bethlehem University wrote his master’s thesis on olive production in Palestine. In his section on the role of the tree in Palestinian culture, he explained that it is considered a symbol of peace because it needs many years and an undisturbed environment in order to grow. Palestinian folk stories often feature olives and olive trees. I am Spanish and know how to appreciate good olive oil. In my view, Palestinian olive oil –which is produced mostly in an artisanal manner—is the best I have tasted anywhere in the world. Olive picking is a family affair in Palestine. Many people have at least a few olive trees and they organize family outings to their fields to pick the olives. I participated in one such outing. It is a beautiful thing. Everybody joins in from the young to the old, men and women. People will take different roles and use different techniques. There is laughter and chatter; food is brought, coffee and tea are served and the whole family sits around and celebrates.

That is if there are no settlers around. One of the most disturbing things I read about while in Israel/Palestine were the settler attacks on Palestinians during the olive season. Both years I was there –and I am afraid, before and after that–, settlers would organize attacks on Palestinians who went to pick their olives anywhere near their settlements. Of course, Palestinians have lived on those lands for centuries and the olives they are picking are theirs. Israeli NGOs even organize groups of Jewish volunteers to join Palestinians in their olive picking to diminish the chances that settlers will attack them. During my second year in Israel/Palestine, the settler attacks were so vicious that even the Israeli army got involved in trying to mitigate them. In the end, the settlers ended up attacking both Palestinians and soldiers –some of whom were also hurt by the settlers. Following those attacks, the mainstream Israeli press started writing that the settlers were “getting out of hand.” Palestinians had known this for decades, but it took attacks on Jews for the Israeli government to figure it out.

My students

During the second year of my stay in Jerusalem, I taught at Bethlehem University. Bethlehem University has a Master’s Program in International Cooperation and Development with students in ages ranging from their twenties to their fifties. They are both Christians and Muslims and almost all of them Palestinian. They work in the field of international development, whether in NGOs, the donor community, the private sector or the Palestinian Authority. It was a wonderful experience for me to teach there and I learned enormously from my students. I was impressed by their dynamism, open-mindedness and constructive attitude. In the current economic, political and security context of the West Bank (not to speak of Gaza), the most natural thing is to fall prey to despair –to conclude that nothing will ever change (at least for the better) and to stop trying. I was happy to meet so many young –and not so young—Palestinians who simply refused to give up.

I was particularly impressed by their ability to be self-critical. I have worked in Latin America, where one sometimes finds an attitude of blaming the United States and “American imperialism” for all of the region’s evils accompanied by a failure to acknowledge a country’s own failings. In the context of the occupation, the easiest –and most natural—thing for Palestinians to do is blame everything on Israel. And yet, this is not what I saw. I saw thoughtful individuals who in a very difficult context succeeded in blaming Israel for what it is responsible for while also being able to criticize their own political leadership, their corrupt class of large businessmen, and their increasingly conservative and sometimes intolerant society. In two years, the one paper I read which in my view over-blamed Israel was written by a European and mainly built on research by an Israeli.

Paradise Hotel

It was one of my first days at Bethlehem University and I took a tour of the campus. It is a beautiful, small, very well-kept campus on top of a hill in Bethlehem. It has lovely white stone buildings, nicely kept gardens and what would normally have been wonderful views over the surrounding landscape. The problem now is that the wall is such an overwhelming presence in Bethlehem that it is almost impossible to be anywhere without seeing it. Some houses are literally enveloped by the wall. One house, in particular, is surrounded by the wall on three sides. Its occupants, heartbreakingly, refuse to leave, because it is, after all, their home. All they see out of their windows, however, is an ugly cement wall –on three sides. Some businesses have had to shut down because what used to be a busy thoroughfare is now just a dead-end street next to the wall.

The expropriation of over fifty percent of Bethlehem’s land for settlements, the wall surrounding it almost on all sides, and the checkpoints have put a huge damper on what used to be thriving tourism. At one point, tourists almost completely stopped coming. Now, they come, but just for the day. They are staying at hotels on the Israeli side and the inhabitants of Bethlehem get little benefit from their visits. The hotels are sad to see –they are virtually empty, but still there, as if waiting for better days to come. I once stayed for a night at the Intercontinental Bethlehem. It is a gorgeous historical mansion that was renovated with support from the World Bank. During the 2002 re-occupation of the city, however, Israeli soldiers decided to occupy it. They made sure to wreck everything they could –they broke furniture, shot the lights and anything they could around them –though no fighting took place there. Once they moved out, the renovation costs were astronomical. It has reopened since and when I stayed there, it was absolutely lovely, but empty. That day, from the top of the hill of Bethlehem University, I saw another –likely empty—hotel. It was also up against the wall. Its sign read, cheerfully, “Paradise Hotel.”

 Development as Freedom

Development as Freedom is the title of a wonderful book by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize in Economics from India. He defines development as the process of progressively expanding the effective freedoms that people enjoy and the ultimate result of development as people having the ability to lead a life they have a reason to value. He classifies these freedoms into economic freedom, political freedom, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security. If anyone were to read just one book on development, this is the one I would recommend. I also assigned it to my students at Bethlehem University. I had studied the book, assigned it to students in the US on other occasions and even presented a country case study based on it at an academic conference.

Discussing it with Palestinian students, however, made the book more real for me than ever before. It also helped me understand the priorities of Palestinians. I asked the students to meet in groups and rank the various types of freedoms from most to least important to them. For the great majority, political freedom was at the top of their list (though they did value democratic freedoms, what they were most interested in was freedom from occupation) followed by protective security and social and economic opportunities (with the exact ranking among these three depending on each group). Transparency guarantees tended to fall at the bottom of the list. It was interesting to see confirmed what I had read in surveys and articles –freedom from occupation was what Palestinians value most, well above economic opportunities. I felt reminded of how incorrect are those who think that improving economics alone can satisfy Palestinian desires. I also felt like never before that I was talking to a group who knew better than anybody should what all these freedoms and un-freedoms are about.

A Bunch of Thugs

I was talking to Joseph, a Palestinian intellectual from Ramallah, about the Israeli occupation and internal Palestinian politics. It was clear that he had no hope left regarding the intentions of Israelis: “I was born the year Israel occupied the West Bank (1967) and, throughout my life, things have only gotten worse. I have no illusions they will ever get better. Not in my lifetime” he sentenced. Regarding internal Palestinian politics, he was no more optimistic. As a Christian, Hamas is anathema and Fatah, he argued, are just not interested in the welfare of the Palestinian people, but only in their own. I asked him why people like him, who cared about Palestine and Palestinians and were educated and committed to a better future, did not form a new party. “Impossible” he concluded “they would not let us. They are a bunch of thugs.”

Kit Kats

I was reading a book on Palestinian humor which I had bought at a bookstore in Ramallah. The book was quite entertaining while throwing light on the not-at-all amusing socio-political environment from which Palestinian humor was emerging. One of the chapters of the book was about jokes on the various groups in Palestinian society that are perceived by others not to be doing their fair share in fighting the occupation. This category included the well-heeled, relatively westernized city-dwellers, especially around Bethlehem and Ramallah, and Christians. This category of people, according to the book, was often derisively called by other Palestinians “Kit Kats” after the American candy bar. That description fit quite well a significant part of my students at Bethlehem University. And yet, in my view, these students are critical to the future of Palestine. There are many ways to be involved in fighting for one’s own country and building a future for it. My students were by no means complacent, resigned or in any way uncritical of the occupation. On the contrary, they were keenly politically aware. It was also clear to me that they felt their contribution laid in building a stronger Palestinian economy, society and institutional structure. When the day comes in which Palestinians can run their own independent state and freely develop their economy and society, these “Kit Kats” will be an instrumental part of making that happen.

The One-State Solution

We were having dinner at my place in Jerusalem with a group of Arab, Jewish and European guests, including some Spanish diplomats. We were discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when the Spanish diplomat mentioned that the one-state solution was increasingly gaining currency in European circles, especially since the two-state solution seemed not to be materializing and settlements kept on expanding. I told him that I understood how that option may look increasingly appealing from the outside. It seems to promise a democratic solution for everyone in the combined space of the historic lands of Israel and Palestine, with no need for anyone to move. It also has the almost romantic allure of overcoming division and conflict and learning to “live together.”

In reality, however, I told him that what the one-state solution would amount to was: “The Jews abuse the Arabs until the Arabs can abuse the Jews.” I am keenly aware of the wish of Israeli –and Diaspora—Jews to keep a country that is “majority Jewish” so that its character, society, politics, language and majority religion reflect the nature and priorities of the Jewish people. After all, the main reason for Zionist emigration to Palestine was for the Jewish people to finally have autonomy and be able to “run their own country.” Moreover, this justifiable wish has gone amok and has become not just a wish for a “majority” Jewish country, but for a nationalistic, ethnic-exclusivist country. As a result, the chances that Israeli Jews will agree to live in equality with Palestinians in a shared space in which they would soon be outnumbered are virtually zero. It is also clear from surveys and the negotiating position of the PA, Fatah and the PLO that the majority of Palestinians would prefer to give up part of historic Palestine so as to be able to decide their own future autonomously in a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. Moreover, roughly 75 percent of Palestinians support the two-state solution. Namely, the large majority of the population of both sides rejects the one-state solution.

De facto, the only realistic one-state solution is what we have now –Israel occupying and abusing Palestine. In the long run, in the absence of the creation of a Palestinian state, we would likely have the opposite –a Palestinian majority abusing and taking revenge on Jews. This is why urgently implementing the two-state solution is so important for both peoples and the rest of the world.

Too big to fail

Middle-of-the-road Israelis know very well that in order to keep a state that is majority Jewish, there needs to be a Palestinian state. Therefore, they generally support the two-state solution. The Palestinian state they envisage, however, is rather small. It does not encompass the 22 percent of historic Palestine that the pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza represent and that is supported by international law and requested by the Palestinian Authority as the land area of a future Palestinian state. The State envisaged by most mainstream Israelis is one that carves out of the West Bank –among other things– the three “large settlement blocks,”–Gush Etzion (separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem), Maaleh Adumim (cutting East Jerusalem’s natural road to Jericho) and Ariel (in the middle of the northern West Bank). These settlement blocks, together with their accompanying system of the separation wall, checkpoints and separate roads, are strategically built to isolate Jerusalem from its natural connection to the West Bank. They have already effectively strangled the centuries-old economic, social and political connection between Jerusalem and the West Bank. A viable Palestinian state is inconceivable without the restoration of the natural connectivity and continuity between East Jerusalem and the West Bank –which requires the removal of these settlement blocks.

The argument that is made for Israel to be able to keep these settlements is that they are too large to be dismantled. Of course, the issue is not land availability in Israel, which is plentiful, from the central coast between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to the Galilee and the Negev. The argument is simply that too much has been invested in building these settlement blocks and that it would be too expensive and too disruptive to dismantle them and move its inhabitants back to Israel. This argument, however, does not stand ground for many reasons. The most obvious one is that it is possible –though admittedly expensive and time-consuming—to re-settle settlers into Israel. The settlements were, after all, built by Israel and more continue to be built on a daily basis. If Israel were to build new housing in Israel rather than for settlers in Palestine, the trend would simply be reversed. The psycho-social argument about “unsettling” the settlers is also a weak one since the great majority of the settlers were born outside Israel/Palestine and moving next door –to a country in which, unlike Palestine, Jews are the majority and can move about freely, can hardly be considered “uprooting.” Even if it was, one would be hard-pressed to justify why uprooting settlers violating international law should prevail over the rights of native Palestinians.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the argument, however, is the implication that if one builds a small settlement into occupied territory, it can acceptably be removed. On the other hand, if one takes so much land, so much water, and moves so many people into occupied territory, that it becomes hard to move them back, then one has crossed a line of no return and the annexing country should be able to keep the annexed land. This argument is the equivalent of saying that, if the violation of international law is relatively small (e.g. as in a small settlement), it should be reversed. However, if the violation is very large (e.g. as in a whole settlement block), it should be condoned and legalized. This is the “too big to fail” argument applied to settlements. There is no basis on international law to support it and the incentive system it would signal is so perverse that no country outside Israel accepts its validity. It is also high time Israel realize that it will not hold water in negotiations and start planning accordingly.

Trash

During the summer of my first year in Israel/Palestine, I spent a week in Southern France with Palestinian friends. One day, we were lying on a beach in Cannes. We had just bought some papers–Arabic-language newspapers for them and an English-language newspaper for me. As I opened the newspaper, fate would have it that there was an article on Palestine. It featured the scavenger children of the West Bank settlement trash heaps. Settlements seem to produce a large amount of trash, most of which they dump in open areas right near population centers in the West Bank (something they would never do in Israel). Sadly, these immense garbage dumping grounds become attractions for poor Palestinians, especially children, who go scavenging there for metal and other throwaways.

The article included a picture of the scavenger children in the middle of the trash. I felt a jab inside me –there I was, lying on the beach in Cannes while poor Palestinian children were going through settler trash to survive. Sometimes life presents one with such extreme images of injustice that one wonders how the world is still standing. How could it be that Palestinians were not only occupied and poor, but that some of them were also reduced to picking off the trash thrown away by their occupiers? I mused something along these lines to my Palestinian friends. Because they are well-aware of these tragic realities, they were less shocked than I was. One of them told me: “Rosa, you can’t change everything in this world. You should just focus on what you can change.” He is right and yet, while lying on that beach in Cannes, I had one of the most vivid images of cosmic injustice I have had in my whole life.

Workers

Work is not easy to find in Palestine. The Palestinian economy suffered the shock of being separated from Jordan and “integrated” into Israel in 1967. A lot of Palestinian productive capacity deteriorated as Palestinian workers found it easier to get jobs in Israel than tend to their land in Palestine and small-scale Palestinian firms were forced to compete –on an uneven playing field—with much larger and modern Israeli firms serviced by appropriate infrastructure networks. The Israeli government never invested in Palestine (except in the settlements). So, Palestine simply had no chance. Moreover, since the beginning of the second intifada, the “integration” was reversed as Palestinian people and goods faced enormous obstacles in entering Israel while Israeli goods continued to enter Palestine unimpeded. This one-way separation was enforced through the establishment of checkpoints, roadblocks, the wall and separate road systems. The separation has also meant that Palestinian workers find it very hard to obtain permits to work in Israel and yet have virtually no economy and no jobs left in Palestine.

Despite these circumstances, there are still some Palestinians who work in Israel. These are almost exclusively farm, construction, and other blue collar workers. In order to work in Israel, these workers have to go through a long and humiliating process. They need to struggle with the impossible Israeli bureaucracy in order to obtain a work permit. They are not allowed to drive into Israel and are forced to take buses to pedestrian crossing points and line up at military checkpoints. If all goes well, they can make it through in a few minutes after going through barbed-wire-crested cement corridors, metal detectors and ID and permit controls. But the waits can be much longer. They can take hours.

The worst of the humiliations these workers may just have to endure I saw on a video taped by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. That video showed a grown Palestinian man blindfolded and kneeling down in front of an Israeli soldier with his machine gun pointed at him asking him to repeat silly and denigrating sentences in Hebrew. The last one I remember was: “I just went in to buy my mom a present.” The Israeli soldier was laughing heartily. I also read a story written by Gideon Levy in Haaretz speaking of a Palestinian worker who had been taken aside by a group of soldiers for attempting to cross into Israel without a permit. They had beaten him up and kicked him so hard in the groin that he had lost one of his testicles.

In spite of the humiliations they have to endure, the little sleep, the waits, the hard work and the meager money, my interactions with these workers always left me impressed. They were kind and would give up their bus seat after a hard day’s work to a woman or an elderly person. They were polite and would let me –and other women– get on the bus first. One day, I was lining up behind a group of Palestinian men in workers’ clothes at a checkpoint from Jerusalem into Bethlehem in the late afternoon. We were all waiting to be checked out and let into the West Bank. As one of the workers looked back and saw me behind them, he motioned to me to go ahead in front of the whole group of workers. The other men nodded in agreement and insisted that I go ahead. I was embarrassed by so much mindfulness and politeness from a group of men who had probably been up way before dawn. I thanked them profusely and declined. Once again, I admired how kind and polite the Palestinians I met were, even in such difficult circumstances.

Peace upon you!

I was travelling toward Bethlehem on my bus from Jerusalem on a December morning. I could see the separation wall to our left and the checkpoint that is one of the entry points into the city. Above the gate, there was a Christmas star and a sign that read: “Peace be upon you!” I stared in disbelief. Was that a joke? I realized it was not. It was a sign meant to welcome the Christian pilgrims going to Bethlehem for Christmas. More importantly, it was another example of Israeli lack of awareness of how things they do look to outsiders. A separation wall, checkpoints, barbed wire, observation towers, soldiers with machine guns, a settlement and Palestinians separated from their remaining land and their olive trees turned into a “buffer zone” by the separation wall –“peace upon you” indeed! I thought to myself.


 

 

 

Chapter 6.  Refugees

When the ships came in from the sea,
This place was held together only by trees.
We were feeding our cows in their enclosures
And organizing our days in closets made by our own hands.
We were coaxing the horse, and beckoning to the wandering star.

Mahmoud Darwish, “The Kindhearted Villagers”

 

Barcelona in the nineteenth century

I met Ashraf at a gathering between Israelis and Palestinians. I remember thinking he was very thin, handsome, gentle, polite, charming and somewhat shy. He is a refugee and lives in Al-Arroub Camp, between Hebron and Bethlehem. Ashraf is a big fan of Barcelona Football Club, which immediately endeared him to me.  We did not speak much during the gathering, but we exchanged email information and wrote to each other briefly a number of times after that. An Israeli man who had also attended the meeting invited me to go and visit Ashraf and some other friends in Al-Arroub. I eagerly agreed.

We drove to Al-Arroub on a Monday afternoon. Ashraf and his friend Mohammed were awaiting us at the entrance of the camp. They greeted us with warm smiles and a handshake. They seemed happy we were there, especially Ashraf. Mohammed drove our car from that point on, as it is not easy to drive through the narrow winding streets of Al-Arroub. We were clearly a novelty and people looked on and some even waved at us. When we arrived near Ashraf’s home, we parked the car, though the street was so narrow that in doing so we blocked the way for other cars to pass through. Our hosts thought that was fine, since there aren’t many cars in the camp anyhow. As we started to go up a steep and narrow passageway scrawled with graffiti leading to his home, Ashraf turned to me and said with a mixture of irony and sadness, “You see, Rosa, this is like Barcelona…but in the nineteenth century.” I smiled back and told him how happy I was to be in Al Arroub and how grateful we were that he and his family were hosting us.

Ashraf’s home, albeit very modest, was immaculately kept and as carefully decorated as the family could manage. I am always impressed at the care and pride Palestinians place on their homes, regardless of how modest they are. They are a beautiful and proud people, with the dignity of nobility gone poor.  We were received with traditional Arab hospitality, which is the best I have seen anywhere in the world. Ashraf’s mother, one of his younger brothers, and his friends (whom we had met before) sat with us in the meeting room and we chatted while his sisters stayed in the house. I went inside and talked to his sisters as well and saw how they made the last preparations for our meal. I could not believe the feast they had prepared for us, especially given how modestly they lived. They had even made special food for me because I did not eat non-kosher meat.  I went back to visit them many times during my two years in Israel/Palestine and I owe them much of what I learned during that time.

Does my name start with an “ayn”?

Ahmad is a young Palestinian professor originally from Deheishe camp in Bethlehem. He grew up in the camp till he was a teenager, when his family moved to Bethlehem proper. During his childhood in Deheishe, he lived through the toughest years of confrontation between the camp’s dwellers and the Israeli army. When Ahmad was five years of age, the Israeli army was looking for a certain man in the camp and, in order to find him, they decided to ask all men between the ages of 14 and 60 whose name started with the Hebrew letter “ayn” to gather at one place in the camp and stand outdoors –in what turned out to be fourteen hours of winter cold and rain. As Ahmad’s father told his family he had to go and explained the nature of the Israeli army’s summons, Ahmad thought that perhaps the summons included him too and, being too young to know, he asked his father fearfully “does my name start with an “ayn”? He remembers his worry for himself, and afterwards for his father, to this day.

They teach things that are not good there

My friends and I were sitting down with Ahmed in his home. Ahmed is a Fatah man and the camp’s community leader. We were discussing potential projects for the camp, for which I offered to try and find external funds. “The most important thing we need,” Ahmed said, “is a kindergarten. The UN school starts with primary school. Before that, mothers either keep their kids at home or they send them to the mosque. And they teach them things that are not good there,” he said, giving me a knowing look. The fight between Fatah and Hamas is often portrayed in the West as either a pure fight for power or in terms of degree of accommodation to Israel. But it is much more than that. It is an ideological battle, a battle between two societal models, and those on both sides of the battle know it well.  It is this difference which in turn explains the possibility of accommodation to Israel or not –a secular nationalist movement can accommodate, a millennialist fundamentalist religious movement cannot (except tactically). Ahmed did not want the camp’s children to be educated in the ideology of the latter.

They thought there were no people here! It was a mistake!

Amjad is a fourteen year-old Palestinian girl from Al-Arroub camp. She is smart, insightful and very interested in the world. Her English is excellent as she spends much of her day watching American television. One day, we were discussing the origins of the state of Israel and Palestinian/Israeli relations. At one point she said to me, “You know, the Jewish motto for the creation of Israel was “A land without people for a people without land. They thought there were no people here, but we were here! It was a mistake!” I thought this is how many Palestinians must perceived Israel –as a gigantic mistake the price of which they are left to pay. For someone still not exposed to the niceties of European nineteenth century nationalism and its racist corollaries, the difference between “people” and “a people” and the idea that only a “developed” European people would count as “a people” have not yet occurred. I tried to explain to her the –clearly subjective – difference between “people” and “a people” and how, unfortunately, the expression she had quoted was not a mistake in the eyes of those who had created it.

We are supposed to go back

I was walking down the streets of Al-Arroub refugee camp with Ashraf and he was telling me about the camp’s governance system. I asked him why they did not elect their own leaders instead of having them appointed by the PLO from the outside. He said that it was because the situation of refugees in the camps was temporary. “We are supposed to go back, you know?” he asked rhetorically. I had known Ashraf for quite a few months by then and nothing in our conversations had ever indicated that he or anyone in his family even remotely thought there was a chance of their going back to Iraq-al-Manshyye, of which there is sadly nothing left after it was destroyed by the Israelis in 1948 and its population, including their family, was expelled. Their big dream is to go live in the US or Canada and their smaller dream would be to get out of the camp and live in Bethlehem. When Ashraf said they were supposed to go back, he said it in a way and with a tone that made me think that he knew very well that could not happen and, at the same time, that it was utterly imperative that one continue to say it. “Yes, I know,” I muttered.  I looked at him in the eye and I knew that he knew and that he knew that I knew that he knew. There was no need to discuss it further. Plus, who was I to contradict him in his half-believed dream as we were walking down the dingy streets of Al-Arroub?

You will always be poor

I became close to a Palestinian family who had to take refuge in the West Bank after their town –located in current-day Israel– was destroyed during the 1948 war. They are one of those families that gives you hope about humanity. They have suffered enormously. They are poor. They live in a refugee camp with an Israeli military observation tower right outside it. They can barely leave their home without having Israeli soldiers ask them for their IDs or, in uncountable other ways, harass them. Despite this, during the two years that I knew them, I never saw them express hatred in any way, shape or form. One day, one of their sons was arrested. He is a young man of 23, who is a student at Birzeit University. He was only held for a few weeks –which for him were an eternity- and was subsequently released without charges. When they arrested him, Israeli soldiers came to his family’s house in their refugee camp. The little children were terrified, the soldiers ruined everything they could in their modest house, kicking furniture and breaking closets. They also decided to insult them: “You will never be anything. We will take all your children and you will always be poor” they spouted in Arabic to the elderly mother. After that, they left.

Hamas and handshakes

We were getting ready to get into Mohammed’s car in Al-Arroub camp when we stopped to greet a group of men sitting in the street. I had gotten used to shaking the hand of the people I met and I extended my hand to greet these new acquaintances. One of the men gave me a harsh look, did not extend his hand and said “Hamas!” (Which was kind of funny to me since in Spanish it means: “Never!”). I withdrew my hand and continued on to the car. My friends explained he was a “sheikh” and that he did not shake women’s hands, especially before going to the mosque. From now on, I thought, when I am with Palestinians I will pay attention to whether the men extend their hand to me or not, like among orthodox Jews. I have no problem in withholding my handshake and I respect other people’s beliefs. The hostility and disapproval in the Hamas man’s eyes, however, was unpleasant and disturbing.

Sons, jail and exile

Samira is a beautiful woman of roughly 50 years of age.  She lives in Al-Arroub refugee camp. Her family was originally from Iraq al-Manshiyye, a town near today’s Kiryat Gat, not far from Beer Sheva. They became refugees after 1948 and their town was destroyed. She has two daughters and eight sons. Five of the sons have been in Israeli jails. Mohannad is now in Canada, but because he has been in jail in Israel, he cannot obtain citizenship. He cannot return to Palestine either, as Israel will not allow him to. He sends the only money the family lives on. Munder is in the Sudan.  When he was in jail, he was severely beaten. He was finally released on the condition that he would leave Palestine. When he came out of jail, Samira explained in her broken English –partly due to her less-than-full command of the language and partly due to the emotions the memories elicit in her–, “he was very confused.” The only country that he was able to secure entry into was the Sudan. He now lives there though he lost the job he once had and he is seriously ill. Two of her other sons (Ashraf and Majed)–both of whom have participated in various peace initiatives with Israelis—were put in jail on administrative detention for a month when they were on their way to a peace conference in Canada for reasons never revealed to them. After what was a horrendous experience, they decided to stay over in Canada with their brother Mohannad. Moayyad, Samira’s fifth formerly-jailed son is now in Gaza. He was part of the group of Palestinian gunmen who took refuge in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem a few years ago as the Israeli army was re-occupying the city. The final settlement of the clash with the Israeli government featured the expulsion of the men to Gaza. Moayyad has been in Gaza for eight years now.

That afternoon, Moayyad was to appear on Al Jazeera. “Come, quick! Moayyad is on TV!” Amjad, Samira’s youngest daughter called to the family. Moayyad was part of the group of Fatah men “without Jewish blood on their hands” that the Israeli government had put on a list of potential prisoners to be released as a sign of goodwill to President Mahmoud Abbas. Samira was clearly beyond herself as she watched her son’s brief appearance on television. She approached the TV screen and kissed it emotively. I do not know what Mohannad and Munder did to deserve what was done to them by the Israeli Government and I am quite sure Ashraf and Majed did nothing at all. I don’t even know exactly what Moayyad’s role was in the Bethlehem scramble. The experience, however, has impacted the whole family and, for the first time, I understood that, for a Palestinian mother, the reason probably does not matter much.

Apricots, Arabic coffee and military jeeps

We were spending the afternoon at a refugee camp near Bethlehem. Our hosts were graciously showing us around and had taken us to the fields just outside the camp so we could see some ruins from the Roman period. As we returned from seeing the ruins and were about to get back into the car, we saw a handsome man in his forties sitting outside a farm house. He walked over to us and greeted us. He sported a charming smile as he welcomed us. He introduced himself and shook our hands. We started up a conversation. He was a doctor who, like many other Palestinians, had studied in the former Soviet Union. He asked us where we were from and I told him I was from Spain. The other guest was a sabra woman. She said without inhibitions that she was from Israel. I automatically cringed, fearing the doctor’s reaction. To my surprise, the doctor just continued the conversation with us amiably. Shortly thereafter, my friend Ashraf –our host at the camp– said matter-of-factly that a military jeep was coming and, surely enough, half a minute later, an Israeli military jeep turned the corner in the road near us. The presence of the Israeli army in the Palestinian territories is overwhelming and can’t be missed, from the checkpoints to the military jeeps and the planes whizzing overhead. Ashraf, like most Palestinians, could recognize their various sounds from far away and mostly just took them in stride, a fact of life that for the moment could not be avoided as they are indeed part of the daily landscape of occupation.

As it turns out, the jeep did not faze anyone except me. The Palestinian doctor invited us into his home. We said we were very grateful, but did not have time to go in. Then, he would bring something out to us, he insisted, and we agreed. He came back out a couple of minutes later with his father, a kind old man, with his son’s winning smile. They were carrying Arabic coffee and apricots for us, some to have here and some more apricots to take home. I just could not believe it. We ate apricots and drank the wonderful coffee as we continued our conversation. Palestinian hospitality can be so generous it overwhelms any westerners’ expectations. The Israeli army is ever-present, Palestinians can barely move, life in the refugee camp could not be direr and yet, my Israeli friend and I were welcomed with smiles, apricots and Arabic coffee. Sometimes, the human heart can redeem the most atrocious circumstances and elevate them. That is what I felt by that road side in the West Bank next to our Palestinian hosts.

Winter in bed

Rami and I were speaking about his life in Al-Arroub camp. I asked him what he normally did in the winter. He explained that winter was harsh in Palestine and his family could not afford much heating. Rami and his family live on two hundred dollars a month his brother living in the Gulf sometimes sends them. Two small heaters for a home of six people turned on part of the time are all they can afford. They take turns in using the heaters and, if someone has to study or is sick, they get the heater. Rami has now finished his studies, but does not have a full-time job. Therefore, what he prefers to do in the winter, he explained, is to just stay under the covers where it is warm and sleep as much as possible. He said that smiling, as if he had found a cunning and pleasant solution to the problem. I felt sad thinking how so much talent and potential, so much that a young man could do in a normal country, in normal circumstances, was just wasted away, shivering under the blankets of an unforgiving Palestinian winter.

Silence

I was watching television with a family of friends in a refugee camp in the West Bank. The news was on. At one point, the program featured the bombing of a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon by the Lebanese government. The images were devastating –the camp had been razed to the ground. Families were left homeless. The dead lay on the ground. All of a sudden, complete silence pervaded the living room. My friends are used to horror. They have lived with it since their childhoods. It is all around them on a daily basis. It also enters their living room through their televisions constantly. Despite that or perhaps because of it, hardly anything leaves them speechless. On the contrary, the living room always seems to be full of chatter, with the TV taking backstage. Nevertheless, the images of death and desolation of a Palestinian refugee camp struck so close to home for them that talking completely stopped. Nobody moved. Nobody said a word. I looked at them. They were all staring at their TV screen with intense, terrified looks and seemed to be holding their breath. “There but for the grace of G-d, go we” they seemed to be thinking.

Many people are interested in peace, but they are afraid to say it

In some contexts, peace can be a dirty word. In Palestine, the decade since the Oslo agreements, which only brought more settlements and more corruption to plague the average Palestinian has given peace a bad name. It is also true that the fact that the Israeli (and probably also the Palestinian) secret services often use and infiltrate peace meetings rarefies their atmosphere. However, many Palestinians know that peace is the only solution, but some are afraid to say it. I was speaking to Rawa, a sharp and motivated Palestinian woman in her early thirties. She is married and works at an NGO while her husband works at a UN agency. They have three children and live in a refugee camp near Hebron though their dream is to make enough money to move out to Bethlehem. I had met her a couple of weeks before at a presentation by an association of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families. Her brother-in-law was killed by the Israeli army in the refugee camp of Deheishe, in Bethlehem, and her parents-in-law go to meetings to tell their story jointly with Israeli parents who have lost their children in terrorist attacks.

Rawa was a gracious hostess to me and we were discussing the conflict over cold drinks. At one point she told me, “You know, many people are interested in peace, but they are afraid to say it.” She went on to explain how saying that one was interested in peace sounded like being a collaborator and that, in many contexts, especially in refugee camps, one could not say it openly. I had noticed how some of the people we met at “peace meetings’ would keep their participation secret even to some of their friends and family. Rawa explained that many people were tired of fighting, ready to compromise and wanted peace. This view is reflected in surveys, which consistently show that roughly 75 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution. Months later, I would think of my conversation with Rawa when, at a presentation on the attitudes of Palestinian youth at a think tank in Ramallah, I heard that more than half of Palestinian youth are afraid to speak their minds openly in public. A big problem in Palestinian society seems to be the enormous social pressure to conform to specific ways of thinking and the violent means that a minority is willing to use on the rest of the population to impose them.

The US is the best country in the world!

I was sitting with Rana at her home in a refugee camp in the West Bank. Rana is a particularly smart fourteen-year-old girl who speaks great English and spends much of her time watching American Television at home. She would like to do many other things, including travel to Europe or just go visit her girlfriends’ homes. Travel to Europe, though, is beyond bounds due to money constraints and permits and going to her girlfriends’ homes is severely restricted by her religious older brother, the head of the household. Rana is an observant Muslim girl who wears a hejab and long dress. She also thinks that previous generations of Muslim women had not been “properly taught the Koran” and that is why they had dressed and behaved more liberally.

When she is watching her American shows, though, all this seems to melt away as she becomes enchanted by her television screen. One day, when we were watching a particularly inane American soap opera, she sighed and said wistfully: “I think the US is the best country in the world!” I wondered what in that silly show had triggered such an effusive endorsement for the society it reflected. “Why???” I asked her emphatically. She shrugged her shoulders and smiled charmingly as she answered me: “I don’t know.” I may be wrong, but I believe her American shows were a way to escape what was, despite her protestations, an oppressive environment and that, although she knew little about American society, she sensed one important aspect of it which she sorely missed at home–freedom.

Normal life

I was speaking to Ahmed about his brother’s failed return to his family in a refugee camp of the West Bank after many years of living in Sudan. He had come back to live in the refugee camp with his family for a couple of months and, after that, moved back to Jordan. I asked Ahmed why that was, since his mother would very much have liked to have him stay nearby. Before he had a chance to answer me, I mused to Ahmed that perhaps his brother could not tolerate living under the occupation, with a watch tower right outside his camp, soldiers all over, and needing to cross checkpoints to get anywhere. “I don’t know if that was it” he answered skeptically. “I can understand why he would not want to live like that” I volunteered. When you look at it coming from the outside, it is horrible. “For us, it is normal life” Ahmed answered matter-of-factly. I still wondered whether, after years away from it, this “normality” had not seemed utterly “abnormal” to his brother.

Not many people want to be helpful in this society

It was a winter afternoon and I was speaking to Majed in his home in a refugee camp in the
West Bank. Majed is a smart and thoughtful twenty-two-year old whose dream is to immigrate to some country in the West. I asked him why and told him that someone with his brains could do a lot for Palestine. He told me that he felt there was nothing he could do. “Our government is corrupt” he said “politicians are just looking out for themselves and not for the welfare of the Palestinian people.” I told him that perhaps he could contribute to some other area of Palestinian society than politics. “The problem goes beyond politicians,” he answered, “not many people want to be helpful in this society.” Unfortunately, Majed expressed a feeling I have heard from many other young –and not so young—Palestinians. They have no hopes regarding Israel’s intentions, but also no hopes for their own leadership and, sometimes, even for their own society at large. As a result, in what they see as a sinking boat, they prefer to, at least, save themselves and help their families if they can.

Mahmoud

That day, one of my Palestinian friends had suggested that I cross over to the West Bank through a foot border crossing rather than, as usual, by bus. He was right to suggest it. It was an experience. It felt, much more acutely than when entering the West Bank by bus, that one was entering a jail. The crossing consisted of narrow passageways surrounded by high cement walls with barbed wire on top. The observation towers that could be seen from any point, the checkpoints, the people lining up for inspection, the graffiti …”Give them some justice and they will give you peace” read one that stuck in my mind. At the other end, one emerged into the West Bank and taxi drivers and a few other people were waiting hoping to sell a variety of trinkets, drinks and food to those emerging from the border crossing.

I was meant to meet my friends on the other side, but it was the first time we did it that way. I was somewhat concerned that they might not know where they were picking me up at. A young boy at the exit of the crossing quickly realized I was looking around. He approached me. “Hello, can I help you?” he asked me in English. I liked him immediately. He was young, but he clearly knew what he was doing and he struck me as honest. I explained my situation to him and asked him whether he could explain to my friends over the phone where we were at. He quickly agreed and explained to them in Arabic where we were. While we waited for my friends, I found out that the boy’s name was Mahmoud, that he was twelve years of age and that he lived in a nearby refugee camp. In the summertime, since there is no school, he works at that border crossing from seven in the morning until the late evening with a lunch break. He sells Kleenexes, chewing gum, and a few other items and makes about 30 NIS a day (around 7USD).

As we spoke, a number of people greeted him as they walked or drove by. Some people seemed to enquire as to my identity and Mahmoud would have a brief conversation with them and instruct them not to try and sell me any items or bother me in any way. Though he was much younger than most of these people, they seemed to respect him. Mahmoud was clearly one of “the” men at the border crossing.  He was self-assured, laid-back, friendly, and seemed amazingly mature for his age. At one point, he took me a few steps from where we were standing to show me a shepherd with his sheep. “Look!” He said, “Typical of Palestine!” “Do you want to take a picture?” he asked me encouragingly. I told him that it was a beautiful sight, but that I unfortunately did not have a camera with me. He seemed disappointed. I asked him what he would like to do when he was grown up. He looked at me like I had just dropped in from another planet and that anybody from his planet knew that was a question no one around him had the answer to. “I don’t know!” He said with a shrug. I hoped that he could be whatever it was that he wished to be and, especially that, as time went on, that would not appear like such an implausible question to him.

The celebration after jail

We were driving to my friend Ashraf’s home in Arrub camp. We were entering one of the narrow alleys in the camp that leads into his street when we encountered a large group of people. They were clearly celebrating. They were waving Palestinian flags and holding up the picture of a young man. The crowd saw the car approaching and stopped us. My friends rolled down the window and had a not very friendly conversation with the people blocking our car. After a couple of minutes, we were allowed to continue on. My friends explained that the people in the crowd were celebrating the release of a seventeen-year-old boy from an Israeli prison after one year’s captivity and that, because they had seen a westerner in the car, they had simulated a roadblock for my illumination.

As I learned some time later, the boy was a member of Hamas (and the group I was with in the car were members of Fatah). Thank G-d, it all ended calmly and, shortly thereafter, we parked the car. As we entered Ashraf’s home, we heard shooting.  Ashraf’s mother reassured me –“It is just shooting in the air. It is just a celebration.” But I did not need reassurance. I was not afraid. I was thinking of that boy and his one year in prison. I was wondering what he had done to deserve that, but did not ask, as the answer is always “politics.” I wondered how many young Palestinian men’s lives are wasted in prison and thought of the happiness his mother must have felt at having him back home.

The prison within the prison within the prison within the prison

When I go to visit Samira in the refugee camp where she lives, I often feel like I am visiting her in prison. You could think of the West Bank as a prison. If you are Palestinian, you are unlikely to be able to get out. It is progressively being surrounded by a “separation wall,” there are numerous check-points between it and Israel and, in addition, it is almost impossible to get a permit to come over in any case. Most Palestinians I have spoken to have not been to Israel since the beginning of the second intifada. Some have never been. Many live less than a half hour away from Jerusalem and dream of visiting the mosques in the city (or their relatives) and simply cannot. The feeling of the physical environment literally surrounding the West Bank is also reminiscent of a prison. I especially felt it when I walked across the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It is an absolute maze of high cement walls with barbed wire on top, turnstiles, observation cameras and soldiers. You feel like you are entering a prison. Once inside, it is not even an open prison, because there are checkpoints all across the West Bank. So, Palestinians are also prisoners in the areas in-between the checkpoints, with limits on what roads to use and where to tread. If one lives in a refugee camp, that is one’s additional prison. The camps are surrounded by garrison towers where the Israeli military constantly observes the movements of those who live in them and raids in the camps are commonplace.

As if all these prisons were not enough, there are the internal walls imposed by the social mores of the traditional society Palestinians live in, especially in refugee camps. Women simply cannot walk around on their own. Samira spent almost the whole summer inside her home because, since there was no school, she had not justifiable reason to go out. The only times she was allowed out was when her eldest brother gave her permission to go visit girlfriends –and he did not do that often. Now that I think about it, I have known her for four months and we have never stepped out of the house together. I almost feel like I visit her in her prison, within her prison, within her prison, within her prison.

 

 

Ramallah is for prestigious people

I was talking to fifteen-year-old Laila at her home in a refugee camp in the West Bank. We were speaking about her brother, who had just started university in Ramallah. “I do not like Ramallah,” she said, “It is full of rich girls” she said with despondency. Shortly thereafter, I was to visit Samira at the same camp. Samira had a similar comment to make as we were discussing various cities in the West Bank: “Ramallah is for prestigious people” she said shrugging her shoulders, as if the place simply did not interest her or, in any case, was well beyond her reach. Indeed, most Palestinians from villages and refugee camps I have spoken to view Ramallah as the town of the elite. At best, the place where the luckier Palestinians live, the Palestinians with the most education, the most money, the most connections, those who come from “prestigious” families and many of whom have lived abroad. At worst, it is the place where those that run the Palestinian government mostly to their own benefit live. There is a clear disconnect. For a young girl sitting in a refugee camp, Ramallah is almost as foreign as Damascus or Cairo and, contrary to how they feel about these cities (which they view as the home center of Arab culture), they do not seem particularly eager to visit it.

Bugs

I was walking down the streets of Al-Arroub with Majd, a young man from the camp who had just started studying at Bir Zeit University outside Ramallah. At one point, we saw a man who was walking in the opposite direction to ours. Majd told me, “Look, this man was almost killed in Gaza. He is Fatah and Hamas almost killed him.” We went on to discuss the situation in Gaza. Majd was clearly perturbed by what was happening there. “It is so sad,” he said, “after everything that we have been through, now we are killing each other.” He shook his head sadly as he continued: “At this point, everybody, even the Arab world, will look at us like bugs!” I had noticed how disturbing intra-Palestinian violence was to Palestinians. They were concerned because of the death and distress it was causing them. They also clearly viewed it –and thought that the rest of the world would view it– as further confirmation that there was something fundamentally wrong with their people. They feared that it might justify all the negative canards that had been thrown at them by Israelis, Lebanese, westerners, Gulf Arabs, the world at large. Most of all, I felt, they were afraid that they may even start to believe them themselves.

One shekel

Rami lives in a refugee camp in the West Bank. His family is large and there is not a single full-time bread winner among them. They depend on occasional transfers from a brother who lives abroad. Rami is young, energetic and charming. He is involved in a number of community activities in his camp as well as in “peace- building” activities between Palestinians and Israelis (which he does not discuss with others at the camp). His family’s supply of cash is so meager that sometimes he does not even have the one shekel (twenty five cents of a USD) that it costs him to take the bus to Hebron for a meeting. When that happens, he said to me, he is embarrassed to acknowledge it and he tells the organizers that he is not feeling well.

 

Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children

I was visiting some friends in a refugee camp. As we were sitting around and chatting, the three-year-old son of one of my friends came by dressed in khaki and with a camouflage cap and gingerly said “Jesh!” I asked my friends what the boy was saying. They explained that he was saying in Arabic that he was the army, that he had dressed up as a soldier. I did not know quite how to react. “Oh,” I said politely, and I smiled at him. I was thinking, what must the kid be thinking? What kind of soldier and what is he doing? I believe he has only seen Israeli soldiers –ubiquitous just outside the camp and all over the West Bank—and I guessed he was just imitating the figures of power he saw around him.

The next day, my friends and I were driving in a car packed with the family and four kids. As we drove by some Israeli soldiers, the kids yelled “Jesh!, Jesh!” They seemed more excited than afraid. Maybe at their age they had not yet had personal experiences that would make them afraid or angry at the soldiers or maybe I misinterpreted their reaction. I remembered a World Bank trip in East Timor in the midst of UN emergency phase three with soldiers all over Dili and tanks rolling about. Children were the only ones who seemed to be innocently enjoying what was happening. They would point to the –mostly Australian– soldiers when they walked by and cheerily yell “hello!, hello!” in English at them. I also remembered a much more disturbing scene.  It was a story published in Ha’aretz about the atrocious abuses of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in Gaza including how an army commander showed his unit “how one deals with Palestinians.”To do so, he walked over to a four-year-old Palestinian child who was playing in the sand by the sea and broke his arms and legs. I wondered how long the innocence of the children in the car would last while dreading that it simply could not be much longer given the environment in which they were living.

The primitive and the civilized

I was visiting a Palestinian family in a refugee camp in the West Bank with an Israeli woman who had offered for me to accompany her in her visit. We were received most warmly and treated with the best of Arab hospitality. At one point, we were invited to go from the visiting room, where we were sitting with the men and the mother of the family, to the inside of the house to speak to the younger women. As we stood up, the Israeli woman whispered in my ear in a condescending tone: “Look how primitive they are! They have their women inside and do not allow them to come to the meeting room!” I was shocked. How could an Israeli be in a Palestinian’s home which was being open to us in the occupied West Bank after having been thrown out of their village which is now a mount of rubble somewhere in Israel and comment that it was these people who were the primitive ones?

Her comment reminded me of similar ones I have heard in the world of development assistance by paternalistic donors. I am constantly amazed at the arrogance, blindness and perceived superiority of white people everywhere and at how, after subjecting other peoples to the most inhumane treatments, we still seem to be able to conclude that it is those people that are “primitive” and we the ones who are “civilized.”

 

Israeli movies

I find the depth of pathos of Israeli movies particularly disturbing. I have never seen an Israeli movie that could strictly be called a “light” movie. In a way, one can say, that is good. There is definitely some soul-searching going on, at least among the glitterati. However, the pathos those movies reflect goes so deep that I believe it expresses the wounds and pangs of conscience of a seriously troubled society. Every society has its dark spots. Every society has its areas of Angst. In Israel, however, I would not be exaggerating much if I said that my impression is that there is only Angst and that even lightness is in fact pervaded with Angst. Despite how much suffering Palestinian society endures, I do not see the same Angst in it. There is sadness; there is pain, but not Angst. These are different things. Once, I heard a Rabbi say that, when someone kills, something breaks within them. In Palestinian society, very few people have killed and they are put away in Israeli jails (or dead). In Israeli society, on the other hand, there are many people who have killed. Perhaps this is what is behind the Angst one feels in Israeli movies.

The Wall –a thousand times over

I visited a very interesting –though, like much in Palestine, poignant—photographic exhibit in Bethlehem. It featured Palestinians next to a glass wall. The artist who designed the exhibit had taken pictures of Bethlehem University students with a large sheet of glass-like plastic. The students could choose how to position themselves with respect to the glass to have their pictures taken with it. Each picture was then presented with a few sentences describing how the students felt about the experience. As so much I have seen in Palestine, it was surprisingly diverse. Understandably, many of the students focused on the separation wall–though in manifold and creative ways. Many others spoke about other walls –invisible walls between individuals, between peoples, within themselves. What struck me most, however, was that no matter what walls they were speaking about, the model for what that wall looked and felt like to them seemed to mirror the one wall that could not be missed –the one that enveloped and choked their city. I felt that those students, in expressing their relationship to that transparent plastic sheet, had reproduced within themselves, with their often beautiful and always moving words, the separation wall — one thousand times over.

A complex about land

Ziad is a West Bank refugee now in his late forties who works for the Palestinian Authority in Hebron. He was also one of my students at Bethlehem University. He is married and has two beautiful children. One day, as we were driving from Hebron to Bethlehem, he excitedly told me that he had just bought a plot of land. The joy in his eyes was unmistakable. He explained how he and his children had gone there and planted some trees. “It was wonderful,” Ziad said, and then he went on to explain: “You know, we refugees have a complex about land.” “How so?” I asked him. He told me that refugees feel they abandoned their land once and that, in fleeing (even if under duress), something in their natural ties to the land had been broken and needed to be repaired. Owning land again and planting trees in it with his children had helped repair that broken link for Ziad. It was clear from the way he spoke that something important deep inside him had healed and that, because of it, he had finally found some peace.

Coming home from school

I was talking to Samira, one of my students at Bethlehem University who lives in the Deheishe refugee camp about life in the camp. She told me her personal story. She is one of the daughters of a refugee mother from a peasant family who only learned how to read and write recently, as an older woman. Despite her limitations –or because of them–, Samira’s mother wanted her children’s life to be different from hers and strongly encouraged their education. Samira finished elementary school and was enrolled in high school. One day during the first intifada, when she was seventeen years of age, she was coming home from high school and encountered a group of men from the camp who were engaged in battle with Israeli soldiers. Samira was hit by a stray bullet from the Israeli soldiers in her elbow. It was not just a real bullet, but a dum-dum bullet. Dum-dum bullets are forbidden by international law because they are so destructive. They explode inside a person’s body causing enormous harm. Samira’s elbow and bone in the nearby arm area were shattered. She was lucky enough to be able to be taken to the Mayo Clinic in the United States to get treatment for her destroyed arm. While she was there, she met a young Palestinian man who had been hit by another Israeli dum-dum bullet in his stomach. The young man was not as fortunate as she was and he died in the United States.

Samira, thank G-d, recovered although she can barely move her elbow to this day. I was struck by the serenity with which she told me her story, how matter-of-fact she was about it and how devoid of hatred. It was hard to believe one could tell such a story as she did. When I expressed surprise at her serenity, she told me: “These are our lives. In my case, this just made me stronger.” I could see that in her eyes, sheer strength and determination devoid of hatred. I admired her greatly and wondered from where in the depths of herself and of her mother’s education she could draw such a wonderful attitude.

What do you want from us?

I was standing at the entrance of a refugee camp in the West Bank with Rami, waiting for a bus after a visit to his family. Rami is a Palestinian man in his early twenties who spent two years living and working in Amman, Jordan. A few months ago, he had gone back to live in the refugee camp where he had grown up and where his mother and some of his siblings still lived. I have noticed that Palestinians who spend some time outside Palestine –or Palestinian Israelis used to living in Israel– become used to “normality” and see the reality of the occupation in Palestine with different eyes than other Palestinians.  Because of this perspective and expectations of “normality,” they behave differently from other Palestinians, often saying or doing things which in the context of the occupation can endanger their lives.

Rami had done one such thing the previous summer. The Israeli soldiers who were stationed at the watch tower at the same entrance to his refugee camp where we were standing, had started to hassle a group of boys and teenagers from the camp without any provocation on their side. Rami had walked over to the soldiers and confronted them. As he did so, his choice of words was telling: “You have a country and beautiful houses to live in (which I assume he saw in the settlements, as he has never been to Israel proper). You can drink and have girlfriends. You can even do drugs if you want. What do you want from us?” Rami’s simple statement was revealing of how a young Palestinian man living in poverty in a refugee camp saw Israelis and, in particular, those young soldiers roughly his age. I thought his perspective could be summarized as: “You have everything one can possibly want and the freedom to make any choices in your life. We have nothing. What do you want from us?” The soldiers had no answer for him.

This country is for the Jews

Mohammed is a charming Palestinian man in his early twenties. He lived and worked in Jordan for a couple of years and then decided to come back to his family, who live in a refugee camp in the West Bank. The return only lasted a few months. Mohammed could not find work in Palestine and his camp was under constant observation and almost-daily incursions from Israeli soldiers. Travelling, even to other cities within the West Bank, required going through painful checkpoints and I could tell that the atmosphere of the occupation was particularly oppressive for him. After a couple of months of being back to Palestine, Mohammed told me he was going back to Jordan. “Why?” I asked him, as I knew how happy his mother was to have him back home. He shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of hurt and impotence: “This country is not for us. This country is for the Jews” he answered. I wished I could have done something for him, but I felt as helpless as he did. The next time I went to visit his family in the camp, he was no longer there.

High school musical

It was one of my last days in Israel/Palestine and I went to visit my friends in Al-Arroub camp to bid them farewell. When I arrived in a van at the entrance of the camp, I looked out the window and saw there was trouble. Israeli soldiers had a few Palestinian young men –they looked barely like teenagers—by the observation tower. They were kneeling and their hands were tied at their backs. I cringed. When I arrived at my friends’ home, things were still more or less calm inside the camp. I sat down with fifteen-year-old Rana as she watched High School Musical on TV. She loved that movie and seemed to have seen it other times as she was singing along to every single song.

At one point, we heard gun shots. The soldiers had entered the camp and were shooting somewhere nearby. Rana’s mother looked distraught. As she always did when there was shooting, she said “I am afraid.” As she shrugged her shoulders, the scared look in her face made her seem like a little girl though she is in her late fifties. She appeared to be saying: “I will never get used to this. There is nothing I can do about it.” Rana’s brother Ahmad was on the phone to a friend who wanted to visit them and told him not to come now because the camp was “mined” (an expression meaning full of soldiers). The whole family gathered with us in the TV room, which has no windows and hence is relatively safe. In the midst of all of this, Rana seemed unperturbed. She kept on watching her TV screen as if mesmerized and continued singing along. I thought that was such an unlikely, surreal scene –the camp over-run by soldiers, shooting going on around us, a family sheltering itself in a windowless room and a teenage girl pretending it was all normal and singing along to High School Musical in front of her TV screen. I did not know whether it was because this situation was, after all, quite normal in the camp, whether it was a –possibly unconscious—gesture of defiance by Rana, or both but, because she seemed happy in her make-believe world, I did not ask her.

He is so small!

I was visiting some friends in a refugee camp in the West Bank. I was sitting with Rima, one of the teenage daughters of the family watching television when her little cousins Maryam and Mohammad came by. The TV was broadcasting some footage from the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza. At one point, it showed the body of a young boy of around two or three years of age wrapped in a shawl being mourned by his distraught relatives. The images caught the attention of eight year old Maryam. “Look!” she said to her four-year-old brother Mohammad, “it is a kid!” Mohammad looked at the TV screen without seeming to understand. “He is so small!” Maryam continued, “Just as small as Rami!” Their mother had given birth to a baby boy just a few days ago. The boy in TV was not as small as newborn Rami, but in Maryam’s eyes, the likeness was obvious –two very young, defenseless boys. This, she seemed to be thinking, could have been my baby brother.

A souvenir

I was visiting Rana, one of my students at Bethlehem University, in Deheishe, a refugee camp in Bethlehem. I had read about it and knew it was one of the most active camps in the first intifada and, even before that, in the early 1980s. I had also driven by it many times in my trips around the area, but had not been inside yet. When I spoke to Rana during a lunch break, I asked her some questions about the camp and she invited me to visit her there. I eagerly agreed.

We were sitting in her home with her sister Rima and her husband Ahmad. They were telling me about the times when the camp was bustling with anti-occupation activities and over-run by Israeli soldiers. They also explained how the whole camp had been surrounded by an eight-meter tall barbed wire fence and how there were very strict curfews and controls on entry and exit into and out of the camp. After visiting Rana’s home, we went out walking around Deheishe. As we approached the outside end of the camp, we went by a turnstile standing in the middle of the pavement. The turnstile did not separate anything from anything and looked surreal at the entrance of the camp. “This is a souvenir” Ahmad said ironically. “It used to be the only way into and out of the camp during the times in which it was fully surrounded by the barbed wire fence and it was tightly controlled by the Israelis.” After the PA took over security in Bethlehem, he explained, the dwellers of Deheishe decided to leave the turnstile standing as a historical reminder of what they had been through. As a door from nowhere to nowhere, it also looked like a symbol of the often surreal nature of the occupation.

The Hamas collaborators

I was speaking to Reem, a beautiful, sharp-minded and outspoken woman from Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem about life in the camp. She told me how, during the 1980s, the conflict with Israel was not the only one going on in the camp. There was another battle raging among Palestinians themselves. That battle –which continues to this day—was the one between secularists –mostly Fatah as well as the left-wing parties—and “the religious” –mostly Hamas. Reem explained that, unlike some other refugee camps, Deheishe had much stronger Fatah and left-wing forces which stood up to the attempts by “the religious” to impose their social norms on the camp including hejab-wearing for women. Reem herself dresses completely western, in jeans and with no head covering. “We put them in their place” she said proudly. This is why I can to this day walk around dressed as I wish in my camp. “In addition, those guys” she continued referring to Hamas “were collaborating with the Israelis at that time.” She had a look of disgust in her face which seemed to be saying “that is a bad combination if I ever saw one.”

A case study

I was speaking to Ashraf, a Palestinian refugee in his mid-twenties who had recently moved to the West. While in Palestine, Ashraf had been an active organizer of international meetings and participated in peace dialogue groups with Israelis. Now that he was in North America, he thought it would be a good moment to continue some of the relationships he had started back in Palestine. He was sorely disappointed, however. He told me that some people from NGOs who had been assiduously calling him to ask for his views about “the situation,” life in Palestine more generally, and his personal opinions on Israelis, were no longer interested in him now that he lived in the West. “One of these NGO people e-mailed me and, when I e-mailed them back, I told them that I was now living in the West.” “They never wrote back to me despite the fact that, when I was in Palestine, they had called me every month for a long time to ask for my opinions.” He was clearly disappointed and felt personally hurt. “They are no longer interested in me now. I think they want Palestinians to stay in Palestine so they can research us. In my case, they just wanted to see what a Palestinian in a refugee camp thought. They never looked at me as a person who wanted to make the most of his life and make himself out to be something. I think I was just a case study for them” he concluded.

The wedding picture

Rana was one of my students at Bethlehem University. She is sharp, independent and self-assured. She would like to find a scholarship to do a PhD in the West and has no plans to marry. I met with her and another student at a trendy café in Ramallah. Rana told me a story about her family. They were from Lita, one of the villages around Jerusalem that were taken over by Israel in 1948. When the war broke out, her grandparents decided to leave their home and seek a more secure place. Rana told me that her grandfather had hesitated about whether he should take his wedding picture with him. In the end, since he thought he would go back soon, he decided there was no point in carrying it with him. It was a decision that he regretted ever after. He had no other copy of his wedding picture and, because it was left in their home in Lita, which was taken over by Israel, he never got it back. His whole life, Rana recalled regretfully, he was sad that he was unable to show his children and grandchildren his wedding picture and wondered where it had ended up in his absence.

 

 

Nefesh be Nefesh

I was visiting some friends in a refugee camp in the West Bank. We were sitting, sipping tea and chatting when Jihad, the teenage son of the family appeared on the doorstep. He said hello and started to speak to his mother. I looked at him and had to do a double-take. He was indeed wearing what I thought he was wearing. It was a Nefesh be Nefesh baseball cap. Nefesh be Nefesh is a Zionist organization that supports the immigration of Diaspora Jews to Israel. I had no idea how Jihad had gotten a hold of this cap and was quite sure he had no idea what it was. Jihad does not speak English and my Arabic is very basic, so I asked his sister Nour to interpret. I told her what organization the cap was from –which I am not sure she completely understood, except that it was something Jewish—and asked her to enquire from Jihad where he had gotten it. She did and then translated his answer. “He has a friend whose father works in Israel and brings many things from there. Jews throw away a lot of things and he just brings them home. Jihad does not know what the organization is.” I thanked her for translating. How surreal, I thought, that a Nefesh be Nefesh baseball cap from an organization promoting Jewish immigration to Israel should end up being worn by a Palestinian youth called Jihad in a refugee camp in the West Bank. I smiled to myself. Next time I visited the family, Jihad was still wearing his Nefesh be Nefesh cap.

Just one day of happiness

Ashraf is a refugee. His parents were refugees and he was born a refugee in a camp in the West Bank. He has been able to achieve what at one time was his dream –to go and live in Canada. However, because he has no country of citizenship, he is still a refugee there and that is what his identity card says. Despite the fact that Canadians are kind, he explained to me one day over the phone, he is lonely. He sorely misses Palestine –from his mother’s cooking to his friends, his narguila (or water pipe), the warm weather, the music and his soccer team. Despite having accomplished his dream, he still needs to “make a life for himself,” cannot find anything in Canada that he actually enjoys doing and told me that he wonders if, outside Palestine, he will ever again have “just one day of happiness.”

They may as well bury them alive

I had known the Al-Katiri family for over a year. They live in a refugee camp near Bethlehem. I went to visit them often and enjoyed their warm hospitality. After months of doing so, I realized I had never been with the mother and daughters of the family anywhere except in their house in the camp. I thought they may enjoy a bit of fresh air and asked them if they wanted to take a trip together in Palestine. I wished I could have offered a trip into Israel or Egypt, but I thought it would be good to start with the more familiar (and easier). A trip in Palestine would not require permits or visas. I had the trip organized. I had made reservations at hotels in Jericho and Ramallah and we had planned for the mother, the two daughters and one son to go –the son was needed so the head of the family (the older brother) would allow the women to go.

A couple of days before the trip, I called to double-check everything was still OK. The mother of the family told me they would be unable to make it because she did not feel well. One of her sons told me it was because they were afraid of settler violence. I had a hunch it was because the older brother –who is very religious and conservative—did not think it was seemly for a group of mainly women to be travelling around Palestine. I had feared that was the case, as I knew from the mother and sisters that this older brother had previously not allowed them to do other things they would like to. Everything seemed to be “haram” (forbidden) of “eb” (a shame/not socially appropriate for women).

So I decided to ask them if they wanted to do something much more modest –go out to eat at a restaurant in Bethlehem one afternoon. To that, the brother agreed. My friends were thrilled. Mary, an Israeli Arab Christian friend of mine and I drove to the camp and picked up the mother and two daughters. They were dressed in their best and looked beautiful. We drove to Bethlehem –a mere 15 minutes away by car. We sat at a pleasant, open-air restaurant under a Bedouin-style tent enjoying the late afternoon and the food. They seemed to enjoy the outing while at the same time remaining somewhat timid, as if it was something they were not used to doing. While we were in the restaurant, they received two phone calls from the older brother. They assured him we would be back at the camp before nightfall. Mary, who was not used to the conservative strictures of West Bank Muslim culture, especially in refugee camps, was fuming. “They may as well bury them alive” she told me after we dropped our friends off at their home.

A time to be free

I met a group of Palestinian youth from a refugee camp in Paris for a couple of days. They had been invited to spend a week in France at a youth summer camp for cultural understanding. Other participants came from Algeria as well as from a couple of European Union countries. I had met several of the Palestinians in the group before in their camp. When I saw them in Paris, however, they seemed transformed. They were more uninhibited, more lively and expressive and some of them even dressed differently –including some women not wearing the hejab they don in Palestine. I shared these remarks with Majd, one of the youth leaders. “Yes” he agreed “we are different here.” After a few seconds of thinking, he added: “It is our time to be free from many things.” As he always seemed to do, Majd had nailed the issue on the head in a very succinct and simple manner. It was indeed their time to be free from the Israeli occupation, from their own Palestinian societal strictures, from their community, camp and family pressures. During that one week in Paris, this small group of Palestinian youth from a refugee camp could just be themselves.

Over

It was toward the end of my stay in Israel/Palestine and I wanted to visit the location of the village of a family of refugees in the West Bank whom I had befriended over the previous two years. Their village no longer exists, but as my friends say “we know where it was.” It is also documented in all books on the Naqba and the destroyed Palestinian villages. It is now literally buried under an Israeli town in the Negev. During my stay, I had become close with that family and I felt I wanted to pay a visit to the place they held so dear in their hearts. So I asked a Palestinian friend of mine who now leaves in Jerusalem if he would take me there one day –he drives and knows the country and I don’t. He looked at me with a mixture of sadness and reproof. “There is nothing to see, Rosa. Nothing” he told me. “But I want to see the site. I want to see if there are any stones left (I had seen that in other destroyed villages)” I felt a tug at my heart –I just wanted to be on the ground where my friends’ family had lived, almost as a pilgrimage of the soul and a tribute to them. Maybe my Palestinian friend understood that and disapproved. He looked at me again, this time in a more determined manner: “It is over, Rosa. It is over.” I did not insist, though I still want to go some day. Although I know what my friend was thinking, I disagree with him. As long as there are thousands of Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps across the Middle East, as long as Israel has not recognized what it did and as long as there has been no agreement between the representatives of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel on the fate of Palestinian refugees, the issue is certainly not over. On the contrary, it is a festering wound in the peace process, an intolerable affront to international law and a reproach to the world’s conscience.

Continue reading: Chapters 7-8.
Return to the Table of contents.