By David Crame
In April 2004, I spent 10 days on the West Bank of Palestine as part of a tour of Israeli and Palestinian peace groups and sites organized by Global Exchange, the same organization we toured with in Cuba and South Africa. We both wrote up our experiences and are available to speak to groups, the following are my reflections:
My journey to Palestine actually started several years ago on a trip to Eastern Europe. My wife and I were visiting Budapest. During that time there was an outbreak of anti-Semitism that included attacks on Jews as they were returning from Synagogue services. At the time we were there, one of the largest synagogues in pre WWII Eastern Europe had been restored and was re-opening. As a Jew, my wife wanted to visit and attend a Friday evening Shabbat service. Upon entering we were greeted with a machine gun carrying guard, scanned, my penknife confiscated, our camera checked and, at least I, was constantly eyed by plain clothes security guards during the whole time and this was all before 9/11. Leaving the synagogue and walking back to the subway in the dark made me feel very vulnerable and brought home the vulnerability of Jews whenever someone or some group wants to make them a scapegoat. So the need and justification for a Jewish “homeland” was brought home to me at that time.
After our Budapest experience I read a number of books about pre-WWII Germany, my ancestral homeland. I was obsessed with gathering clues as to how the most cultured, sophisticated and civilized country at the time could sink into committing one of the most heinous crimes in world history. The willing silence and denial of ordinary citizens was certainly part of Nazi Germany. That, coupled with what many non-Americans tell us about how we take our freedoms for granted, led me to the conclusion that what happen in Germany could happen in any country, including my own. So, a homeland for my Jewish wife? Yes to Zionism and the State of Israel.
Unfortunately, what I observed during our two weeks of visiting numerous peace groups and sites throughout the West Bank says to me that after a century of creating, nurturing, and strengthen such a state is at the expense of others. This “homeland” is clearly at the expense of displacing families who we met who could often trace their history in that same land back several centuries. Some even observed that their family name is carried by families in other villages with different religious backgrounds who are Christian, Moslem or Jewish. Just like my surname “Cramer” is carried by Catholics, Lutherans and Jews in Germany.
As for a “secure” homeland, I felt venerable visiting Tel Aviv and the Jewish sections of Jerusalem. I actually felt safer in the occupied territories during the two weeks we traveled extensively in cities, towns, villages and refugee camps. So the Zionist dream of creating a safe haven in Israel is certainly not true.
I tend to be anti-authoritarian and side with the oppressed. There are many forms of oppression. Fear generated by maniacal, suicide bombings is a form of oppression. Having entire cities, towns and villages strangled by a system of separation barriers, encircling settlements, settlement only roads, checkpoints, permits, curfews and TV taxes is also a form of oppression.
Yes, East Jerusalemites (Arabs) are required to pay the equivalent of a $200 tax on TV’s whether you owned one or not. A driver we hired to take us to the Dead Sea showed us his receipt in case we were stopped at a checkpoint and the paid tax payment was requested. Another East Jerusalemite told a story of someone without a TV being thrown in jail because he was caught without a receipt even though he offered to take the soldier to his home and show him that he did not have a TV!
Having a permit to enter certain areas is also a requirement. Farmers in the village of Jayous needed a permit to go from their homes to their fields and from there to the city to sell their products. Obtaining a permit was described as a Kafkaiesque procedure with the result that many farmers give up, leaving their fields fallow and working for other farmers more willing or able to take the risk and tolerate the process. One surviving farmer described the Arab city he sold his goods to as now obtaining products mostly from Israeli settlers because Arab farmers trucks could not get through.
The day after we stayed overnight with a family in a village adjoining Bethlehem the entire area, inhabited mostly by Palestinian Christians, was placed under curfew for several days. One of our guides could not go to her office only several blocks from where she lived. Some in our group could hear tanks driving near where they were staying during the night we were there.
Because we spent most of our time traveling in the territories administered by the IDF (Israel Defense Force), we got to experience checkpoints first hand. At our first one we observed several college age men trying to skirt a checkpoint and being chased by a patrol jeep. They joined our group as we walked toward the checkpoint hoping that they would be able to get back to their university classes by attaching themselves to us as “tourists”. The guards removed them from our group. One of guides, an Israeli, protested so much that we were concerned that we also would be bared.
Going into Bethlehem, our bus was stopped and our East Jerusalemite guide was bared from entering. In solidarity we decided not to go through hoping that denying the town our tourist dollars might force a change in heart. After failing to find another way with more sympathetic guards our guide convinced us that it was no big deal and he would join up with us later. In fact, we did get through without him and he got to our rendezvous sooner than we did! Coming out of Bethlehem we had to avoid a checkpoint by walking down several back alleys to pick up our bus to return to Jerusalem.
During our extensive travels our bus was stopped many times at known checkpoints and at “roving” checkpoints. Depending on the border guard – we were sometimes waved through after they were told we were tourist, other guards made a big display of checking all our passports, albeit courteously. We could never know how long a trip would take. A forty-five minute trip one day might take several hours the next day. It was impossible to make a specific time for an appointment — cell phones are essential tools for linking up.
It took us five hours before permission was granted to enter the City of Nablus. This was with a letter from the Jerusalem Episcopal bishop describing us as Christian pilgrims visiting Jacob’s well and having permission from the local army colonel. (When leaving, we were asked how the shrine was and we were prompted as to how to respond).
We were denied entry to another village near Jenin. We were able to visit Ramala, including Arafat’s compound, Hebron, a refugee camp and even a Samaritan village, (which provided helpful insights to the good Samaritan and woman at the well stories in the Christian bible).
Around Bethlehem are settlements, around East Jerusalem, around Ramala, around other villages. Most settlements are on the tops of hills surrounding these cities and towns. We visited one of these settlements and talked with a settler. We went from the dusty Arab section where houses are half finished, demolished are not even allowed to start, to the lush, new and architecturally interesting settler communities. The Arab section had little vegetation in contrast to the lush and green landscaping of colorful flowers and green lawns of the settlement. I observed water running from these flowerbeds overflowing into the street. In contrast, water is rationed and more expensive in the Arab sections. A block from the town center was a huge Olympic size pool brimming with water. In every settlement we visited or passed, there were building cranes and building activity going on. We were told there were many vacancies. The settler told us that units were open to all, but Arabs did not take advantage of the offer. (An exception to this is the French hill “settlement” in East Jerusalem where there are Arab residents.)
Settler only roads
A modern system of highways connects parts of Israel and settlement communities and run throughout the West Bank. Special license plates, IDs and permits control who uses these roads. They are open to all Israelis, forbidden to most West Bank Arabs.
The separation barrier
The dividing barrier takes many forms. We observed completed walls of concrete and some being built. They are about twice as high as the highest noise barrier along our interstates. Outside of highly populated areas the divider takes the form of a chain link fence topped with barbwire with electronic sensors. On both sides of the fence and concrete wall are patrol roads and another fence. No one is allowed in this space as we found out when we trespassed one area to visit an Arab home caught between the wall and a fence. Within minutes a patrol jeep challenged us.
The barrier takes up a lot of space much like a major highway. It cuts through villages, olive groves and farmer’s fields. Many houses have been demolished to make room for the barrier. Many olive trees have been uprooted, many centuries old, some claim thousands of years old. We were told that these ancient trees are moved to Israeli parks or destroyed.
Compensation for land is refused on principle. A farmer compared his fields as being as precious as his wife and asked how one can take compensation for the loss of a wife?
I remember debates in previous years for a separation fence when it was revealed that little or no suicide bombers came from Gaza — because it was completely enclosed. Pundits would speculate that a fence around the West Bank would then solve the problem of suicide bombers. I even heard the fence being supported by West Bank Arabs as a temporary device to separate the parties until they could figure out how to interact better. One farmer, who’s fields were being cut off, even offered to pay for half of the fence if it were placed at the border. And that’s the problem — the fence seems to be going everywhere but the border. The path of the barriers goes almost entirely inside the borders. Worst still, the fence meanders in and out appearing to divide the West Bank into sections around major cities and enclaves. The fence not only divides the West Bank from Israel, it divides Arab sections from Israeli settlements and Arab settlements from each other when the barrier is coupled with gates and checkpoints, permits and settler only access roads.
At several places along the barrier, we observed: o Farmers could not get to their fields to plant, nurture, or harvest. o College kids were prevented from returning to school. o Grade schoolers, and middle schoolers and high schoolers had to go hours out of their way, if they could get to school at all. o A mother and father with her new born infant forced to walk three hours to return home in a trip that used to take minutes by car.
The barrier appears to serve another purpose other than preventing suicide bombers (which continue despite the barrier), occupants feel like it’s a form of collective punishment for acts that they don’t participate in (but are not quick to condemn). In fact, you hear, “I wouldn’t do it but I can understand those who do.”
West bankers refer to these enclosures as Bantustans and call the barriers, the “Apartheid Wall” because of their similarity to Apartheid South Africa. In my travels to South Africa I don’t recall seeing or any barriers described as anything like what I observed in the Holy Land. In SA millions of people were forced to move — within the country. In the Holy Land, conditions are such that people are moving out of the area. The Christian Arab population, which used to be 17% of the population, is now down to 2%.
The settler we visited went to great pains to describe his liberal and progressive pedigree. He said he was aware of the suffering of those in the “administered territory” because he read about it in the Israeli paper (which provides fairly good coverage). He claimed that if the choice is between security, which is at the heart of Israel’s survival, and people not being handled politely, he would have to pick security. So one gets back to the essential question: survival of a state for whom, at whose expense?
What to do?
So what are the solutions? There are no silver bullets but three things are clear. One, peacemakers need to be supported. Two, any solution must have a Palestinian voice and approval. And three, an outside broker is needed.
We met with many Israeli, Palestinian and some internationals mixed in – groups who are all working toward a just peace — all are using nonviolent methods. Many are dealt with violently. A recent casualty was a young lady who was part of a group trying to stop house demolitions. She was bulldozed over and was killed. Her name was Rachel and an American citizen from Oregon. It was reported recently that 8 to 10 protesters where killed while protesting nonviolently in Gaza. Despite the risks peacemakers take, it appears that the non-violent peace movement is growing both in Israel and in Palestine.
Arab speakers would claim that the first Intafada was supported by everyone. Every family had a member or relative in jail. The second Intafada, often referred to as the second disaster (the first being in 1948) is led and radicalized by “outsiders” and does not have community-wide support.
An example of a solution that has Palestinian participation and approval is the Geneva accord.
An example of an outside broker is the “Road map” supported by the US, Russia, the EU and the UN.
Some ask has Israel lost its spirit? I think not. Mordechai Venunu, the nuclear arms whistle blower, was considered a traitor, revealing critical state secrets. He was imprisoned for 18 years and was recently released. We were at an event at the prison when he was released and got to see and experience him up close since he was staying at the guesthouse we were staying at — a compound of the St George’s Cathedral. In contrast, in our country Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, accused of revealing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, were executed by our government, even though Ethel was indisputably innocent according to declassified FBI documents and recently released KGB records.
In another example, Ariel Sharon was deposed from his position as Minister of Defense when an inquiry tied him to massacres in Lebanon. Defense Secretary Rumsfield is praised in the face of the worse military PR scandal in our nation’s history — the Abu Ghraib prison revelations.
In some ways, Israel is handling some things better than our country. So there is hope. I was teasing some friends the other night over dinner about Israel having an Arab prime minister some time in the future. I can imagine an Arab Christian who grows up partially in East Jerusalem and partially in Flint, Michigan. Goes to school at the University of Chicago. So she knows Middle American English and speaks Hebrew with a Jerusalem accent. She also can speak Arabic with a Middle Eastern accent (in contrast to the Jordanian King who is accused of speaking Americanized Arabic!). And, because she gets arrested leading a peace rally and spends several years in an Israeli prison, she learns Russian from her guards. She rises in stature and runs for office caballing together a coalition of Arab Israelis, second generation Russian Israelis, and progressive Israelis who are attracted to her positions (and good looks). Possible? When there’s hope one can imagine.
This suggests what a Jewish state might mean. Does it have to be led by a Jewish Israeli? Can it be both Jewish and a democracy if it does not have a majority of Jewish Israelis? Any Jew in the world is considered a citizen of Israel just be showing up — sort of a right of “return”. Does a people tied together by a religion and a culture and some genetic material, have an exclusive right to a territory? Only through the lens of justice can this question be answered.
Thanks for your interest in reading this. At one of the checkpoints, a truck driver who had been waiting to get through for over a day while his vegetables cooked in the hot sun, said hello and simply asked me to tell his story. The above is but a portion of what we observed, heard and experienced.