By Ruth Crystal
What follows is my initial summary of some of my experiences on the Global Exchange reality tour to Palestine/Israel that I wanted to share. I hope after some time to digest the experience – I will write an op-ed piece and do some presentation with the maps I brought back showing the “green line”, the separation/annexation wall and settlement locations.
After 10 days of talking to Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, touring sections of the separation wall (the term I’ve heard most often), seeing demolished homes and unrecognized villages – David and I had 2 days on our own. We got to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem before it opened and walked over to see the Knesset Building. My memory, from my visit in ’92, was a flowing glass building on the top of a hill. Now – behind guards and high fences with barbed wire – my view was further blocked by many temporary structures – I assume they are for security forces. The building is not largely glass (like Kennedy Center) but stone – I don’t know if it was modified for protection or if my memory is wrong. I stood and felt conflicted – is it the governing body of the entity that saved my people from the threat of oblivion or the seat of government of an occupying colonial power?
Our base for the trip was the guesthouse of St. George College in East Jerusalem – the Cathedral of the Anglican Bishop of Palestine and 5 surrounding Countries. If the name sounds familiar to news junkies – perhaps it made news in the states that Mordechia Vanunnu – the Israeli who blew the whistle on Israel’s nuclear capabilities is in sanctuary here after being released from prison. We went to the celebration of his release and returned to find him sharing the guesthouse and hoards of photographers hanging around the gates of the compound. We sat in the garden and dining room with him, many in the group talked to him although the terms of his probation forbid him talking to foreigners.
Our trip leader was a young Jewish-American living outside of Bethlehem – our guides were 2 Palestinian professional tour guides both from families that lived in the old city of Jerusalem for several hundred years. Rantisi was assassinated the first day we were there.
-I realize how little I knew of “the situation” – the number of settlers living in OPT (occupied Palestinian territories) doubled during the years of Oslo.
-I remember, as a young adult, being told that it was Jewish settlements that turned what had been arid wastelands into productive oasis – what I never was told was that it was done at the expense of Palestinians
– Israel has meters on Palestinian water wells and fines them if they use in excess of an allotment that was established in the early 80’s – settlements have a per capital allotment of water that is 6 times greater.
-Palestinian activists talk about Israel’s strategy of “quiet transfer” – 12,000 homes have been demolished and permits to build Palestinian homes – in most of the West Bank are denied. Restrictions on movement that make holding a job very difficult are to encourage Palestinians to either leave the Country or move to area A or B communities – those densely populated communities like Ramallah and Nabolus that are nominally under Palestinian Authority control. Estimations are that between 150,000 and 250,000 have left the Country during the last 3 years (the current intafada).
-Our van driver showed us where 100 homes in his village were just given demolition orders to make way for a tunnel to provide access to a new nearby settlement.
-We saw where a community’s only playground was demolished to make way for the wall.
-We met with Peretz Kichon of Yesh Gvul – the refusnik group, who told us about an Israeli law – “the black flag of illegality” that requires Israeli soldiers to disobey illegal orders but says it is not happening. While over 1200 reserve soldiers have refused to serve in the territories, there was a media embargo not publicizing this in Israel that was finally broken by the letter from the 27 pilots. Peretz said that he thought Jewish Americans have confused supporting Israel with their favorite football team and act like sports fans yelling – hit them hard, beat the opposition etc.
-While examining a newly constructed portion of the wall near Abu Dis – we meet a Palestinian man, woman and newborn walking 3 hours home from the hospital (women who have given birth can remember, as I do, what that would feel like) – their home used to be accessible by car from the hospital, now impossible because of the wall.
-We learned about the legal system effecting the territories – Israel says that the Geneva Convention does not apply because the land is not occupied, nor does Israeli civil law apply – rather the territories are governed by military orders – that are not codified so no one knows exactly what applies – i.e. the army refuses to make public the orders on when it is legal to open fire
-We were in Ramallah the third day after the assassination and there was a Hamas rally with singing and drums – while the songs were of retaliation – every one was friendly to us.
-We saw a movie – Arna’s children that I highly recommend seeing if it comes to the states. It told of an Israeli woman who worked with children in the Jenin refugee camp – doing drama and helping them express their anger – and followed some of the young men 10 years later who had become militant fighters and 1, a suicide bomber. Even without understanding the language (it was supposed to be the copy with English subtitles but wasn’t) – I could feel the despair, and see the young kids sitting around demolished houses as perhaps the next generation of militants. I watched Israelis looking very sober as they left the theater.
-There is a Palestinian nonviolent movement that we never hear about in our press. We were told that while Hamas is strong in Jerusalem, there have never been any suicide bombers from Jerusalem because the lives of Palestinians living there are still tolerable and they are still able to work and make a living. The 2 intafadas are very different – the first was a mass movement that didn’t go beyond throwing stones, the second is a movement just of militants and is more violent.
-Many Palestinians are disgusted with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and call them corrupt and ineffective. The PA prime minister has a cement business that actually sells cement to the Israeli government to build the wall. People say Arafat in power is what Sharon wants – if his support wanes, Sharon talks of murdering him and the Palestinians again rally behind him.
-We met with B’Tselem – a wonderful Israeli human rights group. They said that their key issues are: o Restrictions on freedom of movement o Impunity in killing Palestinians o The separation wall and its implications ß Those in the “seam” – i.e. between the green line and the wall must get permits in order to remain in their homes ß Those who the wall divides from their land ß Those around Jerusalem who are divided from needed services by the wall -We also met with Rami Elhanan from the circle of bereaved parents – a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents. He talks of breaking the cycle of despair and anger – of putting cracks in the wall of hatred and bringing it down. -He speaks to groups of Israeli high school students and tells them that when they become soldiers (which happens automatically after high school) – what they do at checkpoints affects the possibility of the next terror bombing. -They have set up a phone number that Jews and Palestinians can call to just speak to someone of the opposite group – thousands have done it in the last year. -He ran a program at Ne’ve Shalom for Palestinians and Israeli children who have lost someone to the violence so each side can begin to understand the suffering of “the other”. We saw a video clip of the program that was very powerful that I am supposed to get a copy of. -He said: When my grandparents were taken to the ovens 60 years ago – the civilized world stood by and did nothing. Today 2 sides are massacring each other and the civilized world is again standing by.
-Every where you go in the West Bank there are checkpoints – they do not just divide Israel from the territories – but one West Bank community from another – it is arbitrary when a Palestinian can get through or is denied.
-Both Hamas and Sharon talk of legitimate targets for assassination.
-We visited Hebron and saw 1200 soldiers guarding 400 settlers.
-Palestinians say, “Israel doesn’t want to divorce or wed us”. Israel bombs the governing office of the PA and then complains that the PA doesn’t rein in terrorists”.
-We visited in Deheisheh refugee camp – a very dense, fenced in community that contains 11,00 Palestinian refuges – 6,000 of whom are under 16 years old. o Their community center has a map showing the 46 villages that were destroyed that they come form. o They talk of the lack of dignity of living in a refugee camp – the total lack of privacy, for many years the lack of private toilets. o The inhabitants, even the Red Cross though they were a temporary situation – and they see no end. o Most suicide bombers are from refugee camps. o The unemployment rate at Deheisheh is 70%. o The key (to the homes their ancestors left behind) is their symbol – demanding the right of return is, to them, the critical issue.
-We visited Ein Hod one of the villages that have existed for hundreds of years but appear on no Israel maps – and are therefore not recognized and receive no services – like schools, water, and roads. Currently 60,00 inhabitants of Israel (not the OPT) live in unrecognized villages – we met with Mohammed Albuhassah who heads a group called the Association of 40 that is working for their recognition.
Wed. 5.5 (continued)
– In 1948, Arabs were 5% of Israel’s population. Today they are 20% (not counting the OPT) – people say they will eventually become a majority even with out the territories.
-To get into Nabulus, we had a letter from the Anglican bishop saying we were pilgrims who wanted to visit Jacob’s well – we still were held at the checkpoint for 5 hours. A soldier told our guide “turn the bus around, take them to a nearby village, show them a well and tell them it is Nabulus”. Standing outside the bus, I got a “finger” from a woman going to the adjoining settlement and a settler man yelled at me” you are an espion” I assume that means spy. Going back to Jerusalem, we had to show passports at 3 checkpoints within 45 minutes.
-We visited the village of Jayyous and saw olive trees that are more than 1000 year old. We talked to a man named Sharif who has been a farmer there for 36 years. When the wall was being built around their village – the soldiers would not allow them back and forth to their fields – so many of them slept in the fields and family members threw food and water over the wall (in places it is a concrete barrier – here it is a fence topped by barbed wire). Only one truck is allowed into their fields so they can no longer transport their produce to the West Bank cities they used to sell the food in – which now sell Israeli produce. Sharif said, “the problem is not the Jewish people, it is the occupation”. Israel wants farms to leave their land -if they are absent 3 years – Israel can claim it – and Sharif says (don’t know if is fact) Sharon said that he needed land for one million more Jews. Jayyous had 6 wells – they now have access to only one of them – which they share with 3 other villages. Many people in Jayyous have developed asthma from regular tear-gassing. They see many more, not fewer soldiers, since the wall was built.
-We asked whether Palestinians receive compensation when their land is taken and were told – “One cannot be compensated for having their land taken any more than for having their wife taken”. Israel offers compensation knowing that very few will accept.
-The best place to donate money is Palestinian Child Welfare Fund www.pcwf.org.
-We met with a settler at Efrat who says the word ‘occupation’ is loaded and prefers the term “administers” i.e. Israel administers the communities in the West Bank.
-We met with a Palestinian woman who runs a community center in the old city of Jerusalem. She said they have been fighting for 2 years to kept it from being demolished to build settler housing. She showed us a tourist map that is sold in the old city that identifies her community as “known as the Muslim quarter – future Jewish settlement”. She said that many young men are now dropping out of school and using drugs because they said that their father’s education is not helping them get jobs.
-Most of what I heard I could take in and think about but near the end of the trip we met with a representative from PENGON – a coalition of Palestinian NGOs working on stopping the wall – and a very bright, educated ANGRY young woman said than she couldn’t condemn suicide bombers – that people who feel desperate have only their lives to fight with. I lost it – walked outside in tears and felt that peace will not be possible – the young leaders of Palestine are either in jail (over 6,00 at the moment) or just as angry and irrational as some settlers. I am still fighting to regain some hope in the situation.
-We met with Adam Heller of Gush Shalom – a Jewish peace group who spoke about the right of return – how the Jewish people who longed for so long to return to the land of our ancestors should understand Palestinians wanted to return to their ancestral communities. o His group coordinates a boycott of products that are made in the settlements which are listed on their website www.gush-shalom.org. o He has what I feel is the best answer about the future of the land: “2 people, 2 states.,1 future”. He said that change is not made by a moral minority but when mainstream politicians see the change as in their interest, and that what is needed is: ß unity in the oppressed society ß division in the oppressor society, and ß international intervention. o His ideas left me feeling a little more hopeful which Adam says is critical – “Optimism is not only a view but a tactic – I have no right to give up – Palestinians don’t have the option. Forget working ‘for peace’ – work to end the occupation and peace will come”.
I look forward to talking to all of you about my experiences.