Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"It is harder than using a gun."

Goodness gracious.

I cannot pretend to know everything, and am thankful for that, because I imagine I would be very lonely. I am not an expert on the situation, but I am an expert on my experiences. Bearing this in mind, here they are.

Opening Comments
I am in love with my fellow delegates. We come from many different religions, generations, countries, and personalities. Everyone is remarkably bright, and I trust I will learn from all of them.

For most of the trip, we're staying at St. George's Cathedral Guesthouse in East Jerusalem. I've made pals with some of the staff here, one of whom, Mousa, made a birthday cake for one of the delegates! (Mark from the UK turned 21. We sang him happy birthday.)

getting here
the flight from atlanta to tel aviv was eleven hours long. our plane, a b777, sat 278 travellers, including an 8-year-old autistic boy who spent the majority of the occasion screaming so shrilly and with such ferocity his body trembled. two rows behind me. His mother sobbed impotantly.

As I got of the plane, I lightheartedly shared my relief of being freed from that audial entrapment with my fellow delegates. Who wouldn't? Who likes a kid screaming like a metalhead for 11 hours on red-eye flight?

And then I got past passport check and I saw security dragging the screaming boy by his hand, stretching his arms with his feet dragging. And I saw his useless, loving mother, frantically chasing a few steps behind.


One woman from our delegation did not get through passport check so easily. The woman behind my counter looked bored. She irritably, and with a great sense of resignation, asked me a few simple questions, looked unimpressed with the stupid haircut in my passport picture, and let me go. Samya was not as lucky.

Samya's father is from Palestine. She has a fairly common Palestinian last name. She even has relatives in the Gaza Strip, though she's never met them. Samya was detained for six hours. The rest of the delegation waited in baggage claim for a few hours (to try to annoy the guards into letting her go in order to get rid of us.) Eventually, we decided that the leaders of our delegation should stay, and then rest of us should get the hotel. But even though I hadn't slept properly for 3 days, I couldn't sleep. The blatant injustice of it all gnawed at me. So - I stayed up and waited for her to get home.

When she finally arrived, it was with a chipper attitude. "It's ok," she said. "I expected it."

And while I didn't expect it, I was impressed by and would like to pay homage to the solidarity of those who stayed. Samya's family is Muslim, and two of the women who stayed behind, one of whom is not a leader of the delegation, are Jewish.


Today our group met with a representative for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), Sarah M. After a short presentation, replete with very useful maps (all of which you can find on their website) she took us on a tour of settlements.

The first one we saw was Nof Zion, which reminded me of gentrified townhouses in my city's neighborhood of Over the Rhine (OTR). The settlement, built by and advertised to wealthy Jewish internationals, advertises a clear view of Jerusalem, the City of David, and Mount Zion to name a few. Similarly, pre-fab communities in OTR, boast of development, historical significance, and security.

Most importantly, they both lack even simple recognition of the communities they are overtaking. A block away from the afore-linked OTR complex is an African-American ghetto, the likes of which most of my audience has an understanding of, and I won't further detail. The valley across which residents of Nof Zion might view important cultural and religious sites houses a Palestinian community, which Nof Zion cuts off from other Palestinian communities in the West Bank. As Sarah M. put it, these development industries "manipulate the view to create this myopia." You see what you want to.

In fact, Nof Zion is East of the Green Line, within the West Bank. It is part of a ring of settlements around the Old City of Jerusalem, surrounding the area like layers of onion.

Nof Zion changed my perspective on settlers. I thought all settlers were gun-toting relgious fanatics. In fact, most settlers have little knowledge of the geopolitical game they're involved in. They're unaware that settlements cut between Palistinian territories. Nof Zion and the park leading up to it didn't look or feel like Palestine. There aren't physical boundaries. I wouldn't have known I was in the West Bank if no one had told me.

This deception is purposeful. The ring around Ramallah (for example) makes it impossible to get to or from Palestine without going through a settlement. And, excluding Nof Zion's exhorbanant half-a-million-dollar pricetag, most settlers are broke. They can't afford to live in the main cities, and move to settlements because of the government subsidies. In return, settlers function as the eyes and ears on the ground for the Israeli government.

Speaking of the Israeli government, they actually own all the land. Even if you pay half-a-million-dollars for a five bedroom home in Nof Zion, the state of Israel owns the land beneath it. This is what makes settlements so problematic. The moment they are built, that land is instantly annexed to Israel. Plus, it's easier to act first and ask questions later: If you physically change the map, you force legal change. Settlement naturalizes the occupation.

But enough of facts and figures.

Meeting With the UN

We met with a representative from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). I was thoroughly unimpressed. He showed us a slideshow and read it as he went. BO-ring. But! They did give us some great resouces on the legal ins and outs of settlements.

Walking Tour of Old Jerusalem

Beautiful. The city of Jerusalem, our (incredibly thoughtful and informed) tour guide Ramon, told us, had been levelled over ten times. You'd never know.

There are four main areas of the Old City: the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter. (Quarter, here, is metaphoric. The biggest one is the Muslim Quarter, followed the the Jewish, then the Christian, ending with the Armenian.)

It is quite easy to tell which communities the government prefers by the cleanliness of each neighborhood. The Jewish Quarter is spotless with a few shops, but mostly residential and religious buildings. The Armenian and Christian Quarters run together in my mind, honestly. But the Muslim Quarter was something altogether different. It was like a bazzaar replete with shops selling everything from tacky touristy t-shirts to religious artifacts to bras and panties. I saw hijabi women selling tank-tops to tourists. Lacking any dumpsters, people and shopkeepers pile trash outside their buildings to haul it away at day's end.

The children, who everywhere in the Old City calloped around like so many wild animals, were smudged. Interestingly though, they were friendlier and more outgoing than in the other areas.

Settlements pepper the Muslim Quarter. We saw armed guards escorting Jewish children to their settlement homes withing the quarter. They were not smiling. I don't blame the parents for wanting to protect their children with arms here. After all, they are occupiers. Most of the Muslim inhabitants, however, seemed unfazed. They were used to it.

I have to wonder at the dedication of these Zionist breeders. What would it take for you to move your children into an area in which you feel you must send armed guards with them?

Parents of the pioneers of the integrated schools in the US sent their children to school with armed guards. Yet, somehow, imposing oneself as a Zionist colonist in an ancient religiously and historically Muslim neighborhood does not seem quite as noble. I do understand why they think it is. I happen to disagree.

On Environmentalism

Blue Star PR boasts that Israel is "the only country in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in it's number of trees." They also brag on the country's advances at irrigation.

It's true. I saw a lot of trees in Israel. These trees, however, are not native, and require a lot of water. The trees planted in Israel are mostly Palm, Pine, and Cedar. They are planted wherever Palestinians have been removed. Changing the landscape both literally and metaphorically parallels the occupation. By bringing in invasive species, the ecosystem is destablized. In fact, pine needles are toxic to the earth they fall on. Palm trees require remarkable amounts of water, especially when planted in such arid soil.

And while water is pumped from miles to make places like Nof Zion look like Palm Springs, Palestinians have to ration and store water on their roofs in black plastic buckets.

A Word on Hope

When we got back to the hotel (after a very, very long day), we asked Ramon what he thought about the whole thing. Ramon is a Christian Palestinian, he is 48, and he has lived here his whole life. His grandfather (who is buried at the Garden of Gesthemene) was the first martyr in Haifa. His son has to reapply for resident status in Jerusalem and his entire family is subject to detainment, imprisonment, and worse, whenever those in power feel like it. And yet, he said that he believes peace can be achieved. Ramon said that it might not be in his lifetime, but his son might one day see it. Dilligence and patience are what he spoke of. "It is harder than using a gun," he said. And, like me, he believes that a two-state solution is not viable. One state with equal rights for all is the only way this thing is going to work. His final comments were filled with "inshAllah," and I could not help but find myself silently aping his prayer.

Tomorrow, we go on to a refugee camp in Bethlehem, and we'll be there overnight. Thank you for keeping up with me. I'll post again in a few days.