It was still winter, but the Arab Spring had already begun to blossom. Travelling again to Palestine, I was anxious to learn what had changed, what remained the same since my last trip to the Holy Land little more than two years ago.
Once again, I was in the company of some thirty Northern California members of Sabeel (the "Way" or "Well") an ecumenical Palestinian Christian liberation theology group based in Jerusalem (www.fosna.org). Our main purpose was to attend Sabeel's February 23-28 Eighth International Conference in Bethlehem, "Challenging Empire: God, Faithfulness and Resistance," around which we would wrap another week travelling the length and breadth of Israel/Palestine.
Our group this time was somewhat more ecumenical…not just Christians, but some with Jewish and Muslim roots. Since there were among us several Palestinian-Americans and a few twenty-somethings – the sorts of people Israeli border officials single out as potential "troublemakers" – we decided to avoid Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport and fly instead to Amman, Jordan.
Taking advantage of this routing, two couples, myself, and another single woman decided to arrive early – on February 14 - and spend a week in Jordan which itself was feeling the stirrings of the Arab Spring.
We spent our last night in Jordan at one of a string of luxury hotels at the northern edge of the Dead Sea, arriving just in time for a very red sunset, the cliffs of Judea in the mist, and after dark, the lights of Jericho.
It was weekend and Jordanian and Israeli families were enjoying – together - the beach and pools. I turned on the TV in my room to catch up on the news…just in time to watch a sullen Susan Rice – our UN Ambassador – raise her hand – the only one in the chamber – to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's continued construction of settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem…to veto long-standing U.S. policy. I was stunned by the hypocrisy and, as an American, ashamed…especially as we prepared to cross the Jordan into Palestine. There would, I knew, be a price to pay. Not wishing to rub salt in an opening wound, I took the stack of postcards of President Obama and the White House that I had intended to pass out to Palestinian youngsters and buried them at the bottom of my suitcase.
Having joined our larger group in Amman, we headed north though the lush Jordan Valley to the King Hussein Bridge, a crossing directly into Israel necessitated by the fact that there were Palestinian-Americans among us. I was told to hide the black peace scarf I was wearing. It might be a "provocation." I chuckled that the universal symbol of peace might be a provocation, but complied. Sure enough, however – no provocations needed – one of our Palestinian and two of our younger pilgrims were removed for special questioning and searches in another room…the first of many such encounters.
Reunited on the other side, we crossed another checkpoint into the West Bank (no hassle there) and headed south along the Jordan to Jerusalem. Having travelled the road many times, I pointed out to the newcomers the electrified fence that had killed so many deer and other wildlife and the Hebrew-only road signs, there being no Palestinians between the mountains of Samaria to the west and the Jordan River. The entire region had been ethnically cleansed and all the truck farms along the river – in Palestine – were farmed by Israeli settlers. One of the newcomers expressed surprise that signs proclaimed this the "Gandi Road," asking why the Israelis would name it after the apostle of non-violence. "Different Gandhi; different spelling, different man," I replied. The road, I explained, honored the Israeli general who had done the ethnic cleansing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rehavam_Ze'evi). Already our first day in Jerusalem was one of stark and jarring contrasts. It began in the bustle of Jewish West Jerusalem, a very modern urban setting that could have been San Francisco or Atlanta. Making our way to the second floor offices of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (www.icahd.org), we found ICAHD's director, Jeff Halper, an immigrant from Minnesota, briefing a group of Israeli youngsters preparing to visit the sites of Israeli government demolitions of Palestinian homes. They left and he turned to us. I had met Jeff before and found his Santa Claus-beard a good match for his usual ebullient optimism. That February morning, however, his mood turned somber, as he discussed the militarization of his country and his fading hopes for a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict. Israel, he said, had entered a "pre-fascist stage." Surveying an American peace effort in shambles, the continued expansion of settlements, and the hopes engendered among young Palestinians by the Arab Spring, he predicted a third Intifada or uprising before the end of the year. Soon enough the realities behind his prediction hit us like a blow to the chest. Atop a 2,600 foot mountain – ostensibly in East Jerusalem – we found the 220 inhabitants of the tiny Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil (Samuel's Tomb) trapped in an ever-diminishing Kafkaesque no-man's-land. The village being juridically part of the West Bank, but now on the Jerusalem side of the thirty-foot-high Wall that snakes through this tortured land, its people are physically cut off from the West Bank and, lacking Jerusalem identity cards, prohibited from visiting the city below. Their mosque above the prophet's tomb, having been declared an Israeli national park, lies secure behind a chicken-wire fence under lock and key, a sign at the gate offering a cheery "Welcome to Nabi Samuel!" Not far away, beside a one-room schoolhouse, we listened, as villagers told us how their homes had been demolished and how they had been denied permission to expand the school or even to paint a small room intended for a women's cooperative (http://electronicintifada.net/content/israel-issues-demolition-orders-jerusalem-school/9859). Unable to travel or to work, squeezed ever more tightly physically and spiritually, they seemed a people teetering on the brink of oblivion, the memory of their very existence being erased. One of our number, a woman visiting Palestine for the first time, broke into tears as she listened.
There were other tears on the bus as we drove down to Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood where long-time Palestinian residents were being dispossessed and their homes turned over to Jewish Israeli settlers. There, we talked with one dispossessed family – an elderly couple - living in a tent in the garden of their former home…a home we would visit again, under more dramatic circumstances, a week later.
"Dramatic" was an apt adjective for our approach later that afternoon to the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan just south of the Old City's Dung Gate. Spilling down the hillside beneath that gate and the "City of David" archaeological dig there…and up the hills to the east, it, too, is feeling the pressure of Judaization, as homes are demolished to make room for an expanding "archeological park" - in a land where archaeology is political - and others systematically turned over to settlers. Given the in-your-face Disneyland nature of that "park," jammed with tourist busses blocking access to the neighborhood, and the equally in-your-face sight of settlers, automatic weapons in hand, peering from rooftops, the tension is palpable and the smell of tear gas often fills the air (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDhg7Q_fPBE) . We had an appointment halfway down the block from the "City of David" at the Wadi Hilweh Information Center (http://silwanic.net/). Approaching from the bottom of the hill, the driver stopped the bus, refusing to drive further. We persuaded him to drive on and soon understood his reluctance, as the rock hit the side of the bus. At the Information Center, however, we were treated hospitably, enjoying a lunch of bread and fruit, as Mohammed, the center director briefed us on the current situation. With him, we walked to the top of the hill, through the "park," and down an alleyway open to the valley, stopping along the way to discuss one or another aspect of the situation. At one stop, a youngster fresh from the dig, stood with us, listened awhile, and entered a large house taken over to house volunteers at the site. He soon emerged with several other young men looking none too friendly. As they started to gather around us, Mohammed hustled us along. Back at the hotel later that night, we listened to two young Israelis describe why could not participate in the occupation. One, an ex-soldier from Breaking the Silence (http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/), spoke of his experience in Hebron; the other, an impressive high school senior from Shministin, a group of high school-leaving draft resisters, spoke of the moral sources of her conscientious objection and the support she has received from her Zionist, religiously observant parents (She is the first of several young people on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNjggLhQo6w.) Next morning it was off to Bethlehem, contiguously close for us but infinitely distant from Jerusalem for those Palestinians on the other side of the Wall that divides the two cities. There we would join a far larger group of more than 300 to attend the Sabeel conference. I won't attempt here to summarize the entire week of speeches and roundtables. Sabeel has done that well on its website at http://www.fosna.org/content/statement-sabeels-8th-international-conference.
Bethlehem itself is hurting. On the surface, all seems well. Manger Square is jammed with Israeli tour buses and the Church of the Nativity is crowded with the tourists they disgorge. Exiting the church, however, they climb back onto the buses for the quick trip back to Jerusalem where they spend their money. The tourist shops around the square and on the side streets stand empty, as does the magnificent Peace Center with its excellent book shop (rivaled only by that at Jerusalem's famed American Colony). Proprietors are desperate for a sale and I felt somewhat guilty bargaining for the embroidered shawl and icon of St. George I brought home.
Surrounded on three sides by the Wall – including a swath through Shepherd's Field – and monster settlements such Har Homa and Gilo built on land annexed to Jerusalem, Bethlehem is experiencing economic depression. With unemployment at 22%, emigration, particularly among Christians, traditionally about a third of the city's population, has markedly increased. That said, when I visited the next to last Sunday of Epiphany, St. Mary the Virgin Greek Orthodox Church in neighboring Beit Jala was packed with clearly devout worshippers. Their faithfulness under duress (a sample at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jyNko8j4qg ) still brings tears to my eyes.
So, too, did the optimism and determination of the students (mostly Muslim) at the Christian-run Bethlehem University, where those with Jerusalem identity cards must endure a daily hassle at Israeli checkpoints, while those with West Bank papers are prohibited from visiting the holy sites – or relatives – in Jerusalem.
And, as we left on one of our trips to Jerusalem, we passed a scene that epitomized the economic plight of this holy city – sacks of rice being distributed to a scrambling crowd from the back of an UNRWA truck.
It was a short trip back to Sheikh Jarrah, to the house we had visited the week before. In anticipation of the demonstrations that usually follow Friday noon prayers, the police and, soon, soldiers, had erected a barricade at the entrance to the street and, making us dismount from the bus, directed us to proceed on foot. In the garden, we found a large and joyful crowd…of children…of Palestinian children laughing with the Jewish Israeli teen-agers putting on a Punch-and-Judy show for them, as an Israeli radio reporter looked on. On the garden wall a large "Justice" dominated the bright graffiti. The couple we had talked with earlier was there talking with another group of "internationals," as was a still-older woman we would soon meet.
Just then, two young men in black, Hassidim, pulled up on Vespas and, pulling off their helmets, strode through the crowd toward the house they now occupied. The reporter stopped one of the settlers and began an impromptu interview. A few of our number started shouting at the man and things threatened to get ugly. Some of us quieted down our compatriots and we all adjourned to the back to talk with the old lady. Out front, the children could be heard, still laughing at the puppets.
The old lady was very angry – with considerable justification we learned. During their forcible eviction, she and her husband had been physically carried from their home. In the process her husband had suffered a heart attack and - her voice rising, now almost a growl – he had, she said, died in the emergency room. Someone asked how she knew he had died there. Dima, our Sabeel guide who was translating, replied unblinkingly "I'm a nurse. I was in the ER."
As we made our way back to the bus in silence, I stopped to ask one of the Israeli teen-agers what group he was with. "Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity," he replied. "We do this every week to take the kids' mind off the noisy confrontations." Back at the hotel, I checked out their website http://www.en.justjlm.org/. They now have a new fan an ocean and more away.
I don't think I was ready for the next stop…the Muslim cemetery of Mamilla (or Mamil Allah, "God's Refuge"). There, we could see, even the dead are being evicted…graves being toppled, names plastered over, bodies removed…to make way for – I kid you not – a "Museum of Tolerance and Human Dignity." It is a project sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and was to have been designed by the renowned Frank Gehry, who, last year withdrew from the project. As I walked among the desecrated graves, I couldn't help remembering my service as the American Consul in 1970s Krakow, Poland…of walking through ancient Jewish cemeteries in Galicia, badgering Polish officials about their upkeep, and reporting back to Washington about their condition/
It was a thought that also crossed my mind, as I looked across the street at the big American flag flying from the American Consulate General that had just been moved from East Jerusalem where it had long been a sort of "embassy" to the Palestinians, bypassing our embassy in Tel Aviv and reporting directly to Washington. I wondered how often our new Consul General Daniel Rubenstein walked among the desecrated graves of Mamilla and what he reported. I wonder even more now that our new Ambassador Daniel Shapiro is insisting that all reporting go through Tel Aviv.
Later in the week, a choice of travels took some us to the southern West Bank…to Hebron, the most segregated city I have ever experienced, save perhaps, communist-era Berlin (http://www.forward.com/articles/136418/). It was a reunion of sorts for me, for Walid was there again to greet us at the Hebron Rehabilitation Center. Making our way on foot through the old market, covered with chicken wire to catch the garbage tossed by settlers from the upper floors they occupied, we approached the checkpoint to the main settler enclave and the Cave of the Patriarchs or Ibrahimi Mosque. Would we gain the access that we had been denied two years earlier? We traversed the turnstile gate, walked through the electronic metal detector, and approached the Israeli soldiers behind their sandbags. Whew! They were in a good mood and waved us through…to the next checkpoint, a multi-gate affair, where more soldiers with automatic weapons, unsmilingly searched our bags. We were free at last to walk the ramp up to the mosque.
There, we removed our shoes and we women were issued gray head-to-toe, hooded robes. I felt like Yoda. But, it was worth it. Outside, the box-like building left a lot to be desired. Inside, it was other-worldly…and one felt close to the beginning of ours peering into the blackness below…to Abraham and Sarah.
Outside again, the light was harsh…and so, too, the sight of so many soldiers, armored vehicles, and barricades – all to protect the 500 Jewish Israeli settlers from the city's 165,000 Palestinians…or, perhaps vice versa, given the history of the 1994 killing of 29 Muslims worshipers in the mosque and wounding of another 125 by the Kach extremist Baruch Goldstein.
The Old City is still home to a handful of Palestinians, but a ghost town of sorts, with their shuttered shops welded shut on either side of Shuhada Street, the main thoroughfare, and knots of well-armed soldiers at every corner. The intersection below the mosque is dominated by a factory-like box of a building, the Gutnick recreation center built by ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, and, across the street, two souvenir shops – one for "internationals" like ourselves, the other, sporting a metal pillbox on the roof, for Jewish tourists.
There were only two vehicles in sight, an Israeli Army armored car parked in front of Gutnick Center, and a white and red SUV belonging to the Peacekeepers of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH).
A Jersey wall divided what little pedestrian traffic there was. Two Palestinian women made their way along the one-person-wide side of the wall, while a few groups of settlers strolled the far-wider middle of the street…a truly sullen, hope-killing place, crackling with tension. Incidents we witnessed suggested it wouldn't take much of a spark to set off a conflagration…a young soldier pointing his weapon at an older woman, telling her to get back in her house; a young Palestinian shouting at a soldier and forced to remove parts of his clothing before the soldiers…and us; one of our number who, having attempted to follow some settlers further down the street, was turned back by soldiers in what erupted into a shouting match.
It was good to get away and head north. We stopped at the Arbour refugee camp, a cramped, over-crowded place just south of Bethlehem I had visited two years earlier. Amidst its squalor, we experienced a joy so missing in Hebron. After a group of children displayed that joy, performing a depka, the Palestinian version of step-dancing, we broke up into smaller groups to enjoy a meal in various homes. Our hostess, a twenty-something teacher at the UNRWA school, introduced us to her mom, her kid brother, and her teen-age sister, a nursing student, who proudly showed us her crisp, white uniform. And over tea, the conversation turned serious. Our pointed questions were pointedly answered. For the first-time I had the sense that the Arab Spring had taken root among young Palestinians. There would, it seemed be no turning back, and everything seemed possible to the young lady who opened her home to us. Her attitude was one of a "plague on both your houses" – Israel and America, Hamas and Fatah – "we just want to lead normal lives in peace and dignity." There followed the first of many lectures we were to get over the hypocrisy of our veto of the UN resolution on settlements. I agreed and wished her well, promising to tell her story when I got home. (I hope I'm doing that reasonably well.)
The time had come to head north – north of Jerusalem – to Ramallah which we used as a comfortable base for visits to Taybeh and Bilin.
Taybeh, Palestine's only all-Christian village, is the Biblical site of Ephraim where Jesus sought refuge from the Pharisees who had sought to seize him after he raised Lazarus. When St. Helen came to the Holy Land to seek the true cross, she founded a church there dedicated to the village's patron St. George. During his campaign against the Crusaders, Saladin camped among the village's Christians and, finding them "good and hospitable" (taybeen in Arabic), changed the name of the place to Taybeh.
By 1967 the village boasted 3,000 inhabitants, all Christians. Due, however, to the hardship of the subsequent occupation and the emigration of young people seeking work, Taybeh's population has shrunk to 1,300. There we met with Maria Khoury, a writer of children's books, a pillar of St. George's Orthodox Church, and a dynamo businesswoman with an MBA from the University of Colorado. She and her Bavarian-trained brew master husband run Palestine's only brewery ("Taste the revolution," read the ads for Taybeh Golden) as well as an excellent extra virgin olive oil.
Down the road, Father Raed Abusahlia, rector of the village's Latin Church, launched a peace dove project in 2004, in the midst of the violent second Intifada. His dream is to sell 100,000 ceramic lamps in the shape of a dove to burn in Christian churches worldwide, raising awareness about "the living conditions the Christian communities face in the Holy Land."
And, together, Father Abusahlia and the Khourys seek to provide enough work to keep young people from emigrating and, helping thereby, to keep Christianity alive in this nearly forgotten corner of the Holy Land. If you'd like to help, you can purchase a dove in the U.S. by calling (828) 452-5961 or (828) 734-8110 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back home a few weeks later, I found myself trying to explain to church groups the roots of Christianity in Taybeh and elsewhere in Palestine. I remember being amused by the innocent question "Who was the missionary who converted them?" Putting on my best Saturday Night Live "Church Lady" imitation, I replied "Would you believe…Jesus!"
Bilin, to the west where the "Separation Fence" cuts deeply into the West Bank, is as Muslim as Taybeh is Christian. But we found the inhabitants of this pretty village, with its mosque and cemetery, a few shops and a civic center, just as taybeen as those in Taybeh. We had come to witness the weekly Friday demonstration at the fence to protest how that fence had cut off the villagers from their orchards. The protest was just ending and the demonstrators and press corps was trudging back up the hill. A sizeable Israeli military force remained at the fence, still lobbing tear gas canisters and spraying "skunk water" on the remaining demonstrators (http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/09/15/world/middleeast/100000001055777/battle-over-israels-separation-barrier.html).
We gathered on a patio to listen to a middle-aged mother – two grown sons and a young daughter looking on – describe how another son and daughter had been killed in earlier demonstrations. Her son, Bassem, had been shot in the head with a tear gas grenade; her asthmatic ten-year-old daughter died of asphyxiation from inhaling a particularly strong, probably outlawed form of tear gas. The bright sun and just flowering fruit trees beside the patio seemed to mock the pain of the place. It was, I've learned, a pain that continues. For, a month after my return to California, the other daughter, who had sat beside her mother that March afternoon, was herself shot in the leg.
We adjourned in early evening to the home of Iyad Burnat, the leader of Friends of Freedom and Justice Bilin and organizer of the weekly demonstrations that, by their creativity, have garnered wide media attention and, in July, actually got the Israelis to move the fence some meters westward There, we were greeted by his wife and two boys (one of whom has subsequently also been shot in the leg) and served heaping portions of makhlouba, a mix of chicken rice and peas baked in a Bundt-like mold – a Palestinian national dish of sorts.
On the nighttime trip back to Ramallah the lights of Jerusalem stood out in the blackness. So, too, did one of those self-congratulatory USAID signs on the wall of a school. But this one was different! I shouted at our bus driver to stop and several of us piled out to take a picture of the sign, spray-painted with a huge red "VETO." Day-by-day, mile-by-mile, I was beginning to understand the price the United States was paying in the Middle East for its hypocrisy and found myself sympathizing with those whose only weapon was a can of spray paint.
Next morning, the lesson continued. Qalqilia, a city of fifty thousand, is completely surrounded by the Wall, where it cuts deeply beyond the "Green Line" of 1967, and a ring of shining white settlements sitting on what was once the city's farmland. The place is suffocating and dying, with unemployment pushing fifty percent and everyone on water hours. We climbed the four flights to the mayor's offices where we were to receive a well-prepared powerpoint presentation. But, first, we received a rather angry lecture from the mayor. The price for that UN veto would be high indeed.
We didn't need words – not the mayor's or anyone else's – to understand the brewing rage. We had eyes. The causes are there to see for anyone who would but go and look. We saw it in the village of Jayous, where villagers watch others farm their lands beyond a fence with a dirt death strip patrolled by dogs and jeeps. We saw it in the black tanks atop every Palestinian home to collect the trickle of water they get each day. We saw it on the drive to Jenin, our bus, with yellow Israeli plates, zooming along well-paved highways reserved for Jews only, lined with Israeli gas stations, road signs on which the Arabic is blacked out…signs that point only to mega-settlements like Ariel with its concert hall and swimming pool, army vehicles streaming back and forth, roadblocks and checkpoints without apparent rhyme or reason, each with its own daily indignities.
As we neared Jenin, we stopped to buy some coffee – the strong, sweet Turkish kind – from an old man in a tin-roofed stand, an entrepreneur of sorts, and enjoyed it in the shade of an olive tree beside the donkey tied to it. I thought of the dignity of the old man, of Biblical times, of Turkish times, of all the occupations. I marveled at his determination to see it through on this land. And I thought of that graffiti on the Wall at Bethlehem – "To exist is to resist."
And, then, Jenin…the bustling downtown; the pretty, seemingly prosperous suburbs; and the sullen gray refugee camp that had been plowed into a pile of rubble by Israeli tanks in 2002, posters now of "martyrs" on every corner; the "Jenin, Jenin" that lives in Mohamed Bakri's film (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6006251982389677883#). The anger – no, hatred – exhibited by so many in that film – was still palpable in the headquarters of the camp committee. We walked the gray streets and alleys…from anger and despair, it seemed, to a place of joy and hope…to the Freedom Theater, a place itself destroyed in 2002, a tragedy so well documented in another film by another actor/director, Juliano Mer-Khamis' "Arna's Children" (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=9004838847737803917#). As I just watched it again, I found the tears flowing once more. For this is a tragedy that has become much too personal, a hope much too important to the survival of a people to be abandoned. It is a testament to the tenacity of that "To exist is to resist."
Juliano, an accomplished actor in Israeli and American films, the son of Arna, a Jewish Israeli veteran of the Palmach, and a Palestinian father, abandoned his career after the theater's destruction and his mother's death and returned to Jenin with his Finnish wife, to rebuild the theater and carry on his mother's work.
In the black-painted well of the theater, Juliano explained to us how he was not just training would-be professional actors but helping them to deal with the psychological trauma they had all been through…theater as therapy. And the material he chose was carefully selected to serve as therapy through the absurdity of the situation in Jenin. Wandering through the theater's rabbit warren of rooms, I stumbled in on a group of enthusiastic students rehearsing the current production – "Alice in Wonderland." And, on the drawing board, Juliano explained, was the equally absurd "Lieutenant from Inishmore."
This is hard to write, for, out there in the ether of the internet, Juliano is still explaining the importance of the Freedom Theater (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaSvnkRFRic). His soft baritone voice and those of his kids shouting "Hurriya!" – "Freedom!" – are still out there in some transcendent cloud to inspire those who care. But Juliano is now but a picture on my "I love me" wall – with Nelson, Desmond, and a couple of other bishops – and a hole in an aching heart. For just weeks after my return, he was gunned down as he got into his car in front of the theater.
Speculation has it that his killer may have been one of the al Aqsa Brigade kids he worked with or some conservative parent objecting to way boys and girls interacted in the theater. But, six months later, there has been no breakthrough in the investigation, and obscenely ironically, Israeli soldiers have, during those six months, raided the theater several times, trashing it and detaining – and later releasing – several staff members…despite the fact that Jenin is in Area A, designated under the Oslo Accords as ostensibly under complete Palestinian Authority control. During the last such raid in early September, Juliano's Palestinian partner was detained in the middle of a rehearsal of, no joke, "Waiting for Godot."
But we didn't know any of this as we hurried off on our bus to the Jalama Crossing into Israel's Galilee. It is a checkpoint that closes at sunset and that, like many checkpoints has been funded by American taxpayers through USAID. I spent 26 years as a bureaucrat in our Department of State, but never have I read a more chilling example of bureaucratese than the words so proudly displayed on the red, white, and blue sign that greets the traveller about to be searched on entering Galilee: "The Jalama vehicle crossing enhancement was funded by the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development to foster greater trade and economic development of the area."
Once again, our youngest travellers were removed from the bus and taken to a special room for special treatment, grateful, I'm sure to the American people and USAID.
In Galilee, we heard the stories of Israeli Palestinian women seeking the release of their husbands, the legal hurdles they face though Israeli citizens, and the universal difficulties of single parenthood. We also drove through Nazareth Iilit (Upper Nazareth), a new 92% Jewish city intended as a counterweight to largely Arab Nazareth. And, that night, we drove to Umm al Fahm for a meeting with Israel's Muslim leaders who described the subtleties of second-class citizenship.
After a drive down the Mediterranean coast, we arrived in Tel Aviv. On the bustling campus of Tel Aviv University, a guide from Zochrot (Remembrance), a Jewish Israeli organization dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the 531 Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, led us on a tour of a couple of those pre-1948 villages over which the city was built. We stopped in a parking lot overlooking a large, white box of a building and, in the foreground, a gated cemetery, the last remnant of a Palestinian village. Out of nowhere, two unmarked vehicles arrived, and we were soon surrounded by several well-armed men in civilian clothes. Our guide a Palestinian was taken aside and questioned, while we were asked whether any pictures had been taken and told in no uncertain terms to move on. The Israelis, it seems, had built the headquarters of the Shin Bet, their FBI, on the rubble of the destroyed village.
Later that night we visited the main office of Zochrot where several of us renewed acquaintances with the organization's charismatic leader Eitan Bronstein. While he was talking, several youngsters walked behind him entering a room to the right, closing the door behind them. Eitan explained that they were Jews who had come to learn Arabic. It was a welcome breeze that the flickering embers of hope I harbored sorely needed after a difficult day.
It was a day that took us from our encounter with the Shin Bet back to the beach and the blue sea where, one after the other, our senses were assaulted by a mélange of contradictory images and experiences. There, at the gateway to still largely Palestinian Jaffa, one of our number, Judith, produced a brown paper bag…her husband's ashes. He wanted his ashes scattered off Israel's Mediterranean shore. We walked down to the beach, Judith waded into the surf and, as she emptied the bag into the sea, I felt privileged to join in singing "Amazing Grace." And, yes, how sweet it was, that precious moment.
Making our way past a café full of carefree twenty-somethings, we came to an old stone building – the Palmach Museum, celebrating that often-ruthless arm of the 1948 Israeli forces and its "liberation" of Jaffa. And, across the boulevard, the old main Jaffa mosque provided another reminder, a forlorn remnant silhouetted against the looming David Hotel.
Across the tiny stream that separates Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the dissonance continued…old public buildings that spoke of Turkish rule, festive Jewish wedding receptions spilling out of cafes, blocks of Palestinian homes bulldozed to make way for gated Jewish-only communities financed by millionaires from Los Angeles, a seaside mosque, now a restaurant, Aladdin's. As in East Jerusalem, the Judaization was creating a new reality…creating, perhaps, more work for Zochrot.
In closing, it must be stressed that the overall trip not only revealed how quickly the prospects for peace are disappearing. It also exposed us to other Arabs under Israeli control whose plight is often submerged in the Sturm und Drang of the Israel-Palestine conflict – the Syrian Druze in the occupied Golan Heights and the Bedouin in Israel's Negev. And, it must be added, the situation of both peoples has worsened markedly since our visit.
To the Israelis, the Golan Heights are a part of Israel, having been annexed decades ago. That, however, was an act that is not recognized by the United States, the United Nations, nor anyone else. It is a strange, fortified place that left me with a desolate sense of foreboding. Perhaps it is the gray, scrubby mountainous terrain. Perhaps the ghosts of the 130,000 former inhabitants of 134 destroyed villages, most of whom fled in the direction of Syrian Quneitra in the fighting of 1967.
The few Syrian Druze who still remain are huddled in the far north below snow-capped Mount Hermon, a main source of the Jordan's waters. On the way north, we passed the Crusader fortress of Nimrod and, in its shadow, a fortified Israeli settlement, its bunkers dominating the town of Mas'ada below. Its small lake, the Ram Pool, is closed to Arab use and its waters are pumped to Israeli settlements as far away as 70 kilometers.
A few miles on lies the sizeable town of Majdal Shams, now mixed Israeli and Syrian Druze. It is truly the end of the road, abutting the demilitarized zone with Syria and surrounded by barbed wire and land mines. There we were briefed by officials of Golan for Development, a non-profit organized in 1991 to assist the remaining Arab population of the Golan Heights, and, when we asked how we could help, gently told, in essence, "We'd rather do it ourselves."
After lunch, some of us peered across the demilitarized zone at the UN observation post, the abandoned Syrian position, and the winding road to Hadan that disappeared into the hills. It is a desolate valley, known to locals as the "Shouting Valley," where, on special family occasions, family members on either side of the barbed wire will stand with bullhorns to exchange greetings.
And it was against that barbed wire that many dozens of Palestinians and Syrians were gunned down on May 14, Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, as they sought to cross to homes on the other side (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50eSv60Z_No.).
Toward the end of our trip, after our visit to Tel Aviv/Jaffa, we drove south from Bethlehem, past Hebron, to Beersheba and three of the 36 "unrecognized" Bedouin villages of the Negev. Before heading to the villages themselves, however, we were briefed in Beersheba by leaders of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, the sole Bedouin member of the Israeli Knesset, and members of the team of Jewish Israeli lawyers representing the Bedouin in their legal battle to stave off further dispossession from their ancestral lands.
A young woman member of that team, Michal, accompanied us into the desert in the direction of Dimona. Hovering above us the whole time were two unmarked, apparently civilian, helicopters.
Our first stop was the village of Araqib, which has been demolished several times. We met beside a tent overlooking many acres once home to mature olive trees – trees that have been cut down to make room for pine seedlings being planted by the Jewish National Fund, a tax deductible U.S. non-profit.
The Israeli government seeks to 1) evict the Bedouin, who have lived in Araqib and other villages since before there was an Israel, claiming they have no paperwork title to the land, 2) concentrate them in landless, jobless reservation-like villages, and 3) free the land – the "Negev Reserve" – for Jewish settlement. For their part, the Bedouin argue that they have possessed the land – their settled villages – since Turkish times, their title, according to pre-World War I Turkish law, being based on the fact that their ancestors are buried in the villages. Indeed, the cemetery at Araqib is about all that's left.
The other villages we visited were more substantial, but all under demolition orders. Despite the harsh conditions - Wadi Alnea'am, having been moved next to a monster power plant to make way for a military base – it was clear that the inhabitants were not nomads, but living sedentary lives in cinderblock homes and making a living off their goats and olives. Having also seen the sterile, demoralizing confines of the places into which the Israelis would squeeze them, it was also clear why they have no desire – no intention – of moving. But, in mid-September, Israel's National Security Council ruled they must…move (http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/the-arabs-of-the-negev-are-not-israel-s-enemy-1.383843).
Having laughed with their children, broken warm bread in Al Serra with one of their mothers, and, in every way, enjoyed the traditional hospitality of these proud people, my heart cries for them, for the world seems not to see them.
Indeed, in the United States especially, none of the Arabs under Israel's control – citizens of Israel or under occupation – are seen or heard. They are as non-people…cardboard cutout cariacatures…terrorists, Islamacists, fanatics, sub-humans…who must be penned in or snuffed out.
But I have met these people…living, breathing, fellow human beings…laughing, crying, dreaming, hoping…dying…and recognized them as my neighbors to be loved, as my fellow human beings whose dignity I respect.
And I have met many Israeli Jews who want no part of further oppression or killing, who want to "do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God," who give me hope for peace, the true peace of shalom that rests on justice.
But, time is running out. It is time to tell the truth, to seek peace resolutely…without fear of people who might revile and persecute and utter all kinds of evil falsely against those who would speak the truth.
The truth? On the way back to Beersheba I asked Michal what she thought about using the word "apartheid" to describe all that we had seen. She said – as I had long felt – that tactically it had not been useful, since it too often cut off conversation. Then, she paused…an eternity it seemed. "But," she continued, "it's time to call it what it is."
And, back in Jerusalem, in the Church of All Nations, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the voice of Thabo Makgobe, the Archbishop of Cape Town, echoed through the fading evening sunlight:
"We must not be naïve in speaking about South Africa while standing in Jerusalem….The wall of strangulation or 'beautification' is worse than the South African pass laws, the Bantustans or homelands, and racial discrimination….Visiting with Palestinians in Bethlehem and Hebron is an experience I will treasure, and, I will rededicate myself to the pursuit of justice."
That is the same truth I experienced on our shared visit to the Holy Land. It is the truth I have tried to convey here. It is the truth that compels me to petition our government, our church, our people to move beyond words, to take action, to cease funding the occupation and settlements that stand in the way of peace and reconciliation.
It is time for all of us to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of justice.