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Today in Bethlehem and all over Palestine, young people got the scores of their tawjihi exams, which are the exit exams that every student here takes at the end of high school. From the time I was eating breakfast at 7:45 in the morning with Zoughbi and John, people were setting off fireworks outside. This is a custom at any celebration, and fireworks are often set off at weddings – but this was broad daylight, the morning no less, and the continued all day!
People were driving around and honking, because passing these tests is the first step towards a future, and they are notoriously difficult and obnoxious – “it has been a pain in their behinds” as Zoughbi put it. This despite the fact that unemployment for 18-24 year olds is close to 80%, as estimated by Usama, a staff member at Wi’am. It’s the little things that people celebrate, which refresh and invigorate them. Nearly every night there is a wedding here, I am surprised the whole city isn’t married yet.
Meanwhile, life here is intense and at times even bleak. When I first arrived here I was full of idealism and thought that obviously injustice could not last forever, and that any upcoming changes here have to be positive. In one of the first weeks I was here, Usama let me know he thought that things would get worse before they get better – I now have to agree. The situation on the ground is critical, yet there has been no increase in the political will of any party to work for peace.
I was traveling last week with my parents and a group led by Max Carter, the Director of Campus Ministry at Guilford and his wife Jane Carter, who is an administrator at the nearby New Garden Friends School. We visited the Galilee area, which is an exceptionally beautiful region of historic Palestine in Israel. We met with Elias Jabbour, a world-renowned expert in the traditional Arabic Conflict Resolution process called sulha who has lectured before, among other groups, a collection of Israeli supreme court justices. When asked about discrimination in Israel, he joked that he felt like a “10th class citizen”, not just 2nd.
We toured with Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli ex-soldiers who now take Israelis and internationals on tours of the South Hebron Hills, as well as document stories of military service from willing soldiers. Our guide, Avner, recalled how his first “straw widow” mission (forceful entry and occupation of a Palestinian home) turned out to be simply a training mission. He described to us the process of Israeli settlements being surrounded by a “special security zone” of Palestinian land which Palestinians are not allowed to enter. Under a conveniently kept Ottoman Empire law, after 3 years of being uncultivated, any land becomes public property. After 4 years of cultivation, it belongs to whoever cultivated it. This explains the olive trees that settlers plant in barrels in these areas, affecting “legal” land transfers under a law hundreds of years old. Special security zones are why the village of Susiya, a tent village of which you may have heard in the news recently if you follow Palestinian affairs, has been under demolition orders for years.
Despite these conditions, Palestinians keep their spirits high. They peacefully resist the occupation simply by remaining, and striving for a better life. Unfortunately, more and more Palestinians are leaving the country – especially educated professionals who can get a much higher salary elsewhere. Some will stay, though. And they will continue to celebrate “the little things.” Last Friday, I helped bring a group of close to 80 children and youth from Wi’am’s summer camp to the Tent of Nations, a family farm south of Bethlehem that is holding onto their land despite being surrounded by 4 settlements. In East Jerusalem on Sunday with my parents, we watched a group of traditional Palestinian musicians. Today many students passed their exit exams, securing the keys to adulthood. Events like this are cases for celebration and unwinding, where children laugh and play and adults sit back and relax, content to live in the present moment. It’s even the graffiti on the wall. It’s especially the recognition by UNESCO of Bethlehem’s Nativity Church as a World Heritage Site. These things help people to remain, as Zoughbi described his own worldview, “cautiously hopeful” that the situation will improve, that there will be justice, that the occupation will end.
Note: The photos of the tawjihi celebrants leaning out of cars are credit to Lloyd Johnson, a fellow American from Seattle who is visiting the West Bank with his wife. He wrote an incredible blog post recently documenting the lack of freedom to move experienced by Palestinians called “Trapped”, which you can find here.
This is Samir with my friend Haneen. Samir is 5 years old. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Mariam asked Samir what he dreamed, and he replied “I dream of going to bed on Thursday and waking up on Saturday.”
You see, every Friday the villagers of Nabi Saleh launch a demonstration in protest to Israeli policies, centering around the appropriation of a village spring by settlers at the nearby Halamish settlement, who made the spring “Jewish Only”, depriving Palestinians of an important water source and recreational area. However, the demonstration is also in protest to the actions of Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF), including nighttime raids on the village and random arrests.
To make a long story short, these demonstrations usually go like this: a group of internationals and locals gather in the village, march to the road leading towards the spring, and are turned back by soldiers with tear gas and skunk spray. Then throughout the day the soldiers and village youth exchange tear gas and rubber bullets for stones, and sometimes raid the village proper looking for someone to arrest.
On the first day I went, something phenomenal happened: protestors made it to the spring they had so long been denied access to. This was the first time in two years that a demonstration made it there. They marched down the hill near the village instead of taking the road where the soldiers were waiting and the IOF wasn’t ready, so they let them pass up to the spring. When they first made it there, there were settlers having a picnic and wading in the spring in their underwear, who packed up and left, saying “let’s prepare the space for our guests”, to which a demonstrator replied, “you’re the unwelcome guests in this land.” At the spring everyone relaxed, some kids played with a ball and others waded in the spring chasing fish. Except for the presence of soldiers, it was a normal day.
Eventually either the soldiers asked us to leave (settlers were starting to gather above and around the spring) or we left of our own accord, or a combination of both – I wasn’t sure which. We were walking on the road back to the village, a “settler bypass” road, Israeli only, which the soldiers didn’t want us on. After marching for a ways they used sound bombs and brute strength to push us off, then tear gas and skunk water to chase us up the hill back to the village.
I returned this past week to Nabi Saleh. Unfortunately it wasn’t nearly as joyous as the previous week, when we reached the spring. The demonstrators at first tried to circle around the mountain towards the spring, but IOF was ready for us this time and blocked the way. Then we went back to the main road, where youth skirmished with the soldiers and the internationals mostly backed away from the gas and skunk and watched. My friend Mariam was badly soaked with the skunk spray, along with several other demonstrators.
They continued this routine dance all day. Attrition and stalemate were thick in the air.
This is Janna from Nabi Saleh (the young girl) and my friend Mariam from Ramallah. Janna memorized an English poem that goes like this.
All your armies, all your fighters
All your tanks, and all your soldiers
Against a boy holding a stone
Standing there all alone
In his eyes I see the sun
In his smile I see the moon
And I wonder, I only wonder
Who is weak, and who is strong?
Who is right, and who is wrong?
And I wish, I only wish
That the truth has a tongue
See the original here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-_A2ReZddc
The children of Nabi Saleh are incredibly inspiring. We can only hope they keep their spirits strong growing up in this struggle. One thing is clear, from their parents to their older siblings to the youngest children – they will not stop resisting this apartheid until there is justice in Palestine.
This week I will be in the Galilee with my parents and the rest of Max and Jane Carter’s group in a village called Ibileen at the Mar Elias educational trust. We will do lots of good touristy things like swim in the Sea of Galilee, go to Nazareth, and float in the Dead Sea. However, I cannot forget the people of Nabi Saleh and what they have to go through every day while I can indulge in these pursuits. I hope you don’t either.
Two weeks ago I watched from out a window as four children, two brothers and two sisters, played on a dirty rooftop. Their toys were sand, which they gathered into piles, attempted to shape into structures, then sprinkled mischievously on the heads of tourists traversing the stairs below, and other miscellaneous objects. They threw rocks and empty soda bottles at one another when they got annoyed. This is life here.
Later that same week, a children’s music festival occurred in Manger Square, in downtown Bethlehem. The Vienna Music School sponsored talented Austrian Youth to journey to the Holy Land, collaborating with talented young Palestinians onstage to provide entertainment and, ostensibly, hope to audiences of Palestinian and some Austrian families. This is also life here. It’s also a small glimpse into the “peace industry” that exists here, where organizations can get investment dollars for almost anything. Admittedly, a cultural event like this has some value in bringing people together and building bridges – but will it truly help create lasting change? Time will tell, but it will never tell us whether or not events like these made the difference…
Polar opposites abound in East Jerusalem, which I toured with a J Street group called Ir Amim last week. The tour was very informative and straightforward, claiming nothing but to show the “political facts on the ground” which entails showing the contrast between Palestinian neighborhoods and Israeli settlements, as well as the pointlessness of the “security barrier,” which doesn’t actually provide much real protection to Israel. There are numerous places where, if a Palestinian wanted to, he or she could walk to downtown Jerusalem and cause terror. Palestinians don’t want to cause terror, they want peace, but that’s besides the point because Israel keeps building walls and settlements. This settlement called Pisgat Ze’ev is right next to the Palestinian neighborhood of Shu’afat, which is the only refugee camp inside of Israel. Shu’afat is technically within the Jerusalem municipality but its residents are excluded by this wall. They have to pay taxes or risk losing their Jerusalem IDs but receive almost no basic services from the Israeli government. Meanwhile, Pisgat Ze’ev residents enjoy swimming pools and gardens.
At a demonstration in Nabi Saleh yesterday, on which I will write a further blog post soon, the Palestinians made it to the spring to which they have been denied access by the Israeli settlers in Halamish. This was the first time in two years that a demonstration has made it there, because the leaders used a different tactic of going down the mountain rather than confronting soldiers, who were waiting on the road. At the spring, children and villagers lounged around in near disbelief. Some played with a soccer ball while others dangled their feet in the water. Meanwhile IOF soldiers stood by with guns and riot control gear at the ready, but didn’t use any of it until villagers left the spring. Once we got to the road and attempted to use it to walk back to the village, they used sound bombs and skunk spray to disperse us and chase us up the hill, forcing us to hike back to the village with tear gas canisters exploding around us rather than walking peacefully on the road. Who are the ones who truly want to cause terror?
I am trying to keep my head up through all of this. Today I visited Taybeh, a Christian village in the West Bank, to tour the only Middle Eastern microbrewery. The peaceful village seems far removed from the conflict. Later today my parents arrived along with Max and Jane Carter’s group, which was truly a joyous occasion. I’m glad they’re here and look forward to spending time with them in this incredible land.
Meanwhile, we will continue to experience extremes. From hope to despair, from joy to pain, sometimes in the same day, life here swings back and forth. It’s a small wonder that so many young people want to leave – the grass is always greener…
Last week there was a music festival at a local community center called Dandanat. The festival was sponsored by both Swedish and local companies and had both Swedish and Palestinian bands. On Saturday, the last day of the festival, the bands revealed that they had been working together on collaborative music “workshops” and revealed the results of these projects, which were incredible! There was Dabkah dancing alongside Swedish hip hop and jazz bands. A Syrian rock band (Hawa Dafi)collaborated with a Swedish rock band. A Swedish folk band shared the stage with a Palestinian folk band. All in all, it was a great music festival with awesome performances. Here are a couple of pictures from the night:
Anyway, the original point I was going for is that music is one of the best ways to build bridges across cultural divides. Without music I wouldn’t be able to stay sane here! I also met a bunch of cool people at this concert, and I’ve bonded with Zoughbi’s sons over music… Etc, etc. If more people would pick up an instrument instead of a gun, would sing with each other instead of yell at each other… The world would be a better place.
Life here is intense though and pretty tiring most of the time. The future is always uncertain in a much different way than it is in America. Life revolves around the news cycle, to some extent.. Everyone is always on high alert, anxious… It’s hard to just relax and unwind.
But we do have some good instances of just unwinding. Yesterday we went to Ramallah to the tomb of Mahmoud Darwish, a famous Palestinian poet, writer, and activist. There is a museum built in his honor. We also just walked around the city and got ice cream, then got pizza back in Bethlehem. Still, though, the conversation was not wholly relaxing. We talked about some intense things, like how to let go of hate. More on that next time, I promise.
Back to the thing about cultural divides. Culture is a complex phenomenon. It defines who we are, our identities. As a foreigner in another culture, it’s often hard to understand the social conventions. People chatting in Arabic may raise their voices for one reason or another, and it sounds to me like an argument. But really, it’s just a reasonable discussion. A good example.. Last night at a movie store, Tarek, Claire (another American intern whom the Zoughbi family is renting to, she lives in the building next to mine) and myself were browsing titles. In one section I found a very silly knockoff movie called “The 41 year old virgin who wanted to get laid superbad and knocked up sarah marshal.” I have no idea what it really was, but apparently when Claire and I were laughing at it the store owner was looking at us ambiguously. Women are apparently not supposed to be looking at movies that have questionable themes, even sexual humor.
Woops. Broke a social convention there. Oh well, we’re American and no one else was really in the store. No harm, no foul, right? This cultural divide is also something I feel at the Wi’am Center. In America, many organizations that work for social change are very concerned about process, making sure things are done right. Make sure this is filed here and this is in on time, and by the way are we in line with the national best practices? Here, though, the staff are more concerned about impact. What’s the best way to reach a certain group of people? How can this chunk of time best be spent? It gives everything a much more intimate feel, almost more laid back. We are not rushing to get things done, but working towards them effectively. I think there are good and bad elements of every culture, and we can’t be too quick to judge others, but we also shouldn’t be quick to judge ourselves – there are many aspects of our own culture that we don’t really understand.
“But we remain optimistic because we are human beings who believe in coexistence, equality, peace, and freedom. Pessimists are those who believe in tribalism, racism, conflict, and the need for military might. In the long run, we are more numerous than they are and we need to help them see the truth and join us. We remain optimistic because our children and grandchildren are optimistic and we should not try to dissuade them from optimism or from acting to improve their lives.
As we free our minds of dark thoughts, we can see the light.”
– Mazin Qumsiyeh, “Optimism”
In many ways, it would seem hard to be optimistic in the Palestinian situation. This past week on Saturday, I saw the movie “Roadmap to Apartheid” at a local anti-occupation solidarity center called the Alternative Information Center (AIC). The movie is quite intense in examining the similarities and contrasts between Apartheid South African and the Israeli Occupation. I did not know that one of the South African government’s last supporters was Israel, which flagrantly defied the international arms embargo during the ’80s and even offered advice to the South Africans. One difference that the South African activists and scholars interviewed agreed upon was that the situation in Occupied Palestine is worse, for various reasons, including the extent of the military force (helicopter gunships, white phosphorous) used against Palestinians. They also note that Israel has succeeded where South Africa did not in creating “totally unviable fantasy states” (Bantustans) out of Palestine.
Today people are protesting around the city by burning tires because they are out of water. I have noted in a previous blog that although Bethlehem sits on some of the richest aquifers in the area, a majority of it goes to surrounding settlements, while the residents here are faced with a water crisis each summer. We have not yet run out of water, because Zoughbi has enough tanks for at least two families on his roof, so our neighbors come to us for water. Last weekend we picked apricots (mish-mish in Arabic) at Zoughbi’s brother’s home in Beit Jala, who was already out of water. Meanwhile, the settlements in the area have swimming pools and full, green gardens, and most settlers have no knowledge of the situation here. See this article from Ma’an news for more about the water crisis.
Water is a perfect example of the hopelessness that can be seen in the current situation. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel has the right to veto any Palestinian water project. What kind of government do they think the Palestinian Authority can be if it can’t even start a project to guarantee it’s citizens the most basic human right? The answer is that they don’t want the PA to be a real government, they want it to be a Bantustan, where they can safely house their demographic overflow, ensuring their identity as a Jewish state and creating a security shield around their borders.
Living under this situation is enough to drain the hope and energy out of a person. And I’ve only been here for one month. The Palestinians, however, refuse to give up hope. The most important act of resistance to the occupation is one that every person here does daily: simply to live, and refuse to give up living. Seeing this everyday act of resistance inspires me not to give in to the frustration and despair of this situation, but to continue to do the best I can in my current situation, to share the stories with all of you who read this, and to give my energy to the work against injustice. The fact that people are still here resisting gives me optimism, and I know that injustice cannot last forever.
“In general, people are very demoralized because of the occupation, because of frustration…” – Zoughbi Zoughbi
Last Friday, I attended an inspiring mass service at Cremisan Monastery for the International Day of Peace. We even sang Kumbaya, and international guests read prayers in their own languages – I recognized German, French and Spanish (English, both Australian and British) among others. I wanted to write a blog post about how inspired and touched I was. And indeed, I remain inspired by the solidarity I have seen at the two services I’ve attended at Cremisan.
Since I couldn’t put a video on here (I think you need to pay for that, here’s a link to a Cremisan Prayer Clip on my photobucket, where you can also find other videos).
Then on Saturday I took a day trip to Ramallah to see some friends. Seeing my friends Dima, Haneen and Bashir was wonderful, as well as meeting Mariam, Haneen’s friend. In the afternoon we attended a demonstration to show solidarity for prisoners who have been locked up by the Israeli government since before the Oslo accords. I assume some are without charge and some are charged, but I got the impression that they are all widely considered to be unjustly incarcerated.
The demonstrators marched to the government building and burned papers that read things like “Oslo Accords” and “Camp David” before being turned around by police. The demonstration didn’t end there, as we marched to the city center and the main organizers read the names of 128 prisoners who were imprisoned before Oslo, with no justice since.
The moral of the story, however, is that people are getting tired. Their voices are getting hoarse, like one of the most adamant protestors at the march who just couldn’t yell anymore at some points, after straining his voice so much. People are frustrated with all the nonviolence used by the Palestinians, while the world never calls for Israel to practice nonviolence. People are frustrated because this kind of activism gets them nowhere.
One activist said they usually don’t participate in demonstrations like this, because they don’t accomplish anything. They would rather attend demonstrations in the villages and by the wall, where clashes occur between protestors and the IDF, including settlers, who represent another aspect of Israel’s militarism and sometimes are hardly different than the soldiers themselves. I don’t advocate violence, and neither do the majority of Palestinians, but these incidents get more publicity and some think they have a greater impact than completely nonviolent demonstrations like the one in Ramallah. People commonly say, where is the Palestinian Gandhi, the MLK, who will lead a nonviolent resistance? The truth is, the nonviolent resistance against occupying powers here has been going on for thousands of years. Palestinian Gandhis, MLKs, and others have come and gone without the international community taking any notice. People want to know what’s next.
People from my high school, West High School in Madison, may not recognize Bashir Massad, who moved back to the West Bank in our sophomore year of school. He is now a tall, bearded, proud Palestinian activist.
Since I am short on time before I go today to observe a demonstration in Hebron, I will leave you with a couple more pictures and the link to my photobucket account, where you can find more recent pictures and videos.
Some people will recognize this Banksy original, which is on a wall just across the street from Wi’am (where I work in Bethlehem).
More from Aida Camp in my next post.