|"Jerusalem and Palestine"|
This portion of my 2004 Middle-East Travelogue recaps the week I spent in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Photos of this trip are here.
Last week was the craziest one yet. I arrived in Jerusalem on Monday... the day the Israeli army assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas (and a pretty popular guy in Palestine... I'm not sure if you heard much about it where you are, but this is big news in Israel... it's an escalation of what is basically war, and Israelis are generally pretty nervous that it will lead to some serious reprisal attacks). I spent the next bunch of days alternating between traveling through the West Bank and witnessing what's going on there, and hanging out with religious (and Zionist extremist) Jews in the old city of Jerusalem. It has been emotionally draining, but also pretty exhilarating. I'll try to relate to you some of the experiences and feelings I've had...
(if you want some context, skip to the bottom for my summary of what has lead to the 'situation')
So first off, understand that Palestine is a pretty safe place. (One Palestinian who had us (I was traveling with another American that I met in Jerusalem, a friendly guy named Kevin) over for tea lived in the US for ten years and said "I like America very much. But it's not safe like here." He was referring to the fact that there's almost no crime in Palestine.) Often the media portrays the Palestinian people as, basically, a bunch of terrorists. What a farce. So many Israelis believe that every Palestinian wants to see every Israeli Jew dead, or driven into the sea. From my experiences, that also isn't close to the truth. The Palestinian people that I've gotten to know- I had the chance to talk to and spend time with quite a few- just want peace. They're not violent; on the contrary, they are welcoming, friendly, warm people. It's true that a small minority of the people have unfortunately resorted to violent protest (and some Israeli extremists have done the same). Why is that? Well...
There is some hard-core oppression going down in Palestine. It's pretty awful, and you need to know about it (if you don't already). The big thing that I witnessed, that affects everyone, is movement restriction. E.g.: One guy I met was born and raised in Nablus, and most of his family lives there. Now he works as a pharmacist in Ramallah. He is not allowed to go to Nablus. If he wants to try, he needs to report to an office and turn in a bunch of paperwork, and then he might get permission. Pretty crazy, huh? There are frequent road closures, and checkpoints all over the place. To get from one city to the next, you might need to take three different service taxis to travel a distance of less than 20 miles; between each ride, you might have to go through a checkpoint, or you might just have to climb across a huge dirt barrier to get to the other side of the road (which we often did, alongside frail old ladies). You know, waiting on a long line to show ID to a soldier so he'll let you into the place where you live must be pretty humiliating. Even for a visitor, it was an unpleasant experience. When your taxi is stopped in the middle in the road, and you get out and have a grenade launcher pointed at you and are demanded to show paperwork that proves that you are allowed to be traveling that road... I can tell you, that really sucks. This is every day life for a Palestinian.
There's also destruction of homes. I heard about one guy who lives across the street from a settlement in Hebron, and has had his home bulldozed four times. He's rebuilt 4 times.
Down in Hebron, the situation is particularly tense. It's the only place in the West Bank where settlements exist as enclaves surrounded by Palestinian communities (everywhere else, the settlements are off to the side). There is a checkpoint and barrier right in the middle of the city. This was unbeknownst to us... so we were walking along (after the curfew that we also didn't know about) and all of a sudden saw, about 15 feet away, a kid slinging a rock, just like you see on television. Then I looked over towards where he was aiming, and saw an Israeli soldier crouched down, pointing a large weapon towards us. We retreated. The next day, walking past the same spot, it was a big market! But when we came back later in the day, the market was closed down, and rock throwing had resumed. We watched for a while and then walked away... and about 10 seconds later, heard a loud boom. We turned around and saw a huge cloud of tear gas coming up from the spot where a bunch of kids had been standing. Moments later, two kids came running up to us, shouting "Water! Water!" One of the kids, couldn't have been older than 10, had a completely red face, and red eyes that he could barely open; he looked pretty awful and in pain. I poured water into his hands, which he used to rinse the tear gas out of his eyes. Does this count as 'direct action' in opposition to Israel? I don't even know anymore.
In Hebron, we tried to get into the cave where a whole bunch of the forefathers and foremothers (is that even a word? if not, it should be) of Judaism are supposedly buried. It's the big thing to see there, an extremely holy place for all the monotheists around these parts. The soldiers wouldn't let us in. They offered no explanation why. Maybe we weren't looking particularly holy that day.
On the evening of the day of the very affecting tear gas experience, I returned to Jerusalem for Shabbat dinner with a bunch of religious Jews. We spent much of the evening singing, eating fantastic food, and talking about philosophy and spirituality and other great stuff. The discussion got around to politics though (I didn't start it, I swear!). The peace process has got some big problems, because a big block of religious Jews, who seem to wield a fair amount of power, believe, among other things, that 1) the land in the West Bank belongs to the Jews, and 2) all the Palestinians are bloodthirsty animals. I tried to counter these ideas, and it wasn't long before I was being accused of betraying my people. Lovely!
I went to a religious Jewish wedding. (No, I wasn't invited, but a friend I've made was invited, and he invited me to join him. Apparently, that's the way it works with a lot of these weddings. When I finally met the groom, he said "Any Jew is welcome to my wedding!" So, actually, I guess that means that most of you wouldn't be welcome. Those wacky religious Jews!) The evening was amazing. A few interesting notes about the cute couple:
-They met through a professional matchmaker. I'm not joking.
-They never came into physical contact until they held hands underneath the hoopa (that's the Jewish equivalent of the alter).
-They didn't see each other during the week before the wedding.
Now, as it was explained to me, the groom is king for the day of the wedding; it's the guests' job to entertain him. This entailed mostly singing and dancing. Some people even sang throughout the marriage ceremony! As for the dancing... The dance floor is partitioned by a big wall (they seem to like walls around here), men dance on one side and women on the other. Now, think about the weddings you've been to: when guys dance, they're either dancing with a girl, or they're trying to dance with a girl. When you take out that element, people are only dancing for joy. I've never witnessed anything like it. At the secular Jewish weddings I've been to, when people dance the Horah, this joyful dancing is what they would be aspiring to if it were even possible to conceive of such joyful dancing. I almost got trampled in the excitement- maybe I just wasn't quite joyful enough (though strangely, even though I didn't even know the couple, I was pretty friggin' joyful). Finally the groom (who had been fasting for the prior 24 hours) looked like he was going to keel over and die (aside from the big smile on his face), and so he and his new wife and his parents were sat down on chairs in the middle of the dance floor. Then, with the man dancing in a big circle around them, different guests came up to perform tricks for their amusement... acrobatics, fire consumption, juggling, etc. It was incredible. If I ever have a wedding, I definitely want this 'stunts to entertain the bride and groom' idea incorporated. Anyway, there was more dancing, more singing, and the food was great, too. A bit too much praying, though, in my opinion.
The day after the wedding, Kevin and I went to Nablus. Except, we didn't get into Nablus. After a bus ride and a checkpoint and a taxi ride and another checkpoint, we were told at the final checkpoint that we'd need to get permission to enter; they directed us towards the DCO office, at the nearby army base, to get this permission. So we went to the army base, and were directed to the next entrance... where we were directed to the next entrance... and we walked for almost an hour, all around the army base. We got to the DCO office, and waited 20 minutes with a bunch of Palestinians (who were waiting to submit paperwork to get permission for different things) until the office finally opened, and then there was this exchange:
Jordan/Kevin: "We were told to come here for permission to go to Nablus."
DCO Guy: "You want to go to Nablus? No."
J/K: "Uhh, why?"
I tried again thirty seconds later...
J/K: "We were told to come here for permission to go to Nablus."
DCO: "Who told you this?"
J/K: "The soldiers at the checkpoint."
DCO: [laugh, followed by angry look of the 'Go away now' variety]
We went all the way up to Nablus- no easy journey- and got turned away at the gate. Bummer. So we went back down to Ramallah, and spent a few hours with a great guy named Ashraf, who we'd met in Hebron. He's a biomedical engineer. He and his roommate (the aforementioned pharmacist) sat and talked with us for a long time about their lives, politics, and religion. They really just want what the Oslo accords of the 90s were supposed to lead to... a settlement freeze and reduction, and eventually a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders. I had a much easier time having reasonable discussion and relating with them than I did with the religious Jews of Jerusalem. That made me think. Eventually, I admitted to them that my parents are Jewish. They laughed, and made fun of me for thinking that it would even make a difference to them.
That night, back in Jerusalem, I hung out at the tomb of Kind David with some kabbalists (that is, people who are really into hard-core Jewish mysticism). We lit candles for souls, played lots of music, and said a special prayer for the month's moon. I was having a great time, but then they started up with stuff like "We are God's chosen people, everyone is else is a second-class human." Yikes!
Let me point out that I spent this week with some very moderate Palestinians and some extremely extreme Jews... I'm not trying to say that all Israeli Jews are nutcases and all Palestinians are only innocent victims, because I know that's not true. I do believe, though, that the US shouldn't be standing by, allowing this occupation to continue, when we can be taking big steps towards ending it.
I've got another 8 stories about last week, but this is going to be difficult to get through already, so I'll end here. Now I'm in Haifa, in the relatively laid back and safe North. This city is great... built on a hill, with staircases running through gardens that take you from level to level.
(A quick overview for the not-so-informed, keeping in mind that other people will tell it differently: When Israel formed in 1948, the Arabs living in what is now Israel were moved (sometimes forcibly, but often voluntarily) into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem that year, but Israel won it back in the 1967 war. The Israeli army has been in the West Bank and Gaza ever since, presumably in the interests of Israeli national security, but also to protect the (government subsidized) settlements of religious Jews who have moved to those areas in an effort to claim the land for Israel. Because Israel has never officially annexed these territories (they don't want to have to offer citizenship to the Palestinians, as then the Jews would be outnumbered in Israel), it must be considered to be an occupation.)