Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Israel's Apartheid Wall, Again

 A Section of Israel's Apartheid Wall in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, Separating Palestinian Villages from an Illegal Israeli Settlement

I've posted pictures of the Wall before, I know. But every time we drive past a section I am struck again by the madness of it. Sometimes the average Palestinian will say things like, "I wouldn't mind the Wall if it was built along the 1949 armistice borders, on Israeli territory," in a fit of there's-nothing-I-can-do-anyway.

"They can do what they want, khalas, as long as they just leave us alone," they add, weary of having their territory confiscated, occupied; their homes demolished; their every step monitored and their movement restricted. Blue IDs for Jerusalem Palestinians, green for West Bank Palestinians. Yellow license plates for Israeli-registered cars, white for Palestinian cars. Color codes that decide whether you can pass through military checkpoints or not. If you have rights or not.

Maybe I haven't been here long enough, but there's nothing nothing nothing anyone can ever tell me that will make me think this is even remotely acceptable. Any argument--security-related or otherwise--that justifies separating one human being from another by a huge concrete wall can never make sense to me. I believe that the most dangerous, destructive, and also probably the most seductive idea that we humans ever had is that the social group we belong to is superior to others. Especially when this idea becomes so strong that we imagine that we need to separate ourselves from others in order to protect our identity, our superiority, the privileged world we've created for ourselves on the expense of our neighbors.

Seriously. I thought we had learned from colonial projects of the past, of segregated societies in South Africa, America, Germany and where ever else your skin color or your birthplace or the name of your parents or grandparents decided on which side of a concrete wall you could be, or what part of a bus you could sit in. Apparently not.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Don't Forget Gaza

I am plagued by a guilty conscience as I go to bed at night with the rain pouring outside, lightning flashing, and the thunder roaring. My bed is soft and warm and dry. I have a solid roof over my head, and windows that keep the wind and the rain outside.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti don't even have a bed anymore. And families in Gaza, just a little more than two hours away from me, live in makeshift tents since the Israeli war one year ago. The continued siege makes it impossible for Gazans to rebuild their homes: borders are sealed and building materials aren't let through. Pending some kind of solution, their roof and walls are made out of blankets and plastic sheets, and their floor is mud.

Yes, mud. The rain storms have drenched the refugee camps in water. Temperatures drop to or even below zero at night.

And I lie in my bed with the heater on. I lie there with these images before my eyes (follow link, and click on the picture to see more). I'm going crazy with guilt. What am I doing to change any of this? How can I go on when I know that this is happening so close to me?

We mustn't abandon Haiti. Nor Sudan, Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, or any other place in the world where there are displaced people who had to flee from their homes, had their homes destroyed, don't have a roof over their heads or access to the basics in life. And we can't forget about them as soon as the media stops reporting about them because there is a new conflict, or a new earthquake or flood. Just like we can't forget about Gaza.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Israeli Settlers

I went to Al-Khalil this weekend. The West Bank city more popularly know outside the Arab world as Hebron. Where Israeli settlers have occupied Palestinian apartments, homes, streets, neighborhoods, schools and put up military outposts on rooftops, at street corners, on top of the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Israeli Soldier Posing for My Camera

Israeli Soldier Guarding Rooftop of Occupied House

See, Israeli settlers don't just occupy West Bank hilltops, they go into Palestinian cities and occupy homes and buildings. They take over, and harass the local Palestinian population until they have no other choice but to leave if they want to live their lives in some kind of dignity.

Settler-Proof Net and Israeli Soldier on Rooftop

In the old city of Hebron, like in Jerusalem, Israel puts up a protective net over the streets so that the trash the Jewish settlers throw down on Palestinians will not hit them in their heads. A normal state would prosecute any crazy person wild enough to throw trash down on the heads of people from the windows of the houses they do not even rightfully own, but Israel puts up a net.

A Torn Israeli Flag outside Occupied Second-Floor Apartment

Israel doesn't prosecute. They support the settlers with soldiers that escort them where ever they go, guard entrances to schools and mosques they occupy, and place military outposts on rooftops to keep the city under surveillance.

Lone Palestinian Woman on the Streets of the Khalili Souk

The streets of the centuries-old souk that in any other West Bank city would be bustling with commerce on all days except Fridays, are eerily quiet in Hebron. Shops are closed because business just isn't good when Jewish settlers harass shoppers.

Little Palestinian Boy Playing on the Streets of the Khalili Souk

Ever so often, a hoard of Israeli settlers get escorted by Israeli soldiers through the old city. The Israeli soldiers walk first, clear the way by waving their guns at children, women and men, and the settlers walk after, smug with notions of superiority.

Israeli Settlers Escorted by Israeli Soldiers

Tarek and I stepped aside when they came. Didn't say a word. Settlers stared. Walked past us haughtily. Their eyes icy cold with contempt and disdain for everybody who is not them. One settler spat at Tarek. My cheeks burned and my heart pounded. A soldier pointed his gun at me. I decided I didn't want to risk my life and put my camera away after taking one more blurry shot.

Israeli Soldier Pointing His Gun at Me

Why settlers settle in Hebron? There's a mosque there, the Ibrahimi Mosque, where a bunch of Jewish, Christian and Muslim patriarchs and their wives are buried: Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca and Leah, and Jacob (did he have a wife?). The settlers have cordoned off parts of the mosque and you have to pass through a military check point to go inside. Of course, only Jews and maaaaybe non-Arabs are allowed into the Jewish part, but Tarek and I went to the Muslim part.

The First Military Check Point Outside the Ibrahimi Mosque

Holy tombs or not, I cannot for the world understand that there are human beings who imagine that they are so superior to the rest of us that they have the right to forcibly take over the homes, neighborhoods, schools and lands of others. As if there are those who are better than others. So that they need to separate themselves from us by excluding our very presence.

But even more difficult to understand is that the state of Israel is allowed to encourage and support the Jewish settler takeover of Palestinian homes, neighborhoods, schools and lands, and still maintain normal relations with the rest of the world.

It's like South Africa, people. Apartheid. It's time for serious, all-encompassing sanctions directed at Israel. It's time to cut Israeli military, economic, and diplomatic relations with all nations. And if our leaders won't act, WE can act. By boycotting Israeli goods and services, and buy-cotting Palestinian dito. Ask your local grocer for Palestinian olive oil, for olives, couscous, sun dried tomatoes, flowers, vegetables and fruits. And always, always ask where the avocados, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, mango, persimmons, grapes, and figs come from before you buy them--Israel is a big exporter of these fruits.

Don't work with Israeli universities, don't go see Israeli artists, shows or sport events, don't buy Israeli literature, avoid foreign companies who do business in the occupied Palestinian territories. Check with your local Palestinian solidarity groups which companies and products to avoid. Because nothing will change until it becomes too expensive for Israel to continue its Apartheid policies.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Check Point Anecdote of the Day

Tarek and I were pulled over at the checkpoint going to Bethlehem yesterday evening, and this little Israeli soldier who didn't look a day over 18 walked up to our window a little insecurely. Hesitated for a couple of seconds, as if he were waiting for us to start the conversation. Then he went:

"Where are you going?"

Tarek: "Bethlehem."

Soldier: "Are you Christian?"

Tarek: "No."

Soldier: "Your IDs."

Tarek: "So if we were Christians, we wouldn't have to show you our IDs?"

"Soldier: "No, today is a Christian holiday."

We were both like "Huh?!" and "Is he kidding?!" inside, but handed over our IDs. Yesterday was Christmas Eve of Orthodox Christians, but neither one of us knew that on such occasions Christians do not--by default--present a security threat. It seems as if Muslims, however, always do.

The Israeli soldier, as they do at checkpoints here, looked over my passport a little suspiciously, and asked me where I'm from.

Me: "Sweden."

Soldier (who had decided we didn't pose a security threat after all): "Enjoy your time," and handed back our IDs.

Because, as we all know, it would have said on our IDs if we were terrorists.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

It's the Kids

As I was saying, we took our Israeli friends to Aida Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem on Christmas Day. It was a sunny early Friday afternoon, much, much warmer than what is usual for the season. We got out of our cars, the bright sunshine making us squint our eyes, and started walking.

Basically everything in the Palestinian refugee camps is funded by the UN. After 1948, after the height of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine carried out by Zionist terrorist groups, when 531 Palestinian villages and 11 urban neighborhoods were evacuated and laid to waste by the armed Zionist groups, innocent farmers slaughtered, wives, mothers and daughters raped, property confiscated, houses demolished, fruit orchards cut down, and 800 000 Palestinians forcefully expelled and displaced for more than 60 years to come, and still counting. After the declaration of Israeli independence, and the armistice with the surrounding Arab states, the UN stepped in to aid the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians. To this day, UNRWA is the main provider of education, health care, relief, and social services to the more than 4.6 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.

Hence the baby blue UN dumpsters lining the Israeli Apartheid Wall.

We walked down the narrow concrete walled streets, past kids running around on the asphalt. Bleak concrete houses crowding around us, built on top of each other, not quite finished, with electricity cables hanging, makeshift water pipes sticking out.

On every visible concrete surface along the streets, there are paintings. Artists repeating images that are way, way too common here:

The key. The symbol of the right of return for the 1948 refugees. With the map of Palestine on it, and the saber in the background--the cactus that traditionally marks the borders of Palestinian farms and gives refreshingly juicy sweet cactus fruits in the summer (but also stomach problems if you eat too many!). All over what is Israel today, there are hedges of saber stubbornly growing and growing back no matter how many times they are uprooted or cut down, marking out the 531 villages and the old farms of the Palestinians who fled over 60 years ago. As a symbol of the unbreakable bond between Palestinians and their land.

The olive tree. Symbol for peace and for Palestinian steadfastness on the land. Israel might uproot trees to build the Wall, confiscate olive orchards, cut off farmers from their lands with electric fences--settlers might destroy olive harvests. But there are trees that have stood on these lands since the time of Jesus, and there are farmers who still tend to their orchards the way their families have done in generations, and there are organizations that work to replant trees, and the golden green Palestinian olive oil is still served every morning on every single Palestinian breakfast table, with bread and zaatar, because Palestinians will not give up.

Sentimental? A tad melo-dramatic? You try walking through the streets of refugee camps, after reading book after book on the shameful treatment by Israel and the world of what is now millions of people who still hold the deeds to their lands, still have the rusty keys to their houses that don't even exist anymore, but are stuck in shanty concrete towns with nothing to their name but what the UN provides, without getting sentimental.

Anyway. The paintings on the walls. There is this one:

And it made me cry. I walked behind the group, wiping my cheeks, feeling worthless and helpless for being a part of a world who can allow this to go on. Our group was now lead by a self-appointed Japanese guide who apparently lives in the Camp, and Tarek walked beside me and tried to comfort me.

It's a list of the villages and cities that the Aida Refugee Camp families fled from in 1948.



Anyway. Our Israeli friends, who had started out quite apprehensive in the morning, being in a Palestinian-governed area (illegally according to Israeli law) started to become a little less uneasy. If not a little bit crazy. This is one of the guys, symbolically peeing on the Wall, which, by the way, is heavily guarded 24 hours of the day by Israeli soldiers who generally do not have a sense of humor about the situation:

I walked out of the Camp, determined to do something. It's the kids. Stuck between concrete walls on asphalt streets. Without lawns, swimming pools, parks or anything. So now Tarek and I will raise some money, rent a bus, (hopefully) get a permit for Tarek to cross the border to Israel, pack lunches and swimsuits and take groups of refugee camp kids to the sea in Yafa/Tel Aviv on our days off as soon as the weather allows it. Seriously. They've never went swimming. They've never even seen the sea. Can you imagine that?

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Christmas Day in Bethlehem, or The Day I (sort of) Met Abu Mazen

What would Jesus think of this?

On Christmas Day in Bethlehem, we woke up early-ish in the morning and went to meet up with Tarek's Israeli friends outside the Church of Nativity. Because Bethlehem is Area A, Israelis are forbidden by Israeli law to go there (I guess, as everything here, it's for security reasons), but Tarek's friends are daredevils and came to see us there anyway. They were a little uneasy in the beginning, but learned pretty quickly that Palestinians don't usually care where you're from as long as you're respectful of their culture and their land.

We squeezed ourselves past the crowd into the Church of Nativity and decided not to wait in line for hours and hours to see the actual birthplace of Jesus downstairs (perhaps not very surprisingly, Christmas Day brings hundreds and hundreds of people to his birthplace), but pushed through into the newer part to attend the last few minutes of Christmas Day Mass.

There is something immensely beautiful about Catholic/Orthodox Christian chanting.

After Mass, we stopped on Manger Square on our way to have Christmas Hummus (the hummus in Bethlehem is amazing!), and attended the last few minutes of the Muslim Friday midday prayer. The Square was absolutely hushed as hundreds of men and boys gathered outside the mosque to pray. We stood behind them and watched solemnly.

Then Abu Mazen--the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas--made his way out of the mosque together with the son of Libya's leader Gaddafi, Saif Al-Islam. The Square was still hushed. Tarek had squeezed his way to Abu Mazen's car with my camera, and I was squashed in between a bunch of men a little behind him. Then, right before he got into his bullet proof car, Abu Mazen smiled, put his hand up and waved to us (mainly to Tarek, but the others thought it was to them), and the crowd went crazy and started whistling and cheering.

Mahmoud Abbas on Manger Square

We took our Israeli friends to Aida Refugee Camp and I started crying. But more about that in my next blog post.


Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem is like Christmas Eve in no other place.

In the land where I grew up, we celebrate the birth of Jesus by lighting candles, drinking mulled wine, gathering in front of the TV watching an old Disney Christmas special (like Jesus himself would do), exchanging gifts, eating lots and lots of Christmas food. Traditionally, things that Jesus would eat, such as pork, meatballs, little sausages, rice pudding... (um?) But in my family we're very un-Christian and don't eat meat at all.

Anyway, the point is that Christmas is a quiet holiday celebrated at home with your family, ideally as the snowflakes are falling outside the window.

Christmas in Bethlehem on the other hand, is not celebrated at home. It's celebrated on the streets, in great numbers, with loud live music on a stage on Manger Square, glow-in-the-dark spinning things that you throw up in the air, little cups of tea that you buy off the tea guy, Santa Claus outfits, and peace lights that look like little hot-air balloons that you send sailing up into space. And it doesn't really matter if you're Christian or Muslim, Palestinian or a foreigner--everybody's together in one big outdoors street party.

A quiet Christmas Eve? Whatever. That's lame. In Bethlehem it's Christmas Festival. And in the middle of the Christmas carol concert on Manger Square, the speakers on the mosque bellow out the call for prayer and everything stops for a few minutes until it's over and the concert can continue where it left off.

And--as Jesus would have wanted it--between the buildings, there hang Christmas lights in the shape of Santa Claus, his sleigh, his reindeer, and... of course, a hamburger.

Friday, January 1, 2010

How to Extend Your West Bank Visa

Most people I know who work or volunteer in the West Bank think it’s impossible to extend their visa after the first three months have come to an end. So they go to Jordan or to Egypt for a week, and come back. Some of them aren’t allowed back in. Others get a two-week visa. Some get another three months, and then have to go over the same procedure again in three months.

But there is another way, regardless of what Israeli or Palestinian authority people say. I got an extended visa for one year, and I’ll tell you exactly how:

I got papers from the Palestinian Ministry of Interior in Ramallah. On the fifth floor, there’s a small office for visa matters for foreigners. Go there and ask what you need to fill out. You will also have to pay a small fee—140 shekels at the Ministry, and 140 shekels in Amman Cairo Bank (be sure to get a receipt).

I got a work contract for one year from my employer—a Palestinian NGO working in the West Bank. In order not to get a West Bank Only visa, I made sure to write in my contract that my work includes frequent travels to Jerusalem.

Then, thinking it would help to have an international organization saying I work with them, I got a letter from one of our American donors in Jerusalem saying that they cooperate with my NGO, and that I work on projects with them.

Finally, my boss wrote a short letter stating that I’ve been offered this position, and I will work with this American partner organization, and I will have to travel to Jerusalem for work.

The Ministry of Interior sent all my papers, plus two recent photos of me, and my passport to the Israeli authorities in Beit-El.

It took me two days before I got my passport back, with a visa for one year for all of Palestine—both the West Bank and Israel.

I got a single-entry visa, but it is possible to apply for a multi-entry visa as well. You have to specify this when you apply. A multi-entry visa is a little more expensive to apply for, and I have no idea how easy or difficult it is to actually get it.

All I know is that it is possible to extend your visa without having to go through the hassle of going to Jordan and come back.