Saturday, October 30, 2010

Life in the Occupied Territories

I've been collecting a whole mental list of items I need to blog about, but what with work and family I haven't had the time nor the energy to actually sit down and write.

But now, I'm taking the time. Here follows a summary of some of the things that have been going on:

We started recording a TV series at work. It's a development project for youth which we received funding for from a foreign aid organization.

The project is aimed at  giving an opportunity to young women and men in Palestine to express themselves freely regarding problems and matters that really mean something, while at the same time allowing them to take an active part in the public sphere and thereby sort of creating a space for democratic participation.

I had a vision of it being an honest, sometimes controversial, talk show that would stir up a society-wide debate on everything from unemployment to how the occupation affects love affairs between Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside what is now Israel. We would discuss the peace negotiations, gender roles, relations between Christian and Muslim Palestinians...

But with all donor-related rules and regulations, we have been obliged to water it down to a wimpy little Q and A program that is half-advertisement for the donor's other programs. We are not allowed to discuss political or religious topics at all, and what's worse, they ask us to literally edit out mentions of the Israeli occupation if somebody happens to bring it up of his or her own accord.

(Perspective: something like a third of Palestine's economy is directly made up of foreign aid - so you can begin to imagine what this implies for basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, not to mention the development of a democratic society in the occupied Palestinian territories).

I will not mention our donor by name in case they google themselves, but suffice it to say that the money comes from a certain uncle by the name of Sam.

Anyhow, it is not only this censored TV show that has been taking up most of my time lately, my boyfriend's mom also came down with a severe case of double pneumonia a few weeks ago and had to go to hospital.

It is obviously distressing for any family anywhere in the world when a family member becomes hospitalized for whatever reason, but I daresay that being a Palestinian family in the occupied territories adds another layer of worry. I'll tell you why:

It all started like flu-like symptoms after Tarek's mom came back from a business trip to Turkey, but we quickly realized it was much more serious than that and took her to a hospital in Ramallah on a Sunday. On Monday she started feeling worse, on Tuesday even more so, and by Wednesday she had been moved to the intensive care unit by a group of perplexed doctors and nurses who didn't understand why she wasn't get any better.

The standard of the hospitals here leave much to wish for - after all we're living under occupation, in a conflict zone - so at this point, we realized that we needed to take her to a hospital in Israel.

However, because we live under occupation we can't just go. Even if a person is dying, they can't go without a special permit issued by the Israeli occupation authorities. And this might take three days, or a week, or who knows how long.

Who knows how many people die before they can get proper care?

Luckily, my boyfriend's family know people who know people, so in the end it only took one full day of office visits and paper signing before we got the OK to take Tarek's mom to a hospital in West Jerusalem.

Then it turned out that there were no beds available until the day after. So Tarek's mom had to stay one more night in intensive care in Ramallah before she could go see another doctor in Jerusalem.

At the same time, Tarek and his father were doing all the necessary paperwork to hopefully get permits to go with Tarek's mom to Jerusalem.

Finally, on Thursday at midday, they were allowed to go with her in the ambulance to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in West Jerusalem, where she stayed for another 5 days. The first night she was kept in the intensive care unit because she was close to lung collapse, and her doctor said that she had come to Jerusalem in the last  minute.

Again, imagine those who don't get permits. And those who can't pay the hospital bill.

I could go and visit her every day, which I did, but Tarek and his dad did not get permits after the first day because they were suddenly considered a "security risk." (Who knows why?)

So Tarek's dad slept in the hospital for four days (even though that meant that he risked being arrested, fined and jailed since he was a Palestinian in Israel without a permit). After two days Tarek was cleared, apparently ceased being a security risk, and could go and visit his mom.

The arbitrariness of occupation policies.

Tarek's mom is doing much better and things are getting back to normal. Except our TV program is still being censored.

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Saturday, October 2, 2010


In Palestine, there's a word that can close doors in your face or even kill your career like nothing else:


Or normalization.

The term is not exactly a hundred percent clear, because I daresay it means different things to different people. But the general idea is that it refers to normalizing relations with Israelis. If this is done in times when Israel is still occupying Palestinian lands, imprisoning Palestinian children, shooting peaceful demonstrators at close range in their heads, arresting people during nightly raids in people's homes, restricting movement of people and goods, denying Palestinians water, confiscating land, building illegal settlements... and generally making life as impossible as they can for Palestinians, then normalization is not a good thing.

Some might think normalization is wrong under these circumstances, but okay if the occupation ended. Some want absolutely nothing to do with Israelis at all, maybe because they've lost their sons, their fathers, or their brothers or sisters in the name of the security of the Israeli state.

What exactly constitutes normalization, however, is like I mentioned not completely clear. Some say you cannot have any relations at all with Israelis, others think dialogue is acceptable because it can help changing the way Israelis see the conflict, maybe make them understand what they are collectively putting the Palestinian people through.

The organization I work for, is accused of normalization.

We have a project together with an Israeli organization (whose director, I may add, is a Palestinian from 1948 - a shorthand for that part of Palestine that was declared as Israel in 1948) that is aimed at creating change through dialogue and joint meetings between Israeli Jews, Palestinians from 1948, and Palestinians from 1967 (the remaining parts of Palestine that was occupied in 1967).

We do this because we (the organization, I mean) think it is important that especially Israelis come in contact with Palestinians from 1967 in other situations than as soldiers at the checkpoints; that they get a chance to understand how their government's policies affect the lives of millions of Palestinians on a daily basis; that they understand that the version they get to hear about the conflict is not necessarily true.

And also a little bit because we think it's important for Palestinians to understand the Israeli version.

The idea is that dialogue could serve as a step on the way to creating change in both societies.

But it's difficult to recruit participants to this program. Some want to take part, but get threatened by their unions. Others would like to take part, but understand they would kill their careers if they did. Many don't want to have anything to do with the program because it is seen as normalization.

A part of me agrees. Have I not repeatedly advocated boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel? (Yes, I have, and I still do).

Another part of me thinks we have to open up a dialogue or we will never find our way out of this situation.

But when I write project proposals with another Israeli organization we might work together with in the future, and they can't even acknowledge that what is their independence war, is Palestine's ultimate colonization war... I see we have a long way to go.

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Today, for the first time in my life, I saw soldiers firing teargas canisters across the sky.

We went to Bil'in, a village not far from Ramallah that I've never visited even though I've been in Palestine for a year now. Not because I didn't want to, but because I'm not courageous - or maybe heedless - enough to go.

You see, Bil'in is a village that's surrounded by Israel's Apartheid Wall - there, a stretch of electrified fence, heavily patrolled by the Israeli army - and that has had about 60% of its land confiscated by Israel for the surrounding Israeli settlements.

Every Friday, the villagers walk up to the wall to demonstrate peacefully against the confiscation of their land. And every Friday, the Israeli soldiers respond with shooting rubber-coated steel bullets, live ammunition and teargas canisters at the protestors.

Sometimes they shoot children, sometimes they kill. Mahmoud Yusef Abu Rahme, a 12-year-old boy participating in the non-violent demonstration one Friday in 2007, was shot in his head with a rubber-coated steel bullet at close range. Bassem Abu Rahme was shot in his chest with a tear gas canister last year; he died immediately. Abdullah Abu Rahme was shot in his head in 2008.

Today, on Friday 1 October, we thought we'd drive out to Bil'in and go somewhere close to the demonstration. Not too close (because we'd prefer not being shot at, or arrested), but close enough to perhaps get some shots of the non-violent demonstrators facing the armed soldiers on the other side of the fence that cuts through the village.

Not knowing exactly when the demonstration starts on Fridays, however, and then getting a little lost on the way, we came too late. We came when the demonstrators were walking back towards the village center through the olive fields, equipped with flags, cameras and gas masks.

Demonstrators with cameras and gas masks

We could still see the soldiers patrolling on the other side of the fence, driving military vehicles. A group of children were biking up the hill together with the demonstrators. A few Jews from Israel spoke Hebrew among themselves. Some from other solidarity groups around the world walked with them. The rest were from Bil'in.

Demonstrators heading back

Up on the crest of the hill stood an ambulance in case the Israeli soldiers would injure somebody. The medical personnel were also walking back up the hill.

Israeli soldiers behind the electric fence in Bil'in (photo courtesy of Tarek)

The soldiers fired off a tear gas canister. As if to say to the demonstrators that they'd better be leaving. It cracked. Fizzed across the sky, and landed somewhere in the dry, yellow grass.

Tear gas canister landing to the left (see the smoke?)

Not before long, Tarek, Moni and I were the only ones left on the hillside, save for a few village boys and a Palestinian woman harvesting olives on the side of the dirt road.

Palestinian woman harvesting olives

She had spread out sheets on the ground under the tree, and was picking the olives with her hands, one by one, dropping them down on the sheet. Her skin was browned from the sun, and she kept her hair out of her face with a light green shawl.

The boys observing an Israeli soldier on the other side of the fence (photo courtesy of Tarek)

Suddenly the ladder toppled over and the woman fell to the ground. We ran over to her to help her up, and made sure that she wasn't hurt. The soldiers fired another tear gas canister at absolutely nobody further down the hill, and I exclaimed with irritation;

"Leesh?!" Why? "All the people already left."

The woman echoed my irritation with the soldiers, and then answered my question saying that they do it because she and her boys are there, harvesting their olives.

She called for her boys who had run across the street to watch the soldiers on the other side of the fence, worried for their safety. Then she climbed up the ladder again, because there were olives that needed picking.

"Yalla," she called to the boys, "help me so we can finish and go home."

Burned-out tear gas canister

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