Monday, December 27, 2010

Don't Forget Gaza

I spoke to two brothers who moved to Ramallah from Gaza fairly recently. They came to the office one day when there was a power cut because of a sand storm. I made them tea and asked them how things were in Gaza.

They said it's good. But that's because they're Palestinian and that's what you say when somebody asks you how things are.

We spoke a little more, and it turns out they still have frequent electricity and water cuts. People still live in tents since the war that started exactly two years ago today. Others moved into the schools.

"So where do the kids go to school?"

"In people's homes," one of them said.

"But it's better than during the war," the other said.

"You were there?" It's the first time I meet people who were in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. "How was that?"

They laughed a little. What are they supposed to say?

"We were very, very afraid," one of them said, looked at his brother and laughed again. Not sure what else to add.

"We couldn't sleep because of the bombs."

"They only bombed at night?" I asked.

"No, no, they bombed all the time", he said. "All the time. But in the day there was so much else to take your mind off it. At night, there was only darkness and the sound of the bombs."

"I put music on in my headphones to try to drown out the sound," the other brother said. "We were so scared."

I didn't know what to say. We drank our tea in silence.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

"You Shouldn't Have Come"

We went to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem and found ourselves at our new Canadian friend Nora's house unexpectedly drinking mulled wine together with a group of Israelis on Christmas Eve.

We had been out all day, watching the Christmas Parade, eating hummus at Afteem, listening to Christmas carols at Manger Square at night, squished in between thousands and thousands of other Christmas celebrating people.

Christmas Crowd on Manger Square in Bethlehem

Cold and tired, Nora had kindly invited us over for some hot mulled wine.

A little bit into our mulled wine evening, a colleague of hers called and invited himself and a few friends. Friends that proved to be four Israeli leftists from Tel Aviv. Naturally, the conversation quickly gravitated towards politics and the Conflict.

The Israelis were self-named activists, critical of their government, and had demonstrated with Palestinians in East Jerusalem earlier in the morning.

There were some insensitive Yasser Arafat jokes and (of course) Holocaust talk (because the Holocaust, it seems, inevitably comes up if there are Israeli Jews in the room).

For those of you who have not discussed politics with Israelis, the Holocaust is normally used as a way to excuse or justify, or at least explain Al-Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948) - an explanation that Palestinians generally oppose themselves to, since they did not have anything to do with either the Second World War or the Holocaust, and because they (rightly) feel as if their collective experience is belittled in the eyes of the world when referred to as a consequence of the Holocaust.

"Yes, but the Jews needed a safe haven to escape to after the atrocities committed against them in Europe, and..." somehow that makes it okay to kill and forcibly expel something like 800,000 Palestinians, displace them, raze their villages and towns to the ground, steal their farms, their property (even what was in their bank accounts, mind you), and then make them unwelcome strangers in their own homeland? Only to create an Apartheid Jewish state?

Tarek, the only Palestinian in the room, said that there will never be peace until the Israelis understand and accept the Palestinian history.

"No, no, that can never happen because that would mean that all Israelis would have to leave," one of the Israelis said. "That's how I see it; we would have to leave."

Nora's friend had sat quiet up until then, but opened his mouth and matter-of-factly said: "No, it means that you shouldn't have come."

Which sounds terrible in a way, but really summarizes it all. Anybody who reads the recent history of Palestine and Israel can only come to one conclusion (unless they read the fabricated Zionist version, of course, but I'm talking about the fairly objective history that is widely available to everybody who cares enough to learn, whether they are Israelis or not):

It was wrong for the Jewish Europeans to come and establish their own state on the land that was inhabited by the Palestinians (who were, contrary to popular belief, not only Muslims, but Christians and Jews too). No world-power resolution with borrowed legitimacy from the newly formed United Nations that recommended the partition of Palestine can make the colonial enterprise in Palestine right: it was wrong.

Just like it was wrong for Europeans to kill native Americans, native Australians and establish their own colonies-later-states.

That is not to say that Palestine should have been closed to those Jews who came as refugees; only that the Zionist colonial movement to create a Jewish state in the land of Palestine was wrong.

But now that the Israelis are here, there is not much we can do about it. And it should be clear to most people that since the PLO has given up the Palestinian people's claim to Historic Palestine and reduced their struggle to only regain the territories that were stolen in 1967 (the West Bank and Gaza), that for Israelis to accept Palestine's history does not mean that the Israelis must leave.

It means that they will probably reach the conclusion that they shouldn't have come, but now that they are here, they need to recognize that there is another people with a very real claim to the land that they now inhabit. It means that they need to understand that something has to be done very soon to work things out with their Palestinian neighbors, to allow them to win back their human dignity, to stop denying them their human rights, lift the occupation, and agree how to share the resources of the land they both live in.

I understand the Israeli man who thinks he should leave; I too would probably have a very serious crisis of existence if I learned that my country was created by killing and forcibly expelling the people that lived there before me (and can only exist through oppressing and ever so often bombing those who stayed).

And I understand the Israeli woman who said that she would be happy to leave, because she disagrees so much with her own government that she is ashamed to stay, but where can she go? She doesn't have any other citizenship or national identity. Her parents came from the Ukraine, but she doesn't have a Ukrainian passport.

She can migrate and eventually seek citizenship in another country like almost anybody else (from the West, at least), but to expect that all Israeli Jews would do that is simply impractical.

And because of this, the solution is not to expel all Israeli Jews. Because facts on the ground (most of which very carefully thought out and meticulously planned by the Israeli leadership throughout the years) have made it impractical.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More Bethlehem Checkpoint Stories

It's almost Christmas and although my boyfriend is a Muslim (albeit non-practising), and I'm not Christian at all, there's no better place to be than Bethlehem this time of the year.

The Christmas lights. The cobble stone streets. The Christmas songs playing in the small olive wood and mother-of-pearl handicraft shops.

One of the side effects of going outside of Ramallah, though, is that you have to pass through a number of Israeli military checkpoints and interact with teenage soldiers on power trips.

We went again the other day, Tarek, Moni and I. This time because there was supposed to be a Christmas Fair at Manger Square.

On our way, two Israeli soldiers and an Israeli police officer stopped our car, and must have seen there was someone in the back seat. The police officer comes up to the car, opens the back door, whereupon well-mannered Moni says,


And the police officer snaps, "Bye," and slams the door shut.

No "Please roll down the window," (which is actually what they usually ask), or "I will now open your back door."

Just open. Nice hi. Rude bye. And we moved on.

On the way back, it was late at night and Tarek got impatient with the soldiers who were just standing around ignoring us while we know all too well that we can't drive through until they wave an OK.

They have big guns.

So Tarek honked his horn discretely, and we got an immediate reaction. The come-over-here-to-the-side wave.

We drove up and rolled down the windows. Flash light in our faces.

"Men ween enta?" Soldier with basic checkpoint Arabic knowledge. Where are you from?


"Tehki Arabi?" Do you speak Arabic?


"Mafish zamer fel hajez, kwayes?" There is no honking at the barrier, good?


"Mafish dukhan, mafish mobail, mafish radio, mafish dow, kwayes?" There are no smokes, there is no mobile, there is no radio, there is no light, good?


"Yalla." Go.

Another lecture in checkpoint manners. Why? Because they're bored? Because they're little kids who suddenly find themselves with an unimaginable abundance of power and don't know what to do with it?

As if listening to the radio or smoking cigarettes are a security threat. If so; write a sign with instructions, then.

It's not like there is a written checkpoint code that we were violating.

When we got Bethlehem, it turned out that the Christmas Fair people had closed their stalls and gone home.

We ended up eating mandarine and passionfruit sorbet at a new ice cream place instead. Not so Christmassy, but unbelievably delicious.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How I Came to Hold Hands with the Palestinian President: Part II

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I think the best way to continue yesterday's blog post is:

A little bit out of focus, but that's us. The President of Palestine and I. Holding hands.

And why we were holding hands?

(After all, words do sometimes say more than pictures).

I think because Abu Mazen saw that I wasn't exactly going to push and shove my way over to him to be able to take a picture with him, whereas the other suit-wearing men did just that... he reached out his hand, pulled me over to his side, and then just kept holding my hand until Tarek had taken my picture.

Sweet of him.

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Lunch at the Muqat'a or How I Got to Hold Hands with the President of Palestine

On Sunday, that is to say yesterday, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) invited Israeli Knesset members and civil society activists for lunch at the Muqat'a; the President's Compound in Ramallah.

Hanan Ashrawi shaking hands with Amram Mitzna

If you follow the news, you will probably know that the peace negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli governments are, as Nabeel Sha'ath put it, "in a deep coma," after Netanyahu refused to stop new settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories in September.

Yesterday was an effort from the Palestinian political leadership to reach out to the Israeli people - to show that they are committed to keeping an open dialogue with the Israeli Jews - no matter what is going on on the political playing field.

Now, you probably didn't hear anything about the lunch meeting on the evening news last night, but it's actually a pretty big deal.

Imagine the absolutely highest level of the political elite in Palestine inviting Israeli Jews for lunch in Ramallah at a time when there is almost no contact between the two societies at all. Except between Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints and at the borders, of course.

And then imagine that most of the Jews who came yesterday have never seen Ramallah before (even though they live maybe 15 minutes or maximum an hour away); and those who have seen Ramallah, have probably not been for eight years.

But that time - eight years ago - they weren't invited. That time, they invaded Ramallah with tanks and bombs; they demolished and besieged Al-Muqat'a and held late President Yasser Arafat prisoner for months on end.

But yesterday, they - the same people - were invited for lunch.

Arabs and their hospitality.

Yasser Abed Rabbo speaking

We sat down... oh yeah, did I forget to tell you we were invited? Tarek, his father and I.

Anyway, we sat down, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the General Secretary of the Executive Council of the PLO and facilitator of the lunch discussion, leaned over his microphone at the table of honor and joked with the Israeli guests,

"Ya'ni, you would think that you could have at least one woman up here..."

Then, after two Israeli women were placed at the end of the table and the press was asked to leave so that the event wouldn't turn into a press conference (it was supposed to be an informal opportunity for dialogue), he gave the floor to President Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen.

"I told the Americans and the Israelis that if there is no freeze of settlement construction, I cannot continue the negotiations," Abu Mazen said as he was telling the story about the recent negotiations break-down. "Netanyahu said that it is impossible for him to freeze the settlements, because... because... there were many becauses."

Many becauses. I love it.

And then, "I can't accept that settlements are better than peace." Which is to say; he can't understand how the Israelis can choose settlements over peace.

Neither can I.

He said that they had been very, very close to reaching an agreement on the two most important questions - security and borders - before this latest round of talks (that is to say, two years ago at Annapolis), but that Israel had refused to continue negotiations after they launched their war on Gaza that Christmas.

One Jewish Knesset member said that he didn't know this; and that it is very important for Israelis to know that the two most important questions are borders and security, and not the Right of Return for the Palestinian refugees. It gave him hope.

Other Jewish Knesset members thanked Abu Mazen for inviting them, and for extending a hand, and talked about the importance of dialogue, and how the majority of Israelis want peace and how they support a two-state solution.

"We have come here today to listen to you," one man said.

Another Jewish man talked about his 82-year-old mother who, although she always votes for the ultra-orthodox Zionist party, Shas (that has called for the total annihilation of evil Palestinians), she still "supports peace."

(Which is a little bit like saying that a Swedish neo-Nazi still likes immigrants).

The same man also had a 28-year-old son, he let us know, who had been here eight years ago, as an Israeli soldier besieging Al-Muqat'a. But he (again, like a Swedish immigrant-friendly neo-Nazi) is a real peace activist.

"Because you can't be a real peace activist unless you are a good soldier who protects the security of your country."

(I'm still trying to work that one out).

Then Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO, was given the floor. And she said:

"I don't want to rain on your parade..." and of course started raining a rather cold - but very refreshing - rain that brought everybody back to reality a little.

"If you say that the majority of Israelis want peace," she said, "then how come you don't elect a peace government?"

(I.e. not extreme right parties like Likud and Shas).

She spoke about the Wall and about the settlements that are "spreading like an octopus," leaving nothing but a few isolated population centers for Palestine. 

"The two-state solution is all but dead." It continued raining. "We don't have five minutes of negotiations left; we have only one minute. We are running out of time."

One Israeli man pointed out that leaders must not be pessimists.

A Palestinian woman stood up, perhaps a little empowered by Hanan Ashrawi, and drew attention to what an Israeli person who had spoken earlier had said: 

"You said you have come here to listen. Yet it is not we who need to talk, it's you. We already said everything we can say. Now it's Israel's turn to answer us."

A young Jewish woman who had probably prepared her intervention beforehand, and was therefore sort of very out of context, started talking about the need for Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Saeb Erekat, the Chief negotiator of the PLO, pointed out that the PLO already recognized Israel's right to exist years ago.

"But when you ask me to recognize the state of Israel as a Jewish state," he explained, "you're asking me to join the Zionist movement."

Which he was not prepared to do for obvious reasons, not in the least that it would be very problematic to proclaim a state Jewish when more than 20% of its citizens are not even Jews.

We listened to Palestinians and Jews speaking their mind. Many Jews supported the PLO and criticized their own government. 

Waiters brought us bread and hummus, arugula salad, stuffed grape leaves, avocado salad, fresh orange juice, Palestinian olives, rice and meat, and knafeh, a very sweet Arabic pastry with nuts and cheese that literally drips with sugary syrup.

And before we knew it, the lunch meeting was coming to an end.

(So is my energy, unfortunately, which is why I think I will wait with the second part of the title of this blog post until tomorrow:

How I Got to Hold Hands with the President of Palestine).

Yasser Abed Rabbo took the microphone again:

"Thank you for all the kind words you have said about the Palestinian government. And thank you for the... semi-kind words about the Israeli. I think what Abu Mazen wanted to say today," (because sometimes Yasser knows better), "is that the two most important questions before us are borders and security. If these are solved, then all other questions will be solved... within an hour."

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Checkpoint War Game

We were on our way back from Bethlehem after a very nice pre-Christmas party at our friend Renee's house late last night, and as we came to the checkpoint after Wadi el Nar, we slowed down and waited for one of the Israeli checkpoint soldiers to wave us through.

It was dark save for a light from the narrow guard tower windows. Nobody was out.

Remembering another recent checkpoint experience when we drove through at night without stopping because the checkpoint looked unmanned, and we were pulled over by four young boy soldiers with huge guns pointed at us, and scolded for our bad checkpoint behavior; we decided it would be better to wait for some kind of signal.

But no signal came.

Tarek is not the most patient person in the world, so after half a minute or so, he honked the horn.

Still no signal. Nobody.

So we drove over the metal stop claws that allow you to drive slowly forwards, but would slice your tires if you back up or try to drive through in the wrong direction.

Still nothing.

As we approached the little checkpoint booth, we saw a light radiating from something inside, and a young soldier boy sitting as if glued to the source of light, not taking his eyes from it even to look at us, the (supposedly) potential terrorists driving past.

"He's probably Facebooking," we said to each other and craned our heads backwards to see what it was that mesmerized him so as we drove past.

But he wasn't.

He was playing Counter Strike. A first-person shooter computer war game at a checkpoint in the occupied Palestinian territories.

What the hell?!

I don't want these Israeli soldiers here at all, but to know that they're sitting at the checkpoints playing computer games in which you play war, makes me feel even less secure.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists.

I'm reading Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. It's a dauntingly fat book with font size 4; but very, very worth reading.

After the news that a suicide bomber blew himself up on the streets of Stockholm has sunk in, I read these words by Fisk (written about Afghan freedom fighters/terrorists during the Soviet invasion):
"Terrorists, terrorist, terrorists. In the Middle East, in the entire Muslim world, this word would become a plague, a meaningless punctuation mark in all our lives, a full stop erected to finish all discussion of injustice, constructed as a wall by Russians, Americans, Israelis, British, Pakistanis, Saudis, Turks, to shut us up. Who would ever say a word in favour of terrorists? What cause could justify terror? So our enemies are alway 'terrorists'." (p. 74)
I'm not saying I would like to say a word in favor of the actions by the man who strapped explosives to himself and (it seems like) intended to take as many persons as he could with him on his disturbed, suicidal way out of this world.

Because honestly. It seems a little misguided and anticlimactic hitting the streets not of Israel the colonial occupying human rights defying power; not of USA the meddler in everybody's affairs (especially if there's oil), but of Sweden.

Because we have 500 troops in Afghanistan (out of 140 000 foreign troops in total) and one lunatic artist who enjoys offending people's deep-held religious beliefs?

And his bomb didn't even detonate properly (thankfully, but anticlimactically enough).

No, I have no words in favor for his actions. Nor for anybody else's actions that aim to hurt or kill.

But I do have several words to say on the word terrorism. It is all about the politics of naming. Whoever dominates the public sphere gets to label people and actions according to what fits their interests for the moment, and the whole world nods and listens (it seems).

But here is no given definition of terrorism; no objective truth about the word.

Is it terrorism because the man in Stockholm was a Muslim? Because there were explosives?

I seem to remember another mad man who stabbed the Swedish foreign minister to death a few years back. Why wasn't he a terrorist?

Because he didn't send a letter before he killed her, maybe. So is it the motivation behind the action that makes it terrorism?

But then... I think we all can think of a countless number of actions by a countless number of persons and armies and governments around the world that have motivations behind them that would make them... terrorists.

And plenty of innocent victims where they bring mayhem. Which is necessary. There must be innocent victims for it to be terrorism, right?

So what if nobody had gotten hurt in Stockholm? And the suicide bomber had just killed himself? Would it still be a terrorist act?

This nitpicking doesn't make sense, I know. But once you start questioning the meaning of the word terrorism, you inevitably end up weighing these questions against each other.

Of course there are no final answers.

It is not surprising that still to this day we have not been able to agree on a single definition of terrorism. In the UN itself, there is no consensus about the meaning of the word (but still, the member states base policies on this undefined term).

But the word itself has no absolute meaning. And therefore, it is meaningless. A meaningless punctuation mark that exists to end discussions of injustice.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Travel Log: Mishmish the Camel

I think I might have told you before how I feel about camels.

They seem to know some kind of secret to life that makes them a little haughty; gives them this absolutely content and slightly arrogant look.

They might not be very pretty, but I love them.

That's why I took these pictures of Mishmish and her clover-munching colleague at the Pyramids in Giza:

Mishmish (which means Apricot) looking very Camel-like

Her caretaker said she started singing because she was excited about us being there 

Very, very excited 


Mishmish and her caretaker

 She's absolutely fabulous

Mishmish singing again 

Mishmish's serious look 

Not sure what's she's doing here 


Her clover-eating friend at the base of one of the pyramids

That's it. Just wanted to post some of my very cool camel pics.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Travel Log: Flying with Egyptians

Back to my travel log:

Egyptians care very little, if at all, about instructions onboard a plane.

Well, they actually do refrain from smoking, which is nice for somebody like me who doesn't smoke.

But the fasten seat belt sign? It's as if it doesn't exist. Whether during takeoff or landing, or anywhere in between.

Can't go to the bathroom because we're two seconds from landing and even the flight attendants need to fasten their seat belts?

Nuts to that! I have to pee now.

And this whole thing about cell phones? Most actually do turn theirs off, but not necessarily before we take off. And they certainly don't wait until the seat belt sign has been switched off before they turn them on again once we've landed.

The millisecond we touch ground, there's a hundred switch-on melodies at once. Half a second after, half of the plane is on the phone with somebody.

Flying Egyptian

But one thing that's actually good, and something that I've never seen with any other airlines than Egypt Air, is sign language safety instructions in a square at the bottom of the screen.

How come everybody doesn't have sign language safety instructions? It ought to be mandatory.

Way too many of us take for granted our privileges and forget about those who can't hear, see, speak, read, or walk.

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