Thursday, November 17, 2011

West Bank Notes

Just before leaving for Israel, to join a 10-day learning with Rabbis for Human Rights - North America, I had a premonition that I would not return from Israel. No doubt it was anxiety about the itinerary into the West Bank precipitating a head-on collision with my Orthodox family in Israel. But now I know it means that my life's preoccupation will never leave Israel. My attention has been permanently bonded, right now in sorrow because of the daily injustices we witnessed and the understandable fear on both sides, hopefully in exuberance as well by the end of the trip, because those two can exist together. It remains to be seen what of my art will be clearly about this heart-breaking conflict, and what part submerged, felt only by myself.

Of course we grouped together on the first evening for introductions. The next morning we were off to a Palestinian farm in the West Bank near a village called Sinjil to help plant olive trees. I was a little wary of this when I first saw it on the itinerary, as I didn't come here for eco-tourism. How sweet, planting trees. But in fact the Palestinian farmers request a Jewish or at least sympathetic presence when they plant, cultivate and harvest, and have been doing so for years, as the Jewish settlers who live on the hilltops above them sometimes raid the planting and then the harvesting, doing damage not only to crops but to tractors and, often, farmers. The army is/was there to protect Jews. Rabbis for Human Rights, when they began, had a staff of two or three and during the harvest came out every day, and now there is a continual presence of volunteers and human rights groups. RHR also went to the courts (they say repeatedly that their best tools are Israeli democracy, to try to insure its application to everyone). The Supreme Court finally ruled that the army must protect the Palestinian farmers, and their crops, must prevent vandalism on the part of settlers, and must bring the vandals to justice. There has since been some progress in the protection part, but the “vandals to justice” part doesn't seem to be happening.  Anyway it was an extraordinary experience, and at lunchtime we sat under some almond trees and the farmers brought us fresh felafels, the best I've had so far (out of many).

That afternoon we went to East Jerusalem, first to Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood where the tenants are slowly being evicted and Jewish settlers are moving into those houses. It isn't clear who owns the houses. Also, in all fairness, Palestinians have not been paying rent in many cases for protest reasons, but it isn't clear why they have a lesser claim than those being moved in. On one street there was a house with two sides. A Palestinian family lived in one side and a Jewish family in the other. They had to enter through the same tiny courtyard. On one side was a banner in Arabic proclaiming revolution. On the other side, maybe 5 feet away, was a sukkah with a plywood wall, which said things like “Left wing scum” and “Arabs get out”. Over the little fence in the neighboring courtyard, an older Palestinian women was up on a ladder slapping olives (or almonds) out of a tree to the ground, who stopped to shout to us her very angry version of what was going on. Arik Ascherman, a founder of RHR, was with us, and he is well known in these parts, probably in most of the West Bank, and infamously in the rest of Israel.

We went to another neighborhood called Silwan, and also “City of David” (believed to be the site of David's original Jerusalem), where there is a huge excavation going on. The Palestinians believe that the excavation is causing cracks in their houses and this seems to be mostly true, though probably some cracks were there before the excavation. The neighborhood is divided, Palestinians and Jews, and the garbage collection and general state of city services on the Palestinian side is noticeably deplorable. There is a Jewish information center, so the Palestinians started their own, and tiny and poor though it is, it provides some refuge for children who are otherwise developing in hatred and rage or in frustrated resignation.

Next day, up at 5, bus to checkpoint Qalandia into Ramallah, with a member of Machsom Watch, which has been a presence at the checkpoints for 15 years in an attempt to curtail some of the worst abuses by some soldiers. They have met some success. Ordinarily 5000 people pass through this checkpoint every morning on their way into Jerusalem for work, school ,and hospital.  But it was a Muslim holiday, so no children and far fewer workers, maybe 1000, were passing through. We passed through easily coming out from Jerusalem. Picture going to New Jersey over the George Washington Bridge. Then picture coming home through the tollgate. The army only cares about people entering Jerusalem. Here we see a very bleak arrangement of concrete and metal. The Palestinians, almost all men, must line up in a long narrow cage-like corridor with a turn-style at the end. Great pushing and shoving at the end of the line, though I don't know why, maybe frustrated sport, as they do this six days a week, starting at 5 a.m., in order to get to work on time. Every few minutes there is a whistle and three people get through the turn-style only to line up at the next corridor. Eventually people come to the “check-out” lines and spread out, into still more lines with turn-styles, and when they are through they must show permits and identification, which has information coded on metal strips. Children under 12 must bring original birth certificates every morning. Ages 12-16, identification, and over 16, permits, the getting of which is another story entirely. We were permitted, through Machsom's relations with the head of security, on the “humanitarian” line, which closes at 6:30 a.m. If a pregnant woman goes into labor and must get to a hospital in Jerusalem and it's later in the day, or any other emergency, one must first get a special permit, get a ride to the checkpoint, be carried by stretcher through the checkpoint, where an ambulance is hopefully waiting on the other side. Several stories of maternal and infant deaths. Our guide, veteran Machsom member Hannah Barag, had lots of painful stories to tell.

We are finally on our line, and we look at our watches. On this quiet morning, a holiday, with no children, no sick people, relatively few workers, it takes each of us 45 minutes to get through this last turn-style to have our passports checked. Imagine the delay, mayhem, humiliation, frustration on an ordinary day.

I'll only report here that the rest of the day included a wonderful visit with Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed for study in preparation for our later visit to the Tomb of Rachel, for which you can never be prepared. That's for another writing. Maybe I'll name that writing “Tombs”. After visiting the tomb, we went then to Bethlehem, had some guided walks, including one through the refugee camp Deheisha established by the UN in 1954, also another story, but you should read about it in David Grossman's “The Yellow Wind”, which I've heard brought many skeptics and thousands of previously uninterested Israelis into the social justice camp. It's an incredible book. We stayed that night and the next in private Palestinian homes in Bethlehem, two of us with a family. The families were mostly middle class Christian Orthodox Palestinians  living in substantial homes. We all reported varying degrees of interaction, and though I felt my family and I enjoyed each other's company very much, very little was exchanged in regard to their perceptions of the Palestinian “situation”. The topic of water came up (the Arabs in the West Bank outnumber the Jews by something like 5 to 1, but have available to them 1/5 of the water) but it was met by a nod of recognition only, and the family went to great lengths to include abundant water in their hospitality. Being shut out of Jerusalem was their greatest concern, it being just too difficult to get a permit to pass through. 
On the day of the second sleep-over night, Hebron, and after lunch, the Cave Dwellers of the South Hebron Hills. 

Hebron and South Hebron Hills. Four or five heart-wrenching chapters in my forthcoming book, and some sort of summary soon in this blog.   Those using the words "apartheid" and "ghetto" are likely referring to Hebron. On the way from the first, where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried, to the second, in the wilderness, we passed a settlement close by some Bedouin dwellings. This weekend I'm visiting people who live at this settlement, and though we've agreed not to talk politics, we have not agreed not to talk religion, and here there is a very fine, if any, line. I hope just to listen. When talking about anything else, though, I have a lot of affection for them.

I have to stop here, and I've barely scratched the surface. I'll write it all up in pieces.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful reflection and summary of the beginning of your trip.