Sunday, February 4, 2007

Palestine Shifting Beneath My Feet

The constant construction and destruction is overwhelming. This is my sixth trip to Palestine and I still cannot prepare myself for the differences in landscape and roadways each visit.

I have been traveling around quite a bit the last few days, each time learning anew how to get from one place to another.

Yesterday morning I made my way from Ibdaa Center to East Jerusalem. With the construction of the Wall in Al-Khadr village (next to Dheisheh refugee camp), the route for getting to Jerusalem and Hebron has moved. Jerusalem is north of Bethlehem and Dheisheh but the new route for public transportation is to go south on the Jerusalem-Hebron road. At the end of Al-Khadr village there is a roadblock where you get out of the service (shared taxi) and cross on foot to catch a bus to Jerusalem. As we drove north on a road originally built to connect illegal Israeli settlements to Jerusalem, we passed four caterpillars preparing - no ravaging - patches of land for the Wall. I looked out the window as we passed the place where I used to catch buses to Jerusalem and saw an Israeli military jeep amidst piles of dirt.

The checkpoint on this mostly settler road used to be just two lanes and a small shack for the soldiers to stand but it has rapidly grown to more lanes and a more substantial structure is clearly coming. All over the West Bank, the occupation's checkpoints are becoming larger and more permanent, furthering scarring the land.

As usual, when our Palestinian bus on its way to East Jerusalem approached the checkpoint we were motioned to pull over and told to get off the bus. One by one, an Israeli soldier checked our IDs and had us get back on the bus. But the last two people, a mother and her adult son were sent back. Though they had official "permission" to enter Jerusalem for a visit to the doctor, the soldiers sent them back saying no one with a West Bank ID (an ID card issued by the Israeli occupation issued at age 14 that distinguishes Palestinians living in Jerusalem from those in the West Bank from those living in Israel proper) is allowed through this checkpoint, with or without permission.

After a stop in Jerusalem I went to Ramallah to meet one of the students who was awarded an Elly Jaensch Memorial Scholarship through MECA this year. Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah has been once again renovated and enlarged. I don't even understand where people and cars go in and come out. I guess I'm lucky that I don't have to be that well acquainted with the monstrosity.

We drove through beautiful countryside northwest of Ramallah. The gentle terraced hills with olive trees painted a romantic picture of Palestinian village life until the rural hills turned into urban sprawl housing illegal Israeli settlers. Every time I began to enjoy the view, it was interupted again by another rapidly expanding settlement. They have grown to take more and more land, creeping along the hilltops. On the road to Hebron and Al-Fawwar camp this morning I noticed the same thing. Efrat settlement (commonly called The Snake) has eaten up more Palestinian farmland. And Har Homa, on a hilltop between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, has started moving down the hill. What once was a green, open space in the Bethelehem district is now entirely covered in new suburban style houses and apartment complexes, leaving no trees and none of the natural beauty.

The process of erasure began in 1948 with planting trees to cover the homes and villages that Palestinians were driven from. And it continues today with the construction of settlements, checkpoints, settler roads and the Wall on the ruins of more homes, orchards, and historic roads.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Dr. Mona El-Farra (and 1.5 million others) stuck in Gaza

Ever since I left Gaza last week I've been checking the news daily to see if the Rafah border opened. And every day there were empty promises of the border crossing opening the next day or in a few days.

Once, the crossing opened to allow people in but until now no one has been able to leave into Egypt (the crossing that I use in the north is only for foreigners, diplomats, aid agencies, or people working inside Israel).

Dr. Mona El-Farra, MECA's Director of Gaza Projects, spent several days waiting to travel but the conference she was to speak at opened two days ago so she finally unpacked her bags. You can read Mona's account of this experience on her blog and also read more about it on the Guardian's comment is free page.

The reality is so absurd that I have trouble grasping it. It's the equivalent of sealing of the city of San Francisco from all directions and only allowing people in and out through 101. Then guaranteeing 101 will also be open for "ease of movement." And then closing 101 while making announcements about when it will be open in the future that rarely are true. So people book flights out of SFO, set meetings with colleagues in San Mateo and plan to visit family in Santa Cruz. They wake up each morning for the whole week before the flight, meeting or visit prepared to leave only to find the border closed again and again and again.

Obviously, that's not a perfect analogy but it helps me see how ridiculous, painful and crazy-making the border situation is for Gazans.