Sunday, June 22, 2008

Palestinian boy sent back at checkpoint, visiting destroyed villages

June 22, 2008 Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine.
Deborah Agre, MECA staff

Several of us from the MECA went from the Bethlehem area to Jerusalem by bus for more shopping for the Holiday Bazaar (we’re going to have some really great stuff this year—December 13). The bus was stopped and we all got off at the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Everyone showed his or her permits or passports. Palestinians who don’t have Jerusalem residency or Israeli citizenship have to apply for special permits to enter the Jerusalem area. (Additional permits are required to go further. For an excellent article about this system click here.) A boy of around 13 handed the Israeli soldier something, but it wasn’t the right thing. They yelled at him in Hebrew. He stood there and as more soldiers came over his brow got more and more furrowed. MECA director Barbara Lubin put her arm over his shoulder and told the soldiers he was with us. One soldier started shouting at us that this was the border and a Palestinian can’t enter Israel without permission, just like an Israeli couldn’t enter the US without permission. OK, so if this is the border and Israel is on one side, what’s on the other side? Not a Palestinian state. Not any entity that can prevent Israelis from coming in; from stealing land and water, from establishing settlements, building walls and Israeli-only roads, arresting and attacking people. Besides, Israel actually has no established, internationally-recognized borders.

The boy was left at the checkpoint, far from town. I was left, as I so often am here, wondering if there was something more we could have or should have done.

Later that week our friend Ziad (Director of the Ibdaa Cultural Center) got a permit to enter the Jerusalem area for three days and zero nights. Ibdaa and some other community centers in West Bank refugee camps organized a trip for kids to visit some of the villages in “48” (AKA Israel) that their families lived in before the ethnic cleansing of 1947-48. When the trip ended Ziad still had a few hours left on his permit and another friend from the US had a rented car. So four of us took off to visit Zakaria, Ziad’s father’s village and other villages about a half hour from Dheisheh. I saw two things there I hadn't seen on previous visits: 1) An area of incredibly beautiful green mountains and valleys; 2) The return of the Palestinian refugees is more than a romantic desire, political demand, or compliance with international law. Here is the land their parents and grandparents left so recently and so close to where they live now in crowded cement refugee camps. These aren’t little anachronistic villages (though there are the remains of some). They are big, big spaces, most of them unpopulated or sparsely populated. Those who argue that if the refugees return Israel will no longer be a Jewish state are making their own counter-argument: Israel was created and is sustained by a grave injustice, one that is still possible to correct. Yes, I fully understand, as do most Palestinians, that it does get more complicated when we’re talking about returning to land, or even homes, where people—most of whom were born after 1948—are living their lives. Complicated, difficult, and painful. But not impossible to reconcile the rights of current residents with the rights of the refugees.

Zakaria is now a small bedroom community near Jerusalem. “Look what they have here for their children,” Ziad noted as we passed a large, well-equipped playground and a basketball court. “Look how Shlomo can come home from work, sit in the garden and look at this beautiful view. How can they sleep at night?” We all sighed, knowing that they sleep just fine. As we walked through another village, now a national park where “Shlomo can come with this family and have a nice barbecue,” I ask Ziad how he feels when he comes here. “Here, at least I can breathe,” he says sadly.

More immediate, and nearly as fervent among young people in Dheisheh Refugee Camp is the desire to go to the beach. It is really, really hot. They are on summer break. The beach is only an hour away. But even if they get permits to enter the Jerusalem area—which takes a while for young women, is virtually impossible for young men—they are still not allowed to go further to reach to the Mediterranean. But someone figured out that, at least for the moment, foreigners driving rented cars with Israeli plates are not stopped at checkpoints. So, the beach shuttles have begun, and I’m sure will continue through the summer until someone gets caught, and the Israeli soldiers begin stopping rental cars at checkpoints.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Deborah Agre from Dheisheh

June 16, 2008, Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine.
Deborah Agre, MECA staff

I am here to co-lead the MECA delegation in July. I came a few weeks early to visit friends and MECA projects in the West Bank and Gaza (we’ll see if I get into Gaza), and to attend a wedding. After we landed in Tel Aviv I got in one of the four adjacent lines processing people with foreign passports. As my turn approached, I noticed that two women wearing hijab who had been on the plane with me from Canada, stood at two of the four windows. I decided to count how many others went through while they stood there. I got to eleven when one woman was escorted away by a guard, presumably to be questioned further, detained, or possibly even denied entry and sent back. My brief turn at the window came and went while the other woman was still standing there.

We drove for a while before I got the first glimpse of the landscape I love so much, terraced hills, patched with olive groves and other desert plants; the old hand-built stone walls blending with the natural rock forms; the subtle variegated colors of the stone. I think of my old friend Jonathan, who died recently and suddenly. He grew up in the southwest and lived in the hills of Contra Costa County, California. I learned from him a real appreciation for the beauty and quiet drama of this kind of non-lush landscape. Jonathan saw the beauty of rocks, in all their shape, texture and color variations like no one else. Except probably the Palestinian stone masons who built the terrace walls by hand, fixing each rock in its place, apparently fitted together by shape, balance and gravity.

I’m staying at the Ibdaa Cultural Center’s Guesthouse with others from the US and Europe. MECA has worked with Ibdaa for many, many years and we always receive an enthusiastic welcome and many invitations to the homes of families connected to the center. We have an enormous and delicious lunch at the home of Khaled Al-Saifi, the co-director of Ibdaa who’s daughter Keyan is one of the students who attends college in the US with the help of MECA’s Ramzy Halaby Education Fund. Keyan is here visiting, and serves as our interpreter as Khaled takes us on a tour of Ibdaa’s new Women and Children’s Building. Keyan adds approving commentary about the importance of women working together, without men, to be strong on their own, to run their own programs and make their own decisions. We go to the roof of the building to get the view of the camp, the Wall, and the growing settlement beyond. Keyan points to the densely built-up hills on one side of the camp and tells me sadly, that is was all green when she was a child. They used to play and have picnics there. Further away, Efrat settlement, called “the Snake” is like a wall itself—grabbing land, dividing communities, diverting normal traffic between towns.

The wedding, which involves no actual ceremony, proceeds with three parties, several meals before during and after, and lots of dancing. The day after the main wedding party, as I am checking my email, someone comes into the computer room and tells us the Israeli Army is here and everyone runs to the restaurant on the top floor to see what’s happening. I see three jeeps on the main road, and one headed to the neighborhood across from the camp. They are looking for a young man there, and they have blocked off the road. Dozens of young men run out to throw stones at the jeeps. Um Mohammed, who works at the Guesthouse, runs after them, yelling for them to stop and come inside. For the next several hours we are at the windows watching, jumping at the sound bombs, inhaling tear gas, and noting the sound of live ammunition. The young people inside are crying and laughing and talking. Others continue to throw stones at the jeeps from just inside the camp. The Americans note the distance and accuracy of the stones, and make jokes about potential baseball careers. I catch myself wondering if I’ll be able to get the phone I need now that the road is closed. I look at the jeeps I think of all the talk of “violence on both sides of the conflict.” Here it is so painfully obvious: Can Palestinians drive armored jeeps to an Israeli town, stop all activity, shoot sound bombs, tear gas and bullets at the civilian population? Arrest people almost at random, hold them indefinitely without trial? And besides, if you have armored jeeps and flak jackets, why do you have to shoot anything at anybody? I’m convinced this show of force is, of course to intimidate people into submission, but also to reinforce for the soldiers themselves and the folks back home the idea that the Palestinians are all dangerous all the time.

As things appear to calm down, we hear the windows shatter on the Ibdaa bus (used to travel to basketball and soccer games, dance performances and filed trips), someone’s car, and the little camera shop near the entrance to the camp. Sound bombs, which I find out later are “practice grenades,” have done the damage. Finally Ziad Abbas, (the other Ibdaa co-director) convinces us all to come away from the windows, sit down and eat the food that was prepared for a church group that had planned to visit that day. The jeeps drive off. The roads open. I get my phone. Later I find out that the “wanted” young man was not arrested, but his family home was ransacked and several young people were wounded by plastic bullets.