Monday, September 8, 2008

Ramadan in Palestine complete with Israeli invasions, katayef, and checkpoint closures

Ramadan started last Monday. This is the first time I've been in Palestine during Ramadan and I didn't plan on fasting. I like to eat all day and I LOVE my snack breaks during work. Plus religion is just not for me. But I realized quickly that this is a family holiday, everyone comes home from work in time to eat together and it seemed like a nice tradition to join in on. The first day was rough, very rough. My mind was foggy by 3pm and I was bickering with people over nothing. But it's getting easier (although maybe you'd get another opinion from people who have to be around be all day).

My husband's mother and sisters have been catering to my very particular palate. They make me a plate of Arabic salad without tomatoes and a main dish without meat every day. After dinner every night we play games and the whole family has mastered Uno. We've also discovered that my nine-month-old niece loves green onions and lemons but not sweets.

With the game playing and family time I can sometimes go days without really feeling the Israeli military occupation. Even with the concrete wall in front of our house I've learned to forget and go on with "normal life." On Thursday Hazem and I picked up katayef, a pancake like dessert that you bake with cheese or nut stuffing and then dip in sugar syrup, and continued down the main road towards his family's house. We had called ahead to make sure no one else brought dessert so we knew there were Israeli soldiers near the house but we hoped that by the time we got there they'd have moved on.

Israeli jeeps block the main road forcing cars
to turn around and try another route.

When we reached the area in front of Ibdaa Cultural Center we could see Israeli jeeps blocking the main road ahead of us. So we took a detour up the hill to the right and tried to come down the hill on another street that leads direct to his family's house. From the hill we could see a jeep and a giant trucked parked right outside his family's house. Israeli soldiers were walking through the area with guns pointed in every direction. We drove down to the bottom of the hill but the road was blocked there too. So we waited.

It was getting close to sundown when everyone breaks their fast so we decided to try a third route to the house. We went back up the hill (his family lives on a hill opposite the one we were on) and farther south before coming down. The main road was open here but there were soldiers blocking the road as we got closer to his house. They had two jeeps and a large truck just to block the road. So we waited with many, many other people anxious to get home and eat. Finally some military vehicles started leaving. We saw five or six leave and then a few minutes later the ones blocking the road pulled out. As we turned up the hill towards the house we saw a line of at least five more military cars leaving.

The first group of military jeeps leaving Dheisheh

Refugee Camp.

We entered the house and sat down to eat just as the sheikh's voice rang out over the loud speaker of the mosque. It took more than an hour to drive from our apartment in Bethlehem to his family's house, a drive that is normally about six minutes. On Friday I saw some video footage taken by an international volunteer at Ibdaa. It shows soldiers in front of Ibdaa and the main entrance to Dheisheh Refugee Camp firing "rubber-coated" bullets* into the streets of the camp. I guess we're supposed to expect this as a response to the rocks that were thrown at the jeeps and soldiers. But while the Israeli soldiers wear helmets, thick steel toed boots, and bulletproof vests, the kids are just out there in their jeans and t-shirts.

Friday brought more awful reminders of the Israeli occupation. I had to go to Jerusalem to drop off papers at the British Consulate for two students from Dheisheh since they are not allowed to enter Jerusalem. I had also planned to visit a friend's mother in the hospital. She lives in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip and was allowed permission to leave for a surgery in Jerusalem after Dr. Mona and several internationals in Gaza spent three long days at the Erez Crossing petitioning Israeli authorities to allow her out. She missed her scheduled surgery and is now waiting in the hospital far from her friends and family for the new surgery date on Tuesday.

So it's Friday morning and I've collected all the necessary papers at Ibdaa and I set out to the main intersection in Bethlehem (the only traffic light in the whole district) to catch a bus to Jerusalem. When I arrive there is no bus which is very unusual and someone tells me they cancelled the regular service today. I guess this should have triggered something but it didn't. I was in a hurry so I got back in a shared taxi and made my way to the Bethlehem-Jerusalem terminal (it's a checkpoint but when Israel built a warehouse size building and equipped it with hand scanners, x-ray machines, endless turnstiles that are switched on and off by someone watching you on camera, and catwalks for soldiers above your head, they renamed it a "terminal").

There were tons of taxis which is very unusual since it has gotten really difficult for Palestinians to get permits to enter Jerusalem so the area is usually empty. As I walked towards the 8 meter wall (you have to pass through a door in the wall to get to the warehouse sized checkpoint building) I noticed a crowd and another concrete wall. The Israeli military had constructed a small wall blocking the way to the checkpoint with three doorway sized breaks in this new wall. I noticed women gathered at one break in the wall so went over there. No one was moving. Soldiers were standing silently blocking the way to the checkpoint. And the crowds were standing patiently waiting for someone to let them pass.

It was the first Friday of Ramadan and many people from all over the West Bank were on their way to pray in Jerusalem. Finally one young soldier pulled out a bullhorn and starting screaming in bad Arabic that the checkpoint was closed and everyone should go home. He put the bullhorn right up in people's faces screaming and then moved down the line to the other groups of people waiting at the breaks in the wall. I wanted to smack him. But everyone else quietly backed up explaining to him and other soldiers how far they'd come and how long they'd waited. I arranged with the consulate to send the papers by fax and got to leave the sweltering heat but as I left even more people were arriving hoping to make their way to the Dome of the Rock, a right guaranteed under international law.

In other news, Hazem and I bought a car! We're really excited. It's a bit complicated but he actually had a car before but it had Israel license plates (Israeli used cars are much cheaper because there is less demand for them) so it was technically illegal for him, as a Palestinian with a West Bank ID, to drive the car. We still used it driving around Bethlehem but couldn't use it to leave the Bethlehem area. We thought about keeping the Israeli plated car, putting it in my name and then trying to get him a permit to use the car. But this permit would only be valid in Bethlehem and if we wanted to go to Ramallah I would have to take the car through Jerusalem since Israeli cars aren't allowed on stretches of the Palestinian road between Bethlehem and Ramallah and he would have to take a shared taxi that goes around Jerusalem through two checkpoints and meet me in Ramallah since he is not allowed to enter Jerusalem. So Palestinian plates it is...

*Actually metal bullets wrapped in a hard rubber shell. These bullets have killed and injured many Palestinians