I have often spent weeks, or even months, at a time in Palestine but 2009 was my first year of really living there. People often ask me what my life is like but I can rarely find an adequate response. I think through my last few days and find life can be mundane there. I spend much of my days on a computer and could really be anywhere in the world. But then there are days or moments when something happens that is so absurd and upsetting that it could only be Palestine.
Life in occupied Palestine meant meeting families in Jerusalem who had been thrown out of their homes by Israeli settlers, passing through three military checkpoints just to reach the nearest movie theater, and constantly fearing for the safety of family members and friends. But there is another, equally powerful side of life here, and that is the strength of community that I saw and was welcomed into as I sat around tables of 10, 20 and even 30 people, danced all night at weddings, and laughed constantly and defiantly.
My home is just across the street from Dheisheh Refugee Camp in the Bethlehem District. It is seven miles away from Jerusalem. A few days ago my husband pointed out it’s less than full length of the Bay Bridge, a distance that thousands of people cross daily. But for Palestinians living in the West Bank it is an almost uncrossable divide. Each person needs a permit from Israeli military authorities. If a permit is granted then one needs to pass through a highly militarized checkpoint with hand scans and a series of metal detectors, remote controlled gates, and x-ray machines for purses, shoes, etc. When I lived near the Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint in the beginning of the year I would wake up at 3am to the sound of heavy traffic as Palestinians from all over the southern West Bank lined up to go to work in Jerusalem. I never knew seven miles could be such a long commute.
And for Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem might as well be on the other side of the world. I knew many people that needed medical attention and tried for months on end to get the right papers to come to hospitals in Jerusalem. Israel rarely let any of them out of their open air prison.
My US passport lets me circumvent these obstacles and for me going to Jerusalem was just a matter of a 20-minute bus ride. Many times during the year I delivered visa applications and letters from friends and MECA partners who are not allowed to reach this part of Palestine. It was always a sensitive trip because so many people would have loved the opportunity to walk the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem again, to go to dinner at a relative or friend’s home, or to buy fresh bread from a bakery near Damascus Gate. I could deliver papers and bring back this bread but I could not give them these experiences that the Israeli occupation had taken away.
In the summer I had the opportunity to use my privilege to help out with a summer camp for Palestinian refugee children whose families are from 40 different villages. At 7am the children piled into the back of the bus while I sat in the front seat with my blonde hair down and a big smile ready for the Israeli soldiers who had the power to let us pass or to send us back. Months later I don’t know if I have found the words for this moment. I felt at once gross for flaunting my white skin and blonde hair and playing into a deeply racist, colonial mentality and also excited to be able to ease the trip for these children who had never seen their lands.
The five-day camp was full of emotion for me and even more so for the children. Each day we hiked through woods planted by the Jewish National Fund to cover up the remains of some of their villages. We also drove into Israeli towns built on top of more of their villages and found Palestinian houses, mosques, and graveyards tucked in between new townhouses. As we explored their village lands we sometimes found a landmark that a grandparent had told one of the children to look for and other times we did not. Either way it was painful. The children were made to feel unwelcome visitors on their own lands. Together they dreamed and talked through what it would be like one day when they got back what was rightfully theirs.
Throughout the trip I was at once outraged at Israel and also aware of the responsibility I have as a United States citizen for what Israel has done with our tax-funded aid and what the US government does to the indigenous population. I recalled a Bay Area shopping mall near my parents’ home that is built on top of an ancient Ohlone burial site. One entrance to the mall is called Ohlone Street. On my trip with the children we went to my husband’s village, Beit Jibreen. The Israeli town built on his village’s land is named Beit Guvrin. The truth is always just below the surface.
My year ended with the Gaza Freedom March. I met Barbara and 1400 other activists from around the world in Cairo. We had moments of extreme frustration at not being able to break the siege of Gaza and also moments of extreme hope as we demonstrated for Palestinian rights and cheered the Cairo Declaration, which laid out a framework for international solidarity with Palestine against Israeli apartheid. For a full year I tried to get from the West Bank to Gaza. I could make local phone calls to our Project Director in Gaza, and to youth and staff at our partner centers, but Israel prevented us from meeting in person throughout the year. Now, Egypt, supporting the siege from the south, was keeping me out again— along with the other international activists, and an unknown number of Palestinians trying to return home.
My year in Palestine was an opportunity to watch, to learn, and sometimes even to contribute. It was a pleasure to see so much of MECA’s work first-hand and to begin developing new and stronger relationships on many levels.