Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Palestine

Growing up, Christmas was a special day filled with family and friends. We would gather early at my parents' house to sit around the fireplace in our pajamas drinking hot chocolate and opening presents. Then we'd cook a big breakfast together and those of us without other relatives to visit would go for a long walk on the beach. Christmas meant taking a day off from whatever else was going on to be with family.

I'm now living in Bethlehem, Palestine which has its own rich Christmas traditions. But taking a break from the “real” world for a day is not a luxury that people living under occupation can take. I tried to revive some of my family's traditions but though we are living within driving distance of the Mediterranean and Red seas as well as Lake Tiberias, these are all places my husband is not allowed to go. His Palestinian ID card means it is illegal for him to reach these areas. Even Gaza's Mediterranean coast, another area supposedly under Palestinian control, is out of reach for him and others with West Bank ID cards. (Actually, Gaza is out of reach for pretty much everyone as Israel continues its blockade for the third year.)

My husband and I took a walk to his parents' house in the nearby Dheisheh Refugee Camp instead. It was another reminder of Palestinian dispossession as we walked amongst the 12,000 people now living in this camp. 62 years ago these families were living in 45 different villages near Hebron and Jerusalem. But most of the camp residents have never even seen their villages though in some cases the village lands are just a few miles away from the refugee camp.

Christmas night we went to a festival in the nearby town of Beit Sahour. We watched a riveting performance by Al-Funoun dance troupe while enjoying hot tea and falafel. But there too, we found reminders of the Israeli occupation when a group of French visitors came late because 5 members of their group were arrested by Israeli soldiers in the city of Hebron while protesting the illegal Israeli settlers who took over Palestinian homes.

When I came home and watched the news, the Christmas round-up in Palestine included Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, closure of all Gaza crossings, eviction orders for a Palestinian family, and two homes demolished in Jerusalem. Christmas in Palestine is like any other day decorated with lights.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Drought in Dheisheh

Yesterday morning, my sister-in-law jubilantly walked into the kitchen announcing “I think I'll do laundry today! No, I'll wash the floors today and do laundry tomorrow.” I've been staying with my in-laws in Dheisheh Refugee Camp and it was the first day that they had running water in more than two weeks. She wasn't the only one with a cleaning plan. Later in the day I picked up my niece at a neighbor's house and found the neighbor busily scrubbing the floors of her own home while her teenage daughter watched my niece. Since late spring, the residents of the camp have gone without water for days and weeks at a time. Everyone was working fast so as not the waste the opportunity.

Meanwhile, the hum of motors filled the camp. Electric pumps were filling the water tanks on the roof of every home. They will probably only have running water for a few days so the tanks are a way to store up some water for cooking, bathing, and cleaning while they wait for the water to come again.

Palestinian cities and villages get water more regularly than the refugee camps, but they are all working with what's leftover after Israel confiscates more than 80% of the water in the West Bank for use inside Israel and in illegal Israeli settlements.

I live in an apartment building not far from my in-laws (I can actually see their roof from our kitchen window). Though we live in a city, we also haven't had running water in weeks and our water bill has skyrocketed since last spring when the building’s well ran dry. The building manager has been forced to buy Palestinian water back from Israeli companies so he can fill up the water tanks for each apartment.

The lack of water isn't just a challenge for personal use. The prices of fruits and vegetables are exorbitant this year as a result of the drought and Israeli policies. Many Palestinian farmers in the West Bank have less produce to sell because there is no rain and it's both difficult and expensive to access other water sources. This is compounded by Israel's ban on produce from Gaza entering the West Bank. Ordinary Palestinians have no other choice to but to purchase the more expensive Israeli produce.

It's December and we should be experiencing cold and rain but it's 74 degrees and sunny today. There's only been one day of rain so far this fall. I remember it well – I think everyone does. If there isn't a long rainy season this winter that spells hardship now but bodes even worse for next summer when heat and dust are overwhelming and people need water to survive. Of course, the Israelis living in illegal settlements all around us (I can also see a settlement from my kitchen window) are surely not feeling the effects of this unnatural season. Their government makes sure that there is Palestinian water running in their homes built on Palestinian land while the rightful owners of the land live beside them in separate and unequal conditions.

Meanwhile, washers are running, women are scrubbing, and pumps are humming as long as the water is flowing. Without water, without rights, and without freedom Palestinians continue, as they have for decades, to try to make every day life as normal as possible in the most abnormal conditions.