Monday, May 30, 2011

The Olive Groves

As I am getting ready for my trip to Palestine, I find my mind flooded with joyous memories of the harvest season of the olive trees. My father would tell me, "this tree is about 2000 years old and the other one is about 100 and was planted by my grand father".  I remember him telling me that Palestine has some of the oldest olive trees in the world dating as far back as 4000 B.C.
Some of my earliest memories about olive trees were those small walks down the street from the family home where I could see endless rows and rows of ancient olive trees.  I also find myself searching family albums for photos of my beloved home town, Deir Isteyah. Almost every photo I have was taken in an olive field. I felt compelled to post some of these photos for you to see the beauty of the olive trees.

My son and my brother in my father's land in Deir Istiyah 1980.
The photo to the right was during my last visit to Palestine in the spring of 1980. As you can see, the spring in Deir Istiyah is like no other. The fields and the mountains were so colorful, like an oriental rug with all kinds of flowers. You can also see the majestic Roman olive trees that been in the family for generations.  These memories and photos bring me great joy, but also pain.
Deir Istiyah 1980
The pain comes from the fact that chances of seeing any roman olive trees when I return to Palestine are slim to nothing.

The olive trees were and still are big part of every Palestinian's culture and identity.  The harvest time was most joyous. Parents, brothers, sisters cousins, neighbors and the whole town got together to helped in gathering the olives.  Those who have planted an olive tree understand its value. The Palestinians nurtured and cared for those olive trees for centuries, just as they nurture their own children.  I grew up with those trees as if they were my shadow.   The olives from these olive trees were not only a huge part of the Palestinian economy, but as we all know now, a great source of nutrition.

Unfortunately, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis that has been playing out on TV and in the media for years has also been playing out in the olive groves in every town in Palestine. What it has always been known as a symbol of peace is now an object of conflict. As a result of the illegal occupation of Palestinan land by Israel, trees from my hometown and elsewhere in Palestine are being uprooted and destroyed.  This has caused great loses for the farmers and created an environmental disaster that destroyed the Palestinian economy. This collective punishment of the uprooting and burning of the olive trees is a violation of the fourth Geneva convention and is a war crime.

Olive trees were, and still are, known as a symbol of peace and tranquility. We use the expression "hold out an olive branch"; it means you are seeking peace and harmony. The olive tree is blessed by God and was mentioned in the Qur'an, the Bible and the Torah. It is a shame that instead of extending an olive branch, the occupation has been extended. 


Friday, May 27, 2011

Dheisheh Camp

“As a Palestinian woman, I always worry. And as a Palestinian woman with sons I never sleep. I am constantly afraid that Israeli forces will come and take my boys, arrest them, beat them.”–Suheir, a mother in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp.

“A country is not just what it does—it is also what it tolerates.” -Kurt Tucholskyi, German-Jewish essayist. Written on the wall of Yad Vashem, Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Where we also visited today)

I’m sitting in the communal room of the Phoenix Center in Dheisheh Refugee Camp. This place is amazing, although I’ve only been here for a day but it seems like it is widely supported by the community. People living in the camp started the center. They began taking surveys from the community about everyone’s needs and desires.They realized that what people most wanted was a place to hold celebrations, weddings, religious holidays, plays, etc.In the crowded camp, where 13,000 people live, there is almost no space to hold large amounts of people.

Right outside of the camp was a large open space. They attempted to acquire the land in order to build some sort of hall. However they were denied repeatedly, so they just set up tents. Naji, the eventual director was arrested multiple times, but he kept setting up the tents until finally they relented and offered a permit. They had 3 months to start building or their permit would be revoked. Naji and others then gathered people from all over to start collecting stones that were unused and began building with discarded materials from around the camp. 

Eventually someone gave them some money and they hired people from the camp to build until they ran out of money. More money was secured and then more building. This went on and on slowly until the center could be built. It is completely volunteer run and has many young leaders, (not surprising since 50% of the camp is under 21). All of the people that spoke to us had such ownership over the project and lead various programs.They have managed to create opportunities for jobs. Most importantly the community has resisted all efforts by the government or outside forces to take over. They are completely autonomous and have created a space of true grassroots organizing, meeting the needs of the people.

It’s been interesting talking and hearing from folks from the different organizations. They almost all have a complete lack of interest in political leaders, theirs and ours, (with the exception of the UN—not surprising since they have all of these words and categorizations of the word “poverty” which I find infuriating and pointless). 

There is a real focus on the grassroots here and it is only when members of our delegation ask about government, do they answer. It is almost always with disgust and disinterest. (Although all seem to know the exact number of times that Congress stood up to clap for Netanyahu.) From journalists, Israeli activists, Palestinian refugee organizations, Palestinian activists and grassroots organizers to people walking on the street there is a general feeling that no government represents them.

Many are asking me about what the reaction is here about Obama and Netanyahu’s speeches and I know for some, it is important. However, I am overwhelmed by all that I am seeing and hearing that Obama’s speech is the least of my thoughts. This may be because nothing that Obama said is any different than the United States has been saying for 30 years. It may be because I am never too interested in what heads of states say, and am much more interested in what the home health care worker says whose bus line in North St. Louis just got cut or in the mother says whose home was separated from her sisters home next door by a gigantic wall. Or it may be because life here sees no changes based on what he said or didn’t say. I know there was a tremendous amount of hope when Obama got elected in the Middle East, including in Palestine. However today the disenchantment is profound. He still reiterates the same stance that “Israel has a right to defend itself”. 

The facts on the ground here show that what Israel is doing, is in no way defending itself. The wall is separating Palestinian villages from other Palestinian villages. The West Bank’s “borders” are 350 km. Israel has built 1000 km of walls. Not only that, to call the West Bank “borders” would be false, since Israel is the sole decision making power for much of the West Bank, either by creating settlements (500,000 settlers), or creating closed military zones (18%) or declaring nature reserves (10%) or just building the wall well into the West Bank annexing land into Israel.

Here is a good piece by Omar Barghouti who reflects a lot of the sentiments I have been hearing.

All of this that Palestinians are subjected to by Israeli forces, funded by the United States, I am continuously shocked that we are welcomed openly and greeted warmly and offered hospitality. It breaks my heart that there is such a lack of understanding extended to Palestinians in the United States of what is happening here. 

I cannot imagine a mother out there in this big world that could not listen to Suheir and feel empathy for her situation and be moved to action by her anger.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

We arrived!

We are here! We arrived last night at our hotel in East Jerusalem, walking into the courtyard to the sounds of prayers reverberating throughout the city. It was surreal to be standing next to the Bab-al-Amud, a gate of the Old City, hearing the gentle chanting. Three of us had arrived much later, taking a taxi from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, because Anna was held by Israeli security at the airport for a little over 4 hours.

We were lucky that Anna only found herself waiting four hours, since there is many stories of people held for up to twelve hours and some even being sent back and refused entry. Some are activists working for an end to the occupation but many more are Palestinians or folks of Arab descent. Israeli society has incredible racism, which is played out in the airport by racial profiling. Anna met a young Palestinian-American who was being held for no apparent reason and was coming to visit a friend who is suffering of from cancer. She was frantic to get on her way so she would be able to make visiting hours at the hospital. Anna says, although frustrated with Israeli security she was good humored with those in the waiting room, offering cheese and fruit and telling everyone, “This happens every time, all the questioning. They want to make coming here so unpleasant that I will stop coming back, but I never will let them discourage me from coming to my homeland.”

Anna was finally pulled into the questioning room and asked about various solidarity activities, most of which were vague and none too focused on Anna’s specific work. Her phones were confiscated briefly and then she was finally released after all of her items were returned.

We then sought out a taxi to take us to East Jerusalem since the bus had gone ahead. Most of the taxi drivers refused to take us into East Jerusalem, so we went through five or six before we found one who said he would take us, although not understanding clearly where we wanted to go. It quickly became clear though when we reached Jerusalem that he did not intend to take us where we wanted to go, repeatedly saying he was going to take us to Jaffa gate, (which is a gate that is about 5 minutes by car from the other gate). At one point, he became insistent saying, “NO, NO, Arab. NO.” We did finally convince him, but his anxiety was palpable. And it was only because Anna gently challenged him and refused to create a space that allowed his racism.

Later that evening, as I was sharing the story with one of the young women, a Palestinian-American, on our delegation, she said, “If it was a Palestinian saying, ‘NO, NO, Jewish’, they would be labeled as anti-Semitic”. A good observation that she has already witnessed with less than 24 hours in the country, is that Israeli racism is totally acceptable and in fact, perpetuated with the separation that creates a culture of fear and distrust.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Give my love to Palestine, every inch of it."

A letter I sent...

Family, Friends, Colleagues and Pumkins,

Give my love to Palestine, every inch of it.”

As I sit in front of this computer struggling to send the perfect email to a diverse list of people, to let you all know that I will be traveling to Israel/Palestine for the next three and half weeks, I received the above from a dear friend and mentor, who is also a member of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee. She is Palestinian-American who carries with her the suffering of her people so profoundly that there is rarely a moment that the occupation does not enter her thoughts. Her love, like many of the relationships I have formed in the last four years doing anti-war work, has moved me to open my eyes to another side of the conflict that we so rarely see in Western media. We rarely hear the voices of the Gaza doctor who lost three daughters to Israel’s bombing during Operation Cast Lead, or of young school children subjected to settler violence, or from the villagers of Bil’in who have been engaged in non-violent resistance against the Wall. I certainly never had, until a few years ago.

It is hard to pinpoint the moment, that I connected personally with the Palestinian cause. I remember I began to see the situation in a dramatically different way after I was at a talk that showed a map of the progression of land transfer. However, after that, I can only point to relationships which continue to form and shape my understanding. I am honored and humbled to have come across so many people that are willing to tell their stories, gently correct mispronunciations of names, challenge my Western thinking and hold up the differences between being an educational advocate versus a solidarity activist. All the facts, while giving me a foundation of knowledge, have not touched my heart as much as the personal stories of friends who tell of closed school roads, a brutally long checkpoint or of a college student studying in Cairo in 1967 that was unable to return.

I am going on a three week trip to Israel/Palestine. I will be traveling for the first half with an organization called Interfaith Peace Builders, ( Their website states: “Interfaith Peace-Builders sends delegations to Israel and Palestine so that U.S. citizens can see the conflict with their own eyes. Participants have the opportunity to learn directly from Israeli and Palestinian peace/human-rights activists, to spend time in Palestinian and Israeli homes, and to experience the situation for those living in Israel/Palestine.”

I have been incredibly honored to have so many people support my trip, from monetary aid to emotional support, to borrowed clothes to late night talks learning Arabic phrases, that I carry a responsibility to reach out to as many people as possible. In the meantime, I will take the words of my friend with me, including all the yearning and ache those simple words hold for her and will “give my love to Palestine. Every inch of it”.

In solidarity,


If you would like to learn more about the conflict, two good sources are:

Slingshot Hip Hop: A movie that “braids together the stories of young Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel as they discover Hip Hop and employ it as a tool to surmount divisions imposed by occupation and poverty. From internal checkpoints and Separation Walls to gender norms and generational differences, this is the story of young people crossing the borders that separate them.”

I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti: A book by a poet that was “born on the West Bank near Ramallah in 1944. In 1966, he left home to return to university in Cairo. The Six Day War happened the following year, and Barghouti, like many Palestinians living abroad, was denied entry to Palestine. He joined the naziheen, the displaced ones, until he was finally allowed back, 30 years later.” (Review by Tom Paulin)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Welcome To Palestine

As five PSC members prepare for travel to Palestine this summer, I reflect on my last trip to Palestine in 2009. Here's my account of the humiliating experience of going home to Palestine under Israeli occupation.

July 8, 2009

My family’s visit to the West Bank began yesterday with a tiring and frustrating day of travel from Jordan to the West Bank via the King Hussein or Allenby Bridge over the Jordan “River” (there was no water to be seen in the river). We departed our hotel in Amman in the morning to arrive to the chaos of the border. Fifteen buses full of West Bank Palestinians sat in the scorching heat of the below-sea level desert waiting for their chance to be interrogated, frisked and humiliated before being allowed to simply go home. Our tourist bus sped past the buses of the resident Palestinians. My daughter noticing the hot, sweating faces of the kids on the bus declared that it was unfair that because we had U.S. passports we were being allowed to go ahead of them and that we should wait with them. She was right. It is also correct to say that there is no reason that people merely trying to go home after a bit of respite from the occupation should be forced to face such indignities.

Our group of seven all passed without incident through the metal detectors except for my 88-year old father-in-law, a refugee from Jaffa, a once thriving, cosmopolitan Palestinian port city, now an urban slum on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. He and 700,000 other Palestinians were forced out of their homes in the Nakba or Catastrophe of 1948. My father-in-law was asked to go to a small room with a blue curtain. Inside, Israeli military asked him to strip down to his underwear, and he was searched. He was touched familiarly, one might say. Later we joked that his balls had been deemed non-threatening to the state of Israel.

At passport control, a young Israeli soldier inspected my family’s passports. We asked politely that our passports not be stamped because we had plans to visit countries that would not accept a passport that showed evidence of a visit to Israel. Then she left her stool and walked away with our documents for about a half hour. We waited knowing that we would not pass through easily or quickly.

We were finally asked to take a seat and wait for our names to be called. In the waiting area (a small, dirty space with some metal chairs), we met several Palestinian families. An old woman from Jerusalem told us she had left Amman at 7 am and had been waiting on the bus for five hours before being told to wait yet again. We offered her some mint tea from the snack shop and some pita bread with Laughing Cow cheese that we had brought along for the kids. It was as if we offered her the moon. She insisted we come to Jerusalem to have lunch at her house. We met a young couple from Indianapolis arriving to see family with their seven-month old baby. The baby was uncomfortable and sweating, and we worried about how long this family would be forced to wait. We met a young man who was traveling on his American passport but because he also had a West Bank ID and did not reveal that fact at first, he was forced back to Jordan and refused entry.

The young man who came to interview my father asked who he was planning to visit. He gave him the name and phone number of his cousin in Ramallah whom the Israeli authorities immediately called to confirm my dad’s story. They demanded the ID number of our cousin when they spoke with him on the phone which he was obliged to provide. I wonder what the Israelis do with this information.

My father-in-law’s interviewer spoke perfect English and we learned he grew up in Virginia. He was kind and offered to facilitate a visa stamp on a separate piece of paper to keep our passports “clean”. His kindness brought some light to the situation. He added some dignity and humanity to a system that values neither of these. My husband noticed the irony of the situation. A kid from Norfolk had the power to decide if his father, a native of the land, would be allowed into the country.

All in all, we waited some seven hours to be cleared through the border. We were hungry, hot and tired when our passports were finally returned to us. We said goodbye to the people we had gotten to know during the wait and distributed the last of our snacks to the families with young children.

As we were leaving we saw the young Indianapolis couple with their baby come out of the border facility. I was so happy they were getting their child out of that hellish situation that I cried. So much emotion poured through me, relief for that young family, relief that my kids hadn’t been stripped-searched, anger at the humiliation of innocent people, sadness that young, vibrant Israelis were compelled to participate in such an unjust regime. Finally, I cried for the hundreds of Palestinians we left behind and wondered how long they would continue to wait.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lara Tries To Go Home - Revisited

Over the next few months, several members of STL-PSC will be visiting Palestine, into and out of which Israel controls all movement. Below is a report I wrote from Palestine one year ago about how difficult it can be to get into and out of historic Palestine as well as the Gaza Strip, especially for Palestinians... 

It is also a reminder that Tel Aviv airport is built on a Palestinian town largely destroyed and depopulated during the Nakba, which we commemorate this weekend, 63 years since the Catastrophe...

June 6, 2010

Lara Tries to Go Home

by Anna Baltzer

Our delegation arrived safely in Palestine a couple weeks ago. We exited our plane at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, built on part of a Palestinian town of Lyd, most of whose inhabitants either fled in 1948 during the Nakba and remain in refugee camps in Amman, Jordan or Ramallah, West Bank living under deplorable conditions, or they live as second-, third-, or fourth-class citizens in what remains of town, now part of Israel. The removal of 17,948 of Lyd's population of 19,000 in 1948 was led by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, hailed as a peacenik by those unfamiliar with his history of brutality that continued through the First Intifada (during which Rabin implemented a policy of breaking the arms and legs of any Palestinian who threw a stone at an Israeli tank, jeep, etc.) and beyond. Rabin wrote the following in his own diary shortly after 1948 attacks driving out almost 95% of Lyd's non-Jewish population:

"After attacking Lydda [Lyd] Ben-Gurion would repeat the question: What is to be done with the population?, waving his hand in a gesture which said: Drive them out!. 'Driving out' is a term with a harsh ring, .... Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook." (Soldier Of Peace, p. 140-141 & Benny Morris, p. 207)

His guilt and psychological struggle didn't prevent him from giving orders to do the same to neighboring villages ('Imwas, Yalu, and Bayt Nuba) 19 years later.

The struggle of remaining inhabitants of Lyd (now citizens of Israel) for recognition as equal human beings and their isolation from their fellow Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Diaspora is documented beautifully in one of my favorite documentaries about Palestine: Slingshot Hip Hop, documenting the rising Palestinian hip-hop movement as resistance to oppression through the spoken word.

Anyway, arriving at Israel 's airport, named after Ben-Gurion himself, our delegates waited anxiously in line for passport control, hoping we would not targeted given our desire to meet with Palestinians. Israel recently denied entry to Noam Chomsky, who was on his way to give a talk at a Palestinian university, to name but one example. Those eventually interrogated from our group were no surprise—two Palestinian delegates, simply trying to visit their homeland.

They each told us their stories that night, but I'll focus on the story of just one: Lara.

Lara stood in line next to a large group of young Jewish Americans talking excitedly about coming on vacation to Israel . They were breezed through with a smiling, "Welcome to Israel ." When Lara reached passport control, they didn't bother asking her any questions. Her name was enough. Security escorted her to another room where she was held for over an hour. First, they asked for her phone number in the United States . She gave it to them… What will they do with it? They asked where her parents were born. " Gaza ," she answered. That was all the questioner needed to know. "You will have to visit the Ministry of Interior," he said, and took her into a third room.

"What is your father's name?" Lara answered. "I know," he replied.

"What is your mother's name?" Lara answered. "I know," he replied again.

"What is your father's mother's name?" "What is your mother's father's name?" "What is your mother's mother's name?" She answered each question and with each he replied, "I know."

When the interrogator asked, "What is your father's father's name?" Lara replied that she actually didn't know because he died long before she was born. But he knew, and before her eyes he sketched out the family tree of her own family, most of them uprooted from their homes by the Israeli Army. He said "Your grandfather' s name is Sayyid. And your father's name is not only Ahmad. It is Ahmad Mahmoud Sayyid Elborno."

Lara asked, "If you know the answers to all these questions, why are you asking me?" but he didn't respond. He continued:

"What date did your grandparents get married?"

"I don't know. Do you know what date your grandparents got married?" she challenged him.

"Your grandparents were married on September 3, 1958."

Then he began to show Lara photographs from Palestinian ID cards, asking if she was related to them. She didn't recognize any of them, until the last one: a older man in a grey suit.

"That's my grandfather, " she said, looking into his elderly face blown up on this interrogator' s screen. She was surprised because it was a recent photograph of him, even though he has not been to Palestine in many years. Why and how did they get a photograph of him, carrying on a new life far away after being pushed out?

Finally, he moved on to Lara's sister, explaining that she had been here last year. "Why?" he asked.

"Tourism," Lara replied.

"But you're from Gaza ."

"So Gazans cannot be tourists?"

Lara finished her story to us: "I must have forgotten that being from Gaza is a crime. After an hour and a half, my passport was stamped and I was told to enjoy my stay in Israel ."

We thought as a group about Lara's question as to why she was asked so many questions that Israel already knew the answer to… Was it to stall time to keep her longer? Was it to catch her if she lied? Was it to gather more intelligence about her family? Or was it to show who had the power in her own homeland.

Shortly after our arrival, our group visited Erez checkpoint, the northern crossing into Gaza . Of course, we couldn't enter Gaza, which remains under siege with full Israeli control over the shoreline, airspace, borders (except Rafah, which Egypt itself closed in part due to pressure from Israel and the US), and the land itself with buffer zones and invasions. Fishermen cannot fish to feed their families. If a Palestinian student in Gaza gets a scholarship to study in the United States … Too bad. They mostly likely can't get out. Gaza used to export millions of flowers… no more (once, people in Gaza carried thousands and thousands of carnations to Rafah checkpoint and dropped them there as an act of creative protest). Adequate fuel can't get in. Adequate medicine and medical supplies can't get in. Adequate food and water can't get in. People can't get in. People can't get out. Gaza is an open air prison.

On the way to Erez checkpoint, Lara shared with the group some of the items that Israel prohibits or often blocks from Gaza :

Cilantro, jam, chocolate, French fries, dried fruit, notebooks, toys, coriander, light bulbs, candles, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee, nuts, shampoo, conditioner, books, musical instruments, and crayons.

[Sources: "Why Won't Israel allow Gaza to import coriander?" (Haaretz Israeli Newspaper) and "Guide: Gaza Under Blockade" (BBC). List of commercial goods allowed only at certain points here.]

Lara has family and land in Gaza that she has never seen, but along with musical instruments and coriander, she's not allowed in. But Lara went to the window to try to go home anyway. She showed the seemingly bored young female solder her passport and said that she wanted to enter to go her family, whom she's never met.

"I'm sorry," the soldier replied, and slid her passport back. "You need a coordination. "

"What's a coordination?" Lara asked.

"You need to call to get permission to go to Gaza ."

"Permission from Gaza ?"

"No, permission from Israel ."

"Why do I need permission from Israel to go to my own land?"

The soldier didn't seem to understand the question.

We hope that the flotilla and upcoming new boats will continue to raise awareness of the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza . But the people in Gaza don't need sympathy. They need freedom, and they need justice. They don't need food; they need the ability to cultivate, catch, export, and import their own food. They don't need our money; they need the ability to thrive and to grow their own economy. They don't need our "help." They need our support, which is exactly what the flotilla was and is all about.

My friend Lara doesn't need permission to visit her land. It is her right—period. The fact that Israel consistently denies the rights of Lara and millions of other Palestinians to access their land in Gaza , the West Bank, or anywhere in historic Palestine does not make their rights questionable or debatable. They are non-negotiable, like any human right. It's as simple as that.

Friday, May 13, 2011

PSC Travels!

The St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee is so excited to bring you our new travel blog. Many of our members travel to Palestine and we wanted to give everyone the opportunity to read firsthand accounts of the Israeli occupation and apartheid. Please "follow" us and check back regularly for updates!