Monday, July 25, 2011

Report from Palestine 8

by: Michael Berg

July 18 and 19

I went from Hebron to Ramallah - a journey that shouldn't take more than an hour or an hour and a half, but took three and a half hours because the shared taxi had to evade the wall and checkpoints.

After checking into a hotel in the center of town I took a taxi to the Snow Bar in order to see a Dutch brass band whose leader is a relative of Samia. They are touring Palestine, mostly playing in refugee camps. The Snow Bar was their first gig. They sounded great.

The Snow Bar is a really fancy nightclub type place. Many of the people there were Palestinian-Americans. I met a really nice Palestinian reporter for the Russia Today news channel - since the moment I arrived at Ben Gurion I've been running into Russia Today.

There are many really fancy places in Ramallah, with new fancy buildings everywhere, malls, restaurants, banks, office buildings. I had lunch with an American-Palestinian businessman named Sam Bahour who came to Ramallah from the US after the Oslo Agreement in order to make a life in Palestine and invest in the city. He manages building project but says that the recent boom is pretty much on hold, because business people are afraid to invest. They don't know what the future holds - will there be another Israeli lockdown or another invasion, like the one in 2002?

Speaking of the 2002, I visited the compound where Arafat was holed up in 2002 and where he is now buried.

In addition to the private businesses, Ramallah is full of non-governmental organizations and Palestinian Authority office buildings. I saw the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior and I laughed. The Palestinian Authority has jurisdiction only over Area A in the West Bank. There is nowhere in Area A where you can't walk for an hour and find yourself in Area C, under full Israeli control. So where is the Interior? How do you fit an interior into these isolated dots of an area?

This reality hit me this morning. I had three hours before I was to meet with Sam Bahour and I foolishly thought that I could use this time to walk to Beitin. I know that Banan and Sharif and Badia are from that village, and Colleen told me that there was an Arch market there. I looked on the map and it’s just a few kilometers northeast of Ramallah. So I walked northeast, and in about thirty minutes I had left the Ramallah bubble. I hit an Israeli military base and an Israeli checkpoint. I walked around the base and checkpoint, but then I saw soldiers everywhere and I felt scared. So I walked back.

Then I took a taxi to Beitin. It took about 25 minutes and the driver completely ripped me off. I should know to negotiate the price before the ride, but I wasn't in the taxi mindset (I had not expected to use one today). I did get to the Arch market and took a photo, but by the time I got there I had only a few minutes and had to go back.

That night I had a great dinner on the top story of a really fancy hotel in Ramallah with Sandra's cousin Merna and her fiancé.

July 20

I came back to Jerusalem today, through the Qalandia checkpoint. It is a monstrosity, a highly militarized opening in the Wall. It took a long time to get through. The procedure is both tedious and humiliating. One of the people on our bus was forced to go back to Ramallah.

After dropping off my bags I walked from the old city to Mt. Herzl in order to see the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. I wanted to take the new light rail train, but when I got on the train and tried to pay, the conductor yelled at me to get out. The trains seem to be mostly empty - I think they are only sort of in operation. That's too bad, because I love being on trains. I jump on the Metrolink every time I can (and I jump off also when I am done riding).

At the northeast corner of the old city there were a bunch of people camping out with a bunch of signs in Hebrew and a sign in English that said 'Rent Control Now'. I asked a man named Roy what was going on. He said that it is almost impossible for young people to find housing in Jerusalem. The monthly rent for a small hotel in Jerusalem is 3500 shekels a month, but the minimum wage is 22 shekels an hour. He told me that so many of the apartments are bought up wealthy Jews from Europe and the United States who only stay in them for a week or two a year, leaving a lot of empty apartments.

I took about 1 1/2 hours to walk to the museum. Walking there I noticed that West Jerusalem has a very different feel from East Jerusalem and anywhere I've been to in the West Bank. The streets were not nearly as crowded with people and the streets were wide. I passed some pretty poor Jewish neighborhoods where people seemed to live pretty cramped.

When I got to Mt. Herzl I saw something that you never see in the West Bank - a forest of pines. Pine forests are all over Israel, often on top of what used to be a Palestinian village. I'm not a botanist, but I don't think that pines are native to Jerusalem. Pine forests seem to be a way for Israel to mark its territory, make a claim to the land.

The first thing I noticed at Yad Vashem was that there were drinking fountains with potable water. It was nice for me, I was thirsty. I thought about how in Bethlehem and Hebron people go weeks without access to running water (water that is not potable from the tap).

Yad Vashem is very well done. From my understanding of history, it gives a mostly correct and at times overwhelming account of the history of European anti-semitism, the rise of Hitler, the concentration camps, the death camps, and the liberation of the camps by the Allied powers.

The troubling part of the museum for me is the Zionist narrative that runs through it. At the very beginning, in the first room, it reports how the German anti-semitic publication Derr Strumer would publish the slogan 'Jews should all go to Palestine!' At the time this was the goal of both Zionists and anti-semites, and it is why German Zionists had a functioning agreement the Nazi government in the mid-1930s where the Zionists would help break economic boycotts of Germany and the Nazis would make it easier for Jews to emigrate to Palestine. (Yad Vashem does not mention this early Zionist / Nazi pact). In the 1940s, when the Nazi atrocities got worse and worse, culminating in genocide, Zionist militia did fight the Nazis bravely, along with other Jewish resistance. The museum does an excellent job describing the resistance movement in the Warsaw ghetto and the way Jews who were divided by ideology came together once they realized that everybody was being sent to death camps.

In no other location, outside of this first room is the word Palestine mentioned in the museum. Where I am now is always referred to as The Land of Israel, even though in 1930s and 1940s it was inarguably correct to call this place Palestine. So in the whole museum the word Palestine only comes from the lips and pens of Nazis and other anti-semites.

At the end of the museum you hear children singing the Hatikvah and see pictures of Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion. The message is clear: from the ashes Jews have created themselves anew in Israel. Then you look over the valley where the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin once stood. In 1948 many of the village’s inhabitants were killed by Zionist forces and the rest driven out. It is now full of pine trees.

Having come directly from the West Bank, two quotes at the museum stood out in my mind:

"A country is not just what it does, but also what it tolerates."

"In Eastern Europe, the Germans incarcerated the Jews in severely overcrowded ghettos, behind fences and walls. They cut Jews off from their surroundings and their sources of livelihood and condemned them to a life of humiliation and poverty."

Those quotes struck out but I think I need to make it clear that I am not equating Zionism with Nazism. The main difference is that for the Nazis, Jews were a highly destructive source of unchangeable evil in the world - thus mass extermination was the logical culmination of their project. For the State of Israel, it's not so much that Palestinians are evil - they're just in the way. Palestinians have experienced and still experience expulsion, exile and occupation - not genocide.

I do think it would be useful to have a Yad Vashem / Nakba museum, where instead of the Hatikvah playing at the end, the museum goes right into an account of how the birth of the modern State of Israel was a still unresolved catastrophe for the Palestinian people. Both Israeli Jews and Palestinians should be spending time in this massive museum. The two events were not equivalent in their scale and horror and the Palestinians bear no responsibility for the Holocaust, but it might help both sides understand better where the other is coming from. I don't know if this has changed, but a couple of Palestinians in the West Bank that I talked to said they learned nothing about the Holocaust in school. Israelis I've talked to said they didn't study in school the reality of what happened to Palestinians in 1948.

July 21 and 22

I spent two days working on a house in the town of Anata, just outside of Jerusalem but separated from Jerusalem by the Wall. I joined the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions international team. We worked on rebuilding a home that had recently been demolished. It was the same story I've been seeing everywhere - the home was built without a permit, because it is impossible to get a permit. The Israelis destroyed the home and offered no compensation. No reason was given for why the home had to be destroyed, except that it didn't have a permit.

I slept with the other volunteers outside on a mattress. This was within a compound owned by a Palestinian man, overlooking a giant Israeli military base. Near the compound is a small Bedouin encampment for about 30 people. The Bedouins live in shacks made of material they have scavenged from the town of Anata. They have many animals.

I witnessed the Israeli civil authorities show up at the Bedouin encampment and deliver demolition order papers for all ten of the community's buildings, including their three foot by three foot outhouse. We talked to the people - they have no idea where they will go if their buildings are destroyed.

We also took a trip to Sheik Jerrah, near Jerusalem, and I saw something like I witnessed in Hebron, but even stranger.

In 1948 there was a sizable Jewish community in Sheik Jerrah. This community was pushed west after the war, into West Jerusalem, and many of the buildings were settled by Palestinians who were pushed east. Jews are now allowed to reclaim properties in Sheik Jerrah (Palestinians who now live in the West Bank are not allowed to make similar claims on land in what is now Israel.)

We went to a house where for some reason a couple of fanatical religious settlers were allowed to take the front half of a house. A Palestinian family still lives in the back house. The settlers have injured the Palestinian children by sicking their dogs on the children. While we were there the settler put on a little show for us - they unleashed the dogs and had them snarl at us through the bars in the home. The Palestinian woman who lives in the back spit at the dogs through the bars and the settler spit at the woman.

July 23 and July 24

I came to Tel Aviv. It is a large and very modern city. Around the bus station people seem to be mostly Africans and Asians. I got a chance to walk around and I went to the old city of Jaffa and saw a view of Tel Aviv from the hill.

I also went with some activists to Al-Araqib, in the Negev. This is a Bedouin village which has been destroyed by Israeli forces at least 24 times in the last year. It gets destroyed and then rebuilt - like a game of cat and mouse. The Bedouins are Israeli citizens, but since they don't have titles to the land that are recognized by the State of Israel, the state has decided that there is a better use for the land. This better use is to make the land a forest funded by GOD TV, the organization of Pastor John Hagee, who is both a Christian Zionist and an anti-semite.

According to people in the village, the first destruction was the worst. There were helicopters and around 1000 troops, and they used rubber bullets, even though the people were unarmed and were waving Israeli flags.

The people I went with were circus people, and so we all played with the children doing circus things like juggling and rolling hoops.

At night I went out to what it turns out was the largest rally in Israel in a long time. At least 10,000 people, mostly young, were marching to demand affordable housing. I didn't think I knew anybody from Tel Aviv, but on the street I ran into the first person I met in Israel, the lady from Russia Today who interviewed me at the airport. She introduced me to some friends, and then later I actually ran into some anarchist activists that I knew from demonstrations in the West Bank.

So I thought that I would only check out the rally for a few minutes, but I ended up staying out pretty late.

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