Monday, August 1, 2011

Report from Palestine 10

by: Michael Berg

July 26

I did an interview for the Real News Network Middle East correspondent Lia Tarachansky.

I think especially interesting are the two interviews between her and Paul Jay "On Reporting from Palestine and Israel", where she tells about her experience growing up in a family of Russian-Israelis on the Ariel settlement in the West Bank. She said that when she went back to here hometown in 2010, she heard the Muslim call to prayer from the nearby Palestinian village for the first time. It isn't that there was no call to prayer when she was growing up - it's that for her Palestinians didn't exist. They weren't part of her life or the lives of other settlers, at least at the level of being ordinary human beings. Even though they were right there, she never saw then and never heard them.

Lia has a lot of insight in what is going on in Palestine / Israel and I was happy to have some time to talk with her after the interview (it's hard to see what my thoughts added to whatever she is covering -we'll see if she uses them). I learned more about the situation that African refugees in Israel face, her views on sexism and homophobia in both Israeli and Palestinian society, and how this affects her work as a journalist who covers both the conflict and the internal affairs of both societies. Rather than write about all of this, I'll just recommend that you watch some of Lia's reports (in general the Real News Network is an excellent source of information).

That night I went to a talk in Tel Aviv on Yiddish Anarchist newspapers in both the United States and Israel. I learned that the newspaper Friya Arbiter Steamer (the Free Voice of Labor) was published out of New York from the early part of the 20th century until 1977. A young Noam Chomsky used to spend time at their office and learned something there about politics. I also learned a little about the suppression of Yiddish in the early stages of the State of Israel. Out of 19 recognized Jewish languages, all but Hebrew were suppressed, in an effort to create a Hebrew state and culture.

July 27
I went back to Ramallah to visit some people. I left from the bus station in Tel Aviv. I hadn't entered the station on the way there, and I was surprised to see how big it is. It's a giant shopping center, with so many stores that it's hard to find the buses.

First I had to take a bus to Jerusalem. The bus was crowded. Although I didn't encounter much security in Tel Aviv, when I tried to leave the bus station in Jerusalem and enter Jaffa Street I was forced to answer a series of questions, a pat down and a search of my bags. This is why it is often a good idea in Israel to take the shared taxis that gather outside the bus station instead of the buses. The taxis cost the same and you don't have to go through the questions and the searches.

I walked through West Jerusalem to the Damascus Gate of the old city in order to get a bus to Ramallah. When I got to the Damascus Gate it hit me all of a sudden how dramatically and quickly everything changed. The streets were more crowded, the smells were different, the language was different, everything was different. All of a sudden I back in Palestine.

July 28

Today I met with my German Palestinian friend Suhail in Ramallah, and the sociologist Salim Tamari. It was good to talk with both of them.

From there I went to Jericho, a very beautiful and hot Palestinian town in the Jordan Valley. Jericho is an oasis town. It is part of Area A, under control of the Palestinian authority. Jericho is the only part of the Jordan Valley in Area A. The rest of the Jordan Valley is being rapidly settled by Israelis and cleared of Palestinians, as I wrote about before.

After eating a lunch of bread and greasy eggs, I decided to walk to the Mount of Temptations where Jesus supposedly contemplated for 40 days. I began to walk up the hill in the 110 degree heat. A man passes and says, "Como estas? Entra!" So I get into his car, and he tells me that he lived all over in Spain, and then he takes me some of the way up the hill. When I tell him I'm American he says that this is strange, he's worked in tourism in Jericho for years, and the Americans usually don't openly and proudly pronounce where they are from.

He says that he is originally from Hebron. He has 52 dunum of land but he wants to sell it to Israelis. I asked him why. He said that the settlement in the area is looking to take it anyways so he wants to get something for it. Then he mutters something about settlements.

He drops me off near the monastery, where Jesus supposedly contemplated for 40 days. It is spectacular - embedded into the mountain. I hear people talking in American English. We introduce each other and they ask where I am from. I tell them St. Louis. I ask the man in the group where they are from. He says Dimona.

I ask, you mean where the nuclear bombs are? The guy laughs and says its not the same exact place, but they are from Dimona.

The man is one of the Black Hebrew Israelites and he was in Jericho to see the holy sites. He was with two of his three wives and 6 of his 21 children. We all climb up to the monastery. Every once in a while the man would give his theological thoughts on what we were seeing. He and the rest of the family were all very friendly people. Because of the heat and the eggs, I became increasingly nauseous as I climbed.

The monastery is run by the Greek Orthodox Church. Inside the monastery you are supposed to maintain silence. When I got to the rock where Jesus supposedly sat, my nausea was so strong that I almost vomited on the rock. Luckily I was able to wait until I got back on the path to climb down again. After vomiting I drank a little water and dunked my head into one of the fast moving channels of water that run through Jericho. That made me feel a lot better.

July 29
I spent the day in Bethlehem meeting with friends I had made during my first week in Palestine. I also walked around and saw some of the area I hadn't gotten a chance to visit before. I was planning to go to one last protest in al-Walaja, but it was canceled for some reason.

At night I went back to Jerusalem, so that I could get up early the next day and get to the airport. I got a ride with my friend Dominik to the Gilo checkpoint, so I could go to the other side of the wall. Looking at the wall one last time, I noticed once again how sad and ugly the thing is. Like the wall in Berlin, that wall must come down.

In order to leave Bethlehem at Gilo, I first walked through a long metal tunnel. Then I got through the first control after shoing my passport.

Then I wait through another gate, where you wait for a mechanical revolving door to let you in, before you even see a person in charge. You only see the metal detector machine in front of you, and whoever is before you going through it. The lady in front of me had to go back and forth four times before it didn't go off. She looked very frustrated.

After having to show my passport another time, I went through all this passages with all these "Welcome to Israel" tourism posters. I don't know if the person who put those up thought it was really welcoming or if was just a sick joke. Or maybe its just another way to humiliate Palestinian. I don't know. It is important to remember that under international law, when you goes from one side of the Gilo checkpoint to the other, you are going from the illegally occupied West Bank to another part of the illegally occupied West Bank.
Finally there is a place with twelve turnstiles, all with booths for border control people, none of them manned. All twelve had red X's. This was the final hurdle.

I couldn't figure out what to do - then I was joined by a man who also couldn't figure out what to do. Finally he decided - let's just jump the turnstiles. I looked at the cameras everywhere, shrugged and we both jumped the turnstiles. We left the Gilo facility with no problem after that.

There were no buses and no taxis. I started walking with the man. His English was good and we started talking. His name is Isam, and he told me that the Old City of Jerusalem was 5 kilometers away. He lives in a town near Jerusalem, on the Israeli side of the wall. He studied electrical engineering in Russia, and spoke four languages. He called his brother, and after we walked about two kilometers his brother picked us up.

He asked me why I was here and told him about the whole Welcome to Palestine action. He knew about it, and started telling me his thoughts. He said that it is strange that Israelis can live with so many weapons. He told me that he has many Israeli friends, and they are very nice people, but he doesn't understand how they can serve in the military, act like they do in the military, then come back home and be nice people.

When we got to the Damascus gate Isam thanked me for coming and told me that one day he would like to come to America and support us. I told him to please come and do that.

Knowing that I was leaving the next day, I walked for hours until very late through the streets of the old city of Jerusalem. Jews were celebrating Shabbat and in the Muslim quarter people were putting up lights, preparing for Ramadan.

July 30

I took an early shared taxi to Ben Gurion airport so I could come home. I had done around 20 media interviews since I arrived where I had given my name and age. Many of these in I thought this might affect things at the airport. I've heard stories about people getting interrogated for hours, full body searches, that kind of thing. 160 of my colleagues were detained at the airport while coming in on July 8, some kept for well over a week, and not allowed into Israel / Palestine. This happened to them simply because when asked where they were going they said they were going to Bethlehem, Palestine. So I prepared in my head for what might happen.

I did see several people at the airport being taken into special rooms. I saw people get their entire luggage searched. But this was not what happened to me, and I didn't even have to lie.

When I got to security, a lady asked me if I had been to Israel before. I told her that I had a Bar Mitzvah here in 1987. She then asked if there was anywhere special that I had visited in Israel. I told her that it was important for me to visit Kibbutz Ein Gev, where my mother used to live.

She then got back to the issue of the Bar Mitzvah. Where did you study for your Bar Mitzvah? I told her that I had a private tutor.

What was his name? Rami Pinsburg, I told her. He was a good teacher - I think he's a professor now.
Didn't you go to a synagogue? she asked. I told her I did.

What was the name of the place? B'nai El.

Why didn't you learn Hebrew there? I don't know, I guess they didn't teach it well.

Didn't you learn any Hebrew there? Sure, Aleph, Bet, Vet, Gimel, the basic things.

Do you ever go to synagogue now? Sometimes, during High Holy Days.

Do you know any of the prayers? Yes, I told her, and I recited a prayer.

Ok, enjoy your flight. She put a yellow sticker with some numbers and a bar code on the back of my passport. I then put my bag through an x-ray machine one time. During the rest of the customs procedure, several people looked at the yellow sticker, but I was not asked another question or forced to do anything else.

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