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News :: Human Rights : International : War and Militarism
A VISIT TO THE HOLEY LAND
07 Jan 2008
Modified: 05:33:44 PM
Fifteen residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts, formed a people-to-people delegation to Bethlehem, that "little town" of legend and current West Bank REALITY for five days in late November 2007, with a day in Jerusalem before and after. What follows is my impressions of this trip. Those who care about Palestinian rights may find some useful observations. I hope that those who care mainly about Israel will read on and perhaps come to agree that present policies are no better, in the long run, for Israel than they are for Palestine, and that a resolution that is good for Palestine will also benefit Israel.
nomorewalls.jpg
Fifteen residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts, formed a people-to-people delegation to Bethlehem, that "little town" of legend and current West Bank REALITY for five days in late November 2007, with a day in Jerusalem before and after. What follows is my impressions of this trip. Those who care about Palestinian rights may find some useful observations. I hope that those who care mainly about Israel will read on and perhaps come to agree that present policies are no better, in the long run, for Israel than they are for Palestine, and that a resolution that is good for Palestine will also benefit Israel.

In regard to the title, anyone who has seen a recent map of the West Bank will understand why Holey applies. With the constantly expanding Jewish settlements (all are illegal under international law), what is supposed to be the larger portion of a Palestinian state looks like Swiss cheese. (An Israeli architect calls his book about the configuration of settlements, settler-only roads, walls, fences, and tunnels Hollow Land.)

ARRIVAL OF THE GROUP
Most of us arrived on November 20th, though a few were already there. Most of us cleared Ben-Gurion Airport without trouble, but one--a rabbi, former Zionist, and a probably well-known activist--was questioned and detained for nearly four hours, and another questioned for an hour and a half. I was asked only why I came to Israel (to see it), where I was going (Jerusalem, the immediate truth), and whether I had relatives or friends there (not any more). The group included six Jews and one Palestinian (born in Haifa in 1935). I was the oldest, and the only one to have escaped from the Nazis, though the Cambridge Bethlehem Committee back home includes another escaper and one woman who survived several slave labor camps.

JERUSALEM
A van took us to East Jerusalem, where most stayed at Paulus-Haus, the guest house of Schmidt College for Women, a German Catholic school across the road from Damascus Gate, one of the entrances to the Old City. Because there weren't enough single rooms, two of us stayed a block away at the Jerusalem Hotel, an old Arab mansion with a few small rooms and a restaurant, where the others came for supper. In the morning there was a more than ample breakfast buffet and then a walking tour of part of the Old City, including the Via Dolorosa, with an Arab guide named John. Stone is everywhere: city walls, houses, buildings, and much pavement, which, after it rained, was rather slippery. We mostly fended off the shopkeepers and vendors selling local crafts, real or fake antiquities, gorgeous produce, or snacks and drinks.

Palestinians live in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, but here and there there is an Israeli flag: e.g., on a house that Ariel Sharon bought. At about 11 a.m. the call to prayer from more than one mosque filled the narrow lanes. I found myself weeping. Katelin told me later that many react this way; she knows someone who became a Muslim after being moved by the muezzins' call. Chanting in church or synagogue can have the same effect.

At noon John delivered us to Abu Hassan, who gave us his Alternative Tour of East Jerusalem, which focused not on Jesus or centuries of religious hopes but on what is happening now in the part of the city that the Palestinians want as their capital. There are multiple Jewish settlements, which have shifted the demographic balance; the separation wall (hereafter the Wall) is visible in many places; we passed more than one heap of rubble where a house had been demolished; and Abu Hassan pointed out a piece of land that was designated green space where Israel illegally put up some large buildings. (The story with house demolitions is that the government refuses to issue building permits; when Palestinians build anyway, their houses are likely to be knocked down, often with little warning. Some families have lost two or more houses on the same spot. They are usually building on ancestral land. Evidently Jewish claims after 2000 years--and are we all sure we're really descended from the Jews of Roman times?--are considered infinitely more valid than the claims of Palestinians whose families lived continually in the same area, even on the same spot, for centuries, until 1948 or 1967. To destroy houses the IDF [Israel Defense Force] uses huge armored bulldozers made by Caterpillar.)

Among much else, Abu Hassan showed us a large iron gate in the Wall and across a road. It was open, but he said it could close at any moment, without notice. When it's closed, local people go to work or school through "tunnels" under the road that are really culverts, not high enough for an adult to stand up in, and after the rain there was standing water in them and in the open area near them. I began to see that all the restrictions, the daily major and minor frustrations and humiliations, are meant to make the Palestinians' lives so intolerable that they leave.

BETHLEHEM
The tour bus took us past the main checkpoint for Bethlehem (which is only about six miles from Jerusalem), where on the Wall, perhaps 15 feet up, it says Peace Be With You in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Even with its yellow Israeli license plates, the bus could be held up if the driver or someone else in it "looks Palestinian," so, rather than tackle this main approach, the driver took us by way of Beit Jala, one of the two villages that have grown into suburbs of Bethlehem, to the Grand Hotel. For our six nights there we were the only guests-- though the hotel's restaurant was quite busy and a large function room was often in use. Pilgrims and tourists do still go to Bethlehem, if in much diminished numbers, but most only for the day, staying overnight in Jerusalem, a major loss for Bethlehem's economy.

Our rooms were comfortable and larger than necessary, each with three beds and a bathroom. There was always water when we needed it, and I never used the toilet paper or handiwipes we'd been advised to bring. The fee of $50 a night for a single and $35 a head a night for a double included a sumptuous breakfast, our last morning an Arab breakfast with Jerusalem bread with oil and a spice mixture to dip it in, eggs baked in their shells, olives, and other good things. Though surrounded by hardship, we did not feel it ourselves (or I didn't), though those who traveled before or after on their own may have experienced some.

The first day, Thursday, November 22, we met with the vice mayor and three other city councillors (one, Douha, is the daughter of the owner of the Grand Hotel); the director of the Peace Center, a community center in Manger Square; the headmaster of Terra Sancta College, a K-12 school for boys; the director of the Chamber of Commerce; and the public relations director of Feniq (Phoenix), the community center at Dheisheh Refugee Camp.

On Friday the 23rd we visited the Bethlehem Arab Rehabilitation Hospital in a beautiful light and airy, plant-filled modern building in Beit Jala. We then heard from the heads of several NGOs:

Badil: Resource Center for Palestine Residency and Refugee Rights was established after Oslo, when there were 184,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank; a year ago there were 480,000. If Palestinians agree to a Jewish state in Israel, they are abandoning the 1.4 million Arabs there. They don't accept a state based on religion, race, or ethnic identity, are not anti Judaism but anti Zionism. He is also opposed to two states but said that, if that's the answer, let the Israels have what they call Judea and Samaria and give us the coastal plain. He also mentioned that quite a few Palestinians are atheists, and said he is not a "now-ist." We heard this several times: we can wait for a solution, even if it takes decades.

Prisoner Society is for a fluctuating number of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails; the number hovers around 11,000, now with 850 in administrative detention, 105 women, and 400 under 18. Relations with guards are worse than formerly and conditions very bad.

Alternative Tourism Group was founded in 1995 because of settlements and the Wall; encourages visitors to meet Palestinian individuals and organizations, and to go to other places than tourist sites. Has published a guide: Palestine and the Palestinians. Hosts 80-100 groups a year, most from Europe or U.S., some from Japan, Philippines.

Later, after a talk by its director, we toured Dheisheh Camp, where people live in cramped quarters but in houses and not tents or shanties. There were mobs of friendly, curious children (there are 6,000 in the camp), and members of our group handed out peace- symbol necklaces and other trinkets. The poverty and the way people make do, as well as some local architecture, reminded me of Macao, where we lived in 1958-59, and I realized that we were at the other end of the same large continent. One difference is that the IDF occasionally invades the camp, doing whatever damage or nabbing of residents it has been ordered to do. We were treated to a dance performance by teenage boys and girls, dinner (salads and other appetiz- ers followed by chicken and rice), and then a talk by and discussion with a female Israeli lawyer who has defended Palestinians in Israeli courts and now works for the UN.

On the 24th, two women from Palestine Rural Women for Savings and Credit and Savings Society for Women came to the hotel to tell us about their projects, including microlending and handicrafts. They brought scarves, embroidered bags, and other lovely things and most of us did some Christmas shopping. In the afternoon we visited a women's cooperative that makes olive oil soap, then the Maher Center for Children with Cancer and a nearby hospital with a pediatric cancer ward. Maher died of cancer at 13 six years ago. His father, who joined us, established the center to provide the support and services that had not been available to his family. After a visit to the Church of the Nativity, some of us were taken to a gift shop owned by Douha's family. Alas, this reminded me of what in China we called the brother-in-law syndrome. Most things are religious--mainly Christian--and prices are in dollars. Then dinner at The Tent in Beit Sahour, the other village/suburb. The bench-like seats and decor made me think of the Passover Seder, where one is supposed to recline while eating. The food was good, the noise plentiful.

HEBRON
On Sunday (25th) four of us went to Hebron. In Bethlehem one often had to be told of the hardships while in Hebron they are unavoidable: the soldiers, the barriers and checkpoints, the rock music blaring at unwilling listeners. I don't claim to have experienced it as a Palestinian person does. The border policeman who searched my bags at the first checkpoint for the mosque then told me to "Have a good time." Would he say that to a Palestinian woman? At the second checkpoint, a soldier looked in my bags again. "Do you know that someone already checked them?" I asked him. He said he was just doing his job: the Eichmann defense. A member of our group later heard this same soldier, who looked about 18 or 19, say that what the IDF is doing there is "wrong." Perhaps a candidate for Ometz LeSarev (Courage to Refuse), an organization of IDF soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories; some pay for this principled stand by losing their jobs and/or their friends.

Hebron has not only the usual settlements on the outskirts but also five small ones in the heart of the city. The vegetable market and the bus station have been closed down; gates and barriers drastically restrict movement in the Old City; half the mosque, which houses the Tombs of the Patriarchs, has been made into a synagogue. (All the "tombs" are in cages; Sarah's and Abraham's are visible from both the mosque and the synagogue.) One of the ugliest forms of Jewish contempt and Palestinian humiliation is the practice of settlers living above shops in the Old City, who throw their garbage out the window and into the street. In self-defense, the shopkeepers have put up netting; we walked under this netting, with heaps of garbage piled on it.

THE WALL
We returned to Bethlehem in time for a tour led by two members of B'Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories)1. After two unsuccessful attempts to get through checkpoints to villages that have been largely isolated--at one checkpoint soldiers pointed guns at members of our group--we went to the Wall. In rural areas, and in places where the Wall has not yet been built, there is a fence, which is what Israel prefers to call the whole thing, but in urban areas and around towns it is a wall some 20 feet high, more than twice as high as the Berlin Wall. It makes an irresistible "canvas" for graffiti in multiple languages, some of it artistic, most defiant, some philosophical. The Wall makes a tight loop around Rachel's Tomb, so that the tomb is on the Israeli side of the Wall, which here and in most places is a long way from the 1967 border known as the Green Line--a long way inside Palestinian land.

Besides making movement in general difficult, the Wall cuts many farmers off from their fields or olive groves. Some cannot farm at all. If a piece of land is not cultivated for three years, it is considered abandoned and, in accordance with Ottoman law, becomes state land. (We were told that Israel uses whatever laws suit its purpose: British, Ottoman, or its own.)

BETHLEHEM UNIVERSITY
On Monday we visited BU, formerly a Catholic seminary. It was a gorgeous day and the campus, well supplied with trees, flowers, and outdoor seating, was bustling with students between classes. We were shown the chapel and the library (with many books in English) and Brother Jack, from Albany, N.Y., introduced a session with a very professional video about BU and a discussion with five students about their lives and studies; they realize that they are preparing for careers that they may never be able to follow but for them getting an education is a form of resistance. Students at the hotel management school prepared and served an elegant lunch. I sat next to the dean of humanities and asked about books for the library; it welcomes any books, he said, but can't pay for shipping or tariffs.

VIENNA
My few days in Vienna on the way home were in some ways a continuation of the Bethlehem trip. The couple I stayed with agree with my views and Hilde is a school friend of Roni Hammerman, founder of Machsom Watch. Started in 2001, it now has 450 Israeli women monitoring checkpoints. Hilde had a tape of a talk RH gave in Vienna earlier in the week. Among much else she mentioned opposing views of Machsom Watch. Some are grateful for the attention, others say, in effect, you've been doing this for six years and what difference has it made? She admits the latter have a point, but says sometimes MW's interference helps, and anyway it's better than having the checkpoints not monitored. Israel needs more such "traitors."

OBSERVATIONS AND QUESTIONS
The political awareness of people in Bethlehem was striking, and especially the fact that nearly everyone mentioned not only the occupation as the cause of problems for Palestinians but also the media. They are aware of how shabbily the press and TV treat them, if they report on Palestine at all, and that this makes it easier for the current dire situation to continue.

The political sophistication of young people was also notable, at least judging by students at the American School (perhaps an elite or privileged group). The 11th or 12th graders a few of us talked with were articulate and outspoken about the situation in general; they also were skeptical about the value of such programs as Seeds of Peace that bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together. A few had taken part and their message was: We spend a few weeks in Maine together and when we get home the Israeli kids refuse to have anything to do with us. (The lawyer who arranged our schedule for the week echoed this jaundiced view in his talk to us, mentioning meetings in Istanbul and elsewhere that he saw as inconsequential.) To hear very strong political opinions--and to see photos of Yassir Arafat on the walls of at least two classrooms--at a school run by Assemblies of God was both baffling and encouraging. (I was told the photos were in honor of the anniversary of Arafat's death and wouldn't always be there. But they were there, tolerated, if not put up, by the school.)

Also striking was the willed optimism of nearly every adult we heard from. It baffled me at first, notably at the Chamber of Commerce, where the director purported to see promise where one would reasonably see only hopeless difficulties. It brought tears to my eyes for the second time on the trip. The dean of humanities at Bethlehem University is likewise "hoping against hope." When I commented on this outlook, he pretty much said, as did others: "What else can we do?" Those determined, or forced by poverty, to stay have to hope that some day the situation will improve. The man from Badil made it explicit: it won't happen this year or in five or ten years, but maybe in 40 or 50 things will get better--a longer-term view that ought to be familiar to Jews (with 1900+ years of "next year in Jerusalem") but is uncongenial to most of us. (The headmaster of Terra Sancta College, while purporting to be non-political, stressed the importance of staying.)

There was an emotional moment in Hebron, when we came to a checkpoint where Palestinians were being herded through a narrow caged passage. It looked a lot (among many other times and places) like what Jews experienced at the hands of the Nazis--which is not to say that Israelis are the same as Nazis, only that there is some resemblance between what my family and I escaped (in leaving Vienna in 1939) and the ways another army controls another civilian population. It wasn't the worst sort of punishment, just part of the daily, routine humiliation and frustration that make up one of the main reasons our group made this trip.

Meeting the IDF raises some questions. What does it mean to have a population of which everyone except the Orthodox does mandatory military service? (And Orthodox settlers are armed too, often using their Uzis on their own.) How many of these mostly very young soldiers suffer from PTSD? particularly after harassing a civilian population rather than fighting a military enemy. Is it acknowledged and treated? However one regards the soldiers, and whatever this pervasive militarism means for Israel, living so close to a militarized society clearly is not good for the Palestinians.

Unlike the members of our group who went early and/or stayed on and who have gotten directly involved in Palestinians' lives, my experience was all from the safety of a U.S. passport and a comfortable hotel. Not that I craved real danger, but I'm aware how sheltered we were. It was still worth going: to see the shell hole in the outer wall of the Bethlehem University library (one of three from a 2002 IDF attack) and the Wall, and the inspiring graffiti on it in all sorts of languages. To realize, not for the first time but more sharply, that the daily indignities and harassment, the delays, the collective punishment, are designed not so much to keep the Palestin- ians in their place--though that too--but mainly to make their lives so intolerable that they leave.

Being Jewish and a Holocaust escaper, I often thought of then and now: the departure of my family (parents, brother, and I, and also other relatives) to "cleanse" Vienna, making it "Judenrein," and now the cleansed are doing the cleansing. And, when a couple of us walked through a gap in the Wall at Rachel's Tomb, one of the men who stopped us and made us go back out looked just like guys at the left-wing camp in northern New Jersey my family frequent- ed: German or Austrian Jews, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, socialists or communists who served in the U.S. military in World War II. Now here was one of them, so it seemed to me, turning back people because they came from the "wrong" side of the Wall.

Other kinds of harassment concern water and vegetation. Our group didn't experience restrictions directly as we had all the water we needed (at least I did). But it was stunning, when we returned to Jerusalem, to see how green it is. This is because Israel diverts most West Bank water for its own use. To make room for one settlement, Bethlehem's only forest was cut down, and the IDF and settlers have uprooted something like a million olive trees.

When a couple of us went to see the Western ("Wailing") Wall on the 27th, several young Israelis pushed ahead of us at the checkpoint, a minor metaphor for the impatience and arrogance that make Palestinian lives so hard. We were interested to see how much more crowded the much narrower women's section of the wall is, not the only parallel between the status of women in fundamentalist Islam and orthodox Judaism. Even more interesting was a photo in that day's English Ha'aretz. It shows a huge crowd of Jewish men there on the 26th to protest Annapolis; the caption says that they came for "a special prayer that opposed a U.S.-sponsored peace effort." So they believe that their God opposes peace? And evidently they're afraid that Olmert might "give away" so much as an inch of Eretz (Land of) Israel.

Sometimes people argue whether what is behind the occupation is land or racism. The answer is probably Yes. Certainly there are many signs of contempt and certainly there is discrimination, whether or not one calls it racism. On a radio program years ago someone brought up Palestinian human rights, to which an Israeli woman replied, "They're not human." Of course land is at the heart of the conflict, and it's easier to acquiesce in driving people away if one has been taught that they are barely human, or that they are all terrorists. (In a week among Palestinians I always felt safe.)

My Vienna friends took me to three Advent bazaars, one at a church in Perchtoldsdorf, a near by village. I bought a few olivewood Christmas ornaments from Bethlehem and told the woman selling them that I'd just been there, am Jewish, etc. She has been going to Bethlehem two or three times a year for 16 years and has seen conditions deteriorate. She was insistent about having nothing against Jews and we agreed that Jews and Israel are not the same thing. Criticizing Israel is not tantamount to anti-Semitism. Israel is a sovereign country, to be judged by its actions, not its ethnicity.

For the six Jews the trip was emotionally wrenching in different ways, depending on the extent of previous involvement with Israel, how much one had read about the history of the area and the situation of the Palestinians, and one's own history, including direct experience of anti-Semitism. Yet everyone was outraged about the occupation. I too was angry all the time I was there, but afterward my feelings shifted. I still abhor the occupation and what it does to its victims, but I came to have some sympathy for the perpetrators. Victimhood comes naturally to Jews and seems to be hard to shake, even when we are no longer victims, even when Israeli Jews fight rock-throwing teenagers with helicopter gunships or the IDF bombs a neighboring country to rubble because Hezbollah "kidnapped" one soldier. (How many Palestinians has the IDF kidnapped?)

It's hard for me to understand my own present feelings because I can't see the occupation and all it entails as anything but a tremendous, violent injustice, nor Israel itself, where Arabs are second-class citizens, as a hopeless contradiction: a Jewish state cannot be democratic; a democratic state cannot be defined by the Jewishness (or any other ethnicity) of its citizens. Yet part of me seems to sympathize with the fearfulness that leads this powerful little nation to oppress the indigenous people (which it couldn't keep doing without U.S. aid, the most generous to any country). Maybe it's also that, having been raised, like most in my generation, to believe that Jews stand for justice for everyone, I WANT Israel to live up to this ideal, even if it never matched actual Jewish reality.

The facts about the occupation should be well known here but there is something of a conspiracy of silence about it. The press, along with virtually all our public officials, seems to believe that it is its duty to "stand with Israel," and so helps to keep the American public--which, with its taxes, funds the settlements, the armored bulldozers used in house demolitions, the military hardware used mainly to control Palestinians--ignorant of what it is supporting. Perhaps the main task of us delegation members is to try to persuade the U.S. to practice "tough love," denying Israel any more money until it dismantles all the settlements and ends the occupation. What will the settlers do then? Would we be risking civil war in Israel, and is this what anyone wants? And how much does criticism of Israel, no matter how justified, feed into anti-Semitism, which is not justiried. As usual, a Jewish essay ends with a few certainties and a lot of questions.

While it was impossible not to be angry about the settlements, the checkpoints, the wall, and the daily restrictions and humiliations that Israel imposes on the Palestinians, it also became clear how self-defeating all this is for Israel, as it generates anger and hostility both among the Palestinians and among people everywhere who sympathize with their plight. Many of the soldiers of the IDF (and nearly every Israeli, male and female, serves in the army) must suffer from guilt and stress, for, rather than face another army, they spend their days harassing and controlling unarmed civilians of all ages.

As one of the six Jews in the group, I have what may be particularly complicated feelings about the situation in the not-so-Holy Land. In addition, as one of the lucky few who, as a child of seven and along with most of my family, escaped from Nazi Vienna, I've even developed complicated feelings about the Holocaust: on top of the usual outrage and horror at what it was, another layer of outrage at the way it is used to punish the Palestinians, who had nothing to do with it.

There is outrage too at the slogan long used to justify Jewish settlement in Palestine: A land without people for a people without land. Yes, European Jews mostly were not allowed to own land and we had no country of our own, but Palestine was definitely not a land without people. Israel is still trying to get rid of the people whose ancestors lived in that land for centuries. I was particularly appalled in Hebron, which has not only the usual settlements on the outskirts but also five small ones in the heart of the city. (All settlements--or colonies, as one of our guides called them--are illegal under international law.) The vegetable market and the bus station have been closed down; gates and barriers restrict movement in the Old City; half the mosque has been made into a synagogue.

All this should be well known here but there is something of a conspiracy of silence about it. The press, along with virtually all our public officials, seems to believe that it is its duty to "stand with Israel," and so helps to keep the American public--which, with its taxes, funds the settlements, the armored bulldozers used in house demolitions, the military hardware used mainly to control Palestinians--ignorant of what it is supporting. Criticizing Israel is not tantamount to anti-Semitism. Israel is a sovereign country, to be judged by its actions, not its ethnicity.

Before we left for Bethlehem some friends warned me to Be Careful, not to go where it's dangerous. But in a week among Palestinians I always felt safe, even though, whenever it seemed appropriate, I let people know that I'm Jewish. In fact, I was born in Vienna in 1931 and came to the US with my fanily in 1939. Like others who escaped or survived the Holocaust, I understand Jewish, and Israeli, fear of discrimination and persecution. But I'm convinced that what Israel is doing in the occupation of Palestinian land and people could have been designed to promote fear and hatred--of Israel. Continuous building of settlements and Jewish-only roads, plus daily and relentless forms of restriction, with frequent acts of violence, all this causes fear, frustration, resentment, and, above all, humiliation.

Israel needs to change the way it operates. It won't do that as long as the US backs up its current policies. Our hope is that, by telling people here what goes on there, we can help to shift the prevailing view of what happens there and what needs to happen. I want to thank the City Council for providing this first public opportunity to speak out about the plight of Bethlehem and Palestine.

Eva (Steiner) Moseley
17 December 2007

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