by Rabbi Alissa Wise
During rabbinical school, I spent three summers doing human rights work on the West Bank, largely with the International Women’s Peace Service in the Salfit Region of the West Bank. While there, I kept a blog of my experiences which was called “Palestinian Talmud.” I am delighted that a blog with the same title is being re-imagined now by the JVP Rabbinical Council.
In honor of the first Palestinian Talmud blog, I am sharing here a handful of my posts from Summer 2007, the second summer I spent on the West Bank witnessing documenting human rights abuses perpetrated by the Israeli Army and/or the settler population and also working with Birthright Unplugged and Birthright Replugged.
In reviewing these posts, I am struck by how many of these stories are as important to read and tell now as they were four and a half years ago, and by how entrenched and frighteningly normative a lot of what I describe has become in understanding the Israeli occupation.
As a new reader to these posts, I am curious what stands out to you as interesting and relevant. Please share your respectful comments below.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Last year when I arrived to this area I was startled by finding that the signs on the main road mark only Israeli areas– settlements or cities in the 1948 borders (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem). I am again startled by this. It is remarkable to me how the Palestinian villages throughout the region are totally invisiblized. The signs are written in Hebrew, English and Arabic, as is the standard in the country. Recently someone has spray painted over the Arabic on the signs, implying there is no need for Arabic here. The goal of complete erasure is clear.
As I arrived two women in the house were on their way to Nablus, to monitor the Israeli army incursion that began this morning there (to make sure medical attention is given, food and water is available, civilians are safe, etc). I went to work to deal with a recent incident where a Palestinian shepherd was taking his goats to pasture on the road he has used for decades, and was stopped by the Israeli army and was told he couldn’t be on the road. As he was talking with the soldiers he felt a push and fell to the ground. When he came to, he saw that a settler and hit him with his car. He reported that the road was clear and it was a straight-away–he was intentionally hit. As he lay on the ground two soldiers chased his goats into a nearby field. He suffered injuries to his chest, wrist, and legs. He asked the soldiers to call for an ambulance, they refused. As he lay there in pain, the soldiers threatened him by readying their guns. He said he was then overcome with frustration so he opened his shirt and told them to go ahead and shoot him. At that point they retreated.
We called the local district council office, the command post of the Israeli army to follow up on a complaint the shepherd had filed with them as well as with the International Red Cross. The solider was apologetic and said he was sure that this was an isolated incident and he would look into it right away. He called us back a few minutes later saying he could not in fact look into it, that they only investigate complaints filed by organizations officially recognized by the Israeli Ministry of Social Affairs, like the International Red Cross. Someone from there will need to follow up if we want this incident to be properly investigated, but with their case load, it is not likely.
The shepherd says that in recent months the army harassment has been the worst it has been since 1967, when the occupation began. It used to be that violence from the settlers was the biggest problem–most of the area’s olive trees have been destroyed by settlers. This incident was sparked because the soldiers didn’t want the shepherd on this road, a road that leads to the settlement Yaqir. While Jewish-only roads have long existed in the West Bank, designed to facilitate movement of settlers into and out of Israel, increasingly, the army is extending the restrictions of Palestinian access to their land around these roads. Like the tactic with the building of the wall, which snakes around the settlements, and where on either side of the actual barrier large pieces of land are taken and laced with razor wire, eating up hundreds of acres of land, these Jewish-only roads leading to settlements are eating away at the very last remnants of the land and livelihoods in these Palestinian villages.
Friday, July 27, 2007
In Israel, native Israelis are called “sabra” which means cactus. The reason given is because Israelis, like cacti, are prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside.
Though cacti do in fact indicate nativeness, they are Palestinian, not Israeli.
As you travel around Israel and see in the countryside patches of cacti, that lets you know that there was once a Palestinian village there. Palestinians used cacti as fences, to stake out and mark their land. When you find cacti, you will also likely find piles of stones, the remnants of the house that once stood there.
I visited the village of Al Lajoun a few days ago where cacti reveal the land’s history. There is not much to see there now, but it used to be a village that held promise. It was one of the very few villages before 1948 to have regular bus service through out Palestine. Before 1948 the villagers had plans for Al Lajoun to become a major city.
We visited Al Lajoun wtih Abu Omar, whose grandfather was killed by the Israeli army in 1948 and who is now, along with other families from Al Lajoun, bringing a case to the Israeli High Court to try to get their land back. During the war in 1948, he and most of the villagers of Al Lajoun fled to Um il Fahm, now a Palestinian city within Israel (it is right outside the Green Line, and there have been suggestions by Israel to bring it into the West Bank in exchange for other other land to be brought into Israel).
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is busy reforesting the village of Al Lajoun, where they make use of an old Ottoman law that says that if you work the land for 7 years, it becomes yours. This is a common practice of the JNF. When someone buys a tree for Israel from the JNF it is often wielded as a weapon in this way. The JNF plants its trees on Palestinian land, to disguise the remnants of the villages there or to take advantage of this law to confiscate it.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
The Wall Israel is building around and within the West Bank is not only further separating Israelis from Palestinians, but Palestinians from Palestinians, and Palestinians from their livelihoods. For example, Qalqilya, in the northern part of the West Bank, is completely surrounded by the Wall. Once a center of retail and commerce, supported by the dozens of villages around it, it is now completely cut off.
The Wall is strangling Qalqilya’s economy. As I heard Mazin Qumsiyeh (a Palestinian academic) say last week, it has the same devastating economic effect as if mid-town Manhattan was surrounded by a wall, where no one could get in to shop or work. Think about what would happen to the commerce in mid-town and the needs of those outside.
The Walls route, as it snakes around illegal Israeli settlements, effectively annexing them into Israel, cuts off roads that people would use to travel between villages, to see family and sell produce.
The claim that the Wall is for security is further undermined by the arbitrary placement of the Wall right through Abu Dis, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Families that once lived across the street from one another are now completely cut off, as the Wall was built right down the center of their street. Those on the western side of the Wall are given Jerusalem IDs (with a Jerusalem ID, you are not an Israeli citizen, but you have freedom of movement within the 1948 and 1967 borders), and those on the eastern side are now part of the West Bank, with a Palestinian ID or huwiyya which restricts you from entering Israel. Is there possibly a claim that those on one side of the wall are more dangerous than the other?
As you enter Ramallah through the Qalandia checkpoint, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, there are numerous signs in Hebrew that say “This way to Ramallah. Entrance by Israelis is forbidden”. The inability of Israelis and Palestinians to visit each other limits the possibilities for relationships and communication, organizing and building toward justice together.
It is not solely the physical separation that restricts Israeli and Palestinian communication. If you have Orange cellphone service, as most Israelis do, it costs more to call Jawwal, the Palestinian service, and you can not send text messages one to the other. If you have Jawwal, you can not get service in Israel. In many parts of the West Bank, only Jawwal service works. The exception is around settlements, where there is Orange service. I have an Orange card, so when I am in Hares, right beside the Ariel settlement bloc, my service is great, when I am in Ramallah I am usually unable to get service. You always know where you are by how much service you are getting.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
It is not possible to visit Gaza. Yesterday, we “met” with the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP) via video conference, the only way we can connect with Gazans.
Gaza is under complete closure, totally isolated from the rest of the world. As we started the meeting, they commented how they feel so isolated and how great it is to meet with us, as though this meeting is a contradiction to the isolation, instead of a demonstration of it.
We spoke with a psychologist who works with adults, a social worker who works with children, and an administrator. The largest theme we heard is about safety, how deeply unsafe everyone feels, children and adults alike. They described how hard it is for them to comfort children from their nightmares and fears, when shelling is happening over their heads as the sit in the clinic. How the children have a hard time learning and staying focused, because of the anxiety and stress of their lives. They spoke of their inability to provide safety to their children, there is no safe place and there is nowhere to go. We heard of one 7 year old who asked his mom if he can return to her womb, that he might be able to find safety there.
GCMHP works to promote non-violence as part of their work, but the recent infighting only exacerbates the children’s confusion, further modeling violence as a solution to conflict, a message they already get from the constant Israeli military presence and violence in Gaza.
Seventy percent of Gazans are refugees, displaced from their homes and villages, in 1948. We heard how the devastation of the home demolitions in Gaza are magnified for the refugees, sending them into depression and despair, as it reminds the older generation of their original eviction in 1948.
The international boycott of the Palestinian Authority, since Hamas won the elections in 2006, has been felt in Gaza extraordinarily hard, physically and emotionally. Limited food, medications and newspapers are getting through the borders. Trade between the West Bank is impossible, and though there is a movement to boycott Israeli products, because Israel controls the borders and the movement of goods between them, it is impossible, they said, to not buy Israeli goods.
With sadness, they spoke of the divide that is now trying to be made between Gaza and the West Bank. This was demonstrated by the West Bank Palestinian who organized the video conference on our side, who was eager to ask questions of the Gazans, he was curious about their lives and experiences. He, like us, was uninformed, disconnected.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Halil (Hebron) is hard to believe. Muayad, the cameraman I have been working with, told me that as a kid he used to travel from Jerusalem to Hebron to go shopping. He said that he hated to go because it was so crowded and busy. As he told me this, we were walking along deserted streets of the old city of Hebron. Since 2000, with the restrictions of movement into Hebron and the Israeli army activity inside of Hebron, the city has fallen into complete economic decline. Over a third of the stores have closed, there are now just long stone streets of closed gates and locks. A ghost town.
In Hebron, Jewish settlers live not on the outskirts, but right in the center of town, and with them, comes an Israeli army presence in the middle of Palestinian stores and homes. The part of the market that remains open has metal gates on top of the street, to block the garbage and stones the settlers throw from their apartments above from hitting the people and goods in the market. The army presence is to protect the settlers and they do nothing to protect or defend Palestinians from settler violence.
Every Shabbat (Saturday) afternoon, the settlers take a group walk through town. On this walk they harass the residents of Halil, with violent words and actions. In preparation, the army will force shopkeepers to close their stores, so not to antagonize the settlers.
In the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron, which you have to enter through a pedestrian checkpoint, we visited Hisham. Hisham and his family now live directly underneath a Yeshiva (Jewish study house) and apartment building of Jewish settlers. They have destroyed his olive trees and grape vines, thrown boulders and rocks, and bottles full of their urine into his house. When he tries to harvest olives in the fall they violently stop him. One video he showed us, showed them coming with copies of the Talmud in their hands, so that when the army comes, they can claim that they were only studying.
The settler building looming above him now forces him to not use the stairs in his yard that lead directly to the street. He must climb down a side of a hill to reach the yard, a hazardous, circuitous and inconvenient path.
Hisham told us that before Jewish/Zionist immigrants from Europe and elsewhere started to come settle in the region, the Palestinian Jews and Muslims lived well together. They went to each others weddings and shared in each others lives.
As we left, the afternoon call to prayer rang through the streets. What followed was the sound of shofars blasting, an effort by the Jewish settlers to mute the sound of the Muslim call to prayer.
Monday, July 16, 2007
As we stepped onto the land where the village of Bariqa once stood, somewhere between Nazareth and Haifa, two brothers Ahmed, age 14 and Muhammed, age 12 called their grandfather who fled this land as the war in 1948 came to his village. Instead of a village, what is there now are heaps of stones where houses once stood, with rusting barrels and piles of trash littering the ground.
The grandfather described the village to them on the phone, hoping they might be able to find where his house once stood. We looked for the hills and the trees the grandfather was describing to Ahmed, using the piles of stones as clues.
The grandfather told him that as they were packing their bags in 1948, fleeing the village as the Israeli army approached, the last thing he did was carve his name in the tree outside of his house. He didn’t know then that he would be leaving forever.
Ahmed and Muhammed found the tree with their grandfather and great-grandfather names carved into it. The etchings were still entact.
Still on the phone with the grandfather, the boys picked some wildflowers growing nearby and held up the phone to the flowers so that the grandfather could talk to the flowers and say hello again.
Naqa is from Eyn Hawd,now an Israeli artist’s colony. Half of the population of Ein Hod fled up the hill in 1948, where there is still a Palestinian community and half fled further, ending up in refugee camps in Jenin and elsewhere, like Naqa’s family did.
Naqa had brought some old pictures of the village before 1948, including her family’s home. Her family had described where it was in relation to the mosque, and we were able to find her home.
We were in the backyard, where she was taking it all in, and the family that now lives there came outside, curious. I explained that this was Naqa’s house before 1948. They invited us in for her to see it. There were gorgeous stone archs in the outside patio, just as her family had described. An Israeli woman and a Dutch man live there now. Naqa quickly left crying. Ahmed told the Dutch man that Naqa was upset, seeing this new family in her family’s home. The Dutch man said that Naqa was welcome to come and visit whenever she wanted, it was no problem. Ahmed quickly retorted: “No, it is a problem. Once she turns 16 the Israeli army won’t let her come back here”.
Instead, she filled a bag with dirt and pebbles, pine cones and a pomegranate and left.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Can you go to Tel Aviv?
As I sit and drink tea with folks here, I am often asked: Can you go to Tel Aviv? or Have you been to Al Quds (Jerusalem)? I sheepishly reply that yes, I can go to Tel Aviv and yes, I have been to Al Quds.A trip to the sea or to Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is a life’s dream for many. Palestinians living in the occupied territories can not travel across the 1948 borders of Israel once they turn 16 and are issued their huwwiya (ID card). They can not go to Jerusalem, the sea, or their homes.
In 1948 when the State of Israel was established nearly 600 Palestinian villages were destroyed and roughly 750,000 Palestinians were displaced. Those refugees have spread out over the globe, while most live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon. Many still have the keys to their homes they fled under force in 1948, waiting for the day they can return.
I am about to spend three days with 19 Palestinian youth (under the age of 16) from a refugee camp in Jenin on a trip called Birthright Replugged. We will be taking these youth to Jerusalem, to the sea in Haifa and to the villages their families fled in 1948. They will have video and still cameras and will be documenting the trip to display to their community and families, who because of the way Israel controls Palestinian movement, can not take them to these places. As internationals, we enjoy the freedom to move as we please.
I am skeptical that there will be words to describe the experiences of these youth first stepping into Al Aqsa mosque or taking their first glimpse at the sea. Luckily, we will be documenting this trip (and its counterpart Birthright Unplugged which takes American Jews into the West Bank) for a documentary film. I am on the film crew for the making of the film about these two experiences.
As an American it is impossible for me to fathom not being able to go where I want when I want. As a Jew who can move to Israel under the law of return, the impact of the question Can you go to Tel Aviv? is magnified. I have a lot to learn from these youth, and I look forward to sharing what I discover with you.
Wednesday, July 12, 2007
Yesterday I spent the day in the village of Tel just outside of Nablus planting olive trees. We planted the trees on land that no one has been on in 4 years, since the army declared the land a “closed military zone”. Over a quarter of the village’s land is off-limits to them because of this designation. The villagers used to make their living by farming.
On the other side of the village’s land, a single family has settled there and terrorizes the Palestinians when they have ventured out to their land. Another 3000 dunams (about 800 acres) of Palestinian land and who knows how much income are being lost because of one family. The owner of the land around the settlement has not worked his land since the family got attack dogs who are specially trained to attack Palestinians. When we set out a man we were with assured me that if the settler released the dogs, the dogs wouldn’t attack me, that they are trained to identify Palestinians and attack them. Hardly a relief. Fortunately, there were no dogs.
Tree planting is a powerful form of nonviolent resistance to the occupation. A recent study found that since 1967 over 3 million Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted. By planting the trees a statement of sumoud, steadfastness, is made. Also, the land has now been worked, despite the army’s restrictions, subverting the ability of the Israeli government to deem the land abandoned.
We were hoping that we would be joined by over a dozen of the villagers, but they were too scared to go out with us to plant the trees. It was hard for us to find a tractor to use, because many were fearful that the tractor would be confiscated by the army. All of this land is their land. Yesterday was the first time one of the four Palestinians who planted with us had been on his land in 7 years, since the outbreak of the second intifada and the increasing oppressive restrictions that followed.
On the way home, a trip that should have taken us 20 minutes took two hours, not just because of lines at the two checkpoints that are always there, but due to a “flying checkpoint” (a surprise, temporary checkpoint) that was set up on our route. I was in a shared taxi, and while I was shifting in my seat, impatiently looking out the window at the long line of cars, the others just continued in their conversations and didn’t seem to flinch at the hour we spent waiting to pass the checkpoint (I learn about patience here). When we go to the checkpoint, the 18 year old soldier shoved his M-16 through the window of the car checking the ID cards of everyone (most of whom were old enough to be his parent) except myself and my co-worker. This typical, shameful display of the army’s assumption–guilty until proven innocent– is outrageous, people’s lives and movement being controlled in this way is unreasonable.
Friday, July 06, 2007
July 9th will mark 3 years since the International Court of Justice issued its opinion that the Wall that Israel is building around the West Bank is illegal and should be dismantled. Today I joined a nonviolent demonstration against the Wall coming through the area in the southern West Bank, on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
The demonstration took place in a village called Wadi Aness, beside the Israeli settlement Efrat. The demonstration was originally going to take place in Umsalamuna, but yesterday a Palestinian villager from there was killed when a settler from Efrat ran over him with his car.
Before the demonstration we heard from a villager who told us about raising goats and sheep on the land with his grandfather, where the grandfather would point out to him the plot of land where he could in the future build a home for his family. That land is now the Israeli settlement Efrat. He said “they didn’t just take my land, they stole my dreams”.
The demonstration was fascinating. It was largely internationals and Israelis, with only a dozen Palestinians present. We walked down to the road that has been carved out to build the Wall that separates Wadi Aness from Efrat. A line of 60 soldiers with M-16s and plastic shields were waiting for us. We walked on the road a while, stopped and chanted “Soldiers go home!”, and as we chanted the army came and pushed us, the group pushed back, and then the pushing stopped and we continued down the road. We stepped off the side of the road and picked some grape leaves and almonds, at the Palestinian’s invitation, and continued back to where we came. An army jeep headed toward us, some stood in front of it, and decorated its hood with the grape leaves. They stepped aside eventually, the jeep passed and we walked back and the demonstration was over. It was the first demonstration I have been to here with out the use of tear gas and rubber bullets and without any stone throwing. Apparently this happens each week this way–the pushing, the walking, the jeeps. A choreographed action, everyone’s complaints registered.
Apparently, a few weeks back, the settlers of Efrat staged their own demonstration against the Wall. They oppose it because it will prevent them from expanding their settlement.
I am now in Beit Sahour, a city next to Bethlehem with a proud history of civil, nonviolent resistance to the occupation. In 1987 and for the next four years, Beit Sahour refused to pay their taxes, which are paid to the Israeli government (just this week the Israeli’s paid to the Palestinian Authority half of the tax money they have been holding since Hamas won last year). The Israelis, in retaliation, came into people’s homes and took their furniture, went into stores and took things off the shelves. Powerful stories like Beit Sahour’s are largely forgotten, or ignored, in the long history of Palestinian restistance to the occupation.
Monday, July 02, 2007
I woke up at 5:30 am to spend the morning with a shepherd in the Jordan Valley. The shepherds in this region have been beaten and shot at by soldiers as they take their flocks out to pasture. The issue is that this land, nestled between gorgeous hills, sits aside numerous illegal settlement outposts and the road that cuts through the Palestinian villages of Beit Farouk and Salem, near to Nablus, is a Jewish-only road. As the shepherds take their flocks across their land, they need to cross this road, but they are not allowed to because they are Palestinian.
The road is not the real issue. Though this land is Palestinian land, even according to Israel, Palestinians are often denied access to it, as well. Why? Because according to Israeli law, if the land is left untouched by its owners for three years it is declared abandoned and can be absorbed by Israel. So, by forbidding the shepherds to take their flock on their land for three years, the army can claim the land has not been worked by its owners.
In recent weeks, the army has been shooting at the shepherds to scare them off the land and a few days ago beat them with their guns as they tried to cross the road. So, we were called out to accompany the shepherds as they crossed the road.
Most of the shepherds were too scared after what happened a few days ago to even try to cross the road. One shepherd, an elderly man, wanted to continue on his usual path.
The army arrived a short time after we did and at first they said that it is forbidden for the shepherd to cross the road. After some negotiation, and pointing out that we are internationals and we are watching what they are doing, they permitted the shepherd to cross with his flocks. It is remarkable that an international presence is so effective. This is, of course, an unsustainable way to guarantee the human rights of Palestinians.
The same solider that originally was forcibly forbidding the old man to cross, cooed at the sheep as they crossed. It was a memorable, confusing thing– an 18 year old boy, carrying an M-16, petting a sheep.
I went with the shepherd across the road and sat with him for a while just in case the army would return and cause problems. I couldn’t speak to the shepherd, but we smiled at each other and at the sheep and goats. As I sat there I thought of the word for shepherd in Hebrew, ro’eh. This words shares it root with the word reia, which means neighbor, like in the commandment in the Torah: Veahavta l’reicha kamocha – You shall love your neighbor as yourself.