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Report 1: The Visible and Invisible--Settlements and Refugee Camps May 26-28

Interfaith Peace-Builders

Tuesday, May 26: Jerusalem

Immediate Impressions

We arrived in Tel Aviv in the afternoon and cleared customs easily. Officials at the airport were fairly friendly and the main concern was Swine Flu (whoops, in Israel, known as the “Mexican Flu”).

The first thing that I noticed when we left Ben-Gurion airport, a bit east of Tel Aviv, and started the trip up to Jerusalem, is how small the country is. The bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem takes about the same amount of time to get from Taunton, Massachusetts, to Boston. As we went up route 6, the Palestinian driver pointed out countless Arab towns that had been swallowed into a suburban Israeli sprawl that resembles the East Bay a bit. Everywhere there are hilltop developments, somewhat like the ugly boxes that made Levittown what it is. You occasionally see remnants of old Palestinian towns if you look, and they are very clearly different, simpler architecture – now relegated to empty hollows on the lower parts of the now-settled hilltops, cut off from traffic and rotting until they are bulldozed and new Israeli housing is constructed.

We continued to East Jerusalem to check into our hotel, the Azzahra. The accommodations are pretty spartan. No AC, showers barely work, plumbing so narrow that you have to throw your toilet paper away separately. Jerusalem, even the Arab district, is regulated by Israel; Palestinians from the West Bank can enter only if they have special permits. There are separate bus systems to Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods, separate license plates, even rolling checkpoints at street corners. It very obviously reflects the traces of an occupation.

As the bus entered East Jerusalem (the Arab side of the city), we passed a home that had been taken by armed Israeli settlers and which had an armed lookout post on its roof. This is something out of the Wild West. I haven’t figured out which analogy is most apt – that of apartheid, or that of the way we treated Indians in the 18th – 20th centuries. Either way, it doesn’t belong in the 21st century.

At 9 p.m. I went to bed and fell asleep instantly. In ten minutes I awoke to the muezzin’s call to prayer. It went on for 2-3 minutes and then stopped. It’s probably no worse than living near a fire station, but it is a reminder that when (and if) Palestinians ever have their own state it will probably have an Islamic character.

As for me -- I’ve been wondering if religious states of ANY kind are a good thing.

--David Ehrens

Wednesday, May 27: Jerusalem and Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Settlements—A Stark Visibility

One purpose of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD, http://www.icahd.org/eng/) is to show a bird’s eye view of the planning, construction, and enforcement of the occupation. Israel controls the land, electricity, water, and movement of the people of Palestine. Israelis are trained from a very early age to not see Palestinians. Most Palestinian neighborhoods are non-existent to Israelis.

Ma’ale Adumin, an Israeli settlement adjacent to East Jerusalem, is part of a Ring Plan to surround areas of Palestinian territory with Israeli settlements. Yahav, our ICAHD guide, stated that the residents of Ma’ale Adumin tend to be non-political, even though the construction of this settlement is political. Israeli and American politicians use “double speak” on objecting to expansionist policies yet continue to fund demolitions and settlements. Where is the accountability?

-Karen Clarke

Yahav gave us a glimpse into how home demolitions work. Displaying a number of maps (http://www.palmap.org/palmap/) he discussed how developments like Ma’ale Adumim are used to slice into Palestinian land in the Occupied Territories. Although the theft of Palestinian land is bad enough, the way in which it is executed is pure evil.

One frequent tactic is to zone Palestinian land for “green” or military use--and Palestinians almost never win zoning appeals. After 3 years of disuse, the land is declared “abandoned” and becomes state-owned. Thereafter, the state demolishes homes and reclaims the land for Jewish-only developments.

Because Palestinian family units are multi-generational, homes expand with every new generation. The gotcha is that Palestinians rarely obtain building permits for a new floor or wing, so out of desperation they build anyway. The state declares the house “illegal,” fines the owner the assessed value of the house, plus demolition costs, and bulldozes the home.

--David Ehrens

"We are trained not to see Palestinians because seeing them would complicate our existence. They are non-people off our mental maps, completely. In fact, they are invisible to us." A quote from Yahav on his mindset toward Palestinians before his political epiphany.

"Prisoners can control 95% of a prison, however large or small, but if the guards control the hallways and doors it is an occupation." Jeff Halper of ICAHD describing the Israeli "Matrix of Control."

-Cathy Sultan

Lunchtime--Seeing Each Other

I had a nice lunch in a falafel restaurant with our tour guide, a cultured Palestinian who seems to know everyone in Jerusalem. While we were eating near the Damascus Gate, we saw a single settler being accompanied by two armed guards through the crowds on the corner. I was having a nice lunch and a good conversation with an Arab who knows I am a “Yehud,” a Jew. The Palestinians really don’t have a problem with Jews. It’s the Occupation they are fighting.

--David Ehrens

The Invisibility of Refugees and the Legacy of 1948

I've always wondered about those Palestinians who left their homes in 1948--never to return. Last night I met one of those people at a refugee camp, a man who was 21 at the time. Now 84, he longs to rekindle the friendships he had at that time with his Jewish friends.

I also met the grandson of a woman who still has the key to her old home. The grandson says that once she was allowed to visit. The house was gone, demolished and covered with underbrush, but she knew the exact spot where their well was. The keys to the old homes are a strong symbol for these folks, a symbol of suffering and sorrow, but also of hope--hope that they will return one day. They are full of pride in being Palestinian.

--Shirley Meckely

Tonight we met with Suheir Owdah, a Palestinian Muslim woman who grew up in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. The camp holds around 12,000 refugees in one square kilometer and is located outside of the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Suheir shared heart-wrenching stories about her youth in the camp environment, in which she struggled to come to terms with Palestinian persecution at the hands of Israelis.

Suheir was born in the camp, and told a story of when she was ten years old. The UN helped her family move from the tents where they had been housed after the 1948 war, into their first real two-room home. Unfortunately, these houses did not have bathrooms. There was one communal bathroom for each section of the large camp. For many years, refugees would often have to wait over an hour each morning for their turn. It was not necessarily the wait that was most disturbing, nor was it the lack of sanitation – rather, it was the lack of privacy. Trying to go to the bathroom in an eastern toilet with no doors became a humiliating exercise. Women would repeatedly intrude and enter the facilities, rushing them while they were trying to take care of private business.

Suheir recalled her own experience of the conditions, crying for her mother and father, and avoiding using the bathroom whenever possible, until she could no longer take it. When it became too much, she and her sisters chose to find privacy in the forest of the neighboring hilltop. Using the bathroom may seem like a simple, unimportant act, but looking into her face, I could see it was anything but. That a grown woman could be brought to tears reliving such experiences from her youth in the Dheisheh refugee camp illustrated for me the depth of the trauma endured and still being endured by Palestinian refugees.

-Colleen Toomey

We arrived before dinner at the Dheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem in the West Bank, where we stayed overnight at a hostel and toured the camp. The camp itself is like a poor neighborhood in Mexico, with unsafe electrical systems, sewage problems, and no trash removal—especially shocking since this, as part of the West Bank, it is territory administered by Israel, which should be maintaining some minimal level of care over this subjugated population.

The speakers were very impassioned, and also very helpful in understanding the prospects for a two-state solution. They regarded the prospects to basically be zero at this point thanks not only to Hamas, but also to Israel, which has virtually cut the West Bank in half with the massive settlement Ma'ale Adumim.

In Dheisheh it was a very moving experience to have the cutest little kids say "hello" in English, smile at us, and follow us around despite the IDF patrols that run through this dismal 1 kilometer square ghetto. I heard a 43 year old mother tell us what she told her son after the IDF killed his best friend in 2002 when the 13 year old threw a rock at them. I heard that 30-60 percent of all Palestinians have been in prison or detained -- not because they are necessarily terrorists, but because the area is under martial law and Israel has the “right” to put people in detention for 6 months at a time without trial, or haul them away for 18 days for simple questioning. No search warrants are needed. This has apparently been a great success in making people hate Israelis and teaching them Hebrew.

--David Ehrens

Thursday, May 28, 2009: Bethlehem

“God is not a real estate agent”

Our first meeting today was with Zoughbi Zoughbi, who runs the Wi’am Center (http://www.alaslah.org/) in Bethlehem, a beautiful Arab city. Zougbi is a city counselor and the director of the center, which provides family services to children and women, as well as mediation and conflict resolution based on a pre-Islamic Arab form of mediation called sulha, which involves concluding the agreement with a cup of coffee.

In Zoughbi’s view, the occupation has been devastating to families, particularly women. He supports Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and said that Abbas is doing a generally good job of keeping peace talks going and that the relationship with the US and Europe has been beneficial, although he laments the one-sided relationship with Israel. It occurred to me that the US was truly wasting an opportunity to befriend the Arab world. We asked him if the two-state solution was dead, and he suggested that it was.

We asked about Hamas and he asked us in return if we’d like to talk to a friend of his with Hamas leanings. Zoughbi’s friend Saleh turned up about half an hour later and answered our questions. From the banter between Zoughbi and Saleh, it resembled the joking and arguing between, say, a Republican and a Green Party member.

Saleh admitted Hamas was militant, but he would not characterize them as violent. “Sometimes you need to wage war to have peace,” he said, sounding amazingly like Israel. “How can I talk to someone who holds a gun to me and still talks peace,” Saleh said of Israel.

I asked him if Hamas could ever support a two-state solution (which it has suggested it could by supporting the Saudi Proposal), and I didn’t get much of an answer. He suggested that the world should first ask Israel to stop the occupation. When pressed repeatedly, Saleh said that he thought there was a remote possibility if Israel were to return to the 1967 borders, but said that Israel never would. He treated us like na├»ve fools for even thinking it was a possibility. He could be right. The settlements we saw yesterday and today seem to be designed precisely to derail any possibility of two states and, thus, any hope of peace.

In the afternoon we drove down the street to Badil, the Palestinian Center for Residency and Refugee Rights (http://www.badil.org/). We met with the communications officer, Hazem Jamjoum, who discussed the mechanics of how the occupation strips Palestinians of their land and the history of the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1947-1949, resulting in 750,000 refugees who could never return to Palestine. Before Israeli independence, Jamjoum maintains, the Haganah and paramilitary groups Stern and Irgun ruthlessly targeted and terrorized Palestinians in 535 villages through a plan called “Plan Dalet” and has subsequently practiced ethnic cleansing through more bureaucratic methods, involving Jewish National Fund land trusts, zoning regulations, and the use of Military Order 125, permitting the state to annex land for military use

--David Ehrens

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