Saturday, April 18, 2009

Loving What You Don't Understand

I found out today I will be leaving Zababdeh. It didn’t come as a surprise so much as a relief that when I was called to meet with the Bishop, the Chaplain, and my boss that the topic up for discussion was something so painless, rather than another one of those awfully uncomfortable and upsetting bare-all conversations where everyone feels like crap at the end. No, this went rather smoothly, in that way where they try to pretend you are making your own decision by leading you to what they want you to do without just coming out and saying it. They told me to take some time and think it over, but I know that this is what is expected of me, so I will do it and I will not complain. As much as I am loathe to leave Zababdeh, and as much as I will miss my friends (not to mention seeing something besides concrete, which is about all there is in Jerusalem), I believe I will enjoy the change.

After returning from Jerusalem I walked with my friend down the street to play ball with some of the kids at the Latin Church and then grab some coffee. On the way home I mentioned the intended move, and then stepped off to my house. I sat on the wall of the front porch for a while watching the sun go down. It was one of those clear dusks that mushy watercolour painters love, where the sky fades shade by shade from blue to pink to that washed out yellowy orange as the sun slips behind the last hilltop in the distance. I looked at the olive trees, the hills, the minaret pointing skyward over the village. The evening call to prayer from the mosques broke the pseudo-silence of barking dogs and playing children, and I listened to the two singers battle it out for aural dominion of the spring evening.

For whatever reasons, I have grown to love this place. Sure I have my troubles here, but nothing that isn’t manageable. On the whole, it’s beautiful, interesting (even if perhaps only for its novelty), and I have friends here that I have grown to love. I don’t understand this place, and I’m frequently lost and confused, but I love it. I don’t know how that works, but that’s how it is.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ancient and Modern Ruins

Sebastiya is a village of about 2900 people near Nablus in the West Bank. The village sits at the bottom of the mountain where the ruins of the ancient city of Samaria keep watch over the valley. I accompanied the visiting Dutch group on their excursion to Samaria-Sebaste on their second day visiting us in Zababdeh. The weather was pretty decent and we were all in pretty good spirits. When we reached Samaria-Sebaste the first thing we saw was the ruins of the Herodian palace, which the centuries had reduced to a grassy rectangled ringed with Roman columns in various stages of decay. A few of the decorative heads of the columns were sprinkled about in the middle. And of course the ever-present graffiti which decorated (?) the stones.

We wandered through the ancient city, whose ruins now are comprised of 10,000 years and six cultures (the Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine). The ampitheatre had a spectacular view of the valley, until of course you climb the hill to the watchtower and ancient marketplace which command a view of the entire area. Being the sort who has to get the best possible vantage point, I clamored up another hill and found a perfect and unobstructed 360 degree view. I turned and looked to the olive trees dotting the distant hillsides, the remains of 10,000 years of history the foreground to the village far below. Turn a little further though and the countryside is broken by barbed wire and watchtowers squatting on the crest of the hill below. The row of settlement houses, each exactly the same as the one beside it with their pointed red rooves and the chimneys wheezing smoke and steam into the noonday looked odd and out of place in the context of the surrounding villages and land. But the military trucks going to and from the settlement gates under the watchful eyes of the concrete towers was a vaguely threatening reminder that the settlement looks out of place because it is out of place. All the concrete and barbed wire of a military outpost set in the heart of an agrarian community - the ruins of Samaria-Sebaste's ancient watchtowers looking down on the ruins of our modern peace process.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Just Another Checkpoint

I’ve been in the West Bank about two months now, so I’ve been through a couple checkpoints. I always have a vague sense of unease similar to going through security at the airport. It’s nothing particular and I have nothing to hide, it’s just the dread of being hassled by people with guns and authority that makes me feel skittish. Nobody likes to be interrogated. Thankfully, my experience with checkpoints up until now has been pretty painless. For whatever reason I tend to just be waved through, though I think my nationality has something to do with it. The other day however was a taste-by-proxy of what other people go through.

Around 11 am I hopped in a taxi with Fadi and headed to one of the checkpoints from the West Bank into Israel to meet a Dutch group who were coming to visit the Holy Land. We arrived at the checkpoint to meet them on our side sometime around 11:30 and parked the car. We saw them enter the building on the other side of the border and settled down for the wait. I strolled around the, trying inconspicuously to take photos, keeping an eye on the person I could see in the watchtower about 100 meters away from me. Knowing the person in there could see me and was almost certainly had some kind of huge automatic weapon within arm’s length gave me pause about taking photos, but I went ahead and snapped a few before hiding the camera back in the car.

However, after about half an hour the Dutch group had not emerged. At this point Fadi decided to go in and see if he could move the process along, so I waited sitting on the hood of the taxi with the driver. The minutes ticked along, and I sat under the ever-watchful eyes of the soldiers. A man under an awning to my left spread a rug and made his midday prayers. A group of young men sat and chattered, eating seeds and waiting. A UN truck pulled up and sat at the rolling gate behind me to enter Israel. Still I sat. The men near me came over and said hello to the driver. Still I sat. One of their friends pulled their car around and turned on the radio and the men began to do a traditional Arabic dance, arms around each others shoulders. I smiled as I watched these people laughing and dancing despite the barbed wire and the soldiers with machine guns.

Eventually (finally) Fadi emerged with our group, who looked relieved but perhaps a little bewildered. In total their passing took just over an hour. The UN truck was still waiting at the gate when we left.

At the end of the day my lasting memory was of the men dancing at the checkpoint. It reminded me of a vignette by Eduard Galleano, which I think sums it up better than I can:

“On a wall in a Madrid eatery hangs a sign that says: No singing.
On a wall in the airport of Rio de Janeiro hangs a sign that says: No Playing with Luggage Carts.

Ergo: There are still people who sing, there are still people who play.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Planning Fail

It is really difficult to plan for anything here in Palestine. This is for a variety of reasons, among the least serious being what my friend Elias refers to as "Middle Eastern Time." As in, "The meeting is at 3 o'clock," which actually means, "We'll show up at 3:30...ish..." That's an easy enough adjustment. Just plan to be late! There are of course the actual difficulties however. These include travel between cities, checkpoints, military or police interference, and of course, the universal irritation of car trouble. These planning problems have manifested themselves in my host family being stuck in Jordan five days longer than they should have, which means I am still mooching off the new priest's family. Not that it isn't nice to sleep in a bed which is long enough for my legs (because it is awesome), but of course because I don't like to impose on people. So, my "three or four day stay" has now stretched over a week, and I must admit an ensuing curiosity about where I'm headed next. Since planning is as I've stated, I will not concern myself too much with the housing situation. I have been assured it will be taken care of (finally), and I will leave it at that. As they say here, inshalla: God willing.

So, turning from the apparently unknowable tomorrow to the already-experienced yesterday... I have had quite the fortnight! Last week I was in Bethlehem, which was a wonderful experience. I went with my friend to her work at an organization which provides homes and day care for children with special needs or disabilities. She is an occupational therapist, and her cousin who worked there was a physical therapist, so I had a three day crash course in working with the disabled. While there I spent a good portion of the time also helping the teachers write up their reports in English to the board of the organization. The other few days in Bethlehem were spent touring the old city and its sites (with one sick day taken after nearly fainting in the Church of the Nativity), as well as meeting some friends at restaurants around town. I also got a chance to photograph some of the settlement roads and the apartheid wall, and was thrilled to see several of Banksy's pieces painted around the city. All in all it was a great week. Some of the photos are on facebook, I'll get around to making a link or a Flickr account later...

The week since then has been a weird whirlwind of attempted planning, failed planning, and some pretty sizable successes. As I mentioned I am staying with George and his family, which was unforseen, though this has turned out to be a good thing. The relative calm of living here for the week has allowed me a much better focus for preparing for my English sessions. I am now teaching four sessions a week, with a possible fifth to come, which means I need a pretty good chunk of time per day at a computer writing up lesson plans. Most of today was spent creating a handout on Simple and Progressive verb tenses (I know, aren't you jealous?), and writing up syllabi for the Clinic group and the Women's group sessions. I also have a session with the youth (shabeebee) on Fridays which will take some work as well. The three groups are at fairly disparate levels, so each requires its own take and special planning. I have to admit that I'm surprised that I am doing this (I'm a teacher? What!?), and even more surprised that apparently I am doing it well. It's a lot of fun though, so I guess I'm a pretty lucky girl. Not many people get to live somewhere like this, work all day on something you enjoy, and follow it up with tea on the porch at a good friend's house while the sun sets over the hills. I think after several rough weeks I've finally found my stride.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Incommunicado, Language Barriers, and Never Present Social Cues

Well, here I go. It's been a long while, I know. Rest assured that all is fine (relatively speaking). There have been some definite rough patches in the last month since I have written, and I'm not perfect but I read Orientialism too, you know. Which is to say that I know better than to allow my bad mood from personal situations affect what I have to say about my time here, the people, the place. So I took an accidental hiatus. Of course after that it seemed that so much had happened that I didn't know where to start. I suppose I will start from the beginning.

My living situation has been very difficult for me, for various reasons, most of which I will not discuss here. Suffice it to say that part of the problem is the culture and my experience of it as a foreigner. Despite what Edward Said speaks of as "penetrating into a culture" and "experiencing it" positivisticly, there is a marked difference between the world of Nerval, Flaubert or Lane (the likes of whom he was writing) travelling through the Middle East in the 19th century as men, and the world in which we live in (and I specifically) today. I have to say that I feel that even if I were to live here for ten years, I would always be treated as an outsider and as different. I can't leave the house without lewd comments being made about me or without being hassled by men who think that because I look like the girls on 90210 that I must act like them as well. Even the Israeli soldiers give me creepy looks when I pass through checkpoints. On the whole I am not bothered by it any more, though how I am told to respond to it does bother me immensely.

Anyway I must run now, but more will come later today, I promise.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Since it's been a while I realize since I last wrote, I thought I would pop in and let you all know that I'm still alive, and doing fine.

Not much of note has taken place. I led another English section, which seemed to go well. I then wandered the town with Jamil and Jamil, and we ate some falafel and just chatted about this and that. I didn't manage to make it Jerusalem this weekend, but I'm hoping to go next week and spend a couple days in Bethlehem. I want to photograph the wall, as well as get some time in in other places around the West Bank. I also could use a little mini vacation, so to speak, where I can get some time to myself, buy some new books, and explore a little. Sometimes I'm kind of a loner, and I look forward to little adventures on my own.

I went to Ramallah yesterday, where I saw St. Andrew's, the Evangelical School, and the Vocational Training Centre. I met a couple people, took some photos, and generally enjoyed myself. That is, enjoyed my time not in the car. I have decided based on a personally-created ranking system involving New York, Seattle, London, Paris, and Las Vegas, that taxi drivers here are the most terrifying I have ever encountered. So despite having woken at 5:30 am for the trip to Ramallah and being utterly exhausted by the time I came home in the afternoon, there was no napping done in the car. Just sitting upright, bracing for the high-speed turns and general terror of passing trucks on a winding highway at 70 miles per hour. Ah, the joys of highways with no cops. I laughed because the driver asked when we came near a checkpoint with many police that everyone put on their seatbelts. Everybody did. Fadi turned around and asked if I put mine on. I laughed and said, "Are you kidding?? It's been on since we started moving!" I think the joke is lost on most people here, since everyone drives (by my standards at least) like a maniac all the time, and probably no person from anywhere else (Seattle, for instance) would dream of getting in a car here without a seat-belt. I personally wouldn't mind a helmet too, but that would just look silly.

Monday, February 16, 2009


It has come as a surprise which things here in Palestine have been adjustments and difficulties. I was warned about things like having variable electricity, little or no heat, having to handwash clothing, and things of that nature. I presumed that people walked more often than drove, went without eating meat or any kinds of fruits and vegetables which were not readily grown in the area, were accustomed to making do with little or no energy to heat their homes and do their housework. These things may be true (and I know for a fact are) in many places, but I must admit that I'm living fairly comfortably in the home in which I am staying. Though there are some minor inconveniences - only showering in the evening when there is hot water, using powdered milk instead of the real deal (learning to cook with it has been a task all its own), drinking bottled water rather than from the tap "just in case," not being able to put your clothes in the dryer leaving one with stiff socks and undershirts (don't judge, I said these were minor inconveniences!) - on the whole I have quite a good standard of living. I mean, in Australia we didn't heat our houses or use the dryer either, and I'd venture that a large portion of the Western world doesn't either (the UK and France, for example, or Japan).

No, on the other hand, the adjustments have been much harsher because they came from unexpected directions. Getting used to the extremely extroverted and familial social structure has been a little trying on someone stuck in her Western and "individualist" ways. Whereas normally I would hole up for several hours a day and just read or lie down and think, now I am constantly aware that I am part of a family which is not my own. I am reminded that my hostess is to be thought of as my friend or as a sister, for example. Here we have a crossing of cultural social queues. I am told, "You are a part of the family." This was spellt out to me as meaning that I should "just be myself," to eat or drink what I want when I want, to change the channel on the tele, to play the piano when I feel like it, to take a stroll around the yard in the sun. However, as being part of the family, I feel that I should step in and try to help with the dishes or the housework. I'm immediately stopped though with a gentle "No darling, I don't need any help. Go rest." There's a tightrope feeling of being part of the family and of being a guest - I'm a family member in comfort but apparently not to be bothered by housework, which is an awkward line. Maybe it's my white female guilt. I'm also still trying to learn how to politely refuse seconds and thirds at meals without seeming like I don't like the food. My Arabic isn't good enough to say "If I eat four pitas and three chickens daily I will certainly gain 50 pounds and then die of cardiac arrest." On that note, explaining vegetarianism to Middle Eastern people has proved interesting. It's definitely a very Western phenomenon which does not translate well into the way of living here. Following on the previous comment, I haven't learnt how to say "corporate agribusiness" in Arabic. That one may be a while in coming.

Sometimes I feel frustrated that I can't learn the language faster. When I go walk through town to get a Coke or a snack from the store down the street, I always feel weirdly vulnerabe by my highly visible status as a foreigner, and by the fact that when I pass a shop and the guy in the doorway calls his friends inside to come see, I don't really know what they say as I pass by. And though most people smile and respond "marhabten" when I say hello in Arabic (probably pleasantly surprised that I speak at least a little Arabic), there's that awkward feeling that single women feel in American cities as they pass a crowd of young men who all stop to watch as she walks by. Ruba said that when she first came to Zababdeh she had a similar experience, and as the villagers get to know you it will pass. I know this is true so I try to just smile and walk through the bustle of young boys on bicycles to get home and listen to Arthur Rubenstein's performance of Chopin's Nocturne 19 in E Minor. It sometimes takes a forcible act of calming to remind myself that it will take some time before I adjust, and to relax enough to realize that this is all just the beginning of a larger journey in which I will find comfort and purpose. I'll learn the language, I'll figure out the social queues, and I'll be happy with it.

A big part of the adjustment is just the realization that, well, to quote Dorothy, "We're not in Kansas anymore." Last night I strolled down towards the village to get a snack and walk off dinner. I looped up into the more residential neighborhood of the village in hopes to avoid more curious eyes. This of course only served to arouse the interest of shopkeepers and drivers, who continued to honk the same as people on the main street. I wandered through the town, always vaguely heading Northwest with the aim of ending up back on the main street. I finally looped around and came out right beneath the Mosque. Immediately as I passed beneath the tower the nighttime call to prayer began. As I walked up the street with my bag of Pringles and the prayers ringing out above me, I realized, "I am living in the Middle East..." It was an odd moment of clarity and confusion, or as Ruba said (and I have occasionally thought) : "one of those times when you think, what am I doing here??"

And as they say, this too shall pass.

Until next time, good night and good luck.

A Correction

I was reminded that it's important to point out that not all "us" Americans/Westerners are ignorant and lazy as I may perhaps have indicated in my previous post. ;) This of course is true. So, for those who are working hard to educate other people about the real situation over here and who are doing their best every day in every way they can to help the Palestinian people (and other peoples around the world), I salute you. A particular thanks to those who have helped me in my effort to learn as much as I can and to act accordingly, your efforts are appreciated and will not go to waste.

That said, I had a pretty average Valentine's Day. I got a card from my mum and an e-Card from my Aunt. It was also Philippe's birthday, so there were lots of sweets to be eaten. A girlfriend of mine bought a phone card and rang me up last night, so that lifted my spirits a little. I have to say I generally feel exhausted here. Some of the days just feel like they go on forever, which is probably for a multitude of reasons, among those being the general confusion I feel in social situations (which are myriad and endless here), as well as the general discomfort I feel about going out and walking around. As much as I would like the time to myself to take a stroll and clear my head, I get the general impression here that women do not go out by themselves. It seems I'm supposed to be at home with a couple of children. Perish the thought. In any case walking around by myself even in broad daylight generally entails being followed by groups of teenagers on bicycles, getting honked at by nearly every driver who passes me, and generally getting stared at like some kind of extinct animal which found its way back to Earth. I'm hoping this will pass.

The F16s took a break for a few days, but today they are back with a vengeance. It's really distracting. I'm just glad they tend to keep the fly-bys to the daylight hours. I don't think I could handle having to hear it all night too.

I other news I'm not having a lot of luck getting any feedback from anyone on this Womens Exchange. Father Bob tells me communication here tends to be very "vertical, but never horizontal." As in, you get told only the bare minimum of what you need to know, and usually at the last second. I must admit that in the last two weeks I have found this to be fairly true. Pending hearing back from anyone about the Exchange however I'm starting to brainstorm the program for the 12 day event, scheduled for October. I'm also starting to think up "lesson" ideas for the English courses I'm supposed to lead. I think I'm going to go more in the conversation session direction, a la the French Table at the now defunct Fantasia Cafe. My plan is to just sit and chat with the guys and correct and explain some of the English grammar constructs as we go. If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Until next time. Good bye and Good Luck. :)

Friday, February 13, 2009

News, International Media, and a 180 Degree Perspective

I've become hooked on Al Jazeera International. Broadcast largely by UK newscasters with interviews and on-site reporting taking place all over the world, shows ranging from NewsHour to Music of Resistance to People & Power, it's hard not to enjoy it.

However the thing I find most interesting is trying to explain to people I meet here why it is so different from news broadcast in the United States. Trying to explain Fox News to a Middle Easterner is actually rather difficult. It's not because they aren't intelligent or can't understand (obviously), it is trying to explain the fact that Americans are completely ignorant of most of the news being broadcast on channels like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Abu Dhabi News, etc. That it's very likely that hardly anyone in the US heard about the Zimbabwean elections the other day, or knows the difference between Likud and Yisrael Beitanu or so on seems unlikely at best. How could a nation full of educated people whose media and culture has infiltrated the entire planet not hear about what is happening in the daily lives of people in other parts of the world?

Good question.

It becomes a precarious balance - explaining what you see every day in all its racist ignorance and governmental/corporate power-grabbing evil, and trying not to demonize the people from your country who just don't know any better. It's really hard to make excuses for us, because there aren't any good excuses. There are no good reasons. So then what do you say? We're just lazy and don't want to look for alternative news sources? We trust our government? We're more concernced with our own goings-on to worry about what happens to other people? We believe what we're told because our Good Ol' Boys wouldn't lie to us? That we don't care what happens to you other people because you are the Other, that you have different ideals, that you don't believe in our God, that you hate our freedom, that you hate democracy?

Like I said, there are no good excuses. We need to stop pardoning ourselves and ask someone else to do it, and even if they don't, then we need to change. Pretending to absolute moral authority will only serve to isolate us more from the rest of the world, and it certainly will not further causes of justice, freedom, or democracy, no matter what the pundits tell us.

Al Jazeera English

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Just Over a Week

So I have been in Israel/Palestine for 10 days now, and in Zababdeh a week as of tomorrow. I feel like I've been away from home much longer.

I thought I was getting used to hearing the fighter jets flying overhead. Yesterday they flew by constantly, and very low. It honestly really frightens me, it's deafeningly loud. I remember reading that the IDF used to fly over the Occupied Territories and purposefully break the sound barrier. Whenever it sounds like the jets are really low and I have to plug my ears, I cross my fingers mentally and hold my breath for second. Even though everyone seems not to even notice the jets, and to reassure me that we're safe, the part of me that doesn't like feeling like I'm constantly being forced to listen to a Blue Angels show feels skittish. Because they aren't the Blue Angels, they're not out flying around in formation doing cool tricks and showing off their formation expertise. They're war planes with soldiers in them.

On a lighter but much more irritating note, I keep getting bitten by bugs. I don't feel it happen but I find sore little red spots where the evil little things got me while I was sleeping. There's one on my ear which is driving me absolutely nuts.

And speaking of sleeping... I do too much of it. I don't get up particularly early (7 or 8 am the last few days) but by 4 pm I'm dead to the world. I walk around being the visitor, meeting and greeting and doing my best to follow conversations with my slowly improving Arabic. By 8 pm I'm so tired I don't even want dinner. I have slept through my mother's phone calls twice. I feel awful about it, and when I wake up I feel angry that I missed the chance to talk to her. It's bad enough being in another country with no friends or family without not being able to even stay awake late enough to get a phone call from your mum.

In any case I've been typing up articles for Fadi's brother to upload onto the St. Matt's website, and reading a lot. I'm trying to keep my brain from turning to mush like my abs are probably going to. The other project for today and tomorrow is figuring out what Fadi meant when he said I would be teaching an English course on Sunday. Does that require a lesson plan? It sounds pretty formal. Maybe I'm just chatting with the kids and helping them with their grammar. Like I said, I'll need to figure that out before Sunday happens. I also need a cup of coffee.

In any case I'm off to meet a friend of the Diab family for some coffee (huzzah!) and to have a little English/Arabic language mixer. Until next time.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Initial Obersvations

Something I noticed nearly immediately upon arriving in Jerusalem is the feeling that I am like a tourist attraction. Being well over a head taller than nearly every man I've met, and a good six inches taller than most of them women (not to mentioned redheaded) I stand out a wee bit here. As I walk around Zababdeh I notice the people sitting in their shops chatting often turn as a group to watch me as I go by. I'm a bit of an anomaly, and I imagine that they wonder what I'm doing here. In fact, often when I go into shops people ask "Where do you live?" I say, "Here, but I am from Seattle in the United States." That response is usually followed up nearly immediately by the question, "What are you doing here?" Though it sounds mildly suspicious I presume that the question is one of general interest which sounds odd due to the language barrier. I laugh about it.

I also can't help feeling like a celebrity, because people in the town whom I have only met once are eager to have me over for dinner or to stay at their homes. It's truly amazing how hospitable the people are here, and I feel very impressed by how eager they are to offer whatever they have. Considering that some of the people here are probably stretched rather thin anyway it becomes quite an invitation.

On another note, sometimes the toilet just doesn't flush. I'm not sure if it's because the water has been diverted somewhere else or what. The first time I think Ruba was giving Andrew a bath, but last night and once this morning there was no water and I was the only one awake, so I don't know why it didn't work.

Hot water is not available at all times. Because of the energy required the dishes and showers are all done at night, after Ruba or Fadi turn on the boiler. After about an hour it has heated enough for showers etc.

The houses here are all stone and tile, so even if it warms up a little outside and turns into a mild day, the house is still chilly. Everyone uses propane heaters indoors, though Fadi and Ruba have two electric heaters, one in the bathroom and the other they put in my room. As far as I can tell they are also one of the very few families around who have a drying machine for their laundry. Most people hang their clothes to dry in the yard or, in the cities, from the windows of the balcony or hallways.

Greater Palestine/Israel are in the midst of a drought which threatens the olive harvst in the fall. F. Bob informed me that there have only been about 7 days since mid September in which any rain fell at all. And unlike Seattle, he doesn't mean it rained all day, only that it rained for a few minutes and then dried back up again. The water catchment barrels on the roof of every home and building are a testament to the dry climate here.

It did however rain today. We also had sunshine, hail, and strong winds. The power blinked several times, though now that we are having a thunderstorm the lights flickered and went out. My dad's advice to bring my Maglite was good. Ruba was already prepared with a large floorlamp which runs on batteries or perhaps another propane canister. The fact that the back-up lamp remains in the hallway at all times indicates to me that it is probably used with some amount of frequency. In any case I'm glad I heated up my room before the power went out, and that I have a laptop with a well-charged battery.

sunday afternoon we had a bbq here at the house with the youth from St. Matthew's. During the course of the day I counted 17 F16 fighter jets fly overhead in twos or threes. It's not a sound I'm quite used to yet, but I'm getting there. Though Fida' and Fadi said that it was nothing and that they fly by all the time, to me it almost seems like a not-so-subtle reminder from the Israelis of their occupation of the land here.

Similarly, a building or neighborhood looking "bombed-out" is not just a slang phrase here. It has literal meaning from real-world experience. The old police station in the town down the road for example is bombed-out, literally.

Finally, Fadi and I were talking about dreams this morning, and it came up that he has one recurring dream which has always frightened him. In the dream he is being chased by soldiers and there is gunfire etc. It turns out that this dream is the result of an actual experience about 20 years ago in which some Israeli soldiers came to the village, rounded up some of the young men and made them clear all the stones from the street. After that they marched them up into the hills, where the men were afraid they were to be killed. They eventually were released back to the town, but it seems that the memory will haunt Fadi and probably the other men present that day for many more years to come.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The "Ambush" : Arrival in the West Bank

There's a lot to be said about the last two days, which really seem like a blur. This whole week seems like it has taken a month, and even things that happened a few days ago seem far away in the past. The day before yesterday (which someone tells me was Thursday) I had a chat with my mum, talked to Ted on skype, and then milled around studying Arabic in a futile effort not to sound like a tourist/ one year old. After that Father Bob and I embarked on our mission to the Old City. We entered through the Damascus Gate again, though this time hung a right and took some back streets up towards the Christian quarter. The shop F. Bob wanted to stop by was closed, so we continued on our way past the Mosque of Omar to the square in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When we arrived the midday prayer call was being played from the mosque behind us, and the noon bells from the church were also ringing, so it was a really cool experience. I have to admit that I really love the sound of the prayer calls from the mosques, I think they're very pretty and, well foreign I guess (for lack of a better word). Perhaps after I've been here another few weeks and get used to hearing them more often I won't be so in awe every time they emanate from the temple towers.

In any case the Church of the Holy Sepulcrhe was really amazing, serving only to strengthen what I'm sure will be a lifetime fascination with cathedrals of all kinds. It's an odd mix of various styles and eras of architecture, since it has been destroyed and rebuilt using its own rubble several times over since it was first erected in 325 AD. I saw all the "site," the Stone of Golgotha, the tomb of Christ in the edicule, as well as the Armenian chapels and Roman Catholic chapels which are also housed inside the larger Greek Orthodox building. The Ethiopian church is on the roof, but we did not go there. After the Church we walked through the Christian and part of the Armenian quarter to the Jewish Quarter, which is an odd looking place contrasted to the rest of the city. All the buildings here were built after 1967, so the architecture doesn't "match" the rest of the city. As we left the Jewish quarter we went through a security gate and entered the courtyard in front of the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall). I also got about as close to the Dome of the Rock as my unbeliever-self was going to get. It's a shame it's closed now, because I'm told it's really stunning.

In any case, all this was followed by lunch at a rooftop cafe which had a great view of the Old City, as well as the Mount of Olives, the Judean Desert, and the Jordan Mountains. When we swung back by the shop it was open this time, and I bought a kefiyah and a little camel thingy (hard to explain what it is exactly but it's very colourful and cute). This was followed up by a nap back at my room and some dinner at the (oddly named) Christmas Hotel down the street.

The next morning I was ambushed however by a phone call informing me that I would be leaving Jerusalem for the West Bank in one hour (not on Sunday, as had been previously planned). I ran to the ATM and got out some shekels, the bookstore for another book to read (it was the only place on the street open becaues it was a Muslim neighborhood and everything closes on Friday for their Day of Prayer), and then hastily packed for the short journey north. Hossam from St. George's took me to Ramallah to meet Fadi. We passed through a checkpoint and then behind the Apartheid Wall to get there. The Wall is hideous, both figuratively and literally. In fact, I found it so ugly that the graffiti which covers it are actually quite an improvement. Some of it was very clever, and I saw several copies of Banksy's stencilled Girl floating over the top with a bundle of balloons around the place. Some other good ones were NEW YORK TIMES! (below), HIP HOP! in upside down giant electric blue block letters, and a rather disturbing one painted next to a double iron gate next to a watchtower which said in a banner "albreicht macht frei." That one made me shiver.

Ramallah was not at all what I expected, but I liked it for that. I have to say that nothing on this trip is what I expected, though part of that may have been that I had no idea what to expect in the first place.

Anyway, we drove through another three checkpoints after Ramallah to drive the 20 miles or so to Zababdeh. The first of these was the only one where we had to shop and show our id to some 18 year old kids with submachine guns, who were texting their buddies before we pulled up. The other two after that are only checkpoints to prevent people from leaving the North to head back down South. The town of Nablus, for example, is completely surrounded by checkpoints - one on every road.

The north is much prettier than the Jerusalem area - there are olive trees and flowering almond trees everywhere, and it is much greener (it's a more agrarian region). The green is like a little slice of home, which I'm starting to appreciate more every day.

I went to the town with Fadi for the youth meeting, of which I understood nothing. Apparently I'm going hiking this Sunday and then teaching an English course the Sunday after that. I'm not sure what they mean by "course," but I guess I'll figure something out. The plan for today is to find a SIM card for my cell phone, and hopefully a computer with internet (this was written in Notepad) so I can try and get in touch with some people as the phone card I bought in Jerusalem won't work here in the West Bank.

Anyway sorry for the long post. I have been uploading photos as I take them to an album on facebook, I will post the link and you can see the album (even if you don't have a facebook account). Some of the information captioning the photos I may have mentioned again here, but I did my best to describe everything I saw. Whew!

Until next time.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Trial by Fire : Round Two

Well, I was treated to some dinner, some wine, and some chocolates last night by the Rev and his wife, which considerably lifted my spirits. I also managed to finally get some sleep (I slept all the way until 6 am this morning!). The sun is shining, my tummy is full of delicious pita bread and za'atar with olive oil, and I'm ready to try the city again. The Rev Bob volunteered to take me into the city with him and show me around, so I think that today will be a much less stressful experience.

As a sidenote to last night's post, I feel I should say that it really isn't dangerous or that I feel unsafe in the city. Most of the people I met were friendly and warm. I just was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ran into the wrong bunch of kids. It was quite a shaking experience though, so having an escort today is more for my own comfort than anything. So, in short, don't worry for me!

Stones and Strays

"Jerusalem is one of the few places of which the first impression is not the best."
-Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, 1853.

Yeah. No joke.

After running the odds and ends errands of the day - getting a dictionary, a phone card, some snacks for my room - I set out for the Old City around midday. I strolled down Nablus Road the way I came the night before, past the American Consulate and the Jerusalem Hotel, and headed for the Damascus Gate in the Wall. The streets are lively with what I can only describe as total insanity. The drivers are nuts, the pedestrians are nuts... As someone said yesterday, "people here drive with their horns." Pedestrians also walk without thinking or looking straight out into traffic, though the cars all seem to stop. After realizing this I just made sure I followed close in a local's footsteps when trying to navigate the perpetual traffic jam of Jerusalem.

I entered the Old City via the Damascus Gate (left), and landed headfirst in a bustling (and slightly overwhelming) suq, or market. I walked through, trying not to look too interested in anything in the stands and shops, knowing full well that I would never escape without eight kefiayah or three pounds of sweets. I took a right on Via Dolorosa, ignoring the catcalls of what felt like every man I passed, and wandered up the road.

Because there was nowhere to sit and try to look at a map without being beset by shopkeepers, I kept wandering down Via Dolorosa (which by the way was the route Christ took to his crucifixion, and is marked at various points with what the Church refers to as Stations of the Cross). I reached the end of the Via and took a right into a chaotic street of hollering merchants and stray cats and children. Not realizing where I was, I was stopped by an angry looking 19 year old with a submachine gun (police). He was immediately distracted by another man so I turned on my heel and went back the way I came.

Walking back up the street I saw a sign saying "This way to Ramparts Walk." The Ramparts walk takes you around the Old City along the original wall. I figured this sounded like a good, easy walk where I could see the town without getting horribly lost in one of the many tiny back alleys.

I continued up the road, but saw no sign of an entrance to the Ramparts. I ended up a few blocks up the hill at the wall in which the Damascus Gate is set. I turned around to go back down the hill and decided to stop in the shade (away from the shopkeepers) to check out my map. As I was sitting there a gang of five teenaged boys approached me. One of them walked right up to me and circled around to my right side, so close to me I could feel him breathe on my neck as he looked over my shoulder at my map. They all began to speak to each other in Arabic. Feeling pretty uncomfortable with the proximity of all these guys, I laughed. One of them mimicked the sound I made, and they started talking angrily to each other. They began to walk away, and as they did I folded my map and got up to continue down the hill. As I began to walk away one of them yelled something at me and then I was hit in the back of the head with a rock. Feeling shocked I turned around and just looked at them, finished putting my scarf back around my shoulders and turned to retreat.

Apparently being the only 5'10" redhead in Jerusalem, all the men who had harassed me on my way up the Via Dolorosa recognized me on the way back down. I tried to just walk quickly because I just wanted to get out of the Old City. There was no getting rid of these people though. In my dazed state, one of them somehow managed to get me into his shop, then asked me to drink some tea with him, saying that I would greatly insult him if I refused. Trapped by my own awkward politeness and general confusion I stayed, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an elaborate chair in an antiques store. Some more people came and sat around me in a circle, speaking in Hebrew and generally keeping me feeling trapped and not sure how to extricate myself from the situation without ending up with a $400 rug or something. I finally lied and said I had to meet someone in a few minutes back at the Cathedral, then fled back into the street with the counsel from the shopkeeper that "he does not need my money or my body." Um, okay.

It was much busier as I headed back towards the Damascus Gate, and I was able to pretend I was with other groups and just walk beside the people I saw who were obviously tourists but in the safety of a group. I felt like one of the stray cats on the Via Dolorosa.

In any case, I've never been so glad to leave somewhere as I was today to get out of the Old City.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

An Update Before the Day Begins

Well, I arrived in Jerusalem (technically yesterday morning). The travel just getting here has already been an adventure. Between two misfires getting me to the airport with all my things (wallet included!) I finally made it onto my flight to Heathrow. An hour before landing though we were informed that the flight was being diverted due to snow closures at Heathrow, and we would be landing in Cardiff instead. So I have now been to Wales. (see my "Welcome to Wales?" face above)

Three and a half hours later the buses we were herded into arrived at Heathrow, where a marathon of confusion and massive line-waiting. There were what appeared to be thousands of people queued up in the departure terminal just for British Airways, trying to rebook their flights or re-check in. Finally I made it to the front of a queue and rechecked my bags, only of course to wait another six hours for my flight to board. Then our flight was delayed on the runway another two hours.

And then of course there were customs, which were a whole new level of fun.

In any case, I made it in one piece, though tired and quite hungry. I ended up sleeping a good portion of the first day, which was a mistake as it is now 4 am here, despite the fact that my computer and this blog are still running on Pacific Standard time. A gentleman from the Church took me for a walk down Nablus Rd to the Jerusalem Post Hotel and Restaurant, where I had some delicious tabouleh. I also enjoyed my first cup of Arabic coffee yesterday. It's nothing like espresso and I loved it!

In any case, my plan now is to go back to sleep, and if I can't I will take a walk following a guide that Mary gave me to see the sun rise over Jerusalem's Old City. Then I'll come back to St. George's and have some more of that coffee...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cleaning Up by Letting Go

(This isn't directly related to the overall "theme" of the blog, but I find it relevant in its own way... judge for yourselves :)

Sometimes it's really interesting what you learn by realizing how far you had to come.

With a few days left before I set out on my little adventure I've taken it upon myself to start taking care of my odds and ends about the house. Cleaning up my boxes in the attic, tidying the chaos in the basement, going through all those filing cabinets and desk drawers in my bedroom. I started (sort of) with the basement, which quickly dead-ended me. I moved on to the attic, which nearly immediately exhausted me (not to mention nearly froze me to death). A few days ago I opened my bottom desk drawer and realized that I had been unable to actually open it without some kind of minor rearrangement/organizational surgery for at least two years. So I set about cleaning it out. There were hoarded haiku from middle school, homework from tenth grade algebra, tacky stationary with fluffy cats and frouffy quotes inside which I would assuredly never use. I pulled out the recycling bin and got to work.

About two hours later I was surrounded by piles of old photos, old letters, and homework from who-knows-when which was immediately relegated to the bin. Let me just say, I was a huge nerd when I was a kid.

I saved e v e r y t h i n g . I mean, papers from sixth grade about A Tale of Two Cities? Poems I wrote as an anxious and lame seventh grader? Doodles from high school? My old planners? I mean really? The realization I came to after all this was that for whatever reason, these were all things I thought one day I would like to see. That I would need to be reminded of every competition I was in as a musician, every certificate I won for Best Math Student or Best Lead Actress in high school, that I indeed earned As in a bunch of classes in eleventh grade. What I didn't see at the time I was hoarding all this rubbish was that one day, in several years, I would have forgotten about all this stuff. I would remember the plays and the books and the performances, don't get me wrong. But all the little insignificant things that seemed so huge during those years fell away, and it didn't occur to me at age 13 (for whatever/ obvious reasons) that this would happen.

However, I'm glad I saved all those things. Finding all those little insignificant bits showed me that I have grown up at least a little, that I have learned at least a few things in my life. What's more important, it showed me that I have the potential for growth and for learning. I'd like to think that I haven't stopped yet. And hopefully in ten years when I stumble upon all the tosh I've saved up again, it will be electronic and I can just push "Delete" instead of having to carry it all down to the recycling bin.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Countdown, Again

So here I am, marked at the two week countdown again. As if foreseeing my arrival, Israel declared a "unilateral" ceasefire this morning. We'll see how this goes.

I'm back to double checking my flight itinerary, what I have on the packing/already packed list (I mostly didn't unpack from my originally schedule departure time), what else could I add that I didn't think of beforehand?

I'm still nervous, though maybe less so than beforehand. I had a few dreams about being in places besieged by missiles and bombs. I ascribed them to having read to many news articles and having seen too many videos and photographs. I'm feeling better than I did before the original departure time, but we'll see how I feel in a week and a half.

So yes, here we are again. I promise to keep you all informed, but I make no promises as to my own preparedness.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight?

In the last week or two I have spent hours reading news. Don't get me wrong, in the weeks and months before that I also spent huge amounts of time scrolling through various newspapers, news aggregators and portals, blogs, and so on. However with oodles of free time since December 29 there has been even more time frittered away with newspapers in hand, internet pages open, and radio news blaring.

In this time I have accrued a certain dislike for news article comments. Every site seems to have them... the Seattle Times, the New York Times, YouTube of course, the Huffington Post... everyone. Now the nerdy, "plugged-in" portion of my personality finds this great - I can respond to anything I want! On the other hand, it becomes this sickening addiction where you end up reading all kinds of horrible things, like "Israelis are the new Nazis," "anti-Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism," and so on. I mean, all kinds of ignorant, hateful, racist, or just plain uninformed garbage. It gets really overwhelming, honestly. And depressing.

In that vein, I received a particularly nasty comment on my Facebook site the other day from an acquaintance who lives in the Midwest. Here is the bulk of it:

...Just because Palestinians don't have an army, or any way to defend themselves doesn't mean they don't deserve to die.... Palestinians teach their children and women how to kill themselves in order to kill as many Jews as possible. They are trying to create a second holocaust and they must be stopped. To say that Israel broke the cease-fire is to live a life of complete ignorance. We withdrew from Gaza in 2005, uprooting 1000s of Jewish families and leaving behind hundreds of synagogues which have since been destroyed in an attempt for peace. After the withdrawal, LONG before November 2008 Palestine continued firing rockets into southern Israeli cities. They have created child martyrs, used Mosques to store rockets and have used NO discretion whatsoever when firing rockets into schools, public areas, parks, and synagogues, killing men, women, children, and even their own Palestinians.

Aside from the obvious contradictions (they wouldn't have had to "withdraw" from Gaza if they hadn't illegally seized it in 1967; firing into public areas, places of worship, schools, and killing women and children are all things which have also been done in immense scale by the IOF; etc), the most sickening part of this message was the first sentence: "Just because [Palestinians] have [no] way to defend themselves doesn't mean they don't deserve to die." So, the argument here seems to be that all Palestinians conduct themselves in the manner listed above, and as such all deserve to be killed.

Now, even if it were true that all Palestinians commit the crimes listed above (which it is unquestionably not), it seems to me that that is an extremely bizarre sentiment coming from someone tossing around words like "holocaust." Furthermore - and more importantly - by condoning violence against civilian populations, one opens the door to all kinds of moral problems. If indeed entire populations, including women and children who are non-combatants and therefore innocents, are permitted to be exterminated based on the crimes of a small minority, then where does that leave Israel? Its moral high ground surely cannot be wiping out the Palestinian people simply for the crime of being born Palestinian. And to indict an entire population for being of a particular race, ethnicity, or religion... well, need I state the obvious?

On a larger scale of course than any personal harassment I may receive, there is the Giyus group. Essentially this allows you to download a piece of software (Megaphone) which informs you of articles on the web about Israel. Then, armed with this information, you spam the website with pro-Israel propaganda. On a similar note I found this article online today about Israel's foreign ministry's involvement in a similar scheme: Hasbara Spam Alert. It seems that picking fights with strangers over the internet is the new battlefield of public media.

So the question becomes, how does one respond, if at all? I personally chose not to respond to the person who "facebooked" me, knowing full well that internet arguments tend to look like this:

Maybe I should have said something. Maybe I should calmly cite a bunch of facts and dates. On the other hand, he has obviously already made up his mind that I'm the one living a life of "complete ignorance," so why burst his bubble?

In any case, with all this reading of news and its apparently never ending ensuing commentary, I have to say that I really don't know what the best thing to do is. At this point I'm picking my battles, trying to educate when possible (though mostly trying to stay out of the cantankerous crossfire), and hoping that sometime soon, someone wiser than me will have some advice. Because I'll tell you, when up against what seems to be an insurmountable wall, I'm feeling a little ill-equipped.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Israel in Gaza: Three Wrong Arguments

by Howard Schweber for The Huffington Post.

Two days ago, a resolution of support for Israel jointly sponsored by Sen.Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was adopted in the Senate by unanimous consent. The resolution includes an uncritical recitation of some classic elements of the basic AIPAC-fueled neo-Zionist pro-Israel narrative that has dominated American national political discourse since the 1980s. The "Whereas" section includes:

"Hamas was founded with the stated goal of destroying the State of Israel . . . Hamas has refused to comply with the requirements of the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) . . . in June 2006, Hamas crossed into Israel, attacked Israeli forces and kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit, whom they continue to hold today . . . Hamas has launched thousands of rockets and mortars since Israel dismantled settlements and withdrew from Gaza in 2005 . . ."

The Reid/McConnell resolution is a perfect articulation of one voice in the American debate over Israel's actions in Gaza. The unanimous support the resolution received demonstrates just how difficult it is to break into the scripted narratives that dominate at the level of elite political discourse; it is amazing that in a country that polls show to be deeply divided over Israel's actions, two days after 10,000 Israelis protested against their own government's actions in Tel Aviv, and after everything that has happened in the last eight years, nonetheless there is not a single voice in the U.S. Senate being raised to question the official story being peddled the Bush administration and its neoconservative allies. It's enough to make one think that Walt and Mearsheimer might have been on to something (if only they hadn't said it so badly.) Meanwhile, Obama has remained mute, while the Bush administration has taken its usual line of supporting anything the Israeli government chooses to do, including the exercise of America's veto power in the UN Security Council - one last finger in the world's eye before leaving office.

The unanimity in the branches of the U.S. government may be a source of encouragement to the Olmert government in these last ten days before a new administration. Today (Saturaday, Jan. 10) IAF planes dropped leaflets warning Gazans of a "new phase in the war on terror" and warning that Israel will "escalate" its ground operations; among other things, this is a clear indication that Israel does not particularly feel the much-ballyhooed international "pressure" for a cease-fire. But the unanimity in the U.S. government is not borne out in public discussions, where the debates are furious and loud. Those debates are also frequently pointless. Pointless because one thing that anyone following those debates will have noticed is that most of the time the various sides do not bother to refute one another's claims. Quite often the explanation is simple: the other sides' arguments are so obviously, patently wrongheaded that they must not be meant sincerely, and therefore do not warrant any response. That observation probably makes the following exercise futile, but here I go anyway. Here are three claims that are central to the pro-invasion narrative that is encompassed in the Senate resolution, and just a few of the objections that should be raised whenever these arguments are heard.

Claim 1:
Israel disengaged from Gaza and removed its settlements. In response, the people of Gaza elected a Hamas government and since then rockets have been continually launched into Israel. By the same token, when Israel left Lebanon, Hezbollah moved in. This proves that Israel had no choice but to attempt to destroy or substantially weaken Hamas on the ground in Gaza, and demonstrates the futility of trading land for peace.

The assertion that Israel has ended its occupation is extremely debatable; among others, it is debated by Human Rights Watch. Israel controls Gaza's northern and eastern border crossings, its access to the sea, and its airspace. Israel has shut down Gaza's port and destroyed its airport, ended its fishing industry, and controls the flow of electricity and oil, food and medicine, and even money into the territory. With the cooperation of Egypt, Israel continues to control who enters and exits Gaza; since the election of Hamas Israel has used that power to place Gaza under a state of siege resulting in dire humanitarian conditions in an already impoverished territory that has struggled for decades under the burden of absorbing huge numbers of refugees from Israel. Even prior to the siege, the Israeli Air Force demonstrated its continued ownership of the skies over Gaza by sending jets to produce sonic booms over Gazan cities, a gesture apparently with no purpose other than to harass the local population (also used in Southern Lebanon following Israel's "withdrawal"), a gentle reminder to people on the ground that they sleep at night only if Israel chooses to let them do so. People say that Israel "withdrew" from Gaza as though Gaza had been left autonomous and independent and free from Israeli control and interference; nothing could be further from the truth.

Moreover, to describe a "withdrawal from Gaza" is to artificially divide the Palestinian territories. The withdrawal of the settlements from inside Gaza was accompanied by massive acceleration of settlement construction in the West Bank; most observers have concluded that Sharon's motivation was precisely to free up resources for that purpose. Israel has been absolutely relentless in the expansion of those settlements, along with everything that goes with them; the checkpoints, "whites only" roads, the military incursion in 2002, and the separation wall.

From the Palestinian perspective, the statement that Israel withdrew from Gaza and was not rewarded with peace is almost incomprehensibly dishonest; Palestinians and Arabs in other countries I have spoken with assume that people making that argument are speaking with utter self-awareness of the cynicism of their argument. If you stick a knife in my chest and another one in my foot, then you pull out the one from my foot but drive the one in my chest even deeper, do not expect me not to kick you with my foot that is still bleeding from the wounds you have inflicted. Peace between Israel and Palestine may indeed come through a series of steps, but the framework of understanding cannot be one that separates Gaza from the West Bank, as though being allowed free access to Khan Younis somehow makes up for being cut off from Jerusalem.

Claim 2:
Israel has been subject to constant rocket attacks. What would you (addressed to an American) do if rockets were falling on your city? And what about Gilad Shalit, who has not even been allowed to be seen by visitors? What would you do if this had happened to America?

A fair point, to be sure; rocket attacks are an act of war, and Israel has a right to defend itself. The problem is that Israel's blockade of Gaza is also an act of war, and Palestinians have the same right of self-defense. To focus only on the rockets coming into Israel is like describing the Battle of Britain as "British planes attacking German planes"; it's not technically inaccurate, but as a description it is incomplete to the point of complete distortion. When we are asked "what would you do if rockets from Canada were landing in Minnesota" we should also ask "what would you do if a foreign power - or two foreign powers, acting in cooperation -- had cut off all access to your country and was slowly starving your population in order to compel you to get rid of your elected government?"

Ending the siege has been Hamas' main and constant demand. When the truce began on June 19th Israel permitted increased importation of food, but still only to about 20% of normal levels. The UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Robert Falk, has reported levels of hunger inside Gaza that rival those of the poorest sub-Saharan nations and has called the Israeli siege a "crime against humanity." In November, Israel launched two military attacks that effectively ended the truce and led to the resumption of rocket attacks; nonetheless in December Hamas offered to extend the truce if Israel would only lift the siege. Israel was not interested; thereafter Hamas increased the intensity of the attacks, culminating in a barrage the week of Christmas that prompted the initiation of Operation Cast Lead (although, as I have pointed out in an earlier post, that operation had been planned for months).

The point of the siege all along was to inflict misery on Gaza in order to turn them against their government, an act of collective punishment designed to turn Gazans against their government. In 2006 Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, was quoted in The Guardian explaining the plan: "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet." The technical name for a strategy of imposing fear and misery on a people until they turn against their government is "terrorism"; to repeat myself, Palestinians have the same right of self-defense as Israelis. Nor is the blockade Israel's only act of aggression in Gaza. Throughout the period since the supposed withdrawal, Israel has launched thousands of artillery and rocket attacks into Gaza, along with periodic military operations. In the four years prior to Operation Cast Lead, those attacks resulted in 1,339 deaths among Gaza's people. How would we Americans react to those figures, or their proportional equivalents?

But it is probably the appeal to the case of Gilad Shalit that rings the most hollow, and sounds most completely cynical to Palestinians. According to B'Tselem, Israel currently holds more than 8,200 Palestinian prisoners, many of them arrested and held without charge, others tried in military courts on the basis of secret evidence that the "defense" is not allowed to see in "trials" that may last five minutes. According to Defense of Children International, in 2007 alone, Israel imprisoned some 700 children, in violation of international law. And Israel frequently denies visiting privileges to its prisoners.

Ten years ago Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel's history, famously observed that if he had been born a Palestinian he would have been a terrorist. That was long before the siege of Gaza; for a Gaza resident who has lived through the past year, taking up arms against Israel and supporting violent resistance is not only entirely understandable, it appears positively reasonable. Would Americans really overthrow our own government -- even a government we might initially have opposed -- to end a siege or the threat of attack by a more powerful enemy? Is that how Americans, and Israelis, have responded in the past?

Claim 3:
Hamas is a radical organization whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel and whose leaders have made various inflammatory statements in the past indicating a complete unwillingness to recognize Israel's legitimate rights. Any "truce" agreement is merely an excuse to prepare for future conflict, and should be ignored. Hamas cannot be dealt with because its radical ideology precludes rational bargaining or recognition of mutual self-interest; consequently, Hamas must be destroyed. Any steps that work toward the destruction of Hamas are thus defensive acts by Israel, and any offers by Hamas should be disregarded on the theory that by definition they cannot be sincere.

There is an element of perfect circularity to this argument - we do not talk to Hamas because we assume that Hamas is incapable of talking, which we know to be true because we have never talked with them - but of course the real question is what to make of the characterization of Hamas in the first place.

Hamas was formed at the outset of the First Intifadah in direct response to Israeli occupation, just as Hezbollah was formed in response to Israel's invasion and subsequent occupation of Southern Lebanon. From the outset, Hamas offered itself as an alternative to Fatah as a movement that was right there on the ground (unlike Fatah, whose leadership was safely ensconced in Tunis at the time), as a movement that would provide social services (schools, health care, aid to the poor), was free of the massive corruption that marked Fatah operations . That's why the people of Gaza elected Hamas to office, to nearly everyone's shock, when offered the chance to hold reasonably free elections.

Today, Hamas is a complex movement that contains both radical ideologues and more moderate figures in positions of leadership and relies on Iran for its support, but it is also a political party that maintains its popular support by effective governance. That alone demonstrates a capacity for pragmatism, but beyond that the fact is that Hamas' leadership offered Israel a long-term truce in 2004 in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories. Hamas subsequently confirmed that they would accept any peace agreement for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, provided that it was ratified by a popular referendum. In both instances, Israel was not interested, as Israel was not interested in securing a cessation of rocket attacks in return for lifting its blockade, nor in the 2002 Saudi plan offering recognition by the 22 Arab governments of the Arab League - which endorsed the plan in 2007 -- in return for withdrawal to the same 1967 borders.

Israel, in other words, has no interest in a return to the 1967 borders: both at Annapolis and elsewhere, Israel has made it clear that it intends to keep large chunks of the West Bank that contain the settlement blocs around Ariel, the line of settlements stretching out to Maale Adumim and beyond, and especially the ring of settlements that cut Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank. In other words, the invasion of Gaza is one more illustration of the fact that Israel prefers to preserve its expansionist ambitions rather than seek peace at both the tactical and the strategic levels. No truce that might curtail or end the rocket fire if it requires lifting the siege that Israel believes will eventually bring the Palestinians in Gaza to their knees begging to be allowed to accept a leadership of Israel's choosing. And no peace deals of the kind that were once reached with Egypt and Jordan if the price is giving up Greater and exclusive ownership of Jerusalem.

But the intransigence of Israel's three no's - no negotiation with Hamas, no recognition of Hamas, no peace with Hamas -- is never part of the conversation. Hamas is criticized in the Reid/McConnell resolution for its failure to accept the Quartet Roadmap terms for negotiations in 2003. That criticism is somewhere between ironic and hypocritical given that Israel has never defined the borders within which it is supposed to be recognized, has never offered to forego its own violence, and especially given that the Sharon government declared its own list of 14 points of reservation the Quartet proposal's terms at the time they were first announced.

Ultimately, though, "radicalism" of Hamas -- whether in itself or as compared to the equivalent "radicalism" of Israel's positions -- is beside point. The real point is that the correct question is not whether Hamas' leadership hates Israel and seeks its destruction. The real question is whether Hamas' leadership would be able to secure popular Palestinian support for such a program, just as the real question in the broader War on Terror was never why Al Qaeda hates America, it was always why Al Qaeda's hatred of America sold as well as it did in so many places. The Israeli siege of Gaza has ensured that violence will remain the only plausible apparent option, a conviction that can only be made stronger by the more than 700 dead, thousands wounded and the effective destruction of the civilian infrastructure. Israel's actions strengthen the most radical elements within Hamas by making their claims plausible: that Israel will never permit a free and independent Palestinian state, will never permit Palestinians to live in peace, cannot be trusted to keep any promise or to deviate from the most extreme positions articulated by its past and present leaders . . . in other words, precisely the brush that supporters use to tar Hamas.

And Hamas is not the end of the devolutionary line. Israel supported Hamas to weaken the control of the secular Fatah; today as Israel seeks to weaken Hamas a group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad is emerging. Israel's unwillingness to deal with Hamas is based partly on its ties to Iran; Israel's actions are making it increasingly impossible for moderate Arab states and the Palestinian Authority to join in denouncing Hamas -- as was the case in the first days of the air operation -- with the result that Iran's position vis a vis the Arab League is strengthened, at least temporarily. The satisfaction in being proven correct is grim comfort in the case of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Claim 4:
Doing nothing was not an option, and you can't come up with anything better.

Actually, it's not at all difficult to come up with "something better" than the pointless and ultimately self-defeating infliction of death, destruction, and human misery on a captive population. But that is the subject for another post.

We are in the final, bloody days of the most disastrous U.S. administration of the modern era. The failures of this administration began right at the beginning when President Bush announced a U.S. policy of disengagement from the Israel-Palestine conflict. There is a new president coming in, with a new administration and a new Congress. Reports suggest that elements in the Obama administration are open to talking with Hamas. The Bush administration's policy of disengagement followed by enablement has been no favor to Israel or the Palestinians; let us hope, for all our sakes, that the new administration can initiate a new, more thoughtful discussion.

Howard Schweber is the Associate Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

See the original article on The Huffington Posthere.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Real Pro-Israel Policy Helps Palestine, Too

The Israel–Palestine conflict isn’t inevitable. Here’s how both sides could gain by building on their common interest for peace and fairness. The United States still holds the key.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible—Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive, but rather each is impossible without the other.

The Palestinian Authority and virtually all the Arab states are now on record expressing their willingness to recognize Israel and to provide security guarantees in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands conquered in the June 1967 war. This would leave the Palestinians with just 22 percent of historic Palestine. Nonetheless, the U.S.-backed Israeli position is that the Palestinians should be allowed an independent “state” on even less territory and only in a series of non-contiguous cantons surrounded by Israel and with the Israeli government controlling the air space, water resources, and the movement of people and goods.

Unlike some earlier periods in Israel’s past, the country’s survival is no longer at stake. The Israeli military is far more powerful than any combination of Arab armies. Despite the threat of periodic shelling and suicide bombings from Islamic extremists, most Israelis are relatively secure within their country’s internationally recognized borders. Where Israeli soldiers and civilians are most vulnerable is in the occupied Palestinian territories. In these areas, illegal Israeli settlements and roads—reserved for Jews only—create an apartheid-like situation, and make it extremely difficult for Israeli forces to defend against a population angry at the occupiers who have confiscated what is often their best land. Israel would be far more secure defending a clearly defined and internationally recognized border than an archipelago of illegal outposts within Palestinian territory.

It is the ongoing Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank, along with the siege of the Gaza Strip, which creates the hopelessness and desperation that breed extremist violence. Only when the occupation ends will the threat from Palestinian terrorism finally have a realistic chance of being controlled.

U.S. policy in this troubled region has become increasingly controversial, but it should not be criticized as being too “pro-Israel.” U.S.-backed Israeli policies are not only jeopardizing the human rights of their Arab victims, they are hurting Israel’s legitimate interests as well.

“Peace” proposals that allow Israel to annex large swathes of occupied Palestinian territory—like those the Clinton administration pushed at Camp David in 2000 and the Bush administration has been supporting subsequently—cannot provide rights or security to either side. A truly pro-Israel policy would maintain the U.S. commitment to the security and well-being of the Jewish state, but would insist that Israel end its occupation, withdraw from its illegal settlements, and allow for the emergence of a viable, contiguous, independent Palestinian state.

This may require that the United States apply pressure—such as withholding military and economic aid—if the Israeli government continues to violate its obligations under international humanitarian law. Such aid does not help Israel much anyway. Indeed, most of the more than $2 billion in annual “military assistance” to Israel amounts to a credit line to American arms manufacturers and actually ends up costing Israelis two to three times that amount for personnel, training, and spare parts. The additional $2 billion in U.S. economic aid is little more than the interest Israel is required to pay American banks from loans for previous arms purchases.

Many of those in Washington who call themselves supporters of Israel are supporting Israel’s hawks who are making the country more dependent upon the United States. This increases Israel’s vulnerability by preventing it from recognizing its natural alliance with the world’s Afro-Asian majority. Within Israel, there is a solid progressive minority that supports the necessary compromises for peace and a similar-sized militaristic minority that does not. Most Israelis are in the middle and, as Israeli scholar and peace activist Galia Golan describes it, “They will lean left when Israel is feeling pressure from the United States but lean right in situations like today when there is no U.S. pressure.”

The combination of Israeli technology, Palestinian entrepreneurship and industriousness, and Arabian oil wealth could result in an economic, political, and social transformation of the Middle East. This would be highly beneficial to the region’s inhabitants, but not necessarily to powerful U.S. interests who benefit from the current policy of divide-and-rule. An Israel at peace with its neighbors would be far less likely to be willing to serve as a reliable ally in support of U.S. hegemonic designs in this critical region.

If the United States really wants to be a friend of Israel, the U.S. government must apply some “tough love.” This would entail unconditional support for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, but with an insistence that Israel uphold its international obligations and withdraw its settlers and troops from the occupied territories. Only then can the violence end and peace become a reality. And only then will the United States be a true friend of Israel.

Stephen Zunes wrote this article as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the Middle East Studies program. He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage, 2003) and a member of the advisory board of the Tikkun Community

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Collecting and Processing

The day after my first post here, Israel launched a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. I got the news via a text message from a friend while standing in line at a grocery store, waiting to buy a bottle of Squirt soda. I spent the rest of the day glued to CNN, MSNBC, and flicking past Fox News out of curiousity. And since then, I've had nothing to say about it. I kept reading the news in the paper, reading Op-Ed articles (which usually only serve to infuriate me), checking the Huffington Post, the New York Times, reading anything I could, waiting for the moment when how I felt about all this would crystallize into something useful and meaningful. The most illuminating thing to me about the last three days is the realization that the moment when all would be come clear is not going to come.

I once read that the only language which Power understands is violence. I must not be part of Power. I don't understand how lobbing rockets or sending jets full of bombs or rolling tanks through neighborhoods will promote peace. I don't understand the mentality behind institutional violence which tells us it will all stop as soon as "they" see the error of their ways. For fighting endlessly without thought for your people. I don't understand the blatant and willful bias of the media, or of people voicing hateful and acidic opinions about things they do not know.

What I am beginning to understand is the feeling of sorrow, of feeling tired, and helpless. Endless war serves only the people in Power - it's what gets them there and it's what keeps them there. And, it keeps us snivelling at their feet, waiting for them to just do something already. But what I have gotten out of the last three days is the reminder that this - the killing, the blood, the blame, the bias - this has got to stop. It will require looking closely at the situation from both sides, and at ourselves and our own prejudices, to get to the bottom of it. People need to stop calling each other "anti-Semites" or "terrorists" or other such names because they don't see eye to eye, but rather must address the wounds on both sides and seek to heal them, rather than salt them. Easier said than done, granted. However, creating more wounds, be it from rocket fire or from ground invasions, will only serve to deepen the divide.

Friday, January 2, 2009

An Awkward Wait

Well, January 2. For those of you in the know, I was supposed to leave for Zebabdeh, Palestine at 6:40 pm on December 29. Though there had been quite a lot of unrest in the Gaza Strip as of late, signs were good that I would be fine for departure for the West Bank as planned. However the morning of the 29th Mary called me and said that the Bishop of Jerusalem himself had recommended that I postpone my trip by at least thirty days. The finer points of the struggle can be found in the Electronic Intifada feed over there on the right hand side of the page, but the long and short of it is that beginning Saturday, Israel launched a series of rocket strikes against the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas' rocket firings into Israel. By Monday morning well over 300 Palestinians had been killed, many of them civilians and children, and over 1400 had been injured, also largely civilians. As a result, there is widespread unrest throughout the Middle East, but the West Bank in particular. As of Monday morning there were rumblings in the streets of Jerusalem (where I was to be staying my first few days and during New Year's), and by Tuesday it became clear that my decision to postpone the trip was a good one, as protests and riots began to break out in Jerusalem and villages further north in the West Bank.

So in the meantime I am resigned to an awkward wait. My flight has been rescheduled for February 1, though there is little to no indication - at least to me - that the situation will have calmed down significantly by then. With no job and a lot of time on my hands, I'm left reading news feeds and pondering the awful silence on the part of the US government during all this.

With hawkish pro-Israel cabinet picks and a lingering non-comittalism on the "Palestinian Question," Obama has avoided the situation altogether. The White House is blaming the Palestinians, despite what many in the human rights activist communities are calling a blatantly lethal and out-of-proportion show of force on the part of the IOF (Israeli Occupying Army). We were promised as a nation to once again become a "beacon of hope" to the world (Obama, Sept 12, 2007), but we can never expect to lead by example as long as we not only allow, but support these kinds of atrocities.