Rant in Progress

If you are easily offended, you should probably stop reading now.  I am tired of tip-toeing around the Israel/Palestine/Gaza issues for fear of alienating people.  Today, I don’t care who I alienate.

Where shall we start?  Let’s start with the tragic deaths of the three Israeli teens.  Whatever the circumstances were, the outcome was heinous and unacceptable.  Whoever harmed them should be punished.  Having said that, there is no doubt in my mind that Hamas had absolutely nothing to do with it.  Think about it.  How many years did Hamas hold on to Shalit before exchanging him for thousands of Palestinian prisoners?  That was ONE soldier.  Think what Hamas could have demanded for three teenage boys.  Killing Israelis rather than using them for collateral is simply not their MO. 

This was however, a gift right in Netanyahu’s lap.  He could claim Hamas did it and therefor justify this latest bloody assault on Gaza.  Yes, I said assault.  This is not a war so please stop calling it one.  A war implies two equal parties.  Where Hamas has homemade, blind rockets, Israel has a military fully funded and backed by the United States. 

Try, just try to imagine that you and your loved ones are civilians caught in the middle of this.  I am not talking about Israeli civilians; I am talking about the thousands and thousands of Gazan civilians that cannot escape the carnage thanks to their closed borders.  This ridiculously regurgitated statement that Hamas surrounds itself with civilians is beyond ignorant.  Of course they are surrounded by civilians because they have no place to escape to except perhaps into the sea (where they’d most likely be shelled by the Israeli Navy).  Try to remember that we are all humans.  We all bleed and die.  If you are a follower of Christ or a believer in God, do you really think the divinity wants you to either take part in this massacre or maybe worse yet, turn your back to it because “it’s not your problem”.   If there’s a heaven, I fear there will be a lot of empty seats at this point.

Stay tuned.  I’m not done, yet.

Yom Kippur in Hebron

What to say about Hebron?  If you’ve been there, you know, if you haven’t been there, you can’t imagine. 

Amy had gone on to Hebron last night but Cormac, Eric & I waited to go until this morning.  It was a long, uncomfortable, stressful bus ride and with every kilometer I became more anxious, remembering how awful my last visit had been.

We were dropped at the bus station at H1 and proceeded to make our way to H2 where the ISM house was located.  Eric had arranged for us to spend the night there for a small donation.  We went through two checkpoints to get to the house.  One, at the border between H1 and H2 and the other one conveniently located right outside our front door.  At any given time, there are no more than five people living in that apartment but because of their association with the International Solidarity Movement, they are watched like a hawk. 

I’m terrible with names but it doesn’t really matter because no one uses their real one.  There was a Swiss couple there who left shortly for Nablus, Ahmed from Britian, Mikah from Germany, Amy, Eric, Cormac, me and one other American that wouldn’t speak to any of us.  I’ve no idea why he was even there.  A tour of Hebron was arranged for the new visitors but I went along anyway.  A local activist, Katie, was our guide.  I thought it odd at first that she wore her scarf like a settler.  I think she was just doing her best to keep trouble away from us.  It didn’t work.  About half an hour in, and after passing at least a dozen soldiers, we were finally stopped and she was made to remove her scarf and retie it as a Muslim woman would.  They knew who she was.

We walked Shuhada Street and everyone marveled at what must have once been a bustling avenue of shops.  Those shops that are still open are not above begging for you to buy something, especially if you are obviously a Westerner.  It’s a shitty thing to do, I know, but I just don’t make eye contact with any of the shopkeepers.  I can’t afford to buy something from everyone so I buy nothing from anyone.

Just as I did on my first visit, the newcomers snapped dozens of photos of the wire mesh over our heads.  Palestinians put this in place to protect themselves from rocks, bottles, trash and even human waste that is thrown down into the markets from the Israeli settlers living above. 

After a long, exhausting, hot and depressing tour, we went back to the ISM house to relax on the roof.  I posted a status on Facebook that I was napping on the roof of the ISM house only to have an immediate comment from another member I’d met in Nabi Saleh that there was a camera on the building to my right, watching the roof.  Sure enough, there was.  So not only does the International Solidarity Movement have a guard station right outside their front door, they also have spy cameras trained on them at all times.  It’s almost funny it’s so ridiculous. 

Soon, our friend Eric had to take his turn guarding another rooftop about half a block away from the house.  At night, settlers use that vantage point to take shots at Palestinians so the ISM team takes two hour shifts, starting before sunset and ending at sunrise, sitting on the roof to shoo them away like flies.  Even though it was Yom Kippur, and many expected violence after the fast was broken at sundown, it stayed relatively quiet.  Around 10 pm or so, a few groups of settlers walked past the house on their way to a graveyard down the street.  I’m sure they could see us on the roof watching them but they said and did nothing. 

One of the ISM members told us that one week prior, three young Palestinian boys had been handcuffed, blindfolded and made to walk to the cemetery under armed guard.  One of the residents near the cemetery saw them and called the ISM house to report it.  A couple of the ISM volunteers ran to the cemetery and demanded to know what was happening.  The soldiers made as if it was a joke and let them all go but what if it wasn’t a joke?  It was after all, nighttime and the only reason they were interrupted was because someone called the ISM.  Ahmed, who was among those that went to the cemetery) just shook his head and asked us what we thought would have happened if they hadn’t shown up when they did.  We had no answer.  We sat in silence for a while after that and then Ahmed said, “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen them do” and he got up and left.

It was too hot to sleep inside that night so I slept outside on the roof with Mikah and the Swiss couple.  It was hard to sleep knowing armed soldiers were just outside the house and that others were watching us via camera feed.  I hope it was infrared because I flipped it off several times during the night when gunshots or noises from the guard station below woke me up. 

Cormac woke me early to say he was going on the school run with Amy and Eric.  I’d had my fourth bad night’s sleep in a row so I stayed behind.  They were back in a couple of hours.   It had been a typical morning.  Some children have a parent or guardian escort them through the checkpoints but others as young as 7 or 8 walk by themselves or in small groups.  The ISM and volunteers from CPT (Christian Peacemakers Team) position themselves between the children and the soldiers (or settlers in some cases) and make their presence known hoping to keep the level of harassment down.  Their school bags are searched every day.  Cormac said the kids chant at them though he had no idea what they were saying.  Some of the boys set off firecrackers, trying to irritate the settlers.  A small group of soldiers armed with tear gas broke off from the larger group and went for higher ground; presumably to shoot at the kids so Eric and Cormac followed them with their cameras going.  The soldiers never took a single shot because it would have all been on film.  They eventually stopped, turned around and started filming my friends filming them, it’s just so stupid.  What is that about????

We left on a bus back to Ramallah around noon.  We both asked Eric to be careful and not get himself arrested or killed.  He managed to comply for two days and was then arrested, along with every other member of the Hebron ISM team when riots broke out after two IDF soldiers were killed.  They were all eventually released and luckily, it never came up that Eric had signed that document at Ben Gurion and he was NOT deported.

This link should be public. This is Katie from the ISM. This is what they deal with nearly every day. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=672186042791408&set=vb.100000000564771&type=2&theater

Nabi Saleh

Eric, Amy, Cormac & I left Ramallah early on Friday and headed for Nabi Saleh.  None of them had ever been before but I had and was so excited I could barely contain myself.  The best of friendships are formed under terrifying conditions and Manal Tamimi and I had bonded while hiding in a stairwell for many hours during a military siege when I was there two years ago.

Since I’d last been there, the village had lost two martyrs to Israel.  Mustafa Tamimi was shot directly in the face with a high velocity tear gas canister and the Red Crescent was denied entry at the checkpoint.  Mustafa died later that day from his injuries.

Rushdi Tamimi was shot by the IDF and border control (on his own lands) at a Friday demonstration.  He was shot in the back and abdomen with live ammunition.  He reportedly sustained ruptured intestines and two ruptured arteries before dying from his injuries the following Monday at hospital.

These events, of course, bring sadness to the village but you have to look very closely to see it.  They won’t give up no matter who the next martyr is.  Posters of Rushdi and Mustafa adorn almost every household and street sign.  They are heroes who died trying to protect their families and their homeland from colonists and the military that supports them.

I went first to see Bilal and Manal and the kids and was greeted like a long lost child.  Hugs and gifts were exchanged and when no one was looking, I had to wipe away tears.  While we waited for prayer to end, Jenna and Rand impressed me with how great their head stands were coming along.  When asked if I could do one, I said I’d have to be taken to hospital afterwards.  The children laughed and laughed and somehow everything was worth it.

In their living room is a large bowl filled with different types of bullets that have been used against them over the years.  Of course the ones that got my attention were the so-called “rubber” bullets.  I just really want to smack anyone who uses that term.  It’s not like the bounce off you like a nerf dart.  They are simply rubber-coated STEEL bullets and they are deadly.

The children of the village had collected spent tear gas canisters and they were displayed along with the bullets.  Many of these weapons are illegal under International law but who cares, it’s Israel and they can do no wrong.

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It was time to march to the center of the village outside the mosque.  Once we were all assembled, Cormac and I ran ahead to get photos of the procession.  In Nabi Saleh, their battle is not against the wall, it is against the theft of Al Qaws Spring by the settlement of Halamish.  Each Friday, the villagers band together to climb and then descend the hill, cross the highway and reach their spring.  They rarely, if ever, make it.  The site has been sealed off by the military and declared a closed military zone.  All the while, children from Halamish splash and play in the spring all through summer and the adults keep trying to build it into a resort of some kind.

This particular day, we made it about half way down the hill before the bullets and massive amounts of tear gas were fired.  Even our nemesis the skunk truck was there.  For those of you that aren’t aware of this weapon of Israel, it is nothing more than a truck with a high-powered water gun only instead of shooting just plain water at the crowds and their homes, they have manufactured water that smells like raw human sewage and they douse everyone and everything in their path.  The siege was short, a couple of jeeps sped through town just to scare the kids but they didn’t bother shooting this time.

We went back inside where Manal made her family and my friends a beautiful supper.  We all dined together and talked about the occupation and how it affected their lives.  We also talked about our mysterious Israeli friend, Frank that had disappeared so suddenly off the map.  Sadly, we all came to the conclusion that he was probably a spy but we could still celebrate the fact that if it wasn’t for him bringing me to Nabi Saleh, I would never know these wonderful people and they wouldn’t know me.

After dinner, Bilal set us up in the living room, served us (my favorite) Turkish coffee (Cormac couldn’t stand it so I drank his when no one was looking) and we screened the documentary that has just been made about Nabi Saleh.  Originally, it was called “We Are Nabi Saleh” but it will now be released under the title of “Thank God it’s Friday” (referring to the demonstrations, of course).  The film is well done and includes a lot of interviews with the settlers from Halamish.  There wasn’t a single syllable that came out of their mouths that didn’t piss us off.  At one point Cormac was yelling at the TV.  The gist of the story is the residents of Halamish don’t know what’s happening a quarter mile from them and frankly, they don’t give a shit.

We caught the last bus back to Ramallah, stopped at the liquor store to stock up on Taybeh and eventually found our way home.

Bil’in

Only in the West Bank is your name also your address. On our second day in Palestine, we took a taxi from Ramallah to Bil’in and drove around aimlessly while our driver yelled Hamde Abu Ramah!!! out the car window. It didn’t take long to find him. We arrived at his home and found him barely out of bed and feeling under the weather though neither thing negatively impacted that optimistic ray of sunshine that emanates from his smile. If you know him, you know he truly is a special person to behold.
We were welcomed into his home and introduced to the family and other activists that arrived before us. This is where we met our Scottish friend Eric, whom you will hear more about later. It’s hard to describe the feeling of sitting in someone’s living room, drinking tea and laughing at the occupation, all the while sitting under a life sized color poster of martyr Bassam Abu Rahma, Hamde’s cousin.
This was Eric’s second time in the West Bank and because he’d caused enough trouble the first time, he ended up being the first activist I’d ever met that had been forced to sign a paper stating he would not enter the West Bank. The document was in English but when he asked for a copy, he was laughed at and not given one.
Of course by being in Bil’in he was already in violation of said document but being the great person he is, he could not possibly care less.
Hamde’s brother made an irrevocable impression on me. He came up to me, introduced himself and then asked if he could touch my hand. When I said yes, he gently placed it on what I can only describe as a cavernous indentation on the side of his head. A few years before Bassam’s death, he had taken a direct hit to the head from a high velocity tear gas canister and was in a coma for a week before they even knew if he would live or die. He showed me photos of his shaved head and the surgical scars but nothing left a bigger impression on me than that enormous dent in the side of his head. How he lived through that, God only knows.
We had lots of tea and when it was time to go, Hamde said I could stay with him because I had a professional camera and would not be asked for a press pass. When I saw him donning his gas mask and flak jacket, I said no thanks, I’ve got a zoom lens. We all piled into cars, Cormac, Eric & I with an Israeli couple Roy and Ray. We drove as close to the wall as possible. This was so much different than what I’d experienced in Nabi Saleh in the past. Bil’in wasn’t a little hamlet, it was a large enough village there were convenience stores and restaurants.
I’m always happy to not be the only American and quickly found a comrade. I like to stand back and watch people’s reactions. It helps me decide exactly how freaked out I should be. Everyone was laughing, smoking, passing around cans of coke and water. It was like any family reunion I’d ever been to. We began walking to the wall with about 75 other people. There was one news camera. Most looked like they were tourists just wanting to see what the fuss was about 5 Broken Cameras. It wasn’t long before the tear gas started flying. I stayed close to Hamde’s brother and told Hamde to go ahead without me and to look after Cormac.
Even staying back from the fray, the amount of tear gas and skunk water is so over the top, there really is no escape if you are even in the general vicinity. There was a very sudden change of wind (not in our favor) and everyone began running. This time I knew not to run. I knew to calm myself, determine the direction of the wind and walk towards the clean air. The poor newswoman was running past me choking and crying and I was trying to tell her not to run, that she would only make it worse but I don’t think she spoke any English. For the second time on this trip I was faced with deciding what the hell I’d do if it came down to saving myself or saving someone else. There wasn’t much I could do for her. I grabbed her arm and tried slowing her down but she fought me. I made hacking noises in my throught and spit on the ground and she followed suit. She seemed to calm down a bit after she realized there was something she could do.
We eventually made it to the cars and just hopped in with anyone that would let us. They drove us back to the town and Hamde’s brother took us in. His wife had prepared a massive amount of maqluba, which I devoured, chicken and all.
After dinner we spent some time in Hamde’s room talking about his short marriage and time in Berlin. Saddest statement ever: He said he couldn’t function there and whenever the homesickness was more than he could bear, he would go and sit at the remnants of the Berlin wall because it felt like home. That broke my heart.
I’m making a special plea here for anyone that can afford to buy a copy of Hamde’s book “Roots Run Deep”, please do so. Every cent he makes, goes back into the Bil’in revolution. He has a heart of pure gold.
Cormac and I ended up taking Eric home to Ramallah with us. He was our first houseguest so we tried to make him feel special. However, we couldn’t find the fucking house and ended up having to beg people on the street to call a taxi for us that was willing to talk to our landlord for directions. My God, we’re geniuses.
In the morning, Eric left for Hebron with our promise we’d meet him there soon.

Ramallah

     We traveled by bus from the border to Jerusalem where we boarded a second bus for Ramallah.  Our landlady had agreed to meet us once we hit the city to take us the rest of the way to the apartment that would be our home for the next three weeks.  

     Layla turned out to have a very interesting story herself.  She was born in Morocco to a Spanish mother and a Palestinian father.  As an adult, she moved back to Palestine where she met and married an Israeli Arab from the 48.  This gave her a blue identity card which gave her more freedom than most Palestinians but also required her to live on the Israeli side of Jerusalem.  I asked her how the government felt about her owning property in Ramallah and she said they weren’t even aware of it.  She was confident that if she paid all taxes and NEVER spent a night within the West Bank, the authorities would be too busy with other nonsense to bother her.  She truly is forbidden to “sleep inside the West Bank”.  You can’t make this stuff up.

     The apartment was nice and clean though we found ourselves without running water on many days.  Our only true complaint was that it was located at the bottom of what could have been a black diamond ski slope.  Great for walking down, not so great for walking up.  I’m not in great shape but I’m not on death’s door either but I swear we had to rest multiple times climbing our way out of that monstrosity.  I expected a heart attack or a minor stroke at the least.

   We spent that first night unpacking and making a run to the local store for necessities.  We declared our official address as:  Bottom of the hill, apartment backwards 12.  We spent our first night chain smoking and watching Charles Manson interviews. Welcome to Palestine.  

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Starting from the Beginning

     On August 28th, I flew to Vienna, Austria to meet up with a fellow activist for Palestine.  We’d been introduced (somehow) a few years back on Facebook and had built a solid friendship based on our mutual obsessions and our desire to see freedom for our Palestinian brothers and sisters in our lifetime.  Cormac had participated in an aid convoy to Gaza in 2011 and stayed on for several weeks afterwards but had yet to visit the West Bank.  I’d been there twice before and imagined I could serve as a half-assed tour guide for him.  HA.

      We started our adventure by flying to Jordan as we were 99.9% sure he would be denied entry through Ben Gurion.  After spending a few days traipsing around Petra (a hideous story that I will not tell here) we finally made it to Allenby Bridge on September 5th.  A land crossing into “Israel” was a new experience for both of us.  The Jordanian side was not so bad.  There were exit taxes to pay that had to be in Jordanian dinars (I believe it was around 65 JD per person) but luckily there is a money changer there who is more than happy to gouge you in the process.

      Perhaps because of the extreme heat of early September or the fear of chemical weapons attacks from Syria, the crossing (at least on the Jordanian side) was almost empty.  It’s a very small, tight environment and to imagine it on a busy travel day is to imagine hell on earth.  Once our taxes were paid and our passports inspected, we were ushered onto a bus that would drive us about a mile or so across the King Hussein Bridge and into “Israeli” territory.  The fact that crossing at Allenby dumps you right into Jericho which is in the West Bank is just one small thing to piss you off when you still have to go through the humiliation and harassment of Israeli Border Control.

      Cormac is a true humanitarian and a great friend.  He is passive and more in control of his temper than I.  However, with his shaved head, multitude of tattoos and an Irish passport he’s a walking invitation for a security search.  We decided to cross together as we thought our story of two friends traveling around the Middle East sounded alright.  Having gone to Petra first helped as we had tickets and brochures we’d picked up that could prove our whereabouts.  The biggest problem was the never-ending questions about why we chose to stay in Ramallah.  Cormac kept telling them we were poor travelers and that it was a lot cheaper to stay in Ramallah and then take a service to wherever we wished to travel.  They were just relentless.  At that point, they asked if we’d been there before.  (We were both traveling on new passports)  I didn’t lie and told them I’d been there in 2008 and 2011.  At that point, another officer approached me and took my passport back to another room and Cormac was ushered on ahead.  I assumed they were checking to see if I’d caused any trouble during my last two visits.  In no time, he brought my passport back, apologized that I had to wait and sent me on my way.  By that time, Cormac had been pulled out of line again and taken to another room for a body search.  He’d already warned me that if he was ordered to remove any clothing he was going to start screaming to wake the dead.  I just sat in a chair and waited with my head in my hands, expecting that ear piercing scream at any moment.  Luckily, he only had to remove his belt and his shoes and then suffer an intimate pat down.  We were on our way again.

      After we’d gone through yet another passport check, he was pulled out of line again.  During this time, we were only allowed to keep our camera bags as our other luggage was (I’m sure) being ransacked somewhere else.  I decided to go pick up our luggage off the conveyer while I waited for him.  One of my bags was missing.  I sat and waited until Cormac was sent back out to find me as it was now my turn to be interrogated as the baggage screening had revealed a possible weapon in my suitcase.  I was taken to a back room, made to identify my bag, open it and then leave the room while they went through it piece by piece.  Of course this was the bag with my keffiyeh and all the magazines I was taking to Nabi Saleh.  When they were through, the agent came out to get me, told me everything was fine and to my amazement, repacked my bag for me.

      Once we’d gathered our luggage, we headed to the next bus where one last time, armed soldiers boarded and checked all passports again.  

     We were through.  I never thought I’d be so happy to see the brown desolation that is Jericho but I swear I could have kissed the ground.

Hebron

Writing from the rooftop of the ISM building in Hebron where it looks like I’ll be sleeping tonight.
Armed soldiers surround the building and they have a camera on a neighboring roof pointed directly at us. I guess that’s better than a gun.
I only have my phone and its about to die. I just wanted to check in to let everyone know I’m alive.

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