Friday, June 24, 2005

Security and Honor

Last night I couldn't sleep. After spending a good part of the week brewing in illness in my Jerusalem bed, a sudden glimpse of normal health encouraged me to stay up late. Tossing and turning in the uncomfortable bunk bed, unable to turn on the light to read, and in a reflective mood having recently regained my ability to think clearly, I became obsessed with the idea that Palestinians and Israelis speak a similar language of bullshit. These languages are, of course, at a certain level intrinsically opposed to the other, but they nonetheless almost mirror one another in other ways.

The two words that came to mind were 'security' and 'honor'. Many men, it seems, both Palestinian and Israeli, have succeeded in creating a situation wherein they can do anything they want and be justified in their respective societies if the missions are declared as defenses of the security of Israel or the honor of Palestinians. Unfortunately, in both cases, women are entirely forgotten, and, like most women in in the world, suffer most due to the difficult political, economic and even cultural situations.

Of course Israel and Palestine are microcosms of many of the world's problems. Both of these rhetorics are employed at the expense of most people in other countries, as well---indeed in most. Everything here seems crystallized, though. The density of these problems---both theoretically and geographically---is part of what interests me so much about Palestine.

Anyway I think it's a good way to understand the deadlock here. Palestinians, women and men, have very legitimate moral claims to an end to the occupation, the removal of settlements, and the right of their refugees to return (or to more than reasonable financial compensation for their losses). But this judgement should in no way make impossible criticism of the movements in the region. One of the biggest problems in Palestinian society, as I see things, is the particular form of male domination that has become deeply entrenched since the first intifada, only growing stronger in the second. I think the deepening conservativism has helped Palestinians stay a closely knit community---no doubt an important task under a typical divide and conquer military dictatorship. But it is also in certain respects what is holding Palestinians back from breaking the chains of the occupation. In no way am I making claims that Palestinian society must mirror that of 'the West'; there are huge cultural differences in terms of naming and identification that in no way allow for (even ignorant) criticisms made of the mythical 'backward' Arab society.

I'll provide an example, to illustrate the importance of considering real cultural difference---importantly, a notion that does not necessarily connote cultural relativism. It comes from an interesting conversation I recently had with Islah Jad, Professor of Women's Studies at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.

Many of those reading this blog have probably seen the film I just finished about the queer Palestinian group 'Aswat'. Islah Jad's daughter and I go to school together, and I visited them for a few days last week. Anyway I was about to show my friend the film when her mother came into the room. Having never showed the film to any Palestinians, I was a bit nervous. Luckily, any fear was overwhelmed by my curiosity. What would this extremely intelligent, in touch, lefty, feminist woman have to say? Her critique was like a wet dream for a filmmaker: informed, intelligent and honest. Though I think she misinterpreted parts of my role in the construction of the film, her argument was precisely what I had been seeking.

Her response was well crafted. First she suggested that I read Joseph Massad's article 'Re-orienting Desire', on what he calls the 'Gay Internationale' and their misguided interference with sexual politics in the Arab and Muslim worlds. (You should read it if you get a chance...look it up on google.) The argument is basically Foucauldian in the sense that Massad suggests the insistence on naming sexuality, on calling same sex activity 'homosexuality', is not only culturally explicit and non-existant in the cultures under the microscope, but also detrimental to the 'cause' of helping people live decent lives. The message is essentially that gay rights activists, their language and culture of activism, has no place in Arab and Muslim culture and actually make life worse for the people these groups claim to work to 'liberate'.

My friend's mother in Ramallah gave me the following example: two women she has known for many years in Ramallah are lesbians and live together. According to Professor Jad, everyone in the town knows that they live together and no one bothers them. Indeed, they are pediatricians, people upon whom residents shower admiration and respect.

If, she continued, these women were to suddenly go public with their sexuality they would be banished. Why? The many Palestinian women in the room during the discussion were adament that the reason has little to do with Palestinian opinions on homosexuality. They suggested such resistance to naming simply because people, all people, do not talk about their sexuality in public. It's not something that happens.

Anyway I've a bit mixed up Islah Jad and her daughter's arguments with those of Joseph Massad but you get the idea. The point of telling the story is to demonstrate that no society, and particularly Palestinian society from an American Christian perspective, can be judged from the outside in a way that makes sense upon first---or even second, third, or fourth---thought.

However, and back to the original point, the relations between men and women in Palestine are decidedly unfair, with men taking almost total control of the task of setting parameters for resistance against the occupation. I don't think I have to explain more about how Israel uses 'security' as a pretext for just about everything.

An interesting example is that both Palestinian and Israeli men have problems with young Palestinian women travelling to Europe to go on speaking tours. Many Palestinian men in Balata won't allow their daughters or neices or sisters to travel due to the damage to the family's honor a trip to liberal Europe may cause. The Israelis justify the denial of these women's legitimate political and personal desires due to 'security' concerns. 'Honor' is the word of the day, just as in Israel, and more so lately in America, the word 'security' squashes legitimate debate in much of the public sphere.

One of my friends, who spent a year in Israeli prison at the age of 19, may not be able to travel with the rest of the dance and drama group because her cousin saw her speaking to a boy at her university, caused a family scandal, and got her in trouble with her father. Unfortunately these futile grabs at what power men can muster often deaden the liberation movement.


Tomorrow I'm back to Balata to see some friends before heading home. Finally feeling better, but quite pissed off about wasting four days of this too short trip.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Week in Review

The past week has been an interesting one. Since I last wrote my two friends have been deported; one of them was kept only overnight in prison and then sent home, the other couldn't get a plane ticket for almost a week. I've come down with a mysterious illness that has kept me in bed for the past few days. I hope very much that it will go away soon.

Last Friday I travelled to Ramallah to visit with a friend and stay with her family for the weekend. It was a crazy experience. Most of my time in Palestine over the years has been spent in Nablus, in the Balata camp. Life there is hard but in many ways beautiful. The closeness of the community is something I have never witnessed before, as is the strict adherence to conservative social mores. These regulations are wide ranging and must be taken seriously. In all my time in Palestine I've hardly ever worn a short sleeved shirt. That is, until I experienced the 'other' side of Palestine, wealthy Ramallah.

I arrived in the cultural capital of Palestine sometime mid-afternoon on Friday and called Yasmine's house in order to get directions. Instead of giving me exact directions her mother directed me to the Friend's Boys School. She said she'd pick me up there. Just a short walk from the center of the city, I waited a while until she arrived. In a brand new Audi, without a head covering, wearing short sleeves. A new world, I thought. I am about to enter a new world.

Their house is incredibly beautiful. Built in 1928 and recently remodeled, there are enough rooms for all three children to have their own space---something I have never encountered in Palestine. Of course the country is like every other--there are wealthy and destitute, the comfortable and the cramped. I was and continue to be so shocked by the disparity; travelling to Ramallah and experiencing this 'other side' of Palestine reinforces my belief in the refugee's rights to return to their lands or to be granted compensation. A refugee camp, though a symbol of resistance and survival, is no place to make one's home.

Yasmine wasn't around when I got there. According to her sister, who could have been dressed for a night out in Paris, she was at the pool. The pool? 'By the way', her sister said, 'why are you wearing long sleeves? It's fucking hot outside.' My weekend was only to become more strange.

We arrived at the Grand Park Hotel in the wealthiest neighborhood of Ramallah and I found a scene that looked more like Florida than the Palestine I thought I knew. Men and women half naked, in bikinis, drinking beer and lounging on the deck of a beautiful pool. People swimming together. I was experiencing such culture shock that it took me a full hour to get used to the idea of taking my shirt off in front of so many people.

Anyway the rest of the weekend was spent doing entirely bourgeosie things like eating in fancy restaurants, drinking coffee in expensive cafes, and seeing films at various cultural societies who were participating in the Arab Film Festival.

More on that later.

But first, check out this story about the fighters from Balata:

Always holding it down. The PA has done and will do little for the people there, and they know it. You can always count on Balata to demonstrate to the world what's really going on...

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Intimidation but not defeat

Below is text copied from a press release I just wrote for the ISM about this stupid affair. As you'll see, the police (or whoever they were) were just trying to scare me and waste my time. The immigration police had no idea who I was and told me to go back to where I came from.

Yesterday, Tuesday 14 June, three internationals were abducted by two undercover Israeli agents on the streets of west Jerusalem in broad daylight. At approximately one PM local time, the three internationals, who have chosen to keep their identities anonymous, walked downstairs from the flat they had stayed in the night before and into the arms of the officers, who promptly surrounded them.

The agents demanded passports and cellphones, and told the internationals that they were needed at the nearby Russian Compound police station and jail for questioning. All three internationals refused, asking for warrants or any materials that could prove beyond reasonable doubt that any Israeli agents might have legitimate reason for detaining or arresting them. No reason was given. Instead, the agents told the internationals that they were only going to be detained, and that if they did not get into the unmarked car they would be arrested and dragged to the compound against their will. After a pointless argument about the nature of democracy and police action, the three internationals agreed to go with the agents.

Upon arriving at the compound---a place notorious for torture and the bloody screams that eminate from its basement---the internationals were, after a series of more pointless arguments with other Israeli agents, shuffled into a storage closet to await further direction. At this point, approximately 1:30, the internationals had not received any answers about why they were being detained, or who had issued the order for their capture. It should be noted that it is extremely rare for internationals to be arrested in the Israeli half of Jerusalem. According to reliable sources, this has not happened in the past four years.

The internationals were left to sit in the storage closet until some of their friends arrived with their baggage and food. They were then allowed to sit outside and eat lunch. Finally, after being moved back into the storage closet, passports and cellphones still out of reach, the internationals were called, one by one, into an office with whom they suspect were members of Israel's General Security Services (GSS), the Israeli equivalent of the American FBI. While two of the internationals had overstayed their visas and were planning on getting deported, the third had only been in the country for two weeks on a three month visa and was completely 'legal'. It should also be noted that for the entire duration of their stay at the compound, amounting to four hours, the internationals persistently requested to call their lawyers and were completely ignored.

The 'legal' international was summoned to the office first. One of the plainclothes agents that had abducted the three was in the room, along with two other people not yet seen by the internationals. One of them had a digital camera, and though the international in question refused to have her picture taken at first, the agents made a (false) threat of arrest if she did not comply. They took perhaps 30 pictures of her. Finally, the other hitherto unknown character put a piece of paper in front of her, asking her to sign it. The paper said that she would be required to go to the immigration police office the next morning, Wednesday, at 9 am. Signing the paper was the condition for her release from the Russian Compound. Though she initially refused, the officers told her that if she did not sign she would be kept in the jail overnight and driven to the office by the police the next morning. She signed.

The other two internationals were brought into the office, their pictures were taken and they were processed as arrested. They were then moved to the jail adjacent to the police station and kept overnight.

This morning, Wednesday, the third, 'legal' international appeared at the immigration police station with her lawyer. The immigration police had no idea why she had been summoned, and said they had nothing to do with it. After laughing for a few minutes with the Israeli lawyer, they said goodbye to the international and her lawyer and the international was free to go about her business as usual.

The two other internationals are awaiting deportation. One is in the process of being moved to Ramle prison, the other to Hadera prison. They have been told that they will stay perhaps one or two days in these prisons before being deported to their respective countries, the UK and the US.

The entire affair is difficult to analyze due to the nature of Israeli secrecy related to these matters. What we can be sure of is that the Israeli police were in some way collaborating with the GSS, because the location where the internationals were scooped up was in no way accessible to the Israelis by any means other than phone tapping. According to Israeli law, the police must have a court order to tap phones, whereas the GSS does not. There is no other conceivable explanation for the presence of the two undercover agents outside the flat in west Jerusalem. They had been waiting and knew exactly where the internationals were.

Though the third international seems to be out of trouble, the entire affair smacks of the Israeli policy of intimidation of international activists or even those who attempt to view the conflict from the perspective of the Palestinians. The 'legal' international has been working and living in East Jerusalem, doing research for the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) through a grant provided by the Human Rights Project at her college in the United States. She had never been arrested or detained by any Israeli 'security' forces before yesterday. Though her lawyer urged her to sue the state for detainment without cause and personal damages, she has declined due to lack of funds.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

more on today's fiasco

(read the post below if you haven't yet)

After the ordeal with the police I felt quite depressed and tired. Though, as stated below, we were treated reasonably well in comparison to what is deemed appropriate for Palestinians here, people of color everywhere, in some places queers, etc., the series of humiliations and slights at our humanity left me with a sour feeling.

This sour feeling was quickly dispelled when I spoke with a friend upon my release. Apparently she had witnessed our capture in the street from the balcony above, and had spent the duration of my detention calling Israeli activists, lawyers, and journalists about the affair. When I returned to the Faisal everyone already knew what had happened.

It's really amazing: when in detention, or, after having been fully arrested, in jail or prison, one feels totally isolated from the rest of the world. Our cell phones and passports---windows and keys to the world---were confiscated and held in the hands of unfriendly captors. I only realized how isolated I had felt, how truly un-loved and in fact hated, when I returned to what here can be called a state of normalcy, surrounded by like-minded, compassionate and hard working people. Within an hour of my release I got no less than five phone calls from concerned Israeli activists giving me advice, asking me questions for press releases or newspaper articles, making sure I was ok.

Anyway I have spoken with a lawyer, an Israeli woman who seems as smart as she is dedicated and politically on point, and she will accompany me to the immigration police office tomorrow morning. My appointment is scheduled for nine am; my lawyer cannot make it, and nonchalantly advised me to call the office and tell them that my lawyer and I would be there at noon. If this doesn't work I am to call her, and she will then call them and in Hebrew convince them to grant us the time change.

Many informed activists I've spoken with think that they are summoning me to revoke my visa and try to deport me. My lawyer says that I should fight this if it happens, that I will undoubtedly win in court. She's pissed about what happened today, and already wants to sue them for detaining me without any reason. Unfortunately, appealing a deportation order costs lots of money, even aside from lawyers fees. I am only here for another two weeks, though. I think my best bet is to bring with me my plane tickets---to prove that I am leaving shortly---and tell them to call PASSIA so they may make sure I am not up to any 'trouble'.

If this doesn't work, I'm not sure what I'll do.

kafka should have been born here

Today was quite strange. Last night some friends and I stayed at an Israeli friend's flat in the western half of Jerusalem, conveniently located just blocks from the notorious Russian Compound, a prison, police station and detention center well known for the bloody screams that emanate from its interrogation rooms.

We woke late this morning. I felt a bit sick from a bout of drinking last night---we had been to an Israeli drag show and stayed out late, got drunker than I've been in months. Quite a different experience from what I have been immersed in of late. Some friends and I planned to walk down the hill to east Jerusalem to get some coffee and cheap breakfast. We never made it.

While waiting on the curb for them to come downstairs, I noticed a suspicious looking character milling about near me, glancing at me every once in a while and making a few calls on his cell phone. I thought he looked like an undercover cop, and my intuition told me to go back upstairs to warn the others. Instead, aware that I have done nothing illegal and that they could not rightly arrest me, I ignored him. I should have trusted my gut.

When my friends joined me on the street it was too late. We only made it about ten steps from the door before being surrounded and literally held by two men, clearly undercover cops. They told us they needed to 'talk', and that we must follow them to their car. The good activists we are, we refused. 'In my country', my friend said, 'the police need give you a reason to arrest or detain you. You have no warrant, and I have not committed any crime. Let me go.' They ignored him, and after about five minutes of ultimately pointless verbal wrangling in the street they led us to the car.

We arrived at the police station (again, just blocks away) at about one o'clock. Then began the series of minor humiliations and Kafka-esque arguments, series of pointless questioning from us about what they planned to do with us, why we were being detained. No one seemed to know. They were only obeying orders, 'doing their jobs'.

The two friends I was with are without visas, and were obviously going to be arrested and deported. It was, in fact, their plan. The cops only beat them to the punch. But me, I was simply caught in the middle of an affair having nothing to do with me. But I was brought along for the ride. I suspect this is because they wanted to make sure I was 'legal'.

We sat for three and a half hours before even the undercovers who arrested us had any idea about why they were dispatched to drag us in. These almost four hours are the most interesting of the whole experience, but I feel so drained and disgusted with the whole affair that I have little desire or even the ability to recount the many trials we endured. Finally, after getting briefed by who I can only assume to be a member of the Israeli secret service (the GSS, or Shin Bet), they summoned me to another room, this time leaving my friends behind. I knew I was being released because they gave me back my cellphone.

Unfortunately, my release is conditional. I was brought into the room and, against my will, photographed by a GSS guy. He must have taken thirty pictures of me. Then another guy behind a desk told me that the immigration services had issued what he euphemistically called an 'invitation' for me to 'visit' with them at 9 am tomorrow. They 'only want to talk', he said.

There's a lot that cannot be said about this madness in the blog. For one, I have no desire for some things about the situation to be public---it appears as if the Israelis are paying attention to me now. Who knows how long they'd been tracking us?

In addition, I am tired, feeling totally drained and somewhat depressed about the state of things. It's a demeaning experience, getting detained---even if only for a few hours and without physical punishment or harm. It goes without saying that my white skin and American passport afforded me protection Palestinians can only dream of.

It's important to be recognized in life, for people to respond or at least look at you when you ask them a question simple as 'Can we get some food?'. My view of humanity is not completely bleak, however; I couldn't have picked two people I'd rather be detained with, and minus the ridiculousness of it all---or perhaps because of it---we had ourselves some fun along the way.

Anyway, more tomorrow after I find out why I've been summoned to the immigration police. Yikes.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Racism abounds

The past few days have been most interesting here in Palestine. I was in Jerusalem for a day and a half taking a brief break from Balata---a friend and I stayed at an Israeli activist's flat in the western (Israeli) section of the city. The place was quite nice: there were western toilets, a kitchen stocked with all the comforts of the American vegan home, and an actual bed with an expensive mattress and cotton blankets. Just a minute's walk from 'Zion Square', the flat felt like a five star hotel.

I left it only briefly on the one night we stayed in the city; on my way to an ATM machine to refill my pockets, I heard the loud drumming and chanting of a group of settlers from the West Bank who had decended upon the largely young and fashionable crowd to protest the eternally distracting 'disengagement' from Gaza.

Jerusalem is a strange place. Though it feels closer to the occupation than the coastal, seemingly aloof city of Tel Aviv, the closeness is not necessarily of a positive nature---this in a country wherein people often know more about what is going on in America than in the territories its sons and daughters are busy occupying only kilometers away. In Jerusalem, alas, the right-wingers have free reign and lots of support. Thus: the occupation is more tangible, but only because so many people adamently support it. In Tel Aviv people are often too busy getting drunk and laid, tryin to forget what they and their comrades have seen and done.

This supposition, like most others, does not hold true in all cases. Indeed, the young activists who gave us the key to their west Jerusalem flat were busy, respectively, at a court hearing (for damaging part of the apartheid wall at a protest---the young man's fifth arrest in as many weeks), planning an activist festival, and travelling to Europe to prepare for the upcoming protests against the meeting of the world's richest nations, the G8. As I write, an activist 'festival' of sorts is happening in the mixed Jewish and Arab town of Lid, located inside Israel's 1948 borders. Without much to do on a Friday, my friends and I decided to go and see what activism people in Israel are up to while their tax dollars and peers make possible the brutal occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

The festival was quite strange. Many tents were scattered in what appeared to be an abandoned parking lot sans asphalt located in one of Israel's poorest neighborhoods. Naturally, it is a brown neighborhood: Ethiopian Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel live together in what can only be described as a ghetto, reminiscient of many public housing projects I have seen throughout American cities.

According to our hosts, crime, drugs and prostitution are rampant in the 20% Arab town, and though the communities live among one another, there is definite segregation socially, culturally and politically. One self-proclaimed Israeli-Arab youngster went so far as to denounce Palestine and remove himself from his history. His young Ethiopian friend, obviously quite stupid, remarked in the next breath that he 'hates Arabs'.

The conference, or festival or whatever, was needless to say a strange experiment in advocacy. Many 'white' Israelis who had never been to Lid descended on the town with their tents, organic food and acoustic guitars, ready for a weekend of lectures, music and parties. Most of the people in attendence looked like me. The people who live in the projects adjacent to the festival seemed to be too busy to pay attention to the gathering and took little notice. The interactions with the people from Lid that I had were depressing: for example, while talking to one of the many (maybe 20) interesting Israeli anarchists at some info table, a young Ethiopian-Israeli boy approached the table to ask about whether we could make a certain section of tents an 'Arab-free zone'. Festive indeed.

Clearly the rampant racism in Israeli society has hit the Palestinians who remained after the Nakba hard. In a strange twist, recent immigrants to Israel from African and Middle Eastern countries are often the most racist and brutal in their treatment of Palestinians during their army service. Perhaps people feel as if they need to prove their Jewishness, their Israeli-ness, to the Ashkenazi who run the country. The phenomenon exists for whatever reason. It's depressing to see those so neglected and oppressed turn against who would appear to be their natural allies---but it is a sight I am unfortunately familiar with, for example when the rural American poor supported the tragic war on Iraq that further impoverished them and killed their sons and daughters.

Another strange experience came as I spoke to some young American women in the 'Veggie Bar' tent. One of them, Shelly, told me that she has been in Jerusalem for about six months working for the Jerusalem Open House, a queer safe space in the western part of the city. After getting into somewhat of a detailed conversation with her about her experience in Israel and my work in Balata, I asked her about her thoughts on the call to boycott the Open House's plans for a 'World Pride' march to take place in Jerusalem this coming August. Though the plans had been cancelled because of the 'disengagement'---set to coincide with the gathering of gays---she had lots to say about the importance of Israeli pride events, even in the face of criticisms made by such radicals as members of the Israeli group Black Laundry and the director of Palestine's only queer organization, Aswat, Rauda Morcos.

These folks say that they find a celebration of homosexuality grotesque if it ignores the occupation of Palestine and all that goes along with it. As one Israeli queer activist, a 27 year old woman from Tel Aviv, put it: "There is a connection between our oppression as lesbians, homosexuals and the oppression of the Palestinians. Since the intifada, the city of Jerusalem is covered with posters and graffiti saying ‘Expel the Arabs.’ Yesterday the city was covered with graffiti saying ‘Expel the homosexuals.’ I don’t want this [parade] to be a fig leaf for the abuses of human rights. A few kilometers from here there are people under siege, people who are hungry."

Another woman from Black Laundry, Gali, a 22 year old, explained: "We protest against the festive nature of the pride parade [because they’re] doing it while the occupation is going on. Pride is a political thing. We can’t celebrate our freedom while other groups are oppressed."

The American queer working for the Open House had heard these arguments, she said, but was disturbed by them. "For example," Shelly went on, "I think it's too bad that this festival was organized to coincide with Tel Aviv pride. I'd really like to be there, but I thought I should come and support this instead. I shouldn't have to make that choice." I was, frankly, appalled. I have seen pictures of Tel Aviv pride and heard about it from Israeli friends. One picture I saw depicted some soldiers in uniform with their guns holding rainbow Israeli flags. Militarism and support for gay rights? Not my style. I then suggested that such celebrations did little to confront the most important issues to work against in Israeli society, issues that breed and encourage both racism and homophobia.

"Well," Shelly continued, "maybe it's different for you because you aren't Jewish. But I have to say that coming to Israel and working with Jewish queer people has been super important for me. It's just different, to be with your own people." I asked her why she had to come so far to find this community. "Have you ever been to New York or Boston?" I asked. "Half of the queer people I know in those cities are Jewish." Her reply was like a crystillization of everything about the conversation that made me uncomfortable. "But Boston and New York are not my home. Seattle is." I held back a scream: and JERUSALEM?

That an American would suggest her belonging or right to be in Jerusalem over Boston or New York is a manifestation of the problematic nature of Zionism. While Palestinians whose families have existed on this land for thousands of years have little to no right to even pray at the sacred Al-Aqsa mosque, let alone move to Jerusalem to live or work, this American girl felt not only permitted but entitled to come to experience 'her people'. We had little to talk about after this.

Alas, the racism is rampant here. Hitchhiking to Bir Zeit to go to a friend's going away party we were picked up by a settler and his girlfriend. As we got out of the car at our junction, a Palestinian taxi was turning down a road in the direction of Bir Zeit. The Israeli settler behind the wheel visibly tensed and said quickly and sharply in accented English: "See that car? Arabi. Do not go with the Arabi. Not Yehudi."

"Thanks," we said, and quickly rushed to catch the ride.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

normalization = death

I am still in Balata camp, doing my research from here for the week because of my need to finish some business in the camp. I am working on a documentary for my senior thesis and have been taking video of the homes that were used like a labyrinth by the Israeli army during the April 2002 invasion. Afraid to enter the camp's streets and allys, the army would instead weave its way through people's homes by blowing holes in the walls, making sure to mark with spray painted arrows the direction for the next group of soldiers to follow. People's walls are covered with these black arrows. (See for a picture.) Many have left them there as evidence for people like me to document. And document I do.

The work with PASSIA is going well. I will be back in the office next Monday, but for now the stay in Balata is quite relaxing and I am able to get quite a bit of work done for them here. It seems strange to talk about Balata using words like 'relaxing'.

And indeed, one of the most troubling aspects of 'quiet' periods here in occupied Palestine is the deceptive nature of the relative calm; even I---after reading so much about the tragic history of this land and the misery of the refugees, after experiencing first and second hand the daily humiliations and stoppages caused by occupation---am sometimes fooled into thinking that things are getting better. This is precisely the problem. The international newsmedia has moved on to bigger and better things. The intifada is over. There are no more bombings in '48 territory, very few acts of resistance. So the press ignores the people living under occupation.

People are tired. And so there is talk of 'disengagement', of a new chance for 'peace'.

Unfortunately, Oslo has once again reared its ugly head. Palestinians then had their rights stripped from them by a relative foreigner---the corrupt, money hungry and out of touch Arafat. During Oslo negotiations, an American diplomat happily remarked that the Palestinians were by far the 'most flexible partner' involved. This flexibility essentially meant the final dagger in the heart of the dreams naively harbored by Palestinians during the first intifada. Most people in 1987, at the beginning of the first uprising, thought the Israelis would give up, cower under the hail of stones and give them a state within a year at most.

Now people here, after the crushing blow dealt to them through Oslo and their first intifada's miserable defeat, and then struggling for almost four years to resist the 'normalization of occupation', are relieved to have a bit of breathing room. What is this breathing room? It is a shorter line at the checkpoint (or no line at all); it is more permits granted so that Palestinian fathers and brothers may whore themselves more freely to Israeli contractors for criminally low pay; it is a few hundred of almost ten thousand prisoners released---a drop in the bucket but no small feat for the families of the imprisoned.

Unfortunately, these small gains obscure the larger problem: as Palestinians became tired of the struggle---the constant invasions, the permanent state of siege, the poverty, the joblessness, the murders, deportations, tortures and indiscriminant arrest campaigns---they resigned themselves to forgo the only measure of political power they once posessed. This is, simply, violence.

Now, without this bargaining chip, or rather this reminder to the world of their existence and of their plight, the Israeli public and the international community are disconnected from the still harsh reality of life under occupation. Few mention the continued Israeli theft of over 80 percent of the West Bank's water---which is then sold back to the Palestinians at insane prices and rationed so heavily that many people here in Balata run out every week before the truck comes to deliver the next week's supply. Few mention the continued expansion of the settlements, which strangle and make claustrophobic the Palestinians living within what was once---as Palestinian national poet Mahmud Darwish called it---a veritable paradise.

No one wants to talk about the notorious Israeli prisons: inside, about 8,000 Palestinians---men, women and children---languish in the most horrifying conditions, enduring physical and psychological torture, separation from their families and paranoia due to Israeli efforts at forcing collaboration. Most of the people in these prisons are there for participating in 'political activity', which means, according to Israel, that they oppose the Israeli occupation and have done or said something to prove it. Many of them are imprisoned without charge, enduring what Israel euphemistically terms 'administrative detention'---a highly anti-democratic means of sending someone to prison for a renewable sentence of 6 months without evidence, charge or trial.

Here in Balata things are quiet. I have not in my five days here seen one army jeep or heard one shot from an Israeli gun. But people here are no less adament about the nature of the occupation and its effects on their daily lives. People are still criminally poor, their services neglected, their movement and freedoms dreadfully absent, their mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers still behind bars. And so people, gaining strength and energy for what may come next, anxiously predict the next uprising. The third intifada, I have been told, will shock the world. If only the world were shocked by what goes on today, there would be no need for another round.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

back to balata

The past week has been relatively uneventful; insh'allah (god willing) this does not mean what it can in this region---that the inevitable cliche will come to pass, that some storm will come after this period of relative calm.

And relative it is. The checkpoints still exist, the settlements are expanding at a miserably efficient pace; my friends in Balata tell me of army presence in the camp pretty much every night this week. What are they doing? Sometimes arresting people, sometimes just roaming and frightening folks. Just the other day I read a story on al-Jazeera about a man who died at a checkpoint. According to the man's taxi driver, who was attempting to get him from a small village north of Nablus into the city to go to hospital, the soldiers at the checkpoint were unconcerned: 'Let him die,' one gun-slung teenager is reported to have said. The horror: the driver also reported that the soldiers refused to call an ambulance for over two hours, until the man had died. He says that they checked to make sure he was dead and then called on their radios for a medical team to come.

I reported this story to my friends here in the camp as we were discussing the recent developments of 'the situation'. I couldn't---didn't want to---believe that even Israeli soldiers, known for their callousness and racism against Palestinians, could be so cruel. A friend of mine, Mohamed, a self-proclaimed communist and heretic in a camp composed largely of conservative Muslims, relayed a similar story. Apparently the father of a suicide bomber from the camp had a heart attack, and on his way to the hospital was detained at a checkpoint by soldiers. These soldiers did the same thing; they waited 'to make sure he was dead' before happily calling an ambulance.

The misery continues here, though movement for Palestinians in the northern West Bank has recently become substantially easier. Today, for example, I travelled from Jerusalem to Balata camp in just under two hours. This trip would normally take about an hour were it not for the occupation's matrix of control here. Still, most of my experience travelling between the cities has been a nightmare, often taking more than five hours in total. But travel is somewhat of a maze even with the relatively open checkpoints along the way I passed through unquestioned today.

Though it was easier today, the trip's many detours and taxi changes can be tiring, even for a healthy young person, on a GOOD day like this one. From Jerusalem's Palestinian section one takes a minibus to the Kalandia checkpoint outside of Ramallah---where, incidentally, the Israelis are constructing what appears to be an international border crossing like those between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Egypt. At Kalandia one exits their minibus and walks perhaps a quarter of a mile through a checkpoint into the Ramallah district. There one takes a taxi or service (a shared taxi---much cheaper) into the city. So far the journey has taken about a half hour, again on a good day. From Ramallah one either takes a big bus or another service to the Huwarra checkpoint, which lies just northeast of the Ariel settlement and directly south of Nablus city. This leg of the trip takes about an hour.

Arriving ar Huwarra one finds a most interesting relic of the occupation and its many checkpoints: lining the walkways near the taxi stands on both sides of the checkpoint are vendors. Today it looked like a veritable market, with people selling clothes, food, random electronics---whatever one would find in any other market in Palestine. Finally, after walking the quarter mile distance throgh the checkpoint one arrives in the Nablus city region and from there can take a taxi to whatever destination inside or around the city. I happened to walk straight through the checkpoint without any questions from the two Israeli soldiers manning that particular gate.

I have not been so lucky in the past; the last time I visited Balata I was turned away from the checkpoint---the soldiers telling me that 'The Arabs are dangerous, you cannot enter', asking me why I don't 'just go to Tel Aviv or something' and why the hell I would want to go into Nablus (in one soldier's stated opinion the dirtiest and foulest place on earth). So I did what Palestinians do; I turned around, took a taxi to a neighboring village and climbed for two hours through the mountains until reaching my destination.

The situation has been better lately. According to a British friend who has been living here in Balata for over a year, tourists have recently begun to return to Nablus. He said it with somewhat of a grimace. Confused, I asked him whether he thought this was a good or bad thing. 'It's neither good nor bad,' he said. 'It's positive for many people here because of the relative ease with which they can move, and because perhaps some money will begin to trickle back into the tourist economy [that has been absolutely crushed since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2001]. It's really a false sense of optimism, though,' he continued, 'because people on the outside will start to assume that the occupation doesn't exist anymore.'

That is true, I thought, recalling the first time I came to Nablus. Though I was beginning to understand the ways in which Israel controls the Palestinians in its occupation, I hadn't developed an understanding of either the language or the landscape of occupation. To an untrained eye the trip between Ramallah and Nablus seems picturesque at best and slightly off at worst. With a better understanding of the architecture of occupation and the history of displacement and oppression, however, each stone, red-roof and demolished greenhouse takes on entirely new meaning.

The people in Balata continue to go about their lives. Some things don't change: as I walked down into the camp from the road above, which leads to Nablus city, energetic children in school uniforms stared, confused at the presence of a strange-looking foreigner. Others yelled the only English any of them seem to remember from school; choruses of 'What's your name? What's your name?' followed me down the dusty street.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Fear and Loathing in Israel

I have been travelling for about 24 hours now, and just a few minutes ago finally reached my destination: the warm, friendly and hospitable Faisal Hostel in East Jerusalem near the Damascus gate. Though my experience at the Israeli airport was more benign than my most recent encounters with the security there, I emerged from the place feeling more confused than angry, frustrated or dismayed.

Walking off the plane, I thought about how likely my prospects for undergoing what I will from here on refer to as 'special treatment'. The special treatment accorded me today was quite different from what I have experienced in other trips through Israel's border crossings; indeed, after asking a few questions about the nature of my trip, they simply stopped talking to me (other than to issue commands about where to go and what to do). This was a welcome change, but left me with somewhat of an eerie feeling. The police in the airport had my passport for over an hour---'just checking' I was told. Checking what? Who knows. No one was about to tell me anything of substance.

The strangest part of the day, and what left me feeling so confused, was a bizzare incident related to my camera bag. It is a smallish bag, made for holding a camcorder and various smallish instruments to go along with a smallish camera. The security folks took everything out of all of my bags, performed the whole search, and as I was packing my things I was told that my camera bag---only the bag, not the camera or anything else...just the empty bag---was a security threat and that it must be boxed up until I leave the airport. 'Are you serious?' I asked. The two bodyguards and search-o-rama experts---who are, incidentally, even younger than I---responded in kind: 'Yes, ma'am. For security reasons.'

Naturally I asked them what kind of regulation forbids the putting of cameras into camera bags in Ben Gurion airport. And, naturally, they responded at once: 'We cannot tell you. It's a security measure and if we told you it wouldn't be secure.'

So after they had finished rummaging and the last police checks were checked I was handed my boxed up camera bag and shuttled outside into the Mediterranean dusk. Upon exiting the building I promptly opened the box, took out my bag and refilled it with the proper contents. I will let readers draw what they may from this bizarre interaction, this almost perfect example of the wasted energy and time Israel spends on keeping out peace activists. Heaven forbid! Peace activists coming through the borders like roaches! With insecure camera bags!

The second experience of note is, unfortunately, less humorous and, well, plain depressing. In my last trip from the airport I took a sherut---a shared taxi---to the Faisal and was dropped off directly in front of the door. Tonight was quite different. I ended up having somewhat of a heated argument with the sherut driver because he would not enter the Damascus gate area. Why? 'This is the Arabic area,' he said, 'and I am Israeli. I will not go there. You can walk.'

I suggested that there was very little chance of a violent encounter with the Palestinians in East Jerusalem were he to drive me to my hostel as he drove the many other riders to their respective destinations. He suggested that I had no idea what I was talking about, that I obviously didn't know 'the Arabs', and that he couldn't possibly go 'there'---living, as he does, in West Jerusalem himself.

Frustrated and somewhat horrified, I walked the rest of the way myself. A Palestinian man who had witnessed the argument smiled at me and shook his head knowingly, laughing an unmistakably Palestinain, sardonic laugh.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

pat interrogated by shin bet

the last time i saw pat was in the faisal, a small, inexpensive flat with dorm beds in palestinian jerusalem. he was drinking tea, and, as usual, involved in some sort of negotiation over work for ism's media production, carrying two cell phones and a computer full of reports, press releases. all attempts to do what ism sets out to do, and what is impossible to accomplish: give voice to the oppressed as a means of forcing policy change.

pat is a soft spoken guy. his testimony of detention, interrogation and subsequent imprisonment is shocking only because it comes from him. power has served its self-destructive purpose with patrick; a 'political', his message is too close to the truth and must be criminalized, fear-inspiring, traitorous. the shin bet (israeli internal 'intelligence') believes him to be a terrorist. he is getting in the way.


My Interview with the Shin Bet (Patrick O'Connor)

Recently the Israeli authorities have begun searching for and
arresting experienced ISM and international activists. My arrest and
attempted deportation is another example of this. Evidently the
Israeli authorities find nonviolent resistance and active support of
Palestinian rights to be threatening. Despite claims to the contrary,
they have adopted an unstated goal of breaking down and eliminating
the ISM and other groups using nonviolence to support Palestinian rights.

During the past three years over 100 ISMers have been denied entry and
62 deported. At the same time Israeli authorities have launched a
propaganda campaign against ISM and other activists, with attempts to
falsely link them with terrorism. My recent interrogation by the Shin
Bet shed some light on the tactics.

On the morning of January 25th I was taken from a Ben Gurion airport
detention center to Maasiyahu prison in Ramle. I was put in a 20 foot
by 10 foot cell with six other men served with deportation orders.
After a few hours I was called from my cell without explanation. My
legs were cuffed together and I was led out of my section to another
building. I was taken into a room with two men in plainclothes. They
closed the door, searched me thoroughly, and then set me down with the
leg cuffs still on.

The two men were fit, had short hair and sport shirts - typical Shin
Bet agents. Only one spoke, the other observed. He began by saying
he's from the Shin Bet (Israeli domestic security services, or GSS),
and he asked me if I knew why the Shin Bet was interested in the ISM.
I answered that their interest was misplaced because the ISM supports
nonviolent Palestinian resistance, and there should be no reason for
Israel to oppose that. He laughed and said that the Palestinians might
be nonviolent by day and violent by night.

Then he started on the internationals, mentioning two incidents from
2003 that have been badly distorted and are often used by Israeli
authorities to slander the ISM. He brought up the arrest of a "wanted"
man in the ISM apartment in Jenin and the two British suicide bombers,
people who had absolutely no connection with the ISM. He didn't seem
interested in listening to my response (for details on these two
incidents see at the frequently asked questions

Instead he had read my affidavit to the court in 2003 from my appeal
of my denied entry, and he claimed it said that I had participated in
violent demonstrations. I responded that he had misread my affidavit,
because it said clearly that I have participated in peaceful
demonstrations that had been met with violence by the Israeli
military. I also told him that if the "secret evidence" against me
were revealed, it would not stand up to scrutiny.

He asked me if I had ever carried correspondence for "wanted men,"
helped wanted men to move about or given my passport for someone else
to use. He asked if I had ever hit a soldier or thrown stones. He
asked if I had ever received weapons or arms training. I answered with
indignant no's, saying I was a nonviolent activist. He said "maybe you
are a real peace activist but can you guarantee that others are?" I
told him that ISM requires all activists to commit to using only
nonviolent means.

He asked me for names of Palestinians working with the ISM. I told him
that I was sure he had other sources of information and that I would
not give him any information. He also asked me if I was familiar with
Israeli peace activist Tali Fahima (jailed and accused of being in
contact with "wanted" men from Jenin) and whether I had met Zakaria
Zbedi (The head of El Aqsa brigades in Jenin). I said, "While I have
heard of both, I have met neither." The interview ended and I was
returned shackled to my cell.

There are issues I was afraid to discuss frankly during my
interrogation - issues relating to Israeli violence, Israeli double
standards, international law and the arrest of Tali Fahima. The Shin
Bet agents are in a position of power over me as I sit in an Israeli
prison. I know they may distort and manipulate things I say to punish
me and achieve their goal of damaging the ISM. However, the inequality
of power and threat of punishment is far less for me than it is for a
Palestinian who goes through interrogation. I have governments, which
will support me and prevent the worst abuses. I can afford a good
lawyer, who I will be given access to. I have a strong support group
and access to the media. I will also leave here and will not continue
to live under Israeli control.

Over and over again we have seen that the international community will
not protect Palestinians from Israeli abuses. They can be imprisoned
arbitrarily and tortured. They are often denied access to lawyers,
their homes, lands and their jobs. Freedom of movement can be taken
away, and their families threatened with the same punishments. The
media will not cover their story. Nor do Palestinians have an option
to escape Israeli domination. Power and threats mean that the Shin Bet
interrogation of a Palestinian will only produce incomplete and
twisted information.

What disturbed me most about my interrogation with the Shin Bet agent,
was his seeming certainty about his information. Not only do the
Israeli authorities produce propaganda about the Occupation and about
the ISM, but some of them appear to believe it themselves. The Shin
Bet also seems to aim to intimidate by giving the appearance of being
all knowing, but their "intelligence" is obviously badly flawed.
Israeli intelligence is generated from collaborators, surveillance and
interrogation. It serves the corrupt and corrupting goals of continued
military occupation, land seizure, domination and manipulation.

Israeli intelligence treats all forms of opposition as threats to be
eliminated. It labels all Palestinians as terrorists and all Israelis
and internationals who work with them as collaborators with terrorism.
This produces a distorted characterization of Palestinian society,
lacking direct experience with real life Palestinians and failing to
understand Palestinians as people with rights and aspirations.

The Shin Bet agent called me naive, but I think he is naive since he
believes he can understand Palestinian society from a position of
domination and inequality, and use that understanding to control and
manipulate Palestinians, and eliminate all opposition to the Occupation.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

lasting impressions

once again, the image that sticks most with me upon my immanent departure from palestine is that of the harshly oppressed person smiling, laughing and offering me tea.

palestinians, it seems, are one of the most oppressed peoples on earth. the afflictions which ail them come not only from grinding poverty or sickness; unlike much of the majority world, most palestinians (at least in the west bank) have enough to eat and have limited access to health care. the oppression they endure exists on another level entirely; colonization and military occupation and all that accompanies them make life for palestinians different from most in the world, and quite difficult, to say the least.

on my way here two weeks ago i felt a bit depressed. i wondered what tragedies i would encounter, how many fatherless children, how many homeless families, made refugees two, three, even four times through wars, ethnic cleansing campaigns and now collective punishments. how many mothers without children; they are killed by the army or imprisoned for years in harsh conditions for throwing stones. resistance here is fertile, though, and prison sentences do not deter most from hailing the occasional stone or bottle filled with white paint at a beligerent military jeep.

leaving here, after two short weeks of work, play and thought, i feel as if i have been uplifted by the palestinian people. their strength, their hope, their attitude: 'this is our life', iman said through a smile, and handed me a cup of tea. this is palestine, i think.

two weeks ago when i drove for the first time in two years along the narrow road leading to ramallah from jerusalem i was shocked by the change in the scenery. the wall, an apartheid structure which is sucking more life out of an already helpless population of farmers and merchants, streches the length of the road, separating confiscated land in jerusalem from the rest of the west bank. the sight hurt my eyes and gave me a headache; watching it out of the corner of my eye made me tense, irritated. an eyesore, it was only the first of many changes the landscape has endured in the past two years.

inshallah, when i return (when?) the landscape will not be further scarred. i will try to remember what it looks like now.

Friday, January 21, 2005

happy new year: young boy with toy gun shot dead near jenin

Eid is the muslim new year but it's rather like american christmas. people get new clothes for the holiday, shops are open late on Eid eve for last minute shopping, people travel to see their families. on Eid morning it's custom for men to go about throughout their neighborhoods bringing money and gifts to the women and children in their families. the children, i was told, often buy toy guns with their Eid money. i wondered aloud whether this was a smart practice, what with israeli soldiers' quick trigger-fingers and their fear of palestinians, whom they usually refer to as 'arabs' and sometimes, the mean or religious ones, 'dogs'.

my friend mika assured me that the soldiers are well aware of the toy gun purchases around Eid, and that the guns don't actually look real. they are plastic, they have orange plastic on the tips of their barrels; little boys couldn't hold M-16s and flail them about, i am told, and the soldiers know this.

unfortunately Eid money this year led to one little boy's untimely demise in the village of tubas near jenin. a thirteen year old and his friends were playing around, taunting the soldiers and pointing their new, plastic guns at a patrolling jeep. soldiers fired into the group of boys, hitting salah ikhab. he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

last night i had a genuinely beautiful evening. it was my last night in the west bank and some friends invited me to a dinner party to celebrate Eid in ramallah. i'd never spent more than a few minutes in the city before, so i gladly accepted the offer and met them in a coffee shop in the center of town.

the party was great: everyone there was either a gazan or an international. any west bank palestinians were with their families celebrating the holiday, but these gazans, all students at bir zeit university outside the city, couldn't go home. in fact, not one of the four men has been home in over 5 years. they can't go because if they did, they wouldn't be allowed back out. gaza is essentially an open air prison, and though they desperately miss their families and the sea, they aren't interested in a life sentence in the tiny beach-front strip, divided by settlements, watched from all angles by soldiers in towers, locked in by gates, fences and the expansive mediterranean.

we cooked guacamole, hummos, a ful, a palestinian bean dish. we drank wine and ate by candlelight. we smoked. we talked. and then the drums and came out; the table was then moved into the other room and a rug was brought in to replace it. off came the shoes and we began to dance.

i finally slept at about 4 am, only to be woken up intermittantly by various cell phones and the howling wind outside the small apartment.

now i am back in jerusalem, waiting for dinner time when i will go and share a 30 shekel (6 dollar) ethiopian meal with a friend. it's my last night; i can justify spending more than 5 shekels on a meal. in the morning i will head off to the airport. i hope they let me pass without too much trouble. inshallah i will make it home without having unpacked and repacked all of my loads of crap. inshallah i will be allowed to return...

Thursday, January 20, 2005

20 arrests and i got a rose

two nights ago, when i reported the jeeps and the mini-invasion, 20 people were arrested throughout the nablus region. i suppose the army was interested in getting its operations in the region finished before the muslim new year, eid, which is today.

i left balata this morning after a too short stay. my travels were relatively easy, though most of muslim palestine is slow today due to the holiday. everyone was wearing their best clothes, probably new clothes, at the checkpoints today. it was quite sad to see so many people dressed up only to be shaken down by the soldiers as they waited in line, ID cards ready. at least i didn't see anyone getting detained.

i am in quds for the rest of my stay. i fly out saturday afternoon. inshallah they won't give me loads of crap and interrogation upon my exit. i think i might have some nasty words for them if they try...

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

mountains, a smallish invasion, home demolition, little sleep and a cold, cold night

yesterday i came into nablus. it was not easy. the direct route, through the huwarra checkpoint where there is also a large military base and the military headquarters for the northern west bank, was not open for me. approaching the checkpoint i had a bad feeling about my possibility of entering quietly, and i was correct to assume things wouldn't be as easy as they were on election day, the last time i encountered huwarra and its bells and whistles.

in a bid to attempt to convince the soldier that i was somehow 'like him', thinking he'd be more likely to let me in if i convinced him i was somehow on his team, i told him that i was hungover and tired from a big night of drinking when he asked 'how are you?'. it was partially the truth, and he almost let me through because he was laughing at me. in the end, though, his commander shot him a stern look and he turned, telling me, straightfaced, 'sorry, nablus is closed'.

i still haven't gotten over this phenomenon. 'closed'. a city is closed, like it's a department store or a library. well, nablus is no department store or library, and i had to get there, so i turned around with my heavy bag and my camera stuff and walked toward the line of waiting taxis. i got into the first one that would take me to the village just outside of the checkpoint, up the hill. there was a flying checkpoint on the road to the village, but the taxi driver, in his 1973 mercedes benz, flew round the corner and through an olive grove, cutting off the checkpoint and entering the village road about a kilometer further up the hill.

we drove the village's winding, narrow roads up the hill until we couldn't go any further. at the top i paid him and started hiking. an hour and a half, lots of backsweat, a bit of mountain rain, and muddy, muddy boots later i had reached the top of the third and last hill, made it past two settlements and an army post without getting shot or questioned, and descended to find a taxi to take my tired ass to balata. i have never been so happy to see the city of nablus as i was at that minute, finding the last crest of hilltop and the jawaal palace. (jawaal is the richest palestinian man; he owns the only palestinian cellphone company which is named after him. he's got an enormous mansion at the top of the north mountain looking down on the city. you can see it from every part of's really bizzare.)

we had a nice meal in the flat, the usual suspects were there; the british kids, the guy from switzerland and his partner, a woman from germany. our palestinian friend muhammad decided he wanted to go shopping for the eid holiday (today is eid eve) to buy new clothes. we accompanied him, feeling quite bizzare going shopping for shoes in nablus. a pair of pants, one of shoes and a new sweater were purchased. the four of us were feeling quite materialistic and strange, and we decided to go and have some knaffe, the delicious dessert nablus is famous for throughout the arab world. every palestinian will tell you, 'the knaffe nablus is the best in the world'. walking to al-aqsa cafe, supposedly the best of the best, we ran into another friend who said, 'fi jaysh' (there's army). he pointed, we dropped our bags and started walking quickly toward what i actually assumed was nothing, a prank our friend was playing on us for the eid.

to make an incredibly long and boring story short, we arrived on the scene to find not one, not ten, but about 40 jeeps, a hummer, two trucks and a medical van, all israeli army, travelling throughout the area just above the old city. they apparently arrested about 20 people, occupied some homes, and demolished one on the other side of the city. we stayed with medical workers the whole time and helped some women get back into their homes in the occupied area of the city. otherwise we were completely useless because the army was not in the mood to deal with us and none of us knew the occupied area well enough to attempt it, anyway.

we are going to take some pictures of the demolished home today and talk to people who had family arrested. there is so much more to say...

Sunday, January 16, 2005

jeeps visit balata while i sit in al-quds

i just heard from some of my friends in balata that the army has been active in the camp since the moment i left. strange. i felt that the calm after the election would be disturbed by some sort of eruption; it still hasn't happened, and inshallah (god willing), it won't. but there have been minor disturbances.

apparently a few days ago a jeep entered the camp, destroyed some vegetable carts, and began provoking the shebab (young boys) to throw stones. the army is very good at this; they are actually given orders to go into the camps and provoke people. we know this is happening when they have no other orders such as making arrests, constructing a roadblock, or demolishing or occupying a home to take up sniper positions. there were no arrests, none of the above, only taunting. there is no other reason for them to enter the camps. this, i suggest, is terrorism.

the jeeps have loudspeakers, and my friends who speak arabic translate for me what they have been known to say. sometimes, when they enter to provoke the shebab into stone v. gun fights, they say things like, 'come on, you cowards, come defend your camp', or 'come throw stones, sons of whores'. nice things like this. sometimes they are more sadistic: 'come out and play, boys'. then the children get shot. the other day, when the jeeps entered to play these fun games, one little boy was shot at close range by 'rubber' bullets. (the bullets are not actually rubber; indeed, they are plastic coated metal balls. they hurt. they are known to kill.) this boy was lucky and sustained minor injuries. inshallah things are quiet now...

in shocking (ha) developments, ariel sharon apparently told the army that they had 'free reign' or a 'free hand' (it was translated differently by various media) in combatting 'terrorists' in the gaza strip. ha'aretz (israel's leading liberal daily) published an article today saying that the bombing at karni crossing, which killed around 7 israelis, was completely unprovoked, and that sharon has the right to decree such things because of the completely terroristic nature of the attack. unprovoked? how about the 7 innocent children that were blown to bits by an israeli missile while picking strawberries in their field a few days ago in gaza? and what about that military occupation? has ha'aretz forgotten about their boys in green and their daily terror? unfortunately, the media here in israel is about as irresponsible and terroristic as our corporate conglomeration at home.

on a more positive note, tomorrow i interview the lesbian palestinian woman in haifa. i am so excited to talk to her and will report back to this blog about the experience and her words...

bedouins losing the little they have in the negev

in 1948 Israel forced many bedouins off of land they had historically grazed into small, poorly constructed settlements in the beer-sheeba area. many of these settlements remain today. yesterday i visited one of them on a bus with lots of liberal israelis; it was their version of big mountain: travel to meet the indigenous, shake their hands, walk around their pathetic dwellings, drink their tea and make it back to the city in time for a trip to the gym and cocktails before dinner.

the scene was clearly bizzare. the bedouin construction seemed terribly impractical and useless: their houses, barns and sheds are all made of corrugated metal. i learned later that the israelis made a law decreeing that any bedouin who uses concrete or stone to build a dwelling will have his newly constructed building demolished. it is against the rules for these people to have any sort of permanence.

now the israelis want more. sharon's government has decided that he needs to construct housing and an industrial center on the measly bit of maswat (or infertile) land the bedouins in this village live on. i was truly astounded to hear this, standing there in the middle of the desert. when standing in the village one cannot see anything in any directions execpt a village about 30 km away. i wondered why it is so important for sharon to disposses these people when their land is so paltry in size compared to the vast streches of land which surround them. in other words, why right there? why not a few km away?

today is the trial of american jewish lesbian peace activist kate raphael bender. she's an older woman from the bay area and has been in an israeli deportation prison for over a month now. she's fighting her deportation order (she was arrested at a protest against the apartheid wall) and is challenging the state of israel's right to imprison and deport her when she is standing up for international law (the icj's ruling that the wall is illegal and must be dismantled) and israel is willfully breaking it. we'll see how this argument holds up in court. once again, the accuser, the witness and the judge are the same person around here. i doubt they'll find her arguments compelling...

Friday, January 14, 2005

aswat, the children and checkpoint news

i am now back in al-quds (jerusalem) after waking early to travel on the region's holy day for both muslims and jews. everything in israel stops at about 1 on fridays and doesn't resume until sundown the following day. our journey this morning, which usually takes hours and hours due to massive disturbances at checkpoints and long waits in insane traffic jams that the checkpoints cause, was quick and simple. i think there is still election fever in the air because not one soldier seriously questioned my travelling partner (also american) and i about our presence in occupied territory.

on monday i will do an interview with the ONLY (yes, ONLY) 'out' palestinian queer activist. she heads up an organization called aswat, and has chosen to meet my comrade and i in haifa at the beginning of next week. i am thrilled that i have this opportunity, and will update this blog about the experience accordingly.

yesterday was quite busy for me. in the morning i met for the first time with about 30 4 and 5 year old children at the nursery school in balata camp. i led them in various stretches, movements and coordination games, and they seemed thrilled to be able to play with someone other than their normal teacher, especially thrilled that i am a strange foreigner who talks funny and looks very funny. the nursery school is run by about ten women, takes in about 150 children, runs five days a week and costs little to nothing for poor families. the rest of the cost is subsidized by higher rates for wealthier families and a bit of fundraising is done as well.

after playtime i went to the wealthier neighborhood of nablus to help my friend muhammad do some workshops with teenagers. we made art, and the 13 year old boys enthusiastically recounted to me their recent encounters with soldiers. some had been shot, most had brothers in prison, and a few had been arrested and imprisoned at such a young age themselves. the policy of imprisoning those under the age of 16, of course, contravenes the fourth geneva convention on the rights of protected persons, but is not uncommon here.

finally, at three yesterday i met with my film workshop composed of three young women. we shot some interviews and i showed them how to capture the video into the computer and perform some simple edits. after briefly discussing how to make titles, they had composed a short film and were extremely satisfied with their work. i cannot believe how fast these young women, who speak barely any english, are learning how to shoot and edit video on equipment that is programmed entirely in english. i could not even begin to do this if my editing program were in arabic. it is truly astonishing.

finally, a word on yesterday's checkpoint fiasco. apparently two american tourists were arrested at kalandia, the first checkpoint into the west bank outside of al-quds and generally the easiest to pass, for taking photos. a few of my friends, one german and one austrian, were passing through and witnessed the arrests. they promptly called maksoum watch, an israeli organization made up of women who take shifts at checkpoints monitoring the behavior of soldiers. they then document what they see and post updates on the web and to media. maksoum watch was not at kalandia that day because a few of their members had been arrested and beaten on that very morning. these are usually middle-aged to elderly women; they were beaten by soldiers old enough to be their sons or grandchildren! luckily these soldiers were not at kalandia today when i passed, and so i am here in jerusalem, safe and sound, to write about it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

videos, the internet, and what it means to be a woman

the projects here, under the guise of the umbrella, are going swimmingly. mika, the bloke who runs the show, is running three or four workshops a day with people in the camp ranging from journalism with young girls to internet and web site construction with women to film workshops with little boys. the camp's children are back in school after a session of exams and then a winter recess, and everyone has quite a bit of energy to crack down and make some media...

today my friend abby and i met with three young women to do our first of a series of video workshops. they knew little to nothing about video, and were very attentive, though abby's arabic is pretty elementary (way better than mine, which is nonexistant) and they spoke little to no english. finding words for 'capture', 'raw footage' and 'editing' was a bit difficult, but we struggled through the language barrier and by the end of the (too short) hour we had them making their own cuts and transitions. tomorrow we will meet again and they will shoot some video, capture it into the program and make a short video. things are moving faster than i had expected, and there is much these young women have to say.

though they have a lot to say, hearing them is, in the camp, quite a task. women in the camp, which is very poor and highly conservative religiously and culturally, are not often encouraged to participate in projects with digital media. there are two internet cafes in the camp, but they are restricted to men and boys only and most girls and women do not frequent the city of nablus, which is only a five minute, 6 shekel ($1.50) cab ride away. therefore most of them haven't much experience with computers, let alone programs to create video. this is thus a great opportunity for them, and they are readily lapping it up.

tomorrow morning i will go and lead some games with children at one of the nursery schools in balata camp. we'll see how my arabic compares to that of the 4 year olds...movement, snapping and clapping are universal languages, however, and i think we will rely on these quite heavily.

the army hasn't been around during the day lately, but apparently they were doing some practices invasions last night in balata, driving jeeps in and out and doing a bit of shooting. practice makes perfect...

i wonder anxiously what they are practicing for.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

'this is our life'

the election finished, the observers returning to their europe, the ballots counted, abu mazen's victory parties winding down...this is only the highly publicized palestine today.

i am staying here with a family whose members, like those in most palestinian families, have been scattered. the diaspora of the hussein family stretches far, from sweden (where the eldest son is raising a childwith his swedish wife, virtually hiding from the israelis who will no doubt arrest him upon his likely return) to dark prisons inside of thewest bank.

the two youngest sons live in these prisons; one is 21, imprisoned at the age of 19, with four more years to go for allegedly throwing a stone at a soldier; the other, slightly older, is serving his second year of a 40 year sentence for allegedly blowing up a hummer. no hummer, according to our graceful host umm hussein (umm means 'mother of'), was destroyed by her son. abu ('father of') hussein is a chief of the palestinian police and comes home each night exhausted. the family supported abu mazen in the election, and has high (i think misguided) hopes about the prospects for actual democracy under his reign. democracy, i suggest, is unlikely under military occupation.

these young men, and others, are in prison because the witness, the judge, and the jury are the same person. so who is a terrorist?

military occupation has not ended here, though the guns and tanks are quiet in nablus today. i am currently sitting in the balata camp in the home of a friend who, two years ago, was released from prison. there are 7,000 like him who continue to rot in these prisons; his sister, who was just released, was one of them for two years. her crime? she dared to challenge the (illegitimate) judge who presided over the (illegitimate) trial of her (innocent) brother. she was summarily granted a two year bid, and yet you'd never know it if you spoke to her. one of the kindest women i have met so far (this is quite an honor in the land of hospitality), she briefly described through broken english and arabic the conditions of the prison.

all i will mention here is that she was in a cell with a woman who had recently given birth. her child spent his first two years in the cell with them, learning first hand and first step and first word what israeli democracy holds in store for him...the child was almost killed when, during a prisoner's hunger strike to demand fair conditions, guards fired tear gas cannisters into each cell, suffocating the adults and poisoning the children. hanan smiles when she tells me this, and i cringe. "this is our life", she says.

to part, the words of palestinian national poet mahmud darwish, capturing what seems to me to be the essence of the palestinian condition. resistance and love through bars, chains and the barrel of a gun.

'on man'
this one with the fetteron
his mouth manacled to death rock:
they said: you are a killer.

stripped of food clothing identity
thrown into death row:
& they charged him with robbery.

the seaports were barred to him. they
abducted his young sweetheart.
then they said: you are a refugee.
* * *
you bleeding at the eyes and the palms
listen. night passes.
the detention room cannot last
nor festoons of chains.

nero died and did not take rome with him.
it would have fought with its eyes.

and a handful of sere grains
can cram the whole valley with new ears.


and from another darwish poem, 'on wishes':

"To each land there is a Coming.
Every dawn has its appointment with a rebel."

Monday, January 10, 2005

mostly quiet on the western front

here in nablus things are relatively quiet. last night, in the old city where i am staying with a family, guns rang out throughout the evening in celebration of abu mazen's overwhelming electoral victory. people here seem happy about the prospects of a new leader, though the shift is somewhat confusing. the last time i was here, two summers ago in 2003, abu mazen had been made chief minister by abu amar (arafat), and people in the camps were boiling over with hatred for the former. what is abu mazen doing for us now?, they'd ask, as tanks barreled down the narrow streets of the camp. where is abu mazen now?

things have certainly changed, with most palestinians in the camp supporting abu mazen loudly and clearly. his photograph is everywhere, and the palestinian street is now littered with election propaganda instead of what is most common in other times, pictures of the deceased, the martyrs, on posters which line the walls and every possible flat surface.

an important aside here is that, for palestinians, 'martyr' means not only one who has died in combat, resisting occupation. it is also a term used to describe children and the young and old who are brutally snuffed out completely innocent, without raising a gun, a stone or a fist to the occupation. these people, like those who resist violently, are martyrs, too.

i hope the guns are quiet tonight, though many palestinians i have spoken with today assume that the 72 hours of relative quiet, relief from military incursion, will be over when the sun goes down. let us hope they are wrong. more soon...

Saturday, January 08, 2005

jerusalem palestinians can't, or won't, vote

it seems as if east jerusalem's 120,000 palestinians, technically residents of israel, will not vote in tomorrow's presidential election, the first since the 1996 Oslo-era elections in which recently deceased president arafat won by an overwhelming majority.

the problem for palestinians living here in jerusalem is complex, but mainly consists of inadequate polling centers and israel's refusal to publicly refute rumors that are scaring most of the 120,000 from even thinking about voting. the rumor, passed down from various clerks working in official israeli offices which deal daily with jerusalem's palestinian residents, is that if these people cast a vote they risk getting their rights as israeli residents revoked. palestinians living in jerusalem are granted health care and national insurance benefits like jewish israelis, as well as other benefits, and are terrified that voting in the national palestinian elections will give the israeli authorities an (unjustifiable) excuse to revoke their national IDs along with their benefits.

for this reason, those 120,000, according to this friday's jerusalem post, will not likely vote. even if they did, however, the restrictions israel has placed on voting pose insurmountable difficulties for them. according to various news sources, including the post, as well as local knowledge, these palestinians will be allowed to vote at one of six post offices in the jerusalem area. these polling places and various palestinian organizations have asserted that the post offices will only be able to process the votes of 6,000 people tomorrow. voting will take place from 7am to 7pm.

thus more than 110,000 palestinians in jerusalem will remain locked out of their national elections for the simple reason of too little space for voting. israeli authorities have argued that they will allow jerusalem residents to travel to nearby, west bank villages in order to cast a ballot. most jerusalem palestinians are not willing to take the chance that they will not be allowed re-entrance to jerusalem, however, and are likely to abstain.

this problem is further amplified by a report, again from the post, which says that israeli authorities closed registration offices after only one week during which jerusalem palestinians were allowed to register to vote. many people were turned away, and the officials operating the registration centers were threatened with arrest by israeli police as they initially refused to close down registration. some democracy.

tomorrow i will be travelling the west bank with my camera, documenting possible abuses at checkpoints, freedom of movement issues, etc. i will report on my travels tomorrow evening.