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.