“Vibrancy, Fear, Warning, and a Lot of Thinking”
Monday, March 26, 2007: Birzeit and Ramallah
Rays of Hope and Shadows of Warning
The vibrancy of Birzeit University near Ramallah, which we visited Monday, was a surprise, both in terms of people and the beautiful modern campus. It is a vibrant place with its 7000+ students, almost equally young men and young women. Its seven schools cover everything one would expect in a world-class institution, and the students themselves are world-class. It was impressive to find that 70% of Palestinians graduate high school and over 50% college, and to hear that most Palestinian cities have a university within their boundaries. It was especially good to have a conversation with Jihad, a third-year student, at lunch. She was both captivating and engaging. Going to school is not as easy as in the US, literally. Most students must cross checkpoints daily, adding delay and the humiliation of searches to the pressures of study.
A meeting with Sam Bahour at a coffee shop in the very modern Plaza Shopping Center in Ramallah followed the University visit. Sam is an articulate, forceful Palestinian-American entrepreneur. He built the shopping center, which he hopes will be one of many in the area. He is on a string of three month visas to Israel, which he must renew by leaving the country, often briefly by crossing the Allenby Bridge to Jordan for a couple of hours, then returning. He is hopeful but concerned. He is especially concerned about a Palestinian “brain drain” as educated Palestinians find ways to go to more nurturing places. He is also concerned that the tightening of the screw on Palestinians is about to reach the wood at the end, with a result that might be violent and disastrous, another phase of escalation that would be awful.
I can only hope leaders see that cutting the cycle of escalation is, in fact, the best reason for peace and setting the conditions to build a sustainable society in Palestine which would also benefit Israel far more than the alternatives.
On the way back to Jerusalem at the end of the day, we crossed a checkpoint on foot, to have the experience ourselves. It is called a “terminal” by Israeli authorities and is a cold, ugly place with tight turnstiles, metal detectors, amplified voices that bark instructions, and soldiers with their rifles always in sight. Laughingly, there is a scrolling electric sign that says “Welcome to Qalandia,” like a sendoff to vacationers. The sense of fear was palpable to me, though irrational since my passport protects me….I assume.
My experience at the checkpoint led me to a comparison of young people. I have noticed the youth of the armed soldiers at checkpoints and other places. Most Israeli youth must go to the army for two or three years after high school at age 18. At the same age, Palestinian youth are going to college. These are formative years, and I can only see the “competitive advantage” that the Palestinians are gaining. The young soldiers with guns in their hands at the checkpoints do not even have the advantage of more seasoned, senior offices to impart some wisdom about how to handle people. There is something not right here and I see it in the young faces, some mean with power, every day.
So like all days, there was vibrancy, warning, fear and a lot of thinking.
Tuesday, March 27: Ephrata and Hebron
Neighbourhoods and Settlements
Today we met with a settler in Ephrata named Ardi. He is a friendly charming man, hospitable, and intelligent, but certainly mistaken in his belief that all the Arabs are out to get the Jews. He said if the Palestinians put down their weapons they'd have a state within six months--although I wonder what sort of state he has in mind--but if the Israelis put down their arms they'd be massacred. He sees his settlement as a neighbourhood; he sees it as a mitzvah that he is raising his family in Israel.
Then we went to Hebron, which is absolutely heart-breaking. The old city is full of streets that are empty and shops that are closed because the settlers who live above the streets make it impossible for the Palestinians to walk there. The Palestinians have had to hang chicken wire above the streets to catch the bricks and stones and garbage the settlers throw down from their windows above. Jewish boys throw stones at passing Palestinians. Our guide from Christian Peacemakers Team told us that last week he got hit by a rock in his ear.
To get into that part of the old city you have to go through so many checkpoints, with such a high chance of getting humiliated that no one wants to do it. Small children get their backpacks searched by Israeli soldiers on the way to school. Many shops are closed and streets deserted because it is too dangerous for Palestinians to walk that way.
I cry for the Palestinians in Hebron whose lives are so very impossible, and I cry for those Jews who have so lost touch with their own humanity that they can treat fellow human beings in this way.
March 22-27: Imagine….
Imagine that your 11 year old daughter is in the playground of her school when one of her classmates throws a rock at a soldier. The soldier shoots a rubber bullet into the back of your daughter’s head. She dies three days later. Could you remain in your role as advocate for peace with the country of the soldier who shot your daughter and talk to a group of international visitors about the incident just over two months later? That is what Bassam Aramin of Combatants for Peace is doing.
Imagine that you have a 15-year-old son who thinks that he may be a pacifist; he must decide before his sixteenth birthday whether or not he will register for the selective service. If he wants to register as a pacifist, and not be included on the list of those eligible for the draft, he must do so before he turns 16. Seem like a big decision for a teenager? This is what Israeli teenagers must do if they hope to opt out of the mandatory military service.
Imagine living in a very small town, and your fields are located just outside--basically within walking distance. The government has decided that, for security purposes, there needs to be a security barrier between your home and your crops. In order to have your children help you with planting and the harvest, all of their names and ages must be listed on the permit that you need to show to access your land. The security barrier consists of a fence with razor wire, an access road (a bit narrower than a typical rural Iowa gravel road), a second high fence, a military access road, a third high fence, a ditch, and a fourth fence. In order to cross, an armed soldier must open the gate for you and you must have a permit. Sound excessive? This is what the Palestinians of Bil’in in the West Bank must to do get to their olive trees.
Imagine that in order to get to a place of worship, you must go through a security system not unlike that at the US Capitol. If you, as foreign visitors, set off the alarm, you will be told that the problem is your shoes, and are waved right through. But if one of your group is Jewish, he or she must be prepared to either not join you or lie to the guards, because Jews are not permitted to enter the house of worship. This is the rule that Israeli soldiers enforce at the Ibrahimi Mosque, which is considered the burial sight of Abraham and Sarah, and has been split to also hold a synagogue.
Imagine your daughter is old enough to attend college. You are in Maryland, your daughter would like to attend a school in New Jersey. The state of Delaware will not allow your daughter to travel through the state to get to New Jersey or back to your home in Maryland. Sound far-fetched? This is what it is like for Palestinian students who live in the Gaza Strip and would like to attend a university in the West Bank – it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to travel through Israel to get back and forth between school and home.
Imagine living in the suburbs. You need to go to a hospital in the city nearest you, because that is the closest city. You have to go through a check point to do so, which may entail having your car searched, showing your ID and convincing the guard that in fact, you really do need to go to the hospital. Sounds like a violation of basic human rights? This is what Palestinians who live in the West Bank often have to do.
Imagine living in the suburbs, and having to go through that same check point to get to work every day. The check point may resemble a US airport security line, but outside in the elements, no matter what the weather. Or it may be at what is known as a “flying check point,” which may be there for an hour or it may turn into something more permanent that lasts for days or weeks. Sound like a huge impediment to your daily commute? This is what Palestinians in the West Bank who work in Israel must do.
Imagine trying to get a permit to remodel your home because you would like your frail parents or parents-in-law to move in with you. The permit is never approved. You go ahead and do the remodeling, because their health is getting worse, and they need the additional support. The zoning authorities find out. A demolition order is placed on your house, but you’re not sure what day, if ever, the demolition will take place. You decide to wait it out because it could be years. Sound even worse than the general bureaucratic nightmare you endure at home? This is a regular occurrence for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
Much of what we have seen during this trip defies logic. We keep asking, “But why don’t they… how can they…that makes no sense.” It seems that most of us have finally accepted just how illogical much of this system is. I hope that we will be able to convey to our fellow North Americans just how illogical it is for our governments to be supporting this unfair and unjust system.
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