Both Sides of the Green Line—
Occupied in the West Bank, Dispossessed and Under Pressure in Israel
Note: The “Green Line” divides Israel proper (1948 borders) from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which were occupied in 1967. The first section of this report focused on Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians who are under Israeli military occupation. Subsequent sections focus on delegation’s trip to the North of Israel, where delegates leaned about the situation of Palestinian Israelis—the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. These 1.2 million people are the Palestinians (and their descendants) who stayed in what became the state of Israel in 1948.
Unlike the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Israelis do not live under military occupation, but they are subject to an array of discriminatory laws, practices, and realities within the Israeli state. Many different issues face Palestinian communities on both sides of the green line—but as these reports show, similar pressures and human rights abuses also confront both groups.
The Refugee Children
My first encounter with the children occurs in downtown Ramallah, where they are trying to make a couple shekels selling gum. One of them is extremely aggressive in his salesmanship: I had bought a stick of gum from another child for 1 shekel, so I assume that that price is what this aggressive little entrepreneur wants for his gum as well. So I quickly give him a shekel and take a stick of gum so as to pacify him. I walk away with the group and about 2 minutes later, the boy confronts me and yells “I told you 5 shekels!” He tries to intimidate me so I yell at him in Arabic to “Get the hell out of here.” The sternness indeed works and the child went away, only to abruptly encounter me again later on that day. These children are truly audacious and the harsh realities of their daily lives seem to have made them fearless.
My second and indeed more emotional encounter with refugee children occurs during our excursion at the Qalandia, the main Israeli checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Upon our arrival at the line of Palestinian cars waiting in front of the checkpoint, we receive a cold welcome from some children hanging out in the rubble beneath the separation barrier, or apartheid wall. One of them wears an angry grin on his face, and another hurls a stone at our vehicle. One could tell that they are angry at us as Western tourists, who are able to cross the checkpoint within a couple of minutes, while these boys are stuck wistfully on the other side. Hence, when we actually disembark from the bus, we are in for a treat. The refugee boys at the checkpoint, as the ones in Ramallah proper, are selling cheap gum in order to make a couple of shekels. They are too pushy to a point where they begin harassing members of our group who are unwilling to purchase their gum.
One of our group members is nice enough to offer them money. However, I tell her not to give the money to the kids because they are acting like little brats. Doing this, I had successfully diverted the little thugs’ attention away from the rest of the group and towards me. One of them yells at me desperately, “Why did you not let her give us money?!” and punches me in the back. Sternly, I yell back at him in Arabic and tell him that it is shameful to beg for money, especially from guests in our country. I tell them that I, like them, am Palestinian and that the members of this group are my friends. Once they realize that I am one of their compatriots, they begin to warm up. I embrace two of the boys; both could not have been more than 10 years old, in each arm and attempt to calm them from their rage. Subsequently, one could sense the shame that they hold for their initial behavior. They are not taught to act like angry little thugs, like beggars. This is indeed considered shameful in our culture. But these little boys are hungry and desperate for money, something which can turn even the best-behaved child into an angry little savage.
Hence I embrace these children, my Palestinian brothers, and calm them. They are my people, and I love them. I need to see through their anger and their desperation in order to realize this. And in the end, I give them what is left of the coins in my pocket. I hold my hand high and drop my coins, for they had jumped at my hand like a flock of seagulls eager for a bite to eat. The youngest boy is left empty handed, for his two older friends catch the change first. He cries for me to give him some change. I tell him that I had given it all away and then I look at his friend. They resemble each other and I asked if he is his brother, which he affirms. I tell him to give some of the money to his little brother. He nods reassuringly and I turn away and walk towards the checkpoint in order to catch up with the rest of the group.
Whether or not that boy gave his younger brother a portion of the money which I had given them, I cannot say. These boys are being tested as are no other boys their age. They are allegorically linked to the whole of Palestinian society, which like them, is strangled into anger and desperation. I cannot blame these children for their bad conduct, for they are hungry and downtrodden. Nor can I blame the Palestinian people for the behavior resulting from their indignation at the injustice brought upon them by the Israeli occupation. There is an underlying cause beneath every desperate action which surfaces, and few times have I analyzed this concept more than in my encounter with the refugee children.
I had indeed dealt sternly with these children, for this is the language that they are used to and sadly, the language which they understand. However, after the event my sternness melted away, and I could not sleep that night. For me not to feel sorrow for these children would be a betrayal of my people, and a betrayal to humanity. Hence I wept, out of the deep sadness which engulfed my heart, and prayed for justice to be brought to these downtrodden siblings of mine.
Rabbis for Human Rights is a organization which attempts to help both Palestinians and Israelis. As Rabbi Ascherman explained to us, a portion of the cases deal with the bulldozing of Palestinian homes. When Palestinians apply for a building permit, it is typically not granted by the Israeli authorities. So, when the house is built, it is an “illegal home” subject to demolition. As a result, a significant number of Palestinian homes are destroyed at the same time as new Israeli settlements are built in violation of international law and agreements.
Our first day in Jerusalem, we visited one of these Palestinian “illegal homes” where the issue was ownership of the property. In that case, a large number of internationals were staying at the home in order to oppose the demolition.
The problems with Palestinian civil rights are so severe, that when asked what rights they have, Rabbi Ascherman could only name two: 1) the right to have NGO assistance, and 2) the right to access Israeli courts.
On Saturday August 2, we had dinner (an amazing feast) at the home of a beautiful Palestinian family in Sakhnin (inside the borders of Israel). They name the back part of their home Freedom and Culture Tent. Nine years ago they built their home on their property (which has been theirs for many decades). Six months after building, their home, they received notice of demolition. Over the years, demolition has been put off by court actions and intervention by the neighbors.
--Gustavo and Margaret Nystrom
Nakba -The Catastrophe
Today we travelled to Nazareth, in the north, and met with Palestinians who live within the borders of the state of Israel. They are known as “Israeli Arabs” or “Israeli Palestinians.” Unlike their brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza, they are Israeli citizens, so to some extent they are better off that those Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. However, they are nonetheless victims of systematic discrimination by Israeli authorities. Although they are citizens, they are second class citizens. They face considerable discrimination in all walks of life.
We met first with Abir, a young Palestinian activist who spoke of the challenges of being an Arab in Israel. She documented various forms of discrimination that Arabs face in this Jewish state in every aspect of their lives from housing to education to freedom of movement to laws regarding who they can marry. When asked what she dreamed of as a solution to this intractable conflict, she said a one state solution, but that she believed the one binational state was the final end goal which would have to be arrived at in stages, with a two state solution as an interim step, to give the Palestinians time to become a self governing, autonomous body that could then move into a combined one state with Israel. She expressed no animosity toward Israeli Jews and a willingness to live together with them in this land, but was clear that she does not countenance their apparent mission to drive all Arabs out of this land. She is young and vibrant and committed to her work for human rights for Palestinians.
In the afternoon we met with Ali, an Israeli Palestinian, and a number of his friends from this area who took us on a hike through the hills of the Galilee to see Palestinian villages that were destroyed by the Zionists in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. May 15, 1948 is Israeli Independence Day but for Palestinians it is known as the Nakba, Arabic for “Catastrophe,” because in the war for “independence” hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven, permanently, from their lands.
We first met with two older men, in their late 70s who were living in nearby villages in 1948 when the Zionists came to power. Mohammad and Abu Ahmed vividly remember fleeing their villages knowing that the Zionists were on their way and fearing for their safety if they remained in their homes. They had heard of atrocities in other villages and knew that they needed to flee if they were to survive. They told us how they packed up a few belongings, just what they could carry, including the keys to their homes and, in the case of Abu Ahmed the papers showing his ownership of his land, and they fled. They expected that in a few weeks they would be able to return. They remember being told by the authorities at the time that they would be able to return, but that never happened. In fact what happened was that for fully two years they were simply refused permission to return to their village, and then in 1950 the State of Israel declared that the lands on which these villages had stood were state lands and the Palestinian residents of those villages were denied any access to their homes and villages. In fact, the villages were ultimately bulldozed by the Israelis.
We walked through the rubble of what was once their village. We spoke to Mohammad and Abu Ahmed under a tree on the land that Abu Ahmed’s home had stood. They walked us all around the ruins of their village, from which we could see the Jewish settlement that now claims the land. The Israeli government is in the process of completely bulldozing the village to build a stable for cows to support a kibbutz nearby. Mohammad took us through the brambles and brush to the schoolhouse in which he had received his elementary education, which stands in ruins now in the shadow of the settlement and the construction site for the new animal stables. The old Muslim cemetery in which the ancestors of his village are buried is becoming a dumping ground for manure and other agricultural products.
Next Tuesday, the former villagers are going before the High Court of Israel in Jerusalem trying to stop the desecration of these cemeteries. The complete commitment of these men to getting their land back was remarkable to me. The land means everything to them and so the right of return is a non-negotiable part of any reconciliation with Israel. I am learning that for the Palestinian people there is a primal connection with the land and with the village and being able to live in the place that your ancestors lived is a crucial piece of their sense of identity and wholeness. When I think of how we in the United States move around so frequently, how many of us move not only from our childhood home but often move several times during our adult lives, how, in fact, young people often dream of doing better than their parents, of moving to a new and better place, I realize that we have fundamentally different values with respect to home and land which can make the Palestinian commitment to their lost land sometimes seem overdone.
This has been a day for being immersed in the other narrative that accompanies the founding of the State of Israel. In contrast to the Israeli narrative of coming home to the Promised Land after the tragedy of the Holocaust and years of wandering and persecution before that, this is a narrative of a people being stripped of their culture, their land and their identity for reasons that have nothing to do with them. The suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis and European Christians for centuries before that results in the annihilation of Palestinian villages and the peasant farming culture that goes with it, followed by years of systematic discrimination against people who were not responsible for the pain inflicted upon the Jews for centuries. It is indeed a “catastrophe.” I cannot help but think of the parallels in the Palestinian narrative to the narrative of the systematic annihilation of the Native Americans who inhabited the United States before the arrival of European immigrants. We too come from a country built on the blood of another culture and on the destruction of an indigenous people along with the taking of their land. When we criticize Israel for what they have done to Palestinians, I can’t help but think that we have to account for our own history as well. The words of Shehadeh Shehadeh, the Anglican priest I met on my first day here continues to ring in my ears – “God has provided enough for everyone’s need. God has not supplied enough for everyone’s greed.”
Fitting a Pentangle into in a Square
Note: Approximately ¼ of the Palestinian citizens of Israel have been Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) since 1948. Refugees in their own country, these IDPs are referred to as “present absentees” by Israel.
Life in this Jewish democratic state is incredibly complex with Palestinians who were here prior to 1948 and defined by the State of Israel as “the present absentee.” Absentee because the story of the foundation of Israel 60 years ago was that the land was unoccupied. Present because these Palestinian Christians and Muslims were present. The “present absent” is an aptly ironic official legal status.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights speaks of his work to call the Jews of Israel to faithfulness to the highest standards of the Torah in their relationships to the present absent. The Rabbi works for the highest values of the Torah. The organization acts on behalf of Palestinians in order to call Israeli to faithfulness to own founding statement and collective order.
This paradoxical life in a Jewish democratic state ensures a right of return for any Jew anywhere in the world. At the same time the rules controlling the present absentee are oppressively restrictive in the name of national security.
The Rabbis for Human Rights come from every religious Jewish group as they work for these high Jewish values. But, and in this land there are always buts, only Jews have a right to return, only Jews benefit from the expansion of settlements in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories which have now expanded to perhaps a point of no return. Only Jews have the use of modern superhighways. Only the occupied Palestinians are subject to I.D. checks many times a day. Only Palestinians are subject to the daily humiliations of having their movement restricted and arbitrary security rules enforced by 18, 19, 20 year old Jewish soldiers who wield enormous power at each encounter.
Beyond all the politics and religious thought and legal talk of human rights, the result is in the eyes and acts of the children, Palestinian and Israeli.
What does attempting to fit the Jewish star into the democratic state of Israel result in? It results in attempting to fit a pentangle into a square in this Holy Land. Children at the Ramallah checkpoint don’t look or act like four year olds. They already bear the look of anger and hatred in their eyes. The children of a Palestinian businessman and of a Palestinian Christian liberation theologian are prized as their greatest successes because they are good adults who survived without adopting the negative emotions of the oppressed. What will happen to the ten year old child tied to the hood of an Israeli defense Force jeep and used a human shield?
Can the Jewish state reconcile itself with democracy and the reality of Palestinians within Israel and in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank?
Nazareth Hope and Tragedy
We hear daily of the” facts on the ground”. Today in and just outside of Nazareth was a day where Western Christian stereotypes collapsed into tragedy when confronted with the “facts on the ground.”
Outside Nazareth on a rural hilltop an elderly Palestinian man, bearing weathered and yellowed old documents bound by a rubber band and protected by a black plastic bag, walks with us through the remains of his Palestinian village, once home to over a thousand Christians and Muslims. This was one of the most visible of the over 531 Palestinian village destroyed since 1948.
During my 1991 Holy Land we visited Nazareth as pilgrims. The New Hampshire Catholic clergy concelebrated mass in the church of the Annunciation, built above the home of a young Jewish woman, Mary, virgin mother of God.
Stereotypes and facts on the ground prove to be quite vulnerable to stories of life, memories of the past, present hopes for the future offered by Palestinian and Israeli, Jews, Christians, Muslims
At that time my only contact with Palestinians was minimal and superficial as typical Holy Land pilgrims are rightly intent on retracing the steps of Jesus. I have come with my American Christian stereotype view of the Holy Land, its ancient history and modern states.
Today was an experience of two Palestinian villages, two homes, and two memories of village farm life separated by two millennia from the life of Mary and from another Palestinian who was made homeless.
A 78 year old man outside Nazareth, with his best shirt and pants, walks and speaks energetically about leaving his village of a thousand Muslim and Christians temporarily one day in 1948. And the last thing he did was lock the door of his house. Like many Palestinians he holds the legal documents to the family house and farmland in the village of Al Birwa. His black plastic bag holds the weathered documents of land ownership and in his hand is the key to family’s house.
As we walk through the remnants of his village we see only remains of homes dynamited and destroyed during the 1948 war. A village graveyard is now covered by six feet of gravel for cattle sheds of the new Jewish occupants of the farm. The only village building left standing is the two room school of his childhood. In a way hard for us to understand, Palestinians remain attached to their homes and lands that they preserve now in their memory.
Earlier today a young Palestinian Christian woman related her lifetime of experience working for basic human rights. Palestinians have lived in this land continuously for millennia. Her Christianity was much simpler and bare than mine from the West. There is no need for Holy Land pilgrimages. They know the land of Jesus for it is their land as well.
There is a need for freedom to move from one town to another. There is a need to visit home and friends without losing their citizenship. They wish to own a place of their own to raise a family. And most importantly, they wish to be treated as a human being not subject to the racist attitudes of the majority of the people who have come to live with her in the Holy Land.
Earlier in the delegation, we met with Hebrew University students in Jerusalem. A young Israeli student prepared us for today, relating that from his point of view how absurd for the Palestinian “present absent people” dream of returning to the village houses and lands. “They even have keys to the doors of house that they abandoned sixty years ago. Why don’t they just get on with life?”
Facts on the ground are so important here. The expropriation of Palestinian land is nearly complete. For some, the critical problem is a Palestinian minority who not only won’t leave but are increasing in percentage of population in this “democratic” nation.
What is an American Christian pilgrim who visits the home of Mary the Mother of God and the annunciation to do in the fact of stories that shatter the nearly universal US story of “facts on the ground” that conflict with the stories of young and old Palestinians and young Israelis?
The slaughter of millions, a world we call civilized gone terribly wrong
Guns, gas chambers, genocide, the list goes on and on
No answers, no explanations, so unthinkable we don’t want to comprehend
How this tragedy could ever happen, let alone how it began.
A boat denied harbor at every country’s port,
We turned our backs to the pleading victims, not our place to interfere
millions left stranded on an ocean of indifference, the water turned to ice
In armistice our hearts have melted,
the cost of doing nothing, this grief we now share
we declare Never Forget! and Never Again!
we soak our blood stained hands in the ocean transformed into a sea of tears
Sixty years later and half of these promises were not kept.
Never forgetting, but not learning we repeat the patterns of our past.
This vicious cycle of hate, discrimination, and fear,
we insulate ourselves to stay warm but our blood runs cold.
We close our eyes and build more walls, oppress to self-protect
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