Report One >
November 10 - 11
Land of Layers
Our bus ride from the airport at Tel Aviv and the coastal plains, into Jerusalem and the central part of the country took us through a rock-strewn valley, an historic road from Jerusalem to the sea - a scene of many battles, including 1947/48, from which military debris still remains.
As we ascended into the more hilly region, what struck me, as the light faded, were the strata of the landscape - the layers of sedimentary rock, groaning under millennia of pressure of stress, being pushed together and thrust upwards. They have not stopped moving, or being moved.
And then today, walking through the old city of Jerusalem, a city of layers, different quarters wrapped around each other, walls that go down, right down, but not down far enough, into history, storing people's grief, pain and joy in the way they are rubbed smooth, in the scraps of paper jammed into niches. New walls terminate ancestral highways, forcing a reshaping of movements. The pressure of space, confined space.
A View of Zion
Just south of the Old City of Jerusalem, the view from a nicely tended little park on "The Hill of Evil Counsel" is spectacular. This hill is part of a ridge filled with religious stories, as every inch of greater Jerusalem is. The guidebook tells us that here Jesus declared himself the Son of God, and here Judas later picked up his 30 pieces of silver. It could also be the hill from which Abraham took Isaac up to Mt. Moriah to fulfill a test of faith. And here, where I am standing perhaps, is where the patriarch and his son returned to their lives, relieved and joyful.
The hillside is on the Green Line, and a little east, down in the valley are four or five Palestinian villages. This is the Hinnon Valley, and though I don't quite catch the names of the villages, our tour guide makes it clear that the valley is indeed part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory governed by the state of Israel.
As I say, the view is spectacular. To the northwest are the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. One can make out crenellated medieval walls, and the tan stone that makes the Old City of Jerusalem uniquely beautiful. In the eastern distance are the hills of Judea or The West Bank of the Jordan. And beside me is a condo complex under construction, with units for sale. You can see why the apartments are being marketed to an upscale clientele. Here is a View of Zion, and that is the name of the complex, Nofzion. It looks over those Palestinian villages, just as we do right now, our delegation from Interfaith Peace-Builders.
Our tour guide, Yahov, is an Israeli citizen, a young man who works with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. He is telling us many stories of systematic, multi-layered injustices done toward Palestinian citizens of greater Jerusalem. Homes cannot be built, additions cannot be created, taxes are as high as for Israeli citizens of West Jerusalem, and services are so much less. He is also explaining the policies and purposes that govern housing destruction. It is not so much a punishment for terror acts, but part of the broader effort to fragment Palestine into cantons. It is a matter of control and harassment, and Yahov shows us how it is connected to the Israeli settler movement. See photo here.
When one thinks of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, one might naturally think of religious zealots, the "pioneers" claiming a hilltop with surrounding military protection. Illegal, provocative, and ultimately suggesting a kind of colonialism. But settlements come in a variety of forms. Nofzion, he points out, is a subtle form of settlement. It's a nice place to live. You can have a beautiful view. All you have to do is have the money and be willing to ignore the suffering of the Palestinians below you in the valley.
You'd also have to ignore what Yahov refers to as a giant snake. It is gray, and winds around hills and through villages. It is called the Security Fence by the Israelis and the Apartheid Wall by the Palestinians. I can't take my eyes off this wall. It is one of the ugliest things I have ever seen, truly breathtaking in its crudity. Some Israelis might claim it has prevented instances of terrorism, but terrorists could always and easily get around or over the wall.
We all agree with Yahov that would take a massive amount of denial to live in Nofzion. I come from the U.S., and I know a good deal about living with blinders on, but I cannot imagine anyone feeling more secure because of this wall. Every day you saw it, you would in some part of your being recognize its injustice, and would know that sooner or later, one way or another, it cannot last. I study the wall from this pleasant little park. As I try to ponder what it signifies, I fear for all who live on the hillside and in this valley, all who must look at it every day of their lives, Israelis and Palestinians alike, until someone decides to take it down.
The world is flat, our sage Thomas Friedman claims, and getting flatter. Picture our journey today…after meeting with Jeff Halper, Executive Director of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, we set out to explore the Israeli settlements around Jerusalem. Yahov was our guide. An Israeli Jew, he is well versed in history and politics — his mother's milk. He took us by the ear and didn't let go.
As an Israeli citizen, he explained his view about the settlements. Israeli settlers buy houses from Palestinians at a very high price. The Palestinian, now a pariah to his neighbors, is ostracized or worse. Often the settlers buy him/her a ticket out of here. The new owners evict the tenants; hire private guards, since they are not welcome and not safe in their new "home" in a Palestinian community. The Israeli government reimburses the homeowner under the Protection of Holy Sites policy, $34 million tax-payer dollars a year for those settlers "brave" enough to crash a neighborhood.
So at what price, a new home, guards, albeit paid for by tax payers, barbed wire on the roof, children not allowed out to play without their tax-reimbursed guards.
And who pays for this? The Jerusalem taxpayer. And who are these taxpayers? Israelis—Jews and Palestinians. In fact, Palestinians—1/3 Jerusalem's population—pay 1/3 of the taxes.
And so, Yahov took us on a tour. High on a hill, facing old Jerusalem. If you look to the left, the Old City, the Dome of the Rock gleaming in the sun; to the right, to the Israelis, the Security Fence, to the Arabs, the Apartheid Wall, encircled Abu Dis. A breath taking view, historical, biblical, now political, a place to shed a tear, sing a hymn, rejoice in the beauty.
A new group joined us on the look-out. Their guide stood with Jerusalem’s Old City behind him. His words caught my attention. I listened. In the valley below, on that road just behind him, Abraham walked with his son, ready to sacrifice him as God had commanded.
The Israeli man lecturing the group, Danny Tiza, the man who directed the installation and determined the route the Fence/Wall, spoke to the group of biblical facts, and this valley, and the settlements from his perspective. Our guide, also Israeli, spoke to our group about the same Fence/Wall and the story was very different. See photo here.
One spoke of security for the Israelis, the other spoke of the economic hardships and the crippling and driving out of the Palestinian population, house by house. Oh, remember, they pay 1/3 of the taxes.
The L.A. group left, with their stories, and took a right. We left, with our stories, took a left. The L.A. group saw beautiful Israeli settlement "neighborhoods", Jerusalem tax-payer money used to make a better life. We traveled down a narrow bumpy road, one lane, many hundreds of years old. Taxes? Palestinian Arabs pay 34% of the taxes but get only 8% of the return. For them there is no money for roads, no sewage system, septic tanks overflow and contaminate the drinking water. Their water system is black tanks on top of the roofs to collect rain water.
Fear pervades the Palestinians. Out of 40,000 Palestinian structures 15% are "illegal". Any day, anywhere, a house might be demolished because it was put up without a permit. But you can't get a permit. No one knows when their home is next.
Taxpayers. But no lights, no cross walks, no police, no parks, no sidewalks, and no plantings. Schools. Thousands of kids don't go to school at all - there are no seats for them.
Flat world, Freidman claims. And some get left out when we need them in now more than ever. The L.A. group chose to go right, they didn't see what we saw. We went left. The Palestinian taxpayers have no choice, just pay their taxes.
Memories and New Realities
I am very struck how much Jerusalem has changed since the last time I was here. I know that 1987 was a "gentler time" in the overall picture of strife (at least in January of that year). I wept twice today.
The first was when we saw the wall which is separating East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem. It is a partition which causes great grief and trouble for the Palestinians. The way land has been (and continues to be) annexed away from its owners, the roadblocks that even today caused long travel times to places that should have been more accessible, the poverty inflicted on residents who are prevented from having access to safe water, sewage, schools, roads, sidewalks and even trees; all of these things were visible and unnecessary.
The second time I wept was at the Wailing Wall. I remember being very troubled and angry the last time I went there as well. The Western Wall of the Temple mount is a sacred place for Jews. It dates from the second temple period...it is part of the temple built by Herod in 19 BCE. It represents the remnant of the most holy of places for Jewish people. People can pray at the Wailing Wall but it is divided down the middle with a wall which separates the men from the women. Praying together is not allowed because the men will be distracted by the presence of the women!
So, I have been struck today by how very much Israel/Palestine is like South Africa was - where people were partitioned off from one another and given different rights and privileges and denied home lands. I'm sure some of this sounds like a radical perspective and I haven't presented Israel's perspective, which I will do. It is however, the situation that I am observing. I am trying to listen very carefully.
A longer version of this post appears on Martha Honaker’s blog.
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