By Sea, By Air, By Land--Control at Any Cost
Delegation 33 Announcement
Report 1: Walking the Way Toward Truth
Report 2: Identities in Conflict Zones
Report 3: By Sea, By Air, By Land: Control at Any Cost
Report 4:Gaza Reflections and More. . .
Report 5: Learning from Families in Beit Sahour
Report 6: Protests, Anger, Irony, Inward Peace, and Commitment to Action
The Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation that is currently on the ground has been following the events around the Gaza Freedom Flotilla closely and experiencing the reactions by Palestinians on the West Bank to the Israeli attack. They have also been building an understanding of the broader context of Israeli actions during these two weeks. Here are a few of the delegates’ reflections.
We also have been following the situation at the Tent of Nations near Bethlehem. See the end of this report for some good news about the farm that we just received.
Tuesday, June 1: By Sea—Delegation Reflections on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla
Memorial Day took on a totally new meaning today for me. For the past many years, it has been a day to gather with family at my Aunt Mary’s House for a cookout that has been a staple for 30+ years. We get together to catch up on family news, sing songs that feed our souls, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
However, this year, Memorial Day has meant a day of mourning and focused anger. Humanitarians from Turkey and other parts of the world set sail in a grouping of ships to deliver 10,000 tons of aid to Palestinians who are trapped behind an Israeli blockade.
As many in the world know by now, as the ships, known as the Freedom Flotilla approached the coast of Gaza, the Israeli Military attacked, and at least nine people were killed. This brazen act of murder on the sea invited condemnation by many in the world.
My delegation had been watching the news of the Freedom Flotilla and was praying for its safe arrival in the Gaza Strip. We knew that the 1.5 million Palestinians there needed it. We had just been at the Erez Crossing—the entrance to the Gaza Strip from Israel, which controls all entry and exit. The Israeli Occupation Soldiers were obviously irritated by our presence and after conversing with a few Palestinians, speaking with the Occupation officer at the front gate, and taking a few pictures, we left.
You can imagine our dismay and anger then we woke this morning to the news that the Israeli Occupation Forces opened fire upon the humanitarian vessels. Because the Israeli Occupation Forces are never held accountable by the world community, they act with tremendous violence without hesitation.
Demonstrations where held across Palestine/Israel today and our delegation ended in the major Palestinian cultural city of Ramallah. After a morning meeting, we made our way downtown, jumped off of our bus, and many of us joined the hundreds in the streets in nonviolent protest. People from all over the world were here marching and chanting together in solidarity. I’ve participated in street demonstrations for the past decade or more, but I’ve never felt a rush like I did today – knowing that I had the opportunity not to just watch the news in Baltimore and shake my head in disgust, but I was granted the chance to actually be on the ground in Palestine to show my support for justice and peace. While marching, clapping, and chanting in the middle of the city center, I wondered what my family and friends would see in the American media back home. I wondered if some “news” agency would get a clip of the march and send it around the world framing it as just a small group of Palestinian militants calling for “death to Israel”. It’s an implication that’s used regularly in the U.S. media, but today I knew that storyline was wrong – not just from head knowledge, but from heart experience.
I will never forget those who gave their lives today for freedom and justice. People who were just trying to help were slaughtered at sea. Now the question is will the United States – Israel’s greatest international financier and defender in the U.N. Security Council move past words and hold Israel accountable. I guess we’ll see soon.
In memory of the martyrs from the Freedom Flotilla,
As I’m sure you have heard, less several days ago at least 9 people carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza on a six-ship flotilla were killed by the Israeli army when it attacked one of the ships. Dozens were badly injured. The ships were in international waters and had stopped overnight, expecting to continue transporting more than 10,000 tons of aid to Gaza the next morning. Most of those killed and injured were Turkish.
I am chilled knowing that I was meant to be on the Mavi Marmara boat had I not already committed to this delegation, and I wonder if I could have been as brave as the others on board. I feel a great kinship with Turkish Palestine solidarity activists with whom I worked during my years living in Ankara and, although I am no nationalist, I was proud to carry a Turkish flag today.
We here in Palestine are stunned not by Israel’s immorality (Israel has committed far worse crimes), but by its arrogance. Israel assumes it can kill anyone it wants anywhere it wants with impunity. Israel is wrong. And this, like the 2008-2009 War on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead), should be a turning point in international opinion and, more importantly, international action.
Nine hours after the Israeli attack on the ships, we went to Ramallah and joined with a crowd of hundreds demonstrating in solidarity with their Turkish brothers and sisters. It was a moving scene as people locked their stores to take to the streets waving Turkish flags alongside Palestinian ones, chanting that the profound sacrifice of these martyrs for them would never be forgotten. The crowd’s enthusiasm never wavered as it moved through the bustling city of Ramallah, eventually ending at a Turkish International Center.
One of our delegates speaks Hebrew and happened to be at the end of the crowd when she recognized Israeli News Channel 2 cameras setting up pointed away from the crowd. (I didn’t think Israeli TV went into Ramallah but she’s lived in Israel and was 100% sure of what she saw). She translated to us the words spoken in Hebrew by the reporter: “Here in Ramallah, life is going on as usual. People here seem apathetic to what happened at sea, showing that it’s really not that big of a deal.”
In Ramallah we heard news of a similar protest near Qalandia checkpoint where a young American woman named Emily lost her left eye when she was shot in the face with a tear-gas canister. The story felt all the more real when we met that night with representatives from the popular committee of the nearby village of Nil’in where a young man from California named Tristan Anderson was shot in the head with a tear gas canister at a peaceful demonstration. For a long time it was assumed he would be brain-dead for life, but it seems he’s making progress and has finally begun to speak.
Our meeting was held in Bil’in, where we spent the evening with one of the leaders of the popular committee on resistance in the small village that has lost more than half of its land to the Wall. The last time I was at a demonstration in Bil’in, we were hosed with water cannons. Now I learn that the Army has started hosing people with chemicals or pepper spray in the water, stuff that won’t rub off and smells terrible.
Since my last visit, Bassem Abu-Rahme, a warm and energetic friend to many who have marched in Bil’in, died from being shot in the heart with a tear gas canister as he yelled at soldiers that his Israeli activist friend was hurt. We watched a movie about Bassem and I remembered how enthusiastic and glowing he was. No more, although his memory lives on through pictures on every family’s wall, and in the minds of the thousands who have come from around the world to confront Israeli Apartheid in this small village.
The resistance in Bil’in has continued every Friday for more than half a decade. I am reminded each time I come of the extraordinary resilience of the people. More than 85 of 1,800 inhabitants have been imprisoned, with many more beaten, gassed, and shot at. The house in which we were staying has been raided eight times in the middle of the night. Our host is wanted by Israel for his leadership in this village known for its nonviolence. He dined with us and left, saying it was too dangerous for him to stay.
Usually when I come to Bil’in the first place I go is to visit my friends Abdallah and Majida, and their beautiful girls, Luma and Layan. This time, there was a third child (Laith, their first boy) but someone was missing. Abdallah Abu-Rahme, one of the leaders of Bil’in’s popular nonviolent resistance against the Wall, was abducted by soldiers in the middle of the night, with Majida and the rest of the family unable to stop it. His crime: Abdallah has been charged for possession of weapons because he gathered empty tear gas canisters that were shot into his village and put them together to form an enormous peace sign (click on the link for the photo... you have to see it to believe it).
In the morning our friend from Jerusalem was late to pick us up. He said they couldn’t buy amenities because a general strike was called in East Jerusalem. Later we visited Sakhnin, a Palestinian town in the Galilee. The entire town had been on strike and people were out at night demonstrating and singing “Biladi, Biladi” (My Country, My Country). Our host told us about Israeli efforts to separate Palestinian society, calling Palestinians in Israel “Arab Israelis” and claiming they are separate from the Druze, Bedouins, Jerusalemites, and Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territory and the Diaspora. These classifications serve to undermine the unity of the Palestinian people but, my host smiled, they have not succeeded, as evidenced by so many protests and strikes around Palestine for the people of Gaza and their supporters.
Yesterday, Egypt finally opened Gaza’s Rafah crossing to allow Palestinians, food, water, medical supplies, and more in and out. It seems even Egypt has a breaking point. In the United Nations, representatives from multiple countries (including the UK, but not the US) issued harsher words than I have heard from them in the past (albeit not harsh enough). Sadly, ten Palestinian deaths have never prompted an emergency meeting in the UN; Palestinians’ lives are considered cheaper than those in other countries. Who knows how long Rafah will stay open or what will come of the UN lip-service, but it shows the power of international solidarity to wake up the world and force people to talk about this issue. Those who fell on the Mavi Marmara were people of conscience with the courage to do what our government and others have not: end the siege of Gaza. Their deaths will not be in vain.
Tuesday, May 25: By Air—Interrogation at Ben-Gurion Airport
Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, I was nervous. I was nervous because I am a Palestinian-American. And because of this, I am instantly suspicious. As I approached the passport control window in order to get my passport stamped, I noticed a large group of young Jewish-Americans talking about how excited they were to vacation in Israel. They breezed right through the passport control. Even American members of my own delegation said they were here for tourism and received a friendly "Welcome to Israel" from the Israel Border Authorities
The man looked at my passport and said, "Sorry, Lara. It's not a big deal, but you will have to go to another room for further questioning." Well, in actuality, he hadn't asked me any questions yet. He just looked at my name: Lara Ahmed Elborno. Birthplace: Kuwait. My heart sank. But I did not feel sorry for myself. Palestinians go through this systematic discrimination every single day. I can deal with this, I thought.
I was escorted into a private room where an Israeli woman coldly asked me a few questions. "What is your cell-phone number in the United States?" "Where were your parents born?" I gave her my number. I said Gaza. She said, "You will have to see the Ministry of Interior." One of the delegation leaders stayed with me as I was escorted with my American passport to see the MOI.
I found myself in front of a 50 year old-ish Israeli man. He took out a white sheet of paper and proceeded to interrogate me. What is your father's name? What is your mother's name? What is your mother's father’s name?" "Your mother's mother's name?" I answer. I watched him sketch a family tree on the paper. "What is your father's father's name?" I replied that I did not know. He told me "I know, it is Sayyid. And your father's name is not only Ahmad. It is Ahmad Mahmoud Sayyid Elborno."
I was stunned. He was asking me questions that he already knew the answers to. Perhaps, in order to prolong this experience, perhaps to make me feel like I am not welcome. To make me feel like I should not be here, in my own land. He then asked me if I knew when my grandparents got married. I replied of course not. That's ridiculous. I challenged him to tell me the date his grandparents got married. He told me it did not matter that I didn't know because he already knew: September 3, 1958.
Then, we started playing occupation charades. He pulled up several ID photos of Palestinians and asked me if I was related to them. I did not recognize anyone. Then, he shows me a picture of an older man in a grey suit. "Who is this man?" "My grandfather." He told me again, that he already knew that. Finally, he took an interest in my sister. He said, "Your sister, Dana, was here last year. Why?" "Tourism." "But you are from Gaza." "So because we are from Gaza we cannot be tourists???" I'm sorry, I must have forgotten that being from Gaza is a crime. After an hour and a half, my passport was stamped and I was told to enjoy my stay in Israel.
So, I’ve made it here to Palestine/Israel. It was probably the most exhausting day of my life, but I’ve managed through it. Not only was it exhausting physically, but my mind was going wild with preparation of what was to come when we arrived in the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I kept thinking to myself that I need to be relaxed and not worry, but in the back of my mind, it’s as if I felt I was doing something wrong.
I was one of the only three Palestinians in the airplane flying to Tel Aviv, and I wondered what would happen if many of the people who were Jewish knew I was of Palestinian descent. Would I still be treated with respect and spoken to kindly? I knew that this wouldn’t last, because once I go to the passport control, I would be exposed of who I really am.
So, let me begin the story of what happened as we arrived to Tel Aviv. Our group consists of 28 people. We have a diverse group of 28 people on this delegation. We have two people of Asian descent, an African American man, and three Palestinian-Americans. Right as we got off the airplane and headed to the passport control, and Israeli guard stopped the African American man and asked him “why are you here?”, and the man told the guard that he was here with a tourist group, and when our leader came up to the guard, the guard let him go right away.
When I was standing in line for the passport control, I kept feeling something in my chest like something was going to go down, and I automatically assumed it would because I’ve been questioned before because of my name. I went behind a Jewish American girl who went first in line and got her passport stamped with such ease. About one percent of what I was feeling at that time was “Oh, well I have a possibility of getting in without any questioning.” Well, I was wrong. As soon as I stepped forward to hand the Israeli guard my passport and she looked at my name, the first question she asked was “what’s your father’s name?”, and so I told her. The next thing she asked was “What’s your grandfather’s name?”, so again I told her. She looked at her computer screen for about 30 seconds and reached for the phone. By the time she hung up I already knew what was going to go down, so I started to walk towards the interrogation area.
I waited for about 20 minutes, and kept thinking to myself that I have a right to be here. First of all, I’m an American citizen, second of all I am Palestinian and this land here is about me and my heritage. Therefore I will get through no matter how long it takes. So the Israeli guard comes up to me with my passport and takes me to a room with chairs, a computer, and a desk. She asks me again what’s my father’s name and my grandfather’s name, and I tell her. She asks me if I have family here, and if I’ve been here before. This isn’t anything new to me of course, because it’s happened to me before.
In a way, the interrogation aspect is only a strategy to use on the Palestinian American’s or anybody of Palestinian descent coming to Palestine/Israel. To me, not only is this degrading, but it’s humiliating. In a way I felt like I was doing something wrong, but really I wasn’t. I knew that I was entitled to go wherever I wanted. But in reality, I felt like I was unworthy. It shouldn’t be like that. I wish I could walk into Ben Gurion Airport with Palestinian Pride, and just speak Arabic whenever I feel without feeling like I’m being watched or being judged and being discriminated against.
My experience is only a little part of a bigger picture. I don’t want anybody to pity me because of what happened to me for two hours, because the Palestinian people have to live with this in their daily lives, whether it be kids going to school or people going to work. It’s an everyday occurrence for them to be asked what they are doing. It’s ridiculous how much discrimination there is here in this “moral, great, and democratic” country of Israel.
Sunday, May 30: By Land—Checkpoints, Walls, and Prisons
The checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is a concrete structure with its tall guard tower and imposing walls. Considering that Bethlehem is one of the holiest places in Christianity and receives incalculable number of Christian pilgrims each year, do tourists realize that the man who brushed shoulders with him was shot in the flank because he couldn’t see the IDF soldier, hiding behind a wall, telling him to stop; and when he brought suit against the soldier for this grievous bodily injury, told that it was dismissed because IDF cannot be held liable? Or that in 2002, he and his neighbors were forbidden from venturing outside, for two months, which was tantamount to collective house arrest? And does it occur to the pilgrim that the ease with which he is able to travel at any time between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is a privilege – not because he is a Christian, but because he is not a Palestinian [Christian]? Where is the justice in subjecting Palestinians to all these overreaching restrictions and humiliating harassments to the extent that they become entrenched as facts of life?
At our first checkpoint of the day, our tour bus is boarded again by a 20-ish year-old man/child in uniform passing by each of us, holding his rifle at eye-level within inches of our faces. We were cleared & we continue down the highway. This time we pass an Israeli prison only yards off the road, that cannot be missed. Here stands a near replica of a brick, concretized concentration camp I saw in Warsaw last year – barbed wire in large rolls atop great, gray walls, guard towers, etc., all promising to those who enter a disappearance of Humanity, loss of identity, and desolation of the soul, and execution of a future for the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. In ‘Ofra’ prison, and its colorless landscape, flies proudly a clean, crisp, blue & white flag, that is, for those of us who know, the Star of David! In your face!
**June 3 Update from the Tent of Nations – Good News!
Good News from the Tent of Nations! The Supreme Court of Israel has granted Daoud Nassar, and the Tent of Nations, acceptance of their appeal to deny the order to demolish the structures on the farm. It’s a victory for justice and peace! The military authority has 60 days in which to respond. So for now, the wonderful activities of the farm will continue on in its mission to build a better future for all people of the region. On behalf of Friends of Tent of Nations North America, we thank you for your efforts to alert your friends, government representatives and a world of people like yourself. The engagement is not over. We must continue to expand our circle.
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