Connections and Contrasts: Sderot, Nablus, and Hebron
Gaza and Sderot
Sderot: the tiny Israeli town half a mile from the northeast corner of Gaza; the frequent target of Qassam rockets if crude unguided munitions can be said to have a target; the totem held up by supporters of Israel when anyone protests the siege of Gaza.
I don't know what I expected from Sderot. I was mostly hoping to check it off as a place I've been and catch a glimpse of Gaza from over the wall. I didn't expect to be blown away by what I found there.
Sderot is a poor town. A third of the residents are on welfare. When Chen Abrahms of the Gvanim Association, which runs programs for at-risk youth, talks about settlements she get furious. "If they invested all the money they spent on settlements into Sderot, this would be a different place," she snaps. The population is a mix of Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews), Ethiopians, immigrants from the Caucasus who came after the USSR collapsed. Jobs are scarce. The schools are underfunded and even second-generation residents often have trouble learning Hebrew. Absurdly, Palestinian collaborators granted asylum in Israel are often resettled there as well. In short, it's all the unwanted of Israel.
Before coming to Sderot, I was quick to dismiss any comparison between the suffering in Gaza and Sderot as not only ludicrous but morally reprehensible. But listening to Nomika Zion of Other Voice, a group of Sderot residents who support ending the siege on Gaza, I am unexpectedly moved. Nomika describes clear signs of post-traumatic stress, being worn down by constant terror, teachers unable to deal with students who are acting out because they themselves are traumatized, thinking about having to choose which child to save first if the rocket sirens go off when you're driving the school van.
Certainly there is no comparison to be drawn in terms of the scale or the intensity of the violence that has been visited on the two places. The concrete bomb shelters Sderot residents have would be crushed to dust by anything Israel drops. But there are so many things that remind me of Gaza. Nomika and Chen matter-of-factly bring out a Qassam rocket that landed near the building in 2008, the metal of the explosive end bent back on itself like a banana peel. I instantly flash back to the table of spent munitions at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza.
Nomika talks about the ceasefire that lasted from June to November 2008 as the first time in her life she felt her government was protecting her. And she tells how her own government broke that ceasefire, on November 4, 2008, while the eyes of much of the world were focused on the US presidential election.
As part of her work with Other Voice, Nomika had made connections with Palestinians in Gaza. She kept in touch with them as Operation Cast Lead started. Every day, their tales of horror poured in. At night the bombs falling on Gaza shook the walls of her home. Nomika has proceeded through the whole story of her own life under bombardment with perfect calm, but when it comes to talking about the Palestinians, she chokes up. "Instead of thinking of when the next Qassam would land, I could think only of them," she said of her Palestinian friends. "They're supposed to be our enemies, but all you want to do is reach out. But what can you do? You're helpless."
Someone like Nomika is a challenge to all Israelis. She, of all people, might seem like the most likely candidate to hate and fear Gazans. But she is one of the few Israelis I've met on this trip who seemed to feel genuine empathy for the Palestinians, to want to end the conflict not just for Israelis, but for them. At the moment of greatest danger for her, her heart was in Gaza.
My takeaway at the end of the day was that Sderot is being used. The Israeli government, supporters of Israel who scream the town's name to silence any criticism...I don't think they give a damn about Sderot. When I tell people I've been to Gaza, I sometimes get the aggressive response: "And have you been to Sderot?" The next time someone says that to me, I want to ask: "Have YOU been to Sderot? Because what you find there may not be what you expect."
Originally posted at: http://lauraontheleftcoast.blogspot.com/2010/07/gaza-and-sderot.html
The Music of War
After meeting with some teenagers from a beautifully communal kibbutz near Gaza, I was deeply affected by a meeting today with Nomika Zion of the Kibbutz Migvan in Sderot, a small town in southern Israel which has suffered the brunt of rocket attacks directed from Gaza. She talked about the “music of war” – the constant rhythm of the walls shaking from the bombings during the recent Gaza War, the constant explosions. The Qassam rockets launched from Gaza, sometimes landing 50 – 60 per day for months on end.
And to hear her say that at night, instead of thinking of her own fears and dangers, how her heart was breaking for the people of Gaza. Nomika wrote an article for The Huffington Post which stirred significant controversy ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nomika-zion/war-diary-from-sderot_b_157497.html).
Work in the Midst of Terror
Today we visited the town of Sderot, an Israeli town which is less than a mile from Gaza and experiences missile fire on a regular basis. One stat they shared is that over an 8 year period more than 5500 missiles were fired at the town. Gvanim provides human services to the community, especially focusing on the at-risk youth who experience compound trauma. It was heartwarming to hear that even living in a constant state of terror people are doing this important work. It was so meaningful to me.
Originally posted at: http://gratefulkate.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/for-the-work-that-gvanim-does-in-sderot/
Balata and Hebron
We toured Balata Refugee Camp near Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank about 1.5 hours north of Jerusalem, on August 1. In Balata 25,000 people are living in a warren of apartment buildings; basically a slum. The refugee camp is a ghetto and home for three generations of Palestinians who fled the coastal plains during the 1948 War. 67% (7.1 million people) of all Palestinians are refugees or IDPs. In April 2002 Israeli planes, tanks, and bulldozers targeted Nablus and Balata killing dozens of civilians.
The next day we toured the old city of Hebron and visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque where the world's three great monotheistic religions share a holy site where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wives are believed to be buried.
We met with a Jewish settler with pistol on his belt. He explained the Biblical justification for the modern Jewish settlers who are settling and confiscating land in Hebron. He described the conflict as essentially religious "with Muslims hating Christians more than Jews".
Israel's regime of occupation supports such colonization and segregation of Palestine.
Open and Closed
Nablus is open. The constricting ring of checkpoints that has squeezed the city since the beginning of the Second Intifada has finally been relaxed, as part of the carrot-and-stick policy Israel has applied to the West Bank and Gaza. It is the first time in many years IFPB has been able to bring a delegation here.
Nablus was a center of resistance in the early 2000s, and was hit frequently and hard by the Israeli army. There are tales of long curfews, whole families killed, people bleeding to death in their homes because ambulances were denied passage. The walls of the oft-besieged Old City are dotted with martyr posters, and bullet holes.
But today, Nablus is bursting with life. Shops are open. Pedestrians pack the streets. The staff at the Yasmeen Hotel enthusiastically carry our bags up the numerous stairs before we can learn that they're taking the stairs because the electricity is off. It's as if everyone is grabbing as much life as they can after years of being under various degrees of siege.
That night in the hotel many of us are hanging out in the lobby. The hotel staff are watching Arabic music videos and all of a sudden, despite the incredible heat, some of them start dancing dabke, Palestinian folk dance. Then they are teaching us the steps. There are many quick changes of weight and most of us are horrible at it, but everyone is laughing a lot. At midnight in the blazing heat in the middle of a scarred city, we are having a crazy dabke dance party.
The contrast to Hebron two days later is a shock. Hebron is unique in the West Bank in that Israeli settlers have moved right into the city center. As a consequence, Hebron is divided into two zones: H1, which experiences the "normal" conditions of the occupation, and H2, which is on military lockdown. Here for the first time we hear F-16s--a lot of them--and see soldiers on the streets--a lot of them. There are gates and checkpoints within the city, walls closing off streets for no reason other than to make life miserable for the Palestinian residents, and some of the most strident Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
Thirty seconds into our tour we're stopped by a soldier who tells our Palestinian guide Issa that he's not allowed to take us down the street on which he lives. Later a car full of settlers drives by and someone gives us the finger. And we're experiencing only a small slice of what it's like to live here. On some streets settlers have moved into the upper floors of the buildings and throw garbage, bricks, anything you can imagine down on the Palestinians in the shops below.
The desperation in Hebron is palpable. We are followed everywhere by flocks of kids begging us to buy something, a bracelet, a trinket, anything, ten shekels, five shekels. The Old City of Hebron used to be busier than Jerusalem. Now it's a ghost town. On many streets not a single shop is open. Some were closed by direct military order, but the slow grind of occupation, closure, hostile soldiers, and settlers has done its work on many more.
Nablus and Hebron are two sides of the same coin. The situation in Hebron is just a concentrated form of what's going on all over the West Bank--the relentless drive to force Palestinians out. Everyone who lives in an open area remembers what closure is like, and in the back of everyone's mind is the fear of going back to that. Nablus is only open at Israel's whim. In this way the occupation constantly pressures people to lower their expectations, to be grateful for the most minimal things: the ability to buy food, to run a business, to go to school, to walk down a street. To get people so focused on daily survival that they forget about things like self-determination and equal rights. The fact that it hasn't worked yet--not everywhere, not completely--is a testament to Palestinians' resilience.
Originally posted at: http://lauraontheleftcoast.blogspot.com/2010/08/open-and-closed.html
So Many Voices
I have heard so many voices that the rest of the world has not heard from this region- so many narratives that are pleading to be understood. I have seen, and second-handedly felt the pain, anger, grief, guilt, dignity, defensiveness and hope. There are memorable words and quotes that have given me a glimpse into a war-torn mindset and they are flowing through my head trying to arrange themselves into a format--a story that makes sense.
When there are more than two voices, somewhere between the black and white, we are forced to see the humanity, and the complications. We have seen the Israeli Jews who are minorities within their society because they refuse to support an illegal occupation of the Palestinians. They know what this choice means, and they accept it. It means being looked at as a traitor, someone who is not loyal to their country. Then there are the indifferent families, the ones who live in settlements for cheap housing and try not to think about what is going on around them. And there are the violent settlers believing this land is only for them and will stop at nothing in order to take it.
There are the normal, middle-class Israelis who can choose to be involved or choose to remove themselves from the conflict most of the time. This, in itself, is a privilege that most Palestinians do not have. They do not have the choice of being indifferent. Five hundred physical closures and 500,000 settlers in the occupied West Bank (roughly the size of Delaware) do not allow for the choice of ignorance. After a strangulation of the Palestinian people for 43 years, any act of resistance, big or small, is used as an excuse for collective punishment of a civilian population.
These vast differences between the Israelis and Palestinians, concerning their everyday realities is where the story begins to make sense, and I have yet to hear a voice that can legitimize a debilitating military occupation, colonization, and annexation of 43 years.
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