<   Report Four:   The Other Side of the Wall >

July 27, 2011
Ramallah, Hebron and Tel Aviv


This delegation is traveling concurrently with
IFPB's African Heritage Delegation > > >

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The Emperor of Ice Cream

It’s not hard to guess why, when we went to Ramallah, I kept reciting under my breath the poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by American poet Wallace Stevens. Stevens’ short poem describes ice cream being made in the house of mourning. Though there is ever-present sadness the poet still wishes to “whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.”

The Palestinian people, in addition to their other hardships, have been cut off from East Jerusalem by a gigantic concrete wall and a series of checkpoints which prevent easy passage between Israel and the territory of the West Bank; occupied in violation of international law since 1967. East Jerusalem is a city of over 300,000 Palestinians, which — though it has never been their political capital — has been their cultural, economic and artistic capital for countless generations.

A short fourteen miles away, in the hills to the north of Jerusalem, lies the acting political capital of Palestine: Ramallah. When we visited Birzeit University in the morning one of the students told one of the Muslims in our delegation who had been praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque how she too longed to go to East Jerusalem one day. Later that evening one of the Israeli students from Hebrew University told me that he had heard many wonderful things about Ramallah.

They are all true. Ramallah is a wonderful, vibrant town, bustling with energy and verve. Where else in the world is a city in which one of the main streets running through the center of town is named after an ice cream parlor? And on Rukab Street, down a shadowy staircase, is an English language bookstore where shone up at me from a book table the face of Suheir Hammad, Palestinian-Brooklynite poet. And later on the street, hanging in a store window: a charcoal drawing of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who made Ramallah his home when in 1997 he was at last permitted to return to Palestine after a lifetime abroad.

After our visit to Birzeit University we were able to talk with activists from Gaza via a teleconference system. The seven young activists, all between 18 and 22, most of them women, were able to tell us about their various democracy-building projects in Gaza. We had to strain to make out their grainy faces in the low-resolution projection, and strain also to understand their heavily accented English. But it moved me nearly to tears to hear the hope in their voices, see the commitment and kindness in their faces.

The Palestinian people have been divided in four and none of the four can meet, create cultural commerce, or build political unity as a people. Scattered by war, they are now scattered by “peace.” There are the Palestinian-Israelis who live inside the “green line,” the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel. There are the Palestinians sealed up in Gaza, without adequate construction supplies to repair any damage caused in the siege of Gaza, many of them living without electricity, access to fresh water, or medical care. There are the Palestinians who live in the cities and towns of the Occupied West Bank. And then, of course, there are the approximately 4 million members of the Diaspora who have no legal status as Palestinians per se.

In East Jerusalem I was constantly aware that - though beyond the “green line” and so not a part of the internationally recognized State of Israel - we were nevertheless in annexed territory. I had no sense of the Palestinians here as a sovereign people. There are Israeli urban settlements inside the city and a set of Israeli settlements ringing the city to the East (and so inside the Occupied West Bank) that are cutting off the Arab city from the rest of Palestinian territory. As we drove out of Jerusalem toward Ramallah we had to drive through a checkpoint past the high concrete wall. This wall ostensibly divides Israel from the Palestinian territories, but the wall is far inside the West Bank, cutting off parts of what is legally considered to be Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.

One thing that has haunted me on this trip through an unsettling region with two names is how complicated the situation is, how many views there are toward solving the seeming myriad of issues that face the Palestinian and Israeli people. One issue seems basic: there can never be a functioning and vibrant Palestinian polity until there is freedom of movement for the Palestinian people. The wall must come down, the blockade of Gaza must end, the checkpoints in the Occupied West Bank must be removed, and transit between Gaza and the West Bank restored.

In Ramallah, we met with an activist from the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. This movement has three demands: a full withdrawal by Israel from Palestinian lands illegally occupied since 1967 (Gaza Strip and the West Bank), full equality for Arabs living inside Israel, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

There are a range of other issues that face the Palestinian people about which there is lively debate and discussion but these three concerns seem to be the most basic ground point from which to begin a true movement toward peace between to equal partners, two nations devoted to finding common ground and a way toward justice over part grievances and shared prosperous future.

But in Ramallah somehow I felt free. In Ramallah I felt like there was a free Palestine. The people around me behaved like free people — they were angry, funny, passionate, disturbed. They were vocally critical of their own government, introspective and thoughtful about the future, distracted by the wedding dress in the shop window. They make brilliant art and literature and music. They dream — as their Israeli sisters and brothers did once — of returning to Jerusalem.

When the Berlin Wall ringed that German city one side of it — the East German side, the side of the closed and undemocratic regime — was bare and imposing. But the other side — the West German side, the side that longed for a free and open society — was littered and licked and lavishly covered with the brilliant graffiti of freedom.

As we drove past the bare Israeli wall, past the checkpoint, and past the now-closed airport that used to serve the Arab towns in that area, we saw the other side of the wall, the Palestinian side: first the brilliantly  painted portraits of Palestinian leaders, then slogans, poems, and then the touching silhouette of a little girl with braided hair clutching a bunch of balloons being borne skyward, up over the wall, toward the blue sky, toward a space beyond the boundaries and checkpoints and separations.

In Ramallah the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

- Kazim A.


“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”
(Milan Kundera)

I am wandering through the exhibits at Yad Vashem and I am listening in on the tour groups of young Jews with baseball caps, Crocs, and North American accents. The museum and memorial is crowded with them, and it reminds me of being here in January 2006 on a Birthright Israel trip. Most probably are on Birthright. They are accompanied by young soldiers in their army uniforms, and if I remember correctly, after the museum they will gather outside on the steps of a stone amphitheater and join hands to sing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.

Even in 2006, I felt uncomfortable with the proximity of nationalism and genocide, and this is a memory I retain as I walk amongst them through the enclosed concrete halls of Yad Vashem.  The museum is a triangular building in which you are unable to escape as you follow the switch-backed exhibit path. This is intentional, a design that draws you into its depths, before releasing you onto the vista overlooking the landscape. As you tread through the museum, you periodically see this view, far off and non-distinct, a literal light at the end of the tunnel, but one that you think, thankfully, draws closer.

After you pass through the final two installments, the first a crescendo moment of David Ben Gurion reading the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the second, the Well of Souls, a round room lined with binders chronicling the victims, some of whose photographs you see above you in a simulation of a vanishing point, you finally pass through the glass doors and breath in the air. You feel relieved to reach it, to have the breeze and the view of the pine trees and you are looking out onto a valley empty but for some old crop terraces and olive trees.

The first time at Yad Vashem, I understood this to be a lesson of the path of the Jewish people, finding relief in the land after the Holocaust. This time, I am told that this view is not innocent.  Now, in 2011, I have the terrible realization that I am looking out onto Deir Yassin. In 1948, the Irgun with the support of the Israeli Army, massacred Palestinian villagers. News of this massacre, and a violent policy that promoted it, helped precipitate a Palestinian flight — some say an ethnic cleansing — that resulted in what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe), and the refugee crisis that Israel has never acknowledged responsibility for, and has for all intents and purposes hidden, much like the lost village in this valley.

Who decided to have Yad Vashem’s exhibits end with a vista over Palestinian unmarked graves? Indeed, the concrete buttresses of the memorial invite you to look out over the valley — it is not just a random positioning over the landscape. What does this say of the path of the Jewish people after the Holocaust? How should I now regard the memorial behind me?

A man with a British accent was talking to a group of young Jews at the Well of Souls a moment earlier about the importance of fighting Holocaust denial. He tells them to look down into the muddy reflection in the well and to try to make out the faces above. No one can. They are too far off and indistinct. He tells them there is a campaign of forgetting, and that they must go home and fight with all of their breath the denial of the Jewish people’s tragedy. I catch up with them again at the vista overlooking Deir Yassin and inside I feel a creeping shame.

- Joe G.


A Living Ghost Town

Walking through the streets of Hebron’s Old City, it is easy to believe that it is a ghost town, no longer populated save for the ruins of a society once vibrant and alive. In fact, this narrative is not far from the truth, except that the city is inhabited by more than two million people. As we walked from the bus toward the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque, music echoed through the near-empty streets from one of the few shops still open for business, setting an ominous and eerie tone for the afternoon. The few people that we pass hurry by, eyes averted.

In the streets, we are approached by a group of Palestinian children trying to sell us small trinkets. The current circumstances plaguing the city have taken a toll on the local economy, reducing the children practically to begging in order to scrape together minimal income for their families. The hostile Jewish settlements and division of the city into two zones has virtually shut down the once boisterous Palestinian shops and market places that still line the streets. It is difficult to imagine the boarded up store-fronts now bearing Stars of David graffiti bustling with shoppers chatting and laughing with one another.

As we progress down the street, there is the sound of commotion behind us. I turn to look, and I see a heavily armed soldier chasing down a little boy who cannot be more than eight years old. Our guide, Issa, explains that the only reason the soldier does not do more, like beating the boy, is because our group is there to bear witness. I shudder to think of what will and has happened when no one is there to see.  At this point, the children selling their trinkets are still with the group, and the soldiers take notice, coming over to yell at the boys. Later, our guide explains that the soldiers were yelling at the boys because the street we were on is partitioned by a low concrete wall, with one side allotted exclusively for settler use, and the other for Palestinians. Our group was on the settler side, and the boys were not allowed to be there. After this incident, the soldiers begin walking alongside our group, a sick satire of an escort. As we reach a watch tower on the side of the street, one pair of soldiers turns back to their post, and we are joined by those manning the new post.

Issa explains to us that the road we are on has been cleared out. No one is allowed to live in the houses there but one woman because she is deaf. As we step into the alcove where the woman’s house is, we are face to face with another guard station, complete with armed soldier. As we are looking at the house and the complicated system set up for her to live there surrounded by blockades, a settler drives up and demands that the soldier arrest Issa because he is a terrorist. Quickly, we move on, the group surrounding Issa to ensure that the soldier cannot get to Issa without going through us, thus preventing his arrest.

Eventually, we make our way to what was once the “golden market” of Hebron which used to be lively and filled with the sounds of merchants advertising their wares. Though these shops are allowed to be open by law, many of them are closed, effectively shut down by IDF roadblocks preventing easy access and by the violence perpetrated by settlers who have taken over the second level of the structures above the market. The shops that have braved the hardships eagerly call to us, encouraging us to buy from their stores at the cheapest prices we will find, all due to these conditions.

Looking up, we see our heads are shrouded by wire fencing which is littered with garbage, bricks, food, and other various items. The municipality was forced to place this cover above the market street because the settlers throw their garbage, shoes, urine, huge pieces of stone, eggs, and even acid down into the street, trying to cause damage to both the Palestinians and the merchandise in the shops. Above my head, I note a kitchen knife perched precariously on the edge of the thin wire chain links.

I am saddened and nauseated by the things that people can do to one another, and anger increases my desire to change the situation, though at this point I am lost amidst the sea of injustices and not sure where to go from here.

To walk through the city of Hebron is to leave the world I know, temporarily stepping into a war zone in which is not difficult to imagine ducking into a bunker to escape enemy fire. Everywhere I look there are signs of hot conflict, from the soldiers patrolling the streets with their hands locked on M-16s, to the manned watch towers every few yards, to the armored vehicles skidding through the deserted roads. It is heartbreaking to see a city once so rich with history and culture reduced to a shadow, a living ghost town racked with injustice, violence, and fear.   

- Ali O.


No Longer a Bystander

Under a hot burning sun, we walked in unison taking in the sights, visiting hot spots in the neighborhood and finished off our tour eating falafel sandwiches as a welcoming breeze swept by as if to thank us for our visit.

Walking by our group, you would never guess that we were under the constant stare of Israeli soldiers armed with M-16s and seemingly uncomfortable Jewish settlers who appeared somehow disturbed by our visit. A heavy tension loomed in the air that seemed to choke even the most cheerful out of all of us.

This is my experience visiting Hebron today. A predominantly Palestinian town that has become increasingly polarized with the influx of Israeli settlers. No longer bustling with boutiques in the local market or with the familial greeting of neighbors in the streets, Hebron resembles a ghost town as we passed street after street of closed shops and empty houses that hint at signs of a vibrant community once upon a time.

Speaking with David Wilder, the spokesman for the Jewish Community at Beit Hadassa, and our Palestinian guide Issa, an organizer for Youth Against the Settlements, I heard two very different perspectives of the history of Hebron and how it deteriorated into what it is today. Both detailed a sense of loss that can only be expressed through personal clashes with the opposite group and a sense of belonging in the physical space.

Hebron is not your average town. Soldiers patrol the streets chasing Palestinians kids for not walking on their designated side of the street. The local mosque shares a wall with the local synagogue and metal detectors and heavy security line the entrances of both. Like many disputed territories around Israel and Palestine, Hebron is the symbol of a proud history for some, a memorial of loss for others, and a battleground for securing the future right to exist in that physical space for both groups.

Having walked through Hebron, I experienced a most profound change. No longer was I removed from this conflict, I was watching it unfold before my eyes. The tension and discomfort that I felt walking through these empty streets will forever remain with me.

While I do not return home an expert on the situation in Israel and Palestine, I also do not return a bystander. If I ever needed a reason to forget what I have experienced on this delegation, I only need to remember back to my visit in Hebron where I witnessed a deep divide between neighbors, a growing tension that can easily invite violence and an uncertainty of what is to come from this unpredictable setting.   

- Natanaelle O.


Civil-izing Versus Normal-izing

On Wednesday, one of the groups we met with was New Profile, a group working for the civil-ization of Israeli society by focusing on demilitarizing education and supporting Israeli military resisters with counseling and legal assistance. Having done counter-recruitment work in the U.S. to get military recruiters out of schools and stop the poverty draft, it was good to hear what is happening here and overwhelming to see how pervasive the militarization is of Israeli schools.

To rewind, military service is compulsory In Israel, unless you are an Orthodox Jew or a Palestinian citizen of Israel (within the 1967 borders). At least service is supposed to be compulsory, although only around 25% of graduating classes actually enter the service. So people are clearly finding medical or other ways to get exemptions, whether for political reasons or not. Therefore, to keep up the facade of everyone sharing a collective burden of service and to prepare people to commit to service, the level of militarization of schools is intense.

Soldiers are stationed at Israeli schools in uniform - inside as teachers or aides or outside as armed guards - to normalize children to uniforms and military service. In-class presentations and discussions with soldiers with guns or playgrounds with old military equipment do the same. That a number of retired officers act as teachers and administrators, regaling students with stories of service and glory silence questions of both parents and children by filling them with a sense of inevitability of military service.

Even with all this preparation, of the 25% who enter military service, 26% never finish their terms. It is a system so fragile that it cannot handle questioning, which is why New Profile was banned from schools by the Ministry of Education.

By engaging with youth to dialogue about military service and the Occupation, New Profile is helping to shift the public discourse on the military that creates space for change. Supporting those who want to resist military service by helping them navigate the system and learn their rights is crucial for building the resisters’ movement. 

The challenge is tremendous here, but the volunteers of New Profile are standing up to ensure that more Israeli youth are not unquestioningly sent to enforce the Occupation. We have a responsibility to do the same for youth in the U.S. as well.

- Randy W.

This delegation is traveling concurrently with
the African Heritage Delegation > > >



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