During the fall of 2002 I heard the personal stories of two Palestinians. One told me about her grandfather’s ancient olive trees that had been confiscated and then chopped down by the Israeli government. Another told me how his 84-year-old grandmother had died, in his uncle’s vehicle at a checkpoint after being denied permission by Israeli soldiers to travel to a larger city for medical attention.
These personal stories and other post 9-11 events led me to expand my understanding of this conflict. I considered myself to be fairly well informed. I majored in history in college and completed law school. I am married to a Jewish man whose parents and some siblings have traveled to Israel. I try to think back, was it that I was not aware of what was happening in the land once only known as Palestine? I do not think so. More likely, I was one of those that understood the conflict to be an ancient one, whose roots had been forgotten over time and whose continuing combatants, on both sides, were extremists to whom I could not personally or politically relate.
From October 19 to November 10, 2003, I traveled with six others of Traverse for Peace from the Traverse City, Michigan area to Palestine and Israel, primarily the West Bank and Jerusalem. These are my own thoughts and impressions. I do not speak for any one but myself. I write having been back one month. I can easily tell you the things I saw but struggle to find the words to describe the “feel” of the trip. For the past nineteen months others and I have previewed many movies for showing at Mideast: Just Peace’s monthly forums in Traverse City. I have heard Palestinians and Israelis talk about their lives and histories. I have read dozens of books on the subject. But all of those experiences pale in comparison to the “feel” of life under Occupation. For the Palestinians to achieve self-determination, for Zionism to be exposed and then relegated to the trash bin of history and for the drive of US imperialism to be stopped, many changes need to occur. First there must be an understanding of the true nature of this conflict. I want these personal stories to open your eyes and minds. Then you can continue on the path to understanding and strategizing toward achieving the above goals by any and all means necessary.
We met a researcher in Ramallah from Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization. He had already spent a total of 8, non-consecutive, years of his adult life in Israeli jails and administrative detention for political organizing. During one of his later incarcerations and after getting to know one of his perennial guards, he asked the guard to be “logical”, to converse with him regarding the reasons why he was being held. The guard gave him some advice: “Leave not only logic, but also your mind outside the walls of prison.” Perhaps that is one way to travel through occupied Palestine: Leave logic and your mind on the other side of the border. One can intellectually understand the reasons for conditions, but very little really makes sense in Palestine. The senselessness, the insanity, the arbitrariness, the banality, the uncertainty were palpable.
We have come to Ramallah. We are drinking coffee, enjoying each other’s company, talking with new friends. Al Jazeera comes on and blares: “The Israelis soldiers are imposing a curfew in Ramallah. It will go into effect in three minutes.” Do you finish your coffee, do you pay the bill, do you stay, do you go? You choose to venture out on the street and there you see masses of people engaged in various stages of “composed confusion.” People walking determinedly. Others running. Some gathering. Others also gathering stones. You smell tear gas. You hear “sound bombs”. You hear automatic gunfire. (Later you learn that automatic gunfire means random shooting, one lone shot means some one took aim.) No one knows the reason for the incursion of Israeli jeeps and armored vehicles. It is explained that they often come into town and stay until morning, driving slowly and menacingly through the abandoned streets. You learn the next day that one lone shot you may have heard went through the back of a 24 year old man’s brain. He had been married only two weeks before. We hear over and over “This is life in Ramallah”.
Now we are at the Huwwara Checkpoint on the outskirts of Nablus. There are some 200 people standing in two gender-based lines. I wait with the Palestinian women. They are teachers. They have their books and briefcases. Some grade their students’ papers with red pen while waiting on this hot afternoon. Their classrooms are in the surrounding villages. Their common story is getting to this checkpoint at 6:30 AM in order to get to their classrooms by 9:00 AM. Some days the Israeli soldiers do not let them get to school. Today, during Ramadan, the Israeli soldiers are not letting them return home to cook their own family’s evening meal. They wait patiently, too patiently. I ask one soldier when he will let these mothers through so that they can go home and cook. He tells me to “shut up.” Nothing happens. We wait. A young soldier begins pushing a heavy plastic barricade into the group of waiting Palestinians. There is no room to back up. Another young soldier caps on a tear gas canister. The women put their hands to their scarves, ready. Another soldier jumps up on the plastic barricade and points his rifle at the group. They stand still. Another soldier says it will only be 5 minutes. My Michigan friend tells him she will keep track of the time. He smiles and says, “You know I can make it 10 minutes”. I tell him he could make it three minutes. He says, not smiling, “No, I cannot.” He could make it three minutes, but he chooses to make it more. Some Palestinians are allowed to go through. Their persons or briefcases are not checked. So much for security. How does one cope with 20-year-old morons with guns? I am finally let through. I am embarrassed that my passport cover bears the name of the country manufacturing and supplying their guns.
We are in Nablus. We meet with Saed at his and his parent’s house in a mid to upper class neighborhood. He teaches geography at the University of Nablus. He tells us of an event that occurred on October 11, 2002: The shooting death of his 62-year-old mother. She is doing cross-stitch on the family’s front porch. Saed is standing inside the glass door way. His father, her husband, is sitting near her feet cleaning a basket full of thyme. Now he sees three tanks pull up. He hears one lone shot, then 13 more. He is hit by shattering glass. His mother is hit in the side. His father’s head is grazed. His mother is bleeding on the porch. Neighbors rush to help, even with the tanks in the street. He is not able to carry his mother. She dies with her head in his hands. He screams to the driver of the nearest tank, “You killed my mom! Why did you kill my mom?” The tanks close their hatches and drive away. The initial Israeli press report states that his mom was killed in a “clash”. Saed’s mom, Shaden, was a human rights activist, involved in developing women’s community groups. He shows us the blood stained cross-stitch cloth. I leave with a tight throat, surely red eyes. If he has the strength to tell his mother’s story, I can tell what I have seen too.
We plan a day trip from Ramallah to Jayyus. Under “normal” circumstances we would drive 30 minutes. Now it takes 2 and ½ hours. The taxi driver resists the Occupation at every turn. He takes us over and around dirt road blocks. He drives through olive groves and over dry riverbeds to avoid checkpoints. He keeps in continual cell phone contact with other drivers and lookouts. If he is not calling, some one is calling him. Is the Jewish-Only bypass road clear of settlers and soldiers? “Yes.” He speeds for a few miles on these forbidden roads, then darts onto another two-track road. He gets us to Jayyus, a victory for the resistance.
We are in Jayyus, a village east of Nablus. We learn from the mayor that the village has 3,000 residents. 80% of the local economy depends on agriculture. It is the olive harvest season. The mayor watches the construction of the barrier wall. We see it too. It snakes in both directions out from Jayyus, as far as you can see. The Israelis have taken 2,300 acres of land for the wall. The mayor explains that 200 families in the village have lost all of their land. Of the mayor’s 800 olive trees, he can now only reach 70. He tells us this was land he planned to leave for his children. Seven water wells and 120 greenhouses are now on the other side of the wall. Water must now be trucked in from the neighboring village of Azzune. The mayor is angry. He slaps the permits the Israelis have given him to distribute to landowners on his desk: permits to reach their own land. He refuses to use them. The villagers agree. We learn from three young men from the village that the farmers gathered without permits at one of the two gates to their land and demanded entry. The Israeli soldiers would only allow persons over the age of 40 to work the harvest. The young men tell us that those allowed into their land were then not allowed out until 9:00 PM, after dark.
We travel to Sa’ir, a village of 15,000 people. Its landscape is trellised with olive and fig trees. It produces three different types of grapes. Outside the village, stone quarries give birth to beautiful marble. We visit a six-story furniture factory in town. It now only employs 25 workers. The factory is overflowing with bedroom furniture, day beds, and large cushy chairs and couches upholstered in rich colored fabric. Why is it overflowing? Because all main roads in and out of Sa’ir are blocked. This has been the “situation” for three years. The farmers haul their produce by way of unpaved back roads. The trip to the outlying olive groves now takes four hours through the rocky hills. The one remaining furniture truck can only sporadically carry its cargo. We see two men unload a washing machine from a car’s trunk at one end of a roadblock, carry it across a paved road and up and over another roadblock. They place it in another car’s trunk for delivery. Our host explains that the road blocks and check points have all been set up to protect a small Israeli settlement. He believes its residents are 50 Jews. One of these checkpoints is where our host’s 84-year-old mother died, the grandmother of my friend. I dare not ask which one. I pay my respects to this grandmother by looking out at her land, touching its soil, telling this story.
We help with the olive harvest for 4 of our 21 days. It is coordinated by the International Solidarity Movement. We pick olives on the last day in the village of Einabus. I almost do not go, as the walk to Deir Al Hatab the day before was very long, the sun very hot and it seemed every attempt to reach above my head to pick more olives made me more lightheaded. But many farmers in Einabus were willing to go to their fields if the internationals were present. With that in mind, the rocky incline I see in front of me leading to the olive groves a mile or so away does not appear that intimidating. We will meet up with Israeli volunteers with Rabbis for Human Rights. Upon arriving at the grove, we begin the slim pickings. We later learn from a Jewish-Israeli woman that the farmers who had arrived earlier with the Rabbis for Human Rights found one of their prime groves of olive trees cut down. Susanne, from Haifa, tells us she was there when a farmer discovers 70 to 100 of his trees cut down. The farmer says the trees were standing just the day before. The farmer is screaming and begins shaking an Israeli soldier. The soldier remains calm. Susanne sees a group of settlers watching from the ridge above. Their recent settlement is a sparse cluster of trucks and trailers. Susanne says she wants to choke the settlers. She then hesitates and says, “For just 10 minutes. I would not kill them.” She expresses her frustration that many of her friends in Israel do not know or want to hear about what is happening in the West Bank. “They complain about growing unemployment, they complain about cut backs in social services, they support the unemployed mothers’ march [for benefits], but they do not see that this is all connected to the Occupation. The Occupation is killing us all. We must do a better job in making this connection.”
We stay at the home of the local Palestinian International Solidarity Movement organizer. We learn that the ISM’s organizer’s two brothers are in Israeli prisons. Our host has also been threatened with arrest and home demolition. Our group brainstorms about what we will do if soldiers come during the night while we are there. We agree that I, as the resident lawyer, will ask questions, take down the names of the soldiers, ask to speak to the officer in charge and try to find out the charge and the intended place of detention. I ready my pen and paper next to my mat before bed, visioning how I will act if this occurs. We then ask our host if our plan meets with his approval. He is appreciative of our proposal. He then tells us of the night one of his brother’s was arrested. “Three tanks and many jeeps arrived. Some 150 soldiers were outside. At least 50 soldiers came inside. My whole family was taken outside. They searched everywhere and destroyed many things in the house. This is where they shot into the walls.” So went my vision of diplomatically representing my “client”. I kept my paper and pen by my mat. The soldiers do not come that night.
We leave the Nablus District by way of the same Huwwara checkpoint. On the way to the checkpoint, my cell phone rings. It is Raja, one of the teachers we tried to assist a few days earlier. She tells me she and other teachers are at Huwwara and have been there for more than an hour trying to get to work. When we arrive, Raja finds us. The soldiers tell us that no one, other than us, is going to get through this morning. As we talk with Raja, another woman comes up with a young boy. Raja acts as a translator. The woman is attempting to leave Nablus with her nine-year-old son. He had a hernia operation the day before in Nablus and they are trying to get home. I review a document written in Arabic and English. It clearly states that a hernia operation had been performed the day before. I again approach the Israeli soldiers. One says he will not let the mother and child pass due to the “situation”. He tells me they can just sit down or go back to the hospital and come through in an ambulance. I offer to stand by while he checks them if he is that concerned they are the bombers. He declines. My questioning of what he would want a soldier to do if that was his brother or his son falls on almost deaf ears. He does retort, “You do not know if I have children.” An Arab-American doctor drives up to the checkpoint. He shows ID and explains he is a doctor. He offers to act as an ambulance and take the mom and child. Again, a declination. One more time I remind the soldier that it is hot; there really is no place for them to sit down and a decent thing to do is let them come through with us. “The situation………….” I apologize to the mom; I touch the boy’s forehead. His forehead is cool and clammy. He has on an embroidered little suit coat. As my mom would have said, he looks “peakish”. We leave them there and walk through with our group. Again, tight throat, trying to hold back the tears that only the other mother deserves to see. One of our group tells me one soldier whispered he was sorry. Yet, he was not sorry enough to do the right thing.
We spend several last days in Jerusalem. I stay primarily in East Jerusalem. I observe groups of young Israeli soldiers stop many Palestinians, apparently asking for ID and other questions. I cannot identify any consistency in whom the soldiers choose to stop. I ask a group of five soldiers if anyone speaks English. One says he does. I explain I am from the United States and admit I am a lawyer. I tell him I had seen them stop Palestinians during my visit. I ask what factors he uses to determine who to stop. He said he stops: “young men, carrying packages, who are suspicious.” I can see he stops only young men, but this is a market area and everyone carries packages. I ask “What is the reason for your suspicion of one young man over the next?” He answers, “They must be strange.” I tell him that from what I observed of the stops, young male Palestinian must be the definition of strange. He says he just checks for ID against a list of wanted men. He shows me a piece of paper with numbers on it as evidence of his explanation. It is folded in quarters and fairly faded. I shudder to think if he misreads a number on that crumpled sheet. I ask him if at the end of the day anything bothers him about his work. He looks at me, already tired of my questions, maybe already tired of shouldering a rifle in the hot son, wearing heavy boots and layers of clothes. He tells me “When I go home, I go to sleep. Nothing bothers me.”
When I came home from three weeks abroad, I went to sleep. I slept a lot for the first few days. One month later, I am still tired. I am tired of the Occupation of Palestine. A lot bothers me.