With tears from Ramallah

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I continue to write a journal as a way to collect my thoughts, record what I see, and work through the emotions of daily life here during these historic and tragic days. I also feel that there are some personal stories that need to be told, and only hope I write well enough so that you read with continued interest.

I felt slightly guilty leaving Palestine on October 17th. Belgium is a such a rich and civilized country, free from Apache helicopters lurking overhead, daily clashes where soldiers shoot children in the streets, or squalid refugee camps. I almost forgot what it was like to live free of the tension that is now as much a part of life in the Holy Land as the ancient olive trees dotting its rocky hills. To move from Brussels to Gent without soldiers at checkpoints was surreal when we first arrived.

For the two Palestinian women who had never left their occupied country, Belgium must seem like a utopian dream land. I took two sick babies, with a mother and aunt, to launch a project that will send over 30 kids with heart disease for surgery at the University Hospital in Gent during the next year. My kind Belgian friends were shocked to see that we were able to get out of Palestine during the current siege. They were even more distressed about what is happening to a nation, many of them have grown to love while working over the past 15 months in Ramallah. Despite the current situation, they still talk of going back to help. It makes me proud to call them friends.

Everything went well with the surgeries and we arrived at 4 AM on Tuesday morning in Tel Aviv airport, only to be stopped by Israeli security before we got to baggage claim. They let several seedy looking and probably crooked Israeli businessmen pass, but stopped the two Arab women with sick children for questioning. "Why did you stop us? Why didn’t you stop any of them?" I asked a young crew cut security dude, pointing at two men with shaggy hair, ear rings and beat up briefcases. "Because they’re Arabs?" "It’s my job," he says, after ordering us to follow him to special area for further inspection.

"Your job sucks," I replied, realizing there is no getting out of this security check. It is the exact same treatment got when we left. After checking our bags like criminals, he waved us on our way. But to where? I had to get to Ramallah, the mother and 7-year-old girl live in Hebron and the aunt and 2-year-old baby needed to get into Jericho: all battle zones that, even if you are crazy enough to try to pass at night, are closed until dawn. A month earlier, we could have all gone into the quiet night to our sleeping towns. We instead go to East Jerusalem and get three hotel rooms for three hours. "It is easier to fly to Brussels than to drive 30 minutes to Hebron," the mother says.

On Wednesday morning, my wife Huda tells me that a CNN journalist was shot by the IDF in Gaza. I later find out it is Ben Wedemen, their Cairo Chief. This is the same guy I saw only two weeks ago when Apache helicopters attacked Ramallah. We turn on CNN and see a weary looking Jerrold Kessel giving one of his reports from Jerusalem. Like most mainstream journalists, he has always done a poor job being fair and honest here and today is no exception. Kessel doesn’t mention that his colleague was shot in Gaza, or even how he’s doing. I wonder what Kessel would say if the Palestinians had shot Wedemen?

Later online I read that Wedemen said the Israelis started shooting in all directions and that there was no Palestinian gunfire directed at the IDF at the time he was shot in the back. Nor were any stones being thrown from where he was laying flat on the ground. He is American, Jewish, and had asked to stay for treatment in Shifa Hospital in Gaza, rather than give in to CNN pressure and be moved to an Israeli hospital. Bad career move, for sure.

My wife tells me that last week a French journalist was shot in the chest near City Inn and nearly killed, but my friend Dr. Abu Ramadan in Ramallah Hospital saved his life. The Frenchy has since been moved to Paris for treatment and their consul was so upset at the Israelis that they refused to let them help in moving him. I wonder if the American embassy even mildly protested the shooting of Wedemen.

"They are shooting journalists, be careful," my friend Ayman warns three helmeted Europeans with long camera lens standing near a wall as we walk down to see the clashes near City Inn later in the afternoon. They give us nervous smiles while one adjusts his flack jacket. "Don’t worry, only American journalists," Ayman continues, enjoying himself. Two of them leave, but a Swiss guy stays to talk.

"You guys left early yesterday," Ayman tells him. "They killed the boy, but there were no journalists here to see it." The guy looks around for his pals, who are already down near the front filming. He’d rather face Israeli gunfire than hear this from Ayman. I like Ayman’s style.

He is a young entrepreneur from Nablus whose company is doing my relief fund’s annual report. Like other young, bright Palestinian men who sacrificed so much during the first uprising, this current situation is eating him up inside. I feel the same way, but then I didn’t do four years without trial or charges in a desert concentration camp like he did. Despite that, he keeps his good humor. When the Israelis bombed the police station in Ramallah following the lynching, everyone watched Ayman and another guy on CNN run away just as the rocket hit. I saw him two days later without a scratch.

It is a small crowd at City Inn today, but it looks worse because the Shebab ("young guys") have set something large on fire near the front barricades. Thick black smoke billows into the blue afternoon sky. The intense sun of early October has thankfully given over to warm fall days, but the change in weather has not brought any change on the streets. Unarmed Shebab still confront Israeli soldiers at City Inn every day after 2 PM.

After nearly two weeks in Belgium, I’m not surprised to see the uprising still going strong, fueled partly by high number of people shot daily by the IDF. We head further down to the front and a tall skinny boy comes up to shake Ayman’s hand. His face is partly obscured by an Arab scarf and I thought they wanted to rap, so I keep walking. As I leave, the boy grabs my hand and shakes it. "Do you know him?" I later ask Ayman, who says he doesn’t.

I always feel an underlying tension when watching the clashes, not just from the human drama unfolding in the streets, but also because I am an American. No matter how much I love and work for Palestine, my country is helping to destroy it. Rightfully suspicious guys daily come up and ask me why I am videotaping if I am not a TV journalist. They suspect that I might be selling the tape to the Israelis so they can later arrest people. In the 12 years I have lived off and on here, I have never been personally threatened in any way. But still, I am by birth, The Enemy.

That tall boy coming and shaking my hand is a nice change from my usual reception from the Shebab. Most leave me alone, some like to make jokes, while others seem suspicious. I feel a positive, non-threatening vibe from this boy. I had no idea that within hours he would be shot dead.

We stop to watch what is an increasingly younger group of boys — a few with bandages on their heads — tossing stones with slings like David, or using slingshots at several IDF jeeps about 50 meters away. It is my first clash in two weeks and I wonder why the Shebab seem mostly younger now. "A lot of the older guys have already been shot," Ayman explains. A kid behind us launches a stone from a sling that hisses overhead and barely misses the front line. Everyone gives him a dirty look while an older guy comes over to scold him. He sheepishly puts his sling away.

The guys in front have enough to worry about dodging bullets. Hitting your comrades with a stone from behind will get you, at the very least, a solid kick in the behind. There are not many Shebab out today, but the Israelis are shooting more than usual. We stand on a small hill with a building between us so we can’t see the soldiers and they can’t see us. Most of the rocks thrown fall short of hitting their targets, except for that stupid kid behind us, who nearly scored a hit on his friends down front.

I can identify now the sound of high velocity ammunition from that of the rubber-coated bullets, and the sharp crack of a live M-16 round which makes everyone jump a little quicker. No one here wants to die, though seemingly most are ready to. How else can you explain guys walking calmly up to the front line to throw stones just after seeing a friend shot in the head? The first tear gas bomb lands up on the hill away from us and the wind blows it harmlessly into the olive trees.

I tell Ayman that as an American tax payer, I am extremely upset to see such a blatant waste of my hard earned money. "Write a letter to Clinton," he says as another canister hits on the road below us. We cover our noses with our shirts, but the wind brings it right into our face. T-shirts offer little protection from the poison, so we bolt back up the hill to escape. "That was better," I say coughing as we run over rocks. "Yeah, you shouldn’t feel so bad now," Ayman replies with tears in his eyes. "They didn’t waste that one."

In the evening, I go to the gym and find it nearly empty. Nighttime is no longer safe in the West Bank, as the rules change. Rocks become bullets. A Palestinian guy with a Chinese tattoo tells me he dreams he is back in Chicago. "I now live across the street," he says, pointing out the window. "The other night the Israelis fired a rocket from a tank at a house 200 meters away. We felt a rush of wind when it exploded."

A huge muscle-bound trainer with a pencil thin mustache walks through and turns off most of the lights. There is a helicopter overhead, he says, and we don’t want him to shoot at us. "Yeah, that would suck," I reply. He laughs. The bad situation has become a part of life here and people find humor in things that are not so funny.

A few minutes later "Jebal Tawil," the mountain across the street which is capped by the Israeli settlement of P’sgeot, is full of automatic weapons fire. The Chicago guy picks up his pace on the tread mill as I retreat to the other side of the building. I have to pick up my wife Huda’s nephew and take him to his home in Area B, so I finish and head back into the city.

The sounds of a firefight are still in the air as I get the boy and drive south towards Qalandia refugee camp. We pass a Palestinian army post with soldiers in the street looking up at a flare burning high in the clear black sky. They think the Israelis are targeting their building for a helicopter attack. Soldiers tell us to turn off the lights in our car right before I nearly get sideswiped by a black jeep without lights speeding through the intersection. People are bad enough drivers in Ramallah when they can actually see the road and each other, so I turn back on my lights and get the hell away from that burning flare.

Huda tells me when I pick her up that three Israeli soldiers were killed in a battle somewhere. She thinks it is near Ramallah, but later I learn it was in a clash in the usually quite village of Al-Khader near Bethlehem. Everyone is now waiting for Israel’s revenge, as no deaths go unpunished these days. It is also reported that six more Palestinians were shot and killed today, four in Gaza, where kids confront tanks with stones (see attached photo). People worry that things will only get worse with no end in sight.

On Thursday, it is announced in the morning that former Israeli leader Shimon Peres and Arafat have agreed to "end the violence" and that there will be a joint declaration later in the day. "Didn’t they just try that two weeks ago in Egypt?" Huda asks. This is a popular uprising and Arafat can command his loyal troops to not resist Israeli occupation. His people will not listen to such talk unless there is something better being offered politically. There is no going back to the status quo of a month ago.

Huda and I visit a friend living just past the main Israeli checkpoint in a suburb north of Jerusalem. She is active on many charitable and national projects in East Jerusalem and tells us over tea in her comfortable apartment that her 11-year-old daughter has started losing her hair. "The doctor said it is from the stress of this situation."

She also tells us about a meeting her journalist friend recently had with Israel Shahak, a famous holocaust survivor and Jewish intellectual. "He told her that the Palestinians need to start aiming and shooting better," she says. "He is so discouraged with Israel. He said the only way they will make peace is when Jewish soldiers start dying."

In the afternoon, a car bomb erupts in West Jerusalem, killing two Israeli civilians. One is the daughter of a well-known right-wing extremist politician in Israel. It is dreadful act of terror that everyone here has been expecting for a long time. No one likes the killing of innocent people, but it has not stopped the Israelis from shooting civilians in Palestine. A general consensus has developed on the streets here: The Palestinians are sick of dying alone. If the Israelis want to kill them and not make a real peace, then they have to understand that the sword cuts both ways. It is a hard and ugly talk, but understandable.

Everyday the news brings "the score": 167 dead Palestinians to only12 Israelis. It is a grotesque statistic, but one people have become jaded and cynical about. "Our lives are so cheap," a friend tells me when we meet by chance on the street. "They can kill a thousand of our children and no one would do anything about it."

I stop by City Inn after dropping my wife off at her sister’s apartment in the afternoon. Her sister lives just under the ever expanding Beit El settlement, where we can see Jewish women walking their children near their far-off homes behind barbed wire and huge fresh mounds of protective dirt. "How can they choose to live like that?" Huda asks.

One feels exposed driving on the road between the settlement and Jalazone refugee camp. Those settlers are armed and crazy with the messianic belief that God gave them the land. You never know when they might pop off a round or two at an Arab car in revenge for something, perceived or real.

Beit El is not one of the worst settlements. Those settlers down in Hebron are completely nuts and have proved it many times. Anyway, it is not as if there is a penalty for shooting Arabs. Settlers always say they "felt threatened," even if they kill an 18-month-old baby, like a few weeks ago. Settlers are never punished for murder, even if it is in cold blood.

After dropping Huda off, I try to park my Audi near an IDF jeep on the Israeli side of the clashes behind the hotel so as to shorten my walk, but two young soldiers stop me. "It might blow up," a half-bearded one without a helmet tells me when I ask him why I have to move it. "Hey, it’s my car." I respond, hoping he will sense that my terrorist profile is weak. "You can check it if you like."

He sees in the back seat some publications by Defense for Children International, which documents the human rights abuses against Palestinian children in the West Bank. The cover photo shows some soldiers smacking around an Arab boy with their guns. "That’s illegal." He tells me. "What is?" I ask, hoping that he is talking about soldiers beating up a child. "That book. It’s illegal." "How is it illegal? They are an international organization. How can a report be illegal?" I quickly get in my car before he starts to make me open my trunk or check my engine. I want to tell him HE is illegal, occupying a country and oppressing an entire nation, but I keep my big mouth shut for a change. No one cares about the Fourth Geneva Convention, least of all some 20-year-old pissed off Israeli soldier.

In the evening Huda comes home and tells me to be careful when I go out. Palestinian soldiers told her that a car load of undercover Israeli soldiers were seen entering Ramallah in a black Mercedes. We have heard rumors that they might start assassinating Fateh activists inside Palestinian controlled Area A to try to quell the uprising. "Why didn’t they stop them?" I ask. "He said he didn’t have any orders," she says heading back out the door.

Friday is the weekly "Day of Rage," where, after prayers, strong demonstrations take place throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also doesn’t help that there are more funerals today. Two Shebab were shot dead yesterday, including a 17-year-old in a village near Jerusalem.

There is a Mosque across the valley from where I live and my wife translates the Imam’s Friday sermon:

This Intifada is special because we are fighting for our rights. What is more important to fight for than Al-Aqsa? The place where Mohammed went to heaven!" he shouts. "We did not do this Intifada to turn back to where we were last month. Even the Moslems in Indonesia, who don’t even speak Arabic, are supporting our rights. ‘Allah Akbar’ is uniting us all. We have had enough humiliation. It is time for our rights. The Jews don’t want to give anything and this is a fact. The only thing they understand is fighting. This uprising brought us unity and the love among our people. We have to hold on to our Intifada with our teeth and our hands and with every power we have to keep it going. We have lost so much, but have gained our love and unity and the support of the world and we will not give it up now. The blood of the martyr’s and the injured is not going to be wasted by the authority. This agreement is to go back to where we were one month ago and the blood of our dead and injured is not that cheap. We are going to aim our guns to fight the criminals on our land.

I take Huda down to City Inn to see what is happening. This is the first time she has ventured there and we watch a few guys setting up the barricades. Two Israeli jeeps sit waiting near the hotel and traffic circle. As Friday prayers end throughout the town, people of all ages trickle down the hill. A few living in Areas B and C cover their faces, while others proudly carry flags of Palestine or various political or Islamic parties. After the first sound of shooting, Huda goes back to the car as I move down to video tape some action.

A jeep rushes forward to confront the Shebab standing behind rusted old car frames providing some protection against the "rubber" bullets. A sound bomb is thrown from the jeep, explodes, and then they retreat. On my way down, I pass a cute little boy holding his father hand up on the hill. I hand the boy from my pocket a rubber bullet I found in the street and he smiles as if I just gave him an ice cream cone. How long before he is out here throwing stones, I wonder as I walk further down behind two BBC cameramen in flack jackets.

Within an hour, a large group, from the unified leftist party, march down from Ramallah. A gray bearded man leads the chant into a megaphone: "With our souls and our blood, we will redeem you, oh martyrs." The Israelis see the mass of people surging forward and launch a dozen rounds of tear gas behind, to the side and in front of us. I look back and realize that escaping means passing through a thick white cloud of poison. I close my eyes and hold my breath while running, but the gas starts to burn my sweaty forehead. The poison works its way into my eyes and I can feel my throat closing to stop it from entering my lungs. I join the mass of people stumbling up the hill to escape.

I open my eyes to see in the chaos a man loading a collapsed boy into an ambulance. I keep tripping forward, gasping for fresh air until I reach the top of the hill where my car is parked. I feel a little embarrassed for coughing, spitting, gasping, sneezing and tearing up so much, as others don’t seem as badly effected. There are even still a few guys standing in the thick white clouds down front throwing the gas bombs back to the Israeli side. Huda looks concerned but also grins when I finally collapse into the drivers seat. "I told you to stay here," she says. A guy from behind barks at me, "You see what is Israel. You see?"

I later take my nearly 4-year-old daughter Deema to a playground in El-Bireh. Every five minutes an ambulance speeds past from the northern clash point on its way to Ramallah Hospital, its siren bringing a stiff tension on what is otherwise a lazy sunny Sabbath. Deema either is enjoying herself too much to notice, or has gotten so used to sirens that it doesn’t even register anymore. A child can be shielded from our wars and hatred, but not completely. She is clever and already asks about Mohammed Aldura, the boy who was shot dead while hiding behind his father last month. How long before she knows that just a mile away, other kids are being shot also?

On Saturday, Huda and I head south to Jerusalem to see Ala’, a 12-year-old boy who was shot in the eye last month with a "rubber" bullet. We will send him for treatment abroad, probably to California, where a doctor has agreed to take such a case for free. As we drive past the Israeli military base between Ramallah and Qalandia camp, a group of middle aged Arab men sit in a line on the side of the road. Two young Israeli soldiers stand over them checking IDs. "When we passed by here two days ago they were arresting people then, too," Huda says.

We find Ala’s house in the Old City, next to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and just inside the Moslem Quarter from the Wailing Wall. To get to his modest home, you we pass three bored looking Israeli policemen "guarding" an entrance to the mosque. His mother runs to get us drinks and says she is grateful for the chance to send her son for treatment in America. Ala’ seems like any normal 12-year-old boy, which means he is probably a hand full for his mother.

He limps from where doctors at Makassed took a bone from his hip to rebuild his damaged cheek, and his face is puffy and swollen. There is a long thin scar under his the empty socket from where the bullet was removed. It contrasts sharply from his big brown right eye. He mother admits to us that since his injury, he sometimes wets his bed.

In the afternoon, I stop by Ayman’s office to work on the annual report. "You recall that tall boy who came and shook our hands the other day at the clashes?" he asks. It takes me a minute, but I finally remember the lanky kid. He insisted on shaking my hand before I walked away. "Yeah, why?" "He was killed after we left. I saw his poster on the wall today."

I sit for a moment in disbelief, trying to remember more about that almost forgettable encounter. I ponder if he knew he would die that day. Is that why he shook our hands, to say good-bye to someone? And I remember now his positive vibe, like he was at perfect peace within.

He was tall like Ayman, and I think that is why the Israeli sniper on the 6th floor of a building far across a dirt field shot him in the head. If you go everyday down to the front, they will eventually target you, especially if you are a head taller than the other Shebab.

As I drive alone at night past a huge burning bus some Shebab have managed to move down to the now dark and empty barricades near City Inn, I think about that tall boy and so many others here like him. They are so full of courage and ready to give their lives so easily for the same freedom that I was thankfully born with. The injustice of teenagers willingly dying for their country burns in me, just as it does for so many million others who love Palestine. Why must they prove again and again to the world that they cannot live without their freedom?

All in all, I am thankful that I am here during these crazy days. Despite the painful suffering of innocent people, it is a great honor and privilege to witness such displays of collective courage everyday. The struggle for freedom, justice, and peace is rarely presented historically on such a clear and basic level. If I was back in Ohio and had to endure daily the blatant lies and excuses from our "leaders" and pundits as to why Israel continues to act in such criminal manner, I couldn’t stand it.

Who are they to disrespect a person who gives his life so willingly for justice and freedom? These people should be honored, supported and thanked, as they are no less than those who fought and died so we could enjoy freedom in America. But they do, of course.

So many ungrateful racist liars and hypocrites spend their lives insisting Israel just wants peace and the Palestinians are all Jew haters carrying out an Islamic duty to kill, kill, kill. And it works. People really do believe that lie, and so the crime continues and more innocent people on both sides will have to die. Perhaps that is why the tall boy’s vibe was so peaceful as he walked down the hill with us to his death. He really was going to a better place than here.

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