Sunday, August 9, 2009


Shalom to Israel... Ma salaama to the OPT... I'M HEADED HOME!

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Wild, Wild West Bank: Where Settlers Roam and Know No Law

The traffic from East to West Jerusalem, as it is every day, was bad. I sat at a standstill with my cabbie, Ahmed, as the clock struck noon. The phone rang, and of course, who else would be calling but Jonah Michael Seligman. “We’ll come meet you. Get off near the YMCA.” Ahmed made a Village People joke in response to my directions, and we parted ways. My next step was hopping into the wobbly, white pick-up truck of Noa, our guide for the day.

Noa is an employee for the Jerusalem Peace Now office, and had offered to take Jonah and me along with her as she went to investigate a rumor of new, illegal caravan construction in a northern settlement called Kohav Ya’kov. As far as I know, a “caravan” is a new settlement or an addition to an older settlement built beyond specified boundaries. This specific caravan, according to Noa, also was illegal due to its negligence of the process of submitting plans and waiting for approval from the Defense Minister.

We entered Kohav Ya’kov and scaled the mountain on which it is built. After a few minutes of driving, we encountered a construction site located beyond a previously installed fence. “They build so fast,” declared Noa. Apparently an aerial view of Kohav Ya’kov the week prior indicated no such construction. From afar, the three of us counted over 10 housing units.

My telephoto lens caught the construction from a distance.

Noa put her car into “audacious” gear, and approached the construction site. At first, she didn’t want to get out of the car. “I get scared, sometimes.” I don’t blame her. With the car running, Noa and I left Jonah to guard the vehicle as we came within several meters of the new, illegal housing units. A pipe-smoking elder manning a table near the site allowed us to approach with some reservations. He was clearly suspicious. Noa said we wanted to look at the view, but when she pulled out her camera, the man stood up and began to shout. “He was expecting me,” said Noa.

In a harsh tone of Hebrew, the settler man insisted on us leaving and followed us all the way back to the car. Noa expressed some concern that the security gate would not allow us out of the compound until the police came and dealt with the situation. It’s not illegal for us to be there, or for us to take pictures, but like in many cases, the police and government play the settler game too. After all, Avigdor Lieberman, a prominent Israeli politician currently serving as Foreign Affairs Minister under Bibi, has his own settler road bearing his name.

I employed my telephoto lens and took some shots from a more remote location, and we were on our way with no problems from the gate security. Along our path down the mountain, we encountered the “Obama Tent.” A new outpost designed to host a children’s summer camp, the tent gained its name as a gift to Obama after his insistence on the freezing of settlements. I don’t know if Obama would think the title so funny, nor flattering.

The Obama Tent (Ha'tzarif Shel Obama)

We returned through the Hizma Checkpoint through Jerusalem, requiring us to drive through a settlement called Pizgat Ze’ev. We made our way down to the southern part of the city and left the municipal border of Jerusalem. Noa wanted to show Jonah and me an instance of land confiscation in the name of settlement. She took us to a place called Har Homa.

Built around the year 2000, Har Homa, as explained by Noa, was the brainchild of Bibi Netanyahu after his first go at the office of prime minister. Har Homa was built outside of the municipal boundary of Jerusalem (well beyond both the Green Line, and the 1967 Line). It’s a rapidly growing place with construction in every corner. I’m sure the construction is legal, although Condi Rice, during her time as Secretary of State, demanded that Israel halt construction in Har Homa. They didn’t seem to hear her.

Noa pulled around to an isolated corner of Har Homa, and pointed to a hillside. “This area,” she described, “was confiscated by the Israeli government for the purpose of building the separation barrier.” It was no small tract of land, especially for a country the size of New Jersey (ew, New Jersey).

Illegally confiscated land for the purpose of building the Separation Barrier.

Noa had a wedding to get to, so she dropped Jonah and me off near his apartment in Baka’a. I got on a bus headed back to the East side of the city, and we said farewell. This bus ride, however, was interrupted as we approached the Old City. We stopped near Jaffa Gate, and two Israeli police officers entered the bus requiring each passenger to produce their identification. The Palestinians held up their blue Jerusalem identification cards, or their green West Bank cards (with proper permission to be in Israel, of course). I felt very self conscious, as I was the only foreigner on-board, and nonetheless, I pulled out my American passport. Although it’s a blessing to have an American document in this part of the world (or anywhere for that matter), I still felt very self conscious as these Palestinian men and women were being subjected to random searches while I skated by on that eagle of freedom.

The police pulled a few men off the bus and kept them for questioning. I got off the bus as well. I was close enough to Damascus Gate where I could simply walk to catch my next bus, and avoid the wait. Instead of ditching the bus situation, however, I stood and took some pictures of this interrogation. It was pretty benign. It was just a few Palestinian men standing in front of two Israeli police officers answering questions. I left.

The bus situation.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

West Banksy

El Doctor Khalidi por el podio.

In order to compensate for my sub-par blogging habits in recent weeks, this report is a prompt one. I have just arrived back at the Augusta Victoria after a long day of running around the West Bank with Jonah. With it being Shabbat in Jerusalem with little to do during the day, Jonah and I made other plans.

We woke up early this morning after a relatively early evening. Jonah’s apartment, located in Baka’a, is in one of my favorite Jerusalem neighborhoods. Although the area can be considered to be “yuppie,” that character allows the neighborhood to maintain the only indie movie theater in Jerusalem. To our surprise, there were screenings on Shabbat, so we went to see Sin Nombre, which is a film I’ve been interested in for quite some time.

We turned in to allow ourselves enough time to sleep, as we were planning on waking up at 7:45am (which is early for college kids). By 9:15am we were in Sheikh Jarrah at the ANERA office where we met my colleague Jamal. Jamal was nice enough to offer us a ride to Birzeit University, the locale for a conference entitled “The Jerusalem Conference: History of the Future.” Birzeit, located outside of Ramallah, is one of the best universities serving the Palestinian community.

There was an excessive amount of introductory speeches leading up to the first panel, which set the schedule off course. According to the timetable, we were planning on staying for the whole morning session. Barely anything in the Middle East starts or ends on-time, I’ve come to notice, so I should have expected as much. I came away from the conference content, however, in that we had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Rashid Khalidi.

Khalidi’s speech alluded to the famous Edward Said book entitled “The Question of Palestine,” with Khalidi adding his own flare of “… and the Obama administration.” Khalidi, as many may remember, is an acquaintance of the president, a relationship which placed Obama in some hot water during the election. Applying the same irrational Fox News logic of the Bill Ayers debacle, Obama was accused of being anti-Israel due to his friend, Khalidi’s politics.

In summary, Khalidi’s speech was riddled with skepticism about the capacity for any American administration to persuade the political actors in the region into a final-status peace agreement. Initially, Khalidi spoke about the surprise that the Netanyahu government felt after Obama’s insistence on the freezing of settlement expansion. This idea progressed to Khalidi’s prediction that AIPAC will soon turn the tables on the Obama administration for taking a hard-line against settlements.

Khalidi expressed a general sense of pessimism regarding the capacity for any two-state solution to be viable in this era. In this way, I feel that he is borrowing too much from Edward Said, who only in his dying days embraced the concept of a two-state solution. However, said Khalidi, if Obama wants to push the idea of a two-state solution, there must be a halt to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank AND in Jerusalem, there must be a full dismantling of ALL settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem and there must be a clear cession of East Jerusalem land in order to allow for a Palestinian capital. It’s hard to speak on the Jerusalem issue, but I can definitively say that Israel will not dismantle Ma’ale Adumim or Gush Etzion, both of which are settlements of over 40,000 residents in strategic positions in the West Bank.

I was surprised to hear Khalidi’s back-handed praise for the American Jewish community. Khalidi was generally pleased with the minute level of opposition expressed by the American Jewish community in response to Obama’s statement on settlements. I didn’t know this, but Khalidi said that 78% of American Jews (or Jewish Americans, whatever you wish) voted for Obama, which, according to Jonah Seligman, was the most widely supportive religious group in the country. I guess we Robinsons weren’t the only family with an Obama bumper sticker in Hebrew.

To conclude, Khalidi criticized the Palestinian nation for its lack of political unity. Why should Obama stick his neck out for a people so divided? “It’s high time,” he declared, “that Palestinians come to a consensus.”

Jonah and I headed out from Birzeit around 12pm, and took a service taxi to Qalandia checkpoint where we crossed back into Jerusalem. Outside of Damascus Gate, we ate some kebab and hopped on a bus to Bethlehem. We were headed to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, which is the home of the world famous Ibda’a Community Center.

On the way to Dheisheh, our taxi driver pointed out all of the famous graffiti stencils created by the famous British artist, Banksy. It was great to see some of these pieces that I’ve seen so commonly in books and on the internet in person.

I'm sure you've seen this one before. No? It's Bansky.

Jonah had made contact with a man named Shadi Alassi, who is an administrator at Ibda’a, and had set up a meeting beforehand. We sat down to some coffee with him, and I busted out my video camera. Soon, we got to talking. Shadi had some very interesting things to say, some of which I agreed with, much of which I disagreed with. When the topic of suicide bombers came up, Shadi said that such acts are protected under international law. It’s not an act of terrorism when you are rebelling against an occupation, which removes such an act from the category of terrorism. A man not under occupation (i.e. Osama Bin Laden) would be considered a terrorist if he did the same act, but a Palestinian suicide bomber is not so.

Shadi also brought up the Israeli practice of renaming or translating the names of former Arab towns in former Palestine. He mentioned the example of Tel Aviv, which (according to him) was known as Tal Rabiyah before 1948. I had heard of this before in a discussion with some of my colleagues at ANERA, although I heard a different narrative on my Birthright trip. The name Tel Aviv (lit. Hill of Spring) came from Theodor Herzl’s book Altneuland (Old New Land), and was an abstract application of the title. However, Tal Rabiyah (lit. Hill of Spring) is a direct Arabic translation from the Hebrew Tel Aviv. When we visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, they mentioned that Tel Aviv was a city established entirely by Jewish pioneers in 1909, that it was created from the sand. Palestinians have a different concept of the origin of the city. If anyone can help clarify this issue, please lead me in the right direction.

After our interview (which was incredibly interesting), Jonah and I did a short tour of the Dheisheh camp. We met two young boys who wanted me to take their picture. I did so, and they were so intrigued that they followed us around and continually asked for their picture to be taken. I complied, until ultimately, we reached the end of our walk around the neighborhood.

We got back to Jerusalem in no time, and here I find myself, exhaustedly typing away in front of my computer. I think it’s time for a quick nap, and then off to my 2nd to last Saturday night in Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. It was nice chatting with you, and I’ll be back before you know it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Qurei of the Concrete Barrier

In light of my imminent attendance at the Jerusalem Conference at Birzeit University (Ramallah) this coming Saturday, I would like to honor one of the keynote speakers:

Ahmed Qurei, a well known Palestinian figure and a former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, served under Yassir Arafat at the height of the 2nd Intifada in 2003. Qurei filled Abu Mazen’s (Mahmoud Abbas’) shoes after he decided to resign at that point in time.

Although a prominent politician in his day, Qurei, like many Palestinian leaders, ceded to corrupt means at the expense of his own people. Qurei comes from a wealthy family with major stock in an Egyptian cement company called Al-Quds Cement (Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem).

As most of you already know, Israel is currently in the process of constructing a “Separation Barrier” along the Oslo specified Green Line which lies between the West Bank and Israel. While the true motives of Israel’s decision to execute this costly project are debatable, there is no doubt that the violence accompanying the Intifada served as a major catalyst for Israel’s decision. Qurei, a businessman, found himself in a political position at the wrong time, at a time when the deal was ripe.

It didn’t take long for the Palestinian nation to learn what Qurei had done. Officials of a parliamentary committee discovered that Qurei’s Al-Quds Cement Co. had made a contract with the Israeli government for the sale of concrete for the specific purpose of constructing the Separation Barrier.

It’s not that complex of a scenario. This is the same separation barrier that many, if not most, Palestinians refer to as “The Apartheid Wall.” It serves a major talking point in the Palestinian narrative citing the injustices of Israel’s policies. It’s big, it’s ugly, and it padded the pockets of a man appointed by Arafat.

Please don’t interpret this blog post as a defense for Israel’s construction of the barrier. In many cases, I see the purpose of the wall as a tool for annexation of land in the West Bank (like in the West Bank town of Jayyus). I also see the wall as a means for Israel to reduce the Arab population of Jerusalem as a proactive move in making a case for the retention of the entire city of Jerusalem (like in the case of Shofat). I acknowledge the security value of maintaining a separation between Israel and the West Bank, but the process by which Israel is doing so is appalling.

To conclude this late-night revelatory rant, I would like to say how excited I am to see such a corrupt, conniving man like Qurei speak on Saturday. He holds a criminal celebrity status that few men are able to claim. Then again, few men have sold out their people on such a large scale for the sake of capital gains. The irony of the whole situation is that Qurei, while a selfish swine, still has the nerve to step onto the same stage and follow a speech by a true patriot like Rashid Khalidi. I lament for the Palestinian nation, and hope for their sake that they find some competency in a leader. Maybe at that point in time, they’ll find some justice.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Last Week in Brief: Nablus and Nir David

I have just completed my fifth week as an intern at ANERA, which means I only have three more weeks to learn as much as I can while I’m here in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). After my splurge of blogging about my trip to Gaza, I fell off the wagon for a bit, and found it more useful to seek experiences that were worthy of my recounting at a later date.

Well that date has now arrived, and I sit before my computer, an insomniac. It is 3am, and I have work tomorrow, but I can’t sleep tonight for some reason. I figure that I might as well take advantage of my extended waking hours to write about this last week, about which I have kept all of you in the dark.

I traveled to Nablus on Tuesday morning to visit the ANERA office, and meet with the staff out there. If you are a Hebrew speaker, you may know Nablus more readily as Shechem, the name that appears in the Torah. Although I managed to forget my passport in my room, I remembered that I had done so with enough time for Julia and I to swing past the Augusta Victoria and pick it up.

We drove north to Nablus, and were ushered through the Huwarra checkpoint with ease. This came much to Julia’s surprise. In her previous experiences, says Julia, Huwarra is a nightmare. It is known to be the slowest checkpoint with the most traffic, often leaving travelers waiting for over an hour in line. We had no difficulties crossing into Nablus, and found ourselves in the ANERA office within minutes.

With a cup of Arabic coffee in my hand, I spoke with Rabah, the head engineer in our Nablus office. Rabah has served in many civil engineer positions for various prestigious organizations over the course of his career, and now works on ANERA’s Emergency Water and Sanitation (EWAS) projects in the Northern West Bank. Rabah began by describing to me the various EWAS projects that he oversees, two of which we had the opportunity to visit firsthand.

In addition, Rabah brought to my attention the plight of the West Bank town, Qalqilya (which is also a governorate). Qalqilya is a town in the western half of the West Bank, and is entirely enclosed by the separation barrier. The only part of the town that is not obstructed by the wall is where the checkpoint governs traffic moving in and out of the city. According to Rabah, nearly 80% of Qalqilya’s private businesses have fled the town seeking a better economic situation.

Rabah’s information session ended with his interpretation of the “politics of water” that serves as a major obstacle to any form of peace agreement. The majority of water sources that exist in the West Bank are within Area C, a term to indicate full Israeli control under the Olso Accords. Israel has taken some liberties with this form of partition by also placing the Jordan Valley (an important source of water) within Area C auspices.

The majority of ANERA’s water projects occur in Areas A or B, which are under full Palestinian control or joint Israeli/Palestinian control respectively. This proves hellish for Rabah in terms of logistics. In order to tap into the water sources in Area C, Rabah must deal with messy, inefficient and often non-compliant Israeli bureaucracies.

We took to the street from the Nablus office and visited a site in a small town outside of Nablus. ANERA is installing pipes in the town in order to bring water to the 50% of the residents who were previously without running water. When Rabah recounted that fact to Julia and I, he assumed a very proud expression. “Yes, we’re doing good work.”

Our next stop required us to climb to the top of Mt. Girizim, which serves as the famous location of the small Samaritan community. The Samaritans number about 750 in the world, and maintain two main communities: Mt. Girizim, and town farther west in Israel. Almost all Samaritans, however, must own property on their holy mount because they spend their Pesach there. Samaritans consider themselves to be the original, legitimate Jews, and speak a form of Ancient Hebrew as their language.

Apparently this small community was losing much of its water through leakages in the piping system. They approached ANERA, who decided to fund a project to reinstall piping for the town. We visited the work site, and then drove up further on Mt. Girizim to an ancient site where the Samaritans believe the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing the lamb truly occurred.

While we were staring down at the expansive sprawl of Nablus, an entourage of suits approached us. They were the entourage escorting the Palestinian Minister of Tourism on a visit to this site. I became confused by this prospect, based on the fact tha

t this site had a giant Israeli flag flying from the top, and this minister had absolutely no jurisdiction within Mt. Girizim. She likely had to apply for a permit to enter the Samaritan community in the first place.

**Side note: Samaritans hold both Israeli, and Palestinian identification cards, and some still hold Jordanian cards from back in the day.

Before leaving Nablus, Rabah took us to the famous “Arafat Sweets” where we tried some luscious kinafeh, which is a traditional Palestinian pastry, and one that was made famous by the city of Nablus. I love it.

We said goodbye to Rabah and made our way back to Jerusalem, where I decided to attend a screening of Turkish film called “My Only Sunshine” at the Jerusalem Film Festival. The screening was held at the Begin Cultural Center, and although I found the film to be tedious, pretentious and overall, bad, I explored a part of Jerusalem that I previously had not.

I’ll skip ahead to Friday. Jonah and I met up at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station in order to get to Beit She’an before Shabbat. We were going to visit our good friend Sivan who is spending time with her family at a kibbutz called Nir David. While we were waiting in the terminal, I got to talking with some Israeli soldiers, one of whom made aliyah from Boston. I was talking to him about my experiences on Taglit-Birthright, and I mentioned Bernie Madoff and the financial troubles of many Jewish philanthropists that came from this scandal. This guy didn’t even know who Madoff was, much less know what he ponzied.

The bus came eventually, and we got up to the hot, hot, heat of the Jordan Valley and Mt. Gilboa. We met up with Sivan at the bus stop, and her mom took us to see the Jordanian border crossing at Beit She’an. They wouldn’t let us through without our passports. Darn!

Our time at Ir David was really relaxing. We went swimming in the natural spring that runs through the kibbutz, and stays at a warm temperature all year long. I played with a puppy, Jonah fell a few times, Sivan tried to drown Jonah a few times… It was all good. We ate “Shabbat” dinner (I use the quotes because we ate a non-kosher meal at this completely secular kibbutz) and started walking around after a nice dinner conversation. I must add that before we got up, I beat Sivan in Backgammon/Sheshpesh.

We ran into a group of young people sitting around outside. They invited us to come hang out, and we complied. Jonah was tired, so he went inside of the home of these complete strangers and fell asleep immediately. That was the end of Joner. It turns out that the majority of these people had made aliyah from South or Central America. Two were from Chile, and two were from El Salvador. Who knew there were Jews in El Salvador!?

They showed us a good time, and we were out and about until about 4:30am, at which point I went to wake up Jonar. He missed the whole night, but I think he got some good sleep out of it.

The next morning, Sivan took us to a very nice extension of that natural spring which serves as a community gathering place (called the Sachne). There were hundreds of people swimming among the waterfalls and jumping from the trees into the water. It looks like an artificial water park, which makes it all the more amazing when you realize it is natural. We swam around for a bit, and then returned to the kibbutz where we sat and ate plums and watched “The Dog Whisperer.”

It was almost time to go, but we had just enough time for Sivan to take us on a bike tour around the peripheral road of Ir David. We saw the factories where they used to make agricultural equipment, and she took us to this beautiful cemetery on the grounds with Mt. Gilboa looming over the resting place.

At this point, it was time to head back to Jerusalem. That weekend was a perfect combination of fun and relaxation. I was able to enjoy the natural beauty of Israel, while taking a break from the fast-paced tension of Jerusalem’s city life.

I left my swim-trunks at Nir David though. SIVAN! GIVE THEM BACK!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gaza: Day 3

The power can go out at any moment in Gaza. You could be sitting at your computer, working on an email, or a grant proposal, and then the entire grid shuts down. Every neighborhood is without power for at least 8 hours per day, a conservation technique on the part of the government. The lucky ones have generators, and the smart ones have devices called UBS which maintain a charge for your electronic devices (i.e. computers), allowing the user to turn off the device properly. Nonetheless, this is a frustrating reality for many Gazans.

On Wednesday morning, Nahid picked up Julia and I from the Al-Deira Hotel at 8am. He was bleary eyed, and had not yet found his characteristic energy. I asked him the reasoning behind his demeanor. “The power went out last night. I woke up at 2am to turn on the generator, but it’s hard to go back to sleep.” Before we exited the hotel, he pointed out a vase in the lobby, which turned out to be the shell casing for an Israeli (American made) rocket. It was a very Gaza morning.

I said goodbye to the Al-Deira Hotel, and to A.J., the hotel receptionist. A.J. and I had engaged in a very compelling discussion two nights prior, where he explained to me his personal philosophy on Gaza politics. “We are living in the Islamic Republic of Gaza, didn’t you know?” asked A.J. rhetorically. As an atheist, A.J. studied English at Gaza’s very own Islamic University, but dropped out for the following reason: “I hate fucking Hamas.” A.J. harbored similar feelings about Fatah, and the P.A.

A.J. was a young man of 21, and considered Barack Obama to be one of his idols. He excitedly brought from the back room his copy of Dreams from my Father, which he was reading in its original English version. Obama represented to A.J. a self-made man, who relied very little on support and more on his internal strength. When I asked A.J. if he happened to watch Obama’s Cairo speech, he responded “no, I was besieged here in Gaza.” A.J.’s statement was a direct reference to the Israeli imposed blockade on Gaza, which is often referred to as a “siege.”

This siege is also enhanced by the limitations upon which the Hamas government places on information. Among the 300 satellite channels available at the Al-Deira Hotel, only 2 of them were in English, one of those was Al-Jazeera. It is likely that A.J. was unable to watch the speech because it was not broadcast within Gaza. Nonetheless, Obama represents hope even to the people of Gaza.

Obama came up as a relevant issue in another conversation on Wednesday. July 8th was Mona’s birthday, and there was a gathering in the common room of the ANERA Gaza office to celebrate. One of the women working on the MfP program, the one who made Mona’s cake, is a round-faced young woman with a light complexion. Mona asked me if I thought this woman looked “American.” “Well, what does an American look like? Does Obama look American to you?” Mona laughed and said, “No, Obama looks Gazan.”

At first I didn’t know how to react to this comment, but the following days allowed me to internalize it. Obama resonates not only with Americans for his youth and zeal, but with Africa because of his familial roots, and with Arabs because of his skin color (and possibly his middle name). He is not the familiar face of a white oppressor to these communities. He has a real “in” with the world, and that makes me excited for the future.

Upon leaving the Al-Deira Hotel, Nahid took Julia and I to visit 2 ANERA project sites in Gaza City. Both of the sites were preschools undergoing renovations in impoverished areas. The first preschool we visited had just been completed, and ANERA paid for a new roof as well as new bathrooms and tiling. The second site was still in the process of being renovated. Although I previously stated that ANERA used USAID funding to facilitate these projects, I was recently corrected by our Vice President, Philip Davies. These renovation projects are made possible by private donation.

The second preschool was in the most dilapidated neighborhood I had ever seen. Nahid joked about ANERA renovating the entire neighborhood. The streets were entirely of dirt, and garbage was strewn everywhere. Children ran in every direction, often no older than 3 or 4 years old, and the majority of whom wore no shoes. I asked Nahid if there were more children in Gaza than most other places, and he responded with the statistic that 60% of Gazans are under 16 years old.

The final stop in my tour of Gaza was at the American International School of Gaza in Beit Hanoun. Beit Hanoun suffered from the destruction of Cast Lead more than any town that I visited in Gaza. In every direction, there was a building with a crumbled side, or a broken minaret. We passed multiple tent camps which now serve as housing for many Gazans who lost their homes. The most devastating site, however, was the American International School.

What Nahid described as formerly the “best school in Gaza” now lay in ruins. This was clearly a majestic building at one point in time, but the bombardment of rocket fire changed that. I took away two ironic points about this site. The first was the condition of the sign proclaiming the name of the school; it was entirely in-tact. The sign lingered as a relic of a past life, as a reminder to all visitors that what was once on this site was a place of learning. The second ironic point was that the grass in the yard was still green. Nahid boasted proudly that ANERA installed water tanks at the AIS several years ago to water the grass, and they clearly braved the storm of rocket fire.

I took a lap around the school and observed the extraordinary damage. The entire bus fleet had caught fire and likely exploded as evidenced by the lack of windows. The doors were all rusted out, and traces of flames scarred the metal. I came across a grammar book strewn on the ground near the school. This book somehow avoided being burned or destroyed in the rocket fire, and now posed the following question to any passer-by: “What did you see?”

Nahid took Julia and I back to the Erez checkpoint, where we had to wait for coordination between the P.A. station, and the Israeli authorities. Although Hamas controls Gaza, Israel does not at all communicate with this terrorist organization. Therefore, when people want to cross back over into Israel, the P.A. serves as the conduit for prompting this movement. We were quickly approved, and we approached the Erez terminal, thanking Nahid for his hospitality.

The security measures for entering back into Israel are much more extensive than leaving. A traveler must first enter a room and open his/her bag and hold it open for a surveillance camera. A voice tells you to move through when they’ve seen enough. The traveler must then empty his/her bag of electronics and place them separately from the rest of the luggage on the conveyor belt for scanning. Once your luggage is en-route, the traveler walks into a tube with a rotating scanner which fully encloses you, and looks at your body 360 degrees.

The traveler then follows a disembodied voice projected from on-high which provides prompts for the subsequent steps. The voice, in reality, is simply an Israeli soldier looking down from behind bullet proof glass speaking through a microphone. The soldier guides you through a maze, and your steps are incumbent on how menacing you look. I was directed into a back room where I was asked to remove both my button-up shirt and my undershirt for the purpose of their placement on an x-ray conveyor belt. I was clean, so they let me through.

The final step is passport control. Once you’ve reached passport control, your basically in the clear. My experience consisted on two 20 year old Israeli soldiers laughing and joking throughout the questioning process. They asked me what I planned to do after college, and I responded with “That’s a good question.” They let me through.

I made it! I made it back to Israel from Gaza! Although I had contracted some pretty bad food poisoning, I was happy to get back to Jerusalem. I took a shower, and a nap, and my life was back to normal. This trip will undoubtedly be one of my most memorable. Very few people are able to say they entered Gaza after Cast Lead, and even fewer people have done so at the age of 20. I will travel with my Erez stamp as a mark of prowess for years to come. Upon my return, when people ask me about my trip, I respond “Good.” It was good because although it was by far the most depressing scenario in which I have found myself, I learned more about myself and the reality in Gaza than I could ever do by reading a million books. I spoke with people, I saw the destruction, I ate the food, but I didn’t drink the water.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gaza: Day 2

Returning from Al-Mahthaf the night before, I experienced an intense pain in my stomach. I lay down on my bed for some time, but the pain did not go away. It persisted until morning, and I now found it to be accompanied by a sizeable headache. My first inclination: food-poisoning. I ate lightly at breakfast, but I was still unable to shake the pains. I figured that it would subside as the day progressed.

First thing in the morning, I accompanied Julia and Nahid on their site visit of the Gaza YMCA. ANERA was hoping to form some consortium with the organization along the lines of providing sporting equipment and other items to their summer camps, and programs. Unfortunately, this project cannot go through for a number of reasons.

The YMCA is a large compound in Gaza City, and it serves as one of the few positive places for young kids within the entirety of Gaza. The administration now boasts 30 straight years of summer camps for elementary school students, which bring positive influence from older Gazans to young, impressionable children. The camp offers a range of activities for its patrons from basketball and soccer to traditional Palestinian dancing (Dabke) to drawing/painting.

I walked around the grounds as the children were playing, taking photos at Nahid’s request. I began to speak with the children, and found that they were as curious about me as I was about them, and their life in Gaza. They continually asked where I was from, my last name, my first name, was I sad about Michael Jackson’s death, etc. They also kept requesting that I show them my photos. When I asked for a group photograph, the 15 or so children formulated so efficiently, it was as if they had practiced this pose.

By the time we got back to the ANERA office, the effects of my food poisoning were overwhelming. I had a fever, and my headache had gotten worse. I took a nap, and drank sage tea that Mona had made for me, but I was still struggling. 3pm came around, and it was time to leave the office.

Nahid drove Julia and I back to the Al-Deira, where we met up with Sami Abdel-Shafi, the Gaza consultant for the Carter Center. Sami comes from a very prominent Gaza family. His late grandfather, Haidar Abdel-Shafi was a member of the PLO Executive Committee under Arafat, and his father is a renowned surgeon. Sami, while maintaining American citizenship, is unable to leave Gaza because of the travel restrictions on Gazans. He lived in San Francisco for a long time, and worked for Cisco Systems before he moved back to Gaza.

Sami is another one of those Gazans who does not align himself with Hamas. He similarly rejects affiliation with the PA, and seems to me as a very rational, intelligent man. We spoke about a number of issues, and brought to light for me the reasoning behind the widespread support for Hamas. According to Sami, support for Hamas has strengthened since the end of Israel’s Operation Cast-Lead which ended in January. While Hamas enjoys the support of most Gazans, Sami explained that this support comes for specific issues rather than a unilateral approval of Hamas’ programs. In the same way that most Americans do not ascribe to the entire platform of whichever party they most frequently vote for, Gazans focus on specific issues, many of which are fulfilled by Hamas.

Sami also articulated the stark division between the militant wing of Hamas, and its government wing. While Hamas is indeed the terrorist organization that the Western media has portrayed so thoroughly for us Americans, it also serves as the prevailing government entity within Gaza. It is a democratically elected body that executes social services and legislative measures like most parliaments around the world, ineffectively. The militant wing resides under the same name, Hamas, but represents a separate faction from the government, and is often at odds with the government. In reality, the militant wing wields the most power within Gaza, because how do you tell men with Kalashnikoff rifles calling for the destruction of the state of Israel what to do?

At the end of my conversation with Sami, I was dragging badly. My energy level was low, and I needed a nap. We said our goodbyes, and I passed out for several hours in my bed. When I woke up, I had no appetite whatsoever. This food poisoning had taken over my body, and I just had to deal with it. I tried to read, but with no ability to focus, I was unsuccessful. My only option was to turn on the T.V.

I browsed the hundreds of channels for hours. All I could seem to find were terrible Arabic music videos, televangelist type preaching by bearded Imams or Egyptian soap operas. I found Al-Jazeera in English, although they only talked about the ethnic clash between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs for about an hour. This was unacceptable. Finally, before I lost all hope, I came upon Fox Movies, which specialized in giving royalty payments to the owners of the rights of the worst movies ever made. I watched the following: “A Knight’s Tale,” and “Fever Pitch.” Enough said. It’s a period in my life that I would like to forget now that I’ve gotten it off of my chest.

That was the end of my exhilarating evening. I was to leave for Jerusalem the next day, so I went to bed thinking about the great antibiotic pills that would await me.