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.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gaza: Day 1

I woke up early on Monday morning. I had already packed my bag the night before. My colleague, Julia, and I were in the car and ready to go by 8am, and by 9:15am, we were at the Erez checkpoint on the northern border of the Gaza Strip. We would have been at Erez 15 minutes earlier, but we had to stop and get q-tips and chocolate. These items are unavailable within Gaza, so we brought them as provisions to the ANERA Gaza staff.

Erez is like no other border crossing I have previously experienced. Granted, it is not known to be as intense as the Allenby crossing, but since the end of the war in January, the Israelis take every possible security measure.

Before even arriving to Erez, a traveler must have approval to cross from Israel into Gaza. Since January, only UN employees and aid workers are granted access to Gaza. Palestinians living in Jerusalem or the West Bank cannot cross the border, and Israelis sure as hell cannot go through. If the Israelis had some inclination that I was Jewish, they likely would not have allowed me to enter.

The next step in the process is creating coordination, which must also occur prior to arriving at Erez. Coordination is, in basic terms, the traveler telling the Israelis when he/she would like to cross into Gaza, and for how long.

Julia and I submitted our passports to a guard stationed in a booth outside of the Erez terminal at 9:20 am. She was a blonde Israeli who spoke little English, and whose voice was projected at 100x its normal decibel range by a loudspeaker fashioned on her booth. At this point, all we could do was wait while the Israelis further checked our qualifications, ensuring that we had both approval and coordination on this specific date.

I took a seat on a curb and watched the desperate gaggle of taxi drivers squawking at any rare soul who happened to come out of the Erez terminal. They all spoke over one another, and tried to undercut the competition by walking to the front of the pack. Of the two people I saw exiting Erez, both had rides waiting for them. They drove away with the gaggle smoking a dejected cigarette.

A group of 6 tourists approached the passport submission booth spouting loud French. They were dressed inappropriately if they were hoping to pass into what would later be described to me as the “Islamic Republic of Gaza.” The women were wearing tank-tops (no shoulders!) and the one man I saw donned an obnoxiously red Gilligan hat (Why draw attention to yourself in Gaza?). They were quickly turned away without coordination.

An older Palestinian couple sat farther down the curb. I tried to read their facial expressions, but they were stoic. They must have been waiting there in the Erez heat for several hours, and I wondered if they remembered what it was like to travel in and out of Gaza before 1967, before January 2009.

Finally, after an hour of waiting for the Israelis to discover our coordination we were allowed to enter the Erez terminal. Walking from the passport submission booth to the entrance gate, a very prominent banner hangs on the chain-link. “Gilad Still Lives,” a reference to Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier who resides in captivity at the hands of Hamas. Arguably the terrorist organization’s only bargaining chip when it comes to a negotiation with Israel.

We flew through passport control. My nice, navy blue, eagle-clad American passport now has an “Erez Terminal Exit” stamp right next to the Israeli tourist visa. I now think the only way to avoid a strip-search at Ben-Gurion Airport in August is to wear my brand new kippah and fabricate a desire to make “aliyah.” That is my round-about way of saying, Erez will certainly not help to expedite my checking-in process when I leave Israel.

After leaving the interior of the Erez terminal, there is a “buffer zone” of about 1 kilometer that separates the building from the Palestinian Authority coordination station. Maintenance of the buffer zone is not on the priority list of any governing faction. The canopy overhead is shredded tarpaulin that waves with the wind. Broken road-blocks are placed randomly along the walkway. Sewage trenches run along both sides of the path and former industrial fields now simply house crumbled concrete. A glance behind will reveal the towering smokestacks of the Israeli town, Ashkelon.

Julia and I met up with the ANERA Gaza staff member, Amar, beyond the walkway. He ushered us into his car, and although Julia is technically my supervisor, she still ceded the front-seat to me. Confused, I inquired about this action. “It’s unacceptable for a woman to sit in the front seat of a car, especially if it would require a man to sit in the back seat.”

The last step in the Erez security process is getting through the Hamas checkpoint. This checkpoint is rather a rusted out cargo box with holes for windows and a door. There were at least 5 men inside of this box, and only 1 of whom was actually checking passports. The rest of the men just sat and lounged, sending streams of Arabic back and forth.

A sickly orange kitten lay near the rusted out box meowing and moaning. I was waiting for one of the Hamas guards to use their automatic weapons to help her be quiet at any moment.

They asked to see our bags. I opened mine, took out my cameras and clothes. Nothing suspicious. “Oh, you’re American?” Go over there.

We shuffled over to another more trailer-looking rusted out box with three men inside. One of these men sat behind a pair of glasses, and a desk poring over a list of figures. This was the swine-flu check. I handed the man my passport, and he wrote down all of my information. “When was the last time you were in the United States? June 1? That’s way before swine-flu. Ok, you’re ok.” 2 minutes later, Amar, Julia and I were on our way after a successful passage through the Erez checkpoint.

Amar noticed as I removed my camera from my backpack. “You want to take pictures?” This was an invitation to a detour. We traveled from Erez through the town of Jabalia. Amar made sure to point out the immense destruction that this area suffered during the 22-day siege.

I saw very few people around Jabalia. One man was using a sledge-hammer to crush the shards of foundation from a former building. The blockade on Gaza prevents construction materials from entering the strip, therefore precluding most rebuilding efforts. Amar explained to me that this man was likely collecting the crushed concrete to apply makeshift repairs to his home. Two other men were collecting steel wire.

The carcasses of automobiles lay in abundant piles throughout the detour. At one point, I noticed a white vehicle frame with the letters “UN” still visibly painted on the driver’s side door. I had never before witnessed such destruction with my own eyes.

Amar proceeded into Gaza City, where the traffic was heavy. The intersection represented to me the epitome of chaos, with dysfunctional traffic lights, and even more strikingly dysfunctional traffic cops. A four-way intersection consisted of arbitrary decision makers inching forward from four directions until one person took the initiative to move through quickly. One cop, who was attempting to regulate the intersection, was talking on his cell phone while communicating through his walkie-talkie while directing traffic. He wore a frustrated grimace.

Every corner housed a pocket of Hamas guards wearing blue and black fatigues, bearing automatic weapons. I raised my camera for a discreet snapshot, but Amar stopped me. We didn’t want any problems on the first day of my first trip to Gaza.

We arrived at the ANERA Gaza office, and I met the staff. Immediately, Mona, the head of ANERA’s Milk for Preschoolers program, and I went to work editing a cumulative report on the effectiveness of providing fortified milk and biscuits to malnourished and anemic children. Amar brought in a lunch of shawerma sandwiches midway through the work day.

The Gaza office closes around 3pm every day, so Julia and I were escorted by the office engineer, Nahid to a pizza place down the street after work. The owner of this restaurant is an old friend of Nahid’s. They grew up together in Gaza and attended Northeastern University at the same time. After mentioning Brandeis’ proximity to Boston, the two men probed my brain for information about Boston in 2009. “Have you been down Huntington Avenue? That’s where I lived.” “Have you ever watched the sun go down at the Christian Science Center Building?” “Have you ever been to [blank] restaurant?” There was a pointed sense of nostalgia floating back and forth between these old friends.

The next stop was the Al-Deira Hotel, which was to be my home for the next two nights. Although Julia had ascribed high praise to this institution, she failed to fully encompass its unique flavor. Al-Deira is an oasis in this strip full of rubble. My room was spectacular. It had a satellite television with 300 channels, a bathroom complete with a bidet, a loft with a couch and tea table. I could not believe that such a hotel could exist in the very same Gaza that I saw in Jabalia. Al-Deira is also located right on the Mediterranean Sea, which allows for a pleasant breakfast ambience as you eat on their large terrace.

I napped and showered, just in time for Nahid to take Julia and I to meet Mona at another Gaza gem; Al Maht-haf. The word maht-haf in Arabic means “museum,” and while this place was a museum, it was also home to one of Gaza’s finest restaurants. The owner is a contractor who did quite well for himself. During construction, he often found pottery and artifacts which he then compiled in order to create his own personal museum. His maht-haf contains ancient Gazan pottery used to carry olive oil and wine across the Mediterranean, and many other artifacts of Gazan history.

After our meal, Nahid dropped Julia and I back at Al-Deira. We had another 2 days of Gaza, and we needed our rest.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What's in a Name?: Hebron/Khalil

“I went to Hebron yesterday.”


“Hebron. You know, West Bank village, full of violent settlers.”



“The town is called Khalil. It is not Hebron.”

This brief conversation occurred on Friday with a colleague of mine. While superficially, the conversation was short and without much substance, it is important to try and connect with the motives behind the words.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, a major front in this conflict between Palestinian and Israeli is the war of names. To Arabs, Jerusalem is Al-Quds. To Jews, Jerusalem is Yerushalayim. To Palestinians, the town I visited is called Khalil. Jews call the town by its biblical name, Hebron.

Hebron/Khalil is significant in the narratives of all three major monotheistic religions. It houses the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where many believe the bones of Abraham reside. At one point in history, King David ruled the city before he came to Jerusalem.

Jews specifically have a complex history with the town. The original community was driven out during the Diaspora, although a group of Spanish Jews resettled in the 16th century. A tragic event in the early 20th century, namely the massacre of Jews at the hands of Arab aggressors, left the city empty of a Jewish presence.

In modern Hebron, 4 major settlements comprise the Jewish population, the largest being Qiryat Arba with a population of about 7,000. I use the term “settlement” to refer to a group of Jews living within the West Bank in insular communities protected by the Israeli Defense Force. Settlers are often given tax-breaks by the government, provided with better mortgages and pay the “senior” rates on public transportation. Hebronite settlers of a certain age are also eligible to apply for free weapons (semi-automatic) provided by the Israeli government, incumbent on their passing of a gun certification course. Today, several settler families live in an IDF barracks in Hebron which is a flagrant violation of Israeli law.

My experience in Hebron was entirely depressing. The SCB Fellows (minus Liza who has done this tour already) went with the “Breaking the Silence Tour,” a tour company of former IDF soldiers serving in Hebron who felt compelled to share their stories with anyone who will listen.

The tour started with an introduction by a Palestinian man living in Hebron/Khalil who has seen the effects of violent settlers in the area. Hebron settlers are notoriously violent, and have even attacked tour groups in the past. Due to the potential threat, our group was accompanied by several Israeli police officers throughout the entirety of the trip. This man (as he describes in the video) has had his fields burned by settlers, has seen his car burned by settlers, and has even witnessed an ambulance attacked by settlers as it was carrying an elderly woman from his home.


The Breaking the Silence literature describes Hebron as a “ghost town,” and the term is certainly applicable. Internal fighting in Hebron between IDF soldiers and guerilla Palestinians has prompted harsh security measures by the IDF on the Palestinian community. The city is split into two parts; H1 for the Palestinians, and H2 for Jews and the IDF. What was once the main road in Hebron is now entirely empty but for sporadic car traffic and the occasional pedestrian. This road is called a “sterile road,” meaning Palestinians are disallowed from walking on it. The front doors of the Palestinian homes that line the road are welded shut, forcing the residents to use the roof in order to exit.

What was once a bustling Hebron street is now "sterile."

Palestinian home welded shut.

On one occasion, as we stopped to speak about the old market of the city (which was raided by settlers on several occasions until it was closed entirely) a group of settler girls who could have been no older than 10 stopped and listened. Although they likely did not understand much of what was said, they all began to chant in Hebrew “Yehuda, you’re a traitor.” Yehuda was the orthodox Jew who served as our tour guide.

Hebron/Khalil is a physical manifestation of a major reason for the perpetuation of conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Many religious Jews feel entitled to possess the town of Hebron, and I cannot discredit that sentiment under any circumstances. It is not within my powers as a fellow human to disregard the opinions of another.

I must say, however, that the means by which the Hebronite settlers go about their business is horrendous. These people attempt to attain their goals by infusing violence into the scenario, and prove themselves to be no better than the “terrorists” that we crit

icize so often in our western media. A religious individual, as our Palestinian host noted, is not one who should resort to violent extremism. Religion should bring inner-peace and sanctity. It should not prompt one to spray-paint “Death to the Arabs” on the walls of Hebron.

"Death to the Arabs" written in Hebrew.

The Israeli government also must play a role in restricting the Hebronite settlers. By providing settlers with financial incentives to live in Qiryat Arba rather than in Jerusalem, the government is perpetuating the problem that resides in the further encroachment of settlements on West Bank Palestinian towns. Settlers are rarely prosecuted for their violent actions against the Palestinian communities, and even when they are, the settlers are acquitted or given a slap on the wrist. By creating a strict set of rules to which the settlers must adhere, I believe that some of the tension can be relieved in these areas.

It is impossible to have anything but a vile reaction to seeing this desolate West Bank town. The scars of the conflict rise high above the skin of its streets, and are extremely apparent to all who see its streets and buildings. Please do not mistake my criticism of the settlers as an indication of bias. There is no excuse for the ongoing attacks against IDF soldiers by Palestinian guerillas in Hebron/Khalil. If you take anything from this blog entry, just know that I am simply stating that violence in any form is despicable, and cannot be tolerated.

p.s. Beards of Jerusalem. You know who you are.