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.