+972 Magazine » Mya Guarnieri http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Thu, 30 Jul 2015 19:44:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part Three http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-three/109276/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-three/109276/#comments Mon, 27 Jul 2015 11:27:55 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=109276 Click here to read parts one and two.

The New Year comes and passes. It’s January 2014 and I’ve been living in the territories for almost a year. But rather than becoming more comfortable in my new surroundings and feeling like my usual curious and adventurous self—I am the woman, after all, who has traveled some 20 countries, mostly alone—I find myself turning inwards. I prefer to stay in Bethlehem, close to home.

This is not me.

The occupation and the checkpoints, particularly the flying checkpoints, have something to do with the change: on my way back to Bethlehem from Ramallah one afternoon, a flying checkpoint pops up near Jabaa’. As the soldiers take the IDs of everyone in the service taxi, I don’t know what to do—do I give them my American passport or my Israeli teudat zehut?

In theory, I could be headed from Qalandia—which is technically part of East Jerusalem—to Hizme, which is in Area B. I’m legal here, I tell myself. Or am I? I try to picture myself on the map that shows the zones: A, B, C.

Where is Jabaa’?

Where am I?

Who am I supposed to be right now?

It happens again as I’m driving back to Bethlehem from Jerusalem one afternoon. I’m on the little, rolling two-lane road that takes me to Beit Jala. Usually, I glide by the small army base on the edge of Beit Jala and from there, it’s a short drive to Bethlehem and I’m home. But today: when I bank the hill, I see soldiers standing in the middle of the road—a road I’ve never seen them on—checking IDs as Palestinians drive into Beit Jala. But why? If checkpoints are about security, then why would they be scrutinizing Palestinians headed into a Palestinian area? Are they looking for someone? Are they making sure that no Jewish Israelis are headed into Area A? Are they enforcing segregation?

Flying checkpoints can show up without any warning, and often times separate Palestinians cities and towns. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Flying checkpoints can show up without any warning, and often times separate Palestinians cities and towns. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Whatever the army’s doing there, I panic, slam on my brakes, and make a U-turn in the middle of the road, just meters from a soldier. As I speed away and he grows smaller in my rearview mirror, I realize the stupidity of what I’ve just done. I realize how suspicious it must have looked.

I also realize that I’m not sure how I’m going to get home. If there’s a flying checkpoint outside of Beit Jala, surely things will be tight at Checkpoint 300, too. There’s one more way in—a settler’s checkpoint that leads to a road that eventually splits and takes me to Beit Sahour, which neighbors Bethlehem.

But what if there are soldiers at that fork in the road, too?

I call Mohammad and ask him what I should do.

“Go back to Jerusalem, have a coffee, and try again.”

“What if the soldiers are still there?”

“They won’t be—they won’t stay forever. By the time you get back, they’ll be gone.”

Intellectually, I know that this is true. I’ve seen flying checkpoints many times before and I’ve seen them disappear as quickly as they appear. But something inside of me has changed and I find myself less able to use my head and reason through things. All I know is what I feel and I feel like the soldiers are everywhere.

If checkpoints are about security, why do they scrutinize Palestinians headed into Palestinian areas?

Indeed, they showed up at a neighbor’s house recently—even though we live deep in Area A—asking about another neighbor’s rifle. Not only do they seem to be everywhere, they seem to know everything, even what people have in their private homes.

No, under occupation, even homes aren’t private.

I feel like the soldiers will never go away, they’ll stand there on the road between Jerusalem and Beit Jala forever and that’s the route I always take, that’s my “safe” road, and now they’re there and I’ll never get home.

***

But the incident at the container, the flying checkpoints—these aren’t the things that make me think that maybe it’s time to move back to Jerusalem.

It’s the undercover policeman at Qalandiya that makes me start to question reality and my place in it. After that moment, I no longer trust my own eyes. I’ll become suspicious about everyone around me. I will catch myself peering into cars at red lights, wondering if the woman in the hijab next to me is really a woman in hijab. Or is she undercover? Or some sort of collaborator? That “vendor” on the side of the road—is he selling cauliflower or collecting intelligence?

I will wonder if my colleagues are actually Shin Bet agents. I will recall the time a journalist interviewed me; he was accompanied by a friend. I’ll think of another similar interview. And another.

Why was I always being questioned in pairs?

And I’ll think of acquaintances living unaffordable lifestyles on tiny, freelance incomes. Eating out, traveling. Where are they getting their money from? Who are they, really? What are they doing here?

I’ll catch myself, realize how absurd my thoughts are, and laugh it off. I’ll understand that it’s some sort of aftershock from the jarring experience at Qalandiya, from being certain that I was going to be pulled out of my car and shot dead.

But, no matter how much I’ll try to reason my way out of it, I won’t be able to shake the feelings that stay with me after that January afternoon:

I’m on my way to Ramallah via Jerusalem and I’m next to the wall, on the “Israeli” side. It’s a two lane road, full of speed bumps, and traffic is crawling towards the Qalandiya checkpoint. A young man springs out of the passenger side of an old, battered white car that’s coming from the opposite direction—away from Qalandiya. He is tall and thin with black hair. He looks Palestinian and he dresses like someone from the territories.

Cars wait to cross the Qalandiya checkpoint separating Jerusalem and Ramallah. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Cars wait to cross the Qalandiya checkpoint separating Jerusalem and Ramallah. (Photo by Activestills.org)

He starts to “direct” the cars. He stands in the middle of the road, puts a hand out to stop traffic coming from one direction and then gestures to cars coming from the other direction to move forward—essentially turning a two-lane, two-way road into a two-lane, one-way road. But they just have to merge back into one lane further up the road. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not easing the congestion at all.

Wallahi, I swear to God, he’s just making it worse. What is he doing? I think. It’s like he’s creating the traffic jam.

I remind myself to have patience. But after 15 minutes of standstill, I get to thinking about the hours upon hours that I’ve lost making the trip between Bethlehem and Ramallah—a trip that, Palestinians tell me, used to take about half an hour, before the checkpoints and settler-only roads and bypass roads that are routed around settlements. I’ve heard one variation or another of the same sentence come from countless Palestinians: we can get our land back, but we can never get our time back.

I feel my frustration and anger rising. I’m clenching my teeth, breathing fast. I try to slow my breath down. Inhale. Exhale. I picture, in my mind’s eye, a fellow I often see on the service taxi.

From eavesdropping, I’ve gathered that he works in Ramallah and lives in Bethlehem. He speaks Arabic, English, and French fluently. Whenever I take the last service taxi from Ramallah to Bethlehem in the evening, he’s there in the back, tapping away on his computer, completely engrossed in his work. He is resistance. He refuses to let the occupation steal his time, productivity, or composure—not even when we passed the man hogtied on the side of the road.

I’ve heard the same sentence come from countless Palestinians: we can get our land back, but we can never get our time back.

I try to summon this man whose name I don’t know, to channel this person I admire. But I can’t. I’m not a Palestinian keeping my cool under occupation. Staying dignified and calm is not my resistance. No, I’m an impatient, pissed off Israeli—the traffic jam is irritating, the wall enrages me and the checkpoint does, too. Not to mention the bullshit laws that prevent Mohammad and me from having a normal relationship. If it weren’t for those bullshit laws, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this traffic jam. Or maybe there wouldn’t be a traffic jam in the first place. This would all be open and free.

So I honk.

I honk at the young guy, the man I’ve mistaken for a shebab, who is snarling traffic. I honk at him and he turns and looks at me with such anger and hatred and disgust that I’m scared even before he starts moving toward my car.

He reaches my window before I have a chance to lock my doors. He quickly looks to his left and right—presumably to make sure no one can see what he’s doing—before he snakes his Israeli police ID out of his pocket and pushes it up against the glass just long enough for me to read it. I realize that he’s a Jew and an undercover cop.

He glances to his left and right as he slides his ID down my window and back into his pocket. His eyes move towards my door handle. My hands move faster than his, though, and hit the lock a split second before he lifts up on the handle.

Finding my door locked seems to upset him even more than my honking. He’s banging on my window and shouting at me in Arabic to get out of the car. As he’s pounding on the glass, I become certain he’s going to shoot me. I realize that he’s mistaken me for a Palestinian and I know that anything can happen to any Palestinian anywhere between the river and the sea. And I’m not sure how much my protection my Israeli ID would afford me right now—if this policeman is so angry that a “Palestinian woman” would dare honk at him, then imagine how he would react to discovering that I’m a Jew and a “traitor.”

Before I can decide which language to use to beg for my life, I hear myself screaming over and over again—at a level that shocks me, at an inhuman pitch I didn’t know I could produce— in Arabic: “I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police” screaming and screaming until he finally moves away from my car and goes back to fucking up the traffic.

The scream has taken over my body. My body is a scream and I shake as I pass Qalandiya checkpoint. I shake as I drive through the refugee camp. I shake the whole way to Ramallah. Not a tremor, but a full-on shake, my body rattling, shivering, my words echoing in my ears “I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police!”

My vocal cords are sore for days.

***

I don’t give Mohammad an ultimatum. I simply say: either we move forward or I go back to Jerusalem. Because I could handle all of this if we were really together. But I come home to an empty house. I go to bed alone and I wake up alone. I eat dinner alone. I eat breakfast alone. I drink my morning coffee alone. I have no one to say good morning to, other than the people I pass on the street and my landlady, who by the way, is spending more and more time snooping in my apartment. Not only have I caught her in my place, I’ve come home to find my closet ajar, contents spilling out. It’s only a matter of time before she finds something or puts all the clues together—surely, by now, she’s heard me speaking Hebrew on the phone or has found the hannukiah and Hebrew books I hid as best I could. It’s only a matter of time until I come home and, worst case scenario, find PA people waiting to arrest me and hand me over to the Israelis. Best case—she puts me and my cat out on the street.

I tell my love: I can’t go on like this. If we lived under the same roof, this would all be worth it. But, alone, there’s no reason for me to continue here in the territories.

He agrees that it’s time to move forward. But if there’s no open dating before marriage in the territories, there’s certainly no living together. So moving forward means getting engaged and that means that it’s time for me to meet his family. That includes, of course, his father—who was in the PLO, back before it went soft, and whom Israel deported from the West Bank in the early 1970s. (He returned with and worked for the PA, of which he says, “The best thing I ever did was retire.”)

Mohammad wants this meeting but he also dreads it. He’s excited for me to become part of the family but he’s worried about how they will react to my background, which we can’t hide. We’ll have to tell them eventually but, he decides, it will be better not to tell his parents right away.

“Let them meet you a few times, get to know you, accept the match, fall in love with you, and then we’ll tell them,” he says.

***

Our first meeting will take place at the end of January. I’m excited and tell my girlfriends, who help me brainstorm possible outfits. I’m still studying Arabic, squeezing in classes before and after work. Now that I’m going to meet Mohammad’s parents—who don’t speak English—I take my studies more seriously. I labor over my homework and sometimes do extra exercises; I practice my embarrassingly bad Arabic with Mohammad and my landlady.

I pester my best friend, who I’ll call Dima, for new words and phrases and write them down in the little notebook I keep me with at all times. Dima is, technically, a refugee—like my landlady, her father’s family fled to the West Bank from Jaffa in 1948. And, unintentionally, Dima is picking Hebrew up from me; when we’re alone in the car or on our long distance runs in empty parts of Beit Sahour, she teases me by peppering her language with “ma?” and “ken.”

Despite her suspicions, my landlady and I still share a close relationship. I tell her about the upcoming meeting, too. As the end of the month draws near, she opens the door that divides the upstairs from down and pops her head in to my apartment every day: “Are you engaged yet?” she calls down the stairs. “When is the meeting?”

“Tomorrow!” I tell her one afternoon late in January as I put my purse and satchel full of student papers down. I’ve just gotten back from work. “I’ll go to Ramallah after I teach my morning class and we’ll have lunch.”

My landlady is so excited she giggles and claps before closing the door.

I make myself a cup of tea, sit down on the couch, and call Mohammad to hammer out the details about tomorrow. Where will we meet? What should I wear?

“Actually,” he begins, “I have something to tell you.”

I stop breathing. I already know what he’s going to say, even before he’s begun.

“My father was excited that his eldest son is finally getting married. So, this morning, he started asking me questions about you. He asked about your religion.”

“You didn’t tell him that I’m Jewish, did you?”

“No. I told him you’re American. But he insisted—”

“And what did you say?”

“That you’re secular. But he asked, ‘What is her family?’ And I said, ‘Well, her mother is Jewish.’”

And Mohammad’s father called our lunch date off. The match, he says, is unacceptable.

So there will be no engagement. There will be no marriage. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach—I’m crying and gasping for breath at the same time. I can’t talk. I hang up the phone and slide off the couch. I’m on the floor, on my hands and knees, trying to get some air.

‘You didn’t tell him that I’m Jewish, did you?’ — The match, he says, is unacceptable. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.

Mohammad calls back.

“What do we do now?” I ask.

“We continue.”

“I can’t go on like this.”

“So we move forward.”

“How? How?” I ask. “It’s impossible without your family.” We can’t just openly defy them by moving in together. Palestine is a small place and word would spread fast—we would shame his parents. We need their support.

And with the economy the way it is, we also can’t afford to go against their will. His parents are building a traditional Palestinian house—a floor for each son—and as Mohammad feels that it’s his duty to “open a house” for us, we need that apartment. The occupation plays a role in all this, too. It crushes the economy, which means that people are more dependent on their family networks, which has the effect of making society more tribal and clan-oriented, more traditional and conservative. Maybe, in better financial times, we could defy Mohammad’s parents. But not now, in a non-state with low wages and high unemployment.

“We’ll find a way,” Mohammad says.

I’m sure that we won’t. And I know that I can’t continue alone.

I text Dima and our other best friend, an American writer who lives in Bethlehem, that the meeting is off. They come straight over and use the keys I’ve given them to let themselves in. I’m still lying on the rug. Dima presents me with ice cream. It melts on the floor.

I spend that night—and many nights to come—on the couch. The bed feels too big. And something about staying in the bedroom strikes me as absurd, like I’m playing house, like I’m deluding myself into thinking I could have a normal life here. Like I’m pretending Palestine is or could someday be my real home.

Illustration by Bruniewska/Shutterstock.com

Illustration by Bruniewska/Shutterstock.com

I drift off with satellite radio on, a station that plays Arabic classics, mostly love songs. I wake in the middle of the night to Baeed Anak (Away From You). Umm Kulthoum sings: “I’ve forgotten sleep and its dreams. I’ve forgotten its nights and its days…”

***

Was my landlady eavesdropping? Did she hear the conversation with Mohammad? Or Dima? Or was it the sudden change—the sad music going all night long when there’d once been silence? Or was  she waiting for me to come to her with the good news?

Either way, she doesn’t stick her head in the following day or the day after that. Finally, on the third day, she comes into my apartment.

“Well? How did it go with Mohammad’s parents? Are you engaged yet?”

“No,” I answer. “They refuse to meet me.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m not Muslim.”

She nods.

I continue, explaining that, really, it’s Mohammad’s father who is refusing to meet me. Mohammad’s mother is still open to the idea.

“So we’ll have her over,” says my landlady. She explains that she likes Mohammad. And she loves me. She wants to see us happy together. She wants us to get married and she’s determined to help.

Before my landlady heads back upstairs, she gestures to my apartment and adds that Mohammad doesn’t need to worry about opening a house. “The house is already open. You two can always live here.”

I’m humbled. This woman is a refugee who, despite what she suspects or knows, is willing to defy another Palestinian family and give us shelter.

I talk it over with Dima and our other friends and everyone agrees—maybe having Mohammad’s mother over isn’t a bad idea. Traditionally, the man’s parents come to the woman’s house to meet her family and to discuss the prospect of marriage. And while I don’t have a family for Mohammad’s mother to meet, my girlfriends say they’ll come to stand as my people. They’ll vouch for me and my reputation, thus putting their own on the line.

Their reasoning: if we can get Mohammad’s mother on board, she’ll persuade her husband to agree to the match.

‘We’ll find a way,’ Mohammad says. I’m sure that we won’t. And I know that I can’t continue alone.

In the meantime, to comfort me, my girlfriends offer stories of matches that were initially rejected by families but that worked out fine. “Lina,” from East Jerusalem, tells me that her father’s family didn’t want him to get engaged to her mother. She’s Muslim and Palestinian but because she didn’t come from their village, they considered her a “foreigner.” To this day, Lina laughs, some people still call her mom “the foreigner.”

An acquaintance tells me how her Palestinian parents—one Christian and the other Muslim—eloped in London. Their families came around eventually. “They always do,” she assures me. “You’ll be fine.”

Objections start to seem so common that I begin to wonder if they’re like a rite of passage—a test of the lovers’ commitment to one another.

I’m feeling hopeful again. That is, until Mohammad admits to his parents that, yes, I have an Israeli ID. His mother no longer wants to meet me. It’s done.

***

There’s no place for me in Palestine.

I keep going to work, of course, but find myself less concerned about the container, in part because I’m exhausted from not-really-sleeping on the couch. Whenever the service taxi bounces over those spikes and I peer out the window at the soldiers, I think: arrest me. Don’t arrest me. Whatever.

It occurs to me that perhaps, subconsciously, I actually want to be caught and hauled out of the territories. Then I wouldn’t have to make the decision to break up with Mohammad—who refuses to end our relationship and still spends every weekend with me in Bethlehem as though nothing has changed. But if the army would impose an answer on me and I could offer it up as proof to Mohammad that I just couldn’t live in the West Bank.

I continue to attend Arabic classes—I paid for them, after all—but I find myself avoiding the homework. And, as my Arabic grows weaker, Hebrew reasserts itself. For a while, I’d gotten better at separating the two. But something’s changed and my brain begins to behave as it did when I first started studying: if I can’t find a word in Arabic, my Hebrew jumps “to the rescue,” filling in the gaps, elbowing the Arabic out of its way.

And as much as I hate the checkpoints, I feel a new, surprising emotion whenever I drive to Jerusalem and see them on the horizon: relief. Because I know that, once I pass the checkpoint, I won’t end up on the side of the road in a hot van, thirsty and trying not to shit my pants. Once I pass the checkpoint, I can speak Hebrew without worrying about who is listening. I can wear whatever I want and no one will call me a “sharmouta,” a whore—as a man did on the street one day in Ramallah, never mind that I was in a long-sleeved turtleneck and pants.

Jerusalem: my relief disturbs me. It goes against my politics and morals. And I know how dangerous my feeling is. I know this sense of freedom I feel when I cross into Jerusalem is exactly what the state is based on. It’s what keeps Israelis going to the army and it’s what keeps them voting right wing.

But as I move through Jerusalem, this feeling never lasts. The inequality is too glaring. I could rattle off a list of all the indicators—tax funds collected but not spent, building permits not issued, classroom shortages, infrastructure issues—but it’s not what I think about when I’m in East Jerusalem. I don’t think of the stories I’ve written about this blighted side of the city; no, I think about the girlfriend I’ve lost touch with, the one who lives in Shuafat refugee camp. One of the last times I saw her, she told me that she finds life there so unbearable that her children are the only thing that are keeping her from killing herself.

Little by little, she slipped away, her calls, texts, and emails becoming less frequent. Alarmed, a mutual friend and I spent months trying to get in touch with her. But to no avail. When I still lived in Jerusalem, headed home one afternoon, I looked into the passing train and was certain that I saw her. My heart leapt the tracks and into that East Jerusalem-bound car.

There she is!

I call the last number I have for her but it’s disconnected.

Jerusalem: I find myself looking for her. I scan crowds, looking for her familiar pink or Burberry-pattern hijab. As I pass women on the street, I look at their faces, waiting to see her green eyes. I drop by her work and her colleagues tell me she’s no longer employed there.

‘I find myself looking for her. I scan crowds, looking for her familiar pink or Burberry-pattern hijab. As I pass women on the street, I look at their faces, waiting to see her green eyes.’ (Photo by Activestills.org)

‘I find myself looking for her. I scan crowds, looking for her familiar pink or Burberry-pattern hijab. As I pass women on the street, I look at their faces, waiting to see her green eyes.’ (Photo by Activestills.org)

“But everything’s okay?” I ask, not wanting to sound too worried, lest I embarrass her.

“Hamdulillah,” is the reply.

At least I know she is still alive.

On several occasions, I drive Mohammad or Dima to Jerusalem, breezing through checkpoints. It’s shockingly easy:

1) Slow down, of course, but not too much—as though you expect to be stopped—because then you’re giving the soldiers a cue to stop you.

2) Act like you’re supposed to be there, doing exactly what you’re doing; no, believe that you’re supposed to be doing what you doing. Remind yourself that separation is bullshit and that it didn’t exist before Oslo. Remember that the checkpoints themselves are, arguably, illegal according to international law. Remember your landlady’s and others’ stories of the days they were free to drive to Jerusalem; pretend that you’re living in those days or in the future, when the inevitable one-state has finally materialized.

3) Show some skin.

4) Stay relaxed, drive with one hand on the wheel, your other elbow propped oh-so-casually on the windowsill.

5) If the soldiers bother to look your way, don’t lift your one hand from the wheel. Give them a quick, curt nod and flash them a victory sign as you bounce over the speed bumps or spikes. An Israeli friend who used to drive Palestinians in from the territories taught me this last bit—she was convinced that such body language signals authority to the soldiers and tells them to “stand down.”

And they always do. They stand down and we roll by. Once we clear the checkpoint, there’s that familiar feeling: relief. But as we park the car and begin to walk through Jerusalem, I start to wonder: Will Mohammad be beaten for daring to go out with a Jewish girl, as other Palestinian men have? Will Dima be hassled or, worse, arrested?

I also worry about my own reaction in any of those situations. I’ve always been fiercely protective of my friends. In the fourth grade, when my best friend was waiting to use a swing at recess and someone cut her, I said, “Hey! It’s Christy’s turn.” The girl got off the swing—only to come sock me in the stomach.

I know if anything ever happened to Mohammad or Dima, I wouldn’t be able to stay out of the fray. Will I end up in the hospital or in jail, too?

If the soldiers bother to look your way, give them a quick, curt nod and flash them a victory sign. This last bit tells them to ‘stand down.’ And they always do. (Photo by Activestills.org)

If the soldiers bother to look your way, give them a quick, curt nod and flash them a victory sign. This last bit tells them to ‘stand down.’ And they always do. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Jerusalem: One evening, Mohammad needs me to pick up a DVD from an Israeli colleague. The man asks me to meet him at Mamilla mall, at the Aroma, to make the exchange. We greet each other, make small talk and—when he realizes that Mohammad is not just my colleague but my boyfriend—he invites me to coffee. I have some time to kill before I meet a girlfriend for dinner, so I accept.

This older fellow says that he is fond of Mohammad. “He’s a good man. But, excuse me for asking,” he begins, “aren’t you a Jew?”

“Yes.”

He explains then that he volunteers with an organization that “rescues” Jewish women from Arab men. “They’re all nice before the marriage and then they stick you in the house and put a hijab on your head. Mohammad might be different…”

He shrugs.

“He likes that I have a career,” I say. “And he doesn’t want me to wear the hijab.”

“But what about his family? His family might want you to convert to Islam and cover your head.”

Nu, az?” So what?

As though covering one’s head is a tragedy. As though it’s the worst thing that could happen to a woman. As though scantily-clad Western women aren’t oppressed, too. Feeling pressured to show skin and be sexy is just the flip side of feeling pressured to cover and hide one’s sexuality.

He’s tells me that, even though he doesn’t know me, he’s concerned for me because I’m a fellow Jew, part of the “Jewish people.” This man who doesn’t know me calls me “sister.” Rather than urging me to find a Jewish husband, he tells me about the time he got engaged to a Chinese woman he met during his post-army travels. His mother objected to the match and so he broke up with her and, eventually, settled down with a nice, Jewish girl.

But I don’t want to settle.

And what’s the parallel here? That this fellow, as an older man who is also part of the “Jewish people,” is like a father? And that, as he listened to his mother, I’m supposed to listen to him?

Jerusalem: Another stranger—introduced to me by an American friend who makes a point of telling the guy that I’m “the one who has a Palestinian boyfriend”—will give me a similar lecture. He will add that if it’s marriage I want, he’s certain he could find at least 10 wonderful Jewish guys who would be thrilled to marry me.

“My brother’s available, and he’s about your age,” he says, offering to arrange a date. He opens his phone and scrolls through his address book, looking for other potential matches.

It reminds me of my childhood in the American South, when strangers and friends alike tried to get me to convert to Christianity, lest my soul burn in hell.

Then there’s my Meretz-voting friend who’s angry with me for having a relationship with Mohammad. She doesn’t admit that her feeling is racism—she calls it concern. She tells me it’s one thing to marry a Palestinian but, “Do you two plan on having a family?” When I tell her yes, she says that having a child with an Arab would be “irresponsible.”

There’s no place for me in Israel.

Then there’s my Meretz-voting friend. she says that having a child with an Arab would be ‘irresponsible.’ There’s no place for me in Israel.

And even if there was, Mohammad would not be able to live here with me legally. There’s no place for us anywhere, not on any side of the Green Line.

Whenever I drive back to Bethlehem, that same relief that I feel when I enter Jerusalem washes over me again. I’m relieved to pass the checkpoint and enter the territories. I feel my body relax as I bank the hill and follow the sign that reads, in Hebrew, “Beit Jala.” When I glide past the army base, I exhale. From here, it’s a short downhill ride to Bethlehem. The car rolls the gentle slopes, carrying me home.

***

Months go by. In late March, there’s a family emergency and Mohammad has to go to South Florida to help his brother handle some business affairs. I was born and raised five hours north, relatively close to the Georgia border. And while these parts of Florida are very different—really, they’re like different countries—it still strikes me as ironic that Mohammad ends up spending five weeks in my native state.

My landlady tells me to give up. “He’s in America? He’s not coming back for you,” she advises me. “You’re wasting your time. Move on.” She’s fond of a friend of mine who came to visit me from Tel Aviv—a man I introduced as my cousin because, otherwise, I wouldn’t be allowed to have him in the house.

“You should marry him,” my landlady says.

“But he’s my cousin!” I protest, staying in role.

My landlady waves her hand dismissively.

“I know that people around here still do that,” I say, “and if that’s what they want to do, fine. But, in my family, we stopped marrying our cousins about 100 years ago.”

“But he’s so nice,” she insists. “You should marry him.”

And we start the conversation over again.

Despite my landlady’s reservations, Mohammad and I talk on the phone every day. He marvels at how, in America, the road is just open, how you can drive forever without seeing a checkpoint or a soldier. He loves the anonymity. When he visited me in Abu Dis one afternoon, a group of concerned men stopped us on the street, “Professor, professor! Are you okay? What are you doing with this strange man?” But, in Florida, Mohammad says, no one hassles you, no one asks who you are, what your family name is, and what you’re doing here.

When he’s not waxing poetic about America, I’m trying to convince him that, khalas, we should just break up already. Not because I want to marry “my cousin” but because I can’t live in limbo anymore.

No, Mohammad says, we should move in together when he gets back to the West Bank, family concerns be damned. It would make them understand that we’re serious about each other and that they have no choice but to accept the match.

Mohammad marvels at how, in America, you can drive forever without seeing a checkpoint or a soldier.

The next time we talk, he backpedals. Moving in together would throw fuel on the fire and would reflect poorly on me. Then his parents will never accept the match. And we can’t get married without his family’s blessing. That’s what he really wants to do—to get married, to have children, to spend our lives together.

It’s three AM and I can’t sleep. I take my phone outside and sit in the garden. Dheisheh refugee camp lies on the horizon and its lights look like stars. The wind blows through the lemon, almond, and apricot trees. The grape leaves—still young on the vine—rustle.

I remember lying in the courtyard outside my apartment in Kiryat Yovel and listening to the wind lace itself between leaves. I remember picking fresh passion fruit from the vine, tasting honeysuckle from the dewy flowers in the alley. I remember hiking the trails that led from Kiryat Yovel to Ein Kerem and stopping to pluck figs and green almonds from trees.

I can’t leave either place. But I know that I can’t remain, either.

I call Mohammed and tell him that it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I describe the view to him—it’s a view he knows well but still, I tell him that I can’t tell where the stars stop and Dheisheh begins. I tell him about the wind and how it smells the same in Jerusalem.

I ask him what we’re going to do.

He says that sometimes, in life, we have to make a “radical revision,” an unexpected turn. And then he asks: “What if we moved to Florida?”

“You mean quit my job, just like that, and just,” I pause. The words are so simple yet they seem unbelievable. The idea seems absurd. “Move to Florida?”

“Yes.” Mohammad’s already talked to his brother about it; his brother will be happy to host us until we get on our feet.

“Did you tell him that I have a cat? Because I won’t come without my cat. We’re a package deal.”

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part two http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-two/105860/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-two/105860/#comments Sun, 26 Apr 2015 14:22:59 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=105860 Click here to read part one.

I was sold on the apartment. But my landlady wasn’t sold on me yet.

We went upstairs and sat in her salon. Once a porch, it had been closed in with glass windows and offered a view of the hills surrounding Bethlehem. It was one of the few vistas that wasn’t ruined by the occupation. There was no wall, no checkpoints, no military bases, no settlements.

As my landlady took her seat across from me, she handed me a small, wrapped hard candy. She apologized for not offering me coffee. I realized how much she needed to rent the first floor out.

“You aren’t the first to come see the place,” she began, adding that she’d turned the last applicant down because she suspected that he was a Jew. Under no circumstances would she rent to a Jew.

She looked at me, her gaze shifting from one of my eyes to the other, as though she was trying to read what was behind them. I understood that she was waiting for some sort of a reaction. I smiled.

“Happiness is more important than money,” she continued, explaining that it was important to her to find the right person for the apartment. The house was special to her—not only because she’d grown up in it but also because it had witnessed so much of Bethlehem’s history.

The cornerstone was laid in 1808 when someone built a tiny, stand-alone room next to the well. Several other one-room houses followed, making a half-moon around the well, creating an open-air courtyard. In the early 1900s, the cluster of rooms was turned into one large home. The courtyard was closed and the second story was built. New floors were laid with the hand-painted tiles common to the Levant—a reminder of the years when trains connected Beirut and Damascus to Jerusalem and Jaffa.

But those days didn’t last. The Middle East was carved up, including Palestine. During the Nakba, my landlady’s family left Jaffa empty-handed: her father lost his business; they lost their money, home, and belongings. Christians, they fled to Bethlehem where they had roots and family. A few years later, in the early 1950s, they moved into the first floor of this house, a once-wealthy family of seven crammed into two bedrooms.

But the place emptied as her brothers left to find work abroad—the West Bank’s economy wasn’t great and it only got worse under the occupation. Thanks in large part to the remittances her brothers sent back to Palestine, her family scraped together enough money to buy the whole house. Eventually, my landlady followed in the previous owners’ footsteps, moving upstairs and renting out the space beneath her. In the beginning, many of her tenants were students who came from other Palestinian cities and villages to attend Bethlehem University. But as the occupation deepened—a process that was facilitated by the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority—the economy all but ground to a halt and Palestinian tenants were increasingly unreliable.

During the hard days of the Second Intifada, when Bethlehem was under siege, the first floor was full of stranded students who couldn’t pay rent. After that, my landlady decided only to rent to ajanib, foreigners. She began to rattle off the list of recent tenants, telling me their names, their jobs, where they’d come from, and why they’d left Palestine. Most of her renters had had cushy NGO gigs. I didn’t tell my landlady that I wasn’t collecting a foreigner’s income; that my wage was set by the PA’s scale and that I was making the same as a Palestinian professor would. Another reason to leave Jerusalem—I couldn’t afford it on a West Bank salary.

An olive tree in front of the Israeli separation barrier in Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

An olive tree in front of the Israeli separation barrier in Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

“I must ask you,” she said. “What is your religion?”

“I don’t see how that’s really relevant.”

“What is your religion?” she insisted.

“I’m secular,” I said.

“Because, me, I’m Catholic.”

“That’s nice.”

“And I’m from Palestine,” she continued. “Where are you from?”

“America,” I said.

“No one’s really from America—” she began.

“—except the Native Americans,” I interrupted. “You know, the Indians.”

“But, clearly, you’re not Indian,” she smiled. “So where did your people come from?”

“My people?” Since I was young, I’d always answered such questions by saying “I’m Jewish.” Clearly, I couldn’t say that now. I unwrapped the candy, put it in my mouth, and smoothed the wrapper out on my knee. I imagined the square before me as a map; I mentally traced the circuitous route my Sephardic and Ashkenazi ancestors made.

I realized she was waiting for an answer. But all the countries my people had passed through seemed loaded. As I went through the list in my head, I became more and more convinced that naming any of them would reveal my Jewish background.

“My people—oh, you know, they’re from here and there. Everywhere, really. I’m very mixed.”

She glanced at the wrapper on my knee. I crumpled it up, used my fingers to push it into the palm of my hand.

“Part of my family came from Italy,” I said. “Guarnieri.” Though I was usually annoyed by it, in that moment I was glad for this remnant of my first marriage—an Italian last name. Different from the one my Italian ancestors on my mother’s side had carried, but Italian nonetheless.

“Now I have a question for you,” I said. “My husband will be spending part of the week with me. Is that okay?”

Some Palestinian landlords forbid female renters from having men over—it was best to check in advance. My partner and I had also decided to say that we were married as few people date openly in Palestine.

“Is he really your husband?” my landlady asked. “Or your boyfriend?”

“Well, we’re planning to get married,” I answered, mentally adding to the end of the sentence: if his family will approve.

“So he’s your boyfriend.”

“Yes,” I said, in Arabic.

“How many boyfriends do you have?”

Both the feminist and the old-fashioned lady who live uncomfortably together inside of me balked at the question. But I knew that I had to answer it. “Just one,” I said.

“Some of these foreign women have a different man coming over every day,” my landlady said, shaking her head. “I can’t have that here. The neighbors will talk. But if it’s just one boyfriend—and your relationship is serious—ahlan wa sahlan.”

Welcome. I’d passed the interview. The place was mine if I wanted it and provided I would stay for at least a year. Could I promise her that? How long had I been here? What was my visa situation?

I told my landlady that I’d just signed a two-year contract at the university and that I wasn’t too concerned about the bureaucratic issues.

“The Jews don’t like foreigners, you know. Four, five years and no more visa,” she wiped one palm with the other. “You’re done.”

I nodded.

“How long have you been in Palestine?”

“Over six years,” I answered, wishing I were a better liar, rushing to add that I’d been working as a journalist.

That seemed to satisfy her curiosity. But, in the months that followed, she would put things together. And later, during the 2014 war—after we’d lived in the same house for almost a year, after a visitor mistook us for mother and daughter, remarking on our similar features and frame and coloring, and after we’d felt our shared home shake when rockets hit the earth—my landlady would come into my apartment and ask: “You’re Jewish?”

***

My daily commute from Bethlehem to Abu Dis meant that I had to pass through a checkpoint referred to as “the container.” Deep in the West Bank, it is one of many internal checkpoints that divide one Palestinian area from another, contradicting the Israeli argument that the checkpoints are about security. They’re about crowd control and the container offers a prime example: it stands in the middle of the only road that links Ramallah to Bethlehem, or the center of the West Bank to the south. If the army closes the container—and it does on rare occasions, like during Israel’s 2012 attack on Gaza—it effectively cuts the West Bank into two, separating the south from the central West Bank.

Checkpoints also make the occupation more efficient. A relatively small number of soldiers can control a large population when that population is being slowed down, funneled through checkpoints, and surrounded momentarily by guns. Because once you’re through, you don’t forget about what’s behind you.

Israeli soldiers man an ‘internal checkpoint’ separating Palestinian cities, West Bank. (Activestills.org)

Israeli soldiers man an ‘internal checkpoint’ separating Palestinian cities, West Bank. (Activestills.org)

You carry the images with you: the guns, the sight of the olive green uniforms, the sound of tires bouncing over spikes. They’re like the kind of spikes you find in a parking garage that you wouldn’t pay any mind to as you rolled over them but here, you feel them—ca-duk, ca-duk—the sharp sound of metal on metal, like a gun being cocked, like a lock being turned around you. From your seat you imagine their sharp metal teeth behind you and underneath you, and you know that there is no throwing the car into reverse and going back to that open stretch of road. You’re locked inside the checkpoint now and you’re surrounded.

You carry the images with you: the night you were in a service taxi and you saw a human being hogtied and blindfolded on the shoulder of a road, surrounded by soldiers, his car idling empty nearby, the driver’s door still open. The sounds of gasps rippling through the service taxi.

The checkpoint was so off-limits to Israelis that there wasn’t even a sign saying it was off-limits.

Even once you’ve passed, you feel like you’re always surrounded by guns and gasps. The sights and sounds might come back to you at any time, for no good reason. You could be having lunch with a colleague, you could be helping a student with the rough draft of her essay, you could even be laughing, and suddenly you hear the ca-duk, ca-duk of tires rolling over the spikes, you hear the gasps. You see arms stretched behind a back, hands bound, a blindfold.

No need to send more soldiers to the West Bank when they live deep in everyone’s subconscious.

***

I came to find internal checkpoints much more frightening than the one I’d passed when I lived in Jerusalem for another simple reason: in the West Bank, anything could happen. Anywhere. At any time. Especially at the checkpoints.

I knew this intellectually before I moved to Bethlehem. But I didn’t understand it fully—with my insides, in my heart and in my gut—until one hot afternoon at the tail end of summer.

I was headed to Ramallah to attend a former student’s wedding. I shouldn’t have been going. I’d been sick for over a week with a horrible stomach flu. I couldn’t keep anything in my system and had survived the past 10 days on little more than chicken broth, pita, and water. Eating sent my digestive system into spasms, causing excruciating pain. Drinking wasn’t much better.

I shouldn’t have been going, but this was no ordinary student. She was one of my smartest, most hardworking, and most moral. She was at once opinionated and open-minded. She was also unswerving in her faith, not in a dogmatic way but in a spiritual sense. Her total trust in God gave her the serenity and self-confidence of the enlightened.

Even though she was only 19 years old, I looked to this former student as a role model. When she hand-delivered an invitation to her wedding, I was so touched and honored to be invited that tears came to my eyes. I’d told her I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

She’d emailed in the days before the wedding to strategize about how to get her conservative family to allow my partner, Mohammad, to accompany me. It wasn’t acceptable to bring a boyfriend to the wedding. There was no dating in the West Bank. And she couldn’t tell them that we were married. She would have to say that we were engaged.

Is that okay? She wrote.

Mohammad and I decided it was.

I’m so happy you’ll be a part of my special day! She responded.

Sick or not, I intended to honor my word.

Already exhausted and dehydrated, I’d deliberately dehydrated myself a little more for the service ride to Ramallah. Otherwise, I ran the risk of having a bout of diarrhea on the way. I figured I’d catch up on my fluids once I got to the wedding, where there would also be a bathroom.

You carry the images with you — the night you saw a human being hogtied and blindfolded on the shoulder of the road.

It wasn’t appropriate to ride public transportation in an evening gown and high heels so I put my dress and shoes in a shopping bag and placed it by the front door. Despite my condition and the searing heat—the last gasp of summer—I dressed for the West Bank. Donning long sleeves and jeans, I headed to the bus station.

My head was already throbbing by the time the service taxi rounded the last curve above Wadi Nar and approached the container. Even though the soldiers usually waved the services through or ignored them altogether, I was nervous. If they checked IDs, I could be arrested. The container was so off-limits to Israelis—that is, Israelis other than the soldiers that manned the checkpoint—that there wasn’t even a sign saying that it was off-limits.

An arrest would threaten the life I’d built in the territories. And I certainly wouldn’t be able to make it to the wedding if I was detained.

A Palestinian service taxi passes through an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

A Palestinian service taxi passes through an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

But the soldiers didn’t even look when we entered the checkpoint. We rolled through the container. As the service taxi bounced over the second set of spikes, ca-duk, ca-duk, I relaxed—enough to realize that I’d left the bag with my dress and shoes by the front door.

I couldn’t go to the wedding dressed in jeans. But going back to Bethlehem meant that I would be late. And I was sick. I wasn’t sure my body could handle the additional time on the road. Meanwhile, the service taxi was moving, taking me further and further away from Bethlehem and my dress.

Unsure of what to do, I texted Mohammad who confirmed what I already knew—I had to go back for my clothes.

I cursed aloud then explained in Arabic, “I forgot something, my dress, at home. I have to go back to Bethlehem.”

The driver stuck his arm out the window and flagged down a van headed our way. It wasn’t a standard service taxi. It wasn’t yellow, with the registration and the driver’s information posted inside the vehicle but, rather, an old, unmarked white van, a gypsy cab. These are common in the territories, where there aren’t enough service taxis to provide for everyone’s transportation needs. The unregistered, uninsured vans are also a symptom of the West Bank’s depressed economy. The unemployment rate hovers around 20 percent; van drivers are trying to eke out a living.

Palestinian workers enter an unlicensed service taxi in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

Palestinian workers enter an unlicensed service taxi in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

I was in luck—the van was indeed headed to Bethlehem. I got out of the service taxi, the driver telling me “ma salaama,” go in peace, and boarded the van. It roared through the village with the windows down, music blasting. I was the only woman in the van and the men, who all seemed to know each other, made shouted conversation over the noise.

As we neared the container, the men stopped talking and the driver turned the music down. The van slowed. We were all silent, as though we were holding our breath. The tires rumbled over the first set of spikes. Ca-duk, ca-duk.

We were inside the checkpoint again, the same one I’d gone through just a few minutes earlier. But now we were being pulled over. How can this be? I wondered. I was just here and the soldiers weren’t checking anyone.

It was arbitrary. And that’s one of the most fearsome, unsettling aspects of the occupation—the arbitrariness of everything.

When the van stopped, a soldier opened the door and sized everyone up.

“Min wen?” From where? He asked the driver in Arabic.

“Abu Dis.”

“A wen?” To where?

“Bethlehem.”

The soldier asked, in Arabic, for IDs. I didn’t bother taking mine out—every other time soldiers had asked for IDs at the container, they’d only wanted the men’s. Sometimes they said “shebab” (young men) only; most of the time they didn’t bother to specify as it was understood that they weren’t concerned about the women. Sexism usually worked to my advantage at the checkpoints.

The man nearest the door collected the IDs from the other passengers and handed them over. The soldier flipped one open and then put it in the bottom of the pile. Again.

He was halfway through the stack when he said, in Hebrew, “You, too.”

“Me?” I asked, in English. I wasn’t playing dumb American—I didn’t know if the soldier was, indeed, talking to me. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the IDs.

“Ken,” yes, he said. Again, without looking up.

As I opened the front pocket of my black leather backpack, I noticed that my hands were shaking. Worried that this would make the soldier suspicious, I willed them still as I pulled my passport out and handed the document over.

He flipped to the page with my name and photo.

I prayed he wouldn’t look any further than that.

He didn’t. He closed the passport and returned it to me. I relaxed, thinking that I’d passed the test and that, when the soldier finished looking at the other IDs, he’d hand them back and we’d be on our way. Instead, he held the stack.

“Close your windows,” he said. He shut the door and walked away, towards the booth and the shade, where several other soldiers stood.

The driver rolled up his window and the passengers shut theirs, as well. I did, too. The sun beat down on the van. The air thickened around us, smothering me. I retched, my stomach clutching at nothing and bringing up nothing. The throbbing in my head intensified. I needed water, air, shade.

Years before, in Florida, I’d once had a heat stroke when I’d exercised too much during the wrong time of day and I was certain I would have one now if we didn’t move soon or at least roll down the windows. I realized that, if I did have a heat stroke, the soldiers were unlikely to call an ambulance. If they did, it would take a long time to get to the checkpoint and then to a hospital. And, in the meantime, I would still be in the heat.

The thought came to me: I could die here, in this van. I laughed aloud. The stupidity of it all—to be going anywhere in this state, with this flu, that I’d intentionally dehydrated myself even more, that I’d forgotten my dress, that I was in the middle of the West Bank at a checkpoint manned by soldiers of a country that didn’t exist 100 years ago. What a ridiculous way to go, I thought.

I laughed until I gagged and then I retched until there was bile in the back of my throat. I swallowed it back down. From the closed window, I could see a water cooler and plastic cups on the soldiers’ shaded benches. I got out of the van and asked, in English, if I could have some water.

“You can have a little if you have a cup,” the soldier said, in Hebrew.

“Of course I don’t have a cup,” I argued, switching to his language. “Please. I’m sick and I’m going to be very sick if I don’t drink something.”

“Find a cup,” he insisted.

“It’s not possible.” I stood there. Even if they wouldn’t give me water, at least out here I had air and could cool off a bit.

“Get into the van,” the soldier ordered me.

“But—”

He jerked his rifle towards the van. “Go!”

I went. I climbed in, closed the door. I sat and asked my companions, in Arabic, if anyone had a cup. No one did.

“I need to drink something. I’m sick and it’s very hot and my head hurts and I think I will die.” The sentence was overly dramatic because my vocabulary was limited—I didn’t know how to say “dehydrated” or “heat stroke” in Arabic. Still, the driver turned around and looked at me. How did I appear? Pale or flushed? Was my face sunken? The bags under my eyes black?

Whatever the driver saw, it was enough to make him get out of the van and argue with the soldier until he managed to secure me a cup of water. He got back into the service and handed it to me. I choked back tears as I thanked him and thanked him and thanked him. I sipped the cup of water slowly for fear that I would vomit if I drank too fast.

Forty-five excruciating minutes passed. A soldier approached the van. He opened the door and tossed the men’s IDs in. He didn’t say a word. None of us said a word. The driver started the engine and, as the van began to roll and we bounced over the next set of spikes, we all opened the windows.

And just like that, we were moving again, and I was gulping the air.

***

When we arrived in Bethlehem, I tried to pay the driver. He refused to take my money. He called me an “angel” and explained that he and the other men were certain that things would have been worse at the container if I hadn’t been with them. As though making us sit inside a closed van in the heat for an hour hadn’t been enough. As though exhausting us and stealing our time hadn’t been enough.

I tried to run home but couldn’t—my head hurt worse with every step. I moved as fast as I could while trying to keep my head as still as possible. I went inside, got sick in the bathroom, grabbed the bag, and headed back to the bus station where I boarded another Ramallah-bound service.

I looked for some sort of sign or evidence that we’d been there, that something horrible had just happened to us.

The container again. The soldiers didn’t even look at the service. I knew it was irrational, but I stared out the window at the spot where the van had just sat for nearly an hour, baking in the heat. I looked for some sort of sign or evidence that we’d been there, that we’d been held for no reason, that something horrible and inhumane had just happened to us.

But there was nothing. It was like we’d never been there. I realized that the people who had come through the container after we’d left would have no idea that we’d been forced, on a soldier’s whim, to sit in a van with the windows rolled up. All of the checkpoints, I realized, were littered with the invisible remnants of others’ stories.

Several months later, a Palestinian from Hebron—Anas al-Atrash—would be shot and killed at the container. In the days that followed, when I would go through the checkpoint, I would look for some sort of trace of the incident, a mark upon the land, some sort of change, a sign that the earth had absorbed a human being’s blood, that the occupation had taken another life. Right here.

But there was nothing. Just soldiers waving service taxis through, ignoring them altogether or stopping drivers and searching cars. Business as usual. Ca-duk, ca-duk.

***

Ramallah at last. I couldn’t feel my legs as I propelled myself toward Mohammad’s office, walking as fast I could without running. I felt weak, my body diminished, my head heavy and bobbing with each step. I gripped the shopping bag and focused on the way the paper felt in my hand and the crinkling sound it made when I moved my fingers. I didn’t hear the traffic or the vendors or the conversations on the street.

We were late to the wedding. I spent much of the reception in the bathroom, sick. But when it was time for all of the guests to put their gifts of gold jewelry on the bride and to pose with her and the groom for a picture, I pulled it together.

I didn’t have gold with me but, rather, cash. At every wedding I’d attended in Israel, there’d been envelopes and a box. I searched for one now and was surprised that couldn’t find it at this posh reception in one of Ramallah’s nicest hotels. I realized how out of place I was here in the West Bank. Sure, I might have Palestinian friends and a Palestinian boyfriend and a job at a Palestinian university. I might speak a little Arabic and soldiers might occasionally mistake me for an Arab at a checkpoint. But I would never be Palestinian and I would never really belong here.

We mounted the stairs to the small stage the bride and groom sat on. I leaned in toward the bride, handed her the rumbled wad of cash, and apologized for being so late. “I forgot my dress. And then there was a problem at the checkpoint,” I said.

She nodded.

I put my arm around her and whispered my love and congratulations. Mohammad stood next to the groom. We all smiled for the photographer.

As Mohammad and I got off the stage and took our seats at one of the round tables, I imagined what that photo would look like. I thought of how strange it would look next to an image of the van at the container, how strange that I could be suffocating and retching at a checkpoint one moment and then smiling at a wedding just hours later.

My life felt at once raw and real and removed from reality. My head swam as I tried to make sense of it all. I shouldn’t have touched Mohammad in public, but I took his hand and squeezed it to remind myself that this—us—was the biggest reason I was in the West Bank. And that our love couldn’t survive with a wall between us.

But could it survive like this?

Later my former student wrote to me: So, are you sure that you and Mohammad will get married? Because many men asked my family about you after the wedding…

[Top photo: A view of olive trees and a stone home near Bethlehem. By: Mariait/Shutterstock.com]

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The long road to Bethlehem http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem/104862/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem/104862/#comments Sat, 28 Mar 2015 12:38:54 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=104862 It wasn’t the soaring arches or the elegant windows, with their curved caps. It wasn’t that the first room of the house was built in 1808. It wasn’t the jasmine that, like a woman letting down her hair, released its heavy perfume at night. It wasn’t the olive, loquat, lemon, almond, and apricot trees that filled the garden. Nor was it that the fruit from that garden seemed sweeter here in Bethlehem than it was in Jerusalem.

The apartment’s biggest selling point, in my landlady’s opinion?

The well.

She showed it to me the first time I saw the place, before I’d decided to rent the apartment. The well was hidden behind a curtain in the kitchen. She pushed the fabric back, revealing a deep recess in the wall. Inside the nook stood a pump and, on the floor, a large stone with a wrought iron handle. My landlady, who was in her seventies, gave the handle a tug. The rock lifted. There was a clunk as she placed it on the kitchen floor.

My landlady got on her knees and peered into the hole, a spot of night surrounded by chiseled white.

“See?” she tapped my calf, signaling that I should get on the floor, too. I obliged her.

I peered into the well. I didn’t see anything. But I could smell the collected rainwater below us.

My landlady put her hands on my back and pushed herself up. As she brushed the dirt off her knees, she explained to me that, if I were to take the apartment, we would share the well. And while our neighbors’ taps would run dry—as they always do here, eventually—we would never go without.

A view of Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

A view of Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

I remembered a long, waterless weekend I’d spent in Bethlehem in 2010. An American friend who lived and worked there had invited me to come celebrate his birthday. I was living in Tel Aviv then and had only been to Bethlehem once before, to work on an article for The National. The photographer who’d been assigned to the story also had Israeli citizenship. Unlike me, however, he had a car. That day, we’d left the Bethlehem area via the settler checkpoint outside the tunnels—a checkpoint we should have breezed through as two Jews riding in a yellow-plated vehicle. But the female soldier stopped us and asked for my ID. Nervous about the fact that I’d been in Bethlehem, which is off-limits to Jews who hold Israeli IDs, I gave the solider my American passport. She rifled through it looking for my visa. When she didn’t find it, she rolled her eyes at me, sighed, and asked me in Hebrew, “Where is your identity card?”

The photographer and I talked our way out of trouble. But I was rattled by the experience and feared that I’d be arrested the next time I was caught. Still, when my American friend asked me to come out to the West Bank for his birthday, I said yes. I told myself that I didn’t need to think too far ahead—I’d worry about leaving when it was time to leave.

When I got there, I found my friend’s house filthy; his kitchen sink overflowing with dirty dishes. “The water’s out,” he explained. He showed me how we could flush the toilet and brush our teeth using the water he’d saved in plastic bottles ahead of time. I would learn later that other friends keep buckets in their showers to collect the grey water. Because this is what you do in the West Bank, where you’re always waiting for the taps to go dry, where the Jewish settlements you can see from your window or that you pass on the road—the nice, neat, clean settlements that are locked away behind fences and surrounded by security—have green lawns and full swimming pools.

Despite the water shortage, what was supposed to be an overnight trip to Bethlehem turned into three nights of sleeping on my friend’s couch. Every time I thought about leaving, I remembered my confrontation with the female soldier. There are checkpoints on every side of Bethlehem: how could I get out of here without getting caught? And this time I was without a car: wouldn’t it be even more difficult on public transportation? Because I’d be coming out of a Palestinian area, I’d be on a Palestinian bus. And while settlers’ buses just roll through the checkpoints, Palestinian buses are always stopped, passengers IDs are always checked.

The ‘Tunnels’ checkpoint near Bethlehem. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The ‘Tunnels’ checkpoint near Bethlehem. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

I couldn’t figure it out, and I dreaded the soldiers, so I just stayed. And stayed. I joked with my American friend that it would be easier for me to go to Jordan and take a flight from Amman to Tel Aviv than it would be to just take the bus home.

Finally, on the fourth day, I realized that I couldn’t just wait out the occupation. The checkpoints and soldiers weren’t going to disappear. And I needed to take a shower. I had to get back to Tel Aviv somehow.

When I left my friend’s apartment that day, I had no idea how I’d get home. Nor did I know that Bethlehem would soon be my home; that I’d end up moving here less than three years later, into a house—a house with a well—owned by refugees from Jaffa.

***

It happened in steps. First I left Tel Aviv and moved to Jerusalem. Comfortable enough in Hebrew, I started studying Arabic. I began writing less about migrant workers and African refugees—my old south Tel Aviv beat—and more about the occupation. I started teaching at a university in the West Bank.

The commute from my apartment in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel was long, sometimes taking as much as two hours door to door. First I’d walk to the light rail. Then I would take the light rail to Damascus Gate, get down, and walk to the Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem. The territories aren’t just under occupation, they’re also under separation—separation from each other, separation from the Jews. After waiting for the segregated bus to fill, I would ride it to Abu Dis.

I wept — out of shame for the things I said; because I meant them in the moment; because I didn’t mean them now.

To arrive on time for my 8 a.m. class, I had to wake up at five and leave the house around 5:30. I needed the half-hour cushion for delays, like when the light rail was stopped because somebody reported a suspicious package. It was during Israel’s 2012 pummeling of Gaza, “Operation Pillar of Defense.” With the light rail at a standstill and time racing ahead, I had no choice but to hail a taxi.

I got in and told the driver that I was going to Damascus Gate.

Shaar Shkhem?” He repeated in Hebrew, sounding surprised.

“Yes.”

He glanced at me in the rearview mirror, giving me a weary look, sizing me up. I worried that he might refuse the ride. Once, on my way from Ben-Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv, a cab driver had threatened to dump me on the side of the highway when, in the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I wrote for Al Jazeera.

But the driver continued. As we neared the city center, however, he insisted on dropping me off there.

“No,” I pushed back. “I need to get to Damascus Gate.”

An Israeli Border Police officer stands guard above Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. The area often sees demonstrations and clashes between Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Israeli police. (Activestills.org)

An Israeli Border Police officer stands guard above Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. The area often sees demonstrations and clashes between Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Israeli police. (Activestills.org)

“But,” he began, “are you Jewish? Because, if you are, it’s not safe for you there. Especially not now.”

What, when we’re pummeling Gaza for no good reason? I thought. Instead, I just said, “It’s fine. I’m safe.”

The driver argued that I was putting myself at risk. He asked why I was getting out at Damascus Gate anyways.

I explained that I worked in the West Bank.

And thus began the political conversation I’d been trying to avoid. Because I knew where the discussion would go. Because it was early in the morning and I’d already read the bad news coming out of Gaza and because I’d dealt with the light rail stopping because of a suspicious package. Because I just wanted to get to work.

Things went exactly where I expected them to, with the cab driver telling me that Operation Pillar of Defense was necessary, that the Palestinians were getting what they deserved, that we needed to obliterate Gaza and re-occupy it.

A face flashed before my mind’s eye: one of my favorite students. Born and raised in a refugee camp near Hebron, she was hardworking, curious, sensitive, gentle, compassionate, and smart. Kind. Open-minded. Non-judgmental. In Arabic, she would be described as having a “white heart.” This student was in my Monday/Wednesday eight a.m. class and on those mornings, she was the reason I got out of bed at five. Knowing she would be there in Abu Dis, waiting for me, was what got me moving.

And the cab driver thought the Palestinians were getting what they deserved. Did my beloved student—did any of my students—deserve this?

I didn’t realize I was speaking until I heard my voice. I was shrieking at the driver, cursing him, ya ben zona, you son of a bitch, wishing death—“No, not just death. Death full of pain”—upon him and all of his family.

“You and all of your family!” I repeated as I hurled the cab fare at him and exploded out of the taxi. I turned my back to the street and faced the Old City so he wouldn’t be able to see my face as he rounded the traffic circle and headed back toward West Jerusalem.

I wept.

Out of shame for the horrible things I’d said to him; because I’d meant them in the moment; because I didn’t mean them now, because I wanted to take them back; because I knew my favorite student would never wish death on anyone, because she would be disappointed in me, because she would no longer look up to me. Because I was disappointed in myself, because I was disappointed in the cab driver, a fellow Jew, because I was disappointed in the Jewish state.

I cried for the driver and the hatred he lugged around, for the life he was trapped in. Because he was brainwashed by the state that kept him poor, by the government that pitted him against Palestinian workers and stoked the flames of racism.

I cried for Gaza.

And then, with my 8 a.m. class drawing ever closer and my student waiting for me there in Abu Dis—her face round and innocent and full of expectations and hope, even in the middle of a war, even though her brother, in a matter of months, would be detained by the same army that had already arrested so many of her uncles and cousins—I pulled myself together and continued on my way.

On my way to the Palestinian bus station, I stopped to buy a tea from a street vendor. He saw my puffy eyes and noticed me wiping my nose with the back of my hand like a child. “What happened?” he asked me in Arabic. I told him that I was upset about what Israel was doing to Gaza.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Hezbollah will join the war soon, inshallah.”

I would have burst into tears again if I’d had any left.

***

There was another reason I headed out from my apartment in Kiryat Yovel at 5:30 a.m.: I needed the half-hour cushion because the Palestinian buses don’t run according to a schedule; they only leave the station when they are full. Another reminder of Israeli privilege. You can count on Jewish buses, the green Egged buses, which are subsidized by the state. In general, you can plan around the Egged buses, you can arrive on time. These little things end up making an impact on bigger things, like morale and productivity and the economy.

Passengers board a bus to Ramallah at the Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem. (Photo: Anthony Baratier/CC)

Passengers board a bus to Ramallah at the Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem. (Photo: Anthony Baratier/CC)

But it wasn’t just the five a.m. wake-up and the two hour commute that wore me out. It was also what happened during the trip. Leaving East Jerusalem, the bus would roll through the checkpoint like all the other cars entering the West Bank. Coming back in to the city, however, the Palestinian buses were singled out and pulled over. The Egged buses full of Jewish Israelis headed to and from settlements—which are illegal according to international law—were free to pass.

(Stop and think about this for a second: the settlers, the people whose presence is illegal in the territories, are free to leave the West Bank and enter Jerusalem as they wish while the Palestinians are treated like criminals. Under occupation, everything is hafuch al hafuch al hafuch—the reverse of the inverse of the reverse. Down is up and up is down and down is up. And as you struggle to make sense of it all—as you try to figure out which way is indeed up and which is down and if it even matters anymore—everything starts to seem senseless all over again.)

Coming from Abu Dis, a Palestinian area, meant that I was on a Palestinian bus. As other cars and Egged buses drove through the checkpoint, our bus would ease over to the side and slow to a stop. The driver would open the door. Everyone would get off and file into a walkway lined with chicken wire—what can only be described as a cattle chute. A soldier would stand at the front, between us and the now-empty bus. One by one, we would present him with our IDs so we could get back on the bus and continue to Jerusalem.

Because it was going directly to and from the university, almost all of the passengers on my bus were students, professors, or other administrative staff. Almost all were East Jerusalemites, meaning that they held an Israeli ID card that, from more than a foot away, looked nearly identical to mine. So, most of the time, nothing looked amiss to the soldiers. They see what they want to see—or what they expect to see. And because I’d gotten off a Palestinian bus and was surrounded by Palestinians and because I was holding up a blue ID, just like everyone else, and maybe because I look ambiguously ethnic, they waved me through, assuming that I, too, was Palestinian.

But every once in a while, the difference in my ID would catch a soldier’s eye. The reaction was the same every time. First, a double take. Second, they’d take my ID out of my hand. Next: a long look at the ID, a glance at me, back to the ID.

And then the question, sometimes whispered, sometimes barked. Sometimes asked in awe, sometimes anger.

Mah at osah po? What are you doing here?

I work at the university in Abu Dis, I’d answer in Hebrew.

The awe or anger invariably gave way to disbelief as they asked: Mah at osah sham? What do you do there?

I teach there.

Sometimes that was it and I was free to get back on the bus. Sometimes the soldier would call a second soldier and they’d puzzle over my ID together and ask me more questions, questions designed to ask without asking. Where do you live? Which neighborhood? How long have you lived there? Where did you live before that?

But sometimes they would just ask: are you Jewish?

On more than one occasion, I had to explain to the soldier that, yes, it’s legal for me to be in Abu Dis and it’s legal for me to be on this bus. Irritated, I also pointed out the irony that I, a civilian, was explaining the laws to him, the soldier. If anyone should know the laws here, it’s him, not me, right?

Another time, a concerned girl soldier took me aside to ask me if everything was okay, if I was safe, had I been hurt?

On more than one occasion, I had to explain to the soldier that, yes, it’s legal for me to be on this bus.

Once, a soldier didn’t believe that I was, indeed, the person in the ID. He thought I was using someone else’s to try to sneak into Jerusalem and he asked me to produce another form of identification with a picture. I had not yet bothered to get an Israeli driver’s license—I didn’t have a car—so I gave him my old Florida driver’s license. He was skeptical about that ID, too: At b’emet mi’Florida? You’re really from Florida? Asked as though I don’t speak Hebrew with a heavy American accent.

I started to panic. A Kafkaesque scenario flashed before my eyes—what if I can never prove to him that I’m me? What if he locks me up and no one believes that I’m me? And I’m arbitrarily detained forever?

I realized, of course, that my fears were absurd. But the occupation is an absurdity. Hafuch al hafuch al hafuch.

As was the soldiers’ inability to wrap their heads around my presence at the checkpoint. Was it that hard for them to believe that a Jew worked at a Palestinian university? That a Jew could ride a Palestinian bus? And that I could do all these things without being harmed?

Every trip through the checkpoint—whether I was waved through or whether I had trouble with the soldiers—was distressing. I was upset, of course, at the checkpoint’s mere presence and all that it implied for Palestinians’ human rights and freedom of movement (or, rather, the lack thereof). The checkpoint was a reminder of segregation, of people’s inability to reach their friends, family, work, schools, and medical care.

And then there was my reaction to the soldiers who manned the checkpoint. I would see a Star of David dangling from a soldier’s neck and remember the chai necklace that my mother made me wear when I was a child. The thought would pop into my head: these are my people.

No. I would push back. These are not my people.

Who are my people?

***

After a semester of commuting, I was exhausted, so I took a room in Abu Dis. I’d spend the weekdays there and head back to Jerusalem for the weekend. I thought this would simplify my life. I quickly found out that it would just make things more complicated.

I realized this one bright spring morning, after I’d lived in Abu Dis for a few months. I’d just finished teaching my eight a.m. class and was headed to the hummus joint 100 meters or so from the university when a line of Israeli army jeeps came roaring up the street. They looked absurdly out of place: the ugly military green clashed with the stone buildings rendered warm and mellow by the rising sun. Their boxy shape was an affront to the rolling hills and soft edges of the olive trees that shimmered silver in the wind; their uniformity strange before the patchwork of stores and restaurants and houses, before the colorful blankets and rugs that housewives hung from their balconies. Even the jeeps’ sound didn’t fit the place, the engines drowning out the village’s morning murmurings of sabah al-kheir and sabah al-noor and Fairuz’s songs drifting from an open window and the birds’ gossipy chatter.

Entering Abu Dis, which lies beyond the wall, is a provocation in and of itself. It’s a reminder that the occupier is always near. And when he isn’t near, he’s inside: inside your village, raiding your house, demolishing your home, arresting your children, shooting unarmed civilians to death, confiscating your land for settlements, manning the checkpoints that rob you of your time and dignity. But first, before the occupier gets out of the jeep and does any of that, he drives.

The separation barrier isn’t just about keeping ‘them,’ the Palestinians, out. It’s also to keep ‘us,’ the Jews, ‘in.’

He drives up the street, the street I walk down every day. The one that leads to the produce shop where I buy my fruit and vegetables and the stand that sells olives from the neighboring village, the market where I buy fresh shrak and labaneh and eggs and meat. The street that takes me to another road that takes me home, to the place where I cook and eat and laugh, where I sleep at night, where I wake in the morning to hear birds chirping outside my window. My friend and her husband and her three kids don’t live off this street but they live in that house over there, that house where in the winter, during the rain, I leave my wet boots by the door and she gives me a pair of nice, clean socks and after lunch I help her with the dishes as though I’m not a guest but part of her family, and I speak broken Arabic with her three children. The house where—when I’ve already been there for four hours and I need to get home—my friend says badri, badri, telling me it’s too early for me to go. Stay, stay. Haliki, haliki, ya Mya.

This is the street where, when I walk alone, colleagues and acquaintances stop to offer me a ride home. They know that I’m Jewish; they know that I have an Israeli ID. One sees a parallel to his own life—he’s really PFLP, he confides in me, but pretends to be Fatah so he can keep his job at the university. This is the street where we keep each other’s secrets. This is the street that keeps me safe.

And with the jeeps headed straight toward us, the street moved as one. The boys around me picked up rocks. I didn’t think, my body mimicked those around me.

I bent over and reached for a stone.

Wait, wait! a voice inside of me said in Hebrew. I saw them in my mind’s eye: the baby-faced boys in the jeeps, child-soldiers who had started learning about the Holocaust in preschool, who believed that Palestinians pose a mortal threat, human beings who had been brainwashed and believed that they were doing something good for am hayehudi, the Jewish people.

My people.

No, no, I argued with myself. These are not my people.

The spell was broken. I was no longer moving with the street. Feeling something heavy in my hand, I looked down and was shocked to see that I was holding a rock. I dropped it just as the boys around me began to pelt the jeeps with stones and the soldiers began to fire tear gas.

The jeeps stopped and the soldiers got out, guns in hand. I heard a pop I recognized from protests—rubber-coated bullets. Caught between rocks and guns, I ducked and looked for a way out of the mess. A store owner who’d come outside to close his steel shutters waved at me. He pointed at a line of parked cars and then himself. I understood. I should get behind the cars, run alongside them and then into the store.

I did and I was safe. But the moment I bent over and picked up a stone was something that I would return to over and over in my head—how I’d lost myself in my surroundings, how confused I’d felt when I thought of the soldiers, how I felt at once connected to them and the village. How mortified I’d felt when I looked down and found a rock in my hand.

A Palestinian youth is caught in clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian stone throwers. (Activestills.org)

A Palestinian youth is caught in clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian stone throwers. (Activestills.org)

***

Finding it increasingly difficult to relate to Jewish Israelis, even those who weren’t in uniform, I began dating a Palestinian journalist I’d met in Ramallah. He was a West Banker with a green ID. This meant that he wasn’t supposed to visit me in Jerusalem—where I spent most of my weekends—without an Israeli army issued permit.

But he came anyway. There are a number of places where the separation barrier isn’t finished, where there are gaps in the chain-link and barbed wire fence. One is within sight of a checkpoint; my partner arrived to that particular hole in one afternoon, on his way to Jerusalem to see me, only to find soldiers on the other side. They’d closed the fence and were admonishing the crowd of Palestinians that had gathered and were waiting to cross, tut-tutting them, warning that they’d better not even try it.

“Then the soldiers got in their jeep and drove away and one of the men took out some wire cutters,” my partner laughed as he recounted the story, using the air and his fingers to show me how the fellow had cut the fence and held it open.

The hole, my partner explained, leads to the checkpoint.

“Huh?”

“The parking lot,” he clarified. “I caught the Jerusalem bus from there. First they take the people who have come through the checkpoint with permits. Then they pick us up.”

“No way. Really?” I asked him, in Hebrew.

He answered in Hebrew in kind, ken, yes, and showed me the pictures he’d taken on his phone. There was the guard tower, just meters away. There was the group that had gathered as soldiers attempted to enforce the new closure in the fence; there was the fellow holding the hole open; there were men helping an elderly woman and a young lady through. The parking lot; the bus. I was struck again by the absurdity of it all. Hafuch al hafuch al hafuch.

That’s not to downplay Israeli-imposed restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement. It’s more to point out that if someone wants to slip into Israel without a permit, they can. In fact, approximately thirty thousand Palestinian workers do it every day. But, in doing so, they risk injury, arrest, and death. In July of 2012, a Palestinian day laborer was killed when soldiers opened fire on a car full of workers that tried to pass a checkpoint without permits.

Despite the danger, we managed to see a lot of each other. But it’s impossible to have a proper relationship—to unite, to become one—when there’s a wall dividing you, making certain that you remain two. Which is, of course, the point. The separation barrier isn’t just about keeping “them,” the Palestinians, out. It’s also to keep “us,” the Jews, “in.”

Moving to the West Bank started to make sense. Though I could be arrested if I was caught in the “wrong” area—that is, Area A, the pockets of the West Bank that Oslo largely put under Palestinian rule—the consequences were far less severe for me than they were for my partner. We thought it very unlikely that a Palestinian would hurt me; conversely, inside of Israel, Palestinians have been attacked in public places on numerous occasions.

The center of my life had—slowly, unintentionally—shifted to the area beyond the wall, to a place I called “outside.” It was natural that my body would follow.

***

In May of 2013, I made a trial move to Bethlehem, staying in a friend’s apartment while she was in Gaza researching a book. Still without a car, I left the city only once that month. Bethlehem is hemmed in by checkpoints—every road out leads, eventually, to a checkpoint, two of which are off-limits to me as a Jewish citizen of Israel.

There’s the one known as “300”—the massive complex of cement and spikes and barbed-wire and turnstiles and booths and bullet-proof glass and guns and bullet-proof vests and the child-soldiers who wear them—that stands between Bethlehem and its big sister, Jerusalem. Leaving Jerusalem and entering Bethlehem via 300 isn’t difficult for people like me: Jewish citizens of Israel who hold a second passport. If you’re driving through, you flash a smile and the outside of your foreign passport to the guard in the booth, who presses the button that lifts the arm ahead. And that’s it, despite the two signs outside of the checkpoint warning that it is illegal for Israelis to enter Area A and that doing so puts their lives in danger.

On foot, the soldiers don’t even look at you as you enter Bethlehem via 300—yet another reminder that the army isn’t there to protect the occupied, as it is obligated to do according to international law.

Palestinians enter the main checkpoint separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem. (Activestills.org)

Palestinians enter the main checkpoint separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem. (Activestills.org)

But turn around and try to enter Jerusalem—which the state considers “the eternal capital of the Jewish people”—and you’ll fast remember why the Israeli military is there. Those who are driving in have to pop the trunk of their car so that the soldiers can inspect whatever is inside. Those who pass on foot are subject to metal detectors and humiliating searches. A friend once saw soldiers ask an elderly woman to remove her shirt.

And, coming in to Jerusalem via 300, every ID is scrutinized.

I can’t chance it. I’m too likely to be arrested. So, via public transportation, there is only one other way to get in to Jerusalem: the Beit Jala bus. As the name suggests, the bus exits the Bethlehem area via Beit Jala, a Bethlehem suburb where, technically, Israelis are allowed to be. It then passes through Area C, using the same road that leads to the Har Homa settlement. When the bus arrives to the checkpoint outside of the tunnels that lead to Jerusalem, it’s pulled to the side. Meanwhile, the settlers roll on through.

And then it’s the same routine I knew from my Jerusalem-Abu Dis commute: everyone gets off, stands in line, presents their ID to a soldier, and then gets back on the bus that continues to Jerusalem.

While, technically, I was allowed to be at that checkpoint, being on the Beit Jala bus could arouse some suspicion because the line begins in Area A. But because Palestinian buses will stop to pick up people on the side of the road—a bit like taxis—I could have, in theory, boarded in Areas C or B. I’d memorized the names of restaurants and businesses that were on the strip of the road that was in Area C so, if need be, I could say I’d been somewhere legit. But I hate lying. And I’m such a terrible liar that I was once detained at the Qalandia checkpoint for answering the question “where are you coming from?” honestly: Ramallah.

The easiest way out of Bethlehem, for a Jewish citizen of Israel, was via a yellow-plate (Israeli) car. But because I was carless in May of 2013, I only left Bethlehem once. I didn’t move for the rest of the month. And it was fine. So fine that I ended up subleasing another apartment in Bethlehem in August. And that was fine, too. So I looked for something a little more permanent—a search that would lead me to the house with the well.

Click here to read part two.

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Does Israel have a place in Jewish identity? http://972mag.com/does-israel-have-a-place-in-jewish-identity/99450/ http://972mag.com/does-israel-have-a-place-in-jewish-identity/99450/#comments Mon, 01 Dec 2014 17:53:17 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=99450 The proposed ‘Nation-State Law’ and a wave of violence point to the urgency of questioning Israel’s place in Jewish identity. Shlomo Sand’s latest book, ‘How I Stopped Being a Jew,’ offers a starting point for such a discussion.

Illustrative photo of a man wearing an Israeli flag at the Western Wall. (By Shutterstock.com / Robert Hoetink)

Illustrative photo of a man wearing an Israeli flag at the Western Wall. (By Shutterstock.com / Robert Hoetink)

When I left Palestine this summer, I was relieved to leave the Israeli flag behind. No more blue and white snapping at everyone who passes military checkpoints. No more Star of David standing high over the army bases. Saying goodbye to the Israeli flag, or so I thought, would also mean an end to my ambivalence about it.

Upon seeing the flag, there was always a moment of recognition, familiarity. After all, it bears the Star of David and I grew up with this symbol in my home. I grew up with it dangling from my neck in the form of the Hebrew pendant — passed down from my great-grandmother — that my mother made me wear when I was a child.

But the same thing that would bring me a split second of comfort would enrage me. How dare Zionism appropriate my religion and my culture and my family and the Hebrew language? The language is not theirs alone. It also belonged to another one of my great-grandmothers, who lived in Eastern Europe and recorded all of the family’s deaths and births — not in Yiddish but in poetic Hebrew. (The sentences that noted a death, including those of her own children, begin, “I’m crying, I’m crying, the tears drip from my face”; births start with, “Luck, luck! Happiness and luck.”) She marked all these events on a piece of paper that she folded and carried to the New World with her, Hebrew pressed to her bosom as she crossed an ocean. The language belonged to her, it belonged to all of us.

How dare Zionism put the Star of David — which existed long before it and which will outlast its project — on their flag? How dare it, under the false pretense of ensuring the safety of my people, occupy another?

Not only has Zionism occupied Palestine, it has occupied Jewish identity.

Shlomo Sand’s latest book, How I Stopped Being a Jew, could be understood as a reaction to both of those occupations.

Sand, an Israeli professor at Tel Aviv University, is a historian and the author of The Invention of the Jewish People. In How I Stopped Being a Jew, which is not nearly as narrative or personal as the title suggests, Sand notes a number of moments that made him question his secular Jewish identity as well as the privilege that comes with that identity. Two particular experiences stand out.

The first: his daughter’s thoughtful and difficult questions about a Jewish holiday that celebrates, among other things, the death of non-Jews and Sand’s struggle to answer her.

The second: witnessing discrimination at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. As Sand breezes through security, he sees a Palestinian citizen of Israel sidelined; as a non-Jew, she is automatically suspect.

In the pages that follow this recollection, Sand writes: “What is the meaning, then, of being ‘Jewish’ in the State of Israel? There is no doubt about it: being Jewish in Israel means, first and foremost, being a privileged citizen who enjoys prerogatives refused to those who are not Jews, and particularly those who are Arabs.”

This seems to be the heart of the book; it’s also an apt description of the conflict. But it doesn’t come until Chapter 10. Rather than using his personal experiences to tease out the inherent contradiction of the “Jewish and democratic” state — which seems the most powerful way to question the status quo — he spends most of the book engaged in an odd and counter-productive attempt to prove that there is no such thing as a secular Jewish identity.

I get his reasoning. Sand is hitting at the very foundation of the Zionist project. The early Zionists — who had arguably internalized anti-Semitic stereotypes prevalent in Europe at the time — wanted to shake off the yoke of the diaspora Jew. The diaspora Jew, or the image of him, was that of a frail figure, pale and weak, hunched over his books, flinching when intimidated; in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, the new Jew would stand strong. He would be tanned, muscular and connected not to his religious books but, rather, the earth. And he would be secular.

The logic underpinning Sand’s argument is thus: Zionism and its secular Judaism gave rise to Israel; Israel gives Jews rights that it does not give to the native population, the Palestinians; secular Judaism itself must be interrogated.

I should be an easy sell for Sand’s argument. The easiest sell. I’m an anti-Zionist (or non-Zionist, whichever you prefer) who taught at a Palestinian university, left Israel to live in Bethlehem, and who has a Palestinian partner. And should we be blessed someday with children, we will do our best to raise them to be proud Palestinians.

Sand, however, doesn’t manage to convince even me that there is no such thing as secular Judaism. In part because, as he acknowledges, secular Jewish identity is amorphous and hard to define, thus making it equally hard to disprove. He runs through a list of things that might be considered secular Judaism, shooting them all down, one by one. However, the list is by no means exhaustive and, because identity today is often self-defined and intensely personal, Sand can’t possibly anticipate the many ways individuals construct their secular Jewish selves.

In some places, rather than making a solid argument, Sand resorts to assertions that go something like: you might think that lighting a few Hanukah candles makes you Jewish but it doesn’t count. Those who self-define as secular Jews won’t simply say, “Oh, okay, thanks for clearing that up for me, Shlomo. I hereby renounce my identity.” They’re more likely to say something like, “What gives you the right?” They will most likely react to Sand just as I react to the Israeli flag.

Unintentionally, Sand is playing into Zionism’s hands. Although he takes care to say that he is not conflating Judaism with Zionism, because his rejection of secular Judaism stems, in part, from his reaction to Zionism, he’s acknowledging and tacitly agreeing to Zionism’s claim on Jewish identity. Wouldn’t it be so much more powerful to stand as a Jew and reject Israel’s policies simply because they’re inhumane? Because they’re discriminatory? Because they’re undemocratic? Because they have no place in this day and age?

Sand’s reaction is, in a word, reactionary.

The book is at its most confusing — and most honest and most personal and most powerful — in the final two pages when Sand describes his attachment to Tel Aviv and the Hebrew language. “I inhabit a deep contradiction,” Sand admits. “My deep attachment to the place serves only to fuel the pessimism I feel towards it. And so I often plunge into a melancholy that is despondent about the present and fearful for the future.”

But I’d venture to say that many readers won’t make it to the end of his book because he spends the first 11 chapters alienating exactly the people who most need to be a part of this conversation: the self-defined secular Jews.

Some secular Jews, because they see Judaism as enlightened and humanistic, are increasingly concerned about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Of course, Sand has already taken them to task, accurately pointing out that the Judaism itself is not actually enlightened and humanistic. But most Jews — secular or otherwise — don’t follow the religion to the letter anyways. This is the case with most practitioners of any tradition. How many Muslims follow the Quran to the letter? How many Christians live their lives according to a literal interpretation of the bible? Telling Jews that Judaism is not what they think it is and that, to take it a step further, they are not really Jews is unlikely to create the groundswell that will bring about meaningful change in Israel/Palestine. Rather, it’s more likely to persuade people to cling more tightly to their identities.

What needs to be interrogated is Israel’s claim on our identity and the ongoing attempts to conflate our identity with a piece of land that doesn’t actually belong to us. We, the Jews, had a wide range of identities long before the State of Israel existed. We did not need land to shore up our sense of selves.

But if we confuse our sense of selves with a piece of land — which is currently administered by a dangerous, racist regime — we risk losing our identities. Because we will, eventually, lose that land just as the Crusaders, Ottomans, and British did. Rather than rejecting secular Judaism and engaging in the counterproductive business of attempting to delegitimize others’ identity, secular Jewish identity should be detached from Israel, revitalized, and understood as something that has and can transcend time and place.

An alternate version of this article appeared in The National.

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Family life forbidden for migrant workers in Israel http://972mag.com/family-life-forbidden-for-migrant-workers-in-israel/97483/ http://972mag.com/family-life-forbidden-for-migrant-workers-in-israel/97483/#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 08:15:52 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97483 Legal advocates decry Israeli policies toward migrant workers as inhumane and claim that they violate the laborers’ human right to family.

Maris Delusong, a 36-year-old caregiver from the Philippines, is alone at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. She stops at a sale rack outside a clothing store. She looks at the baby clothes, pulls a pink onesie off the rack and runs her fingers over the soft fabric. Her face is sad as she puts the outfit back and moves along.

“It’s hard to be alone,” Delusong says. She found herself drawn to the baby clothes, she says, because “I remember my children. She’s four, the youngest. The eldest is 12.”

Delusong is five months into a five year “deployment”—the term Filipino migrants use to describe working overseas. Delusong takes care of an elderly woman in Kfar Saba. In Israel, wages are much higher than they are in the Philippines and, here, Delusong can save for her family’s future.

But while Delusong can work legally in Israel to earn for her husband and four children, Israeli law does not allow her or other migrants to bring their immediate family with them to the country. This puts tremendous stress on workers, their marriages, and their relationships with their children. The damage to the family can last long after a laborer has returned home.

“If I had a chance to bring them [my husband and children to Israel], I would,” Delusong says.

However, there is no a blanket prohibition preventing all foreigners from bringing family members to Israel. Diplomats, embassy workers, “experts” and such—in other words, white collar workers—can carry spouses and children on their Israeli visas.

Rotem Ilan, Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s (ACRI) Israeli Children project explains that migrants’ inability to bring their children with them “stems from the [Israeli government’s] fear that they will ‘put down roots’ in Israel… the state’s goal is to prevent them [non-Jewish migrant workers] from ‘putting down roots’ in Israel.” So, to the state, family life becomes a “threat,” Ilan says.

Not only are laborers prevented from bringing their families to Israel, once foreign workers are in the country, the state puts various restrictions on their ability to have children here. If a migrant gives birth when she is four and a half years or more into the 63-month visa Israel issues to most foreign laborers, she may not remain in the country with her child. This means that she must choose between keeping her baby with her in Israel or keeping her legal status and job.

If a woman whose husband is also working in the country gets pregnant before the four-and-a-half-year mark she must “choose between her husband and her baby,” Ilan says. “One of them has to go.”

Israeli authorities arrest a migrant worker and her small child [file]. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli authorities arrest a migrant worker and her small child [file]. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Ilan and other critics of Israeli policy towards migrants say that the state’s treatment of foreign workers and their families is inhumane and violates the workers’ human rights, including the right to family. And while recent years have seen small victories for workers and their children, including the naturalization of hundreds of youth who were facing deportation, the state has essentially reversed those gains by coming up with even stiffer regulations.

In 2006, the Israeli High Court struck down a policy known as the “binding arrangement,” which tied caregivers to their Israeli employers, who had the power their legal status. In their ruling against the binding arrangement, the Supreme Court justices likened it to “modern day slavery.”

But in 2011 the Knesset passed a new piece of legislation that human rights organizations refer to as the “Slavery Law.” It limits caregivers’ ability to leave employers by restricting them to three job changes before they lose their visa. It also confines caregivers to pre-determined areas of the country, impinging on their freedom of movement.

Ilan points out that, like the binding arrangement, the “Slavery Law” sometimes prevents workers from leaving abusive employers. “Binding a worker to an employer does not respect [the worker’s] human rights,” Ilan says. Regarding the geographic restrictions placed on workers, she adds, “If we wanted more Israeli teachers in the south of Israel, we wouldn’t say if you don’t teach there, we’ll put you in jail.”

Migrant workers’ children also face imprisonment and deportation. Even though they’re born and raised in Israel, they are denied legal status. “There’s no way to get citizenship or residency if you’re not Jewish,” Ilan remarks.

Although Israel has twice opened “one-time windows” to naturalize “illegal” children, the state lacks a cohesive policy about how to deal with these non-Jews, many of whom speak Hebrew and have never visited their parents’ home countries. At the same time, Israel continues to bring migrants to the country and those workers continue to have babies that the state refuses to recognize. In 2013 alone, some 200 children were arrested and imprisoned before being deported along with their mothers.

Michelle Trinanis, 18, was one of 1,200 children threatened with expulsion in 2009 when Israel announced its intention to deport migrant families. Although the state opened a “one-time window” in 2010 that will lead to the naturalization of 700 of those children — 600 have already received status and, according to Ilan another 100 will receive their IDs — Trinanis was one of the many whose applications were initially denied despite meeting all of the criteria.

After a protracted legal battle, which went all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, Trinanis finally has an Israeli identity card. In December, she will begin mandatory service in the army — the road to acceptance in mainstream Israeli society.

Although she doesn’t know yet what she will be requested to do in the military, Trinanis is happy and excited to join. “I already fought to stay in the country, so I will fight for the country,” she says.

But she admits that it’s “unfair” that other migrants’ children are not getting legal status. And Trinanis says that she remains conflicted about the issue. She has friends who were not naturalized; she tries to give them the same support and encouragement that others gave her when she was struggling with the threat of deportation.

On the other hand, Trinanis says she understands the state’s reasoning.  “When I was young, I thought ‘why can’t they give anyone a teudat zehut (Israeli ID)?’ I understand now that it’s a big problem [because of] the laws.”

“Israelis,” she explains, “are loyal to themselves.”

Trinanis’s words reflect the government line: for years, Israeli officials have claimed that its policies towards migrants and their families stem from concern about maintaining the country’s demographics and preserving a Jewish state.

Responding to officials’ claims that foreign workers and their children pose a “demographic threat,” Ilan says, “Then the country can’t bring new people. [Israel] can’t have it both ways—the state can’t bring people that are good enough to work for us but not good enough to be a part of us. If you bring human beings to the country, you have to give them human rights.”

Related:
When it comes to migrant workers, Israel’s High Court is all High-Level Babble
Forgotten deportees: Israeli-born children of migrant workers

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‘Dear Darwish’: A poetically and politically brave book http://972mag.com/dear-darwish-a-poetically-and-politically-brave-book/96270/ http://972mag.com/dear-darwish-a-poetically-and-politically-brave-book/96270/#comments Wed, 03 Sep 2014 10:18:55 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=96270 Israeli-American poet Morani Kornberg-Weiss breaks with conventional poetics and mainstream politics. But who, exactly, is Dear Darwish for? 

Dear Darwish, Morani Kornberg-Weiss’s first collection of poetry, opens with a prose poem that that doubles as an indictment of Israeli society. Cleverly disguised as a letter, it is addressed to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Like the poems that follow it, “Dear Mahmoud” does many things at once. It captures the violence inherent in establishing and maintaining the Jewish state. It accurately depicts Israelis’ objectifying and dehumanizing view of Palestinians. It shows how the state’s violence against Palestinians has seeped into Israeli society, permeating all aspects of life.

It’s no short order to do all this without losing the poetry to polemics. But Kornberg-Weiss manages to stay true to the horrible, tragic content of this book—including the nakba, the occupation, torture, death, and dispossession—while rendering a beautiful collection. That doesn’t mean that she dresses things up or distorts reality to make it palatable. Rather, she uses the lyrical to strip things down and offer them up to the reader, who is unable to tear their eyes away from Kornberg-Weiss’s searing, heartbreaking images.

Take for example:

That marks one difference between Israelis and
Palestinians: so many Israelis walk around with blood on their
hands, hands soaked in red, red hands shaking, exchanging
blood, patting a bloody hand on one’s shoulder, leaving a trace of
a hand, a hand running through one’s hair, scratching a nose,
leaving creases of liquid clotted and dried up on the cheekbones,
taking a bath and then running a hand over one’s arms, arm pits,
breasts then thighs, genitals, feet all covered with blood, blood
trying to wash itself but it’s a blood so ordinary you cannot even
see it.
I write this letter.
Red fingerprints smear on the page.

But Dear Darwish isn’t just about confronting the occupation, nor does it fall into the “shooting and crying” genre. As the title of the book and the title of the first poem both suggest, this collection is about creating dialogue. While one reviewer slammed Kornberg-Weiss for writing the collection “to” Darwish, I would argue that Kornberg-Weiss is acknowledging the inescapable power dynamic of the occupier/occupied and the deeply narcissistic nature of Israeli society. In a poem titled “david antin talked about tuning,” she writes: “…i break away/from the ‘fantasy of understanding’/i barely/recognize myself in you mahmoud i/recount various experiences of misappropriation i/imagine no common knowing but my arrogant/fantasy of moving so close in you mahmoud”

'Dear Darwish' by Morani Kornberg-Weiss

‘Dear Darwish’ by Morani Kornberg-Weiss

So the question remains: who are these poems actually addressed to?

I struggled with this from the second page where Kornberg-Weiss asks Darwish in Hebrew, Arabic, and English what their common language should be. I was living in Bethlehem the first time I read the collection. When I ran into these sentences, I read the three questions aloud to my partner.

While he can read the Hebrew alphabet and speaks a bit, he didn’t have enough to get the question, which I translated for him. And he helped me, in turn, as I clumsily read the Arabic.

“Who’s her audience?” we both wondered aloud, in English. Forty-eighters who speak English? English-speakers who read Hebrew and Arabic? Hebrew-speakers who also speak English and Arabic? Arabic-speakers who speak English and Hebrew?

It might seem like I’m beating the language issue to death but poetry is all about language and, indeed, language is an issue that arises throughout collection. Language plays a central role in the conflict, as well. What sort of words one uses to discuss “the situation”—as well as one’s silences, what goes unsaid—reveals much about one’s feelings on the place and its politics. And the fight for public opinion is a war of words.

So, of course, it’s significant that the collection is written in English. Equally significant is the fact that Dear Darwish was written (and published) in the diaspora. In fact, the poems seem to me to be a collection that could only be written outside of Israel. I asked Kornberg-Weiss about this and she agreed, explaining to +972:

…my political journey began in Israel during Operation Cast Lead in late 2008. I remember seeing protestors who supported the operation and “Israel’s right to defend itself.” That slogan didn’t sound right at the time, although initially I couldn’t articulate why.

The collection itself was conceptualized and written in the U.S. after the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. I tried to make sense of how one Israeli solider could be released in exchange for over one thousand Palestinian lives. The project could only be written outside of Israel. I feel as though I wore blindfolds while living in Israel. I was not exposed to “the other side.” Both the Israeli education system and the media censor Palestinian history and even current events. Even now in “Operation Protective Edge” the media failed to expose the atrocities in the Gaza Strip as a result of Israeli attacks. The photographs in the Israeli newspapers focused primarily on the Israeli side, while sanitizing and censoring the destruction in the Gaza Strip.

Dear Darwish could be read as a series of letters to the Jewish diaspora, or as a sort of self-interrogation that the Jewish community is meant to overhear (and undertake). The collection seems intent on pushing the increasingly divisive conversation about Israel into more radical (dare I say anti-Zionist?) territory. And that Kornberg-Weiss quotes a line from a poem by the Canadian-Jewish Rachel Zolf on the very first page is also telling. Zolf is a poet who has been publicly critical of the occupation and the author of Neighbour Procedure, a collection of poems revolving around the occupation; Kornberg-Weiss is grounding her book in that conversation.

Both the content and the immediate alignment with Zolf make Dear Darwish brave writing that, as we have seen with the Salaita affair, could have an impact on Kornberg-Weiss’s career. Her exploration of form is equally bold and makes the collection worth reading regardless of one’s politics.

That Kornberg-Weiss, who tells me that she grew up in a “center-right” family, wrote Dear Darwish and that Blaze VOX had the courage and integrity to publish it are both encouraging signs that the conversation about Israel-Palestine is changing—at least in the diaspora.

Related:
Book Review: Outrunning occupation in Palestine’s ‘capital’
Traces of the Nakba: Book review of ‘Stone, Paper’

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Israel cracks down on dissent http://972mag.com/israel-cracks-down-on-dissent/95139/ http://972mag.com/israel-cracks-down-on-dissent/95139/#comments Thu, 07 Aug 2014 16:28:25 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=95139 More than 1,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel were arrested by Israeli police during Operation Protective Edge, according to a lawyer representing a number of the detainees. While some were arrested for protesting the Israeli military incursion into Gaza, dozens were held without charge.

Maisa Arshid, an attorney for dozens of the detainees, says that 20 to 30 Palestinians were picked up by Israeli police every week in the Nazareth area alone. “All of them are accused of participating in illegal demonstrations,” she says. But, she adds, “Part of these demos were permitted by the police themselves.”

In many cases, there is no evidence that the accused has participated in a protest other than a policeman’s word.

Arshid adds that police frequently held people for short periods without registering the detention, likely putting the number of those who were picked up by the police even higher than 1,000.

Israeli policemen arrest protesters as Palestinians living in Israel and left wing activists protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza in down town Haifa, July 18, 2014. Israeli police arrested 28 activists, as protesters took the streets and blocked roads calling to put an end to the attack. (Fiaz abu-Ramele/Activestills.org)

Israeli policemen arrest protesters as Palestinians living in Israel and left-wing activists protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza in downtown Haifa, July 18, 2014. Israeli police arrested 28 activists, as protesters took to the streets and blocked roads calling for an end to the attack. (Fiaz abu-Ramele/Activestills.org)

When the wave of arrests began earlier in July, Palestinian citizens were detained and quickly released. Some were put on house arrest, some were ordered to do community service. But as the month and Israel’s assault on Gaza has worn on, Palestinian citizens were subject to longer and longer detainments. Last week, Arshid visited a group of detainees who had been held without charge for nine days. “Each day the court is delaying their hearing,” she says, adding that hearings initially scheduled for last Sunday were pushed back to Tuesday.

It’s a way of prolonging their detentions and it has a chilling effect on demonstrations against Operation Protective Edge, Arshid argues. “If people in the street know that people have been arrested for nine days, it will prevent protest.” She says that the detentions are a way to “terrorize the population” into silence.

While Jewish Israeli leftists who object to the war are protected by the police when they protest, they are facing increasingly violent attacks from their countrymen. Moriel Rothman-Zecher attended Tel Aviv’s most recent demonstration against Operation Protective Edge, which drew approximately 5,000 protesters. There were only a couple hundred counter-demonstrators, Rothman-Zecher tells Al Jazeera English, “but they were really, really energetic.”

Israeli police stood between the two groups, preventing clashes. But when the protest ended and the leftists began to leave, right wingers confronted them on the street. They shouted at the demonstrators, calling them “smelly traitors.” A rightest who was carrying an Israeli flag began to beat a leftist with the flag-stick; another starting hitting a leftist’s head with a crutch.

Police stand between the anti-war demonstration and rightist counter-protesters, Tel Aviv, July 26, 2014. (photo: Activestills.org)

Police stand between the anti-war demonstration and rightist counter-protesters, Tel Aviv, July 26, 2014. (photo: Activestills.org)

Rothman-Zecher feels that the rightists’ “desire for violence” isn’t new. “But there’s a new level of acceptability,” he says.

He offers Jerusalem Day protests, when right wingers march to mark “reunification” of the city, as an example. In the past, it “was nationalistic and aggressive” but leftists would be shocked to hear right wingers openly chant “Death to the Arabs,” Rothman-Zecher reflects. “It was under the surface but it was still surprising. Now it’s become the baseline.”

Although no one is organizing the counter-demonstrators – and Rothman-Zecher correctly points out that they tend to come from poor, marginalized communities –Rothman-Zecher argues that Israel’s leaders are responsible for the right wingers’ violence.

“When the leaders of the country call openly for revenge and violence, of course it becomes kosher,” he says, adding. “You have members of Knesset calling for population transfer, [a former] member of Knesset [boasting] that [he] killed Arabs…I believe very strongly that discourse shapes reality.”

***

Palestinian citizens have also been arrested for “incitement” for calling for demonstrations against Operation Protective Edge. Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel points out that these citizens “were arrested even before any demonstrations began.”

Among them is Rafaat Awaishi who Israeli police put on house arrest, without a hearing, after he posted a call on Facebook for people to join protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Noting that Awaishi’s hearing was scheduled for July 13, “the same day that the police-imposed house arrest is to end,” Adalah called the police-imposed detention a “denial of due process.”

Palestnians living in Israel take part in a protest against the attack on Gaza in the city of Lod, Israel, August 3, 2014 (photo: Activestills)

Palestnians living in Israel take part in a protest against the attack on Gaza in the city of Lod, Israel, August 3, 2014 (Activestills)

The conditions detainees face also seem intended to deter protests. Several of Arshid’s clients have been beaten while in custody, she says, and have needed medical treatment for their injuries. During an interrogation, police allegedly removed a detainee’s kuffiyeh, urinated on it, and then put it back on the man’s neck.

Police attempts to intimidate the country’s Palestinian population are not limited to detentions. Last week, Arshid saw police harass a Palestinian teenager in Nazareth. The boy was walking down the street when an unmarked car stopped and three heavily armed men, one wearing a kippah, got out. The men, who turned out to be plainclothes policemen, “terrified the boy,” Arshid reports, adding that he was a minor. “They took pictures of him and screamed at him.”

“I thought it was another Shuafat,” Arshid says, referring to the kidnapping and murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

When she attempted to intervene, the policemen showed Arshid their identification. She informed them that their actions were illegal, explaining that according to Israeli law, police can only stop someone if they “have the suspicion that something criminal is going on. In this case, it was [a boy] walking with a kuffiyeh.”

The police then detained Arshid for several hours before releasing her.

The arrests and detentions seem to be part of a broader crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression. Last Wednesday, the Israeli Knesset heard a bill that proposes to outlaw “discrimination against soldiers in uniform” the Jerusalem Post reported.

Pnina Tamnu-Shata, the Knesset Member who presented the bill, pointed to protests against Operation Protective Edge as proof that “We must set limits for words of incitement against soldiers. Not everything is allowed in the name of democracy.”

Police arrest a Palestinian-Israeli protester during a demonstration against Operation Protective Edge in Haifa.

Police arrest a Palestinian-Israeli protester during a demonstration against Operation Protective Edge in Haifa (photo: ActiveStills)

Palestinian citizens who attend Israeli universities have already been subject to disciplinary hearings and expulsion due to remarks made on Facebook against Israeli soldiers. In a letter to the Council of Higher Education in Israel, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) likened the universities’ monitoring of Palestinian students’ social media accounts to a “witch hunt.”

In a press release, ACRI stated that:

…only Arab students have been punished, even though the social forums are simmering with racist comments by Jewish students, which raises a concern that the heads of the institutions are acting according to patriotic and emotional motives that do not align with their professional obligations.

Arshid levels similar criticism at the Israeli police and the state: “They misunderstand their job – their first job is to protect their civilians and their freedom of speech.”

However, according to Arshid, “The state’s first claim is that the political situation is more important than the freedom of speech.”

Saher Jeries is a 22-year-old marketing and advertising student who lives in Haifa. He says he was at a protest there, standing towards the back, when police officers began to beat him. He and other protesters were taken to a bus where they were held for six hours before they were driven to the police station for interrogation.

During questioning, Jeries found that the Israeli police are not only trying to control the discourse about Gaza, but they also seemed intent on reshaping his identity.

“They said to me, ‘You’re Christian, why are you doing things like this?’ As though I’m not part of the [Palestinian] people.”

A shorter version of this article was first published on Al Jazeera English

Related:
Following wave of protests, Israel arrests scores of Arab activists, minors
Unprecedented violence stalks anti-war demos across Israel
The night it became dangerous to demonstrate in Tel Aviv

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Is the West Bank ripe for an intifada? http://972mag.com/is-the-west-bank-ripe-for-revolution/94356/ http://972mag.com/is-the-west-bank-ripe-for-revolution/94356/#comments Sun, 27 Jul 2014 10:40:53 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=94356 Media and politicians have been quick to claim that Palestinian protests against Operation Protective Edge mark the beginning of a third intifada. But in Beit Sahour, the town that was the heart of the First Intifada, some are skeptical that today’s demonstrations will turn into tomorrow’s revolution. 

Some ten thousand Palestinians marched from Ramallah on Thursday night to Qalandia checkpoint, in protest of Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip and in hopes of reaching Jerusalem. One man was killed and dozens were injured in what was the largest demonstration the West Bank has seen in years.

While protesters and observers alike speculate that this marks the beginning of the Third Intifada, the mood in Beit Sahour – the small, predominately Christian town that was the heart of the First Intifada – is decidedly more pessimistic.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, “Nasser,” a Beit Sahouri and veteran of the First Intifada who was arrested nearly a dozen times for his political activities says that recent protests in West Bank are “emotional.”

Palestinian youth burn an Israeli flag during clashes following a protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza in the Qalandyia checkpoint near Ramallah,  July 24, 2014. Palestnians marched from Al Amar refugee camp to Qalandyia checkpoint to protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian youth burn an Israeli flag during clashes following a protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza in the Qalandyia checkpoint near Ramallah, July 24, 2014.
Palestnians marched from Al Amar refugee camp to Qalandyia checkpoint to protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The First Intifada was “based on hope,” he explains, which allowed people to slow down, think ahead, and “restrain themselves and strategize.”

People are “moving out of emotions now and that becomes violent,” Nasser says, pointing to the Second Intifada as an example. Many Palestinians feel that the Second Intifada accomplished very little.

Today, he adds, “We lack any political movement that’s capable of moving the masses—neither Hamas, nor Fatah, nor any other group.”

Nasser’s sentiments were echoed at a small demonstration in Beit Sahour on Monday, as the West Bank observed a general strike in protest of Operation Protective Edge and what is being called a massacre in Shajaiyah. A few dozen protesters attempted to march towards an Israeli army base that is perched on a hill outside the village. But they were quickly deterred by tear gas.

“This is all about Gaza right now,” said a woman in her late twenties. She hung back, watching, as the shebab, young men, edged forward. “When there’s a ceasefire, the people [in the West Bank] will go back to sleep.”

For years, Palestinians have pointed out that demonstrations in the West Bank are usually reactionary and don’t reflect clear goals, vision, or a long-term strategy. Protests and strikes against Israel’s last two military operations in Gaza – 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead and 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense – did not snowball into Intifadas.

“We have no leadership,” is another oft-repeated explanation as to why there is no sustained revolt against the Israeli occupation. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is widely viewed as a puppet who is more concerned with placating the Israelis than taking care of his people. And West Bank protests are often put down by Palestinian Authority security forces.

           Click here for +972′s full coverage of the war in Gaza

A professional in his mid-30s, who was born and raised in Beit Sahour and whose father was arrested three times during the First Intifada, attended Monday night’s march. The man, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, felt discouraged by the small demonstration. “There’s no one supporting the protesters,” George said, calling the PA the “Palestinian Zionist Authority.”

“When you have an authority that supposedly works for your benefit and you see the [Palestinian] security personnel…acting just like Israeli soldiers,” George continued. “There will be no motivation to do anything.”

Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh is the author of Popular Resistance in Palestine, a professor at Bethlehem University, and an activist. He responds to concerns regarding leadership and organization.

Such questions, Dr. Qumsiyeh says, “assume that colonized, occupied people sit down together to come up with a strategy. If you’re looking for organization, it doesn’t happen this way. Sometimes at the peak of a revolution, leaders emerge—revolution makes leaders, leaders don’t make revolutions.”

Clashes erupted between Palestinians and the Israeli army during a demonstration in Solidarity with the Gaza Strip, at Huwwara military checkpoint, Nablus, West Bank, July 24, 2014. 3 Palestinians were injured by rubber bullets. (Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

Clashes erupted between Palestinians and the Israeli army during a demonstration in Solidarity with the Gaza Strip, at Huwwara military checkpoint, Nablus, West Bank, July 24, 2014. 3 Palestinians were injured by rubber bullets. (Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

He adds that claims that leaders or political parties are necessary for an intifada suggest that Palestinians are “still thinking paternalistically, that a father figure has to tell them what to do.”

Dr. Qumsiyeh points to the spontaneous nightly protests in Bethlehem as proof positive that the youth can get an intifada moving on their own. “Uprisings happen when there is no leadership. That’s happening in Bethlehem now. Who told these kids to go out every night?”

Hundreds of protesters have attend the nightly demonstrations in Bethlehem, which neighbors Beit Sahour. But these demonstrations are dominated by shebab – young Palestinian men. And some young Palestinian women say they’re uncomfortable joining.

“We are a patriarchal society,” Dr. Qumsiyeh reflects. “I hate that personally. The old men in the PLO—I’d love to see them all gone and see women and young people in charge.”

While the media’s eyes are trained on the male-dominated, urban protests that erupted in response to Operation Protective Edge, demonstrations are more sustained and egalitarian in the Palestinian villages. The weekly protest in Nabi Saleh comes to mind. Since 2009, men, women, and children have been marching to reach the village’s spring that was expropriated by Israel. Nariman Tamimi, the wife of organizer Bassem Tamimi, is a leader in the demonstrations. And Nabi Saleh has seen a number of women’s marches, as well.

Indeed, many argue that the strength of the First Intifada is that it engaged men, women, children, and families of all economic classes. That the middle class Beit Sahouris interviewed for this article all asked to remain anonymous suggests that, today, they feel like they have too much to lose.

Many here say that neoliberal policies has had a sedating effect on the West Bank. Some blame former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his focus on economic development; they blame banks that give loans to Palestinians, encouraging them to live beyond their means and chaining them to debt. Others point to a society that is increasingly driven by consumerism.

Family members and friends mourn next to the body of killed Palestinian Mohammed al-Araj during his funeral at the Qalandiya refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 25, 2014. Al-Araj was shot with live ammunition in his head during a demonstration the night before in Qalandiya. At least other 500 Palestinians were injured from live ammunition, some of them are still under critical condition. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Family members and friends mourn next to the body of killed Palestinian Mohammed al-Araj during his funeral at the Qalandiya refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 25, 2014. Al-Araj was shot with live ammunition in his head during a demonstration the night before in Qalandiya. At least other 500 Palestinians were injured from live ammunition, some of them are still under critical condition. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

All people think about today, George argues, “is paying off their debt. There’s no time to think of the occupation.” He adds that in 1987, when the First Intifada began, the financial system was different. Loans and consumerism “didn’t exist” then.

Nasser agrees that Palestinian society is more consumerist and individualistic than it was in the past and that this is an obstacle to getting a revolution off the ground. But he’s quick to add that “the generation that grew up under the PA and Israel cannot help but be individualistic, to find a way to benefit from the situation.”

Also problematic, Nasser says, is that Palestinians have “adapted” to the occupation. “We got used to not going to Jerusalem, we got used to checkpoints. We’ve lost a major part of our self-respect. We cannot have a massive intifada without a mental shift.”

While Dr. Qumsiyeh agrees, remarking, “Our first liberation has to be of our own minds,” he insists that the circumstances are ripe for a revolution. He ticks the list off on his hand, taking the opportunity to again point out that previous intifadas didn’t begin with leaders but, rather, with the people.

“They started because of pent-up frustration,” he says. The other conditions? “One: paralysis of the peace process; two: lack of trust in the Palestinian leadership.” The third, according to Dr. Qumsiyeh, is that “the occupier becomes even more arrogant. They assume they can get away with anything.”

Like killing civilians in Gaza.

Nasser maintains that the Third Intifada has yet to begin. But he calls it “inevitable.”

“There’s one thing I’m sure of,” he says. “Palestinians are not going to raise a white flag.”

As for the young woman who, on Monday, was sure that the West Bank will go back to sleep – on Friday morning, she woke up to the news of the 10,000 strong march on Qalandiya. And she said, “[No one] can predict anything anymore.”

A shorter version of this article was first published on Al Jazeera English

Related:
‘The largest West Bank protest in decades’  
PHOTOS: Ten killed across West Bank in Gaza solidarity protests
Israel has alternatives to this war

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Israel’s Bedouin: Civilians in death alone http://972mag.com/israels-bedouin-civilians-in-death-alone/93965/ http://972mag.com/israels-bedouin-civilians-in-death-alone/93965/#comments Sun, 20 Jul 2014 13:32:08 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=93965 Israel denies Bedouin citizens basic services in life but claims them as civilians when they die.

Over 400 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its current military operation in Gaza. According to the United Nations, approximately three-quarters of Gaza’s dead are civilians; many are children.

In Israel, two civilians have been killed. One was a Bedouin, the 32-year-old Oudi Lafi al-Waj, who lived in an unrecognized village in the Negev (Naqab) desert, near Dimona. Several Bedouin children have also been injured by rocket fire since Israel began “Operation Protective Edge.”

Bedouin villages do not have air raid sirens, nor are they covered by Iron Dome. They also lack bomb shelters.

Israeli policemen stand by as a bulldozer demolishes the Bedouin village of Al-Arakib for the 64th time (photo: Activestills.org)

Israeli policemen stand by as a bulldozer demolishes the Bedouin village of Al-Arakib for the 64th time (photo: Activestills.org)

In the wake of al-Waj’s death, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a non-governmental organization, “submitted an urgent request” this morning to the Israeli High Court for an answer on the petition the organization filed last week requesting that the state provide bomb shelters for the Bedouin.

But in a Sunday hearing at Israel’s High Court, the “state expressed its position that there is no need to provide additional protective facilities to these communities, and advised the Bedouin residents to protect themselves by lying on the ground,” ACRI reports. The organization added that “officials claimed that protecting the Bedouin villages was a low priority.”

               Read +972′s coverage of the latest round of violence

Responding to today’s hearing, ACRI Attorney Auni Banna remarked:

State officials completely disregarded the fact that in villages where there are no shelters, no sirens, and where the houses are built mostly of aluminum – a falling rocket is exponentially more dangerous. The state’s conduct conveys a sense of how they distinguish one type of blood from another, and the abandonment of the Bedouin in the unrecognized villages.

While the High Court declined to take immediate action on the matter, it did request that the respondents–Regional Councils and the Ministry of Justice–respond to concerns raised in the petition about the villages’ infrastructure within 30 days. 

This is not the first time that Israel’s highest court has failed to protect the most basic human rights of the country’s Bedouin citizens. In 2013, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition from the NGO Adalah requesting that the state provide water to the unrecognized Bedouin village Umm al Hiran.

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Residents of Umm al Hiran must travel four kilometers to buy water from a citizen who charges “exorbitantly high prices,” according to Adalah.

The High Court’s 2013 ruling denying Umm al Hiran access to the national water network “contradicts the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in which it held that the right to water is a constitutional right and that the Arab Bedouin living in the Naqab… have the right to “minimal access to water,” Adalah pointed out.

Now, Israel wants to include a Bedouin man in its civilian casualty toll.

But Israel claims al-Waj in death only. And the state will surely exploit his death to justify its military operation in Gaza. But in life, in Israel, al-Waj was less than a civilian. He was just a Bedouin—not worthy of basic services or even shelter against rockets.

Related:
Israel, state of all its victims
PHOTOS: A life of discrimination for Negev Bedouin
How can you possibly oppose this war?

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Death in Gaza, fireworks in Bethlehem http://972mag.com/death-in-gaza-fireworks-in-bethlehem/93937/ http://972mag.com/death-in-gaza-fireworks-in-bethlehem/93937/#comments Sat, 19 Jul 2014 16:26:21 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=93937 Though tawjihi, matriculation, celebrations seem light on the surface, they point to a bleak political reality in the West Bank.

I heard the first gunshots at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, 30 minutes before the “humanitarian ceasefire” went into effect.

My elderly landlady stuck her head out the window. “What’s going on?” she shouted to where I sat in the garden. She speculated that it could be clashes in Dheisheh refugee camp, which is within earshot of our house. But when we heard fireworks and horns honking, we figured it was a celebration. “Maybe,” I told her, “it’s because of the Israeli acceptance of the ceasefire. Maybe people see it as a Hamas victory?”

Majeed Al-Zeem, 52 year old, stands next to an hole caused by a missile launched by a drone which caused his injury, Gaza city, July 14, 2014. The missile was launched by the Israeli army to warn the family that they are going to conduct an airstrike on the house next door, a policy known to be termed "knock on the roof". Israeli attacks have so far killed more than 180 Palestinians.

Majeed Al-Zeem, 52 year old, stands next to an hole caused by a missile launched by a drone which caused his injury, Gaza city, July 14, 2014. The missile was launched by the Israeli army to warn the family that they are going to conduct an airstrike on the house next door, a policy known to be termed “knock on the roof”. Israeli attacks have so far killed more than 180 Palestinians.

And then a neighbor, another elderly woman, arrived. On my street—and I would venture to say that this is true for much of Palestine—elderly women are consummate collectors of information. My landlady once ferreted out my partner’s cell phone number, knowing only his exceedingly common first name, his not-uncommon last name, and the village his family hails from.

Over the cracks of live fire, which echoed through the valley, our neighbor told my landlady that high school seniors had just gotten their tawjihi scores. Tawjihi are matriculation exams, and their scores determine what college or university one will be able to get into, as well as what departments they will be admitted to.

The noise went on for a couple more hours and resumed in the evening. After iftar, the sky lit up with fireworks. As I headed towards the neighborhood dukkan (bodega), a few men stood in the street, watching the display with awe and disgust.

A friend from Beit Jala put it simply that night, as we sat in the garden. “Shu malhom?” What’s their problem?

***

It might seem belated or curious that I’m writing about this on Saturday. But in the Bethlehem area, tawjihi celebrations are still a topic of discussion.

Last night, I visited some Palestinian friends in Beit Sahour. “Did you hear all that noise on Tuesday?” my host asked, shaking his head. “Unbelievable. There’s a massacre in Gaza and people are shooting off fireworks.”

“Okay, if you want to celebrate, fine,” he continued. “But be respectful of what’s happening. Take your celebrations inside.”

My host added that one of his brothers was so upset by the celebrations—he though they were so disrespectful of what Gaza is going through right now—that he threw eggs at honking cars.

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While my host said that the young people’s parents should not have let them celebrate in the streets, he said that it pointed to a much larger problem.

“We have no leadership,” he said. He explained that a good political system—one that works for the Palestinian people and their freedom, one that cares about Gaza and sees no division between the territories—would have held the scores until this military escalation is over. Or they would have issued some sort of an announcement requesting that people keep the situation in Gaza in mind as they celebrate.

And that’s what this is really about. Leadership. That’s what I hear over and over and over again in the West Bank: we want to protest, we want to do something, anything, but we have no leaders.

***

This came up again in another troubling conversation, the day after Israel began its ground incursion into the Gaza Strip.

“What’s happening in Gaza makes me sick,” my friend Layla said. Layla used to be an activist. Now, she’s just trying to keep her head above water.

Layla is angry and sad, but she also feels powerless. We talked about how protesting seems increasingly futile in the West Bank. How the Palestinian Authority does Israel’s bidding by putting down demonstrations. And that, at this point, getting arrested at a protest would not be a provocative act of civil disobedience. It would just seem useless.

So rather than rallying for Gaza, the youth celebrate tawjihi.

“There are Dayton forces all over,” Layla said, referring to the American general who was in charge of training the Palestinian security forces—security forces that don’t make the people feel safe but, rather, oppressed and silenced. “Maybe we could do more if we were abroad.”

Related:
On dual standards and the hypocrisy of peace
The abnormal reality of the occupation and its ‘escalations’
Gaza diary: ‘A second of silence, then the bombs go off’

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