Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hebron: "There is no light."

"No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

 ~ Nelson Mandela

"An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment."

 ~ Mahatma Gandhi, Non-violence in Peace and War 1942-49

Our group took a tour of the tragic and decimated Hebron, in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. We've seen and heard a lot of tragic stories about the effects of military occupation here, but in Hebron it's congealed into some kind of psychotic carnival not-fun-house that no one would believe if it weren't true.

The city is ancient by any standard - the Tomb of the Patriarchs is Biblical, maybe 3,000 years old. It's also sacred, of course, to Jews, Muslims and Christians, just to keep it interesting. The current population is around 170,000 people. In the middle of the city there are four Israeli settlements which look a bit like military encampments, with high fences, rolls of razor wire and surveillance. In order to protect the 750 Israeli settlers, (who believe that God has given this land to the Jews,) there are about 600 Israeli military providing security. Tension is thick and there is no love lost between the settlers and their Palestinian neighbors. Relatively-recent history is convoluted enough that each side can point to some particular event that fits their narrative and makes it ALL the other side's fault. But there is one inescapable conclusion in my opinion: the current situation cannot continue. It has to stop. A military occupation is intended to be temporary. It's time.

Our tour guide for the day was a 26 year-old former soldier name Shay (pronounced Shy,) from a group called Breaking the Silence. That group is made up of former soldiers that are coming out about their experiences in the military, and how Palestinians are routinely humiliated and abused. (You really need to read some of their testimonies. They are chillingly brutal, in ways big and small.) Shay grew up in West Bank settlements in a very conservative family, and decided early in life that he would join a combat unit in the military to protect Israel and its citizens. You can imagine where this goes, and no, you can't dismiss his story if it doesn't fit YOUR narrative. His gung-ho soldiery gradually wilted as he saw the humiliation and degradation of Palestinians that was completely unrelated to security. You have to appreciate the strength of character and soul-searching that it takes for an Israeli to stand up for the rights of Palestinians. Those who do are marginalized and ignored, at the very least, or referred to as traitors and "self-hating Jews." Shay's current perspective: "We're not here to make the occupation better - we're here to end the occupation."

More of the story will be told with the photos below. But first: for my friends who may find this story difficult, painful, libelous or worse - keep an open mind. As I said before, you CANNOT trust the media or the government to keep you informed. Still seeing red? Then watch this very funny video, "West Bank Story." You'll love it - it won an Academy Award in 2005. Really.

Much love,

Our first stop: the grave site of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli doctor and settler who infamously killed 29 Muslims and wounded 125 as they knelt in prayer in a mosque in Hebron, in 1994. He was beaten to death in the mosque. Originally a large shrine had been built around his grave, but was demolished by the government. The epitaph carved into the tombstone calls Dr. Goldstein a ''martyr'' with ''clean hands and a pure heart.'' A New York Times article quoted an Israeli politician about demolishing the shrine: ''A great disgrace has been wiped from our face. The other half of the stain will be removed when the shameful inscription is erased. This monument symbolized everything that is anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli and antihuman. It was a site of incitement and education for murder.'' That article was written in 1999, yet 14 years later, the epitaph remains. The rocks on top of the grave are a Jewish custom of showing respect. The vast majority of Israelis unequivocally condemn Goldstein's acts, but it was shocking, especially to the Israelis in our group, that the epitaph remains, and that some extremists still honor him.

At the lower left of the photo is a large star of David, and the brown tent is a "settler outpost." No one lives there, but because it is classified as such, it qualifies for military protection from Palestinians, which blocks their access up the stairs to the right. That's the only reason for the outpost - to make it difficult for the local Palestinians. This outpost has been dismantled and replaced over 30 times. Our guide says that the army will be seen removing it before a high-level visitor comes, then helping the settlers replace it once they've left.

In the map of Hebron below, the blue areas are Israeli settlements, four of which are right in the middle of the city. Although there are no signs on the street to indicate it, Palestinians are vastly restricted in where they can go. Red zones are completely off-limits, Purple means (I think) they aren't allowed to drive, Yellow means no shops are allowed, etc. All of this nonsense ends up with a ghost town near the settlements, which was once the busy main market of the city. Almost all Palestinians have moved out of this area because it's impossible to live there with the street restrictions and blocked access. We walked mostly along a-Shuhada Street, which you see in the lower-center of the map. (From

This building is empty save for one woman and her son. She's referred to by the soldiers as "the blind woman," even though she's deaf and not blind. This is on the side of town that is almost a ghost town.

This information sign was put up by the local Israeli settlers. It says, "These stores were closed by the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] for security reasons after Arabs began the 'Oslo War' (aka The Second Intifada) in September 2000, attacking, wounding and murdering Jews on this road."

This was the main market for the town before it was closed to Palestinians in 2000. It's an eerie ghost town now, with the periodic car driving by, or soldiers patrolling. Not a single Palestinian in sight. Here's how little traffic it gets: I set my (expensive) phone down on the curb and forgot it when we walked away. I went back 15 minutes later and it was still there.

One of the four settlements in the heart of the city, and the reason for all the restrictions on movements - in the name of "security" according to the military.

An example of another street that would have been open and busy just a few years ago, but is blocked off now, and all the doors have been welded shut to keep the shop owners from entering.

More "informational" signs put up by settlers.

More shuttered markets, just across the street from a settlement.

Abandoned buildings, broken windows, welded-shut doors, just next to the settlement.

The front of one of the four settlements in the city center.

That angled metal bar is welded to the door to keep it permanently closed.

Some beautiful old closed buildings, perhaps still inhabited.

Like a crazy movie set, after walking through a military checkpost in a narrow alley, we left the sterile No Man's Land to come out into a bustling Middle Eastern city. Really surreal. Palestinians are allowed here, which accounts for the activity.

The checkpost is blamed on security, of course. But literally a few hundred meters away is another entrance from No Man's Land to this area, with no security, no military, and no restrictions about who goes where. So how does the checkpost provide security? It doesn't. It's intent, according to our guide Shay, is remind the Palestinians who is in charge. In one of the Breaking the Silence testimonies, a soldier says she would sometimes have to turn people away when the checkpost was closed, but if it was an old person she'd motion them to go to the unprotected path that everyone knows anyway. Some security.

A lovely and friendly old guy sitting by himself. He was allowed on this block, but not about 100 meters from here, even though there are no signs to indicate this.

Criminals never rest, and neither does this little crime fighter.

Somebody has to do it. (Look at those eyelashes!)

We are standing just above the settlement, where Palestinians are allowed to go. In the distance is the unrestricted, bustling part of Hebron. Down the hill and between these areas is a-Shuhada Street and some of the No-Palestinian zone.

Israel is not popular here. Jews in our group, perhaps surprisingly, were welcomed in the many interactions we had with Palestinians over the two weeks - in their homes, in shops, and in the streets. Our Israeli friends say that when they tell Palestinians in the West Bank they're Israeli, there's usually a blink of hesitation, followed by, "Welcome! My house is your house, come any time for tea." Black humor followed within our group: be careful inviting Israelis into your house - they may not leave!

One of the more ridiculous results of the occupation: a-Shuhada Street. People live in these apartments, but the front doors to their houses are welded shut by the military, because they aren't allowed to step foot onto the front of their own house. The street here is off-limits to Palestinians. The cages on their balconies are to protect them from the rocks and debris that the settlers throw at them regularly. It doesn't protect them from the eggs and insults and psychological trauma, however. I imagine the settlers feel the same way.

This lovely young Palestinian woman, "almost 20" she says, leads tours in Hebron.

Our group trying to digest and make sense of this overwhelming place. We're sitting directly across from the Tomb of the Patriarchs, if you can believe it. More modern miracles: Palestinians run this shop, but only these shopkeepers are allowed on this street. For security, of course.

A view of the city as we head out of town.

We were all geared up to be angry and pissed off at this American settler who we met with. He was going to try to tell us why it was OK for Israelis to be on Palestinian land and blah, blah, blah, which we could then mostly ignore or ridicule. Then the strangest thing happened: he's really a lovely, thoughtful, guy, very down to earth, very attached to the land, just as the Palestinians describe it for themselves, and is actively working for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. He was also incredibly articulate and verbally adept, and words flowed from that noggin of his like wine from a lambskin pouch. I basically agreed with everything he said except the God-gave-us-this-land thing. Talented, lovely, irritating guy. I really like him. I hate that.

The group walks back to the bus with the lovely settler in tow. This place is enough to make anybody crazy.

(The End)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Palestine: "With each step, the wind blows"

"The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms."
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Here in Israel and Palestine the olive-picking, mind-reeling, and heart-stretching tour-du-jour continues. We had two visitors from "Combatants for Peace," a group of hardy souls committed to non-violence and peace, though hardly shrinking violets. Larry, a feisty Israeli, was and is committed to a homeland for Jews and was and is deeply affected by the Holocaust. He fought for the Israeli army for years until he realized that the violence the army was committing had, as he put it, nothing to do with increasing the security of Israel, but had other political aims. He feels that "the occupation is destroying the Jewish state and Jewish morality."

Suleiman, a Palestinian, grew up in poverty and violence and didn't see another way. He started with graffiti at around the age of 12 or 13, graduated to throwing rocks at soldiers, then to Molotov cocktails. He and friends tried making homemade guns, unsuccessfully, so at the age of 15 he and his 18 year old friend decided to attack two young Israeli soldiers to get their guns. They attacked them with knifes and fought for "about half an hour." They didn't get the guns or kill the soldiers, but they were eventually caught and tried in a military court, and Suleiman was sentenced, at 15 years of age, to 15 years in prison. He was released after 10 years, and, amazingly enough, is now fully and completely committed to non-violence, even in the face of violence by others. He's abandoned his Muslim religion, though he hasn't exactly announced it publicly, and he doesn't support the shelling of Israeli villages from Gaza, an apparently rare sentiment in the Palestinian community. He's contemplating trying to find the soldiers he and his friend attacked 20 years ago, though he doesn't know what he'll say to them. "I'm from the Middle East - I don't plan things. I'll see what I say when it happens."

If you don't know, as I didn't, the famous "West Bank" is a huge land mass, relatively speaking - about a third the size of Israel proper. (Click here for a detailed map.) Confusingly, it is not Israel - nor is it another country. It's called the occupied territories because it was taken from Jordan in the Six Day War in 1967, not given back, not incorporated into Israel, and occupied militarily ever since. Consequently, Palestinians who live there don't have a country. They aren't citizens of Israel nor of any other country. They aren't even allowed INTO Israel without a permit. (To complicate things, roughly 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab-Israelis, sometimes referred to as Palestinian-Israelis, who are citizens of Israel, and who can travel and reside in Israel, though they frequently do not serve in the armed forces, which is compulsory for all other citizens.)

I'm afraid it's late and I want to send this out tonight, so that will have to do it. Forgive me for my incomplete summary of an impossible subject! In the meantime, I beg of you, please, read this short booklet which does a good job of describing the conflict in terms of "the Israeli narrative" and "the Palestinian narrative." The two sides have completely different views and stories about the same historical events, as well as differing objectives. Trust me - you cannot trust your government or the media to give you the full story about what's happening here. Download this PDF and read it!

When I have the time, I'll write about the day that we volunteered to pick olives in a location where, the day before, the farmers and two international volunteers were attacked by the nearby Israeli settlers with metal poles. It was a surreal and mostly uneventful day, but included discussions like, "What is an appropriate and non-violent response to someone chasing you with a metal pole?"

Until next time, too much love,

My shadow(s) reflect in a spring near where we stayed.

This renovated chicken coop hosted us for the first few days of our retreat. Nobody here but us chickens.

It's a little tiring picking olives in the hot sun, as the expressions here over lunch might indicate - or maybe it was just a moment in time.

A panoramic view of an olive orchard.

This is Petra from Germany, who was with another group. She's spent a total of about three years in Israel and is working on a book. There are many volunteers from all over the world who come to help the Palestinians with their harvest - primarily to show support and also to express their displeasure with the occupation.

The cute daughter of one of the farmers.

The same daughter and her brother are gathering the olives from the tarps and filling a burlap bag.

Jess from England makes some friends.

Our new digs in the West Bank town of Deir Istiya, after some ferocious cleaning. Fourteen of us squeezed into three bedrooms with one combination toilet/shower room. Cozy!

A panoramic view from the roof, where some of us slept and then dropped our tents because of the strong wind. Rain came this day and soaked our tents and my sleeping bag.

Michal and I were dropped off by the side of the road and told to wait for the farmer to come get us for olive picking. A military Hummer drives past, a few cars. Then I look up and seemingly out of nowhere appears a kid riding a horse bareback, holding a stick. He waves it across the road and indicated we should follow. As I kept repeating this week because I think it's funny: "This is the weirdest vacation EVER!"

Just like his t-shirt says, he's "beantiful."

The rain came down quite heavily and we'd forgotten our rain gear or even jackets. Then the dusty red dirt immediately turned into a goopy clay mess.

One of the sons of Nawaf, our local contacts who looks like Richard Gere. This kid? Maybe more like Elvis. Elvis-ish.

Zuhir, a lovely man who arranged the farmer connections for our group.

I love a photo like this - a cute little kid peeking out from behind a door.

This little guy was turning inside out from shyness. Sweet.

We walked through the old town of Deir Istiya, where at least some of the buildings date to Roman times.

An old door in a newly renovated house.

One of the seven gates into the old town.

A friendly kid with the usual question: "What is your name?!"

Nice kids.

A shop is lit up as the sun sets.

The next harvest day, with rain threatening.

Another photo of Zuhir.

You see quite a few donkeys in the West Bank, and almost none in Israel.

Rizzik, another Palestinian contact. He mentioned that he's been to England giving talks to interested groups.

Zohar, the organizer of this retreat, along with her husband Nathan.

The kids are sweet and excited to meet us, even when they find out that half the people are Israeli.

Another farmer, whose name I know and can't remember! Oops.

On the hill straight ahead is a settler's village, Revava. The farmers frequently won't come to harvest unless we accompany them, even though this particular settlement is not aggressive. We did see, though, that they have been dumping raw sewage into the valley, which kills the olive trees.

Revava settlement, recognizable by the red tiled roofs, which you don't see in Palestinian villages.

Walking to Deir Istiya, with one of prominent mosque towers in the distance.

(The End)