Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ben Gurion, the Old City, and Bethlehem prison--an update from the US Campaign/IFPB Delegation in Israel/Palestine

Our interfaith group (including a few faithfully secular) landed at Ben Gurion airport on Monday, with only two exceptions it was a smooth landing. One of our group members was detained for over six hours. She was detained because of a gift from her father, her last name. While our friend had never been to Israel/Palestine before, or even been involved in much anti-occupation work in the U.S., her father's name, and relatives who she has never met in Gaza, were enough to flag her. This was the first experience that most of our group had with racial profiling, Israeli style. After escaping the airport, we settled in at our hotel in East Jerusalem. The next day we took a tour of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the surrounding West Bank area, viewing sites of homes in the Silwan neighborhood that have been destroyed to make way for Israel's "City of David" archeological park, as well as several developments planned and paid for by U.S. bingo mogul, Irving Moskowitz. We learned how Moskowitz (and others, including the Israeli state) are working to divide the West Bank with a belt of settlements extending from Jerusalem to the Jordan River. We also saw construction for the Jerusalem Light Rail Project, subject of a recent boycott & divestment victory. Today was devoted to Bethlehem and the surrounding environs. The drive to Bethlehem was interesting in itself; I previously had no concept of how compact this land is. If it weren't for the checkpoints, I wouldn't have been able to tell that we had left the Jerusalem suburbs. Of course, this is because Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been connected for millennia. Trade, travel, and family between the two cities have traditionally been intertwined, but now Israel's apartheid wall, checkpoints, and permit system have made these age-old traditions a thing of the past for Palestinians. We went to Wi'am, a community center dedicated to uplifting the citizens of Bethlehem through empowering women, youth activities, conflict transformation education, and providing mediation services. From Wi'am's office we had what must have, at one time, been a lovely view of hills speckled with olive trees. However, the view was scarred by the apartheid wall and a large Israeli settlement creeping ever closer to Bethlehem. This view gave me a new perspective on Israel's occupation, I felt surrounded, watched, and reminded of the fact that the people of Bethlehem live at the whim of the Israeli state-military apparatus. Our delegation will only spend one day in Bethlehem, I cannot imagine what this view, this perspective of powerlessness, must be like for those who call Bethlehem home. After Wi'am, we toured the Church of the Nativity and many of us prayed at the site of Jesus' birth. However, our visit to this holy place was not all quite reflection, we met a member of the city council who related his tale of being under siege in the Church in 2002, when 23 of the over 200 people seeking refuge from an Israeli invasion were killed by sniper fire. The second part of our day was dedicated to learning more about Palestinian refugees. Our delegation met with a representative from Badil, the center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. After learning about Palestinian refugees from a legal and historical perspective, we went to see the real thing, touring the Deheisheh Refugee Camp and Al-Feneiq (the Phoenix) Cultural Center. At Al-Feneiq, we spent over two hours with a Nakba survivor. Our host was a policeman in Jaffa prior to the founding of Israel and fondly reminisced on his mixed police academy class and his Jewish friends, before he was removed to a "Palestinian area" in 1948. Hearing this old man tell us about the harsh differences between the days in his twenties when he lived in harmony with his Jewish, Christian, and Muslim neighbors, and his life today as a refugee living in a cramped camp with only intermittent utility service, literally clinging to an Ottoman-issued document that certified his family's ownership of property which he is no longer allowed to visit made painfully clear the reality of Israel's apartheid policies. This man, who devoted his young life to protecting Jaffans of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, was forcibly removed from his home to a camp in an area that he had no connection to, and can now only share his heritage and memories of an integrated life with his children through his poetry, and a deed to a house that has been occupied by Israelis for 62 years. While everyone on this delegation has been very moved by our tours and meetings thus far, some have expressed a yearning for an Israeli perspective. While we should honor the fact that our settlement tour was conducted by an Israeli Jew, many felt that they still don't understand Israeli motivations for continuing occupation and apartheid practices. Hopefully tomorrow's trip to Sderot and several kibbutzim in the area will provide some insights.