Saturday, July 20

MCC Palestine Update #54

MCC Palestine Update #54

July 20, 2002

Thirty minutes to cross the checkpoint dividing the north of the Gaza Strip (itself only 38 km long) from the south. Over one hour to cross the same checkpoint returning north. All in all, our group of MCC workers and visitors counted ourselves lucky that the wait was so "short"-- after all, we knew many others who have had to wait two, three, four, even more hours to pass through the checkpoint.

On our weekend visit to Rafah and Khan Younis to visit kindergartens and children's clubs supported by MCC, the Israeli settlement enterprise in the Gaza Strip seemed more entrenched than ever. A bridge had been constructed to connect the Gush Qatif block of settlements in the south of the Gaza Strip with the road leading out to Israel proper. Palestinians were still unable, however, to drive along the main north-south highway, thanks to pressure from settlers at the Kfar Darom settlement south of Deir el- Balah on the Israeli army to close that road. No more than 6000 Israeli settlers thus determine that 1.2 million Palestinians are unable to travel freely from the north to the south of this tiny piece of land.The restrictions on travel between the north and the south of the Strip mean the disruption of Palestinian higher education, of health care, and of the economy, and separates family members from each other.

Despite the frustrations of travel, our group was inspired by the dedicated work of the Culture and Free Thought Association in the Khan Younis refugee camp. CFTA staffers empower children and teenagers in their summer camps, working with the children and teens to design, implement and evaluate camp activities. This year, with MCC support, CFTA staff trained the staff of 16 other grassroots organizations in the south of the Gaza Strip in ways to design summer camps which strengthen and empower children.

Before heading back to Gaza city from Khan Younis, our group went out to the edge of Khan Younis to look at tens of apartment blocks demolished by Israeli military bulldozers during the past year, actions which left hundreds scrambling for makeshift dwellings elsewhere. Tomato plants were sprouting out of the rubble, the seeds having come from the tomatoes people had kept in their kitchens. Less than a quarter of a kilometer from us a small group of Palestinians living in the Mawasi region west of Khan Younis, an area completely surrounded by Israeli settlements and military outposts, waited to be allowed back to their homes by Israeli soldiers.

As we turned around to leave, thoroughly depressed by the destruction and the domination we'd seen, Majeda, a program coordinator for CFTA pointed into the sky and with a smile on her face said, "Look! Sunshine and a kite!" MCC is privileged to work Majeda and other inspiring individuals and organizations.

Below you will find three pieces. The first, by MCC worker Ed Nyce, explores the realities of burying one's dead while under curfew. The second piece, by Tania Nassir, gives a telling description of the chaotic scramble that reigns when the curfews are briefly lifted. The final piece, by Ishai Rosen Zvi, appeared in the Israeli paper Yediot Ahranot, provides a caustic commentary on attempts to put a "humane" face on occupation.

--Alain Epp Weaver

1. What If He Had Died on Friday?
Ed Nyce

A sense of urgency attached itself to the solemn act of burial. Time was getting short. The weather was clear on this Tuesday in July. Rain would likely not come for another three or four months, much less on this afternoon. Daylight would be around for hours. The natural elements were not a problem. But people worked quickly under the hot sun to finish the digging of the grave. Three o'clock was not far away. Bethlehem and its environs, like most West Bank cities and villages, are under Israeli curfew. Some days, the Israelis lift the curfew for four or six hours. Other times, the curfew remains in place for 24, 48, 72 consecutive hours. From one day to the next, Palestinians wonder whether they will get to go to work if they still have jobs, to buy food if they still have money, to see friends other than the people who live in their immediate vicinity.

And what if somebody dies? Sometimes, when there is no curfew break, Israel grants permission for the body to be taken away. Other times, such permission is not forthcoming, and the whole house begins to smell of a decomposing body.

The elderly Muslim gentleman being buried on this July day died suddenly of natural causes at 10:30 in the morning. Custom dictates that the dead should be buried on the same day as their passing, as a sign of respect and dignity. That was one reason for the quick work this early afternoon. There was, of course, another reason: Who knew if the curfew would be lifted tomorrow? Meanwhile, the crowd of Palestinian Muslim and Christian mourners was smaller than it would have been under more normal conditions. Relatives from outlying villages reportedly guaged that the trip to the family's home, to the mosque, and then to the graveyard would take too much time, that they might still be returning home at the time the curfew break was ending. They may also have needed the entire time to obtain food for their families. Those who live closer may have feared, as sometimes happens, a sudden shortening of the previously announced curfew break, leaving them to try to make their ways home in danger.

As I watched the man's two adult sons at the burial, one a water company employee, the other a dentist, I thought of the standard emotions accompanying the loss of a loved one. What if I were in their shoes? What if, on top of those standard emotions, I had to deal with additional involuntary feelings toward some power which has occupied the land on which I live and tells me when I can be indoors and outdoors, even on such an occasion as this? What if I was getting married, and my wedding had to be held at 10:00 instead of the traditional 4:00 or 5:00, with the reception way too early in the afternoon, all on a moment's notice, upon learning of a curfew break?

Regarding freedom of religion, what if, were I a Palestinian Christian, my baptism or confirmation was postponed because none of us could go to church on the appointed Sunday? How would I explain to a questioner from afar that even though things are more "quiet" in Palestine and Israel during this or that period of time, humiliating and dehumanizing violence happens every day?

As for the rest of the week, Wednesday dawned with word that there was to be no curfew break that day, though suddenly there was a short one after all. A six-hour break was granted on Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, no breaks were forthcoming. If the man had died on Friday, in which room of the house would his family have chosen to store his body?

2. When the Curfew is Lifted
Tania Nasir, Birzeit
July 6, 2002.

Today I was a witness to a harrowing experience on the Birzeit- Ramallah road - an experience that buttressed my conviction of the immorality of the Israeli occupation and the inhumanity of its army.

After frustratingly waiting for days on end, I set off from my home in Birzeit heading towards Ramallah seven kilometers away. I planned to visit my ninety year old mother and my sister, something I did almost daily before the recent Israeli army incursions in the area. The ensuing state of blanket curfews on Ramallah have made it impossible for me to go and see them for the past few weeks.

Today the curfew was to be lifted from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. and this was an opportunity for me to visit them as usual. But it was not as simple as that! We are under siege and before heading for Ramallah I made sure to ask about the situation on the road. I was assured that it was safe. The soldiers manning the military check post, usually prohibiting or supervising passage, were gone. It was a signal that one could go without the hazards and intimidations, although cement blocks remained in place and as usual, preventing cars from passing.

The only way to get to Ramallah was to walk part of the way through the check post area - a distance of about one kilometer. I joined the walking crowd. There was close to what one might call a normal cross traffic flow on that hot summer morning from Birzeit to Ramallah and the other way round. Birzeit is almost a suburb of Ramallah, the big city, where most services are available and where one can resume contact with the energy of activities and encounters.

So it was with excitement yet cautious anxiety that most of us took to the road. We were happy at the chance of living once again, an ordinary day, taking a familiar route. After living the stagnation and prison-like conditions of the past few weeks, there was a sigh of relief on everyone's lips and a reluctant hope in the heart. Hurriedly we moved along, aware of precious time. The hours will pass quickly and the curfew will be back in no time. Apprehensively and with a light gait we set off to visit relatives and friends, keep appointments, shop at favorite stores or simply enjoy a casual walk downtown.

Likewise, there was the crowd from Ramallah, mostly students, faculty and staff of Birzeit University, heading for their campus in the town of Birzeit. Foremost on their minds was the need for the resumption of the much interrupted academic life, finishing the semester for some and graduation and celebration for others. Watching the young people, I felt the vibrant energy of youth, the determination to go on regardless of hardships, and of a life edging on despair. Their resilience is contagious.

We have a future to live for, I remind myself. I reached Ramallah almost forgetting the perils of our days. I visited my mother and enjoyed the reunion with her and my sister. My mother smiled doubtfully when I promised her a daily visit like before. She knows how difficult it is to keep such promises under the prevalent conditions. Sadly the time passed quickly and it was getting close to 1 p.m. The hours of freedom have almost come to an end. I had to hasten and leave before the curfew is re-imposed at 2 p.m.

Once more I found myself part of the milling crowd, returning with heavy hearts. The excitement of the morning hours was almost gone, the optimism reduced as we got closer to the check post area - a tangible reminder that we are under occupation and that our lives are monitored by the dictates of curfews and siege. We moved along burdened but at least relieved that the passage seemed smooth. How terribly mistaken we were!

Suddenly from around the bend an army jeep appeared, speeding crazily through the peaceful crowd. Instantly the quiet road became almost like a battlefield. There were intangible ferocious sounds coming from the chasing jeep - words and orders that no one seemed able to understand. All I knew was that we were being chased and dispersed and that there was panic and fear on the faces of all around me.

Hundreds like me running and scared and wondering what was happening; men carrying goods, women with shopping bags, their children confused, traumatized, clutching at their mothers skirts, others holding babies or trying to push prams, students with books, old people pleading for someone to guide them along. All were desperately trying to avoid confrontation with this solitary army jeep, zigzagging its way in all directions, seeking innocent victims like a demented ogre on the loose. We ran. Some took to the nearby rocky terraced hills, others took refuge in the vineyards and fruit orchards below and some like me opted to remain on the main road. All the time, gas bombs hurled from the jeep were chasing us like vultures hunting their prey.

The tender loving landscape was transformed to the ugliness of fear and rage. Heart beating, muscles aching, I ran for dear life. Why this all of a sudden? We had left our homes this morning without the presence of a manned check post, and now we are faced with the threatening presence of soldiers. Was this perhaps a trick for the army to remove check posts and then whimsically reinstall them and thus trap us like now creating this horrific pandemonium?

May be far-fetched, but reminiscent thoughts of the horrors of the Kufr Qassem massacre, years ago, came to my mind. I could not help but painfully remember the bloody events of that day when farmers of this northern Palestinian village were returning home after a long day in the fields, not knowing that a curfew was imposed on their village by the Israeli army. Without any warning they were shot in cold blood as they approached their homes in the evening.

Could something like this happen again? Scared more than ever before, I keep on running. The road is uphill. I struggled amongst the scrambling crowd, the unbearable heat suffocating me. The contemptible military jeep, that kaki green object of terror and intimidation, screeched to a halt next to me. I see a soldier jumping down, nervously, threateningly waving a grenade in his hand. I wanted to scream at him, but fear got the better of me and I continued running. A young woman pulled me ahead, warning me that the soldier is about to throw the grenade. I ducked as I heard the explosion behind me and I choked on the poisonous gas. I am coughing and running, coughing and running I desperately needed water, my throat was on fire and dry as sun-scorched earth but I kept on running, fleeing, until after what seemed like an eternity, I stumbled into the safety of a passing car that took me home.

Behind me the madness continued. I am over whelmed by this experience and I desperately seek an explanation. More than the physical pain and terror that I have experienced, I am angry and humiliated by the arrogance, the immorality, the inhumanity of the insolent power of Israel. This traumatic incident that I was a part of, happens almost everyday, everywhere in Palestine.

The injustice is unbearable. I try to recapture what really happened today. There was no provocation. There was no threat. There was no danger to the security of Israel. To me, the only explanation to what happened was that we, simple and ordinary civilians, dared to go on with our lives as ordinary human beings do everywhere else in the world.

Yes, despite thirty five years of occupation and despite attempts by Israel to crush us as a people and as a society, our only crime was that we dared to be ordinary citizens, living ordinary lives in our ordinary land. Sadly, knowingly, I remember the poignant words of our renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, "...we do not seek to be victims nor do we seek to be heroes. All that we want is to be ORDINARY."

3. The Enlightened Conqueror
Ishai Rosen Zvi
Yediot Ahronot, July 6, 2002

Last Saturday we were shown the human face of the Israeli Occupation ("From the Diary of a Humanitarian Officer," Yediot Ahronot, 2002-06-28). The face was that of A.S., "a Jerusalem leftist" as the article put it, "a humanitarian officer" at the Kalandia checkpoint. A.S. is responsible for the fair and courteous treatment of everyone who passes through the checkpoint. The checkpoint is not so bad, A.S. tells us; it's somewhat like lining up at U.S. Customs or at the Social Security Office. Altogether, it never takes more than three minutes for women and eight for men. He has timed it. At the Paris airport it takes much longer. In fact, there is no queue at the checkpoint. Our sensitive officer forgot to mention one detail: the reason there is no queue is that the checkpoint is only for the population of three small towns within the limits of Jerusalem.

Most of the residents of the (occupied) territories are under total curfew; no one comes and no one goes. For weeks, people have not been able to leave their homes; for months, they have been confined to their towns and cities under terrifying closures.

This is a situation we have tried in vain to impress upon the coarse heart of the self-justifying, self- satisfied Israeli. Fifty percent unemployment, a million people earning less than two dollars a day, living amid sewage; we have run out of adjectives to describe conditions in the (occupied) territories.

The Palestinians no doubt long for the days when there were lengthy lines at the Kalandia checkpoint with humiliating checks that meant hours standing under the burning sun in order to get to work, to school, to visit relatives. Because then there was still a way, slow and oppressive as it was, to move.

Today this is all a distant dream. But why complain? After all, A.S., the enlightened occupier, a leftist by birth and by conviction, does say good morning to the inhabitants of the few Jerusalem villages who pass through the Kalandia checkpoint and he even speaks Arabic. He brings them Paradise itself. There is such obtuseness in the story of A.S.!

He says he knew about checkpoints only from Gideon Levy's horror stories in Haaretz, and now it turns out that it's not like that at all. Well, he's right. These are not Gideon Levy's horror stories, this is the real story of the Israeli occupation and it is much more horrific.

It is a story of such vast obtuseness that you can no longer see the devastated world of a million people who have been living without any rights for an entire generation, and whose plight has worsened immeasurably in the last year and a half. Such obtuseness does not ask why people have to live surrounded by prison walls, under military rule, but is satisfied instead to note a bit of courtesy in the way the prison guard addresses an 80-year- old prisoner.

This is the story of a man who oppresses millions of people and steals their world by force of arms, and then goes home and tells himself about his own morality and the courtesy in his soul. Look what an enlightened occupier I am! The story of the Israeli occupation is not that of the sadistic soldier. There are those too, and many of them.

But the real story is the story of people like A.S., the courteous leftist, who doesn't beat or curse but just stands at the checkpoint, at the entrance to towns, at the exit from villages, and imposes total closure. And thus, gently and politely, he deprives others of their freedom.

Why do they hate us, he wonders, after all I am so nice. They hate us, A.S., because you are their jailer and it doesn't matter how many Arabic words you practise. And there is so much racism in this story! Like the occupation itself, it is entirely invisible, unseen. The checkpoint is in "an odd place," the innocent A.S. tells us: inside Jerusalem (East Jerusalem -- trans.), with a few Palestinian villages on the other side.

How strange. After all, we are talking about regular residents of Israel, "citizens with equal rights." Why are they on the other side of the checkpoint? Probably a matter of "field requirements," as he puts it. Must residents of Ramot or Gilo also pass through the checkpoint, because of "field requirements"? Will they have to wait at every exit from their homes for humiliating checks? But why disturb the reader with trifles? After all, when it comes down to it, we're dealing with Arabs. No, A.S., you are not preventing terror attacks, you are creating them.

The oppression, frustration, destruction and killing which you inflict (while trying to paint it in a positive light) - this is the fuel that stokes the attacks day by day. The question is not whether there are a few madmen who will consent to commit suicide in the future. It seems there will always be those.

The question is why support for suicide attacks has climbed to 80% among inhabitants of the territories in the past year. This is not preordained by fate, this is not metaphysics: we are forging this with our own hands. Israeli policies in the territories today are planting the seeds of terrorism in the future. Only total blindness prevents us from seeing this. Operation Determined Path will be no more successful in stopping the attacks than was Operation Defensive Shield (or than the next, probably even more grandiose and sophisticated operation will be).

How much more spilling of blood will our blindness cause? If only the story were just an innocent tale about the obtuseness of one Israeli officer with a compassionate heart. But we are not innocent. The voice is the voice of A.S., but the hands are the hands of the IDF spokesman. (see Genesis 27:22 -- trans.) A.S., whether willingly or not, is a plaything in the hands of the vulgar propaganda of the powers that be.

Operation "Humanitarian Officer" is nothing but more media spin, designed like its predecessors to cover up atrocities and neutralize criticism. To go with but feel without. And in fact the task isn't hard. The media are happy to collaborate, as are the readers. Who has energy for all those nudniks who remind us that in 2002 Israel is still keeping in its backyard millions of people living like dogs, without rights.

Let us sleep in peace. Stories of the enlightened occupier, which were always false, become laughable at this time, when all the territories have been reconquered and men, women and children remain under total curfew for weeks. Now, when the occupation is in one of its cruellest periods, a story like this turns from empty self-justification to real farce.

At a time when we are hiding our faces, one must shout out in a loud voice: a checkpoint is not a matter of polite and decent behaviour. The question is not who says good morning to whom but who holds the rifle. The entire world of the Palestinians is in the hands of A.S., the enlightened despot: their time, liberty, freedom of movement, their livelihood, and at times their lives. And he, from the heights of his majesty, brightens their lives.

If I were a Palestinian, I would spit in the enlightened face of A.S., the courteous checker, the epitome of the Israeli occupation.

translated by Edeet Ravel

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