We spent August 1-12 traveling the length and breadth of Israel/Palestine on a delegation with the California-based Middle East Children’s Alliance. We stayed at the Ibda’a Cultural Center guest house in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem in Palestine; we talked with Palestinian and Israeli NGOs and grassroots groups; we visited Palestinian homes, a Bedouin village in the Negev, and clinics in the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley; we walked around the ancient cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, and Nablus, along with the newer city of Haifa and a very new suburb of Nazareth. We saw what Israel calls “settlements” in the Occupied Territories, new towns built by Jewish colonists in violation of the Geneva Convention, which bars building by occupiers in lands under occupation; we saw the 30-foot-high concrete wall Israel is building, often between Palestinians’ homes and their farms and olive trees.
Here are some of the people we spoke with and their stories.
On a rocky hillside near Jerusalem, the shells of old stone houses cling to the steep slope. Once, they made up a village called Lifta. Yacoub Odeh points to one house: “This was my home,” he says. “Where I was born.”
At the bottom of the hill is the spring that provided Lifta’s water, along with the ruins of the village mosque and the communal oven and olive presses. Lifta was once so rich in olive trees that the village had owned two presses. The trees are there still, but no one has harvested their olives since the Palestinian villagers were chased away in 1948, during what Israelis call the War of Independence and Palestinians call al Nakba—the Catastrophe.
Yacoub was a child then. Now in his 60s, he’s the human rights and housing supervisor with the Land and Housing Research Center, an international human rights coalition. For these 12 days, he’ll be our guide to the West Bank.
Yacoub lives in Jerusalem now. Jerusalem residency is a special status for Palestinians—they carry neither Israeli nor Palestinian passports, but rather Jerusalemite IDs. This gives them a little more freedom of movement than Palestinians have in the Occupied Territories.
But Yacoub can’t go back to Lifta. No one can, because to build or rebuild so much as a doorway would require an Israeli building permit—and Palestinians don’t get those permits. Ever. Sometimes they build without them, and then the police or the Israeli Defense Forces come with Caterpillar bulldozers and demolish what’s been built and fine the Palestinians for the cost of the demolition. Yacoub knows this all too well; everywhere we go, he shows us the sites of demolished homes. No one can build or live in empty Lifta now. Its olives ripen and fall and lie on the stony ground.
Yet Lifta is not quite a ghost town. The ancient spring has some religious significance to the Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem, and they come there to picnic in the shade of Lifta’s olive trees and bathe in its waters. They’re here today, staring as Yacoub walks us around what used to be his village. It seems they’re not used to seeing Palestinians here.
The “Settlers” of Hebron
Like other West Bank cities—Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Qalqilya—Hebron is ringed with “settlements,” colonies snaking along the hilltops surrounding it. But the city of 155,000 also hosts 400-500 ultra-Orthodox Jews living right in the city center.
The 1993 Oslo agreement partitioned the city into H1, under Palestinian jurisdiction, and H2, ruled by the Israeli military. The formerly bustling main street Shou Haddah is one of the many H2 streets designated “sterile” by the military in order to segregate the often violent settlers from the Palestinian population. Shop doors are welded shut, and the only traffic is the occasional settler on foot or a soldier jogging up the steep hill with his automatic rifle for exercise.
“Sterility” can range from a ban on Palestinian vehicles in a street to a prohibition against even Palestinian pedestrians; many Palestinians living here have to reach their homes via ladders and neighboring rooftops. In the city’s center, 42 percent of Palestinian homes are empty and 77 percent of businesses are closed.
We visit two Palestinian families sticking it out in H2. Issa lives in a home rented with the help of a mixed Jewish-Muslim organization called Children of Abraham. Volunteers from the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (Palestinian workers can’t enter the area) rebuilt the house, which had been damaged by settlers and military operations.
Now Issa, his neighbor Hani, and Children of Abraham are creating a space on the second floor for joint Israeli-Palestinian meetings and seeking funding for a playground. Hani wants to have classes and nonviolence training there for children; his kids were watching action movies and coming up with ideas about revenge, he said, and he wanted to teach them something else: “If I use guns, I can kill six, ten settlers. What do I accomplish? I give them an excuse to make another settlement. Besides, I’m not a fighter; I’m a father.”
“Before, the settlers were acting and we were reacting,” Issa adds. “Now we are acting and they don’t know how to react.” Hani has given his son a video camera to document settler attacks, which has already helped exonerate a family friend who was arrested after an incident with settlers. He shows us video footage of girls leaving a Muslim school and facing spitting, taunting settler girls. Yards away, young Orthodox boys lob stones at the Arab girls while IDF soldiers stand by.
Settlers have torched Hani’s olive grove more than once. “Anything I put in, I have an 80 percent chance of losing, but I don’t look for the lose. I look for the win,” he says.
“Something from a Book by Kafka”
As the days wear on, we realize that there are some stories we hear over and over, none of them more told and retold than accounts of house demolitions.
In Jerusalem, we meet with Zacharia Odeh of the Civic Coalition for Defending the Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem and Meir Margalit of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. They tell us that in East Jerusalem alone, 1000 homes are built illegally every year. East Jerusalem was the Palestinian part of Jerusalem until it was unilaterally annexed by Israel in 1967. Now, as noted above, Palestinians need permits from the Israeli authorities to build anything there, from a new doorway to an entire home. “The process for getting a permit is something that someone in the [Jerusalem] municipality brought from a book by Kafka,” says Margalit.
The municipality issues some 700 demolition orders every year; most years, only about 100 demolitions are actually carried out, but the demolition orders never expire. Sometimes the bulldozers destroy homes people have been living in for a dozen years.
Yacoub brings us to the home of one such family. We sit and drink tea with them and listen to their account of the tearing down of just the top floor of their home—straight out of Kafka indeed.
“It costs $350 per square meter to build the house,” says Talal Hamed Shwaikey, who has seven daughters and four sons. “But what we lose is not the money, but the health of the family. These kids see their home destroyed. Who knows what they will do tomorrow?”
Another day, 100 miles to the south, we meet with Faisal Sawalha, an academic-turned-activist with the Regional Council for the Arab Unrecognized Villages in the Negev. “Unrecognized villages” are another Kafkaesque Israeli phenomenon: According to the Regional Council, in the 1960s and ’70s, the Israeli government attempted to resettle the Bedouin population of the Negev in seven new townships. When some 70,000 Bedouins chose to remain where they were, Israel designated their villages “unrecognized” and withdrew all municipal services. We visited one such village, in which the electricity is supplied by a generator bought by the residents themselves; they buy their water from the government, water that comes from their well the government confiscated.
Here, too, people build without permits, and here, too, the IDF and the bulldozers demolish the buildings. But today the Bedouins are protesting the demolitions in a not-quite-silent vigil at six different highway junctions in the Negev. We join one protest, standing for an hour under the blazing desert sun.
A Prison for Children
We pick three cabs from the crowd of taxis at the center of Nablus to take us to Al Farah prison. It turns out that two of the three drivers, men in their early 30s, had been imprisoned there. This is quite common among men of this generation, explains one of our delegation leaders; most of them came through this prison at some point in their childhood.
Built during the British Mandate and used by the Israelis to hold children under “administrative detention” (which can mean being held for up to six months without charges), Al Farah was closed in 1993 after the Oslo accords and is now a cultural and sports center. One driver, who doesn’t want his picture taken for fear of trouble at checkpoints, was detained shortly after a military order allowed the army to arrest children under 16 years old. He was held for four months in a room with nine others. He describes being tied to a chair and spun around until he lost consciousness. He tells us how the children stood all day long (except for meals) in the sun with their hands and legs bound.
The prison administrators used collaborators, known as “birds,” because they could “fly” from the prison. Pretending to be prisoners, they would tell cellmates, “I’m getting out tomorrow. Is there any message I can take to your friends and family?” Thus, the Israelis collected more names of young men to round up.
Yacoub served 17 years in even more overcrowded Israeli prisons. “We were kept 10-15 in a room,” he says, “and if you got up in the night to go to the bathroom, you might not be able to find room to lie down again when you came back.”
Like so many things here, the wall has different names, depending on where you’re standing. Israel calls it the “separation barrier”; Palestinians call it the “apartheid wall.” Neither captures the reality: a 400-mile barrier (in a land the size of New Jersey): in some places a razor-wire fence, but along much of its length a 30-foot-high concrete wall, constructed, not along the “green line” border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, but east of the border and thus de facto annexing still more Palestinian territory.
There are checkpoints all along the wall, but also checkpoints within the West Bank. Letting Palestinians pass through them is depends on whether Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) staff a given checkpoint at a given moment; it can take hours to get through. More than once, we’re told, IDF guards have refused to believe a woman who said she was in labor, and more than one woman has given birth on the ground at a checkpoint. Some of the babies have died. Usually the sight of our white faces inside the MECA van gets us a quick pass through the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but at the checkpoint going into the city of Qalqilya, the guards refuse our van altogether, and we have to pile into a couple of cabs and meet our driver when we leave again.
Qalqilya is a special case: a Palestinian city completely surrounded by the wall, with only two ways in and out. It used to be a thriving market town, but now, with access so difficult, people are leaving in droves. We spend an afternoon walking along the wall there with a member of the Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign. The wall blocks the channels where rainwater used to drain; now, in the rainy season, the ground floors of the houses near the wall are under water, and the people of Qalqilya get around in boats.
Yacoub says, “If the USA said, ‘Remove the wall,’ it would be gone in five minutes.”
A Clinic in the Jordan Valley
It is 120 degrees on the Saturday that we accompany volunteer Israeli health workers from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to the tiny Jordan Valley village of Jiftlik for a women’s clinic. The operation uses a facility run by the Medical Relief Society, founded in 1979 to “create clinics in deprived areas, far away from cities, for people who can’t reach health facilities in Jericho and Nablus because of checkpoints,” explains Muntaser Souboh, who works there. Jericho and Nablus are about 45 minutes away by car, but army checkpoints can make the trips take more than six hours.
The Medical Relief Society focuses on primary health care, emphasizing preventive measures and alternative medicine. Muntaser and his colleague Dr. Yusef Khader Sa’ada stress the importance of health education: “Public health means creating conditions in which people are healthy,” says Yusef.
All the houses in Jiftlik, an “unrecognized” village of 4000 with no government services, are roofed with corrugated iron. Otherwise, says Muntaser, the Israelis demolish the buildings. “Look at this,” he says pointing in disgust at the clinic’s roof: “This is a look for a clinic of 25 years?” He indicates a stagnant pool at the base of a tree a few yards away. “Sewage water comes to visit our clinic,” he says bitterly.
Meanwhile, the Israeli health volunteers have gone to work in the stifling building, seeing more than 60 women. One doctor takes blood pressure under the trees outside, while a medical student sets up a makeshift pharmacy.
PHR patient coordinator Iman Achbarriya, harried with the details of the operation, explains how the group works with the community. PHR used to do mobile clinics for women with male doctors, she says, but the health workers found that the women only came to deal with their children’s health needs.
Now, they use women’s groups in the village as local partners. They run clinics for three months, so they can order tests, do follow-up, get to know their patients, and build trust. They also help the women understand that they deserve better care and that they need better nutrition and preventive care like breast exams. PHR workers research the needs and priorities of the village women and how women are seen in the community. “All the women say if they can learn something, they can change,” says Iman.
‘People Want to Feel Life’
On the way to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Imad Abdo, the van driver, does some role-play to prepare us for questioning at the checkpoint. Getting around the West Bank is much easier than it was a few years ago, he says: “Used to be, the average person would spend four to five hours a day dealing with checkpoints, figuring out alternate routes, etc.”
In the seventies, Imad relates, relations were much better. He had Israeli friends and people could travel more freely between Israel and the West Bank. But then, “They really showed us we are different, that we are ‘other.’ If they would treat us the same as they treat themselves, there would be no resistance. People want to live, to feed their children, to feel life.”