Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Dragon at the Gate


BURJ AL-LUQLUQ
“Burj Al LuqLuq is the largest play and sports facility for young people in East Jerusalem.[2] In 2007 the Israeli authorities served demolition orders on six of the centre's buildings.[3]” (Wikipedia)
The name, Burj Al-Luqluq,  has an allure for being foreign to American ears, and the translation, “Tower of the Stork,” sounds like a fairy-tale. The actual place is indeed unique and its story not unlike a fairy tale –  the scary kind.
My friend, Deena,(not her real name) took me to see Burj Al-Luqluq because she is on its Board of Directors and helped to create it in 1991.  When I walked through its gate, I felt I had stepped into another world.  Here I was, inside the Old City of East Jerusalem, an ancient, crowded, bustling place, yet what I saw was an acre of  largely open space holding basketball courts and soccer fields filled with adolescent teams of boys  or girls dressed in sport shorts and T’s, a playground next to a low building that housed a kindergarten where well-dressed kids were enjoying the colorful boxes, toys and decorations that you would expect in an American kindergarten, another building that turned out to be a library, and in the background, the golden dome of Haram al-Sharif (the Dome of the Rock) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  
Where was I? 
I was on valuable real estate, snatched from the clutches of Israeli settlers back in 1991 and made into a community center for one of the poorest neighborhoods inside the Old City walls.  If Deena and her friends had not acted quickly to establish Burj Al-Luqluq, it would have become an apartment complex for Israeli settlers, who would have built upon the open space, not only excluding Palestinians from living there, but paving it over.
Instead, an oasis, but with a dragon at the gate.  Last November 20, the dragon, in the form of the Israel army, entered the gate in full military gear, and burst into the kindergarten, sending the forty children fleeing into the corners in terror.  After turning over the colorful boxes, spilling crayons and paints, and dumping children’s books and teachers papers on the floor, the soldiers turned towards the library and computer room to see what else they could destroy, whom else they might terrify.
Deena asked if I would write to you to tell you what happened.  That was chapter one of the fairy tale.  For chapter two I did some research  and learned that the army invasion might have been prompted by a desire to punish Burj for sponsoring a sporting event which memorialized the Palestinian man who had recently killed a baby Israeli girl and injured 8 others by driving his car into a light-rail station in Jerusalem.  The man, Ibrahim Al-Akari, was shot dead at the scene, so we will never know his motives, but let us assume the worst – that he was a terrorist who wanted to kill some Israelis.
How then, could Burj Al-Luqluq, a haven for kindergartners, be honoring a terrorist? (And wouldn’t they deserve to be punished for doing so, you might think?)  The idea to honor Al-Akari,  as a martyr not a terrorist, came from the teenagers who were participating in the sporting event.  These teenagers  live in overcrowded apartments, with unemployed fathers and incarcerated brothers.  They see no future for themselves so they drop out of school. They are often barred from praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in their own neighborhood because they are labeled terrorists for being young men.  In the end, they are brittle and angry.  And so they did this non-violent thing that was like spitting in the eyes of Israel – they honored the terrorist whom they thought of as a martyr, a martyr to the cause of freedom from the Israeli army of occupation.
                                                      *    *    *
My words cannot convey the thickness of the air in the West Bank after the bombing and destruction of Gaza and the daily killings of individuals in the West Bank,  which U.S. media doesn’t report. It’s like Ferguson and all the young Black men or children in America who are shot dead and we don’t hear about them.
Fairy tales can have a dark message, and this one does not yet have an ending.   The next chapter will be repairing Burj Al-Luqluq and helping the children deal with the trauma they just experienced, while the dragon lurks at the gate. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

OLIVES TO OLIVE OIL, BDS, WATER, SALARIES, ID's, PRODUCTION

OLIVES TO OLIVE OIL

At the cooperative olive press in Beit Jala, we learned a bit more about olives and their products. Farmers in a 22 mile radius can use this press. They bring their 50 kilo sacks of olives, get them marked with their name and wait in line for their turn. Then, only their olives go into the chute, get washed, crushed and processed. They pay 500 shekels for each ton of olives they bring in. One hundred kilos (220 lbs.) of olives make 25 kilos (55 lbs.) of oil. The pits are crushed separately and made into fire place logs. The oil itself is separated into cooking and soap or candle oil. The cooking oil is for household use or export, depending on how much the farmer has. Often a farmer will donate some of his product to charity - for prisoners, for Gaza or for the poor.

OCT, 19 -PICKING IN TECOA' WITH FATIMA AND 8 FAMILIES

Fatima, in addition to harvesting her family's olives with us, gives cooking lessons to help pay for the expenses related to caring for her autistic daughter. She also teaches French and spoke fluidly with the French volunteers in our group. Her husband, Abu Salam Askar, has heart problems and cannot work. They have 5 children, 2 of them in university. After we fiinished picking, we sat down to Fatima's cooking, which was unsurpassed: homemade felafel, hummous, salads, fried potatoes, eggplant, whole wheat bread baked in her outdoor oven, and even dessert! We couldn't pass the platters fast enough.

While in the olive grove, we could see the flat-topped Herodion Mountain, a short distance away, along with a military base to protect the surrounding settlements. Herod the Great built this man-made mountain to hold his castle and underground mausoleum. Although it is in the West Bank, Israel lays claim to it, so I have not visited it.

BDS - presentation by Bisan Mitri

BDS is an appeal to the conscience of the world: BOYCOTT Israeli products; DIVEST from companies that support or profit from the occupation, and SANCTION Israel until it ends the occupation. The call was put together by 181 Palestinian groups and organizations who met for one year in order to draft the call that went out July 8, 2005. It is meant to target complicity with the occupation. It's main goals are: a) End the occupation that started in 1967 , b) Dismantle the Wall, c) End apartheid inside Israel, and d) demand the right of return of Palestinians displaced by the wars of '48 and '67. BDS promotes boycotting Israeli goods by handing out flyers to Pal elementary schools. Beit Sahour Municipality has pledged to be free of Israeli products by ?

Fifth Annual BDS Conference in Nov. will invite Palestinian companies to discuss how they can get involved.

ACADEMIC BOYCOTT - Calls for severing ties with Israel academic institutions because all of them are complicit in the occupation.  First success was U of Johanesburg cutting ties with Ben Gurion U in 2009. Other sucesses: Steven Hawkins refused to participate in a conference in Israel and issued a statement; American Studies Asso endorsed BDS in 2013.

However, Palestinians living in Israel study in Israeli universities because they need the Israeli degree to get a decent job inside Israel.

CULTURAL BOYCOTT - Get celebrities not to perform in Israel. Attracts media.

SPORTS BOYCOTT - Mohammed Sarsa (?) a soccer star came out in support of BDS and was arrested and held without charges (Administrative Detention) for 3 years until he went on hunger strike to demand a trial: 93 days on just salt and water. Refused to be force fed. Finaly got a hearing and served the final 20 days in hospital.

Efforts to get Israel suspended from FIFA.

CONSUMER BOYCOTT -Boycott ALL Israeli products because Israel promotes settlements, and settlement products are often disguised as " packaged in Israel." For example dates from Jordan Valley settlements say only "packaged in So. Africa."

 Look for  bar code 729. The U.S. is Israel's biggest market .

DIVESTMENT - G4S a security company, supplies Israeli prisons; Kuait just ended a contract with them. Gates Fndn withdrew $182 M of shares from G4S. Sauda Arabia canceled Veolia contract 3 years ago.

U.S. Churches: June 2014 Presbyterians voted to divest from Caterpillar, HP (checkpt surveilance) and Motorola.

"Shares Activism" - buy one share in an offending company, pool them with others, and vote as a block.

SANCTIONS -This depends on governments taking action. To press for this,  BDS is changing strategy: meeting directly with government officials such as in Sweden.

ISRAEL'S RESPONSE - While feigning indifference to this campaign, the govenment has shown its concern by moving its efforts to counter BDS from Interior Ministry to Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Kenesset voted $35 M budget to counter BDS, and is paying US students to improve Israel's image.

WATER; SALARIES; PRODUCTION

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the minimum daily requirement of water for human health is 100 litres/day/person. Palestinians are gettinng 73 ltr, Israelis average 300 ltr and settlers get 700-900 lts/day/person. (Cows consume 400 lt/day/cow. Guess who can't keep a cow.)

The price of water in Palestine, which buys its own water back from Israel at 4 times what it costs inside Israel,  makes production cost more. Pal production has dropped 50%.

Palestinian average salary is 1450 NIS/month ($387.00)  45% of pop = low income.

Israel forbids Pal to manufacture 61 common medicines bec. they are made in Israel.

A Paris Agreement (?) forbids Pal to produce salt, cement flour, sugar, etc.

LACK OF ID OF ANY KIND - 70,000 CHILDREN have no ID, denied at birth so they can't get married, attend an Israeli university, nor travel outside country.

PALESTINE NATIONAL CONSMPTION = $3.9 B of which $3.4 B is in products or services produced in settlements, because most Israeli production is in settlements. Pal consumption = 6% of Israeli economy.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Further Analysis of Key Elements; Prospects for Change

 
On my second to last day in Palestine I am in East Jerusalem. Besides shopping for something my Arabic teacher wanted, and buying cookies from my cookie vendor, Khalil, who always greets me with the latest news and his assessment of U.S. and Israeli behavior, and getting a pound of Arabic coffee to bring home, I met with Mohammed B.

Mohammed is a Palestinian tour guide who can get in and out of Jerusalem and Israel because he has a Jerusalem ID. I met him 5 years ago when he guided a tour I was on, and he was so good that I sought him out for the two times I brought a group from the U.S. He agreed to meet with me for tea so I could pick his brain about what is going on here. I was not disappointed. In one hour we covered Jewish encroachment on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Egypt's role vis-a-vis Gaza and Israel, the international community's response to Gaza, majority grassroots aspirations, and U.S./Israel long-range plans for the Middle East.

I learned that on Wednesday, Oct. 30, the U.N. Security Council discussed (didn't vote on) the issue of Israel's settlement building. (Did this make the news in the U.S.?) All the members, including the United States, agreed that Israel should stop building settlements, especially in East Jerusalem neighborhoods, and should not change the status quo arrangements regarding who can access the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Mohammed says this sends a strong message to Israel, as do the votes by Sweden and Great Britain to recognize the State of Palestine. Finally the international community is waking up and focusing attention on solving "the conflict". The votes in Sweden and Britain were most likely a reaction to Gaza.

Mohammed clarified for me what is meant by recognizing the State of Palestine, which in reality doesn't exist. He said it means endorsing what the majority of Palestinians still want: a two-state solution using the 1967 borders with land swaps, and eliminating the settlements from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He explained that the West Bank borders would shrink in some places to allow Israel to incorporate large settlement blocks and would expand in other places to envelope Israel's Palestinian cities. Mohammed pulled out his map to show me what he was talking about. After the boundaries have been set and the occupation is over, Palestine will negotiate with Israel how to implement the Right of Return. It will not be abandoned, but a sovereign state will decide what is acceptable, e.g. the return of refugees might be into the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but not to Israel.

I wrote before about the tension around allowing Jews access to the Al Aqsa. It seems Israel floated a trial balloon to see how the public would react to a step towards full access. First came the angry response by the King of Jordan, threatening to re-evaluate its entire relationship with Israel, including their peace treaty. This is not an outcome Israel wants. Second, Israel was surprised to see how strongly Palestinians felt, especially the young men who are the ones most often denied access to the Mosque. Even Mohammed was surprised (and pleased) to see that the youth had not given up their spirit of resistance. Israel backed down, and Mohammed thinks they will no longer allow right wing settlers to the Al-Aqsa compound to upset the status quo.

Egypt's President Sisi made remarks at the U.N. that were quickly dropped from the news. He implied that Israel bore responsibility for the unrest in Egypt's Sinai. Such criticism from an ally is of grave concern to Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt keeps the border crossing to Gaza closed in order to control the Muslim Brotherhood, which has sought refuge in Gaza. However, this might change under the ceasefire agreement being negotiated between Hamas in Gaza, Fateh in the West Bank and Egypt. If the Palestinian Authority under Abbas is granted control over Gaza's borders, Egypt can relax, because Abbas will not tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood either.

Finally, Mohammed painted a picture encompassing the whole Middle East and what the U.S. and Israel are trying to bring about. They are trying to destroy all the Arab armies, starting with Iraq and including Syria and Egypt. This will leave Israel as the only military power in the region. This strategy explains the desire to topple President Asad in Syria. Once he is gone, the rebels will fight among themselves, which will be chaotic and bloody, but won't threaten Israel.

It remains to be seen if Mohammed's analyses and predictions are correct, but his perspective makes sense to me, and helps me to grasp some of the complexity of events in this tortured land.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Two Farmers, Two Stories, One Occupation




October 17 - Today our group picked for three different farmers in the Makhrour Valley. I was helping "Im" Mohammed, also known as Jamila Ilayan. She needed help with her 60 trees because settlers come to harass them. Israel's military occupation does not allow her to bring a tractor to plow under the trees - part of the maintenance they need, but she can hire a mule for the job. Her biggest problem is that she can't construct the simplest shed to store her tools or to take a rest from the sun. Every gardener and farmer needs tools. Just to pick the olives one needs tarps to spread under the trees to catch the olives, ladders to climb to the higher branches, buckets to collect olives from the tarps and ground, and sacks in which to put the buckets full of olives to take to the olive press. That is the bare minimum. One should also bring pruning sheers and a small saw, not to mention water and hopefully food for the mid-day meal. Without a shed in which to store most of this equipment, it must be transported back and forth every day in a car or truck.

Im Mohammed used to be able to come by foot, a half hour walk from her home, and it was pleasant. She and her family liked to stay sometimes until dark or even to spend the night in the small stone shelter that has crumbled to the ground because even maintenance is not allowed. Nor would the night be safe anymore. The settlers see to that. A poster I saw today said, "You are free to do whatever I tell you to do."

There were many volunteers today, we internationals and a lot of Palestinian university students from E. Jerusalem, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. The young men climbed up in the olive trees and belted out traditional songs, making us forget for a while why we were needed there. I met one woman who had been a professional athlete, a competitive swimmer on a team representing Palestine. She was just back from a year in Spain, getting a degree in sports education. Anyway, all together we were able to finish harvesting this farmer's trees, which otherwise would have taken a week and required hiring farm laborers.

PICKING IN WADI FUKIN, POPULATION 1,100.

If you live in Wadi Fukin and want to go to the nearest center of commerce, which is Beit Jala, you have to pass under the Israeli super highway via a tunnel. It is symbolic of the status of Palestinians who are allotted a subterranean passage --easily blocked off by military order --while Jewish Israelis travel above ground on roads only they can use. . Likewise, we international volunteers had to go through the tunnel to get to the village to pick olives.

Beitar Ilit settlement, now boasting 52,000 residents, is built on Wadi Fukin land, and it continues to swallow Wadi Fukin, as new construction moves down the side of the hill toward the spring-fed valley below where the village grows its fruits and vegetables. Settlers send their kids to play under the village's olive trees in order to provoke the ire of the villagers and to make the statement that they are taking over this whole area. Soldiers appear immediately to protect the settler children.

Abu Saadi has trees right near this creeping monster, and the settlers try to prevent him from harvesting them. Today, he preferred for us to pick trees a little away from Beitar Ilit's buildings in order to avoid a confrontation. But his kids are afraid to venture into the valley anymore.

Wadi Fukin will lose an additional 1480 dunams (370 acres) to the new settlement that Netanyahu just announced he would build in this area. Israel claims that the 4000 dunams it is confiscating from 5 villages to build this new settlement is uncultivated land. But by what rule of nature or men must you cultivate every piece of land you own? Yet Israel passed a law in 1950 to assure that any land not cultivated for 3 years should revert to the State. Then all they had to do was make it impossible to get to that land in order to expropriate it. End of story.

Well, not quite. There is more. Settlers recently dug up Abu Saadi crops and trees, and Abu Saadi has to pay the bill for this destruction! The rationale behind this bit of madness is that the farmer planted in the buffer zone between the village and the settlement. Since this buffer zone keeps changing with the expansion of the settlement, Abu Saadi didn't know its boundaries -- as if it were legal for Israel to have built the settlement and its buffer zone in the first place.

One Man's Reaction to Gaza's Suffering




Fadi is not your average Palestinian, not that I can tell you who is. Just he has a great sense of humor that he uses to flavor his astute analyses of world affairs and his efforts to make a difference for his country and his family. One example of the latter is that for the last 2 years he accepted an invitation to participate in a dialogue program sponsored by Holy Land Trust, a large NGO in Bethlehem. He opened his home to Jews who had come to Jerusalem from abroad and wanted to meet Palestinians. They came for dinner, conversation and to spend the night. The idea was to let them see Palestinians as real people and thus change their attitudes towards them. Fadi thinks he may have made an impact in this way, but after what happened in Gaza, he simply has no stomach for hosting Jews any more. He thinks they know what Israel is doing in their name, and he wants them to do something about it, not come to his house to talk about it.

P.S. Fadi knows there are Jewish Israelis doing good things. He mentioned the Army Unit that spies on Palestinians using the internet, and how some of the soldiers in that unit refused to partake of that activity.

P.S.S. Fadi is a father of 4, ranging in age from 24 to 14, a hospital receptionist, a loving husband, and a superb soccer player. I first met him when I was a paying guest in his home in 2008.

Tensions Mount

JOURNAL # 15 - wi'am's OSAMA
Osama is a Christian in the best sense of the word. He is devout, he serves his community, he is generous, and he believes in non-violence. He tells us he has hope, and I realize he has more hope than I do.  At the same time, he said, "We are tired. We are sick of the occupation. Israel is creating more apartheid, and in the short run there will be more 'domestic problems.'"  Osama thinks that changes will happen soon due to social media, which raises awareness which leads to action.  He derives hope from the BDS movement, from articles he is reading , from Jewish prophetic voices, and a belief that this cannot last forever - that the Wall will fall.  I asked what will be left of Palestine when the Wall finally falls.
 "Nothing."  Settlements have become the "normal". They have the land and water and power. Palestinian villages are not the normal anymore..  These conditions plus the dead economy are creating a vice grip of tensions.  Women take it out on their children. Men take it out on their wives and children. Fights break out over nothing. Everyone is in debt and can't afford to pay back their loans. Osama himself sometimes works 20 hours in a day, not just at Wi'am, (a Christion NGO serving the poor) so he can so he can keep ahead of the bills. But it means he's never home.  In addition, there is a brain drain as five thousand Palestinian students study abroad every year and only 20% of them return home. This is a brain drain.
On the question of whether there will be a Third Intifada, Osama and most people I talk to say no - at least not a violent one.  But Israel may be trying to provoke one by allowing Jewish presence on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third most holy site in Islam.  Osama thinks this behavour will cause some fare-ups of violent resistance and transform the conflict into a Jewish-Muslim conflict "which is very dangerous."   The Knesset is about to pass a new law making it legal for Jews to be on the Al-Aqsa compound.  Then the Israeli army will be able officially to arrest anyone who resists this presence. Faced with detention, the resistance will weaken.
 I ask what will happen once Jews have free access to the Al-Aqsa. Osama thinks they are moving toward  building a synagogue in one corner of the of the compound's garden.  Jews have been pressing for this to happen since 1929, but the British Mandate government gave authority over the mosque to a Muslim entity called the Waqf, and, by agreement with Israel,  Jordan now controls the Waqf.  The Knessets' new law will essentially negate that authority.
There is no doubt that Israel is playing with fire by the way it is handling the Al-Aqsa Mosque and compound. The only question is, how much will the fire consume?

Suddenly Israel Welcomes Palestinians


October 29 - Last night I was with Fadi and Abeer in their living room, sipping herbal tea, and sharing conversation with them, their other American guests, and occasionally one of their young adult children.  Abeer said that she had applied to her church for a permit to go to Jerusalem this Friday for a major Lutheran church holiday. Typically such pernits are for one day only. What she received was a permit lasting 3 months and allowing her to go anywhere in Israel she wanted, even to stay overnight, as long as she didn't come by car. At first I couldn't believe my ears.  Abeer showed me the paper permit and translated its contents from Arabic.
Why is Israel suddenly opening its borders to a free flow of (only Christian?) Palestinians, when just last week I was interviewing a married college graduate whose husband had to sneak illegally into Israel to find work?  My mind was swimming, as we all sought to answer this question.  We came up with several overlapping reasons, none of them complementary to Israel.
First, Israel's economy is in bad shape and will benefit from Palestinians shopping, especially during the upcoming Christmas season.  Second, during Gaza Palestinians boycotted Israeli products on a broad scale.  That boycott is effectively nullified if Palestinians go do their holiday shopping in Israel.
Third, travel into and out of Gaza has been severely restricted, such that family members have not been able to see each other for years.   By giving Christians in Gaza permission to enter and stay in Israel AND the West Bank and East Jerusalem,  maybe, just maybe, some of them will not want to return to their imprisonment in Gaza. years.  In that scenario, Gaza would become exclusively Muslim, and thus more easily isolated by propagandists as a terrorist enclave.
Fourth, happy Palestinian shoppers will forget about the attacks on Gaza.  For Fadi this would be the worst outcome of the new permits.
Fifth, if Palestinians spend their money in Israel, they will not spend it in Palestine, further undercutting the already devastated economy.
Sixth, but probably not last, desperate Palestinians will use the 3 month period to get temporary jobs inside Israel (even though work is not permitted under these new regs).  This fact makes it harder for churches to take a principled stand against the permit. If churches oppose the new regulations for the reasons I have just stated, they will also be blocking a possible source of income for families that are really hurting financially.
Further, Israel  might have made this move as a way to drive a wedge between Christian and Muslim Palestinians, something they have been doing by other means in an effort to divide and conquer.
We should keep in mind that the Christian population of Palestine, once as high as 10 %, is now at about l.2% and they continue to emigrate in disproportionately high numbers.  Some of my Christian friends say that from forty-five to eighty Christian families from the Bethlehem area left Palestine  just since  the recent war on Gaza. They worry that soon there will be no more Christians in the land of Jesus' birth.
I later learned that just last Sunday, (Oct. 26) the Knesset voted to allow  Palestinian males over 60 and females over 50 to enter Israel without a permit, just by showing their ID. Even lacking details about how this will work, it sounds like another corollary to the new "leniency" with dubious motivations.