Thursday, January 14, 2010

Welcome Home

Since returning home I’ve been overwhelmed with catching up on family time, getting settled into a new home, figuring out an income source and all that other good life stuff. But I wanted to write up my experience of coming back into the United States through Boston Logan Airport, specifically through customs.

I thought that I might be questioned coming back in to the US. I think living and working in a militarily occupied country has made me feel that my day-to-day actions are inherently illicit.

Anyway, you know how there are two layers of security coming back in to the US? The first is you hand over your passport at Passport Control and they stamp it. Next is customs, which I always thought was to make sure you weren’t bringing stuff (material stuff) into the country that you shouldn’t. I guess I was wrong or at least partially wrong. When I was taken aside by customs they were not at all interested in what I was carrying physically but very interested in where I had been and what I was doing and who I was, what I was carrying in my head ideologically.

I was pulled over immediately. I imagine there must have been a heads up from Passport Control because a customs guy began walking towards me before I got to their station by the door. He brought me and my luggage over to a table and opened everything up. It was very strange, on the one hand he took everything out of my bag but he also didn’t seem that interested in really examining anything. He was the most interested in my notebooks but didn’t really seem to engage with any of the information in them. The only thing that seemed to concern him was one page where I had mentioned a mosque by name. He asked me how many mosques I had visited. Seriously. I had been trying to be very perky and positive, the young traveler coming home from her backpacking. I didn’t want to make my folks wait to long for me. With that question though I couldn’t help it.

How many mosques? I asked. Israeli military personal have taught me that incredulous repetition of questions is an excellent diversion technique.

Um, yeah how many? he repeated.

Well I mean, there are about two on every street…He waited for more of an explanation so I really lost count.

Sometime after the mosque question I was asked if and I’m quoting here. If I had visited any bad places, no joke. One of the first question I had been asked was how I had been treated as an American so I guess this was a continuation of that. But bad places, really? What was next, asking if any one had touched me in my no-no places?

The real aim of the questioning came together for me with one of the last questions.

So are you Muslim? the US customs agent asked me, an American citizen returning home to America. And when I only stared at him mouth open he clarified or Christian?

I mean really could they be any more transparent here. I was clearly being asked, are you with us, or against us? My response neither, my family is Jewish, somehow came out of my mouth even though my brain was screaming WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY THAT THIS IS CONSIDERED A CUSTOMS QUESTION? If you go back earlier in my blog you can see that this question is basically exactly like the question I was asked going through Israeli customs. We like to think we’re a bit different here in the old US of A but clearly some, many actually, aspects of imperial control, as currently being expressed through “the war on terror” are universal.

I guess Jewish is close enough to Christian or far enough away from Muslim or he had gotten the info he need. He wished me a happy holiday season and welcomed me home.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Children Under Occupation


Now that I'm back in the states with the ability to upload photos at will... This was origionally published in Mondoweiss @

To some Palestinian children the antidote to Israeli occupation is Israeli prison
Jo Ehrlich

Two boys from Dheisheh were arrested the other day at the Beit Jala/Jerusalem checkpoint. I read the news in Ma’an. The description of the arrest reads:

“Two youth from the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem were in fact detained, the military spokeswoman said, noting they were transferred to Israeli border police. She said the two were carrying a "15cm knife and a Japanese knife" respectively.”

This description clearly leaves much to be desired. Ok, two knives, one very small and what is a “Japanese knife”? But more to the point, what exactly did they do with the knives? Stab someone? Attempt to stab someone? Get caught trying to sneak the knives into Israel?

I wasn’t able to find any more information on the Internet so I asked some friends in Dheisheh if they knew what had happened. They knew about the incident of course, one of the boys lived on their street.

What happened? I asked

They brought knives to the checkpoint my friend Ahmad answered.

And what did they do with them? I asked.

They just brought them to the checkpoint he said. They didn’t want to do anything with them.

Then, why? I asked incredulous.

They wanted to get arrested. They think that maybe jail is better then the refugee camp. They see the boys who come back, who get some money and respect. They don’t realize what it is like in prison. He finished.

Shocking, but this type of incident, youth purposely attempting to get arrested by Israel, is not an isolated phenomenon. Most notably perhaps were the teenage girls Bara’a M. and Samah S. Bara’a was released along with 18 other women this past fall, in a “show of good faith” by Israel as part of the Shalit negotiations. At the time of her release she had served all but one month of her eleven month sentence. The two were fourteen when they were arrested.

Samah S.’s statement, part of a repository of statements from child Palestinian prisoners published by Defense For Children International begins:

“I was born on 25 April 1994. I am in the ninth grade.

On 1 December 2008, a day before I was arrested, I went to Bara’a M’s house and asked her to find a way to get imprisoned. I told her that we could go to Qalandiya checkpoint and take knives with us so that the soldiers would see us and arrest us.” (PDF, page 86)

As bad as the situation is under occupation, the fantasy that life will be better in an Israeil jail seems to be misplaced. Recently I sat down and spoke with a young man, also from Dheisheh Refugee Camp, who had just been released from prison.


The story of his 25 months in prison is brutal. Told to me in his cousin’s living room, over many cups of coffee it overturned any illusions I had of what prison in the “democracy” of Israel looked like. My closest reference point was what I have read of the conditions at Abu Ghraib, not surprising I guess, military occupations tend to share certain characteristics. Arrested at 16, his interrogation, “trial” and time in prison were marked by coercion (his interrogators repeatedly attempted to implicate him in crimes he did not commit), a foggy legal process (he was held in detention for 17 months before he was sentenced) and experienced what could only be described as torture (guards would regularly beat prisoners, wake them by douses of ice water and throw tear gas bombs into the prison yard). Although this sounds extreme it is absolutely in line with research into the conditions for Palestinian’s in Israeli prisons documented by B’tselem and Defense for Children International.

What does this tell us about the occupation? The obvious question is what must the day-to-day life be like under occupation that some Palestinian children think Israeli prison might be a better option. But the question that interests me more is what are the goals of the Israeli state that they find it in their interest to arrest and convict children arrested under these pretenses?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Goodbye West Bank

Tonight I sit in my living room surrounded by three Palestinian women who are explaining to me, in a mixture of Arabic, English and gestures, the best way to make the traditional Palestinian dish of Makluba. Tomorrow I leave the West Bank for Gaza. My route will take me through the Negev Desert and across the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo where I will meet up with 1300 other internationals who are gathering for the Gaza Freedom March. Our plan is to travel from Cairo to Rafah where we will cross into Gaza. On December 31st we will join the 50,000 Gazans marching from the town of Abu Drabo, virtually flattened by Operation Cast Lead, to the Erez Crossing with Israel demanding the siege of Gaza end.

Israel’s attack on Gaza, targeted civilians, children, schools and factories and is clearly a crime against humanity. The ensuing year-long siege which has prevented basic humanitarian necessities, everything from medicine to cement from entering Gaza by land or by sea could not have happened without the tacit (and sometimes active) support of the Western international community. According to a friend of mine, paper, basic office paper, is in such huge demand that there is essentially a futures market in paper.

Unfortunately Egypt, most likely under Israeli and US guidance, has now, less then a week before our scheduled departure from Cairo decided to deny us access to Gaza. Hopefully in the coming days as internationals gather in Cairo their position will change, perhaps it will not.

So tomorrow morning I say goodbye to the West Bank and head, hopefully to another front of the occupation. I’m sure I’ll be able to muster something a bit more insightful at a later date. Perhaps during my 22 hour layover in Zurich? But I just wanted to post a little update before I head out. Keep the pressure on Egypt and the US to let us in. Talk to you soon.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Palestinian Joke #134

Question: Where can Israel find the Palestinian Gandhi?

Answer: Exactly where they put him, in administrative detention.

Not that I’m in any way playing into the Palestinian Gandhi dialogue, I think its actually pretty diversionary/racist. But sometimes you have to laugh in order not to cry right?

Jamal Juma’, the director of the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, also known as Stop the Wall, was summoned for interrogation on the night of December 15th. Jamal has been detained by the Israeli military and has not had access to a lawyer since the 16th of December. I was in the Stop the Wall Office on the 15th of December. I said hi to Jamal. I’ve met him on a couple of occasions. He is a quiet man with a commanding presence.

I read the news of his arrest last night, sitting in the home of another non-violent Palestinian activist, Mousa Abu Maria of the Palestine Solidarity Project. He was not surprised to hear about Jamal’s arrest. He told me the story of his first arrest and time in prison. An IDF commander showed up at his home and asked him to come with him for a few hours to talk over a cup of tea. Musa asked if he could have a minute to say goodbye to his family. He knew what tea and talk were code words for. He was nineteen years old.

If past actions set precedence and they do. Jamal will likely not be charged with any crime (because he has not committed one) but will be held in prison for a long time (interrogated, tortured) without charges. Israel does this through a process called administrative detention that allows the state to hold Palestinians for periods of three months at a time (renewable indefinitely) without charges.

Mohammad Othman, another Stop the Wall executive member has been detained by Israel since September. His first administrative detention order expires this week. Jamal is set to be brought in front of a judge today.

Mohammad, Jamal and many of the scores of other Palestinian’s with orders of administrative detention, are in Israeli prisons not because they have committed a crime but because they are non-violent anti-occupation activists. Israel has begun to understand that non-violent activism in Palestine is a serious threat to the occupation. Those engaged in non-violent struggle often have an excellent analysis, they are determined and they are gaining traction domestically and platforms for spreading their message internationally. It scares the shit out of Israel so it is not surprising that they are responding with repressive military actions. This is a military occupation and it maintains itself by using the tactics of military oppression.

Originally posted on Mondoweiss @

Monday, December 14, 2009

Persistent Memory


Inside a Palestinian shop across from the Ibrahimi Mosque/Patriarchs Tomb. My friend and I (because she is Palestinian) have to walk halfway down the street on the narrow “Palestinian side” of the road before we can cross over and walk back to the shop. Inside is an IDF solider, full combat gear; huge gun, the works. I’m confused and a bit nervous. He’s trying to chat up a Palestinian girl from Hebron. It turns out he’s Druze, Israeli. He explains that he’d rather not be doing this. “This” being participating militarily in the occupation of Palestine. But that life is tough, especially if you are not a European Israeli Jew and that being in the military affords some benefits. He asks the Palestinian girl if he can come by and visit her later, no she says. He asks if he can come by if he takes off his uniform first. No, she says.

I wonder if she didn't walk on the right side of the street, would he arrest her?


Tuesday, December 8, 2009



Originally published in Mondoweiss on December 5th at

I’ve been to al-Khalil a number of times. I’m intentionally using the Arabic name for the city because every time I’ve visited it has been to the areas populated by Palestinians. I’ve visited on my own, with Palestinian friends and with the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) who maintain a presence in the old city. Every visit is a new lesson in the occupation.

Today for the first time I visited Hebron rather then al-Kahlil; the streets where Palestinians cannot drive and sometimes cannot walk and the illegal settlements of Kiryat Arba on the periphery of the city and the inner city illegal settlements of Beit Hadassah and Tel Rumeida with B’tselem an Israeli human rights organization.

Driving to Hebron from Jerusalem was mind blowing. Living in Bethlehem I associate “going to Israel” with a combination of checkpoints and slow public transport. This is not the case if you are Israeli or traveling with Israeli’s and are going to the West Bank. Driving from Jerusalem into the West Bank was seamless. We got all the way to Hebron and unless you knew what you were looking for there was nothing, no signs or road changes that would tell let you know that you had entered the West Bank.

We entered the old city of Hebron through the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba. I know I am probably annoying you, maybe even alienating you, by prefacing all of these settlements with illegal but I don’t have a choice. International law and foreign consensus is pretty unanimous on this point. Israeli settlements within the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal.

Traveling by private car or bus from Bethlehem the last part of the journey into the old city is always a set of narrow busy streets. Not so coming in through the settlement, it was easy to drive our huge tour bus right up to the convenient parking lot outside of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah.

Hebron is one of the largest Palestinian cities, home to 250,000 Palestinians. As part of the “Road Map to Peace” coming out of the Oslo Accords Hebron was supposed to be gradually turned over to Palestinian Authorities. As a step towards this in 1997, the city was divided into two parts – H1 and H2. The Palestinian Authority would control H1, and H2 would remain under Israeli military control. H2 is home to 25,000 Palestinians, 500-800 illegal settlers (shouldn’t we be a bit worried that no one will confirm the exact number) and at any given time around 1,000 Israeli soldiers. Check out this link for more information about Hebron including excellent maps:

These numbers are bit misleading though. While there are only 500-800 settlers in the four settlements located in the old city of Hebron, the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba is perched right outside Hebron and flows seamlessly into the old city. Kiryat Arba is home to 7,000 settlers and is part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. This large settlement bloc falls within Area C from the Oslo Accords, which is an area of land covering some 60% of the West Bank and is under complete Israeli control. When you look at the Hebron settlements in this larger context they appear not as wild outposts but as a continuous part of a larger colonial settlement system.

In H2 Israeli settlers are subject, as citizens of Israel to Israeli civil law, their Palestinian neighbors, as an occupied population, are subject to Israeli military law.


Walking within through the parts of H2 Hebron that are not illegal settlements was a heart wrenching mixture of post-war zone and ghetto. The former Palestinian markets were vacant, crumbling and desecrated with racist anti-Arab propaganda. There were posters of “Israel” that showed it occupying large chunks of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Palestinians unlucky enough to live in this area are subject to the worst living conditions I’ve seen in the West Bank. You can’t tell me this is not apartheid when Palestinians have fenced off lanes for walking. When Israeli settlers are allowed to drive cars on a street Palestinians can only walk down. When on certain streets Palestinians have to turn right, if they continue straight they will be arrested. When settlers can carry guns.

In the settlement of Beit Haddash we met with David Wilder. The name should be familiar to some of you. David is the “spokesman” for the illegal settler community in Hebron. A native of New Jersey, David has a degree in education a great Jersey accent and a leather jacket. He showed us around the settlement’s museum, a series of dark rooms with exhibits meant to establish a continuous Jewish history in Hebron and persecution of Jews (highlighted by the killing by Palestinians in 1929 of 67 members of the tiny, 500-700 out of a city of 20,000, Jewish community of Hebron during the early stages of the Zionist movement within historic Palestine)


David Wilder will not use the word Palestine or Palestinians. He refers to his Palestinian neighbors categorically as Arabs. Their lack of equal rights is to him, simply “the price of war” a phrase he repeated often. His line is that since “the Arabs”, all of them evidently in consensus (even Ben Gurion’s own diaries show this to be a lie, Israel was the undoubtedly the aggressor in 48) decided to attack Israeli in 48 and 67 and lost, they deserve what they get. Of course Israel as a benevolent nation has tried to give them “gifts”, he wasn’t clear as to the exact nature of these “gifts”, but “the Arabs” won’t shut up and graciously accept so what is to be done? He very clearly tried to build up Iran as a threat and link Iran to Palestinians.

The kicker for me though was when he framed the illegal settlements in Hebron as something, which is widely accepted throughout the world, civil disobedience. The irony of a man with a gun on his hip, part of a community that routinely physically and verbally abuses their Palestinian neighbors and their children (Please check out the photos and videos at B’tslem, CPT and even the NYTimes for examples of this) calling their actions civil disobedience was hard to stomach.

I had a very visceral reaction to visiting the settlements; fear, for myself and Palestinians and outrage, the kind I always feel when people try to put a PR spin on injustice.

However, that is not enough analysis. I’m not writing this to tell you that the illegal settlers deep inside of the 1967 green line are a bit off-kilter. You know that already, or you should. It was the Palestinian counterpart to the tour, Issa, who helped put the settler phenomenon in context. He met us the end of Shuhada Street. As a Palestinian he was not allowed to walk any farther to meet our group.

So you just met with David Wilder? He asked after welcoming us.

Yeah we mumbled warily

Did he show you his gun? Issa continued.

Which is really the perfect question to highlight the hypocrisy of a man who plays himself off as just this regular Jersey guy who hopes for a good life for his family and justice for his people. And Wilder as you can see if you goggle him does indeed wear a gun or at least poses for pictures with one prominently displayed on his hip.

You know, Issa said at the end or our tour (and I’m not quoting directly but basing this on my notes) David Wilder talked a lot about the Massacre in 1929, right? It was a horrible thing that happened to those Jewish families he said. Did he talk about the 19 Palestinian families who took Jewish families into their homes to protect them. By some accounts over 400 Jews were sheltered by their Palestinian neighbors. My wife’s relatives were one of those families, that Palestinian family living in a cage up near Tel Rumeida, they were one of those families. We have more of a connection to the Jewish community in Hebron then David Wilder does as an American from New Jersey. Yet we live under terrible conditions and he moves freely with a gun on his hip.

All of this is very true of course but nothing revelatory. But what he said next helped to remind me of the larger perspective and get past my own disgust.

I don’t hold the settlers responsible for this he said. This is not the settler’s fault. This is the fault of the Israeli State, they use the settlers as a political tool. Most of the new settlers now he said, they’re no religious fanatics, they’re poor people from Russia and now even from India. They don’t know that they are going to end up in this situation.

And I think this is an incredibly important point to remember. The settlers may or may not be crazy. But they do not have control over the Israeli state. Israel removed 8,000 illegal settlers from Gaza in less then two weeks. If there are settlers in Hebron, in the West Bank they are there because they serve a political purpose for Israel domestically and internationally. They are there because Israel wants them there. If the Israeli state did not want them there, they would not be there. When we reduce any aspect of the occupation to the rational or irrational actions of individuals we over look the fact that they are operating as part of and often in service of a system.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Because They Can

Bethlehem Checkpoint (photo courtesy of Alessandra Gola)

For two days in a row I’ve had to make the trip from Bethlehem into Jerusalem. It shouldn’t be a big deal. Bethlehem and Jerusalem are, depending on your map and politics, between 6 and 15 kilometers away from each other. However, the prospect of a shared taxi to a Palestinian bus to the checkpoint to an Israeli bus all combined with traffic and witnessing everyday oppression is always a physically and emotionally exhausting headache. Of course it is a headache I am privileged to have as my Palestinian neighbors can only travel to Jerusalem with a special permit or by sneaking in.

A word about Palestinians sneaking into Israel. It’s easy, very easy for them to do it. Any argument Israel puts forward that its wall is about Israeli security is completely undermined by how easy it is for Palestinians to get into ’48 (Israel) surreptitiously. And I’m not talking about people who are willing to use any means necessary and want to blow themselves up. No sneaking under fences in the night here. I mean folks who are separated from their family in East Jerusalem and have no desire to die or spend years in prison going in through the checkpoints. My friends do this, it causes them and their family anxiety and concern but they want to see each other. If these otherwise law abiding, normal, cautious folks can get in so easily (but not without risk of prison or fines)… The security argument is bull. Like I and others have said before: it’s not about security it’s about occupation.

But back to the checkpoints. Even though it is time consuming for me as an international to travel between Israel and the West Bank, that is usually all it is time consuming. When I go through the Bethlehem checkpoint after walking through the metal detectors and turnstiles the solider sitting in the bulletproof booth, usually with his or her feet up on the desk, just waves me through without even looking at my passport photo. At the Gilo checkpoint I get off the bus like all the other Palestinians, we stand in line, their documents are collected for inspection. My passport is given a cursory glance and we get back on the bus.

Today, at the Gilo checkpoint, when they saw my passport I was instructed to step out of line. What now? I thought with a slight bit of trepidation. A female solider was called over, glanced at my United States passport, asked if I spoke English and then proceeded to tell me that this checkpoint was no longer open to foreigners. She was so sorry but I would have to go back to the Beit Lahem checkpoint if I wanted to get into Jerusalem. It took me awhile to realize that Beit Lahem meant Bethlehem but once I figured out what she was talking about it still didn’t make sense. Since when, I asked her. It’s a new thing she said but its been a long time coming. That’s interesting I said I traveled through here yesterday. Yeah it went into effect today she said it’s a military order. Can I see the order? I asked. She skirted around the request and kept apologizing. I kept asking to see the order. It was in impasse, Palestinians on the bus were waiting, held up by this power play. I asked her where exactly I was supposed to go seeing as we were standing in the middle of the highway, was I supposed to walk back to Bethlehem? Oh no she said, just go stand by that hill there (the intersection of the busy highway) a bus going back to Beit Lahem will pick you up…

I didn’t want to make the Palestinians on the bus wait any longer so I began hiking my way back to Bethlehem. Of course there was no bus, they don’t come through that often because not that mnay Palestinian’s have permission to go to Jerusalem. A kind Palestinian family saw me walking after 10 minutes and offered me a ride back to town. I tried in my incredibly inadequate Arabic to explain my frustration to them. They listened kindly, clearly didn’t understand either my broken explanation or why I was frustrated (Israeli soldiers making your life difficult, what’s new about that? I imagine they might have said if they were less polite) and offered to drive me to the other checkpoint.

At this point although something seemed fishy, especially the part where they wouldn’t show me the military order, I thought that perhaps this was at least temporarily a real thing. The Israeli military does have a history of enacting orders which don’t stand up in Israeli courts of law which after they become public are quietly brushed under the carpet (see the incident of fining Palestinian farmers for inviting internationals to help them harvest their olives). I wondered if this meant there would be additional security at the Bethlehem container checkpoint, questions about why I was in the West Bank for instance.

This was not the case. I got to the checkpoint and wound my way though the caged maze and turnstiles to find the place empty. It was the middle of the day. The busy hours are in the morning and late afternoon when the lucky few with work permits wait in long crowded lines.

I wandered around awhile trying to find which lane was open. They all seemed closed. Another part of the “make life difficult” aspect of the occupation. How hard would it be in a multimillion dollar facility with state of the art “security” equipment to have a sign that says “open’ or ‘closed’ in front of the processing lanes? A Palestinian woman and I joined forces and eventually a solider opened up one of the lanes and I was waved through without much more then a glance at my passport.

When I mentioned this at my meeting, to which I was late, with Gershon Baskin director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) he was incredulous and managed to immediately confirm with someone very high up the military checkpoint chain that there was no such official order. I was very much within my legal rights to freely use either checkpoint.

So why was I turned away? Both my and Gershon’s guess is it was because I was traveling on a bus with Palestinians. And officially and unofficially Israel as a state and many Israelis want to dissuade internationals from visiting Palestine and Palestinians. And I’d add to that; because they can. Because when you create a racist, apartheid state what you create are many citizens who internalize those same traits. And then you give them a gun and a boring job. It is not surprising that they don’t strictly adhere to all the sanctioned forms of oppression but invent new ones of their own.

Bored with Guns

UPDATE 12/7/09; It's an actual operational order. I tried to go through the checkpoint again, they wouldn't let me. Would not show me the order. Soldiers tried to refuse to give me their identification information, which they are required to give by law. Threatened to arrest me if I tried to get on the bus. Gershon, from IPCRI drove down and talked with them/called lots of higher ups. Its a real thing. At the discretion on the area commander, or however the military chain of command goes, he/she can prevent foreigners from traveling through the checkpoint if they are in a car or bus with Palestinians coming from Bethlehem area. If I was in an Israeli bus or in an Israeli plated car coming from the direction of the illegal settlements I would be allowed through. Operational orders are supposed to be used in emergency situations. Evidently foreigners with Palestinians is an emergency for the Israeli military/state.