Sunday, September 27, 2009

East Jerusalem

Did a bit of traveling. I tagged along with a bunch of older Swedes from The Swedish Christian Study Group on a tour of Jerusalem run by ICAHD, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. I think that ICAHD does a very effective job of presenting the dramatic disparities between Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The other thing they do pretty well is to show how planned the disparities are. So I want to talk about that a little bit.
You can see in the picture below the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, although really it is more the appropriation wall because what has ended up on the “Israel” side is a substantial amount of land, though not as many people (but we’ll talk about that later) that according to 1948 UN maps is absolutely not part of Israel. So back to the picture, look for a little house standing alone right next to the wall? Israel had planned for that house to be on the other side, part of Abu Dis rather then Jerusalem but a right-wing Jewish group bought the house, Israel re-routed the wall and now provides the two family settlement with its very on checkpoint and security curtsey of the state. Now just so we don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just an example of a government caving to religious extremists lets put this in context.

One of the biggest “obstacles” to a two state solution is Jerusalem, I put obstacles in quotation marks because for something to be an obstacle it actual has to stand in the way of something you wish to achieve and I don’t think Israel in any way wishes to achieve a viable Palestinian state any time soon. Now this is in reference to talks over a two state solution, which, regardless of past feasibility is no longer, a possibility, when demographics, economics and justice are considered, in my uninformed and others very informed opinions. But I think it is worth talking through this example to fully understand a) Israel’s disingenuous participation in any action to resolve the issue of Palestine and b) how Israel has since its inception as an idea in the nineteen teens been very consistent in working towards the creation of the largest Zionist state possible with the least number of non-Jews.
So anyway the two big “obstacles” to a two state solution were always Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. So Jerusalem, how could there be two states when this one place was so important to both groups of people? The UN had suggested that Jerusalem be an “international city”, administered by the UN which is pretty ridiculous so lets kind of forget about that for now. So how could two states share one city? Actually for a long time it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. When you looked at a map ten years back or so the city was pretty split into Jewish and Palestinian sections, it was pretty clear where the boundaries between the communities were. So anyway when this was pointed out to Israeli authorities they were like ‘you know, you’re absolutely right, we’ve got to do something about that’ and they promptly started promoting and supporting Jewish settlements, like the little house above, in the heart of Muslim Palestinian communities. In fact there is now kind of a ring around the old city of Jerusalem of such settlements and while communities in Arab East Jerusalem can get no building permits, I mean zero, none, absolutely no chance of a building permit, have few school, terrible roads, lack basic sanitation services, sewage and waterlines, these settlements are beautiful, sport parks and public swimming pools and can get whatever building permits they like.
Additionally, and I haven’t had a chance to research this as much as I would like so I’m going by what I’ve heard here; Tel Aviv had always been the defacto capital for Jews and Jerusalem the center of Muslim cultural life and commerce. Even today, young Jews want to move to Tel Aviv where everything is happening and Palestinians want to get to Jerusalem (on the Palestinian side this certainly seems true all the young people I’ve hung out with talk of Jerusalem the same way my friends talk about Brooklyn). So Israel has a very hard time maintaining what they call the “demographic balance”, read not too many non-Jews, of Jerusalem.
Pretty terrifying language from a community that knows what kind of evil banal language can be a cover for. But the parallels here between past and present, victim and victimizer are so obvious that you would think is was a brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin science fiction satire, except, unfortunately like many of our best current events satires it is so very real and so very horrific that we (and by we I mean the we of the demographic I come from western, white, middle class which is such a very tiny we but is the we who is probably reading this) like to pretend it is not really happening.
So anyway I have a lot more to talk at you about East Jerusalem but I think there is a limit to how much blog you can read in one sitting so I’ll leave off with the heavy stuff there. On a lighter note the weather is beautiful here, I’ve learned to make Arabic coffee without it boiling over and at the center we are preparing for the arrival of what has consistently been described to me as ‘500 Italians’, I am skeptical but curious. This Friday I’m looking forward to a picnic with food in the nearby village, because picnic here has nothing to do with food and is just an outing something I only learned recently, before that I just thought everyone here really liked eating food outside on a blanket…

Tours run on scooters by right-wing groups, they don't show them East Jerusalem

Friday, September 11, 2009


I’ve been in Dheisheh for about a week now. Of course, like with most important things it seems like I’ve been here for both more and less time. My luggage mysteriously appeared at a small unidentified airport in Europe, I’m serious, they don’t know which airport, just that is will arrive in Tel Aviv tomorrow.
So I’m already falling a little bit in love with Dheisheh. I think you have to fall in love with anything that breaks your heart. Israeli soldiers have come into the camp the last three nights to make arrests and exert control. They are not supposed to be here. Dheisheh is supposedly under the control of the Palestinian authority but they saying is from morning to midnight the PA is in control of the camp and after midnight the Israeli army takes over. The UN seems pretty much to have removed itself from the situation. They offer extremely limited services within the camp, like a clinic with one doctor open from 7am until 1pm. But they have an impressive array of new, white UN vehicles, pictured bellow, which go on no end of errands outside of the camp…

Clearly here, like anywhere aid is big business. However, what I’ve heard articulated by Dheisheh residents is that they really have very little need for traditional “aid” services. They have enough food, children can go to school, there are medical services and people have homes. Obviously they would like a high standard for many of these “basic needs”, but what they want, what they struggle for, where they look for internationally solidarity is in their struggle for their human rights; the right to return to their lands, citizenship, freedom of movement. You know, all that social justice stuff. Unfortunately, in a global aid system, that regardless of whether it is public or private, that is most often an extension of western foreign policy, self-determination most always takes a back seat to a plethora of understaffed clinics and new white cars.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


I’m getting settled into my new home at Ibdaa Cultural Center in Deheishe Refugee camp. So far, so good. It’s Ramadan so things are a bit slow. I was forced, truly, into a successful phone buying adventure this morning, so I am now a little poorer but a little more accessible. I’ve also been set up on my first assignment for my job, duel translation with a lovely dentistry student from Beit Jala, a nearby city. I’ll update more on Ibdaa later but for now I want to go back to Jerusalem.

As I left the hostel I stayed at in Jerusalem early Friday morning, in a futile attempt to receive my lost luggage before traveling into the West Bank (where are you all of my clothes?!), I faced a tide of older Muslim men and women flowing fast down the street into the heart of the old city. I thought that naively it must be people arriving for work or shopping. As I made my way the bus station I sort of bravely tried out my small, I will refer back here to how my mother speaks of her Italian, baby Arabic, and asked a number of women the way to the bus to Bethlehem. Ok I’ll admit to the first two women I think I asked ‘where is the bus IN Bethlehem’ to which they, rightly so, were a little unsure. However, even once I got my vocabulary straight it took a really long time for someone to help me. I thought that was a little strange as the bus station ended up only being a few blocks away.

However, my new boss, Areej, put both these events in perspective. She explained to me that Fridays during Ramadan (which is now) are the only time when Muslims who live in the occupied Palestinian territories, the West Bank, can visit the Al-Asque Mosque (within the Temple Mount). And get this, even then, on those 4 or 5 Fridays out of the whole year, not everyone can go. Women have to be older then 45 and men have to be older then 50. They, the Israeli army/government, don’t want any “trouble” from young Palestinians. Evidently even the age restrictions were not enough to put the armies mind at ease as the street was lined with soldiers (yes they are just as young looking as everyone says) weapons at the ready. Of course looking back this new information put the response to my directions inquiries in perspective. Obviously, you would not have a detailed understanding of the transportation network in a place that you are at best allowed to visit 4 times a year…

When Areej explained this to me and I told her my story adding that I was surprised just how overwhelming the signs of occupation were traveling from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and walking around the old city, she agreed, and added that, in her words “you don’t need to go anywhere else to understand what’s going on here (the occupation), not to the West Bank, to Tel Aviv or Hebron, just go to Jerusalem the story is so clear there”.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I arrived in Tel Aviv after nearly 24 hours of traveling. I was singled out for additionally questioning and bag search because, it seemed, of the Tanzanian and Indian visa stamps in my passport.The questions ranged from the staple ‘who packed your bag?’ to the less often used ‘do you speak Hebrew?’ ‘why don’t you speak Hebrew?’ ‘what is your Jewish name’ and my favorite ‘do you celebrate the Holidays?’. After swabbing down all of my luggage and my feet I was allowed to leave the well concealed little room they had led me too (which had lovely posters of Israel’s tourist attractions) although my bags were under detention until I boarded the plane. I was sure that after that pre-israel experience going through passport control in Tel Aviv would be hell. However, all I was asked there was the purpose of my visit: tourism and how long I wanted to stay: 3 months, stamped and done. Of course nothing is ever that easy and one of my bags evidently didn’t make it out of Zurich with me… We hope to be reunited soon.

Anyway even with the bag delay stuff I flew out of the airport, got in a shared taxi and was at Damascus Gate by 5am. Which was a problem because I had nowhere to go in Jerusalem at 5am. I decided to walk to my hostel and hope someone was at the front desk. And as luck was with me two Austrian tourists who had made arraignments with the hostel to arrive early got there just at the same time as me. The teenager in charge of the desk took pity on me and let me sit on one of the couches (I was not allowed to fall asleep or he would be in trouble) until 7am when I checked in and promptly conked out till 11:30 when I forced myself out of bed.

The rest of the day I spent walking around old city Jerusalem. There are four quarters to the old city, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian (evidently a religion unto itself, actually I believe that community is Armenian orthodox). My hostel is right at the intersection of the Muslim and Christian quarters, directly across from the 3rd station of The Passion. I set out to get lost in the city for the day, but it is a surprisingly easy city to navigate and I always had a very good idea of where I was.

So about the occupation, while I had a good idea, intellectually, of what that meant, walking around through different neighborhoods, seeing soldiers, seeing the disparities in wealth, the architecture, the predominance of Arab Muslims throughout most of the city and the way people do an do not interact with each other.The occupation vibrates through the heart of everything.
While walking down one of the main roads in the Muslim quarter I was inadvertently swept up in a large tourist group of Jews. I had no idea where they were going and I couldn’t disentangle myself so I figured I’d just ride it out. A wake of stillness and quite followed us down what had moments before been a bustling bazaar. No one made eye contact no one called out. Guns and turnstiles and security checks are casually slipped in around the city. “Neutral” language reinforces the Israelis as victims/brave prevailers and simultaneously seems to humiliate the Palestinian population. Even though I found Jerusalem unexpectedly beautiful I was profoundly uncomfortable all day. If this is what Jerusalem is like, well then…