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Please sign up for my new blog…which I’ll actually be writing on ;)

April 15, 2010

Dear Friend (I’m calling you that because if you signed up to get updates from my blog, you must be ;):

Thank you for your attention to my writing here! Truly. ¬†It means a lot to me…even if in the end I never really got it going here ūüôā

I’ve moved to a new blog. ¬†I would be most gracious if you signed up for e-updates/the RSS feed at my new blog:¬†Only Five Percent.

There I’ll be posting all of my articles on Palestine/Israel which are published elsewhere online. ¬†And this time, unlike the time before, and the time before that, I am going to succeed in keeping the blog alive!

I am always ever so grateful to readers. ¬†I’m now living in Bethlehem and newly employed as an English teacher in Hebron. ¬†The plan is to stay until late September, when I’ll return to the United States.

That’s plenty of time to come for a visit (hint, hint)!

Mahmoud Darwish on the Wall, and me


I was previously employed to write the Fair Policy, Fair Discussion blog. ¬† I interviewed the head of Oxfam GB in Jerusalem explaining how the¬†humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unique in all ¬†of Oxfam GB’s vast experience with humanitarian crises in Darfar, Myanmar, and throughout the world.

CARE’s West Bank/Gaza country director explained how the Israeli blockade has crushed Gaza’s economy to the point that¬†only international aid keeps Gazans from starvation:

‚ÄúEighty-eight percent of Gazans rely on the services of international community to meet their basic survival requirements for food, water, and shelter.¬† But we could pull out of international aid there. ¬†We would then be looking at Srebrenitsa¬†with people standing by a fence with their ribs sticking out.‚ÄĚ

More recently with a colleague of mine I interviewed Nobel Peace Prize Nominee for 2010 MP Mustafa Barghouthi (interview with article and video here).

I also wrote about the Open Shuhada Street demonstration, where Palestinians, Israelis, and international linked arms in an attempt to walk down what was a major hub of Palestinian life in Hebron before the street was reserved exclusively for extremist Israeli settlers.  Israeli soldiers responded by shooting tear gas and stun grenades directly into the crowd of non-violent protesters.

One Israeli soldier threw one of these canisters (with both tear gas and stun grenades going off all around me I couldn’t tell which one) a few feet away from me. ¬†The wind happened to not blow in my direction, and I ran away immediately. ¬†But five protesters – including Barghouthi – were hospitalized for tear gas inhalation.

Gives you a taste of just how irrelevant the Palestinian Authority is when Israel so comprehensively has control over Palestinian movement – even the movement to walk down a residential street in the heart of a major Palestinian city deep in the West Bank.

In Part II of my interview with Oxfam GB’s country director in Jerusalem, he details the extraordinary obstacles all humanitarian organizations face in Area C, which comprises 60% of the West Bank. ¬†The Israeli government has told Oxfam that building water storage tanks during a drought was illegal. ¬†When Oxfam laid concrete floors for tin shacks in an impoverished Bedouin community, the Israeli government threatened to demolish them since they were built without a permit from the Israelis.¬† The Israeli government almost categorically denies building permits – except of course for Israeli settlers, in direct violation of international law.

Flattening land in any way, or even building a one millimeter trench would probably require a permit from the Israelis, he speculated.


The theme of my transformative time in Palestine/Israel has been searching. ¬†Searching for a job (that’s been activity #1 – learning about this place through trying to find a job here), searching for a good place to live (I’ve moved four times, from Ramallah to Jerusalem to Ramallah to Bethlehem), searching for meaningful volunteer work (from volunteering at the Carter Center to a grassroots Palestinian organization focused on youth and women’s empowerment at Deheishe Refugee Camp to setting up radio broadcasts for Israelis and Palestinians to speak about the conflict and potential for its resolution), and searching for answers about how to understand and – most importantly – end the occupation.

The first three searches I have finally resolved for the time being, thanks in great part to the support of many of you. ¬†And the latter, well, I’m working to understand it through reporting on the stories I see, hear, smell, and taste while I’m here. ¬†So please join me on¬†my new blog and stay tuned…


spending the night in a palestinian cave, in an officially designated “fire zone”

December 30, 2009

Omar, Josh, and me at Omar and his family's cave in Tuba

A few weeks ago my friend Josh invited me and our friend Heather to visit the Christian Peacemaker Team project in the south Hebron hills.  The  ultra religo-nationalist Israeli settlers are most inclined to violently harrass and even attack Palestinians on Shabbat (the Jewish holiday from Fri sundown to the sighting of the first 3 stars on Saturday). so CPTers like Josh spend Friday nights with families who are closest to the settlement and most likely to be targeted.  Heather and I got to tag along and we were all kindly hosted by Omar and his family in their residential cave.

CPT-Tuwani HQ (behind clothesline/under big bldg)

We hiked at¬†sundown from the village of at-Tuwani, where CPT is based, to the village of Tuba where Omar and his family may have already been wondering if masked settlers would wake up and frighten their kids in the middle of the night–or much worse.¬† Palestinians and CPTers are well aware that the presence of internationals will only help deter–not guarantee–the safety of the cave dwellers and other victims of settler violence.

Our hike at dusk was unforgettable.  The sun lowered in the sky until its blazing giant orb was as yellow as the yolk of an egg and it cracked over the sandy, sloping south Hebron hills.  What was once concentrated yolk burst into an electric orange glow across the dome of sky and the hardscrabble well-thorned hills.    It really did feel so biblical, so ancient and time-tested. land that knew how to live gracefully.  But the glow faded, the play of cloud shadows bouncing over the limestone littered hills was over, the crowded thoughts in my mind about how this revolting perversion of Shabbat came to be were hushed, and I turned my attention to the rocks on the path for which it took my utmost concentration not to trip over.

“It’s actually a good thing its getting dark,” Josh told us.¬† “Settlers are less likely to see us this way.”

“Well that is good. ¬†I’d rather trip over rocks on the ground than be attacked by settlers throwing the rocks at me,” Heather said.

We hiked through a rock crevice carved by water and colored with dazzling swirls of reds and browns; “little petra” as Josh called it.¬† Coyotes howled in the distance. ¬†We passed the spot where just a few weeks earlier¬†2 CPTers were beaten and robbed by a group of settlers while accompanying a palestinian family that was severely harrassed on their way home.

Finally we arrived at Omar’s cave, graciously welcomed by him and his family. ¬†They served us bread to dip in olive oil and zaatar (staple middle eastern spice) and to eat with jameed (dried sheep’s milk) which we ate by the light of the kerosene lamp.

The family recounted¬†a few of the¬†(many) incidents where¬†settlers attacked children¬†from the village on their way to school and other villagers going about their daily life.¬† Omar talked about the great pains he takes to avoid the settlers at all costs, taking routes into the town of Yatta that greatly lengthen the journey and expense for him to get feed for his 150 sheep. ¬†But avoiding the settlers is a matter of survival. ¬†Not only have they lobbed villagers with stones, but they have ganged up to beat people with chains, break their limbs, and bash their heads. ¬†If a violent clash occurs the Israeli army and police will show up and almost always take the side of the settler–no matter how violent¬†and provocative the settler was and¬†regardless of¬†how nonviolent the palestinian response was.

When Omar heard that I lived in Ramallah, he¬†pointed out that¬†in Ramallah they don’t have the same problems that people in the Hebron hills face since people in Ramallah have buildings, electricity, and running water.

“In Ramallah you have [President] Abbas to take care of you. ¬†Here we only get help from God…and a little bit of help from the internationals.”

He told us the story of his family being expelled from the cave in 1999 by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces).  Hundreds of people were literally rounded and trucks and dumped far from their village.  His family and others were able to return because an Israeli human rights group (ACRI) filed a court case on their behalf and eventually won the right for them to return.

They returned but¬† face constant threats from the IDF and settlers who work to expel the Palestinians from their homes by inflicting so much pain on them that they will leave. ¬†The IDF’s overt reasoning for wanting to expel them is so that all of this land can be used as a miltary training zone. ¬†In the 1970’s israel declared a big swath of land encompassing Tuba and 11 other villages a “closed military zone”. ¬†This area, which is home for about 1,000 people, is called by the IDF “firing zone 918”. ¬†Settlers want this land (and much much more) to¬†be land for only Jews to live in. [See the B’tselem map of firing zone 918 here]

We slept on mattresses bundled with blankets.  men slept near the front of the cave to protect the women, who slept at the back.  Josh slept with his camera, ready to document any late night harrassment by settlers.

I spose as might as well admit now that that is not what I was doing (nor was i supposed to as an untrained international guest).

I turned to Heather.¬† “what are you going to do if settlers come?”

Heather: “Well, i’ll do whatever Josh does.”

me: “but Josh is going to get in the way!” [i.e. document human rights violations and tell the offenders to leave the family alone–I didn’t make the phrase up. “Getting in the way” is the CPT motto]

Heather: “Well what are you going to do?”

me: “Hide right here”, pulling the blankets over my head to demonstrate.

Heather: “Okay well i’ll do something somewhere in between what Josh does and what you do.”

me: “But then you’ll make me look bad!”

It made Heather laugh anyway so that was good. ¬†Fortunately it was a peaceful night–serene as the moonlight that shone through the cave door. ¬†The cave was surprisingly very cozy.

After I got home I learned that in a 2005 survey done by B’Tselem, “some 88% of the Palestinians in the closed military area were victims of settler violence or witnessed such violence against a member of their immediate family.”

The documented abuse of residents in “firing zone 918” can be divided into 4 categories:

  • blocking of roads and preventing access to fields (51 percent of the cases)
  • property damage, including destruction of crops and theft of sheep and goats in particular (21 percent)
  • intimidation (17 percent)
  • and physical violence (11 percent).


I also learned that the court case that Omar was talking about, where the Israeli human rights organization ACRI had won the right of these villagers to return to their caves, had its own twist.

One might presume that if they won the court case, it is because the courts agreed that Palestinians forcibly expelled from their homes their families had lived in for decades (or much longer) had the “right to return home”. ¬†But ACRI openly admits that’s not how they won the case at all.

They won it by portraying the loss of land not as a human rights issue but because of the cave dwellers “unique way of life”. ¬†It was an ethnographic argument. ¬†The Israeli Jewish lawyer of Yemeni descent said it worked because “Israelis never think of Palestinians as having culture”, and portraying the value of this community not as individual Palestinians–but as a cultural relic–is what won them the case.

cave dwelling village evacuated due to settler/IDF violence

Peter Lagerquist at the Middle East Reporting and Information Center (MERIP) exposed this story, pointing out that the “Israeli Supreme Court did not allow caves to be repaired, or houses rebuilt. Time would not go forward. The people of the south Hebron hills have been ensured of survival, after a fashion, by being cast as a museum exhibit…”

So they were expelled (and continue to face the threat of expulsion) because of their collective identity as Palestinian….and they are allowed back because of their collective identity as “cave dwellers”.

And what about the individuals, the Omars of the place?

They may get some time in court if they are portrayed as, what Peter Lagerquist called “archaic ethnics”:

“Archaic ethnics are the most up-to-date of humanitarian subjects, model citizens of a country forever awaiting a political solution, stranded in time.

evacuated cave

a cave on the way to tuba, formerly residential--now its closed up because it was evacuated due to settler/army violence

from the little town of Bethlehem, Merry Christmas, and may it be a merrier new year

December 26, 2009

more pics as promised from bethlehem:

o little town of bethlehem....(in manger square)

my friend kim said xmas here is like 4th of july--its an apt description

looking out from the church of the nativity

looking out from the church of the nativity (where jesus was born)

The Wall and the main checkpoint to Bethlehem (coming from Jerusalem with Bethlehem on opposite side of wall)

I spent Christmas Eve in the exquisite little of town of Bethlehem.¬† I remember when I was surprised to learn that Bethlehem was in the West Bank, and these days I’m surprising others close to me by revealing: Bethlehem IS in the West Bank!¬† It is only 10 km (6.2 miles) from Jerusalem but now it takes an hour or two…or three or longer to make the journey because you have to go through a checkpoint.¬†Bethlehem is such a lovely little town.¬† I bused in from Ramallah (my new home) and¬†looked lost enough for¬†a Palestinian¬†woman to ask me “que necessitas?”¬† And thus began my first opportunity to practice Spanish since I left home, in Palestine on Christmas Eve.

I talked with this kind woman and her family as they led me through the crowds to Manger Square, the square in front of the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born.¬† Drummers at the end of a marching band had just marched past us and a stage in front of the church set up for Christmas choirs.¬†¬†I wished the family a feliz navidad and¬†wandered through the old walled alleyways of the town, past spice shops redolent of cumin and cinnamon.¬† A gaggle of giggling¬†little boys¬†with sparkly plastic wands carreened straight into me, looked up, and raced through the old stone alleyways.¬† (I have pictures that I’ll post later.)

People come from all over the world to go to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.¬† Midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity is the main attraction (tickets were all gone by the time I had arrived).¬† But perhaps the people who have the most difficulty getting to Bethlehem are the Palestinian Christians–the oldest Christian community in the world.¬† The original Christians.¬† It astounds that while Christianity is the world’s largest religion, most Christians in the world today would probably not know about Palestinian Christians…even though Jesus himself was one of them (well either that or he was a Palestinian Jew, or perhaps a Palestinian Jew who converted to Christianity–or perhaps both).

Only a tenth of¬†Gaza’s 3,000 Palestinian Christians will be permitted to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, which is less than 65 miles away from home.

Even fewer¬†of the world’s Christians¬†would be aware of how deeply¬†Bethlehem suffers under¬†the occupation, or that most of its residents are refugees from¬†being forced out¬†when¬†pre-state Jewish militias forced them out of their homes¬†in 1948.¬† Many of them¬†live in¬†the¬†three refugee camps¬†in the Bethlehem area,¬†still waiting to go to the home they were promised¬†by the international community to return to.

Bethlehem’s problems are only getting worse–much worse.¬† As the PLO noted in their recent press statement on Bethlehem,

“For the first time in 2000 years of Christianity, Bethlehem and Jerusalem will be divided from one another following completion of Israel’s Wall in the northern part of Bethlehem city.”

By the way, this PLO media release in full is well worth reading.  It explains the intricacies of how Israel has limited Palestinian movement and trade which mean that the profits from Bethlehem-related tourism go to Israel rather than contribute to the desperate Palestinian economy.

The Wall and accompanying watchtowers and checkpoints are built on Palestinian land Israel confiscated for that purpose.  Most Palestinians can never go past the wall into Jerusalem or even just directly on the other side, onto confiscated Bethlehem land, because they have to get permission in advance.

I¬†was talking to a Palestinian college student about¬†what it takes to get a permit to¬†get to the other side of the wall.¬† He spoke English well–but with a bit of¬† a ‘gangsta rap’ accent which I didn’t ask him to explain.¬† “Listen sista, they¬†won’t ever give permits to me¬†cuz¬†I’m Muslim.¬† Christians–some da time.¬† Maybe.¬† But Muslims-never.”

A memorable Christmas eve–I got to learn a bit about the occupation from Palestinians who speak Spanish and those who impersonate ebonics.

I also learned that Bethlehem is the name of both the city and the larger governate (like a county) of the West Bank stretching from the Wall to the Jordan River.  As the UNOCHA recently reported, only 13% of the Bethlehem governate is accessible to Palestinians.

And that percentage is expected to continue shrinking as the Wall gets longer and the settlements get larger.¬†For an excellent overview of Bethlehem’s increasing isolation, check out AAPER’s piece on “Bethlehem: From Little Town to Imprisoned City”.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said,¬†“it is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation.”

Despite it all, the Bethlehem I saw was bursting with resilient vitality.¬† It makes one wonder about a new future for Bethlehem in a new year….just imagine for a moment what it would be like if this town *wasn’t* under occupation.

In the meantime, I’m hoping to return to Bethlehem to get my family a Christmas gift for next year.¬† A nativity scene with a drop of reality (though only a drop–while this wall is only as tall as the wisemen, the wall encircling Bethlehem is 26 feet tall and much more hideous looking.¬† But this is apparently the G rated version):

address: palestine (where you can’t get mail…yet)

November 30, 2009

wow.¬† you’re still here?¬† you didn’t totally give up on ever hearing from me again via such new fangled communication tactics like blogs?

(in brief) i have been traveling in the middle east for 2 months with my family and then Interfaith Peace-Builders.  i have moved to Ramallah, Palestine where i am looking for a job and intend to soon begin Arabic classes at Birzeit University.  i hope to be in the ramallah area through july 2010 at least. 

(out¬†of brief)¬†a friend asked me my address the other day and i was trying to explain that there was no way i could receive mail in Palestine.¬† it was one of those: “you know you’re in a military occupation when” moments.¬†

but that led me to this discovery: Palestine was finally granted permission from the powers that be to control their own mail independent of Israel!  just last month the Universal Postal Union agreed to allocate Palestine an internationally-recognized postal processing code. 

this will take awhile to get underway so i will not be able to receive any christmas cards. 

and i definitely can’t receive packages from abroad in the west bank.¬† i don’t know that anyone has ever tried.¬†

these issues were supposed to be worked out during the Oslo Accords (1993–when Arafat and Rabin had their famous handshake in front of a glowing Bill Clinton on the White House lawn).¬† the Oslo Accords provided for the creation of the Palestinian Authority, and one of the functions the PA would have control over was delivering mail.¬† but only *within* the West Bank and Gaza.¬† Oslo promised an end to the occupation and a final status agreement on borders, refugees, and Jerusalem in 5 years and instead they got to deliver mail internally.

anything from Arab countries abroad was routed through Egypt and anything from the rest of the world was routed through Israel.   Israel would inspect the mail and frequently confiscate packages and other materials bound for the West Bank or Gaza. 

and if you have any hope of those materials reaching the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territory) you better make sure they say “care of Israel” or “via Israel” rather than mentioning Palestine.¬†

and don’t even think of mailing something to Gaza.¬† some students at Georgia Tech performed an experiment last year to see how long it took to get packages to some of the world’s hardest to reach places.¬† they had better luck using courier services to send packages to Kazakstan and Sudan then they did to Gaza.¬† Israeli customs would not allow in to Gaza baby ruth chocolate bars.¬†

for security reasons of course. 

of course there are lots of places in the world where mail is inaccessible–but precious few that have been denied this right by an another country.¬† and this entire situation could be fixed with a single political decision that so many of us have a say in.

now substitute “mail is inaccesssible” for “people are forced to eat grass seed” or “people are prevented from going to school” and a billion other tragedies to get an idea about how this is a, well, special kind of place.

that easy political decision¬†(i.e. get the heavy boot off the Palestinian postal system) didn’t happen but Palestine managed to fanagle its own way towards international recognition.¬†

there’s more and more talk around here about doing this on a UN resolution scale that would simply go ahead and recognize Palestine as a sovereign country and a member of the United Nations.¬†

i’ve heard about it from meetings i had the honor to attend with Palestinian parliamentarians, a member of the PLO executive committee, and even the prime minister (Salam Fayyad) himself.

but more politics later…for now i just want to let you all know that i have a new address: palestine!