Three: “Vibrancy, Fear, Warning, and a Lot of Thinking”
Monday, March 26, 2007: Birzeit
Rays of Hope and Shadows of Warning
The vibrancy of Birzeit University near Ramallah,
which we visited Monday, was a surprise, both in terms of people
and the beautiful modern campus. It is a vibrant place with its
7000+ students, almost equally young men and young women. Its seven
schools cover everything one would expect in a world-class institution,
and the students themselves are world-class. It was impressive to
find that 70% of Palestinians graduate high school and over 50%
college, and to hear that most Palestinian cities have a university
within their boundaries. It was especially good to have a conversation
with Jihad, a third-year student, at lunch. She was both captivating
and engaging. Going to school is not as easy as in the US, literally.
Most students must cross checkpoints daily, adding delay and the
humiliation of searches to the pressures of study.
A meeting with Sam Bahour at a coffee shop in the
very modern Plaza Shopping Center in Ramallah followed the University
visit. Sam is an articulate, forceful Palestinian-American entrepreneur.
He built the shopping center, which he hopes will be one of many
in the area. He is on a string of three month visas to Israel, which
he must renew by leaving the country, often briefly by crossing
the Allenby Bridge to Jordan for a couple of hours, then returning.
He is hopeful but concerned. He is especially concerned about a
Palestinian “brain drain” as educated Palestinians find
ways to go to more nurturing places. He is also concerned that the
tightening of the screw on Palestinians is about to reach the wood
at the end, with a result that might be violent and disastrous,
another phase of escalation that would be awful.
I can only hope leaders see that cutting the cycle
of escalation is, in fact, the best reason for peace and setting
the conditions to build a sustainable society in Palestine which
would also benefit Israel far more than the alternatives.
On the way back to Jerusalem at the end of the day,
we crossed a checkpoint on foot, to have the experience ourselves.
It is called a “terminal” by Israeli authorities and
is a cold, ugly place with tight turnstiles, metal detectors, amplified
voices that bark instructions, and soldiers with their rifles always
in sight. Laughingly, there is a scrolling electric sign that says
“Welcome to Qalandia,” like a sendoff to vacationers.
The sense of fear was palpable to me, though irrational since my
passport protects me….I assume.
My experience at the checkpoint led me to a comparison
of young people. I have noticed the youth of the armed soldiers
at checkpoints and other places. Most Israeli youth must go to the
army for two or three years after high school at age 18. At the
same age, Palestinian youth are going to college. These are formative
years, and I can only see the “competitive advantage”
that the Palestinians are gaining. The young soldiers with guns
in their hands at the checkpoints do not even have the advantage
of more seasoned, senior offices to impart some wisdom about how
to handle people. There is something not right here and I see it
in the young faces, some mean with power, every day.
So like all days, there was vibrancy, warning, fear
and a lot of thinking.
Tuesday, March 27: Ephrata and Hebron
Neighbourhoods and Settlements
Today we met with a settler in Ephrata named Ardi.
He is a friendly charming man, hospitable, and intelligent, but
certainly mistaken in his belief that all the Arabs are out to get
the Jews. He said if the Palestinians put down their weapons they'd
have a state within six months--although I wonder what sort of state
he has in mind--but if the Israelis put down their arms they'd be
massacred. He sees his settlement as a neighbourhood; he sees it
as a mitzvah that he is raising his family in Israel.
Then we went to Hebron, which is absolutely heart-breaking.
The old city is full of streets that are empty and shops that are
closed because the settlers who live above the streets make it impossible
for the Palestinians to walk there. The Palestinians have had to
hang chicken wire above the streets to catch the bricks and stones
and garbage the settlers throw down from their windows above. Jewish
boys throw stones at passing Palestinians. Our guide from Christian
Peacemakers Team told us that last week he got hit by a rock in
To get into that part of the old city you have to
go through so many checkpoints, with such a high chance of getting
humiliated that no one wants to do it. Small children get their
backpacks searched by Israeli soldiers on the way to school. Many
shops are closed and streets deserted because it is too dangerous
for Palestinians to walk that way.
I cry for the Palestinians in Hebron whose lives
are so very impossible, and I cry for those Jews who have so lost
touch with their own humanity that they can treat fellow human beings
in this way.
March 22-27: Imagine….
Imagine that your 11 year old daughter is in the
playground of her school when one of her classmates throws a rock
at a soldier. The soldier shoots a rubber bullet into the back of
your daughter’s head. She dies three days later. Could you
remain in your role as advocate for peace with the country of the
soldier who shot your daughter and talk to a group of international
visitors about the incident just over two months later? That is
what Bassam Aramin of Combatants for Peace is doing.
Imagine that you have a 15-year-old son who thinks
that he may be a pacifist; he must decide before his sixteenth birthday
whether or not he will register for the selective service. If he
wants to register as a pacifist, and not be included on the list
of those eligible for the draft, he must do so before he turns 16.
Seem like a big decision for a teenager? This is what Israeli teenagers
must do if they hope to opt out of the mandatory military service.
Imagine living in a very small town, and your fields
are located just outside--basically within walking distance. The
government has decided that, for security purposes, there needs
to be a security barrier between your home and your crops. In order
to have your children help you with planting and the harvest, all
of their names and ages must be listed on the permit that you need
to show to access your land. The security barrier consists of a
fence with razor wire, an access road (a bit narrower than a typical
rural Iowa gravel road), a second high fence, a military access
road, a third high fence, a ditch, and a fourth fence. In order
to cross, an armed soldier must open the gate for you and you must
have a permit. Sound excessive? This is what the Palestinians of
Bil’in in the West Bank must to do get to their olive trees.
Imagine that in order to get to a place of worship,
you must go through a security system not unlike that at the US
Capitol. If you, as foreign visitors, set off the alarm, you will
be told that the problem is your shoes, and are waved right through.
But if one of your group is Jewish, he or she must be prepared to
either not join you or lie to the guards, because Jews are not permitted
to enter the house of worship. This is the rule that Israeli soldiers
enforce at the Ibrahimi Mosque, which is considered the burial sight
of Abraham and Sarah, and has been split to also hold a synagogue.
Imagine your daughter is old enough to attend college.
You are in Maryland, your daughter would like to attend a school
in New Jersey. The state of Delaware will not allow your daughter
to travel through the state to get to New Jersey or back to your
home in Maryland. Sound far-fetched? This is what it is like for
Palestinian students who live in the Gaza Strip and would like to
attend a university in the West Bank – it is extremely difficult,
if not impossible, for them to travel through Israel to get back
and forth between school and home.
Imagine living in the suburbs. You need to go to
a hospital in the city nearest you, because that is the closest
city. You have to go through a check point to do so, which may entail
having your car searched, showing your ID and convincing the guard
that in fact, you really do need to go to the hospital. Sounds like
a violation of basic human rights? This is what Palestinians who
live in the West Bank often have to do.
Imagine living in the suburbs, and having to go
through that same check point to get to work every day. The check
point may resemble a US airport security line, but outside in the
elements, no matter what the weather. Or it may be at what is known
as a “flying check point,” which may be there for an
hour or it may turn into something more permanent that lasts for
days or weeks. Sound like a huge impediment to your daily commute?
This is what Palestinians in the West Bank who work in Israel must
Imagine trying to get a permit to remodel your home
because you would like your frail parents or parents-in-law to move
in with you. The permit is never approved. You go ahead and do the
remodeling, because their health is getting worse, and they need
the additional support. The zoning authorities find out. A demolition
order is placed on your house, but you’re not sure what day,
if ever, the demolition will take place. You decide to wait it out
because it could be years. Sound even worse than the general bureaucratic
nightmare you endure at home? This is a regular occurrence for Palestinians
in East Jerusalem.
Much of what we have seen during this trip defies
logic. We keep asking, “But why don’t they… how
can they…that makes no sense.” It seems that most of
us have finally accepted just how illogical much of this system
is. I hope that we will be able to convey to our fellow North Americans
just how illogical it is for our governments to be supporting this
unfair and unjust system.
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