Hebron

This week I spent a few days working with the EAPPI team in Hebron.

Hebron is very different than Yanoun.  Hebron has a population of 180,000 Palestinians and is the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank.  Hebron and East Jerusalem are the only two communities in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live in the midst of Palestinian communities.  The result of this uneasy coexistence means that Hebron has been divided into to areas HI and H2.  H1 is under the authority of the Palestinian Authorities and is home to around 140,000 Palestinians.  H2 is under the authority of the Israeli military and is home to 40,000 Palestinians and about 400 Israeli settlers living in 4 downtown settlements.

H2 in Hebron captures in one neighborhood much of the Palestinian / Israeli conflict.  In H2 you understand why the Israeli Supreme court has described the military occupation of the West Bank as a “belligerent occupation”.  H2, which was once a vibrant downtown has seen:

  • heavy restrictions on the movements of Palestinians
  • the closure of all the streets in this 40,000 person neighborhood to all Palestinian vehicles
  • the closure of Shuhada Street, Hebron’s principal north south thoroughfare, to both Palestinian pedestrians and vehicles.  Shuhada Street was the commercial hub of the city and it now looks like a ghost town.
  • the closure of half the Palestinian business of the former downtown.  (1,829 Palestinian shops according to UN OCHA)
  • a large, often belligerent, Israeli military presence, which includes numerous roaming patrols of Israeli soldiers, checkpoints, sniper towers and barbed wire.
Downtown Hebron, Shuhada Street, now looks like a ghost town
 This is a photo of a picture I saw on a the wall of a shop.  A once vibrant downtown prior to 1997

A delegation from the Church of Scotland going through checkpoint 56 onto Shuhada Street

The school bags of school children and purses and ID of teachers are check by the Israeli military at Check Point 56

and the elderly and the unwell are forced to wait in the rain as their ID is checked at Check Point 56

One of the responsibilities of the Hebron EAPPI team is to protect the school children in Hebron who have to use the one block of Shuhada Street that Palestinians are allowed to use simply to get to school.  Tragically Palestinian children have from time to time been attacked by the settlers and their adolescent children.  We would arrive a little before 7am and one of us would be stationed at each end of the block.  Strangely, maybe even beautifully, over 10 or 15 minutes the deserted street would magically come alive with children.

At this intersection, beside Check Point 56 where I was stationed, the younger children turned toward the left to walk one block to their school and the older children turned toward the right and Check Point 56 

 Simply because EAPPI shows up every morning and afternoon, to accompany these children and their teachers, they can get to school most days without threat and intimidation.

Simply being present and watching these children, walk and play their way to school put a smile on my face.  I glad I was here.

 

Moments # 4: Two tears, two hands, two am, the door is always open.

I was walking through the old city of Jerusalem.  The narrow streets were very crowded because the noon prayers at Al Asqa Mosque had just finished.

I had just spent several hours sitting at the Western wall, possibly the most holy place in Judaism .  I found a seat inside the prayer area, one of those ugly but ubiquitous gray plastic chairs that show up everywhere.

I tried to pray, and maybe I did, but mainly I spent time brooding.  I wondered about the Holocaust and if the nation of Israel was formed by people living with some kind of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I wondered if Israel is the kind of nation that is formed when a people build there national story around an attempt to eradicate them.  And I wondered if Israel is the kind of nation that is formed when people know that only a generation or two ago, their parents and grand parents went to the ovens like lambs to a slaughter and have promised themselves, never again.

The man in the white prayer shoal in the centre of the courtyard in front of the Western wall caught my attention.  He symbolized something important to me which I do not understand.

He unpacked his tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, carefully. He tied his Tefillin, a small leather box which contains parchment scrolls inscribed with Torah verses, around his arm and forehead, with the care and authority of a man who does this often. The Tefilin are worn by observant Jews during morning prayer as a reminder that God brought the children of Abraham out of Egyptian bondage.

He covered himself with the tallit.  An reverently he prayed for 20 minutes.

Nothing unusual in any of this except he had a pistol stuck in his belt.  He and I had both gone through the same metal detectors to be in this sacred space, but he was allowed to bring his pistol.

A pistol at prayer in a holy place says something about the psyche of this nation.  But I do not understand it.

At the opposite end of the old city of Jerusalem I came across Sheikh Ali, from Al Asqa Mosque.  He was selling honey near the Damascus gate.

Between the honey sales we chatted for 15 – 20 minutes.   We both spoke about our faith.  We agreed that God is our Creator, the maker of heaven and earth, and we agreed that God is One, but our language and cultural differences prevented us from defining what we meant by that.

Our conversation ended when Sheikh Ali touched his eyes and said, “two tears”.

He clasped his hands in the universal sighn of prayer and said “two hands”.

He held up two fingers and said, “two in the morning”.

And with a large smile he pointed towards the heaven and said “the door to Allah is always open”.

I smiled, we shook hands, and I continued my journey.  I found myself thinking about something that I’d read earlier in the day by James Carroll.    Something like, good religion is not about salvation, it is about revelation.  Both a pistol in prayer, and two tears, two hands and two a.m., revealed something to me about a peoples understanding of God.


Pardon my cynicism.

Earlier today a bomb was attached to the car of an Israel diplomat in India. The diplomats wife was “moderately injured” and sent to hospital. Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman has launched an investigation.

Prior to any investigation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already announced that Iran, “the world’s greatest exporter of terror” is behind this attack.

I sense that by the coverage that this story is receiving that the world thinks that this is an important story. Here in the West Bank I’ve read about this attack in Ha’aretz and Ma’an News. I watched a bit of CNN and it seems to have taken root in their hourly news headlines. I was Skyping with a friend from Canada earlier today and he asked if I’d heard about the story. I had.

This is so important that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has issued a statement which condemns the attacks “in the strongest possible terms,” and that “the scourge of terrorism is an affront to the entire international community.” Her statement adds “Our thoughts and prayers are with the injured personnel in New Delhi and their loved ones.”

I find myself wondering if the people of Yasuf and Duma are also in Ms Cinton’s prayers. They deserve to be. One day in December both villages were attacked by terrorists with fire bombs.

When I arrived in Yasuf I noticed a small crowd had gathered directly opposite an outpost of Kfar Tappuah settlement. The village Mayor was in the crowd so I sought his permission, maybe it was his blessings, to ask the people a few question. He pointed at the EAPPI vest and through a translator said, “Yes, yes, of course, you people have a good heart and are always welcome in this village”. I was touched, we had never met, but he was prepared, in the midst of a tense situation, to offer hospitality, simply because of the vest I was wearing.”

Around 1am the owner of this car awakened by a phone call from a neighbor who told him that some settlers were trying to light his car on fire.  He went outside to find his car burning beside two large propane tanks that provide propane for house heating.  The gas had been turned on and the hose loosened.  The obvious attempt was a major fire.  The home owner managed to push the burning car away from the gas cylinders and his home.  A possible disaster was averted.

He told me that he saw two settlers running away and a large group of settlers waiting 30 – 40 meters up the hill with Israeli military as support.

The message from the settlers was clear.  Another price tag attack.

This lettering was spray painted on the wall beside the burning car.  Those who can read Hebrew tell me that it says “the price”. That night the settlers from Kfar Tappuah had determined that this home had to pay the price for some action against the settlement

That same night the people of Palestinian village of Duma were attacked by settlers from Shilo and Eli.  The Israeli military prevented members of our team from taking photos and erased photos that had already been taken.

We returned to Duma a week later and interviewed several people including the gentleman who owned one of the vehicles destroyed by fire that night.  He made his living, supported his family, by buying and delivering water in his community.  Now his vehicle had been destroyed and he was not sure how he would support his family.

We also interviewed the next door neighbor, and energetic, athletic Palestinian police officer who witnessed the arson attack and gave chase.  He described the attackers as three settlers.  He told us that he chased them with his car until he was  stopped by the Israeli military.

It is believed that the perpetrators of both of these attacks were small groups of settlers, who sneak around in the dark and burn peoples property.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defines terrors as “the deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for political ends”.   This definition would certainly include the actions of Israel settlers and soldiers against the Palestinian people of Duma and Yasuf.

Although these terrorist attacks happened over a month ago, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman has not yet launched an investigation.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no announcement about who was behind the attacks.  CNN has not showed up neither has Ms Clinton.  Nor has she condemned these attacks “in the strongest possible terms.”

Maybe she has left that for you and I.  Remember Ms Clinton’s words “the scourge of terrorism is an affront to the entire international community.”

While you at it please also remember the Palestinian people of Yasuf and Duma in your prayers.

Moments #3: Understanding the power imbalance of the occupation

In this scene you see 3 soldiers, 1 higher ranking soldier, 5 farmers and the Mayor of Yanoun, who is also a farmer / shepherd.  What you do not see is that the deck is stacked against the Palestinian farmers.

Somewhere between the morning walk and breakfast, 4 -5 hours before this picture was taken, we received word that there had been an incident in lower Yanoun.  When we arrived we found that three tractors, 5 farmers from Aqraba, a couple of shepherds and two boys had gathered in Lower Yanoun.
The situation had started around 8am.  The farmers from Aqraba were planning to sow some fields.  The fields had been prepared for planting a few weeks prior and rain was predicted for later in the week. So this day seem the right day to sew crops.
As the farmers drove past the Itimar Settlement Out Post they we stopped by a couple of armed settlers.  Rocks were thrown at the tractors, words were exchanged, no one was injured.
The local farmers have learned from years of experience that if they fight back the Israeli military will arrive within minutes, there military base shares land with the settlement outpost at the top of the hill, and Palestinians will be arrested and charged.
During my time here we have investigated instances where Palestinians were arrested and charged, beat up in jail then released, based solely on the false accusations of settlers.
This photo would be beautiful if it wasn’t a war zone. I don’t know if you can tell from this picture but the military base / settlement outpost sit atop hill 777 to the left of the picture.  The incident we were investigating happened on the road that leads out of the village of Lower Yanoun below the hill.  Yes that is Jordan in the background.
So the farmers did what they have been instructed to do.  They complained to Rashed, the  local farmer / mayor / shepard, who notifies the Israeli military.  Three hours later the military arrives and after a 15 minute conversation in Lower Yanoun the military jeep leads the three tractors down the dirt road toward the farmers fields in Ad Dawa.
About a kilometer down the road, at the junction to the road which runs up the hill to the settlement outpost / military base the convey is stopped by one of the settlers.  It is the same settler who threw rocks at these men earlier in the day.  The farmers are asked to turn around while the soldiers confer with the settler and their commanding officer.
After forty minutes the farmers and Rashed are summoned down the hill to be advised of a decision.  What I had not noticed before, although I had seen the scenario several times, was how the decision gets made.  In each case the military leader, the soldiers under his command, the settlement security and the settlers meet until they have come up with a solution that each of them an agree on.
This day the solution was to inform these farmers that the land that they have farmed all there lives was now permanently a “closed military area” and access to the field is permanently denied.
A similar story has played out three times in this area in the past month with sheep and shepherds and where they can graze.  In each case the local Palestinian shepherds were denied access to land they have been grazing as long as they can remember.
The strategy seems to be to make things so difficult for local people that they will slowly leave and the land will be cleansed of Palestinians.
The conversation looks fair and civil but those in military uniforms have all the power in a military occupation.
You wouldn’t know it by the smile on his face but this man just permantly lost access to his land.  The smile, the bravado, mask the pain and injustice caused by years of systemic racism. 

Moments #2: When the Jordan Valley numbers made sense.

I’ve read the numbers several times but they never really sunk in until I took these photos.  The numbers are simple: Palestinians control about 6% of the land in the  Jordan Valley.  36 Israeli settlements control about 50% of the land in the Jordan Valley.  The Israeli military, through military bases, closed military areas, and nature reserves controls about 44% of the Jordan Valley.

The Jordan Valley was the bread basket of Palestine.  But these green houses, as far as the eye can see, are Israeli settlements.  Each is prospering on land that has been stolen from Palestinians.

Illegal Israeli settlements as far as the eye can see.

Moments #1 The Imans

I thought I’d post a few brief blogs of some moments that have stuck with me over the last few months.

Once a month Father Ibrahim, the Anglican priest at St Philips, a Church in the Old City of Nablus, hosts a lecture / meal of 15 to 40 religious leaders from his community.  This week the number was closer to 15.

This is a group of local Imam’s, listening intently, taking notes, on a lecture about “The contribution to Palestinian Education that has been made by Christians”.  The lecture was delivered by a Muslim teacher from Nablus.  The lecture lasted about an hour, followed by a meal and then a half hour of Q & A.

As near as I could tell in translation almost all of the contributions made by Christians, according to this lecturer, had been positive.  He especially liked Edward Said, and encouraged a conversation about the introduction of Philosophy at Palestinian Universities.  Philosophy had been introduced by Christians and for a while, because philosophy raises questions about the existence of God, it had been challenged by the Muslim community.  Today it was simply part of the conversation.

Muslim Imans, welcoming foriegners like me, inviting me to share a meal with them, listening intently and taking notes on a lecture about the contributions to Palestinian education by Christians and after the lecture engaging the Christians in conversation, challenged the stereotypes I carried within me as a person form the west.

I’m thankful for this moment, with the Imams.

Al Aqaba

This is a photo of a UN map on the wall of our home in Yanoun. I find it makes the West Bank look like an Archipelago, Archipelago Palestine.

The various colors on this map are the result of the Oslo Accords which divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C.

  •  Area A includes Palestinian towns and villages that the Palestinian Authority has full authority over civil jurisdiction and security control.  Israel can still control movement into and out of Area A.
  • Area B gives the Palestinian Authority full authority over civil jurisdiction and responsibility for public order, while Israel maintains a security presence and overriding authority for security.
  • Area C gives the Palestinian Authority restricted civil authority, for example education and welfare, while Israel has full authority over zoning, planning, construction and security.

On this map the blue which covers over 62% of the West Bank is Area C.  Area C contains all of the Israeli settlements (sort of crimson color), the roads used to access the settlements, and almost all of the Jordan Valley.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) Israeli military forces destroyed 622 Palestinian owned structures in 2011. This was a 42% increase compared to 2010.  This included 222 homes, 170 animal shelters, two class rooms and two mosques.  This resulted in almost 1,100 Palestinians, over half children being displaced because of home demolitions by Israeli forces.

Al Aqaba Women’s Centre (and temporary home of the Village Council) and kindergarten. 

Most of these demolitions (90%) and most of the displacements (92%) occurred in already vulnerable farming and herding communities in Area C.  Al Aqaba has the misfortune of being part of the Jordan Valley and thus like every village in  Area C is under serious threat from what are essentially planning bi-laws.
Given normal population growth villages like Al Aqaba expand, old homes are expanded and new homes are built, institutions and infrastructure are required.  According to UN OCHA 94% of all planning requests are denied.
This means that over the years almost every building in the village Al Aqaba has recieved demolition orders against them.  The mosque has received demolition orders, the women’s centre and kindergarten has recieved demolition orders, and the medical clinic has a demolition orders.
Al Aqaba also has the misfortune of resembling southern Lebanon.  At least that is the excuse the Israeli military gives for years of live fire military training which happens regularly around Al Aqaba.  Over the years of the occupation 8 citizens of Al Aqaba have been killed by stray bullets and over 50 have been wounded.   To date no Israeli soldier has been charged or punished.
One of the wounded is Haj Sami the Mayor of Al Aquaba.  In this photo he sits on Peace Street, the black top recently removed by the Israeli Military.  Gandhi Street which sits at the other end of town also has a demolition order.
If you lived in a small town anywhere you would be lucky to have a mayor like Haj Sami.  He is an activist who works tirelessly and passionatly for the village of Al Aqaba.  Within two minutes of meeting me he asks me where I’m from.  “Canada” I say.
He looks me at me carefully and with a tone that indicates I am somehow responsible, he asks “Why has the Canadian Embassy cut off my funding for two years now.”
“I don’t know” I reply.  How would I, I wonder to myself.
“Has something changed, they always supported our village but now for two years we have been cut off” Haj Sami inquires.
I let that slide, I’m not sure I want to talk about a more conservative government in Canada, but I am reminded regularly in the villages that Canada does not support Palestine the way it used to.
So Haj Sami follows with a second question. “Will you be at your Embassy while your are here in Palestine.”
“Yes”, I reply.  “I was at the Consulate in Ramallah a few weeks ago and Mr. Greenspan suggested that I also visit the Embassy in Tel Aviv.  So yes, I do have an appointment next week.”
“Good” he say, “please ask your Embassy why they have been cut off funding to Al Aqaba for two years now.  It is very important to us.”
“Ok, I could do that” I say, as Haj Sami changes topics.
He waves a piece of paper at us.  All the text is Arabic. “12 demolition orders this time, over 20 building, and only three days to go to court” he says.  “The Army man told us – if we do not get to court within three day he will be back to destroy these homes.”  Of course the Israeli military representative means “a military court”.  All of he West Bank is occupied and Palestinians are charged before military courts.
With Haj Sami’s piece of paper, in Arabic, a local guide, and a translator we set off to find and photo graph each of these buildings.
The first of the twelve demolition orders was for a gentleman who had recently moved his family, three wives and six children, from a tent into a concrete home.  The demolition orders were for the house, animal shelters and taboon.  Our guide suggested that things like tractors and water tanks would normally be confiscated.
The following pictures give you a sense of what is to be included.
 The family home

The Chicken coop

The Taboon

An Animal Shelter

Another Animal Shelter

For the next hour or so Wim and I trudged though rain soaked fields and sheep shit while Israeli jets flew low overhead.  We photographed all 20 something structures at the West end of Al Aqaba.

In his earlier life Wim spent 20 years working in and for South Africa.  He is not reluctant to use words like Apartheid and Ethnic Cleansing.  From time to time he reminds me that the Occupation is simply a slow but very deliberate attempt to cleans the land of Palestinians.

Often I do not say much, both of us can live with a lot of quiet, but I find myself thinking that my tribe, the United Church of Canada doesn’t like words like Apartheid and Ethnic Cleansing in the context of Palestine / Israel.  Somehow we associate these words with name calling.

Children call names.  Maybe within my church we need to grow up a little and shoulder our responsibility to not only “seek just” but also to “resist evil”.

So you tell me.  Does this slow but very intentional attempt to gain more land with less Palestinians look like ethnic cleansing to you?

One thing is clear this family will now join the thousands of others whose lives remain at risk of displacement because of an outstanding demolition order.