Heart of Palestine

2010/05/25, Day 01
2010/05/26, Day 02
2010/05/27, Day 03
2010/05/28, Day 04
2010/05/29, Day 05
2010/05/30, Day 06
2010/05/31, Day 07
2010/06/01, Day 08
2010/06/02, Day 09
2010/06/03, Day 10
2010/06/04, Day 11

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28 May 2010, Friday

7:00 A.M.

Breakfast at a table with K.C., D.F., and F.R.

Beit Zait

8:30 A.M.

Passed Beit Zait, site of a Palestinian village ruin. Visits to a couple of Kibbutzim near the border of Israel and the Gaza Strip was on our itinerary. Kibbutzims have traditionally been self-sustainable communities of socialist leanings — its inhabitants owned no properties, received no wages, and all worked for the common good of their utopian ideals. Over the years, the Kibbutzims did not dovetail with Israel’s policy of industrial and technological development, so a lot of Kibbutzims became insolvent; those that managed to survive did so by relaxing some property right restrictions or opening up to people from outside the Kibbutzim.

9:30 A.M.

We reached Erez Crossing at the border of Israel and Gaza Strip. L.E. approached the checkpoint in an attempt to enter the Gaza Strip, claiming the right to visit her family’s land there, but was summarily rebuffed. I have heard of the arrangement at Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip described as “the world’s largest open-air prison” before I came. A sign reading “Welcome to Erez Crossing” failed to assuage the unease and sadness that I felt was conveyed by the sheer concrete walls, guard towers, and barbed wire fences.

A German public radio reporter that had just returned from the Gaza Strip was kind enough to give us total strangers an impromptu press conference in the parking lot. The only traffic allowed since the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip have been limited to NGOs and most journalists, with one notable exception: Israeli journalists are not permitted inside the Gaza Strip.

The wall at Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip has created what’s been dubbed “world’s largest open-air prison.” Limited humanitarian aid enter the Gaza Strip through Erez Crossing. Israel has not yet lifted the blockade.

10:05 A.M.

Sderot has earned a reputation in recent years as the border town that most of the Kassam Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip eventually land. (Sderot was built on the land of a former Palestinian village.)

We met Nomika Zion and Erik Yellin of the group Other Voice at Kibbutz Migvan, Sderot. Other voice is comprised of citizens who live in Sderot as well as the surrounding Gaza region, and calls for creative, different actions that will bring about an end to the intractable conflict in which residents of the area find themselves. Members of the group are united in hoping their area can become a peaceful area that offers good quality of life, good education, and a flourishing economy. This hope can only be realized through the formation of public and concrete Israeli-Palestinian partnerships.

Bomb shelters are ubiquitous in the border town of Sderot

It was true that Kassam rockets landed frequently in Sderot, said Nomika; the combination of sirens, property damage, potential and realized injury, and bunker mentality had a cumulative impact upon the psychological well-being of Sderot’s residents. At its height, Sderot’s population numbered approximately 20,000 residents, which had slowly emigrated over the years as the number of rockets increased. Nomika remembered a time when there was relatively free movement of people and economic goods between Sderot and Gaza Strip. Escalation in the number of Kassam rockets followed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal — in actuality the settlers removed from the Gaza strip were resettled in the West Bank — as a response to increasing restrictions on the Gaza Strip. Nomika saw hardened attitudes among residents that remained, as if they retreated into a psychological bunker and not just into the physical bunkers to escape Kassams. The only time she felt that Israel truly looked out for the interest of Sderot’s residents was when she negotiated a cease fire with Hamas. Hamas respected the cease fire, which helped to restore a great degree of normalcy. In the days leading up to Operation Cast Lead, the siege on Gaza in the winter of 2008, Other Voice invited an Israeli official to come to Sderot, hoping that cooler heads may prevail upon the military brass to change course, but he cancelled — there would be no deviation from the charted course towards war.

Nomika counts herself among the minority that were against Operation Cast Lead. People from all over Israel descended upon Sderot to cheer the IDF bombardment of the Gaza Strip, whereas Nomika and members of Other Voice on both sides of the border were in phone contact throughout the conflict. One of the most tragic stories to come out from Cast Lead was the Palestinian doctor that lost all his daughters; it was a very lonely time to be a leftist. “Israel’s treatment toward [Judge] Goldstone was really reprehensible,” said Nomika. Judge Goldstone was the principal investigator to the Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, known often by its shorthand, “Goldstone Report.” The report found that both sides of the conflict committed human rights violations, citing among them Israel’s use of white phosphorus as a weapon instead of its intended purpose of illumination. The report greatly angered Israel and many Jewish communities, and kept Judge Goldstone from attending his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah due to scheduled demonstration. “It was a classic case of shooting the messenger instead of hearing the message.” Nomika’s still held out hope that Israel will do the right thing by negotiating a cease fire with Hamas. “Hamas is a pragmatic organization… it has demonstrated its willingness to cease hostile fire. During the short 6 months before Operation Cast Lead, it was Hamas that initiated a unilateral cease fire, and Israel that broke it.” Members of Other Voice continue to stage regular demonstrations with fences of peace and broadcast their message, “we refuse to be enemies.”

Arieh Zimmerman, a wise elder of Kibbutz Zikim

1:00 P.M.

We had lunch at Kibbutz Zikim, another Kibbutz near the Israel-Gaza border, and listened to a presentation by Arieh Zimmerman. He joked that someone had put him up to the task of meeting our delegation because his command of English was better. Hailing originally from San Francisco, Mr. Zimmerman witnessed the appalling treatment of African-Americans at the hands of White society in the 1960’s, and that left him quite disillusioned.

4:15 P.M.

We reached the West Bank town of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus Christ and site for the Church of the Nativity. This church was the target of an IDF siege when militants took refuge here in 2002; unfortunately, people that were already in the church got caught in the crossfire. The siege was finally broken when International Solidarity Movement (ISM) rushed the church, but IDF would not let them off that easily. Both militants and innocent bystanders in the church were exiled, forbidden from ever setting foot again in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem

5:20 P.M.

D.F. and I paired off to home stay with our Beit Sahour host William Hanoona and his wife Nirii. Oh, an English name, remarked D.F. It was a name bestowed upon him as an agreement between gentlemen, said Mr. Hanoona, when his father requested vacation time from a British officer. “Purpose of time off?” My wife is near full term. “Okay, your request for time off shall be granted if you give the child my name.” It may have been just a friendly joke, but Mr. Hanoona’s father evidently saw no harm in complying.

6:00 P.M.

Heat in Israel and the oPT has very low humidity content, so to me who had experienced Taiwan’s sauna-like climate, it was like being given time off for good behavior. Temperatures cool down precipitously as the sun sets.

I pointed to the black cistern sitting on the rooftop. “I’m used to seeing those on Palestinian homes now. How often do you get water here in Beit Sahour?” Mr. Hanoona said the water company cut water supply on 1 random day each week; “at least let us know ahead of time what day the water will be cut,“ said Mr. Hanoona wryly. If one needed more water, the water company sold each additional cubic meter at approximately 250% of its regular rate.

“When was the last time you visited Jerusalem,” D.F. asked. “Oh, about 5 years ago. It’s easier for me to travel to Austin, Texas,” said Mr. Hanoona, who now splits his time between Beit Sahour and Arizona state, “than to travel to Jerusalem. In order to obtain a travel permit, they take all your information, your fingerprints, and application fee. ‘Will I receive a permit after doing all this,’ we asked, to which they replied, ‘if you fail to submit application requirements, then you definitely will not receive a permit.’ After their footdragging on the permit, I went to get help at a consulate. Some hummus and packs of cigarettes seemed to do the trick.”

Mr. Hanoona pointed out 3 tall, comparatively newer buildings that were a few hundred meters from us. “IDF shelled those buildings in response to someone — we don’t know who — that fired on the military barracks nearby with some old service pistol. The military barracks used to be bigger and a lot closer.” said Mr. Hanoona as he pointed to the light emanating from an unassuming concrete bunker to the right. “Internationals who protested the large barracks prompted the IDF to reduce its footprint in Beit Sahour.”

D.F. and I with The Hanoonas

There isn’t a Palestinian we met that didn’t have his brush with the IDF, and Mr. Hanoona is no exception. When the IDF pressed as far as Beit Sahour in 2002, residents of the entire town were forbidden from stepping outside, which tantamounted to collective house arrest, one that would last for 2 months. There was another time when Mr. Hanoona returned from his mother’s home at night; he rolled up his window because it started to rain, when he felt a sting in his flank. He pressed a hand to his flank — it was completely red from his own blood. He then found himself surrounded by IDF soldiers. “Why didn’t you stop? We told you to stop,” they demanded. “How did I know to stop? My windows were rolled up, and there were no signs or lights that indicated a checkpoint. Neighbors would tell me afterwards that there was a concrete wall behind which IDF soldiers hid. I took the IDF to court, but the judge ruled that the IDF cannot be found liable.”

8:00 P.M.

D.F. and I very much enjoyed dinner and our conversations. Mr. Hanoona asked us why Americans’ communal ideology was so tenuous, even though they are, in his opinion, very nice peoples. “Here [in Beit Sahour], we all know each other; Americans don’t even known their own neighbors.” It gave us pause ’cos we didn't have a good comeback.

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