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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Interfaith Peace-Builders May-June Delegation to Israel/Palestine - Part 2

Report Two: More From East Jerusalem and Joint Action for Peace Tuesday, May 29

Cecilia Lucas, Eric Bjorgan

Extraordinary Ordinariness

As we toured Israel’s “matrix of control” in East Jerusalem today, our guide, Catherina Wilson of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, commented: “Just feel how normal this place is. That’s the danger of the economic settlements. The Israelis here don’t think of themselves as settlers, they just think of themselves as moving into a nice new neighborhood. That’s why it’s so hard to disengage. If you’re not here to make a political statement, why would you leave? This is much more dangerous than the ideological settlements because there are so many of these economic settlers and they think of it as banal.”

Ideological settlers are those who believe that through their actions they are redeeming God-given land that must be returned to Jewish hands. Economic settlers (the vast majority) are often secular (in the case of the settlements near Jerusalem they often actually move there in order to gain some distance from the religion of the Holy City) and they are moving into homes that are beautiful, new, and – best of all-- tax-free (these homes are government-subsidized, thus every Israeli – and, indirectly, every American—is paying taxes to support their settling activities).

We were standing inside Ma’ale Adumim, which appears on my tourist map as though it were a town like any other. In fact, this is a Jewish-only area (with all entrances and exits guarded) on what international law recognizes as Palestinian land. The size (though not the population) is larger than that of Tel Aviv. As we entered through a checkpoint, we drove through a traffic circle at the center of which was planted an olive tree that had been uprooted from the West Bank (click here to see photo). (This has become a common practice. People in the U.S can now even buy one of these trees that have been uprooted by Israelis for $5,000.) Other than the Bedouins who have been hired to care for the flowers, there are not many people around as it is mid-morning and most of the residents work in Jerusalem. Ma’ale Adumim resembles a suburb in southern California: palm trees, impeccably clean, lush flowers and greenery, an Ace Hardware Store, and a “Library of Peace” (click here for photo). As we are standing by a bus-stop looking at a view of the desert, a garbage truck drives by: it is transporting the garbage from the settlement into parts of the Palestinian Territories that have not been settled by Israeli Jews.

Garbage is very visible all along the streets as we leave the settlement and continue on our tour to areas of East Jerusalem in which Palestinians live. Palestinian Jerusalemites pay 30% of Jerusalem taxes but get 8% of the services. Furthermore, the cost of bulldozers which are brought in to demolish Palestinian homes is included in that 8% of services they pay for! Trash pickup is considered too high a cost for the Arab areas of the city, as is adequate water supply. But there is no sparing on demolishing the homes of anyone whose family has expanded through marriage and has thus built on an additional floor or constructed a place to live without a permit. And it is not as though Palestinians are trying to skirt the law. Jerusalemites pay $20,000 simply to apply for a permit to build or to expand their properties – and this money is paid even though more likely than not the permit will be denied. Once their property has been demolished, the home-owners then have two months to pay for the rubble to be cleaned up or else they face additional fines.

As we drove around East Jerusalem we saw the Separation Wall. Yes, it is true, parts of the Wall are better described as a fence because they are not concrete but these parts are perhaps even worse: electric fences topped with barbed wire and numbered all along so that if someone touches it, the military can instantly be upon you either with shackles or bullets (click here for photo). As we heard stories of how this Wall/Fence has ruined people’s lives and as we witnessed the apartheid system of not only the wall, but also the by-pass roads (Jewish-only roads that also serve as barriers while making the Palestinian towns completely invisible by not evening having signs that indicate them let alone leading to any of them) and the checkpoints and the pass-system that severely restricts the movement of all Palestinians, people in the group kept asking “Why? Why? Why?”

Catherina told us, “Israelis will try to explain everything by talking about security.” But as people in the group kept expressing confusion because these policies seemed much worse for security, she repeatedly reminded us: “Don’t try to make sense of Israeli explanations of what is happening. They make no sense.” I actually disagree. I think the explanations make a lot of sense. They provide a justification for Israeli policies, a way for Israelis (and the international community) to talk about what is going on without talking about occupation. These explanations of security serve the same role that the talk of protecting us from terrorists serve in garnering U.S support for our many wars in the Middle East, our support of Israel, our draconian immigration policies, and our infringements on civil rights at home. There are a number of Jews in our group who have talked about how hard it is even after many years of activism to completely destroy a lifetime of socialization to the notion that they should be afraid of Palestinians, that Palestinians will kill them, etc. These same people are some of the most committed activists and eloquent voices in talking about the atrocities of Israel’s policies, and in talking about how there is a sense to all of this, but it is a sense that is insane. As one person put it: “inhumane, unkind, twisted – things that embarrass me as a Jew, things I don’t want to be hearing and seeing, things that I can’t believe we are doing to others after all that has been done to us.”

Perhaps I don’t disagree with Catherina so much after all. There is a sense to the explanations, but the whole thing is senseless. Senseless as in insane and senseless as in devoid of senses, devoid of sensitivity, devoid of seeing, listening, touching. And this senselessness becomes ordinary, naturalized as normal human life.

--Cecilia Lucas

Wednesday, May 30th

Combatants for Peace: Sadness and Hope

On Wednesday, we met with Bassam Al-Aramin of Combatants for Peace. Combatants for Peace is joint Israeli/Palestinian organization that believes the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis “cannot be solved with military solutions.” They both want security for their people and are working toward that goal. Combatants for Peace have talks and lectures to explain the suffering of the occupation.

Bassam told his story of embracing non-military non-violent solutions to the conflict and I felt a personal connection to his experience as I am a member of an organization called Veterans for Peace. Bassam explained that his first and most difficult step to joining Combatants for Peace was to meet with an Israeli “enemy” combatant. He and many Palestinians fear that the person they will meet is a member of the Israeli intelligence.

Bassam was first arrested at age 17 for throwing stones and eventually spent a total of 7 years in Israeli prisons. “You cannot imagine what I’ve seen in Israeli jails,” he explains. He says he suffered torture and that Palestinians are viewed as “enemy” and “terrorists” by Israeli jailers. He explains that after engaging an Israeli jailer and settler in conversation over a period of 7-8 months, he persuaded the Israeli jailer to change his mind and better understand why many Palestinians are fighting the occupation. This persuasion is particularly impressive as ideological settlers are often the most racist, violent elements of Israeli society.

Particularly sad is the story Bassam told about the death of his daughter, Abir. She was returning from a math exam on January 16, 2007, when she was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier with a rubber bullet at a distance of about 50 feet. Abir was treated in an Israeli hospital but died two days later as a result of her injuries. She was only ten years old. We can see that Bassam has suffered immensely and is still mourning the death of his child. The expression on his face was unmistakable, and many in our group have tears. We can see that the pain in his heart is still fresh. Bassam says he had to counsel his thirteen year-old son who wanted revenge. He said you can do nothing by throwing stones. Bassam wants a better future for his son.

Bassam explains that the Israeli soldier who shot his daughter was not investigated or charged. He explains that he does not want revenge, but justice. He says that the young soldier who shot his daughter was just a kid, and that he wants to continue a dialogue. He believes that Israeli soldiers are victims too. We can see that Bassam is a very strong, powerful individual to maintain his stand for nonviolence after all he has suffered.

When asked how he talks to someone who wants to fight, he told a story of counseling a young Palestinian who had been arrested three times for throwing stones. Bassam saw himself in the boy he counseled and wanted to show him an alternative to violent resistance to the occupation. He explains that the boy has made considerable progress. He also explains that since 1967, seven hundred fifty thousand Palestinians have been imprisoned in Israeli jails including ninety thousand children; many of these people suffer torture while imprisoned.

He does not believe that the United States or Israel want true democracy. When asked about a solution to the conflict, he says that Americans should stop supporting Israel’s unjust occupation with military aid. Bassam says that Israeli settlers in Palestine must go back to Israel; he views the settlers as terrorists. He asks Americans to stop supporting the Israeli occupation with money and arms. Rather than be pro-Palestine, he wants us to be pro-Peace.

--Eric Bjorgan

You can access photos here:

Olive Tree in Ma’ale Adumim:

Palm Trees in Ma’ale Adumim:

“Fence” configuration of Israeli Wall:

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