Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Despair and Hopelessness in the Streets of Dheishe

We walked the narrow alleyways of Dheishe, the largest of the three refugee camps in Bethlehem. The walls are spattered with political and resistance art. Pictures of Dheishe-born martyrs, most notably Ayaat al-Akhras, the first female suicide bomber (who's life is discussed in depth in the movie "To Die in Jerusalem"), cover large segments of the camp's walls. But why not Nelson Mandela, Gandhi or Martin Luther King? Why suicide bombers and those who insist upon violence? Why do the kids here throw stones at one another and play with toy guns rather than with toy cars and barbies? Why would a mother believe that her five year old son's fate lies in martyrdom, while her six year old awaits an eventual lifetime sentence in prison?

During our short stay in Dheishe, we realized that most people see no end to the conflict in sight. Rather than dreaming to live, children here dream to die. With 12,000 Palestinians living in a territory of less than 1 kilometer, with massively overcrowded school conditions (50 children to a class), with one doctor in the entire camp, with many of their relatives in prison, with water shortages in the summertime and power outages in the winter, and with nightly Israeli raids; it is difficult for people here to have hope and imagine a peaceful solution.

During both intifadas (uprisings), Dheishe was a hotspot of both occupation and resistance. Some of the most notorious suicide bombers and fighters came from Dheishe. Up until 1995, Dheishe was fully surrounded by a fence and its entrance controlled by the Israeli military. During the Second Intifada, this camp was the site of daily Israeli raids. We met with a family who's home was demolished in 2005 as a form of collective punishment for a 15-year-old relative accused of aiding a suicide bomber. Due to condensed living conditions, Palestinians in refugee camps must build vertically rather than horizontally. By nature of the structural composition, not only was their home destroyed, but also those living above and below.

Though no soldiers are any longer in sight and we only hear of night raids in the camp, we are told by nearly everyone here that had we come three years earlier, the streets would have been filled with checkpoints and soldiers. Palestinian residents would rarely leave their homes, either unable to due to curfew or unwilling to due to fear of the Israeli soldiers. This conflict has taken its toll on the children of Dheishe. Similar to the Western game of "Cops and Robbers," children here play "Israelis and Palestinians," wherein a child acts as an Israeli soldier with a toy gun, and another as the stone-throwing Palestinian. We were told by the Palestinian mother who claims "without a doubt" her child will end a martyr, that the children of the camp want nothing other than toy guns as holiday gifts. This alone lays testement to the psychological impact that the conflict has on Dheishe's children.

The loss of hope is not only prevelant in the children but in the parents as well. Our Japenese friend suggested that the Palestinian mother may be pregnant, having been feeling sick for quite some time now. Upon hearing this, the mother panicked: "Oh don't say that! You will make me cry!" For parents here, it's incredibly difficult to watch their children grow up in these terrible conditions, as they seem to know it is not like this elsewhere. Our guide around the camp made clear that for as long as he is living in Palestine, he does not want to begin a family; for he does not wish to bring anymore children into this mess.

Having seen the conditions that the people growing up here face, and having heard the stories from those living in the camp, the shades of curiosity are lifted from the radical and violent Palestinians who's images are often flashed on the television screens. It's no longer a wonder as to why those portrayed as villians in the West have become the heros of Palestine. And it's no wonder why the children here play with guns while the shopowners hang the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade's flag.

When no one else is standing up for them, who else are they going to turn towards?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I Think I Learned Something Last Night...

Written by Michael:

It's been years since I've gone driving with my family looking at the Christmas lights. Never would I have believed that's how I'd spend an evening in Palestine. We joined three Muslim Palestinian friends riding in their car through the narrow streets of Beit Jala (a predominately Christian area), peering at the Christmas lights hanging above and lining the roads. Near in age and just as many of our own friends back home, they drive aimlessly around the city when bored, blasting music, laughing, and chatting in a language we barely understand. Upon returning, we were invited by a local to learn a new card game. Due to power outages in the camp, we watched as several Arab men played a Palestinian card game in a lantern-lit garage.

I've realized throughout my stay thus far, that no one here wants conflict. No one here wants to live in these conditions. And though two brothers whom we drove around with had grown up fatherless, having lost their father during the first Intifada- and though like most Palestinian youth, they have been in and out of Israeli prisons- and though they live in dilapidated houses- and though grafitti, political figures' and martyrs' pictures line their streets- and though a concrete barrier surrounds their city; in the end, they desire a life just like anyone else. They want to have a good time and hang out with their friends. They want to be with their family and eventually start their own. And to my suprise, they maintain rather normal lives in extraordinary circumstances.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Seeing what most dont want to. The West Bank through my Eyes. -

When first visiting the West Bank, we brought along our friend Avi. This is an article written by him, explaining his perception after witnessing the conflict with his own two eyes. I think our readers will find it quite interesting.


I have been really fortunate to have such great, open minded, friends who have a strong interest in the political and conflict ridden region we call the Middle East. I too share a great interest in the situation here in Israel. Just a little back round; I grew up in an orthodox Jewish family and in my teen years was exposed to extreme Zionism mostly from my family. Two of my brothers made Aliyah (the act of becoming a citizen of Israel) and served in the Israel Defense Force, which affected my views even greater. Due to issues regarding the development of myself and strong Zionistic views I too made Aliyah to the Golan Heights in July 2008 and am drafting to the military in March. My political views though, I would describe as moderate and have spent hour and hours in debate with Josh and Michael regarding the humanitarian situation in Palestine.

So when Josh and Michael told me they were coming to my region to see the situation for themselves I was overjoyed. It was an opportunity to not only show them around the country that means so much to me, but also see the territories that are so highly debated such as BethLehem, Ramallah, refugee camps along the way and the much talked about security wall. For me the security risk was much greater, surprisingly on the Israeli side of things. Due to the fact that I hold Israeli citizen ship my entering the West Bank warrants my immediate arrest by the IDF, as well as the Palestinians don’t look to kindly on people who support what Israel is doing. It was an opportunity that I could not pass up. To find out what really goes on in the so much read about places and to get a view of what the “other side” thinks could not be missed.

Getting of the bus right outside the Security wall and check point I was rushed with emotion. I still couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I felt then. It wasn’t fear. I was not afraid for my life. But I think I felt that this is it. This was my opportunity to see whether the past two years of my life and my impending military draft is supporting something that is worth my time and energy. Have I been supporting something that is evil and cruel? I have always prided myself that I have not been influenced by the radical views that surround me here in the Golan and in a way I thought my views might be shifted to that direction. I purely didn’t know how the next four hour were going to affect my life. The Jewish women on the bus muttering prayers and screaming “God watch over You”! weren’t very comforting and I was anxious to see what’s really going on.

Crossing under the wall I remember thinking one thing right away. All my discussions regarding the wall always came down to the security it provides For Israel. Most attacks carried out inside Israel were stopped in direct cause of the wall and that was enough for me.
But seeing the wall I couldn’t help thinking that this is not just a security fence. This is a massive, daughnting wall. Its huge! I was shocked how the main street of Bethlehem with shops cafĂ©’s, and stores just like in tel aviv is cut to an abrupt dead end by this barrier. I couldn’t help thinking why Israel had to put it here and not a mere 2 kilometers further bank to not interfere with the demographic structure of the city. Walking through the streets of Bethlehem into the empty streets of the Aida refugee camp I was just amazed and the despondency of the village and how unfortunate of a situation this was. I wasn’t putting blame I wasn’t pointing fingers. It was just unfortunate that this is happening in our world. That people are living in such comfort while other are living in the direct opposite. Speaking with the people who’s hospitality crossed borders, I understood that most of the people just want peace. They want to live in a normal city with normal villages side by side with Israelis. Yes there is a strong extremist sect that are looked upon with honor but that’s the only hope that they have to grab on too. The only thing that is being done to maybe stop the life that was taken away from them. During my visit I called my girlfriend and described to her what I was seeing. Her response was, “sometimes its better not to see the other side of things”. I couldn’t help thinink of how abusrd this was. I felt that if eveyr Israeli could see exactly what I was seeing their would be great progress in negotiations.

Crossing back into Israel my views are still moderate. But I understand what fuels the violence and I understand the majority of people who just want peace. I couldn’t help thinking that if I had grown up in Bethlehem I would have the same motivation to join the Al Aqsa martyrs brigade that I do that makes me join the Israeli army, I wish Israelis could understand that these are real people who just want to live peacefully in the land of their fathers. How their lives have been severely impacted by the conflict just like them. If this was widespread knowledge I can’t help thinking that, what so many people want, pure peace, couldn’t come in our days.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Detained in Hebron

Written by Josh:

In planning our trip to the historic city of Hebron, we were not expecting detainment and questioning by Palestinian police; but things don't always go as planned.

We took an early bus from Bethlehem city to the Palestinian section of Hebron. On the thirty minute drive, we conversed with a Hebron-born Palestinian man who presented himself as a bit crazy, after explaining that his reason for being in Bethlehem was to attend a courtdate for physically assaulting a police officer who had given him a speeding ticket. The man went on to tell us about life in Hebron: life made impossible by, "the Jews." He prepped us for he told us we were to experience in Hebron- checkpoints, settler violence, occupation. And driving along the twisting roads surrounded by Israeli watch towers and settlements, we sure believed we would witness some of this intensity. But alas, our taxi took us to mainstreet Hebron city, fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

We came to Hebron wanting to see conflict; surely Hebron is the city to go to if you wish to witness Israeli occupation. But the area we were dropped off at seemed more like a flourishing city like Ramallah- which we previously compared to an Arab New York City. However, unlike Ramallah, people looked at us different here; people seemed to be concealing an inner suspicion towards us. As we walked towards a row of taxis, a group of drivers approached us, and unlike the typical desperate Palestinian drivers we have encountered elsewhere, these shofars began to question, almost interrogate us: "Where you from?" "What's your name?" "You Muslim?" We were bombarded with questions. We peered down the street to see two Palestinian Authority police officers quickly approaching.

"Where you come from?" they asked. We told them we were visiting and volunteering from America, and had come to see Palestine. They requested our passports and upon looking at them, they radioed in to other police. Within literally a minute, Fatah police sporting their AK-47's surrounded us from all angels- police in trucks, on foot, and on motorbikes. Within these few minutes, we became the center of attention on the busy street. The man who seemed to be the officer in charge took our passports and demanded we follow him for further questioning. We were baffled; with no idea of what was happening, who they thought we were, or where we were headed- we were placed in the back of a police car. We called an Arabic speaking friend of our's to explain in their language who we are.

Many individuals watched in curiosity from the streets, as we dealt with the PA officers. After clarifying our origins, and that we were indeed volunteering for a respected Palestinian organization, the tone of the officers' voices changed drastically- as the officer said, "Welcome! Welcome to Hebron!"- a tint of irony as we were seated in the back of a police car. They explained that some individuals had thought we were Israelis up to no good.

A little shaken, we requested they take us back to a Bethlehem-bound bus. On the way, the gave us a quick tour of the city they call home. "You must see the Ibraheemi Mosque- very beautiful!" They pointed to the direction of the Old City of Hebron, where lies the tension of Israeli settlers and Palestinians. The officers guided us to a taxi-driver who linked arms with Michael, (as is common amongst friends in Arab culture), and led us directly to his taxi.

Although we didn't have the chance to see the actual conflict in Hebron, the resulting tension was sure prevelant in the area.

Lesson learned: next time we travel around a tense Palestinian city, we will be sure to bring a Palestinian guide. Unlike Bethlehem (where we are currently residing), we found that not all Palestine is so open and welcoming.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Too Much Bias?

We wanted to make some clarifications regarding the nature of our blog. We recognize that some people have percieved it to be too one-sided. Our goal is not to spew political ideology nor promote any political belief. We simply seek to document what we have seen with our own two eyes on both sides of the conflict.

We understand that a majority of our readers are Jewish, and while many have already seen the Zionist side of the argument, it seems the Palestinian view has been overlooked. We wish to educate on Palestinian politics, culture, and hardships. We have not and will not distort any observations. But we cannot provide bad and good on both sides simply for the sake of remaining neutral. We are reporting on what we are seeing.

Due to the fact that much of our time is being spent in the West Bank, being amonst Palestinians, we will naturally represent the Palestinian view far more than the Israeli standpoint. Not to mention, having studied the conflict, we do support Palestinian freedom, independance, and justice for both sides of the conflict. Despite this, we do hope to visit Sderot and other areas that have regularly been victims of rocketfire from Gaza. We hope to visit settlements and see how they feel and where they are coming from. We hope to visit cities of coexistance, to see how two different peoples can flourish side-by-side in a land torn by conflict and division. All-in-all, we hope to give an accurate depiction of the politics here on the ground.

Of course, there is no better way to study the conflict than to come here for yourselves. Many fear travel to Palestine, though we have found the people to be friendly and the environment to be safe. I hope you will keep an open-mind and continue to read our observations, even if they do not necessarily coincide with your own views.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ramallah: Heart of Palestinian Culture

Written by Josh:

After being warned that we "won't come out alive" and that "it's not even funny to joke about going there," we were a bit skeptical and worried as we ventured into Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank. Our nervousness wasn't subsided as we drove past a few instances of anti-semitic grafitti sprayed on stoned-slabs, bearing swastikas. But our actual experiences in the city immediately eased our fears.

Three years ago, Israel ended the occupation of Ramallah, thus granting the Palestinian Authority full control over the city. Fatah was well-represented with stoic-lookin policemen bearing AK-47s scatterred around the well-trafficed city. We hired a Bethlehem taxi driver named Toufiq to act as our tourguide and show us around the city. Our first stop was at Arafat's house, now turned into a memorial site for the previous Palestinian president. Toufiq told us that Arafat was popular amongst many of the Palestinian people, with the reason being that he could relate to the average people and feel for them on their own level. He explained that, unlike many current Palestinian leaders, it was not unusual for him to go out and play with the children, and if someone needed money for a cause, he was incredibly generous in granting them it.

Arafat's popularity also rang strongly in the paintings and posters of him found plastered throughout the West Bank. Armed Fatah security surrounded the perimiter. An aggressive looking guard approached us and the language barrier dissolved as Toufiq translated the guard's Arabic to English. Although his harsh disposition may have put us off at first, the guard allowed his curious personality to eminate, asking us questions about American culture and our travels through Palestine. We realized that the law enforcement are not violent radicals as many may believe, but rather, they held many commonalities to the police serving in the USA.

Next, Toufiq drove us to downtown Ramallah, described as the "heart of Palestinian culture." Imagine a typical street in New York City. Replace the American masses occupying the streets and sidewalks with Palestinians, dark-skinned Muslims, and there you have downtown Ramallah. Store-after-store and mall-after-mall filled up the busy streets, and shoppers, both male and female, religious and secular, flooded the stores. Massive flashy billboards sporting new products and Arabic writing stood out amongst the tall buildings. Street vendors selling everything from fruit, to bootlegged DVD'S, to cosmetic products, approached us at every corner. Most costs here are far cheaper than in America; a meal that would cost 15 dollars in the US might cost 8 NIS (2 US Dollars). Unlike other areas we visited in the West Bank, the economy in Ramallah seemed to be doing quite well. This was evident by the number of wealthy Palestinians living there. The dangers many had warned us of regarding Ramallah seemed non-existant in this modern, industrialized Palestinian city.

On the drive back to Bethlehem, Toufiq pointed out the Israeli settlements surrounding so much of the West Bank. Many Jewish settlements, although illegal under international law, are protected by checkpoints, electrified fences, and some even by the infamous wall. Settlers are granted the priveledge of travelling on exclusive Israeli roads, which in many cases, separate West Bank cities. At a checkpoint about 30 kilometers out of Ramallah, our taxi was pulled aside and approached by an Israeli soldier who then took our passports and briefly interrogated us as to why we were in the West Bank.

Driving back along the desert-ridden roads, I realized that Ramallah was a great example of what Palestine at large can be; could be if allowed control of their own economy, could be if allowed freedom of movement, could be if allowed freedom from a foreign military controlling their every move. As they say on this side of the wall: InshaAllah (if God wills).

Bethlehem + Aida Refugee Camp = Day 1

Written by Michael:

I wrote this a few days ago, but unfortunately we haven't got regular internet connection so I was unable to post it earlier.


Impoverished, dilapidated, unmaintained, and surrounded by a massive concrete wall, the city where Jesus was reportedly born is no longer the tourist attraction it once was. Since the construction of the seperation barrier seven years ago, tourism has nearly died in Bethlehem. Political grafitti and artistic depictions of the conflict cover the walls. Desperate taxi drivers looking for business surround newcomers. Several children attempting to sell cheap goods run up to tourists. Resturants are empty, hotels are empty, stores are empty... streets are nearly deserted.

We were a bit nervous at first. Stepping through the checkpoint felt like a portal to an unmarked territory- a third world country- or maybe even a prison. We followed alongside the wall until reaching Al-Aida Refugee Camp. The narrow streets were nearly unpopulated, and paranoid thoughts ran through my head as I thought out all the terrible circumstances that could happen.

But our fears were nothing more than paranoid creations of our imagination, and a product of the ignorance and steriotypes that surround us. The hospitality of Palestinian culture is outstanding. People passing by greet visitors with "Ahlan" (welcome) or "Salam" (peace/hello). Conversations spark spontaneously on the street. We were almost immediately invited for a cup of coffee by a middle-aged Palestinian man named Khalid. I am amazed by how much we learned from him and how well we could communicate, though he spoke little English and we know nearly no Arabic. Khalid told us a bit about life in the refugee camp.

Al-Aida was initially estbalished by the UNRWA (United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency for Palestine) in 1947. It initially served as a temporary location for refugees, mainly with origins in Jerusalem. But as it became clear that the refugees would be living there long-term, and as the practicality of return faded, people began building their own homes on the designated territory. Tents became condensed tiny homes. Today, Aida Camp is home to more than 3,000 Palestinians, 77% of whom are unemployed and 80% of whom live below the Palestinian poverty line. A refugee camp does not allow for expansion, as the territory designated in 1948 remains the only land available to date.

There's absolutely nothing for youth to do in Aida. The streets have become their playgrounds, and unsupervised children as young as four years old roam the streets and congregate with friends. There's no room for playgrounds, movie theaters, parks, or anything of that nature. As we, the foreigners, would pass by, children were curious to talk with us, and we became instant friends with dozens of children. Some interested in practicing their English, others interested in taking pictures with us, and others interested in just messing around and joking with us, it became almost like a game to go street-to-street and meet a new bunch of children.

In general, people are mad at the Israeli government and feel that the poverty is a direct result of the occupation. They have turned towards militant groups like the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, to protect them where others have failed. In Khalid's house, we watched news showing fighters who had been deported to European countries. Khalid told us that, though currently calmer than in the past, it is regular for the military to raid the camp, detain and possibly later deport Palestinian citizens.

He, like many other Palestinians, do not feel that Aida is home. Instead, he points to a picture of Dome of the Rock hanging on the corner of his room, signifying that Jerusalem, the birthplace of his parents, is his true home. Many Palestinians seem to feel this way. Why would they accept a dilapidated, impoverished camp like Aida as their home, rather than a flourishing city like Jerusalem? It seemed his eyes nearly teared us as he spoke of Jerusalem and watched the news.

But at the end of the day, it seems people are genuinely interested in peace and living in stability. No one told us they would like to see the death, nor the expulsion of Jews. Everyone treated us well and welcomed us to their city.

It all hit home, as we waited in a jammed line for an hour at the checkpoint upon re-enterring Israel. And as long as the line took to leave Bethlehem, the line enterring was hours longer.

-Josh and I will be volunteering in Aida Refugee camp for several months starting December 13th-

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Journeying through the Golan

A Druze (religious-identity) sweet-shop owner's statement that "there are no winners in war," rang strongly while driving through the mountainous and fertile Golan Heights. The Druze here in the Golan heights know more than many others about the effects of war, seeing as they lived through one of the harshest battles for territory in modern-history. The Golan Heights was annexed from Syria by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. Reminance of the tragedies on both sides remain as stark reminders of the casualties of war. Memorials comemmorating the thousands of fallen Israeli soldiers have been erected along the roadside. Dilapidated and bombed out Syrian Mosques, military bases, and homes every few kilometers remind us of the historical civilization that once lived in the region. We walked through the foundation of what once was a beautiful Syrian Mosque, now a bullet-ridden, grafittied structure, with no in-tact determining symbol of a Mosque other than the minaret standing hundreds of feet from the ground.

Black spray paint reading "Kahana Tzadek" ('Kahana was right') around the Golan Heights affirms the presence of the right-wing sentiment that exists amongst many Israelis, possibly a stumbling block towards a peaceful and substainable solution. Meir Kahana was an Israeli extremist whose party, 'Kach', was deemed a terrorist organization and banned by Israel. A large anti-war movement exists in Israel and we look forward to meeting some of the organizers in the near-future. But thus far, we are yet to meet anyone who even most American-Zionists could consider 'moderate'.

Politics is deeply entrenched in this culture, and unlike most American teens, even the most average and apathetic teenagers here feel strongly about the current political situation. Our friend Avi's girlfriend and her friend, near in age, seemed taken back and shocked when we told them our reasoning for visiting their country. It was as if we had struck a nerve, as if we were traitors and joining up with the enemy, as they blurted out the first emotional reaction that came to their head: "Why would you go there?!?" We simply described how we are interested in studying the conflict first-hand. Avi explained that volunteering in the West Bank is just like volunteering anywhere else. We're not going on a political mission; we simply seek to witness the conflict, derive our own conclusions, and help the people in need, just as one would do in other 3rd world countries.

We found them to be quite hypocritical and guilty of their own arguments against Arabs. Saying, "They don't want peace" does not mean much when preceded sarcastically with, "we like Arabs too...we like them in their coffins." This type of racism is so prevalent in many parts of Israeli society, seeing that most Jewish citizens must serve in the Israeli army, enriching their pride and respect for their homeland.

Keeping in mind, we've only spent a few days here, and though trying to talk to as many Israelis as possible, we do not yet have a grasp of the diverse opinions that may exist in Israel. This is simply what we have seen thus far. We hope that in the following weeks we are able to get a better depiction of the nature and opinions of the people of Israel.