Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Colonization of Palestine

Written by Josh:

Daoud Nasser understands the dilemma of settlements all too well. Residing on a hill engulfed from every direction by Israeli settlements, he knows first hand how complex life can get. For twenty years, Nasser explained to us, the Israeli government has been trying every possible method to expel him from the land his family has thrived on since 1914 in order to expand the nearby settlement Newe Daniel. Initially, Israel commenced a lengthy legal battle against Nasser, claiming that his ownership of the land is not documented. One would think that living for nearly a hundred years on the specified land would be enough to sway this matter, but all too frequently Palestinians discover that this does not in fact hold up in court.

Luckily, Nasser's family is one of few that still owns the land deed, written up during the Ottoman rule. Since Israel could not legally remove his family, a series of restrictions have been placed on them, so as to "force them off." They are forbidden to have running water. They are forbidden to have electricity. They are forbidden to drive their car off of their property. They are forbidden to even build permanent structures, such as a home, and thus are forced to live in tents and caves.

His family has remained steadfast in lieu of these restrictions, but far too frequently Palestinians succumb to Israel's desires and resettle elsewhere.

One thing I have yet to understand is how and why Westerners continue to defend settlements. For one, they are ILLEGAL according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. I'm not as surprised by Israel's blatant disregard for International Law, as history proves that when Israel has an agenda, in this case, the expansion of the Jewish state, they are not the type of country to be deterred by something as menial as International Law.

Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank are the reason for the Israeli-only roads, the reason why this year Palestinians were restricted from building on 44% of their lands, the reason for the separation wall, and one of the main reasons for the ongoing occupation of Palestine. Settlements are also a huge stumbling block to the idea of a two-state solution; how could an independent Palestine exist when there are hundred's of thousands of settlers living there: settlers who follow Israeli law and refuse to recognize Palestine.

Fortunately, many Israeli's understand exactly how much of a problem these illegal "colonies" are. At a "Combatants for Peace" demonstration in Walaji, another area that Israel has been attempting to pave to expand nearby settlements, both Israelis and Palestinians were represented, old and young, meeting under the banner of peace. This was also our first encounter with the Israeli left. We met a lot of great and interesting people. Out of chance, we ran into a journalist from our home town of Baltimore, another Jewish individual who has long been studying and reporting ( on the conflict.

We also met an individual in his 80's, who after escaping from Nazi Germany as a child, came to settle in what was then Palestine, and who has been living in the country for most of his life. His shirt and hat, displaying both Israeli and Palestinian flags, clearly express his views on the conflict. We even met a young man who had been drafted into the Israeli military, yet when Israel launched the Gaza offensive. On moral grounds, he refused to serve, thus joining in with the "Shministim."

Seeing so many individuals from such different background gives me much more hope that a solution and end to the conflict can be achieved.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Teaching in Palestine

Written by Josh:

We're told to stand in the front of the room. Having just woken up fifteen minutes before, I yawn, attempting to release some of the fatigue that still clouds my mind. "Hello class!," I yell loudly and so enthusiastically that it sounds terribly sarcastic.

And despite my attempt at engaging the room of four and five year olds, the kindergartners stare blankly back at us; a few laugh.

This is by far the most treacherous and nerve-racking endeavor we've experienced here in Palestine yet. Our mission is to teach English to Palestinian kindergartners; children who don't understand a word of English and who are in the early stages of learning their own native language. It is indeed difficult.

"Ok..," I start. "Hello, My name is Josh!" "And my name is Michael!," Michael continues. Still we recieve confused stares. We attempt to circle the room, having each child introduce themselves. Still, the children have no clue what we are doing.

Oy. We were not expecting this to be so difficult. We hadn't thought of many ideas or activities for our first day of teaching, and I think that our lack of preparation really shows.

The teachers seated in the back of the room watch on in confusion: Could these volunteers really have come to their first class completely unprepared to teach this class of 25? One of the teachers approaches us, and suggests, "You can act out a puppet show, and I'll translate!"

Oh no... my heart begins to beat fast. Maybe this isn't the right job for us... The teachers bring forth some finger puppets, and we're forced to perform an improvisational puppet show for the children.

Now the kids are excited. They watch on with wide grins. We begin: "Hello! My name is Frank!," Michael says, donning a deep voice and holding up his finger-rabbit. "What's your name?," he asks me.

"My name is Sunshine!" I squeak in a voice that sounds a lot like Mickey Mouse, and shaking my giraffe. What next...? I quickly try to recall the short stories I learned in my youth, but I draw a blank. So I continue in the same annoying voice, "When I grow up, I want to be a doctor!" Michael goes, "I dream to go to the moon!" Here we go!-- an opportunity for engagement- "What do you all dream to be?"

A few children raise their hands, and tell the Arabic speaking teacher what they dream to be one day- a doctor, a teacher, a motorcycle rider. After these few responses, we are at a standstill, with no clue what to do, so we decide to wrap-up our lesson: ", I think that's all for today." We promise the teachers to come more prepared the following day with activities and songs.

I wrote this about two weeks ago, after our first class, and since then, our classes have been far better. We ourselves are learning as much if not more from the children than they take away from us.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Hebron Round Two: The Old City

We decided to re-visit Hebron, having not had the opportunity to see much during our last visit. Our Japanese co-volunteer introduced us to a Palestinian woman who showed us around the religiously significant and old city Hebron. We're told that the Old City of Hebron was once a flourishing city full of markets and shops. But most of those shops are now empty with doors barred shut. The once flourishing market has now been confiscated by the settlers and the entrance blocked to Palestinians.

Jewish settlers began immigrating to the city in the early 1980s. At first, they were but a small band of Jews coming to worship in this Holy City. But overtime, as Hebron became a more desireable location for Jewish immigration, and as the Israeli Government made way for settlement expansion, the Jewish presence in Hebron became synonymous with Palestinian restrictions.

Israeli soldiers not much older than ourselves watch the every move of Palestinian residents. Watchtowers peer over the city, checkpoints lie at every corner, and bands of soldiers roam the streets. Living literally in the upper-level of Palestinian homes, settlers have turned the streets into trashdumps, as they toss their garbage on Palestinian residents living and walking below. Netting has been hung above Palestinian walkways to prevent concrete blocks dropped by settlers from hitting Palestinians below. Entire rows of shops have been shut down to accomodate the Yeshiva, military bases and settler compounds.

We were taken to the roof of a Palestinian home right next to the Yeshiva. A soldier peering from a parallel rooftop less than thirty feet away watched our every move. A room on the top floor remains charred and blackened; the result of a molotov cocktail thrown in by a Yeshiva student. On the roof, there are multiple water-storage devices filled with settler-fired bullet holes and emptied of their water. It's hard to believe that those filled with such zest of their religion could commit such heinous crimes against their neighbors.

We commonly hear that Palestinian hatred is a result of propaganda present in nearly every segment of their society. But in Hebron, it's clear that the real reason for this hatred is the actions perpetrated by settlers. The settlers have drawn a correlation between their actions and Judaism by spraypainting Jewish stars on Palestinian homes and businesses along with violent and racist Hebrew slogans: as if to 'mark their territory.'

It's often said in the West that Muslims must stand up against the extremism existant in certain sectors of their communities. Maybe it's time that the worldwide Jewry takes action against those who distort the name of their religion as well.

Note: The Jewish settlement movement within the West Bank started in 1968, when Moshe Levinger brought a group of Jews to a hotel in Hebron during Passover. They refused to leave, and they were moved to an army base. They began to build up the base, and it eventually became what is now Kiryat Arbah. (Thanks to Howard for the info!)

Christmas in Bethlehem

Written by Michael:

Palestinian police dressed in all-black military-looking uniforms stand along the street. Occasionally sirens ring as multiple police cars escort tinted-windowed jeeps. "Salam," I say to the police officer too focused on the mission to respond.

One would have thought we were in the midst of a war zone, or maybe in an orwellian police-controlled state. But this was neither. This was Christmas. Most of those intimidating-looking police were simply there as traffic control and protection for the high-ranking religious figures spending this Christmas in Bethlehem. Maybe it was a show of control for the President Mahmoud Abbas who is seen as powerless by much of the world. I'm not really sure why there were so many police in such a random place (considering far fewer were in the main square).

We made our way for Manger Square, the city's center, where bands playing in front of the Church of Nativity gather massive crowds. Police close off the Old City's streets and foot-traffic floods the roads. Prices suddenly shoot up, as the sweet-cakes that costed 12 sheckle last week now costs 45 sheckle.

Little children run up to us carrying boxes trying to sell us whatever is inside (I think they forgot to open it). Dozens of vendors sell their goods on every street corner. This is far more lively than I have ever seen Bethlehem.

Both Muslims and Christians have turned out for the event. People bring along their children to enjoy the celebratory night filled with music, games, and shopping. I hear Christmas songs blasting from many of the resturants and stores as we walk down the road.

I spot a man dressed with all the steriotypical characteristics of a Muslim. At first glance, I assumed him to be an Imam until taking notice to the Church resting behind him. He tells us about life of Christians in Bethlehem, and reiterates the sentiment I have heard many times before: the conflict is 'political' and not 'religious.' Therefore, he asserts, Christians share the same views as their Muslim neighbors regarding the political standoff with Israel.

Before departing from the conversation, the priest invites us into his church and we have a glance around. He says that though Christians are a minority in Palestine, they play a prominant role in this society and coexist in peace side-by-side with their Muslim neighbors, though at times things can get rough. Many of my Muslim friends reiterate that many of their own friends are Christian.

Bethlehem is quite an example of coexistance. Year-round, pictures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus sit in the corner and on the walls of Old City shops. A cross can be seen towering above the city, and Churches still fill up for Christmas; all the while living as a minority in a Muslim-dominated Nation where the call to prayer blasts five times a day and religious sermons are amplified every friday throughout the country.

I wish others could experience Christmas here as well, thereby erasing many of the misconceptions that often tag along with Muslims, Arabs, and even more so, Palestinians.