Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Walk On The Block

A walk to Bethlehem City from Aida Camp should take no more than twenty-five minutes. But now a walk to Bethlehem can take multiple hours. And unlike many may think, this is not a delay caused by checkpoints.

It's the inescapable block that lies where Beit Jala and Aida Refugee Camp meet. It's a row of shops to which we know just about everyone: the resturant workers, the supermarket employees, the fruit seller, the mechanics, and the teens hanging out on the street corner.

We walk by the street corner, where the usual's are sitting. Though we see them every day, we have yet to memorize their names. They yell out the only words they know: "Hello Josh and Michael! 50 Cent! Rap! Is good!" We smile, exchange greetings, and continue on our way.

Unlike American resturants, prices are always drastically changing at Matam Al-Hasan, (or Al-Hasan resturant), the shop nearest to the street corner. We're regulars there, and we freely walk around, often stepping in to the back kitchen and snatching some falafel. Neither Muhammad nor Abood speak much English, though Muhammad loves the word "delicious," and therefore repeats it approximately 50 times in one visit. Both are determined to learn, as they eagerly ask us the names of different vegetables in the shop.

While in the resturant, the fruitseller two shops down usually comes in to say hello. Abu Ali does not speak a word of English, and our form of communication revolves around hand shakes in which he tries to squeeze our hands as tight as possible until we yelp in pain. Around this time, George often steps in. George speaks perfect English, and he's quite a well-spoken man. He's a Christian, and continually emphasizes the fact that Muslims and Christians are brothers here. He's somewhat guru-like, always offerring wise and peaceful statements. He's an artist and quite an amazing woodworker.

Nextdoor to the restaurant is Abood's father's supermarket. Osama, who is quite the entrapenuer, owns the kindergarten in Aida Camp, the supermarket, the resturant nextdoor, and a farm in Beit Jala. We go to his home each night at 7:00 to help him and his wife improve their English. Quite frequently Osama will come and join the social-gathering that takes place in the restaurant next door. At some point, someone will crack an Arabic sexual joke, which becomes lost in translation when spoken in English, and ends up sounding rather perverted and strange.

After sitting and socializing in the restaurant, we continue on up the block, until we arrive outside the mechanic's shop. Here, although stuffed, we are called into the black grease-filled room, to partake in a meal of hummus and pita. Although we might try to explain that we have already eaten and can eat no more, we are commanded to sit down and eat. This kind of uber-hospitality is the norm here in Palestine-- at the end of the day, if a Palestinian wants to serve you food or drink, you will take it, regardless of your hunger or thirst.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Building Bridges through Dialogue

Written by Josh:

I felt so confused; the rapid switch from an Islamic-dominated community to the most zealous Jewish one. I stood there, wading in a sea of streimels (fur hats), long beards and black trench coats. And despite the fact that many would say these are "my people," others who hold and practice the same religion I was raised practicing, I felt like a foreigner.

Mea Shearim is well known for the religious vigor that is so present there. On the Jewish Sabbath, most of the streets are blocked off to restrict access to cars, and it is well known that if one attempts to drive through, their car will fall victim to angry shouts and perhaps even rocks pelted from angry Jewish youth.

We walk in the middle of the street, as do most individuals on Shabbat. Although we sport yarmulkas and button-down shirts, we fail to blend in with the ultra-Orthodox garb. We stick out like a sore thumb.

Naturally, some Yeshiva boys approach us, and commence a friendly conversation. We're from Baltimore, Maryland and they are from Brooklyn, New York. When asked "What do you think of Brooklyn?," one of the teenagers replies "Brooklyn is good and bad; it has a huge Jewish community, but it's also full of ni****s."

Woah. I'm taken aback. In the community I was raised in, the use of racist terminology is quite frowned upon. But all too often, in tightly knit and secluded communities such as this one, I find that racism and misunderstandings are the norm.

The bus back to Bethlehem gives me a lot of time for introspection. What is the cause and root that all this misunderstanding stems from?

Examine most of these isolated communities- be it in Israel or Palestine, in America or anywhere else in the world. People tend to isolate themselves with their own kind- Arabs with Arabs, Jews with Jews, whites with whites and blacks with blacks. There is hardly any interaction between different communities, and this I believe is one of the main reason for such misunderstandings.

Dialogue is so incredibly vital to create and maintain peaceful living between individuals who hold many differences. I'm glad to see that some people are now beginning to take the initiative to talk out differences with others.

We were recently contacted by a Palestinian Hebron-based organization named "Tashbeek" (Connection).
We enter a room filled with 25 Palestinian university age students. The course is free and fully voluntary, and to participate students are required to have adequate English skills. We discuss public speaking, and useful tips on speaking to Westerners. Knowing that we are Jewish, the organizers of Tashbeek stress that it is unacceptable to use the words "Jew" and "Israeli" interchangeably. This makes way for us to talk about our background.

Most of the students are surprised to find out that we are Jewish, as they have never had any interaction with Jews other than Israeli soldiers or Hebron's settlers. And yet, they are incredibly respectful towards us. We bring up the idea of a dialogue with American Jews, and we pass around a sheet for interested persons to write down their e-mails. Every single person sitting in the room writes down their information.
Within the next week or so, we hope to set up a dialogue between students in Hebron and students back home in America. And hopefully, we can do our share in building bridges, as opposed to erecting walls.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Battling in Bil'in

written by Michael:

Bil'in and several nearby villages have long made news headlines for their determination to hold strong to their land. Last friday, Josh and I witnessed their passion firsthand, as we watched unarmed Palestinians march towards military personnels firing stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets, teargas cannisters, and dressed in riot-gear.

Bil'in has held strong in condemning the separation barrier for nearly five years. The fence was first proposed to cut through the village's center, but after a long legal-battle, it was agreed that there was no clear reason for the fence's route to cut through the village. Instead, the fence was erected on the outskirts of the village, thereby cutting off 60% of Bil'in's farming land.

Every week, the villagers, joined by dozens of internationals, march towards the fence in hopes of [symbolically] dismantling it. And each week, they are met with the same response: rubber bullets, stun grenades, teargas, batons and sometimes even live ammunition. I read of the injuries nearly every week on Palestinian news. People have even been killed at these protests. Just a few months ago, American activist Triston Anderson was badly wounded and put in a coma after having been struck in the head by a teargas canister in a nearby village, Nil'in. In the first three months of protesting alone, over 130 people were seriously injured. More than a half kilometer away from the protest site in the village's center, the stench of teargas burned my nostrils even after the protest had concluded. Oftentimes, just after the protest, the military enters the village and fires stun grenades in hopes of scaring the locals indoors.

In a way, Bil'in seems symbolic to me of what should be happening all around Palestine. On one hand, Bil'in has suffered equally as much as most other Palestinian cities. Similar to Bethlehem, most of the population has been cut off from their farmland. Similar to Bethlehem, Israel conducts nightly raids and arrests local activists. And whereas those living in Bethlehem have simply lost hope and turned towards complaining as their sole form of resistance, those in Bil'in have taken up a steadfast battle against their oppressor. Unlike much of Palestine, where Hamas vs. Fatah debates halt any constructive progress, the people of Bil'in are united for a liberated Palestine and a better future.

It has taken me several days to actually post this blog. Fortunately, progress has been made in Bil'in since I initially wrote this, proof of the positive effect of their determination, unity, and non-violent resistance. After five years of protest, they have finally won their battle against the wall.