19 July 2009

Dispatches From Israel - Miscarriage of Justice?

My Palestinian host and I were sitting at, of all places, Kentucky Fried Chicken, when he decided to tell me his story, which he had only alluded to in the past week. He knew that I might recount his story and I assured him that if I would protect his privacy and never use his name or his image. Each of my Palestinian hosts has been forthcoming with their personal experiences about what it is like to live in Israel as a Palestinian. So, there we were, sitting at KFC, and he started by saying that once he spent nearly 6 months in prison. His crime? He rented a flat within the home he owns in East Jerusalem to someone from Ramallah. He said the police came to his home and informed him that it was illegal to permit someone from Ramallah to live in East Jerusalem without first getting authorization. The policeman gave him a citation and said that all he needed to do was pay a relatively small fine and that would be it.

My host has recently returned to East Jerusalem after living overseas for several years, and was not well-versed in the latest rules and regulations governing who could and could not stay in East Jerusalem. Unfortunately someone within the Israeli justice system made a decision to pursue this “crime” with vigor and make it an example to others. My host told me that it took two years to prosecute his case and his lawyer kept telling him not to worry. When the Israeli justice system was unwilling to plea bargain, my host realized that he was in big trouble. When his day in court came, the judge said that since my host was so well educated he had no excuse for not knowing the law. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail and fined 15,000 shekels or $3800USD.

He explained to his lawyer that if he couldn’t work he couldn’t pay the fine so the sentence was reduced to 6 months in prison without being fined. Remember, his crime was allowing someone to live in a place he owned. My host kept negotiating and asked to be placed in a prison close to East Jerusalem so his family could see him every weekend. The first prison he was sent to was in northern Israel, 2 or 3 hours away from his family; it was overcrowded, and loaded with hard-core criminals. My host is an educated gentleman of slight build, and likely never had had to defend himself from physical harm. He also feared that someone might inject him with drugs; each week the prisoners were drugs tested and he was afraid that someone might inject him just to make his life difficult. The jail was so overcrowded that at night one might not get a bed and have to sleep on the floor. He was allowed a plastic bag in which he could store some toiletries, but had to keep vigilant over the bag or it would be stolen. Rats came out at night and once someone awoke screaming when a rat skittered over his back. He barely slept during the first couple of weeks. My host contacted his lawyer and asked him to arrange for a relocation. The Israeli prosecutor knew that my host had specific skills and asked him whether he was willing to use them, and live at a hospital. My host asked whether he would have a room, and a sheet to cover himself at night. It was amazing how quickly one missed things like a bed sheet when deprived of it. When he was relocated, rather than use his skills, he was tasked with jobs that no one else, other than a prisoner, would do.

His lawyer petitioned to have the sentence thrown out by the Supreme Court and discovered that the judge who presided over his case wrote the verdict in such a way that it could not be overturned. This meant that my host would have a criminal record and be unable to work for any Israeli-based company. Yet people committing worse crimes received shorter sentences. He came to the realization that the Israeli justice system was using him to make a point to other people in East Jerusalem. Fortunately for my host, he did receive credit for good behavior, and his sentence ended sooner than expected. At the end of his story, the other Palestinian hosts were as shocked as I. They had not heard the story before and were incredulous.

More recently, my host was informed that his house in East Jerusalem is scheduled for demolition. He has been fighting that order and has made a temporary arrangement to pay a fine and to enter new architectural plans to remedy the “problem” with his home – a problem as defined by the Israeli justice system. It is a horrible situation: he cannot leave East Jerusalem or his home with be torn down, but he works in Ramallah and must endure the daily holdup at Israeli check points. He is a gentle man who simply tells me his story without any overt signs of hatred and illustrates the life of a Palestinian under the Israeli system.

Before the 1948 agreement, his family owned a substantial amount of land which has since been confiscated. Now his home in Jerusalem is next. A few days after telling me his story at the KFC, my host dropped me off at my hotel and pointed out that I was staying directly across the street from the court house where he had been sentenced to prison. I went up into my room and opened the curtains and looked out at the court house. Justice, oppression….I wondered whether there would ever be a resolution to the conflict in this part of the world. According to my host, the answer is no. You cannot undo taking peoples’ land away, restricting their freedoms and making their lives miserable. This is just his story, and each one of my hosts has his own story.

17 July 2009

Jerusalem and Discovery

It takes a lot to surprise me after traveling to 96 countries. During my travel I have seen hundreds of cities and have a long list ones I love, and those I don’t. For my first nine days in Israel I have been working 12 hour days and what little time free time I did have was spent walking around Ramallah and Nazareth. I thought Nazareth was an amazing town, full of historical sights and small back alleys filled with fruits, deserts, clothing and lots of people --Nazareth is part of the religious pilgrimage tour. What I discovered within a few moments of entering the Old City of Jerusalem was that Nazareth is to Jerusalem what hamburger is to filet mignon. For someone like myself, who has always wanted to visit Israel, it is clear that I was ill prepared for what I found in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was uncertain where the Old City was located so I asked for directions and was told to go out the door, turn right, then left and walk to the wall. I thought that the shops and stores I was passing were part of the Old City, but then I saw the flow of people walking towards this huge wall and entering through an archway which led them into the Old City. I guess I was in the old “new city” but have since found out that there already is a “new city”. Old cities are not new to me – I have seen the island of Rhodos and its “old city.” I loved walking the back “steps” on Hong Kong Island leading me past seemingly ancient stores as I walked up a non-ending set of steps. Oh, and Istanbul, and its market which could keep you occupied for several days. As I walked through the entry way into the Old City, I had no idea what was awaiting me. It was immediately apparent that this was something rather special. The shops were carved out of what was once a solid rock. The walkways were a combination of stones and cement heading downhill for as far as I could see. I was definitely on the main route but just about every 100 feet there were paths leading to more shops. It was a true labyrinth and I was afraid of getting lost. When I am new to any place, I tend to slow down and notice everything, mental breadcrumbs as I call them. I walked up an alley until I felt I had gone far enough. I didn’t take any branches off the branch but instead simply returned to the main path and continued with my Old City discovery phase.

I went deeper and deeper into the old city. I saw rug stores, jewelry, roman antiquities, fruit stands, food stalls, clothing and churches. I joined a tour group for a few moments and discovered that the alley they were about to walk up was the oldest section of the Old City. I also learned that the church we were standing in front of was 700 years old. The arches I walked through were built between 1537 and 1542. If I go one direction I will see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and another way to the Western Wall and yet another to the Dome of the Rock. All of this exists within relative feet of each other. This is, as the guide book states, “above all a holy place.” I am not a religious person, but I did decide to walk into an old church and listen to the service. It was in Spanish so I did get the gist of the service - “Our father, who art in heaven” but in Espanol. It was somewhat calming for me to attend the service. I started writing a blog in my head and was anxious to return to my computer and write about the joy of discovery I had in the Old City. I started to head back, thinking about stopping at the English language bookstore I passed. I was thirsty, so I stopped to grab a soda. I asked how much the soda cost and the shop owner, who was probably 20 years old, told me five shekels. I handed him a ten shekel coin and he told me it was no good. This was the third time that someone had told me this, but I knew that there was nothing wrong with the ten shekel coin, so I asked for it back and I then handed him five 1 shekel coins. I asked him if they were any good and he said yes and placed them in his drawer. He then said, “let me see your ten shekel coin and I will show you why it is no good.” I thought he was being nice, as I have found everyone to be, but then he threw the coin in his drawer. I asked him to give me back the coin and he just stared at me in a non-responsive manner. Someone else came into the store and his attention was now on them. I interrupted him and asked for my $2.5 dollars back – I really asked for the coin, but that is the exchange rate against the US dollar. Again he ignored me so I said that I would get another soda if he was not going to give my money back. I got the soda, and walked out of the store with two diet cokes. Yes, I know, I should have just walked away, but more than anything, I hate being played for a dupe. Doesn’t matter what country I am in, I just hate being ripped off.

I walked out of the store and was about 50 feet away from the store when he grabbed me from behind. Yes, I knew he was coming, but I was not going to start a physical fight. He tried to grab the can out of my hand and I asked for my money again. Trust me, he spoke English very well. He grabbed once again for the soda, but this time he knocked it out of my hand and it hit the ground and burst open. I turned away from him and walked away. As I did I could see that a number of people had stopped to watch the standoff between a merchant and the American. All of the sudden the joy of being in such a beautiful location had quickly soured. I left the walled city and then sat down and felt that last bit of bright sun on my face. I played the whole thing through my head over several times and realized that I probably should not have done what I did, but it was so clear what he had done to me that I just simply couldn’t let it go. As the adrenaline ebbed away, and regained my composure, I thought about how beautiful the Old City was, and realized that all I lost was $2.50.

I walked backed the same way I came, following my mental breadcrumbs. I stopped at the bookstore again and purchased my most favourite newspaper, the Herald Tribune. I also purchased the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and Palestine and then read the part about Safety and Security in Israel. It says that you should protect yourself from theft. Oh well, it won’t ever happen again.

P.S. The picture is of the vendor's shop who "ripped" me off.

07 July 2009

Dispatches from Israel - Country 96 and Palestine

10th July 2009

I love the book Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda. Ixtlan is about the journey of the "sorcerer" or warrior or man of knowledge and his experience of trying to return to the metaphorical hometown of Ixtlan. The story is firmly entrenched in my memory. For me, it serves as an allegory for one who wishes to return home absent the knowledge of what one has learned since leaving. A return to Ixtlan is an attempt to return to an innocence which one loses as one grows older and forever changed. Instead of searching for knowledge, it is an attempt to return to what I once was, but I have been forever changed and cannot be the way I used to be.

The reality for me, like most Americans, is that Israelis and Palestinians are people who live far away and their influence on my life is remote or indirect, if at all. To some degree, this ignorance is akin to wearing blinders or sweeping dirt under a rug. At some level we are all interconnected if not personally, then by the events which spin off like hurricanes from the coast of Senegal. When I was in Senegal during hurricane season I realized that there was an absolute correlation between the weather in Senegal and a hurricane spawned many miles away which might kill hundreds or thousands of people.

In many ways, this trip to Israel and the West Bank affords me a privilege of trying to appreciate firsthand a different perspective of reality---a reality beyond newspapers and the talk of pundits, We would like to believe that the plight of the Palestinians is like weather in Senegal, or dirt under the rug. We do not pay attention to it – we ignore it – or even worse, our upbringing inures us to the plight of the Palestinians. Why should I worry about Palestinians, or Sudanese, or Aung San Suu Chi when my local life is burdened enough without borrowing the troubles of the world. Many Americans don’t pay attention to geo-political issues and, as such, are unable to connect the dots and understand why we should be concerned about the plight of the Palestinians who have been made landless with the full support of every American president since Harry Truman. One could argue that America’s unilateral support of Israel has led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the deaths of over 4,000 American soldiers. The person I was before traveling to Israel and the West Bank would have suggested that America has to maintain this position because it serves as the guarantor of Israeli security, the only means of preventing genocide of Jews.

When I first went to Africa I was daunted by the enormity of the problems it faces as a continent. I came away realizing that people could spend an entire life trying to make a difference and then find their work ruined in a day by a single raid.

The Jews and the Palestinians each claim thousands of years’ worth of ownership in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The U.S. since Jimmy Carter has exerted pressure on Israel to resolve the issue. I asked my Palestinian host why Egypt was able to broker a peace with Israel, its mortal enemy, while the Palestinians have not yet. Even the Irish were finally able to stop 400 years of the “fighting and dying” cycle. He explained that Egypt only displaced 1% of the Palestinian populace with the peace accord while the “6 Day War” in 1976 and the creation of Israel in 1948 displaced nearly 98% of the Palestinian populace. “There is no answer, no resolution?” I asked and he shook his head, “There cannot be.”

I learned yesterday that the city of Haifa is emblematic of how things might be throughout Israel and the West Bank. In Haifa, Jews, Muslims and Christian live in what can be described as peaceful coexistence and tolerance of one another. “So why not everywhere, “I asked? “Because Haifa is different from anywhere else in Israel – a different history – one where even though the Jewish population is predominant, Christians and Muslims are given equal opportunity to live and live within the same complex as Jews. In East Jerusalem and many other points throughout Israel, the homes and livelihoods of Palestinians have been destroyed without any form of compensation.” Is the need to create and protect a homeland for the Jews so great that it can only be accomplished at the expense of the Palestinians?

I find myself wanting to return to Ixtlan and forget what I have learned thus far, and live in denial or ignorance. But that is not possible or realistic: life is too short not to try to make it a more harmonious one for our world’s children who will inherit the legacies we leave behind.

9th July 2009

My Palestinian host's voice quivered somewhat as he began to tell me the story of his families particular plight with the Israeli government. I asked him if there was any way to find a middle ground and he said no. "The struggle now is how well the Israeli government can go about tightening the restrictions on travel and land ownership for Palestinians." I am torn between my impression of Israel when I was a child and what I see now. This is the world's oldest continuing struggle in many ways. I have always supported the right of Israel to exist and now I see how that is happening. The pattern seems, unfortunately, very similar to what happened in South Africa under the apartheid. It is complicated, believe me, to understand the landscape; it is difficult to wrap my brain around all of this.

My host continues with his story about how the Israeli government has a tear-down order on his house unless he pays $50,000, which he has been doing over time. The land his family once owned has been confiscated and turned into to housing for others. His is not the only story being told to me as we drive our car into Nazareth. Another Palestinian colleague is telling me about a permit to build her house up, which is the only direction permitted, and it has been eight years since she started the process and many thousands of dollars. If she were Jewish instead of Palestinian, it would take no time and cost very little. Then the Christian gentleman who's been teaching me about the history of the Bible shows me points of historical interest in Nazareth. It turns out that the Christians live with the same restrictions as the Palestinians. The pecking order starts with Jews and ends with Palestinians.

My host from Jerusalem says that he would like to live in Ramallah and keep his home in Jerusalem. Doing so would mean that he would lose his home in Jerusalem forever and he would be restricted in his movements once he took up residency in Ramallah. Another person in the car tells me that he has never spent a night in Nazareth before because he has not been permitted to travel into this region. “Can you imagine that I have lived here, in Palestine, for 42 years, and yet I have never been to Nazareth before now?”

For two hours, perhaps ever longer, I listen to the stories of being Palestinian inside of Israel. They are complicated stories and recounted by four different people who share similar experiences. The irony is that all four individuals work professionally to make the West Bank and the Palestinian territory better places to live. One of my hosts explains that the Israeli government impedes development work each and every day by dictating where he and his colleagues can go, when they can go, and what they can bring into the country. They are working to improve the delivery of medical services throughout the territory, which seems to me like an activity which everyone including the Israeli government could support.

When we are finished with dinner, one of the people at the table asks me whether I will tell my son that I have been to countries 96 and 97, the latter being Palestine. I don’t know how to answer. "What does it take to be considered a legitimate country?" he asks. It is a discussion which I don't know enough about to pursue.

8th July 2009

As we drove north through the Jordan Valley, I could see Jordan just on the other side of the presently dry Jordan River. My mobile phone kept shifting from Jordanian providers to Israeli providers. With each shift I received a welcome message and encouragement to enjoy Jordan and Israel. I also saw a lot of rocks. Like the lunar landscape, this land seems absolutely impenetrable. “Why would people fight over this useless land” was one of the thoughts going through my head. The road was perfectly smooth but circuitous as we went around small mountains which were mostly barren except for the Arab settlements on the edge of Ramallah and then the Israeli settlements in the Israeli protected areas. In many ways the terrain reminded me of Greece – a million rocks per every mile. We drove past terraced hills with olive trees. Every so often there were large expanses of Sunflower plants dried up by the sun awaiting the crews who will empty the dead plants of their seeds. At some point we came upon young palm trees in the earliest stages of their growth. They reminded me of the pineapple farms in Hawaii. The further we drove the taller the trees became until at some point there were literally miles of tall mature Palm trees. I saw a sign for a Kibbutz and was reminded of my childhood when some of my Jewish friends left the USA to fly to Israel to work on a Kibbutz. We passed teenagers who were hitch-hiking. Again I was reminded of my friends who, at a young age, went to Israel and hitchhiked their way around the country. We came to a sign which said Haifa 40km and Nazareth 39K and I was so excited. I have always wanted to go to Haifa and I felt that I was almost there just seeing the sign. We paused our trip for a few minutes and I left an air conditioned vehicle to step out into the dessert heat. I felt at home. It was dry and very hot. Just outside the rest stop was a bus stop with 4 teenagers, seemingly Israeli, trying to hitch a ride to some unknown point. Two boy and two girls taking turns sticking their thumb out hoping to catch a ride. I thought about how hitchhiking had become an anachronistic behaviour in the United States due to safety concerns. They kids certainly didn’t seem to care about that issue – perhaps it is still absolutely safe to hitchhike in Israel – especially with four friends together. I did wonder about whether anyone would pick up 4 kids, but you never know. I was so excited to feel the warmth. In my mind it can never be too hot but it can be too cold.

We continued on the road towards Nazareth and Haifa until we turned north to Nazareth. All along our route were small factories, kibbutzim, and palm trees. The rocks became less plentiful and it was clear that the land had been carefully manicured to maximize the usefulness of the rich dark dirt. If memory served me correctly, America Jews were drawn to the kibbutzim for two reasons; the opportunity to live in Israel and the chance to be part of the building of a modern Jewish state called Israel. Each Kibbutz was a collective operation which eventually served the interests of the State of Israel by contributing to its growth which eventually transformed the lunar landscape into a modern, self sufficient country.

Coming to Israel and the West Bank has presented me with the difficult task of reconciling what I learned as a child, what I read in papers and books, and the reality of what I see when I look out the windows of the van in the company of Palestinians. I was asking questions all along our drive and the answers created a great sense of cognitive dissonance. I was born in New York and raised among a large Jewish population. Many of the people I knew throughout my childhood were Jewish and through them I learned about the Holocaust and the subsequent building of Israel. I realized during this trip that the memories of the holocaust were still fresh when I was learning all about Judaism. The expression I learned was “Never Forget” from people who all had family members killed in Europe. While I could not fully appreciate the pain and loss that these people went through it certainly left a strong impression upon me. I was born in 1957 just 12 years after the discovery of the death camps and 9 years after the creation of Israel. As I drove towards Nazareth all of this was going through my head. Instead of thinking about the biblical stories of Palestine, I was viewing the miracle of the post WWII settlers of Israel. I was also quickly learning the reality of being a Palestinian inside the land formerly called Palestine and renamed Israel in 1948. One of the people in my group was telling me that his father lived in Palestine prior to 1948. He lived in East Jerusalem which remained untouched until the 6 day war in 1967. At that point, Israel created buffer zones between itself and its enemies which sought to remove it from the face of the map. Unfortunately, this instantly created a “hostile” group of people within the borders of Israel – the group called Palestinians.

My host, a Palestinian, told me that everything was politically driven. I learned that the West Bank is divided by letters: A, B and C. The letter “A” refers to the areas which are administered by the Palestinian authority and policed by them as well. These areas were off limits to Israelis. Then there is area “B” which is administrated by the Palestinian authority but guarded by the Israeli military. Finally, there is area “C” which is controlled completely by the Israelis. I learned that Israelis do enter into area “A” and are not troubled, but the same cannot be said for Palestinians entering area “C”. They must receive a visa and the amount of time they can remain in that area is highly regulated. This is how the area called Palestine is bisected. Then there is Israel proper where the movements of Palestinians are even more regulated. Both sides, the Palestinians and Israelis, have their story. I am no stranger to national struggles having lived in the former Yugoslavian republics of Macedonia and Montenegro. The battles of the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks versus the Macedonians, the Muslims versus Christians are still playing out today and Palestinians inside of Israel represents the seemingly mother of all conflicts. But for me, this is just a ride through the Jordanian Valley to Nazareth. I am just enjoying the view and the variability of the land itself. It is so difficult to reconcile my childhood teachings about Israel and the political view which permeate every answer given me by my hosts. I have to respect their view, but I know that a Jew within Israel would have a different response. I guess this is not dissimilar to the United States where conservatives and progressives are unable to agree on most topics.

I finally arrive at my destination, a beautiful hotel in Nazareth atop a large hill with a strong wind cooling down the day. I jump into the pool and swim for 20 minutes. I get out of the pool and place my seat at the edge of the patio which overlooks the valley through which I drove. The sun is in my face and I close my eyes and relax. I try not to think about the political, or the work I have to do the next day, I simply try to think about the fact that I am finally in Israel, the country I have always wanted to visit.

7th July 2009 - Ramallah

There are two types of countries -- ones which have real milk and ones that have boxed milk which does not pass for real milk. I found real honest to "Adonai Eloheinu" milk in Ramallah and that is very good. Thanks to a friend of mine living in Ramallah who directed me to the right place. Life can be so simple!

7th July 2009 - Ramallah

Today I am in Ramallah which is located in the West Bank within the Palestinian territory. When I go to a country where English is not spoken I try to take things very slowly. I walk slower and I try to observe everything around me. I make certain to leave mental bread crumbs so I can find my way back to my hotel and avoid the terror of getting myself completely lost.

It is difficult to ignore the political realities which greet all who come to the West Bank, but today I am just someone who is walking through the streets trying to get a feel of the old city and not interested in the political. I have traveled extensively around the world and my mind instantly compares a country to previous countries I have visited. Walking around Ramallah is not much different than walking through the old parts of Cairo, Istanbul or even Pristina, Kosovo.

Old cities share common traits: crowded sidewalks overwhelmed with street merchants selling anything from fruits and vegetables to the latest DVDs in front of stores which are selling jewelry, food goods, clothing and spices. Every side of every block in Ramallah has a money changer. There is a vibrant fruit and veggie market which was nice to walk through. I wanted to buy grapes and cherries but held back thinking that I might not get a good price. When I was in the middle of the market my senses were a little more alert because I have been warned about walking through the public market areas. But the people I walk past do not care about me, only about getting to where they are going. Clearly some merchants instantly realize that I am not from the West Bank, or even Israel, as they say “Welcome” and ask me to visit their store. Some children also realize I am not one of “them” as they too say “Welcome” as I pass them on the crowded sidewalk. I cut my hair and grew a beard in order to better fit in, but I guess there is no mistaking me for someone other than a foreigner. After I lost my fear of getting lost, I was able to just take things in. I walked past a spice store which literally took my breath away as it overwhelmed me with the aroma of a myriad of spices. It reminded me of Sri Lanka and the old Indian section of Singapore. I walked past a blind man selling cigarettes placed on a tray strapped around his neck and sitting firmly on his chest. I wondered how he knew what he was selling and whether people were nice to him. Children with shopping carts vied for customers, seeking them to help carry their goods back to home. These children were very competitive with each other for business and were clearly not nice to their competitors. An old woman sat on top of a watermelon selling the same. She had a cardboard crate over her head to shield her from the hot sun. Teenage boys tended hot ovens in the bakeries – one made the dough and the other tended to it when it came out of what appeared to be an ancient oven. I could feel the ovens' heat standing 20 feet away from them, and the teenage boys were standing within 2 feet – hard to imagine how hot they must have been. Amidst all of this, cars are driving all around pedestrians and constantly tooting their horns, trying to make forward progress on streets incapable of managing the cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles and the people dodging between all of them to get to the other side of the street. It is a competition to see who has the loudest horn and can beep it the longest. Normally the cacophony would drive me nuts, but today I am simply an explorer in Ramallah and take in all the plentiful sights and sounds.