Friday is the big day for demonstrations against the unending Israeli settlement process in Palestine and East Jerusalem. Last Friday I went to three demonstrations with Israeli friends. I’m going to tell about my day in three chapters. Here’s Chapter 1, in Palestinian lands south of Jerusalem annexed by Israel as part of the city in 1967.
At 9, five of us met up in West Jerusalem at the Islamic Museum. It is in the former Arab neighborhood, Talbieh, where Edward Said used to stay as a boy. Near the museum is activist Ezra Nawi’s place, a humble apartment with an oriental rug or two. Nawi served us tea. A quiet smiling man of about 55, who has been in and out of prison for his efforts to stop ethnic cleansing, Nawi wore a Bedouin cloth vest and a fedora. He led us outside to a grey pickup truck. One Israeli rode with him, while the other four of us, two Israelis, an American and a Swede, rode behind him in a compact.
It took us 15 minutes to get to the Palestinian village of Al Walaje in the hills between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We parked by the highway on the Green Line and walked east into Palestine, up a rough red dirt road. We passed a man plowing a sloping field with a horse. The man dipped the small plow into the earth and the horse dug a furrow.
The rural hillside feels like Marin County, or New Mexico. But al Walaje is being engulfed by Jerusalem; it is actually considered part of the annexed city. Across from the village on the north is the Israeli settlement Gilo; below is a view of the spanking white development at a slightly different angle from ours (at the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions’ site). Israel apologist Jeffrey Goldberg has repeatedly described the annexed Jewish development and the annexed farm-lands in the foreground as a "neighborhood of Jerusalem," and said that they are rightly part of the Jewish state.
We met about 250 people at the top of the road and we all walked down from the village together to a rallying point on a flat spot amid limestone and prickly brush. Again: think offroad in California.
My Israeli friends explained that these new "neighborhoods" of Jerusalem weren’t planned on the basis of natural-growth but as outposts aimed at capturing Palestinian territory south and east of the city so as to ring Jerusalem and keep Jerusalem forever Jewish. The villagers of Walaje– who were 1948 refugees from their former village of Walaje a couple miles west–were never told that their lands were part of the annexed city.
"They learned they were part of the municipality of Jerusalem in 1997 when the municipality came to demolish Palestinian houses. That was the first time I was arrested," says Israeli activist Meir Margalit.
On one side Gilo is taking Walaje’s lands, and on the other the settlement of Givat Yael is taking lands. "If the international community and especially the United States will pressure the Israeli government, this plan will not materialize," Margalit says. "I still hope the international community will put an end to this madness."
I stood talking to Josh Levey and Michael Kaplan, two courageous students from a Jewish high school in Baltimore who are volunteering this winter in a Palestinian refugee camp so that they can learn about the conflict up close. One of them smoked a cigarette, Palestinian-style, as they told me about their blog: "Both of us have spent a majority of our education in Jewish Day Schools. But having always sought our own answers, we arrived at our own conclusion, often in conflict to those around us."
A friend had sent their blog to Jeffrey Goldberg, and he wrote back dismissively: "These kids are in way over their heads."
As we talked about the unfairness of a system in which European refugees have been granted unending freedom, while local refugees have been displaced again and again over 60 years, an Israeli-American woman watched us. “May I interject," she said. "May I interject?”
(As I related yesterday,) she said that Naomi Chazan of Meretz had said that all it takes is money, and the settlers would agree to leave, just as the settlers had agreed to leave Gaza. It was a mind-boggling statement. Just look around. The Israelis were building more stucco and red-tile-roofed houses, grabbing more land, showing utter contempt for villagers with a different lifestyle, deriving the support of the army and leading American Jews, and this woman was interjecting that they would agree to leave? What planet was she living in? Some who have lost faith in the two-state solution say that the peace process is like arguing over how two people will share a pizza, even as one of them gobbles the pizza.
I said to her, "I think you sincerely believe in the importance of the Jewish state, and that’s part of the reason you believe that the two-state solution is still possible. But I sense that for these young men here, they don’t really believe in the necessity of a Jewish state."
The woman said huffily, "You are making a lot of assumptions."
I agreed and walked away, and she got into a long discussion with the young men. Later one of them came over and said that the assumptions I’d made were correct.
We walked back down the hill to our cars. A bunch of the demonstrators got into an argument with the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint there. He abused us for taking the Palestinian side. My friend Assaf Sharon translated: "All they know is to shoot at you or kill you. Because they’re violent. They’re not like us. It’s either us or them. We tried to have peace with them and they don’t want it. We wanted peace and they didn’t."
Sharon said that all Israelis come to the hillside just over the Green Line to the west, to the Jerusalem Zoo, and the Malcha Mall. But they have no idea of the "daily reality" of ethnic cleansing happening just across the valley.