I returned last Thursday from my first trip to Israel and Palestine. Some time ago I had asked my bro’ by marriage, Phil Weiss, to take me along on his next trip there and he did. We stayed about a week, mostly in and around Jerusalem. What I saw and learned there was so distressing that I need to talk and write about it, especially since within days of my return this area is erupting in violence, witness the carnage at the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in West Jerusalem.
First, other than a world traveler, who the fuck am I? Well, nobody, I guess; but my background is, briefly, as follows. I graduated from college with a BA in history in the mid 70’s, went to law school and spent the next thirty or so years practicing in New York City and Stamford, CT, mostly in the financial industry. I’m married with two great kids and blissfully retired. I’m also really pissed about a couple of things that are heavily impinging on my bliss, mostly things exhibiting a level of injustice and cruelty that offends my humanity, like, for example, our racist penal system here in the US. Further from home, this summer’s bombardment of occupied Gaza by Israel and the disproportionate suffering visited on the Palestinians so appalled me that, well, among other things, I called Phil and asked to go with him to the country and see for myself. If not Gaza, well then wherever he went. I’ll also mention that I was raised Episcopalian and am now an atheist. Before this summer’s Israeli bombardment of Gaza I had zero plans to go to Israel and Palestine. Couldn’t care less about visiting the holy land, not anyone’s. Lastly, I’m not, Lord knows, anything like an expert on the Mid-East or Israel, but I read a lot, including various print media excluding anything published by Rupert Murdoch whom I abhor.
Together with my traveling companions, I ventured out from our hotel in East Jerusalem (the very nice Lutheran Hospice in the Armenian section) to Bil’in, a small village seven miles west of Ramallah where there is a weekly demonstration by Palestinian villagers and their supporters confronted by Israeli forces guarding the nearby wall and illegal settlement; to Ramallah itself; to the Jewish settlement Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of Hebron; past the closed and boarded up Palestinian stores on Shuhada Street near the Tomb of the Patriarchs; past miles and miles of this just amazingly grim concrete wall with miles and miles of attendant barbed wire and periodic prison looking watch towers; through too many heavily guarded checkpoints, including the infamously dehumanizing cattle gates of the Qalandiya checkpoint; and to Silwan, just down the hill from the Old City, the same village the Israeli forces poured into yesterday looking for the home and I guess families of the shooters at the synagogue.
I’m reading these news reports yesterday morning and saying to myself, “Silwan? Silwan?! Jeeze, I was just in Silwan.”
In Silwan, like everywhere else we went, I saw the rubble of demolished Palestinian houses, the one in Silwan having been demolished some time ago for lacking some permit for a building that likely predates the State of Israel. The evicted family had three hours of actual notice (not sure how many official letters they had gotten) before the bulldozers came and knocked it down. Various household items abandoned in the debris confirm a very hasty exit. Here’s a picture of the debris where you can also look up the hill towards Dung Gate at a number of residences appropriated by illegal settlers, some with blue flags on the roofs (though not I think in this picture).
The family that used to live here, I was told and have no reason to disbelieve, was given no alternative housing or monetary compensation. They had to find space with relatives where I suppose they still reside. That really sucks. One grandfatherly and I would say distinguished looking Palestinian who joined us in looking at this demolition debris had himself had his house demolished. Six times! Said Radi Abu Snad had plenty of spirit but no money to rebuild for a sixth time (he’d rebuilt the first five times). And he, like other Palestinians I met who faced or were facing demolition to make space for Jewish settlers or their amenities, had no plans to leave anytime soon. Or ever. The fact that a settler group with the backing of the Israeli government was excavating a site up the hill, said to be the city of King David from thousands of years ago, just didn’t seem to diminish their ardor to keep their homes and land.
And never in my life have I seen so many people with guns. Big guns. Lots of M-16’s which I’ve carried myself, but only on a US army base and in uniform. And some bad looking handguns, some in holsters and others tucked away in the backs of trousers. Carried not by Palestinians, at least not that I saw although I’m sure they have them too, and not just by Israeli security forces including young kids dressed up as soldiers (sad), but carried rather by Israeli civilians, settlers I was told. Having so many guns is not healthy, although probably Nirvana to gun toting members of the NRA here in the US to whom I would say, “Be careful what you wish for.”
I heard many seemingly very credible stories from Palestinians, some told with resignation, some with rage, always with a strong resolution not to be forced out of their homeland (that be Palestine) and a desire to live in peace, most notably about the daily harassment they endure; of mind blowing restrictions on movement like that of photographer and author Hamde Abu Rahma who can see the Mediterranean from his roof but has never been allowed to go there and had never gone swimming until he went to Germany a few years ago and I guess made it to the Baltic; and of serial imprisonments by the Israelis, over forty in the case of Jawad Siyam, director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center-Silwan. Hardly an exclusive list of Palestinian grievances, I’m sure, but those are the ones seared into my head after a week.
News flash to the inhabitants of planet earth. What I saw is an apartheid system intended to make life so intolerable for its victims that they leave. Leave for where? Not the system’s problem.
Anticipating the hostile response that describing Israel as an apartheid state might cause, brings to my mind instances where in talking to South Africans before the fall of apartheid any serious criticism I might make of the country was nearly always met with assertions like, “You can’t know or judge unless you’ve lived there. It’s very complicated. ” Which would generally quiet me down. Of course, now we all know it wasn’t that complicated. Yes, there was some history, but complicated?
And, no, I did not seek out Israelis who could explain why what I saw and heard was other than what I saw and heard. I did not seek to round out the picture. I did see one email from an Israeli official (he was moving offices and couldn’t meet with us) telling Phil that Phil could not judge Israel policies unless he had read the Talmud. The Talmud? And I did spend a day in Tel Aviv, including the beach in Jaffa where Hamde or other West Bank Palestinians can’t go.
As for other viewpoints, I’ll do some reading. But I also want to read about South Africa to see what happened there, like Rian Malan’s recently reviewed “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and his previous classic “My Traitor’s Heart” They’re relevant.
In sum, my reaction to the current and anticipated violence in Jerusalem is, of course, it’s awful, but forget about Netanyahu’s ridiculous attempts to blame Abbas or anyone else. This violence is at best to be expected and at worst the intentional outcome of the inhumane and criminal conditions imposed today, right now, every day by the Israeli government upon Palestinians. That’s what I saw and heard. Am I the last person on earth to know all this? Judging from conversations I’ve had since I’ve been home with people who ask how my trip was, no, I’m not the last. They may know generally about the conflict and conditions there, but they’re surprised by the details and maybe the scope. They’re interested to know.
Please visit the Wadi Hilweh Information Center-Silwan web site, support them, buy their Palestinian cookbook and put it next to The Gaza Kitchen, and really try to get a copy of Hamde’s book, “”Roots Run Deep-Life in Occupied Palestine.” It’s published in England but probably available at Hamdeaburahma.com. The text (written with Tazim Hamid and Abdul Hamid) and Hamde’s photographs give a moving and beautiful account in just a few pages.