August 12, 2008

Beth at the Apartheid Wall

[Fire on the Mountain is proud to publish this report, our second (the first is here), from the skirmish line in Palestine, by our friend Beth, who is in Israel for the first time since 1967.]

Later on my first full day in the Jewish state, I took a tour sponsored by the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD). This is a tour that takes you to places just minutes from Jerusalem that most tourists won't see. I was on a minibus with 12 filmmakers, circus performers and artists from a community center in the North of Norway. They had plans to go to Gaza a few days later to work with children in a community center for the next month. We drove out of West Jerusalem with the guide giving some of the basic statistics:

1. There are 450,000 "settlers", Jewish Israelis who have settled in the areas occupied since 1967.
2. Half of those settlers live in what used to be known as "East" on the other side of the green line.
3. 3% of the land of the West Bank is physically occupied by settlers.
4. In addition, Israel controls 40% of the land of the West Bank for so-called "security reasons."
5. During the most recent stab at a "Peace Process", Israel started talking about a Palestinian state for the first time. If they honestly about wanting peace, they would have to stop construction of settlements. Construction has not stopped for one day, more are planned and more are being built, giving more time to Israel to establish what they call "facts on the ground".

While I have seen pictures of the settlements encroaching on the land of the Arab villages, nothing can really prepare you for seeing it face-to-face. We drive up into the hills, into what was East Jerusalem, occupied only by Palestinians until 1967. The bus stops and we get out at a huge billboard advertising "Nof Zion," a settlement being built just above Jebel Mukaber. According to its website, this will be "a private luxurious neighborhood, (with) beautifully designed landscape, high end construction level, a community synagogue."

It will be "a harmonious residential neighborhood occupying an area of 461 acres marked by terraces and adorned with olive trees and vines." And there will be a hotel for visiting relatives. The apartments, 3, 3.5, 4 and 5 rooms, start at half a million dollars--dollars, not Israeli shekels. Of course, the name and phone number of the US sales director is on the billboard. Perhaps there will harmony inside this gated community, but there will not be harmony with the Palestinians down the hill.

Up to this this point, we have observed the normal signs of civilization like well-paved streets, traffic lights, sidewalks, street lights, and gardens. We drive down the hill into Jebel Mukaber. There are mounds of garbage as trash is only occasionally picked up by the Jerusalem municipality. There are no street lights. There are no gardens, no trees, and no sidewalks.

The municipality "should", by any standard of decency, be providing these same ordinary services to the Palestinian community but they are not. G reported that a Jerusalem City Council member responsible for such things was asked how many gardens there are in West Jerusalem. He replied that there are 1,438. When asked about gardens in East Jerusalem, in the Palestinian communities, he had to look it up and found that there are twelve.

Our next stop, just outside the village of Jebel Mukaber, was outside a compound with a gate that opened as the cars drove in and out, a few large buildings housing about 100 families. An American Jew who made his money in bingo parlors built this and other compounds. A father and his 4 sons drove up, watched us and rolled down his window. He started yelling at our guide, angrily, threateningly. We walked up to our minibus and he followed, continuing to berate our tour guide, G, a Jewish Israeli who has come to see the country he was born in from a very different angle.

G, a bit shaken, explained that the man had promised him a long and painful death; he said that G was a Nazi and that we were all Nazis out to kill Jews. The few words I had understood were that G was instilling hatred of Jews in all of us. As a matter of fact, G discussed the policies being implemented as matters of land seizures and population control.

As we drove along toward Abu Dis, we stopped a site where two buildings, seven stories high, with 33 apartments, had been demolished in May of 2005. There have been 18,000 homes demolished in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967. In Jerusalem, there are now about 100 home demolitions every year. The Palestinians are given a demolition order because they have built without a permit. They try but they cannot get permits to build on their own land, or to build additions to their own homes. The demolition order will take effect in one day or 3 weeks or 6 months. The families live in constant fear, not knowing when the order will be implemented.

When this building was bulldozed, 33 families, between 150 and 200 men, women and children became homeless. Imagine all the emotional connections you have to your home – where you eat breakfast in the morning, the mirror you look in as you go out each day, the little tchachkes everyone in the family has put here and there. And then it's all demolished inside a half hour and you have only what you were able to grab and remove in that short time. It seems to me that creating such fear and anxiety in a civilian population is terrorism.

We went to see The Wall where it cuts through the neighborhood of Abu Dis. A campus of Al Quds University is on the other side of the wall while much of the community remains part of "unified" Jerusalem. To get to Al Quds, one only has to walk about twenty minutes out of the way, where the wall has not yet been built, cross over and walk twenty minutes back to where you started but on the Palestine side.

The magnitude of the wall is staggering. One woman from our group, a circus aerialist, tried to climb it but gave up about two yards up. I won't give facts and figures. The grassroots Palestinian anti-apartheid wall campaign publishes more information than you would ever need on the wall and the non-violent struggle being waged against it. There are fact sheets and all the latest news about the situation here.

Then we went to Maale Adumin. Started by 23 families in 1975, the population is now close to 35,000. It looks like a suburban town in Long Island, with a large mall, fountains, lawns, and people jogging along the sidewalks. Maale Adumim residents use double the amount of water of the people in the rest of Israel. This is done in order to artificially create those lawns and fountains and beautiful landscaping. Why is the so-called "only democracy in the Middle East" doing this? To people paying taxes to its government? The construction of the settlements like Nof Zion and about a dozen already existing communities in the area of the Jerusalem municipality including Maale Adumim will help deal with the "demographic problem"-- facilitating a Jewish majority in the Jerusalem municipality.

The next morning, I have plans to see my aunt at noon but when I stopped at the ICAHD office first, two Amnesty International volunteers are being taken out to see the house that was demolished the day before, so I tag along. Abu Siam Abasi and his wife and 5 children had lived in Silwan. He was expelled two years ago. He was told this was done in order to do an archaeological dig where his home was. He applied for permits to build in a nearby village but was denied. Eventually he built a home in the village of Atur.

Two months ago, the home was destroyed. His family moved in with relatives and they worked on a small 2 room shack that they could live in temporarily. Two weeks ago, he died of a heart attack. His wife and children were in mourning in a rented apartment nearby when, on Tuesday, August 5th, the authorities came and bulldozed their shack. And, incredibly, the family whose house is destroyed is expected to pay for the bulldozing of their home!

Then I went to visit my aunt, who moved here three years ago. She lives in a senior residence in a neighborhood next to the ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim. It's a lovely place where my uncle, who has since died, lived on the nursing home floor and she has her own 1 bedroom apartment on the 4th floor. She has adjusted well since her children and all her grandchildren are here, going to exercise classes and learning Hebrew and playing scrabble and going for walks. We walked through her neighborhood, which was quite religious enough for me.

I knew enough to be wearing a skirt but, in the 90+ degree heat, wouldn't bring myself to put a long sleeved sweater on over my t-shirt. She is a liberal NY area Jew, trying to figure out who to vote for. She's having trouble with this since her cable only brings her FOX news, she can't even get CNN. I promised to send a few relevant articles to dissuade her from voting for McCain.

She doesn't seem to have the sense I get from many Israelis, like the cabbies I speak with, that the whole world is out to get them. We spend a pleasant few hours talking mostly about family and I am reminded of how important that has been in my life. And yet it hurts that I cannot bring myself to tell her about what I have been seeing.

[Part 3 of Beth's report can be found here.]

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