August 7, 2008

Beth Checks In: I'm Back In Jerusalem

[It is far too easy for progressives and lefties in the US to let the occupation of Palestine fall off the radar, and awfully hard to keep organizing and protesting our own government's complicity in that crime, in the face of omnipresent pro-Israel propaganda and the depressing "facts on the ground." FotM has been guilty of this neglect, too.

Now Fire on the Mountain is proud to publish the first of what we hope will be several reports from the skirmish lines there, hot from the keyboard of a friend who has not faltered in the fight for justice. Beth is an East Coast trade unionist and antiwar activist, who has returned for a two week visit after last being in Israel in 1967, in the immediate aftermath of the Seven Days War.]

I came to Israel to spend time with a good friend, R, and to see with my own eyes what I can about the situation here. I arrived at Ben Gurion airport a few minutes early and got through customs easily. I think it helped that I said "yerushahlayim" instead of "Jerusalem" when the woman who checked my passport, the fifth time it was checked that day, asked where I was staying. Going to get my bag, there was a line of men holding signs to identify themselves to the people they were there to pick up; the first sign I saw was "AIPAC". Welcome to Israel.

R is an Israeli woman I met in New York. She has lived in NY for many years, came back to Israel in February and is now working with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). The first nights, we went to dinner at her friend's home in a nearby neighborhood, previously home to many poor Mizrachi Jews (those from the Arab countries) and now being gentrified.

Her friend Y has been an activist in the feminist and the women's peace movement in Jerusalem for many years. She no longer wants to act out of anger and despair. She has seen so much conflict and burnout among colleagues here who are committed to a just peace. Now she has decided to work on developing forms for promoting and protecting the well-being of activists.

Also visiting was a dance therapist from France who is here for a few weeks doing workshops with groups of Palestinians and Jews. This is one small piece of the work Y wants to do with activists. Emphasizing the rhythm of the breath and the beating of hearts, the same for Israeli Jews and for Palestinians, using percussion instruments and dance forms, the hope is that people can go beyond their differences to the core rhythms and find community. So far, the workshops have been for Israeli Jews one day and for Palestinians the next, with only a small amount of integration.

A, Y's partner, is a human rights lawyer who defends individual Palestinians in criminal and security cases. I find myself wanting to write "so-called" in front of so many words. Throwing stones at a tank, for instance, is a "so-called" breach of Israeli security. It used to be that 90% of Palestinians who were arrested in such cases were tortured. Not Abu Ghraib torture, but torture none the less-- being made to sit on a slanted stool with your hands shackled behind you, hooded, with music blaring, for hours. That has alleviated somewhat, since the early '90's, he says, in the less serious cases.

When the suicide bombings began, Israel would destroy the house, the home, where that Palestinian had lived. His parents, and/or wife, siblings, children became homeless. There are still many, many Palestinian homes being demolished (more on that in my next post), but, with appeals to the High Court, since 2005, none for security reasons.

Thousands of Palestinians were kicked out of Kuwait when Iraq invaded in 1990; they fled and swamped towns and villages in the West Bank. Many of them had West Bank identification papers but those papers only allowed them to remain for a few months as they had been gone for years and had lost their residency rights.

A took cases of groups of twenty at a time to court to get their visas extended so they and their families could stay in the West Bank. Close to 1,000 cases were brought to the court. Eventually, an agreement was made, out of court so it was not a binding legal decision, and they were allowed to remain in the West Bank. (In fact, there was no where else they could go).

The first morning I woke up in Jerusalem, I decided to do the standard tourist tour at the City Hall. Arriving a few minutes late at Safra Square, just across from the walls of the Old City, I joined a large group of about 30 Israelis from other cities. The guide, speaking in Hebrew, was explaining the history of the area. I listened, and understanding only half of what was being said, searched for the English tour guide. I found her, with a small group, 2 women, 6 girls, all American, all religious. I was in shorts and a t-shirt, like all the Israelis in the other group. These 8 were all in long skirts and long sleeved tops

First in 1890, a wealthy British businessman had a municipal building established in that spot. Then, in 1930, the British Barclay Bank agreed to put up the money for a City Hall if they could use part of the building as a bank. The requirements of providing services to the growing Jerusalem meant that more and more space was required. Eventually, in the late 1980's, the Safra Brothers company from South America, put up the money for the current complex of buildings if the area would be named for them. And so, Safra Square.

The guide talked about the educational system, all four parts of it – the secular national schools, the religious national schools, the ultra-religious schools and the schools for the Arabs. These are all separate systems. I found out later that day that there are 9,000 Palestinian children living in Jerusalem who are not going to school. No new schools are being built.Those who are able to attend school have forty children in a class and they are on double shifts.

We were taken to the City Council chambers and then to see the view from the roof of the building. There are now 750,000 people in what is called the Jerusalem municipality, much of it annexed since the 1967 war. 1/3 of them are Palestinians. There are 31 members of the City Council. The Palestinians have no representation.

"But they get everything," said one of the women in the tour. The guide weakly said that no, the services are not equal. Ambulances often don't go the East side of Jerusalem because there is little signage indicating names of streets so they can't find locations. In fact, I later found out that while 1/3 of the tax money that flows into the Jerusalem tax coffers comes from the Arab population, only 10% of the services go to their neighborhoods.

The tour guide explained that during the last election, the Palestinian Authority told the Arabs not to vote because that would show support for the Zionist state. She said perhaps this time, later in 2008, they would take part in the election and if so, 1/3 of the Council could be Arab. "Which way do you want it?" she said.

For many reasons, this is totally not going to happen. At this point, there are only three members of the Council who are to some extent opposed to the policies of expansion into the Palestinian neighborhoods and the demolition of homes. Most of the other 28 are from the right wing religious parties.

We went to the building's basement to see the City Model for Jerusalem, which now goes, they tell us, from Atarot to Har Homah, Both of those neighborhoods that have been built in the area I would call "occupied" since 1967, and they call "annexed". The model (according to the brochure) depicts "the existing state in the town center and the adjacent neighborhoods and in particular future projects that are being planned in Jerusalem."

It is a huge display of all the buildings, streets, parks that exist and that are planned. She pointed to an area in between French Hill and Maale Adumin, two areas that have been built on land that was part of East Jerusalem until, as the guide said "we came back after 19 years". She showed the plans for that area, saying that the United States is not letting it happen, that Condoleezza Rice has said it is not allowed because of international law.

The Geneva Convention, which Israel has signed on to, has rules against changing the population balance of an occupied land. The annexation of Jerusalem has not been recognized as legal by the world, not even by the United States. The religious woman said, "We’ll see!" When the guide pointed out the Museum of Tolerance--which is being built, I found out later, on the ruins of a Muslim cemetery--I choked at the irony, the chutzpah, of such a project.

I walked back toward my friend's apartment through a large park. There were people out for a walk, with their rifles. I saw two couples, husband and wife with a baby carriages and the men had rifles slung over their soldiers. There's a pervasive sense of tension.

After that, I had to get a reality check. I went to the Alternative Information Center, (AIC), founded in 1984 by Jewish and Palestinian activists who believe that ending the occupation is the immediate goal, but go on to argue that ending the conflict means much more than that and that Palestinians and Israelis have to live together and work together for the society to function in a healthy way.

I met with C, born in the US, living here since the mid-‘70's. She said that it seems to her harder to be an antiwar activist in the States than to be active in the fight here. When she comes back to visit, she sees so many ways to not pay attention to what's going on, while, here, it is in your face all the time. It cannot be ignored so she feels she has less choice but to do what she does.

I argued the contrary, that she was much braver than I doing her work here. She talked about how much money is being made with the expansion of the Jewish areas into what was East Jerusalem and into the West Bank with construction of houses and roads and tunnels. And then, of course, there's the wall, the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in this country. There is no discussion of this process in the mainstream Israeli media, of whether or not this is the kind of society they want to have. She said, "They don't acknowledge we're in the Middle East".

AIC does not get into the endgame of 1 state or 2 states. Rather, they work based on universal principles of justice, equality and feminism. There is a second office near Bethlehem. AIC works to get a Palestinian voice heard on the issues being discussed – keeping a bridge open between the two societies, showing that it is possible to work together long-term. She stressed that the Palestinians should not have to wait for Israeli society to understand what has been going on before they can speak out for justice for themselves.

AIC compiles and distributes information about Palestinian and Israeli society since both are, for the most part, stereotyped in the media. She talked about how the majority of people in both societies have lost ground since Oslo. One in three Israeli children are living in poverty.

Since Palestinians are no longer allowed to come into Israel for work, much of the manual labor is done by migrants. The agricultural workers are Thai; people from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Eastern Europe are home care workers, Chinese do construction and Africans do cleaning. The situation is, of course, much worse in the West Bank and even worse in Gaza. Israel now has the second largest gap between rich and poor in the developed world--second only to the US.

The group hosts international delegations when they visit and is well-connected with activists around the world in the World Social Forum. They get funding from progressive Christian organizations in Europe and England and from a few governments in Europe. I asked how she, as an individual, functions within her society.

She talked about the importance of being who she really is day-to-day, that Israelis need to be confronted on a personal level. For example, when the bus driver, for no reason, gives the Palestinian who comes onto the bus a hard time, she asks the driver why and stands up for the Palestinian rider as the driver argues and other passengers start defending the driver.

I ask if she feels hopeful. She says that, incredibly, her Palestinian colleagues are more hopeful than she is, so that gives her hope.

{Part 2 in Beth's report can be found here.]

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