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Notes on my visit to Palestine

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  • Islamic News and Information Network
    Assalamu alaikum, Ali Abunimah is a Palestinian who resides in Chicago. He is currently visiting Palestine. Below he shares his reflections. Notes on my visit
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 12, 2000
      Assalamu'alaikum,

      Ali Abunimah is a Palestinian who resides in Chicago. He is currently
      visiting Palestine. Below he shares his reflections.

      Notes on my visit to Palestine
      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

      June 13, 2000

      Dear Friends,

      I am still on my travels, but I thought I'd share with you some notes from
      my recent visit to Palestine.


      A Brief Exchange of Views

      I had resolved to be as meek as necessary to ensure that the Israeli
      officials did not stamp my passport. But I could not and did not try to
      hide my grim face as I stood in line to be greeted by the Israeli security
      officials, after coming off the bus that brought me across the Allenby
      Bridge from Jordan. The atmosphere is oppressive, but far less so for me
      traveling as a "tourist" on a foreign passport, than for Palestinian
      residents of the occupied territories, who have to go through a separate
      terminal. When my turn came, the officer directing people through the
      metal detector and x-ray, a young woman, said without any discernible
      warmth, "Welcome to Israel, why don't you smile?"
      I answered simply, "I am not in Israel."
      Officer: Oh, where do you think you are?
      Me: You know that we are in occupied territory.
      Officer: You should visit Israel, then. It's a lovely country.
      Me: I know that, its my country, after all.
      Officer: Is it so terrible to pass by Israelis? You could at least smile.
      Me: I wish I had a choice. If I want to come to the country, I have to
      pass through you. Perhaps when the country is free it will be easier to
      smile.

      They let me through with no difficulty. Gone are the days when Israel
      cared what you say. After all Yasir Arafat and Sheikh Yasin live with them
      today saying what they like. I wait on the other side for my cousin Z. who
      has to go through the Palestinians-only terminal, since he is a West Bank
      resident. In that terminal, Palestinians first pass their documents to a
      Palestinian Authority official. Behind the PA official is a one-way glass
      window. The PA officer says to my cousin, "Face the mirror so she can see
      you." "She" is the Israeli officer standing unseen behind the glass. The
      PA official then passes the travel document under a slot in the glass,
      where it is inspected by the Israeli, who actually decides if he can enter
      or not. This is the fiction of Palestinian "authority" in action.

      Shake Down City

      After going through Israeli security at the bridge, we board a bus which
      brings us to a place optimistically called "al-Istiraha" (The Resting
      Place), on the edge of Jericho, within the Palestinian Authority's "self
      rule" area. A less restful place is hard to imagine, consisting as it does
      of a vast concrete plaza covered with a corrugated steel roof. There are
      rows of wooden benches, filthy latrines, and a snack bar with over-priced
      Israeli-made chips and sodas. Noise and heat reign as arriving travelers
      struggle with suitcases, boxes and children, and look for the friends and
      relatives who have come to receive them. Traders strap impossibly high
      towers of boxes of goods brought from Jordan to the roof racks of beaten
      yellow taxis. As soon as we get off the bus a man thrusts his hand at me
      with a ticket and demands "wahad shekel" (one shekel). What for? Jericho
      municipality demands one shekel for each piece of luggage or parcel
      brought into the "Istiraha," where all travelers must make a compulsory
      stop. All cars arriving to pick up passengers must pay 10 shekels (3
      dollars) for the privilege of entering the Istiraha.

      There is a profusion of uniforms: PA "customs" officials wear old US
      Desert Storm uniforms, the police wear blue fatigue pants and T-shirts
      which say "Palestinian Authority" in Arabic. Others, their allegiance
      unclear, wear traditional olive colored uniforms. I see one man with no
      uniform but with a 9 mm automatic pistol shoved into the back of his
      jeans, barking orders at travelers. Some officials hurry about, others
      lean lazily in pairs or trios smoking and passing the time. The sense of
      order and linear progression that exists in the Israeli terminal is
      totally absent at the Istiraha. My cousin Z. tells me that before 1990,
      cars could go right up to the bridge terminal, making the bus fare, the
      mandatory stop and all the various little charges unnecessary.

      Coming into the West Bank is one thing, but going out is much worse. In
      addition to all the little charges for cars and luggage, all Palestinian
      travelers must pay a "departure tax." This amounts to 115 shekels ($ 40)
      for every man woman and child, even newborn babies. This revenue is split
      between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli occupation authorities.
      In addition, travelers pay another 35 shekels which goes only to the
      Israelis. Needless to say these charges are an enormous burden on
      Palestinian families, especially those with many children who are
      traveling to Jordan to visit relatives. As a "foreign tourist," I pay only
      a $32 "transit fee" to the Israelis when I go through the separate
      "tourist" terminal on the way out.

      The cars coming and going from the Istiraha tell the story of rich and
      poor in Arafat's Palestine. There are only two types: aging and beaten
      Toyotas or Opels overloaded with sweating families and baggage, or brand
      new Mercedes, Audis and Jeep Cherokees whisking one or two of the
      well-heeled in air conditioned comfort. Either the middle class doesn't
      drive, or it doesn't exist.

      On the road up from Jericho, is the vast "Oasis Casino," with a luxurious
      Intercontinental Hotel attached to it. Only Israelis and tourists are
      allowed to enter, in keeping with the apartheid theme apparent
      everywhere. By the side of the road, a few miles up from the casino is a
      trailer . A large, yellow and black sign says "Change." This is where
      gamblers can exchange currency or sell their watches, jewelry and even
      their cars. I imagine that as with most casinos, this one probably preys
      on the poorest and most desperate, even in Israel. The money poured into
      the "Oasis" goes straight from their pockets into the bank accounts of the
      PA and its unknown "investment partners."


      Settlements

      Since my last visit to Palestine in 1997, it is apparent even on this
      brief trip that Israeli settlements are growing everywhere. On the road to
      Jerusalem I notice that there is a large cluster of new houses under
      construction in the settlement of "Mizpe Yeriho," near Wadi Qelt. Maale
      Adumim, already the largest settlement, is growing as well. Bulldozers
      have cut yellow gashes into the land to lay roads for the settlement's
      eastward growth. In 1996 I took pictures of the Jahalin Bedouins in the
      very same place where the bulldozers now toil. Later, I see a shantytown
      of shipping containers and plastic sheeting near the village of Azariyya.
      This is the place the Jahalin were forced to move to by the occupation
      forces when their lands were taken in the short years since my last visit.
      It must be hot in a steel shipping container, and not at all like living
      in a traditional "bayt sha'ir," as the Bedouins have done from the
      beginning of history.

      As we approach Jerusalem, along the highway which winds among Maale
      Adumim's vast clusters of buildings, the hillside has been cut at a steep
      angle. New buildings seem like they are going to pour over the edge onto
      the roadway below. Israeli flags hanging off many balconies in the
      settlement high above us.

      I visit Abu Dis and Ras Al Amoud, the Palestinian villages on the western
      edge of Jerusalem. In the middle of Ras Al Amoud, tightly packed houses
      are being built on a piece of land the size of a Chicago city block. Small
      for a settlement, but strategically located in the middle of a densely
      populated Palestinian area. The building site is surrounded by a high wire
      fence. This is the work of Miami bingo king Irving Moskowitz. I am
      surprised that the work is so far advanced. Why do we hear nothing about
      it from the Palestinian "negotiators?" It's as if its not happening. Mr.
      Moskowitz has even hired Palestinians from the neighborhood as night
      watchmen.

      In Abu Dis, the village reportedly to be renamed "Al-Quds" and given to
      the Palestinian Authority as an ersatz Jerusalem, I see the famed
      "Palestinian parliament" building under construction. It is bigger than
      I'd imagined. In the dusty main street of Abu Dis, dry cleaners and
      grocery stores advertise their wares in Hebrew to attract business from
      nearby settlements. If you blink when you go through the main street in
      Abu Dis, you will miss it.

      I look at the photos I took of Jabal Abu Ghneim in 1996, from the
      Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. It was covered in a thick pine forest. The
      photos from 1997 show the characteristic yellow gashes which will soon be
      roads. Now, all the trees are gone and the hill is covered in apartment
      buildings, tightly packed, some of them ten storeys high. I count five
      tall construction cranes, and take a photo. Jabal Abu Ghneim is now "Har
      Homa."

      The settlement of Qedar in the West Bank is a collection of permanent
      buildings, trailers, and water tanks. About a mile away, over a hill and a
      valley, a completely separate cluster of new houses is going up. This new
      and totally separate settlement has also been named Qedar. It is, the
      Israelis say merely an "expansion" of the existing Qedar to accommodate
      "natural growth."


      Jerusalem

      My hotel is right next to the Israeli interior ministry office in occupied
      east Jerusalem, on Nablus Road. Arriving there at eleven at night,
      Palestinians are already gathering so they can be first in line when the
      cage-like entrance opens in the morning. Some of the people line up simply
      to sell their places later on. This is where Palestinians must come to
      petition the occupation authorities for spouses and children from other
      parts of the occupied territories be allowed to live in Jerusalem. This is
      where Jerusalemites must come to defend their right to stay in their own
      city and to register their children. It is within these walls that orders
      have been issued to expel thousands of Jerusalemites and to divide
      thousands of families. A little up the road is the US consulate. By
      morning there is a line there too. Palestinians are always lining up at
      checkpoints, government offices and embassies.

      At seven in the morning, it is pleasant to walk down Nablus Road towards
      Damascus Gate. This is the main entrance into the walled Old City.
      Entering the Old City at that time, few shops are open. Some shopkeepers
      are sweeping and washing the narrow alleys and streets in front of their
      stores. The smell of bread fills the air. Occupation troops patrol in
      groups of three. Sometimes they lean lazily against walls--ignored and
      ignoring the emerging life around them. These days the streets of
      Jerusalem do not threaten them. Come back in mid morning and Damascus gate
      is transformed. Fallahat--women from the villages around Bethlehem--sit
      along the walls selling every kind of fresh produce. They wear their
      traditional thwab--black, and blue dresses with intricately embroidered
      breast panels. Laid out before them on cloths are vine leaves, mint, sage,
      eggplants, tomatoes, and zucchini. Figs the size and bright green color of
      new tennis balls catch my eye. Inside the walls, shops selling souvenirs
      and CDs compete for attention. Speakers blasting the latest Egyptian pop
      tunes compete with taped recitation of the Qur'an from more pious
      shopkeepers across the way. Boys with hand carts stacked high with crates
      hurtle through the narrow alleys somehow managing never to hit anyone.
      Christian pilgrims and tourists of every color gaze around in wonderment.
      American backpackers complain loudly about the latest inconvenience they
      have encountered. Go to Jaafar sweet shop any time of day and eat the
      finest Knafeh anywhere. Despite the signs everywhere in the country of
      Israeli encroachment, it is when I am in this Jerusalem, surrounded by
      ways and rhythms that cut as deeply into peoples lives as the wheel ruts
      grooved into the stone passageways, that I feel convinced that Israel may
      occupy Jerusalem by force, but Jerusalem will never belong to it. It is
      beyond possession and it will outlast its latest conqueror.

      A Little House in Bak'a

      I take a "servis", a Palestinian public minibus, from Jerusalem to
      Bethlehem. As it leaves Jerusalem, it detours through the old Palestinian
      neighborhood of Bak'a, which lies just to the west of the
      Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. I am astounded by the many large graceful Arab
      villas. Shady verandas with arched colonnades, old wooden doors framed by
      vines. Each and everyone is now inhabited by Israelis, the original owners
      expelled in 1948. It is here that the Israeli elite lives and many of the
      houses fly Israeli flags. A few of them display "For Sale" signs. One
      large house on the main road, newly renovated, boasts a large sign in
      English and Hebrew: "A Little House in Bakah-- Hotel, Restaurant and Bar."
      I wonder where its real owners are and what they would think if they saw
      their house now.

      Bethlehem

      My cousin J. owns a store on the main road into Bethlehem. Not much has
      changed in Bethlehem since 1997. The main road has been repaired, but the
      town still looks dusty and forlorn. Talk to any business owner in the town
      (I talked to several) and they tell you that under the PA they pay more
      and more "taxes." What do you get in return? "Wala ishi." Nothing. Among
      everyone I talked to, especially the young people in our village was a
      sense of hopelessness. The word I heard more than once to describe the PA
      was "mafia."

      The most hopeful part of my visit was to Dheisheh refugee camp in
      Bethlehem. I went to the Ibdaa Cultural Centre, on a day when a group of
      teenage girls were just convening for a discussion group. I had met some
      of them last October when they came to perform in Chicago. We laughed and
      joked about how nervous I was emceeing the event, and I told them the only
      thing that seemed to go right that evening was their performance. The
      girls had just returned a few days before from the Lebanese border, where
      for the first time they had met face to face--albeit through barbed
      wire--with children from Chatila refugee camp in Beirut. Both groups had
      been exchanging emails for some months. Dheisheh camp has an internet
      center which offers training and "internet cafe" hours to the residents.
      Like every building in the camp, the Ibdaa Cultural Center is small and
      crowded, and every inch put to good use. Children come and go, obviously
      at home and eager to show off a place they are proud of, and which
      provides them with their only positive outlet. Through the fundraising
      efforts of the people there, including the US and European tours which the
      children's performance group did last year, a new building for Ibdaa is
      being built on the edge of the camp. The land was donated by the UN, whose
      compound is adjacent, but no funds came from the UN or any governments.
      The new center includes space for all the centre's activities, as well as
      guest rooms to allow the camp to host delegations, and volunteers from
      other camps and around the world. Ziad, one of the adult coordinators at
      Ibdaa gives me a tour of the new centre and the camp. He shows me the
      Hebrew street names spray painted on Dheisheh's walls. These are Israeli
      map references which date from the days when occupation soldiers chased
      Palestinians through the narrow alleyways. The camp residents have kept
      them as a reminder. The Israeli soldiers at least has a sense of irony:
      they named one of the alleys "Champs Elysees."

      It was just past noon on a hot sunny day, and people were indoors escaping
      the heat, or were away at work--those lucky enough to have it, since forty
      percent of the camp's residents are unemployed. We went to the UN health
      centre. After fifty two years, the camp still has one doctor for eleven
      thousand residents. The doctor is paid for by the UN. In its four years of
      rule, the PA has not provided another doctor or done anything to expand
      the health services for the refugees. Camp residents who require hospital
      treatment must seek it at their own expense in Bethlehem or Jerusalem,
      though often other refugees pitch in to help. The "Bethlehem 2000" project
      to smarten up the city for millennium tourists apparently addressed none
      of the camp's needs. Down the road from Dheisheh, is a large new building.
      This is Yasir Arafat's "office." He rarely sets foot in Bethlehem, and yet
      apparently the PA felt it was more urgent to build an administrative
      building for the "president" than to provide another doctor or a clinic
      for the refugee camp.

      Bethlehem symbolizes more even than the contrasting cars of Jericho the
      new division between Palestinian rich and poor. Set in the midst of the
      deprivation, exclusion and official neglect that the refugees endure is
      the new Dar Jacir Intercontinental Hotel. From a $270 per night room, the
      guest of this opulent palace can gaze into the crowded concrete shacks of
      Azzeh refugee camp on one side, and Dheisheh on the other. Dar Jacir is a
      stunningly beautiful palace built early in the twentieth century. For
      decades it was used as a school (my father attended it in the 1950s).
      During the Intifada it became a girls school, and a symbol of resistance,
      as its students were frequently gassed and shot by the occupation forces.
      Today it stands as the perfect symbol of the Oslo regime, where profits,
      cronyism and privilege are the pillars of Mr. Arafat's ongoing
      "revolution." I am reminded of the frequent Israeli jab at the PLO in the
      1980s that all its leaders did was to tour the world staying in five-star
      hotels. At the time many people took that as an enemy's propaganda. Today
      it looks like those "leaders" came home, and brought their hotels with
      them.

      Rachel's Tomb

      Rachel's Tomb is a small building, no more than a house really, with a
      little dome on top. It is a shrine to the biblical matriarch. Behind it is
      a Muslim cemetery. It is on the main road into Bethlehem just at the point
      where the Palestinian Authority's "authority" begins, and hence it is on
      this stretch of road that clashes occasionally often between Palestinians
      and Israeli occupation forces. When I first came to Palestine in 1996, the
      Israelis had just seized Rachel's tomb, on the grounds that it is a site
      so revered by Jews, and so under threat from the local people who have
      cared for it for centuries, that it must be eternally protected by the
      Israeli army. At that time they had just built a concrete barrier down the
      middle of the main road in front of Rachel's Tomb, dissecting it. One side
      is now for Palestinians, the other for Jews. Today, Rachel's' tomb has
      been transformed. No longer visible from the street it is hidden behind a
      high fortress like wall with Israeli watchtowers at each corner.
      Occupation forces guard a single entrance, labelled only in Hebrew. I am
      told by my companions that entrance to Palestinians is now forbidden and
      Muslims wishing to visit the cemetery must enter via a small gate at the
      back.

      I decide to visit through the front. I approach the entrance and stride
      right in without stopping for the soldiers. They immediately chase after
      me. Where are you going--a blond, blue eyed soldier demands in Hebrew? "I
      am going to visit the shrine." They ask if I am Jewish and I explain that
      I am not, but that I have a right to visit, because people from the area
      have been visiting it from time immemorial, my dad has always told me
      about it, and no one has a right to reserve it exclusively for themselves,
      especially if they have paid absolutely no attention to it for decades.
      After some arguing I am allowed in on the strength of the fact that I am a
      "foreign tourist" bearing a visa to Israel and not a local resident
      subject to military rule. I refuse to wear a "kippah" skull cap which the
      new guardians of the shrine insist is required, but I agree to wear a
      baseball cap borrowed from a Palestinian cleaner who is employed by them.

      Inside, the fortress has the appearance and all the charm of a subway
      station. The otherwise plain walls display plaques thanking donors,
      including American Jewish philanthropists, for helping to make its
      construction possible. Finally, I reach an opening in the wall which leads
      directly into Rachel's Tomb. It is no more than a small room, its ancient
      stone walls contrasting with the antiseptic edifice now attached to it.
      The little house has been transformed into a Yeshiva, complete with vast
      Torah scrolls dressed in rich red and gold velvet drapery, and walls lined
      with bookshelves. Three men variously stand and sit reading religious
      books. No one looks up. I spend a few minutes of quiet reflection and
      leave.


      The Valley of Fire

      Before leaving Palestine, I return to Battir to say goodbye to my aunts.
      My cousin B. offers to drive me and my cousin Z. from Battir to the
      Allenby Bridge. Because B. has a car with West Bank license plates he is
      not allowed to go through Jerusalem to link up with the road to Jericho.
      We must take the notorious Wadi al-Nar ("valley of fire") road which winds
      down through the hills from Bethlehem all the way into the Jordan valley,
      before snaking back up towards Ramallah. Palestinians are required to use
      this road so as not to inconvenience Israel with their presence in
      Jerusalem. The inclines are steeper and the hairpin turns sharper then any
      road I've seen (and I drove along the mountain roads in southern Jordan
      just a few days before). Palestinian cars wanting to make the 30 kilometer
      trip from Bethlehem to Ramallah must take this road its full 75 km length.
      We only take it until we connect with the Jericho road, however. Several
      times we pass from areas under full Israeli control to ostensible
      Palestinian control. The change is marked only by painted concrete blocks
      placed at the side of the road. For one stretch, the road reverts to
      Israeli control simply because a settler bypass road passes near it, about
      two or three hundred metres away.

      Leaving the West Bank via Allenby bridge is a far more onerous process
      than arriving. First we must pass through the "Istiraha" in Jericho. My
      cousin pays all the necessary fees to the Palestinian Authority and the
      occupation and we board a crowded bus which will take us to the border
      terminal on the other side of the river. The bus trundles out of
      Palestinian Authority territory, and arrives at the gate of the Israeli
      border compound. The bus waits at a yellow gate until the Israelis decide
      to let us in to the compound. We wait five minutes and nothing happens.
      Finally the driver honks a few times and the yellow gate opens. The bus is
      now in a clearing surrounded by concrete barriers on all sides. Over the
      barrier I can see the small building where the Israeli soldiers who man
      the compound live. There is a basket ball hoop for their leisure. I
      imagine they must hate service in this forlorn place. The bus is now
      surrounded by soldiers. They open all the luggage compartments and inspect
      all around. Then, two soldiers board the bus, accompanied by a man in
      civilian clothes, from the Palestinian authority. One soldier stands at
      the front of the bus facing the passengers, his automatic rifle at the
      ready. The PA official proceeds up the bus checking the papers of
      Palestinian travelers. The second Israeli soldier follows immediately
      behind the PA official and rechecks all the papers as well as those of
      "foreigners" such as myself, over whom the PA has no authority. Once all
      the checks are done, the soldiers jump off the bus, wave us on, and we
      cross the bridge.

      Through all this, taxis and private cars occasionally whisk past the bus.
      These are carrying Palestinian Authority officials who enjoy "VIP" status
      which allows them to pass through with relative ease. These are the
      officials who accepted these humiliating conditions, but have exempted
      themselves from bearing the consequences that ordinary Palestinians must
      endure every day.

      At the other side, we leave the bus. Palestinians are not allowed to take
      anything off the bus with them. A woman carrying a plastic bag of fruit
      and food is told to put it back on the bus. "Its for the children, she
      protests," but she is told to leave it there. All the baggage is taken by
      the Israelis, and returned on the other side. My cousin tells me that
      items often don't make it, or arrive broken. Once more we part as I head
      for the "foreigners" door and he for the "Palestinians only" entrance. We
      next meet where we have parked the car in Jordan.

      On the drive back to Amman, I tell my cousin how outraged I am at the way
      people are treated. He laughs and says "I have been over the bridge maybe
      one thousand times since 1967. Can you believe its much better today than
      it was? Twelve years ago, the Israelis would make us take off all our
      clothes --everything--and we would inch along on the floor. Many times
      they would send us back, or only let some members of the family through.
      Believe me Ali, we have seen everything."

      Ali Abunimah
      ali@...
      http://www.abunimah.org



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