Now, finally, after traveling, I get to write about the past two weeks. I’ve already partially written, when on the road, fits and starts, suffering poor computer and Internet access. I have plenty of notes to draw on, written materials given our delegation, information on the web, and a relatively reliable memory. I realize this won’t have the detail I usually include so it will have to be summaries, highlights, questions, stories. First in my own words, an overall view of the Cambridge to Bethlehem delegation.
We are a grass roots group of Cambridge Massachusetts citizens, the Cambridge-Bethlehem people to people initiative, meeting our counterparts in Bethlehem, to form relationships between individuals and communities in both cities, and learn more fully what is happening in Israel-Palestine. I add, for most of us: to energize our activism and to broadcast the news—the truth as we discover it—too painful to purvey by commercial media. Three people in Bethlehem expedited our journey, Shawqi, a human rights lawyer, Doha, a city counselor, and Zoughbi, founder and director of Wi’am, a conflict resolution service. They organized visits and guided and translated for us, offering a plethora of opportunities few ever have for investigating conditions in this city. We met arts groups in refugee camps, officials of the city, high school and university students and staff, crafts people, entrepreneurs, among others. Absent were church and mosque leaders and activists. We visited from November 20 – November 27, 2007, a short intense time.
Residing in the Grand Hotel, AKA Bandaks, eating there and at other restaurants, our days were often jammed with back-to-back activities or were relatively open. Some of us felt that by residing in a relatively posh hotel and eating in restaurants we were not sharing the living conditions of Bethlehemites as fully as we might.
This was our first attempt at a delegation. There were glitches such as too much to do, confusing meeting places and times, not including all the groups we’d hoped to meet, insufficient time with some groups, decision making, whether by consensus or by more direct leadership, and a consequent great deal of effort put into group process.
The trip represents only a first step. How to follow thru is a major question. We each have a list of names and contact info. We’ll have a session sorting thru the options, deciding on a strategy for building long term relationships, and each of us will commit to at least one part of that follow up.
The Wall and watchtower from the playground of a UN school in Aida refugee camp
Bethlehem is under siege, partly by the annexation wall which plunders land, homes, water and disrupts free travel. Also by the settlements ringing the city. And the permit system making nearly impossible Bethlehemite Christians visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus’ crucifixion site) in the Old City of Jerusalem during the holy days and Muslims praying at the Al Aqsa mosque atop Mount Moriah also in Jerusalem’s Old City. Bethlehem, one of the holiest cities for Jews, Christians and Muslims is in occupied territory. Thus the occupying power, Israel, by international law, is responsible for the well being of the occupied people. Contrary to this, Israel perpetrates policies thru its siege that I believe are intended to ethnically cleanse Palestine, perhaps a form of genocide, or at least an early slippery slope into genocide—the annihilation of an entire society.I ask, with what authority does Israel perpetrate this matrix of control? I’ll let the international court system decided this question, congruent with the growing and hopeful trend. We visited to feel, comprehend and eventually struggle against this matrix, its cunning, its brutality, its terror.
A few statistics: Bethlehem (the word derives from beit = house or place and lehem = bread or meat) has some 50,000 residents in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala, 1/3 Christian (Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic mostly), 2/3’s Muslim. Jesus is rumored to have been birthed here miraculously by the Virgin Mary in a cave used as a stable now under the Church of the Nativity, the oldest Christian church in the world. The percentage of Christians has fallen from 75% in 1947 (the year before the Palestinian catastrophe, or nakba, and Israel’s independence) to 33% in 1998—and declines further day by day. Bethlehem’s former mayor, Hanna Nasser, says an estimated 2,000 Christians in Bethlehem have emigrated during the period of 2000 – 2003 (according to Wikipedia where I’ve found some of these statistics, also from B’Tselem and other sources). Contrary to the reports of some, this emigration is not due to Muslim-Christian discord but to the failing economy and the lack of basic human rights. Approximately 50% live in poverty (less than $2 per day), and unemployment is high, equaling or surpassing the poverty rate. However, despite Israel’s matrix and the attempt to confiscate the tourist trade by establishing touristic facilities, the number of tourists has risen, the highest number since the beginning of the second intifada (uprising) in 2000, and with it hotel occupancy and other economic indicators. This is incremental but hopeful.
Where exactly is the wall, what does Israel claim to justify it, what are its effects? In Bethlehem, as is true throughout the West Bank, the Wall—or Separation Barrier or Security Barrier or Apartheid Wall, depending on one’s politics (I prefer Annexation Barrier since annexation is an indisputable consequence, to annex land and shift the demographics to favor Israeli Jews) is convoluted, bringing within Israel a multitude of settlements which tend to sit to the north of Bethlehem, adjacent to Jerusalem. These settlements, otherwise known as “neighborhoods” by some, illegal colonies by others (depending on one’s politics, I prefer settlements or colonies) are mostly on confiscated Palestinian land, as is Har Homa, begun in 1999 on the last forest in Bethlehem.
Essentially the Wall separates Palestinians from Palestinians, belying the claim that it is solely for security (some 95% of the checkpoints, also for “security,” are within Palestine, separating Palestinians from each other, not Palestinians from Israelis). One section of this serpentine monstrosity divides Jerusalem and Bethlehem—the two cities are within walking distance of each other, one hour, 5 km or 3 miles. Most Jerusalemites and Bethlehemites cannot visit the other’s city. Another Wall section separates the inner city from the outlying regions which of course includes arable Palestinian land. A map would help here. (Or a current Google Earth view—I tried. Searching under “Bethlehem”—no luck. “Palestine” brought up 10 listings of cities in the USA. “Jerusalem” successfully produced a view but finding Bethlehem, finding the Wall, proved impossible.)
Another major section of the Wall isolates Rachel’s tomb (Rachel the wife of Jacob, the only Abrahamic patriarch or matriarch not buried in the Hebron tombs). Altho a holy site for all branches of the Abrahamic tradition, Jew, Christian, and Muslim, Muslims are prohibited from entering.
Kareem, the guide from B’Tselem
Our delegation toured the Wall guided by the exemplary organization, B’Tselem (meaning human dignity in Hebrew), the Israeli Information Center for Human Right in the Occupied Territories. Prevented from entering an isolated Palestinian section of the town by a checkpoint, rifles aimed at our guide Kareem and Rick, one of the delegates, when they walked up to the checkpoint to inquire about entrance, we found ways to view the wall. When they returned to our bus with the bad news of no admittance, the guide told us one of the soldiers had called him “Arab scum.”
In Rick’s comment later to me he wrote,
“When the 3 guards pointed guns at me and the guide and ordered us to stop it was terrifying for me, but for the guide it was an every day experience. When the guard called the guide an Arab pig it was shocking for me, for him it was routine. What does this mean? Almost every family we met had some terrible losses, daily assaults on their dignity. A child shot, a brother in jail, an olive tree confiscated. What does it do to a society to suffer such ongoing assault? Palestinian people by and large are kind and dignified. Why can’t we as a people find empathy for them and struggle with them? I am at a loss. It is not they who have lost their humanity, but we who need to find it.”
Always from the ground, the overall view was difficult to fathom: a ring of concrete, part of a complex that if and when completed will be some 500 km long, in places 8 m high (other sections are chain link fence with trench, razor wire, motion detectors and army-only roads), and stealing land and water resources. This makes life miserable and I believe is intended to foster emigration, “voluntary transfer” as some euphemistically name it, “ethnic cleansing” in the words of many, including the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in his new book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.
The effect of the Wall? Case studies will follow, based on our many meetings.
[Palestinians] can never be part of the Zionist state and space, and will continue to fight—and hopefully their struggle with be peaceful and successful. If not, it will be desperate and vengeful and, like a whirlwind, will suck all up in a huge perpetual sandstorm that will rage not only through the Arab and Muslim worlds, but also within Britain and the United States, the powers, which, each in their turn, feed the tempest that threatens to ruin us all.
Marty Federman’s (one of the delegates) insightful and humorous diary: write him at email@example.com to join his list.