The Tour-Bus Diaries: Visiting Jim Crow In His New Bethlehem Condo
By Jane Straitwell
Copyright 2005 Straitwell Travel Books
Author's note: Like Che Guevara’s legendary tour of South America, my tour of the Holy Land began innocuously enough – I just wanted to spend some quality time with my Aunt Helen and I also wanted to know what it is like to stand next to the exact spot where Christ was born, raised, crucified and buried. Instead, I ended up being chased by irate Jewish fundamentalists in Hebron and by irate Muslim fundamentalists at the Al Aqsa mosque. I also saw the Wailing Wall, the Occupation Wall, Arafat's tomb, the Golan Heights, a kibbutz near Tel Aviv and a whole bunch of internet cafes.
In short, by the end of my tour of the Holy Land, I had, like Che, become politicized....
Here’s my story. Yes, I know it is long. But think of it not so much as an article but as an e-book. And, as they say in the Holy Land, "Enjoy!"
October 20, 2005: My trip to Israel and Palestine did not begin auspiciously. "I can't find your house," said the airporter driver guy over the phone at 4 am.
"I'll be right out. Look for me on the sidewalk." I got into the van and we drove off to the San Francisco airport. No one was on the freeway. We got there in record time and I got to sit around and wait for three hours before my flight took off. Part of the travel mystique is sitting around at airports.
"Do you smell something burning?" the flight attendant was asking the pilot just as I boarded. Yeah. I smelled it. It smelled like an electrical fire -- not like burned toast. Fear of dying in a fiery plane crash is also part of the travel mystique.
Ten years ago my Aunt Helen, my mother's double cousin who looked just like her clone, said to me, "Jane, the biggest moment of my life was when I traveled to the Holy Land and saw the place where Christ was born." I want to go to the Holy Land too!
"If I save up, will you go with me?" I asked her.
"Yes. I would love to." So I began saving for my trip with Aunt Helen to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Nazareth and all those places. The Pool of Bethesda. The Via Dolorosa. Count me in. As the song goes, "I wanna walk in Jerusalem just like John!"
My family and I used to go up to Aunt Helen's house in the mountains for a family reunion picnic every year, and every year my aunt and I would start discussing our trip plans over barbecue chicken and homemade ice cream. But my trip to the Holy Land with Aunt Helen was never to be. Born in 1911, my wonderful aunt just couldn't hold out much longer, waiting waiting waiting for me to save up. Three years ago, she died.
Now I'm sitting on an Air France plane, going to the Holy Land in her memory. "I went to the Church of the Nativity and to the Holy Sepulcher and to the Garden of Gethsemane," she said. And now I would be doing that too.
It's funny about my mom and my aunt. Their mothers were sisters. Their fathers were brothers. My mom and my aunt both grew up in poverty, in a bleak California desert town. They both suffered through the Great Depression. And they hated each other.
I had seen my Aunt Helen maybe twice in my life, both times when I was a kid – but several years after my mother died, Aunt Helen gave me a call. "I'm in town this week and would love to see you." Me? "I always thought you were such a...a...unique child." Oh. But when I met her the next day, I was so glad. She looked just like my mother and, to me, it was almost like having my mother come back from the dead.
Now I'm sitting in an airplane, flying to Atlanta -- and then on to Paris and Tel Aviv -- and I'm pretending that Aunt Helen is sitting in the vacant seat next to me. Hurray for us! We are off to the Holy Land!
Noon: " On the plane to Atlanta, I had pulled out my guidebook and read all about Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. It was finally starting to become real for me. Antiquity! Really old stuff! Good grief, I can hardly wait. Religion and archeology combined? It doesn't get much better than that.
When I got to Atlanta, I called my teenaged daughter Amy. "Well, I made it this far. So far so good. Remember to tape Survivor on the VCR tonight! And remember to feed the cat."
"Only if you promise to not get lost again, Mom," Amy replied. "You know that you always get lost."
October 21, 2005, 6:45 am: My plane landed in Paris with a three-hour layover. I got to spend three whole hours in Paris! "How much does it cost to call California," I asked the nice Frenchman at the American Express kiosk.
"$17." I had really wanted to call young Amy again but maybe not badly enough to spend $17 on a phone call. Besides, there is nothing to report except that my eyes are all bloodshot and I can't speak French.
5 pm: "Please fasten your seatbelts...." Boy the captain wasn't kidding. The flight from Paris to Tel Aviv was the bumpiest I've ever been on. Somewhere over the Greek isles, I thought the wings were gonna fall off. When we landed in Tel Aviv, the passengers burst into spontaneous applause for the crew.
Guess what? Israelis look just like Americans. I was watching the ones going to the "Israeli Passport Holders Only" window. Blondes in GAP jeans. They didn't even look Jewish! And no black coats, no side-locks and no yarmulkes. Geez Louise. I hope they aren't as blissfully unaware of how disastrous the political situation is here as Americans are in America. Nope. No one could possibly be as out of the reality loop as that.
"How long is the drive to Bethlehem?" I asked Israel's version of an airporter driver. I needed to meet my tour group there the next morning at the Bethlehem Star Hotel.
"I can take you as far as Jerusalem and you can get a cab to Bethlehem from there. It takes 45 minutes to Jerusalem." How much will it cost? "45 shekels." Four and a half shekels per dollar. So a shekel is worth about a quarter. Okay.
The freeway to Jerusalem looked like it had been built by the California State Department of Transportation. And the landscape looked remarkably like southern California too. If I hadn't just been on a plane for 36 hours, I would swear I was driving down I-5 on the Bakersfield side of the Grapevine. And the cars are the same here too. Fords and Toyotas. This place does not look like the home of Jesus! I can't even imagine Him walking here -- unless He was on His way to a Dairy Queen.
Then we rounded a curve and there on the top of the hill far above us was a huge housing bloc -- perhaps a hundred buildings, each three to ten stories tall, all perched on top of a hill. But this is a style unique to Israel. Housing blocs on hilltops in southern California? Major mudslide danger.
Then suddenly we were in Jerusalem. It was made of cement and bricks, sort of like Los Angeles meets Washington DC on a hillside.
Then the sun set. And it was Sabbath. And people started walking to the synagogues and it was very picturesque. And I saw my first bunch of Amish-looking outfits. Very "Fiddler on the Roof." The native costume of Israel.
8 pm: Well I crossed my first checkpoint today. The airporter had dropped me off in Jerusalem and I had taken a cab to the checkpoint between Israel and Bethlehem. At the checkpoint, the cabbie stopped and told me to get out. "I'm a Palestinian Israeli," he said, "which means that I do have the documents to drive you through the checkpoint and get you to your hotel but it would take me hours to get back into Jerusalem again." So I got out and walked.
The checkpoint between Israel and Bethlehem was dark and spooky but not as menacing as I had imagined how it would be. I just picked out a young female soldier to ask my questions to and bonded with her. "How do I get to the Star Hotel?"
"You walk down this path," she told me after she had examined my passport and motioned me through the barrier. While I was trying to figure out how to get past some fierce-looking feral cats and jump a four-foot-high retaining wall while carrying my luggage in the dark to get to the path she had indicated, an old Palestinian man and a young American woman walked by and helped me out. The old man disappeared into the dark down some other path and the woman – who turned out to be a missionary volunteer -- and I flagged down a taxi once we got to the Palestinian side. Our cabbie dropped her off at a church and drove me on to the Star Hotel.
Bethlehem looks for all the world like a dingy 1920s New England mill town. It was very depressing. Maybe it would look more cheery in the daytime. And it was a lot bigger than I had assumed it would be. It was built on several hills -- all of Israel and Palestine is built on a whole bunch of hills, thousands of hills.
Once on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint, I also noticed that the standard of living dropped considerably but not as much as I had expected it would. There was no tribal-village third-world look to Bethlehem. It just looked like some Appalachian coal town where the coal seams had run out.
October 22, 2005: I got lots of sleep last night. Maybe my jet lag isn't going to be so bad. That's a good thing. There's so much to see and do.
Looking out my window this morning, I see a large city spread out before me. You gotta understand that the Holy Land is hilly country. There are a freaking lot of hills here. And it is all much more urban and densely populated than, say, Oakland. The average building in Bethlehem is three to five stories high. And everything here is the same color -- sandstone. Even the cement is a sandstone color. I need to get up and go look around!
A cursory glance out the window of the fifth floor of the Star Hotel doesn't seem to show a city in insurrection. Bethlehem is no Baghdad. It's a peaceful Saturday morning and the sky is really, really blue.
The first thing I need to do is to hook up with my tour. The tour operator said that I was going to be searched at the Tel Aviv airport and so not to bring any materials with me describing our tour – that I would be going such Palestinian places such as Hebron and Ramallah. So here I am without a clue as to when our tour begins or where to meet up with it. But actually, I got more thoroughly searched at the San Francisco airport coming over than I did at the Tel Aviv airport. The guy at the S.F. airport politely said, "Please step aside. I'm just going to search your hand luggage." And then he proceeded to go through it with a gunpowder/explosives detector.
"But I'm a Girl Scout troop leader," I protested. "Our troop sold 60,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies! I'm on the list because I'm a blogger, aren't I?" He obviously didn't know what a blogger was. "Freedom of speech. That sort of thing."
But at the Israeli airport, a nice gentile-looking young lady just stamped my passport and smiled. No Mossad or nothing. What's with that? So far Israel/Palestine seems to be a very friendly place. I wonder if they have Girl Scout cookies here too.
11 am: Breakfast. And I met the folks on the tour. "I'm from Holland," said one.
"I am from Spain," said another. And there were people from England, Scotland and America. Articulate, amiable, nice people. Clearly more interesting than the standard tour-group tourists I'm used to; 25 of us in all. Breakfast consisted of olives, pita bread, veggies, hot milk, coffee, boiled eggs and cheese.
"How do you get to the Church of the Nativity?" I asked. Walk left, turn left again and then straight ahead for six blocks. Suddenly I found myself on an Arab market street, walking alone among hundreds of Arabs. In the mix, as it were. At first I was scared. Maybe these people are terrorists? But they weren’t. They were friendly, helpful and wonderful. Walking down the main street of Bethlehem was magical.
But the true magic was yet to come. At the Church of the Nativity, at the manger where Jesus was born, I was so overcome with the holiness of the moment that I became speechless and dismissed my guide. I had heard that usually there were long lines of people waiting to file past this place but for now I was there all by myself, completely alone – and overcome with the power and majesty of this holy place.
Here I am, sitting at the place where Jesus was born. I want to stay here forever. Nothing prepared me for this. I feel like I'm standing in the presence of God -- and that Jesus is the world's secret weapon for peace.
Then three ladies from Finland arrived and sang, "Jesus is Holy" in Finnish. I joined them. They also knew magic when they saw it. This one experience was worth the entire trip. Aunt Helen was right! Aunt Helen was right! More tourists came and went but they didn't seem particularly overcome. I find it amazing that they can even walk or speak here -- or leave. I want to stay here for the rest of my life!
I'll probably get bored or hungry and leave sometime too but my God what a place.
A caretaker came by and sprayed the all brass fixtures with Windex. More tourists came and went. The top of my head felt like it was glowing. Was I developing a halo? "Don't trust anybody here," another guide came by and told me. "Watch your purse." Not exactly the kind of thing I wanted to hear right now.
Maybe some of this holiness will rub off on me and I will finally become the better person I long to be.
"Usually this place is crowded and one can only stay here a second," someone else said. I had it to myself completely for ten minutes before the ladies from Finland arrived. Now a 60-person Italian tour group has crowded into this little subterranean room. Or are they Russian? But the place still feels holy.
Then a priest came through from Albany, New York. I asked him to bless me. He did. "I'm going to stay here forever," I said. "I'll be here next time you come through in a couple of years." He smiled.
Just when I thought things couldn't get much more magical, a whole bunch of priests bearing incense and candles come and performed the noon office in Latin right next to me. A nun poked my arm and told me to stand up straight. Then another busload of Russians arrived. And then a busload of Filipinos – but the top of my head still glowed.
"Some years ago," another guide told me, "it was the Americans who were the number one tourists here. Now it is the Russians who are number one."
Then I asked my tour guide -- a local man who looked like he might have been a professor at Bethlehem University before the Occupation became so intense that he was forced to beg tourists to hire him -- if he would take me to a mosque. "I don't know," he said. He couldn't conceive of why I would want to do that.
"I'm a Muslim," I replied. "Sort of. I think." Am I a Muslim? This is the place to find out. "I became a Muslim last year because I figured it would be the most annoying thing I could do to George Bush." But one could be a Christian and a Muslim at the same time? After my intense experience at the Church of the Nativity, there was no way I would give up Christ. But I liked Islam too. Looks like I'm going to have to admit to Amy that I am once again lost -- only this time I am lost in the realm of spirituality. I know where I want to go spiritually but have this gut feeling that it will take a combination of Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha (and possibly Abraham) together to come up with the complete instructions on how to get me there. Sort of like the three parts of the Rosetta Stone. (I found out later that Muslims consider Jesus to be an important part of Islam by the way, so I’m good to go. Whew.)
The mosque was a simple place, nothing fancy, just a place for the locals to say their prayers. Afterward I walked home through the main street bazaar again, stopping for pancakes and to check out the local internet café. "Look! Guns!" said one of the little boys who hung out there. He was playing some video game that involved search-and-destroy missions and lots of AK-47s. Too realistic for me!
Then I went shopping. "Where can I buy a soccer jersey for my daughter," I asked up and down the street. Blank looks. "Does Palestine have a soccer team?" Apparently not. Next time I go traveling, I'm going to bring a photo of a soccer jersey. Nobody here seems to know what I’m talking about. Finally I found a sporting goods store but they had nothing I couldn't buy at the Berkeley flea market. Sigh.
5 pm: We drove back into Jerusalem, passing the checkpoint again -- only this time in a tour bus. It took about a half hour to get through it. Not bad. Apparently, word has come down from the Israeli government to be nice to tourists. Hey, I’m a tourist. Works for me.
At the checkpoint, there was about a one-fourth-mile-wide strip of rubble on each side of the road. "Did there used to be housing there?" I asked. Yep.
"Now we will be going to the office of the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem," said our tour leader. "There we will learn more about what the Palestinians have to suffer through during this terrible Occupation." Uh-oh. Looks like the religious aspect of my trip and all that business about Aunt Helen and being a normal Holy Land tourist is going to be left behind in the dust. Unbeknownst to me, when I climbed onto that tour bus this morning and drove past that IDF checkpoint, I was about to leave all the illusions of a benevolent Israel created by the Israeli Zionists and the sweet little Holy Land created for Christian tourists behind and enter into the grim reality of the Palestinian world. And at the AIC, we were about to learn more about how girm that Brave New World really is.
Our speaker at the AIC was a young Jew who had immigrated to Israel from America. We found out later that she had a PhD in Hebrew studies.
"Palestinians are not ever given building permits so building a house here is an act of civil disobedience for them," said our speaker. "We have rebuilt one house five different times." She seemed to be painting a picture of a war on the Palestinians using housing as weapons. Isn’t destroying housing on such a grand scale considered to be a crime against humanity – or at least a war crime?
The speaker also told us that people whose ancestors have lived here for over a thousand years are being thrown out of their homes – but someone who had just converted to Judaism a year ago is not only given a free house but a car and money to live on and a lot of other things. "They could be Incas from Peru but as long as they claim to be Jewish, Israel even pays for their pots and pans."
I asked the speaker about how all the occupation expenses – including the horrendous expense of building thousands of upscale rent-free condo units as well as paying for the routine tear gas, helicopters, tanks and guns – were being funded. "If we can stop the occupation from being funded, then would it all dry up, right?" Yeah.
"There are 10,000 Palestinian home demolition orders issued," the speaker continued, "but Israel can't afford to tear them all down." And apparently only Jews can own land. "We’re not advocating, however, that Israel just go away. There is a lot of land in Israel on this side of the Green Line, with houses and stores already built. Israel is here to stay -- just like the American Indians will probably never get their land back again." But does their solid presence here also give them the right to continue to steal Palestinian real estate?
I am starting to understand the meaning of "Facts on the ground". If this happened in Manhattan, it would be like some foreign army moving in on Trump Towers and saying, "Sorry Donald but we got the guns and you don’t, so cough up the deed. This land is ours. God gave it to us – not to The Apprentice."
"There were many types of Judaism," the AIC speaker continued, "but the main branch of Judaism left over after the diaspora was the one that emphasized the idea of a promised land." So this idea came after Moses and them. Not a promise from God? Interesting.
"You don't have to have faith in God to be a Jew in Israel. The only heresy here is if you don't believe in the Promised Land! It is ironic that many Israelis strongly believe that God gave them Israel but...they don't believe in God." And apparently the idea of "God don't like ugly" doesn't apply to them either. "I did my PhD on Israel and didn't even realize that Palestinians existed." She then discussed economic viability. "It's basically like a prison for the Palestinians. And if they can do this to one group of people, they can do it to you and me. I just want the Palestinians – and everyone else -- to have the same rights that I do."
Then it was time to drive back to Bethlehem. I was glad. My tooth hurt and I was suddenly feeling jet-lagged again. I wanted to go back to my room and finish reading the new Janet Evanovich novel I had bought at the San Francisco airport. I was bored with being in Jerusalem. It looked too much like America. If I wanted America, I could have stayed home. Palestine was much more interesting.
We passed beautiful old homes as we drove back to the checkpoint. "These used to belong to Palestinians before 1948," said our guide. "There were whole cities full of Palestinians here before 1948 despite the misinformation that Palestine had been empty before then. ‘A land with no people for a people with no land’ had been the Zionists' slogan." But whatever had happened in the past, the place is surely not empty now. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis live here now! Facts on the ground strike again. But the facts on the ground are in Bethlehem too. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live there will have to do a disappearing act if the facts on the ground are to comply with the Israeli neo-conservative Zionists' final goals. Possible genocide? That's scary.
"How many Palestinians are there in Israel and Palestine," I asked our guide.
"Five million." That's a lot of facts on the ground.
Then we had a huge dinner. "Is this chicken or veal?" I asked regarding a breaded chop that had been the main dish. It turned out to be turkey. But the dessert was great.
"You must ask Palestinians about their stories," said our guide. "Every single one of them has a tragic story." Five million tragic stories? How sad. "And when you talk with them, please try to be tactful and gracious. They have a very hard life. They are constantly being harassed in every way possible. Palestine is a pressure cooker right now."
October 23, 2005, 4 am: The muezzin just made his call. "Prayer is better than sleep." Am I a good Muslim or what? My tooth hurts. I had a nightmare about trying to deal with frozen dead bodies in Central Park. And I had an idea too.
Yesterday, the AIC speaker said, "They can’t afford to carry out all the demolitions." Money is the key. I'll bet you anything that the reason "they" pulled out of Gaza is that "they" couldn't afford to continue to occupy it. So. What to do to stop the war on Palestinians? Do stuff that will cost "them" money. How? If in no other way than to have people constantly swarming the checkpoints. Happily trying to go through them so that the Israeli Defense Force will have to spend more hours on the job. Hey, it's an idea. We gotta think of something. Bethlehem is just a prison -- even if they do make good pancakes there.
It's 5:25 am. Can I go to sleep now? No. My body's time clock is all wrong. It's 7:25 pm back in Berkeley. See? I gots one of those watches that tells time in two places.
8:30 am: "Palestine needs to organize a soccer team so that they will have jerseys so I can buy one for Amy," I announced to our guide.
"I don't think that's going to happen," said our bus driver. "Gaza has a team but they aren't all that good." Rats.
Then we went back to the AIC in Jerusalem and got a lecture on the city's history. "There has been a city on this site for the last 5,000 years because there was a prolific source of water here but things got more interesting in 1000 BCE with the arrival of King David and King Solomon." Solomon built the first temple. "Then there was the exile to Babylon and Cyrus the Persian allowed the Jews to come back and they built a second temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. At that point Jews were not allowed to live here and the city became a place that Roman veterans retired to." Sort of a first-century Florida. "Then the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the seventh century." 88 years of Christian rule in the eleventh century was the only non-Muslim break after that until after World War II except for the British mandate.
"The British were here for 30 years. They were very pro-Zionist at the beginning but then they changed their mind. Then World War II and the Holocaust put pressure on the British and the 'War of Independence,' – also known as ‘The Catastrophe’ or 'The Disaster' if you were a Christian or Muslim Palestinian -- finally caused the British to leave. Then in 1967, Israel annexed the West Bank." Or not. "The Palestinians were offered Israeli citizenship but no one took Israel up on it at that point." Then the lecturer said something that confused me -- something about that being an Arab-Israeli citizen wasn't a permanent status and that they were not allowed to vote or own land. Then what’s the use of being a citizen?
"Palestinians cannot build here legally. It is impossible. However, the wages and healthcare are much higher in Israel so it is an advantage to live here so many Palestinians stayed. They are now 34% of the population of Jerusalem."
I asked the lecturer what the percentage of Jews to Palestinians was in Israel. "Something like 55% Jews." But someone else told me there was a six million total population in Israel including one million Palestinians and others. Plus four million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. So I think that it's actually 50/50.
Here's a trivia question. "Where does the cement used to build The Wall come from?" Ireland. Who'd have guessed.
We also talked about Russian immigrants. "Over a million people have come from Russia." That's one-sixth of the population. Who could blame them? It's warmer here!
"Is it hard to lean Hebrew?" I asked. "Or do they still speak Russian?"
"There are Hebrew-intensive courses open to everyone who moves here." I should move here. With my memory, teaching me a foreign language would present them with a real challenge!
Then we left the AIC office, walked over to the wall of the Old City and saw lots of moats and walls left over from Crusader days. History! Wow! Then there we were at the Jaffa gate. Here I am at the historic Jaffa gate! Me and Jesus. As Amy says, however, "I got 2 pee!"
Sidebar: "There are homeless people asking for spare change on every corner of every big city in America," I asked our guide. "I don't see any homeless people in Jerusalem. Are there any?"
"Not really. Israel is a welfare state basically. Housing and healthcare are provided. But we do have some drunks -- mainly Russians who miss Russia and are not able to adjust." They actually missed cold weather? And why does the U.S. government pay for healthcare in Israel but not in California? That’s not fair!
The first thing I noticed as we entered the Old City through the Jaffa gate was that there were a lot of men in top hats and gaberdine walking around. "What are their sideburn curls called?"
"Do they have to cut them off when they serve in the army?" I asked a passing soldier.
"Yes," he said and laughed. I laughed too.
Our guide said, "The religious not only don't have to serve in the army, they are paid -- and paid well -- so they don't have to work at all and can spend their days studying Talmud. And they have lots of children and treat their women terribly." From the look of all the men on the streets, they weren't spending much time studying Talmud. What a racket. Plus they incite for a Jewish homeland but don't have to actually get out there and fight for it? That’s just like the American so-called Christians who have "better things to do" besides serve in Iraq. I hate hypocrites.
Now every time I see an Israeli religious in full drag, I just think, "That guy's on welfare." And Americans are paying for it too.
Our tour of the Old City is turning out to be a real dud. Our Old City guide talks too much, says nothing and has spent most of our time so far looking for a coffee shop. I mean, the Old City is rather small, has the most historical stuff in the world located within its walls and this guy is focusing on showing us where to buy the best lattes?
What’s with that?
Finally, after spending an hour at the coffee shop, we popped off to the Church of the Sepulcher. It was extremely medieval -- having been built by Crusaders after all. Lots of big stone blocks. Definitely a must-see. Our guide gave a long-winded speech while I pretended that I was back in the day. That was not hard to do. All I needed was a lute and a whipple -- although apparently the Crusaders left all their ladies home and merely consorted with the local girls.
Sorry, Amy. I managed to get a little bit lost again -- but suddenly ended up on my knees in front of the marble slab where Jesus had been laid, inside the Holy Sepulcher itself. Another deeply moving experience.
I finally found our group again and we moved on through the narrow streets of the medievel Old City. "And now we are in the Muslim quarter," said our guide, "but in the middle of this quarter is a yeshiva for orthodox Jews. Jews used to live here and were thrown out. Now it has been returned to the Jews."
Someone else on our tour told me that Arabs had lived here for generations and one day they came home to find they had been thrown out and their belongings were sitting on the cobbles." Wait. I'm confused. Did the Jews get thrown out? Did the Muslims get thrown out? Whichever the case, this area is guarded 24/7 by the IDF.
Then we rounded a corner and ran smack-dab into a terrace overlooking the Wailing Wall, with a huge plaza filled with devout Jews. What a sight! With the Dome of the Rock visible on the other side of the Wall. Perhaps I've been too hard on Jews and they really are devout and not all just charlestons looking for a cushy con.
Hasids in eastern Europe used to have such a wonderful tradition of Rebs and miracles and humor. How did they end up here? Being right-wing religious fanatics? How does anyone end up a religious fanatic? The two terms are in total conflict. Religion should equal peace and toleration.
There must be thousands of people down below us, waiting their turn at the Wall. I wanna wail too!
Boy I'm seeing a lot of baby mamas here. "Do they have that many baby mamas in the Muslim quarter or is it just the Jews?" I asked.
"It's true of the Muslims too," said our main guide. "They start even earlier. A 14-year-old bride is not that uncommon." I guess the Jewish baby mamas are more visible as they trot along three paces behind their husbands and with four or five children in tow. The daddies can't be all that old either. The happy couples will be grandparents by the time they are 35. I can't imagine being stuck at home with five kids at the age when one is just becoming old enough to drink legally and vote.
"The member of the Knesset we were going to visit has just called to cancel," said our main guide, "so instead we have a treat for you. Our Jerusalem guide will drive you around for an hour." The one who spent the morning looking for a coffee shop was going to show us around Jerusalem in the middle of rush hour traffic? Why am I not thrilled.
So. What did we see? Nothing. But then we got out and walked. Walking was good. "Here is the city center." It looked just like every other city center anywhere. Big wow. I wanna go back to the Old City. I can see nondescript buildings back in California.
Then the guide redeemed himself by taking us to an "ultra-orthodox" neighborhood and we met some orthodox Jews. Some were very nice. One told us to leave because we were disturbing them. I asked one about his fur hat.
"It's made of mink tails because in Europe, Jews couldn't afford mink -- only the tails. I only hope I can afford one for my children. These hats are quite pricey."
There were tents outside every house. They were light and airy and made of fabric draped over wooden frames. I asked why they were there. "Once a year at Succot we live out of doors in order to show our trust in God." How nice. But if they trusted in God so much, why do they attack the Occupied Territories so much?
I stopped and chatted with an orthodox family. They were really nice and the husband and wife seemed to really like each other. They appeared to be approximately 45 to 50 years old but both of them had been born in Israel. "Do you like living here?"
"Yes, we do."
"I thought orthodox wives were supposed to wear wigs," I said.
"I am wearing a wig," replied the wife. It was a fabulous wig and looked quite real.
We walked deep into a large apartment complex. It seemed like a quiet, peaceful wonderful place. People seemed to be happy here. "So why would these people want to put all this wonderfulness in danger by seizing Palestinian land? Why don't they jut stop the land grab and live in peace?" asked someone. Greed. I guess that's the same reason why George Bush is risking destroying America in order to make a few people filthy rich.
Then we got lost and ended up walking through a very large cemetery. "Shortcut through the graveyard!" Then we went to a bird sanctuary next to the cemetery.
"If you are a bird migrating to Africa over Israel and you see our little patch of green here, you may think that it's a great place to land. We plant trees and flowers that attract them. Our bird sanctuary is like a gas station for birds. All the birds of Europe and many of the birds of Russia fly over Israel in order to avoid flying over the Mediterranean on the west and the desert in the east." That's amazing.
Because the sanctuary has researched bird flight patterns so thoroughly, bird flu scientists are very much in contact with them.
"And here is the Supreme Court and the Knesset," said our guide. The Knesset is the Israeli equivalent of our Congress. "Both of these buildings were donated by the Rothchilds."
As we walked back to the bus through the warm evening air and watched families stroll through the rose garden, I finally fell in love with Jerusalem. What a shame it is being threatened from within. "Israel is supposed to be a safe haven from the Holocaust," said our guide. And it is. But its leaders appear to be doing everything they can to push the Palestinians into the desert -- or worse -- and are giving them no choice but to die fighting back.
8 pm: "How do you phone the United States," I asked another American in our group.
"Dial 0131 and then the area code." Now I need a phone card and a phone and it will be all good. Then I can wake young Amy up at 10 o'clock in the morning. That girl loves to sleep in.
Unfortunately, however, by the time I found out where to buy a phone card in Bethlehem, bought the phone card and spent 20 minutes trying to use it -- with the help of five grown men and a boy I finally succeeded -- it was almost noon in Berkeley. "Amy! It's your mommie!"
"Monique invited me and my boyfriend over to dinner tonight. He doesn't want to go but he's going."
"Anything else new? Any interesting mail?"
"No but I got your e-mails. They're funny."
"So e-mail me back. Duh."
"Okay." Then our four minutes were up and that was that. Amy sounded so Amy -- even from 6,000 miles away. Do I miss Amy? Yeah, I guess I do. But this trip is really going well so it's not as painful as I thought it would be to not have her along.
October 24, 2005: It's my son Matt's birthday! 26 years old. Thank goodness. "I'll never live past age 25," he once told me. Whew! He was wrong. He made it!
This morning we visited Bethlehem University, an amazing place. Seeing all those students was the most hopeful thing I have seen on this trip so far. The students were bright, the teachers were excellent and the campus was impressive. "The tuition here is $1,000 a year. The women live in dormitories but not the men. The men used to live in a dormitory but the IDF would raid it regularly and arrest 20 or 30 students at a time. It was like being a rat in a trap to live there." Also, students miss classes due to the checkpoints. " A trip from home that used to take 15 minutes now may take four to six hours."
From 1989 to 1991, students were not even allowed to enter the campus and the IDF shot and killed one of the students. "We held classes in homes, stores and mosques." This was during the First Intafada, which consisted of civil disobedience.
"During the current Intafada, we have faced hard times but haven't closed down for long periods like during the first one. But because there is almost 60% unemployment in the West Bank, it is hard for families to afford to send their children here." Because getting arrested is such a common and arbitrary occurance in Palestine, students who have been jailed are allowed to come back and make up their work without academic penalties.
The courses at the university are taught in English and so students must pass English tests to get in as well as getting high A-Level test scores. "All the closures and curfews for the last five years in the feeder schools have been hard on the students' ability to qualify for the university."
At the university library, up in the fourth-floor reading room, there was an exhibit of antique Palestinian handcrafts. There was also a big hole in the wall. "This damage was caused by an Israeli anti-tank missile on March 9, 2002." It went right through a foot-thick wall built of re-bar and concrete, causing a hole approximately two feet in circumference. The library staff had covered the hole with clear plexi-glass and made it a part of the library exhibit too.
Then we all stuffed onto a small bus and drove off to a UN refugee camp. I had imagined there would be tents and stuff but it looked like a regular street scene -- concrete houses, shops and children in school uniforms and backpacks walking home from school. "These refugees came here from Israel in 1948 after being driven out of their homes. At first they didn't build permanent structures because they thought they were going to be allowed to return but it's been 50 years and they are still here. Some have moved out of the camp but some still stay here."
As we walked by a storefront, we saw UN workers distributing flour and beans. then we walked around a corner and up a hill. "This house was bombed by the Israelis," one resident told us. "They come here every night. There, across the valley, you can see more new Israeli settlements being built. Fanatics live up there, only interested in colonizing here, not in leading normal lives."
There are 15,000 people living in this particular refugee camp. "There were tents here in 1948 then in the late 1970s they started moving into permanent housing." They lived in tents for 20 years? In 140-degree heat? That sucks eggs.
"The main problems here are overcrowding and lack of money. No jobs. Drugs are not a problem. Healthcare is provided by the UN. The average age here is 14 to 36. Some of the older people here still have the keys to their old homes in Jerusalem, still hold on to the hope that they will someday return to them."
Apparently, the Israelis have also taken most of the water. "Every day they pump millions of cubic meters from the aquifers on Palestinian lands and send it off to Israel. We only are allowed water once a week here but Israelis casually use Palestinian water for their gardens, dishwashers and swimming pools." Geez. I need to take shorter showers back at the hotel! "And the water that is supplied to the camp is contaminated by hepatitis and sewage."
"When the Israelis want to pass any laws against Palestinians, they try it out on the camp here first because they know the people here are intellectual and if they protest then the Israelis know that all of Palestine will protest too. This camp is a test case."
Several years ago, Pope John Paul II visited this camp and the leaders here told him that they wanted peace with Israel. The Israeli answer to that was to kill two people here within the next few days. "But the people here are very peaceful and friendly to anyone who arrives without a gun. They would never allow you to be harmed." And the resident was right. The school children smiled at us on their way home from school and the adults said hello and some stopped to practice their English on us.
"Where are you from?"
"Berkeley." Most of the people here are originally from West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. There are refugees here from 54 different villages as well.
I asked the resident who was showing us around if the refugees had been violently thrown out of their homes or just told to leave. "The evictions were very violent," replied the resident. "Before the British Mandate, everyone in Palestine got along. Every village had a church, a mosque and a synagogue -- all the inhabitants had descended from the ancient Canaanites. Then the Zionists came and started agitating and trying to create friction between the groups. The Zionists claim there were no people here before they came, but there was much conflict after the Zionists arrived so there must have been people here -- there can't be a conflict without people to be in conflict." Over a million people were forced to leave their land after a series of massacres.
"Thousands came to this camp and lived in tents at first. Everyone who was able to work went out and found jobs and built homes and gradually the tents were replaced. A sewage system was set up in 1998. The pavement you see here is recent too. Before the sewage system was put in, people suffered from cholera."
All this talk about housing reminded me that I needed to go on the internet and search for a hotel room in Paris for my return-flight stopover there.
"When we see all the new settlements and swimming pools and freeways being constructed for Israelis and nothing for the Palestinians, this creates a lot of resentment."
All this talk about tents is getting to me. The Israeli Jews are making such a big deal about celebrating Succot and living in tents once a year for a week and this is considered to be an act of holiness -- and here the poor Palestinians have to live in tents for decades. Perhaps the Israelis think that the Palestinian tents are holy too? The Palestinians must find this very insulting.
Next we went to visit a local community group in Bethlehem that worked to promote conflict resolution. Their rep was really glad to see us. "In our struggle to try to promote non-violence in our community, having people from the outside come to visit helps us to realize that we are not alone. It really helps. What we are doing here is to also promote non-violence on an individual level as well as nationally and internationally. The economic and political situation in Palestine is terrible. There is a lot of anger and frustration caused by the political situation here, but it is being re-directed inward toward family and local society." The rep then mentioned that he was a Palestinian Christian and that his family had been Christians here for the last 2,000 years.
"We inject people with hope. Hope has two faces -- risk and promise. There is a risk continuously on every level. It is a risk to give dignity to everyone in the conflict and to seek justice."
This group tries to contribute to the reduction of violence and to promote communication. Plus they also served us a knock-out lunch: All kinds of meat and vegetable piroshkis and baklava and fruit. Giant grapes!
"When I traveled to England," said the rep, "I went everywhere without an ID. Here, we measure our lives in terms of checkpoints. We can go nowhere without passports -- not even to the corner store. It is a theft of spontaneity."
The group works a lot with teens, whose anger is greatest, and also with women. "This is a very patriarchal, male-dominated society and the more the men are pressured, the more domestic violence there is." The group mediates problems as well -- issues that used to go to the courts.
"The people here are traumatized -- and not post-traumatic stress either. It is ongoing trauma. Here is an example. There was a boy near here who was frantically searching for marbles. Why? To put them in the toilet. Why? Because the boy next door to him had marbles and the IDF came and arrested his older brother and demolished the house because that boy threw them at a soldier and this boy didn't want to cause this to happen to the family he loved." Apparently trauma is big around here.
"And the only two psychologists in left in Palestine just moved abroad."
Last year, the group hosted over 1,000 children for Christmas. Why? "Because in Palestine, the Grinch always tries to steal Christmas."
The rep keeps his spirits up through faith and work based on hope. "The biggest the challenge is The Wall. 70% of the Palestinians' land has been confiscated. People here depended on Jerusalem for everything and now they can't go there. .05% are given permits to go there. Jobs are there. And many men are in prison now for trying to get to work in Jerusalem illegally."
Health problems: Stress-related diseases are sky-rocketing such as heart attacks and high blood pressure. Job creation is a major project. 76% of the people in Bethlehem live on less than $2 a day.
"But our biggest problem here is displaced anger. This is what happens when there is economic devastation -- fights start over things that wouldn't even matter under other circumstances."
The canton/Bantustan situation is breaking the Palestinians into smaller and small prisons. "And the anger is growing because of it." One Hamas politician stated that he was willing to let go of the Hamas position of destroying Israel if the Israelis would move out of Gaza and the West Bank. The result? The Israelis threw him in prison. This type of blatant injustice does not make Palestinians happy campers.
"Non-violence is the only future for the Middle East," the rep stated. "The Middle East is too small to be even considering the use of nuclear weapons. We must model to the world the use of non-violence. We must use anger but not hate. We must attack the sin but not the sinner."
When we got back on the bus, I asked the driver about the price of gas. "Around $5 a gallon."
Then I toured the Church of the Nativity with our group and we got the whole story of the Israeli siege on the church. "400 people including tourists, militants, locals and school children were trapped here," said our guide. "The IDF sharpshooters picked off anything they could shoot at. Everyone slept on the floor in the main church and shared the priests' food for as long as it lasted. The church itself was damaged. Palestinians hoped there would be world outrage because Israelis were shooting at the place where Jesus was born but there was no outcry." I had out-cried! Trust me on that one! Back when that happened, I was truly pissed off! Just ask my Congresswoman and my local newspaper editor!
Then I went back into the nativity grotto again and braced myself for the same sense of awe that I had experienced when I had come here on my own the other day. It came.
In order to spend more time in the grotto, I chased after our group as they were leaving to go to some souvenir shop. "Here. Take some money. Buy me some souvenirs. I'll see you back at the hotel." Having effectively bought off our local tour guide who wanted us to buy stuff from his cousin's shop, I snuck back into my favorite place in the world.
8:30 pm: A man from Palestine who I had corresponded with for the last six years was supposed to speak to our group tonight but he couldn't make it and I was sorely disappointed. But when I asked who the replacement speaker was, I was delighted. It was another of my e-mail correspondent friends. "Jane, it's good to finally meet you," he said. Boy, did I give him a big hug! He talked about his non-violent group, the Palestinian Center for Reproachment Between Peoples.
"We wanted to get Israelis and Palestinians together because we believe that ending the occupation would be better for both sides -- better than fighting and killing and war. The PRC has lasted 12 years because the Palestinians support our work." They recently invited 25 Israeli families to celebrate Sabbat at Beit Shahor, the Shepherd's Field, on the east side of The Wall.
"Soldiers came and told the families that this was a conspiracy to kidnap their wives and children. Even the military commander for Bethlehem came and ordered them onto a bus but their rabbi said that even though the government had ordered them onto the bus, they had to obey God and they were not allowed to travel back to Jerusalem on Sabbat." End of discussion.
The Oslo accords gave everyone hope that peace would arrive. Money poured in to help peace arrive but it was a smoke screen for more home demolitions, land grabs, etc. "The world forgot 25 years of non-violent resistance to the Occupation including not paying taxes and other non-violent resistance. We sent a loud message but Israel and the UN ignored it." Even back during the British mandate, Palestinians had been trying to establish a state of their own, but no one helped them.
"Palestinians lost even more land after Oslo because the Israelis took more land than they were allowed. This whole conflict has been about land, so when Oslo took even more land, it lost all hope of resolving the conflict." As the situation stands now, the Palestinians have lost a lot of land and now they have The Wall as well.
At this point someone in our group asked a question and another member of the group stated that the first person asked too many questions. What? Even members of our tour group can’t get along – and right in the middle of a lecture on conflict resolution too!
"Israel had placed settlers in Gaza. Ariel Sharon was instrumental in putting them there and then he told them to leave. But before he told them to leave, Sharon met with George Bush and got a guarantee on The Wall and that settlements in the West Bank would become a permanent part of Israel. Basically, Bush gave Sharon his blessing to do whatever Sharon wanted in the West Bank. And that was the last nail in the coffin of the peace process." So. They gave up measly little Gaza in return for the jewel of East Jerusalem and the West Bank? That’s the real estate bargain of the century!
Palestinians fully backed the Road Map -- that a viable Palestinian state would be established – but this action put an end to the idea of a viable state. "Instead of a viable state, what we got was Bantustans and Apartheid." The massive settlements and settler freeways split the area up too much to be viable.
"Now we face a media problem," the PRC speaker continued. "People only know what the media tells them and CNN and Fox News only transmit partial reality, partial information. There is a false image being promoted that this is not a war on Palestine but only a benevolent occupation being met with violent and unreasonable resistance. But what we Palestinians are seeking is what everyone else is seeking: Freedom."
"After the Second Intafada started, the International Solidarity Movement tried to help us but they failed in one way because they couldn't get enough Palestinian people to join their demonstrations and make them really effective." The ISM was a non-violent group who tried to prevent home demolitions. Rachel Corrie was a member of the ISM. "The Israelis wanted to scare us. We thought that they would never shoot at internationals but when the Israeli Defense Force started shooting at the ISM in March 2002, Palestinians backed off because they knew that if the IDF wouldn’t hesitate to shoot British and American citizens, they wouldn’t even think twice about shooting Palestinians."
One of the core problems is that Israeli soldiers are trained not to see Palestinians as individual human beings. "One thing we tried to do was to make both sides more human to each other but IDF commanders wouldn't let the troops talk to us." The soldiers were told that Palestinians wanted to destroy the Jewish state and that most of the Palestinian fighters were foreign jihadists anyway. "But this fight is not a religious conflict. The Israelis made it that way. Many Palestinians are actually Christians."
The PRC wanted a one-state solution where everyone was treated democratically. "But that probably won't happen because it would mean giving up the Zionist state."
The issue of the right of return is also an important issue. In 1948, approximately 450 Palestinian villages were destroyed. 700,000 Palestinians were expelled. The Palestinian exiles in Lebanon are miserable.
"Israelis are not allowed into the West Bank because they are told it is a closed military operation but still many Israelis came here to be a part of the ISM. People risked their lives. Two people died. Rachel Corrie lost her life."
My friend was very hopeful about the divestment movement. "I am hoping that churches will spearhead it. The Presbyterian church has already divested as a result of the Hague decision that The Wall is illegal."
October 25, 2005: Today we got a guided tour of Bethlehem. "Here is the Apartheid Wall. It cuts Bethlehem off from the rest of the world. It is like a prison," said today's guide.
"No wall will stop us," said the graffiti. There was a drawing of a skeleton warrior painted by a visiting delegation from Chiapas, Mexico. Same fight, different battlefield.
We drove further along The Wall. "Here is the Aida refugee camp," said the guide. It was named after the Aida nuns whose convent was severely shelled by the IDF.
"This part of Bethlehem next to The Wall used to be a rich and thriving business area with 80 businesses that catered to tourists. Now all but eight are closed. Over there is the abandoned Intercontinental Hotel. Bethlehem has moved from grotto to ghetto."
We drove past Rachel's Tomb, a favorite pilgrimage destination for Israelis but off limits to Muslims. "Let's get some spray paint and write 'Corrie' after the word 'Rachel'" I said.
One tour member immediately answered, "I'm up for it!" but we chickened out.
Then we drove through the Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint, another half-mile of no-man's-land and a tunnel. And then we found ourselves on an actual settler bypass road -- with barriers on each side to protect the settlers from rock-throwing children.
"Eeuuww. What’s that?" Road kill? It looked like a dead sheep.
"Because we are on a tourist bus, we are allowed to use this bypass but no Palestinian private cars are allowed."
Up on the hill above us was a massive settlement bloc. You really can have no conception of how big these things are until you see them yourself. "This is Betari Liet settlement," said our guide. "It has 25,000 residents and is built like a fortress." It looked like one too, built on high ground to dominate the landscape. "The settlement blocs take land from the Bethlehem villages that used to be an agricultural cornucopia of fruit and vegetables for Jerusalem. Now all the land around the settlement blocs is fallow. And all the feeder villages to Bethlehem are being eliminated one by one. The goal is to isolate Bethlehem, surround it by The Wall and turn it into an urban ghetto like Warsaw." This settlement was all new. "It is mainly occupied by Americans; extremely religious Jews." I'd put the word "religious" in quotes if I were him. True religious people are tolerant and at least try to get along with their fellow-man.
Next stop: The village of Wadi Fuqeen, to visit a kindergarten. "This farming village of 1,200 residents was destroyed in 1948," said our local guide, "but it is the only Palestinian village ever to have been rebuilt." A sign outside the kindergarten declared that it was funded by World Vision -- not Israel. Israel only pays for settlers, checkpoints and troops.
"Because of further Israeli attacks on the village, we once again evacuated to a refugee camp in 1956. When we came back again in 1972, we started to rebuild. Now we are a Palestinian island, surrounded by Israeli settlements -- yet we receive no services from Israel."
The guide, a local farmer, talked about the settlements. "People live there because the mortgages are cheap, the condos are tax-free and they are very close to Jerusalem, an easy commute. And they discharge their sewage into our village fields several times a year -- a big river of sewage, destroying our crops. Our village has shrunk to one-sixth of its former size. The Israelis are talking about building a tunnel to connect us to the next villages. They want us to live like moles."
In addition, the village has disease problems, especially skin diseases for the children, as a result of the lack of sewage facilities here. Does Israel pay for the sewage lines in its conquered lands? Hell no. "And our springs and wells are being contaminated."
I'm starting to wear down. Too much to absorb. "The settlers who come down to the village to bathe in the springs always bring weapons. Settlers always carry guns. We are not even allowed to carry stones. The settlers' children call us names. The settlers try to drive us off the road." Then we got to meet the children at the school. Then our guide said something really shocking. "We cannot get internet reception here." Shudder! That’s true deprivation! That woke me up.
The major difference between the settlers and the local Palestinians seems to me to be that the settlers have air conditioning and the locals do not. Can you imagine summer here without A/C? Not me. I'd waste away like a faded flower.
"The people who live on this land are the same people who lived here at the time of Abraham. They became Jews. Then they became Christians. Then they became Muslims. But they are the same Semite people." That's an interesting thought, one that Israelis from Brooklyn conveniently ignore.
"In the 19th century, the Turks declared that if a plot of land was abandoned for more than three years, it reverted back to the government. The Israelis are using this law to take Palestinian lands now. First they drive the locals off their land then they wait three years and legally claim the land for Israel." Okay. So when someone leaves their land from 70 AD to 1948, what does that mean? Laws are being juggled and fudged? You decide.
1 pm: "The road to Hebron is closed!" They just closed it five minutes ago. They just blocked off the city? That sucks eggs. "Four settlers were killed on this road last week and even though it turned out the killing was done by an irate settler man gunning down his girlfriend and three bystanders, they are still punishing the Palestinians. That sucks eggs too.
No, wait. Our bus is being allowed through. It's such an advantage to be a tourist! All the checkpoint guards give us big smiles. Everyone wants tourists to go back home thinking kind thoughts about Israel. I'll think kind thoughts about Israel when they move back behind the 1967 line.
One-fourth mile later we went through another checkpoint. "Things are so bad in Hebron," said our guide, "that the Christian Peacemakers Team have to escort the children to school to protect them from the settlers." Now the IDF is going through our luggage. "They said we could walk into Hebron but not take the bus -- or the bus driver." After thoroughly grilling the bus driver and our guide for an inordinate (and unnecessary) amount of time, the checkpoint guards finally let the bus through but we have to be out of Hebron by 4 pm or be forced to spend the night.
The bus driver then made a joke. At least I hoped it was a joke. "If you stay one night in Hebron, you have to stay there forever." Palestinians have a great sense of humor. They have to have one. Otherwise they would be doing a lot of crying. "We are always making up jokes. The guards asked me if there were any tourists on the bus and I told him no, that I was the only tourist."
The situation in Hebron seems to be very tense. "One time we were trying to get back to Hebron and a Christian Peacemakers Team member was waved on but he opted to stay with the Palestinians on the bus," said our driver. "We really appreciated that." Hebron is a big town and looks like Bethlehem -- once you get past the checkpoints, that is.
Oops. I take that back. Whole sections of Hebron are rubble, whole blocks at a time. But some of these places have been cleared off and grapes have been planted. That shows ingenuity.
The bus driver told us some Hebron jokes. "One person from Hebron went to the countryside, had his photo taken between two donkeys and sent it to his friend with the inscription 'I am the one in the middle,' written on the back. And do you know why Hebron people never shut the door when they go to the toilet? So no one can see them by looking through the keyhole." Hebron people are very industrious and hard-working, the driver added. "They make beautiful glass. And they have gone through much hardship."
We parked on one of Hebron's main streets, in front of a chicken shop, while we waited to be met by a member of the CPT. The man who ran the shop held up a bunch of headless chickens and them plucked them for our benefit. It was like watching that chef guy on the Muppet Show.
"Now he's draining the blood out," said one of our tour members, broadcasting a play-by-play description of what was happening to the chickens. "Now he's rinsing them. Here comes a customer." Looks like the price of a plucked chicken is 13 shekels.
The CPT person arrived to walk us into the Old City. "Hebron is the site where Abraham bought land to bury his wife Sarah. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in the 16th century, they moved here. It is the second-holiest site in the country, and after 1967 some of the more crazy Zionist zealots ended up here. In 1994, a Jewish extremist went into a mosque here and shot 25 Muslims." Apparently Zionist settlers have seized the Old City in the area of Sarah's tomb and are ready to fight to the death to keep Palestinians out.
Since the Zionist seizure of the tomb area, Hebron has been divided into two parts. "The part of the Old City where the Jews live is under tight control with 2,000 IDF soldiers guarding it." And apparently the city of Hebron is forced to pay for all this. "It is extremely expensive to Hebron to maintain that kind of control over this area."
This CPT's job was to keep Palestinian children safe on the way to and from school. "School children here walk through two checkpoints and a metal detector just to get to their school. Soldiers constantly come through this area to search and seize homes."
We hurried through the noisy streets of Hebron to get to the Old City before our curfew. That part of the city did look like it was built around Abraham’s time. Then we went through a checkpoint and metal detector set up in the middle of a cobbled street. On one side of the checkpoint, we were in a very ancient, crowded and noisy Palestinian marketplace but when we came out the other side, we suddenly found ourselves in a very quiet and empty street. At the end of the block was a group of very traditionally-dressed Jews. And they were hostile Jews too. Those guys looked really pissed off.
The settlers formed a cordon across the road -- young men, women and the ever-present children, toddlers and baby strollers-- and they had their AK-47s clearly visible too. And there was one older man who was pointing his AK-47 right at us.
Faking a bonanime attitude, I strolled over to the nearest settler to find out what was up. "We’re celebrating. It's a Jewish holiday," he said. "The end of Succot." Oh. That explains the AK-47s nicely.
"How far is it to Sarah's tomb?" I asked him, pretending to be just a nonchalant visiting tourist even though my knees were starting to shake.
Just then a whole troop of soldiers came up and I asked them where Sarah's tomb was.
"We don't mind you being here," said one soldier, "but it is making the settlers nervous. There could be a problem." No shite, Sherlock. Reluctantly, we turned back. Most of the settlers were young men and women, dressed in orthodox – but not Hasidic – garb. They at first seemed very belligerent but as I talked to them, I not only detected anger but grief. Strangers in a strange land.
Reluctantly, we turned back up the street -- only to be met by a SWAT team. So there we were with at least 10 machine guns pointed at us. I began to get more than a little bit worried. But to them I apparently looked like such a bewildered innocent grandma that they let us go back through the checkpoint -- as compared to the jail or the morgue.
Boy, those settlers were young. I bet they like it when the police come storming up -- just to have some excitement. In America, kids their age take up extreme sports when they get bored. Not Israeli kids. They pop out five babies and move to Hebron!
Then the CPT member took us one block over and we walked through another Palestinian market street and I belatedly realized that we could have walked that way in the first place and avoided getting the beJesus scared out of us by fundamentalist crazies and half the IDF in Israel. Then I got to talking to a Palestinian merchant. "Our shops were closed for five years because of the settlers," he told me, "when they came to take over Sarah’s tomb." He pointed upward. The settlers lived on the upper floors of his shop. That's weird. There was a grate over the street so the settlers couldn’t throw rocks -- or drop household refuse down either.
"Please tell America that we want freedom. We want our freedom. Tell them. Please." His shop had only been reopened for a month.
Then I lost my group. Amy would have been proud of me. There I was totally lost in the ancient city of Hebron, all crowded with Muslim shoppers all trying to get ready for the post-sunset Ramadan meal. I looked up a side street and past a fence and saw my former settler buddies all dancing the hora or something, so that gave me a clue as to approximately where I was. I started running to catch up. I finally found the group a few blocks up the market street. Whew. No spending the rest of my life in Hebron!
Then the muezzin started the call to prayer and it suddenly hit me that I had no idea where Mecca was at. I grabbed the nearest guy. "Where's Mecca?" I asked. Blank stare. I started asking people. Nobody would tell me where Mecca was at. "Speak English?" I asked again and again. I pointed to my watch and made prayer signs, more and more desperately. "Where's Mecca? Where's Mecca?" They were totally keeping this secret. Finally I asked some female college students and they told me. Whew.
After all that effort to find out which way Mecca was at and I had snuck off to some corner and said my prayers in the correct direction, my group had gone ahead without me again and I was lost. Again. I could hear Amy laughing at me from all the way across two continents and the Atlantic. Then I finally found our guide. Then I stopped to buy some more of those delicious Palestinian pancakes. Then I lost our guide again. Holy cow! I really was doomed to spend the rest of my life in Hebron.
I finally caught up with my group in front of the chicken shop and got safely onto the bus. We stopped just outside of town to buy Hebron glass and then raced toward the checkpoint so we all wouldn't get stuck in Hebron forever. It's 3:30 pm. Will we make it? It's anybody's guess.
3:55 pm: We made it! Now I know where America got the idea for a green zone in Baghdad. From the checkpoints in Hebron.
9:00 pm: After a fabulous dinner back in Bethlehem -- full-tilt Palestinian food, turkey, lots of wine and a giant cake -- we heard a speaker who was a local filmmaker. "We Palestinians are a gentle people who have lived here for centuries in harmony among the races and religions." She has started a forum called "Open Bethlehem". She talked passionately about keeping this city alive. "They are trying to stifle this society for good. This Wall has nothing to do with security and everything to do with killing the spirit of Bethlehem. Do everything you can to bring visitors here to help keep Bethlehem alive!" Her film is called "A year in the Life of Bethlehem."
The filmmaker said that we should spread the word. "When we get home, everyone here should write a letter to the editor of their local paper," I suggested, "saying that Bethlehem is now safe. Even if that means getting all the right-wing 'Christians' to come here, then it’s still a good idea – as long as they bring lots of money and stay at the Star Hotel."
When I said that, everyone at the dinner table went crazy. "Jane! Keep those idiots away from here," they shouted. Why? Maybe Bethlehem will change them like it changed us! And maybe they too can have a few moments of complete peace as they sit in the grotto -- like I did. Everyone should have an opportunity like that.
October 26, 2005: Happy/sad goodbyes to the fabulous staff of the Star Hotel. "I'll be back!" I cried, tears in my eyes. But I knew I'd never be back -- for no other reason than I can't afford to come back and still see all the rest of the world. But I would love to live in Bethlehem. It is a place with great heart.
At the Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint, there were about 25 Palestinians sitting under the olive trees. "They were caught trying to sneak into Jerusalem to find work. Palestinians used to work on settlement-bloc construction but now Israelis hire Thais and Chinese instead because they don't spend money in Palestine and help the Palestinian economy."
Two Israeli ladies from a Jerusalem-based checkpoint watch organization were gathering information from the men. "These men just want to work and make money for their families. They will sit out there all day."
Once past the main checkpoint, we went through six "flying checkpoints" in the approximately six miles between Bethlehem and Jerusalem and our driver took a couple of shortcuts to avoid some other ones. Then we were in West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is like nothing I've ever seen! Massive blocs of new housing. Massive. The population of Los Angeles could be housed in these whole mountainsides of housing blocs. And apparently a lot of the population of Los Angeles does live there. "Many of these places are owned by Americans who use them as second homes, flying over once or twice a year to spend time in Jerusalem."
I am serious. This is amazing. I've never seen so much new housing. Thousands and thousands and thousands of housing units on at least 50 hillsides. You have to see it to believe it. With all this housing, why do they even want -- let alone need -- more settlement blocs in the Occupied Territories? I am doing a major jaw-drop here.
Then, beyond West Jerusalem, the settlement blocs suddenly ended and out of nowhere there appeared Beduin tents. I sneezed. Again. There is a lot of dust in the air. And there's some sheep! And there's another checkpoint. And another section of The Wall. We must be back on the West Bank, heading toward Ramallah.
"Instead of allowing the highway to go straight from Jerusalem to Ramallah, they are building The Wall there," said our guide. We started to approach Qalandia, a really huge checkpoint separating Jerusalem from Ramallah. You cannot imagine the size of this checkpoint until you have seen it. What? Ten football fields square? Easily. It was really huge! With really huge congestion. Hundreds of cars, thousands of people. The drivers looked resigned to a long, long wait as our bus passed them by. More dust in the air. Earth movers everywhere. "All of this is new," said our guide. Heavy surveillance. Taxi passengers have to get out and walk through the checkpoint. This part of the checkpoint operation is also huge, covering two or three square miles. "This checkpoint is a guaranteed three-hour wait." What a waste of money! What a waste of money. I would hate to be a border guard. It is a hot, dusty, horrible job.
Suddenly we were on the Ramallah side of the checkpoint and there were hundreds of more taxis waiting to get into Israel. It sucks to be Palestinians!
I keep thinking that Palestine needs a soccer team to go to the Olympics. But they need to make checkpoint-crossing an Olympic sport too. Palestine would take the gold for sure!
The Qalandia checkpoint must cost a billion dollars to build and operate. Still trying to absorb the enormity of the Qalandia checkpoint, someone in our group commented that, "I lived on a Kibbutz here before the 1967 war and even back then I was shocked by how poorly the Palestinians were treated. But this is unbelievable."
Once in Ramallah, we went to a Quaker center first and heard a Quaker speaker. "There are many Christian Palestinians living here, from as far back as the times of Jesus even." I looked at her palm as she talked. She had the typical break in her lifeline that even the children of Palestine have -- the one that I call the "I’ve lived through Hell and survived" lifeline.
"Christian missionaries who try to convert Jews in Israel will be taken to court," she mentioned in passing. Apparently it is against the law.
"Education is very important to Palestinians because it cannot be taken away. There are many schools here. Many of them are run by Christians but three-fourths of the students are Muslims."
Our Quaker speaker lives in Ramallah but cannot leave due to checkpoints. "We feel the pain of isolation in our own city. The Wall is not for security. It is to fragment the Palestinian community and make it weaker. When I got sick, I had to wait two weeks before I could get to the hospital."
Many girls are dropping out of school because of poverty, harassment by the checkpoint guards and transportation problems. Many of them are getting married very young -- 14 years old. "There is also a brain drain as life here becomes more unbearable for the middle class. The average Palestinian lives on $2 a day. The educated and the able-bodied do whatever they can to get out of Palestine and older people are left behind with no means of support."
The Israeli government encourages Palestinian immigration to the U.S. and Canada -- but who can afford it?
Then we got a speech by a lawyer from the P.L.O., about negotiation attempts. "We are in a historic moment in this conflict. Palestinians are trying to take control of their future. From the elite to the street, people are getting behind self-help. On the negative side, there are the facts on the ground – that we live in an open-air prison. The Wall and the settlements are very destructive."
The attorney spoke about the Gaza post-disengagement. "They took 8,000 settlers out of Gaza and moved 30,000 settlers into the West Bank. Disengagement was less about Gaza and more about Jerusalem. Oslo was a historic opportunity. Palestinians were recognized and the Palestinian Authority was established in 18% of historic Palestine -- 85% of the population was in this 22% of the land. Israel's strategy has always been to take as much Palestinian land with as few Palestinian people as possible. We thought we were getting a foothold to a new state but Israel was taking the resources and arable land." And the Palestinians were being shoved into an urban ghetto instead.
"The Wall was a land-grab. Israel has no claim to any of the West Bank but they have taken land by force. 80% of The Wall runs inside the West Bank. The Wall takes 10% of the West Bank. Which 10%? Strategically-positioned settlements, the aquifer, quality land." The Wall eliminates any viable Palestinian state and also any hope of peace.
"On the Palestinian side of the Wall, Israel is building even more settlements, fragmenting the West Bank and keeping control of the Jordan Valley. Then there is a corridor road to Tel Aviv so Israelis can export cash crops to Europe."
The Wall is not about security. If it was, it would be built on a straight line instead of twisting and turning in order to snag up the good land. "There is a military order that says Palestinians can't go into the agriculturally viable lands that The Wall cutting them off from." What a scam.
"The space, the land and the resources are being stolen. And Israel’s elaborate building and land-use permit system is extremely discouraging to Palestinians. They are forced to leave their land and then the Israelis say that the land can be claimed for Israel because no one is living on it."
The whole goal of Israeli policies toward Palestinians is to fracture and fragment the Palestinian community. The Israelis have created rings of settlements designed to isolate and wither Palestinian communities, farms and towns. "As the cage is completed, the holy places will still exist but the flavor of the Holy Land will be gone. As part of the closure scheme, Israel offered to let the Palestinians build a system of tunnels -- isolating Palestinians even further -- but only if they paid for it themselves. It is just another part of the strategy of fracturing Palestinian society while the settlements get even further connected together."
In Gaza, the settlers took over 30% of the land and most of the water. And they still control it. Now Gaza is completely out of the picture and the next step is to remove East Jerusalem from the equation, then set up those hamster tunnels around the West Bank, effectively giving the good parts to the settlements and creating a captive market and source of cheap labor for Israel that is dependent on international charity so the Israelis don't even have to pay for the upkeep of their concentration camps.
The West Bank has no airport and no place for one.
"The World Court has ruled that The Wall is illegal. That ruling has changed nothing. The Wall is an instrument of demographic control. But these problems can be solved. The solution is simple. Let us have our state. All we need is the help of the international community." Yeah right. "We need to spend more effort on communication campaigns."
The next speaker we heard talked about the role of women, spirituality, human rights and human dignity. "How do we continue in the face of such overpowering oppression? Some people don't. They withdraw. They either leave the country or go inside themselves. Others accommodate or manipulate. But for me, the only option is non-violent resistance."
Non-violent resistance is becoming more dangerous to the Israelis with regard to the bad publicity for them. The resultant divestment is proving to be effective. "Resistance is a typical human reaction but it needs to be non-violent. Israel is the third-largest arms dealer in the world and has the fifth largest military. I rage against injustice but I refuse to destroy."
A lot of foreign groups are coming to see what is happening in Ramallah and it helps. It certainly has helped me. I never ever would have believed the Ramallah-Qalandia checkpoint if I hadn't seen it for myself. "The Israelis are afraid of peace activists. The power of the civil society is great. Many more Palestinians are starting to use non-violent techniques. They call it Samood -- the will to defy and survive."
Next we went to see the Palestinian Authority. They have rebuilt it after the siege. "We watched the siege on TV in California," I told one of the soldiers. He took us over for a photo op in front of Yasser Arafat's tomb. There was an old Palestinian woman there, weeping. I held her and she said stuff to me in Arabic. She obviously remembered Arafat from the old days and was still in grief for him.
Next we went to Palestine's foreign ministry and met with its rep. "We would like to explain ourselves to the rest of the world," she said. She was only able to meet with us for a little while because there were many things going on internationally at this point. Apparently Ramallah is the capital of Palestine. I didn't know that.
"We need your help to stop the unilateral measures of the Sharon government which have nothing to do with security. Settlements are being built illegally. We need to let the world know. If there is no link between Gaza and the world, soon Gaza will become a prison. Plus the Israelis are using excessive force." Even in the last week, Israel has taken in more prisoners, tightened checkpoints, seized more land and isolated East Jerusalem even more.
"If this unilateral use of force isn't stopped by the international community, all Palestine will start to look like Qalandia." Shudder. "What good is economic reform when we can't move people and goods inside our area? What does it mean to have elections when candidates can't move around to campaign or campaign to end the Occupation. Even the ministers cannot move freely without an Israeli permit and are held at the checkpoints. Where can we go for help when even the World Court is on our side but cannot implement its judgment in our favor. This is costing us our future and we need action from civil society. Please boycott all companies who are helping to construct the settlements and The Wall. Your voices count!"
The state of Israel and the Palestinian state are dependent upon each other. "The conflict is tearing the region apart. We will pay a great price but Israel will pay a great price too. Also most of Israel's trade is with Europe so boycotts will be more effective even though America donates money to Israel. And with regards to the charge of anti-Semitism, what Sharon is doing isn't connected with Jews." Yes. Religion has absolutely nothing to do with what Sharon is doing. One cannot stress the importance of that reality enough.
"Europe has more interest in peace in this region than the United States does. Europe needs to constitute a larger portion of decision-making in the world arena. We are calling for help from Europe and Europe is not moving. We cannot accept this. Europe needs to commit to the Palestine state but this is not enough. We are the fourth generation to suffer here. We are patient but we cannot be patient forever."
Outside the ministry, we got back on the bus. In the older part of the city of Ramallah, there are miles and miles of rubble. "Is this where the Israelis bombed Ramallah or is this housing demolition or what?" I asked the bus driver.
"No, no," he replied. "This is just urban renewal." Oh. That's hecka lot of urban renewal. "The Israelis took it down." I'm confused. Did the Israelis destroy the Old City of Ramallah or not? I've heard that these thousand-year-old cities are hard to fight in so the Israelis destroy them -- and Ramallah looks like that. But who knows? I'll have to Google it when I get home.
2:30 pm: We were joined by a rep from ICHAD, a housing group protesting the mass seizure and destruction of Arab-Israeli homes, and he gave us a tour of Jerusalem. "To our right is a building where Palestinians are living illegally and hoping to avoid being deported from the city. See that place to your left? 80 settlers came into that home and threw a two-year-old baby out a second-storey window." Settlers do this sort of thing. They bang on the doors and windows of Arab-Israelis, trying to get them to leave. It is part of a strategy to "Juda-ize" Jerusalem. It is also in their strategic plan to isolate Palestinians here into smaller pockets, cutting them off from each other.
Israeli settlements are springing up all over East Jerusalem, a traditionally Arab neighborhood. "There are tunnels being built to get settlers out to East Jerusalem ASAP. They are building terraces which they say are for roads but they have already sold 30 apartments in the proposed road construction area."
ICHAD gets court orders to stop one settlement then goes to court to stop other settlements, only to come back to find the first settlement already built. We passed a demolished Palestinian apartment house and an eleven-storey apartment house with a demolition order on it. "Recently the demolitions have been slow because the police have been in Gaza -- but they will speed up again."
We went over to a checkpoint and within minutes the Palestinians being held there were released, apparently because of our presence, but then a mini-SWAT team arrived. "There is incitement by the government to get the Israelis to fear the Palestinians. Even the Israeli school textbooks bad-mouth the Palestinians as wanting to kill them." As we turned the corner, there were barbed wire fences everywhere.
"This settlement is illegal under Oslo. So what. In five years, this will all be Israeli. They say this is in fulfillment of the prophecy -- but it is a recipe for disaster. However, some of the Israelis deliberately court Armageddon."
There is no garbage collection in East Jerusalem and the roads are in terrible condition. No post offices. Bad schools with 50 or 60 children per class. "This is very typical of East Jerusalem; lots of house demolition, rents are high and it looks like a slum. Rent is 90% of most Arab-Israelis' income so they can't pay their health insurance so they can't register their children at school."
We looked up at a massive hillside of hundreds of homes. "All the homes in this area have demolition orders because it is in the "Garden of David". However, Israelis will be allowed to live here. "The huge tragedy of Israel is that the Jews were so abused that they became the abusers, creating a vicious cycle."
As for the Al Aqsa mosque, "It may not always be there," said one Israeli leader. Then we drove past the Garden of Gesthemane, the Mount of Olives and the Church of All Nations. We drove and drove on our bus -- all over East Jerusalem and saw more and more planned economic repression. I finally lost count and drifted off to dreams of finding a bathroom. Suffice it to say -- again -- that the settlements are massive. "Ariel Sharon is aiming for territorial continuity" and it looks like he's getting it too.
Then we stopped for gas and I got to go to the bathroom, except it was sort of a braille experience, there being no light bulbs. "Christians were 40% of the Palestinian population in 1947," continued our guide after I got back on the bus, "but conditions worsened for them so they voted with their feet. Now only 18% of Palestinians are Christian. Israel is not a democracy. It is a racially-discriminating ethnocracy.
80% of the settlers are there for economic reasons. You can almost say they've been bribed. A five-year tax break. Even so, how can they afford these luxury condos? "Every Israeli is subsidized by American taxpayers at $1,000 each." Wow. Every person I see on the street costs me $1,000? I'd better be hecka nice to them -- to protect my investment!
And to stifle the international outcry at the way Palestinians are being economically abused, industrial parks are now springing up in Palestine -- not only to stem unrest and to give Zionists better PR but also to access cheap labor. Sounds like the Bush bureaucracy's goal for America.
We passed a desolate beduin camp out in the desert. "How do they live?" I asked.
"They have sheep and goats and they have learned to live in extreme conditions. We need people like that. We can learn from them in the days ahead." How to live off the land.
Israel has three cards to play in America: The U.S. Jewish vote, the Christian vote and the arms industry influence." We passed yet another checkpoint. We got out our passports yet again -- the eighth time today.
"Time to go to dinner," our guide said and it was a traditional beduin dinner of a large tray of pilaf and stewed lamb, served with chapati-like stuff, yogurt and fresh fruit. I ate a whole bunch of beduin lamb while sitting out in the night air and staring across the wadi at the new enormous Israeli prison for Palestinian "administrative" prisoners -- and drinking Seven-Up. Perfect.
Rats. I just lost my pen.
After dinner, a Palestinian man told us a story about what had happened to his particular house. "The Israeli authorities tell me that, yes, I do own my land but they won't give me a permit to build on it. They give me all kinds of excuses. That my land is on a slope? All of Jerusalem is on a slope! That the permit costs $5,000? That I don't have two signatures from the guy I bought it from who is now dead? This is why I just went ahead and built a home anyway."
I found my pen. It was behind my ear!
"Then, after four years of living here, soldiers come and surround my home, beat me, arrest me and start tearing down my home after tear-gassing my wife and children. My neighbors were also injured trying to stop them."
Bulldozers then tore the home down. "My six-year-old son disappeared and we found him seven hours later, in shock at the bottom of a cliff. They demolished 50 trees and the Red Cross came and gave us a tent."
The man rebuilt the home a second time with the help of Palestinian and Israeli volunteers. "A short time later, soldiers demolished the home again before the cement was even dry. My children awoke with guns in their faces."
When the BBC and CNN came to interview the man, The Israelis said they demolished the house because the man was missing some signatures on his permits. "I got 400 signatures on my permits. Show me the ones I missed." But the civil administration then stated that they had lost his file. So he rebuilt his home for the third time.
The man finished the third home and moved in. "The very next day, they brought 200 soldiers and demolished the home again. The kids went to school and came back to no home. It was a demolition of our family as well as our home. My wife was in shock. My son had to quit school. My daughter's grades went down. My youngest son wet the bed."
Neighbors helped the family rebuild for the fourth time and CNN came and Israelis demolished it again. "We decided to build the home again but this time as a peace center." Every year volunteers use it as a home base for the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) summer home-building camp.
"We want to live in peace with the Israelis but it must be peace with justice. We are losing but the Israelis are losing too. It is a lose-lose situation."
If the Israelis want a security wall, build it on the Green Line. The Palestinians would even help! "The current Wall is not for security. It is to steal land."
A beduin spoke. "The Israelis are always pushing us to move out of the open lands. They give us warnings, they demolish our tents. We have no place to graze our sheep and goats. They don't want us here but we can't live inside our villages with our animals. The demolitions haven't stopped. The Israelis don't want peace. They only want the peace image. But they only want to kill, murder and steal." Then the beduin's cell phone rang and he had to answer it. I had to laugh. Beduins with cell phones. How 21st century.
"Can I look at the lifeline on your palm" I asked him later. His line went further to the left than any lifeline I've ever seen. That's a sign that he's going to travel. Travel? Duh. He's a beduin!
October 27, 2005: Yikes! My hotel room was full of mosquitos last night. I spent the whole night fighting off mosquitos. Whole squadrons of them. And I have the bites to prove it too.
We're in Jerusalem now. CNN last night told us about another suicide bomber. They discussed terror and those rotten Palestinians. But no mention was made of the thousands of settler blocs on Palestinian land and the trapped-animal treatment of Palestinians that might have led to this reaction. I hope Matt and Amy aren't worried because I didn't e-mail them last night but I was just too tired.
When I went to the hotel lobby for breakfast, our guide said, "Everyone has gone off to the Temple Mount to see the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. You could catch up with them if you hurry." And of course I went the wrong way and got lost.
"Taxi!" I called. "Dome of the Rock! Please!" The taxi driver was off-duty, taking his daughter to school so we took her to her third-grade class on the Mount of Olives first.
"There is the Garden of Gesthemane and the beautiful Church of All Nations," said the driver as he zoomed past them. I caught up with our group at the entrance to the Temple Mount. There was a really long line of people waiting to get in, however, because it is only open to tourists for a few hours a day.
"The Wailing Wall line is short," said someone in our group. "Why don't you go there first." I did. And I put my Jewish friends' names on a piece of paper and stuck it in a crack in the wall with all the other names and prayers.
Back at the Temple Mount line, our group hadn't moved more than two feet and we waited a whole bunch of time more. It wasn't, however, as long as the lines for the Jungle Ride at Disneyland and at last we got in. I went straight to the Al-Aqsa mosque -- and immediately got thrown out by Muslims!
"Prove that you are a Muslim!" some guy screamed at me. Soon there was a whole circle of men screaming at me. "Recite the Qur'an! Where is your certificate! Recite the Surahs! You are no Muslim!" The Israelis police arrived and dragged me off. I couldn't believe it! I was about to go to jail for creating an international incident and Muslims were sending me there! I was outraged. And now the Israeli guards had taken my passport and were detaining me too.
Faced with a mob of angry Muslims and angry Jews, I did the only logical thing I could think of. I started to cry. Great salt tears, coming straight from my heart. "The Israelis wouldn't let me into Israel if they knew I was a Muslim and now the Muslims don't want me either!" I sobbed.
The Israeli police called in my name in to the central data file and were politely dragging me away to their detention room but finally even they got tired of all my tears and let me go.
I ran back to the hotel and immediately got lost again on the way. "Where is the St. George Hotel?" I asked about 50 people as I ran (respectfully) down the Via Dolorosa (but I did have the good sense to stop and take a photo). They told me all kinds of ways to go but despite that I made it back in time to go to the next stop on our tour, Sabeel.
"Sabeel is a Christian organization whose goal is to follow the teachings of Christ," said the speaker from Sabeel. "It is an ecumenical group. And we want to get Israel out of the Occupied Territories. It is the only way to achieve peace." Our speaker was a Palestinian Christian who lived here before the troubles of 1947. "We want to be the bridge between Israel/Palestine and the rest of the world. We give conferences and go to conferences to discuss a nonviolent approach such as selective divestment. The Presbyterian church took a stand and divested and they are now under all kinds of pressure to stop." Sabeel looks into which companies support and profit from military suppression.
Then the Sabeel representative talked about Christian Zionism. "They have a great influence on American foreign policy. And they are causing harm by perpetuating the occupation and suppression of Palestinians. You cannot be a Christian and a Zionist at the same time. You cannot call yourself a Christian and still accept military power. You cannot work toward the destruction of an entire people." And to do this horrible thing so that they could be part of "The Elect" going up to heaven? No way! Killing is not the Christian way. "I cannot accept that either as a Palestinian or as a Christian."
There are Christian embassies in Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is an occupied territory. They should not have embassies here. Churches should not even have embassies at all!" Then the Sabeel people served us really really strong cardamum-spiced coffee and chocolate chip cookies. I'm gonna be awake for days!
"It is not the buildings that make one liberated or holy. It is submitting to the teachings of Jesus. I would rather have the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher destroyed completely -- and the Temple too -- if it would mean that there would be peace on earth."
Christian Zionists want the Temple rebuilt so that Armageddon will arrive. This is a bad idea.
"But whenever the End Times come, I still want to live this life as best I can." Me too! God cannot be domesticated. God is not a pet.
"If people have lost their conscience, there is nothing left." And Israel is fanning the fires of antagonism between religions.
My analogy is this one: It's like in Maya Angelou's autobiography when she was being raped as a little girl and she prayed that the Green Lantern would come and save her -- and he didn't. Palestine is like that little girl. It is being raped and no one is coming to help. The Palestinians must help themselves. Ms. Angelou recovered from the trauma of rape by writing. And writing. And writing.
11:30 am: We got stuck in traffic and almost missed a talk by Rabbi Jeremy Milgram. "I've lived in Israel since 1968. My father was a biblical scholar, an expert on Leviticus. We lived in Virginia. I won a prize of a trip to Israel." Then he moved here and stayed.
"Zionism is Jewish nationalism -- that is our problem today. We are infected with nationalism and it is a hard disease to get over. Nationalism is the rule here and we are making the same mistakes that European nationalists made in the last 400 years; to their detriment."
Rabbi Milgram told us that our job is to go back home and communicate what we have seen here. "I have a problem with anyone saying that they have a right to a state. It is still possible to have a Jewish democratic state but Israel right now is neither Jewish nor democratic."
Then the rabbi said that the real war is taking place in the maternity wards. "If the Jews are a minority, then Israel cannot be a Jewish democracy. It is an ethnocracy. There is a desperate attempt to hold on to the Jewish majority -- that was one of the reasons they got rid of Gaza. But all this requires that Zionists cannot allow Palestinian refugees to return. There is a small trickle of Jews moving to Israel now but if the Palestinians came back, there would be millions of them." Hummm....
"The State dreads this thought. The right of return for Palestinians is important. What Israel should be is a true democracy. But now they are just spreading the war on terror the same way that George Bush does."
Another method that Israel uses to avoid a democracy is to create Bantustans. And some Israeli leaders are not bothered by using genocide to keep the Palestinians down. "Most Israelis do not want one state. And the Palestinians are still better off than the Egyptians and Iraqis. And we must hope that nonviolent resistance works because violent resistance is a big possibility -- if the Palestinians are pushed far enough, violent resistance could happen." Shudder. The Israelis are playing with fire.
The beduins are also being suppressed but they are a forgotten minority -- like the gypsies in Nazi Germany. Then we watched a film produced by ICAHD. "11,000 Palestinian houses have been demolished since 1967. We are trying to stop more demolitions. Palestinians can own land but cannot get a permit to build on it." They use civil codes, courts, planning and zoning laws to accomplish the political goal of isolating Palestinians into tiny islands.
"The family loses its house, is fined $10,000 to $20,000 and then they are charged for the demolition. These families make perhaps $500 per month." The film showed an example of one home being demolished. Masses of soldiers appeared at the home. ICAHD had volunteers chained inside the house. It didn't do any good. The bulldozers arrived and demolished the house. "We couldn't prevent the demolition of this one house but maybe we can save four or five more."
The Israeli soldiers supervising the home demolitions said that they were acting according to laws. "There were laws in Nazi Germany too." Several people were arrested and then the film showed the actual demolition of the home. "If the international community can't stop the destruction of a family's home, what good is international law?"
"After they demolished our house," said the homeowner, "we had to live in a tent. And it was so hard to explain to the children that they had done nothing wrong."
Since 2004, 40,000 houses have been ticketed for demolition.
Then we heard a speaker from Women in Black. "Our demonstrations started during the first Intefada in 1987. Every Friday, we went out and stood with signs that said, 'End the Occupation'. We stood in the middle of traffic circles all over Jerusalem. They called us Arab lovers and prostitutes for Arafat. There are less of us now but we still do it every Friday." End the Occupation. A nice simple message.
Bat Shalom – Women for Peace – was founded when a law was passed making it illegal for Israelis to talk to Palestinians unless you were instructing them how to clean your house. "The Israeli women started doing demonstrations. We kept the men and boys away to lower the testosterone level. We are not a human rights organization. Our goal is to end the Occupation." Then the women served us coffee but it was only powdered instant coffee. I'll never forget that coffee at the Palestinian Christian place. That was good coffee. I could use some right now.
Then I got to thinking about going back to Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa mosque. How in the world was I going to get proof that I am a Muslim on such short notice? Show them the articles on Hajj and Ramadan that I wrote? Maybe. And it would probably help if I wore a skirt....
9:30 pm: Dressed in a new green head scarf and my only skirt, I was ready for the Temple Mount this time for sure! I had stopped by an internet café and printed out two http://.aljazeerah.info articles I had written, got a letter from the hotel manager that I was indeed a Muslim and started off for the mosque. And I had only gotten lost twice on the way to the internet café. Several Arab-Israeli school girls, dying to practice their English, helped me get back on track.
After returning to the hotel from the internet café, a man in our group walked with me as far as the Damascus Gate of the Old City. Dressed like a Muslim woman, nobody bothered me but two men crowded into the man I was with, trying to sell him some postcards and the next thing we knew, the man's wallet was gone . "Stop that thief!" I cried -- and all the Muslim men on the street ran after the thief because they thought a Muslim lady was being robbed.
I hiked up my skirts and ran after the thief too.
The man from our group caught up with the thief and grabbed him by the shirt but the thief just tore his shirt off, climbed a fence and got away.
"How much did you lose?"
"200 shekels and maybe $20. Fortunately my credit cards weren't in my wallet. But my car keys were."
"Will your travel insurance cover it?"
"Yes but it would be more hassle than it's worth to get it back." The man went off to report the theft to the police and I went off to see Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. All went well at first. A family invited me to join them for Iftar, the daily Ramadan end-of-the-fast dinner, but I told them that I wanted to go see the holy sites and needed to hurry along. They smiled and wished me well. How nice they were.
At the Dome of the Rock, I was flabbergasted to see only women praying inside. Only women! Women meditating, women holding religious conversations, women reading the Qur'an. It was very inspiring. I felt so moved and reverent. I looked at the Rock itself, situated in the middle of the mosque and I could see a small stairway actually leading under the Rock where there was sort of a grotto. I went down into the grotto and joined other women there in prayer, as they asked God for help with family troubles and for world peace.
I felt such solidarity with all the women in this beautiful and holy place. I lingered in the grotto for a long time, praying and soaking up the intentionality of the devout women surrounding me, women who were both smart and strong.
The Al-Aqsa mosque was a different story altogether. It was completely filled with men. I stopped some schoolgirls in front of the mosque and asked, "Is it okay if I go inside?"
"Only for a few minutes, then it would be okay. But not for a long time." I took them at their word and went in for a few minutes to pray.
Suddenly another man was screaming at me, "She is not a Muslim! She is not a Muslim!"
Geez Louise. Is this some sort of ritual that I evoke in Muslim men? "Please! I am a Muslim! Please stop! You are endangering me!" Men turned hostile eyes toward me but I stood my ground. "I am a Muslim!"
"Then recite the Qur'an."
"Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" I said very loudly.
"You are not a Muslim!" he screamed. "You can't do wudo!"
"Of course I can. Show me some water and I’ll prove it. Let's go." But he had other ideas.
"You don't have the permission of the Imam. You need to have the permission of the Imam to be here!"
"Fine. Where is the Imam? Show me. Let's go."
"He’s not here until Saturday and you are not a Muslim." He grabbed my letter of introduction in Arabic that a clerk from the hotel had written for me and tore it up! "You’re not a Muslim!" And here came the Israeli police again. "You are not a Muslim!" the man kept screaming.
Finally I pointed dramatically to Heaven with one finger and stated, "That is not for you to decide! That is up to Mohammed!" Perhaps I should have said "God" instead but I was feeling too terrified, too humiliated and too unprotected against this man's cruel verbal assaults to be mentally sorting through religious subtleties at that point. All the way back to the hotel I cried and felt all sullied, like it had somehow been all my fault.
When I finally got back to the hotel, I was so shaken that I asked if I could have dinner in my room. "Of course, Madam," said the wonderful maitre d’. Boy did I need an evening away from people. But 20 games of solitaire later, I was finally calmed down enough to have an epiphany. "That guy at the mosque was just like the settlers in Hebron. They don’t care who they hurt with their ‘religious’ zeal as long as they can feel totally self-righteous. The fundamentalist Muslims and the fundamentalist settlers deserve each other."
Also, the experience at Al Aqsa mosque has strengthen my resolve to be a Muslim. I was freaking indignant! I am a Muslim! Get over it! As I told our tour guide the next day, "I was a little wishy-washy about all this Muslim stuff up to now but after getting thrown out of the Al Aqsa mosque, I’ve had my baptism by fire. I’m for sure a Muslim now! And I gots the street-cred to prove it!" Not just anyone is Muslim enough to get thrown out of the Al Aqsa mosque!
Or perhaps that man at the mosque was just trying to create a diversion so he could steal my purse. I shoulda just screamed, "Help! Help! This man is harassing a sister!"
October 28, 2005: This morning, we drove off to Tel Aviv. "Today is the last Friday of Ramadan," said our driver. "There will be almost a million people at Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. It will be almost as crowded as Mecca during the Hajj." Amazing. And I will be in Tel Aviv. But that’s okay with me. Last night’s experience at Al Aqsa mosque was more than enough.
Tel Aviv has a lot of shops, a Russian district and no sign of Arabs at all. Maybe I can find a soccer jersey for Amy! We visited a peace center called "New Profile" and heard two young Refuseniks speak on their experiences.
"It was in 2001 that the Refuseniks became an obvious problem for the Israeli army as more and more young people refused to serve in the Occupied Territories. Army members started to become pacifists and the army hated that. As a result, they became more willing to allow pacifists to stay out of the army altogether than have them inside the army and speaking up."
At that point also, letters started coming in from regular "warriors" saying that they too were opposed to the Occupation. "The army started to list a psychiatric category for opting out of service so that the list of pacifists wouldn’t grow too long. This was basically just media hype to make it look like there weren’t that many pacifists."
The situation is up in the air right now as to whether a refuser will go to jail or not. The situation is also easier for women to get out of serving. "The concept of a letter declining to serve in the Occupied Territories has a long tradition. People sent them to Golda Meir. But in 2001, the number of letters increased and also a large group of high school seniors sent letters en mass." They said that they would not go beyond the Green Line. The first senior letter had 62 signatures. The next one had 115. Then 300 people were on the list." This group is very age-based. And most refusers are from big cities, mostly Tel Aviv."
According to the Refusenik we met with today, "The attitude of the average Israeli is, ‘The rest of the world hates us. The Jews are haunted. We must be loyal and patriotic at all costs.’ All of our education is based on scaring us into joining the army – that if we don’t support our government, we will be destroyed. The average soldier’s pay is around $80 per month plus room and board. Yes, the army is part of the cheap labor pool being created by the Bantustans."
Service in the army is compulsory. "There are now 50% more soldiers that commit suicide. The service is very traumatic." It is a one-year service commitment plus serving a long time in the reserves. "Everyone is supposed to go to the army, but a people’s army is an illusion. Only 50% complete their service. But this is okay because the army is meeting its quota right now."
Also many commercials feature soldiers as heroes. "From the moment you are born, you see the army being glorified – first on TV and then in school textbooks. We do a lot of work with children, trying to combat this constant stream of pro-army information."
Also, your parents can get kicked out of their homes if you refuse to do service. And you are shunned and become an outcast as well. "The center tries to lend moral support to Refuseniks so that we don’t feel so alone."
The Israeli army doesn’t just do "army" work. Their slogan is "The people building an army who are building the people." They are influential in politics and education. They even teach in the schools. Ben Gurion said, "The army is going to have an important role in shaping the society." Is Israel a military dictatorship? No. But the society is very militaristic. Even the Palestinian Authority is based on the military model.
"The army is also a place to go if you don’t have other options. For instance, the army will pay for your schooling and give you a place to live. But people living in Tel Aviv do have other options and so a higher percentage of young people here choose not to serve because they have other choices."
While listening to the Refusenik’s comments, I’m sitting in front of one of the peace center’s internet terminals and it is driving me nuts because I don’t have the password so I just have fun clicking the "Refresh" button occasionally. OMG! They have Free Cell solitaire! I’m an addict! I’m in!
"We get approximately 20 e-mails per week from people asking for help. We help hundreds trying to get out." I won my first game! "When Israel withdrew from Lebanon a few years ago, one of the reasons was because of the increased number of Refuseniks." Score! "They didn’t believe that serving there and in the Occupation was a part of defending Israel." Then the Refusenik talked a bit about the "Courage to Refuse" movement.
Apparently, the easiest way to count refusers is to see how many people are in jail. "And why should our boys be killed to save the settlers who don’t even care about us." At that point I sneezed. And again. And again. Maybe I’m developing an allergy to Free Cell?
Then we drove around Tel Aviv. "This city is far more European than Jerusalem," said an Israeli woman who had come on the bus with us. "There aren’t many Arab Israelis. It only has one mosque." And I saw zero Hasidic outfits too. But I saw a lot of flowers and fountains so they must have a lot more water than Jerusalem – and defiantly more than poor sweet dried-out Bethlehem. And there are no checkpoints here that I can see.
We just heard that seven more Palestinians died in Gaza this morning as retaliation for the suicide bombing – as well as an increase in the usual sonic booms and sound bombs there that make ear-splitting noise 24 hours a day. "The sound bombs don’t hurt you but they will absolutely terrify you night and day. Plus there is the hypocrisy factor. All over Israel there are monuments to Zionist terrorism commemorating blown-up banks and the King David Hotel massacre but now they are punishing complete innocents for the latest suicide bomber," said the Israeli woman.
The woman also talked about a recent tour of Poland she took with a government-sponsored group. "I was glad I went but the whole point of the trip was to remind us how the Jews had been persecuted there. I spent the whole time arguing with our guide that, yes, the Jews had been hunted but that gays and gypsies had died too. The Holocaust really determines our life here. And now I want to learn Arabic so I can learn about the Palestinian Holocaust too."
We rounded a curve and there, through the smog, we could see and smell the Mediterranean Sea. Good grief! My pen just ran out of ink. "Does anyone have an extra pen?" I desperately shouted to everyone on the bus. Someone loaned me another pen but it was touch-and-go there for a moment. I need my pen! I am an artiste!
"A lot of young people move to Tel Aviv to get away from the craziness of Jerusalem and the West Ban," continued the Israeli woman. I could see that. There’s a constant undercurrent of hate and resentment and fear flowing over Jerusalem and the settlers’ operations.
1:30 pm: We ended up in a kibbutz. "Jews historically were 10% of the population and owned 1% of the land here. Today they are 80% of the population and own 96.5% of the land," said a member of the kibbutz, which looked to me like a cross between a bunch of ranch-style houses and an elementary school. "More that 50% of the land in the West Bank is already in settlers’ hands even though they are only 2.5% of the population." Wow. And we got juice and cookies too. And pistachios!
"In the seven years of the Oslo process," said the kibbutz guy, "Israel went from 110,000 settlers to 220,000 settlers. There was a lot of land confiscation at this time too. The beduins were also thrown off their land. Which brings us to the question of understanding the definition of war itself as it applies to this area. The Israelis see ‘war’ as shooting and killing. But the Palestinians see home demolition and land confiscation as acts of war – all of the Israeli actions in the service of pushing Palestinians off of their land." Families are losing their ability to live their lives. The Palestinians see this as an act of hostility if not out-and-out war.
Housing demolition is very visually dramatic. It’s like eminent domain of steroids. "It’s a very traumatic experience – sitting there waiting for the bulldozers to come and destroy your home. The husband is afraid to go to work. The children are afraid that they will come home from school and find their home gone. And this agony of waiting may go on for years after a family has been served a demolition order before the demolition actually happens. The Palestinians’ whole life is at risk 24/7." Doesn’t sound like much fun.
"The Israelis love to use suicide bombings as an excuse to retaliate and they said that they were building a wall to keep suicide bombers out. However, they took The Wall deep into the Palestinian Territories, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of farmers who were innocent of any terrorist act." The agricultural base of Palestine is being systematically destroyed.
The Hague Convention then ruled that The Wall was illegal. But the Israeli courts upheld the decision to keep it.
"I tell you this to show you the urgency of the situation. Israel has demolished more than 5,000 homes during the Second Intafada so far. But you must understand that nothing can be done without the help of the United States and members of the EU. After independence, Israel had a special relationship with France because France was having colonial problems. Israel agreed to keep Egypt busy so that Egypt wouldn’t have time to interfere with France in Algiers." Interesting.
"After the battle for Algiers was over and the French bailed out of supporting Israel, Israel then turned to the U.S. for support – on the pretext of being a buffer between the USSR and Egypt. Israel was offering to pull the Soviet army’s attention away from the oil regions. And USSR-influenced Syria was about to invade Jordan, so Israel jumped in on the American side." Israel also became a weapons salesman for the U.S. at that time.
The Jewish lobby in the U.S. grew stronger. They had proved that they would never stand against American interests – even when it meant losing Gaza and the Sinai.
"The Geneva Accord showed that peace was possible, so Ariel Sharon came out in favor of Bush’s Roadmap. Israel now totally depends on the U.S. More aid goes to Israel than any other country in the world." Heck, more aid goes to Israel than to all the other countries in the world combined. "The U.S. give them the best weapons – but, more important, Israel will do whatever the U.S. says." So apparently the U.S. – as represented by Cheney, Bush, et al. -- has no interest in stopping the theft of Palestine. Oops. Too bad for the Palestinians. They’re screwed.
"Sanctions would be very effective against Israel. But until an American boycott pressures Israel to stop its annexation of Palestinian lands, the land grab will continue. However, as long as Israel serves U.S. interests, America will close its eyes to the annexation of Palestine." Ariel Sharon also supported Bush’s war on Iraq. "Israel is totally dependent on the Untied States. If America collapses economically, Israel will not be able to survive."
And Israel is playing a dangerous game by not recognizing its own borders. They can shrink as well as expand. Plus the threat of the settlers is a big threat of civil war. The settlements have become Israel’s "Golem," taking over its soul. "The government, the army, the police, the legal system and the judges have sold out to the settlers. If they do not support the settlers, they lose their chance of promotion. Some of the settlers have even committed cold-blooded murder – yet they are not punished. They hardly even get a slap on the wrist."
There are only two ways to get out of this "Golem" situation. "The first way is through outside pressure. The U.S. government won’t pressure Israel to change, so it is up to the American grassroots. The second way is a non-violent struggle both inside and outside of Israel. In the field of non-violence, Palestinians have the moral high ground."
How can the Palestinians do it? "Like King and Gandhi. They can use preventative non-violence. Conscientious objecting is preventative non-violence. So is boycotting settlers’ goods. And getting neutral third parties involved – ones who are not the enemy of either side. Non-violent groups are taking this third role. The Christian Peacemaker Team does this. It’s important. We are hoping that, on each side, more and more people will choose non-violence and decrease the hatred and violence." Suppose five million Palestinians laid down on a settler road? The state of Israel would be in deep dog dookie.
Then, as we were driving back from Tel Aviv, our guide got on our bus’s microphone and blandly announced that we were about to meet with Mordecai Vanunu. Holy cow! He is the nuclear whistle-blower that let the world know that Israel had The Bomb. As a result of this action, Vanunu spent 18 years in prison. Seven of those years were spent in solitary confinement. I’m amazed that our guide even knew him. This is big. I plan to hang on this man’s every word! How did he survive solitary confinement? Was he allowed to play solitaire?
We were also supposed to meet with a famous correspondent from the Guardian newspaper but that was cancelled because he had to cover all the killings in Gaza.
I’m gonna try to copy everything Vanunu says word for word – if I can write that fast! "I’m happy to meet you. You are taking part in my exile from freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is one of our most important possessions. That’s why I spent 18 years in jail. And now I’m not allowed to speak to foreigners but here I am anyway." He was a distinguished-looking man. Interesting face.
"I’m here to tell you my story. In 1986, people in England made a big campaign to try to get me freed. I worked in factories here in Israel from 1976 to 1985, to produce nuclear materials that I knew by the volume would be used for atomic weapons. A reactor was working in the Negrev since 1956 from an agreement with France that was made at a time when everyone was brainwashed to support the Jewish state. While I worked there, they produced enough plutonium for 200 bombs. I was worried that during the Cold War of this time they could start a nuclear war. And I wanted to contribute to peace by helping to end the Palestinian Occupation." I’m not writing fast enough here!
"They wanted to dismiss me because of my political views and so I smuggled out photos. I decided that Israel was not the place I wanted to live in and the media here was run by patriotic Zionists and no one would publish my book." Vanunu then moved to Australia.
A journalist met him in Australia and asked Vanunu to come to Toronto to get his book published but the publication was delayed. "I decided to leave the country and flew to Rome where I was attacked and drugged by the Mossad. They kidnaped me by force and dragged me back to Israel. They tried to destroy the story and said it was not a kidnaping. I wrote in my right palm that it was a kidnaping and then held up my hand for people to see." After Vanunu was taken to Israel against his will, his brother tried to go to London to get help but wasn’t allowed back into Israel after that.
"I had a trial and they gave me 18 years." They lied at the trial and also called him a traitor for becoming a Christian as well. "There is no justice in Israel." The judge didn’t have the willpower to stand against the government. "In fact the judge was part of the government."
Vanunu went to jail. "They kept me separate in prison with the light on for two years. They disturbed my sleep. They censored my letters and held them for three or four months. They tried to break me and to take me back to Judaism. This made me stronger by convincing me that this was not the way of democracy. But I survived it day by day, year by year until the end."
Because he declared himself a Christian, the jailers treated him like the worst kind of criminal – or like a Palestinian. "I said I didn’t want to join the Jewish prisoners and they gave me six years of solitary confinement."
Vanunu now has to tell the police every day whenever he leaves home. He now lives at the St. George church’s guesthouse and has very limited freedom to move about. At this point in Vanunu’s talk, his cell phone rang and I got to catch up on my writing. "That was someone calling me from Norway who has supported my case for 18 years and is writing a book about me."
Then Vanunu got out of jail and came to live at St. George’s where he was picketed by Jews who objected to his conversion. Another brother came to visit him and was jailed and deported. Last November Vanunu gave an interview with the BBC and, as a result, the police arrived and took away his computer. "I my case is to be reviewed again next year and I want to have freedom of speech. I want to leave Israel and go somewhere I can be free."
Does anyone have questions? Oh yeah. "How did you survive those seven years in solitary?"
"It was 11 years. They took my freedom away in the body but they couldn’t take the freedom away in my mind. I read aloud so I could hear a human voice. I listened to opera." He said more but I still couldn’t write fast enough.
"The only ones I could see were the guards. They allowed me to read books. I read history, philosophy and health. If you are weak you will be more dependent. I thought after five years I was starting to die so I watched what I ate – they did this to Arafat. He should have lived another 15 years. They were hoping I would die or go mad or have a conversion before I got out. But I could read the newspapers and follow my case. That helped." Vanunu also kept up with the nuclear program in South Africa.
"My family was surprised to find me in this situation. They are orthodox Jews from Marakesh. When I was 18, I became secular but when I became a Christian my family thought jail was my punishment for this. I have 11 brothers and sisters and many of them stopped coming to see me." The reason the Palestinians are suffering now at the hands of the Israelis is because they are not Jewish. This is a "religious" state.
"As for my knowledge on how to make nuclear weapons, I know nothing more than I learned in 1985 and what I read. And if you are looking for nuclear weapons in Iran, you won’t find them. You would be better off looking for them here." Okay.
"I was not a spy. They treat me as a spy. They had no right to put me in isolation." Amnesty International was helping him while he was in jail. "I am on state arrest, not house arrest. I am staying in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians here are friendly to me and are protecting me." The government knows his every move. They monitor his cell phone and his e-mail. "They want to keep me paranoid but that is no way to live." Vanunu ignores them.
His court case is coming up in January. "I have no expectation of getting justice for my case. Publicity is helping me. That is one reason I’m talking to people, to keep my face before the public. But it is not easy."
The world talks about democracy vs. terrorism but they need to have a real democracy. The different types of Jews would fight each other except for their fear of terrorism and so it unites them against terrorists. They silence dissidents by saying there are enemies to fight.
"I tried to go to Bethlehem last Christmas and they arrested me. I will try again this year. The charge was that I tried to run away from the state by going to Bethlehem – like it was actually another state." Having just come from there and spent hours at a checkpoint, I know for certain that the West Bank is totally controlled by Israel.
"No one, either here or in the United States, speaks about Israel having atomic weapons. I brought that out into the open. They are upset that I survived 18 years. They may try to jail me again, saying that I still have secrets? From 20 years ago. I want to inspire outrage in others and my dream is to live in freedom."
11 pm: This evening we went to the legendary American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. "The bar there is wonderful," one of the members in our group kept telling us. It was not. But the ladies room was great! We took photos of ourselves standing by the elaborately-decorated sinks. Then two Red Cross workers came in and we chatted with them. We had a wonderful time in the loo.
October 29, 2005: I locked my hotel room key in my room last night. A typical Jane thing to do. But after my room was opened by a hotel employee, the key was not there either. "Might you have left it at the front desk, Madam?" Doh.
We drove through the empty streets of Jewish Jerusalem on our way to Galilee this morning. "It is Saturday. The men go off to the synagogue to pray and the women stay home to take care of the home." So much for sexual equality among the orthodox. Just like "orthodox" Christians and Muslims. "Taking care of the home" is my worst nightmare. I’d rather be in solitary confinement with Mordecai Vanunu!
We passed Daria See on our way up north. "This is where the massacre took place on April 9, 1948. Israeli troops wiped out the entire village. And today we are also going to visit Suhmata village, up near the Lebanese border. On October 28, 1948, the village of Suhmata was occupied by the Israeli army. Its inhabitants were deported or killed and all of the village’s houses were demolished," said our guide.
As we drove north through Israel proper, we noticed that even the highway we were traveling on was designed to split up the remaining Palestinian pockets of population. "The fragmentation of Palestinian society is the goal of the Israeli bureaucracy." And the Israeli army.
Then we drove by the town of Neb Shalom. "This town is a big deal because it is an experimental mixture of Arabs and Jews. And it is working out well. The children grow up together and are friends. Currently, it has more Arabs than Jews."
I still haven’t found a present to buy for my son Matt – let alone for Amy and her friends the Lost Boys. I passed some awesome-looking toy AK-47s in the bazaar this morning but can’t imagine being able to take them back on the airplane. The Lost Boys would probably love them but I’m not willing to risk getting arrested and spend 18 years in an Israeli jail just to find out.
After we’d been on the road for a while, our bus merged onto Highway 6, the new trans-Israel highway. "This is important because it takes economic access away from the coast, Tel Aviv and Haifa and gives greater access to the settlements. If a Palestinian area is next to Highway 6, no exits are placed there, denying them easy access to national and international trade." Regional planning in favor of the Occupation. How modern! Not.
"On my first trip to Israel, I came with a church group to tour the Holy Land," said our main tour guide who was originally from America and was now living in Britain. "For years I had listened to my pastor demonizing Muslims and I didn’t know what to expect. Would they have horns or what? But when I actually got here, I could see with my own eyes that the Muslims of Bethlehem were very spiritual, and I started to become interested in Palestine, to read up on what was actually going on here and to ask questions. That’s when I discovered all the problems with America’s foreign policy. Coming from a conservative true-blue patriotic family, I was very surprised to find out what was actually going on over here as compared to what I had been told for so many years. And since then I have tried to open up doors like this to others by guiding them through the same discoveries that I made by myself."
As we drove along toward the border of northern Israel, we could see The Wall running parallel to us next to the highway. "As you can see, on the Israeli side, The Wall doesn’t look so naked and foreboding. Notice how it is subtly hidden by gentle slopes going up to it and by landscaping and trees. It doesn’t look so tall from this side – more like a barrier to prevent cars from going off the freeway or a lovely green embankment to plant flowers on. On the Palestinian side, there is only an ugly 20-foot-high cement wall." Then we stopped for coffee at a cute little oasis-like café near the freeway and someone bought me espresso. They shouldn’t have done that. Now I’m all wired.
At the oasis Starbucks wannabe, I had a long talk with one of the members of our group and we had a wonderful time dishing everyone on the tour. My kind of person! "What do you think of...."
"There is a concerted government effort," said our new guide, "to encourage Israelis to move inland to the areas that are traditionally Palestinian yet to avoid being actually physically in touch with real Palestinians." He had just joined us for the day in order to show us his village in the main part of Israel that is slowly being strangled by Israel’s military, social and economic segregation. It all sounded very Jim Crow.
"Ariel Sharon’s dream is to have an Israeli settlement stuck in between every two Palestinian villages." Sidebar: In Israel and Palestine, what they call a village is what we in America would call a small town. "Highway 6 has done a lot of damage to my village. It is like a barrier, stopping our development and cutting our village in half – plus we are also being blocked by The Wall on one side and a settlement on another. And if that’s not enough, seven Kibbutzim surround our village and an army base with Patriot missiles make up the final part of our isolation." Not to mention flying checkpoints on the only roads out that can close off the village completely within minutes.
We drove through the town. Maybe I’ll find something to buy here for my son Matt. The village looked like a typical economically depressed town. It could have been in England or Appalachia. "23,000 residents. The economic situation is bad. Whenever they can, the residents go to Tel Aviv to buy things even though there are many good shops here. The prices are much cheaper in Tel Aviv. There used to be a factory here but it closed. Now we specialize in selling wedding dresses. There used to be a huge vegetable market here that served the whole region but the farms that supplied it are gone now and The Wall cuts straight through the middle of where it used to be."
I told the guide that this town reminded me of the days of Jim Crow segregation in the American South. "Shhh," he answered. "We are not allowed to say that."
There was a sign on massive concrete wall that split the town in two. It read, "Dear citizens: Entrance to this village is forbidden for Israeli citizens by the order issued [by] the IDF commander of the region. Entrance is allowed only with prior coordination with the State authorities."
"If you live on one side of The Wall," said our guide, "and need to get to the other side to see relatives, you have to drive a long distance to a checkpoint and then wait there for an hour before you can get through. Then you have to drive back. It costs about 70 shekels each direction too. So the communication between the two sides of the village has almost stopped. This used to be a popular market town with 450 shops. Now it is a wasteland. Why? Why have they done this? It seems such a waste. In 24 hours, they demolished 450 shops. There is nothing left. One man lost his home on the day of his wedding."
I closed my eyes to say a silent prayer for this poor demolished town and when I did I saw stars inside my eyelids. Too much Arab espresso! That stuff is strong!
"Interior immigration happens a lot here as people shuffle around, searching for ways to make a living. And there is no compensation for having one’s house demolished because of The Wall so people really have to scamper and hustle to survive, spreading the population around and separating them from their families and roots. The Israelis love this!" They actually seem to plan how to stage the largest disruptive effect.
"There is no recourse to monetary compensation via the courts. Judges merely claim that there was no permit for the houses." It is eminent domain gone crazy.
We were standing next to a pomegranate orchard. I didn’t even know that pomegranates grew on trees. Amy would love this. She loves pomegranates. I took a photo to show her.
"Every gate in The Wall has a number and you have to have a permit to go through which is good only for that gate." And where The Wall ended outside the town, an electrified fence began. More fun and games. It’s like having a wall between, say, Alabama and Florida and everyone registered as a Democrat was isolated on the Florida side and not allowed to go into Miami or take cruises or vote and not allowed to make a living and having all their orange trees taken away.
Maybe I should commit an act of civil disobedience and buy a wedding dress!
"At the checkpoints, the guards are replaced every 30 days so they don’t develop a relationship with the locals."
Just then a huge IDF military Hummer arrived. "Wow! Is that really a Hummer?" I asked the Israeli solder driving it. "I never saw a real Hummer before. The ones in America are all commercial and painted yellow and driven around by rich people." The soldier smiled but the guide pulled me away and told me not to speak to the soldiers. It wasn’t safe.
We saw crows on The Wall. "Grackles have invaded Berkeley," I told one of our more intrepid bird-watching tour members. "They are really noisy."
"You’d better watch out. Grackles are the ones used in that old Alfred Hitchcock horror movie ‘The Birds’". Yikes!
At one point. an actual house was incorporated into The Wall. On the roof of the house, the army had set up every electronic toy you could imagine. "The owners, however, have moved out because they didn’t feel comfortable with the Israeli army living on their roof." The Hummer went by a couple of times – and me without new film for my camera. Rats.
"Sometimes the soldiers interact with the families and make friends in some of these cases." That’s good. Whenever one side has a good experience with the other side, peace is possible. Thus the Israeli extreme measures to maintain separation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Next to The Wall was a pecan orchard and some local ladies were using sticks to knock pecans out of a tree. "These people are a nation of farmers who are being forced to move off their farms and live in ghettoes." How sad. There is also a correlation between what is happening here and what has happened on American small farms.
Our guide said, "I always tell the soldiers that I am just guiding a nice Jewish tourist group who want to see how The Wall is valiantly protecting Israel from us evil Palestinians. They love this story. And they believe it too."
As we drove down the main street, we saw many men in front of cafes, sitting outside drinking coffee. And then there were the wonderful stores with their windows full of wedding dresses. "Can we stop and see them? Please?"
"These are all copies of wedding dresses from Paris catalogues," said our guide. "A dress that would cost $150,000 in Paris can be bought much cheaper here – for less than a thousand dollars." A thousand dollars? Way over my budget.
As we drove further north, there was a freeway off-ramp that said "Hadera". That’s where the suicide bombing happened this week. "One of the people killed was a Palestinian from this town." That’s sad.
"They should build trains between cities to be more environmentally conscious but Israel builds freeways instead. There are one and a half cars per family in Israel, but cars are still encouraged in order to establish further gridlock and keep people at home."
Ariel Sharon’s seven-star program is to have Israelis outnumber Palestinians here within the next five years. "They will be just two completely different worlds with absolutely minimum contact. Since October 2000, the relationship between the two populations has become very limited. Even on-the-job contact has become very limited as Palestinian access to jobs systematically disappears. And a lot of Palestinians have been attacked by angry Israelis so they don’t go into Israeli areas any more. Palestinians have stopped all casual visits and only go to Israeli areas for emergencies. Since Palestinians stopped shopping in Hadera, the city’s economy has been reduced by 50%." But then the economic situation all over the country is bad except for the weapons industry. No new jobs.
Apparently a big economic catastrophe is in the making here in Israel. In January 2006, Israelis will no longer be allowed to have a big debt overdraft on their credit cards. "But everyone runs on credit cards here so it’s going to be a disaster."
But even now, the economy of Israel is suffering a lot. "Israel’s main economic support comes from outside sources but most of that money goes to the army and housing construction in the settlements. If the construction stops, the economy will be in trouble." We passed the Hadera off-ramp so I guess we’re not going to go see the site of the suicide bombing. The guide wouldn’t even talk about it let alone explain to me why we wouldn’t stop. Just as well. CNN said that it is a matter of state policy that the sites should be cleaned up immediately and the bombed businesses be open for business again the very next day.
We drove past a banana orchard. Weird. I’ve never seen a banana orchard before.
I hope I don’t need to confirm my flight home on Sunday because I don’t have a clue as to how to use the local phones.
"In 2003, the city of Jerusalem was dying economically so the Birth Right committee was formed. 350,000 people have visited Israel through this project, which brings Jews from the EU and America here for a week for free. All this is paid for by American taxpayers. The country would collapse without American welfare."
So. Jerusalem looks really busy now but what we are seeing are basically bought-and-paid-for tourists. "Israel cannot continue running this way. The 1980s were great for everyone and then there was the First Intafada and the government started this ideological warfare against the Palestinians and the economy went down. Israelis think Ariel Sharon is wonderful because he appears to be such a strong man. Everything is allowed against the Palestinians. They can be killed with no repercussions. Plus Palestinians are not allowed to grow crops or plant flowers or anything that can be exported to the EU. The Israelis make a lot of money from exports but Palestinians are not allowed to tap into this market. The Palestinian economy is now based on selling cheese sandwiches by the side of the road." Speaking of which, is it time to eat yet? I’m hungry! We’ve been driving all over this area for hours.
"This is called the Triangle area." Why? "King Abdullah of Jordan wanted this area to be included on his side of the Green Line and Golda Meir wanted it on the Israeli side of the line. Actually there are two triangle areas. The town that we just visited is in the middle." Obviously Meir got her way.
The freeway we are on now is lined with trees. Pine trees. And the ever-present eucalyptus. And thanks to the ever-present pita bread I stashed away at breakfast, it looks like I’m not going to starve to death. People eat a lot of pita bread around here. It is the Israel/Palestine equivalent of Wonder Bread or something. Potato chips? Twinkies?
We drove for another hour. I’m sick of driving. I’m starting to imagine that the people we pass in their cars are weird and hate me. They probably are. They probably do. So what. I know that I’m a good person. Who cares what they think. When one dies and goes to Heaven, one needs to have a good track record of doing good deeds. But before that time, there is still a lot of work to be done and a hecka lot of good deeds left to do. So no matter what others think, I just keep plugging away at those good deeds. But it would be nice to win the lottery and be able to do good deeds in style.
Someone on the bus just passed around a box of gourmet chocolates. She will obviously be going straight to Heaven! The chocolates were wrapped in fancy foil with a silver band and seal around each one. Some were caramel. Mine had a soft milk chocolate center. They came from the chocolate shop/internet café next to our hotel back in East Jerusalem. Maybe that could be a backup plan of something to buy Matt if I couldn’t find anything else to buy him. "They have coffee-centered chocolates too," said the woman. Matt would like that. I’ve got a plan! And maybe one of those little coffee-makers too. And maybe some coffee.
As we drove along the freeway, we passed a McDonalds sign. And a sign for KFC. "Are we there yet?" It reminded me of when I used to take my children on trips. They would see a McDonalds and say, "Are we there yet?" Now we are in some city near the Lebanese border. It is a relatively large city and most it seems to consist of miles and miles of strip malls. The best of American architecture! I felt right at home.
Getting even more bored of this bus ride, I started to study my palm again. I swear that my life line has developed a whole new branch to the left since I’ve been here. Now I’m starting to have a Beduin hand too!
Then we drove out through the countryside on the far side of the city and then up into the mountains, finally arriving at a hilltop somewhere near the Lebanese border. Lots of trees. Nice view. "Oh, look! There's a cow! There’s a bunch of cows!" We had arrived our destination – the site of the former Palestinian village that had been destroyed in 1948. Apparently it was one of 450 Palestinian villages destroyed that year. I looked around but couldn't see nothing but trees and grass and cows.
"Some of the original inhabitants of the village will be meeting us here today," said an Israeli man who had come up with us on the bus. He, like many other Israelis, strongly objected to the drunken use of force by the IDF and he, like many other Israelis, has made a point of learning some of the true history of what had gone on way back then. "This is one of over 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed by the Israeli army back around 1948-49." Wow. They certainly did a good job on this one! There was nothing left but stones -- and cows.
"All record of what the Palestinians call the Nakba -- the Catastrophe -- are absent from Israeli school curricula, from most history and geography books and even from maps of Israel itself. The sites of the old Palestinian villages have even been erased and re-named on all of the maps. And even today there is no official Israeli recognition or commemoration -- let alone apology -- for the Nakba."
We got out and walked around the land where the village used to be. There was nothing left of the village except a lot of scattered stones. Another bunch of cows appeared as we walked down a dirt road. Photo op! Except that these cows had horns. Big horns. Lots of horns.
"In the Zionist collective memory," continued my Israeli friend, "the Palestine of 1948 was a 'A land without people for a people without a land'. Yet the place where Israel was founded was never empty. This was home to almost one million Palestinians living in over 700 villages and cities, most of which were depopulated and re-named in the period during and immediately following 1948." Now all there was here was cows. And cow poop. Oops.
It was a peaceful afternoon in the country. We walked up the path to the top of another hill. Terrific view -- almost like the Sierra foothills near Auburn and the California gold rush country on the way to Lake Tahoe. "Here is an old fortress that was bombed by the Israeli air force back in 1949. 99% of the houses were still standing in 1950 but the Israeli army returned and blew up everything that was left. You are now standing on the site of the elementary school and the high school. The village used to make its living by growing bees and harvesting honey." Not any more. Nothing was left. It looked like even the bees had left town.
"And here is the Muslim cemetery and across the road is the Christian cemetery, dating back from the time of the Crusades." Now a small stone building was all that was left. "This used to be the minister's home. For hundreds of years, Muslims and Christians had lived -- mostly -- in peace in this village. And over there was the village pool and the village green."
On that day in 1950 when the rest of the villagers had been driven away by the occupying Israeli army, one family had been down in the fields during the seizure and occupation of the village. "When they came back and one of their boys had a wound that he had gotten while farming, the Israeli soldiers said that it must have come from resisting the invasion so the soldiers tortured him and killed him. His parents were too scared to even come out of the trees in order to collect his body. The rest of the surviving villagers had run and hidden in their olive orchards but after a few days without food, two old men went back to the village to try to get supplies from their homes. They were shot."
The Israeli army wanted to hide any evidence of destroying the village. "But they were stupid. They left all the stones."
Then somehow we got into a discussion of eye-wear and I gave my famous "glasses as accessories" speech. "Nobody manufactures yellow glasses," I lamented. "Do I have to do everything myself? Now I have to manufacture glasses too?"
Then we toddled off to what was left of the village church. I met an Arab-Israeli man there who was also touring the ruins and he told me his story. "My grandfather was a Palestinian and he had a very high regard for education. When I was a boy, he made each of his grandchildren learn a different language. Unfortunately I got stuck learning English," he joked. "The others learned French, German, Spanish and Chinese." Chinese? "Yes but unfortunately the only textbook he had was Chinese to English so he was forced to learn English too."
Apparently when the Israeli soldiers stormed the village back in 1950, they confronted the headman, who was a Christian. "Why are you defending these Muslims," the Israeli commander asked and the headman answered that, "in this one moment, we now are all belonging to the same religion -- and it is God, not us, who will sort out who is good and who is bad."
The air today smelled of pine trees. There were stone blocks everywhere. Thousands of them. One of the villagers who had survived the massacre and who had come back for the day spoke to us. "Every year since the Nakba, those of us who are left feel so empty inside. The horrible violence seemed so senseless. It has split our bodies and minds. Our bodies stand here 57 years later but our souls are still back in our village, so long ago, in this beautiful place. And no matter what the Israeli history books say, this village did once exist." That man survived. And he remembers.
"We thought at first that we might be allowed to come back to our village," said the man. Who could blame him. This place was -- and is -- beautiful. "Other villages took us in but then they too were destroyed. But we will never give up our dream of someday coming back here, back to our home."
Apparently after 1950, this village was declared to be a "military area" and so the villagers were never allowed to return. And even today, even with all the trees and the cows, this village is still labeled a "military zone".
Apparently there is another village that is suing to get their land back. "And we want our land back too. You can see how holy this place is. It’s not only what you see with your eyes – but beyond, to the future. We all must remember that we are standing in front of God. And every Palestinian must remember that somewhere he has a village."
Strange that even now the original villagers aren’t allowed to come back.
The sun was beginning to set so we walked back to the bus and started the long drive back to Jerusalem – not long in terms of driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles or nothing, but long in terms of driving through Israel. Now we can eat? I’m ready. The chocolate is long gone.
Nope, no dinner for us. We stopped at a truck stop and bought junk food. "I’ve got bad news," said our guide. "We were supposed to meet with Jeff Halper from ICAHD tonight but he is stuck in an airport in Canada." Our guide was really upset. I was disappointed too. Halper is an Israeli who is very influential in the fight to stop Palestinian home demolitions in East Jerusalem, is an expert in this field and has written several excellent books on the subject. But just then our bus rounded a curve and we suddenly saw the Mediterranean Sea spread out before us – with the sun glowing all read and glorious as it slipped down toward the watery horizon. Magnificent. I almost forgot about food!
This Ramadan has been really easy for me because travelers don’t need to fast. But the local guides all stick to the fast. I am very impressed.
I shoulda bought one of those Israeli knock-off "Drumstick" ice cream thingies at the truck stop. What was I thinking?
But as good a speaker as Jeff Halper is and as excited as I was to hear him, it was still kind of good to hear that we didn’t have to sit through yet another lecture. It had been a long day and I was definitely up for a quiet evening at the internet café. Plus in less than 24 hours, I’d be on a flight home and then I’d be starting a new job and dealing with my teenaged daughter and her weird Lost Boy friends.
Actually now that I think about the real-life circus that is waiting for me in Berkeley, maybe I’m not so tired after all. Maybe I would be content just to tour the Holy Land forever. I mean, real life is so real. I need to win the lottery so I can just travel all the time. But who knows. Maybe after a few months, I’ll be happy at my new job instead – or at least used to it.
Our local tour guide today was smart and funny and interesting and I hate to say this but definitely a babe. C’mon, Jane. I’m old enough to be his mother. But then it’s like they say. "I’m old. I ’m not dead."
We’re on our way to Nazareth next.
At this point, someone asked our guide, "How did the First Intafada start?"
"17 Palestinians were killed by accident when an IDF truck ploughed into them at a bus stop. That’s what set the first one off. But back then, the military wasn’t allowed to use bullets. This Intafada is very different than that one."
Then our tour bus "pulled into Nazareth". Nazareth used to be a major Palestinian city – home to both Muslim and Christian Palestinians – but the Israelis did their "eminent domain on steroids" thing again and built on confiscated lands. Now what is left of the Palestinian section of Nazareth has been pretty much surrounded and turned into a ghetto. "It used to be a wealthy city because of the tourist trade but now there is nothing. The hotels are closed. Now there is no source of income despite its famous churches – the Church of the Annunciation for example." Now tourists are told to avoid Nazareth because the Palestinians "might be dangerous."
Nazareth was built on a hillside. Jesus grew up here. "If Jesus lived here today, what would He do? He would move to London!"
Then we drove past Megiddo, the place were Armageddon is supposed to take place. Wow! I've been to Armageddon! But don’t tell George Bush -- or at least wait until I’m out of the area before you do. If he wants to cause Armageddon, I’d just as soon he did it once I was safely back in Berkeley.
Next to the town of Megiddo was the notorious Megiddo military prison where Palestinian political prisoners are held in extremely overcrowded conditions. It is also the site of the remains of what may have been the oldest Christian church in the world.
An hour and a half later, we were still driving. "Is Israel on daylight savings time?" I asked our driver.
"Yes, but it ended a month ago." Good. I don’t want to get the time wrong and miss my plane tomorrow. Even though I have never missed a plane in my life – well except for the time when I was in college and was all involved in kissing my boyfriend goodbye at the gate...but that doesn’t count. He was a great kisser! It wasn’t my fault! – I always get really nervous about missing a flight.
It was dark on the bus as people slept but I could still see to read, thanks to the brilliance of The Wall’s guard towers along the freeway to Jerusalem that constantly raked the hillsides looking for Palestinian prey – poor schmucks sneaking into Jerusalem to look for work.
"Do you think I still need to confirm my flight," I asked our guide for the tenth time.
"No, it’s not necessary." But if I miss my flight, I’ll miss Halloween! Bummer. But maybe the flight will be delayed and the airline will be forced to put me up in a hotel for a few days during my layover in Paris. Yeah right. But I need to forget about Paris and focus on the "facts on the ground". One more checkpoint and we’ll be back in East Jerusalem at the St. George Hotel. But as we drove past the Old City on our way to the St. George, the whole area was all cordoned off and closed up tighter than a clam.
"There’s been a security alert in East Jerusalem." There were lines of police on every corner in full riot gear. How can people live that way? How much cheaper it would be to spend money on education instead of repression!
"Why are all the police out in force?" I asked the front desk clerk when I got back to the hotel. "Has something happened to the mosque?"
"No, not this time. It’s because tonight is the holiest night of Ramadan," the clerk replied. The cops were blocking off East Jerusalem for the Eid celebration! That would be something to see on my last night here. I really want to go. But boy am I tired. Maybe after dinner....
The hotel chef knocked himself out tonight – a traditional Middle Eastern feast. I was ready. Bring it on. Then the waiters brought out a giant cake with fireworks on it. Whipped cream. You gotta love Palestinians. They are really hospitable.
"So," I asked the man at the front desk after dinner, "it’s too late to go down to the Dome of the Rock, right? The celebration is over, right?"
"Well, no, you could still go." Gulp. Guess there’s no way of getting out of it now. No nice warm cozy bedtime for me. But Al Aqsa is the holiest Muslim shrine in the world besides the Haram in Mecca. And it definitely would be worth dragging my poor tired bones a half-mile down the hill just to join a million Muslims at prayer. I can do this.
I got about a block and a half.
The streets of East Jerusalem were overflowing with festive Muslims in a party mood. It was like New Years Eve, the Fourth of July and Labor Day all rolled up into one. Teenage boys frolicked in groups. Teenaged girls let Adidas and blue jeans show under their coat-dresses. Shopkeepers stood outside their stores and chatted. The streets were filled with people like it was the French Quarter in New Orleans (in the days before Katrina and FEMA, that is). There were skyrockets and drag races and sideshows. I never got to Temple Mount. I didn’t have to. Temple Mount came to me!
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped by the internet café and bought a pound of that wonderful Arab spiced coffee for Matt. It is really good. And the guy behind the counter gave me instructions on how to make it too. "You need a pot, a small cup, two teaspoons of coffee, about a half-cup of water and some sugar. Then you boil the water in a pot, add the coffee and sugar and then boil the water again for three or four minutes. Let it sit for 30 seconds and then you pour it into the cup." I also bought Matt the cup and the pot. The pot was brass, held about a four ounces of water and came with a really cool extra-long handle. Forget about Matt. I want it! And I don’t even usually drink coffee.
October 30, 2006: While we were in Israel and Palestine, we spent a bunch of time learning about politics and economics and Palestinians and the Apartheid Wall and the Holocaust, but today, on our last day here, I am hoping to learn all about Jewish mysticism and all the wonderful parts of the Jewish religion. "Look on the internet for that kind of information," said a professor in our tour. "You aren’t going to find it in Israel." That’s sad.
Still and all, Jewish mysticism fascinates me. And I love, love, love all those nineteenth century Polish/Czech/whatever Rebs who were funny and wise.
"Sampson was the first suicide bomber," someone said. "He killed himself and 2,00 others." That’s deep.
At breakfast, someone asked which were the best tours of the Holy Land to take. "Experience Travel Tours out of Britain is excellent from the political point of view. And if you are looking for a tour of the Christian sites, I recommend Bibleland Tours or Amos Tours." After breakfast, I went down to the internet café, pounded on the door until they opened, waited anxiously while the computer booted up, changed machines several times because the first two didn’t work and banged out an article on the huge Qalandia checkpoint to send off to an e-magazine.
After I got back to the hotel, everyone on the tour got together and debriefed, sitting in a circle and talking over our impressions of this fabulously interesting trip. And everyone gave our guide a standing ovation! And a few presents too. "We are now at a crossroads in history," said our guide. "A civil society that is based on morality and justice instead of military dominance and cruelty is now starting to grow. We must encourage it any way that we can. The alternative is to just keep on fighting bigger, more futile and more deadly wars until no one is left." Then we all popped onto the tour bus one last time.
As we drove west toward Tel Aviv, I took one last look at the beautiful and sacred city of Jerusalem. "Goodbye, Jerusalem!" I shouted and waved. "Goodbye, Jerusalem." This was a wonderful visit. I can’t imagine being able to afford to come back again but anything’s possible and everyone in the world should come to the Holy Land at least once.
"The Air France flight to Paris is now boarding." Wow. After all of our guide’s scare tactics that the authorities were going to go through our luggage and jail us forever if they found out that we had been speaking to Palestinians, I had no problems at the airport.
"Did you stay at a private house," a sweet young Israeli girl asked me three times at the security checkpoint.
"Who was your driver? Were you on a tour?" She analyzed me with her piercing blue eyes. I took forever to formulate answers but finally she let me through. Later, however, when I joined some others from the group, they said that their luggage had been searched.
As pleasant as the airport café was and as nice a time as I had had in Israel, I vowed to never ever go back there again. I just can’t be in a country where it is completely acceptable to go through one’s luggage in search of books. Books! Not guns or explosives but books.
After having sat at the wrong gate for an hour, I finally got the right gate at the last minute but not to worry – my plane was an hour late taking off.
"Do you know any good-but-reasonable hotels in Paris where I can stay during my 12-hour layover between planes?" I asked the Frenchman sitting next to me. He immediately pulled out his cell phone and made a reservation for me at the Premier Class Airport Hotel – and set me up with info on how to take a tour of Paris and find a good restaurant too. I’m all set for the night. A tour of Paris? Wow!
"But the novel that I bought at the Tel Aviv airport is absolutely terrible," I told the Frenchman. "Turn the plane around! I have to go back!" The Frenchman laughed. He thought I was making a joke. I was serious. I take reading seriously! Especially when novels purchased in airports are involved.
10:30 pm, Paris: I bought my bus ticket – 12 euros – and hopped on the bus to Paris. But we kept driving around the Charles de Gaulle International Airport terminals. Endless terminals. That place is big. I became worried. "Can I make it to Paris and be back in time to catch the last hotel shuttle at midnight?" I asked the driver.
Everyone else on the bus heard me and in unison they all shouted, "No!"
I got off the bus. Just as well. I waited for the hotel shuttle until it finally became clear even to me that I had missed the last one for the night. Finally a nice French-Algerian man drove me to my hotel, arriving at midnight.
The Premier Class Hotel was amazing. My room looked like a Pullman compartment -- tiny and with absolutely no extras. A corner of the room held a plexiglass bathroom unit. Everything else was built in and/or streamlined. I’d never seen anything like it. I took a shower and slept like a rock until 5 am.
October 31, 2005: Halloween is gonna be a long day. By 6:00 am, I had already stumbled around CDG Airport, asked ten people how to get a Metro ticket and was five stops on my way to the City of Light. Go me! "Aulmay Sous-Bois". Seven more stops and I will be at Gare du Nord. Two more stops and it will even be daylight. I was in Paris! Score! I bought a day pass for the Metro. I can go anywhere in Paris. I’m having a tourist adventure here. Amy, the day is young yet. I will probably get lost at least twice as well. If I get off at St. Michel, I can have breakfast on the Left Bank right in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Near the "Le Bourget" stop, I saw a bunch of high-rise apartment buildings. After the Occupied Territories, I’ll never again be able to see any large housing complexes without shuddering and thinking of "settlement blocs". And even as I sit on a subway in Paris, I still feel like I am somehow doing something illegal and will get busted any minute for thinking bad thoughts about Israel.
Two more stops to St. Michel!
"Passez," the exit sign at the St. Michel Metro station read, indicating apparently that I should just pass through. But could I do anything as simple as that? No. I had to try to jam my ticket into the slot at the exit turnstile and of course it went almost all the way in and then got stuck. I tried to pick it out with my fingernails but with no luck. This is so typically Jane. I should never be let out of the house by myself let alone be allowed to travel the world.
"Wait for the station agent to come in a half-hour," someone recommended. The hell with it. I went upstairs and conned some poor tourist into taking my photo in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in the early-morning light.
Then "Where’s an ATM machine," became my favorite phrase.
"No. We do not have one here. Go away," said a café proprietor. I think he didn’t realize that I was trying to get some money to buy a croissant and a latte from him. Thrown out of a café in Paris after only having been in the City of Light for ten minutes? That sucks eggs. Back to the subway.
"Pardon, Messier," I asked an African man who was sweeping the station, "Parle voo English?" He did. Really well. "My ticket is stuck in the machine?" No problem. He pulled out a box-cutter and pried it out, good as new. "Merci!" Good. Now I’ve used every French word I know.
I jumped on the next train and got out at Chalet du Halles. "ATM? ATM?" Yep. "Croissants? Croissants?" Oui. So there I was, on a street in Paris, eating croissants and sipping steamed milk laced with strong coffee.
The secret to finding one’s way around a city while traveling is to ask a whole bunch of people and get a consensus of where to go. 15 people later, I found my way through the incredible maze at the Chalet station. I kept poking my head into Metro trains and shouting "Airport Charles de Gaulle?" until people finally stopped screaming back, "No!"
Finally someone showed me that each track had a checklist hanging from the ceiling with little lights that lit up next to the name of each train’s destination. Tres clever! I got to CDG airport in plenty of time to make my flight. Another travel tour de force by the heroic Jane Straitwell! A coup de grace! A whole tour of Paris in less than an hour.
While wandering around the Pont du Neuf district, I took photos of clothes in the shop windows to show Amy what high styles they were wearing in Paris – but there was nothing there style-wise that her friends in Berkeley hadn’t been wearing for the last three years. Lots of layering and mix-match and stuff.
Later, when I got back home to Berkeley, I learned that there had been severe riots going on in the housing complex areas that my Metro train went through. I had been right in the middle of an immense historical event and hadn’t even known it.
1:00 pm (PST): "Amy! I’m back!" I shouted into the phone at the San Francisco airport BART station. "And I saw four and a half in-flight movies on the way here from Paris and the Air France flight was really great and I sat next to a German woman and we chit-chatted the entire way back and I hugged the customs officer at SFO and promised him I’d never leave the country again!"
"I missed you," said Amy. "And I fed the cat."
"Can you street-hike down to the Berkeley BART station in 20 minutes and help me carry my stuff home? I got a ton of stuff." Good grief, it was good to see Amy again.
After I got home, I took a quick nap and got out my usual Halloween costume, "Baby Spice 40 years later". Amy was dressed as a "Candy Pimp". The Lost Boys refused to go with us and sulked off to spend time spray-painting Berkeley High School. I thought that Amy might have look kind of old to be carrying around a pillow case full of candy but that feeling lasted approximately one block. We had a wonderful time! By the time we had trick-or-treated our way up to the annual Russell Street block party, we were in harmony with the universe! And had a pillow case full of candy to prove it too.
Wandering home through the deserted streets of Berkeley, Amy and I spent all kinds of quality time together – in between the Lost Boys’ desperate text messages for her to go meet up with them at their parents’ house. We stopped at the Smoke House hamburger stand and shared some French fries and then I really really really needed to pee. "Ten more blocks! You can make it, Mom!" Oh no I couldn’t.
"Amy! Stand guard while I go behind this bush!" Good grief! Was I going to top off Halloween this way? Peeing behind a bush like the most desperate homeless person? I was so embarrassed! How typically Jane. Amy laughed and laughed and laughed. "Happy Halloween, Mom. Welcome back."
PS: I also learned a great tip for recovering from jet lag: Walk at least five miles when you get back, preferably carrying a candy sack.
Also by Jane Straitwell: Mecca and the Hajj: Lessons From the Islamic School of Hard Knocks (Straitwell Travel Books, 2006):
Book Description [courtesy of Amazon.com]: When American Muslim Jane Straitwell decided to go to Mecca for the holy Hajj pilgrimage, she got much more than she bargained for. Join her on this delightful yet arduous journey through the heart of Islam. This incredible book, written by someone who has actually experienced and endured all of the splendor, pageantry, spirituality, suffering and hardship that is Hajj, will give both Muslims and non-Muslims a true picture of what a Hajj journey is like -- and you will be totally entertained along the way!