Monday, November 26, 2007

Marty Federman's 2007 Visit Journal - Entry # 3

Marty Federman, the co-chair of the Boston Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, is traveling in Israel and the West Bank. On his trips, he always keeps a journal of what he sees as well as his observations. I have asked for his permission to post each entry on this blog and he gave his approval.

Journal Entry #3

Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Grand Hotel, Bethlehem, 11:00 p.m.

This morning was an opportunity to talk to a number of people representing various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) sequentially in the same building – they share a building as well as some services in Bethlehem which made it much easier on us to see them all in a fairly limited amount of time.

Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation

Founded in 1960 – in a room in Bethlehem offering basic rehabilitation services for children – BASfR is a basically Christian organization whose support comes significantly from Christian sources – however, a majority of patients and approximately 50% of staff are Muslim – and most patients come from outside of Bethlehem. With the mission of “Health Care for All,” they now offer a variety of services to children and adults, including on-site, day and home care. Along with the expected mission of a group like this, they have the added challenge of never being sure who will be able to reach the facility – sometimes expected patients don’t make it through checkpoints at all, other times someone may show up many hours after expected and their bed has already been given to someone else. Fiscal support comes from German and other European groups and individuals

This group represents some of the kinds of challenges that social welfare organizations when they attempt servicing the people of Palestine. BASfR, for instance, gets money from the Ministry of Health but this money comes very slowly and erratically and, at this point, is owed $4 million, with little idea of when they may get it. Additionally, as we have seen elsewhere, everything coming in and going out of Palestine must go through Israel in some way so that the Wall/checkpoints, besides effecting the people these organizations service, puts a strain on supplies of virtually all kinds. The people who run this beautiful and very modern hospital/clinic are proud of the fact that they do not “warehouse” patients, they follow them from their initial contact through to getting settled in their lives. The issue of the psychological effects on the people of the area comes up again – tensions that lead to an increase in family problems, abuse, etc., etc. BASfR does what it can to address not only the physical problems of their patients, but a kind of holistic approach to their patients.

Imad tells us that his grandfather (and then his father) used to say “it’s not my time.” This observation reflects something that we hear frequently: a sense that Palestinians are a patient people and, even if things are not going to get better immediately, they will improve in time.

Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights

This group was organized after the Oslo accords were signed when the founders realized that, amazingly, the accords didn’t include anything about U.N. and international principles regarding refugees. Badil (Which means “alternative” was a response to this oversight, organized to address the issue and to defend the rights of Palestinian refugees.

At the end of the 1947/48 conflict there 800,000 Palestinians were dispossessed. MT acknowledges that the emergence of Israel was, in part, a response to the horrors of the Holocaust but notes that this indigenous population had nothing to do with what happened to the Jews of Europe and asks why they should bear such a terrible price to pay for the sins of others and in order to assuage the conscience of the West.

MT cites the various international agreements and statements related to refugees (e.g., the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings, UN Resolution 242 and the Geneva Conventions. There are, he says, three possible solutions: the right of the people to return to their homes; financial compensation; and resettlement somewhere else. He then points out that only the first (the right to return) is actually a “right,” the other potential resolutions are privileges which are dependent on and conferred by the decisions and “generosity” of other.

MT makes one of the most directly political statements we have heard: the Zionist establishment, he says, has committed crimes against humanity and, if we were to accept an exclusively Jewish state we would, in effect, be absolving it of its responsibility for these actions. He posits, very assertively, that no modern state should be based on religious or ethnic criteria and, therefore, a Zionist state represents a racist, colonialist and expansionist philosophy – but he stresses that he is talking about the philosophy and the decision makers that propound it, “the Israeli people” he says “are hostages of their own leadership.” MT does add the observation that the Arab countries around Palestine have done little or nothing to ease the situation.

Badil’s response to this situation is to lobby in various venues, disseminate information (through things like its annual report) and provide a legal unit to advocate for the rights of refugees. It is part of a broader group of advocates who are connected through the Coalition of the Right of Return.

Clearly MT harbors a great deal of (understandable?) hostility and this comes out in a number of the things he says: We are not fighting only Israel, we are fighting the U. S. who is bankrolling Israel’s immoral and illegal policies; he rejects the idea of dividing the land – if you want to divide the land, he suggests, “give the Jews the areas they call Judea and Samaria,” the areas that they claim is the heart of their heritage and give the rest back to us.” He also points out that taking Palestinian land isn’t even necessary since 90% of the Israeli population lives on only 14% of Israeli land (no way for me to confirm his figures) so there is clearly adequate place for Israeli’s to settle.

As I listen to MT it seems he is particularly angry at the way in which the Israelis have and continue to not only destroy Palestinian homes and villages, but are, by changing the names of areas and cleansing them of any indications of their existence, destroying even the memory of their having been here. When asked about groups like Gush Shalom he more or less dismisses them as “just the left wing of Zionists. He does, however, speak very positively about the Israeli group Zochrot (Rememberance), an organization that has been identifying the “disappeared villages” and are putting up signs and drawing attention to their existence.

Prisoner Society (? - Member of PA – Spoke in Arabic)

Next we are addressed (in Arabic) by the head of this group who is also a member of the Palestinian Authority. He describes for us some of the circumstances and conditions that the 11,000 political (he doesn’t include criminal prisoners) endure in the 30 prisons and detention centers run by Israel. The “inhuman” conditions he describes are, indeed, harsh and often cruel, with prisoners held for long periods without being charged or brought to trial, not able to see family, physically abused, etc. He explains, for instance, the situation with “cantinas,” in-prison “stores” where prisoners can purchase some limited amounts of food and snacks if they are able to get money from family. The prices set by guards and authorities are twice the usual price or more and the money is frequently simply stolen by those guarding the prisoners. Our speaker also points to the stress this puts on families who by leaving money with their family members in prison, intensify their own economic hardships. He also addresses the issue of torture, which has been outlawed by the Israeli Supreme Court (which, by the way, has little or no ability to implement its decisions) but continues under different names. (As you listen to this one can’t help thinking about the torture issue in the United States right now!)

Israel recently announced that it would be releasing 440 prisoners as a concession to support Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas prior to the “Annapolis Conferenc” but, to date they have not released anyone and, in any case, this would be just a tiny drop in a very large bucket. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas have also agreed to form a joint commission to evaluate the prisoner situation, something else that has yet to happen.

We are told that a few agencies (e.g., the Israeli group B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) have tried to report on conditions in the Israeli prisons but have effectively been denied access and the Red Cross (the only organization that has the right to actually visit prisoners) has been trying to intercede but gets very little response from the Israeli government.

In response the Prisoner Society has 30 lawyers who visit the prisoners regularly and collects affidavits.

Alternative Tourism Group (Jawad)

This group was established in 1995 to promote Palestine as a tourist destination – to disseminate information about life in Palestine beyond just the tourist sights – to expose people to the people of Palestine. They arrange for people to stay with people in homes (they have 30 homes) and send people to spend time with the kind of groups we’re meeting with today – groups that are involved in the Palestinian cause – villages and towns, not just churches and tourist sights

They take visitors to places like Jenin, Hebron, Nablus, areas that most tourists do not ever see and, in 1995, published an alternative guide book, “Palestine and Palestinians” (first in French then translated into English) available at

D’heisha Refugee Camp and Ibdaa Community Center

Spent the rest of the day at the D’heisha Refugee Camp, the first camp established by the UN (in 1948) with the displacement of the people from Zachariya, the village Shawqi Issa’s family came from. This is the camp that the delegation I was with in 2001 stayed when we were in Bethlehem and some things look exactly the same, others are quite different. The general feel, of course, has not changed since there is simply no where for the camp to expand or grow. Since we were there significant parts of the camp were invaded by Israeli forces and certain buildings were destroyed. The residents have managed to do considerable rebuilding and both the facilities and the programs available are significantly better than they were.

We first heard again about the formation of the camps – of people being dislocated from their homes in villages throughout Palestine, with little time to gather their things but carefully locking their doors and taking their keys with them with the expectation that, at some point, they would return to their homes. Initially the UN resettled them in tents in camps like D’heisha and, over time, when it became clear that they would not be returned quickly to their villages, they began to build more permanent dwellings which, over the years, grew organically, primarily up since the amount of space available was finite. It was painful to hear again the stories of large families cramped into first tents, then small buildings without the normal amenities – water, electricity, etc. – that we take for granted. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to relate to the idea of men, women, children and elderly all having to live in the same space, or waiting endlessly for the limited outside toilets. And, when we think of how this was happening to people who live in a basically conservative culture the indignities added to the physical hardships seem unbearable.

Despite (or because of) all of this, in time the camps developed into neighborhoods with most of the facilities and services necessary for any community. At the same time one realizes how stretched some of these services are: as an UN facility the camp does not even receive the meager services that Palestinian municipalities get from the Israeli government so that normal services like trash collection and sewage are a tremendous problem. The camp currently has only one doctor who sees an average of 280 people every day – which leaves, on average, about 73 seconds for each patient! Many of the resources are directed to the 6,000 children who are currently living in the camp.

To make things all the more difficult, for sixteen years D’heisha was under curfew (totally shut down) approximately a third of each year – each period of closure lasting from a few days to weeks, once (during the first Gulf War) lasting for 49 days that people could not leave their homes.

There is a strange paradox that one feels as one walks through the very narrow streets of D’heisha. The streets are narrow, mostly dull, with a kind of oriental tenement feel – and in some areas there is a not-overwhelming but noticeable odor of uncollected refuse. At the same time there are many signs that the residents of the camp have pushed themselves to make this place a neighborhood and not some kind of internment camp. Colorful wall murals alternate with political statements and one can look through doorways and down the narrower alleys and spy courtyards and gardens that surround homes created out of the basic materials of the original buildings. And the children! It never ceases to astound me how resilient they are, unaware on so many levels of the meager material goods available to them. As I was last time, I am taken by the excitement they show at having their pictures taken. In 2001 I was surprised at this, especially when you realize that they will never see the pictures taken with a film camera, which I used then. On my last trip I had borrowed a digital camera which meant that the children could see their images right after they were taken and this added a level of excitement that I would be hard pressed to describe. My great regret is that I have no way of reproducing and distributing the pictures to the kids. Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to travel with tiny, low-cost printers along with our digitals!

Our delegation brought bags of the colorful “peace necklaces” that were ordered for the Peace Day celebration in Cambridge a few months ago. I also again brought some pens (this time some that coiled on themselves to form little bracelets and others that can be bent and tied into knots or just played with). We distributed these little gifts in the streets of D’heisha, with, for me, that same mixed feeling that permeates the camp: I admire the way in which the people of the camp have transcended their situation and built a community for themselves, but I abhor the fact that they have to transcend what is basically an indefensible way of life. In the same way, I thrill at the joy and excitement that our trinkets bring to the children of the camp but have an enormously difficult time accepting that children live in a world where a little pen or a necklace worth no more than a few pennies makes such a difference in their lives. I try to dwell on the pleasure – to both them and us – that this brings, and the joy on their incredible faces as they gather around us, but . . . . . . .

After walking around the camp we are taken to the Ibdaa community center for a performance of their wonderful dance troupe which has toured Europe and the US. it is an incredible sight to see these young people who have taken a tradition art (Dabka dancing) and melded it with rich story-telling, beautiful, colorful costumes and a palpable enthusiasm.

This, by the way, was the dance troupe some of whose performances were cancelled in the schools of Old Saybrook, Connecticut after receiving calls from people who thought they were two “one-sided” and “political.” Forget for a moment all the political, free speech and censorship issues – shame on those who would punish young people in order to advance their own sick agendas.

After the show we were walked up to the top floor of the center where, to our (at least my) surprise there is a beautiful, middle east themed restaurant where we had a delightful dinner

Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007 – Grand Hotel (Bethlehem)2:19 p.m.

Spent the morning at the Aida Refugee Camp, seeing a presentation about their Alrowwad Cultural Center, walking around the camp, visiting their school and viewing the Wall through Bethlehem and around Rachel’s Tomb.

The camp is smaller than D’heishah and in some ways in worse shape, in others somewhat better. They have a cultural center that is not as modern as the one that is being built at D’heishah but has a wide variety of programs and facilities including craft workshops, Dabka dancing, a choir, and a bunch of media initiatives which they are hoping to expand. The video program we were shown is really quite good, giving a complete overview of the history, development and services of the camp and the cultural center.

Walking around the camp one sees all the disadvantages of living in such a cramped space with so many people and so many restrictions on what people are and are not able to do. At the same time it is clear that many of the people living here have made both nice homes and a sense of community out of what they have. In some cases it is amazing what people have done with their homes, their courtyards and gardens given the reality that, as UN refugee housing, they can never actually own these little pieces of “home.”

The school is thriving with a tremendous energy, a variety of services (including special education), a wonderful, bright atmosphere – and the Wall (with one of its appalling towers just a few meters behind the schools wall, looming over the large open area where the students gather and play sports. The children are happy, raucous, animated (in other word: children) and seem oblivious the monster menacing them just outside their play area.

From the roof of one of the school buildings one can see a good part of Bethlehem, the neighborhood (i.e., settlement) of Gilo, a bit of Rachel’s Tomb and the snake that is the Wall coiling itself around the hills, insinuating itself into the heart of Palestinian life in the area. Just below the building we were standing on we could see the expanse of beautiful, tree-filled Bethlehem agricultural land surrounded by the part of the Wall just below us and the section in the distance that curls around Gilo, effectively isolating the fields – and the two or three Palestinian homes that are in the middle. The people living there have no where to go, literally. They cannot go to the side of the Wall that is now Jerusalem, but they cannot go to the part of Bethlehem that is now on the other side of the Wall without a special permit. This means that school children who live an easy walk to school must first have a permit to pass through the Wall and walk down to one of the few gates. And the pinnacle of this surreal picture is: the permit the children (along with everyone else) must carry gives them permission to cross “From Bethlehem to Bethlehem!!!”

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