Thursday, December 6, 2007

Marty Federman's 2007 Visit Journal - Entry # 8

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 #8

A special hello to S-O-L-O-M-O-N-I-A (apparently he was upset that I spelled his name wrong), So glad you're monitoring my e-mail, perhaps you can learn some of the truth.

To everyone else, hope you're all well - I am.


Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007 - A Day in Bi’lin
Part I: the ride to Bi’lin

We began in Bethlehem where we picked up B and her mother, and started out to Bi’lin via Ramallah in comfortable Volkswagen Service (pronounced ser-veece) taxi that SJ had arranged for us. Bi’lin is Northwest of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, directly west of Ramallah so the fastest way there would be to skirt the western side of Jerusalem and follow one of the fast roads up towards Bi’lin – but this would take us through Israeli territory where SJ and our driver are not permitted. Instead, we drove around the East side of Jerusalem ( precisely the wrong direction) and over secondary roads that snake through the Judean hills, avoiding the vast areas of the many parts of the Maale Adumim settlements, in order to curve around and enter into the heart of Ramallah from the east, drive through the city and out towards the West and Bi’lin. I would guess that this route adds an hour or two to the trip compared to the route if it was permissible to go directly.

The advantage (to us as basically American tourists) is that much of the area through which we drove was incredibly beautiful: large hills that roll into deep valleys with areas of stark, earth-colored panoramas, broken by sections of lush greenery blanketing the slopes. What is amazing are the olive trees that grow even from the rock and earth on otherwise barren hills, defying one’s expectations of what a tree needs to thrive. And there is no way to fully describe the feeling of traveling (excuse the cliché but there’s no other way to say it) the ribbon of highway that snakes through the hills, turning back and forth on itself in order to negotiate the repetitious descent and ascent through the mountains. Needless to say, our driver managed the drive without any appreciable slowing down as he maneuvered around the hairpin curves as if they didn’t exist.

The route took as past and through numerous Palestinian villages including (I believe) Eizariya, which dates from the crusades when the European armies passing through deposited a group of thieves and criminals that had been traveling with them from France (a kind of Australia-like story in the heart of the holy land!). In another village, SJ pointed out a mosque and church next to each other which were constructed cooperatively by Christians and Muslims in the village, and whose mosque’s minaret is the tallest structure in the West Bank.

Ramallah (During the Day)

Ramallah is a real city! The last time i was in Ramallah was in 2001 when we went to meet Yasser Arafat at the compound that he was restricted to by Israeli authorities – and that time we drove directly to the compound without ever seeing any of the city. Today we drove through the heart of the city and realized both how large it is and how vibrant – with all the wonderful things [restaurants, shops of all kinds, high fashion, coffee shops and people) and not so wonderful things (noise, unbelievable traffic, congestion and (too many) people]. I will definitely have to come back here when I have time to explore.


Finally we arrived in Bi’lin which sits in an area of about 1,800 people, with beautiful, rolling farmland all around it. Not surprisingly there are a number of settlements growing nearby which have already taken a significant amount of this land. Bi’lin has been the subject of an unusual amount of media attention because of weekly demonstrations along the route of the Separation Fence that has gone up between the village and the settlements – and because of a suit filed in Israel’s Supreme Court demanding a return of the land. It has especially received attention in recent weeks because the village actually won its case and the Israeli authorities were ordered to re-route the Fence giving, not all but a significant part of the appropriated farmland back to the village. The problem, of course, is that the court in Israel has no power to implement its rulings, leaving that, in this case, to the military authorities who have been order to reroute the Fence “in a timely fashion.” No one really knows what the military defines as “timely” so there is real doubt as to whether the land will really revert to the village or not. Experience says that the Israeli government will milk the decision for all it’s worth, showing that “the only authentic democracy in the Middle East” has an independent judiciary and then do little or nothing to actually make it happen, hoping that, as usually is the case, people will simply forget about Bi’lin.

I asked EB, one of the local coordinators about what effect the decision has had on the energy around the demonstrations. Large groups of Israelis and Internationals have been coming pretty consistently every Friday for the demonstrations at the Fence, and I asked EB if he thought this would end, or at least decrease, now that people think “We’ve Won!” One response to this concern has been the organization of the Bi’lin Friends of Justice and Freedom Society, with an office (which, just having been opened in a house in the village, currently has a desk, a couple of plastic chairs and a computer) and a web site. The idea is to create a network of people to keep the energy around Bi’lin high as well as to help surrounding villages which are also threatened but do not yet have an organized resistance.

We drove to the site of the demonstrations and, once again were able to see the Kafkaesque way that the Wall/Fence/Barrier snakes around settlements, through farmland and between villages. At this point the Barrier is a stretch of the 50 meters or so wide open land, fence, empty space, electrified fence, security road, empty space. There are plans to construct part of it as the 30 foot concrete wall if the new route (should it happen) goes closer to the settlements. I am including no “commentary” about this – everything that can be said about this horrific “Barrier” has already been said.

The bright spot of this visit to Bi’lin (as is often the case) is it’s children. The data on trauma amongst children throughout the occupied territories is growing, but, at least on the surface, it is amazing how resilient they are. EB’s house (quite lovely) is filled with his children, none cuter (or more aware of her own cute-ness) than Mayad, his daughter who I would guess is five years old or so. In their house she played with us, mugged for our cameras (and took some shots with B’s camera) and later, in the BFJF office walked around giving us snacks. A heartbreaking moment (for me, anyway) came on the hill next to the Fence. As we were standing there observing the path a couple of Israeli soldiers appeared on the crest of the hill in the direction of the settlement. Mayad began running towards her father, not so much frightened as startled, repeating something in Arabic which we were told was “the soldiers are coming, the soldiers are coming.” I’m not sure what was more upsetting, the fact that children like Mayard are subjected to this ugliness, or that she seemed to react as if this was nothing unusual, just a part of her young life. Meanwhile, one of her brothers picked up a small cardboard box, apparently from “rubber” bullet cartridges. What a life!

Ramallah (At night)

The trip back began in a not-so-nice Service taxi which bumped it’s way from Bi’lin to the edge of downtown Ramallah where he dropped us off to change to a vehicle to take us back to Bethlehem. B, her mother and I followed SJ as he weaved rapidly through the early evening crowded streets. Ramallah at night is like a strange combination of Kikar Tzion (Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem), Damascus Gate and Time Square (the old Times Square before the rehab). Brightly lit with neon signs up and down the main streets, a glorious mixture of modern, high-fashion shops, oriental spice shops, fast-food restaurants and businesses selling cheap, gaudy toys, candies and souvenirs. I only wish we could have taken the time to take it all in – our only pause was at an ATM where B’s mother and I both tried – and failed – to get Shekels from the machine. Then we returned to scurrying after SJ. After walking through the center of the city we turned off the main streets into an area that somehow reminded me of leaving Times Square and walking towards Eighth or Ninth Avenue, where we cam to a spot with dozens of Service and regular taxis, and a sea of drivers shouting to us, asking where we wanted to go. SJ just walked past them all (with us in tow) and headed for “Tenth Ave.” where there was only one yellow Service taxi which SJ walked directly to and motioned us to get in. Who this driver was, how he knew to be waiting there and how SJ knew where he would be waiting is a mystery that is beyond my understanding. I have learned that SJ knows people, knows where to find things, and how to maneuver through the morass that is the craziness of this Occupation – and I don’t question him! We drove back through the hills between Ramallah and Bethlehem, most of the time with my eyes closed, partly because I was exhausted but partly because I did not really want to be aware of what it was like to drive these roads and through these mountains in the dark. Before i knew it, we were in front of the Beit Sahour guesthouse and SJ, B and B’s mother were on their way back to Bethlehem.

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