Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Marty Federman's 2007 Visit Journal - Entry # 9A

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.

This entry is longer than usual so I am dividing it into two installments. This one is #9A and the next will be #9B

Journal Entry #9A

Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007 – Jenin

As I had hoped I was able to get to Jenin in the central far north of the West Bank.

The trip to Jenin began like the earlier trip to Bi’lin, but this time, instead of going directly to Ramallah we went by way of (not through) the Kalandia checkpoint. Our rather spontaneous decision to make this trip was motivated by the fact that DM from Seeds of Peace was going to Jenin to meet with some people there and he had transportation from the Kalandia checkpoint already arranged.

SJ and I took a Service taxi to the Palestinian side of the checkpoint (as a Palestinian with the “wrong” ID he would not be able to cross to the Jerusalem side anyway). The ride was mostly uneventful, except for the one checkpoint between Bethlehem and Kalandia. As we got to it there was a very long line of vehicles (autos, taxis, Service taxis, trucks of various sizes and buses). We sat for a couple of minutes and then, suddenly, our driver pulled out into the oncoming lane and began speeding down the road towards the checkpoint. I would guess that he drove the better part of a kilometer, passing all the cars in our lane and, miraculously not encountering any traffic coming the other way. When we got to the checkpoint itself (where a group of four or five Palestinian drivers were out of their vehicles and yelling, pushing and shoving one another, apparently because someone had tried to break into the line! We, however, were stopped only briefly and waved on. When we arrived at Kalandia I asked SJ why we were able to do this – both pass all the other cars and breeze through the checkpoint – and he told that “the driver has tricks.” When I pushed him to say a little more all he would share was that it’s totally up to the soldiers at the checkpoint what to do and that we had simply been lucky and, had they stopped us, ‘we would have had some problem.” I chose not to pursue the conversation.

A Half Hour at (not going through) Kalandia Checkpoint

Being at a checkpoint can be a fascinating experience even if you’re not going through it. SJ and I had arranged to meet DM at the Kalandia checkpoint – SJ, as a Palestinian can’t cross into Jerusalem them but DM, with his American passport, has no trouble crossing out. We arrived a little early and waited, first at the (what appeared to me to be) undisciplined intersection, with its frenzied traffic feeding mind-bogglingly frenzied traffic feeding into it from five non-linear directions. We stood in front of the small groceries that guard the roads, far from the checkpoint itself and I watched what appeared to be the random entrance and exit of a steady stream of vehicles – cars, trucks and the ever-present variety of taxis – coming in and out of the junction. At some point I was astonished to realize that there was no traffic light or any other kind of traffic control, and felt my level of anxiety rise as I tensed, waiting for what seem, logically, to be the inevitable collision to happen. As I stood and watched for a while, however, it began to become clear that there was, in fact, some hidden logic to the traffic pattern. Vehicles entered the intersection, rarely seeming to slow down, appearing to be headed for some other vehicle as if they were all large, enclosed bumper cars. Instead of crashing, however, The cars in these five steady streams seemed to know instinctually where the oncoming vehicles would be and the lines blended/wove into each other (horns, of course, always tooting as if to shout “I’m here, I’m coming, stay in your space”) creating some strange and wonderful continuously moving visual tapestry. Frequently individual cars or taxis would pull out or the stream, drift in front the groceries and stop, like NASCAR racers pulling out and over for a pit stop. When their drivers were finished with their business the vehicles would blend back into the ongoing flow of traffic, apparently with not much of a second thought.

One can’t help but wonder whether the ability to negotiate complex junctions like this one near Kalandia is genetic or if one could, in time, acquire the skill.

We waited on our side of the checkpoint for DM and met him beside the van he had arranged to take us to Jenin. Given the fact that I had had very little for breakfast I was grateful that DM had a large box of middle-eastern pastries with him – like any nice Jewish man whose mother has brought him up well, I guess he wouldn’t go visiting – even to Jenin – without bringing “a some nice danish!” From there we drove through the same incredible (and incredibly hilly) landscape, on the same roads that snake their way to Ramallah. This time, however, since we had the luxury of the van taking us through to Jenin, we didn’t have to change vehicles in Ramallah, so we skirted the city and headed into the more luxurious hills of the North. This area has a different feel from the South – less stark and, in places, more lushly green than the incredibly stunning starkness of the South At some points, however, the incline is no less intense – or frightening – than “down South.” And, of course, there are the inevitable checkpoints. We were stopped twice, asked for our documents, but as soon as DM showed his passport (and the driver identified us as “tierin” (tourists), we were waved on. This was very different than the last time I had gone to Jenin, when it took four different modes of transportation to go from Israel to Jenin (one to get to the border, three inside the West Bank plus two long hikes from one vehicle to the next). This time we were able to drive – one can’t say straight – through, on roads that wind around the settlements springing up in the North, probably adding at least an hour to the drive compared to what it would take to use the kind of direct roads available to and from the settlements.

On the other hand, the last time I was there, in 2003, was less than a year after the “Battle of Jenin” or, as the IDF called it “Operation Defensive Shield.” I have two especially strong memories of that trip, the first being the wonderful doctor who directed the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees in the Jenin district, and who treated my foot (which had been injured during a demonstration earlier in my trip). The other recollection is the utter devastation, despite obvious clean-up attempts, of both the refugee camp and the city itself. I said back then that Jenin must have been a lovely city at one time – broad, tree-lined boulevard-like roads coming in and out of the city, many trees, and that impression is still clear.
We drove through the city of Jenin to a lovely residential area I had not seen the last time I was here, until we came to a beautiful house surrounded by a garden of lush trees, which houses the offices of UNICEF and, apparently, other NGO’s. We sat on the front porch, sipping Arabic coffee and talking with RR who works with UNOPS. UNOPS is involved in a number of programs to identify what the nature of Palestinian society should be in the future, e.g., in 25 years. One initiative brings diverse groups together and working with them to find ways of transcending their differences and focus on their common goals, ending the Occupation, addressing poverty and economic issues, etc. One aspect is non-violent resistance training, including lobbying (Palestinian) government officials in support of this strategy. They work through schools and universities, have created venues in which to bring rival political groups (i.e., Hamas and Fatah) together, something that is particularly difficult, but apparently there have been ways, while these factions won’t meet officially (there is generally “word from above” (from faction leadership) that their people are not to talk with one another, they have managed to bring them together for “off the record’” dialogue. RR emphasized that in these cases they avoid “political” issues and focus on issues of civil society, issues that the factions share a common interest. One interesting aspect is that they have had particular success working with prisoners in (Israeli) prisons, something that is apparently possible for two reasons: first, factional separation is less in the prison (since they bond against their common jailers) and secondly, prisoners and former prisoners have a particular credibility within the Palestinian community – as has been seen by published statements that some prisoner groups have issued. UNOPS is attempting to get a statement of this sort together that would put forth the message “Hey, get back to Palestine!” (as in: don’t get caught up in your factional, divisive and ultimately self-destructive factional stuff.

Politically RR observed that the failure of Oslo, in part, was that it was “talking at the top,” leaders talking to one another but excluding the people at the grassroots. This also left space for Hamas to move in, setting part of the foundation of their election success in ’06. So, RR contends, there is a need for an internal dialogue between Palestinians and Palestinian organizations to build to a unified position. Israelis, in another way, also need to do this and, if neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis (“real people”) are ready to do this internal work (and that seems to be the case in both places) then dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians only tends to push people with already set opinions into even more extreme positions. These observations led to a fascinating conversation about the value of “dialogue, intra- and inter-group/faction/society, and (given the presence of people from Seeds of Peace) young people and the adults who work with them. There was some feeling that “dialogue” between Palestinians and Israelis is not really possible because dialogue must be between basically equal participants and, given the current situation, that is not possible, because of he “occupier/occupied” relationship and because Israelis due to this situation, come to the table with much more than Palestinians possibly came. On person made the point that in situations like Seeds of Peace there is an attempt to make everyone equal and as much the same as possible (e.g., when camp begins everyone gets the same tee-shirts) – but the reality is that this is a manufactured equality, the Palestinian kids are not socio-economically in the same place as the Israelis, and, whether they identify it or not when they are in the program, when they return to their communities they cannot help but see (now even more clearly than before) how unequal their situations are. This seems to be true even for those Palestinians (as we had discussed at Samer’s last week) who come from (relatively) elite families. Another example that someone pointed to was that leaders of programs like these try to create activities that everyone can participate in not always with a sensitivity to the fact that some of the things they are doing are not within the experience of the Palestinian kids, even though they are for the Israelis (e.g., some kinds of sports that are played at camp.)

The result of all of this is that there really can’t be “nornalization” since the situation – and the relationship between the two peoples – are inherently not normal. In order for “dialogue” to be successful (with adults and kids), Israelis need to acknowledge that there is an Occupation and that reality in a basic way defines the relationship between those trying to talk to one another. One person in our discussion said that “if Israel groups are doing their job in Israel (re: ending the occupation), and they come here to support what we are doing, then I’ll talk to them. But don’t ask me to “dialogue” with Israelis as if we are equals.” Someone else made the point that treating young people to a “good time” outside of Palestine often had a serious – and destructive – backlash. Some of “Arna’s Children,” for instance, wanted to go to Italy and were taken there, shown all sorts of wonderful things and given a great vacation – an escape from the lives they were leading in Jenin. The result, however, was that they were made much more intensely aware of what they didn’t have (in their real world back in Jenin) that some turned to much more extremist politics and, in some cases, even became Suicide Bombers.

Two particularly interesting (to me) views that were expressed:
One of the people in this discussion explained that the leaders of Fatah do not fundamentally understand Hamas’ relationship to the hundred year long history of the Islamic Brotherhood – and that they can’t dialogue from that point of view which is rooted in an inflexible theology. If this is true (I think) it presents some very pessimistic implications – and dilemmas. We should (many of us have said) accept the results of a clearly democratic election (which Israel and U.S. asked for), but perhaps the hardliners in Israel and the U.S. are actually right, i.e., Hamas is extremist (and/or a “terrorist organization,” and ultimately we can’t talk to them. (SJ actually compares Hamas to Neturei Carta in the sense that they are both extreme groups whose views (and expectations) of “nationhood,” though very different, stem from a fundamentalist – fundamentally extreme – theological place, each waiting to bring on it’s own “messiah.”

And, something SJ said which I found very thought-provoking: “The Jews occupy our land, but we occupy their dreams,” he said. When I asked him to elaborate he explained: if you have to use violence to control another (as in asserting your power through occupation) you have to live constantly with the fear that motivated the need for your control.

From the UNICEF building we headed for the refugee camp. As I mentioned earlier, when I was last here, less than a year after “Defensive Shield,” the camp (as well as parts of the city) still clearly showed the devastation of that invasion. In the years since then the camp, which is the largest and most city-like of the camps I’ve visited, has undergone a significant revival. New buildings have risen, including a new school, many residences and other structures. This should not be misunderstood as suggesting that living in the camp is a good thing – and certainly the majority of these resident refugees are living in what most of us would consider sub-(our)standard. But, things here are marginally better than they were, and the commitment of the people living here to forging the best possible life is amazing.

No place in the camp is more impressive than the Freedom Theater. At the risk of resorting to a cliché, the theatre has risen like a phoenix from the destruction of their original (very rudimentary) facility to become a more than respectable regional theatre with a small print and much larger media library, various programs and activities, all above and beyond the core theatrical pieces that are being produced in their small but impressive theatre. Struggling with the inevitable fiscal challenges, and the difficulty of audiences beyond the Jenin district getting to the theatre, they have created an impressive institution, sitting in a unique place.

A couple of last travel-related thoughts. We came back to Beit Sahour rather late, making the trip doubly nerve-wracking. First, the winding, steeply ascending and descending roads are, if it is possible, even more anxiety producing in the dark – a reality that was reflected in the way that our driver leaned progressively further towards the windshield, obviously squinting in order to see the twists and turns that seemed to come at a breakneck speed. Despite the difficulty, we arrived safely back at Kalandia checkpoint where SJ and I switched to a Service taxi. Secondly, the checkpoints, and the teenage-looking soldiers that people them, seem even more sinister at night than in the daylight. This may be a aspect of the innate “fear-factor” that comes with darkness, it may be that I senses an extra level of discomfort on the part of the soldiers. In any case, we were stopped at three places along the way back, plus a long detour through and around Abu Dis due to a military incursion which, I found out later, was tied to the search for Palestinian terrorists in the village. At one of the last checkpoints I and the five Palestinians in the taxi were told to get out. As I was stumbling (my cane got stuck on something) off the vehicle one of the soldiers became very annoyed at me, repeating something in Arabic that I didn’t hear at first or, of course, understand when I did hear it. SJ called over and said, in Hebrew, that I was an American and wasn’t being disrespectful, that didn’t understand what he (the soldier) had said. The soldier then turned to me and asked if that was correct, was I an American. I told him yes and he asked for my passport. After looking at it and confirming that I was born in New York, living in Boston and was a tourist returning to Bethlehem, he handed me my passport and told me to get back in the van. I sat for five or ten minutes and watched as the soldier checked my fellow-passengers’ documents, asked some questions that I would not have understood even had I been able to hear them, and finally allowed them to return to the vehicle. As he sat back down next to me SJ said quietly, “it was much easier than usual because you were with us,” which triggered a form of the feeling I have frequently when confronted by Israeli security people. On the one hand, I am glad that my presence can make things easier for people. On the other, I am furious that that is the reality. Why should someone like me have to be present for it to be “easier” for people who live here to get through checkpoints that shouldn’t exist in the first place? (One answer, of course, is that when I – or any American/International – am around the soldiers are more likely not to want to be seen as being unreasonable or abusive.)

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