LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Dead Sea Stroll
22 September 2004
A few updates since the last email: The day after
Ammar was released from his 32 hours of custody, he
called and said that soldiers had detained him and
booked his ID again.
My heart didn't have any ache left in it, and I didn't
know what to say. I couldn't tell him to be safe or
be careful, because it was not up to him how safe or
careful he was. I couldn't tell him I was sorry,
unless I was apologizing for ever having paid taxes to
the American system that sponsors his captors. (Later
I apologized on behalf of Western Civilization in
general, which has been the cause of similar and worse
situations all over the world, but it felt kind of hollow.)
He SMSed when he was released and later called and
said he was held from 11-3, the hottest part of the
day, by a Russian soldier. Ammar asked him in Russian
what the deal was, and the soldier said, "Just wait.
I'm stuck here in the hot sun, too, you know."
Ammar said, "Yeah, but at the end of the day you get
your paycheck. We just get [colorful Russian phrase
The Russian soldier laughed, but still held him for
four hours, checking his ID. It takes 30 seconds to
check an ID. The two cases of detainment had nothing
to do with each other. He was just unlucky twice in a
Ammar and I both came down with the flu that week,
probably because of the changing weather, but the
stresses of the weekend didn't help our immune
In other news, around 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday,
September 15, Israeli soldiers shot and killed five
men in a house in Nablus in state-sponsored
mafia-style executions. Four of the five were shot in
the head at close range, medical examiners said.
An eleven-year-old girl was also shot in the cheek and
killed while in her home in Nablus by Israeli soldiers
occupying a nearby house.
According to Reuters, "Hours later, Israeli special
forces backed up by helicopter gunships killed four
Palestinians -- a militant, a policeman, and two
civilians -- at a car repair shop in the northern city
of Jenin... They had earlier said all four dead were
Even if all the dead had been militants (or freedom
fighters, as you prefer), who walks into a bustling
town at mid-day and starts shooting people? Who
executes people in their homes in the dead of night?
What 'democratic' state in the world does these things
in full view -- and gets away with it?
Also, "The Only Democracy In The Middle East" has sent
special forces to sabotage, intimidate, and shut down
Palestinian election centers in East Jerusalem.
Israeli police confiscated all written materials and
lists of Palestinians who had registered to vote,
detained nine employees, and ordered the closure of
six voter registration centers.
What's good for Iraq, it seems, is not good for
Palestine. When the West spreads democracy, some
democracy is compulsory, and some democracy is
forbidden. Go Democracy!
The raids are a clear attempt to drive Palestinian
Jerusalem registrants away from the registration
centers, thus sabotaging the electoral process and
hindering attempts at democratic and peaceful
nation-building in Palestine. It is also a message
that predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem does not
and will never belong to the Palestinians, despite the
fact that it is guaranteed to them by international
Metal revolving doors, the kind you see at the exits
of amusement parks, have been installed at Qalandia,
one of the busiest checkpoints in the Territories.
The new obstacles, coming and going, do nothing except
hinder the elderly, handicapped, injured, mothers with
young kids, and people carrying packages or backpacks,
and generally make everyone feel just a little bit
more like a head of cattle. Another insult people are
trying their best to cheerfully ignore, but every time
I go through it quietly, I feel like a little part of
myself has died.
On Friday, 17 September, Israeli Forces shot and
killed Beriz Al-Minawi, a 19-year-old Palestinian
woman, in the West Bank city of Nablus. She was shot
in the heart as she stood on the roof of her house,
calling her brothers to come inside because Israeli
soldiers were patrolling the area. Witnesses
confirmed that no clashes between Palestinian youths
and Israeli soldiers were happening in the area where
Al-Minawi was killed.
Also, travel between West Bank cities has been
severely restricted if not shut down for the Jewish
High Holy days, stranding countless people from their
universities, visits, business trips, etc., for nearly
a month. A friend of mine had to get to university
using dangerous backroads, and it took hours, in which
the travelers had to worry about being stopped and
harassed by army Jeeps. I had to cancel a trip with a
friend because of the closures, and another friend had
to cancel a trip to see me. For now, my strongest
associations with the Jewish High Holy Days (and I am
not alone) are frustration, deprivation, and fear.
A recent UN dispatch accounced, among other things,
"the killing of a 10-year-old girl, Ragda Adnan
Al-Assar, by Israeli occupying forces on 8 September
2004. Israeli occupying forces shot the young girl
while she was sitting in her fourth grade classroom of
a clearly marked UNRWA school building in Khan Yunis
refugee camp. According to UNRWA, the girl was
sitting at her desk in the school when Israeli fire
struck her in the head. Medical sources at Nasser
Hospital, where she was taken, declared her clinically
dead. Following the tragic incident, the UNRWA
Commissioner-General said, 'The kind of live fire into
a refugee camp so indiscriminate that it makes
classrooms dangerous for 10-year-old children is
totally unacceptable.' This is only one of many such
horrific incidents where young Palestinian children
have been struck by Israeli fire while in classrooms
or on playgrounds of UNRWA schools."
Another UN dispatch noted several recent acts of
illegal Israeli aggression and intimidation against
It's not news to anybody that Bush is an idiot, but
here's another hilarious addition to the landslide of
Now, to travel back in time more than a month. When I
got back to Ramallah from Jordan on August 16, I asked
Dr. Barghouthi how things were going, and he said they
were pretty busy with the prisonersí hunger strike.
A statement from the Palestinian Prisoners Society
announced the start of the open-ended hunger strike on
August 15, accusing Israel of "robbing us of all our
rights, treading on our dignity and treating us like
animals". They presented the strike as non-political,
and their demands included:
-guards to stop conducting strip searches
(Now that Iíve had a friend disappear, I understand
better the demand for access to telephones.)
-more frequent contact with families (organizers
say 40% of inmates are currently denied any visits)
-improved sanitary conditions
-access to public telephones
The Israeli minister for internal security, Tzahi
Hanegbi, said: "They can strike for a day, a month,
until death. We will ward off this strike and it will
be as if it never happened."
Strike-breaking measures included confiscating salt
that prisoners intended to use to stop themselves
becoming dehydrated; having barbecues outside of
prison cells and eating in front of prisoners; banning
family visits; and restricting sales of cigarettes and
I regret that Iím so far behind in writing, because
this isnít news anymore. The hunger strike is already
over. It lasted for an unbelievable 18 days. 4,000
prisoners out of 7,500 participated. (About 400 of
the prisoners are children under 18.) Vigils and
marches were held daily in the West Bank in solidarity
with the prisoners.
One mother fasting in solidarity with her imprisoned
son died. The brother of a friend of one of my
officemates went to prison in January weighing 60
kilograms, or about 132 pounds. He was a leader of
the hunger strike. At last report he weighed only 27
kilograms--about 60 pounds.
The strike was finally broken on September 2, with the
Palestinians claiming the Israelis had made some
concessions, and the Israelis claiming no such thing.
Israel proudly stated that the strike was a pointless
exercise and they defeated it easily.
As an Iraqi-America friend of mine commented, such
posturing in the face of a last-resort effort by
thousands of powerless and desperate people, whose
only weapon is their own suffering, reveals Israelís
desperation in the battle of wills.
An amusing case of cognitive dissonance occurred when
I was reading Haaretzís account of the end of the
hunger strike. One of the advertisements on the page
read, "Make your point: Why havenít the Palestinians
turned to non-violence? Click to send your response."
Last time I checked, hunger striking is a textbook
example of non-violent resistance, as are standing in
front of bulldozers, peaceful demonstrations,
political organizing, and civil disobedience, all of
which the Palestinians have practiced on countless
A more interesting poll would read, "What
psychological factors allow an apparent majority of
Americans and Israelis to disregard facts, evidence,
and truth, and baldly contradict themselves on the
pages of one of the most prominent left-wing news
organizations in Israel? Click to request that Bono
replace Kofi Annan as Secretary General of the UN."
I respect Haaretz and read it regularly, but a lot of
otherwise intelligent publications, as well as people,
shock me occasionally by the misinformation they have
internalized and the contradictions they calmly
Of course, we all internalize lies without thinking.
It's very human. Authorities tell us things, and with
no further sources on hand, we tend to believe them.
We build our worldviews around their stories and start
to identify our interests with them. After this
process has gone on for a while, it can be very
unpleasant to come face to face with something that
contradicts any part of our picture of the world, much
less the very foundations of it.
There was a big debate in my first grade class about
whether Santa Claus existed or not, and I remember
thinking of the nonbelievers as misfits and cynics.
Last year in Amman when I was hearing first-hand
accounts from Iraq, I wanted to throw up, not because
Iraqis were suffering so much but because I had been
lied to so completely.
The nice thing, as countless Americans and Israelis
who have visited the West Bank and Gaza can attest, is
that once you've seen for yourself, thereís no going
back. Truth is a one-way valve.
So, grab a plane ticket. Bring your friends. You are
warmly invited to Ramallah any time. Olive harvests
and Ramadan are both coming up, two of the best times
of year--gorgeous weather, picnics, sweet cheese
pastries, hand-made date cookies, and rivers of olive
Anyhow, Palestinians are making the best of things,
but they have it pretty bad, and ordinary Israelis are
suffering hideously because of the occupation, too.
Aside from the unmitigated horror of suicide attacks,
Israel is facing isolation in the international
community and moral, psychological, and economic
trauma. Poverty is on the rise in Israel (according
to Haaretz), and young people are leaving in
increasing numbers. It's another case of ideologues
hijacking a country and working against their own
Even if the occupation continues, more human lives
could be saved if Israel used the billions being spent
on the Hafrada Wall to provide clean water and better
access to health care for Gazans instead.
Alternatively, Israel could simply cease its policy of
commandeering all the water resources in Gaza for the
settlers to water their lawns and fill their swimming
pools, forcing Palestinians to drink water with unsafe
salt content, which causes them to develop kidney
problems, and then barring them access to hospitals
and dialysis machines.
Of course, it is not human lives as such that the
Wall-builders are concerned about.
An aside: I'm doing a report on Israeli water use
practices. Aside from being terrible for the
environment, Israeli water policies are unbelievably
unfair to Palestinians. The minimum safe per capita
water consumption per day recommended by the WHO is
100 liters per day; Palestinians in the year 2000
(when things were considerably better for
Palestinians) consumed about 60 while each Israeli got
an average of 350.
The West Bank holds 40% of the groundwater in historic
Palestine, and part of the reason Israel is terrified
of allowing Palestine any sovereignty is that Israel
might lose control over this important water source
(even though Israel already has complete control over
the Jordan River, denying Palestine any of the
Jordan's water and turning it into a brackish stream
by the time it reaches the West Bank). Water from the
West Bank constitutes about 22% of Israeli's current
water supply. This represents 80% of the West Bank's
water, unilaterally taken from Palestinian land.
Despite overwhelming demand, Palestinians are denied
permits to dig new wells, and the Wall has destroyed
or annexed several existing wells. (As I've noted,
things have gotten much worse since these figures were
taken in 2000.) Some of the largest Israeli
settlements are built over the Western Mountain
Aquifer, square in the middle of the northern West
Bank agricultural districts, and this is exactly where
the Hafrada Wall cuts deepest into Palestinian
territory to surround and annex them.
(In the 1830's, according to historian Howard Zinn,
U.S. President Andrew Jackson "encouraged white
squatters to move into Indian lands, then told the
Indians the government could not remove the whites and
so they had better cede the lands or be wiped out."
Do I hear an echo?)
As I was reading all this, a movie of Ammar and Fadi
cheerfully carrying large buckets of water to a
sister's house, and me washing from a bucket in
Mohamad's house in Jayyous, was playing in my mind.
More Israeli lives could be saved, of course, if a
just peace were established. Israel has never come
close to offering the bare essentials of a just peace:
í67 borders (22% of historic Palestine), East
Jerusalem as Palestineís capital, transfer of illegal
settlers out of Palestinian land (or giving them
citizenship under a sovereign Palestinian state), and
the right of return for refugees. Never mind control
over their own borders, water resources, and air
space. These things are guaranteed to the
Palestinians by international law.
A friend of mine put it this way: Imagine you live in
a house with four rooms. One day a third party
decides to give two of them away to somebody else.
You reject this notion and fight against it. The
intruder, possessing overwhelming power, ends up with
three of your rooms. Facing no other options, you
offer to let them keep those three rooms if they will
The best peace they offer is for them to keep the
three rooms, plus between 10 and 40% of your one
remaining room, plus control over your electricity,
water, doors, windows, ceiling, and what you can bring
in and out of your doors and windows. Also, several
heavily-armed people friendly to the invader will come
live in the middle of your room.
This was the essence of Barak's "Generous Offer," the
best one made to the Palestinians after 1967, which
was never even offered in writing, and which was
rejected by the right wing of Israel as giving the
Palestinians too much.
A great summary of the failure of the Oslo Peace
process, written by an Israeli.
It seems clear that no Israeli statesman can recognize
Palestinian rights, even if he wishes to. Dr. Philip
Veerman, Executive Director of Defence for Children
International of Israel, said in a WorldVision report,
"It seems that we, Israelis and Palestinians, here are
not able to solve the problems ourselves. Letís hope
that the international community will put our conflict
high on the priority list and work with both sides to
start to talk again and reach a just peace soon."
International sanctions, like the ones used against
South Africa to end Apartheid, and other external
pressures must begin as soon as possible to make it
economically unfeasible for Israel to continue to
ignore international law and human rights. We can't
claim to be a world of laws unless the laws applied to
South Africa and Iraq are applied to Israel, too.
An International Civil Society Conference drafted an
action plan to support Palestinian rights through
international law, calling for sanctions and other
restrictions if Israel continues to refuse to comply.
A big fat global concert wouldnít hurt, either. A
group is trying to appeal to Bono of U2 to put one
together. Click here to add your vote and learn some
Ďfuní facts about Occupation:
Here are a couple of
stories, just for fun:
- One of my Palestinian roommateís best friends is an
Israeli woman who married a Palestinian man and is
living in Ramallah and raising two daughters. My
roommate is quoted as saying, "I love her so much."
When my roommate was having a bad week, the Israeli
woman led her in guided meditation that made her feel
And on and on. Yay. The Zionist dream of Jewish
domination at all costs is fading, and upholding its
facade is becoming more and more panicked, repressive,
and deadly. But something much nicer could take its
- One of my Palestinian roommateís previous roommates
was an American Jewish girl whose sister is
ultra-Orthodox and living in Jerusalem.
- Two Israelis came to our office the other day to
distribute some informational pamphlets about the
Occupation. My officemate is quoted as saying they
- An Israeli friend of mine visited me in Jayyous
several times last year, and every time I visit
Jayyous, the Palestinian villagers still ask about my
friend. If things go smoothly, about 200 Israelis
will help the Palestinian village of Jayyous with its
olive harvest this year.
Who could fault Israel if, although it was founded on
conquest and dispossession (which country wasn't?), it
owned up to this legacy and decided to live in peace
and relative fairness with its indigenous neighbors?
South Africa did it. It is possible. Then Israel
would truly be a light unto the world, a shining
example, an outstanding, proud, groundbreaking member
of the community of nations.
A Norwegian girl named Hilda visited last month from
Hebron, where she works with TIPH, an international
committee that documents the interaction between
Israeli settlers and Palestinians in Hebron. Hebron
is the West Bank city where about 500 Israeli settlers
terrorize 120,000 Palestinian residents with the help
of 1,200 heavily-armed Israeli soldiers.
She said the insanity of the place didnít disappoint.
Israelis throw rocks at the internationals and their
vehicles and call them Nazis, soldiers storm and
occupy houses for no good reason, settlers harass and
injure defenseless Palestinians. TIPH tries to
document these things and interfere when they can, but
they are unarmed and outnumbered.
Their presence isnít completely useless, because when
soldiers illegally take over someoneís house, and TIPH
shows up, often the soldiers get embarrassed and just
leave. Otherwise TIPH can go to the commanding
officers, who generally play dumb but usually get the
One TIPH worker, a black South African, said the
settlers call him a Nazi all the time, too. He looked
down at himself and shook his head. "Hitler would not
Another friend of a friend, a Palestinian communist,
told me that Palestine has hundreds of NGOs working
here, and human rights laws all over the place, and
yet nothing changes on the ground. Nothing gets
better. Things, in fact, get worse and worse.
He said, "NGOs and human rights laws do nothing for
us. Why do we need them? Nobody stops the Israelis
from stealing from us and killing us. So we have to
Another Palestinian friend and I were once talking to
a Swiss-Irish-British law graduate who works for a
prominent human rights law NGO, and my Palestinian
friend said, "Look, we have international laws all
over the place, and none of them get implemented
unless America wants them to. So," she smiled in a
kidding-on-the-square kind of way, "you can stick your
international laws in your international ass."
I hope sheís wrong. But while the NGOs and human
rights laws ameliorate conditions at best, the thrust
of the goals of the occupation are allowed to carry on
unmolested. The news of the International Court of
Justice ruling that the Annexation Wall is illegal,
which I thought of as a great victory, was received
with equanimity by most Palestinians I know. And we
see how much has changed since then.
I still like to think I have faith in the processes
that have been set in motion by the Geneva Conventions
and other well-meaning edicts put forth by the human
rights regime. Not much has changed, and power
politics, the raw self-interest of the privileged,
still rules the day.
But if we keep talking this way, if we keep repeating
the Geneva Conventions like a mantra, if we keep
holding civil society meetings and encouraging
ordinary people to demand that their governments
represent their values, if we inculcate this
sensibility into the consciousness of the mainstream,
maybe one day it will bubble up into a kind of
reality. Itís one of my fondest hopes.
Meanwhile, if everyone kept telling me to be patient
and wait for a better world while my land was stolen,
my neighbors killed, my house destroyed, my land
uprooted and poisoned, my movement restricted, and my
friends imprisoned, after about 37 years I might start
to get a little bit suspicious myself.
The Swiss-Irish-British guy changed the subject and
showed off some phrases he had learned from his new
Arabic book of colloquialisms. His favorite was
"Bukra fi-l-mishmish." It literally means, "Tomorrow
there will be an apricot." Apricot season is very
short--only about a week--so they use it the way we
use "When hell freezes over." A Palestinian guy
translated it as, "Don't even dream."
My favorite Arabic expression lately is "Abu shibab."
Itís a way to get someoneís attention politely, as
opposed to saying, "Waiter!" or "Hey, you!" Literally
it means "father of the youth," but colloquially it
means something like, "Best among the lads."
One Friday my roommate and I went on a long walk
around town. We stopped once to check out a gym and
play basketball with some officemates. Then we walked
through the Old Town, where some of the stone houses
look like castles, and on through the trendy part of
town, where the expansive art deco houses are made of
smooth white stone with black wrought-iron accents.
Most of the town is built on mountain ridges, and
gorge-valleys drop into space on either side.
Near sunset the crescent moon came out as the sky
turned every pale shade imaginable, and the
crimson-hued hills faded to blue. We could see Bir
Zeit twinkling in the distance, where the top
university in Palestine is located, and I asked her
what the words meant.
"Bir is like, when you dig a hole in the ground and
line it with stones, itís usually for water."
"Like a well."
"Maybe. And Zeit is because they used to store olive
oil in them."
"Olive oil in a well? Oh, you mean a cistern." My
eyes widened. "Jesus! Cisterns full of olive oil?"
"Yeah, yeah, itís normal. Olive oil used to be
cheaper than water. I mean, before the problems, the
bigger population [refugees], the settlements..." She
shrugged. "Now they use them all for water."
For the millionth time it occurred to me that death is
not only physical human death. Disrupting and
destroying ways of life is a form of extinction.
I used to have a good segue into the next section, but
I seem to have lost it, so... now for something
One of my favorite dangerous American ideologies is
the Project For the New American Century. Their website
asks, "Does the United States have the resolve to
shape a new century favorable to American principles
and interests?" and proposes "a Reaganite policy of
military strength and moral clarity."
Shaping the world for one nation's interests...
military strength and moral clarity... Hmm, what does
this sound like?
It wouldnít be half so scary if our government werenít
being run by their board of directors (Rumsfeld,
Wolfowitz, Cheney, Jeb Bush, Dan Quayle, etc. etc.).
Robert Kagan, a leading neo-conservative ideologue,
and probably a member of the PNAC, has this to say:
"The United States remains mired in history,
exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where
international laws and rules are unreliable and where
true security and the defense and promotion of a
liberal order still depend on the possession and use
of military might."
Forget about international laws. They are too
'unreliable'. It's all about promoting the national
interest (euphemistically called 'a liberal order')
through military might.
~from "Power and Weakness,"
Policy Review, No. 113, June 2002
So. Fascism it is.
Omar Barghouti of counterpunch.org wrote an article
called "Wither the Empire" about the need for
openminded, generous people to oppose the aggregation
of power and wealth in a tiny number of fearful,
grasping hands, a condition unhealthy and immoral for
the privileged and disastrous for everyone else.
He's not the first by any means. W.E.B. Du Bois, for
example, wrote in 1903:
"Today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of
the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem
which both obscures and implements it: and that is
the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to
live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty,
ignorance and disease of the majority of their
fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have
waged war until today war tends to become universal
Barghouti reminds us that "power is a beast that feeds
on fear and submission and dies without them," and
~W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
The bewitching ideal behind the image of America is
virtually dead. With the current hurricane of
fundamentalism, neo-McCarthyism, hyper-nationalism
(which is slightly reminiscent of the rise of European
fascism less than a century ago), brute force,
unabashed bullying, contempt for most other nations,
unprecedented imperial arrogance and patent
militarism, the leaders of America have assassinated
the idea of America.
Ouch. Weird to feel my country being seen this way by
the rest of the world. We're just a bunch of good old
boys, right? Never meanin' no harm. Beats all you
never saw, been in trouble with the world since the
day we was born.
It is no coincidence that in the eyes of most American
political elites, Germany and France are considered
pariah states that might face sanctions or worse if
they fail to comply; that Arab oil is considered
rightfully belonging to Americans, albeit lying under
the sands of Arabia by mere coincidence; that even the
United Nations is viewed as just another mischievous
third world country that needs a whipping every once
in a while to properly toe the line...
It seems each one of us will have to choose between
empire and freedom. Even Americans will see these
paths as mutually exclusive, for while empire will
further aggrandize the wealth and power of the
plutocracy and its cohorts, most Americans will lose
their precious--exemplary, I would venture--civil
rights, and, perhaps more importantly, their claim to
The rest of the world truly hopes that Americans may
themselves rise up to the occasion and renounce the
empire from within; that they may opt for the status
of relatively less privileged citizens of a more just
and peaceful world, rather than the loathed masters of
a bludgeoned, bullied, and oppressed world; that they
may shed their role as uncritical, even submissive,
subjects of a reviled, racist and morally bankrupt
We're basically good people, minding our own business.
But there comes a time when democracy is not just a
privilege, but also a duty. Sometimes we need to look
up, find out what's going on with the men (and Condi)
we supposedly voted for, and decide if we want to
continue to support it. With our position of power in
the world, we can't afford to be asleep in the back
seat when some crazy drivers hijack our (very large)
bus. Kids are being run over and property is being
damaged as we speak. When the whole thing crashes,
we'll be feeling the pain, too.
Anyway, the fact that "opinions founded on prejudice
are always sustained with the greatest of violence"
seems an extremely hopeful sign that such opinions are
not natural, not preferable, not the inevitable
condition of humanity. Slave revolts, intifadas,
womenís movements, the human rights regime, and the
popularity of Jesus Christ give me hope that this,
too, shall pass.
It seems like if we give enough people education and
freedom, independence and confidence, dignity and
security, in snowball fashion we start striving for
human dignity, human rights, and the rule of law for
the rest of our neighbors, too--even in the face of
overwhelming pressure from entrenched powers. More
and more people are realizing that justice is the most
stable and reliable (and pleasant) road to security,
even if it means giving up a few meaningless luxuries
and cherished notions. And we do outnumber the Yacht
Once we have a bit of food in our stomachs and start
to look our brothers in the eye, itís not so easy to
put our boot on their necks. Maybe understanding and
generosity as opposed to ignorance, fear, and greed is
the natural, the most pleasant and successful, state
of mindful animals after all. Binshoof.
Shortly after I got back from Jordan I was invited on
a trip to the Dead Sea for the workers and volunteers
at the Health Development Institute and the Youth
Center. It was a big party on the bus, with the
Palestinians in the back drumming and singing and
dancing, and the German volunteers in the front
looking prim and slightly alarmed.
We had to sit down as we neared a checkpoint, though,
and behave like good little natives.
(One thing I forgot to add about the story of
our convoy being stopped coming back from the wedding:
When we got to the checkpoint, the women started
clapping and singing. When the soldier came to our
window, we sang louder, until the Palestinian men in
the front told us to pipe down. Maybe thatís why they
closed the checkpoint on us.)
It took an hour to get to the stretch of the road past
the Qalandia checkpoint, which we wouldnít have been
allowed to pass. If we had been allowed to pass, that
part of the trip would have taken ten minutes. A
leader of the Health Development organization winked
at me and said, "This is the Apartheid system at work,
The Dead Sea beach that we visited, on Palestinian
land, is controlled and operated by Israelis, and any
money we spend there goes to Israel. Despite this
unfairness, it is another example that coexistence is
possible, and we enjoyed a nice chat with a lovely
German-Israeli proprietess (who was nonetheless
somewhat offended when we could tell by her accent
that her origin was German and, just to make
conversation, asked which part of Germany she was
from. She said emphatically that she is Israeli now).
The shining blue Dead Sea is beautiful, and the views
of the water and the Jordanian mountains are almost as
nice as the views of slim Arab boys smearing each
other with the cleansing and therapeutic Dead Sea
muds. It's part of the ritual of coming to the Dead
Sea to lather yourself up in the black, slimy stuff,
wait for it to dry, and then rinse off. The minerals
in the mud suck everything out of your cells and
pores, and once you rinse off and rehydrate, your skin
feels like baby silk. We swam and barbecued, kicked a
soccer ball around and had a great time.
I met a boy of 18 on the bus ride home named Ahmed
who'd recently been chosen for a scholarship to attend
college in England. He introduced me to the Markiz
al-Shibab (Youth Center), where I met five or six more
Ahmeds, a bewildering coincidence. I dubbed the first
one Ahmed 1, his best friend Ahmed 2, and after that I
Ahmeds 1 and 2 invited me out for coffee, and talk
turned inevitably from music and sports to our
experiences with occupation. Ahmed 1 said a soldier
once asked him for his ID, and just to be
passive-resistive, he told the soldier he didnít have
one. The soldier reached into Ahmedís pocked and
pulled his ID out. Ahmed 1 said, "Oh, thatís right, I
forgot. My ID is with you."
The soldier said, "Come with me," and made him get
into an armored vehicle, where soldiers started
hitting him on the face and shoulder with the butts of
their guns. They drove him to an inconvenient
location, told him to "be careful," and let him go.
Ahmed 2 said that one time he was late for one of his
classes at university (he goes to Bir Zeit), and it
was raining hard, and there was a long line of cars
stopped at the checkpoint near his university. He
decided to try his luck on foot. He asked the soldier
at the checkpoint if he could cross and get to
university, and the soldier said he could, but he was
not allowed to use the road. He had to walk alongside
the road in the mud.
Ahmed asked why, and the soldier said, "You donít
deserve to walk in the street."
Ahmed 2 debated with himself. He could walk in the
mud, he could turn back, or he could make a stand.
Finally he said in his perfect English, "You know,
when the Germans occupied Warsaw, they treated the
Jews badly just because they were Jews. Now you are
doing the same thing to us."
Ahmed 2 laughed at the memory and said, "He was very
angry. He started yelling and said, 'This checkpoint
is closed! Nobody can pass!' More than 500 people
were stranded. They asked me, 'What did you say to
him?' I said, 'Nothing.'" He laughed again.
"Caprice, independence and rebellion, which are
opposed to the social order, are essential to the good
health of an ethnic group. We shall measure the good
health of this group by the number of its delinquents.
Nothing is more immobilizing than the spirit of
Another time Ahmed 2 wanted to visit an uncle and some
friends in a nearby village, but the checkpoint to get
there was closed. He decided to set out across the
hills on foot, bypassing the checkpoint altogether.
~Jean Dubuffet, French artist
He was stopped by an army Jeep, and the soldiers
pointed guns at him and made him jump in place and do
push-ups. When they got bored with this, a soldier
took his wallet and said, "You are very rich. Give me
your 90 shekels [about $20]. You canít leave until
you say I can have them."
Ahmed thought fast. $20 is a lot of money to a
student even in the States. The soldiers waited.
Finally he said, "I canít give it all to you, it is
not mine to give. 50 shekels of it is for my friend.
He asked me to buy some books for him. So that leaves
40. How about we split it: 20 and 20. Otherwise go
ahead and beat me."
The soldiers argued with him a long time, but finally
took the 20 shekels and left.
That night several Ahmeds invited me to an expensive
restaurant where local elites hung out. Some patron I
didnít know was footing the bill. We went there to
watch the final episode of SuperStar, the Middle
Eastís version of American Idol. The last two men
standing in the competition were Ammar Hassan, a
handsome Palestinian from Salfit (near Nablus), and a
cute skinny spiky-haired Libyan.
Just when the show was getting started, though, the
large projector screen clicked off, and the waiters
began officiously dismantling the video set-up and
buffet table. We looked around in confusion, but
pretty soon it became clear that some gunmen were
going around shutting down parties. Piles of tires
were burning in the streets, and a respectful hush
hung in the air. People sheepishly, quickly went
home, our little party included.
I asked what the deal was, and one young guy, I think
he was the one who paid, said with an air of
superiority, "All the bad ideas come out of the
When I got home, I asked my roommate what was
happening, and she said, "Look, there are people
starving in prison just so they can be treated like
human beings, and people in Ramallah are worried about
this stupid singer. The prisoners call for our
support, and what kind of support is this?"
The next evening I hung out at the Youth Center again.
We sat on a balcony overlooking the courtyard at
sunset, and the Ahmeds began entreating a
young-looking 18-year-old, bound for An-Najah
University in Nablus this fall, to sing. He smiled
and shook his head. But when they stopped bugging
him, he started singing on his own.
It is hard to describe a voice in words, but this is
the best I can do: His voice was like a candle flame
in a tall stone tower with high windows looking out on
clear stars, being caressed by transparent winds the
soft jewel-tone colors of dyed silk. He was singing
Iraqi songs, and the tender, haunting longing of it,
the hope and sorrow of it, the clear perfection of it,
took my breath away. When he paused, during the
silences, the world seemed to hold its breath in
He stopped once and said in Arabic that he felt bad
singing songs in a language I didnít understand. I
thought, if anyone doesnít understand this language,
they arenít human. Actually, all I could think was
how I could get him to start singing again. It was
Well, the army just invaded Ramallah, and from our
office window we could see armored Jeeps tearing
around the streets like teenagers on four-wheelers.
They almost hit a guy in a blue car. People are
demonstrating against it peacefully in the main
square, Al-Manara. A large rock came out of a doorway
by our office and hit one of the Jeeps square in the
back end. A British girl in my office muttered, "Nice
shot!" They apparently went into an internet cafe
(maybe internet is down in Israel) and they've
arrested six people so far. Never a dull moment.