Dead Sea Stroll

Pamela Olson
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 deleted]."

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 row.

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 systems.

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 militants."

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 law.

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 Lebanon:

It's not news to anybody that Bush is an idiot, but here's another hilarious addition to the landslide of evidence.

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

    -more frequent contact with families (organizers say 40% of inmates are currently denied any visits)

    -improved sanitary conditions

    -access to public telephones

(Now that Iíve had a friend disappear, I understand better the demand for access to 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 sweets.

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 occasions.

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 tolerate.

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 oil. Yalla.

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 people.

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 make peace.

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 Jews/Israelis-and-Palestinians-getting-along-beautifully 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 much better.

    - 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 "were great."

    - 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.

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 place: Coexistence.

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 soldiers out.

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 be pleased."

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 fight."

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 completely different.

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."

      ~from "Power and Weakness," Policy Review, No. 113, June 2002

Forget about international laws. They are too 'unreliable'. It's all about promoting the national interest (euphemistically called 'a liberal order') through military might.

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 and continuous."

      ~W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Barghouti reminds us that "power is a beast that feeds on fear and submission and dies without them," and continues:

    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.

    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 morality.

    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 empire.

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.

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 Club.

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, no?"

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 gave up.

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 deference."

      ~Jean Dubuffet, French artist

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.

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 refugee camps."

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 grateful anguish.

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 like oxygen.

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.


Next: Bethlehem's Walls

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