Birthday / Eid Al-Adha holiday update

Pamela Olson
27 January 2005

Dear friends,

Sorry to be so lousy about keeping in personal touch these days. After the elections I got the flu, and after the flu I went to Jayyous for the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Substitution, a major Muslim holiday to commemorate Abraham being allowed to sacrifice a sheep instead of his son to prove he was serious.

Now I'm back to piles and piles of work and get-togethers and a dabka concert and meeting new people all the time... It's impossible to keep up.

A Palestinian friend of mine who works 12-hour days for agricultural relief once said, "How can we talk about sustainable development? We can't even keep up with emergency development." People work so hard just to keep things from falling apart. Constantly on the defensive. He still tries to promote and educate people about organic farming, though. It would be nice if there were about ten more hours in the day.

It's tradition on this Eid, along with school vacations, new toys and clothes, and family visits, for every family who can afford it to kill, skin, clean, and butcher a sheep or goat as humanely as possible and distribute a lot of the meat to the poor. On Thursday, 20 January, the first day of the feast, the rain puddles ran red in Jayyous. And we enjoyed fresh fried goat liver for lunch.

At midnight that night, the first minutes of January 21, some friends brought me a birthday cake and we had a little dance party in Ghadeer and Ghaleb's house. They are one of the happiest couples I know, and their little son Osama is famously adorable.

Overall, though, it was a depressing holiday weekend with three Palestinian kids killed, including two 13-year-old boys shot dead by Israeli snipers on the first day of the Feast while visiting family and playing with their cousins. One was shot in Rafah, one in Tubas. On 26 January, a 3-year-old girl was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, and instantly killed.

And on and on, same old story: more people wrongfully arrested while visiting their families, more eviction notices and destruction orders for family farms, homes, and land, with no hope of appeal or compensation, for no legitimate reason. One of my friends from Jayyous, Adwan, who's married to an American Jewish girl and lives in San Francisco now, his father's ranch is slated for destruction because, Israel says, it was built without a permit.

It was built before Israel even occupied the land in 1967!

People's savings are running out, too, adding to the growing sense of desperation. They're trapped and captive and hit from all sides so fast no one can keep up, and nobody can afford three lawsuits at once for all the wrongful things done to him and his family even if an appeal were possible. It's the most awful thing I've ever witnessed. The feeling is one of being choked and bulldozed simultaneously.

I talked to some Israeli soldiers this weekend who barred me from crossing the gate of the hideous Apartheid/Annexation Wall. I wanted to take a Canadian and a German friend for a walk on the land where I picked olives this year and last. I asked why I couldn't cross. They just said over and over, "You can't." Like children.

I suggested that they had no right to build a Wall here and deny me, much less the majority of Jayyousis, access to Jayyous land.

They told me that the Palestinian people have no rights to their own land because it all belongs to Israel, and that one Jewish life is worth a million of "them".

The soldiers praised themselves for showing restraint and not carpet bombing all of the Palestinian towns and villages and being done with it. Russian soldiers coming back from Chechnya said similar things to me four years ago.

Of course, they have to think this way or they couldn't possibly do what they do.

A Haaretz article today said:

This summer, Israel is going to do the most ruthless thing it has ever done to its citizens... It is going to send its soldiers into the homes of citizens to pull them out. And to destroy all that they built, all they planted, all they believed.

The author is talking about the planned evacuation - and generous compensation - of 7,000 wealthy ideological settlers this summer from their Jewish settlements, which were built illegally on Palestinian land in the Gaza Strip after 1967.

The plan comes in conjunction with plans to consolidate control over many more and bigger settlements, also built illegally on Palestinian land, and prime farmland and water resources in the West Bank. It will leave the West Bank splintered, eaten away like swiss cheese, and the Gaza Strip a captive, impoverished ghetto with borders completely controlled by Israel, for whose terrible conditions Israel will deny any responsibility, pretending the miserable, crowded open-air prison is some kind of Palestinian statelet. By the letter of the plan, Israel will also reserve the right to invade at any time, rendering even that 'concession' meaningless.

Still, those ideological fanatics who stole some land in Gaza are now crying because they have to give some of it back. If they feel so strongly about having to leave their homes of thirty-odd years, how do they imagine the Palestinians, from whom the land was originally stolen, felt when being forced to leave their homes of hundreds of years?

If only they could find this much emotion for the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 with no compensation, or the destruction of all the Jayyous people built, all they planted, all they believed. Or the current plan to destroy 3,000 Palestinian family homes in Rafah, as usual with no compensation, for a new "security trench".

Instead, the settlers are doing everything they can to thwart the plan, a few even wearing orange arm bands on their sleeves in order to compare the Israeli government to Nazis for their role in uprooting Jews.

Living here is really like living in a house of mirrors.

I met a Dutch antropology Masters student who is living in Jayyous for six weeks. She is very healthy, very hip. She told me that last time she left Israel, the border guards asked her only two questions:

"Do you hate Palestinians?"

"Er... No."

"Why not?"

"Because they are human beings."


Then they erased everything on her laptop, even the programs. They stuck a magnetic thing in it and flatlined the whole deal without warning her or bothering to see what was on it. Luckily she'd already emailed her research papers home.

I think they had a file on someone she knew. Oh well.

When she got to Jerusalem this time, she stayed in a hostel along with some Israelis who were talking about Holland and its population problem due to its relaxed immigration policies. One of them remarked without irony, "Why don't they just take Belgium?"

A hilariously typical article is posted here, originally published in an Israeli paper, about Israeli harassment of international journalists (and everyone else) including "stupid and insulting" interrogations and lost, damaged, or erased laptops and other equipment.

And now a secret decision made by the Israeli government in July 2004 has just been publicized. The decision was to steal all the East Jerusalem land owned by West Bank residents, hundreds of millions of dollars worth, cynically calling the West Bankers who live mere meters from their land "absentees."

The law, highly questionable even in 1950, says the landowners have no hope of appeal or compensation. It is a throwback from the 1948 war, when the fledgling Israeli state called the Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes inside what is now Israel "absentees" in order to expropriate their land.

Most of the losers right now are landholders from Bethlehem and Beit Jalla who were separated from their land by the illegal Wall in August. This land being formally expropriated is a smoking gun -- pretty damning evidence that the Wall is an Annexation Wall, as we all suspected, and not a Security Barrier, as its builders claimed.

The lead editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on January 21, 2005, stated that: "It is impossible not to deem the cabinet's decision theft, as well as an act of state stupidity of the highest order. Israel has already seized land and property from the Palestinians during the years of occupation, reducing their living space in order to establish settlements in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."

Such unilateral actions effectively negate the possibility for meaningful negotiations related to final-status issues in the future. They are devastatingly damaging to prospects for peace (especially during this much-vaunted but fragile 'window of opportunity') and in direct contravention of international law.

Acting this way (as well as killing four children over the holidays and building a new stretch of the Annexation Wall twenty kilometers inside the West Bank, which is only fifty kilometers wide) makes asking Palestinians for a ceasefire seem kind of ridiculous if not impossible. "Why don't you give up your legal right to defend yourselves against foreign aggression? We'll just be over here shooting children and stealing your property."

Israel is doing this under the umbrella of the American government, with impunity. First they build the Wall saying it's temporary, nothing to do with land or borders. Then they annex all the land that the Wall has sliced away. And they don't even blush!

Also, Israeli spokesmen have announced that once they finish the Jerusalem section of the Wall this summer, all Palestinian Jerusalem residents will need permits to enter Ramallah and all other Palestinian Authority area. This will force thousands of Palestinians either to give up their career/family/cultural ties as West Bankers and as Palestinians, or to give up their Jerusalem residence - to ethnically cleanse themselves and move inside the Ghetto/prison/reservation created by the Wall. They'll have a choice between excruciating and unbearable.

There was some good news this weekend: my friend Ahmed (blue eyes, 20 years old) who was shot in the back by Israeli soldiers in November is able to move his legs again, although he still can't walk. We visited him in his family home in Jayyous (he's taking a break from physical therapy for the holidays), and I nearly fainted when I saw him twitch his toes. Last time I saw him he couldn't even feel them, and he didn't have control over his bowels or bladder. The massive jagged scars on his torso are starting to heal, too. He'll never be the same, but he's so much better than he was.

In December, Israelis bulldozed 650 ancient olive trees on the land belonging to another family in Jayyous to build a new illegal Jewish settlement, and on December 31, 2004, Israeli peace activists and Palestinians planted 100 olive tree seedlings on the razed plot in protest. The seedlings were bulldozed four days later.

A lot of my brightest Palestinian friends are throwing in the towel this year, moving to Germany or Turkey or France. I can't blame them. Sharon's plan of grinding 4 million people into exhaustion and despair so great they are willing to abandon their homeland, culture, history, and identity - Chinese water torture-style ethnic cleansing - is working. And with all the talk of 'disengagement' that's not really disengagement, elections that are not really elections, and ceasefires that are not really ceasefires, the world is contentedly looking the other way.

Israel isn't fundamentally evil or bad, but anyone given a blank check by the most powerful country on earth and living in severe denial can become dangerous quickly. Right now there are almost no checks and balances whatsoever. According to America, anything Israel does is justified and legitimate. Palestinians, on the other hand, are terrorists, and America is at war with terrorists. Nevermind that, for example, Israel has killed nearly 700 Palestinian children and stolen or destroyed billions of dollars worth of land and property from civilian non-combatants. Details, details.

An Israeli-Australian girl, a former Staff Sergeant in the Israeli military, went home to Tel Aviv for a visit recently and wrote about what 'peace' means to Israelis:

The most obvious thing about Israeli society is how profoundly insecure Israelis feel. They are nervous and twitchy and live with extremely high levels of anxiety [even though they have less chance of being hurt by violence than in a car accident, unlike Palestinians]...

When life is so difficult I suppose it is human to wish your difficulties away. But here is where the problem really lies. When an individual, a group or an entire society live with a dark secret or are in denial about something important in their past, they cannot experience peace. It is simply impossible to live a 'normal' or peaceful life on a foundation of lies and secrecy. Denying the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948, trying to not think about the consequences of long years of brutal occupation, and just wishing for it all to go away is no more than a fantasy.

In family therapy there is an accepted principle that unless serious injustices are addressed, there cannot be real peace. Families that protect dark secrets always pay a heavy price. I watched Israeli intellectuals on TV engage in genuine discussion trying to analyse and understand why things are so bad in Israel. They raised every possible reason for the situation other than the most obvious one - Israel's history. It was excruciating to watch but also familiar. I have never seen a society so steeped in denial as Israeli society."

When the 800-lb gorilla is wearing a blindfold, it's best to keep your head down.

Oh well, nothing wards off despair like cooking up a big mess of Mediterranean Russian food, throwing yourself a kick-ass birthday party, and inviting seven of your favorite Palestinians, two outrageously cute blonde Danish girl medical students, A Canadian, a German, and a dude from Horse Cave, Kentucky.

One nice thing about Palestine is that on the one hand you meet a lot of great Palestinians. Most of my Palestinian friends are social activists and volunteers working very hard to build Palestinian civil society against frustrations and outrages unimaginable in a normal country. Very strong people who have to keep a good sense of humor to survive.

And on the other hand the foreigners you meet are self-selected. Right away you know they are uncommonly bright and reflective enough to see beyond the stereotypes to at least one undeniable aspect of the situation in Ramallah, most of the rest of Palestine, and other spots in the Arab world: a gracious, intelligent civilian population (better-educated than Americans, I believe, in percentage of advanced degrees, and certainly more politically aware!) living under a state of continuous siege.

Put it all together and parties here - chill time with friends in a reasonably safe place - are especially nice, at least for me. Of course there are no places that are quite safe in Palestine, especially for Palestinians. Soldiers can invade any time, arrest, maim or kill anyone they want, anywhere they want, in any house they want, destroy anything they want, and Palestinians have no choice but to take it. They are called terrorists, or simply shot, if they try to defend themselves.

On Monday, 25 January, I made borshch with red cabbage and labaneh (like cream cheese but softer and tangier), baked chicken with onions, mashed potatoes with sauteed garlic and labaneh, salad with cherry tomatoes, lemon, garlic, olive oil, green onions, fresh Palestinian goat cheese, and avocado, and bottles of red wine from Bethlehem.

I invited people I knew from different social circles, thinking I'd introduce them. But all of them already knew each other! One friend of mine who works with medical relief and another who is a cameraman have met at countless disasters, one carrying stretchers and the other filming. They told me this was the first time they ever met on a happy occasion. The cameraman and a friend who works with agricultural relief knew each other because they are comrades in the Palestine People's Party. Palestine is such a small world.

Last night coming home from work at midnight, our taxi stopped behind an Israeli army Jeep that was blocking the road and searching a white van. A young Israeli soldier was sticking out the top of the Jeep and training a large gun directly at our car. The other people with me thought it was a camera or something, but when he turned to the side it was clear that it was a very big gun with a massive bore, much bigger than an M-16. Must be the 'heavy ammunition' we that kids keep being killed by. He trained it on us for a good five minutes, and he didn't know we weren't Arabs. Given the attitude of most random Israelis I've met, especially soldiers, regarding Arabs (hopefully not a representative sample), I was definitely sweating a little. I felt helpless and indignant.

Another soldier was in the street wildly pointing his gun in all directions, including up at some apartment windows, looking quite twitchy and anxious. It would have been a surreal and terrifying scene anywhere else, but here it's all in a day's work. It was just a matter of hoping the kids with guns stayed calm and weren't in a particularly bad mood, and hoping no Palestinians got the fool idea in their heads to try to defend their capital-in-exile from another foreign military invasion.

It's funny, in places like Russia and France, if your language skills aren't perfect, people tend to get irritated. In the Arab world, if you so much as say "Shukran" (thank you), they act like you're Mahmoud Darwish himself. (Darwish is arguably the Arab world's most distinguished poet.) "Ah, you speak Arabic better than me!" The irony of the fact that they compliment us on our Arabic skills in English for our benefit is lost in the generosity and good feelings.

Our cab driver was no different, and when we arrived at my flat, I said, "Humdulillah as-Salaama." That's what you say after someone's either been ill or just arrived from a long or perilous journey. He laughed and said, "Habibi."

We all laughed when we heard the news that "four major West Bank cities will soon come under Palestinian Authority control." Anyone with half a brain knows that means nothing. Israel will never give up its 'right' to invade any place it wants any time it wants. It has no incentive to do so. The ceasefire talk, while it stokes people's fondest hopes, still rings kind of hollow considering how little things have changed here since Arafat died, and even since Abbas was elected. Netanyahu's gone on the record saying that no matter what Palestinians do, Israelis don't owe them anything.

I hope I'm wrong and just getting cynical in my old age. One hopeful article recently appeared in Haaretz:

Israel will make a mistake if it makes do with the minimum [during the current window of opportunity]. It must seek a permanent solution and not take comfort in a period of calm for a few months or, at most, an interim agreement for a few years. Arafat's departure, the disengagement initiative, the deeper involvement of the Americans in the region (in Iraq, Iran and Syria), and the intensified awareness of the international community of the Palestinian demand for independence all reflect the opportunities and constraints now facing Israel. Now is the time to break free of the delusions about the Greater Land of Israel and to accept the fulfillment of the Zionist vision inside the borders delineated by the Green Line. It would be terrible if Israeli society only reaches this sober conclusion after another round of bloodshed.

Insha'Allah khair.

Anyway, I'd love to hear from you all, and I'll try to be better about responding.

All my love.



The Upcoming Iraqi Election

How are Iraqi citizens preparing for their Jan. 30 election?

1. Carefully considering the positions and platforms of the canddiates before placing bets on their chances for survival

2. Politely asking the nearest person holding a machine gun, "For whom would you prefer I vote, sir?"

3. Attending grassroots "Shoot Out the Vote" events

4. Volunteering to car-bomb voters to the polls

5. Repairing damage caused by last week's bombing of Ramadi's campaign-button-making machine

6. Providing covering fire while friends run for office

7. Reading the helpful illustrated guides distribute by the League of Remaining Voters

8. Lightening the mood by slamming doors, popping inflated paper bags, and dropping dictionaries behind backs of major candidates

9. Attempting to grasp concept of freedom

Next: New Year's in a Garden on the Moon

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