LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Birthday / Eid Al-Adha holiday update
27 January 2005
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
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
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
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?"
"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
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
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
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,
When the 800-lb gorilla is wearing a blindfold, it's
best to keep your head down.
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
Anyway, I'd love to hear from you all, and I'll try to
be better about responding.
All my love.