LETTERS FROM PALESTINE

Grapes of Aboud



Pamela Olson
8 August 2005

Things are good -- lots of interesting people in town these days, a couple of nice parties recently, a lot of sitting around in outdoor cafes in the perfect Ramallah nights talking and drinking nargila.

I've taken in two new roommates, one a Canadian journalist, one an American volunteer. Both have spent time in Iraq and Gaza. The American guy spent some time embedded with U.S. troops, and he showed us pictures of house raids, with terrified kids holding their hands up and old women woken up and harassed as they slept on the floor in their living rooms. He showed us a picture of a family home destroyed by shells and machine gun fire. The attack killed an elderly couple and left the rest homeless.

The Canadian was in Iraq less than a day this summer before he realized how insane things had gotten and how much danger he was in. The insurgents are apparently getting more organized, more efficient, and in some cases more insane. There are no rules and a serious shortage of rational actors. Whatever Bush and Rumsfeld might assure, Iraq is at rock-bottom and going downhill.

The Canadian is on his way to Gaza now, but Israel is stonewalling his accreditation. To get accredited as a foreign journalist in Israel, you must apply through the Israeli consulate nearest your home town, which monitors everything written in the press about Israel, and jump through several other hoops. Control of the foreign media is quite tight. I begin to understand why so many of the stories about Israel/Palestine that appear in the mainstream press are so ill-informed, contentless, and one-sided.

For example, many foreign journalists who file a Gaza dateline don't actually enter the Gaza Strip -- instead, they enter a special army-guarded VIP zone next to the checkpoint at the entrance to Gaza and file from there. 99% of the journalists who are covering the disengagement are doing so from the Gush Katif settlement blocks from the perspective of the 8,000 Jewish settlers. Very little from the 1.3 million Palestinians in the other 75% of the Strip.

Israel sometimes provides journalists with buses and guides and hand-picked contacts if they want to visit areas in the West Bank. Some journalists, who often know no Arabic and very little about the geography and culture of the West Bank, actually go on these state-sponsored field-trips and pretend like it's news.

* * * * *

Just another week 'til Disengagement starts. Half the Gaza settlers still haven't applied for compensation, apparently believing a miracle will prevent the pullout. Several thousand West Bank settlers have infiltrated the Gaza settlements and seem bent on fighting.

Some teenaged surfer-settlers say they'll surf out to sea and drown when the soldiers come to throw them out. And one 19-year-old settler-soldier wearing an IDF uniform, a skull cap, and an orange ribbon recently boarded a bus in an Arab town in northern Israel and opened fire, killing four Palestinian Israelis and wounding a dozen more.

Two of the murder victims were Christian and two were Muslim sisters in their 20's. When the gunman ran out of bullets and tried to reload, one of the bus passengers tackled him, and he was quickly beaten to death by the enraged, horrified crowd.

On CNN World (which is a little better than the American version), the commentators asked questions like, What was his motivation? How could a young man be driven to commit such an act? Had the Arab civilians he shot provoked him in any way?

You never hear these questions when it's a Muslim terrorist. I think all terrorism, including the state-sponsored variety, should be analyzed and condemned equally.

Even the BBC ran the headline, "Israeli bus killer lynched by mob." With the focus on the killing of the murderer, not the murder of the innocents. After several complaints, the BBC changed the headline to "Israeli gunman kills four on bus."

CNN reported that authorities are still trying to figure out how he had obtained a weapon. It's no mystery. As my parents can attest, everyone in Israel has a gun, usually a rifle of one kind or another.

This shooter had already been arrested twice for going AWOL to protest the disengagement, and his parents had begged authorities to find him after his latest AWOL and take his gun away before he did something stupid. The authorities had brushed them off.

Israeli police have arrested three of the killer's teen-aged buddies from his extremist settlement of Tapuach, which is located in the center of the northern West Bank near Nablus. They've been charged with membership in an outlawed organization and conspiracy to commit a criminal act. Experience indicates that they will probably be slapped on the wrist and released in short order, but we'll see. Hopefully I'm wrong.

So far, though, there are no plans to bulldoze the young man's family home, invade his town and blow down doors in dead-of-night arrest raids, assassinate Jewish extremist leaders, or impose a full closure on Israel.

* * * * *

Here's an oldie from last October, another one I half-wrote ages ago and never had a chance to finish and send.

Grapes of Aboud

On Friday, October 22, 2004, I went on an olive-picking field trip with the Palestine Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC). The fields we visited were near a half-Muslim half-Christian village called Aboud (rhymes with "food") about 15 kilometers northwest of Ramallah. The purpose of the trip was to teach local city kids about volunteer work, social service, and working the land.

A 62-year-old British guy named Jeffrey, who was doing a two-week consultation with PARC, joined us.

During the long, pretty day of climbing trees, picking olives, and picnicking, I met a 13-year-old boy named Samr who studied voice and karate. He didn't know much English, but what he knew was colloquial and perfect. He would often stand by while Jeffrey and I talked, absorbing.

A friend of mine, I'll call him Fred, a Palestinian communist who works for PARC, took me and Jeffrey on a tour of the area to see some of the works that PARC had done. He showed us a couple of agricultural access roads PARC had built. These roads become crucial links between towns when Israel shuts down the main roads.

We visited a woman's small organic farm. Her well had been capped by Israelis in order to secure more water for a nearby settlement. She broke the cap and is using her water "illegally" until Israel catches her again.

She uses composting and companion planting instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and PARC has helped her reclaim some of her rockiest land. PARC is especially friendly toward organic farmers. They promote chemical-free farming in nation-wide lectures and workshops. Fred also showed us terraces and containment walls he'd helped build.

Fred is a hero of mine. He knows people from every village in the West Bank, and he works tirelessly to help the land and support the farmers. People like Fred, who work their days and nights and weekends and young lives away to hold their country together under the impossible situation of expansionist military occupation, are the salt of the earth. His only reward is the hope that his endless hours of hard work will someday contribute toward a free and sustainable Palestine.

Sustainability is his professed ideal, and I asked him how he planned to make the Palestinian economy sustainable.

He laughed and said, "How can we talk about sustainable development in Palestine? We can't even keep up with emergency development."

I asked Jeffrey how things had changed since he'd been in Palestine ten years before. He said it was incredibly depressing to see the changes here, especially due to the Wall. He'd been helping farmers in Jenin recently, and sometimes they were treading ankle-deep in the untreated sewage that was dumped from a nearby settlement onto Palestinian land. I told him the same thing happened in Jayyous. Settlers literally taking a shit on their neighbors.

He said, "You can't quite wrap your head around it, can you? I mean, for a people who have suffered so much, you wouldn't think... But I guess only people who have suffered so much can do such a thing. Like the abused child becomes an abuser, and all that."

We visited a Christian home built in 1928. The date was etched under an ornately carved cross on the keystone of an archway. The family made us coffee and offered us plump sweet purple grapes. I'd been fasting for Ramadan in solidarity with some of my Muslim friends. (And you get more invitations to home-cooked evening breakfasts that way.) But the grapes looked so juicy I decided to eat them in solidarity with the Christians instead.

After the wife made the tea and poured us each a glass, she poured herself a glass and sat right down along with the men and the visitors, her pretty hair showing for all the world to see. It is nice (and highly ironic for this Bible Belt girl) that Arab Christians have such a liberalizing influence in the Middle East. Seeing a village woman hanging out on equal footing with the men right out in the open like that was refreshing like a spring breeze.

Jeffrey asked how many Christians were in Palestine, and he guessed 15%.

The father of the house shook his head and said, "Maybe 3%."

Jeffrey was surprised. "Well, then it's gone down, hasn't it?"

Fred later explained that Christian Palestinians have been given strong incentives to leave, like having American visas dangled in front of them when occupation policies were particularly intolerable. Many homes in historically Christian towns and villages like Bethlehem have been bombed, many stand empty. A lot of them are used, if at all, only as summer homes by absentee Christians, many of whom have moved to America.

The Christian element is a rather embarrassing factor in what American and Israeli propagandists like to style a "Jews vs. Muslims" conflict. Plenty of Christians have been killed and driven out by the occupation, too, and the holy city of Bethlehem is being strangled, cut off from its sister city Jerusalem, and turned into an impoverished ghetto by the Wall. I remain amazed that the world's Christians are not more outraged about what is being done to Bethlehem. And the rise in extremism that comes with the humiliation of foreign occupation hasn't helped anyone.

Jeffrey asked me where I was from, and I said, "A small Christian village in Oklahoma."

He looked startled. "As opposed to...?"

I laughed. "As opposed to all the Muslim villages in Oklahoma. I'm just kidding."

After chatting a while with the Christians, we tried to catch a ride back to the fields, but Israeli teenagers with guns and armored cars were blocking the road -- a flying checkpoint -- so we had to go on foot. They questioned us as we walked past.

Later four armoured Jeeps surrounded a box on the road and shot at it, to see if it would explode I guess. But it was just an empty box. Soldiers came to our field, too, and asked the usual stupid questions.

Jeffrey and I had a laugh at how they'd come up to us while we were obviously picking olives or eating lunch and demand, "What are you doing?"

We wanted to say, "Making olive bombs, what does it look like we're doing?" It was all very ridiculous.

I should mention that we took the kids to this area in particular because it was one of the safest around, by which I mean less inclined to harassment and violence from Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Some of my friends who support Israel's government's actions and stand by what Israeli soldiers do in the atmosphere of overt racism and impunity fostered by their government claim that if you just look at Palestinian textbooks, you can see why Palestinians are raised to hate Jews so unreasonably and violently and why Israelis have no choice but to treat them accordingly. I asked Fred about this.

He said, "All our textbooks were Jordanian. We learned more about Petra and Amman than about Jerusalem. But let me tell you who taught us to feel this way. I was eight or nine years old, in Qalqiliya. [Around 1982.] It was Eid al-Fitr, the feast holiday, and my sister and I had just bought new clothes, and we were walking home, very happy. Some Israeli soldiers stopped us. They said, 'What you are doing?' We said, 'Nothing, we are just walking, we bought new clothes.' 'Let me see them.' 'OK.' They took our clothes, and it had just rained, there were small pools on the ground. They put our clothes in the mud and the water and moved them around until they were covered. Then they laughed and said, 'OK, you can go.' So this kind of thing, Pamela. This is one of my earliest memories."

If you donít believe the account of a Palestinian who has actually studied Palestinian textbooks, check here and here.

By the way, Fred doesn't hate Jews or Israelis. Despite the best efforts of people who have terrorized him all his life, arrested and tortured him when he was 14 years old, continually harassed him and the farmers he has made a career out of trying to help, and now have imprisoned his family in Qalqiliya behind a huge concrete Wall, he still wants peace in the region for both peoples, and he misses his friends in the Israeli Communist party.

If you have a problem with Communists - that's a whole other discussion.

* * * * *

We loaded up in a van to go back to Ramallah around 2:00. It had been an altogether lovely day.

I sat next to a 21-year-old from Jayyous who is studying Business Administration at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis and at the same time volunteering long hours with PARC. Quiet, handsome, civic-minded, and intelligent, I was sort of ritually disappointed to find out he had a girlfriend.

He was born in Lebanon, but he said his family is from Haifa, a city that now belongs to Israel. He said, "I have never been there, but my heart is there." He grew up in Jayyous, but he hasn't visited there in six months "because the soldiers don't love me."

He showed me scars on his stomach. I couldn't tell if they were from knives or bullets, but a mutual friend later told me he'd been shot three times by Israeli soldiers. He pointed to a round burn scar on his left wrist and said, "Cigarette."

"Israelis?"

He nodded.

His right index finger was disfigured, shorter and stubbier than it should have been, crooked and uneven, the nail knocked almost sideways. He said, "The Jewish did that."

"How?"

"They put my hand on a block and took their gun and..." He pantomimed crushing something with the butt end of a gun.

The sight of the finger didn't bother me, but as a mental image of the scene filled my head, of three or four helmeted Israeli soldiers standing over this boy, humiliating him in his helplessness, violating, abusing, mutilating the one thing he was supposed to have some control over, his own body Ė my stomach turned violently. I turned away and looked out the window to relieve the nausea.

Later I figured out what it reminded me of: that scene in the Stephen King book Misery when the crazed woman chops her captive author's foot off as punishment. I remember the man looking down at his severed foot, at a scar on his ankle, the ankle that used to be his. The injury itself was, of course, horrible. But the truly sickening aspect of it was the violation of his body by a woman who had no business "punishing" him like that.

That was what made me almost ask the van to pull over. The violation and humiliation, the profanity of one human being punishing another just because he could. It was like tattooing or branding a citizen against his will. It had the element of what makes rape so horrifying.

He said something that I've heard at least a dozen Palestinians say, in the same way they always say it: he shrugged with that ironic stoic resignation that only thinly masks a wounded astonishment that never seems to fade: "This is our life."

He will have that mark for the rest of his life reminding him of how powerless he is, how depraved his occupiers are, and how worthless they consider his life and his physical and spiritual integrity. Clearly they think of him as nothing more than an animal.

But of course, God willing, he will never see himself that way. I like to imagine that his girlfriend kisses that broken finger every night.

* * * * *

A few days later I took another delicious 5:15 p.m. Ramadan breakfast with the family of a friend of Fred's who were from a small village near Nablus.

Fred's friend said that before all the closures, Nablus was more beautiful than Ramallah, with places to sit and meet and drink coffee and smoke nargila, and a beautiful Old Town. He said it used to be ten minutes from his village to Nablus, and it cost two shekels to get there, about 44 cents. People could get to the bigger secondary schools and An-Najah National University easily, daily.

Now to get to Nablus, you must go through another village first, and then through several checkpoints, and it may take four hours and cost between twelve and fifteen dollars. He said, "Do you know what twelve or fifteen dollars a day means in these times? It means people can't go to school. And exactly, women and girls."

"Why women and girls?"

"It is dangerous, and sometimes they have to walk five kilometers through open land, and sometimes they are held until after dark. Not easy for the girls, not safe. And it is expensive."

In this and many other ways, the enlightened occupation by the Only Democracy in the Middle East is disproportionately denying education to women and girls.

Pam

_________________________________

Lenox Avenue Mural

What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore --
    And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over --
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

    ~ Langston Hughes, ca. 1930



Next: Disengagement Fever

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