LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Grapes of Aboud
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
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
* * * * *
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
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
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
* * * * *
Here's an oldie from last October, another one I
half-wrote ages ago and never had a chance to finish
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
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
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
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
Sustainability is his professed ideal, and I asked him
how he planned to make the Palestinian economy
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,
Jeffrey was surprised. "Well, then it's gone down,
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
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
* * * * *
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."
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."
"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
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
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
"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
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