LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
From Jayyous to Jordan
18 August 2004
I left off last time hanging out in Azzun looking at
the furniture Mohammad was having built for his
soon-to-be wife and house. After picking out brass
fixtures and checking on the progress on the bed and
dresser, we caught a cab back to Jayyous, a small
hilltop village near Qalqiliya in the north of the
West Bank, and had some tea in his fiancee's parent's
parlor with Mohammad, his fiancee, and several
Later that night I found another friend named Mohammad
walking down Main Street, and he invited me to hang
out on his porch. We chatted and watched the sun set
along with a volleyball player from Jayyous who had
just helped win a West Bank tournament.
I hadn't eaten all day, and he shared some tea and
fried corn-meal-and-chicken balls. I went in to wash
my hands afterwards, and their house, like many
others, was out of water. A younger brother poured
water out of a jar for me to wash with. Water is a
major problem in Jayyous since its seven water wells
were either destroyed or annexed by the Annexation
Wall. They can pull water from cisterns if they have
them, borrow from their neighbors, or buy it from
Azzun if they have the means.
Later we heard and saw a couple of kids running down
the road in front of two guys carrying big buckets of
water. It took me a while to recognize Ammar and his
cousin Fadi. I yelled at them, but they didn't hear.
Later Mohammad and I went by their house to chat, and
they said they had been taking water to a sister's
I liked Fadi a lot. He is a mechanic, and he didn't
speak a word of English, but even when he and I were
left alone, we found enough to talk about, or at least
laugh about. When he was playing with his
ten-year-old nephew Mahmoud, he picked him up over his
head like a bag of feathers.
The next day I went with Abir to Azzun where she took
a final exam, and then into Qalqiliya where she showed
off her university building and we had lunch and went
shopping. Qalqiliya is a town with the Wall
completely surrounding it, and we could see the Wall
from the top of her university building, snaking
around between the town and its green land.
I was invited back to Mohammad's house for a chicken
dinner, and before dinner we checked out the house he
was building. On the way we passed a house whose
porch seemed like it was on the edge of a cliff. If
you put your feet up on the rail, it would be like
they were up in infinity. Space spread out down the
hill and over the valley to the next hills,
greenhouses, citrus trees, and olive trees older than
many nations dotted the land, the hills were turning
blue in the twilight, lights were blinking on... the
sense of space, of ancient newness, of the promise of
days together and meals together, was overwhelming,
refreshing like a deep breath.
All the views of the Wall from the town are depressing
and disturbing, and this was the most extensive.
Snaking through this breathtaking space, the fence and
the road and the wire piles and the constant flashing
armored vehicles, miles from the recognized border,
visibly stealing land that friends of mine have deeds
to, was a violation worse than just property theft.
Mohammad said, "During university, I had a place on
that hill, I'd take tea and study. The wind would
blow, the view was very nice..."
"The hill over there, where the Wall is now?"
"They destroyed it?"
Even if they hadn't, I don't imagine it would be much
fun looking out on a view of stolen land through razor
wire and army Jeeps. He told me his dad worked 12
hours a day seven days a week for years to provide for
his kids. He exhausted himself. The land he has,
tens of thousands of dollars worth, is not ancestral
but was bought with his own money. All of Mohammad’s
share is behind the Wall.
It took Mohammad seven months of inquiring at the
Israeli settlement of Qedumim for him to get
permission to access his land. A brother of his was
looking after the land, so not everything had rotted.
His permission can be retracted at any time for any
Even for the farmers who can access their land, Israel
has prepared another obstacle to their livelihood.
They regularly flood the Palestinian market with
under-priced vegetables—sometimes as low as 10% of
market value—so that farmers can't compete or make a
living from their work. Underselling vegetables is an
inexpensive and devastating way to destroy the fruits
of the honest work of the backbone of the Palestinian
population, forcing more and more people to
contemplate leaving their homeland to try to make a
dignified living in more dignified conditions.
Mohammad told me a story of one farmer who fought for
access to his greenhouses, raised and harvested
tomatoes all fall, and then had to throw them away
because he couldn't make enough money with them to
cover the cost of delivering them to the nearest
Another devastating and cynical way to destroy the
Palestinian economy is by flooding the emerging
telecommunications market in Palestine with
underpriced, unlicensed, illegal cell phones and
According to Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American
businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of
Al-Bireh in the West Bank:
Further compounding the problems facing the
Palestinian operators are the dumping practices used
by illegal [Israeli] service providers [three out of
four of which have American-based companies as
majority shareholders]. Palestinians consumers are
offered telecom services at less than a third of the
cost as consumers living in Israel. This price
discrimination and dumping is injurious to... the
entire Palestinian communications market. While
elsewhere in the world telecommunications have
provided a tremendous economic stimulus, Palestinians
are hindered from developing this key sector.
The letter of the ‘disengagement’ plan can be found
The Israeli practice of dumping products and services
in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is not new. A
ferris-wheel currently operating in Ramallah was sold
to Palestinians after it did not meet Israeli safety
standards. Food products that are expired or near
expiration are regularly sold with large discounts
into the Palestinian market with no regard to food
safety or the rule of law. All of these commercial
practices take place with the full knowledge and
support of the Israeli government bodies.
[Meanwhile] President Bush and Secretary of State
Colin Powell continue to repeat the need for economic
development in the Palestinian areas [to offer] a way
out of the Israeli-created poverty and despair...
[According to the most recent ‘disengagement’ plan by
Sharon,] ‘The water, electricity, sewage and
communications infrastructures will be left in place’
[in Gaza after disengagement]. If Israel were really
withdrawing their illegal occupation, why would they
need to retain control of the communications
infrastructure that was supposed to serve the Israeli
These telecommunication operators clearly violate
accepted norms of conducting business, they violate
international law, and they violate the letter and the
spirit of the signed-treaties.
In any future permanent arrangement, there will be
no Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip. On the other
hand, it is clear that some parts of Judea and Samaria
(including key concentrations of Jewish settlements,
civilian communities, security zones and areas in
which Israel has a vested interest) will remain part
of the State of Israel. [It is clear, in other words,
that this ‘disengagement’ plan is a precursor to a
massive and permanent annexation of West Bank land.]
The State of Israel will monitor and supervise the
outer envelope on land, will have exclusive control of
the Gaza airspace, and will continue its military
activity along the Gaza Strip's coastline. [That’s
withdrawal? Sounds more like imprisonment]
3. The State of Israel reserves the basic right to
self defense, which includes taking preventive
measures as well as the use of force against threats
originating in the Gaza Strip. [So, the military will
withdraw, but it can go back in any time it chooses]
Military activity will remain in its current framework
in the rest of the West Bank. The State of Israel
will, if circumstances allow, consider reducing its
activity in Palestinian cities. [So nothing will
change, but if circumstances allow, something
undefined may change a little bit.]
All military infrastructure and installations in the
Gaza Strip and the northern Samaria region [he means
the northern modern West Bank, not the ancient
Biblical kingdom] will be dismantled and evacuated,
except for those that the State of Israel decides to
transfer to an authorized body [transfer to a what?
It almost sounded good for a minute].
The State of Israel stresses that it will not agree to
any foreign security presence in Gaza or the West Bank
without its consent. [None of those pesky UN guys.
Didn’t the US say the UN has lost relevance anyway?
Human rights and international law are old hat in the
New American Century.]
As a rule, Israel will enable the continued supply of
electricity, water, gas and fuel to the Palestinians,
under the existing arrangements and full compensation.
[Israel will control Palestine’s electricity, water,
gas and fuel... but oh well, if Palestine makes any
decision Israel doesn’t like, who really needs
electricity and water?]
The existing arrangements, including the arrangements
with regard to water and the electromagnetic area,
will remain valid. [The current arrangement in Gaza
with regard to water is the Israelis taking the lion’s
share and watering their lawns while some Palestinians
die of thirst. And the electromagnetic area includes
a lot of illegal Israeli phone companies.]
In general, the economic arrangements that are
currently in effect between Israel and the
Palestinians will remain valid. These arrangements
include, among other things:
A. The movement of goods between the Gaza Strip, Judea
and Samaria [i.e. the West Bank], Israel and foreign
B. The monetary regime.
C. The taxation arrangements and the customs envelope.
D. Postal and communications arrangements.
H. The entry of workers into Israel in accordance with
the existing criteria.
[Many of you don’t know about the current monetary
regime, postal and communications and taxation and
customs and import/export arrangements, etc., but they
don’t exactly favor the occupied.]
In the long run, and in accordance with the Israeli
interest in encouraging Palestinian economic
independence, The State of Israel aspires to reduce
the number of Palestinian workers entering Israel, and
eventually to completely stop their entrance. The
State of Israel will support the development of
employment sources in the Gaza Strip and in the
Palestinian areas in the West Bank, by international
bodies. [Sweatshops anyone?]
Every instance of the word ‘withdraw’ with regard to
Israel’s military presence is followed by the word
‘redeploy’ to the surrounding areas. So in letter it
is not a withdrawal at all. Just redeployment.
Mohammad, by chance, happened to be a volunteer for Al
Mubadara in Jayyous and was scheduled to call Dr.
Barghouthi that night. We spoke to him briefly and he
told us some of the news.
I visited another friend later that evening, and while
we were taking tea in his parlor, I asked him about
the pictures on the wall of a handsome dark-eyed young
man. He said it was his older brother who was
studying in one of the best universities in one of the
most dangerous towns in the West Bank. After his
mother left the room, he asked me, "Did you see her
face when you asked about my brother?"
"No, not really, why?"
"She is very angry. My brother has not come home for
one year. He is a wanted man."
"We don't know. But all of his friends, they have
been taken away, arrested, we don't know where they
are. My brother can't leave his town. If he goes
through a checkpoint, they will take him."
"He can't come home?"
"He can't go anywhere. My mother is very sad. He is
her favorite son. It makes her ill, ya'ni, in her
heart. She loves him so much. More than me."
"Can you talk to him at least?"
"Yes, I phone him, all the time. But one time I was
talking to him on this phone, and a voice broke
through. Speaking Hebrew."
"Speaking Hebrew? They were spying on you?" That’s
another danger of having a foreign-controlled
telecommunications regime on your land.
"Yes. You see I have two phones, yes? Why do I have
two phones? I am not a businessman. It is for my
brother. I don't give anyone this number."
Another friend of mine had a nephew who had just
finished medical school in Tunisia. It was obvious he
was the star of the day, sitting in a parlor among
about twenty of his relatives in stylish thin-rimmed
glasses with an air of benevolent wisdom and almost
boyish pride. I tried to speak a little Arabic with
him, and he answered in a mixture of English and
French. He said he liked Tunisia, and the people were
great, but rent was expensive.
On Saturday I said my good-byes to everyone before I
took off for Amman the next day and encountered the
usual hospitality ‘problem’. Even if you have half a
dozen people to see, every house you visit is like a
black hole. You are pulled into their circle and
begin to forget about other commitments. Trying to
leave is like fighting your way out of wet tar.
"No, thank you very much, no really, it was delicious,
thanks so much, but I really have to... No, really, I
had a lovely time here, everything was great, I just
have to... La, really, I'm really sorry, I already
told... La, w’allah, humdulillah, shukran kthir, biss
mish mumkin, OK?... Yalla, OK, tayyib, one more cup
I got up very early the next day to try to find my way
up north to the Israeli city of Beit Shean where I
could get a visa and cross into Jordan. I found a
woman at the bus stop outside Jayyous, and she got on
the bus to Azzun with me and even paid my shekel fare.
She said she was a nurse on her way to work in
It occurred to me, as she and the bus driver so kindly
helped me figure out a way to get where I needed to
go, how often and how utterly, especially during my
first time in the Middle East, I had depended on the
kindness of strangers to help me get around. By now I
almost took it for granted how well any stranger I
talked to would treat me, how genuinely they would try
to help. In Palestine especially.
It was a somewhat torturous path finding my way up
through Jenin and then to the border with Israel in
the north, and the soldiers at the border asked what I
was doing. I was the only person at the border, and
the soldiers were so bored they asked me where I was
from, started singing a song about Alabama (close
enough), and then looked at every page in my passport,
naming off countries. One said, "You like to travel,
huh? It is a very good life, I think. Look at us,
stuck here all day in the hot sun."
"Two years, right?"
"No, three years! Two years for the girls. It’s not
fair. They do the same work we do."
I felt some pity, because they were right in front of
me, friendly and human, and sadly wasting prime years
of young life. But then again, they could have
refused to serve. The Palestinians can’t choose
whether or not to be occupied.
When I got a few kilometers outside of the West Bank,
my Palestinian Jawwal mobile phone lost all coverage,
and I felt a surprising sense of loss. My only
connection to a lot of friends was cut.
I shared a taxi to Amman with an Israeli businessman
who spoke fluent Arabic and lived in a kibbutz near
Jerusalem. He and the Palestinian driver chatted
during the drive. I asked the driver where he was
from, and he said Beit Shean, just across the border
from the northern crossing, an Israeli city now. The
Israeli man pulled us over and bought us kunafa along
I asked to be dropped off at the hotel in Downtown
Amman where my friend Fayez is the manager. He was
the first good friend I made in the Middle East last
year when I traveled. With an easy charm and
encyclopedic knowledge of the region, he was also kind
and patient enough to answer my naïve questions and
matter-of-factly tell me stories so shocking to tender
American ears that I had to go find out if they were
His Palestinian family were refugees in 1948 and again
in 1967 when they moved to Amman. His village was
destroyed and the ruins are situated near one of the
fences around Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. With
guests from all over the world not just staying in his
hotel but also sharing kunafa and coffee in his office
every evening, I consider him the unofficial
ambassador of Amman, and an ambassador of the Middle
East in general. He welcomed me with the usual
warmth, and it was fantastic to see him and catch up.
I called a Jordanian friend whom I had met during my
latest stay in California, and her family was
exceedingly kind enough to pick me up and give me a
place to stay for the next few days. Her father is a
Jordanian man who studied in Tennessee in the ‘60’s,
when black people still couldn’t sit in the front of
the bus, and he had some great stories from those
times. He got in a car accident one time, and when he
came to, the doctor asked where he was from.
"Jordan," he said.
"Jor - dan. Jordan."
"Where in Georgia?"
The story reminded me of another one told by a
Palestinian friend of mine, now a professor at
Stanford, who studied in Georgia many years ago. He
said some Christian missionaries, young college girls,
once came to his house to tell him the Good News, and
he invited them in for tea. They asked where he was
from, and he said, "Bethlehem."
Their jaws nearly hit the floor. They acted like he
was a celebrity and asked him several questions.
Finally he said, "Look, let me tell you about a
religion that encompasses both Judaism and
Christianity, that..." He went on to describe Islam,
not telling them what it was, and by the time they
left, they were practically converted.
Another woman followed him around asking to paint him,
insisting he must look something like Jesus.
Tanya’s mom is an American woman with roots in
Wisconsin who met her husband at university and then
moved, sight unseen, to a new life in Jordan. She
told me her kids were never interested in politics
until they started university in the States. Now her
oldest son and Tanya are leaders on their campuses in
Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim advocacy. She said they
were simply dumbfounded when they got to America and
found out what people thought about Arabs and Muslims.
One of the more benign but silly questions they got
on arrival was, "Do y’all pray to Buddha?"
The first time I left Palestine, I thought telling
people about what was going on there would be like
shooting ducks. I spent only a few weeks there, and
from my own observations it was clear how much our
media lies and distorts things, how horrible
conditions were for innocent people, and how peace and
justice and security were by no means the first
concern of the major powers involved. I thought I
could just show some pictures, tell some stories,
impart some of the horror of what was happening, talk
a little about the real live three-dimensional human
beings who were suffering for no good reason, give
ample evidence of the dishonesty involved in current
policies, and people would drop like flies out of the
loop of misinformation and propaganda. But I naively
underestimated the power of mass misinformation and
I think Tanya found, too, that even being a Muslim
Arab who didn’t fit a single stereotype was not enough
to make much of a dent in a lot of people’s
perceptions. People like her keep on trying, though.
I'm back in Ramallah now, very happy to be back, and I
have a lot more to write, but I will save it for