Notes on My Visit to Palestine

Category: Nature & Science

By Ali Abunimah

A Brief Exchange of Views

I had resolved to be as meek as necessary to ensure that the Israeli officials did not stamp my passport. But I could not and did not try to hide my grim face as I stood in line to be greeted by the Israeli security officials, after coming off the bus that brought me across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan. The atmosphere is oppressive, but far less so for me traveling as a "tourist" on a foreign passport, than for Palestinian residents of the occupied territories, who have to go through a separate terminal. When my turn came, the officer directing people through the metal detector and x-ray, a young woman, said without any discernible warmth, "Welcome to Israel, why don't you smile?" I answered simply, "I am not in Israel." Officer: Oh, where do you think you are? Me: You know that we are in occupied territory. Officer: You should visit Israel, then. It's a lovely country. Me: I know that, its my country, after all. Officer: Is it so terrible to pass by Israelis? You could at least smile. Me: I wish I had a choice. If I want to come to the country, I have to pass through you. Perhaps when the country is free it will be easier to smile.

They let me through with no difficulty. Gone are the days when Israel cared what you say. After all Yasir Arafat and Sheikh Yasin live with them today saying what they like. I wait on the other side for my cousin Z. who has to go through the Palestinians-only terminal, since he is a West Bank resident. In that terminal, Palestinians first pass their documents to a Palestinian Authority official. Behind the PA official is a one-way glass window. The PA officer says to my cousin, "Face the mirror so she can see you." "She" is the Israeli officer standing unseen behind the glass. The PA official then passes the travel document under a slot in the glass, where it is inspected by the Israeli, who actually decides if he can enter or not. This is the fiction of Palestinian "authority" in action.

Shake Down City

After going through Israeli security at the bridge, we board a bus which brings us to a place optimistically called "al-Istiraha" (The Resting Place), on the edge of Jericho, within the Palestinian Authority's "self rule" area. A less restful place is hard to imagine, consisting as it does of a vast concrete plaza covered with a corrugated steel roof. There are rows of wooden benches, filthy latrines, and a snack bar with over-priced Israeli-made chips and sodas. Noise and heat reign as arriving travelers struggle with suitcases, boxes and children, and look for the friends and relatives who have come to receive them. Traders strap impossibly high towers of boxes of goods brought from Jordan to the roof racks of beaten yellow taxis. As soon as we get off the bus a man thrusts his hand at me with a ticket and demands "wahad shekel" (one shekel). What for? Jericho municipality demands one shekel for each piece of luggage or parcel brought into the "Istiraha," where all travelers must make a compulsory stop. All cars arriving to pick up passengers must pay 10 shekels (3 dollars) for the privilege of entering the Istiraha.

There is a profusion of uniforms: PA "customs" officials wear old US Desert Storm uniforms, the police wear blue fatigue pants and T-shirts which say "Palestinian Authority" in Arabic. Others, their allegiance unclear, wear traditional olive colored uniforms. I see one man with no uniform but with a 9 mm automatic pistol shoved into the back of his jeans, barking orders at travelers. Some officials hurry about, others lean lazily in pairs or trios smoking and passing the time. The sense of order and linear progression that exists in the Israeli terminal is totally absent at the Istiraha. My cousin Z. tells me that before 1990, cars could go right up to the bridge terminal, making the bus fare, the mandatory stop and all the various little charges unnecessary.

Coming into the West Bank is one thing, but going out is much worse. In addition to all the little charges for cars and luggage, all Palestinian travelers must pay a "departure tax." This amounts to 115 shekels ($ 40) for every man woman and child, even newborn babies. This revenue is split between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli occupation authorities. In addition, travelers pay another 35 shekels which goes only to the Israelis. Needless to say these charges are an enormous burden on Palestinian families, especially those with many children who are traveling to Jordan to visit relatives. As a "foreign tourist," I pay only a $32 "transit fee" to the Israelis when I go through the separate "tourist" terminal on the way out.

The cars coming and going from the Istiraha tell the story of rich and poor in Arafat's Palestine. There are only two types: aging and beaten Toyotas or Opels overloaded with sweating families and baggage, or brand new Mercedes, Audis and Jeep Cherokees whisking one or two of the well-heeled in air conditioned comfort. Either the middle class doesn't drive, or it doesn't exist.

On the road up from Jericho, is the vast "Oasis Casino," with a luxurious Intercontinental Hotel attached to it. Only Israelis and tourists are allowed to enter, in keeping with the apartheid theme apparent everywhere. By the side of the road, a few miles up from the casino is a trailer . A large, yellow and black sign says "Change." This is where gamblers can exchange currency or sell their watches, jewelry and even their cars. I imagine that as with most casinos, this one probably preys on the poorest and most desperate, even in Israel. The money poured into the "Oasis" goes straight from their pockets into the bank accounts of the PA and its unknown "investment partners."

Settlements

Since my last visit to Palestine in 1997, it is apparent even on this brief trip that Israeli settlements are growing everywhere. On the road to Jerusalem I notice that there is a large cluster of new houses under construction in the settlement of "Mizpe Yeriho," near Wadi Qelt. Maale Adumim, already the largest settlement, is growing as well. Bulldozers have cut yellow gashes into the land to lay roads for the settlement's eastward growth. In 1996 I took pictures of the Jahalin Bedouins in the very same place where the bulldozers now toil. Later, I see a shantytown of shipping containers and plastic sheeting near the village of Azariyya. This is the place the Jahalin were forced to move to by the occupation forces when their lands were taken in the short years since my last visit. It must be hot in a steel shipping container, and not at all like living in a traditional "bayt sha'ir," as the Bedouins have done from the beginning of history.

As we approach Jerusalem, along the highway which winds among Maale Adumim's vast clusters of buildings, the hillside has been cut at a steep angle. New buildings seem like they are going to pour over the edge onto the roadway below. Israeli flags hanging off many balconies in the settlement high above us.

I visit Abu Dis and Ras Al Amoud, the Palestinian villages on the eastern edge of Jerusalem. In the middle of Ras Al Amoud, tightly packed houses are being built on a piece of land the size of a Chicago city block. Small for a settlement, but strategically located in the middle of a densely populated Palestinian area. The building site is surrounded by a high wire fence. This is the work of Miami bingo king Irving Moskowitz. I am surprised that the work is so far advanced. Why do we hear nothing about it from the Palestinian "negotiators?" It's as if its not happening. Mr. Moskowitz has even hired Palestinians from the neighborhood as night watchmen.

In Abu Dis, the village reportedly to be renamed "Al-Quds" and given to the Palestinian Authority as an ersatz Jerusalem, I see the famed "Palestinian parliament" building under construction. It is bigger than I'd, imagined. In, the dusty ma,in street of Abu Dis, dry cleaners and grocery stores advertise their wares in Hebrew to attract business from nearby settlements. If you blink when you go through the main street in Abu Dis, you will miss it.

I look at the photos I took of Jabal Abu Ghneim in 1996, from the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. It was covered in a thick pine forest. The photos from 1997 show the characteristic yellow gashes which will soon be roads. Now, all the trees are gone and the hill is covered in apartment buildings, tightly packed, some of them ten storeys high. I count five tall construction cranes, and take a photo. Jabal Abu Ghneim is now "Har Homa."

The settlement of Qedar in the West Bank is a collection of permanent buildings, trailers, and water tanks. About a mile away, over a hill and a valley, a completely separate cluster of new houses is going up. This new and totally separate settlement has also been named Qedar. It is, the Israelis say merely an "expansion" of the existing Qedar to accommodate "natural growth."

Jerusalem

My hotel is right next to the Israeli interior ministry office in occupied east Jerusalem, on Nablus Road. Arriving there at eleven at night, Palestinians are already gathering so they can be first in line when the cage-like entrance opens in the morning. Some of the people line up simply to sell their places later on. This is where Palestinians must come to petition the occupation authorities for spouses and children from other parts of the occupied territories be allowed to live in Jerusalem. This is where Jerusalemites must come to defend their right to stay in their own city and to register their children. It is within these walls that orders have been issued to expel thousands of Jerusalemites and to divide thousands of families. A little up the road is the US consulate. By morning there is a line there too. Palestinians are always lining up at checkpoints, government offices and embassies.

At seven in the morning, it is pleasant to walk down Nablus Road towards Damascus Gate. This is the main entrance into the walled Old City. Entering the Old City at that time, few shops are open. Some shopkeepers are sweeping and washing the narrow alleys and streets in front of their stores. The smell of bread fills the air. Occupation troops patrol in groups of three. Sometimes they lean lazily against walls--ignored and ignoring the emerging life around them. These days the streets of Jerusalem do not threaten them. Come back in mid morning and Damascus gate is transformed. Fallahat--women from the villages around Bethlehem--sit along the walls selling every kind of fresh produce. They wear their traditional thwab--black, and blue dresses with intricately embroidered breast panels. Laid out before them on cloths are vine leaves, mint, sage, eggplants, tomatoes, and zucchini. Figs the size and bright green color of new tennis balls catch my eye. Inside the walls, shops selling souvenirs and CDs compete for attention. Speakers blasting the latest Egyptian pop tunes compete with taped recitation of the Qur'an from more pious shopkeepers across the way. Boys with hand carts stacked high with crates hurtle through the narrow alleys somehow managing never to hit anyone. Christian pilgrims and tourists of every color gaze around in wonderment. American backpackers complain loudly about the latest inconvenience they have encountered. Go to Jaafar sweet shop any time of day and eat the finest Knafeh anywhere. Despite the signs everywhere in the country of Israeli encroachment, it is when I am in this Jerusalem, surrounded by ways and rhythms that cut as deeply into peoples lives as the wheel ruts grooved into the stone passageways, that I feel convinced that Israel may occupy Jerusalem by force, but Jerusalem will never belong to it. It is beyond possession and it will outlast its latest conqueror.

A Little House in Bak'a

I take a "servis", a Palestinian public ,minibus, from ,Jerusalem to B,ethlehem. As it leaves Jerusalem, it detours through the old Palestinian neighborhood of Bak'a, which lies just to the west of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. I am astounded by the many large graceful Arab villas. Shady verandas with arched colonnades, old wooden doors framed by vines. Each and everyone is now inhabited by Israelis, the original owners expelled in 1948. It is here that the Israeli elite lives and many of the houses fly Israeli flags. A few of them display "For Sale" signs. One large house on the main road, newly renovated, boasts a large sign in English and Hebrew: "A Little House in Bakah-- Hotel, Restaurant and Bar." I wonder where its real owners are and what they would think if they saw their house now.

Bethlehem

My cousin J. owns a store on the main road into Bethlehem. Not much has changed in Bethlehem since 1997. The main road has been repaired, but the town still looks dusty and forlorn. Talk to any business owner in the town (I talked to several) and they tell you that under the PA they pay more and more "taxes." What do you get in return? "Wala ishi." Nothing. Among everyone I talked to, especially the young people in our village was a sense of hopelessness. The word I heard more than once to describe the PA was "mafia."

The most hopeful part of my visit was to Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. I went to the Ibdaa Cultural Centre, on a day when a group of teenage girls were just convening for a discussion group. I had met some of them last October when they came to perform in Chicago. We laughed and joked about how nervous I was emceeing the event, and I told them the only thing that seemed to go right that evening was their performance. The girls had just returned a few days before from the Lebanese border, where for the first time they had met face to face--albeit through barbed wire--with children from Chatila refugee camp in Beirut. Both groups had been exchanging emails for some months. Dheisheh camp has an internet center which offers training and "internet cafe" hours to the residents. Like every building in the camp, the Ibdaa Cultural Center is small and crowded, and every inch put to good use. Children come and go, obviously at home and eager to show off a place they are proud of, and which provides them with their only positive outlet. Through the fundraising efforts of the people there, including the US and European tours which the children's performance group did last year, a new building for Ibdaa is being built on the edge of the camp. The land was donated by the UN, whose compound is adjacent, but no funds came from the UN or any governments. The new center includes space for all the centre's activities, as well as guest rooms to allow the camp to host delegations, and volunteers from other camps and around the world. Ziad, one of the adult coordinators at Ibdaa gives me a tour of the new centre and the camp. He shows me the Hebrew street names spray painted on Dheisheh's walls. These are Israeli map references which date from the days when occupation soldiers chased Palestinians through the narrow alleyways. The camp residents have kept them as a reminder. The Israeli soldiers at least had a sense of irony: they named one of the alleys "Champs Elysees."

It was just past noon on a hot sunny day, and people were indoors escaping the heat, or were away at work--those lucky enough to have it, since forty percent of the camp's residents are unemployed. We went to the UN health centre. After fifty two years, the camp still has one doctor for eleven thousand residents. The doctor is paid for by the UN. In its four years of rule, the PA has not provided another doctor or done anything to expand the health services for the refugees. Camp residents who require hospital treatment must seek it at their own expense in Bethlehem or Jerusalem, though often other refugees pitch in to help. The "Bethlehem 2000" project to smarten up the city for m,illennium touri,sts apparently ,addressed none of the camp's needs. Down the road from Dheisheh, is a large new building. This is Yasir Arafat's "office." He rarely sets foot in Bethlehem, and yet apparently the PA felt it was more urgent to build an administrative building for the "president" than to provide another doctor or a clinic for the refugee camp.

Bethlehem symbolizes more even than the contrasting cars of Jericho the new division between Palestinian rich and poor. Set in the midst of the deprivation, exclusion and official neglect that the refugees endure is the new Dar Jacir Intercontinental Hotel. From a $270 per night room, the guest of this opulent palace can gaze into the crowded concrete shacks of Azzeh refugee camp on one side, and Dheisheh on the other. Dar Jacir is a stunningly beautiful palace built early in the twentieth century. For decades it was used as a school (my father attended it in the 1950s). During the Intifada it became a girls school, and a symbol of resistance, as its students were frequently gassed and shot by the occupation forces. Today it stands as the perfect symbol of the Oslo regime, where profits, cronyism and privilege are the pillars of Mr. Arafat's ongoing "revolution." I am reminded of the frequent Israeli jab at the PLO in the 1980s that all its leaders did was to tour the world staying in five-star hotels. At the time many people took that as an enemy's propaganda. Today it looks like those "leaders" came home, and brought their hotels with them.

Rachel's Tomb

Rachel's Tomb is a small building, no more than a house really, with a little dome on top. It is a shrine to the biblical matriarch. Behind it is a Muslim cemetery. It is on the main road into Bethlehem just at the point where the Palestinian Authority's "authority" begins, and hence it is on this stretch of road that clashes occasionally occur between Palestinians and Israeli occupation forces. When I first came to Palestine in 1996, the Israelis had just seized Rachel's tomb, on the grounds that it is a site so revered by Jews, and so under threat from the local people who have cared for it for centuries, that it must be eternally protected by the Israeli army. At that time they had just built a concrete barrier down the middle of the main road in front of Rachel's Tomb, dissecting it. One side is now for Palestinians, the other for Jews. Today, Rachel's' tomb has been transformed. No longer visible from the street it is hidden behind a high fortress like wall with Israeli watchtowers at each corner. Occupation forces guard a single entrance, labelled only in Hebrew. I am told by my companions that entrance to Palestinians is now forbidden and Muslims wishing to visit the cemetery must enter via a small gate at the back.

I decide to visit through the front. I approach the entrance and stride right in without stopping for the soldiers. They immediately chase after me. Where are you going--a blond, blue eyed soldier demands in Hebrew? "I am going to visit the shrine." They ask if I am Jewish and I explain that I am not, but that I have a right to visit, because people from the area have been visiting it from time immemorial, my dad has always told me about it, and no one has a right to reserve it exclusively for themselves, especially if they have paid absolutely no attention to it for decades. After some arguing I am allowed in on the strength of the fact that I am a "foreign tourist" bearing a visa to Israel and not a local resident subject to military rule. I refuse to wear a "kippah" skull cap which the new guardians of the shrine insist is required, but I agree to wear a baseball cap borrowed from a Palestinian cleaner who is employed by them.

Inside, the fortress has the appearance and all the charm of a subway station. The otherwise plain walls display plaques thanking donors, including American Jewish philanthropists, for helping to make its construction possible. Finally, I reach an ,opening in the w,all which leads ,directly into Rachel's Tomb. It is no more than a small room, its ancient stone walls contrasting with the antiseptic edifice now attached to it. The little house has been transformed into a Yeshiva, complete with vast Torah scrolls dressed in rich red and gold velvet drapery, and walls lined with bookshelves. Three men variously stand and sit reading religious books. No one looks up. I spend a few minutes of quiet reflection and leave.

The Valley of Fire

Before leaving Palestine, I return to Battir to say goodbye to my aunts. My cousin B. offers to drive me and my cousin Z. from Battir to the Allenby Bridge. Because B. has a car with West Bank license plates he is not allowed to go through Jerusalem to link up with the road to Jericho. We must take the notorious Wadi al-Nar ("valley of fire") road which winds down through the hills from Bethlehem all the way into the Jordan valley, before snaking back up towards Ramallah. Palestinians are required to use this road so as not to inconvenience Israel with their presence in Jerusalem. The inclines are steeper and the hairpin turns sharper then any road I've seen (and I drove along the mountain roads in southern Jordan just a few days before). Palestinian cars wanting to make the 30 kilometer trip from Bethlehem to Ramallah must take this road its full 75 km length. We only take it until we connect with the Jericho road, however. Several times we pass from areas under full Israeli control to ostensible Palestinian control. The change is marked only by painted concrete blocks placed at the side of the road. For one stretch, the road reverts to Israeli control simply because a settler bypass road passes near it, about two or three hundred metres away.

Leaving the West Bank via Allenby bridge is a far more onerous process than arriving. First we must pass through the "Istiraha" in Jericho. My cousin pays all the necessary fees to the Palestinian Authority and the occupation and we board a crowded bus which will take us to the Jordanian border terminal on the other side of the river. The bus trundles out of Palestinian Authority territory, and arrives at the gate of the Israeli border compound. The bus waits at a yellow gate until the Israelis decide to let us in to the compound. We wait five minutes and nothing happens. Finally the driver honks a few times and the yellow gate opens. The bus is now in a clearing surrounded by concrete barriers on all sides. Over the barrier I can see the small building where the Israeli soldiers who man the compound live. There is a basket ball hoop for their leisure. I imagine they must hate service in this forlorn place. The bus is now surrounded by soldiers. They open all the luggage compartments and inspect all around. Then, two soldiers board the bus, accompanied by a man in civilian clothes, from the Palestinian authority. One soldier stands at the front of the bus facing the passengers, his automatic rifle at the ready. The PA official proceeds up the bus checking the papers of Palestinian travelers. The second Israeli soldier follows immediately behind the PA official and rechecks all the papers as well as those of "foreigners" such as myself, over whom the PA has no authority. Once all the checks are done, the soldiers jump off the bus, wave us on, and we cross the bridge.

Through all this, taxis and private cars occasionally whisk past the bus. These are carrying Palestinian Authority officials who enjoy "VIP" status which allows them to pass through with relative ease. These are the officials who accepted these humiliating conditions, but have exempted themselves from bearing the consequences that ordinary Palestinians must endure every day.

At the Israeli terminal we leave the bus. Palestinians are not allowed to take anything off the bus with them. A woman carrying a plastic bag of fruit and food is told to put it back on the bus. "Its for the children, she protests," but she, is told to leave, it there. All th,e baggage is taken by the Israelis, and returned on the other side. My cousin tells me that items often don't make it, or arrive broken. Once more we part as I head for the "foreigners" door and he for the "Palestinians only" entrance and then to the separate buses which will take us across the river. We next meet where we have parked the car in Jordan.

On the drive back to Amman, I tell my cousin how outraged I am at the way people are treated. He laughs and says "I have been over the bridge maybe one thousand times since 1967. Can you believe its much better today than it was? Twelve years ago, the Israelis would make us take off all our clothes --everything--and we would inch along on the floor. Many times they would send us back, or only let some members of the family through. Believe me Ali, we have seen everything."

I had resolved to be as meek as necessary to ensure that the Israeli officials did not stamp my passport. But I could not and did not try to hide my grim face as I stood in line to be greeted by the Israeli security officials, after coming off the bus that brought me across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan.

Ali Abunimah is an activist who closely monitors U.S. media coverage. He is sometimes called a "nagging malcontent," National Public Radio called him a "lobby group," but to borrow George Bush's words, he's "...just a lonely little guy" in Chicago.

On a daily basis, he monitors several sources of news, and responds to them by email when he hears reports that are inaccurate, biased or incomplete. In the past three years, he has written more than 500 letters.

You can read more of his work at http://abunimah.org



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