Advent and Christmas Reflections from Bethlehem

In the words of the well known carol, the hopes and fears of all the years meet here in this storied town, in a storied land ~ a land that is full of trouble and beauty ~ full of fear and faith, violence and vitality, poverty and potential, despair and determination ~ and while fears abound, hope is in short supply in these dark days …

Yet somehow we must believe that somewhere, somehow  hope will overcome fear, that light will dispel darkness, that a way will be found where there seems no way… If a picture is worth a thousand words, I share with you a few thousand. For sometimes pictures can convey what words cannot …
collage-2015-12-09 (1)FotorCreated2


collage-2015-12-09May our waiting this advent not be passive but active ~ May we light a candle against whatever darkness ~ May we put our energy and effort into creating the peace we seek and that this land and our world so desperately need ~ I think the kin-dom dream of the first-century teacher from Nazareth whose birth is remembered in this season is mirrored in the words of John Lennon …

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

Note: I commend to you my blogs from December 2012 and 2013. Sadly, they are as relevant now as they were then ~ perhaps even more so…
December 6, 2012 ~ Advent in a Storied Town ~ Waiting ~ Yet Again
December 21, 2012 ~ The Longest Night ~ And Still We Wait
December 2,2013 ~ Advent in Palestine ~ Waiting is Given New Meaning
December 23, 2013 ~ Christmas Reflections from a Storied Land


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Punitive Demolitions ~ An Illegal, Inhumane Form of “Deterrence”

Israeli Security Forces ~ Shu'fat Refugee Camp Photo Credit: Public Domain

Israeli Security Forces ~ Shu’fat Refugee Camp
Photo Credit: Public Domain

It typically transpires like this ~ A person is involved or suspected of being involved in an act of violence. Guilt is not established by a judge or jury as the person is most likely neutralized (killed) rather than arrested. The Israeli army then identifies the family of the alleged perpetrator and proceeds to demolish their home. The reason given is that this provides a deterrent for others who might be tempted to carry out such acts. It’s called a punitive demolition. But the alleged perpetrator is not the one being punished. Rather, it is his/her family ~ often a wife and children. So not only have they been deprived of a husband or father but they are also then homeless. It is just one more form of collective punishment which violates the fundamental principle that an individual may not be punished for the acts of someone else. In addition, these punitive demolitions usually result in damage to nearby areas and adjacent homes. Not even the best engineer can hope to blow up an apartment on the ground floor of a three-story building in a crowded refugee camp and expect there to be no related damages.

Ruins of 'Aiwela Home ~ Nablus Photo Credit: Salma a-Deb'i, B'Tselem

Ruins of ‘Aiwela Home ~ Nablus
Photo Credit: Salma a-Deb’i, B’Tselem

According to B’tselem, on the night of December 3, Israeli military forces entered Nablus and blew up the home of Ragheb ‘Aliewa’s wife and two-year-old son. ‘Aleiwa is accused of involvement in the attack in which Na’ama and Eitam Henkin were killed on October 1. The explosion in the family’s apartment, located on the second floor of a four-story building, damaged other units as well. The adjacent apartment, where Ragheb’s brother lived with his wife and their three young children was completely destroyed. Damage was also caused to two apartments on the first floor, where ‘Aleiwa’s parents live as well as another brother with his wife and children.

Ruins of 'Akari Home ~ Shu'fat Refugee Camp Photo Credit: Mus'ab 'Abbas, B'Tselem

Ruins of ‘Akari Home ~ Shu’fat Refugee Camp
Photo Credit: Mus’ab ‘Abbas, B’Tselem

On the previous day, December 2, over 1,000 military personnel and police entered Shu’fat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem and blew up the family home of Ibrahim ‘Akari, who was killed last year after carrying out a vehicular attack. The home, occupied by Amira ‘Akari and her five young children, is located on the top floor of a three-story building. The explosion destroyed three adjacent apartments leaving 14 people, including seven children, without a home.  ~ In these two punitive demolitions, the damage Israeli authorities caused to six adjacent apartments was so extensive as to render them inhabitable. As a result, 27 innocent people, including 16 children, were left homeless.

With this recent wave of violence, Netanyahu has pledged to expedite punitive home demolitions, despite an Israeli military committee report that says the policy does not deter future attacks but only increases hostility against Israel, according to the Israeli rights group Hamoked. As the Israeli journalist, Amira Haas, has recently written in Ha’aretz: “… Either the politicians, army personnel, and judges in Israel are stupid, and the nation that encourages them is blind, or they are consciously interested in escalation and expansion of Palestinian acts of desperation.” And Netanyahu accuses the Palestinians of incitement? I wonder if it has occurred to anyone that putting an end to 48 years of occupation might be a better strategy.

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Lights in the Darkness

These are dark days ~ in so many ways. Fear and suspicion, despair and hopelessness are palpable ~ As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, we long for light, for hope, for peace to come to our broken world and our broken hearts. Whatever festival we celebrate at this time of year, light is central. Perhaps it points to the necessity of that which is essential for life.

In this season of lights, on the third Sunday of Advent and the last night of Hanukkah, I share a new Hanukkah prayer by Rabbi Brant Rosen ~ As we light these lights, may we resolve anew to make of ourselves a light, that by our very lives, we might be instruments of the peace we seek ~ And may our collective light dispel whatever darkness …

Lights of Advent

Lights of Advent

We light these lights
for the instigators and the refusers
the obstinate and unyielding
for the ones who kept marching
the ones who tended the fires
the ones would not bow down.

Lights of Diwali

Lights of Diwali

We light these lights
for the sparks that guide us on
through the gentle night
for the darkness that swaddles us
its soft embrace until the moment
we inevitably emerge
into life renewed.

Lights of Kwanzaa

Lights of Kwanzaa

We light these lights
for the spirit of resilience that remains
after our strength has ebbed away
for the steadfast knowledge even as
the bullets echo repeatedly
off bodies lying in the streets
that the impunity of the powerful
cannot last forever.

Lights of Hanukkah

Lights of Hanukkah

These lights we light tonight
will never be used for any other purpose
but to proclaim the miracle
of this truth:
it is not by might nor by cruelty
but by a love that burns relentlessly
that this broken world
will be redeemed.

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Ten Days in the Life of al-Hadidiya ~ One Small Palestinian Village

al-Hadidiy Village ~ No Water Connection Photo Credit: Public Domain

al-Hadidiy Village ~ Occupied Jordan Valley
Photo Credit: Public Domain

The small Palestinian village of al-Hadidiya is located in Area C in the northern Jordan Valley, near the illegal Israeli settlement of Ro‘i. The approximately 90 residents earn their living as shepherds and farmers. Al-Hadidiya is not hooked up to the water grid and the average water consumption is 20 liters per person per day ~ far less than the 100 liters recommended by the World Health Organization. The village is cut off from any regular water supply despite its proximity to a Mekorot (Israeli national water company) pump, which provides water to the nearby settlements. The per diem water allotment per person in these settlements, for household use alone, is over 460 liters ~ at least 23 times the consumption of water in al-Hadidiya. The following is excerpted from the recent reports of our EAPPI Jordan Valley Team ~ If I didn’t know it to be true, it would be unbelievable…

Israeli Military Rips Up Road Photo Credit: 'Aref Daraghmeh

Israeli Military Rips Up Road
Photo Credit: ‘Aref Daraghmeh

Wednesday, November 25 ~ Our EAPPI team goes to the village of al-Hadidiya to follow up on a demolition alert for the upgraded road. At 6:15 AM, two military jeeps and one bulldozer arrive in the village and in 1.5 hours demolish 100-200 meters of road before they are stopped by the Israeli Civil Administration ~ it seems the army has acted on its own without an official order.

Resident among the Rubble Photo Credit: H Hassen

Resident among the Rubble
Photo Credit: H Hassen

Thursday, November 26 ~ Our team returns to al-Hadidiya in response to a UN alert. At 7:00 AM Israeli forces arrive with four military vehicles, two civilian vehicles, and two bulldozers to demolish the structures of three families. Abu Sakr’s home is the first stop. They give the family very little time to retrieve their belongings before they demolish everything ~ animal shelters, livestock pens, living shelter, kitchen, the taboon oven, and a shelter for receiving visitors. The only things that remains standing are the toilet, the solar panels and the water tanks. Abu Sakr‘s 20-year-old daughter, who is three months pregnant, is pushed by a soldier (one witness said she was punched in the stomach). She starts bleeding from her uterus. An ambulance arrives to take her to hospital ~ The army moves on to two other families: Abu Sakr’s son and Mohammed Ali Bsharat. In the end, some 14 structures are demolished ~ 19 people including six children are left without homes. More than 170 sheep and goats and a lot of pigeons are also left homeless. And it is winter.

Friday, November 27 ~ Someone from the village calls the team. The Israeli military is back in al-Hadidiya, threatening the Jordan Valley Solidarity (JVS) volunteers, confiscating their IDs, and demanding they destroy the structures they had rebuilt. The military tells the families to leave the area within 24 hours or else they will shoot them. Villagers request international presence for sleep-overs for the next few days.

Humanitarian Tent next to Remains of Rasha's Home Photo Credit: G Le Gauyer

Humanitarian Tent and Remains of Rasha’s Home
Photo Credit: G Le Gauyer

Saturday, November 28 ~ Our team responds to a phone call from a villager. Two emergency donor-funded tents arrive and are set up. Within an hour four Israeli soldiers and a hummer are in the village ordering that the tents be taken down, but the military does not produce any demolition orders. After the soldiers leave, the EAPPI team is invited for tea and lunch with Abu Sakr’s family.

Sunday, November 29 ~ An international staying overnight in the village calls our team. At 4:00 AM the soldiers are back. They force Abu Sakr’s son to take down the tent in which the internationals are sleeping. The Bsharat family say they are sleeping outside tonight since they are afraid the soldiers will return. Abu Sakr has a fever.

Invited for Coffee Photo Credit: J Puukki

Invited for Coffee
Photo Credit: J Puukki

Monday, November 30 ~ EAs go to the village to show solidarity and provide protective presence. The army comes at 9:00 AM with five jeeps and one truck. They confiscate the two humanitarian tents. Abu Sakr is lying on a mattress on the spot where his structure to welcome guests had been standing four days earlier. He does not look good and says he is feeling a big pain inside. His friend takes him to hospital. The EAs stay for a few hours and play with the children. Tonight the family will be forced to sleep in the open. It is cold.

Tuesday, December 1 ~ EAs stay overnight in al-Hadidiya. Abu Sakr and his wife, Rokaya, tell them that the military had come late Monday evening and had taken even the plastic sheeting on which the family was sleeping. Late at night, a truck delivers humanitarian aid tents, but set-up has to wait until morning. The family and EAs sleep outside with only plastic sheeting to cover against the rain.

Wednesday, December 2 ~ Early in the morning, the three families are busy setting up the new tents ~ they have received seven large shelters from a French aid organization. At 10:00 AM a delegation of representatives from the Italian, Spanish and Belgian consulates arrives together with key people from other organizations. Rokaya speaks to the two women representatives about how difficult it is for her as a mother ~ “It’s hard for my children to study now, and the teacher gets angry with them, and the girls don’t want to go to the school. It’s harder this time with the demolitions [their homes have been demolished several times] since they [the soldiers] come back to even take the plastic sheeting ~ they show no humanity. I was born here and lived all my life here. I lost four of my children at an early age and their graves are here. They can try to make me leave, but I will never leave.”

Abu Sakr Photo Credit: Lioy

Abu Sakr
Photo Credit: Lioy

Thursday, December 3 ~ Our EAPPI team responds to a UN alert about a demolition and confiscation of post-demolition assistance. According to Abu Sakr, the Israeli military forces arrive around 9:45 AM with two military jeeps, two civilian vehicles, and a truck-mounted crane. There are two officers, ten soldiers and eight to ten workers. They dismantle the four shelters which had been set up, putting the iron bars together and packing them carefully. The same for the plastic sheeting. This surprises Abu Sakr. He says: “Now they calculate everything they do because they are afraid of EU pressure [if they demolish the tents].” The soldiers drive away with the four dismantled shelters as well as the three shelters that had not yet been set up.

Friday, December 4 ~ The team is informed that the army is in al-Hadidiya to check and see if anything has been built since yesterday. EAs go to the village to show solidarity with the community. Donors propose to again provide humanitarian tents, but Abu Sakr says they should wait until Monday when his lawyer reports that he can expect word from the courts, as all of this destruction and harassment has transpired without proof of military orders. EAs have coffee with the family around the fire, listening to Abu Sakr’s stories and his vision for the future. He is planning a sit-in at the EU office in Ramallah. Whatever the courts decide, one thing is for sure: “We will build again,” he says. In the meantime, the families are sleeping outside.

What to Say? Photo Credit: H Hanssen

What to Say?
Photo Credit: H Hassen

According to the Israeli Human Rights Group, B’Tselem: “These actions by the Israeli authorities are part of ongoing efforts designed to expel Palestinians from Area C by making their lives intolerable. Such actions, whether direct or indirect, constitute the forcible transfer of protected persons inside the occupied territory in contravention of international humanitarian law.” 

How does one respond to such senseless, inhumane, cruel, shameful and inexplicable actions by the Israeli government? Certainly their usual “security card” can’t be played here in this small village of 90 vulnerable shepherds and subsistence farmers ~ What to say? ~ What to do?

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An Ironic Relation between Fiction and Reality

lolitaIt seems I have failed in my attempt to read books as a diversion from the realities of the occupation. After finishing Maya Angelou’s autobiography (see the blog Caged Bird), I picked up a copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. It is a true story about a group of seven young girls who for two years gather weekly in the home of Professor Nafisi to discuss literature ~ “harmless works of fiction.” The theme of this informal class is the relation between fiction and reality.

Queuing ~ Bethlehem Checkpoint Photo Credit: Dawn

Queuing ~ Bethlehem Checkpoint
Photo Credit: Dawn

A mere 22 pages into the story, I am struck by Nafisi’s description of the world depicted in Invitation to a Beheading by the Russian novelist, Nabokov ~ The principal characteristic of this world is its arbitrariness; the condemned man’s only privilege is to know the time of his death – but the executioners keep even this from him, turning every day into a day of execution. Nafisi goes on to say: What Nabokov creates for us is not the actual physical pain and torture of a totalitarian regime but the nightmarish quality of living in an atmosphere of perpetual dread… Those of us living in the Islamic Republic of Iran grasped both the tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty to which we were subjected…

Arrest ~ Old City ~ Jerusalem Photo Credit: Claudine

Arrest ~ Old City ~ Jerusalem
Photo Credit: Claudine

These words jolt me back to the present reality ~ they so clearly describe the arbitrariness of the occupation ~ Which roads will be closed this morning? Will the service van be stopped by soldiers today? Will I be hauled out and humiliated as happened last week? Will I be allowed through the checkpoint? Will I be searched when I enter Jerusalem’s Old City? Will my children be harassed by settlers on their way to school? Will my family be able to access the olive trees for harvesting today? Will my home be there when I return? Will the bulldozer come today? Or perhaps next week? Or next year? Or? 

Home Demolition ~ Haris Village Photo Credit: Dawn

Home Demolition ~ Haris Village
Photo Credit: Dawn

The irony is written large ~ I am reading these words in a country that claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, and yet for countless Palestinians the Israeli occupation turns every day into a day of execution ~ a nightmarish quality of living in an atmosphere of perpetual dread. I am not sure if art imitates life or if life imitates art, but I know that the tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty of the occupation is a reality and not a fiction. A cruel reality that must end!

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Lest We Forget ~ Eyewitness in Gaza

Gaza Map Credit: UNOCHA

Gaza Strip ~ Map Credit: UNOCHA

Below is a long post from Maureen Tobin, who recently returned from Gaza ~ Gaza, a place besieged ~ Gaza, the 360 square km open air prison where over 1.8 million Palestinian human beings seek to eke out a living in the face of inhumane conditions and against all odds ~ Gaza, with an average age of 16, 80% living below the poverty line, 90% of the water unsafe to drink, over 80% unemployment, yet boasting a 92% literacy rate ~ Gaza, an example of the human will to live life in spite of everything to the contrary ~ Gaza, a place both feared and forgotten ~ With gratitude to Maureen, I share her reflections because it is of utmost importance that we remember…


Photo Credit: Public Domain

Photo Credit: Public Domain

“We arrived in Israel on a Tuesday and left for Gaza early Wednesday morning for a fairly uneventful crossing, though we wished we could photograph the checkpoint (not allowed as it is a ‘military zone’). It’s hard to capture the experience without visuals – the huge terminal, locked booths, intricate maze of turnstiles and passages emptying into a courtyard with doors without handles, where one waits for a door to magically open for brief intervals. Our wait was longer than usual in the entry terminal, meeting first with the soldier and then the border guard. Finally we are cleared and board the golf cart to the Palestinian Authority checkpoint and then the Hamas checkpoint, where we passed through with the help of our good friend, the Ahli Hospital driver.

Gazan Boy ~ December 2014 Photo Credit: Public Domain

Gazan Boy ~ December 2014
Photo Credit: Public Domain

“It is hard to know what to say about Gaza. It felt very different from our visit last December: many more cars and people on the streets, the then-missing but typical piles of goods for sale, everything from shoes to tee-shirts to pomegranates and all kinds of vegetables. There was palpably more life than last winter, traffic back to its typical cacophony where there are no rules of the road and everyone drives wherever they choose, weaving in and out of donkey carts, passing other cars and trucks on either side, all with horns blaring constantly.

“So life on the streets felt greatly back to normal, and we had the good fortune to be invited by our friend to the baptism of her niece’s baby – a wonderfully happy occasion with everyone (except us) dressed to the nines for the occasion, lots of ceremony, dozens of children, balloons, etc. All in all, we felt a resurgence of life totally different from our last visit 11 months ago.

Shejaiya Neighborhood ~ February 2015 Photo Credit: Public Domain

Shejaiya Neighborhood ~ February 2015
Photo Credit: Getty Images

“And yet, and yet – nothing is really ‘normal.’ We drove back though Shujaiya, the community so totally devastated by the bombing of July 2014. Gone, for the most part, were the miles of rubble, of bombed out apartment buildings. Much of the land has been cleared, though there are piles of salvaged metal and stones everywhere, ready to be recycled. Some, but little sign of rebuilding – lots of empty space, and many, many buildings pocked with bullet holes, burned out floors, partially standing apartments. We drove through an industrial zone that is still largely a ghost town – huge corrugated metal factories (milk and yogurt, cement, furniture), most without roofs, just shells of buildings. All the people who worked there are now part of the huge unemployed population – more than two-thirds of Gazans depend on food relief from the UN and other NGOs for survival. Children are everywhere, digging through dumpsters for plastic to sell or food to eat. And people (some 100,000+) still living on the streets, in the cemeteries, in the cartons furnished by church and NGO groups for temporary housing – all families have had to leave the UNRWA schools so that school could resume, two shifts a day, three hours per shift. Not much education but at least the kids are in school and not totally on the street as they were last December.

Ahli Hospital ~ Gaza Photo Credit: Public Domain

Ahli Hospital ~ Gaza
Photo Credit: Public Domain

“The Ahli Hospital, as always, is an oasis, though one totally surrounded by the chaos and noise of the streets that permeate every corner of the hospital complex. New this year is a ‘psycho-social’ program for children suffering from PTSD (essentially all children in Gaza). There in the library and in a wonderful new play yard, 2,000 children a week come for therapy, play, and respite. 90% of the children are ‘OK’ with minimal therapy, the rest being sent to government programs for the severely distressed. It is hard to believe the percentage, but watching the kids play, we could believe it. And, of course, they all wanted to shake our hands and use their English: ‘What’s your name?’

“Other programs continue to amaze – we visited the hydro therapy rooms again and saw one little girl with a burned foot being treated. We are always surprised that the place is largely empty, but we then learned that is because people come very early in the day (some 35 per day) as they can only run the boiler for hot water two hours each morning. The usual lines of mothers and babies at the pediatric clinic, lines at the emergency clinic, and a remarkable maternity clinic, where we learned that the hospital strongly enforces a four-hour rule, as the mothers want to leave immediately after giving birth! Most impressive is the mammography clinic (with its 2008 machine, though a new one is on order via Israel due to arrive ‘someday’). Not only do women get mammograms but they get lessons in self-examination. Most exciting is that there are classes for husbands to help them understand that a mammogram and treatment can save their wives’ lives and help preserve the family. This has been successful as they began with 400 mammograms in 2009 and now do 5,000 a year. Sadly, there is no radiation available and little chemo. Women must have mastectomies rather than lumpectomies and follow-up treatment, but lives are saved. On and on go the wonders of this little hospital where imaginative leadership by Suhaila, Samira, Dr. Maher, and many others, plus enormously dedicated staff, create constant miracles – the parade of patients in the front gate is testimony – old men and women, mothers in scarves and some with full face covering attest the to the trust people have in Ahli Hospital.

Beach in Gaza Photo Credit: Public Domain

Beach in Gaza
Photo Credit: Public Domain

“We had a wonderful evening with Raghda and Amal, both of whom work for United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) – Raghda in administration and public relations and Amal in protective services, largely responding to the needs of Gazans suffering from all sorts of legal and personal problems, including a high rate of domestic violence and child abuse, not surprising in a culture, especially a patriarchal one, in which most men are unemployed and highly frustrated. Both of these women are amazing – so bright, so knowledgeable, so realistic about the situation in which they work and live, and yet filled with hope, convinced that life in Gaza could be wonderful if people were ever freed from the blockade. They cited many examples of the imaginative and entrepreneurial work in progress despite everything. Neither is naive and both shared stories of their war experiences – harrowing stories of the bombing when their building got a ‘warning rocket’ during the war last summer and they had to evacuate, barely escaping death when they went back into the building at the last moment and the building across the street was bombed.

“Both Raghda and Amal talked about the critical need for people to find places to relax and find joy. Those who have some money go to nice restaurants like the roof garden spot we met, others go to corner cafes, and others go by donkey cart to the beach promenades, but everyone tries to escape reality for a bit of time on Thursday evenings and Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

Young Women Take a Selfie ~ Gaza Photo Credit: Public Domain

Young Women Take a Selfie ~ Gaza
Photo Credit: Public Domain

“We left early on Friday as the checkpoint closes early, and last week Hamas closed it all day, but we had no problem departing. All in all, we were struck more than ever by the contrasts, which are simply the way life is here. Palestinians are living in and have been living in untenable circumstances for far too long, but somehow what we took away from Gaza was a feeling of awe at their resiliency – a commitment to life, to everyday joys wherever they can be found, and an absolute dedication to sumud, to remaining steadfast. Hopefully, there will be an end to this current round of violence, but it cannot truly end until Palestinians achieve full rights and freedom. The brutality of the current Israeli regime with its street assassinations, its recurrent assaults on Gaza, and all the ongoing horrors of occupation simply will not eradicate the Palestinian commitment to life. As we all know, there is no military solution. When Israel and its US and others supporters figure that out, maybe, maybe there can be a new beginning …”

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Restricted Movement ~ Collective Punishment?

Road Closure in Hebron Photo Credit: Jan

Road Closure with Gate ~ Hebron
Photo Credit: Jan

It is a frustrating start to our morning. We have plans for a full day of visiting the communities in South Hebron Hills with our UN contact and friend, Hamed. I had arrived in Hebron the night before to stay with my friend Jan, who is volunteering with HIRN, a local NGO, in order that we could get on the road early. Our first attempt to leave the city by the southern exit fails. We are stuck in a long line of cars and trucks that has come to a standstill. Turning around, we cross the city to another exit road that intersects the main highway, only to find that it too is blocked. Our second attempt ends in failure. We decide to try the exit in the far north, even though our destination is south. An hour after we leave home we finally succeed in accessing the main north-south route 60, turning right and doubling back so we are now heading in the right direction.

Road Closure with Dirt Mounds ~ Hebron Photo Credit: Jan

Road Closure with Dirt Mounds ~ Hebron
Photo Credit: Jan

Hamed tells us that this has been the scenario for several days ~ Israel’s response to an alleged series of stabbing attacks in the area. And radio station FM 92.7 HR.PS on which locals rely for news of such closures has itself been raided and silenced (see post). Out of the six entrances to Hebron city, four have been routinely closed ~ but not the same four! They are always changing. Two seem to remain open so that Israel cannot be accused of closing off the city. But not the same two! This uncertainty is part of the psychological oppression of the occupation. One never knows… What exits will be open tomorrow? How much time and energy will be dissipated? How much frustration will build? What is the breaking point? For us, it was only one morning. But for the majority of Hebron’s 210,000 Palestinian residents, these tools of the occupation are a daily reality.

Road Closures in East Jerusalem Photo Credit: Public Domain

Road Closures in East Jerusalem
Photo Credit: Public Domain

And these restrictions are not limited to Hebron. Access has been cut off to many towns and villages across the West Bank over the past month. Restrictions on movement both to and within Jerusalem have been increased. Access to Al-Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers is heavily restricted. In some cases, entire communities in the East Jerusalem periphery have been closed off with only one entrance/exit which is controlled by a checkpoint. Lines are long and frustration is high. People are late for work, late for school, late for appointments. Nothing is normal. Innocent people just trying to go about their daily lives are literally blocked at every turn. Most call it collective punishment. You be the judge.

Forbidden to Enter Jerusalem's City Men Pray in the Street Photo Credit: Claudine

Forbidden to Enter Jerusalem’s Old City
Men Pray in the Street
Photo Credit: Claudine

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The Hospitality of a Stranger

Service Taxis in Bethlehem Photo Credit: Public Domain

Service Taxis ~ Bethlehem Checkpoint
Photo Credit: Public Domain

I walk through the checkpoint complex in the wall separating my home on the outskirts of Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Among all the “vendors” shouting out their destinations, I find a service (pronounced: serveece), going to Hebron. I climb in and take a seat next to a Hajji (a term of respect for an older Palestinian woman.)

The experience of using this shared van form of public transportation in Palestine is unique and difficult to describe. If you happen to be the last passenger, it departs within seconds of your arrival. However, if you happen to be passenger number one, you could wait 30 minutes to an hour for all seven seats to fill. While some journeys are taken in relative silence, this is not generally the case. There is often news or music blaring from the radio ~ some engage in animated discussion, some eat, some smoke, some are on their cell phones, some visit with those next to them or in front of them ~ people are getting off and on at various “stops” ~ fares are passed forward and change passed backwards ~ it becomes a mini community on wheels.

Stuck in Traffic Photo Credit: Public Domain

Stuck in Traffic
Photo Credit: Public Domain

On this particular morning, I am the next to the last passenger to board. We wait five minutes. The last seat fills and we are off. Traffic travelling south out of Bethlehem city is especially slow this morning. About ten minutes after our departure, our driver is stopped by the Palestinian police and asked to exit the van. A few minutes pass and passengers begin checking their watches, anxiety mounting as they anticipate being late for work or school. Some disembark and unsuccessfully try to hail other modes of transportation. The Hajji next to me gets off, saying, “Eat,” and proceeds to enter the closest restaurant. After about 10-12 minutes, the unhappy driver climbs back into the van with a piece of paper, which I assume is a ticket for something. But the Hajji is now missing. The man in the front seat approaches the restaurant yelling, “Hajji, Hajji.” Soon she emerges with her little bag of food and climbs back into the waiting van of frustrated passengers.

We are off again. Some 10 minutes later, the Hajji pulls her shawarma sandwich from her little bag and offers me the first bite. I decline gracefully (I hope) and point to my own bag, indicating that I too have a sandwich. She smiles, nods and takes a bite. I retrieve my sandwich from my bag and do the same. As we eat, we share conversation ~ a bit of English on her part, very little Arabic on my part, and lots of hand gestures. Before long she is writing her name in my little notebook and inviting me to her home, which it turns out is in the neighborhood next to mine.

Shared Transportation ~ Hebron Photo Credit: Jan

Shared Transportation ~ Hebron
Photo Credit: Jan

The time has passed quickly and the van has reached the small village which is her destination. With a big smile and a pat on my knee, she wraps the remainder of her sandwich, gathers up her various bags and is gone ~ her final words are: “You come to my home.” As I finish my sandwich, I reflect on the richness of my morning experience with the Hajji ~ A complete stranger offers me the first bite of her sandwich and invites me to her home ~ I wonder if this would ever happen in our western insular society ~ I ponder the real meaning of what it is to welcome the stranger.

In the texts of our tradition, we are reminded: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for in so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it…” However, today I sense it was I, the stranger, who experienced the angel. Thank you, Hajji, for this lesson in true hospitality.

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“Casualties” of the Occupation ~ Stories that Break Your Heart

Tragic and heart breaking ~ so many stories that rarely reach mainstream western media ~ stories often reported here as just another casualty in a long string of casualties. Two EAs from our Bethlehem team recently submitted first-hand details of the following heart breaking story…

Tear Gas ~ Photo Credit" Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Tear Gas ~ Photo Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

“On Tuesday, November 3, we visited the village of Beit Fajjar where ‘clashes’ had taken place the previous Friday, October 30, about 4:00 PM. [Note: ‘Clashes’ are generally defined as a confrontation between stone throwing youth and heavily armed Israeli soldiers.] The villagers told us that the military had been present in the village prior to the clashes and estimated the number of military personnel to have been around 50. Teargas, sound bombs, ‘rubber’ [-coated steel] bullets, and live ammunition were all witnessed. Six people were injured, two with live ammunition. One person was killed ~ a baby …

“We visited the family of little Ramadan Mohammad Faisal Thawabta, the 8-month old baby boy who had died, in order to offer our condolences and report on the case. We spoke to the women of the family as well as the father and mother of the baby. The grandfather had been present and witnessed the tragic unfolding of events. He told us the following account.”

A Mother's Grief Photo Credit: Reuters

A Mother’s Grief
Photo Credit: Reuters

“On Friday clashes broke out in our village of Bait Fajjar. Much teargas was fired at the main road located less than 100 metres from our family house. A teargas canister was fired near our neighbour’s house, where eight people were inside. A young girl had climbed onto the roof and was shouting for help as the people inside the house were suffocating from the gas. My family rushed out from our house, leaving the front door open, in order to go help our neighbours. We managed to break the neighbours’ door and helped all eight of them to safety. However, when we returned home we found our baby, whom we had left in the house, lifeless, due to the tear gas which had spread from the neighbours’ house into the street and into our house. The baby was taken first to King Husain Hospital in Bethlehem and then to a hospital in Hebron for investigation. The investigation said the cause of the baby’s death was gas.” [Note: On Saturday, the Israeli military authorities denied these claims, saying that no tear gas was fired in the vicinity of the house and that the baby had a prior health condition. But even if the latter is true, this does not mean that tear gas inhalation did not contribute to the baby’s death.]

Israeli Military Issuing Threats in Aida Refugee Camp Photo Credit: Middle East Eye

Israeli Military Issues Death Threats
Aida Refugee Camp ~ Bethlehem
Photo Credit: Middle East Eye

I think it is worth noting that the previous evening, a military jeep rolled down an empty street in Aida refugee camp in nearby Bethlehem at dusk, a place of frequent clashes, broadcasting in Arabic over a loud speaker, “People of Aida refugee camp, we are the occupation army. You throw stones and we will hit you with gas until you all die. The children, the youth, the old people, you will all die. We won’t leave any of you alive. And we have arrested one of you; he is with us now. We took him from his home and we will slaughter and kill him while you are watching if you keep throwing stones. Go home or we will gas you until you die. Your families, your children, everyone, we will kill you…” (See youtube video.)

Tragic stories need to be told ~ Stories that break our hearts ~ Stories that have the potential to move us to action ~ The words of Bob Dylan come to mind…

…Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man [sic] turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?…

…Yes, how many ears must one man [sic] have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?…

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

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Singing Their Longings ~ A Beautiful Sound

Gathering to Sing Our Land ~ Hebron Photo Credit: Dawn

Gathering to Sing of Our Land ~ Hebron
Photo Credit: Dawn

They sing from their hearts ~ waving flags and donning hats, keffiyehs and scarves with green, white, black and red ~ colours of Palestine. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, young people and small children ~ all gathering to sing a haunting melody about the beauty of their county ~ about pride and longing ~ about freedom …


My homeland, my homeland
Glory and beauty, sublimity and splendor are in your hills
Life and deliverance, pleasure and hope in your love
Will I see you? Safely comforted and victoriously honored
Will I see you in your eminence, reaching to the stars?
My homeland, my homeland

… The youth will not tire, ’till your independence or they die
We will drink from death, and will not be to our enemies like slaves
We do not want an eternal humiliation, nor a miserable life
But we will bring back our storied glory

My homeland, my homeland …
(Excerpted from Mawtini, based on the poem by Ibrahim Tuqan, circa 1934)

Soldiers Patrolling the Old City of Hebron Photo Credit: Dawn

Soldiers ~ Old City of Hebron ~ H2
Photo Credit: Dawn

For a moment, I forget I am in Hebron ~ Hebron, a microcosm of this inhumane military occupation ~ Hebron, with its division into H1, under full Palestinian control with about 170,000 Palestinian inhabitants ~ and H2, only 20% of the whole, but the heart of the historic old city with its venerated tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs ~ under full Israeli control with 18 checkpoints and over 120 physical obstacles ~ home to some 40,000 Palestinians and 850 ideological, fanatic Jewish settlers who live in five illegal settlements, protected by more than 1,500 heavily armed soldiers.

It is the H2 area of Hebron that has now become the eye of the current storm. A large percentage of the recent alleged stabbings, resultant shootings, extrajudicial killings, arrests, detentions and raids have taken place here. Palestinians living in certain neighborhoods have had to “register” in order to have access to their own homes and are afraid to leave even to buy food. Internationals have been harassed, attacked, detained and even barred from entering the area. Streets in H2 are eerily empty except for soldiers with automatic weapons and armed illegal settlers.

I had arrived in H1 that morning in a shared taxi from Bethlehem, entering by one of only two entrances to Hebron which remained open. All others are blocked with dirt mounds or cement blocks, a form of collective punishment for the ongoing wave of violence. My friend and colleague, Jan, and I had come to this evening’s “cultural event” with friends ~ a local Palestinian family ~ three generations ~ with whom we had shared a special Palestinian meal. In the course of our late afternoon repast, we talked about some of the most recent incidents in the H2 area and the tightening noose of the occupation.

For Ten Precious Minutes Photo Credit: Dawn

For Ten Precious Minutes
Photo Credit: Dawn

The haunting melody calls me back to the present moment. I reflect. It seems that in singing, the ugliness of the occupation and the resulting despair and hopeless are momentarily displaced. Spirits are lifted on the wings of love and longing ~ longing to live in their land with freedom. And then ~ as quickly as it began ~ it is over. As we file out of the auditorium into the dark, damp night, I am moved to tears. I cannot imagine that in our home countries, people would make the trip across the city, through the traffic, and hassle with parking, to gather at 6pm for ten minutes on a cold, rainy night just to sing our national anthem. For us, singing about our country might be the prelude to an event, but here it is the event ~ For ten precious minutes despair was lifted and hopes raised ~ For ten precious minutes people sang their longings ~ For ten precious minutes they were able to step outside the reality of their lives in this place ~ For ten precious minutes ~ time out of time ~ the caged bird sang of freedom ~ My homeland, my homeland ~ It reflected a longing from deep within their hearts. And it was beautiful to hear.

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