Saturday, October 30, 2010

At 5:45 a.m., on October 25th, we walked out the door to go to Zaytoun, a pedestrian checkpoint located east of the Old City of Jerusalem. At the checkpoint we count the number of men, women and children who pass through the checkpoint. Because Zaytoun is a pedestrian checkpoint, no cars drive through, everyone who lives on the east side of the Wall gets dropped off and then they walk through the checkpoint to the other side. Why the Wall is here, in this particular place, is not germane to the story, but I will note that it was built more than 3 ½ miles beyond the internationally recognized border of Israel.

Laborers, teachers, school children, professionals, everyone who lives on the east side of the Wall, must pass through the checkpoint to get to their jobs or schools. When we arrive at Zaytoun, we cross to the east side of the wall so that we stand on the same side of the checkpoint as the Palestinians who must cross through the checkpoint. This is what Zaytoun looks like from where we stand:

As checkpoints go, Zaytoun is a one of the better ones – if you can ever describe any checkpoint as one of the “better ones.” Zaytoun is fairly new, it’s not dirty, it’s not dark, it doesn’t have the same smell of desperation and despair that is prevalent at Qalandiya –a story for several other entries.

On this particular day, the sun is shining brightly, there were four I.D. Booths open, and there were no lines at the turnstiles. As the Palestinians approached the checkpoint we were greeted in Arabic and English, with nods, smiles and lots of giggles and grins by the students.

We had been there about an hour when a woman approached with her two little girls in their school uniforms - beautiful little girls, with large brown eyes, shy smiles, and carefully brushed hair. They were probably 5 or 6 years of age; they would be in Kindergarten or First grade in the United States. It made me think of walking my kids to the bus stop and waiting with them for the bus to arrive when they were that age.

As this woman approached with her two daughters, I assumed that she was going to go through the checkpoint with her two little girls, as many other parents had that morning, and accompany them to school. As a result, I didn’t watch as they approached the turnstile, but instead turned to continue counting people as they approached the checkpoint. When I turned back, this is what I saw:

Her little girls are just passing through the turnstiles. If you look very closely, you can just see the head of one of her daughters in front of the little boy in the blue shirt with the baseball cap on his head.

The mother could not cross with her little girls, because she does not have a permit that allows her to cross. She has to remain on the Palestinian side of the wall. Yet her concern as a mother, for the safety of her children, is evident in these pictures.

In this next picture, her daughters have moved through the turnstiles and are waiting at the ID booths to show their identity cards, which establish their right to cross, and pass through the metal detectors, which will allow them to go to school. If you look closely, you can see the mother on the left side of the picture, standing against a turnstile, which is not open today. She is watching to make certain, the best she can from where she has to stay, that her little girls get through the ID booth and metal detector with no problems.

This next picture shows the mother standing at the top of the entrance of the checkpoint, watching to see if her little girls safely get on the bus that will take them to school:

This is her life and the life of her children, day after day, week after week.

Remember, today was a day when the sun was shining. It wasn’t cold, it wasn’t raining. Remember that today there were no lines – some days there is only one ID Booth open. Some days no one passes through the turnstile for 30 minutes or more, with no explanation. Some days people are pulled to the side interrogated and searched, and not allowed to pass.

So today was a good day for this mother and her daughters.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

You may have noticed that I have not recently posted anything on my blog; to say that I have been busy is an understatement. I have spent the last two weeks learning, tasting, inhaling, seeing and feeling Jerusalem. All five senses are in use every day – the smell of fresh baked bread and cookies from the baker just behind my apartment; the sounds of buses, and vendors, and people as they go through their days; the taste of the delicious food – hummus, falafel, shawarma, and Arabic coffee. The sight of the old city walls, the stone streets, Augusta Victoria hospital and the never-ending beautiful blue sky; the touch of the sun, the warmth in the handshake of someone I’ve just met, the feel of an olive branch in my hand as I comb the olives from its leaves. All are wonderful sensory experiences that will never leave my memory.

My mind will also never let me forget the following sensory experiences either. The smell of refuse because the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not provided with regular sanitation services as the settlers and residents of West Jerusalem are, even though they pay the same taxes. The sight of people being herded like cattle into cages, on a daily basis, to go through a turnstile to get to their jobs because they live on the wrong side of a barrier built by the Israelis. The taste of despair that hangs in the air, as people are evicted from their homes that their families have lived in for generations because there may be a garden under their city that King David may have walked in at some time. The sound of the spit hitting the ground at my feet because I held a sign that said “Stop the Occupation.” The touch of the butt of a loaded machine gun on my arm, as a soldier walks down the aisle of a bus checking passports and residency permits.

The dichotomy is disconcerting, disturbing and difficult to experience. I have formed a tentative explanation for all that I’ve experienced. I’m deliberately choosing not to share that explanation now. Instead, I invite you along on my journey. I will describe for you what I see and hear and experience. I will share with you the stories that I am told by the people I meet. At the end of the journey, let’s compare explanations and we’ll see if they are the same.

In the meantime, I have what may seem like an odd prayer for you: I pray that your beliefs, your opinions and your emotions about the Middle-East are challenged, shaken, rattled and changed as a result of what you read here. God's peace be with you and me and with everyone here in Jerusalem.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Monday, October 4, we visited an apartment in the Old City. The apartment was one of eight apartments in one building occupied by Palestinian families. One night in July, occupants from 7 of the eight apartments attended a wedding. When they returned home at 3 a.m., they found that Israeli settlers had moved into their homes while they were at the wedding. Only one apartment remains occupied by its Palestinian owner. The settlers are protected by the IDF, the police – who have erected police barriers in the apartment courtyard, and private security guards. The Palestinians whose home were seized, sat in the street outside the house for several days and were accompanied on several occasions by the current EA's, in protest of the actions of the Israeli settlers. Although the Palestinians have obtained several court rulings that the Jewish settlers improperly seized their home, the Palestinians have so far not been able to have the Jewish settlers evicted.

On the afternoon of October 4, we visited the Palestinian family who was home at the time of the seizure. In order to visit the family, one of the children had to ask the settlers and the private security guard if it was okay if his family had visitors. While the settlers agreed to allow us to come in, we were told that we were not allowed to take pictures. The family that lives there has to have someone in the house at all times in order to avoid having their apartment seized as well. During our visit, the owner explained that over the last few days, in the evening, the settlers attempted to take his furniture out of his house and put it in the street. This means that they entered his home, without permission, grabbed his furniture without permission and attempted to set it on the street. His Palestinian neighbors prevented this effort from occurring. As a result of hearing this story we returned that evening around 8:45 just to provide a presence in the street if another attempt was made to take the furniture.

Fortunately, no effort was made to seize the belongings of this family. The settlers across the street, however, were quite disturbed. They shouted down from the roof top, asking who we were, why were we in the street, did we want something, were we lost, and did we need help? When it became apparent that nothing was going to happen we decided to go back home. The last two nights we have returned to continue to provide a protective presence. Fortunately, so far nothing has happened.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Greetings from Jerusalem. Today is Tuesday October 5th, our first full day of orientation. My team in Jerusalem has 5 people on it: Michael Hiller, an American living in Germany for the last 30+ years, Aster Boberg, from Sweden, Niku from Finland and Bernard from France. We range in age from 24 to 72.

We started off the day w/a general orientation, then attended a presentation at the UN OCHA offices which gave us a a brief overview of the current situation. We then met with the current Jerusalem team and began a 3 day orientation period with them.

The Jerusalem team reported that during Ramadan and Sukkot, things were relatively quiet. Since the end of Ramadan, however, things have started getting tense in the Jerusalem area again. There are approximately 90 Palestinian homes in Silwan that are scheduled for demolition because the Israeli government wants to establish an archeological park where the houses are currently standing. Our work will involve visiting Silwan, monitoring the demolition orders, meeting with community leaders and attending a weekly demonstration.

In Sheikh Jarrah, an area north of the old city, there are two areas where a number of Palestinian families are being threatened with eviction. Although they own the homes on the land, the Israelis claim that they are entitled to possession of the land as the property was allegedly owned by Israeli Jews prior to 1948. The Israeli courts have routinely accepted these claims on behalf of Israelis, but have consistently denied the claims of Palestinians asserting the same legal claims. As with Silwan, we will be monitoring the situation, meeting with community leaders and attending regular demonstrations in support of the Sheikh Jarrah population.

The rest of this week we will be taken to the various sites visited by the current team. On Wednesday we will visit Silwan, the Jahalin Bedouin Camp and Sheikh Jarrah. On Thursday a.m. at 4:45 (go ahead laugh), I will be leaving to go to the Qalandia checkpoint for 3 hours, then on to a meeting with Saabeel, then on to Ma'ale Mikhmas, another Bedouin camp, very close to a settlement. Friday we will be attending Friday prayers in Silwan, the Women in Black demonstration in West Jerusalem and a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah.