Monday, May 31, 2010


Today, I discovered other social issues that exist in the society in addition to the occupation and conflict. I visited the Arab Women's Union Society, which runs an orphanage for girls (ages 6-20). Many of the girls are not only orphans, but have been further stigmatized because their mothers were executed for being collaborators with Israel. Having a parent who was killed for being a collaborator with Israel is a serious stigma. But their mothers were not willing collaborators. Most likely, these women become involved in affairs with men before or outside of marriage, which is a serious offense in Muslim society. Israel uses evidence against them (e.g., photos or video) to blackmail them into giving them information about the community. The woman often feels as if she has no choice: she can be shamed in front of the Muslim community or give information to Israel. Either way, she will suffer and her children as well. The children of these women are shunned forever, and many of them were living in this orphanage. They were very sweet young women, who gave me lunch (watching my every bite), and then taking me to their common room for an "American" dance party.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Today, I visited Bethlehem, where I met with local organizations working with children. I took this opportunity to walk to Aida refugee camp. Aida camp, plagued for years by Israeli military restrictions, curfews, and incursions, is in the shadow of the separation barrier, and words and drawings of protest mark its 9-meter-high concrete walls. [See the photo of the separation barrier that runs through Aida refugee camp.] The area that I was walking through was a once vibrant neighborhood, but had been devastated to accommodate the barrier and an expanding Israeli military base, with homes and businesses confiscated. When I checked the news that evening, I read that Aida camp had been without water for two days.

Friday, May 28, 2010

South Hebron Hills

Today, I toured the South Hebron Hills with a former Israeli soldier, Avichai, from an organization called Breaking the Silence, which aims to share what it is like to serve as a solider with the Israeli army. According to Avichai and Breaking the Silence, "The South Hebron Hills are situated far away form the inquiring eyes of Israeli society. They are almost completely ignored by the media and in public discourse. This large region and the many Palestinians who live there are forgotten in the conversations conducted about the future of the conflict. We, soldiers who served in the South Hebron Hills, have been witness to the consequences of this callous disregard. It's our duty to inform Israeli society about what happens in the Territories in its name, and hold a mirror that reflects the price of our presence in the Territories."

Much of the area of the South Hebron Hills has been confiscated illegally by the Israeli government and illegally by Israeli settlers to build the growing settlements of Carmel, Ma'on, and Otniel. Avichai told me about his training, which carried an overtone of treating all Palestinians as potential "terrorists", even if they had not committed any offense. He also said that his main job was to protect the settlers, even though they are living illegally on Palestinian land. Avichai introduced me to Yassir, a Palestinian resident of the village Susiya, who told the story of his village (consisting of tents and small caves) being destroyed by the settlers during the heat of July one year. The Red Crescent Society came and provided them with more tents, which were only large enough

for the children to stay in. But the Israeli civil administrators came and confiscated the tents saying they were illegal. When the villagers sought shelter in the shade of the olive trees, the military came and chopped down their olive trees. When they went to stay with the shepherds and their herd, the military came and blared their sirens so the herd would scatter in fear. I was moved to tears when he said, "We have only tents and caves - they are nothing - and they want to destroy it all." [See the photo of Yassir's home consisting of tents, with the Israeli settlement - red-roofed homes - in the distance behind it.] Unfortunately, stories like this are not uncommon.

We drove past the Palestinian town of Yatta, which has 40,000 inhabitants. Although agriculture used to be the village's mainstay, only a small fraction of its working population now works on the land. Yatta's land has been regularly confiscated from the town to build the settlements of Carmel, Ma'on, Otniel, and others. The majority of workers would daily cross the Green Line (5 kilometers away), often illegally, depending for their living on jobs in israeli industry and agriculture in the north of the Negev; these days the closures, checkpoints and absence of freedom of movement have hit this area badly.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Today, I also visited the village of Sebastia, about 15K from Nablus, on the road to Jenin. My guide, Hassanein, told me the following story: "Archaeological evidence proves the site was Chalcolithic Period. In the 12th century BC, a small city grew up which acquired its economic and political power in the 9th century BC, when it became the capital of the Kingdom of Israel (or Samaria). King Omri, sixth king of the kingdom, elevated Samaria to his capital, open to the estern mediterranean cultural sphere. The influence of the Phoenician cities made itself felt in all aspects of life: material, culture, commerce, and religion. Threatened by the rise of Assyria, King Omri cemented an alliance by marrying his son Ahab to Jezabel, a princess from the powerful Phoenician city of Tyre. Ahab erected a temple to her gods, Baal and Astarte, in the city, thus infuriating the Judaeans who condemned this act as the work of an infidel. They looked upon the Assyrian conquest by the troops of Sargon II of the Kingdom of Israel in 721 BC as a divine punishment. The city regained its status as a provincial capital during the Persian period. In 331 BC, Alexander the Great made it a Greek settlement; the city was under Hellenistic cultural influence until its destruction by John Hyrcanus in 108 BC. Herod, the right-hand man in palestine of the Roman Empire, rebuilt the city on the model of the Greek polis, or city. He renamed it Sebaste (Augustus the Greek), in honor of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus (27BC - 14AD). In the second century AD, Emperor Septimus Severus conferred on Sebaste city status with all the pertaining

privileges. As the popularity of Christianity grew in the 4th century, this former center of Graeco-Roman paganism went into permanent decline."

I was especially interested in the recent history of Sebastia. Currently, the site of the ruins in considered Area C, which means it's under full Israeli occupation, and the town is considered Area B, which means its under Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control. (In contrast, Nablus is an Area A, under full Palestinian civil and military control, with no Israeli allowed to enter.) It seems like Israel has complete control of all of these historical sites around Palestine, which is where a lot of tourists come. The owner of the Palestinian cafe, where we had lunch, said that he wants to expand his business (put a roof on the cafe, and create wash rooms) but he is not allowed, because his cafe is in Area C. Another interesting thing is that the ruins (and the towns) are covered with graffiti, much of which expresses anger against the occupation. For example, in the Byzantine Church of St. John, where John the Baptist's head is supposedly buried, there are many blue Stars of David spray-painted on the ancient stones on the ground. These were painted on the ground by Palestinians to symbolize "stepping on" the State of Israel. In the Old City, there are Stars of David on almost every corner, some with a line through it, others as a part of an anti-occupation sentiment in Arabic, and others supporting the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Some of the translations I have made read: "Together we get freedom," and "Those believers who feel God in their hearts, keep our promise with him and say the right thing."

The Samaritan Community

I visited the Samaritan village on the top of Mount Gezerim, guided by Husne Kahim (pictured below), the Samaritan's high priest and 163rd descendent of Adam (and he has the framed family tree to prove it). Nablus is the home to one of the world's last Samaritan communities. Samaritans are one of the world's smallest communities, numbering about 725 people (as compared to 146 in 1917). At it's peak, the Samaritans numbered over a million followers in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

Their religious observances cement cohesion of the community and are strictly defined, with no tolerance for breaches. Women are particularly affected by laws to ensure their purity; they are not permitted to participate in any ordinary activity for seven days during their menstrual cycle or after their have give birth (40 days if the baby is a boy and 80 days if the baby is a girl).

They hold three passports: Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian. Samaritans believe that Mount Gezerim was not only the first piece of land ever created, but it was also the land out of which Adam was made, the only place spared in the great flood and the place where Abraham went to sacrifice his son (opposing the common belief that this took place in Jerusalem). Their small population, coupled with their refusal to accept converts, has caused a history of genetic disease. A Samaritan male may do so on the condition that his future wife convert and submit to a six-month trial period under the direction and supervision of a priest who decides in the end if the marriage may take place. The Samaritan High Priest said this process has been been done with 25 Jewish, 3 Muslim and 5 Christian women. However, there are few non-Samaritan women who want to live segregated on top of a mountain in the middle of Palestine.

Today, the Samaritians live in both Nablus and Holon, a suburb of Jaffa-Tel Aviv. They are both Palestinians and Israelites, they speak Arabic, but pray in ancient Hebrew. Aside from their religious traditions, Samaritans have the same secular traditions as Palestinian Arabs. Although the israeli occupation has granted them special status, Samaritans have remained attached to their Palestinian identities and institutions. There is a seat automatically reserved for them on the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Youth Theatre at Balata Refugee Camp

I have been spending time in the Balata refuge camp, thinking that this might be someplace where I will focus my research. Today, I was invited to observe a youth theatre group at the Youth Centre, which was full of extremely energetic adolescents, who were physically incapable of stillness. They had 15 minutes to prepare a short performance about a problem facing the camp, coming up with the script, dialogue, and props themselves. They closed the curtains and spent the whole time in a frantic racket preparing, while every few minutes one of them would poke his or head out of the curtain with a big smile and a wave. The performance was an extremely violent depiction of IDF soldiers opening fire on a school. There was much shooting, tear gas, death, and destruction as the children acted out the lengthy skit. The audience - consisting of the group moderator, his humourless partner, and me - all had our gaping mouths covered with our hands, trying to hide our discomfort and deciding how best to discuss this

with the children after. After a debriefing with the children, they decided to perform a reprisal in which the soldiers were much less violent, and instead formed a barrier of interlinking arms across the stage not allowing the other children to pass from one side to another. This reiteration illustrated the current occupation in a very poignant way, as mobility is greatly restricted; however, the first performance was not forgotten.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Martyrdom in Palestinian Society

All Palestinians who die for the national cause are honoured as martyrs (shuhada) regardless of their religion. They often receive a picture posted in town honoring them, as well as a gravestone in the cemetery. This means that whether an individual has died as a civilian bystander or as a combatant, they are considered to be a martyr. The word Shahid (martyr) means "witness". Martyrs are thought to receive a two-fold reward: national dignity and spiritual recognition. Contrary to the some depictions of martyrdom, individuals are not encouraged to be martyrs. However, because of the rituals of comfort after the death of a martyr, there is an assumption that martyrdom is encouraged. As one mother I interviewed said, "Do you think that there is a mother who would want to lose her child? And by throwing this stone, there will be freedom and liberation? But what happens is when someone dies, to make her feel better, everyone says that he is a hero, and so I am not sad."Every mourner keeps this comforting verse from the Koran in mind: "All who obey God and he apostle are in the company of those on whom is the Grace of God, of the Prophets, the lovers of Truth, the Witnesses, and the righteous: Ah! What a beautiful fellowship!" (An-Nisa, 69). The bodies of martyrs are neither washed nor changed, thus keeping intact the marks of honour. Their funerals override the family ceremony. The entire population, men and women, accompany the body of the martyr, holding flags and chanting words heavy with emotion that call for the continuation of the struggle: "Al-Shahid habib Allah" (The martyr is beloved by God) and "Allah Akbar" (God is mightiest).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jacob's Well

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories host three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On my visit to Jacob's Well, near Balata, I found a major Christian site, tended by a kindly Muslim man, Mohammed (and assisted by his 4-year-old grandson). Jacob's Well is the place where Christian's believe a Samaritan woman offered Jesus a drink of water, and he then revealed to her that he was the Messiah, which he didn't do that often. This is reflected in the parable: "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst" (John 4:13-14). A Byzantine church destroyed in the Samaritan revolt of 529 was replaced by a Crusader church, which is currently being restored single-handedly by a kindly old, gnome-like Byzantine priest. In 1979, a group of Jewish settlers claiming biblical ownership of the spot tried to occupy it. The monk tending the site was murdered, with an axe, but the settlers did not succeed in their endeavor. The current priest (pictured above) has had various attempts on his life from the settlers, while he has defended the site.

Hopelessness and Hope in Nablus

Many Palestinian adults express a palpable hopelessness that is heartbreaking. When I asked one successful administrator from An Najah University what he thought about a solution to the conflict, he told me, "There is no solution. There is no future. There is only the present. That's why I won't get married. I don't want my children to live in this." Since I have arrived the city has been in a constant state of reconstruction and improvement, rebuilding damaged buildings and the sprouting of new commerce. When I expressed my amazement to some residents of Nablus about the growth of the city, so soon after hostilities have died down, they said that people are trying to rebuild as quickly as possible before another rise in conflict begins. However, I think of all of the investment in children's programs as hope for the future. The West Bank has a great number of programs just for children and youth, which proves that there is some hope for the future, despite the persistent hopelessness felt by many adults.

Balata Refugee Camp

Today, I visited Balata Refugee camp, which is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, home to 25,000 refugees, some who have been there since it was created in 1953. With 75% of Balata's refugee population under 18-years-old, there are numerous programs for children and youth.

In Witness in Palestine, Anna Baltzer writes: "Balata sees more violence and incursions than most other places in Palestine, which is evident as you walk through the camp. There are bullet holes in every house, school, and store. The children are tougher than those in other Palestinian communities, and their parents are more suspicious. But the barrier is easily broken with a little Arabic and indication of solidarity" (p.47).

Their resilience is illustrated in the colorful graffitti marking the concrete walls around the camp: "Boycott Israel, Free Palestine," and "Love Palestine, Hate Racism, 1 People, 1 World!" The alleys between the UN-constructed 4-story buildings were tiny – just a few feet across, windows into dark rooms facing each other, so everything said in one house is heard in the next.

Naqba Photo Exhibit in Nablus

Nablus hosted a photo exhibit to com- memorate 62 years since Al-Naqba, or "The Catastro- phe". After a variety of partition plans, even proposals to transfer the Palestinian Arab population, on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly approved a partition plan - Resolution 181. Although Jewish people owned 6.5% of Palestinian land in private or collective property holdings, the Jewish state was awarded 56.5% of the territory of Palestine, and the Arab state was awarded 42.9% in the UN partition plan. Thus began the Arab-Israeli war, which brought independence for Israel and "catastrophe' for Palestinians. At the start of the 1948 war, 940,000 Palestinians lived in what was to become Israel. By the end of the war, 150,000 Palestinians remained in areas under Israeli control. Though israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion frequently said, "Israel did not expel a single Arab," it is clear that many were forced to leave by Israeli military units.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Al-Naqba Anniversary in Nablus

I am now in beautiful Nablus, nestled between Mount Ebal to the north and Mount Gerizim to the south. Today, Friday, is a day of rest, so I spent the day catching up on reading and writing. Walking the empty streets, I notice relics of the city's violent past: some windows punctured with bullets and streets lined with peeling posters of Palestinian martyrs. Contrary to the Western media's depiction, every person killed in the conflict (whether a combatant or a civilian) receives a tribute poster. Nablus was the focus of repeated Israeli incursions during the second Intifada (meaning "shaking off"), when Israeli planes, tanks, and bulldozers targeted the city, killing dozens of civilians and damaging or destroying about 700 buildings. In fact, today is Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Independence Day in Israel) or Al-Naqba ("The Catastrophe" in Palestine), and to remind the city's inhabitants, the Israeli military flew several planes over the city in the morning, breaking the sound barrier. I can see the Israeli army has set up posts in the mountains surrounding the city, and often Palestinians in Nablus will tell me that they always feel as if "we being watched by Israel". During my first evening here, a gentleman sent a plate of fruit to my dinner table and introduced himself as Professor Sa'ed Jamal Abu Hijleh, a Palestinian poet/human geographer/political science professor/radio host/bogger. I don't usually accept fruit from strangers, but I trusted my instincts, and Sa'ed has become a great resource here in Nablus. Despite his exuberant activism, Professor Sa'ed Jamal Abu Hiljeh became extremely emotional when he started to tell me when his mother was killed by Israeli soldiers. In 2002, the 61-year-old grandmother was sitting on her front porch embroidering, when Israeli soldiers opened fire upon them killing her and injuring her husband. There is a memorial website for her here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Amman to Nablus via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge Border Crossing

Amman is only about 200k from Nablus, but, due to the numerous checkpoints and security features installed by Israel, it me took over 9 hours to get here. I catalogued my border crossing, entering Israel from Jordan via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge border crossing:

- Drive 100K from Amman to Jordan-Israel border (1 hour)
- Taxi drop off on Jordan side of the border
- Walk about 2K (with luggage) to bus depot
- Give luggage to Jordanian official to be X-rayed; retrieve luggage
- Give passport to Israeli official
- Pay 5JD ($7.50); get on bus
- Get passport with Jordanian exit stamp
- Depart on bus; drive about 5K through the Jordan Valley, passing through several military checkpoints (30 minutes)
- Get off bus at Allenby Bridge Crossing; walk past fierce-looking man dressed in jeans and T-shirt, carrying large semi-automatic weapon
- Give luggage and passport to Israeli official
- Wait in line to get passport back
- Wait in line to get passport checked
- Wait in line to get personal belongings X-rayed
- Walk through metal detector
- Wait in line for passport control; answer questions; forfeit passport
- Fill out personal information form; wait in passenger waiting area (2 hours)
- Meet with Israeli official; answer more questions (15 minutes)
- Wait in passenger waiting area (1 hour)
- Meet with Israeli military officer; answer more questions (15 minutes)
- Wait in passenger waiting area (1 hour)
- Get called by Israeli official to retrieve passport; exit passenger waiting area
- Give passport to Israeli official; get another sticker on passport
- Retrieve luggage
- Exit Allenby Bridge Crossing Point

I took a bus from the border to Jericho (the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, settled 10,000 years ago) and then took a shared taxi through Ramallah and onwards to Nablus. The driver, (a surly young man who got into a fight with an elderly passenger and then a Palestinian Authority official), took a circuitous route to avoid the military checkpoints, so the journey took twice as long. But the drive was fascinating. Rising from Jericho into the hills, I could see one of the West Bank's largest and most contentious Israeli settlements, Ma'ale Adumim, which sprawls atop the hills slipping eastwards down from Jerusalem. It achieved official Israeli city status in 1991, and is home to over 30,000 settlers who live there illegally (according to international bodies) on Palestinian land. Palestinians claim that Israel's plan for Ma'ale Adumim's continual expansion is to ensure an 'outer ring' of Israeli settlements that will have the effect of isolating East Jerusalem from Jericho, and eventually the north West Bank form the south, cutting the entire West Bank in half.

On the short drive to Nablus, I didn't expect to see so many settlements, and I tried to write down as many names as I could (while losing a battle of window roll-up/roll-down with my driver): Rimmonim, Ma'ele Efrayim, Qusra, Migdallim, and Gav Hahar. They rose up like green oases - with maroon-tiled houses in the middle - amidst the hilly desert landscape. There are 187,000 Israeli settlers currently living in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, with around another 177,000 in Palestinian East Jerusalem. One of the issues that I would like to explore more is the issue of settler violence, as there have been reports of settlers attacking Palestinian children on their way to school and destroying families livelihoods (e.g., farms and olive groves), which obviously has short- and long-term impacts on children and families. In fact, last week, Israeli settlers were accused of burning down a mosque in Luban al Sharqiya, near Nablus.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Street Kids in Amman

I have arrived in Amman, before heading into the West Bank to begin some preliminary research. When I was touristing around, I sat down under a park bench to relax and regroup. I was instantly seized upon by about 6 young street kids, none of whom spoke English. We tried communicating in mime and using my Lonely Planet glossary. One of them brought me a Pepsi, which became the only word we could communicate to each other. (And wouldn't Pepsi just LOVE that!) When I offered to pay for the Pepsi, they refused the money. I asked (in Arabic) where the Citadel was, and they pointed in the direction of a large hill. I took off, only to feel the presence of someone following me. Hakim and Ibrahim (two of the kids) decided to accompany me to make sure I got there OK. They shuttled me through side streets, alleys, and markets pointing out things on the streets and telling me their arabic names (fish=maki...I think). When we got to the tourist depot, I again offered money for their time, and they shrugged me off. I think that they would have gone all the way to the top of the Citidel with me, but they knew how steep it was, how hot it was, and how uncomfortable it was going to be. They were smart to avoid the near sunstroke I had when I reached the top. I was happy for SPF70 sunblock and conservative Islamic rules mandating that I cover most of my body, or else I would have been covered in sunburn.