Thursday, April 26, 2012

Christian Palestinians

CBS recently aired a segment on their news show, 60 Minutes, about the plight of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Jerusalem. You can view it below. An interesting part of the story was Michael Oren’s--the Israeli ambassador to the US--attempt to prevent the report in some capacity from airing.

Fortunately, the piece counters Mr. Oren's suggestion that Palestinian Christians are fleeing the West Bank because of Muslim extremism. This is frankly not true, and the piece points this out. However, throughout the story, there is an underlying tone that Palestinian Christians identify differently from "the Muslim majority" in the West Bank, and that they are effectively being "squeezed out" by the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians Muslims. This is also inaccurate, as Palestinians of all faiths identify commonly as Palestinian. As Omar Rahman notes, "Christians are a seamless part of the Palestinian population", and this is something that I have witnessed in my work in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Christian Palestinians are no different from other Palestinians; they face all of the hardships of Israeli occupation: forced displacement, restriction of movement, separation from family, and violence from Israeli settlers. These are the real reasons that people are leaving the West Bank and Jerusalem.

In an effort to support CBS's coverage of Palestine, I wrote the following letter to the correspondent, Bob Simon, thanking him for the piece, and encouraging more stories on the plight of Palestinians.

Dear Mr. Simon,

Thank you for your segment about Palestinian Christians. This is indeed a controversial topic, and I appreciate that 60 Minutes is tackling it. I am an American researcher working with families in the West Bank and Jerusalem (both Muslim and Christian). I disagree wholeheartedly with Ambassador Oren; Palestinian Christians are not leaving the West Bank because of Muslim extremism, but rather because of the inhumanity related to the Israeli occupation. In fact, I have witnessed Palestinians of all faiths joined together in the common struggle against the occupation. I have never heard any ill-will between these people, as they commonly define themselves as "Palestinian". Furthermore, for Mr. Oren to call a document that calls for non-violence in the West Bank "anti-semitic" is irresponsible and inaccurate. But this is not surprising, since Israel historically tends to call anyone who disagrees with their policies anti-semitic. I am also not surprised that Mr. Oren contacted the head of CBS in order to intimidate you from airing the piece. I am glad that you included this in your segment.

I wish that the segment would have emphasized the situation in the West Bank more: restrictions of movement, arrest and detention of children, separation of families because of the wall, extreme settler violence towards Palestinians and internationals. But I glad that this story aired at all. Drawing attention to the situation in the West Bank, for Palestinians of all faiths, is essential so that Americans learn more about what is happening there and the implications of the support of Israel. It is very important that people learn more about the Israeli occupation through important programs such as yours.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Prisoner's Day in the West Bank

Last Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 was Prisoner's Day for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel arrests more than nine Palestinians (of all ages) per day on average. As of 2011, 4,489 Palestinians are being held as political prisoners. Of those, 320 Palestinians are being held in prison by Israel under administrative detention, which means that they are being held without trial. 183 prisoners are minors (under the age of 18). The people I interviewed in one village I visited yesterday said that 16 children were arrested or detained in a one week period in March, the vast majority on suspicion of stone throwing. In the same village last summer, a six-year-old was arrested and detained by Israeli forces; he was eventually released 24 hours later. As one father expressed, "Imagine if that was your child! What would you do?"

Detainees face an increased use of solitary confinement of prominent leaders, a ban on reading materials and television, a halt of transfer of funds from family members for prisoners to purchase many basic food products, and the discontinuation of academic studies for distance learning. To protest the prison conditions, 3,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails fasted last Tuesday as part of the Karameh (Dignity) Strike. 1,200 declared that they will continue to fast, joining several administrative detainees. Two detainees who have been on hunger strike for over 40 days--Bilal Diab (27) and Tha’ir Khekhle (34)--have been admitted to the hospital and their condition is deteriorating. Diad has been in detention for eight months, and Khlekhle has been in detention for more than two years. He has not yet seen his 22-month old baby, born after his detention. The two are examined regularly by doctors from Physicians for Human Rights doctors, and the NGO has expressed concern over their condition, calling for their immediate release.

There were several demonstrations throughout the West Bank to show solidarity with the prisoners and call for their release. En route to Al Azariyah, my research assistant and I stumbled upon a peaceful protest in Ramallah. Elderly mothers were holdings framed photos of their beloved sons who are being held in detention. Children of prisoners waved Palestinian political party flags. Fatah leader Abbas Zaki proclaimed, “There will be no peace and no safety without releasing all prisoners from Israeli jails.” After the central demonstration in Ramallah and after my assistant and I were on our way to Al Aazariya, hundreds of people went to protest near the Ofer military prison, were political prisoners are held. They were dispersed by the Israeli army with tear gas and the “skunk” water canon (a high-pressured hose that sprays foul smelling water).

Israeli's detention of Palestinians is not only punishment for the individual, but also collective punishment for Palestinian families, who face increased economic hardship and targeting by Israeli forces as a result of the imprisonment of their fathers, sons, and brothers. Due to the illegal transfer of prisoners outside the occupied territories, more than 3,000 prisoners cannot be visited by their families. This is a major challenge for Palestinian families. This week, I interviewed one family in a village near Bethlehem whose father has been imprisoned for the past ten years. The family is unable to visit their father, because of the recent Israeli restrictions on family visits. Even if they were allowed to visit, the journey would be nearly impossible considering the permits needed for Palestinians to cross into Israel as well as the travel costs that this family cannot afford. I asked the 11-year-old son to draw his dream place, and it was a picture of his mother, father, older sister, and younger brother going for a picnic in the park. His family responded by saying, Inshallah (God willing).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Violently Divided City

Last week, I spent two days in Hebron, interviewing families and children about their experiences living under occupation and specifically with Israeli settlements throughout the city, which according to the UN under the Fourth Geneva Convention are considered to be illegal. I have written about Hebron before, when I last visited in 2010, and unfortunately things are still extremely difficult for the Palestinians who live here.

Hebron is a surreal place, especially H2, which is the area of the city where over 500 Israeli settlers are living alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Despite the population imbalance, the Israeli settlers hold the power in H2, often commanding the Israeli soldiers stationed in the area. There are few people on the streets and all of the stores along Shuhada Street--once a bustling part of the Palestinian city center--are closed up and abandoned (see photo below) after the settlers moved into the area and forced Palestinian businesses to leave. Settlers freely walk around the streets, as they are guarded closely by the Israeli military. However, the statistics point to more violence directed towards Palestinians than settlers, so this "protection" is misplaced. In fact, the settlers frequently use the Israeli army to further oppress the Palestinians, which was reaffirmed in stories I heard from families. The Palestinians who are out on the streets are usually hurrying towards the safety of home. The Palestinians' fear is palpable, especially throughout my interviews. One family does not let their children (ranging in ages from 5-18) leave the house unless they are accompanied by an adult. Another family has installed multiple security cameras, which keep getting stolen by the settlers. Another family told me a story about their six-year-old son who was kidnapped by Israeli settler youth. One child-participant was scared to open up her front door to me, because she said that the settlers (who are her neighbors) might see her. The settler's power is seen clearly in all the Stars of David that are drawn on the walls and doors throughout the neighborhood, laying claim to the territory.

When I revisited Hebron a few days ago, I met members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). These international volunteers--or Ecumenical Accompaniers (EA's)--"provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace" (see photo to the right). They invited me to observe them in their daily activities, including accompanying Palestinian children as they walk to and from school (as they are the frequent target of violence from Israeli settlers) and monitoring settler activity within Hebron.

On the day that I visited EAPPI, an EA and I waited at the bottom of some stairs where the children would pass by on their way from school to home. The schoolchildren were friendly (see photo below left), though cautious, especially with presence of so many settlers, who had gathered at the settlement just across the street from the stairs. (The number of settlers increased dramatically at this time of year, because of the Jewish passover.) Even when one of the Israeli settlers came up and yelled for us to leave, the children did not flinch; they just continued on their way, jostling and joking with one another, along Shuhada Street and home. At one point they squealed when they spotted a lizard.

One infamous settler named Anat Cohen, who, along with her husband and 14 children, lives in the Beit Hadassa settlement in the middle of H2. The house belongs to a Palestinian, Mr. Abu Ribhi Dies who was thrown out of the home in 1975 after a military order was issued claiming that the home did not belong to him. In addition to being the head of education for the settler children in H2, Anat Cohen is known for encouraging settler violence against Palestinians. She has also been known to be violent with internationals who visit H2 in support of Palestinians. I actually saw this with my own eyes, when I noticed an older woman with a taut and weathered face approach us, yell in Hebrew, and point at us. I was told that she was shouting at the nearby Israeli soldiers to arrest us, though there was obviously no legal reason for this. About five minutes later, I saw her throw water (along with some young female settlers) at an international visiting from Germany and then kick another international visiting from the US. After witnessing this, the EA and I encouraged the Israeli police to file a report about Ms. Cohen's violent behavior towards internationals. But instead, we were thrown out of H2 by the Israeli soldiers and police, a perfect example of how the settlers utilize the Israeli military to further their own goals. It also illustrates how difficult it is for Palestinians to see true justice.

At the end of my day in Hebron, I went along with another EA to monitor settler activity in H1. many settlers and their Israeli guests entered the Old City of Hebron to take historic tours of the area. According to the 1997 Hebron Agreement, H1 is under the Palestinian Authority's control, and therefore off-limits to Israelis. Despite this, the Israeli settlers--accompanied by dozens of Israeli soldiers (see photo to the left)--regularly visit the area to "sight see." When I asked one settler what the tour guide was saying, he told me, "We are learning that this city belongs to us."

I watched the Israeli settlers, accompanied by heavily armed soldiers, walked through the narrow streets of the Old City. The settlers also watched me, and found it amusing to take photos of me. (At one point, I felt like a tourist attraction.) Palestinian children also watched the settlers curiously, but also took time to skirmish with a soccer ball. Though it was extremely strange to see these large groups of settlers accompanied by heavily-armed Israeli soldiers moving through a Palestinian city, it was just another day for the Palestinian children, who seemed eager for the Israeli settlers and soldiers to leave, so they could get on with their football match.