Just when I’m hoping I might get some free time to explore some larger, more expansive themes, so much happens in one day that I have to jot it down as it’s happening!
Basically, after the very pro-Israel experience that was Birthright, a group of us decided to immediately explore the other side of things, and booked a political tour through Jerusalem and Ramallah offered by a Palestinian gentleman named Abu Hassan. Abu is a Palestinian who resides in Jerusalem, and who is able to retain his official residency there because he was born in Jerusalem prior to all Palestinians being relegated to the West Bank and Gaza. Though Jerusalem has always been his home, he now straddles two wholly different worlds, and for the past fifteen years he has been trying to educate people about what actually has happened in Jerusalem since Israel was declared as a state almost 70 years ago.
First of all, I knew that Abu was legit the moment I saw his hair. It was as if the permculture gods had ordained that we cross paths.
My first impression as we all sat in a cafe prior to our tour commencing: Abu spoke with a level of candor, passion, and willingness to recognize the full picture and full humanity of those involved that really resonated with me. I never felt like he was putting “Jews” or “Israelis” in a box or categorizing them as a whole, the way I often felt Palestinians and Muslims got lumped together with terrorism and jihad during our Birthright trip. It’s hard to capture fully the difference in tone between Abu and some our Birthright speakers, because it really was a gut feeling I got that said “this guy isn’t trying to hide anything from me”. I can only say that I felt I was getting much more of the full picture listening to Abu than I had gotten for most of my 10 days on Birthright.
This was also due in great part to how he ran his tour, and the balance he struck between exploring the history and laws governing the establishment of Israel, and the very personal stories he had to share from his own life about being a Palestinian in an occupied territory. In all our time, no one on Birthright brought up or acknowledged how many UN injunctions have been passed in the past two decades (by every country except one – i.e. America) denouncing what Israel is doing to Palestinians, beyond telling us how “unfair” the UN has been towards Israel. I was glad to learn about these things as Abu took us around.
For Abu, the personal struggle and the systematic struggle of Israel and Palestine have been very closely tied together. He has been unable to see his aunt in Gaza for 18 years, simply because he cannot enter Gaza without sacrificing his residency in Jerusalem. Residency for Palestinians born in Jerusalem is an incredibly delicate matter, and a number of laws have been established that make it next to impossible for Palestinians not from Jerusalem to gain a resident’s ID, and all too easy for those who have it to lose it.
Perhaps the most difficult implication of these policies is for Palestinian couples, when one is a resident of Jerusalem, and the other a resident of the West Bank. Under current Israeli law, married couples under these conditions are not allowed to reside together – the person from the West Bank is not allowed to reside in Jerusalem, and if the person from Jerusalem takes up even temporary residence in the West Bank, their residency in Jerusalem is forfeit. Similar problems arise in trying to get Palestinians into school, given that the infrastructure in the West Bank is so poor. Palestinian children need an education by law to become residents of Jerusalem (and need to furnish a diploma/proof for each year they’ve completed), but the majority of the schools are located outside of the West Bank. It’s a ridiculous Catch 22, and a chilling one, given that we were told on Birthright by our Israeli guide at Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall, that the best tool to combat terrorism is teaching children to read.
Beyond learning about these systematic paradoxes, Abu took us and showed us the homes of Palestinians who quite literally had been kicked out by Israeli police at 3:30 in the morning, and whose land and property were handed over to Jewish families who had been allowed to “purchase” their homes with fake papers.
Unlike my experience on Birthright, where I often felt lectures were provided at a distance, Abu didn’t just tell us or bring us to see these things from afar – he actually took us to meet one of these displaced Palestinian families living on the edges of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee camps. This particular family had expanded their home to accommodate their growing size, when Israeli authorities came in and essentially said “we own this land now – you need to get out.” (this is real deal – we met and spoke with these people, and their story isn’t unique). According to Abu, Palestinian families with claims to the lands in Jerusalem had gone so far as to procure the original papers signifying their ownership from Turkey (where these original documents reside), and while the Israeli courts have acknowledge the validity of these documents, they’ve casually circumvented them by telling these families that they’re “too late” and needed to present their case earlier (which actually wouldn’t have been possible). Their only hope is to escalate the matter to an international court, which takes time and resources that many of these people don’t have.
I will emphasize again – we met these people. I could hear their children laughing in the next room, while the dogs belonging to the Israelis who occupied the acquired portion of their property were barking next door. We saw the site where Palestinian families were literally forced to pitch tents outside of their former homes, where they could only watch the new families and “owners” come and go as they pleased.
I’m currently staying the night in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, and I’ve decided to spend the next couple of days exploring this area and these issues. I was very lucky to have met a Danish woman named Mahvish on our tour, and she has been kind enough to take me under her wing as I learn more and explore. Tonight, we went out for Karaoke in Ramallah and oy – I wish I hadn’t forgotten my camera’s memory card! What a blast! Trying to sing “I Believe I Can Fly” by R Kelly in Palestine while still desperately sick, among folks I’ve only met for the first time – is this real life?
Thus far, I’ve really been blown away by the kindness of folks here in Palestine. There’s a level of community here, and willingness to help one another that I just wasn’t expecting: for instance, as Mahvish and I were trying to make our way to the Danish apartments she’s been staying at, our taxi driver, having trouble with our English, simply pulled over and asked a friend on the corner who spoke English to help sort things out (this was after having driven around – it wasn’t like he was expecting to see this guy). Earlier, our driver and three other dudes were all looking at the map together, trying to figure out where we were going, all taking time out of their cabs to help. Our cab driver actually still got lost on the way, and when we arrived got into a mild dispute with Mahvish about the price of the fare. This said, I was blown away by how calm he remained as he pleaded his case (and recruited another random passerby to help translate and arbitrate on the matter!). In New York, I can just imagine the shouting and cursing that would have ensued. Instead, it was a mild disagreement that eventually resolved itself with both sides making some concessions. Amazing.
There’s so much more to add, but for now, I will summarize by saying this: there is a third world country in the middle of Israel, and I never would have known if I hadn’t looked. The media doesn’t get any of it right, and you have to dig. If you have any questions, I am happy to answer them as best as I can, and if you feel any of the facts mentioned above are not fully reflective of the truth, please, let me know, and I will endeavor to learn more.
Love from another world,