Me and Mai
Tuesday, 12:30 am local time
This morning we headed out on the bus for Bethlehem. The drive is just about a 10-minutes from Jerusalem and yet Jewish Israeli Citizens cannot cross into Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in the West Bank and cars filled with tourists and Palestinians (Arab speakers from the West Bank) must go through a series of checkpoints to enter Jerusalem from Bethlehem. The newly erected 25-foot wall between these two cities effectively makes these neighboring cities feel and interact like two separate countries.
The first place we arrived in the morning was the Applied Research Institute in Bethlehem (www.arij.org) and we spoke with Suhail Khalilieh who is the head of the Israeli Settlement Monitoring Department. Suhail gave a detailed description of the struggle for land in the West Bank since 1948 when Israel declared itself a country and the UN divided the land between Israel and what they called Palestine. Prior to the UN Partition Plan of 1947, Arab’s owned 94% of the land and constituted 70% of the population. Others in the country included Christians and Jews among others. Yet, the UN land partition gave Palentine only 43% of the land (Gaza & the West Bank). With the 1967 war between Israel and Jordan and Egypt, Israel took effective ‘security control’ over the West Bank and have effectively occupied it with military ever since. After the war a ‘Green Line’ was established which continued to give Palestinians the West Bank and Gaza. This territory is being threatened each day by Israeli settlements in the West Bank that continue to encroach on Palestinian land. Though graphs, satellite images, and municipal data, Suhail described a situation in which the Israeli government takes over mountain top regions in the West Bank in the name of ‘security measures.’ They build watchtowers, roads, road block, checkpoints, and water systems. When they leave, they sell the ‘newly acquired land’ cheaply to Israeli citizens and those immigrating to the country as Jews. These new settlements are scattered throughout the West Bank. The government subsidizes the cost of their homes, cars, education…just to make the move enticing. Then with enough settlers (say a dozen), the Israeli military moves a few soldiers in to ‘protect them.’ Why do these settlers need protection? Why does the Israeli government encourage settlements each year in Palestinian West Bank? How can they do this while saying they are working for peace with their neighbors? How does this encroachment of settlements in land that belongs to the Palestinians give them any measure of peace with their neighbors?
To talk about being ‘lawful,’ we must recognize that the Israeli government is the only government with full power in the West Bank. Since the Oslo Accord in 1995, Israel was suppose to withdraw from the West Bank and turn control over to the democratically elected PLO. Yet, the Israeli government divided the Palestinian land into three sections: A,B, C. C land is controlled fully by Israel; Palestinians have no autonomy here to build, start businesses, govern, police or tax. C land makes up 60% of the West Bank. In B lands Palestinians can govern locally but they cannot have their own internal security (19% of the land). In A lands (such as Jericho), Palestinians can have their own local governing system and internal policing system (21% of the land). On July 9, 2004 the ICJ of the UN declared that the Segragation Wall Israel wanted to build to separate the West Bank from Israel was contrary to International Law and that Israel must make reparations to damages to Palestinians for land they have taken behind the Green Line. However, Israel ignored this and increased the length of the wall by 16% in order to annex more settlements built inside the West Bank behind the Green Line. This is a simple land grab. My friend Michelle who is studying to be a rabbi and who lives here said that if Israel simply built the wall on the Green Line it might have been a good thing but instead the Israeli government used the wall to take more land and this has become a threatening problem. The wall zig zags its way through the West Bank and isolated entire cities from its neighboring fields and towns. Visually, with the growing illegal Israeli Settlements, the West Bank is becoming more like Swiss Cheese and the Palestinians are left with the wholes. How can Palestine ever have an effective, viable state with pockets of land dotted across only 12% of the land (down from 43%)? It is impossible and the Israeli government knows this. Israel controls the roadways and determines which roads Palestinians can and cannot use to get from one city to another. They enclose entire cities with a wall because they have allowed the development of settlements to enclose the Palestinian area and force all transportation and export to go through one road and checkpoint for the town. Imagine being able to take only one road to go to your neighboring town and having to wait at a checkpoint where 18 year old who are forced into the army carry M-16s paid for by another country (the US) who search your car and do not speak to you but merely point (a dehumanizing system in the military protocol).
Why must the US care about the Israeli Palestinian Conflict? Because we fund it with our tax dollars. Each citizen contributes their tax dollars to this growing epidemic each year. We have tons of Jewish lobbyist in the US but where are those who speak up for the Palestinian voice? Last year the US gave 14 Billion dollars in funding to Israel; that’s 11 million dollars a day. Though we give 5 Billion dollars a year in our nice weapons deal to Israel, the rest of the money is not designated. In effect, if Palestine becomes a state (as they have every right to be), the US taxpayer will be paying twice: once to subsidize the creation of the settlements and a second time to remove the Israeli Jews living in these settlements. Imagine the PR nightmare of seeing hundreds of thousands of Jews forced out of their settlements in the West Bank. We don’t want to see this and the Israeli government knows it. If they build more settlements, it secures their ‘claim’ on the land even if it is illegal in international law. The cry will be that the international community has never supported Israel or the plight of the Jews in history and our guilt will allow for the creation of the most sophisticated apartheid regime in the world. How bad can things get on the ground until the Palestinians give up their land, throw in their claim to their homeland, and move to other countries (particularly Arab countries where many unjustly say they belong)? What does this say for our Abrahamic faiths that we are not blessed to be a blessing? That we do not care for the rights for the alien, nay even the neighbor, the brother in our midst? What does this say about our own zealot religious fundamentalism that we are willing to persecute our neighbor so badly that they are stripped of all human life, liberty, and dignity in the name of our religious zeal? Is God proud of God’s children? Are we acting in righteousness with our neighbor?
The Israeli government in shrude, they have allowed for the building of upwards of 39 small settlements they know will not be viable in any agreement with Palestine and these settlements will look like their ‘goodwill’ offering; they will serve as their bargaining chips. Not only that, all major sources of water are being annexed from the Palestinian people. The Israeli government has annexed the Eastern half of the West Bank to ‘secure the Jordanian boarder’ and effectively take up more land from Palestinians and separate them from their water source, the Jordan River. Now 42 Palestinian communities lay isolated behind the ‘Eastern Zone’ and are category C land with no local autonomy or control. In Jerusalem a belt of settlements are being started around the Palestinian East Jerusalem and boundary lines are being redrawn to secure the voting majority to be Israeli Jews and not Palestinian Arabs or Christians. How do you raise a generation of effective leaders from such parched land?
Later in the afternoon we visited a refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem called Deheisheh. First, we had to lose our image of a refugee camp; there are no tent dwellings. Remember this place has been around for 60 years. They have buildings though the first refugee kicked off their land to make way for the new Israeli state lived in a 9×9 room for each family. For the first few years in the camp 125 families shared one toilet. The refugees were not allowed to build and were not given rights to add plumbing for waste and water until the mid 1990s. Even with new allowances to build after the Oslo Accord, healthcare is dismal and classrooms cram in 60-70 children per teacher. Why would the people remain in the hell? Why not try to immigrate to another country? The fact is if they leave they give up their right to return. Isareli government finally said the refugees have the right to return but not the right to enact that right. This means nothing. The refugees refuse to acquiesce to rules of the game as dictated to them and shrink off into historical amnesia. They are refugees participating in the harsh and necessary political act of protest. This is their non-violent protest. We need to see these refugees as non-violent, peaceful, lawful protestors who long to return to their homeland and who refuse to succumb to despair and desolation. In their non-violent act of living in these camps they protest the injustice they live through every day and call the global world to stand up and take notice, to not forget them, to not move on and call it ‘democratic progress.’
In the backyard of one of these ‘homes’ I met Mai, a young girl living in the camp. Many of the children were very friendly to us saying ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’ to us. They need the world to see what is going on (though I’m sure the kids may not think this political part through). I asked if I could take Mai’s picture and when I noticed her goats we spoke as much as we both could with my non-existent Arabic. I remembered hearing and witnessing how connected Palestinians are to their land. They are farmers, artists, craftsmen and women. They belong to the land and know themselves as they are attached to their land and culture. Seeing 8 goats in a 5×7 pin, I thought of the utter preposterous plight of the Palestinian people who live in land prisons-no freedom to roam, to start business or build without Israeli permits (worse than a Guatemalan trying to receive a visa to enter the US…permits go to the Israeli’s and very few to Palestinians). What will Mai’s life be like? This beautiful girl who welcomes me as an American while my government does little to raise awareness of her plight. Who will she become? What will she do with her intellectual and creative boredom? How will she respond to all the discrimination she will face in her lifetime? How will she deal with the demoralizing dehumanization she will face in the name of securing her Israeli neighbor? Will she ever be able to walk through Jerusalem since she is neither a citizen of the town nor a tourist? What does her future possibly hold for her in her own land?
Where can we look for a Palestinian leader who can raise up a non-violent generation of peacemakers and say I forgive and let us make this right? Maybe our security comes not from building more walls but more opportunities for self-development, creativity, and opportunity on the ground for these young people. May we capture their imagination that life is worth living and abundance can come from life lived together.