Friday, June 4, 2010

Compassion at Damascus Gate

Today, I left Jerusalem for Amman, where I will be returning to Canada. As I was leaving my hotel to find a taxi to take me to the Jordanian border, I saw a large gathering outside Damascus Gate, one of the largest entrances to the Old City. I asked a bystander what was happening, and he said that the Israeli military had closed the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites for Muslims, after rumors that there was going to be a protest over Israel's actions against the Gaza aid flotilla.

For some Palestinians who come to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they must wait months, or even years, to get a permit from the Israeli government to visit Jerusalem. There were men pleading with Israeli officers to let them enter to Old City to pray. But the military was steadfast. My initial thought was that a denial of people's right to pray might cause more protests, and defeat Israel's intent to quell a protest. This is yet another example of a Israeli policy that exacerbates the opposite of its stated intent.

I heard later (from Anna Baltzer's blog) that when the call to prayer started, the men got as close to the walls as possible, and started praying, some kneeling in the dirt without prayer mats. Calm overcame the area, as the men (young children and elderly alike) bowed down in unison, praying. When the imam began his sermon, everyone listened intently. Some expected the sermon to address the injustices that the Palestinians were experiencing at the moment, but instead it was about compassion in Islam. The imam asked that their prayers be accepted even though they could not be inside the walls of the mosque. He said, "Someday, we will live in a place where it doesn't matter what color your skin is, or where you're from." And the group answered a collective "Amen."

(Above photo: Anna Baltzer)

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Today, I travelled to Hebron, which, with 160,000 inhabitants, is one of the largest city in the West Bank. What makes Hebron unusual is the presence of 5 settlements and 500 Israeli settlers in the middle of the city center. Israeli army presence here is massive, and Palestinians are unable to cross through settler-occupied areas to reach other parts of town. This has consistently caused violence clashes between settlers and Palestinians, and israeli soldiers are occasionally sent in to evict Israeli settlers who are deemed under Israeli law to be illegally squatting in Palestinian homes and buildings.

Hebron has a rich religious history, which is linked to its recent violent history. In Islamic tradition, Adam and Eve lived here after being exiled form the Garden of Eden, while the presence of the Tomb of the Patriarchs - the collective tomb of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with their wives - makes it sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Although instead of promoting like-minded links between the major monotheistic religions, this has made Hebron a flashpoint for religious violence, most famously culminating in the Baruch Goldstein massacre.

In 1994, during Ramadan, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba in Hebron, opened fire on Palestinians praying in the Haram al-Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 men and boys in the back and wounding 150-200 others. After this incident, tensions between the Palestinians and the settlers grew, and the
city was divided into H1 (80% of the municipality of Hebron, under Palesti
nian control) and H2 (20%, which is under Israeli control). The 40,000 Palestinians living in H2 face daily harassment from the Israeli army and settlers. The open-air markets have been covered with netting, to catch the detritus and rubbish that the settlers throw down from the upper floors (see photo to the right). International human rights organizations keep 'observer' groups in town Voluntary teams (such as the Christian Peacemakers Team, who I interviewed) escort Palestinian children to school to protect them from settlers throwing rocks and verbally harassing them. Palestinian violence against settlers, too, has sometimes flared up.

When I was walking through the semi-abandoned market, there were Israeli soldiers on every rooftop, following my every move. I would often turn a corner and be face-to-face with 5 or 6 soldiers in full combat gear with the guns facing me. Unlike all of the other Palestinian markets that I have visited - Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem - children were conspicuously absent from the city streets. At one point when I looked up through the netting and wires and eclipsed the blue sky above, I saw some children poking the heads outside of a window covered with bars. I waved at them, and they laughed and waved at me. In another area of the Old City, where I was told the poultry market once used to be bustling with commerce,

there were four young boys tending to cages filled with pigeons. They saw my camera, rushed over, and asked for an impromptu photo shoot. I obliged, as they became giddy each time they were able to see themselves reflected in the digital photo.

In H2, I saw anti-Palestinian graffiti, such as "Gas the Arabs" written on the doors of a Palestinian home. The morning of my visit, a settler drove to the entrance of the Arroub refugee camp and shot two Palestinian teenagers, accusing them of throwing stones. As
I write this, the boys in critical condition in the hospital (see the news story here). To quote a 2004 report by The Alternative Information Centre's Occupation in Hebron, "Israel's settlement policy, which supports the presence of radical Jewish fundamentalists with a strong anti-Arab ideology in the middle of a Palestinian city, is the proximate reason for the high level of violence in Hebron."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

West Bank Settlements

Today, I visited some of the Israeli settlements around the West Bank. Israeli Jewish colonies set up in the Palestinian Territories are most often referred to as "settlements", although this is seen as a somewhat derogatory term to settlers and Israelis, mainly because there is so much politics tied to the term. According to the CIA World Factbook, some 187,000 Israeli settlers currently live in more than 100 such settlements in the West Bank, with around another 177,000 in the area of Arab East Jerusalem.

The World Court and UN Security Council both condemn settlement building as illegal under international law, a ruling that Israel disputes; the United States and the European Union have commonly deemed settlements an obstacle to peace and have urged Israel to stop further building. In May 2009, President Barack Obama demanded a freeze
of settlement construction in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying, "Israel...will abide by its commitments not to build new settlements and to dismantle unauthorized outposts." Reports of continued settlement construction and expansion, however, have appeared in the international press. My trip to visit the settlements has also confirmed that there has not been a freeze to settlement construction. (See the picture to the right of Ariel settlement, where there is active construction on the expansion of the University). Netanyahu has stated, on several occasions, that settlement construction and expansion is part of the "natural growth" of the Israeli population. But it seems that settlement construction is designed to annexe large parts of the Palestinian Territories, thereby marginalizing and fragmenting the Palestinian population.

Settlements range in size from a collection of caravans on a remote hilltop to large urban areas, such as Ma'ale Adumim near Jerusalem, home to tens of thousands of Israelis and now considered by most Israelis to be a suburb of Jerusalem. I visited the settlement of Rahelim, near Nablus, and the settler who spoke with me gave me a short tour of the compound, which included the construction of a new preschool, funded by an American organization. I visited the large settlement of Ariel, which includes a university campus and 25,000 settlers. The settlement of Alfe Menache, which is a few miles from the Green Line, is considered a "moderate" settlement, with the residents hoping that they will one day be absorbed by the Green Line (as it moves closer in towards the West Bank) and become part of Israel.

The settlers in all of these communities have moved to the West Bank for both ideological (they believe the land belongs to them as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy) or economic reasons (the rent is cheap). Most of the people that I interviewed expressed an enormous amount of apathy for the occupation and the plight of the Palestinians ("Are we in the territories? I didn't even
notice!"). None had visited a Palestinian village, and most considered the land that they settled on to be just another part of Israel ("This land didn't belong to anyone when we arrived.").

Palestinians claim that the settlements illegally occupy land belonging to Palestinians, and that they frequently divert precious water resources from nearby Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Many roads threading their way through the West Bank as access roads to settlements off-limits to Palestinians, who commonly refer to these as "apartheid roads". Security around these roads and settlements means that Palestinians are frequently required to perform lengthy diversions to get to work, school, or elsewhere. There are numerous reports of harassment of Palestinians by settlers. As I drove along the road running south of Mount Gerizim, I saw some fields burning and a lot of Israeli military on the road. When I read the news later, I saw that the settlers living in the settlement of Yizhar had set fire to the olive and almond groves of the Palestinian fields of the neighboring Palestinian village, Urif, burning over 100 dunums (about 24 acres). See the news story here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Qalqilya is located along the 1949 Green Line and less and 20K from the Mediterranean Sea. However, like most Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories, its residents are denied access to the sea. It is an enclave or ghetto with over 44,000 residents, completely encircled by the separation barrier, disguised from the Israeli-side by a huge earth-bank, and in desperate economic circumstances. Unemployment runs at 60-70% and most families survive on foreign food aid. Closure means that men cannot work outside Qalqilya. Since 2002, in addition to curfews, economic stranglehold, and the change in landscape from the Ariel settlement bloc, thousands of hectares of prime farm and urban land have been confiscated and destroyed for construction of the separation wall and even more recently the creation of the seam zone between the Green Line and the separation barrier, in favour of new settlement expansion. The separation barrier that surrounds Qalqilya is slowly strangling the community, as there is no room to grow, as all cities must do to survive. The only entry and exit point - the checkpoint for Palestinian workers to move in and out of Israel - is tightly controlled by the Israeli military [see the photo below].

Qalqilya was the first town to vote Hamas into power during the local elections, which might explain (but not justify) Israel's heavy-handed treatment of the town. My guide told me that when he would often take a group of tourists to the top of a local school to get a better view of the separation barrier, and its impact on the town. He was informed by the Israeli military that if he continued to show people the view of the separation barrier from the school that they would destroy the school. This is an example of collective punishment of the whole community.