Monday, July 31, 2006


This marks the end of my little foray into blog-dom. For my handful of readers out there, thanks for your interest, though I will confess this web-diary has been largely an exercise in self-indulgence.

My flight departs early tomorrow morning, meaning I must catch a sherut to Ben Gurion airport at 3:00 a.m. I arrived here two days after I departed. I will arrive home, God willing, on the same day I leave.

Home. I shall encounter no checkpoints on the drive from LAX. My house faces no imminent threat of destruction. My town, no danger of rockets or F-16s. The water pressure is high and the garbage gets picked up on schedule. God help me cherish there the friends I have found here. And tell their story.

A Tangled Web

The unwelcome news came last night. Meir, staff member at ICAHD, told us there was likely to be a house demolition today. We had gathered under the lattice and vines of the Jerusalem Hotel to savor the sweet smell of nargile, sip Taybeh beer and say our goodbyes. Two weeks of re-building had left us feeling grateful, humbled, almost hopeful. And now this. We exchanged cell phone numbers and Meir promised to call in the morning with any updates.

Around 9:30 this morning I was lingering in the shade outside the Academic Book Shop on Selah ed-Din Street (convincing myself not to spend money) when the call came. The demolition was going ahead. Meir had only vague information about its location in Sur Bahir, East Jerusalem, but I set out anyway. Several Palestinians pointed me to the right service which, as always, waited until every seat was filled before setting out. We swept around the west side of the Old City and south onto Derek Hebron, then east to wend through a string of Arab communities not far from the Jewish settlement of Talpiot.

After about 15 minutes I climbed down in Sur Bahir with no further instructions to guide my steps. Phone calls to Meir weren’t getting through. In vain I scanned the hillsides in search of bulldozers and military vehicles. More phone calls failed. Then a young Palestinian, sharing my shade and sensing my frustration, asked me in Arabic what I wanted. Remarkably, he understood my gestures and halting speech about the demolition. He pointed the way, then looked at his watch. I was only five minutes away.

There was no mistaking it. As if to advertise the demolition, several army jeeps stood guard over a side street. Soldiers controlled access. I played naïve and tried to pass but a heavily armed soldier blocked my advance. Who was I, he asked. Bruce, I said. Where you from? Canada. (Well, I am. I live in the U.S. but I’m from Canada, which country tends to have fewer enemies than many these days.) I flashed my passport. He scrutinized it carefully and let me pass. Knowing how easily the IDF can establish a “closed military zone,” I was surprised but didn’t let on.

Rounding a corner, another cluster of military vehicles loomed. Soldiers filled the street. A small group of observers, including four fellow members of ICAHD, were being held at a distance from the scene of the demolition. The news they shared wasn’t good. Notwithstanding a lawyer’s best efforts and the payment of 50,000.00 shekels (11,000.00 USD), the soldiers and demolition crew refused to wait a few minutes for a fax to confirm the official postponement of the demolition. This is typical. Last minute legal gymnastics, exorbitant bureaucratic fees, delays in the relay of information, impatient soldiers in charge of the site, and another house crumbles.

When I arrived the Daewoo machines weren’t moving. Up at the site, Palestinians young and old were milling about, shouting, waving arms, staring. At our side, Meir was getting regular updates by phone. The all-important fax had indeed arrived, we learned, and the demolition had been halted mid-course. More waiting. Further commotion. Finally the soldiers and equipment began a grim retreat, marching and rolling past where we stood.

With them gone we were free to approach the scene of the crime. The house in question sat on a hill, just below the road. The machines had smashed the sidewalk and a retaining wall to get within striking distance of the house. And strike they did. The entire front half was gone. A jagged mound of gray rubble lay beneath a tangled web of reinforcing bars. Careless piles of furniture and belongings cluttered the yard. The exterior walls of two remaining rooms were punched in, filling floors with rubble but leaving a bathroom sink and mirror completely untouched. Part of the roof over the “undemolished” part of the house was cracked and tilted dangerously.

In the news this morning the Israelis, after killing over 50 people (mostly children) huddled in a basement in the Lebanese village of Qana, announced a 48-hour suspension of their aerial bombardment. Meanwhile, at a press conference somewhere near where I sit, Condoleeza Rice extended her support for Israel’s objective of degrading Hezbollah’s capabilities, and announced the outline of a U.N. / American plan to establish a secure corridor between Israel and Lebanon. Israel seems to think, and certainly wants the world to think, that its strategy will eventually make the region safer. And Condy is buying it, even though it means certain death for more civilians and further massive erosion of Lebanon’s infrastructure.

Will Israel’s enemies desist after the IDF destroys most of their bunkers and rounds up most of their militants? Is there a military solution to this conflict? I understood little of the Arabic spoken at the demolition today. But I did hear words like “America” and “Israel,” “Hezbollah” and "Nasrallah" (the group's head). And, of course, “Allahu akbar.” Old men shouted. One wept openly. Women covered their faces. Young children looked on, noting carefully who has the power and how it was put to use.

If the Israelis think they will gain security and quell resistance by destroying houses, up in Lebanon or here in East Jerusalem, I can only marvel. What they will gain, I suggest, is another generation of warriors whose young memories cannot erase the sound of buckling concrete and shattering glass, and whose hearts cannot dispel feelings of humiliation, powerlessness and rage.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Walls: Refuge or Prison?

We finished (more or less) building the house yesterday morning, just in time to join in a grand celebration to hand over the keys to its proud new owner. It isn't a mansion and won't even be big enough for the entire family to live in but it looks pretty spiffy to me. The (bare) bulbs glow and the (low) pressure taps flow. The walls have one (thin) coat of white paint and, outside, mountains of rubble remain on only two sides. Foundations, walls, roof -- all are strong enough, I would say, to keep out any who would seek to do harm. Unless they come riding a Caterpillar bulldozer.

One hundred twenty or so Palestinians were on hand to celebrate, along with the ICAHD building team (including moi), reps from various NGOs, town officials and a few sheep. Very rewarding but equally melancholy. Spreading out around the home are mounds of tangled rubble, tomb stones for other families whose homes and lives were destroyed, without notice, for lack of a building permit. You can get all the right signatures on all the right forms, but if your home is in Area C you'll likely encounter delay followed by bureaucratic delay, and to hear excuse followed by inscrutable, hollow excuse. Explore every legal option. Spend thousands of shekels. Still, it is only a matter of time before your permit is denied.

Our "direct-action" response to this remarkable state of affairs has, on one level, helped only one family. On another level, however, an entire town has been reminded that far away, in places like Ireland, Canada, Belgium and the U.S., and in Israel itself, many stand with them against injustice and human suffering. Reflecting yesterday on how an international presence gives Palestinians courage to persevere in resistance, one Palestinian said poignantly: "You are our back."

And so we clapped. Speeches multiplied. A Bedouin flute accompanied folk dance. We planted two trees in the "yard" and took lots of pictures. Drinks and fruit made their way around. Multitudes processed through the house, nodding in approval. Children darted in and out, drinking and spilling cans of sugary soda.

Funny thing about walls. Most walls serve to keep dangerous people out. Whether it's a house, a castle, a city or an empire (e.g., Imperial China), safety and security lie within. Such walls provide refuge.

Other walls work in reverse. I'm thinking of prison walls, the Berlin Wall, the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. Such walls exists to contain, to constrain, to keep dangerous (however defined) people in. Such walls imprison.

Israel's "Separation Barrier" imprisons. Officially explained as a barrier to protect Israelis from terrorists, the wall's principal function is to establish a new, unilaterally imposed border between Israel and Palestine. Indeed, the wall is not primarily a security fence at all -- something the wall's engineer and the Israeli government know very well. Turns out kids can climb the wall by wedging fingers and toes between the giant vertical slabs. Those who can't climb over it can (and no doubt will) carve tunnels under it. Any who wish to wage war against Israel will just have to get more creative. The resistance may be slowed down but it will not be stopped.

Meanwhile, the wall causes untold hardship for average Palestinians -- Palestinians like my new friend Hani, our construction supervisor from Ramallah, who wanted to visit his infant daughter in a Jerusalem hospital but couldn't get permission. Hani smiled as he explained to me his plight. But I know a father's pain when I see it.

The irony. We just spent two weeks erecting "illegal" walls to afford Palestinian family refuge while another squad of workers labored not far away to erect a "legal" wall that is sentencing millions of non-combattant Palestinians to indefinite terms in prison. One thing is clear to me: this is no solution.

Ephesians 2:14. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ungrateful Dead

We journeyed today up to the Galilee, passing through the busy town of Nazareth and beneath the shadow of the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciaton which is built over an older Byzantine Church which in turn incorporates a cave that localizes the tradition of the angels announcement to Mary that she will bear the Messiah. As with other excursions with my little group of activists, there was no time to indulge in so patently religious (and Christian) an activity as entering a church.

Instead, we pressed on through town and north to a nearby hill where the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris once flourished. I'd been there before to marvel at its amphitheatre and mosaics. (Google "Mona Lisa of the Galilee" some time.) In the days of Herod Antipas and Jesus, Sepphoris was a bustling, expanding city, an easy walk from the little hamlet of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. Some have suggested that Jesus himself, perhaps with father Joseph, may have plied his builder's trade in Sepphoris during its hey day. Today, of course, the tables have turned. Once mighty Sepphoris lies in ruins and once lowly Nazareth attracts pilgrims from around the world. Evidently God likes reversals.

Again, however, we didn't visit the obvious tourist site to explore archaeological remains. We were there to hear another story. Our guide led us to out across an overgrown field in a valley below the ancient ruins. It was overgrown with weeds and brush. A few trees provided welcome shade. At our feet was a strange assortment of rocks, arranged in dozens of long rectangles. We were standing in the cemetery of an Arab village whose population was abruptly evacuated in 1948 when Zionist Jews swept across the land, claiming territory and moving swiftly to declare the independence of the new state of Israel.

If you've read Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour you know the story, at least as the Arabs tell it, of what happened to many Arab towns and villages in an event they call The Nakhba ("The Catastrophe"). Most of the 6,000 residents of Sepphoris or Zippori fled north, ending up in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon.

The 800 or so who didn't flee were eventually displaced as well and the town's homes were destroyed. Today the village ruins lie mostly hidden beneath the trees of a young forest. I know this because our guide was Ziad led us there. A man in his thirties with short hair and bright eyes, Ziad's grandparents were young residents of the town when it happened. Today, Ziad said, six Israeli communities (kibbutzes, moshavs, settlements) perch on land that once belonged to this village.

Ziad dreams of co-existence. As we strained to hear to air raid sirens from Carmiel to the north, followed by two distant explosions -- a pair of Hezbollah rockets -- he spoke of "co-existence" between Palestinians and Jews. "We're not against co-existence," he said, "but co-existence is bullshit if you don't have the means to exist." His story, however shaded, embellished and spun (like every other story told in this land), attests to the plight, not of West Bank Palestinians but of Arab Israelis -- Palestinians from what is now Israel who remained in the land and eventually received Israeli citizenship, but who were systematically deprived of their ancestral land.

Lost land, abandoned farms, destroyed homes, hidden graves, third generation pain. More reminders of the staggering brokenness of this place. More reason to think that "co-existence" in which Jews and Arabs are both welcomed back to live side by side is our only hope.

Did Jesus know, as he hiked from Nazareth across those fields and up that hill to work in Sepphoris, that the hostile chasm between Romans and Jews in his day would be replaced by another divide, between Jews and Arabs, in ours? He once looked across from Nazareth toward this "city set on a hill." How might he tell his disciples today to let their lights shine?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Delight, Rage and Rockets

Today was a full-day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron — another alternative tour in which most of the usual pilgrimage sites did not make the itinerary. Led by Leila Sansour of Open Bethlehem (, we explored the Wall’s serpentine course in Bethlehem and its projected course in neighboring Beit Jala, and how it arrogates a major swath of the towns’ agricultural lands for the Wall, a bypass road and cluster of Jewish settlements including Har Homa and Gilo.

Most disturbing for me was our time in Hebron, the town of Abraham (Gen 13:18; 18:1; 23:2, 17-20; 25:9-10, etc.), a city that today reflects every dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including the presence of 500 violent, ideologically-driven settlers encamped in four different enclaves in a city of 150,000 Arabs. Hebron is the only place in the Occupied Territories where Jewish settlers have burrowed into the very heart of an Arab city, and they are, by all accounts, the most notorious settlers of all. Our walking tour of the Old City of Hebron took us past buildings settlers have demolished and through empty streets, streets eerily designated “sterilized” because on them Arabs are forbidden even to walk, much less live or run the shops that once made the area a bustling, thriving marketplace. Two vans of Israeli police followed us closely as we trekked through town from the Tomb of the Patriarchs to the area of Tel Rumeida.

Our walk proceeded without incident until its end when we approached a small road leading to a gate beyond which was the house of a Palestinian family — friends of our Israeli guide — whose daughter was celebrating her 16th birthday. In front of their gate a large coil of razor wire wove through garbage, sheet metal and destroyed furniture, making it precarious even to attempt to pass. More problematic, however, was the sudden appearance of Israeli troops (in green) and border police (in blue). Our guide, a former Israeli soldier, urged us to move through the gate as quickly as possible before something could develop. Only half of us squeezed through, however, before a handful of soldiers stepped in to block our way. Immediately we had ourselves an episode. Turns out we had cleared our field trip (to a birthday party!) with the police but not with the military, which meant both sides radioed their superior officers, more vehicles arrived, more troops appeared, guns waved, and we weren’t going anywhere.

In Hebron, I’m learning, the military has assigned hundreds (at least 400) to protect the settlers whereas the police who are charged to enforce the law number a few dozen. Tragically, the soldiers actually aid the settlers in their attacks and do nothing to prevent them, even when blatant, horrific, un-provoked violence happens before their eyes. The handful of police on hand fear the settlers and are largely impotent to enforce the law. Settlers, meanwhile, wander the streets, destroy property, take over buildings, stone Arabs and accompanying internationals, all with impunity.

Standing there waiting for police and military officers to sort out their turf wars, rage rose within me of an intensity I’ve rarely felt. It wasn’t the automatic weapons strung round the necks of 19 year-old conscripts nor the prospect of settlers appearing with rocks in hand. I was outraged because my passing encounter with such blatant racism and wanton violence was an every day reality for our Palestinian friends.

Pressing down hard on a father’s joy in his daughter was the dark cloud of Occupation and an even darker cloud of settler animus. Here was a family trapped in a gloomy world of curfews, closures, lost jobs and violent attacks. Two years ago settlers came into their yard and cut all their grape vines. Today each vine, about 3 inches in diameter, hangs detached and rootless from the trellis. Their children walk to school only when accompanied by internationals (from Christian Peacemakers Teams) and even then they get stoned.

Eventually, after an hour of negotiations, we were cleared to have our party. A warm welcome from the host, birthday songs, cake, gifts and much laughter. The lyrics of Bruce Cockburn’s Don’t Forget About Delight came to mind:

Amid the rumours and the expectations
and all the stories dreamt and lived
Amid the clangour and the dislocation
and things to fear and to forgive
Don't forget about delight

Defying the darkness this family remembered to delight in a girl becoming a woman. As for me, I felt overwhelmed by rage. I sat to eat birthday cake and began to sob. Very quietly. Only one or two friends noticed. Another Cockburn song nicely captured my struggle: If I had a rocket launcher.

I want to raise every voice -- at least I've got to try
Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes.
Situation desperate, echoes of the victims cry
If I had a rocket launcher...Some son of a bitch would die.

Cockburn’s song reflects his visceral response to Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico in 1983; my tears and rage came in response to a society so broken that it leaves children defenseless at the hands of wanton criminals. Mercifully, my rage subsided. I would launch no rockets. More violence is the last thing this country needs. Besides, I have a house to build.

The Mistake of Militarizing

Several more days of house re-building have passed without any further run-ins with border police or their West Bank counterparts: stone-throwing children. We “activists” have become a well-oiled, if largely unskilled, building machine. A Palestinian contractor and a handful of Palestinian tradesmen are doing the skilled labor, but we are doing most everything else including mixing mortar, moving bricks, pulling nails, standing around and drinking water. The Palestinian tradesmen are, like us, defying an (inhumane) Israeli law except that they have so much more to lose. We might get kicked out; they can be detained, imprisoned and worse.

On most days we are joined on the site by a handful of others from groups with names like International Solidarity Movement, Ecumenical Accompaniers, Rabbis for Human Rights and Combatants for Peace, as well as an occasional journalist or film crew. It adds up to a fast moving, cheerful, even playful scene: Arab children weave among us serving grapefruit juice, sweet mint tea or Arabic coffee, older Arab men recline, smoke and talk under a nearby tarp, and the rest of us banter or wax political while we work.

In addition to our labors at the site, ICAHD schedules for us daily lectures by different groups (sometimes the very group that joins us on site that day) and arranges “alternative” tours in Israel and Palestine. Two days ago was a trip south into the Negev to encounter the endangered Bedouin whose traditional lives have been torn apart by Israel’s relentless land expropriation and population relocation policies.

Yesterday we journeyed up to Ramallah. My distaste for traveling by private tour bus is intensifying. It feels so insular and voyeuristic in contrast to public travel by (Jewish) sherut or (Arab) service taxi. Petty complaints aside, the group trek to Ramallah meant we were able to meet with Maen Areichat, the articulate Director General of the Palestinian Authority Negotiations Affairs Department. After a warm Palestinian welcome, he reflected on the January electoral victory of Hamas (attributing it to the failure of Fatah to make headway in negotiations, corruption with Fatah party leadership, and Hamas’ organization and successful campaigning), the status of unresolved issues that divide Israel and Palestine, and the crises in the Gaza and Lebanon. His poignant reference to the Palestinians’ “mistake of militarizing” the resistance to the occupation hung in the air. Either this man is a consummate politician in command of all the right clichés or he’s someone whose thoughts the world needs to hear. I’m going with option two.

Today’s lunchtime conversation was with the Combatants for Peace, a newly formed group of Israelis and Palestinians whose members have participated directly, on opposite sides, in the institutionalized violence of the conflict—Israelis in the IDF and Palestinians in the resistance. They now see that violence has utterly failed to bring peace, liberty and security and they’ve determined to meet together, across the divide, to tell each other stories and to build a movement that may one day transform public opinion among both peoples. One can hope. One must hope.

Our day ended today with a screening of The Iron Wall and a conversation with assistant director Terry Boullante, a Palestinian woman whose film responsibly depicts the ideology—religious and political—behind Israeli settlements and the Wall. Most disturbing was the substantial footage from Hebron where obsessed settlers maim, shoot and kill Palestinians under the noses of the IDF. We’re heading to Hebron in a day or so; no doubt I’ll have more to say on this topic shortly.

For now I can only ask: how can Jews so zealously religious be so hateful and malicious? Is this the same righteous zeal that drove Phinehas the priest to drive a spear through the sinful Israelite and his Midianite consort (Num. 25:6-13)? The same indignation that compelled Saul (Paul) to set out for Syria to seize and bind Jewish converts to Christianity (Acts 9:1-2)?

Or is this something more sinister? What oozing darkness flows within people who burn homes, destroy property, beat old women and stone children? Equally, what kind of society knows this goes on and does nothing about it? And what kind of world knows about such things and offers its tacit approval?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Russian Roulette

As we finished breakfast on Monday and prepared to walk to the Hamdan family’s house for a second day of re-building, Jeff broke the news. Already that morning the border police had showed up at the site. Lots of them. They detained the Palestinian workers, took their I.D. cards and instructed them to travel by foot to the detainment center an hour away.

They were in trouble because although adjacent properties are officially “Area C” in the West Bank, the house we are rebuilding is just inches inside the municipality of Jerusalem. Since most Palestinians with West Bank I.D. cards are not allowed to work in Jerusalem (and often are not allowed in Jerusalem at all), these local tradesmen were technically breaking the law. We learned later in the day that the workers had been picked up again by the police, dropped at a checkpoint and told to stay away. We won’t see them again but at least they didn’t face detention, interrogation, charges and fines.

What this means is that rebuilding the Hamdan’s house is proving increasingly difficult, even impossible. The extra attention it has drawn is (we think) largely because of the government’s decision to begin building a segment of the Wall less than a hundred meters away from the site. Discouraged at this set back, we set out anyway and worked on the house all day, in defiance of the authorities.

By day’s end, however, ICAHD made the tough decision to switch to a plan B. We would postpone this project until after Wall construction had moved on and begin work on a second house, in a different part of town. Its owner is Abu Ahmad Al Hadad, aged 53. He, 2 wives, 17 children, 2 grandchildren, a daughter-in-law and his mother were all made homeless when their house was demolished on June 16, 2004. When he got the call that the bulldozers had arrived he raced to the site but his house was already a pile of rubble. One of 12,000 piles of rubble across this land.

We’ve worked on Abu Ahmad's house for two days now. Remarkably, despite the late start, we are almost on schedule. Time will tell if this one will remain standing or be demolished once again. One never knows whether or when one's house will come to some bureaucrat's attention. It's a gamble. A guessing game. No it's not. It's a game of Russian Roulette.

Of Alternative Tours and Raucous Debate

We pulled away from the camp on Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m. bound for Jerusalem. Twenty-four of us hiked up the hill past mute piles of demolished concrete, piled onto a bus, crossed the checkpoint and left the Third World behind. In minutes we found ourselves in modern Jerusalem. Jeff Halper (head of ICAHD) met us at Jaffa Gate where he began guiding us through the Old City, walking through the region's history and geography, its shifting walls and changing occupants, and then leading us on a walking tour from one Quarter to another. I was struck by his account of the Judaizing (or de-Arabizing) going on, openly and quietly, across the city.

After lunch we heard several addresses, one by Ashraf Abo Moch from Daila and one by Shir Hever of The Alternative Information Center (AIC).

Daila is a community center for cooperation between NGOs. It hosts events, distributes literature and promotes connections between East and West Jerusalem, and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, with a view to changing public opinion about what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza.

The AIC is a joint Palestinian–Israeli organization that gathers, analyzes and distributes information concerning the occupation. Shir Hever summarised the various factors affecting Israeli society and conspiring to support the occupation. He encouraged boycotts and underscored the vulnerability of the Israeli economy, given its excessive military budget and the waning enthusiasm of average Israelis for the occupation. Particularly disturbing to me was his account of the Israelis’ welfare-to-work program which erects numerous bureaucratic obstacles seemingly designed to humiliate Palestinians and thereby reduce sharply the number receiving income subsidies.

Our final lunchtime speaker was Jeff who brought out the maps and explained the Israeli government’s plan for isolating individual Palestinian communities and surrounding them with a controlling matrix of walls, checkpoints, settlements, alternative roads and the like. This segued nicely into a bus tour of East Jerusalem which looped around the Old City, traced the Kidron Valley, descended to the City of David and down further into the Palestinian community Silwan, a community that lives under constant threat of house demolition. We saw new and expanding Jewish settlements in an area that has long been entirely Palestinian. From there we moved behind the Mount of Olives and observed how the Wall dissected the Palestinian town of Abu Dis. After a pause to inspect an elaborate checkpoint, we ascended to Maale Adumim, a massive, strategic and ever-expanding Jewish settlement on the east side of Jerusalem that all but severs the West Bank into North and South. The planned non-viability of an increasingly fragmented gaggle of Palestinian cities and towns became clear.

Returning to Beit Aribeia for dinner we heard from two more activists: a pair of members of International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a non-violent, direct action group that participates, at the request of Palestinian communities, in activities that help them fight the occupation. Palestinians, they said (and I have witnessed) are less likely to be hurt or arrested when accompanied by internationals. The talk evolved into a lively discussion which illustrated how much my co-builders know about the issues, and how long they have been involved in efforts to promote peace and justice in the Holy Land. I've been watching from the sidelines for way too long.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Forgotten West Bank

Just a brief note to those inclined to think, based on media reports, that all of Israel/Palestine is now a war zone or, at least, extremely unsafe. My experience in and around Jerusalem and in trips to the West Bank suggests otherwise. Until Hezbollah can lob missiles further than Tiberias or Haifa, or until the Palestinians in the West Bank decide somehow to join the conflict in Gaza, life in Jerusalem may continue more or less as usual. Apart from the darkening war clouds, the loss of life and what I perceive to be Israel's disproportionate response, I regret that the excitement in Gaza and Lebanon means that the daily injustices suffered by the Palestinians in the West Bank will not likely attract the world's attention for some time.

The Games Children Play (or: Between a rock and a hard Police)

When the kids started throwing stones at the border police, it’s best to withdraw, say, into an alley or behind a building. We can't have the police thinking we supported the children’s provocations. Not only might we get caught in the crossfire, but the police could declare the area of our project a closed military zone making it impossible for us to continue our work.

Unfortunately, today’s police v. children showdown happened right beside where we have begun rebuilding a demolished house. I’m here with an organization called the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition led by a remarkable Israeli named Jeff Halper. This year’s group of about 30 volunteers includes Israelis, Palestinians, Europeans (Sweden, England, Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Germany), Americans, Canadians, a Mexican and a Kiwi. After several hours of non-violence training—needed in the event of an encounter with soldiers or police—our ten-minute walk to the building site crossed a lunar scape of concrete and rubble, the remains of half a dozen other homes demolished by the Israeli civil administration, allegedly for lack of permits or some petty illegality. These houses are in a zone (“Area C”) that Israel is working eventually to clear of Palestinians.

Arriving at our site, the demolished home of the Hamdan family, we quickly formed a brigade to pass pails of concrete hand to hand, accelerating dramatically the work of a handful of professional Palestinians builders. Clearly visible about 120 meters away, on the slope of a nearby hill, three Israeli police stood guard over a pair of earthmovers whose clinking, scratching and pounding were preparing the way for the infamous Wall.

The stone throwing didn’t happen until our return after lunch. For good or ill, the kids here in Anata [a-NAH-ta] (and elsewhere in the West Bank) see it as their way of resisting the Occupation. Some West Bank adults discourage it; many are sympathetic and choose to look the other way. Meanwhile, the border police who had been loosely monitoring our activities all day from a reasonable distance, began drawing closer in such a way as to invite a “response” from the kids. Climbing down from their jeeps, they donned their riot gear and staked out positions, certainly not because they were responding to any existing threat. On cue, the kids assembled on the hill above them, darting and spying, stones at the ready. The game was on.

With no local adults stepping in to de-escalate, we had to withdraw to a safe place. Before long came the gunfire and whiffs of tear gas. The soldiers, only a half dozen years older than the rock throwers -- it's children against children -- were making their move.

In the evening Salim, our Arab host, worked the phone to insure that adults would intervene tomorrow to prevent a repeat scenario. And so it goes. We resist in our way, by re-building a demolished house, and they in theirs. Not all forms of resistance are acceptable to me. I see no tangible benefit from rock throwing and other forms of violence, and no moral justification, but I’m increasingly convinced that the Occupation these Palestinians are resisting, with all its layers, dimensions and complexities, must indeed be resisted. And so, back to work.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Kicking against Darkness

Here I sit in the dining area of my hotel with the Dome of the Rock hovering just above the screen of my laptop and BBC TV playing live coverage of the escalating crisis with Lebanon and of the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. I’m back in the Holy City after a day trip to the West Bank town of Bil’in west of Ramallah, where village leaders, supported by a faithful band of internationals, have demonstrated every Friday for over a year now. This particular dispute, as I understand it, concerns land expropriation and the hotly contested route of the “separation barrier.”

On the face of it, the cause seemed to me just and the demonstration justified but I had to confess reservations: Was this a random provocation? What purpose did it serve beyond claiming a few square meters of moral high ground? Could it make a difference? Would the demonstrators resort to violence?

We traveled by shared taxi up to Ramallah, walked across town and then rode vans in a convoy to the village where we met with Palestinians, Israelis (including one rabbi) and other internationals for briefing and organization. Finally, with drums and dancing, about 150 demonstrators of all ages proceeded down a packed road to the edge of town where the newly finished barrier slices between olive groves and their owners, where many of these newly orphaned trees have been uprooted, and where Palestinian farmland is now home to a new settlement which, by a logic that escapes me, must now be protected from the Palestinians by the separation barrier. If that last sentence seems circular to you, it means you understand.

Waiting for us at the gate were dozens of armed Israeli soldiers, some mounted on armored vehicles. The idea, we’d been told, was to mingle as much as possible with the Palestinians so that they – conducting a wedding ceremony if you please – would be less likely to be hurt. In this conflict, fair skin, age, female gender and international status work to great advantage.

The peaceful little celebration unfolded with cheers and firecrackers (no Palestinian fête is complete without them) and then gathered closely at the gate, inches from the soldiers, where it stayed for five, maybe ten minutes of tension. One man offered a soldier an olive branch. Not too many minutes later a kid lobbed a rock at the chief officer. One might say a Philistine David struck an Israelite Goliath.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. In previous demonstrations, kids threw their stones after the “grown-up” demonstration was over. The two modes of resistance were not to be combined. It’s a carefully sequenced choreography. This time, however, what began as a peaceful protest abruptly turned violent. Since I’m not persuaded that stone throwing is ever appropriate, and since hostility tends to breed more hostility, I was unable to give today’s action an unqualified endorsement.

The Israeli response followed swiftly, and was vastly disproportionate to the provocation. Like their assaults on Gaza and Lebanon in which everyone suffers for the sins of the few, waves of heavy-handed retaliation followed in rapid succession. First came the percussion bombs – canisters that when lobbed or fired from a gun create a loud boom that makes one feel rather unwelcome and hard of hearing. Following closely was the tear gas. Whistling containers left toxic vapor trails; the tight band of demonstrators quickly scattered. Even in the rear flank, I was well within range. Picking my way quickly across rocky terrain, my eyes began to sting, my skin became suddenly warm and my lungs complained. Happily, it passed quickly and I continued my retreat.

Many young Palestinians sprinted past us back to the village but a number of hardy souls – Jews, Palestinians, internationals – remained and returned to the barrier. I watched from a distance as several were pushed to the ground and beaten. Others intervened to protect them. For most of what happened next I was not an eyewitness; the road to the village made too many turns to offer a clear line of sight. Many more discharges sounded. A trickle of returning activists continued for about an hour. Several ambulances sped past and returned with limping, wounded warriors. I cleaned and bandaged someone hit on the back with a “rubber” bullet. (Israeli rubber bullets are metal bullets merely coated with rubber.) A web report by the
International Solidarity Movement
has already been posted if you want to know more.

Whether today’s protest softened (or hardened) the hearts of any Israeli soldiers, whether village children learned from it the right (or wrong) lessons, whether it slowed (or hastened) the Settlement creep in the West Bank, I do not know. But it certainly offered grieving villagers a chance to say their piece, to kick against the darkness and to feel a small measure of support from privileged elites coming from exotic, inaccessible places like Spain, Italy, Sweden, Japan, England, the U.S.A. and Canada. That may not be much for us, but for Palestinians surrounded by checkpoints, barbed wire and concrete, it may be reason to hope.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Grandmother's Scorn

Today I traveled to Bethlehem with several friends to tour the Dheisheh refugee camp and interview the leaders of a cultural center there. We rode the service [sair-veese] or shared taxi from just above old Jerusalem to the military checkpoint north of Bethlehem. I was shocked at the difference a year makes. In addition to the lateral creep of the infamous wall, there is now a major, industrial strength “terminal” through which all Bethlehem – Jerusalem traffic must pass. On the Jerusalem side, a large, cheery sign in three languages greets all who pass: Peace be with you. Too bad the Wise Men and Shepherds weren’t on hand to see it.

Inside the terminal are three hi-tech screening lanes sporting revolving gates, blast-proof glass, bars, cameras, conveyor belts, x-rays and, of course, guns. Three whole lanes sounds and looks impressive except that several Arabs with whom we stood in line told us only one lane is ever used. Even during morning rush, when hordes of Bethlehem “commuters” venture to work in Jerusalem. Waiting for two, even three, hours is common. But now they wait in the shade, so hey.

On the Bethlehem side while taking pictures of the graffiti, a grandmother met us with a simple plea: don’t just take pictures, speak out. The wall, she explained, separates her from her son and his family, a major hardship in a world where kinship ties are close and where grandparents play a central role in raising children. Several of those children looked on as she released her pent up indignation. Soon enough they will be big enough to throw rocks.

Will the wall reduce acts of violence in Israel? Will it keep militants from scuttling peace negotiations? Is the wall a necessary evil? Israeli statistics suggest that violence is down sharply in areas where the wall is complete (though some of those stats come from a period of mutual ceasefire, making it harder to gauge the effect of the wall on its own). Presumably the wall will make violent acts against Jews much more difficult to pull off. At least in the short term.

But where this barrier separates grandmothers from grandchildren, cuts off farmers from cherished olive and citrus groves, uproots vineyards, confiscates land, adds dozens of unproductive hours to the work week, deviates significantly from the 1949 Armistice (“Green”) Line and enforces a policy of collective punishment, I would be surprised if in the long run the wall didn’t make the militants’ task of gathering recruits much simpler. Like, say, gathering ripe olives from a nearby tree.

The cynical joke of a young Arab in the refugee camp today revealed a chilling level of bitterness: if the wall doesn’t achieve Israel’s goals, he said, they can always finish the job by putting on a roof.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Least of These

I ventured up to Ramallah yesterday and then on to Nablus where I spent the night in a very rustic hostel, Pension Al-Estikl, sharing a room with a Dutch convert to Islam who was praying toward Mecca when I entered the room. A wee bit awkward for me but apparently not at all for him. The only other non-Palestinian in the place was from Japan. For 30 shekels (less than 7.00 USD) I was happy for a room with a view onto the street and a ceiling fan.

Nablus is only about 30 miles north of Jerusalem (and 3 hours and 3 different shared taxis) but now, on my return, it feels like I’ve been to another planet. With my friend Mohammed I visited half a dozen agencies where foreign aid (UNRWA, USAID, UNESCO, CIDA, NGOs, you name it) is hard at work. I was impressed by several sharp, tough-minded women running clinics and community centers, offering hope to women and children when they weren’t writing grant proposals for their next project. As usual, the children won my heart.

But even rays of hope can’t pierce the poverty and pain hanging thick over Nablus. The Old City continues to foment resistance to Israeli occupation, which means it routinely experiences nightly incursions — Israeli troops looking to take out “terrorists" or, among Palestinians, “wanteds” and “fighters.” (I place all three designations in scare-quotes because I reject the politics behind each of them.) As my hotel was two blocks from the Old City I was warned several times not to venture out after midnight.

During the day I heard occasional, sporadic shooting, but around 11:00 p.m. (tucked “safely” into my hotel room) I heard several sustained series of shots. (I counted 25 rounds in one series.) But that was just Palestinians playing with their toys; I’m guessing they were shooting up toward the Israeli outpost on Mt. Ebal. Round about 2:00 a.m., however, a huge boom summoned me from deep sleep. Bolted upright in bed. The Israelis were answering back. I expected more blasts to follow - on my last visit they continued for about an hour — but for last night that was it.

I’m told that nighttime street fighting is routine in Nablus. The Old City is a warren of alleys and passageways where “fighters” lurk and strike and where the Israelis lose much of their strategic advantage. Mohammed gave me a long tour during the day when Old City markets swarm with children and when old men gather and talk, but only a fool would go in there at night.

Regrettably, I return from Nablus with even less cause for hope than ever. Three reasons come to mind:

1. Grinding poverty and a failed infrastructure: notwithstanding the swarm of agencies and programs, a large part of the city is desperately poor, filthy and decidedly “third world.” (You try showering under a trickle of water.)

2. Checkpoints: men under 40 are singled out and forced to stand in corrals for hours. Women, children and older men have it slightly better. (I stood vainly with the young men for all of 35 minutes, but when the line barely moved I backtracked, climbed a barricade and entered the road where I flashed my Canadian passport and breezed through.)

3. The sense of solidarity against a common foe: however much the Israelis (and I) might want the Palestinians to lay down their arms and swear off violent uprising, the air in the city pulses with the passion to resist, with the honor-bound need to strike back even if Israel’s awesome firepower means several Palestinians die (unreported in the Western media) nightly. Posters of "martyrs" and shrines for the fallen herald the nobility of the cause. Poverty (see #1) and humiliation (see #2) fan flames of resentment. Corporate solidarity and Arab fraternity mean one man's pain is shared by all.

I pray this passion for violence won’t be passed on to the young children in the school grounds and community centers I visited today. But everything I’ve just seen - provocation, hatred on both sides, disdain, despair, fraternal solidarity, legitimate grievance, unreasonable expectation - everything suggests otherwise.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

One Jewish Jesus

On Saturday my Jesus quest took me to Mount Zion, a spur south of the Old City that separates several valleys and overlooks the pool of Siloam where a blind man washed mud off his eyes and saw for the first time (John 9:1-7). I first explored a church tied (albeit tenuously) to Jesus’ hearing before Caiaphas and to Peter’s three denials and then, near the traditional tomb of David, a site tied (since maybe the 5th century) to the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost and to Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.

At least as interesting as this pair of sites, however, was a pair of events that occurred only minutes apart as I ascended again toward the Old City.

Event One
I was passing a narrow, cobbled lane that led to the traditional tomb of David when a soothing English voice caught my attention. Peering down the alley I saw a spry older gentleman addressing a cohort of several dozen young people sitting there in the road. The fact that it was all in English likely meant these were American Jews on some kind of arranged tour. His topic: why Christians are wrong. In about 15 minutes he led them on a speed tour through a series of objections to Christianity. I found a place in the shade about 10 meters away, took out a notebook and listened.

Most of what I heard focused on how much the real (or “historical”) Jesus differed from the Gospels’ portraits and from Christian theology. The distinction is not new, of course, but I’d never before encountered it on the lips of a lay Jewish youth worker engaged in apologetics.

Turns out Jesus was neither a prophet nor a perfect man nor a Messiah and he was certainly not God. For each Christian claim the teacher laid out objections, some of which were reasonable but others were frustrating. Reasonable: Christian monotheism is not “pure.” Frustrating: Jesus’ anger in the Temple (“for a good cause”) shows he wasn’t perfect. (Seems to me Israel’s God got angry “for a good cause” once or twice.)

More positively, Jesus was a good rabbi, a great story teller and a genuine faith healer who sincerely thought he was the Messiah. We know he wasn’t the Messiah, however, since horrible things continue to happen in the world. To confirm that the Messianic age has not dawned one need only look at the deadly conflict between Jews and Arabs, he said.

The Jewish apologist had a point. Israel’s prophets (see, e.g., Isaiah 11, 52; Amos 9) foresaw a glorious age of restoration, security and abundance in the land -- something Israel today can scarcely imagine. The world knows about Israel’s grinding conflict with the Palestinians; what doesn’t make the headlines is the grinding poverty among Jews. Less pervasive than among Palestinians, yes, but widespread and deep nonetheless.

Christian theology, of course, says the Messiah did come but must come again to consummate fully the Messianic Age. At that moment, sitting on the cobbles, I could see why some people, especially Torah-reading Jews, would find our two-stage Messianism a bit of a stretch. Unbelievable, even. Unless, that is, we followers of Jesus who are living in between those two comings were marked by such astonishing harmony that our mere presence was an inexplicable, undeniable preview of the Age to come. Judging by Christian turf wars and ecclesiastical disharmony, on display most poignantly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, our case that Jesus is the One who shall restore all things may not seem particularly persuasive. Instead of opening blind eyes, it seems like we're smearing on more mud.

Event Two
Within minutes of my encounter with the Josh McDowell of Judaism, I struck up a conversation with another Jew across the street from Zion Gate. An older man looking to serve as my guide, he asked if I was Jewish or Christian. Hearing my answer he revealed to me his own identity: a Messianic Jew, a Jewish follower of Jesus. He wore a kippah and assured me he went regularly to synagogue. But he also attended a Messianic Jewish congregation. Like the apostle Paul, he was both practicing Jew and follower of Jesus. Unlike Paul, however, he kept the Jesus part largely to himself for fear of hostile reactions among his countrymen. (That fear didn’t stop him from offering his business card.)

Within meters and minutes of each other, then, I encountered two opposite Jewish views of Jesus. Messianic pretender or Messiah? Charismatic teacher or Son of God? Faith healer or fulfiller of prophecy?

Neither man, however, disliked Jesus. Indeed, both loved him. (To my surprise, the apologist had said so, explicitly.) For both men Jesus was profoundly, irreducibly and emphatically Jewish. To the extent that Christians today forget that, they are guilty of distortion. The more I read the New Testament and the longer I spend in the land, the more I’m compelled to agree. Which raises the obvious question: what difference might the Jewishness of Jesus make to Gentile Christians in the modern West?

Friday, July 7, 2006

Way of Sorrows

The two nations I hold most dear celebrated birthdays in the last week. Here in Jerusalem, standing on guard conjures images of armed Israeli soldiers checking IDs and of militant youths preparing to protect neighborhood streets from imminent assault. Over here, the rocket’s red glare gives proof to the obvious—that an intractable conflict is still there.

Hamas’ military wing has now managed to lob a couple of Qassam rockets as far as Ashkelon, a major Israeli city. This is not good news. Fortunately, these unguided rockets usually land harmlessly wide of their target. The numbers I’ve seen suggest that some 1,000 rockets over roughly five years have been responsible for about fifty injuries and a total of eleven Israeli deaths (including, tragically, several young children). Call it provocation. Escalation. Retaliation. Retribution. I call it one more step toward the abyss. And one less reason to be hopeful. Under the red glare of those rockets the world witnessed the kidnapping of a young Israeli soldier. Sadly, Hamas is showing none of the moderation many hoped the weight of responsibility would bring. Either the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority cannot control it’s military wing or it is choosing not to. Both scenarios are depressing.

At the same time, Israel’s response to Palestinian belligerency continues to be heavily disproportionate. Thursday alone saw the deaths of some 21 Palestinians. The current troop deployment, ostensibly intended to rescue the kidnapee, is freeing Israel to target known and potential Qassam launch pads, round up militants, arrest (allegedly complicit) elected officials and extensively damage the governmental infrastructure. Israeli planes have taken out buildings, a power plant, several strategic bridges and, as war tends to do, have inflicted considerable collateral damage. For residents of the most densely populated stretch of real estate in the world, life is going to be hand-to-mouth for months to come.

The disproportionate impact on the Palestinian side seems borne out by statistics. According to B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), during the six years of the current intifada, Israel has killed 3,554 Palestinians while Palestinians have killed 1,008 Israelis (of which 311 were security forces). I suspect the data on property damage (detonated busses, bull-dozed houses, etc.) would make the contrast sharper. Much sharper.

So troops are deploying, bullets are flying and people (mostly Palestinian) are dying. Meanwhile, I’m spending a quiet day in the Old City attempting to trace the route of another victim of another occupation, another figure targeted for execution for potential insurgency. My goal for yesterday was to trace the physical path the King of the Jews followed, from garden arrest to praetorium trial to Golgotha execution. It requires a lot of map work, homework, guesswork and traipsing about. Call it the real Via Dolorosa, if you like, though one might argue that the traditional route, the one countless pilgrims follow to enact their own passion plays, is real-er. Either way, while Israel and Palestine were walking their Way of Sorrows, I was walking Jesus’.

The number of IDF (Israel Defense Forces) troops one encounters on such a walk is considerable. Up from last year, I think. But tourism is also up according to my highly sensitive crowd-ometer backed up by the infallible testimony of several Arab shopkeepers whose livelihood depends on such things. The only sign I've detected that the brewing crisis in the Gaza is affecting things here was the news, from an Arab friend (who proudly showed me his new carpet store) that the Israelis blocked the entrances to the Old City today to keep Muslims from entering the city for Friday prayers.

Otherwise, life bumbles along. I watched carefully when an observant Jew patronized an Arab shop. As with the tilted scales elsewhere in this country, the Arab spoke Hebrew. The Jew didn’t speak Arabic.