June 20, 2009 - Two firsts: Demonstration at Azzun Atma; My first demo without tear gas

Dear Friends,

Yesterday the village of Azzun Atma had its first demonstration. In my previous post I explain the situation of this village which is being strangulated by the wall and the surrounding settlements. The demo was organized by the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP) with banners, tee shirts, flags and good chants. (Well, I think they sounded good but I don’t really know what they meant.) Maybe because it was the first demonstration for this particular village, the soldiers were pretty laid back. No tear gas, no bullets (rubber or otherwise), no sound bombs. The PPP hopes to continue these nonviolent demonstrations in Azzun Atma and also spread them to other villages in the area.

After the demonstration I got a ride to Tel Aviv with some of the Israeli activists that participated. I wanted to spend some time with my Israeli friend, Rivka. Rivka had been living in Berkeley for the last 3 years and just recently moved back to Israel. She invited me to a commemoration/celebration of her brother who died 3 years ago in the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. She appreciated that I had accepted the invitation because one of her very good friends from childhood who is a member of Anarchists Against the Wall (one of the Israeli peace groups that I highly regard) refused to come to a commemoration for a soldier. Rivka could not understand it. I think that she is like most Israelis who do not know their own history, or their current realities. For instance, during our walk on the beach we came across a small museum honoring the Irgun as freedom fighters and liberators. Virtually all credible historians acknowledge that the Irgun were one of the illegal terrorist groups that were instrumental in the atrocities that paved the path for the creation of the state of Israel. This fact surprised Rivka. She was also surprised to learn that that Modi'in, the settlement that has taken much of the land of Bil'in is a settlement. She thought it was just another city/town in Israel. She also didn't realize that 80% of West Bank water is confiscated for Israel and the settlements. (The Israeli water company will sell it back to Palestinians at an inflated price.)

After the commemoration I was stressing about how I was to return to Hares. Since it was Saturday there were no buses running. Rivka spent a lot of time on the Internet and calling taxi companies to no avail. Finally, we looked at a map and realized that it would not be very far for her to drive me. So she did despite the fact that the idea of being in the West Bank terrifies her. She imagines that the West Bank is be filled with people who want to kill her. I told her that if she comes with good will and no gun, there is no problem. I am happy to report that she returned home safely.


June 18, 2009 - Visiting Sadaam, a beautiful mural and a brewery

Dear Friends,
Today I had the pleasure of visiting our first scholarship recipient, Sadaam, in his office at the Red Crescent Society headquarters in Ramallah. The building is architecturally quite interesting and very beautiful. Sadaam is the accountant for the restaurant and hotel that is housed in it. He is very happy with his job. He says that sometimes, if he can’t go home due to checkpoints or military activity, he can stay in the hotel free of charge. But he much prefers to go home to Deir Ibzi’a which is only 15 minutes away by taxi if the coast is clear.

On the walk from the Red Crescent Society to catch a taxi I passed a cultural center that had amazingly beautiful murals that I’ve posted on my blog. You can also see pictures of me visiting the Taybeh Brewery in Taybeh which is the only village left in Palestine that is 100% Christian. The brewery was founded in 1994 by two brothers who returned to Palestine after Oslo filled with hope, like so many Palestinians, that a Palestinian state would eventually become a reality. They wanted to contribute to it and also fulfill their dream of bringing micro brewed beer to the Middle East. Despite the drastically reduced and continually shrinking Christian population in Palestine (Muslims don’t drink alcohol) along with the enormous obstacles that Israel imposes on Palestinian exports, the company is surviving. And the beer is extremely good! (Even though it is a pilsner and I prefer IPAs.) Check out their website: www.taybehbeer.com

Tomorrow I will participate at a demonstration in Azzun Atma, a village west of Hares. It has the misfortune to be on the “wrong” side of the wall (in the seam zone). In the map attached here you can see the area of the village shown in yellow. The green dotted line is the dividing line between the West Bank and Israel. The thick red lines are the already completed sections of the wall and the thick black and white lines are the planned route of the wall. As you can see, not only is Azzun Atma overwhelmed by settlements and completely cut off from the rest of the West Bank, but soon it will be completely enclosed on all sides. The big red circle with the horizontal white line is a checkpoint and the only access into the village. Some people say that to describe the situation here, all you really need are maps.

The surrounding settlements of Azzun Atma throw their garbage down on the village and 1-2 times per week they dump their sewage as well. The settlers have vandalized the school during its construction. Furthermore, the school is having problems hiring staff who are able to get permits from Israel to pass through the checkpoint. The principle is convinced that Israel wants the school closed.

So my day tomorrow feels a bit ominous. Fortunately I had a fun day today!

June 17, 2009 - Education Under Occupation

Imagine studying all night for your first Physics test. You get up early to work out a few more sample problems. You walk to school nervous about doing well on the exam. You get to a checkpoint and are told that you cannot pass.

Imagine studying hard in high school in preparation for taking the Tawjihi, the high school exit exam. (I’ve been told that the day Tawjihi results are posted is the second most important day in a Palestinian’s life, the marriage day being the first.) You study intensely in the months leading up to the exam. You feel just about ready. You cram for one more night and on the morning of the exam you anticipate taking the test because you know you have prepared well. The Israeli military declares the area where the exam is to be administered a closed military zone.

Imagine you attain your goal of 95% on the Tawjii’hi so that you can pursue your dream of studing medicine. The Israeli military closes your university for the next 4 years.

Imagine you live in the “seam zone”, i.e. West Bank land that has been lassoed by the Wall so that it is continuous with Israel. You need to pass through a gate to get to your university. The open hours of the gate are brief, irregular and unpredictable. You frequently are unable to attend your classes.

Imagine that it is after classses on Thursday afternoon (the end of the week in Muslim countries) and you eagerly anticipate going home for the week end. (You would rather live at home which is only 45 minutes by car from your school, except that the checkpoints make travel too uncertain and so you live in student housing near campus.) You wait two hours at the checkpoint. Your turn finally comes. You go through the turnstile and get pushed forward by people behind you. The soldiers get upset with this and tells you to go to the back of the line. You refuse. They handcuff you tightly and start to beat you. They spray your face with something that makes it feel as if it is melting from the fire-hot heat. They put you in a small dark room. You are finally released and you go back to Nablus to go to the hospital to have your eyes treated. After getting eye drops you head back to the checkpoint which is now much less crowded. You cross easily, but need to walk home since there are no more taxis running.

Imagine studing diligently the entirety of your junior year. Final exam week begins. You are arrested because you are told that you are suspected of being affiliated with Hamas. You miss all of your finals and are required to repeat the entire year at full cost.

These are just some of the stories of students from the incredibly beautiful Al Najah University in Nablus (www.najah.edu), one of the six universities in the West Bank. For more information about the difficulties students face in Palestine and the Right to Education campaign go to http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/


June 14, 2009 - Women, Politics, Permaculture and Old Friends

Dear Friends,

Yesterday we visited the Women for Life Center in Biddiya, a village near to Hares. IWPS was instrumental in its start, although I doubt they needed much help. Fatima, the executive directive is extremely dynamic and resourceful and the womyn on staff that we met were similarly impressive. The center has grown into a remarkable and extremely successful organization. They started as "Women Against the Wall" to organize womyn's demonstrations and girls' summer camps. Now their programs include legal aid and counseling for womyn, addressing domestic violence, womyn's rights and other issues important to womyn. Fatima quickly sized up our group and decided that Arla's social worker skills could be put to use. So Arla now has a job! She will lead a workshop for mother's with deaf children. The center has a very enlightened view of children with disabilities and is attempting to provide programs that remove the stigma and help parents deal with the challenge of raising a special needs child.

Last night we went to visit Rizik in the next village of Deir Istiya. He is a member of the PPP (Palestinian People's Party) which is just one of the many political parties in Palestine. (There is more than just Hamas and Fatah!) He is part of a village committee that is planning a campaign to defend Wadi Qana, a beautiful valley that is completely surrounded by settlements and owned by Palestinians in the village. Although the farmers have legal rights to the land that has been in their families for generations, it does not stop the settlers (with the support of the army) from harassing and beating them to prevent them from working it. Rizik is a passionate member of the PPP and explained to us that his party "started where the others are now ending". What he meant was that the PPP has advocated nonviolent resistance for over 20 years and the others are just beginning to see the merits of this position. He summarized for us the history of the PPP and its differences with the other political parties in Palestine, not just Hamas and Fatah. It was fascinating and I can't even begin to attempt to relate it here. Just take my word that the political scene in Palestine is vibrant and multifaceted!

This morning we visited a permaculture farm in Marda, just a few villages away from Hares. I wished my daughter, Dart, had been there because she is in a program at UC Santa Cruz for sustainable agriculture and this farm is totally on the same page. The director of the project, Murad, trained in the U.S. and has a small farm with a large vision. He wants to be a model for Palestinian farmers to become less dependent on Israeli produce (which is low quality and high priced) while farming in a sustainable and responsible manner. During our tour Marad mentioned many setbacks that he has encountered, virtually all of them having to do with settler harassment. Examples include settlers releasing feral pigs on Palestinian lands specifically to destroy their crops and draining their runoff and sewage into Palestinian villages. (Settlements are virtually always built on top of hills with the Palestinian villiages below.) To combat the pigs Murad built a barbed wire fence that includes a clever use of tires (which are plentiful and free). The tires will eventually become planters that surround the fence, each with their own microclimate. The plants in the tires won't require irrigation because the interaction of the environment and the black tires will somehow cause the dew to supply all the water the plants need. This is just one example of his creativity. He hopes that volunteers will come from Palestine and also from around the world to learn these sustainable practices and support his vision. To find out more you can go to www.thefarm.org and click the permaculture link. Then scroll down a bit and click the link called Marda Permaculture Farm, Palestine.

This afternoon I went to Ramallah to have dinner with my former student/now friend, Amjad. He has two children and a very sucessful business "Spark Technology". It was wonderful to see him again. Some of you may recall that I was delighted to be able to dance at his wedding 4 years ago.

It's hard to believe that I only left California a week ago!