Thursday, February 01, 2007

Back to "Normal" Life in Palestine

My apologies for writing so little since I arrived in Palestine. We've been running around busily as usual, trying to keep our spirits up. Much of our time is spent just trying to stay warm and maintain the house—gathering firewood and lugging gas cylinders up and down the stairs. The schizophrenic oven and washing machine seem almost endearing to me now, and I'm quickly getting used to living without luxuries taken for granted in the U.S. like hot water and reliable electricity.

I'm also taking some time to get reacquainted with old friends and neighbors. It's all but impossible to go anywhere without being pulled into some villager or another's house for tea and cookies. All of the families have new stories—good and bad—and want to hear mine. It's a pleasure to show them my book, and watch them squeal with delight when they see their photographs or stories featured in it. Mostly I'm relieved to assure them that although I've been gone for almost two years, I never forgot them.

Palestine is as beautiful as ever—what's left of it, that is. Settlements continue to spread across seemingly every hilltop, and we can now see the Wall between Marda village and Ariel settlement from our balcony. Since my last visit, the Army built a small fence around our village, and we wonder if that will be one layer of the Wall here. It's difficult to predict since the Army does not usually warn Palestinians where and when construction will take place.

It's quieter in the house than in the past. The phone only rings a couple times a day and we spend a lot of time on administrative work and organizing. We wonder why people aren't taking advantage of our presence as much as they used to. Is it that the situation on the ground is better than before? Or maybe it's worse—and it's simply easier to hide in one's home than stand up to the Occupation with active nonviolent resistance? Have people forgotten we're here, or do they know we're here but no longer think there's much we can do to help them?

We were discussing this last night at dinner when Amy received a phone call that three army jeeps had entered Marda, a nearby village, and were throwing sound bombs and shooting live ammunition into the air. Amy and I agreed that we would go while our colleague Gemma would stay behind as the support person (to call Israeli groups or send out action alerts should anything happen). We grabbed our cameras, notebooks, and vests and caught a taxi to the village, where an Army jeep had blocked all local traffic (people and vehicles). Armed with white privilege and neon vests, we hopped out and began walking into the forbidden area. Soldiers shined heavy lights into our faces and yelled but we looked down and walked steadily towards what appeared to be the targeted house. It was easy to spot as it was surrounded by soldiers with their guns pointed and ready.

Our friend Nasfat greeted us and thanked us for coming. He explained that there had been a death in the village, and as per tradition locals were gathering in the village community center to mourn after the funeral. He said that the soldiers had come to the door where the mourners were sitting and demanded that everyone leave. The mourners refused, and Nasfat—who speaks Hebrew—explained to the soldiers why they had gathered. The soldiers insisted, but the mourners were adamant and eventually the soldiers surrounded the building instead.

As Nasfat was explaining what had happened, five of the soldiers began walking towards us quickly. I immediately lifted my camera to photograph their approach, and they stopped as soon as they saw the flash. One soldier was visibly angry with me, but the soldier in charge was calmer. He asked us what we were doing there and we said that our friends had called to ask us to document the Army's incursion. The soldier asked to see our IDs and we explained that we had our IDs but didn't feel comfortable handing them over to an illegal occupying Army.

The soldier was polite, "I don't want to bother you; I just want to make sure you have permission to be here."

"But we don't need permission to visit our friends. We come here all the time."

The soldiers began talking amongst themselves in Hebrew. Nasfat mumbled quietly so that only I could hear: "They are talking about taking your camera." I slipped my hand under my jacket and carefully removed my flash card, and then slipped it into my back pocket.

The head soldier turned to me and said, "We have to remove your photos." I told him there was no law against documenting the Army's activities. When he insisted, I pretended to delete the photos, but they were clued in by the "No Memory Card" display. I shrugged, "I guess I forgot my card." They were clearly annoyed but not prepared to search me, and eventually they returned to their jeeps, and left shortly after. As usual, it wasn't clear why they were leaving—nor if it had anything to do with us—but we suspected they'd be back.

We decided to stick around for another hour in case anything should happen, but things remained calm. Nasfat drove us to a house in the village that I immediately recognized. I'd been there once before after documenting the arrest of Jaber, a Palestinian accountant with Meningitis. This was Jaber's wife's family's home, and we immediately began talking excitedly about the big news: Jaber had been released! After almost two years in prison for bogus unsubstantiated charges (for more details, see "Sick Man Detained at Huwwara Checkpoint on my blog: www.annainpalestine .blogspot. com) with insufficient medical care, Jaber is back with his family in Qira. Hannah and I went to visit him today.

Although it's close to Hares, I'd never been to Qira before because it's difficult to access. I'd heard about water problems in the village (Israel controls all the water in Israel/Palestine and allocates 80% to Israelis, leaving 20% for Palestinians, who make up more than half the population), specifically that a young villager had been suffering from kidney problems very possibly caused by lack of clean water. Another IWPS volunteer named Anna gave the girl one of her kidneys a few years ago, and when I introduced myself to Jaber's family they thought I might be the same Anna, but I shook my head.

Jaber looked like a different person. He was radiant. He welcomed us onto their sunny terrace enthusiastically and encouraged his children to shake our hands, but they hid shyly behind their father. Only the youngest stood aside—Ahmed, born less than one month after Jaber's arrest, who Jaber said is still getting accustomed to him. He'd never seen his father out of prison until two weeks ago.

Jaber's wife and mother smuggled us with hugs and kisses, and insisted that we eat and drink, even as we were eating and drinking. Jaber began speaking to us in English, and I remembered that he studied at Bir Zeit, the most prestigious university in Palestine (all in English). He was embarrassed that he'd forgotten some of his English, and explained that he'd been learning another language in prison: Hebrew.

Jaber bragged that in addition to learning to read and write Hebrew in jail, he'd also written a book on Palestinian history. I told him I'd written a book about Palestine too, and we agreed to trade. I couldn't get over the difference in Jaber—he could hardly stop smiling. His only frown came when we asked about his treatment at the hospital. He said the Army shackled him to the bed and once closed the door and beat him there. Nonetheless, he said, he'd recovered, and that was all behind him now.

Reconnecting with the community here is important for maintaining people's awareness of and trust in IWPS. It's so valuable to have friends here who will be honest with us about what they need and what they don't need from an international presence here. As internationals become more common in the West Bank, our novelty effect lessens, and we must be ready to adapt to the changing situation. Some of our most important work is documentation, which is why it is so crucial for you to be reading this now.

I've already begun a number of human rights reports documenting the worsening situation, but in many ways I'm most surprised and saddened by how quickly life under occupation has begun to seem normal again: the checkpoints and roadblocks; the families and villages separated by the Wall; person after person who's lost a mother or a son, an eye or a leg, a house or a grove to the Occupation. It's so familiar it hardly seems worth writing about anymore. But once people accept life under oppression, the Occupation has succeeded in the most tragic dispossession of all—taking away people's ability to imagine something better. Palestinians have not stopped dreaming about the day they will be free, so neither can we. And the harder we work towards that day, the sooner it will come.

Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

Rachel said...


I want to thank you deeply for serving as a witness and a peaceworker in Palestine; a land with such deep hurt, and where many people cannot go. Continue to watch and minister and teach us, and know our prayers are with you.