Bonnie Brodersen and Gene Robbins, aunt and uncle to Rachel Corrie, traveled the Middle East in late 2007 with their daughter Emily Robbins, visiting Syria, the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel and Lebanon. These are Gene’s observations.
By Gene Robbins
Two things make this trip different from our two-week stay in Syria two years ago – Emmy’s superb fluency in Arabic and getting out of Damascus for more than just day trips.
We spent 10/19 eating at courtyard restaurants in the Old City of Damascus with Syrian friends (families) of Emily. These courtyards are huge open-air areas originally designed so that women could be outdoors and yet not have to go out in public. The entrance is usually a small non-descript wooden porthole off an ancient alley. After descending along a 20 foot passage way, they open up into glorious courtyards (upper class dwellings to be sure). It’s only in the last ten years that they’ve been converted into restaurants. Often we were the only Westerners there. Food is always served family style (no individual plates) and the quantities of food served are three times the amount anyone could eat. Such was our first (and only normal) day.
(To see Gene’s photos from Lebanon, click here)
The plan was to go to Beirut, so that same night we took a cab to one of the Damascus bus stations. We passed through a guard station putting our bags on a table for inspection. When Emmy started speaking Arabic (She really is fluent!) the guard asked her incredulously, “Are you Arabs or foreigners?” They assume that anyone who is fluent in Arabic is either Arab or of Arab descent. Emily said “We’re foreigners. We want to go to Beirut.” The guard pointed us in the right direction and said he didn’t need to check our bags. This was only the first of many times when Em’s fluency not only surprised the natives but also eased our logistics tremendously. We handed the driver of the car our passports. In Syria you can’t blow your nose without showing someone your passport. A Lebanese couple (soldier and his wife in hijab) rode in front and the three of us in back. When we passed thru the border, the guard told us that as Americans, not only did we not need to pay for our visa, but also they’d allow us to stay a month and then extend our stay for another two months (all for free and no hassles). A far cry from their Syrian counterparts, as we were to learn two days later. Perhaps U.S. funding of the Lebanese army has some benefits after all!
War is terrorism with a Bigger Budget
We stayed at the Mayflower in West Beirut famous as the journalists’ hotel. The next morning (Sat), we hired a driver to take us to the newly-opened Hezbollah museum in a south Beirut ghetto where most of the Shiites live and which was heavily bombed by Israel in last summer’s 2006 war. The “museum” is actually two large semi-permanent tents erected this past summer on a vacant lot. Captured Israeli weapons are on display along with photos and posters – part educational part propaganda – two-thirds in Arabic and one-third in English or French. Lebanon is funny like that. Things are always in Arabic and either English or French, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to which is used. As in Syria, older folks speak a little French and the young favor English. Anyway, two of the non-propaganda posters read “War is terrorism with a bigger budget,” and “Zionism ≠ Judaism” – both of which came from European peace marches.
The second tent of the museum houses political artwork from around the world. This mounted and framed artwork is all political in nature with usually the U.S. and/or Israel the bad guy. Some examples are: a clothesline with the support poles labeled USA and UK and some Arabs being hung out to dry; another has a soldier with a peace sign in the background, then the soldier shoots the peace sign out of the sky and a Jewish star emerges; another shows the American flag but with bombs instead of stars; still another shows a cowboy boot with USA written on it and a Jewish star for the spur….You get the picture.
Our guide/driver, by-the-way, was Shiia himself and explained to us that the buildings which were demolished by Israeli bombs (and there were many) were mostly Hezbollah offices. Hezbollah is more than just a resistance/terrorist (choose your label depending on your perspective) group. It actually forms the government and social services network for the Lebanese Shiia community, because no government funds go to Shiia or Palestinian people in Lebanon. Christian Maronites, Sunni Muslims and Druze get it all. Palestinians, who came to Lebanon to escape the 1948 war (mostly from Safed and other parts of neighboring northern Israel), are not granted citizenship in Lebanon and live restricted lives in many ways (more of that later). There are no Lebanese police in southern Beirut. Those duties are handled by Hezbollah; Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who is in hiding due to topping Israel’s most wanted list, is still its spiritual/temporal leader.
After our tour, we headed back toward Beirut proper. En route, we stopped at the site of the Sabra/Shatila massacre. You may remember this from 1982. A Phalangist Christian militia, with full knowledge (though no direct participation) of their Israeli allies headed by Ariel Sharon, gunned down between 850-1700 Palestinian refugees (civilians) from these two camps. The massacre site is now a quarter acre vacant lot with some posters and photos as commemorations. The photos show screaming children with gruesome injuries, parents cradling their dead children, etc. There’s also a photo of a bulldozer digging a mass grave and of the bodies being dumped into it, under the ground upon which we were standing. The site looked rather forlorn and unattended with myriad cats and kittens hiding and sleeping amongst the weeds.
We exited the black wrought- iron gate and our driver inched the car through a crowded mass of humanity of about a zillion people per square foot, going about their daily lives – buying food, selling trinkets, loud Arab and Western music blaring from boom boxes… a typical 3rd world scene. We then skirted the actual Shatila Camp itself (when we say camp, we don’t mean tents, we mean a segregated city with restricted access). We could not enter the Shatila Camp, but from the outside it looked like a crowded, desperately decrepit slum.
After lunch we walked around American University/Beirut (AUB) which straddles the Mediterranean just north of our hotel. Our driver then took us to the Jeidta Grottoes which are the Lebanese version of Carlsbad Caverns. There was a cable car that takes you to the caverns, but we decided to walk. (They said it would be a half hour). After five minutes I turned around to ride the gondola as my foot was hurting, and Bonnie and Em continued up. Lo and behold, they arrived before me as we had unknowingly almost reached the top! When the cable car stopped, it was so short a ride that I figured we were stopping to pick up more riders. But no, that was the end of the line, a whopping quarter mile from the entrance! The caverns were beautiful, and we ascended the extra 50 feet to view the miniature train-like town perched above the lower caverns.
An hour and a half later our driver deposited us near the center of the Mediterranean city of Tripoli (not Libya’s Tripoli), Lebanon’s second largest city and known to be more conservative than Beirut, but then everywhere in Lebanon/Syria is more conservative than Beirut. As usual, no one seemed to know of the 3-star Lonely Planet-recommended hotel we had chosen. (Later Bonnie and Emily discovered that, in trying to find a hotel in the darkness, the hotel they chose from Lonely Planet’s Middle East Guide was in Tripoli, Libya – not Tripoli, Lebanon.) In any event, we settled for a pension, a place of great local color, but to which none of you with refined tastes would want to get within a hundred yards of. Dinner was at a local’s place with us, as usual, being the only Westerners. The menu was in Arabic but it didn’t matter both because we had Emmy with us to read it, and it’s always the same food anyway – salad with crispy-fried Syrian bread croutons, grilled lamb, olives, etc., etc., washed down with tea and accompanied with lots of ubiquitous Syrian (pita) bread. American bread, oddly enough, is called Kennedy bread and is only available in areas frequented by Westerners.
After dinner we tried to buy some of the homemade sweets for which Tripoli is famous, but once Em started conversing with the elderly proprietor and he found out we were American, he refused to accept a single lira as his son married an American woman from Pittsburgh, and he thinks highly of her. Also, he once visited them and a woman went out of her way to help him (He doesn’t speak any English.), and he was just paying back the debt to us. I emphatically said “la” (no), as I took out my money, but he wouldn’t budge so we exited the shop with many “shukrans” (thank yous) and our hands held over our hearts (the universal Arab sign for “from my heart”) and our desserts (pistachio, honey, shredded wheat kind of stuff – really quite tasty)! Now the story gets interesting (tragic?) in ways none of us could have foreseen.
It was 9:30 pm (Sat) and we took our desserts to the town square to eat as we people-watched (really it was men-watching as no women were to be seen). As usual, after several minutes, a young fellow with passable English and his friend approached us and asked if we needed any help. (I can’t count the number of times this has happened.) We said we were ok. He said if we need any help he’s our man. As we said our good-byes, he volunteered, with his hand held over his heart, that he was Palestinian. Once out-of-sight, Bon & Em lamented that we hadn’t asked him about what was happening at the recently invaded refugee camp nearby. Well, ten minutes later, he returned walking in the opposite direction about 30 feet away. Bon signaled for him to come over. We asked him about the refugee camp and he started talking, but once he realized that Em’s Arabic was superior to his English, he switched to Arabic and Emmy translated for us. Once started, he couldn’t stop: the injuries, bombings, the eleven men taken from the camp and executed by the Lebanese army on the street right behind us…. After 20 minutes I was getting tired, yet he’d hardly begun, so he asked us if we’d like to see the camp. We knew that no journalists were allowed in, so we asked if that were possible. He thought he might be able to get permission, as a resident of the camp (he grew up there though he is now a student at a Palestinian university). We agreed to meet up at that same spot the next morning at 8:00 a.m.
After a horrible night battling mosquitoes, we dragged ourselves out of bed and, un-bathed and unfed, we deposited ourselves at the appointed meeting place. Five minutes passed with no sign of Monsur (not his real name), so Bon & Em crossed the street to read (in Arabic) the sign at the base of the town square clock tower. After another five minutes I was just about to join them when Emmy pointed to where Monsur was approaching. We shook hands, crossed the busy street to meet up with Bon & Em and the four of us walked a block to a waiting unmarked car Monsur had hired to take us the 15 kilometers north to the Nahar al-Bared (Cold River) Palestinian Refugee Camp. En route, we passed a utilities plant guarded by sandbags and a manned tank. We disembarked from the car at the camp’s entrance. Monsur paid the driver (a wordless, stern-looking chap) and we looked about at sandbags, guard towers, barbed wire and multiple green-camouflaged soldiers toting M-16’s.
Monsur led us to the barbed wire entrance & showed his Palestinian ID card to the guard. They opened the gate and we stood there for several minutes with the guards studiously ignoring us. Then Bon & Em were led to a nearby trailer. I started to follow but was blocked by a soldier (all the soldiers had M-16’s slung over their shoulders.) A female soldier greeted Bon & Em, patted them down, searched Em’s bag and then proceeded to chat with Em in Arabic about America. Monsur and I were still being ignored when a soldier pats me down a la the airport. After being satisfied that I’m bringing in nothing illegal, he joins the other guards. Monsur and I don’t talk. After several minutes Bon and Em descend from the trailer and the soldiers (all Lebanese Army) allow us to enter the camp (again, it’s not a camp with tents and an activities roster, it’s a city of 45,000 people living in 2, 3, & 4 story cement block buildings, which is all you see in the Middle East, with streets, etc. — except that the city we were entering looked like an atom bomb had hit it. Not one of thousands of buildings remained standing intact.
Here’s some background to this macabre Twilight Zone scene: When the Palestinians became refugees in 1948, they were settled in restricted camps meant as temporary shelters, assuming they’d return to their homes in what now is northern Israel. They were not granted citizenship, not allowed to work for the government (which is the biggest employer in both Syria and Lebanon), not allowed to own land outside of the camps and restricted in numerous other ways. With each passing year, their dream of returning home became dimmer, and they started to dig in and build more permanent dwellings. These camps are usually on the outskirts of an established city and entry is restricted, thereby segregating them from Lebanese life in general. When the PLO was kicked out of Jordan by King Hussein in the 1970’s, they moved into Lebanon, further aggravating the Lebanese-Palestinian relationship. (Lebanon itself has historically had an uneasy peace among its Christian and various Muslim communities.) In short, the Lebanese in general are not fond of the Palestinians. This particular refugee camp (again, it’s a city unto itself), Nahar al-Bared, became quite prosperous of late.
Many of its inhabitants worked in the Gulf region and returned to improve their homes. They had electricity and water, schools, mosques and hospitals, stores, residences, etc. About 1½ years ago, Islamic radicals from within and outside Lebanon (called Fatah al Islam, not to be confused with the historically corrupt Fatah of the West Bank in Palestine) moved into the camp. Fatah al Islam is a radical group that uses violence to try to advance an Islamic state. Monsur explained it in terms of the camp giving hospitality to fellow Muslims, not aware of their violent plans. After Fatah al Islam allegedly robbed a bank and killed two Lebanese soldiers, the Lebanese army decided to root them out. (They numbered about 150 and were confined to the outer buildings of the roughly 10 square kilometer camp.) Last May the fighting began. (It was on our national news, though not explained well.)
As the Lebanese army began its assault on Fatah al Islam, Palestinian residents of the camp were ordered to leave. Almost all did, thinking that they’d be returning as soon as Fatah al Islam was rooted out. They, therefore, took very few possessions with them. Monsur stayed behind to care for his grandfather who had left his home in Safed, northern Israel, in 1948 to escape that war. Now 78, he was too old and weak to leave Nahar al-Bared. We met him in the ruins of his current home in the camp. Here’s where the story turns truly tragic. After rooting out Fatah al Islam (a good thing by anyone’s standards) and with 99% of the camp’s population vacated (again, it’s a real city not a tent camp), the Lebanese army then proceeded, using American-made weapons, to demolish every building in Nahar al-Bared. Not just with machine guns, mind you (though the floors of every building we entered were strewn with both M-16 and AK-47 shells, two of the casings I kept as souvenirs) but with tanks and bombs. Not only were the homes destroyed, but everything that couldn’t be looted (families lost all their gold, jewelry, papers, etc.) such as appliances, etc., were wantonly destroyed as well. The few remaining people of the camp (numbering only in the hundreds) had no way to get food and water and about 50 of them (including Monsur’s boyhood friend) were killed by the army.
By the time we arrived on the scene (10/21/07), the destruction was just about complete, though at one point as we walked down one of the streets some Lebanese soldiers waved us back the way we came and proceeded to detonate a charge less than 300 meters from where we stood. Black, acrid smoke filled the air, and then we were allowed to proceed. UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency) is on the scene with trucks delivering water and some food, but the army is still not allowing the residents to bring food into the camp themselves. Residents are slowly being allowed back (in trickles) as UNRWA decides which houses are safe to re-inhabit and which aren’t. They put a triangle with a line thru it on those dwellings deemed unsafe and a triangle without a line if a resident can return (one of these markings is seen in one of the attached photos). Most houses have not yet been inspected and are off-limits. The buildings that are deemed ok are still in ruins with literally hundreds of bullet-holes thru the walls , some without any roof at all. But at least they are structurally safe from imminent collapse. Soldiers and barbed wire are everywhere.
We were not to take photos, of course, and no journalists are allowed in, period. But after several hours of speaking to people and seeing the atom bomb-like destruction, we couldn’t resist and surreptitiously snapped off about 50 photos. We knew we had to document this. (The day after, 10/23, the BBC posted 5 photos similar to ours’ on their website but without any commentary or explanation). It was nerve-wracking to take the photos, but we made sure no soldiers were in view. The people whose homes (or what was left of them) we toured, begged us to take photos (as many as possible). They all asked “Why? Why?” As an ironic side-note, especially since the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon War, Israel is public enemy number one in the eyes of most Lebanese. But two of the older men we talked with (independently of each other) threw up their hands in despair saying “Not even the Israelis did this to us,” referencing the wholesale looting and bombing/destruction of the entire city.
At one point we came to a barbed wire roadblock with a Lebanese soldier making himself tea on the other side. When he saw the four of us (me, Bon, Em and Monsur), he stood up and gave a half smile and a half wave. I thought of our niece Rachel where she recounts in one of her e-mails (this incident made it into the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie”) how some young Egyptian soldiers were warning her away from the area and in the next instant were saying, “Hello, what’s your name?” This young soldier, however, represented the army that destroyed Monsur’s life, and I couldn’t bring myself to go over and chat. We turned around and walked the other way.
After 4½ hours of walking dusty, rubble-strewn streets, touring what was left of people’s homes, hearing their stories, smelling the acrid fumes of toxic fires burning here-and-there and seeing enough barbed wire, armed soldiers and machine gun casings to last a lifetime, and with no food, we decided to end our tour and return to Tripoli for something to eat. (We had been served sweet tea, Arab style, in two of the homes – tea is all these people have on hand as UNRWA brings in emergency food once daily.) We prevailed on Monsur to accompany us to lunch, but his friend who hung around for most of our tour declined. The next challenge was to exit the camp without our camera being investigated/confiscated. At the gate, the guards stopped us and took our passports. We waited around for a minute while the guards looked over our papers and then the female soldier Emmy had befriended when we first entered saw us out the window of her trailer and signaled to the guards to let us pass. The guards then opened the barbed wire gate and we breathed a sigh of relief. We caught a micro (mini-van bus) into town and had our de rigueur lunch of grilled lamb, Syrian bread, salad, olives and tea as Em and Monsur conversed in rapid fire Arabic with some translation from time-to-time for us. We promised Monsur and everyone at the camp that we’d try to help publicize this human tragedy – collective punishment. We said our goodbyes with our hands over our hearts and went our separate ways. (Just found out that Michael Birmingham wrote a piece about Nahar al-Bared which is on www.antiwar.com and www.counterpunch.org. It’s a good piece if you’re interested.
Domination, Subjugation and Humiliation
10/30/07 – I’m sitting in an examination room with an American pediatrician from Boston in a small West Bank Palestinian village 30 minutes drive from Ramallah. It’s 10:40 a.m., and it’s already been a long day with travel from Jaffa to the Damascus Gate (Old City Jerusalem). Picked up a cab ride with a trilingual Palestinian driver to the Ramallah checkpoint. No problem getting through. (It’s getting back into Israel that is sometimes a problem unless you’re a Jew on a Jewish road to and from the colonies). We passed through Ramallah (large and noisy & dusty) and saw several red-bereted security soldiers (not Palestinian police) armed with sub-machine guns. This means that someone important is about to pass through. We joked that it was us.
The Palestinian Medical Relief Services (PMRS) is housed in an attractive three-story building on the edge of Ramallah and built with European Union money. Out of Ramallah, the roads are narrow, winding and bumpy, the West Bank actually being very rugged. Our van, with a Palestinian driver (courteous), translator, hijabed female lab tech, the pediatrician (Alan Meyers), Bonnie and myself, deposits us on the ground floor of a small mosque/medical clinic. We breakfast on flat bread, falafel, hummus, etc. and I watch as Alan examines children in the presence of the mother, the translator and myself. What the next two days holds in store for me as a clinical dentist is unknown. I’ve brought gloves and surgical telescopes, but you can’t traipse around the Middle East with a whole dental clinic in your suitcase.
I’m going to backtrack –as we arrived in Israel/Palestine two days ago (Sun 10/28), three days late due to Bonnie and my colds/sinusitis which prevented our traveling. We entered uneventfully via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, the only crossing where both Jordan and Israel won’t stamp your passport upon request. This is critical as an Israeli passport stamp prevents entry into Syria and Lebanon.
The Israeli border agent: “Syria and Lebanon? Why were you there?”
“To visit our daughter in Damascus.”
“And your purpose here?”
“Tourism and I’m going to work for Israeli Physicians for Human Rights for several days. I’m a dentist.”
“And when do you leave?”
“Friday morning, November 2nd.”
“Can I see your airline tickets?”
We show them and that convinces her our story is legitimate and we pose no risk. We are admitted to Israel. We catch a minibus to Jerusalem (the only Westerners – everyone else is Palestinian returning from visiting relatives in Jordan). We disembark at the Damascus Gate with our bags but no one seems to know of The Knights Palace Latin Patriachate (our hotel). After several attempts talking to cabbies, one says he will call his company to find out. It’s close – the New Gate. Jerusalem’s Old City has seven gates- ”12 gates to the city” apparently refers to Damascus. Now we understand when the guide book says “Don’t tip the cabbies. They’re content to overcharge,” as our one minute ride cost 20 shekels ($5).
The Knights Palace is a Catholic-owned stone castle within the old city (no one seems to know how old it is, but 300 years seems to be the consensus.) which seems like heaven to us. Quiet, beautiful – we lie down for a ten-minute nap which stretches into two hours. Il hamdillah! (Thank God!)
Sunday evening we go to Alice Rothschild’s book reading (one of the original contributors to Our Bodies Our Selves, at Hind Hussein College in East Jerusalem. (No one seemed to know where that was, either!) We meet other members of the Jewish Voice for Peace delegation (about 14 all told, physicians, lawyers, artists, social workers, even a dentist (me) and listen to Alice. She’s bright and hard-working – a prescription for success. Her book is called Broken Promises, Broken Dreams. (Sue, I bought you a copy because I thought of you most when I read of Alice’s Our Bodies Our Selves connection). I’ve been reading it with teary eyes. Her story is familiar except that she had the wisdom to see reality clearly without the “benefit” of being bludgeoned with a family death (Rachel’s), like I was.
Then it’s on to the home of a Palestinian family, whose daughter Alice has taken under her wing in Boston, for another Arab-style feast (feels like we’re back in Syria) Our host piles impossible quantities of food onto our plates and incredibly, we eat most of it. Then Arab tea (sweet and hot) and the non-medical people stay to socialize while I and the four physicians travel to West Jerusalem (Jewish side) to meet with an Israeli mental health workers group which tries to aid its Palestinian counter-parts. They talk about Israeli society attitudes in general and how they impact their own work. One of their biggest problems is that their Palestinian counterparts themselves are severely traumatized (the caregiver-needing-care syndrome).
When I speak of Palestinians — there are 900,000 living in Israel who are citizens (albeit second class) and have it pretty good relative to their 4 million brethren who live in Palestine (the Occupied Territories) who have neither citizenship nor, in fact, any rights what-so-ever. It’s these Palestinians who are most affected by checkpoints, harassment by colonizers (Hebron is notoriously the worst!) and who suffer most from the Occupation of their homeland. Anyway, these Israeli mental health workers (all Jewish) were just so happy to have sympathetic American Jews listen to their tales of woe that they kept us there late and, like usual on this trip, we awoke the next morning (Mon 10/29) tired and sleep-deprived.
We piled into taxis to head out to Tel Aviv University which, with its modern architecture, reminded me of my own Brandeis heritage. Speaking of which, our first meeting was with Daniel Bar-Tal, political psychology professor who also teaches at Brandeis. Daniel taught us the “Seven Characteristics of Intractable Conflicts.” He then related those to Israeli societal attitudes and policies, i.e., demographic ascension of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. The latter, who not only avoid military service, but also don’t have to work, are supported by the government because their job is to study Torah. Hello???!!!
Anyway, fifty percent of first graders in Israel belong to one of these two groups, and Daniel sees Israel heading toward a Hamas-style society, thereby making compromise and co-existence even more unlikely. What always amazes him is that when he tries to educate his Brandeis colleagues (he is a renowned Jewish academician from Tel Aviv University) about reality in Israel versus the idealized image we grew-up with in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, he says he gets nowhere, which he says is another psychological characteristic of all peoples – denial. The Turks don’t want to know about Armenia; the Dutch don’t want to know about Indonesia; Jews don’t want to know about Israel/Palestine, etc. Not the most uplifting of talks, but Daniel says his job is to teach political psychology accurately.
Then off to Rabin Square in downtown Tel Aviv to meet with Nathan Bronstein, a fortyish Sabra who heads an NGO devoted to educating his fellow Israeli Jews about the razing of Palestinian towns in Israel since 1948. He spent time in jail for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories and is proud that his son has done the same. One would think his job would be a lonely one, but he has a bunch of volunteers/staffers helping him out. They have a photo/art exhibit with relevant works on display.
Then off to our meeting with the executive director of Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, a young woman with a strong Hebrew accent but who speaks English faster than me (probably understands it better, too). After an hour-and-a-half of recounting the difficulties of her job, vis-à-vis prejudice, indifference, etc., she was asked why she hangs in there. She answered giving three reasons: she works with amazing people; they actually do help a lot of needy human beings; and she’s an angry woman, which we now understand after her litany of frustrations dealing with discriminatory laws, etc. Anyway, her latest ally is Shimon Perez’s son-in-law, a fiftyish physician who likewise is frustrated by red tape and is on PHR’s board. The incident which caused him to go public was of a Gazan man who an Israeli physician said needed a certain treatment or he’d lose his leg. He lost his leg while waiting for permits, and then lost his other leg while still waiting. His legless photo is now well-publicized in Israel.
So after spending the next morning with Alan (the Boston pediatrician from JVP) in the small village outside of Ramallah (I saw two patients for diagnosis – a forty year old needing root canal therapy and a five year old boy with a fascial cellulitis for which all I could do was prescribe antibiotics, as there was no dental operatory there.), we returned to PMRS headquarters via the Beit Zir checkpoint. We passed thru that checkpoint four times yesterday with the same 20 year old looking boy wielding his Uzi. Most all the checkpoints are manned by boyish-looking soldiers.
While waiting for our ride up north, we hang out in the PMRS computer room and go online. Em had caught the same bug Bon and I had and we were glad to know she was doing much better. She must have had the German-made amoxicillin for $9 while I must be on the Syrian stuff ($4) because my sinusitis/drainage is still lingering. Of course, the constant smoke omnipresent in the Arab and Israeli worlds doesn’t help much.
We end up, just Bon and I, with two drivers who speak not a word of English. Checkpoint after checkpoint, all totally within the West Bank and some set up for harassment purposes only as there were no Jewish settlements nearby, was manned by the same boyish-looking, machine-gun toting soldiers with the Israeli flag displayed prominently miles from the Israeli border. We arrive in Tulkarem, a town of 8,000, with the two PMRS drivers jabbering away in Arabic. They’re very friendly to us and insist we eat the cookies and orange drink they’ve bought for us. We disembark next to an orphanage at the Association of Arab Women (a civic-minded charitable organization) Dormitory. We didn’t pass or see a single hotel in Tulkarem.
There are no real “restaurants” in Tulkarem so we settle for Schwarma and juice. En route back to our room, we pass dozens of men smoking nargileh (hookahs, waterpipes) in tea rooms (men only). Emmy’s big complaint about the Arab world is that come nighttime, the men socialize in town while the women stay home. Anyway, we stop off at a phone/camera store and start speaking to the son of the proprietor, who says he learned his English on the internet. We met very few English-speakers and saw no Westerners at all in Tulkarem. We told this young man about our experience at the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and he said they all know about it and that it was Arab-against-Arab violence. He perked up when we said we had photos and he wanted to see them. We promised we’d return after getting our camera from our room – 15 minutes, no more. Well, we had trouble using our old key in the old lock, so 15 minutes turned into 50 minutes. But we figure, we’re in a small town in a remote section of Palestine with Israeli roadblocks all around. Where’s he going?!! He’s there when we return with our camera and he proceeds to download the photos onto his computer in about ten seconds flat. It usually takes us ten minutes!
We review the horrendous photos and discuss them and he promises to send them to friends in Jordan, Egypt, etc. and to Al-Jazeera, but he says he’s seen the likes before. He then proceeds to show us his own photos of numerous people crushed and rotting in the rubble of Jenin (northern West Bank massacre about 5-6 years ago) and then of some local Tulkarem victims with their arms and heads blown off for rock-throwing. He’s not impressed with the treatment Palestinians have received from any of the Arab states. And, of course, Israel is another story entirely. These are traumatized people that go about their business of daily living – very sobering.
No one has communicated with us what’s to happen the next day, so we plan to be ready at 9:00 a.m. At 7:00 a.m. there’s a loud knock at the door and a doctor with broken English from PMRS says we’ve got ten minutes to be in his van for the trip to Qalqilya. Showers are out, needless to say, as we hurriedly dress and descend to the street where a van with two doctors in the front and four hijabed (headscarf only)women in the back. By the way Emily says the western world misunderstands the hijab, which in Syria, at least, ranges from a headscarf to a full veil. Many women choose to wear the hijab (usually just the headscarf) and it’s no different for them than putting on a pair of glasses would be for us.
A Palestinian physician is giving us a quick tour of Qalqilya in the northern West Bank along the Apartheid wall built away from the Green Line (on Palestinian land). We see workmen on the Palestinian side digging a trench. We can’t see Israel as the Wall (“What Wall? It’s a fence,” according to an Israeli spokesman.) is made of concrete and is eight meters or 24 feet high topped with barbed wire, numerous surveillance cameras and intermittent machine gun turrets reminiscent of WWII in movies of POW camps. We also see the gate through which Israel by agreement is obligated to allow water to drain under the Wall. Last season Israel closed off the drainage gate and the water/sewage backup almost flooded the town.
Thirty minutes earlier on our way from Tulkarem to Qalqilya, a trip that used to take 15 minutes but took us an hour due to security detours around a Jewish settlement on Palestinian land (illegal under the Geneva Conventions) we passed a huge pile of rubble and debris left over from the building of the Jewish settlement and unceremoniously dumped outside its gates on the edge of the neighboring Palestinian village. Seeing all the land theft, injustice and purposeful cynicism that our niece Rachel so powerfully described in her e-mails and which I’m witnessing now with my own eyes, is tremendously disheartening.
So, the previously 15 minute ride to Qalqilya now takes 45-60 minutes due to the detour around the Israeli settlement and multiple checkpoints. Qalqilya is unique even by West Bank standards because it’s now a peninsula surrounded by land confiscated by Israel with only a checkpoint allowing entry/exit. We wait and wait to pass the checkpoint. The obligatory teenage-looking, machine-gun toting Israeli soldiers waiving us through. We ask why there’s a checkpoint between Palestinian land and Palestinian land. It makes no sense, but they say that, like most of the other checkpoints not near Israeli colonies, it’s just to make life difficult. And it does. One of the things we see that we haven’t seen in Tulkarem or other West Bank towns is lots of signs in both Arabic and Hebrew (usually they’re just in Arabic.) On our second Wall tour later that morning with a PMRS representative with better English, we learn that prior to 2000 Qalqilya was a prosperous town with heavy trade with Israel. The signs were a relic of those days when joint Arab/Israel ventures were to be seen and Qalqilya was called “the peaceful town.” Now, with its trade gone, enclosed by walls and fences, it just looks dusty and forlorn.
The former adjective is ironic because the area is rich in aquifers – the most in Palestine – but they are now in Israeli hands even though they’re on the Palestinian side of the Green Line and as such, Qalqilya has lost most of its water. At one point in our second Qalqilya Wall tour, our guide teared up. She pointed across the barbed wire crossing where Israeli military vehicles nightly cross to patrol the Palestinian side of the Wall and pointed to farmland that belongs to her family. They can’t get to it even though it’s far in from the Green Line, which extends up to 12 kilometers both north and south of Qalqilya. There were also some greenhouses there that are Palestinian but their owners are not allowed to go there. Our guide says that Israel has a law that provides if land is unattended for three years, the state can take it over. Those people have been denied access to their greenhouses and farmland for the past two years. In one more year they will lose it forever to the state of Israel because its “unattended.” Yup, keep pumping those pennies into the Blue Box. Maybe JNF will build another park over the razed greenhouses.
We almost never tell anyone of our connection to Rachel Corrie, but the woman giving us this second Wall tour speaks really good English and was very animated. We asked her if she knew who Rachel was, and she said “Of course, who doesn’t?” We then told her she was our niece and she immediately embraced Bonnie, almost in tears. She refused to allow us to pay the driver (we previously had agreed on 60 shekels ($15) before we set out, but she wouldn’t accept a dime. We figured we better not play that card too often!
After lunch the clinic dentist was in and he and I talked shop for about an hour. We reviewed myriad cases of his about which he wanted to know the “American” way of handling them. His English was fair, he had gone to dental school in Hungary and Kiev, and we made copious use of drawings, etc. We traded cards and I told him to e-mail with supplies that he wanted and I would send them to him, along with a spare pair of surgical telescopes. A friendly, collegial meeting. Then Bon and I wandered the streets of Qalqilya until our ride back to Ramallah arrived.
The Rocky Hotel sits on a hill about one mile from downtown Ramallah. We had passed Arafat’s partially destroyed compound on our way in. We took a cab downtown for supper, met up with two other Bostonians from JVP and had guess what? Schwarma! Ramallah in the evening is a somewhat Westernized, happening place with western-style cafes sitting side-by-side Arab-style places. Boxes of produce with Hebrew lettering line the sidewalk.
The following night we’re winding down in the lobby of the Jordan Inter-Continental Hotel waiting to go to the Amman Airport for our return home. I’ve only scratched the surface and haven’t said a word about our Syrian experiences after we went north out of Lebanon.
I know people will freak when they hear we were in Jerusalem and didn’t see this or do that, but the trip we’ve had is unique. We traveled 4½ countries using three languages (four if you include French in Lebanon) and five currencies. We’ve spoken and shared meals with numerous Syrians, Lebanese, Israelis and Palestinians. We may not have slipped notes of paper into the Wailing Wall, but we’ve experienced the paranoia of a police state, witnessed the devastation of a war-torn country, shared frustrations with citizens of a militarized theocracy and sympathized with the humiliation of the people she rules. All-in-all, a pretty amazing trip. For those wanting something a little deeper than the typical B’nai Brith or “Birthright” sponsored trips, check out Jewish Voice for Peace (our group) or”Birthright Unplugged”, an alternative tour established by two Jewish women from Boston to give American Jews a realistic picture of Israel/Palestine. As for Syria and Lebanon, I suggest you wait until you can go with a fluent Arabic speaker. It will make all the difference.