Report from Israel/Palestine: Family trip (2005)by Mark Rudd
Marla and I just returned from eight days in Israel and Palestine. This is a quick description of our trip for family and friends. Oy vey iss mir!!!
The original purpose of the visit, as proposed by my brother and sister-in-law, David and Sue, was to attend the Macabiah Games (Jewish Olympics) in which my nephews were playing on the U.S. masters’ (over 35) soccer team. Michael is the captain of the team and Danny is another one of the stars. Also, Sue and David felt that if we could experience Israel as they do, we would soften our opinions about Israeli policy. I decided to go in order to pay respect to their perspective and to root for Michael and Danny. Also, not least, I felt I should actually see Israel for the first time, so I’d know a little bit more about what I’ve been shooting my mouth off already for decades. Marla went as my minder to keep me from getting in trouble. The trip was amply financed by my mother, Bertha
David and Sue had planned a tight eight days of touring, soccer, and family visits, the first three days based in Jerusalem, the fourth a transition day to Haifa via Tel Aviv, and the remainder based in the gorgeous port city of Haifa where the soccer games were held. With the family we toured the Old City in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, archeological sites in Jerusalem (the Temple Mount), Caesaria (Roman), and Acre (Crusader), the Dead Sea, the Galilee and the Jordan River, and the modern cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. We attended the opening of the Macabiah Games in a suburb of Tel Aviv, and two of five of our nephews’ games. We also hung out with Israeli relatives near Tel Aviv and in Haifa.
Through Jewish peace activists in Albuquerque we had contacted Israeli peace activists who graciously offered to take us on tours of the West Bank and East Jerusalem (the occupied Palestinian territories). We spent two days in the occupied territories and were able to see the “closure” which the Palestinians live under, including road blockades and checkpoints, the separation wall and fence, demolished houses and uprooted olive trees. We visited both Palestinian villages and several Israeli settlements. We talked at length with Palestinian and Israeli Jewish non-violent activists and learned their various perspectives on their work, including their long-term strategies.
I admit that the visit was short and I probably made some erroneous conclusions, but these impressions are quite vivid. Here are a few highlights and observations from our trip:
Israel is a first-world country, with all the infrastructure and consumer goods which the U.S. enjoys. It is highly urbanized, with malls, superhighways, high-rises, sub-divisions that make much of the landscape indistinguishable from Southern California. Marla pointed out that a lot of the flora is in fact the same—eucalyptus trees, bougainvillas, oleanders, ice plants. The last night, driving to the airport through the outskirts of Tel Aviv on an eight-lane highway, I hallucinated for a second that we were on I-5 in north San Diego County. By contrast, Arab neighborhoods and villages in Israel are poor. Driving to the Sea of Galilee, we passed through a checkerboard of heavily developed lush fields of corn and mangoes and wheat, all Israeli, alternating with rock-strewn dry pastures and scraggly olive trees of Arab villages (never ever referred to by the Israelis as “Palestinian”). Palestinian neighborhoods and villages of East Jerusalem and the West bank are much poorer than those in Israel, especially since the “closure.”
All the Israelis we talked with, except for the peace activists, felt that Israel is under attack and that the closure and the separation wall are necessary for security. Our two Israeli guides claimed to have been “of the left,” but both support Sharon now in his repression of the Palestinians. There does not seem to be any political opposition: a television news anchor referred to the Labour party as “the lapdog of Likud.” I was surprised how few Israelis wanted to talk politics or about the occupation. I had mistakenly thought that politics was a national sport. One of our guides told us that Israelis are tired of politics since nothing has worked. They’re certainly tired of the war. The only debate among Israelis while we were there involved the opposition by the far right of the settlers and the religious parties to Sharon’s disengagement in Gaza and the north of the occupied territories. Many intersections had young people putting orange ribbons, the symbol of opposition to disengagement, on car antennas. Only a tiny fraction of cars had blue and white ribbons to show support for disengagement.
As far as we could see, social segregation is almost total, even in Haifa, which is supposed to be an island of coexistence in Israel. None of the Israelis we talked with, outside of the peace activists, claimed any Palestinians as friends; no one we talked with ever expressed any sympathy toward the plight of any Palestinians. Our Israeli peace activist friends from Tel Aviv told us that they had never been able to bring any Israelis to the West Bank. We met no Israelis who felt it necessary to hide their feelings of superiority and loathing toward Arabs. It made us long for the polite racism of home to see the conditions of life there.
From what we saw and were told by peace activists, both Israeli and Palestinian, the occupation appears to have two related purposes, neither of which involves Israel’s security. First is the grabbing of land for Israel, the establishment of what the Israel government calls “facts on the ground.” Just east of Jerusalem we visited an enormous settlement, actually a town of 30,000 people, called Ma’ale Adumim. This is not a hilltop outpost with trailers: apartment houses, malls, townhouses, parks, swimming pools, schools, an industrial zone, are all brand new and gleaming. The settlement has gobbled up 60 square kilometers of land, leaving the surrounding Palestinian villages with only 4.6 square kilometers, and displacing Bedouin shepherding families who had originally been relocated from the Negev Desert. It is linked to Jerusalem by a highway direct from the old city, through a tunnel cut into Mt. Scopus. Travel time is 10 minutes, if you’re Jewish. Palestinians from the surrounding villages cannot use this road. There is now a “national consensus” in Israel that Ma’ale Adumim is actually not a settlement, though it’s built in the West Bank on formerly Palestinian land; it is a permanent Israeli town. There are whole blocs of similar towns surrounding Jerusalem built on occupied land.
Similarly, we rode about 30 minutes from a suburb of Tel Aviv on a super highway (for Jews only) to a settlement of 20,000 people called Ariel deep inside the West Bank. It is perched high on a hill dominating six small Palestinian villages below. It is lush with lawns and vegetation; the valley below is brown. We watched bulldozers destroying old olive trees in order to build the separation fence (not a wall there) and to continue the highway further east to other settlements. Russian immigrants can live in Ariel, with subsidized apartments, pools, community centers, and commute to their jobs in Tel Aviv.
From the Palestinian point of view (and probably from the point of view of the Israel government), these settlements not only take land away from a future Palestine but also—along with the settler roads, wall, fences, and checkpoints—divide up the land physically so that there is no contiguous, economically and socially viable country. Just look at a map and you can see the Ariel salient, as it is called, and a number of other “settlement blocs” are east-west divisions of the West Bank. This has nothing to do with protecting Israel from terrorist attacks. Here’s a website that has a map which will give you a visual sense of the division of the West Bank imposed by the settlements.
East Jerusalem is the geographical center of Palestine. At least 40% of the economy is located there. Most roads radiate out from there. But because of the separation wall and fence, settlements, and roadblocks, it is cut-off permanently from the rest of the country. We heard of a doctor from Jerusalem who works in a hospital in Bethlehem, about 15 minutes to the south, who has to make a two hour journey back and forth to work, enduring several road blocks.
That seems to be the second function of the closure: to make life so difficult for the Palestinians that they will leave, just go away. We heard innumerable stories of hardships.
In East Jerusalem we met a Palestinian activist whose husband is not legally allowed to spend the night in their house in the same village he grew up in, since his residence card is for the other side of the wall. Terry told us that of 600 roadblocks in the occupied territories, only 30 are between Israel and Palestinian land; so the purpose of the wall is to divide Palestinians. Terry is a mother and a teacher and a non-violent activist and an eloquent spokesperson for Palestinians for Peace and Democracy, based in San Antonio. Their website (www.p4pd.org) is an excellent place for information, including maps.
In the village of Hares, in the Salfit governate, directly below the settlement of Ariel, we met non-violent activists who were attempting to organize resistance to the abuses of the occupation. Issa, a young father of three was paralyzed by an Israel army bullet when he ran out of his house to rescue children from tear gas that Israeli soldiers were firing indiscriminately into the village. He told us, “The non-violent way is a very hard choice. We chose it because we must counter Israeli and U.S. media about Palestinians being terrorists. Non-violence is dangerous for Israel.” Incredibly, Issa showed no anger. He was so calm and peaceful that I got a buzz while listening to him, feeling I was in the presence of an enlightened being. None of the Palestinians in the room showed any anger at all. Incidentally, Issa’s older brother had spent 13 years in an Israeli prison and came out still organizing non-violently. The family had helped found the International Women’s Peace Service, located in a house in their village. There we met Nijme, a young American from Philadelphia, who volunteered with IWPS. She told us their work is to support non-violent resistance, document human rights abuses, and to work with Palestinian women in the area.
According to Nijme, only a handful of Israelis (and Americans) know that there are Palestinians committed to non-violence. Our guides who brought us to Hares were Dorothy and Israel Naor. They are activists with New Profile, an Israeli feminist organization dedicated to fighting the effects of militarization on Israeli society. They describe themselves as having been typical Israelis—Israel fought against the British as a young teenager and was a veteran of the 1948 war for independence, the 1967 Six-Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. One day in 2000, right after the beginning of the second intifadah, they woke up to the injustices of the occupation after hearing about the murder during a demonstration of 13 Israeli Arabs, including bystanders, by the Israel military. They are often called on to help block house destructions or the uprooting of olive orchards for the building of the fence. Unfortunately, they told us, they are isolated within Israeli society. Check out New Profile’s website.
Our tour guide for East Jerusalem and the adjacent West Bank was Angela Godfrey, an Israeli peace activist who had been born in Britain. She was the English language editor of an alternative tourist guidebook, “Palestine and the Palestinians: Guidebook” which was absolutely invaluable throughout our trip. Everywhere we went with our family’s tours, I was able to look up the site and discover the hidden history, unfortunately usually about Palestinians having been ethnically cleansed in that place, how many, how, and when. It took all my restraint to not throw the book in the face of our Israeli guides. The book is an excellent short course in the alternative narrative of Israel’s history–that is, the Palestinians’ point of view—and of their own history. Find it at www.atg.ps along with descriptions of the Alternative Tourism Groups tours.
Just one short anecdote about the guidebook. Like most Jewish tourists in Jerusalem, the first place we were taken was the Western Wall, also known as “the Wailing Wall,” the holiest site of Judaism. It is in a part of the Old City now called “The Jewish Quarter.” Looking in my Palestinian guidebook, I found out that the Jewish Quarter was enlarged enormously in 1967, when Israel captured Jerusalem. Over 6,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes and their buildings demolished to create what tourists now see—museums, yeshivas, condominiums. In front of the Western Wall is a large plaza, the site of religious gatherings and also political demonstrations. The guidebook told me that the plaza was actually created in 1967 by demolishing a whole street of Arab-occupied dwellings and a mosque. Of course our Israeli guide mentioned none of this. (In questioning him about where he gets his information, Marla was able to discern that he has to go by the official Israeli guide curriculum and he wasn’t’ always personally in agreement with the script. Nonetheless, this standard rap is what tourists in Israel are told by the guides).
The next night we were in a restaurant and I happened to strike up a conversation with a woman about my own age who told me that she was an eighth generation Jerusalemite (Jewish). Her parents had been born in the Old City. I asked her, “How did they feel after 1967, when the Israelis took over the Old City.” Her face turned dark, and she said, “They were heart-broken. They never lived there again.”
In Silwa, the oldest neighborhood of Jerusalem, we saw the rubble of Palestinians’ houses which had been destroyed and other houses slated for demolition. The Israelis do not claim security as the reason here: the houses are simply illegal, meaning they don’t have building permits. Of course, no building permits are given for East Jerusalem, except for settlements, which often mean apartment houses ringed by razor wire, proudly flying the Israeli flag in an Arab neighborhood. Our guide, Angela, works with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, ICAHD, and introduced us to Jeff Halper, an anthropologist originally from the U.S. who is the director and founder of the organization. They often stand with Palestinians to block demolitions and they also help rebuild houses which have been destroyed. He told us that their strategy is to appeal to “international civil society,” that the solution to the problem will not come from within Israel. He also told us, very simply, that “the suicide bombings are a symptom of the occupation, not the cause,” which is of course 180 degrees from the general Israeli view. Jeff has analyzed in detail the purpose of the occupation–to divide and drive out the Palestinian people and to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestine. Check out ICAHD’s web site. If you can, look at Jeff’’s book and CD: “Obstacles to Peace: a Reframing of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” and his comprehensive article, “The Key to Peace: Dismantling the Matrix of Control.”
Overall, the trip made us profoundly sad. Israeli racism, the suffering of the Palestinian people under occupation, Israelis’ fear induced by the occasional terrorist bombing, were too hard to bear. While we were in Haifa a suicide bomber struck in Netanya, about 30 miles south. Five people were killed. The press was filled with indignation over the Palestinian’s “breaking the calm” which followed Arafat’s death. No one ever mentioned that the Israelis had killed 41 people during that period.
No solution is obvious. No Israeli leadership is proposing anything other than maintaining the “Iron Wall” policy they have pursued since the early days of Zionism. Palestinian leadership, mostly a function of their weakness, is similarly lacking. The Palestinian anti-occupation grassroots activists we met with intend to just hold on, to not allow their people to be removed. Perhaps they hope a solution will be imposed from the outside, from European “civil society” or from the U.S. Most Israelis we talked with see no end in sight to the war and they see no living with the Palestinians. Oddly, when I told them that the Palestinians we met felt that they were very weak they were surprised: Israelis think the Palestinians and the hundreds of millions of Muslims allegedly behind them hold all the power and that Israel is weak and vulnerable. I think they should spend more time in the occupied territories and actually talk with people, but of course that’s too ridiculous even to consider.
This report was intended to be short. I hadn’t meant to go into too much detail, but the info and observations couldn’t stop pouring out of me. This is only a fraction of what I have to say, plus Marla has her two cents I know, along with about 500 pictures. I’m planning a more extensive article entitled, “Al Nakba: A Meditation on Disaster.” Al Nakba means “the disaster” in Arabic; it’s the Palestinians’ name for what the Israelis call the 1948 War for Independence. I hope to address the question How can one people’s disaster be another people’s bright shining triumph?
Oh yes, the U.S. masters soccer team won three of their five games, beating Israel, South Africa, and Brazil. They played their second team against the U.K. and lost, and lost to Argentina in the finals. They won a silver medal. Michael and Danny were outstanding!