Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The final divide: the ghettoization of Bethlehem

Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
-Mahmud Darwish

From OpenBethlehem: The final section of Israel’s wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem will be completed in a matter of days.

The wall around Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem will not only sever the connection between the region’s most holy Christian sites, but will also herald the creation of a new ‘fact on the ground’ - an illegal Jewish settlement which will be home to some of Israel’s most extremist religious groups.

The ultra-orthodox Kever Rahel Fund announced last year that it intended to build about 400 apartments at the site. This week their work has begun. Settlers are planning to move into houses around the tomb as soon as the wall is completed.

Bethlehem’s population fears that town will become another Hebron– where Jewish extremists have expelled Palestinians from their homes and with the support of the Israeli army, intimidate and harass the local population. Hebron was once the busiest shopping town in the region, but is now a ghost town. Christian Peacemaker Teams have a permanent presence there to monitor and report abuses by the army and settlers on local people.

A former member of the Israeli parliament, Hanan Porat, was quoted today in Israeli newspaper Haaretz : "With the help of God we are progressing toward maintaining a permanent Jewish presence and a fixed yeshiva in Rachel's Tomb, as Rabbi Kook [religious Zionist fundamentalist] urged, and bringing Israelis back to where they belong."

The mayor of Bethlehem, Dr Victor Batarseh, a Palestinian Christian, said: “The recent land confiscation and works around Rachel’s Tomb are illegal and have no security basis. This is an act of land expropriation. It is a serious threat to the economic and social life of the town. As the Mayor of Bethlehem, I share the concern of all Bethlehemites, Christians and Muslims alike, that this could be the first step towards building a new illegal Israeli settlement right in the heart of Bethlehem. That is how it all started in Hebron a few years ago.”

In a statement to the international community, he says: “We call on all religious and political leaders, to intervene and protect the lawful rights of the town of the Nativity. The ghettoization of Bethlehem is not only destroying ancient communities, but is destroying the prospects of peace in the Middle East and the whole concept of international law”.

Rapid construction of the final section of the wall separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem is proceeding following the rejection by the Israeli Supreme Court of the appeal of 18 Palestinian families and the Bethlehem and Beit Jala municipalities to re-route the wall at Rachel’s Tomb. As a result, the area will now be included within the borders of Jerusalem municipality, in direct violation of the Oslo agreements. The wall was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague (9 July 2004).

The Rachel’s Tomb area, once a vibrant neighbourhood and a central artery between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, has seen 72 out of 80 businesses close in the last four years. The tomb itself, a major Bethlehem landmark and a shrine holy to three religions, is now barred to the city’s inhabitants. The neighbourhood has been devastated to accommodate the expanding military base around the tomb, confiscating family homes and businesses and carving out a major landmark from the heart of Bethlehem. The wall pushes one and a half kilometres inside the city’s boundaries and confiscates 3km2 of its land.

Leila Sansour, Chief Executive of Open Bethlehem says: “We are now racing against time. Israel has stolen our land to build a settlement. It is a disaster for us. A city of international importance may soon become history. We are calling for divestment from any international company that gives support to, or is engaged in, this illegal project. Divestment is one of the few non-violent options open to us”

From Open Bethlehem, an organization devoted to keeping the windows to the holy city of Bethlehem open despite its ghettoization by the Israeli Apartheid Wall.

A banner in Gaza City proclaiming "Rule of Law is above everyone". It is one of many banners being hung around Gaza today to mark the launch an "anti-lawlessness and chaos campaign" be organized by the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution. Loud-speaker equippped buses have also been driving throughout gaza blasting "just say not to Chaos" themed-music.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The counting game

6:14pm. The shelling has been ongoing for some time, then it suddenly occurred to me to begin to keep track, for no particular reason other than to actualize these episodes for myself. 6:18pm. 13 shells. I lost count after that. but what I did remember about this particular bout was that Yousuf, for the first time, told me that he's "afraid".

Usually he'll just say "yamma" in a rather animated way that children do, (it means "oh mommy!"). But today, he associated fear with the earth-pounding noise-which he thought was coming from the kitchen because that's where he was when he heard it ("khayif..hinak!", "afraid..over there!"). You can't explain such an incomprehensible existence to a 2 year old. You just try and normalize his reality. That's why I love the film "Life is Beautiful" so much.

He'll only get as scared as you do, sometimes. And sometimes no amount of re-assurance can convince him that this loud and recurrent thud he hears every day is innocuous (so far). One Israeli friend who emailed to check on us even suggested I make a counting game out of it-how many shells can we count today? (not a suggestion I'm likely to adopt anytime soon). I sometimes think of Rafah's children, and how their lives must have been during those night under constant Israeli seige; how their lives will continue now; whether they can continue with any certainy at all. Being a mother puts a whole new spin on it.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Anything but ordinary!

"This agreement is intended to give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives" said Condoleezza Rice confidently, of an agreement she helped broker with much fanfare following the now comatose Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza.

Now, maybe it's just me, but six months on, I wouldn’t say my life is ”ordinary” by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I think it's quite outside the entire realm of the ordinary.

Just ask my Yousuf. He often mistakes Israeli helicopter gunships for birds, dances to the revolutionary songs blasted during political rallies marching by our house, and has learned to distinguish between Israeli tank shell fire and machine-gun banter.

When not making our own yoghurt at home due to a shortage in the market, we scavenge Gaza City to find him Size 5 Pampers because Israel has closed down the al-Mintar crossing, as it has done again this week, all while living in a disengaged-but-still-occupied-territory whose parliament must convene via videoconference.

As one Palestinian woman observing the new democratically elected Hamas-led parliament convene last week noted upon being asking about her thoughts of possible Israeli sanctions “our lives are incomprehensible”.

To add insult to injury, I along with the vast majority of Gazans, cannot even travel to the other half of my non-state-entity.

But I guess I can see how I can be considered a security threat, what with Yousuf's chili incident.

And hey, we've always got Rafah Crossing right? I mean after all, "the battle's done, and we kind of won", and to quote the flag from the Chairman Arafat Shop down the street, we now have a "Free Gaza" and of course, control of the the only outlet for Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians.

Unfortunately, control over the crossing as brokered by Condoleezza after the much-lauded unilateral Disengagement, and the end of Israel's occupation of Gaza, is completely fictitious.

My own friends and family can't even visit me here in my lonely little open-air prison.

Two American peace activist friends of mine (one a Harvard colleague. Who knew they could graduate so many security threats?) were denied entry by Israel to Gaza last week via a supposedly Palestinian-controlled Rafah Crossing.

The reasons cited: "affiliations with groups that are considered terrorist
groups." Pat helped Palestinian villagers plant olive trees and non-violently resist
the encroachment of the Israeli wall on their land in the West Bank last
year. He was coming to Gaza to volunteer with a local agricultural NGO.

Two days earlier, two French aid workers coming to set up a sister city project in Beit Hanun were likewise denied, for the same blanket reason. And the examples go on.

All this is leaving the case of my own husband aside, who, along with 50, 000 other Palestinians, because he lacks an Israeli-issued ID card and family-reunion permit, and is a refugee, cannot visit me in Gaza, except perhaps under extenuating circumstances that may render him "a humanitarian case", according to officials I spoke to. Even then, there is always the chance that he may be denied based on "security reasons"-after all, his son handled a chemical weapon.

Ordinary? Hardly, Ms. Rice.

As one Palestinian official put it to me, "it's all a grand illusion, and anyone who says or believes otherwise-from Abu Mazen down, is lying."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Please check your guns and chilis at the door...

Yesterday, in between Yousuf highlighting our ceramic-tiled floor yellow, and me chasing a cockroach around the kitchen to Yousuf’s howling laughter, there was a slight “incident”, to quote the Israeli Army, which I call the chili pepper incident.

Now before I continue, I should explain something. Gaza’s famed green chilies are hot. And I don’t mean eye-watering hot. I mean take-one-whiff and you’ll feel nauseous hot.

So, to get back to my story. My mother inadvertently forgot one chili pepper on the kitchen counter that I was supposed to use that morning in an omelet-which I didn’t because the prospect of eating a nauseating omelet that likewise made me cry like a baby did not sound so appealing.

Instead, Yousuf got a hold of the chili, and as is his habit with all things raw, began to poke and prod at it, rubbing it, tearing it apart. Until he finally tired of the game. And then, slowly, the fiery vapors of capsicum began to make their way to his nostrils. Then came the inevitable eye rub. And the wails. Oh the wails.

I was so hysterical I thought the poor child had gone temporarily blind. He eyes looked crossed and extremely swollen and red and he couldn’t stop crying. For 30 minutes straight. No amount of water-flushing would sooth him-I don’t care what the books say.

In the end, he was ok, but he developed a very mild case of what’s known as a subconjunctival hemorrhage-basically a ruptured blood vessel in his eye, which heals in a matter of weeks.

After seeing him in so much pain from such a seemingly benign household vegetable (is a chili even a vegetable?) I was curious, and decided to Google “subconjunctival hemorrhage” and “exposure to chili pepper”. Apparently, chilies, or to be more exact, capsicum, is used by law enforcers in the state of Arizona as a non-lethal (but OH so painful) means of temporarily disabling someone who is a perceived threat to the officer.

I also discovered that the Los Angeles department of health services includes chili in its terrorism first aid manual (“Terrorism Agent Information and Treatment Guidelines for Hospitals and Clinicians”). Believe it or not chili is listed as a chemical weapon! Also known as Oleoresin Capsicum, it is right up there with Nerve and Mustard agents in a table discussing antidote therapies for “Chemical Weapons attacks.”

And you thought you couldn’t learn anything you didn’t already know on my Blog! Perhaps next time there’s an election, the sign in front of the polling center advising voters to check their cell phones, cigarettes, and guns, should also include chilies.

I always had a hunch those Gaza chilies were dangerous. But who knew?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A charicature in the al-Quds Palestinian daily. The title says: The Palestinian Legislative Council 2006-videoconference. From left to right, the television screens say: "Ramallah"; "Gaza"; "the prisons"; and finally, "checkpoints".  Posted by Picasa

The parliament convenes!

The parliament convened its first session today, amidst American demands for the PA to return some $50 million in direct foreign aid and Israeli moves to bar Gaza workers, people, and good from entering Israel, threatening to be the final nail in the coffin of an already crippled economy.

To quote the Israeli PM's advisor, Dov " Formaldehyde" Weissglas", on reaching an appropriate aid policy towards the Hamas-led government, "It's like a meeting with a dietician. We have to make them much thinner, but not enough to die."

The Israeli government also barred Gaza lawmakers belonging mainly to the Hamas list from traveling to the West Bank to attend the PLC session. It also divided the West Bank into three parts this morning to hinder the movement of Palestinian lawmakers from their respective cities to Ramallah.

Several Gaza lawmakers who were given Israeli permission to travel to the west Bank, such as Independent Palestine MP Rawia Shawwa and Independent Christian candidate Hussam Taweel who was supported by Hamas, chose to remain in Gaza nonetheless in “solidarity” with the MPs who were unable to travel.

“I preferred to stay in Gaza because most of elected Palestinian members were prevented from going to the West Bank and because of that I was staying in solidarity with them here in Gaza,” Taweel told me.

Outside the building currently serving as a council for Gaza’s MPs, the Rashad al-Shawwa Cultural Centre, representatives of different interest groups such as disabled Palestinians and families of prisoners, had gathered to make their voices heard. Many forced their way into the crowded convention centre, despite attempts by riot police to keep them outside.

Before the parliament officially convened, one man, holding a picture of his imprisoned son, walked towards the podium, shouting at security guards who attempted to escort him away. He was calmed down only by a composed Ismail Hanieh, the Hamas leader heading the now ruling party’s victorious list and in line to be the new Prime Minister.

“Nobody understands our plight. I’m here to say to all of these MPs that we take top priority," shouted the man.

Some 7500 Palestinian prisoners are currently serving sentences-most without charges-in Israeli jails.

The commotion turned into a heated debate amongst onlookers as well, with some calling for more order, and others saying this is just a small taste of the parliament can expect to face in coming weeks.

The conference room was packed to the brim-if not by an army of journalists who had gathered to cover the historic day, then by outgoing legislators, civil society leaders, and ordinary Palestinians who wanted to get a glimpse of the members of Parliament they elected into power.

Despite the pre-session ruckus, and initial technical difficulties with transmitting live coverage from the West Bank, with audio cutting off on occasion-and a lengthy introductory speech by Palestinian National Council (PNC) Head, Salim Za'anoun,the session went smoothly.

Za’anoun said that despite the travel ban, the Palestinian parliament would remain united, and called for including the several elected members of parliament serving Israeli prison sentences via videoconference as well. More here in one of my Aljazeera articles.

Also, see the photostory I did for Aljazeera on the views of nine Palestinians nad their expectations from the new government.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

How might we live?

The shells are falling again.

Interspersed with the occasional sonic boom. It’s like a mix and match Monday special. The army once compared it to a "hat of tricks". Let's see what we pull out today. There's the sonic boom, which after a brief hiatus, is now making a terrorizing comeback. Then there's the aimless tank shelling into empty fields in eastern and northern Gaza, so strong it can be heard and felt kilometers away here in Gaza City.

And of course the ever popular kill-a-Palestinian-herding goats-or a child who got lost-by the border fence technique. That outta really stop the rockets from flying.

They try different combinations each day-25 tanks shells in a row; a gunship rocket attack; 5 more shells at eastern Gaza; drones whirring incessantly at varying speeds. 10 shells; 10 minutes of silence; sonic boom; 20 shells, with more firepower, in northern Gaza. 10 shells; one hour intermission; Shoot at someone near the fence. Stop to make sure there is no outcry and promise an investigation.

Then it continues.

Yousuf is at a very sensitive stage, where he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on-and looks to me for confirmation of whether or not he should be scared when the shelling starts. Following the advice of a friend, I continue to re-assure and distract him.

Today, I tried a new technique. Yousuf loves to sing and dance, so as the shelling started, we listened to some music my friend gave him as a gift- Suheil Khoury’s Bass Shwai, a children's CD from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), where four children, ages 9 to 11 sing songs composed by Khoury using lyrics written by various Palestinian poets and writers. Each song deals with a theme relating to children.

We listened to a song that imagines how the world might be like in different forms; a song I think can be read in many way. Needless to say, it was very therapeutic, perhaps more so for me than him. Sometimes, you need to take a step back and look through the eyes of children. Strange is what you make it I guess.

What if the world was made of wood
Birds of wood
Flowers of wood

What if the world was made of wood
Moons of wood
Stars of wood

How might it be, I wonder?
How strange…how strange
How would it be, I wonder?
How strange, how strange…
What if the world was made of paper
Doors of paper
Fences of paper

What if the world was made of paper
Walls of paper

How might it be, I wonder?
How strange, How Strange…
What if the world was made of gold
Fishes of gold
Sands of gold

What if the world was made of gold
Snows of gold

How might we live?
How might we live?

Monday, February 13, 2006

A memorial to Noran, placed her her classmates last year. Posted by Picasa

Noran Iyad Deeb. Posted by Picasa

Be to her, Persephone…

One year ago this week, 10-year-old Noran Iyad Deeb was shot dead by an Israeli sniper while singing the national anthem and clapping her hands in her UN flagged school in Rafah. I will never forget that day; that day when the line between journalist and mother faded forever. When I dropped my pen and began to cry along with her mother. Noran died in front of her younger sister. Noran loved and was loved. She smiled and brought smiles to the world. And as her mother told me when I spoke with her one day after she was killed, "her name means bright light, and that's precisely what she was-a bright light in a most dark place; a light that was brutally extinguished."

Maybe her spirit, and the hundreds of little spirits like hers, continue to flicker even on the darkest of nights.

Be to her, Persephone,

All the things I might not be:

Take her head upon your knee.

She that was so proud and wild,

Flippant, arrogant and free,

She that had no need of me,

Is a little lonely child

Lost in Hell, - Persephone,

Take her head upon your knee:

Say to her, "My dear, my dear,

It is not so dreadful here."

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Friday, February 10, 2006

Desperate dreamer

I met a young man yesterday over nescafe and herbal tea. I'll him S.

S is 22 years old. He's been injured 7 times during this Intifada, with shrapnel still lodged 2.8 centimetres from his lonely heart. But you would never know. He walks without so much as a limp, and has a childish coyness about him, an earnest persistence to achieve something, anything, and only the highest expectations. He is dream and despair in one.

S is from Khan Yunis, formerly a member of one of the many renegade armed Fateh off-shoots. Most likely, for lack of anything better to do. AT 19, without a family income, without college, without work, without a father, and with a love he had neither the approval nor the money to marry, he joined the brigade. He soon found himself the target of a helicopter gunship missile attack.

His two closest friends died instantly, next to him. He was hit with shrapnel in the brain and chest and leg. Death was scattered all around him-17 to be exact that day. Medics took him for dead as well, and placed him in the hospital morgue for 3 days. When it came time to bury the dead, they noticed his lip quivering, his blood still warm. He was very alive, but unconcious. Death left him for another day.

This young, boy-man I sat down with. Who smiles as if he has nothing and everything to live for. How can you comprhend this? How can you understand this life? What does it mean? What does he do now? And where does he go from here? He travels with difficulty, if at all. He is in the category of of the condemned: young Palestinian men between 16 and 35. In order to be eligible for a permit to travel to the West Bank, or work as a laboror in Israel, Palestinians must be over 35 years old and married with children.

Where do the thousands like him go and do. He learned French for a while in Egypt. Fell in love; is still painfully in love and his eyes look distant when he speaks of her. "Tragedy is all around me, what do I do? tell me?". But he smiles nonetheless.

Who are these men, these boys? These ones whose eyes we sometimes see through polyester masks; whose angry muffled voices we may hear; who have nothing to cling to but a perhaps, perhaps a dream. Any dream. Of a legacy, any legacy. of intoxicating heroism. who die like slaughtered lambs. 15 this week.

Who are they, these men, these boys?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Aerial seige continues

The aerial seige of "liberated" Gaza continues, as Israeli forces pound the Shija3iya neighbourhood east of Gaza City as I write this. The shells, more than 25 by now, are being fired about every 5 minutes, resulting in thunderous explosions heard througout the city. F-16s are also looming overhead, and broke the sound barrier twice last night over Gaza.

Yousuf with a duckling in Nuseirat camp's Tuesday market, after an earth-pounding night of Israeli shelling. Posted by Picasa

Monday, February 06, 2006

Gaza under aerial siege

Didn't get a wink of shut-eye last night. After a back and forth exchange of Apache-fired Israeli rockets, and Islamic Jihad home-made rockets, Israeli forces pounded the strip with great intensity all through the night. The shelling intensified right around the morning calls to prayer. Even though it was mainly in northern Gaza, which is a few kilometres away, it could be heard all the way in the City. I honestly thought it was right outside my house-that's how loud it was. Friends in Beit Lahiya told me this morning they feared for the lives. They also said Israeli forces dropped-once more-thousands of fliers "warning" residents that they must stay in their homes-and that remaining in the area is at "their own risk", they Israeli forces are not responsible if they get hurt by the shells.

Now for some youso-therapy, I'm going to the Tuesday market in the Nseirat refugee camp to buy a duckling for Yousuf. *Sigh*.

Friday, February 03, 2006

A Palestinian farmer in Beit Lahiya holds a picture perfect strawberry, several tons of which have gone to waste this month in the face of an ongoing Israeli economic closure of Gaza. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 02, 2006

In times of Israeli closure, breastfeed!

Ok, I bet you never expected me to mention breastfeeding and Israeli closures in the same sentence. Well, I just did. Now, for the readers who didn't just drop like flies, I'll continue.

Israel has closed the al-Muntar/Karni commercial crossing, Gaza's commercial lifeline to the world, for coming on a month now, as fruits, vegetables and flowers destined for export to European markets, spoil, and medicines (including vaccinations and kidney dialysis wash), dairy products, sugar, rice and infant formula dwindle on Gaza's supermarket shelves.

I visited strawberry farms today (and made out like a bandit with a crate full of fresh berries to the farmer's insistence. "feed your colleagues" he said. little did he know there are no colleagues. Just me and Yousuf), exporters, and trade unions, all of course up who are up in arms about the month-long closure that comes despite Israeli promises in a post-disengagment American brokered deal late last year to keep the crossing open, especially during the Palestinian harvest.

Not to digress, but I also learned there is rather suspious sounding organization called "the Strawberry Society" in the northern Gaza farming village of Beit Lahiya. which I would learn is none other than..a society of, well, strawberry farmers. how dissappointing. but it just sounds so covert doesn't it. "I belong to the strawberry society." I wish I could say that.

I then spoke to a friend who works at a human rights organization that subsequently released a press release on the matter. He asked how Yousuf was making out without milk in Gaza. It never crossed my mind, I told him, because Yousuf (don't gag, I know he's nearly two) still breastfeeds, being the ardent breastfeeding advocate I am. I am a human milking station. The benefits of nursing are never as clear to me as when we face Israeli closures which cut us off quite literally from the world, and also from, among other things, infant formula.

So there you have it, yet another catchy slogan for the La Leche League: In times of closures, breastfeed!

For more on the ongoing closure, which has has caused more than half a million dollars in damage so far and left 170 tons of fruits and vegetables to rot, see my article for Aljazeera here.