“As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)
I went to Palestine as part of an “alternative” Holy Land tour, leaving Philadelphia on January 30 and returning on February 10. Our group saw many of the traditional Christian pilgrimage sites – the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the road to Jericho, the traditional baptismal site at the Jordan River, the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane, the Via Doloroso and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, along with the Yad Vashem, the Temple Mount, and the Western (“Wailing”) Wall. Because of the alternative nature of the tour, our group was exposed to the experiences of Palestinians living under occupation. This exposure began with our guide, a Palestinian of the Greek Orthodox faith, who freely shared his experiences living in “the only democracy in the Middle East,” an ironic and oft-repeated refrain of his.
Many of us have seen photos of the wall separating Palestinian controlled territories – “Area A” – from Israeli territories, but walking or driving along it is a very different experience. It is tall and grey (except where decorated by graffiti) and intimidating, almost suffocating. Roads going from Israeli to Palestinian controlled areas are marked with bright red signs, bearing the words, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, “This road leads to Area A under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives, and is against the Israeli law.” Our group laughed at this over-the-top attempt at intimidation; our group felt perfectly safe in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem and Ramallah.
We visited the Aida refugee camp, which is run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Along the street leading to the camp is a long mural bearing the names of the villages from which the residents of the camp were driven. Above the entrance of the camp is a huge representation of a key, symbolic to the keys of former homes still held by some of the residents. Several generations of refugee Palestinians live in the camp. A segment of the separation wall runs alongside the refugee camp, which is heavily decorated by graffiti and at which children hurl rocks with their slings. At one point, on the wall is painted the names of the more than 500 children killed in Gaza during Operation Solid Cliff. Our guide showed us bullet holes in the walls of several buildings in the camp. She also told us that the entrance with the large key is the site of many violent encounters between IDF soldiers and children, and that IDF soldiers enter the camp at night to arrest children accused of throwing rocks.
Several members of our group walked through Bethlehem Checkpoint 300, a point of passage for several thousand Palestinian residents of Bethlehem traveling daily to jobs in East Jerusalem and other Israeli-controlled territory. We were there at roughly 6 a.m., when the checkpoint was just opening. Many of the Palestinian workers with whom we spoke had been waiting there since 4 a.m. or earlier. There are coffee stands just outside the entrance. The checkpoint has lanes resembling cattle chutes, with concrete dividers topped with metal bars. The leftmost lane is for people returning home from their jobs. The rightmost lane is supposed to be for the elderly, women, and children, but was not open when we were there. In the middle lane, people press up against each other struggling to get through. Stampedes and injuries are common. We observed several people in the right lane passing coffee and snacks to people in the middle lane. We also saw people climbing over the barrier between the right and center lanes in order to jump the line. At the end of the line is a turnstile, but it stopped and started at odd intervals, so that a few people would get through, the turnstile would stop, and people would start pressing up against each other at the stopped turnstile. Since we were stuck in line for quite a while (about an hour in total) we had ample time to talk to Palestinians going through the turnstile. Several turned to us and said, “Every day we go through this. Every day.” We also learned that Palestinians need a monthly work permit, for which they pay 2,000 shekels (about $500) per month, which they said was roughly a week’s wage. When we finally got through the turnstile, we exited the building – only to find a second building with yet another cattle chute and turnstile, and a young lady at a guard booth barking out orders in Hebrew. At this second turnstile, people were climbing over and under one another to get to the front of the line. Eventually we showed our U.S. passports and were waved through. Several in our group were badly shaken at the checkpoint experience.
We visited Hebron, a site of frequent clashes between Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers. In Hebron is the Ibrahimi Mosque, which contains the Cave of the Patriarchs, the traditional burial sites of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca. This was also the place where Israeli-American settler Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslim Palestinians and injured many others. The bullet holes inside the building are still visible. In response to Goldstein’s actions, Israeli authorities closed down Shuhada Street, turning what had been the main shopping district into a ghost town. Thus were the Palestinian residents of Hebron made to pay the price for Goldstein’s crime. Palestinian vendors have stands on other nearby streets in Old City Hebron, but they have to cope with the settlers living above them dropping garbage and rocks on them. The vendors have put nets across the street to catch such “presents”. We visited the Christian Peacemaker Team office in Hebron. Israeli President Reuben Rivlin had visited Hebron just the day before our visit, and tensions remained during our visit. The Christian Peacemaker team takes such actions as accompanying children to school in order to minimize harassment. (A funny story: when I got back home and started posting photos from my trip, the husband of one of my coworkers, a vehemently anti-Zionist Jewish man, apparently began yelling frantically when he saw my photos from Hebron. His wife had to calm him down and tell him I was already home and out of danger.)
We took several excursions to rural areas. Outside Bethlehem, we went to the Tent of Nations, an “educational and environmental farm”. A sign at the entrance says “We refuse to be enemies.” We were told that over 1000 olive trees had recently been destroyed by settlers. Our group planted 20 olive trees, struggling to break through the rocky soil with our picks and shovels. Some members of our group visited a Bedouin encampment. Homes within the encampment had been destroyed repeatedly, and the Israeli government was pressing to relocate the Bedouins to an area currently used as a garbage dump, so that the land would be available for new settlements.
As it happened, two members of our group are active in water rights issues. They – and we – learned that much of Israel’s water supply comes from aquifers in the West Bank and other Palestinian-controlled territory. However, the water supply is disproportionately diverted to Israeli settlements, or sold back to Palestinians at inflated prices. Israel has indeed “made the desert bloom” as the saying goes, but Palestinians are disproportionately paying the price.
We had several encounters with the IDF. At one checkpoint, IDF soldiers entered our tour bus, and our guide was removed and interrogated. When he returned, he sighed and said, “I am happy to report to you that I am not a terrorist.” In East Jerusalem, just outside the walled Old City area, uniformed, heavily-armed young men and women appeared to be patrolling everywhere.
Along with sights and narratives that saddened our group, we visited many organizations working for peace and justice, which we experienced as places of hope. We visited the Wi’am Conflict resolution center, which is located in Bethlehem, right along a section of the wall. We visited B’t Selem, the Israeli human rights organization that has done much to document abuses and discrimination experienced by Palestinians. In the town of Ibillin, near Nazareth, we visited the retired Melkite Archbishop Fr. Elias Chacour and toured his Mar Elias School, which has done much to help the residents of Ibillin and the surrounding area. We also visited the Sabeel center for Palestinian Liberation Theology, which has done much to raise awareness of Palestinian suffering among mainline Protestant churches. On the last day of our trip, we visited the Rawdat El Zuhur school in East Jerusalem. This school educates elementary school children. We visited several classrooms. In one classroom, the students sang a brisk version of “We Shall Overcome.” Our group was impressed with what the school has been able to accomplish with its limited resources. We were shown the school’s science lab, and a space for a computer lab which is currently unused due to lack of funds. After visiting Rawdat El Zuhur, we traveled to Ramallah to visit the Friends International Center in Ramallah.
Our group returned home with a determination to share our experiences, and to maintain contact not only with one another, but with many of the people and agencies who shared hospitality with us on our visit.
Editor’s Note: The Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) has long condemned the Israeli occupation of Palestine, as well as the key role of the United States in financing the oppression of the Palestinian people. Our Platform specifically calls for an end to the occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, along with an end to all United States aid to the Israeli government, as preconditions for peace. With the Israeli regime pushing for the complete annexation of Palestine, coupled with U.S.-financed missiles raining down on Gaza, this point in our Statement of Principles continues to be completely accurate. The SPUSA’s perspective on the occupation and its causes guides its political practice. This includes the Party’s endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Socialist Webzine celebrates these powerful expressions of solidarity, but also reflects upon the suffering capitalism causes among Palestinians. David Reppert’s “Palestine Notes” embraces both celebration and reflection as it frankly describes the sights, sounds and madness of the illegal and terroristic Israeli occupation of Palestine. We are delighted to bring this“on the ground” report to our readers.