Alright. Yesterday was day one for me in Palestine and a day that is best described as a turbulent ebb & flow of emotions. On our agenda was a visit to the Hebron Refugee Camp in the West Bank to facilitate workshops for the youth there.
I linked with the rest of our Freedom Tour crew on Monday after 14 or so hours from NYC (story for a next blog entry). The wake up call was at around 5am, and immediately after getting up I headed back to the shore of the Mediterranean just a few blocks away to stretch and consult with the sea in order to better focus my thoughts in preparation for anything that lies ahead.
We piled into a minibus with our gear to the Jenin check point which is one entrance from occupied Palestine to the West Bank. The plan was to rendezvous with another driver & van that would take us the rest of the way to the camp from the Palestinian side of the border. Once we reached the Jenin checkpoint, we were asked to leave the bus and enter a building surrounded by barbed wire fence, where they would subject us to arbitrary questioning and low level mental warfare to discourage our journey. This was facilitated by the fact that our driver was strapped as the legal owner of a handgun and the IDF declared that we could not pass in with any firearms, no doubt as a part of the effort to keep any weapons out of Palestinian hands while settlers and military occupiers have unlimited supplies of guns and ammunition (largely financed by US Federal tax dollars).
We offered a simple solution: the driver could leave the gat with the border soldiers until he returned from dropping us off and he could pick it up on his way back, but that suggestion was dead on arrival, they weren’t having it.
During our time inside, guards with guns pacing around above us were pointing their automatic weapons at us. When I looked up from the bench were we sat waiting as Harrabic spoke to the man behind the window, all we could see was the gun pointed at us being held by two soldiers with their reflective green sunglasses and reflective yellow scope about the nozzle. When Mary told the men above us that they don’t have to point their guns at us, one of them replied “Oh no, I’m not pointing anything at you, if you want to sit down, please get comfortable there is a bench down below me,” with sarcastic hospitality and a polite soothing tone that crept into my mind subtly, one that was already erasing reality in real time.
The man behind the window playing dubious good cop sent everyone’s passport to a next office to get checked. They didn’t tell us why they were being checked and when we said we were going to Bethlehem, he acted like he did not know where that was, again wasting time to make us more uncomfortable, then said “Oh, Beth-lehk-em”, as if the Hebrew pronunciation was the only one that is correct.
As we were waiting we witnessed groups of Arabs, some workers by themselves and some families cross the checkpoint turnstile after dealing with what is no doubt routine, but something one never gets used to. The glassy eyes of a young boy who was waiting on the side of the turnstile with a sign above it that said “Caution Automated Gate” while his father was talking to the Israeli worker presenting papers were filled with humiliation and fear as he looked up at his mother’s expressionless face.
When Mary attempted to charm the guy behind the glass by listening to his enthusiastic story about how he was going to take a vacation to Cancun as if she was going to jump at the opportunity to join him, without giving him an ice grill, his momentary flirting got him promptly removed by his gun holding associates. The man with the gun came from a sliding garage style door to our right and jokingly shoved the man into the back room as if he was a prisoner being detained, showing the sick humor that comes with this kind of daily dehumanization and mental fragmentation. The previous customs teller was replaced with a young lady who said that she had no information about how long it may take for our passports to come back from where ever they were being checked. After Harrabic made it clear that we were calling the U.S. and U.N. embassy’s to let them know that our passports were being held indefinitely and without reason, the woman returned our passports, which were sitting the desk and hadn’t been sent anywhere during the whole 2 hours we were there, subsequently allowing us to pass.
The fact that the threat of action by the US and UK embassy was evidence and acknowledgment of her recognition that they were using misconduct, an admission of culpability.
Our new driver on the Palestinian side drove us down narrow roads that snaked across the land south through valleys and mountains of varied vegetation to become an arid desert composed of dunes and cactus that maintained the presence of olive trees but now also had cactus.
We could see first hand the bulldozers that were destroying ancient olive tree patches and occasional fires that marked the old world slash and burn colonial tactics. Sha pointed out that they often animate the words “if I can’t have it, no one can” by burning property that has not been given to settlers after all of their softer terror tactics are imposed on landowners.
Settlements were clear as they appeared in the higher altitudes above the roads, looking like Midwestern subdivisions; we were witnessing colonialism in the process on several levels.
During that three hour part of the trip everyone was nodding in and out of consciousness. We broke bread for the first time at a restaurant where the brothers there showed us strong hospitality that to me was encouragement that lifted us up from the drag of the kind of direct interaction that is about one-thousandth of what the everyday Palestinian feels in their own homeland.
Another source of energy during that time on the road to Hebron, aside from the crew’s comradery, jokes and conversation was the site of the first Palestinian flag that I have ever seen flying, waving in the wind in the place where it has the strongest meaning, where it was created, here in Palestine.
It was waving above a truck that was pulling into a parking lot as we passed. It was a similar feeling to the first time I saw another flag for the first time in a place where people had created, owned and empowered it with pride for the revolution that gives it meaning, in Haiti last April.
The feeling was a confirmation of the resemblance between the two nations people’s struggle to be free against the same fledgling empire, evidence of a singular struggle to be recognized as human and treated with dignity and respect.
On arrival to Hebron, a city that is notorious for being one of the hardest places to live for an Arab person due to terror induced by Israeli military, (un)settlers and their abuses, we again had to pass through the belligerent projections of a cannibalistic colonial disdain, again conveyed by the scrutinization, iron curtain style barriers, gaze and intimidation of brainwashed youth brandishing heavy weaponry, wearing body armor and helmets.
We walked through a turnstile with jarring beeping and buzzing sounds straight out of Terry Guilliame’s “Brazil” into a wide opened area in front of a mosque that had more gates and guns in front of it.
At that point it crossed my mind that these are the kind of check points that have informed the design of so- called airport security checks; a watered down replica of the IDF’s check points minus the hair trigger machine guns , hateful eyes and mouths.
We proceeded to a shop around the way where two guards stood with NYC police-style gates separated the area. Beyond the barrier was another zone claimed by the Israeli attack that was claimed to be one where Palestinians were “allowed,” although allowed is a word that should be re-inspected given its context here.
It is a place where you are constantly harassed, watched, terrorized and intimidated really a place where you are allowed to be?
As we got close to the gate, one of the guards asked “What religion are you?” and “Are you Muslim?” in a deep Hebrew accent that spilled out of his tight mouth carried by a blank stare and bravado. I felt like responding with “Fuck You” to express the anger still sitting in my chest from the earlier site of how the Israeli state has divided the geography, policing every inch even where they supposedly recognize what they see as the remnants of Palestine.
We met a man that I recognized from the documentary, Hashem, who extended warm hospitality with a calm voice, hugs, tea and coffee.
Children appeared from a door behind where we sat happy to see visitors, playing games with us, welcoming us into the world of their imagination with an energy that was the polar opposite of what we were receiving from IDF soldiers who were set up at the barriers around 30 feet in front of us and those who were in the ‘security’ headquarters a few paces to the right.
We witnessed the behavior of the soldiers towards kids that were trying to move on our side of the barrier that the occupation does not acknowledge as full human beings as they were chased, kicked, and grabbed.
The young men in uniforms indiscriminately yanked them around like rag dolls as we and other ‘internationals’ took photos, filmed reprimanded and questioned them.
The soldiers dehumanized themselves actively by showing that they had no problem, maybe even enjoyed, abusing kids that are around 9 years old in public. Simultaneously, Jewish visitors and young kids with yarmulkes on roamed around freely, and in all of our minds I’m sure, was the question of what these devils are capable of when no witnesses from other countries are around, even knowing intellectually some of the atrocities that they have committed without consequences.
Later in the day, during conversation in a tour of H1 & H2 (the two sides of Hebron) we were much better informed about just a small dose of those unspeakable crimes through first hand accounts by Hashim and a few other community members that live there.
There is too much to mention here, I almost feel like you wouldn’t believe me if I told you right now and the process of digesting the day is still underway, which is why we recorded the people’s testimony to share.
Again much of what we heard took me to a place of grave sadness and anger, which was matched by the undying fight of men like Hashem and the strong women and children that stand beside him in this struggle.
The workshops we were supposed to do that afternoon did not happen because the kids were at a cultural music performance concert being presented by Palestinians for the community in the City. So, we instead visited the show with a small group of young kids following us through the small district of shops that stayed open in the streets on the way.
That group grew exponentially as we were greeted with love and a powerful admiration from more youth that insisted we take pictures with them, asked us questions and crowed around.
As I walked around with my recorder out, occasionally I was explaining by pointing and gesturing what the field recorder was doing, kids were mesmerized.
One little boy who was kicking it with us around the shop earlier insisted that I put him on my shoulders and together we danced and clapped. He blessed me with his joy and happy energy, instantly healing the sympathetic hurt that I felt from seeing what we had seen so far that day; I was the one that was lifted up.
Logic was mobbed by loving kids that cheered and laughed, at one point he reflected the energy with a dance that was met with a frantic response from a woman who came down from the stage to tell us to stop what we were doing because the song that the dance was set to had lyrics that came from the Koran.
Once we were informed about the motive of this interruption, the fact that culturally dancing to a song with words from the Koran was disrespectful, everyone immediately apologized and we headed to a tour of the grounds by Hashem.
After seeing how settlers throw slabs of stone down from their stolen homes from above onto the wire mesh that was set up to help protect residence from their attacks, listening to stories from more local people, and shopping at a small shop that contained things made by women who have lost their loved ones to the violence of the occupation, we headed back to Hashim’s house, through yet another gate, metal detector and turnstile, of course guarded by another disturbed young Israeli soldier holding a machine gun.
When Hashem tried to convince him to let us through because the metal detector keep beeping and pretty much everyone had to pass through multiple times, the soldier responded disrespectfully to the elder saying “Fuck you, shut up…”
Hashem continued to try to talk to the man, but once he kept uttering insults, he raised his voice to eclipse the soldier’s false superiority with the power of his resistance saying “you don’t tell me to shut up, you are in my country, no one tells me to shut up…” The soldier got even louder raising his gun into Hashem’s face as a threat with his finger on the trigger, tension cut through the air and stuck to all of us who were witnessing the confrontation.
“Shut up, I said” screamed the gaurd and Hashim stepped closer to the gun. “No one tells me to shut up, not even God,” he yelled, “you want to shoot? Then shoot me, do it!”
An international from France who was telling the soldier to relax just seconds before snapped a picture with a flash and ran from the guard when he tried to grab her. Hashem was yelling about being with the U.N. and about how he should leave this place now standing directly in the soldier’s face.
The force of this elder’s experiences and his focused resistance broke the child down and he dropped his gun down to his side. “You should be ashamed of yourself” the international yelled, “has the Israeli army taught you to say such rude and disrespectful things, is this how you were trained?” The boy’s head dropped and he said “no,” realizing now that everyone was watching him, snapping out of his momentary expression of the madness of this occupation. He apologized to Hashem who said “okay” and we walked away.
The soldier followed us a few steps trying to convince us to sympathize because “it was as Jewish holy day and they had to fast so he hadn’t eaten,” as if that was an excuse for his offenses. It was pitiful.
When we left the elders’ home at the end of the day, stories and active community building, one of the things that he said that stays with me the most was “This land has always been, is and will be Palestine.” Coming from a man who had been imprisoned in solitary confinement for 80 days, beaten, had his family beaten, robbed and terrorized, dispossessed, with his rights, dignity and land stolen, I knew that what he has given us with his trust and through his example was more valuable than anything else on this planet.
He and so many others have shared with us their power, determination, and love; something that can never be defeated.