Goshen to Palestine, summer 2011

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Aug 15

Reflections on soldiers

We have been asked to write about our experience with Israeli soldiers. This entry is too long and incomplete. I apologize for both. There is so much to say about our feelings and thoughts on the military presence here, and yet I struggle to put words together.

Taken from a journal entry: On our way to the Wailing Wall we came to where there were soldiers and we had to walk through a metal detector. All the white people in our group walked through without a soldier blinking an eye, no requests for any kind of identification. But immediately they stopped and pulled aside our Palestinian friend, George*. Some of the most blatant racial profiling I’ve ever seen, and I’m from the U.S. The soldier asked George for his ID, and he told them he forgot it at home.** Another friend with us, George’s sister (who has the Jerusalem ID), told the soldiers, “Look at my ID. He’s my brother.” They would not listen. I confronted the soldier and asked him why he would not let my friend through. After a few minutes of trying and failing to get a satisfactory answer, I could see George was nervous and anxious to leave, so we left.

[*No real names used.]
[**George had not forgotten his ID at home. Some time ago an Israeli soldier took his ID away. Because they can do that whenever they want. They are still fighting in the courts to get his Jerusalem ID back, but until then he has a temporary visa that restricts his movement more than his previous ID. The Wailing Wall is one of the places he is not allowed to go. This is all “for security reasons,” of course.]

We tried to go through a different way. Again they denied him entrance. I held my hands together in front of me to try to contain my anger. After asking George if it was okay with him, I again asked the soldier why. I got little response from him, mostly repeating, “he cannot go through.” He told us George could get through if we went a different way (we later found out that the way he referred to did not go to the Wailing Wall). Finally I said, You won’t let Palestinians go through?
An almost imperceptible nod.
So it’s segregated.
No response.
You keep people separated and restrict where they can go, a segregated society. People
here don’t have equal rights. That’s good to know.
As we all turned to leave, Grant said loudly, “So this isn’t a free country.”
Why did this feel so familiar? Oh yes, signs on water fountains in the U.S. marked “white” and “colored.” A familiar story.

A few days later our group went to Hebron. We came to a small checkpoint and our Palestinian friend, Yusif,* was stopped by the soldiers. Yusif had told us that he’d gotten through this checkpoint several times in the past, but some days they don’t let him through. I walked up to one of the soldiers who had a kind face (who I later learned was only 19, three years younger than me). I asked why he would not let my friend through.
He’s Muslim. Only Jews and Christians are allowed in this part, and only Muslims and Christians in that part over there.
He’s Christian. His family has been Christian much longer than mine has.***
He’s Muslim.
No, he’s Christian.
No response.
So you’ll let Christians and Jews through, except Palestinian Christians.
No answer.
Do your superiors tell you which days to let Palestinians through and which days not to, or is that a personal decision?
No answer.
Hannah and I stayed back with a few others who decided not to go through without Yusif. We continued to talk with the soldiers while we waited for the others to return. Most of our conversation was with two soldiers: Ithtar, the 19-year-old that I first talked with who was kind and respectful, listening to our questions and trying to answer them as best he could with his limited English; and Amos, a 21-year-old who was rude, arrogant, and nearly constantly interrupting us.

[***Many Palestinian families have been Christians since the first Christians. My
German ancestors can’t quite top that.]

Some highlights of our conversation: Amos told us to visit Canada Park. I asked him if he was aware that it was on top of a demolished Palestinian village. He asked me, “where do you learn this bullshit?” He asked me where I was staying in Israel. “Oh, I’m actually staying in Palestine, in Bethlehem.” “Bethlehem is in Israel.” He claimed all the land as Israel’s. Amos and Ithtar would not believe me when I told them that Palestinians regularly get their water shut off by Israel, even when I told them I was living there and experiencing it myself. They simply could not believe this to be true. Neither soldier would admit that Israel could do any wrong. All this intermixed with “normal” talk: What’s your name? Where are you from? How old are you? How long have you been in the army?

I was not going to convince Amos of anything, nor would he be convincing me. I think my desire was not to change his mind, but to clearly state that this system was a racist and apartheid system, and that it was wrong. Yusif could not say these things because of the serious risk he would be taking as a Palestinian confronting an Israeli soldier. In this situation, he had no voice. I, as a white, US American, could confront these soldiers and name the oppression with far less risk.

Ithtar and I, on the other hand, found some points we could agree on. Perhaps the most important was that we agreed it is very sad when people kill innocent people. We even came to agree that it didn’t matter who the innocent person was, it was always sad. When it was time to leave, I reached out to shake Ithtar’s hand, and he accepted. I genuinely thanked him for talking with us.

These are just two stories of my experiences with soldiers. Other experiences of our group include soldiers keeping our host aunt, uncle, and cousin from going to their house when they were bringing our cousin home from the airport at 3am, getting yelled at for random things such as getting near a gate that closed a street off to Palestinians or being on a rooftop, waving our US passports at them at checkpoints, seeing the soldier in the guard tower beside Wi’am, and simply walking by them seemingly everywhere when in East Jerusalem, Hebron, or Israel.

I have felt little fear in confronting these boys with M-16s. This is not because I am brave. It is because I am aware of my white privilege, backed even further by a US passport. I know that the risk of me suffering any consequences such as being arrested, put in jail, interrogated, or beaten is drastically reduced simply because of the color of my skin. All of the white internationals in Palestine/Israel are aware of this. That is why we show up at protests, and some have even put themselves in front of active bulldozers. We can do and say things that would be out of the question for most Palestinians. I have more rights in the land that belongs to my Palestinian friends than they do. The first time I walked through a checkpoint by simply waving my US passport and watched Palestinians around me get stopped and held up, I felt literally sick to my stomach, absolutely dripping with privilege. It’s disgusting. My own country is no different. They just make less effort at hiding it here.

Talking with the soldiers was both frustrating and helpful. It was frustrating to hear them say things that so easily fit into an ideology that oppresses Palestinians. It was discouraging to learn what a skewed and hole-filled history of the conflict the soldiers have received. It was disheartening to hear how little they knew of the daily experience of Palestinians, and their perception that Palestinians wanted to kill them. The same Palestinians who have so warmly welcomed us into their homes and shown us endless kindness and hospitality. On the helpful side of things, talking with soldiers face to face forced me to recognize their humanity. These young men and women have been put in a horrific situation in which they are trained and ordered to restrict their capacity to empathize, reduce human beings (women and men, young and old) to “the enemy,” fear what they do not know, and treat other people in ways they could not have imaged only a year before. Many experience chronic sleep loss and severe psychological distress. These soldiers have families. Somewhere, most of these young men and women have brothers and sisters; they have parents who love them and worry about them just as my parents worry about me. Some day, many of them will have children. And the Palestinians they face also have families. They have brothers and sisters, parents and children.

While talking with Hannah about the cruelty of the conflict we see around us, she observed the reality that in this situation “humanity turns on itself.” We do not only turn on each other, for turning on each other is turning on one’s own self. Almost hidden amongst the crowded graffiti on the apartheid wall, someone has painted a Palestinian flag with lyrics from Over the Rhine written over top it: “There is something to be said for tenacity. I’ll hold on to you if you hold on to me.” We are all connected. Essentially we are each other. Though at times we forget.


Jul 24

New photos

Just posted are photos of a nonviolent protest in the town of Masara. Nobody was hurt, and no tear gas was used. Also pictured are the Bedouin villages our group visited on Saturday.

Jul 22

American Role

—What have you learned about what responsibilities we have as Americans to this conflict? Are there things people can do short of traveling to Palestine themselves?

As it turns out, most of the conflict-ending actions need be taken in the United States.  Traveling to Palestine mostly helps by educating.  The greatest responsibility for our Goshen group will be spreading the word and remaining active when we return to our country the United States, the great enabler of the occuppation. Americans play a huge financial role in the occupation.  Zionist Christian organizations and pro-Israel lobby groups annually funnel billions of dollars toward aid of the Israeli State.  Our government is financially responsible for and dependent on the Israeli military, owing to the complicated international weapons market helped by numerous domestic investments.  Politically, the international community has no mechanism to stop an oppressive nation.  Evidence for this can be seen when the U.S. consistently exercises UN Security Council veto power against resolutions aiming to pressure Israel through economic sanctions.  Israel breaks Geneva Convention international law every time a settlement is built in the occupied West Bank.  Because of American pocketbooks and bureaucratic leverage, this occupation and these international violations are not met with consequence.

This is where American participation in the boycott, divestment, and sactions (BDS) movement could be of help.

A large group of focused international consumers that boycott products that are made in Israel (particularly made in settlements) has the potential to actually put pressure on the oppressive state.  Here in the West Bank our Goshen group refuses to buy items with the Israeli serial barcode 729-xxxxx. Also, divestment from endowments that support Israeli economy (particularly the weapons economy) also could go a long way in helping the cause against oppression. Many endowments and mutual funds unknowlingly buy capital that makes tanks, walls, guns, and bulldozers.  Lastly, perhaps the most effective form of protest is economic and political sanctions placed on Israel by the international community.  The world could respond with the same economic and political cold shoulder to the Israeli apartheid system as South Africa felt only decades ago.  Unfortunately, because of the powerful Israel lobby groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committe (AIPAC) these sanctions are unlikely to pass through Capitol Hill anytime in the near future.  

There are several drawbacks to the BDS movement.  The first, boycott can hurt Israeli Arabs who live in Israel and produce goods with a 729-xxxx barcode.  Secondly, divestment can hurt Americans with good intentions who happen to work at companies supporting the occupation.  The best example I found is the machinery company Caterpillar.  Though their bulldozers are responsible for the destruction of Palestinian homes, a widespread campaign against that company would lead to devastation in the town of Peoria, near where Grant lives, which is the headquarters of Caterpillar.  It is important to communicate with the company reasons for boycotting, giving them the opportunity to change and putting verbal pressure on them.  Lastly, as the American Jewish lecturer Mark Braverman says, in the United States one of the greatest social and religeous risks Christians can take is to stand against the State of Israel, knowing anti-Semitism accusations may be thrown.  This is why it is important to be clearly against the Israeli state and not against the Jewish people.

The most important part of this post/response is showing a way to more accurately gain information on the BDS movement.  The following two websites give specific information on BDS/financial oppurtunities for activism:



Our group has been to several oppressed villages living in the shadow of settlements and our overwhelming message from suffering Palestinians has been, “go home and tell your leaders to stop sending money to Israel.  I can live perfectly well right here where I am, remaining steadfast.”



Symptoms of Conflict

During the Christmas season Bethlehem used to fill with Christians and curious travelers.  Manger Square would pack in locals and guests alike for fireworks and celebrations of Christ’s birth.  When I stopped by a tourist shop last week, the owner pointed me towards a snapshot he had kept from December 2000.  He mumbled to me, “Before the wall and before checkpoints.”  Now this shop owner admits he hates his job, the tourist business is bad.  Unfortunately bad business is not isolated to the tourism industry and unemployment rates are quite high in Bethlehem.  Thankfully these families know how to live off the land and the know how to can, freeze and stock up on food when it is freshest and cheapest at the local markets. More than once our Goshen group has watched Marcelle join with her family and/or friends in canning tomatoes, making jam and pickling eggplant. 

On our visits into Israel Proper (Jerusalem & Nazareth) we have used the Israeli bus system as well as Google maps to plan our travel.  Public transportation is fairly simple and the large, clean buses remind me of traveling through Europe. Through bus windows I glimpse shopping malls, art galleries unique restaurants and even an occasional skyscraper.  Roads are typically paved and marked with signs.  This westernized infrastructure and these businesses are rarities on Palestinian territory.  Google maps has been a helpful tool in outlining Israeli roads, zooming in on buildings and providing directions; however, details on maps of the West Bank are quite blurred, making Palestinian travel more difficult to navigate (unless you’re heading into an Israeli settlement, where Google maps are able to provide accurate directions once again). 

Travel for Palestinians is quite restricted due to the Occupation.  In order to visit Jerusalem from Bethlehem Palestinians must pass through a checkpoint and show valid identification.  Temporary permits and work permits allow a variety of men and women to cross borders, but the majority of Palestinians choose to stay put rather than apply for a permit.  Correct identification and permission does not ensure quick entry into Jerusalem either, soldiers occasionally shut down turnstile gates for an hour or more-causing tardiness to work, missing of buses and unreliable meeting times. 

On morning walks to Wi’am it is not uncommon to hear locals call out “Welcome to Palestine!” The greeting is loud and inviting, a testimony to this community’s desire for international attention. These morning calls are reminders of a) Bethlehem’s struggling tourism industry b) the nightmare-ish occupation that needs to be witnessed and publicized and c) the friendly community of Arabs whose family roots run deep in this soil.



The other side of the Wall

—Like Levi mentioned at the end of the post about visiting the Holocaust museum, a lot of your experiences so far have been heavily from the Palestinian perspective. Visiting the Holocaust museum gave you a bit of perspective from the Israeli/Jewish side.  Have you had any other experiences that have given you a glimpse of that perspective?

First a clarification: since the Separation Wall is built almost exclusively on Palestinian land, the other side of the Wall is actually…Palestinian villages and farms, cut off from other West Bank towns and cities. Farmers are often cut off from their own land, and are forced to wait for hours or are denied access through the wall.

But Lucas, Josh, Levi, Mark from Peter Yarrow’s organization Operation Respect and I went figuratively over the Wall into a settlement in Hebron Wednesday. We walked through an entrance to Shuhada Street that was closed to Palestinians. Once the busiest commercial street in Hebron, Shuhada Street was closed by the Israeli military after a 1994 massacre by an American-Israeli Jew in the Ibrahimi Mosque, and later closed by court order around 2000. The many shopkeepers who made their livelihood on Shuhada Street are without income, and the Palestinians who live on the street must use back entrances to their homes—a difficult route for older Palestinians. It was eerie walking on Shuhada Street; the metal doors to shops, spray painted with stars of David and Hebrew in red letters, were sealed by welded bars. A few settlers passed by, as well as an Israeli bus, but the majority of Israelis we saw were the soldiers around every corner. There are 2000 soldiers in Hebron to “protect” the 400 settlers. Signs soon pointed to the in-city settlements and gave information about Hebron’s “Jewish Quarter.” These signs gave a narrative that focused on the Jews who lived in Hebron who were killed in a riot in the 1920s. The narrative was familiar to us—Jews once lived here, were kicked out by Arabs and then returned in the “liberation” of 1967 (when Israel occupied the West Bank after the Six Day War). Mark, an American Jew from Brooklyn who worked with Peter Yarrow and was with us for the day, told us he was also familiar with these sort of themes—persecution, then salvation—from Satyr meal celebrations.

We didn’t have the opportunity to talk extensively to any settlers, but talked for a while with some soldiers. A 20-year-old whose parents were Jewish emigrants from New York looked nervous and slightly bored with his M16 strapped to his side, patrolling a road to a settlement. He talked about the 4-hour and 8-hour shifts they did, and when asked if he liked his job, responded, “It’s not fun, but somebody’s gotta do it.” Talking with soldiers, a sense of duty has come up often.

We walked through a settlement to the tomb of Jesse and Ruth, and it was very quiet—large concrete buildings built on top of the Palestinian structures. The only settlers we saw other than a few individuals walking on the street were a family outside their mobile home. The tomb was very unexpected for me—it was literally behind military camouflage, the entrance behind a soldier’s station. We went through a small passageway lined with razor wire and metal fencing. It felt very much like a checkpoint, and it struck me that Israelis have to live every day with all their “security” against Palestinians as well. Mark Braverman’s analysis of this Jewish narrative of fear came to mind.

Today we visited 3 Bedouin villages with an Israeli activist guide, Amos. He talked about his upbringing before 1967, when maps in his Israeli school showed the 1949 Green Line separating Israel from Jordan. Today after the 1967 occupation, that line has been erased from the map of Israel in Israeli schools—a progressive education minister was disciplined for trying to reinstate it. He made a case for the ignorance of average Israelis, but encouraged us to get many perspectives on the conflict. We hope to continue to ask questions about a variety of perspectives, this side of the Wall and the other.

Michael Miller

Jul 16

Wi’am Summer Camp 101

Our group has now gotten well into the swing of things in the summer camp portion of our stay here in Bethlehem, so I figured we’re slightly overdue for the description of our volunteer work. Although some of our group has worked in a camp environment (Grant & Sarah), for the rest of us this is certainly a new experience. Fortunately, we are not handling this entire operation ourselves, we have a couple other Wi’am staff, 3-5 of the Zoughbis, and some other teenage volunteers working alongside us. The camp size can vary depending on what is going on that day, but we on average have about 40-50 attendees, although apparently we’ve hit as high as 70. The camp will occasionally take the children on a trip to various places (unsurprisingly, pool days are particularly popular with the kids and the volunteers alike) but the majority of the camp takes place on the Wi’am premise.

A normal day on the face of it is actually fairly simple. Our group arrives at Wi’am around 8-8:30 in the morning. We’ve either spent some time planning beforehand or we arrange our activities before the kids arrive. The children begin to arrive around 9, and after a period of time we officially start the camp. All the children gather up on the lower terrace and the adults have the children recite a prayer in Arabic and then give the day’s marching orders. At this point, it would be good to note that this camp is fairly different from those in the US. In all of my memories of camp, it followed a fairly orderly series of events and planned activities, one following the next. Not so much here. While there is a schedule that is maintained and the camp is run is divided in to a series of stations, it is in how the camp generally flows where I think the similarities start to disappear. Children will come and go from various places, perhaps starting in one particular area, but then moving on to the next at their own pace. This creates a bit more chaos than us westerners are used to but it doesn’t actually seem to affect the quality of the camp, although it took some getting used to on our part. Our group planned out a pretty broad range of entertainment ranging from yoga, to painting/drawing, to singing, along with a computer lab and a playground area. After a fair amount of experience, while I would hesitate to call us veterans, we’ve definitely started to learn what makes a good camp day tick. And we’ve all learned some basic Arabic commands/requests to add to our utility belt. I’ve certainly gained respect for any person whose work revolves around interacting with large masses of children, it requires a level of stamina that I think even us college students have a hard time mustering. To those folks, my hat’s off to you.


Jul 14

Cultural Misunderstanding #197

On Friday evening Grant and Michael were feeling ill; our group had planned a trip to Jericho for Saturday but realized we could no longer fill a bus with our dwindling numbers.  Around 5:30 we asked Marcelle to cancel the trip until people were feeling better.  With some cues of hesitation she conceded to our request and had a Wi’am staff member, Osama, deliver the message to the bus driver, “We wouldn’t be needing his assistance for Saturday after all.” 

This seemed like a simple compromise to allow our group to recoup as well as tell others about our trip to Jericho so that they could join the adventure, fill seats on the bus and assist in the bus cost.  Later in the evening we clued into the rest of the story-When we cancelled the bus trip we also took a job away from a bus driver.  While Osama had spent time bartering down the bus price earlier in the day, the two had then agreed upon a set price and Osama booked the bus for Saturday.  For the rest of the day the driver ignored calls for other bus reservations.  When we cancelled our bus reservation late in the day on Friday we minimized the driver’s chances of finding work for Saturday. 

Cultural pieces of Palestine make our head swim.  None of us wanted to put a man out of a job for a day, and yet we did.  This cycle of making mistakes, learning from mistakes and making new mistakes is one we’re becoming familiar with as we strive to understand, recognize and live in a culture that is foreign to us. 


Jul 11

Surrounded by white people

Last Wednesday we stepped onto the small campus of Bethlehem Bible College, where Marcelle’s cousin Jamil graduated with a degree in theology last year, and were suddenly nervous by our surroundings. We were attending a lecture and the people in the lobby were all… young and European American, water bottles and backpacks strapped to their backs, chattering in English in small groups. The group, part of the Holy Land Trust’s Palestine Summer Encounter, seemed very out of place, and made more than a few of us quite nervous—and made all of us remember how much we all stuck out in the streets of Bethlehem.

In the lecture hall (again, awkwardly full of white people), psychologist, writer and activist Mark Braverman started out by establishing his context as an American Jew growing up with a narrative of Jewish persecution and fear, its terrible climax at the Holocaust and denouement with the 1948 creation of the State of Israel. Years later he would stand in front of the newly constructed Separation Wall near East Jerusalem and confront a wall within his own pysche. It was a wall that he saw was a necessary product of this posture of paranoid defense against whoever was the Jewish people’s (now terribly conflated with the State of Israel) perceived current enemy, presently Arabs. This perspective helped me start to understand all the guns we saw strapped to military and civilian belts when visiting Jewish areas of Israel, a situation that made most of us feel much more insecure than in the occupied West Bank. Since confronting this wall Braverman has continued to break down these psychological barriers that he feels fester apartheid, withholds Judaism into a tribal, land-based religion and creates a very unhealthy attitude within Israel. He regularly speaks with Jews within Israel who are shocked that he goes into the West Bank and visits Palestinians—“don’t they try to kill you?” He has been amazed by Palestinians’ hospitality toward him, taking him in as an honored guest, as they do to all foreigners. We also have felt this generous distinction between citizens and their government, being welcomed again and again by Palestinians while our government perpetuates their occupation.

It’s now time for some strong language, and I want to be clear that I am speaking from my own impression and opinion and not necessarily the whole group’s. Braverman’s vision is a global, grassroots delegitimatization of Israeli apartheid, an apartheid that speaks of population transfer, racist occupation of one people over another, and aims for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their own land. This has been my overwhelming impression of Israel’s goal in the West Bank: to make life so difficult for the Palestinians that they leave. On the ground, this amounts to halting travel between Palestinian villages and towns, enacting discriminatory economic taxes, directly stealing land in the construction of the Separation Wall and countless illegal settlements, refusing building permits for any Palestinian home and then demolishing much of them when Palestinians build them anyway, stealing and restricting access to oil and water, physically threatening Palestinians’ lives with settlers shooting at farmers with no legal consequences, and finally direct Israeli military siege of Palestinian cities, the bullet holes still fresh on some buildings—and in the Nativity Church—here in Bethlehem from the 2002 siege. By simply living their daily lives in the land that has belonged to them for centuries, Palestinians are actively resisting this attempted ethnic cleansing. However, many younger people we have talked to speak of leaving for Europe or the United States. As one of Marcelle’s friends, Naji, said, “I don’t want my children to have to go through what I did.”

Braverman’s message was specifically to American Christians, who he thinks have the power to change the situation. He said it’s about keeping churches’ own “houses in order” by refusing to be complicit in Israeli apartheid. In my opinion, the Mennonite Church is behind and needs to take a firm stance to resist Israeli apartheid by educating its members about the issue, boycotting and divesting. Braverman often speaks to American churches, and says their apologetic approach to this issue (that it might damage relationships with Jews or label them as anti-Jewish) is unacceptable, and that they shouldn’t need “a Jew to tell you to be better Christians.” Finally, our government’s responsibility for this occupation, the billions of dollars of unspecified aid to Israel, cannot be overemphasized. When Braverman visited caves south of Hebron, as our group will in about a week, he starkly remembers a Palestinian welcoming him, thanking him for coming and then later reminding him that his main role is in his own context back in the United States: “Tell your president to stop killing our children.” And this is not inflated language—our group visited Tequa, a Palestinian village surrounded by 5 settlements that has seen 2 children shot by settlers, 2 run over by settlers and countless children—as young as 11 or 12—put in jail in the last 25 years. We have a responsibility as Americans—in America. That is becoming increasingly clear to me.

Braverman’s talk sparked dialog within our group about the political situation we are experiencing, and I hope that these same kinds of conversation—and action—happen on that side of the sea.

Michael Miller

Jul 07