Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Helen Cobban in the West Bank

Esteemed journalist Helena Cobban is in the West Bank now, and has been both interviewing people and blogging her experiences for a few days. I post a recent entry below, and highly recommend you read it to get some feel for the kinds of humiliations that Palestinians endure often daily, and have been enduring for decades.

Bantustan Days, Part 2

Posted by Helena Cobban
March 3, 2009 4:06 PM EST | Link
Filed in Palestine 2009

Saturday morning I went to Bethlehem. Took the mini-bus from just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. It trundles you south along a route which slowly gives you broad vistas of hilltop after hilltop covered with some of the newer Israeli settlements like Gilo, which is vast, and Har Homa. Then the bus deposits you unceremoniously outside a very forbidding section of the Wall, which really is 30 feet tall, forbidding, and brutal. brutal, even if the Israelis, in an excess of irony, have decided to paint a vast feel-good mural on the Wall right there near the entrance to Bethlehem emblazoned with the words "Peace and Love."

No kidding.

I think I'll have to write a special essay sometime about the sick esthetics of the entire people-control system the Israelis run in the OPTs.

So the bus drops you, and you have to wind your way through the cattle-shed "terminus" they have here for foot traffic. No vehicles are allowed through anywhere near here, I think. The three Palestinian guys in front of me, who had the special "magnetic cards" that graciously allow them to visit Jerusalem from Bethlehem, all took quite some time to go through as they had to fit their whole hands into a new-- to me-- kind of scanner machine, which didn't seem to work very well. The bored-looking Israeli teenage border-guard girls gave peremptory instructions to the men from inside their booth. Me, with my US passport, they waved right through. (Remember that the Palestinians are the indigenous people of this country. I am a visitor; and the Israeli girls may well be recent immigrants.)

Once on the other side I called my friend Zoughbi Zoughbi, a veteran nonviolence activist, son of Bethlehem, and current member of the elected city council, and then started walking along to where he said he'd pick me up. The wall loops in and out in a complicated way here, as everywhere. It comes very close to many houses, and in one portion it goes right down the middle of a street. It is always 30 feet high; dark grey in color; and punctuated very frequently by looming, cylindrical watch-towers.

Hullo? Israelis? Do these towers not remind you of something in the Jewish people's recent past??

Zoughbi drove me up to Manger Square and we then spent a fascinating 90 minutes or so sitting in the office of Bethlehem mayor Victor Batarseh. Three or four other city council members came by and participated for longer or shorter periods of time in the general political discussion. Two were from Hamas. There was a lot of good-natured political discussion and joshing amongst all those present. Neither Zoghbi nor Victor are members of Hamas. But least among these city council members, everyone seemed to get along fine. They also expressed the deep wish that the ongoing national reconciliation effort in Cairo should succeed as fast and durably as possible.

Zoughbi then took me to the neighboring town of Beit Jala. That's the one that's lost most of its arable and grazing lands to Gilo. Up on a hilltop near there there's a small settlement called Har Gilo, and just beneath it is a resort-style hotel called the Everest Hotel, where by chance we found another fascinating set of people meeting. Probably shouldn't tell you more about it without getting permission. Anyway, Zoughbi knows about half the population of the West Bank, it seems, so the organizers of this peace-oriented gathering invited us to join them for lunch. The lunch was good and warm, and the discussion very interesting. However, with bitter winds whipping around outside the hotel was, um, certainly living up to its name.

After that, Zoughbi dropped me back at the center of Beit Jala, where there's a mini-bus service that takes you directly from there back to downtown Jerusalem. But the catch is the bus has to pass through a big vehicle terminus somewhere south of town that controls access to the "settler road" that snakes almost directly to Jerusalem from the Hebron/Kiryat Arba area in the south of the West Bank.

So going through this terminus, all the passengers have to disbark and wait until the border guards have given the vehicle and all the bags in it a very thorough check. It was now colder than ever, with a horrendous, biting wind. Old people, kids, and everyone were left to stand at the side of the road for a good 15 minutes while the border guards took their time getting around to doing what turned out to be about three minutes' worth of checking on the bus. Then they checked all our IDs and our hand baggage as we got back on the bus. Most of my fellow-passengers seemed to be East Jerusalem residents-- that is, they carried the little blue-jacketed ID cards given only to EJ people, as opposed to the "magnetic cards" that are given to a very small proportion of West Bank residents, that allow them to enter East Jerusalem.

(Yesterday I spent the day in Hebron, the nearby village of Doura, and the Israeli town of Sderot... Last Friday I had an intriguing visit to a portion of northern Jerusalem called Dahiyet al-Barid. Today I did an interview with Um Kamel, my neighbor here in Sheikh Jarrah who's been living in a tent all winter after the Israeli police threw her and her husband out of her house last November, so a group of settlers could take it over... Her husband died of heart failure soon after. Um Kamel is not, it turns out, from the same family I briefly visited when I was here in 2002. But the problem of settler and takeovers, the demolition of Palestinian houses, and the eviction of Palestinians from their homes is one that is certainly gathering some speed right here in East Jerusalem these days, and needs to be written about a lot more.... Anyway, more of my travelogue accounts will come when I have time... tomorrow, I leave Jerusalem and continue my travels... Better get to bed...)

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