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Friday, November 05, 2004

Stories from Palestine and Israel

Dan is just home from spending 2 weeks in Israel and Palestine. He sent emails while traveling, partly to journal his day to day experience, and partly to calm some of his worried friends. I especially enjoyed the stories shared in this excerpt from his second email:
We've been meeting with lots of people over the last few days, but two stories touched me very deeply. The first was from an Israeli Jewish man. His name is Rami Elhanan, 55 years old but looks no more than 40, with sandy brown hair, almost like a Jewish Bobby Kennedy. I've noticed folks on both sides here age incredibly well. He was born in Israel and served in the Israeli army during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in a tank unit. He says his unit lost 8 of 11 tanks, many of his closest friends. When the war ended he was very very bitter. "I built a bubble around myself," he says. He focused on raising his family and staying out of the political situation. He had three sons and a daughter. Seven years ago, a few days before Yom Kippur, his 14-year old daughter was hanging out in Jerusalem, on Ben Yahuda, a popular hangout with lots of cafes and shops. "Two Palestinian suicide bombers blew up my bubble," he says. He spend the night searching for his daughter in police stations and hospitals, and then finally found her in the morgue. After he sat shiva and was visited by thousands of people, he tried to go back to work and normal life, and after a year realized this was impossible. He says his first instinct was to get even, but asked himself whether killing someone else would bring back his daughter. Eventually his meditation brought him to a group called Parents Circle, where Arab and Jewish parents who have lost children in the violence come together to share their emotions and advocate for an end to the violence, which includes an Israeli pullout from the Occupied Territories. "If we, who paid the highest price possible can [come together], then anyone can," he says. He says his oldest son was in the army at the time, and after staying home for the funeral went back to his paratroop unit. His commanding officer offered him a mission and told him he could use it to avenge his sister. Elhanan says in that moment, the cycle of violence clicked in his son's mind, and he declined. His son is now a leader of the refusenik movement, where Israeli reservists say the country should have a defensive army, but not an occupying force, so they refuse to serve in the Palestinian territories. This movement has really scared the shit out of the government, because these are clean cut Israeli boys, not radical peaceniks. But one aspect of Elhanan's thinking really spoke to me. He was talking about how criticism of Israel has become equated to anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and how that linkage is used to shut down discussion about the situation here. He says it is time for Jews to stop thinking of themselves as victims. If the Jewish people are actually a confident, soulful people, then we should be able to engage in self-criticism and handle doubts expressed by others, without having to cry anti-Semitism to avoid debate. "The Jewish people deserve a homeland, but you don't correct mistakes by making other mistakes," he says. Though I agreed with his points about an end to the psychology of victimhood, the situation here is so bad I don't know if it can be fixed- basically I don't think the ideal of an ethnic state can be reconciled with human rights and democracy (but that's a subject for a whole other email). I did feel sad that this man had to lose his daughter in order to gain the kind of moral force with which he speaks. The second man is a Palestinian named Abed, who lives in a refugee camp called Aida, next to Bethlehem. I actually met him first when I came last year- I wrote a story about him for the Advocate. He runs a theater and arts program which teaches Palestinian kids non-violent resistance to the occupation. He is extremely intelligent- educated in France with a science background, speaks several languages, writes poetry, looks like a professor with round spectacles and very short hair. He came to join our group for dinner last night, and we talked for a while. His wife is a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, meaning she is permitted to live there in Israel. So they have a house in Jerusalem with their three young children. Abed is a refugee, though, so since the beginning of this intifada he has not been allowed to leave the West Bank. That means he must circumvent the checkpoints to see his family, climbing through barbed wire, etc. Its a trip that should take ten minutes by car, but for Abed it takes 3 hours. If he is caught in Israel, he must pay a fine, and is always threatened with imprisonment. He was talking about how he has never taken his family to the beach, then segued into how bitter and frustrated he is by the time he reaches his family in Jerusalem, after dodging the checkpoint. He finds himself emotionally drained, and that makes him short tempered with his kids. "I cannot be the kind of father I want to be for my children," he says. According to Abed, the occupation is finally starting to break down the threats of Palestinian society. In Aida camp where he lives, he says kids have been found dealing pornographic movies and drugs, unthinkable before. Understand that while Palestinian society is not radical religious by any means (only about half of Muslim women wear a head scarf, and most look more American than anything), it is still extremely traditional. The other day I visited a friend I made last year, and when she greeted her boyfriend in a crowded place, they shook hands instead of giving each other a hug. So the appearance of drugs is a very terrible sign. Abed says they go and confront the families whose children are caught dealing, and the parents throw up their hands, because everyone is unemployed and so they find they can't control their kids anymore. A little bit on the political situation: Apparently Arafat is very sick with Parkinson's disease. I had to laugh when Arafat's name came up and one Palestinian started twitching his lips. They HATE this man. I spoke to a couple people who think Israel will just wait for Arafat to die on his own, and then try to impose some kind of puppet ruler. The question will become whether the Palestinians will have the ability and organization to advance a leader who is not part of Arafat's circle. Personally I can't see it happening. I mean, when the occupation makes it impossible to drive from one point in the West Bank to another to see a husband, I don't see how the next wave of Palestinian leaders can build a political movement. Everyone here feels pretty hopeless. On Monday the Knesset is voting on Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza. The Israeli peace movement (such as it is) thinks the entire plan is a sham meant to divert attention from the wall in the West bank, and that Gaza will eventually become the destination for Palestinian population transfer from the West Bank. A modern day Warsaw ghetto. Meanwhile, the Israeli radical religious right wing doesn't want to give up anything, even if it is a sham (Sharon's deputy PM leaked the sham logic in an interview to Ha'aretz newspaper, apparently an attempt pacify the religious right). So if Sharon can't convince these nutsoids to go vote with him, he will have to call new elections, which will essentially be a referendum on the plan and his leadership. These calculations make American politics seem like kindergarten stuff.

1 Comments:

  • At 11/06/2004 08:01:00 AM, Blogger Miko said…

    I wanted to weep when I read of Dan's experiences, but I'm glad I read it anyway. Thank you for posting that, Dawn!

    (The handshaking thing is kind of common in Japan too, I did it with my own mother.)

     

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