Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I heart Hebron

Whew! Another busy busy day y'all. Here's what it looks like. First, on the situation in Cairo/Gaza. Here's what I know:

-Two buses left this morning, and as far as I know (no updates yet) got into Gaza.
-There is some conflict among the Freedom Marchers around how the process went down. Some feel like it was a bad compromise to agree to two buses. Some feel like the process of communication and decision making was bad. Some are opposed to the restrictions that Egypt put on the bus list, which they had to approve (no French Arabs and some other racist/repressive rules), and the way that Egypt handled it in the press (by communicating that these were the "good" and "safe" Freedom Marchers that were getting to go). As far as I can tell, it sounds pretty messy
-Some of the folks that are on the ground in Cairo are heading out to march to Gaza. I've heard it for two days in a row now, so it seems to be true.
-I'll send more updates as I get them, but remember, you can also check where people are tweeting (?) regularly and they are posting updates when they can. It's a good fight, but part of me feels glad to be away from the messy contradictions that seem to have emerged.

I am at Mazin Qumsieh's house for another night. AMAZING!!! And we had an amazing day. Here are the high points, and then I'll update you on our new plans for the next few days (yes, things are changing by the minute it seems...when in Palestine, right?)

We got up this morning and had a really great breakfast that Mazin picked up for us (some pretzel-type thingies, falafal (yum), and some other good stuff). He arranged for us to have a van and driver for the day (for pretty cheap), and he made a call to a friend in Hebron to show us around. We got on the road about 9 and drove through the fog and rain and COLD (didn't come here to be cold you know) for about 45 minutes to Hebron.

When we got to Hebron, we were met by Waleed, who, as it turns out, is like the most amazing dude ever. He took us on a tour of the old city of Hebron (which is at least 800 years old, and probably even older in some of the spots). Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights I'm afraid)

-Hebron is famous for it's beautiful stone, and the city is made of these huge stone blocs, some of it made in the same way that the pyramids were constructed. Really big beautiful stone.
-We had to go through a checkpoint and metal detector to get into part of the city where the mosque of Ibrihim is. That's where the prophet Ibrihim and his wife Sara are buried. The Israeli troops at the checkpoint were children...19, 21, etc. Some of them were hostile looking and mean. Some of them were friendly and kind. All of them had M-16s, body armor, and the ability to control what we did. As internationals, we didn't have much trouble, but Palestinians (including people whose families have lived in the old city for hundreds of years) get stopped and harrassed all the time. Waleed got through without much hassle.
-We went into the mosque and saw some super beautiful architecture and art. We felt and smelled the warm air that came from the tomb where the prophet is buried. It was beautiful. Don't worry, I took roughly 4500 pictures and plan to give you all a virtual tour.
-We also stood in the hall where Baruch Goldstein (a Jewish settler) opened fire on, and massacred 29 Muslims while they were in prayer in 1994. While this happened, the Israeli military (which is there, you know, to "keep the peace") murdered 10 Palestinians outside. It was eerie to stand in the space (similar to how I felt when I stood in the yard where Connelly was killed in Ireland). What was the Israeli response to this massacre, you ask? Well, they shut down the mosque for a year, and then claimed 60% of it for a synagogue. Yes, turned part of the mosque into a synagogue in response to a Jewish settler murdering praying Muslims.
-As it turns out, there are 400 settlers living there, and 1500 soldiers there to protect them. They restrict the movements of Palestinians in lots of ways (a couple of checkpoints where Palestinians can't go through at all, harrassment daily, forcible closing of Palestinian shops, etc.). In 2000, they closed the entire old city off and imposed a curfew for 3 years, I think, and again in 2004 for six months (when Palestinians could only leave the old city for 3 hours a day). Most of the businesses that were not among the 500 that Israel closed by military order have since closed because there is no more business as the population of the old city dissipates (only 5000 live there now).
-Settlers act with impunity. They throw trash and insults at Palestinians. They take over houses that Palestinians live in. They move freely through a city that is not theirs (they come from the U.S. or Russia or wherever in the world really, and just set up shop like they own the place). The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (the folks that are trying to preserve the culture and life of this beautiful ancient city...oh, the links I'm about to make with gentrification when I get back) has had to put up nets to catch all the objects that settlers hurl down from above Palestinians on a daily. Sometimes the nets don't work, because, well, because you can't catch buckets of urine with a net. As we walked through one part of town, two young (maybe 20, walking like thugs through town) settlers with malice in their eyes nearly bumped shoulders with Waleed (who is in his 40s probably and is practically the mayor of old Hebron because he knows and is loved by everybody) and said "the prophet Mohammed is a pig" as we walked by.
-I have no idea how Palestinians don't just snap. I'm actually not surprised that there was a period of suicide bombings here. I'm more surprised that there haven't been that many.
-The people of Hebron are beyond beautiful. These are some of the friendliest, kindest, most helpful people I've ever been around. Totally gracious and warm. I didn't want to leave.
-I also had the chance to have a long conversation with one soldier, and several short conversations with others. I can't begin to express how complicated these conversations were. On one hand, they seemed like genuinely pretty nice guys. They don't like the settlers and blame them for much of the violence. The one guy I had a long conversation with (Guy) was very pleasant with us and with Waleed and seems to think that Arabs and Israelis can live in peace together. He's "just doing his job" and protecting people from the "10% of people who are bad." What he doesn't seem to get, though, is that he is enforcing massive human rights violations, and that the Israeli army is enforcing an ethnic cleansing of epic proportions. He knows how much power his gun gives him, and he's not wrestling with the implications of that, it seems. Much much more on this later.
-I'll have more to say about Hebron when I can start posting some pictures. The most amazing of which are of the beauty of this old city and the bizarre flood that we got trapped in and had to wade our way through as we were leaving the city.

Then we got our wet, cold selves back into our van and headed back to Bethlehem. We went to the university where Mazin and his wife Jessie teach, and she took us to the roof of the university to show how Bethlehem is being systematically surrounded by settlements on the hills above it. Pretty scary.

We went from there to a talk that Mazin gave about the situation to a group of students in a program at the Alternative Information Center. Good stuff, and I'm going to get his Power Point (oh, y'all know I love it).

Then we went to a planning meeting about this vigil that is happening tomorrow. It was in a refugee camp that is right up against the wall (the one that the Pope spoke at earlier this year...and the host committee built his stage right up against the wall so that the world could see what Israel is doing...of course Israel did not let the speech happen next to the wall, but the Palestinians have kept the stage there in defiance of Israeli authority). The wall has oodles of the most amazing graffiti I've ever seen. People have taken their hatred for this nasty thing and turned it into super creative resistance art. It's heartbreakingly beautiful.

Finally it was dinner at this great restaurant for amazing bread, hummus, baba ghannouj (which translates, roughly, as "giddy dad" in Turkish), delicious meat and Palestinian beer (tasty).

Now, for our next few days. Here's what it looks like:

-Tomorrow we head (very excitedly) to a town about an hour and a half from here to participate in a march in ISRAEL with people who are in solidarity with the marchers in Gaza. This is SO EXCITING, and I can't wait to send pictures and share stories of Israelis who are opposed to the occupation and support the human rights of Palestinians. I'm really just so excited!!!
-Then we come back and attend a vigil in Bethlehem where several organizations (one of which runs this really cool arts program for kids in one of the 3 refugee camps around here...where folks have been living as refugees since 1948!!!) are getting together to mark the attacks on Gaza one year ago. A group of children will read the names of the 400+ children who died in the assault last year and hang a little memorial trinket on a tree in front of the Church of the Nativity. Should be extremely powerful. The mayor of the city is going to give a speech there. Imagine having a mayor that...have I told you about an idea called People's Durham (I guess I'll wait on that one). Mazin has helped put this together, so we're excited to attend.
-Then, we're going to find a place to stay in East Jerusalem tomorrow night, and hopefully get to see some of the beautiful Arab quarter there. This is where the holy sites are (if I am understanding things correctly), so I'm hopefully going to get to see a lot of that stuff, as well as understand how the occupation is impacting people in that part of the city.
-We'll wake up and get around Jerusalem a bit more before getting on a bus to head down to the border with Egypt. Depending on how the timing works, we'll either have to spend the night near the border (probably, unfortunately on the Israeli side in this obnoxious beach town that looks like any gross little beach town in the states, only much nicer and well resourced).
-Saturday we'll either wake up in Cairo or get up and head back to Cairo.
-We'll be in Cairo on Sunday and Monday and try to participate in any political stuff that's still happening there, as well a getting out to see the pyramids, eat some good Egyptian food and have some fun. We're also trying to hook up with another friend in Cairo and learn some more about the place.
-Then we head back on Monday night.

I'll try to send updates and post in the next couple of days when I can, but my computer access may be more spotty until at least Saturday evening.

Please know that I'm thinking about y'all, loving our time here and learning so much, and continually grateful for all that y'all did and continue to do to support this trip.

With love


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