Letter from Palestine

[“Abu Dharr” is the pseudonym of a Palestinian refugee who was in Palestine at the time of the demonstrations commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba (Catastrophe) of Israeli occupation and the exile of many of the indigenous people.]

On Friday we were to go to a small, prosperous town in the West Bank by the name of Tourmos Ayya to visit the family of a young man [who] had serious leg problems from a beating the Israelis gave him [years ago]. Before we left for the West Bank I wanted to go into the Old City to see the Dome of the Rock and the Noble Sanctuary and photograph it.
This was Friday, the day of communal prayer and we had been warned that this weekend was the Palestinians’ commemoration of the loss of the country, known as Nakhba (or Catastrophe) day, and that there would be
unrest.
When I got to Jaffa gate and entered the old city there was an American–a loud mouthed New Yorker–soliciting signatures for a petition “agains the division of Jeruslaem” and loudly accusing passers-by who wouldn’t sign the petiotion of lacking “balls” (he used the Yiddish word). I engaged him in conversation, told him I had no interest
insigning his garbage petition and that someday all of this would be Palestinain again. He declared there is no such a thing as Palestinian (thank you, Golda Meir). I asked him when he was going to tear down the Dome of the Rock and he said, “We won’t tear it down: we are excavating underneath it and a sonic boom is all it will take to destrioy it and rebuild the temple.”

Walking to the Mosque, there were literally hundreds of soldiers, usually eight to ten at each intersection of the Old City. Many of them were obviously Arab, and there were a surprising number of blacks. The racist irony is, of course, palpable. At the entrance to the Haram, there were barricades and dozens of soldiers armed with machine guns, vetting everyone who wanted to enter. They invariably refused entry to any males under the age of about 40.
There were arguments and yelling and things were tense. At the first barricade I was questioned by a soldier who was clearly an Arab. He spoke unaccented Arabic and had Arab features. When I spoke in English he answered me in English with an Arabic accent. He was friendly, and asked my name and if I really were a Muslim. I told him my name. He asked “Sahih?” (“Really?” in Arabic) and I answered “Sahih!” Then, when I asked him in Arabic “
Intu Arabi?” (“Are you Arab?”); he appeared uncomfortable, let me pass, and walked away from in a manner that I can only describe as discomfort. Arab Jews are made to feel ashamed of being Arab, and usually deny their heritage to everyone, including, often, themselves.

I had to go through the same exercise a second time before I could finally enter the Haram area through the Gate of the Chain, where I was greeted by a Palestinian elder (there were only a very few soldiers inside the Haram itself) who again asked me if I were a Muslim and was only convinced when I gave him my full name in Arabic and recited, “La
ilaha ill Allah Muhammad ar-rasul Allah.” I must say I felt a thrill in the area; the architecture is extraordinary, the stones filled with 1400 years of Arab history and 1400 years of earlier Jewish and Christian history, and is extraordinary. About 5 or 6 more times I was stopped and asked if I were a Muslim (on Friday the Haram is closed to non-Muslims, and given Nakba day everyone was tense).

When I tried to exit the gate swarms of people were entering and the yelling and arguments were fierce and the tension was even greater. Twice I was turned back by the soldiers when I tried to pass through blockades out of the area where people were entering. I asked a solder how to get out and he pointed me to the street where you enter the wailing wall area. There were metal detectors to go through, and I did not feel comfortable going in that direction. I wandered around some more, feeling like a salmon swimming upstream and at another blockade asked a soldier “How do I get out of here!?” He told me to follow him (which meant following a line of about 7 of them) through a blockade. At Damascus gate, outside of the Old City there were more soldiers and another blockade to get through. Pity the poor Israelis. They have it so hard. Being forced to treat people so badly!

Back at the hotel (in Israeli West Jerusalem—Kosher breakfast only, where, as is the norm, all of the service workers are Palestinian) I met Samiyah and Maroofah and we were picked up by … a cab driver who took us to Tourmos Ayya, via the usual circuitous routes through the chekpoints. Since he has a cab with a yellow Israeli plate (as opposed to a green West Bank plate—think yellow star of David) he is permitted to drive through the check point to his destination in either direction. Going out of ’48 Israel into the West Bank the cars are not really checked. Coming back in they are.

On the way we passed Israeli settlements, always either dense apartment complexes or town houses, always on hills looking over Palestinian towns, always surrounded by barbed wire and fencing, and frequently serviced by the “bypass roads”, limited access highways closed to the local population and enclosed by concrete walls their entire length, which allows the settlers access to their settlements without exposing them to the rocks thrown at them by the locals.

The hospitality as usual … was great; lots of food and interesting conversation. There were apparently many women at the house but with the exception of Abu Sharif’s wife and her mother they all remained completely secluded from us the whole time we were there. [The host] is an intelligent, well-read man and a kind of a country gentleman: he has many acres of farm land that he farms as a hobby and to provide food for his family and friends, and in addition to growing raises peas, wheat, and so on, has a huge number of honey bees, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, goats and on and on. He showed me his property and I met some of his grandchildren including … a fully Americanized young man of about 9, born and reared in New Jersey and recently taken back by his parents to live in Palestine to be schooled
and to learn Arabic. I talked to him and it was kind of sad: he missed New Jersey and his friends, and I think felt a kinship for me as an American.

Heading back to Jerusalem, [the driver] took us to Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood on the Jerusalem side of the Wall, in a very steep valley right below the walls of the Old City and below the platform that carries the Haram. Silwan is a Palestinian area highly coveted by the Israelis and in great danger of confiscation. [Our host there] with his wife …  and their three kids live here in a family home occupied by their family since time immemorial. Being repeatedly refused permits over more than a decade by the Israelis to add on to the house, he built an addition illegally, and now must pay huge fees each year or risk having the home demolished. From his house he pointed out to me three homes that we could see flying Israeli flags. These were properties in the neighborhood purchased by Israelis, either through subterfuge or by offering prices highly over the market value. The Palestinians who sold them are regarded as being deeply dishonorable, and the Israeli flag-flying is an in-your-face provocation that says to the indigenous population, “This in not yours—-we will take it all from you.” Each house is constantly attended 24 hours a day by a contingent of soldiers protecting the inhabitants. Your American tax dollars at work!. It is in Silwan that yesterday during a demonstration, one of the settlers from one of these or a similar house, shot and killed a Palestinian boy.

Today is the official Nakba day commemoration; the West Bank is entirely closed to traffic in or out, and the situation tense. It seems we cannot get any business done today. I would like to go back  to the Old City, but I am not sure that that is possible.

“Abu Dharr”

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