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March 20, 2005

Jerry In The West Bank And Gaza

Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser is a close friend of Mike Gerber's from high school, and I've been lucky enough to get to know him too. Jerry just returned from a trip to the West Bank and Gaza. His impressions, along with pictures, are below.

Because this is a small world—apparently the size of a grape—while there Jerry ran into the Jewish American Medical Project group with whom Andrew Schamess was traveling. (Links to Andrew's take on HIS trip are here.)

"May you live in interesting times"—old Chinese curse

Is it ever not an interesting time in the Middle East? Even so, now seems particularly interesting. The cease fire to end the second Intifada seems to be holding, despite isolated clashes and the suicide bomber in Tel Aviv in late February.

The Sharon government continues plans for disengagement from Gaza. (Though to my ears that means they'll cede Gaza, essentially now a walled-in ghetto, and redouble their efforts in the West Bank to make a contiguous viable Palestinian state impossible.)

My trip last week to the West Bank and Gaza felt like those old fortunately/unfortunately children's stories: people's optimism seems convincing at the time "fortunately..."), but not an hour later I'd think about all the reasons peace is still so far away ("unfortunately...").

Fortunately, consensus seems to be that there's more reason to be hopeful now for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, all the usual problems, esp. Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements, are just as thorny as ever.

Fortunately, when Abu Mazen was elected it was clear he's about ending the violence and cooperating with US-led peace initiatives. Unfortunately, he was one of the main contributors to the Olso accords, after which things degenated till the second Intifada. Fortunately, there's a cease fire, but unfortunately what makes Palestinians feel so desperate that they choose martyrdom and the deaths of innocents is all still worsening. The Israelis continue to develop new settlements in the West Bank.

Fortunately, Bush seems to be using the right loaded terms like "a viable contiguous independent sovereign Palestinian state", but unfortunately the US seems just as supportive of Israeli militarization as ever.

Fortunately, the security wall around the West Bank should afford some feeling of security to Israelis. Unfortunately, it will only worsen the frustration and the situation for the Palestinians, provoking more desperation and violence.

The wall cuts through town and blocks a street.
The wall is 30' high and most imposing. I didn't write 'Seattle supports Palestine'.

Mustafa Barghouti, who got 20% of the vote in the recent PA elections, said that at a rally he told the people to be impatient. Unfortunately, we heard in Gaza that the Fatah party is now so weakened by the corruption and leadership vacuum after Arafat that they aren't viable, and Hamas won a great deal of seats in municipal elections throughout Gaza. A critical opportunity arises for moderation & progress, at the same time that extremists gain control. And unfortunately, there is no strong non-violent resistance tradition or community in the occupied territories.

Unfortunately, Palestinians are increasingly walled into ghettos. And unfortunately the ironic parallel with the Jewish ghettos in the late 1930s seems lost on the Israelis.

And so on, and so on, and so on.


I was part of a delegation from Physicians for Social Responsibility, whose goal was to look into the health care situation in the occupied territories, and into the effects on both Israeli and Palestinian society of military occupation. Over a week we met with doctors, bureaucrats, NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, journalists, activists from Ta'ayush, Rabbis for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, and an amazingly inspiring support group for bereaved families on both sides, called the Family Forum.

We heard inspiring tales of people trying to make it in a crazy violent disrupted world, to find a way to tell the world what they see as the truth, and to help others. And we heard 101 different perspectives on what makes Israel and Palestine so complicated. Hey, if solving it were easy, they'd have done it.

Not lost amid these heavily politicized meetings was the beauty and history of the place. The rocky hills around Jerusalem, the spring flowers rooted in the mortar between stones in the old city wall --- there's so much to see. The historical sites, where Jesus was born and crucified, where Abraham would have sacrificed Isaac and where Muhammad ascended to heaven, are beautiful and fascinating. And have been fought over for centuries.

Dome of Rock from my hotel room.
Dome of the Rock, with the Western Wall in the foreground.
Kids playing in the old city of Jerusalem.

Layered on top of all the history, new history continues to be made: the 2003 siege of the Church of the Nativity, the horrible 1994 killings at Abraham's tomb, where now a wall runs down the middle of the monument to keep each side safely on its own side. Even while we were there, two Israeli soldiers were killed in Hebron near Abraham's tomb, and the city was under curfew.

The West Bank

The open-air market at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem's old city is bustling. You can get everything from fruit to shoes to cordless drills, and most vendors speak enough English to allow you bargain.

Jerusalem market, at the Damascus Gate in the wall of the old city.
A camera vendor and I at the market.

Visiting the West Bank is easy for Americans. I felt safe the whole time in the West Bank. More than one Palestinian reassured me that they understand the distinction between the US government and individual Americans. There are checkpoints and closures everywhere, but Americans are whisked right through.

Most Palestinians don't try to drive through the checkpoints. They get a cab to one side, walk through, and get another cab on the other side.

For Palestinians, it's not so easy. In places, the wall divides neighborhoods in half. It separates olive growers from their trees, children from their school, sick people from their doctor. The disruption that people have to deal with in their daily life isn't just hours of hassle in traffic. Sometimes it's human rights violations, and it's always the chance of that, which is demeaning and insulting. Sometimes people are humiliated or beaten. Sometimes they're turned away, even with the requisite permits. Usually the wait is long, and it's always unpredictable. New closures pop up all over, when a bulldozer blocks a street with a six-foot-high rubble pile.

I wonder what my home life would be like if getting to work took anywhere from an hour to three hours, and maybe some days I wouldn't be able to get to work at all? A woman who worked with Medecins Sans Frontieres told us there is basically no average time for her to get to work; she allots three hours each way.

We heard that the average ambulance response time in Palestinian areas disrupted by the wall is 1 hour. One hour, just for the ambulance to reach the person. 80% of Palestinian children have moderate or severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.


Gaza is worse. Israelis aren't allowed in at all. Even we Americans were held for hours at the Eretz checkpoint, guns aimed at us from pillboxes, floodlights in our eyes, orders to proceed one at a time barked out over a loudspeaker, with mud and rubble and barbed wire all around.

The long NoMan'sLand corridor at the Gaza checkpoint.
The Palestinian side of the Eretz checkpoint to get into Gaza. Relaxed, despite some barbed wire.

In Gaza, 70% of the people are below the poverty level, which is $2 a day. The children seem curious and friendly, and they play in the street. But it's filthy and blighted.

Gaza graffiti.
Not much of a place to grow up.

In Rafah, at the Egyptian border, where Rachel Corrrie was killed in 2003 trying to prevent the demolition of a doctor's house, there are broken half-demolished houses still half-standing, and rubble piles that used to be people houses. And the demolitions continue.

Rafah, in Gaza, at the Egypt border. The whole town is a mess of rubble and bombed and half-demolished houses.
The wall being built near the Egypt border. All houses have been demolished. This one is still lived in.

To me it was terribly grim. How do people keep on? But they do, and that's part of the whole story. Parents still send their children to school, because that's what parents do. Kids still play outside, because that's what kids do. Doctors still do the best they can to care for their patients, because that's what doctors do. The resiliency is inspiring: what choice do people have? It's amazing that 99.9% of people don't strap dynamite to their chest and board a bus in Tel Aviv.


How much is South Africa's apartheid a parallel? Israel has built a network of bypass roads, that Palestinians can't drive on. Palestinians can't vote. The Israelis face a 'demographic problem', meaning that soon they will be in the minority of the population.

On the other hand, South Africa never enjoyed the unwavering economic and military support of the world's only superpower, as Israel does today. In fact it had become a pariah. We heard that the international community will not tolerate a non-viable Palestinian state; but on the other hand the US and Israel have never felt responsible to UN or the international community.

Whereas South Africa had De Klerk and Mandela, Sharon is as hardline as it comes; it may be too early to know about Abu Mazen yet. He seems to have a mandate from the Palestinians though he won something less than the vast majority of their votes. But does he have the power to give the Palestinians enough of what they need, which is dignity and independence, to ease their desperation?

The Palestinian leaders seem to have learned that suicide bombings, as a method, make it hard for anyone to champion their cause. Can they keep angry, frustrated young men from acting out—18 year olds who were babies when the first intifada broke out and who have never known a peaceful time, and who say what they want to be when they grow up is a martyr for the cause, because there's nothing else they can aspire to? Can they marshall the restless energy of the Palestinians to non-violent demonstrations and civil disobedience, like in South Africa?

Fortunately, what I heard most from Palestinians was that they are hopeful that things will get better. Unfortunately, as my tax driver put it, every time they come to an agreement, the Israelis break it.

—Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser, March 18, 2005

(Thanks to Dan Charlson for originally hosting the pictures. More can be found here.)

Posted at March 20, 2005 08:03 AM | TrackBack

What can you say?! And "our" governments support this bullshit and don't bat an eyelid!

Posted by: Jim Shanahan at March 21, 2005 12:03 AM