Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Middle East Chronicles Part 2 - December 2009

King Hussein/Allenby Bridge and Beyond

To the Jordanians, it is King Hussein Bridge; the Israelis call it
Allenby Bridge. Either way, it is an historic entrance into
Israel-Palestine. I was alerted both by one of my GARP companions as
well as the tour people, Global Exchange, there could be complications
with the visa. The Israelis were now issuing three kinds of visas:
one to the West Bank, one for the Israeli portion and one encompassing
both. Also, per Lonely Planet, if you looked undesirable, there would
be questions about the purpose of the visit and a request for evidence
of a return ticket .

I do have a second passport so wasn’t concerned about the passport
stamping but my companion was: he was an Australian researching the
Australian Horse activities during World War I and had a note from the
Israeli Ambassador to Australia, requesting Passport Control not to
stamp his passport as he is in and out of Middle Eastern countries
while working on this project. This really confused the young Israeli
officer and led to following exchange: “Why are you here? “To do
historical research about World War I”? “What was that?” “The war
before World War 2.” What was that?” and so on. She finally let him

My turn: Do I want my passport stamped? No problem! Why was I here?
To visit as part of my interest in the Middle East. That seemed to
flummox her; so at a nudge from my traveling partner, added I was a
tourist. Did I have a return ticket? Yes, and then showed her my
E-ticket which she gazed over, then returned my passport, sans any
stamp. An eighty year old, five foot three inch, gray haired traveler
must have really looked truly undesirable to her.

I assume I did obtain the all necessary permissions for I traveled in
all the sectors though no one asked for the visa stamp at the numerous
check points - and I went through more checkpoints and saw more
weapons than in either Iraq or Afghanistan. And Xe (aka Blackwater)
must have a huge contract with the Israelis for many of the Security
police were theirs.

I was one of a small group traveling under the auspices of Realty
Tours, which sets up educational trips for Global Exchange members. I
had first traveled with them over a year ago to Kabul and had been
impressed by the opportunities to meet with various NGO staff, trying
to provide services and provide some kind of peaceful solution to the
country's’ problems. It had given an insight beyond what one would
normally obtain, looking at one ruin or another.

There were two free days before the tour formally began, two days to do
the usual touristy sightseeing. I was at the Gloria Hotel, just inside
the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. Another group member had also arrived
early, so we paired up for some of the time. He wanted to go to
Bethlehem so we signed on for a half day tour. The two of us were the

A cab came to pick us up with a Christian Palestinian driver and a
Jerusalem license plate: all of this is important for one’s passport
and permit depends on ethnicity, residence and religion which then
determines your ability to travel within the area. We were taken to a
check/transfer point. He dropped us off there, to go through the wall
- and yes, there is a wall to out-wall Berlin any day! - and a caged
barred area. Once through. we met another taxi driver who took us to
Bethlehem where we did sightseeing with our guide, a Palestinian woman
with a Brazilian passport (she and her family had lived there for
thirteen years before they could return, but still no local passport)
and a permit to live in Bethlehem (but still couldn’t go into the West
Bank/East Jerusalem much less Israeli territory).

Though out the various venues, there were many devote believers. I was
most interested in the varied appearance of the visitors. A Cameroon
choir came with their own priest - the singing was lovely; I wished I
had a tape recorder. Most were obviously moved by being in, what was to
them, the most Holy of places. The several modern additions to
ancient buildings showed great sensitivity by the architects involved.

That afternoon, we hired our driver to take us to Ramallah and to view
some of the settlements. Had lunch in a street cafe and saw the
wonderfully designed Arafat memorial/tomb. Also found out that the
“settlements” are large condomium units, set up on hills often
containing aquifers for the area, taken by the Israelis who use 80%
and sell 20% back to the Palestinians. Settlements are throughout the
Palestinian areas, as if the Israelis are setting their stamp on the
land, making it impossible for the Palestinians to have contiguous

Spent the next day wandering around the colorful Old City, with a
break for lunch at the King David Hotel, part of my tracing the
British presence in Jerusalem after the Balfour Agreement and the
Mandate. This was the hotel blown up by the Jewish Irgun in 1946,
killing 91; giving truth to the phrase, one man’s terrorist is
another man’s patriot. Old photos line the hallways of this now 5-star
establishment, bringing memories of another time. I also walked up to the
elegant American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem where TE Lawrence had
stayed, reportedly meeting with his infamous biographer, Lowell Thomas.
They too had a excellent selection of old photos of bygone times,

And on to the tour, which was an investigation of Prospects for Peace
and Justice. In nine days of travel and interviews with at least
twenty-two Israelis, Bedouins, and Palestinians (both Christian and
Moslem), I found a lot of hard working, sincere and devoted
individuals. We met with many human rights representatives, former
soldiers, members of bereaved families, students and administrators at
Bir Zeit University, various women’s groups, a prisoner’s right
organization, an Israeli demographer, non violent resistance groups,
educators, and media people.

We stayed both in Jerusalem and in East Jerusalem (at St George’s
Guest House, across from the American consulate) but traveled to the
Dheisheh and Jenin Refugee camps; stayed overnight at the Ibdaa
Cultural Center at Dheisheh with triple bunk beds and no hot water.
And like “settlements”, “camps” are a misnomer - they are small,
crowded, slum like ghettoized apartments, in an urban area, not the
tented communities I had pictured from CARE’s photos of African refugee

Near Bethlehem in Beit Sahour, we spent a night with a local family.
Mine was a school administrator-teacher with a son in high school, two
daughters married (one still in Bethel and the other overseas) and his
former teacher-wife, now operating a travel business.
Palestinian-Christian, there were photos of himself with Arafat in his
living room; he said he was no longer active - it was too dangerous for
he would be at risk from the Palestinians. I watched the CD of the
Christening party of his granddaughter, which was obviously a Big
Event in their lives.

At Janin, I was most impressed by The Freedom Theatre’s work with the
children, a pre professional program both in media and stage. We were
shown around by an International (overseas volunteers are termed
Internationals in this country which must label and categorize you!)
who had taken a troupe overseas recently to perform. They had modern
equipment and what I saw of a dramatic production, was impressive.

We spent time in Hebron where I was able to enter the Ibrahimi Mosque,
now shared with a synagogue. There were soldiers and checkpoints
throughout the town. Israeli settlers had residences above the local
souk. Barbed wire had been strung above the walk way for the settlers
threw down various garbage on the locals walking and shopping below.
Time was spent at the local [pre-school where several of our group made
their day with balloon creations for the kids - and teachers who took
some for their own children.

Toward the end of the tour, we went north to Jayyous and Mas’ha, to see
the effects of the ever present wall, which has affected the economy
and society of this agrarian community. I observed an instance where
a farmer with horse and cart had to clear though a virtual wall
(electrified fencing along two sides of a cleared “road”)r through an
opening staffed by two armed soldiers to get to his fields. Others
have just left fields untended rather than deal with the soldiers’ and
the sometimes unpredictable hours.

I was in the Negev one day, where an Israeli-Bedouin organization was
working with the semi-nomads to help them establish recognized villages
which meant they could have water and electricity and find a means of
economic lsupport. The last day was spent in Jaffa, the picturesque
former Palestinian port, which has been overwhelmed by Tel Aviv.

Near where we stayed in East Jerusalem, a family had been evicted by the Israeli government so settlers could be moved in. Part of the home had already been destroyed. The Arab owner had gone to Turkey to search Ottoman records for the title. In the meantime, Israeli Police stood by, family members camped out, activists and media made themselves known. I witnessed the sad scene one afternoon as we drove by.

I did talk with a thirteen year resident of Jerusalem, who was
surprised that we were not able to get into one a settlements for a
scheduled interview. Wrong entrance we were told at the checkpoint; we
needed to drive half an hour away, for the “right” entrance for our
minibus. This resident seemed concerned that I was influenced by
presence/absence of Jewish participants and/or the presence of a
Palestine guide. She pointed out that during the last Intifada, she
had had to draw her shades at night for fear of being targeted. She
simply did not go into East Jerusalem.

Leaving was memorable: three of us were on the sherut (shared taxi) to
the airport. The next person to be picked was tardy but finally
appeared after ten or so minutes: a sixtish black hatted, fully bearded
Orthodox (Hasidic?) Jew, escorted to the vehicle by four dancing,
singing younger versions of himself . Though we collected several more
passengers, none exhibited such panaché.

Getting through the airport and security and onto the aircraft was less difficult than entering over the Bridge. Initially told I was way too early and would have to wait several hours before going through Security - which I like to clear ASAP and particularly, as I was warned of probable complications in exiting Ben Gurion - I was finally directed over to the entryway to the gates. Clutching E-Ticket and passport in hand, assuring one and all, I had no luggage other than my backpack, I was cleared quite routinely, assigned a “2” status (it’s a 1 to 8 scale with 8 being assigned to very suspicious characters!) and sent on my way. No serious search and few questions. No problem!

Reactions: I did not visit Haifa or Tel Aviv nor did I get to the
Golan Heights and Gaza. We did spend time in Palestinian areas and
Jerusalem, which is a small sample to draw from. Overall, I felt that
the Jews, so long oppressed, had become the oppressor. Palestine was
but a suzerainty of Israel.

I had thought matters would be bad but not so bad that there is not
only apartheid, but an apartheid that includes separate roads into
various areas, for separate peoples. Areas are labeled A, B, and C
which determines the right of passage and who is in charge.
Checkpoints galore.

People on both sides of the wall are deeply concerned about human
rights and peacemaking but that doesn’t appear to influence the
leaders’ actions. Talk, yes! Behavior, no! I suspect there is enough
blame around to share so both Palestinians and Israelis could to move
on rather than try to out rationalize and out manipulate each other.
One-state or two-state solution, neither will be meaningful unless the
politicos are serious about a solution.

I returned home depressed: another intifada would not surprise me.

Costs: The Global Exchange fee was about $2200 for accommodation and two
meals a day. I paid $180 for my two additional nights in Jerusalem.
Airfare: BA SFO-Heathrow-Amman; Tel Aviv-Heathrow-SFO: $1491.

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