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“Here I stand: I can do no otherwise. God help me. Amen!”

The above quote is from the namesake of my given religious affiliation, Martin Luther. It is attributed to him as his closing statement at the end of his apology (think the Greek root word “apologia”; his defense speech) speech at the Diet of Worms in Germany, 1521. This is a fitting opening for this post, given how I spent this past Friday and Saturday.

Some information on EAPPI

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) is quite accurately summarized by the title of their organization. It is a group of clearly-marked Christian internationals, and they seek to accomplish the following (the mission statement of purpose is an excellent explanation):

>>The mission of the EAPPI is to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in their non-violent actions and to carry out concerted advocacy efforts to end the occupation. Participants in the programme monitor and report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, support acts of non-violent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, offer protection through non-violent presence, engage in public policy advocacy and, in general, stand in solidarity with the churches and all those struggling against the occupation. <<

Today, the EAPPI is involved in a variety of areas in Israel and Palestine. They are not the Christian Peacemakers Teams, meaning they will never ever directly interfere or even get particularly close to settlers who have come into the areas the EAPPI is there to watch. They have a chain of reporting to do in the case of problems, which revolves around contacting the local mayor, then the local rabbis affiliated with the closest settlements (who, in some cases, I am glad to report, actually do attempt to stop the violent tendencies of the settlers), followed by the local IDF command (who arrive but almost never do anything to stop the violence perpetrated by settlers), and finally the EAPPI head offices. They live in and among the communities which need the protection, in teams of 3 or 4 for three months at a time, and report weekly to various international organizations. It is a wonderful thing, albeit frustrating for the EAPPI folks on the ground – they can tell the whole world what happens before them, but are personally unable to do anything to stop it – because if they interfere, the settlers will indeed leave (they cannot afford to hurt internationals), but will take it out on the innocent Arab people further.

Some Background Details on the Area Around Yanoun

Yanoun is a small village about 12 kilometers south of Nablus, one of the major Palestinian cities of the north. Located within sight of the border with Jordan, and overlooking the Jordan River Valley, this village of around 150 people is nestled in a small valley with beautiful mountains and hills all around it. Unfortunately, there is an illegal Jewish settlement called Itamar located on the edges of the hills around Yanoun. The settlers have a particular point of view:

>>Interestingly enough, not many Jews have come to resettle this Land. It is still a hidden place to most. In all Gav Hahar there are no more than 500 families. They are spread upon these ancient mountains, Harey Kedem, sparsely.<<

The above quote, drawn from the website of the Itamar Settlement which is slowly encircling and choking off the Palestinian lands with verbal and physical threats, is telling. One reads what they have to say as though 1) there are no other people there (false); and 2) Jewish people need to settle the entirety of “Eretz Israel,” the entirety of the current State of Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza (a fundamentalist opinion at odds with the UN, the USA, the EU, and a whole slew of other groups in the world). Unfortunately, as happens in some/many (as a matter of opinion) places in Areas B and C, settlers have this preconception that the West Bank really belongs to the Jewish State of Israel and no one else, and hence they will work towards this end by using violence. I wish I could say this was guesswork, but below is a map of the Yanoun village, and the numbered sections are where acts of violence from the settlers towards the peaceful villagers have occurred.

Map with attack locations

(See the full-sized map in its original form here. There is no copyright information given anywhere on the site, and as I have also seen the original map hanging on the wall of the mayor’s home, I figured I could use this photo as long as I clearly gave credit where it was due.)

Map location 1
Map location 2
Map location 3
Map location 4
Map location 5
Map location 6
Map location 7
Map location 8

My Personal Experiences in the Area

My experiences this weekend involved fulfilling the directives of the organization from the above statement of purpose. Leaving Jerusalem in the early afternoon, I experienced something very odd with the Arabic bus system of Jerusalem – I was refused entry onto the Arabic bus 1 in front of Hadassah hospital. Not really sure of why, but already running late, I ended up taking a cab down to the Damascus Gate to do two vital things. First and foremost, I purchased a kebab pita for breakfast/lunch, and was intensely pleased at having done so. I eventually got on the bus to Ramallah, and was let off near the taxi parking garage in the center of town there. I got into a shared taxi van, and off we went towards the Huwarra checkpoint in the north, where I was told to meet a specific cab driver.

At Huwarra, I indeed met up with Razan, a friend of the EAPPI teams in Yanoun and who always drives their visitors and is able to introduce them to the team’s work due to his excellent English. Early on in my trip, I experienced the reality of Area C full military occupation. The road we were going to take into Yanoun had been blocked by the IDF with large rocks in less than 40 minutes after Razan had last been there, and when I suggested that we get out and move the rocks, he told me that we could not, because if the soldiers were still around, it could be very dangerous. We later saw additional evidence of the IDF’s handiwork – they have slowly but surely closed off all routes to Yanoun and Aqraba over the years. Not just with a gate, though – they bulldoze a ditch into the ground, and then use the dirt to build a mound on the other side of the new hole. The small hill of dirt is usually covered in cement and brought to a steep incline, so that the road is unusable completely.

Arriving in Yanoun, I was dropped off right in front of the International House, where the EAPPI teams live and report from. As per usual, the settlement had erected armed watchtowers and water towers on the tops of the mountains looking down in the valley (in Arabic, Wadi Yanoun, or the Yanoun Valley). I was introduced to the 3 team members I would be working with: Lena, a retired lawyer from Sweden; Elaine, an adult education focused on employees of international organizations; and Johanna, a retired historian and professor from England. Among other things, our weekend conversation included religion: as I found out, Lena is a very spiritual Christian woman who is mostly attracted to singing and in that she finds God; Elaine is sort of Deist/agnostic, who believes in God but doesn’t have the details at present, thank you very much; and Johanna is a Quaker.

After telling me a bit about the place, and giving me a chance to sort of explain a little bit about who I am, we departed for the house next door – the home of the mayor of Yanoun, Rashid. We went inside and sat down on the cushions in his living room, and heard a little bit about his life story. He also told us about the difficulties faced by the villagers – a farming community, the settlers have slowly but surely taken more and more land. They will come down from the hills with weapons drawn, and tell Palestinians that “this rock” or “this tree” is now the new border past which Arabs cannot go. In this way, there is no longer enough grazing land for the animals of the Yanouni farmers. They are forced to spend some of what little money they have in order to buy feed for the animals from Nablus, which was heartbreaking to hear about. His seemingly identical daughters were not told to do so, but they brought us freshly-made coffee, and were very polite. In between discussing the situation in Yanoun, I managed to get into a running argument with Lena (a Swedish lawyer, you’ll recall) about copyright law and why (in my opinion) it is morally unjustifiable for speeches and other publicly-vital knowledge… heck, lets say all knowledge to not be freely available to all people. Quite the odd place to argue such things, but I think I made progress in convincing her of my side of the debate 🙂

After an extended stay at Rashid’s, we departed on foot for the long hike over to Lower Yanoun. We met with the extended family of a man named Josef, who had to leave on his tractor to get some work done just as we arrived. Josef lives in a small walled-in compound of several houses, each owned by a brother of his. Josef’s father Khader is the oldest man in the community, said to be 130 by the locals, but probably closer to 100 years of age. We met all of the children, and sat and spoke with some of them and Josef’s brother Abu Mohammed. The conversation was focused partially on how safe conditions seemed to be recently (no problems for over two months with the settlers there), and then other small talk. Eventually, the older kids of the combined families got their English class books and were very proud to recite lessons and sentences to us (they were pretty good, as it were). Our visit to the homes there ended with the older kids gathering around to sing a Palestinian national song, about hoping to one day return to their land. Given that their land was around them and being stolen by armed settlers, it was a fitting choice it seems. I recorded them:

On the second day, I learned more about EAPPI and the people I was working with, and things got exciting early in the day. There was a settler or two or three (it was high up on the hill and thus difficult to see) regarding some Yanouni people shepherding their flocks. “Regarding” through the scopes of their rifles. As is their purview, the EAPPI members and I quickly went out to be near the villagers and ready to call the list of organizations prescribed, as well as to help the villagers. Not a pleasant feeling to have people on the top of a hill with guns pointed at you, to say the least. Thankfully, our presence or perhaps some other factor persuaded them to leave and the 2 month streak of peace at Yanoun continued.

We then walked back towards Upper Yanoun, and visited the home of Um Hani, to go see how they were doing as well as to purchase some freshly dried almonds. The matron of the household is not fluent in English but was a lovely hostess – serving us almonds and Arabic-style (read: overly sweet) tea. Her daughter-in-law, Fayide, was our hostess for most of our stay, and her very young son was absolutely adorable. He had all of us laughing the entire time we were there, mostly because he couldn’t decide if he liked the presence of us visitors, or didn’t like us. We returned to the International House, and Lena persuaded me to try some sheep’s milk… which was a MASSIVE mistake. I am told that the look on my face was priceless… and while it is nice to know that I brought smiles to the faces of the EAPPI people, I strongly caution people against trying it in the West Bank, to put it very politely.

All of that said, my weekend at Yanoun was a positive experience – it was difficult to see what the inhabitants there are still forced to live through, but the world is slowly starting to realize that the settlers need to be stopped and now. The next visitors to Yanoun after I left? German political advisers, gathering additional evidence to back their recent public call to stop Israeli settlements.

I hope you enjoy the photographs I took: although the reality of the situation in Yanoun is difficult to accept, the area was breathtakingly beautiful.

The alternate title for this post was going to be “Areas, Areas Everywhere.”

Why, you might ask? Because although my previous posts have speculated about the difficulties of living in the West Bank and traveling for the Palestinian people (and me, and other internationals), I have never actually laid out the official rules regarding the governance of the West Bank (because I figured since I know them, everyone does… which is not a fair thing to assume).

Under the Oslo Accords (which, the more I see them implemented on the ground, the more I think it was a mistake for both sides in many ways), the West Bank was split into three areas of political governance. Area A is land directly under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Area B is in some cases under Palestinian control, but usually has anywhere from partial to nearly-complete ruling based on the Israeli military. Area C is fully under the military occupation of the IDF, which runs a military judicial system in lieu of a civil one, and thus lets all sorts of settlers do whatever they please in the area.

The checkpoints one hears about in the news are well-fortified areas on main roads where the IDF mans cement fortified guard booths, with their M16s pointed at oncoming traffic while one of their compatriots stands aside and motions cars ahead one by one, to check papers, and sometimes trunks, and sometimes full body searches. Not so pleasant to go through, to say the very least.

For more details, I encourage you to go check out this report by the Israeli peace group Peace Now (so therefore more solid facts and less editorializing that a more biased group might put into this sort of report).

The reality of the West Bank (not even thinking of Gaza, which is fenced and walled in and surrounded by quite a few guns) – it is well and truly a military occupation for all of Area C, and a fair portion of both Area A and Area B. Israelis and supporters of Israel will be inclined to refute the preceding sentence, perhaps making claims that “it is necessary for security” or something similar. While they are welcome to their opinions, I would suggest two things. First of all, I have gone through the Calendia checkpoint into Jerusalem multiple times, and once near a group of Jewish American people. They were outraged that they had to wait in such a large press of people to get through, and couldn’t fathom why they wasn’t a quicker line for American people, since “we didn’t do anything wrong so why do we have to wait?” American impatience aside, perhaps they need to more carefully listen to what they themselves said; well golly gee, could it possibly be that maybe the majority of Palestinian are just as innocent and therefore are also highly inconvenienced and psychologically-hurt from constantly being treated like a probable criminal? Perhaps they too would like to have a “fast line” for the innocent – and I can guarantee you, the majority of them would pass through that line and be just as innocent when they came out as when they entered the queue.

Secondly, for those advocates of “security” via the checkpoint/military occupation method, I would challenge them to go through one of those checkpoints, just once. No need to go far out into the West Bank – just go out of Calendia and then join the line to come back in. Be prepared – it takes a very long time, sometimes several hours. Be prepared to enter what is essentially a prison (or far worse, depending on what one makes of what they see). You will come up to a warehouse, and then enter a queue to go through extremely narrow metal fences. Like, my shoulders are broad enough where I am almost forced to walk through at an angle. The huge metal bars of the fence are accompanied by metal fencing across the top of the vertical walls, thus caging a person in (think like a prison, or far, far worse). At the end of this narrow Alcatraz-style corridor is a turnstile with ratchets (to only allow people to go in), and with an electronic locking mechanism to only allow a certain number of people through at a time. I shudder when I think about the number of lives that would be lost in the event of a fire in that hellhole.

Passing through the first turnstile, the mood was set by a girl in the IDF screaming in the microphone (from within her tank-armored little building) at a pair of Palestinian mothers with twins trying to get her attention to let them through the handicapped with their stroller. The girl in the IDF was rudely calling for someone who spoke both Hebrew and Arabic to show themselves and assist the IDF with its business… because 1) why would they assign Arabic-speakers to a checkpoint used almost completely by Arabic people; and 2) why would politeness be a good idea when attempting to solicit help from the people around her? Anyways, with the cacophony of her shrill interrogative speech in the background, I cued up underneath a bank of 5 CCTV cameras, always watching everyone in the place. If the high metal fences, barbed wire, steel armor-plated command rooms, and low-sound quality police-style loudspeakers didn’t already make the character of the place clear, the fact that we were constantly being watched only added to the “fun” of the experience.

There was a man several people ahead of me who got through with two other Arab guys, as they only let 3 people through Security Turnstile #2 at a time. This poor man was late for some sort of important meeting, I gleaned from the people in the crowd around me. He had papers with him, and yet after politely explaining himself, and then more hurriedly pleading, then outright yelling, then begging to be let through, the soldiers would not let him pass. As a matter of fact, they told him that he would have to pass through the Huwarra checkpoint before getting into Jerusalem again. Well, “they” isn’t quite right – an IDF grunt came out of his armored room with full battle gear and weapon at the ready to “explain.” The individual who called himself a soldier added insult to injury – while telling the man what he needed to do, he refused to make eye contact with him even once. I cannot explain why – perhaps he is very racist and doesn’t like Arabs (which I have seen in soldiers here), but more likely he was uncomfortable that he was the one chosen to tell this poor man he had to go all the way to Huwarra. Huwarra, where the Arab guy just came from. Huwarra, which is an hour and 15 minutes drive to the north. The dejected man left and started to the north… again, because he had no choice when the “legitimized” force of the military compelled him to do so.

This would all be accompanied by photographs, but the IDF doesn’t take kindly to people recording the truth.

I suppose that there is only one way to end this post – I truly have to pose the following question, as many people seem to have never thought of it. At the end of the day, it is truly worth treating human beings like hardened criminals and animals, and forcing them to wait for long periods of time for a sort of Russian Roulette to get see if they’ll get through the gate this time? Besides the fact that this only causes hurt and doesn’t create too much in the way of “security,” consider the further implications. Do supporters of the military occupation as a method of achieving “security” REALLY believe that treating the innocent, both young and old, like prisoners is really going to incline them to want to like Israel, or coexist with Israel, or even acknowledge Israel as a country; as an equal?

Watchtower and High Fences

For Théo’s birthday, which was a few weeks earlier, a couple of us decided to go up to Haifa for a soccer game. He is a huge fan of soccer, and Justine, Eti, and I are also big fans, so it promised to be a good time.

We left Jerusalem very early, at like 4 in the afternoon, because Eti explained that getting seats at an Israeli soccer game is not so easy as having tickets – you might have a seat number on your ticket, but getting said seat all depends on getting there early enough. We took the bus up to Haifa, which was a fairly smooth trip. Arriving, Mr. Pitilon picked us up and drove us towards the stadium. As a former cab driver, he knows all the best nooks and crannies to park one’s car in the city, and we got the ideal mix between close proximity to the stadium/ease of driving away afterwards ratio.

We walked up to the stadium (which in typically Israeli fashion looked more like a prison than a sports venue, with high concrete walls, barbed wire, CCTV cameras, and machine gun-wielding police all over the place), and waited to get our tickets. Again, in typical Israeli fashion, they compartmentalized all the entrances to the stadium so that you had to enter into the stadium by the gate closest to your seat, thus allowing for many, many more security guards and quick lines. I was livid, though – they told me I couldn’t bring my water bottle into the stadium (I understand the “make people buy overpriced beverages” line of business), but they wouldn’t even let me bring it in empty. I have carried that water bottle across a couple of continents now, and it has served me well. I tossed it off behind a pillar and was luckily able to retrieve it later, but the principle of the matter still irked me.

We got inside very early (by like 2 hours) and got our seats, and watched the stadium start filling up slowly. Then, it began to fill more quickly. Then the floodgates REALLY opened (as the ticket office fixed several of the printers which had wonked out at the same time), and suddenly the stadium was FULL. Not like “every seat with a person” – more like “every seat with at least one person, and then the stairs and walkways filled with people on their feet the entire game. Full.

The game started in earnest, and was enjoyable experience. It was entertaining to watch portions of the stadium all grasp their heads in anguish as if choreographed – if Haifa missed a shot, the green portions of the stadium would simultaneously all be outraged. Haifa was definitely the better team for the entire game, with the only factor preventing a bigger disparity in end scores being the Tel Aviv goalie.

It was a long, long, long trip back to Jerusalem, with a car ride, a train ride, and a shared taxi ride all involved. I eventually got into my room and thus had my first experience of being awake late enough in Jerusalem to hear the Al Aqsa call to prayer for the really devout Muslims. As the next post will explain, it was to be the first of 8 consecutive nights being up past 4 AM, but the only one of those nights not spent working the whole way through.

Here is a short video I took, of the end of one Haifa soccer chant that involved the two halves of the stadium responsively yelling; the second part is the ever popular “haYarok Oley,” or “the Green is on the rise,” referring to Haifa’s team colors.

And a couple of photographs I took – the best one is the shot I got of the Tel Aviv goalie missing one of the shots, what ended up being the winning goal for Haifa.

Preemptively, please take note of the intended specific use of “attempted” in the title, and know that my respect for the IDF, Israeli police, and “security” guards just dropped another 5 or maybe 6 notches.

After a grueling week of working on papers, the Vietnam trip application, and a million things in between, I had a bright spot scheduled into my week. As Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel was only the third time in history that a Pope would visit this land, I desperately wanted to see and ideally hear him speak. I was in luck; my neighbor in Reznik is an Israeli-Arab Christian (that is one heck of a mix, right?), named George. He is a native of Nazareth, where the Pope was to speak on Thursday of his time here, and George’s family was nice enough to secure a ticket for me as well (we had been planning on this trip for over a month). As a matter of fact, my Class B1 (don’t know what that refers to) ticket is number 11901. I was all set and ready to go, and George assured me that leaving very early the morning of the event would leave me plenty of time. A mistake, as it turned out.

From the moment I walked out of my dorm at 7:05 AM, I was already accosted by IDF units lining the streets on Mount Scopus. As a short background, the only helipad in Jerusalem is adjacent to the Kfar haStudentim, the Student Village; given that the Pope was staying on the Mount of Olives, his route took him across the campus every day twice, which meant they absolutely closed down the place like a military prison. Therefore, instead of being able to simply walk down the hill to a bus (no traffic on the hill meant NO traffic), I had to waste 30 minutes explaining in Hebrew that yes, I had a ticket to go see the Pope, and yes, I realize that he was going to be driving this way soon, and yes I realize that the buses aren’t running on the hill, and yes I know I have to walk to a bus… as was my original intention. A lovely start to the day. It got worse; I was told to get on the wrong bus for the Israeli Central Bus Station, and thus eventually asked, found out I was misinformed, and jumped off the bus and took a cab over to the right place. I ran upstairs to the upper level and found… that the last bus towards Nazareth had recently departed, and although it was 8:12 AM, I had to wait until 9:30 AM for the next bus. Lovely.

One of the few high points of the day was the fact that the Jerusalem-Afula (the nearest drop point to Nazareth) was running on time, and quickly to boot. We got there a bit faster than the given transit time, and then I ran over and caught the connecting bus to Nazareth. As we approached, I saw massive impromptu parking lots on farmer’s fields, and police restricting traffic very much so, only allowing vehicles to approach Nazareth South. Fair enough, as the Mount of the Precipice (where the crowds gathered to hear the Pope) is on the northern part of the city. The driver let me off, and I could already see the massive 70,000 person crowd about 2 kilometers away. What was insane is that I could also hear them singing hymns from that distance… I have trouble imagining the noise to be within that crowd. I asked a policeman (in Hebrew mind you) how to get to the Pope, and he disinterestedly told me that he wasn’t from there, and didn’t know. Lovely. I started wandering towards the general direction of the hill, and picked one side of the street to wander down. That ended up being a mistake.

I arrive at the bottom of the hill, having noticed along the way that the street was gradually becoming more fortified, with police officers lining temporary metal barricades and preventing me or anyone else from crossing. I politely explain that I a Christian pilgrim, with both a Bible on me AND an authentic ticket to see the Pope, and they respond gruffly that I can “go through in a couple of moments.” Israelis and Arabs are less polite; they attempt to cross. They are made to back up and get behind the barricades by police threats of force, at which point the scum that had police uniforms on resumed asking how each other’s families were doing and other small talk. So it was a “dangerous” situation for Christian pilgrims, dehydrated tourists, and natives of the town to try and cross, but not so dangerous that those bastard police would need to be on the look-out for much of anything.

To make a long, deeply- and intensely-frustrating story short, I was trapped behind that barrier for 3 hours. I did not get to walk the last kilometer and see the Pope, even though I had a ticket and could see the area of the crowds and his stage from where I was trapped by the unnecessary, highly offensive use of oppressive police force. For 2 hours and 45 minutes, no one used the road. In the last 15 minutes, the Papal limousines drove by to pick up Benedict and his entourage. Apparently, seeing the Pope was not on the list of allowed actions by those so-called “police,” who seemed to derive pleasure from blindly but unwisely enforcing orders and thus creating visible distress amongst the dozens of people who just wanted to cross.

That tale of woe, finished, I also have to report that beyond the predominantly-Jewish police forces and soldiers preventing me from seeing the Pope all day long, George and I met up and walked around for a little while and had some “balancing out” by Muslim people around Nazareth. To be more clear: George was raised speaking Arabic, so he always knows what other Arabs are saying. I am clearly not Arabic, and he had a white-and-yellow Papal cap on, so we were clearly Christians in the eyes of the Muslims in the town. George explained to me that at the minimum, 80% of Muslim men and women we passed by called us either “pigs,” or “monkies,” or both in Arabic, due to our being Christian. This was just what I needed – after being treated like a criminal all day and thus losing the opportunity to see the Pope in the land of Israel for the third time in all of history, I really desired and required to be labeled a “pig and a monkey,” based on my religious beliefs. This wasn’t all; the Muslims who lived closest to the Greek Orthodox church said to house the original well from Mary and Joseph’s house decided to more clearly and openly signal their dislike for the Christian presence. They set up 2 subwoofers taller than I am, and blasted Latin American dance music pointing at the church, at an unthinkable level for even a party. The entire town square was rattling, and the message was clear: Christians aren’t welcome in the town of Jesus, according to the local Muslim population.

Days like that one make it harder and harder for me to fight what is right in this world. Having done nothing wrong, I was mistreated all day due to my lack of having a certain religion… I can only begin to fathom just how terrible life must be on average for George. To give more specific evidence, we met up after he got out of the Papal speeches and he had tears in his eyes: he explained to me that it was the most wonderful feeling in the entire world to feel like part of the majority and not a despised minority, if only for a few hours. I can almost tell you that hearing him say that and truly mean it almost made the rest of the day’s injustices easier bear, in a way. His family has invited me to stay at their house and tour the town when it ISN’T locked down tighter than the Guantanamo Prison… an offer I will take them up on, and hopefully blog about in the future.

Leaving Balata with a couple of the friends we had made, we got into a couple of taxis for the short distance ride over to the nearby city of Nablus (maybe 2 kilometers away?). We got out of the taxis in the main square of the city, and I was finally in one of the largest Palestinian cities, one that is firmly pro-independent Palestine. The square itself was a testament to this; the banners and crisscrossing lines with small flags depicting the colors and symbols of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the Palestinian National Liberation Front, and a couple other groups which have resorted to political violence. As per usual with Palestinian places, I was again immersed in a much more real type of “bustle” than any Israeli or American city could ever claim. People walking past and in between and around and through each other, all on their way to something but with a completely different sense of “personal space” and the lessened necessity of feeling the need to be on time. We met up with an acquaintance of the guys from Balata, a Brazilian man who works as a tour guide, or more accurately, head of public relations for Nablus. With him as our volunteer guide, we got quite the amazing tour of the Old City there that we couldn’t have gotten otherwise.

That guy knew EVERYONE.

Our first stop was an unexpected one; just like every other stop. We went into an olive oil soap factory, apparently a large part of the economy of Nablus (or at least it once was). We went inside a huge building where the the smell of olive oil was in the air, and got to walk in and amongst the boiling contraptions that prepared the oil for turning into soap. We walked up very narrow stairs that were slick with spilled olive oil, as all of the movement of things between levels of the building are done manually. The upstairs room of that soap factory is one of the coolest places ever… like the sort of place that is the dream of every child (and not a few adults), as half the floor is taken up by a giant cooling-to-a-solid retaining area for soap, and the other half is slippery enough that it puts most ice skating rinks to shame. Yes, even though I am now 21 (!), my shoes were worn down enough that I did me a little bit of “soap” skating, as it were. We slid on over to the next room over, which can only be described as the soap cooling towers room. They stack up the soap into chimney-like structures, and leave them there to age – as we were told, soap needs to be aged like fine wine, especially since they only offer fine soap 😀

We each bought some of the soap (which I have yet to use, now that I think about it), and departed for our next stop… a walking tour through parts of the Old City of Nablus. Amongst other things, we saw a famous old mosque whose name escapes me at the moment (but you can see it too in the photos); we also walked by an unbelievable number of small shrines and commemorative monuments to people, innocent or engaged in (sometimes armed) political opposition to the state of Israel, who have been killed. Although I don’t particularly appreciate the fact that many of those memorials have weapons and guns and calls to continue fighting as part of them, it was overwhelming to never walk more than 20 meters without seeing another plaque proclaiming that this person was killed at this spot by the IDF on this date. These were no fakes or mere propaganda, either – many of these sites, and plenty of stretches of walls in between were riddled with bullet holes. Hearing some of the accompanying stories to the destruction we witnessed was also horrifying. Attached is a photograph of a house undergoing reconstruction for the 11th time… and the 9th time it was destroyed, it was bulldozed by the IDF without any warning given to the occupants. The mother and 7 of the daughters of that family died, leaving a father with one son and his last surviving daughter to try and pick up the pieces. Perhaps it is “understandable” for outsiders and Israelis to subscribe to the “security” argument, but think for a moment – what good came of that IDF incursion? Innocent people were killed in a very graphic and public way; private property was treated with callous disregard and destroyed (again); the IDF didn’t get whichever alleged terrorist they were looking for; and maybe 1, maybe 5, maybe 20 more residents of the West Bank now had additional impetus to consider political violence as their only course of action. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard an Israeli/foreign supporter of Israel tell me that “this is what those terrorists do to us; how can we make peace with them?” in a tone of moral indignation and with the assumption of automatically holding the moral high ground. Now, forgive me for trying to apply systematics to my experiences and the way the world works, but is it so different for innocent people to get killed by a terrorist attack with a bomb (thus destroying a building) as compared with other innocent people getting killed by a bulldozer (thus destroying a building as well)? Did either of the sets of innocent people have any warning? Did either of the sets of innocent people do anything wrong? This is the point in time when far too many people I know would make an “it was in the name of security” argument, which I categorically reject. That sort of argument has the built-in assumption that somehow it is worse for innocent Israelis to die as compared with innocent Palestinians, which is racism at its ugliest (particularly since I routinely hear these sorts of sentiments from individuals who are in the liberal American system of higher education, supposedly).

That put out there for your consideration, we eventually stopped into another outstanding little anomaly… a former British Mandate prison converted into a candy factory. Nablus, it seems, is known as the “sweetest city in the West Bank,” as it apparently adds sugar to EVERYTHING. As my experiences that afternoon proved to be true. The candy factory was probably the best-smelling place I have ever been… imagine going into a place where very fine sugar powder and dust is in the air constantly, so the very air you breath in is a riot of various [delicious] flavors and sugary heaven, essentially. We also had some candied chickpeas, which were surprisingly delicious.

We stopped into a spice factory and retail shop, which holds a special place in my heart: to date, of all the places I have been in my life, this one wins the Most Eclectic Pile of Stuff award. As you can see in the photographs, they had everything from authentic Turkish fez and scimitars (check out the photo of me modeling them, Ralph Lauren-style) to World War II artillery shell casings-turned flower vases to everything in between. The spices also made the air in that place almost too strong; one breathed in a mix of the freshest coffee, cumin, saffron, cinnamon, and then HUGE barrels-worth of zatar… it smelled good, but when mixed together, it smelled… strong, lets put it.

We visited one of the original Turkish bathhouses in the city, and since it was a men’s day (they alternate genders on different days), only a few from our group were able to go in and see. I have never been to a place as humid as it was in that area… I actually couldn’t breath, it was so hot and steam-filled. It seems like I am not cut out for working shoveling coal into any trans-Atlantic ocean-liner’s boiler room. We were told that we HAVE to return and set up appointments to get the full body treatment, as we would feel like brand-new human beings afterwards (I have to wonder if that experience will renew my warranty).

The last major stop of the day was two-fold: first we stopped and got authentic, fresh kanafeh. Let me be a bit more emphatic… our buddy the tour guide brought us into a kanafeh shop’s kitchen and put us in the way of the poor guys just trying to cook the stuff, so we would know EXACTLY what we were about to eat and why we should expect to enjoy it. And my goodness gracious did we enjoy it… it is a base of fresh goat’s cheese on top of very thin pasta, and then all sweetened with fresh honey…. Even with that description and the photos of it, I still cannot successfully impart to you just how incredibly delicious that experience was. After eating that and walking around a little bit more, we eventually went for lunch in a hole-in-the-wall place owned by a buddy of our guide… but not just any buddy. This kindly old man was 1) a really good cook and 2) a retired HARDCORE Communist from back in the day, when he did prison time under the British and so forth. Good times, and good food… although I think some of the vegetables were unwashed, as I was very, very sick for several days after returning home.

We had some intensely sweet drinks at a cafe (like, fresh lemonade + 2 lbs of sugar and then some sort of fruit syrup + whipped cream ambrosia mmmmmmm), and then departed for the long, long trip back to Jerusalem. Check out the next post for the end of the story. (I am aware that this post and the last post have some pictures not flipped the right direction; I tried fixing it and nothing worked, so they remain as they are for now)

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to travel with some good friends up north to the city of Nablus (I talk about that part of our visit in the next blog post) and the nearby UN refugee camp known as Balata, because of the village they still lease the land from. Operated by the UN since its creation in 1950, the camp today is incredibly large in terms of population, but extremely small physically: it is a one square kilometer piece of land with 26,000 people living on it. The official UN figure given is closer to 22,000, but they haven’t done a recent census according to the refugees who showed us around the camp. That is getting slightly ahead of myself, though; the trip to even get there is quite an endeavor in and of itself.

We departed in the early morning on Saturday, taking an Arabic bus from outside the Student Village towards the nearby Palestinian provisional capital of Ramallah (as a point of pronunciation, think “ruh-MULL-lah”). On the way, we had to pass through the massive walls around Jerusalem, and then walk through them on foot to go find a shared taxi towards the north. In the middle of Ramallah, the taxi drivers all congregate in a massive parking garage structure where there isn’t really enough room for all the vehicles present, but nevertheless they eke out a successful living based on squeezing people in between taxi vans to climb in for the ride. And what a ride it turned out to be – a whole bunch of firsts for me that day. It was the first time I got to see the very conservative fashion for Muslim women, where they wore not only a hijab (head-covering) and a long skirt, but also a veil and even gloves, to cover all skin except for their eyes. It was the first time I had driven through a large Palestinian town which was so clearly Muslim in character, so the character of the street was different than Bethlehem for example, where one could see nuns walking past Muslim girls with their hijabs. We got to see a great many settlements on our way north, since our status as foreigners afforded us the right to take the settler’s road which had much fewer roadblocks and was of much higher quality than the roads taken care of by the Palestinian Authority. The two other points of interest were things I was unable to get photographs of as we drove by so quickly. First, we drove past a small Palestinian neighborhood’s town square with a monument in the middle. It wasn’t just any monument, however; it was a stone tablet with the iconic image of Saddam Hussein firing a gun upon the front, and the Iraqi coat of arms going down the side. Not what I was expecting to see, but that is how life goes here. Speaking of which, the other point worth mentioning was that we passed by a Palestinian furniture store being raided by 10 or more IDF soldiers, but it seemed fairly calm – perhaps a “routine” check or some such? I will never know, but it was another reminder of where we were.

We had to get out of one van and into another at a certain checkpoint, and traveled the rest of the way to our final destination. We arrived in the outskirts of Nablus near the Jacob’s Well church, and walked towards the Balata camp entrance. One of my friends, Zehra, is a student who spent a summer volunteering with the people of the camp to try and alleviate the suffering of the 6,000 children there through enabling them to plan, set up, and then film short movies about whatever subject they can think of. As such, many people in the camp knew Zehra and we were treated as esteem guests. We went in and already saw the signs of problems – many of the buildings were very old already, and the first several signs of the UN looked rusty enough to be the original signs from 1950.

We got into the Cultural Center (read more about it in the next paragraph), and got a minor introduction to the state of affairs in the camp. Everyone who currently lives there is either still a refugee from the 1948 Israeli declaration of statehood, or has inherited the status from being born into the camp. Unfortunately, the presence of 26,000 people in such a small community which is only residential means that many of them are unemployed. We were told (and the following is merely reporting what we were told, not personal opinions on my behalf) that the IDF makes it their practice to invade the streets of the camp at night and either kill or make warrantless arrests of individuals from the camp. This was awful to hear, but it is also important to remember the other side of the story: Nablus and Balata have been hotbeds of active and violent resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, spawning such groups as the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade (see the photographs – I got within 10 feet of their Martyr’s Shrine with their distinctive yellow flag flying above it, which is slightly concerning in retrospect). I cannot pass an easy moral judgment on the situation, and for good reason: this entire conflict is one huge exercise in “who can you actually blame for the original wrong committed?” Is it the fault of poor and frustrated Palestinian refugees raised in an environment free of hope and opportunities? Is it the fault of Israel for continuing the occupation? Is it the fault of the British Mandate for not doing a better job at ceding their control of this area? Is it the fault of Abraham for favoring Isaac (according to the to Jewish tradition) over Ishmael (who is the favored son in the Muslim tradition)? These are only partially rhetorical, as both sides have done all sorts of things wrong. Perhaps the situation would benefit from 1) both sides being able to admit that they have done wrong and thus contributed to the situation and 2) after apologizing to the other side, working with them towards a one-state solution (a two-state solution, I am sorry to report from personal experience, is an awful idea that cannot work-more on this opinion in a future post).

Amidst all of the difficulties, there exists at least one island of calm and healing. This organization is known as the Yafa Cultural Center (YCC), and their name refers to the Arabic city of Yafa/Jaffo, which since the 1950’s expanded and grew into Tel Aviv. They named it this because many of the residents of the camp are from the city of Jaffo, and they feel the need to educate the younger generations about their culture that they were forced to leave behind, and also provide creative and constructive outlets for the rage and sensation of being powerless shared by most of the children in the camp. In addition to being staffed entirely by people who were born and grew up in the camp, the staff plans daily activities of all sorts to keep the kids busy and focused on something other than the problems. As one of our guides explained, they will fight tooth and nail to ensure that this current generation of kids grows up understanding what “hope for the future” means, as the previous generation did not. Although much of what we encountered that day was terrible and saddening and hopeless, there was a humorous detail amidst the hope of this cultural center. Apparently, using a donated computer lab, many of the children of the camp all take turns playing daily rounds of Counterstrike. I am not kidding – they spend a lot of time playing rounds of a computer game famous for placing terrorists against counter-terrorists, and the kids do this to reduce internal senses of aggression and violence that can and do arise from their situation. Having spoken with some of the kids, I can tell you that they had intense positive gains from this virtual method of letting out anger; I am intrigued by the possibility of doing some sort of study there, although the reality is that I would be not entirely safe (given the consistent IDF-resistance clashes that take place there).

I don’t know how to impart all of what I saw and hear and experienced for most of that Saturday in Balata. I have attempted to impart some of what the experience is like, but I think the only way I can even come close to truly conveying the experience is to have a conversation with interested parties in person; face-to-face. That is an offer, by the way, to whomever is so interested on my return home.

The photographs I have chosen to include offer a good mix of the positive and negative aspects of life in the Balata Camp; I just want to try and show what life is like for those 26,000 people visually.

This past Friday, I was blessed enough to have the opportunity to go over to the Mount of Olives and help my friends at the LWF plant some olive trees. People who donate money to the work that the LWF does in this land get an olive tree planted in their name in the groves already on the Mt. of Olives, and they are always planted with the help of volunteers.

I woke up early and walked over; same as usual, all except for one detail. As the Pope will be arriving tomorrow (Monday afternoon), the Israeli government has put up a whole bunch of Vatican flags, banners, and standards all over the city on the street lights (in between Israeli flags and the banners of the city of Jerusalem that is). They have been up for several days now, but my walk over to volunteer was the first time it was a nice day AND I had my camera to take some photos (see the attached).

In any event, I arrived to the LWF office and met with Mark Brown and my friend Tyler, and several of the other volunteers. We grabbed some shovels and spades, and went off into the yard to look for suitable locations to plant the trees. We eventually found the ideal locations, and set to digging. I showed the people working with me a couple of tricks on how to properly use the spade to break ground and loosen the soil, so that a person with a shovel can clear it away and thus the job gets done more quickly.

The first tree was the easier soil; the second location had a MASSIVE stone underneath it, and one of the spades was seriously mauled/bent out of shape when someone tried to break through it with a few swings too many. I went over and using my VERY limited Arabic, asked some Palestinian guys working on a sewage pipe system if I could borrow their pickax. They gave it to me, and off I went to break through rock the old-fashioned way. Considering that 1) I still had blisters from Dohar’s farm the weekend before; 2) the pickax was covered in bits of dried cement; and 3) I had no gloves, I did in fact manage to break through the huge rock enough to plant the tree, but at the cost of destroying my left hand (to the tune of multiple blisters 😦

That said, it was an excellent experience. All of the people I was working with are genuinely good people, which is always great. Similarly, the work we did is not only something I enjoy, but it happens to be vitally important for the people of this region. The olives from that olive grove are harvested by volunteers, and then pressed by a Palestinian company. They are bottled in hand-blown glass, done by Palestinian folks, and then shipped internationally for sale. After paying the low costs of production, the remainder of the proceeds directly pay for the health care of Palestinian people from Gaza and the West Bank. Although the couple of hours I spent working a few days ago won’t directly help anyone for a few years, and although those few hours of work won’t fix the entire problem here, I am content in the knowledge that the work I did do will end up perennially doing a little bit to help some of the people in this world who no one else looks out for. I hope I will have more opportunities to do things like this in the future.

And, for those of you who are interested, the aforementioned olive oil is available for purchase. The details can be found here.

The information sheet for the combined class trip to the Galilee today was interesting, as the professor made a point of putting the date using both the Gregorian calender (May 7, 2009) as well as the Jewish calender date (13 Iyar 5769). And, without further ado, the trip:

Bet Alfa
The first stop of our trip was at a kibbutz from the middle of the 1900’s. During the clearing of the land and improvements to make it into a kibbutz, they discovered a beautiful mosaic underneath the topsoil. Digging further, and actually bringing in the Hebrew University (it was their first archaeological dig, as a matter of fact), they discovered the remains of a local, village-based synagogue. The remains are now inside of a building, with a short video presentation explaining the different parts of the mosaic. I say it was a village-based mosaic, as the quality of it is clearly lacking, denoting that they had to use a cheap and therefore less-skilled mosaic artist to do the work. The photos I attached do a good job of highlighting this, as the human figures are not proportionate, intended symmetry is not quite so symmetrical, and so forth. At the same time, it was really neat to see that a local community had saved the money necessary to adorn their house of worship with artwork.

My personal favorite part of the mosaic was the representation of the Binding of Isaac, at the base of the mosaic and closest to where the entrance would have been. The artist couldn’t quite fit the figures properly, but the entirety of the story is there (even a minuscule cloud with the Hand of God coming out of it to stop Abraham from killing his son). For other people, it was a deeply religious experience to pray outside the synagogue while facing Jerusalem, so everyone enjoyed the first stop on the trip.

Yardenit
Departing the synagogue, we traveled up to the north of Israel, stopping right near the “Island of Peace” mentioned in a prior blog post on the border with Jordan. We went west, and stopped at the Yardenit, which is one of the few places that people can go to baptized in the Jordan River. As I mention in one of the photograph’s captions, our group was ironically mostly Jewish, and yet there we were, watching as a few groups of pilgrims got baptized in the Jordan. Some of the guys with us even had kippas and tsi-tsi (the strings hanging from their belts), so I feel as though we were one of the most unique groups to ever visit there. In addition to the well-thought-out place for people to easily and safely walk into the Jordan, there were also multiple panels with a verse from Mark, in a HUGE number of languages. Although I have pictures of the Latin, English, and Scottish Gaelic, they had anything ranging from Sri Lankan to Georgian to anything else you can imagine. It is reminiscent of the church in Jerusalem which has the Lord’s Prayer in hundreds of languages (which I will be visiting soon).

Hamat Tiberias
The third stop on our trip was the ruins of an ancient synagogue on the edge of the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, the Kinneret). We enjoyed the view of the Sea, and walked into the property of the ancient ruins/natural springs. Professor Fishman told us all sorts of details about the place, both facts and and conjecture about the site. Among my favorite parts of the entire day was her explanation of the remains of the mosaic floor we were regarding. Smack-dab in the middle of the floor was not only a pagan Zodiac wheel, but the center of that was Helios, the Greek god of the sun. That is almost unbelievable, that an artistic floor in a Jewish house of worship could have a god from a different religion featured prominently in the work. She explained to us that many Jewish and Christian people of the 3rd and 4th century actually took in many Greek beliefs and worked to make them compatible, with people paying respects to the sun before going to church/synagogue.

Kfar Nahum (Capernaum)
We drove a bit down the road, to the remains of Kfar Nahum, or as Christianity has derived the name, Capernaum. We drove past THE Mount, as drawn from the “Sermon on the Mount” on the way in. Going into the grounds of the ancient village, we noticed several points of interest immediately. First, the warning side telling us that our 1) Dogs; 2) Cigarettes; 3) Guns; and 4) Short clothing were not welcome on the grounds (plus, our security guard waltzed right in with his pistol strapped to his side). Second, there was a beautifully-rendered sculpture of Peter greeting all pilgrims and visitors. There was also a long line of recovered columns, and the professor gave us some background information on what we were seeing.

We walked over to the ruins of the fishing village itself, and got to admire what Jesus prophesied (correctly): that Capernaum would never become large nor prosperous. The village was right next to two important buildings: first, an ancient ruined synagogue which was still partially intact, and then the church built on raised pillars above the home of Simon Peter. The synagogue had its rear wall still standing, as well as parts of the side and back walls. There were the remnants of pillars, and so we all sat on the top of the destroyed wall to listen to the professor go on to explain why the beautiful building was constructed during a period of time in which Roman law forbid the construction of new synagogues, and Christian sensibilities were against any ornate Jewish houses of worship (the belief at that time was that the Jews were to be a defeated people, as the professor explained).

We eventually departed the synagogue to go examine the house of Simon Peter, where one of the funniest things in the world happened. The professor, a kindly little old lady with a New York accent, short of stature and high in knowledge, basically the archetype for the coolest grandmother ever, pulled a fast one on all of us. The second sentence in as she explained the significance of Peter’s house being a church at first, and then later getting expanded, was that “the followers of JEEZ-us believed….” I wrote it that way because this short Jewish woman managed to pronounce the name “Jesus” like a fiery Southern Baptist preacher, and that pleases me to no end 🙂

I took the offer to go and pray for a moment in the church (it has been a very rough week, in all honesty), and so I walked up the stairs into the oddly-shaped sanctuary. I sat down to pray, and at the same time I was taken in by the absolute beauty of the room I was in. While not Spartan in design, the room was suitably simple for most of the space but then had two aspects that truly made the place special: 1) the wonderful wood-carving panels around the room; and 2) the fact that the glass panels in the middle of the floor looked down into the home of Simon Peter. A really neat place.

Heptapegon (Tagbha)
We walked out of the remnants of Capernaum and took the bus for a 4 minute ride down to another place right on the water; the Hetpapegon Church. The fancy name refers to the seven loaves (and 2 fish) that Jesus used to feed a crowd of 5,000 and the traditional location of it. We went inside the church and were treated to some jolly, happy German pilgrims singing a hymn. Our group went first to the right side of the church to examine the portion of the Nile River mosaic on the side, the more damaged portion. It is nearly as odd to the find the pagan symbol of the Nile River (fertility, the Nile gods, etc) on the floor of a Christian church as it was to find Helios firmly on the floors of several synagogues; I suppose the respective peoples enjoyed the imagery and wanted to incorporate it. In the case of this church, perhaps it can be understood that THE church signifying Jesus’ miraculous multiplying of food to have THE symbol of fertile growth of food from the ancient world represented artistically.

We went to the other side of the sanctuary, and enjoyed the other part of the mosaic. On our way out, I noticed and commented on the fact that “this is the first church I have ever seen with a koi pond.” My fellow classmate and tour member Micah pointed out to me, in an understated way, that “yeah, but how many times have you been to a church where Jesus multiplied bread and fish to feed thousands?” I lost that round, it appears :/

Tsippori
We departed and drove towards Nazareth, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. We arrived at yet another synagogue, and it was neither the best nor the worst of what we saw that day. Check out the photographs, as I posted the explanatory board from the place which shows the entire mosaic floor and the various meanings.

Bet She’arim (Catacombs)
We ended our excellent trip the way every excursion into the world should end… with a trip to a massive network of caves filled with coffins and tombs 😦
In all seriousness, though, we went in even though we had gotten there 17 minutes before they were set to close, and in the typical Israeli style, we argued aggressively enough that they let us in, as “we had come so far” and “were such good students, how couldn’t the let us in?” The professor leading our trip was quite the lady, to be sure.

We looked around what really was a set of caves filled with coffins of stone (some decorated, some whole, some broken, and some plain). The photos do justice to what we saw, and I unfortunately didn’t catch so much of what the professor had to say due to there being lots of people and only a small corridor at points to try and get close within to listen to her.

All in all, an excellent trip that was very informative and well-planned.

In the middle of our tour of Sderot with Jacob, he offered to take us up to the best observation point overlooking the Gaza Strip, to which we readily agreed. We drove over towards the Israeli side of the border, passing next to a kibbutz on our way.

Arriving at a gate, Jacob told us we had to get out of the car and walk up to the parking lot. It was a large gravel parking lot with several interesting features immediately around it. First of all, there was an iteration of the ubiquitous IDF watchtower on the edge of the lot, but with more fortifications around it than usual. It was part of a line of widely-spaced towers, giving us a clear idea of the Israeli side of the line, but not where the border line was exactly. There was a public IDF memorial to a Druze general who had fallen in battle. The middle of the parking lot was some sort of electronics/radio tower. Finally, on the edge of the parking lot was a civilian observation tower on the side of a small hill, with an artistic rendition of a map of the Gaza Strip in front of it.

We immediately walked towards the tower, and Jacob started giving some orientation and facts about the Strip. He pointed out the power station at Ashkelon, the location of Gaza City, the huge bare land in the middle of Gaza where the Israeli government bulldozed Jewish settlements and then forced the settlers to leave, and so forth. He pointed out something terrible to see – in the midst of 3-story buildings of the Strip as far as the eye could see, there were 7 or 8 huge, brand-new-looking skyscrapers. He explained to us that those are condominium-style apartments, built by Yasser Arafat with misused international aid money for use by his cronies. I don’t know if that is entirely true, but those buildings were too out of character to just accept them as they were.

We continued to listen to what he had to say, but three major facts really stood out to me. First of all, even from the distance of 1 kilometer, I could tell that major parts of the Strip were simply piles of rubble, left over from the recent Operation Cast Lead. As construction materials are illegal to bring into Gaza at present (see my previous blog post for the reasons given for this), people simply have not been able to rebuild much of anything. Second, Jacob expressed all sorts of excitement at going up to the lookout point as it was so obviously a clear and bright day. Once we got there, I was surprised that Gaza seemed so cloudy and foggy. It was explained to me that there is simply that much pollution coming off of Gaza, so as to make it look like it was cloudy only over that part of the land. That is deeply distressing, in and of itself.

Finally, the sort of “**GASP** Gaza” sentiments that we kind of had before getting there were at least partially dispelled by our time spent at the observation point. It was refreshing to see that although people inside the Strip do fire rockets, and Hamas does indeed mistreat its own people very much so, and all of the other known (and unknown, un-mourned) tragedies that occur; it is also just a piece of land with people on it, many of whom just want to live in peace and let their kids get an education and be successful. Just the same as most other places in the world, so it is intensely saddening for me that the peaceful people therein are punished alongside and because of the actions of those evil people located there. As Jacob’s explanations confirmed further, and my own personal experiences have highlighted, there is an aspect to this conflict that is not often-discussed by anyone. While the Israelis are unfortunately attacked and hurt and damaged by some Palestinian people who resort to violence, the majority of the Palestinian people are victims to both some Israelis (settlers, and sometimes members of the IDF, unfortunately), as well as every single Palestinian political force/government which has yet been formed. They have either been rife with corruption (Fatah), or they have been completely undemocratic and fairly extremist in their actions (the PLO, Hamas). I hope and pray for the day when the Palestinian people have a representative political group which has the best interests of individual Palestinians in mind in place of personal political concerns, or any of the other number of issues that currently exist.

Here are the photographs I ended up taking of the area (they are as clear as I could focus them, considering the large amount of pollution emanating from the Strip):

This past Wednesday, I organized a trip for myself and a few friends to go visit the Israeli town of Sderot. Located a mere kilometer from the border with Gaza, the town has unfortunately been shelled by rockets and mortar fire for 8 consecutive years at this point. I wanted to go experience it personally, and my friends wanted to go with me. As such, I contacted the Sderot Media Center, as I had heard of the tours they offer of the situation there to anyone and everyone who is interested. I spoke with a guy named Jacob, and he explained to me what to do (rent a car, and drive down there), and so the trip was set up…

…all except for unexpected difficulties in dealing with the Avis car rental people. Théo had reserved the car for 1 day for a price of 70 euros, which we all agreed was a fair deal. We got there, and the Israeli woman working the desk was absolutely unwilling to deal with us or even allow us to take the car we had reserved. After arguing with her, as well as the manager, we actually eventually ended up getting the car for 2 days instead of 1, and for a mere 56 euros. Not sure how that worked out, as the bulk of the arguing had to be done by Théo, as he is 25 and thus old enough (24 or older) to rent a car in Israel. We eventually got the keys and car itself, and thus were on our way. I am glad that Théo was both required and willing to drive, as drivers in both Israel and Palestine are incredibly unsafe in their habits.

We drove along the beautiful route and had the requisite conversations making fun of the various nationalities present in the car (all in good fun, as I am indeed a horse-riding cowboy who only eats hamburgers and drinks Coca Cola 🙂 ). We were surprised that we got there so fast (it was only about an hour’s drive), and so I called Jacob. After a bit of phone tag, we eventually figured out that he was in a car two behind us, so we followed him into the center of town and the Media Center.

Getting out of the car and introducing ourselves, we went inside and already got to see one Qassam rocket. We met some of the other people there, many of whom have lived in the United States/were previously citizens there (Jacob is from Silver Springs Maryland, as a matter of fact). We first went and visited the police station of Sderot, which is always on the tours offered by the Center. We went inside and out to their back yard, and got to look at the stacks of Qassam rocket bodies and other rocket remnants. Jacob explained that these were only a sampling of the rockets which have fallen, as the police take them away. Every rocket is marked with paint showing the time and date of when it fell, and there are other immediate details. First of all, the rockets are predominantly constructed from metal irrigation piping for the body, and then carved-up street signs for the fins. This is already worse than merely rockets being fired, as all the innocent people in Gaza are consistently regarded as complicit in the construction and launching of those rockets, and thus are also punished by the bans on irrigation materials, construction equipment/materials, and many types of foods (they cannot get spaghetti noodles, as apparently they can be melted down into some sort of fuel substitute). The rockets are filled with ball bearings and bolts and the like, in order to create more shrapnel. Nasty stuff.

We left the police station and went to the newly fortified playground in the middle of a residential area. This playground has two brand-new cement caterpillars, but they are different than anything else of similar appearance in the world. These two are 7-inch thick reinforced tubes of cement (one big difference) which are painted joyfully and colorfully on the outside, but have an additional feature on the inside. They have orange rings painted, so that the kids know how far back into the tube they need to get during alarms in order to avoid getting killed/wounded by shrapnel from the rockets. That is in and of itself disgusting, awful, terrible, and the reality for these children. Beyond the obvious, additional details from the tour later highlighted one of my fears as being true: the majority of the kids in Sderot grow up with the rockets and hearing about the Gazan source of those rockets, so they will probably be unable to easily consider any sort of peaceful resolution to the situation as a result. I am also sorry to report that beyond being obviously inclined to support the citizens of Sderot with what he had to say, Jacob voiced a fair number of fairly racist sentiments, such as correcting us, his guests, every time we said “Palestinians” – he insisted that we say “Arabs,” as he felt that all of them are the same (evil) people. Highly unfortunate, especially since we walked away from the playground and noticed a house getting a bomb shelter built as an addition. The laborers on top were Palestinian, and although I captured a shot of the entire situation without seeing them at first, they protested to other people taking any photos – Jacob told us to take photographs anyways, as (and I quote directly) “they have no power here.” I wish I could report otherwise.

We departed for a street which had been hit hard by the rockets, and Jacob continued his explanation of events in Sderot. We saw partially destroyed houses awaiting repairs, and we also saw fully demolished homes which have no chance of being repaired and simply need to be knocked down the rest of the way. He showed us a synagogue and told us a chilling story: a few years ago, there was a 450-person event in the synagogue at some point in the afternoon. The majority of the people departed for their homes, save for one family who stayed behind to help clean up from the festival. Her children were playing out in the street (thank God), and the father was in the back part of the synagogue doing some work. The mother of the family finished cleaning the front room, and locked the doors to it so she could finish closing down the synagogue for the day. Mere minutes later, a rocket fell directly into that same front room, utterly demolishing it. No one was killed or hurt, but this should illustrate just how precarious life can be in Sderot, with destruction happening at any moment and essentially without warning (15 seconds worth of alarm, when it goes off [only part of the time due to weather conditions]). We ended our time on that street by examining the damage that the smaller Qassams cause to the pavement, which is no longer cost-effective to repair.

We departed that street and visited two more places within the city of Sderot. First, we went to one of the schools and saw something I never imagined happened in real life. One can read in history books about buildings being fortified, but I saw something entirely different. The schools in and around Sderot all have a dome constructed over of them, of 2-meter thick steel armor. This is way beyond sandbags or the usual in terms of fortifying a building, but for good reason; a school was once randomly hit by a rocket on Shabbat, but if it would have hit during classes, many kids would have died or been severely wounded (based on how the damage occurred).

After our visit to the lookout point over the Gaza Strip (see the next post), we got to visit the outside of something which has been featured in some news sources as of recently. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has funded and planned the construction of a massive fortified indoor playground for the kids of Sderot. Built within an abandoned warehouse in the industrial neighborhood of Sderot, the JNF has spent a bit over USD $5 million to partially rebuild it, then fortify it and fill it with playground equipment and a computer lab. We were unfortunately told to leave by a stern Israeli man who spoke no English, so we only got to see the outside (as you can see in the photographs).

In summary then, our trip to Sderot was a difficult but necessary experience. I am glad that I got to personally witness one of the many ways in which humanity can stoop so low and devalue human life, as it served as another major experientially-motivated reason as to why international religious aid work is my vocational calling in this life.