Just a thought

Earlier today this picture appeared on the Facebook page of the Israeli Embassy in Ireland. It is an image of the Sacred and Immaculate Heart, with the festive caption, “A thought for Christmas…If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought…”


My initial reaction was, “Smooth move, directing this picture and caption at a country where the population is a.) predominantly Catholic and b.) generally sympathetic to Palestine. PR skillz, u no have any.” Then I thought of something else.

This image of the Holy Hearts is hanging on the wall of my host family’s house in Bethlehem (only ours is kitschier and better). When I saw the embassy’s Christmas message, I thought of the family’s experiences during the Intifada, when the house was constantly being requisitioned by Israeli troops. They used to corral everyone into one corner, and my landlady was never allowed to be the one to wake her children: the soldiers pulled them out of bed at gunpoint. When the soldiers got thirsty my landlady used to give them water. Occasionally some of them became distressed and she and her husband would try to comfort them. There were times when the curfew lasted so long that the family ran out of food. Soldiers would bring their own meals into the house (sometimes hot pizza, with its appetising smell) and the kids just had to sit there and try to bear the hunger until such time as curfew was lifted and they could go to the shop.

Last year I ended up bringing an Israeli friend who was then performing his own military service into the house. (He was off-duty at the time, obviously, and before you ask – it’s a long story. I may tell it some day.) I was worried about how the family would react to him. Sure enough, my landlady wasn’t best pleased – but not because he was an Israeli Jew and a soldier to boot, but because, “If the army find out he has been here they can hurt him. You need to look after your friends, Vicky, he is a good boy.” She sat in the living room and talked with him, underneath the Holy Hearts image and the equally kitschy representation of the Last Supper.

That picture on the wall of one Bethlehem family home has witnessed a lot of things, but never hate of the sort that was exhibited by the embassy this afternoon. Just a thought.

When in crisis, drink tea

I am very tired after a couple of nights without sleep. Precipitated by the assault on Gaza and helped along by the chain-drinking of tea (when in crisis, drink tea – it is the British way), this bout of insomnia isn’t exactly wild fun.

This autumn Sameeha’s course of study in England drew to its close. We travelled to the Lake District together (I didn’t think she should leave England without seeing it) for what would be our last visit together for neither of us knows how long. Her house in Gaza City is barely a three-hour drive from me in Bethlehem, but getting into Gaza is still so hard, even with the easing on Rafah, that the best way for us to see one another is to jump on a plane.

“I need to do something radical with you before I go back home,” was her greeting.

I felt nervous. The last time she decided we needed to do something radical she attacked me with her makeup bag and tried to drag me into a nightclub. My toenails bore traces of scarlet nail polish for months. (It looked exactly like blood.) Fortunately this time she was content to hire a boat and row it out on Windermere. Considering that she can’t swim and I have a disability that means my arms and legs sometimes like to act autonomously of my brain, you would have thought that bobbing about in the middle of one of Britain’s largest and deepest lakes would have been an alarming experience. After the makeover it was positively relaxing.

Once we were far enough from shore, I laid down my oars. We sat in silence (an unusual condition for Sameeha). The lake swelled and sighed beneath us, cradling the boat. There was no sound apart from the waves on the wood and the occasional creak as an oar shifted in a rowlock. It was hard to believe that we only met in person just over a year ago; before that our friendship was based around our blogs and our Twitter accounts and the late-night Facebook chats that took place when both of us were being prevented from sleep (by drone strikes in her case, caffeine in mine). Levinas and Derrida, radical versus liberal feminism, inconvenient crushes on political Zionists (“Clarify that was you, not me!” I can hear her saying indignantly), the size of our backsides – you name it, and we have probably discussed it in the middle of the night. She feels like one of those people I’ve known forever.

“I’m OK,” she wrote. “I’m with family, all staring at the TV to anticipate what’s next. Habibti, this has been a hell of a week. I can’t sleep.”

“Probably just as well. It would hardly be reasonable for your family to have to cope with your snoring on top of everything else.”

Then she lost either Internet or electricity or both, and I was left in my cold room in the middle of the night, staring at the screen and wondering what I could possibly do. Apart from boil the kettle for the sixth time in three hours.

Ever-resourceful and knowing that she would not be able to reach my mobile in England, she has communicated her safety and unflagging spirits to me by texting one of my Israeli friends and cheerfully asking him to ask me if she might have my permission to kidnap him for ransom. Ever-obliging, he has done so. (You might think that getting his permission would be the more pertinent thing to do, but Sameeha and I are working on the establishment of the matriarchy.) “She says that she loves you, despite the unpleasant reminder of her snoring at a time like this, and she promises to treat me well and not feed me to any crocodiles.”

That wasn’t much, but it made me smile and will give me a slightly better sleep. I wish I knew that she had enjoyed the same. One of the last things I read from her before she lost Internet: “The sky is burning tonight. They’ve gone insane.”

I hope she has a kettle to hand. And some means of boiling it.


Talking about child trauma in Palestine

I’ve written an article about childhood under military occupation for the Israeli web magazine +972. After saying I’d write it, I hesitated. I sat down to write it every day and left the document blank every time. Two weeks went by before I finally got out what I wanted to say.

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Beware of my hunger

Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Roughly 1,600 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are on hunger strike. Just over a week ago, one of them collapsed during his court hearing after going for sixty-six days without food. He is Bilal Diab, and today marks the seventy-fourth day of his fight.

This wave of resistance from within the prison system itself began with Khader Adnan, a baker from the West Bank village of Arrabeh who started to refuse all food after he was arrested by the military and placed in what is euphemistically known as administrative detention. Prisoners are held without charge or trial, and their detention can be renewed indefinitely. Adnan had already been imprisoned multiple times. In a letter he gave to his lawyers during his hunger strike, he wrote, “The Israeli occupation has gone to extremes against our people, especially prisoners. I have been humiliated, beaten, and harassed by interrogators for no reason, and thus I swore to God I would fight the policy of administrative detention to which I and hundreds of my fellow prisoners fell prey.” His case captured international attention, with a close friend and co-activist of Bobby Sands writing from Ireland to offer support and call for Adnan’s immediate release.

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Art and apartheid: worlds apart

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am an MA student in Jewish Studies. A few weeks ago students taking Hebrew were encouraged to book tickets for Habima Theatre’s Hebrew-language performance of The Merchant of Venice as part of the ‘Globe to Globe’ Shakespeare festival.

During my undergraduate years (as a student of English literature) I practically lived at the Globe, developing incredible calf muscles as I stood through half of Shakespeare’s repertoire. The opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays presented in Hebrew by a theatre company intimately acquainted with Jewish history and heritage could have been a strong incentive to make a return trip (and maybe even invest in a seat this time).

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The least of these: a reflection on a bad choice

It was only half-eight in the morning, but it was already too warm for comfort. I could feel the acrid salty heat rising from the tarmac as I headed up the hill. The chapel was going to feel like an oven. Once again I caught myself fantasising about air conditioning, which not many people have in Palestine. Just imagine walking into a building and being met by a beautiful blast of cold air, and getting some iced grapefruit juice, and…


The order was issued in an American accent and preceded by an earsplitting whistle. I didn’t stop for the whistle. I never do. If people want to talk to me, they can start by addressing me as though I’m a person too and not an errant sheepdog who needs to be brought to heel. At “Stop!” I reluctantly obeyed. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast yet, and you don’t pick fights with M16-wielding men without at least having had a cup of tea beforehand.

The entrance to Bethlehem, viewed from inside the checkpoint complex.

He was not a soldier, but a civilian employee from the company that has been contracted to manage this particular checkpoint. (Military occupation is big business.) The sun glinted on his dark glasses and the barrel of his rifle. Behind him was a female guard who was gazing up at him adoringly from beneath her baseball cap. I know that look, and it’s never pretty. The way some guys start parading around the checkpoint like peacocks in flak jackets if there happens to be a female colleague anywhere in the vicinity is like something out of a David Attenborough zoological documentary on mating rituals. And what better way to demonstrate power, manliness, and general desirability than by harassing the odd passer-by? Frankly I don’t know how the female soldiers and guards manage to keep their legs together.

“I don’t want to go through the machsom,” I called out wearily, resigning myself to the game. I tried to step forward so that I could talk to him in my normal voice, but he gave another shrill blast of the whistle (ow) and held up the palm of his hand.

“Where are you going?”

“To church.” I pointed at the road that sloped off to my right, skirting the separation wall. The guard turned away and said something to his colleague. I took this as permission to move. I was wrong. The resulting whistle was loud enough to make my heart jump skittishly. “Wait!”

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Our trees beyond the fence

Posted in honour of Land Day.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the event at which this poem and song were presented. Arwa Abu Haikal insisted on reciting her mother’s poem before the choir sang the song, as she didn’t think she would be able to make it through the song without tears otherwise. Hearing the song, I understood why. I can’t be in Bethlehem this Land Day, but I’m sharing ‘Our Trees Beyond the Fence’ in the Land Day spirit.

No, this is not about security

All Palestinian adults from the West Bank or Gaza require a special permit to enter Israel. The permit often specifies the roads they are allowed to use, the window of time in which they can travel, how many hours they may remain at their destination, whether they can stay overnight (a rare privilege), and so on. Riding on Bus 21, the Palestinian bus that goes between East Jerusalem and central Bethlehem, I have witnessed soldiers boarding the bus and detaining passengers who had overstayed their allotted time in Jerusalem by half an hour. The rules on permits form an intricate web, but so far children have been relatively free of its tangles. The rule was that any child under sixteen could travel freely within the Green Line providing they were accompanied by a close relative who had a permit. But not any more.

Permit issued for a neighbourhood child

Permit issued to a neighbourhood child for Palm Sunday 2011. Photograph by Jenny Baboun.

Last year we noticed the changes creeping in. In April 2011, a toddler in our neighbourhood received his own permit. I burst into incredulous laughter when I saw Jenny’s photograph. I was sure that it was a spoof.  But it wasn’t. This Christmas, my colleague Toine’s two children – the youngest of them nine years old – also received permits. Many of their classmates were left out. This week, Toine’s wife Mary noticed that a permit had been issued for a two-year-old when she checked the lists to see if she and her family would be celebrating Easter in Jerusalem this year.

The use of the permit system to divide up families during what should be times of celebration is nothing new. As I wrote in my last post about checkpoint fun, it’s the norm for everyone in the family to get a permit but the grandfather and the eldest daughter, or the mother and the uncle. It’s arbitrary. The one consistent thing is the pitiful agitation that descends on each Christian family as Easter or Christmas draws near. (Muslim families experience the same thing during Ramadan and Eid.) They’ve got friends and relatives on the other side of that wall. Will they be visiting them, or won’t they? It lies in the hands of the military. And the justification for this is that it is essential to Israeli security.

Is it for security that permits are being issued to Palestinian children? This measure has not been implemented during a time of heated conflict. It has not been preceded by a wave of atrocities against Israeli civilians, masterminded by nine-year-old Tamer and perpetrated by two-year-olds who are barely toilet trained. It has been quietly implemented during a time of quiet. No one can look at this and justify it in the name of security, because if the two things were remotely related, why is it only happening now? And it has not happened without thought. It has been phased in slowly, smoothly, as is normal with so many of the rigid laws that govern every aspect of Palestinian daily life. “The method creates uncertainty,” Toine told me. “It gets people used to the new law before they implement it fully, it softens the will to resist.”

When a Palestinian Christian couple are given permits to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem, but their young children are not, what will they do now? Find babysitters and celebrate the holiest days of the Christian calendar away from their children? Choices like this make it harder to move around even when you have permission to leave Bethlehem, and the ties between West Bank Palestinians and their families, friends, and holy sites on the other side of the wall are slowly and quietly being eroded.

This is what military occupation looks like. And no, it’s not about security.

Graffiti on the separation wall: "I didn't ask to be Palestinian. I just got lucky."

Graffiti on the separation wall in Bethlehem.

When Jenny saw the toddler’s Palm Sunday permit last year, she wrote, “I thought ‘speak now, or forever hold your peace’. If we, Christians of the Holy Land, do not stand up and defend our rights to enter Jerusalem just like Jesus Christ did, then our children and grandchildren will never have the chance of even walking in the Old City. If a child needs a permit now, the worst is yet to come.” Her decision has been to boycott the permit system entirely. This means either sneaking into Jerusalem illegally, or confronting the soldiers over her right to pass.

Many people in Bethlehem have become desensitised to the occupation. I have good friends who are too afraid to fight for fear of losing what privileges they have. They cling to their permits like lifebelts; they don’t want to end up on the blacklist by confronting a soldier. Others just don’t see how a fight is even possible. They’re numb. But now a murmur of dissent is rising in Bethlehem. As I heard Palestinian friends discussing the new rules this evening, a song from Les Miserables came to mind:

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

At AEI we are responding to the change in the rules by designing permits for tourists, which will look exactly as Palestinian permits look, and give the holders the privilege of visiting the Church of the Nativity between the hours of three and five o’clock on alternate Thursdays or some such thing. This is to raise international awareness of local people’s difficulties; many tourists breeze through Bethlehem in their chartered coaches without learning much about the inhabitants’ lives.  I would like people to take the opportunity to issue permits of their own design to the occupying soldiers at the checkpoint too, but this idea has been met with fear. I may have to do it myself. My Hebrew is almost up to it now. “I’ve noticed you sitting here, day after day, never having permission to go anywhere! And it’s just not fair, when you are so kindly allowing all these Palestinian people to walk through this gate (or be pushed through, like that one-year-old whom you’ve just cleared to go). Now you can have a permit too, instead of being restricted to this box! Go and see your friends! Look, we’re allowing you to reach them on one of two highways, and we’ve been generous with the time – you have a six-hour window for travel. Break it and you’ll get blacklisted.”

I outlined this plan to a Palestinian friend. She practically choked on her coffee. “Vicky, are you trying to get yourself deported?”

“No,” I said serenely. “I don’t think they’ll do that. You have to be assertive and sincere, that is key. But it would be much better if you did it, as you’re the one whose movement is restricted. Lots of people need to do it for it to be effective. And we could do to have the women’s choir marching with us, singing that song from ‘Les Mis’…”

This is not the first time I have suggested that the Sumud Choir sing in the checkpoint. Music and resistance go together very naturally. Once again, my suggestion was blackballed. “Vicky, I told you before, if you sing in the checkpoint then I am sorry for the army. For the first time in their life they will have a real security threat.”

“Certain high notes can shatter glass,” I said thoughtfully, choosing to ignore this inconsiderate slur on my abilities. “I wonder what it takes to bring down concrete?”

On the separation wall near my house, someone has left a pair of red handprints on the wall, with the optimistic instruction ‘push hard’ scrawled underneath. As of tonight we don’t have an answer. But we’re going to find one.

From Bethlehem to Rwanda

Just after Christmas I started to feel restless. I was dissatisfied with how things were going with the youth group. Late last year we lost our youth house in Bethlehem (one of three premises) because we couldn’t afford the rent and upkeep, and now the youth have to squash themselves into what was originally an office and practically sit on each other’s laps when they want to meet. I decided that they needed something to perk them up a bit. A field trip seemed in order.

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The writing on the wall

If you are a tourist or pilgrim who arrives in Bethlehem via Checkpoint 300, the first thing you will see as you turn into the street is the concrete barrier that slices it in half, severing the neighbourhood from Rachel’s Tomb and the military base that lies adjacent to the holy site. Get closer to the wall and you will find the women of the neighbourhood waiting to meet you.

One of the simplest but most important aspects of my organisation’s work is providing a space where people can tell their stories. One day Toine had an idea: why not turn the wall itself into that space? We could collect short vignettes from the women who use the centre and hang them on the concrete. The stories would be like windows: tourists on their way to see Nativity Church or eat dinner at the optimistically named Bahamas Fish Restaurant would be able to catch a glimpse of Palestinian life.

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