Sunday, February 21, 2010

Storm after the calm

For five days earlier this month, I physically removed myself from the West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem for a vacation with my sister. What I found however, is that it was impossible for me to mentally separate myself. To cope with my physical absence from the occupation, I found a book to read called In the Company of Soldiers; a book about the first months of the invasion of Iraq and how it rapidly evolved from a war to an occupation. Normally, I’m not sure I would find this book so interesting, but being in the state of mind that I am in right now, I ate it up. I couldn’t put it down-it became my lifeline for sanity. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by thoughts, fears and hopes about Israel, about Palestine, I found solace in this book. It served as a way for me to indulge my military-occupation-war-resistance focused mind without thinking about Israel or Palestine. In a previous update, I wrote about the nervous hum I have developed and how I’m starting to wonder if my characteristics now are indicative of lifelong personality traits. I now wonder if after being here my mind will ever fully unwind from this militerized mentality. When Kasey and I were together, I noticed that most of my conversation topics focused on some aspect of the conflict. For me, the conflict topics seemed logical because we were in Israel, rather than Egypt so daily life was not just reminding me, but rather, blinking neon Las Vegas style signs in my face-how could I not think about this?? Dead Sea=boycott campaign against Dead Sea beauty products. Did you know that all of these mountains behind us are Closed Military Zones? Do you think the Border Police would stop me if I floated to Jordan?
Don’t get me wrong, I am so eternally grateful that Kasey came to visit me. It has been a long time since I’ve seen family and I was very glad to spend a large amount of uninterrupted time with my sister. These are just my observations about myself.
Friday evening, after Kasey had safely crossed back into Egypt and was en route back to America, I returned to Sheikh Jarrah in occupied east Jerusalem. It was around 5pm and the weekly demonstration was ending. Police were still blocking access to the street where the tents/homes are located (to guard the settlers from the 500+ nonviolent protesters against the ethnic cleansing of east Jerusalem). I met up with some activist friends and one offered to show me the back way in so I could reunite with the families. We walked up the road, down a few steps, over a wall, down the grassy hillside, over another wall and out the front gate of a neighbor’s home. Military was present in the streets and trying to clear people away. My big backpack and I managed to grab their attention and they started walking towards me. Luckily, I also grabbed the attention of the neighborhood kids and before the military had a chance to speak with me, I was surrounded by a handful of kids under the age of ten showing me their new hula hooping skills. Hula hoop blockade! An extra hoop was produced for me and I set down my pack and joined in. I kept an eye on the military folk and they seemed a bit confused about how to navigate this situation. Eventually, the hoop blockade wore down and they approached me and asked for ID. At this moment, a neighbor and wonderful activist, Salah, saw me and interrupted the military man to give me a hug and welcome me back to the neighborhood. Despite Salah’s insistence that I was a neighborhood resident, the soldier wanted to see ID anyway. Salah and I walked with him to the military truck and I showed him my passport. All the while Salah is still insisting that I live there and they should not bother me. After a few minutes, they got distracted with something else and I just walked away.
I was welcomed back to Sheikh Jarrah with smiles, hugs and hula hoops. It was one of the most heartwarming welcomings of my entire life. I didn’t realize how connected to the community there I had become until I left and I didn’t know how much they appreciated me until I returned. It was an amazing moment and feeling that I will never forget.
I spent 5 of the next 7 days at Sheikh Jarrah. Usually, people get too exhausted after two or three days on the streets but I was so happy to be back there that I remained energetic and excited to be there for almost the whole week. I have really become attuned to the atmosphere at Sheikh Jarrah. When I left for vacation, tensions were high and harassment was commonplace. However, this past week has been very light and calm. The young settler boys seem to not be hanging out so much anymore, severely decreasing the amount of clashes. There were no Zionist real estate settler tours this week either(yes, they are showing property in Sheikh Jarrah before the families are even evicted.
The best night was Wednesday. The weekly Wednesday dinners we host have really taken off and this week was super special because it was the first one after Nasser Gawi was allowed back into the neighborhood after the settler M-16 incident. His whole family was there, neighbors and friends too. All the shebab or young boys showed up as well.
I went to the Shufat refugee camp earlier in the day to cook a main course for the dinner with a friend. This was my first experience in a refugee camp and I was really surprised by what I saw-houses, apartments, shops, bus stops, cafes. I guess it is silly of me to think that after 60 years people would still be living in tents but I guess I didn’t know what to expect. The camp is just like every other neighborhood, except this one has a wall around it and a checkpoint to get in and out. The wall is The Wall (to separate Israel from Palestine) even though Shufat camp is legally in Jerusalem, due to its demographics (Palestinian), Israel has put it on the West Bank side of the barrier. So even though this area is in Israel, it is physically excluded by the Wall and a full military checkpoint (similar to the one you go through getting from Ramallah, Palestine to Jerusalem, Israel. My attempt at dinner was not totally successful and after 5 hours of cooking had only produced 8 vegetarian calzones. Out of time and patience, I slopped the meat calzone ingredients together and called it good. As I was doing this, I remembered that Palestinians eat everything with pita and I asked myself why I went to all this trouble putting things in individual breaded pockets when they would just do it anyway?
Well, the food proved too “hippie” for the neighborhood residents but they ate some of it anyway and still expressed gratitude. Luckily, one of the neighborhood girls made devils food cake and that really saved the meal. The kids brought out the hoops again, the shebab started playing anther one of their super creative and slightly violent games of tag and the little neighborhood girls let me pick them up and spin them around. Overall, this evening was another time when I felt very connected to the community and very glad to be here.
I ended my marathon stay at Sheikh Jarrah with the Friday demonstration. It was smaller than normal because thousand had flocked to the West Bank village of Bi’lin for their 5th anniversary protest against the Apartheid Wall which stole over 60% of their land. I went up to the demo for a bit, then back down to the Gawi camp (the back way, of course). It was a calm demo, without the tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets, Skunk water, sound bombs and live ammunition that I have become accustomed to on Friday Demo Day. When it ended I went to a neighbor’s house and we made another devils food cake and smoked hookah.
That evening, I did what I’ve wanted to do for the last 6 months-dance party!!!! I went out with some of the Israeli activists and shebab to a bar in West Jerusalem (Muslim east Jerusalem is not surprisingly lacking in the bar scene). We danced to old hip hop, took shots of arok (a licorice like liqueur common in the Middle East) and talked activist talk. By 3 though, the music quality had deteriorated significantly and now they were trying to get us all to the Macerana. Nope. I’m leaving.
After a super long and rewarding stay at Sheikh Jarrah I’ve made it back to Ramallah where I’m working on the ISM volunteer schedule for next week. We are sending people to Nabalus where ISM mostly responds to settler violence, to Bir Al-Eid where two Palestinians were shot at a checkpoint a few days ago and now villagers are afraid to access their fields unaccompanied, to Hebron where there is a demonstration Thursday to open the main road, Shuhuda Street to Palestinians instead of just settlers (in a town where the Palestinian to settler ratio is 4:1) and of course, Sheikh Jarrah.
This is the second night that I’ve stayed here since the raids occurred. When I finish typing this I will prepare for bed. This includes not just brushing my teeth but also putting my shoes where I can access them quickly, taking the SD card out of my camera, putting my passport within arms reach and lastly, stashing this computer so it does not get stolen.