Our first day has been like a whirlwind. As I sit down to write this, I am exhausted both physically and mentally. We have seen so much in such a short time span that I cannot imagine how it will continue to get even more intense in the days and weeks to come.
Before sharing what I have witnessed thus far, I must remind our readers (particularly my American friends and anyone from a country that was colonized), that we too live, breathe, and work on stolen land. Indigenous people have been driven from their land that has been ethnically cleansed, just as what is happening now in Israel/Palestine. So our history is not a clean and pristine and there are many parallels and connections to be made.
Arrival in Tel Aviv airport
We were warned ahead of time by our IFPB leaders the potential for people to be racially profiled by Israeli authorities upon entering the airport in Tel Aviv. Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and people of color were at the top of the list of who were most likely to be called in for further questioning in “the room” where they could be for 1 or several hours (7+). On our delegation, we have two women of color (a Bangladeshi American Muslim and an Indian-American to be specific) which were predicted to be possible targets for this harassment. Unfortunately and as anticipated, the Bangladeshi American Muslim woman was held up by Israeli security and questioned for well over an hour about what her intentions were in the country, her father and grandfather’s names, her phone number, etc. repeatedly. Luckily she was let go and returned to our group after her questioning.
We were taken by air-conditioned tour bus to our hotel in East Jerusalem from the airport. But on the way, we got a crash course in some sobering facts from our Palestinian tour guide Said. We traveled on highway 443 which we learned that no Palestinians can use (unless they have Israeli citizenry). We saw many large settlements in the West Bank and discovered that settlers use 20 times more water than Palestinians. This is also water that they have taken from the people living in the West Bank. Some Palestinians have water for only 2 days a week as the Israeli government controls their water and shuts it off as they deem necessary (along with electricity).
We quickly learned to tell the difference between settlers’ homes vs. those of Palestinians. Palestinian homes have large water tanks on top of them so when the Israeli government cuts off their water supply, they have a reservoir they can use. Settler homes also have one or more Israeli flags dominantly displayed on the outside.
We noticed a surveillance balloon above the highway as we drove into the West Bank. We saw checkpoints/barriers with heavily armed men and women in olive green military uniforms. We also learned that Gaza (which almost no one can get into now) is the most surveillanced place in the world!
Our tour guide told us of the difficulties of Palestinians living under occupation on a day to day basis. Military laws and orders are frequently used against Palestinians in practice vs. being written in the books. They often use “policies” rather than official laws to oppress them.
Something that was very relevant to our guide’s profession were the limits on how many Palestinians can become tour guides. He told us that Palestinians were not allowed to be tour guides for 25 years! Today only 170 Palestinians can be tour guides vs. over 6,000 Israeli tour guides that exist. In the West Bank specifically, only 42 Palestinians are allowed to be tour guides. One essentially has to wait for a tour guide to die to get a permit on their own. The level of control that Israel has on the Palestinians is very obvious and disturbing, especially for a country that prides itself on being the only “democracy in the Middle East.” This is a myth and a lie.
East Jerusalem & Old City
We arrived in our hotel in East Jerusalem on Monday evening. During our Tuesday morning walking tour of East Jerusalem and the Old City, we learned that the police department just blocks away from our hotel was taken over by the Israeli police. Our tour guide described it as having a “dark future” due to the Judaization of Jerusalem and the high likelihood that it will be taken over by settlers.
We received a detailed description of the different religious buildings and beliefs surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City. More interesting and striking to me however, were the illegal settlements in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City (again, easily observed by the Israeli flags marking the territories).
We met with several young men and women from the Silwan Youth Center on Tuesday. Most of the women had brothers whose fathers who have been jailed by the Israeli government and the men themselves have all experienced imprisonment. We learned that 65,000 people live in Silwan and on November 1, 2004, they began the first destruction of homes in the town to make room for settlers. Palestinians would have to pay a bounty so their homes wouldn’t be demolished. The village also experiences many arrests of Palestinian children. We met one boy who has been arrested 15 times since he was 9 years old. He has not returned to school and has been wandering the streets. When asked what prison is like, he matter-of-factly stated, “It’s just 4 walls.”
The Silwan Youth Center and protest tent above the building were developed by young people. The center is funded by the volunteers themselves. They have a soccer team for children whose houses are under threat of demolition and a summer camp for 100 students in the neighborhood. They are trying to help children lead a normal life. A large banner on one of the walls of the center was in dedication to a child who was found burned alive by settlers. It was a sad reminder of the ultimate price so many pay under occupation.
Settlers are encouraged to move in by the government. There are currently 60 Jewish families in Silwan costing the government 6 million shekels a month to live in Silwan. Settlers are protected by 340 guards 24 hours a day in four shifts. Settlers are paid 500 shekels a day, given a car, and guards to live in the village. Settlers and their guards have killed Palestinians in Silwan.
On the flipside, there are no services or infrastructure in Silwan for Palestinians, even though they pay taxes. Families of 8-10 people may live in 2 rooms because they cannot build houses. If a Palestinian doesn’t pay someone privately to demolish their own house, they have to pay up to $5,000 for the government to do it and then another $5,000 for them to clean up the rubble (if they don’t do it themselves).
Everyday life in Silwan was described as living “between houses getting demolished and being arrested.” We were shown the rubble of a house destroyed in 2008 and were told of a house that was just bulldozed by a Caterpiller bulldozer this morning in the village at 6am. When asked the children’s hope for the future, they quickly responded “rights” and “freedom.” We were told of the joke, “Palestinians are easy to please.” They just want a normal life.”
AFSC Palestine Youth Together for Change Program – Gaza
Since virtually no one can enter or leave Gaza at this time, we Skyped with Palestinians from the AFSC Palestine Youth Together for Change Program in the Gaza Strip.
When asked what life was like in Gaza we were told how the Israeli government is trying to fragment Palestinians by making them in different lands and it will make them weaker.
One woman quickly corrected someone who referred to last summer’s assault as a war and stated instead, “It’s not a war, it’s an aggression.”
Many of the Gazans we spoke with had to turn down educational opportunities such as attending medical school in Jordan, college with a scholarship in Tunisia, and more as they aren’t allowed to leave Gaza. They reminded us that the situation in Gaza is very bad, but they feel they need to stand for their rights. We stand with them.