Palestine: March 2008

Report of CPT’s Israel-Palestine Delegation, March 4-17,2008

by Michael Kochowiec

Flags are flying everywhere. It is a joyful celebration of 60 years of the founding of the state of Israel and it is an extraordinary accomplishment. The economy is thriving, the construction boom continues, the experiment in democracy in a Jewish state is working (sort of). It is admirable that such diverse people from far flung corners of the world have created a functioning, well-run nation. But our delegation experience also exposed an underbelly of this creation, a flip side that we understand not many Israelis experience, know about or want to know about: the debilitating consequences of the occupation of the West Bank since 1967.

It is also 60 years of survival in the Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. It is Bedouins being uprooted, unrecognized, having their homes demolished. It is the exercise of power run amuck: of declaring the Bedouin villages illegal and bulldozers coming every six months to demolish several homes at random, only to have the villagers promptly rebuilt them. Does this serve the security of Israel? Four Palestinians who were on a wanted list were summarily executed by the Israeli army on a street in Bethlehem while we were there in Deheisha refugee camp. It is the military taking over a house, herding everyone into one or two rooms and using the rest as a lookout and a military outpost.

An Israeli soldier of 17 or 18 has immense power over the day to day life of the occupied Palestinians. He can order a grandparent of 70 or 80 to stand and wait for an hour or eight, or whatever his pleasure. He can declare an area a “closed military zone” and keep people out. The army blocked a road to At Tuwani, in south Hebron hills, to stop all vehicular traffic to and from the villages. Just a few days before we arrived there, the villagers managed to clear the block and now enter and exit until the soldiers block it again. People told us of being imprisoned for years without any charges or trials.

In Hebron a settler child age 10 -12, eyes full of hate, pushed over a 70 year old man in our delegation and then picked up a rock to throw at us. On another occasion, a settler boy kicked a CPT woman and then threw a rock at her with a soldier standing by taking no action. A Palestinian child throwing a rock or kicking would be arrested and imprisoned, and most likely labeled a terrorist.

There are 700 checkpoints between Palestinian villages which can be bypassed on roundabout roads which wind around hillsides and are in terrible shape How does this serve as security for Israel? Our trip from Hebron to a nearby suburb, which should have taken 15 minutes in a public bus, ended up taking 1 hour in a private taxi and almost three times longer in distance because the army that morning decided to close one road leading to the village. When settlers attack Palestinians, a “closed military” zone is declared and Palestinians are not allowed in, but the settlers can continue as before.

When his house was demolished for a second time, our host Atta, handed his baby to a soldier saying, “I now no longer have a home, you take care of him”. For this he was arrested and imprisoned. Much of his brother’s and father’s land was taken over by the settlers, who are even now trying to drive him totally out. A settler who shot and injured his son was punished with three days in prison.

Of course there is the wall, the cursed wall snaking into Palestinian territory dividing families, communities, land from workers, children from parents, encircling or dividing villages. It is creating hardships which are difficult to imagine. Palestinian society is based on close family ties which stretch out to a large extended family. The wall is making it most difficult to maintain these ties. It has nothing to do with security, but everything with grabbing land and extending the settlements.

Hebron has 500 Jewish settlers scattered in a half dozen settlements being guarded by 3000 soldiers. The main street in the old city is closed to Palestinians, essentially cutting the city in two. This is so that the settlers can move freely among the settlements and to the synagogue.

At At Tuwani, soldiers are escorting Palestinian children to school in a convoy to keep them safe from the settlers who in the past have hit them and thrown stones at them. They also attacked and beat international observers. I have just learned that a few days ago, soldiers failed to escort the children and the settlers stopped them and beat up the international observers.

I was moved by the hospitality of the Palestinians. They welcomed us, shared their food and their homes with us. The Deheisha refugee camp family, having suffered so much, expressed hope for the future. One of our host’s brothers was killed in the siege of the Church of the Nativity, another was deported to Gaza; still, he expressed hope that one day the nightmare will end.

There are two parallel road systems in the West Bank: paved, well maintained roads for the Israeli settlers only and pot-holed, winding, not maintained roads for the Palestinians. The Palestinian roads are blocked at intervals so that the cargo and people have to change vehicles. How does this serve to secure the nation of Israel?

An Israeli woman who was scheduled to give us a settler perspective, living in the Ephrat settlement in the area of east Jerusalem, had just lost her son in the killing of the 8 students in West Jerusalem. We joined her in mourning. What a senseless loss of life, a 16 year old that held such promise, a good, moral, kind, decent person. But what did not come out was that in the last few days over a hundred were killed in Gaza, many of them children. Likewise good, moral and kind people. When will revenge stop and sanity begin?

We met many decent, moral and kind Israelis who are voicing their concerns about the occupation and taking part in actions of various kind. But it is not enough. Too many choose not to know. A reminder found at the entrance to Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum in Jerusalem), “A country is not just what it does, it is also what it tolerates” is a saying that contemporary Israel should heed.

The last day of our delegation was Palm Sunday. A small group of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals with banners painted with the wall and the words,”where could Jesus go”, gathered in Bethany (which is on the Palestinian side of the wall) and following in the footsteps of Christ, walked toward Jerusalem and up to the check point by the wall. Immediately a military jeep with several soldiers drove up to the wall and an officer came out to warn us to disperse. We ignored him and he finally said that we had to leave or he would tear gas us. We continued for a while but eventually left and regrouped in a nearby church yard only to be followed and carefully watched by the machine-gun toting soldiers and again we were told to leave. Christ walked from Bethany to Jerusalem, but today the way is blocked by a 26-foot wall. One last act, we carried that same sign in a Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the old city in Jerusalem.

[Members of CPT's March 4-17 Palestine/Israel delegation are Karen Anderson (Garfield, MN), Lowell Anderson (Garfield, MN), Dennis Becker (Garfield, MN), Steve Bontrager (Dundee, OH), Bruce Borland (Lake Forest, IL), Loretta Kaufman (Freeman, SD), Roy Kaufman (Freeman, SD), Michael Kochowiec (Walnut Creek, CA), Sarah MacDonald (Iowa City, IA), Destinee Parris (Raymore, MO), Marilyn Tisserand (Garfield, MN) and Sari Vilen (Dundee, OH).]