Friday, March 18, 2016

Boots on the Ground

            These boots were on my feet when I left for the Portland airport at 3:45AM to catch a 6:05AM flight to JFK. Still on my feet when I had a massage at JFK, when I went to the Delta Lounge to relax, and when I boarded the midnight flight to Tel Aviv.
I was still wearing these boots later that evening when I sat at the pizza restaurant (Yerevan) directly across from George and Dorin Santorini’s Armenian Pottery Shop in the Old City of Jerusalem and proclaimed that I felt like I was home.
It gets under your skin, this Holy Land. Once it is there you cannot turn away from it. “It” becomes a part of you, breathing in, exhaling, a presence indescribable unless you have caught it. Those of us who have “get” it carry it deeply within us. It is a love for an oppressed humanity, a spirit of compassion, and a will to persevere. It is in the desert sand and in the rocks that line the streets and empty lots. It is steadfastly gripping each fiber of your being. It is listening and hearing the stories, and it is present during sleep and sleepless nights.
            These boots took me to Bethlehem where they walked me into Wi’am (a Palestinian Christian Reconciliation NGO) to meet once again with the amazing staff. We listened, I helped edit, we ate together, we drank tea and coffee. We demonstrated with the BDS ladies—all Palestinian women, both Christian and Moslems, who gathered on Wednesday at noon to protest non-violently in front of the military tower which meets the wall at Hebron Street and surrounds Rachel’s Tomb. The boycotters were appealing to their fellow Palestinians to boycott the products that are in their grocery stores that are made in the illegal settlements. Milk, juice, canned goods. These boots watched the soldiers as they peered out from the military tower and after watching us filming them, took out their cameras to take our pictures. Thee soldiers are young—maybe 19 years old.
            I was wearing these boots when Arij asked if she could tell her story. Arij is a beautiful 28 year old Palestinian, born in Nablus. While I tend to forget that a country under occupation just suffers from the arduous tasks of daily life, real life also happens. Domestic abuse happens, and it happened to Arij. When she was 15 she left her abusive home and went directly to the police to protect her. She was placed in a shelter for battered women where she remained for 5 years. During this time she completed high school. When she was 20 years old she met up with the wonderful people at Wi’am.  They took her under their wing and over the next 8 years she transformed herself from a shy, reticent, traumatized girl to a self-confident, more out-going 28 -year old woman. She has been employed at Wi’am as their Administrative Assistant where her strengths in business management have soared, as well as her ability to cook amazing Palestinian dishes. Working from a miniscule kitchen, an electric frying pan plugged in next to her desk, she magically produced some of the finest meals we ate!  Brava, Arij. Her dream is to become a chef and teacher, opening up a small café (perhaps on the grounds of Wi’am.) Unlike the norm for a single woman in Palestine, she has her own apartment, she cares for all of her needs, but depends on Wi’am to act as her family. Three marriage proposals have been presented to the team at Wi’am, but thus far Arij has not consented to any of her suitors.  When asked about her religion (I assumed that since she was not wearing an Hijab that she must be Christian) I was surprised to learn that she is Moslem, but chooses not to wear the Hijab. She stated very clearly that those who continue to wear the Hijab are forced by their families to do so.  I believe the truth lies somewhere in between, as many women do choose to wear the Hijab both to fit in, and to not stand out. The modest dress is seen as a protection against the testosterone filled male.
            My boots seldom got much rest. Darlene and Tom Dunham and I should have been more prudent in arriving at Wi’am (located at that precarious intersection of the wall and military tower) shortly after 2PM. We knew that on Fridays after 1:00 the soldiers often get agitated and there have been many instances of tear gas and injuries to Palestinians. We exited a cab on a very, very still Hebron Road, and our cabbie immediately left the area, stranding us at a locked gate and facing the wall as it opened.  Note that the teargas is made in Pennsylvania….
        Armored jeeps immediately started popping off tear gas canisters, while fully armed soldiers in gas masks strode down the streets looking for the boys who had been throwing marbles and rocks at the military tower minutes before, and who had now vanished into the maze of refugee housing, shops, hotels, and empty lots. Tear gas has a unique smell, and immediately causes the sinuses and eyes to begin pouring copious amounts of fluid down the face, while the throat closes in, burning with each breath taken. This is not a pleasant experience. We later learned that an ambulance carrying injured people was directly tear gassed by the soldiers—the very same soldiers who had watched us demonstrate two days earlier. Aside from the tear gas, the most startling thing was watching the Israeli military entering into Bethlehem, into Area A where the Palestinian Authority is the governing body and the security force. This action was directly breaking international law. But they can, and nobody can stop them, so they pour into the streets of Bethlehem, fully armed, and shooting off tear gas.
On my last day, the next Thursday, these boots took me to Ramallah where Gerard Horton graciously spent two hours discussing the imprisonment of Palestinian children. There are 2 forms of law in Israel and the West Bank:  Israeli citizens (both Jewish and Palestinian) are subject to civil law. Those living in Gaza and the West Bank are subject to military law. When an Israeli child is believed to have thrown rocks or broken any law, a subpoena is issued and the parents take the child to the police station. There they are offered the opportunity to have a lawyer present for questioning. Under military law the Palestinian child is often arrested in the middle of the night by soldiers who bang on the door, demand entry, and demand that every family member appear. Each person gives their name, and if one is a person of interest to the IDF, they are taken away from their family, blindfolded and hands bound with plastic ties, tossed into the bottom of a jeep for a very bumpy ride to one of the illegal Israeli settlements. Often the child is held for nine or 10 hours before interrogation, usually tied to a chair in a room with bright light so as to prevent the child from sleeping. By the time the interrogator enters the room the child has usually wet himself, is cold, and humiliated. Thus, the power between the officer and the child forms such a chasm as to implode the spirit of the child immediately. Once presented with a confession written in Hebrew, the child can choose to confess and be put into the general population of other fellow children in jail. Should they choose not to sign they are warned that their father will have his work permit taken away, and they will remain in solitary confinement for as long as two months awaiting trial. Israeli children, on the other hand, have the opportunity to have both parents and a lawyer present, and the conviction rate is about 6% for these children. Palestinian children have a conviction rate of about 99.7%. The average sentence for throwing rocks is 4 months.
Under the Geneva Convention, it is against international law for the occupying country (in this case Israel) to move any prisoner outside of his own land. Yet, most men arrested in the West Bank are transferred to prisons inside Israel. The children’s prison is technically in the West Bank, within what we call the “green line” or the 1948 border. However, the prison is on the Israeli side of the Wall, meaning that the parents are often unable to travel through the checkpoint to visit their children in prison. Mothers are more likely to be allowed, as men under 45 are not permitted to cross the checkpoint without a permit.  Work permits are issued for a specific job and include days and hours that the permit holder is permitted within the territory claimed by Israel. (Remember that the Wall is illegal under international law because only 12% is on the “green line,” while the rest encroaches inside the Palestinian Occupied Territories.)
My boots remained on all day and into the evening, and then into the early morning hours. Hanna, my driver, picked me up at about 1:00AM for my long journey home. Ben Gurion airport is a little more than an hour from Jerusalem, where I was staying on that last day, and check in is 3 hours prior to the flight. If you arrive later than 3 hours prior to the flight you are not guaranteed to make it to the flight. So I choose to be safe and arrive on time. My bags were safely checked to Portland, and I spent about 1 ½ hours waiting for boarding, which would be at about 4:15AM for my 5:20AM flight.
            Uneventful flights through Amsterdam and Minneapolis ensued, and by 7:30PM that evening after a 10 hour time change, my boots were on the ground in Portland.  Weary and wearing dusty boots, I found myself once more on the famous carpet of the PDX airport. 

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