Monday, August 28, 2006

Palestine Diary: General Impressions (2)

29 July 2006, Ramallah

Palestinians are incredibly friendly and hospitable. I saw only 5 foreigners here in 4 days, I mean, there aren’t many tourists, nevertheless they are really friendly towards them. Maybe it’s because generally the foreigners are members of NGO’s that struggle for peace. Everyone greeted me in the refugee camp, they all smiled. When you have even a short chat, they invite you to their house. I haven’t been to one, yet.

According to what people say, 80% of the men here are employed, and 20%of the women work. There is employment, but salaries aren’t paid regularly. The public is not very satisfied with the current government. What is more, many associations that struggle for peace just left Palestine after Mahmoud Abbas became the president. But people talk about these only to express their ideas when asked, not to complain. They are rather patient and bare those hardships silently.

When it comes to the jobs they have, they mostly deal with trade, sales in Ramallah, banking and transportation. That means, Ramallah is a developed town. If I am to compare, it reminds me of Adapazarý (Turkey). The ones in the refugee camps also come here to work. Because the camps have existed for 50 years, the people there, have their own settled life style. Almost everyone makes a living in one way or another. Of course the case is different in Gaza but I cannot go there even if I want to at the moment. They say a special permission is required. I want to go to Nablus but they say it is dangerous to do so.

Ramallah is a cosmopolitan city, the churches and the mosques are side by side. There aren’t many Jews but there are plenty of Christians. There are foreigner restaurants: Italian, Chinese, Mexican. There are nice hotels, and even pubs. Alcoholic drinks are sold at the supermarkets. I haven’t seen any radical men wearing long robes and beard. There are a few with pushi. Most almost dress in the Western style. 80% of the women cover their hair but no one despises the ones who do not cover their hair.

Literacy rate is 88%. Everyone in the city center can speak at least a little English but it is much more limited in the camps naturally.

Some of the teenegers, generally the ones who don’t attend a university get involved in political organizations. Some directly go to prison right at the beginning and they spend years in prison without even being called to trial.
Here is our conversation with 18 year old Thaer, who I had a chat with in the camp yesterday:

-What is the capital city of Palestine?
-Well, can you go to Jerusalem?
-No because it’s forbidden.
-What is the capital city of Israel?
-There is no Israel!
-How come?
-Israel doesn’t exist! , he said and turned his head away.

Ahmad, who showed us around yesterday, also feel sorry because he isn’t allowed to go to Jerusalem. In last Ramadan, he says, it had been 8 years since his last visit to Jerusalem so he decided to go there secretly using some hidden routes and he got caught by the soldiers and he begged them, “Please, let me go. Just give me permisson for half an hour” and they let him go after taking his ID card. He kept his promise and returned back half an hour later. He went to Al Aqsa Mosque and called his mom. He says, “it was an inexpressible bliss for me”.
Yes, it is forbidden for the Palestinian to go to Jerusalem, only those who have been living there since the first intifadahave got a private Jerusalem ID card and only they can go to Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is just 16 kilometres away from Ramallah.

Palestinians are surprisingly mature about their ideas about Jews. They don’t feel hatred for the Jews because of their religion! But I need to emphasize that most people from West Bank haven’t ever communicated with an Israeli other than Israeli soldiers. They are aware of the seperation of religion and politics.

UN is not a very much respected organization by many people. There are UN vehicles driving around the city, people call them: “Unneeded Nations”

When I greeted an old woman in the refugee camp, the woman thought that I was one of the activists and she yelled at me that she didn’t want Israeli soldiers or their tanks there. I was told a very interesting story, which actually was quite normal for them: The son of a Palestinian father got shot in the street and the father donated all the organs of the child to Israeli children. I wanted to see the man but they said he was in Gaza. This striking event attracted a lot of attention in Israel.

They have got so accustomed to these hardships since they were born that they have no fear, it has become a part of their life, both the things that might happen to them and the events that arise everyday in Gaza and Lebanon. No one says “we don’t want war any more” because they have no such hopes; their attitude is like, “it has always been this way and it will always be”... They continue their lives, they hold their wedding feasts, have their coffee at Stars&Bucks(not Starbucks) because life goes on, and they try to survive.

30 July 2006, Bir Zeit

I had a terrible night. The cold I caught two days ago got worse, I suffered in the throat and the ears. And when I woke up I felt so weak but because I didn’t want to waste my time here, I took a pill and went out. Bilgen was there to take care of me. She suggested to rest and take the day off but I didn’t want to waste time by sleeping. This time the destination was Jericho that is 60 km away. The city, which have existed apparently for 11 thousand years, is known to be the oldest city in the world. I was very excited and nervous when I hit the road. We were in a shared taxi with locals. The taxi first drove out of Palestine and entered Israel which didn’t make sense as I thought all West Bank was Palestinian land, then a long wait at the checkpoint in the cab and then Israeli soldiers arrived and checked the ID’s. In the meantime the soldier standing next to me pointed his gun at a vehicle, and put his finger on the trigger, aiming at something. The other soldiers were having a laugh together then, that means, their aim was just to show off and frighten people. There was another check point 10 km away. When it was our vehicle’s turn, a soldier signalled to mean “proceed” but the driver interpreted this as “don’t stop, go ahead” and accelerated. The soldiers started shouting, I got scared and muttered things like, “stop, wait”. We turned back, they collected our ID’s, told us to wait for a few minutes and then we continued.

We kept going, the driver was too fast in the bends in the mountains, giving me a fright, as if he wanted to go out of Israeli territory as soon as possible. We arrived in Palestinian territory and went downtown. This is apparently the lowest place in the world, the altitude is below sea level, about –385 meters and has a rather dry and depressing climate. Feeling exhausted, we searched for a place to sit and ended up in the cafe of the town. People were dressed up in traditional clothes, the men were in long robes and wearing pushi. There is a big amount of black people here, surprisingly.

A man at his 60s approached and greeted us. He showed us his tourist guide card and offered to show us around the city. We didn’t have many other alternatives, therefore we had a bargain and accepted his offer. We saw one of the palaces that belongs to Arafat, then we visited Hisham’s Palace. This palace, which was built in AD 740, have suffered so many earthquakes that now there are only the remains. The building that have traces of Christian, Byzantium and Iran traditions reflect many periods in history. We went on to Alsa River, took photos of swimming children and got informed about the city.

Jericho, which came under Israel rule after the 1967 Six Day War, came under Palestinian control rule in 1994. According to the Holy Bible, after being baptised in the Jordan River, Jesus Christ is sent to the Mount of Temptation just before his becoming the prophet for a test. He withdraws into solitude for 40 days and nights and fasts. Today, the place where he spent his time then is used as a monastery under the control of Greek-Orthodox Church. This monastery has become one of the most important centers of faith tourism. We are so excited as we are going up by the cable car. When we meet the passengers in our teleferic, we discover that they are from Greece and we start talking. The couple, who have got a tourism agency in Athens, spend most of the year here, guiding the tourist groups that they take here. They say that they love Turkey yet they feel a bit disappointed when they hear that I haven’t been to Athens, yet.

We get off the cable car and start to climb up the mountain. Yorgo Kistaris says that the church is most probably closed but that the priest is a friend of his so he may help us to get inside. The door is locked, Yorgo calls the priest and the priest opens the door and lets us in. First, we visit the section where Jesus Christ had his rest. It is really a strange feeling to be here. The church is full of old and precious paintings. There is a sacred atmosphere that is hard to describe. Then we go on to the yard and the rooms here attract our attention. They say monks stay in these rooms but only three people have been living here for a long time. This monastery, in this godforsaken place, is far away from the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Father Gerasemos is a Greek at 72.He has been here for 22 years and has never left the place. Formerly, while he was leading an ordinary life in Salonika as an accountant, he started searching for the meaning of life and ended up here. He loves Turkey and Turks very much. He tells us about things but sometimes he becomes lost in thought as if he is in a dream. We have long conversation. He fetches a watermellon for us, we eat it together and then he says, “come with me, I’ll take you somewhere”. As we follow him, even Yorgo, who has known him for all these years gets surprised because the priest is taking us somewhere that is normally closed to the tourists. We pass through doors, rooms and get out and see a sepulchre here, on it there is a piece of writing in Greek. Yorgo, surprised, translates it for us, “Hatred causes only evil and death, love is the leader of all good deeds”. But the interesting thing is that this grave is the priest’s own grave! I get goose bumps. On the stone there is the year of birth but the year of death reads “20...”. I don’t know what to say. The priest is speechless too, we just stare at each other. He says “Please come again, you could even stay here” and bids us goodbye after giving some gifts to us.

Feeling strange, we go down together with the Greek couple. They insist on having lunch together. We go to a restaurant, we have our lunch along with a sincere conversation. They say they will go to another monastery and that they can drop us at the Dead Sea if we like. But I start to feel a bit weak so we decide to go back to Ramallah. Therefore, I miss the chance of seeing the tomb of Moses, which is rather close. We arrive at the city center after the long waits at the checkpoints and our exhausting trip; and we arrive at our dorm in Bir Zeit. We learn that 60 people died in Lebanon as a result of the Israeli attack this morning. We get depressed. There is nothing that we can do. Can we do something if we can ever get there? But they say Israeli soldiers wouldn’t let us. It is now harder and more dangerous to go to even Nablus or Nazareth. Yesterday, while a student was going to Nablus, a man travelling in the vehicle after him was caught with bombs that weigh so many kilos and the bombs were annihilated before everyone’s eyes. I now better understand the hopelessness of these people here.

I feel a little bit guilt because I am having a touristic trip here. From now on, I will make more effort to talk with people to learn about their feelings and ideas. Hopefully, I will get better soon. I am planning to visit an orphanage and get involved in a conversation with prisoners.

1 August 2006, Al Bireh

I went to visit the boy I met at the border today. After graduating from Bir Zeit University Economy Department in 2005, Faris Arouri started working for “Youth and Peace Forum” and became the chairman in a short time. The association, which organizes many exchange programs, believes that the “solution” lies with the young generation. We have a conversation about Palestine with Faris and I see that there are many things that I still don’t know.

West Bankand Gaza were under the control of Israel between the years 1967-1993. In 1993, when the desired outcome wasn’t achieved after the negotiations in Washington D.C involving Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, the representatives of Palestine and Israel started negotiations in a free zone away from pressure: Oslo, Norway. In the end, they agreed on a treaty, which said Palestine was to be free in its domestic affairson the condition that its foreign affairs and border controls would be under the control of Israel. The majority of the Palestinians regard this treaty as treason and most favour resistance.

Of course the new regulations cause longer bureaucratic procedures in public affairs. Formerly, only the Israeli approval was required but now with this treaty, first Palestinian and secondly Israeli approval are required. Therefore, actually this all saves Israel the trouble of dealing with many cases firsthand. On the surface, it seems that Palestine has some kind of discretion but still approval and the authority to make the final decisions belong to Israel. However, Israel doesn’t remain loyal to these decisions, it continually makes surprise attacks, enters zones that are forbidden to Israel according to the treaty, prevents the right of the Palestinian police to carry guns and at last invades the area in 2000 again.

Palestinian territory is divided into 3 zones: Zone A is the region that is under Palestininan control. It is completely forbidden for Israel to enter this zone. 8% of Palestine comprises Zone A. For example, Ramallah is in Zone A, but Israeli soldiers make attacks and fire guns in the street twice a week and the police can(/do) not do anything. In Zone B, civil administration belongs to Palestine and military administration belongs to Israel. For the 20% this is the case. As for Zone C (72% of the country), it totally under the Israel rule.

Hebron, with its population of 100 thousand is only controlled by Israel. The distribution (of the zones) is not precise. Ramallah is in Zone A whereas the Jalazone camp, which is just 20 km away, I visited the other day, is in Zone C. Another area which is really close to us is in Zone B. It is really hard to tell them apart.

I ask about the procedure that Palestinian citizens have to follow to go abroad with their passports. Many countries recognize the passports and give visa at the consulates in Ramallah and Jerusalem. What is surprising is the fact that Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Libya do not recognize Palestine and also don’t let Palestinians enter their territories. These countries, which display such an attitude due to their opposition to the 1993 treaty, accept neither the Palestinian passports nor Israeli passports. Saudi Arabia makes it very hard to get a visa. Egypt makes Palestinians wait in cells for days even for transit passages through their country. The ones who make it easy to go abroad for Palestinians are European countries.

Palestinians do not care any longer about how the world sees them. But they are aware of the seperation between the public and the government. Yes, most people in the world favour the freedom of Palestine but just ideologically, they cannot reflect this in politics, or put it into practice. Well, then, does this fact disappoint people? Does it cause hostility? No, at first they say they felt oblivion, and dismissal but it’s been 50 years now; they gave up hopes and expectations of the world; they feel no hostility, though, they just know that no one but they can help themselves. Arabs supported their movement in the 70s, boycottes were done but those were the old days. Now children get killed before their eyes and no one says anything.

I ask where they find the power to fight the strong army of Israel and their government, which have the support of the whole world. I get the reply, “Just the desire to be free and independent”. Governments can change, the decisions taken or the policies followed can change but the belief of the people in freedom and independence never changes. In other words, leaders, politicians, both the ones from their own country or the rest of the world do not change the people’s ideas and beliefs. There is a very strong and old culture here; cities where history, humanity started, lands where prophets lived. 50- year captivity, or the opportunist policies of temporary politicians remain so weak when you think of the culture here. Maybe that’s why there are no pictures of the leaders on billboards in Palestine as opposed to other Arabian countries. People believe in just themselves.

There is no discrimination of Sunnites or Shiitesbecause there isn’t any Shi’a here. They say it wouldn’t matter anyway even if there was because religion has never become the reason for a coflict in Palestine. For example, although George Habash (Secretary-general of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), who is known as “doctor” and is a Christian, got the support of the public with his opposition to Western imperialism and ziyonism; and his dismissal of the Oslo treaty, which Arafat signed in 1993 as treason against Palestinian revolution. What is more, the Palestinian Jews, andChristians haven’t suffered discrimination. There is a crucial point that all these people unite and that is independence.

People always watch the news in every shop in Ramallah, in the dorm, at school, in internet cafes, at the barbers, on TV everywhere. Popular culture, TV shows and series haven’t made them slaves. But they don’t react when they hear saddening news, it has become a part of everyday life. Maybe they just keep this worry to themselves, I am not sure.
For dinner, we meet Mohanad Yaqubi, a Palestinian film director, his wife Rani, who is the daughter of a Serbian mother and a Palestinien father; and Isthtiyaq Shukri, whose book The Silent Minaret has recently been nominated for the European Union Literature Award.

Mohanad is a very young director, he shoots short films. He has shot films in Venezuela, France and Tunisia. He has grown sick of politics and the condition his country is in. He says, “we have a culture and it isn’t composed of only Israel-Palestine conflict and I am trying to reflect those other sides of my country”.

His wife Rani studied sociology and anthropology at Bir Zeit University, she is also a musician. Rani’s mother, who was born in Yugoslavia, was an activist supporting Palestine in the 70s and Rani’s father was in Serbia then. They met each other, and later on got married. When Rani was 14 years old, they immigrated to Palestine. At first many people were prejudiced against her because she was Serbian but she says, “We came to Palestine because we were ashamed of the deeds of our country and we didn’t want to be a part of the war”. She missed her country very much at first, but now she says her home is Palestine. It’s been just 17 days since Mohanad and Rani got married. Mohanad’s family didn’t approve of this marriage for some time but later on they accepted.

Istihyaq Shukri is a Muslim author from South Africa. In his debut The Silent Minaret he mentions the hardships that minorities suffer in Africa and his anger at his country’s change for the worse day after day, injustice, and the loss of the culture there. Maybe that’s why he often visits Palestine.He says, “I find the culture I miss here on this land” and he adds that his next book will be on Palestine.

Faris’ father also joins us. Tayseer Arouri is a professor at the department of Physics at Bir Zeit University and a former politician at the same time. I ask him how he is perceived as a leftist politician and his reply appals me: In 1970s, just before he got married, some men break into his house at midnight and he is immediately taken to prison. He spends 45 months in prison without any accusation or evidence. Every 6 months his imprisonment time gets longer without any explanation. “The first two years were relatively easier, we had long conversations, we discussed issues. The right to use the library was limited, we had permission to spend only half an hour once a month. In the third year, the prison got really crowded and we began living in such a small space that it was 44cm2 for each men”.

Arouri was offended by execution without being questioned, rather than the years spent in prison. “No explanation was made”, says he, and mentions the director of the jail who began his duty in Arouri’s last year. The director, who was a Jewish Turk, got along with the prisoners. No matter which ideology they supported, the director had a positive and friendly attitude towards them all. Once, Arouri went to his room and asked why he was in prison and said that he just wanted to know the reason. The director called for him one week later and read aloud the letter that he’d received from MOSSAD, “Israel thinks that you might have ideas that may hurt them”. In other words, there is no action that Arouri committed or no valid reason at all! Just thoughts and hypotheses.

The director saw Arouri’s lawyer several times, he entered into correspondence and at the end of 3 months Arouri got released. “But it wasn’t over,” says Arouri, “in 1983 I spent 18 days in prison, and in 1994, 1 year”. He talks about these in a very calm manner, as though these were quite normal memories in his life. He is a professor at his late 50s and is not interested in politics as much. Everyone I talked with favour the two state solution. It may mean making a concession but they are sure that Israel wouldn’t adopt the idea of one state solution. (Palestinian gov.) The fact that they aren’t allowed to enter Jerusalem no matter their ideas or religious beliefs are offend Palestinians deeply. And today I am going to Jerusalem, their apple of the eye, their capital city though not officially; leaving Ramallah behind. But I promise both myself and them that I will come back one day.

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