This post was written on October 24, regarding October 20. Read the group blog's account of the day here.
Ali's heritage goes back to Chad, but he is a second-generation Palestinian and completely identifies as Palestinian. There are other AfroPalestinians, too, and while most of the outside world is aware of the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian Quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem, few know of the African Quarter. But it does exist, and we saw it! This 'behind-the-scenes' tour of the Old City was fascinating--there is a lot that goes on that the average tourist misses. Ali pointed out several different spots where Muslims and Jews have been killed (by each other) and told us the accompanying stories of each of these individuals.
"Do you see that man?" the Israeli soldier asked Will, pointing. "He was a terrorist."
It was true. The elderly AfroPalestinian man approaching us as we stood near the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, hobbling with a cane, was our tour guide for the day, Ali. During the first intifada he was part of a political group that was engaged in back-and-forth violent attacks with an Israeli political group. One day he planted a bomb in West Jerusalem which injured seven people upon exploding. Ali was sentenced to 20 years in prison but only ended up having to serve 17 years, during which time he read volumes upon volumes and left prison dedicated to peaceful resistance. He worked with a group of anti-Zionist Israeli journalists for several years after that and now spends most of his time giving political tours of the Old City of Jerusalem.
We knew Ali's story before we met him, so the Israeli soldier's comment to us didn't come as surprising news. If anything, it was amusing, as Ali's reputation obviously precedes him everywhere he goes. The only one who was surprised, when all was said and done, was the Israeli soldier, when he realized that not only did we know who Ali was, but that it was him for whom we were waiting. After Ali joined us, we set off to explore the Old City.
I won't try to recount all that we saw and learned, but I will end with a brief, tense incident. We were in the Muslim Quarter, momentarily paused while a couple of members of our group were buying bottles of water. Out of no where we heard the sound of approaching voices, singing. A throng of Jewish teenaged boys was coming up the narrow street, making their way through the crowd with an old bearded Jewish man at the center of their group. As they got closer to us, we all pressed ourselves up against the walls to let them pass. Some of the Muslims around us threw things at them--an empty soda can, and something else I couldn't identify. Part of me was poised to duck away from the fight that was surely going to ensure, but the mini-parade continued on its way, still singing. Someone translated the song they were singing (in Hebrew) for us: "Thank God for giving us back the City."
In the Muslim Quarter, no less! Religious tension is alive and well. Why did these Jews feel the need to parade through the Muslim Quarter signing that song? Why did some of the Muslim onlookers throw things at them, provoking confrontation? Where is God in all of this?
Following our morning with Ali, we spent the afternoon with Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, a Jewish Israeli woman who has dedicated her life to being an advocate and activist for the Palestinian cause. She has worked for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and now does a lot of work with bedouin communities (watch the documentary, Nowhere Left to Go). Angela took us to the illegal Israeli settlement Ma'ale Adumim. We passed through the checkpoint into the settlement without being searched or asked for identification…no soldier even poked their head into our bus (we have never, actually, been checked at any check point)--this shows, as Angela pointed out, that these 'security' measures aren't for security at all. They're not about security, they're about racial profiling.
Once inside the settlement, it was like we were in an oasis. Everything about it was beautiful. The perfect landscaping--green, lush everywhere. The buildings. The perfect roads. The perfect signage. Angela took us to an overlook on the top of the hill where the settlement is located, and we got out of the bus to enjoy the view of the valley (and the settlement's sparking blue man-made pond…cue everything I've said about the scarcity of water (for Palestinians) in previous posts) and to hear Angela talk more about the implications of settlements in the West Bank. Within a matter of minutes a couple of young Jewish Settlers approached our group. Angela greeted them, told them we were visiting their settlement, and invited them to listen. Only one of them ended up staying, and toward the end, as Angela talked more about the settlements, the Palestinian refugees they have created, etc, and how the Occupation is antithetical to the principles of Judaism and the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, she looked at the remaining young Settler and said, "I'm saying some of this for your benefit--I'm sure you know that." Some of us watched his face throughout Angela's talk--it appeared as though he was hearing some of this information for the first time. At the end, he volunteered to the group, "there were no Arabs here when we came."
"You're only 17," 50-something-year-old Angela replied, not unkindly. "Of course there weren't."
I found myself thinking of that boy throughout the rest of the day. Perhaps hearing about the realities of the Palestinian narrative--from another Jew, no less--will prompt him to go home and try to learn more beyond what he learns from his parents and in school? Or perhaps he will go on as normal; he will serve in the military; his allegiance will be to Zion. One can't know. But one can hope.
After visiting Ma'ale Adumim, we next visited a bedouin community (this was a completely overwhelming day, can't you tell?). We were greeted with warm, genuine hospitality, and invited to sit in a large seating area on rugs, sort of in a large circle. We were served coffee and tea, and began to hear from one of the leaders of the bedouin community (Angela translated what he was saying for us). He told us that they originally lived well under Israeli rule until the Settlements began to be built in 1978; from that point onward, the land available for their use and became more and more constricted by fences and Settlement boundaries.
Today, their existence is precarious. Bedouins need large amounts of land in order for their way of life to survive; they depend on being able to graze and herd their animals. But this community is surrounded by settlements (we could see one at the top of the next hill) and they are prevented from taking their animals to graze. While they used to have over 1,000 head of goats, etc, they now have just over a hundred. While they used to be able to sell the milk and cheese produced by their animals in Jerusalem daily, they now, like other Palestinians outside of Jerusalem, are not allowed to go into Jerusalem. Thus their livelihood is cut off in multiple ways. They also have been cut off from water, and sold their one car since the Israelis blocked the road entrance into their community (what's the point of having a car if you can't get it in or out?). Their one access point to water is 3 kilometers down the highway, and the women of the village make the trek to fetch water for all the people and animals daily.
What I found most sad was the situation of the bedouin children (who make up 70% of this particular village). The nearest school is in Jericho…but the children have no way to get there. The Palestinian Authority can't send a bus for them because their village is in Area C, meaning it is under complete Israeli control. (Of course, there's a school up the hill at the settlement--but the bedouin children aren't allowed to go there). The Israelis told the bedouins to have their children walk, then, to the nearest school in Jericho…but after at least one incident of a child being hit by a car on the highway (it is a legit highway…NO parent would want their child walking on it), the children were too afraid to walk to school, and their parents were too afraid to let them. Refusing to let their children go uneducated, the bedouin leaders did all that they could do--in spite of being denied a building permit by the Israeli authorities, they built a school in their village.
We saw the school during our visit. It's a modest building made of mud and tires; there are several classrooms, all with desks and chairs. There's a small playground. They fought tooth and nail to get five teachers to teach at the school. After it was built, the bedouin leaders wanted to extend the proverbial olive branch to the neighboring settlement, and went there one day to invite the settlement's school to do an exchange program with the new bedouin school. Representatives from the settlement school visited the bedouin school soon after, and accepted the bedouins' tea and coffee and welcome into their community. But as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished--Three days later, the bedouins received a demolition order for their school from the Israeli government.
Ever since, the bedouins have been fighting to save their school. "It is like a patient in a hospital," said the bedouin who was telling us the story. "We don't know if it will live or die."