Thursday, October 25, 2012

olives all day and meeting Sam Bahour

Most of our days of olive picking were half days. We'd set out from the hotel at 8AM, arrive to the field, work all morning, and finally end with lunch prepared by the farmer's family. Friday, October 19, however, was our one full day of olive picking. A long day, yes, but a more fulfilling one because of it. Read the group blog's account of the day (and see photos) here.

One of the privileges of harvesting in a different location each day is the opportunity to get to know so many different families. On Friday we found ourselves at Mohamad Abu Dia's olive grove. Mohamad's family made us an extra amazing lunch, including stuffed grape leaves and other dishes I hadn't seen before. We learned that Mohamad's mother and one of his brothers were killed in the first or second intifada (I can't remember which). They were in their home in Bethlehem at the time, and the entire city was under curfew--no one could go outside. The Israeli Military was randomly shelling different parts of the city, and Mohamad's mother and brother were hit inside their home. No ambulance was allowed to come for three days, and they bled to death.

Mohamad's land is next to an illegal Israeli settlement called Efrata. When I say next to, I mean next to. I mean I was picking olives from a tree and could reach out and touch the barbed wire of the fence separating Mohamad's land and Efrata. Four years ago (when some in our group were here last), this part of the settlement was simply a 'caravan' (impermanent dwellings that are eventually replaced by permanent structures…this is how the settlements expand). On Friday, of course, the structures just feet away from the barbed wire fence were, indeed, permanent. The settlement is expanding…and Mohamad's land is under immediate threat. Four years ago, Israeli settlers came up to the fence with machine guns trying to intimidate the olive picking group, but this year, there was no such confrontation. I did see as couple of settlers coming in and out of their homes…they looked a bit puzzled to see us there on the other side of the fence, but did not speak to us or bother us at all. Maybe this is a good sign? (I'm not sure of what?). 

We arrived back to the hotel more than ready for a shower, and excited for the evening's program of meeting Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American businessman who moved with his wife from the US to Palestine following the Oslo Agreement and developed Palestine's telecommunications system, PalTel. Sam has written frequently for the New York Times and other major publications. 

We've heard many captivating stories in our time here, but Sam's was captivating in a unique way…it was relatable. Most of us in the room were either American or European…and here was another Westerner (he grew up in Youngstown, Ohio)--Palestinian, too--with a special lens through which we could see. We, too, hold passports that can get us basically anywhere…and to hear how Sam came to Palestine with his and was eventually stripped of its authority added a new nuance to our understanding of the the apartheid situation in Israel/Palestine.

When Sam came to Palestine with his wife, she already had a Palestinian I.D. (unlike Sam, she was born in Palestine). He applied right away for a residency permit and set to work developing PalTel. Without a residency permit, he had to leave the country every three months in order to be issued a new three-month tourist visa each time. He did this for fifteen years. For fifteen years, received no response about his residency permit application. Every three months for fifteen years, he would go to Jordan, usually to have a cup of coffee and then come back--never knowing if he would be let back in the country each time. Never knowing if this would be the time he had to call his family (two of their daughters were born in Palestine during these years) and say "they wouldn't let me back in." While that never happened, there did come a day--about thirteen years after originally applying for his residency permit--when, upon trying to re-enter Israel, his US passport was stamped a little differently. It was stamped with the usual three-month visa, but with an additional stamp that said "last permit" in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. At this point, Sam raised hell. The clock was now ticking and his family and business were at stake. 

After the battle that followed--fifteen years after he originally applied for it--Sam was given a Palestinian residency permit. The government officials told him to bring his US passport when he came to pick it up, and Sam complied, thinking that it was as case of needing to prove his identity. What they wanted, actually, was to stamp something new in his passport: "this person is the holder of a Palestinian I.D." With these words, most of the rights and privileges that came with his US passport were gone. While still (then and now) a US citizen, obtaining a Palestinian I.D. card changed Sam's life immediately. He immediately lost a third of his business in Jerusalem because his residency permit was for Ramallah, and he was no longer allowed in Jerusalem. The roads he was used to using he could no longer use. He could now only travel on Arab buses, not Israeli…and even the very car that he was driving was now illegal, as it had a yellow (Israeli) license plate, and Palestinians can only drive with the white and green plates (on roads designated for Palestinian use, of course). As a Palestinian I.D. holder, checkpoints that used to take him minutes to go through (as an American) would now take hours. Upon getting that much awaited residency card (congratulations?), his whole life changed. 

Sam learned from others in the Palestinian business community how to navigate his new status as a second-class human being. He learned that in order to get a one-day permit to enter Jerusalem he needed a letter of invitation from an organization there…that he had to take said letter to the permit office…that today there was a new rule stating that one must have a 'business card' (a card issued by the government legitimating one's business)…that the next day one must also have a 'magnetic card' (a card issued by the government after they make sure you're not a terrorist)…etc etc etc. These 'rules' aren't posted anywhere, and they change all the time. Lucky for Sam that he had the time and resources to jump through all of these hoops just to get a one-day permit…most people never could. He's in the process, now, of trying to get a 3-month business permit for Jerusalem. Again, he is lucky to have the means to do this. For most Palestinians, one's life and mobility are determined by which 'bird cage' one's I.D. card says one belongs in--the bird cage of Jerusalem, the bird cage of the West Bank, the bird cage of Gaza, etc. That's the bird cage you're going to stay in. If you want to marry someone from another bird cage (and actually be able to live together), too bad. If your business is in another bird cage, too bad. You're not going anywhere.

In response to a question that someone asked Sam about his view of Palestine's future, he replied that few people in his generation can fathom anything other than a two-state solution. They have too much love and hope for Palestine; too much invested in the daily struggle to be heard and to preserve the Palestinian identity. "But there is a new generation coming," he said. "My daughters' generation. There will come a day when my daughters and those in their generation will say to Israel, 'You win. It is already one state. Now give us our rights.'" 

So, it could be that the two-state battle will be given up for a one-state civil rights battle. It was obvious that Sam himself finds it hard to accept such an outcome…even I do, and I'm not Palestinian! How sad for them to have to give up, after holding on for so long. How sad for the bully to win. But perhaps there is also something empowering about admitting that it is already de facto one state; that we (Palestinians) are holding on to a dream that is increasingly (due to the actions of Israel and the inaction of the international community) impossible. So have it your way, Israel…it's already your way. And now you have to treat us as equals.

"The international community" Sam said, "can look away from a people's plea for their land and for recognition. But no one in the world can look away from civil rights."

[Much of what Sam said came to mind the other day (10/23) when I read an article written in Haaretz by Israeli columnist Gideon Levy. It can be accessed here, but I've copy-pasted the entire text below:

"As elections draw near, the season of public opinion surveys is upon us. But here is a survey that is more disturbing and significant in its revelations than those informing us whether Yair Lapid is soaring or Ehud Barak is crashing in the polls.

This one lays bare an image of Israeli society, and the picture is a very, very sick one. Now it is not just critics at home and abroad, but Israelis themselves who are openly, shamelessly, and guiltlessly defining themselves as nationalistic racists.

We're racists, the Israelis are saying, we practice apartheid and we even want to live in an apartheid state. Yes, this is Israel.

Among its terrifying results, the survey discovers a certain innocent candor. The Israelis admit this is what they are and they're not ashamed of it. Such surveys have been held before, but Israelis have never appeared so pleased with themselves, even when they admit their racism. Most of them think Israel is a good place to live in and most of them think this is a racist state.

It's good to live in this country, most Israelis say, not despite its racism, but perhaps because of it. If such a survey were released about the attitude to Jews in a European state, Israel would have raised hell. When it comes to us, the rules don't apply.

The "Jewish" part of "Jewish democracy" has won big time. The "Jewish" gave "democracy" a knockout, smashing it to the canvas. Israelis want more and more Jewish and less and less democracy. From now on don't say Jewish democracy. There's no such thing, of course. There cannot be. From now on say Jewish state, only Jewish, for Jews alone. Democracy - sure, why not. But for Jews only.

Because that's what the majority wants. Because that's how the majority defines its state. The majority doesn't want Arabs to vote for the Knesset, Arab neighbors at home or Arab students at school. Let our camp be pure - as clean of Arabs as possible and perhaps even more so.

The majority wants segregated roads in the West Bank and does not flinch in the face of the implications. Even the historic connotation does not bother it in the slightest. It wants discrimination in the workplace and it wants transfer. Enough with the whitewashing and pretense. This is what we want. Because that's the way we are.

The right will probably attack the New Israel Fund for commissioning the survey. Gevalt! It will screech. Leftists, Israel-haters. But the right's hollering will not change the result. This was done by a reliable, well-known polling firm. Besides, what's wrong with the survey? What didn't we know before, apart from the loss of shame? Let the right prove that this is not the way we are, that most Israelis want to live with Arabs. That most of them see Arabs as people like themselves, their equals in rights and opportunities. Let's see them prove it wrong. That would be a true cause for celebration.

The survey does not only confront Israelis with their present, but with their future as well. This appears to be the survey conductors' main goal. It tells them: You wanted settlements, you wanted occupation, you want Netanyahu and you've done nothing for the two-state solution, and it's died. Now let's see what's the alternative.

The alternative, as every infant knows, is one state. One state? Most Israelis say it will be an apartheid state, yet are doing nothing to prevent it. Some of them even want it. They don't even ask, Where are we going? Where are we being led? What's the vision for the next 10, 20 years? Well, if all goes well, if all continues they way it is now, the Israelis know the answer and it's a bitter one indeed.

Until then, the image of Israel 2012 is this: We don't want Arabs, don't want Palestinians, don't want equality, and the hell with all the rest.

Values-shmalues, morals-shmorals. Democracy and international law - those are matters for anti-Semites, not us. We will vote for Netanyahu again, recite that we're the only-democracy-in-the-Middle-East and wail that the whole world is against us."]

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