2011
05.27

SYNOPSIS:

This is the continuation of blog 116 and should be read in that order: 116 first, this second.

A Jewish settlement and a ride home.  Another very long blog; it took me all day to write these two,  Therefore no other news.

Leaving the Tent of Nations (TON) was hard.  There was an air of peace and humanity at the farm that was rare and there was a lovely shady spot overlooking the valley and the settlements.  But I did not want to overstay my welcome.  When I hiked towards the main road I decided that it was time to pay a visit to one of the settlements to see for myself what it was like.  Everyone seemed afraid of settlers.  Stories of armed and violent settlers abound.  Are they really like that?

It helps that I am neither Palestinian nor Israeli and that I am by myself.  I pose no threat.  I was not bound by any legal restrictions to enter the settlement, only by personal reservations.  The biggest obstacle would be the mood of the guards.  There is no reason why they should let me in, but there is also no obvious reason why they should prevent me from entering after inspecting me.  Ever since Iraq I have been wearing a headdress which I absolutely love.  For the first time, I found a head cover that can go on and off in a second.  It does not slip, it looks decent, it protects me from the sun and the wind, and best of all in this part of the world:  it turns me into a chameleon.  I have worn it in Jewish households and synagogues and I blend in right with the conservative Jewish women.  I have worn it into mosques and have been asked if I am a Muslim.  I look like whatever the onlooker wants to see.  I have not seen any other woman wear this kind of headdress, but I finally found this particular style also in the souq of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and stocked up in various colors.

With my backpack and my big camera dangling around my shoulders, I made no secret of my intentions to photograph and approached the settlement check point.  I put on a big smile, called out a friendly “Shalom” and walked right in.  That was easy!  That guard should be fired.  What if I had explosives in my backpack?  No settler walks into the settlement.  You either arrive in the Jewish bus or in your private car.  There is nothing but wilderness around – where did he think I was coming from?!  Good for me.

For the next 1.5 hours, I roamed the settlement.  Gorgeous flower gardens and groomed sidewalks flanked beautiful one-family mansions.  That was the old part of the settlement.  In the second and third phase of construction multifamily units were built and finally apartment houses.  No shortages of water or electricity here.  This was definitely an upscale settlement.  The one I look at from my balcony in Beit Sahour is not half as fancy.

In a nutshell:  Settlers traditionally come in two groups:  Economic settlers and ideological ones.  The economic settlers are usually “harmless”, to put it that way.  They are immigrants who are offered cheap subsidized housing in the settlements of the Beit Sahour type – apartments in high-rises.  They are often struggling to make a living as newcomers.  The ideological settlers are the ones who are making a political point.  They believe in the right to settle in disputed territory just like for example Germans settled in Alsace-Lorraine after they conquered it from France in 1871.  They come in all stripes of religious convictions from conservative to fanatic to ultra-fanatic and violent.  You would not find liberal Jews in these neighborhoods or political activists who oppose the encroachment into the Palestinian West Bank.

The most striking feature of the settlement was how lonely it felt.  The heat of the day had finally broken and it was a gorgeous summer evening.  I passed three playgrounds – deserted.  I walked through dozens of streets – deserted.  I entered the beautiful city synagogue – one man was praying in it.  Even the supermarket which I finally came across – it seemed to be the only store in town – had only a handful of shoppers in it.  A pizzeria was the only place of activity, were two families had gathered for dinner.  One kid was on his bike riding up and down the block.  One young man stood at the bus stop and a few people arrived in their cars immediately being absorbed into their homes.  It felt like walking through a ghost town.  I finally came across a woman who was pruning her shrubs.  I sent a friendly “Shalom” her way, but had no response.  I thought she did not hear me.  I repeated my “Shalom” and she answered:  “I don’t know you”.  I don’t know you either, I said.  But I am saying hello anyhow.  “Oh…”

In the supermarket and at the pizza place the only language I heard was American English.  The pruning lady was an American as well.  Don’t we say hello in America?  Why not here?  Don’t we walk around in small towns on a gorgeous, lukewarm evening like this in America?  Why not here?  Aren’t our kids out playing before dinner?  Why not here?

I circled the entire hill of the settlement and was on my way to the main road to catch the Arab bus back to Bethlehem, when in the distance I heard laughter.  There were people!  A most unusual building was ahead and people were coming and going.  Ah, the Community Center, I thought.  Or could it be a public swimming pool?  The architecture reminded me of a space ship, but it also had some maritime qualities to it.  I was going to find out.  I climbed the stairs to the entrance and approached some of the people standing outside:   Who is the architect of this building, I asked?  I had to ask for something, but I also was genuinely interested in this.  “He is right here” was the answer and I was pulled into what I now realized was clearly somebody’s private party and a private home.  Oy veh…

The architect was a friendly French man in his sixties.  His daughter got engaged today and this was the engagement party.  People had come from all the different settlements and even from Jerusalem.  He offered me food and beer and we chatted about his home.  He is used to people inquiring about his home and he is proud to share it with whoever is interested.  Finally, the conversation turned a bit more personal.  He was a convert to Judaism who after that discovered that his ancestors had hidden their Jewish identity for several generations.  When I admitted to my German heritage, I could sense him freezing up a bit.  When he realized that I had come from Bethlehem, an area off limits for Jews, he definitely was no longer comfortable with me, but he pretended for a few more minutes.   When he started a conversation with a new arrival, a woman approached me.  We talked for a while.  When she realized that I knew nobody in the family but had just walked into the door, she almost instantly shut down.

Can I blame them?  Only recently, in March, one of most bloody assaults of a settler family occurred in the West Bank.  In their sleep, five members, including a three months old baby of the Vogel family were killed.  Who could trust that backpack, which I was carrying?  It even looked suspicious to me now.  There was an assembly of over 50 Jewish settlers, probably of the political type, intellectuals for the most part, all gathered nicely.  What a target for a terrorist!  Who can trust anyone these days?!  Who can believe that I am who I say I am?  In any case, I was an outsider and an intruder and I was looked at with the utmost suspicion.

That’s ultimately what I took away from the experience of walking through the settlement:  There is an air of closing in on your own space, of distrust and fear that I have not seen quite like this in any affluent, small-town neighborhood and not anywhere else in the Middle East.  And there is behavior which is completely contrary to cultural traditions towards a stranger in this area, especially a harmless single woman like me.  In the Middle East hospitality and openness towards strangers is one of the key values.  But it was gone here.  The people seemed nice and to me confirmed the fact that we are all carrying a bit of Mr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in us.  These settlers are people like you and me.  And they can turn into people who take up arms and show up at the TON where they uproot 250 olive trees, throw rocks and threaten an unarmed Christian family until the Israeli army has to force them back – all of which happened…

What a way to live!  Settlers never step out of their settlements.  Israeli buses take them directly back into Israel proper through Israeli controlled roads for work and social life.  I talked to one more person in more detail at the party: An African-American Jew from a mixed marriage.  He too, seemed quite reluctant to engage in a conversation, but finally did so stating what I had heard from three other people before:  “Well, if you are here, there must be a reason for it after all.”   Word had gotten around that a German was in the house.  I heard the murmurs.  But ultimately, they put my presence in God’s hands and ultimately, I excused myself even though I would have really enjoyed talking to people in more depth about their lives, their reasons for living in a settlement, and their knowledge of their neighbors at the TON, just one mountain away and their ideas about Israel’s future.  But it was not to be.   Almer at the TON said that she never has had a visit from a settler.  When I walked up to her, she first mistook me for a Jewish woman (because of that headdress I am wearing) thinking that finally one had found the courage to come.  But no, not yet; it was just me.

By the time I left the party it was pitch dark.  The green and white Jewish shuttle bus passed me and slowed down to pick me up.  No thanks.  The bus driver must have wondered where I was going.  Across the valley I could see the TON hill and another settlement.  TON remained dark.  There were no volunteers there, today.  I think they were conserving energy.

As I approached the checkpoint to exit, it occurred to me that now I would surely be questioned.   Where was I going?  The Jewish bus stopped inside – out there was wilderness and Arab territory.  If I was a Palestinian I should not have been there in the first place, if I was a Jewish settler I should not be going anywhere.  But the guard was on the phone, blissfully occupied and I walked into the darkness without incident.

After a kilometer walk in the darkness I reached the main road again and the place where Samer had dropped me off in the afternoon.  It occurred to me how odd this place really was.  The Arab bus station was right at the bottom of the hill.  But it was completely barricaded with road blocks indicating that it was not in use.  Obviously – there was nobody around here who would go on this bus as it was going into Area A off limits to Israeli Jews by Israeli law.  But just as I was about to photograph this odd and Kafkaesque scene the blue and white Arab bus came around the corner.  I flagged it down.  Bethlehem?  Yes, but not me, was the gesture of the bus driver.  Yes, me!  Bethlehem and then Beit Sahour.  The driver shook his head in confusion.  I looked Jewish to him.  What else in this neighborhood?  But I insisted on going and so he took me.  He finally put the pieces together that I was a foreign visitor.

Two drunken young guys were in the bus!  That is unusual for this area.  They came from Hebron.  No alcohol there.  How did they get drunk?  They were quite interested in me and now I was really uncomfortable.  I positioned my backpack firmly between them and me and started praying to Ganesh:  I passed the check point twice, please don’t get me into trouble with these two guys.  I need some help here!  Ganesh must have listened.  But I got some punishment from him as a reminder not to take too many chances like this:  The bus driver offered to take me to Beit Sahour for the price of a taxi ride.  As I refused to pay this, he dropped me off way away from the city center and I had to walk for another hour before I got home and had time to ponder the day.

Walking at night in an Arab town has never been a problem.  Families were out strolling, kids were playing, and old guys were hanging out talking or playing cards.  Curious “hellos” and friendly “you are welcome” were called out toward me and some store keepers tried to lure me into their shops.

That’s what I am used to from a town in the Middle East.

Good night.

2011
05.27

SYNOPSIS:

From Hebron to the Tent of Nations to a Settlement Community.   This is going to be a very long blog…

When I sank into bed after this 12 hour adventure, I could not believe that I had seen what I saw today and that I ended up in my bed rather than in some Israeli interrogation office or some other awful place.

The day started harmlessly enough.  My host, also the manager of the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), took a group of people to Hebron.  The Tent of Nations (TON), my destination for the day, was on the way and he was going to drop me off.  But the group he had on the bus seemed interesting and the idea to go on a guided tour to Hebron appealed to me – I had missed the mosque after all during my first visit since that was on a Friday (See Day 89) – and so I decided to join the tour. This is not the thing I usually do as an organized tour like this runs about $80 and I can do it on my own for about $8.  But I was interested in Samer’s input and I am already so much in debt that it hardly matters any more.  He is full of real-life stories about the situation around here and that is priceless.

As you may recall, Hebron is the hot-spot of fanatics on both sides and one of the earliest settlements.  Having spent a full day there already, I had seen much more than Samer could cover in 2 hours.  But a few things were interesting.  The metal mesh that was suspended over the souq seemed to me to be a barrier for rocks going up (from the Palestinians towards the Settlers).   Samer explained that it was protection put up by the Palestinians to prevent rocks from coming down.  He pointed to an old, dilapidated and seriously bent awning at a store front explaining that it had been bent by a huge rock coming down.  When I saw a similarly old, dilapidated and seriously bent awning at a different place where no rock could possibly have come down, I had to ask myself how much “evidence” is really out there anyone can point to using it for any possible narrative, especially when you are talking to foreigners like us who are clueless and when you point to it years after the fact.

Samer, as a Palestinian, is not allowed to enter the settlement.  But we went in for about 15 minutes on our own.   “Don’t talk to anyone!” was the order.  Settlers are not particularly interested in talking to us, but they are used to groups coming through – I saw several pro-settler groups on my last trip — and it is hard to tell by just looking if there is a group of pro-settlers or con-settlers coming through.  At every corner there is a police watch point.  There simply is no imminent danger.  But there is a lot of perceived danger.

After having lunch at one of only three stores whose owners refused to leave the area, right across a check point, the group drove back to Bethlehem to tour the sites there.  I was dropped off at a godforsaken intersection in the middle of four settlements and with vague directions on going up and down a hill for a kilometer to find a farm known as the Tent of all Nations (TON).  This was one of the hottest days yet, and from here on out I took a real beating as far as the sun is concerned, but I will not mention it any more.  Settlements are recognizable by at least one of these features:

1.       Very uniform building styles indicating a short building period

2.       Red tiled roofs

3.       Brand-new roads

4.       Greenery

5.       Security fences, walls, or roads for patrol vehicles

I was walking towards an intersection where the road split; a new road and an old one.  I followed the old and soon headed towards a hill in the center of four surrounding hills, all four of which contained settlements separated by valleys from the central fifth hill.  The road ahead of me soon deteriorated even further and was blocked by two massive piles of rocks.  A side road indicated an earlier attempt to bypass the block, but the second blockade had definitively cut off access to the farm ahead.  After a few hundred yards I reached a huge metal fence – locked.  The sign confirmed I was in the right spot:  Tent of all Nations (TON).  Now I understood Samer’s instruction:  If the gate is closed, go under it.  What???  I had about a foot clearance.  Going under it meant scraping the floor lying on my back, inching through; not what my thin type of linen clothing is made for.  I searched for alternatives, but was left with none.  I wish I could have taken a picture of this.  One hole in my pants was a small price to pay for what I was ahead of me.

I approached the hill of the farm and found two women sitting under a metal awning in front of a cheerfully decorated bungalow.  They did not seem surprised to see me and welcomed me in.  I explained that I had heard of the TON from Samer, and as an educator in search of an understanding of this region wanted to find out more.  Almer, the younger of the two women, started to explain:

This farm was bought by her grandfather Daher Nassar in 1916 from the Ottomans.  It has been in the family ever since and is known in the area as Daher’s Vineyard.  Her father, Bishara Nassar, inherited the land and he, as his father had done before him, lived in Bethlehem and on the land in a cave where he raised his family of 8 children.  He died in 1976, when she and her siblings (four sisters and four brothers) were still very young.  He had always dreamt of making his farm “the meeting place of all nations”, a spot where people would reconcile and live in peace.  For ten years, this dream has been turned into reality.  The Nasser family started a non-profit project which they named “The Tent of all Nations”.  It involves summer camps for local children, especially underprivileged ones from the nearby refugee camps, language and other training and activity for the women of the nearby Muslim village Nahila, and countless seminars, lectures, and volunteer camps.  Up to 40 people can live in the three big green tents which are pitched during the summer months.  Everyone involved in these activities is helping to prove one of two main goals the Nasser family is pursuing:  refusing to be enemies and practicing peace, tolerance and hope.

Everyone up on the hill is also proving another point:  This is not land without people as the settlers around have been made to believe.  This is land that has been occupied and owned by a family for nearly 100 years.  In 1991 the Israeli government declared this area State Land.  Most of the other owners did not have the paperwork to prove ownership and did not have the stamina to withstand the harassment that followed.  For starters, the Nasser family had to spend all of their savings of $70,000 to have Ottoman State records searched in Istanbul to prove their 1916 purchase.  They were able to do so.  It did not give them peace for long.  Despite these papers the Israeli government decided to build a road right through their property in 2001 and another one in 2005.  Each time, the family was forced to go to court to stop these orders.  They succeeded but at an emotional and financial price they were no longer able to afford.  They needed help.  That’s when the TON project was founded with the help of Christian organizations in Switzerland, Germany and other countries.  It has survived for 10 years.  But the struggle is grinding and continues on a nearly daily basis:

The Israeli government has refused to grant building permits for any structures on the land and has issued demolition orders for everything from a simple metal shed used as toilets, to the meshed wire surrounding the chicken coop, to the green tents pitched in the summer for the camp activities.  The only way around this was to go underground or to go to court.  The family has done both.  The original caves hewn by hand by Daher and Bishara were expanded and additional caves were dug.  Now there are seven, one of which serves as an interfaith chapel.

Permits for electricity and running water have been refused.  Collecting rain water and digging cisterns has been the only option.  Water at the farm comes at a premium and at times there is not enough to go around even for drinking water.  For years the family lived without electricity at all.  A costly gas-run generator provided up to two hours of emergency electricity.  Recently a donation gave them four solar panels.  Now there is some light.  Six years ago, the road blocks were put up by angry settlers and Israeli soldiers stood idly by.  Removal of the road blocks would put the Nassers into prison.  They still have a way out of the farm, but it adds over 30 minutes to their commute.

Almer’s report stunned me.  I had heard about these things but had not imagined them to be quite like this.  I always assumed that there are two sides to every story.  But I could not see the second one, no matter how hard I looked.  Israel wants this hill to connect the settlements.  They want this family out and no measure seems too low to achieve this goal.

The Nassers are deeply religious.  They are the only Christian family left in the valley and they are determined to spread the Christian message of non-violence and righteousness through their actions.  In one incident the settlers uprooted 250 olive trees, an asset hard to imagine in the Western world.  These trees take years to grow before bearing fruit; then they last for generations.  In Jerusalem you can see six trees that can be traced back 2000 years!  Instead of fighting back, they called on their supporters and quietly replanted 500 trees!  I sponsored four trees and left a donation towards their ongoing and formidable legal expenses.  I hope some of you feel compelled to help as well, perhaps even to come here some day and to volunteer.  You can find them easily on line:  www.tentofnations.org

After Almer explained their history, Daher, her brother took me around showing me the facilities which attest to the presence of children and adults from all over the world through murals, mosaics, and inscribed stones.  Living at TON means roughing it but it also provides visitors with an unforgettable experience.  My most touching moment was when Daher sat down with me in the chapel cave.  I commented on the beautiful acoustics in it and asked if they sing here.  I will teach you a song, he said.  In Arabic let’s sing “I praise the Lord”.  And so he taught me and we sang.  He could complain.  He could despair.  He could resort to violence.  But he chooses to act and to praise the lord.

I praise the Lord.  Mejdan Lerob.

To be continued in the next blog.

Good night.