Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My first trip to Palestine has left me discouraged, confused, and at times just seething mad, but somewhere in the last two days I found the thread in my jumble of thoughts, my take-away, my inspiration. It lies in my evolving understanding of resistance in Palestine. When I arrived, I only knew that it was justified.

Al-Aqaba (Dec.20-22)

I arrived in the village of Al-Aqaba with a feeling of utter doom. The mayor, Haj Sami had picked me up from Ramallah and I had spent the last hour looking out the window at settlements, checkpoints and refugee camps. Now, perched on a hilltop in a corner of the West Bank between two Israeli military bases, I didn't know how much inspiration this little town could bring. I really had no idea. Then I learned that the village was the first to win a case against the Israeli high court, to remove a military base from its entrance. Soldiers used to raid the village as practice before their incursions into South Lebanon, and dozens of people had been killed and injured; Haj Sami himself was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. In spite of this history, the village is hopeful for a better future. Organizations and embassies from Japan, Europe and the United States have donated money and resources to improve its infrastructure, which includes a new kindergarten, sewing cooperative, and housing for teachers. Haj Sami has a master plan for Al-Aqaba to expand, even though most of the village, being located in Area C, is slated for demolition. I asked him if he could build in secret, but he said that Israeli soldiers inspect the village periodically to look for new structures to demolish. With the financial and legal support of the international community, I believe Haj Sami and the village will realize their dream, and I myself plan to return next year to teach English.

One evening, I was walking up the hill to Al-Aqaba with Haj Sami, my brother and two boys from the village, and Haj Sami brought us up an alternative road, one that had just been paved by the Palestinian Authority. He showed us where the old military camp was and pointed out his new roads and told us about the new gift of sheep the village had received. The sun was setting on the hills above the Jordan valley, and I stopped to watch the three boys and Haj Sami as he steered his wheelchair up the road and talked about his plan for the village land. This is a beautiful place, I thought, and its resistance is beautiful.

Bethlehem and Beit Sahour (Dec 23-26)

I came to Bethlehem expecting a city of peace, a sacred place. It was a personal trip, to see the "Little Town" I'd sung about every Christmas, and a way to connect Palestine to my New Orleans, a very Christian city. The lights were shining bright in Bethlehem, but the shadow of the Occupation became darker and darker the longer I stayed. I learned that my contact, professor Mazin Qumsiyeh had been arrested nearby in al-Walaja village for showing up in opposition to its demolition. I was able to meet him a few days later and learn about the struggles faced in the Bethlehem district. Because of the settlements, highways and expanding Apartheid walls, Bethlehem has already lost 87% of its land and is in the process of being boxed in and ghettoized. Mazin showed me the village of al-Walaja, which stands in the path of the wall. Unlike two neighboring settlements, the village doesn't appear on Hebrew street signs, and what's left after the wall will be closed in on all sides. After absorbing all of this information, I couldn't enjoy the lights in Manger Square. "Albi thaqil," I told a shopkeeper, "my heart is heavy."

Again I was inspired. The following night, The Shepherd's Night program in neighboring Beit Sahour invited Christmas visitors to support the preservation of Palestinian culture. The night began with a parade of local schoolchildren playing bagpipes and drums and wielding Palestinian flags, then evolved into a candlelit procession for locals and internationals carrying banners that read "Light a Candle for Palestinian Statehood." The walk ended at Shepherd's Field with a performance by a Palestinian dance troupe that combined traditional and modern dance with themes of loss, occupation and return. For return, the dancers moved in unison with hands behind their backs. One dance portrayed a colorful harvest celebration, in days when Bethlehem still possessed its agricultural land. The program succeeded in showing the community and visiting internationals that this culture will never disappear. This culture is not one of fear or hatred. It is proudly Palestinian, and its resistance is the dance of love.

Bil'in and Beitin (Dec 26-27)

For two days I joined the company of 80 or so French activists who had traveled to Palestine to learn and to demonstrate, and I found myself on the road to protest in Bil'in and Beitin. As our bus snaked through the hills, a local guide gave us the run-down on settlement activity, noting that villagers who tend to their olive trees on the outskirts of the settlements risk being shot by soldiers. As our bus pulled in Bil'in, my heart was so heavy that I gathered up my things to leave. I just wanted to check into a hostel in Jerusalem and hide within the alleys of the Old City. I was sick of Palestine and Israel and the whole mess. But I stayed. We were going to eat Maklubeh with a local family, then plant olive trees near the wall. It sounded so nice.

And it was. The procession was beautiful, with the town of Bil'in and dozens of French activist in bright green Free Palestine vests walking down the hill, waving flags and little olive trees. We saw the wire fence that marked the path of the wall, and the Israeli soldiers watching us behind it. I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't expect them to fire tear gas canisters at the mere sight of us. It was a nauseating and exhilarating moment, when our guide gestured for us to walk to the left, up towards the fence. I saw empty canisters on the ground, and somehow had faith that everything would be alright. The next ten minutes saw us all along the fence, planting trees. The village boys were braver. They took two trees past the fence and into the path of the wall and after digging furiously, decorated them with a ring of empty canisters. Then they started. The first sound bomb was deafening. I plugged my ears and started scrambling down the hill, but stopped dead when I heard the pfft pfft of tear gas canisters.

"Look to the sky!" shouted our guide from Bil'in. I looked up. The canisters left a streak of smoke in the sky before spinning rapidly like a firecracker and thudding into the ground. I thought of the girl who lost an eye, and the guy who suffered brain damage, and I didn’t know whether to stand still and watch or continue rock scrambling with my back turned. But at that moment, I was thinking more about those words, look to the sky. The night before I had looked to the night sky in Bethlehem and thought of Robert Frost: "so when the mighty mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star, to stay our minds on and be stayed." It was ironic, with the spinning canister.

And it was a fact of life. I stood halfway up the hill to Bil'in watching tear gas fall in front of retreating protestors. I saw an elderly French woman walk blindly out of the gas cloud coughing, as the village doctor handed her cotton swabs soaked in alcohol to inhale. I fought back naturally-induced tears, then smiled as I noticed the boys of Bil'in socializing on the hill side as if this was what they did every week. I remembered what some say about Palestinian culture…it isn't a culture if it's just a response. Bil'in's is a culture of resistance, it is beautiful, and it is made from love. Resistance is an existence.

I found the same to be true in Beitin, a community protesting the closing of their road to Ramallah. As a few of us slipped between soldiers toward the second checkpoint on the Israeli-only road, a little boy waving a Palestinian flag shouted, "Yalla al-Ramallah!" and my heart melted. What if we were actually able to walk into Ramallah? Then the soldiers went pfft pfft and we all ran back up the hill, stumbling and coughing out of plumes of gas that had landed between us and safety.

Apparently onions are also good to inhale.

So it's been a challenging trip, a heart-wrenching trip, but liberating in the end because I saw beauty in something new. I will continue to stay my mind on the people I've met here in Palestine, and work for a day when they can go to Ramallah on any road they choose.