Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Eulogy for Peace Street

I don’t know how to start this article. I’ve been writing it since April 7th, ever since I read the news. I found out that the village I’m moving to just had its road demolished by the Israeli military, and that most of its families had received renewed demolition orders, effective on May 5th. Now it’s May 15th. Nakba Day. Today, Palestinians are marching in the streets, marching from within Israel, marching to the Israeli border, and marching to the wall that pretends to be the Israeli border. Netanyahu says the borders must be protected. People died today.

But my article isn’t about the border. It’s about a village in the Northeast corner of the West Bank. It’s close to A border, the Jordanian border. At night, you can see lights from Jordan in the distance. That’s probably why Israel is in the process of wiping it from the map. We can’t trust the future Palestinian state to have an unsupervised border with Jordan, so Israel is getting rid of the Jordan Valley villages. The soldiers either bulldoze them, or burn their fields and divert their water pipes to the nearest settlement so the Palestinians have to leave. Either way, it won’t make the evening news.

But my article isn’t really about the Jordan Valley either. It’s about al-Aqaba. The little village in the Northeast. Six weeks ago, their road was destroyed. It was called Peace Street, ironically enough. Even before the demolition, I thought about that street every day, because I ride my bike around New Orleans every day. If you know New Orleans, you’ll know that its streets are terrible. Adams, Jefferson, Magazine, Esplanade--they’re all sinking and cracking and shifting and it’s just one of the city’s quirks, but it’s still terrible. All of these daily commutes remind me of Peace Street, and how smooth it was. I didn’t realize it until April 7th, but it was probably the smoothest road in Palestine.

My eulogy to Peace Street needs to include this unprovable claim, and I don’t intend it to be literal. It was the smoothest road because it allowed the mayor of al-Aqaba, who is wheelchair-bound, to serve as a leader with freedom and dignity, which is a beautiful thing to behold. To be honest, Haj Sami didn’t really need a road for that--his physical limitations never got in the way of his vision for al-Aqaba. A few other things got in the way, like the military camps. There were three around the village, and one at its entrance. The Israeli army would use the village in their training exercises because it claimed the area resembled Southern Lebanon, and in 1983, they started raiding the village as practice. Eight villagers were killed and 50 were wounded, including Haj Sami, who caught a stray bullet at the age of sixteen. You wouldn’t expect a village to go on feeling peaceful after that, but al-Aqaba has always been a peaceful village, and until six weeks ago, it paid off. The village sent a petition to the Israeli High Court, which in 2003 finally answered with the removal of the military base at the village’s entrance. This was a landmark victory for a village in Area C, especially considering villages in that 61% of the West Bank are unrecognized by the Israeli army. This brings us to the second obstacle: the demolition order. Since 2004, 95% of the village has been slated for demolition. This includes the new kindergarten, the mosque, the medical center, and most of the homes. I visited al-Aqaba last December, and I left confident in two things: 1) I would come back to teach English and 2) the village would still be there. I wasn’t the only one who believed it. Because of their legal success, several embassies and organizations have invested in the village’s future; al-Aqaba would not have a medical center, or kindergarten, or sewing co-op were it not for this international support. These donors violated Israeli policy in Area C by building without a permit, and there are plaques on each one of the projects, thanking Japan, and Norway, and Britain.

So in spite of the obstacles, Haj Sami had worked successfully to secure the village’s future. He cruises around al-Aqaba, consulting with teachers, contractors, surveyors and corresponds reguarly with his advocates via e-mail. One of his contacts at Rebuilding Alliance, a California-based NGO, introduced us on-line when I expressed my interest in visiting the new kindergarten.

During my short stay, I was inspired by a lot of things--the cuteness of the kids, the devotion of the teachers, the beauty of the landscape, but nothing touched me as deeply as Haj Sami’s relationship with Peace Street. On our final night, after a large meal, my brother and I decided to walk from the village of Tayasir back to al-Aqaba. I was surprised when Haj Sami called out to us and offered to escort us up the hill, but my incredulity was put to shame when we hit the bottom of Peace Street; it was immaculate, and Haj Sami’s wheelchair had no trouble making the climb. As we walked alongside the mayor, he told us that the road had recently been paved by the Palestinian Authority, and now there was easier access to the olive groves around the village, and to the kindergarten, which also served kids from Tayasir and Tubas. We stopped at one villager's house so Haj Sami could inquire about his new sheep, also provided by the government. He then brought us up a side road to show us the remains of the Israeli camp. As the sun set over the Jordan Valley, I stopped to take a picture of Haj Sami with my brother and two of the boys from al-Aqaba as they made their way up the hill. This photo captured one of my favorite memories of Palestine, and it embodied the sense relief I felt in leaving al-Aqaba. The village would survive.

I found the post by Jordan Valley Solidarity four months later, buried between similar headlines, but this was like a punch in the stomach. I looked at the photo of Haj Sami, who sat at the edge of the road. To me, it didn't look like pieces of some inanimate object. It looked like carnage.

It’s been six weeks now, and I'm still struggling to speak for al-Aqaba. I just read the news flash on CNN saying that clashes are erupting on the “Arab’s Nakba Day,” which protests the birth of Israel in 1948. Aside from the fact that the Nakba protests Palestinian dispossession, not the creation of Israel, this isn’t just a 1948 conversation. What is the destruction of al-Aqaba but ethnic cleansing?

So what now? The bulldozers could come any day. They could come in the middle of the night. They’ll be guarded by armed soldiers from the Israeli Defense Force, and without Peace Street, Haj Sami won’t be able to reach them in his wheelchair to speak to them in Hebrew as a representative of his village. The children, who have already lost the road that takes them to school, will have no school to go to. When I saw the pictures, I realized that Peace Street was more than just a road, and its destruction was more than an ironic salute to Israeli peace. When I saw Haj Sami in the photograph, I dug up my picture of him cruising up the same hill in December and realized that Peace Street symbolized freedom and dignity for the mayor, just as he did for his village, and his valley. It'll take more than a bulldozer to destroy these things, and I’ll feel for the soldiers when they come to terms with what they’ve done, but I’m finding it hard to forgive this latest Nakba, this interrupted education, and the immobility of my friend.

Pictures of al-Aqaba village

Rebuilding Alliance Website

Petition-Open the road to Al Aqaba! Pave the road to peace!

Jordan Valley Solidarity-Homes and Roads Destroyed in al-Aqaba

International Solidarity Movement-More Demolitions in the Jordan Valley