The Beginning of the eye opening

Trip Start Aug 2008
Trip End Jul 2009

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ok, so I think this may be the most appropriate point to add a little bit of (slightly biased and over simplified) history about the Arab-Israeli conflict so you have a better understanding of what I'm talking about ... if you already know this stuff, feel free to skip to the section below the line!

In my opinion, the problem really began with the 1922 British Mandate, in which the League of Nations promised "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" (with some qualifiers to the statement). As a result of the Holocaust, Jews emigrated to Palestine in order to escape the persecution they suffered during that horrible time in Europe. The UN attempted to partition the Palestinian territory in order to create 2 states - one Jewish and one Arab. The partition divided the land so that Arabs, who originally owned the land (69 percent of the population) received 43 percent of the land and the Jews (31 percent of
the population) got 57 percent of the land. Clearly the Arabs did not accept this offer, and civil war ensued.

In 1948, Israel declared itself an independent state and was quickly invaded by the surrounding Arab nations who were all looking to take a slice of Palestine. Arabs were often forced to leave and were "expelled in considerable numbers by Israeli commanders at the local level ."
Sometimes refugees were literally deported across borders, and in certain cases the Israeli Defense Forces terrorized Arab Palestinians to accelerate their flight from Israel . When the war ended, Israel controlled almost 80 percent of the land formerly known as Palestine,
and about 750,000 Arab Palestinians were seeking refuge in neighboring nations, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Today, as a result of natural growth, there are about 4.6 million Palestinian refugees.

The refugees of 1948 expected to eventually return to their rightful homes from 1948. However, the Israelis razed complete towns and villages and erected new, Israeli houses over the top,
leaving them with no homes to return to. Thus, the Palestinian refugee problem continues to provoke unrest in the region.

Another war broke out in 1967, in which Israel dominated the Arab nations. In doing so, they
annexed some more land (ie. they took it over as part of Israel). They also decided to occupy some land too. This didn't mean they were taking it over indefinitely, just that they were occupying it for the time being. The idea being that they would give the land back in return for peace agreements. So they occupied the West Bank, the Golan Heights(part of Syria) and the Sinai desert(Egypt) and Gaza strip. They returned the Sinai to Egypt in return for a peace agreement in the late 70s. However almost immediately after 1967 they started building settlements in Gaza, Golan and of course the West Bank. Jewish settlements on land that they are meant to give back eventually.

So, the refugee problem is a result of the 1948 wars and the occupation (and settlements) are due to the 1967 war.

This is as REALLY over simplified version of the situation ... as there were several more wars and a "peace process" that have contributed to the current situation. However, it's better than nothing, and at least gets to the point of how the whole mess was created.


So,on Saturday, we all packed onto a mini-bus with all of our luggage and headed to Bethlehem. I'm going to go ahead and tell you that it's not as great as it sounds. First of all, I didn't go to the nativity church, and second of all, for me, the reality of the situation was so
much more important than any religious aspects of the place.

Our first stop was Hebron ... probably the most horrific place we visited during the entire trip. Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank and was once the economic epicenter of the region. However, 4 Jewish settlements in downtown Hebron have essentially crippled the economy
and ruined the city.

We have heard a lot about Jewish settlements since Obama's meeting w/ Netanyahu and its very important to understand their significance. Under international law, these settlements are completely illegal, but the settlers believe they are "religiously justified" in owning the land. These settlements, in my opinion, are being used to slowly encroach on and eek out the
Palestinians. As much as 40 percent of the settlement land in the West Bank is privately owned by Palestinians.

Jewish Israelis have built up their community directly adjacent to Arab neighborhoods, and
their homes are built taller than the Arab's, giving them a strategic position of power. Many of the homes overlook the market place, which today, is almost entirely shut down.

The settlers teach their children (b/c they are not under jurisdiction of Israeli law until they turn 13) to throw rocks, water, and even acid onto the Palestinians below. This has forced the Palestinians to put up fencing over the top of the market place to, at the very least, shield them from the (often very big) rocks that are thrown at them.

The settlers have also created Israeli-only roads and sidewalks in the town. So, if an Arab
family's front door faces onto one of these streets, they must find another way to exit/enter their homes. The settlers' power is also bolstered by the Israeli army who "patrols" the town. They basically enforce a system of lock down on the Palestinians and turn a blind eye when they see them being miss treated

I have done a terrible job at describing the place, but hopefully some of the pictures will really bring the story home. In the end, the result of the settlers in Hebron, has been that the Palestinians are basically treated as animals. Their children have to be walked to school by
international volunteers b/c they fear they will be attacked by the settlers (b/c they have been in the past). They must cover their windows with metal netting in order to protect their windows from being broken and their homes from being broken into. They have an enforced curfew and the military restricts their movement.

We were led through the area by TIPH, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, which monitors the situation in the city. Even while we were there, some of their workers were called away to respond to an incident. They even told us stories and showed us pictures of how they, international observers, were attacked by the settlers.

I know it may be hard to really understand what I'm talking about, but I'm pretty sure Hebron is as close as it gets to hell on Earth ... if you need any further proof of how terrible the place is, take a look at this graffiti ...

Settlements in the news TODAY

On Sunday, we visited the Aida Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem. We got to walk around the camp a little bit. It's not the tent-based refugee camp that we normally think of, because it has been around for about 60 years, so people have built more permanent homes.

The UN is almost solely responsible for taking care of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. They build schools, hospitals, infrastructure, etc. However, there is certainly not enough money to provide for the 5500 people that live in this camp alone (there are 18 other camps in the West Bank that house about half a million people).

The refugee camp is nearly surrounded by the wall that is being built around the West Bank for "security purposes." First of all, the West Bank is probably one of the safest places I have ever visited, and I definitely felt safer walking around there (except when the Israeli military were
around), than I do sometimes in Belleville. So, all this nonsense about needing to build a wall for security purposes is complete crap!

We were shown several examples of how the wall is being used so that the Israelis can inconspicuously add to their land under the guise of security. IF they wanted a wall for security, they should build it on their OWN land. Instead, they have been building it a couple of feet
inside of Palestinian territory, and surround both sides w/ a road that is under Israeli control. Right now the West Bank is about 22% of the original size of Palestine, and the wall has helped the Israelis take another 10% of the land ... leaving on 12% for the Palestinians!

This wall makes the Berlin wall look like a picket fence. It's about 25 feet tall and in the end will cover about 436 miles! It greatly restricts peoples' movement within the West Bank. For some, a trip to the store that used to take 15 minutes, can now take up to 2 hours b/c of the wall and checkpoints along the way. Like the settlements, the wall too, is illegal under international law.


I don't know if I have mentioned it yet, but the United States gives almost 4 BILLION dollars a year to Israel to use however it pleases ... that means some of your tax money is being used to create the "apartheid wall" and even more of it is being spent on buying (enormous) guns for the Israeli army to use in its occupation of Palestine.


After our enlightening morning in the refugee camp, we visited the mayor of a town that is slowly being encompassed by the wall. Every week he and his villagers go to peacefully protest the building of the wall because it cuts families from each other and people from their cities.

He was recently arrested at one of the protests. He told us about his time in prison and the human rights violations that he experienced there.

My favorite quote from him is, "there is no difference between the bulldozer and the driver. They are both machines." I think this sums up the situation quite well ... it's basically what we saw during the recent war in Gaza ... that Israeli soldiers act as machines when completely destroying schools, homes, and even UN buildings w/o regard for the human lives there.
Later, he took us out into a field to show us how the wall will affect his community, as well as showed us the settlements around and the Israeli-only road.

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