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What does it mean to thrive?

Knowing your children attend a good school.  Earning a salary that allows you to save money for the future.  Going on a summer vacation, maybe traveling abroad.  Making dinner in a cozy home with abundant choices from the grocery store, choices that allow you to be vegetarian or vegan if you wish.  Being able to go out to eat once in awhile.  Joining a club in your town where you can swim and golf.  Being able to buy organic carrots.  Being surrounded by family.  Driving to your brother’s house for a weekend visit.  Having independence.  Building a new home for your family and imagining your grandkids enjoying the living room as much as your kids do.

We each have our own definition of what it means to thrive and, in my own country, people are still working to achieve it.  Everyone’s list is different.

While in Nablus, I became close to a group of teachers who were practicing their already excellent English.  They taught me a lot.  They talked about their families, their teaching jobs and their students.  They also talked about politics and the occupation.  It’s impossible not to.

One of my students said, “I think negotiations will take decades.”

He went on to say, “I don’t think we will achieve peace in our lifetime.  From 1993-2000 we experienced a type of peace.  We had hope that we would thrive.

He continued, “Maybe we will have control of a small percent of land, but not the Jordan Valley, not Jerusalem and not the sea.”

“We have containers, we don’t have cities.  Qualqila is a container with only two exits,” he said.

One of the students, along with being a teacher, is a farmer.  Some of his family land was taken by Israeli settlers.  His family had lived on that land for years before the settlers came to take it.

Another student travels often.  Once, while crossing a checkpoint, he was held for two hours under the hot sun with other Arabs.  He watched a little boy with a broken leg cry for relief from the sun while he waited to be allowed to pass.  The boy’s father was trying to take him to a hospital.

These stories are, unfortunately, characteristic of daily life for Palestinians.  This group of teachers were my English students, but I learned much more than I taught.

Stories from the Holy Land

I’ve lived in the Holy Land for the last seven months. This is my last week in Bethlehem before I head to India for a month, so I’ve been taking care of business. My apartment is nearly packed up: a pile of donations, a pile to leave with friends and a pile to take with me.

Just a few days ago, I went to the Jordanian Consular office in Ramallah to get a visa for my upcoming trip. After traveling two hours to get there, it was closed.
I made a new friend, a guy who also needed a visa and was equally disappointed to find the office locked.

The policeman guarding the embassy immediately sauntered over to chat with us, gun slung over his torso like a shield.

Click here to read the rest of “Stories from the Holy Land” by Cat Rabenstine for Mondoweiss.

One foot in, one foot out – a tour of a Palestinian village

Today I took a walk through a friend’s village near Bethlehem. The sky was blue and spotted with clouds. It was chilly but the sun peaked through with surprising radiance.

First, he (let’s call him Ahmed) showed me a 4×4 inch cement track that follows one entire length of the village, coming within yards of the school. This tiny bit of cement will, maybe within the year, become part of The Wall built by Israel in this case to separate their settlement from the Palestinian village nearby.

We walked up a dirt road to two demolished houses, the foundation of one home holding the remains of its former walls. The army demolished the houses, saying they posed a security threat. One family lived in a tent for a few months before building a new house.

Standing on top of the rubble, I saw the huge Israeli settlement homes looming above on the highest, closest hill. The houses looked huge and stable, capped with the ubiquitous red roof, a characteristic of Israeli settlement buildings.

We retraced our steps and walked the other way towards the paved settler-road to take pictures of the village from above.

The entire time we walked, the cement track followed us. Ahmed stood with each foot on either side of it, “One day, my left foot won’t be allowed in this spot,” he said.

He hesitated for just a second before we had walked up this hill. He wasn’t supposed to walk on it. He said, “If soldiers come, they all know me by name. We will just run to the Palestinian side.”

Once we reached the top of the hill, Ahmed pointed to three Israeli security cameras. All were pointed at us.

Each time I hear a story like Ahmed’s: homes demolished, livelihood wrecked, school children at risk, land taken, I consider my own family.

If it were my mother’s home being demolished or my brother being harassed daily by soldiers younger than him who haphazardly tote machine guns at their side, I’m not sure how I would react.

Would I try to defend them with violence?

Would I become depressed and feel hopeless?

Would I write about my situation, try to tell the world my story?

I don’t know what I would do, and I believe no one should have to answer this question. But I do know hundreds of Palestinians who have to respond to this question daily.

To read how “Ahmed” and his village have responded, click here.

Postcard From Palestine

Published in The Nation
Christopher Hayes | October 14, 2010


The first thing you notice when you drive into Hebron is the lack of cars. Since 1997 this second-largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, the only one with an Israeli settlement in its midst, has been formally divided. Within the Israeli section, which takes up much of the historic downtown, Palestinians are not allowed to drive, so they walk or use donkey carts. When people are ill or injured, they are carried to the hospital. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the 30,000 Palestinians who once lived here have moved out. According to a 2007 report from Israeli human rights organizations, more than 1,000 Palestinian housing units in the area have been left vacant, and more than 75 percent of the businesses in the central district have closed. A handful of shops remain open; a cluster or two of children play in the street. But that’s it. The streets are buried under the heaviness of an ominous quiet. Periodically, buses rumble past bringing settlers to and from the adjoining settlement, Kiryat Arba, and Israel proper. In the absence of routine urban noise, their engines sound like gunshots.

I went to Israel and the West Bank with a group of American journalists on a trip sponsored by the New America Foundation. We were led through the streets of Hebron by Mikhael Manekin, a former Israel Defense Forces soldier who patrolled the city during the second intifada. He now runs an organization called Breaking the Silence, which collects testimony about IDF human rights abuses from Israeli soldiers. I had heard of Hebron, of course, but it was lodged vaguely in my mind as one of those foreign places where awful things happen. To see it in person is to understand viscerally that the status quo in the West Bank cannot hold. To see it is to understand just what occupation requires.

Because of the Cave of the Patriarchs—where Abraham is said to have buried his wife and was later laid to rest—Hebron is a very holy site for Jews and Muslims. Hebron’s long history has been one of occupation and coexistence, punctuated by periods of slaughter. Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans have all ruled the city, sometimes denying access to the holy sites to disfavored groups. In 1929 Arab rioters killed sixty-seven of the small number of Jewish residents of the city (several hundred were saved by their Arab neighbors, who hid them in their homes), and the last Jewish resident left the city in 1948. In 1968, just a year after Israel occupied Hebron, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a spiritual founder of the settler movement, traveled with a few students to the city for Passover. Once there, they refused to leave, extracting a concession from the Labor government at the time to settle them in the adjacent army base of Kiryat Arba, which today is a settlement of 7,200.

In 1979 ten women and forty children from Kiryat Arba sneaked into the abandoned Jewish hospital in downtown Hebron under cover of night and also refused to leave. Over the next fifteen years, they were joined by hundreds of other settlers—men, women and children—drawn from the most zealous, who came to inhabit the surrounding buildings.

Over the past three decades, violence has been a mainstay. In 1980 Palestinians killed six yeshiva students in the city center. In 1988 Levinger shot and killed a Palestinian store owner, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and served thirteen weeks in prison. In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, from Kiryat Arba, entered the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs and murdered twenty-nine Muslim worshipers before he was overcome and killed. The IDF imposed near total curfews on area Palestinians.

Then, in 1997, as part of the Oslo peace process, security control over Hebron was divided. Palestinian Hebron, now home to some 170,000, fell under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority and became known as H1. The section dominated by Israeli settlers remained under IDF control and became known as H2. There are 800 Israeli citizens who live in H2, with 500 IDF soldiers to guard them.

Within its jurisdiction, the IDF enforces a policy it calls “separation,” which has a renewed urgency in the wake of the second intifada. A three-foot concrete barrier runs down the main street of the downtown, creating a small shoulder where Palestinians may walk; Israelis pass on the other side. A few blocks farther on, an Israeli soldier and a flag on a rooftop herald the beginning of the zone the army calls “fully sterilized,” meaning no Palestinians. A young merchant hawking bracelets followed our group, entreating us to buy a souvenir. He stopped short, as if running into a glass wall, the moment we hit the outpost.

It felt as if we were walking through a postapocalyptic urban video game brought to life. The old Hebron gold market sat empty and trashed, every shop door was shuttered, graffiti was scrawled over much of the area. Eight Israeli soldiers with flak jackets and machine guns marched slowly past in formation, making their regular patrol through the deserted streets. A police car began to tail us, since Mikhael has been assaulted by settlers while leading people through the neighborhood.

In the courtyard outside the main settlers’ apartment complex, a group of boys played soccer in a lot sandwiched between a large recycling bin half full of plastic bottles and a sign that read, in part: This land was stolen by arabs following the murder of 67 hebron jews in 1929. We demand justice! Return our property to us! Women in head wraps and long skirts pushed strollers; men walked past with shopping bags. Though they live inside a heavily militarized garrison, they can walk the empty streets as if in a European pedestrian mall.

Around the corner, on Shuhada Street, are the last Palestinian holdouts in the neighborhood. They occupy second-floor apartments with balconies covered in metal braces and chicken wire. Because the street is closed to Palestinians, the residents of these caged apartments are not allowed to use their front doors; at those rare times when they leave to get provisions they must go out via the roof or makeshift doors.

As we reached the limits of H2, past graffiti of Stars of David and the slogan For every settlement evacuated, we will kill 100 Arabs, we arrived at an Israeli checkpoint, a small wooden shack manned by a few soldiers. Mikhael told us that as an Israeli, he couldn’t go through but urged us to do so. As if passing through a magic portal, we emerged on the other side into the honking, bustling chaos of a living city: shops selling T-shirts and DVDs, shopkeepers smoking cigarettes and shouting to one another over the noise, commuters hailing cabs and pedestrians dodging snarled traffic. And then, back through the magic door and into the deathly silence of occupied Hebron.

There, while settlers routinely harass Palestinian residents and the tension sometimes erupts into violence, the IDF has succeeded in its immediate goal of avoiding large-scale bloodshed. This has come, however, at the cost of turning a holy city into a moral obscenity. One might be tempted to dismiss Hebron as unique, but Mikhael insists it’s only a matter of degree rather than kind. “This is the same policy all over the West Bank,” he says. “Separation, militarization, patrol roads. In rural areas it looks a lot nicer, but it’s no different.”

At a lunch earlier that day, a prominent member of the Yesha Council, the organizing body for the settler movement, told us his “conscience is clear” about Israeli settlement and the occupation of the West Bank. But after the tour of Hebron, our bus driver, who hadn’t been to the West Bank since serving there in the 1967 war, looked at us as we boarded the bus and said, “As an Israeli, I am shocked.”

Before long, Israelis may not have to travel to Hebron to see what full-spectrum urban occupation looks like. In recent years, the most ideological of the settler organizations have, with government help, stepped up efforts to “Judaize” East Jerusalem, to make it far more difficult to incorporate into a Palestinian state, should that day arrive.

Things are especially tense in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, where settlers have purchased apartment complexes and number about 500, dotted among 60,000 Palestinians. In September a private Israeli security guard shot and killed a Palestinian father of five named Samer Sirhan. The guard claimed he was faced with a life-threatening ambush from which he had to shoot his way out, but witnesses and security camera footage contradicted his account. The police accepted the guard’s version, and no charges were filed. Since then there’s been an escalation of rock-throwing at the settlers, and settlers have called for a heavier police presence and more security. On the day we toured East Jerusalem, the head of the Silwan settlers, David Be’eri, ran over two Palestinian boys after his car was targeted by rock-throwers. Many people told us that if there is a third intifada, it will start in Silwan.

In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, another settler group has used a few Ottoman-era land deeds and the power of the state to evict fifty-three Palestinians from their homes—which their families had moved to after being expelled in 1948 from their original homes in present-day Israel. The evictions have been denounced by everyone from Hillary Clinton to Israeli author David Grossman and have sparked a weekly protest that every Friday draws many Israelis to the only municipal park in East Jerusalem. But so far, despite legal appeals, the settlers remain in the houses.

There is a pointed irony in the settlers using pre-1948 deeds to make their case for occupying the homes in Sheikh Jarrah: it is usually Palestinians, demanding their right of return, who argue that pre-1948 deeds are legitimate. “From a Zionist perspective, it’s suicide,” activist and writer Didi Remez says about these settlers. “What they’re trying to do is bring Hebron to Jerusalem.” God help us if they succeed.

The beginnings of Christmas in Bethlehem

This week, Christmas stores have popped up throughout Bethlehem.

My favorite Christmas goodies

1.  Para-gliding, blow-up Santa

2.  Mix-CD of Arabic and international Christmas tunes, homemade by the shopkeeper himself and on sale for $3.

3.  A tree that showers itself with fake snow.

Christmas cheer!
The city is covered in Christmas lights, from lamp posts to restaurants.  Below is a photo of the Christmas lighting as it ends in front of The Wall near Aida Camp and Rachel’s Tomb.

Christmas cheer + The Wall = Christmas in the occupied territories

Olive oil soap: how it’s made and why it’s great

Ever wonder how olives are turned into olive oil soap, or olive oil for that matter?  Watch this video for a quick tour of an olive oil press and an olive oil soap factory in a small town in northern West Bank.

If you live in Chicago, visit the Fair Trade Bazaar at Lake View Presbyterian Church on Saturday, November 20 to purchase some of both!

An architectural tour of the Old City in Nablus


Amjad is a mechanical engineering student at An Najah University.  This is the first solo video project for Amjad, who is hoping to combine his engineering work with his interests in the media and the environment.  He plans to continue his education after a few years of work.

Top 10 Middle East Travel Tips

During a trip to Jordan and Egypt this past month, I remembered a few tips that make traveling, especially in developing countries, much easier.

10. Learn some of the local language.

“Hi, how are you,” are a great start.  Knowing numbers and how to say “where is” will prove abundantly useful.

9.  Be ready for your plans to change and the pace to be a bit slower.

You’ll still have a good time and your travel stories will be that much funnier.

8.  Bring your own toilet paper and carry it with you everywhere.

It’s good for spills, runny noses and an ill-equipped bathroom.

7.  Haggle, haggle, haggle — but don’t get flustered.

If you don’t want it, just say “No thanks” and move on.  If you do want it, figure out what it’s worth to you and begin playing the haggling game.

6.  Trust the locals — but ask more than one.

Case in point –passengers of the Queen Nefertiti ferry from Aqaba, Jordan to Nuweiba, Egypt cannot buy their ticket at the port as the Lonely Planet states.  Just a few months ago, the policy changed.  Tickets now must be bought at an office in Aqaba before passengers head to the port.  Everyone knew this, but I doubted them all at first.

5.  Once you begin arguing over the equivalent to $1, it might be time to stop haggling and relax for a bit.

Sit down and get yourself a tea, then start again with a clear head.  Do you really need that wooden elephant anyway?

4.  Sometimes a walk in the park is the best thing to do with your afternoon.

Free sights and smells and probably a handful of locals to join you.  There might even be an ice cream truck.

3. It doesn’t matter if you overpaid for something you really love — as long as you could afford it.

Who cares if you paid quadruple what a local would pay if your purchase is meaningful to you!

2.  Think beforehand about what you will do when people beg for money or food so you are prepared.

My rule of thumb – if I have food in my bag (and I usually do), I will give it away but I don’t give away money.

1.  If there is a bathroom — use it.

Even if you have to hold your nose to get through it, your body will thank you later when you’re on a bumpy bus ride (please refer to #8 to avoid additional toilet trauma!).

Nablus: 3 months in 3 minutes

Warm, gooey kunafeh, an expansive new university campus and a vibrant Old City.

Zababdeh in Photos

I spent many Sundays in Zababdeh since July 2010, celebrating with Fr. Firas and his congregation at St. George Melkite Church.  Though the services were in Arabic, a few things were still familiar: the rhythm of prayers, the passing of peace and the children staying occupied by giggling and playing games in the back of the church.  I quickly became accustomed to a service filled with rose-flavored incense, sermons I couldn’t understand and communicating in semi-sign language.

Below are a few of my favorite memories from Zababdeh.

To see my other stories from Zababdeh go to:
Sweatshop in Zababdeh only choice for some women
Get your hands dirty in Zababdeh
Experience the Holy Land with the Living Stones