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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.

Bethlehem shepherds, Operation Cast Lead, and a rogue state

Palestine Today: A Reality of Justice Denied
Media with Conscience

On December 24, Mondoweiss co-editor Adam Horowitz wrote:

“Israeli military kills 20-year old Gazan for herding animals too close to buffer zone.”

On December 23, Israeli forces shot and killed Salama Abu Harhish without warning while herding sheep and goats in Beit Lahya. Civilized nations don’t murder nonviolent civilians in cold blood, this time leaving a widow and day-old unnamed baby.

What “democracy” thrives on violence, spurns peace, and wages preemptive wars like Cast Lead. Besides America, only Israel, a global menace like its Washington paymaster/partner, together with Britain the real axis of evil.

Read the entire article here

Commemorating Operation Cast Lead in Gaza
The Palestine Telegraph

Gaza, (Pal Telegraph) – A demonstration commemorating the beginning of “Operation Cast Lead” was held Tuesday in the Gazan city of Beit Hanoun. Families of victims were in attendance, as were 5 International Solidarity Movement activists. Two years have passed since the Israeli attacks on Gaza, which killed over 1400 people in just 23 days. The vast majority of victims were civilians, including 350 children, according to the United Nations and other major human rights organizations.

The Local Initiative demonstration began at the railway street in Beit Hanoun, near some of the most horrendous attacks which occurred during the land, air and sea bombardment of Gaza. The group of around 40 continued into the ‘buffer zone’ to within 100m of the Israeli border, holding flags and photos of children killed two years ago. During the 23-day attack, none of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants (including 800,000 children) were safe.

Read the entire article here

In Bethlehem, shepherds watching their flocks by night are a dying breed
The Guardian

If an “angel of the Lord” were to appear in the sky over Bethlehem today, there would be scarcely any shepherds keeping watch over their flocks to witness the scene.

Spending nights and days in the fields herding sheep has become an almost impossible task for the fast-diminishing community of shepherds in this biblical Palestinian town.

Jewish settlements, Israeli army checkpoints, closed military zones and the West Bank separation barrier have reduced the grazing area to such an extent that a growing number of Bethlehem shepherds have been forced to give up their traditional livelihoods. “I miss the freedom of the wilderness. Everything is different now. We can barely move,” says Adel Alsir, a 35-year-old Palestinian who herds his flock less than 100 metres from a biblical site known as the shepherds’ fields.

Read the entire article here

On Palestine, the US is a rogue state
The Guardian

On 17 December, Bolivia extended diplomatic recognition to the state of Palestine within its full pre-1967 borders (all of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem). Coming soon after the similar recognitions by Brazil and Argentina, Bolivia’s recognition brought to 106 the number of UN member states recognising the state of Palestine, whose independence was proclaimed on 15 November, 1988.

While still under foreign belligerent occupation, the state of Palestine possesses all the customary international law criteria for sovereign statehood. No portion of its territory is recognised by any other country (other than Israel) as any other country’s sovereign territory and, indeed, Israel has only asserted sovereignty over a small portion of its territory – expanded East Jerusalem – leaving sovereignty over the rest both literally and legally uncontested.

Read the entire article here

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

Remembering Home

This year wasn’t my first Thanksgiving abroad, a holiday that is oh-so-North-American that celebrations overseas usually take on a little local flavor. In Kerala, India we were treated to curried barbeque chicken and the most delicious mashed potatoes I may ever taste. I wore a navy blue churidar to that meal. In Dublin, our Irish hosts had a special meal cooked up for our group of college students on a social justice study trip. We arrived after dark and left patches of snow on the carpeted stairs as we tromped up to the second floor, where we ate family-style. In Rome, I wore chic black and ate Chinese food at a restaurant in Monte Mario. Each time, the food was warm and delicious and I felt thankful to be among friends thoughtful enough to make Thanksgiving part of their week.

This year I celebrated Thanksgiving with hummus and pita in Bethlehem, Palestine while my Mom and younger brother made prime rib and Yorkshire pudding in Madison, WI. They probably talked about his latest rugby game and her projects at work and their upcoming trip to the Holy Land for Christmas. Pete fixed a few things in the house and carried the water softener salt to the basement while Mom set the table with festive placemats and a bouquet of enormous sunflowers. It probably smelled like slowly cooking meat and the house felt warm and cozy, at least in the rooms where Mom didn’t close the vents to save energy. Van Morrison probably crooned on speakers throughout the house. They might have remembered little Briggs, the ancient cat who blessed my family with her tiny presence from my childhood into my young adulthood. Though her little legs were atrophied in old age, she continued to launch herself with reckless abandon over sofas and between our legs, and proceed to sleep for hours with the same reckless abandon that got her to her latest perch.

Thanksgiving, even more than Christmas, is a time when going home is about just that – going home. There aren’t gifts or mad shopping-sprees to make you sweat with pressure. It’s a time to cook extravagantly and eat American-ly, and then sleep with the reckless abandon only possibly during a long weekend.

Once I left home for college, returning home make me conscious of what it felt like to be home, something I had taken for granted when I was always there. I realized that it smelled like detergent and wood and a constantly brewing pot of Red Rose tea. Mom would make up my bedroom with clean sheets, often placing a small vase of fresh flowers on my nightstand. I’d return to school realizing that no, I wasn’t actually Buddhist, and the guy I was dating was a materialistic yahoo and that I should take an afternoon and go to the Art Institute to absorb inspiration and realize my vast potential.

Home, no matter where you are, is a place of rejuvenation and encouragement, solace and stability, family and peace. When I asked friends what home means for them, whether American or Palestinian, their responses were fed with the same nourishing sentiments.

“Home is safe, caring, giving and can be anywhere as long as it’s a place where one can feel alive.”

“There is a song that says that home is where I’m loved, which is turning out to be the most true definition of home for me. Until I reach my own definition of the physical meaning of the home, I would say that my home is the virtual space where I’m comfortable. It could be a nice gathering in the evening or it could be a sweet late phone call with someone you love.”

“A place to be carefree without worries. Being with family. The only door that is always open when other doors are closed. Home is a place where one finds peace, solitude, serenity, tranquility and enjoys his time regardless of how trivial his lifestyle is, he still finds it to be sublime.”

“Home equals warmth, love and encouragement. It’s where you can just be you.”

“Home is where the heart is and where you make it a place of welcome. It is a place where family and friends can come any time…and there will be food.”

Home is hardly ever about the actual structure, it’s about the feelings you have when you are there. That is, until the structure itself is at risk.

My apartment in the West Bank is within spitting distance of The Wall near Rachel’s Tomb. When I look out my bedroom window, I see it wrapping around the other side of my building, up the hill next to Aida Refugee Camp. Heavy cement blocks soar up to 25-feet-tall with metal fencing on top, the kind that protects innocent outsiders from dangerous prisoners inside (I’m on the inside). I have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge kitchen and a living room that seats nine because the family that used to live here moved out when The Wall was built. Their store on the first floor failed because the street was difficult for shoppers to access and their view was, suddenly, demoralizing rather than breathtaking.

Fear and resignation are emotions I don’t relate to when I think of my home, but for some of my Palestinian friends this is their reality at home.

Once, I was invited to dinner during Ramadan at a friend’s house in a village called Sarra, situated near Nablus on the top of a hill and surrounded by Israeli settlements on all sides. As we walked through the village, my friend expressed pride in the beauty of her neighborhood. She pointed to her house from far away, “That is my home.”

The house was gorgeous, with a special room for the eldest daughter to teach English to kids in the village. The three daughters shared a pink bedroom. Her father, a taxi driver, came home just for dinner and then returned to work until nearly midnight. He cracked jokes and his daughters poked fun at him during dinner. He fed his wife a piece of bread with a look of admiration and adoration on his face. He made the best of the few minutes he had with his loved ones, relaxing in the home he created with them.

We sat on their porch to eat, sitting elbow to elbow on a mat that wrapped us around the generous meal. In the distance, I noticed a growing flame. Olive trees were on fire. I looked around at the family members when we all noticed and saw on their faces something frightening, resignation. They were so accustomed to watching their land burn, that they were resigned to it. We watched an Israeli army jeep drive past the fire, doing nothing about the huge flames burning innocent olive trees, the crops and livelihood of Sarra villagers. We continued to eat as the land burned.

Yesterday I visited Wadi Rahal, a beautiful village nestled among sloping hills and surrounded by olive trees just a few kilometers from Bethlehem. We drove the winding path from route 60 to the village, the foundation of The Wall followed us. When built, The Wall will separate the village from its own olive trees. It will sit 10 meters from the village’s one school. It will cut off the village from the highway. I met with two college students, both activists doing their best organize weekly demonstrations and train the village in non-violent ways to resist The Wall.

They said that, about twice a month, Israeli soldiers enter one of the homes in the village in the middle of the night to do a search. They use the butt of their machine guns to bang on the door. If it isn’t opened in time, they break down the door. They wake up the entire family and search the entire house, breaking dishes and wreaking havoc. One of the guys said if he hears any noise at night he believes it is the army and it scares him. His home does not feel safe.

Each Thanksgiving, many recognize that the holiday symbolizes a loss of land and livelihood for one group of people and the victory of another. While I stare at The Wall from my kitchen window, I think about my neighbors in Aida Refugee Camp, who were kicked out of their homes in 1948 so that Israeli families could have a homeland. I am thankful that during my Thanksgiving dinners at home, I have never looked out the window to see our trees burning down. I am thankful that I can sleep, with reckless abandon, after a huge turkey (or prime rib) meal, knowing that I don’t need to feel scared. My home smells like detergent and wood and Red Rose tea, and I’m not afraid of losing it.

Most of the time I feel that the conflict for a home in Israel and Palestine is too complicated to ever truly grasp, but sometimes, like on Thanksgiving, it seems pretty simple.

Backpackers in Bethlehem

After 15 days living in Bethlehem, I hosted a couple of backpackers for the Eid holiday, Kyle and Kim. Kyle is a guy from Florida with lots of questions. He’s tall with shaggy hair and a resonating voice. He loves coffee. Kim is from Belgium. She’s quiet, short and looked gorgeous even after waking up from a nap with the friendly mosquitos that have taken over my apartment.

It was their first time in the West Bank and Kyle’s curiosity and frustration was apparent. His recent experience staying at a kibbutz left him with more questions and the sense that people didn’t want to talk about the conflict.

Feeling daunted by the task of answering all his questions fairly, I did what anyone else would do in this situation. I threw a dinner party with the few friends I have in Bethlehem: two Americans, a Canadian and a woman from Belgium.

We sat in the living room, ate creamy pasta, salad and garlic bread (made by slapping butter and freshly chopped garlic onto pita bread), drank Taybeh beer and chatted.

We talked about the hierarchical nature of ones status in Israel and the misery of the three-month tourist visa. This is issued by Israel because Palestine does not control its borders. Israeli border control cannot know that you’re living in the West Bank because they would deny you re-entry.

Kyle asked, “who’s to blame?” The resounding response was that no one party is to blame. It’s an awful situation influenced by so many countries and movements that it’s impossible to place blame anywhere.

Though the situation seems completely unsolvable, one of my dinner guests said that if international law were actually followed, a solution would be much more possible. Instead, Obama offers concessions to the Israeli government regarding settlements.

To the question “what will happen in the future?” all hands in the room went up in the air as everyone responded in near unison, “it’s impossible to say!”

But they will keep working for peace. And Palestinians, like the non-violent resisters in Tuwani, will continue to do the same.

Canned pickles and I think I feel at home

I spent the last three days eating delicious dinners with the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron, debating how social justice and action fits into Buddhist ideals while sipping tea, and smoking nargileh all wrapped up in a warm blanket. It restored my sapped energy.

Two weeks ago, I returned from a wonderfully hectic trip to Egypt and Jordan. Since then, I’ve found an apartment in Bethlehem, published a few of my former students’ videos, solidified bi-weekly Arabic lessons, set up meetings about jobs and volunteer work all over town and planned a trip to Zababdeh to learn about the olive harvest there. Today, though, was the first day I felt at home in Bethlehem.

I returned from Hebron around 10:30 in the morning. I waved from the taxi as I passed my friendly neighbor Ehmad, who works as a mechanic. I walked through my door, laden with a box of new dishes from the Hebron Pottery Factory, and immediately flipped on the water heater and downed a cup of sweet tea from a pitcher that I had made before I left for Hebron (Grandma’s Pennsylvania Dutch recipe: minus a few cups of sugar, plus a bit of fresh mint). I heated up a frozen pita on the stovetop while I chopped a tomato and an avocado for a salad. Ira Glass’s melodious voice accompanied my late breakfast.

After breakfast and This American Life, I put in a load of laundry and packed my bag for a walk around Bethlehem. My home for the next three months.

I took the longer, quieter route to the Nativity Church. On the way, I passed a video store that sells new releases for 5 shekels ($1.40, holy crap!). I bought Switch and a teeny-bopper movie I forget the name of. I zig zagged through the market, picked up a map at the Bethlehem Peace Center and ducked into the packed Nativity Church for a minute of touristy-holiness. Afterwards, I caught up on email at Christmas Lutheran Church’s community center. There, I was asked if I would play billiards on a young guys computer with him. I politely declined and tried not to be distracted by the techno chicken song that he and his crew put on repeat for the next 30 minutes. I also tried to hide my smile, because it was, admittedly, a hilarious techno chicken song.

I stopped at a small shop to buy a ras el abed (an addictive treat, like a s’more, with a horrendous name: slave’s head), and then I picked up some groceries:
Pasta sauce
Rice and noodles
Lime scented hand lotion (strangely delicious smelling)
Canned pickles (mmmmmm), corn and mushrooms

Once at home, I warmed up a bowl of carrot stew and checked out some web pages I had saved about Sabeel, a Christian Palestinian organization that I will meet with tomorrow in Jerusalem. My apartment smelled like Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom, fresh mint and laundry detergent.

What it was about this day that made me feel so at home, I’m not exactly sure, but here I am and I feel lucky.