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Flotillas, Flytillas, and Freedom

Nikki Hodgson | Posted July 9th, 2011 | Middle East

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Yesterday my colleague and I spent the day in the Jerusalem office, covering the phones and trying to find out as much information as possible about the 700 international activists participating in the Welcome to Palestine campaign.


Visitors, volunteers, and activists wanting to get into the West Bank are obliged to lie about their activities while going through Israeli airport security or risk being questioned extensively or deported. It’s considered another form of the blockade on both Gaza and the West Bank, restricting the movements of goods and people not just between Israel and the oPt, but also within the oPt itself. In the West Bank it’s estimated that there are over 700 checkpoints and road blocks. Some of them are minor inconveniences while others like “The Container” checkpoint between Bethlehem and Ramallah are notoriously tedious.

The idea behind this campaign was to invite around 1000 internationals to visit the West Bank for 10 days to do a tour of the region, participate in educational activities, and learn more about nonviolent resistance in Palestine. The catch is that instead of lying while going through Israeli airport security, they would tell officials their true intentions: to visit Palestine.

At 4:00 in the morning, unable to sleep, I scanned my e-mail and found the first press release. Already Israeli authorities had sent blacklists to airlines, alerting them of those individuals who would be refused entry into Israel. Lufthansa, EasyJet, Malev, Alitalia and Air France subsequently prevented hundreds of European activists from boarding planes to Tel Aviv. Protests and demonstrations took place in airports and other locations across Europe. In Paris, the riot police were sent to quell the “uprising.”

Those activists who were able to board their planes met with quite a scene upon their arrival. At least two EasyJet flights from Rome and Geneva were surrounded immediately by Israeli airport security and special forces units. Suspected activists were removed from the plane and taken to a separate terminal for screening. One woman was reportedly violently arrested when she resisted.

At least six Israeli activists were arrested at Ben Gurion airport when crowds showed up to welcome and support activists. As of right now it’s difficult to say how many activists were able to get through. We know at least 6 have been deported while 65 more are sitting in detention centers. Hundreds more were prevented from boarding flights.

In spite of this and in spite of the fact that Israeli police are calling the Israeli response a success, it’s hard to see it as a campaign failure for activists. If Israel had simply let the activists through, they would have toured the region, returned home and that would have been the end of the story. Nobody would have cared to report it. As it is, I have to admit I am discontent with the apathetic coverage of this situation in U.S. media not to mention disappointed with the role the U.S. has taken in preventing the flotilla to Gaza from departing Greece. Department of State spokesperson Victoria Nuland urged those interested in helping Gaza to send humanitarian aid “through appropriate channels.” When asked which channels the U.S. deemed appropriate, she mentioned that Israel is now allowing more goods into Gaza and that the Rafah crossing into Egypt has been opened.

First off, the Rafah crossing is a passenger crossing. It’s not open for goods and despite Egypt’s promises, it’s barely open for passengers. Secondly, this has never been about humanitarian aid. The U.S. boat to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope, is not even carrying goods…only letters of support from the American people. This is about ending the blockade. It’s about ensuring that the Palestinian people are not caught in the cross-fire (political or otherwise) of Hamas and Western governments.

Israel has long touted itself as the only democracy in the region, but after a week of covering home demolitions, well demolitions, multiple arrest of minors, settler violence…and then witnessing the mass deportation of nonviolent activists, it’s hard to see it as such.

Some say, “Go home. This is not your concern.” But when I see empty bullet casings stamped with the words “Made in U.S.A,” I can’t help but feel that this is very much my concern.

4 Responses to “Flotillas, Flytillas, and Freedom”

  1. Nikki,

    Likewise, thanks for what seems a fully formed picture of this event. Thank you.


  2. Pegah says:

    I will have to agree with Kelly, there was no mention of this event within the US. That’s why your blogs and all the work the AIC does is so important for the global community. thank you for keeping us so well informed!

  3. kelly says:

    Thanks for your insightful post. I am sorry to say that I didn’t hear A SINGLE WORD about this event from US Media. Keep up the good work.

  4. iain says:

    Excellent blog. As you so rightly say, the Israeli authorities do everything they can to deter people from visiting the territories, and this is just one more example. And they’re so ready to use intimidation. Scary and sad.

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You could almost forget

Nikki Hodgson | Posted July 4th, 2011 | Middle East

I get up at 5:00 in the morning to go running, at a time when the night air is still lingering gently along the outskirts of town. The farmers and shepherds gaze at me curiously, but with nothing else in their gaze beyond mild bemusement. Beit Sahour, just down the road from Bethlehem, is teeming with internationals. This predominantly Christian community is used to the strange antics of  Westerners and though they might raise an eyebrow, running for the sake of running is only considered a strange habit. I run in a baggy long-sleeved shirt and pants. I wrap a bandana over my hair, but not for modesty’s sake. It is only to keep the sweat from pouring into my eyes. Even at 5:00 a.m., the heat is beginning to settle and I can feel it pushing down uncomfortably.

Trail to Battir
Trail to Battir

Bethlehem and surrounding area is not a rural village beset with the rusting tin roofs and mud-encrusted donkeys of endangered Bedouin camps scattered across the Jordan Valley. Though a far cry from the big city of Ramallah, Bethlehem harbors cafes, restaurants, shopping areas, and clubs. The university sits high on a hill and the roads snaking down into the valley are crowded with students, international volunteers, and tourists. English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German are frequently heard drifting among the old beige stones of the city center.

The signs of occupation here are more subtle. Unfinished buildings, rubble from a house demolition, pockets of trash collecting in the gutter, the silhouette of the wall making its way along the hills, and the settlements built neatly at the ends of beautifully paved roads. Sometimes at night an Israeli vehicle rolls through. Just two weeks ago in a neighboring village, two minors were allegedly pulled from their homes in the dead of the night. An increasingly frequent activity of the IDF that is against both international and Israeli law.

Bethlehem Separation Barrier
Bethlehem Separation Barrier

Hebron and East Jerusalem are tense pockets of tightly coiled conflict. You can feel the occupation weighing down heavily and resistance feels ready to spring at every corner. At the moment, Bethlehem is not like this. Sitting at CaféSima you would not think this is a country under military occupation. Small groups sit crowded around tables scattered on the patio. Sima and her family bustle around tables, hefting trays weighed down with chocolate cupcakes, iced coffee, fresh lemonade. The sun is setting and the call to prayer erupts from a nearby minaret. Taxis honk as they zip past  pedestrians standing idly in front of small shops where everything from checkered keffiyeh to freshly slaughtered sheep swing gently from the awnings. A young man in a white KIA blares his music at the stop sign, waiting for a lull in the traffic before forcing his car into the steady trickle of commuters.

It is hard to believe that less than 1 kilometer away there is a wall, dividing families, homes and land. Where soldiers sit in watch towers gazing out over the Palestinians standing in line to make the tedious and humiliating crossing into Jerusalem.

Bethlehem Separation Barrier
Bethlehem Separation Barrier

If you could see inside the minds of these people, you would see the faces of relatives cast in prison with no trial and no official charges. You would see memories of staccato gunfire, military imposed curfews, and tanks rolling ruthlessly over the rubble of a town rebuilt too many times.

But you can’t see all of this. You sit and watch these people laughing uproariously and gesturing wildly as an argila bubbles softly in the corner, its perfumed smoke settling into the upholstery of low-lying couches and you forget that most of these people have lost someone close to them at the hands of war. You forget that they are shut into an ever-dwindling space, that settlers throw rocks at their children, push them off their family land, and demolish their homes, that they are denied the most basic of human rights, and that all of them know what it is to be under house arrest or to be pulled aside at a checkpoint because a soldier is bored or offended by the very fact that they are Palestinian.

Casually in conversation a friend mentions that he cannot go out tonight because he must join his family on the outskirts of town to prevent settlers from encroaching on their family land. Another friend points to some low-lying bushes and mentions the time she and her brother hid there to escape the notice of soldiers imposing curfew. There are tours where you can visit demolished homes, see uprooted olive trees, and walk through the settlements encroaching on Palestinian land, but the deepest scars of the occupation are carved into the people, not into the land. Horrific memories stitched indelibly into the core of their being. It is impossible to see this and consequently all too easy to overlook.

2 Responses to “You could almost forget”

  1. Nikki Hodgson says:

    Hi Herb! Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comment. Glad to find a running kindred spirit. :) Next time I’ll bring my camera and try and catch some photos of dawn in the hills here! I’m glad you enjoyed my post and that Iain put us in contact. Looking forward to writing more about my experiences here!



  2. Nikki, as an Advocacy Project supporter I each year ask Iain to put me in touch with a Fellow to keep it real, ideally someone working at the AIC because I so sympathize with the work of that group. And so, Ms H, you’re it!

    This piece grabbed me immediately because I too often start my day with a 5 am run. But there the similarity ends. I’m on a coastal Maine island 12 miles offshore.

    Your piece beautifully draws the comparison between surface and deeper essence, and I will read it again more slowly to get a fuller picture. For now, I just wanted to make my hello, and wish you clear vision, a calm head, and resilience.

    And thanks for what you do.


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Just Another Day in the Office

Nikki Hodgson | Posted June 24th, 2011 | Middle East

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The Alternative Information Center is a joint Israeli-Palestinian activist organization focused on political advocacy, grassroots activism and an end to occupation. Here you find news of resistance within Israeli society, settler violence against Palestinians, the economy of oppression, and the daily struggle to carve out a life within the fissures of a long-standing conflict.

It is within this organization that I am beginning to find my place. After my morning run where I keep an eye out for wild dogs and taxis zipping too quickly around the corners, I head to the office. There is a portable stove with two gas burners. It’s a daunting nest of wires and cables and the knob to turn on the gas is broken. We use a spoon to turn the switch and there is a whoosh as the flames spring forward, licking the sides of the coffee pot. I suppress the urge to make the sign of the cross every time I light this contraption. Boiling the coffee 7 times for good luck (Hey, it can’t hurt…) I set it on a tray amongst an array of mismatched cups and carry it downstairs to offer my colleagues coffee.

When your addiciton to coffee is stronger than your fear of explosion...
When your addiciton to coffee is stronger than your fear of explosion...

Then I scan the news. I start with the BBC and move to the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times and the International Herald. From there I check Reuters, the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Arutz 7, Ma’an, Electronic Intifada and the Palestinian News Network. I’m looking for stories and information to fill in the gaps between what I glean from the ground.

There is no water again. Why? An impromptu checkpoint has been set up just out of town. Why? Internationals are no longer able to board the bus to Jerusalem from Beit Jala. Why?  Two Palestinian minors were arrested and detained last night. Why? The IDF has destroyed wells in Hebron. Why? The settlement across the valley is expanding. Why? The talks have been derailed again? Why?

As a child I was under the impression that I could dig to China. I set about with a plastic shovel and began digging in the sandbox of my school’s playground. I felt that if I could just dig a little deeper, a tunnel would appear before me and I would tumble through and land in China. Only that didn’t happen. Instead I hit a wall, a layer of cement. It is the same thing here. I keep digging and digging, believing that at some point I will come through the other side. Instead I hit walls of every form imaginable.

Every day I face an inner struggle to keep moving forward and to continue as undaunted as when I first began. Every day I learn a little bit more about journalism and about finding that line between the truth and personal safety. My own and that of those around me. Every day I become a little more exasperated with ideological extremists and a little bit more enamored with the hopeful idealists.

And I ask myself, why have I chosen such an impossible situation to muddle through? I can’t answer that. I didn’t choose this place. I fell into it and when I tried to pack it away neatly under “interesting academic experiences abroad,” I could not.

I look at my colleagues furiously typing away or conducting loud conversations on the phone, cups of coffee and ashtrays litter their desks and plumes of smoke curl lazily toward the ceiling. They are Palestinians who are clinging to this land as daily oppression beats their hands away. They are Israelis refusing the complacency of a life that does not question what happens on the other side of the wall. They are Italians, French, Americans, and British who have somehow ensnared themselves in this beautiful and tragic place. Perhaps they came out of curiosity or a desperate attempt to fix a problem they feel partially responsible for. We reach through the barbed wire hoping to clamp down on some elusive symbol of peace. A dove, a rainbow, an olive branch. Something to assure us that the end of checkpoints, fear, and degradation is nearer than we think.

But as we tumble our languages together over yet another cup of coffee, we realize that the English word for the bird of peace is too similar to the Italian word for “where.” Dove. Dove (do-vay). One subtle flick of the tongue is the difference between finding peace and searching for it, reminding us that what works on paper does not always correspond to reality.


2 Responses to “Just Another Day in the Office”

  1. Karin Orr says:

    Nikki, you have an excellent way of writing an illustrious picture of what is impossibly difficult to understand. Excellent blog.

  2. kelly says:

    well said, Miss Nikki. Keep up the good work. We’re listening…

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The Swing of Things

Nikki Hodgson | Posted June 20th, 2011 | Middle East

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A slight breeze ruffles the stagnant summer air that has settled heavily into our office space. I found a powdered mix of Oregon Chai sitting neglected on a dusty shelf in the market across the street and I am happy to relish the creature comfort of sipping out of a normal-sized mug. The minuscule cups of Arabic coffee are perfect for a social gathering, but I am habituated to the American ritual of sitting down to work with a gargantuan mug of coffee…or in this case Oregon Chai. I’ll take what I can get.

Bethlehem/Beit Sahour
Bethlehem/Beit Sahour

Saturday morning and not many people are in the office. The Palestinian weekend is often split in order to accommodate both Muslims and Christians. Last night there was a big party on the rooftop of a colleague’s house. Palestinians, French, Italians, Spanish, Irish, British, Mexicans and Americans buzz excitedly, the rising crescendo of conversation throws words down onto the street and passerby’s catch snippets of dialogue: “referendum” “revolution” “civil resistance” “checkpoint” and “soldier.” We are a motley crew of global citizens, but we all have a passion for politics and peace. It’s what brought us stumbling into this place. And now we reinforce those ideals over an array of Palestinian salads and Taybeh beer.

The past week has found me quietly stepping into the swing of things. I know the toll this place can take on a person’s well-being and I give myself more space than necessary, careful to allow myself the chance to process the overwhelming frustration I feel while going through checkpoints and to cry the tears I choke back in public.

Rachel's Crossing Checkpoint
Rachel's Crossing Checkpoint

I rise every morning at 5:00 a.m. to go for my daily run through the hills of Beit Sahour. The desert hills, the scrubby vegetation, the roosters crowing, and the donkeys leaning lazily against wooden posts are the only witnesses to my morning ritual. I release my fury by sprinting up hills. In the evening I sit quietly on the roof of my apartment building and scan myself for any unprocessed emotion.  Exasperated by the leering and heckling of Palestinian boys? Disgusted by the disgraceful behavior of a rude soldier? Shocked by the extreme hatred of a settler? Grateful for the hug of a friend? Or maybe just irritated by the incessant cigarette smoke.

For me, actively processing these emotions is a necessary part of thriving here. It is too exhausting to passively ride the waves of buried frustration or to be swept away by the sudden tsunamis of fury and sadness.

The normal stress of living in a different country is compounded by the fact that internationals (particularly Americans) often arrive armed only with optimism and an innocent faith in a non-existent justice system. We arrive here eager to help, but ill-equipped to process life under an oppressive military rule. Some adapt, some can’t wait to get out, and some fall to pieces.

Me? I run, write, and reach out. Those are my “three R’s” to maintaining my peace of mind. I know I will have my days of crumpling sadness and impassioned frustration, but this time I am prepared and will not be caught off-guard. Sometimes it’s enough just to slip into the air-conditioned haven of CafĂ©Sima in Bethlehem. Chocolate cupcakes, iced lattes and sympathetic conversation can work wonders.


Other times I indulge in some outrageously expensive American import (Arizona Green Tea, anyone?) and spend the evening trying to load Golden Girls on YouTube. If it gets really bad, I retain the option to retreat to Tel Aviv (The Bubble) or Eilat. Two Israeli cities so (psychologically) far removed from the conflict that if it weren’t for the occasional sight of a soldier casually slinging an M-16 over his shoulder as he boards a bus, life would feel almost normal.

4 Responses to “The Swing of Things”

  1. kelly says:

    i am enjoying (in a somber way) experiencing just a little part of your journey and work there. Lots of work to be done, no doubt. Thanks for working toward change, and thanks for sharing it.

  2. [...] The Swing of Things: A slight breeze ruffles the stagnant summer air that has settled heavily into our office space. I found a powdered mix of Oregon Chai sitting neglected on a dusty shelf in the market across the street and I am happy to relish the creature comfort of sipping out of a normal-sized mug. The minuscule cups of Arabic coffee are perfect for a social gathering, but I am habituated to the American ritual of sitting down to work with a gargantuan mug of coffee…or in this case Oregon Chai. I’ll take what I can get. [...]

  3. iain says:

    Very nice piece of writing. You’re not the first Fellow to succumb to melancholy in this part of the world, and turn to blogging to get it out of your system! The situation is basically unjust and deeply saddening, and it cannot but take a toll. But getting that across, you’re making an important contribution. Keep it up…

  4. Pegah says:

    Nikki your writing is so incredibly beautiful and moving that sometimes I find myself in a conscious struggle to choke back my tears with you. I mean after awhile there are only so many chocolate cupcakes a girl can eat! Thanks for the update and looking forward to reading more of your blogs.

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Back to Bethlehem

Nikki Hodgson | Posted May 16th, 2011 | Middle East

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It’s been a year and a half since I left the West Bank after living and working there for 6 months. As I prepare to head back to Bethlehem to work with the Alternative Information Center as an AP peace fellow, my mind pulls images from various scenes of my last visit. Waiting outside my apartment for the Arab-Israeli taxi that will take me through the checkpoint and into Jerusalem, my host family stands around my packed bags as my host mother scurries around trying to fit a few more items into my carry-on: the Arabic coffee I love, some Palestinian pastries, a bag of spices. I hug my friends good-bye and tell them I will see them again. Inshallah, they say. God-willing.

Standing in line at the Ben Gurion airport, an Israeli soldier approaches me for the initial screening questions. She carefully examines my passport, asking me questions about how long I’ve been in Israel and what I’ve been doing. She closes my passport.

“Have you been to the West Bank?”

Images of my host family flash through my head.

“Just to Bethlehem. To visit.”

We stare at each other for a few moments. My heart is thudding in my chest. I have the names and addresses of all of my Israeli friends in my pocket. Just in case. But she hands me my passport, and motions for me to get back in line. They conduct a routine search of my luggage, pulling each item out one by one before I am allowed to retrieve my boarding pass.

As the plane lifts up above Tel Aviv, I look at the lights scattered along the coast and reaching out toward the hills, imagining that I can see Jerusalem and just beyond that– Bethlehem. The desert hills are bathed in moonlight as they exude a peace their inhabitants have rarely known.

Now as I pack my bags to return to Tel Aviv and then onto Bethlehem, I set aside the contact information of my friends in Israel and carefully scan every item of my luggage looking for anything that might trigger the suspicion of an Israeli soldier.

I am eager to be heading back. I am fond of both Israel and the West Bank which sometimes puts me in awkward situations at dinner tables on both sides. Living in the West Bank naturally inspired a certain amount of bias as I lived the occupation day in and day out. The unpleasant encounters I had with ideological settlers and IDF soldiers left a bitter taste in my mouth. Nonetheless I was fortunate enough to work for a joint organization and had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time in Israel. Working with Friends of the Earth Middle East introduced me to many amazing Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians who are working together to protect their environmental resources.

As I spent more and more time in Israel, it became increasingly difficult to take sides. How could I begin to negotiate my way through such a complicated set of extremes? The hatred I experienced from Israeli settlers in Hebron versus the thoughtfulness and selflessness of the many Israelis I knew who were working toward peace. Or when the rocket attacks of Hamas militants stood in stark contrast to the grace, generosity, and patience of my Palestinian friends and colleagues? There is no way to negotiate through this complicated mire of humanity and come out with a neat picture that makes international policy simple and a peace agreement within easy reach. There is no way to paint a picture where violence makes sense and losses are easily assuaged. Grief paints the same face the world over.

In an area of deeply embedded allegiances, I developed even more respect for the Israelis and Palestinians choosing to fight for peace at the risk of being considered a traitor or a coward.

This time around, though I will be again residing in Beit Sahour, I am determined to draw more connections between the Israeli and Palestinian activists. I am looking forward to spending as much time as possible following the revolutionaries and peace activists in Israel. The refuseniks–or conscientious objectors– for example have piqued my interest and I want to know more about the teenagers in this video. Are the numbers of Israeli conscientious objectors increasing or have they stayed the same or decreased even? What is their life like in Israel after they refuse to serve? What did their families and friends say? Do they regret their decision or stand by it just as firmly as before?

There are so many different angles and sides to this conflict, and yet it seems that we only ever see the same stereotyped portrayals again and again and again. The AIC is one organization trying to change that, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

5 Responses to “Back to Bethlehem”

  1. Connie Self says:

    Very inspiring and somehow humbling. We live so peacefully for the most part. I am watching dawn light the sky over the mountains in Utah and feel a bit spoiled to live in the United States, even with all our problems and issues. That is the humbling part.

    Quite an adventure Nikki. Such bold and important work you are making yourself a part of. Be safe, keep your mind and heart open and enjoy your unique opportunity to participate in such a worthy cause.

    In Peace,

  2. iain says:

    This is a moving and subtle piece of writing. The Middle East does force outsiders to take sides, even as we try to resist. I hope you’ll explore this in the weeks to come. You can’t find a better, and braver, group to help make sense of it all than the AIC.

  3. Joey says:

    Nikki….you have tackled a very complex situation. The world wishes you success.

  4. Gramps collins says:

    God Speed. I know you will enjoy the experience and it will be good to see old friends. Just remember the key quote: “Have we not all one Father. Hath not one God created us” I found that helpful in my years in the Middle East. What wonderful hearts the M.E. people have, loving, kind and generous, traits that many Americans don’t seem to share.

    Have fun and love everyone!!


  5. kelly says:

    Great thoughts and love your writing style. I am anxious to learn more about what is being done and whether any progress is being made, through your blog. Good job!

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Fellow: Nikki Hodgson



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