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Glenn Beck on Restoring Courage

Nikki Hodgson | Posted August 29th, 2011 | Middle East

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Israeli and U.S. flags wave as Jerusalem’s evening winds rustle through the crowds collecting to watch an enormous screen displaying Glenn Beck’s speech taking place in another part of the city.

Sitting in the back of the crowd with my notebook and pen, I exchange amused looks of disbelief with my colleagues scattered around the fringes of the audience as Mr. Beck launches into emotional speeches about justice, human rights, and responsibility. Over the span of an hour, he cries four times. My fellow journalists are lined up in the back, rolling their eyes and giving exasperated snorts of disbelief as Glenn Beck pats Israel on the back for its courage and faith. He highlights Rami Levy’s shop in the illegal Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion as a “model of coexistence” for allowing Palestinians to shop there and proclaims that “Israel is here because of God’s promise.”

Jerusalem Pro-Israel Rally
Jerusalem Pro-Israel Rally

 

He then attacks the international community for speaking out against Israeli violation of humanitarian law while letting countries like “North Korea, Libya and Syria” get away with oppression and the slaughter of their own people.

Using Mother Teresa and other humanitarian figures as examples, he says “They gave their life for human rights. They fought for justice and freedom.”

“We need people who tell the truth,” he shouts out to the waving flags and clapping hands. My colleagues and I stare at each other pointedly. It’s almost painful to hear. In a country where the truth is held down tightly, pinned to the ground by Israeli soldiers, we couldn’t agree more, though our opinions on where truth is to be found differ widely from Glenn Beck’s. We see the truth written on the walls of the separation barrier and scrawled onto the hearts of innocent civilians quietly passing their years in the confines of Israeli detention centers. We see it flickering in the eyes of the oppressed and in the activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens who transcribe it and are subsequently beleaguered and belittled.

In a country where journalists and activists tread carefully, often giving fake names and using cover stories, Glenn Beck’s words ring true. The context and meaning however do not. In a twist of bemused irony, much of his speech would be somewhat logical in the context of the Palestinian struggle. Flipping it around though and celebrating Israel for its fight to promote justice, freedom, faith, and “human responsibility” is simply laughable. The story Glenn Beck portrays is horrendously one-sided, naive, and in many instances…just plain wrong.

Jerusalem Pro-Israel Rally
Jerusalem Pro-Israel Rally

“Restoring courage,” he says. I couldn’t agree more. But let’s start with restoring the courage to challenge unjust policy, to promote social justice, to act with compassion, and to end occupation. Let’s start with restoring the courage to hear the truth so that those who have the gumption to tell it are not arrested, deported, or beaten.

“You were not born so someone could rule over you,” Beck shouts out to the Israelis.

Less than 10 kilometers away Palestinian civilians stand doggedly in a crowded line at one of over 700 checkpoints in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers look over their permits and IDs, scanning their fingerprints, before telling them whether they can go home or not. Beck wipes a tear away, his face contorted with emotion.

Waiting in Line
Waiting in Line

“Every single life is sacred.” The crowd–primarily American*–cheers. Repeated air strikes in Gaza have left thousands dead. Settler violence is increasing against civilians.

“What we value is under siege,” he continues, “Darkness is spreading. Far too many politicians are too willing to look the other way…It’s no wonder the children of the world are setting their streets on fire.” His hypocrisy reverberates against the rubble of demolished Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.

While Beck applauds and commends Israel for its noble struggle, Palestinians are resolutely piecing their lives together, rebuilding homes demolished dozens of times and replanting olive trees uprooted for “security reasons.” Israel’s so-called “noble struggle” is only serving to fan the smoldering embers of a people burned too many times.

 

*It should be noted that Glenn Beck is not especially popular in Israel at the moment. Particularly after he lashed out at the Israeli tent protesters. The extreme right-wing appears to be fond of him, but from what I can gather, it seems most people wish that he would just stay home. I know the feeling.

An Exercise in Persistence: Palestinian and Israeli Activists Not Going Anywhere

Nikki Hodgson | Posted August 23rd, 2011 | Middle East

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Also posted on the AIC Website.

Standing on the hilltop we hear the goat herder before we see him. The voice of a young boy, 11 or 12 perhaps, whooping and hollering to urge his goats forward and onto the grazing land his family has been unable to access for the past 10 years. After a long battle, Israeli activists and lawyers have won the support of the Israeli High Court and these Palestinian shepherds are once more reunited with their land.

palestinian boy
palestinian boy

David, a lean Israeli activist with a cigarette perpetually dangling from his fingers, surveys the group of activists gathered in a Jerusalem parking lot. He has a slight smile as he explains today’s schedule. First we join the Palestinian shepherds to intervene in the event that settlers show up to harass them. Then we will help to clear away rubble from a demolished village nearby before heading to a recently constructed Israeli outpost to survey the scene. “Last week we were told it was a closed military zone and were asked to leave. This week it will probably be the same thing, but we will go anyway.”

Thirty minutes after meeting up with the Palestinian shepherds, a cloud of dust rolls forward before dissipating into the air to reveal an IDF jeep on the horizon. Cameras instantly appear in the hands of almost every activist as they circle back together and warily eye the approaching soldiers. David pulls a number of maps out as he and the Israeli soldiers discuss the situation. A wry smile flits across his face as he waves us off the land. “This land is for Palestinians only.” Soldiers lean against the jeeps, assault rifles dangling lazily from fraying shoulder straps, as we walk to a nearby hill to continue watching the shepherds.

Later in the afternoon after a few hours of clearing away rubble from a demolished home, we walk to the site of an old battered tent; an outpost set up by Israeli settlers to lay claim to the land. The soldiers unscrupulously defend it and angrily push video cameras away for a few minutes before giving up and circling around it to prevent any of the activists from getting too close. Three settlers show up to speak with the soldiers before we are escorted off the land by three military jeeps and dozens of heavily armed soldiers. An Israeli woman walking next to me mentions that last week they had tear gas canisters fired at them. A few weeks before that, activists were assaulted by the IDF as they protested against the expansion of a settlement. Footage from the scene shows David being violently shoved to the ground, a cigarette still dangling from his fingers.

Israeli Outpost and Soldier
Israeli Outpost and Soldier

A member of the Christian Peacemaker Team points to a road nearby. “This is where the IDF accompany Palestinian children to school to prevent settlers from attacking them. Internationals used to do it, but after a few were critically wounded, the Knesset voted that the IDF should take charge.”

At the end of the road the soldiers stop and we continue to the bus waiting to take us back to Jerusalem. Along the way we stop at a small shop selling stacks of watermelon, dented cans of soda, and an eclectic assortment of snacks. Sitting underneath an olive tree, David grins, “We can enjoy good watermelon and support the Palestinian economy.”

“You do this every week?”

A young man sitting next to me nods. “Sometimes we meet twice a week. We also join weekly protests against the wall on Fridays.”

“For how long?”

He takes a bite of watermelon, the juice dripping down his hands, and shrugs “Until it [the occupation] stops.”

Iyad Burnat, head of the Bil’in Popular Committee, sits before the crowded room at the Alternative Information Center in Beit Sahour. On the screen behind him, images flash from six years of nonviolent resistance against the construction of the Israeli separation wall through Bil’in: a soldier pointing a gun at a child; men and women ducking as a milky cloud of tear gas spirals from a container at their feet; activists being forcibly removed from the protest by soldiers.

In June, Israeli army bulldozers began work to dismantle the wall in Bil’in. After two years of protests, the Israel High Court ruled in 2007 that the path of the wall was illegal, but it would be four more years and hundreds more weekly demonstrations before any dismantling of the wall began. A time during which, Burnat explains, protestors suffered 1300 injuries, 2 deaths, and 100 prisoners were detained for 4 months or longer.

On our way to the wall
On our way to the wall

When asked if the Israeli soldiers sometimes interact with weekly protesters in a friendly manner, he responds “Not here. They have no human reaction. They function only on orders.”

A clip from a recent documentary detailing the events of the past six years is shown. All eyes are directed toward the screen where international activists are chaining themselves to olive trees as Israeli bulldozers arrive on the scene. An older Palestinian woman screams at the soldiers, “We want just to live like you live. These trees are all we have left. You want to tear them down? This one is 1,000 years old.” The bulldozers push the trees forward; the silver leaves are shoved into the soil, their roots pointing toward the sky and the scorching sun.

The lights flick back on and Burnat sits quietly in front of the audience for a few moments before explaining that popular resistance is not something that Bil’in invented. “It has existed in Palestine for generations. There were other villages and communities engaged in resistance before we [Bil’in] adopted these weekly protests. We made it appealing to residents and internationals so we did not invent the wheel, but rather set up a model that is being followed.”

He continues that they are pleased with their success in moving back the construction of the wall by 500 meters, but that they are not resisting simply the wall. They are resisting occupation and they will continue their weekly demonstrations until the Israeli occupation has ended.

“Do you have the motivation to keep fighting?” someone asks.

Burnat looks straight ahead. “Yes.” There is a brief silence in the room as everyone gazes expectantly. “Every Friday we have hope [that the occupation will end]. If not this Friday, then next.”

Bethlehem Separation Barrier
Bethlehem Separation Barrier

81 Members of Congress to Visit Israel on Sponsored Trip

Nikki Hodgson | Posted August 15th, 2011 | Middle East

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81 members of Congress are preparing to arrive in Israel on a week-long visit sponsored by the the American Israel Education Fund, a non-profit affiliate of the politically powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S., wields a tremendous amount of influence over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and regularly sponsors trips to Israel for U.S. Congress Members. It’s estimated that between 2000-2005, The American Israel Education Foundation spent more than $950,000 on congressional travel.  AIPAC lobbies hard to ensure that the $3 billion a year Israel receives in military aid does not diminish. Estimates indicate that Israel receives over $8 million a day from the U.S.

Bethlehem Separation Barrier
Bethlehem Separation Barrier

While both Israeli and American citizens struggle to afford health care, housing, and education, Israel is using U.S. tax dollars to: man over 700 checkpoints and road blocks within the West Bank; use tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to quell nonviolent protests; construct a separation wall; uproot thousands of Palestinian olive trees, some of which are thousands of years old; imprison Palestinian minors; demolish Palestinian homes with American-made bulldozers; and implement a perpetual blockade on the people of Gaza.

Bethlehem Separation Barrier
Bethlehem Separation Barrier

The first of 26 Democrats arrive on Monday (Aug 15) and they will be followed by 55 Republicans, 47 of whom are freshman members.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stated, “I am pleased to be bringing so many of our new Members of Congress to Israel…The United States and Israel share similar core values of democracy, human rights and a strong national defense. These shared values contribute to our strong relationship and allow our two countries to work closely together to protect the interests and security of both of our nations. By visiting Israel in-person, Members will better understand the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and our role in promoting stability in this critical region.”

Most major U.S. news agencies have either ignored this topic altogether or buried it in the back pages of their papers (EDIT: Aug 16 NYTimes Article). Reports from staffers indicate that though some Congress members are reluctant to participate in this trip, they feel AIPAC is too powerful to ignore and doing so could target their removal from Congress. The pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. is frighteningly powerful. Though there are many reasons to doubt the scrupulousness of U.S. involvement in the Israeli Palestinian peace negotiations, it is this one that solidifies my belief that the U.S. is an absolutely inappropriate mediator. Its hands are tied by political and economic alliances and by a lobby so strong that U.S. Congress members are concerned about losing their seat should they dare to go against the grain.

Bethlehem Separation Barrier
Bethlehem Separation Barrier

This is not honorable politics. It’s a circus ring moderated by a group who directs policy to meet its own interest and persists in parading U.S. politicians around Israel on these thinly veiled propaganda junkets.

Overlooking the fact that following one of the most dramatic political battles in recent history that spurred concerns of a double-dip recession, Congress members ought to use the recess to meet with their constituencies and focus on sorting out the downward spiral of the U.S. economy…the blatant favoritism this tour promotes is maddening.

It is unlikely that U.S. Congress members will tour the demolished homes of Palestinians or witness the violent reaction of the IDF to nonviolent protestors. Nor will they speak with Palestinian minors who have been imprisoned for stone throwing while their Israeli counterparts throw stones, glass, trash, and sewage at Palestinian civilians with little to no intervention. They will not see the thousands of Palestinians lined up at 4:00 in the morning outside of Bethlehem’s Checkpoint 300, waiting to cross into Jerusalem to pray at their holy sites.

Waiting in Line
Waiting in Line

While the members of Congress are touring Masada, a Jewish symbol of resistance against the Roman army, they will never see the resistance that is happening here and now on the part of the Palestinians. When you see the control of the pro-Israel lobby and the propaganda being spewed forth, it’s not hard to understand why Americans honor the resistance of one people while simultaneously frowning upon the resistance of another against the same style of oppression and injustice.

Gazing upon such hypocrisy, Theodore Roosevelt’s words reverberate through my being,

“Like his fellow statesmen he failed to see the curious absurdity of supporting black slavery [oppression], and yet claiming universal suffrage for whites [all] as a divine right, not as a mere matter of expediency. He had not learned that the majority in a democracy has no more right to tyrannize over a minority than, under a different system, the latter would to oppress the former.”

The ideals of freedom and justice, spoon-fed to me as a child, punish me. I cannot gaze on this farce of a democracy without wincing.

 

Green Line? What Green Line?

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

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I have been struggling to come up with a post discussing the other side of things. Speaking of which, I will defer a post about the social movement in Israel right now till after this weekend, but in the meantime, check out this AIC video I helped to create on the subject.

Right now I’d like to discuss why I have a hard time explaining the other side. It is not because I have anything against the Israelis. I don’t. It is because I don’t believe there is anything justifiable or defensible about the occupation.

At its root, this is not a social conflict, it’s not a conflict of religion, and it is not a conflict stemming from an intrinsic hatred existing between Israelis and Palestinians; that is a hatred that has been carefully cultivated. This is a conflict over land. When I lash out against Israel, I lash out against Israeli government policy, against a systematic violation of both international humanitarian law and the socialist principles embodied within the idea of a welfare state.

Area A
Area A

My frustration surrounding individual action (or inaction) does not translate into a general dislike of everything Israeli. Monday, the first day of Ramadan,  I sat on a bus watching a group of Israeli soldiers demanding that an 80-year-old Palestinian woman get off the bus because she had forgotten her ID. (Incidentally this was in Jerusalem and it was not a bus going through any checkpoints.) Staring out the window, my eyes flashing frustration, we sat quietly watching as the bus driver refused to let the soldiers remove her from the bus. They threatened his arrest before demanding an apology. He refused. We sat there for 30 minutes, just long enough to watch the sunset and the stars appear before they let us go.

These are daily occurrences and yet even they do not translate into a hatred of Israel. They translate into something bigger; a determination to end the occupation and the injustice, racism, and violence that goes along with it.

Bethlehem Separation Barrier
Bethlehem Separation Barrier

I would not go so far as to say the Israeli public is blameless (is anyone?), however the fact that 80% of settlers are economic settlers, meaning they moved onto Palestinian land not for religious or ideological reasons, but because the government offers a plethora of economic incentives to encourage Israelis to move into settlements, represents something more systematic happening at a much larger level. Many of these economic settlers are not even aware that they are on Palestinian land, believing themselves to be within a legal distance of the green line.

When I think of the other side, there are so many divisions and factions that it becomes difficult to portray. Do I hold anger against the Israeli public? No. Just frustration stemming from the knowledge that a successful campaign in ending the occupation has to come from within. Any anger I have is primarily directed against the Israeli government and extremist settlers. To portray their side is to portray the fanatic fundamentalism of religious ideology and the economic land-grabbing policy that empowers it.

The Israeli government is fond of accusing critics of being anti-Semitic and I am exasperated by the perpetual tip-toeing through this conflict by those wary of being labeled as such.  Despite the efforts of the Israeli government to have us believe that “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Zionist” are synonymous, they are not.

Matzpen, after all, was one of the strongest anti-Zionist organizations in the history of Israel and they most decidedly were not anti-Semitic. Matzpen, Hebrew for compass, was the name adopted by the Israeli extreme left that took a stand against Israeli colonialist policy and challenged the occupation and the Zionist philosophy propelling it. The very word, Matzpen, sends a shiver down my spine. In my eyes, these men and women were a group exuding everything Israel could and should be.

It is this movement that, in part, inspires me to take a stand against Israeli occupation policy and Zionism, and it comes from within Israel itself. If you see one film about this conflict, I encourage you to see Matzpen directed by Eran Torbiner. It tells the story of resistance and of some of the most committed individuals I have ever come across. I wish that I could sit everyone down and have them watch this film so they could understand how systematically resistance is suppressed, both from within and without. And also to understand that it’s not just Palestinians who are resisting the occupation. There are a small minority of Israelis who are taking a stand. The Alternative Information Center includes some of these Israelis. I cannot tell you how impressed I am by the AIC staff.  Co-founder, Mikado (Michael Warschawski), is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.

Mikado
Mikado

I used to walk a more careful line, striving to be in the middle. But the middle of what? You cannot walk a middle line between allowing (even indirectly) the occupation and wanting to end it. It was the Israeli activists who helped me to see this. The conflict itself is not complicated. It was the peace process that created this inexplicable mass of red tape and legal jargon, it was diplomacy that created a murky grey puddle of confusion, and it is Zionism that persists in building illegal settlements, making a two-state solution harder and harder to imagine.

The conflict between the Israeli and the Palestinian people is perpetuated by a much larger global conflict. It is the conflict between humanitarian law and economic interests, between justice and political ties. The peace process here is just one more example of the diplomatic efforts which persistently undermine humanitarian law. Add it to the list. Right in-between Armenia and Rwanda.

 

A Day in the Hebron Hills

Nikki Hodgson | Posted July 18th, 2011 | Middle East

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Standing on the hilltop we hear the goat herder before we see him. The voice of a young boy, 11 or 12 perhaps, whooping and hollering to urge his goats forward and onto the grazing land his family has been unable to access for the past 10 years. After a long battle, Israeli activists and lawyers have won the support of the Israeli High Court and these Palestinian shepherds are once more reunited with their land. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

Palestinian Shepherd Boy
Palestinian Shepherd Boy

Nestled snugly between settlements, the shepherds are often harassed and driven off the land by aggressive settlers. At 6:30 a.m I join a group of Israeli and international activists and drive to the Hebron hills to participate in weekly activities that support Palestinians facing harassment from Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

 

Shoving the goats aside, a young boy approaches me. “What’s your name?” His sole English phrase. I reply with one of my few Arabic phrases and ask him his. Mahmoud points at my camera. Snapping a photo of him, we shield our eyes from the sun to see how it turns out. He smiles shyly before his mother calls him to help. Just above us clouds of dust roll forward before dissipating into the hills to reveal an IDF jeep.

IDF monitoring
IDF monitoring

Three jeeps and 12 soldiers cluster together. There is a discussion with the organizer and we are asked to leave as this land is designated for Palestinians only. We retreat to a nearby hill where we can still keep an eye on things. The IDF remain. The police show up to investigate, but retreat without asking anything.

After a few hours we trek to a nearby cluster of tents and rubble to help move rocks. A few tents are perched above the remains of houses that have been demolished multiple times by the IDF, who say the Palestinians build there without the necessary permits. These permits are almost never issued so Palestinians often build anyway or live in caves and tents. The hypocrisy of it is almost too much to bear as the Israeli settlements surrounding these “illegal” Palestinian homes seem to expand by the minute.

It’s dusty and hot and we carry buckets of rocks to an older man who dumps them near the entrance of a cave where his wife sits making tea for us. There is no running water and she carries a bucket from the bright yellow water tankers sitting along the outskirts of their community. Little girls in brightly colored clothing hover near the outside of a beige tent peering at us intently and bursting into giggles when we say something to them in English. Another IDF jeep appears on the ridge, but does not venture into the community.

IDF and water tankers
IDF and water tankers

After a few hours and many buckets of rocks, we stop for lunch. Sitting on a rock eating falafel and squinting into the scorching sun, I draft a letter in my head to Obama. It’s a letter I know that I will never send, but I write it anyway. As a political analyst,  I understand why Obama bows consistently to the pressure of Netanyahu, I understand why the U.S. turns a blind eye to the oppression here and why this perpetual suffering is not only allowed but tacitly endorsed. However my heart does not. It will never understand this mess. In this respect I am naive. I am naive and idealistic to believe it is morally unsound to enable the suffering of millions to preserve a political and economic alliance.

The overseeing of justice falls once more on the shoulders of activists as politicians continue to sacrifice democracy for diplomacy. Dozens of unarmed activists, American and Israeli, stand their ground against soldiers outfitted in part by U.S. tax dollars. This is the visible discrepancy between what the U.S. is and what it should be.

Israeli Outpost and Soldier
Israeli Outpost and Soldier

Surrounded by Israeli activists taking enormous personal risk and facing increasing threats in the form of an anti-boycott bill passed by the Knesset last week, their dedication strikes a chord within me. The soldiers push us back as we approach an illegal Israeli outpost, a tent set up by the settlers on Palestinian land to claim it.

Watching the IDF defend this outrageous illegal activity, I realize that as afraid as I am of being considered irrational or of losing credibility by taking a strong stance, I am more afraid of living in a world where the greed of a few and the complacency of a few more oppresses and impoverishes millions. Three jeeps and dozens of heavily armed soldiers escort us off the land as three settlers stand in the distance overlooking the scene.

Flotillas, Flytillas, and Freedom

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

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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.

bienvenue_en_palestine
bienvenue_en_palestine

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.

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.

Bethlehem
Bethlehem

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 CaféSima in Bethlehem. Chocolate cupcakes, iced lattes and sympathetic conversation can work wonders.

CaféSima
CaféSima

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.

Back to Bethlehem

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

Tags: , , ,

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.

Fellow: Nikki Hodgson

AIC


Tags

activism adapting AIC Alternative Information Center American Israel Public Affairs Committee Bil'in blockade Congress Culture daily life Diplomacy Flotilla Flytilla Freedom Theatre Gaza Glenn Beck Green Line Hebron human rights hypocrisy IDF Israel Jenin Jerusalem Matzpen Palestine Protest Restoring Courage Settlers Theatre U.S. West Bank


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