So this is my rant on Palestine
(I wrote this originally as a semi-public email, after a first visit through Israel, Palestine and Jordan. I have to call this “creative venting.” It was a therapeutic write up.)
May 6, 2011
I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. I knew I would finally be able to go to Palestine and see things for myself, but the last thing I wanted to do was write some gooey, sappy stuff about what I saw, how life was so bad, and how shocked I am. Besides all of that, I had been friends with both Palestinians and many internationals who had spent time here for many years and knew a lot of all of this already anyhow, right? Besides, I never went to Palestine for a reason: I didn’t have a reason. That was my reason for not going; the stories of some privileged urban white dude from a privileged country causing havoc and basically forcing the local people out of the goodness of their hearts to babysit someone who was there supposedly also out of the goodness of their hearts was “not on” as far as I was concerned. So I had no reason to be here, and would have likely been a burden and did not come.
But I do anti-tar sands work. Israel is—perhaps– about to become, thanks to new technological developments the largest oil producer on earth. I’ll be so arrogant as to call that another Nakba. The implications for not just Palestinians of all stripes in all locations they have been exiled to, but all of the freedom seeking Arabs, Muslims and indeed the entire planet are simply staggering. That, given what I do for work and with my life, was a pretty damn good reason to come. But I wouldn’t get sucked into the rest of it, I swore. The work on anti-tar sands production here has been simply so good, I am very pleased that I have had a real reason to be here and that I not only saw it through but that it may actually be useful. For lack of a better phrase? That’s a rush. I’ll write in a very different matter on all of that, probably a few volumes worth, soon.
I didn’t need to become another white boy from a major Canadian city’s suburb wandering around in horror and awe, right? And scribbling about it like it was something new? I can’t help this. If I don’t write this I’m going to go looking for a fight with some American asshole here in Amman or something. Besides, a good friend in Tel Aviv pushed me a little to write it, so damnit it, I will.
I have never experienced the fear of opening my mouth before. It’s fucked up. I have been through countries under military dictatorships. Governments where speaking ill of the King is punishable by multi-year sentences. I am not used to hearing racism said matter-of-factly, and openly stated by not only the government, the opposition but damn near everyone. I came from Jordan, across the bridge, in the middle of Easter Weekend/Passover. Figured less questions would be asked, especially given the Jesus beard thing I grew. So I got in, only minor entanglements.
Everything was booked though, as I immediately headed for Jerusalem. So, after finding help from a nice dude at some pub I found a place in a rather rich neighbourhood of west Jerusalem. The kind of place that gives out breakfast with your room. Listened to what my crap ears thought were New Yorkers talk about how nice their neighbourhood was because there were no Arabs. Strike one. Fuck this place. Tried to do what I have done everywhere from Africa north and south to South America and Europe– just engage the biggest asshole there is and listen to see what you can learn. Found here couldn’t take it. Gave up on talking to Zionist fascists pretty quick. I like keeping my lunch down, it saves money.
I lived in this very polite place with the most polite, refined and dignified racism for a couple of days. Then got to move to a hostel. Old City. Jerusalem. What a weird place to find out that both bin Laden and Canadian democracy died within 24 hours of each other (both are mere rumours as far as I’m concerned… didn’t think either were alive in the first place). Got to work shortly after that, and that’s when it really started to get to me.
I was able to get a driver, and good thing too, as the driver was a Palestinian who was not outright expelled at any point yet and was willing to take me and my friend to places I needed to see for my work. I thought I would have the same misfortune I have everywhere, not being able to go to any of the places I really wanted because tar sands developments exist or are being planned in another place entirely. All of the tar sands are to happen in 48 (Israel proper). My driver said, not sure if it was correct every time, that we should go through the West Bank to get to these places. I got given a brutal tour that fucked me up no matter how matter of fact it already was in every place I came across, in my mind at least.
I’m already feeling guilty writing this, like we need another blog about how shitty Israeli fascism is. But I don’t want to scream and I need to work this out, because I feel like I need a shower. I need to wash this crap off of me, like something infectious and grotesque on a scale I really wasn’t prepared for, can do to you. And I have said for years, “revolution lives and breathes, it does not come out of books,” right? Well, why we FUCKING NEED ONE doesn’t either. I’m not the slightest bit sorry I’m swearing. Get fucking used to it for this read.
Some places that fucked with my gut. Standing at the junction to yet MORE settlements in the West Bank, across from Bethlehem, in an area designed to become part of “Greater Jerusalem” by 2020 (thus retroactively depriving every Palestinian their rights as citizens or even residents along the way, each time the line moves along towards where I was standing). Saw a beautifully tended orchard below, old but not ancient olive trees. Very clean, very loved. Dumps of garbage along the edge. Huge piles of it. The Jewish settlers toss this stuff there whenever they want, to both make a point and to get rid of it and harass the Palestinians with their babies’ soiled diapers. So fucking classy.
Stood in the same place, where a dirt path snaked under a massive settler-built highway whizzing along overhead. That dirt path was how the disconnected Palestinian villages can meet up with one another. Children walked back and forth extremely slowly in the heat. The highway buzzed at incredible speed. Meanwhile I was alerted to look at a Palestinian truck pulling over to the side of the road and meeting an Israeli-licensed truck. Why? Because with all the checkpoints, harassments, etc etc., doing what amounts to “under the table” trading was the best choice. I’ve never noticed such a thing, it took a Palestinian to tell me what was going on (and point out the different colored license plates).
Throughout the West Bank the graffiti is filled with vicious hate slogans, such as “Death to the Arabs”, “Kahane was right” and more. The road signs to villages and towns both in 48 and the West Bank are officially printed in Hebrew largest, followed by English and Arabic. The Arab letters are often sprayed over in a crass way, other times stickers in Hebrew are placed right on top of the Arabic.
So much of this stuff I knew, but had not felt the presence of. It is immediately visible that the Settlements, often surrounded by the Wall built at such an angle to allow the settlers and the army to shoot down at the helpless population below without them firing back, are built on top of the surrounding hills to look downwards on the Palestinians. It’s a combination of both calculated humiliation and a military act, while also dividing the population into smaller and smaller enclaves. But where this hit home the most for me was when we were just past Hebron (and a few notes on that Hell later would be in order, but I don’t have the energy and you can look up what 400-odd settlers sitting in the middle of 200,000 people might do when protected by an army, it’s not fucking complicated).
For the moment I’ll quickly digress. A couple of months ago I was in southern Venezuela, and I and the other two I was travelling with realized we were being followed around by a corrupt policeman in an area where this is actually quite common. Not knowing whether this was so that he could kidnap me, or steal all of my stuff and the driver’s car, we couldn’t leave the small town for hours. The entire time I felt not too nervous, as if things were going to work out. I just kind of knew it would all work out, even though the driver was clearly quite panicked by the whole situation and when we did leave down the lonely quiet road a little after dark he took the road at over 150kms or even more until we got back to where we were to stay.
The reason I mention that story is that I generally felt fine pretty much the entire time this was happening. I never really felt vulnerable or helpless, like I was in some kind of imminent danger, though I probably was. Aside from not being stupid about how to deal with the situation I generally was not bothered much by it, and lo and behold it was alright. The only time I can think of in recent years I have had a strange feeling in me that was so unsettled was when I did something obviously crazy: I got a drink of water.
Alongside the road and surrounded by Jewish settlements placed way up on the hills a little bit past Hebron is this below ground aquifer. There is one of these coming out of the mountain not too far from where I grew up in British Columbia. I have done there what people do here many times, as do other people rather frequently. Both of them have been outfitted with a pipe so that the water flows out like a permanent tap. In this case inside the West Bank, that pipe also is used to slightly irrigate the fields of crops tended by the Palestinians living here (and whose crops are often poisoned).
So we pull over to the side of the road, and I get ready to get out and see the water. My host for the ride tells me to hurry up, because the settlers get mad when Palestinians dare to drink this water and shoot at them from the hills. It’s not a place to dawdle. I get out and look up at the occupied hilltops and walk over to the well area. You know, to do something crazy like drink water on a hot day in the Middle East. There are a couple of other Palestinians there, one of them hunching over a little bit. He points up the hill, crouches down a little, and makes a rifle gesture. Then he shrugs at me and smiles a wry smile. At this point several different feelings went through me. The first was this set of nerves on the back of my neck started to activate, and I could feel my shoulders get tight and hurt. I have never felt being in someones sights before, and certainly not in such a completely unaccountable manner.
I then realized a strange feeling in my stomach of near helplessness. It really felt frightening in a way I could not dream up or predict. I had two other reactions. One, I wanted to get the Hell out of there, and of course that’s the point of the settlers shooting at people for drinking water. The other was that being obviously either an international or a Jewish man, my presence, along with the cameras, was very temporarily making the situation safer for the others. Leaving there I felt a new kind of queasy I have not known before.
From now on, I’ll think very differently about the aquifer near my hometown, and when I get water from there I guess I’ll get that feeling again. I think that simple place said as much as I need to know about what ethnic cleansing is, what the terror of everyday life is, and how amazing it is that people have refused to leave their land in the face of all of that.
I have a lot of other stuff in my head and my heart, most notably just how clear the racism of the state is in all of the area, from the river to the sea, having had only a couple of hours to visit and meet people living in tarpulin shacks in Al-arakib. It’s a Bedouin village that has been completely demolished and obliterated 23 times (no, that’s not a typo) in the last 9 months (that’s not a typo, either). Inside the territory that the UN recognizes as the Jewish state, there are still roughly 10% of the pre-Nakba population of Bedouins. Some of them live in unrecognized villages, ones that have been there for centuries. The Jewish National Fund has been planting trees in the area (you know, “making the desert bloom” and all that fucking shit). The government has decided to plant trees and exterminate this nomadic peoples. All 23 times they have come back, and started rebuilding the area. Tent and shack by tent and shack. I can’t really say more on that.
I never was anywhere in a demonstration or “violent” during my work to expose the insane, catastrophic tar sands/oil shale plans that the Israeli government and some of their corporate friends have planned for the areas just outside of Jerusalem (where many will tell you David fought Goliath, almost exactly on the spot) as well as massive operations in Bedouin territories in the northern Negev desert. I’m kind of glad, and not for the obvious reasons. What is disgusting and fucked beyond belief about the Jewish state is not the massacres, the shootings and all of that. It’s all the little things designed to humiliate a people into leaving, to torment someone beyond the breaking point to go away from their home. If I had seen a military assault I’d no doubt be explaining that story. But I didn’t, and I have seen the worst humanity has to offer anyhow.
There is no such thing as a Zionist left, anymore than “left wing racist” or “progressive fascist,” and were it not so tragic it would be comedic. But there is a real Israeli society, it is vibrant and it Jewishly beautiful despite the Zionists– and there are indeed few but amazing Israeli anti-Zionist revolutionaries. I care about them deeply, and cannot truly explain how deathly important it has been for my heart and perhaps my soul that they not only exist but are such lovely people in a fucked up society. It is amazing what you can hold on to despite anything. Seeing a little bit of Tel Aviv and that the ultra-fascists are now setting up gangs to pick off helpless refugees from Africa made clear (if life hadn’t already) that this sick society has no hope for it organized on Zionist terms. Not enough Arabs to pick on and torture? Let’s get the Ethiopians! And all the others. Yeah, that’s a healthy society. Fuck.
I just returned to Jordan, and one of my refugee friends and I started talking about my time in Palestine. I told him the stories of being harassed at the border between 67 and 48 (leaving the West Bank), various other things, including the life I glimpsed in Hebron. He kept going back to what it was like in 48 (Israel proper). I finally clued in. I have seen his home, he never has. For me, it’s a one hour trip to Jerusalem. I could leave in a few minutes and barring issues at the border, I’m there before I get hungry or need a drink. He is not allowed to go, ever. He pestered me to tell him what it was like. I’m getting really emotional writing this. But that’s okay.
My trip is to do work exposing tar sands and oil shale projects here in Jordan and in all of historical Palestine. As such, I have some rocks from the development proposed areas. When I gathered what was going on in our conversation and why he seemed bored by talk of Ramallah, of Hebron, of the border crossing, etc. I reached into my bag. “This rock is a piece of what they want to develop in 48. If you can’t go home, here’s a piece of your home for you here. It’s your land.” The smile and warmth of the thanks told me I got it. I love him so much right now. I fucking hate Israel, many Israelis excluded. We all have a right to go home. I get home in two weeks. It seems forever. Then, I stop and think about what that means… It’s not forever for me. And it won’t be forever for my Palestinian friends, either. It just feels like that sometimes. Many have died waiting. But justice will win. It always does. And after we celebrate our victory, we go home. Palestine. Or wherever we are from. But it’s not exile, and it’s not a camp. To quote an Israeli friend in the Negev: “Home is where you love the cats a little more.”
I had to write something. I’m sorry, I know this is just one more fucked up kid of privilege putting words to being fucked up. But I had to do it. Getting back to beautiful Jordan last night, I started to get ill. I felt weird quivers and momentary deep despair and feelings of severe isolation. And I can leave, likely go back and forth, and so on. I wanted to cry, frankly, and sit in a ball in a fetal position in a corner. Yelling to myself. You know the phrases: “How can North Americans say they know this is going on and do nothing?” and other solidarity activist clichés. Instead, I started to write this. Thanks for reading it. I’m almost feeling better. But I still feel like there is no shower to wash this off. It won’t come off, until we take it off.
Macdonald Stainsby is the Co-ordinator of http://oilsandstruth.org