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Letter from Birzeit, #10: Dancing in Netanya, Defending Olive Pickers in Burqa

October 24, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters.

Dancing in Netanya, Defending Olive Pickers in Burqa

October 18 img_0575On Wednesday, I want to Netanya — which is between Haifa and Tel Aviv — with a friend from Safa (in the West Bank, but near Tel Aviv) because he got a permit to travel in Israel on Wednesday and Thursday. These permits are not easy to obtain, but he fortunately has friends in the right places. The permit specifies that he visit any place in Israel except Eilat, and he cannot drive himself anywhere. To get there, I had to take a bus from Birzeit to Ramallah, another bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem, and then I took a train to the central bus station in Jerusalem where I got on a bus to Haifa that stopped in Netanya. This was my first time really traveling in Israel, and there is really such a noticeable difference between Israel and the West Bank. All of the streets were wide and nicely paved, the buildings were tall and modern, and there was significantly less pollution on the ground and in the air. After four hours of traveling, we finally arrived in Netanya, which is essentially a touristy beach town that honestly reminded me a bit of Miami. I was much more interested in visiting Haifa, but I know how difficult it is to get a permit, so I let my friend determine our destination. We walked down the beach, where we saw a family of wild Egyptian mongooses (unfortunately the plural is not mongeese). I also saw more skin than I’d seen in almost two months. I think I experienced a bit of culture shock when I saw so many women in bikinis and men in Speedos or short shorts. We strolled along the shore, and I took off my sandals to run through the refreshing and pure blue water. We also found a rocky area from which several people were fishing, and we danced on these rocks as my friend taught me the basic steps of Dabke (a Palestinian dance) and I showed him what I knew of salsa. We went from Netanya to Tulkarm, a Palestinian town just to the east. We decided to go there for dinner because it was so close and because we both preferred to buy food in Palestine, and because we could take a bus straight from Tulkarm to Ramallah and save ourselves several hours of traveling. As we sat in the back of the bus on our way to Tulkarm, my friend initiated a conversation on his views on marriage and women in Palestine. He described women as victims in this society, particularly those who completely cover themselves even though they don’t want to. He told me that if he has daughters in the future, he will let them choose how they want to dress. I pointed out to him that many women actually want to wear the hijaab or cover themselves further, and he agreed, saying that he accepted it as long as they wanted to dress that way. He also told me that although he’s 28 years old, he’s not rushing to get married. He’s been focusing on his work and his studies, despite all of the pressure he receives from his family to settle down. “Many people get married just to have children that will take their name,” he said. “I don’t want that.” Because we arrived on the outskirts of Tulkarm from an Israeli town, we had to pass through a checkpoint — on foot. The bus let us off just before the checkpoint, and I had my first experience of walking through a real checkpoint (aside from the small checkpoint at the entrance to Jerusalem; I am always the only one on the bus who is told to get off when the soldiers walk down the aisle looking at everyone’s passports or ID cards, and I have to walk through a turnstile and put my bag through an x-ray) with multiple turnstiles and rows of barbed wire above the metal fences creating a narrow pathway for us to walk through. My friend told me to cover my hair and neck with my scarf so that no one would immediately notice me as a foreigner; otherwise, he warned, I would probably be turned away. I was confused by this, but he insisted so I listened. He and the others passing through the checkpoint walked briskly through what felt to me like the entrance to a prison, and I followed as quickly as I could, trying to remain invisible. My bright flowery pants and pink scarf made that almost impossible, though. Once we walked through the final turnstile, the checkpoint was over; I never even saw a single Israeli soldier. On the other side were taxis waiting to take people into downtown Tulkarm. I wish it hadn’t been so late when we arrived in Tulkarm. From what I saw of the city as we walked to a restaurant for dinner, it seemed bustling and exciting and definitely worth seeing more of. Unfortunately, it was already fairly dark when we arrived and we only had enough time to eat a delicious dinner of falafel, hummus, tabouleh, salads, and, of course, pita. We then took a service back to Ramallah, and as we sat in the back row waiting for the service to fill up, I watched the common dance of the man and woman sitting in front of us switch places when another man and his wife arrived at the service. This is because the woman was initially sitting at the window with her husband in the middle, and if they hadn’t traded places then the woman about to board the service would have to sit next to a man who wasn’t her husband. I see this rearrangement of seating placement occur almost every time I take a service, and no one ever has to ask anyone else to move; they just do it when a woman is about to get on. When I asked my friend about it, he explained the reasoning for such rearrangement by saying, “It’s like a virus in the man’s mind.” You may recall that I went olive picking last week with a group called Sharaka. Afterwards I joined their Facebook group to ensure that I would be notified if another olive picking trip were being organized. Late Wednesday night, a Swiss woman currently living in Ramallah posted in Sharaka’s Facebook group to say that Burqa village was badly attacked by settlers that day as the olive harvest was ending for the day. Burqa is very close to Ramallah, but is surrounded on all sides by settlements, and villagers are often harassed by settlers. On Wednesday, settlers arrived at a family’s olive grove and began pushing the family members — including several young children, who began crying, and their elderly grandfather who walks with a cane — and telling them to leave without their olives. The family knew that if they left their entire day’s work behind, the settlers would just throw all of the olives on the ground, so they stood their ground and called “the captain” (I’m not actually sure who this person is, as no one really explained it clearly, but I think it’s a contact in the DCO [District Coordination Offices]) who then spoke to the settlers and explained to them that he had already made an agreement with this family to protect them for two days so they could harvest their olives. Of course, two days is not nearly enough time for a family to finish the entire harvest, so this Swiss woman was asking for volunteers to come help, especially in case there was another incident with the settlers. It is also important to note that last week, settlers attacked the village itself by spraypainting on the mosque and setting fire to three cars in front of the owners’ homes. Two of these cars belonged to the family with the olive grove that was infiltrated on Wednesday. We arrived in Burqa at around 7:30 a.m., where we met one of the family’s sons so he could direct us to the olive grove. In addition to the Swiss woman — who works as a midwife in Qalqilya and who gives yoga classes in her apartment in Ramallah — my roommate and I went to help, as well as several volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement who are living in Nablus. There were also two Israeli men from Tel Aviv. My roommate and I spoke to them pretty extensively, and it was interesting hearing them talk about how difficult it is to get enough information about what’s going to form an opinion independent of the government and the propaganda. When we asked them if people they knew in Tel Aviv were supportive of all the work they did in the West Bank, they said, “No, not at all.” About three or four hours into our work that morning, we noticed two settlers making their way down the road toward the grove, but fortunately they were stopped by two soldiers who were guarding the road and they were forced to turn around. I want to point out that most of the family members we were helping were either born in New Jersey or had spent at least a decade living there, but the parents wanted to move their children to Palestine so they could learn Arabic and learn about their culture. Because they had spent so much time in the U.S., they are definitely more well-off than most other Palestinians I’ve met, but yesterday was just a reminder that economic standing doesn’t always make a difference when it comes to the occupation — it didn’t stop settlers from burning this family’s cars, and it didn’t stop them from attacking their olive trees. img_0581Just before we left (which was not until around 5:30 p.m.; it was a very long and exhausting day), we walked up the hill and saw where two settlers were standing — although we maintained a safe distance — watching us. There were almost ten of us and only two of them, so they didn’t approach us — although one of the family members who walked up the hill with us pointed out that had there been more of them and fewer of us, they would have attacked us without hesitation — but we could see that they were calling for other settlers to join them. Soon afterward, a man with an M16 joined them, and then they called the officers, who promptly arrived in an army tank that then drove to where we were standing. The two Israeli men with us spoke to the two officers for a few minutes while the rest of us hung back. One of the Israeli volunteers asked the officers about what the settlers were doing, and one of the officers actually admitted that the settlers were committing crimes on a daily basis but that he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — really do anything to stop them. Still, this officer was kind and was open to speaking with us and the father of the family we had been helping all day. He even agreed to try to protect the family an extra day to allow them to harvest more olives from the “dangerous” zone — the area most vulnerable to attacks by settlers. The two men from Tel Aviv were kind enough to offer me, my roommate, and the Swiss woman a ride back to Ramallah, despite the fact that Israelis are prohibited from entering Area A. One of the men had never even been to Ramallah, but the other assured us that there was a way to get into Ramallah without having to drive through a checkpoint. This was the first time that I understood that Palestinians are not the only ones who face restricted movement through their own country, although the number of Israelis who want to enter Area A is very limited. As I mentioned in my previous post, Palestinians have to obtain permits in order to travel in Israel, and this is much easier said than done. The woman on the drive with us also shared a story she heard through her work as a midwife in Qalqilya. She told us about a woman who gave birth to her child on the way to the hospital because the roads to which Palestinians have access are often so unnecessarily long. She actually gave birth to the child directly into her pants (it was so fast and easy because this was her sixth child, apparently) and she was so shocked that she lost her ability to speak for hours afterward and at one point even lost consciousness, so she was unable to alert the driver to what had happened. The baby was trapped in her clothes for about twenty minutes, and no one knew that the child had been born until after the woman arrived at the hospital. The child is fine now, but the woman is still traumatized by the event and feels that she has been irreversibly changed.