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Day 1 and Arrival: the magic of excitement

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
Hebron

A beautiful window of a building in Hebron

I arrived at the Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport in Israel at 00.15 on the 23rd of May after what I know was the longest and most stressful travel experience I’ve ever had. It all started in New York as I was told I can not board my flight to Moscow as my flight to Tel Aviv would depart from an airport different from the one I would land at and I did not have a Russian visa to be able to travel between the two. After much stress and some tears, I paid an extra fee and got a ticket for another flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv. My first flight of at least 10 hours went by in sleeping and reading books. The Russian carrier Transaereo did not bother to entertain us which was rather unfortunate as I had another 14 hours to spend at the Moscow airport and yet nothing once I read the two books I had on the plane.

A view from Al Khalil/ Hebron

A view from Al Khalil/ Hebron

I felt very anxious all through my flight to Tel Aviv. As I got of the plane I joined the longest cue I’ve seen at an airport and waited. Everyone showed their documents, answered a few questions and went through. Once it was my turn, I passed my passport. I was asked about my father’s and my grandfather’s names and was immediately addressed to a nearby room where I had to go to be questioned. In fact, apart from the anxiety of not knowing whether you’ll be let in the country or not, the process was not as scary and dramatic as I had it described by others or imagined it. The Israeli staff was quite understanding and friendly. I still had to wait two hours to get my passport, though.

I managed to call my friend Gal who had told me he was going to pick me up from the airport and was readily going to wait for him to come in the next couple of hours. Instead, just five minutes later he showed up and surprised me saying he had been waiting for hours for me to arrive and had even called the emigration office to ask whether they had me! :)

In the morning Gal and his mom left me at the Tel Aviv’s bus station and went to a wedding. As my two miserable suitcases were all broken, I was struggling to make it to the other side of the street but a dark-haired girl helped me carry one. As we talked I was very self-conscious about saying I was half-Palestinian and that I was going to the West Bank as I had no idea if she was an Arab or an Israeli or if it mattered at all. Her name was Nour.

Checkpoint at Hebron nearby the infamous Hebron Mosque

Checkpoint at Hebron nearby the infamous Hebron Mosque

As I got off at Jerusalem I went ahead to get the last bus to Hebron for the day. A cute Boston University rugby guy called Tony helped me with my suitcase and I waited for the Israeli bus to Al Khalil (this is the Arabic name of Hebron).  I wanted to go to the bathroom but I couldn’t leave my suitcases as Nour had told me I should not leave my luggage unattended even for a minute unless I want to get myself into a lot of trouble. In the meantime, another Arab girl asked me to look after her bags which I agreed to do. As she took a while, I grew anxious… She came back soon, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge how all of that was making me feel even after being in the country for just a couple of hours! Since both Israeli and Arabs helped me and welcomed me I felt It was important to yet again remind myself to not project anything to people and simply see them as individuals and not in their stereotypical roles of “oppressors”, “victims”, “terrorists”…

DSCF9044|My colleague Anas from the Hebron Youth Development Resource Center where I’ll be working in the next two months came to pick me up and drove me to the organization’s premises nearby the Northern entrance of the city. I learned from him that some relatives of mine on my father’s side had called him to tell him to “take care of me”. It was clear to me my mom wouldn’t do it as she knows very well how I detest any form of patronizing. I got somewhat mad that someone is giving their permission to someone else to patronize ME, which I will not allow, especially if it exhibits itself in ways that are limiting to my free actions and unrespectful of my free judgement.

Soon after I had arrived, Anas and his friend Muotaz, the other intern- Marin and I went to Betlehem for dinner.

I was suddenly overcome by so much joy and excitement, we frequently stopped the car to just gaze and take photos! I haven’t laughed so badly in months: I was telling Anas he’s giving me stomachache out of laughter!

DSCF9052

Sunset nearby Betlehem

I had forgotten to awe at the new things I see. To be grateful. To be trully excited even if it is annoying for the people around me (Anas and Moutaz were making fun of me for being so excitable. Someone else recently told me he has traveled so much now, there is nothing to be excited about anymore. I think I felt this for a while, too). I think you need a certain sense of comfort and ease, and peace of mind to be able to exercise your excitement.

Excitement, however, is for me one of the most crucial qualities of being alive.

This is sooooo cooool!

This is sooooo cooool!


Ajami: when life bears no value

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Ajami is a skillfully produced movie with an intense plot developed through the use of exciting cinematographic approaches.

The narrator of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian tale about human suffering is a young boy called Nasri whose family is deeply troubled. His uncle gets into a conflict with a local gang which then attempts to kill him and his family. Nasri’s older brother Omar (19) becomes the oldest man in the family and is, thus, responsible to resolve the issue according to the popular scripts of the culture he comes from. Aiming to kill Omar, the gang members kill his cousin instead. When the local respected restaurateur Abu Elias helps to solve the conflict, Omar’s family is asked to pay a huge amount of money to ensure its protection. Together with 16-years old illegal Palestinian worker Melek whose mother needs to be operated, Omar decides to sell drugs in order to provide for the payment. When the two are caught by police members Nasri shoots at a policemen in order to protect them and gets killed.

Ajami is an insightful, encapsulating the senses movie presenting the realities of life in Israel and Palestine. Violence, corruption, and revenge create the all-consuming feeling of powerlessness shared by characters and public alike.

The characters in the movie are left to struggle alone in a world which does not value the life of others’. A world in which people lack moral limits and do not feel remorse as they advance at the expense of others’ wellbeing. The ties and empathy depicted in the movie lack transcendence beyond the realms of nationality, religion, culture and family.

The society presented in the movie operates on the principle of the wilderness. The stronger the better. Survival of the fittest. But being “strong” or “fittest” in the context of the world drawn by the movie does not include being ethical or moral. In fact, all characters in the movie respond to the challenges of their environment by compromising their values in one way or another.


Syria: Cold War Cornerstone?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Trying to understand what Syria wants is not the world’s easiest task.  Quite to the contrary, in fact, Damascus’s intentions are downright puzzling.  The last few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the US and Syria with the restoration of a US Embassy in Damascus and the very recent appointment of Robert Ford as the US Ambassador.  These large overtures to the Assad regime are most certainly intended to try to lure Damascus away from the “Tehran orbital” of the Middle Eastern “cold war” and place them firmly in the pro-western camp.  The US also clearly wants to attempt to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan in the hopes of cementing that transition into “our” camp.  Great.  But are diplomatic overtures enough? And more importantly, does Bashar al Assad want to be on our side?

I asked these very questions two weeks ago after picking up Gershom Gorenberg at the airport and driving him back to Middlebury.  His answer was that yes, Syria wants to find a way into the Western-backed bloc along with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, etc.  I hope this is the case, but evidence lately certainly seems to point to the contrary.  Last week, Damascus played host to a star-studded summit of the West’s favorite personalities: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hassan Nasrallah (the Secretary General of Hezbollah), and Khaled Meshaal (the chairman of Hamas’ Damascus-based politburo).  This doesn’t seem to be the message one would send to the US, Europe, Israel, etc. if one was serious about peace and switching sides.  Moreover, recent tensions along the border with Israel have increased lately with sharp rhetoric from both Damascus and Jerusalem(read: Lieberman).  See my tete-a-tete with Ali for more on that.  The escalation of bellicose words coupled with Damascus’ apparent contentment with supplying arms to Hezbollah and Hamas sends the signal of intransigence or plain and simple disinterest in pursuing peace with Israel and defecting to the West.  Even this past week, when senior US diplomat Robert Burns visited Damascus, Assad “denied all American claims that that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.” C’mon Bashar.

Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the only side to the story.  Tonight, Haaretz is reporting a genuine desire on Damascus’ part to re-invigorate a peace process with the Israelis.  So, the answer is most simply that there is no certain answer.

What is unambiguous, however, is the rising importance of Syria in the region.  Tehran sees Syria as a valuable strategic ally and asset for gaining a foothold in the Arab World, which is largely apprehensive about Tehran’s rhetoric and regional ambitions.  Moreover, Syria’s longstanding ties in Lebanon are a perfect conduit for transferring arms and resources to Shi’a groups like Hezbollah.  The US and its bloc equally recognize the huge gains in courting Damascus.  A peace agreement between Syria and Israel would undoubtedly result in a crippled if not severely weakened Hezbollah and Hamas, and a total cessation of arms flowing to Iraq (assuming continued bolstered ties with the US).  A weakened Hamas in turn would aid hopes for Palestinian reconciliation and possibly provide a true Palestinian partner for peace with the Israelis.  Indeed, it is imperative that any comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East involve Syria as a central player.  As for now, the thaw in relations between Washington and Damascus is an essential step; however, a deep breath and fresh thinking on both sides of the Israel-Syria border would be instrumental in helping the Syrians find a way to move a little closer to the US-backed sphere without compromising their perceived security.

Identity Prospecting

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

In the latest step in the on-going conflict over memory-rights and the Holy Land, Benjamin Netanyahu decided today to include two shrines located in the West Bank – among them the Cave of the Patriarchs – in the list of Israeli national heritage sites. For those of you unfamiliar, the Cave of the Patriarchs is considered holy by the whole Abrahamic tradition and is thought to be the resting place of Abraham and a few others of Biblical note.  The stories can be read here, here and here. As is its wont, the New York Times ran a story that you had to know existed to read.

hebron_cave

It is easy to appreciate the significance of this move given the rhetoric and the people cheering for it, namely, that ‘…Our existence depends not only on the IDF or our economic resilience – it is anchored in…the national sentiment that we will bestow upon the coming generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land,” to take that wholesale from Ha-Aretz. This is not new, but it is reflective of past policies of landscape and memory claiming that have taken place in Israel and the West Bank more specifically.

We know that historical memory is a touchy subject, but it’s especially touchy in this case because it maintains the tradition of mingling national identity with religion. While it is unclear what real effects will be felt now that they are on a register of Israeli historical sites, it is obvious that the Palestinian reaction has not been welcoming, again pointing to discrimination and an effort to wipe them off the historical map. That the government would budget 500,000 shekels for the ‘renovation’ of these sites struck me as particularly ominous.

If we want peace – two-state solution, one-state solution, whatever – it cannot be achieved by claiming sites of historical memory. It just can’t. If there is to be some modicum of peace between Palestinians and Israelis, it has to be on the basis of shared heritage, not cultural domination. Mark Regev commented that ‘the list was not meant to set borders,’ but it has already violated some of the most important borders, all of this even if we discount settlement activity and the fact that Hebron is smack in the middle of the West Bank. Israeli conservatives (and the Israeli government) should consider that strengthening the Israeli national narrative comes, sometimes, at the cost of prospects for peace with those troublesome Palestinians, who have their own legitimate historical connection to the land.

Look, I do not know what will actually come of this aside from the emotional responses (which are powerful enough on their own), but I cannot help but think of how beautiful this sight could be in the future: Muslims, Christians and Jews worshiping their shared forefathers. Instead, it has been a battleground for the soul of the Holy Land, and looks like it will continue to be so, at least in the near future.

Ayalon at it Again!

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

In his most recent display of poor diplomacy, Deputy FM Danny Ayalon snubbed an American congressional delegation visiting Israel today with J Street.

After the incident last month with Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, I’m honestly surprised (though I shouldn’t be) that Mr. Ayalon had the chutzpah to essentially give the diplomatic finger to an American congressional delegation simply because he doesn’t agree explicitly with the group hosting them in Israel.  Moreover, the notion that J Street is misrepresenting itself by identifying as “Pro-Israel” is simply ludicrous.  Admittedly, J Street has a specific political agenda, but in plain English in their statement of principles, they declare: “J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland.”

Ayalon’s narrow world view and petty politics are getting old as far as I’m concerned.  Its time to get some fresh blood into the most important chairs of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

An aside:

J Street, a relatively new lobby in Washington, describes itself as Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.  For those interested (and I’m plugging my own group here a bit), check out J Street U Middlebury, an affiliate group here on campus.

Cool It

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

That’s right, saber-rattling has recommenced in the Damascus-Tel-Aviv neighborhood. The headlines on Aljazeera, Al Sharq Al Awsat and Haaretz are splashed with stressful tidings from the two capitals, and I can’t shake the feeling that we’re dealing with Otto von Bismarck from time to time on both sides of the Golan.  It is nothing new when I say that this new round of tension is frustrating, but the issue assumes more alarming proportions to me when I crawl outside of the pseudo-academic bubble and remember that my father has been living with family in the Ouza’i neighbhorhood of Beirut since August, a sitting duck for Israeli bombers “should the situation arise.”

Just reading these articles and thinking of my family in Beirut tempted me to launch a vitriolic attack on the Israeli administration’s handling of the Syrian negotiations (and their massive ramifications), but I have chosen not to include it. Not because I hope to be impartial – far from it. I think it is important to choose sides in an issue and to express that intellectually. But  the kind of anger I wanted to express is not constructive and reminds me too much of our cast of characters, the Israeli and Syrian governments.

Syria is prickly as usual and Lieberman needs to be reined in before he continues to inflame negotiations, which many claim the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to make. How willing? It is difficult to tell at times, but the Bismarck imitations need to stop.

Von Bismarck himself, complete with his friend The Awesome Helmet

Von Bismarck himself, complete with his friend The Awesome Helmet

A Glimmer of Optimism

For those who follow the ins and outs of the Middle East peace process, the past 13 months have been certifiably depressing.  Since Israel’s military operation in Gaza last January, no progress whatsoever has been made in making peace with the Palestinians, Syria, or any one else.  The year has been replete with pre-conditions, freezes, blockades, declarations, and even good will gestures, but there has been a severe drought of actual peace and progress.

In that light, I was pleasantly surprised to read Joel Rubin’s commentary and analysis of the Herzliya Conference last night.  The conference is Israel’s largest annual global policy forum and is a perennial gathering of political heavyweights from the region and diplomats stationed in Israel.

Left and Right, those who spoke in Herzliya such as Opposition leader and Kadima Chair MK Tzipi Livni, Deputy PM Dan Meridor, and Deputy FM Danny Ayalon (of Turkish sofa incident fame) all stressed the essentiality of striking a two-state solution.  As Rubin puts it, “none of [them] declared this for sentimental reasons.” That is the essential point.  In today’s world, a comprehensive peace agreement is a strategic necessity for all parties involved.  The balance of power in the Middle East is rapidly changing, and overwhelming American preponderance is slowly eroding into a thing of the past.  That isn’t to say that the US has become irrelevant in the Middle East.  It still will play a central role in forging a future for the region, but the game has certainly changed.  The rising threat of Iran is an undeniable reality, and a regional peace agreement in the Middle East is invaluable in suppressing that threat as it will undoubtedly quell the flow of arms and money from Iran to other actors in the region like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria.

Consensus on a two-state agreement is not enough to make a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Middle East a reality.  It will require tough decisions and compromises from both sides of the negotiating table, and today we have not even returned to the negotiating table.  Despite the setbacks of 2009, Joel Rubin gets it right here:

There may not yet be peace…but this day may well have granted Obama a subtle victory, as the broad political recognition in Israel of the importance of a two state solution was made urgently clear.

My hope is that broad political recognition can be transformed into sweeping political action that delivers.