THISTLES IN THE VINEYARD A Diary from Palestine
by Sumaya Farhat-Naser
Today, on my fifty-eighth birthday, I’m starting keep a diary to report about my life in Palestine over the next nine months.
It’s summer now and the splendor of spring is long gone. But it’s colorful and beautiful in other ways: the green of the olive trees, the gold of the sheaves of wheat, the brown of the earth and the light-colored stones scattered between fragrant plants of thyme all reflect the mosaic that is Palestine. To celebrate my birthday we walk through the olive grove to the kasr—a massive round construction made of stone—and enjoy simply being together in Nature, drinking sage-and-peppermint tea, recalling our hike in spring, and contemplating how our kasr came to be.
In April, my husband Munir, our son Anis, our daughters Ghada and Hala, and I had gone hiking over hill and dale. Anemone, broom, cyclamen, wild tulips, lilies and orchids, along with wild roses, climbing plants and creepers, ornamented the green landscape. We fanned out, examining the great variety of living things. Searching for the wild asparagus that hides in the undergrowth of prickly berries and creepers, we got scratched and pricked by thorns. We were pleased to see asparagus heads looming in our path, as if they were waiting for us. Rejoicing, we gathered as many as we could, then compared bouquets.
Later, we arrived at Bir Zeit’s big garbage dump. Throughout the country, untreated waste is just dumped outside villages and rubble from construction sites unloaded by roadsides. These days, houses are being built ever closer to dump sites.
Piles of rubbish were scattered about. Smoke and the stench of decay nearly asphyxiated us. Covering our faces, we held our breath, squinted our eyes and hurriedly but carefully climbed over the heaps. We wanted to put the trash behind us as quickly as possible and behold the beauty of Nature!
We arrived at the vineyard of my grandfather, Ibrahim. Now only olive trees grow there. I searched in vain for the old Saint-John’s-bread tree where we used to relax and pack the wine grapes to be sold into creates – and had to recognize that it had been chopped down. I remembered how in those days Grandmother Miriam cooked fresh vegetables in a clay pot on the wood fire and baked pita bread. She also minded the goats and made fresh cheese and yogurt from their milk.
In the vineyard stand the ruins of a kasr that belonged to Regina, my grandmother’s sister. We crawled inside and sat on the rocky floor, contemplating the vault built of stone layers that support each other at the sides and top without any mortar: a work of art from an earlier age. With great respect, we caressed the stones, feeling our ancestors’ presence, their work and their souls. We sensed our deep connection to many generations of family.
Roman ruins were just a few steps away. We inspected the large site with caved-in walls where we can still make out rooms and passageways. Cisterns for collecting rainwater suggest that a large number of people were supplied. Deep grooves in the rocks once connected the places to stomp and press the grapes with the storage basin.
It was hot, and walking and climbing on the crumbling ruins was tiring.
We wanted to return to the ruins of the kasr, but the colorful mosaic stones and broken bits of glass and potsherds scattered about distracted us. We found lots of pretty stones, both small and large. The bits of mosaic glued together with phosphate of lime were the most beautiful. Massive columns and entrance ways lay on the ground between acanthus thistles. A once-flourishing culture became apparent, and beckoned us.
A farmer had planted wheat in the fertile soil among the Roman ruins, and interspersed with splendid pink and lilac lilies, spikes of wheat grew abundantly. Walking through them, Hala nearly disappeared from view. In the soft breeze, Hala, the wheat spikes and the lilies undulated like waves in a sea of plants. Next, we climbed up the kasr. From its top we could see far into the distance and observe movement on the road to Nablus that snakes through the valley. We sat without speaking, smiling to ourselves and enjoying the stillness. Old ruins could still be used to create new and flourishing cultures. We just have to want that—and it just has to be allowed.
We gathered thyme, wild peppermint, sage, and wild vegetables to enjoy at home in salad, or boiled or baked in food wraps. How wonderful it is to rest after an exhausting hike!
Over three springs, we hiked from kasr to kasr. Munir, who was documenting the round structures, had already registered more than one hundred twenty in Bir Zeit and collected many wonderful tales about them. These marvelous circular stacked stone constructions with a four-meter radius and thick walls four meters high are around three hundred years old. Once used for guarding vineyards and fig plantations, the kasrs’ round entryways were blocked at night with a slab of stone or a piece of prickly underbrush. Kasrs have one or two stories topped by a covered roof terrace for keeping watch, relaxing and sleeping.
Many of these beautiful structures threaten to collapse from neglect. Our cultural treasures are hidden in the landscape, along with our ancestral roots. A year ago, inspired by our hikes in the hills, we decided to rebuild Regina’s crumbling kasr. We began while Munir was in the USA. The first rows of stone were barely in place before many people in Bir Zeit heard that an old idea was being revived on top of the hill. They came by, curious and wanting to know more–and were thrilled to find out that the culture and cultivation of the land were experiencing new impetus. Many visitors wanted to get involved. They lugged the stones that lay scattered about, sorted them by sizes and helped with the rebuilding. Cars passing along the opposite slope expressed their delight at the unusual activity with a chorus of horns.
The big stones laid atop each other needed smaller and still smaller stones to brace them. We women and girls assumed this task and invented the maxim: “Every stone, no matter how big it is, needs a smaller one to support it.” Each time one of us managed to fit the right stone into the right spot, we whooped with joy!
When Munir, who loves the countryside and terraced construction, returned home, he was delighted to see that we’d begun with the rebuilding. He took over and each day, after finishing work at Bir Zeit University, went to add more rows to the kasr. A small bridge leads from the next-to-last floor to the roof of the roundhouse, which is lined with a half-meter-high stone bench that can seat fifteen people. Above this, we attached a piece of jute to four posts and covered it with palm and olive branches. At the foot of the kasr we planted two grapevines to climb and cover the walls.
We have created a place for meetings, meditation and merriment. But it annoys us that butchers dump their offal behind our vineyard and a wind from the east brings with it the stench of rotting flesh. Often we burn our refuse so that no dogs, cats or wild animals will be attracted and then carry germs into the village. We built a cistern for rainwater and painstakingly repaired the terraced walls. We tended the old olive trees. Beneath the undergrowth, we discovered the root stocks of two fig trees from great grandmother’s day—a gift that we treasure and cultivate. We planted trees and flowers, and a vegetable garden, too. This plot of land has been reborn, and with it, all those who assisted its revitalization. Nearly every day friends and strangers who love the project—many of whom have been encouraged to rebuild their own kasrs—meet here.
We had been eagerly waiting for rain, with plastic sheets stretched beneath the trees to trap the rainwater and channel it to the cistern. Finally, in April, it poured. As soon as we heard it, we ran to the window to listen to the raindrops and watch the rushing splashing water stream down into the valley. As soon as the rain stopped, we hurried to the cistern. Muddy red earth stuck to our shoes and clothes, but that was as much a part of the event as our suspense when measuring the water in the cistern. Many people phoned, wanting to know how much rainfall Nature had bestowed upon us.
Today, like every other day, I skimmed the newspaper. There was nothing in it to refresh the heart—only sad, horrific news, like the report about the Israeli airstrike on Gaza’s beach:
Eleven-year-old Huda Ghalia survived, but everyone else in her family was killed: Ali Ghalia (45), Raifa Ghalia (26), Alia Ghalia (25), Ilham (7) Sabrin (3), Hanadi (2) and Haitham (1). On the television yesterday evening, I had seen Huda crying beside her dead father, with the other corpses strewn in shreds around her.
I was sick. I couldn’t read anymore, or watch or listen. There is outrage and sorrow—for a brief moment. But what will become of that traumatized child? Who will take care of Huda? Israel issues regrets, but never goes so far as to apologize. That would mean accepting responsibility.
For this reason, Israel never apologizes, as a matter of principle. This enrages and infuriates many Palestinians, and eventually is expressed in hatred and more violence.
I didn’t feel like doing anything. I cleaned the apartment and went into the village to shop. I found everything I wanted except fresh tomatoes and eggplant. No problem, I told myself, today we’ll eat mudjaddara, our rice-and-lentil dish made with burnt onions that is served with yogurt. I had just gotten home when I heard the vegetable man calling out from his truck. I yelled loudly to him from the veranda and as usual, he looked up and waved, seeming to have understood. I quickly went down to the street. He had lots of fresh vegetables, which pleased me a lot. I bought enough vegetables and fruit for the whole week. Ahmad carried my purchases up the thirty-nine steps and set them before the kitchen door at the rear. He enthusiastically told me about his first daughter and his wife, who had stalwartly made it through the birth. I congratulated him and wished him well, giving him a bag of chocolates for the family and a few bars of soap for his wife. Then I cooked eggplant with chopped meat, tomatoes, onions and rice.
I brought the dish to my eighty-year-old mother who lives nearby and stayed with her for an hour. I was back home around two, in time to eat with the family.
I just couldn’t leave it alone: I read the newspaper again today. Another bloody night in Gaza: two dead and fifteen wounded in Rafah, including three children, in a shootout between President Abbas’s police and the Hamas government’s security forces. Masked men had forced their way into the Parliament building, battering doors and smashing windows, trashing furniture and office equipment. They also set fire to other public buildings. A Fatah representative was kidnapped—following the abduction of Hamas people.
In order to cope, I directed my attention to my duties and responsibilities.
Today, the seminar for women in Dair Ibsi continued after a break of many weeks while the children had exams. The women reported about their lives and what was on their minds. Suzan and Nida didn’t come. They had both left for the USA, each with a family of five. So we discussed forced emigration and discovered that Hadil and Samar had also applied to emigrate with their families. They said, “Life here is unbearable: we’ve no income, no protection, no future.” Samar is a secretary at the university where she earns three hundred dollars a month. Her husband used to sell building tiles and stone, but with hardly any work for three years, his business has folded. The construction industry—like most other branches—is at a low point. There is no money and nobody wants to risk investing. Without support from her family in the USA, Samar would barely have survived. Her home was near the “Atara” checkpoint where military jeeps and tanks are constantly passing by. Very often, there’s shooting. She worries about her three children.
Hadil is a housewife. Her husband has been unemployed for three years. Here we have neither support for the jobless nor welfare or health insurance because we have no state. When Hadil’s family has nothing to eat, they have to wait until their in-laws invite them for a meal. They have many debts and are at a loss for what to do. That is why they’re leaving the country. In Israel, this is called “human transfer”. “Make life hard enough for people, and they’ll go on their own,” said Hadil.
* * *
1 September 2006
The new school year starts today. But all the public schools are on strike so my seminar with the girls at the Beit-Ijsa School has been cancelled.
During the spring semester, I had regularly conducted more than twenty sessions there.
Three hundred fifty high-school students from six villages west of Jerusalem attend the Beit-Ijsa School. These villages have been totally neglected for more than thirty-five years. The roads are in very bad shape and may not be repaired. The villages are surrounded by the Wall and the villagers feel as if they're in a prison. Being cut off from their fields has impoverished them. The school principal liked my proposal to conduct a training program there and the education authority was unusually quick to grant permission. More than thirty pupils are already married, and many of them have children. Special meetings with the mothers and one-on-one counseling have become part of my job. The young women's determination to continue their schooling despite their increased responsibilities shows how eager they are to learn: some mothers have decided to study for their high-school diplomas after eight years of marriage and three or more children. They come to the school for private tutoring. The principal keeps the building open until evening, and the teachers tutor free of charge.
The trip from Bir Zeit to Beit Ijsa used to last forty minutes. Now I need nearly two hours because I have to switch taxis six times and often must walk a few hundred meters along rocky paths. In Palestine, private cars can only be used within one's own city or residential area—never between villages. Getting to another place takes a lot of time, money and energy because street closings and prohibitions impede all movement and each time I manage to reach Beit Ijsa, I'm happy and feel I have developed new strength. Can anyone imagine what an opportunity and a joy it is to be permitted to influence more than two hundred young women—and to feel their effect on me?
To begin with, I had to win the confidence of the school administration, teachers and pupils. I suggested conducting at least six seminar sessions with each group in order to learn their needs and wishes and develop the program together. It takes time to define and put problems into words, and even more time and courage to express feelings and wishes.
Telling about themselves encouraged the girls to be open about their problems and emotions. We're all enriched by the abundance of stories and experiences.
One clever hardworking girl wanted to speak with me privately. She talked about her family's poverty: eight siblings and two parents live in two rooms. It's almost impossible to study. To help her, the rest of the family has tried to sit quietly in just one room, but they feel trapped there and can't hold out for more than an hour. They are so poor that they sometimes go to bed without eating. A meal often consists of bread dunked in thyme and olive oil. Frequently she doesn't have even a shekel for the bus and has to miss class. Because she's the oldest daughter, the family has great expectations of her: they hope she'll learn a profession and lift them out of poverty.
All the schoolgirls and teachers at the school in Beit Ijsa are Muslim. Only after the first eight semesters did the pupils realize that I'm Christian. I said, “When we're in dire straits and feel scared, it's good to reflect on our deepest beliefs in order to find help and strength—whether we're Muslim, Christian or Jew. Believers find consolation and a way through prayer. Those who don't believe in God or doubt that God exists can also try this because God is there for them, too. In any case, it can't hurt—and you might even feel peace and comfort.”
“Do you pray five times a day?” one of the schoolgirls asked.
“No, sometimes I pray once—sometimes many times—a day, and sometimes only once a week, or once a month.”
“But you have to pray five times a day and each time, before you pray,
you have to wash. Don't you wash?”
“That's what Muslims do.”
“Aren't you Muslim?”
“No, I'm Christian.”
“Oh, that's too bad! That’s why you're the only one not wearing a headscarf!”
“Sometimes when I want to and when it's necessary, I also wear a headscarf. Only recently has the headscarf come to signify Muslim women. My mother is Christian but she always wears a scarf because it's part of her tradition. We must learn to never judge a person because of what he or she is wearing. It's not a pity that I'm not Muslim: it's nice that we're different. That's how God wanted it and we can find the good in that. We enrich each other. I don't have to wash before praying because for me what's most important is being clean inside and having good intentions. I can pray wherever I am—in a taxi, on the street or in bed. I can talk to God constantly, praise and worship Him, entreat and thank Him. That’s up to me. It's different—but neither better nor worse than your prayer and your relationship to our common God. Our God is pleased when we get along well: He wants that.”
“I can't believe that you're Christian: What you teach us and what guides you is the essence of Islam.”
“Exactly: it's the heart of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. More than ninety percent of our basic beliefs are similar—our differences are minor. That's what's most interesting: we should understand that we complement each other. Let's accept our differences and respect them. That's what God wants.”
“How do you pray?”
“Much like you.”
“Lead the prayers for us!”
We began to recite prayers, first the fatiha, the first sura of the Koran, sentence for sentence. I prayed along with them:
“In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, the Beneficent, the Merciful, owner of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight path, the path of those whom Thou has favored, not the path of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.”
After each line I said, ”That's part of my prayer, too. That corresponds to my Christian faith.”
Then I began to write “Our Father” on the board—sentence by sentence. After each sentence I asked, “Do you agree with the substance? Could you also pray that?” They answered, “Yes”. Exploring the various prayers was a joy for all of us. We agreed to hold a seminar on the similarities among the religions. When I informed the school director and teachers about our plan, they said they hadn't realized that Christianity and Islam have so much in common. They had never thought about it and are very interested in exploring the subject.
The conflict in the Middle East is a national-political conflict about land. But the conflict is increasingly assuming religious dimensions—a development which will have disastrous consequences for all parties. Religion is one of the most powerful methods to mobilize people and appeal to their emotions and
vulnerabilities. They are easily blinded; logical thought is ruled out. Conflicts can be intensified in the name of religion. However, religion could also be used to clear up disputes and foster reconciliation.
One side must not appropriate sanctuaries and prophets because if that should happen, they'll be overrated in terms of their holiness and effectiveness, and misused for other ends.
Some years ago, I accompanied my friend Christine from Munich to Hebron. We wanted to visit Abraham's Tomb. At the entrance, the soldier said, “This way goes to the Muslim part, the other to the Jewish.” He inspected our papers and said, “The tourist can go to both sides; you can't go to either.” He said that I was neither a Muslim nor a Jew. I protested, “But Abraham is my ancestral father, too!” We argued a long time and finally the soldier allowed me to enter the Muslim side. I was satisfied because that's where Isaac is buried. I told him and myself, ”Isaac, too, is my ancestral father!”
Two vines grow on our house. From their bountiful harvest, we make wine. The grapevine is called karma in Arabic, which means “generous in giving”.
The vines wrap themselves around the house and climb to the roof where they spread out like a blanket. We love olive trees and grapevines: They mark the landscape and symbolize “home” and our attachment to the land. They take modestly and give generously. We admire and love them; we tend them and sing their praises. We feel safe in their shade. They are part of our lives.
Unwaveringly and with great determination, the tenacious, rigid vines wind crooked and straight towards the sun. In autumn, they're pruned so far back that they look dead. Then, during the dormant season, they gather strength to sprout shoots from the buds in all directions when spring comes. The shoots seek their way and the leaves grow toward the sun. We prepare delicious meals—grape leaves stuffed with spiced meat and rice roulade or casseroles with layers of grape leaves, spiced chopped meat, parsley and onions, covered with tomatoes and served with rice. The tart taste of fresh grape leaves rounds out the pleasure.
Hundreds of grapes hang from the branches, seeming to huddle together —or push each other away. In summer, the vines form pretty canopies over the veranda on the south side and over the terrace by the kitchen, to the west, where children and adults linger in their shade eating, reading, working and playing. From the not-yet-ripe—sour—grapes we make juice, soft drinks and a liquid that substitutes for lemon in many dishes. Our harvest of ripe grapes is so plentiful that we give part of it to neighbors and friends, saying: “Share the good of this year and every year”. The bowls are returned with the harvest from our neighbors' gardens. With the remaining grapes, we make wine at home. Our two vines yield more than a hundred liters of wine—for our enjoyment and gift-giving.
Yesterday there was a wedding followed by a party in the garden of the church. Around eight in the evening, we suddenly heard shots and screams. The music was turned up in the hopes that the partygoers wouldn’t notice anything. Some of the men hurried away but soon returned and began to discreetly wind down the party. Dinner was served early, the cake right after it, with the music played at full volume. At 10 p.m., people began to offer the toasts—which usually start around midnight—and everyone went home quickly.
There had been a fight in Bir Zeit. The security forces had arrested a seventeen-year-old from the neighboring village for stealing a Vespa. Then his friends and relatives stormed the police station and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at stores, cars and residential buildings. The police could not stop them. Finally, guns were fired and an eighteen-year-old was shot dead. Everyone from Bir Zeit panicked, fearing revenge from the neighboring village. The police were held responsible for the death. Today the Governor of Ramallah, accompanied by more than fifty men, went to the village of the young man who was killed. At least as many men were waiting for them there, and the traditional practice of sulha began. The governor proposed registering the young man who'd been killed as a ‘martyr’; his parents would receive a monthly compensation as long as they lived; and four relatives of the deceased who were in prison for criminal offenses would be released. In addition, the Governor offered a one-time payment of twenty thousand dollars. The family of the dead young man accepted the offer but demanded that a second session be held some months later before the reconciliation could be considered complete.
The practice of sulha protects the perpetrator and makes a business out of a dispute. It actually promotes conflicts because those involved profit from it. This medieval system is still used because the proper civil-legal system has collapsed.
Today I met my former student, Mo. It was a cordial meeting, after ten years. In the meantime, he's become the father of two children and works in the food rations office where, like all employees, he's been paid only a fraction of his salary for months. He gives some of the little he has to his brother who is a journalist. Mo’s wife is a teacher. The teaching staff of the public schools has been on strike for weeks because they haven't been paid, so his wife has taken the children to the village to share what little they have with the extended family and support each other.
Mo is working on his dissertation about children who were forced to collaborate. He gave me documents and reports to read, and together we watched a video about child collaborators who confessed their crimes while being interrogated and told how they'd become collaborators. It was heart-rending. Take the story of "Ra", whose interrogation was taped by a Palestinian resistance group. In the film, only Ra was visible; we just heard his interrogators’ voices. Ra was seventeen years old, with a handsome but pale face and eyes that were red from crying. His hands were restless, his back bent, his shoulders hunched. He sat on two stones in front of a bare gray wall. I wanted to follow every movement, to see every centimeter of his body, to observe and understand. I wanted to experience his essence. Ra related:
“At thirteen, I was recruited by my own uncle, my mother's brother. My father had been shot dead during a dispute in the village. I felt I was done for because I'm the eldest of six. Sorrow, rage and concern for my family shrouded me in an unbearable feeling of powerlessness. My uncle indicated his concern and offered to help. I was grateful. I thought he was my savior. He said, ‘These criminals killed your father, they have no heart. If you want revenge, I'll help you. Take this cell phone. Follow these two people, observe where they go, whom they meet, their daily routine—and report back to me.’ I did what he said and now and again, he gave me a card with units for the cell, and some money, too.
“How much money?”
“Twenty, sometimes fifty, shekels. I thought he was planning my revenge. Then, after a while, when I called him a strange voice answered: ‘I am Captain Fu. From now on, I am your only contact. Here are three more names you have to attend to. You will be paid for each piece of information you provide. You need the money for your family; you have to take care of them. You're already trapped. There is no going back without shaming your family and endangering your little sister—in which case you'll be found guilty and killed.’ I was fourteen years old and finished. My uncle had disappeared; later, he was found dead. That's how I slipped into it, without wanting to. It was like my body and soul were dead.”
“How many people did you inform on?”
“Shafeek, Mohammad, Zaher, and later also Abdulrahman, Thair, Nidal, Abu Mohammad—and Mirjam, too.”
“What happened to these people?”
“Shafeek, Zaher and Mohammad were shot dead by the Israeli intelligence service here in the village. Two of them were my relatives; they were hiding in my aunt's house. I was often at their place—they trusted me. Captain Fu called and said, ‘Observe them well, and when they go to sleep, call me. I want to get them when they're asleep. Nothing's going to happen to them—we just want to prevent them from running away. At worst, they'll be shot. But they're just supposed to be arrested.’ I asked, ‘Is that a promise?’ ‘Of course: we want to save them.’ That evening I sat under the olive tree in the field next to my aunt's house. Around 8 pm, they went into the house. After a while, I saw a light. Then the windows went dark. I called Captain Fu, told him that they were sleeping and went home.”
“Didn't your family want to know why you were out so late?”
“Yes. My mother kept asking me. I said I'd been at my aunt's.”
“How old were you then?”
“What happened next?”
“Around two in the morning I woke up at the sound of military jeeps. Knowing that the three would be arrested, I went back to sleep. The next day I woke to the sound of Koran singing from the minaret. I knew then that someone had died. I ran to my aunt's house. All three had been shot as they were sleeping. I cried and wailed, and went wild. I called Captain Fu and asked why he'd shot them dead—he'd only wanted to capture them! He said it was none of my business.”
“How much money did you get for this order? For acting as an accessory to murder?”
“Seventy shekels—but I never picked them up. I sat in the house of mourning, hoping that would be the end of it. However, Captain Fu soon called again and said, ‘Here are the next names. You have no choice. You'll either be killed by other Palestinians or by us.’”
“I carried out the next order to observe three people, then another two.”
“Where are these young men now?”
“Three had left the village because they sensed they were being informed on. Within a few weeks, one after the other was shot dead by the Israeli intelligence service. Ha and Ma were killed in the village.”
“Are you responsible for the deaths of these people?”
“Yes, I am.”
“How many people have died?”
“Did you kill them?”
“Yes, I killed them because I facilitated their killing by the intelligence service.”
“What punishment do you deserve?”
“I deserve death.”
“Did anyone pressure you to make this confession?”
“No, I'm doing it of my own free will, I can't bear it any longer.”
“Which death do you deserve?”
“I deserve to be killed the cruelest way. I should be dragged like a dog through the street.”
“What's the last thing you want to say to your family and the people in your village?”
“I'd like to say that I am very sorry. I have betrayed you. I apologize. To all those working for the intelligence service, I say they should stop right now. They should contact honest political activists as quickly as possible, confess and allow themselves to be forgiven. They should seek counseling and not let themselves to be lured step by step into this deadly trap. I am asking for forgiveness—not because I want to live, but so that I can die.”
“What do you want to say to your mother?”
“My mother? ‘Forgive me. I've disappointed you. I have killed people who were fighting for our land, our life and our future. I don’t deserve to live.’”
His voice gave out, his head fell forward and his frame seemed to shrink. He began to cry and sob with his whole body. Softly he added, “Jamma, forgive me. Tell everyone I’m sorry. I can't go on.”
Seventeen-year-old Ra, the child who had been a collaborator for four years, was shot dead. His shame weighed on his mother and siblings. They were shut out of the community, shunned. They have no future. If they don't get welfare, their vulnerability and desolation threaten to push them, too, into becoming collaborators. They are victims and will be made into criminals.
It's very dangerous to raise a taboo subject like this. The Israeli intelligence service wants to maintain the collaborator system to perpetuate the occupation and their domination. The Palestinian Authority requests that collaborators give themselves up. There is a legal procedure; amnesty and rehabilitation are possible, within limits. Palestinian resistance fighters assume the right to prosecute, interrogate and kill collaborators. Absent the rule of law and given the police's inability to act, many innocents are made victims. Collaborators are always in danger. If they want to stop, or once they've been recognized, they're killed by their accomplices who are also working for the Israeli intelligence service. The Occupation is violence, and can only be continued with the violence of collaborators. Within the field of collaboration, children are mostly just informants, while adults are violent criminals, often charged with very dangerous deeds, like killing.
Most collaborators are between twelve and seventeen years old. They are recruited in prison, where they are subjected to extreme physical and psychological pressure through beatings, sexual abuse and threats of longer prison sentences, shameful rumors and the endangerment of family members—or they are tempted with money, sex and the promise of work or greater freedom of movement. Their weakness, fear, naivety and vulnerability are exploited.
Over some forty years, at any given moment, ten to twelve thousand Palestinians have been in Israeli prisons. Ten percent of them are children under eighteen years of age. Confessions by children who have been tortured result in forty percent of them becoming collaborators. They are stigmatized and excluded; they kill and are killed.
Many teenagers can't and don't want to remain in the country. They try everything to go abroad. Some young people state on their visa application that they are collaborators—despite being politically clean and correct—in order to be granted asylum on the grounds of their presumed persecution. Being a collaborator is treason, extremely dangerous and the greatest possible shame in our society. Yet some young people claim to be collaborators just to get away and are granted visas for countries that are in favor of collaboration. They leave Palestine, believing that abroad they'll find a new life with many opportunities. Some do manage that, while others become victims of intelligence services abroad who make them into real collaborators—their only way to survive in a foreign country.
The peace process has been blocked for years: on the Palestinian side, there's no partner for peace. The unilateralism of Israel who ruthlessly determines regional politics, builds a wall and annexes more than half of the West Bank—thereby destroying any basis for Palestine—has fostered radical and militant
developments. The asymmetry of the political authority between the powerful and powerless has challenged ideals, values and principles of humanity. Desperation and impotence lead to fatalism and destruction.
* * *
22 February 2007
Today was a special day. For the first time, I met my Israeli friend, Hanna, whom I've known for five years—but only over the phone and via the Internet. She'd originally called and introduced herself, saying that a “woman of peace” had given her my name. Hanna's family had donated a rose garden to the Jerusalem Park and she was trying to find an Arab botanist to supply the Arabic names for the various roses and other plants in the garden. She sent me what she had and with pleasure, I passed along my modest knowledge of taxonomy. For me, it was striking to be talking with an Israeli woman about roses instead of politics. Ever since then, Hanna has continued to call and ask about the family. If I'm not at home, she talks with my husband or children. Her thoughts and sensitive concern for our family have made her a friend, but we had never been able to meet because the Wall separates us and Israelis are no longer allowed to visit. In the past, Israeli women would take us to Jerusalem in their cars and we were able to do a lot together. Today that's no longer possible.
To prepare my course at Bir Zeit University, I needed books from the university in Jerusalem. I wanted to get an overview of the new botany books that had been published in Israel. I asked Hanna for help. She was immediately willing to get me some books and we decided to finally meet in person. How and where could we do that? Coincidence came to the rescue. Israelis and Palestinians had been discussing inter-religious subjects one day at the Talitha Kumi School—right next to my seminar room. Astonished, I looked into how they'd all gotten there and learned that the east gate to the school is classified as Zone A, that is, “Palestinian”, and the west gate of the school as Zone C, or “Israeli”. The Palestinians entered through the east gate, the Israelis through the one in the west. That made me think I could meet Hanna the same way. She was enthusiastic about my idea and said her friend Dalia would drive her there right away. Dalia inquired about the route Israelis were allowed to take and they set off. They arrived before me in Beit Jala and inspected the school, which greatly pleased them. It was the first Palestinian school they'd ever visited. I was excited and anxious about what Hanna would look like and how our meeting would go.
As I entered the seminar room, two women flung themselves at me. We hugged each other with shrieks of joy. They introduced themselves. Then it became very quiet as we surveyed each other from head to toe and smiled. On the phone, Hanna had said that she was 73 years old, yet I found her to be young and vivacious, full of energy and very charismatic. I was happy to finally meet my friend in person, and to gain another friend, as well: Dalia, the botanist. I had brought seventeen sandwiches for my students with me, and we ate some of them and drank tea. We had almost two hours before my seminar started. Hanna spread lots of books on botany before me and handed me a bar of chocolate. I was touched. There were also brochures about birds and animals in Palestine: What a wonderful gift! Dalia also took part in the conversation. As fellow botanists, we understood and admired each other. But our meeting was interrupted: a pupil entered the room and asked to speak with me privately, before the lesson. Hanna and Dalia were very understanding, and I disappeared with the boy into an adjacent room. While they were waiting for me, other schoolgirls and boys came and began to talk with them. Our time was quickly over and much had not yet been said. We could have talked for hours. We definitely wanted to meet again. There was just enough time left to take photos.
Then we said goodbye.
Lately, reports have accumulated in Nablus about lawlessness and increasing attacks on private property, which are causing the population great anxiety. All political factions and official institutions are calling for a general strike. They have decided to refuse any cover for those who break the law.
The joint press release read:
“The tragic circumstances under which our people are suffering and which affect their lives result from ever more frequent lawbreaking and criminality, such as blackmail and theft. We condemn these acts, along with the incapacity of our security forces. We therefore call a general strike for 24 February. We demand that no lawbreaker be protected by his political faction; instead, he must defend himself in court.”
The citizens of Nablus have roused themselves and seized the initiative. More than 200 people make up the Civic Council that is open to all, regardless of political, social or family membership. The Civic Council has offered to help the city to get young people involved and maintain order on the streets. A woman's group is organizing song and dance classes. Appreciating one's own culture strengthens feelings of self-worth and helps make life's difficulties more bearable. Some citizens are assuming the task of keeping the city clean while others are running talks with armed groups, calling on them to take responsibility for controlling the violence. Public functions that hadn't been held in months have been revived to discuss social and political problems. This citizens' initiative is exemplary. It’s to be hoped that more cities will follow Nablus's lead.
At the entrance and in the hall of the bank in Ramallah, I saw armed men in dark blue uniforms—guards for private security firms like those that I've been noticing in ever greater numbers in the street and at entrances to restaurants and institutions. I feel ambivalent about them. Their presence highlights the police's inability to guarantee protection. I would like to feel safer but I'm plagued by the thought that these security men are ready to shoot, if necessary.
Despite the Mecca Agreement, five people in Gaza have lost their lives due to intra-Palestinian strife.
Twenty-seven-year-old Muhammad Ali Ghalban, member of the Hamas Qassam Brigade, and 17-year-old Ismail Subuh were killed. Qassam Brigade members blamed the Kuware Family for shooting at them as they passed the house, which they then besieged and shot at. The gun battle claimed another three lives. Political groups can keep political agreements, but how do families commit themselves? Who forces them to do that, and who can hold them accountable? Questions and still more questions that are desperately awaiting answers.
The day began with the news that the Israeli Army had demolished five homes in Hebron. That, too, goes on. The whole day I couldn't stop thinking about the forty people who had been made homeless. They were surely brimming with anger and sadness that in some of the youths of those families would, at some time or other, be expressed as hatred and lust for revenge. Violence and counter-violence seem to justify each other.
Today I found time to write to Hanna:
I'd like to express my heart-felt thanks for your visit and the chance for us to get to know each other personally. Our meeting was far too short, the excitement too great—and of all days, one pupil needed individual counseling while the others came an hour early. It wasn't until I was at home that I had time to properly savor our meeting, to feel how lovely it was and recognize its significance. It was also a great pleasure to get to know Dalia. By the way, I have the feeling that I had met her already. We'll get together again, won't we? I'd also like to sincerely thank you for the books. They are a real delight and a great boon to us. Munir reads them every day, and together we look at the pictures of the plants.
To you and Dalia, lots of love and good things,
In Jaffa, hundreds of Israelis have protested against the army's invasion and weeks-long siege of Nablus. Citizens of the city of Jaffa, both Palestinian and Israeli, including many peace organizations like Gush Shalom and the Coalition of Women for Peace, demonstrated, demanding an end to the Nablus siege. Their slogans included: “Occupation is illegal, stop the siege” and “We mourn for Anan al-Tibi, 50 years old, who was murdered by the occupation army as he walked unarmed down the street.”
According to a press release: “The demonstration was spontaneously organized by young people who can no longer bear the frightful deeds committed in our name in the occupied territories, Israel's hinterland. The public is told that it's about 'fighting terror', 'capturing wanted terrorists' and 'finding laboratories of explosives'. However, the fact that the use of such massive violence creates enormous hatred and determination to take revenge is kept from the public. The public is not told that Palestinians don’t want to live under occupation and oppression, that they just want to be free–like us. The public is not told that actions like the provocative invasion of Nablus actually build the 'terror infrastructure' and prolong the anti-occupation struggle. We have come here to tell the Israeli public that we are never going to have peace if we continue to oppress the Palestinians.”
I read the press release and felt reassured by those Israelis’ courage.
In today's seminar with the schoolgirls and boys in Bir Zeit, I reported about the demonstration in Jaffa. No one had heard about it because our media hadn't reported anything. I'd read about it online. Some pupils were affected by the Israelis' words. Others doubted that they were serious and wanted to know why they only rarely speak up. Some found that it makes no difference since the army doesn't listen or pay any attention to them. I said, “Our appreciation encourages them. And knowing that they exist does us good emotionally, too.”
English translation © Nancy du Plessis 2010, 2012