From the airport we traveled swiftly to Jerusalem on a multi-laned highway on which only Israelis can travel. The road rivals its counterparts in the US, As we entered the West Bank, we noticed that between 50 — 500 meters of land on either side of this “bypass” road lay fallow. Though intricately terraced, for security purposes the Israelis prohibit cultivation of these plots. Olive trees can not harvested or vegetables grown. This prohibition might not make a tremendous difference if land was abundant, if the highways themselves did not constitute thousands of hectares of confiscated land, but as you probably know, close to 10 million Jews and Palestinians must share this tiny, contested land.
We saw Palestinian towns just off the highway in the hollows — easily identified by their mosques’ minarets. Ramp access to these towns was blocked by bulldozed earth. On the hilltops we saw modern Israeli settlements; the heights are chosen for maximum protection. They enjoy unfettered access to the road. Within moments of our arrival in Israel/Palestine, the economic costs of closure became so painfully evident. Prevented from reaching land and markets, once an agrarian society, Palestinian agriculture has been devastated. Displaced farmers can not reach jobs in Israel due to frequent border closures.
We slept long and fitfully, attempting to recover from a quite nerve-wracking security check in Newark and a long, bumpy flight. We awoke to the news that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin – Hamas’ founder and spiritual leader – had been assassinated while leaving morning prayers. The West Bank and Gaza Strip were immediately shut down. Protest demonstrations, stone throwing, and more extreme violence spread in the streets of many cities and towns. Palestinian businesses were shuttered as a mourning strike was called. Needless to say, our afternoon visit to the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Bethlehem – a Grassroots International supported community center that offers a host of programs for refugee families and children — activities such as dance, computer literacy, sports and after-school tutoring — would have to be postponed to another day.
Instead, we accompanied our host here to the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA) offices and there observed unfolding emergency plans. Our host’s cell phone rang every couple of minutes – to theme music from Austin Powers. He gathered first-hand security updates from around the country. Some personnel would be evacuated to Jordan, most went home, and others would be awaiting the opportunity to get out of Gaza. For me, the scene was quite reminiscent of working in the development and human rights community during the Salvadoran civil war – emergency procedures are implemented with a strange sense of normalcy, part of a desensitization that can occur when living in a constant cycle of violence.
In spite of the emergency, we saw Jewish and Palestinian parents pushing strollers, we saw students with yarmulkes and hijabs returning from school. In one of East Jerusalem’s few open restaurants, we ate roasted chicken from a wood oven alongside Palestinians and humanitarian workers. On this first day, we began to get a feel for this troubled place, not just its politics and violence, but the daily routines of many different peoples sharing similar land and lives.