Israel and Palestine: the final hours

2009-04-27 00:00

Israel: the final hours

My last couple of days in the Middle East never quite reached the levels of frenetic activity of the first six days, which wasn’t such a bad thing, because I was running out of energy.

Still, it wasn’t like we sat around twiddling our thumbs. After an enormous breakfast prepared by his dietician wife on the final Sunday morning, Mohammed Rabah took us into the town of Umm al-Fahm (or Umm el-Fahem) where he works for the municipality. At the city’s art gallery, we drank small shots of coffee in disposable cups while we took a rapid tour through the photographs on display – all of which try to reconstruct and preserve the social and cultural history of Palestinians from the city and surrounding areas.

Rabah wanted us to watch a short film screened at the gallery called “Chic Point”. It showed a series of male models modelling clothes ridiculously designed to make it easy for Israeli security forces to see that the wearer wasn’t armed – Velcro panels which could be easily removed, large holes in the front and back … that kind of thing. The catwalk scenes were counterpoised with what looked like genuine and sobering footage of various Palestinians being stripped and searched in undignified ways.

Our host said the film didn’t always go down well with Jewish visitors to the gallery.

I was interested in who these Jews were that attended his tours of the city and visited the art gallery. He said they were generally left-wing. “But we always end up having some tense discussions,” he said.

On the way back to Jerusalem, I came close to having a tense discussion myself with Rabah when the inevitable comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa came up. His line was that Israeli restrictions on Palestinians were worse than those of the apartheid state. I pointed out diplomatically that there were strong parallels in the restrictions on economic activity, access to educational opportunities and restrictions on freedom of movement. We were headed for an embarrassing contest of woes, so I drew back, but was left feeling irrationally aggrieved.

I tried to press Rabah on how he saw the future of Palestine and Israel and to test his views on a two-state solution.

“Israel will never accept a two state solution,” was all he would say, citing Israel’s reliance on critical water resources and its unwillingness to give up sites of biblical and historical significance in the West Bank.

I wanted to know why a “one-state” solution wasn’t an option, but the question – too naïve? – went unanswered.

At some point he said: “I didn’t ask the Jews to make the state of Israel in my homeland; I am the local one; Israelis come from all over the world”.

What’s the solution, I eventually asked. “There are many things to do: educate my society about its rights. Education, education, education,” was the reply.

It wasn’t too hard to understand his frustration but I’d have preferred a little more clarity on the issue. Earlier that morning, he had taken us to a point outside Um Al-Fahm past a smelly landfill, where we could look across towards a town called Anin, now separated from its bigger neighbour by a massive electric fence. “It’s not a fence, said Rabah. “This, I call border.”

Like the town of Abu Dis, cut off from Jerusalem, Anin was now left to its own devices, leaving family members on either side of the fence permanently estranged and the town’s people without access to the economic opportunities offered by a larger urban centre. Apparently, poverty and unemployment were rife in Anin.

By this time, I was quite used to seeing the countryside carved up into seemingly arbitrary little bits and pieces, but it seemed no less absurd as a solution to human problems.

Back in the car, we soon came across a Muslim woman walking along a dirt road who turned out to be Rabah’s relative. In Palestinian fashion, she insisted on taking us home for tea and scolded her younger relative for not having brought us around earlier for a meal.

Home turned out to be something akin to a palace with porcelain tiles, gilt-edged cornices and a rose garden flanking the driveway. The house had a commanding view of the border/fence. The modest original homestead was still standing at the entrance to the yard. Inside, we enjoyed a feast of chocolates, nuts and herbal tea (something Jesus’ mother Mary had drunk after giving birth …?!) while Rabah acted as translator. We were told that Israeli government restrictions make it difficult for Arabs to build homes. This house’s owners were regularly being asked to pay a fine to the government…

Returning to the cute but noisy Hashimi Hotel in the aromatic Old City in Jerusalem later that afternoon was a bit like coming home. The security presence, although visible, made less of an impact on me. Amazing how quickly things like that become normal…

That evening, we dropped in to say farewell to some of the people who had given us their time and hospitality in Jerusalem. The young woman from Gaza was still waiting for some indication of when she could return home to her husband.

Then we got lost trying to find the tiny home of a widow known to my companions and living in a room near the closely guarded entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque. After satisfying the suspicions of a kindly Jewish police officer about my reason for being in the area (“Are you Muslim? Are you converting to Islam? Why not”…) , we stumbled into the home of a man in a wheelchair who spoke impeccable English, claimed to have a PhD, and said he’d invented a machine which could test the spiritual, physical and psychological of its subject and tell if Satan was present.

I was intrigued, but my companion was in a hurry. So we fled and eventually found the right set of stone steps leading to the right door. The widow was pleased to see us, but I’m bad at sign language, so I spent the time watching the pilgrims at Mecca on television while my endlessly kind companion did a sterling job of conducting an animated conversation with very few words.

The following morning, we turned our back on the Old City and caught a bus to the Jordanian border. The crossing was protracted but uneventful. Shortly after arriving in the sprawling and dusty Jordanian city of Amman where one is constantly watched by the royal family whose portraits preside over every public space, including highways, we dumped our luggage at a downtown hotel and took a taxi to one of the Palestinian refugee camps in the area. A group of men sitting on the pavement told us that 40 000 people lived in the camp and that unemployment was high. “Perhaps he means 4 000?”, I suggested to the taxi driver. Nope. He was pretty sure they were right. The word “camp” is a misnomer, conjuring up images of tents and temporary shelters. The “camp” we visited had been in existence for 60 years. Established slum might be a better term to describe the conditions. I felt rather exhausted by it and spent my time taking photographs of the children who seemed to be the most visible inhabitants.

Late-night shopping at a shiny, multi-storey shopping centre in the city didn’t cheer me up. In fact, engaging with modernity and consumerism came as a shock to the system, although I confess to enjoying a fine Jordanian cappuccino while I dragged myself around. At that point, all I could taste was the prospect of home – South Africa was only an 11-hour air journey and four in-flight movies away…

• Sharon Dell’s trip was made possible by local Muslim sponsorship.

 

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