Ambiguity on the Jerusalem Train

This article was originally published on Mondoweiss.

A ride on the central line of Jerusalem’s new light-rail system.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images).

A ride on the central line of Jerusalem’s new light-rail system.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images).

I catch a Palestinian woman making googly eyes at an Israeli baby on the train in Jerusalem. She is at that age when a woman’s body aches with evolutionary desire to reproduce. The effort she expends to restrain herself from tickling the baby’s feet is palpable. The baby’s mother chats in Hebrew with two other Israeli mothers-with-strollers. She doesn’t notice her curly-haired baby exchanging a tender smile with the veiled woman.

Behind them stand a few Orthodox black hats, one wearing iPod earphones. My curiosity burns to know what he is listening to. Although it is the middle of a school day, a Palestinian boy with a schoolbag stands near the door. There is a gentle chime, and the train moves. Smooth. No jerking. A middle-aged Israeli wearing a puffy red winter jacket steadies herself on the metal post, her hand nearly touching that of a Palestinian who looks like a laborer heading to work.

I never take this train, though I’ve long been curious how two peoples, their separation enforced in virtually every other sphere, can share such an intimate area.

The physical space, already constrained, dissolves further as the train takes on passengers on its way to the city center of West Jerusalem. Inexplicably and irrationally, my heartbeat quickens.

“Please remember to take your personal belongings when you depart the train,” the recorded message plays in Hebrew. Then in Arabic. Then in English.

As far as I can tell, the rules that Jerusalem lives by don’t apply on the train. There isn’t a discernable Arab side or an Israeli side. There isn’t a nuanced fight for territory. But is it a neutral zone or a standoff? I can’t tell if these folks have acclimated to this moving, time-limited reality or if a flare-up is imminent.

Palestinians are used to being in spaces defined by others as “not for you,” but how do the Jews feel, I wonder, sealed in such close proximity to Palestinians, a proximity that every Israeli policy aims to prevent?

I don’t have the nerve to ask them. I don’t know what I’m afraid of.

I let my eyes wander to the scene passing by outside the window. As we travel west I notice the buildings get newer and taller. The streets get cleaner. There are bike racks and recycling bins on the sidewalk. There is a sidewalk! Every little while I see an old Arab building, a witness both to the fact that Palestinians were here and the fact that they are no longer here. With weeds growing from cracks in stones, these monuments are romantic in their steadfastness in the center of modernity. Other old Arab buildings, renovated and gentrified, host cafes with fancy signs in English. I imagine their shame.

Inside the train, it is quiet. The occasional sound of Hebrew, nasal and harsh sounding to my ears, seems to rise upon acceleration and fall as the train approaches a station. No one is speaking Arabic out loud, but the physical presence of the veiled women with large shopping bags and young men with dark eyes slouching against the door is unmistakable.

Most of the Palestinians get off at the central bus station.

“He-Haluts Station. Yafeh Nof Station. Mount Herzl Station,” the computer announces in due course. Then, “End of the line. Please exit.”

Somehow, I have missed my stop.

I cross the platform to wait for the train heading back in the direction I came from. I get into the train car with some young Jews, layered hair in degradations of blond. Tourists with water bottles sticking out of backpacks cram in with religious Jewish women donning black skirts below the knee, some sporting black flats, others wearing Addidas knock offs. There are a few soldiers, but no guns. Felt kippas. Knitted kippas. Rainbow kippas. More than one young person clutches a miniature prayer book, lips flying over the words of God.

Realizing this is my chance, I take a deep breath, gather my courage, and start at one end of the train car. “Do you speak English?” A middle-aged Israeli man shakes his head. A younger Israeli man shakes his head before I ask. I sit next to an Israeli man in his twenties. He is eager to talk about the train. I pull out my notebook. “People were angry at first,” he says, “but they got used to it.” “Angry at what?” I ask, surprised to find such easy disclosure. “The traffic, of course,” he clarifies. “Jaffa Street was blocked for so long during the construction. The shop owners said they lost customers.”

“And what about the Arabs?” I ask. “Are people angry because there are Arabs on the train?” (I hear myself avoid saying the word “Palestinian” in favor of the less threatening term, “Arab.”)

For a second he looks surprised by my question, but then he smiles. “Why would they be? Both Jews and Arabs ride bus #19 from the hospital.” (Proving what? I don’t know.) He goes on to say that unlike most Jews, he speaks Arabic. He likes being in a public place where he can hear Arabic.

“I don’t see any Jews talking to Arabs,” I note glancing around. “And the Arabs aren’t even talking to one another,” I point out.

“Well, nobody really talks to anyone on the train,” he admits. “But at least we hear the announcements in Arabic.” As if on cue, the chime rings and the computer voice announces the name of the station, first in Hebrew, then in Arabic.

A Palestinian woman is even more upbeat. “The first time I rode the train it was strange to be so close to Jews. There were some problems. Some Palestinian boys got beat up. But now it’s normal for us to ride together. One time a Jew stood up to give me a seat! There was a Palestinian boy there, and he didn’t get up, but the Jew did.”

I move further down the car and find an Israeli woman. I approach. I sense an invitation to sit next to her. Too late I realize that we were past the Jewish part of town, almost at the entrance to the Palestinian station of Shu’fat. After a few more stops in Palestinian neighborhoods, this train will reach the Israeli settlements that choke Jerusalem. This woman has to be traveling to the settlements. She is a settler. It takes all my nerve to sit next to her and ask her about her experience on the train.

“At the beginning, when it first started operating, the train was too crowded. Now it’s okay.”

“And you don’t mind riding with Arabs?”

“There are security guards at every station in the Arabic neighborhoods,” she says. (I had never noticed that.) “Besides, Arabs are happy to be able to ride to Damascus Gate,” she continues. They wouldn’t jeopardize that by doing something violent. And they are happy because now more Jews shop in Arab neighborhoods.” (I really don’t think that’s true, but I don’t say anything.)

“So you are completely comfortable?” I look around, reminding her that we are traveling through the heart of Palestinian Jerusalem.

“Well…” her voice drops, “…sometimes I do wonder if the little boys that get on the train and run up and down the cars are doing that because they are Arab and want to bother us, or just because they are little boys.”

(I confess. This question has also crossed my mind.)

I sit down at the end of the car to process what I’m learning. Next to me, a Palestinian woman with an unusually fat boy in a stroller reaches her hand across the car to tap an Israeli woman picking up her daughter from a stroller. “What’s her name?” the Palestinian woman asks in broken English. The Israeli woman answers with a mother’s proud smile. It is a French name, I think, but I don’t hear it. “Mine is Odai,” the Palestinian woman offers.


“Yes, Odai.”

Bon chance,” the woman says courteously in French.

I’m sitting down, but I feel off balance. Is she not an Israeli? Or is she a French Israeli? For some reason, I feel I must know. I must know who she is or I don’t know who I am.

The Palestinian woman gets up as her stop approaches. She walks out backwards, easing the stroller onto the platform. “Toda raba,” the Palestinian woman says to the (Israeli?) woman in Hebrew, though I don’t know why she is thankful.

I get off at the next stop and watch the silver capsule glide away. No one else seems to find it a bit notable. But I stand a long time trying to figure out what it means to me, to Israelis, to Palestinians, and to prospects for peace with justice. But I can only conclude one thing for sure even if I can’t quite grasp the implications. What I conclude from my foray into ambiguity is this: A stroller can be a powerful thing on the train in Jerusalem.


Keep Your Eye on the Wall (Jadiliyya)

This article first appeared in Jadiliyya.

There were an impressive number of Palestinians at the May 19 opening in Ramallah of Keep Your Eye on the Wall, a photographic exhibit. “The Wall” (aka Apartheid Wall, Separation Wall, Security Fence, Barrier) is such an omnipresent feature of Palestinians’ lives, it is surprising they would voluntarily choose to look at photographs of it. But they did, and many seemed entranced by the large artistic images.

“The striking visual impact is critical,” explained Olivia Snaije who conceptualized the project along with Mitchell Albert in order to raise awareness internationally. “Because even people who have heard about The Wall through the media don’t realize the meanings it has for Palestinians, beyond the obvious physicality of it.”

Snaije maintained that exhibiting the photos in Palestine is also important. She mentioned one Palestinian who told her that he had become used to The Wall and had accommodated himself to the many hardships it causes. The exhibit, which includes commissioned photographs that stun, engage and provoke, reminds international people and Palestinians alike that The Wall is not normal.

Only two photographers were present at the opening in Ramallah—Palestinian Rula Halawani and Kai Wiedenhöfer, who is German. Raeda Saadeh and Steve Sabella were unavailable, and Taysir Batniji was prevented from coming by Israeli restrictions.

“Of course I would have come,” said Batniji from his residence in France. His last visit to Ramallah was in 2000, and prior to that, 1992. Batniji explained that although he has a French passport, Israel treats him as a Palestinian from Gaza when he tries to cross a border. “It’s very complicated for me to travel, whether to Gaza or Ramallah. It would have required a great deal of diplomatic intervention.”

Curators of the traveling exhibit, Mónica Santos and Sandra Maunac (Masasam), say that each show is displayed differently in response to the unique opportunities and constraints of the venue. In Ramallah, their care was apparent in the ingenious use of a small alcove with three walls located at the entry to the exhibit hall. Batniji’s photographs, taken of Gaza walls in 2001, are displayed adjacent to one another in row upon row across the three walls of the alcove. In this way, Batniji’s photos themselves constitute bricks in a wall of images of walls. Observers stand surrounded on three sides, simulating the sense of confinement that Palestinians feel on a daily basis.


© Taysir Batniji / Masasam

Batniji said he was interested in the walls in their manifestation as a tool of communication and community support: “The walls are a kind of journal on which people express their thoughts and positions.” He focused on posters announcing the death of martyrs.  Of his photos, Batniji said: “These death notices formed a succession of faces that were soon erased, worn away by time, covered over, or torn off deliberately. The uncertain status of these images is what interested me. They were complex, formal, symbolic, and profoundly linked to questions of identity. This series reflects on a double disappearance: of those who gained “recognition” through their images on posters, and of the disappearance of the posters themselves.”

A review of the book upon which the exhibit is based suggests that Keep Your Eye on the Wall risks romanticizing The Wall, but that it is a risk worth taking in order to “make fresh metaphorical connections.”

One such connection is the serendipitous timing of the Ramallah opening, just four days after the sixty-sixth commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba. Batniji agreed: “The Nakba is not a sequence of history that starts at one point and finishes. The Nakba continues, including by making it impossible for people to move freely to and from Palestine and between the West Bank and Gaza.”

Two boys were killed by Israeli live fire at this year’s Nakba protests in Ramallah. Their photographs are now plastered on walls around Ramallah. Soon, the elements will wear their faces away or they will be plastered over by new martyr posters. Sadly, Taysir Batniji is not here to photograph their photographs, to honor in art the lives of these boys who gained notoriety only in death.

But like most Palestinian art, Batniji draws not only on metaphors of death and disappearance, but also on metaphors of resistance. Batniji’s photos of The Wall entered Ramallah though Batniji himself could not. He said: “Although I cannot physically attend the exhibition, my work is there and it’s a way to break the siege that’s imposed on Palestinians and push back against the repression of communication in the space.

The exhibit runs through June 20 at the French-German Cultural Center.


Israel’s Creative Dispossession Tactics (Aljazeera)

This article first appeared in Aljazeera.

Even Palestinians can’t help but be impressed by Israeli ingenuity in circumventing the law in their colonial quest.

At first, the visit by the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) to Jabal Al-Baba on April 9 seemed routine. A Bedouin community in the E1 area, Jabal Al-Baba has had 18 demolition orders pending since February. Residents were not surprised, then, when officials delivered stop-work orders on three more insulated residential structures. Under Israeli law, these structures can be demolished – but only after a 21-day delay, during which residents have the right to appeal to the Israeli courts.

But the Israeli authorities didn’t wait for the legal process to run its course; they returned to Jabal Al-Baba and retrieved the stop-work orders they had distributed just hours before. “We were happy,” said Suleiman Kayyed Jahalin, a member of the community. “We thought the Israelis had changed their minds and weren’t going to demolish our homes after all. We were wrong.”

A representative of an international NGO that delivers aid to the community described how the Israeli Civil Administration returned several hours later with soldiers and dismantled the three homes. Once dismantled, the ICA didn’t have to wait for their demolition orders to survive a legal challenge; they simply confiscated the parts of the houses under an Israeli law that entitles them to confiscate building materials, equipment or cars without any advance notice.

Caption: Israeli Civil Administration dismantling Bedouin homes funded by the European Union and France, 9 April 2014. Credit: ACF (Action Against Hunger) Project Officer

Caption: Israeli Civil Administration dismantling Bedouin homes funded by the European Union and France, 9 April 2014. Credit: ACF (Action Against Hunger) Project Officer

Although Israel dismantled and confiscated the homes rather than demolishing them, the result is the same: human beings that lived in shelters are now homeless. A total of 111 additional members of the Ras Al-Baba community live under impending threat of having their homes demolished. In fact the United Nations reports that most of the 2,800 Bedouins residing in the E1 area have demolition orders against their homes (plus two schools). These Palestinian communities are considered among those most at risk of forced displacement.

The three residential structures were constructed in February with funding from the European Commission Humanitarian and Civil Protection Department (ECHO) and the French Consulate and were valued at approximately 2000 Euros. Representatives from the donor agencies and other diplomatic staff toured the site on April 11, but the Office of the EU Representative was only willing to say, “The EU has well-known concerns about demolitions, which it has expressed on many occasions in line with our overall Area C policy. The EU will raise this issue with the relevant Israeli authorities.”

Palestinian human rights advocates are disappointed that European donors have failed to act boldly to hold Israel accountable. It seems that many humanitarian actors have bought into the notion that demolition of donor-funded projects is “sensitive” and should not be addressed head-on.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has tracked Israeli demolition of donor-funded projects since 2011. They report that 317 donor-funded projects were demolished between January 1, 2011 and the end of 2013.

In another recent incident, a truck with donations from the Italian government arrived at the school in the Bedouin community of Khan Al-Ahmar on February 27. According to the principal, “A drone sailed around taking photographs and twenty minutes later, the Israeli Civil Administration showed up with three carloads of police and confiscated all our new playground equipment and construction materials.” They even took the truck in which the aid was being delivered.

Some human rights advocates describe the confiscation of playground equipment as ‘silly’ while others call it ‘evil,’ but one thing is certain: such confiscations are illegal. Diakonia, a Swedish faith-based development organization that promotes respect for international humanitarian law, refers to the Fourth Geneva Convention when it concludes that international humanitarian law “…specifically protects against the requisition of property of relief organisations and prohibits the diversion of relief consignments from the ‘purpose for which they are intended, except in cases of urgent necessity….”

The Italian Consulate did not respond to a request for a statement.

The stakes are financial, legal and moral. The confiscation and demolition of humanitarian aid may result in forcible transfer, which may be considered a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

International and Israeli NGOs have documented Israeli tactics, which include denial of building permits to structures where no master plan exists, refusal to respond to community-supported master plans submitted for approval, stop-work orders for construction lacking building permits, seizure or confiscation of equipment or materials, and demolition of structures. Palestinians are often charged a fee for the demolition of their home or offered the option to self-demolish in order to reduce their fines. Seizure, confiscation and demolition lead to displacement of Palestinians, especially in Area C, and facilitate Israel’s illegal settlement activities.

Thousands of Palestinians are affected by Israeli confiscations and the demolition of property, resulting in growing humanitarian concern. However, with rare exceptions, most international donors are subdued in their criticism of Israeli demolitions in general and do not speak out publicly about the demolition of taxpayer-funded projects. To be fair, they are stuck between conflicting interests. On the one hand, international donors are legally- mandated by international humanitarian law to address the humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Area C, whether or not Israel approves. To ensure the sustainability of their humanitarian projects, they would have to obtain permits from Israel. However, the Israeli planning and permit regime in Area C is illegal and it may also be illegal for donors to grant it validity by seeking Israeli permits. Moreover, donors who build without Israeli permits and see their funded projects demolished may expose themselves to criticism for spending taxpayers’ money irresponsibly.

Increasingly, local and international aid critics are saying that by failing to hold Israel accountable, donors alleviate pressure on Israel to agree to a sustainable and just peace and are therefore complicit in the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights. They also note the spike in demolitions of Palestinian property that coincided with the renewal of US-backed peace talks. Diplomats and officials are also starting to speak out, too, but so far, only off the record.


Separated from son in Gaza

I saved the most heartbreaking for last. Please invest 2:22 minutes of your life to hear firsthand how the siege on Gaza rips families apart. And then, PLEASE, do something to press for change. Write a letter to your political representative stating your position. Write a letter to the media and demand public scrutiny. Act in solidarity by contributing to the Dalia Association Gaza Fund. Silence is unjustifiable, don’t you agree?

A Muslim Palestinian originally from Gaza, Ms. Besisso, 44, currently lives in Ramallah. Her parents came from well-known families who became refugees after the 48-49 war. Her grandfather often remarked that he felt sorry his grandchildren were raised poor while he had land, home and a business before the war. She is an only child and, as such, it was her parents’ dream that she marry and have a family; so she married at 17 and raised 6 children. They range from 26 to 8 years old.

She believes it is important to work hard to improve herself and her society. Ms. Besisso has worked for several international and local organizations including: American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), Save the Children USA, Defense for Children International, the Jerusalem Media Communication Center, and others. After earning diplomas from Al Azhar University and Kann’an Educational Development Institute in Gaza, she is working on a B.A. in Social Work from Al Quds Open University. She also earned a technical training certificate in Field Research and Project Coordination from the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.

Ms. Besisso has spoken to audiences in the U.S. and Europe through Peace x Peace and Joining Hands Against Hunger (a Presbyterian Church initiative). She currently works as Freelance Community Trainer and advocacy activist where her main task is to organize, carry out, train, and evaluate nonviolence training and other advocacy projects. She is also the founder of Women for Justice.