southern israel – DAY 5

FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016 – DAY 5

It was hard to get up this morning and I definitely felt a little sick. Adrienne and I packed our bags. I had a small granola bar and 1.5 shots of espresso.

There was a girl – around the age of 8 or 10 – who smiled without pause. I didn’t understand her, but waved when she said hello. Adrienne and I went back to the room to pick up our bags, and it was clear she followed us up the two flights of stairs. She came into our room and then followed us to the lobby of the fourth floor. I stayed with her in the lobby until Maya came to speak with her. Once she was reunited with her mother, we began our day.

10:00-11:30am                  Diversity and Citzenship in Israel w. Fentahum Assefa-Dawit, Executive Director of Tebeka (Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis)

In the conference room, we had a clear view of the thrashing waves of the Mediterranean Sea. The sky was clear but the sea was storming. In the conference room, we spoke with Fentahun, a leader of the Ethiopian Israelis. While Israel is not without discrimination, he maintained that it was a “normal country” but notable as an exemplar for other countries when it came to dealing with racism and discrimination. He commended the country for its comprehensive, unwavering efforts to improve. Though he maintained that there were distinct problems unresolved, he said that in no other country, did he see better efforts of the administration to tackle the problems. After all, in the past six months, he has met with the President twice, the Prime Minister five times and the Minister of Justice on a weekly basis. When Tebeka had presented the Israeli government with an extremely long list of demands after an Ethiopian IDF soldier was beaten up by two white police officers last Spring, the government met and fulfilled every single demand: body cameras, increased surveillance, etc.

We loaded the bus  with our luggage and boarded. I blogged and listened to music. I enjoyed the few personal moments and rare quiet.

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800 meters from the Gaza Strip, Nahal Oz

 

Israel is full of vegetation. Electricity runs through out of it. As we proceeded south – falafel lunch en route – we could see the Gaza border within few kilometers of us. Many say that Gaza is the most dangerous place in the world.But really, it’s hard to tell about the disparity. It looks and feels safe. I’ve never felt insecurity, even when in the West Bank. But I do know that’s part of the trip and experience; we wouldn’t be taken anywhere that would endanger ourselves. Yet, Israel’s top priority is security. So, the reality is an IDF soldier with a machine gun at every checkpoint, vigilant security men who stand at doors and on elevated floors.

On the bus, I admitted to myself that I felt a little bit overwhelmed. I am not sure how to describe it, but I’d like to think it what a combination of things:

  • the young girl
  • hatred permeating in the undercurrents of Israel
  • prejudice against the Jews and Muslims
  • insecurity and victimhood competition that is known to Arabs and Israelis
  • fear of insignificance and the pain of conflict

For every person, their truth is their life. Even if I disagree with them, that is their reality and life. How can they be wrong even I don’t think I’m right. As I looked out from the window, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty that is this land. This is land of God, of the prophets and of humankind. And it’s so striking. And it’s ridden by pain, so much that if you were to peel away the land, you would see nothing but the rejected dirt of the world.

What do you call it when you are inundated by love and compelled by hatred, all at the same time?  I am thinking of how the oranges on the trees that line the road would state. How it would feel to run across the grassy, rolling hills in between the road and the Gaza stip. The bark of the olive trees that frame the road. Of shepherds and blue eyes. Of a boy in a tracksuit, standing alone by a bouquet of flowers at a bus stop. Of Ilan’s smart and rude caricature. Of the laughter of my friends on this bus. And the small world I’m trying to live for myself. It’s the sort of sadness you get when you realize you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out. There’s a word for that – ellipsism

No one has been allowed in Gaza since the mid-2000s. From afar, the Gaza strip looks like an urban city. There are three long pipes and a cluster of tall buildings surrounded from smaller complexes. It takes 15 seconds for a rocket to hit. It’s a clean, peaceful highway. It’s rolling green and stunning. But there are safety rooms everywhere.

12:30-1:30pm                    Visit Kibbutz Nahal Oz w. Yael Raz-Lachyani, a kibbutz member

Nahal Oz is one of the most dangerous places in Israel. The time between when a rocket is launched and when it hits the ground is 2-3 seconds. It’s 800 km from the Gaza border.

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Playground in Nahal Oz

 

When Yael’s grandfather arrived in the early 50s, Nahal Oz was an attractive farming village for Israel. It was the dream; to have Egypt within an arm’s reach and to build the country. Back then, for her family, Palestinians were their neighbors and friends. They used to have dinner there. Now, the people of Gaza are unmet neighbors; they aren’t the enemies for the people of Nahal Oz. Not even when there are ten bomb alerts day. Not for Yael when her son was alone in the house and terrified by the incoming bomb.

Yael remembers Gaza as beautiful; now it’s a mystery – journalists can’t get into Gaza. The people of Nahal Oz spoke of a genuine desire to help the people of Gaza, but that they can’t because of Hamas. The people of Gaza are suffering, they say, by the hands of Hamas.

In Israel, mental health is legitimized and broad. It’s common and for the people of Nahal Oz, there are resident therapists for every person. It’s traumatizing to live there, but the kibbutz is growing.

So, why did the parents of Nahal Oz place their children in danger by living in the area? When do you let fear control your life?

For the people of Nahal Oz, several families did leave after Protective Edge. Those who stayed were compelled to because that was where they were born. For them, moving 500 km away, meant that the borders of Israel could be pushed back. Why not one mile meant why not five or a 100 miles. Many of the residents were born in the area and have lived elsewhere across the world and in Israel. But for the people of Nahal Oz, moving away meant losing hope. Hope that things would change.

Moving away and giving up on the Kibbutz was akin, in the words of Yael, giving up on the future of the people of Gaza. The memory of when things were different – when she was friends with them and could visit them – is a powerful, compelling memory. Developing the area could increase Israel’s strength but also that ingrained fear – something that Jews historically know – wouldn’t control their lives.

2:00-3:00pm           Visit the City of Sderot

We headed over to another vantage point in a nearby Kibbutz. There, we could see the crowded cityscape of Gaza, cover in a fog. It was frigid and rainy. Once the rain became unbearable, we headed over to Sderot, a developing city, known for its frequent missile alarms. Unlike most of the restaurants we went too, there was no indoor sitting area, but the falafel was amazing. A stray dog joined us for lunch – you could see the bone of his leg joint, uncovered by skin but healed without restoration.

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Sderot, Israel

 

We then headed to Jerusalem. Israel has fascinating geography – three climate zones. A ten-minute drive almost always warrants a different weather forecast. The topography is too eclectic. Jerusalem is in a mountainous area; along Road 1, you can see Palestinian villages, including Abu Ghoush, one of the favorites of the Israeli government.

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Developing area of Sderot

 

I never could imagine what Jerusalem looked like, but from looking over it at Hebrew University, it was a city nestled in the valley. One square kilometer was the most contested area in the world: the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the crucifixion of Jesus. It was a city that was built on top of itself. Unlike our first days in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem was covered in fog. I didn’t mind the weather though. As Maya, our tour guide said, rain was a blessing. It was almost befitting that Jerusalem was freezing.

From Mount Scopus, we sang Shehecheyanu – the traditional Jewish blessing celebrating a special occasion – together and drank grape juice on the bus.

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Vantage point at Hebrew University, West Jerusalem

As the rain fell, we checked into our hotel – Prima Kings. The hotel was definitely more luxurious than Leonardo Art. Because of Shabbat, the elevators were unreliable – they were automatic and stopped on every floor, which made it a long process. My and Adrienne’s room was on the sixth floor, so after dropping our suitcases off, we used the stairs for the better part of the trip.

7:30pm                   Welcoming the Sabbath w. musicians Shani Ben-Or and Boaz Dort and various Israeli students

That night, we attended Shabbat at the Khan Gallery with Israeli students – friends of Shay. A woman from Baltimore and a man sang the traditional Shabbat songs. The Sabbath was a little less traditional as the man strummed a guitar. I spoke with a political science student from the IDC and a physics/computer science student at Hebrew University – the pair were childhood friends. Tamar and I had similar viewpoints on Israeli affairs; I enjoyed hearing hers on American domestic policies. Unlike the US, Israel doesn’t have a constitution – nor the second amendment.  We spoke about what Jerusalem meant to each of us; I spoke as a Muslim.

Our night ended late – most of Jerusalem is closed on Shabbat, but we found an eatery nearby and waited for the snow. There was a 50% chance of snow in Jerusalem – unusual – but it didn’t snow.

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Graffiti in West Jerusalem

 

I went back to the hotel with the group and called my parents. We watched a little bit of Israeli television – in reality, English movies with Hebrew captions. It took us a little bit of time to figure out how to work the TV – one of security men (with an unconcealed weapon) from the lobby had to help us.

We all burst out laughing after the receptionist threw some shade for us, Americans, not knowing how to turn on a TV.

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