Watch the Magician’s Other Hand

I will start this post with our daily experiences on the tour, and conclude with the basic history leading to the current situation, the facts of life in the area today, and a comment or two about the future.
The tour started Monday morning with a short lecture explaining the history which I recount below. The guide likened the situation to a magician, who wants you to watch one of his hands (the ones shaking those of politicians in the US) but not the other (the ones building the walls, and crafting the policies which make modern life unpleasant for the Palestinians).

After the lecture, we walked around the Old City. The guide pointed out a house in the Muslim district, claimed by Ariel Sharon as kind of a one-house settlement, which all people exiting the Damascus Gate from the Muslim Quarter of the Old City see as they leave, with its big Israeli flag and its security cameras. We got on the roof of the Austrian Hospice and looked at the Temple Mount from afar, with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock is a beautiful golden dome housing a large rock, whose location is revered by both Jews and Muslims. The Muslims believe that Gabriel took Muhammad from here to pray with Moses and Jesus. After the 1967 war, the Israelis raised their flag over the Dome, but Moshe Dayan wisely kept the peace by keeping it under control of the Muslims. A few years ago some Zionist teenagers were caught (by Israeli police) planning to blow it up. Rather than plunge these teenagers into serious legal trouble, the Palestinians were subjected to even more draconian restrictions in order to prevent the retaliation that the government assumed would happen.  While it is illegal to discuss destroying the dome, this has not stopped many artists from making paintings, for sale in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, showing what it might look like after this happens, and the temple is rebuilt.  One of the postcards we bought illustrates the “river to river” ambitions of the Zionists, who would like to claim all of the land from the Nile to the Euphrates rivers: the 10-shekel-cent coin shows what Arabs claim is this land area beneath a menorah.  (The Christian Zionists are going to be so disappointed when this happens and the Jews STILL don’t convert to Christianity and Jesus STILL stays dead.)

We looked at the Western Wall, the western side of the Temple Mount. At one time it was a narrow pathway which Jews had to crowd into in order to get as close as they could to the Dome. But a few days after the 1967 war, a Moroccan neighborhood which was located next to it was given one hour to clear out, and then bulldozed; the residents were relocated into a refugee camp where they remain. Now there is a spacious plaza next to the wall, and it is a major area for tourists, with no mention anywhere of the people who used to live there. There are separate parts for men and women to pray at; the men’s section includes an area underneath an existing neighborhood offering shade and air-conditioning. When we were there, several bar mitzvahs were in progress; groups of men and boys would sing and dance as they took a Torah from a cabinet along the Wall to the ceremony room and back.

One thing we noticed at Capernaeum and the Western Wall is that people write down prayer requests on little bits of paper and tuck them into the wall. I don’t think this works: they just get stuck there and no one looks at them. Personally, I think it is much more effective to attach them to the Temple of the Year at Burning Man, which is burned on Sunday night: the act of burning causes God to actually read the requests and do something about them.

We had a delicious lunch of hummus at Lina’s, and then started the afternoon’s tours of the greater Jerusalem area. Our guide for the afternoon was Fred, the director of Green Olive Tours. We looked at the walls, some checkpoints, and the ways many Israeli and Palestinian roadways are carefully constructed so as not to intersect. We drove through a couple settlements. They look like Santa Clarita, but with more apartments and duplexes. Finally we were dropped off at the house of a Christian family living in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem, where we stayed for four nights. Even though Gmail was initially skeptical about my connecting from a Palestinian IP address, their Wi-Fi allowed us to post our experiences much faster and more reliably than the hotel we’d stayed in the previous two nights.

Tuesday the focus was Bethlehem, and the guide was Yamin, a local Palestinian resident. (He drives a Mercedes limo with a million km on it, and only its second engine.) First we drove out into the nearby desert to a monastery located across from a cliff full of caves. We saw many segments of Security Wall, ie Separation Wall, ie Fragmentation Wall. While they say the wall is built “for security reasons”, it is always pretty obvious that it is built to create wide swaths of land for settlements to expand into. We stopped at a small workshop where some people were cranking out souvenirs from olive wood: the cutest machine was a 3-d pantograph, where a worker traced a completed figurine, and eight other drill bits made the corresponding cuts in eight pieces of wood, creating eight more identical ones. Several other workers touched up the results.

We had a brief visit to the Church of the Nativity, crowding into the underground chamber representing the place where Jesus was born. We then headed to the Aida refugee camp, which has been there since 1948. In 1952 it became clear that it wouldn’t close anytime soon, so the UN tore down the tents and built small apartments. In the camp, we visited Al-Rowwad, an organization which gives refugee children an opportunity to learn theater, photography, computers, sewing, etc. They have toured all over the world, and gotten audiences everywhere except the place it seems to me they need most to perform: Israel. As mentioned below, they are not permitted to go there, and Israeli citizens are not permitted to come see them.

We then walked along a perverse section of wall protruding into the village, surrounding a parking lot for a house containing Rachel’s Tomb; this section of wall was extensively decorated with graffiti and murals, including a few by Banksy. He has a shop located across the street, selling postcards, t-shirts, and posters, and olive-wood nativity scenes with a removable separation wall between the three kings and the baby Jesus.  We headed out to the desert for lunch with a man who lives in a cave on a large plot of land, for which a group of settlers offered him $10 million. If he sold, other Palestinians would kill him; if he doesn’t, it will probably be taken anyway somehow: the government is very enthusiastic to take that land in order to dramatically expand settlements. He said he would die there. Watch the news.

Tuesday night we attended a lecture given in English by Nassar Ibrahim, a Palestinian writer with a thick accent, at the Alternative Information Center cafe, a room with bad acoustics. He was talking about the situation in Syria, and was speculating that the desire to control natural gas pipelines was influencing America’s and Europe’s behavior (duh…), though the Syria conflict seems so messed up that I can’t even really imagine what America or Europe can do about it in such a way that will give them the outcome they would like (they can’t promote dictatorship, and democracy will result in an Islamic win, which they don’t really want either). Afterwards, we walked around the old city as everyone crowded into it, doing last minute Eid shopping after their evening meal.

Wednesday we drove up to Nablus, the economic capital of the West Bank. It has historic ties to Damascus as a trading center. It is surrounded by three military bases which in 2002, “for security reasons”, conducted massive airstrikes, demolishing many buildings in the city, presumably to further cripple the Palestinians economically. We visited Jacob’s Well, a 4000-year-old well which still operates, and is located under a nice little church.  One of the abbotts at the monastery, Father Archimandrite Philoumenis, was brutally murdered in the church by an axe-wielding Zionist.  A cross was cut in his face, his eyes plucked out, and the four fingers and thumb of his right hand cut off.

We toured the Balata refugee camp, where our guide Ayash and his family still live, which like the others consists of small apartments built by the UN in 1958. We visited the Women’s Center, which provides some services to refugee women, including beauty salon training and a gym. The camp has one clinic for its 28,000 residents. We walked through the Old City (where everyone was doing their shopping for Eid), stopping in a spice shop and a Turkish bath house. After a pleasant lunch, we went to the Samaritan Museum, where the high priest of that small sect explained it (while I nodded off somewhat having not had that many hours to sleep the night before). The Samaritans are Jews who adopted their own practices long before the state of Judaea had its problems with Rome, and were never evicted at the time of the diaspora. Their practices still include temple sacrifices at Pesach but, different temple on a different mountain. The Orthodox regard them as country cousins and are very protective, said Fred, and the ultra Orthodox regard them as impostors. You can’t please everybody.

On a brief walk, we saw Nablus from above, and headed back to Bethlehem.

The way Ramadan works is that it ends the day after the mullahs actually see the new moon. It turned out that the moon, while a good 18 hours into its new month and therefore big enough to show a crescent, was almost directly to the south of the sun, and set only four minutes later. So Ray and I figured that it would still be too bright to see the moon. Indeed, we went up onto the roof, and even using binoculars could not see it, though the horizon was quite high where we were (30 minutes remained until they both set). But apparently the mullahs did in fact see it as it set over the Mediterranean, and proclaimed the end of Ramadan, which means that the festival of Eid happened Thursday. If they hadn’t seen it, everyone would have to fast one more day, and Eid would have been on Friday.

Our host in Beit Sahour, Samer, who runs Alternative Tourism, was our tour guide for Thursday’s trip to Hebron. Hebron is the home of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where many Old Testament figures are buried: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. This site is very holy to both Judaism and Islam. It was off-limits to Jews until after 1967, when an arrangement was made to open it to them two days a year. There were several attacks on Jews in the following years. After the Oslo accords, an American-Israeli settler massacred 29 praying Muslims; others there killed him with fire extinguishers, which are now longer allowed in mosques. Now it is open 12 days a year to Jews, 12 days to Muslims, and is divided, open to both separately the rest of the year. Because Eid ended up on Thursday, we were unable to do much of anything on the trip: all the stores were closed because it was a holiday, and the Tomb was closed to us because the local Muslims were using it. We did have lunch in a private house, and had fascinating conversations with a group of activists from Christian Peacemaker Teams who are helping make the Hebron residents’ lives better. We took a short walk in a small Jewish settlement in the middle of Hebron. There are fences and checkpoints everywhere, and 2000 soldiers, to protect the 500 settlers.

The streets were quiet — most stores were closed and most people were with their families for Eid. A few kids were about, playing with their new toy guns and the girls in their new dresses. The Street Arabs all said where are you from and what is your name and one shekel and either posed or said NO PHOTO or PAPA NOEL. In the Settler area, nobody said anything, but one person said “FUCK YOU” to one of our Jewish traveling companions. There were 17 people on the Hebron tour. An IDF guy on the roof with a machine gun was glumly helpful in giving advice where we shouldn’t go and what we shouldn’t take pictures of.

A Jewish guy from Brooklyn asked me why I thought the Arabs were all so nice to us and the Jews were so hateful and rude. I speculated that it was part of their religion, to be nice to travelers. I really don’t know. The difference here is so striking. American Jews are gregarious to the point of being disconcerting; but Israelis — outside of Fred, and Riki, up in Tzfat (both of whom lived in the U.S. for years) — I can’t think of any other place outside of Russia where I have been glared at or ignored so uniformly, by people in such funny costumes. Even at the village near Cotonou, in Benin, where the guide assured us they hated beards, I didn’t feel this level of hostility.

We returned from the tour to Samer’s house. His uncle, who lives two houses away, has a garden beneath the house, and one of the people who were staying there asked if we could see it. He showed us around the fig and almond and olive and pomegranate trees, and confessed he hadn’t been in this garden for 20 years. Childhood memories started coming back to him: he showed us games he used to play, like connecting two olives with a leaf and balancing them on a twig, basically Jenga with plants. Later that evening, we talked about his life over some arak (Arabic for ouzo). As a teenager, he got a little antsy and his parents decided it would be better to send him to live with relatives in Greece for awhile, instead of making trouble in the West Bank. A few years later, he ran a store in a San Diego mall, and made friends with the owner of the adjoining shop, a former Israeli soldier. Now he lives back where he grew up, with his own family, and he and his four daughters would like to leave, but his wife for whatever reason wants to stay. So they do.

Friday morning we drove back to Jerusalem, and toured the Mount of Olives. (Denver has a Mount of Olives Cemetery, but I didn’t realize then that the real one in Jerusalem is where people especially wanted to be buried; I guess they were first in line for heaven, or something. The passport line, again.) The most interesting spots here were Church of Pater Noster, where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which is displayed on the grounds in 170 different languages, including Maya, Quechua, Cherokee, Georgian in two different scripts, and many many more. The Garden of Gethsemane has some 2000-year-old olive trees, as old as the redwoods on Big Tree Way but much more contorted; olives are pruned to be spreading. And the Tomb of the Virgin Mary is a strange underground space full of chandeliers (with compact fluorescent bulbs) and religious icons.

We walked into the Old City, following many of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa.  One of them led to a rooftop near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:  we noticed several tourists disappearing into an open door.  We followed them down some flights of stairs, past a little service in progress in the Ethiopian Monastery, and arrived in the courtyard of the Church, which is said to be built at the site of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. There were two little chapels above the cross site itself, and another chapel, with a long line of people to go inside, that claimed to be the site of his tomb. As usual, the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics have their own version of all the places as well as their own version of all the dates, even if they are only a few meters apart. There were little services happening all over the place inside the church, and no one minded all the tourists milling around. I’m not particularly religious these days, but having grown up with Christmas and Easter it was pretty interesting to visit these sites. Afterwards, we headed to a little Armenian restaurant for an interesting dinner: dessert looked like a long sausage, but it was made out of grapes and nuts.

Saturday we had hoped to go up on the Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock and the outside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Our Lonely Planet guide said it was open on Saturday, but the guard at the Western Wall Plaza entry point said it was closed on Friday and Saturday. Oh well. We improvised from there, seeing the Garden Tomb, a strange private protestant site presenting itself as another place Jesus’ cross and tomb might have been located; the Ethiopian Church, which reminded me of places I’d been in India: take your shoes off before going into a domed building containing a cubic building with an altar inside, with the floor covered with carpets, and the walls with religious paintings. One of the Ethiopian nuns was very excited to take our photo with one of the monks. Beards give you entry into all sorts of presumptions. We walked through the Old City to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, a modern church built over what was explained as Caiaphas’ dungeon; all the statues outside, and the feel of the place, reminded me of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County.

The Orange County analogy applies to most of Jerusalem. Except for a few bits here and there, it’s all very new, and that means Orange-County like. The Christian presence doesn’t go back very far, this time around. The YMCA building was built at the same time by the same guy as the Empire State building; the suburbs and settlements are all from the last thirty years, and all the holiest ancientest sites are covered over by big modern looking buildings that have scattered about them pieces of glass floor through which you may view the mosaics that were in place before the Saracens and earthquakes and new construction permits.

Then we took a taxi, expensive because it was Shabbat, to pick up our bags and go to another hotel to meet an economical airport shuttle which kept picking up people until every seat was filled before heading to the airport. The Ben Gurion airport is probably much more effective than the TSA in protecting the planes which leave from it, but the waits are very long and it seems arbitrary and inefficient. Someone talks to you, and decides whether to X-ray your checked luggage. The image determines whether your luggage will be opened, in front of you: a decorative plate we bought presumably contains lead, and seems to have caused them to want to look in its suitcase. After that, things are pretty normal and quick; we didn’t have to take off our shoes.


We learned about the history of the area and the description of what life is like for those who live here constantly over the course of the tour. I’ve summarized it here.

For over 100 years, this has been an area containing two nationalities. Jews and non-Jews have been living together more peacefully here than other places like, say, Western Europe. The current problems have been brewing for over 100 years, but really got going after World War I, when Jews from all over the world began crowding into the area.

  • 1917: Britain in the Balfour Declaration declared it to be “a homeland for the Jewish people, without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”. Right, like that can happen.
  • 1947: the arbitrary drawing of the lines defining Palestine, and evictions of non-Jews from most of what is now Israel into refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere.
  • 1949: occupations by the Jordanians and Egyptians, which basically defined the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
  • 1967: Israel re-occupied all of that land in the Six Day War (no mention was made of Sinai, since we were focusing on the West Bank).
  • 1987: the first intifada begins after years of oppression, triggered by an action in the Gaza strip killing several Palestinians.
  • 1993: the Oslo accords, when the West Bank was divided into areas specifying where Israel controlled the civil population and where it didn’t. Yasser Arafat, feeling anxious to get back from Oslo, agreed to the plan, causing much upset among the population afterwards.
  • 2000: the Camp David talks of 2000, Bill Clinton’s last grasp at a legacy, when Ehud Barak presented a take-it-or-leave-it “negotiation” which gave Palestinians 90% of the land, but claimed a strategic 10% which effectively divided the West Bank into three noncontiguous areas. This time the offer was refused. A few months later, Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, which starts a riot and the second intifada.
  • 2002: the West Bank barrier wall is begun. It does not strictly follow the 1967 borders, but rather cuts deeply into the West Bank. Further construction of the wall is accompanied by more confiscation of Palestinian land and building of settlements.

The West Bank continues to be classified as “occupied territories” because if it were annexed as part of Israel, legal precedent would require that all of the residents would become citizens. The legal shenanigans which Israel goes through to justify the actions it takes is well-explained in a film we saw at the SF Int’l Film Festival a few years ago, “The Law In These Parts”. It turns out that it will be shown as part of the POV series on PBS on August 19, and viewable online for the following month.  I’ve set up my TiVo to record it.

There was some frustration in 1993 that Yasser Arafat acceded to the accords which carved up the West Bank into “Area A” (cities under complete Palestinian control), “Area B” (villages under Palestinian civil control), and “Area C” (settlements, and open space, under complete Israeli control). In general, Palestinians who live in the West Bank can travel anywhere in it except settlements. They cannot enter Israel, including Jerusalem. Israeli Jews are officially not allowed to enter “Area A”, though it is quite easy to do if they want to. There are checkpoints which primarily monitor license plates, allowing movement of Israeli vehicles and restricting movement of Palestinian ones.  There are a few other classifications of non-Jews, such as “Jerusalem residents” and “Israeli Arab citizens”.

The “Area A” and “Area B” lines were drawn so that they enclosed existing Palestinian areas as tightly as possible; in general, a Palestinian cannot expand the community by building across the line into “Area C”. He cannot get a building permit to do that, and if he builds anyway, his house will be demolished as an example, usually around 2am, with mere minutes of notice. The Israelis also control water rights; our host explained that each house in a settlement gets a one-inch water pipe, while each Palestinian village gets a three-inch water pipe (which can move nine times as much water). Others cited statistics based on water per person, but for Palestinians it is “just barely enough, except when we turn it off”, and Israelis, it is “all you can drink and water your lawn with”. It is illegal for Palestinians to tap wells into the aquifers underneath their villages.

Any Jew in the world can decide to emigrate to Israel, and they will basically be given a place to live, for little or no cost, by the government. But non-Jews who were evicted from their homes at any point from the original partition to the current construction of separation walls don’t have that option. The government heavily subsidizes the construction of settlements, and rentals of the buildings built in them. It retains all control of water rights, airspace, and flow of capital and trade in the entire region. While Zionist zealots are often the ones who set up “outposts”, claiming new land for settlements, especially far from Jerusalem, the largest settlements set up by the government are close and well-connected to Jerusalem, and because they are so cheap to live in they are largely occupied by working-class Israelis.

The way the wall keeps growing and restricting the areas where Palestinians can be reminded me a lot of the lowly worker in “Office Space” who keeps getting moved into smaller and smaller offices, and ultimately into closets. (And then ends up blowing up the entire company. Our guide in Nablus is a nonviolent activist, but he supports the right of his oppressed brothers to resist in whatever way they think appropriate, including armed resistance.)

I wonder what it’s like to use a location-based dating app like Grindr in this area. Two people could start chatting and then discover that one is a settler and one is a Palestinian. Awkward.

One interesting fact that was mentioned was that despite the oppression, Palestinians are significantly better-educated than any other Arab country. Many of them study abroad, and many of them go on and teach abroad, including in the other Arab countries. (Of course, in order for them to study abroad, they will have to travel to Amman, because they can’t go to the Ben Gurion airport in Israel.)

The most common questions for all of the guides included “What do you think will happen?” and “What do you think should happen?” and “Will the peace talks make any difference?”. It seems unlikely that anything will happen in the short term because the maximum that Israel would be willing to offer is significantly less than the minimum that the Palestinians would be willing to accept. I did a web search for “Israel peace talks” and the amount of variance in the amount of optimism in the search results was amazingly wide: many are completely pessimistic, and several are remarkably optimistic. One of my favorite answers from the guides as to what an ultimate solution could look like would be a federation of two states, one primarily Jewish and one primarily Muslim, with Jerusalem as a capital of the federation in neither state, like Washington DC, with Arabs and Jews able to freely live or travel in either of the two states. It would still be quite a challenge for Israel to adapt its civil laws, which are so deeply based on religion, to accommodate a new reality with such increased freedom for non-Jews. They have also resisted providing compensation to refugees for their confiscated land, because this would amount to a confession that they actually did this.

The population in Israel and Palestine continues to grow by immigration and births. We were told of some settlers having 17 kids to try to keep up with Palestinian birthrates, which are about 4.5 children per woman. The true size of the Palestinian population is classified: Israel claims there are 1.5 million, and the Palestinians claim there are 2.5 million. Meanwhile, regardless of the apportioning of water between Israelis and Palestinians, the absolute amount of it available to the people in this area continues to decline. We kept asking, and no one really told us, how quickly the aquifers were sinking. Perhaps the information is classified as well. The Jordan River south of the Dead Sea is a trickle, much as the Colorado River is at the US/Mexico border. Here, as in many other places in the world, at some point not too long from now there won’t be enough for everyone, and perhaps at that point the real problems will begin.

While America has been firmly on the side of the Israeli government, sending it billions of dollars to support its apartheid schemes, and kowtowing to the Jewish lobby which labels anyone not doing exactly what Israel wants as anti-Semitic, one optimistic comment mentioned by a young Swiss leftwing activist I talked to was that there are a large number of young American leftwing activists in organizations such as “J Street” who might help swing the balance as people get older, much as the American population has become more accepting of issues such as medical marijuana and same-sex marriage as time has gone on.

May peace be with you all.