Thursday, July 9, 2009

I'm coming home

This will be my last entry from Palestine - I leave on an overnight flight today. I just went to the post office to mail home everything I had on me that even hinted that I was in the West Bank or that I am in any way pro-Palestinian. Now I'm just your average, Jewish-Canadian tourist, so sad to see the end of my magical vacation in the Holy Land. Here's hoping that there are no problems at the airport - I'm fairly confident that my race/ethnicity combined with their racism will result in a smooth passage through security. If not, I'm just going to cry and ask them why they hate Jews.

Yesterday, I went to Akka, which is about 45 minutes from Tel Aviv. It used to be one of the main port-cities before the Nakba. It's now a mixed city, with the Palestinian population mostly living in what can only be described as ghettos or slums within the city. I walked around this beautiful, ancient city and listened in on various Zionist tours that were being given. It was so messed up that the guides at once acknowledged the history of the city 'ancient port etc', but somehow don't connect the 'historical' people they talk about with the people that were forcibly removed from the city. For them, it's ok to talk about the fact that there were ancient Arab people whose history is interesting, but there is this complete denial of the recent past and the current situation for Arab people in 'Israel'.

While sitting on the beach yesterday, watching the waves and enjoying the beauty of the Mediterranean I got so unbelievably sad and angry. There are so many people I know from home and who I've met here who would give anything just to sit by the sea, but aren't allowed because they are either refugees or from the West Bank and don't have the right ID. I realized that because I've studied so much about Israeli Apartheid I wasn't often surprised by the violence, repression and cruelty I've seen - I was expecting it. But I don't think I was prepared for how devastating it is to see the beautiful, wonderful places that have been stolen and are out of reach for so many who deserve the right be be there and see those places.

My final thought before leaving is that this trip has reminded me of how important it is to link the work we do around Palestine with issues back home. I've met so many people who see Canada as a wonderful place and I've spent a fair bit of time correcting that misconception. Many people - including Palestinians - have asked me point blank why I focus on Israel when Canada is so bad and I'm glad that I can answer that we link our work on Palestine with fighting oppression in Canada. It's now even more important to me that we continue to do so in genuine ways that are in solidarity with people who are being oppressed in the settler colonial context I call home.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Oh right, I have a blog...

I realize that I haven't blogged in over a week. And I was on such a roll for a while there. I'm currently in Haifa, having left the West Bank yesterday. I come home on Friday, so this is the last leg of my trip. It was sad leaving Ramallah and the West Bank yesterday because here you never know if you'll be able to come back. First of all, there's always the possibility that you will be denied entry at the border. I've managed to keep a low profile here, although yesterday the Israeli Army arrested all the internationals that were with a group I was staying with just a few days earlier in Beit Ummar (a village located between Bethlehem and Hebron). Beyond the personal issue of being denied entry there is, of course, the politics of apartheid that can and so often do change the situation on the ground. I have been told over and over that I came at time of relative calm, especially in the bigger cities in the West Bank. Still, I have been acutely aware of how tenuous any calm is and that the situation can deteriorate so quickly because the Israelis have built up such a matrix of control that they could lock down the whole West Bank if they felt so inclined. We've seen it happen in Gaza, which has been under lockdown for over two years now.

It's really strange being back on this side of the Green Line. Again, I was all to aware of the affluence around me as I was walking through West Jerusalem to the bus station (for anyone carrying a giant backpack, do not believe anyone who tells you that it's walking distance from Jaffa gate - it's totally not walkable on a hot day, trust me). It's the big things like architecture. properly paved roads, waste management, elaborate bus system and also little things like going into well stocked stores and buying food that isn't even close to its expiration date. And of course, there's the fact that I was walking the path of the light-rail project that is being built to link Jerusalem to the settlements in the West Bank. It's part of the annexation of 'Greater Jerusalem' (more info ). Then there was the bus ride through the country on well maintained highways that cannot even be compared the dangerous routes that Palestinians are forced to take throughout the West Bank to get around settlements and the Wall. Anyone who's taken a service from Ramallah to Bethlehem knows the fear of death one experiences on those roads - I'm only partly joking because traffic accidents are a major cause of death and injury in the West Bank. Finally, there's the water situation. There is a drought right now, which means that the West Bank is experiencing periodic water shut-offs, which are normal throughout the year, but are lasting longer right now. In '48 and the settlements, no such shortage exists. I have all the water I could ever need here. Gross.

I am happy that I'm spending some time in '48 because I know that too often we focus on Gaza and the West Bank and don't pay enough attention to the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel. I hope to go to the Galilee tomorrow to visit with people in some of the Palestinian villages there. I'm told that the situation is quite similar to the West Bank, with most towns surrounded by settlements. Here in Haifa, I am staying in one of the most 'integrated' neighbourhoods in the country, with working class Israeli Jews, Russian immigrants and Palestinians living side by side. This is, of course, an exception here, where usually cities are segregated and ghettoized.

I have a whole lot more to say, but might have to continue blogging after I've gotten home and had time to think things over. I know I want to write about Hebron, but I haven't found the right words just yet.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Big Gay Blog #2

I keep getting news from home about the success of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid - 180 in the Dyke March, more probably gathering for the parade as I write this and so I felt the need to blog about it.

I am not really 'out' here in Palestine. Most internationals take one look at me and know right away that I'm queer, but I've been mistaken for a hetero by many service drivers, random folks I've met and even people I have become friends with here. I get the impression that people think I spend too much time with my 'roommate' who I talk about an awful lot and I know they worry about me being 28, unwed and barren. It's weird not being out and can, at times, be isolating because I can't really talk about my life completely.

The reason I have chosen not to 'out' myself is largely because my only reasons for doing so would be selfish and arrogant. I do not want to be like the feminists I clashed with weeks ago who felt that it was their right to criticize Palestinian society without understanding the complex power dynamics at play and especially not the local feminist resistance going on all around them. I cannot claim to understand the experiences of queer people here and I don't need pull some typical Western superiority nonsense by talking about how I'm free to be a big old homo at home and complaining about not being free to be me here. First of all, doing so would in no way further queer Palestinian rights. Just like those women berating Palestinian men about their wives' veiling practices does nothing to help anyone, me freaking out about a homophobic comment is in no way useful. I can and do, however, talk about the solidarity efforts of queers back home, because I do think that can open up dialogue that is based on the notion of solidarity and justice, which is more productive. I think that like in the case of South Africa where international queer solidarity influenced ANC views on queer rights, queers joining the struggle against israeli partheid worldwide might have a positive side effect of challenging homophobia through solidarity, instead of condescension and imperialism.

I also would not claim to be a free homo because that would actually be disingenuous. The backlash against QuAIA was led by a cast of characters I know intimately - B'nai Brith and other Zionist homophobic opportunists, who are trying to use Israel's newfound love of queers to further their racist, apartheid-lovin' agenda. It's these same forces that tried to make me conform all those years ago in the sexist, transphobic, homophobic Zionist indoctrination system I was raised in. I'm sure my homophobic, racist family are quite confused by this latest controversy - is B'nai Brith really telling them that they have to give up their homophobia to support their racism? Oye. I think that they must not know what to hope for, except that I don't get on the news again and embarass them further.

Israel and the mainstream Zionist, Jewish community are homophobic. They can pretend not to be, but we know differently. Yes, there was no Pride parade in Palestine and there were parades in several Israeli cities. Even forgetting the military presense required to keep queer Israelis from getting stabbed at Pride (happened a few years ago in Jerusalem), no amount of Israeli queer parading and partying makes me, as a queer person, want to allign myself with Israel nor does it somehow convince me that on account of the homophobia in Palestine, Palestinians deserve to live under an Apartheid system. That's Zionist logic, borrowing from imperialist notions of civlity. The argument goes like this: countries that extend gay rights are civilized and those that do not are uncivilized - the uncivilized deserve no human rights, freedom or dignity because of their incivility. You see, civilized Israel lets gays into their army so that they can freely excercise their now gay right to terrorize and kill Palestinians. Just so we're clear, that gays can serve in the Israeli Army only proves is that in this incredibly racist context, at this particular time in history, allegiance to racism gets some gays some legitimacy. That's complicity, not liberation.

And speaking of parades, let's not forget that parades and demonstrations under occupation are hard to pull off - just ask the organizers of May Day and International Women's Day Celebrations that were either cancelled or held without permits all over the West Bank this year. Palestinian social movements face the incredible challenge of mobilizing when their leaders are killed or arrested and their members don't have the freedom to assemble. Yet they still fight on, struggling against apartheid and also trying to make change within their own society, which is hard anywhere, under the best of conditions. If we want to support Palestinian queers, we have to fight apartheid, because we can't separate these issues.

Ok, I'm done. Happy Pride everyone. I promise that this will be the last big gay blog...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Jerusalem Pride vs Ni'lin

This past week I went to two completely different demonstrations. One was Jerusalem Pride and the other was the weekly protest against the Apartheid Wall in Ni'lin. I was going to blog about them separately, but it seemed fitting to put them into this one blog to give you a better sense of the massive contrasts between the West Bank and '48 and between the concerns of Jewish Israelis and those of Palestinians.

On Thursday, the annual Jerusalem Pride parade took place. I went with my video camera, eager to film some ridiculous backlash which I could then bring home to show people how queers are treated in Israel - the only safe place for homos in the Middle East. Now before I get into what I saw at J-Pride, I need to talk about the ordeal of getting there. I am in Ramallah, a city that should only be a short drive from Jerusalem. With the Wall and checkpoints, that is totally not the case. First I had to take a service (cab/bus) to Qalandia, where I had to get out and walk through the checkpoint. I had to wait in line (short line because it was 2pm, other times it would have been much longer), put my bag through an x-ray machine, then present my passport to some 18 year-old Israeli soldier. I'm lucky - I have a Canadian passport, so I was allowed through. No queer Palestinians with West Bank ID could have come to Jerusalem Pride. I then got on another bus into the Old City where I had to scramble to buy credit for my Israeli phone card because my Palestinian SIM card does not work outside the West Bank - the Israelis don't let Jawwal build towers there. I met up with some folks and we went into West Jerusalem. I have been in the West Bank for over 3 weeks and have gotten used to the level of poverty here. I have gotten used to seeing dirty streets because of lack of proper waste management, people selling whatever they can on the roadside, houses and roads in disrepair etc. It wasn't until I saw the affluence on the other side of the Wall that the poverty in the West Bank really hit me again.

Now Pride itself. It started in a park, which was surrounded by police and soldiers. We were thoroughly searched going in. In the 'boys' line, we saw them search a soldier fo concealed weapons, even though he was carrying a giant gun. Insane. The parade was uneventful - there were more police and soldiers than participants and no visible counter-demo because of the intense military presence. A quick note to queer Zionists here: if you need the military to protect you, your country still has some serious homophobia issues. Seriously, it's time for you to shut up about it being the only safe place in the middle east for queers.

The parade ended in 'Independence Park' where there were speeches and terrible musical performances (I kid you not, one guy did an acoustic version of Brittany Spears' Toxic). Unlike the friends I was with, I could actually understand the speeches, which was really unfortunate. They started off talking about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured in Gaza three years ago. Pride was on the anniversary of his capture, so I got to hear all about him. Then the rest of the speeches talked about how Jerusalem needs to be a free city, welcoming to everyone. There was lots of talk about human rights and diversity. Honestly, it would have been so easy for them to link the queer struggle to the anti-apartheid movement, but of course these queer zionists didn't seize that opportunity. The communists, to their credit had signs that said 'gay against the occupation' and I think the anarchists were up to some shenanigans, but other than that it was a queer Zionist nightmare. And not even that queer - these liberated Israeli queers did very little actually queer stuff, I only saw two boys makeout the entire time. So much for their freedom to just be. The highlight for me was seeing this sign (picture soon, although it's in Hebrew so you'll have to trust me on the translation) that had a map of Palestine, although they would call it Israel, with an Israeli flag marking Jerusalem. It said 'I don't don't tell you how to live here'. Ah, the hypocrisy was overwhelming. I fled back to Ramallah as quickly as I could. The cab driver who ripped us off on the way, sure didn't want to drive us to the Arab quarter to catch our bus.

The next day I got up bright and early to head to Ni'lin for the weekly demonstration. I was told it was calmer than usual in part because the heat and two weddings in the village reduced the number of demonstrators. Plus the Israelis seem to be shifting tactics slightly - last week they brought journalists to Bil'in and Ni'lin and just stood there getting hit by rocks. No tear gas, no bullets, just a great photo op. There were no journalists on Friday so even though it was calm, a calm Friday in Ni'lin still involves the Israelis using a jeep that can fire 32 tear gas canisters at once. We would go up as close to the fence as possible and chant, the youth would throw stones and then every so often, this jeep would drive down the hill and fire a barrage of tear gas. We would run back, the gas would hit us and then pass after some time and then we would go back up to the fence. For anyone that doesn't understand the Wall and settlements, they only need to spend about 30 seconds on the hilltop in Ni'lin. The Wall is being constructed right on their land and as far as you can see, there are settlements built on land already stolen. I kept thinking of that stupid sign at Pride 'I don't tell you how to live here'.

The connection between these two events for me is that its the same army firing on ni'lin that as protecting queer Israelis from other Israelis. These issues are so deeply connected, especially in the lives of queer Palestinians who face homophobia and apartheid. I won't be in Toronto to march with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid this week, but I'm with them in spirit from here in Ramallah. At least we can try to make Toronto Pride political again, cuz J-Pride was a depressing, Zionist mess.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Random Thoughts

I haven't blogged in a while because I haven't really had consistent internet access. So this will be kind of a rambling rant of things I've been thinking about in the last week or so, in no particular order.

I have been talking to a lot of other internationals and we all seem to agree that Palestine was not what we expected. Back home we talk so much about oppression and apartheid, that I think we all naively assume we're walking into the kind of war zone we see on TV. Then you get to the West Bank and people are going about their daily life. You eat in restaurants, meet friends for coffee, see people studying, getting married etc. Besides the cultural and language differences that are expected with travel, sometimes being here isn't that different from your life at home. But then it hits you in certain moments or when you take the time to think about it. Then you see the violence that is everywhere. I've had many of these moments recently and I'll sum up just a few:

I was talking to a teenager who had just gotten back from a camp that brings kids from the West Bank together with kids from Jerusalem and 48. She was telling me how hard it was to explain to the others why she couldn't come visit them. Palestinians with West Bank IDs can't travel to Jerusalem or anywhere in '48 without a permit. Palestinian citizens of Israel can't come to most parts of the West Bank without a permit. Marriage between people with different IDs can be nearly impossible - I met a man on a bus who told me that he was marrying a girl from 48 and they were moving to London because it's the only place they can live together. Immobility is violence and part of the on-going ethnic cleansing. That my passport and white skin allow me to so easily go to these places makes me even more angry because I have no connection to this land and am allowed to see it all, while the people I meet here, who are deeply connected to it, are denied access. This is all making me question my presence here as an international with so much privilege.

A few days ago I was at the Alternative Information Centre in Beit Sahour and we were watching a film that was shot, in part, during the invasion of Bethlehem during the 2nd Intifada. I watched footage of places I had just been a few weeks ago, but was seeing them as the war zone they were back in 2002. While watching the movie, it hit me that, in some ways, I have been treating Palestine like a war memorial. I was visiting places where massacres and invasions had occurred. I was visiting cemeteries and monuments dedicated to martyrs who died resisting Israeli Apartheid. Earlier that same day I had visited Jenin and seen the refugee camp that had been mostly destroyed during the massacre that took place there during the Intifada. Everything I saw was heartbreaking, but I think I was perceiving a lot of it in some ways as past tense. Watching that movie, for some reason, shook me back into the present. With checkpoints everywhere, and one of the world's largest militaries able to mobilize at any time, the violent invasions and massacres of the past are a constant threat in the present and, are, of course, still the present in Gaza. It is this threat that makes resistance all the more necessary, but for the people here, that much more dangerous. That's the collective punishment - people here know that resistance can and will be met with retribution on everyone here. The Israelis, no doubt, count on this as a way of trying to kill the resistance that they can't kill with assassinations and arrests.

The last thought I want to relay comes from visiting Jenin. When the camp was rebuilt, they made the roads wide enough for tanks to come in. The official line was that this would prevent house demolitions that often occur as Israelis bulldoze homes to make way for tanks on narrow streets. When comparing Jenin to other camps (I will try to post pictures later to show this visually), one could think that the wide streets are a vast improvement. But then, when you think about how much more easily the Israelis can now enter and occupy the camp because of these streets, you realize that most changes here that may seem positive either have a horrible backstory or an even more horrible purpose. This was reinforced for me when I was visiting a park near Bethlehem that had been built on an old military base. Seems like such a nice idea - military base becomes a park. Then you learn that a lot of the building had to be done quickly and quietly because permits were denied or that the settlers come at least once a week to attack families that are playing because settlers can't stand to see Palestinians have even a little happiness or dignity. Everything here has another story below the surface - the stories of apartheid and occupation.

I think it's important for people to see daily life in Palestine - because going on with life is its own form of resistance and also because I think it's wrong to only know about the oppression in people's lives and not to know about their actual lives. That said, we can't just look at the present 'calm' here in the West Bank (calm relative to the intifada, that is) and forget the violence that is ever present and the threat of even more violence that can come at any minute.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Ok, so after 4 days of trying to fit in with the wimmin/womben/wimbinyomen,I gave up. I decided to come to Nablus, where I'm staying with the family of an activist from Najah university. I've been meeting some amazing people who are doing important work here, including familiar stuff like the Right to Education Campaign and Israeli Apartheid Week. It was great to swap stories of fighting administrations and creative actions. The OCAP wall was especially well received.

It's hard to explain Nablus really. There is a bustling downtown and a university campus that, besides the intense security (I needed a professor to vouch for me to get in as a non-student), could be any campus I've been too. It was on the way from the university to the Old City that Nablus really hit me. We stopped in the cemetery, which is the burial place of many of the martyrs from the recent intifada. I was told stories of people who had been killed - babies who had been shot, people assassinated in their homes, fighters killed in battle and, perhaps the most difficult grave to visit was that of a whole family that had been crushed when the army bulldozed their house to make way for the tanks. The grave was marked April 9-15th because nobody knows when the family died - they were trapped for so long. The man taking me on this trip - a professor whose mother was killed in the invasion and who is suing the Israelis for her death - put it simply: this is the end result of the occupation.

We then went to the Old City, one of the oldest in the world. I had known that Nablus had been invaded and had been under siege, but when I pictured the fighting, it wasn't in such narrow streets. I can't really explain how tight these spaces are, but the narrowness of the streets insured that the injured had no way to escape or be rescued. It also meant massive house demolitions as the Israelis bulldozed houses near the entrance so their tanks could enter this ancient city. They also cleared many homes, including one area home to 13 families, just to create areas where they could store their equipment. The bullet holes, martyr posters/monuments and houses yet to be rebuilt are constant reminders of the intifada. Not that reminders are really needed in a city that is still surrounded by 7 checkpoints, sees almost nightly incursions for arrests and that has F16s flying overhead all the time, breaking the sound barrier just to terrorize the people living here.

The people I've met are mostly younger than me, in their early 20s, which means they were really young teenagers during the siege and invasion. They tell terrible stories of closure, curfew, bombings and attacks. But they are also here, living their lives and working to organize in their university to keep the resistance alive. It's been an incredible experience here in Nablus.

I also went to Balata refugee camp near Nablus and will be volunteering there at the Jaffa Cultural Centre. I've just started there and will post more soon about all that.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Today we joined in the demonstrations in Bil'in. For those of you that don't know, Bil'in is a village that is being devastated by Israel's Apartheid Wall and the illegal settlements that continue to encroach on their land. The people of Bil'in are engaging in really inspiring resistance against the Wall. For more info, visit their website here.

One aspect of the resistance is a weekly demonstration that involves local Palestinians, Israeli activists (mostly from Anarchists Against the Wall) and internationals. I chose to participate in these demonstrations because the popular committees in these villages have specifically asked for international support. The demonstrations have been going on for over 5 years despite the extremely violent and at times lethal response of the Israeli army. Recently, the Israelis have increased the violence of their suppression of these demonstrations - last Friday in Ni'lin they killed a protester named Yoursif Srour who was 35 years old and had a wife and three children. He was the fifth person from Ni'lin who has been killed during demonstrations against the Wall in the village. A few months ago, they killed a young man named Bassem in Bil'in - he was killed when a high velocity tear gas canisters was fired directly at him at close range.

The Bil'in demo was particularly relevant for me right now because the village is currently suing two Canadian companies - Green Park and Green Mount - for building illegal settlements. The case begins on June 22nd in Quebec and there is currently a delegation from Bil'in traveling in Canada, talking about the case.

The demo today was pretty standard from what I've told. We gathered in the village after Friday prayers and began a march towards the wall. Before the front of the demo got to the wall, the tear gas was launched. The Israelis lobbed huge amounts of tear gas for almost an hour. Most of us left the front line after a short time because the gas was overwhelming, but several Palestinian youth stayed to confront the soldiers. It was incredible that they could withstand the gas for so long. They fought back with rocks and at times threw unexploded canisters right back at the soldiers. Eventually, the demo ended. Everyone was a bit ill from the gas and two people we injured in the onslaught, but nobody was seriously hurt.

Today at the demo there was a large Code Pink contingent from the US. Code Pink is a women's peace organization that has recently tried, and occasionally succeeded, at getting food and supplies into Gaza. For the most part, they were respectful, but at one point, several of them expressed anger at the youth throwing rocks. They insisted that they were told that this was a 'non-violent' protest and were disappointed in the violence of the rock throwers. I obviously got into an argument with them. I was not asking those women to go to the front and stand with the youth, but I was asking them to respect their choice to do so. Still, they really felt justified in judging the resistance even as these kids were being bombarded with noxious gas. I am so tired of engaging in this non-violence debate with other people who are not Palestinian. This is a Palestinian led movement and it is not our place to judge the resistance. It is definitely not our place to demand non-violence in the face of the extreme violence that the Israelis commit against Palestinians everyday. What we should have been talking about today is that launching dozens of tear gas canisters against a small group of people who are throwing some stones is a disproportionate use of force, which is against international law. Rather than judging the resistance, we should be talking about what we can do to support it - like joining in demonstrations when asked or, perhaps more importantly, working on building the BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) movement in the places we live.

And so my concerns about the role of internationals here, myself included, continue to grow...