(West Bank, July 27, 2011)- At 3:30 AM this morning, heavily armed and masked Israeli Forces hurled blocks of stone into several windows of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp and arrested Adnan Naghnaghiye the manager, and Bilal Saadi a board member and took them away to an unknown location.
When the theatres manager Jacob Gough, from the UK and cofounder Jonattab Stanczak from Sweden arrived on the scene, they were forced at gunpoint to squat next to a family with four small children who were surrounded by about 50 Israeli soldiers.
Juliano Mer-Khamis, established the Freedom Theater in 2006 and was murdered outside of it on 4 April 2011. Palestinian security forces arrested and charged a member of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in connection with his murder. Mer-Khamis, was born to a Palestinian father and Jewish mother. His mother, Arna, first founded the theater in the late 1980s for children in the wake of the first Intifada.
I never made it to the Freedom Theatre, but I did spend a day in Jenin Camp on 23 July 2007.
My driver with VIP plates and I left Jerusalem at 9:45 AM and what had once been an hour and a half’s drive took us nearly three, but the Palestinians we passed along the way stuck at the checkpoints waited much longer.
Once we cleared Beirzeit, I took my first deep breath of fresh air and rested my eyes upon miles of mountain vistas of thousands of olive trees and a few Bedouins whose only shelter was a ripped plastic tent, and who were out grazing a small herd of sheep. There were scattered Arab homes, some quite palatial and then the familiar clumps of red roofed settlements built on the mountain tops with one mount occupied by a half dozen caravans/trailers: the first sign of a new colony.
When we got to the checkpoints, and only because we had the ‘right’ license plate, we were allowed to bypass the queue of scores of Palestinian cars and hundreds of individuals who waited underneath a metal enclosure packed like sardines and denied the freedom of movement.
Racism is visible on the front of every motor vehicle, for Palestinian plates are green with white numbers; Israelis are yellow with black and VIP cars white with black. The latter two get waved on through, but green and white means you wait, wait, wait and even then maybe denied the right to travel on.
When we approached the checkpoint at Wad Elbedar Valley, my driver confessed his anxiety, “I am very afraid of the Israeli’s but also this is dangerous territory; Nablus, Jenin and Qalquiylia.”
I smiled and told him, “Relax, we are doing nothing wrong and I am on a mission from God.”
The soldier who looked about twelve took my passport and as I smiled at him, he asked, “Where are you from?”
“America, I help pay your salary. Where are you from?”
“You were born here?”
“Yes, very nice and what are you doing here?”
“I am visiting a priest in Zababdeh.”
“Thanks, bye bye.”
Ten minutes from Zababdeh, the priest I was to meet, pulled out from a side street in front of us and led us the rest of the way to his home and church grounds, where the very first and only Olive Trees Foundation Olive Grove and Children Park took root in 2005. I have been to the property three times and my first visit was as the Christian delegate for the non-profit Olive Trees Foundation for Peace, which had been dedicated to raising awareness and funds to help replace the over one million food bearing trees that have been destroyed by The Wall.
In 2007, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported “Financed with U.S. aid at a cost of $1.5 million per mile, the Israeli wall prevents residents from receiving health care and emergency medical services. In other areas, the barrier separates farmers from their olive groves which have been their families’ sole livelihood for generations.” [Page 43, Jan/Feb. 2007]
My second visit to the priest’s home and church was on 14 March 2006, as a member of a Sabeel [Arabic for The Way] reality tour through the West Bank. That was the very same day that the Israeli Defense Forces/IDF stormed the Jericho prison and the Al Aqsa Brigade issued a warning and demanded that all USA and British citizens immediately vacate the West Bank or they would be abducted.
Ahmed Sa’adat and four other Palestinians had been detained at the Jericho Prison since 2002, despite a court decision ordering their release. They were accused of assassinating the former Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001. They had been detained under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority under the supervision of guards provided by the UK and USA in accordance with an agreement reached between the British, USA, Israel and the PA.
It was immediately after the withdrawal of the American and British troops that the raid took place. The guards had announced their intention to withdraw from the prison but they made no alternative arrangements for their absence. The IDF then began their assault in the absence of any alternative safety-nets. After the American and British forces abandoned the Jericho prison and the IDF showed up demanding Saadate come out with his hands up, rumors began flying throughout the West Bank that the Third Intifada had begun.
The Sabeel group had planned to be in Jericho the very next day, but as John Lennon sang, “life is what happens while you are busy making other plans” and so we went to Nazareth instead.
We learned the news from Jericho while we were breaking bread with the Christians in the village of Zababdeh. Our Sabeel group had been advised by the locals that although we were perfectly safe with them, we should leave the West Bank ASAP and forget about our plans to visit the Jenin Refugee Camp and our meeting with Badil: the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.
On 23 July 2007, my plan was to spend the day in the Jenin refugee camp and within three minutes of my arrival the priest’s best friend, a Muslim drove up and invited me to go and see the facts on the ground in the 100% Muslim, Jenin refugee camp and meet with some of the Fatah underground.
In the car, the priest told me, “There are 2,500 Christians now left in Zababdeh and just over 1,000 Muslims and we have always gotten along. Whenever I have a problem here, I go to Jenin and get help there.”
We traveled past the five years young American Arab University where medical and law students from Israel and Palestine study together. The priest informs me, “We are suffering now. The Israelis denied to renew the visas for the American teachers because they do not like them opening America’s eyes. The teachers tell all about the suffering, hunger and anger of the occupied.”
Jenin refugee camp is home for nearly 20,000 Palestinian Muslims who share one square kilometer of land. Within seconds of stopping the car on one of the winding narrow alleys, an elderly woman approached us with a broad smile and immediately invited us all to her home for coffee and lunch. We thankfully decline as we are on the way to meet 40 year old Krozow, the number two leader of El Katib; the underground resistance movement within the Fatah party.
In English, Krozow translates to “good fighter” and Fatah stands for Palestinian Liberation Movement. I am shown a picture of the old and the new logo- the former depicted two hands holding two guns; the new logo had two hands, with one hand holding a gun and the other hand holding an olive branch in memory of Arafat’s pledge at the UN, “Don’t let me drop this olive branch, don’t let me drop this olive branch, don’t let me drop this olive branch!”
Krozow was 16 the first time he was sent to prison for throwing rocks in 1985. He was released in ’88 and resumed his resistance to the occupation and was sent back to jail from 1990-1994, when he was released under the Oslo accords.
Krozow greeted me warmly and his smiling children kept entering the room where we were talking. Krozow patiently and lovingly hugged them all and with a broad smile, deposited them back outside the living room door. He returned with water, and then after another child entered the room, he repeated the ritual but returned with coffee and on the third time with orange soda.
Krozow informed me, “Last week Israel and Abbas agreed that 232 persons here would hand over our weapons. We did and Israel agreed that they would not attack the camp. Yesterday the soldiers came and shot out the streetlights. The children watched from the windows and saw it all. They also saw when the Israelis shot and burned up an ambulance and the man inside died. What can children think when they must see these things?
“The camp is a warm place because children dream of freedom. My son is 4 years old and he knows all about weapons. All his words are about the Israelis attacking us and Apache helicopters that drop bombs. Children all over the world get to go play outside, but here all they see are soldiers who come every day to terrorize.
“We are not violent people, but we do resist the occupation, as is our right. What if Russia came to occupy American, wouldn’t you fight? I support Abbas, but he believes in negotiations, I believe in resisting the occupation. Abbas is the political Fatah, they drive Mercedes and roll up their windows and shutout the suffering of the people. I am dedicated to the people and to protecting them from the IDF. We are people under occupation and we would all love to have our children grow up free and live like children anywhere else in the world, who can play outside, go swimming and not have to see soldiers all the time. The Israeli’s tell the world we are violent, but we are only against their occupation. What if Russia came and occupied America, wouldn’t Americans resist?
“Hamas sends people out to Israel and targets civilians. The underground Fatah movement does not do that, we defend our home ground against Israeli forces. I take care of my family, home and community. I do not target innocent people.
“Last week Abbas told us to surrender our weapons and the PA would take care of the people. I surrendered all I had except for this one hand gun, for my personal safety against the Israelis. Every night I leave my home and sleep in the Mukatar [Palestinian government building in Jenin City].
“We have every right to live like the Israelis. My dream is for a viable Palestinian state, but they have cut up the West Bank and the only way to solve the problem is to give Palestinians the right to live like human beings everywhere else in the world, the right to our land, to move with freedom, the right to a good life like the Israelis.
“I have no hope for the immediate future, but I have hope for my children that American taxes will stop going to buy Apache helicopters that bomb them. My dream is that there will be a political agreement between Israel and Palestine and so all children can live in peace. Our relationship with Christians is we are brothers. We are looking to have peace with all the sons of Abraham.”
I stand to thank him for his time just as his mobile phone rings. It was Zechariah the number one commander of the underground El Katib Fatah resistance movement and he had agreed to speak with me, in the proverbial “five minutes.” In Palestine five minutes can easily take hours, but I sit back down and Krozow brings the fruit out. After a forty-minute wait another phone call and the message received is to leave the camp and drive to where Zechariah is staying that day.
The priest tells me, “Zechariah is number one on the wanted list by the Israelis. He is the top man in Jenin and spends his day solving many of the social problems. His mother and brother were both murdered by the Israelis and his three brothers are in prison. Abbas has asked for his support, for Abbas is very worried about Hamas. Hamas has a very different way of thinking and we don’t hate them, but we hate the way they deal with the issues. No one is born a killer and violence only makes more violence. The stupidest thing Palestinians did was pick up weapons. The second stupidest thing they did was target innocent people.”
We arrive in the home of one of Zechariah’s assistant’s who tells me, “My roof is higher than the roof of Oslo. Your government is controlled by the Zionist agenda. What Americans see on TV and read in the paper is controlled by the Zionist agenda and it is not the truth of what we live and what we are like and what we want. We are living an existence under occupation for 40 years now. All occupied people have been liberated, except the Palestinians. America liberated herself from Britain and we have every right to a free life. We are a resistance movement and Israel calls it terrorism, but we call it resisting occupation.
“The resistance has no strategy to fight Israel and destroy it, or end their existence. Our resistance message to the whole world is that we are people existing under occupation and we can only exist by resisting.
“The more powerful one is the one who must make peace and that is Israel, it is up to them. The weak cannot bring peace and we are not talking peace between nations but between governments. The Holy Land always had all three religions; this land is holy to all the sons of Abraham. Religions idea is suitable for one state, but the political situation doesn’t make it possible. There is no disagreement between the Christians and Muslims here, but we do disagree with the Christians in the U.S.A. who do not come here and see the truth!
“It is wrong news that Jenin is a terrible place to come and visit. What happened in Gaza with Alan Johnston [kidnapped journalist] is not the true Palestinian culture. We are hospitable and it is not our culture to kill.
“My message to the American government is that Arab people do not trust you. You asked for democratic elections and you don’t support the suffering people, you support only Israel. Palestine is a very holy place for Jews, Christians and Muslims and there is no future for the West Bank if it remains under occupation. What we want is freedom from occupation; we want our land, water and refugee rights.”
After coffee and fruit juice, but no sign of Zachariah who was detained by dealing with many of the social problems of the people of Jenin, I thanked the ten men who had gathered with me and my three escorts in the living room for their time and information and then my driver and I headed back to Jerusalem and some more eye opening checkpoint experiences.
At the Wad Elbedar Valley checkpoint the line of cars extended around the mountain, but my driver passed by and pulled in front of the first in line and we were almost immediately waved into the checkpoint area and after the usual questions of where I am from and why had I come, the soldier handed me back my passport with, “Welcome to Israel.”
After passing through the checkpoint we joined four lines of cars at least a mile long waiting to be funneled into one. It took 30 minutes for us to reach the road home, but the other four lanes of cars waiting to go where we had come from, never moved at all. The people passed their time visiting each other and laughing. I asked my driver to ask one of them how long they had been waiting, “They don’t pay attention to the time, this is normal procedure.”
When we reached the Nablus checkpoint the cars stretched at least a half a mile long and there was no side road for NGO’s and VIP’s, so my driver went down the rocky-pitted path and reached a phalanx of rolled barb wire. Somehow, he was able to maneuver around it and turn onto the road first in line at the checkpoint. We waited ten minutes but the soldiers never waved us on, so I got out and walked over to them. They appeared stunned as I approached and announced, “Hi, I am U.S.A. and need to get back to Jerusalem. Can’t you wave us through already?”
We immediately got the wave from the soldiers and with my biggest smile I handed over my passport to one who inquired, “Why are you here?”