Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank and can be reached at email@example.com
. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994).
update............breaking the fear...
We finally had a house visit of our cities uninvited guests. Sixteen fully armed Israeli soliders entered our home as part of the house to house searches that they have been carrying out for 4 days now in Ramallah, while we sit under 24-hr curfew.
Our home compromises of 3 flats. My in-laws live on the ground level, we live on the 1st floor and my parents on the 2nd. My wife, Abeer, and oldest daughter, Areen, spent all day baking to fill the time while under house arrest (in international law they call that "collective punishment"). It was 7:30pm when Areen wrapped a tray of the sweet "Haresah" that had just come out of the oven and was excited to send it to her grandmother in the flat below. When we are under curfew, like now, we use a basket and rope from our front porch to send things below since we are not allowed out of the house. When the basket swings into the door my in-laws know that they should open to see what we have lowered. This time Areen was alone on the porch and started lowering the basket when she saw a soldier's helmet at her grandmother's doorstep after the basket was half way down. She hurried and pulled the basket up and in and left the window wide open. She came running saying the soldiers are in our house. She was scared, more than she has been since we became under curfew. I had just got off the phone with Corky, a New York Daily News reporter, and was at my computer.
I went to the front window to see a lot of soldier's kneeling in front of the stone fence in front of our house. My dad happen to be with us at the time. As we sat to see what was going to happen our doorbell rang. When my wife answered via the intercom it was her mom saying that the soldiers are here and we should open the door. When we did no soldiers entered, only Fadwa, Abeer's mom. I met her in the stairway and she advised that they want one of us only to come downstairs. I proceeded to go see what was up. When I reached the doorsteps of my in-laws I looked in to see their porch packed tight with fully armed soldiers kneeling in a full alert position.
One soldier was kneeling at the doorway and trained his rifle on me as I approached. I greeted them and asked what is needed. He asked me if I spoke Hebrew and I told him English or Arabic. He proceeded in perfect English and asked who was upstairs. I answered that my family and father were there. He demanded that everyone come outside in front of the house. I asked if the children should come too because the weather was a little cool. He snapped back and said "everyone". I yelled upstairs and asked my family to come down and bring their ID papers with them. As I waited the soldier asked my mother-in-law where was Marwan Barghouti, as if she should know. I told him that although my mother-in-law has the same last name they are not related. I told him each are from a different village. He said, sarcastically, "no this is Ramallah". I answered back and advised him that he was in Al-Bireh not Ramallah and that my in-laws are from Dir Ghasannah and Marwan was from a village called Kober. He seemed to be confused so I just answered his original question and told him Marwan was in "your jail". He smirked and seemed to accept the answer, which is true.
My wife was now approaching with my daughters and father. Areen, my oldest daughter was shivering with fear. I held her and bought her in front of the soldiers who were absolutely crammed in the doorstep and porch all in the kneeling position, weapons pointed. I told her, "see they are just like us, they don't scare us." My father tried to comfort her too and told her the same. My father was itching to engage the soliders but we convinced him to pass this time so no one ended up sleeping in prison. Areen relaxed a bit, but did not say a word as the soldier in the doorstep demanded that my wife open the car garage. I told him the key was upstairs and she would need to get the key. He approved and as we sat waiting for Abeer I told the soldiers, " we have a long way to go yet." No one answered but 2 or 3 of the soldiers, young boys, shook their heads in agreement. We sat their looking at them, each looked as if they were fearing for there lives. They were in a foreign land in a stranger's house and had a whole Palestinian (that is terrorist) family in front of them. They just stared at us as we hugged our children trying to relax the shock and shed the fear.
As Abeer came with the key to the garage two soldiers asked her to open the garage (in international law they call that being "a human shield"). As she opened our empty garage, the soldiers, full of fear, entered step by step guns ready to fire. I could not tell if they were disappointed that they fund only dust or if it was a relief to them.
As the the two soldiers returned to the house, as we sat outside in the cool breeze, one soldier extended his hand with all of our ID's. My mother-in-law spoke to them in Arabic, she said, "maybe one day you will come back in time of peace and not be so scared". No one answered.
The lead soldier called for the soldiers to exit the house. On his way past us he quickly said "bye", as if he knew had did something wrong by violating our life. They left, one by one, in full alert. It turns out they had searched and taken refuge in every home of the house not just the porch. As they exited gunfire could be heard a little way up our street. It was another Israeli unit for sure but they took no chances moving slowly and cautiously back to the street. As the walked past us, one by one, each with a heavy weapon or radio equipment or backpack, my daughter just hugged me tight. As the last soldier left the house my father-in-law emerged and stood at the top of the steps. Frustrated, he bid them farewell and told them in broken English, "Be sure to come back tomorrow."
After they left we learned that they checked each room and closet of the first floor.
We returned to our home and Areen was much more relaxed. She came to us and said, "you know I used to be scared of them but not anymore." She went on, "you know, some of them look like nice people. I feel sorry for them with all those jackets and gloves and helmets, they must be so hot, maybe that's why they did not talk to us." I assured her that I'm sure they are nice people but Sharon forced them to come. I am struggling to make sure she does not view every Israeli, even those that violate the security of our home, as the enemy.
At last, the fear of those helmeted, armed soldiers running free in our streets has been broken. I was hoping for this day so my daughter will not live in fear of our future neighbors. Nadine my 2 year old daughter can hardly speak but she imitates the whole above episode in the most cutest accent and body language ever.
As we settled down after our daily dose of occupation, we joked that they could have stayed since we had some of the best sweets in Al- Bireh to offer. More seriously, tonight we will give our girls an extra hug and kiss good night, because we know how today could of ended if one of the soldiers in the street saw Areen lower a basket above the head of the soldier entering the house.
God help the next house they went to search.
Still under military curfew,
Jobless in Gaza By Amira Hass
Unemployed Palestinians are mobilizing. A demonstration is planned for July 1 and organizers hope workers from southern Gaza will join in marching to Arafat's seaside bureau
Unemployed workers in Khan Yunis are demanding that fruit stands be removed from the center of town because they are ashamed they can't afford to buy fruit for their children.
"They don't have anywhere to go during the summer vacation," F. complains, "so they roam the streets and see the piles of red and orange and yellow and ask if they are entitled to some fruit. As a father, I'm so ashamed."
The circle of unemployed workers begins to swell as each tries to outdo the other in explaining how unbearable the situation has become. One man searched through his pockets until he found a half-shekel coin together with an expired permit to work in Israel, which he still saves like a treasured memento. Another man said his Israeli boss owes him two months salary and is exploiting the closure to avoid paying him. A third man said that he had received his last salary via the bank but when he asked his employer if he was entitled to severance pay after three years of work, he was told "I didn't fire you, so it's not my responsibility."
Nonetheless, he added, his employer in Bat Yam does send him a little money to tide him over until he can return to work. "We've sold everything in the house, nothing is left," someone else laments.
The unemployed workers, most of whom had jobs in Israel until the intifada began, are starting to make their voices heard. About five weeks ago, workers in the northern Gaza Strip set up protest tents on the main road, Saladin, leading from the Erez crossing - one at the entrance to Beit Hanun, another on the road to Jabalya and a third inside Jabalya. "Why don't you protest in Gaza City, near the government offices? After all, almost no one passes by here." they were asked.
The answer couldn't be more simple - they don't have the four shekels for the round trip to Gaza every day. Several members of the Palestinian legislative council visited them, made declarations, expressed support, and no more. The workers themselves came up with this initiative for protest tents and then contacted several activists in Palestinian non-government organizations. Gradually, additional protest tents were erected - in the Shati refugee camp, in Khan Yunis, and in the Nuseirat refugee camp.
A demonstration is planned for July 1 and this time the organizers hope that unemployed workers from the southern Gaza Strip will join in marching to Arafat's seaside bureau. Committees have been organized and banners printed that proclaim "We want work and wages. We don't want handouts."
In the protest tents and opposite the Palestinian legislative council building in Gaza, the protesters talked and argued with passersby, expressing nostalgia for the past and fears about the future. One person told this story: "The prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, once saw a poor man sitting at the corner of the street. He asked who the man was and was told `He´s a Jew, a non-believer.´ The prophet said: `He used to work for you. Take him and attend to his needs.´" Others called out in response: "We built Israel. Who built Sharon´s ranch? We built it."
Since 1967, Israel's economic policy regarding the territories, and especially the Gaza Strip, has been based on two principles - bringing cheap Palestinian labor into Israel and preventing the development of an independent economic sector in the territories. (The latter was achieved by restrictive laws and by blocking the development of infrastructure, despite the fact that Palestinians paid taxes to the state). So the families of those working in Israel achieved relative economic prosperity on a personal level, while the community as a whole remained economically backward.
In Israeli in the 1970s it was hoped this economic dependence would prevent separation and that personal economic welfare would deflect any nationalist ideas about political independence. Even in the optimistic days of Oslo, economists explained that this dependence still existed and that even if development plans went ahead with a hitch, it would still require many years to create new jobs. Thus, economic stability in the territories - and especially in the Gaza Strip
- depended on jobs in Israel. No one considered the possibility that this source of livelihood would disappear.
Whenever someone in the crowd tried to point a finger toward the Palestinian Authority, there was always someone who tried to shut him up. "The Jewish journalist is just interested in criticism of the PA," someone argued. But then the opposite view gained strength, especially outside the Palestinian legislative council. "I'm not afraid, let them arrest me," one person said, "but I'll tell the truth."
Last Wednesday, several Palestinian legislators looked out upon the demonstrators from a tall balcony and spoke words of encouragement. The workers looked from below and began losing patience. They silenced the speakers with shouts and by banging on pots. "Everyone talks - we don't believe them," the workers explained. "Write, write," they urged, "Why doesn't Palestinian television come to our tent? Why doesn't the Palestinian media write about us?"
Representatives of the Palestinian's "Histadrut" - the Association of Palestinian Workers' Unions, were noticeable absent among the protesters. These union officials, who are Fatah members and get salaries from the PA, distributed what was called "an Arafat grant" to unemployed workers at the beginning of the intifada.
But there were accusations that some of these "grants" were being passed on to associates of senior labor officials. These charges were difficult to prove, but reflected the widespread feelings of distrust.
Disappointment was also in store of course for anyone who believed the Arab states would continue forever to pay unemployment compensation each month for the approximately 100,000 workers in the territories who were registered as workers in Israel. Workers are still asking, "Where is the money going?" and suspect that it's going into the pockets of senior officials.
But the monthly donations of the Arab governments (and Europe) cover about 65 percent of the PA's operating budget and non- government contributions are transferred to a network of charitable organizations supervised by the Palestinian Interior Ministry.
This month, the PA has not yet even paid the salaries of 125,000 public sector employees because the donations earmarked for this expense have not arrived. Many of these public sector employees were in need of food packages this month, just like the unemployed workers.
Nonetheless, the poverty and despair of the unemployed workers is making them more suspicious and engendering exaggerated accusations: "When the wages of the officials are late by two weeks, they raise a tremendous cry to the heavens," one unemployed worker said. "But we're already 22 months without salaries."
When a senior official appears before them and tries to convince them that "there's no money," the workers ask, "so how was he able to buy a plot of land now?" or "he sends his children abroad to study, while I can't even send my son to the Al-Quds Open University," or "he feeds his dog two chickens a day, and I don't remember the last time I was able to give my children chicken to eat."
Since the early 1970s, the Israeli authorities have collected social security (bituah leumi) from the Palestinians at the same rate as Israeli workers. But individual Palestinians have received only a small part of these social security benefits (sick pay and worker's compensation). They did get unemployment benefits. When challenged in court on this policy, the state claimed that social security taxes collected from the Palestinians were collectively used for the development of the territories, but had difficulty documenting this allocation and development.
The Oslo negotiators in 1994 decided that the social security collected in the past from Palestinians, together with the sums to be collected in the future, would be transferred to a special PA fund dedicated to the welfare of Palestinians employed in Israel. But the PA never created this fund and has never provided a clear answer to explain this neglect. Thus, the money the workers continued to pay for social security was never passed along by Israel to the PA.
PA officials have kept a watchful eye on the protest activities of the unemployed workers, who say that the authorities have sent "spies" to their tents and that some of the activists have been promised jobs. The unemployed workers have set their hopes on the new finance minister, Salam Fiad, a native of Tul Karm who formerly represented the International Monetary Fund in the territories and is regarded as "an American appointment." Some of the workers noted that the Americans are interested in returning Palestinian laborers to Israel "because they understand how dangerous poverty is to stability."
"On the border of the Gaza Strip, young people are killed by IDF fire and it is said that they were going to carry out a terror attack, but they were actually one their way to look for work," one man says.
A resident of Jabalya, whose family came from a village where Kibbutz Dorot is now located, adds: "I don't want my land back. Land belongs to God. I want to work and live." A third man joins in: "Doesn't Israel understand how dangerous poverty is to everyone? Does Israel think it can throw us out? This situation makes everyone want to explode. I'm convinced that every one that blew himself up has an unemployed brother." http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=1806
Sam Bahour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994)