Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Visiting the West Bank

In front of the Dome of the Rock, 1978
In 1978, I first visited the Occupied West Bank of Israel. At the same time, Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat, US president Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin were conducting negotiations at Camp David in advance of the Peace Accords They were signed on September 17 of that year. Their meetings were an extraordinary event, but I will admit my knowledge of happenings in the Middle East more or less stopped at the founding of Israel and the PLO, the latter having the words 'terrorist' attached, symbolized in newspapers by their leader Yasser Arafat. The wars, the refugee camps, the bombings, of these I knew few details. I was a stewardess, a high school graduate, I had only traveled to Europe. My education in world politics, poverty and power had yet to begin.

In that year, 1978, I was living in Washington, DC, and befriended a Jordanian neighbor in my apartment building. Through him, I met a Palestinian woman and we became good friends. She invited me to travel with her to the West Bank to visit her family. We flew into Amman, Jordan, on Alia, the Royal Jordanian Airlines. Upon arrival, we were met by Jordanian officials as my friend had good government connections: she worked for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, DC, and her husband was with the Qatar Consulate. A chauffeured government car took us to the border of Jordan and the West Bank where we walked across the Jordan River via the Allenby Bridge, also known as the King Hussein Bridge, into Jericho.

We were each escorted to security checkpoints by armed Israeli soldiers: I went to the foreigners side (I was the only one going through at that time) while she went through security set up for Arabs. In advance, my friend had given me all of her gifts and jewelry, much of it gold, much of it religious, for safe keeping as on previous trips these items had been confiscated. We met up at the exits and then traveled by taxi to her husband's family's house outside of Jerusalem. As we arrived, a sheep was slaughtered, its throat slit as we watched. My friend and I stepped over the bleeding animal and thus were officially welcomed 'home.'  Like many Palestinians, this was not their ancestral home, that had been taken away. After a few days, we moved to my friend's parent's house for the remainder of our two-week stay.
Palestinian women, the Old City Wall, Jerusalem, 1978

I was treated rather well by all government officials and family members we met - my friend said this was because I was American and Carter was conducting peace negotiations! I attended a wedding, fascinated by the celebratory  'trilling' sounds the women made with their tongues. We went to Nablus and Ramallah and visited holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Thankfully, we also laughed together at my cultural gaffs: the morning after our arrival, I lazily slept in and took my time dressing in the small single room I occupied, probably displacing several family members. I emerged around 11AM to see the entire family seated on the floor around a huge engraved brass platter filled with two dozen small plates of beans, hummus, lamb, salads of cucumbers and tomatoes and much more. Everyone had politely been waiting for me to rise so they could eat breakfast!

As I had little first-hand knowledge of the Arab-Israeli 'problems,' the road blocks and check points with armed guards, the random stops by soldiers who asked, "where's your ID?" and the everyday anxiety and inconvenience, the emotional toll, of these security measures was a sometimes frightening eye opener. On a family outing, my friend's siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents piled into a rented bus, the older women carrying small stools to sit on in the aisles. Everyone sang and the elders were particularly merry. All of this family joy was periodically interrupted when we were stopped by Israeli soldiers, marched off the bus, had our identification's checked, and then climbed back on the bus to continue our journey. At home, most nights we stayed in because it was just 'too much trouble,' as my friend put it, to go out. OK, my education had begun. Now what?

What to do?
I earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. I regularly lecture and show films on this still volatile, complex situation in the Middle East. It is not simply a case of 'right and wrong,' and I am the last person in the world to offer suggestions for a solution. What I do know is that because of the political situation, many people continue to suffer, including women and children. What to do?

The Palestinian Children's Relief Fund is a non-political, non-profit organization dedicated to fighting the medical and humanitarian crisis facing children in the Middle East. It was established in 1991 by concerned people in the U.S. to address the medical and humanitarian crisis facing Palestinian youths. It has since expanded to help suffering children from other Middle Eastern nations like Iraq, based only on their medical needs.

The PCRF helps to locate free medical care for children from the Middle East who are unable to get the necessary and specialized treatment in their homeland. The main objective of the P.C.R.F. is to identify and treat every child in the Middle East in need of specialized surgery not available to them locally. Endorsed by former US president Jimmy Carter and actor Richard Gere, among others, the PCRF also supports empowerment programs for widowed mothers with large families in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. Also in Lebanon,  the PCRF distributes specialized wheelchairs to disabled people, provides food and milk to several daycare centers, distributes powdered milk and diapers to needy families, and locates sponsors for disabled youths so that they can obtain the medicine and supplies that their families cannot afford.

I am also on the mailing list of the Palestinian American Congress and received the following information via email this week: whatever your politics, helping those in need by empowering widows, educating refugee children, giving needed medical care and food to those who suffer, these things must be done regardless. For more on this topic, read also Israelis and Palestinians: Soldiers, Children and War.

On July 25, Dr. Diachi Morioka, a plastic surgeon from Tokyo, Japan completed a two-week mission at the Thabet Thabet Hospital in Tulkarem and Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis. Dr. Morioka has been on several past missions to Palestine through the PCRF and treated dozens of burned and deformed children in need of plastic and reconstructive surgery otherwise not available to them locally. Hundreds of Palestinian children remain waiting for specialized reconstructive surgery due to the high number of traumatic injuries for youths there, as well as the lack of specialists. Dr. Morioka last volunteered with the PCRF in 2010. 

Dr. Diachi Morioka, 2011

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