Saturday, February 17, 2007

Nescafe and Satyagraha (thank you John Lennon)

What the world needs now is Instant Karma that comes in a cheap glass container with a free mug shrink-wrapped to a cardboard carton that contains both free gift mug and bottle of blunt powdered consequences. Just like Nescafe’, which, as Salahadin tells me, is advertised in Israel as “The Miracle Coffee.” Even though Salahadin goes sad-eyed and quiet when I ask him about nonviolent resistance, saying “Ah yes, Satyagraha. . .” as if it were some lost love of childhood, forever gone, moved to Cairo beyond the Green Line and the Israeli army, shot by a sniper while trying to rescue a wounded child in the refugee camp, bulldozed while incarnated as the spirit of an ancient olive tree. . . although conversation drifts and we never again speak of Satyagraha. . . everyone is awed by Nescafe’.

When Linus mentions Jabu Shabia, the old Palestinian socialist party, Yosef replies: “In the past we needed Jabu Shabia. Now maybe we need Islamic Jihad.” But what we really need is Instant Karma.

Instant Karma: it’s better than Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda, the Israeli Occupation Force, and the Republican party all rolled into one. As soon as you finish a cup, you immediately experience the full and complete consequences of all your actions.

It will be incredibly popular, since everyone is certain that their own hands are clean and they are right. A global advertising campaign can be arranged via satellite TV, internet, billboards, and newspapers. Like Nescafe’ and Coca Cola, Instant Karma will be equally popular with rich and poor, Arab and American, Buddhist and atheist.

So you want to know exactly where you stand on the divine scale of judgment, exactly how your actions balance between absolute Good and absolute Evil? Try a refreshing cup of Instant Karma. No longer shall you bite your nails from guilt or neurosis. All shall be revealed. Only 10 cents a cup when you buy the one pound can, or one dollar made hot for you and served in a plastic cup at your local convenience store.


Jenin, a mid-sized town in the northern West Bank, spreads across foothills covered with pine and olive trees onto a flat plain of agricultural fields. Other, smaller, villages lie in the surrounding hills and on the valley floor. Jenin is the urban hub of this surrounding area, politically similar to a township in the Eastern U.S. This locality is called the Jenin Area. Prior to the second, or Al Aqsa, intifada Jenin was an economic center, a place where people came to do business. Many traveled from Israel to shop here.

The ecosystem is akin to the high desert of eastern Oregon and Washington: dry, rocky, scrub bushes, hardy plants, grasses, tough dry pines similar to digger pines in the west central California hills, and, of course, olive trees. The colors of the land in February are grass green, olive leaf silver-grey, beige sandstone streaked with orange, blue, peach, goat-brown, wild flower reds and purples and yellows. The land is not wild as it is in America: sheep and goats have grazed here for thousands of years, olive orchards are terraced into hillsides, oranges and lemons planted in valleys. The land is broken in, worn, worked like an old pair of boots.

Anyone will tell you that there are many problems in Jenin. Of course there are many problems everywhere, but their shape varies according to locality. Few people outside Palestine grasp the scale of the killings, the systematic destruction of infrastructure, the various human costs of occupation. Even less are conscious of the environmental tragedies which result directly from occupation. Perhaps this should be a truism: people grow from and are sustained by the ecosystem in the same ways as trees and animals; thus our survival is absolutely dependent on the well being of the species we share the land with, and our violent colonialism disturbs the ecosystem just as it disrupts human lives. Yosef, a policeman from the nearby village of Berqin, explained some of the environmental problems in this area: in the past, gazelles lived in the forests and orchards. They are disappearing. Pesticides from a settlement near the village of Anin wash downhill into a canal which runs through town. Children play in this canal. Pesticides also contaminate Anin’s drinking water. Brain cancer rates are abnormally high in that village.

A local man described occupation this way: “They want the land without the people.” It is a colonial process, similar in ways to how North America was stolen from its native peoples. Land and resources are annexed by force. For example, a section of field, olive orchard, and pine forest will soon become inaccessible to the residents of Abba. Two settlements were built in the hills above Abba. Settlements are usually built on hilltops. There are various reasons for this, not the least of which is military: like forts, these colonies have a commanding view of the land around them, and are in good position to shoot Palestinians who approach. A road already goes to both the settlements by Abba, but another road is being built. This “settlement bypass road” will cut off farmers from their land and people from their local forest. Settlement roads around Abba are patrolled by Israeli army jeeps and armored personnel carriers. Palestinians would have to risk being shot, arrested, or abused in order to tend their orchards.

Problems here are layered like trash in an abandoned lot: an existing road to these same settlements runs through the middle of town, bisecting the Palestinian road from east to west Abba. Soldiers often park jeeps and APCs on the settlement road, arbitrarily blocking grade school children and teachers from attending class.

A friend once told me, “all wars are wars of acquisition.” The goal of occupation is blindingly clear: take the land, take the resources, and destroy whoever and whatever gets in the way. The question of how religious, ethnic, or ancient this conflict may be does not excuse continued land theft and human rights violations. History is a text which we may learn from, which we can use to formulate creative solutions to present-day problems. History should not be fuel to feed the fires of continued oppression. If Israel seriously wants to end bombing attacks in Haifa and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must first be ended. As Frederico, an Israeli citizen activist in Tel Aviv, says, “ending the occupation is the minimum, not the maximum but the absolute minimum.” In real terms this means withdrawing all military support to settlements outside of Israel’s pre 1967 borders (the Green Line) and ending all military invasion of the West Bank and Gaza. Since this land was annexed and placed under military occupation after the 1967 war, settlements have constantly increased. Settlement growth continued unabated in the years immediately following the 1996 Oslo peace agreement, and continues unabated to this day. This colonization sucks money from the Israeli treasury and provokes violent Palestinian resistance.

Armed resistance takes various forms including bombings directed at military installations and settlements in the occupied territories, as well as civilian targets within Israel. Fighters also shoot at tanks and jeeps which block their roads and invade their home towns. Palestinian resistance is vastly outgunned. Fighters have rifles, material for a few bombs, and the odd rocket or mortar. Palestine is very poor. Israel receives billions of dollars annually in U.S. military aid, in the form of free money grants and loans. This is tax money paid by the American people.

In April 2002, the Israeli army invaded Jenin refugee camp, destroyed 200 homes, and killed 52 people. This incident has been called a massacre, a Palestinian propaganda lie, and a tragic consequence of modern urban war tactics. Walking down the road from old Jenin to Jenin camp one can see wrecked shops, broken cider block structures charred black, shattered windows in apartment buildings, and a sha’hiid graveyard surrounded by eucalyptus and orange trees, decorated with colorful banners, flowers, and sentimental offerings left by mourners. It is just like any graveyard anywhere except that the colors are brighter and all the people buried in it died because of occupation.

The day before yesterday tanks drove into the center of Jenin. They drove down the main street into town, turned around, drove away, turned around, came back, shot a10 year old boy in the leg, and left. I saw him at the hospital. Maybe he threw a rock at the tank; maybe not. Later that night another child came by the ISM apartment. He wore a plaster cast on his left foot and used a broom handle for a crutch. He is an otherwise healthy 12 year old with a mischievous playful glint in his eyes. Soldiers shot him in the foot from a tank.

Downtown Jenin is busy with shops, bakeries, falafel stands, outdoor fruit and vegetable vendors, yellow and pink signs in calligraphic Arabic, carefully stacked piles of strawberries, bananas hanging like chandeliers in clumps on thick green stalks, men sitting, drinking tea, fiddling with Islamic prayer beads, eating, Mercedes taxis, the occasional Volkswagen beetle or van. This is a passionate, social culture. People sit close together, touch each other often. Life goes on in all its confusion and beauty despite military invasions. With careful attention, however, one can see street signs crushed into twisted scrap metal, bullet holes in supporting columns, places where asphalt has been broken by tank treads.

People here know the U.S. gives money and guns to the Israeli army. It’s obvious: the apache helicopters which sometimes fly overhead and fire into houses, the M-16s, the F-16s, the bombs—all are made in America. Sometimes people call the tanks American tanks or joke that the bombs say “made in America” on them. One local man said to me, “the American people are unintentionally responsible for our suffering. People want to talk to me specifically because I am American. Many are visibly angry and hurt. “Why Bush?” they ask, “Why does America want to make war on Iraq, when Israel and North Korea have nuclear weapons?” Some think that Clinton as better than Bush. All have far more comprehensive knowledge of U.S. foreign policy than the average American. My international companions can simply say, “I’m from Sweden,” or “I’m from Denmark.” No problem; no Swedish-made aircraft scream through the sky firing missiles into town. But it has become routine for me to say, by way of introduction, “My name is William. I am from America. Bush is bad, Bush is crazy.” This is the best I can convey in broken Arabic how I do not support a racist U.S. policy of world domination which includes support for the occupation of Palestine and war on Iraq.

It is wonderful how virtually everyone here understands the difference between the people of a nation and its government. Hopefully more Americans will grasp this distinction soon. Today I went into a small metal shop to ask for water. Of course the workers invited me to sit and drink coffee. Surrounded by engines in various states of disassembly, welding projects, an oxyacetylene torch, and sundry tools of the trade, I sat with Nasser and Mahkmood. When informed that I am from America, Nasser said, “We understand that the problem is with the government of America, the government of Israel, the government of Iraq, and the government of Palestine, not with the people. You are welcome here.” The danger in Jenin does not spring from being an American, although people may judge you based on this national origin. The real danger lies in being mistaken for an Israeli soldier or collaborator by locals, or in being shot by the Israeli army.

Generally people respect me for the same reason they respect me anywhere: because I behave respectfully toward them. Yosef Al Doctor (Yosef the doctor), a 23 year old man from Jenin refugee camp, recently began calling me “William Bush.” At first I got angry and tried to explain that I don’t support U.S. imperialism. He kept it up, so I called him “Yosef Arafat.” He replied, “Yosef Sharon. . . Arafat is worse that Sharon.” After that we got along much better and just messed with each other’s heads. He still calls me William Bush.

FUCKED UP SHIT: Talking with Israeli Anarchist Kids

It was an international convergence, an Israeli-American peace summit, it was three boys in a room talking truth and politics, it was coffee and youth and brilliance and hunger. Of course that is why I liked the way Frederico said “FUCK” with a Latin-Jewish accent, “FUCKED UP,” he said and “FUCK THAT,” and “It’s no fucking question Israel should end settlements and get out of the entire West Bank and Gaza. That’s the minimum, not the maximum.”

Perhaps it is because his father, a member of an Argentinean guerilla organization*, was killed by the government’s army that Frederico understands how politics really should be discussed: with words that come from the gut, the asshole, the genitals, words loaded with desire and disgust and shock value. That’s the kind of business politics is: a fucking shit business.

As a friend once told me, “All wars are wars of acquisition.” Ain’t that the fucking truth, the simple primal secret disguised now in grey pinstripe suits woven from money and broken promises, camouflaged in army fatigues and decorated with gold stars and iron crosses, disguised in the rhetorical webs of academic historical bullshit routines. This is a fact everyone should know like they know the smell of their own armpits: wars, colonizations, and occupations are about fucking people over and stealing their shit.

* * *

*Rodrigo Vasquez, who is from Argentina and who produces the British documentary television show “Dispatches,” told me that this guerilla organization included many Jews who were members of the Argentine elite prior to a military coup, during which the Israeli government sold weapons to the militants who slaughtered Argentine Jews. There is no a memorial to Argentine Jews killed by weapons sold by the Israeli government in a forest in Israel which was stolen from the Palestinian Arabs. . . more fucked up shit in the tangled web of history.

* * *Notes from e-mail dialogue with a friend:

Will: “What do you think about nonviolent direct action, it’s potential and uses?”

A: “The nonviolent good ones are slaughtered like dogs. Hopefully their martyr’s flame extends to guide others out of the darkness.”


M is for Mcdonalds. Billions and billions served. After navigating Erez, the border crossing from Gaza into Israel, Ramone and I hitched ride coming from a nearby settlement, a white double-cab four-wheel-drive pickup—just like in America. The driver was a man, maybe 35 years old, baseball cap and mirror sunglasses. He was friendly in the way that men who have money and like to have fun are friendly. If he was American he would watch baseball, drink beer with his buddies, maybe even snowboard. All I did was point down the road and there he was, like magic, with his kind-hearted middle-class beauty of a girlfriend. Maybe they eat at Mcdonalds on occasion, when they are in a hurry. She was visibly disturbed when I described the situation in Rafah.

She asked, “Do they have public transportation there?”

I said no, they have taxis. Every car is a taxi, or at least that is how it seems. And every taxi is a Mercedes diesel. Gazans are sensible about cars: a Mercedes diesel holds the world record for mileage. Someone drove it for a million miles before it died. So Mercedes diesels are good if you know that you will never have any money to buy a new car and you have to drive taxi every day to live. It’s what you would call a good investment.

M is for Mcdonalds. That’s where the driver of that pickup dropped us off. The Mcdonalds was in a bus station in Ashqelon. Earlier the driver said, “I’ve been to Gaza. I used to go often. I like Palestinians. I used to have a lot of Palestinians who worked for me.”

Now he doesn’t go to Gaza and he have any Palestinian workers. That’s because the Israeli government and army make it very difficult for Israelis to go there and for Palestinians to leave. There is a general travel ban. It means economic warfare, less jobs, less money, more poverty for Gazans.

M is for Mcdonalds. Billions and billions of cubic yards of rainforest ecosystem destroyed to make way for beef cattle. Billions and billions of underpaid non-union workers. Billions and billions of dollars trickling upward into the bank accounts of bosses CEOs and stockholders. Billions and billions more spent on advertising. Don’t those Palestinians have any sense? They should buy stock in Mcdonalds and forget about the Intifada. But people like them probably don’t have the fiscal know-how to manage a well balanced portfolio. That’s okay: Mcdonalds is a place for everyone. It’s a dream of free-market utopia. If they would just grow up and realize there is no future in Gaza, and if those A-rabs would quit their bickering and their terrorism and act like civilized adults, all this conflict would be unnecessary. All the people in Palestine could be relocated to post-war Iraq. Once the USA is done over there, that whole country will be bombed down to bedrock. Everyone knows that bedrock provides a solid foundation for pouring concrete. Mcdonalds would be glad to build concrete factories in post-war Iraq and put all the Palestinians to work grinding up South American rainforest beef into hamburger. Or Gaza could be turned into a big Free Trade Zone and they could all go to work in clean, sanitary, modern factories making paper cartons for Big Macs. Everybody knows that Mcdonalds cares about the environment: that is why Big Macs come in paper cartons instead of styrofoam. Styrofoam is bad for the ozone.

M is for Mcdonalds. Ramone orders a Big Mac meal and I order a coffee. After extensive experimentation and research, I have concluded that there are only three redeeming aspects to Western Civilization: coffee, chocolate, and booze. All three are poisons in disguise. I’ll tell you a secret: Mcdonalds spends almost as much money on the coffee as they do on the food. So the coffee is not quite as bad as one might expect.

S is for Soldier, Sha’hiid, Security, and Sacrifice. Sha’hiid means martyr, means someone who dies because of the Occupation. There are security guards outside Mcdonalds in Israel. They have metal detectors and pistols. They are there to make the world safe for a pathetic illusion of democracy which rings false like the glossy pornographic ad images of juicy burgers dripping technicolor mustard and vibrant crimson ketchup. They are there to make the world safe for work place tyranny, low wages, and the oxymoron of ‘Free Market Capitalism’ wherein nothing is free, not even trash. Soldiers are what warriors become when they lose their honor, put on a uniform, and go to work for money or because the government coerces them to fight.

Soldiers are fighters who don’t understand jihad: jihad is action in service of community and the divine creator. Fighting is actually the least desirable form af jihad. The problem with war today not that wars are happening, it is that they are fought in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Wars, like funerals, are solemn affairs, seldom desirable and usually occasions of unfortunate sorrow. What the hell kind of war is Kalashnikovs and rocks against tanks and nuclear bombs anyway? What the hell kind of war is missiles with a 100 mile range operated by an army too broke from ten years of economic sanctions to buy spare parts for its tanks against ICBM nukes, spy satellites, and stealth bombers? Lousy no count dishonorable war. All fighters with self respect should avoid it like plague.

Mcdonalds is where cows go when all their dignity is robbed, when they are killed with no respect for the life within them. The problem with hamburgers today is not that cows are killed to make them, it is that no one says thank you to the cows. The epidemic spread of Mcdonalds on earth is symptomatic of a planetary spiritual malaise much more devastating than E coli. There are too damn many soldiers, too much security, and too many sha’hiid.

S is for Sacrifice. What is the meaning of sacrifice?

Finally, once and for all, let me ask you what the world trade center bombing has to do with this or anything? Fellow Americans, perhaps 9-11 is best regarded as an emergency wake-up call. Like this: your phone rings like an explosion, you answer, and someone tells you in a language you neither speak nor understand that you are part of a larger world, that many people live in this world, and billions of us are enraged by the secret fingers of USA, of CIA, of covert military operations, training programs for killer militias, loan-shark weapons dealers who get rich providing machines to kill, economic and military aid to dictatorial thugs from Saddam Hussein to Auguste Pinochet and beyond, the gunmoney tentacles of USA have killed their mothers, sisters, sons, tortured their friends, sentenced their fathers and daughters to wage slavery, destroyed their homes. Sometimes in Gaza they say it says “Made in America” on the bombs which fall from the Made in America F-16s.

It is time to start learning the language this warning is given in, and simply condemning a language as evil is not how to learn it. Do you actually believe that sad line about suicide bombers being cowards who are afraid to fight fair and in the open? Consider, for a moment, the total dedication necessary to willingly die for what you are fighting for. How does this compare with the courage it takes to sit in a cockpit thousands of feet above the ground, facing erratic salvos of inaccurate fire from antique anti-aircraft guns, knowing your chances of surviving the war are as good as your chance of surviving the commute to work through traffic, and to press a button that releases a missile? Perhaps ‘suicide bombers’ are desperate people who know full well that their suffering is a direct consequence of U.S. imperialism.

C is for Coca-cola. Rachel sees a Coca-cola delivery truck parked on a narrow Arab street. “Our embassy,” she says. Poison in disguise.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The People


Mohammed comes over at ten. He knocks firm and quiet on the grey steel door. That is how I know it is Mohammed and not some errant kid up past his bedtime on a mission to bother the foreigners. They are like boys who turn over a rotten log, discover some mysterious creature, a salamander, a toad, a centipede, then poke it with a stick to see what it does. Poke, poke. If the salamander does not move, they poke it again to see if it will move this time; if it moves, they poke it again to continue the entertainment. We are salamanders to them, mysterious with our bleached skin and our English and our strange habits. They tug at my clothes, open my backpack, stand smiling, hands extended, saying “Hello, how are you?” in a pantomime of adulthood.

“Money, money!” they say, “Give me money!”

Sometimes nice younger boys will want to hold my hand. Sometimes they will yell, throw rocks, hit me with hands and plastic pipes. It can be maddening, to be mobbed by 10 or 15 boys aged 6 to 12, grabbed, hit, screamed at. One afternoon I lay alone in the apartment I share with several other international activists, listening to the sound of children’s voices whirling like cyclone winds in the street outside. This vocal cacophony was occasionally punctuated by staccato gunfire from Israeli soldiers in the guard towers on the perimeter of Rafah. The streets and empty lots serve as playgrounds, often lifeless urban terrain with plastic trash instead of rotten logs, a far cry from my own backwoods American childhood.

Shebab means loosely ‘youth’ and this term is applied to adolescent boys and young men. Like many boys in this age group anywhere, many of the shebab are looking for trouble. Many of them are also wonderful human beings. Technically Mohammed is a shebab, although his manner is exceptionally calm. He is 20, but seems older.

Perhaps the fact that 10 of his close friends were killed in the past two years makes him wise rather than simply intelligent. Perhaps he would be wise even if he was born into suburban New Hampshire; some people are at 20 regardless of the circumstances in which they live. In any case, Mohammed arrives at 10 with a quiet Arabic-speaking friend. The three of us sit in the apartment and talk until midnight.

* * *

Today was the first day of a 3-day Islamic holiday which commemorates the Koranic story in which Ibrahim is asked by Allah to sacrifice his son. As Mohammed tells the story, Ibrahim trusts Allah and agrees to willingly sacrifice his beloved son because he understands that human souls dwell temporarily in physical bodies. We come from Allah and after death we return to Allah; therefore if god asks for our bodies, it is right to give them. God, not humanity, creates bodies.

This celebration centers around slaughtering animals and sharing meat. Last night cows were tied in the street; this morning they were killed and the meat was distributed to families. Much of this meat goes to poor families who cannot afford to buy meat. People eat and visit their extended families. It is a holiday, similar in ways to Thanksgiving in the U.S.

Nonetheless, I was slightly shocked to look out the window this morning and see five men and boys hacking energetically at the skinned carcass of a steer with knives and cleavers. All those red muscles sprawled on the paving stones, right there under the open sky in the shadow of monolithic grey apartment blocks. . . and then to step through rivulets of crimson en route to wash my clothes. Some vegetarian internationals were repulsed by this spectacle, but I was intrigued and impressed. I like eating meat, and believe that it is good to know and understand the consequences of your actions. The consequence of eating meat is that animals must be killed—is it better to do this openly, while remembering an educational myth, or to hide the killing in factories, fatten the animals in cramped feedlots, pump them full of hormones and antibiotics, then slaughter them secretly with machines?

Eat the sickly flesh of prepackaged frozen hamburger patties and remain docile and ignorant of chickens whose beaks are burned off and who live out jailed lives in tiny cages stacked like urban apartments then are killed by underpaid factory workers on an assembly line of mechanical knives? I prefer to see carcasses hanging flayed in a meat market and blood in the street. Mohammed explains that there are Islamic laws which dictate the proper way to kill animals—quickly, respectfully, while acknowledging the divine gifts of life, bodies, and food.

* * *

Arabic is rich with references to Allah. They hang in conversation like the calligraphic Koran texts which decorate homes and offices here. God is audible and ubiquitous: Insha’allah (god willing) is often included in any statement of future plans. The insha’allah factor allows for the possibility of unpredictable events, not the least of which are the effects of occupation. It implies an understanding that we are not the absolute masters of our own destiny. Ya’allah means ‘oh my god.’ Ham’dula’allah means ‘thanks be to god.’ This is often said after eating a meal, and when someone asks “How are you?” “Thanks to god, I am good, I am happy.” Or simply “Thanks to god.”

Mohammed once said, “For the good and for the bad, Ham dula’allah.” He is wise.

It is as easy to love a language in which hello and goodbye both contain wishes for peace as it is to admire the grace and passion of shebab who call each other habibi al haj. Habibi means someone you love, a term of endearment; haj is someone who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca; habibi al haj is something like sanctified friendship. The shebab gesture with an open hand to their hearts when greeting and sometimes carry Kalashnikov rifles. . . and far too often end up staring out from within the red, white and green borders of sha’hiid posters.

Sha’hiid means martyr, anyone, man, woman, child, fighter or ambulance driver or grandmother, who dies because of occupation. Sha’hiid posters show a photo of the deceased person. Often they are made by one of the Palestinian political factions, either because the dead belonged to that faction or because his or her family had no money to pay print costs or because the political parties use the dead to gain popularity or all of the above. These posters are pasted on walls all over town. They show men and boys of all ages. Although women become sha’hiida, few get posters.

Insha’allah there will be no new sha’hiid in Rafah tonight.


No word is more mistranslated, misused, misunderstood, and twisted out of context than jihad. American newspapers, magazines, radio and television programs translate jihad as ‘holy war’, as the Islamic equivalent of crusade. Using the term in this context perpetuates the popular fallacy that Islam is a religion or war, as Mohammed puts it “a religion spread by the sword.” Of course every religion has as many faces as it has believers, and Islam can present a Kalashnikov and human bomb face, just as Judaism can show an Uzi, armored home-demolishing bulldozer and invading tank face, and Christianity can grimace and growl nuclear missiles, apache helicopters, and F-16s. Nonetheless, the actual sacred text of these religions, all three of which are rooted in the land called Palestine and Israel, value peace over war.

A more accurate translation of jihad is ‘community service,’ not ‘holy war.’ Mohammed tells me it comes from a root word meaning ‘effort’ or ‘action.’ He explains, “If you find a stone blocking the road, and move it out of the way so people can pass, that is jihad. . . or if you help an old person to cross the street.” Jihad is action in service of Allah and the community. This action can take many forms, one of which is to defend or protect the community by fighting.


Later in Jenin I see more blood in the street. This time it is from a young man named Seshan, not a cow. Human blood and cow’s blood look exactly the same when flowing over pavement. Seshan was a high school senior, a football star, and a good student. Ironically, or appropriately, the name of his high school is Salaam school—the school of peace. He was not a fighter. I went to the traditional house of mourning held by his family: Arabic coffee, strong and black and cardamom scented, warmed in brass pots nestled in a charcoal brazier. People crying with quiet pride and sorrow. The family gave me a color photograph of his sha’hiid poster. “Our son is not a terrorist,” Seshan’s father said. His face in the photo is gentle, a student’s face. He wears a sweater with the letter A across the front. Fighters pose with guns, dressed up in paramilitary hero drag. They are proud to fight, and, in death, do not have to hide this.

Fighter sha’hiid are undoubtedly given the terrible gift of a warrior’s death. When you are prevented from visiting your grandmother by armed foreign soldiers although she lives only 5 miles from your doorstep, when your kid brother is crippled for life by machine gun fire from a tank parked on Main Street, when your family is evicted and your house demolished to make way for a wall of concrete and barbed wire guarded by snipers in armored towers, there is no doubt what you are fighting against.

Environment shapes human lives, and certain conditions support the armed resistance. All armed resistance is not the same. There are human bombers who go outside the Green Line into Israel and detonate in public places such as shopping malls, cafes, and on buses. Always these kill civilians. There are bombers who attack military installations. Others target settlements. There are fighters who operate within the West Bank and Gaza, shooting at tanks, planting mines, etc. No soldier of an occupying army on duty within an occupied land is a civilian. And the settlers who occupy houses on land so recently stolen from Palestinian villages and farmers, who are often heavily armed, what are they?

* * *

Doctor Khalil Suleyman, a respected and loved physician from Jenin who taught anatomy at a nearby university and worked with volunteers at the local Red Crescent Society (Arabic Red Cross), was incinerated in his ambulance in March 2002. The ambulance, clearly marked as such, with flashing red lights on top, siren and everything, rushed into an area of Jenin refugee camp occupied by Israeli soldiers during an invasion, attempting to rescue wounded people. An Israeli soldier fired a grenade from a launcher attached to an M-16 into the ambulance. The wrecked vehicle still sits in a field outside the Red Crescent building: a twisted, burnt, gutted, rusty mass of steel junk.

Seen from a nearby hilltop, Jenin refugee camp resembles a concrete doughnut. In the center of this densely populated ghetto is a field of bare dirt. Once it was packed thick with multi-story concrete block houses. . . then in April 2002 the Israeli army attacked with F-16s, Apache helicopters, tanks, armored bulldozers. Some fighters were in the ghetto. The army strategy was to destroy all the houses in the entire aree where the fighters were. The debris they left in their wake has since been cleared. Over 50 locals were killed in this attack, more wounded, over a thousand homeless. One bulldozer operator, who received an award for working 16 hours nonstop, commented in an interview: “They should thank me. Now they have a soccer field.”

Seshan was shot through the heart on the one year anniversary of Doctor Khalil’s death, when a tank and two jeeps rolled into Jenin. One of Seshan’s classmates said he spoke with Seshan 5 minutes before his death. Seshan was on his way to a private English lesson, carrying his books and his pen. He asked about an upcoming test.

*    *    *

Consider this apparent connection between sha’hiid and animal sacrifice: the death of cattle on Eid is celebrated because it feeds the people; the dead sha’hiid are honored with posters, ceremonies, and public funerals. Sha’hiid means martyr and martyr is someone who sacrifices his or her life for the Sacred—in this case manifested as Islam, community, Palestine. The majority in this society is deeply religious and Muslim. Thus Islam is a unifying force in the community. In desperate times, people naturally turn to the spiritual seeking reasons to live, because the mysteries of faith hold a hope that transcends physical suffering. This same faith can be attributed to an ideology, such as humanism, or socialism; in any case people commonly seek salvation in the belief that they are part of a larger whole, that their work in the world contributes to a continuous human story which expands beyond the narrow confines of individuality, birth, and death. Thus sha’hiid can be seen as people who sacrifice their lives for the sacred. This faith fulfills a human need vital as hunger; a meaningful death can feed the spirit of the people, showing them the courage to live and fight in the face of hopeless odds.

In Jenin camp, a young boy kissed a fighter sha’hiid poster. “What the hell kind of role model is this? Machismo posturing, posing with guns and ammo?” I thought, impressed and disturbed. Later I met some young men who are fighters. Their condition is simply tragic. For example, Ahkmed, who is in his early twenties. He is the nicest kid, always smiling, radiant in his knit hat and brown leather coat. Walking with Linus, a Swedish activist, I met him in the street. We shake hands and walk together to the internet cafe. Since he trusts us, he lifts his sweater to reveal a belt of shiny bullets. He jokes about how much the bullets could be sold for in Sweden. Linus says later, “He wants to die.” Chances are he will be dead or in jail within two years. It’s a damn shame, a waste of a young, healthy human being bursting with passion for life.

As an American, I am implicated in this bastard hybrid of war/police operation/colonization/genocide. The U.S. government supports and funds the Israeli military, and U.S. companies manufacture weapons used to enforce occupation. Without U.S. aid Israel could not maintain the occupation.

As an empathic human being, I understand what drives the fighters to fight and even the bombers to kill and die. But that same empathy makes it impossible to simplify reality into a good-guys-versus-bad-guys movie script. Membership in a certain ethnic, national, or religious group is no gauge of a human being’s inherent worth; the mistake of seeing people as categories rather than human lies at the root of racist practices such as the occupation of Palestine and slavery in the 19th century U.S. The condition of being Israeli or Jewish is no more reason for killing than is the condition of being American or Palestinian. Thus I seek to understand and to act, rather than to judge.

* * *

Seshan’s funeral is brief and dramatic. His body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag and wearing a kofia, is carried through the street in a public procession. There is no

coffin; the body rests on a stretcher, face visible to onlookers. Fighters shoot in the air. Children carry the black and yellow banners of Islamic Jihad, the green and white banners of Hamas, and the black and white banners of Al Aqsa Brigades.

The funeral procession takes off at a fast walk. The air is charged with residual violence, grief, fear, and anger. We stop once at a mosque for one half hour so people can go inside to pray. At the cemetery, the mood changes somewhat—people stand quiet, or recite prayers. Seshan’s funeral is a mixture of politics, militance, religion, and grief. The separation between the public, depersonalized space of political conflict and the private space for grief is always an illusion; this becomes obvious when fighters carry rifles, grade school kids wave Hamas flags, old men go into a mosque to pray, and a bereaved father cries under an olive tree, all at the funeral of a civilian student shot by foreign soldiers in a tank parked on main street.

In the U.S., laws mandate that corpses be embalmed. This is a toxic process in which the body is saturated with chemical sludge. For open-casket funerals the face of the dead is often painted to give it life-like flesh tones. Of course the companies which make embalming fluid and coffins are big business. In contrast, Seshan was shot, mourned, and buried within eight hours. Walking back from the funeral, I see that small footprint-sized blood stains remain on the street where he died.

* * *

In the Jewish/Christian/Islamic story wherein Ibrahim/Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, Ibrahim and Isaac both agree to the sacrifice. Mohammed, the nursing student and scholar from Rafah, interprets this to mean that they understand the transitory, earthbound nature of physical bodies. This is a lesson we learn and relearn every time someone close to us dies. Whether or not you are religious, to see the dead body of someone you know prompts the questions, “Where did the life which animated that person go? Is there something vital and enduring beyond physical matter and individual perception?”

Perhaps the ongoing evolution of the human species demands blood sacrifice. Perhaps there are lessons which we still must learn from killing and being killed.

All I ask is that the blunt reality of occupation specifically and globalization generally be exposed. Strive to understand those who are different from you, then chose your attitude toward them freely. Either consider them enemies and use your deeper understanding of them as ammunition to fight them, or work toward peace and reconciliation. But do not delude yourself with the ancient lie that you are human and they are inhuman.

* * *

At Seshan’s funeral, I sit next to a small boy who wears a bullet around his neck on a chain. He sings prayers in a sweet, melodic voice. Palm fronds lie, bleached by sun, between gravestones carved from Palestinian marble. Mint and flowers grow around

the graves. Bullets are like seashells or driftwood here, now: ubiquitous, an aspect of the local environment.

Jaysh Israeli

At a checkpoint, an Israeli soldier approached Tobias, Linus, and I. He holds an Israeli newspaper. He is burning with the need to explain why he is here in an armored personnel carrier at a road used daily by grade school children and teachers. Behind him, one kilometer distant, Abba school stands surrounded by the blue-green spires of juniper trees. He opens the paper to display a color centerfold of carnage caused by a recent bus bombing in Haifa. Egged intercity transit buses are often targeted by human bombers. They are a major form of transportation for soldiers, but are also public buses which civilians ride. Of course civilians who ride buses are often poor and working class, and the line between soldier and civilian blurs in a nation where military service is mandated by law.

The soldier at Abba road checkpoint lives in a settlement. He says it is his duty to be here to protect Israel. He claims that the children in Abba school will grow up to be suicide bombers, that they are being taught terrorism and hate in class. Some of the kids will grow up to be suicide bombers. Others will become doctors and barbers and moms; right now they are all children. When I tell him about 6 year old Ali who was shot in Rafah while on his way home from school, this soldier replies, “As soon as the cameras come on, they push the children out into the gunfire.”

His attitude is clearly racist, yet he is human. “The soldiers come here because of these photos,” he says, pointing at pictures of dismembered bodies in the newspaper. He’s right. Ethnocentric, sensationalist journalism brings soldiers here willingly and justifies their presence.

Israeli newspapers show pictures of Israelis killed by bombings. Palestinian newspapers show pictures of Palestinians killed by Israeli army invasions.

The People

Everyone is a victim of circumstance and everyone wants peace.

Salahadin Street

Another child gestures as if he were holding a rifle, then points down Salahadin street.

“Tak! Tak! Tak!” he says, “Dangerous!”

He gestures for me to put away my camera. Bright sun glares in the midday street. Around a corner, sheltered by apartment blocks from sniper fire, vendor’s display oranges, bananas, potatoes, cucumbers, the green and gold of life-giving food piled on outdoor tables. I understand this boy is telling me that photographing the Salahadin tower may irritate the Israeli soldiers who sit invisible behind its tinted bulletproof windows, causing them to shoot.

Ten minutes earlier, while speaking with a local man named Hisham, I heard machine gun fire from the tower. Perhaps the boy’s fears are realistic. Can the soldiers discern from 400 yards away that my skin is white and I am American, not Palestinian? What measure of protection does racism give me, anyway? How easy would it be, if they shot me, to offer an official apology and state that the soldiers mistook me for “an armed Palestinian terrorist?” How likely is it that elements of the United States government such as the CIA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security will brand me a ‘terrorist’ simply for coming here to live, speak with, and try to help the ordinary people of Rafah?

I put away my camera and walk down Salahadin street with two youths. They look maybe 15 or 16 years old. One of them offers me a cigarette. I accept. They ask the question I hear every day, everywhere I go: “What’s your name?”

As we walk, they point out bullet holes in shop doors. A city water tower nearby resembles the face of a smallpox survivor, scarred by the sickness of occupation. An apartment building, still under construction, already bears a dense pattern of bullet marks. Hisham pointed at the building where he and his extended family live. Although it is ¼ mile away from the Salahadin tower, since it is taller than the surrounding buildings, one wall is shot up like a rural American road sign. Hisham’s family was, of course, inside the building living while the bullets hit the walls. The poured concrete and cinder block walls of homes along Rafah’s dangerous perimeter protect against sniper fire as well as sun, wind, and rain.

After two weeks in Rafah, the assaults of the Israeli Occupation Force have taken on an elemental quality. Since the Israeli soldiers virtually never emerge from their armored bulldozers, personnel carriers, tanks, and towers, it is easy to see the IOF as an impersonal death machine bent on the destruction of all things Palestinian. I never see their human faces, only tank armor and gun muzzles. I know young men are inside the tanks, men with their own fragile bodies, their on hair and skin and eyes, minds and dreams—yet I awake at 4:00 AM to the sound of explosions and wonder whose house was demolished in Rafah, whose sons are being shell-shocked into taking up Kalashnikovs and joining the armed resistance.

This is not war. This is occupation. This is a deliberate and gradual annexation of Palestinian land and resources, a brutal use of military force to corral Palestinians into smaller and smaller enclaves while the best land is taken for Israeli ‘settlements’ or colonies. From Al Hasash, in northwest Rafah, the red tile roofs of a nearby settlement are visible. About 3 miles of desert and 3 roads, one for tanks, one for army jeeps and trucks, and one for cars going to the settlement, divide those suburban-style houses from the urban jungle or Rafah.

Jihan, a local woman who often accompanies and works with the ISM group, is the only local woman who I have converse with at length. There are strict traditional gender roles and a rigid separation of male/female (i.e. public/private) space here. Generally women remain distant, quiet figures, preparing food in kitchens or eating and sitting in separate rooms. Grown women never speak to me in the streets, although girls sometimes approach smiling and asking, “What is your name?”

Jihan’s father was shot in the head by a sniper a few weeks ago, killed while driving down Salahadin street. She was riding in the car. It seems that every man in Rafah has been shot or imprisoned. Omar, quiet, friendly cab driver who often brings his young daughter along in the car while working, spent 12 years in an Israeli prison. Ahkmed, a bearish 36 year old teacher who waxes philosophic remarks, “in religion—not in Islam or Christianity of Judaism, but in the soul of all religion, perhaps there is hope,” lifts his pant leg to show the bullet scars on his calf.

Salahadin tower is a massive boxy grey structure, sprouting antennae and wires from its roof and flanked by sections of rusty steel wall 30 feet high. It looks like the bridge of an aircraft carrier, somehow misplaced at the end of a city street. It is one of many sniper towers located on the south, east, and west borders of Rafah. All are manned by Israeli soldiers who often shoot, with or without provocation, into the city. Salahadin tower looms deadly and ominous over rowdy kids, archaic Mercedes taxis, shopkeepers standing in doorways, donkey carts, and women walking. This is the face of occupation in Rafah: the technological sophistication of a nuclear superpower transformed into a depersonalized killing machine operated by restless trigger-happy teenagers. This killing machine is aimed at Rafah, and does not distinguish between adults and children, or between members of the armed resistance and civilians.

Tamir Khdeer

I never touched a dead body before. Joe kept rubber gloves in one of the many pockets of his vest. Latex on my hands Stephan took the legs I took the arms. We lifted Tamir’s corpse and laid it on the military green stretcher as Jihan approached. A Kalashnikov clip lay still packed with ammo, a black crescent heavy on sand. She stuffed that clip in the back pocket of her jeans then insisted on helping to carry the stretcher.

The wound in Tamir’s gut gaped, a dry canyon, crusty and yellow-green. His arm, flung above his head as he died, had stiffened. The elbow joint popped audibly when I lifted him. His shirt torn open, baring stomach. . . below his knees fabric ripped and bullet gashes in skin and muscle. Nobody wears short pants in this country, not even the dead, not even in summer. Tamir is long gone, leaving a peaceful boy’s face and a heavy meat shadow on the stretcher.

The absence of short pants is not as foreign as the surging wave of Palestinian men who surround us as we approach the offices on the Gaza side of the Rafah-Egypt border crossing. Less than one hour earlier, Israeli soldiers shot over our heads and at the ground within on meter of our feet. Jenny was hit in the leg, by shrapnel she said. It left a deep purple bruise. Then they came with a tank and a bulldozer and destroyed an acre of young olive trees. It is so sudden, this destruction: years of some farmer’s work gone in minutes. Now a hundred men and boys rush into the open and take the stretcher. Aren’t they afraid of being shot?

We were called here because the Israeli army shot at ambulances which tried to retrieve Tamir’s body. There was a joke that we are the “International Rescue Team” and that we should wear superhero outfits. It’s a sarcastic joke: although everyone secretly wants to be a superhero, no one is comfortable with being the only bulletproof people in town. Turns out we aren’t bulletproof or bulldozerproof after all—only bullet resistant. Tom Herndall shot in the head, comatose, Rachel killed. No such thing as bulletproof people, only people who, like the Internationals, walk into the teeth of their fear to do what is needed, and people who, like the Palestinians, live with fear and bullets until suddenly they lose the fear of bullets and rush into an open field to honor the dead.

Municipal Water Wells Destroyed by Israeli Occupation Forces


Wednesday night Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) targeted and destroyed two municipal wells which provided approximately 50 percent of Rafah’s water. Water use is now restricted to 2 hours per day. The Rafah Municipal Department of Water and Wastewater told IOF commanders the exact location of these wells prior to the attacks. These wells were crucial to maintain basic health and sanitation in Rafah.

Workers from the water department connected private agricultural wells to the city water system in order to supply basic service. This irrigation water is unsafe for household use, but locals who cannot afford to by bottled or filtered water must drink it. The two destroyed wells were the largest and most productive of 6 wells which provide all municipal water in the Rafah area.

Armored bulldozers used for this demolition entered the Al Hasash neighborhood in Northwest Rafah from the militarized zone which isolates Rafah from Mawasi, a Palestinian village on sea coast. Recently a sewer installation near the Abu Zuhri wells targeted Wednesday night was also damaged by IOF demolition crews.

Ashraf Ghneim, director of the water department, stated that he sent letters to European Union representatives in the area informing them of the situation. The EU often provides aid to maintain infrastructure in economically depressed Gaza, where the unemployment rate approaches 80 percent. Ghneim also stated that the Abu Zuhri wells may have been destroyed as reprisal for two IOF soldiers killed Tuesday night by Palestinian fighters. The water department has in the past requested that resistance fighters not operate in this area because their presence may provoke such attacks.

The Abu Zuhri wells drew from the same aquifer as a nearby settlement. Some Rafah residents speculated that the wells were target for this reason.

Activists from the International Solidarity Movement cooperated with the water department in an attempt to protect another well located near the IOF militarized zone. Activists from the United States, Britain, and Sweden hung a banner from the pump house which read “Internationals live here.” They spent the night at the well.


Someone made an amateur documentary film which includes an interview with Abu Ahmed from Rafah. He says to the camera, “Government of Israel, no good. Government of America, no good. Arab governments, no good. . . worse maybe.”


After refugees were displaced to Rafah in 1948, several foreign governments aided with the construction of housing for refugees. One neighborhood of Rafah is called Brazil because the Brazilian government helped to build it.

Monsoor carries the metal brazier upstairs, walking backwards, cigarette burning down to filter in his mouth. He takes two legs, I take one. Logs burn between us, spilling the occasional coal on the tile stairs.

“Monsoor, I’m impressed!” I say.

“It’s no problem,” he says, “We do it this way.”

We sit quiet in the dark by the wood fire, coals glowing orange and purple. We smoke, talk, drink tea. He asks about my family, my work, my education. He gets on the phone with a woman; they talk mellow in the night.

“You like to talk to my girlfriend?” he asks, handing me the phone. She speaks no English; I speak no Arabic. We say a few words to each other, words heard as babble and gibberish. Hand the cell phone back to Monsoor.

He lets me sleep in a big bed with grinning cartoon puppies on the quilt. I awake 4 times before dawn to nearby machine gun fire. On other nights locals have laughed and pantomimed dance steps as the guns go off, saying “This is the music of Palestine.” Abu Jamil even said, “Without it we cannot sleep.” At least 95 percent of the gunfire comes from Israeli tanks and towers.

In the morning I get up and walk outside. In front of the house lie mangled wrecks of twisted rebar and concrete, which were once houses where families lived. I can still see the ruts made by tanks which rumbled into town only three weeks ago. Monsoor’s mother stands in the yard surrounded by children, her quiet face wrinkled with lines of patient wisdom. A boy points beyond the demolished houses.

“The Tank!” he says.

I see dust, hear the growl of monster diesels. Two tanks are moving. Might as well have a look. Raise my hands in the air like surrender, like angel wings, like a shrug, and climb over the dirt and junk to face the tank. It sits heavy as a grey-green steel rhinoceros, a stubborn creature of bulk and violence, a machine ignorant of flight and metaphor. This tank is of the variety commonly seen patrolling the periphery of Rafah: small, for a tank, and lacking the single barrel which protrudes from the turret of the larger Merkava tanks. Instead, this tank’s turret has various slits from which the narrow barrels of machine guns poke. It is designed for shooting people, not other armored vehicles. There are no armored vehicles in Rafah to shoot.

I have appointments to keep. I turn and walk away into streets full of sunshine and shouting children.


This is the second, revised, printing of This is the Life. The first was all my own work. In this volume I include a poem by Rachel Corrie, an ISM report, and writings by Lora Gordon, who arrived in Rafah shortly before I returned to America, and who, over eight months later, is still living and working there. All the artwork I drew; all writings not attributed to someone else I wrote.

* * *

While traveling in Palestine/Israel from January 22 through April 1 2003 I lived over 1 month in Rafah, a city of 160,000 located at the South end of the Gaza strip, as well as a couple weeks in both Tel Aviv and Jenin. A wealth of writing exists about Palestine and Israel; in the back pages I include a short resource and reading list, including information about organizations you can volunteer with in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

This is a work of creative nonfiction. It is not a political treatise or a comprehensive history of the region. This is an attempt to tell truth, celebrate the people, and do justice to humanity. All quotes are the words of the real people they are attributed to, reproduced as accurately as possible. All drawings except ‘Gas Mask Shopping,’ ‘Sha’hiid—Sacrifice?” and “Hero: This is the Real Work” are portraits of people I actually met. All facts and statistics cited are accurate to the best of my knowledge.

Central to these writings is the project of seeking to understand and act in solidarity with people in the occupied Palestinian territories; most of it was literally written from the perspective of someone on the ground in Palestine.

* * *

A hopelessly inadequate sketch of regional history: Palestinian Arabs, Jews, Bedouin, and Druze are all, if you trace history back two thousand years, native to Palestine/Israel. Jews lived there for centuries and centuries, then several hundred years ago scattered around Eurasia and North Africa, then accompanied European colonial conquest into the rest of the world. This was the Diaspora. Some remained in Palestine. The Zionist movement, which originally hinged on the idea that Jews in the Diaspora should return to Palestine and create a Jewish state there, began in the late 1800s. Jewish immigration to Palestine with Zionist intention began around the turn of the century. After the Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews in Europe, Zionism became much more popular because it offered a homeland free of such atrocities.

However, Palestinian Arabs lived for centuries and centuries in Palestine, then in 1948 over 750,000 Arabs were displaced by the violent birth of the nation of Israel. They fled to surrounding Arab nations, especially Egypt and Jordan. The corrupt governments of those nations manipulated and used the refugees for their own political ends. In 1967 a war was fought between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. Israel took over parts of Egypt and Jordan—the Gaza Strip and West Bank respectively. The West Bank and Gaza were where Palestinian refugees fled to in ’48. Since ’67 Israel has maintained a military occupation of these territories. Israel has never granted Palestinians in the occupied territories citizenship and the rights which accompany it. Palestinian human rights have been routinely violated by the Israeli Occupation Forces. The first intifada, during the 1980s, was largely a popular uprising which included transformation of Palestinian society as well as resistance to Israeli occupation. It also included creative nonviolent resistance, property destruction, street demonstrations, and low-level guerilla fighting. It was

repressed with intense military violence. The second intifada, which began in 2000, is much bloodier. New settlements, which are Zionist outposts built in the occupied territories on land stolen from local Palestinians, have been built gradually and constantly since the 1970s.

History is a tangled web; for details you must do your own research. My primary concerns herein are spiritual learning, human rights, direct action, and the present day reality on the ground, in people’s daily lives. This is the Life.

* * *