Palestine as War Returns to the Middle East
By Daniel Sturm, The Business Journal
Aug. 1, 2006
EL-BIREH, Palestine – The evening news on television showed Israeli tanks shelling the Gaza Strip. But the air seemed festive when our tour, sponsored by the Youngstown Arab- American Community Center, settled into our hotel, just outside of the predominantly Christian Palestinian Visiting Palestine as War Returns to the Middle East business hub of Ramallah.
It was the wedding season and families celebrated well into the night. At the popular El-Bireh City Park Restaurant, tables were crowded with young women smoking Arab water pipes and men sat in front of an open-air film screen. They nibbled from plates of hummus, falaffel and shish kebab as they watched the World Cup.
When I met the owner, Jamal Niser, clouds of sweet tobacco smoke hung over his outdoor restaurant. The affluent businessman is a celebrity in El-Bireh, a sister city to Youngstown, 20 miles west of Jerusalem. Niser grew up on his parents’ farmstead here, but the bilingual Arab-American has spent most of his adult life as a grocer and owner of a service station in the Mahoning Valley. Niser, also active in the Youngstown Arab-American business community, remains a leader in his hometown. There’s an energy in his voice as Niser describes his life-long mission to merge the “best of two worlds,” American service culture and the Palestinian way of life. Some of the restaurateur’s 85 employees wear white suits and bow ties, like the costumes of garçons in France. Others wear white and green uniforms of a more modern design. Proceeds from the popular Arab water pipes make up the largest part of his revenue, Niser says. Popular imagination has men smoking the tall silver pipes with decorated hoses. But more than half of his customers who smoke the pipes are women. Some are unveiled, others wear colorful headscarves. Niser supports the trend enthusiastically.
The Hamas government, which he did not support with his vote, might make life more difficult for women, he allows, but “they’re not going for a Taliban-style state.” Palestinian women are used to staying out after midnight, smoking pipes. On the Hamas Party’s slate were many women, he said.
The three of us – cameraman Jim Bowser, WYTV anchor Angee Shaker and I – accompanied members of the Youngstown Arab-American Community Center to Palestine to learn more about the Mahoning Valley’s ties to this region. What we did not anticipate was the escalation of instability following Hamas kidnapping an Israeli border guard June 26. After that, Ramallah’s festive mood dissipated like a cloud of smoke from one of Niser’s tobacco pipes. Israeli tanks drove past our hotel the third evening after we arrived. Within a few days, 64 Hamas Party ministers and members of parliament from the West Bank had been detained. More recently, Israel destroyed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya’s office and the Israeli air force bombed Beirut, Lebanon, after Hezbollah fired missiles into northern Israel.
According to American authorities, 45,000 U.S. citizens of Palestinian origin live in the West Bank. Some 350 families in El-Bireh have family ties to the Mahoning Valley, I was told. During our 10-day trip, I set out to learn more about the extent to which the hostilities in the Occupied Territories affected the economy there, and particularly how it affects American-Palestinian business relations.
Sam Bahour, a former Mahoning Valley businessman who lives here, sighed as he related that he is “less optimistic than ever” about the peace process. Israeli government restrictions on Palestinians’ ability to travel between the West Bank and Israel proper were having a catastrophic effect on the Palestinian economy. “When I want to visit an Israeli, I need to take a whole day,” he began. “And Israelis are not allowed to come in the West Bank, by law. I have many Jewish friends. But it’s become very difficult to maintain relations.”
Bahour, on the board of trustees of Birzeit University near Ramallah, says that economic sanctions have had a devastating impact on higher education as well. But with Israel freezing Palestinian tax returns and revenue, the Palestinian government has not been able to pay state employees. “Like any state university, more than one-third of our funds come from the state,” Bahour says. “No funds are coming from the government right now, so we’re basically in a serious crisis. The university has always been in a shaky situation. But this is the first time that the allocations that are supposed to be coming from the state aren’t coming. So we’re preparing for how to deal with this when the fall semester starts.”
Philipp Müller, a German exchange student at Birzeit University, says his professors haven’t received their salaries in months. “Many of my professors who have family in Gaza have not seen their relatives for years,” he adds.
Palestinian-American businessmen and intellectuals related a fear that the wall Israel has built to thwart guerilla raids, combined with other Israeli policies, will trigger a “humanitarian crisis.” Bahour, an American married to a Palestinian, applied for Family Unification status so he could live with his family on the West Bank, but his application was refused. To remain in Palestine, Israel law compels him to leave the country every three months and then re-enter on a renewed three-month tourist visa. In this environment, Bahour says, he must be prepared to evacuate – and bid farewell to his wife, Abeer, and their daughters, Eireen and Nadine – on 24 hours’ notice.
“We don’t live in Israel; we live in El-Bireh, smack in the middle of the West Bank. Why prohibit Palestinians who are married to other Palestinians, both from the West Bank, from family unification?” he asks.
As were many Palestinian-Americans who retain ties to the old country, Bahour was optimistic when he moved to Ramallah 11 years ago to work for Palestine Telecommunications Co. “When I first arrived, I registered in a joint MBA program, between Tel Aviv University and Northwestern University, because I felt that the future would come from this kind of co-operation,” he says.
The 1993 Oslo accord gave him reason to believe peace between Palestinians and Israelis was possible. In September 2000, before the outbreak of renewed violence following the Intifada, Bahour realized his dream as a developer with the construction of the Plaza Shopping Center in El-Bireh, a $10 million project featuring American-style supermarkets and theme parks for kids. It was unique in the West Bank.
“That mall project was a career detour,” says the telecommunications consultant. “I took it on under the assumption that it would take one year. That was right before the Intifada started. It turned out to be a five-year, lifetime challenge. Even the investors didn’t think it would be finished. We cut a lot of corners. But at the end of the day it was more important to me to get 120 people working.”
Two days after the Israeli military extended its search for the soldier captured by Hamas, we visited the small West Bank village of Bil’in, 10 miles west of Ramallah. Its residents, mostly farmers, have been demonstrating against the wall every Friday for the last two years. The wall at Bil’in is part of Israel’s $3.4 billion project aimed at providing physical security to citizens, including settlers in the Occupied Territories.
The barrier is made up of 471 miles of fortified electronic fence, atop which is barbed wire and watchtowers. Along the base are minefields and soldiers with dog patrols. Near Palestinian villages the fence becomes a 26-foot-high concrete wall.
The wall that borders Bil’in is 3 miles long, and a Palestinian high school teacher, Abdullah Abu-Rahme, offers that its impact on the local economy is “devastating.” The sale of olive oil is the farming community’s primary source of revenue, but 20,000 of the town’s olive trees lie on the other side of the wall. Restricted access to the trees has dramatically affected the ability to harvest the olives. Abu-Rahme, also co-organizer of the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, says that residents of Bil’in can get passes to tend and harvest their trees only if they have documents to show that they own property beyond the wall. “The Israeli authorities gave a permit to my father, who is 80 years old, but not to me,” Abu-Rahme says, “because the land title is written in his name only.”
The first Israeli settlements in this area claimed by Palestinians were established in 1979. In 1991, Israel confiscated an additional 321 acres to establish the colony, Kiryat Sefer. That brought the total of confiscated land to 568 acres, or more than half of the village’s farmland. Abu-Rahme feared that if his hometown didn’t win a pending court case against the wall, it could lose 247 more acres.
The Israeli government began constructing the newest colony of Mattityahu East, on Bil’in land, in 2003. The colony was added to five older ones to form the city of Modiin Illit. Actions such as this lead Abu-Rahme to think the conflict is more about control of resources than control of violence, he says. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense to place the barrier so far from the city it is supposed to protect.
At a new section of the wall, on Mount Olive in Jerusalem, I met with Israeli-American anthropologist, Jeff Halper (author of Obstacles to Peace), who delivered a guest lecture last year at Youngtown State University. A soldier at the checkpoint yelled through the loudspeakers as I began to take pictures of the wall. “Why should we stop?!” Halper yelled back.
“Is it because the wall is shameful?” We heard the soldier mumble something, but he left us alone. Halper, who is Jewish, is an outspoken opponent of what he refers to as Israel’s version of apartheid. “The Berlin Wall is nothing when compared with this,” he says. Here, 50,000 farmers were trapped between the border and the wall, where they faced alienation from their land and water, as well as eventual forced relocation. More than 500,000 Palestinians lived within 1.6 miles of the barrier. This was one of the most densely populated regions in the world.
In a June 22 New York Review of Books essay, the Israeli journalist and historian Amos Elon warned that when the wall is finished it will be three times longer than the pre-1967 Israeli-Jordanian border, and that the Jewish state would be enclosed “inside one enormous bunker.”
Many Israeli citizens with whom I spoke believe the wall is being built not to discriminate and segregate, but to prevent Palestinians suicide bombers from entering Israeli settlements. “This argument doesn’t hold water,” says Jal Shalif, a resident of Tel Aviv who had come with his father to participate in the demonstration. “The government wanted to expand the wall not because it brings more security, but to bring more land. They were not concerned about security at all.”
Shalif, a computer programmer the past 16 years, says that were it not for his elderly father, whom he drives to the demonstrations, he might never have come. The trip is difficult because Israel prevents its citizens from entering the West Bank unless they’re settlers in the Occupied Territories, so Shalif and his father pose as settlers to gain access. Witnessing what is happening in Palestine would make most Israelis feel uncomfortable, Shalif says. “Before I came here and saw it for myself, I was too lazy to do the right thing. But now I am glad that I know about what’s happening here.”
Shalif described how, two months ago, he saw a soldier, at close range, shoot a Palestinian protester in the arm. “I will remember this for the rest of my life,” he says. “His arm was broken. He was a peaceful demonstrator and he was walking very slowly. He just happened to be the one who got shot because he was in the middle. It was so stupid.”
During the course of the Oslo accords, Israel built 29 highways and bypasses to incorporate the West Bank into its national highway system. In contrast to Israeli roads, which are well-lit and smooth, the Palestinian highways are old and full of chuckholes, and there are checkpoints every 20 to 30 kilometers.
On our way back from Bil’in to Ramallah, we drove along the fortified wall that, like a snake, wound through the West Bank. A few days before our arrival, Roger Waters, the founder of Pink Floyd and producer of one of rock’s best-known albums, “The Wall,” gave a performance in a field near Neveh Shalom. “I believe we need this generation of Israelis to tear down the walls and make peace with their neighbors,” Waters said. The Associated Press reported his words set off a round of cheers. Tens of thousands of Israelis had flocked to the mixed Arab-Jewish town.
The Palestinian-American entrepreneur from Youngstown, Sam Bahour, believes that his ancestral homeland is slowly but surely entering a state of apartheid. For the first time since he moved to El-Bireh in 1994, Bahour faces the option of being forced to move back. “I personally can take the occupation,” he says. “But I told my wife that we’d go back if it hit civil war. Now it’s not an unthinkable any more. I didn’t move here to fight. I moved here to build a country.”
EDITOR’s NOTE: The Youngstown Arab-American Community Center last spring invited newspapers and TV stations in the Mahoning Valley to send reporters, at Arab-American Community Center expense, to visit Israel and the Palestinian state. All declined except WYTV, which sent anchorwoman Angee Shaker and photographer Jim Bowser. Daniel Sturm, a professor of journalism at Youngstown State University, also took the tour. The Business Journal, which edited Sturm’s analysis to conform to this paper’s style, provided no additional compensation. The views presented are entirely his.
Dies ist nur eine begrenzte
Textauswahl. Mehr Artikel sind in der GENIOS-Datenbank archiviert: www.gbi.de