Daily Life in a Land of Conflict

Over the Wall, to Play Beethoven in Jerusalem

Jamming at Qalandia: Musicians bound for Jerusalem to play Beethoven's 4th Symphony played a waiting game, hoping the rest of the Palestinians in the orchestra would make it through the checkpoint. Photo by Eric Culver

Beethoven’s 4th Symphony has inspired countless thousands of musicians since it was first performed more than two centuries ago.  Yet few, I’m sure, have risked arrest and prison time just to play this magnificent piece of music.

Enter the Ramallah Orchestra, made up largely of Palestinian musicians in their teens and twenties, accompanied by 15 or so visiting teachers and performers from Europe and the U.S.  The orchestra is a project of Al Kamandjati, the Ramallah-based music school at the center of my next book.  For the Palestinians in the orchestra, Beethoven’s music, inspiring at it is, makes up only part of the story.

The concert venue was in the Old City of Jerusalem, a holy place embedded deep inside the collective dreams and history of the Palestinians, yet denied them by a combination of bureaucracy and concrete.  For the Jerusalem concert, some of the musicians had managed to obtain the permits Israel allows for special occasions.  But on this hot summer day in Palestine, five members of the orchestra were not so lucky.  To play with their orchestra in the Holy City, the musicians would resort to the otherwise unthinkable:  climbing over the separation wall.

Their journey had started in the early afternoon, in the lovely stone and copper courtyard of Al Kamandjati’s headquarters in Old Ramallah, where a jasmine vine in bloom crawled up the wall to the rooftop.  Three dozen young Palestinian musicians and visiting accompanists carried their timpanis, double basses, cellos and music stands into the luggage hold of the tour bus.  They climbed aboard, instrument cases slung over their shoulders, renewing an annual Jerusalem ritual which, for many of these musicians, is reason enough to learn music.

For Palestinians, Jerusalem is becoming an imaginary city.  Though barely ten miles separate Ramallah from the walls of the Old City, reaching Jerusalem is increasingly less a physical journey than an exercise of the mind and spirit.  The city has been effectively sealed off by massive physical and bureaucratic barriers, while ironically being declared “united” by Israel, the authority in control during this period of the city’s five-thousand-year history.  To prove that, Israel’s Minister of Public Security recently shut down a children’s theatre festival and puppet show at the Hakawati, East Jerusalem’s Palestine National Theatre, because the festival had allegedly received funds from the Palestinian Authority.  The PA is confined to the West Bank, but its position, backed, in word if not in deed, by the most of the world’s nations, remains that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a sovereign nation called Palestine.

Now the lucky permit holders of the Ramallah Orchestra would be reconnected, if only for a few hours, with their holy city. (Al Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem, means “The Holy.”)  But the five musicians – one of the orchestra’s four violists, both of its timpani players, one of the double bass players, and a gifted violinist – had been told they would need the magnetic “biometric” cards Israel is implementing for its permit regime.  When Al Kamandjati went to apply, director Ramzi Aburedwan told me, “they said, ‘We don’t have the magnetic cards until July 10’” – days after the concert.  “It’s fucking crazy,” Ramzi added.  In an orchestra of only 37 people, the contributions of these five musicians was vital, Ramzi said; if the Ramallah Five couldn’t participate, he told me, he would cancel the concert.

We arrived at Qalandia military checkpoint, a exhaust-choked border crossing where hot, fuming drivers jockeyed for position, funneling into a single line before submitting for inspection.  Vendors selling kebab, tissue packets, pillows, bottles of water and verses from the Quran weaved through the knots of vehicles and the plastic litter and chunks of broken concrete.  Our bus inched forward.  Here, where the massive wall separates Ramallah from Jerusalem, the Ramallah Five would try Plan B:  Sit in the back of the bus, hoping that the soldiers would somehow get lazy and check only the foreign passports and approved permits.  As part of this plan, musicians holding the proper documents were strategically placed toward the front of the bus.

Three Israeli soldiers came on board, their American-made M-16s slung around their shoulders, and began their inspection.  One of them, baby-faced, with a round, pretty face and honey-blond hair, appeared to still be in high school.

They checked our papers, then conferred, apparently discussing whether to check the whole bus.  After some barked orders from a radio clipped to one of the soldier’s uniforms, they moved past us, toward the back. Plan B, it appeared, was not going to work.

Within minutes nearly all of the Palestinians, even the ones holding the proper papers, had been ordered out of the bus.  Permits or not, they would not be allowed to cross the checkpoint in relative dignity, like us foreigners who remained on the air conditioned bus.  As we rode to a parking lot on the other side, I pictured the Palestinian musicians, in the scrum of the pedestrian crossing where I have stood many times on my way to Jerusalem.  They would walk past the red metal benches of the “passenger lounge,” surrounded on three sides by blue vertical bars, then pass down a long corridor of silver bars, akin to a cattle chute on a western ranch, except for at the end they would be required to move through multiple eight-foot-high turnstiles, before ending up jammed with dozens of other Palestinians in front of yet another turnstile.


Our bus was waiting on the other side.  Montasser Jebrini, a Palestinian clarinetist now studying on France, was riffing on the hot pavement, playing a solo performance of “Helwadi” (Beautiful Girl), the song made famous by the Lebanese singer, Fairouz.  Montasser believed he had been allowed to stay on the bus because he passed for European or Anglo American.  “I am glad to be here,” he told me, “but I feel bad it’s just because my skin is lighter, while my friends have to walk through the checkpoint.”

In the parking lot, Simon Hewitt Jones, the visiting British soloist scheduled to perform the Mendelssohn that evening, stepped out of the bus with his violin.  Other musicians broke out their instruments, and they began jamming:  Violins, viola, cello, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, performed by an American, three Brits, a Frenchman, an Irishman, and a Palestinian.  Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” gave way to the Mendelssohn (“opus baking in the sun,” someone quipped), then morphed into Morrison’s Irish Jig, led by Johnny McBride, a fiddler from Northern Ireland.  The whole tableau was set against the backdrop of gun turrets, spindly red-and-white surveillance towers, and the supposedly impenetrable wall.  “It’s pretty threatening,” said the fiddler, “but not altogether unfamiliar.  For the first half of my life, this is what Northern Ireland looked like.”


Steps away, on the Ramallah side, separated by more walls of bars, the Palestinian teenagers waited in the scrum.  Every so often, above the turnstile, a red light turned green, a click sounded, and three or four more people passed through to place their possessions on a conveyor belt, hold up their permits to a dull green bullet-proof window, and wait as bored-looking soldiers on the other side inspected the documents and waived the permit holders through.

But there were only nine permits for fourteen musicians, and the musicians without them couldn’t talk their way through.  And so the Ramallah Five were turned away.  They clicked their way backward through the turnstiles and cattle chute to the Ramallah side, denied Jerusalem and uncertain what to do next.  They had to come up with a Plan C.


One or two at a time, Palestinian string players joined us at the bus.  Soon all of them had arrived, except for the Ramallah Five.  “They couldn’t get through,” someone told us.  “They said to go on to Jerusalem.  They will try to join us somehow.”

We rode south in silence for a time, wondering if the concert, in the Old City on the grounds of the French church, St. Anne’s, would have to be canceled.


“Hey,” someone said to the musicians on the other side, “you want to go to Jerusalem?”  He sat with a group of men smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, and nodded toward a van.  Yes, the musicians said, they did.  “You are five?  It will be 250 shekels”  – about 70 dollars, or 14 per musician.

The man turned to his partner.  “Get these guys to Jerusalem.”  The Ramallah Five piled into a van.  The door slid shut and the driver began working two phones, making arrangements.  “Give me the money,” he said.  They haggled over the price, agreeing on 40 shekels (about 11 dollars) each. “But you have to pay now,” the driver said.  The man gave them his phone number, and told them to call when they reached Jerusalem.  Apparently he wanted satisfied customers.

A short time later the driver pulled over, stepped into a building, and emerged with a very long ladder, which, when extended to its full length, reached the top of the wall.  “Come,” he said.  The five musicians approached the towering slab of concrete, which reached at least 25 feet high.


The mood on our bus was subdued; as we rode south, it was still unclear whether the five musicians would somehow make it through to Jerusalem.


A string player went up the ladder first, gazing up to the top of the wall, where nasty-looking loops of curling concertina wire appeared to present a sharp and dangerous obstacle.  But the Palestinian trafficker, who had scrambled to the top of the wall, had already cut the wire; now, he sat beside the ladder at the top of the wall, and, with the back of his forearm, simply swept the loops of wire aside, like a curtain.  This was all completely organized beforehand, the musicians realized.  They must do this all the time for illegal Palestinian workers.  Then the Palestinian coyote pulled a long knotted rope from a plastic bag, looped it around a metal post at the top of the wall, and dropped it down to the other side.

One by one, the young musicians mounted the ladder, sat atop the wall, grabbed the rope, and slowly slithered down, trying to use the knots as footholds.  It wasn’t easy; the knots were small.  Halfway down, one of the string players saw a vehicle approaching on the narrow access road.  He froze; was this a soldier coming to arrest him?  “Don’t worry,” the coyote called down, “it’s a local Palestinian.” Still, the violist began to imagine what would happen if he were arrested.  From the midpoint, perhaps 15 feet above the ground, he fantasized about being taken to jail, and telling his fellow Palestinian inmates, to boisterous laughter, that he’d been arrested for intending to play music.  Then, still sliding down the rope, he imagined the speech he would give to the judge in Israel:  Why am I guilty?  The only thing that I am doing is trying to make my music for people in Jerusalem; I just want to play Beethoven and Mendelssohn. For your information, his imagined speech continued, I have learned about your suffering. I was shocked by this history.  What I don’t understand is why you’re treating us this way…

The hard ground at the end of the rope snapped the musician from his reverie, and he looked up to see the timpanist toss the bag of his sticks down toward him from the top of the wall.  Now the violinist was coming down.  But something was wrong; he was having trouble telling how far he was from the ground.  He jumped too early, landing on his feet and falling hard onto his back.  Everyone laughed, and at the time, it seemed he was okay.  From the top of the wall, the bass player tossed him his violin, in its soft blue case.

Now all five musicians were together, on the Jerusalem side of the wall.  The entire operation had taken five minutes.  They brushed themselves off and entered a restaurant for kanafe, the pizza-shaped Palestinian dessert made of sweet cheese and pistachios.  “That kanafe was very good,” recalled the viola player.  “Then we called to see where the bus was.”


The Ramallah Five appeared in the road beside our bus, smiling broadly and bounding up the steps to cheers from the orchestra.  One of them showed me a video of the ladder, and the wall, and two of the musicians climbing toward the sky:  proof of their deed.

Twenty minutes later, we arrived on the tranquil grounds of St. Anne’s, a French church built during Crusader times.  An old French priest welcomed us with a soft smile and a heavy accent; tourists wandered quietly through the garden, or rested on shaded benches.  A French flag flapped from the steeple.  It was as if Qalandia and the wall had never existed.

The musicians disappeared the cavernous, echoey church to rehearse Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.  I sat on a rock wall outside the church.  The sound of a violin solo drifted out, joined now by the entire orchestra; trombone, oboe, flute, and the pounding of the timpani.

Soon we learned that the violinist who had climbed the wall fell ill, vomiting repeatedly.  It was shock, a doctor told him, from the hard landing at the wall.  He would not play the Old City that night.

But the other 36 members of the Ramallah Orchestra would.  A little after 8 in the evening, strings whispered the haunting first notes Beethoven’s 4th, in a minor key, as 200 visitors filled the chairs of the old church.  They had no idea what it had taken to get to Jerusalem to play Beethoven.  But perhaps they sensed something. Moments after Diego Masson, the visiting French conductor, made his last thrust, and the final notes of the 4th echoed off the walls, the audience rose in a sustained, joyful ovation.

A small tale of healing in Palestine

The profound amid the quotidian: Al Kamandjati's Ramallah Orchestra, rehearsing Beethoven and Mendelssohn in Old Ramallah, for a series of concerts beginning June 29 in Jerusalem

I arrived in Ramallah a week ago, limping heavily, and right into another story of Palestinian hospitality. I had torn a calf muscle doing exercise in my Jerusalem hotel room, and, after managing to get on the #18 minibus to Ramallah, then hop a cab to the flat I’m renting here for two weeks, I met my landlords – three generations of an old Ramallah family who live in the flats above and below the one they were renting me.  This is my sixth trip to Palestine since 2009, all for reporting and research for my new book, about making music under occupation in Palestine.  Every time I come, I encounter small, profound kindnesses: surprise in the quotidian life.

When he saw me limp up the stairs, Ziad, a young doctor, provided a quick assessment of my ailment; then with a look of concern, he asked me if I needed any groceries, since I wouldn’t be able to walk to get any. Well, yes, thanks, I said. Make a list, he said. Then he told me he knew an orthopedist at the end of the block; would I like him to try to get an appointment? Well, yes, thanks, I said again.

Ziad went off to see the doctor and came back a short time later: the doctor was about to leave his office but could see me now. Take my arm, Ziad said, as I hobbled down the block. In moments the orthopedist had diagnosed the muscle tear, given me a shot in the rear, prescribed two medicines and a support sleeve, and told me I’d be better tomorrow. Then he and Ziad discussed, in Arabic, whether it was right to charge me, since I was a visitor. Finally the doctor accepted 100 shekels, or about $30.

Ziad helped me walk back hom home and then set off for provisions.  A short time later he arrived with my coffee, milk, fruit, bread, and medicines.

I had scarcely moved a muscle, but now was supplied and cared for by people who, moments earlier, had been complete strangers. They put me on the mend. And today my limp is gone.

The whole experience was awesome, of course, but after 19 years of traveling to Palestine, not surprising.

Oday Khatib, acclaimed Palestinian singer, set free; discusses his time in an Israeli prison

By Sandy Tolan and Anan Abu-Shanab

Oday Khatib, the acclaimed Palestinian singer from the Ramallah-based Al Kamandjati music school, walked out of an Israeli prison a free man this week.  Oday was arrested on March 19 at Al Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron, and sentenced to three months in prison for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

Despite the joyful return with his family at Al Fawwar, and the experience of tasting his his mother’s oven-baked chicken after nearly three months of prison food, Oday, 22, expressed mixed feelings about his release.

“My happiness was not complete,” he said during a telephone interview from the family home at Al Fawwar on Thursday, which was interrupted repeatedly as well-wishers continued to stream into the house.  “I felt like I was abandoning the guys.  I felt guilty.  I was ashamed for only spending three months.”  Many of the other men in the two prisons where Oday was incarcerated had been sentenced to much longer terms.  Stone-throwing carries a sentence of ten years under Israeli Military Order 1651, and the conviction rate for all charges against Palestinians by Israel’s occupation authories is 99.74 percent, or about 399 out of 400.

Oday maintains that on March 19 he was not throwing stones, but rather standing near a group of boys who were.  Nevertheless he was arrested by Israeli soldiers, beaten “really badly,” and charged with the crime of stone-throwing.  For two months Oday and his lawyer maintained his innocence to the military authorities, reminding them that he was a singer, had never been arrested, and was not interested in throwing stones.  “I have my life and my work to worry about,” he told them.  Oday has long maintained that his resistance to Israel’s occupation would come through his music.  During the trial, Oday said, “soldiers and witnesses lied” about his alleged crime.  Faced with the prospect of a long prison term, the singer, who has recorded and performed across Europe and the Arab world, agreed to plead guilty in exchange for the three-month term.

“I was ashamed that I was the youngest and had the shortest sentence,” among his fellow prisoners, Oday said.  “When they would ask how long I am staying in prison I would only say three, without saying it is only three months so they would think it is three years. I started crying when I left.  I was not that happy.

“When all my family and friends met me at the checkpoint,” Oday added, “I told them that they did not have to do all of this. I mean I barely spent any time in prison.”

During Oday’s relatively short  stay in two Israeli prisons – in Ofer, near Ramallah, and Ramon, in the Negev Desert – he entertained his fellow prisoners with his powerful, mournful voice, which has captivated audiences from Al Fawwar to the Gulf to Paris, going back to the days when Oday was barely a teenager, and still a boy soprano.  “I tried my best to change the atmosphere of the prison and make a pleasant mood for everyone,” Oday said of his time as a prisoner. “I started singing for them and telling them that we should deal with it as a summer camp, not as a prison, to lighten things up.”  This also picked up Oday’s spriits, to a certain extent.  “It helped relieve some of my suffering, but at the same time,” because of the sad themes he sings about, “it brought me back to suffering.”

Now that he’s free, Oday is suddenly able to make simple plans, like attending the birthday party of Hussein Aburedwan, son of Ramzi Aburedwan, founder of Al Kamandjati, and his wife, Celine Dagher.  Hussein turns four on June 10, and told his mom he wanted Oday to come to the party.  Oday also plans to travel to France for a singing gig, attend Al Kamandjati’s international summer music camp in Ramallah in July, and consider entering the “Arab Idol” singing competition.  “And to get engaged,” he added.  “There are some plans for that.”

Before all of that, however, Oday Khatib plans to visit the families of some of the men he spent time with in prison. “I promised some of my friends,” he said.  “They also asked me to write songs for prisoners since there are not a lot of songs about prisoners.”

During the long days and nights behind bars, Oday recalled, “I thought about everything:  my family, my work, my dream. I started praying and thinking about my family, and all of the people who are not going to leave prison and I stopped thinking about myself. All I thought about was my fellow prisoners, and how God may stand with them.”


ODAY KHATIB TO BE FREED: Israeli military court convicts the acclaimed Palestinian singer of throwing stones; release expected in June

By Sandy Tolan

An Israeli mlitary court has convicted acclaimed Palestinian singer Oday Khatib of throwing stones at Israeli occupation soldiers, sentencing him to a three months in Ofer military prison near Ramallah.  Oday’s release is expected no later than June 19, and perhaps as early as the 4th.

Oday, a rising international star and a featured singer of the Al Kamandjati music school, was arrested on March 19 not far from his home in Al Fawwar refugee camp, near Hebron, and accused of throwing stones at soldiers from Israel’s occupation forces in the West Bank.  Oday’s family maintained that the 22-year-old singer, who had never been arrested, had been waiting for a friend near the camp’s entrance, and that he had been arrested mistakenly after youths in the area engaged in a stone-throwing clash with soldiers.

That the singer was found guilty was not a surprise, as the conviction rate for such military trials is 99.74 percent, or 399 of every 400 tried.

Oday was charged under Section 212 of Israeli Military Order 1651, which states that anyone convicted of throwing stones “[a]t a person or property, with the intent to harm the person or property shall be sentenced to ten years imprisonment.”  Oday, however, was given a three-month sentence, retroactive to his arrest on March 19, according to Capt. Eytan Buchman of the Israel Defense Forces.  The military spokesman added that the sentence was “part of a plea bargain,” and that Oday was also required to pay a fine of 1500 shekels, or about $400.  Oday is expected to be released as early as June 4.

Oday’s incarceration shed light on a draconian system of arrests and imprisonment by Israeli occupying forces in the West Bank. Oday is only one of thousands of incarcerated Palestinians.  According to B’tselem, the respected Israeli human rights group, as of February, 4,713 Palestinians were held in Israeli prisons, including 169 under “administrative detention,” which allows Israel to arrest and detain Palestinians indefinitely without charge. The 10-year sentence for throwing stones can apply to youths as young as 14, according to a report by UNICEF.

Yet beyond whether or not Oday and thousands of other Palestinian youth are “guilty” of throwing stones is a more fundamental question: what constitutes legitimate Palestinian resistance to a 47-year military occupation?

Al-Fawwar, like most Palestinian villages and towns, sits on land surrounded by Israeli settlements. The camp is in the midst of Area C, under full Israeli military control, which takes up 60 percent of the West Bank. One of the central purposes of Israel’s occupation army is to protect the settlers, whose illegal occupation, under international law, remains a towering obstacle to a just settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

For generations of Palestinian youth, as reported here earlier, throwing stones has formed the core of their efforts at expelling the occupying army. Stone-throwing was at the heart of the first Palestinian intifada, which forced Israeli leaders to the negotiating table.

Oday’s family reports that he has kept his spirits high during his incarcertion, in part by singing for his fellow inmates.

“He sings in the prison, and everyone listens to him,” said Oday’s mom. Added his father: “He is singing the songs he first sang, the songs that he sang for his brothers when they were in prison and when he first started singing.”

Among those songs is Oday’s signature ballad, Ghareeb, or The Stranger.  Another, roughly translated, is called “Darkness of the Prison.”  (Listen to a Youtube version here.)

Oh, darkness of the prison,

Settle down

We relish the darkness

For nothing comes after night

Except a transcendent, glorious dawn.

Thanks to Anan Abu-Shanab and Eman Musleh for help with this report.


Defense presents its case in stone-throwing trial of Oday Khatib; testimonies continue to pour in

Beloved Palestinian singer Oday Khatib. His trial continues with defense testimony on Wednesday. A verdict could come within days.

As Oday Khatib’s defense in his stone-throwing trial begins, family members, friends, and fellow musicians from around the world continue to protest his innocence.  The trial of the acclaimed Palestinian singer, which began last week, is taking place in Ofer military prison in the Israel-occupied West Bank.  If convicted, Oday could receive ten years in prison under Israeli Military Order 1651.  A verdict could come within days.

Oday’s testimony, according to his father, who has made his way through the prison gates to the courtroom for each day of the trial, is expected to focus on apparent inconsistencies in the testimony of Israeli soldiers.  Oday is charged with throwing stones during what Israeli Defense Forces Capt. Eytan Buchman described as a “riot” at Al Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron on March 19.  Oday’s family contends he was not throwing stones, but rather waiting for a friend near an Al Fawwar crossroads to share a meal.  The friend, a 22-year-old named Baha’, is expected to testify in Oday’s defense on Wednesday.  At least three text messages on Oday’s cellphone, his father explained, could corroborate this.

In the meantime, dozens, perhaps hundreds of Oday’s friends and musical colleagues have exchanged concerned messages on Facebook and in private emails; some of them have written directly to Israeli officials to protest Oday’s innocence.  (To express your own concern, you can send it by fax to Israeli Brigadier General Moti Almoz, head of the Civil Administration in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: +972-2-997-7341)

As I wrote in an earlier post, Oday has been long beloved for his soaring, expressive voice, best known both in his high-pitched child’s voice and now as a young man for his lyrical intepretation of Palestinian resistance songs.  He has performed across Palestine, the Arab world and Europe, and now in Ofer Prison, and has been known to captivate his audiences, including those who don’t understand the words he’s singing. Ramzi Aburedwan, the founder of the Al Kamandjati music school where Oday has trained and now teaches, recalled the time Oday took the French stage for the first time.  “He created an amazing quiet in the room,” Ramzi reflected.  “People were standing there with their mouths open.  And for the ones who understood  Arabic, they started to cry.  Even a French girl, who understood the sadness, was crying.”

Here, meantime, are memories and testimonials from some of the friends and colleagues of Oday Khatib who’ve written to express their concerns:

Sarah Roger (French former volunteer for Al Kamandjati)

To whom it may concern.
Here is what I can say about Oday.
He is a very lovely and peaceful boy only interested in one thing: singing. His only aim is to spread love and make people happy thanks to his beautiful voice. I have been living with him in the same apartment as a roommate for 2 months and I have only heard him spreading love and peaceful words. I am deeply touched by what is happening to him and I really think he wouldn’t handle spending even a day in prison, I think it would harm him and his peaceful art.

Simon Hewitt Jones (British violinist)

Oday and Ramzi came to London to perform with me and my group Fifth Quadrant last year. His intensely moving singing had a profound effect on audiences in London, including at the Spitalfields Festival (there is a very rough recording of it here:http://www.simonhewittjones.com/project/road-to-jericho/music-of-road-to-jericho/)
We also took him to Aldeburgh to work with young british musicians, who were astounded that someone so young – someone barely older than they were – could have such an powerful musical voice, and such inspirational artistry.
Personally, I have always found Oday to be an exceptional musician who sings straight from the heart. Though he speaks little English, and I little Arabic, I found that the intensity of his eyes and his smile convey great warmth, love and understanding – without the need for words. Working with him was a joy – he is such a considerate and kind person and musician. And of course, when he starts to sing, it feels truly authentic – the emotion can be heard in his voice.

Peter Sulski (American violist, formerly with the London Symphony Orchestra)

Oday is a true Palestinian voice who sears the receptive heart with his song, who is absolutely connected to his soul.He is a man of peace who would rot behind bars.

Mariam Tamari (Palestinian-Japanese opera singer, living in Paris)

Working with Al Kamandjati in Palestine, it was a joy to see Oday every day. He is truly a noble soul, communicating the warmth of his heart and quiet strength, and with a great capacity to appreciate beauty.

Etienne Cardoze (French cellist)

Oday for me, it’s this incredible surprise of discovering an estonashing voice in 14 years old body when he came in France for teh first time. It’s also the pleasure of seing him growing each year, maturing his voice playing with the little Hussain, becoming an adult ready to give to the youngest what he received from the oldest. I keep a small video in my mobile made a year ago with him and Eyad rehearsing in the wedding hall ( 1850 french style ) of one of the city halls in Paris.So simple and moving voice.

Jessica Duchen, British music journalist

I met Oday during an unforgettable few days in Aldeburgh with the ‘Road to Jericho’ project. He struck me as one of the gentlest people I have ever encountered, and I was moved to hear through the film about the transformation of his life through by music. He is a wonderful singer and an inspiring individual.

Vena Johnson Violin teacher, Philadelphia, USA

Oday is an outstanding human being and endearing musician. The moment I met Oday I knew there was something very special about him, his warmth and artistry shone brilliantly. Oday’s voice pierces the heart with a rare and intense sincerity. Oday believes in peace and transmits this peace to his listeners through his powerful voice. Oday must sing. Music is what has brought peace into his soul, and it is music that will help him to share this peace with audiences around the world.

Clemmie Burton-Hill British violinist

I have been lucky enough to know Oday through Al Kamandjati for a number of years. I count myself genuinely blessed to have encountered both his musical talent – which would be an astonishment wherever he came from, even if he had been fortunate enough to have been born into the luxuries of New York, Paris, London or Tel Aviv – and his humanity.

Oday is an exemplary young man of noble, peaceful character. Moreover he is the sort of young Palestinian that the Israelis should be supporting and celebrating, not imprisoning, for it is empathetic, inspiring people like Oday who might one day help to forge a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

If Oday spends the next ten years or even ten months, weeks or days in jail, that prospect of that peace will be further jeopardized. I am sickened to my heart at the prospect of what such a jail term might mean, both for Oday, his family, his friends and all who have been touched by his music; and for the people in the wider region.

Nawras Ibrahim Palestinian bassist and oud player

I know Oday alkhatib since 7 years ago .. He has been more than a brother to me we shared special moments together discovering the world by spreading our music to people .. Oday is known by his sensitivity he signs from his heart and he is a very kind, funny and people person .. The last time I saw Oday one week before they arrested him we were together in a concert in Nablus to celebrate the national cultural day and Mahmoud Darwish’s Birthday he sang for his friend who was killed by Israeli soldiers in His camp (al Fawar) one day before the concert .
Nawras Ibrahim

Gunilla Kerrich and Luca Francetti, violinist and cellist living in Italy

Since 2010 with my husband Luca Franzetti, I work almost twice a year for Alkamanjati association. Every time we played and worked with Oday. His remarkable professionalism, his sweet voice and most of all his deep knowledge concerning teaching music and peace values to the kids, in order to create better human beens for the future, is outstanding and moving at the same time. His contribution to improve a better peace and brotherhood culture is essential.

We really hope that all this talent won’t be wasted.

Jerrell M. Jackson, Bass teacher, Philadelphia, USA

I met Oday, in 2009, while I was performing with the Al Kamandjati Baroque Festival. On a day off from performing, Oday walked with me around Ramallah and took me to the Boys Club in Old City. He sat with me drinking tea and talking about his life. We talked about America, music, politics and his hopes for Palestine in the future. My heart is with him during this time and I pray that he will be released soon.

Julia Katarina, British ormer voice instructor, Al Kamandjati, Ramallah

I would like to add to these wonderful testimonials of Odai’s profound artistry and great warmth and kindness of heart, that he has such a fabulous sense of humour! He’s really funny and doesn’t mind laughing at himself, he’s not afraid of making a fool of himself, which is part of why he’s such a brilliant performer, he isn’t over self conscious and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Even though he has such a beautiful voice and is so serious about his singing, he’s quite capable of parody and does a mean impersonation of a donkey! He’s had me howling with laughter in lessons and is generally great fun to be around. I hope and pray they give him back soon.

Eman Musleh, college student, Al Quds University, Abu Dis, Palestine

I have known Oday for a very short time. but all what i can say about him; he is very respectable, humble, nice. with a great talent; his beautiful voice. he went through hard times in his life, and despite that he’s strong and responsible.

Anything can be helpful to help to get his freedom back.

Nicolas Dobson British former percussion teacher, Al Kamandjati

I knew Oday for almost two years when I was a teacher at Al Kamandjati 2009-11. Aside from his musical talent, he was a lovely person to be around – gentle, considerate, tolerant, open-minded and very, very funny. He radiated warmth, goodwill and equanimity, and absorbed all the foreigners passing through the school into his family of friends as if he’d known them since childhood. Oday helped make AK a unique place – a throwback to genuine community and fraternity. He is probably the least likely person I know to be involved in any kind of violence.

Members of the Orchestra de Chambre, Paris

We are all saddened and grieved to learn about the situation in which Oday is in today. We are hoping for a clear and clement judgement from the part of his judges as we have learned to know

Oday through our contact with him at the Al Kamandjati music conservatory (at Ramallah). We have all been in admiration of his musical gifts and of his sincere desire to use his talent

to help spread a message of peace.

May his judges appreciate these qualities,

Sincerest best wishes,

Hélène Lequeux and Mirana Tutuianu, violin players, Fany Maselli, bassoon player, Bernard Chapron, flute player, Michel Giboureau, oboe player, Joël Soultanian, violia player and Etienne Cardoze, cello player. All of them members of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris.

Benjamin Payen, French violinist and member of an orchestra in Spain

I’m Benjamin from France, used to be violin teacher at Alkamandjati. I knew Oday from that time, and since all this very shamefull story began, I just remember this little time I spent with him up a little montain you reach from his parent’s house in Alfawwar. The very last bit of open space even without any security of coming back and with views to uggly settlements…

I don’t imagine Oday guilty of anything punishable of already 1 month jail, according to a human respectfull society system. That story repeating every day just shows to us which kind of “conflict” is that.

Whatever I could do to help, please tell me! Should we -all french citizens- send a letter to consulate, ambassade, president…?
Good night to all.

Julia Katarina, former voice coach, Al Kamandjati music school:

Let our caged bird keep singing, confident of his freedom, that he may sing ever more beautifully upon his release.

With Much Love
Julia xxx



Oday Khatib, awaiting Israeli military trial, sings from his cell

Oday Khatib at age 15, in 2005, with Ramzi Aburedwan, founder of Al Kamandjati music school. Photo by Celine Dagher.

By Sandy Tolan, Anan Abu-Shanab, and Eman Musleh — On Wednesday, April 10, Oday Khatib’s stone-throwing trial was postponed.  Again. The Palestinian singer walked into Israeli military court and stood ready, for the third time, to face his accuser at Ofer prison near Ramallah.  But the accuser, an Israeli soldier, didn’t show up.  So says Oday’s father, Jihad Khatib, according to my colleague, Anan Abu-Shanab.  Oday, 22, the rising star singer whose arrest and incarceration by the Israeli occupying authorities has set off waves of worry and musical witness in Europe and Palestine, stands accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, who arrested him while chasing a group of kids on March 19.  The penalty for such an offense, under Section 212 of Israeli Military Order 1651, is ten years in prison.

The law is so sweeping that Oday could have received the same sentence had he thrown a single stone at a road sign.

Interviews with Oday’s parents by Anan and our colleague Eman Musleh indicate their son is in good spirits, enjoying camaraderie with his fellow prisoners, if not the prison food and cold nights.  He has requested long underwear from his family.  Oday’s father, in his conversation with Anan, described Oday as generally “happy, comfortable, and not worried at all.” Anan reports: “Oday’s father says that everyone in the prison is happy with Oday, he is friendly with everyone, even the soldiers are very respectful and treat him well, because of that.”

One reason for Oday to be optimistic could be that, according to Oday’s father, the judge said that if the prosecution does not produce evidence by the next court date – April 17th – Oday will be set free.  This would be an exception; 399 of every 400 cases in Israeli military courts results in conviction.  For that reason, the optimism is muted.

Oday’s mother, for her part, remains worried – so worried that she cannot bring herself to go to the court.  Oday is the youngest of her five sons; the one who was always the smallest; the one whose powerful high child’s soprano voice captivated the entire refugee camp, and later, throngs of astonished concert-goers in France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Norway, Lebanon, Dubai, Jerusalem and Ramallah.  She admits that Oday is the favorite of her sons.  “He is the closest to me,” she said.  “He’s so soulful and compassionate.”

When Oday was arrested, his mother was about to embark on the Umrah Muslim pilgramage in Saudi Arabia.  “I was praying for him, asking God to release him,” she said.  She only got a chance to speak to Oday a few days ago, and when she heard his voice on a cell phone from the prison, she burst into tears.  “But after he started talking to me, and telling me to calm down and saying everything is fine with him, I stopped crying just because of his great spirits.”

A few days ago, Oday’s former voice teacher, the British mezzo-soprano Julia Katarina, wrote that she hoped Oday was singing in prison to keep himself sane.  The interviews with Oday’s parents reveal this is precisely what he’s doing – so much so that other prisoners are competing to be his cellmate.

“He sings in the prison, and everyone listens to him,” says Oday’s mom. Added his father: “He is singing the songs he first sang, the songs that he sang for his brothers when they were in prison and when he first started singing.”

Among those songs is Oday’s signature ballad, Ghareeb, or The Stranger.  Another, roughly translated, is called “Darkness of the Prison.”  (Listen to a Youtube version here.)

Oh, darkness of the prison,

Settle down

We relish the darkness

For nothing comes after night

Except a transcendent, glorious dawn

Oday is only one of more than 4,700 Palestinians in Israeli military detention.  Many of their families go through precisely what Oday’s family is facing.  But for Oday, whose voice has transported thousands of people who can’t even understand his words, there are many more people watching and waiting to see what will happen in the military court on April 17.

Israeli military trial of Oday Khatib, acclaimed Palestinian singer, postponed again, to April 17

5:20 AM US Pacific time: The Israeli military trial of Oday Khatib, acclaimed Palestinian singer and instructor with the Al Kamandjati music school, has been postponed a third time, to April 17.  Oday, 22 years old, has sung across Europe and the Arab world.  He was arrested under questionable circumstances at Al Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron on March 19 and accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.  If convicted, he could be sentenced to ten years in an Israeli military prison.

Check here later for updates, including interviews with Oday’s parents and reports of him singing in Ofer military prison.  Photo: Oday Khatib at 14, singing in France. Courtesty Al Kamandjati.



The System In Place: Military trial of beloved singer Oday Khatib sheds light on Israel’s system of arrest and detention [UPDATE: trial postponed to Wednesday, April 17]

Oday Khatib, France 2012. He he stands accused of throwing stones and faces Israeli military trial on Monday. Photo by Khaled Jarrar

Imagine being confined to a small sliver of land, in plain view of a wider homeland that you cannot touch.  Your house is in a refugee camp, surrounded by fine red-roofed homes built by and for strangers who seized your territory without warning or permission.  The strangers, perched on hills that make it possible for them to spy into your home, are protected by one of the world’s most powerful armies, with its tanks, rockets, and helicopter gunships supplied by the top military power on earth.  The soldiers tightly restrict your movements through your own territory.  They subject your family to random searches at military posts along the road, where you’re forced to submit your documents, and sometimes to strip down to your underwear.  At night, without warning, the army may enter your home and take your teen-aged children.  In fact, they often do.  Once you finally find out where they are, they may or may not face any charges.  If they’re not charged, the military courts can hold them there indefinitely.  If they are, the chances they will be found innocent are one in four hundred.  Imagine that you lived in such place, in a land you had long dreamt would be your own sovereign country, but which is now cut up into tiny enclaves that keep you thus confined.  What would you do? If you chose to resist, how would you do so? Oday Khatib fought back by singing.

Read more, at Aljazeera.com


As singer Oday Khatib awaits Israeli military trial, testimonials pour in from around the world. (Update: trial postponed until April 8)

Oday Khatib, performing in France in 2012. Photo from France TV, DR / Culturebox

Testimonials from around the world are pouring in for Oday Khatib, the celebrated, star singer of Ramallah-based Al Kamandjati music school, who faces Israeli military trial on Monday, April 8.  (The trial was earlier scheduled for April 3.) As I wrote recently, Oday was arrested March 19 for allegedly throwing stones at soldiers.  As the 22-year old singer from Al Fawwar refugee camp awaits trial in Ofer Prison near Ramallah, his friends, fellow musicians and supporters of Al Kamandjati, founded by Palestinian musician Ramzi Aburedwan, are lighting up social media sites in support and musical witness.

“Oday and Ramzi came to London to perform with me and my group Fifth Quadrant last year,” writes Simon Hewitt Jones, a British violinist who has taught numerous workshops at Al Kamandjati. “His intensely moving singing had a profound effect on audiences in London.  We also took him to Aldeburgh to work with young British musicians, who were astounded that someone so young – someone barely older than they were – could have such an powerful musical voice, and such inspirational artistry.”

“Working with Al Kamandjati in Palestine, it was a joy to see Oday every day,” wrote Mariam Tamari, a Japanese-Palestinian opera singer based in Paris. Mariam, who sang Mozart’s peace plea, “Alleluia Exultate Jubilate,” for the launching of the Palestinian National Orchestra in Jerusalem on New Years Eve, 2010, writes of Oday: “He is truly a noble soul, communicating the warmth of his heart and quiet strength, and with a great capacity to appreciate beauty.”

“Oday is a true Palestinian voice who sears the receptive heart with his song, [which] is absolutely connected to his soul,” writes Peter Sulski, an American violist formerly of the London Symphony Orchestra, and who has taught for years at Al Kamandjati.  “He is a man of peace who would rot behind bars.”

Oday’s father, Jihad Khatib, told Musa Abuhashhash, a field worker for B’tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, that Oday was arrested at Al Fawwar while waiting for a friend he was meeting for dinner. Nearby, Jihad said, some youths were throwing stones, “and when the soldiers chased the kids, it did not come to his mind that the soldiers would go for him.  Otherwise he would have run away.”

Oday’s father, joined by musicians from the U.S., UK, Italy, France, Palestine, and elsewhere, expressed skepticism that Oday would have been throwing stones. He has never been arrested, and has long sought his resistance to occupation only through his singing, “since he was nine years old,” Jihad said.

“He is a very lovely and peaceful boy only interested in one thing: singing,” wrote Sarah Roger, who came to Ramallah from France to volunteer the Al Kamandjati office. “His only aim is to spread love and make people happy thanks to his beautiful voice.”

“His remarkable professionalism, his sweet voice and most of all his deep knowledge concerning teaching music and peace values to the kids, in order to create better human beings for the future, is outstanding and moving at the same time,” declared Luca Francetti and Gunilla Kerrich, husband and wife cellist and violinist, respectively, writing from Italy.  “His contribution to improve a better peace and brotherhood culture is essential.  We really hope that all this talent won’t be wasted.”

Oday’s family has expressed hope that several of the soldiers who chased the youths on March 19 will be willing to testify that Oday was not among the stone-throwers.  This does not appear likely: The conviction rate for such alleged offenses in military trials, in 2010, was about 399 out of 400.

Beyond whether or not Oday was “guilty” of throwing stones is the question of what constitutes legitimate Palestinian resistance to a 47-year military occupation. Al Fawwar, like most Palestinian villages and towns, sits on land surrounded by Israeli settlements.  The camp is in the midst of Area C, under full Israeli military control, which takes up 60 percent of the West Bank.  A central purpose of Israel’s occupation army is to protect the settlers, whose illegal occupation, under international law, remains a towering obstacle to a just settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.  For generations of Palestinian youths, throwing stones has formed the core of their efforts at expelling the occupying army.  Stone-throwing was at the heart of the first Palestinian  intifada, which forced Israeli leaders to the negotiating table.  (The Oslo agreement they forged with Palestinian negotiators proved to be disastrous; nevertheless, there was a palpable since during the first intifada that the stone would lead to Palestinian liberation.)

I have spoken with several American officials in recent days regarding Oday’s arrest.  The Americans have provided funds to Al Kamandjati to help support its past summer music camps, where Oday was featured prominently.  Thus I thought they would take an interest in Oday’s case.  My inquiry — whether the American government would at least inquire about Oday’s incarceration — was met with virtual silence. “I just don’t have anything for you on that,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Geoff Anisman told me four or five times from Tel Aviv.  Another American official in the region was only slightly more forthcoming:  “There’s a system in place,” the official said, referring to Israel’s system of arrest and incarceration.

Yes, there’s a system in place:  A military court system in which 99.74 percent of the accused are convicted.  The sentence for adults convicted of throwing stones “[a]t a person or property, with the intent to harm the person or property shall be sentenced to ten years imprisonment,” according to Section 212 of Israeli Military Order 1651.  Some of the convicted “adults” are as young as 16; many of them plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence.  A significant portion of the incarcerated are children — 7000 in the last ten years, according to a UNICEF report, which states: “the common experience of many children is being aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation centre tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear. Few children are informed of their right to legal counsel.”

Adults like Oday know full well that they could receive a lengthy prison sentence. Currently more than 4,700 Palestinians are being held in Israeli prisons.  Oday’s case is no more or less unfair than thousands of others; it simply sheds more light on the system that’s in place.  And it prompts dozens of Oday’s friends and fellow musicians to write in his defense:

“Oday is an exemplary young man of noble, peaceful character,” writes Clemency Burton-Hill, a British violinist who has performed with the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by the Israeli-Argentine conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said.  “Moreover he is the sort of young Palestinian that the Israelis should be supporting and celebrating, not imprisoning, for it is empathetic, inspiring people like Oday who might one day help to forge a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If Oday spends the next ten years or even ten months, weeks or days in jail, that prospect of that peace will be further jeopardized. I am sickened to my heart at the prospect of what such a jail term might mean, both for Oday, his family, his friends and all who have been touched by his music.”

Nowras Ibrahim, an Al Kamandjati-trained Palestinian bass player who is now studying in France, writes that Oday “has been more than a brother to me. We shared special moments together, discovering the world by spreading our music to people.  Oday is known [for] his sensitivity.  He sings from his heart.”

Julia Katarina, the British Mezzo-Soprano who put her opera career on hold to teach voice lessons at Al Kamandjati for three years, writes of Oday:  “He is very generous with his art, and just loves singing beyond all else! He is a true singer, and I imagine the only way he is surviving prison is by singing. I hope he sings in the military court,” Julia writes, because on April 8, if Oday’s accusers can find “an ounce of humanity in their hearts, they will release him.”

Note:  This article will be updated with additional testimonials.

Celebrated Palestinian singer arrested, accused of throwing stones; could face long prison term Serious doubts raised over accusations

Oday Khatib, performing in France in 2012. Photo by Musiciens pour la Palestine

An internationally-acclaimed Palestinian singer has been arrested by Israeli military forces and accused of throwing stones, a charge that could send him to prison for up to ten years or more.

Oday al-Khatib, 22 years old, born and raised in Al Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron, was arrested on March 19 by Israeli soldiers who were chasing stone-throwing youths in the area.  He is a star singer of Al Kamandjati, the acclaimed Ramallah-based music school founded in 2005 by Ramzi Aburedwan, and has recorded and toured with various Arabic music ensembles in France, Belgium, Lebanon, Norway, Italy, Palestine, Dubai, Algeria, and Austria.  (Ramzi and Al Kamandjati form the main focus of my new book, and Oday’s story will be featured prominently in it.)

The apparent circumstances around Oday’s arrest cast doubt on the charges.  Oday, according to interviews with his parents, was waiting for a friend on a hill in Al Fawwar, and not part of the group of stone-throwing youths.  Jihad Khatib, Oday’s father, told a field representative for the respected Israeli human rights group B’tselem: “While Oday was waiting a group of kids threw stones at some soldiers who happened to be in the area.  And when the soldiers chased the kids, it did not come to his mind that the soldiers would go for him.  Otherwise he would have run away.”  Oday’s mother, in a conversation with Celine Dagher of Al Kamandjati, and his father, speaking with my colleague Anan Abu-Shanab, underscored that Oday did not believe he was a target of the soldiers:  “Oday did not run when he saw the kids running towards him,” Anan reports hearing from Jihad, “and then the soldiers came and arrested him.”  The family maintains that Oday was waiting on the hill for his friend, with whom he planned to have dinner, and that Oday’s cell phone log can prove that he called his friend just before leaving his house.

Perhaps more significantly, the charges against Oday appear questionable because until now, Oday has never been arrested or jailed, according to Celine.  For many Palestinians, throwing stones at soldiers who have invaded their territory is part of a long history of legitimate resistance to a 47-year illegal military occupation.  And though Oday’s brothers have clashed repeatedly with Israeli soldiers since at least 2002 –  after one brother, Rasmi, was shot in the shoulder in an Al Fawwar schoolyard and lost the use of his left arm – Oday has found his resistance to Israel’s military occupation through his singing.  “Oday is not like any other of my sons,” Jihad told the military court when the charges were brought against his son.  “He is not interested in throwing stones or getting involved in this.  Since he was nine years old he was interested only in music.  For you to keep Oday in the prison is simply an injustice.”

Oday, of course, is only one of thousands of Palestinians being held by Israel.  According to B’tselem, as of February, 4,713 Palestinians were held in Israeli prisoners, including 169 under “administrative detention,” which allows Israel to arrest and detain Palestinians indefinitely without charge.  The penalty for throwing stones can in some cases exceed ten years, and can apply to youths as young as 14, according to a report by UNICEF.

Oday has long been well-known in Al Fawwar as a singer of Palestinian resistance songs.  In 2003, he was “discovered” by Ramzi and a group of touring French musicians conducting workshops in Palestine in an effort to prepare the ground for the music school, which opened in 2005.  That year Oday began touring with Ramzi and his band, Dalouna, thrilling French audiences with his charismatic presence, wearing a keffiyeh around his neck and singing in his powerful boy’s soprano voice.

Oday was barely 14 when he took the French stage for the first time, looking out from behind the curtain to see nearly a thousand people waiting to hear him sing.  Fellow band members recall that he had no problem using his voice as an instrument to cut through the tabla, oud, clarinet and buzouk. He sang The Stranger, his signature song, scanning the crowd to see if he was connecting.  “Ramzi told me to sing from my heart,” Oday recounted in an interview with me last summer.  “I wanted them to understand my life.  I looked into their eyes with a special emotion.  They really listened.  The way I looked at them, I could tell whether they liked it or not.”

“He created an amazing quiet in the room,” Ramzi remembered.  “People were standing there with their mouths open.  And for the ones who understood Arabic, they started to cry.  Even a French girl, who understood the sadness, was crying.”

On March 13, six days before his arrest, Celine saw Oday singing live on television from Nablus.  The occasion was the Mahmoud Darwish award, named for the late Palestinian poet. “We were watching it with Ramzi and I told him it is strange, Oday does not sing as usual today,” Celine recalled.  After the concert, Oday returned to Al Kamandajti in Ramallah. He told Ramzi he hadn’t been able to focus on singing, because he kept thinking about his friend Mahmoud Altiti, from Al Fawwar, who’d been shot dead  by an Israeli soldier one day earlier during clashes in the camp.   Not long before, Mahmoud had noticed that his family and Oday’s were each adding another floor to their houses at Al Fawwar.  Mahmoud had predicted to Oday that one day soon, both men would be fathers, and that “we will both have our kids running around the camp.”

“He was thinking of  this while he was singing,” Ramzi recounted.

That was the last time Ramzi and Celine heard Oday sing.  His military trial is scheduled for April 3.  The conviction rate for such trials, according to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, was 99.74 percent in 2010; in other words, about one in 400 accused was found innocent.  If convicted of throwing stones — at soldiers engaged in a military occupation internationally recognized as illegal — Oday Al Khatib, the celebrated singer known throughout Palestine and Europe, could receive up to ten years or more in an Israeli prison.

Anan Abu-Shanab contributed reporting to this story.

Obama in the Holy Land: Occupation? What Occupation?


© Najeh Hashlamoun / APA Images

Riddle:  What has been around for nearly 47 years; covers a territory the size of Connecticut; holds nearly three million people; is carved up by hundreds of blockades, barriers, “special security zones,” “closed military areas,” “killing zones,” and roads accessible only to a privileged minority; features an adult male population where an estimated two of every five have been arrested or imprisoned, many without ever being charged; and yet remains essentially invisible?

Stumped?  It’s called the Occupied West Bank, 60 percent of which remains under the full military control of Israel.  You’re forgiven if the answer did not come readily.  In the U.S., references to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank have fallen out of favor. Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s architect of the Camp David failure, spent a full page in a New York Times op-ed, making “recommendations” for “both sides” in preparation for President Obama’s visit to the region, without once mentioning the word, or the concept. The Los Angeles Times managed the same feat, in side-by-side op-eds, both by Israelis, including one by a settler who argued for the legitimacy of the West Bank settlements.

I have traveled across the West Bank over the last two decades, and intensively since 2009 for a book about a Palestinian violist and his dream to build a music school in Ramallah.  In the South Hebron Hills I met Palestinian children who’ve been stoned by settlers, or had dogs set upon them as they tried to walk three miles to school.  There I met a villager who risked arrest by driving his red Toyota pickup down the nearly impassible road to take the children to their classes.  Improvements on the road are forbidden, because it lies in a military zone.  A few days later, in apparent punishment, his truck was smashed to a crumpled pulp by the army.

At a place called the Azzun of Darkness, near Qalqilia, I saw the separation barrier rising on three sides, nearly 25 feet high, enclosing the community so tightly that it blocked out light, and contact with the rest of Palestine.  At Jayyous, I visited with an old man who told me how that same barrier cut off access to his olive trees, which now lay dying, and to his family on the other side.  “My sons don’t know their uncles and aunts,” he told me, sitting beside a bookshelf lined with classics, including The Old Man and the Sea, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot.

In Ramallah I learned of a Israeli military night raid – in a place supposedly under Palestinian autonomy – of the home of Ramzi Aburedwan, director of the music school, Al Kamandjati.  He was away, on a special invitation to play for the Queen of Holland, but Celine, his French-Lebanese wife, watched in horror at 2 a.m. as their metal door was yanked off and ten soldiers entered, pointing their M-16s at her while her six-month-old slept in the next room. They had the wrong house, the commander later explained.  Soldiers took off three other doors in the apartment building before finding their suspect.  Later, at the music school, I met children who told of being forced to pull out  their instruments at checkpoints and play for the soldiers.  A ten- year-old girl named Alá, a gifted violinist, chose the song Beautiful Girl.  And just a few days ago, Oday Khatib, the school’s star singer, was arrested in his refugee camp, Al Fawwar, near Hebron.  “God undo his capture, oh Lord,” several of Oday’s Facebook friends posted in Arabic.

These few stories are representative of an occupation of Palestine so pervasive that it’s now nearly impossible travel for an entire minute without seeing some evidence of the domination of a stateless people: settlement, military post, flapping flags of Israel, charred stumps of a razed former olive grove, a jeep patrol, a checkpoint, a roadside detention of young Palestinian men.

Most ubiquitous is the daily encounter at checkpoints, a staple of Palestinian life, when families submit to searches and hours-long waits by bored young soldiers at military guardposts flanked by machine gun nests.  To some this humiliation, especially of young men who tend to be darker than the soldiers who detain them,  is reminiscent of South African apartheid.  On a visit to the Holy Land, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was reminded of the days “when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”  To Americans it may feel more like the days of Jim Crow.

How did 47 years of such military domination get relegated to footnote status?  How, in a region filled with correspondents, have we come to essentially ignore the expropriation of ten percent of the West Bank to build a separation barrier, the razing of hundreds of thousands of olive trees for “security” purposes, regular military sweeps into ostensibly autonomous areas, the detention without charge of hundreds of people at a time, the demolishing of thousands of family homes, the sealing off of the Jerusalem holy sites to nearly all West Bankers, except by special permit, and the military control of more than half of their land base?  It’s not as though these issues are never covered; but they’re below the radar, aberrations that are not built into the basics of policy or press coverage.

Why?  I believe the answer lies in the four-word mantra of U.S. policy and American press coverage of the region:  Israelis must feel secure.  The statement is true enough, and few people would argue against it, but as exclusive policy and über narrative, those words alone add up to disaster.  They are rooted largely in the Holocaust, and the rightful determination of Israelis and Jews around the world to “never again go like sheep to the slaughter.”  But their application as essence of policy and coverage amounts to a kind of Leon Uris Exodus narrative, which praises the rising of Israel out of the Holocaust’s ashes, but ignores or vilifies the other people who paid the price.  Seven hundred fifty thousand Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes during the creation of Israel; their dispossession ripples forward into today’s occupied land, and the dream of freedom that still lives within it.

Occupation and freedom:  These concepts are just as legitimate as any Israeli’s right to feel secure. For a just and comprehensive peace, these ideas need  to share equal status.  Yet the notion of occupation is increasingly ignored by the American press as some quaint remnant of a revolutionary past.  More important, the corrosive nature of the occupation, and the struggle of a people to free itself from it, has been essentially dropped as policy issues by successive American administrations eager to speak, as President Obama did Wednesday, of the “eternal” American bond with Israel.  The irony is that by refusing to publicly confront the occupation, and meaningfully back the Palestinian quest for freedom – instead of blocking it at the United Nations – the Obama administration is undermining the Israeli security goal at the center of its policy.  Permanent occupation in reservation-style enclaves is not a long term answer for Israel and Palestine, and in the end it will not make Israelis feel secure.

On Thursday President Obama is spending a few hours of his three-day Mideast visit in Ramallah and its environs.  In his bulletproof caravan, he’s whisked through a VIP checkpoint, thus missing the opportunity to see the vast border crossing at Qalandia, with its mind-numbing rows of metal gates and turnstiles.  He won’t see the humiliation of Palestinians at the hundreds of other checkpoints, roadblocks, and barriers.  He won’t likely visit with any residents of Area C, representing the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control, where even small improvements on homes are forbidden, lest Israeli bulldozers arrive to demolish them.  And according to reports, the president has declined to meet with the families of prisoners, including many who languish in jail, unaware if a charge will ever be filed.

Instead the President Obama will visit with the West Bank Palestinian leadership, largely discredited for its failure – abetted by the Americans – to deliver on a long promised independent state.  Few Palestinians seem to be expecting very much, least of all on any American movement to end the long occupation.  Yes, the president offered the familiar lukewarm American diplo-speak about how the settlements do not advance “the cause of peace.”  But there’s little expectation of strong language to confront the reality of the Palestinians’ Kafka-esque predicament.   The president will, however, find it difficult not to be reminded of it from time to time.

On Thursday the president will watch a youth group perform traditional Palestinian dance at a youth center in Al Bireh, next to Ramallah.  From there, as he leaves, he need only look to the hill just above:  There stands a place once known as Jabil Tawil, formerly a hiking area for summer visitors from the Gulf.  Thirty two years ago, Jewish nationalists, backed by Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon, seized it, planted it with trailers, and renamed it Psagot.  Its looming red-roofed homes will stare back down at the president, reminding him of the occupation he is increasingly reluctant to confront.

Remembering the First Intifada, 25 Years Later

Here’s an excerpt from Sandy Tolan’s upcoming book, Children of the Stones (working title), as published in Mondoweiss as part of its extensive series on the anniversary, Roots of Resistance.

Child of the stone: Ramzi Aburedwan, Al Amari refugee camp, 1987.

On December 8, 1987, in the Gaza Strip, four Palestinians were killed when an Israeli truck or troop carrier veered into a long line of cars carrying day laborers home from Israel.  This was the spark that lit a furious response, and spread quickly from Gaza across the West Bank and into the refugee camps.  Boys and young men known as the shebab forged the front lines of what started as a spontaneous eruption against the killing of the four workers, but was fueled by a much deeper anger at decades of foreign rule. For more than 20 years, the occupying power had dictated nearly every aspect of  public life.  Israel ran the criminal and military courts, banned and approved textbooks, erected roadblocks and checkpoints, and levied special  taxes so that, in effect, Palestinians were paying to be occupied. Permits were required to dig a well, plant a tree, repair a house, raise chickens, or travel to Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of the Palestinians for Muslim and Christian alike.  National flags were banned, schools and universities shut down, protest leaders expelled to Jordan or Lebanon, and young men routinely rounded up and placed in “administrative detention” for weeks or months without charge.  By 1987 the military had built a vast intelligence network, paying local spies, or issuing them coveted travel permits, in exchange for their eyes and ears in the camps.

The shebab were but one element of what became, for a time, an exceptionally unified, clandestine and well-organized campaign of national resistance.  The atfal al hijara –  children of the stones – were only the most visible symbol of the firstintifada, or uprising: the vanguard of a war of liberation that cut across class, religion, and political affiliation.

The people’s leaders in the Palestine Liberation Organization were in exile, in Tunis and Algiers, but quickly an anonymous local command emerged.  Unambiguous directives —  demonstration Noon today, at Manara; general strike tomorrow, no business may open — appeared overnight, scrawled on the camp walls, scattered in unattributed fliers, or shouted out by Palestinian fruit market vendors amid their cacophonous hawking of watermelons and figs.

Chicken coops and rabbit dens rose up in the courtyards of the wealthy and the rooftops of the refugee camps.  Dozens of rabbits quickly became thousands; secret food committees distributed eggs and fresh meat throughout the cities and villages.  Squash and tomatoes sprouted in forbidden “victory gardens.”   Rice, lentils, potatoes and olive oil were hidden in neighborhood caches, then distributed in the small hours to the doorsteps of needy families, breaking the military curfews. Education was improvised:  As the authorities shut schools and universities, teachers secretly met their students in parents’  living rooms, behind hedges, under olive trees, and even, sometimes, in caves. In Al Amari refugee camp beside Ramallah, local leaders formed solidarity committees.  Clandestine food deliveries arrived by truck late at night, dropped off quickly in the back of a volunteer’s home and passed along in a house-to house chain by the distribution committee.  The neighborhood protection committee included children who shouted jeesh! (army!) at the sight of entering jeeps or soldiers, and women who relayed the warnings by banging rocks on a successon of resonating electrical poles.  Secret ballots to elect board members to the popular committees traveled from family to family, hidden in the folds of women’s clothing. Local mothers in the social committee organized visits to the families of youths arrested and held under administrative detention.

In the face of this the military authorities intensified their crackdown.  Commanders seized a four-story stone building at the entrance to Al Amari, affording a view of the entire camp.  Snipers perched on the roof as jeeps and armored trucks entered the camp and soldiers spilled out for foot patrols through the veins of Al Amari.

Soldiers of the day recall three basic tasks ordered from on high:  remove all Palestinian flags and obliterate graffiti; find and detain suspected organizers and militants; chase the children and young men throwing stones.

Job one was obliterating any expression of nationalist sentiment, especially the banners of green, black, and white, with a red triangle pointing left to right: The Palestinian flag.  Each morning soldiers would find the flags flapping from telephone or electrical poles.   They’d pound on a few doors, order the men out, and command them to select a volunteer to climb up and take down the banned national colors.  They ordered the women to remove the slogans and directives splashed nightly on the camp walls.  Graffiti removal was so common that some families had a bucket of white paint by the door. At night, the women would sew more flags — sometimes stitching the banner of Palestine right into their clothing — and the next day the ritual would begin again.

The night raids in search of suspected troublemakers were more aggressive.  Thirty soldiers would surround a house, covering all the windows and possible exits; another thirty, in a wider ring, formed a second line of detention. “You’d probably knock with your rifle,” remembered a soldier who patrolled Ramallah back then.  “Two o’clock in the morning, you would round the whole family up. Women, children, grown ups, try and identify the person you are looking for. About 80% of the time he wasn’t there. And then you’d search the house. Opening up all the cupboards, looking between the clothes, going through the pantry.  Basically, we’d just trash the place.  That would happen most of the time.”   Soldiers rummaged through stores of grain, searching for weapons:  “More often then not you wouldn’t find anything. Or at the most you would find a kitchen knife.”

“The Palestinians rarely used firearms,” acknowledged an Israeli brigadier general of the day, “partly because they hardly had any.”

Yet the searches became legendary in the camp.  Ramzi Aburedwan, who grew up in Al Amari and became one of the children of the stones, remembers the time soldiers burst into his grandfather’s house, dumped out the family’s storres of flour, sugar, olive oil and rice, and, with the butt of a rifle,  mixed them together on the floor.  “They destroyed everything.”

A soldier of the day recalled: “It would basically depend on the whim of the commander on that night.  If he was unhappy with his life, or his girlfriend, or he just wanted to go back, or he’s just angry at something, he can take it out.  And it wasn’t just the commander.  I mean, soldiers would take out their personal grief on whoever was around, because they were in a position of power.  Because they could.”

Israeli authorities had initially dismissed the Intifada as a series of temporary local disturbances.  “Our goal is to put down the uprising, to reinstate law and order, and to return life to normal,”  Israeli commander Amram Mitzna wrote to his soldiers in the Central Command in 1988.

When normal life did not return, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin instituted a policy of “force, might, and beatings,” which included, it was revealed later, permission granted to IDF soldiers to break the bones of stone throwers.  But the military’s belief that the iron fist would quell the demonstrations proved unfounded.  Instead, it sparked more.

At Al Amari, women gathered rocks from nearby hillsides and ferried them onto waiting vehicles. Clandestine search parties scoured the dumps and hillsides for discarded tires.  Volunteers filled plastic jugs with petrol, carrying them swiftly and secretly back to the camp. Sometimes the shebab hurled stones, or, far less frequently, a Molotov cocktail, at a settler driving through town.  But the soldiers were the main targets.

The confrontations at Al Amari began in the afternoons, often after Friday prayer.  Young men and boys would drag heavy stones or concrete blocks across the road, to keep the jeeps from entering the camps.  They’d adjust their homemade leather rock launchers and slingshots — eight-year-old Ramzi made one from the laces and tongue of an old shoe — or rotate their arms like baseball pitchers warming up in the bullpen.  To protect their identity, the older shebab wrapped their faces in checkered keffiyas. They eyed the soldiers, perhaps 80 or 100 yards away, at the ground floor of the four-story stone building.  Then they poured the gasoline and lit the match.  From the blazing tires, twisting black colums rose above the camp, signaling the start of another day of battle.

“Televisions screens throughout the world presented the Israeli military occupation in the most ugly light,” observed Gazit, the Israeli brigadier general, “with Israel’s armed, well-protected and clumsy soldiers trying in vain to deal with agile Palestinian kids throwing stones at them and making fools out of them.  It was a David and Goliath battle of sorts, this time with the Palestinians in the role of David and receiving the world’s sympathy.”

Playing the role of David was Ramzi himself.  During a clash on a cold winter day in 1988, the eight-year-old became a visual symbol of the uprising.   He wore blue jeans and tennis shoes; his red jacket with the faux-fur collar was flying open.  He faced an Israeli jeep.  In his left hand he clutched a rock nearly half the size of his head.  His raised right arm was drawn behind him, the hand wrapped around a stone.

Ramzi’s eyes conveyed a mixture of anger, fear, and resolve.  His arched eyebrows seemed to say, Here we are.  His left foot was planted, and he was stepping forward with his right.  In one more second, the stone would fly.

In that instant, a photojournalist – it’s still unclear who snapped a picture.  At first, it ran in the local papers in Israel; a day later it ran in the Arabic-language papers, delivered across town by Ramzi and his fellow newsboys; soon it would transmitted to newspapers around the world.  The image was later reproduced on posters across Europe, depicting the rage and apparent fearlessness of the children of the stones.  It would become perhaps the single most recognized image of the Palestinian intifada.

Ramzi had suddenly become a child legend of his people’s uprising.

There were times, in full flight from the soldiers, when a strange sense of protection would settle over Ramzi.  He could feel his sneakers grabbing the dimples of the tin roof; he could watch his limbs pumping in a perfect rhythm with his panting breath.  In moments like these, there wasn’t time to put words to a prayer, but he put out the energy of a fragmented offering:  God, I love you, I need you.  I need to be alive.  There was nothing more in the world that could help him; a bullet would whiz past, and he’d understand his life in terms of centimeters.  Oddly, in times like these, he often felt protected: buoyed, lifted, and cared for as he ran and ran, sprinting from rooftop to rooftop, leaping toward an imagined freedom.

This is excerpted from  “Uprising,” a chapter in “Children of the Stones” (working title), the new book by Sandy Tolan exploring music, hope, and occupation in Palestine.  Publication by Bloomsbury is expected in early 2014.



Egypt: Food for a Revolution

Morning meal, Cairo, July 2011. Photo by Charlotte Buchen

Anger over food prices helped contribute to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Through the story of one migrant family, we explore how displaced farmers, angry at agricultural policies that favor “crony capitalists,” now struggle to put food on the table.  Egypt:  Food for a Revolution will run tonight (Wednesday November 30) on PBS Newshour. Stay tuned for a link to the piece.   The story was reported by Sandy Tolan and produced and shot by Charlotte Buchen.  It is part of a new series, Food for Nine Billion, a collaboration between public radio’s Marketplace, the Newshour, the Center for Investigative Reporting and Homelands Productions.

Tonight’s broadcast of “Egypt: Food for a Revolution” launches our new series, “Food for Nine Billion,” an ambitious multi-platform media project that examines the challenge of feeding the world at a time of growing demand, changing diets, rising food and energy prices, shrinking land and water resources, and accelerating climate change. In the coming weeks, look for more stories from around the world highlighting various facets of the common struggle to provide a sustainable supply of food – whether it’s for an entire nation or a single family.




The Occupation That Time Forgot

Whatever symbolic satisfaction the Palestinian Authority may get at the U.N., there’s always the Occupation and there — take it from someone who just got back from three months in the West Bank — Israel is winning the battle,  the one for control over every square foot of ground.  Inch by inch, meter by meter, Israel’s expansion project in the West Bank and Jerusalem is, in fact, gaining momentum, ensuring that the “nation” that the U.N. might grant membership will be each day a little smaller, a little less viable, a little less there.

The State to Which the U.N. May Grant Membership Is Disappearing (Originally posted on TomDispatch.com, and picked up by outlets around the world, including Le Monde Diplomatique, Salon, The American Conservative,  Al Arab Online and TheNation.com, )
By Sandy Tolan

It’s the show that time and the world forgot. It’s called the Occupation and it’s now in its 45th year. Playing on a landscape about the size of Delaware, it remains largely hidden from view, while Middle Eastern headlines from elsewhere seize the day.  Diplomats shuttle back and forth from Washington and Brussels to Middle Eastern capitals; the Israeli-Turkish alliance ruptures amid bold declarations from the Turkish prime minister; crowds storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, while Israeli ambassadors flee the Egyptian capital and Amman, the Jordanian one; and of course, there’s the headliner, the show-stopper of the moment, the Palestinian Authority’s campaign for statehood in the United Nations, which will prompt an Obama administration veto in the Security Council.

But whatever the Turks, Egyptians, or Americans do, whatever symbolic satisfaction the Palestinian Authority may get at the U.N., there’s always the Occupation and there — take it from someone just back from a summer living in the West Bank — Israel isn’t losing.  It’s winning the battle, at least the one that means the most to Palestinians and Israelis, the one for control over every square foot of ground.  Inch by inch, meter by meter, Israel’s expansion project in the West Bank and Jerusalem is, in fact, gaining momentum, ensuring that the “nation” that the U.N. might grant membership will be each day a little smaller, a little less viable, a little less there.

How to Disappear a Land

On my many drives from West Bank city to West Bank city, from Ramallah to Jenin, Abu Dis to Jericho, Bethlehem to Hebron, I’d play a little game: Could I travel for an entire minute without seeing physical evidence of the occupation?  Occasionally — say, when riding through a narrow passage between hills — it was possible.  But not often.  Nearly every panoramic vista, every turn in the highway revealed a Jewish settlement, an Israeli army checkpoint, a military watchtower, a looming concrete wall, a barbed-wire fence with signs announcing another restricted area, or a cluster of army jeeps stopping cars and inspecting young men for their documents.

The ill-fated Oslo “peace process” that emerged from the Oslo Accords of 1993 not only failed to prevent such expansion, it effectively sanctioned it.  Since then, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has nearly tripled to more than 300,000 — and that figure doesn’t include the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.

The Oslo Accords, ratified by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, divided the West Bank into three zones — A, B, and C.  At the time, they were imagined by the Palestinian Authority as a temporary way station on the road to an independent state.  They are, however, still in effect today.  The de facto Israeli strategy has been and remains to give Palestinians relative freedom in Area A, around the West Bank’s cities, while locking down “Area C” — 60% of the West Bank — for the use of the Jewish settlements and for what are called “restricted military areas.”  (Area B is essentially a kind of grey zone between the other two.)  From this strategy come the thousands of demolitions of “illegal” housing and the regular arrests of villagers who simply try to build improvements to their homes.  Restrictions are strictly enforced and violations dealt with harshly.

When I visited the South Hebron Hills in late 2009, for example, villagers were not even allowed to smooth out a virtually impassable dirt road so that their children wouldn’t have to walk two to three miles to school every day. Na’im al-Adarah, from the village of At-Tuwani, paid the price for transporting those kids to the school “illegally.” A few weeks after my visit, he was arrested and his red Toyota pickup seized and destroyed by Israeli soldiers.  He didn’t bother complaining to the Palestinian Authority — the same people now going to the U.N. to declare a Palestinian state — because they have no control over what happens in Area C.

The only time he’d seen a Palestinian official, al-Adarah told me, was when he and other villagers drove to Ramallah to bring one to the area.  (The man from the Palestinian Authority refused to come on his own.) “He said this is the first time he knew that this land [in Area C] is ours.  A minister like him is surprised that we have these areas?  I told him, ‘How can a minister like you not know this?  You’re the minister of local government!’

“It was like he didn’t know what was happening in his own country,” added al-Adarah.  “We’re forgotten, unfortunately.”

The Israeli strategy of control also explains, strategically speaking, the “need” for the network of checkpoints; the looming separation barrier (known to Israelis as the “security fence” and to Palestinians as the “apartheid wall”) that divides Israel from the West Bank (and sometimes West Bankers from each other); the repeated evictions of Palestinians from residential areas like Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem; the systematic revoking of Jerusalem IDs once held by thousands of Palestinians who were born in the Holy City; and the labyrinthine travel restrictions which keep so many Palestinians locked in their West Bank enclaves.

While Israel justifies most of these measures in terms of national security, it’s clear enough that the larger goal behind them is to incrementally take and hold ever more of the land.  The separation barrier, for example, has put 10% of the West Bank’s land on the Israeli side — a case of “annexation in the guise of security,” according to the respected Israeli human rights group, B’tselem.

Taken together, these measures amount to the solution that the Israeli government seeks, one revealed in a series of maps drawn up by Israeli politicians, cartographers, and military men over recent years that show Palestine broken into isolated islands (often compared to South African apartheid-era “bantustans”) on only about 40% of the West Bank.  At the outset of Oslo, Palestinians believed they had made a historic compromise, agreeing to a state on 22% of historic Palestine — that is, the West Bank and Gaza.  The reality now is a kind of “ten percent solution,” a rump statelet without sovereignty, freedom of movement, or control of its own land, air, or water. Palestinians cannot even drill a well to tap into the vast aquifer beneath their feet.

Living Amid Checkpoints, Roadblocks, and Night Raids

Almost always overlooked in assessments of this ruinous “no-state solution” is the human toll it takes on the occupied. More than on any of my dozen previous journeys there, I came away from this trip to Palestine with a sense of the psychic damage the military occupation has inflicted on every Palestinian.  None, no matter how warm-hearted or resilient, escape its effects.

“The soldier pointed to my violin case.  He said, ‘What’s that?'” 13-year-old Alá Shelaldeh, who lives in old Ramallah, told me.  She is a student at Al Kamandjati (Arabic for “the violinist”), a music school in her neighborhood (which will be a focus of my next book). She was recalling a time three years earlier when a van she was in, full of young musicians, was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint near Nablus. They were coming back from a concert.  “I told him, ‘It’s a violin.’  He told me to get out of the van and show him.”  Alá stepped onto the roadside, unzipped her case, and displayed the instrument for the soldier.  “Play something,” he insisted.  Alá played “Hilwadeen” (Beautiful Girl), the song made famous by the Lebanese star Fayrouz.  It was a typical moment in Palestine, and one she has yet to, and may never, forget.

It is impossible, of course, to calculate the long-term emotional damage of such encounters on children and adults alike, including on the Israeli soldiers, who are not immune to their own actions.

Humiliation at checkpoints is a basic fact of West Bank Palestinian life.  Everyone, even children, has his or her story to tell of helplessness, fear, and rage while waiting for a teenaged soldier to decide whether or not they can pass.  It has become so normal that some kids have no idea the rest of the world doesn’t live like this. “I thought the whole world was like us — they are occupied, they have soldiers,” remembered Alá’s older brother, Shehade, now 20.

At 15, he was invited to Italy.  “It was a shock for me to see this life.  You can go very, very far, and no checkpoint.  You see the land very, very far, and no wall.  I was so happy, and at the same time sad, you know?  Because we don’t have this freedom in my country.”

At age 12, Shehade had seen his cousin shot dead by soldiers during the second intifada, which erupted in late 2001 after Israel’s then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon paid a provocative visit to holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.  Clashes erupted as youths hurled stones at soldiers. Israeli troops responded with live fire, killing some 250 Palestinians (compared to 29 Israeli deaths) in the first two months of the intifada. The next year, Palestinian factions launched waves of suicide bombings in Israel.

One day in 2002, Shehade recalled, with Ramallah again fully occupied by the Israeli army, the young cousins broke a military curfew in order to buy bread.  A shot rang out near a corner market; Shehade watched his cousin fall.  This summer Shehada showed me the gruesome pictures — blood flowing from a 12-year-old’s mouth and ears — taken moments after the shooting in 2002.

Nine years later, Ramallah, a supposedly sovereign enclave, is often considered an oasis in a desert of occupation.  Its streets and markets are choked with shoppers, and its many trendy restaurants rival fine European eateries.  The vibrancy and upscale feel of many parts of the city give you a sense that — much as Palestinians are loathe to admit it – this, and not East Jerusalem, is the emerging Palestinian capital.

Many Ramallah streets are indeed lined with government ministries and foreign consulates.  (Just don’t call them embassies!)  But much of this apparent freedom and quasi-sovereignty is illusory.  In the West Bank, travel without hard-to-get permits is often limited to narrow corridors of land, like the one between Ramallah and Nablus, where the Israeli military has, for now, abandoned its checkpoints and roadblocks.  Even in Ramallah — part of the theoretically sovereign Area A — night incursions by Israeli soldiers are common.

“It was December 2009, the 16th I think, at 2:15, 2:30 in the morning,” recalled Celine Dagher, a French citizen of Lebanese descent. Her Palestinian husband, Ramzi Aburedwan, founder of Al Kamandjati, where both of them work, was then abroad.  “I was awakened by a sound,” she told me.  She emerged to find the front door of their flat jammed partway open and kept that way by a small security bar of the sort you find in hotel rooms.

Celine thought burglars were trying to break in and so yelled at them in Arabic to go away.  Then she peered through the six-inch opening and spotted 10 Israeli soldiers in the hallway.  They told her to stand back, and within seconds had blown the door off its hinges.  Entering the apartment, they pointed their automatic rifles at her.  A Palestinian informant stood near them silently, a black woolen mask pulled over his face to ensure his anonymity.

The commander began to interrogate her. “My name, with whom I live, starting to ask me about the neighbors.” Celine flashed her French passport and pleaded with them not to wake up her six-month-old, Hussein, sleeping in the next room. “I was praying that he would just stay asleep.” She told the commander, “I just go from my house to my work, from work to my house.”  She didn’t really know her neighbors, she said.

As it happened, the soldiers had blown off the door of the wrong flat.  They would remove four more doors in the building that night, Celine recalled, before finding their suspect: her 17-year-old next door neighbor.  “They stood questioning him for maybe 20 minutes, and then they took him.  And I think he’s still in jail.  His father is already in jail.”

According to Israeli Prison Services statistics cited by B’tselem, more than 5,300 Palestinians were in Israeli prisons in July 2011.  Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, an estimated 650,000 to 700,000 Palestinians have reportedly been jailed by Israel.  By one calculation, that represents 40% of the adult-male Palestinian population.  Almost no family has been untouched by the Israeli prison system.

Celine stared through the blinds at the street below, where some 15 jeeps and other military vehicles were parked.  Finally, they left with their lights out and so quietly that she couldn’t even hear their engines.  When the flat was silent again, she couldn’t sleep.  “I was very afraid.”  A neighbor came upstairs to sit with her until the morning.

Stories like these — and they are legion — accumulate, creating the outlines of what could be called a culture of occupation.  They give context to a remark by Saleh Abdel-Jawad, dean of the law school at Birzeit University near Ramallah: “I don’t remember a happy day since 1967,” he told me.  Stunned, I asked him why specifically that was so.  “Because,” he replied, “you can’t go to Jerusalem to pray.  And it’s only 15 kilometers away.  And you have your memories there.”

He added, “Since 17 years I was unable to go to the sea. We are not allowed to go. And my daughter married five years ago and we were unable to do a marriage ceremony for her.” Israel would not grant a visa to Saleh’s Egyptian son-in-law so that he could enter the West Bank.  “How to do a marriage without the groom?”

A Musical Intifada

An old schoolmate of mine and now a Middle East scholar living in Paris points out that Palestinians are not just victims, but actors in their own narrative.  In other words, he insists, they, too, bear responsibility for their circumstances — not all of this rests on the shoulders of the occupiers.  True enough.

As an apt example, consider the morally and strategically bankrupt tactic of suicide bombings, carried out from 2001 to 2004 by several Palestinian factions as a response to Israeli attacks during the second intifada. That disastrous strategy gave cover to all manner of Israeli retaliation, including the building of the separation barrier.  (The near disappearance of the suicide attacks has been due far less to the wall — after all, it isn’t even finished yet — than to a decision on the part of all the Palestinian factions to reject the tactic itself.)

So, yes, Palestinians are also “actors” in creating their own circumstances, but Israel remains the sole regional nuclear power, the state with one of the strongest armies in the world, and the occupying force — and that is the determining fact in the West Bank.  Today, for some Palestinians living under the 44-year occupation simply remaining on the land is a kind of moral victory.  This summer, I started hearing a new slogan: “Existence is resistance.” If you remain on the land, then the game isn’t over.  And if you can bring attention to the occupation, while you remain in place, so much the better.

In June, Alá Shelaldeh, the 13-year-old violinist, brought her instrument to the wall at Qalandia, once a mere checkpoint separating Ramallah and Jerusalem, and now essentially an international border crossing with its mass of concrete, steel bars, and gun turrets.  The transformation of Qalandia — and its long, cage-like corridors and multiple seven-foot-high turnstiles through which only the lucky few with permits may cross to Jerusalem — is perhaps the most powerful symbol of Israel’s determination not to share the Holy City.

Alá and her fellow musicians in the Al Kamandjati Youth Orchestra came to play Mozart and Bizet in front of the Israeli soldiers, on the other side of Qalandia’s steel bars.  Their purpose was to confront the occupation through music, essentially to assert: we’re here. The children and their teachers emerged from their bus, quickly set up their music stands, and began to play.  Within moments, the sound of Mozart’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major filled the terminal.

Palestinians stopped and stared.  Smiles broke out.  People came closer, pulling out cell phones and snapping photos, or just stood there, surrounding the youth orchestra, transfixed by this musical intifada.  The musicians and soldiers were separated by a long row of blue horizontal bars.  As the music played on, a grim barrier of confinement was momentarily transformed into a space of assertive joy. “It was,” Alá would say later, “the greatest concert of my life.”

As the Mozart symphony built — Allegro, Andante, Minuet, and the Allegro last movement — some of the soldiers started to take notice.  By the time the orchestra launched into Georges Bizet’s Dance Boheme from Carmen #2, several soldiers appeared, looking out through the bars. For the briefest of moments, it was hard to tell who was on the inside, looking out, and who was on the outside, looking in.

If existence is resistance, if children can confront their occupiers with a musical intifada, then there’s still space, in the year of the Arab Spring, for something unexpected and transformative to happen.  After all, South African apartheid collapsed, and without a bloody revolution. The Berlin Wall fell quickly, completely, unexpectedly.  And with China, India, Turkey and Brazil on the rise, the United States, its power waning, will not be able to remain Israel’s protector forever. Eventually, perhaps, the world will assert the obvious: the status quo is unacceptable.

For the moment, whatever happens in the coming weeks at the U.N., and in the West Bank in the aftermath, isn’t it time for the world’s focus to shift to what is actually happening on the ground?  After all, it’s the occupation, stupid.


Visions Collide in a Sweltering Tahrir Square

Signs of strains between secular and Islamist forces have been showing for months.  But both sides were to be represented in Friday’s mass demonstration.  Between 800,000 and a million people were expected.

Friday prayer, Tahrir Square, July 29 2011. Photo by Sandy Tolan

After midnight the Cairo heat finally broke.  Mamdouh Hamza, Egyptian civil engineer, businessman and longtime government critic, was sitting in a plastic chair in an outdoor café at Tahrir Square, puffing on a water pipe.  The white-haired Hamza was holding court with his cadre of young revolutionaries, to whom he’d become a kind of beneficent godfather.  (My colleague Charlotte and I had met him an hour earlier, having interviewed him for a story on Egyptian agriculture and food issues we’re producing for U.S. public radio (Marketplace) and television.)  Hamza – builder of big Egyptian development projects and nevertheless a longtime critic of the regime – had been trying to keep a dialogue going between the military council and his “kids.”  But recently things had broken down, and that morning at 5, he said, something disturbing and perhaps unrelated happened:  Someone called Hamza to say he’d been hired to kill him.  But the would-be hit man had changed his mind – “I like you,” he told Hamza – and so he gave the blood money back. Or so the story went.  Hamza seemed to think this was all a hoax, designed to rattle him, and he had no plans to heed the reluctant killer’s warning:  that Hamza shouldn’t show up at the square the next day, lest he take a bullet.

Now came Wael Ghonim, he of the social media revolution, with his own followers, to say hello to Hamza.  He engaged the older man about finding common ground with the Islamists.  Charlotte caught the moment on camera – a young man in a purple pinstripe shirt and designer wire-rim glasses, talking to the shaggy haired professor nearly old enough to be his grandfather –  but when Ghonim spotted Charlotte, he insisted she stop shooting.  “If you use this,” he said, “I will sue you.”  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be seen speaking of reconciliation with the Islamists; rather, a friend reported, he said he didn’t want to be caught on camera being friendly with Hamza, a fellow secularist.  “If you use this, I will sue you,” the Google MBA repeated to Charlotte, a smile frozen onto his face, before moving off with his entourage.

Signs of strains between secular and Islamic forces have been showing for months.  But both sides were expected to be represented in Friday’s mass demonstration.  Hamza predicted between 800,000 and a million people would show up.

At two in the morning we headed back downtown to catch a few hours sleep.  As we climbed into the taxi, the bearded Salafis, bussed in from all over the nation, were pouring single file into the square: a stream of white robes and skullcaps, part of a planned show of force by Islamists.  They would be spending the night in the square, ready with their banners and chants as the sun rose on Cairo three hours later.

By 9 am we were moving down another human river: a crush of people squeezing through a pedestrian corridor near the Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Finally the way opened up, spilling us onto a clearing on the square.  Red and white, and black and white banners, and modified Egyptian flags all carried the scrawled message:  There is one God but God.  Other signs called for the implementation of Sharia law.

“Obviously they are breaking some rules,” said our friend Magdy Kassem, a leftist who recalled the agreement by each member of the fragile revolutionary coalition not to bring potentially divisive rhetoric into Tahrir.  “They had huge discussions during the revolution that such a slogan should not be raised at the square,” in order “to have a common denominator for all political powers.” Now, Magdy said, they had abandoned that promise.  Indeed, Al Ahram Online reported that a coalition of secular movements pulled out of the demonstrations today, citing the Islamists’ refusal to present a united front and to “avoid all controversial points.”  Clearly the “Day of Unity and Popular Will” was not to be.

Volunteers were handing out red and black paper visors with inscriptions of the Muslim alliance.  “This is the biggest show of force for the Muslim coalitions,” Magdy said.  “It’s amazing.  I’ve never seen them that big in the square.”  Here and there, posters of Bin Laden were raised.

Nevertheless, secular voices were heard in large numbers:  Alongside the chants for an Islamic state came calls for democracy, freedom, social justice and accountability. “Islameya, Islameya” rang out, but so did “Muslim-Christian unity,” and denunciations of Mubarak, U.S. aid, and the Israeli occupation.  Still, the clear force in the square was Islamic.  “They hijacked the square,” our friend Madiha Kassem, Magdy’s sister, told us.  To this sentiment, ChangeRegimes tweeted:  “Not sure why they’re so surprised.  Cairo is hardly Paris.”  No, it’s not. But for many here, calling for the “cleansing of the square” is not very Egyptian, either.  And some people here would later say the Islamists’ force in Tahrir may have backfired, sending a chilling image that voters could choose to reject in the coming elections.

We wanted to find Hamza and his entourage – they’d promised to connect us with protestors worried about putting enough food on their table –  but no one was picking up their calls and visual sightings would be hopeless in this crush.  (Later, very much alive and well, he would tell me he receives nearly 60 calls an hour – such is the state of a revolutionary leader – and as he didn’t recognize my number, he didn’t pick up.)

Here and there, young men had shinnied up a poll, perching above the crowds.  We wanted perspective too.  In a building at the edge of the square, we rode an elevator to the 7th floor, and – thanks to Magdi’s graceful negotiations – emerged onto a balcony above the sun-soaked masses.

By now it was time for Friday prayer.  A sea of humanity stretched out below us:  Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, folding in unison, then rising together, then folding forward again, placing foreheads to the earth.   It was powerful to watch; beautiful.

“God is great,” came a surge of voices.

They retreated like a wave, giving way to another chorus: “Change, freedom, social justice…”

“God is great,” came the new crashing wave.

Change, freedom, social justice…

God is great….

Change, freedom, social justice….

God is great….






Dancing Soldiers

During “Operation Mozart” at Qalandia, say young Palestinian musicians, soldiers laughed, snapped pictures, and danced.  Does it matter?

Rashed Zarour, 12, says he saw Israeli soldiers dancing during the Al Kamandjati youth orchestra performance at the Qalandia military checkpoint on June 23rd. But he says, "Whether they danced, or were angry, I don't care. I'm just there to play music for my country."

The other day two dozen Palestinian children, armed with violins, cellos, woodwinds and brass, confronted Israel’s occupation at the Qalandia military checkpoint. [Listen to Mozart’s Symphony No. 6 from Qalandia.]  A grim barrier of confinement was transformed, if only for a short time, into a space of assertive joy, as the young musicians played Mozart’s Sixth Symphony in F Major, and three selections from Bizet, just a few feet from machine-gun glad conscripts of the Israel Defense Forces.  Now comes word of dancing soldiers.

The extraordinary checkpoint concert, by the Al Kamandjati youth orchestra under the energetic direction of Jason Crompton, was a musical high point in the lives of the players, from 13-year-old Alá Shehaldeh, who declared the Qalandia performance to be “the best concert of my life,” to veteran UK jazz and classical violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies, who said Qalandia was “the best gig I’ve done.”

Part of the reason for this exuberance:  This confrontation of a military force amounted to a “musical intifada,” in the words of Al Kamandjati founder Ramzi Aburedwan.  “The soldiers were no match for our instruments,” said 16-year-old trombonist Majd Qadi.

The musicians and soldiers were separated by a long row of blue horizontal bars; as the music played on, and soldiers began to come out to see what was happening.  Who was on the inside, looking out through the bars, and who was on the outside, looking in?

Most witnesses seemed to see what I saw:  That at first the soldiers seemed to ignore the music; and then, out of curiosity, began to emerge from their small inspection stations to listen and watch.  At first, “they were angry,” speculated Alá, recalling the moment.  She sat with a fellow musician at a picnic table at Al Kamandjati’s annual summer music camp in Talitha Kumi, near Bethlehlem.  But Alá and others started noticing other things:  At least two soldiers, they said, seemingly taken aback by the spectacle, started taking pictures with their cell phones.  Others were laughing, enjoying the moment.  A couple of soldiers, said the 15-year-old violinist, Lone Khilleh, “were clapping for us, too.”

And, according to four of the young Palestinian musicians, several of the soldiers were dancing.

“There were two soldiers inside the box where you stand and you show them the permit, and they were just dancing,” said Rashed Zarour, a 12-year-old violinist.  “We were playing the Dance Boheme in the Bizet, and they were dancing together.  Two soldiers dancing together.  They were actually two girls.”

“Well you know what they say,” said Majd.  “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Majd Qadi, 16, played Mozart and Bizet at Qalandia. Afterward, he said, "It might be somehow similar to what happened to India at the time of Gandhi – the nonviolent resistance."



Though Ramzi was skeptical of such claims — “This is not dancing music” – three other Palestinian members of the youth orchestra insist on what they saw.  “I saw two soldiers dancing,” said the teenage oboist Areej Khaliliyeh.

So it appears there were dancing soldiers at Qalandia.

And, you may ask:  so what?  What does that matter?  Does it shift the power dynamics between Israeli army and the Palestinians?  Does it restore any land taken by settlers?  Does it make the occupation any less damaging?  Do dancing soldiers bring a just and peaceful resolution even one inch closer?

“I don’t care about them,” said Rashed, who will soon turn 13.  “Whether they danced, or were angry, I don’t care.  I’m just there to play music for my country.  That’s all.  To make my people happy.  To make Palestinians happy.”

I expected a similar answer from Majd, the 16-year-old whose family was expelled from the village of Beit Nuba during the Six Day War 44 summers ago.  More than 200,000 Palestinians lost their homes then, including the residents of Beit Nuba and two neighboring villages, which were razed to the ground after the war.  On the site of one of them, Imuas, sits Israel’s “Canada Park.”  There is almost no trace of the village.

“Before that war my grandfather was a very rich man who owned one-ninth of the total lands of the village.  After that my family became poor.  My father was talking to me a lot in the last years about how hard did he suffer to live.”

So it was striking to hear Majd’s reflections on the meaning of the dancing soldiers.

“I’m thinking about, if we could make them dance, that means that we probably were able to bring out some of their humanity that was lost under the guns,” he said, as light filtered down through tall spindly pine trees at the summer camp at Talitha Kumi.  “It might be somehow similar to what happened to India at the time of Gandhi – the nonviolent resistance.”

Operation Mozart

Children and their “musical intifada” prevail at Qalandia

Jason Crompton, conductor of the Al Kamandjati youth orchestra, silhouetted in front of the bars at Qalandia military checkpoint. (To listen, click on "Symphony No. 6," or near "Bizet's Farandole," below.)

The operation was planned well in advance, and down to the last detail.  Target: Passenger terminal at Israel’s Qalandia military checkpoint, near the entry cage where every day, hundreds of Palestinians cross to Jerusalem.  Time of day: High noon, June 23rd, 2011. Operatives: More than two dozen Palestinian children. Weapons: molded wood, metal string, curved brass.  Known co-conspirators: Georges Bizet, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  “This is a musical intifada,” declared Ramzi Aburedwan, founder of the Ramallah-based Al Kamandjati (The Violinist, in Arabic).

In truth the operation was not without risk. Jason Crompton, an American pianist who conducts Al Kamandjati’s youth orchestra, and a couple of his colleagues had come to Ramzi with the idea.  They’d heard about a similar Al Kamandjati event at the separation wall a few years ago.  But they all knew that Qalandia, defined as “Area C” under the ill-fated Oslo accords, is under full Israeli military control.  Setting up a Palestinian orchestra in an Israeli military zone – just steps from the steel corridors, revolving metal gates, and X-ray machines where Palestinians submit themselves for inspection – was an uncertain prospect.  How would the soldiers react?  If they forced the children to stop playing, and Palestinians watching this objected, what would happen next?  Would the situation get out of control?

A few Al Kamandjati staffers were nervous, and a couple of parents had called with their concerns.  Nevertheless, everyone seemed on board with the plan:  It was a way to confront the 44-year-old occupation by reclaiming space through music.

The operation began swiftly and according to plan.  At about 11 a.m. in Ramallah, the 30-some members of the youth orchestra began piling onto the bus, carrying their violins, cellos, trombones and clarinets.  Into the belly of the bus went snare drums, cymbals, timpanis, backpacks and sheet music.

We rolled south out of Ramallah.  Ramzi stood at the front of the bus and faced the musicians.

He designated a half dozen of the older students and staffers for early logistics:  As soon as we arrived at Qalandia, these six would quickly assemble the music stands and mount the large percussion.  For the rest, “you stay on the bus.  Please don’t go out.  We don’t want to attract any attention.  Once the stands and the big instruments are ready, everybody come with his music, his instrument, and we’ll start immediately.  If you can tune on the bus, that would be amazing.”

What if the soldiers come and order the children to stop playing?  “We don’t listen,” Ramzi said.  “Exactly as if they are not there.  If they say something on the loudspeaker, we don’t listen.  We produce sound.  That’s it.”  He added, hopefully:  “Normally at this time there will be more people there.  Which is gonna make it more safe, yani.”

“Enshallah,” I said.  God willing.

Just past Lovely Toys, the wall and checkpoint towers came into view.  The bus swung left through a roundabout, and then right, into the parking lot.  Ramzi ran off to find Jason, who had come in a car with two dozen music stands.

The early logistics team assembled the percussion and music stands, according to plan.  There they stood, black metal sentries in the hot sunlight outside the “passenger terminal,” out of the range of military surveillance cameras.

Nearby, through the open windows of the bus, came the sounds of children tuning their instruments.

Tuning on the bus: Mahmoud Karzoun, 18, and members of the Al Kamandjati youth orchestra, moments before they played at the Qalandia military checkpoint.


And then it started.  In two lines, from the front and back bus doors, the young musicians filed out, their instruments out of their cases and ready.  Ramzi directed them to the side of the building, where they were to grab a music stand and enter the terminal.

They strode determinedly past the red metal benches and toward the far corner of the terminal, in front of a long row of blue horizontal bars.  On the other side, in a small building behind bulletproof glass, soldiers seemed unaware of the unfolding musical drama.

Now Jason stood, arms raised, before the musicians – about 25 kids, and perhaps 8 teachers.  The orchestra was poised, bows and brass in position.

The sound of Mozart’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major filled the terminal.

Alá Shehaldeh, 13, a violinist in the Al Kamandjati youth orchestra, playing Mozart at Qalandia on June 23. "This was the best concert of my life," she said afterward.


Immediately people stopped, stared, and smiled in amazement.  They came closer, pulling out cell phones and snapping photos.  Soon perhaps a hundred people were gathered around the Al Kamandjati youth orchestra, transfixed.  “People were listening fully,” Ramzi would say later.  He was playing viola.  “The crossing stopped.”

As Mozart played at Qalandia on June 23, the crossing slowed to a trickle.

Helen Sherrah-Davies, a visiting violinist from the UK, remembers having to fight back tears as she played.  “I wonder how many times joy has entered that space,” she would muse afterward.

At first the soldiers seemed to pay no attention.  But as the Mozart symphony built –  Allegro, Andante, Minuet, and the Allegro last movement – they started to take notice.  By the time the orchestra launched into Georges Bizet’s Dance Boheme from Carmen #2, a soldier appeared, looking out through the bars.

Majd Qadi, 16, plays Bizet. A soldier looks on.

He was joined by a second, then a third. One of them got on his radio. They didn’t seem to know what to do.  Now Bizet’s Habanera (also from Carmen) was echoing through the terminal.

This was all rather out of the ordinary.  But the soldiers seemed to be aware that trying to stop the music would have created a mess –  and an opportunity for a global Youtube event.

Wasim Harbi, 9, is the youngest member of the Al Kamandjati youth orchestra

In the end, the orchestra played on, reprising Bizet’s Farandole [listen here: bizet2] from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2, to triumphant applause. [hear more Bizet, with applause: bizet2ptwithapplause]

For a long moment, the cheering surged.  A feeling of euphoria hung over the reclaimed space.  The players looked at each other in amazement.

Sweat beaded up on Jason’s forehead, the result of his energetic conducting.  Now he was facing the cameras.  “Do you think the music can make a solution for peace between the nations?” a Palestinian reporter wanted to know.  “I wish it were that simple, really,” Jason said with a laugh.  “I don’t know if it can bring a solution but I think it can bring a lot of good things to people.  It brings really great things to these kids here.  And to be a part of that, I can’t ask for anything more, really.  It’s amazing.  To play here today – I feel so good.”

Back at the bus:  a sense of jubilation.  In the parking lot, Jason went window to window, jumping up to yell gleefully to the kids, who responded each time with whoops and screams.

Jason Crompton celebrates at the bus in the Qalandia parking lot, moments after the youth orchestra finished their concert at the checkpoint.

We headed back to Ramallah, to the sound of much singing, tabla and oud. “This was the best concert of my life,” said Alá Shehaldeh, a 13-year-old violinist.  Not so long ago, at a checkpoint, Alá was forced to open her violin case and play a song before the soldier would let her pass.

Now, Alá looked out of the bus window at the landscape of Palestine, a peaceful and uncomplicated smile resting on her face.

Checkpoint Melody in a Minor Key

Lovely Toys, just north of the Qalandia checkpoint. Owner Wisam Afaneh stands at the entrance.

Lovely Toys is the key to your checkpoint destiny.  It’s the kids’ store, brightly festooned with stuffed tigers, scooters, beach balls and racing cars, that sits about 200 meters from Qalandia, where the 25-foot-high wall, watchtowers and military checkpoint divide Jerusalem from Ramallah.  The toy store serves commuters, and the occasional mom and her shebab at the Qalandia refugee camp across the chaotic street, reports owner Wisam Afaneh.

If your taxi or service (sir-VEECE, a collective van) gets snarled in traffic by or before Lovely Toys, you can count on a long wait in your car going south, or walking through the steel and concrete chambers on your way to Jerusalem.  If on the other hand you breeze past Lovely Toys – and the boys peddling bottled water and verses from the Quran, and the squeegee men wiping the windshields of reluctant drivers, and the huge chunks of broken concrete and scattered plastic debris, and the murals of a young Yasser Arafat and the handcuffed Marwan Barghouti along the wall, and the overflowing dumpster where a dead cat has been lying belly-up, paws reaching for the sky, for the last couple of weeks – then you might just get through quickly and make your appointment in the Holy City on time.

That is, if you have a permit, or, like me, an American passport with the diamond-shaped Israeli visa stamp.  (U.S. citizens with Palestinian heritage often get the square-shaped visa, along with the unambiguous “No Entry Into Israel.”)

The other day I walked through the checkpoint with a couple of American musicians, violist Peter Sulski and pianist Eric Culver, part of the annual Fete de la musique sponsored by the Ramallah-based Al Kamandjati music school.  We were on our way to a performance in the Old City.

It was late afternoon.  The road was like a parking lot.  We bailed from our taxi in front of Lovely Toys, trekked past that rigor mortis cat, and cut through a “pedestrian terminal” filled with empty red benches, scattered trash, and a guy sitting in front of a long row of metal bars, selling water from a picnic cooler.  From there we found our small corridor – a two-foot-wide, seven-foot-high steel cage that led to a floor-to-ceiling turnstile.  On the other side, about 50 people crowded in front of another “iron maiden.” Besides us, it seemed everyone was Palestinian – either with a Jerusalem ID or a special permit to pass for the day.

Though it was “rush hour” – about 4pm – only one of the five entrances was open.  So we stood, all clumped in one group, waiting, each in our own thoughts.

A melody in a minor key played in Eric’s head – the soprano aria from Bach’s St. John Passion.  It seemed appropriate for the setting.  This was his first time crossing like this, and it reminded him of his experience decades ago at the Berlin Wall.

Peter, a veteran crosser, had his thumbs on his mobile phone, making arrangements for a taxi to pick up an arriving colleague at the Tel Aviv airport. Still, he thought, imagine doing this every day. “It stops me from coming into Jerusalem for any other reason than to do what is necessary,” he would say later.  “Which I think is the point, isn’t it?”

Of course, we were the lucky ones with permission to pass – most Palestinians only dream of Jerusalem, as it becomes to them an imaginary city.  But Peter’s right: As Palestinian lands are confiscated in East Jerusalem, and Jerusalem IDs are routinely stripped, the energy of Arab East Jerusalem is dwindling, replaced by a vibrant life in Ramallah.  Even those with the right to live in Jerusalem are now choosing to make their home on the other side of the wall, in the emerging de facto Palestinian capital.

Not so long ago, this land was much more open.  “Back in 96 it took me, Bethlehem [south of Jerusalem] to Ramallah in 25 minutes,” Peter said, breaking our reverie.   That trip that now takes two or three times as long.  “BMW 318.  Clanky carburetor.  Oh man.”

Eric smiled.  “I loved the 3 series.”

“Yeah the 3 series was brilliant.”

Eric pointed to a stray cat parading along the wall behind us.  Beside us, Palestinian workers in yellow vests swept up cigarette butts.  “Keep the terminal clean,” instructed a sign above them.

Every few minutes we’d hear a loud click, and three or four people filed through the high turnstile and through an airport-style security check.  On the other side, through thick, green-tinted glass, bored-looking soldiers sat in a spartan room in front of computer terminals.  One at a time, we’d press our visas or IDs up to the window, pick up our bags on the conveyer, and click through two more turnstiles, and into the light on the other side of the wall.

It was nearly dusk by the time we reached the Old City.  At the Center for Jerusalem Studies, in a building and courtyard that dates back to Crusader times, plastic chairs were set up along the stones.  A half moon rose behind a rooftop barbwire fence; next door, perhaps 200 feet away, the call to prayer drifted up from Al Aqua Mosque.

A few minutes later, the muezzin’s call fell quiet.  In the courtyard, the chamber music began: flute, violin, viola, cello, and soprano, performing Bach and Bartok.

Kids squirmed and whispered frantically in their seats; a child called for her mom across a stone wall; someone slammed closed the metal doors of his shop.  But the players carried on, their lovely music floating into the night sky above the Old City.

After the concert, the group headed back to Ramallah. I lingered a bit, sitting over a glass of wine with a friend under the grape-leaf lattice of the Jerusalem Hotel.  Then I hopped a taxi back to Ramallah.

The road was early empty.  We passed through Qalandia without stopping.  Just north of the wall, Lovely Toys stood quiet and dark.

The Bird Man of Jenin

A biologist with a camera, and his quest to document a great annual migration over Palestine.

A Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, from the falcon family), in the sky over Jenin. Photo copyright by Walid Basha. Used with permission.

Say “Jenin” to a friend and ask what word comes to mind.  I’m guessing that word would not be “birdwatcher.”  Unless, perhaps, you’d had the good fortune to meet Walid Salim Basha, microbiologist, university professor, environmentalist, and scientific and photographic observer of the great bird migration over the West Bank, especially in the Jenin governorate. “In the Holy Land, all birds migrating from Europe to Africa avoid passing over the Mediterranean, so they will pass over Palestine – more than 600 million birds will fly over Palestine during the year,” Walid told me as he navigated the crowded streets of Jenin in his old Opel.  We were driving toward his house so he could show me photographs he took of 120 species of  migratory birds in the Jenin mountains.  “This year, over Jenin, I recorded more than 500 kites [a hawk-like bird of prey].  You have the white stork – we have thousands in Jenin, in the valley between Jenin and Nablus.”

I’d met Walid only a few minutes earlier, at the Al Kamandjati music center in Jenin, where his 11-year-old son Fadi is taking singing lessons with the British soprano, Julia Katarina.  (My new book is about Al Kamandjati and the transformational power of music in the lives of children.)  Fadi, who at this stage in life is also a soprano, has a strikingly powerful, clear voice, and was preparing for a performance of Italian arias for the Italian consulate in Bethlehem in a few days’ time.  (Right; of course he was.)  While Julia went upstairs to work with Fadi, Walid happened to mention his passion for birds, and soon he was inviting me back to the house to see the photos.

“Tell Julia I’ve kidnapped him,” Walid told Al Kamandjati staffer Reema Shriem, as we headed out the door.  I raised my eyebrows.  “In Jenin,” I said.

“I’m not a political guy,” said the professor of immunology and microbiology at An-Najah University in nearby Nablus, as we drove toward his house.  “I love my science.  I love my work.”  Walid began his bird documentation not to seek or fulfill a grant project for an NGO – but just because he wanted to.  “I believe in the NGIs,” he said.  “Non-governmental individuals.  We can do projects.”

We were stuck in traffic, and horns began blasting near the vegetable market in Old Jenin.  “This is an Arabic tradition,” Walid said, laughing.  “I was in Japan for six years” – working on his PhD and raising a family with his wife, Jameleh.  “Fadikon” was born there and holds a Japanese passport.  “In Japan we don’t use the horn.  Not once in six years.  Everything is going smoothly.  No noise.  Nobody steps in the street.  When I came back here, in one day, I used it thousands of times!”

We rounded a corner as the muezzin was giving his call to prayer.  Walid’s family is among only 400 Christians in Jenin, a town (and refugee camp) of more than 50,000.   But he said the distinctions between Muslims and Christians are “meaningless, here in Jenin.”  As a Christian schoolboy, Walid was not required to take Islamic studies as other students were.  “But my dad emphasized that we should take these courses because we should know about our neighbors. It gives you more to understand the others.  In general we don’t have any problems as Christians.  We respect each other.”

Now we arrived at the house, and Walid ran in to retrieve his camera, where he’s stored hundreds of close-ups of migratory and local birds:  Jays, robins, blackbirds, buzzards, owls; Turtle Dove, Palm Dove, Syrian Woodpecker, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Black Redstart, Stonechat, Chucker, Short-toed Eagle.  “This is the white-chested kingfisher,” he said upon returning to the car, showing me the little screen on his Fuji.  The bird sat on an electrical wire, a large lizard dangling from its beak.  “And I was watching him enter the nest and give it to the babies.”

Bird on a wire: The White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), and dinner for the family, on an electrical wire in Jenin. Photo copyright by Walid Basha. Used with permission.

“This is the Palestine Sunbird [Nectarina osea].  It’s black, but after the sunrise, it will become more blue, sometimes green, depending on the reflection of the light.  It’s in an olive tree next to my house.”

A Palestine Sunbird (Nectarina osea), iridescent blue in this photograph, perched in an fig tree in Jenin. Photo copyright by Walid Basha. Used with permission.

He clicks forward.  “And this is the white dove, migratory – it comes to Palestine in springtime.”  The picture shows two doves together. “You know that if one of the couple dies, it will not marry again?  It will spend all the life with one – they are not changing couples every year, like other birds.”

A pair of turtle doves (Streptopelia turtur) near Jenin. Photo copyright by Walid Basha. Used with permission.

A Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) outside of Jenin. This is one of 120 species of migratory birds documented by Prof. Walid Salim Basha. Photo copyright by Walid Basha. Used with permission.

A couple of weeks later, my friend Nidal and I paid Walid and his family another visit.  We sat on their comfortable third floor veranda, sipping tea. Fadi’s performance in front of the Italians in Bethlehem had been a big hit – so impressive that, after the performance, the diplomats began gushing to him in Italian, leaving it to Fadi’s uncle to break the news:  Fadi may be able to beautifully sing Italian arias in a barely detectable accent, but he doesn’t speak the language.

As we spoke, Walid pulled out a royal blue sheet of origami paper and began making folds.  He described the recent visit of the Japanese ambassador, who he showed all around Jenin.  He was fond of escorting one recent Japanese diplomat, a fellow Catholic, to holy sites in the area, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where they attended midnight and Easter masses.

Walid’s fingers worked the folds of his origami.  He was making a crane.  “There is a tradition in Japan – if you do 1000 cranes, all of your dreams will come true.”  Suddenly he said:  “In Japan, we used to go fishing.  I miss fishing a lot.  I hope they open Gaza so I can go there.”  Lately, moving around has become increasingly problematic.  In 1993, at the start of the Oslo “peace process,” he would travel from the West Bank to Haifa without problem.  “Now I need a permit and a magnetic card. If you want to cross the border, you will take hours just to make your decision.”  Jameleh suggested Walid’s love for birds, especially those in flight, has a deeper meaning.

Walid returned his attention to his crane.  Today the bird man of Jenin gives workshops on origami to kindergarten teachers here.  He tells them of the promise of 1000 cranes. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he said, a young girl with leukemia tried to make 1000 cranes, in a dream to save her own life.  She got as far as 680; after her death, her friends and family finished the job.  Today, Walid is organizing a 1000 cranes project at Fadi’s school.  “We will collect the 1000 cranes, and send them to Japan,” he said.

Now he is finished with the blue crane.  It’s simple and beautiful.  Walid smiles, and reaches out, crane between his fingers, to offer it to Nidal.


June 5: Amid Clashes, the Music Stops at Qalandia

On the 44th anniversary of the first day of the Six Day War and the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Maddalena Pastorelli made plans to teach her regular music appreciation class to Palestinian children at the Qalandia refugee camp.  Under the circumstances – Palestinian youth groups were calling for a mass nonviolent march to the Israeli’s Qalandia checkpoint, alongside its 25-foot-high wall, and Israeli troops were mobilizing – it was an ambitious goal.

Maddalena Pastorelli, a teacher at Al Kamandjati (The Violinist) in Ramallah, with her box of homemade musical instruments to share with the children of Qalandia refugee camp.

Nevertheless, we set out in a white van in the late morning, Maddalena accompanied by two of her colleagues in the Al Kamandjati music school. At her feet was a cardboard box full of simple instruments: a tambourine, a triangle, small plastic sheets to make rattling sounds, a piece of plastic garden hose to evoke the sound of the wind, and plastic jugs filled with chickpeas, orange lentils, and rice. “The rice is the best for the rain,” Maddalena declared.

Maddalena, a flautist who studied in Sienna, Italy, was planning to hand out the instruments to the children for a small drama at the U.N. school in Qalandia camp. “It’s the story about a goat that lives in the forest, and she has a little baby, and she has to go to find some grass every morning, so she leaves the baby alone at home,” explained Maddalena as we rattled down the Ramallah-Jerusalem road, flashing past the Arabic sweet shops, half-built apartment buildings, auto repair garages and 10-year-old street peddlers hawking gum and boxes of tissue. “And the baby is always scared because there is the wind. And she says, No, this is just the sound of the wind, don’t be scared.”

Ten minutes out of Ramallah, as we approached Qalandia, a thick plume of black smoke rose in the sky, maybe half a mile to the south, near the wall and the Qalandia checkpoint. We could hear muffled explosions in the distance. The sound of ambulances grew near. Maddalena let out a moan, and for a moment, put her face in her hands. Iyad Jaradat, a Kamandjati teacher, took a call as he maneuvered the van 90 degrees to the left, toward the school at Qalandia Camp. “It’s finished,” he announced. Children at the U.N. school were being sent home; there would be no music class today.

Nevertheless, we parked, got out of the van, and began walking toward the school, as dozens of kids in their blue and white pinstripe uniforms streamed in the other direction, toward their homes in the camp. Iyad still needed to distribute posters and calendars announcing Kamandjati’s coming Fête de la musique (Music Days Festival), which will include performances at Qalandia and across the West Bank by students and teachers from Palestine, the U.S. and Europe. In a few days, 15 musicians will arrive from France, the U.K. and elsewhere to play the concerts, and to teach in the Kamandjati summer music camp near Bethlehem.

We walked through a nearly empty cement playground, hot and baked white from the sun. Maddalena clutched a roll of “Come to Palestine” posters, announcing the festival. The explosions just south of us, on the frontlines at the checkpoint, had died down, at least temporarily, though the whine of the sirens was more or less continuous. Iyad went to hand out programs to teachers in another part of the U.N. school, and came back to announce that the school’s theater had been converted to a triage center for youths injured in today’s clashes.

Later, we would learn, dozens of Palestinians were injured – 90, by one account – in the clashes at Qalandia, which according to reports began as protestors tried to form a human chain at the checkpoint, and, were met with tear gas and sound bombs from Israeli soldiers. Youths later began throwing rocks, amid reports in the evening that Israeli forces were attempting to storm Qalandia camp.

That afternoon, back in the van and the relative safety alongside the U.N. school at Qalandia,, Maddalena looked down at her feet and the unused box of homemade instruments. Next week, she said, there will be one last chance, before the summer break, for the children to perform their musical drama. She wouldn’t tell me the end of the story. “It’s a surprise,” said Maddalena.

We turned around and headed back toward Ramallah.