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At-Home with Gila Svirsky

18 July 2001
Subject: Rebecca’s Observations


Here’s a remarkable letter written by Rebecca Elswit, a 20-something woman from the Boston area, intended for her friends. I’m glad she gave me permission to share it.

Gila Svirsky
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hi all

one thing i wrote about before was the difficulty i was having in breaking down stereotypes; it is easier (for me) to be active when things are defined clearly, in black and white. but there is this vast nebulous gray area. i had written about my friend wafa, who, contrary to popular lingo, refers to herself as an israeli arab, rather than a palestinian citizen of israel. or she did when i was writing my last email. but then last week wafa and her two younger brothers went to carmiel, which is in the galilee, to attend this international dance festival. there were to be performances from all over the world, folk dance instruction, and dance contests. her youngest brother had been practicing to enter a contest, and she said he was really really good. but none of that mattered, see, because when they got to the entrance, a policeman asked her where she was from. jews and arabs rarely live together in israel, and so by naming a village, arrabe, she was also naming an identity, and in this case, a religion (muslim). sorry, she was told, we cant allow in any arabs. it was a freakin’ dance festival!!!!! it was not a meeting with the prime minister. can you imagine some creative event in the states and jews were not allowed to enter????? she couldnt meet her jewish friend from the states, who was already inside, and she couldnt explain to her crying little brother why he would not be able to win that night. israel calls itself a democracy. but when police are under orders to impose segregation because they are taught that every arab is a terrorist. wafa says it is a democracy here when it is convenient to call it one. just like she is a citizen (supposedly with rights) when it serves israel’s political purposes. maybe this nastiness is brilliantly effective. when we talked, wafa said, i feel more like an outsider than ever, i wish i could be outside (sara, start talking to your fam:)!)and now, she said, i understand the palestinians in gaza who dont care if they are killed. what is the point of living if you are not free?

people here are taught to hate. and yes, i know, that there is hate that is taught on both sides. i have been in hebron for the past two days. there are 400-500 israelis living in one settlement surrounded by 120,000 palestinians. the children in the settlement are systematically taught to hate – i was with the christian peacemaker teams, and a settler youth asked if we spoke english. my friend answered yes, and the settler responded with “fuck you.” palestinian children learn hate because they know what they see. they see settlers burning their parents’ fields, they see soldiers invading their homes and “disappearing” men, they hear the sounds of gunfire shattering their windows, they are not allowed to leave their homes for days at a time. i arrived in israeli controlled hebron when the palestinians in that area were under curfew. a seemingly inoccuous word, curfew implies something that is imposed on a child. but children everywhere break curfew. if the palestinians break curfew, which was lifted this afternoon after 4 and a half days during which they COULD NOT LEAVE THEIR HOUSES – yes, that is right, 24 hour curfew for palestinians, for 4 and a half days. i get bored in my house in the space of an afternoon. remember that they are the majority here. but so if a palestinian breaks curfew and is seen on the street, he or she is harrassed, detained, arrested, or shot. shot. makes getting grounded for coming home late seem pretty pleasant. the curfew was imposed because of the death of a settler last week, supposedly. but the only thing that will prevent the deaths of more settlers is the removal of the settlers from the territories. snipers fired from palestinian controlled territory at the israeli settlements during this curfew, and the idf responded with heavy machine gun fire, mortars, and tanks. they blew out the transformers, so whole chunks of the city were without power, including the place i was staying. no cars are allowed on the street, except israeli ones. see the curfew only applies to palestinians. i was free to walk around.

so yesterday and last night i witnessed a total of 9, yes, nine, gun battles. they lasted until 3.30 in the morning. it was scary. they were not as i pictured, with say, idf soldiers facing off against hamas members. it was snipes from a hill, and a barrage of heavy fire as a response. i heard ambulances (20 palestinians injured, no israelis) and i heard lots of guns. but the heavy artillery was the worst. the floor shakes when tank fire is used. i watched the tracer bullets flying from the avraham avinu settlement towards the hill. then today i went to visit the only family that is still living in its house on the hill. there was a 4 month old baby, in addition to 3 other children. i picked up shrapnel from the patio, and took pictures of all the places they had been hit last night. fortunately, no injuries. but shattered windows, and holes in walls from shelling.

i had wanted to visit the tomb of our forefathers. as many of you know, i feel like now especially, my spiritual journey and my political activism are intertwined. and i wanted to feel the history there. and i could have. because i am jewish, because i am american. but how could i go and pray or meditate (or more likely just sit, but still) how could i go when i knew that a whole community was locked in their homes, not only unable to pray at this, their favorite mosque, but could not pray at any mosque? so i did not go.

on friday i went to yatta to meet with families who had lived in caves that were bulldozed by the idf, again in response (collective punishment as a response?) to the death of a settler. i met one man who was 80 years old, who had lived on that land his entire life, and who had watched his home demolished 5 times. but he his staying; he has no where else to go. while i was there, i saw a settler caravan move onto an unclaimed (ie, yatta land) hill. more natural growth, i suppose they will say.

today i met a haaretz journalist in hebron who was very interested in who i am and what i have been doing, so read this friday’s haaretz and look for an article by daniel ben simon (they even took pictures of me:)!) and he wanted a copy of my journal (hells no!) and so settled for a copy of a piece that i wrote about chicken shit. he may reprint it in haaretz, but again, if ya’all want more info, let me know.

so the curfew was lifted and people slowly entered the streets. but slowly, because the settler children were throwing rocks. and really, with the soldiers and the settlers on every corner, the place did not look that different from when curfew had been enforced. because the settlers, by virtue of their priviledged presence, make a palestinian presence on the street virtually impossible.

halas. will write more later. dont worry, all you worriers, i am ok.

love, and a just peace,

At-Home with Gila Svirsky

Letters from Jerusalem, 2001
Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
New & recent letters from Jerusalem (2004)
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© 2001 Gila Svirsky, Rebecca Elswit.

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