Before I’d arrived in Palestine I was convinced that I wasn’t going to visit Israel during my stay. I would have to travel through Ben Gurion airport but that was going to be it. However, after a lot of discussions with Palestinian friends about the political reasoning behind choosing not to visit Israel, I’d reached the conclusion that I better change my mind. I have the possibility to enter Israel, as opposed to many Palestinians here in the West Bank, so why not go to the other side to avoid making myths in my own head. Another reason to visit is that there are in fact over a million Palestinians living in Israel, the so-called 1948 Arabs. The lack of freedom of movement has made it difficult for Palestinians to keep up contact between the populations in Israel and in the West Bank. While life on the West Bank has its conflicts, the 1948 Arabs have their own day-to-day problems, too, living in the Jewish state, so why not go to see for myself?
Nicola wanted to visit some Palestinian artists who live in Haifa with regard to the exhibition in London and so we decided to rent a car together so that we could drive along the Mediterranean to Haifa, which is in the north western corner of Israel. We left early to go to Jerusalem where we would pick up our rental car. To begin with we took the bus from Ramallah bus station around 8.30 but, unlike a good day at the Qualandya checkpoint when the busses passed through in no time, it took an hour on the other side of the control for everyone to gather back on the bus. For this reason we didn’t pick up our car until 10.30 and were quite late in hitting the road because we had planned on coming back that same evening. Before we found our way to the car rental office, we ‘wasted’ some more time on a cup of Arabic coffee at the Jerusalem Hotel. This is an old hotel in East Jerusalem whose history stretches back to the English colonial period. It is a centre for international travellers on their way to the West Bank and here we met Dave, the English activist, who we’d met earlier in Ramallah. He’d been to Haifa himself to visit two organisations that do work around rights for Palestinians inside Israel. One of them was the Mossawa Centre, an umbrella organisation that seeks to shed some light on the conditions of the so-called 1948 Palestinians. The other one is The Association of Forty (http://www.assoc40.org/index_main.html), an organisation that works for equality for the 40 Arabic villages that are in Israel but which don’t exist on Israeli maps. This means that they aren’t recognised as villages as such and therefore they don’t benefit from fundamental Israeli infrastructure like road connections and water. As no pipes have been laid to these villages, their water is transported to them in large trucks. This situation especially concerns the Bedouin villages in the Negev dessert. The fact that they aren’t recognised as villages means that the Israelis can take their land and evict them with no juridical problems (http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article4358.shtml). The reason that these organisations are based in Haifa is that this city has a large Palestinian minority. Here Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side and aren’t divided into enclaves like they are in most of Israel. However, the Palestinians are still in a minority and number about 10% of the city’s 250,000 residents.
We decided to drive to Tel Aviv and take the coastal motorway to the North. There was something nice about getting to the coast after living locked up in the West Bank for a while. Many Palestinian children have never even seen the sea and this can create problems when they do because of the waves and all the things that characterise the sea. Nicola told me a story about one of Khalil’s brothers who, alongside one of his friends, had jumped over the fence and gone to the coast to swim in the Mediterranean. They had both drowned. Nicola added that apparently they’d also been pretty stoned, but still they just didn’t know what the sea can do. I had also heard from Khaled about how he’d been to the coast with a group of Palestinian children who, when they’d reached the Mediterranean, had started to cry because they apparently were afraid of the open space and the infinite horizon. They’d never experienced anything like it before. It was quite liberating even for us when after a while we could see the light blue Mediterranean from the car and so we left the motorway slightly north of Tel Aviv in order to get down right next to the beach. Here we found a funky tavern and bought a slush ice with fresh lemon and mint. Even here, though, we weren’t free from the ‘security situation’ as Israeli army helicopters flew low along the coast every 5 minutes.
Overall, as seen through the windshield, the Israeli landscape reminded me of the USA being similarly characterised by large billboards and shopping malls but also with Tel Aviv’s skyline in the distance. The motorways were also wide and the signs and traffic information were all very American. However, the signs were written in Hebrew, Arabic and Roman letters and there were lots of blue and white Israeli flags dotted here and there in the landscape. We drove into Haifa and agreed over the phone with Muhammed to meet by the Bahai garden in the centre of the city. Muhammed was one of the local artists who we were going to visit. The Bahai garden is an incredibly beautiful garden that extends in a narrow band across a steep slant and connects the mountains behind Haifa with the city itself. It’s an Arabic garden and its strict organisation reminded me of the Moorish gardens in Andalusia. Muhammed was waiting for us and, after an Arabic salad at a café, we went to his family’s apartment. His workplace was on the roof of the building and he paints his paintings under the sky. Muhammed said that he wasn’t really a political artist but that he took his own experiences as a point of departure when developing his pictures. In this way the imagery of his pictures relates to the situation of his own life. Many of his paintings were caricatures of people with the appearance of power. He had an extensive series called ‘Commanders’ which were some trippy and very colourful portraits of military commanders with all types of ethnic headdresses on and various grotesque animal heads like camels, elephants, horses, and so on.
Muhammed had a huge store of paintings in two small sheds on the roof and he said that it was quite difficult for him to sell anything. ‘If he had been a Jewish artist here in Israel he would have sold everything’, as he put it, and so he was very keen on showing in the exhibition in London. Nicola chose four of his pictures. The view from the roof was incredible, you could see the sea and the shipping harbour that lies next to the leisure harbour and you could follow the coastline all the way to the border of Lebanon. We were also going to visit another artist who was called Sharif and Muhammed came along too.
Sharif’s apartment was in what Muhammed described as the artist neighbourhood, and Sharif and his girlfriend Sherin were waiting for us with a whole variety of extravagant dishes that Sharif had prepared himself. Among other things, there was rice with spices all rolled into vine leaves that we ate with a kind of tzatziki. In Sharif’s opinion it was good in the heat and it was definitely hot in Haifa, a lot hotter that in Ramallah. I nearly boiled over several times during the day.
Sharif was a very entertaining person and, as an artist, has a wide international reputation. His style was also more international than Muhammed’s, who is self-educated and has hardly ever travelled. Sharif was one of the first artists that I discussed the Mohammed cartoons with and he had a very realistic and thoughtful take on the affair. He also said that many people here felt very wounded by what had happened. After I had told him a bit about the campaigns against Muslims in Danish society, he smiled and said that he’d participate next time there was an opportunity to burn a Danish flag here. He then took a gulp of the cold Carlsberg that was in front of him. We laughed quite a bit about this. One of his most well known pieces is ‘Chic Point — fashion for Israeli Checkpoints’ (http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2005/waked) where he designed clothes that in various inventive ways are made transparent so that the Israelis can see from afar that anything like a bomb isn’t hidden on the person. All in all he had chosen a humorous take on his situation. He told me how, as a person, he was a good example of the future of Palestine as he’d been democratically elected to become chairman of the tenants association of the building where he lived. With a triumphant smile, he said, ‘Even the Zionists voted for me’. However, he and Sherin also told us what had happened when they had sought refuge in the lower part of the stairwell when Hezbollah had bombed the city in the war of 2006. On that occasion their Jewish neighbours had been more afraid of the presence of Sharif and Sherin than Hezbollah missiles. They’d all stayed in their apartments during the first attacks, but when a missile hit the post office next door and caused a lot of damage they were forced to admit that this wasn’t a joke. However, for Sherin, the war was a defeat for the Israeli army and a well deserved blow to their arrogance. The army said the campaign into Lebanon would only last for a few days but it lasted several weeks. In the end they never found the kidnapped soldiers who they’d said they gone in to get.
It was mainly Russian immigrants who lived in their building; according to Sharif and Sherin, the city had been invaded by Russians when the iron curtain came down in 1989. Many of them aren’t Jewish at all even though they claim to be Jewish and the Israelis are well aware of that. For the officials, though, immigration is important as it’s used to gain a demographic advantage over the Arabs. The immigrants receive comprehensive support from the Israeli state. Amongst other things, Muhammed said, they receive 50% support to buy a place to live and 50% to buy a car when they arrive but they aren’t allowed to decide for themselves where they want to live and get put in areas where there are many Palestinians, like in Haifa. In this way it’s ensured that the Palestinian minority remains a minority.
It was getting late and Sharif was very set on supporting the Turkish team against the Germans in the European Championship semi-finals that would be on later that evening. We never managed to visit the two local Palestinian organisations that we had planned to but the visit to Haifa had made it clear to me that it’s necessary to think within the framework of the entire history of Palestine when discussing the conflict and not just limit one’s focus to Gaza and the West Bank.