The Flute at the Checkpoint

04/30/2015 12:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015
THOMAS COEX via Getty Images

The Everyday Politics of Confinement in Palestine

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The SUV slows as it approaches a military kiosk at a break in a dull gray wall. Inside, Ramzi Aburedwan, a Palestinian musician, prepares his documents for the Israeli soldier standing guard. On the other side of this West Bank military checkpoint lies the young man’s destination, the ancient Palestinian town of Sebastia. Fellow musicians are gathering there that afternoon to perform in the ruins of an amphitheater built during Roman times. In the back seat, his wife, Celine, tends their one-year-old son, Hussein, his blond locks curling over the collar of his soccer jersey.

Ramzi is in a hurry to set up for the concert, but it doesn’t matter. The soldier promptly informs him that he cannot pass. “Those are the orders,” he adds without further explanation, directing him to another entrance 45 minutes away. Turning the car around, Ramzi then drives beneath Shavei Shomron, a red-roofed Israeli settlement perched high on a hill, and then an “outpost” of hilltop trailers planted by a new wave of settlers. Finally, he passes through a series of barriers and looping barbed wire, reaching the designated entrance, where another soldier waves him through. He arrives in time for the concert.

I witnessed the checkpoint incident, one of thousands of small daily indignities suffered by Palestinians, from the front seat of Ramzi’s SUV in 2010. We had met 12 years earlier when posters of Ramzi, pasted all over Ramallah, had captured my imagination. In a photo taken in 1988 during the first Palestinian intifada, eight-year-old Ramzi was hurling a stone at an unseen Israeli soldier. Juxtaposed behind it, on the same poster, was another photo taken 10 years later of 18-year-old Ramzi pulling a bow across viola strings.

The poster was an advertisement for the National Conservatory of Music in Palestine and a metaphor for the hopes of many Palestinians at the time: that the era of the Oslo Peace Accords would bring an independent Palestinian state. In the story I produced at the time for National Public Radio, Ramzi expressed a double wish: to perform in the first national symphony orchestra of Palestine and someday to open music schools for Palestinian children.

“I want to see many conservatories opening up in all of Palestine,” he told me.  A lovely dream, I thought, though an unlikely one for a teenager from a refugee camp who had been raised by his impoverished grandparents. Still, shortly thereafter, a determined Ramzi landed a scholarship to study the viola in France.  A year or two later, we lost touch.

Then, in late 2009, in a chance encounter at a West Bank Italian restaurant, I saw Ramzi again. “What are you doing here?” I asked him. “I thought you were still in France.”

“No, I’m back,” he replied. “I've opened a music school here in Palestine." (It also has branches across the West Bank and in refugee camps in Lebanon.) In other words, exactly what he had told me he wanted to do as a teenager in the al-Amari refugee camp. Six months later, in June 2010, I began to document his dream -- now a reality -- to build a music school in occupied Palestine.

Now, his SUV bound for Sebastia is cutting through the West Bank, a land smaller than the state of Delaware but dotted with more than 600 checkpoints, earthen barriers, and other obstacles to normal travel. His detour and the incident that accompanied it are part of a system that hems Palestinians into ever more confined enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements over which looms Israel’s military presence. Yet this kind of everyday humiliation and confinement remains unknown to most Americans. Despite the torrents of press coverage here about Israel and its relationship with the United States, the daily reality of half the people in a century-old conflict is essentially off the American radar screen.

The reasons for this are rooted in culture, politics, and money.  Millions of Americans were raised on the Leon Uris version of Israeli history, as told in his novel ExodusIn that story, the focus was on the heroic birth of the Jewish state out of the ashes of the Holocaust. “Arabs” -- that is, Palestinians -- remained on the sidelines of the tale, pathetic, obstructionist, and violent.  That long ago became the American media’s basic narrative of the struggle in the region: that Israel, surrounded by a sea of enemies, must be secure. But like the narrative that dominated media discourse before the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction -- the facts on the ground are often ignored.

Money clouds the picture even more. Millions of dollars from billionaire casino magnate and Israeli settlement advocate Sheldon Adelson (who has also advocated using nuclear weapons against Iran) and billionaire Paul Singer, on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as from the bankrollers of neocon William Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, have further distorted the conversation.  In the process, such funders have helped elevate war hawks like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton to prominence.

The money and political leverage of backers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has had a similar effect on some Democrats.  It helps explain, for instance, the growing challenges from New York Senator Charles Schumer and New Jersey’s recently indicted Senator Robert Menendez to the Obama administration’s framework nuclear agreement with Iran.  But the problem has been around for so much longer.  For years, as journalist Connie Bruck revealed last September in the New Yorker, AIPAC has strong-armed elected officials, the recipients of the lavish campaign donations it facilitates, into drafting legislation favorable to Israel.  Such bills are often written by AIPAC staff and then introduced under the name of some member of Congress.

All of this has had a ruinous effect on debate in this country about Israel and Palestine.  Almost invariably left out of any discussion here is the devastating impact on Palestinian lives of Israel’s military occupation, which goes hand-in-hand with relentless settlement expansion that undermines any prospect of a just and lasting peace in the region.

Being Confined

American politicians frequently declare that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”  Seldom does anyone ask if Palestinians have that same right, or even the right to enjoy freedom of movement in their own homeland.

I have spent the last five years documenting both the harsh realities of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Ramzi Aburedwan’s dream of building a music school that could provide Palestinian children with an alternative to the violence and humiliation that is their everyday lives.  I sat with children in the South Hebron hills, who had been stoned by Israeli settlers and set upon by German shepherds as they walked two miles to school.  I met a 14-year-old girl who was forced to play a song for a soldier at a checkpoint, supposedly to prove her flute was not a weapon.

Farmers in villages shared their anguish with me over their lost livelihoods, because the 430-mile-long separation barrier Israel has built on Palestinian land, essentially confiscating nearly 10% of the West Bank, cuts them off from their beloved olive groves.  I’ve seen men crammed into metal holding pens before being taken to minimum-wage jobs in Israel, and women squeezed between seven-foot-high concrete blocks, waiting to pray at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque.  I’ve spoken with countless families who have been subject to night raids by the Israeli military, including one young mother, home alone with her one-year-old boy, who woke up to the sight of 10 Israeli soldiers breaking down her door and pointing guns at her. They had, it turned out, raided the wrong apartment. The baby slept through it all.

Ramzi and the teachers at his school, Al Kamandjati (Arabic for “The Violinist”), see it as an antidote to the sense of oppression and confinement that pervades Palestinian life.  And it’s true that the students I talked to there regularly reported that playing music gave them a transformative sense of calm and protection -- and not only in the moments when they picked up their instruments and disappeared into Bach, Beethoven, or Fairuz.

Rasha, the young flute player detained and forced to perform at an Israeli checkpoint, told me that music enabled her to face previously overwhelming difficulties. “I felt like I was in a forest, all by myself in a little cottage with no people, no noise, nothing,” she recalled. “Mountains, sea, something pure blue, not like the Dead Sea. It was an escape to another world, a better world. I owned that world.”  Her teachers reported that an angry, traumatized girl was growing into a self-aware, self-respecting, and assertive young musician.

Nevertheless, creative expression, however personally transformative, can’t alter the reality of the increasing confinement of Palestinians or of Israel’s creeping militarization of their lands, all of which is a direct result of settlement expansion.  At the time the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993, just before I first started traveling to the Holy Land, about 109,000 Jewish settlers had claimed West Bank Palestinian lands.  They were encouraged by Israeli incentives that made it cheaper to be a settler than a city dweller.

In the years that followed, a network of new West Bank roads reserved only for settlers and VIPs began to crisscross land supposedly set aside for a Palestinian state.  Each year, despite the ongoing “peace process,” thousands more settlers arrived and with them came more Israeli military bases.  Sixty percent of the West Bank remains directly controlled by the Israeli military, which guards the settlements, the surrounding “buffer zones,” and the exclusive roads that whisk Jewish settlers into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for work, prayer, shopping, and the beach.

More than two decades after the beginning of the Oslo era, 350,000 Jewish settlers live mostly on the hilltops of seized West Bank lands, and Palestinians are increasingly confined to an archipelago of “islands” within a sea of Israeli military control. In reality, what now exists in the Holy Land is a single state controlled by Israel in which some enjoy full rights as citizens and others next to none.

Ironically, the reelection of the hyper-nationalistic Benjamin Netanyahu to a fourth term as Israeli prime minister only clarified the essential truth on the ground.  His election-season pronouncement that a Palestinian state would never be on his negotiating table (whatever his post-election backtracking) said it all: Israel’s 48-year-long settlement-building project and military occupation is now and will remain the preeminent fact of the conflict.  In other words, the two-state solution is dead.  If Americans grasp that, the conversation here can now shift to one focused on human, civil, and voting rights.  However, Palestinians living under occupation have understood this one-state reality for a long time and are not waiting for Americans to come to grips with the obvious facts on the ground.

In recent years, Palestinian civil society and its supporters internationally have moved in new directions, embracing direct nonviolent confrontation with Israel.  Last summer, when negotiations on a new peace settlement led by Secretary of State John Kerry collapsed spectacularly and the Obama administration uncharacteristically blamed Israeli intransigence, Palestinians and their supporters cited the need to embrace a new strategy that included the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS.  With it came a renewed push by the Palestinian Authority to win U.N. recognition as an independent state and membership in the International Criminal Court, which could result in war crimes charges against Israeli leaders.

The BDS campaign has claimed some modest victories.  In May 2013, physicist Stephen Hawking canceled a visit to a conference in Israel.  In early 2014, actress Scarlett Johansson was forced to resign as an Oxfam global ambassador after she refused to cut her ties as a pitchwoman to the beverage maker SodaStream which operates a factory in the occupied territories.  The boycott of the company appeared to significantly affect its bottom line.

Last June, the Presbyterian Church USA narrowly voted to divest from Caterpillar, makers of the D-9 bulldozer responsible for demolishing thousands of Palestinian homes and plowing under tens of thousands of Palestinian olive trees.  Late last year, the European Union announced a ban on importing food from Israeli settlements; and earlier this year, after reportedly losing a $4 billion Massachusetts commuter rail contract due to pressure from Boston BDS activists, the French infrastructure conglomerate Veolia sold off much of its operations in Israel.

Supporters of BDS believe they are building momentum from these victories as part of a strategy of shaming Israel in the international arena.  In the process, economic pressure and international condemnation have replaced the Oslo-era approach of well-intended dialogue.  That, activists say, created an impression that all was getting better on the ground, while actually facilitating the building of more settlements and the ever-greater confinement of Palestinians.  In recent years Palestinian groups, including Ramzi’s Aburedwan’s music school, have embraced BDS.

Life in the Fast Lane

After the concert in Sebastia -- part of an Al Kamandjati “Music Days” festival -- Ramzi drove through the darkness toward Ramallah.  His wife and baby son slept fitfully in the backseat. The SUV curved along West Bank Highway 60, passing again beneath Shavei Shomron, glowing yellow in the night sky.

He chatted with me about what it meant that Al Kamandjati had recently joined the BDS campaign.  He viewed it as an assertive step toward Palestinian freedom.  “Because we believe in pacific resistance and in our right to be here,” declared the school’s Music Days program, “we ask all people who believe in human rights and in freedom to boycott Israeli products as well as cultural and academic institutions until Israeli understands that it cannot kill a people’s will by force, respects the international laws, and ends the occupation.”

In this way, Ramzi, like many of his students and teachers, sees himself as part of a larger movement of nonviolent action to protest the occupation and support Palestinian independence. “You have to insist on the positive energy,” he told me, his eyes fixed on a white necklace of lights that represented Palestinian villages to the south. He stroked his bearded chin. “The more you believe in what you are doing, the more you keep going on. It’s like a snowball.” Light pooled in an orb in front of the SUV as it cut through the darkened land.  “I see it in the young, who are living in just a whole world of music.”

To the east, the lights of the Palestinian village of Beit Wazan came into view.  Of his students, he said, “Their world is music now. Their life is now committed to the music.”

He slowed down for the two-lane Zatara checkpoint. On the left was the express lane for the vehicles of settlers and VIPs with their telltale yellow license plates. On the right, the Palestinian lane, where all the plates were white with green lettering, and a long line of cars already were idling for a seemingly endless wait.

Ramzi took one look at that dismal line and quickly decided on his own version of nighttime direct nonviolent confrontation with Israeli rule.  He swung his white-plated SUV into the empty left lane and pulled up at the guard post reserved for settlers, other Israelis, and the few privileged Palestinians who had special connections.

“Why do you come here?” the soldier asked indignantly. “You wait in the other line.”

“I would like to know,” Ramzi replied in English, “if there is a difference between Israeli babies and Palestinian babies.”

“What?” the startled soldier replied.

“I said,” Ramzi repeated, his tone sharpening, “is there a difference between Israeli babies and Palestinian babies? Between your babies and my babies. I would really like to know the answer to this question.”

The soldier peered in at Celine, awake now beside their blue-eyed toddler snoozing in his car seat. The French soccer jersey with Hussein’s name on the back -- a gift from Celine’s sister -- was still on him. The young soldier hesitated, glanced back at Ramzi, then waved them through: one tiny victory in a long struggle with no end in sight.

Sandy Tolan, TomDispatch regular and author of The Lemon Tree, is an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. His new book is Children of the Stone: The Power of Music In a Hard Land (Bloomsbury), about one Palestinian’s dream to build a music school in the midst of Israel’s military occupation. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter @sandy_tolan. 

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