It is Christmas Eve in East Jerusalem. At the American Colony Hotel on Nablus Road, not far from the Damascus Gate to the Old City, a somewhat underfed Santa Claus is handing out complimentary chestnuts (roasted on an open fire), chocolate truffles and mulled red wine.
In the hotel’s plush dining room the main course of the more than $100 per plate holiday dinner will feature duck, not turkey -- and that does not sit well with a visiting family from Austin, Texas.
"Mother just does not like duck," explains the 20-something daughter, who is accompanying her middle age parents, with Karen Armstrong’s bestselling book Jerusalem in hand.
The daughter makes a few phone calls and finds an alternative for the family’s holiday supper: the upscale Mamilla Hotel, which sits right on the Green Line that prior to 1967 marked the border between Jordanian East Jerusalem and Israeli West Jerusalem.
Before the family de-camps, an Israeli camera crew wants to know how they usually celebrate Christmas, back home.
The answer is fairly predictable: a tree, gifts, turkey with stuffing. They will not get all that at the Mamilla, but there will be something other than duck for mother.
The American Colony is a lovely and comfortable inn -- quite luxurious, in a traditional sense, in fact. But, with its highly respected bookstore, it is also something of a centre for Palestinian intellectuals and artists.
Different maps tell different stories
In hotels in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem, you get tourist maps and information that depict a single Israel that extends from the Mediterranean right to the western shore of the Jordan River. There is nary a mention of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live there nor of their de facto government, the Palestinian Authority.
Greater Israel, including the West Bank territory the Jerusalem Post refers to as "Judea and Samaria," has become simply Israel, full stop.
At the American Colony they tell a different story.
The booklet they hand out to tourists is called This Week in Palestine, and the December 2013 issue is the 15th anniversary issue.
The map in this booklet clearly delineates Israel and Palestine, and even divides the territory into a series of sub-areas: Palestinian built-up area; Palestinian evacuated land; Oslo ABC zoning; Gaza (Military Restricted Access Area); Israeli settlements; Israeli Built-up areas. The map also shows the Green Line (based on the Armistice 1949) and the Separation Wall, well inside West Bank Palestinian territory.
In large measure This Week in Palestine is the typical compendium of information about restaurants, hotels and cultural events that might be of interest to visitors.
The restaurant review in the current issue, for instance, heartily recommends Tarwee’a in Ramallah. Its Palestinian dishes, the reviewer writes, have "lots of soul."
"If you are into eggs," the anonymous writer advises, "do not shy away from the shakshouka eggs...smothered in fresh tomatoes and spiced with hot chili power that will have you wiping your tears and your runny nose..."
In a similar vein, there are articles on Palestinian opera singer Enas Massalha; the recently translated memoirs of the musician and intellectual, Wasif Jawhariyyeh; and an art exhibit of multi-media works by Bashar Alhoub called "The Nature of Mind."
But there is more in this publication than the usual, innocuous, tourist-oriented fare.
As one of its regular writers, Manar Harb, puts it:
It may have started as a publication for tourists, but This Week in Palestine has acquired a unique archive of the Palestinian narrative...[It] has the capacity to reflect a part of [that] narrative to an English-speaking audience, which is a pretty powerful tool.
Harb goes on to argue:
Don’t kid yourself; we Palestinians are close to extinction. Perhaps I exaggerate; perhaps not. Either way, without a complete understanding of the entire picture...there will be no justice...
Hostage to fanatics
After their interview with the Austin Texas family, the Israeli camera crew joins a Canadian couple having their bar food Christmas meal in the American Colony lobby.
"So what do you think of Israel?" Rita, the team’s journalist/interviewer asks.
The Canadians try to be diplomatic.
Israel, they say, is obviously a creative and dynamic country -- a country that has accomplished a great deal in business, science, the arts, education, medicine, high tech, agriculture, you name it.
But, they add, it is very painful to consider that any part of Israel's success and prosperity should be built on denying full and fundamental human, cultural, political and economic rights to another people.
The members of the camera crew quietly agree.
They say they are stymied by their country’s politics and complain that they, and many other Israelis who think like them, are hostage to the extreme views of dangerous fanatics -- in particular fanatical settlers -- who seem to control Netanyahu’s coalition government.
Soon, however, it’s time for the crew to get on to its next Christmas Eve assignment.
This one does not warm the cockles of their hearts. They are to meet and interview participants in the Israeli version of the wildly popular reality show American Idol. These Tel Aviv-based hipsters are not big fans.
Christmas is overshadowed by other more sinister news
The main headlines on the Christmas Eve edition of the "progressive" Israeli newspaper Haaretz have nothing to do with roasting chestnuts, the birth of the prince of peace or reality television winners.
They are: "Despite promises, Defense Ministry budget rises again" and "Palestinian unrest grows with more attacks."
The second headline refers to "terror" attacks by Palestine: a knife attack on an Israeli traffic cop and a rocket that exploded near an Israeli bus stop used for transporting children. The article also mentions earlier incidents, including a pipe bomb on a Tel Aviv bus. The driver of that bus managed to evacuate the passengers before the bomb exploded, and there were no injuries.
On Christmas Day the news gets even worse.
Haaretz’s single large banner headline reads: "IDF strikes Gaza targets after third terror attack; Israeli worker, Gaza girl, 3, dead"
Inside the newspaper, journalists Amira Hass (who is the only Israeli reporter living in the West Bank) and Amos Harel provide some context.
Hass reports that four days earlier Israel Defense Forces soldiers had killed one Oudeh Hamad and injured his brother Radaad.
The official Israeli version was that the two Palestinians were "attempting to damage security fence marking the Israel-Gaza border," but the surviving brother told human rights organizations that they were, in fact, merely collecting scrap metal and plastic from a junk yard.
Hass notes that the brothers were well-known as "scrap dealers who made their living off discarded metal and plastic."
Radaad said he and his brother were about fifty metres from the fence when the soldiers opened fire.
The Israelis have designated a 300 metre band inside the border fence as a "buffer zone" but Palestinian farmers and scrap collectors venture into that zone, nonetheless, believing the Israelis have surveillance equipment that can distinguish between armed individuals and unarmed civilians.
That did not seem to be true in this case.
The Israeli authorities and the surviving brother agree on one thing: the Hamads were not armed.
As for Amos Harel, he writes:
From the standpoint of the average Israeli news consumer, the escalation along the Gaza strip border began at noon on Tuesday, with the incident in which a Palestinian sniper killed a civilian employee of the Israel Defense Forces near Kibbutz Kfar Aza. But, in fact, it seems that the current round of violence began last Friday, with a series of incidents in which IDF forces shot at Palestinians, killing one and wounding another...
Later, in the same article, Harel points out that this violence is happening against the background of the American brokered peace talks. United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, Harel says, wants to present both sides with a framework agreement, the acceptance of which would be seen as a "significant breakthrough."
What will likely happen, though, the Haaretz reporter concludes, is that the Americans will have to settle for a "watered-down" document and an extension of the deadline for final agreement.
This Christmas Day, Haaretz and other newspapers carrying similar news are on display just outside the busy Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City.
There are excited groups of Christian pilgrims, equally animated Jews heading for the Western Wall, fruit dealers wheeling carts of oranges and some Palestinian schoolchildren taking advantage of rare winter weather to have an old-fashioned snowball fight.
Virtually none of them pay any heed to the stark headlines on Haaretz or any of the other newspapers.
Life goes on in a city and a region that has seen torment and strife that is much worse than a handful of headline-grabbing "incidents."
To be continued. . .
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All photos courtesy of Karl Nerenberg.
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