The Davis community reaches out to a colleague whose home in Palestine is up against the wall
In 2003, through conversations in both Arabic and English, Ph.D. student David Rosenberg became one of many Davis residents befriended by Palestinian traveling scholar Taleb Al-Harithi. In photographs, the two look as different as men from warring tribes. Rosenberg, a tall, thin Jewish man with dark hair and a beard, was interested in water-supply issues plaguing the Middle East and sought out Al-Harithi, who’s shorter, portly and gray-haired, as a possible source of information. Al-Harithi was in California on a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship, a 10-month grant that allowed him to visit UC Davis and learn about water issues from a California perspective. Rosenberg had visited family in Jerusalem, and the pair found they had more in common than a professional interest in engineering.
“We met to play chess,” said Rosenberg, who said he never won a game.
Rosenberg found Al-Harithi, who was known for being outgoing and gregarious, more interested in discussing dissertation ideas than in talking about home or family. But Davis residents familiar with Al-Harithi knew that as a Palestinian with a wife and kids at home, Al-Harithi was worried. If asked about his family, said Rosenberg, Al-Harithi tended to shy away from the subject.
“I would say that he was in despair about the situation at home, and I can’t blame him,” said Julia Hunter-Blair, a UC Davis administrator who worked with the Humphrey scholars. She was also very fond of Al-Harithi and remembers that he could be found attending Davis Peace Coalition meetings. “I think every group—religious, cultural, social—in Davis met him or heard about him,” she said. Hunter-Blair also remembers that he was a dedicated activist for Palestine. “Taleb could sometimes be quite ‘in your face’ and outspoken.”
At the end of the last school year, Al-Harithi said goodbye to his new community and returned to Palestine. Hunter-Blair said that his regular correspondence consisted primarily of short e-mails claiming that he and his family were well. But through other channels, a new story was emerging.
This summer, messages started pumping through the various e-mail lists and friendship connections that held together Davis’ peace community: Al-Harithi had received notice that his house near Hebron would be demolished by the Israeli government, and he was calling for assistance. Al-Harithi appealed to his friends and colleagues to fax the Israeli government on his behalf. The Davis Peace Coalition complied.
“Our community has become increasingly aware of the ongoing destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli Army that have left countless numbers of innocent men, women and children homeless,” read the group’s petition. “As a guest scholar and participant in many activities both academic and civic, we considered [Al-Harithi] a part of our community and are horrified that his family’s home may be destroyed by the Israeli Army.”
In an e-mail to SN&R, Al-Harithi claimed that the threat of demolition was not unusual. “It is a daily meal for many, many Palestinians,” he wrote.
Home demolitions in Palestine have become an international issue. Human-rights groups and the U.N. Security Council have condemned Israeli actions, but Ambassador Dan Gillerman, representing Israel to the United Nations, recently claimed that homes in Gaza were destroyed because they hid tunnels used to smuggle arms into Palestine from neighboring countries. Cutting off the supply of weapons, according to Gillerman, was one way of protecting Israel from future terrorist attacks.
Another is the permanent wall under construction by the Israeli authority to separate Israel from its neighbor. The wall is thick concrete, meant to be a barrier between Israel and the terrorists trying to attack it. Unfortunately for some, the wall is being built within Palestinian borders, meaning that more homes will have to be demolished, farmland will have to be destroyed, and access to friends and family on one side will be limited for those on the other.
Al-Harithi’s home, though not directly in the path of the wall, was one of six in a 12-house neighborhood that received demolition notices, but Al-Harithi believes he was targeted not because of the location of his house or because of potential tunnels running underneath. Al-Harithi assumes he was targeted because his house is the headquarters for the Palestinian Peace Society, which he described as “an NGO [non-governmental organization] that seeks to build and rehabilitate the good relations between Palestinians—as well [as] Arabs—and the Israelis who believe in peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.”
Officially, Al-Harithi’s home was targeted because he built near the town of Edna, outside of Hebron, without Israeli authority.
Al-Harithi said by e-mail that he received his demolition notice on June 17, 2004, shortly after he returned from the United States. The notice warned that the house would be demolished in three days.
“On 18th June, I had hired an Israeli lawyer—that was inevitable so as to stop the destruction of the house—and paid him 3000US$—I [borrowed] from neighbors and relatives—and the lawyer postponed the case to March 2005 and I don’t know what will happen,” wrote Al-Harithi.
According to Al-Harithi, his house is “licensed from the Palestinian Authority” and in fact, he “applied for an Israeli license in 1998 by the Israeli Authorities but they—as they usually do [to] most of the Palestinians—did not reply until they came 6 years later with a notification to demolish my house.”
Rosenberg, who studies civil and environmental engineering, visited Al-Harithi’s home in Palestine for the first time in the fall of 2003. Al-Harithi already had become accustomed to veiled threats; while he’d been studying in Davis, his house back in Palestine had been searched by Israelis looking specifically for him. But by the time Al-Harithi had returned home, his family members were nervous but safe.
It was during this trip that Rosenberg realized just how restricted travel was between Israel and Palestine. Blocked roads and mounds of rubble meant that taxis could not pass from Jerusalem, where Rosenberg’s family lived, directly to Hebron, so three times, Rosenberg said, he left one taxi behind a roadblock, often a pile of rubble, climbed over, walked over bridges or empty stretches of road, passed over another barrier, and then caught a new taxi on the other side.
Photographs from Rosenberg’s trip show business people waiting by blocked roads and walking over bridges where no car could pass, unable to commute on any regular schedule.
“Palestinians can’t always cross,” said Rosenberg.
Rosenberg visited again in June 2004 and found the situation “vastly different” for Al-Harithi’s family. The story of the possible demolition was spreading through international connections, and people were contacting the Israeli authorities on his behalf, a luxury that other Palestinian homeowners did not have, but Al-Harithi still didn’t know what would happen.
A copy of the demolition notice was translated by Rosenberg’s family from Arabic into Hebrew. It basically said that the Israeli civil authority thought the house was in violation of some code, said Rosenberg, and that demolition was assured unless the family appealed within a few days.
When Rosenberg arrived, he found that Al-Harithi and his family had taken the threat of demolition seriously. Everything essential, said Rosenberg, including the television, refrigerator and furniture, was still in the house, but anything extra, like clothes and extra mattresses, had been moved to the home of a family member.
Still, Al-Harithi and his family were in good spirits, until the issue of politics came up. When Al-Harithi’s mother began talking about how she thought Jewish people were responsible for the difficulties facing Palestinians, Al-Harithi mentioned that Rosenberg was Jewish. His mother corrected herself. It was some Jews, like Ariel Sharon, who were responsible, she said.
Rosenberg said he regularly found people making these important distinctions between individuals and the group they were most angry at. He never felt threatened while traveling. Rosenberg stayed the morning and afternoon with Al-Harithi’s family and returned to Jerusalem in the evening. He found that on both sides of the conflict, fear and frustration were increasing.
Rosenberg’s family was just as interested in discussing politics as was the Palestinian family he’d just visited, but mostly, his family members were unaware of how complex life was on the other side of the barbed-wire fences. Rosenberg found them very curious and realized that most had never ventured over the roadblocks to visit. Life in Israel was culturally rich and engaging, and it proceeded normally, in spite of the conflict. During afternoons on the beach, even Rosenberg found it easy to forget that a few miles away, people were being threatened with homelessness.
“Knowing is on a continuum,” he said, meaning that one can know abstractly that things are bad without choosing to get involved. “There are no simple solutions,” Rosenberg added. “I think people have divorced their lives from the conflict. … You just hope it doesn’t come to your neighborhood.”
While some in Davis’ peace community believe that Israelis are simply in denial, Rosenberg insists that after generations of conflict and regular cycles of violent retaliation, the overwhelming emotion is frustration.
Although Rosenberg talks cautiously about the conflict, deflecting questions that might force him to show a preference for either Israelis or Palestinians, he does insist that a long-term solution is only possible through open and honest negotiations about where the borders of the two states are going to be. Thinking in terms of two warring sides isn’t “really a useful framework,” he said. “There are so many factions in each group.”
In his opinion, the most important thing is communication. In the political match between Palestinian and Israeli governments, regular citizens need to understand exactly how each other’s individual lives are being impacted. People on all sides of the conflict, and even those in America, probably would be surprised to hear that stories like Al-Harithi’s are not unique.