Project Interchange – Counter-Terrorism Trip – Days 4/5
Never let it be said that this is not a serious trip. After dinner tonight, at a thoroughly non-touristy shish kebab place near Machane Yehuda (neither Sami nor Sima for those of you in the know), I suggested to our guide that we walk to Ben Yehuda. The group had just arrived in Jerusalem and had little sense of the center of the City. The guide seemed to pooh-pooh that. “Too touristy,” he seemed to say. “What is there to see there?” For first timers to Jerusalem, there is a lot to see there. And, besides the group was stuffed and needed to walk off a meal that they gushed over — hours later, they were still talking about). So, as we walked to the bus, I casually asked if anybody wanted to take a walk and see a bit of Jerusalem. Instantly, almost all stopped and said yes – thrilled to be free of the bus.
Again, seeing it through a first-timers eyes – even on a Wednesday night – it is impressive – shops filled with colorful souvenirs, street performers, cafes with tables outside, art galleries, and quaint alleyways. And, they were full of questions – what is that Birthright sign in the window?, what are those boxes on the doors that I see people touching and kissing all the time?, how seriously do the orthodox enforce their strict laws?, how do the orthodox treat their woman? One thing I did not expect as we walked was derogatory graffiti about the police on a small street between nachalat shiva and the park by what used to be the Sheraton. They all had to get pictures with that. I quickly recovered by making a statement about the extraordinarily free speech here. They seemed inured to such graffiti.
I feel an obligation that they see and learn as much as possible. They are here for such a short time, and there is so much to absorb besides all of the security issues. One person confessed to me that besides some quick trips to Canada and Mexico, this was his first time really traveling outside the U.S. and that he had to get a passport for the trip. The burden of responsibility is high when somebody tells you that.
Yesterday was devoted to context. We spent the day traveling around the Golan Heights, where they were offered a deep understanding of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, the strategic importance of the Golan Heights, the history with Syria and Jordan, the closeness of Syria and Jordan, and how precarious the existence of Israel seemed only a short time ago. They heard it from somebody who lived it. Gadi served on the Golan from 1970-1973, and he offered an excellent (and not overwhelming) overview.
We also saw some Christian sites, and the group was very moved. We saw Cfar Nahum (a.k.a. Capernaum) and Yardenit. The former is where Jesus lived for a period of time. There is now a Franciscan Church on the site. The latter is the baptismal place in the Jordan River. Pilgrims dress in white and dunk themselves. They had photos up of all sorts of celebrities doing this – from the Chilean miners to radio personality Glenn Beck.
Last night, we stayed at Kibbutz Lavi near Tiberias. You should have heard the trepidation. I think that they pictured dorm rooms with bunk beds and rustic communal dining. Gadi assured them that it was a fine hotel. “We are not staying in kibbutz housing. This is their business,” he assured them. Indeed, it was high level with a buffet dinner that they loved. The highlight was a home grown lecture on kibbutz life, delivered by Shmuel. Shmuel is an older man who moved to the Kibbutz in the 1966 from New York. He spoke about the history of the kibbutz movement and of this kibbutz. He also described life on the kibbutz. He left out all the criticism the movement has received in recent years. He painted an idyllic picture of a lifestyle that very much intrigued our people. Some sat at the bar for hours after that talking about Shmuel and his life.
Today’s sites were a bit different. We spent the morning at the Shita/Gilboa Prison. Once again, I am limited in what I can report, but it all boils down to one simple fact, which very much surprised my group: the Israelis are softer on their prisoners than the Americans. It started with the playground that they noticed as we pulled up to the prison. It is for children of inmates to use during their visits. We had a presentation about the jail and the jail system from the dentist. We learned the following:
- There are 33 jails in Israel – 31 for me and 2 for woman
- The majority of the prisoners are non-Jews.
- The United States has three times as many prisoners per capita than Israel
- There are both criminals and terrorists at this prison
- The terrorists make up a clear schedule for their days. This includes education (they can pursue a degree while in jail). It can also include radical studies, which are taught by fellow inmates. Our group seemed surprised that this was permitted. But, it is all in an effort to keep them content and occupied. They feel that they are radical anyway. We learned how much these benefits are upsetting to Israelis.
- They can also bring in their own food, though we heard about attempted smuggling of items that goes on as a result.
- The criminals can obtain education, like the terrorists, but they also have other benefits, such as group therapy, massage (collective group chuckle) and even spinning!
- Criminals are also entitled to vacation from jail once a month after serving for a period of time. The length of time away increases as you go and come back. This shocked our group. Vacations are unheard of in the United States. The Israelis seem to have no problem with them returning.
- Some of the criminals volunteer in schools to tell the children how not to make mistakes the way that they did, such as driving drunk.
- We entered a prison cell. It was 10 to a room, but the prisoners had many personal possessions. There was a television/dvd player in the room, and they were cooking in there. Many of the prisoners (not terrorists) work at the prison and receive a salary which they use to buy these items. Our group was surprised at how docile the prisoners seemed as walked in. One of my people remarked that “it looked like my college dorm room.”
- Our group was very surprised at the low level of violence within prisons that occur in Israel.
- The last violent escape from here was in 1958
As we left, of my members said that there should really be an academic study done comparing the two prison systems. Overall, people were extremely impressed with the results that the Israelis received by using softer methods and thought them worth considering in the U.S.
Our second major meeting of the day was with the Commander for the Coordination Unit of the Police Force in the West Bank. This is a special Police Force unit of all Arabic speakers which coordinates all police matters with a special unit of the Palestinian Authority. They are the go-between whenever there is an issue, which there is all the time. Consider a domestic violence case between an Israeli Arab and West Bank Arab or a traffic accident between the same. As the Israeli Arab is an Israeli citizen, Israel is responsible. I am not allowed to give most of the details of this meeting. Suffice it to say, this is a very unusual group of people in a pivotal spot. As with the Tel Aviv police, it shows the great importance of building relationships with the Arab community and knowing how to relate to them. Many issues are very delicate. Note that they only deal with Fatah under the terms laid out by Oslo, never Hamas.
One interesting fact is that the Palestinian coordinating group is very uncomfortable with public knowledge of their relationship with Israel on these issues. There is no media about this, and they are never publicly seen to be coordinating their efforts, despite the fact that on many issues, they work extremely closely – hand-in-hand on a daily basis. He believes that the Israeli police are respected in the West Bank because they are honest and even-handed.
Over the two days, they learned the following words:
Yala – Let’s go
Chick chack – 1, 2, 3; quickly
Nu? – Well??
Ma Nishma – What’s up?
Tomorrow, they will learn katyusha and retzuat aza…