Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lucky You Come Hawaii

Lucky You Come Hawaii

“Lucky you come Hawaii!” locals exclaim in their pidgin English in a mix of welcoming and bragging about their blissful paradise. And it never felt more welcoming in the scores of times I have been in the islands: a combination of friendship and family bliss and of suddenly basking in a mini-celebrity status of media attention to my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee. Within the span of one week in Honolulu my book has been the subject of one live radio program, one TV show, one newspaper op. ed., one bookstore reading and one talk to a church group. And today, with our children and grandchildren, we arrived in the island of Kauai, the island on which Didi and I had honeymooned eons ago. As we stopped for a snack it dawned on me that I had not paid for a single meal since we arrived in Hawaii; we had been wined and dined by friends and relatives for the whole period, one celebration after another.

Honolulu, Hawaii was the best place to launch my book. In fact the memoirs start while we were here for a two-year break from the strife-ridden career that I have chosen for myself. And Hawaii is the perfect antipode for Israel/Palestine not only geographically but also socio-politically. Despite Hawaii’s current governor being a Zionist, or at least a Zionist-supported Republican, Hawaiians are so far removed from the conflict that has shaped my life that they can justly claim innocence of any preconceived idea about it. It felt absolutely refreshing to speak to a group in America lacking the usual sprinkling, if not majority, of deeply opinionated pro-Israelis. Not only was I able to express my particular point of view on the subject uninterrupted but also to elicit valid comments and relevant questions regarding needed additional factual information. I have since used this inadvertent advantage to rework my presentation and to incorporate the various points raised in the Q&A period of the different presentations to live Hawaiian audiences. I decided to retain my original heading in recognition of the group that was the first to invite me to speak. Here is the outcome:

Talk at the Church of the Crossroads, Honolulu, Hawaii,

June 14, 20081,

Sponsored by the Friends of Sabeel

Good evening, Salam and Aloha,

Let me start by thanking my hosts, the Friends of Sabeel, and specifically Mr. Ramsis Lutfy and Ms. Margaret Brown, who have been kind enough to arrange for this wonderful occasion. Before leaving home I spoke to the Rev. Naim Atik, the Palestinian founder of Sabeel in the best tradition of proactive liberation theology. He asked me to convey his regards and blessings to you. Some of my friends here tonight, including my protestant wife Didi and my two brothers, the Catholic Indonesian Djon and the Hindu Jagy, will recall the good old days of the early 1960s when, as foreign students at the University of Hawaii, we used to seek warmth at the Church of the Crossroads thanks to the hospitality and humanity of our friend and host at the time, the late Rev. Del Rayson.

I am touched by the interest of so many people in this island paradise in a subject relevant to the hell burning half way across the globe, though the hell is perpetrated with the full support of the USA and its fire kept is burning with your tax money. It has been asserted that nowadays a person’s stand on the suffering of the Palestinians is the test of his or her humanity. Tonight I salute your humanity.

In his book Palestinian Walks, the Palestinian lawyer and author Raja Shehadeh states: “Perhaps the curse of Palestine is its centrality to the West’s historical and biblical imagination.” He then goes on to declare: “There is no place like the Holy Land to make one cynical about religion.” It is not comfortable being on the receiving end of fabrications issuing from the West’s fertile imagination especially when these are further augmented by clever spin-doctoring targeting the native population of the Holy Land. Cleverly twisted, facts have yielded to fiction rendering our history one long series of blood feuds, our land empty –a country without people-, our civilization pure savagery, and all of us terrorists by definition. According to this creative narrative, in 1948 we collectively left our homes on an extended vacation to allow the establishment of the ‘only democracy in the ME’, the ‘Jewish and democratic’ state of Israel. Except that, as reality would have it, in the Jewish and democratic state there is a near 20% minority of Palestinians, a fact rendering it an oxymoron by definition. Israel is a democracy for Jews only; it lacks a constitution that guarantees us, the minority Palestinians, protection from the draconian laws supported by the majority.

It is with this in mind that I want to declare my full secularism and my support for a single secular and democratic state in all of historical Palestine. The two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been rendered totally impractical by the facts on the ground that Israel has created with the full backing of the US. Any such fiction has been relegated to the realm of posturing of puppets in a children’s comic show. The reality of the two independent states is not unlike the USA on one side and the Native American reservation residents on the other, except that the Native Americans in this case are not permitted to leave their reservations, are not allowed to use Federal and State highways and General Custer and his troops have free range. And the two ‘states’ are left to settle their differences through direct ‘negotiations’. The two-state solution and its ‘rejection by the Palestinians’ is well on its way to becoming another in the series of myths the West is willing to buy into so as to soothe its conscience about the historic evil it had committed against the Jews. Making up for the holocaust by forfeiting the rights of another Semitic people is hardly a lasting cure.

My goal today is to introduce to you the little known community in the Middle East that has had a vested interest in peace and which has been ignored by all parties to the ongoing conflict, my community, the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel [This is the equivalent of saying ‘the Hawaiian Polynesian citizens of the US’. It is the term we prefer in contradistinction to the Israeli term of ‘Israel’s Arabs’.]

Here I want to distinguish clearly between this little known group and other parts of the Palestinian people: those under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, those in Refugee camps in ME countries, and those in the Diaspora across the globe. In the process of violent dispersion of the Palestinian nation in 1948 we were the lucky ones who inadvertently stayed in our homes in the part of Palestine that became Israel and thus we became citizens of Israel since its establishment.

This small group of less than 150,000 in 1948, or some 15% of the population of Israel at the start, has multiplied tenfold since, through natural increase. It has proportionately outstripped the majority Jewish population increase to become nearly 20% of the total population. This, despite Israel’s massive international recruitment efforts of Jewish immigrants with special laws, attractive economic enticements, and underhanded contrivance.

Land, Population and Housing:

Our natural population development has brought upon us the wrath of Zionist policymakers who invented the term ‘demographic time bomb’ for it. This offensive term, the related discriminatory Law of Return, and the three dozen land confiscation laws especially formulated to usurp our land, all presented to the world as part of Israel’s enlightened democracy, are some of the most insulting tactics used against an indigenous population anywhere on earth.

The rapid population increase, together with land confiscation, has led to excessive overcrowding in our towns and villages. I should explain here that in Israel the two population groups live in segregated communities with the exception of a few ‘mixed cities’ where Jews and Arabs live in segregated neighborhoods, oftentimes separated by high concrete walls and barbwire.

Subsidized housing exists exclusively for members of the Jewish majority. In Nazareth Elite or Upper Nazareth, established in the 1950’s to offset the historical native city of Nazareth on land confiscated from its residents and those of surrounding Arab villages, young Arab couples have been buying homes from disgruntled immigrants who prefer the central Jewish cities, this prompting a Movement to Keep Nazareth Elite pure.

Two further related phenomena are house demolitions, exclusively practiced against Israel’s Palestinian minority, and the over one hundred Unrecognized Villages, Arabic communities that often predated the establishment of the state but that were made retroactively illegal and denied government services and public utilities, including drinking water.

Who are the Palestinians and where do I fit among them?

M My best guess at our historical background is described in the last page in my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee. I will read a couple of paragraphs from the entry in my memoirs describing my successful transplanting of a millennia-old olive tree from a neighboring valley to my front yard:

The horrific sense of history inspired by this continuous biological link between me and my land is simply awesome. Are the Palestinians not the historical descendants of the Minoans of Crete? Were the Minoans not the first olive farmers in recorded history? Did Minoan culture not revolve around the trade in olive oil? Was the trade by way of Phoenicia? Could the Phoenicians, Canaanites, Israelites, Egyptians, Hyxos, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Moguls, Crusaders and Turks have played a role in influencing the life and physique of my own tree? Yes, indeed, they may have. Any or all of them may have enjoyed the afternoon Mediterranean breeze in its cool shade. Any or all of them may have tied their trusted mounts to its sturdy trunk and cut a fresh shoot from its base to hurry the steed along -- the reason, most likely, for all the beautiful, football-size knots on its trunk. Any or all of them may have seduced, or raped, one of my maiden progenitors, leaving his telltale imprint on my amalgam of genes. And any or all of them may have dictated their rules and regulations to my ancestors, who submissively incorporated them as “ours”.

But at bottom, it was those Minoan olive oil traders and their Palestinian descendants, clinging to their land and subsisting in the shadow of their olive groves, that morphed into an ambitious nation laying claim to Arab culture, the last dominant culture of significant impact. My tree knows and attests to all of that; that is how it all started. This horrendous behemoth, with its two-meter wide, beautifully sculpted trunk and over ten square meters of beautifully sculpted exposed root system saw it all. I can prove my belonging to this piece of the earth’s crust through it; its roots are my surrogate roots. And they are taking hold in my land that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father,… and so on ad- infinitum.

Now I will attempt briefly to introduce to you my own narrative in the context of the ME conflict, in the hope that I will leave you with some appreciation of the degree of injustice that Israel and the US continue to wreak upon my people, the Palestinians, all of course, as seen from my perspective as an involved witness to the process. Again I will read from my book of memoirs, now from my foreword to it:

'A Doctor in Galilee: The Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel' is a memoir arising from my struggle as a physician to bring the benefits of Public Health and community development to my people, the Palestinian Arab minority citizens of Israel. The intimate personal narrative introduces readers to this little known and often misunderstood population that is nonetheless key to understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I was born in 1937 In Arrabeh Village in the Galilee at the height of the Palestinian peasant uprising against the British Mandate for its sympathy with and accommodation of the designs of the Zionist Movement on their land. On my eleventh birthday, Israel was officially declared an independent state, marking the Palestinian Nakba or catastrophe. The vast majority of Palestinians from the area of the new state became refugees in neighboring Arab countries. Their towns and villages were systematically razed or their homes occupied by Jewish immigrants. We, the few Palestinians who remained on their land, found ourselves on the wrong side of the border, a leaderless and alienated minority in an enemy state. For 18 years we were placed under oppressive military rule.

As subsistence olive farmers my family sacrificed much to put me through the Nazareth Municipal High School. Two years later, in 1960, I struck out to study medicine in the USA. In 1970, having obtained Harvard degrees in Medicine and Public Health and turning down several lucrative offers in America, I returned with my Hawaiian wife, a teacher, to Arrabeh and found employment with the Ministry of Health in my field of specialty. The dearth of physicians in my region forced me to double as solo village GP. I lasted for six years before I could take it no more. I found my Public Health work unproductive in light of state systems openly hostile to Arab citizens. This included policies of massive land confiscation that led to a mini uprising by my people, known thereafter as Land Day. Frustrated and angry, in 1976 I moved with my wife and two children to Hawaii.

After two years of vacillating we returned home to the Galilee and to the same setting we had left. I started looking for a way around the discriminatory and antagonistic governmental system in which I worked. Within three years I and three other disgruntled local physicians established a non-governmental organization, the Galilee Society, dedicated to improving the health and welfare of the Palestinian minority within Israel. This NGO became the conduit for my professional endeavors actively challenging the system of which I was formally a part and to which, for pragmatic considerations, I continued to hold for another ten years. The MOH, under Ehud Olmert, eventually ejected me and I became persona non grata in my former professional home. For four additional years I continued to use the NGO service sector as a means of consciousness raising and community mobilization. I reached out to international circles and built alliances with like-minded minority rights activists abroad. This, together with a confrontation with the Israeli military-industrial complex over environmental protection of the Galilee, apparently was beyond the tolerance of all concerned. In 1995 I found myself out of a job at The Galilee Society, the institution I created and led for a decade and a half. On my way to retirement I then served briefly as a consultant to UNICEF’s mission to The Palestinian National Authority before returning to my home village to establish a center for child rehabilitation.

The narrative follows a simple chronological pattern, but is replete with contemplative pauses, flashbacks, village scenes and foibles from rural Palestine and from my childhood days. In terms of its subject matter, the major theme of the book revolves around the politics of dispossession and the nature of Israel’s majority-minority ‘coexistence’ as it plays out in the life of Arrabeh and similar communities and as experienced and recorded by me in real time. Straddling the socioeconomic and political divide between this disadvantaged minority amongst whom I lived and the dominant Jewish majority amongst whom I worked, my daily experience bordered on the schizophrenic. The book delves particularly deep into the struggle over land, which underlies all aspects of the conflict between the two groups that people my two realities.

An introduction by journalist and author Jonathan Cook sets the memoirs in proper historical and political perspective. It also serves as an excellent primer on the Palestinian community in Israel and on its standing in its country of citizenship.

Indicators of Discrimination:

Let me now share with you some facts and figures taken from the most recently available Israeli Yearbook of Statistics. The figures are for the year 2006. Unfortunately, these prove that I have failed miserably to improve the status of my community vis-à-vis that of the Jewish majority in Israel. I will mention only a few indicators for comparison. My emphasis is not on the absolute figures but on the comparison between us, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Jewish majority, and on the trends of the relative ratios over time.

Let me first speak of the one statistic that I have the authority to speak on as a Public Health expert, that of Infant Mortality Rate (IMR). It is the number out of a thousand live births in a specific year that die before their first birthday. IMR has been shown to be the best indicator of a community’s general wellbeing. It is affected most by such independent variables as the community’s environmental health (as reflected in the cleanliness of its water supply), by the level of income of the heads of families, and by the level of education of the mothers. Our IMRs have run double those of the Jewish majority since the establishment of Israel. Immigrant groups from third world countries with initial IMRs higher than ours have improved to where they fit now within the Jewish majority rates, thanks to intensive targeted state intervention and support programs. No similar program has ever been attempted for us. I recall the program that was once mounted in the Ministry of Health to reduce infant mortality in towns and villages where it was particularly high. Two cut-off lines were selected, the one for Arab towns twice as high as that for Jewish ones. Finally, over the past decade the relative IMR gap has widened to where our infants now die at two and a half times the rate at which Jewish infants die.

And Arab families are three times as likely to be under the poverty line. Such statistics are more damning if one looks at them more analytically. Over time this statistic has worsened as well. Of special meaning is that the intervention of the state in terms of subsidies and support payments elevates relatively three times as many Jewish families to above the poverty line as it does Arab ones, a clear indication of the state’s discriminatory practices.

And the future doesn’t bode well for us. Our young adults (age 20-35 years) are one third as likely to be at an institute of higher education as do their Jewish co-citizens.

What can we do?

This all begs the question of what can we do? I have no easy answer. Your presence here tonight is an indication of your awareness and commitment. More of the same is all I can ask from you: Use your influence, moral, political and social, to make it possible for Palestinians to air their narrative and to debunk the standard myths and spin-doctoring that your media continues to force-feed you. Help free your political representatives from the yoke of financial dependence on dominant lobby groups and agents of vested interest. Use your democratic system to act on your convictions.

The apartheid separation wall continues to be built with your tax money. It infringes on the rights of so many Palestinian villagers in the OTs and robs them of their land and livelihood. Yet, as all separation walls throughout history, this wall will also come down. What we all need to work on collectively is the mental separation wall of fear and hate that permits some of us to put themselves above others. It is the exclusivist mental separation wall that allows the Zionist majority of Israel’s citizens and their dominant political parties, even now, to self-righteously demand my ‘transfer’, my expulsion out of my home, witness the platform of such Zionist leaders as Lieberman, the ex-deputy prime minister, and the statements of Ms. Livni, Israel’s current foreign Minister. It is this exclusivist and elitist mental separation wall that permits the issuing of public theological dispensations allowing, nay even demanding, the slaughter of Palestinians, their women and children and even their cattle and the destruction of their crops and orchards, all based on the old tribal conflict with a group known in biblical times as the Amalikites, now revived in some sick minds as the Palestinians.

It is that worldview that I ask you to take a stand on through political pressure and civil society activism, every day and everywhere. As a secular pacifist I put my trust in the common sense and common decency of humanity at large. At the end these ample human resources will triumph.

In the sixties in this very place we all sang: “We shall overcome, someday!”

Friday, June 27, 2008

Spreading the Word in Hawaii

The following appeared on the opinion page of the Sunday June 22 issue of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin:

Palestinian Perspective
Hatim Kanaaneh

© Honolulu Star-Bulletin --

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Soft Underbelly of Being the Underdog

The Soft Underbelly of Being the Underdog

My wife and I are now in Hawaii with our two children and their families for our annual R&R get-together. And what a restful and regenerating occasion it is! Yet, a minor incident before leaving home continues to weigh on my mind, demanding to be recorded lest it be forgotten: an undeserved favor from a fellow Palestinian rendered in the semi-conspiratorial spirit of mutual help that constitutes one of the weapons of the weak.

Ten days before leaving on our current trip I needed to clarify a medical question that could potentially annul the whole plan. I called on a trusted colleague and through the services of a contact of hers, a cog in the bureaucratic healthcare machine, an emergency CT scan was scheduled. In preparation for that process I had to do a blood test which was again arranged on emergency basis through a contact of mine with the promise that the results would be on my electronic record by the time I showed up for the CT scan. Unfortunately, when I did no blood test had been entered in my computerized record and I was prevented from proceeding with the CT scan. No other time slot was available before I leave the country to reschedule the procedure. Promptly I sweet-talked a secretary, one I must have selected for her particular looks, to put me in touch on her phone with the central lab. On the other end it was a veritable jungle of Russian accented technicians and secretaries that confined themselves strictly to the set rules of the Lab. I kept asking for the next level in the chain of command and each went through the same steps. I would hear the clicking on the keyboard and then they would announce to me: “No results entered for this ID number” and hang up and I am back to my chosen secretary with the ‘particular looks’ to start the process again. I tried to explain to the dozen Russian lab personnel that I reached that I had the same access to the computerized record as they do and what I needed was someone to break out of the routine and to physically track my blood sample and matching sheet of paper with a large red ‘URGENT’ stamp on it and to see if that sample can be processed on the spot. None was able to comprehend the favor I was asking. They couldn’t imagine such departure from the routine.

On the umpteenth trial I heard a different accent on the phone, that of an Arab young man. In Arabic, I told him who I was and what I wanted and within ten minutes he traced down my blood sample and ran it through the analyzer and had the responsible Russian colleague enter it on record. My problem was solved.

It was then that it dawned on me that the half dozen links in the facilitation process from beginning to end were all Arabs like me and that the ‘particular looks’ of my selected secretary were nothing more than her Non-Ashkenazi features. On occasion, being the underdog helps. Sadly, more often it doesn’t. Here is a recent entry in my memoirs when the trick didn’t work:

20 September, 2007,
Hassan Bezeq

Back in Arrabeh I am itching to communicate with the three new positive interlocutors that have picked up on my manuscript submission. But I am faced with the inefficiency of the Israeli system when it comes to an Arab village. To save money we had asked Bezeq, the landline phone monopoly in Israel, to freeze our connection for the period of our stay abroad. When we asked for the service to be renewed we were told that there was a one month waiting period. As I pointed out that in the neighboring Jewish town of Karmeil the service was provided within 48 hours I was informed that there were some technical hitch in our area and “please, be patient!” This did not prevent the friendly clerk from selling me a higher speed internet connection at double the original monthly charges. When the working crew did not show up on the appointed day I went to a friend’s office and started calling Bezeq. I shouted at several low-level employees and insisted on talking to their bosses. Eventually I reached a woman supervisor who said that she was the highest level I can speak to on the phone and that she will handle my complaint. I explained what had happened and she had me wait on the line while she checked with the head of the repair crew. After a pause she came back with the explanation:
“Hassan says it is the security situation in Arrabeh.”
“Who is Hassan?”
“The head of the work crew in the Battouf area.”
“And what security situation are we talking about? Did war break out with Syria or did Israel attack Iran?”
After another long wait she came back on the line: “No. It is Arrabeh’s high security rating. Since violence broke out in your villages in October 2000 standing regulations require Bezeq crews to coordinate their work in your area with the security forces.”
I couldn’t believe my ears: “Are you joking? Do you comprehend what you are saying? A man with a name like Hassan is scared to enter Arrabeh seven years after the Al-Aqsa demonstrations? Sharon who started it all is long brain-dead and the Or committee has come and gone and issued its recommendations to the government to deal with its discrimination against Arabs, and Hassan still can hide behind security excuses to cover his team’s tardiness? Hassan still needs police escort to enter an Arab village?”
“That is what Hassan says. You can lodge a written complaint by fax at …”
“Well, why doesn’t Bezeq hire a technician or two from the Battouf villages? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?”
“That is not for me to decide. You can complain in writing and suggest whatever you want. Besides, such technicians will need security clearance.”
Later I learned that Hassan is not an imaginary creature. People in Arrabeh knew him by the name of Hassan Bezeq.

After the weekend I was at it again bright and early.
“Yes, it shows up here on the screen that they should have contacted you this morning to deal with the problem. Sorry, sir, if they haven’t! I am sure they will tomorrow.”
Again I demanded to speak to a supervisor. This time it was a young sounding man with a self-confident formal tone of voice. He assured me that he will see to it that my line will be fixed that day although it was customary to wait for weeks to have a line transferred to a new address.
“But I only asked for the line to be frozen for six months; I didn’t move.”
“Fine, then it should have been a simple press of a button at our central, but it says here on the computer that that didn’t work. You must have moved home!”
As I argued back he asked politely to wait on the line while he checked. A few minutes later he came back thanking me profusely for my patience and asking for my mobile phone number so he can contact me the moment he located the head technician. I got in my car and decided to drive over to Karmeil to badger the woman clerk who sold me the fast wi-fi virtual connection. She had assured me that she will put in a note in my file for the technicians that mine was a specially urgent case and that they should arrive before the scheduled date. As I was fighting the usual traffic jam in the center of Arrabeh I had to maneuver around a parked Bezeq truck. I pulled the hand break and jumped out of my car to the dismay and repeated honking of drivers behind me. The technician said that he will do me a favor and come with me to look at the problem. I waved my arms high in a gesture of apology to fellow villagers for adding to a bad situation and turned into a side street with the Bezeq truck in tow. Shortly I was up on a ladder with my hedge cutter shaving down the overgrown thurbingia climber that had damaged the phone line with its weight. As I was fifteen feet up in the air trying to maintain my balance while hacking at the overgrowth my mobile rang. It was Itziq from Bezeq.
“Dr. Kanaaneh, I am sorry to tell you that it is not possible to fix the problem today. Hassan says that the security situation doesn’t permit our technicians to enter Arrabeh today! Your name is at the top of the list once the security situation improves.”
“I hate to tell you that right now I am at my house in Arrabeh with your technicians. Here, you can speak to Moshe yourself.”
“No need. I am happy the security situation has improved and permission granted for our crews to enter Arrabeh. I hope you guys will maintain the peace.”
With a bang the line went dead. It is back to square one. My phone is working again. But the ADSL connection is another story. The technicians said it will be connected centrally in two days. Three days have gone by with daily calls and protesting to no avail. It is now the start of the Jewish holiday season when most government and utility offices operate on emergency basis. I am sure that when I contact them again in six weeks, after we come back from our trip to China, clerks will still be making up excuses. And even Hassan knows the one about security.

On the whole, Arabic features, an Arab name or address, or anything that reeks of Arabic culture has a negative connotation in Israel. Particularly troubling is the fact that we, the Arab citizens of Israel, have internalized the prejudiced mindset so ingrained in the larger Israeli society. This dawned on me sending a sudden shiver down my spine at the Tel Aviv airport on our way out of the country. As we left home in the morning I took with me the Arabic daily that had been delivered to my door with the thought that I could while away some of the waiting time at the airport doing the daily Sudoku puzzle. However, standing in the passport control line at the airport and having commenced figuring out the Sudoku solution, the women behind me glanced at the paper and I caught my self hiding the paper away with a clear sense of guilt. Then I rebounded: what was I hiding and why? Was this a reflex defense mechanism or a logical secrecy inspired maneuver? Was it just the telltale Arabic print I was hiding or could it be the fact that the paper is that of the local communist party? After all, both are fully legal and I regularly get the VIP treatment every time I go through the airport, thanks to my clear Arabic name and place of residence. I have even been put on the US Transportation Authority’s no-fly list, a step apparently initiated by my own country. [See account on p 246 of my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee.] So what is there to hide?

Thinking this rationally through, I took out my paper and triumphantly finished solving my Sudoku.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Abu-Asa’ad’s Homecoming

Abu-Asa’ad’s Homecoming

June 1, 2008

For over a week Arrabeh has been in a visibly celebratory mood: telephone poles and rooftops adorned with Palestinian flags, welcoming banners stretched across the main village roads, barrages of fireworks, and teenagers honking their car horns as the village asserts its modernity with tight traffic gridlocked roads.

Last week I took part in the event that was at the root of all the commotion and found it to be a well-balanced mix of old-style village communal celebration and of national-level political activism. Mohammad As’ad Kanaaneh, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu-As’ad, Secretary General of the nationalist Abna’-el-Balad movement, was released from four-and-a-half-years of political incarceration. On the minds and lips of all the participants were the names of three other co-villagers still in jail, two single women and one young man. The latter, Husam, who is Abu-As’ad’s younger brother, was jailed for innocently contacting a double agent in Jordan. Regardless of what the Israeli Secret Service must have secretly shared with the Israeli judges to convict him, no one in Arrabeh doubts the young man’s innocence. All politically aware members of the community take it for granted that his case is one of ‘collateral damage’, so to speak. He wound up with an eleven year sentence, heavier than his brother because of his lack of political sophistication. The authorities, the accepted explanation goes, had it in for the older and more experienced brother because of the excessive zeal he showed leading the demonstrations at the Durban Anti-Discrimination Conference. His vocal protesting there of Israel’s occupation, Israel’s apartheid policies, and Israel’s war crimes resulted in his picture waving a Palestinian flag at the head of a column of protesters being flashed across TV screens around the world. And it was all legal! So they set out a trap that snared not only him but also his less hardened brother who had recently returned from his university studies abroad. That, in a nutshell, is the verdict of Arrabeh regardless of what all the Israeli Supreme Court justices thought.

“And mark my word,” a local news correspondent, following the same logic, entrusted to me, “there will be many arrests and trumped up charges soon. It was a miracle the police didn’t use violence and arrests already. I advised everyone to lower the Palestinian flags from atop the cars in the procession that brought Abu-As’ad home today. The secret services has cameras and they will trace the car numbers and the drivers and go after them with vengeance. It is alright to carry a Palestinian flag in your hand if you wish. But to hoist it high over your car or house is another matter. It is not illegal. But they will not put up with it. You will see!”

Things do change after all. I recall when it was legally prohibited to display the Palestinian flag in any ‘public space’ in Israel. In the late 1980s, Abed, my shopkeeper nephew, had received a present from a child who had created a heart-shaped pendant out of clay and painted it with the colors of the flag. Some one informed on him and he was put in the slammer while the prosecutor pondered the question of how public an area a man’s chest was. Abed claimed, in his own defense, that he wore the pendant under his shirt and it must have fallen out of hiding as he leaned forward to sweep the floor of his store, the very activity he was arrested while performing. He also argued that the abundant hairiness of his chest rendered its space very private indeed. Finally the police offered to release him if he would take them to the underground factory that made such jewelry. Since it was one of a kind and Abed felt that he could stand jail better than a young child, the bargain failed and he was let loose after thirty-five days of interrogation.

Abu As’ad’s father, always respectfully addressed as ‘Abu-Muhammad’, is a master plasterer cousin of mine who is married to my niece. (The few-thousand strong Kanaaneh neighborhood is one extended net of intermeshed and obligating relationships.) Abu-Muhammad has a different basis for objecting mildly to the multiplicity of flags around the neighborhood and on the main street of Arrabeh. “This is too much! Has he liberated Palestine? We all are under Israel’s rule,” he commented with a mix of pride and concern. The jailors’ treatment of his other son might have weighed on his mind. He is known to be a fearless man, and a happy go lucky one at that. He prides himself on being possibly the best Dabkeh lead-dancer in the whole of Galilee. On the occasion of Abu-As’ad’s homecoming he didn’t dance, though women did ululate and hours worth of fireworks were set off the night before. We all worry about our children, especially those under duress.

The day before, as I returned from the farmer’s market at the far edge of Arrabeh, I noticed a curious phenomenon that I had never seen before: Representatives of all four major political factions in the village -- the communist-allied Jabha, the Islamic movement, Azmi Bishara’s Tajamua’ and Abna’ el-balad -- together with a local authority worker encircled my car and shoved the same flyer through all four windows of the car at me and my sole passenger, my childhood friend Toufiq, himself a communist. Throughout my professional life I have religiously avoided identifying with any local political faction in the village. I still stick to this neutrality even in my retirement, a remnant of my own days of community activism when I assumed that political partisanship would be divisive and hence harmful to my mission of improving the community’s health. Living what I preach I have developed an obliviousness to local politics and politicians and it was Toufiq who first pointed out to me the curious phenomenon we were witnessing. He went on to interpret it with the seemingly far-fetched logic of regional politics: It is, he claimed, the copy-cat emulation of what everyone saw happening in Lebanon on the Aljazeera channel; political reconciliation and communal unity in the face of powerful manipulative outside forces.

This morning, the opening editorial of al-Ittihad, the communist party paper and the only Arabic language daily in Israel, was entitled simply ‘Abu-As’ad’. It praised and condemned, raved and ranted and ranged wide afield from praising Arrabeh’s sons’ proven heroism to condemning world-domineering colonial and Zionist forces and their evil globalization. Reading it I kept wondering which played a stronger hand in shaping its contents, ‘the Lebanon effect’ or the strong friendship of al-Ittihad’s editor with Abu-As’ad’s paternal uncle, another communist Toufiq age-mate of mine, jailed and much celebrated in our high school days for demonstrating and shouting slogans in praise of Jamal Abd-El-Nassir.

The night before Abu-Asa’ad’s release, my wife and I dropped in at his father’s diwan –guestroom-- for a cup of black coffee. Then we checked on my niece to assess how well she can take the pressure of the occasion. She struggled to her feet to greet us and hobbled over to bring fruits and cold drinks. She has thinned down considerably and her knees are the source of much pain. Still she is happy to be around to receive her firstborn son upon his release. She had thought otherwise. Shortly after her two children were incarcerated she was misdiagnosed with metastatic cancer to the bones and given only a few months to live. Fortunately it was a false alarm and she turned out to suffer only severe osteoporosis. I recall trying to comfort her when her two children were first jailed with the standard cliché that ‘jail is for men’ as distinct from children. I even added a cliché of my own that I actually do believe: “This is how Israel helps in creating Palestinian heroes.” She did not argue with me but decried her luck that she had to be the mother of two heroes not one. Now she will be praying to God five times a day to keep her alive till Husam is released.

I tell her she has to slow down a little if she wants to stay alive another six years. She is a traditional Palestinian housewife who sets herself a high standard of household cleanliness and order, of motherly and wifely duties, of village-style hosting, and of pleasantness, proper demeanor and personal attention to every well-wisher who comes calling ; she has a constant smile that never leaves her face and shines from her heart. And she has to host a crowd of several hundred people. There are many helpful neighbors and relatives, but she has to be sure everything is done right. “What would people say?” she constantly reminds herself and anyone suggesting that she should rest a little. With that she kept at her cooking and cleaning duties straight through the night. And in the morning she managed to smile and kiss and greet all relatives and well-wishers. Most importantly she managed not to collapse before her firstborn’s arrival home.

Early in the morning of May 28, tens of cars left Arrabeh to Shatta prison not far from the destroyed Palestinian town of Bissan, now Jewish Biet Shan. There, scores more must have joined them for by the time they returned it was a long car procession. Before noon I called a politically involved niece –I have scores of those too—and enquired about the expected time of the ‘Freedom Prisoner’s’ release. She contacted her daughter who was at Abu-As’ad’s house helping out with setting up the tables for the noon feast. She was in phone contact with her teenage brother at the prison’s gate and he in turn called me back to reassure me that when the procession leaves Shatta he will give me a call. By noon I joined other Kanaaneh respectables at al-Zawieh, the traditional clan guesthouse. In addition there were half a dozen guests, Druze elders from another village who had come calling in solidarity with the Kanaanehs. There is a historical alliance between our clan and theirs in Biet Jan near the Lebanese border that goes back many generations. Curiously, despite their compulsory service in the IDF and the much acclaimed blood brotherhood of the Jews and the Druze, old customs and traditional communal relationships within the Palestinian community survive and seem even to gain strength. Elders from both sides of this curious alliance have little to do with, and little appreciation for Abna’-el-Balad’s political struggle. They all are just playing their expected roles as dictated by traditions. Abna’-el-Balad’s politics are played out on the small clearing, once the ample village square fronting the guesthouse, where a crowed of several hundred youth are milling impatiently. Some of the young crowd is from the village but the majority is from other towns and villages all across the land celebrating the freeing of their leader, Abu-As’ad.

And, at long last, free he is. Cell phones break out all at the same time with a cacophony of music, local recorded songs, Nancy Ajram, calls for prayer and other ringtones; at 12 noon Abu-As’ad is released and every one at this end is being alerted by his or her representative at Shatta. I receive two calls and a recorded message announcing the news. My information chain of command is three posts deep and all three report dutifully on time: “He has seen his wife and four children; a press conference at the prison’s gate will be over soon; it will not take more than an hour before he is home.” Most importantly, the ‘groom’s’ parents have to know so that the food gets heated and the father gets a proper receiving line in order.

An hour later cell phones ring again. The procession has safely arrived at ‘al-Birkeh’- the pool- a landmark at the entrance to the village where the communal rainwater pool used to be. Everyone leaves his car at the football field there and joins the procession on foot. Over a thousand people move up the road with ‘the groom’ carried on the shoulders of his young followers. Arrabeh’s mayor struggles to maintain his proximity to the uncontested hero of the hour and to gain maximum visibility in the photo-op that has presented itself at his doorstep. The young crowd, peppered with a smattering of leftist Jews, claps energetically, waves Palestinian flags, shouts political slogans and sings nationalist songs. As the group gets close to the Kanaaneh neighborhood a couple of thugs -we have few of those too- block the traffic from all directions with their cars while a doctor is rushed to the scene to treat a diabetic cousin who ‘has burned-up his sugar’ in excitement and collapsed. Abu-Asa’ad then changes mounts and is now carried on the shoulders of relatives not political followers. Finally he dismounts and proceeds to greet the waiting crowd starting with the semi-formal receiving line of family elders.

Clearly, this last part is a traditional function cunningly used on this occasion by the Kanaaneh’s to usurp the heroism and honor of the occasion from its true owners, Abna’ El-Balad. Clan elders and some daring youth assume their respective positions in the receiving line, each physically negotiating his status and communal worth vis-à-vis that of others: Age, education, agility, attire, conformity with traditions, and blood proximity to the jailed brothers, all play into the equation. I weigh-in as third in line after Abu-As’ad’s paternal uncle and a butcher cousin of mine who has the loudest voice in town and has never abandoned the traditional Palestinian attire, two points that count in his favor. A contestant for the first position looses out, though he had donned a proper suit with a Palestinian necktie and adorned his shoulders with a Kaffiyeh for the occasion. Magnanimously, he moves to the end of the line. Mohammed bends down his tall torso, lean and well sculpted by five hours of daily exercise in jail, to be hugged and kissed three times on his hairy cheeks by each of us. Then, finally, with his huge black eyes filled with tears, he runs the last few meters home to the embrace of his indefatigable mother.

Abu-Mohammad, the father, addresses the assembled crowd with one loud ‘Tfaddalu’; Food and soft drinks are served in his front yard, first to people from outside the village, then to non-Kanaaneh village folks and finally to relatives. A separate smaller setting in the house is set aside for the women, though the liberated young eat and drink in unison. The wedding-like celebration continues throughout the daylight hours into the late evening. A similar spontaneous self-segregation ensues: Political support groups in self-contained circles crowd the square on rented plastic chairs. They compete for Abu-As’ad’s attention with the traditional will-wishers hobnobbing with the Kanaaneh elders in al-Zawieh, the classic men-only nook, and with the apolitical older women calling on his mother at the family’s home.

In the mildly intoxicating celebratory atmosphere a teacher relative of mine holds the hand of his son, also a government employee, and lets out a sigh of relief.

“I hope we two managed to stay off their screens” he addresses me, “you know uncle, we couldn’t have stayed away; he is family, one of us. Yet, with all the Palestinian flags and nationalist slogans, God only knows what consequences there will be. You know the battle Fulaneh has been fighting to keep her job since she was caught on video at a political rally with a flag in her hand. She has already been demoted.”

Reassuring them with dismissive machismo, I escape from the grip of my worried relatives to greet two old schoolmates of mine, both retired teachers. Jokingly, I raise the same topic with the two senior professionals, both having survived decades of close scrutiny by Israel’s Secret Services (aka Shin Bet). The educational system is known to be the backbone of Israel’s system of controlling its Palestinian citizens.

“Since when have we turned nationalist, for goodness sake?” I greet them with a warm handshake.

Jahshak elli faraqtu!-the same old ass” says my first friend, a refugee from the destroyed Palestinian village of Mi’ar, now Jewish Ya’ad, quoting a derogatory local saying.

“It is the Land Day effect,” says the more serious retiree. “March 30, 1976 is when we all lost our fear. No one dared speak up before that. And no one cares much about the consequences of defending our rights ever since.”

On that sobering note we all sought further sobriety by stepping in al-Zawieh, each to claim his sip of black Arabic coffee.

Delegations from all parts of the land continue to descend on Arrabeh to pay homage to our wronged and newly-released hero. Yet, and this morning’s al-Ittihad editorial not withstanding, Abu-As’ad’s is no longer Arrabeh’s top topic of conversation. It has been superseded by the Israel-Hezbollah prisoner exchange appropriately commenced with the Israeli release of a Lebanese Moslem whose mother is Jewish.

Toufiq was right; there is a Lebanon effect.