Mostly the Old City streets were empty. Birds singing, cats rustling through garbage, and my footfalls echoing on ancient stone.
Just after 6:00 a.m., I had crossed our street and entered Jerusalem’s Old City through the Damascus Gate. A few shops were preparing for the day, but most were still locked up. Israel Defense Force (IDF) personnel were out in good number, most with automatic rifles — there were perhaps ten of them at a walk-through checkpoint, looking at the ID cards of three Arab workers.
By this afternoon, the streets–which are really in size somewhere between hallways and alleys–were elbow to elbow with shoppers, cross-bearing pilgrims, every manner of merchandise, and no small sales pressure. Melons, grape-leaves and chicks in a box. Jewelry, toys and trinkets; goods of every kind. Empty in the morning, full in the afternoon.
In between the early morning and the afternoon, we had seen other versions of empty and full. Empty houses in East Jerusalem where long-time Arab families had been pried out within the last year by legal chicanery. The shells of a neighborhood, empty since 1948, when its residents were forcibly pushed out, and are still barred from returning. And full settlements–colonies, actually, masquerading as lush suburbs. A water park in the desert–pools, slides, fountains sloshing with precious resources, just up the valley from Bedouines camped beside their bulldozed homes.
And we met Osnat Skoblinski. Her parents had escaped the Soviet Union in the last century, and come to Israel as hard-line ultra-Zionists. They (rightly) saw Israel as their haven from abuse and persecution. Osnat had been raised to hold the same views, and just as strongly. But one day, she’d visited relatives in America–relations who’d never been to Israel–and an uncle had asked her, “Why does everyone there hate each other?” The question raised questions for her; it opened a gate in the walled city of her spirit. Later, friendship with a Palestinian had brought the defenses down even more; had helped her see beyond her own story.
Osnat now works for the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, Hebrew for “in the image of.” B’Tselem’s mission includes documenting human rights abuses by IDF soldiers and Israeli settlers. They give video cameras to Palestinians, meticulously verify events, and post evidence on You Tube (see for yourself). They compile data on evictions and land confiscations. They deal in data, and the implications of the information for the rights of the abused, the empty.
Though Osnat’s parents argue with her work, they have not rejected her. Though B’Tselem is accused of betraying their own country, Osnat believes they honor their land as a place of values and rights by exercising those very rights, and seeking to extend them to all. She is full of purpose.