Cover detail of "Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land"

"When the occupation is over, then I’ll allow myself to dream"

The dream was a music academy to inspire young Palestinians and keep them away from the soldiers. It came true


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Sandy Tolan
April 19, 2015 5:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land," Sandy Tolan’s book about the dream of one young musician to build a music school in the occupied West Bank. The founder, French-trained violist Ramzi Aburedwan, once a stone-throwing child of the first Palestinian intifada, opened Al Kamandjati (Arabic for “The Violinist”) in large part to “protect Palestinian children from the soldiers.” Every year Al Kamandjati serves hundreds of Palestinian children, who use music to help them navigate checkpoints and military incursions while maintaining hope for an independent state of their own.

Summer 2013

Near Hebron, West Bank

Rasha Shalalda, the young Palestinian flutist, smiled at her visitors from an open doorway, quickly beckoning them forward and up the stairs of her house in the family’s ancestral village of Sa’ir. Upstairs she directed the visitors to an overstuffed gold couch tossed with embroidered Palestinian pillows, beneath framed quotations from the Qur’an and a framed inscription in Arabic: “The heart of a mom is a flower that never dies.” She brought juice and cookies, then pulled out a photo album. Rasha flipped through pictures of her parents, of Shehada, Alá, and their sisters in younger days, and of her grand wedding in Sa’ir three years earlier. In one picture Rasha and her groom stood under a flowered arch covered with shining leaves. love story, read the caption, in English. As she turned the pages, Rasha’s son, Amir, two years old, picked up a blue toy car, dropped it, and began to stomp on it, sending bits of plastic flying across the tile floor.

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Rasha paused at photos from Italy. “I want to go back there,” she said wistfully. “The two important things in Italy were respect and freedom. Then coming back here, and looking at how things are, I wish I hadn’t gone.”

Rasha agreed to play. She retrieved her flute, pulled out sheet music from a green file folder, and taped it to a wall, at eye level: Bach’s Sonata no. 2, arranged for flute. She had learned it from her favorite Al Kamandjati flute teacher, Irena from Italy, who had been able to determine Rasha’s moods depending on how she played. “I’m out of practice,” Rasha said. Still, her notes danced; then they were long and steady.

Presently Rasha’s husband came home from his job in a nearby Israeli settlement, Ma’ale Adumim, where he worked in construction. He was one of more than twenty-six thousand Palestinians who worked in the settlements, about one third of them illegally and most for less than the Israeli minimum wage of $6.55 per hour. In their work, especially in building new settlement housing, they were helping to fuel their own dispossession. But their families had to eat. Every day, riding a van to and from the settlement, Rasha’s husband was confronted by the contrasts. “Israeli kids, they have security, parks in front of their houses. Palestinian children, they have none of that. You can’t find a house here where you don’t have one or two martyrs, one or two prisoners.” He found his work humiliating. Once, he said, a young daughter of a settler wandered into a construction site, and a co-worker gently warned her, in Arabic, to stay away. The father, armed, stormed over, screaming at the man for speaking to his child. This man was only trying to protect your girl, Rasha’s husband had explained in broken Hebrew. He would like to quit his job, but his family needs the one hundred eighty dollars per week he brings home for Rasha and Amir. So he preferred not to have his picture taken, or to have his name printed in this book.

Before the visitors left they were treated to a feast prepared by Rasha’s hand: chicken stuffed with rice and ground beef and sprinkled with pine nuts and Arabic spices; stuffed grape leaves and eggplants; hummus; fresh warm flatbread; and orange soda.

Rasha worried that her people no longer cared about the Palestinian struggle. “For sixty-five years we were under occupation, then people come and tell us to dream. We can dream if someone helps us. I want freedom. I want to go to the sea. When the occupation is over, then I’ll allow myself to dream.”

*

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On March 19, 2013, Oday Khatib, the singer who Ramzi had found in the Al Fawwar refugee camp, was arrested by Israeli soldiers, taken to Ofer Prison near Ramallah, and charged with throwing stones. Soldiers claimed that Oday was part of a group of youths hurling rocks in the camp that day. Oday and his family maintained that he was waiting for a friend on a hill in Al Fawwar, and not connected to the stone-throwing shabab. They said that Oday’s cell phone records would confirm a recent call to his friend.

For many Palestinians, throwing stones at occupying Israeli soldiers is still considered legitimate resistance to a military occupation that is nearly half a century old. Oday’s brothers had clashed repeatedly with Israeli soldiers since at least 2002, after brother Rasmi was shot in the shoulder in an Al Fawwar schoolyard and lost the use of his left arm. Yet Oday had found his resistance to the occupation in his voice. At age twenty-two, Oday, alone among his brothers, had never before been arrested. “Oday is not like any of my other sons,” his father, Jihad, told the military court when the charges were brought against his son. “He is not interested in throwing stones or getting involved in this. Since he was nine years old he was interested only in music.” Oday also maintained he would not put his budding singing career at risk by throwing stones. “I have my life and my work to worry about,” he told the court. He was one of the stars of Al Kamandjati, and had recorded and toured with various Arabic music ensembles in France, Belgium, Lebanon, Norway, Italy, Palestine, Dubai, Algeria, and Austria. In an interview, Jihad said, “For our family, Oday is the free bird. We’re the prisoners, and now he’s captured.”

Oday was charged under Section 212 of Israeli Military Order 1651, which states that anyone convicted of throwing stones “[a]t a person or property, with the intent to harm the person or property shall be sentenced to ten years imprisonment.” Children as young as fourteen could be charged under the law, according to UNICEF. The conviction rate in such military trials was 99.74 percent, or 399 of 400.

Faced with the prospect of a long prison term, Oday agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a three-month term. And so he joined the 4,700 Palestinians being held by Israel. Since 1967, an estimated 650,000 Palestinians, or forty percent of the adult male population, had spent time in an Israeli prison.

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On Oday’s first day of incarceration, a fellow inmate, learning Oday was from Al Fawwar, asked if he knew a young man, also a singer from that camp. The inmate had seen this singer on TV, in a documentary called It’s Not a Gun.

“That’s me,” Oday said, smiling.

Oday’s fellow inmates insisted he sing rather than perform daily chores in the cell block. “I tried my best to change the atmosphere of the prison and make a pleasant mood for everyone,” he said. “I started singing for them and telling them that we should pretend we were in a summer camp, not a prison, just to lighten things up.” Yet the songs were rarely happy ones.

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Once an old man came and asked Oday to sing a song about mothers. While in prison, the man’s mother had died. “I yearn for my mother’s bread,” Oday sang, from the poem by the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. “I yearn for my mother’s coffee. I yearn for my mother’s touch, and the childhood memories that grow inside me, day after day.” And he sang Haddy ya Bahar (“Calm Down, Sea”), about a sailor who implores the sea to be still; that he and his shipmates will be coming back one day, however long the journey.

After three months Oday was released. His feelings were mixed. “When all my family and friends met me at the checkpoint,” Oday said, “I told them that they did not have to do all of this. I mean I barely spent any time in prison.” He could not stop thinking about his fellow prisoners. “I feel like I am abandoning the guys,” he said. “I feel guilty. I’m ashamed for spending only three months in prison.”

Nevertheless, Oday began to make plans, starting with a birthday party for Hussein, Ramzi and Celine’s son, now four years old. He had performances scheduled in France and Dubai, and was considering entering the “Arab Idol” singing competition, which had been won by a Gazan in 2013, sparking rare jubilant celebrations across Palestine. “And to get engaged,” Oday added. “There are some plans for that.”

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*

By January 2014 Israel’s separation barrier was nearly finished. Officials announced that its last portion would go through Battir, the Palestinian village where Al Kamandjati students had performed Mozart a few summers earlier. The barrier would destroy the livelihood of most Battir villagers, whose delicate agricultural terraces, famous for their aubergines, or eggplants, have been watered by stone canals since Roman times.

The plan to build the barrier through Battir was due in part to the American-backed peace negotiations led U.S. secretary of state John Kerry. The Palestinian Authority planned to submit Battir for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site, thus slowing or even stopping the separation barrier. The bid had the backing of Israeli environmental groups and even a nearby Israeli settlement. Under American pressure, however, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed not to submit the proposal. The World Heritage application, the Palestinian delegation was told, would harm talks with Israel. It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save the peace process.

The peace negotiations collapsed anyway, even though Abbas, under pressure from the United States, had also dropped his demand for a freeze on Israeli settlements. President Obama’s attempts to secure such a freeze had long since failed. Instead, mere hours after Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Israel, pledged America’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security,” Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the construction of sixteen hundred new apartments in East Jerusalem. Now, in the negotiations with Abbas, Netanyahu had another demand, backed by the United States: to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This demand was connected to a broader issue in Israel. Israelis saw Palestinians as a “demographic threat” to the state’s Jewish identity and debated ways to increase the nation’s percentage of Jews. The foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, pressed for loyalty oaths for non-Jewish citizens and advocated moving the separation barrier to exclude Israeli Arab communities and incorporate more settlers. Yet for Abbas to accept Israel’s Jewish-state demand would amount to a denial of Palestinian history and a declaration of surrender. One of every five Israeli citizens was a Palestinian, and the roots of all four million Palestinian refugees worldwide lay in the flight and expulsion during the creation of Israel in 1948. Formal Palestinian recognition of Israel, Abbas said, had been built into previous agreements dating to Oslo’s Declaration of Principles in 1993. This new demand, Palestinians believed, was an attempt to rewrite those agreements. Abbas refused it, and the peace talks collapsed.

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As a direct result, prospects for Battir improved. The Palestinian Authority, with little to lose, submitted its proposal to UNESCO, which approved the bid in April 2014. Battir, along with the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, was now a Palestinian World Heritage site.

With new-found freedom from the demands of the United States and Israel, Abbas now inked a reconciliation pact with Hamas. The Islamic organization, severely weakened by its fractured alliances with former supporters Egypt, Syria, and Iran, appeared desperate to reach out. In the reconciliation pact it agreed to hand over power, including that of the prime minister and all major cabinet positions, to Abbas’s West Bank factions. Most significant, it pledged to recognize Israel, adhere to nonviolence, and abide by past agreements under the Oslo process. These were precisely the measures the U.S. and Israel had been demanding of Hamas. In its specifics, the unity deal was far more conciliatory than what Hamas had offered in its secret letter to George Bush in 2006.

The era of discord is over,” declared Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, standing with Fatah officials. For Palestinians, the unity pact was an effort to fight political and physical fragmentation and build toward a connected Palestine. For Israel and the West, it appeared to be a rare opportunity to seize the chance for a long-term peace.

Instead, Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the agreement, suspended the already moribund peace talks, and accused Abbas of collaborating with a “a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel.” Crushing Hamas remained a national priority.

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A few weeks later, in June 2014, three Israeli teenagers, Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah, were kidnapped while hitchhiking from Jewish seminaries in a West Bank settlement to Jerusalem. Israel quickly blamed Hamas. Hamas, often quick to claim responsibility for attacks, denied its involvement. Undeterred, Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper. More than two thousand soldiers conducted dozens of raids across the West Bank, searching twenty-two hundred homes and arresting some four hundred Palestinians, more than a third of those without charge or due process.

Most of those were Hamas members and only a small portion were interrogated about the kidnapping. Evidence suggested that the Israeli authorities knew within a day that the teens had been murdered, and that Netanyahu’s government was using the pretext of their abductions to cripple Hamas.

After eighteen days the tragedy was confirmed: The teens’ bodies were found, buried in a field near Hebron. A wave of grief and rage swept across Israel. Tens of thousands of Israelis attended the funeral, where Netanyahu declared, “May God avenge their blood.” An Israeli Facebook page, “The People of Israel Demand Revenge,” quickly garnered 35,000 “likes.” A member of the Knesset from a party in the nation’s ruling coalition posted an article by Netanyahu’s late former chief of staff, calling for the killing of “the mothers of [Palestinian] martyrs” and the demolition of their homes: “Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, declared, “You’re talking about savage actions. . . . In the case of Israel, we take legitimate actions of self-defense, and sometimes, unintentionally, Palestinian civilians are harmed.” That day Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted and murdered, his body set ablaze. This was another “price tag” attack, and it sparked furious protests in Arab East Jerusalem amid talk of a third intifada.

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In the wake of the four deaths, an American organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, unearthed a little known statistic: Since 2000, 1,384 Palestinian children had been killed by Israel’s military—an average of one every three or four days for fourteen years. “All lives are precious,” the group declared. Within weeks, hundreds more Palestinian children would be killed.

*

In response to Israel’s raids and arrests, Hamas launched rockets over the Gaza border. Israel responded with massive airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a ground invasion. The dead included nine men watching the World Cup in a Gaza beachside café, twenty-one people taking refuge in a U.N. school, four boys—cousins aged nine, ten, and eleven—playing hide-and-seek in the fishing shacks along the Mediterranean, and seventy people in the Shejaiya neighborhood, much of which was leveled by Israeli shells in an less than an hour.

Finally the two sides agreed on an apparently long-term truce. By then Israeli airstrikes had destroyed more than eighteen thousand homes and buildings, left one hundred thousand Gazans homeless, and killed more than twenty-one hundred people. Nearly three-quarters of these were civilians, by U.N. estimates, including nearly five hundred children. On the Israeli side, sixty-four soldiers and five civilians died.

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As Israel, backed by the United States, again asserted its right to defend itself and to target militants in crowded urban neighborhoods, human rights groups called for war crimes investigations.

Near the war’s end Israel declared it had successfully sealed tunnels Hamas had dug into Israel. But its attempts to crush Hamas or destroy its military capacity had failed, just as they had with Hezbollah in Lebanon eight years earlier. Nor had Israel presented compelling evidence that Hamas leaders ordered the killing of the three Israeli teens, or had known in advance of their kidnappings. A Hamas official in Turkey declared its leaders were responsible, but other experts were skeptical; more important, Israeli intelligence officials saw the operation as local, not ordered from above. In other words, evidence of Hamas leaders’ involvement in the deaths of the three teens—which Israel had cited as a central justification for its bombing of Gaza—appeared tenuous. One publication chided Israel for the “WMD of the Gaza onslaught.”

Ironically, the Palestinian unity agreement—Israel’s response to which had prompted the latest cycle of destruction and loss of life—remained intact. Despite obstacles, officials from both Fatah and Hamas pledged their determination to form a joint governing coalition, and fight the separation between Gaza and the West Bank.

Experts, meanwhile, predicted it would take years for Gazans to rebuild and recover, if they ever could.

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In the sheer amount of destruction in Gaza, Israel did, however, appear to succeed in one long-term strategic objective, which could be traced back a generation to Ariel Sharon: physically dividing Palestinians from one another and undermining any chance for Palestinian self-determination in a “viable and contiguous state.” In the midst of the Gaza war, Netanyahu had formally clarified Israel’s intentions. “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” Netanyahu stated on July 11, referring to the entire West Bank. Israel’s prime minister had formally stated what had been clear to so many for so long: Israel has no interest in a two-state solution. This was further confirmed in late summer when Israel announced the annexing of one thousand acres in the West Bank, in order to build new housing units. American officials, in typically muted diplomatic language, called Israel’s actions “counterproductive.”

*

That same summer of 2014, as Israel’s search-and-arrest operation continued across the West Bank, Ramzi decided to go forward with Al Kamandjati’s annual summer music festival and camp. Teachers were already arriving from Europe and America; Alá, Mahmoud, Muntasser, and their fellow students were rehearsing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and were excited at the prospect of performing it in Jerusalem, Haifa, and across the West Bank. Ramzi recalled the time in 2003 when he had led French musicians across Palestine in the middle of the Second Intifada. He knew the situation would never be normal, and that canceling the summer music celebrations would not make anything better. Out of respect for the hunger strike by Palestinians in Israel’s prisons, however, Ramzi invited former prisoners to speak before the evening performances. They described Israel’s “administrative detention” policy, which allows Palestinians to be jailed for months at a time without charge or due process, and which was at the heart of the hunger strike.

The musicians’ movements were even more restricted and their proximity to live fire even closer than usual. The buses carrying Al Kamandjati musicians were ordered to turn around at a checkpoint on their way to the Jerusalem performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, and the orchestra canceled a trip to Haifa; they played in Ramallah. Yet even Ramallah was not safe. After midnight, Al Kamandjati students and teachers could hear the sound of shouting and gunfire near the Manara. Israeli and Palestinian forces—“security coordination” teams sanctioned as part of the Oslo process—entered downtown Ramallah, which many people had thought was an autonomous Palestinian zone, as part of Israel’s operation against Hamas. Shabab (Palestinian youth) gathered in large numbers, yelling and pelting both Israeli personnel carriers and Palestinian security vehicles with rocks, enraged that their own policemen were aiding Israel’s army. Periodically gunfire erupted, and the young men scattered.

On the morning of June 23, Muntasser Jebrini, Al Kamandjati’s clarinet player, on summer break from his French conservatory, woke to learn that his best friend, Mohammad Mahmoud Tarifi, had been killed on the roof of a Ramallah building the night before. He had died, according to reports, after being shot by an Israeli M-16. As he lay bleeding, an ambulance was barred from entering the area; Tarifi had bled to death. He left a wife and a son, four years old. “Sorrow remains in the heart,” Muntasser wrote in a Facebook message, “and needs time to enter and end the pain.”

Celine had grown frightened, especially for Hussein, now five, and his little brother, Adam, born in December 2012. After midnight, Celine and Ramzi could hear the shouting and automatic weapons fire just down the street. It reminded Celine of her childhood in Beirut. Like her own mother twenty-five years earlier, she wanted to take the children to France, until it was safe again. For Celine, it was not only the nearness of the clashes; it was the realization that, even in semiautonomous Ramallah, “the soldiers could enter the home during the night and ransack it in front of my children, with their guns.”

“I understand,” Ramzi said. “Let’s wait for a week, and if this continues, I will take you to Jordan and put you all on a plane to Paris.” After a few more days, the clashes ended, but Celine wondered when they would begin again.

“I am really thinking of leaving in the coming years, in spite of my love for Palestine and for Al Kamandjati,” she said. “I do not want my children to be exposed to that. And I was thinking, actually, I would be doing the same as my mother did.”

*

In late June the students took refuge at the summer camp, held ten minutes outside of Ramallah in a place called Star Mountain. Ramzi came for recitals in the evening, but mostly he was in the office, strategizing over ways to build an endowment to keep Al Kamandjati afloat. The music school had broken relations with the Divan and the Barenboim-Said Foundation, and in the wake of the U.S. refusal to support the Palestinian bid for statehood, Ramzi was no longer soliciting U.S. government funds, either. He needed to find other sources of support, especially within the changing political context of Palestine.

Like many Palestinian organizations, Al Kamandjati had formally endorsed the Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) strategy as the best way to bring the reality of Israel’s long occupation, and the plight of the Palestinians, to the world. Recently the BDS campaign had claimed several major victories. In May 2013 the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking canceled a visit to a conference in Israel; the actress Scarlett Johansson was forced to resign as an Oxfam global ambassador in early 2014 when she refused to cut ties with the beverage maker SodaStream, which had a factory in the occupied territories. The boycott appeared to threaten the company’s financial health; its share price dropped by nearly a third in the first half of 2014. In June, the Presbyterian Church USA, in a controversial decision, narrowly voted to divest from Caterpillar, makers of the D9 bulldozer, and two other companies linked to profiteering from the occupation.

Supporters of BDS were encouraged to cut ties with any organization that promoted “normalization,” which BDS saw as, in many cases, well-intended efforts that brought Israelis and Palestinians together but ultimately created the illusion that all was well on the ground. These were now seen as part of a failed Oslo era of “dialogue” that led not to freedom but rather to more occupation, settlers, and restrictions on Palestinian movement. Instead, boycott supporters believed, Palestinian freedom required direct nonviolent protest and the language of economic pressure and international condemnation. It required groups to directly denounce the occupation. Ramzi had had the same discussion with Daniel for years before finally leaving the Divan Orchestra.

For Ramzi this sharpened strategy meant ending Al Kamandjati’s relationship with Apple Hill and its Playing for Peace program in New Hampshire. Ramzi himself had taken part in the program seventeen years earlier, with his triumphant performance of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor. Reluctantly, he wrote to his former viola teacher, Lenny Matczynski, now the director of Apple Hill, that he could no longer send Al Kamandjati music students to New Hampshire as long as Israelis and Palestinians played under the banner of “peace.” “Although we understand Apple Hill’s positive intention of the program,” Ramzi wrote, “we believe that it would do more harm than good.”

“I was truly sad to read your letter not just because of individual losses but because of the hopelessness Palestinians must feel,” Lenny wrote back. “We recognize and empathize with your situation, and we understand and respect your need to take a stand in whatever way you feel necessary . . . I wish you all the best and trust that Al Kamandjati is thriving. What you have accomplished is truly amazing.” In an interview later, Lenny lamented, “It is just such a shame that the benefits of programs like Apple Hill will not be available to them.”

For Ramzi it was a painful decision: It was at Apple Hill that he had first begun to dream of building a music school in Palestine. But he felt he could no longer justify sending his students to convey a message of “playing for peace” when Palestine was under siege.

*

For Palestinians not interested in taking up arms, which was the vast majority of the population, few choices remained beyond BDS and direct nonviolent protest. With the “two-state solution” nearly extinguished—in large part because of the U.S. inability or unwillingness to stop Israel’s settlement expansion—the conversation began to change. Palestinians themselves, in the Holy Land and the diaspora, debated whether a single or binational state could ever be implemented. Others advanced more experimental ideas like “parallel states,” where Palestinians and Israelis would live interspersed within the same piece of land. Still others dreamed of a broad confederation of states in a wider Middle East at peace. Increasingly, though, the word apartheid was spoken not only among Palestinians and their supporters, but by pundits and even Israeli and American leaders. The facts on the ground told the story of a single state controlled by Israel. Now the struggle focused on civil rights and international recognition. In the meantime, Palestinians argued for sumud, or steadfastness on the land. “Existence,” said the popular Palestinian slogan, “is resistance.”

For Ramzi, the tactics of resistance had changed since the day in 1988 when a photographer snapped his picture hurling a stone at an unseen soldier. But the spirit behind it was essentially the same.

We are here.


Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan is author of the international bestseller "The Lemon Tree" and "Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land." He has reported from more than 35 countries, and extensively from Native American country. He is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter: @sandy_tolan

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