August 10, 2010
Hummus and Whiplash in Ramallah with Bassem Eid
It was the best hummus I’ve ever tasted. It came in a bowl, drenched in olive oil, with a few small garbanzos and shreds of parsley and hot green peppers sprinkled on top, and just the right amount of lemon juice. The elderly Palestinian man had made the hummus from scratch and served it to us with a salad plate, a bowl of falafels and a tall stack of hot pitas for just under 8 shekels.
I was eating in a refugee camp in Ramallah with Bassem Eid, the founder and director of an NGO called Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. We ate at this hole in the wall off a skinny alleyway nestled in a labyrinth of ramshackle houses, tiny grocery stores and one little mosque, with a U.N. mini-truck riding around the alleyways picking up random garbage.
Outside the camp was a different story. Ramallah is a happening city with construction everywhere and a sea of people lining the sidewalks of boulevards teeming with commerce. Eid, it seems, knew every street.
I met him the way I’ve met a lot of people in Jerusalem — one meeting leading to another. In this case, I was having dinner in Jerusalem with my friend Hillel Neuer and professor Irwin Cotler, a Canadian Member of Parliament and a well-known human rights activist. We were talking about the many human rights NGOs in Israel, and I mentioned that we rarely hear about NGOs that monitor Palestinian society.
At which point the professor exclaimed: “Oh, you must meet my friend Bassem Eid!”
The next day, I was at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem surrounded by foreign correspondents wearing crumpled linen — it could have been a movie set right out of “Lawrence of Arabia” — having one coffee after another with my new best friend, the chain-smoking Eid.
For Israel-lovers tired of seeing Israel get beaten up by the world press, Eid is your dream come true. I sat listening to him for hours in scorching heat, and I didn’t want to leave.
It’s not that Eid isn’t loyal to the Palestinian cause. He is. It’s just that he’s a fine practitioner of that popular Jewish sport we call tough love. He puts a large part of the blame for the plight of the Palestinians on the Palestinians.
As much as he loves peace, he hates violence even more.
In fact, had he been running the Palestinian Authority 10 years ago, when Ariel Sharon made his provocative visit to the Temple Mount — allegedly triggering the Second Intifada — there probably never would have been a Second Intifada.
“I would have received him at the Temple Mount with honor,” Eid told me. “I would have had 10 prominent Palestinian personalities receive him and explain to him how holy the Temple Mount is to us and give him a sightseeing tour.”
In other words, he would have provoked Sharon right back, but not with violence; never with violence.
He thinks the extraordinary violence of the Second Intifada killed more than people. It killed the Palestinian cause, which has become, he says, a “profitable enterprise for the people on top.” Because Arafat chose violence even in the face of Ehud Barak’s peace offer at Camp David, Eid doesn’t see trust being rebuilt or peace breaking out for at least a generation.
So he immerses himself in the only arena he knows: human rights. He worked with the Israeli NGO Betselem for many years before starting his own NGO about 15 years ago, because, he says, “I didn’t see too many NGOs criticizing my people and holding them to account.”
He started to document cases of financial corruption and torture inside the Palestinian Authority and, along the way, was arrested once and has been routinely defamed and slandered as an “Israeli collaborator.” About seven years ago, to get away from the pressure he was feeling in his hometown of East Jerusalem, he moved his family to Jericho.
As we drove through Ramallah the other day, it was hard to make sense of it all. For every sign of hope I saw — like busy people on busy streets looking like they love life — there were the forlorn looks on some of the faces in the refugee camp.
For every building with a sign of hope — like the one for the Sartawi Center for the Advancement of Peace and Democracy — there was a large poster promoting “One Indivisible Struggle for Palestinian Return” by a committee to commemorate the Nakba.
When we sat down for our homemade hummus, the whiplash continued. Eid reminisced about the good old days before the two intifadas, when thousands of Israelis would visit Ramallah on weekends to taste the hummus and contribute to the local economy. The sound of those words tasted too good.
On a whim, I asked Eid to ask the old man making the hummus if he’d like to see Jews from Israel visit his restaurant and give him more business.
“Jews are forbidden here,” the old man replied in Arabic, and, for the first time all day, it occurred to me that I was glad I wasn’t wearing my kippah.