Eight days in the West Bank
A Personal Account
Bernard Davies reports on a trip to the West bank in 2009
I was in the West Bank for eight full days with nine other people, including five of us from Leamington. The constant contact and indeed interaction with them clearly helped both to shape my experience in significant ways and to influence how I interpreted it.
Even so, this has been written as a very personal account – to help me recall and describe some of the most impressive moments of that experience. But I also set out to do something more: to as far as possible capture the ‘everyday-ness’ of the Palestinians’ oppression, of the injustices imposed on them and of the resilience and (non-violent and indeed creative) ways in which so many of them are responding.
To focus on the everyday in this way is of course not to suggest that much that is happening to the Palestinians isn’t dramatic and extra-ordinary: who could argue that after the Israeli assault on Gaza and in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the peace convoy in May 2010? However, I now realise that, until I went to the West Bank, those were the kind of events that largely shaped my image and understanding of Palestinians’ lives.
What being there, even for such a short time, forced into my awareness was that, in addition to the extremities of what they are going through, there are ‘ordinarinesses’ – what a friend called ‘a grinding invasiveness’ – of pressure, constraint, discomfort and especially humiliation and denial of their humanity which, separately and cumulatively, are adding deeply destructive extra dimensions to their oppression. Moreover, because it is usually ‘man bites dog’ that makes the news, these are at best only ever likely to get reported fleetingly and in superficial ways by today’s most powerful image-making media.
In what follows I have tried to do something else, too: as far as possible to let the Palestinians we met and their experience speak for themselves. In doing this, I do not start from an uncritical view of Palestinian policies or actions or of their political leaderships, Fatah or Hamas: apart from anything else, that certainly would not be a position which many Palestinians would want a visitor to adopt. At the same time, I have no illusions that my stance on what the Israelis are doing is unambiguously critical, indeed damning: why else should I use such value-laden terms as ‘oppression’ and ‘injustice’?
However, in struggling to understand how the Israeli regime operates and with what effects, it was from what our Palestinian hosts said – usually simply, credibly, un-dramatically – and from the often mundane experiences I shared with them that I learned most. As the power of the Israelis and the Palestinians’ powerlessness were so often embedded in those experience, it is those that I have tried hardest to capture.
Who were we?
A group of ten, five from Birmingham and five from Leamington Spa. Though the Leamington sub-group went as an independent initiative, four of them had close links with the Leamington and Warwick ‘Justice for Palestinians’ group set up at the time of the Gaza invasions in January 2009 and one was an active member of the local Amnesty group. Three of the Leamington group were Jewish.
Why did we go?
The ‘Leamington Five’ agreed two explicit purposes:
* To see and hear first-hand what was happening in the West Bank and then ‘bear witness’ on our return in whatever ways we could.
* To explore the need for and possibility of developing a ‘friendship link’ with a community in the West Bank.
Who guided us?
The visit was organised by the Birmingham-Ramallah Twinning Initiative which is part of the Britain-Palestine Twinning Network. In the West Bank the Ramallah Committee made all the practical arrangements and provided all the guides.
What did we do?
Though for two days three of the Leamington sub-group followed a separate programme, most of the group spent the first five days visiting Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and Qalqilya. Qalqilya is a village on the far western edge of the West Bank, on the Green Line and now completely surrounded by the Israeli ‘security wall’ – hereafter referred to as ‘the Wall’ – as it cuts deep into Palestinian territory. For our final three days, the Leamington group lived in Safa, a small village about 20 kms west of Ramallah. Our aim here was to explore whether people there might be interested in developing an on-going friendship link with Leamington-Warwick and if so how this might be achieved and with what focuses.
We’re looking for presents in the Old City of Hebron. One of our group is haggling with a store owner about the price of a scarf. The two young lads who’ve been tracking us ever since we appeared in the market insist that we buy a second and even a third wrist band in Palestinian national colours. An old man sits on a kitchen chair outside his shop watching a small child playing in the narrow street.
Casually I turn round – to find myself, two yards away, staring into the faces of five young Israeli soldiers, fully kitted up, guns at the ready, moving slowly in line. Every 10-15 yards, the last man does a 180 degree turn to check his rear, walks backwards for a few yards, then completes the turn. Life in the market carries on as if all this is – as it was – the everyday normality of occupation.
For me, during my nine days in the West Bank, that word – occupation – took on a whole new meaning. It was of course a word I knew but had never experienced first- hand. I had used it often as an abstract historical term (as in: ‘the German occupation of France 1940 to 1945’); or, in the present had often talked about Israel and ‘the occupied territories’ – a reference which, though applied unthinkingly and as if value-free, had once got me into very hot water with some Jewish relatives.
My ‘Hebron moment’ did much to change all that – to remove naïve bland neutrality from my understanding of the word. Those armed soldiers manoeuvring through the centre of a living and working community forced into my consciousness a reality which the Palestinians have lived with for over forty years. Here was naked military power, imposed on everyday lives, embedded in daily experience and activity, which ultimately communicated the message: do what we say, do what we demand – or else.
Even in the midst of this reality, such moments were needed. In the West Bank the Palestinians’ openness, friendliness and generosity as well as their determination to carry on ‘normal’ life can so easily divert the visitor’s attention from the pettiness as well as the brutality of occupation. Such distractions come thick and fast. They come, for example, as you are told repeatedly walking the streets of a small village like Safa: ‘you are welcome’. Or as the people here appear out of their houses or back rooms bearing cold fruit juice or glasses of tea or small cups of very strong coffee. Or, minutes later, as the driver stops his truck on the road to hand out pieces of fruit. Or, moving around the beautiful Arab University Al-Quds campus in Jerusalem, as one group of students after another insists on thanking you for coming. Or as the travel agent who is spending (considerable) time confirming your flights dismisses your query about paying with: ‘It’s enough that you are here’.
In fact, especially in a big and busy city like Ramallah but even sometimes in smaller communities, this normality of life can take you by surprise. Both in the centre of Ramallah and on its outskirts, ‘Western’ commercialism is everywhere – embodied not just in mobile phone shops, hi fi outlets and stores displaying the latest western fashions, but in whole estates of modern multi-story buildings housing global corporations and international NGOs. Much of this, too, can contradict Western stereotypes of a Muslim society. Most of the women on the streets and at the university do wear scarves – proudly and also, it has to be said, very attractively. But many do not, including for example the three young teenagers we meet in a youth centre in Ramallah and the older woman who guides us around the Wall which besieges the village of Qalqilya. And, certainly on the campus, the women students socialise in public with male friends – sit out on the grass; share meal tables – in the comfortable ways students anywhere in the world might do.
Nonetheless, over our nine days in the West Bank the reality of occupation, and particularly its enforcement through check points, repeatedly confront us. This starts early at the end of the first full day of our stay.
Jerusalem to Ramallah at rush hour
We arrive at the check point at 6.25 pm – at the back of a long line of cars, vans, buses and some very large trucks. The delay, it turns out, is not because vehicles are being stopped at the check point: we all eventually pass through unchecked. It is because, with traffic approaching from three main roads, two lanes through the check point itself are closed, forcing all the traffic into just one lane. We eventually make it through at 6.55 – a good night according to M, our Palestinian guide. For what in normal circumstances would be a twenty minute journey, an hour and a half would not have been unusual – something which the many Palestinian who still work or have business in Jerusalem just plan for, every day, twice a day.
Going the extra miles from Ramallah ….
We set off for Bethlehem taking a long diversion round Jerusalem to avoid its 17 check points. Our Palestinian hosts who are acting as our guides do not have passes which would allow us to use the shortest routes across the city.
… and back
An hour and a quarter after we leave Qalqilya, we are about 15 minutes from our hotel in Ramallah. It’s 4.25 pm. We go to turn off the four-lane highway towards the main road to take us directly into the city – only to find ourselves about to join a long line of stationary traffic. The driver and our Palestinian guides have a 20-second consultation as we pause in the left turn lane before crossing the central reservation. They take an instant decision – and we rejoin the main highway. One of our guides explains: “The check point is closed. It could be closed for 10 minutes or three hours – maybe it won’t re-open at all tonight. Once you’re in that line you can’t get out. It’s an extra 45 kms but it’s better to drive round it.” As we set off again, they immediately break into a traditional Palestinian song. “We always sing when we run into trouble!”.
We eventually arrive at the hotel at 5.30.
This unpredictability, this lack of control shapes so much of the Palestinians’ daily existence, as they repeatedly find themselves at the whim of an apparently indifferent but overwhelmingly powerful ‘other’. On the ground this is most often represented by what can only be described as armed teenagers in uniform who, in studiously avoiding their eyes, communicate the message: ‘I cannot, will not, treat you as human’.
We know from second-hand testimony, some of it related only too credibly to us, that the treatment many Palestinians do get is at best openly and deliberately disrespectful and demeaning, at worst physically violent. Even the ‘minor’ examples reinforce the occupation’s messages of uncertainty and powerlessness, including for example for the children who, if they miss one of Qalqilya’s gates 2- or 3-hour opening periods, may have to wait hours to get home from school. Indeed, these kinds of experience are so recurrent and so relentless that it is impossible not to conclude that they are part of a planned control strategy.
A school-teacher’s tale
A teacher we meet in a village just outside Jerusalem tells us about the young boy who fell asleep in his class recently. He explains: “Israeli army vehicles had been parked outside his house all night, making a huge amount of noise.”
We ask him: “What do you say to the children about the occupation, the Israelis?” He smiles, hesitates: as outsiders, foreigners, we are treading on sensitive territory. We may mean well, but can we be trusted? He finally says: “The children ask: ‘Why do they take our land if they have another land? Why do they attack us?’ I say: ‘Because we don’t have power. We can’t depend on others’”.
The tourists and the young Palestinian
We are on the way from Ramallah into Jerusalem. As our bus draw up to the check point, our driver mutters something like ‘tourists’ as we are waved down. We are told to pull into one of the inspection lay-bys where two Israeli soldiers – a woman and a man, guns slung across their shoulders, neither surely more than 18 or 19 – peer in through the passenger door and glance around the bus. They immediately point at M: “You?” – and then: “Pass?” He is our guide for the day because he is the only member of the Ramallah Twinning Committee – all of whom are older and in professional jobs – who has a pass to go into Jerusalem. He is taking us on this route because it is by far the quickest into the city even though, as he well knows, his pass isn’t valid for this check point.
M. offers the soldiers his health card and then his university id but they are insistent: only his pass will do. They eventually take the documents and tell him to stand outside the bus. Another soldier arrives, questions him and finally warns him not to do it again. As we set off after a 15 minute delay, we reflect that this time the word ‘tourist’ had probably been M’s best guarantee of safe passage.
Two carpenters in search of wood
We have been brought to one of the check points in the Wall surrounding Qalqilya. Here, tellingly, one of the NGOs has built a sun shelter at least 50 metres long where Palestinians can wait as they queue to get through the gate. Those who still have jobs in Israel, we are told, can arrive as early as 3 or 4 in the morning to make sure they get to work by 7 or 8.
Two young men come to the gate – actually an 8-foot high turnstile, one of five or six in the maze they must negotiate on the other side of the Wall. Our guide asks them why they are there. They are carpenters, they say, but can only buy the wood they need in Israel. One of them presses the bell. Meanwhile we go on talking to our guide, taking our photos, reading the yellow sign next to the gate which ends with the flourish: “We wish you a safe and pleasant transit. May you go in peace and return in peace”.
Twenty minutes later the two young men are still standing patiently by the gate. Nothing has moved on either side – nor, as far as we have observed, have they rung the bell again. We’re told it’s best if we leave as our presence is probably making it even less likely that the Israeli soldiers will respond. As we get back into our bus they are both still standing there, unmoved, unmoving.
Attending to official business – 1
Just as we’re leaving, an older couple arrives, also needing to pass through the gate. They show us an official-looking document written in Arabic. The owner – we think a parent – has died and they need to get the name changed on the deeds of the family house. To do this – indeed to do any ‘official’ business – Palestinians must go into Israel because none of the appropriate offices are located in the West Bank. What in most other circumstances might take a couple of hours will for this couple probably mean an all-day expedition.
Our guide adds: “I’ve just been through it myself. Each time I went to the office, my papers were never quite right or there was an extra document I didn’t have with me. It took me four separate trips, each taking a full day, and two months to get it all done.”
Attending to official business – 2
A. is in her late 20s and lives in Safa with her family. She was educated in the US, has a post-graduate degree, speaks perfect English and has a highly responsible job with an NGO in Ramallah. She dresses in the latest western fashions – well cut trouser suits for work, smart T shirts and tight jeans at home. We have searching conversations with her about marriage, family, politics, the occupation.
She tells us that recently she needed to get her US passport renewed – something that means going into Jerusalem, for which she does not have a pass. At the check point she explained her problem to the soldier (a woman) and showed herthe expired passport. The soldier responded in Hebrew, which A. does not speak. When A. didn’t understand – it turned out the soldier was telling her to hold up her passport to the window so she could see it – someone in the queue translated for her. The soldier was then crushingly patronising, sarcastic: “So what’s not to understand”.
A. comments: “If that glass window hadn’t been there I could easily have hit her.” And then, referring to an incident at a Jerusalem checkpoint a few days before (described below), she adds: “I can really understand why that girl ended up stabbing the soldier”.
Though leaving deep emotional scars and often weighing heavily as a worry and a persisting pressure in the lives of those who must negotiate them, such experiences pale in significance alongside others recounted to us. We were at the Al-Quds University being guided round the Abu Jihad Museum for Prisoner Movement – a vivid and moving history, told in pictures, maps and physical objects made by the prisoners as well as in text, of decades of Israeli imprisonment, physical and mental mistreatment and straightforward torture of Palestinians. Dr L., a medical consultant in his early thirties who we’d met in Abu Dis earlier in the day was with us. One of our group asked him if he had ever been ‘detained’ by the Israelis. The tone and manner of his reply betrayed no anger or bitterness – but did the eyes harden as he told his story?
Up to the neck in trouble
L. was arrested when he was 14 and kept in a cell 3 metres by 3 metres for 18 days. For 3 days, except for food being pushed through a hatch in his cell door, he had no contact with anyone.
“It was a relief when they finally took me for interrogation.”
During the time he was detained he was beaten, tortured. One technique was to place his neck on the top of the back of a chair. “Every time an Israeli soldier went passed, they hit me hard on the top of the head.”
As we drove away from the campus, we asked M, our Jerusalem guide, whether he had ever been arrested by the Israelis. Twice, he said, in his early teens. Once for two nights, once for 8 months. Unprompted, very quietly he added: ‘They really hurt me’ – a personal account mirrored by the more general one given us by the Director of Friendship House in Abu-Dis:
Half of the class of 35 final year students in Abu-Dis are in Israeli jails – young people (including 13/14 year olds). Sometimes they are taken from their beds in middle of the night, usually for stone throwing. They have no access to lawyers but are interrogated, in Hebrew, which few of them speak. They are put under pressure to name friends which often means others being arrested. They may be forced to sign confessions – again in Hebrew.
The nearest we came personally to experiencing any of this was in Safa. The background was a confrontation four of five days before between Palestinians and the Israeli army at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Though we remained unclear and indeed confused about exactly what had happened, some of our Palestinian hosts talked of an overnight occupation of the mosque by Palestinians to head off a threatened attempt by Israeli ultra-orthodox religious groups to take it over and start digging inside it for important Jewish artefacts which they believed were buried underneath it. The Israeli army had surrounded the mosque and at some stage opened fire, injuring a number of Palestinians.
In an attempt to reach the mosque, a young woman from Safa, Samood Yasser, had tried to get into Jerusalem through the Kalandia check point. According to one internet news report, after being kept waiting for hours she had snapped and stabbed an Israeli soldier with a Swiss army knife – seriously enough for him still to be in hospital some days later. She was now in an Israeli ‘detention facility’. (It was to this incident that A. was referring, above). Every day since, the Israeli army had come into Safa to question and harass the girl’s family – including, we were told, warning them that they could expect their house to be bulldozed within the month.
Within our first few hours in Safa and shortly after a demonstration by some 50 or 60 school children, the army returned to the village. Though at the time we were at K’s house, very close to the village centre, within minutes we had been whisked out of the village on the pretext that we must see some of the other villages around. As we left we were aware that the young men were already out on the streets throwing stones. And as we stood on high ground overlooking the village we could hear small explosions (?gas shells) and could see a plume of smoke which, we discovered later, were from tyres which had been set alight by the young men to alert other villages that the Israeli army was on the move. Though the information was far from specific, the word on the street later that day was that at least two young men had been ‘taken’.
This Safa confrontation had clear origins. However, especially now that the Wall has brought greatly increased and increasingly sophisticated electronic surveillance, much of the occupation’s military intrusion into Palestinian life is endemic. On two quite separate occasions – in Qalqilya and while we were some 300-400 metres away on a hilltop outside Safa – within 20 minutes of our appearance to view the Wall Israeli army vehicles appeared. In both cases we were told that if we didn’t get out of sight the Israeli army was likely come into the village. And – again in the name of ‘security’ – as we moved around the countryside time and time again we were confronted with decimated olive groves – acre after acre of tree stumps: centuries of growth felled in a moment.
4. The Wall
The Wall – often matter-of-factly referred to by the Palestinians as the ‘Apartheid’ Wall – is: a towering, brutal symbol of Israeli power. It enshrines their depersonalised view of Palestinians as well causing devastating material consequences. Its approved length is 720 kms (480 miles) and in places is most implacably made up of concrete blocks standing on end eight metres high, peppered with cameras and with observation towers at regular intervals. For most of its length, it suddenly converts into an electrified chain fence – in part, the Palestinians believe, because this will make for easy deconstruction and reconstruction if the Israelis decided it was to their advantage to adjust its line.
Some of the hidden injuries of the Wall stem not just from the fact of its being there but from the actual process of its construction. In Qalqilya, for example, while it was being built the village was under curfew for 18 months, with residents not being allowed to move around in their cars. In Qalqilya, too, it blocked the flow of sewage out of the village into the treatment plant on the Israeli side, making the school unusable for many months, and necessitating what sounded like political intervention at the highest, possibly international, level.
The Israelis’ public and political justification for the Wall is of course security – particularly the prevention of suicide bombers getting into Israel. I am in no position to judge how effective it has been in achieving that aim. I do wonder, though, whether (for me welcome) changes in political tactics and strategies on the Palestinian side may not have been as important in reducing the number of bombings as such a long physical barrier which is still not complete and which, surely, would offer enough weak links for a determined enemy with violent intentions to penetrate.
What is unmissable to even a casual visitor is the Wall’s role in seizing land and water and in so disrupting the essentials of daily life for the Palestinians that, the Israelis might hope, they will eventually give up and even go away. Moreover, in actually seeing how the Wall has been positioned, you do not have to be a conspiracy-theorist to conclude that these pressures – practical and psychological – are much more than unintended consequences. How could they not be part of a larger strategy aimed at squeezing the Palestinians’ hold on their land as hard as possible? Indeed, a map of the Wall all but gives this away as the line marking it out repeatedly snakes into and around what has long been Palestinian territory.
Such a strategy and its results have a substantial back story, of course.
We meet B. in a flourishing community centre in Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem now all but cut off from the city by the Wall. He talks of the blanket curfew imposed in 1967 and of Palestinians being given i.ds. which from then on permitted them to live only in the area where they were that night. According to B. 15,000 people found themselves on one side of this new line, 10,000 on the other. Some 800 families were divided – husbands from wives, parents from children, siblings from siblings. He tells us:
“Since then I’ve lived in Abu Dis with my two sons. My wife and daughter have lived in Jerusalem. We’ve had visits occasionally, months apart. We’re now divorced.”
This history has taken a huge toll of rural life, too. Qalqilya lost its richest agricultural land in 1948. From our hill-top vantage point outside Safa we looked out on two huge settlements built on Safa land long before the Wall arrived – a loss of a third of its cultivated land.
The construction of the Wall has meant further losses of land and sources of water for the Palestinians – to say nothing of extensive and permanent damage and loss to an archaeological heritage going back over four millennia. Another 4300 dunum of Safa land have gone (430 hectares or over 1000 acres – 30% of the total area of the village). This includes hundreds of historic terraces damaged or abandoned and hundreds of olive groves uprooted. For one of our Safa guides looking down and across the Wall this represented 10 acres lost; for another, family groves visible in the distance but now inaccessible.
Where Safa farmers are still allowed to farm beyond the Wall – no vehicles or donkeys permitted – they have to be at the check point by 9 am. Though they may then take an hour or more to reach their fields, they must be back at the check point by 5 pm sharp or spend hours trying to get the Israeli soldiers to re-open the gate. They are also constantly at risk of being attacked by settlers – or harassed by the Israeli army. As F., one of our Safa guides, told us: “My cousin was arrested two days ago for working on land too close to the Wall”.
The result of the loss of this land is the decimation of a local economy overwhelmingly reliant on farming. Up to 60% of Safa young people, including the young women, apparently go to university. However, in a village where 65% are under 18, for the other 40% there is little or nothing – including, so far as we could understand, few opportunities to train in technical and practical skills which, the state of even wealthy houses suggests, are urgently needed.
‘We have no power’
As we walk through Safa we meet the imam with three young men in the centre of the village. They are sweeping the road outside the mosque. One of the young men says:
‘The Israelis won’t let us go into Israel to work. We’ve nothing to do – only clean up the village. We finish at 12 – then what do we do?’
“Israelis have the power. We have no power to change anything. We have no work – but we try to live”.
The Palestinian response is far from one of mere victim. In Safa we find competing grocery stores in people’s front rooms. We also meet members of a women’s group making traditionally embroidered clothes, bags and other items for sale. Some of them are also part of a women’s bee-keepers’ collective. K. has previously described Safa to us as “a ‘left’ village – not Islamic. Most of the men only go to the mosque on Fridays. The girls aren’t under pressure to wear the scarf – young people in other villages call Safa Paris!” The women we meet confirm that “we feeling more free” and talk of themselves as:
“… more productive than past generations. We are not just at home with the family”.
But they do add:
“We need to do more … we need more financial support”.
And they ask us what we think of their chances of starting a pottery-making business.
We hear – and see the evidence of – parallel struggles in Qalqilya. This has long been an important market centre for over 50 villages to which people have come to get jobs. But not any more. Over the last decade, the movement has been in the opposite direction. Some 5000, mainly young people, have left, mostly for Ramallah – about 10% of the population. On what is now the edge of the village, we stand 10 metres from the Wall as it cuts across what five years ago, we are told, was the main road to the Israeli city of Kfar Saba. Then part of Qalqilya’s main street – busy with shops and restaurants and a vibrant commercial life – what we now survey is desolation: a road surface broken and untended, debris strewn around, weeds growing at the edges of the road and over the surrounding field, the nearest buildings a small block of houses some 50 metres from the Wall. One of these, we gather, is under threat of demolition if the residents use its top story or its roof because they give a view over the Wall. Our movement around the village is along poorly maintained country lanes which provocatively tunnel under modern surfaced roads and even four-lane highways reserved only for Israelis – particularly the settlers in the developments all around the village.
Our land – my identity
We are standing next to the Wall which completely surrounds Qalqilya and which at this point is a fence. Five metres on the other side are two water pumps.
Our guide R. – a passionate, energetic woman who speaks very good English – explains that Qalqilya farmers can’t use this gate to get to the greenhouses which we are looking at just twenty or thirty metres away behind a row of military buildings: it is there for easy access into the village for the Israeli army. Instead the farmers have to drive for 45 minutes and pass through three check points. Some 300-400 metres beyond the greenhouses we can just make out a grove of trees.
Suddenly R’s voice drops almost to a whisper and we realise, silently, she is crying. She points to the groves:
“Those are my father’s. He hasn’t been able to go there for five years, since they built the Wall… Many years ago he started by selling his oranges in the village. Eventually, he was exporting them to Jordan. Now we buy our oranges in the souk. The farmers who work near his land say the trees are all going bad.”
Finally she adds: “That is our land. It is part of us, who we are.”
In Safa we were given identical messages. K, one of our hosts and guides, told us:
“What holds us is the land. And not just the land for farming. Our house – our family house”.
H., a successful businessman in the US who returns to Safa for six months of the year, quite independently confirmed this:
“Life is not about making money. It is about our land”.
Nor, as the Qalqilya example above hints, has the Wall been an excuse and a means only for the Israelis to take more land. If anything, asserting control over the water supply has for them been an even higher priority – not least because, as Amnesty has reported, each Israeli uses 4 times as much water as each Palestinian and, for watering lawns and flower beds and filling swimming pools as well as for essential purposes, each settler uses 20 times as much.
To meet such ‘needs’, the Israelis are now digging wells much deeper than the Palestinians ever did. This does not just threaten sources which are irreplaceable. It has also greatly increased the salination in the soil so that in many places it is no longer possible for the Palestinians to grow citrus fruits – historically, of course, one of their staple crops. They now also have to pay the Israelis for water – their own water – delivered at best twice a week and stored in the black water butts which sit atop every Palestinian house.
In both Qalqilya and Abu Dis we were given almost identical accounts of the Wall’s impact on health provision, especially in emergencies. Permission – often delayed for hours; since 2002 increasingly withheld – is now needed in advance before an ambulance can even approach a check point. (In Qalqilya crossing are not allowed at all after midnight). Young soldiers with no medical training are making life-and-death decisions on whether a seriously ill patient or a woman about to give birth can go on. At the Abu Dis check point, where three babies have been born while waiting to cross, patients have to be transferred to Israeli ambulances because Palestinian ambulances are not allowed into Israeli and parents have been stopped from going with their child to hospital. In Qalqilya (as elsewhere) a number of deaths at the check point have been recorded of women and/or their children. What had previously been a 20 minute journey to hospital now involves a 45 minute drive to Nablus or Ramallah.
In response, in both communities, locally-based emergency services have been developed. As some of our group witnessed in Ramallah, cohorts of young women are being trained as village health workers to give on-the spot treatment.. In Qalqilya a mobile health team serves the poorest members of the community and local people are being trained in safe home deliveries while in Abu Dis a specialist clinic to care for the 800 diabetics who are 80-plus has been set up. Here we also met one of the organisers of a programme for training hundreds of young Palestinians in non-violence, including first aid.
Abu Dis is in a special, not to say peculiar, position. Because it is a suburb of Jerusalem it is still treated as part of the city and so not recognised by politicians on either side as a village in own right. Yet, under military authority which exercises virtually untrammelled power, it is now completely cut in two by the Wall which at one point offers the dramatic spectacle of its giant concrete structure winding down the centre of a side street. (Qalqilya offers similar sights). This leaves former neighbours, even perhaps family members and friends, hours rather than minutes apart. It also leaves workers cut off from their jobs and students from their university.
5. Settlers and settlements
We are in a café on the main market street of the old city of Hebron. A Palestinian man in this 30s comes in and, saying nothing, sits down by the door. He is obviously well known to those running the café. One of his sons, age2½ has been blinded, we are told, by acid thrown by settlers from their houses above the market onto the street below. His two other children are also ill, traumatised.
Like the Wall, and not unconnected, settlements are everywhere, their residents heavily subsidised by the Israeli government. As you drive around the country, they top one hill after another – huge modern housing developments with all mod cons and usually the full array of community facilities.
However, because Hebron is seen by fundamentalist Jews as a crucial historical and Biblical site, some 600 settlers have here come into the very heart of a community of 170,000 Palestinians. Though armed themselves, they are protected by 2000 Israeli soldiers – marked most starkly by the watch tower high above the narrow entrance to the souk. The settlers have thus been allowed – indeed encouraged – to take over (and even build on) the houses and apartment blocks which directly overlook the market, forcing out most of the Palestinians. Side streets were still closed and many shops still shuttered when we visited though, with support from the Palestinian Authority, some had reopened. Trade however was obviously very slow and – other than our group of ten – the tourists who in the past would have been a mainstay of Hebron’s economy were nowhere to be seen.
Here as elsewhere Israeli pressure on the Palestinians – both by the settlers and the army – has on many occasions been violent, not least when in February 1994 Baruch Goldstone, a Jewish American Zionist, attacked the Ibrahimi Mosque which stands at the end of the market area. Now apparently regarded as a hero by the settlers, on that day he killed 29 Palestinians praying in the space in which we sat to hear an account of what happened from one of our Palestinians guides. However, even without such overt life-threatening events, the relentlessness of the Israelis’ and especially the settlers’ aggressive presence cannot be overestimated. For evidence of this, you only have to look upwards as you walk through the market street – at the wire netting erected by the Palestinians to catch the detritus constantly throw down on them by the settlers: not just rocks and other dangerous objectives and ordinary rubbish but urine, faeces – and sometimes acid.
Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem
According to a Ma’An News Agency release on 2 December 2009, in 2008 Israel’s Interior Ministry stripped 4,577 Palestinians of their right to live in East Jerusalem, an all time record in 42 years of occupation. This was 21 times the average of the previous 40 years. The result, according to Jerusalem lawyer Usama Al-Halabi, was that “every Palestinian with Israeli identity has no real rights to life in Jerusalem. Israel can confiscate the identity at any time”.
Pitching camp in an East Jerusalem street
We meet women, children and an older man outside their tent on the pavement directly opposite the house where they – ten Palestinian families in all – had lived in for some fifty years. (All the younger men have been moved away – they were at too great a risk of being arrested by the Israeli police.) Some of the Palestinian families’ possessions – furniture, bedding, a child’s teddy bear – are stacked in a neighbour’s garden opposite. Now they use plastic chairs and tables, draw water from a butt, cook on a camping stove.
Their house is now occupied by four settler families. Two of the women members of our group go to talk to one of the new occupants who is standing at the door of the house, impassively surveying what is happening on the street. Why have they thrown these families onto the street, they ask:
‘Because they had stolen the house’.
One of the women tells him:
‘My relatives did not die in the Holocaust so that Jews could do this to other people’.
‘You’re just Arab lovers’.
The other woman says:
‘You know the eyes of the world are watching you. When we go back to England we will tell people what you are doing’.
‘You can go back to England and tell your Elizabeth to shove it up her …’ – the last words of a man who had started the conversation by claiming he spoke very little English.
Who will be next?
We are invited into the garden of the neighbour opposite – by an 85 year old woman and her daughter in her sixties. Four families live here in two connected houses – some 14 people.
The older woman came from Haifa at the time of Nakba and has lived in the house for over 50 years. She’s been paying the Israeli government 850 shekels a month to, as she thought, secure her right to stay in the property. Now she has had an order to leave within 21 days so that one of the houses can to be handed over to Israelis. She shows us the one page document, written entirely in Hebrew – a language she can’t read or speak. Documents, she tells our guide, are often mistranslated anyway.
She is feisty, still fighting and has a lawyer but, she says, she’s too poor to afford a proper defence.
We’re joined by a man in 50’s who speaks good English. He too has had a notice of eviction from his family home which houses 4 families. He points to one of the imposing three-or four-storey buildings on the hill above us. His document is 12 pages long and also in Hebrew. M, our guide who speaks Hebrew, tells us it lists 25 ‘reasons’ why he is no longer entitled to live there – amongst them ‘inadequate electricity supply’; ‘bad water’ and no building licence. He too has been paying a charge to the government: initially 250 shekels, now 600 shekels a month.
Earlier we had talked with a young Dutch woman, there on behalf of an NGO. With a friend she had slept with the family in their tent the night before because they’d had word that this (again) was to be taken down and confiscated by the Israeli police and the family forced to leave. By the time we return to the street, the situation has changed dramatically.
In defence of the evicted
What we later learn is part of a previously planned day of action and support for the family has attracted 50 or 60 people, many from abroad. Israeli police in five cars and vans have also now appeared. At first they just try to hold the demonstrators back, away from the occupied house, near the tent. Then, we gather from our guide, they are warning them that if they don’t disperse they will be arrested and foreigners’ passports confiscated. When some of the demonstrators continue to remonstrate, press forward, take photos and a foreign journalist continues to film, the police bundle four or five people into vans. They include a middle aged man wearing a white kapel who resists, gesticulating and shouting. (We are told later he is a French rabbi from a rabbi’s peace group.)
While all this is going on we see the young Dutch woman and her colleague creeping away from the action. First they hide behind a parked car before disappearing round a corner – no doubt to continue the struggle another day.
Though one of our group has to be rescued from too close an encounter with the police, we sit it out in our bus. We have come, we remind ourselves later, to bear witness.
Despite the image conveyed by so much media coverage, we encountered examples of a long and strong non-violent political tradition within Palestine which in new forms continues the struggle against the occupation.
As we walk the streets of Safa, a old woman comes out of her house to talk to us. She tells us:
“We are good people. We like to live in peace with our neighbours but the Israelis come in every day to destroy our houses. We should not have to face tanks.”
She insists we take a picture of her with the women in our group.
In the Handala Cultural Centre in Safa we meet P., a former mayor, who is now 72. He was born in the village where his father was a teacher and his family owned land. Five dunams of this was lost in 1948 and another 5 dunams in 1969. What was left was too infertile to farm.
P. himself moved from teaching into electrical engineering where he built up a long track record as a trade union activitist. Eventually elected leader of the electricians’ union based in Ramallah, he later became leader of the national union for construction and public sector workers and a member of the Palestinian equivalent of the TUC.
In 1967 he was imprisoned for 3 years without trial by the Israelis for his political activities. The Israeli government eventually deported him in 1970 – in effect exiled him to Jordan. Twenty five years later he and his family won the right to return to Palestine through the courts.
He has served as a member of the local Safa Council for 4 years as an independent, based not on a party affiliation but on his trade union and community activities. He is still, he tells us, ‘standing beside’ the women.
Of the 9 members of the current Safa Council, two are from Hamas and the rest are described as ‘secular – representatives of what appeared to be a strategically formed alliance of Fatah and a range of local community groups. At national level, our (middle aged, middle class, well educated, professionally employed) Palestinian hosts often indicated support for Al Mubadara, the Palestine National Initiative. Committed to non-violence, against expectations and the odds this got nearly 20% of the vote at the last Presidential election.
The analysis of one our hosts in Safa of the political malaise affecting Palestinian society was that it lacked ‘a collective vision’. He pointed to people needing to decide which Fatah or Hamas school or youth club (or indeed community/cultural centre) their children should attend. He also implied an over-dependence on NGOs arriving in villages like Safa with pre-designed funded programmes and talked, still, of the family as being seen the main ‘social service’. Most often however, though usually expressed in passing and therefore rarely spelt out in detail, amongst many of the Palestinians we met the most striking political responses seemed to be indifference tipping over into contempt, in particular for Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah President of the Palestinian Authority.
In fact overall, in searching to escape media-imposed stereotypes, it was difficult to get a well focused picture of the current political scene. What did become clearer was the absence of strong and reliable administrative and governmental infra-structures, whether for providing driving tests for new young drivers, dealing with local petty crime or just clearing rubbish from the streets.
Here, it seemed, as in so many areas of daily life, Palestinians in the West Bank are caught between the heavy and relentlessly intrusively grinding military pressure of the Israelis – and a vacuum.