Palestine

Review: Palestine Expo London (The Biggest Palestine Event in Europe)

All walks of life came together last weekend at Palestine Expo held in the heart of London. Organised by the UK non-profit organisation Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA) it was the debut of the largest event of its kind in Europe. Two days of celebrating Palestinian heritage and culture but also more importantly to acknowledge and discuss the effects of the severe military occupation and apartheid Palestine is currently forcibly under by the Israeli military, and has been for several years.  With over 15,000 attendees of diverse backgrounds, this event was clearly a huge success.

It felt extra special to be hosted in the heart of London at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, over five floors of panel discussions, speeches on human rights in Palestine, music, dance, food and activities, there was something for all the family. Only a stone throw from the Houses of Parliament it was also ironic as this year marks 100 years since the Balfour declaration, but also a reminder that governing bodies do not always represent the people they stand for.

There was a long list of brilliant internationally renowned guest speakers who each gave very moving talks of their own personal experiences backed up with factual information. On a very complex and layered issue. I liked how each talk addressed something specific and was very focused on a particular area. I learnt a lot. Something new for me was hearing how illegal settlements are often funded by charitable organisations who may not declare where their funds are going. It was also very heart warming to see all the lecture rooms so full, people had to end up standing at the back or sitting on the floor. Some of the many topics covered included, ‘Women of Occupation’, ‘The origins of Zionism’, ‘Why Jews for Justice for Palestinians’ and ‘Gaza: 10 years of Israeli siege’. There were also a few talks on what we can do in terms of activism to support Palestinians and specific advice for student groups.

Iyad Burnat, who leads the ‘Friends for Freedom in Bil’in’ and ‘Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall’ gave a very emotional talk. I had been humbled to visited him home a few months ago during my stay in Palestine so I was somewhat aware of the crushing occupation he has to endure on a daily basis. He told us every time he leaves Palestine for his activism work the Israeli military attack his family home and five children in the village of Bil’in, they have been attacked over 20 times. On his recent trip to New York to speak at the United Nations, Iyad’s son was shot multiple times and whilst he was receiving treatment he was arrested so his healing was disrupted. It was a very powerful talk which had us all wondering about his family’s safety at that moment he was in London to talk to us. This is a well known tactic of the occupation, where families especially the children of activists are targeted so they do not speak out of fear of intimidation. I have much respect for him knowing his family are in danger but the importance of his travel around the world to speak his truth, which is often manipulated by the media as a form of ‘terrorism’.  His talk was followed by a standing ovation, it was extremely moving.

Another speaker who made it hard to hold back tears was Malaka Mohammed, running from talk to talk. A student originally from Gaza spoke about her everyday experience of growing up under the occupation where the sounds of warplanes and drones is just background noise to the children and the difficulties of trying to leave Gaza to pursue an education in the UK. Obstacles included closed border crossings, military harassment and having to apply for multiple visas. The Rafah border is only open once or twice a month and on the day Malaka tried to cross the military decided to not allow any students to cross, despite this Malaka was determined to try and formed a student protest at the border where the military then allowed only 30 students to cross, at first Malaka’s name was not called, but as a stroke of luck the last person called was not present and Malaka’s was allowed to cross as the last person. Having made it to Sheffield university, Malaka then spoke about the resentment she has faced living here being accused of anti-semitism for speaking out against injustices to Palestinians and her family. Of course speaking out for human rights does not make you anti-Semitic, but this is yet another tactic employed by the pro-Zionist lobby. Despite facing continued difficulties, Malaka said she felt privileged to now be in the UK and is determined not to give up her activism work, her strength and courage is such an inspiration and she is a strong role model for women everywhere. Much respect.

The cultural side of Palestine was not forgotten, as the occupation also tries to deny Palestine as has culture of it’s own. The group ‘Fursaan’ who performed a traditional Palestinian dance known as, Dubka was so full, the performance was interrupted when one of the staff came to ask those standing to leave the room due to health and safety issues as there was too much overcrowding and the performance had to be repeated so everyone could get a chance to see it.

There was also a floor of a market place with a vast array of Palestinian and middle eastern goods for sale, Kuffiayehs, dates, Oud, modest clothing, literature and of course halal sweets for the kids. Here you could find many human rights organisations and charities supporting Palestine, such as Interpal, and Stop the War Coalition, Mercy Mission as well as groups organising trips for tree planting and the holy pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa. There were many independent businesses selling their goods. One of the my favourites from the market place was the jewellery made out of olive wood from Bethlehem. Unique designs it’s a wonderful way to stand in solidarity with Palestine and dorn something beautiful.

 

I also bought a box of the ‘Holy Dates’, dates from Jericho where profits go towards building orphanages in Jerusalem. These dates are not only delicious but also money going towards a good cause. I stopped here to discuss our experiences of traveling to Palestine with one of the stall holders as I noticed his, ‘Straight outta Palestine’ hoodie. Fragrance of the falafel was enough to entice anyone to join the long queue for something to eat in the food court.

The evening saw a sold out performance by the first lady of Hip Hop Shadia Mansour who is Palestinian herself and comedian Aamer Rahman.

Surprisingly there wasn’t an overwhelming police presence which I feel would have overshadowed the event. Everyone was very friendly as we were all here for the same reason, it was easy to exchange a smile and start a conversation. All in all I felt there was a very pleasant atmosphere of positivity and good vibes.

This event went ahead, despite efforts from various hate groups with false allegations and slander, that this event was preaching anti-Semitic content, several of the speakers were in fact themselves Jewish, as were some of the exhibit holders. This is a clever tactic often used by the pro-Zionist lobby, I spoke to the handful (less than 6) protesters outside the huge event to inquire about their feelings on the event and surprisingly they told me they would be open to attend themselves if it wasn’t for certain speakers when I asked whom, they handed me a leaflet of ‘quotes’ clearly misquoted and taken out of context. There definitely seemed to be a misunderstanding of what the event was actually about, but with the lack of support for the opposing side showed to me the understanding of the truth is far greater and growing. The Palestine Expo was in fact a very enjoyable, positive and uplifting experience.

It was very reassuring to see such a massive turnout of a variety of people interested in what’s going on. This event can only grow, I am already looking forward to the next one. Much love to Friends of Al Aqsa and all the organizers! The road to justice is never easy. To all those who say I can’t make a difference or I can’t change things, WE can — this event went ahead despite various efforts to have it shut down and slandered with false allegations, and that IS progress, resistance and HOPE. The take home message for me from this event especially after seeing the diversity of the discussion panel was not to be afraid to stand up and speak out, our voices together can amplify the urgent need for justice and eventually we will be heard.

Advertisements
Palestine

Jerusalem – Segregation in the Holy Land

Jerusalem – one of the oldest and holiest cities on Earth, important to three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but recognized by everyone. It’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Home to Temple Mount, Western Wall, Al-Asqa Mosque, Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The atmosphere is spiritual, walking the streets where the prophets walked felt very special, you could feel the ancient history in every stone but you could also feel the tension and pain in this troubled city.

Israeli soldiers by the Western Wall

There are many monks and pilgrims walking among military soldiers and police forces. The tragic irony, it’s history of persecution and now the persecution of it’s people hits very hard. In various news reports you hear about the violence and unrest in this holy city, the environment is unstable, yet I feel it’s beauty and peace as I walk the cobbled roads. I know I am very lucky to be here and I’m very grateful, it’s something you will never feel unless you are truly there yourself. There are various gates to enter the city, I was worried about finding the right one for where I wanted to go but people are on hand to  give me all the information I need as well as the city being sign posted very clearly, they are used to many different pilgrims and tourist visitors to the city. I’m mesmerized by watching other people, it’s a melting pot of differences and yet similarities, for many this is the journey of a lifetime, as it also is for me.

As a Muslim I was extremely excited and hopeful to pray in the Dome of the Rock, a dream of all Muslims after Mecca and Media. I knew making it to Jerusalem wouldn’t necessarily mean I would be allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock shrine so I kept my thoughts positive and focused my mind. I had heard you need to answer to Israeli soldiers at the gate to be allowed in, I wasn’t comfortable with this but I was prepared, I’d anxiously ‘revised’ my surahs just in case I forgot under pressure. Why did I have to prove my faith to a man when I wanted to have my personal conversation with God? A man of a different faith at that, but I  knew it was for ‘security’ reasons. Some people advised me to denounce my faith in order to enter Israel, to me that was ridiculous and blasphemous, I would never do that, I’m proud to say I am a Muslim, and this was going to be a good test for me.

At first I tried to enter via the wrong side, the Israeli solider tried to address me in Hebrew, which confused me as I thought he would speak to me in Arabic, I told him I only spoke English before he had a chance to respond, another man passing told me to take some steps to the entrance and said ‘he speaks Hebrew because he is Israeli’.  At this moment I felt that two religions / races which are so different are still connected as human beings and we can be civil to each other. I arrived at the correct side. Fortunately this Israeli solider spoke English and maintaining eye contact when he asked asked me my faith was enough with my Arabic name to be allowed in, it was the one place I felt the color of my skin was in my favor.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

I had seen many photos but when I laid my eyes on the actual Dome, the feeling was indescribable, it was absolutely beautiful and this feeling of overwhelming emotions came over me. I had to stand for a moment and just gaze at it’s beauty in awe. Nothing else mattered, my mind emptied, I was completely in the moment. I couldn’t believe I was actually here, I had made it and I stood where many people would never be allowed to go, I was grateful, I was humble but I also tried to keep all my friends and family in my thoughts.

It was a cold day but the sun suddenly shone and the skies cleared. Inside was beautiful, and the most peaceful place, everyone was civil, I felt so much peace in my heart. I prayed for the peace and justice for the people of Palestine, it was such a warm feeling to pray alongside them. I was asked several times in the grounds if I was a Muslim, security was very tight.

I had seen the Western Wall on TV when I was a child when it was called, ‘The Wailing Wall’ and I was fascinated by the prayers which were slipped into it’s cracks, I really wanted to see it with my own eyes. Still in my hijab I wasn’t sure if Muslims were allowed but I heard the group of soldier guarding the entrance laughing and joking so decided to ask them. When they saw my British passport they instantly wanted to know more about me, some tried to talk to me in Arabic but I don’t speak it, another one from India spoke to me in Punjabi, they checked my bags and let me in. Once inside I kept my distance from the wall out of respect for the Jews who were praying. It occurred to me, many Jews and Muslims do not want conflict they just want to be allowed to practice their faith and despite everything going on there was respect for each other, after all Muslims and Jews both believe in God.

I returned to Jerusalem with a group of Palestinians who told me a very different story. At first I thought it was really nice to see Palestinians living in Jerusalem and that this sacred land would be open to everyone but I soon learnt that they are not allowed to live as equals together. Their, ‘permanent residency’ is a very fragile one which can be taken away. This surprised me a great deal.

A man tells us, he was imprisoned for ‘terrorism’, when we was just out and about on the street going by his daily business and on the day he was released he was arrested again. He joked the solider interrogating him didn’t even know what to ask him and even told him that as there was no real reason for his arrest. This story is being told to us in humorous way because it really is that ridiculous. This happens on a daily basis to Palestinians esp on the streets of Jerusalem.

This man had been arrested several times in Jerusalem for walking on the streets as a Palestinian.

Waiting just outside Damascus gate I saw a group of very bored looking soldiers, they looked around and saw a young Palestinian looking  man who was probably waiting for a friend,  they decided to approach. With nonchalance three heavily armed soldiers began to harass him demanding to see his passport and stretching out the contents of his bag – a pair of jeans , a tshirt and his underwear. If this wasn’t enough he was asked to put his arms up against the wall and have a body search. We were told not to take photos as these would be destroyed or worse our cameras would be broken and I didn’t want to risk it.

The penalty for carrying a knife is very high for Palestinians, as there have been knife attacks on Israeli soldiers. It’s extremely difficult for Palestinians to purchase a kitchen knife as if caught with this they can be imprisoned for 6 months. How are they supposed to cook? There is no concept of being proven innocent until proven guilty and many Palestinians are petrified of being framed for carrying weapons, which can very easily be done.

Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world,  resides between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. It is claimed as the capital of both Israel and Palestine neither of which are recognized internationally (there are no embassies here), Israel holds it’s governing bodies, hence control.

East Jerusalem is seen in international eyes as occupied Palestinian territory by Israel since 1967. The Oslo Accords prohibit the establishment of any activity of the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem. Due to the nature of Jerusalem being such an important area, occupation of the Palestinians who live there may be even harder than those living in the West Bank.

I had innocently thought Palestinians and Israelis would be living together in peace in Jerusalem before I visited, then I found out in reality they may live as neighbors in Jerusalem but there is very little communication between them. Palestinians are made to feel like foreigners in their own country.

Palestinians are not granted Israeli citizenship, even if they have been born in Jerusalem. They are given an Israeli ID card. If the Israeli government decide the center of their life is not in Jerusalem their residency can be taken, so this means they must live there, go to school (different schools from each other that is) and work in Jerusalem, not take long holidays to be away from home too long. Israeli’s on the other hand can live elsewhere even abroad and their homes and citizenship will be safe. Palestinians live in very small homes in Jerusalem in contrast to Israeli’s. Palestinians must also pay taxes to Israel, but the services they receive as a result are not the same as Israelis paying the same. Approximately 14,000 Palestinians have lost their residences in Jerusalem since 1967. Palestinians are also not usually allowed to travel from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, they have to travel via Jordan and leave their ID cards there to collect on return.

Palestinians have to answer to military courts and are often sentenced without trials whereas Israeli’s are tried under civil laws and often given impunity.
Palestinians live in very small homes in Jerusalem in contrast to Israeli’s, they also often have their water supplies cut off.

The occupation has long been watched by human rights groups as International Humanitarian Law must apply to to any territory under occupation such as the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but this is not happening here.

I really wish more people were able to visit Jerusalem and it could become a city of peace where worshipers of all religions could pray together in unity.
Palestine

Bedouin Tribal Displacement in Palestine

‘Area C’ in the West Bank is under full Israeli civil and military control, however it is home to hundreds of Palestinians and Bedouins communities enduring harsh living conditions in extreme poverty. Bedouins are an important fabric of Palestinian society, they can be defined as nomadic Arabs of the Desert, people that travels from place to place to find fresh pasture for its animals and has no permanent home. Due to the displacement of people and occupation of land Bedouins have been reduced to live by roadsides in shanty towns with no electricity or running water, no sewage disposal systems and very little infrastructure despite this being their ancestral land.

Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar

We visited the village of Khan al-Ahmar in the Judean desert, where 140 Bedouins live in tents and huts, The majority of these Bedouins have come from the Jahalin tribe who were expelled from the Negev by the Israeli military in 1952 and have lived here for 60 years. They have never been granted building permits, hence they have made do with building with whatever materials they could lay their hands on, it may be an eyesore, but this is home to many familes most of which are children. Any access to markets where meat and milk can be sold for income by the farmers is cut off. Their animals are not allowed to graze on land, many have had to be sold at low prices to help pay the high costs of this legal struggle. It is one of the few villages left in area E1 which connects the north and south of the West Bank making it strategically a very important area, the Israeli authorities are trying to take control of. If the Bedouins where to leave or re-locate it would connect illegal Isreali settlements through expansion.

Khan al-Ahmar is located approximately 0.5 KM away from the villas of Kfar Adumim, very sophisticated illegal Israeli settlement which of course has running water, electricity and has luxurious interiors.  I’ve even seen rooms here for holidaymakers advertised as hotels here online. Just to clarify, these settlements are built on confiscated Palestinian land illegally by the Israeli settlers, yet there are no demolition orders for them.

Among the village there is a famous, ‘Tyre School’ built of plastic bottles and old tyres held together by mud, this school has now become a symbol for Bedouins and their non-violent resistance fighting for their future. It was built by an Italian Non Government Organisation – Vento Di Terra (Wind of Earth) . The purpose of this school was to give children of the neighboring villages a place to go to receive an education, this is the only school in the area, and had to be built without a permit because they were never granted one even though many applications were made.  If this is demolished the children will not receive any education and it will undoubtedly affect their future. The Israeli authorities insist this school has been built for ‘political’ reasons, but I can only see children wanting to learn to read and write. Attacking the right to an education is tactic often used by oppressors to deprive future generations of personal development, this can clearly be seen in Palestine this being one of the most prominent examples. Hearing about the demolition threats on this school was one of the most disgusting for me personally.

Walking through the school, there are paintings of Palestinian flags and peace doves and other Palestinian symbols on the walls, it really does feel like a place of love, a haven in the harsh desert of oppression and solitude, where children can come together and play. The facilities are very basic, I can imagine it getting very hot inside during the summer and cold in the winter months. The children bring us tea and we are a very large group, I’m extremely humbled to be greeted with such a warm welcome from the most vulnerable people I met in the West Bank. Once again people who have very little but give so much, the hospitality was overwhelming.

We are told stories by some of the residence of the village. It’s difficult to hear that even when this school is running, it is hard to find teachers who will travel this far to teach as they can receive the same salary with a teaching job much closer to home. I know the Palestinians want to support each other, but the realities of the occupation make that very difficult when they have to survive and support their own families, though many I met do make these sacrifices in order to never give up hope.

I went for a walk around the school, looking at this empty classroom made me feel so privileged to have an education, to have been able to continue to a higher education. These children are fighting for their basic rights to even learn to read. It’s sad as a child growing up I would complain about having to go to school whereas these children will cry as they will soon have no school to go to. Life is funny like that sometimes, we learn to appreciate what we think are the ‘little thing in life’ which mean so much more to other people in the globe. I feel very grateful for my blessings in life and I feel so much outrage for these children. the school is not perfect but they have done a great job with what little they could get.

There are EU flag stickers on these buildings, international support is clear, but they are often removed. Another NGO called Future for Palestine, donated solar panels to provide the village with electricity. However sadly, the Israeli Civil Administration confiscated these.

I met some of the children who go to this ‘Tyre School’ they smiled at me, happy to see international support and it really saddened me that they will soon be deprived of an education, every child should have a right to an education. I also wondered what will happen to them if this village is displaced, will they be left homeless in the desert between illegal luxurious Israeli settlements? Where is the justice in that?

Mostly girls attend the ‘Tyre school’, and to me it’s very important for women’s rights to empower young girls with an education.

Up until recently these ‘shanty towns’ had been left undisturbed due to the pressure by European and American diplomats, unfortunately this is now changing with more than 40 demolition orders being issued for these villages. Where are these hundreds of families supposed to go? There is no answer for that. Not only are demolition orders being issues but they are expected to pay for it too. This is like rubbing salt into open wounds but nothing can be done, ridiculous legal loopholes are to blame. These actions have been condemned by the United Nations as a breach of International Law under the Geneva convention. These actions have also been condemned by the British government.

We meet Angela Godfrey-Goldstein and Israeli activist and Jahalin Bedouin Advocacy Officer from the Palestinian rights group – Jahalin solidarity. This brave woman is very passionate about the rights of Palestinians, I can only imagine the backlash she receives from Israelis for supporting the cause. Even when we were driving through Palestinian Areas, the guards at the checkpoints all know here and will give her stern looks, they know she knows she is not allowed in Palestinian controlled land. For me meeting this women further confirms this is not a religious war or one about Arabs and Jews, but about colonization and people.

Angela translated a very heartfelt talk from Eid abu Khamis a resident of and spokesperson for the village of Khan al-Ahmar who was born here, this is his home. He has seven children and talks about how they have been denied building permits, and have to deal with settlers coming threatening them with weapons. Eid is a very active in fighting for the Bedioun rights, and was recently invited to talk at the New York Peace Festival to do a Q&A after the screening of, “Nowhere Left to Go.” However he was denied a VISA by the USA. Angela was prepared to talk on his behalf, but Eid was able to talk via Skype.

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein and Eid abu Khamis

I can’t imagine how stressful life is for these Bedouins, not feeling safe or knowing when they will have their homes destroyed without any other solution to re-house them appropriately. The Israeli authorities have suggested a re-location to Nuwei’ma, in the Jordan Valley, however this is too close to Israeli settlements and other tribes for the Bedouin life to continue for the Jahlin tribe it was therefore rejected this forcible transfer. Children fear the sound of cars not knowing if it’s the civil administration coming to close down their school and take their homes. Approximately 60% of land in the West Bank has been taken illegally by Israeli authorities.

Bedouins are denied any building permits so these homes and school are seen as, ‘illegal’ buildings, therefore under threat of destruction. However this seems like a preventative measure to stop any Palestinian occupation of land, and this will cut off any access to Jerusalem for Palestinians. Here is a list of the legal violations:

  • International law on the illegality of settlements (Article 49(6) Fourth Geneva Convention) and
  • Unlawfulness of demolitions of public and private property (Article 53 Fourth Geneva Convention),
  • considered a war crime (Article 8(2)(a)(iv) of the Rome Statute).
  • The UN is closely monitoring the risk of forcible transfer faced by Bedouin communities in the West Bank – which is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49(1) and 147),
  • Crime against humanity for the purposes of the Rome Statute (Article 7(1)(d) and 7(2)(d)).

On returning to England, I heard the ‘village’ we had visited had been given demolition orders and would be destroyed within 5 working days. I was devastated, thinking about the children we had seen and immediately wrote to Boris Johnson at the Foreign and common wealth office expressing my outrage.

I received a somewhat indirect response from the Near East Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office not addressing my actual concern for what would be happening to this community but in agreement what is going is illegal. Here is an extract:

The Government is gravely concerned about continued demolition of Palestinian property by the Israeli authorities including proposals to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar.  The Foreign Secretary expressed our concern about the proposals to demolish Khan al-Ahmar when he met Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel on 8 March.

The UK position on demolitions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is clear:  they cause unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians; call into question Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution; and are, in all but the most exceptional of cases, contrary to International Humanitarian Law (IHL).  The Fourth Geneva Convention is clear that the destruction of any real or personal property in occupied territory is not justified unless it is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.  We also make clear to Israel that forcible transfer would be a breach of IHL and would have serious ramifications on Israel’s international standing.

We are extremely concerned by reports of a significant increase in demolitions.  According to the UN, in 2016 Israel demolished 1051 structures in the West Bank displacing 1494 people.  This is almost double the number of demolitions in 2015.

The British Government gives practical support to the Bedouin communities and Palestinians facing demolition or eviction in Area C of the West Bank through our funding to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) legal aid programme.  This helps residents challenge decisions in the Israeli legal system.  The NRC have secured the suspension of demolitions or evictions in 97 per cent of the cases where they have provided legal assistance, allowing Palestinians to remain in their homes.

The British Government is committed to making progress towards a two-state solution.  We believe that negotiations will only succeed when they are conducted between the two parties, supported by the international community.  We continue to press the parties on the need to refrain from actions which make peace more difficult.  Settlement construction and demolitions are significant barriers to achieving this goal, as are terrorism, incitement to violence and the refusal by some to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.  We do not underestimate the challenges but if both parties show bold leadership, peace is possible.  The UK is ready to do all it can to support this goal.

The reality of the situation is extremely dire thinking that this nomad culture will soon be wiped out by the Israeli authorities with over 7000 Bedouins being affected. I will continue with my correspondence to the FCO, and keep the Bedouins in my thoughts and prayers.
Palestine, Uncategorized

Apartheid in Palestine and Israel

I didn’t know much about the segregation in Palestine before I was actually there experiencing and feeling it for myself. There is no doubt in my mind that what I saw can correctly be described as apartheid, as famously said by Nelson Mandela. In fact the Palestinians are using the similar model of non-violent resistance in Palestine as was used in South Africa to achieve freedom in hoping to do so themselves. Nelson Mandela went to prison for 27 years, there are many, many political prisoners in Palestine being held for just as long or even longer. Apartheid was a political and social system enforced in South Africa while it was under racial minority rule. I remember when this ended, I’m amazed it was actually in my lifetime, but then I came to Palestine and saw something VERY similar happening to this date I was even more shocked. There are many similarities – Palestinians and Israelis are restricted from going into different areas, they answer to different laws (civil and military) and even have to drive with identifying number plates on vehicles.

In 1993 the Oslo Accords were formed in the hope to support the peace treaty and allow Palestinians areas of self governance by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), however a Palestinian state was never created. Instead the West Bank has been divided into Areas A, B and C which are controlled differently by Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Area A is under full Palestinian control, Area B us under shared Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control and Area C is under full Israeli control. These areas are controlled by military checkpoints with heavily armed soldiers and sometimes even tanks. The Palestinians do not have equal rights as the Israelis, a significant example of this is when it comes to being granted building permits, they are almost never granted to Palestinians yet you will see Israeli settlements illegal built all over Palestine.

Watchtowers and Walls
Sign as we go into Area A

I am not sure if the Oslo Accords were quite envisaged how they turned out to be but I was in a military zone, there were watch towers everywhere and it was very uncomfortable to know you are always being watched. it’s not like CCTV, here you can clearly see the huge watch towers, it feels more like an open air prison, and everyone is guilty of a crime they haven’t committed, including myself.

The first time I crossed the checkpoint was GILO 300 on foot at 1am as I had arrived in Israel, it was crossing from Israel to Palestine and it was intimidating even when no one else but soldiers were there, it was not a pleasant experience. Other times I only crossed in a vehicle, but I heard stories and could envisage during the daytime these checkpoints were absolute chaos, people rounded like cattle to pass through. I also saw depending on the soldiers mood they may or may not let you through. There are many instances where Palestinians have been denied passing through checkpoints, for smiling, how they look and humiliated by being forced to strip naked and left without food and water all because the soldiers felt like it. I myself had a very different treatment as I have an international passport, but I did clearly see many Palestinians being harassed.

The segregation is caused by many factors but one of the major ones is the creation of physical barriers – walls, electric fences, trenches, blockades and military checkpoints. Israeli soldiers are given clear instructions to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone trying to cross these barriers during the night.

Israeli West Bank Barrier

The Israeli West Bank Barrier is the main wall which is huge and runs across ‘The Green Line’ which is the line drawn on the map to outline the border of the state of Israel and Palestine after the Israeli-Arab war in 1967, it was not supposed to outline a permanent border. The Israeli authorities state this wall has been built as ‘protection against terrorism’, whereas to the Palestinians this wall is the creation of racial segregation and apartheid. It is 440 miles long, and more than double the length of the Green Line, 85% of it cuts into the West Bank on Palestinian land, it is aiding the annexation of land in the name of ‘security’. The result is approximately 25,000 Palestinians isolated as they can’t cross it. They are prevented from accessing their own land, employment, visiting family, friends and even lovers. Relationships and marriages cannot take place because of the location of people across the wall. Sick people can not go to the hospital. I was told about an instance where a 6 year old girl in Palestine needed dialysis but the only hospital with the facilities to help was in Jerusalem, Israel granted her a permit to go but not to any of her family, they had to find someone else to take her. I heard similar stories about Palestinian cancer patients being denied access to hospital treatment because of their location.

I want to address a point which I didn’t understand until I spoke to Palestinians. Sometimes Israeli companies illegally build factories in the West Bank on Palestinian land, and this creates jobs for the Palestinians. this is how this idea is sold to us in the outside world as a positive move. In reality it is actually a form of modern day slavery – this is how someone explained it to me, they are not given the same wages as Israeli’s doing the same jobs, by working in these illegal factories it’s giving into accepting them taking their land and most of all it creates serious divides between Palestinian communities by those refusing to work there as a form of resistance and those struggling so hard to survive they have no choice. Jobs are scarce. It really is a form of forcibly compliance, living under occupation is an extremely hard life. Palestinians attempts to be self-sustainable with their own food and water sources for example is prevented, they have to rely on food to come from Israel, this was the saddest thing for me to hear. The BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) global movement urges people in the rest of the world not to support this by boycotting the purchase of goods from Israel from the West Bank. For more information: https://bdsmovement.net/

In my group there was an American Mexican, and someone jokes, ‘how do you like the wall’ in light of Trump coming into power. Humor is used to address such serious situations, we all laughed but it’s very daunting to stand in the shadow of the wall, esp if you are on the ‘wrong’ side.

The walls reminded me of Berlin but more sinister and a lot bigger in size. I felt offended on behalf of the Palestinians how could such ugly eyesore barriers be placed up on THEIR land. I can’t believe I was standing here in 2017 feeling the way I do.

I’m constantly mocked for being an admirer of Stalin style architecture , but looking at this towering grey structure, I feel completely different, it completely cuts into the beautiful Palestinian scenery, cuts across the blue skies,  it disrupts the peace and cuts tension into the air. It doesn’t look like protection to me it looks like apartheid. A very deliberate barrier to segregate people and land. I love graffiti but I feel as though this canvas is not worth of such beautiful art, because art should be kept and treasured but this wall should go.

Having said that, it is warming to see the wall covered in artwork and messages of hope and support from many people around the world who have been to Palestine to show their love and support for the people. I really wish I had some spray paint!!!

Lots of artwork and images of Che Guevara the Marxist revolutionary and leader.

Standing on the hilltop looking at the walls it doesn’t feel real.There are many, many walls, in one sense it almost feels comical and childish that walls have been built on the other hand it’s a very serious and tragic situation, though somewhat unbelievable one. I felt a real sense of sadness looking over the landscape and seeing these structures, I can’t imagine if I woke up tomorrow and there was a wall assembled preventing me from going to work and visiting my friends and family, having my freedom taken like that.

Banksy, the famous graffiti writer from the UK has been making a statement in the West Bank by creating 9 pieces on this wall, which has drawn international attention to this area of the world. More information here: http://banksyworld.blogspot.co.uk/

Banksy has now opened a hotel here, ‘with the worst view in the world’, any profits will go towards local projects. http://walledoffhotel.com/ I’m very proud to be British and seeing another pararel between an element of Hip Hop (graffiti) and the resistance.

Humorous postcards I bought from a local shop, I love the one with Santa Claus.

Moving around Palestine I felt like I was in an open air prison controlled by a police state, suffocated by having my rights taken away and I was just a visitor with an international passport. On leaving I was apprehensive to go through all the security but once out I felt a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, I felt free. I really do hope and pray that one day the people of Palestine will also taste the freedom that so many of us around the world take for granted.

Palestine

Celebrate Palestinian Culture

Keffiyeh Factory in Hebron, the West Bank

I was lucky enough to visit the LAST standing keffiyeh factory in Palestine, run by the Herbawi family. Other factories have been destroyed by bombing in Gaza or put out of business due to globalization and the strict laws enforced under the occupation.

Classically the keffiyeh can be found in the black and white fishnet pattern which was traditionally worn by Palestinian farmers. Later the keffiyeah became a symbol for Palestinian nationalism and the resistance movement for which it is recognized globally. There was a selection of beautiful scarves, in an array of colors at this factory, along with traditional Palestinian dresses which were beautiful. I bought a dress in my favorite colours – red and black which I plan to wear this Eid after Ramadan when I will be keeping the Palestinians in my duas. It is a beautiful piece to bring back to London and I will wear it with great pride and honor.

As I was leaving the factory after buying some goods, the owner told me to wait a minute then he asked me where my family was from, when I said, ‘Pakistan’ he handed me a gift of a key-chain with a heart shaped Palestinian flag. We didn’t exchange any words, I can’t speak Arabic but this was such a beautiful gesture, I was overwhelmed. The Palestinians may have very little but they give so much. I know we can perhaps relate more closely on a cultural level and share similar struggles in history. They also know I will pray for them and their freedom.

More Info on this factory in this interesting article here:

http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/last-keffiyah-factory-palestine-47037488

Glass Blowing and Ceramics Factory, Ramallah, West Bank.

Each ornament created is unique it it’s own way and I think that’s what makes them special. In a vast array of colours, sizes and shapes. The workers in this factory had mastered the technique, it came very naturally to them. There were so many designs to chose from but also some very beautiful lamps.

Olive Tree Wood Carving Factory

After a week of planting olive trees, we visited this olive wood carving factory. I never thought about the wood of the tree being used, I only thought about the olives. It was mind blowing how much skill each worker had to create such beautiful figures from olive tree wood. I’m not a Christian but there was something very spiritual about these figures. I was also really surprised that no masks were being worn as there was a lot of sawdust in the atmosphere.

 Palestinian Dance – Dabke (Arab Folk Dance) & Music

On our last night in Palestine we had a group dinner with some dance performances from a local school. This was brilliant way to celebrate Palestinian culture, dance is universal. Everyone from the group no matter age, race all got up to dance and celebrate our coming together the past week, it was a beautiful end to our trip but also a beautiful beginning to many life long friendships. Most of the close friends I know in my life I have met through music and dance, so this night I was very happy.

 

Palestinian Cuisine & Hospitality

The home cooked meals were delicious!! I didn’t take many photos because I was too busy eating. Sometimes we would have lunch in homes of Palestinians with their families, everyone was so hospital and welcoming, and always made more food than we actually needed. I thought back to my childhood days when I used to visit my family in Pakistan, I had that same feeling, even the decor reminded me of those times.

The farmers families would also prepare lunch for us out on the fields while we were planting, it was lovely to see the food being prepared for us, but also to eat it together among nature. There was something very connecting about that. Whilst out on the field a group member handed me a fresh almond which was straight off the tree. It may sound strange but this was such an intense taste experience! Like nothing I had before, a fresh almond is very different to the packaged ones we get in Europe.

It was my birthday while I was in Palestine, some of the group members found out and they surprised me with a cake from Bethlehem. I was so overwhelmed it was such a thoughtful thing to do for me, I wasn’t expecting it at all. For me this sums out Palestinian culture – very giving and hospitable. I was truly humbled to be in the company of such amazing people, both the Palestinians but also my fellow group members and that we could share this moment together. I’m also not exaggerating when I say the cake was absolutely delicious.

Birthday cake from Bethlehem

 

Palestine

A Surreal Experience – Leaving Palestine Through Ben Gurion, Israel

It was time to go home. I had mixed feelings about leaving Palestine. On one hand I wanted relief from the heavy burden of  the illegal occupation, flashbacks of all the stories I had heard, injured people and injustices I had witnessed first hand, the paranoia of always being watched. On the other hand I had grown attached to this beautiful country and its Palestinian people so loving and welcoming, most of all I didn’t want to leave my newfound friends. I felt we had bonded through our mutual empathy and respect for all human life. Nevertheless it was time to go and I knew I had to be focused, mentally prepare myself for leaving through Ben Gurion airport in Israel, from what I had heard and experienced myself coming in, leaving was going to be an equally unpleasant  experience.

I left for the airport with a group of other volunteers who were on the same flight as me, we travelled from Palestinian territories in a minibus together, which meant it had Palestinian number plates. On arrival at Ben Gurion airport in Israel, I could see the vehicles with Israeli number plates in front of us, being allowed through the gates to the airport without any questions, but when it came to us, we were pulled to one side by Israeli soldiers. Not only did they ask our driver questions at the window, they actually came into our minibus to look at us and ask us where we were going. It was a tension filled moment as the driver had his papers checked, we weren’t sure if it was better to talk or remain silent, so we didn’t talk unless spoken too. What did it remind me of? – Apartheid in South Africa, I could not believe I was actually experiencing this in my life time, this blatant racism is an everyday occurrence for Palestinians. We were asked where we were going and then allowed in, there was no doubt we were being watched and monitored already on our approach to the airport.

Israeli and Palestinian vehicles have identifying number plates

The airport control tower was reminiscent of the watch towers I’d seen throughout occupied Palestine and it made me feel very uneasy. I felt intimidated, which was strange for me to feel at an airport as I usually enjoy going through them and I have been to quite a few, usually I feel airport security are there to keep me safe, but in this scenario I was the one being made to feel like the threat to safety.

I entered the airport and joined the queue for my airline with my friend and almost immediately security personal approached us and told us to join another queue, I didn’t know why, they didn’t even check my passport or even ask me where I was flying too, they simply looked at ME, this was the racial profiling I had been expecting. The queue I was now in was three times as long and moving very slowly, luckily I had got to the airport early, but not too early. There was a sign in front of the queue to, ‘leave luggage unlocked’ they were very transparent about going through all luggage, even checked in luggage would be searched. It really does feel you have to give up all your privacy rights is you ever want to get through his airport, if you refuse you will only be rejected. The sad thing was that I had bought a few souvenirs from Palestine, but I was advised to ship these home and not carry them in my luggage as they would be taken and destroyed, I’m talking about plates and key rings., nothing threatening at all but it seemed that any sign of being in Palestine was forbidden and looked down upon.

635961770273823537-AirportSecurity
Checked in and hand luggage is asked to be kept unlocked to be seached.

Eventually my turn came and I was asked a few questions, I felt like my answers were irrelevant as my passport was going to be taken anyway, and indeed it was and returned to me with a yellow sticker and a barcode. I didn’t see anyone else have their passport taken away as I was in the queue. You receive a number 1-6 when leaving through Ben Gurion. I had done some research before traveling, these were indications of your perceived threat level / suspicion to Israel – 1 being the lowest and 6 being the highest, and to my surprise I was given a 6. My friend had a 3 (she did not have a Muslim name on her passport).  She was allowed to go through straight to the gate, I was told to wait there and someone would come to, ‘collect me’. I had no idea what was in store for me, I thought it was ridiculous but I remained calm and confident, I was not guilty of anything and I was not prepared to be treated as though I was, I was going to stand my ground no matter what was going to happen. I put everything I had seen out of my mind not to feel any anger in this situation, after all these people were just doing their job, I had to remain civil. I was taken to another queue…

Capture
Yellow sticker security system at Ben Gurion. 6 = Suspected high security threat level.

I seemed to be the only one who could speak English in this queue, most people were speaking Russian, the Israeli airport staff were having problems communicating if it wasn’t in Hebrew, Arabic or English with mostly everyone else. Our bags were scanned, my coat was taken for extra scanning, we had to empty everything out. It was a very high tension environment, I could see some even more heavy duty X-ray scanners nearby. Suddenly the man next to be began to have a panic attack, I asked him if he was ok, ‘I can’t breathe’ replied gasping for breath, with no one around acknowledging what was happening, I called over an Israeli security officer for help. He just looked at me with little concern and asked, ‘Are you together?’ I said ‘no’, in any other situation I would have tried to be more helpful to ensure the person was ok, but in this case I thought it would be best to back away, I couldn’t afford to have any false associations. I really felt for this man, no one really helped him or looked concerned, instead he was made to finish a drink he had on him, even though he could hardly breathe. There was no compassion, or concern. I guess it could have been an elaborate ruse to trick security or distract from something, you never know.

Next we had to take everything out of our hand luggage for another very through check and I mean EVERYTHING. Every single pocket lining and seam was searched. I was made to sit while I was asked what everything was, and to switch on my camera for them to have a look through it. Then I was asked in a very serious tone if I had any weapons or dangerous items on me, and of course I didn’t. I was then informed I would need to be, ‘body searched’, I dreaded these words, was it just a dress up for, ‘strip search’? I only had 10 mins left before my flight was due to leave, I was hoping this would work in my favor. I was asked to step inside what I would call a ‘box’ at the side of the area, not big enough to be called a room, there was just about enough space in there for the two women and myself, we kept brushing each other as they began to search me. ‘Take off your top and shoes’ I complied, my shoes were taken to be scanned for traces of explosives, they were covered in mud from working in the Palestinian fields, even though I had tried to wash them some still remained, I was hoping I wouldn’t be asked about this. I was dreading being asked to take any more off, but I didn’t want to show it. Knowing I may be subjected to this I had purposely worn several layers of clothing, which I think they found a bit strange.

I was thoroughly searched multiple times, all the seams in my clothing, my hair, inside my ears, I really was trying to work out what I could possibly hide there. Then suddenly the metal detector went crazy because of some metal in my jeans, the both looked at each other as though they had found my concealed weapon, I was dreading being asked to take them off so I frantically tried explained that it was the metal on my jeans and I could quite obviously not have concealed anything as there was no space. I informed them it was almost time for my flight to leave. They took a minute to speak to each other in Hebrew and said they would call the plane and let them know I was running late, but I didn’t see any calls being made, they decided to let me go without saying they were done I was pretty much left, I retrieved my top and my shoes, picked up my coat which had been x-rayed and re-packed my hand luggage then quickly moved on. It felt as thought they would have kept me up until this point no matter what and I would have been there longer if there had been more time. No questions were asked, I was very surprised but I felt as though they just wanted me out of the country as soon as possible as though I was very unwelcome there, it was a weird feeling.

I still had to go through passport control and the queue was extremely long, I didn’t think I was going to make it, I asked the airport officer he told me to use the machines which of course I couldn’t because I’m not an Israeli citizen! I looked around and saw a Jewish women with a British passport in her hand, she has to be on the same flight as me I thought, so I approached her and said I was concerned we were going to miss our flight, she was there late because she had been shopping in the duty-free. She was a very confident lady and she told me to stick with her and we jumped the queue together as she announced we were going to miss our flight if people didn’t let us through, I was grateful for her help. I spoke to her briefly on the other side, she seemed to be a lovely woman, who had never been stopped or questioned and was having a very relaxing experience, I was having the exact opposite. I told her about my extra search and she was very surprised, she had never heard that happen to anyone before. The differences between our experiences was very interesting,

Passport Control

I had made it to the gate, where I met my other friends, we had all had different experiences. Everyone else had seemed to have had a military escort to the plane, whereas I was just left to make my own way and if I hadn’t jumped the queue I would never had made it. Others were stripped down to their underwear and others were even asked to remove theirs. You could see they were in physical shock from this experience, I felt really angry for them, now months later they still feel traumatized from it. I believe the Israeli authorities want to make entry and exit into Israel a very unpleasant experience for anyone they suspect of humanitarian work, so they do not want to return.

We boarded our flight. The majority of the people on our flight were Ultra-Orthodox Jews, coming to the UK to attend a family wedding. They did not acknowledge our presence at all, I’m not talking about a smile I’m talking about not even being looked it, I felt so invisible, like I wasn’t a fellow human being, it was just a very strange feeling but it echoed what I had seen in Palestine.

As I got to my seat, there was a Ultra-Orthhodox Jewish man sitting in it, I got his attention and said, ‘excuse me I think you are sitting in my seat’, he literally jumped up, tried to avoid all eye contact with me and immediately informed the air stewardess who was also female, that he could no longer sit in the seat, as it would be next to a woman (me). I was tired, I had been through a lot I just wanted to sit down at this point and not have any more drama but I couldn’t until this was sorted. I asked my friend a few seats down to swap with the man, but then he said he couldn’t sit there because there was a woman in the next seat, then we found another seat, but another man would have to move, but he said he couldn’t move because then he would be sitting next to a women! It was actually so ridiculous, we had all paid for randomly selected seats on this budget airline, it was comical and we all did burst into laughter.

Just to make a point, a Muslim woman once refused to sit next to my brother on a flight from Asia because he was male, I ended up having to sit next to her. I was extremely annoyed, because we were flying to the UK were there is mass integration what was she expecting to do when she got there?! She tried to talk to me several times, and I was not in the mood for conversation at all.

o-ORTHODOX-PLANE-facebook
Full flight home

We must have spent at least 10 minutes trying to shuffle seats so everyone was happy to sit down, eventually a Jewish man offered to sit next to me, I thanked him. He was a gentleman, even though I just wanted to listen to close my eyes and listen to my music, I could tell he wanted to have a conversation and I didn’t want to seem rude. He told me he was visiting his daughter who was an ‘Olah’, I had to ask him what that was, he said it meant she had taken dual citizenship in Israel as well as the UK. My heart sank thinking she was probably now living on one of the illegally built luxury settlements I had seen on occupied Palestinian land. It also dawned on me that after spending some time talking to this man, he was actually a lovely man, and maybe he did not know about what was really going on? But how could he not? I couldn’t be certain what he knew and what his thoughts on the matter were, I decided I was not going to try to find out either, it wasn’t the time or the place. I told him I had been visiting the Holy Sites of Jerusalem and didn’t go into too much detail.

Our flight was very turbulent, yet half of the people on the flight refused to sit down, there was a group of Jewish men at the front, standing and praying. Now I have no problem with people exercising their faith, but there was a blatant disregard for flight safety here, the seat belts sign was on and everyone was being asked to sit down, in my heart I felt that if they had been Muslim men it would have instantly been seen as an act of terrorism. We live by a lot of double standards in our society. The man I was sitting with told me he had been on several flights from Tel Aviv but never seen anything like this, we laughed about it.

Eventually the pilot made an announcement demanding people sit down or said he would be forced to call the British Aviation Police on landing. No one listened. It was absolute chaos, the flight staff were literally shouting at people and it make it even more strange I could see a man in the front rows making balloon animals and passing them around! The air stewardess had been working for 11 years on this route and said she had never had a flight like this. She was constantly being called for assistance and couldn’t even walk down the aisle as people were constantly in the way, I did feel bad for her but she dealt with it in an amazingly professional manner!

As we landed we were not allowed off the aircraft until the Aviation police actually came to ‘escort’ certain passengers off the plane, it turns out someone had tried to charge their mobile phone using the control panel and they had contacted ground control. I thanked the staff as I left the aircraft, I was happy to be home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a very surreal experience, a somewhat comical end to a very serious period of time I had spent in Palestine, but it was as intricately layered with emotions as is the situation that’s going on there. It took me months to process what I had seen and felt to accept it and to return to my own reality. I spent about a week trying to avoid anyone who wanted to hear about my trip, because I just couldn’t express how I felt or knew how to describe it, really deep feelings were stirred up in me. I don’t think I will ever be the same person again and now I feel as though I have the confidence after experiencing what I did to stand up for what I believe is right. No one will ever take that away from me. It is true what they say, once you leave Palestine, you leave a part of your heart there and I know I will be back in Palestine one day (iA), there is still much work to be done, and one day Palestine will be free.

Our flight even made the newspapers: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4227922/Orthodox-Jewish-men-cause-bedlam-easyJet-flight.html

Palestine

Trees Keep Hope Alive (Illegal Israeli Settlements)

The concept of planting an olive tree sounds beautiful for many reasons, you are giving life, helping nurture something grow, you are giving back to the earth, trees will provide us with oxygen and nutritious fruit. For Palestinians all of this is true, but the olive tree has an even greater significance both physically and symbolically, it is a symbol of – hope. Agriculture is the fabric of Palestinian society, many depend on farming as their main source of income, thus their land is very, very important. Olive trees account for the majority of fruit production in Palestine, they are part of their heritage. Palestinian olive trees are some of the oldest in the world dating back up to 4,000 years. The trees can grow in poor soil conditions and in droughts they are very resilient just like the Palestinians. I  knew I wanted to go to Palestine and help make a positive difference, there is no better way I thought that to join an olive tree campaign, to ‘Keep Hope Alive’.

Each day we planted 350-400 olive trees.

Believe it or not, wanting to join a tree planting campaign had me feeling like some kind outlaw in the eyes of the Israeli authorities. I didn’t fully understand the reason for this until I was actually in Palestine. It was more than just planting trees, it was a form of non-violent resistance. I soon learnt the full reality of the situation. Much of the land legally owned by Palestinian farmers is being illegally occupied by Israeli settlers in beautiful extravagant settlements which have been built at an alarmingly fast rate, confiscating more and more land, sadly displacing the Palestinians almost on a daily basis.

There are many loopholes used by the Israeli authorities to take this land such as laws which state if the land is not used for X number of years it can be taken by the Israeli government, and shockingly I found that many farmers are intimidated and harassed not only by the Israeli military but also the illegal settlers into not planting trees so the land can be taken. They are often beaten with the aim to be intimidated into leaving their own land and homes.

Our aim was to go and plant trees to occupy the land for specific farmers, who were in the high risk areas that were closest to the extending settlements. Sadly even land with trees planted on it can be forcibly taken, they are often destroyed or even stolen (which we later experienced ourselves). Despite these risks there is less chance of the land being taken if the trees are planted by international volunteers, we are more likely to make formal complaints and report to the media. There are many charities which allow internationals to sponsor trees and these are often monitored and the sponsors informed if their tree has been destroyed.

I didn’t know any of this background before I arrived in Palestine, when I saw how much of the land has actually been taken I was shocked. Such a beautiful activity of planting trees, had now been tainted in order to counteract something very sinister. Not only was this activity looked down upon by the Israeli authorities because it was resisting the illegal occupation of the land but also that it was giving them a beacon of hope. I saw many things in my short time in Palestine, but it was very clear Israel wanted to diminish any cultural aspect of Palestinian culture, and the olive trees was a main one. To me this was heartless, I was fast realizing the occupation was a very complex one with many, many levels of control, not only physical but also physiological which was very frightening.

Interestingly something I had read before leaving for Palestine, was put into context in my mind.  I had come across this extract from Jewish Law, Bal Tashhit:

“thou shalt not destroy.”

The passage reads:

‘When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for thou mayest eat of them but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee until it fall.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19,20)

Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology” in  Faith and Doubt, © Norman Lamm, 1971, KTAV Publishing House. 

The destruction of trees which provide food is forbidden, even in wars over land, there is a similar principle in the Biblical law and the Holy Quran. So what is happening in Palestine is not only illegal but it also contractions the Holy Scriptures. It is simply colonization, a political agenda nothing more. 60% of the West Bank has been taken by Israeli authorities to construct illegal settlements, in violation of international and humanitarian laws.

We had to get to work. Planting trees was not easy. Firstly we would have to arrive to the fields, and many times we had to stop by an Israeli watch tower which meant we would have to get off the coach as quickly as possible, the driver joked that we should, ‘fly through the windows’. This was to avoid us from getting fined, but also to prevent alerting the military of our presence as they would come and intervene. Often roads are blocked so fields cannot be accessed easily or at all.  On one occasion we had to go to a different field as a blockage had been put up on the one we had planned to go to and there was no longer any access for us. On another occasion after we had finished planting we were not allowed down a highway because we were in a Palestinian vehicle (Israeli and Palestinian vehicles have different number plates for identification). What should have taken us a 6 minute drive took us an extra 2 hours. I can vividly remember the soldiers smiling at us giving us a, ‘thumbs up’ gesture because they knew they were making our lives difficult. Sadly this is a daily occurrence for Palestinians, in a way I was glad it happened to us so we could experience the feeling of being made to feel less human and worthy than others. It reminded me what I came here to fight – inequality.

Israeli watch tower on the road next to one of the Palestinian fields, these were everywhere. Big brother is watching.

Once off the coach we would need to take a short hike up the mountain. They were long but beautiful walks, I remember the first time I walked to the field and I looked across to see the illegal settlements on the horizon. The scary thing was how close they were to the field, the land I was standing on could be taken in a matter of days, but also if the settlements were occupied their tenants could easily see us and report us to the Israeli police and military. We could only hope if this did happen it would be once we had finished for the day so all of our efforts would not be in vain. Many of my group were over 60, sometimes members would walk very slowly and need to stop to take breaks to catch their breath. sometimes I would stop with them and slow my pace to make sure no one was left to walk alone. I had a lot of respect for them. They showed me there is no age limit if you really want to do something you will make it happen. Some days children from the group leaders families would also join us, which was also really nice.

Palestinian farmland overlooking Illegal Israeli settlements, you can see how close they are, families live in fear for the day the Israeli’s will come to take their land, and destroy their homes.

We would need to unload and load the vehicles of equipment and the trees would be bought to the fields, we would then have to carry these out and they were quite heavy when lifting 3 or 4 at a time over a long distance, but I would always find the strength from somewhere. Each field had different terrains, but the ground was mostly rocky, we had to pull out huge rocks to allow us to dig deep enough. We were digging with a spade and a pickax, I hadn’t done any gardening in a long time and this was going back to basics, you really had to put your back into it. It was physically very demanding work but I really enjoyed it, the following day we would all have aching muscles but it felt good and we were ready for another day of planting. We would team up in pairs, it was nice to switch up and speak to different people and we were all very different but the one thing which united us was our disgust for the injustices going on around us. The farmers would also work with us together. Everyone would do what they could and we would all help each other out, there was a real sense of community even family. We would dig holes, place the trees in with a stick and then cover with a plastic case and place stones around it. The white plastic case was to prevent animals from eating the trees, this also made it very visible once fields had been plants and it was a beautiful sight.

On one of our days of planting we were in a field next to an electrified fence, which was also covered in barbed wire. Behind it was another eerie looking watch tower. We found tear gas canisters in the field which were made in the USA. A few members of the group were Americans and both the Americans and British discussed how we felt disgusted that our tax money is spent on never-ending wars, it was a reminder that when we go hope we need to write to our local MP’s about our views. I saw something which looked like a small drone in the sky, I wasn’t sure what it was, but one thing for sure was that I knew we were constantly being watched.

A major part of our presence on the fields was to show the farmers and their families we were supporting them, and that the international community had not forgotten them in the face of such raw injustice, we were there to stand in solidarity with Palestine. For the first time in a long time I felt my presence somewhere was actually making a difference, even if the political impact was very small, I was showing someone that I cared, that we cared. This alone made all of our efforts worthwhile for me personally. We were acknowledging their presence and their right for freedom, we believed in hope for their future and we were going to stand by them.

One of the families preparing our lunch on the field.
‘warak dawalie’ – Palestinian stuffed grape leaves. these took the family 5 hours to make and they were delicious as they were made with love.

One of the most beautiful things was meeting the Farmers and their families, we couldn’t speak the same language but the appreciation, love and respect was very apparent. The families would make us coffee before we started work and provide us with lunch on the field once we were finished. This was a great experience, every time we would have something different and it was all delicious traditional food. I think food is a great way to exchange cultures, it is a universal language, after all we all need to eat! I hope one other thing us internationals can take away from this experience is how delicious Palestinian cuisine is, I myself have looked up recipes since I returned home and taken my friends to Palestinian restaurants. It’s something we should celebrate and pass on to future generations. Eating in the field was a very reflective experience the landscape was beautiful, it felt like going back to the essence and I appreciated every minute of it.

We were lucky with planting some days but not all. On one of the days just as we finished the Israeli military showed up, but it was too late to stop us we had completed what we had set out to do. That was a satisfying feeling, but I later found this did not always guarantee anything. As a nice surprise on our second day we were joined by the ambassador of Ecuador, showing his solidarity with the people of Palestine. It was nice to know there were people in high positions who would openly show their support and physically make the trip to Palestine.

On another day, we were two-thirds of the way in planting and the Israeli military came and requested us to stop planting, they had weapons as they came onto the field, it was very intimidating for us because of course we were unarmed, unless you were to count our spades. There was no legal reason they should stop us so we asked them why and we were given an invalid reason, something along the lines of, we did not own the land ourselves even though we said we were friends with the farmer they wanted us to stop. There was nothing we could do. Threats to arrest the farmer were made if we did not agree to stop, so we did. We had already established there was no point in trying to reason with them, they were not open to negotiations and we knew everything was civil and ‘peaceful’ in front of our eyes but once we were to leave, the farmer’s family would have to deal with any repercussions so we did not want to cause any additional trouble. Our group leader requested the solider in charge to guarantee our trees would be left untouched, he did not answer. I knew this meant they would have no protection. It struck me how young the soldiers were but I also felt a great sense of authority from them. It was very hard to exercise self-restraint in trying to attempt to reason with them. Sometimes you have to learn to fight some battles and leave others.

I was happy we planted 350 trees on my birthday, the majority of us volunteers were religious, we would say a prayer / make a wish for each tree to grow and live a long life. Even if you do not believe in God there was so much positive energy on the fields you would have felt it, it really didn’t matter what you believed, as long as you believed in – justice. We even signed one of the sticks with messages of peace in several different languages, it was beautiful. I felt really happy, on the anniversary of my birth we would be giving life to trees and giving hope. Unfortunately the following day we heard the devastating news all 350 trees had been uprooted and stolen, yes STOLEN. If someone had told me this happens I would not have believed it, but it was happening to the trees I planted myself so it was very real. There was no real system of police complaint, a case was reported but nothing ever happens. We could not return to re-pant the field as it had now been deemed a ‘crime scene’ and taken over by the military. The police was called. It may seem like they were trying to resolve the issue and find whoever was guilty (we suspect illegal settlers opposite the field) but in reality it was to prevent us from going back and re-planting the trees.

My heart was broken I thought it being my birthday it would have bought us special protection. What it bought us instead was a lesson that I’ll never forget. Some things in our lives are out of our control, but we must never give up and always remain hopeful. The Palestinians reassured us this land would be re-planted and if those trees were taken, it would be re-planted yet again. There was great resilience, I found a lot of strength and beauty in this. It made me very grateful for what I have in life and the appreciate the things which I take for granted, but also that if you really want something, it’s not always an easy path but you must never give up the fight if it’s for something you truly believe in and most of the time that path is never easy.

Not only was the military called to stop us planting trees but the police also arrived.

I can tell you there is no better feeling than to look out at the field and see the hundreds of trees you have planted. Rain was forecast for the entire time we were planting, but miraculously it didn’t rain at all, it would have made logistics very hard for us. Literary as we finished our lunch after planting our last tree, the heavens opened and it began to rain very heavily. The timing was so perfect, it was almost poetic. The trees needed the water, and the timing had me wondering if it was a sign from God. It was very emotional being the last day, we all felt such a great sense of achievement, but also deep sadness that we couldn’t keep going. If any of us had cried in that moment, no one would have seen the tears.