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.
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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.