Unofficially recognized as the capital of Palestine, Ramallah is a city in central West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) with a population of predominantly Muslim Palestinians. I was aware of this when asked where I would be going by Israeli security, upon entry into Israel, but I still stated ‘Ramallah’, and it wasn’t received very well, there was hostility. I wanted to be honest and see the reaction, it wasn’t until I read up on the history and actually visited that I understood the reasons why. I was very interested to visit what I came to assume was the political capital of Palestine. On entering I could see it’s the business district, very modern buildings, men in business suits, it feels very different from what I had seen so far, almost like a bubble. There is also a very strong feeling of academia and professional heritage here. and Usually I love the city but this time I don’t feel like it represents the Palestine I’ve come to know and love, the fields, farmlands and the children. Despite the modern buildings and city feel, I’m instantly approached by people asking me to contribute money towards local schools and orphans, clearly the occupation was still affecting people greatly here too, and it makes me think once again how Palestine as a state could be thriving and independent if allowed to be so.
Palestine Trade Centre
Interesting ship shaped building
We visited the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) negotiations office. I didn’t know what to expect but we are given a warm welcome and everyone is very friendly, the atmosphere is fairly relaxed, which you wouldn’t expect as the PLO has been painted as a ‘terrorist organisation’ in Western media. Rooted from their original belief in achieving results through armed struggle BUT as with any revolution this all changed in 1993 after the Oslo Accords where signed, they now believe only in non-violent resistance. Formed in 1964, their objectives have no reference to religion, but are anti-Zionist in nature dedicated to the, ‘restoration of the Palestinian homeland’. Zionism can be defined as a nationalist, colonial political ideology which is NOT the same as Judaism. These points are very important and clearly dictate this is not a struggle based on religion but political movements. You can read more about Zionism here. I was looking forward to hearing their perspective on the situation, I knew it would be slightly different to other Palestinians I had spoken too up until this point.
Entrance to the PLO negotiations office together with the ministry of Women’s Affairs, which for me was very nice to see, once again a reminder that all struggles are being fought at the same time, human rights alongside women’s rights. Security is tight, there is a retina scanner on the door.
We sit at the negotiations conference table and have a talk by communications adviser Xavier Abu Eid, he was born in Chile but of Palestinian, this in itself is very interesting, a good reminder there are many Palestinians outside of Palestine, in fact there are 450,000 Palestinians in Chile. His accent is heavy and he speaks extremely passionately, I’m fully engaged in what he has to say. I see behind him is a photo of the Dome of the Rock, I make a quick reference to this in my head, it’s the same photo as I saw in the Security control office when I was interrogated at Ben Gurion airport, everyone respects this Holy Land.
I had been in Palestine a few days now and I had seen families at the depths of despair, not being able to stand up other that acts of non-violent resistance, but for the first time I saw someone with a different energy, someone in the political area with a much stronger attitude not willing to actively accept how they were being treated because they did not want to accept that they have no choice. One statement which made me think was, how can there be a two state solution if Palestine has never been recognized as a state itself? A very valid question, consolidating that maybe we are being fed false dreams for a co-existing future, especially in the midst of the rapidly expanding Israeli settlements. It got me thinking, the amount of land that has been taken is insane and there is no sign of it stopping, are we to believe these false words until no Palestine is left? I completely understood their frustrations for me this talk was speaking out against the shadows. I also came to the conclusion that Palestinians themselves had different views on what the possible solution could / should be, or rather what they were willing to accept after so many years of foul treatment and illegal occupation. Palestinian refugees right to return to Palestine is a big debate in this aspect. If the Palestinian state was officially granted but no refugees could return, would this be an acceptable compromise to Israel? Extremely difficult questions, to which even I couldn’t decide what would be the ‘right’ thing to do.
We traveled to the village of Bi’llin Village in Ramallah. The sign outside the village gave this brief overview – Bil’in model in the Wall Resistance: ‘Bil’in is a small promising village surrounded by valleys and mountains, mediates the road between Jaffa and Jerusalem, it’s one of the west side villages of Ramallah city, with 16 km far away from it. It’s population 2000 people, most of whom work in agriculture, and it’s land area (4,000) acre. It’s people known with their simplicity, goodness and good neighborliness, where they love freedom and peace, and reject injustice and oppression.’
Sign outside Bil’in village
Support from Malaysia
The documentary, ‘5 Broken Cameras’ was filmed here, co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnad and Israeli Guy Davidi (yet another collaboration noted that this struggle is not about religion or race, but that of human rights). When I first saw this documentary I could not believe this was real and now I was actually standing in the very village it was filmed. Watching this I think is what partially compelled me to come here, I would recommend everyone to watch it to get a feel of the situation. The documentary is about Emad filming with 5 different cameras each with their own story, originally he got the camera to film the birth of his son but then used it to document the resistance against the Israeli occupation. 5 cameras were broken as the village tried to resist the bulldozers and construction of the Israeli West Bank Barrier Wall. Just like theDheisheh refugee camp, the village of Bil’in is prone to military raids at night, where families are shot and children are taken. This struggle has not been a bloodless one, some have lost their lives which has been covered in the documentary, it’s very clear they were not acting violently at the time.
There is a very active ongoing battle here to preserve the right to their homes and land. The very ugly separation barrier wall in VERY close proximity, it feels like it is on the doorstep of the home I’m visiting, trees had been uprooted for it’s construction. I’ told this wall was even closer but due tot he regular protests which take place here, the wall was moved back 500 m. A little triumph in an ongoing struggle, small but significant in providing hope and that the resistance can and is indeed working.
The documentary has bought much attention to the area and there is much international support for the villagers of Bil’in regular protests are held here, often after Friday Prayers. Support from Irish supporters and Israeli’s is strong because of their own history. My internationals come here to show their solidarity with Palestine.
As we walk outside I come across a tear gas canister on the grass next to the Blackspot Horn Poppy flower which is a symbol for Palestine. Tear gas is very commonly used, walking around
I saw many canisters and again there were many children. I naively thought these were harmless but I’m told in Palestine they are used with a much more sinister agenda – International Law states they should not be launched from less than 500 m, however there they are thrown from a little as 100 m which can and does result in death. They are quite simply used as murder weapons as is documented in, ‘5 Broken Cameras’. The cutest child breaks my chain of thought as he walks up to me and hugs my leg, what kind of life is this for him I thought. This struggle has been going on for over 10 years now and it will continue perhaps into his life as an adult and he wills stand on these front lines, the life of the struggle will be the only life he has known.
We were invited to Iyad Burnat’s home for lunch, he is the leader of the non-violent resistance in Bil’in. I felt a great sense of determination and passion has we spoke to us in his Kuffieyah in front of a freedom sign. I could very much feel the suffering which goes on here, day after day I can just imagine how tired everyone will be but that is what they cannot succumb too, they can not give up.
Sitting in the house, it felt more like a bunker but without any protection as we watched a slide show on the types of weapons used on the civilians by the Israeli Military, I couldn’t believe I was actually sitting in someone’s kitchen. The monitor was above a kitchen sink we sat on mattresses. I wish I could stay here and resist with the people of the village, especially after the hospitality they showed us with cooking a traditional lunch for us.
Visiting the tomb of Yasser Arafat very surreal for me, he was a figure I prominently saw on the news as a child. Arafat was the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from 1964 until his death in 2004. A very controversial revolutionary, love him or hate him, his face is recognized globally.
Arafat helped found Al-Fatah in 1958, an underground advocation for the armed resistance against Israel, he was accused of smuggling arms and staging raids for the freedom of Palestine as an independent state. However, 1998 marked changes in the PLO where Arafat gave a speech at the United Nations declaring all parties could live together in peace, this lead to the Oslo Accords in 1993, allowing Palestinian territory to be governed by Palestinian self rule. Arafat was the president here. he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israel’s Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. Soon afterwards the Oslo II was writtien laying the foundation for number of peace treaties between the PLO and Israel, including the Hebron Protocol (1997), the Wye River Memorandum (1998), the Camp David Accords (2000) and the “roadmap for peace” (2002).
Despite all the peace talks, it was still a rocky road he was confined to his headquarters in Ramallah by Israel after the terrorist attacks in the US on 9/11. It is believed Arafat died due to being poisoned with radioactive polonium but this is a controversial belief.
A Palestinian in my group had refused to join this visit to his tomb as she did not agree Arafat was a great man due to all the bloodshed he caused, as indeed do many Palestinians who follow the mantra non-violent resistance. Regardless of the difference of opinion, it can not be denied, Yasser Arafat was a very influential force in the Israel-Palestine struggle and a very recognizable one globally as a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
As we were leaving, two men came and patiently waited for us to leave, as I was walking out I looked back to see them taking photos at the tomb, jumping up and down, dancing with guns, they absolutely saw him as a great leader.
One thing I really wanted to see on my visit was the statue of Nelson Mandela in Ramallah, unfortunately I did not get time to see it, but in a way it’s yet another reason for me to return, inshallah.
As we tried to leave Ramallah by the Beit EL checkpoint we were turned away by the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint simply because our driver was Palestinian and he wanted to make a point, they smiled and waved as they made our lives difficult. What should have only been a 6 minute drive became an additional TWO hours onto our journey back home, but it was just a feel of what is now a daily occurrence for many Palestinians. Even after a very long day, the occupation does not stop, I thought about the Bil’in village and them not knowing if they would have a raid at night, trying to keep their children safe.
I had heard the city Hebron mentioned a lot in the news over the years, so I knew a lot happened there, but I didn’t know what exactly. I didn’t know what to expect on going there but I can honestly say, it has to be the most devastating places I have ever been in my life. Surprisingly so as it is home of the fourth holiest site in Islam – the Ibrahimi mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) is also very sacred in Judaism.
Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, with a population of 200,000 Palestinians and under 1000 Jews, it has a special protocol not governed like the rest of the West Bank I visited which is divided up into authority areas A, B and C.
There are many military vehicles in Hebron.
Inside the Ibrahimi mosque
To fully appreciate it’s current state we need to be aware of an incident which occurred here. In 1994 an Israeli settler in Hebron opened fire on worshipers during prayer at the mosque killing 29 Palestinians and injuring many others. As a result of this, the area has been turned into a militarized zone to protect the 7 Jewish families living in the area from Palestinian threat – yes the irony. Instead of helping those who were affected by the tragedy Israeli authorities took two thirds of the Mosque and set Hebron as a military zone putting the Palestinians under very heavy oppression, which I witnessed myself.
I thought it was somewhat ironic, the tomb of the prophets who underwent persecution is now in a area persecuting it’s people. I ask myself what is prayer without application, have we learnt nothing? Yet on the other hand it is suffering which causes the spirit to grow, but this suffering was immense.
Being in Hebron, I almost felt guilty for taking out my SLR camera which probably cost more money than most people there have but then I felt that I needed to take some photos to share what I was seeing with the world. I had never seen Hebron presented like this in the media. A resident came out and started talking to me with tears in his eyes, he told me to take photos and to show the world what was really happening, that Israel did not want them to be there and were trying to force them out but they were not going anywhere, it was their home and they were going to stay, ‘we will never leave’. I could not believe what I was seeing, that this was actually real and allowed to happen and even supported by international governments despite violating international laws? This was the militarization of civilian villages many conspiracy theorists talk about, but this was 100% real, I was standing in the middle of it.
We are greeted by our guide, who has clearly been victim to a violent attack, over half of his face has been scarred by a skin graft and half of his hair is missing, I wanted to know his story but at the same time I didn’t dare to ask. He tells us, ‘Today I don’t want you to see Hebron, I want you to feel it’. When people tell you things like this it seems like words but when we entered, various emotions hit me very hard. I’m constantly being told I am a strong person and I do tend to put my emotions to one side when I need to focus, but what I felt in Hebron I could not control and I was not prepared for it. Many years of watching violent movies and music I thought I had been desensitized to the cruelest human infliction but when I saw things here it was real and it affected me a great deal. Usually whenever I’ve gone on a tour, I’ve been told stories of painful histories where many people have been murdered, but this time what I was being told was actually happening in real time, in fact any one of us could be shot in this moment or see someone else shot in the name of, ‘security’ and there would be nothing we could do about it. I was in an area under great injustice and the world is allowing it to happen, this really dumbfounded me, I felt helpless. I had a lump in my throat, but I wanted to be strong for the people. I knew me being here was giving them hope they liked to see international ‘tourists’, as it made them feel the world had not abandoned them entirely.
Upon entering we are subjected to crossing a military checkpoint guarded by Israeli soldiers. We have to go though barrier gates in single file as the soldiers watch from a box and press a button for us to enter. It is very intimidating, but being in a group of mixed internationals we are given some leeway, if we were Palestinian we would have had our passports thoroughly checked and possibly even denied access which happens on a daily basis if the soldiers are bored (I saw some getting a hard time, simply because of their appearance, and I could relate). There is a very strong military presence here, I see several tank like vehicles and groups of soldiers, hanging around almost looking bored. All of them are carrying M16 rifles which are semi automatic weapons made in the USA which outclass the traditional AK-47 guns. What strikes me about the soldiers is how young they are, they seem to be teenagers maybe 18 or 19, many of whom have come from outside of Israel to join the military (I met soldiers from India and Ethiopia, they are granted a good salary and life in Israel in return for blind obedience to state orders). The atmosphere is very tense, everyone is on edge, you could be shot or arrested in seconds for any reason, and this does happen, even in situations of unfortunate misunderstandings.
Palestinian men being questioned by an Israeli solider.
We have to enter the turnstile in single file.
Palestinian man coming out of the mosque guarded by the IDF.
We went through a military office checkpoint into the mosque, a friend and I went to perform our wudu (ritual ablution before praying), the sudden contrast of the broken toilets and flooded floors to the state of the art military checkpoint we had just entered, this made absolutely no sense to me, why money was invested into ‘protecting’ a holy site but not for the holy site’s actual maintenance (not on the Muslim side anyway, the Jews have a different entrance, which I imagine to look very different). As we were given the mosque tour, I noticed I could only see tourists and hardly any Muslims inside actually praying, I later found out that mass majority of them are not allowed to enter. Even some of the survivors of the 1994 massacre also being denied entry, even the mosque staff are given a hard time on entering despite having special ID cards which is supposed to prevent any harassment. I found this really sad, the purpose of a mosque is so Muslims can pray in congregation and this gives them hope and a sense of community, here I was at this very holy site and it was being denied, as if all bits of hope were trying to be diminished.
My friend and I left the group to go and pray. Mosques should be peaceful institutions of prayer but I could not help but feel this was one haunted by its violent past, my imagination ran wild thinking of what it must have been like to be stood here during the day of the shooting. The tour continued and we re-joined the group, I hadn’t realized the tour guide and seen us and came to shake my hand, ‘I saw you praying, please pray for us’. There was a very deep sincerity in his voice. This moved me, because again it showed how much the Palestinians were grateful for our support, hope and prayers. It’s also very unusual for a Muslim man to approach woman to shake her hand esp in a mosque, and I really respected that he did that. This struggle goes way beyond common social taboos. Palestine was not like some of the other countries I have been too where there is a high Muslim majority, they are progressive in how they treat woman.
We left the mosque and entered the streets of Hebron. I saw two very young children playing with a toy truck in a rubbish dump, among dilapidated buildings, this really made me sad, I thought of the young children in my own family, no child should have to live like this, I dred to think what was even in the rubbish.
Violence has become such a normal part of everyday life in Palestine, I saw many toys and key rings in the form of weapons, guns, fighter jets and bombs. This should not be normal, but these children see it on a daily basis.
Key rings in the form of weapons – bullets, bomber planes and machine guns.
As we walk down the street it is a complete ghost town. This used to be a bustling city with many tourists now all you can see is closed shops. The military has shut them all down, even if they were open there would be very little business due to the fear of people visiting this area being harassed by the military, a joke is made that we should be fine as a group of internationals today as we have some, ‘blondes in our group’. Now all I see is graffiti, ‘fight ghost town. It’s very clear to me the Palestinian people are not poor by nature, they are having their livelihoods taken from them and driven into absolute poverty.
There are many children around, if I had entered this area without any knowledge of what was going on I would automatically have assumed the military was there to protect the them, but in contrary they are here to defend themselves from the children, who Israel have declared, ‘dangerous’ think about that for a moment. This actually made me feel really sick as those any children born as Palestinians were less than children, even less than human, and seen as inferior beings, this really struck me hard, they are not even old enough to know what is going on around them, yet they are ‘guilty’. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be born into this environment as a child. The day before had met a teenage girl who had gone to study in the USA, she told me she didn’t know what it was like to be, ‘free’ she had lived in Palestine her whole life under occupation, she thought it was, ‘normal’. This is not normal, and Hebron in particular is an open air prison. A 9pm curfew is inflicted on the residence of Hebron if they are caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the checkpoint they are not allowed to cross and return to their homes, and will most probably be arrested for being out past curfew.
This child followed the group and kept trying to hold my hand.
Child on the streets of Hebron.
Being the most ‘Palestinian / Arab’ looking of the group I am swamped by very young children trying to sell me Palestine souvenirs to make a little bit of money, they immediately ask me if I am Muslim in Arabic and appeal to this by saying it would be Sadaqah (what Muslims call a charity donation). I gave away all of my money in three different currencies, I felt it was needed here much more here than in my pocket. One of the children gave me a black bracelet with ‘Palestine’ written on it, but quickly took it back and gave me a red one instead, I guess he though it would suit a woman more and actually I’m wearing it now as I write this thinking of that child.
These children are absolutely beautiful but not a single child is smiling, they have clearly been traumatized by their reality. I was told the children did not used to beg for money, but things have changed in past few years and there is more desperation now. It saddened me deeply as I know not many people visit this area at all.
Another child begins to walk with me and I give him some money, I really want the world to see so I ask him if we can take a photo together, in doing so I can see he is vulnerable, I don’t want to take advantage but I feel the world needs to see this. We are over shadowed by what was once their school that has now been occupied and turned into a military fortress, complete with barbed wires and flags of Israel, as I look up a sniper is looking back down at us with a rifle, it’s a horrible feeling. I tell the child to never give up hope and be strong, I’m not sure if he understood me but he did look into my eyes and I may have imagined he gave me close to a slight smile. I don’t even know if he has family or even both parents.
As we walk through the few shops which remain open, we are their only customers, I wonder how they make enough money to survive but I think perhaps the habit of going to work is a clear signal they will not give up, it gives them hope. After all they have every right to be there, this is their land. I see a man praying in his tiny shop, the floor is just big enough to place his prayer mat, I liked this image it was one of strong faith. As we walked through the streets, I could see nets had been put up on the streets between the shops, why? Israeli settlers live over looking these shops and throw their rubbish onto the Palestinians below, what a disgusting thought one human would throw their waste on another, but it happens here to such an extend a ‘solution’ had to be put in place.
We came to the checkpoint at Shuhadah street, this is an openly segregated area only Jews and non-Palestinians are allowed to pass through. Our tour guide was Palestinian therefore the military would not allow him to pass, but the rest of the group could go as we had foreign passports. As a stand of solidarity with our guide and the Palestinian people we all refused to pass the checkpoint and were wished, ‘a good day’ by the soldiers with a sense of pride that they had such authority over us. They soon became very irritated at us taking photos of them at the checkpoint. It seems Israel is very proud of having such power of injustice but as soon as you try to document it they become angry because places like Hebron are a bubble of injustice the outside world has yet to need completely see clearly.
As we turn around to take the long way around what would have been a couple of minutes walk if we had been let through the checkpoint, we saw an Israeli settler see us and gather a huge group of settlers fresh out of the synagogue to proudly intercept us on the street. They stop and make comments about the Palestinians not belonging in Hebron, then smile as they marched on past us through the checkpoint we had been denied access to. What disturbed me the most about seeing this was the last person in their group who was very young, just a boy, carried an assault rifle as if to ‘protect’ the group. Israeli settlers are legally allowed to carry weapons and shoot Palestinians, whereas Palestinians can be sentenced for up to 10 years for throwing stones, even at walls. As I attempted to take a photograph of this unbelievable scene which took me a couple of seconds to process in my mind, the boy turned to me and said, ‘no photos on Shabat’ as his gun swayed by his shoulder. This baffled me, photos are not allowed yet carrying weapons is? Most of the weapons I saw carried by Israelis were semi-automatic and were ready to use at very close range, which would only mean vast amounts of damage, there is no doubt, they are shooting to kill in the name of defense when there is no real threat from Palestinians.
We went to a family home for lunch and even though I had lost my appetite the hospitality was overwhelming, as we sat in this house eating the most delicious rice dishes, I felt as though I was in the home of my aunt and uncle, it reminded me of my childhood, the furniture, the rugs all like my uncle used to have. It hit me I could easily have been born in Hebron and been living the nightmare that these people are going through everyday. I can not sit back and do nothing, if anything I will share my experiences. Lunch was quiet, we went up to the roof and again it reminded me of the rooftops of Pakistan. However one side in Palestine we saw the Ibrahimini mosque against a military backdrop and the other side we saw some soldiers harassing youths.
Maybe an hour after we had left Hebron, a 14 year old Palestinian girl was arrested for trying to stab an Israeli solider, I dred to think how long she will be put in prison for. In an area of such a high level of military control I really cannot believe a little girl would actually do this, I’m quite a fearless person at times and I would never dream of doing anything out of line in this environment, it is one in which you can not win whatever you try to do.
That night I did not sleep at all, many things passed through my mind, firstly that what is really going on here is not being shown in the media but also if it was this easy to militarize this town it could happen anywhere in the world and it’s civilians would be defenseless. I have a lot of love and respect for the Palestinians of Hebron who face this battle of the most brutal occupation on a daily basis in their own homes.