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

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.

Palestine

Resistance in Ramallah, Palestine

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.

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 Palestinian Liberation Office and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ramallah

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.

Xavier Abu Eid, PLO Communications Advisor

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.

Photo of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem in the PLO office.

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.

Negotiations conference table at the office of the PLO.

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.’

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 the Dheisheh 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.

Award winning documentary filmed in the Bil’in Village

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.

Israeli barrier wall, you can see how close the illegal settlements actually are to the village of Bil’in, many protests are held here against their expansive over the village.
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.
The magnitude of the wall can be seen from the hilltop, it seems endless.
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
Child from the village of Bil’in, happy to meet visitors.

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.

Tear gas canister next to Blackspot Horn Poppy a Palestinian flower.
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.
Portrait of Yasser Arafat on the wall of the PLO office
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.
Tomb of Yasser Arafat (Palestinian political leader) in the Mukata Compound in Ramallah, Palestine.
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.
20 ft bronze statue of Nelson Mandela in Ramallah, Palestine, symbolizing the shared suffering of the South Africans with the Palestinians.

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.

Palestine

Hebron – The Militarized Civilian ‘Ghost’ Town (My visit to Hell on Earth)

The, ‘Ghost Town’ of Palestine – Hebron

Hebron, (الْخَلِيل‎‎) – The largest Palestinian city in the West Bank.

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.

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.

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.

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.

One of the ‘open’ shops in Hebron, an old man works as a tailor.

 

 

All of these shops have been forcibly closed down by the Israeli military.

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.

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.

Palestinian child trying to make some money by selling key rings in the, ‘Ghost Town’ of Hebron.

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.

Israeli sniper on what used to be a school for Palestinian children is now a military fortress for Israel.

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.

Smiling Israeli settlers carrying weapons to ‘protect’ themselves against Palestinians. they were allowed to cross the checkpoint whereas we were not because we had Palestinians with us.

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.