Wednesday, 29 July 2009

At the Bedouin Camp.

I must tell you about our visit to the Bedouin settlement today. It is the last day of our summer camp, and I am leaving for Jerusalem tomorrow afternoon. I don't know when I will get to write again. It will be a very different kind of blog, because I will be in Israel prior to coming home, and I will be sad at not being here, feeling my loss, feeling the contrast between my time here among the friendly Palestinians, and trying to come to terms with the very different westernised and not so very friendly Israeli culture.

But today, we visited a Bedouin camp outside Abu Dis. The reason was to plant some trees. It is a symbolic act because this land has been designated to be the site of yet more Israeli settlements. There is a plan to turn a whole sweep of land from here, near Jerusalem, down to the Dead Sea into a series of settlements. There is already Ma'ale Adumim, and Qidar. The idea I am told, is to create a ring of settlements around Jerusalem in a circle. That way, the Palestinian areas will be split up and separated from each other, and a state will become impossible. Somebody said yesterday, 'One day the wall at Abu Dis will be taken down because there won't be any Palestinians here any more.
So we go to the Bedouin settlement to make our point, to plant some symbolic trees - olives because they endure and last. These Bedouin people have already been moved here from Israel on to Palestinian land. They are going to be moved again nearer to Ma'ale Adumim and this will be turned into another settlement. All of us, kids and volunteers, load into a number of camper vans. We leave the town, leave the tarmacked road on to a rough track. The countryside becomes very barren. Bare dusty hills, and eventually we come to the Bedouin encampment - a group of corrugated metal shacks. It is very hot. Here and there are some corralled animals - some donkeys and goats. We scramble down and then up a hill and start to plant our trees. There is a crew from a local television channel and Dr. Abdullah gives an interview about what we are doing. Lots of photographs of the saplings. Focused energy from the kids who are digging holes in the ground under the furious heat.
Water or lack of water is a huge problem here, and another cause of bitterness on the part of Palestinians. Several people have told me that under the terms of the 1993 Oslo accords, severe limitations were imposed on the ability of Palestinians to extract water, and restrictions on how deep into the earth they can mine. They say that Israel gets the easily-obtained water and as a result they get a disproportionate amount. Israel is drawing water off from the Jordan river and as a result the Dead Sea is shrinking, may vanish altogether in a few years. Certainly my overwhelming impression of the Palestinian landscape, especially this time of year is of dryness. The hills where we are are completely barren. At the very top of a hill above us is part of the settlement of Qidar. From here I can see the edge of a garden which looks as if it has access to far more water than anything down here.
We spend an hour or so here, planting trees, photographing each other, swigging from our bottles of orange-juice and water. Then we load into our camper vans and start returning to the town. On the way back, the usual chanting from the kids. One of them leans out from the window at the front of the van into the wind. At one point our van runs out of fuel and we have to pull into the side of the road and wait for one of the other vans to return with some more in a bottle.
When we get back to the community centre, we all say goodbye to each other, because this is the last day of the summer camp. Tomorrow morning there will be a farewell party and I will be moving to Jerusalem.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Palestinian Time

Yesterday I got talking to a young man who has been living in America, like many Palestinians. He grew up here but now he is an American citizen. Still, the Israeli government counts him as a Palestinian so he can't come here via Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, he has to come via Amman. I asks him about how he finds Abu Dis since he has been away. 'Life here since the wall is the best', he says laughing ironically. 'Before we have some freedom here, now we have no freedom'. We start to talk about American businesses, Starbucks in particular. He is sure, as a lot of people are here, that Starbucks contributes vast amounts of money direct to the Israeli army. 'It is a Jewish company', he says. 'David is Jewish', says Mousa, who is also part of the conversation. This doesn't stop the flow. 'For every cup of coffee you buy, 15% goes to the Israeli army'. I wonder about this, I am sceptical that money would be paid directly to the Israeli army, it might be possible to find the annual reports of Starbucks to find out whether this is true or false. Probably the Director of Starbucks contributes money to Israeli charities, but I wonder how 27 cents out of a cup of coffe costing $1-80 can possibly go to the Israeli army without it figuring pretty large in some financial report or other. Given the reality of life here and what people experience day to day though, it is almost impossible to cut through the tangle of truths half-truths, rumours inventions that wind around this whole issue.

One of the most exasperating things about life here from a UK point of view, is the casual attitude to time. People make appointments to meet and then don't turn up or are late. Arrangements are vague, can be changed at the last minute, there is often a lot of waiting around. It is jokingly called 'Waqt Filistinee' - Palestinian time. There has been a lot of that in the running of our summer camp and the other teaching I have done. There has been a certain amount of chaos, we have had to organise our activities on a shoe-string sometimes, people tell me they badly want English lessons and then don't turn up because something else has intervened - a wedding or a party. It is surprising that we have achieved anything, but I suppose we have. We have managed to get some funding to create a garden in the grounds of the 'Dar al-Saddaqa' - Friendship House - where our summer camp has been. Nadeen, one of our teenage volunteers went to Ramallah and came back with a huge amount of baby trees, as well as spades and other equipment. Yesterday the kids started to clear the ground. One of the major problems here is the lack of water. Not a trace of rain since I got here (the rainy months if they happen are December January, a bit of February) and the heat has been unrelenting. What I am afraid of is that we are going to plant these trees and then no-one is going to water them and they will die, that will be awful. But there is a well in the grounds of the house, apparently there is water underground, so hopefully it will be ok.

Today, the last day of the summer camp, we are going to take some of the seedlings and planting them on a patch of land somewhere in the town that has been confiscated by the Israeli army. Apparently they confiscated the land because they want to extend the scope of the wall. The tree-planting will be a protest against the land confiscation.

A couple of days ago I went with Sarah to dinner at the house of Abid who lives near our flat. Abid is the worker employed by CADFA (Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association) employed to document and report human rights abuses here. His reports are then used by CADFA in the UK and abroad, to put an international spotlight on what is happening here. He is meticulous in his work, his knowledge of the details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its origins, the serpentine ramifications of the day to day events an injustices is huge. He has spent four years of his life in various Israeli jails, and is amazingly unbitter about it. He must have a huge file about him.

We sit on the balcony of his large family house. He occupies one floor with his wife and children. Downstairs on another floor is his father, a very dignified man probably in his seventies. It is coming on to night and there is a merciful cooling wind blowing on to us. The balcony faces east. Ahead of us we can see a water-tower from the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. Like all settlements it occupies a hilltop position. Abid says, 'It is our misfortune that we have always occupied the valleys. That was where the best land is. The Israelis occupy the hilltops where they can command the countryside'. We talk about politics. He has been a member of the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine), a left-wing party that used to be allied to the Soviet Union. He says that the Palestinian Authority is totally corrupt, and Fatah the main party is especially corrupt. The government officials in Ramallah want to hold on to their jobs, and the flow of money that comes in from Europe and other parts. It also suits the Israelis, he says, to have what amounts to collaborators there. If the Israeli army withdrew, the Palestinian Authority would be overthrown, just as other collaborating regimes - the king of Egypt in the nineteen fifties - were easily overthrown as soon as their foreign backers were no longer there.
I ask him, 'You have talked a lot about the history of this conflict and the day to day injustices and fights that you have. But what is your vision of the future? What is the best possible outcome that you can imagine'. He says that the best outcome, one that he believes will happen eventually, is for a single democratic state, comprising Jews and Palestinians. It seems unlikely
now he says, but look at Europe Britain France and Germany in one union. How likely did that seem in 1945? Abid is a socialist and he has a non-religious point of view which I warm to completely. He thinks that in a sense all nation states are illegitimate. The Palestinians are burdened by a corrupt Palestinian Authority. The Israelis are also burdened with a government that keeps them afraid of the other side. All these conflicts are in the interest of business, of capitalists to keep them going.
He is also incredibly generous. 'I do not believe', he says, 'that Israelis should get on a boat and go back to the countries they came from. Most Israelis are second generation, third generation and have no other home than this. I do not have this idea that the Palestinians lived here "from time immemorial" and that the Jews are totally different and alien. There have always been settlements and conquests, mixtures migrations, one people after another: Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Kurds, Turks ...' (This seems completely born out when I look at some of my students. Some are very dark, some are as fair-looking as Europeans. Palestinians don't look very different or different at all from Israelis).
Then he tells me about his great-grandmother. 'In those days, in the time of the Turks, the Turkish government used to take children when they reached the age of 15 and force them into the army. They would be posted to another part of their empire and often they would never return. They would be sent to Europe, or Egypt or Yemen. My great-grandmother had six sons. Five of them were taken by the Turks into their army and she never saw them again.'
I realise that his vision of one demcratic state for Arabs and Jews is what I also really want here.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Preparing to Go Back

I have started to prepare for leaving here. It is Tuesday morning, in another two dahys I will be leaving Abu Dis to spend two or three days in Israel proper as part of my 'alibi' cover story to tell officials at Tel Aviv airport who will want to know what I have been doing for the last month. They won't want to know that I have been in a town in the Palestinian territories. So I will have to post back to myself in London all 'incriminating' stuff such as friends' email addresses, telephone numbers and messages which I am going to delete off my mobile, anything in Arabic, photographs of course, which I am going to upload on to my email account and then delete off my camera. I hate and resent having to behave acting like a criminal. It just shows how much the Palestinian territories is not a state, has not been allowed to have the makings of a state, has no control of its own borders, who comes in and who comes out, even within its borders the Palestinian authority has very limited control.
I am sitting in the gardens of the university, we take the students from the summer camp up here sometimes, someties I come here by myself. There are shaded open buildings, grass sometimes fountains, and in sight of everything the separation wall. I can sit here drinking orange juice, listening to the beautiful Lebanese and Palestinian music coming from the speakers and think about the people I have met, what they have told me, and how much hope for the future there is.
Undoubedly the situation here is obscene and unjust: the wall, the pass system, the checkpoints, the settlements, the 'police' (army) presence with its raids, and brutalities, the prevention of people from coming in or leaving, the running down of services and essentials like the water-supply, has made this territory into a huge prison camp. Apartheid is not an inaccurate word for what this is, much as I disliked and feared the use of the term before I came here. The people I have met have developed a sometimes stoical, sometimes cynical sometimes good-humoured acceptance of the daily humiliations and difficulties of their lives, and still manage to have a good life in many ways - the wedding parties are amazing, people are generous and gracious and more friendly than anywhere else that I have known. They are crying out for their stories to be known, twinning organisations like the Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association are leading the way in publicising what is going on here and supporting the community.
I am amazed how little hostility I have had from people who know about my being Jewish. Given that the only exposure to Jews most people here have had has been to soldiers and settlers - both usually very negatve experiences - it is sign of how generous people are here that they are open and accepting of anyone who are open to them. Sarah my flatmate went to a Bedouin refugee camp near here a few weeks ago, which was in sight of two settlements Ma'ale Adumim and Kidar. One of the women there said, 'I have Israeli friends, they come to visit me sometimes. There are good and bad people in any group'. I had several people say similar things to me. A trader in Nablus, when I told him how friendly I thought Palestinians were, replied to me that there were good and bad among all people.
I hear people say that there will never be any accommodation with Israel, ('We are too different, our cultures are too different'). Palestinian maps of the region completely ignore the reality of Israeli towns and cities, just as Israeli maps completely ignore the reality of the Palestinians. But it is in the music here that I often find the most hope. The Lebanese and Palestinian music that floods over these gardens, the love songs that are so emotional and heart-rending, have absorbed styles from all over the world - jazz, Turkish, folk, romantic European piano riffs from the nineteenth century. There is an openess and inclusiveness to this culture despite all the injustices, and suffering which makes me optimistic for the future.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Returning to Abu Dis from Nablus

The road north back from Nablus towards Ramallah and Jerusalem passes through barren landscape, bare rocky hills with some occasional olive trees, terraces hundreds of years old maybe. Everywhere there are scatterings of Israeli settlements. Maale Adonim is the main one near Abu Dis but there are others. The settlements usually occupy strategic settlements on top of hills. Once they are in place, they have special access roads. The existing Palestinian villages and towns then 'become the problem' for the settlements. New security checkpoints are put down, Palestinians have to drive around the settlements, they 'become a potential danger to the settlers'. Khaled tells me that the settlers have all kinds of inducements from the Israeli government to come and live here: lower taxes, free water, subsidised transport. I look up at the settlements crowning some of the hills - fortress like structures with neat modern houses. I imagine that life must be sterile and isolated there. Khaled says no, they have nice gardens. Who do the settlers socialise with I ask. He says they can drive to Jerusalem quite quickly. They don't mix with Palestinians apart from workers who are sometimes employed to work there, or store-owners in some transitional border towns like Al-Eizaria.
The taxi goes past the huge checkpoint outside Ramallah. This time because we are not heading for Jerusalem but going directly to Abu Dis, we are not stopped.
A few nights ago, I go and get my hair-cut in Abu Dis. While I am waiting, I get into conversation with a young student. He is 15 but looks older. He has spent some time in Chicago staying with relations. Like many Palestinians he has large numbers of family members living abroad, and he dreams of living somewhere else too. He speaks English well with the beginnings of an American accent. He tells me about things that have happened to him and his friends in Abu Dis. 'I live near the building where the soldiers' building is. One day when I was 13, they started hammering on the door of my house. They accused me and my friend of deliberately leaving a dead dog outside their barracks. I knew nothing about it. But they forced us to pick up the dog which was rotten and crawling with worms ......'. He pointed to a shop across the road from the barbers. 'My friend was walking past that shop late at night and he was stopped by soldiers. Forced to lie face forward against the shop front with his arms and legs spread out. While he was doing that, one of the soldiers ran up behind him and gave him a kick between the legs. They often do that. One of them kicks a teenager between the legs and the other soldiers just stand round and laugh. To them it's a game'.
I get talking to Abid, who is employed by CADFA (The Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association) to document human rights issues here. He writes reports which are then published in the UK and Europe, and highlight what is going on. The effect is invaluable because it shines an international spotlight on what is going on. The Israeli 'authorities' know that what they do is not going to remain invisible to the international community. As a result conditions here are probably better than in some other parts of the Palestinian territories. Abid says that it is amazing that 70,000 can live some kind of normal life under these conditions of occupation. He tells me about some cases he is investigating. In one incident two years ago, some soldiers broke into a class of a secondary school (the same school where our summer camp had our sports day last week) and started beating up the students. In another, a young man from Abu Dis on a trip to the Dead Sea, was stopped by two soldiers and asked for drugs. When he said he didn't have any, he was forced to drive into a settlement past the barriers, and then was attacked by the soldiers for illegal trespass. He was chained to a post and beaten. One of the settlers joined in. In this case, Abid was able to investigate, expose the lies of the soldiers who have now been given a prison sentence.
Abid works with some Israeli human rights organisations like B'Tselem, and it is possible sometimes with difficulty to get some kind of just outcome through the Israeli courts. That becomes more likely if there is the possibility of international attention. That is why the twinning movement (Abu Dis is twinned with Camden, Tower Hamlets is twinned with Jenin etc.) is so important. Abid says that in the past he had Israeli friends. 'We used to visit each others' houses, give each other advice. It started to change with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980's. Now with the wall there is very little contact'.

Visit to Nablus

Yesterday, I went to Nablus in the north of the territory. On the map, it is a long way north of Abu Dis which is near Jerusalem but in fact it is relatively quick and amazinglycheap to get there. I had to get a shared taxi to Ramallah, the capital of the territory, then another shared taxi to Nablus. The time taken for the two journeys was about the same - 45 minutes - despite the fact that the distance from Abu Dis to Ramallah is far less than Ramallah to Nablus. This is because of the system of checkpoints which means that Palestinian vehicles from Abu Dis have to take a widely curving route to get to Ramallah, away from the wall that sweeps eastwards, and away from the settlements.
The taxis drive rapidly along the roads going through dry and barren landscape, and ancient terraced hills, past settlements, and through checkpoints. There are checkpoints everywhere, before and after big towns, and sometimes for no obvious reason. Sometime cars drive through, sometimes they are stopped and whole lines bank up.
Nablus, an ancient city (Shechem), is poorer than the other Palestinian cities I have visited. Ramallah is quite economically lively partly because it is the capital of the Palestinian territories, Bethehem gets a lot of tourists and pilgrims. Nablus is very down at heal. It has a large old city with narrow roads and markets. People are anxious to draw me in to buy things, they are very friendly. Not many foreigners seem to come here. I am drawn into a second-hand book shop. I buy a book about the intifada, called 'Childhood of a people without a childhood'. During the intifada, a lot of fighting occurred here. There are still bullet-holes in the walls of the old city from seven years ago. And everywhere there are pictures of 'Shaheed's - martyrs - young men who have been killed fighting the Israelis. You can see them, kids who look as if they should be studying for their high-school certificates or university degrees. Some of them wear bands around their heads indicating the party they are a member of . I feel very sad. Outside a mosque, I see an inscription outside a mosque commemorating the names of the people killed during the fighting in Nablus. I stop and start to copy it down laboriously for later study. Some kids interrupt me while I am doing it. They want to know whether I support Barcelona or Real Madrid. Even here the same old global village operates along with anything else. I talk to one of the traders in the market who sees me photographing the posters of the martyrs. 'Things are much better here now', he says. 'Things are the best'.
Later I discuss with Khaled, sixteen year old student who lives in Abu Dis, about the men in the posters. 'What do you think of the freedom fighters you might call them, some other people would call them terrorists'. I think what some of the men I had seen pictured may have done, there were suicide bombings in Israel outside cafes and cinemas at the time of the Intifada in which women and children died. My cousin would certainly call them terrorists, I am determined to try and imagine what they would look like from a Palestinian standpoint. Khaled says, 'I admire those men, it is wonderful thing to die for your country. I would like to do what they have done'. He says that many young Palestinians feel the same. He is unconsciously echoing a Roman saying about how sweet and honorable it is to die for your country, and also ironically a saying of Joseph Trumpeldor an early Jewish settler who became a hero in the Zionist movement.
Khaled tells me about a new word that has been invented in Arabic, which disturbs and fascinates me. It is 'Yuhowwad', to make something Jewish, to 'Judaize'. It is used to describe a process such as is happening in Jerusalem, which was annexed to Israel after 1967, and where Jews are moving into the East part of the city, outside the old walls. It used to be totally Arab. Now it is mixed. Khaled says that all sorts of strategems are used to make it hard for the Arabs to continue to live there. 'A group of residents had to move because the Israelis said they were going to build a park. Every time a Palestinian wants to build a new house or an extension to their old house, they have to pay a huge amount to get a licence'. He says the Jewish settlers here and in the Palestinian territories get preferential treatment, all sorts of inducements to encourage them to move in: tax breaks, free water, subsidised fuel and travel, which the Palestinians don't get. So the overtones of 'Yuhowwad' chills me in a way, with its overtones of old European anti-semitism, but I see the justice in the word. Palestinians are just describing what they experience.
Khaled tells me how shocked and disgusted he feels when Israelis use religion as an excuse to grab land. We talk about excavations in the old city. He is suspicious about these. I too am worried about the way that the Holocaust is being used as a justification of very dubious Israeli policies. I have found a recent example: Israel is planning a building project in East Jerusalem on the site of a hotel once owned by the Palestinian leader in the 1930's and 1940's Amin al-Husseini. The plan is being opposed by the UN. As part of an effort to counter this, Israeli embassies are being instructed to publish a photograph taken in 1941 of Husseini with Hitler. It seems to me that by doing this the Holocaust is being cheapened. Some people who see it being used in this way are going to be encouraged to minimise or deny it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Summer Camp Trip to Bethlehem 2

It is strange to hear American music at the pool. I am hearing everything through the filter of recent Palestinian music, all raw emotion. 'Hotel California' comes across to me as some plaintive lament.

We leave the resort after more than four hours. The landscape is very hot and dry. A few very mangy looking donkeys and bare hills with a few olive trees. Bethlehem is beautiful. We go into the Church of the Nativity where Greek priests are praying. They are strict about dress but very understanding and kind to the young students. There is a rule that women should cover their heads and men their shoulders. One of our students doesn't have a t-shirt, he is wearing a vest with his arms and shoulders exposed. The priest takes a cloth which is lying on a table and drapes it around the student's shoulders.

After the church, we walk into the old city. Some of the students buy cowboy hats and walk around looking incongruous. The wild east. At about six we get on to our coach and start to head back to Abu Dis. Dr. Abdullah is prevailed upon to sink. He sings Palestinian folk songs unaccompanied except for one of the students playing on tabla. Some of it is improvised, beautiful plaintive meandering melodies. The students join in the choruses.

When we get to the checkpoint, there are now four or five Israeli soldiers. Nadeem, one of the volunteers tells everyone to be silent, because if there is any shouting, abuse, or other 'trouble', that might be an excuse for the bus to be stopped and everything held up for hours. We all want to get back, it has been a burning day. There is a moment of tense silence as the bus goes through the checkpoint, and as it is clear that the bus is not going to be stopped, a huge cheer goes up from the kids. 'We went through your checkpoint! You couldn't stop us! We were not afraid of you!'.

Yesterday, our Summer Camp went on a trip to Bethlehem: 26 students from the summer camp, 30 kids who weren't from the camp, and six adults or near adults. This was something that the students were looking forward to, the chance to go somewhere out of Abu Dis. We set off early at about 9.30 in the morning. The students shout, 'Yalla, Yalla' - let's go, let's go. Someone has brought along a tabla, so that rhythm and chanting reverberate through the bus. We go through an army checkpoint. One lone soldier, a bit older maybe in his forties, looking a bit sundrenched, looking as if he'd rather be somewhere else.
Normally Bethlehem would not be a very great distance from Abu Dis as the crow flies. But there are often delays because of the checkpoints. Today we are stopping at a holiday resort on the way to do some swimming. The resort is about twenty minutes out of Abu Dis. It is a kind of tourist resort for foreigners and also for Palestinians. It is quite westernised. There are some self-catering flats for people who want to stay there, a large swimming pool and and a Turkish bath. The luxury of being able to swim. Most of the students cannot go to the sea. They don't have permission to go to the Mediterranean because they have the wrong kind of passes, they could go with difficulty to Jordan and then to Akaba, or they could go to the Dead Sea, which isn't really a sea at all, but a hyper-salty lake. Some of the younger girls come into the main pool, the older female students with Sarah and some other volunteers look for the women's pool, which turns out to be closed. In the end they are allowed to use the Turkish baths. It is wonderful to be able to swim. It is the first physical exercise I have done in over two weeks since leaving London.
The whole atmosphere of the place is westernised, burgers and chips for sale and western rock and house music. My ears have become used to Palestinian, Egyptian and Lebanese music, the raw emotions and complex rhythms, and the music thumping out of the swimming-pool speakers sounds heavy and four-square - regular rhythms one two three four, sometimes syncopated. Music to get out of your head to, not to express joy with. I wonder what this kind of music feels like to young Palestinians. I ask one of the students. 'Do you like this music? 'Yes but it's very different'. We swim and sit around for about three or four hours. I'm hesitant at first about going into the pool because of the tattoos on my body, which are officially haram (forbidden) here. But Doctor Abdullah, who is on the board of the community centre and has come along, says it is ok. I get a lot of stares though. I swim, get dressed, talk, swim again, get dressed again. Doctor Abdullah asks me, 'Are you religious?' 'I have strong beliefs inside', I say, 'I don't practice everything, but my beliefs my values are inside me'. Then I throw the question back to him: 'What about you? Are you religious?' 'I am the same as you', he replies. He is a socialist or communist. He has already told me he is a member of a left-wing party here, not Fatah and not Hamas. He trained as doctor in Ukraine, speaks Russian, married a Ukrainian wife. Sarah told me that it has taken years for the Israeli authorities to allow her to come into Palestine to live with him here. He tells me about the values of the Soviet Union. 'It was good then, you had free health, housing and education. When I was in Ukraine, I could study cheaply. That was before capitalism. Now it is more expensive there than in London'. Apart from being a doctor, he is a well-known singer here with a band.