The Land of Milk and Honey is now the Land of Mistrust and Hate. The author travels to this divided state to witness first hand what the Occupation has done to the Palestinian people.
Travelling to Palestine for the sixth time in early December 2011, I had some cause for concern about being allowed into the country at all. In October, a Quaker friend from California was refused entry at Ben Gurion airport, held for 24 hours in a jail cell and deported to London the next day.
I was carrying a few items she had left with me for her Palestinian friends, among which was a pair of bedroom slippers for the Mayor of Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem! What would I say, I kept debating with myself, if asked: “Are you carrying anything given to you by someone else?”
The check in at Luton airport — no questions asked — was smooth sailing. At Ben Gurion airport, the queue at immigration is a short one. “Good evening,” I greet the young woman behind the desk as I hand over my passport. “Is this your first visit to Israel?” she asks, glancing at my passport.
“No, I was here last year.”
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“To pray,” I say with a straight face.
“How long are you staying?”
And then she bowls me over. Last July, I had travelled to Beirut for a conference and in order not to have problem with Lebanese immigration, I had obtained a new passport — the old one being full of Israeli immigration stamps, which friends told me would not be kosher at Beirut airport.
“Would you like me not to stamp your passport?”
“Oh yes, please.”
“You have to ask for it, you know”, she admonished gently as she slid back my passport. And I was through in less than 2 minutes.
Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, is across the road from the American Colony Hotel where Mr Tony Blair and his staff have their offices. It is also one of the sites where a Jewish Settlers’ organisation is planning to build a 200 unit Settlement in place of the existing Arab housing.
Arab homes are being forcibly occupied by Settlers and their Arab occupants thrown out on the street. Israeli activists in solidarity with evicted Palestinians have been demonstrating every Friday afternoon since 2009, and on my first Friday in Jerusalem I join them with my own protest banner.
The protestors are mostly young, with a sprinkling of elderly socialists, and over successive Fridays I get to know a few of them. Ironically, only a few of them are Palestinians. A Mr Al Kurd, who is one of the evicted Arabs, stands out and of course a swarm of children from the neighbourhood also gather around. The routine is to gather around the Sheikh Jarrah mosque holding banners in Hebrew, Arabic and English and clutching Palestinian flags. After 15 minutes or so, we march to visit each occupied house in turn, to remind the new occupants they are living in someone else’s house. Each occupied house is guarded by border police, video monitors, and at one of the houses I notice barbed wire as well. On the way back from visiting the last occupied house I see male members of a Settler family heading home for the Sabbath, all dressed in fine traditional dress with circular fir hats and all that. Two young boys are evidently frightened at the sight of us. The sins of the fathers being visited upon children, I think to myself. That’s not for me, I decide, and on my three subsequent visits to Sheikh Jarrah I do not join the march, preferring to remain seated at the corner with my banner.
The little town of Bethlehem, where over 2,000 years ago a young homeless girl gave birth to a child who went on to turn the order of things upside down is now totally isolated from the place where that child, grown to a man, was crucified. An 8 metre high concrete wall and the illegal settlements of Gilo, Har Gilo and Har Homa now stand between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The daily rites of physical hardships and abuse Palestinians visiting Jerusalem have to endure at the Kafkaesque checkpoint are, to my eyes, degrading and inhuman.
Up to 1967, the majority of Palestinians in the governorate of Bethlehem were of the Christian faith. The Occupation has reduced their strength in Bethlehem to around 25% now. Beit Sahour and Beit Jala on either side of Bethlehem are two villages where the Palestinian Christians still have a significant presence. After four days in Jerusalem I move to a guest house in Beit Sahour and, for the next four weeks, it is my base as I travel up and down the West Bank.
Nahhalin, to the west of Bethlehem, is a typical Palestinian village. The farming land is in the valley near a natural spring. An illegal Settlement sits on the hill, overlooking the valley and the village — and the encroachment of Palestinian, piece by piece, is in progress.
Raw sewage and rubbish from the Settlement is channelled down the hill side in the vicinity of the spring. Resistance by residents of Nahhalin is met by brute force from the Settlers, all under the protection of Israeli military.
Combatants for Peace is a group of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who came together in 2005 after realising that an unending cycle of violence is not going to resolve the conflict. For them, ending the Occupation and oppression of Palestinians is something that can only be achieved through non-violent means and an understanding of the national aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians. I join the activity they have planned for Nahhlain on Saturday, December 17. Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, who teaches at Bethlehem University, drives me with peace activists Sherrill from Massachusetts and Doris from Florida. The Israelis come by cars and a coach and again I notice the preponderance of the young among them. Mazin explains the non-presence of any from the village itself — they are afraid that if they join the Settlers will come after the Israeli activists have gone and terrorize them. There is a black 4×4 with a heavy set, middle-aged Palestinian at the wheel. He ferries shovels, bin bags and tools but does not join us. Mazin knows him and tells me the reason why he is unable to join us. He was knee-capped in the first Intifada in 1980s in his youth, lost both legs, was arrested and imprisoned and had one of his lungs punctured in the beatings he received.
We divide up into teams. Mazin and others get busy restoring the stone wall the Settlers have partially damaged. I join a couple of senior Israelis who are collecting the rubbish the Settlers dump on the Palestinians. We chat and their pessimism for the future of their children is palpable. I drift off with a bin bag up the hillside, along the channel from the settlement, picking up rubbish and the other detritus of modern life. A herd of goats and sheep appears from the side heading towards me until, at a shout from one of the herder boys, they turn away except for one who keeps heading in my direction. This alpha goat stops at the edge of the channel, a yard from where I stand transfixed, looks straight into my eyes and bleats inquisitively as if to ask ‘What the hell are you doing here?’, before turning and rejoining the herd.
Later, the Christmas lights are due to be switched on in Beit Sahur. I find a vantage point overlooking the square outside the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. It’s a joyful spectacle with whole families turning out in their finery, and babies dangling from mothers’ arms. The school bands come marching in an endless procession. I lose count after 15. The stewards are flustered and overwhelmed by the crush of people. Suddenly a tall man in camouflage uniform and body armour, armed to the teeth, appears amidst the throng, surreptitiously looking left and right. Initially, I think it is some sort of pantomime the activists have put on for the occasion, but then he is joined by another 12 or so security men escorting Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad who has come to preside over the switching on of lights. There is no ‘hailing the chief’ from the crowd, and I wish Salam Fayad had just stayed home.
At Manger Square, facing the low entrance of the Church of the Nativity, Christmas Eve celebrations are boisterous. The tourists keep piling up but they are kept away from the Square itself where the main event is to take place. I notice the tourists today are overwhelmingly Southeast Asians and their dress and accoutrements mark them out as affluent Thai and Philippine Christiana. I wonder how much premium Israeli tour firms charged them for the privilege. The bands have come from near and far — Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, Jericho.
There is the traditional Christmas tree with all the trimmings and another one put up by the activists which is decorated with barbed wire and mock tear gas grenades. Christians and Muslims — all Palestinians — mingle together in celebration of a national event.
Hebron, the largest Palestinian city south of Jerusalem has enough history, both ancient and modern, to set it apart from the rest. Patriarch Abraham and three generations of his progeny lie here in eternal rest. Herod the Great built his palace over their tombs, which the Byzantines later converted into a church. When the Arabs came out of the desert in the 7th century, Herod’s palace became a mosque. That’s the ancient part.
After the Arab defeat in 1967, the Israelis set a rota for Jews and Muslims to share the Cave of the Patriarch/ Masjid Ibrahimi. The 1993 Oslo Accords were fervently opposed by the Jewish fundamentalists. In 1994, the Jewish holiday of Purim fell on Friday February 25. That was when Dr Baruch Goldstein, an American-born physician and Settler, dressed up in his Army Reserve uniform, walked into the Masjid Ibrahimi where Muslims were praying, and opened fire. He killed 29 worshippers and wounded 125 others. The massacre was robustly condemned by the Israeli government as the act of an unbalanced individual and a two-week long curfew was imposed on the 120,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron in the aftermath of the riots that followed. Goldstein’s grave is now an unofficial shrine for Israel’s radical right.
Two months later, in April 1994, Hamas carried out its first suicide bombing at Afula, setting in motion this cycle of violence that has now reached Damascus by way of Baghdad and Kabul. This is the modern part.
The Christian Peacemaker Team is one of many organisations working in Hebron in support of Palestinians in their non-violent resistance to the Occupation which has allowed a few hundred Settlers to terrorise and hold hostage tens of thousands of Palestinians. I go looking for them when in Hebron and find the radiant Zulekha, a 55 year old Palestinian lady, and her indomitable mother. Zulekha tells me of her family’s history, which goes back to when the Ottomans ruled this part of the world and beyond. Her ancestral home is in the shadows of the Ibrahimi mosque which she and her mother have had to leave because of the daily harassment by Israeli soldiers who are there to protect the Settlers. She also tells me of the latest act of non-violent resistance she is involved in. In November, at the instigation of Israeli Minister of Tourism, Masjid-e-Ibrahimi was closed to Muslims for 3 days. A local radio station started a campaign under the slogan: “A grain of my homeland is heavier than a whole continent”
They urged residents of Hebron — even those who do not pray — to start visiting the Mosque on a daily basis to thwart a complete takeover by the Israelis. Zulekha is involved in organising regular visits by school students under the banner ‘Discover Your Heritage’.
To Bil’in or not to Bil’in, that is the question. Bil’in is a village north of Ramallah which is struggling to survive. The confiscation of its agricultural land began in 1991 with the setting up of the settlement of Kiryat Safer, now part of the Modi’in Illit block of settlements. In 2004 the Army took over more land for the construction of the so-called Security Wall. To date, the village has lost 60% of its land. In 2005 the villagers formed the Bil’in Committee for Popular Resistance and started holding weekly demonstration on Fridays against the theft of their land. Israeli activists and foreign peace activists joined in and the campaign evolved into a model of non-violent resistance for other Palestinian communities in similar situations to follow.
The last Friday of my stay January 6 is approaching and I am not sure I will be able to cope with the physical strain of marching and the skirmish that inevitably follows. At Bil’in, Israeli and foreign peace activists are there in force to mark the first anniversary of the death of Jawaher Abu Rahma, a 35-year-old woman who died due to Israeli tear gas on December 31, 2010.
We march towards the under-construction Wall about two kilometers away. I cannot keep pace and trail behind. The din of firing, exploding tear gas shells and shouts starts coming from the other side of the olive hill to my right. I take a short cut and climb over the hill to find myself looking down at two Israeli jeeps racing out from a grove of trees to outflank the demonstrators. The soldiers spill out to ambush the demonstrators with rubber bullets and tear gas. People run in panic. I climb down in the tracks of the jeeps ahead of me considering it to be a safe spot. One of the village youth picks up one of the tear gas cannisters as it lands near him and manages to throw it back towards one of the jeeps. Soldiers run past me, doubled up and choking. Stones follow the retreating soldiers and I, banner in hand, am truly stranded. “Stop, please” I shout in the wind.
They don’t understand English and the stones keep coming. The jeeps reverse and drive away. As the coast clears I make my way and come across Mustafa Barghouti, a former minister who recognises me and I tell him:
“Look this is my fourth visit to Bil’in but the first time I have been stoned by the Shabab (Palestinian youth) for my pains.”
On my flight back home to London, I recall a programme Mark Tulley did for BBC Radio 4, called “Something understood”. In particular, a segment from one of his broadcasts in 2007 comes to mind as I reflect on my experiences in Palestine:
“The Jesuit Priest, Gerald Hughes, in his book God Where Are You narrates his visit to Turkey Creek where sister Clara Hearns had founded an Aboriginal Spirituality Centre. There he met Hector, an elderly Aboriginal artist, learned in Aboriginal law. He told him about his youth, spent working on farms where they were kicked, beaten and given very little to eat by their white employers. He also told him the story of Mistake Creek, a few miles from there. In the 1940s, a farmer lost a cow. Suspecting it had been stolen by the Aborigines, the farmer with two of his Aboriginal stockmen rounded up 13 men, women and children, killed them and burnt their bodies. Next day the cow re-appeared. The police were called. They shot the two stockmen and warned the white farmer to clear out of the area. I asked Hector how he coped with this trauma and whether he did not feel great bitterness. He claimed to feel no bitterness, no hatred and said what had sustained him was his Abroginal way of seeing the world. We were sitting in the garden at the time. He turned towards me and said, “See sky and sun, see tree and flowers, birds and insects, you me, we all one.”
M A Qavi is a Pakistan-born human rights activist currently living in London.
Cover Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.com
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 11th, 2012.