Monday 29 September 2014

Tragedy; The story of the night before.

Taking a step away from my normal blog, I come to tell a story. It's not one about somebody famous, or even one that will be seen as very important, but for the people involved it is their life.
Many of you who read this come from families much like my own, in houses that we've made homes and in communities we feel safe. We live each day to gradually leave these homes to build new ones and make new families. I have felt the pressure of my future not knowing how, someday I will afford to buy a house of my own. What I do know is that, when I work hard and save for maybe years on end, I will have the reward. So I ask those of you who are enjoying that prize or who have started that dreadful saving process, what would you do if one night the army told you to get outside and bulldozed half of your beautiful home? This is exactly what happened to a couple of families last night and unlike most western families, this family can't rely on their parents for emergency resort as the homes often contain their parents tooIMG_20140929_165900.
I tried to find out more about the house and even went to visit it. You could still see the shadow of what was obviously a beautiful home only hours before. Apparently this wasn't the first time, not the first person to have suffered in this way.
In 2001 Israelis started to build the wall, the wall which cages Palestinians in like animals. The wall has many watch towers for Israelis to monitor and a few checkpoints which tracks Palestinians movements and stops their rights of moving out of the West Bank freely. Like a hunter, they prayed on Palestinians to keep them in line and remind them of the power they have.
IMG_20140929_170915From what I have gauged the owner of the land had his house demolished not long after the wall was built as it was too close. The man then rebuilt his house and rented the first floor to a family. It must have been a masterpiece and, from the upper floors, he could probably had a beautiful view over the wall to Jerusalem. Unfortunately for the man, right on the opposite side of the wall was a tall hotel whose top floor had been snatched by the parasitic Israeli army to make a watchtower. Resembling a hawk, they glared down from their comfortable nesting place, spreading fear in the people below.
Like rouge animals they watched, waiting to one day claim the IMG_20140929_171136Palestinian territory. They look upon the lesser people and sometimes pounce to remind them how savage they can really be. These poor families felt their claws as the beasts had ripped into the home they had built. Even from our house we had heard rubber bullets being fired and bangs which we now know to have been memories being buried under the stones that had once made them feel safe.
The army claimed that the house was 'a threat to security,'  translated it meant it was in their way, either too close to the wall or blocking their view. For the university music professor who IMG_20140929_170615owned the house, he saw his hard work crumble. For the timid family who trembled with each hit of the bulldozer, they returned in the early hours to what was left of their lives. With nowhere else to go, they must try to pick up the destruction left behind from the furious monsters that sought them down in the night.
These people constantly find themselves working for things to only have them brutally taken from them. The communities try to protest but their chants fall on deaf ears. They can't fight as they are boxed in by the army who could crush them so easily. They can't gain power because everything they own is processed through Israeli checks meaning electricity, to stop them becoming more IMG_20140929_170251technically advanced, their productions - most are Israeli made goods meaning they can't earn more money and water supply so that Palestinians rely completely on the Israelis. How would you fight when nobody comes to help?
Things like this happen every day and people aren't surprised anymore, it's unacceptable!  Keep the stories spreading, let us not become remiss in our duties to do whats right because we've become too complacent that it would never happen to us.

First They Came For The Communists

Written by Martin Niemoller
First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was
 no one left to speak up for me.


 A visit to a local volunteer's home brought excitement to her whole family; mother and father, 16 year old twin sisters, 14 year old brother, 12 year old brother and 9 month old sister. We were invited to sit in the formal room, usually kept behind shutters free from dust and smoke, used only for guests. The lamp shade was still in it plastic wrapping, the furniture matched the ornaments and the room glowed gold. First came the juice in decorated wine glasses, then mint tea, biscuits, sweet wafers and after that fresh crisp apples. We were questioned and photographed and the baby crawled around in excitement as she had never been inside this room before. The girls told of life at school, of learning English and of a trip to London. They told us of the risks they have taken to get to Jerusalem – borrowing friends' blue ID cards, wrecking their nerves for a trip to the mosque. It is almost impossible to keep away from talking of the occupation, even when laughing and joking with children. The girls were keen to demonstrate their local dance Dabke. In their pajamas they jumped and turned, sang and counted, lost their breath and bowed. In the privacy of their own home, they were not wearing hijabs, and photos were not permitted. Here is a picture of a local Abu Dis team doing the same dance.

Saturday 27 September 2014

A stroll in Ramallah

Ra10392309_4540958778018_556496133817015757_nmallah, 10km north of Jerusalem and currently serving as the de facto administrative capital of the State of Palestine, also the place I just spent the last couple of days exploring. Occupying one of their bright, yellow minibuses, we traveled 1 hour from our new home to arrive in the bustling city. The extensive amount of energy hit me the moment the bus doors opened, spreading10636226_4540959338032_8542905163694251271_n (1) over the vast city center. A familiar greeting of dust and smoke wafted over, followed by and...... I don't know, what ever it was smelt heavenly! Oo and that too! The smells pulled me in every direction while colours twinkled from every angle. The fruits, lights, banners and umbrellas all of different shapes and sizes, not to mention the people.Walking through the sea of shoppers, I hear people telling me strange names of the different foods that had previously caught my attention. 
Everythin10419482_10202279699268418_662103969335468837_ng was new and exciting. We followed the days antics by heading to a local bar, yes BAR! As Ramallah is a city, they are more receptive to western cultures and things they would class as haram (bad). Of course the bars were run by Christians but that was only possible as Ramallah holds a large portion of Romania's Christian population. It was a truly pleasant evening bonding us Brits and our local colleagues in a multi-cultural environment, alcohol, shisha and good music!10649783_4540962418109_6123486370230079182_n
Our early morning start didn't begin till midday, however we did begin it with smiles. Heading to get our delicious falafel, we shocked the empty streets and the close store. It was so quiet like you'd expect at home if you went into town at 6 am on a Sunday. Juma'a is their holy day and it lands on a Friday so only very few people work. Muslim faith states that they should not buy or sell during the noon prayer, therefore most stores remain closed all day.  
One place that energy buzzed around was the falafel joint. Apparently everyone went to this one place on a Friday, but as usual we did not regret joining them in the mad rush! It was a fantastic start to our trip in Ramallah but was only the start of our day. Our next step brought us back to reality in a conference based on the politics and policies in Romania.

Friday 26 September 2014

The Power of BDS

Yesterday we attended the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy’s 20th annual conference at the Red Crescent Society in Ramallah. It was called “Palestinian Political Economy under Occupation: Crucial Issues in the Ongoing Crisis” and was broken down into three sessions. The subjects discussed ranged from the aftermath of the most recent assault on Gaza, the ramifications of Palestine’s water and electricity crises, the consequences of capitalism in Palestine and the relationship between peace building and counterinsurgency in the Occupied Territories.

Another element of the conference focused on the BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement) and in particular the concept of normalisation as an effective Israeli weapon against the movement. Omar Barghouti, an independent researcher and founding member of BDS, spoke eloquently about the dangers of normalisation and how BDS challenges its manifestations.

“The interests of Palestinian elites have merged with those of Israeli elites and led to a stance of normalisation that depicts Israel as a civil, friendly state” Barghouti stated. He warned that normalisation humanises the actions of the State of Israel and supports the narrative that is propagated by the Zionist project. 

The BDS Movement is an international campaign to pressurise Israel through academic, cultural and economic boycotts. Its three main aims are:

- To end the occupation and colonisation of Palestine, including the dismantling of the Apartheid Wall;
- To recognise the rights of Palestinians and end the system of apartheid and;
- To respect and promote the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The movement is based on peaceful, popular resistance and hugely inspired by the series of boycotts in apartheid South Africa. Barghouti argued that BDS “should be a main element of the Palestinian struggle to gain their rights”.

One of the most prominent contradictions of the notion of normalisation and the BDS Movement, acknowledged by Barghouti, is that normalisation does not extend beyond the context of 1967 - when both Gaza and the West Bank were occupied by Israel. By delving further back into history and at least recognising the importance of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, many critics of normalisation claim the mind of the oppressed - in this case the Palestinians - would not be easily acquiescent to the supposed reality of the oppressor - the State of Israel.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is not a balanced conflict. As Omar Barghouti described: it is a “struggle between indigenous people and settler colonialists”. It is an anti-colonial struggle, perhaps one of the last of its kind, and, therefore, processes of normalisation and balanced negotiations between two “equal” parties should not be the method of diplomacy.
Mainstream support for the BDS Movement, including the recent action of world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in pulling out of Israel’s 2013 Presidential Conference, demonstrates the great international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. It has enabled the world to recognise the moral superiority of the Palestinian right to freedom, equality and social justice; despite the advanced capabilities of Israel’s military and media machine. If the BDS Movement is effectively combined with internal Palestinian grassroots resistance, this moral superiority may become reality. 

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Black, red, white and green!

My first experience of a protest was exactly like I imagined it. Maybe not like you would expect in London but 100 odd people walking around flashing black, red, white and green, chanting the same words!

Israeli forces plan to move 30,000 Bedouin people in the northern Negev, to Palestinian land. In doing so they have knocked down structures and claimed it was Israeli right. Some 60,000 Bedouin people will be effected overall, contributing to lives forcibly being upturned and, disrupting Romanians lives further.

Near half of the Bedouin people live in 'unrecognised' villages. Israel considers the villages as illegal as they are not registered officially on any maps ect. However, Israel law deems that a village will be recognised if there are over 300 residents or 40 families. Most Bedouin villages meet this requirement! Not only that, they have resided in the area since before the foundation of the state in 1948. Now tell me how anyone can justify uprooting these families from their homes?!

We arrived at the site where Israeli forces plan to dump the inconvenient villagers, the sun was scorching and I had to squint to see. High on the hill, people used their banners to shield their bodies and scan the area. Within 15 minutes the sites was buzzing with a flurry of people or looking for the next move. Several men stepped up and began to lead the people. A quick motivation speech followed by a gradual chant which began to boom with all the people combined. We chanted with Palestinians and Italians, from Doctors to Media students, and even a small child to the old man. The sudden burst also came from the awareness of the military arriving. People did not retreat to went right up to the soldiers, who were barely from school age.

The aim was to stop the surveyors from assessing the land. The people swarmed blocking their view from scouting and ignored the military trying to inflict fear in their eyes. At one moment I saw the sight of tear gas, glaring at me from the grasp on the military. Reassuring me, my local companion told me they don't use them at close range and they don't want to cause too much conflict on site. Relaxing, I continued on, comfortable with the knowledge neither party wanted to be violent. There may not have been violence but the people persisted, hanging Palestinian flags of the armored cars, sticking together to demonstrate their unity. These people showed they had something they believed in and we were not backing down!

I completely lost all sense of time but suddenly I saw the military retreat, taking the surveyors with them. We won! I was later told that the forces had told the surveyors that they would return and that eventually the Palestinians would back down. A negative response to such an achievement. Even as the final speech motivated people to keep returning, a small shadow of doubt, sank in and I wondered how much the rally had really done and if these people really did have a chance against Israeli forces..........

Occupation No More!

The Israeli government is trying to expand Greater Jerusalem. In order to do this, they want to build settlements on the land around Abu Dis where nomadic Bedouins currently live. They plan to move the Bedouin community onto Palestinian land. The local community of Abu Dis came together to protest against this - showing solidarity to the Bedouins and protecting their land.

Activists gathered and were met by a land surveyor accompanied by young Israeli soldiers. One of them, a girl, nervously avoided eye contact as she gripped her gun and faced the crowd. Her silk blond hair was tucked into her helmet and on her ears, pearl studs caught the sun. 

'One, two, three, four, occupation no more! Five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a fascist state!'. The Palestinians chanted and waved flags. After about an hour the soldiers and the surveyor left and the protestors celebrated their small success.

Welcome to Palestine

I met the other volunteers at the airport. We were all feeling excited but very apprehensive about the boarder crossing. One of the guys was feeling particularly nervous and stated that he was a bit worried about a book he had in his hand luggage. 'What book have you got?' 'The ethnic cleansing of Palestine'. 'Right'. Someone else then dropped in that he had 'The Politics of Genocide' in his main bag. This might get interesting.
Once we landed, we gathered together, braced ourselves and walked towards passport control. I was up first. The young Israeli woman at the desk asked me about the purpose of my stay. She wanted to know what visa I was getting and how long I'd be here. I showed her the contract and she seemed to accept it. Just as she was about to hand my passport back to me, we heard 'Abu Dis', 'Abu Dis', heads turning and a man came over to investigate. They were suspicious of us. 'Are you with her?' she asked, pointing to one of the volunteers. She held onto my passport and talked to her colleagues about what to do. My fellow volunteer showed the contract to the person at her desk and soon they agreed to let us through. The others followed soon after and we were in. In less than 10 minutes. We couldn't quite believe it. 
Yes, we really were in. We got the Nesher bus to Jerusalem Hotel. On arriving at the hotel, I was struck by the strong sweet smell of jasmine. This scent, the warm evening air and the sense of relief came together in this moment and made me feel like I had finally arrived.
Once we turned away from the glamour of the Tel Aviv roads, past Jerusalem and into dusty Palestine, we met Abed. His warmth was evident immediately and I felt instantly welcome. He talked to us about the Palestinian situation and about the struggles that the local community has faced. His wife had prepared maqluba for us (a rice and chicken dish), and we ate hungrily whilst his stories flowed. The fridge was stocked with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, hummus, cheese, eggs, pears, peaches and guavas. I was very happy.
In the early hours of the morning I was stirred from a deep sleep by the call to prayer. Surreal, exciting and almost eerie. I had arrived in the Middle East!

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The world of sun and dust; my first few days in the West Bank

Touch down! Landing Tel Aviv airport drowned me in a sea of nervous anticipation. The expectation was that we would be questioned and likely spend a few hours being interrogated as to our intentions in the East. To our great pleasure we found minimal resistance and began to make our way to Abu Dis. Passing through Tel Aviv and then Jerusalem we looked out and at the bustling cars, the cafes, restaurants and stunning hotels. Not what you'd expect right? It was still the east, the building where build of a different stone, there wasn't much grass land and people still dressed differently but these where still cities and evidently maintained at a good standard. In an instant of passing into Abu Dis, things changed. A multitude of scrap cars lay ruined at the side of the road or piled on slopes. No more where there flashy hotels or well designed cafes, we had passed the check point into Palestine.

Our apartment was well equipped and people were friendly, greeting us with a home cooked, traditional meal and filling our fridge - which would please any British person! Our first couple of days consisted of exploring the town and familiarizing ourselves the area, local foods and the people we would spend the next few months living and working with. We are now home!


Waking up in Palestine

Before Arriving

With 3 weeks to prepare, I had little time to imagine the new life I was preparing to live. The next 3 months I would be eating, sleeping, walking Palestinian life in Abu Dis, West Bank. I did not have a political stance or even know that much about the goings on. The name Gaza was a place of conflict with people I felt sorry for, for the tragic deaths and injustice of the Palestinians. But what injustice? Did I really know why I felt sorry or why people where dying? The answer is simple, no. I didn't know the history of the country I just knew the name Palestine, a name which you will not even find on a world map.

To prepare myself I read a Humans Rights book based on the changing laws in Palestine over the last 100 years. At the time after WW1 England and France divided these eastern countries between them and in WW2 called upon the Palestinians to support them in the war efforts, which was obliged. During the years more and more Jewish refugees were placed on Palestinian land as a temporary solution for those seeking safety. Not long after the war, England pulled out of their interference's in the east and it took little time for Jewish people (the Israelis) to push, taking more land for themselves and forcing the native Palestinian people to flee. In 1967 Israeli forces took control of Egypt, Jordan and Syria territory within 6 gaining massive strategic value.

Over time the Egyptian territory, Gaza, did manage to regain their position in the land and push the Israelis back. For those in Palestine however, things only got worse until all that remained truly Palestine was the West Bank and Gaza. In 2001 Israeli forces decided to mark their territory by building a 9ft high wall around the West Bank and protect it with military forces, in and out of Abu Dis. When the wall was completed in 2002 the forces then brought in green and blue cards. The simplified differentiation  is that Blue cards are for Israelis and Jerusalem residents allowing them to travel around easily. The green cards are predominantly for Palestinians, restricting their access to anywhere outside of the West Bank. This means that many people don't get to leave and also makes a 10 minute trip to the hospital, an hour's trip, if they get past the check point at all.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Hope Amongst Oppression

I planned for this first article to be an introduction to my time in Palestine, but like many things in this unique place, plans always change. So much has happened since we touched down in Tel Aviv on Saturday night and rather than rambling through the chronological events that have occurred thus far, I thought I’d keep this piece short and sweet.

As I expected, the West Bank - although marred by a visible military occupation and a shattered economy - is beautiful. The people here are so positive, warming and extremely compassionate, all traits that seem to be embedded within Palestinian personalities. The group of volunteers I’m working with are equally as kind and friendly and I’m very much looking forward to working and living with them over the next three months. 

Today we had a guided tour around our local area in Abu Dis, a relaxed but welcoming village that borders Jerusalem. The village is surrounded by the West Bank separation barrier, a euphemism for the imposing concrete wall of apartheid which can reach up to 8 metres tall. This, amongst military watchtowers and a former Israeli military camp, is just a small reminder of the oppression of human rights that Palestinians in the West Bank suffer from on a daily basis. On a brighter note, we visited the Dar Assadaqa community centre that is where we will be spending a lot of time - working with Palestinian children and teenagers - rode a camel, visited the Tomb of Lazarus and also a maths museum.

As I sit writing this in our charming guest house in Abu Dis, I am filled with excitement for my stay in Palestine. I’m hoping to get as much out as I put into this trip and although my main focus is to support the work of CADFA, I’m sure I will it will have an inspiring impact upon me as an individual.

Monday 15 September 2014

"You're going there?!"

To get myself and the other new recruits blogging, we’ve been asked to write about how each one of us feels about going to Palestine.

The first thing that comes to mind is excitement really. Getting to spend three months in Palestine, completely immersed in a different way of life and culture, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that simply cannot be passed up. As someone who takes great interest in politics and plans to spend their working life in international development, this voluntary programme in the West Bank presents an opportunity for me to experience first-hand, one of the most pressing problems the world faces today. 

Secondly, is the feeling that no matter how small the positive impact is that you make — whether it be new friendships or the ability to understand a different way of life — only something good can happen from our work. I know from previous experience what it means to volunteer away for a long period of time, and it’s guaranteed that by the time late December is upon us I will have made some great friends, and (fingers crossed), helped build upon the work and relationships that CADFA has already created. 

To finish this off, many of my friends and family have asked me whether I’m concerned or not about travelling to such a place. Well, I’d like to say no. Due to the media frenzy surrounding the uprising of ISIS/ISIL/IS, people seem to think that I’m in danger of this despicable group. This just doesn’t worry me because people shouldn’t take things out of context. Yes, I’ll be in the Middle East and yes, I’ll be based relatively near to Syria — and by extension Iraq — but there is no danger of this threat coming to the West Bank… Israel isn’t America’s biggest recipient of foreign assistance for no reason, they have the 11th most powerful military in the entire world. But I guess this only just backs up the need to challenge western perceptions of places like the Middle East, where geography and Daily Mail headlines take precedence over context and actual facts. 

To get back on point, I feel exhilarated and enthusiastic about venturing to Palestine… Saturday can’t come quick enough.

Rob Barker. 
(I also have my own blog up and running at