Thursday 23 October 2014

Abu Shamsiya Family

The city of Hebron is continuously subjected to the most ruthless forms of Israeli occupation and settler violence and its residents are often arrested, without charge, as a form of intimidation and oppression. I travelled to the H2 area of Hebron (under full Israeli military control) and met with the Abu Shamsiya family, who are frequently victims of persecution from settlers and the occupation forces. 

Emad Abu Shamsiya lives with his wife and five children in the H2 area, embedded amongst swathes of illegal Israeli settlers. He took us through the checkpoint he has to pass through everyday, when he walks to and from his house. This checkpoint is sometimes shut and soldiers prevent him from passing through, meaning he has to walk many more kilometres round to the other entrance. We passed through the checkpoint and stood facing Al-Shuhada Street, once a vibrant marketplace within Hebron, but now it is often termed a ghost town where all of the Palestinian shops have been closed. It is controlled by Israeli occupation forces who stand less than a quarter of the way up the road and refuse entry to Palestinians - a policy of separation that couldn’t be more explicit. 

Israeli checkpoint.
Emad took us to his house, less than one hundred metres from Al-Shuhada Street. As we were walking, I noticed he walked with a limp in his right leg. He had been shot six times in the leg and his arms during the First Intifada - whilst harmlessly walking the streets with his friends. Experiences of Israeli violence aren’t rare for Emad. Dealing with this day-to-day oppression is an ongoing struggle and you can see that his experiences have meant that a sense of fearlessness runs through his veins. 

Al-Shuhada Street; a ghost town.
Emad Abu Shamsiya.
As we approached his house, we walked through a small gap in a concrete wall - built by the Israelis. This was the entrance to his house. We continued through a metal fence that surrounds his house, built by Emad himself to prevent settlers from throwing stones and rubbish at his home and his family. On the roof of his home stands an Israeli military watchtower - which is used on Fridays and Saturdays to control and monitor clashes, whilst Emad and his family would sit inside.

He invited us in to his home, a modest, concrete shack, where water and electricity is limited and is cut off whenever the occupation forces fancy. Of course, as is customary in Palestine, we were offered coffee and as we drank, Emad’s children began to return home from school. 

The Abu Shamsiya family, and Emad in particular, are regularly victims of arrest by Israeli forces - the most recent incident occurred on 4th October, when the whole family was arrested. There was no reason given for the arrest and Emad believes that it is just a form of intimidation that is used to eventually force the family to leave their home. There have been countless attempts by Israeli settlers to force their displacement, either through violence and humiliation (throwing stones and urinating on the family’s house) or by paying the family large sums of money to leave. But the Abu Shamsiya family are standing defiant. They know that the Israeli occupation and the settlers have no right to be on their land and they will continue to resist until their freedom is achieved. 

Entrance to the Abu Shamsiya family home.

Fence surrounding the home.

Israeli military watchtower on the roof of the house.
Once arrested, the family were detained and intensely interrogated. sixteen-year-old Madleen, Emad’s daughter, was questioned for four hours and eventually released without charge. The situation was much worse for Emad and his son Awni, fifteen, who were imprisoned for two days and had to pay 1000 shekels, over a month’s wage for many Palestinians, - which they raised from family, friends and also the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) - to be released. Amongst the already harsh prison conditions, Awni was fed just one meal during the two days he was imprisoned.

15-year-old Awni Abu Shamsiya.

Despite only being a young child, Awni is used to this kind of mistreatment. He has been imprisoned on numerous occasions and has experienced violence from Israeli settlers and occupation forces. Some of these arrests have been because of alleged stone throwing, a widespread form of youth resistance in Palestine. But stones are thrown at heavily armed soldiers, who are occupying these children’s land. When a child feels as though they have no opportunities and no freedom in a militarily controlled society, violence becomes their voice, and this is understandable. 

In Hebron, the number of arrests, particularly child arrests, has surged recently and the Abu Shamsiya family is just one amongst approximately one hundred and fifty other families living in this zone of Israeli imposed turmoil. It was difficult for me to remain hopeful whilst hearing the stories of Emad and his family. But whilst the stories were filled with misery, the family were filled with compassion and courage. These are two of the main human characteristics that can be used to overcome the inhumane Israeli occupation, and they are embedded within the hearts of so many Palestinians.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Tear Gas!

Tonight I faced tear gas for the first time. Leaving work late, we left with people rushing around shouting. News of the army only 100 feet away made us question where to go and be safe. Tear gas had been released at the end the road, after people had thrown stones at the wall. We tried to take some photos from a distant but the gas immediately filled our nose and mouths. It was like swallowing spikes. I turned to see people shying away from the scene, covering their faces with only their swollen, red, glistening eyes visible.
Backing up, we found ourselves among boys of 10356159_4627210654261_6595154733238646471_nschool age who, like their adult companions took the situation at ease. One handed over an onion to smell, apparently a counteractive effect to the gas, another set fire to items saying the smoke and burning rubber would help.To these people this wasn't an unusual situation and they were more than familiar to tear gas and the army.
However, we were stood next to a boy on crutches who only last month was shot. They were not safe and they were so often hurt. These people had sling shots and stones to throw at a wall which would 10352410_4627211214275_2885317619024688536_nnever crumble under suck feeble attacks but to the people, it was a way to protest. It joined them together under the one cause only to be met by tear gas and bullets. Today the army left but they often plan surprise attacks and use or try to trick the people out. What kind of life would let men regularly be reduced to tears, women to hide behind walls and children to lifelong wounds, from a fight they did not cause to so many who were not even born when the battle started.
We were not in direct contact with the tear gas but I can vouch for its effects. It was disgusting uncomfortable. Scorched our throats and nasal passage. Our eyes swelled and streamed making you blubber like a new born baby. The army doesn't care who is effected and it could well be a new born baby or a disabled person who is unable to flee. Whoever is around it is tough luck but I don't believe in luck because if more people acted to stop the cruelty and injustice, then luck wouldn't be needed.

Dead Sea!!

It was like fire searing through me which only intensified with every breath I took, every flutter of my eyes and every heavy step I trudged. Blinded by pain, tears trickled down my face as my outstretched hands searched frantically for something, someone to provide security. Not gaining a steady footing I fell, water once more10733957_4616504906624_7355191067570498079_n surrounding my face sending another rush of fire up my nose. Pulling myself up I tried again and again, each time I fell I was a foot closer to shore, to dry land and to safety. This time when my knee hit down, it landed on a harder surface. I was up and running. My eyes still filled with tears, I barely recognised the objects I passed.  Until I was there, flapping my arms and wailing inaudible words. I tried to explain what happened, their eyes just looked up at me, assessing the situation and confused. 
Ok so maybe I am a tad dramatic but to me it was a painful five 10711145_4616507106679_5114776972842553874_nminutes. After a month of being here, we finally made it to the dead sea. It was disgusting that the whole coast was owned by Israelis and that to even get close to the water, you had to pay. The reluctance to support the Isrealis and the desire to go to the beach battled within us. We had spent our time trying to buy Palestinian products over Israeli, if only to do a small bit towards their cause but here there was no option. If you wanted to go to the beach you paid the Israelis and it wasn't cheap either, 55 NIS which is £11 per person!! Reluctantly we paid but it was a beautiful beach. Golden sand, none of our English rocks that inhabit our beaches and a beaming sun that doesn't inhabit England at all! 
10702070_4616510226757_3414274452340434169_nWe watched as people flooded all around us. Old, young, local and tourists. Some people were dressed in hijabs and abayas, while others in a bikini. There was so much diversity here and only being half an hour from my small town where tourists are next to non-existent and the only religion is Muslim, it was a bemusing sight to say the least. That along with seeing half naked people next to fully dressed armed soldiers...... We ogled the passers by, smothered in thick mud as they casually went about the beach. The mud is said to have therapeutic qualities and to be enriched with minerals. It is often shipped and sold around the world to spas. 
Excited we rushed to change and stood staring as the water 1511597_4621393348832_4539179602541955334_nlicked the shore. Placing our things down we followed like sheep into the water, fast to smother our bodies in the grey sludge that reminded me so much of the acts of children. But we were children, absentmindedly following the word of others, driven by the possibility of reward. Like Rambo, decorating our facing in the thrill of adventure but like my mum used to say, 'it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.' Excited I wanted to wash off the mud and feel the effects of this 'amazing treatment' but I forgot my senses. I dived, breaking the surface of the water and almost immediately retracting, feeling my senses ignite. What idiot dives into extremely salty water?
It was like fire searing through me which only intensified with every breath I took, every flutter of my eyes and every heavy step I trudged.............

Monday 13 October 2014

Assault on the School

Sunday 12th October, not only marks the three week point into our Palestinian placement but also our first day teaching. Throughout the days spent here, the presence of the Occupiers has never been too far from sight.
Never have we encountered a direct interaction with Israeli forces until we unknowingly waited in the headmaster’s office at Abu Dis Boys’ School. At first, all was well. We sipped tea and talked to the staff until some unseen and unheard commotion out of the window attracted the attention of two of the teachers. As they became increasingly agitated I asked what events were unfolding outside - “the soldiers are here”.
I barely had chance to stand upon my feet when the first loud cracks signalled the arrival of stun grenades. They were so loud and piercing you could have mistook them for being projected straight at the door of the office.

Like ants reacting to an exterminator’s poison, the school erupted into chaos, with both students and teachers alike running away from the tear gas now seeping from canisters strewn across the playground.

The assault continued as kids ran to the second floor, covering their faces with their school jumpers to avoid the noxious fumes. Even in the office the air began to smell and taste unnatural, as my eyes began to sting and weep.

And the reasoning behind this excessive use of force on schoolchildren and civilians? For throwing rocks at heavily-shielded IDF vehicles occupying their land and who can blame the Palestinians? Wherever they can, they will resist. In doing so, they keep their hope alive.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Celebrating Eid

We were kindly invited to join a local family for the first of four days of Eid al-Adha.The festival of the sacrifice, it might come as a suprise to some Christians and Jews, is a celebration of a story common to all faiths. Eid al-Adha honors the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as an act of submission to God's command - before God then intervened and provided him with a lamb to sacrifice instead. When we went back to the family home on the first day of Eid, we were met at the door by all the sisters who excitedly showed us around their home. The girls and boys together had scrubbed the house until it was glowing in every room. They pointed out the decorations they had made, of sheep and of the Kaba in Mecca. 
A Quran stood in the corner of the room in a gold box, and on the wall hung a traditional Palestinain emroidered hanging of the 99 names of Allah. They had been baking and preparing for days. The girls wore their most beautiful skirts and hijabs and one of the sisters had woken up with the sunrise to curl her hair, which she showed off only to her family and us girls. We drank cardomon Arabic coffee and ate nuts, fruit and busicuits made with dates. The girls explained that the men were currently on their 'tour', visitng the ladies in their family, saying 'Eid Mubarak' and handing out money. In a mixture of broken English, translated Arabic and the few Arabic words I now understand, they explained that on Eid, everyone wears new clothing, special Eid prayers are prayed, sheep are sacrificed, a feast is created, sweets and cakes and fruit decorate homes, families travel long distances to see each other, boys get new hair cuts specially for the occasion and the girls receive a gift of money from the men. The atmosphere that day: the excitement, the food, the gifts and the trandition created a familiar feeling of Christmas. 

When the men returned, boys sporting new Renaldo hair cuts, 'Eid Mubarak' was said to all, and then the girls set out on their tour. We went to 5 houses in the area visiting grandparents, aunts and uncles and a married sister who now lives with her husband and son. Tea, coffee and questions flowed and we felt fully welcome at this special family occasion. For a few hours I forgot about the occupation, but when we stepped outside, I was reminded once again of the reality in which these people live. From their garden, the girls pointed out the sacred Dome of the Rock on the horizon, the mosque where they used to pray on Eid but are now denied the right to do so. 

The long day ended in the biblical town of Bethany, where Lazarus's tomb is believe to be, eating ice cream with Muslims, under the watch of Jews.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

One step at a time will help you conquer any mountain.

Most of my friends will already know this but for those of you that don't, I went on hike travelling from Bethlehem to the Dead Sea. We had stumbled across the event which was the first of its kind, through 'Right to Movement.' Right to Movement are running groups organised around the world. The purpose is to shed light on the human right Freedom of Movement and its restrictions internationally. It started after Palestine organised a Marathon In order to promote the right to movement. 
This time it wasn't a run, it was a hike. We were told to take a liter of water per person as we would be walking for around 6 hours and then we'd arrive at the Dead Sea. Exciting right? A little more than I've trekked before but would be a good chance to do a tad more. Well boy was I wrong!
After about 4 hours, we arrived at the cliff edge, it was spectacular! Up until this point it had been a fairly simple hike, up and down steady inclines and smooth descents. The sea was just several hundred feet below us surrounded by beautiful mountains and a view of the shore at the other side. It was mesmerizing!  Excitement drove me to search for the route down, the idea of relaxing in the sea now that I was so close.
Boy was I deluded! What we didn't realise was that the hike had only just started. We walked sometime heading around the mountains until we stopped looking down a huge drop. Taking a route one at a time, we slowly made our way down. With no railing for support we watched as stones crumbled under our feet and dropped off the mountain. To make it worse, rocks caused you to slip sending your heart racing like Seabiscuit in the 1938 Pimlico Special! That was nothing when I found myself on the ground, my heart had done a full leap straight from my chest. I just remember two hands around me lifting me straight from the ground and realising I'd been fortunate to only find a scrape and to still been on the edge rather than over it.
Reaching the bottom people collapsed to the ground trying to drink the last of their water and breathing steadily to calm the nerves that shadowed them. The descent had drained much of our energy but we were there, 6 hours from the start and all that was left was to follow the path to the sea; hurray!! 
Wrong again! We weren't near the sea, in fact we still had to climb over another mountain. Yes over the top and back down! But worse, there was going to be no swim in the Sea awaiting us at the end, no cool refreshing paddle or water fights, nothing! Occupied Palestine was on “lockdown” for the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur. For the first time in over 30 years it coincided with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Israeli forces sealed off the West Bank. this included restricting the use of the Dead Sea to Israelis and to people who could pay. Since when have you ever known it to be illegal to spend time on your local beach? What happened to humanity where freedom became little more than a word and repression came in the form of land sealed off by a wall and security. Oh wait, didn't I just describe a prison? Except even prisoners in most countries, receive more rights and a better way of life. 
Climbing up the mountain took more from me than I knew I had to give. Knowing I wouldn't even be within 30ft of the sea, somehow added an extra weight to each leg as I pulled myself up a rock at a time. My annoyance soon became a burning anger. Anger towards Israeli forces, the Israeli government, the British government for leaving the Palestinians years before, for never returning and leaving them in such neglect to the people we'd thrust upon them and to America for putting in the money, enabling Israeli to have the power that they abuse. At this moment everything did become black and white but I didn't care, it powered me further up the mountain and I suddenly felt part of something bigger.
I'm not going to pretend that my feelings alone spurred me to the top. No, on the contrary I made it after having several breaks, being dehydrated, burnt and nearly snapping at a women who wanted prove her language skills, putting on a crappy English accent, asking loads of questions and saying she wanted to know me. Now even if I had any breath left in me to speak, she would have driven me nuts but instead I focused on getting oxygen to my lungs and stumbling further up the rocks.
Reaching the top was an overwhelming achievement. I'm not fit. When I travel I have a tenancy to go on long walks and I enjoy a variety of sports but I don't regularly maintain a healthy fitness lifestyle. To me this was my Mount Everest. My reward was knowing I hadn't given up and I had completed something that I wouldn't normally do but had always admired those who did. 
Unfortunately, the celebrations were short lived as we discovered Israeli soldiers had't let our buses through to collect us and we actually had over 4 more mil of walking to go to them instead. With trembling legs and no water I carried on, yet another painful reminded to what the Israeli forces/ government was doing to the Palestinians.
Nothing justifies what happens here, this being only a couple of things, but I would love to see peoples react back home, when they're told they can't see their family for Christmas, or police stopping local buses passing through your towns because its too close to another town. It's not right and if it happened at home you would react, so why not react now. You know its wrong and if you've read my blogs you know a little of whats happening here. It has become your responsibility. Knowledge is power, use it!

Friday 3 October 2014

Aida Refugee Camp

On Wednesday, I visited the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank. The camp was established in 1950 and became home to thousands of refugees from Jerusalem and Hebron, who were forcibly displaced by Israel during the Nakba of 1948. Today, almost 5000 people live in the cramped and overcrowded camp and the Apartheid Wall cuts through it, separating it from Jerusalem.

When you hear the words “refugee camp” you think of a temporary settlement that can host refugees for a short time, until they can return to normality. One aspect that struck me about Aida is the permanent village environment that is embedded within it. There are shops and barber shops scattered around the camp and you can sense that many of its inhabitants have become accustomed to living in these adverse conditions.

Not only are the people living in this camp imprisoned mentally by the harmful effects of growing up in a refugee camp, but they are also physically imprisoned by the Separation Wall that restricts their freedom of movement and opportunities to work inside Jerusalem.

But, as you can see by these pictures, many of the people here - especially children - still remain incredibly happy. They are thankful for what they have and have never known life to be much better. Simply through their existence, the Palestinians in Aida Refugee Camp are resisting the rapacious colonialism of Israel, which continues to bring turmoil and misery to the lives of so many ordinary people.