Tuesday 27 January 2015

One cannot live in Palestine and remain unchanged

Few words can describe life on the other side of the wall. Few because being part of a Palestinian community enclosed in an open air prison by an 8m monstrous concrete wall can leave one overwhelmed. No words seem accurate enough to convey the feelings pointing at the pain inside the hearts of people living under military occupation. I may be part of the community but I'm not Palestinian. It almost feels unfair to write about their struggle when my freedom of movement is not restricted by a permit, checkpoints, curfews or roadblocks, when I haven’t been physically and psychologically affected by daily violence or when my home hasn't been demolished and all of my possessions destroyed. I don’t know the feeling of having my very existence denied. It feels unfair to upload touristy photos from trips to the “Holy Land”, Bethlehem or Hebron when friends from Abu Dis need to apply for a permit weeks before to be allowed to travel in their own land or when they are denied the right to step into illegal settlements “because you are Muslim”. But perhaps being part of the community I can try to offer you a closer portrayal of their emotions, keeping in mind these impressions are still worlds away from the brutal reality. 

So imagine this:

The feeling of degradation and humiliation when the bus stops at a checkpoint after an agonizing journey and armed soldiers shout at you to get out, queue up behind a wired fence and show your permit; checkpoints lay a barrier around your life: you try to ignore it, sometimes you repress it, but it will permanently be there in the background. It is a part of the punitive reality that you so much resent and fight to change.

Hazeytim Checkpoint 
The feeling of being under a suffocating siege when seeing the apartheid wall snaking its way through your town while memories of where the football pitch used to be are fading away; now all you have left is a concrete monster that you use as a canvas to scream for your right to freedom, equality and justice. But the whole world has forgotten you.
The shock of having soldiers surrounding your home at 3am in the morning, force your under aged children into the street in their nightclothes regardless of weather conditions and the desperation of seeing your child being handcuffed and blindfolded without being told why he/she was detained and where he/she is taken. Every night that follows, your heart will sink at the slightest sound and you realise your own home is not safe anymore.

The hopelessness, confusion and despair when you think about your future – understanding the realities unfolding around yourself, your education being disrupted by rubber bullets and tear gas, the dream of emigration is in contrast to your current living conditions. Do you try to change the course of your life, lose an identity which is already uncertain or do you accept your situation as your destiny, a collective destiny and fight for your right to stay? Homeland or homelessness?

Few words can describe the lifestyle of the illegal settlers while Palestinians have every part of their lives controlled, from where they are permitted to move to how much water they can use. Maybe we should use the word apartheid?

The apartheid wall in Abu Dis
The stories that I keep hearing on a daily basis are the stories that don’t make the headlines because living under occupation has become normal. But it is not normal for an 8 year old to be used to inhaling tear gas, to grow up witnessing violence and human rights abuses or seeing her cousin killed in front of her eyes. The Israel – Palestine conflict that you permanently hear about is non-existent. There is no conflict here, only the supreme power of Israel over a nation trying to resist it and while doing so is dehumanized by the rest of the world without understanding the true nature of the struggle and what drives people to act the way they do. 

Sunday 25 January 2015

“This is for Atif”

Last week, Rami was arrested documenting an IDF raid on a Palestinian home (see blog below), on the 23rd January, he was arrested and badly beaten for filming the weekly demo against the wall after Friday prayer.

Rami informed us that after arriving at the Friday demo next to the wall in Bethany, he was told to leave by IDF soldiers. “They called me many times by my name” Rami told us “they know me and target me”. Rami followed their instructions and left, returning to his shop.

He went on to tell us that having returned to his shop, an IDF soldier who called Rami over, tied his hands behind his back and started to beat him. Soon, “around 10 soldiers came over and started to beat me, I felt like I was leaving this life”. After 10 minutes of being kicked by soldiers Rami told us that “a solider said I tried to hit a soldier and then said I tried to escape”. Rami responded to the solider by asking “why would I try to escape? I’m working, I’m a journalist.” This, Rami claimed, led to a further and harder beating. During his beating, Rami told us that the IDF soldiers said “This is a message from Atif, this is from Atif” and reminded Rami that “you did something wrong to a big guy so you have to bear this”.

Rami explained to us that Atif was one of the soldiers identified in the footage of the Israeli soldiers beating up and filming a 13-year old boy last year (see our previous blog below). Rami told us that Atif is a senior officer or even commander in Abu Dis and the surrounding towns. Following Rami’s exposure last year which according to one Israeli soldier “made us look like beasts”, Rami has been targeted and this was retaliation for making their senior office “look bad”.

Following the battering, they arrested Rami, transported him to Ma’aliadumeem police station, charged him and after 6 hours, released him after he paid a 2000 shekels bail charge. On the 22nd August he must attend a second military court on charges of ‘disturbing a soldier’.


Sunday 18 January 2015

“You make us look like beasts” – Israeli soldier

Bedroom ransacked in IDF raid on Palestinian home
We were taken to meet an independent media journalist, Rami Al-Ariya, who monitors actions of Israelis and publishes on www.Alqods.ps and www.imcpal.ps. He told us he was the only journalist working in the area, covering ours and surrounding villages. The previous night he had heard that Israeli soldiers were attacking houses and arresting residents, so went with his wife to film incidents that he witnessed. The soldiers usually come at night, he said, because there is no media, no audience, and it is therefore safe for them to act as they please. He always takes his wife with him as cover – without someone filming him the Israelis will shoot him, since he is known to them as someone who records and publishes photographic and video evidence of abuses. He went to a house where there was a commotion and entered via a side entrance where he found Israeli soldiers beating a man and ransacking the place. He started to take photographs, to which the soldiers responded by attacking him, taking his and his wife’s cameras and IDs, and arresting them. A soldier remarked at him “you never learn”, referencing previous incidences in which that soldier had arrested him and a military court case he has to attend on 15th March for one such incident. He agreed not to cover them anymore, and was given his belongings and let go. Photographs he took evidencing abuses that took place in the house – ransacked room and blood on the floor from the beaten man – can be seen here. The man they beat was in the soldiers’ vehicle with his hands tied, to be taken away for some form of ‘processing’.

Blood on floor, following beating of Palestinian
He went on to tell us about previous events. He had been arrested 6 months previously for taking photographs while soldiers were arresting a small child – it is for this that he must attend a military court. They took him and the child and searched him for the memory card, which he had hidden well enough to save. He told of how he had been shot three times in the back and once in the leg with rubber-cased steel bullets; the latter left his entire leg blue and he was incapable of walking on it for 2 months. He told of how they had used him as a human shield, holding him in front of them while walking towards people throwing stones at them – without, of course, the protective clothing that prevented stones from inflicting injuries upon them.

“No one cares about any of the harmful things they do to us – Israelis, they don’t care.”

He showed us videos of a number of incidents, one of which showed an ambulance transporting a man with a bullet wound to the head being stopped by the IDF and diverted to a military base/police station. Another particularly harrowing video showed an incident last year in which he was filming Israeli attacks on Bedouin houses. A boy aged 13 had been shot in the back of the head with a teargas canister and in the leg with a rubber-cased steel bullet while running away, and then arrested – Rami was certain the boy had not been involved in any actions against the occupation that day. Rami caught the Israeli soldiers holding the injured boy in a chokehold and posing while other soldiers took photographs. At one point a soldier held a Molotov cocktail in front of the boy in the photograph, and the boy shouted something before being choked into silence, which was translated to us as “it’s not mine!”. Rami’s publication of the video caused problems for the Israeli military – firstly, because the boy had an Israeli ID and passport, and secondly because of the way in which the soldiers took posing photos with him after he had been shot and arrested. “Since then, they shoot me wherever they see me… They said ‘you make us look like beasts!’… I [now] take someone everywhere just to cover me – not anything else – because it is very dangerous”. He told us that it is getting increasingly dangerous for journalists to work in the West Bank.

When we were leaving, we asked Rami if he wanted us to change his name for our blog - he laughed and informed us that he was already targeted and it couldn’t get any more dangerous. He was already an IDF target, and was therefore resigned to continuing his work until the end, come what may.

The videos can be found at the following location:


Battle of Bethany

Rami Al-Ariy

People can have such different ideas of what a warrior is, what side they are on, how they fight. Today we met a warrior in Bethany who was armed only with a camera but was far more courageous than the soldiers who have shot him, thrown bombs at him, arrested and threatened him and tried to break his resolve.

We had spent the early afternoon in the music and art centre but the jovial atmosphere was abruptly halted when our co-ordinator came in and bade us to stop. Even while the echoes of the precession were still bouncing off the walls he told us that a pack of Israeli soldiers had raided some houses in the previous night and that we were going to see a man who was somehow involved.

The man was named Rami; we went to Bethany to his media studio and he showed us his base of operation for his media company. Last night he had gone to the spot where the Israelis had invaded a man’s house, ravaged his possessions and beaten him in front of his two-year old. He had photos of a ransacked apartment and drops of blood all over the floor. He could not film the event, the soldiers had blocked his entrance.

It was a moderate battle for a man who has been shot many times, has had his possessions and id taken from him. A man who fights theses gangs with only the truth of his filming against millions of dollars of armaments and thousands of thugs. He proceeded to tell us, then show us some of the savage episodes of his career which you can find for yourself on www.alqods.ps and which some of the other blogs describe.

He himself will have to appear before a military court for filming the shooting of a 12 year old lad.

By the time we left, the streets in Bethany that had felt so hospitable to us could be seen for what they were. We passed a grocery store that we has seen moments ago on Rami’s computer with soldiers firing from it. Every piece of graffiti, every piece of rubble was now inseparable from the occupation and I can only imagine what living with this could do to you.

Friday 16 January 2015

Monday 12th January

Today we went to Ramallah and we saw, amongst other things, Yasser Arafat’s Tomb.

Ramallah is a bustling town, full of life and people everywhere, a sharp change to the quiet and disengaged Abu Dis. Going around the town it was clear that economically it had a bit more life than elsewhere in Palestine but the aesthetic was still consistent; buildings that may in twenty or thirty years convey a sense of solidity and permanence are still being erected and the stores and shops feel like they could do with a bit of a makeover.

Arafat’s tomb is a different world. Amid rubble and rubbish, a parting on the side of the road with two very nice military gentlemen with Kalashnikovs and behind them an oasis of pure white marble serenity. As we entered another guard escorted us through the courtyard to a small structure with sliding glass doors.

Inside, on full display, a stone coffin with the inscribed lid angled towards us and behind it, a solder with a far more solemn countenance than the bloke who brought us in and clad in his parade dress and posed as proudly as if Arafat was his own son.

The design seemed to have been drawn from a few different directions. There was a strong sense of heroic triumph not dissimilar to what you might find Napoleon’s mausoleum while the appearance of the tombstone had the same white marble with naturally inspired designs as can be found on the Taj Mahal. The minimalist glass and marble design created a strong sense of modernity while the engraved tombstone, far more timeless. The Palestinian flags flew outside the small enclosure and another was draped across the guard’s uniform as a sash.

Behind everything on a nearby street, Mahmoud Abbas gleamed back at the whole scene from a billboard.

It seemed odd that a man who had been born into, lived through, was shaped by and fought on through such turmoil could rest around such serenity, even as the conflict staggered on; when outside the marble afterlife the tragic injustice can no longer tarnish the memory of this freedom fighter.

After maybe five minutes, we left the enclosure and returned to the blustery city.

Tuesday 13 January 2015

First Checkpoint – Man Left Behind

My first experience going through a checkpoint involved an Israeli soldier coming onto our bus and barking something in Arabic at everyone, before getting off. A Palestinian woman behind lent forward and told me and the other volunteers I was traveling with that he told everyone under 50 to get off the bus.  Most of those on the bus, including me and my other three white European companions, got off the bus and, in the open, walked to the back of the bus to queue in between two metal fences around 15 meters long and 1 meter apart, so that we could have two soldiers inspect our passports and the permits of the Palestinians with us. A queue could easily have been formed without the fences, and it had no discernible ‘security benefit’; one can only assume that the main purpose for which they were built was to have psychological impacts upon those having their travel rights checked, and to establish the power relationship between them and the soldiers.

The disposition of the soldiers was unfriendly and nonchalant. My companions and I had a slightly nervous interchange while joining the queue as it seemed one of us might have forgotten our visa paper or had it somewhere separate to the passport, but not wanting to draw attention just mumbled “let’s just see how it goes”. A Palestinian man in front of us was nodded through after having shown his blue permit, only to be called back instantly and, after a second glance at his permit, asked to stand to one side. Everyone in the queue remained silent. I decided not to show my visa paper along with my passport in case it drew attention to my friend’s omission, as I discovered later did the others. One by one we and the others in our company were nodded through and reclaimed our seats on the bus, walking past the man whose expression seemed to me to combine anguish and resignation. I wanted to catch his eye or make a gesture of sympathy, or solidarity, but he stared sideways worriedly in the direction of the soldiers but with no fixed focus – it felt weak and unkind to simply walk back onto the bus without indicating that I recognized the injustice of the situation: that my British passport should be more valid than his permit, or his Palestinian identity, in granting me passage to East Jerusalem from the other side of the wall; that they should be routinely asked to stop and show papers in the first place; that he might be left alone to deal with the Israeli soldiers and whatever reasons they would come up with (if any) for at the very least humiliating and inconveniencing him, without any support or defence to depend upon.

When all except the man had retaken their seats on the bus, again without a word from any person, we saw the man give the bus driver a pleading look to wait. The driver shook his head in a way that indicated his discomfort and closed the doors. A young boy in front of me looked to a woman I assumed to be his mother and voiced something with a questioning intonation, gesturing at the man outside the bus. I heard no audible response from his mother. We drove off and the bus remained in silence for most of the rest of the journey. I got the distinct impression that this was a checkpoint passing ‘without event’, a mundane everyday occurrence, a vague relief for all but the man left behind, alone, with the hostile Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint. The phrase ‘banality of evil’ sprung to mind. No one could have spoken in support of him without risking their own safe passage – and who would wish to jeopardise their own right to pass now and in future, or to not continue their day unobstructed by intimidating and hostile armed soldiers? No solidarity was forthcoming for the man left behind.

Saturday 10 January 2015

Friday 9th January

We walked along to a bend in the wall in Abu Dis/ Bethany on Friday 9th of January, just before it started to snow. When a group of kids from Bethany from about nine, probably up to 20 – 25 preformed their own ritual after Friday prayer:

We were walking up the hill from Abu Dis  when we saw a modest road block. Our Palestinian friend seemed completely un-phased and only remarked on it when we asked him. He said that kids were throwing stones over the wall and that we could watch if we wanted but that soon the soldiers would come.

I tried to take a picture – a small child was not the person I expected to voice displeasure at the camera; the fact that even this child was so conscious of evidence and the dangers of the activity made a big impression on me, as did his willingness to shout at a group of foreign adults.

While the younger ones smoked and occasionally threw stones that didn’t quite clear the wall, the “top boys” as we would call them had the honour of executing the main spectacle, the ritual punishment of the wall. I could see the head and shoulders of three lads, a yellow Fatah headband, a black hood and a red and white scarf. With a giant sledge hammer they  rhythmically battered the wall, echoing like a solemn church bell as the faithful came out to observe the service and cheer them on.

Cars and buses coming from Bethany that did not know about the road block were turned away by the groups’ makeshift traffic conductor. Considering he wore overalls and a balaclava and held a knife, he could hardly have done the job with any less aggression.

While Israeli soldiers massed behind the throbbing wall the crew kept on bashing away but our friend gestured for us to leave… and off we went.

It looked like fun…

Did we land in Ben Gurion airport or hell?

Welcome to Israel. Minimum waiting time for being interrogated: ten hours.

Since arriving to Palestine four days ago, I find myself confronted with a mixture of feelings and contrasting experiences – from being held for hours in the airport and questioned repeatedly by eight different security agents asking the same questions over and over again to the kindness and hospitality of the people in Abu Dis, it already feels like I’m adapting quickly to a place I will soon call home.

As I write from the Dar Assadaqa community centre, I recall my experience in the Ben Gurion airport. As soon as I landed, two friendly officers asked for my passport and the reason of my visit. “Volunteering in East Jerusalem” I said with a smiling face.
“Where in East Jerusalem?” asked the officer.
“Abu Dis”.

Once the officers heard the name of the town and that I will be staying there for three months, hell broke loose. My passport, letter and contract of volunteering from CADFA have been taken and I was put together with the other CADFA volunteers and dangerous people in a detainment room. I was second to be called in the interrogation room where two women asked for my contact details, my father’s & grandfather’s name, where I’m going, why and for how long. Normal demands I thought to myself but given the countless stories of harassment I have heard about before the trip, I had my doubts this would be all and I wasn’t wrong. What followed next was unexpected – they wanted to know my university degree and when the lady officer heard I studied international relations she assumed I studied together with another volunteer who has the same degree and angrily interrogated me if we participated together in pro Palestine demonstrations organised by the university.
“Why did you choose to volunteer in Palestine and not Africa?”
“What do you know about the conflict?”
“Did CADFA teach you what to answer to security question?”
“Did CADFA tell you not to visit Jewish sites?“
“Do you have any contacts in Palestine?”
“Did you know boys in Abu Dis throw rocks at the Israeli military?”

I have to admit my voice was shaking at the beginning of the first interrogation however after hours of exhaustion I had moments when I couldn’t remember my phone number or my grandfather’s name but I couldn’t care less. The security officers clearly made cynical use of their power to instigate fear and intimidation. My emails, text messages, whatsapp messages, Facebook and contact list where checked for any dangerous links to Palestinians. Meanwhile, I asked if I could charge my phone or connect to the wireless to let my family know I was stuck there but I only received hostile reactions.

One thing is for sure. The officer said there’s nothing on the other side of the apartheid wall - but she was wrong. There are warm, kind people with an intense desire to tell us more about the daily life struggles of living under occupation. 

"Why aren't you volunteering in Africa?"

"How are you going to call your mother without a phone?"
"There is nothing in Abu Dis. Why are you going there?"
"Why are you volunteering in Abu Dis, when you could be volunteering in Africa? The children there are very disadvantaged!"

Having successfully navigated an interesting flight, I hoped my passage into Palestine would run smoothly. Instead we were welcomed off the flight by two security officials who after learning that we were going to Abu Dis for 3 months, became less than friendly. And so our first round of questioning began. After the second round, and being escorted to the toilet, we were taken to the naughty corner where we would spend the next 10 hours. Sitting across from us was John, a north American evangelical who had recently spent several weeks in a monastery and refugee camp in northern Iraq and simply wanted to look around Israel. Clearly he belonged in the naughty corner. Then 6 hours after arriving, two Germans backpackers arrived whose only sin was having long hair and a couple of contacts in their phones with Muslim sounding names. And finally, out of the foreigners in the naughty corner was another north American who didn't appear to have any incriminating qualities and so after arriving believed that all it would take was a gentle, rational word with the Israeli security and away he would go...5 hours later he was threatening to call the USA consulate. But maybe the most interesting person we met was an Israeli women who told us that she refused to take part in military service when she was asked back - "2 years service is surely enough" - and was therefore held up every time she wanted to leave Israel. We were the naughty bunch!

The main tactic used by the security was intimidation and fear. Apparently, they threatened to beat-up John and told him that we would never be a priest unless he told the truth. We faced slightly less aggressive tactics, but nonetheless, their intention was to make us feel scared and guilty. In all 4 interviews they asked the same questions, desperately hoping that we would change our story. And in all the interviews, but especially the last, every answer we gave was followed up by a further question, intended to make a previous answer look suspicious. But after several games or contract wist, blackjack, a sandwich and with a little help from the UK foreign office, we finally emerged out of Tel Aviv airport at 11.30pm with further confirmation of my existing views of the Israeli state.