Wednesday 26 July 2017

Walking into a tragedy

2 days after buying my ticket for Palestine to join the Summer Camp in Abu Dis, the tensions began. On Friday, 14 July, 3 Palestinians who had attacked Israeli soldiers were killed.

Following this, it was suspected that these Palestinians had hidden their weapons in the mosque of Alaqsa and electronic gates were installed at the entrance of the Al Aqsa compound.

If the Palestinians refused to enter via these gates, it is because it represents for them an additional humiliation. Accepting these gates amoubts to tolerating  Israel taking over control of the mosque compound  which is controlled by Alawqaf.

On Friday, 21 July, 3 Palestinians named Mohamed (Mohamed Lafi, Mohamed Sharaf and Mohamed Abu Gannam) were killed in Ras Al Amoud, Atur and Abu Dis in demonstrations. Two of them were 17 years old and had just graduated. The last one was 19 years old.

In Abu Dis, I could feel the tension that prevailed on Saturday. With other Palestinian women, we went to present our condolences to Mohamed Lafi's mother. On leaving the house of Mohamed Lafi we were confronted in the center of Abu Dis with tear gas thrown by the Israeli soldiers. I was told that this gas is also used every Friday.

I asked a Palestinian woman from Abu Dis to write her feelings, and here is an approximate translation:

"Mohamed Lafi was not part of my family but I have a brother of the same age. The day before, Mohamed danced with his family and friends because he had just graduated. After studying for 12 years he had finished school and had planned to enrol in the university. His family and himself were happy because they had helped his success and supported him.

Even if Mohamed Lafi was happy he had not forgotten Alaqsa. On the day that he was killed, he went with his friends on a demonstration to defend Alaqsa. A single bullet was enough to put an end to his joy, a bullet was enough to kill a boy who was not even 18 years old. But this did not kill the spirit of Palestinian youths and will not kill it."

(The picture is an old photo from 2014 of the Abu Dis football club and Abu Dis Boys' School. It shows the two Abu Dis young men who have been killed this week, Mohammed and Yousef (labelled),  as well as -among others - two of the boys who have travelled in youth visits to the UK with CADFA - Anas and Obaida)

Tuesday 2 May 2017

Abu Dis Girls' School

The highlight of our volunteering experience so far has been meeting with the girls from Abu Dis girls school. They are so bright and intellectual yet innocent and charismatic. They all have a unique spirit and are extremely welcoming. They put a smile on your face instantly.

When we first met with them they were so excited and literally bombarded us with questions about who we are, our lives, how long we are staying etc. They were intrigued to know about our culture and heritage, they wanted to know about the similarities and differences between them.

So far we have had an ice breaker session which was really fun and engaging and we just got to know the girls one by one. The following sessions have been on culture and life style, dance, so Dabka and traditional Pakistani dancing. We have also spoken about the girls aspirations for the future and how the occupation limits these. Similarly we spoke about their opinions and feelings about the occupation. We had in depth conversations about their experiences with Israeli soldiers and also about arrests and deaths within their family.

The girls inspire us to do more and be more! There is something innate within them. They want to succeed they want to see the world and will not let anything stop them. Meeting with them is more an honor for us then they will ever know.

Palestinian Prisoners Mass Hunger Strike

At least 1600 Palestinian Prisoners have started a mass hunger strike. They are protesting their conditions in Israeli jails. They face torture, poor medical treatment and restrictions on contact with their families. Israeli practices of mass arbitrary arrests and detentions without trial are major attributing factors to the hunger strike. These consistently violate the human rights of the Palestinian people.

The hunger strike is a way of expressing freedom for the Palestinian prisoners. It is used by the prisoners to really show the free world what is happening to them. They stand against the actions of their occupier. It is an effective way for them to defeat the occupation. They feel that having empty stomachs is only a small means to an end. They want the international community to recognize that Palestinians are freedom seekers and are using any options available to them to do this.

"Our chains will be broken before we are" Marwan Barghouti.

Here in Abu Dis, there has been on going support for the Palestinian prisoners. The support has been demonstrated through protests, strikes and tents of solidarity in each city or town. However, this has resulted in many clashes between the locals and the Israeli military camp. We have experienced the effects of the daily tear gas bombs, the deafening sounds of shootings during the night and not to mention people screaming and running. There have also been several night raids which are essentially terrorizing the locals.  This instills fear within the community as each night is a unexpected series of events.

The soldiers have also been arresting children from Abu Dis Boys' School claiming they have been throwing stones. They asked teachers to empty the school within ten minutes and ordered that if any of the boys look at the soldiers in the eye they will kill them there and then.

We also had the chance to meet with a local who had been released from prison after four years, he was arrested at the age of 14. This young man has lost out on the most crucial years of his youth, where he would have developed many skills, finished his education, missing key family events such as weddings, births and even deaths. The damaging effects of prison are apparent in his reserved and timid behaviour.

It is so inspiring to see the community fighting for the rights of the prisoners, even amidst struggle and occupation the passion the Palestinians have is something each individual living in the free world should learn from.

Resistance is the key to freedom.

Sunday 23 April 2017

Palestine: First Impressions

Excited as we were to leave the UK to embark on our journey to Palestine, we were anxious as to what would happen at Ben Gurion Airport. The previous time we visited we were held in detainment for up to 3 hours, this time we expected the same if not more.

When we were descending into Tel Aviv, we felt as if we were landing in a European City, it was full of lights and sky scrapers. On touching the ground there was applause and cheers. We made our way through the airport where there were several posters about partnerships between Christians and Jews and about how Israel protects its minorities, which was extremely frustrating to see. As the reality is very different, there was no mention of Palestinians or Muslims or any positive affirmation towards a peaceful co-existence between these people.

We reached border control where our passports were checked, we fell victim to our Muslim names and were told yet again to wait in the white room for additional security checks. When waiting to be questioned we spoke with the other people in this room, they were of different nationalities and had been waiting up to 3 to 4 hours. When you are told to wait in this white room you are made to feel insignificant and untrustworthy. I personally felt as if I had done something wrong or was going to. I had a British passport like the majority of those on the same flight as me who all got through fine apart from us.

Shocked was quite the understatement as we were let through after 30 minutes. This was only after one of us was questioned about why we were here, who we worked for, whether they had authorized our leave, what our employers opinion was on us coming to volunteer, what our fathers and grandfathers name was and some family history.

Overall our experience at the airport was not the same as last time and could have been worse. Once through, we collected our luggage and got into a sheroot and headed off to Jerusalem where we planned to stay for the first few days with a friend and her family.

Monday 6 March 2017

My Month In Abu Dis: Goodbye Palestine

My month in Abu Dis is over. I am now back in the UK and it has been a difficult couple of days in leaving Abu Dis, and Palestine behind. This is firstly due to saying goodbye to several people and places that have created great memories for me. As well as this, there is a certain small guilt attached to returning to the UK. This is not guilt in the sense of doing something bad, but a slight guilt in being very fortunate to live in a political situation that enables the citizens of my country to have freedom, and live a life absent from lingering periodical human rights violations. It is a strange thought to think that right now, in many places, Palestinian life for many lacks so much of the civil liberty that we take for granted here in the UK. Simple things that I have done since returning home, such as going to university and visiting family in another part of the country would be difficult or even impossible for many in Palestine due to the occupation, and the way it has some degree of restricting influence over every part of life.  However, apart from these feelings, I was very pleased with the entirety of the trip, and I would even categorise some less than pleasant experiences as useful learning curves for future travel  in that area of the world. I set out objectives for myself before departing for Palestine and I believe to have accomplished them; writing about the occupation from a human perspective, seeing the real impact of western foreign policy, as well as teaching English, improving my Arabic and visiting some important and interesting places. I would like to thank everybody whom I was involved with, and to anybody wishing to visit, say to you that will be in for an interesting and in some cases, absolutely wonderful time. Just try not to eat falafel everyday.

Taken near Abu Dis on one of the sunnier February days; I will certainly be going to Palestine again in the future.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

My Month In Abu Dis: Settlements and the Bedouin

In spite of international law, the state of Israel continues to pursue it's policy of both confiscating land belonging to the Palestinian State, and accommodating increasingly radical settlers in place of those who once lived there. There is no greater illustration of this often tragic practice than the plight of the Bedouin community living near Abu Dis, who build their makeshift homes on pieces of land desired by the Israeli authorities. A proud, nomadic and traditionally conservative people, the Bedouin are now embracing the modern world, and are resisting the demands of the occupying Israeli authorities by clinging to their land, so that expansion of some already huge and luxurious settlements in the area is postponed. 

Living in the lap of luxury, whilst most of the Bedouin and Palestinians struggle
(Photo courtesy of Al-Quds press).

On a surprisingly cold day, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Bedouin school, situated right in the middle of a valley that is dominated by two Israeli settlements on either side; Ma'ale Adumim and Keidar. Aside from violently cleansing the previous occupants of the valley peaks in 90's, the Israeli's that have built there now have their eyes firmly set on eradicating the remaining Bedouin from the valley. This ethnically and politically motivated desire sadly takes the form of many human rights abuses against those who attend the school. Children who take the perilously steep paths, to and from their homes, along the slopes of the valley are allegedly targeted by settlers with guns. As well as this, the IDF have made it a priority to use a piece of land very close to the school as a firing range; leaving many un-exploded shells, dangerously and possibly deliberately uncleared. It is nearly impossible to watch the Children climb the valley, and not feel an overwhelming sense of admiration, as I was told that along with facing many dangers by scaling the slopes of the valley, the Bedouin children do so for at least ten kilometres, there and back every school day.

To the left, you can see just the beginning of the long journey the children take to attend school. Slightly in view are the  watchtowers. It was too dangerous for me get to close to the boundaries of the settlement.

However, overt violence is not the only tactic used by the settlers and IDF in order to force the Bedouin to move from their increasingly shrinking land. Deprivation of basic amenities, such as electricity, have made the cleverly built school (re-built many times since 1997) solely reliant upon solar power. This is coupled with a refusal to provide an adequate supply of water, whilst settlers dump their chlorine ridden swimming pool water and household waste into the valley.

From the top of this steep incline, garbage, waste and sometimes bullets are sent down into the school.

It is not surprising that this issue can sometimes go unnoticed to some, as much of the mainstream news regarding Palestine focuses on the many other elements of the expanding Israeli settlements within the Occupied Territories. Despite this though, the children and teachers of the Bedouin school near Abu Dis continue to strive towards a better life, and fight a continued resistance through non violent means against the Israeli Occupation and the policy of settlement expansion.

Long may this school carry on its vital and important work.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

My Month in Abu Dis: Education Under Occupation

Access to a good education is a fundamental human right. Under the Israeli occupation though, the young adults of Al Quds University (situated adjacent to the separation wall in Abu Dis) have to live, and study, under the constant threat of abuse; quite possibly casting a dark shadow over all their potential futures. During my time at the university, many were keen to tell me their story of just how hard getting a good education in the Occupied Territories can be.

The separation wall is in full view when standing in most parts of the university. Here, it can be clearly seen from a side entrance leading to the IT department.

One such student was Dareen, a 20-year-old English language and literature student, who vividly described how the occupation effects her studies. To reach Al Quds University from her home city of Jericho, Dareen goes through an armed Israeli checkpoint where she experience's her possessions being rifled through, along with having to suffer regular intimidation from the soldiers there. Not only does this result in her being late or absent for many of her important classes, but also leaves her feeling depressed and angry at the situation she and many of her friends find themselves in. In her own words, Dareen described this practice by the IDF as ''a violation of life'' leading to a ''very hard student experience''. As well as this, I was informed by Dareen of a particularly upsetting story of how, last year, The IDF invaded her home during term time at 1am, under the pretext of a weapon's search. During that unsettling evening, she was hit about the head with a butt of a gun, all for just trying to help her distressed mother. All of this is incomprehensible for a student such as myself from the UK, and it's hard not to remain un-impartial regarding the plight of my Palestinian counterparts. When Dareen graduates, her desire is to be translator in Palestine, using her knowledge of the English language to teach and educate others about the occupation, and its subsequent effect on daily life. Thus, not only is the Israeli army periodically abusing the human rights of the students here in Al Quds University, but they also seem to be making an attempt at depriving the world of a talented and hard working individual.

Although usually suffering under the occupation, Dareen Hawi stays upbeat and works hard through the adversity.

Although alluded to by Dareen at length during our interview, it was Ibrahim, a 23-year-old political science student who gave a revealing account some other abuses faced by the student's at Al Quds. In particular, according to Ibrahim, it's a recurring event here for the IDF to regularly attack students with tear gas and shoot at them with rubber coated steel bullets. Ibrahim himself also said that it's not unusual for many of the male students, including himself, to react to this by throwing stones at the attacking soldiers, which previously led to his internment in an Israeli jail for twelve months. As a result of this  Ibrahim not only lost a year of his life, but also now has what they call a 'black mark' on his Palestinian ID card, thus preventing him from undertaking any travel to Jerusalem and heavily restricting his movements to other parts of the Occupied Territories. However, despite this, he still persists in completing his studies and strives to one day, become a professor of political science.

Ibrahim remains confident of getting his degree and continuing his past to becoming a doctor in political science, despite the setbacks.

 From aspiring doctors and dentists to film-makers and writers, everybody I spoke to at Al Quds illustrates just how important it is to retain aspirations of a better future. However, it is a reality that Dareen's and Ibrahim's accounts of life here are echoed by many other students who study at Al Quds. I have also been told that Al Quds students are subject to this aforementioned treatment more than any others in Palestine due to the political connotations attached to the name of the campus; as Al Quds is the Arabic word for Jerusalem. Consequently, it seems getting a good education to enhance one's future here entails regular harassment, intimidation and even violence. A seemingly very poor state of affairs for human rights in the Occupied Territories.

The main building in Al Quds.

Saturday 4 February 2017

My Month In Abu Dis: Mixed Beginnings

“Welcome to Israel”. The billboard that greets every excited passenger on disembarking the arriving flights into Ben Guirion airport. I can't help but think though, perhaps a more honest message would be appropriate. Maybe something like “get ready for your interrogation if you disagree with our government's actions”, for example. Although less catchy, and admittedly a bit confusing for a welcome sign, it would have people quite prepared for what I, and numerous other visitors to Israel and Palestine have had to experience. I take no pleasure in writing that I was detained for 5 hours. During this time I was subject to very harsh and strange questioning regarding events I still know nothing about, by a pair of security officers that I can safely say had perfected a bad cop, worse cop routine. A very unsettling highlight of the whole ordeal was when one of the officers gleefully discussed items from my notebook (used on a short visit last November, which was later taken from my luggage when leaving) and demanded an explanation. I was also threatened numerous times with deportation by the other officer unless I told her the 'truth' regarding the non existent, violent demonstrations that me and my friends were part of. .

Despite my travel plans being somewhat ruined by the staff at the airport, I made headway to my destination. Following my stressful arrival, I was so grateful for the warm welcome and help I received from ordinary Israelis and Palestinians. In contrast to the news reports regarding the increasing level of violence in the past months, I was struck by how relaxed and peaceful Tel Aiv, Jerusalem and the town was and ironically, felt more safe there than I ever have in Ben Guirion International, where there is what seems like a small army of security officers. As I write this now, sitting on the balcony of my accommodation in Abu Dis, perhaps the welcome sign at the airport can finally be appreciated.

Good morning from Abu Dis.

A quick pause for breakfast.

Friday 27 January 2017

My Month in Abu Dis: One Week Till Departure

After a long respite following our November visit, I will be once again, travelling to the West Bank, on what seems like a fast approaching date. In contrast to my time in Palestine before, this trip will see me working for CADFA as a volunteer for the first time, in Abu Dis. My duties will include continuing to write via blogs, as well as helping with visas, and teaching English conversation. It's also a personal thing for me to improve my embarrassingly basic Arabic. Naturally, I'm excited about this opportunity and can't wait to follow up on the eye opening visit in November, working and living amongst Palestinians.

The visit, which will last for just over a month, also comes at a hectic time in terms of world events, and their subsequent effect on the lives of ordinary people in Palestine. It's hard to ignore the backdrop of the potentially disastrous decisions and attitudes, in the wake of Donald Trump's inauguration for example, and it will be of crucial importance to focus on whether this will translate into more abuses against the Palestinians on the ground. I'm hoping to cover this during my month long visit, and focus on the everyday life aspect of the occupation.

I can only describe the feeling before my visit as anticipation blended with excitement. It will certainly be a challenge in the coming weeks, albeit one I'm looking forward too and am eager to begin. Even in the midst of sometimes intense political issues, I found in November, that Palestine can be a welcoming place with friendly people, and it's this that makes my upcoming challenge a lot less daunting. More updates to follow.

Taken On Our Last Visit: A Photo Of The Separation Wall, Situated Adjacent To Al-Quds University.
(Photo Courtesy Of Emerson Photography)