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.