West Bank Diary 2009

PART 1

In July 2009 I went to the West Bank to run a series of creative education workshops, with Palestinian children and informal, discussion-based training sessions with local staff. The work with the children had various aims: to build self-confidence and self-belief and to provide a means of expression. Inherent in all the work was the objective of encouraging independent creative thinking and cultivating an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding amongst all the beneficiaries, children and adults alike.

Arrival

From Ben-Gurion airport I took the Sheruk minibus to Jerusalem, where, at the Jerusalem Hotel, I met Henry, an Englishman working for Sharek Youth Forum, the local Palestinian NGO I would be collaborating with. After a much needed breakfast, we took a bus to Ramallah. There are two bus stations in Jerusalem, one filled with white and blue Israeli buses, the other in East Jerusalem, five minutes walk away, with white and green Palestinian buses, these are not allowed to pass into West Jerusalem.

Ramallah is a mere 15 km from Jerusalem via the notorious Qalandia checkpoint. Qalandia is one of the largest Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank. Located between Ramallah, Qalandia refugee camp, and the Palestinian town of Ar-Ram, it separates Ramallah residents from southern Palestinian towns and Palestinian neighbourhoods in (East) Jerusalem, where  around 200,000 Palestinians live.

Israeli soldiers check identity cards and passports when moving from the West Bank side in Ramallah. Travelling into Ramallah from Jerusalem elicits no such checks.

A Wall of Separation

As we drove through the checkpoint I had my first sight of the Wall – known variously as the Apartheid Wall, Separation Wall, Security Wall or simply the ‘fence’. No matter the name, it is an abomination in any language.

The ‘wall’ is being constructed mainly on Israeli occupied territories inside the West bank and substantially deviates from the 1949 Armistice or ‘Green Line’, which demarcates the West Bank. A concrete structure eight metres tall (the Berlin wall was 3.5 metres high) makes up around 5% of the total barrier’s length. In many places three fences of barbed wire, act as the dividing barrier.

The Wall has in places become a kind of ‘notice board’, a place for Palestinians to vent frustration and shout a message. On the West Bank side around Qalandia it is covered in graffiti - from slogans and cries of anger to an image made by Banksy (the well known British graffiti artist) of two children dressed in swimming trunks, holding buckets and spades and sitting below a coloured photograph of a tropical island beach – an idealised image of escape. 

Ramallah

There seemed to be construction work taking place everywhere in Ramallah, new apartment buildings, hotels and office space. Many buildings are left semi-built where funds have run low. Al-Manara, is a typical city centre area, noisy and hectic, full of shops, cafes and stallholders. Cars, lorries and minibuses crowd the busy roads, honking their horns as they hurry around the city. It is the picture of a bustling, vibrant, commercial city, an expensive city - the cost of living in Ramallah is the highest in the West Bank.

On the surface life here, certainly in Ramallah, where I stayed, looks fine. Nobody is homeless, children are well dressed, clean, healthy and in school. Shops are filled with produce, café’s are busy, everyone seems to have a mobile phone. Life ‘appears’ much as it does throughout the developed world. The appearance is deceptive of course, it is estimated that 50% of Palestinians - 2 million people, live in poverty. The average income in the West bank is around $11,000 per annum, compared to their Israeli neighbours’ $21,000 a year. Much of the Palestinian economy is remittance based, with Palestinians living abroad supporting hundreds of families.

It is late July and the wedding season is in full swing, this is a rather noisy affair with convoys of wedding cars driving through the streets sounding their horns and waving at passers by. Fireworks often accompany the marriage celebrations, my first night in Ramallah was spent listening to explosions overhead, I was somewhat relieved to discover they were nothing more than firework rockets and ‘bangers’.

Halhul

It’s the first day of a Creative education programme we are running in Halhul. A district of Hebron, Halhul is roughly 30 km south of Ramallah beyond Bethlehem.  A volunteer from Sharek, Dahlia a student from the USA, will be assisting me.

The short journey by mini bus from Ramallah should take no more than 40 minutes. The direct route would mean passing through Jerusalem, taking three buses and having to pass through Albania checkpoint where there are often long delays.

Our journey avoids Jerusalem and rather than being direct is more like a huge semi-circle, taking us around Jerusalem. The journey takes one hour and 25 minutes. By 10.30, when we arrive at the community centre in Halhul, the temperature is already 30 degrees. We are met at the bus stop by Fahed, the co-ordinator of the centre. A large group of children await us, and with numerous local volunteers we run a short introductory workshop, outlining the underlying ideas to the volunteers.

After the introductory workshop lunch and a delicious falafel sandwich, the first of many. Dahlia and I take the mini bus back to Ramallah.

A few miles outside Halhul we spot an Israeli military lorry and jeep. They are parked in a ‘lay-by’ at the side of the road, where a young Palestinian has set up a simple stall selling fruit and vegetables. Israeli soldiers are breaking up the stall, pulling the makeshift tarpaulin roof down and kicking in the sides. Continuing along the road, we see a further eight stalls destroyed and abandoned. A common practice, I later discover, and one that is illegal under Israeli law. According to the Israeli military the stallholders are trading without the required paperwork; Permits (issued by Israeli authorities) that according to Palestinians are difficult to obtain, yet are required by the Israelis to trade inside the West Bank, supposedly Palestinian land.

Thanks to further checkpoints and searches, our return journey takes almost two hours.

Nablus

I visit Nablus where we will be delivering a programme, to meet the Sharek team who are running a summer camp for children and youths in the city. There are a large percentage of young people in Nablus, approximately half the population are under 20 years of age - a representative demographic throughout the West Bank and Gaza – something that terrifies Israel.

Around 45 km north of Ramallah, with a population of 134,000, Nablus is the most populated city in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT.

It is chaos when we arrive at the community centre. There are over 60 children whom we divide into two smaller groups and spend an hour outlining the programme. Local volunteers, somewhat heavy-handedly help to organise the groups. 

Later I wander around Nablus with Yasmin, the 20 something daughter of the centre’s manager and my translator. Over tea and halweh (a sickly sweet pastry), we talk about male/female relationships for Palestinian Muslims. She has had one ‘boyfriend’, who she’d only physically met on a few occasions. The relationship was maintained via mobile telephone conversations and text messages. This partitioned, inhibited relationship continued for some months until they could stand it no longer and separated, with much sadness on both sides. Yasmin’s mother, she says, is very open-minded, but her father is more conservative.

The settlements

The road to Nablus is dotted with Israeli settlements built strategically on hilltops. Initially, armed military ‘outposts’ are established using trailers as accommodation. Concrete houses soon follow, shops and the usual social amenities are built and a village is created. As these individual hilltop settlements grow, they merge to form one large town.

The settlements are a world within a world, often gated with Israeli flags flying, always guarded. The Israelis settlers live altogether more comfortable, privileged lives than their Palestinian neighbours. Stories abound of settlers attacking Palestinian farmers, beating them, burning or cutting down their trees and crops and generally making life intolerable. The settlers have access to Israeli-only roads and tunnels, use settler only buses, and have ample, disproportionate supplies of water and good electricity services. Settlers live in subsidised housing, often leaving a small city apartment for a large family home in a sanitised settlement.

‘De-development’

Friday is a weekend day, a day of rest. Government offices are closed, as are public buildings, shops and many café’s and restaurants. Fortunately my local supermarket is open. Whilst buying pitta bread, humous and water, I meet Taleb Abu Remeis a local resident and we begin to discuss life in the OPT. Taleb had spent three years in an Israeli prison when in 1968, as a student, he was arrested for peacefully demonstrating against the occupation.

Now working for Coca Cola in Ramallah he described how a regular business journey that once took 30 minutes now takes up to three hours, due to the establishment of new checkpoints and the ‘wall of separation’ on Palestinian land. A land-grab has taken place as the Israelis have redefined boundaries and demarcated territory through the construction of the wall, branding land that had been in the West Bank and therefore Palestinian, as part of Israel. This has caused many problems, both sociological and economic, the supply of water being a major issue.

De-development is a term often applied to Palestine. Taleb gave me an example from Coca Cola of the impediments to healthy, normal business practice. All goods being imported into Palestine come through Israel; import permits have to be obtained from the Israeli authorities. Coca Cola applied for a permit to import a material needed for the packaging of the soft drink. Permission to import this harmless material was refused, justified under the umbrella term ‘security’.

A small example of the daily inconvenience and controls placed upon Palestinians by the occupying Israeli forces: I met a man working in a pharmacy in Ramallah, from a village outside Nablus. For three years He had been denied access to the city, where he had work and family, due to what the Israeli military described as ‘problems with his ID’. He would repeatedly queue at the checkpoint for hours, only to be turned away. Offers by the man to have his ID renewed were dismissed by the soldiers. Disempowerment and loss of dignity are strategies of control employed to smother hope, creating despair and immense frustration.   

House demolitions

Later in the day I meet up with Henry, the co-ordinator for the project. He has been in Ramallah for six months and heard many stories of Palestinian suffering at the hands of the occupying force. House demolition is a particular horror for many families. Demolitions are usually done without prior warning and often during the night. The inhabitants are given little time to evacuate – anything from a few minutes to half an hour. Once a demolition order has been passed (by the Israeli authorities), it may be executed anytime – immediately, or after 10 years, 20 years or more. A family known to Henry have been living under the ‘imminent’ threat of demolition for 37 years, causing them untold stress and anxiety.

Once an order has been passed, the family has a choice. They are free to move before the house is levelled, demolish it themselves, or stay in the knowledge that at any moment their home may be knocked down. If the Israeli authorities carry out the demolition, the family may be presented with a bill for the work, up to $20,000 - lose your home and pay for the privilege!

I have been in the West Bank for just one week. It’s an unsettling, disorienting place, a ‘Truman Show’ reality, where subtle and not so subtle modes of manipulation build insufferable obstacles to harmonious, easeful living. On the face of it life appears normal. Children are in school, shops are busy, the buses run, and no one is starving. So what’s the problem? If one speak to the Palestinians, look beyond the surface of ‘normality’, travel around as the locals do, very quickly a picture forms. It is an insidious image of fear and control. There is a kind of pervasive suffocation taking place, it may be likened to dropping a frog into a bucket of warm water and slowly, almost imperceptibly, increasing the heat.  the hand of repression looms large and day-by-day the feeling of entrapment grows.

PART 2

The Israeli Committee against House Demolition (CADH)

I am Travelling to Jerusalem by bus, my first journey into the ‘City of Peace’ from Ramallah. I have arranged a meeting with Angela Godfrey Goldstein, a Director of ICADH, The Israeli Committee against House Demolition (www.icahd.org).

ICAHD is an Israeli NGO, comprised of members of many Israeli peace and human rights organizations. It is a non-violent, direct-action group, originally established to oppose and resist Israeli demolitions of Palestinian houses in the OPT. Angela an artist, is British, has been living in Israel for some 30 years and has a great deal of knowledge and experience of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

 Checking out Qalandia

I leave from Ramallah bus station, a bleak concrete building housed in a multi-storey car park in the centre of the city. To enter Jerusalem we must go through Qalandia checkpoint.  I had been warned that passing through Qalandia was a pretty ghastly ordeal and could take some time.

The bus parks up on a mini-roundabout at the entrance to the checkpoint. Having been issued with a second bus ticket, the passengers disembark and walk through a full body turnstile into the checkpoint. Inside the part-covered area there are what I can only describe as three caged corridors, 10 metres or so long, with at the end of each, another full body turnstile, a cctv camera and a red and green light. Once inside there is no way back, there is no choice but to stand in the queue and wait.

Each ‘corridor’ has roughly the same number queuing; I join a line of around 12 people.  It is 2pm and very hot - the temperature must have been over 30 degrees. People are pushed up against the turnstile, which is not moving in any of the corridors. After 15 minutes or so a loud siren blares out, the green light shines and one, two or perhaps three people push through the turnstile, then nothing for another 10 minutes.

I am standing with a young Israeli woman, a university student. It is her first time at Qalandia too. I ask what she thinks of the checkpoint and the occupation in general. She becomes quiet, then in hushed tones whispers: ‘It is not safe to talk of such things, they have spies everywhere.’

The atmosphere in the queue was calm and quiet to begin with, but after 30 minutes in very hot, claustrophobic conditions with little movement, the anxiety level began to rise, there was some jostling for position in the line and shouting through the turnstiles to the unseen guards on the other side. After 45 minutes or so the turnstiles were released and two by two we passed through to the security check. Much like checks made at airports, all bags, wallets and metal objects pass through an ex-ray scanner and ID papers, passports and permits, are checked by security personnel.

After presenting my passport to a young female officer, I walk out to a car park where a number of buses are waiting.  With my previously issued ticket I board my original bus and after a wait for the remaining passengers we leave Qalandia. The whole process takes over an hour, it is an unsettling experience, which many people face daily, designed to inconvenience, frustrate and to chip away at the dignity of the Palestinians.

Touring East Jerusalem

I finally arrive at Angela’s apartment in a residential area of Jerusalem; she has arranged a guided tour of east Jerusalem, for two French journalists and myself. Our taxi drives up the Mount of Olives, upon whose slopes sits the world’s oldest continually used cemetery, some 150,000 Jews are buried here. At the top of this historic hill is the beautiful Russian Chapel of the Ascension, with its three golden onions rising to the heavens, behind the church runs a newly constructed concrete section of the wall, which divides this part of the city. I’m struck by how completely unsightly the structure is, and how in a place of such historical and religious importance, something symbolising, indeed fuelling, hatred and division has been built. Checkpoints have been set up and what were busy local city streets are now closed, making simple journeys impossible.

Within East Jerusalem, with a total population of around 430,000, there are estimated to be 190,000 Israeli citizens living in settlements – almost half of the population. It is difficult to see how a two-state solution would deal with this social problem. It is akin to mixing water and orange juice then attempting to remove the water.

Angela points out a large residential building near the Mount of Olives, which in September 2005 was demolished. It is the largest single building to be destroyed under the house demolition programme. The apartment building was to be home to 28 Palestinian families: it now lies in ruins, covered in graffiti.

Water monopoly

We drive out of Jerusalem passing Maale Adumim, with 30,000 residents it is one of the largest Israeli settlements in the OPT. In an arid area bordering the Jordan desert, the settlement is adorned by palm trees and gardens bursting with colour, creating a theme park image of artificial beauty upon a battle ground of injustice and hate.

 The supply of water in the region – on average 1100mm annually in the North, but only 100mm in the far south - is a major issue. The ‘wall’ has played a major strategic part in allowing Israel to confiscate sources of water.  Springs and ground wells, which were once on Palestinian land, are now, thanks to the wall, inside Israel.

Israel steals the water, provides ample supply to settlements inside the West Bank, enough for tree-lined avenues and landscaped gardens, and effectively rations water flow to Palestinian communities. The apartment I stayed in for example, received mains water only once a week, water tanks and jerry cans are filled to provide water until the following week.

Palestinians have no legal control over their own water resources. The Israelis determine the water supply, which is far below that of Israel’s, and well below that of World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. The inadequate water supply is also a key factor affecting the Palestinian economy and is having a de-development effect. Try buying fruit, which is produced inside the West Bank and you’ll find it very limited.  I would estimate that 80% of all available fruit and vegetables are ‘imported’ from Israel.

Perched on a hilltop on the outskirts of East Jerusalem and overlooking the city, we pass a newly built, and I understand, state-of-the-art Israeli police station.  Constructed at great expense - $1 billion was one figure mentioned - it is an intimidating statement of intent by a country purporting to be working for peace.

The Bedouins plight

Our tour ends with a visit to a Bedouin camp, situated at the side of a busy main road in the Jordan desert. This semi-nomadic community lives sandwiched between Israeli settlements, in wooden shacks with no mains water or electricity supply. Barely tolerated by the Israeli authorities, they are constantly being moved on by the military and subjected to attacks and intimidation by settlers. The community have built a school on the site, made out of reclaimed car tyres covered with mud. The building has two classrooms and will serve as a nursery/primary school and community centre. At the time of our visit they were waiting for funding from the Palestinian Authority to cover salaries for two qualified teachers. 

I take a shared taxi back to Ramallah with two Palestinian construction workers, returning to Ramallah from working on an Israeli construction project inside the West Bank. Avoiding Qalandia checkpoint, the return journey takes 30 minutes and is straightforward.

Friendship in Halhul

Friendship is the theme of our work with the children; what it means to be a friend, what draws individuals together, what are the qualities we look for in a friend and need to demonstrate ourselves. Workshops are structured to encourage group responsibility, tolerance and understanding of others.

It’s the first day in Halhul of this part of the project, our journey from Ramallah is slow. At a checkpoint in the hills outside Jerusalem, previously unmanned, soldiers are stopping and checking all vehicles. There are long queues in both directions. When we finally reach the barrier a young Israeli soldier, around 20 years of age, leans into the minibus, his arm intimidatingly resting on the driver’s open window, automatic rifle in hand. He asks the nervous Palestinian driver a series of questions, the driver replies and we are waved on. It takes us one and a half hours to cover the 30 km journey today.

The session begins with the usual two minutes or so of silence. Usually this is conducted in a circle, eyes closed, with boys and girls mixed up and holding hands; here, however, the children are loath to stand with a member of the opposite sex, let alone take their hand. We discuss friendship with the group and they are encouraged to share examples of friendship based on their own experiences. They are then asked if they could be friends with someone who has completely different interests to themselves. This question causes a major rift in the group, with roughly 50% saying they could, the other half adamant they could not.  A highly animated debate followed, with both sides marshalling their arguments and presenting their case through an elected spokesperson – it was a fiery, articulate 12-year-old girl who definitely could not be friends unless one shared her interests and led the argument.

After 45 minutes or so of debate, the balance had shifted: there were now 75% in agreement that ‘yes’ friends could have different interests. A quarter however refused to see how this was possible, this group even maintained that had a friendship been established prior to realising a difference in interest, the friendship could not then continue. It had been a good session with lots of the children contributing to the discussion and debate. A closing period of silence as always concluded the workshop.

 Blessed Bethlehem

For the return journey to Ramallah we decided to go through Jerusalem instead of the circuitous journey around it. We first took a bus to Bethlehem, no longer a ‘little town’, but at first glance at least much like any other bustling commercial Middle Eastern city. At Bethlehem we change buses, leaving the hot and crowded Palestinian minibus, and board a white and blue air-conditioned Israeli coach.

Bethlehem is in the West Bank, in order to enter (West) Jerusalem it is necessary to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint. The checkpoint looks much like a European motorway toll station, a new structure, with booths where the Israeli soldiers sit.

Our coach is stopped the passengers are ‘asked’ to disembark and queue at the side of the coach to have IDs checked. With the exception of three women from the USA and myself, all the passengers are Israeli.

The soldiers, two men and a woman in their early twenties, collect all the Israeli IDs, the passports and strangely the bags from the American women, to be scanned and searched. The whole process takes around 45 minutes. We continue into central Jerusalem through heavy traffic, as it is now rush hour.  At the Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem, five minutes walk from the Israeli bus station, we board a green and white Palestinian bus to Ramallah.

Although there are no checks passing from Jerusalem into Ramallah the heavy build up of traffic coming into Jerusalem is causing congestion all around the Qalandia checkpoint. Finally after some imaginative manoeuvres from our bus driver, involving driving over a roundabout and onto the opposite side of the road, we arrive in Ramallah. It is at 6.30pm, 2 hours 40 minutes after leaving Halhul.

Children’s workshop in Nablus

I am en-route to Nablus by minibus, to conduct a creative education session. The Palestinian drivers all seem to be frustrated Formula One drivers; today’s driver is no exception. We hurtle through the green valley from Ramallah to Nablus and arrive, somewhat relieved, in one piece and in record time.

It is the turn of the children in Nablus to discuss friendship. They were asked could they be friends with children/people from different countries. Certain countries, yes, but not if the child came from Israel, USA (‘because they arm Israel’) - understandable perhaps, it was less clear with Denmark and Canada? Would it be possible to be friends with people holding different religious beliefs?  Very difficult, probably impossible in fact was their response, as we simply would not understand one another.

A powerful way to break or dislodge conditioned patterns of thinking is through the use of abstraction. With this aim in mind workshops are designed which, encourage abstract thought. Working in pairs within small groups, the children were asked to make drawings using geometric shapes to depict qualities of friendship. These sketches were then used as a template for body sculptures expressing the same quality.

A difficult exercise perhaps, the group were able to associate qualities of friendship with forms when shown to them, but were not able to invent forms themselves. The tendency was to create a recognisable familiar image. One boy for example draws a circle, with arms and smaller circles; this drawing morphs into an army jeep and a soldier with a gun.

Final thoughts

Living in Ramallah, even for a short time as I have, creates the feeling of being imprisoned. It is a most extraordinarily unsettling experience. There is a creeping claustrophobia in the city, a helplessness, which grows in strength the longer one is there.

The logistics of working in the OPT place a strain on all involved and affect the success of any endeavour.  However, simply to bear witness to the plight of the Palestinian people made my time in the West Bank worthwhile. Trust is a major factor when working with people who have been victimized in any way, the building of this jewel sometimes takes time, particularly where there has been so much betrayal, false promises and duplicity. The young throughout the World are crying out for justice and freedom, loud and clear their voices united are bringing changes to many dark corners. Working with the children within the West Bank was a privilege and a joy. The future is theirs and it is safe in their hands.

In order for reconciliation, forgiveness and healing to begin, the Israeli occupation must end the illegal building of settlements cease and the 1967 borders be recognized by Israel. These are the essential foundations upon which any movement towards lasting harmony must be built.

It is abundantly clear that the Palestinians and Israelis need to share equitably this tiny piece of land and begin to live in harmony, to reach out to one another as fellow human beings, as brothers and sisters and to unite in peaceful living. Tolerance of differences and understanding of a shared humanity are essential and will help move toward the co-operation needed to bring about right relationship in this divided land.

September 2009

Published in Share International Magazine