1 week in ahhh I don’t want it to go so fast! There aren’t enough hours in the day to comprehend this incredible experience, its mind blowing. Never before have I been in a place where I feel so many conflicting feelings in one day. I can’t sleep at night because so many thoughts are going through my head; How is this happening? It just isn’t fair. What is going to happen next? Where is the world in all of this? What can I do? I have come to discover the sad reality that the world is a big game with those holding global power pulling the strings. As much as I love to believe in humanity and the power of the goodness in people I fear that regardless of Right vs. Wrong, Innocence vs. Guilty, Oppressed vs. Oppressor -Those with power will always pull the strings. Until humanity units and has faith to do what is right and openly stand with those who are oppressed, innocent and powerless.
I did not come to Palestine blind and naïve to the situation here but I had no clue how it was going to look in everyday life. On my first day here I went for a walk about Bethlehem. Initially I was looking over my shoulder, aware of every sound and ready to run for cover at any stage! I quickly noticed that no one else was walking about in the same paranoid state! Instead they were laughing, joking, happy, kids playing, women chatting; a ‘normal’ town. My first impressions knocked my expectation out of the water; this was not a beat down nation living in fear and bitterness but a nation full of life. From day one we have received a massive welcome from every person we come across! Walking down the street people shouting; ‘You are very welcome here’, ‘Welcome to our country’, ‘Thank you for coming to our country’. I’m a bit raging cause I thought I could blend in as a local Arab woman! I think what’s letting me down is hanging about with Annagh with her blonde hair and blue eyes or our dress sense of crazy trousers and Tajik dresses; or maybe the fact we say ‘Hi’ with chessey smiles to everyone we pass!
To set the scene of Palestine I feel it is important to talk about the geographic boarders and division of land as it has lead the country to where it is today. Separation walls and checkpoints manned 24/7 by Israeli soldiers mark the barriers of Palestine. With the Oslo Accords – an initially temporary agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation intended to lead to a permanent resolution of the conflict (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/13/oslo-accords-explained.html), the country was divided. However like many occupied countries, things were not done as it was originally agreed! This is particularly significant when looking at the division of Jerusalem which everyone I have spoken to feels very passionate about. When the boarders were first drawn, East Jerusalem which holds the Holy Land for the Arab people was in Palestine, however through the evolution of the occupation Israel has occupied more and more of Palestine and, conveniently have taken full power over East Jerusalem through naming it Area C (I will explain Areas in a sec!). The separation wall, said to be between Israel and the West Bank is 2km west to where the boundary was first agreed, giving Israel power of East Jerusalem and meaning people living in Bethlehem, 10km from Jerusalem, need a special permission from Israel to enter the town of Jerusalem which was once the capital of Palestine! I have been told by many people living in Bethlehem they have more chance coming to Ireland than they do getting into Jerusalem, 10mins down the road! Unemployment is massive in Bethlehem therefore many people take massive risks by sneaking into Jerusalem over the mountains or through tunnels for work, if they are caught they are put in Israeli prison or shot with the justification being they were a threat to the Israeli people living in Jerusalem. Everywhere west to the boundaries and separation wall is called The West Bank and is Palestinian land.
The West Bank has been divided into 3 divisions under different jurisdictions; Area A, B & C; within these areas Palestinian and Israeli authorities have different levels of control. Area A comprises about 18% of the West Bank and includes 8 Palestinian cities and their surrounding areas, Bethlehem, where I am based is one of them. Area A has full civil and security control by Palestinian Authority and is run by Palestinian government. Initially it was prohibited for any Israeli to entre Area A however in 2002 the Israeli Defence Force abolished this rule and now entre regularly, mostly at night to carry out raids and make arrests, supposedly under suspicion of terrorism however this is not the case. I can say this with confidence as I have heard many first-hand experiences and seen footage of people who have no involvement with any resistance movement being arrested and detained without any evidence, trail or conviction. The most recent I heard and seen footage of was a 15 year old boy from the Dheisheh refugee camp, an area often targeted by Israeli soldiers. The boy’s house was raided in a random search and the boy was arrested. The whole family pleaded with the soldiers not to take him, the boy is heard saying “I have a very important exam tomorrow in school please let me do my exam and you can take me after.” They put cable ties around his wrists and ankles and blindfolded him as they carried him out of the house. His parents and 5 younger siblings screaming for help. His mother and father did not know where he was taken to or if he was alive. They got legal help and track him down after 15 days. His father had to pay 5,000shekel (About £950) or he would have been held for 5 months.
I just had dinner with a lovely family in the camp; the young man is a friend of a friend from home and invited me and Annagh round for dinner after only briefly meeting us! His mother didn’t bat any eyelid with these 2 extra mouths to feed with no prior warning! We were welcomed with open arms by everyone in the house who literally couldn’t do enough for us; one of many examples of the unbelievable hospitality we have experienced. The mother of this family is originally from Jerusalem, so all her family were automatically given a blue Israeli card, meaning they can travel in and out of Jerusalem. Her son worked in Jerusalem and travelled there everyday. In February of this year the Israeli army did their usual raid in the camp. The streets cleared but one 19 year old was not quick enough and was shot dead on the spot by a sniper. The young man we had dinner with was also caught the same night and shot in the leg. The Israeli army have now ceased his permit to travel to Jerusalem because they shot him in the leg! He is now out of work as unemployment is very high in Bethlehem and his freedom of movement in the West Bank is even more limited than before. These are just two of many many stories of the harassment and brutality of living in Area A; the ‘safest’ and most ‘free’ area for Palestinians.
Area B has Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli Palestinian security control. It includes 440 Palestinian villages and makes up 22% of the West Bank, mainly rural areas. Out of the watchful eye of tourism and city life many Palestinian’s are under daily intimidation by Israeli soldiers and settlers in Area B. A recent report we hear Israeli soldiers who disclosed the truth about what happens in the army describe how in Area B they were ranked on how many ‘targets’ – Palestinian civilians, they killed. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/08/israel-soldiers-speak-out-brutality-palestine-occupation. Soldiers in Area B are said to be a law onto themselves; working in rural areas there is little to no light shone on their unjust behaviours and never consequences for their actions.
Area C has full Israeli civil and security control it comprises 63% of the West Bank including East Jerusalem, ‘no-man’s land and the Dead Sea. Around 300,000 Palestinians live in Area C. They are not allowed to vote in any elections, build on any land or own their homes. Palestinians living in this area face daily harassment and are under constant threat not only by Israeli military but also Israeli settlers. Israeli settlers are Jewish civilians from around the world brought to Israel to move into Palestinian land occupied by Israelis. These purpose built housing estates are often on hilltops throughout Area C, said to be to watch over Area’s A & B and report any early signs of upraising, Palestinians feel this is also present constant intimidation. These settlements often take the land which was once Palestinian villages, resulting in many displaced refugees. Settlers are given a living allowance from the Israeli government, therefore they do not work. The more children they have the more money they are given. An Israeli settler is said to cost the Israeli government 3 times more than an Israeli citizen in Israel. This causes some frictions with Israeli’s and Israeli settlers as it is the tax payer of Israel that subsistence settlers, as well as foreign aid, mainly from the US. The settlements across the West Bank are illegal under International Law as they are built on Palestinian land, the UN has upheld the view that Israel’s construction of settlements constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Yesterday it was announced that for the first time in the history of the United Nations, the State of Israel has been elected to head United Nations Legal Committee. This committee, the most sensitive of the 6 committees in the UN deals with the fight against global terrorism and other ‘sensitive issues’. The Israeli UN ambassador said yesterday ‘“We will not allow dictatorships and anti-Israel countries to harm our standing in the international community. Those who tried to block our appointment would be well advised to take note of the jurisdiction of this committee, as they have much to learn about international law.” The UN is set up as an international organization to take action on issue confronting humanity. They openly recognize Israel is breaking International Law and committing war crimes against humanity everyday yet Israel has been appointed as head of the legal committee!! How is this allowed to happen? There is a heavy military presence around the settlements, like that in Hebron where there are 500 settlers and 2000 Israeli soldiers guarding them! Palestinians living in Area C say the abuse by settlers is 10times worse than that of Israeli military. I have heard and seen footage of many brutal attacks on Palestinians in Area C; one being that of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old Palestinian boy. While returning home from praying at his local Mosque in East Jerusalem the young man was forced into a car by Israeli settlers, he was taken to the nearby Jerusalem forest and forced to drink fuel before being burnt alive. His body was unrecognisable by his parents.
There are three refugee camps in Bethlehem, Dheisheh being the largest with 20,000 people in 1km square radius. It was established in 1948 by the UN as a temporary refuge for people from 45 villages fleeing the invasion of the Israelis. 68 years later the refugees have not been able to go home as where their villages once was is now either on Israeli occupation or has Israeli settlers living on it. The cultural centre, where Annagh is volunteering and where we are spending a lot of our time promotes people’s awareness and pride in their native villages, their traditions and cultures. The camp is full of life, has such a strong community, is rich in a wide range of diverse cultures and has the friendliest people I have ever come across. Each person we have talked to in the camp has offered us into their home for Alfotor (dinner after day of fasting during Ramadan) we have been offered beds to stay the night and everyone states loud and clear, ‘You are very welcome’! However there is no denying these people live in hardship with overpopulation, lack of employment and continuous invasions and attacks by Israeli soldiers. During the month of Ramadan, night time is when the place comes to life, as people have broke their fast and can eat, pray and celebrate until sunrise. However this is also a dangerous time for people of the camp as Israeli soldiers often invade and attack at night. One woman expressed her frustrations saying; ‘This is our holy month, after sunset we need to go to the mosque to pray and to celebrate with our family but we must be careful, we must make sure our children aren’t playing far from home when the soldiers come.’ Murals cover nearly every wall in the camp; they show the history of brutality faced by these people right up to the present day. Images of young men who were taken by Israeli soldiers, some locked in prison, some murdered, some missing with no explanations. It is said by those working in NGOs in the camp that every child will have experienced tear gas as this is a regular weapon used by the soldiers when carrying out raids. It is no wonder the mother I spoke to is afraid to let her children play far from their house. A child’s freedom limited from birth in order to protect them from the unpredictable attacks of their occupiers. 70% of the population of Palestine is under 30; 40% is under 15. Reports by the UN say at least 80% of children show signs of trauma. With such a young nation I fear it will only be in later years we will see the true impact of this ongoing occupation.
I feel like I am in a massive concentration camp, though day to day life is still running as normal, people are happy, life is continuing but it is in a gated, monitored, controlled society living in a constant state of uncertainty. Every person I have talked to in these first few days has been open and happy to talk about the current situation. They are not ashamed to be living under occupation, it is not a controversial issue that people are afraid to have an opinion on; as far people here are concerned it is a black and white issue of the continuous miscarry of justice that has lead Palestine to where it is today. Having said that people are free thinking and by no means a nation of sheep following one ideology. There appears to be various ideas on how the situation for Palestinians should be treated; like anywhere people hold different values, approaches and opinions. I am still learning about the various resistance groups; from what I can tell so far the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) is an illegal breakaway group that have the most support in Bethlehem, particularly the refugee camp. However people are not open about being members of this group, with Israeli eyes and ears everywhere the conversations I have had about this group are through whispers and signals (very funny considering its hard enough to communicate with the language barrier!!) Hamas have more support in Gaza but some feel they are traitors for going into government. The Palestinian Nation Authority, the self governing party since 1994 are unpopular with everyone I talked to, many saying they are no better than the Israelis and are getting pay offs from the bullies. Visiting this time of year seems to be the most peaceful time to visit. I have been told there is normally some form of Protest at the separation wall or when Israeli soldiers arrest people, however as it is the month of Ramadan, the most religious month of the year; this does not seem to be the case. Our last week is when Ramadan ends so we will see if it changes then!
There are many horrific stories reflecting what goes on here; this is not what I want this blog to be about, I do not want to depress people reading this! However I do feel it is important to paint this scene of what I have seen the set up to be here as it affects every Palestinian’s everyday life. Does that mean people here sit around and cry about it? Does it mean they are filled with hate and anger? Does it mean they live in fear and dread everyday. Absolutely not. The life, soul and resilience I have seen of every single person I have come across so far is nothing short of inspiring. The Palestinian people I have met are upbeat, well educated (I hear the highest in the Arab world and top 10 in the whole world), ambitious and enjoying their lives as much as they can under such circumstances. One thing people are adamant about is that this is a temporary situation. People do not want to normalise this occupation and accept this is their lives from now on. They do not want pity, they do not want to be victimised; they simply want justice. A local Palestine man said to me “Do you have any idea how it feels to have your land taken from under your feet, your freedom to move around in your own country taken with it, to pray in your holy land forbidden; and your safety gone as well with no idea what the future holds for your children?” No, I have no idea what that must be like, I can’t even begin to imagine the feeling. But I will endeavour to do my best to learn as much as possible and use my power to speak out and inform my friends and family of this modern day genocide that is happening everyday to our fellow human beings, my friends, the beautiful people of Palestine.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”