Over midway through the trip ahhh why is it going so fast!! The days are becoming our life now and we are getting so used to all the randomness that I am finding it more difficult to remember to capture these moments as stories for the blog! The weekend here is a Friday and Sunday, due to the lack of alcohol and 10pm curfew these weekends are very different to mine at home! On Fridays we normally catch up on whatever needs done around Bethlehem or entertain our guests; like last week when my lovely friend Sarah came to visit. Sarah and I lived together in Tajikistan so we have shared many random experiences(!) and have since become great friends. Having her here for a brief visit was wonderful, it made me realise how much we have settled in to our little life here and how much Bethlehem has to offer visitors.
Sundays is the day when we allow ourselves to be tourists! With such little time here and so many fascinating places to see we have been using our free days to take buses to other towns on the West Bank. Last week we went to Jerusalem for the day as the first time we were there we only seen the hotel and bus station and knew there was a lot more to explore. When talking about going to Jerusalem many people in Bethlehem looked at us with envy. Some who have lived here their whole lives have never been to their capital city 10mins up the road. Others who were granted permits from Israel due to Jerusalem being the birth place of their parents or their application being successful to travel; currently had their permits suspended following the shooting in Tel Aviv three weeks ago. Therefore we felt we should use the opportunity we have to travel freely and take lots of pictures for our friends back home in Bethlehem!
While on the bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem we thought back to our feelings the first time we were on this bus less than 2 weeks precious; our nerves crossing the checkpoints, our expectations of how the Israeli soldiers would behave and our relief when we reached our destination. This time round we were a lot calmer and collected, however when the Israeli soldiers came on the bus to check our passports the nerves came back in me a little. Having learnt more about the situation here; hearing at first-hand how earlier that week the soldiers came into Aida refugee camp beside the wall and opened fire on children in the street, arrested 4 youths and covered the whole camp in teargas; and the many stories of Palestinians receiving harassment, brutality and death at the hands of this military made me look at these two soldiers on the bus; young people no older than 20 years old, with a bitter taste in my mouth and an automatic anticipation over their unpredictable behaviour. They remarked on what a beautiful country Ireland was when we showed our passports but those around us didn’t get the same treatment. On the way home two men were taken off the busy bus, unsure what was going to happen to them we tried to sneak a peak out the back window. The men were being questioned by a few soldiers in the IDF hut. The bus driver was eager to get going as the sun was setting and he had been fasting all day. Just as he was about to take off and leave these men a guy wearing a Red Crescent vest talked to the driver; he wanted and after about 10mins the men returned onto the bus. Everyone let out a sigh as the men set down and we carried on to Bethlehem. As we sat on the bus with the men in the hut I was trying to prepare myself to hear gunshots. From many stories we have heard from Palestinian people it is clear that crossing this checkpoint is dangerous and unpredictable. Thankfully that day those men made it home but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they hadn’t.
The status of Jerusalem is definitely one for the core topics for people I have spoken to here. Both Palestine and Israel calm Jerusalem to be their capital city. As it stands West Jerusalem is majority Palestinian and East Jerusalem is mainly Israeli; however as the whole city is currently in Area C (explained in previous blog) it is under occupation of the Israeli government and secured by their military. This is definitely felt in the city with a heavy presence of Israeli military and Israeli flags on every lamppost; they are most definitely making it clear to the thousands of tourists packing the streets of Jerusalem who is in charge here. Walking around the Old City; a walled area divided into four main quarters; the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarter felt more like a trip to Disneyland than the spiritual atmosphere I expected it to have. This area is home to the most holy places for the various religious groups and so was packed with tourists from all around the world. I am not a great believer in any organised religion (don’t tell the nuns!) but I do hold faith in spirituality and can definitely see its purpose in bringing hope and faith to people’s lives; particularly those living in hardship. However the majority of the sea of tourists overtaking the holy city that day did not seem to be interested in praying! Instead many got their pictures and moved on. Many tour guides were herding people around the various hotspots of the city like sheep; the wailing wall being the main one. We walked alongside a tour guide telling a group of Americans; “The Palestinian people are told lies in the mosque about their God & the Israeli people, they then come out of the Mosque very angry and attack Israeli people.” The group of 8 Americans replied by saying “OMG and they actually believe this hahaha!” The tour guide and American tourists had a good laugh about this. This narrative is one very different to what I have witnessed in my time here so far. But it concerned me greatly that these massive number of tourists (some 3.5 million a year – 18% of these Americans) are hearing only this story and without the exposure to engage with Palestinian people this will go unchallenged throughout their time in this country. Tourism is said to be one of Israel’s biggest sources of income, with all top tourist destinations; Masada, the Dead Sea, Nazareth, Jerusalem conveniently being under Israeli occupation, Palestine does not benefit at all from this revenue. This is something I don’t see changing anytime soon, particularly if the 3.5 million are happy with the narrative they are being fed; I guess it’s easier to swallow than the truth.
We could not get into the Dome of the Rock (the massive mosque in the Holy City) as it was Ramadan so non Muslims aren’t granted access. The Sunday after our visit there were ‘clashes’ at the mosque when Israeli Forces broke into the mosque and opened teargas and sound grenades, fired rubber bullets and violently arrested one Palestinian who protested against their entry and assaulted several others. The Red Crescent who were called to the scene described how IDF opened the Moroccan Gate of the mosque to allow a group of Ultra-religious Jewish Israelis to enter the area. Attacks were aimed at the Palestinians who were praying at the mosque during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the most holy time of the year. 8 Palestinians were rushed to hospital and many others suffered injuries. The mosque is said to be subject to forced storming from extremist Israeli settlers with protection from Israeli Police. http://english.pnn.ps/2016/06/26/clashes-break-out-in-al-aqsa-mosque-five-injured/
What struck me most about being in Jerusalem was the age of the Israeli soldiers who covered literally at every inch of the Old City. The majority of these soldiers were teenage age, male and female each holding a rifle in one hand and an iPhone in the other. They were standing in groups laughing and talking, as teenagers around the world do. The age to join the Israeli army is 17 years old and compulsory service starts at age 18 year and lasts for a minimum of 2 and a half years for female, 3 for males. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) recruitment has recent increase in soldiers from African countries and are said to target those living in poverty, offering an attractive salary and new lease of life. The IDF is said to spend around 20% of their national budget on defence (18.6billon USD in 2015) making them amongst the world’s most wealthy and powerful armies, as well as having close military relations with the US and British army. Since the late 70s the IDF has concentrated its activities in southern Lebanon and the ‘Palestinian Territories’, also known as Palestine(!) with little/no activity in any other part of the world. The term ‘Pick on someone your own size’ springs to mind.
I think it’s safe to say the IDF is a well oiled machine who don’t intend on going anywhere anytime soon; it has been quoted by the previous Israeli Prime Minster and Minster of defence their purpose and intent is; “Not only a means of defending the country, but also a means of integrating and building Israeli society.” The IDF also prides itself on being ‘The world’s most ethical army’; a quote used on the separation wall and through the refugee camp which lines the wall, as a “Are they F***ing serious!” statement. Looking at this quote beside images of young men shot dead while playing in the street, beside names of children whom have been killed at the hands of the IDF for being Palestinian and along the massive wall that gates this nation as a measure of apartheid; screams the shameless hypocrisy and bare face lie that the Israeli Defence Force portray to the world outside of this prison.
Sunday past we visited the city of Hebron, the biggest city in the West Bank and second largest in Palestine after Gaza. I had heard Hebron is a highly contagious area following the Israeli occupation of the city in 1967 when many Israeli settlements were established. It is said to be the closest Israeli settlers and Palestinians lives side by side, causing regular clashes and attacks. Although there are only 500 Israeli settlers in the city there are 2000 Israeli military patrolling the streets and many checkpoints. Just when I thought I had my head around the governance of Area A, B & C of the West Bank this city has another dimension. The city is divided into 2 sectors, H1 controlled but the Palestinian Authority and H2 (20% of the city) administered by Israel. The journey from Bethlehem took 30mins; we passed many checkpoints and Israeli army officers who lined the roads behind sandbags and bollards looking like they were ready to open fire. I don’t know if they stand like this all day for the craic or if we happened to be passing while something was about to kick off….a regular occurrence in this neck of the woods. As we got out of the services, (a shared minibus) it struck me we didn’t have a clue where we were going! We followed the hustle and bustle of the crowd into an underground market. After a few minutes of us walking casually looking at crocs and meat a man approached us asking where we are from etc. He brought us to the end of the market and showed us above, we could see apartment blocks, metal bars separated these from the packed market below. The man brought us to his house, his wall met the newly built apartment block and above his house we could see a basketball court about the width of the whole market; we heard what sounded like American kids playing basketball. Seeing the court lined with Israeli flags made it clear this was an Israeli settlement. The man explained to us the impact living so close to each other had on their lives. He explained how the settlers would often through things from above on the Palestinians, people often didn’t feel safe to walk around the market and the distribution of water and electricity is at the hands of the settlements. He very kindly offered to show us around but when he started to talk about multiple wives and asked why at the grand age of 30 I wasn’t married we give our thanks for the juice and made a swift exit from his house!
We continued to walk through the market until we came to an Israeli checkpoint (a metal cage like barricade with turnstiles and Israeli soldiers carrying out searches). We walked through and followed the road, slightly unsure where the heck we were! A young man, who had come through the checkpoint at the same time, asked us the usual run of questions – where we were from, what we were doing etc. These questions are a bit like people at home trying to figure out if you’re Catholic or Protestant; saying the letter H doesn’t really show people if we are pro Palestine or Israeli here but when they hear we are from Ireland they welcome us as friends of Palestine! We explained what we were doing in Bethlehem and he explained his role as a human rights activist and his want for international connections. He showed us around this area, which was known as the old city. Little did we know we were standing on a street known to be the most famous in the Middle East! Al-Shuhada Street meaning Martyrs Street named King David Street by Israelis and Apartheid Street by Palestinians; used to be the wholesale market of the Hebron region, with the bus station and police station previous on this road it was the central meeting point for Palestinians in Hebron. The street also leads to the Cave of Patriarchs or, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. Both Jewish and Muslim religions consider this as a Holy Place, making the city of Hebron the second Holiest city after Jerusalem. In 1994 an American-Israeli settler, Goldstien, opened fire on a large number of Muslims praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque. He killed 29 people and wounded 125, his attack stopped when he was overpowered and beaten to death by survivors. This sparked mass Palestinian protests throughout the West Bank and within 48 hours 9 Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli Defence Force. Some Israeli settlers still see Goldstien as a hero, his tomb is often visited with people singing & dancing around it, sometimes dressed as Goldstien. The grave’s epitaph said that Goldstein “gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land”. In a pamphlet titled Baruch HaGever published in 1994, and a book of the same name in 1995, various rabbis praised Goldstein’s action as a pre-emptive strike in response to Hamas threats of a pogrom, and wrote that it is possible to view his act as following five Halachic principles. Following this massacre 304 Palestinian shops, warehouses, municipal & government offices along Shuhada Street were closed. The bus station was turned into an Israeli army base and Palestinians’ vehicles were not allowed to drive on the street, to protect Israeli settlers. In 1998 all entrances to the houses in al-Shuhada Street were sealed. Since then Palestinian house owners can only enter their home through climbing the roofs or through holes in the wall. The street was declared a ‘closed military area’ meaning Palestinian pedestrians are subject to frequent rigorous control by Israeli soldiers at the many checkpoints in and around the street, and in some parts completely banned from entering. Standing at the bottom of the street it looked like a complete ghost town. Our new friend quickly walked us through a checkpoint to a different street as he was not allowed to walk up Shudada. We were welcomed into his family home, given some more juice and fruit and learnt about his work in Hebron trying to empower the youth. I have learnt about a Palestinian activist group called ‘Youth Against Settlements’ who hold weekly peaceful demonstrations to reopen Shudada street, there are many reports of the IDF responding to these demonstrations with arrests, shootings and most recently throwing a sound grenade at bystanders.
Our day in Hebron ending with us visiting a Human Rights activist, who we were put in contact with by a Human Rights activist in Kitchener, Canada! We learnt of the struggles and campaigns he works on including training children and young people how to use a video camera to film any violation of their human rights carried out by settlers and Israeli soldiers, what he described to be a daily occurrence for the children & young people of Hebron. As the sun was setting we unfortunately had to pass on his offer to have Iftar in his family home, due to our 10pm curfew in the nunnery! So we made our way to the centre of Hebron thinking we’ll jump in a service and go back the way we came. No such luck – all drivers were away home to have their dinner! Oops! We had a few options; 1. Spend the night in Hebron and get a service the next morning – but Annagh began volunteering in the hospital in Bethlehem at 7am so that wouldn’t work. 2. Wait about until after Iftar in the hope the service would start again – a big risk as no one could give us a definite answer this drivers would be back out and we’d have to face the nuns at God knows what time, missing our curfew! 3. Jump into some randomers car, negotiated a price to Bethlehem (3 times what we paid on the way there) and hope he doesn’t kill us on our way home – The logical choice it was! Thankfully he was lovely and we got home safe. We also got to see what life was like on the road as the sunset during Ramadan. Our new friend was fasting and as he was driving us obviously wasn’t having his meal with his family. We offered some of our snacks and water but he politely refused and as the sun went down he pulled over to a boy who was giving out bags to cars; our driver got three, give us one each and said bon-appétit! Inside was a chocolate croissant, a carton of water and a juice. People in rural communities make up picnic bags and give them to cars passing when the sun is setting during Ramadan; how lovely! As we made it back to our little home in Bethlehem where we have come to feel comfortable, well known and safe we let out a sign of relief. Exploring is great but the feeling of coming home at the end of the day to a peaceful nunnery is lovely!
As I am writing this blog more incidents are happening at an hourly rate! I could write a book and still not capture everything. This morning the director of the organisation I am working in came into work very tired as the Israeli Defence Forces (referred to often as the occupation) came into the Dheisheh refugee camp at 4am and carried out raids and shootings until 7am. As this is such a regular occurrence not much heat was paid to it but when we head to the camp later today we will hear of the aftermath the IDF have left behind. Which is likely to me many arrests, possibly young people in my group, houses wrecked and hopefully not too many injuries. While talking to different people about the situation here one of the constant things I ask is; ‘In your opinion, what do you think the international world can do to help the people of Palestine’ One of the main things people say is to join a boycott Israel campaign such as BDS. If the international world doesn’t participate in trade with Israel it will send a clear message that they are not acknowledged as a legal state and their apartheid of Palestine is not legitimized internationally. The disinvestment in South Africa worked as an effective tool to end the apartheid in that part of the world; if the same measures were taken here it may be a start. The trade which is most sickening for Palestinians is that with the illegal Israeli settlers who are actually using the natural resources from Palestinian land which they are illegally occupying to produce products such as the bath salts, which are sold in a stall in Castlecourt and Olive Oil sold in some ‘Pro Palestine’ shops. The products have on them ‘Made in The West Bank’; making those who are wanting to support Palestine think they are buying a product made by Palestinian people but actually it is the settlers cashing in on people’s consciousness. We downloaded a simple app called boycott: www.buycott.com – you can choose your campaign and contribute to it through the purchases you make. You simply scan the barcode of the product you want to buy and its origin comes up, advising if you should avoid this product keeping in line with your chosen area.
I know boycotting is an overwhelming thought, I often find myself thinking ‘I am only one person what difference will not buying this cold refreshing lemon juice on a roasting hot day do!’ But then I think about the impact this is having day in day out to the Palestinian people – One person boycotting it may not make a difference but what if 10 people told 10 people who told 10 people; the ripple effect will eventually cause an impact in the sales and more importantly awaken people’s consciousness. When our countries make decisions like this for us it can be more difficult. The European Union, for example, is Israel’s biggest trading partner going from strength to strength following the 1995 ‘Associates Agreement’ which trade between the two is conducted under. This isn’t just the odd crate of Coca-Cola; in 2013 the total volume of bilateral trade (excluding diamonds) came to over €27 billion. In 2013, 32% of Israel’s exports (excluding diamonds) went to the EU, and 34% of its imports (excluding diamonds) came from the EU. Total EU trade with Israel rose from €19.4 billion in 2003 to a whopping €31.0 billion in 2012 and €31.4 billion in 2013. When I think about the 18.6billion being spent yearly on the Israeli Defence Forces, there trade with the EU pays for this with pocket money left over- most likely to contribute to the funding of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. EU exports to Israel reached €17.9 billion in 2013, while imports from Israel were €13.5 billion. The trade deficit with Israel was €4.4 billion in the EU’s favour in 2013. So our much loved ‘funding’ from the EU is in effect left overs from their trade with Israel – I’d rather be skint thanks. With the EU being such a typical subject at the minute; I find it extremely hypocrite and infuriating when I read the countless articles showing supporters of the EU to be humanitarian, progressive visionaries and those who challenge the EU to be narrow minded racists; when in fact the argument is much deeper than that. In my opinion this elite rich man’s club, run by the most powerful and wealthy country in Europe is contributing massively to the oppression and disempowerment of vulnerable people all around the world. Before people look at the EU through rose tinted glasses and jump on the bandwagon of; to be progressive liberal, free and progressive we must be a supporter of the EU, I would strongly advise looking into their policies & agreements and the contribution they make to the world; it certainly isn’t something I would be proud to be part of.
“BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD”