The end of our trip is in sight with less than a week left in beautiful Palestine I have a feeling of sadness at the thoughts of this adventure coming to an end. It is amazing how quick we settled here and how much it now feels like home. I have no doubt when I cross the checkpoint leaving Bethlehem for the final time in a few days, I will leave part of my heart here.
Some highlights since the last blog are; the end of Ramadan & the celebrations of Eid alf tar, visiting the city of Ramallah; recognised by some as the capital of the West Bank, more successful Skype’s with the youths of Bethlehem & Belfast, visiting a Syrian region occupied by Israel, giving a talk to a group of internationals on the conflict in the North of Ireland, travelling to the Dead Sea for a day floating in the salty water & having a mud bath and generally loving life in Bethlehem! I’ll try and give a brief overview of each amazing thing that has happened this week – feel free to skip to your interest!
Ramadan is over – Eat, Drink, Smoke and Be Merry!
We arrived when for Muslims, the Holy month of Ramadan just began. While the Palestinian population is made up of Christians as well as Muslims – the majority of people are Muslim, particularly in Bethlehem. Ramadan is the 9th month in the Islamic calendar and is practiced by Muslims worldwide by fasting from sunrise to sunset. This means from 4am to 8pm Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking; and having sex (thankfully this one was less visible)! Each day the fast was broken by having Iftar, the first meal of the day. People often stayed awake through the night eating, drinking and praying until 4am when the sun rose again. Some people slept at around 12/1am then woke before 4 for the Morning Prayer and to line their stomachs before going back to sleep. During this month those fasting, understandably had less energy during the day and often found it difficult to perform everyday tasks such as working. Every year the month of Ramadan changes, depending on the Islamic calendar. This year it fell in the peck of summer; with 35+degree heat and long days I honestly have no idea how people fasted for 30days, and they very rarely complained. When we tried to show sympathy and say to people “Are you hungry today” or “You must be very tired” people often said “I’m not too bad” and made sure we knew it was an honour to fast more so than a chore. Many people explained their motivation and focus during Ramadan being down to their desire to feel how it is for those living in poverty around the world who often go days with no food. So when asked do they find it tough, a typical response would be “At least we get to have food at the end of the day, many people don’t.” A very noble attitude.
There are different explanations for the significance of Ramadan; most traditionally it is one of the five pillars of Islam – Sawm. During the month of fasting it is said Muslims should reflect on their sins and look for forgiveness from God. They are also encouraged to put more effort into the teachings of Islam by refraining from violence, anger, envy, greed, lust, profane language, gossip and to try to get along with fellow Muslims better. The refraining from violence was very visible in the lack of protests at the separation wall in Bethlehem, where normally youths would gather to throw stones at times of raids or arrests – for the month of Ramadan this did not happen, however the daily raids and attacks from the IDF still did. Many people expressed their frustrations at these attacks and raids during Ramadan saying the occupation knows exactly what they are doing carrying out these raids during this holy month to antagonize a response. Last week following a 3 hour raid in the Dheisheh refugee camp (starting at 4am as the sun rose and people began their night’s sleep) a young man of 17 told us the next day – “This camp is like one big house, we are all like one family. If someone attacks your house and your family how can you not try to defend it?” The youths attempt to defend the camp by throwing stones but the retaliation to this is plastic bullets, live bullets, tear gas and arrests. Talking to the youths it is very difficult to discourage their attempt at protecting their home – who am I to say what they should do living under this constant threat of unpredictable attack? But every raid leaves injuries, arrests and often deaths behind. I have no doubt these would still happen regardless of the response from the community. Israel has an agenda and, in my opinion no amount of stone throwing is going to disturb that – it just makes the headline a bit easier to print. These youths defending their homes must justify the billons being spent on the Israeli ‘Defence’ Force right?
The kids of dhesisheh camp in their best for Eid-
The end of Ramadan brought the celebration of Eid al-Fitr. This religious holiday signifies the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the new Islamic year. It is celebrated by having a huge feast, getting new clothes; small children receiving gifts and visiting family. On the lead up to this celebration the market place was jam packed! The market is at the top of our street, late at night you couldn’t walk up the street with cars abundant everywhere and so many people rushing to the market – it reminded me of the town in the lead up to Christmas! Offices closed, families gathered and the buzz about the place was class! For a few days before Eid people weren’t sure which day it was going to fall on as it depended on the cycle of the moon! Religious leaders look for when the moon is at its thinnest and declared Eid will be the next day through the speakers at every Mosque. Here it is obvious as we are blessed with clear nights but it is said in other countries where the moon is clouded the religious leader will wait until the moon is visible; therefore Eid falls on different days in different countries.
On Eid itself we went to Dheisheh refugee camp to see the children. They were all out in their new clothes – hair done, new toys and extra exited! It was so lovely to see them all so happy. The first day back in the cultural centre for the kids club was like the first day back at school after Christmas; the kids still had their best on, bought in their new toys, some brought biscuits their mothers had made for Eid and there was a lot more energy about the place with eating and sleeping times back to normal! The streets are really different after Ramadan lots of people are about, a lot more energy, restaurants we didn’t even know existed are opened. It’s funny to see the difference in what we thought was normal but was actually just Ramadan! I’m so glad we got to experience this Holy month here, I have learnt a lot about the Muslim faith and how it shapes culture & traditions and I have a new found respect for the dedication and determination of people during Ramadan.
The culture here is definitely a friendly, welcoming one where everyone looks out for each other and people share whatever they have. I also experienced this when in Tajikistan a few years ago, the hospitality there reminds me a lot of here, where a family would literally go without to welcome you into their home and give you their last. I was just walking back from the shop earlier this morning when an older lady greeted me on the street with such a welcoming hug and kiss I was sure I must have meet her before. She spoke in Arabic which, after my two words in Arabic I was out! So she brought me into a shop where a guy could speak English. She told him to tell me she wanted to invite me to her house. Before I could explain I was busy today she was already on the phone full of excitement. The guy was laughing telling me she was phoning her daughter to say “make more dinner, I’m bringing home a new friend.” After an in-depth explanation as to why I couldn’t come to her house today she took my number and said she will phone for me to come this week, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’m leaving in a few days! One of the many examples of the welcoming nature of the Arab people here in Palestine.
Its incidents like this I know I am going to miss terribly. I really do think people at home are just as lovely and welcoming but I think it’s a shame that our culture sometimes stops us from showing this as much. Within a ‘developed’ capitalist society people are often too busy rushing around consumed with their own worries and needs to communicate with each other. The ‘just keep yourself to yourself’ mentality really prevents so much human interaction and connections. In a society dealing with hardship, such as occupation, rights violation, poverty; the spirit of comradely is much more evident. Even being an outsider here we have been welcomed into this community with open arms, quite literally! I would love to reignite this back home – so if you see me striking a random conversation with a stranger on the street I’m not crazy, I’m just missing Palestine!
Palestine, Israel & Syria – A road trip I will never forget!
Our recent trip to the Golan Heights was one I will never forget. We were given the opportunity to travel with a group of internationals and locals involved in grassroots community organisations to northern Israel and into Syrian territory. Our first stop on the trip was to the religion of Galilee in Israel, to visit a small village called Ibillin. This once Palestinian, Arab village was ‘captured’ in the Operation Dekel of 1948 when Jews came from Europe following the Holocaust and World War 2. Here we met with Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Archbishop who has been internationally recognized for his efforts in reconciliation between Arabs and Jews. He told us how life was for him in 1948 as a young boy living in the region. He recalled how his father, a Christian man explained to the family about the atrocities that had happened to the Jewish people in Europe through the Holocaust. He explained to his family that some of these people are coming to their village and they will be welcomed into their home until they get themselves settled. Elias and his brothers set up camp on the roof of the house, giving space for their new guests. After a month on the roof the brothers were told they were moving into the jungle – ‘how exciting’ he thought as a young boy. The new community of Jewish approached the Arabs saying we need this land for 2 weeks to help us get things set up and so all the families must leave. They left under the confidence that when they returned their land would be as it was before their visitors arrived. A lot changed in the country within those 2 weeks, when the father and others from the community returned to their village when two weeks was up they were told this land was no longer there’s; they were handcuffed, put in an army jeep and brought to the West Bank. The mother and brothers got word this had happened and took refuge in a neighbouring village, along with the many other families. The family, like many Palestinians living in this region at the time, was given Israeli citizenship in 1948 when the state of Israel was established. Many families were never reunited with their loved ones after the displacement of refugees throughout the occupied territory. Even to this day with the lack of freedom of movement, many family members are displaced in their own country.
Elias grew up and joined the priesthood; he studied in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Paris before returning home to the region of Galilee where he was placed to be the Parish Priest in the small village of Ibillin in 1965. Elias seen how left behind the Arab community living in Israel were with daily discriminated, being treated like 3rd or 4th class citizens, beneath the Israeli dogs, he explained. He saw how children were not given opportunities for education in his village and so set out to build a school. Faced with the Israeli laws of Arabs not being allowed to get planning permission, this was not an easy task but after years of hard graft and negotiations he build the school, which today produces the highest educational attainment in northern Israel. Elias was awarded Archbishop for the province and has been awarded many peace prizes for his positive impact on Arab and Jewish relations. He has been nominated 3 times for a Nobel Peace Prize – 4th time lucky! He was a fascinating man to hear from with many stories and experiences. I was struck by how different his attitude towards the situation was compared with those I have got to know in the West Bank. Where he talked about Peace being the solution for Palestine – People in the West Bank talk about the removal of the occupation and freedom being the way forward. One worker from Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem told me her thoughts on people calling for the Palestinian people to live in peace. “We try to live in peace every day. We don’t build walls & checkpoints, we don’t come into communities late at night with army tanks, teargas, rubber bullets and handcuffs; Israel is disturbing our peace everyday”. I think the difference in experience of Palestinian people living in and out of the West Bank & Gaza is massive. It is not surprising that an Arab with Israeli citizenship has more freedom and choices than an Arab with Palestinian citizenship. Although Arabs with Israeli passports are faced with daily discrimination and an occupation over their native land they do have many opportunities their fellow citizens can only dream of; freedom of movement in their own country, for example – a human right denied to the 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. It is said almost 2 million Arabs live in Israel, making up 21% of the population. When I asked people in the West Bank their opinion on the Arab population in Israel some said they are traitors for taking Israeli citizenship, others say they are just like us but living the other side of the wall. One thing I was shocked to learn is that there are Arabs working in the Israeli Defense Force. Those who have encountered Arab Israeli soldiers say some are more brutal towards Palestinians than non Arab soldiers. Arabs are often promoted in the IDF to Mistaravim, an undercover ‘counter-terrorism’ unit of the IDF. These units are specifically trained to assimilate among the local Arab population. They are commonly tasked with performing ‘intelligence gathering’, ‘law enforcement’, ‘counter-terrorist operations’ using disguise and surprise as their main weapons. Below is an image of a Mistaravium hard at work – blindfolding and arresting a child. I don’t know what ‘task’ this falls under.
Following our very interesting visit to Galilee we kept going north to the province of Golan Heights. This is a beautiful province where Israel meets Syria and Jordan. The Golan Heights is Syrian territory occupied. Following a 6 day attack by Israel in Syria, Jordan and Egypt in 1967 the Golan Heights was captured and a ‘purple line’ (ceasefire fence) was created between The Republic of Syria and The Golan Heights. We were welcomed into the home of a family who has suffered a great deal under the Israeli occupation and the war in Syria. When asked how this occupation affects the people of Golan Heights they explained how every family in the Golan Heights has family members at the other side of the fence. There is no way for either side to cross the fence. At times of devastation, such as the current invasion of Syria the Syrian people living in Golan Heights hear the explosions, see the air strikes and smell the war but can do nothing to help their families living across the fence. Since 1967 many Syrian people from Golan Heights have been in Israeli prisons with no sign of release. The family we met with told us how the father, now 82 and the 3 brothers have all served sentences in Israeli prisons. They spoke of the brutal treatment and systematic torture used in Israeli prisons towards Syrian and Palestinian prisoners. When these grown men looked scarred and traumatized when trying to explain to us the treatment they faced in these prisons my eyes watered up thinking of the thousands of boys and young men in areas like Golan Heights, the West Bank & Gaza who are literally lifted out of their beds and thrown into Israeli jails to face god knows what; 12, 13, 14 year olds – How on earth is this allowed to happen?
One of the sons from this family is currently in an Israeli jail serving time for translating the UN report which shows evidence that Israel are supporting and aiding extremist terrorist groups active in Syrian, such as ISIS. The United Nations report on Israel’s involvement with extremists groups in the Middle East documents evidence that Israel is supporting and aiding the right wing, extremist terrorism movements. Their son was translating this report into Arabic when the Israel Defence Force found out and arrested him – Where is the UN to speak out about this? If you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll remember a few weeks ago the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon was elected Head of the UN Legal Committee which deals with ‘the fight against global terrorism’(!) So the UN have a whole committee dedicated to fighting global terrorism and they just elected Israel to be the head of it when they are the force behind the current most active global terrorist group! Yes it is as ridiculous as it sounds and that’s not all. Remember how the US funds Israel right – well the US and Britain are bombing the shit out of Syria to ‘fight terrorism’ when their mate Israel is aiding this terror. An ISIS attack in the western world is normally enough for people to stop questioning why these ‘wars’ in the likes of Syria and Iraq are happening and trust the big guns know what they are doing. This is the kind of thing you would see in a film and say after watching it – “Well that was a bit farfetched, when would that ever happen?” Guess what… it’s happening right now. And guess what… it’s not a film – Its real life, for millions of our fellow human beings who happened to be born in another part of the world. It is estimated that 470,000 innocent people have been killed in the past 5 years in Syria. Over 5 million have fled to seek refuge; as we know many of them don’t make the journey alive and 7 million people are said to be displaced within Syria. Since 2013 the population of Syria has went from 22million to 16.5 million; in the space of 3 years the country has been destroyed and the bombs are still falling and the money is still rolling.
Before leaving the Golan Heights we went to the ‘ceasefire fence’ which cuts the province off from the mainland. I looked up to the top of these hills and said a prayer. I’m not religious but sometimes you need to hold some faith that there is a greater power out there to step in when your faith in humanity is shaken and you fear, as a species we have failed.
“You’ll never sink when you are with me, like The Dead Sea”
On a much lighter note we had a great day out at the Dead Sea! We got all packed up with a picnic and our bathing costumes – Annagh bought hers the night before we went for 15shakels – £2!! We met a beautiful lady called Maria a few weeks ago in Bethlehem who joined us for our day out – felt like a proper mini holiday! We spent the usual half hour haggling with the shared taxis then drove around Bethlehem picking up passengers and eventually we were on the road to Jericho – which is said to be the oldest habited cities in the world! Following the 1 hour bumpy ride there we jumped out of one shared taxi and started the whole haggling process again with another to get us to the Dead Sea. There are many beaches around the Dead Sea, which looks like a massive lake. It was very confusing which beach to go to, like everything here there are different sections of the Dead Sea occupied by different authorities. The Palestinian side, the Israeli side and the Jordanian side. We were advised not to go to the Palestinian side as many Arab boys and young men don’t often see women in swimsuits! With no visa to get into Jordan and to avoid feeling uncomfortable with an audience we sold our soul and went to the Israeli side. It was a roasting hot day and the water was just as warm; it was like getting into a hot bath that you need to add cold water to! Once in the water you automatically float to the top due to the water being so salty; you can’t not float! Apparently it’s impossible to drowned, any Lumineers fans know the song Dead Sea – it all makes sense now! The mud on the sea bed is said to be the world’s best exfoliator. With all the wear and tear iv put my body through on this trip I think it was in heaven with a bit of TLC. We got an overpriced beer and admired the amazing view of the Dead Sea with Jordanian mountains in the background. You know sometimes I really do have to pinch myself to see if these incredible experiences are actually happening in real life; I really do feel like the luckiest person alive. After feeling the effects of downing a tin of Stella (hold your judgement I haven’t drunk in 6 weeks and it was very hot!) we had a giggly adventurous journey home. A lovely girlie day out!
The goodbyes have started and I know I’ll shed a tear. While I’m always happy to come home and see everyone I don’t feel ready to leave my home here. Maybe the nuns will keep me here! Maybe I’ll go on the run and not leave! Or maybe I’ll just go home and get planning my return in the near future, who’s up for it!?