Shot in the face, then arrested

A few posts back (Aida Refugee Camp), I spoke about ‘M’ – the young man who was shot in the face for photographing the Israeli army shooting in his camp.

A few nights ago, his home was raided by 30 Israeli soliders and he was beaten badly in front of his family before being arrested. He is now recovering in prison hospital in a settlement in the West Bank.

Some more information about him can be found here – including the photos that he took moments before being shot, and details of his arrest can be found in this really good article.

His arrest is a blatant act of censorship by the Israeli government. Through being a photographer, and exposing the daily atrocities carried out by the military, he was a target. His arrest is unjust and a petition for his release is here – please sign it and share.

Olive trees

The concept of ‘security’ is warped in such an ironic way here. It’s the argument that Israel always uses, to justify almost everything it does. The Wall, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations in Gaza, the control of water resources, the torture and detention of children – that’s all only ever for Israel’s security.

To illustrate this, I want to talk about olive trees, which are often destroyed in the name of security. For me, the treatment of these trees demonstrates well the cruelty of the occupation, and invalidates the security argument in this instance.

Understanding the importance of olive trees to many Palestinians is hard for us in the West to imagine. As someone here told me, they are symbolic of the strong connection to this earth and land; they are rooted deeply, and will stay. For many centuries, olive trees have been part of Palestinian identity and culture, and almost half of Palestinian agricultural land is planted with them, some trees being thousands of years old. In 2012 alone, 7500 olive trees were damaged or destroyed1 and over 548,000 trees have been uprooted, burnt or destroyed by Israel’s soldiers and settlers since 20012.

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(picture taken on a bus ride from Bethlehem to Ramallah)

Often, instead of pulling them up entirely, they just chop them at the trunk, turning ancient green groves into cemeteries. It’s such a horrific sight seeing these tree stumps, and I feel it’s worse, more cruel, than just uprooting them entirely; it leaves a memory of what was there, and is a silent threat and reminder of who’s in control.

Again, for this, the argument of security is often given by the Israelis – they say Palestinians could hide behind the trees and throw stones at passing cars. You see fields like this of olive tree stumps that stretch back kilometres (I was never good at sports that involved throwing things, but I think that would have to be a particularly powerful overhand to lob a rock that distance). An old Palestinian man on the bus next to me, as we passed these olive grove graveyards, said to me “in the eyes of the Israelis, even the olive trees are terrorists”. Occasionally, a tree is uprooted carefully and replanted in an Israeli colony. How the tree would cry if it could, like a kidnapped child.

It’s nothing to do with security. With each tree destroyed someone loses their livelihood, and a piece of history is eradicated, and with each grove desertified, the community is weakened. It’s a ritual, repetitive ploy to exhaust, upset and frustrate the Palestinians as much as possible; to destroy their morale. And this sort of thing rarely makes headlines because who, in the scale of things, cares about trees? There’s no drama – it’s just a subtle, routine, slow torture of a population, to grind them down, wear them out, and make them want to leave. It’s often hard to see what’s being done to the Palestinians, but I feel this ruthless, senseless treatment of the trees is a good indicator of what is happening, in parallel, to the people.

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(Mural in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem)

There’s a great campaign to replant olive trees in Palestine here, if you want to get involved and help plant or sponsor a tree: http://www.jai-pal.org/content.php?page=1

For more information about Palestine in general go to my other page here.

References:

  1. Olive Harvest Factsheet. 2012. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory.
  2. Keep Hope Alive – The Olive Tree Campaign. 2010. Joint Advocacy Initiative.

A simple, everyday journey

As the crow flies, Bethlehem is only about 15 miles from Ramallah (the ‘cultural’ capital of Palestine, as Jerusalem – the real capital – is off limits to most West Bank Palestinians). If you are a West Bank Palestinian, the journey can take anything between an hour and a half and three hours, as you have to make an enormous diversion to skirt around the Israeli colonies* and the Israeli-only roads that snake through the West Bank, as well as checkpoints that may spring up and stop the bus. This map is one taken from the BBC website from 2009 – the situation is now, sadly, even worse – on this you can see the massive Ma’ale Adumim, and therefore can see that to get from spot #7 (Bethlehem) to #5 (Ramallah), you have to make a huge diversion to avoid this patch of yellow, almost going as far as the Dead Sea.
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Although it feels unfair to do so, as a Westerner/non-Palestinian, I can move freely in and out of the West Bank, therefore can take the slightly shorter route through Jerusalem. This is the route which Palestinians who are residents of Jerusalem are permitted to take. However, don’t be fooled, although shorter in distance, there are two large checkpoints to cross, when leaving Bethlehem into Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, and then when leaving Jerusalem back into the West Bank to Ramallah. I am going to describe a typical journey to Ramallah and back, in the hope that you may get the idea what a total hassle and bore it is to make this seemingly simple journey between two of Palestine’s major cities.
Once you get to the Wall, two lanes become visible: ‘Entrance’ and ‘Exit’, which lead up alongside the Wall to the entrance. We file into the Entrance lane like cattle, and walk up the narrow corridor of metal bars and a metal roof, enclosed on all sides. At the top of this corridor is a ceiling-to-floor turnstile, which we walk through, then a metal detector, then a soldier in a cabin who we pass. After this there is a walk to the second terminal, and another corridor that winds around and leads to another turnstile at the bottom. Then you queue up to go through a second metal detector. This is the serious one. In the queue the men are already starting to unbuckle. Belt off, pockets emptied, attempt walking through: the machine buzzes. Watch off, shoes off: buzz. No soldiers come out to help, they just sit in their bullet-proof cabin, waiting. Just keep trying until it goes green; they know you know the drill. After the detector it’s through another turnstile, then to a soldier sitting in another bulletproof cabin. ID cards out, fingerprints scanned, stupid questions occasionally asked, such as “is that you?”. It’s hot and stuffy, and the queues are long. Finally we’re through, and it’s off down one last corridor out into the open air, then onto a waiting bus.
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Outside the window, skins lighten, clothes shorten; hijabs, jilbabs and niqabs off, rekels, shtreimels and kippahs on. Blue and white Israeli flags appear everywhere. Number plates morph from white to yellow – no Palestinian cars, with their tell-tale white and green number plates are allowed in here.
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Temporarily, as we cruise through this altered landscape – how could it change so drastically over such a small space? – it almost feels European.
At traffic lights, a coach pulls up alongside ours, and its passengers’ uniforms catch my eye. It’s a coach full of kids, but in uniform. Soldiers, teenage soldiers. All messing around, being silly, being teenagers. Flirting, throwing things at each other, playing on their phones. The cool kid making jokes, the lonely one sitting staring out of a window picking his nose. It looks like a school outing, but it’s not; due to compulsory military conscription, these are the soldiers running this ship. These kids have guns.
Off one bus in East Jerusalem, then onto another towards checkpoint two, Qalandia. Getting back into the West Bank towards Ramallah is usually easy; they don’t care who goes in, just who comes out. However, you have to go through Qalandia to cross the Wall, which results in another diversion and large queues of traffic. Qalandia is the biggest checkpoint, and it’s filled with soldiers. Guns, army trucks, military towers, barbed wire and Israeli flags – of course there are flags, as if we needed reminding who’s in control – are everywhere. After crossing this, we’re back in the West Bank. Although in reality, we never actually left: Israel has lassoed East Jerusalem into it’s power, and by crossing the Wall you feel like you’re leaving and entering the West Bank, but actually this too is all illegally occupied Palestinian land.
Several hours later, on my return journey back to Bethlehem (Ramallah to Qalandia – get off bus, cross checkpoint; Qalandia to Jerusalem; Jerusalem to Bethlehem) my third bus gets stopped at random, right in the centre of Jerusalem, only about 3 minutes after setting off. Two soldiers get on, a boy and a girl. The girl chats away on her phone to a friend, giggling. Both have guns – big ones – as all soldiers do. They ask for everyone’s ID, in Hebrew. Outside, I notice, there are two Palestinian men in their 30s sitting with their backs to a wall, guarded by two girls who can’t be over 18 or 19. One twiddles her hair with pink-painted fingernails, the other sucks on a lollipop. Back on our bus, a man is hauled off and ordered to take his baby’s pram out, to be checked. They continue to talk to him in Hebrew: the language of the oppressor that he has been forced to learn. Luckily, this time, no-one is taken off. There is a collective exhale of relief among the passengers.
I finally arrive back at my flat that evening, after a total of 5 hours on a bus or at checkpoints. The whole thing is just so humiliating, so frustrating. I get driven crazy by it and it isn’t my everyday existence. This ‘info-graphic’ is great: http://visualizingpalestine.org/infographic/across-the-wall – it shows how easy it is for Israeli settlers to get around the West Bank (on universally-accepted-except-by-Israel Palestinian land), and it shows the extortionate diversion that the Wall takes into this land, to grab as much of the West Bank as possible. I hope this map, plus my description above, will help to elucidate the difficulty that Palestinians face – remember, most West Bank Palestinians don’t even have the ‘easy’ option of going through Jerusalem.
Add these movement restrictions to everything else. To the water control (80% of West Bank water goes to Israel and the colonies), to the night-time raids, to the detention of children and the torture in prisons, to the feeling that the world views them all as terrorists, to the fear that your house might be demolished to make way for a new settler-only road, to the restricted medical care, to giving birth at a checkpoint. The worries are endless and unimaginable. I get a recurring and huge feeling of guilt that in a few weeks I’ll be able to walk away from this all, go back to my comfortable life, and all these people – all the smiling faces and warm welcomes – won’t.
*I call the Israeli settlements ‘colonies’ rather than settlements. I feel that ‘settlement’ doesn’t quite do the situation justice… as though they are just politely setting up camp, rather than the reality of them taking over – colonising – whole areas, stealing water, terrorising neighbouring villages etc.

Aida Refugee Camp

My flat in Bethlehem is lovely. Spacious, airy and light, it is sometimes possible to forget where I am, temporarily. My flat is high up, and from my living room window I have a view out over the east of Palestine and towards the Jordan Valley – on a clear night, you can see the lights of Jordan behind. However, only a few kilometres away, tainting this view, is the huge Israeli settlement, Gilo – covering the hilltop on the left of this photo (which is illegal under international law as it is build on West Bank, Palestinian land).

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From my kitchen window, I can see the Wall – 8 metres tall – which blocks out the sunset every evening, sadly, and to the left of that Aida Refugee camp is just out of my view.

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In my last message I spoke of the village of Lifta, and of its Palestinian residents who were forced to flee. Aida refugee camp was established in 1948, for Palestinians like those from Lifta and all over modern-day Israel, to seek shelter in. And they still stand, 65 years later, housing the inhabitants, and their children, and their grandchildren, who were forced to leave their homes.
 
I visited Aida a few days ago to meet a friend of a friend, N, who is working there. It’s a rough existence living in a refugee camp. The soldiers appear to do their training there – frequently descending on the camp and shooting tear gas cannisters or live ammunition apparently at random. An 8-year old boy was shot through the chest the week before while playing football. N told me about a colleague and friend of hers, M, who had been standing on the balcony of their office taking photos of the soldiers rampaging through the camp, firing live bullets. A soldier saw him, and shouted up an order for him to stop taking photos. M shouted back down “as long as you keep shooting, I’ll keep photographing”, and when he lifted his camera back up to his eye, the soldier shot him in the face.
 
About ten minutes after N had told this story, M walked into the room we were in, sat down and joined in our conversation. He was a friendly, jokey guy in his mid-20s who spoke good English. The left side of his face was beautiful, with olive skin and big dark eyelashy eyes. The right side of his face was crushed, distorted. He had a large pink scar along his cheekbone… or what was left of it. The bullet had gone straight into his cheek, and shattered the bone. After the bullet’s extraction now, some weeks later, the right side of his face sags. His brow drapes too low, and the outer edge of his eye is pulled down towards his cheek.
 
A lucky miss, indeed; a few centimetres to the right would surely have killed him. But he is now disfigured, permanently, for the simple reason that he was trying to document what the Israelis were doing in just about the most non-violent way possible. No stone-throwing or fighting or cursing, he was simply taking photos in his camp, his home, of their routine, every-day violence.
 
There’s a piece of graffiti on the Wall saying “To exist is to resist”. I couldn’t agree with it more. In Palestine, daily activities are courageous acts of defiance, and simply staying put and carrying on is in itself an act of resistance against the occupation.

The tragic village of Lifta

Sunday was a hard day.

Three friends and I visited the ex-village of Lifta, in West Jerusalem; one of the approximately 400 Palestinian villages/towns that were taken over in 1948, during the creation of the state of Israel. I had heard a lot about these places, but never seen one. Most of the villages were destroyed completely, or built upon and settled in by the Israelis (wandering round areas like Yaffa in Tel Aviv, you can still see these old Palestinian buildings, but now with their new inhabitants). However, Lifta stays standing, and its sand-coloured, domed houses drape down the sides of the overgrown valley majestically.Image
ImageIt must have been a well-off neighbourhood, with large houses spaced well apart from each other and surrounded by fruit trees and cactus plants (now huge) marking out the perimeters.
You can wander about freely, in and out of the houses and along the pavements. All houses are destroyed and derelict, and many have holes punched in their roofs:
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(Palestinians say the Israelis did this to prevent them returning; Israelis say the Palestinians did this to prevent a Jewish family moving in). There is the fascinating, voyeuristic element of wandering around these buildings; a similar feeling to that I got at Pompeii. Yet there was also an immense feeling of sadness and grief that started to well up in me, and became unbearable…
These Palestinians were forced from their homes. The Israelis say they chose to leave on seeing the advancing Jewish (not yet Israeli) army. Not much of a choice really. Option A: stay and risk being killed; Option B: leave. So in that sense, the Palestinians chose to leave, along with over 700,000 other Palestinians who fled their from homes in what is now Israel, in 1948. They left their homes and their fertile land, their gardens and fruit trees, their natural springs and beautiful views over their country. The majority of these Palestinians moved to refugee camps, where they, and their descendants, are still living today, 65 years later, in squalid, cramped conditions, with electricity cuts and water shortages. Yes, I’m sure they chose that.
As we wandered down through Lifta, pushing overgrown fig trees and fennel plants out of the path, a pool appeared in the valley, watered by a spring. However, in this pool, splashing about, having fun, were a load of young Israeli men. They seemed so unaware, so unashamed and audacious. In their eyes I’m sure they could see absolutely nothing wrong. Ben, feigning ignorance, went and asked one what the old buildings were. As predicted, straight from the textbook, came the answer: “the Arabs abandoned them”.
It made me so angry, so furious. A whole community was uprooted, displaced, destroyed, so a bunch of Israeli youths could have a nice spot to hang out. The picture below shows a guy drying off on the domed roof of a ruined house.
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The Israelis are planning on turning it into an “Art Village”, whatever that is; construction has already started at the top. This will, I’m sure, further obscure what it once was. I feel I’ve witnessed a piece of history. Solid, unquestionable proof. Lifta is a memory, a ghost, of the past. The ‘other side’ of the argument is so weak, so feeble – surely it can’t be believed? I feel a desperate need to act now – while this evidence still exists. Another 65 years will be too late. The lies will become so entrenched that they’ll be facts, history.
I was standing in one house, with its whole roof collapsed, just imagining what life there must have been like. There was still a wooden shelf on one wall. The outside had been vandalised with stars of David and Hebrew slogans, and I felt such a real, deep pain. So (and I don’t know if this was the right thing for me to do or not, as I’d never usually draw on a person’s wall) for the first time since the back of the toilet doors at school, I made my own little mark:
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I don’t know who’ll read it, or if the viewer will speak English. But maybe, hopefully, it could make somebody think.
(photo credit to Ben and Lucy – as I stupidly forgot my camera)

4th June, 2013

My journey to Palestine has been delayed slightly, but in the meanwhile, I have a few days spare in Jordan, which is quite a fantastic place to have a few days spare! Yesterday I visited some of the desert castles in the north-west of Jordan: Qasr Kharana, Qasr Amra and Qasr Azraq. They were like huge sand castles in the middle of the desert. Totally dry and dusty, with simple-looking structures that could have come out of giant plastic sand castle buckets. At Qasr Azraq there was a very interesting Druze guide with shiny tanned skin and unusual bright blue eyes, who showed us around. He talked of how the whole area used to be lush and green and full of oases, how he used to catch catfish as long as his arm and how the people were self-sufficient through the fertile soils, ample fish and animals to hunt. Only 30 years ago, he said, an oasis stretched out from the castle’s edge 15km into the, now desertified, land beyond. But then, in the ’80s, the goverment started pumping water from there into Amman, and the water level went down and down and down… until there was none left. It was hard to imagine really, in the 34 degree dry heat. There were still palm trees, and many buildings around where the oasis once was, as signs of water in recent days gone by, but it was still hard to picture. However, afterwards we drove to the Azraq Wetland Centre, where they have “reintroduced” water to the desert. 39 million cubic metres of water gets pumped from Azraq to Amman every year (accounting for a quarter of Amman’s water supply) as there is still water underground, even if they’ve taken it all from the land’s surface. Kindly, the government has allowed for 1 million cubic metres to be pumped back to Azraq’s wetland centre. It’s hard to imagine an oasis in a desert, but seeing one (allbeit a human-made one) made me realise how precious they are, and how tragic this mass-scale loss of water was. There were loads of types of birds flying round, such as bee-eaters and purple herons, fish swimming about and water buffalo hiding in the reeds. It was full of life and beautiful, but also tragic, thinking that this is what much of the desert used to be like.
 
It made me angry, and I’m sorry to send you an angry email already, but it did. The conflict throughout this region results in refugees, inevitably. Soon, a fifth of Jordan’s population will be Syrian, and there are of course still hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and many Iraqis too. Jordan seems to be one of the only (currently) conflict-free areas in this region, and as a result it is one of the only places where refugees can flee to. But it’s putting such a strain on the already overstretched resources. I just don’t see how this is sustainable. Sadly I don’t think the Palestinians, Syrians and Iraqis (amongst others) will be returning home any time soon, so they’ll all have to continue sharing the resources in this patch of desert. I’m sure there’ll be conflicts within Jordan over water shortages soon. There’s already not enough to go round, and with the impacts of worsening climate change… it’s horrible to imagine. And all the while, the immigrants who are lucky enough to make it to (lush, green, rainy, flooding) England, are treated like criminals on arrival, slated by the media and hunted down by islamophobes like the EDL. And it is us, “Great” Britain, who caused most of these Middle Eastern conflicts in the first place!! I mean, I know we have our limits and capacities too, but I just wish immigrant-hating politicians/reporters/thugs would see the connection. They don’t necessarily want to move to our little island, they’ve been forced to. Their conflict-ridden drought-filled land can’t house them all any more.