Sunday, 23 August 2009

27 July 2009
An early start for our “action”. We have been asked to join the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) and Operation Dove at At-Tuwani. The locals had asked them to accompany them on a symbolic walk to/from their summer school. Normally the military escort them along the ‘long’ road but today we are going to take the direct route over the hills and close to the settlements. We were briefed last night, the Palestinians call the shots, the CPTers accompany them. They did a similar walk last year and it got ugly; a CPTer assaulted by a soldier. A CPTer has been seriously injured by a settler. We were informed of possible arrest. The role of the internationals is mainly in recording the stories. There will be 2 video cameras on the walk and one on the hill overlooking us.

We get to At-Tuwani and the first thing to impress is the number of young people with CPT and Operation Dove who have given up three years of their lives to witness in this way, in the middle of nowhere, with people off the global media’s radar. We head to the school. The main leaders in the community are pointed out and they are mostly women in this instance. One in particular is organising the children and I am told that she is not a mum, ‘just’ an activist. The children had made banners, but one of the banners is from the funders, the European Union. The children have their T-shirts, the 8th steadfast summer school, 2009.

We are told where the most likely threat is likely to come from and are asked to keep between the children and the hills. We head out with the children singing, chanting and behaving like children the world over, behave; running and falling out and making up and laughing. We get tired with our trekking boots and walking gear, the children run up and down rocks. This is the way they get to summer school every day. A number of younger women walk up the hills with high wedges on their feet like they are walking down a catwalk.

After a while we see the settlers at the edge of an outhouse. Further up we look back and see the military jeep heading above us on the hill. Trying to walk in the heat, trying to watch where you are putting your feet, trying to watch where the children are and constantly scanning the horizon. We were warned of the rocky ground, the gradient, the heat, but no one warned me about the thorns, which I constantly had to pick out of my feet.

We reached the top of the hill, the nearest village, without incident. Jubilation from the children. A walk from summer school to home is a political act of resistance. Lots of water is consumed and then out come the children with trays of sweet, warm, mint tea, and it tastes so good.

An army jeep arrives, stopping a short distance from us and 2 soldiers get out. They start speaking to an Italian member of Operation Dove. All fairly pleasant but with undertones, like young men shadow boxing, squaring up but not really wanting a fight. The outcome was that we can all return but “don’t go near the trees, near the settlements, it only causes trouble”. They were in effect being told not to go on their own land because it would upset the people in the settlements. Jessica, a CPTer intervenes: “It’s good that you are here, now, about the military accompaniment of the children…” Turns out the soldiers usually met the children halfway to the school. The children come over the hill and don’t know if it will be settlers or soldiers waiting for them over the ridge. The soldiers have told the CPTer’s they can’t get the key to the gate to come up all the way. How did they manage to get it today, to come up to the village now? “We just did”. The soldiers said that they would accompany the children back but only children and no adults. Then it breaks of into Arabic as the local people take over the negotiations. We sit drinking tea for what seems like an age. Eventually I ask a CPTer what is happening. The locals have called their lawyer about which way they are legally allowed to return. The Palestinians will decide which way to return and either way may cause difficulties. One of the delegation commented on the civility of the conversation between the peace activist and the soldier. The peace activist said that he had met him before on an earlier walk to school and spoke to him. He is from Tel Aviv, grew up on a kibbutz, has left leaning politics and said that he admired the peace activist for what they did but he had to do his job. No easy boxes here. Is this a potential for Combatants for Peace? An American peace activist spoke about how he finds it hard to get used to the soldiers and police here. At home mostly he trusts the police to do what they should. Here he never knows how they are going to react, like today or aggressively. During the last protest walk it was the soldiers who assaulted a CPTer.
And we wait. And then everyone gets up and we are off again. I have no idea which way we are going but it soon became apparent that we are going by the trees, the settlement. Three settlers appear on the hill above us and we can see them bend down and pick up rocks. They are a long way off but I don’t know which way we are going. We see army jeeps going up to the settlements. And then white estate cars appear from the settlements. There is a Y junction up ahead, one to the village and one to settlement. The adults speed the children up, a sense of real urgency appears. The car arrives at the junction at the same time as the tail enders. The CPTer’s and OD lot drop back to the end of the march with video cameras raised. Soldiers, settlers, police, dislike cameras. There is a fear of cameras from people holding guns that terrifies me. Two settlers are in the car, words spoken, one gets out, shouts but that was it. Then another car appears. It carries on driving towards the group. The peace activists walk 5 abreast across the path, it won’t pass here, engines revved behind the line. And then the soldiers arrive. One jeep, four soldiers. The settlers stop. The soldiers get out and walk down behind the children, guns clasped to chests. No words are spoken. Is this protection of the children, securing the settler’s “rights”? Who gives the orders in the field? It looks like the settlers. The children approach home and see family standing at the end of the road. They cheer and run, jubilant, like athletes reaching the finishing line, and then the police arrive with flashing blue lights. There is a discussion between police, soldiers, peacekeepers and locals. We are advised that it is a good time to leave. We were there because our passports were important, they aren’t needed now.

Walking to summer school is an act of resistance. It brings grown men out of their homes to threaten children. It brings out soldiers and police. It brings out singing and celebration. It brings out non-violent resistance. We only offer our presence, our international passports in our pockets. The children and the villagers offer spirit. We leave and we will be home next week. They will continue to take the dangerous walk to summer school.

We return to our new base at Hebron. Walid A Adu Alhalaweh from Hebron Rehabilitation Committee takes us on a tour. Hebron is strange for all sorts of reasons. This is where the Mosque of the Patriarch is, Abraham and Sarah. Now split, half mosque half synagogue. And Hebron was an economic powerhouse with olives, grapes and glass produced here. Now it is unique for other reasons. It has settlements inside the city. The settlements are connected by a road that no Palestinians can use. There are constant conflict points over new settlements. It is a city of conflicts. 400 settlers with 1,500 soldiers to protect them. It was also a city of co-existence. Jews owned property and lived in the city as neighbours. There is a nostalgia almost for the Jewish neighbours of the past, the Hebronite Jews. Now conflict marks the relationship between neighbours. Commercial life has deteriorated. 500 shops have been closed on military orders, 1,000 have closed ‘voluntarily’ because there is no trade. People are either scared to venture into certain parts of the city or it is too difficult. There are 101 barriers in an area of 1 km square. Walid’s passion is to return the city to its thriving past, preserve the past but also revitalise the life of the city. And that means people returning to live in the old city and businesses opening up.

The walk around the city reveals the absurdity of this place. Small houses or small communities surrounded by Palestinians. Each settlement with soldiers and outposts. Wire netting covers the Palestinians windows and wire netting is stretched above us on each street protecting those below from those who live above. Look up and you see rubbish and rocks above you. We hear stories of settlers throwing rubbish, urine, anything onto those below. The netting catches the big objects, not the urine (one of the CPTers joked about having her second baptism in Hebron), but now nails are thrown. It is crazy, who wants to look out of their window and see their own rubbish nesting in the netting below? Some shops close voluntarily, there are no customers because of the threat from above. Friday and Saturday are apparently the worst days. Must be nothing in the Torah about throwing obscene object on your neighbours on the Sabbath.
Other shops have closed by military order. They now rest on designated a military zone, that is they are below or close to settlements. The metal doors are welded shut. We saw the old chicken and fish markets; previously bustling places now ghost towns. We saw the wealthiest market in the region, all the high-income goods, now empty, a military zone. Our guide has no doubts they will become the new settlements
We walk past the mosque/synagogue. The patriarch now divided like the city. Through the checkpoint and metal detectors. No problem for the tourists but we see a number of young Palestinian men stopped and searched. And there are cameras everywhere. If you think CCTV is bad in Britain, then come here.

We walk around the corner coming close to the settler’s road. We turn the corner and sees concrete bollards being placed down one side of the road. Our guide, Walid, is visibly shaken; angry and upset. I don’t need Arabic as he turns and walks past me like he cannot bear to look in that direction. The Anglo Saxon swear words must be our greatest gift to global culture. “Apartheid in action, before our eyes”, he exclaims, calling for a camera from one of the CPTers. There were concrete blocks in this street before but they are being moved further over, eating into Palestinian land. And there were gaps in them before, you could walk through the gaps but now you have to walk all the way to the end of the road and back again. There is real hurt in Walid. As we walk back up, past the checkpoint Walid stops and talks to one of the soldiers. It is a warm, friendly conversation. We know about the soldiers being on their best behaviour when internationals are around but there appears to be something more here. Walid later tells us that the soldier is the commander of the military in charge of the mosque/synagogue. He has known him for 10 years. It will be him that is responsible for the new concrete bollards but there is a friendship here, like the relationship between Dauod and the settler at the Tent of Nations. When some people get to know each other there is no hatred; it is the system that promotes hatred. Nothing here fits into boxes, nothing all black and white. I pray for the people who work with the young people in whatever interfaith way is possible. Maybe the young will dismantle the systems of hatred and then the Wall.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

26th July
Lajee Centre, Bethlehem. Lajee means refugee in Arabic and this centre serves the refugee camp. Rick Wiles tells us about his life and his relationship with the camp. He is a photographer from England. He arrived in Palestine to take photographs, fell in love with the place and the people and moved here. We get a history of the camp. Set up in 1948. All descendants of refugees are also refugees. There was a period from 1967 when they were not registered as refugees. Jordan had control of the West Bank and the UN designated people who moved from the West Bank to Jordan as moving between Jordan and Jordan; they were displaced people but not refugees. Rick said that there are 8 million Palestinian refugees with 4 million being officially registered.
The camp was originally tents and we saw some of the pictures in the hostel. In 1956the UN started building concrete boxes which were homes. The building continues. We are told that the ethnic cleansing started in 1947 prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. People slept in the streets at that time, especially in Nativity Square. Now the Wall surrounds the camp. From the roof we are told that the area beyond the Wall was open land with olive trees and 2 football pitches. It was were people played and picnicked. There is a lack of open land in the camps, everything is built on. The Wall cut of access to the open land. The Green Line is 3 to 4 km from where the wall I built. Bethlehem land stolen, is how it is put, and again it is emphasised that the wall is about land grab and not security. And we can see the wall snake round settlements which are illegal but now are on the Israeli side. And again we hear about water. Water is delivered to the camp every 7 days for 3 hours. The water pipes were laid by the UN 30 years ago. To get the water to the tanks on top of the houses is done in these 3 hours. But the pipes have no pressure to get the water to the houses at the top of the hill, so people buy their own generators. At $200 each families club together and share the use each getting 30 minutes each. If a family runs out of water then that is it. Last year people went for 6 to 8 weeks with out water and nearer 3 months in the houses at the top of the hill. Yesterday pole were walking round the camp with buckets. I had noticed them. They were trying to get the last of the water left in the bottom of the tanks. Before the UN provided water people had to walk 4 km with their water in buckets. 61 years later they are still walking round with buckets looking for water.

The wall makes a difference in surprising ways. People worked illegally in Jerusalem before without too many problems. Now the checkpoint and the Wall and the watchtowers and the CCTV, and the extended security zone behind the wall makes life more unpredictable. Before soldiers came into the camp in jeeps. Rick told of how he would be working with kids outside and they would just get up and head home. He asked why and they said because the soldiers were coming. How could they tell? Their ears were attuned to the jeeps, a sound Rick could not hear. When the wall was built there was an expectation that the soldiers would not come into the camp and they didn’t need to. From each watchtower they can cover the entire camp.

In 2006 a child was shot in his bedroom from a watchtower. Didn’t see the soldiers, hear the jeep, it just happened at noon on a Friday.

The children’s stories are what the centre works on. They are taught photography and that way their stories can travel behind the wall. And it gives them skills, keeps them busy, builds self-esteem. Of the 5,000 in the camp 50% are under 18 years old. Their form of resistance is staying here, living, dancing, taking photos, telling their story.

There is a new project “Our Voice”, funded by the EU and Belgium. It is working with 6 refugee camps (none in Gaza: the Palestinians can not move between Gaza and the West Bank). And the workshops focus on human rights, gender equality, photography and journalism, with the aim of the kids producing their own magazine this December. They all met, 90 kids, last week for the first time.

Rick told us of some of the children’s stories and showed their videos, and artwork where they tell their own stories. He tells the story of the youngest child he knows who has been detained. A 13 year old, kept himself to himself, a bit of a loner. He was not allowed dogs in the house so he kept dogs in the woods where he would go to feed them. He disappeared and was not seen for 6 months. He was arrested, blindfolded and hand and feet cuffed and taken to Rachael’s Tomb military compound. There were 8 children in a cell and he said that they were beaten and not fed. The children protested by going on hunger strike, the youngest was 10. Tear gas was fired into the cell. He was taken to a zinzana, a punishment cell. A metal box put in the sun, with 6 children inside. The children protest again but this time by self-mutilating themselves with torn tins. They were put back into a bigger cell. A knife was produced and the child was charged with trying to stab a soldier. He would be released for a payment of $2,000, which his family did not have. But he said no anyway, no money would be paid and he served 6 months. On his release he was taken by army jeep and dumped 120km from the camp.

Administrative Detention is another strange law. People can be kept for 3 months and then the detention renewed. We hear the longest detention is 12 years. There are no court cases. The details are considered to be secret and therefore cannot be heard in court. There are 400 held on administrative detention.

The centre produces the children’s stories in many formats. There have been exhibitions around the world, some with the children. It is easier for children to travel out of the camps before they are processed for identity cards. When they cannot go their stories go in their place, telling of their hopes and dreams and nightmares. And there are nightmares here. Children are damaged and we hear of older teenagers who wet the bed, cannot sleep, have flashbacks. Depression appears to be hidden, just under the surface. But here there is also an opportunity for a role in the camp and responsibility. The centre has 5 teenagers on the administration board and youngsters also act as volunteers once they reach 18 passing on the skills they have learned to the next generation. The power of art is more evident here than anywhere else we have been. On the walls are portraits of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet. On one of the murals, round the picture of an olive tree are his words; “If the olive trees knew who had planted them their oil would become tears”. And pictures of Hanthala, the cartoon by Naji al-Ali, appear everywhere. Pictures and words and ideas are dangerous.

One photograph project involved children going back to the homes their family originally came from. Pictures were taken and stones, water, mementos brought back for grand parents. Of the 9 villages they visited 7 were deserted. The claim that settlements are about a land without people for people without a land becomes hollow and the claims of the refugees for the right to return grows.

We will leave Bethlehem tomorrow morning. The IBDAA Hostel uses sport in the same way Lajee uses art. At the hostel trophies, cups, pendants and photos line every wall and space. On the window of the hostel reception is a sticker with the words of Martin Luther King: “We must accept finite disappointment but never loose infinite hope”. And hope comes from football and basketball, poems and cartoons, photographs and stories. Resistance from existing.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

25th July 2009. Day 4.
The plan for writing up these thoughts, once I discovered that a daily blog would not be practical, was to type up everything from my notebooks with no editing, just what was written each night. But there is nothing written for the Tent of Nations. Looking back I know I never wrote anything down. It was too good, too special, an experience, to waste time writing notes. This is a retrospective impression.

We try and organise taxis to take us to the Tent of Nations. We head out along the settlers road to a turning and then up a track. The taxi driver negotiating potholes that cavers would find interesting. The track ends with concrete bollards blocking the road. A bulldozer had been up there to make sure that it was difficult for people to travel. All the tools and materials used for construction can be equally well used for destruction. We get out and walk in the heat. A group are pruning, laying out training the vines by the side of the track. Their donkey steals their water from the bucket. We find the gate to lead us to the top of this rounded hill where tents and a few permanent buildings are. And a big canvas sign says “Bringing nature to life. Learning to hope. Planting peace”. We are welcomed to the Nassar Farm by Daher Nassar. This has been his families land, and he can prove it, since the Ottoman Empire. Now you need to know about land ownership in this strange world. If you are a lawyer then prepare yourself for confusion.

Land law in Israel/Palestine is complex. The controlling states over the years sought to register land; the most significant times were the 1966 war, the British mandate in 1948 and the Ottoman Empire. If land was registered it was also taxed, so many people refused to registrar their land. The Nassar family registered their land with all the previous authorities and have documentation dating back to the Ottoman period. They are still in court about the ownership and have been for the last 13 years.

The Israeli state then said that if land was not used for 2 or 3 years it was considered abandoned and would become state land. Much of the land was left for grazing and appeared unused and taxes were levied on land that was used so some people left land fallow. It is from state land that much of the settlements are built on.

So the Nassar family had to consider how to use as much of their land as possible and they set up the Tent of Nations, inviting people from around the world to stay and work the land and to help in their summer camps working with the children and young people from all backgrounds, exploring peace and reconciliation.
The area that the Tent of Nations is in has been classified as a military zone so if they want to do anything they have to apply for a permit, which are rarely given. They are not allowed to build anything; hence the tents, and even these have now been classified as ‘illegal buildings’ and have been issued with a demolition order. So the volunteers have been digging out caves. People in the past lived in hollowed out caves and they are returning to it; wonderfully cool in the heat of the day and warm at night. They are described as having their own, natural air conditioning. It was in the caves that we were lead in singing by Daher. If I can find a way of showing the video clip of this I will. I was a wonderful, spiritual experience and for me a time of restating my commitment to doing what I could.

The Nassar’s are not allowed water, so they have been digging out cisterns to collect what rainwater there is. They are not allowed electricity and when we were their two German engineers were fitting solar panels. Daoud Nassar was at university in Germany and he has strong ties there. Conscientious objectors in Germany will spend a year with the Tent of Nations rather than serve in the army and they have just won a peace award from the German Mennonite Church.

Daoud has been offered a blank cheque to sell his land, he just has to fill in whatever amount he wants, but he refuses. The land takes on special meaning. Daoud describes it as being like your mother, it is the land that provides for you and to sell your land would be like selling your mother, and you don’t do that. And personally I think that the work they do is priceless; bringing young people from different backgrounds together to work at reconciliation. When Daher took us on a tour of the land he stopped in one of the caves, the crayons and paper still lying out from the children’s summer camp earlier on. When asked what it was that they wanted to teach the children he said, “to teach the children to love the land”. The Nasser family are Palestinian Christians and are trying to live out the gospel in difficult circumstances.

At the Tent of Nations Daoud Nassar told us of one important visit. Many groups visit there but this one was important for him. A Jewish woman for Jerusalem had signed up for a tour of the place. Nothing unusual, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, agnostic people visited regular. This woman had a friend who stayed in the settlement on the hill, which overlooked the Tent of Nations. She asked her if she would join her on the tour. Daoud admitted to his own feelings of unease and discomfort at this, but told her that anyone who agreed with their principals of non-violence was welcome. The woman was amazed at how little she knew about her neighbours. They had no electricity while she had all the mod cons you could think of; they had no water and she had a swimming pool. Next-door neighbours but worlds apart.

Everyone in this example had taken risks in trying to learn about each other. Daoud told us of a very special visit the woman made some time later. She and her husband walked down from the settlement to the Tent of Nations one evening. She had come down on the Jewish New Year and had just wanted to wish her Christian neighbours a happy new year.

The Tent of Nations slogan is “People Building Bridges” and this happens in many ways, large and small, but always special. But for me it got me wondering about how easy it would be for me to give, or to receive such a blessing from someone I might view as my enemy. Jesus’ challenge to us, to love our neighbours, is indeed a difficult one.

This is, as they say in Celtic Christianity, a thin place, a place where the boundaries of heaven and earth and thin. But it is more than that. If you believe that places are spiritual, that we need to go to a certain place to find God or whatever you believe in, then the land becomes holy and the people on holy land become to be seen as in the way. B’Tselem, the image, the image of God is not found in the land or the sea or the animals or the plants but in people. The other things we have dominion or stewardship over. It is here that I find the image of God, in the people, in the stewardship of the land, in the Beatitudes, in all that is good, in doing what we can because we know it is right, in the absurdity of faith. I have climbed the mountain and listened to the Beatitudes with my eyes and my heart.

We head from the Tent of Nations back to Bethlehem to visit the Alternative Information Centre. This is a joint Palestinian/Israeli political organisation, mostly ‘leftist’ activists. We are told about the centre by Nassar Ibrahim (check out Nassar Ibrahim tells us that he is a dangerous man. His travel is restricted because the state thinks he is dangerous. Ideas are what states fear more than violence and today we have time with someone who challenges the ideas that are promoted and the ‘reality’ which is presented as fact by the state.

The organisation was set up in 1984. The conclusion from commenting, writing, campaigning on the position on the ground since ’84 is that there is no peace process; there is a power process. He starts by saying that this is an unholy land. The role of religion in this process is complex. But AIC is not a religious organisation. It is all about the politics of the conflict and about building bridges not on religion but on politics and economics. We are told that the current relationships are based on colonialism and occupation and from that starting point there can be no real dialogue. AIC, as the name says, seeks to offer an alternative analysis of what is happening. An alternative analysis does not mean that alternative facts or data are used, it is the same core material but a different way of looking at them. And the ‘normalisation concept’ is rejected. There is a clearer expression of what the occupation does to both sides and how both sides are needed to ‘free’ the other. “I need you to help me to be free from your occupation and you need me to help you be free from the effects of your occupation.” This is the South African concept of Ubunto, explained by Desmond Tutu: that a person is only a person through another person; I am only human because of you. Values become important for all sides. We are told that the Palestinian’s are fighting for the West’s values as well as their own.

But if political and economics are the focus, religion cannot be ignored. This is about, or at least dressed up as, God and religion of the land. But a focus needs to be kept on what both sides share in common. There are religious parties on both sides. There is poverty on both sides. One basic principal that those from both backgrounds at AIC sign up to is to campaign against discrimination and racism. It will be there on both sides.

But religion can fuel this. Bush, it is claimed, unleashed religious and cultural devils. 9/11 was used to promote the neo-conservative agenda, an agenda far beyond the boundaries of America. This agenda was about America ruling the world, not just the capitalist world but all countries. Where was America’s surplus economic, political and cultural power to go? One place was into the untapped markets. America is to Coca-Colonise the world. And extreme action by America will get extreme re-action and here devils are re-awakened.

Arafat was characterised as a bad leader for his people. Corruption was highlighted at every turn. A blind eye to the corruption of the West. The one constant about the portrayal of Palestinian leaders is that they are not good leaders for their people, whether Arafat, Fatah, or Hamas. Free elections were promoted and when Hamas won there was a refusal to acknowledge or speak to them because the people picked the ‘wrong’ party. The West want to deal with the internal politics of the Palestinians. We are clearly told that we can tell people at home about what we have seen on our visit but it is better to leave the internal politics of the Palestinians to the Palestinians; it is not our job to try and tell others who would be a good leader for them. And it is here that we hear of all the other political parties. Not just Hamas and Fatah but more, much more. And we hear again of the attempts to create a new starting point for the peace process; the Oslo Agreement becomes the starting point and 10 years on everything is worse but that is promoted as the starting point for dialogue. We hear of the West promoting the economic development of the occupied territories as one of the tools to promote a peace process. But economic development must be within the existing structures. The Palestinians have no control over their land, over tax, over water, over trade. There can be no economic development under occupation.

And occupation is not about security, it is about land. Settlements can be divided up by function; we have ideological settlements (mainly Americans or East Europeans), political settlements, military settlements and hidden settlements. The hidden settlements are about water. The settlements continue to be built in tandem with the peace process, and that cannot be a commitment to peace.

History points to a possible co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis. Pre 1967 people lived together. And for the first time so far we are informed of an idea, one not talked about, a hidden idea from a dangerous man: not a two state solution but a one state solution. A secular state, not a Jewish one, a state where all are citizens not residents, where the displaced have the right to return (194) and the right of people to return, UN resolution 194, the number we see painted on the pictures of keys on the murals in the camps. The right to return cannot be guaranteed in a two state solution. The concept of Ubunto cannot be achieved by separation. The concept of normalisation has been exposed. But for the present the Palestinians resist by existing, by staying and not leaving and by holding on to values.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Day 3

24 August 2009.
Day 3
We start our day with a visit to Sabeel, the Palestinian Christian Centre for Liberation Theology. It was set up by Naim Ateek. I was given one of his books by a friend and have been reading it before coming on this trip: A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation. Challenging, inspiring and hopeful. He takes the reader through the need for Christians to reassess the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. This is not the liberation theology of Latin America with the emphasis on the Exodus, for here the land is viewed differently. Here a new theology of the land is needed, and a theology of justice and truth. Truth-telling as central in peace and reconciliation and we are back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But we feel a long way off from that point in the reconciliation process, if there is such a thing. Here we have stories buried and pasts that go back a long way. We have the longest lasting refugee camp in the world, 60 years old – so if you are younger than 60 you were born in the camp. We will be staying there tonight, at Dheisheh Refugee Camp.

Naim Ateek is in America on a speaking tour so we are told about the work of Sabeel by Nora Carmi. It is good to hear this from a woman. Women dominate Sabeel. Men have been in prison, not there for whatever reason. We hear of the importance of supporting women and their way of supporting children and the next generation. We hear of life pre 1967. A life of peaceful co-existence and a just peace is sought on the 1967 boundaries.

The Christians are a small group, less than 2% of the population and not a united group, a diverse group with different dominations and views. The Christian population is never more than 15% in the Middle East as a whole. But this small group witness to Christ in a troubled area. Can a presence remain if a Jewish state is established? If that happens what will become of the Christian presence?

This does not feel like Mirolav Volf’s embrace of reconciliation. Who can open their arms to embrace here? That very vulnerable position which invites the other in? If anyone can, it will probably come from Sabeel. But it does feel hopeless. I ask about truth telling and forgiveness. Is forgiveness conditional on truth telling, does it require an apology first? How can there be hope when there is no apparent desire to face the truth of what is happening? And I am told that there is always hope. And I am told that we are not Jesus. He could forgive but we have to strive to be like Jesus. “Frankly speaking, logically, I don’t think peace is coming tomorrow. Not on an international level and definitely not on an Israeli level. Where it will come from is from Israeli society. They are fed up with the lies. Their family violence is higher than in the Palestinian families. There are soldiers who do not believe in what they are fighting for. There are families who don’t believe. And there are groups of people who work for peace on both sides. People of good will. But they are not strong enough on their own. They need to work together. But there is light at the end of the tunnel”. The absurdity of faith. We are told of the ultimate absurdity of faith, of the groups of Israeli and Palestinians who have seen what violence achieves and have rejected it. Of Combatants for Peace, people from both sides of the armed struggle who have decided that peace will only ever come from peaceful resistance. Also about Circles of Bereaved Families. The name says it all. Bereaved families can breed revenge but a circle can bring it back to the cause of hate, and brings the parties who hurt together, and together a healing. When a tgetherness happens, a joint commitment to a better way rings out and, for me, the Beatitudes ring out.

I remember the conversation on the roof of the hostel the previous morning. I was having a smoke and chatting with one of the hostel workers. He was telling me of some of the Scots who have stayed at the hostel and one in particular. “The Scots have a rough mood but a good heart”, he said. “Margaret comes to the hostel with a bottle of whiskey. She is a fighter, a fighter for peace. But I worry that her heart will go bad, her will, will go bad with the fighting. We need to keep a good will for only a good will, will destroy the Wall. Life is but a continuous letter between me and God, all the rest is nothing, dust. Systems, powers, they will come and go and in the end will be but dust, but a good will continues”. Everyone here appears to be a theologian and the people we meet believe that peace will only come from peaceful means.

Women in Black. We spent the afternoon with Women in Black. For one hour on a Friday once a week there is a silent vigil against the occupation. These are elderly women making a public witness at a busy square with cars on three sides always stopping where they are because of the traffic lights and pedestrians walking past them waiting to cross the road. It is a visible and vulnerable position. It is a powerful statement of silence. Young lads on mopeds, stopped at the lights, shout, flick the fingers, rage at the silence. A middle-aged man winds down his window and bellows in Hebrew like a football hooligan from the safety of the terraces. My neighbour translates for me; “You are trash, you are all trash”.

It is a big turn out today. As well as the 13 delegates, there are young people from the Sabeel international youth conference, about 30 of them. It feels safer in the numbers but how it must feel on ‘normal’ days, a few older people on this little island surrounded by a sea of hate. My neighbour works for Sabeel. He tells me of the problems for young Palestinians in Jerusalem, little hope, little options. They turn to alcohol and drugs. The educated leave. He is trying to build up their belief in themselves, their self-respect. Encouraging them to volunteer in their community. To give to others, to feel good from doing and giving and to build up new community leaders from the young. It was so similar to what I want to do at home. The church should be a training ground for the leaders of change in our society.

One hour over, some thumbs up, some abuse, some ignore the women and their signs. As we prepare to leave one of the women asks my neighbour, “Please come back again and bring your friends. There are so few of us now”. They are there each week, some for decades, with no change in the situation, or if anything a worsening and entrenchment of the problems, and they keep turning up. Do they believe that what they do will bring about a change or do they do it because it is what they can do and they know that it is right?

I have badges from the Women in Black in Jerusalem and I hope to give them to the Women in Black in Edinburgh. It doesn’t mean much, a token gesture, but it is something that I can do, and I know it is the right thing to do.
The evening of the 24th and we arrive in Bethlehem, Dheisheh Refugee Camp. A bus trip from Jerusalem. They take us through a checkpoint. We don’t need to go this way, we have international passports but they want us to see what is like. For the Palestinians it is the end of a working day, probably in Jerusalem. It is hot and they just want to get home and are lined up in the sun waiting, permit ID’s at the ready. We are in the way! Probably make it longer for them to get home because we are taking up one of the turnstiles. We wait with passports, show them to the official at the window and get waved through the turnstile and on to the tarmac square at the other side. Everything is topped with razor wire. It was so like the procedure to get into the prison at my placement over the summer. ID, turnstile, waiting, fences, razor wire. But this is a prison.

From Ibdaa hostel we were met by a prominent figure in the camp, Atallah. He takes us on a tour. Down the lanes, children out waving; “Hello, welcome, what’s your name”. You reply and they tell you their name with pride. The graffiti on the walls is a mix of the armed struggle and peaceful resistance. I feel an anger building in me and wonder which way I would have gone if this had been my life. This is not for security but for humiliation and for land, to encourage people to fight or to leave and to fight against such power leaves mourning, martyrs and another portrait on the walls of the worlds oldest refugee camp.

Atallah takes us to his home. His wife has made a meal for 13 visitors, chicken and rice and yoghurt and mint dips and drinks. Their three children run in and out, between the kitchen and the room, helping mum, checking up on the large party of guests who have taken over their home, and we are told of the history of the camp. One of the delegates asks the couple about their hopes for their children. It is the question that cuts through politics and religion and war and deals with hope in its complete nakedness. Hope is relative, realistic. It is about providing what people can, a good home, a nice, comfortable and loving home. It is about education and morals and principals. It is about realising that your children will never see the sea, will never feel the sand below their feet and the waves washing at your ankles. It is making the cell in your prison as comfortable as you can. (I later find out that the children call the swimming pool ‘the sea.’)

Atallah takes us up on to the roof. Vines hang over the courtyard and his brother cuts some grapes for the guests. This is hospitality, this is Abraham in the midday sun with three strangers arriving at his tent. This comes with one, and only one condition: go home and tell your community our story. It is not a big price to pay, it is what I can do and it is what is right. On the wall outside Atallah’s home is a mural of his brother. Remembered in paint and in hearts and I wonder which way I would have gone.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Day two

23 July 2009.

Today we have met with two Israeli human rights organisations, Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions (ICHD) and B’Tselem. We are directed to more resources and information. I must get hold of Jeff Halper’s book “Obstacles of Peace”. It is described as being the book to describe the current situation and it clearly shows the changes in land control since 1947. Each change leaves less land with the Palestinians and for the Israelis it creates a new starting point for negotiations on the “peace process”. In effect they are saying, “We start from here, we are not going to go back and look at all that history”. It is setting up new “facts on the ground”, creating a new reality.

When the Palestinians are portrayed as being not interested in the peace process by the media it is because they are not interested in a peace process that starts from this new “reality”. The way of creating a new reality is subtle; it involves language, law, politics, military and economic power. It involves destroying the story of the other and re-creating a new story of the powerful. The oppressor is portrayed as the oppressed. And all is done in the name of security.

I am drawn back to what I have been told about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa and the importance of truth telling in any reconciliation. This appears miles away from that point in South Africa’s peace process. This morning we are told that Israel is not interested in the peace process only in the process, and the process is played out in the global arena with many players. It is like Chomsky’s manufactured consent on a global scale. It is the depersonalisation of the height of apartheid. It is the I-it and not I-Thou of Marin Bauber.

97% of land is owned by the Israeli state. I doubt that at the height of the cold war you could get such a statistic in the communist block. Those who claim ownership have to produce documentation back to 1948 or back to 1919 or back to the Ottoman Empire. The Bedouin have problems with this. An oral culture where people knew who owned what but it was never written down. Land continues to be taken. If land is uncultivated for three years it is taken for the state as abandoned. And land is taken for “security” reasons. Hugh zones in Palestinian areas taken for “security reasons”. And they become settlement, outposts, military posts.

How do settlements appear? Towns can’t just appear. And we hear that they always start with roads. A road is built, apparently going nowhere. Then a gas station appears, then a grocery centre at the side of the road. Then a house or a tent, then more, then a sign appears at the side of the road with a name, the name of the new settlement. A new fact on the ground. From a documentary about the settlers we are told of one clear explanation for why he is living where he is: “I am here because the Israeli state built this road. I have internet connections and telephones because of the Israeli state. I have water and sewage systems because of the Israeli state. I have security forces protecting me because of the Israeli state. If the Israeli state did not want me here they could take these things away”. In the ‘West Bank’, roads, settlements, military zones border every side. The Jordan valley is now a military zone. Drilling for water requires a military permit. The infrastructure is old and inefficient. It looses one third of the water through leakage. The Israeli’s control 80% of the water. The Palestinians have no control over the borders around then, the water below them or the air space above them.

The Civil Administration that controls much of this land in the Palestinian area is a military administration. The Israeli military control the security zones. It is only in parts of Israel where a civil administration is in control. Citizenship is only for Israeli Jews. Residency is for the Palestinians. Everyone on Jerusalem is a resident, but only some are citizens. If a Palestinian leave for any length of time they loose their residency. If a Palestinian marries from another area they can move to that other area and live with their spouse but their spouse cannot move to Jerusalem. And Jerusalem, this divided city, divided east and west is growing in the Israeli side. And we hear of the real dream of a larger Israeli Jerusalem. The expansions taking place now are strategic and not security driven. The ‘fingers’ of settlements, those areas that eat into Palestinian land, offer a link to an established settlement. Each new settlement is placed with the potential to join up with an existing one forming a new Jewish landmass; a new fact on the ground.

As we move around the city the difference between the areas is striking. Planning and infrastructure in one, and none in the other. A modern European city and a developing one. Wide tarmac roads and small winding tracks, with everything half finished. Deliver lorries negotiating twisting tracks down hillsides and motorways and malls. The same country, the people paying the same taxes. The difference between citizen and resident.

To build requires a permit. We are told of the procedure, the expensive, time consuming procedure to reach the almost certain refusal. So Palestinians just build. And Israel destroys. But it is also an expensive business destroying, so they do about 100 demolitions a year, just keep it ticking over, remind the people that this is what they do. Recent research into the psychological effects of demolition, especially on women and children, shows that if is more damaging than the daily pressures of living in Gaza. 100 a year, who’s next, we know it could be us this time around to loose our home, our belongings everything that we have worked for. It sounds a little like the effects on the families and especially the children of the dawn raids back home from the immigration department.

The complexity of the law back home pales into insignificance here. Here the law serves the politicall masters and a political vision. The law becomes a weapon of war. Demolitions become the tolls of the military campaign.

There is a hopelessness and anger and passion in the voice of our guide. But also an incredible energy. He gets up each day and puts his life into something that he feels hopeless about. He tells us that he set up a political centre in Jerusalem. He worked on it for five years. And his conclusion: Change will not come from inside Israel, it will only come from outside. Boycott is one way. Take the cue from South Africa. Let economics be the force of change. But we still need the political and legal and social and, dare I say it, the spiritual, powers to be harnessed for change to come. Is what I am seeing Kierkegaard’s faith in the absurd.

We are taken to the Garden of David. The claim is made that this land is where King David drank tea in his garden overlooking Jerusalem. And so the archaeologists come in. Not state archaeologists but NGO’s. Ngo’s are given complete control over the area. And they strip all the soil, all the history away until they get to the Jewish level. The other stories of the past are but dust and rubble, of no interest, worthless. Archaeological war crimes. And the Palestinian homes, which rest on the earth, which hold the stories of the past, are of no interest, an inconvenience. Some are bought off, some are harassed and bullied to leave. One remains. The house is ‘worthless’ the ownership of the land is priceless. And we hear of offers of millions of dollars to sell but they stay. What is the land worth? What is a home worth? What is this theology of the land where the living are unimportant and the past is priceless?

We meet with a representative of B’Tselem. It means in Hebrew “image” and is taken from Genesis; we are made in the image of God. They collect the testimonies, the stories of those who are hidden. In some ways this felt more upbeat, more hopeful but the stories remained the same. We saw the maps again. The very visible reality of land grab and the changing face of ownership and control displayed in graphs, in maps. And we hear again the changing starting point of the “peace process”. 120 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 12 outposts and settlements since 1967. Half a million settlers. B’Tselem collect testimonies. Lots of them. They have no lawyers working directly for them but these are legal people. They use the law, such as it is, to try and force some degree of accountability. 270 cases they have brought before the civil administration. 30soldiers have been tired. 4 have been convicted. Of those 4 one was a British photographer shot in Gaza and that conviction was as a result of the pressure of the British Government. That crime had a victim whose story, whose history was kept in the pubic arena by those with power outside this land.

B’Tselem also support the “Shooting Back” project. They ‘arm’ the Palestinian people with camcorders to record settler and military violence. On their latest report they show a Palestinian man, handcuffed behind his back, blindfolded while a soldier stands a few feet away and fires a rubber bullet into his legs. It wasn’t reported by the officer in charge, seen in the picture sanding at the side. But the pictures brought demands for action and the court marshal passed a sentence of ‘inappropriate behaviour’, the equivalent of the soldier having failed to salute an officer. The nonsense of the conviction viewed against the images of the crime brought an intervention from the Supreme Court who may now try the soldier in the criminal courts. The power of pictures.

The power of language remains important. Definitions and stories are important and who controls them is important. Settlement, occupation, security fence, wall, refugee, - the power of language. And so the meaning of words are debated and the use of language becomes important. A change has happened recently. Israel has begun to use the language of international war crimes. Why? It is not clear. It wants to be part of the international community, to use and to have the respect that this would give them, but it doesn’t sign up to the treaties. We hear of the use of rubber bullets and of new technologies tried out in the occupied areas. Gas shells, a defensive technology, but with very little gas in them and a lot of shell, well, just a shell really; an offensive technology. The power of words.

We hear of a cinema advert from a cell phone company. The Israeli soldiers are playing football at the Wall. A relaxed, peaceful picture. The ball goes over the Wall. The Palestinians are not shown. They are in the story but not shown, this is really the story of one side of the Wall. The ball is kicked back from the Palestinian side. The subconscious image of the Palestinians getting on with life across the Wall like a neighbour throwing next-door’s kids ball back across the garden fence. Reality is different. Some Palestinian’s decided to see what will happen if they have a kick about one their side of the Wall and the military jeeps arrive, the tear gas is fired into the group, the scene is one of mayhem, all captured on video. And this scene is overlaid with the soundtrack from the original advert ridiculing the adverts message. An example of Walter Wink’s explanation of Jesus’ saying about turning the other cheek, of offering your underwear when sued for your cloak.

What I did on my holidays

This is an account of what happened a few weeks ago. I realised that I could not blog each day so I wrote out my thoughts each night. Theseare typed up with no editing unless indicated. Not particularyinsightful,possably sentimental but that is me.
Day One - And what a journey

Day 1, terminal 1, Heathrow Airport. 10 pm and waiting to board the flight to Tel Aviv. A line of men, broad rimmed hats, black coats, beards, a scattering of less formally dressed men and one woman, face the glass wall, book in hand, silently reading, bobbing, in prayer.
Have got to admire the Jews and the Muslims for their discipline in prayer. Perhaps the Catholics still have some of it, but its lost n the Protestant Church.

Arrive Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv and wait to meet up with Peter who has travelled from Glasgow. The public address announcement reminds me that things have changed. The public announcements in Heathrow remind us not to leave our luggage unattended, here we are reminded that weapons are not permitted in ANY of the terminals. It was the stress on “any”, as if people had complained in disbelief that they couldn’t bring their guns into the domestic arrivals at least.
The early morning taxi drive to Jerusalem Old City confirmed that we were in a different place, but still with the similarities to confront you. Israel gets up early and the road into Jerusalem was fairly busy at 6.45. But there was something in the landscape which reminded me of Fife; open field, low lying, broad valleys, settlements dotted here and there with lots of on going projects. In fact concrete was my first impression of Israel. Concrete slabs on backs of lorries, concrete blocks closing roads, concrete boxes being built on every hill side and, of course, concrete walls. One village appears round a corner, cranes scatter the skyline and building underway. Men line the side of the road, going to work, or looking for work? I begin to realise that what is seen can have two different meanings: it isn’t clear if neighbourhoods are being built or destroyed, a state of concrete flux.

As we come into Jerusalem I come to my first checkpoint. I can’t work out who are soldiers and who are police, but both are young and armed. Four or five flashing blue light vans pass by as we drive into the City.

Next our drive round Jerusalem, dropping people off at different neighbourhoods. Some had the seemingly universal concrete, clad in stone, fine stone, stone that masons would be proud of. There must be good quarries around here. And there is money in some of these neighbourhoods. And there are flags. I hate flags. Here as everywhere a flag tells our identity by saying what and who you are not. Concrete, flags, guns and fields.

We catch a few hours sleep in the hostel. Dozing in the warmth, with the sound of a choir singing, drifting through the window. We have the rest of the day until the rest of the delegates arrive, so wander the old city. The Muslim, the Jewish, the Christian, the Armenian quarters. Police and soldiers wander the city, drive round in vans, sit and smoke, shelter in the shade, pray at the wall. They look like they are just trying to kill time like everyone else.

Falafel and mint tea for lunch, tourist prices, but good.

Via Dolorose, Western Wall, Dome of the Rock. Cheek by jowl, competing, accommodating. Like a strange Scottish county dance. Each corner you turn another comes into the limelight and the others play the supporting role, spun into the limelight by the energy of the others or thrown into the background by the strength of the others? You can view it either way.
I read on the plan about the evictions in the Jerusalem, the ones taking place now. The current owners can trace their legal right to their homes back to the 1948 ‘agreement’ but others had prior claims that the court found more convincing. Nothing ever appears to be settled, a constant state of flux, not set in stone, half built or half bulldozed. In all the political and military headlines, in the protests and counter protests, in the ideologies, in the theology of the land, in imperialism and colonialism, it is the boring, mundaneness of the planning legislation that can have such a great impact on people’s everyday lives. I am about to find out that all of these things are completely interconnected and am about to find out what “creating new facts on the ground” is all about.

Two familiar scenes from day one in the Old City. We walked around the city walls and saw a group of three men huddled together in the shade. The pattern and actions of getting a hit are the same here as they are in Leith. And then the road being dug up. Men in yellow fluorescent vests gathered round a hole, stroking chins, shaking heads, staring into the hole in the road, that communal perplexed look that can only be caused by a hole in the road. Here though, at least you can see the tramlines they are laying unlike in Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

I've arrived in Tel Aviv

I'm here .... met up with a fellow traveller from Stirling. Taxi to hostel but no-one to meet us.....

More to follow