Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Welcome to Palestine

Dec. 30 – East Jerusalem


In a valley, just down a hill from the City of David and the Mount of Olives lies the village of Silwan. Or at least, most of it. For every four or five homes standing, lies a demolished lot overgrown with shrubbery, or simply piles of rubble.

Since Israel claimed East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, it has been steadily demolishing Palestinian homes in the name of “improving infrastructure” and “beautification.”

After kicking a ball about with a couple of camera-shy kids, a young man cheerfully greeted me with a “Welcome to Palestine.” It dawned on me then that I was in a different country, perhaps a late realisation after seeing the modern West Jerusalem and the ragtag East.

Smiling in the face of adversity

A well-dressed Palestinian man looked on as a friend of mine was stumbling past an old bed, disused electrical appliances and battered children’s toys up the remains of a family home.

He watched us for a minute or two, possibly deciding whether to speak with us – the Israeli police don’t take kindly to Palestinians speaking with foreigners. After we greeted him, he came over and started to tell us his tale, a story, any seem to share in this troubled region.

“My grandfather built this land 80 years ago and I built this house in 1962,” he said. “A few years after the Israeli’s took over in ’67, the Jerusalem government told me I didn’t have a permit. Why do I need a permit? This was our family home from before the occupation.”

Looking up to a settlement complete with an Israeli flag just up the hill, he told us that the pile of rubble we were standing by was his neighbour’s home until August,” the father of five said in excellent English.

Home Sweet Home

It takes the Israeli army about 20 minutes to do this to a home.

“My children ask me why the authorities do this. They think that the police only arrest bad people, and ask why my neighbours’ homes are being demolished. There is no answer I can give,” the man said. “I don’t know when they will take my home. I feel I we have a dark future. If you ask for a lawyer when they come, they allow this. But when you go to call a lawyer, they start the demolition. There is nothing you can do.

The man went to talk about how he knows of many families who have been made homeless and forced to impose on friends every few weeks. He also offered a reason for the Palestinians’ intifada or “shaking off” of the Israelis.

“Why do you think people resort to violence? We are not violent people, but when people see their families and friends’ lives destroyed, they have to react. We are not extremists, but we have to do something.”

I didn’t catch the man’s name, nor did I take his photograph. The reason for this was because he always seemed to be on the verge of tears. He struck me to be decent man, educated, and almost middle class, doing his best to raise his family respectably.

I wonder how many share the same story. I’m reliably informed that many do.

Police states

Dec. 28

Chaos in the morning, with two grumpy taxi drivers throwing our money back at them for reasons I have yet to fathom out. We got to the "garage," the meeting point for our supposed departure for Gaza. Of course, the government had threatened the bus companies and our Gaza-bound chariot was not awaiting.

State security forces literally penned the freedom marchers in. Over the next hour or so people chanted, gave press interviews and gave cigarettes to the weary policemen.

The French embassy was next on the menu. 300 French activists had camped out there and we wanted to see what was going on. On arrival we were faced with a wall of about 500 riot police, who were there on the pretence of "protecting" the protesters. Everytime I tried to take a picture of the police, government thugs and protesters, I was politely moved on.

"The protesters are respectable people, we just want to keep them safe," a dominatingly large thug told me, after explaining that the police were there because the protestors had committed traffic offenses by blocking the road.

The grandpa of our group and a couple of others went inside and we had to send in Seira (a student member of our group) in as a "hostage negotiator" to fish them out.

The protests were the top story in the local English-language paper. A paper I picked up after finally getting a few hours to myself photographing the streets of Cairo. I snapped a pathetic street fight and armed guards outside an apartment block. It really is a police state here in Cairo. The pay roll of the security forces must be huge here.
In the evening I met up with Mike, Mike and Yasuko and we splashed out on a fine meal of kebabs and spicy chicken. A felt a tad guilty when, with a fully belly, we bumped into some Britsh activists.

They asked us where we were going.
I replied, "We're off to smoke some pipes and get some sleep."
To which they responded: "We're off to start a revolution. Good luck!"
At this point still no movement on opening up the border. But the protestors were still going hammer and tongue, lobbying the UN, the journalist syndicate and even the president's wife - head of the local Red Crescent.

Dec. 29

Four a.m. start to catch a 6 a.m. bus from Cairo to Taba. A resort town on the Red Sea, that doubles up as a border with Israel. Passing through the Sinai Peninsula, I got my first ever glimpse of a desert. Stunning, bleak with Sphinx-like mountains popping up every few minutes. It can't have been much fun for Moses. I had been looking forward to seeing the Suez Canal, but the damn bus crossed it in a tunnel. When the Red Sea came into view the whole bus seemed to take a collective gasp at its magnificence. A true Oasis.

A wee stroll from the bus station to the border crossing. It took an age to fill out the dreaded paperwork as the Egyptian guards cheerfully teased us.

Contrastingly, the Israeli guards were the miserable bunch of gun-toters I've ever seen. They threw our passports back at us and their shaloms were reluctant.

Yasuko, who has an Iraqi husband and visited Syria recently, was kept behind for half an hour. I was hauled back across the border to help interpret.

Finally in the Zionist state, we took a bus to Jerusalem.

The difference between Egypt and Israel was most palatable at the service stations. The Egyptian side just served tea and crackers. The Israeli side had hamburger bars, shiny shops and a Starbucks-like outlet. We could have been in Japan. The only similarity is the fact that both nation's are police states, albeit cheerful on the Egyptian side and stern on the Israeli side.
After finding a hostel for the night, news came through that the president's wife, Suzanne, had persuaded the Egyptian government to open up the Gaza border for 100 freedom marchers, apparently in defiance of the foreign ministry.
But being in Jerusalem, none of us could go.

The next morning, however, we awoke to the news that the steering committee of the march had decided not to compromise and would not send anyone. They plan to continue action in Cairo.
Personnaly, I don't think this is the right course of action. But we shall see.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Narita to the Nile

- I apologise for the diaryesque nature of my upcoming blogs. This is not the intention of my blog, but due to the nature of my trip and time constraints, the column-type blog I plan to write will be put on hold until my return.

Dec. 25

Christmas morning is usually a time of exchanging gifts and looking forward to a feast of a late lunch
This year, it was a 6 a.m. start, with bags to be packed ahead of my jaunt to Cairo and then into Gaza (inshallah - more on that later).
As we had exchanged gifts the previous night, the only present I received on Christmas Day was most unexpected. After a seat mix up on board my flight from Narita to Istanbul, I was bumped up to business class for the first time. A truly horizontal experience with 5 shoddy movies to boot.
I followed a short stop over in Istanbul, with three hours much needed shut eye on a delayed turbulent Boeing to Cairo.
Met by Ahmed at 3 a.m., he tore through the traffic to get my to what I thought would be my hotel. After several cups of tea with the workshy staff in a hotel with lifts of over 100 years, it turned out the Japanese contingent of the Gaza Freedom March were in a sister hotel. It was nearly five by the time I got there and some of my colleagues were getting out of bed - one of a room of three shared with two Japanese students.

Dec. 26

News came in that the Egyptian government had forced bus companies to cancel our buses to the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Perhaps something to do with the $4 billion they get from the U.S. government in "aid" each year? Nothing to do with Israel, so the official government line goes.
We were told that we could get a service bus to a place 40kms from the border, but seeing as only two 50-seaters run a day, and there are over 1,300 foreigners looking to get into Gaza, plus numerous checkpoints (The Egyptian government is close to a dictatorship), the chances of getting that far were thought slim. News had also come in of six Palestinians being slain (three in Gaza) by the Israelis that day.

A beef kebab and a lot of sitting round in the hotel lobby followed. Reports and updates came flooding in from here, there and everywhere. Tired of all the speculation, we headed out for dinner of koshary - rice, macaroni and beans - an Egyptian yoshinoya (without the beef). A lot of fat people in that restaurant. And a lot uniforms patroling the streets.

Back at the hotel, news came in that the border would be open for four days from the 29th (surely not a coincidence), but that we were still barred from entering.

Dec. 27

Bleary-eyed, we hauled ourselves out of bed for an 8:30 a.m. meeting at the Lotus Hotel. (Our original meeting place that evening had also been quashed by the authorities and delegates had been forced to split into three groups at various hotel lobbies).
Medea Benjamin (a dimunitive North American with great presence) chaired the meeting.  She told us that on previous visits to Gaza the process had been difficult, but her groups had always managed to get through. She also said how the freedom marchers had worried the Egyptian government. This was evident for several reasons - The authorities were unable to negotiate with us while President Mubarak was out of the country; The foreign minister had gone on TV to say we were not welcome to visit Gaza, only stay in Egypt as "tourists"; and the fact that Israel had been pressuring the United States to pressure Egypt.

I volunteered to head out the Egyptian Press Syndicate with several others to hand out press releases ahead of the day's activities. My group included Jiji (a Japanese Peter-Panesque grampa), Mika (a freelance photographer), Mr. Inoue (a peace activist) and Poya (an Iranian-born Dane).

We met the director of the association, a body controlled by the government and containing the foreign press sector, and unsurprisingly, given the brush off. After many near misses with the chaotic Cairo traffic, we entered the offices of Usabaa (an antigovernment paper) and were given a near heroes welcome. They readily took a bundle of our press releases and even took us outside for photos with the editor-in-chief.
Next on the list was the League of Arab Journalists, again very helpful, forwarding our releases to media outlets such as Al-Jazeera. The top guy there laughed heartily when we said that "the Egyptian government has not been so helpful."
He got us in touch with the Interior Ministry-run broadcasting agency. We were strictly vetted and given a big smiling "No." there.

Our mission complete, we tucked into sandwiches and tea, and put the world to rights. My task was to interpret a conversation between Jiji and Poya that tore into the relationship between the UN and its Security Council, saying how unjust it was that the states with nuclear-power had the sway to veto anything the rest of the world wants.

Time to walk down the Nile to our next port of call, a pleasant boat ride along the river with a floating candle for everyone of the Gazans killed in last winter's Israeli attacks.
We heard the authorities had even stopped us getting on the boats, went down further to investigate and found a mass of marchers confronted by police and brown-jacketed thugs. Nothing got out of control, perhaps due to our determination not to incite violence, or perhaps due to the Egyptian government not wanting to look heavy handed with aggression against media-savvy pacifists.
They split us up and after an hour or so chanting, we trooped off to smoke some shisha and gather in Cairo's main square for any more snippets of information.

Tomorrow we'll go to board buses that are unlikely to come, and make further plans from there. The West Bank? Who knows? Things seem to change by the minute here.

(Apologies for the hasty nature of this blog, but I'm sure you all understand)

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Raging against the machine

There are two types of people. Those who accept the status quo and those who don't. The difference is clear when maladies such as corruption or cover-ups are rife in the organization they belong to. The former type sees the injustices around them, but choose to stay tight-lipped and can prosper in their careers. The latter type preserves their integrity, but often at great risk to their careers or, in extreme cases, their lives.

Unlike the title of the Christmas No. 1 in the UK, many of those who actually rage against the machine speak out against killing in the name that they use their positions within the machine to stand up against actions that may put lives at risk, such as invasions of foreign lands.

On Saturday, I travelled up to Nasu-Shiobara in snowswept northern Tochigi Prefecture to meet a man who sacrificed an elite career in the Foreign Ministry to make a stance. Naoto Amaki quit his post as Japan's ambassador to the Lebanon in 2003 at then Prime Minister Koizumi's decision to back the United States and its allies in invading Iraq under the pretence of Saddam Hussein possessing WMDs.

During our conversation the subject of whistleblowers and people who sacrificed their careers came up. The suave yet passionate Amaki, who is now an author and fellow blogger (except people pay to read his stuff), started to reel off a list of names of people in several spheres who had made a similar bold move to himself.

Amaki told me of Toshiro Semba, a former policeman in Ehime,who knew that the police force was systematically corrupt. He spoke about this and never received a single promotion during his career. He did, however, successfully sue for damages - many years down the line.

He told me of Yoichi Mizutani, a man who blew the lid on a feast of cover-ups at the foodstuff firm he worked at - We are often to the read labels before consumption, but it clearly didn't apply in the case of the dodgy milk sold by his company - Yukijirushi, or Snow Brand Milk Products .

He told me of Togo Fujita, an employee a company that checked buildings for earthquake proofing. Fujita exposed how the firm basically ignored all guidelines. To compound the criminal element, one of the firm's backers was then construction minister and later prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

The last person he told me of was Moriyo Kimura, an official at the health ministry, who blew the ministry apart with a book she published on how medical policy was harming the health of the public. Amaki said that it was unlikely the ministry would put me in touch with her if I called.

While the people listed above were castigated for their whistleblowing antics, others faced a worse fate. I don't think anyone in the UK will need reminding what happened to British weapons expert Dr. David Kelly who was found dead (officially a suicide, though suspicions higher authorities were involved linger) days after testifying to a parliamentary committee about WMD (or lack of) in the lead up to the Iraq invasion. Overwhelming evidence and Tony Blair's recent admission that he'd have gone in without proof of weapons go to show that Dr. Kelly was a victim of his own good conscious, if not circumstance.

It could be said he paid the ultimate price, and speaking out has cost the lives of countless others, especially in more repressed regimes, but it is something that more people need to be encouraged to do (without penalty) in order to truly make the societies we live in free. Amaki had an idea that an nongovernmental organization should be established to help these people financially - even with state funding. Naive, possibly, but it certainly would be for the greater good.

Faced with a similar situation, I'm sure my conscience would tell me to speak out. But when we all have our lives, our families and our careers to think of, huge numbers of people must be keeping schtum, perhaps I would count among their ranks.

To end with, a book recommendation. Dissent - Voices of Conscience by Ann Wright and Susan Dixon details the testimony of people who spoke out and blew the whistle against the invasion of Iraq. A worthy and informative read that will force you to think about the machines that these people raged against.

Wright is one of the organisers of my upcoming trip to Gaza as part of a freedom march . Much more about this in the next few weeks.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Tweeting pool

I joined a new gym recently. Spanking-new, cheap and full of all manner of apparatus to pamper the health-conscious members. One such device is a massage bath. It's located at the end of a walking pool where pensioners bob up and down as they traverse its oval course. I snuck into massage spot No. 1 between a team of elderly ladies lusting after the relaxing water jets on their aching limbs. Just as I positioned my body so I could get the spray onto a soothing spot on my lower back, I heard the sound of a bird tweet - nothing new in Japan, where "birds" tweet to tell you that you can cross the road. Then, as if by clockwork, the oldies in the pool shuffled one position to their right and I was practically barged into spot No. 2 - the bum massager. This pattern of tweeting and shuffling continued. No. 3 - the thigh massager. No. 4 - the calf massager. No. 5 the middle back massager. No. 6 - the upper back massager, and finally the No. 7 - the shoulder massager. This is where the regimented shuffling ended. The oldies spiralled back into their bobbing routine in the walking pool and I decided to do another circuit of the massage jets.
This time, however, I had one of the moments I frequently receive in pools, hot springs or saunas, when a friendly elderly gent asks me where I'm from. When I told this particular fellow I was from the UK, he said he went there last spring, and to each tweet and shuffle would tell me of a place he visited. Spot No. 1 - Westminster Abbey. No. 2 - Bath, and via Stratford-upon-Avon, Windsor, Brighton and the Cotswolds to No. 7 - the Lake District.
All good above-board stuff. Fortunate, considering I have had such "friendly" chaps proposition me on a good number of occasions to engage in acts less conversational. Perhaps I shouldn't close my eyes and think of England sometimes.