Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Settling into Hebron

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent planting of trees to mark the foundation of two new settlements near Jerusalem brought back vivid memories of my visit to Hebron earlier this month.

Jan. 2
The bus into town took us through a surprisingly affluent area with retailers offering racy underwear and brand-name stores such as Nike. It stopped at the edge of the market near the old city. It the type of bustling scene you would find any where in the Middle East, with vendors calling out "Ni Hao" at my Japanese friends as they tried to shift fruit, veg, spices, scarves and cheap Chinese toys.

After feeding up on a thick broth of Kofte and piles of bread and humus, we ventured further into the winding souk street. A man, his mouth crammed with walnuts, beckons us over. At first we suspected he was trying to get us into his store, and we try to move on, but he stops us again and says, "Look up."

A net is strung above the market street. It is filled with rubbish, old bicycles, and generally anything the settlers living above toss down on the Arabs below they consider to be less than human. The man, who we find out is called Abed Seder, invites us up to the roof of his home. As we climb up the stairs, he points out water tanks that the settlers (or possibly the army in target practice) have shot, and homes devastated by settler Molotov cocktail attacks.

Rubbish thrown by settlers onto the market street below
                              Abed stands by water tanks that have been shot by the settlers.
 The homes in the background are part of the settlement.

We look over to the modern settler homes from the roof. Below are a group of settler girls playing netball. They were not oblivious, however, to the consequence of their presence, because as soon as we pointed our cameras towards them, they yelled, "No pictures! No pictures!"

Abeb took us into his home for tea, and told us how he is collecting donations to send a local boy to Jordan for a simple operation to save the sight he lost after he was struck by object thrown by the settlers.

Abeb works as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team (a group that monitors atrocities by both Palestinians and settlers). This grants him access into the settlement itself.

Abeb led us up past the guard post to a school, at which the caretaker who had lived in Germany told us had been firebombed by the settlers. He walked us through the graveyard to a well of holy water imported from Mecca for cleansing at the mosque, and told us that settlers would sometimes piss in it.

After taking us back through a barren shopping street - shuttered at the Israelis' request for a dozen or so years - Abeb asked us for a wee baksheesh for his services, and left us in the settlement.

Thus began perhaps the most disturbing part of my whole sojourn in Palestine. I had felt relatively safe (apart from the tear gassing in Bel'in) in all areas of the West Bank, but the settlement made me shudder.

A group of scowling teens dressed in identikit white shirts and black trousers, and sporting Jewish orthodox hats, blumfluff beards and wispy locks of hair, aggressively bruised past us. Graffiti read "Gas the Arabs." Posters proclaimed Jonathon Pollard, an American Jew who slaughtered several dozen Palestinians in the name of "guarding the state of Israel" as a martyr.
No explanation required

A martyr?

But perhaps most disturbing of all was a man out for a Sabbath stroll with his two young children holding a large powerful-looking rifle. This filled me with sense of foreboding that this violence will never end.

His kids will grow up thinking it normal to carry a weapon. What an example to set your children.
Until the U.S. comes down strongly on the Israelis over the settlement issue - possibly through a withdrawal of aid or even sanctions - the likes of Netanyahu and prime ministers to follow will continue to build on territory they claim as land bestowed upon them by God, and the misery will never end.

Monday, 11 January 2010

From Berlin to Bel'in

Jan 1

Last year saw the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a momentous occasion that allowed millions of East Germans to live and work in a newly united Germany. Yet walls still continue to cause suffering in other parts of the world. Not least, the controversial separation walls the Israelis have used to hem in Palestinians into Gaza and cities, towns and villages of West Bank in the name of keeping Israel secure.

Once such place is Bil'in, a small olive-growing village east of Ramallah. A section of wall cuts through the villagers' land, reportedly preventing them from reaching 60 percent of their crop.

          Bornat's wife, Tasaheel, lets Israeli soldiers know what's on her mind.

Since January 2005, residents have held weekly non-violent demonstrations on Fridays (although stones are sometimes thrown) in front of Israeli soldiers at the wall - protests that the army ruthlessly breaks up.

On the first day of a new decade in Bil'in, I found myself at the wrong end of the military stick.

I visited the home of Iyad Bornat, head of the Bil'in Popular Committee and organiser of the demonstrations. Over sweet mint tea, he showed us a "highlights" package of protests over the years, and followed this a video that wouldn't be shown on any major news network.

Iyad and his family

He showed footage of Bassem Abu Rahme, a friend of his who loved to play football, being hit in the chest and killed by an Israeli tear gas canister in April last year. In the film, which left nothing to the imagination, we could see the panic and grief surrounding his instant death. A brutal slaying.
Bornat then passed around the canister that killed his friend and told us of another villager who was arrested by Israeli authorities for stocking weapons - this man had simply collected tear gas canisters and other projectiles fired by the Israelis.

Bornat left us to play with his four young kids, Majd, Abdalkalik, Mohamed and Mayar (all of whom could hold a conversation in English, perhaps due to the number of foreign visitors to their home) as he went to pray in the mosque.

On his return around noon, we put down our glasses of gooey coffee and followed a colourful, upbeat procession to the gate - located on a hill overlooking the village. I kept my distance, admittedly because I was nervous, and watched as villagers (most of whom seemed to be affiliated with Fatah), Israeli activists, and foreign journalists and supporters stride to make their point to the three soldiers waiting for them behind a wire mesh fence in front of a command post.

Marching to the gate

They symbolically opened a gate "to their land" and called out to their foes, claiming that the wall was illegal and asking for permission to go and gather their crops. The Israelis used a loudspeaker to warn (for some reason they also used English) that "this is an illegal protest" (It is doubtful under international law that the walls are legal, but that didn't stop the soldiers making this statement) and moments later, the three soldiers started to lob tear gas canisters toward the demonstrators.

The protesters, many of whom sported gas masks or protected themselves with their keffiyeh scarves or plastic bags placed over their heads, scrambled back down the track to the village.

The cameraman is well prepared for tear gas

These people not so well prepared

But only momentarily. They returned several more times to determinedly make their point, only to have more tear gas thrown at them - downwind. (I saw a video later showing one soldier openly laughing at the protesters).

Itching to get a better view of proceedings, I found myself itching with tear gas in my eyes and lungs. My optical organs felt as if I'd rubbed them with a potent Mexican chili, it was hard to breathe and I was retching as I stumbled down the path. I just wanted to collapse on the ground, but I knew I had to keep going. I squinted from my mere slits at seasoned protesters using onions to stimulate their natural teardrop mechanisms and ease the agony. (I had stomach pains for the next three days.)

I stepped back from the action, and witnessed the Israeli command post further behind the line shoot tear gas projectiles, with a screeching din and bright white vapour trails. They also let off ear drum-piercing sound bombs.

Perhaps remembering what happened to Rahme, the crowd hastily scattered. After half a dozen or so more firings, the protesters called it a day and trudged back to their homes to recover and grab a bite to eat.

I'll never forget this day for my first encounter with a "chemical weapon," but this Friday, next Friday and every Friday until the wall comes down as it did in Berlin, the villagers will wake up knowing they likely will get a face and chest full of tear gas. They will also wake up knowing that a direct strike on them could mean they will never eat another olive or see their precious land again. The bravery, resolve and peaceful attitude of these men and their families is standing them in good stead and getting them noticed by the outside world.

Bil'in has two official websites in English and other languages. They show footage of the demonstrations and other activities, including the day I was present, and also the Israeli military's nighttime raids on the town.

Friends of Freedom and Justice - Bil'in

Bil'in a village of Palestine

Thursday, 7 January 2010

At the edge of the strip

The first ever demostration permitted at the Erez crossing
Dec. 31

The gathering at the Erez Crossing from Southern Israel into Northern Gaza on New Year’s Eve was no champagne-popping celebration of a new decade. Rather, the assembled crowd were there to soberly plea for the removal of a political and physical cork that keeps them apart from their brothers bottled in what has been dubbed “The world’s largest prison.”

Protestor "cool"

The old school

The protesters were Palestinian residents of the State of Israel, as opposed to the West Bank or Gaza. In what seemed like a charm offensive, the local police commissioner (who is said to be of a liberal persuasion) had for the first time granted them permission to voice their anger over the penning in of the Gaza Strip – the Egyptians block access from the south, and the Israelis control movement on the strip’s western and northern land borders, as well as its coastline.
About 500 protesters - the majority male, but with a sizable female contingent - had been bused in from across Israel.
On the high ground of grassy banks surrounding the crossing, dozens of heavily armed Israeli soldiers overlooked a sea of black, white, green and red Palestinian flags, and placards in Arabic, English and several other languages aimed at pressuring Israel and its US godfather to "end the siege."

Movie poster?

"Please don't cause any trouble, lads"

The demonstrator's chants were passionate, well drilled and reverberated across the concrete, across the security gate, across the separation (or security, or apartheid, depending on which side you stand) wall and most probably into Gaza itself.
In their eyes, which betrayed a sadness, and their faces, which rarely smiled, seemed to be a burning determination to be united with their Gazan friends and families, and indignity at the daily discrimination they face in their lives.
They acted with great dignity. After about two hours of chanting - to my Arabic immune ears, they seemed to be supporting the Hamas government - to a man, they solemnly turned to Mecca, prayed, and walked back to their buses.

Nice way to end the demo

Backing them were a number of left-wing Israeli groups, and other Israeli individuals sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Angelo Aidan, a Libyan Israeli said, "The fight for freedom is more important than love."
Several pro-government Zionist Israeli's were also present, with a tent dedicated to seeing the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who has been help captive by Hamas in Gaza since 2006. Hamas has demanded the return of 1,000 Palestinians in return for Gilad's release, something they believe they can get away with because of the Israeli government's stance of "leaving no man behind."
Foreign peace activists and local and foreign press also were well represented, with reporters from organisations such as AP, AFP, Reuters and Xingua.
One can only speculate as to whether further protests will be tolerated by the Israeli authorities, and whether they will have any impact on government policy, but the depth of feeling is apparent and inshallah may one day influence Middle East policy in Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, London, Paris and, most pertinently, Jerusalem. I'd certainly drink to that.