Residents from the village of Bil’in were joined by hundreds of Palestinians from other areas, as well as Israelis and internationals on Friday the 17th of February 2017 to commemorate twelve years of the popular movement in the village.
In this time, Israeli occupation soldiers have injured and arrested scores of non-violent demonstrators, killing two Bil’in residents. In April 2009, Bassem Abu Rahmah was killed after he was shot in the chest directly with a tear-gas canister. Jawaher Abu Rahmah, Bassem’s sister, died as a result of tear gas inhalation in 2010.
The apartheid wall was erected in Bil’in in 2005 to separate it from the illegal Israeli settlement Mod’in Illit. 1,300 dunums (320 acres) of land was stolen from Bil’in residents.
Having attended two Catholic schools, I have performed in my fair share of school nativity plays; I have made odd-looking papier-mâché interpretations of the gathering around the manger at nursery and I have sung “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at innumerable masses. As Christmas time is drawing near, you would be hard pressed to avoid such practices as you switch on your television, log into your facebook or nip to the shops to buy your bread.
Bethlehem entices masses of adherents of different faiths for obvious reasons. As I was sipping on my mint lemonade drink in Manger square and watching the world go by, I couldn’t help feeling that the flocks of tourists scurrying after their tour guide were completely oblivious to the reality of Bethlehem.
The frustration is that in Bethlehem, the occupation is all too obvious: first you have the 26ft high concrete apartheid wall, then you have occupation soldiers carrying m16s, then you have Israeli illegal settlements scattered across Bethlehem’s hilltops and finally to top it all off there are the refugee camps – forgive me, but this seems the antithesis of “holy land”.
We stayed in Dheisheh refugee camp, one of three main refugee camps in Bethlehem. Within a year of the Nakba in 1948 when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, Dheisheh was established to serve 3000 refugees. Today, almost 70 years later, the number of residents has reached almost 15000. Over time, tents were replaced by shacks, then shacks replaced by buildings, resulting in irregular street structures and very narrow alleys.
Water shortages, electricity cuts and sanitation problems are rife in the camp. Just one Health centre and four schools serve the whole area. Unemployment is a big problem. Another major setback for residents is that despite being under full Palestinian control (Area A), Israeli Occupation Forces still conduct frequent violent incursions, attacks and arrests inside the camp – sometimes several times a week. They use tear gas, sound bombs, rubber coated metal bullets and live ammunition against residents, often in night raids where snipers will attack from rooftops. As we were winding our way up through the camp, we saw murals of young boys and men killed in such attacks. I watched children playing on the streets and I wondered what scenes they have been subject to; if they can actually sleep at night knowing that monsters really do come out in the dark.
The next day we walked along the apartheid wall. Erected in 2002, it is over twice as high as the Berlin wall was. The graffiti and personal accounts written on the walls were overwhelming but I’ll let the pictures and accounts speak for themselves:
Please don’t forget the real Bethlehem this Christmas. #freepalestine
The village of Kufr Qaddum is home to approximately 4,000 Palestinians. It has been heavily affected by the nearby illegal settlement of Qedumim. As well as land stolen for the settlement, almost half of the village lands are located in Area C (under Israeli control) and are thus completely inaccessible to the residents of Kufr Qaddum. During the Second Intifada in 2003, the village’s main road was closed by the Israeli army and remains closed to this day. This has increased travel times substantially, making what used to be a 1.5 km journey to a local town almost 15km.
In yesterday’s weekly demonstration, we were confronted by about 6 Israeli border police (renowned for being the most aggressive) who blocked our habitual march along the road. They then fired strong tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets at us for about two hours, with another army vehicle and more soldiers arriving too.
This was the first time that I was badly affected by tear gas, and while I have had training on it and been given advice on a number of occasions about the best practice to overcome it, I completely panicked – the worst thing to do as you need to focus on your breathing. My eyes and nose were streaming, my face was stinging and I was finding it very difficult to draw a breath. I ripped off the scarf that was covering my face, the mask that was over my mouth and nose, and the sunglasses from my eyes as I was feeling suffocated. My friend passed me an alcohol wipe to put under my nose to reduce irritation. I was hiding down an alley with other demonstrators but the tear gas had been fired from both sides so there was nowhere to run to get fresh air. I was pacing around desperately. It was horrible. Luckily, the effects of tear gas usually passes after a couple of minutes and I could carry on recording and taking photos.
At one point, we were ushered into a house to take cover. When we got inside, a mother and her three children were sitting on the steps all suffering from tear gas inhalation inside their house. For residents of this village, young and old alike, tear gas is a weekly occurance and cancer rates there are abnormally high.
Salah Khawaja, the Secretary of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) and a leader of the Stop the Wall campaign, was kidnapped from his home on the 26th of October by Israeli occupation military forces. Since then, Israeli intelligence have conducted 27 rounds of practically non-stop interrogation with Khawaja, not allowing him to see his lawyer.
On Tuesday night at around 2am, Israeli occupation forces stormed Ramallah (Area A*), fired sound bombs, tear gas and rubber bullets and raided the offices of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute (HDIP), where Khawaja worked part-time. The army left Ramallah at around 4:30am. Two men were arrested and two were injured on the streets during the incursion.
I participated in a standing demonstration against his arrest yesterday in Ramallah alongside other prominent palestinian BDS activists.
Following the protest, myself and two other IWPS volunteers went to the HDIP office to record the damage done by the army and conduct interviews with other employees. The office had been well and truly ransacked. They took two servers, a security camera and Khawaja’s harddrive from his computer. Two other computers were destroyed, doors were smashed and broken, holes had been punched into walls and documents were strewn everywhere. The employees seemed very shaken by what had happened and the incursion has completely stalled their organisation for the near future, but somebody also told us “this is Palestine, it happens all the time”.
Khawaja was ordered to an additional eight days of interrogation at a hearing at the Israeli military court in Petah Tikva yesterday, where he was kept blindfolded throughout the hearing. Many people believe that the office raid was a ploy to prolong the interrogation under the premise of checking evidence.
*The Oslo II Accord divided the West Bank into three administrative divisions: Areas A, B and C. Area A (mainly cities) is exclusively administered by the Palestinian Authority, Area B (mainly villages) is administered by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and Area C, which contains the Israeli settlements, is administered by Israel.
Last Thursday we joined our friend and some other Palestinian families on a coach trip to 48. 48 refers to the 1948 occupied lands, also known as Israel.
Palestinians do not have the right to visit 48 and so they had to apply for a permit a few weeks ago to be able to visit their own country. The permit was only valid from 8am to 10pm. As a foreigner, I didn’t need a permit.
We crossed into 48 via the Qalqilya checkpoint. All of the Palestinians had to get off the coach with their bags and walk through the checkpoint, while internationals were allowed to remain on the coach. Armed Occupation Forces came onto the coach to check our passports and made one of our group delete videos that she had just taken of the checkpoint from her camera. When we got to the other side to pick up the Palestinians, many of them were shaken from the experience of being frisked, shouted at and told to stop smiling by Occupation Forces.
It felt so wrong to me that Palestinians should have to go through such a laborious procedure to visit their own country, while I, a foreigner, didn’t face the same treatment.
A short while later, our friend told us it was time to ‘turn the sad to happy’ and she asked the driver to put on some music and everyone began clapping, dancing and singing on the coach.
We then arrived at our first destination, Olga, where we sat on the grass together to enjoy a delicious Palestinian picnic before walking down to the beach and dipping our toes in the sea.
The beach was wonderful, and many of the Palestinians were very excited to see it for the first time or the first time in a while. Again I felt a pang of sadness here at the fact that so many people are denied the right to come here. Although it is so close in distance, many Palestinians have never been to the sea.
Our next destination was Haifa. Unfortunately this city also felt tainted. I was amazed at how magnificent the city was, how luscious and green it seemed compared to the West Bank. Our friend became very pensive and later divulged that she loved this city, for her it was the best place in Palestine. Her late father used to work her, and her brother was born here.
Finally we stopped in Akka, a stunning coastal town where we ate some more food, visited a mosque and roamed the winding streets of the souk before arriving at the port to watch the sunset.
It was nice to spend a day in an area that doesn’t have any army presence, watchtowers or apartheid walls but the occupation was still very present in the Palestinians’ longing gazes. I got talking to many people on the bus and I met one girl in particular who is the same age as me. I asked her if she comes to 48 often, to which she replied that it was her first time. It’s difficult to get a permit and it costs a lot to come here for the day. There was no difference between this girl and myself, yet our nationalities granted us vastly different rights. I felt riddled with guilt at the ease in which I could come and go from these beautiful places, while for so many Palestinians, visiting 48 remains but a dream.
Last Friday, we attended Shadi Farah’s 13th birthday party. Like any other 13th birthday party, friends and family attended, there was music and cake. But this wasn’t any ordinary 13th birthday party because the birthday boy was absent. At the age of 12, Shadi became the youngest Palestinian political prisoner last December and has since been held in a detention centre awaiting his sentence.
Shadi and his friend Ahmad were arrested at a bus stop in Jerusalem after a group of East Jerusalem settlers called the police to investigate the two boys, on suspicion of being Palestinian. In the ensuing process of arrest, interrogation, and abuse, the Israeli police proclaimed that the two boys had gone to Jerusalem with the intent to stab a soldier, and subsequently charged them both with attempted manslaughter. During the interrogation, the boys were shouted at, beaten and given electric shocks. Shadi still maintains his innocence, but in the Israeli courts, no evidence is needed to convict a Palestinian.
Shadi is now imprisoned in al Masra youth detention centre, a facility for teenagers incarcerated for theft, assault and drug possession, where he suffers from abuse and isolation. His family visits him as often as possible, but travelling from the hometown Kufr Akab to the north of Israel is expensive. An international fundraising campaign has been able to raise money to support the family.
On Wednesday we accompanied Shadi’s parents to his court hearing in Jerusalem. Shadi’s parents have had to attend over 20 hearings in less than a year. The hearings are held in Hebrew with interpretation provided for Shadi, but not for his parents. Luckily, Shadi’s father speaks some Hebrew.
Um Shadi hadn’t seen him for two months and was visibally very anxious on the way to the court, desperate to take Shadi home. She was telling me stories about his hobbies, and how well he does at school.
We were all impatiently waiting for the boys, not knowing by which entrance they would arrive. When they finally came, Shadi and Ahmed were embraced by their families and friends. We sang happy birthday to Shadi as his mother had requested. Although it must have been a very scary day for the boys, they both seemed so happy to be reunited with their families.
Once inside the building, a security guard informed us that we internationals would not be able to take any recording devices into the courtroom. Shortly afterwards he clarified that we would not be allowed in to the courtroom as Shadi is a minor. It’s convenient how they remember he is a minor when it suits them, but not when they are holding him in a detention centre indefinitely for no crime committed and no evidence.
The hearing was very short, approximately 30 minutes. They still did not give Shadi an official sentence, but arranged a further court hearing for the 29th of November, which just so happens to be the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Israeli prosecutors have recommended a two-year sentence in addition to the time he has already served.
This sentencing comes as part of a plea agreement which was accepted by Shadi’s family because the family can no longer take the indefinite detention and the Israeli prosecution have threatened to postpone Shadi’s sentencing until after his 14th birthday, in which case he would receive an even longer term like Ahmad Manasrah who turned 14 and received a 12 -year sentence.
Shadi’s mother expressed her dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority’s approach to child prisoners, saying that there was more international official attention to Shadi’s case than official attention from PA institutions.
We spoke to Shadi’s parents afterwards:
“I was put in a position where I had to agree. If they allowed me to speak, I would have asked to take him home with me. He has done nothing wrong. My life has been put on hold today. I see my son as a child. He will grow up far away from me. He went in as a child, sucking his thumb, he will leave an adult. He needs his mother’s care. When winter comes, who will put a blanket on him when he shivers? Every time we go to court we expect we might go home with him. His youngest brother wanted to come today but he decided to go to school because he would see Shadi when he got home later. God knows what these two years will bring for our children”
What I found especially difficult about this day was the lack of international presence. IWPS, ISM and an EU representative were there, but where were the children’s rights and human rights organisations? There are approximately 400 children in Israeli prisons. Shadi’s case has received some international attention because he is the youngest prisoner and he is still likely to be sentenced to two years despite no crime being committed. So many families must be going through this injustice alone.
It feels like only yesterday I wrote the last blog post but here I am a whole week later. I spent three days this week picking with a lovely family whose land is located close to the illegal settlement Yakir. Our local coordinators contact farmers who have land in compromised areas and we often spend a couple of days with each farmer and their families. We usually start the day quite early to get in a few hours before the midday sun and finish at around 5pm. The families provide lunch for us, which is a nice opportunity to sit around, get to know each other, practise some Arabic, laugh and even sing and dance!
The family this week told us that the Israeli army use their land as a training ground for soldiers. About ten years ago, the army uprooted hundreds of their olive trees and built a huge artificial hill. They are regularly bothered by soldiers and settlers. When we were walking to pick with them one day this week, a settler drove up alongside us and asked where we were going. I didn’t answer him and he drove away – it is best not to engage in conversation with the settlers because they can be quite violent and cause further problems and the Palestinians can lose trust in us if we are seen to be conversing with settlers.
Around 2pm on one of the days we were picking this week, we received a phone call from a coordinator telling us that there had been a problem with settlers and Israeli Occupation Forces near a boys’ secondary school in a town called Urif. Urif is located 2km away from the illegal settlement Yitzhar, which is known for its settlers being prone to violence and having previously attacked children and internationals. By the time we arrived, everyone had left and the school had closed but we were able to speak with an eye witness from the local council who showed us pictures and video clips of the day. An infamous settler known as Jacob, who is a security guard in Yitzhar, had come close to the school with two young settlers carrying an M16. After two hours both they and the army left again.
I also recieved a very kind invitation from a fellow volunteer to spend a couple of days and nights with a friend of hers in a village called Sir. The village is very small with about 600 inhabitants and it seems that everyone is related, making for lovely evenings sitting around and talking. When we arrived we spent the afternoon with her children, all under 18, and I was taken aback by the stories that they told us about Israeli Occupation Forces’ violence and oppression. Injustice and murder are facts of their everyday lives. One evening Rosie’s friend took us to her shoe shop with two of her children. On the drive there we passed an open gate that was manned by two Israeli soldiers. This gate is sometimes closed in the evenings without warning, preventing villagers from getting home from work or the olive harvest for hours on end. The young girl in particular became very distressed but we passed through the gate without any problem. Even so, soldier presence, checkpoints, gates, settlements and night raids- these are constant reminders of the occupation, which must be especially overhwelming for children.
Having stupidly slipped down a tree earlier in the week when sawing a branch I’ve incurred a rather colourful and tender injury on my derrière – I’ll spare you the photos. When the house computer started playing up last night it was decided that I would stay at home to rest said contusion and fix the computer. Five of the women went to pick olives in Assawiya but were faced with a stressful morning when a settler and soldiers denied them and the Palestinians access to the land. The reason given was that “if someone is killed today, it is a big problem”, which is very ironic seeing as he was the only one to be carrying a weapon… They then said that internationals would now be banned from cultivating this land – something that sadly happens often and is an attempt to block internationals from recording human rights abuses.
So all seven of us ended up spending the day at home and we had a big spring clean. Today was noticably cooler and the sky was much cloudier but it is still warm enough to eat and sit outside until late evening.
My two roomates are fast asleep and there is a mosquito buzzing around my head as if mocking my slow reaction speeds alerting me to the plans it has for me this evening so I think it’s time to try to sleep. Good night!