What it’s like to be tear gassed

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.

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Shebab (youth) prepare stones as their only form of resistance

 

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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.

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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.

 

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A rubber bullet

 

 

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Tear gas bomb

 

 

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Tear gas canisters

 

 

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A donkey, caught up in the 2 hour attack, walked up to the army vehicles as they were leaving

 

 

Visiting 48

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.

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Olga beach

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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.

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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.

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Haifa

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.

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Akka

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.

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Sunset in Akka

Another week

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!

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Olive picking
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Enjoying a delicious lunch with the family

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.

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Artificial hill created by the Occupation Forces
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The illegal settlement Yakir, like so many others, is undergoing further expansion

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.

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Jacob. Photo taken from Protect Urif’s Facebook page
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The boy’s school is overlooked by an illegal settlement

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.

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Enjoying time with the kids

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!

Here, there and everywhere

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Life in Palestine can be quite chaotic. Plans are constantly changing at the last minute and team meetings can go on for hours and be quite confusing so you just have to go with the flow and try to laugh about it!

After the olive harvest on Thursday we headed for one of the olive mills in our village, Deir Istiya. The workers let us in to look at the machines and showed us the whole process of pressing olives. Olives from this mill tend to go to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

We also walked around the old city of Deir Istiya just before sunset, which was beautiful.

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A weekly demonstration takes place on Fridays in a village nearby called Kufr Qaddum. The town of approximately 4,000 people 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. Residents are currently struggling to gain adequate permits to harvest their olives, with international helpers also being denied.

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. These demonstrations have been met with much violence by the Israeli army in the past, but the two weeks that I have attended have been fairly peaceful, with three Israeli soldiers standing at the top of the hill and throwing sound bombs. Each demonstration sees the attendance of many young boys who come prepared with gas masks to confront the Israeli army and occupation that has so affected their village and families.

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Palestinians burn tyres to send smoke toward the illegal settlement
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Soldiers at the top of the hill
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This young boy comes prepared for tear gas

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Today some of the team joined members from the Palestinian Farmer’s Union in picking olives in a nearby village. The PFU is an NGO that works to empower famers and protect their rights.

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The Olive Harvest

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In Palestine, the month of October is synonymous with the annual olive harvest.

According to the United Nations monitoring group OCHA, nearly half of all cultivated land in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is planted with olive trees, and the olive oil industry constitutes 25 percent of the territories’ agricultural income.

Though the olive harvest is traditionally a festive time, the hostile presence of Israeli settlers who attack Palestinian farmers means that it has also become one of violence.

Over the last week we have been accompanying families who have encountered problems with settlers with the aim of supporting them to harvest their olives and bear witness to any attacks should they arise. Many of the families we have supported have olive groves very close to settlements or settlers’ houses. Luckily we did not face any confrontation from settlers or the army but fellow volunteers have told me that international presence alone acts as a deterrent.

In the last post I spoke about Um Fadi and her family.  We spent a couple of days picking olives with them because a settler had been cycling up and down a path next to their field the day before. The illegal settlement, Revava, is situated next to their olive grove and is still undergoing further expansion.

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Once we had finished picking olives there we moved to their other grove which is next to a an army watch tower.

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Picking olives at the top of a tree, feeling under constant surveillance

We also picked with a family in Jama’iin for a couple of days. This family had been harrassed by settlers who live in a house next to their grove and had trespassed onto their land to tell them to leave. While we were there the settlers did not trespass again but they did come out with binoculars and took pictures of us.

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Settlers watching us as we harvest

Today we went to Assawiya and harvested with another family. Their grove is surrounded by another expanding settlement and they have struggled to gain permission from the Israeli army to harvest their own land. Once again it seemed a peaceful day until we were leaving and noticed that three soldiers were coming down the hill towards us. We don’t know how long they had been there for but they turned back as they saw we were leaving.

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Spot the intruders

Despite the unwanted visitors we have had a good week – we have shared stories and laughed a lot with the different families and they have thanked us for our solidarity. I have loved getting to know them, practising my Arabic, eating delicious food, climbing trees and getting my hands dirty!!

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In the back of the tractor with ‘the big boss’ – she planted some of the trees from which we were picking today almost 50 years ago, she works relentlessly and makes sure nobody takes too long a break!