Bil’in: 12 years of struggle

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.

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Demonstrators march from the centre of the village to the apartheid wall
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Palestinians climbing the wall
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Cutting the wire fence at the top of the wall, the illegal settlement can be seen in the background

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Palestinians attempt to pry open a steel gate in the wall
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Palestinians attempt to pry open a steel gate in the wall
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The gate is successfully opened
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With many of the demonstrators having already left, Israeli occupation soldiers arrived, threw tear gas and shot a rubber bullet
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A drone hovered over demonstrators to record faces, which can be used against Palestinians in particular in order to arrest them
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Palestinian youth throw stones at Israeli occupation soldiers
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Israeli occupation soldiers came through the gate
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Israeli occupation soldiers removed stone barriers from the track
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After walking through the area, chasing a Palestinian who fell and broke his leg, and a long-stand off with mainly children, soldiers returned to the other side of the wall

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

 

 

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!

A brief history of Palestine

I have been passionate about the Palestinian cause for many years now and I already have some knowledge of human rights abuses in the region from reading reports and watching documentaries. However, I have chosen to use this blog to report on incidents that I witness on the ground or that people I meet tell me. Nevertheless, it may be useful to quickly cover the history of Palestine, as unfortunately in Britain, Europe and many countries worldwide we are simply not told. In order to do so, I’ve used information from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign website.

Muslims, Christians and Jews had lived alongside one another for centuries under the rule of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. In 1914 the population was 84% Muslim, 11% Christian and 6% Jewish.

During the First World War, Britain pledged to support “complete and final liberation” for the people of the wider region in return for them rebelling against the Ottomans. In fact, they had secretly agreed to divide the area between themselves and France. Britain also promised the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Britain occupied Palestine in 1917 and remained until 1948.

In 1947 Britain approached the newly founded and then Western-dominated UN to determine Palestine’s future. Despite the Jewish population only making up a third of residents, the report recommended creating a Jewish state on 56% of the land. The Palestinians refused to accept the partition of their homeland, yet in 1948 Israel was established unilaterally. By 1949, the Nakba (“catastrophe”) had resulted in the ethnic cleansing of two thirds of the Palestinian population, with Israel ruling over 78% of the land.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under an illegal Israeli military rule since they were occupied in the 1967 war, and today are referred to as the “Occupied Palestinian Territories”. East Jerusalem was also annexed illegally by Israel in 1967. For over 60 years the Palestinians have been denied the right to self-determination and statehood.

The refugee issue

About 750,000 Palestinians were forced into exile in 1948-9 and during the June 1967 war a further 325,000 Palestinians became refugees. Under UN Resolution 194, the Palestinians have the right to return to their homes, but Israel has always refused to implement the Resolution. Today over 6 million Palestinians live as refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom still live in overcrowded refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Life under occupation

The past 40 years have seen the establishment of over 200 illegal Israeli settlements, housing over 500,000 settlers, within the Occupied Territories. The separation barrier or the Wall in the West Bank, construction of which was started in 2002, cuts deep into Palestinian land and, along with the “settler only” roads, cuts off many communities from water supplies, hospitals and their agricultural land. The residents face severe travel restrictions and for many it is impossible to enter Jerusalem or to travel abroad. This treatment of the Palestinians, both within Israel and in the Occupied Territories, is widely recognised as a system akin to the apartheid regime of South Africa.

Palestinians are continually under attack from the Israeli occupying forces and are increasingly harassed by settlers, who attack farmers and steal their land. Collective punishments, such as prolonged curfews and house demolitions are frequently imposed.

The Palestinians who remained in what is today the state of Israel, as non-Jewish members of a Jewish country, also face discrimination in all areas of Palestine and are considered to be second class citizens.