A Day in Palestine

Michael Prior of Hebden Bridge is in Palestine as part of the International Solidarity Movement

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Jennun is a small village at the top of a remote valley. It is really two villages on different levels about a kilometre apart with about 90 people living in the two. It is the most beautiful place which I have seen in Palestine only marred by the watch towers, cabins and sheds, all linked by a power line, which lie on the skyline of the horseshoe of hills which surround the village. These are the edges of the notorious settlement Itamar.

Itamar was founded in 1997 and claims to be one of the largest settlements in the West Bank. In fact it seems to be no more than a small central cluster of houses with chains of watch-towers and cabins stretching off along the hill-tops enclosing a large amount of empty land. They are unusual in that they run sheep and raise chickens as well as having some organic farms. They base their claim to the land on an obscure part of the prophets which say that some neighbouring mountains were given to Joseph by God. (I really can't explain this properly. Go their excellent web-site for the details). Since its founding, the settlers have maintained a systematically aggressive and violent attitude to the surrounding farmers and have have themselves been subject to some retaliatory attacks. Consequently the place has the look of a fortress.

About 14 months ago, settlers descended on Jennun, destroyed its generator, polluted its well with dead dogs and killed one man. Most villagers fled but some days later, accompanied by internationals and Israelis, almost all returned. Two international houses were set up in the upper and lower parts of the village and there has been a continuous international presence ever since. Since then the villagers have been subject to continual harassment though at a lower level. In August a man was beaten up and shot in a dispute over sheep. Settlers roam through the village carrying guns. The day before I arrived, a group of about a dozen children has paraded through accompanied by a teacher. They had two dogs and carried M16 rifles and were. presumably, taking part in some grotesque civics class.

One of the main targets of harassment last year was the olive harvest. If land is unworked for two years then under an old Turkish law, the land reverts to the state. Israel applies this law in its favour, usually allowing the settlers to take over the land. It is of course Humpty-Dumpty law as the West Bank is not part of Israel but is occupied territory and Israel is not the 'state' here. However here, Humpty Dumpty rules, OK? And in this area, olive groves are all that are worked over much of the land

The army under some pressure from Israeli groups for whom Jennun has become some kind of symbol have accepted the reality of settler violence and have come up with the following solution. Villagers are banned from picking at all except on designated days. No picking, no settler violence. The designated days range from 2 to 4 days in different villages for a harvest which normally takes about two or three weeks. All the days are in Ramadan and after the date when rain often starts. During the designated days the army will allow picking and may protect the farmers against the settlers. Or they may just not stop the famers picking. Humpty Dumpty remember.

The day I arrive in Yennun, a large Israeli group is coming for the day to pick. They come about 12 with a police escort and leave about 4 in the afternoon. Some are rather nervous about the legality of their presence. Under the Oslo Accord, this area is Zone A and Israeli citizens are not allowed in without permission from the Palestinian Authority which has ceased to exist here. Unless you are a soldier of course or a settler. After their departure, we are only 3 people and, given settler threats to return after the Israelis have left, we are a little nervous. After phoning around, 5 women from Nablus, members of another international group, promise to come for a day. In the course of the day, one Israeli also pitches up. He is a member of Black Laundry, a gay, lesbian and trans-gender Israeli group opposed to the occupation. They call themselves this because, yes you have it, they wash their dirty linen in public.

In fact three days of picking pass quite peacefully with only a few settlers hovering around the edges of the fields. All over Palestine there is trouble. Rafah in southern Gaza is being destroyed house by house. The ISM presence there, where Rachel Corrie was murdered, is down to two as no one is now allowed entry to Gaza without press or diplomatic credentials. ISM groups in Jenin and Tulkarem are being arrested en bloc as the army makes incursions and there are reports of harassment of olive picking all over. But we are a little oasis of calm, a spiritual retreat. On the third day we are informed that the ISM group in Owerta, a nearby village, has been arreseted as they walked down to the fields with farmers breaking the ban on picking and we agree to send over three of our number whilst a couple of the arrested group will come to us.

Early in the morning we walk down the road between the villages. It is forbidden to villagers both by physical blocks and by shots from the watchtowers all along the heights above us. There are olive trees on both side of the narrowing valley which look increasingly abandoned. After an hour we begin to pass Owerta farmers and then we meet up with the one international left in the village. She explains that the army has designated one side of the valley closest to the settlement to be totally forbidden but have allowed picking on the other side. Even so some families have gone into the forbidden zone. We pick with them for a few hours until a man with a donkey asks for company as he goes into the forbidden area to look at his trees. Chris and myself go with him, climbing the slope towards the settlement, at one point passing by a well carved into natural rock with dark water about 3 metres down. It could have been a thousand years old. Eventually he reaches his trees and ties plastic bags to the lower branches to stop deer eating them. He finishes and we walk back to the road. A dun-coloured pickup has stopped on the fenced settler road above us, watching as we go.

After we reach the road, the donker man fades into the trees just before an army jeep roars around the bend. It stops and the soldiers take our cameras. They then jump back in and drive off, We pursue them and a few minutes later the jeep returns and stops. The soldiers get out and we demand the return of our cameras. First they say that we will only get them at the DCO (District Command Office) then that they will only be returned if we are detained. No, we did not understand this either but obligingly climbed into the jeep asking to be detained so that we could have our cameras. The soldiers get in and we drive off. It stops and one soldier gets out to fire shots into the air to frighten farmers in the forbidden zone. We then drive off up into the settlement and into the DCO, a square compound surrounded by single-storey buildings. Oddly, on one side is a large 'mobile gym' donated to the army by a Jewish charity.

THe officer in charge demands that we should stand inside a patch of gravel in front of his office after we have roamed around the compound for a bit, a kind of virtual cell. He seems to take things rather seriously, telling us to keep quiet and forbidding the soldiers to talk to us. Some of them blithely ignore this. One is something of a peacenick being totally pissed off with the army. He has only four months left and wants to go to Goa to smoke dope. Another confides that he 'hates those fucking bastards' the settlers. There are a few serious soldiers here, paratroops with red berets tucked into their shoulder straps. They do not seem to take the conscripts very seriously, one telling me that he does not take orders from the young officer. We refuse to take the detention seriously, demanding the return of our cameras and rather taking the piss out of the officer who adopts the posture of walking out of his offcie and staring expressionlessly at the hills. At one point, with a few soldiers gathered round, I say that I am willing to give them information about the possession of guns in the area. They perk up, even the officer, and I explain that I have seen several men with large guns and suggest that they should apprehend them pointing up into the hills towards Itamar. There is a moments silence then they all laugh.

After about three hours of this, a police jeep arrives together with a rather swish white 4WD. We are moved into two 'virtual' cells, that is squares of gravel and told that we must be silent, a command promptly ignored as Chris argues with the officer and I chat to the budding peacenic. A uniformed security man, presumably settler security in the white car, interrogates us. Why were we taking photographs of the settlement fence, he asks. Who is paying us? When Chris and I have stopped laughing he has gone. Finally, the police call me over and explain that we are accused of taking illegal photos of military installations and of running away from the army. The dating on my camera shows that in fact I have not taken any photos on the day at all, all the immediate shots are of village kids. The policeman laboriously enters my details into a computer and tells me to go away. Outside the office, another policeman asks me where I slept last night. Somethings snaps in my brain and I answer 'In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines'. 'What's that?' 'It's a song by Leadbelly' and I croon a few lines. One of the soldiers says that it is actually Nirvana and we sing the whole refrain 'Black girl, black girl, where did you sleep last night' etc etc and the policeman forgets about his question. (For those interested, I later learn that Nirvana did indeed cover the Leadbelly song in their unplugged album. Thus does culture transcend struggle). We are told to go and a jeep dumps us outside the base. Reality returns. it is dusk and we are at the Hurrawa checkpoint where a couple of hundred Palestinians wait to be slowly allowed through to Nablus. We walk through in the opposite direction back to Owerta.

The next day is much the same. A few families pick in the forbidden zone for a couple of hours before a settler is seen standing at the fence above looking down. Fifteen minutes later there is the heavy roar of an army jeep and the soldiers get out to clear the families out. One points to me as I follow him that if I take any more photos he will take me and my camera to prison. I tell him that we have done this scene already. When I return to Jennun later in the day, I learn that in a third village overlooked by Itamar, settlers had come down and driven all the villagers away, throwing rocks and shooting their guns. The army had not intervened. Picking in peaceful Jennun had nearly been completed except for the areas hard against the settler fence. These they are leaving until the days of promised protection starting on 28 October when I will be in England.

The following day I leave on the school bus which every day brings three teachers up to this remote village and takes back four older village children to the nearest town. On the way down we pass the building housing the new generator with its UN flag flying and a large UN sign on its door and along the electricity distribution line being built with EU funds. Internationals have earlier in the year protected the workers installing this line from being harassed by settlers. As I leave, the Swiss woman with a cross and the words Evangelical Accompanier on her jerkin gives me an almond nut. It is for my son's birthday which is in two days. To remind him of us, she says



Saturday, October 18, 2003

Having been returned involuntarily to Jerusalem the plan is to move on from the zone around the wall and to go to a village called Yannun which has been harassed by settlers. First I must get my luggage so the plan is to travel to Sonniriya where I left the bag and then on to Yanoon, a trip which would take 3-4 hours in a car. So this is how it goes.

I go by taxi out to Calandria, the checkpoint outside Ramallah which is the main centre for servis taxis going north. I want to go first to a small town called Funduq and I wander around for a while before finding that nothing is going anywhere in that direction. I take a taxi to another checkpoint a few kilometres away but this has been totally closed. A friendly Palestinian takes me back about 50 metres and we clamber over a bank and across a stony field with the soldiers at the closed checkpoint visible about 100 metres away still busy stopping anyone from passing. Back on the road we walk up to the checkpoint from the other side and get in a servis going to Hurrawa, the checkpoint outside Nablus. This takes the Ramallah by-pass, a good hard-top for about 10 minutes before being stopped by a temporary road-block. It then turns east for some time until after dropping down it turns north again. There are date-palms and bananas in the fields and I guess that we have arrived at the Jordan valley. After some time we turn west and climb up until stopped at a road block. The taxi is turned back and the passengers walk through.

I am in the middle of a large expanse of nothing much at all; one lorry parked by the road with a couple of Palestinians standing in its shade. The other passengers get into a car going to Jenin. On the MP3 player I have Jimmy Cliff, I Can See Clearly Now. Time passes and eventually a servis - a big Mercedes - comes by with just space for one more in the back row, three adults and two children. It is going to Tulkarem. They have all come from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge. We bump along back roads, sometimes just dirt-tracks for a couple of hours until the servis somehow sidles into Tulkarem by the back entrance after the news has come through on the radio that there has been a bomb at Tiber close to the city. The servis driver takes me to a taxi station where a driver promises to take me out to the city checkpoint from where I can get a taxi to Funduq, a town which still seems the best bet as a jumping off point for Soniyyra. When I get there, the taxi disappears and I am left at a cross-roads with army vehicles everywhere and not a taxi in sight. I phone the ISM coordinator in Tulkarem who tells me that the army has made an incursion into the camp and the city and that a curfew has been declared. I will have to walk back into town.

Walking back, I seem to have taken a wrong turn as I find myself on a military road fenced on either side and not passing through the rubbish tip which I seem to remember from the trip. I walk on. Bruce Springsteen 'Born in the USA'. Nirvana 'Jesus Doesn't want Me for a Sunbeam'. I am uncertain as to whether this is a good or bad omen. The sun is going down by now and an army jeep stops and wants to know what I am doing, something which seems a touch obvious but I try to be polite. The driver asks me why I want to be shot and drives off. Joan Baez 'Ashes and Diamonds' Creedance Clearwater 'Pale Moon Rising' I feel decidedly uneasy as the fencing seems to stretch forever. Another jeep stops and the driver asks for my passport then tells me to get in the back. He drives into a kind of contractors yard and questions me. I tell him that I am working on an EU project studying the potential for solar energy in Palestinian villages, the same tale that took our ISM group through the checkpoints a week before only then I was supposed to be leading a study tour. The soldier is rather interested in this and asks whether we have much sun in England. I reply that we have a lot of potential for wind power but he loses interest and tells me to get out, returning my passport. It will turn out that despite its rather threadbare character, not one soldier at a dozen checkpoints will ever show disbelief at this tale of solar energy. I walk through another checkpoint and get a taxi to the ISM flat in the city centre where there are 5 other volunteers who had been at Joyyous. They tell me that there is now a total lockdown on the West Bank as we go out for a meal. No one seems to take any notice of the curfew despite the fact that APC's have only just pulled out. We have a big meal in the camp after visiting its football team in training.

In the morning, I go out with the ISM team to the oustskirts before leaving them to walk down a hill, climb over a dirt roadblock and turn left alond a fine, deserted highway, the main road to the big settlements at Ariel and Kedumin. I walk for an hour, miss the correct turnoff and walk back for a half hour. Eels 'Goddam Right It's a Beautiful Day' Rolling Stones 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' (but if you try you'll get what you need). I climb over another dirt block on to a Palestinian road where there is a taxi. Just as I am phoning the ISM group to say that I'm OK an army jeep stops on the other side of the block and two soldiers get out and wave their guns at the taxi telling it to move off. I hop in still talking and we bump off. For a rather large sum, he agrees to take me straight to Sonniyra. I arrive and meet up with my luggage. However it is impossible to get a taxi out so I stay with my original team for the night.

In the morning I get a taxi out and after about 10 kilometres see a large green signpost - Jerusalem is just 67 kilometres away down the settler road. I am supposed to be going to Hurrawa but before this we encounter another checkpoint which stops tha taxi and all Palestinians from crossing. I am allowed through; solar energy forever. On the other side I find a taxi willing to take me to Acraba which is near to Yannun and, after a little negotiation, omward to Yunnun itself. We climb up a long valley to a cluster of small houses at his head. Outside one of the houses there is an international wearing a jerkin of the Eucumenical Accompaniers who do just what it says on the label. The trip has taken nearly 12 hours travelling time, 11 taxis and cost almost 250 shekels - about $50.
Mostly things in the West Bank are not dramatic. Just trips which should take 3 hours taking 3 days and I am the lucky one with my pocket full of shekels and my aubergine passport. The slow and deliberate strangulation of an economy. The security element is a joke. With a little planning one could take a lorry load of guns from one end of the West Bank to the other and over into Israel. And amongst the Palestinians, who with infinite kindness help me from taxi to taxi and through and round checkpoints, there are probably some who thoughts turn to such things as they wait in the sun for hours until child-soldiers decide to open up.


Thursday, October 9, 2003

Dear All

The day started at 6.30 when we gathered at the village mosque to walk down to the gate. We are in the village of Jayyous which lies right on the apartheid separation fence which is being built mostly on Palestinian land to divide Israel from the occupied territories. Jayyous has most of its land on the other side of the wall and has to get access to it by two gates which are opened irregularily if at all by the soldiers. Today the farmers are holding a demonstration against this supported by internationals and with some media presence.

The ISM has about 20 internationals gathered in, less than hoped as some are still in the Maqata compound in Ramallah acting as a presence against the threat of an attempt to kill or expel Arafat. There are another 15 or so from other groups and some Israelis have promised to pitch up from Jerusalem.

The previous evening we had discussed 3 scenarios. A: being blocked at the main north gate when we would sit down in protest. B: being blocked at the gate of a settlement which has Palestinian olives trees actually inside it and which has stopped familiews entering. C: all gates open in which case we help pick olives. Tactics have been planned in detail: who is willing to be arrested (this is mainly judged on intentions for staying in Palestine for long or short times); groups formed; roles allocated, legal, media, medical. I am grade one expendable, arrestable. no skills, no video camera.

The wall is about 15 minutes away and the farmers are gathering there. The wall is a strange structure. A huge gouged dike-like snake with stone blocks on the Palestinian side about two metres high. On top there is a dirt road, a fence and on the Israeli side a metalled road. Razor wire is coiled all along the sideas of each road. It is impressive and violent as it cuts through olive groves as far as one can see. Yet the fence itself is really rather disappointing, little more than something which might go round plyground with some barbed wire on top. Its supports are already rusting away and some of it has already been bent back by the farmers.

It turns out that the gate is in any case not locked and unguarded but before we can work this out a jeep comes up and two soldiers secure it with a padlock. The then go saying the gate will be closed all day. It seems as if the Israelis are being intelligent; leaving us in the sun and ignoring us. The internationals sit down as if protesting, the farmers mill around talking. After about 15 minutes one gets a piece of angle iron and breaks the padlock fastening with one heave. The gates are opened and the farmers rush through; carts, pickups and one large water tanker disappear into the olive groves followed by the internationals. On the Israeli side nothing stirs. Some of us follow the farmers into the trees the rest walk off down the track which leads to the settlement to meet the farmers who wantto go inside. Four are left at the gate to watch more farmers through. Part way down more are asked to help farmers in the olives so when we arrive at the settlement we have about 20 internationals but no farmers. Phone calls from the gate assure us that at least one of the Noful family is near us but he cannot be found. So we wait. Then phone calls tell us that two army jeeps have pitched up at the agte and they want some more support so 5 go back. It turns out that they have closed the gate and that most of the Nofuls have not passed through in time. One however is still on the loose and after some phoning it turns out that he is at another settlement gate. So it is decided that 5 internationals should go with him and the rest return to the gate. It is believed that other farmers are gathering at the south gate which has been permanently closed whilst villagers from another place want to be escorted through. Just then a rather smart bus rolls up with some young Israelis who have driven up to give us support and want to know what they should do. Access from Israel is of course virtually unrestru\icted.

We are now at scenario M. FUBAR. Fucked up beyond recognition.

At the gate there are one jeep, one humvee and one police jeep and about 6 soldiers and police. The gate is closed but actually unlocked as the sturdy padlock still hangs from the broken and rather puny catch. It is also clear on closer inspection that the various sensors and cameras attached to the gate are all inactive with wires that lead no where. We open the gate and take photos. After about ten minutes one young Palestinian comes down from the village wheeling a bicycle. He seems to want to take water to his family but the soldiers refuse to let him pass. We argue with them about the absurdity of their actions given that dozens of Palestinians haahev been let through unchecked and that we are wandering back and forth. They refuse and after a while decide that they want us too on the Palestinian side of the fence. There is a little pushing but mostly we just argue about the pointlessness of their orders. Eventually they move us though and swing the symbolic onlockable gate closed. The internationals decide to go back to the village to regroup ant to decide what to do next. The young Palestinian askes for some support at the gate so three of us stay behind.

So now we have 5 internationals and one farmer inside the settlement, about a dozen internationals and uncounted farmers in the olive groves, another dozen international in the village, unknown numbers of farmers at the south gate and us three plus one Palestinian with bicycle at the north gate. It is about eleven and very hot. There is no shade. I talk with the Palestinian who explains that he was late as he had been at school. He is in the business stream there and wants to get through to go to his greenhouse on the other side of the wall. The water is for this. He wants to study business so that he can expand the marketing of the produce. We talk a bit about a time when there will be no wall. It will seem then that all this was a dream I say to him.

Then Huwaida, our graceful Palestinian coordinator who walks though soldiers as if they do not exist, appears on the other side of the fence. She has been asked to meet with some Palestinians further down to talk with them about returning. Then off she goes, ignoring the jeeps and into the trees.

After a while another jeep drives down and, after consultation, a soldier calls me over to the fence. This is now a closed military zone he declares and if you do not leave you will be arrested. He produces a scruffy photo copied map and a paper with some Hebrew typing to prove this. We will arrest you you in 60 seconds if you do not move, he says.

And so they do. The gate is swung open and the soldiers come through take away cameras and handcuff us bhind our backs with plastic binding. We are marched back to the Israeli side where we wander about ignoring commands to move here or stay there. The soldiers stand around uncertainly while I harangue then about the manifest idiocy of arresting three harmless internationals at an unlocked gate whilst dozens more pick olives. What is the point of all this I keep saying. What are you achieving by this? Why are your padlocks so crappy? Finally, the senior officer, shaven headed, sunglasses, folds up his map which for unknown reasons he had been consulting, and barks out orders. He ignore our requests for explanations, he is action man and we are put into jeeps and off we go. I shout out to the young Palestinian now waiting with his bicycle some way off. Salaam aleikum. Peace be with you. It will be alright.

My jeep has one soldier who has obviously taken against me and one who is rather curious and wants to kow why we are here "in this mess". I give hin the standard and truthful reply of having been asked by the farmers to help them pick their olives. He seem genuinely baffled by this. The lip-curling soldier refuses to answer when I point out to him that the gate is now both unocked and unguarded. We drive for about 30 minutes and I slip my wrists out of the binding. We are taken out at a border crossing between Israel and Palestine on the Israeli side and wait around for perhaps an hour. Officer shaven head consults a map. He ignores me when I ask if he is lost. Israeli civilians waiting at a bus stop stare curiously at us. My phone rings out Ode to Joy, my chosen ring tone, and I answer it thus revealing my lack of binding and almost make it before my phone is taken away and new handcuffs, proper ones, are use. The others chat to the soldiers, each in their own way.

Eventually it is explained to us that we have been bad people but that we are not being charged. Instead our names and passport numbers have been taken and if we are found again in the Wesrt Bank we will be deported. And this is recorded in a notebook which one of the policemen produces. Our bags are returned and all our belongings are there. Our passports are returned and our handcuffs removed. It takeswhile to find the key to mine. And then we walk off to the bus 20 metres up the road to get the next bus to somewhere as we have no idea where we are and are certainly not going to ask the soliders.

Later we drink a beer in the small town on the bus route. Our cameras are all in order but every one of my sound recordings has been carefully erased. My companions want to head back to their village in the West Bank that night but I need to work things out. My bag is in a village called Sonniyra, my bedroll in Jayyous but I have money and credit cards so I will stay the night in Jerusalem and work out a route back in the morning. And so we get a bus to Jerusalem and they get a taxi to the Calendria checkpoint while I check in an the wonderful Jerusalem Hotel in east Jerusalem.

Later in the evening I learn that back in Jayyous, they have been using teargas to disperse the crwod at the gate, solidiers pushing up the hill towards the village, possible declaring a curfew. It is not clear if all the internationals are back or whether some are trapped in the olive groves with the farmers. No one has any idea what will happen next.

And so it goes. Arafat is still alive. Some olives have been picked. Almost unnoticed a goup of Palestinian farmers have shown defiance and have asserted the right to pick their olives peacefully. Where it will take them is uncertain. Probably down a road of curfew, lock-down and gates permanently shut. ISM is committed to keeping some international presence with them but they will have to live with their decisions not us. And a young Palestinian's vegetables will probably wither through lack of water. It is not all large-scale violence just endless, pointless small-scale repression which leads to continuous pressure and humiliation until something cracks.

Salaam aleikum

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