Learning about hospitality

I have referenced Palestinian hospitality a few times in this blog. But the truth is that, like many things here, I have played it down as I worry that it sounds unbelievable.

Most family visits result in being fed an uncomfortable number of delicious treats. Children will immediately offer you whatever they are eating, or give you their favourite toy, hairband, jewellery. If you have become close with the family then the kids are likely to have prepared you a homemade gift. I have received many small boxes containing the most treasured possessions of the little girls.  

A month ago a friend told me that she had lost her purse at a fruit stall in Nablus. The vendor not only forgave her the cost of her shopping, but also gave her cash to get her back to Ramallah.

None of this is ever done with any fuss. It is just the way here. I understand from talking to other Western travellers that you find the same limitless Arab hospitality in Jordan, Syria, Iran and Yemen.

And it’s not political. I remember when I nervously crossed back into Israel from Jordan; dressed and behaving as much like a culturally-unaware tourist as I could bare. Palestinian Israelis stopped to give me a lift all the way to Nazareth, bought me dinner as I must be tired from travelling and then put me up in their family home. They had no idea I was involved in supporting Palestinian resistance.

Last week in Hebron I wandered up to the roof of our ISM apartment with a couple of the other girls. A woman appeared on a neighbouring roof, feeding her three boys. There was a sudden thud at our feet. She had thrown a bag of hot corn on the cobs over for us.

Every morning when we passed through the souk in Hebron we were given tea, if not a full breakfast. We are passed vegetables as we walk through the market. There is always more falafel in my bag than I have paid for. I am given food to bring to my Mother, offered places to stay and kissed and nurtured by the women at every opportunity.

What a crime that this wonderful kindness is not part of our picture of Arab countries in the UK.

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Film from NAKSA at Qalandia

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One of many youtube films from Sunday at Qalandia.

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Back at Qalandia for NAKSA

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We hitched from Nablus yesterday morning to Qalandia checkpoint which separates Ramallah from East Jerusalem, the internationally recognised capital of a future Palestinian state. Palestinians from Ramallah and the surrounding villages planned to march to the wall here to demand a withdrawal by Israel from the land it has illegally occupied since 1967.

I positioned myself right on the roundabout with other ISM activists. This meant we had the soldiers on one side and the demonstration walking up from Ramallah on our other side. We hoped this would reduce the level of violence used by the military. When the protesters were 50 meters away, with their signs and songs, the military opened fire.

I ran out into the road and crouched behind a car avoiding the gas canisters and rubber coated steel bullets which were flying through the air. Every time I put my head up to check the position of the now tens of soldiers, it seemed the car was shot at. Eventually I made a run for it out to the next vehicle and crawled alongside a wall to come out right next to the soldiers – too close for them to shoot at me.

As more soldiers began running in from other directions, I decided to run back up the road to join the protesters. The air was full of gas and at one point my friend and I were trapped as a canister landed in front of us and the wind was blowing it toward us and all of our escape routes. We made a quick decision to run through the thick white plume. As I ran with my eyes closing in reaction to the chemicals, I hit my head on a low hanging steel beam and knocked myself out in the gas.

I was rescued almost immediately by the shabab who carried me to a doorway where medics were treating tear gas casualties. It took me a while to explain through my choking that, despite looking like I was suffering mainly from gas (purple face, difficulty breathing etc), it was my head that needed attention. An ambulance took me to a temporary clinic in a school round the corner. Teenage medics fanned me and held ice packs on my head until the cartoon bump had reduced.

As I sat on the mattress on the floor in this hall, I was overcome with sadness and guilt. I have my freedom and yet I am choosing to leave Palestine for a while. These young people had to volunteer their time treating what would be a couple of hundred injuries.  The shop keepers had lost business for the day. The young men out in the street feel that they have exhausted all avenues to freedom. They must now stand, unarmed, facing the aggression of the Israeli army.

My guilt turned to anger when I began to read the news reports. Even the Guardian yesterday reported that NAKSA demonstrations at the borders were driven by the Syrian government and Hizbollah. I can’t bear the thought of returning to the UK and having to deal with this nonsense. Do the editors not consider it newsworthy to print the simple truth that the Palestinians living in exile, apartheid Israel or the occupied West Bank simply can’t take much more oppression? That people are prepared to lose their lives to spare their children the same existence?

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Home to find your roof gone

Last night three of us travelled to the edge of Hebron after receiving a call from a farmer who wanted us to sit with him and his friend in an attempt to guard against settlers stealing his roof again.

Mohammed’s farm is on a lonely piece of land approximately 250 metres wide. On one side of this stretch is an Israeli police base and on the other a large illegal settlement. Both were flooded with lights when we arrived in the dark, whereas the military has refused electricity for the farm which has been in Mohammed’s family for over 80 years.

Much of Mohammed’s land has now been marked as belonging to the military so he isn’t allowed to farm it. He is regularly harassed by both soldiers and Israeli settlers. He has had olive trees destroyed and found fertilizer and dead dogs in his only well. On 17 May, his corrugated iron roof was stolen by settlers.

He is no longer allowed to build on this piece of land so had to go to Israeli military court last week to seek permission to rebuild his roof. He was granted just ten days to do so and warned that he must not use concrete as that would be deemed a permanent structure (even though the roof of his home was permanent before). OCHA donated construction materials.

Mohammed now needs an international presence to protect against further destruction or theft before the work is complete. We sat wrapped in blankets, drinking tea and smoking argilla into the night. This morning we were replaced by other members of our team.

I am still amazed at the total absence of anger or hate in the Palestinians that we meet. He told us with some excitement of a time that a woman from the settlement stopped to give him a lift, not realising he was Palestinian. Unusually, she let him in the car anyway and they talked for the short journey. He said, ‘I left the car so happy, and she was so happy too’.

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The school run in Hebron

I have moved to Hebron for a week to monitor the school runs and checkpoints.  

Hebron is split into two zones and the ISM apartment is in Israeli military controlled H2. This means that we have to show our passports at a checkpoint when entering the area. They don’t seem to give internationals working here too much of a problem. I resisted replying ‘we are in Palestine’ when the solider asked me yesterday how I was finding Israel.  

Checkpoint 56 to access H2

 

 

The streets in H2 are extremely quiet with parts closed to Palestinians. Palestinian shops are shut up, often with Israeli stars of David or anti-Arab graffiti spray painted on the shutters. There are soldiers and military cameras on most corners and many rooftops, apparently to protect the small number of extreme settlers living here.

Girls walk to school

At 7am this morning, three of us did the school run. We positioned ourselves on different streets so that we could keep an eye on the Palestinian children who are often attacked by the Jewish settlers and also the soldiers at the many checkpoints who often mistreat the Palestinian men. 

There was no violence this morning. The soldiers at my checkpoint checked the ID cards of a couple of young men who were made to wait for 20 minutes before having their cards thrown back on the floor at them. They made two teenage boys wait for 25 minutes at which point I intervened. The soldiers mumbled at me before returning the green identity cards.  

Boys support each other on way to school

 

The Christian Peacemaker Team has a permanent presence here and we joined them for breakfast to arrange who would monitor which checkpoints for the week. We then had tea with the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, who have been here for 14 years, to discuss the levels of violence here at the moment.  

As we walked home through the old city, five heavily armed soldiers were on patrol. Again, they stopped any young Palestinian man who passed to demand identity, search bags and humiliate. Their presence is a constant reminder of brutal occupation to those clinging on to their existence in the partly deserted souk

Soldiers patrol the Palestinian souk

 

Soldiers hassle young Palestinian men

 

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Burning trees

I went to the weekly demonstration against the separation wall in Nil’in today. The illegal wall has cut the village off from a third of its land.

Soldiers guarded the entrance to the village when I arrived with a fellow ISM volunteer. We asked the taxi to turn around and let us out 15 meters up the road. From here we climbed down the hillside over rocky, cactus terrain and through fences, in the midday sun. Two buses of demonstrators did not make it today because the army had declared the village a ‘closed military zone’ in an attempt to end the popular non-violent protests.

The small demonstration walked from the main mosque at the edge of the pretty village and through olive groves towards the wall. Some of the boys threw stones at the wall and over the top at the many Israeli soldiers behind it. The military fired huge amounts of tear gas and sound grenades at the boys, at us and at the olive trees. It is so hot here now that the gas canisters cause fires where they land.

It was about an hour into this exchange that I walked along the land near the wall and looked down into the deep valley. There were men working and a fire engine; the valley was black and the trees burnt. The army had apparently shot at the trees hours earlier in order to cause a fire and distract the adult men of Nil’in away from the demonstration.

Over one hundred of the farmers’ trees lost their olives for this year; a very sad sight to witness.

You can read a news report of the day here.
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Photos from Israeli land theft at Izbat At Tabib

Photos from yesterday.

Accessing village through the fields, people from Izbat At Tabib pleading with military, pepper spray, military building a fence on Palestinian land, women and children peacefully resisting.

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Just a fence?

I am now staying in the International Solidarity Movement’s apartment in Nablus, as I have decided to spend my remaining few weeks working back on the ground in Palestine.

Yesterday morning as I was sitting with my cigarette and lemon tea beginning a report for ICAHD, we received a call from the mayor of the tiny village of Izbat At Tabib. The military had arrived to begin construction of an illegal fence.

We were out of the door in ten minutes on our way to find transport. As we approached Izbat At Tabib it became clear that the army had blocked the village with jeeps and soldiers, so we asked the service to drop us further up the road so that we could sneak into the village through the fields.

The brief ISM report of the day can be viewed here.

I am always surprised at how quickly I forget the brutality of the Israeli soldiers toward Palestinians and peace activists. We were among them for several hours yesterday morning; they could see that we were no threat. And yet when they decided to push us back they violently shoved us loading their guns, using sound grenades and threatening us with pepper spray.

Fortunately I have not yet experienced pepper spray here. Like most of the warfare chemicals used by Israel, it is significantly more potent than in most places in the world (after feeling unwell most of last week, we are fairly certain that the seizure-triggering tear gas used at Qalandia contained nerve gas or similar).

Seeing the spray used yesterday was almost unbearable to watch. Two Palestinian men suffered from it. With their faces red from the chemical, they rolled around, screaming on the floor. When an ambulance arrived, the military pushed the demonstrators away from the more serious casualty, forming a line between us and him and not allowing the medics through to assist him.

At this point it was impossible not to plea with the army. We asked the soldiers ‘Where is your humanity? You have to let the medics though. This is cruel.’ We had just one response, ‘It won’t kill, it’s just pepper’.

Toward the end of the day when most people had been chased away, some of the local women came and sat on the rocks on their land, preventing the fence from being developed any further. We joined them and we don’t know if it was this action or the relentless heat or something else, but the five jeeps, 3 police vans, military bulldozer and approximately 30 heavily armed troops decided to pack up and leave.

They pushed us around a bit before they left – squabbling over which part of the road they would accept us standing on and trying to prevent a journalist from filming. The heavier border police who were dressed up a bit like the Terminator kept ordering the younger soldiers to move us. But of course we just laugh at them and don’t recognise any legitimacy in their orders on Palestinian land.

Photos to follow.

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Breaking the seige on Gaza Street

On Friday morning I followed a group of ten Israeli activists as they campaigned to break the seige on Gaza from West Jerusalem.

A Malaysian ship carrying aid to Gaza was attacked only last week and a Turkish flotilla was attacked in international waters last summer. Nine civilian passengers were murdered by the Israeli military.

On Friday the activists walked down Gaza Street carrying a freedom ship flag, playing drums and handing out paper ships with ‘Free Gaza’ written in Arabic and Hebrew.

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Slingshot Hip Hop

Hip hop evening in Sheikh Jarrah

A couple of nights ago the couple I am staying with invited me to a hip hop evening in a park in Sheikh Jarrah, the edge of Palestinian East Jerusalem. An excellent documentary about the roots of the Palestinian hip hop movement was screened, followed by live performances.

Children played around us as we sat on the grass watching this brilliant and exciting film. The artists were amazing too – I intend to further explore this powerful music on my return to live in the West Bank tomorrow.

The film maker’s publicity naturally sums it up perfectly;

“Slingshot Hip Hop braids together the stories of young Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel as they discover Hip Hop and employ it as a tool to surmount divisions imposed by occupation and poverty. From internal checkpoints and Separation Walls to gender norms and generational differences, this is the story of young people crossing the borders that separate them.”

If anyone has ideas for getting Slingshot Hip Hop screened in London, please let me know.

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