Wednesday, 31 March 2010

'Land day' facts

Yesterday was 'Land day' in Palestine, a day held every year to oppose Israel's seizure of Palestinian land and the demolition of Palestinian homes.

Here are some 'Land day' facts:

10% - The amount of the West Bank stolen by Israel when it built the separation wall.

103 - Palestinian homes demolished in east Jerusalem in 2009.

596 - Palestinians displaced due to house demolitions in east Jerusalem in 2009, including 281 children.

4,100 - Houses destroyed during the Israeli aggression against Gaza in December 2008.

500, 670 - The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, 17.2% of the West Bank population.

Source: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics press release, March 30th 2010.

"The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed"

Banner at the Al-Quds university graduation ceremony

Yesterday some of the students at Al-Quds university in Abu-Dis had their graduation ceremony.

The bitter reality for many graduates is that it is very hard to find decent work in Palestine. I have met people who graduated two or three years ago and are still looking for work.

It is not easy studying for a degree in Palestine. The checkpoints mean that many students leave their homes very early to reach their lectures on time, and even then they can be late if the soldiers decide to cause a problem. Some students have had their education disrupted by being imprisoned by Israel for engaging in legitimate activities against the occupation.

The lost culture of Jewish Arabs

Thanks to my friend Mohammad for introducing me to the Yemeni-Iraqi Jewish band Tzion Golan.

Click on this link to see a video clip of them performing.

The music and dress of the dancers are very similar to what we would associate with Arabic culture. You may also notice the similarity in the sound between the Hebrew singing and Arabic singing.

The video is a small reminder of what was lost when the state of Israel was created and the divisive ideology of Zionism became dominant - a historic and rich Arabic culture which was shared by both Jews and Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt and across the middle east.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Mustafa's story

After the recent protest in Abu-Dis

The interviewees name has been changed in this post for reasons of confidentiality.

Mustafa is 39 years old and teaches in schools in Abu-Dis and Ramallah. He lives in Abu-Dis with his wife, also a teacher, and their three young children. He is a kind and friendly man and works especially with disadvantaged students.

It is a cliche, but it is true, that everyone in Palestine has a story about Israel and the occupation. I have got to know Mustafa well over the last couple of months and only recently did he tell me about his experiences.

Mustafa was 16 years old when the first intifada (uprising) broke out in 1987. Like thousands of others he and his brother joined in the mass civil disobedience against the occupation.

"I did what most of us did at that time, throwing stones at Israeli tanks and soldiers. I also wrote anti-Israel graffiti on walls and raised the Palestinian flag in a mosque. For this I spent 1 year in prison".

"For the first two weeks they kept me in a cupboard size cell. I could only stand or crouch down. After that i was moved to a bigger cell. When they interrogated me they tied me to a chair in painful positions for hours. They hit me after asking questions. Then they would throw freezing water over me".

I ask Mustafa how he felt during this interrogation. He said, "I felt good. First you feel very afraid. During the first punches you are in pain and very scared. Then, when you don't say anything, it's a good feeling. You feel strong".

He then tells me about a 'room' in the prison. With his heavily accented English i think he is saying 'bedroom', but after some clarification it turns out that he is saying 'birdroom'.

"In the prison there was a room called the 'birdroom'. It is where they took all the prisoners to try and make them become spies for Israel. If you refused, which i always did, they hit you and threw you across the room. I was taken many times to the 'birdroom'".

Mustafa's story is common in Palestine. It seems almost everyone has either spent time or has a friend or family member who is, or has been, in Israeli prisons. In fact, Mustafa's sentence of 1 year was relatively short. But, as he says, "one day is enough in Israeli prisons, so one year was hell".

Despite his ordeal Mustafa is proud of the first intifada, and he says it was better in some ways than the second intifada (2000-2005).

"The first intifada came from the people, and everyone was united. In the second it was in the hands of the different organisations, and they controlled it more. Also, during and after the second intifada there was more of a division between rich and poor in Palestine. Now the government men, even in Gaza, have big houses and don't think about the people".

Mustafa is scathing about the current Palestinian leadership and the leaderships of all the different organisations. "Now, i hate Fateh, i hate Hamas, i hate Islamic Jihad, i hate the Egyptian government, and i hate the Jordanian government. They all just look for their own interests, and they don't care about the people".

"I love the kind man. I love the man who looks to those who are suffering and poor and doesn't forget about them".

The day after speaking to Mustafa i interviewed some boys that i happened to pass in the street.

I ask them what the problems are in Abu-Dis. The reply immediately, "the Israeli soldiers. They hit us. Its like a game for them". I ask them if many children are arrested for throwing stones. One replies, "Yes many, sometimes they are in prison for years. They miss the important years in school". He points to his friend, "He was shot four times in his leg by soldiers". His friend looks about 14 years old.

So, it seems, there has been little change since Mustafa was arrested over twenty years ago.

There was one big difference between the boys and Mustafa. Whereas Mustafa was not excited by the prospect of a third intifada, as soon as i asked the boys about it their faces lit up and an excited murmur circulated around the group.

After so little has changed in two decades, should anyone really be surprised if and when there is a third intifada?

Saturday, 27 March 2010

'Golden Ramallah' and Palestinian identity

If you ever happen to be in Ramallah i recommend a visit to the La Grotta cafe and bar in the old city. It does a great range of cocktails and arak including the locally made 'Golden Ramallah' (which i enjoyed). Arak, a strong aniseed flavoured alcoholic drink, is produced all over the middle east and La Grotta is well stocked with different versions from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

La Grotta is owned by two Christian Palestinian brothers. They, like most Christian Palestinians, are just as committed to the cause of Palestinian liberation as Muslim Palestinians. The painting at the top of this post is by one of the owners and hangs on a wall in the bar.

The Christian presence is a historic feature of Palestinian identity. The other day i was walking in the nearby town of Aizarieh, when i stumbled upon the most beautiful church, maintained and supervised with pride by local Muslims. Although a small percentage of Palestinians currently in Israel and the occupied territories identify as Christian, when the global Palestinian diaspora is included the figure rises to around 30%.

There are also those in Palestine who could be described as 'secular Muslims', people who value aspects of Islamic culture and practice as part of their identity, but do not make Islam the central focus of their lives. There is also a tradition of atheism which used to be associated with the left, but which seems now to have largely disappeared. The memory of it comes out whenever i confess my own atheism, a common response being, 'ah, so you are a red man.'

I think all this is important because much of the misinformation about the 'Israel-Palestine conflict' is based on varients of the 'clash of civilisations' thesis in which the Palestinians are portrayed as motivated by a fanatical, fundamentalist adherence to Islam. In its most ignorant and racist form this can be seen in the diatribes of commentators like Melanie Philips against 'the Arabs' in Palestine (anyone with decent knowledge of the term would know that being 'Arab' does not preclude being secular, Christian or even Jewish). There is a more liberal version in the arguments of Richard Dawkins, who seems to believe that the cause of the conflict is rooted in theological disagreements. Again this shows ignorance of the multi-faceted nature of Palestinian identity which has been formed by shared territory, culture and experiences of occupation, oppression and resistance.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

'Half the sky is better than no sky'

After spending time here it is possible to get a sense not only of the brutality of the occupation, but also just how absurd it is.

This emerges sometimes when Palestinians talk about their experiences. My friend told me about when he was interrogated by Israeli soldiers and one of them tried to make banal small talk. As he related, with a bitter smile, what the soldier said, it was as if it was from a dark comedy sketch.

I could also see this dark humor in a short film by a local Palestinian film-maker. With tongue firmly in cheek, the film is a mock holiday ad for 'The great wall of Palestine'. Under 'the great wall' you can enjoy the shade, and you can see the talents of local graffiti artists..... And, the film reminds us, the wall may cut off half of the sky but, 'half the sky is better than no sky'.

The absurdity of occupation can be seen in the description of recent protests in Nablus as an 'illegal riot' by an Israeli military spokesperson. Firstly there is the dubious legitimacy of an illegal occupying force defining a protest in it's territory as 'illegal'. Secondly, it would be interesting to inquire if it is possible to have a 'legal riot', and, if so, what is the application process?

During the recent protests in east Jerusalem an Israeli police spokesperson said, 'Throughout the morning we have been dealing with local disturbances...[groups] of Palestinians who are causing riots'.

From what i have seen in Abu-Dis this is clearly absurd. What happens is that protesters block off a road with rubbish bins and set fire to a few tyres. This isn't against the law because there is no civilian law under occupation. It is not any real danger to people or property. It is not any real inconvenience, as most people support it and after a while a passage is cleared for vehicles.

Everybody knows the 'disturbance' will only start when the Israeli soldiers turn up. Sure enough they do, at which point people throw stones at them (no threat to army jeeps made with reinforced steel) and the soldiers disperse people with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

The soldiers could just not come - and nothing much would happen.

But of course they never 'don't come'. They must force a 'clash' to happen. Firstly, they can't tolerate Palestinians having control of their own streets. Secondly they need to get some 'hits', in other words shoot some people to send a message to others - don't come on the streets, don't raise your heads, stay in your homes and ultimately just give up.

The occupation is brutal, degrading, humiliating - and absurd.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Reporting the resistance

A Palestinian man and child walk past Israel's separation wall in Abu-Dis, east Jerusalem.

For a report on the protests which i have been writing about visit Socialist Worker online here.

Also in this week's Socialist Worker Michael Lavalette asks 'Will there be a third intifada?'

Monday, 22 March 2010

Two boys shot dead in Nablus

Last week Mohammad Qadus, aged 15 years old, and Osaid Qadus, aged 17 years old, returned home on a bus to their village of Iraq Burin, near Nablus. When they arrived a protest was taking place against Israeli settlers who had invaded Palestinian farmland.

After they got off the bus both boys were shot in the head by Israeli soldiers using live ammunition, even though witnesses say that neither was involved in the protest. The doctor who treated them said the x-ray showed a "classic, pure metallic bullet".

You only have to imagine the outcry and condemnation if Hamas had shot two Israeli teenagers, to understand the value which is placed on Palestinian life.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Postcards to David Miliband

In some of my lessons i have been getting students to write postcards to the foreign secretary David Miliband about the situation in Palestine. I will post them from east Jerusalem. Here are two examples, both written by 15 year old students:

Dear David Miliband,

First i want to tell you that Palestine is a good country but Israel gives it a bad image in Europe. All the European countries think the Palestinian people kill the Israeli people but in fact they are wrong because Israel made us bad people, they killed our children, old people, and women. I want to ask you, "why did Britain give Palestine to the Israeli people?" They destroyed it and built many settlements in it.
We try to be safe here in Palestine and have a good life. I want you to help and support Palestinian people and try to give us our freedom from the Israeli occupation.

Dear David Milliband,

I read what you think about Palestine and Israel, and some of your thoughts are not true. Hamas is violent but it's not bad, actually Fatah is bad, it kills innocent people, and lots of Fatah guys are spies for Israel, they help it to arrest innocent people and put them in jail for a long time, and for no reason.
The situation in Palestine is now very bad, Israel wants to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque and Palestinians are protecting it, so lots of people are injured and lots of them were arrested for throwing stones.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Update on the situation after the protests

There were no protests today, and apparently there was a very heavy police and army presence in east Jerusalem. It is possible there will be protests tomorrow across the West Bank.

The headteacher of a local school in Abu-Dis has reported that five boys are being treated for rubber bullet wounds, all in the back. Yes, that is the Israeli Defence Force. One boy reportedly had his leg broken after being shot and then beaten by the soldiers.

It seems that at least one protester in Abu-Dis has been detained by the Israeli army. It is common for protesters to be jailed for months or even years for throwing stones at the army. However even this 'offence' is never proven, because it is decided at a military court without the normal legal processes of a civilian court.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Protests in Abu-Dis.....and in Shuafat, Essawiyya districts and Ramallah

The main road in Abu-Dis this morning.

The road outside the community center.

Two of my students make their way home with their children.

Weapons used on protesters today in Abu-Dis, probably manufactured in the USA. Metal balls encased in rubber, a rubber bullet and a live bullet.

Today Israeli soldiers clashed with protesters in Abu-Dis and other parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The trigger for the protests was the re-opening of the Hurva synagogue in East Jerusalem next to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, one of the holiest sites in the world for Muslims.

The background to this is a sustained campaign by the Israeli government to remove Palestinians (most of whom are Muslim) from east Jerusalem. This involves forced evictions, house demolitions and the denial of basic municipal services to Palestinian districts. Then there is the separation wall which breaks east Jerusalem off from the West Bank.

I started my day like i do every Tuesday, going to the community center for my lesson with the university students. I had planned an exercise called 'My daily routine'.

About half way through the lesson the protests started. One of the students had just said, "I had cornflakes for breakfast today" when there was a loud bang outside. A student calmly informed me that it was the Israeli soldiers firing tear gas. I asked them if they wanted to continue and they said yes, "we are used to it". So we continued.

"I usually drink a mug of hot cocoa before i go to bed", said a student. Then there was another loud bang and a large group of young boys ran past the window. "The soldiers are coming past the center", somebody told me. We continued, a student said, "I usually listen to relaxing music in the bath". More bangs from outside.

My next lesson was with a group of local women, aged between 30-50. One of the women arrived and told us she had just been pushed by a soldier. She said, "He told me to go home and i told him, 'don't you dare touch me, i am going to my lesson!', i shouted to the boys in the street, 'may God be with you!'"

We finished early because one of the women had her children with her and they were frightened by the banging noises.

We walked past some of the protesters, all young men or boys, who had been throwing stones at the soldiers. They were nothing less than courteous. "Hi, where do you need to go?", "Come this way, it's safe", "Welcome to Abu-Dis". I bumped into a couple of my students from a local school, "Hi Jon, how are you? It's safe for you this way".

I got talking to some university students on the street. They took me through the backstreets to a place where we could observe the soldiers from a safe distance. We watched as the soldiers spread out across the road and started the descent down the road to where the protesters were. I heard later of two protesters injured by rubber bullets.

The students then invited me to their house for coffee. We discussed Palestine, Barack Obama, and the British government. One of the students told me he was beaten for no reason by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint, "I couldn't see for two days because my face was so swollen. After that, i was in a kind of blind rage". We then discussed music and a student showed me his dance moves. These are normal students living in an abnormal situation.

I went back to my flat. From my balcony i could see a helicopter in the distance hovering over the Al-Aqsa mosque.

What is called 'calm' in Palestine just means people submitting to intolerable conditions and the denial of basic human rights. Today people in Abu Dis and elsewhere said 'no' to this false 'peace'.

Only justice and freedom for Palestine can bring lasting peace.

Friday, 12 March 2010

'I love life on earth, among the pines and the fig trees, but I can't reach it...'

This picture shows how Israel's wall cuts off one of the most important hills in Abu-Dis. My friend told me that as a child he used to go there to fly kites and play with his friends. Now children don't really have anywhere to play except for the polluted streets.

Below is a small selection of the many images and messages which have been written on the wall in Abu-Dis.

Mahmoud Darwish - author of the title of this post.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

'Have a nice day!'

Yesterday I accompanied a family i have become friends with to east Jerusalem. This involved going through the Zaytoun checkpoint. This has turnstiles with thick iron bars and airport style security scanners. Israeli soldiers bark orders through a loudspeaker. They speak in Hebrew to the Palestinians, not Arabic.

If your identification papers are not in order, or if they take a disliking to you, you can be held for hours and even strip searched.

The latest technology is used, so Palestinians now place their hands on a special scanner in order to be identified. I met an old man who said he has problems with it because after a lifetime of manual work the marks on his hands have become worn away.

As someone with a British passport i got 'have a nice day!' from the loudspeaker. I didn't reply.

Under occupation, the development of basic infrastructure in Abu-Dis (roads, traffic systems, rubbish collection, housing) is continually frustrated, but no expense is spared for the upkeep and maintenance of the Zaytoun checkpoint.

This is what many Palestinian's have to experience in order to go where they have lived, worked and worshiped for generations. The family i was with were only permitted to go to east Jerusalem for a day because the mother had to have a health check up.

I accompanied the family to the hospital before we went for lunch in the old city. In the hospital we met an elderly women who had come for cancer treatment. She had been accompanied by her son but he was turned back at the checkpoint because of a mistake (not his fault) on the paperwork he had been issued with. She was now alone carrying her belongings.

In the evening me and another volunteer went for dinner at the house of a local woman who we are friends with. We were introduced to her family. Her father questioned me about Israel's war crimes in Gaza and the complicity of the British government. He told me that two of his daughters live on the other side of the separation wall and he cannot visit them.

One of our friends daughters sang us a beautiful song, and we looked out over the expansive view from the family home of the surrounding Palestinian towns and Israeli settlements. On the right was east Jerusalem and Abu Dis, on the left the ever growing settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, it's street lights glistening in the dark in neatly arranged rows like a suburb of the US.

A resident of Ma'ale Adumim consumes eight times more water than a resident of Abu Dis. The settlement controls the local water supply, meaning that in the height of summer Palestinian homes are sometimes cut off.

Monday, 8 March 2010

International Women's day in Ramallah

Today i went with around 30 women from Abu-Dis and Bethany to the International Women's day celebrations in Ramallah. Unfortunately the coach was late and by the time we got to Al-Manarah square the protest had ended.

This was disappointing but it was still an interesting day.

It brought home to me the continuing importance of women's liberation. One of the women who came to the protest from Abu-Dis was married when she was 15 years old. She has never had formal education, and looking after her six children is her full time job. Her husband was on the phone a couple of times today asking her why she had gone to Ramallah. From her everyday manner you wouldn't be able to guess at these difficulties.

For me this is why central to women's liberation has to be decent free childcare, social welfare and workers rights, so that all women, not just a privileged elite, can have the opportunity to pursue education, leisure, and not be trapped in exploitative relationships out of economic necessity. Of course the occupation here is a huge barrier to any of these things happening.

It made me wonder how many people marking International Women's day in Israel gave a thought for women in Palestine.

On the coach to Ramallah i sat next to a women who works for the General Palestine Federation of Trade Unions. She provided me with information about the landscape as we drove past.

She informed me that the main road from Abu-Dis to Ramallah would be closed off by Israel in the next three years, forcing Palestinians to use an alternative route to get to Ramallah and Jerusalem. This route is longer and more complex, and involves passing through one of the worst checkpoints, where Palestinians are processed like cattle through turnstiles and security gates.

She pointed out how the Israeli settlements were expanding as we went past, with the older settlement houses at the top of the hills and the visibly newer buildings spreading out down the sides. Each settlement taking more land, roads and resources for Israel and less for the Palestinians, making chances of a 'viable Palestinian state' even more remote.

In short, Israel is imprisoning a whole population, and trying to destroy their chances for a decent future.

But you can almost forget this when you are walking the streets of central Ramallah. Here you can visit shopping malls, dine in nice cafes and there is even a cocktail bar. There are no Israeli soldiers or symbols to be seen, and Palestinian police direct the traffic.

But, from what i saw on my way to Ramallah, this doesn't represent real liberation but is more like telling a prisoner, "you control everything here, except for the walls".

Ramallah market

I think Ramallah market beats Brixton market, but only just.

I think a small child got lost in here.



5 a day anyone?

Saturday, 6 March 2010

A wall for Palestine

In its cruelties, its injustices, its repetitiveness, and its gifts, there is nothing more exaggerated than reality.
John Berger

Yesterday the students at the UNRWA school in Abu-Dis showed me the wall display they have created which highlights significant moments in the history of Palestine.

These are early Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Generally they lived in peace alongside Arab Palestinians, which is why they are portrayed as happy and friendly.

This is Theodor Herzl, one of the founders of Zionism, who wrote in 1895, "We shall endeavour to expel the poor population [i.e. Arab Palestinians] across the border unnoticed, procuring employment for it in the transit countries, but denying it any employment in our own"

This is Lord Balfour, the British cabinet member who in 1917 promised support for a Zionist homeland in Palestine. This meant colonising and partitioning the land against the interests of the Arab majority.

This depicts the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, when more than half of Palestine's native population were forcibly expelled, and half of Palestine's towns and villages completely destroyed. Upon this act of ethnic cleansing Israel was created.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Tensions in east Jerusalem

Yesterday the Israeli army entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound at the end of friday prayers, sparking protests in east Jerusalem and Abu-dis. This comes after attempts by Israeli settlers to enter the mosque in the last couple of months.

I was in a cafe in the old city of east Jerusalem when i saw scuffles break out on the TV. I headed towards the mosque and went past groups of Israeli soldiers and riot police. I witnessed a group of Israeli riot police confront a single stone thrower in one of the narrow streets in the old city (bottom picture).

The invasion of the mosque is a direct challenge to the right of Palestinians to worship peacefully in east Jerusalem. The Al-Aqsa mosque is one of the holiest sites in the world for Muslims.

The broader context is very important here. The Israeli government and settlers have declared war on the right of the Palestinians to live in east Jerusalem. This war involves bulldozers and housing permits rather than tanks and F-16s.

In the last 15 years more than 1,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in east Jerusalem. Not a single settler home has been demolished.

Heidi Schramm writes in this week's Al-Ahram that, "according to a confidential European Union report leaked in March 2009, Israel 'is actively pursuing the illegal annexation' of east Jerusalem by uprooting the Palestinian population and expanding settlements" (25 Feb - 3rd March 2010).

When i got back from east Jerusalem at the end of the day the protests had spread to Abu Dis. Local youths had blocked off a main road and set fire to rubbish (top picture). Earlier in the day an Israeli army jeep in Abu-dis had been pelted with stones.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Dear Diary.....

David Ben-Gurion is Israel's 'founding father'. The airport in Tel Aviv is named after him and a bust of him greets you on arrival. Public buildings are named after him, and his image has been used on the Israeli shekel.

Here is an extract from his diary, dated 1st January 1948, written as ethnic cleansing operations against Palestinians were getting underway:

"There is a need now for strong and brutal reaction. We need to be accurate about timing, place and those we hit. If we accuse a family - we need to harm them without mercy, women and children included. Otherwise, this is not an effective reaction. During the operation there is no need to distinguish between guilty and not guilty" (Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p.69)

Monday, 1 March 2010

Teaching the university students

It has been a real pleasure teaching the students from Al-Quds university. Mostly they are highly articulate, intelligent, friendly and funny.

The last couple of lessons we have done 'interviewing' (all in english of course!). They interviewed me about life in Britain and why i had come to Palestine.

Then i got one of them to assume the role of a famous person (they chose Yasser Arafat) and the rest of the class asked him or her questions. This lead to some interesting debates about strategies for the Palestinian liberation movement.

Then i ask them some questions. This sparked a very good debate yesterday after i asked 'what are your hopes for the future?' A male student replied, 'To have four wives'. At which point he was taken to task by some of the women in the class (most of whom wear the hijab), who argued that this was an unequal relationship and was not a necessary part of Islam.

Another reply was, 'to see Palestine free'. To which another student replied, 'it is not enough to hope you have to do something'.