Sunday, 10 February 2013

Branching Out: guest posts and other EAs

As my time in the West Bank sadly reaches an end I am pushing to complete some final posts. Thank you to everyone who has followed, read and shared around. Each new person who reads about my experiences out here is important to me and I hope that some have been inspired to go away and learn more for themselves, and ultimately to end this occupation.

 In the meantime a quick plug for some of my other writing from Palestine that has not been posted on this blog. Please do check out these articles and support the publications that have run them; they are important spaces for independent voices in a time when they are vitally needed.

This one, for Green Left Weekly, based in Australia, is about my participation in a programme jointly run by the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign and the Freedom Theatre; two groups I highly respect.

'Freedom Theatre tells hidden Palestinian stories'

This one, on the US site Waging Nonviolence, is about the protest village moment sparked by Bab al-Shams and it's implications for struggle in Palestine

‘One, two, a hundred Bab al-Shams’ — new facts on the ground in Palestine?'

and, finally a couple (and hopefully a couple more) for  Ceasefire, most recently a piece on the paradox presented by the Israeli Law of Return and the (unrealized) Right of Return of Palestinian refugees.

Please do, as ever, read, comment and share around!

I also recommend having a scout around for some other blogs by EAs on the West Bank. One of the benefits of this programme is being able to interact with others undertaking similar roles in different parts of the oPt and in the process gaining a more rounded perspective on the overall situation of Palestinians. Here are a couple of blogs from colleagues in my group that I have enjoyed following, from Jayyus:


and the South Hebron Hills

Respectively. Enjoy!


Thursday, 7 February 2013

Friday Mass in Beit Jala... Al Fresco

I’m stood on a windswept hillside in Bethlehem with about 10 other people, getting progressively wetter as I watch a Catholic Priest change into his vestments and place his civilian clothes on a hanger hung from a branch of one of the many olive trees dotting the landscape. If I tilt my head back a little I can see the Israeli separation wall (or ‘security barrier’ as it is described by Israel) that has been a growing fixture in the West Bank for over a decade. It is fair to say that this is not how I normally spend my Friday afternoons.
I am here for the weekly mass for the Cremisan community (part of the Beit Jala area of Bethlehem)  which since 2006 has been held on this specific hillside, in protest at the intended annexation of the area by the Israeli separation wall. My EAPPI colleagues in the Bethlehem team join the Mass every week in solidarity with local Palestinians. The sun comes out just before the sermon and after a swift communion I spoke to attendees about the case.

EAs attending the Mass

I learned that this section of the intended route of wall would effectively surround the Salesian Sister’s Convent and School, which has been providing education to local children since the 1960s. Two routes have been proposed by the Israeli authorities but the Sister’s are clear that either would compromise the access of local Palestinians to education and both are unacceptable to them. 

We want to build bridges, not walls. We are committed towards education for justice, peaceful living and peace between all peoples without distinction”

Sister Fides, the directress at Cremisan states in a publication by Catholic Human Rights Organisation The Society of St Yves, which has been arguing in court against the planned annexation.

The Cremisan valley is situated between the  settlement of Gilo ( within Palestinian East Jerusalem), where 40,000 Israeli citizens are located and the much smaller Bethlehem-area settlement of Har Gilo, where around 500 people reside. It is one of the last green areas in the Bethlehem district, with stretches of agricultural lands, including around half of the olive groves in the Beit Jala area, and recreational grounds. In addition to the Salesian Sisters Convent and School, the Salesian Monastery and its renowned winery ‘Cremisan Cellars’ are located within the valley, as well as 58 Palestinian families who risk losing their lands through Israeli confiscation.

Father Ibrahim Shomali, the priest who conducts the weekly ceremony said

This land is Christian. If they take it we will have no future here

Bethlehem is already heavily affected by the wall. Movement into the city is regulated by 10 checkpoints in the wall controlled by the Israeli military.  According to the Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem, the overall intended extension of the wall into Bethlehem is almost 5.96 kilometres. The impact of Israeli occupation includes a contribution to the decline of the Christian population of Bethlehem. T he number of Christians within Bethlehem, is in decline. It dropped from 20,000 to 7,500 between 1995 and 2010 alone, with the majority in a 2010 survey citing the occupation as their prime motivation. If completed, construction of the wall in Bethlehem will ultimately confiscate and isolate 4012 dunums of land, 37.8 percent of the total area of the City. These measures will also incorporate the Gilo and Har Homa settlements within the extended Jerusalem municipal boundaries recognized by Israel. The construction in Cremisan is integral to this projec, in a strategically important location, which, if implemented will allow further expansion for the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. 

As Father Ibrahim says

1,200 acres from the land to extend Jerusalem…to connect Gilo and Har Gilo, taking over the valley and filling it with colonies…this is happening all over Palestine

Graffiti on the Separation Wall in Bethlehem

Plans to construct the wall were first announced in 2000 during the Camp David peace talks. Its construction began in 2002, with its aim stated as the prevention of terrorist violence against civilians.

The Security Fence is being built with the sole purpose of saving the lives of the Israeli citizens who continue to be targeted by the terrorist campaign that began in 2000. The fact that over 800 men, women and children have been killed in horrific suicide bombings and other terror attacks clearly justifies the attempt to place a physical barrier in the path of terrorists….the State of Israel not only has the right but also the obligation to do everything in its power to lessen the impact and scope of terrorism on the citizens of Israel

 Were the wall to be built along the 1949 ‘Green Line’, that distinguishes the West Bank of the occupied Palestinian Territory from Israel, it might be legal under international law. However approximately 87% of the barrier's planned route runs through the West Bank, mainly  to place  Israeli settlements and industrial zones on the Israeli side. By July 2012, construction of the barrier was 62% complete. It left some 3% of the West Bank territory cut off, west of the barrier. Completed as planned, the barrier will isolate an additional area of more than 6% of West Bank lands on the Israeli side. In 2004 the International Court of Justice rendered an advisory opinion judging the wall to be illegal under international law

"Israel cannot rely on a right of self-defence or on a state of necessity in order to preclude the wrongfulness of the construction of the wall". 

The Court stated that
 "the construction of the wall, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law"

The United Nations Generally assembly subsequently passed a resolution that condemned the wall, alongside a renewed call for both Israeli and Palestinian actors to honor their commitments under the ‘Roadmap for Peace’. Despite this widespread condemnation, the construction of the wall has continued alongside the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Reports in Israeli media on recently disclosed government documents (brought to light by an Israeli peace activist) suggest that, prior to the commencement of its construction, the route of the wall was 

planned so that in the future a number of not yet built settlements could be constructed on West Bank land.  

Regarding Bethlehem, Kairos Palestine, a Christian alliance which is supporting the struggle of the residents of Beit Jala, said in a recent publication

Land confiscation, as well as the influx of Israeli settlers, suggest that there will be no future for Palestinians (Christian or Muslim) in [this] area. In this sense, the prospect of a clear 'solution' grows darker every day.

Israeli Human Rights group B’T Selem state that

The barrier’s location within the territory of the West Bank and the imposition of a rigid permit regime infringe on a long list of Palestinians’ human rights. These include the right to freedom of movement—and hence also the right to work, education, medical care, a family life, a livelihood and a normal quality of life. Palestinians’ collective right to self-determination is also damaged

Map of the route of the wall, noting the location of the Cremisan valley

So what hope remains for the Palestinians of the Cremiaan Valley? Actions by Palestinians, Israelis and internationals to stop or reroute construction of the wall have been successful on occasion. By winning support, whether on environmental grounds, as recently occurred in the case of Battir, or via concerted nonviolent direct action, as documented in the film Budrus (about the village of the same name), these cases have been the exception rather than the rule. 

The people of the Cremisan valley have not given up on being another exception. The final court hearing on the case is scheduled to take place in Israel next week and a final mass and press conference will be held this Friday. The Society of St Yves is appealing for support in petitioning Israel to stop this plan and I invite readers to review the petition and consider lending your support.  Teresa Parker of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, who coordinate EAPPI in the UK and Republic of Ireland, says

Not everyone can be an EA but taking part in this nonviolent action is open to all.

Father Ibrahim echoed this call and reaffirmed the importance of international solidarity whilst also expressing faith in a higher power to resolve the issue.

I believe that the same god who stopped the rain today will stop the Israeli wall.

Father Ibrahim on the Cremisan Hillside

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Another day, another demolition

A child wanders amidst the rubble of his home in Hammamat Al Maleh

 This time it was worse than before. So many demolitions and so many aggressive solidiers. Where is the Palestinian State?”

Hammamat Al Maleh resident
On Thursday 17th January 2013 between 200 and 300 soldiers of the Israeli Defence Force entered the Palestinian villages of Hammamat al Maleh  and Hammamat Al Matieh (known as a collective by the former title), in the Jordan Valley, and bulldozed the homes of 10 families, demolishing all standing structures including the tents that provided housing for upwards of 80 people, the cisterns that stored their water and the shelters and enclosures that housed their cattle. In the melee one elderly lady, Adira Hussein, fell and broke her arm, and was not able to access professional medical attention until the next day. On Saturday 19th January the IDF returned to the area to dismantle and remove the tents provided to the community by the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide temporary shelter. 

What are the tents doing to Israeli Security? Where are the children going to sleep tonight?”
Hammamat Al Maleh Resident

One IDF officer told the mostly Bedouin locals that anyone attempting to put up more shelters would be arrested and their sheep, which are a valuable asset and for most residents the key to their livelihoods, confiscated. One villager estimated that he had already lost 60,000 Shekels worth of property and if his sheep were confiscated, he would in effect lose a further 400,000 NIS (over 67,000 British Pounds), a crippling blow.

Tayasir and Hamra checkpoints, which allow access to the area from other parts of the West Bank, were regularly blocked over the course of the weekend by IDF troops, preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid from the Palestinian Authority and supportive Palestinians in Israel. One shipment of goods did make it through this blockade on Sunday 20th January, as did some reporters and representatives from the Red Cross and International Solidarity Movement, as well as the EAPPI Yanoun team. To date however, no further shelters have been allowed entry so the families are dispersed in neighboring areas relying on the charity of friends and family.

A villager works to assemble Red Cross shelters before their confiscation. (Heli Pekkkonen/EAPPI)
A further 10 families, who inhabit some of the tents left standing when the bulldozers finished their work, were served with Demolition Orders with deadlines in February (10 families), March (4 families) and April (11 families). This means that anytime after the dates specified, the same fate could befall their homes and property as their neighbours’ had suffered this time around.

The Hammamat al Maleh and -al Meiteh communities are situated in the North of the Jordan Valley (area C), in an area designated as a closed military zone. The community is located very close to Tayasir military camp, which was relocated after the Yom Kippur war of 1973 from the Sinai desert to the Jordan Valley. The plight of this community is unfortunately, far from an exception in the Jordan Valley. Taking up just 28.6% of the West Bank and yet home to only around 81,000 people, with around a third of that number concentrated in the south in and around the city of Jericho, the area is also the richest and most fertile for agriculture. 80% of it is in Area C, under full Israeli military control.

In total, Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem) estimates that Israel controls 77.5% of lands and resources, crucially water, in the Jordan Valley, closing them off to Palestinians. The measures employed to facilitate this control include declaring large swaths of land as state land, military firing zones, nature reserves or, as in Hammamat Al Maleh, closed military zones. These measures have led Bt’seleem to describe the Israeli policy in the Jordan Valley as one of ‘de facto annexation’. It is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 Palestinians lived in the Jordan Valley prior to 1967, and this population has been in steady decline under the Israeli occupation.

A total of 37 Israeli settlements and outpost pepper the Jordan Valley, with their total size, taking into account their official municipal boundaries, taking up 12% of the land, and are home to around 9.400 settlers, who have moved into the area since 1967. Factoring in the closed military zones often imposed around them, and their massive consumption of water supplies, their footprint in the land is very large.

These settlements, (despite being in land that Israel maintains military control over for declared security purposes) are used for residential, agricultural and industrial purposes and are economically lucrative for their residents and the Israeli economy as a whole. The transfer of a resident population out or an occupying population into an occupied territory is illegal under Article 49 of the Geneva Convention. and a substantial evidence base indicates that Israel has systematically facilitated population transfer in the Jordan Valley.

All of this is a war crime…We need your voice to the outside world.”
Hammamat al Maleh Resident

Our team has visited Hammamet Al Maleh and Al Matieh a number of times over the past two months, during which we have learnt of their situation. In late 2012 the whole community had been temporarily evacuated 3 times. In the new year between the 1st and 3rd of January the IDF held one of the biggest military trainings in their history in the Jordan Valley.

Women and children sift through the rubble
 The people of Hammamat Al Maleh were amongst the 1000+ people evacuated from their villages during this period. On that occasion they were given no alternative shelter or accommodation and were allowed to return after 48 hours. During this period the Israeli ‘Civil Administration’ (actually an extension of the military) served demolition orders on a number of ‘illegal’ homes, including those destroyed this past weekend.  From what we have witnessed and heard, the people of Hammamat Al Maleh have a bleak immediate future.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Bus Stop Blues

Seeing the familiar apoleptic facebook posts in response to a strike by tube train drivers in London this Christmas I was reminded of my first visit to Yanoun. We alighted from a service (minibus taxi) at the Zattar junction, a busy roundabout on the edge of the city of Nablus, and our Brazilian guide Alex, from the preceding EAPPI group in Yanoun, gave us our first lesson in the transport politics of the West Bank.
Settler Bus stop” he said, pointing to an empty shelter with a bench, set back  from the junction on a pavemented area, with two large concrete blocks in front of it. “We will wait there.” He continued, pointing to a group of Palestinians stood in the road about 30 feet ahead. As we walked around the shelter, I took in the guard tower positioned behind it.

EAs pass the busstop at Zattar Junction. The manned guard tower overlooking the stop is visible in the background
 Though I was a little slow to gather the implications of this set-up, it sank in eventually. Jewish Israeli Settlers (in this instance mostly from Tappuah settlement, which overlooks Zattar) in this area have their own bus stops, which Palestinians are restricted from using, with the threat of force used to ensure compliance. Thus the Palestinians wait in the busy road itself, unprotected from the elements, to catch buses or taxis.

As we learnt, this single clear contrast is the tip of the iceberg. There are effectively two transport systems in the West Bank, but not two parallel systems that work along similar lines. Rather at every turn transport is less reliable, less safe and less comfortable for the Palestinian population than for the Israelis who inhabit the settlements. For example, according to Israeli peace group B’Tselem

 “In October 2010, there were 232 kilometers of roads in the West Bank that Israel classified for the sole, or almost sole, use of Israelis, primarily of settlers,” [1]

The right of Palestinians to freedom of movement in the West Bank is severely constrained, not just by segregated busing and roads, but by measures such as checkpoints, permits and the separation barrier, 85% of which is not on the 1967 armistice line but inside the Occupied Territories.  The situation is fluid, and 2012 saw the lifting of some movement restrictions in the West Bank. However as B’Tselem points out

the military continues to treat Palestinians’ freedom of movement as a privilege rather than as a right.”[2]

There are a number of bus services that exclusively serve settlements and facilitate the movement of Settlers between the occupied territories and Israel, effectively discriminating against Palestinians and bolstering Israeli support to Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law. 

Numerous UN resolutions and the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on Israel’s wall in the West Bank have confirmed that settlements violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention — which states that

 “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies[3].

The declared goals of these measures are security for Israelis, both those inside Israel and the 500,000+ settlers living illegally in the West Bank. Even taken at face value, such a comprehensive regime of measures affecting a specific population constitute collective punishment, also illegal under the fourth Geneva Convention[4]. A 2004 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice rules that

The construction of the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law.”[5]

Both the settlements and the measures taken to protect and sustain them violate the human rights of Palestinians. This reality is unavoidable, even when one wishes to do something as simple as catch public transport. Whatever the shortcomings of TfL or the RMT[6], I know which system I prefer.

The 'Settler' Busstop at Zattar. A Palestinian man waits by the roadside in the far distance

To see which companies support the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank by providing services and infrastructure, including Buses please visit

[6] Transport for London, the body that provides public transport within Greater London, and the Rail and Maritime Union, which represents the interests of tube drivers in London, amongst other groups.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Hebron: amongst the ghosts

This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won't play no more
too much fighting on the dance floor

The Specials ‘Ghost Town’ written by Jerry Dammers, released 1981

Palestinian children playing football at the top of Shuhada Street (Derek Oakley/EAPPI)

Navigating the large concrete blocks that strew the entrance to Shuhada street in the old city of Hebron I take a moment to read the stenciled slogans adorning them. One phrase in particular catches my attention

Fight Ghost Town

As it must for many visitors from the UK this immediately evokes the classic Specials song ‘Ghost Town’, with its haunting sound effects and evocation of urban decline and civil unrest during the Thatcher years. As I emerge from Checkpoint 55, which marks the division between H1 and H2, the two zones that the make up Hebron under the 1997 ‘Hebron Protocols’[1] I see why the nickname was chosen. Shuhada street is dead.

Formerly the commercial heart of the city, now a tiny percentage of the shops that used to line the street are open[2], the others welded shut, many of their doors marked with Stars of David painted by some of the 500+ settlers who live in five enclaves the Old City, amongst 30,000 Palestinians[3].

The closures were made around the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000, and were accompanied by an intensification of other restrictions imposed upon Palestinian civilians that Israel deems security measures necessary to protect the Settler population, whose presence in the area is considered illegal under international law. 

Whilst the tarmac on the road is in good repair, there is very little traffic, and all of it is cars or buses bringing settlers and soldiers in and out of the area. Palestinians are not allowed to drive on Shuhada street and after a certain point, designated by another checkpoint, they are not allowed to walk either. Just down the street, now called King David Street by the Settlers, rests the former bus station for the whole of Hebron, now an Israeli military base.

Palestinian children still study at Cordoba school, which is flanked to front and rear by Beit Hadassah and Tell Rumeida settlements, running the gauntlet of potential abuse and physical violence daily. One of the core duties of EAs in Hebron, which I joined my colleagues in during my visit, is providing protective presence to children on their way to and from the school. 

A female settler and her child walk in front of shut Palestinian shops. The signs in the windows above read  “This was taken by Israel, you are apartheid.” And “Arabs are FORBIDDEN, This is Apartheid”. Palestinians are not permitted to walk on this part of the street (Derek Oakley/EAPPI)

 The families that do remain living behind or above the abandoned shops on Shuhada street cover their windows in tight metal mesh to protect them from the regular attacks that come from the settlers. Like many of the properties in the old city, their buildings are in disrepair. Something that local NGO the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee[1] seeks to change in order to preserve the unique heritage of the city.
Palestinian residents are forbidden from entering by front entrances and must find alternate routes into their own homes. Likewise for the wider population of Hebron access to the large Muslim cemetery that sits on the street is now only achieved by a convoluted route that takes them 5 KM around Shuhada street.

As I walk the streets of Hebron with the EAPPI colleague who is hosting me, “Ghost Town” becomes more than a reference to economic or social depression and segregation but also to the violence that colors the history of the city.

Perhaps the most famous incident in the modern era is the 1929 murder of 67 Jewish residents by Arabs amidst hysteria about a planned Jewish takeover of significant areas, with 435 surviving by sheltering with other Arabs, to be later evacuated by the British forces that controlled the area at the time[2]. One of the claims of current Settlers is that they are reclaiming property stolen in the period between the last Jew leaving Hebron in 1935 and the establishment of the first new settlement in the old city in 1971.

In 1994, 29 killed and 125 wounded after Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Palestinian Muslims worshipping inside the Al Ibrahmi Mosque, the site of which also contains the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second holiest site in Judaism, and Goldstein himself was beaten to death by survivors[3]. Many of the security measures that restrict the movement of Palestinians in place in H2 were introduced after this tragedy and then tightened in 2000.

The Second Intifada saw regular bloody clashes, shootings and bombings, memorials to the dead can be found in many neighbourhoods, including to the 10 month old baby Shalhevet Pass, murdered by a Palestinian sniper on March 26th 2001 and whose death proved a rallying point for settlers calling for more aggressive tactics by the IDF to reclaim parts of the city[4]. His parents still live in Hebron[5].

On the 12th December this year, in one of the most explosive incidents during my tenure, 16-year-old Mohammed Ziad Sulaima was shot dead at a checkpoint near Al Ibrahimi Mosque by an Israeli border guard, with the IDF claiming that he attacked soldiers brandishing what later turned out to be a toy gun. Widespread rioting erupted across Hebron and later reports have cast doubt on the official version of events[6].

During my visit, having climbed to the neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida, resting on the hill side above Shuhada street, we visited Hashim Al’Aza. He and his family have been constantly harassed by settlers attempting to force them from their land. They are unable to access the property through the front door, their crops have been uprooted and poisoned and a number of them have assaulted physically by settlers. Hashim says that his wife has twice been attacked whilst pregnant, losing the babies as a result.  Still he resists

I am not moving. One day I will open my door. It is my right

Hashim Al’Aza in his living room, Tell Rumeida (Picture: Alessandra Bajec from

I leave Hebron inundated with dates, figures and names, a litany of blood and recriminations echoing in my head along with the same old song looping on repeat. I also leave with the memories of the Cordoba school children walking home past the checkpoint carefree and smiling as kids should.

The towns and cities that the Specials were talking about in the 1980s[1] have recovered and reinvented themselves to some extent in the UK of the 21st century.  Hebron carries a heavier weight in its history and will not cease to be important to Jews or Muslims, Israelis or Palestinians, but I hope for the sake of the next generation that it can one day cease being a town ruled by the ghosts of people and crimes past used to justify more violence and repression in the present.

[2] See this story for a personal insight into this tragedy,d.d2k

[2] According to a survey done by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 2007, 1 829 Palestinian shops located in Israeli controlled H2 have closed since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.