Thursday, 13 December 2012

Arrest: Not a minor issue

Yasid Sabah is a small, shy 14, year old boy with a winning smile, from the town of Urif, in the West Bank. The 5th of 6 children, his favourite subject at school are history and geography and he likes playing football.

On 1st December Yasid was arrested outside his home by Israeli soldiers, handcuffed and detained for 5 hours, driven around the area in a jeep, with no food or toilet facilities before being released into the custody of Palestinian Forces. He says that he was beaten by soldiers and taken first to the Itzhar Settlement near Urif and then Hwara military camp. He is in good spirits after this ordeal, though he admits to some difficulty sleeping.

His crime? Allegedly throwing stones. On the day Yasid was arrested Israel Settlers entered the town of Urif and attacked two houses, breaking windows and yelling abuse at the families inside. In the tumult that followed the Irsaeli army also entered the village, throwing sound bombs and tear gas, and later arrested Yasid and another teenage boy. Local community activist Abu Mohammed says that such events happen on an ‘almost daily basis’.

Yasid is far from alone. He is one of many minors arrested by Israeli authorities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories every year. Last year a report by a delegation of senior legal officials, supported by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that visited Israel and the West Bank to review the situation of children in military custody, found that

"undisputed facts" pointed to at least six violations of the UN convention on the rights of the child, to which Israel is a signatory.”[1]

The report made 40 distinct recommendations for action that Israel should take in order to meet it’s obligations as an occupying power to upholding and promoting the rights of children in the OPT. In my short time here I have met many families with first-hand experience of the realities addressed in the report. Earlier this week for example our team spoke with a 12 year old who had been picked up on his way home from school and beaten by soldiers.

Yasid Khan with his father Mohammed
Yasid’s family are understandably delighted that he is back with them. However his picture and ID will be on file and he may be added to blacklists that prevent him from travelling and working outside of the West Bank once he becomes an adult. Once such restrictions are in place, they are rarely lifted. For example Yasid’s father has been unable to leave the West Bank since 1993, with no explanation from Israeli authorities as to why. Furthermore Yasid’s prior contact with the system, however unfounded, may count against him in any future dealings with Israeli security forces.

Urif is still vulnerable as a community too. On the day we visited Yasid over 10 soldiers and Israeli border police, along with 2 settlers carrying machine guns, entered the village again. It seems that such armed incursions will continue to be the norm for the foreseeable future, as will similar treatment for many more children like Yasid. Neither occupation practice can do anything for peace or justice.


Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A Friday in Qaryut: Tear gas and Roadblocks

Palestinian protestors flee tear gas in Qaryut

On the morning after the historic vote at the United Nations that upgraded the recognition of Palestine to ‘non-member observer state’ our team visited the village of Qaryut, just South of Yanoun, to observe a nonviolent demonstration of around 300 people against the blocking of a key local access road which sits between the Israel settlements of Eli and Shiloh, which are considered illegal under international law. The atmosphere was jovial, with men, women and children marching together downhill from the village centre, with a smattering of internationals amongst the crowd.  

If we had forgotten in the excitement of the results from the UN that this is a country under occupation, we were reminded in short order when Israeli soldiers fired sound bombs, tear gas and rubber coated steel bullets into the crowd.  Smoke and shouting swiftly filled the air, with people running back up the hill, and several falling to the floor, overwhelmed by the acrid gas or struck by bullets.Local sources report that over 50 protesters were injured, with at least 2 hospitalized. One man was struck directly in the face by a tear gas canister and a number of Palestinians experienced breathing difficulties as a result of gas inhalation.

An injured protestor being loaded into an ambulance by Palestinian Red Crescent volunteers

The road in question, which connects to Highway 60, provides access to the city of Ramallah and thus opportunities for work, trade and study (at Al Quds University). An estimated 300 people per day use the route when it is open. According to community representatives they took direct action to reopen the road repeatedly over the past 20 years with the Army rebuilding the block from rubble and earth on over 100 occasions.

In June the Israeli army finally relented and agreed to clear the road for good. However, after just four months, Israeli settlers blocked the road themselves. This demonstration was the first since this happened. Local youth worker Bashar Al Qaryuti says that the response was more immediately violent than previously

They didn’t confront us so directly like this before...It is worse now

EA Heli Pekkonen looks on as Bashar Al Qaryuti (right) speaks with locals 

With the land immediately to either side of the roadblocked area, like over 70% of Qaryut land, also now deemed off limits to villagers for security reasons, locals feel under increasing threat.  In addition to the 2 major settlements there are an additional 5 outposts and Bashar feels that the effort to make the road inaccessible is part of a bigger plan to seize the territory it crosses.

they are trying to connect all the settlements up.”

Bashar and others from Qaryut are linking with activists from neighbouring villages as Shabbab Hilltop Youth against Settlements, in order to coordinate their efforts to resist the impacts of the settlements on their communities.  Following deliberation within the group and with other local parties, a decision will be taken as to whether to reinstate the regular protest, despite the threat of more violence from the Israeli Defence Force in response. Away from the media spotlight this is the reality of occupation and resistance in the occupied Palestinian territories. Road by road, hill by hill, communities struggle to win the small victories, to regain control over their own land.

All photographs Derek Oakley/EAPPI

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Last (or first?) Banana Tree in Al-Auja

Palestinian farmer Khaled Mukarker used to have 20 workers in high season and 4 all year round, now just he and his wife alone work his land. Believe it or not, by the standards of the village he calls home, Al Auja, Khaled is somewhat of a success story. Al Auja rests in the Jordan Valley, a land rich with abundant water reserves and natural springs. However since the Jordan Valley was occupied in 1967 and Israeli settlers started to move to the area and take land, the fortunes of local farmers have worsened. Not least in their access to water.

Wadi Auja, the local spring in Al-Auja, and a site of natural beauty that attracts thousands of visitors a year, used to run all year round. Now, suffering from over extraction from settlements it averages 3-4 months of flow a year, severely undermining the local capacity for agriculture. According to Khaled there used to be 300 active farmers in the village whereas now there are just 18. This has resulted in a lot of migration and the subsuming of most men still in the village into the workforce of the local settlements.

The area was famed across the Occupied Palestinian Territoriesand farther afield for its banana crops, which according to Khaled were first introduced in the 1930s and by 1992 accounted for 12,000 Dunums (square kilometres) of Al-Auja land. Now, due to the shortage of sufficiently high quality water since they lost the local spring in 2004, local farmers have been forced to abandon bananas in favour of less lucrative vegetable crops.

By contrast settlements across the Jordan Valley produce a rich range of produce over thousands of kilometres of seized land. This includes large quantities of dates that will be shipping to European markets just in time for Christmas. In fact the EU, which calls the settlements ‘illegal under international law.’ imports 15 times more goods from settlements than from Palestine[1] . There is one 1 settler in land adjacent to Al-Auja who alone has 100 employees and more land under cultivation than the all of the Palestinian families in Al-Auja put together according to Khaled. This individual is independent of the two major settlements that flank Al-Auja. All of this profitable endeavour requires massive amounts of water.

 It is estimated by OCHA, (the UN agency responsible for Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories), that the average settler uses 6 times the amount of water on a daily than the average Palestinian [2].90% of the water reserves in the Jordan Valley are now diverted at source for use by settlements[3]. The settlements also produce massive amounts of waste, much of which is pumped directly into the River Jordan.

In addition to pumped water available from a private Israeli provider, some local Palestinians still have access to their own private wells. Khaled is one of them. Though the Israeli military check and limit his annual water consumption and prevent him from tapping the water table below 70 feet deep, he is able to maintain a steady all year round flow of irrigation to his crops. Last year he planted his first Banana Tree in 8 years, the only one visible in the whole village. A symbol of hope in the face of increasingly difficult odds.

Another symbol of hope is the Auja Environmental Centre.  Launched in 2010 , the centre has started a number of projects to support the local economy, focussing on three areas; environmental education that supports local families to best use the scarce available resources, new farming activities that help farmers diversify into more viable crops, for example herbs that can be irrigated from the salt water that is more plentiful in the remaining wells, and eco tourism activities that help educate visitors about the region and its current environmental situation. While the latter also generates income for the centre, it’s reach and it’s capacity to affect the underlying socio-political causes of the challenges the Al Auja community faces are both limited. 

In the mean time farmers like Khaled do the best that they can with the resources at hand. His well is currently threatened by the growth of roots from a gigantic tree that sits on his property. He has applied to the Israeli military for a permit to undertake the necessary maintenance work to ensure his water supply. As with so many things in the occupied Palestinian territories the process demands limitless optimism and faith in higher powers. When I ask Khaled if he thinks he will obtain the necessary permission the answer is the same as to a bigger question about the potential for liberated Palestine and a plentiful Al Auja full once again with Banana trees to join his lonely sapling. A word I’m already very used to out here
“Inshallah” (God Willing)

NB.Those of you reading at home in Europe and elsewhere can consider helping expedite the process by calling for a ban on the trade of settlement goods. Christian Aid UK has advice on actions you can take and more resources including the new ‘Trading away Peace’ report about EU Trade with Israel. . Get involved and push for justice for Khaled and thousands of disenfranchised farmers like him!

To find out more about Auja Environmental Center visit


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A Soldier's Story

As part of our training as Ecumenical Accompaniers we had the pleasure of meeting Avner Gvaryahu. Avner is a 27 year old Israeli citizen; 1st generation on his mother's side and 9th generation on his father's, from an Orthodox Jewish community. He is '...proud of the state my family helped build, in some ways'. Like his father before him, and as his little brother will likely do too, he served in the Israeli armed forces, rising to the rank of Sargeant in a paratroop regiment. In a country where national service is mandatory and seen as an important rite of passage for young men this is not unusual. What makes Avner different is that he advocates against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and shares his experiences of the realities of life as a soldier within an army, which he says is,

 'controlling 4 million people by force'

Avner  represents Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans who collect and share testimonies from soldiers, create discussion and increase resistance to the occupation  within Israel?. Formed during the Second Intifada*[1], which saw heavy losses to both Israeli and Palestinian combatants and civilians. They describe themselves as 'Pro Israeli, Pro Palestinian and anti occupation'. They are one of the key Israeli peace groups with whom EAs liaise and Avner met with us to talk about their work, his experiences and attitudes to the army and the occupation within Israeli society.

Breaking the Silence have collected over 800 testimonies and recently published a book "Our Harsh Logic" that collects a number of these under key categories that are common parlance in a society that 'like it or not' according to Avner, is very militaristic, digging down to see what, for example 'separation' means in practice. Whilst this would commonly be understood as separating Israelis and Palestinians from one another to increase security, in practice it means

 'separating Palestinians from each other... from their own families and from their own land.

Avner feels that by sharing their personal experiences he and others are helping challenge some of the biggest taboos in Israeli society, and in particular dominant beliefs about the nature of the occupation.

'the story of how we control the Palestinians, the exact thing that Israel does not want to talk about. The story is not new. The only thing that is new is US. Palestinians have been saying these things for years.'

 He says of his military service, which predominantly took place around the Palestinian cities of Jenin and Nablus

'You feel that you can be the one to do things differently. I felt that I was going in with my eyes open..but when you step in (to the military) you become part of the system. Very early on you realize that there is no moral way to do something immoral'

Israel says that the occupation is necessary to ensure security  and peace prior to the achievement of an equitable settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that, consistent with its obligations under international humanitarian law, the actions if it's soldiers are to maintain law and order in the OPT. Avner claims otherwise

'To the army it is a zero sum equation. Either Israel or Palestine...the army acts as if there is no end in sight...sooner or later they (Palestinians) are all the same to you as a soldier...When you have an occupation and you see the other as an enemy there is no way to have a just legal system'

                                          Avner Gvaryahu and I in East Jerusalem

He told us he  participated in mock arrests and house searches as 'training' and witnessed thefts, beatings and shootings committed by IDF soldiers. He feels that most IDF activity day to day is intended to cultivate fear and maintain control by 'having our presence felt'. Furthermore he feels that the manner of the occupation indicates a lack of political will to make peace, amongst Israeli leaders

'If we wanted peace we wouldn't demolish villages in Area C and push Palestinians towards area a and b'*[2]

This is far from the noble and vital role that young Israelis are raised to feel that they will play when they serve in the military, an image linked to the concept of Israel as perpetually embattled and threatened and one that Avner ultimately feels is hurting Israel.

' its 2012 and we are still living in 1929. There is something destroying our society from the inside. We are becoming so xenophobic and closed minded'

What he is very keen to stress is the role of Breaking the Silence, not to build sympathy or understanding for soldiers but to contribute to ending the occupation itself

'We are not the victims, we are here to share another side of the story that is not often hard. It's not about catharsis. It's about changing the reality. The most important thing that I can do as an Israeli is end the occupation.'

I am barely a year older than Avner. If his life were mine I wonder if I would have acted similarly, or differently. Whilst a committed anti-militarist, if I had grown with the same upbringing and context as him, would I really have done anything differently when my call up came? And having witnessed and been part of a brutal and unjust system, would I have had the courage to speak out against it? Finally I think about the next generation of young Israelis and wonder if there is a cycle here that can and will be broken. I asked Avner if he had talked to his brother about his experiences and what difference it might make. He said

'He wants to be a combat soldier. I have tried to talk to him but he is sure. He says 'Why are you telling me these things? You felt exactly the same when you were my age.' and he is right.'

To find out more visit

[1] The Second Intifada ('uprising' in Arabic) was an intensified period of Israeli-Palestinian violence that claimed over 3000 Palestinian and over 1000 Israeli lives.
[2] Areas a,b and c are administrative units within the West Bank. Area C makes up around 60 percent of the whole West Bank and is under full Israeli military law.

And so it begins...

Hello from Yanoun! This is my first post as a participant on the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel; an international programme run by the World Council of Churches. For the next three months I will live here with a team of five colleagues from around the world (specifically Belgium, Brazil, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland) and hope that this blog will give some insight into the experience.

Founded in 2002 EAPPI advocates for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions. 



Yanoun is an agricultural village of around 80 residents split between its lower and upper parts, which are connected by a single road, sat in the North East of the occupied Palestinian territories. It is tranquil, pretty and fertile and reportedly home to the tomb of the biblical prophet Nun; the site of which is marked by a Mosque that sadly now sits in disrepair. 

Until relatively recently the population was larger and its active life more lively. Life in Yanoun has become harder since hundreds of Israeli settlers annexed  the hills that the local community claims ownership to and used to cultivate crops and graze cattle on.  In 2002 Settlers, accompanied by the Israeli army, entered the village and drove out the majority of the population by force. 

With international support, the people of Yanoun returned to their homes, however their numbers have dwindled in the face of repeated settler harassment and violence (up to and including attacks on villagers as they harvested olives this summer), as well as army restrictions on building and farming that strictly limits the access of to their land. Since 2003 EAPPI has maintained a constant presence in Yanoun in order to show solidarity with and support the vulnerable community here to resist the occupation. 


So what is Ecumenical Accompaniment ? The World Council of Churches, who own the programme  welcomes participation from people of all faiths and beliefs, including myself,  and globally EAPPI is an interdenominational initiative between at least 65 denominations and a further 70 christian and peace agencies. Ecumenical Means ‘the whole inhabited earth’. Accompaniment is a component of peace work that entails deterring and monitoring Human Rights violations by providing an active physical presence of civilians, often international, expressing solidarity with local communities affected by conflict and reporting experiences back to the wider world to mobilise support for peace efforts.

                                         EAPPI Group 46 Team Yanoun

In the EAPPI context this means living in a Palestinian community on the West Bank, (which, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, has been occupied by Israel since 1967), for three months, experiencing life under occupation. In my case I am stayin in Yanoun. We will support Palestinians and Israelis working for a just peace as well as bearing witness and sharing our experiences from the ground to inform others at home about the reality of occupation and what they can do to help end it.

The nearest large city to Yanoun is Nablus, and some of the our duties for our team will entail liaising with Churches and NGOs there, as well as the An Najah University. We also cover both the immediate spread of villages within the larger Nablus Governorate and the Jordan Valley, a rich and beautiful area that actually makes up around a third of the land within the West Bank, and which presents a whole other set of challenges and issues to tackle. 

I look forward to sharing some stories from this time on this blog and most importantly, to highlighting the stories of individuals and communities living the day to day reality of this conflict and this occupation. At this time I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes, from the Mennonite Jean Paul Lederach in his text ‘the Moral Imagination’. These words will accompany me on this journey.

“Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time.”