Monday, June 22, 2009

This is the occupation

Across the West Bank, Israeli soldiers at checkpoints stop Palestinian drivers to show them their permits. If these permits are said to be out of date or wrong, many such drivers then have to wait for the soldiers to make phone calls. Some are eventually let through. Others are told to go back. The reason is not always clear. It can often be expressed as a new rule that nobody had thought to tell them about. As many Palestinians will tell you: this is the occupation.

All this happens a lot less often to Israeli drivers – except at checkpoints like the one at Anabta on the Nablus road into Tulkarem – both designated (following the Oslo agreements) as Area A (that is, under the control of the Palestinian Authority in terms of both civil and security matters). After the second Palestinian uprising broke out in late 2000, Israel made it illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Area A, so Israeli drivers are not supposed to come here. If they do so, they are committing an offence.

When we arrived this last Saturday afternoon(as always, at rush hour time), a huge queue of vehicles were backing up. The heat was oppressive.

The cause of the jam became clear. The soldiers had stopped two white vans and were questioning their passengers. As we got closer, we saw that the passengers - like us - were wearing a uniform. It turned out to be that of the Israeli 'Physicians for Human Rights', returning from a day's voluntary work running a clinic in a nearby Palestinian village.

We joined them and learned more. They had driven there on a different road, without a checkpoint. Why were they being stopped? they wondered.
(‘It may be forbidden to enter “Area A”, as one says, ‘but why is it forbidden to leave?’ ‘We’ve had a very successful day’, says another, ‘but this is a very unsuccessful ending. Who knows? We might be indicted for illegal entry!’)
In twenty years of doing this work, the coordinator told us, this had never happened before.

The group of some 25 professionals included an endochrinologist, a gynaecologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, a paediatric dermatologist and a nurse. I got talking to Yosefa Sartiel. She is a retired GP (‘family physician’), living near Tel Aviv.

‘When I retired seven years ago, I decided to become active. At first I thought of Machsom Watch*. Then my partner said, ‘You have medical skills, why not this?’ I was nervous at first. But I’ve been coming ever since. I usually go in one day a month.

'I felt I could not stand by. Here we are living side by side, but the difference is so huge between what is obtainable to us and what is obtainable to the Palestinians. Our occupation prevents them from getting to a doctor. It is difficult for them to get a cat scan here. It’s difficult to get medication.’

Cases she had seen that day included a little boy aged 3 and a half, brought in by his father in need of an operation on his leg, and a child with a kidney problem. Both needed to see specialists. For both, she was able to give attention and a referral letter on official paper, marked urgent.

Hassan Matani, a general surgeon, told me he had seen 200 people that day and made some small surgical operations (cysts, warts, ingrown toenails). ‘I do this as a general commitment to people living under occupation. I have an affinity with them as I am a Palestinian, living in Israel. Their suffering is my suffering.’

While the soldiers wait for replies to their phone calls at the checkpoint booths, the doctors and nurses were kept by the roadside waiting to travel home for over an hour and a half. They were irritated, but they were also amused. Some of them are less than twenty minutes from home. One remembers the tray of Palestinian pastries they had been given by some patients at the clinic and starts passing them round. Another jokes, ‘This Is the occupation.’ And this time it’s affecting Israelis, too – even those on human rights work.

Eventually, an Israeli police jeep arrives. The policeman, looking somewhat embarrassed, says if they provide ID numbers he should be able to let them through. Then he gets another phone call. Turns out he can let them through, anyway.


* more on Machsom Watch in: Numbers add up, 13 May on this blog.

Physicians for Human Rights – Israel:

My team colleague Maria gave me a link to a profile of one of the volunteers in this group, that had been published only three weeks ago in an in rview by Mat Heywood. Pnina Feiler, an 86-year-old nurse and volunteer told him:
“Today, the real importance of our work with the clinics is not only the humanitarian or medical help we offer – in truth there is very little we can do in comparison to the demand. The significance is the fact that we come as citizens of Israel, showing our solidarity with [the Palestinian's] suffering, and against the occupation.”
4 June 2009, Guardian Weekly,

Monday, June 15, 2009

Children get together

How can Israeli and Palestinian children meet? The separation barrier and system of checkpoints seems to make it impossible. If they never meet, how will they ever overcome stereotypes of each other? With large and growing populations of children and young people* this seems an important question to ask. And last week, I learned of one project that has been working to answer it.

For just two summer months, this football pitch lies sleeping in the sun - a brief respite from the energy that tears up and down it the rest of the year: every day, from 3 in the afternoon until 9 or 10 in the evening.

For Chaim Nadler, this is the fulfilment of a dream: a mixed Arab and Israeli soccer club. Ten years ago, he gave up his job at the local plastics factory and threw himself full-time into setting up this, the Barkai Center for Soccer and Coexistence, here in Israel, a few miles past the border with the West Bank. Today, it has a membership of some 400 children aged between 10 and 15 years old, who show up three or four times a week for football practice and training.

The Center is in Menashe, a regional municipality consisting of a lot of small communities, including ten kibbutzes, and three Arabic villages – including Meiser, where I spent last Saturday with Said Arda, its head of youth and development and his wife Jutta, three children, and assorted pets. With a population of 800, Meiser is a place where people know each other and where Said grew up with his six brothers. In terms of football, Said and Jutta’s three sons are all goalkeepers – and active members of the club.

Officially designated an Arab Israeli, Said sees himself as Palestinian. As the crow flies, Meiser is just eight kilometers from Tulkarem, where he has relatives. But of course, with the occupation, crows aren’t a lot of use. The old road is closed, and what used to be a journey of ten minutes is now a drive of over an hour, involving two checkpoints.

Said took me to meet Chaim, one of the ‘crazy people like me’, in his words, working to make opportunities for children and young people to mix. As he put it: “What I love about this project so much is that it is sport, but it is also education. The idea is that the children should be human first, before they are good soccer players.’

Chaim explained: ‘This is not a philanthropic organization. We look for professional people and have to pay for them. (Costs of the club include: fees for the coaches, maintenance of the field, water and electricity for the office and hut and travel to matches - and a social facilitator.) ‘We think it is very important to get the connections between Arab and Jewish children, educating in more than just sports and teaching them how to cooperate with each other, using games and talk. We take them on visits, to a mosque and to a synagogue, as well as playing football.’

The Barkai Center for soccer has also just begun another initiative: this time, to bring Palestinian children from Jenin, in the West Bank to play football together with local Israeli kids. It took months to get the paperwork. At last, in April, the first trip came: a busload of 40 children. They met, talked, ate, and - in mixed teams - played a lot of football. For a second meeting in June, another group made the same journey, and had the same get-together.

Said and Chaim both feel proud of the Center’s achievements – but both are aware of the road still to travel. As Chaim said: ‘It’s not equal, of course, not balanced. I don’t want the children from here to make a favour out of meeting the other side. We need to work to make the traveling to Israel less exciting for the kids fron Jenin, so as to give the meetings themselves more value.’

Just outside Meiser, Said stopped the car to show me a stretch of the wall, a feature of every view wherever you travel in the West Bank.

Here, we were on the Israeli side of it, and it looked no less insuperable. (His son Adam, 1m 80 tall, stood against it for proportion purposes.)

On this day, however, I was learning about one small project on the ground that is finding a way to overcome its division of despair.

*In Palestine, 45.7% of the population is under the age of 15. (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics Demographic and Socioeconomic Status of the Palestinian People at the end of 2006 , PCBS, Ramallah, Palestine). I haven't been able to find out the figures for Israel yet.

Chaim recalled work with the University of Brighton with similar aims, five years ago, when the Football Association hosted a training week for Jewish and Muslim Israeli community sports leaders at the University of Brighton, followed by a meeting in Northern Israel. For a brief account, see (click on international relations).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Settlements must go

‘The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.’

Last Thursday in Jerusalem was a baking hot day. In the early afternoon, I was walking along Jaffa Road carrying a parcel to the post office. Passing the open door of a cafĂ©, I caught the unmistakeable voice of America’s President, giving his speech in Cairo. It gave me a good excuse to cool off in the shade of the doorway and watch the live broadcast on the flatscreen television inside.

As the papers reported later, he spoke of seven issues. The topic of ‘Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world’ was the second; and once again, just as in his meeting with Israel’s President Netanyahu a few weeks ago, this business of settlements was a central topic.

But what is a settlement?

Settlements are housing developments, built on land in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, with the support of the Israeli government. With very few exceptions, only Israeli citizens or those of Jewish descent entitled to Israeli citizenship are allowed to live there. In other words, although this is housing built on Palestinian land, Palestinians are expected to keep out.

At the last count, there are 149 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. They vary in numbers of residents from 300 to 30,000. In the last two months I have now visited two of the bigger kind, seen a small one from the distance of a few hundred metres, and glimpsed, from a distance, many more of various sizes, usually on the top of hills. ((This picture shows the small one, just a few hundred metres from the village of Shufa.) This means that thousands of Israelis are living in Palestine, enclosed in special areas – to which special roads are built that only they can use. The first settlements were built in 1967. The numbers have been growing ever since. And those that already exist are getting bigger.

To become a settler, you are likely either to be following a religious conviction that the West Bank is the ‘land of Israel’ and that it is your duty to live there – or you come from one of the poorer neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and are attracted by the fact that this offers you cheaper housing than the equivalent in Israel. In this case you may be an ultra-orthodox or a secular Jew. Either way, your everyday life will bring you into very little contact with Palestinians. You may be hardly aware of the village down the road, since the road you take avoids bringing you anywhere near it.

Settlements by an occupying power on occupied land are illegal according to the 1949 Geneva Convention. So Obama’s call for them to ‘stop’ is not new. But it is said in plain words. (And some of the settlers don’t like it. Reports come in of new settler violence; setting fire to Palestinians’ crops being just one example. Human rights organizations see it as a pattern.)

What must it be like to be a Palestinian who helps to build a settlement? That’s something to consider. A couple of weeks ago there was a picture in the newspaper Haaretz. It showed a Palestinian worker on his knees at prayer. The location: a building site in the settlement of Efrat (the same settlement I wrote about a few weeks ago). The building work is part of what Israel terms the ‘natural growth’ of residents’ growing families. The map of the West Bank changes, with those areas designated as settlements getting bigger and the bits in between getting smaller, and with them, this man’s human rights of freedom of movement, equality and dignity.

As Obama also said, Palestinians ‘endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.’ If a just peace is to come here, then settlement building, and the injustice it perpetuates, must end.

UNOCHA (2007) The humanitarian impact on Palestinians of Israeli settlements and other infrastructure in the West Bank. United Nations
Yesh Din, Settler terror infrastructure in the West Bank Background Briefing, Yesh Din -- Volunteers for Human Rights, June 2, 2009
Ha’aretz newspaper, Thursday 28 May 09, pA2

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Routine resistance

You meet people here in Palestine who ask: what’s happened to the Palestinian resistance movement? In her book on nonviolent resistance to the occupation, Palestinian Quaker Jean Zaru argues that this is a movement that is, if not growing, at least not gone away. Very early one morning last week, I had the chance to witness what she meant at Qualqilya checkpoint, on the border between the West Bank and Israel. Unlike others I had seen before at the roadside, this one is entirely pedestrian. First, let me quote what Jean Zaru says.

‘The word sumoud in Arabic might best be translated as ‘steadfastness’. It plays an incredibly important part in Palestinian culture and self-identity….To practice sumoud means to remain steadast on one’s land and, more generally, to remain steadfast in service to one’s homeland and to the struggle for freedom. For example, given the current grave circumstances, just waking up every morning with the determination to carry on with one’s daily routine and to hold fast to one’s humanity in spite of the challenges and dangers to movement – walking through military checkpoints to get to work, driving your children past army tanks to get to school, taking your herd to graze despite physical ad verbal abuse of Israeli settlers – is to practice sumoud or to be samid or samida.’

At Qualqilya checkpoint in the pre-dawn dark, crowds of people (almost entirely men) arrive with lunch bags to queue, leaving their trucks and cars in the park near the lamplit tents selling coffee and falafels. There are three stages. First is the line along the wire to the turnstile into the shed. Once through, there’s the snaking line from turnstile to permit check. After that comes the metal detection machine.

The turnstile opens at 4.30am. Queuing starts an hour before. On busy mornings, the whole procedure can take as much as an hour and a half. And all that people can do is wait, shuffle along, and wait again – all the time in the knowledge that something may get stuck or go wrong in the stages that follow, either to themselves or the ones in front – with the serious risk of missing the transport at the other side. And day after day, they submit themselves to this frustrating ordeal in order to go to work.

The morning I was there, we counted 2,700 people going through the turnstile as dawn rose in the two hours after we arrived at 4.30am. Outwardly, none of them were protesting. No-one was losing their temper. On other mornings, other things do happen. People lose patience and push. But last Tuesday morning, nearly three thousand Palestinians were nonviolently resisting the temptation to give in to despair and rage and simply getting on with what they had to get on with.

Jean Zaru (2008) Occupied with nonviolence: a Palestinian woman speaks. Fortress Press (p71-72)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Playing with stones

It’s been a week of discussions, meetings and travel - our ‘mid-term orientation’, focusing on Israel. The twenty-four of us that add up to the 31st group of Ecumenical Accompaniers here, gathered together again in Jerusalem, after our first six weeks of work. We were there to review and to learn something of the Israeli Jewish experience.

There are, as usual, contrasts. On Monday morning we listened to Bob Lang, public relations man at the Efrat Settlement, a wealthy Jewish-only suburb of Jerusalem. Pointing across the hills ahead, he told us: ‘We as Jews have a history. If you take out the Jewish history book, the Bible, 90% of the places here are Jewish.’ Proud to have a protecting army, and proud of a heritage with this claim to the land, this speaker had no problems knowing where his loyalties lay. (It's strange to think that, the same day as Bob was talking to us of his settlement's plans for growth, President Obama was telling the Israeli Prime Minister to freeze settlement building at their meeting in Washington, headlined in the world's media the following day.)

Two days later, Ruth Hillier, an Israeli Jew herself told us of a different view - of the struggle her family had had to get her son released from conscription to the Israeli army.. As a pacifist, he could not accept the three-year conscription. Mother of six children, two of whom had already done military service, Ruth went on to found New Profile, the organization which provides advice and support to other families like hers and which a couple of weeks ago was in the news charged with ‘inciting refusal’ among Israeli youth.

Back home in Tulkarem, I take a walk up the street. Ruth had told us of what she called the militarization of the society. ‘The soldier is conditioned to think that his gun is his best friend’, she had said. ‘He takes his gun into his home. The army doesn’t have a place to leave it before he goes home. We see armed soldiers in the mall, in the bank, in the grocery store, at the seaside’.

And sure enough, at the end of the street, three armed soldiers are lounging on the corner. (But this is Palestine, not Israel? Oh yes, of course, this is also the occupation.)

After these and many other confusions, I was glad to have a couple of hours with our women’s conversation group at the refugee camp today. Last week we’d been exchanging notes about children’s games. This week, we had agreed that I would write down in English how two of them are played, if we could work it out between us. The two we chose were: ‘five stones’ and what in English we call ‘hopscotch’.

Turns out, from the group, that this game, known in Arabic as ‘jump’, has two variations. In Jordan, the first round entails jumping – with two feet. In Palestine, it’s hopping, from the word go. As some of you will know, this makes a difference when you come back to pick up your stone. Any player who wobbles or puts her foot on the line is out.

As to five stones, well, Sefiyeh was the one with the nifty snatching skills. (Throw one stone up and snatch the others: first one at a time, then two at a time, and so on). The clatter of stones on the table and the noisy laughter as we checked and disagreed on the best way to play – these were the sounds of a welcome peace.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Numbers add up

Palestinians have to put up with a lot when it comes to getting from A to B. First there is the separation barrier itself. Then there are the checkpoints and gates at which they have to wait before being allowed to get on with their journey.

But there are other things that make for stress and uncertainty in everyday life. One is the issue of the permit. As well as having to have an ID card, Palestinians have to have permits for getting about – and, apart from making sure you have the right one for that day’s journey, you also have to make sure it is still in date. But what if you have the right permit and having got to the gate or checkpoint, you discover that it is closed? Or what if the soldiers at the checkpoint tell you that your permit isn’t valid that day? A close look at how the system works, and it turns out that rules and regulations change from day to day – with no warning. Palestinians know this.

Thanks to statistics and published reports, international bodies can know this too and make public the abuse of human rights that is entailed. From a detailed study on the matter based on careful analysis, for example, a research team from the World Bank concluded:
‘Permit requirements are rarely published and are highly changeable’.
On the one hand, they reported periods of time when entry through checkpoints was refused to men between the ages of 16 and 35 – which these men only learn about when stopped at the checkpoint by the soldiers. During Israeli public holidays, too, the report documents closures across the West Bank with access to school, family, healthcare, work - all stopped.

For working life this is bad. For family life it’s not much good either. In conversation with people in Tulkarem, we find there is a kind of resigned humour about this. Last Friday two of us got into conversation with Durgam, a shopkeeper. This is what he said.
"We used to go to the hills and make a barbecue. I don’t want to do that now. There are soldiers. There are the settlers. (His voice tailed off, he shrugged and bent down to pick up Fouad, his little boy.) I want my son to play football. I want him to be free. The Israelis make this impossible. Money is not the problem. It’s that we are all nervous. When is it going to end?"
The case for the barrier to be put up in the first place was as a means to protect Israelis from terrorist attack. As the World Bank report recalls, part of the agreement that it should be built was a commitment to maintain usual access for Palestinians to their communities and work. Instead, what their study showed, seven years on, is that today
‘freedom of movement and for Palestinians access within the West Bank is the exception rather than the norm….

One of our jobs as Ecumenical Accompaniers is to listen to experiences like Durgam’s. Another is to stand by checkpoints and gates and write down times and numbers, to send them on for the use of studies like this. Standing by a roadside counting cars and lorries, checking timing and watching soldiers can sometimes seem a futile thing to be doing in the long struggle for peace here in Palestine. The day after talking to Durgam, two of us were doing this counting when we saw two other women, further down the road. We met Hanna and Sara and talked. They are Israeli women, members of Machsom Watch, and have been doing this work for over five years. As the cars and trucks crawled past, Hanna told us how they saw it:
"It's very important, the perseverance. Even if you don't change much. It's a kind of protest against the situation. It's the least we can do."
The numbers add up. Next week, so as not to duplicate scarce resources for doing the counting, we have changed our rota time. Meanwhile, it was good to feel part of a bigger monitoring movement.

World Bank Technical Team (2007) Movement and access restrictions in the West Bank: uncertainty and inefficiency in the Palestine Economy.!OpenDocument.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wall glimpse

The Separation Barrier in the West Bank has been the subject of protest by international human rights organizations for some years. In 2004 the International Court of Justice gave an advisory opinion in which it deemed the construction of the barrier on occupied land (ie inside the West Bank and not on the Green Line) as illegal. One Friday afternoon recently, my team and I went with Samar Assad, our friend and guide, to see what it has done to the lives of people in Nazlat Isla, a town north of Tulkarem.

When we arrived, we parked in a street with a dead end. On either side were houses in poor repair; in front, a vast, grey, concrete wall. Low down, there were a few words written in Arabic. Samar read them aloud and translated: ‘Ihna shaab el-ard. ‘We own the land’. On the ground beneath, bright geraniums grew.

A few yards from this, by their front door, children watched us. The family knew Samar and invited us in. We, four women, sat on the floor with a grand/mother, her two daughters and granddaughter while her daughter-in-law brought in the tray of tea glasses. I asked Samar to tell the grandmother how we had admired the flowers outside. The grandmother smiled. ‘They plant the Wall and I plant flowers,’ she said.

Started (in this northern region) in 2002 with a planned route of over 700 kilometers, the wall now snakes and loops through the entire West Bank and is nearly complete. In the words of the UN, it consists of ‘a complex series of concrete walls, electronic fences, observation towers, trenches, patrols and razor wire, used to control Palestinian vehicular and pedestrian movement.’*
In the last few weeks, our team has begun to be familiar with these towers, patrols, fences and wire. But not until that afternoon in Nazlat Isa had I seen, at close quarters, the panels of concrete. The effect is flat, grey and very high (eight metres, to be exact). There is no way to climb them. There is no gap to see through them.

Five years ago, as the last panel was fixed in place, the ‘separation barrier’ cut through this town’s main market street for ever. According to the Israeli government, its ‘sole purpose’ is security and a ‘response to suicide bombers who enter into Israel’. * Its effect has been to restrict the rights and freedoms of an entire population - and by no means all Israelis agree with it. Some are part of active protest. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem uses measured language:
‘Israel has the right and duty to protect its citizens from attacks. However, the building of the Separation Barrier as a means to prevent attacks inside Israel is the most extreme solution that causes the greatest harm to the local population. Israel preferred this solution over alternate options that would cause less harm to the Palestinians.’

Looking back, I still feel humbled at the grandmother’s resistance to despair. In the face of the wall they are written on, the words ‘we own the land’ seem pathetic, yet the flowers turned them into a defiant claim.

However, that glimpse of the barrier has been one of the grimmest things I have seen here yet.

*International court of justice: and follow links; or check and click on ‘international law’
*UNOCHA (2008): West Bank: access and closure – update
*Israeli Seam Zone authority