Travellers’ tales from Palestine

June 27, 2011

I recently came across two accounts of American tourists in Palestine – the first one filled me with despair; the second one with hope. See what affect they have on you.

The first was an account of a “mission” to Israel by Americans For A Safe Israel (AFSI) (do watch the embedded video). I should explain that AFSI’s definition of ‘Israel’ includes the territory which the international community recognises as Palestine. AFSI members enjoy a conducted tour of Israeli settlements in Palestine (which are illegal under international law). They take a particular joy in visiting settlements which even the Israeli government views as illegal. As an example of using tourism to reinforce prejudice, it’s hard to beat – “… our feeling of love and support and strength for the land of Israel just grows with every trip that we take. Two-thirds of the people who travel with me are people who have been with me before. They come again and again because we form very close ties with the people.” The highlight of the tour is when “AFSI members will get some hands-on training in rifle practice under the tutelage of the Mishmeret Yesha rapid response team.” Possibly a case of people who slay together, stay together?

The second tells the story of a visit by another group of American Jews, but this time the group was keen to hear both sides of the story. As the report relates, this took them to some unusual destinations: “perhaps what was most impressive about the trip was the group’s shocking request to have home stays at a Palestinian refugee camp. For two nights, nineteen Jews stayed in four Palestinian homes in Deheisheh Refugee Camp.” The result was amazing: “The fact that these were Jews and Muslims in a place torn by nationality, religion and conflict did not stop them from overcoming stereotypes and becoming friends. They looked beyond religion and nationality and connected on the basic level of human relations.”

It appears that travel can indeed broaden the mind, but it can also reinforce existing prejudices. You pays your money…

Awarta – the end of the story?

April 17, 2011

Apr 17th – Israel lifts its news blackout and announces that two Palestinian youths have confessed to the Itamar murders – Hakim Awad on April 5th, and Amjad Awad (no relation) five days later. The news shocks villagers in Awarta but the families of the arrested men refuse to believe the two committed the massacre.

Any right thinking person would agree that  “Scenes like these – the murder of infants and children and a woman slaughtered – cause any person endowed with humanity to hurt and to cry.” (Mahmoud Abbas). If the IDF and Shin Beth have caught the murderers, then they are to be congratulated. But if the way they have conducted their investigations over the past month has sowed the seeds of hatred in another generation of Palestinians, then they have not done their cause any favours in the long term. Or maybe compensation will be forthcoming for all the innocent people whose houses have been trashed, etc. in the course of the investigation?


Awarta – the misery continues

April 14, 2011

Read the story so far from the New York Times (or see my previous posting) about the tragic events in Awarta, a Palestinian village under Israeli military occupation. It’s still not over:

April 5th – The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) search homes and detain six men

April 6th – IDF storm Awarta shortly after midnight, imposing a curfew and rounding up over 100 women

April 10th – IDF enter the village in the early hours and detain nine, including a mother, father and daughter. The military return in the evening and impose a curfew

April 12th – 71 villagers including a teenage girl and two elderly women continue to be held in Israeli custody without charge, and official visits to ensure their well being are prevented by Israeli forces

April 13th – Extended family of 20 including women and children are held for 11 hours without food or water. A left-wing Israeli activist describes the state of the village (the Israeli authorities have imposed a news blackout)

How long can this continue?

The Awartans – an everyday tale of Palestinian folk

April 3, 2011

During our recent expedition along a short section of the Abraham Path, we stopped overnight at the town of Awarta, home to some 7,000 people, where we enjoyed the hospitality of the local people. Less than a week later, disturbing news began to emerge about what was happening in the area.

11th March – in a gruesome attack, five members of an Israeli family, the Fogels, are found hacked to death in the nearby settlement of Itamar. Itamar is an illegal settlement built on 3,000 acres of land belonging to Awarta

12th March – Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) close off Awarta, conduct house to house searches and detain 20 men

12th March – in response to the murders, the Israeli ministerial committee on settlement affairs approves the construction of hundreds of housing units in several West Bank settlements

13th March – Israeli forces maintains the curfew on Awarta. Sources in the town said Israeli forces broke doors of houses, shops and cultural centres in the town. They added that Israeli soldiers were using police dogs in searches and described the situation in the town as “really bad; the soldiers are acting in a barbaric, violent way with the residents.”

13th March – the Israeli government releases scene of crime photographs to “show the world what and who the State of Israel has to deal with” according to Minister of Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein

14th March – The curfew in Awarta remains in force.  Soldiers tour the town, calling over loud speakers for all residents aged 15-40 to gather in the yard of the community’s school. Palestinian security officials told AFP that two Palestinian Authority intelligence officers were among over 300 residents detained by Israeli soldiers. International observers reported how soldiers had entered families’ homes, arrested young men and left the homes completely wrecked from the inside.

14th March – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemns the murders: “A human being is not capable of something like that. Scenes like these – the murder of infants and children and a woman slaughtered – cause any person endowed with humanity to hurt and to cry.”

14th March – Dozens of Israelis position themselves on the road between Itamar and the nearby Palestinian village of Awarta on Monday, hurling stones at local residents. Palestinian sources reported that two residents are lightly wounded in the incident.

15th March – In Awarta, the siege enters day four. No one is allowed in or out of the town and residents must stay in their houses (Awarta does not have mains water). “The children are out of bread and milk…even the water is almost gone. Electricity has been cut off from several homes…ambulances and medical staff are denied entrance into the village”

15th March – Settlers bulldoze olive groves owned by Awarta residents and erect mobile homes as a new ‘settlement’

15th March – Rumours circulate locally that a Thai migrant worker had threatened to kill members of the Fogel family over unpaid wages

16th March – After five days, the curfew in Awarta is lifted at 9am.

17th March – Israeli media complain that western media haven’t given enough prominence to the Fogel massacre

22nd March – at 3am the IDF re-impose a curfew on Awarta, ransack houses, and  upwards of 60 individuals are detained and forced to give DNA samples. According to the head of the Awarta village council, Qays Awwad “they raided every house, sabotaged the floors, windows and doors and brought in police dogs for inspections which Palestinians regard as defiling their houses. We can’t describe the fear in women’s eyes or the children’s terror after being locked for hours in closed rooms or in the cold during each raid which was accompanied with dogs” The curfew was lifted at 8pm.

As of today, no-one has been arrested or charged with the murder of the Fogels. However, one Palestinian town has suffered collective punishment, which has been largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. If we hadn’t happened to stay there, I’m sure we wouldn’t have heard a thing about it.

Abraham Path Day 6 – Bethlehem

March 9, 2011

Back in the car to Bethlehem, stopping only for what was supposed to be the best shwarma in Bethlehem, but which our digestive systems later decided was the proverbial dodgy kebab. Praise the Lord and pass the Loperamide.

Brought up on a Christmas carol diet of “O little town of Bethlehem”, I found today’s large bustling city a bit of a culture shock. Our two pilgrimage destinations in Bethlehem were Manger Square and Shepherds’ Field; our educational visit was to the Israel’s notorious security / segregation wall.

The car park in Manger Square was surprisingly empty, and once we’d stooped to get through the tiny doorway into the Church of the Nativity it was obvious that pilgrims were thin on the ground. Iyad confirmed that the recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East had already led to a drop in numbers. The Church is cavernous and ancient, dating from the sixth century – it certainly ‘feels old’.

Emerging into the sunshine, it was hard to picture what it must have been like in 2002 when a group of Palestinian militants sought sanctuary in the complex. The Israeli security forces laid siege to the area for 39 days, with many casualties, until a resolution was brokered by the Italian government. I bought some postage stamps at a shop in the Square to put on postcards – they were a Christmas Special edition, 1999 – a further sign that trade is none too brisk. Whether the postcards arrive at their destinations remains to be seen.

Iyad then took us for a drive through Bethlehem, visiting the infamous Israeli security / segregation wall. The route of this wall really has to be seen to be believed, snaking backwards and forwards across the landscape to annex a particularly desirable religious site, or agricultural land, or aquifer. Even the Berlin Wall was nothing like this.

Our final stop was Shepherds’ Field in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem, “where” (according to tradition) “shepherds watched their flocks by night”. Iyad gave a plausible pitch that this was the correct site: the presence of water and caves would make it a natural choice for shepherds. At night, the flocks would be herded into the back of the caves for safety, while the shepherds occupied the cave entrance, where the air was fresher and their presence would deter predatory animals. So maybe “all lying in a cave” rather than “all seated on the ground”.

So, our tour – which had set out along a path shared by the three Abrahamic faiths – finished in a singularly Christian site. It was time to return to the el Beit Guesthouse for our last night in Palestine. We will have a lot to think about back in the UK.

Abraham Path Day 6 – Hebron

March 9, 2011

Today was a cheat. Hebron is a key destination Abraham’s Path, but you are supposed to walk there, and not arrive in a car. However, time was pressing, so our guide Iyad Qumsieh collected us from the el-Beit Guesthouse and drove us down to Hebron, the largest city on the West Bank. Iyad told us that Hebron is a major contributor to the Palestinian economy, and its residents – “Hebronites” – are a major component of Palestinian humour :-)

Hebron is the second holiest city (after Jerusalem) for Jews, and one of the four holy cities of Islam for Muslims. It’s not entirely surprising that it is a flashpoint for tensions between the Palestinians and the Israelis (who have settlements in the heart of the city).

Our first destination was the Ibrahimi Mosque, an impressive building dating back to Herod the Great in the last years BC, but with the usual subsequent layers of Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamluks, etc on top. The Mosque is built over the tombs of the Old Testament couples Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. The site of the tombs are marked by impressive cenotaphs within the building, with access forbidden to the actual tombs below (conspiracy theories flourish about Israeli attempts to enter the tombs). Salah ah-Din’s minbar in the Mosque is a wonderful example of 12th century Islamic craftsmanship.

The recent history of the Mosque reflects the bloody history of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. The Mosque itself is now partitioned into Muslim and Jewish areas. Even the street leading to the Mosque is partitioned down the middle – one side for Israelis, one for Palestinians. According to local legend, the solitary Palestinian souvenir seller opposite the Mosque has been offered fabulous sums to sell out to Israelis.

Walking through the Old City, the effects of this conflict on the local economy were only too visible. Instead of the bustling markets we had seen in Jerusalem and Nablus, in Hebron many of the shops had closed down. The reasons were not hard to find. Wherever Israeli settlers were occupying buildings, there was a strong Israeli security presence, and Palestinian properties facing them had been emptied and sealed off. We saw settlements built above the markets, and were told how settlers dropped stones and other missiles onto shoppers. When the shopkeepers put up nets for protection, the settlers simply poured dirty water down. As Iyad explained, shoppers couldn’t be bothered with the hassle and had given up on Hebron.

As we were getting back in the car at the end of our visit to this sad city, I noticed a woman scrambling up a ladder and through a window. Iyad explained the houses faced a settlement, so the Israeli security forces had sealed up all the doors. The only way in and out of the houses was via the ladders.

Abraham Path Day 5 – Kufr Malek to Taybeh

March 8, 2011

We woke after a stormy night, with heavy rain and strong winds. By the time we had eaten breakfast, the weather was improving, but our guides decided to call off the scheduled morning’s walk. Our young journalist and his partner had arrived in city clothing and were certainly not dressed for adverse conditions, but to the more experienced and properly equipped walkers among us it was a disappointing decision.

After some delay, a minibus arrived to take us to Taybeh, the only wholly Christian village left in Palestine, and appropriately, the site of the only brewery in Palestine, the Taybeh Brewing Company. This successful microbrewery follows the German purity law of 1516 which means only malted barley, hops, yeast, and water are used in its products. We had a quick tour, and a sample (well, you just have to…). The beer is available throughout the Middle East, and is manufactured under licence in Germany, but AFAIK is not available in the UK.

Our next stop was St.George’s Church, where we were met by the parish priest, Fr.Raed, for what turned out to be a most entertaining and informative whizz through local history, biblical stories and speculation, current affairs, social action, and Middle Eastern politics. Even the hardened secularists in the party were captivated by this energetic Palestinian, for whom no challenge was too great: there was nowhere in the village for visitors to the annual beer festival – fine, he’d build a hostel; there was no clinic – fine, he’d build one; the Israeli’s segregation wall had come between the village and the only care home – fine, he’d build one of those too.

He showed us his House of Parables – a 250 year old building, occupied by a local Christian family until 1974, with an entrance claimed to be 2,000 years old. It has rooms on three levels – for the family, for large animals and for smaller animals (who also have an access hole under the old wooden door). Fr.Raed uses this to illustrate Gospel stories – no Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land should miss this!

Throughout our walk we had been constantly told by Palestinians how they desperately needed peace to help them build their country. Fr.Raed was the only Palestinian we heard who expressed a desire for peace for the benefit of Israelis too. The present situation of occupation is not sustainable long term, and demeans the occupiers as much as it oppresses the occupied. It was impossible to ignore his Peace Lamp Initiative.

Tearing ourselves away, we had a final look round the ruined old St.George’s Church. Taybeh is the New Testament Ephraim, and there has been a church on this site from at least the 5th century, although the ruins today mostly date back to the 12th century. Our guide told us that local people still occasionally sacrifice a lamb at its ruined doorway, and give the meat to the poor. Possibly a relic of pre-Christian, pre-Judaic, Canaanite practice?

Time to move on, and our guide bustled us into the minibus and off towards Bethlehem, stopping only for a quick falafel sandwich en route. After our somewhat spartan accommodation on the walk, we were delighted with the comforts of the modern el-Beit guesthouse. It’s amazing how much pleasure can be derived from a return to en-suite loos and showers…