A November Sunday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It’s 11am and I am sat in silence at Friends House. I am not a Quaker but I am increasingly fascinated by the denomination, and I like the quiet time. Six others accompany me in reflection, sitting on a white bench in this simply furnished room with bare stone walls facing an olive tree tapestry. The large wooden door at the back of the room is left open and I can hear rain drumming loudly on the ground. Overnight Winter came to the West Bank, the sunburn on my face feels out of place now that I’m wrapped up tight in my North Face jacket.
Tears start to fall down my face, silently. I try to stop them, then I abandon my endeavour and just sit still. I am suddenly overwhelmed by what I have witnessed this past week.
I think back to Monday when we were greeted with the news that an 8 year old boy from the Tuqu’ primary school that we monitor, had been detained by the Israeli army. The teacher told EAs how the soldiers jumped out at the child, it transpires that they had blacked out faces and had been hiding on the ground hidden by shrubs so as to take the child by surprise. The charge? Throwing a stone of course. The child was detained and questioned by soldiers for some hours without an adult present. I cannot see the need for such a dramatic act to arrest an 8 year old. It provoked the older boys to actually throw stones and so the army tear gassed the school. A teacher captured the events on his camera phone from the school window, I see soldiers dragging a child in the midst of chaos and I hear screaming students.
On Thursday I attempt to crochet plastic bags at a women’s group in Nahhalin, Bethlehem, when an announcement in Arabic echoes through the village on the loudspeaker usually reserved for the adhān or Muslim call to prayer: “Israelis cutting down olive trees at the end of the village. Everyone come quick!” We leave immediately and manage to beat the first road block that the military erect, though are then stopped just short of the land by a flying checkpoint, along with 60 villagers. More than 30 armed soldiers guard all sides of the valley to prevent access.
Local teacher Omar shouts to us in a loud panicked voice: “We saw they have already cut ten trees down over here. We don’t know whose land they are taking now, many families own the land over there, they won’t let us in to see!” After more than two hours of negotiating, the soldiers allowed us into the area to film what is happening. Two significantly sized pieces of privately owned Palestinian land had been confiscated by the Israeli Civil Administration. The soldiers finally allowed the landowner and head of the municipality in, to show the military order authorising this. I witnessed contractors, protected by the army, cutting down olive trees that had stood in that soil for ten years and provided Nahhalin families with a livelihood.
On Friday, I found myself clambering up a steep hillside in the Bethlehem village of Wadi Rahhal only to find at the top the dismal view of a new illegal outpost. Half way up the hillside we had come across Ahmad from neighbouring village Artas, tending to his land. He showed us from a safe distance the 200 dunums of Wadi Rahhal land that had been taken this week by Israeli settlers, protected by the army. We looked on at the large tent and Israeli flag already erected, and observed the land being cleared for building. We were more than a kilometre from the nearest Israeli settlement of Efrat, which is concerning since in practice outposts are often incorporated into established settlements, consuming the land in between.
Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory are illegal by virtue of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits the transfer of a population from occupying to occupied territory. Most recently, on 6th November 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Neyanyahu announced the tender for 1285 new housing units in settlements located in occupied territory East Jerusalem and Ariel. Outposts are new settlements not even authorised by the Israeli government, although the military protection afforded is an indication of state endorsement. Experience shows that a tent and flag turn into a few caravans which then turn into permanent structures.
A few weeks ago I attended a presentation by Bob Laing, the American born head of Efrat religious council. The international community consider Efrat a ‘settlement’ but Bob would prefer it be called a ‘community’, currently with a population of 8000 with 400 new units having just been approved according to Bob. He pointed to a neighbouring hillside and said: “we will expand onto this empty hillside, you see there is no one on there”. I imagine how I would feel if someone came and took my family’s garden because no one actually lived on it. It does belong to someone, it belongs to them. Just like this hillside belongs to someone and should not just be seized.
We come to Saturday afternoon and I am sitting in the living room of the Babul family in Al Khadr.
Jamil Babul is 70 years old and as is usual in this part of the world, has a large family that is incredibly important to him. He and his wife are beside themselves with worry since their son was arrested in the night. Sajed is 21 years old and works on Palestinian radio presenting game shows for children. He began studying journalism at university but the family could not afford the tuition fees so he got a job and is doing well says his father.
I immediately regret asking his mother what her son is like because she starts to cry: “He is a shy, sensitive boy, he is not political, I am so worried about him…” Sajed had been asked to come to the Gush Etzion, Israeli Civil Administration office for questioning. The name is misleading as this is an organ of the Israeli Military. He duly attended and had been pressurised to inform on anyone in Al Khadr village who may have thrown a stone towards the settlement. He did not know of anyone so the army commander told him: “I will come and arrest you in the night in two days if you do not tell me someone.” Sajed was taken from him bed as promised, whilst 30 soldiers stood guard outside the family home. His parents had to enlist the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross to even find out where he was being held, they do not know how he is being treated and visiting access is a distant prospect. They are desperate for their child to be returned home safe.
Jamil recalled that the army commander laughing when he said: “I promised Sajed that I would come and take him in two days so here I am to fulfil my promise!”
“Why do they come in the night?” this distressed father asks me, “they could have just kept him when he went for questioning.” I have no response because I quite agree with him. Jamil’s house is on the edge of Al Khadr village nearest to the Israeli settlement and the family have been subject to harassment by the military for the last 4 years. Just two weeks ago we were called out as the army had invaded their home at night, forcing the family, including Jamil’s many small grandchildren, into one room. It is alleged that jewellery was stolen by soldiers. Jamil has ten grandchildren under the age of ten years in the house, but he does not allow them to play outside in case it gives the Israeli army an excuse to detain them too. I understand his reasoning and I suspect that I would do the same. The children peer round the door with curiosity whilst I speak to their grandparents, the eldest grandson dutifully brings us coffee. I think how sad it is that these children cannot play outside.
As I write up incident reports on Saturday evening, my Canadian and South African teammates return from their visit to work with the EAPPI Jayyus team, a village in the Northern West Bank.
There were two house demolitions whilst they were there. They described it as being just like a funeral, with passers by offering condolences to the families in hushed tones. The UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs in the occupied Palestinian Territory recorded 81 demolitions the week leading up to this, in West Bank Area C and occupied East Jerusalem, displacing more than 120 people, compared to 557 demolitions thus far in 2012. Just as the Winter comes, more families are being made homeless.
Our team are put on standby for Sunday morning as there are demolitions due in our Bethlehem area. Four houses in the village of al-Fordaes have final demolition orders and residents have been told to expect the bulldozers at noon. At the other side of Herodian (the archaeological site of one of King Herod’s palaces) 65 residents have been told to attend a meeting at 9am to collect a final order that their land will be taken as state land, and be told when they must leave their homes. The father of one of our programme’s local volunteers is amongst them. Fayez cannot go with his father as he has to be at work, teaching at the boys school in Tuqu’.
I pack my bag for my own placement visit in Jayyus, via the Quaker meeting in Ramallah. As I am about to leave we receive a call from the headmistress in Tuqu: “the army have entered the schools again, they are tear gassing the children”. The team leave immediately.
I wonder what happened this week for the harmful practices of the occupation to escalate so much. Is it because the world’s eye’s are averted to the US Presidential elections? Is it punishment for President Mahmoud Abbas’ impending request to upgrade the status of Palestine at the United Nations? Is Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu just going after the ‘settler vote’ ahead of the upcoming Israeli elections? Or is it just because they can?
The silent Quaker worship comes to an end, as someone speaks. I take a deep breath and brace myself for the packed wet streets of Ramallah, and another day of life under occupation.