I have returned for another three months as a human rights monitor for EAPPI in the occupied West Bank, having been asked to contribute to setting up a new field placement based in Jericho. Like Bethlehem an ancient biblical site, but a very different place to live and work in modern day occupied Palestine.
An urban centre, known for it’s proximity to the Separation Wall. This was the view a few hundred metres from the apartment where I lived and is the image most burned into my mind after months of 4am checkpoint monitoring shifts.
I left the West Bank at the end of year, after weeks of ‘Pillar of Defence’ bombing in Gaza, and the consequences thereof, 45 miles away in Bethlehem. Palestinians, joined by some Israeli peace activists, protested as they saw family and fellow citizens being killed; I saw them heavily cracked down on by the Israeli army. In the city, particularly in Ayda refugee camp, and even at the school we monitored where the kids staged demonstrations, a right we take for granted in the West. I learned that in Bethlehem this is a one way ticket to being tear gassed and having rubber bullets fired at you. Don’t be fooled by the ‘rubber’, they hurt, and the rubber often get dislodged with impact so they are just bullets.
My final few weeks were dominated by mass arrests across the West Bank, people held in administrative detention by the Israeli army with no charge or trial. I sat with distraught parents, including those of 15 year old Mohammad Sami Hammamrah who had been taken by the army in the night, calling Israeli human rights organisations and the Red Cross, trying to find out for them where their child was being held. We barely had time to sleep let alone blog in November, as you see my last post was during the escalation. A few days after that post, the military assault began and the past month’s incidents suddenly fell into place.
I am returning to Bethlehem for a short visit this week to see old friends. One of those friends is Fayez, an English teacher at a boys secondary school in the village of Tuqu’. Usually a calm, humorous and self assured young man, he was a keen volunteer with our programme.
I remember my last conversation with him as if it were yesterday.
The kids at his school had staged a protest against the bombing in Gaza, on route 356 outside the school. Like many Palestinian roads, it is designated Area C under the Oslo Accords (under full Israeli control) and so they were not allowed to protest on it, but they knew that. The boys threw stones, the army tear gassed, the same too and fro I had become accustomed to. But then live ammunition was used and Fayez’s star pupil, Muhammad al-Badan, was shot in the stomach. A few days after, when the boy was still in intensive care with internal injuries and damaged pelvic bones, Fayez accompanied us to show the new team some nearby villages that had land confiscated by the Israeli army and issues with settler violence. He was clearly agitated, not his usual calm self. His voice was stronger, louder, and more outraged and he showed the new team the daily injustices of the occupation.
When we pulled up outside our house, I let the others go inside before asking, “Fayez, are you ok?”
It’s been two years and I will never forget his response.
“I’m not OK. Muhammad was my best student, he was good in English, he worked very hard. Why did the soldiers use live bullets when he was not near to them. He was far away. I drove him to the hospital, he was in the back of my car saying ‘teacher, teacher, it hurts, will I die’, I told him you will be fine, because I thought it was a rubber bullet. But it was not a rubber bullet.”
The light was fading but I could tell he had started to cry.
“You are special” he then said. As much as we respect one another, he did not mean anything about me personally in this statement. He meant this…
“You are British. You must go and tell them what they support here. You must make them feel shame.”
We parted ways.
2014 Jordan Valley
Fast forward two years, and it felt like I was returning to the next installment, yet it was so much worse that I could have ever imagined. Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ bombing of Gaza, and Hamas’ rockets, had been on my TV screen for twenty three days by the time I arrived in the region, the death toll was rising every day and it seemed like no end was in sight.
It’s all everyone in the West Bank has been talking about, the TV channel never changes from the regional news. We were
invited into a local barber’s shop for a coffee a few weeks ago and the owner was desperately worried about his brother and family in Gaza. When the state of Israel was created in 1948 and war broke out, Palestinians fled in all directions, or voluntarily moved depending on your version of history. This means that families are spread across occupied Palestine so many here have siblings in Gaza. There were celebrations across the West Bank last week when the ceasefire was agreed. I was in a shared taxi returning to Jericho that day, when local mechanic Yasser insisted on sharing his Kanafeh desert with us all. The music was turned up loud and there was an atmosphere of elation.
Others here are more skeptical, and with Israel’s announcement this week confiscating 988 acres of Palestinian villages near Bethlehem to be Israeli state land, it’s hardly surprising. I was speaking to Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour in Ramallah this week. He wisely tries to avoid making predictions, other than his belief that the occupation “simply cannot last forever”. After reading the ceasefire agreement, he reflected to me how limited it is on any concrete obligations to lift the blockade on Gaza, talks are specified to take place in a month.
The lifting of the blockade is required for sufficient food, medicines and building materials to not only rebuild the post war Gaza, but to allow for normal life. Since 2005 Israel has controlled Gaza’s borders, land air and sea. It controls and restricts everything in and out including fuel, electricity supplies and calorie intake. A United Nations worker in Gaza told us that during the recent hostilities only 40 lorries of supplies were allowed in, this is all food, medicine, materials for over 1.5 million people. And bear in mind that only 5-10% of Gaza’s water is safe to drink. This is why the hospitals there were short of supplies before the latest offensive even started. I noticed a key fact that was missing in almost all news coverage from the past 2 months: The West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza are under illegal Israeli occupation, and since 2005 Gaza has been under blockade. See UN Security Council Resolution 1860 and the Goldstone Report (2009) for more details. Occupation brings with it a legal obligation on the occupier to protect the territory’s civilians.
Israeli TV has since reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not intending to resume talks with Hamas on lifting the blockade. I hope this is not true, I’ll will be watching and waiting as you are.
So that’s for the context of my arrival in the West Bank. Here’s for my new home. Rather than the Separation Wall, Jericho is known for being the oldest and lowest city in the world. It is a hot busy place, dotted with Palm trees and surrounded by desert. As you drive into the city, there are signs from the Israeli army ordering it’s citizens not to enter.
Our driver Bishara tells us how Jericho city is a quiet place where there is no trouble. We see Israeli settlers shopping at Palestinian shops on the roads just outside the city. As you drive in, you see Yasser Arafat’s famous Oasis Casino, now closed but still standing as a reminder of the hope and risk taken with the Oslo Accords.
The combined area of the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea is 170,000 hectares, constituting almost a third of the West Bank and spanning the whole West Bank – Jordan border. Following the Oslo peace agreements in the 1990s, 87% of the Jordan Valley was designated as Area C, meaning under full Israeli control. Jericho city, like Bethlehem, is designated Area A (under full Palestinian control), however it is surrounded by Area C so you can’t leave or communicate without passing through Israeli military control. The Israeli army go into Bethlehem Area A daily, but much less so in Jericho. We spend most of our time out in the Valley in Area C villages as these are most at risk from land confiscation, water restrictions, house demolitions and incidents related to Israeli military practice.
It is the least populated area of the West Bank, home to 60,000 Palestinians. Many Bedouins and herders are scattered across the Jordan Valley in small communities, mostly with no infrastructure or permanent housing. 3400 people reside in areas designated closed military zones and are particular risk of forced eviction. There are 37 Israeli settlements with a population of 9500, in contravention of international law. Most are agricultural and many Palestinians work inside them seasonally.
Because of it’s central location, the Jordan valley is of strategic importance to both Israel and Palestine. As a third of the West Bank, this area is crucial in order to create a viable Palestinian state. In addition, it is considered the ‘breadbasket of Palestine’ because of it’s rich fertile land for agriculture, land that is rapidly being developed by Israeli agricultural settlements. From Israel’s perspective, it is necessary for security, as a buffer zone between Israel and the Arab nations to the East. The facts on the ground in the Jordan Valley will no doubt be a decisive factor in the outcome of Israel/Palestine.
We are the first EAPPI team to be based here so we are currently developing our contacts and knowledge of the communities. So far, the reception has been wonderful. No matter how dire the situation is, people have welcomed us with kindness, generosity and the necessary dose of Palestinian humour.
The other day I was reminded of this humour when we were up in the northern West Bank interviewing villagers on the impact of Israeli water policies on rural life. We were handed Arabic coffee as Abu ‘Akab was fetched as the man with the long memory, even before the Israeli occupation, which in Palestine makes him really old. He welcomed us and asked which countries we came from: “Poland, the Philippines, Norway… the UK”. I waited for the reaction.
“Ah, Britannia! The rest can go, we only need the British girl. The British girl will fix it.”
I’m used to a strong reaction to my nationality in Palestine and Israel. Some days when I’m really exhausted I consider pretending I’m Irish. Those of you unaware of our historical responsibility may want to look up the Balfour declaration, McMahon-Husain Correspondence, and ask your grandparents about British Mandate Palestine (or watch Channel 4’s The Promise if you prefer a good story).
“You are British, you started it so you must finish it” says Abu ‘Akab, beaming at me. But he says it so kindly, with a warm laugh and gentleness in his eyes. I feel grateful for the Palestinian sense of humour and the implicit distinction he, and others, still do make between me and my country. I smile as he laughs again and says “the British girl can come back any time she likes”.
Before we leave, he says to me on a serious note: “We see the people on the streets in your country, they stand in solidarity with Gaza, we are thankful, that makes us feel…” his voice trails off, because the rest doesn’t need to be said.
Over the next few months, I will be sharing with you what I witness, and giving voice to the stories of the communities where I live and work. Thank you for listening.