August 2008, part one

Sunday 24th August
La la land

I woke up to a cloudy sky this morning. The law of sod; today is my trip to the beach!

I had hoped to go to Nitzanim, a beautiful beach north of Ashkelon. But because of the closure being imposed on the Gaza strip by Israel, it is not such a good idea. Gaza’s infrastructure is failing and cannot cope. Shit is being pumped in to the sea because the sewage treatment plant cannot run without power. The UN are putting up signs on some beaches in Gaza telling people not to swim, but some still do. What else is there to do?

The currents are pulling the sewage up along the coast so the southern beaches of Israel are also being polluted. Part of me thinks let them (Israelis) swim in the shit, they deserve to given their blockade of 1.5 million people. But it is not so simple. It is causing environmental damage which needs to be dealt with but worse is the human tragedy of Gaza where people are trapped in a bleak and hopeless situation.

I also find that I am torn whenever I leave the West Bank and go in to Israel. I leave behind my husband, our family and friends, all because I am not Palestinian. Sometimes it feels like a pressure cooker and it is good to leave and allow ones mind some freedom. Although the beach at Herzliya is not one of my favourites, the beachfront flanked by huge hotels, it was so good to wear a swimsuit, play in the water and feel space all around me. All the stresses, the anxieties and the fears dissolve as I lie back on the sun lounger. But it is also feels false. I can’t let go of what is happening not so very far away.

The drive too is an experience. First to get out of Bethlehem, deciding which way to go, which checkpoint to try. We were fortunate that today the soldier manning the checkpoint we chose couldn’t be bothered to do more than glance at my passport. The road we were on, highway 60, runs through the West Bank and connects Hebron to Jerusalem. It is protected and preserved for the use of settlers commuting, so despite the fact that the road is entirely within the West Bank, Palestinians are banned from it.

Out of Jerusalem and we take highway 5, another controversial road. One way goes to Herzliya, the other to Ariel. The Ariel bloc comprises 26 settlements which have taken vast tracts of land from Palestinians, much of which was agricultural. The wall that is built around these settlements, which in effect annexes them to Israel, has taken yet more land. Route 5 runs deep in to the West Bank, but you would never know. There is no sign, no border crossing, nothing. Because again this road is solely for the preserve of the settlers. It encourages them to keep living in the illegal settlements as it makes the commute to Tel Aviv or along the coast very quick and easy.

The way the settlements carve up the West Bank, steal land from Palestinians for their own expansion and “security” is criminal. Yet it continues with such a pace and there is no interference from the international community to demand its halt. A few weak words from the Americans to say that settlement expansion should stop, but there is no commitment behind these words to force any action.

This is one of the main impediments to peace here, along with finding justice for the Palestinian refugees. Without seeing the settlements, seeing their destructive and divisive existence, it is hard to imagine their impact. But they are all about power and domination. They are surrounded by wire, fences and walls and the residents cut themselves off from their surroundings. They are not part of the land they inhabit. And they do not want peaceful co-existence with their neighbours.

Saturday 23rd August
Smoke and mirrors

Last night I stayed with my amazing and inspirational friend Allegra. I wrote some years ago now about Allegra and her marriage to Abed. To cut a very long story short, Allegra is an American born Israeli human rights lawyer who is married to a Palestinian who has spent most of his adult life in and out of Israeli jails for his political work. That one sentence cannot sum up nor do justice to their incredible story. I see them as a small beacon of hope amid so much despair and hatred. Read a little more about them here.

Allegra currently works for the UN, or “Unwanted Nobodies” as they are commonly referred to in Israel. Much of her work involves documenting, analysing and reporting on the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. And believe me when I say you have no idea of the real situation as it is so rare to read a mainstream media report that actually tells what is happening. It isn’t so much that what you read is a distortion of the truth, although it usually is, but the fact that the daily struggle for life here is ignored.

Allegra often meets with senior political representatives from the main donor countries who operate here and briefs them about what is happening, how and what the impact is. This includes Tony Blair (she sent me a picture of them together on the steps outside her office), Xavier Solana and, most recently, Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair, you may not be surprised to learn, is not well liked by anyone here, Israeli or Palestinian. He has achieved worse than nothing in his time as representative of the quartet (UN, EU, US and Russia). For example, he brokered an agreement with the Israelis that they would remove a small number of the worst checkpoints in the West Bank and improve freedom of movement. Since this agreement the number of barriers, flying checkpoints and static checkpoints have increased.

Recently Gordon Brown spent half an hour with Allegra; he was only supposed to have a 15 minute briefing. He, along with nearly every other official that she has ever met expressed considerable surprise that the situation is so bad. I find it incomprehensible that they do not know. I know the British consulate send regular reports to Whitehall, but I fear they just end up filed away with no one really caring that these are real people suffering real violence and real horrors in their daily lives.

She showed me the presentation she gave to Brown. It was about the various impediments to freedom of movement (over 500 physical barriers) and the infrastructure being developed to ensure the settlements and the settlers are connected to Israel. It was powerful stuff.

The separation wall and its route, in particular, is one of the greatest myths of all time. Israel constantly refers to it as a security measure, as a way of separating Israel from Palestine. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The wall is severing communities. It is disconnecting people from their land, their livelihoods, from schools, hospitals, from shopping centres and from their families. A straight journey that took ten minutes now takes hours and many, many more kilometres. And all because the settlements have to be connected to Jerusalem.

Read OCHA’s reports for yourself

The Oslo Accords of the nineties were meant to be interim agreements subject to final status negotiations. There will be no final negotiations. Israel has created its own final status, and the wall is the de facto border. Their vision of the future doesn’t include a Palestinian state, but the problem with that however is what to do with the Palestinians. They want the land but not the people who live here. Israel doesn’t want to live together, in peace and with equality. The only just solution is a one state solution, but there is much resistance in Israel to such a notion.

And the donor countries, at the moment, keep pumping in money to the PA. The money, in the main, is used to pay salaries. But there is a problem with this. Money is coming in and circulating but there is not a functioning economy. There is no growth or development. There is little trade or commercial activity. Most people can just about get by, but there will come a time when the whole thing will collapse. Particularly when the donors get fed up and pull funds. The PA have also taken out huge loans, but again there can be no returns as the money is not doing anything to grow the economy.

So, what for the future here? I couldn’t have imagined such a mess. Before it seemed clear; Israel was the illegal occupier and Palestinians had a real sense of community, of togetherness and of a common goal. But that seems to have gone. Thanks to the refusal of the world to accept a democratically elected government the occupied territories are at breaking point. The legislative council cannot meet; Abu Mazen, the puppet president, decides the laws; there is no constitution; there is no system of governance. Very far from a democracy.

The Sulta spend their time targeting anyone who is not Fatah. There is a lot of talk about collaboration. Last night the Israeli army came to Deheishe camp and arrested three men. There is confusion and mistrust. And I wonder just who is the authority of the occupation?

Thursday 21st August
How many weddings can a girl take?

So, today was wedding number four. After the fiasco of the last wedding and our attempts to get all the appropriate papers, I was giving up hope. Jamal took the papers that needed stamping to the guy to take, again, to another court in another town. He tried yesterday but the judges had a day off.

We got a call at 11am to say the papers are back, and stamped. Just as Jamal is leaving to go and collect them we get a call. “Jamal don’t forget to bring two witnesses.” Unbelievably the wedding we had on Monday doesn’t count and we need to do it again. By now everyone agreed that it is much better that I don’t speak Arabic well enough to go and shout at anyone.

Back to the hot room, this time the judge was already there. Two witnesses in tow and in we go, again. Five minutes later the judge has married us and stamps the paper. He tells Jamal to speak to Rahel in Arabic. The papers go next door to be officially entered in to the court records. Unbelievably, despite the wonders of modern technology, this is done by hand.

The woman responsible for doing this demanded yet more money. Jamal said that he thought we’d already paid. She shot him a look to say don’t ask, it is not your business. He pressed her and she said it is for something else, slammed the papers down and walked off.

We were finally issued with the handwritten decree of our marriage and Rahel’s existence. Next stop, the Ministry of the Interior. This is where Jamal will have to apply to get his huwiyyah re-issued and Rahel’s birth certificate. The papers are off being processed at the moment, and hopefully, by the time we need to leave, everything will have been issued, stamped, signed, stamped again, signed, recorded and handed over.

Wednesday 20th August
Water, water everywhere, as long as you are a settler…

In London I am used to trying to be careful with water. I am always saying to Rahel “your family do not have water like us, stop wasting it.” It is very easy to be smug with a resource that actually  don’t really need to worry that it will suddenly disappear. Today the water ran out.

We have what is left in the tanks on the roof, perhaps a few hundred litres, but that will not last long, especially with so many people coming and going. So now we must only use water for drinking, cooking and very careful washing. And even that is limited.

There is water in the West Bank, quite a bit from three main aquifers along with some smaller wells and fresh water springs. But the water is pumped by the Israeli water company (Mekorot). No Palestinian (individual or company) is allowed to sink a well or extract water. Once pumped a limited amount of this precious resource is diverted to the Palestinian water company for distribution within Palestinian areas. The rest goes to the settlements.

In fact well over 80% of the water pumped goes to over 280,000 settlers living across the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). The remaining 2.4 million Palestinians have no option but to settle for less than 20%. In addition there are some small springs that supply outlying villages, but these are often blocked up or diverted by nearby settlers.

The camps are often the first to suffer, and the cessation of the water supply is used as a tool of oppression. There are three refugee camps in Bethlehem: Deheishe, Al Azza (Beit Jibrin) and Aida. Deheishe is the largest with over 12,000 people crammed into just over one square km. It is built on the side of a hill and the families living at the top are usually the first to loose supply. On Monday our friend woke up to find no water.

Palestine is hot, dry and very dusty. Having to live without much water is something that people have become accustomed to. But when the lack of water is due to the resource being diverted for use in the settlements, it is particularly galling. In the settlements the lawns are green as they are watered by sprinklers all year round. Our garden is a dusty patch with some plants and trees struggling to grow. In the settlements people do not worry when they have a shower, or rush to finish as quickly as possible.

And it is not just homes that need water; agriculture is suffering too. And the less food that is grown in the West Bank, the less money people here have, and the more produce that is brought in from Israel. Palestinians have total dependency on the occupier for everything.

Now our water has totally run out and I have not washed for over a day. My head itches, I am hot and sweaty, and I feel really disgusting. Me and thousands of other. But there is nothing I can do about it. And less than 2kms away, in the settlements that surround us, people are oblivious to this. And even if they did know, they really wouldn’t care.

Tuesday 19th August
Three weddings, 1,200NIS (so far) and a bloody nightmare…

Today I got married. Again. For the third time.

First we had to go to the Sharia court to “get married”. This meant copying all our documents, waiting for the judge to come and stamp them, with two witnesses, and paying lots of money. The judge may or may not come, one just has to sit and wait….and hope. So it was 8.30am, in a hot room full of people, some grumpy, some not so. So we wait and wait, and wait some more.

Lucky for us, the judge decided today he would come to work. He doesn’t every day, apparently. So our papers were signed, witnessed and stamped and we had to give them to some guy who would take them to another office in another town to get stamped by another judge. And then maybe they have to go to Ramallah for another judge. Maybe. Who knows.

Then we had to go to the civil court, to get a paper stamped to say that Rahel exists, that she is here, that we are her parents and that we are married. Then she can get a Palestinian birth certificate. Maybe. This took less thank half an hour, but cost more money. Rahel was very interested to see the cells where the prisoners are kept before appearing in court; they are in the main reception area.

So now we have to wait for the first lot of papers (our third wedding certificate) to come back. They do a few hours later. Unstamped. The reason? Because Rahel was born “out of wedlock”. First they refuse to accept our Islamic wedding we had in the UK because I was pregnant. Second, they refuse to accept our first civil wedding, two years before Rahel was born. Third, they refuse to accept the wedding the first judge just presided over and signed for as we had been told we had to do to get Rahel registered. Jamal was getting angry.

Perhaps I should explain why we are putting ourselves through so much aggravation. Rahel is British, born in London. But her father is Palestinian, a refugee born in one of the West Bank camps. So, with the future in mind, we felt we should also ensure that she has her Palestinian identity formalised by registering her in the West Bank.

This registration is as much for the Israeli authorities as it is for the Palestinian. It will give her the right to live here should she want to in the future and is also vital should there be any future settlement for Palestinian refugees. Israel also controls who goes in and out of the Occupied Territories, and without being registered, Rahel can only ever come on a tourist visa, which are issued on the whim of Israeli border security staff. She could even be deported and be prevented from seeing her family.

Jamal’s huwiyyah – an Israeli issued identity card – marks him out as a West Bank Palestinian. It offers no rights, no benefits. It just ensures that he is on the Israeli database, and is therefore subject to the control mechanism used to enforce the occupation. Rahel needs to be added to this ID card.

It is now 10pm and still no stamp and no formal recognition of our marriage and Rahel’s existence. It seems to be all about the money. Nothing is done without money changing hands. We know people, people who can help, but even so we still cannot seem to get the stamp we need so that Jamal can update his documents. And without a Palestinian passport, which he needs to renew and cannot without all the other ID documents, he cannot even leave. Tomorrow we have to start this process all over again. And more hands will be waiting for more shekels to help progress our case.

When at the civil court Rahel needed the lavatory. I took her to the facilities provided and was disgusted. Three stalls, the loos all broken with no seats, and one covered in shit. No locks on the doors, no loo paper and they didn’t flush. Three sinks, none with water. This is the main court for the area, part of the ‘sulta’ (authority) yet they couldn’t even manage (or be bothered) to keep the facilities clean and working.

Sadly it sums up the state of Palestine. This is a broken society which is struggling to function in the face of external interference and internal divisions. Some of it is not the fault of the Palestinians, but some of it is. And they could change, but I fear that too few people care anymore. There are some outstanding people here, people who really deserve admiration, but their fight is truly that of David and Goliath proportions.

It is not just the wall, the settlements, the theft of land and resources by the occupier that is creating these conditions, but the people themselves. The hope of achieving an independent Palestinian state – which so many Palestinians dream of – has little chance of becoming reality in this climate.

And everyday I get up and I hear the fighter jets fly overhead……

Sunday 17th August, 2008

As we landed I was filled with so much emotion. I always feel like I am coming home when I arrive. Everything has a comforting familiarity, despite not being able to read the Hebrew signs. But, as always, a feeling in the pit of my stomach of the anxiety I also felt. Still, we were here and that was all that mattered.

Rather surprisingly, the most hassle I had was trying to get the pushchair off the plane and getting from Ben Gurion to Bethlehem. Having spent many hours wondering what might happen with security at the airport, we were through in two minutes. Now that was really strange for me!

Our taxi was irritatingly absent (it was 3.30am when we arrived) so after a long wait I decided to catch the Nesher (service taxi) to Jerusalem. The Nesher will drop you off wherever you want to go, so I asked to go to Bethlehem checkpoint. After a moments thought the driver understood, I obviously meant Gilo. (Gilo is a settlement north of Bethlehem. The land was owned by Palestinians from Beit Jala before it was annexed to Jerusalem.)

As usual, we were last to be dropped. Before getting to the checkpoint the driver had one other couple to drop off. This resulted in me having an impromptu “tour” of one of the most recent settlements to be built around Bethlehem; Har Homa.

Jebel abu Ghnaim was a beautiful spot where families, mainly from Beit Sahour, used to picnic every Sunday. The area was owned by three or four local families. It was expropriated in the late nineties and earmarked for a new settlement. Israel started construction when I was first living here. Even then there was a case being heard in the high court (Israeli) and I used to ferry documents back and forth as the families could not go to Jerusalem to see their lawyer.

The picture above (pipes in the foreground) was Jebel abu Ghnaim in 2001. Today it is a sprawling suburb of Jerusalem and construction is ongoing. I was really shocked to see how much it had changed. The settlement also faces directly the town of Beit Sahour but despite being in such close proximity, the people of both towns are so far apart.

Finally we were dropped at the checkpoint. Another bizarre experience as it has changed so much. The checkpoint is part of the barrier/wall, the construction of which has left a number of families and businesses on the wrong side. This cuts them off from their work, schools and university, the hospital, and of course their community. More about this later….

Outside the checkpoint quite a few men were sitting, smoking and waiting for the service taxis to come and take them to Jerusalem, and to settlements where they work in construction. There is a terrible irony that the people whose land is being taken are also the people who are building the homes for those who have dispossessed them. But when unemployment is so high, food prices have skyrocketed and there are families to be fed, clothed and educated, there is little in the way of choices.

One taxi stopped and offered to take me through the checkpoint for 50NIS. It had just cost me 50NIS (well, 100 really as Rahel demanded her own seat) to come all the way from the airport. But again, there are few tourists to help boost income so they have to make what they can from any opportunity. Still, I am not strictly a tourist, nor am I naive, so I declined. I walked up to the terminal and was waved through the turnstile by a cheery soldier who thought it was great that I had come from London.

I keep calling it a checkpoint but it is so much more than that. It is a cattle shed, a holding pen, a vast system of control which demeans the people who have to use it. The men were desperate to get the OK to go through. Having struggled with a rucksack, a pushchair and Rahel to get through a turnstile designed for one person I went out the door, only to be confronted by another, more secure turnstile which was impossible to negotiate with any sort of luggage. I stood, confused for a brief time (I’d not slept for 24 hours and was feeling pretty crap) when a man appeared and managed to help me get everything through – him one side pulling and me the other, pushing.

I was now in what seemed to be a car park, with men sprinting and shouting across from one metal to shed to the next. These men had clearly got through their first hurdle and need to ensure their place at the next. The checkpoint gets closed with no notice, so there is a desperate urgency in their frantic rush. Their lives controlled at the whim of a soldier.

Another barrier confronted me which was impossible for me to get through. Further up was the roadway where vehicles pass. Two or three soldiers milled around, with not very much to do. It was the only way I could get out so of we went. All he asked was where was my husband.

Finally, after a short walk, some negotiation with a taxi driver I finally arrived at Jamal’s mother’s home. What a relief!! I had a drink of water, a fig that had just been picked from the tree in the garden, and went to bed feeing very relieved.

Bookmark and Share


Recent Posts

Tag Cloud

1948 activism ahdaf ameer makhoul BDS beit jala Bethlehem budrus checkpoint community deheishe economy gaza Ghassan Kanafani home illegal occupation Intifada Iran Israel juliano mer hamis Lebanon Leila Khaled nakba negotiations PA Palestine palestine papers palestinian PFLP popular struggle prisoners rap refugees resistance revolution Sam Bahour Settlements society students tunnels wadi fukin wall war Water west bank

Copyright © Georgina Reeves