February 2001

London: Saturday February 10th 2001
This is attempt number six. I have written and re-written this opening paragraph over and over, and I just cannot seem to get it right. When I was in the Middle East last Autumn, it was so simple. I was completely at the mercy of time and my funds. I didn’t have the luxury of being able to edit anything, so I wrote what I wrote and that was that.

Now, sitting in the comfort of my flat, I cannot seem to concentrate. No one is going to be in the slightest bit interested in whether I have enough knickers and should I pack those sandals too? Perhaps it is because I am itching to go. Perhaps it is because I am nervous but very excited. As each day passes I watch the news with mounting interest, and some concern of course. Haifa is not in the West Bank or Gaza, so I am not in the firing line so to speak, but there is talk of wider conflict, perhaps even war.

It does seem rather odd, flying off to a make a home in a country where violence is an everyday occurrence. Although one does have to view events in a broader context, I feel. Violence and danger are ever present threats in society, any society. London is not immune to the dangers of terrorism. My safety is compromised nearly every time I step outside my door.

One or two people have asked, since Sharon’s elevation to prime minister, am I doing the right thing by going to, potentially, a war zone? What exactly, I wonder, is the right thing? Is it right to live a comfortable existence but feel there is no challenge, no excitement, no personal fulfilment? Is it right to not do something just because there are some dangers attached? What about the lives of people who are in danger everyday, just by virtue of their birthplace or ethnicity?

All I know is I am doing something that is, I hope, going to be an incredible experience and good for me both personally and professionally. Life can be short, too short in some cases, but whatever time I do have I want to feel that I have achieved something, done something worthwhile and made some kind of positive impact on those I have met. Of course, leaving can be hard, saying goodbye, launching oneself into the unknown, but I know I have to go, for many reasons. And I think everyone who knows me very well understands that.

Haifa: Sunday February 18th 2001
A safe arrival, and surprisingly incident free. My luggage managed to travel all the way from Paddington to Tel Aviv, via Frankfurt, without problem. The flights were OK with only one irritating person next to me (the snotty sideways glances that I was the recipient of due to me not giving up my window seat ceased after he spilt his drink on himself); no bag or body search in customs, in fact, I wasn’t even questioned, let alone stopped; a safe arrival in Haifa, albeit at 5am; a bed ready for me. What more could I ask for?

I slept until 11am and then Monica, my co-worker at Ittijah and temporary room mate, woke me up. The flat I am in is my new home and Monica moves out next weekend. It is basic but comfortable, although I managed to blow the lights yesterday so now half the sockets don’t work. Hopefully the plumber, who we are desperately waiting for to sort out the plumbing, will be tall enough to reach the fuse box. So far the weather has been atrocious, very severe thunderstorms. According to Manal, my new flatmate, it is a good omen to have a storm when one arrives: she says Palestine is welcoming me.

Walked to the office, which is only ten minutes away, and met the rest of Ittijah’s staff. Ameer is the director, Khawla is a social worker and organises training sessions, and Majida is the secretary and completely in charge of everything and everyone. I, for my sins, have been elevated to computer expert already although I had only been there for half an hour.

Monica wanted to show me around a little so we walked to the Arab area, Wadi Nis Nas. The area has been filled with artwork commissioned by the Israeli Government to “improve” the environment. All the works are by Jewish Israeli artists, all of them were fairly dreadful and I personally cannot imagine how they would have improved anything. One was an Israeli flag painted on the side of a building, with a mirror placed centrally. Stand in front of the mirror and see yourself looking back, surrounded by the blue and white that identifies Israel to the world. What message is that intended to give to the local inhabitants who do not identify with Judaism and who are Palestinian Arabs?

Although I was terribly tired, and really ought to have had an early night, we ended up going to a party. It was already late when we arrived but it was actually good timing as the music was about to start. The guys pulled out their o’uds (a string instrument similar to a lute) and their drums and began to play; one of the girls sang. The music was amazing, so vibrant and full of life. It is part of the culture of Palestine and one could see how much it meant, they were utterly absorbed. The girls danced and managed to pull me up, despite my vague protestations. I tried to copy their movements, I fear I failed miserably, but they seemed happy (or amused perhaps?) with my efforts. Finally fell into bed at 4.30am. So much for an easy and quiet day.

Last night we went to a meeting for the launch of a publication by an organisation called Adalah, the word means justice in Arabic. The whole meeting was conducted in Arabic, of course. Adalah is a member of Ittijah so I shall be working with them. It is a legal organisation representing Palestinians’ rights. It is run by Israeli Jews and Palestinians, plus a few foreign volunteers.

We drove back to Haifa but instead of going home went to Fatoush, a Palestinian bar not too far from the flat. Another late night and quite a hangover this morning, but a really fun evening. There was one guy there who had a gun stuffed into the waist band of his trousers. Not a usual sight, an armed Palestinian in Israel. He told Monica that he had been in the IDF and was also a member of Mossad. Yeah, right. What on earth was he thinking? What an idiot.

On Tuesday I am going to Nahef, an Arab town north of Haifa, to visit one of the member organisation’s which will be the first of many such trips. Not too sure what else I shall be doing initially but I know it is going to be very busy once I have settled. We were going to go in for a couple of hours today but have managed only to watch some particularly poor TV: I even got to see this week’s Eastenders. It’s just like being in London!

Wednesday February 21st
I visited one of our member organisation’s yesterday – The Nahef Development and Welfare Association. The journey took about 50 minutes and we were dropped by the service taxi in Carmiel, a settlement town. We met Abu Achmed, the founder and chairman of the NDWA. There is a striking difference between the old villages of the Arabs and the new towns built by the Israeli Government. The new towns are really ugly, red roofs scar the landscape rather than feeling like a part of it. Arab villages have an organic quality to them, but I didn’t like the feel of the new developments.

There is a lot of building going on, but only in the settlements. Areas of land that have been inhabited by Arabs for centuries were taken by the Government; many people fled and are even now in refugee camps in the Lebanon. 1,000 residents from Nahef alone left in ’48 and walked over the hills to Lebanon. They are still waiting to come home.

The village of Nahef itself suffers from overpopulation due to a housing crisis. The land around the village is now ‘owned’ by the Government and a permit is required to build any structure. Permission is usually denied. Land that was owned by local families pre-1948 is no longer theirs: they even have to pay land tax to the Government for residing in family homes which their families have inhabited for generations.

Families are now having to build accommodation illegally as it is virtually impossible to get Government permission, so these homes have no facilities. No roads, sewage systems or electricity. These ‘structures’ are regularly demolished as they are ‘illegal’. Daily life outside the safe enclaves of Jewish settlements. Carmiel, on the other hand, is an expanding, bustling town with lots of new homes. There is an influx of new inhabitants, all Russians and all Christians, and there is much building work in progress to house all these new members of the community. They are fortunate: they receive funds and assistance from Government agencies to build their new life in Israel, and to integrate into their new home.

Abu Achmed was waiting for us in the shopping mall. A quiet and gentle looking man, he welcomed us warmly and we sat down for coffee. Sadly for me he speaks no English so I was dependent upon Monica to translate. Had I been able to communicate directly I would have been chattering non-stop as there was much I would have liked to have asked.

Abu Achmed is an example to the world. Captured by the Israelis in 1971 for gun running (he was a member of the PLO), he was imprisoned for 15 years. Despite this he is not a bitter man, bent on revenge. Rather, his ideology shifted: he was as determined as ever to work for his community but using political dialogue and peaceful protest this time.

Nahef has been his family’s home for generations, the village has been there for over 300 years, but under Israeli rule they suffer from a bureaucratic system that treats them as second class citizens. He is fighting a different kind of war now. We got a taxi to the village and got out so we could walk through and talk about the projects they are currently working on. He pointed a to a small building which turned out to be the local hospital. It was barely bigger than a family home in the UK, but serves a community of over 8,000 men, women and children. A little further along was a now empty building, formerly an aluminium factory. The factory had originally been expelled from the nearby Jewish town of Krayot and had been relocated to Nahef. Supported and encouraged by the NWDA, public outcry at the health implications of this factory succeeded in its closure. You have to ask why the Israeli authorities built it in the middle of a residential area; oh, that’s right, they’re Arab.

Next stop was a kindergarten. There were about 30 children there, aged between three and four. This kindergarten, unlike the others in the area, has been built by the NWDA. The environment was clean and fresh with a lovely play area full of toys. The children were very happy and pleased, if a little shy, to have foreign visitors. I was told that these children are the fortunate ones. The Government decides which children attend which kindergarten, but the facilities here are by far the best in the village.

At the NDWA headquarters Abu Achmed showed me the children’s library. A small room with shelves containing various books, both in Arabic and English. I seem to remember my primary school having many more books than there were here, but they are pleased with it as it is progress for them. Various institutions have helped to fund the projects, both international and Israeli. The Ministry of Education has been instrumental in the education projects, but it is very hard work getting this support.

The weather had got worse and we fought a raging storm to walk up to Abu Achmed’s house. Along with his wife he shares a home with his eldest son and family. It is a comfortable by Arab standards, perched on the hillside, with attractive views across the valley. Perhaps the compensation payment from the PLO was invested in the construction of this property?

Another warm welcome. We sat in the garage where lunch was being prepared. Fresh bread was prodded and kneaded, special concoctions were slapped on top and into the oven they went. Within two minutes the most wonderful mana’eesh appeared. They are like little pizzas, topped with spiced minced lamb, peppers and garlic, or thyme ground with oil into a paste (za’tar). They were absolutely delicious. We ate with the men (Abu Achmed’s two sons had appeared), whilst the two women cooked. The rain was pelting down, the wind was howling, smoke from the fire was billowing around us making our eyes water, and I felt terribly humble and very glad to be there.

After lunch we walked back through the village to wait for a taxi back to Carmiel. We looked across the land toward the hills, past crumbling houses, barren land and an olive grove. I asked what crops they were able to grow. The answer was none. They are not allowed to cultivate their land.

Tuesday 27th February
I am finally beginning to start working on some important projects and feel a little more active (and pro-active) in the office now. My huge project (one of many) is the website, which I am redesigning and developing. This is actually really exciting as I am in a position to create a foundation that can be built upon for the future. Along with the very serious stuff, I hope to incorporate a very human area. One thing I really want to focus on is the ordinary person here. I want to encourage people, especially the children and youth in the communities, to contribute personal items: pictures, stories, photos and accounts of everyday lives to promote themselves, their culture and what issues matter to them. We shall see. Perhaps it will neither be practical or generate enough interest, but it would interesting to try.

I am already working on a photographic project to record not just serious activities of the organisation but also of everyday life here, which will be incorporated into the site. I am also going to be working on a newsletter that will be published bi-monthly, with a big focus on generating and encouraging international interest and awareness. Fundraising is the other vital part of the work, and I am attending a workshop in Jerusalem on Thursday that is focusing on just that.

We had a meeting with one of our funders yesterday, Christian Aid, who have supported Ittijah for a couple of years. I was surprised to learn that, for example, the British Government has a fund specifically to provide aid and assistance for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but no financial help is available for any Palestinian organisation within Israel. That is quite ridiculous as it is only helping to suppress a minority that is already suffering from social, economic and political deprivation.

It is true that Israeli Palestinians are more fortunate and better off than their brothers in the West Bank and Gaza, but they are suffering from a form of apartheid that means they become non-entities within a system that persists in ignoring their needs.

(Incidentally, a speaker at a seminar held recently regarding issues of racism, a speaker who is a black Muslim from South Africa, stated in his speech that it is not correct to use the term apartheid in relation to the treatment of Palestinians. He said what is happening now far exceeds the worst he ever experienced back home. This was recounted to me by someone touring Palestine and Israel with Christian Aid.)

Tomorrow I will be travelling to Jerusalem for Thursday’s meeting. Friday I will have a photographic day in Bethlehem and Ramallah, and Saturday I am attending a meeting in Ramallah with an NGO based there. This is going to be my first trip inside the West Bank proper. Last year every time I got near anywhere interesting the IDF sent me back. This time I hope I will be far more successful.

As an aside: You would think that, under the circumstances, the Israelis would be glad to be rid of even one Palestinian but it seems not so. A very good friend of Monica’s applied for a permit to be allowed to travel to Ben Gurion airport to catch a flight to America to see his girlfriend. He was refused. Oh, and he was obliged to purchase his air ticket before being allowed to apply for the permit.

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