March 2001

Saturday March 3rd
I spent a very informative day on Thursday attending a workshop for fundraisers. This is an area that I am going to be very active in so it was 80 shekels well spent. (Ittijah paid.) I will be writing proposals to potential funders, not only for Ittijah but also for our member organizations, or proof reading those that do have a person who is able to write applications in English, so it is vital that I have a very complete understanding of the process, and the expectations of any potential donor. I was exhausted by the end of the day. Partly because I was desperately keen to learn and participate (and make a good impression) but also because I had a little bit of a hangover.

Monica and I stayed in Beit Sahour, a West Bank town south of Jerusalem, with a friend of hers. We ended up staying up late, drinking, smoking, whatever, so I was a little mashed. Thursday night I stayed with the same person, without Monica as she had flown to Turkey with my flatmate and another friend for a long weekend. He was rather disappointed at my inability to repeat the previous night’s performance. I actually felt terrible about it as, for the first time, I really noticed a difference in our cultures. I insisted that I was fine and he could just drop me back at his home and he could go out with his friends, but he was concerned that I was his guest and he had to ensure that my comfort was attended to.

After supper we stopped by at some friends of his. They were having a bit of a get together, but I could barely drag myself from the car. I felt dreadful: there they were, playing their instruments, smoking and drinking, having a good time, but because I was tired he felt he had to look after me so we went home. After a while I managed to persuade him to go back without me but it made me realise that one should always try to accept hospitality as much as possible as a guest, no matter how one feels.

There is always a barrier of sorts (language, cultural, personal), and I now feel that it was my responsibility to bend to the expectations of my host. Despite the fact that his understanding of spoken English is incredibly good, he did not quite understand me and I failed to appreciate his situation. I do feel that I should have made more of an effort, and I also feel that I may have offended him in some way. I will try harder next time. After all, I was being given the hospitality of people who, for the most part, have not been able to make a living for the last five months, but they were more than happy to share what they had with me.

It is Eid this coming week, a very important religious holiday in the Muslim calendar. I had been asked to visit a prisoner in an Israeli jail. The prisoner in question is now 17. She was imprisoned at the age of 15 ( having been arrested walking home from school) for the attempted murder of a settler. I do not know all the circumstances relating to this case, but there are inevitably questions regarding the legitimacy of the facts, as there is with any Palestinian vs Israeli action. We are talking about a young girl held in detention. Her family have been refused a permit to visit her, despite it being one of the most important times of the Islamic religious calendar. But the fact is her family are denied access as they are Palestinians from within the West Bank. I was more than willing to visit but have had the “privilege” denied because when my name was put forward I was not present to provide my passport (original only) so cannot be included on a visitation list. Not there, can’t go.

Tuesday 13th March
I have been rather slack with my diary, but in all honesty it has been rather a quiet week. It was both Eid and Purim here last week, large religious holidays, which are celebrated with family. These celebrations are exactly what I would try and avoid at home, not really having a family, but here it is different.

My flatmate, Manal, invited Monica and I to dinner at her parents home, near Nazareth. We were collected by a friend of hers, whose parents also live in the same village and was also going home for dinner. We arrived and were so warmly welcomed. The table was already groaning under the weight of a vast feast, but apparently that was not the half of it – yet more food was being prepared by Manal’s mother and younger sister.

I was hungry and looking forward to whatever delights were being cooked up. We waited for some other guests to arrive and then all tucked in. Manal’s parents do not speak English, but I find food transcends all boundaries. My frantic noddings and huge smiles were sufficient to convey my pleasure. One of the guests lives in Ramallah and is a journalist. This is how I found out about the trenches before it was widely reported by the media. As with any gathering here, the after dinner chitchat always ends up with political discussion and debate. Not exactly chitchat.

I think that growing up in a country so divided, a country that treats its citizens with such disparity, a country that is aggressive and colonial, it is hardly surprising that nearly everyone has such strong and formulated opinions. Particularly when state policy affects daily life to such an extent. Of course, I was dining with people who were incredibly fortunate. Fortunate to have drive, tenacity and ambition, and parents who wanted them succeed. They managed to not only complete secondary education but university too. That is not the case for the majority of Palestinians, drop out rates are at least twice the Jewish percentage.

This week should at least see me doing some more work. I am now in charge of writing the bi-monthly email newsletter, and am also just about to start writing a quarterly update which is going to be published as a comprehensive newsletter, and incorporated into the Annual Report. It is nice to have something to do as I hate sitting around like a spare part. I wanted to go to Ramallah this week to see the 100 Shaheed Exhibition ( an exhibition in memory to the first 100 Palestinians to die in the current intifada). It is meant to be moving this Thursday. Originally destined for display at other cultural centres in the West Bank, it looks as if now it will have to travel abroad. Closures of the towns and villages is total.

Friday 16th March
This afternoon I went to a conference hosted by an Arab feminist organisation (a member of Ittijah) called Al Zahraa. The conference was held at the high school in Sakhnin, a town north of Haifa. It was really very fascinating. There were almost 500 participants, from all manner of groups representing Palestinian and Arab women both sides of the Green Line. Various talks had been arranged and were presented to groups in the classrooms. We drove from Haifa, courtesy of Majida, our office administrator. She is fab, she really is. She does speak a little English and we manage to get by, just! Before we left Haifa we had to pick up her son and daughter and drop them off with her husband. What adorable children!! (Yes, this is me saying that!!)

Her little daughter is learning English and has just learnt Grandfather and Grandmother. Unfortunately she is getting them a little confused with Grand Canyon, a large shopping mall in the town. She was bopping merrily to the Arab tunes on the tape player, as was I, and after a rather circuitous route we left them with Papa to make our way out to Sakhnin. On the way there we passed a settlement, one of many in the Galilee. Again I felt that the starkness of the architecture spoiled the landscape. Bright red roofs tear into the tapestry of the landscape, sterile toy towns that seem as if they have just dropped there from the sky instead of having grown over time.

As we passed one settlement I noticed that the whole town was surrounded by barbed wire fences. Segregation seems so complete. But this is Israel, so why are they cutting themselves off from their surrounding environment in such a manner? There is something quite disturbing about this deliberate act that makes me wonder about the mentality of those who choose to live there. Nearby is an Arab village, a little grubby around the edges but it does at least seem comfortable in its spot. Majida explained that this particular village does not share the same comforts as their neighbours. Full electrical supply, sanitation, roads and amenities are not a right for all citizens of the state.

The welcome at the conference was, as usual, warm and friendly and the atmosphere was bubbling with enthusiastic women, chattering to one another. We managed to salvage some of the remnants of food from the kitchen, we had arrived late, and fed ourselves with rice and chicken. Then, one of the organizers started shouting into the PA system to tell everyone what the programme for the afternoon was. I dutifully trotted off after Majida and spent the next two hours becoming very closely acquainted with body language and emotional response. There were about five words uttered throughout the course of the discussion that I recognised. I knew that they were talking about women, I was at a feminist conference after all, and I heard Sharia mentioned a couple of times, which is Islamic law. That really covered the whole subject for me so I just watched people reacting to the speakers instead.

There was a gamut of responses, ranging from tutting, sharp intakes of breath and a few gasps to out and out protestations and arm waving, demanding that their opinion be heard too. The rowdiest rebuttal however was not directed at the speakers but at a woman who had neglected to switch off her mobile phone. The tinny sound of jingle bells rang out from her bag, much to everyone else’s irritation and to my amusement. I wonder whether she was Christian?

After the talk had ended we went back outside to the quadrangle where chairs had been set out and all the women were desperately trying to get the seats in the sun. I decided it was far simpler to just stand at the side so had a pretty good view of proceedings, and was also in the pleasantly warm sunshine. The shouty PA organizer again screamed much thanks and gratitude to all who had made it to support the event. There were Palestinian women from all over, most notably some Bedouin from the Negev and a busload from Ramallah. Then, the finale. A comedienne took to the stage, much to the obvious delight of the audience.

At that moment, more than any other so far, I really, really wished I could understand Arabic. It was totally lost on me, but it was perfectly apparent to see that the women thought it all highly amusing. They were literally rolling in the aisles. All I do know is that the jokes were about men and politics. I watched the reactions of the few men present (they were there to move tables and set out chairs, that sort of thing), and saw that the two young guys there were enjoying it almost as much as the women. I looked around at the 450 or so women, and a though struck me. The way women in Islamic countries are portrayed to us in the West is usually in a very negative light. Lots of oppression, beatings, being confined to the home and not allowed to attend school, that sort of thing. It is almost as if they are not “normal” in comparison to us highly liberated lot. If only you could see this scene, I thought to myself with a wry grin on my face. Perhaps the myths can be dispelled, given time.

Sunday 18th March
I spent most of the afternoon laid out on the beach. The train system here is far from elaborate but it does take me to the beach, so I am not going to complain. Actually, compared to the rolling stock on SWT (Waterloo to Hampshire) or good old London Underground, the carriages are very well kept and appear to be almost brand new. In ten minutes I was at the beach, and after a five minute walk I was away from the crowded area. It was lovely to lie in the sun and feel the warmth soaking through to my bones.

I was having a very relaxing time until some budding gigolo spotted me. (Do they use binoculars to spot potential victims?) As I had purposely sat myself as far away from the crowds as possible, the man with the determined walk was obviously heading my way. He stopped, looking ridiculous as only a man in speedo trunks can, and said “allo”. I glanced and returned to my book. “How are you?” he asked in his smooth English. “Fine”, I replied, in a now go away kind of tone. He misunderstood this as a signal to go in for the kill. “Can I join you”, he asked, with a little half grin on his face. “No” I said, “you may not.” He did actually look as if he wasn’t sure what came next, perhaps he was always lucky with his previous targets, but he managed to stop himself from plonking down next to me and started off up the beach, his swagger looking decidedly less confident than before.

Saturday 24th March

Palestinian demonstrators clashed with soldiers yesterday at the A-Ram junction north of Jerusalem. During the confrontation, a soldier was injured and treated at the scene by two Palestinian medics from the Red Crescent, who were there to treat Palestinian demonstrators. The soldier was later brought to a Jerusalem hospital. As reported in the Jerusalem Post, a right wing Israeli newspaper

AL-RAM CHECKPOINT, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza fired teargas and stun grenades on Saturday at mostly peaceful protests by Palestinians. As reported by Reuters on the internet

Al Ram, West Bank
Today I took part in a peaceful protest, arranged by Ittijah and other Palestinian organisations. We were protesting against the military closures and siege imposed on towns and villages throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The demonstrators were an assorted bunch: male and female, young and old. There was a high proportion of professional people involved, partly as this was being arranged by intellectuals and academic activists, and partly because this was ordinary people trying to draw attention to an extraordinary situation. We were not there to cause trouble, incite violence, throw stones: and we didn’t. We were not there to be abused, get shot at or get hurt: but we did.

We walked toward the checkpoint. The atmosphere was fairly relaxed, people chatting and laughing in between chanting, our banners flapping furiously in the wind and the drizzle. We approached the checkpoint area. This is an Israeli checkpoint inside Palestinian territory, explicitly for the protection of Jewish settlers commuting between their homes in illegal settlements to Jerusalem and other towns in Israel. There to greet us was a small show of the might of the Israeli military: three or four armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and around 15 soldiers, against about 200 people armed to the teeth with banners and placards.

What sort of threat did they think we posed? I knew what would probably happen though. And it did. What had started as a perfectly peaceful and organised protest descended in chaos. One minute there were raised voices, the next minute the army were firing stun grenades into the crowd. Israeli mentality rests on the trigger of a gun. That was just the first wave of violent action taken against us. Remember, all we were doing was standing in the road with banners, declaring our feelings, trying to demonstrate peacefully.

Again, after a few more minutes and more scuffles more grenades were hurled at us and we all had to run back up the road. The army officers were very antagonistic throughout. I felt as if they were willing us to fight back, to give them a reason to shoot. I do not recall how many times this happened before they started shooting live ammo and using tear gas against us. One of the strangest feelings I experienced was when the crowd realises that something is about to happen. Panic, fear, what ever you want to call it, spreads through in an instant. One person turns to run, everyone does. It is like a huge wave crashing over you.

One woman from our Haifa group spotted me and grabbed my hand, shouting “come on, come on.” The grenades were now bullets. You can tell from the sound. (According to the IDF’s statement live ammo was used, but was shot in to the air. I cannot say for sure whether this is true or not but one man was taken to hospital with a serious injury to his stomach. They also said that we had to be dispersed because we were getting too close (to what?), but we couldn’t actually move further forward as they had blocked us.

We crouched for a few moments in between two cars, the feeling of safety was welcome but was not lasting. Another friend ran past and we shouted at her to come with us. We sought refuge in a shop doorway, with about ten other people. Along with the bullets was tear gas, just in case anyone was foolish to remain. We watched the APCs advance up the road toward us and stop at a junction. Another APC sped past us from the other direction, then some of the young boys who’d appeared threw stones. I felt like throwing bloody stones too.

It may sound strange to say this but I didn’t really feel scared, certainly apprehensive but not scared. Whether that was because I didn’t have time to, or I was just so shocked I do not know. All I know is I was absolutely furious. Furious that a group of people who were obviously there in a peaceful capacity could be attacked like that, without provocation. All news reports I have managed to find on the internet have stated very clearly that our intention was to demonstrate peacefully. Give a man a gun and take away their conscience?

In the first wave of grenades I was ‘lightly’ injured (that is how the IDF refer to minor injuries). One exploded at my feet as I was running away and a piece of shrapnel sliced through my shin. At least, I assume it was that and not a bullet. Thank God it was my leg and not my face or neck. And thank goodness I had my legs waxed last week. I was treated at the scene, two of the medical youth corps spotted me sitting on the road poking my leg. They swooped down on me and dragged me up to the medical car – they were so sweet and incredibly brave if you ask me. I was lucky that I was not being carted off in an ambulance.

It was a horribly surreal conveyor belt. As one ambulance sped off another reversed in to place, ready to take the next casualty. As soon as I had the wound dressed I went back to the checkpoint, only to have to turn and run again. And again. And again.

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