Funeral of murdered Mustafa Tamimi ends in more IOF violence and savagery

This has been one of the darkest and most disturbing days I have ever had to experience. The funeral of Mustafa Tamimi, murdered by the IOF at a demonstration at Nabi Saleh on Friday, ended with the IOF shooting endless rounds of the teargas canisters that killed Mustafa at unarmed mourners, beating and arresting people with impunity as they walked across Nabi Saleh village after the funeral.

Nabi Saleh, a small village of only 550 people, has been organising non-violent protests against the theft of their land since 2009. The illegal Israeli settlement of Halamish has continued to grow and expand since 1976, and the tiny village has been holding the demonstration for two years protesting against the confiscation of the village’s main water supply, the Kaws Spring. Nabi Saleh has become infamous for its violence and arrests against Palestinians, but until yesterday nobody had been killed there by the IOF.

Mustafa, a 28 year old Palestinian activist, died on Saturday morning after being critically injured when a tear gas canister was shot directly at his face from the inside of an armoured Israeli jeep only ten meters from where he was standing. The tear gas canister ripped through one side of his face causing a massive brain haemorrhage, and despite initial optimism he would survive on Friday night, he tragically passed away on Saturday morning.

I was initially supposed to be going to the Golan Heights today with the other volunteers from ICS, but when a funeral march was organised from the hospital where Mustafa died back to his village, I knew there was no way I could go and enjoy the tourist trappings of the Golan Heights on this terrible day for Palestine. Having always followed the tragic events that happen here, I had heard many times of Palestinians murdered by the IOF, but since being here the Palestinian struggle has become my struggle – when Mustafa died I felt my heart breaking at this unnecessary and cruel loss of life, and wept last night as if he were my own.

Around 200 people marched through the streets of Ramallah this morning carrying Mustafa’s body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag with a kuffieyeh to cover his head. As his body was laid in the ambulance, we got into a service to follow it to the village. On the way there, I called an activist friend of mine to let her know where we were going, and she warned me to be careful. I assured her that there was surely no way that the IOF would be able to unashamedly devastate the funeral of a young man with violence. I now realise just how naive that was, and how deeply I underestimated the savagery of the Israeli army.

By the time we arrived in the village of Nabi Saleh, there were more than 2000 people who had joined the funeral procession, the men carrying his body above their heads with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is Great’) and the chilling howls of the village women calling Mustafa’s name echoing through the tiny village streets.

We saw Mustafa’s sister walking distraught but defiant, with tears wracking her face, and his father being held by both arms by men around him, almost unable to walk, crippled by his grief. This was the death of a martyr for the Palestinian struggle, and the devastating effects of his death could be seen in every face I turned to.

His body was carried through the streets to his home for a final goodbye, to the mosque where the funeral prayers were spoken, and then eventually to the grave overlooking the beautiful Palestinian valleys on the outskirts of the village. My flatmate wanted to say some prayers for Mustafa so we walked back towards the mosque, but when we returned to the cemetery I was surprised to see the mourners had dispersed, when suddenly I recognised the acrid smell of tear gas fill my nose and my stomach turned as I realised what was taking place.

As I sprinted down the rocky terrain towards the entrance of the village, I saw elderly women and children running back up the other way, their faces blotchy and red with burning tears, doubled over and wretching as they tried to move away from where the army was firing. Unarmed mourners who only moments before had been grieving tears for their lost son, were now being attacked by the Israeli army with round after round of tear gas and being sprayed with skunk water, a foul smelling liquid unlike any waste sewage you have ever smelt.

As I moved closer to the protesters, I asked what had happened and they explained that the ten Israeli army jeeps I could see in the distance had arrived during the funeral, and were placed there to taunt and goad this grieving village. In the distance I could see the young men throwing stones at the army vehicles, a symbolic gesture expressing their deep anger against the death of their brother and against this cruel and twisted occupation.

Suddenly, I heard a loud crack and all around me the silver tear gas canisters that had killed Mustafa were being shot directly at where I was standing with other activists from ISM, and we ran up the road through clouds of billowing tear gas smoke, desperately trying to avoid the path of these silver bullet-like objects.

We were called up the road by a Palestinian from the village and he pointed down the hill to the east of the village where another unit of IOF soldiers were standing languidly at the bottom – waiting, goading, intimidating – knowing that the Palestinians would not stand by as another group of soldiers occupied their land on this day. We ran down the rocky slope where at the bottom the women who earlier had been sobbing and lamenting the death of Mustafa were now screaming into the faces of these IOF soldiers, holding his picture to their faces and demanding to know which one of them had killed their brother.

As I stood taking photographs of this painful scene, time suddenly collapsed into itself when I saw one of the soldiers smirk and tear the poster of Mustafa from a woman’s hands and rip it into pieces at the same moment a sound bomb exploded next to me, quickly followed by a tear gas canister that had been thrown and detonated at my feet. My face, my head, my mouth, my whole body was suddenly filled with tear gas and I ran away blindly as my face scorched from the gas and I felt like my head was going to explode on itself. I couldn’t breathe nor see nor think of anything apart from the burning that filled my lungs and head, and in the panic and confusion I ran as fast as I could from the canister.

But no demonstration I have attended here could have prepared me for the scene that was unfolding when I finally managed to regain my balance and ran back up the road to where the soldiers and Palestinians had gathered.

IOF soldiers were savagely beating anybody within their vicinity, three or four soldiers at a time grabbing men and throwing them to the floor, kicking them violently and stamping on their heads. As I stood back from the scene taking photographs, a soldier suddenly lunged towards us entirely unprovoked and threw one of the ISM activists I was with against the barrier of the road, doubling him over it as his body crashed to the ground. I screamed in his face WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING YOU ANIMALS and he shoved me out the way and turned back to the group of soldiers that has amassed to join in the violent spree.

As they tried to arrest more and more people the group of strong and defiant Palestinian women we were with threw their bodies over the men they were trying to drag away, and the soldiers began dragging these women by their hijabs, their clothes, wringing the necks of the men who were under this pile of women and trying to pull them from underneath. Covering and protecting the bodies of those trying to be arrested, the women were screaming so loudly for the soldiers to stop and this sound pierced my heart more deeply than any sound bomb could ever have done.

As I stood a few paces back from what was happening, my whole body was wracked with uncontrollable sobs as I helplessly looked on as the scene unfolded. Never in my life have I felt more powerless, weak and unable to do anything to intervene in the horrific scene that was playing out in front of my very eyes. The soldiers there were like savages, no remorse in their faces as their murderous hands grabbed and pulled the bodies of these innocent people who had come that day to mourn the loss of their brother.

After arresting three and beating many more, the group was forced to retreat back up the hill we had come from, running from the soldiers as they fired round after round of tear gas after us. A tear gas bomb exploded directly at the feet of one of the protesters, and inhaling the thick plumes of smoke he began suffocating and collapsed on the ground. As people gathered around him trying to help him, the soldiers who were watching what was happening started firing tear gas directly at the group that was helping the unconscious man, and they were forced to drag his body up the hill to escape.

We spent the next twenty minutes dodging tear gas as we made our way back up the hill, until eventually things began to calm so we made our way back to where the protest had  begun originally, and the violence there too had dissipated.

As we sat in the service on the way back to Ramallah, I came to understand what the word ‘shell shocked’ really means. My mind was almost numb as we drove through the Palestinian valleys, unable to truly comprehend the things I had seen. It was only when I got back to my flat and recounted what had happened to my anxious flatmates that all my anger and distress bubbled to the surface once again, and I sobbed uncontrollably as I tried to understand what I had just experienced.

Knowing that this level of violence is what the Palestinian people have experienced for 64 years, almost powerless against the brutal, mechanised force of a murdering Israeli army, serves to only more deeply cement my hatred for the IOF and the terrible things they inflict on the wonderful people I have spent the last three months with. Its difficult to put into words the grief and humiliated anger that I feel as I sit here writing this, and yet I still cannot believe that the Palestinians are so strong and defiant against this savage, repressive force.

The injustice of the occupation courses through my veins, and I cannot begin to get my head around the mentality that would allow the Israeli soldiers to act as they did today. As one of my flatmates said, the IOF have no respect for the living, so why would we think they would have even an ounce of respect for the dead? What I saw today was humanity at its very worst, savagery that I did not think possible. Yet still knowing that this is only scratching the surface of the suffering experienced by Palestinians as they try to defend their lives, their lands and their homes hurts me more deeply than anything I have experienced in my life.

This is not propaganda. This is not my opinion. This is an account of a terrible scene that should only reinforce how destructive and cruel this occupation really is. Those who try to explain or justify the behaviour of the Israeli army are as complicit in these actions as the soldiers perpetrating these terrible crimes. Silence is compliance – I will not be silenced.

‎”I loathe my enemy. I will never forgive, I will never forget. People who say such hatred transforms a person into a bitter cruel shell know nothing of the Israeli army. This hatred will not cripple me. What does that mean anyway? Do I not continue to write? Do I not continue to protest? Do I not continue to resist? Hating them sustains me, as opposed to normalizing with them. Their hatred of me makes reinforces the truth of their being murderous machines. My hatred of them makes me human.” – Linah Alsaafin

http://electronicintifada.net/content/no-miracle-yesterday-nabi-saleh-mustafa-tamimi-murdered/10678

In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians. RIP Mustafa Tamimi – you will never be forgotten.

Israel plans expulsion of Bedouin communities to rubbish dumping site

When Israel was established in 1948, the state began a ruthless campaign of displacement and expulsion of the indigenous Bedouin population from the Negev, in what is now Southern Israel. Sixty-four years later, Bedouin refugees living in the West Bank are due to face the same fate once again.

The Israeli Occupying Authority currently plans to expel 27’000 Bedouin Palestinians from their homes in Area C of the West Bank. In order to justify this action, the Israeli government is suggesting a forced relocation of the Bedouins – to a dumping ground miles from their original homes.

This week I attended a tour hosted by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights, who are sending out an urgent plea to international communities to draw attention to the plans. The homes of the Bedouins that we visited are currently located in an area that holds strategic significance for further expansion of Israeli settlements. The Bedouins make up 20% of the Palestinian population living in Area C, and according to B’T selem their forced removal will constitute ethnic cleansing – a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

Area C makes up around 60% of the West Bank and is under full Israeli control as it is the epicenter of Israeli colonization, and includes the largest settlements and military training zones. Palestinians living in Area C have long suffered discrimination under Israeli military rule, particularly surrounding the issue of housing. A UN report in 2008 found that 94% of building permit applications were denied by the Israeli Occupying Authorities, resulting in the routine and systematic demolition of Bedouin villages.

However, this time Israel has considered their previously negative media image of bulldozers sweeping through the region and razing Bedouin communities to the ground. Instead, they are making life for Bedouin communities living in Area C increasingly unsustainable, so that they may eventually be driven out of their homes because they simply cannot survive there.

As we sat in the Bedouin village and looked up the hill, the large and glistening Ma’ale Adummim settlement loomed above us. The settlements have high quality housing, schools, hospitals and access to cheap electricity and water, all of which provide a very comfortable and inviting way of life for the settlers who are encouraged to live there by the Israeli government.

The Bedouins, of course, have none of these luxuries. The Bedouin communities are not connected to the electricity network, despite being taunted by the pylons that rise above their villages heading into the settlements, and only half are connected to the water network.

Both the settlers and the Bedouins fall under the responsibility of the Israeli occupying authorities in Area C, yet the Bedouins’ traditionally pastoral and agricultural way of life is being systematically destroyed. Land has been confiscated from the communities to make way for settlements, making the rearing of livestock – their traditional livelihood – an impossibility. Forced into narrow enclaves, they have generally downsized from camels to goats, and in many places have been forced to abandon their herds entirely.

The village that we visited is one of the West Bank’s last surviving herders, but the village is penned in by Israeli military bases, by-pass roads and Jewish settlements on all sides, ending the Bedouin’s traditional nomadic way of life. Israeli soldiers confiscate any flocks that stray from Bedouin lands, and they are frequently subjected to attacks from extremist settlers.

In an attempt to counteract the traditional antagonism that has taken place between settlers and the Palestinians, the leader of the Bedouin community that we visited invited the council of Ma’ale Adummim settlement to come to the Bedouin village to show them the school they had recently built and explain the problems they had been facing, and the meeting initially appeared to be a success. Three days later, the Bedouin village was served with a notice saying the school was to be demolished.

However, it was learning of the plan to relocate Bedouins to a site next to the Abu Dis refuse dump in the occupied West Bank that shocked me most deeply. Israel dumps 55% of its waste in this site, because it is significantly cheaper than dumping it inside Israel, and whilst they claim that Palestinians benefit from using this site too, the occupying forces have done nothing to try to improve the high problem of waste management within the West Bank itself.

The refuse dump poses a health hazard to anybody living nearby, and Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry has warned that the site is a source of environmental pollution, risk of fire and even explosions, due to the mismanagement of the gas produced from unloading the waste.  Furthermore, the plans do not take into consideration the needs of the Bedouin communities – their culture, their families, their livestock, or the limited possibilities for work if the move to the dumping site goes ahead.

This case most crudely demonstrates the attitude of the Israeli government towards Palestinians. The heartlessness inherent in the Israeli occupation rears its ugly head when they will not think twice at forcibly evicting Bedouin families, and literally throwing them in the trash. B’Tselem is urging the international community to ensure that these plans are not permitted to go ahead, and I want to please encourage any readers of my blog to share this post, and expose the plans to ethnically cleanse Bedouins from their land, in order to gain international recognition that this has been a part of Israeli policy since the destructive formation of the state of Israel 64 years ago.

On my recent “radicalisation”

I have been experiencing some negative feedback on my blog, and from other people more generally, who have suggested that I have become “radicalised” by my time here. I find the use of this word – and the implication that I can no longer be objective – to be deeply troubling, so have responded to some of these criticisms here.

The statement below was written on the blog of another girl who is on the ICS program with me, and whilst she doesn’t name me directly I am aware that this is directed at me as I have discussed these issues many times with my fellow volunteers.

“As for seeing things from the other side, some group members here have become radicalized by the things we have seen and heard here. They have attended protests despite this putting our organizations’ future in Palestine in jeopardy. They have become blinded by the Palestinian’s suffering and seem unable to see things from the Israeli point of view or even objectively. I however am determined to remember that I am only beginning to understand the conflict and the people involved. Ofc I am more on the Palestinian side but I won’t let that mean I am anti-Israel, I just want to be pro-peace. I am an international observer here after all and a development worker not a political activist. And at the end of the day if we let hatred creep into our judgment then what hope is there that Palestinians and Israelis will overcome their hatred to create a last peaceful resolution?”

My response follows, albeit slightly edited for the purpose of clarity for readers of my blog:

Firstly, I’d be very careful with your use of language – “radicalisation” connotes “extremism”, and my actions do not come anywhere near that of an “extremist”. Try going to the settlements in Hebron and you will understand what “radical” and “extreme” really mean. I have not been radicalised nor brainwashed, though I have admittedly taken a stronger stance based on the evidence put in front of me over the last three months.

I feel very “extremely” passionately about the Palestinian struggle, and a frustration with my own development project (and international development in general) has meant that attending protests and demonstrations and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Palestinians in solidarity has been the most that I can offer here. I had a problem with the role of international development before I even arrived in Palestine, but was still intrigued to see what it entailed. There is no doubting that NGOs do great work to improve the lives of people on the ground here, but are they really going to change the political situation which makes these NGOs a necessity? If they were then the billions that has been thrown at international development over the years would have changed the world – and Palestine – far more dramatically than it has thus far.

Your suggestion that I do not look at this situation objectively and that I have let hatred creep into my judgement is simply incorrect. Out of all of our ICS group, I am in fact the only one who has actually stayed with Israelis in both Haifa and Tel Aviv, speaking to them at length about their stance on the situation here and forming my own judgements and strengthening my own arguments accordingly. I also work with Israeli activists who are doing brilliant work here in the OPTs. I am from a part of North West London where there is a strong Jewish community, and have been brought up experiencing the best of Jewish cultural traditions. I believe more than anyone that people are a product of their environment, and I find it incredibly important to understand the environment that has bred political Zionism so that it can be combated in the most effective ways possible.

Furthermore, neither do I understand nor accept the position of “observer”. To return to a quote that I will repeat until time immemorial on this blog, “To wash one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”. I believe that it is imperative that the human rights violations that are committed against Palestinians are observed and documented – but in order to instigate real change, not simply as an act of observation in itself. Palestine may be a litmus test for the unequal power relations which oppress so many people in our global society today, but the Palestinian people are not lab rats to be observed – this is not war tourism, and an observation of the situation here must have a final goal. Being fortunate enough to have been given the chance to visit Palestine, it is the responsibility of internationals to pressure our own governments to end compliance with the Israeli government’s apartheid policies, and incite and inspire global movements in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

I will not accept people who define themselves as “pro-peace” as if to suggest that there are people who do not want a peaceful resolution to the situation here. I believe that there are three basic demands that need to be met in any resolution to this situation – end of occupation, end of apartheid and right of return for refugees. If these ideas are “radical” in your eyes then so be it, but everything I have tried to do and learn about since I have been here has been a means to an end of achieving those goals. If you think that’s what NGOs are trying to do then you are deluded. They are alleviating the suffering which people experience as a result of these conditions, and that is an incredibly important task, but are doing very little to change the political situation which make this suffering never ending.

You have chosen your path through international development as you feel it is the right thing to do, but do not criticize the way that I have chosen to be part of the Palestinian struggle nor the motivations for my actions. I have affected perhaps only a small ripple in my time here, and have learnt far more than I have been able to offer, but with currently over 2000 hits on my blog this is something I am genuinely proud of as I believe people read this blog knowing that the things I am documenting have been based on my personal experience as a human being, relating to the pain and suffering of other human beings.

Lowkey’s new album has become my sonic Bible, and I will finish with these lyrics from Long Live Palestine  as it summarizes my feelings more succinctly than I could ever hope to do so…

“It’s not simply a question of differing views, / Forget emotions, this is fact, / what I spit is the truth… Its your choice what you do with this message, / Don’t get it confused; I view this from a truly human perspective…

…Words can never ever explain the raw tragedy, / It’s not a war they’re just murdering more rapidly, / We are automatically supporting pure savagery, / Imagine how you’d feel if this was your family!”

حرر فلسطين حرة!

Palestinian Freedom Riders

Yesterday I witnessed six Palestinian activists demand freedom, justice and dignity as they defied Israel’s apartheid policies when the group successfully boarded settler-only buses and attempted to enter East Jerusalem, where they were eventually brutally dragged off and arrested by the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF).

At the press conference and in the lead up to the event, the activists described how they had taken inspiration from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the heroic actions of Rosa Parks. Drawing on the struggles of African Americans who fought against segregation and inequality in the Unites States, and South Africans who battled against apartheid, the Palestinian Freedom Riders aimed to draw the world’s attention to the similarity of the struggle faced by the Palestinian people on a daily basis.

However, it must be recognised that the formation and continued policies of Israel’s apartheid state have far superseded the actions of both the Jim Crow South in the U.S. and the white supremacists in South Africa. Only last week when visiting Ni’lin, I was told of how when the wall was being built (which stole 30% of Palestinian land from the people of this small village), the IOF imposed a four day curfew on the village. This was enforced night and day, and if the people tried to leave their homes, tear gas and sound bombs were fired relentlessly into the narrow streets.

In South Africa, the white settlers sought to dominate the native population by incorporating them as inferior citizens in a state under exclusively white control. Zionism is founded upon a similarly colonialist ideology, but goes further in its attempts to establish a Jewish demographic through an ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people from their land.

Unlike in the American South of the 60s, you will not see signs around the settlements or at the checkpoints stating “No Palestinians here” – Israel manages its PR machine far too well for such overtly racist statements to be witnessed by the other “democratic” countries which fund its existence. Similarly, Palestinians are technically allowed to ride “settler-only” buses and drive on “settler-only” roads, something repeated by the Israeli media and the settlers who came off the buses yesterday.

But the segregation, inequality and the denial of Palestinian’s rights to enter their own land is implemented in a far more covert way by Israel. Whilst Palestinians may be able to travel on the buses and roads, these buses lead either into the internationally recognised illegal settlements, or into East Jerusalem where Palestinians are forbidden to enter. East Jerusalem is the intended capital of a future Palestinian state, yet Israel has denied the majority of Palestinians access to the city without a permit, which are almost impossible to obtain.

As a result, Israel has been able to continually expand the settlements in East Jerusalem, particularly in the highly contentious area of Sheikh Jarrah, and this has lead to the annexing of Palestinian populated areas in the city so that it is surrounded by Israeli settlements, systematically destroying the possibility of having a Palestinian controlled capital.

As I hope is becoming evident, the Palestinian Freedom Riders movement is not simply about the segregation of buses, the problem here is much larger. Palestinians face an apparatus of military control over Palestinians that needs to be dismantled, along with the settlements themselves.

The Israeli government will continue to defend their denial of Palestinians into East Jerusalem and the segregation of settler buses and roads because of the “security” threat from suicide bombings, their continual excuse and reasoning behind the occupation of Palestine. However, Israel’s colonialist project and abhorrent treatment of Palestinians began long before the first suicide bombing took place, and the continued occupation will do nothing to deter the desperate and destructive acts of suicide bombers.

However, the violence that has blighted the region for many years was far from the minds of anybody who witnessed the Palestinian Freedom Rides yesterday, as they took part in a determinedly non-violent resistance that attempted to demonstrate the popular, direct action movements which have been been gaining momentum in Palestine to resist Israeli occupation.

Yesterday’s action was a well orchestrated media circus, with hundreds of journalists swarming around the riders trying to get the best shots and interviews for their stories. However, in order for the Freedom Rides to have a true impact on Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, they will need to engage the wider Palestinian community and encourage these acts of civil disobedience in the next waves of the Freedom Rides. I have every faith that the activists involved in the initial wave will continue tirelessly to do so, facing arrest by the Israeli forces and attack by the settlers at every turn.

Furthermore, the onus is now on people around the world not to co-operate with the apartheid policies of the Israeli regime and to take action against them, starting with the boycott of companies – such as Egged and Veolia who run the settler buses – who profit from Israel’s illegal apartheid system.

This protest was not about the UN Statehood Bid. It had nothing to say about armed struggle. Instead, this is one of the most inspiring acts of people power I have seen since arriving in Palestine. The Freedom Riders are demanding that their very basic human rights are upheld in accordance with international law, and to demonstrate that they will continue to engage non-violently to win the freedom, justice and dignity for which the Palestinian people have struggled for so long.

p.s. – Check me out on the front page of Palestinian daily newspaper Al Quds this morning!

http://www.alquds.com/pdfs/pdf-docs/2011/11/16/page1.pdf

Life on the other side of the wall

After six intense weeks in the West Bank, I realised that if I am to have any authority in talking about the conflict when I come home then it would be necessary to visit Israel, and at least attempt to understand the mentality that would allow a “democratic” nation of people to willingly sit-by, or actively take part in, a covert ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their land.

Nevertheless, I had some reservations about the trip before I left. The first reason was regarding the fact that Israel’s second biggest economy after its arms trade is tourism, and it would of course be almost impossible to boycott Israeli products when inside Israel itself. Secondly, most of the students I have spoken to at Birzeit are resolutely against discussion and co-operation with Israelis. After years of failed negotiations, promises made and broken to halt the settlement expansion, the death toll and restriction of movement ever increasing, it is entirely understandable why this would be the case.

Some of the students have been offered to attend so-called “peace camps” with Israeli and Palestinian students, where the idea is that young people meet on an “equal” level to discuss and debate the issues surrounding the conflict. However, this is not a conflict, it is an occupation. In spite of well-meaning intentions, many of these projects imply equity between Israelis and Palestinians in their responsibility for the conflict.

There is the insinuation that if only the Palestinians would just stop throwing rocks! If only the Israelis would just stop building settlements for a few weeks! Then the talking could begin; then peace would be just around the corner.

This dialogue disregards the fact that Palestinian civilians live without even the most basic human rights, under an occupying colonial force that has systematically denied them the right to exist. Only free men can negotiate, and these normalisation projects ignore the fact that the Palestinian people have limited power to enforce the outcomes of any discussion. The Palestinians are not going to accept being given their freedom, it must instead be taken.

Nevertheless, after discussing this issue with my Palestinian co-ordinator at ISM, he encouraged me that my own personal discussion with Israelis, from an international perspective, is something which is necessary and perhaps beneficial, if only to strengthen my own arguments.

When I arrived in Haifa, I innocently steered the conversation towards politics with the Israelis I was hanging out with, but many times the conversation was fairly quickly shut down. Many of the people were incredibly reluctant to discuss what I had been doing in Ramallah, with most not understanding why I’d want to be in Ramallah in the first place. Having done most of their army service in the West Bank, the idea that I would want to go there out of choice seemed fairly ridiculous to them.

It was not that they were rude – in fact completely to the contrary, the people I did engage in a discussion with were very measured, and not at all like the Israelis I had been trapped with on the plane. Instead, I spent the evening with a group of very intelligent and genuinely warm people, in many ways with similarly leftist politics to me. My host was incredibly well-read, spoke four languages including Arabic, and we stayed up until sunrise enjoying the beautiful view over Haifa, discussing philosophy, music, and stories from our travels.

However, there was a continued repetition that “we don’t discuss politics at parties”. Their reasoning was that they are tired of talking about a situation that they see as having no resolution, and this is not an entirely unfounded point when you understand the complexity of the situation here. Nevertheless, I had to compare this to the attitude to all of the Palestinians I have met, for whom politics is at the forefront of every action and every thought, the occupation seeping into every element of their lives.

There is no doubt that the Israelis live under a form of almost constant paranoia – whether real or imagined – about the threat to their security and the extinction of their people, and I realise that it is this narrative which allows many Israelis to sit by and let the occupation continue, providing them with a false sense of security that allows them to lead a life of relative normality.

In spite of the recent economic problems experienced by Israel, relative to Palestinians the Israelis have an economically comfortable existence, in a country that they can proudly and openly say is “theirs”, where their fundamental human rights are upheld – things which are of course completely denied to the Palestinians.

Israelis cannot forget what the price of this normality is to the Palestinian people, and I was surprised to see that these Israelis were happy to live in a bubble world where life on the other side of the wall was certainly not at the forefront of their minds. Israelis who say they want peace, but that it is currently unattainable, and who are willing to sacrifice Palestinian rights in the interim, are akin to those “white liberals” in the America of the 60s, who maintained that the time wasn’t right for civil rights for the Black minorities.

Why is that nobody would dare to suggest a limited, negotiated form of freedom for the suffragettes at the beginning of the 20th century, for the Black minority in 60s America and in apartheid South Africa, for women in 21st century Saudi Arabia, yet this kind of attitude seems to be so prevalent amongst people who claim that they are “pro-solution”? To think about the situation here from a “pro-solution” perspective is not to be neutral, it is to side with the powerful over the powerless, and conceding to the arguments of Israelis is incredibly detrimental in asserting the just Palestinian cause.

In the most inspiring examples of struggle for basic human rights, it has been popular movements which have won liberation for an oppressed people based on the strength of their arguments, not negotiations conducted on unequal grounds. It seems to be the case that for real change to come for the Palestinians a fairly seismic shift will have to happen in the region – and in world politics – but that does not mean the daily struggle will not continue here in the Occupied Territories.

Just as the revolutions of the Arab Spring have demonstrated, the vital element in any major progressive chances for change is the confidence of the people who are demanding that it can be done. The uprisings there were shaped by the fact that there were enough people prepared to take to the streets and make the effort necessary to bring it about. Whilst Israelis may say they want to peacefully co-exist, the Palestinians will first continue to demand and take back their very right to exist as a nation from their oppressors. The Palestinian struggle has come to symbolically define the struggles of people all over the world who live without justice, dignity and freedom, and the Palestinian people are inspiring in proving that their very daily act of defiant existence is a moving form of resistance in itself.

My changing perceptions of Islam

Since arriving in Palestine just under a month ago, I have begun to develop my understanding of Islam more deeply and have been considering my own relationship with religion as a result.

I am indebted considerably to my flatmate, who as a practising Muslim has been a brilliantly well-informed source of information about her faith, and many of the things I will write about here have been learnt through her. Aside from my Grandma, she is one of the only people I have ever spoken to – from any religious background – who has a deep and nuanced understanding of her religion, answering all the questions I’ve thrown at her with a measured and open-mind. Neither blindly following nor “brainwashed”, she seems to benefit from using Islam as a world-view, a way of understanding wider issues that she may come across in her life.

This post is not intended to be a deeply-informed perspective on Islam – it would take years of studying to do so – but more some general musings which have affected me personally, in order to counteract some of the very dominant views currently held in Western countries which I had not realised I had unwittingly bought into.

Just before I came away, I went shopping on Oxford Street to buy some slightly more “modest” clothing than my usual attire. I went into Primark in Oxford Street to pick up a few things, and was shopping alongside women wearing the niqab – their faces fully covered and some with mesh over their eyes, with long gloves on so that no part of their skin was exposed.

I remember standing there and feeling so sad for these women, who at that time appeared to me to be trapped in a dark and repressive world. It has been suggested that 90% of our communication is non-verbal, and therefore any of the bodily expression that comes naturally to us as human beings seemed to be repressed for these women, cutting them off from the “normality” of lived experience.

My flatmate explained to me that many women in the UK who wear the niqab are converts to Islam, in addition to a growing number of young women who wear the niqab in spite of what their parents and husbands want. Rejecting the now acceptable consumption of female bodies wherever you turn, she told me how many women are wearing the niqab as a rejection of the way that women are viewed and consumed in our society. I’m not just talking about pornography here, a quick flick onto MTV will serve just as well – try watching with the sound off to get the full understanding of what I mean.

Many Niqabi women choose to wear the face covering as a way of being respected and heard for the way they think and not the way they look. This is why (ironically) the niqab is actually more popular in Western, secular countries as opposed to many Muslim countries – the former being more obsessed with narrow ideas of beauty and requiring women to look and behave in a very particular way. I have seen perhaps only two or three women wearing the full veil since arriving in Palestine.

Nevertheless, this has not changed my view on the limiting of life experience for women who wear the niqab – if it is worn for “feminist” reasons then this is a painful indictment of our current society where women feel that they have to take this extreme measure in order to be recognised as a human, not as a body.

What I was shocked to realise in myself, however, is that I had unwittingly confined my own perception of Muslim women in general to my feelings towards the women I saw on Oxford Street. Coming from the perspective of a white, middle-class “liberated” woman, it is only since coming to Palestine that I’ve really questioned what I now recognise as a fairly restrictive view of Muslim women in general.

The very fact that I had an attitude towards Muslim women “in general” at once began to ring alarm bells for me as I began to recognise the complexity of Islam and the many choices that it presents for those who follow its teachings. I have met people who fast – but do not pray, who pray – but do not cover, who drink – but always fast etc. This is of course in addition to the many strands of Islam – Shia, Sunni, Sufism etc – all of which have different customs and beliefs that define their particular branch of Islam.

With regard to whether women decide to wear the hijab or not, I have often thought of Islam as a fairly patriarchal, sexist religion because it is the women who cover. I thought that women had to cover because they were the “heathen temptresses” who would lure men away from worship, when in fact the Qu’arn does suggest that women can cover, but the passage which immediately precedes this says that men should “lower their eyes” also. The onus is on both parties to be respectful of the opposite sex.

My flatmate has pointed out that many women decide to wear the hijab as it is a sign of identity, a pride in belonging to a group that has an inherent set of benevolent values and beliefs. One of the pillars of Islam is directly linked to helping and protecting others around you, and from my personal experience this seems to be regularly enacted amongst communities here in Palestine. Whilst I am sure this says as much about Palestinians as anything else, there is no denying that the values which Islam inculcates match this warmth, generosity and openness of spirit.

More than anything, I have met so many strong and intelligent Muslim women whose faith gives them a positive identity from which they can draw guidance as to how they live their lives as good people. It is at once a very personal religion, whilst also being one that is grounded in society and relationships with those around you. Whilst Buddhism seems to be the “on trend” religion to adopt currently, there seems to me to be an isolation to Buddhism that is at odds with my own personal view of people as social beings. In light of this, it speaks volumes about the courage of Lauren Booth’s conversion to Islam, a not easy choice in Western societies dominated by Islamaphobia.

In addition to the rise of “terrorism” in the 21st century, many people look to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to justify their views on Islam as a religion. However, I’m sure I don’t need to point out to many people who read this blog that the terrible repression of women in these countries has deviated significantly from the origins of Islam. Instead these practises are based on cultural (very different from religious) customs that have been injected into these societies.

It is not that I am on the verge of converting to Islam, but learning more about what seems to me to be a very beautiful religion has made me question exactly where my own values have come from. I have never been a spiritual person – I attended Sunday school as a child and whilst I liked the stories that we were taught, it never really resonated for me personally. The values and beliefs that I follow have been inculcated by my parents from a young age, but are further grounded and solidified in my interactions with people in all parts of my daily life. I have rejected the natural career trajectory that my social and economic background perhaps dictates, instead trying to find meaning and purpose in my life through other channels. Whether I can be an affective agent of change whilst in Palestine remains to be seen, but the reasons that have brought me here are very similar to the other girls I am working with, wherever we have taken our inspiration from.

Religion dominates the political narrative here in Palestine, and this is something that I have slowly been trying to get my head around having come here with a Marxist world-view. I have begun to view my Marxism as something of a secular faith – a belief in the revolutionary potential of the working classes – and so it has been fascinating comparing and contrasting this with Islam.

However, the way that religion is used politically here – to often devastating consequences – seems to be at odds with the core values that underpin both Islam and Judaism. Just as Communism was warped in such a way that it became a destructive force in the 20th century, religion has always been manipulated in order to justify some of the worst actions that take place in our society. In a free and democratic society I believe that everybody has a right to practise any religion they choose, but the world would be a better place if only the benevolently peaceful values that underpin these religions were translated to the political arena.

Olive harvest in Qalqilya

At this time of year, Palestinians of all ages come together to help to collect the olive harvest, and we were fortunate enough to have been invited by our friends here at Birzeit to help collect olives on their grandfather’s land.

Olives represent 25% of the agricultural resources here in the West Bank, and many families make their living on the harvest of olives for food and export productions such as oil, soap and other products. Yet their deeply rooted significance in the conflict has become a touchstone of the beauty of Palestine – and the ugliness of occupation.

Dating back to Ancient Greece, the olive branch has come to represent a symbol of peace and of the fertility of Palestinian land. However, 1.2 million olive trees have been destroyed, uprooted, torched or stolen since the occupation, and with relentless speed the Israelis have annexed land through the apartheid wall, which means that many Palestinians have been prohibited to harvest their own olives due to permit restrictions and land confiscation.

As a result, the friends who we travelled to Qalqilia with had not been able to access the land we were to work on for over ten years. The Israeli government only permitted their grandfather and grandmother to access their land, which had once been rightfully theirs, and with each passing year had found it increasingly difficult to harvest the olives alone.

However, as the checkpoint had been unmanned for a week, the family decided to cross this year to help with the harvest.  As our taxi drew up to the checkpoint, there was a frantic exchange in Arabic as the taxi driver expressed that he did not want to take us through. After some convincing, we did drive through the checkpoint, but after a short while he refused to drive any further fearing the wrath of the Israeli army were he caught on this side.

We walked the rest of the way to the fields, and en route were flanked on one side by the looming Israeli settlement that had been illegally constructed on their grandfather’s land. In the West Bank, much of the architecture and materials used to build Palestinian homes merges with the landscape and serves as merely a speckle to the natural beauty of the valleys here. The settlements, however, looked like they had been cut out of the worst of garish Florida real estate, and pasted defiantly on the slope above the farm lands. The rows and rows of white-washed, chrome-glistening apartments with shirtless men lounging on the balconies looked like a Truman Show microbubble, completely jarring with the landscape surrounding it.

Nevertheless, when we got to the fields we got stuck in with the rest of the family, helping to pick the olives from the trees, which were collected on large tarpaulin sheets underneath us. I’m not sure that sampling the bars of Ramallah the night before is a particularly good preparation for olive harvesting, so we quickly found a shady spot and sat on the floor picking olives from the cut branches. By doing so, we were apparently reinforcing the stereotype of women during the harvest, but I was far too hot and hungover to be a feminist at that precise moment in time.

We spent a wonderful day with the family, as they chattered in Arabic and we politely tried to make ourselves look as useful as possible. The radio played all day, and we were told of how they used to listen during the Second Intifada to the devastating reports of violence and destruction that swirled around them the last time they had been able to take part in the harvest.

Nonetheless, none of this was evident as we stretched out in the shade to be treated to what they offered as a picnic, but was more like a Palestinian feast, which our British scotch eggs and cocktail sausages could never even possibly rival. Whenever being entertained by Palestinian families, I always have no trouble consuming the same amount as I usually would in a week – not only because it is so delicious, but also because of the generosity and pleasure they always seem to take in hosting us. I still can’t quite believe the amazing Palestinian hospitality shown to me since I’ve been here, the people I’ve met have genuinely been some of the warmest and most generous of anywhere I’ve travelled.

After lunch, we finally succumbed to the heat of the olive groves, and decided to walk up the hill overlooking their grandfather’s lands, where we found a shady tree to snooze under as the gradually fading daylight played amongst the leaves above us. Our friend who had not been there for more than a decade walked across the hill and told us of the caves in which they would hide as children during incredibly drawn-out games of hide and seek, and showed us the trees they used to swing from before they were banned from this area.

If spoken with melancholy, these recounts may have been heart-breaking, but the beautiful and happy day we had spent there showed to me the resilience of the Palestinians against all the adversity and suffering they had encountered in the last 60 years. The olives we were collecting were not for sale, but instead to produce the olive oil which would be used by the family throughout the year, and testifies to the fact that the Palestinian lands are not a commodity to be pushed and pulled apart by the Israeli government and international treatises. There is a connection between the Palestinians and the land here that seems to come from having to struggle for the very earth itself, the roots that bind the olives trees and the Palestinian people to their beautiful country.

As we stood on the top of the hill, we looked out at the landscape punctuated by the ugly Israeli watch-towers, manned by cameras and armed guards, and our friend took me by surprise when after a brief silence he asked, “What will we do with these watch-towers when Palestine is free?” As we entertained wrapping it in fairy lights and making a Palestinian Eiffel Tower, what really resonated with me is the seemingly endless supply of defiant hope amongst the Palestinians I have met here, whose relationship with their land seems to be as much a part of their soul as the very ground that they walk on. Freedom may appear far off for Palestine, and there are times at which I feel utterly disheartened, but the attitude of people here has quickly put me in my place and showed me to find great pleasure in a beautiful country I still feel so lucky to be living in.