First checkpoint experience

Today was the first time I was able to experience for myself what it is like to go through an Israeli checkpoint. The checkpoints have become infamous as being synonymous with the very worst elements of the occupation; their very tangible, physical presence and what they signify has meant that anything I have ever read or been told about has always been framed by their overbearing existence.

The students at Birzeit are constantly having access to their education restricted due to being continually – and often pointlessly – held up at checkpoints when travelling from their villages and cities to the university. One of the girls that I work with told me that complaining about delays at checkpoints has become something of a national past-time, akin to our recent British love for banker-bashing. However, just like our current desire to have a good old banker blaming session, there is a darker and more disturbing side to what this surface whingeing indicates.

The unjust and inexcusable accounts of Palestinians’ treatment at checkpoints is well documented, and I have been told many horror stories since arriving here. Yet whilst fortunately my experience today at Qalandia was nowhere near as traumatic as other’s have suffered, it was nonetheless an incredibly jarring experience. We were travelling into Jerusalem, and having caught a bus from Ramallah, when you arrive at the checkpoint everybody has to unload from the bus and go through security, and catch the bus again on the other side.

Graffiti on the 'Apartheid Wall' at Qalandia checkpoint

As we got off the bus we were herded into a long metal cage, with a growing crowd of over 100 other people all trying to get through the checkpoint as quickly as possible. Standing in the midday sun, in a tunnel that had vomit spattered all down one side, the jovial smiles we shared with others around us on the bus quickly turned to frustration as we stood there for over an hour and a half. Mothers and their young children and elderly Palestinian women with their shopping bags were given no reprieve and subjected to exactly the same treatment, and as the queuing wore on the atmosphere started to get rather more tense, with children crying and people beginning to shout.

With an IDF soldier on the other side of the cage only intervening every now and again to shout a few words in Arabic, hand firmly gripped on the handle of his massive gun, the absolutely idiotic revolving door at the end of the tunnel that let you through to the next part of the cage only worsened the situation. It was electrically operated and at apparently random intervals it would swing round letting a couple of people through at a time, and in a queue that was at least ten times its width, this led to a bit of a scuffle and lots of shouting as people tried to get through so they could go about their daily lives as quickly as possible. Mothers were separated from their children as there was no way of telling how many people the revolving bars would let through at a time, meaning that when I finally got through I was waiting on the other side for my friends with a little girl of around 7 years old.

Having had my bags scanned, I went up to the window where two Israeli soldiers sat languidly smoking behind bullet-proof glass. They were no older than 20, and when I showed them my UN identity card, which explains I am a development worker, with a smirk they asked to see my passport and visa stamp. I don’t know if it was being in the cage for a few hours, or the huge guns resting casually in their laps, but I felt my heart racing as I flicked frantically through my passport trying to find the right page. I knew that I had all the correct accreditation and absolutely nothing to hide (apart from a growing inner loathing) but I felt stupid and pathetic proving that to these nonchalant teenage soldiers.

As we climbed back on to the bus with everybody else, nobody that had gone through had been given more than a cursory glance over, and more than anything the whole ordeal had felt completely… pointless. I have repeated that word three times now in this post because that is exactly how the checkpoints seem to me. From speaking to our friends here, if you really wanted to go into Israel, there are definitely ways of going about it as we have heard many tales of getaway cars and rope-climbing the wall. The people we have spoken to are far from a threat, only looking to experience a piece of life on the other side of the wall. So if a suicide bomber was really intent on blowing him or herself up, a big bloody wall and some checkpoints probably wouldn’t do the trick, and surely the Israelis know that.

As a result, the predominant purpose of the checkpoints seems to be to make life as difficult for the Palestinians as possible, with a dose of added humiliation in the process, so that they are forced to surrender to the will of this almighty military power on a daily basis. Even if putting an Israeli checkpoint into Palestinian East Jerusalem was legal (it is supposed to be the capital of a future Palestinian state), making the process so slow, difficult, and often traumatic demonstrates once again that “national security” appears to sometimes be a mere facade in order remind the Palestinians exactly who is in charge.

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In solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike

Yesterday we were taken by one of the students we are working with to Ramallah, where activists are currently camped out in solidarity with the thousands of Palestinian prisoners who are currently entering their ninth day of a hunger strike. As the Israeli prison administration continues to reject prisoner’s demands for basic improvements in living conditions inside prisons, support for the strike is becoming widespread across the occupied territories.

I wanted to draw attention to the strike as it demonstrates a form of non-violent protest that is clearly not reported in any of the British media and barely in any international news either. As usual, it seems that the only news from the conflict that British media is interested in is that which is sensational and violent. For decades, Palestinian prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes to demand – and win – their rights, putting their bodies on the line to demand freedom and dignity for themselves, their people, their homeland and their nation.

Netanyahu recently announced his plans to impose harsher conditions on Palestinian prisoners in Israel’s prisons; he described academic studies for political prisoners as “an absurd practise” and stated his intention to end prisoner’s enrolment in academic studies. This particular move has directly touched the heart of Birzeit’s Right to Education campaign which I am working on here, as it serves to demonstrate one of the many ways the Israeli government has attempted to limit and restrict Palestinian’s access to education.

The Palestinian prisoners have made several key demands that at a very basic level fulfil the “absolute rights” of prisoners, and I have listed the most pertinent ones below:

– End the abusive use of isolation (this is a long-running element of the prisoner’s campaign as some inmates have been held in solitary confinement for over ten years)

– End restrictions on university education in the prisons;

– End the denial of books and newspapers;

– End the shackling to and from meetings with lawyers and family members (where, we were told, prisoners were not even allowed to hug their children)

– And ultimately end all forms of collective punishment, including the refusal of family visits, night searches of prisoners’ cells, and the denial of basic health treatment.

Netanyahu’s restriction on the prisoners’ rights is in part a collective punishment enforced after an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian resistance forces in Gaza. This idea of collective punishment is something that truly shocked me, in spite of the fact that it has been shown time and time again to be the automatic response of the Israeli government; if one Israeli is harmed, then the whole of Palestine will suffer. It made me reflect upon the ideas of the ConDem government after the riots in London took place, which considered both punishing the families of rioters and removing their access to benefits, which would have entirely ignored the basic welfare of these people.  Is this really the way England, as a “democratic” state, ever considered dealing with this crisis?!

But anyway, I want to please urge any readers of my blog who feel passionately about the Palestinian cause to take action and express their solidarity with the prisoners, by sending an email that will take only ten minutes of your time away from facebook/youtube/the guardian etc…

Please write to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other human rights organizations to exercise their responsibilities and act swiftly to demand that the Israelis ensure that all Palestinian prisoners are freed from punitive isolation. Email the ICRC, whose humanitarian mission includes monitoring the conditions of prisoners, at jerusalem.jer@icrc.org, and inform them about this urgent situation.

Partying under occupation

Having been fairly unimpressed with the Arabic version of EuroPop that we have heard on the radio since being here, going to the Taybeh festival was a veritable feast of really brilliant music. As the sun was going down on the first night of the festival, a band called Toot Ard was playing and there were definitely some tangible Outlook vibes in the Taybeh village, as they played a set showcasing some of the best dub and reggae I’ve heard since discovering Fat Freddy’s Drop last year. As the lead singer of Toot Ard whipped the crowd up into a bouncing frenzy towards the climax of their set, he could certainly have given Gentleman Dub Club’s Jonathon Scratchly a run for his money.

The international comparisons aside, the Arabic influence on the band sparkled defiantly, and a Palestinian guy that we have befriended told me that the band is most often found at political demonstrations. I truly believe in using the power of culture to fight cultures of power, and looking at the energy and vibrancy of the people at the festival made me remember why I always recall to music when I am feeling the most disheartened about the world around me. This track was a particular favourite from their set…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QfXVGuvwd4&feature=related

On the second night of the festival, we arranged to meet our Palestinian friend again so that we could go and see DAM, a hugely popular Palestinian hip hop group. Unfortunately, there was a power cut at the festival about an hour after we got there (something which commonly happens in the West Bank due to the diversion of electricity supply to Israeli settlers), and so the gig was cancelled at the last minute. In the taxi on the way back from the festival, we were chatting with our new Pally pal who was telling us about what it is like living as a young person under the occupation, and the challenges faced by those who attempt to use culturally subversive means in order to defy Israel’s chokehold on Palestine.

He explained to us that in spite of the terrible things committed against Palestinians’ rights in the name of “security”, he wanted to meet as many Israelis as possible, as he had a firm belief in the fact that there must be other like-minded young Israelis who also wanted peace. He has being using a website called www.couchsurfing.com as a way to try and fulfil his desire to meet Israeli people and attempt to foster some mutual understanding, and perhaps reconciliation. For those who don’t know about Couch Surfing, on the site you make a profile and offer your couch to travellers who are looking for a host in an unknown city and somewhere to crash for free.

Through this he has met open-minded Israelis and formed lasting friendships, and I was taken aback by the brilliant simplicity of his utilisation of this online service. For those of you who know how much I love the internet, you can only imagine my unbridled glee at hearing about this. For all of those who whinge about young people today spending too much time online, the possibilities that the internet creates are absolutely limitless, and in the hands of creative and forward-thinking people it can be such an exciting forum for progress and rapid development.

Wanting to go to Tel Aviv to make a return visit to his new Israeli friends, but not contemplating applying for an Israeli visa just to be rejected, he decided to sneak his way into Israel. After bribing someone to allow him through the checkpoint, he was spotted by Israeli military who chased him from the border, but fortunately his Israeli friend was waiting in a car on the other side so he hopped in and they sped away. He spent three days partying in Tel Aviv and enjoying the trappings of what its burgeoning club scene has to offer, but in doing so was taking a huge risk. If he had been caught by the Israeli police, he would have faced at the very minimum a one month jail sentence. I think I have taken for granted things like being able to go out in London on a Friday night and see any type of music that takes my fancy, or being able to hop on a plane and go to a European festival, without having to worry about visas or IDF interrogation. For a Palestinian, however, it seems that one month’s jail sentence is the price you pay to party in an occupied state.

Taybeh Oktoberfest

This weekend we went to the Taybeh Oktoberfest in the hills of the West Bank, just outside of Ramallah. Taybeh is the only brewery in the Palestinian Territories, and in the name of experiencing some Palestinian fare, we decided to go and check it out. My very limited Arabic (currently extending to “mumkin kebab”) combined with no knowledge of the service bus made getting there a little complex. In the end, we resorted to walking around the centre of Ramallah calling “Taybeh? Taybeh?” into taxi windows, sort of the equivalent of walking down Oxford Street shouting “Stella? Stella?” and hoping to be taken in the right direction.

What I’ve found successful in London can obviously translate well into this country as we eventually found the bus and drove through the beautiful valleys around Ramallah at sunset. Dusk here is truly as you’d imagine an Arabian night and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of the hazy sun as long as I’m here. When we arrived the atmosphere was brilliant, and getting straight to the point of our visit, I had my first pint of Taybeh. Taybeh means “delicious” in Arabic (I can now say “mumkin taybeh kebab”) and delicious it certainly was; at only ten shekels (just under 2 quid) it went down most enjoyably in the balmy evening.

Taybeh is a true Palestinian success story – overcoming the multiple obstacles it faces in a largely teetotal Muslim country, with bleak economic conditions and the extra costs and challenges that make-up Israel’s occupation, its output has increased threefold to 600’000 litres a year since re-opening, after being closed by the Israelis during the Second Intifada. However, they still face problems. One of the vendors I was chatting to told me that because the beer is made without additives or preservatives, once bottled it is supposed to be packed in a dark and dry place. However, often when crossing the checkpoints to reach its distribution points, the soldiers keep the trucks in long waits in high temperatures, opening the crates for “security purposes” knowing full well this will spoil the beer.

However, as I am quickly coming to learn since arriving in Palestine, the resilience and vitality of the Palestinians is limitless and this did not stop them conducting a booming trade this weekend at the festival. In 1994, the family who owns the brewery put up the 1.2 million dollars themselves to start their business, after no bank or aid agency would fund a project as unlikely to succeed as a Palestinian brewery. As I looked around the festival on Saturday, with Taybeh and conversation flowing, a delicious assortment of meat grilling on the BBQs, and Palestinian hip hop blasting from the speakers, I thought – not for the first time – that perhaps banks and aid agencies hadn’t got a clue.

What does the future hold for East Jerusalem?

I took this photo last night at sunset at the top of the Mount of Olives, which looks over the whole of East Jerusalem. This Palestinian man was showing his son the Dome of the Rock, if you follow the man’s finger you can see the golden dome in the distance. This is one of the most contested sites in the conflict; Muslims believe that this is the spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven, and the Jews believe that this is the place where the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments was kept. The Israelis are currently building tunnels underneath this beautiful mosque in order to undermine and sabotage this place of worship.

I took the photo below today at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in East Jerusalem, and it shows a group of Eastern European Christian women kissing the tomb of Jesus. The site is said to be Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and contains the place where Jesus was buried. As one of my friends from ICS pointed out today, God could have done a better job at handing out holy sites, did he really have to congregate the Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy of holies within a one mile radius of each other? We constantly hear about the differences and antagonisms between these monotheistic religions but walking around Jerusalem today only served to highlight their similarities to me…

Trade not aid?

International aid to Palestine currently stands at about £1.8 billion, and in addition to providing essential services for nearly half of Palestinian people, it also allows the Palestinian Authority (PA) to operate and pay its employees. However, life on the ground here is becoming increasingly desolate, with a huge gap in resources and high levels of unemployment. America and Israel have threatened to withhold funding to Palestine if they were to be successful with their bid for statehood, and whilst other Middle Eastern countries have vowed to match whatever is withheld by The Ugly Sisters, what is becoming clear to me is that this is really beside the point. I was told today by one of our partners at UNAIS that even if foreign aid to the West Bank and Gaza were tripled, Palestine’s GDP would only grow by 5%.

Furthermore, according to an article in today’s Guardian (Israeli occupation hits Palestinian authority), Israel’s occupation deprives the Palestinian economy of over £4.4billion a year, almost 85% of Palestine’s nominal GDP! A combination of the blockade on Gaza, water restrictions, natural resource restrictions, and import and export limits have served to hinder and isolate Palestine in the global economy. Palestine can never be an autonomous, sovereign state state as long as it relies on foreign aid, and all the caveats and constrictions that international aid brings with it.

Our partners have repeated time and time again that whilst the work undertaken by various organisations is of course beneficial, everything in this country has a political purpose, and applications for aid must fit a certain criteria for foreign budgets. This is one of the predominant reasons that a lot of money is going into so-called “state-building” and advocacy at the moment; multilateral projects like these are currently the “sexy” way to support Palestine. Khalid, who is my director at DFID, said a few years ago apparently it was disability projects..

This is clearly not sustainable if Palestine is to build a viable state. As Hasan Abu Libdeh, the economy minister at the PA said today, “No matter what the Palestinian people achieve by our own efforts, the occupation prevents us acheiving our potential as a free people in our own country.” He went on to suggest that one of the reasons that Israel has refused to respond to international calls for peaceful negotiations is the profit it makes from being an occupying power. For some of the people I work with, the situation has become so desperately unresolvable in recent years that they even suggested they wished the PA would dissolve itself, so that Israel would have full fiscal responsibility for Palestine, something that would inevitably cripple the Israeli economy in a time of global economic austerity. Then perhaps we would see a peace treaty negotiated more quickly.

What the international community, and the UK too must realise, is that being dependent on aid will never resolve anything in the long-term for Palestine. Only ending the occupation can do that.

Drinks reception at the British Consulate

We were invited for drinks at the British Consulate last night by the Consul-General Sir Vincent Fean. Our project is funded by DFID (Department for International Development), the only goverment department which has had its funding increased in the last budget, and so there were representatives there to talk to us about what we were doing on our projects. Also, seemingly, to make sure we said lots of good things about the ICS scheme when we got back. If my training weekend and the last three days are anything to go by, this scheme is an absolutely brilliant opportunity for young people to experience international development in a really constructive way. Although it pains me to think that the positive things I will probably eventually report on the program will make David Cameron think his policies in general are working for young people.

But anyway, we began with lots of awkward silences and painful small talk about how great and successful DFID had been in Palestine. I don’t deny thye’ve done good work, but I think the majority of our group felt pretty uncomfortable in an environment that seemed to be so cut off from the reality of what life is like over here. Beautiful diplomatic house, a phillipino maid and lots of talk about “advocacy” for the Palestinian people, which from what our Palestinian partners from IS have said doesn’t always seem to amount to much when the situation here on the ground is the probably the worst it has been for a long time. Nevertheless, British policy has changed recently from bilateral projects (building housing/sanitation, providing services for young people and women etc) which alleviate the poverty experienced on a day-today basis here, to ones which are focused multilaterally – there was a lot of talk about state-building.

At this point there was only so much British propaganda I was willing to nod along politely to. I asked Sir Vince that if the British government did believe in building a state, then how did he think the British should vote at the UN Security Council on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Considering he is the main point of contact between the UK and here, his opinion would presumably hold some sway. His response was like something out of the diplomatic textbook – he rambled on for about ten minutes about the need for negotiations as the key to resolving the conflict, and quite a lot of other diplomatic drivel that was hard to stomache. But he didn’t anwer my question. So before he could move on I asked him exactly the same question again (bit of a Paxo moment even if I say so myself), and this time he eventually answered. He said that the British should ”abstain’ from the proposal as the bid wasn’t going to be successful so it didn’t matter how they would have voted anyway.

Absolute bullshit! It reminded me of one of my favourite quotes, ”Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” By abstaining, Britain would be intrinsically siding with Israel and America – if this was an equal war, then perhaps that would not be the case, but it clearly is not. How can he talk about state-building but not even be willing to support the Palestinians politically, which seems to be completely necessary to counteract America’s strangehold over the “peace process” so far?! So I asked him that for all the talk about negotiations and peace process, surely the situation here would never change until America turned off the tap to Israel and they were forced to negotiate on a more level playing field. His response? America would never turn off the tap and the Palestinians should be glad to have Obama as a more liberal President. Good God. My eyes scanned around the room and there were a lot of shocked faces, but before I could respond he had moved on.

What is clear is that as much as the British are doing here, and their work does seem to be well respected, everything they do is political and when push comes to shove, do the government really care about radically changing the situation for Palestinians? Or, as Sir Vince quite incitefully suggested, is it a case that any country in the world with a middle class has to be seen as doing something to aid the conflict? It makes me think that whilst what we are doing out here is definitely important, as is the role of international development in general, what needs to change is British policy towards other countries. We need to do the right thing, not the economically and politically beneficial thing.