I visited Palestine with a small group for a week in early November 2006. The tour was arranged by The Olive Co-op, http://www.olivecoop.com/ and had an agricultural theme. Although I knew about the situation in Palestine, and indeed had been prompted to visit by hearing a talk from a Jewish peace group in Leicester who had visited at Easter, nonetheless the visit was eye-opening, shocking and at times distressing. At the same time we met many unassuming but dedicated people who were inspiring and we were met with much friendship, hospitality and humour. This is an account of what I saw and heard and the impressions I came away with.
We stayed the first three nights in the Old City of Jerusalem, itself part of East Jerusalem and of Palestine and the West Bank. This medieval walled city is very beautiful, full of ancient market stalls and arched alley ways; it is the centre of three religions: the wailing wall at the remains of the Jewish Temple, the site of the crucifixion and burial of Christ, and the place where Mohammed was lifted up to heaven. The old City has about 40,000 residents including 500 Armenians, 3000 Jews and some 35,000 Palestinian Christians and Moslems. There is an army and police presence (we were stopped going up to the temple mount where the two Mosques are), but most of the Old City is traffic free and people of different faiths walk around in different dress harmoniously, even if they do not seem to intermingle.
The Old City is the centre of Jerusalem and all the area to the East of it is Palestinian. About 200,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem (compared to about 2 Million in the rest of the West Bank and about 1.3M in Gaza). Palestinians in East Jerusalem do not have Israeli citizenship (unlike Arab Israelis who live in Israel proper), but they do have the right to travel between the West Bank and East Jerusalem through the new annexation (or separation) wall. No Palestinian resident on the West Bank side of the wall can enter East Jerusalem or Israel without a special permit, which is difficult to obtain. Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem who move elsewhere lose their rights of residence.
Therefore young Palestinians build houses in East Jerusalem as their families grow. It is extremely difficult to get permits to build these houses (cost of permit is about $22,000) and therefore houses built without permits are regularly demolished by the authorities at very short notice. About 10,000 houses are awaiting demolition and these families live with a high level of insecurity. If families move to Bethlehem, some six miles away and build there, it is the other side of the wall and they lose their right to Jerusalem residence or to ever return. At the same time new large scale Israeli settlements are being built in East Jerusalem, cutting the Palestinian City off from the West Bank. The Wall is annexing all of East Jerusalem and substantial chunks of the West Bank to Israel. The house demolition policy is part of a policy to ‘encourage’ Palestinians to leave East Jerusalem. Other aspects of this policy are a lack of public services such as refuse collection and road building, and inadequate water supplies in Palestinian areas.
Jimmy, a Jewish American, from ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), showed us round East Jerusalem, including where the wall bisects the Palestinian town of Abu Dis. Here the wall is about twenty feet high of bare grey concrete and looks intimidating and ugly. Its base has graffiti along much of this section, including “Warsaw ghetto = Abu Dis ghetto” and “Milton Keynes, England, supports Palestine”. The wall is built deep into West Bank territory where Israeli settlements have been built or are planned. These settlements are well planned new towns with new roads, landscaping (lawns, trees and bushes in an arid area) and subsidised housing. Settlements are built on high land and always begin with fortified police stations overlooking land below. Settlements are water hungry (the 15% Israeli population of the West Bank use 85% 0f the water supply, which is Israeli controlled).
At the far end of the larger settlements, deep into the Palestinian West Bank, industrial zones are built. Palestinians are allowed entry to these zones to work. Although Israel considers all the Palestinian territories to be basically Israel, when it suits them this can be changed. In these industrial zones, Israeli companies do not have to pay the Israeli minimum wage or follow Israeli health and safety laws because the zones are not in Israeli. This is naked colonilisation.
In talking to Jimmy, it became clear that things have changed for the worst in Israel and Palestine since the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000 when Ariel Sharon went to the Wailing Wall and told supporters that Israel would never give up the Temple Mount (where the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosques sit). Until then, there had been a period of detente following the Oslo peace agreement in 1993, with Palestinian young men appearing in Israeli fashion magazines and many thousands of Israelis marching for peace. The effect of the many deaths over the last 6 years, including the suicide bombings, had increased everyone’s fear and weakened all opposition to Israeli military and government policy towards Palestine. Therefore, Israeli peace organisations such as ICAHD are small and not well reported in the Israeli media. Indeed the Israeli media seems to have turned its back on Human Rights issues for Palestinians and the Israeli public generally to not seek to find out what is happening in Palestinian territories. The government has effectively used the need for security to stifle information and debate.
Despite this, Jimmy was optimistic, taking a long-term view about the non sustainability of Israeli policy and its over dependence on US support. He did cite one reason for continuing US and Western support as the growing importance of the very high tech Israeli arms industry and the use of this technology in many US and Western weapons systems.
Later that day we walked across Jerusalem to find Bet-Selem, http://www.btselem.org/English/index.asp, an Israeli human rights group on the fourth floor of an office block in the suburbs. We were welcomed with tea and browsed through their publications. These publications document human rights abuses on both sides, but these publications seem better known to international human rights organisations than to the Israeli media and public. The worker on reception told us that she had worked there seven years, loved her job and strongly believed in her work, but had never told her aunt where she worked, because her aunt would be shocked.
That evening Mordechai Vanunu, the man who revealed the secrets of Israel’s nuclear weapons to the Sunday Times, was kidnapped in Rome by Israeli agents and the served 18 years in jail, joined us for dinner and told his story www.vanunu.com. He now lives in East Jerusalem and is not allowed to leave.
Next day we drove out of East Jerusalem into the West Bank city and current Palestinian capital, Ramallah, a crowded, noisy and lively place. Once the other side of the wall, the roads become dustier and pot-holed (unless you are on a settler highway), the cars older and battered and the buildings plainer with an unfinished look and water tanks on the roofs to conserve supplies. Yellow taxis predominate. In Israel and East Jerusalem all cars have yellow number plates and these can go anywhere in Israel or Palestine. In the West Bank, Palestinian cars have green number plates and are subject to long delays at numerous check points (yellow-plated cars skip the queues) and can never enter East Jerusalem or Israel. At major check points at the wall you have to get out of the Palestinian taxi and walk across. The 200,000 or so people in Ramallah live 10 miles from Jerusalem but can never go there. However the shops are full of food and goods. 80% of everything on sale comes from Israel. Palestine presents a captive colonial market for Israeli goods.
In Ramallah we visited Al Haq, http://asp.alhaq.org/zalhaq/site/home.aspx?ln=en, a human rights organisations seeking to document abuses on all sides. Several of its staff had been imprisoned (people can be held on administrative detention for six months and this can be renewed many times – detention without trial) or refused permission to travel outside their town of residence. One young woman, recently returned from university in England, told as that on entering Palestine she was told that she would have to apply to the Israel military for a permit to leave. After several visits to the military commander where she was made to wait and subject to verbal sexual harassment, she was told she could leave Palestine. When she got to the border she was turned back. This happened several times and eventually she told the commander that she refused to humiliate herself further. At this point she was told that if she ‘informed’ on what was going on in Ramallah, she would be able to travel whenever she liked. She refused, so cannot leave.
We then visited the office of the Palestinian Olive tree association AlZaytouna http://www.zaytouna.org.ps/, which provides agricultural development and training and buys olive oil rom several olive farmers’ co-ops in central Palestine to export to western organisations. The olive tree is said to originate from the Eastern Mediterranean and the world’s oldest trees are said to be found in Palestine, some over 1000 years old. On the way to Ramallah we saw olive trees that had been cut down to their roots, whole fields of them, by the Israelis. This land was about to be incorporated into settler developments.
Olive oil production is a mainstay of Palestinian agriculture with some 20,000 tonnes being produced each year. Only about 5000 tonnes are consumed locally and about 3000 tonnes are sent as gifts to relatives in other Middle East countries. Some oil is used to make other products such as soap, but there is still over production and the military occupation makes the development of export markets very difficult. Export to Israel has almost ceased. In the last few years AlZaytouna and others have focused on developing farmers’ co-operatives and on improving the quality of the oil to get a better price in Western markets. About 1000 tonnes now go to Europe and North America. AlZaytouna also carry out research, for example, into how to minimise the pest olive fly whilst remaining organic. We also discussed Delta 5, a European Union acidity level standard that appeared to operate as a trade barrier in the EU definition of extra virgin olive oil. AlZaytouna are doing research to overcome this.
We later visited a Palestinian women’s group making craft goods and doing education work in a village near Salfit. A large Israeli settlement extended for many miles along a ridge into the West Bank here, cutting the northern villages off from the southern. We were joined by a member of an international women’s group living in a house nearby, who act as witnesses at Israeli checkpoints to try to prevent harassment and maltreatment of Palestinian travellers.
Next day, we left East Jerusalem and travelled to Nablus via Jericho and the Jordan Valley. This was the first day we really experienced the checkpoints that cut off villages and towns and control all Palestinian movement across the West Bank. After travelling through the hills of the West Bank for 20 miles or so, you descend to the broad, flat and fertile Jordan Valley, well below sea level, with the hills of Jordan on the other side. Despite being as far as you can get from Israel, the Israeli occupation and Israeli control of land is everywhere. Jericho itself is a Palestinian town surrounded by checkpoints controlling entry and exit.
There we visited a YMCA college for young people with special needs (aged about 12 to 20) to learn vocational skills and support into employment. Courses ranged from carpentry and car maintenance to computer graphics and design. A boarding school was attached as the college took pupils from across Palestine. Up to four years ago 40% of the college’s income came from selling and exporting carpentry products, but these markets had tried up because of the difficulties in transporting goods in the occupation and the lack of internal customers because of the collapse of the local economy. The impression was of dedicated and innovative work against over-whelming odds and very limited resources. The lack of money meant that the college was only operating at a third of its capacity and it was finding it increasingly difficult to place leavers in employment.
We then travelled up the Jordan Valley, passing well-irrigated large Israeli fruit and vegetable farms (especially date palms) surrounded by electric fences. We saw Palestinian villages where only one road into and out of the village remained and this was controlled by an Israeli gate. We visited Palestinian farmers in a village in a side valley. They were struggling to survive because of inadequate water for crops, especially in summer, the difficulty in getting produce to internal markets because of the road blocks and the lack of capital to buy simple things like polythene sheets and frames.
Palestinian land can be confiscated in a number of ways. Prior to 1948 most Palestinians did not have land deeds. Land was handed down in families and the community knew who owned what. Between 1948 and 1967, under Jordanian rule, Jordan began to register land and give deeds. They started in the north and had completed less than half this work by the 1967 war. Hence there are far less Israeli settlements in the north (around Jenin) because families had proof of ownership.
If Palestinians cannot prove land ownership, despite having lived there for many decades, the land can be confiscated. If Palestinian farmers give up the struggle to farm their land and go away to find paid work, the land can be confiscated after 5 years. The building of the annexation wall for example, or the checkpoints, in many places prevent Palestinians farming their land. Sometimes the Israeli’s cut down the olive trees (a main Palestinian crop) to ground level, making that land uncultivatable. It is then confiscated for Israeli development. Having taken chunks of land, if a Palestinian farmer has land or a farm or house in the middle of it, this land will be confiscated for ‘security purposes’.
Thus land has been appropriated for Israeli settlements (large new towns of up to 60,000 people spread over many sq miles) or for Israeli farms owned by big business (Carmel), employing Palestinian labour at below the Israeli minimum wage. Such large industrial farms now dominate the Jordan Valley and side valleys and the Palestinian farmers are being pushed more and more to the margins. This process has accelerated in the last 5 years and an important factor is Israeli control of water in this fertile but arid region. Local Palestinian wells are destroyed or poisoned by Israeli soldiers. Sewage and refuse from the large Israeli settlements is dumped outside the settlement on Palestinian land, causing contamination. As I looked across the valley and accepted the hospitality of the farmers, I could envisage that there would be no Palestinian farmers left in the Jordan valley in another 5 years. They would all have migrated to cities for work or be low wage labourers on Israeli farms. However, we were accompanied on this visit by a project worker from the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, www.uawc.net, who are working to support farmers through better organisation, advice and information, small capital loans and support to access markets.
We then travelled the long way round going south back to Jericho, then west, then north again to Nablus (it was only a few miles from the farm village to Nablus through the hills but the Israelis had permanently closed that road). At the checkpoint in Nablus we had to leave our taxi as no Palestinian can enter or leave Nablus without a specific permit. It is very hard for any man between 15 and 30 years old to get a permit to leave Nablus. We stayed in the old city in the heart of Nablus. The Old City has a large, vibrant and thriving market (80% Israeli imported goods) and a crumbling and impoverished historical centre of walls, mosques, churches, baths and old houses. The whole city of some 200,000, blockaded from the outside world, retains a strong sense of its own identity and culture.
That evening we met the Canadian founder of Project Hope, a voluntary educational project jn Nablus, which places international volunteers in schools and colleges. The story goes that he set up Project Hope as a result of watching TV. He was working in Saudi Arabia and watching the news on CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera. Although he couldn’t understand Arabic, he could see from the pictures on Al-Jazeera that things were happening in Palestine that weren’t being shown on CNN and BBC. This prompted him to visit Nablus, which led to the setting up of Project Hope, a project run on a shoestring by a group of Palestinians committed to building education and civil society and cross-cultural exchange. We met many people like this, working courageously in small ways to counter the effects of military occupation and economic blockade.
The next morning, we visited Balata refugee camp - http://www.balatacamp.net/website/balata.htm, now a suburb of Nablus, where since 1952 refugees from Jaffa (Tel Aviv) have lived. Balata is less than one sq kilometre in size and home to 22,000 people, many of them children and young people. The houses are mainly built as one storey concrete blocks with corrugated iron roofing. There are narrow alleyways between the houses. These alleyways have been the scene of many deaths over the last five years especially during periods when the Israelis have occupied the camp, imposing curfews and demolishing houses. The Israelis continue to enter the camp every night from about 3 a.m. Palestinian fighters appear on the streets about 11p.m. each night. The camp has a very young population and there are groups of boys aged 6 or 7 on street corners everywhere with bits of wood fashioned into toy guns. These children are woken each night by gunfire and explosions.
Services such as schools are run by the U.N. and there are several Arts and cultural projects to help young people develop creatively, but the pressure of Balata is intense, especially on young men. At the same time, there is a very strong community spirit and sense of solidarity between residents of all ages. Unemployment is said to be 80%, but new technology has nonetheless transformed people’s lives as elsewhere, with mobile phones and the Internet connecting people to the outside world and allowing their story to be told, even if people cannot physically travel. The refugee camps are places where Palestinian culture is strongly preserved, such as debkeh, traditional Palestinian dance, and embroidery, and such cultural activities, as well as adherence to Islam, are ways of resisting occupation and asserting one’s own identity.
And there is resistance in other ways. We were told that many of the new cars (many are yellow taxis) in Nablus and elsewhere in Palestine are stolen in Israel and driven over by Israeli Arabs (it is easy to drive Israeli plated cars through checkpoints – they are allowed to jump queues) and then sold. It was hard to understand how the economy worked, especially as the Israelis, the Americans and the EU have all with held Palestinian Authority funding for the last ten months (since Hamas won the elections), so 140,000 civil servants, teachers and others have not been paid. There must be a thriving black market.
We arrived at Balata camp the morning after a family of 19 had been killed by Israeli missiles in Gaza and a further 5 people had been killed near Jenin (in all some 80 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the week of our visit). The loudspeakers began calling people to a protest march in the city centre that afternoon. Later that day, we were prevented walking through the old city by an angry Hamas fighter, so we sat in the hotel listening to the demonstration accompanied by gunfire in the air. That night there was a lot of gunfire and explosions from about three to five in the morning. This day in Balata and Nablus gave us all a strong impression of what it is like to live in a war zone. We were able to leave after two nights, whereas young and old in Nablus have to live with this every night.
That evening we returned to Balata camp and met a young Palestinian man who, rather nervously, talked about life in Balata. He relaxed later as he talked of his two years in prison, the difficult conditions and the comradeship, including his admiration for one prisoner serving a lifetime sentence who inspired others by his calmness and his ability to ‘live in the moment’.
There are some 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, many held under administrative detention (renewable each 6 months) without charge or trial. Everyone in Balata seems to have a friend or relative in prison. It can take years to get a permit to visit a prisoner, and then you have to set off at 3.00 a.m., travel in a convoy of special busses and endure many hours delay at checkpoints. You might get to see your relative for 20 minutes through a thick plate window and talk to him through the telephone. No physical contact is permitted. Then you have the 12 hour journey back home. Even when you have a permit, your visit isn’t certain.. We were told of someone in Balata who had waited three years to get a permit to visit his cousin. That very day he had left at three in the morning, but all the buses were turned back at the border because of the killings in Gaza. It would take this young man at least two years to get another permit.
While in Nablus, we met a party of 17 Norwegian teachers and councillors from Stavanger, which is twinned with Nablus. The twinning has been in place for twenty years and Stavanger Council send a party every year. Five secondary schools in Stavanger are directly twinned with schools in Nablus. In the spring Palestinian students will travel to Norway, to live with local families and spend a few weeks in their twinned school. Stavanger is also twinned with Netanya in Israel, but the links are not as strong there, and other Norwegian cities are twinned with other Palestinian ones. It is difficult to imagine this commitment to twinning from a British local authority, without complaint from the media and some council tax payers. The Norwegians received a very warm welcome from the City Council and were shown at length on local TV. Their visit was much appreciated. Even so, the Norwegian ambassador to Israel had a lot of trouble getting through the checkpoints to meet them.
The following day we travelled (walking through the Nablus checkpoint and changing taxis) to Jenin and a meeting with Palestinian Fair Trade Association PFTA , who have supported the creation of 17 olive oil farmers co-operatives and encouraged farmers to concentrate on the production of high quality extra virgin and organic olive oil, which PFTA buy up-front for export to Europe and North America. Although the international fair trade movement has no fair trade label for olive oil (not much produced in the global south), PFTA have produced ethical guidelines for production, covering workers pay, health and safety, product quality etc. PFTA run awareness programmes for farmers and have established a democratic structure whereby co-ops and other stakeholders are represented on policy-making forums. Farmers get 27% of the export price of the oil, which compares favourably with Fair trade coffee (only 12% evidently).
We then spent an enjoyable afternoon in the sun, picking olives with a large Palestinian extended family, followed by lots of food and hospitality when we stayed at their home over night. This family are relatively well off, owning over 1000 olive trees, but they live close to the Israeli border, and many of their trees are on the other side. This wasn’t a problem until the last few years when the Israelis built a high, electrified fence along the border, cutting this village off from its sister Arab-Israeli village a mile away. The farmer has a permit to cross the border to harvest his olives from September until December and there is a gate. However the gate is unstaffed and no one ever knows when the Israeli army will turn up to open it, so in effect the permit is useless. His relatives in Israeli pick the olives and send him half the proceeds.
The last day was spent travelling back to Jerusalem, a journey of some 50 miles that took 3 to 4 hours because of the numerous and long queues at checkpoints (and this was a Friday, the Moslem day of rest). The people in the car in front of us at several checkpoints, worked for the Palestinian Authority, but had not been paid for ten months. Although teachers had just gone back to work after a three month strike, the man who worked at the Ministry of Education thought that they would not be back at work for long because there was no money to pay them. His companion who worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was even more pessimistic. ‘The Palestinian Authority will have collapsed in three months time,’ he said. ‘It will no longer exist. The Israelis will then have a free hand.’
We never had much difficulty passing through the checkpoints ourselves. When the soldiers saw that we were ‘internationals’, they generally waved as through, a few expressing some bewilderment about why we would want to be in Palestine at all. The most we were hassled was at Tel Aviv airport, on departure, when we were questioned about where we had been and why, and we were unsure what story to give. It made us feel as if visiting Palestine was some sort of illegal activity in itself, and it demonstrated the gulf in knowledge and understanding between Israeli citizens and the reality of daily life in Palestine just a few miles away. I felt that if ordinary Israeli citizens had undertaken the visit to Palestine that we had, they too would have warmed to the people we met, to their stories and their plight and to their humour and courage, and they would have been appalled at the circumstances in which the Palestinians have to live. But such is the mistrust and propaganda built up over the last six years, it is now difficult for ordinary Israelis to see Palestinians as people just like themselves.
One Palestinian view presented to us, was that the Israeli state has always been in the hands of a tiny political, military and business elite, and it is this group that primarily profits economically from the large settler housing developments and agricultural expansion in Palestinian land. The underlying policy of this group is to squeeze Palestinians into a smaller and smaller space, making life as difficult as possible, in the hope that many will leave altogether.
Although our visit was not looking at the political situation nor directly at the conflict, but rather focused on agriculture and economic development, at least three separate people told us that in their view, the only feasible long-term solution was a ‘One-state solution’ where all Israeli’s and Palestinians live together in one state, with equal rights to education, economic development, land ownership and travel for all. Whether such a solution will ever be acceptable to the Israelis, whose founding principle for the State of Israel is a Jewish State, seems unlikely, but Israeli policy – land expropriation, economic blockade, restriction of movement etc – is making a future
Palestinian state unviable. Israeli policy is creating short-term improved security at the expense of any longer term solution.
On returning to Britain, to our safe and comfortable existence, it is easy to dismiss the experience as a week’s holiday. However there are things that we can do here that may help in a small way. Buy Palestinian olive oil and other produce, see website for a list of suppliers local to you - http://www.zaytoun.org/.
Impartial information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including history and maps: http://www.israelipalestinianprocon.org/
For events and campaign activity see: http://www.palestinecampaign.org/
Alastair Gibbons – December 2006
Inspiring - need to hear more factual personal accounts.
The killing has intensified on the 'road to Peace' - check out this song (Tom Waits).
L Hoppstubbe M