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Israel + Palestine travel diary

I (via takeaction list) | 15.01.2004 21:32 | Oxford

Travel reports from an Oxford activist in Palestine & Israel (originally sent to takeaction_2002 email list, and copied here).

27 Dec 2003 - the wall

Festive new year greetings...

Am currently in Qalqilya, and went on a demo against the wall this
morning. Got some interesting interviews with an old farmer whose land
was stolen and some kids who showed us around. The soliders were firing
plenty of tear gas canisters, one of which came flying towards me but
veered off course at the last second. Should make interesting viewing so
long as my fear induced expletives are deleted. A few people were treated
for tear gas inhalation, and I got footage of one 12 year old boy in the
ambulance. There were plenty of internationals and press there, so no
major moves from the IDF. Although a tank was visible in the distance, it
didn't approach. The wall is basically about 8 metres high and made of
concrete slabs, with cameras every 50m and watchtowers more sporadically.
In the distance, a group of Israelis had stopped and got out of their cars
to watch from the side of a road which leads to an illegal settlement.

Yesterday we came into Qalqilya from Nablus, having stayed in Balata camp
for two nights. We interviewed a few people, but it was quiet all the
time we were there. Tried to get out at the checkpoint in the morning,
and the soldiers told us we weren't allowed out, despite then saying that
it was illegal for tourists to be in Balata. Logic Israeli military style
I guess? Three of them were pleasant enough, but one guy was a real
idiot, the kind of moron that should never be given a gun. He was very
aggressive towards us, and more so to Palestinians who were trying to
leave the town.

Came out over the mountains anyhow, via several cars, vans and a bit of
walking. Spoke to a guy from Najar University in Nablus, who studies
economics. Said that during the intifada its very difficult to go to uni
because of the curfew. Tried to make the fence smashing demo at Mass'a,
but were delayed and missed it. An Israeli protester was shot in both
legs, and an international (American girl I think) had a small shrapnel

This really is not what I came to do. If the Israelis just let me visit
the peace centre in Gaza then I wouldn't be here filming them treating
Palestinians like shit. Everyone in Qalqilya talks of the fact that the
wall completely surrounds their town, and that there's only one gate
controlled by the IDF. They call it a prison.

Watched a bit of news last night at the place of the guys we're staying
with. Lots of people invite us in for tea and food, and then to stay.
It's an honour for them apparently. The difference between BBC World
showing mourning Israelis and the militants in Gaza with guns at a funeral
is so different from Jazeera / Al-Aribiya, which actually have crying
Palestinians as well. I wonder if today's peace march will make the BBC?
Also saw coverage of the Iranian earthquake. Not good.

The plan is to stay here tonight, go to Ramallah tomorrow, and then on to
Jerusalem, where hopefully I'll be able to meet a guy called Fabrizio from
an NGO, who might help me to get into Gaza in Jan - hopefully asap.

Have brought up the issue of 2 state / 1 state solution with a few people,
and their reactions are mixed. They say they want freedom and peace. The
daily grind of checkpoints, little employment etc is creating resentment.
They say that the militants may agree to Israel's continued existence, if
peace and security can be assured for Palestinians in a free and peaceful
state, without incursions, assinations and curfews etc

Also, the bomber in Tel Aviv the other day was the cousin of someone who
was killed in Balata camp. It's a pointless endless cycle of vendetta,
but with Israel killing more Palestinians, taking more land, destroying
more houses.

Anyhow, having a great time and enjoying the hospitality of the
Palestinians. Hope you're all well, bye, I.


30 Dec 2003 - Ramallah

Hello all

Am currently in Ramallah, and it's a welcome change. Had my first beer
since midnight on Christmas Eve GMT - the internationally omnipresent Amstel
of course - but tasty all the same. Quite an extended dry period of nearly
five days! Have met the cousin of someone we stayed with in Qalqilya, and
he has showed us around a bit.

Ramallah is a much more cosmopolitan, less conservative place than Nablus or
Qalqilya, with plenty of foreigners. Stayed in a fairly plush hotel last
night as all the hostels were full, and even for tonight have a margainlly
cheaper hotel room. Have learnt to play an Arabic version of backgammon,
and also taught some guys the other night the game I'm used to.

And now for politics....

Had to change taxis at a checkpoint on the way to Ramallah yesterday. The
only person around to ask was an Israeli settler who was stood quite
casually waiting for a bus with a semi-automatic weapon slung around his
shoulders like it was a handbag. When he pointed to where we should wait
for a taxi, he expressed his concern for our safety, as there were some
Palestinians also waiting there. I think he honestly thought that we'd feel
safer stood next to an illegal settler who's such a target of hate that he
needs to arm himself with a gun, than next to some Palestinians guys with
whom we crammed into a taxi, and shared their satsumas. Suppose British
people aren't used to seeing guns, although in the last few years more and
more police (especially at airports) carry them, but this guy was the first
ever openly armed 'civilian' I've ever seen.

Met a guy the other night who'd just been released from jail that day - he
looked pretty scared, and I cannot imagine what crime he has committed - he
said the Israelis gave no reason. He was in his early 20's, wore specs and
looked like a bit of a wimp - reminded me of me a bit.

Progress on getting into Gaza is looking 50-50 - lots of unknown factors.
All the hassle I've had in travelling (and not being able to travel) around
a country not much bigger than Devon is proving very frustrating. And
that's one week - I feel I'm running out of things to say to people who tell
us their stories but they've had to put up with it for years, even decades.

A two state solution with pre-1967 borders seems to be accepted by the vast
majority of Palestinians - certainly all that we've spoken to - and from
what they say, all but a tiny minority. But while the occupation continues,
this tiny minority can still count on some support for voilenty reisistance.
I think the bottom line is that although many wouldn't be entirely happy
with a two state solution, they recognise that its the best they're going to
get, and are willing to compromise. But the terms offered so far by Israel
/ USA - Oslo aggreement in 1994 and the current 'roadmap' - ask for so much
that even the most concilliatory Palestinians can garner little support for
them. If the Palestinians are already willing to concede a little, why
expect them to concede even more? Unless you have overwhelming military

Anyhow, that's the gist of many conversations I've had with Palestinians
over the last few days.

So, am home in about a week. Looking forward to seeing some of you very
soon, and others when the time comes.

Hope new year is good - I'l probably be in Jerusalem, or maybe stay out all
night in Tel Aviv.

Take care, I


01 Jan 2004 - New Year's Eve with Yassir Arafat


Am currently in Jerusalem, having travelled from Ramallah just a few hours
ago. Joked a bit with some soldiers at the first checkpoint out of Ramallah
- pretty girls wearing makeup and M16's. We asked if we could take a photo
with them, but they weren't willing to agree. Then on the other side of the
checkpoint, my friend took some photos but was asked to delete them by a
soldier. The trick of saying 'but we're only tourists' with an innocent
face doesn't really wash. One of them asked, 'what is that?' pointing
directly at his camera, to which he answered 'erm...it's a ca-me-ra', with
just the right amount of sarcasm to make the point of what a stupid question
it was but not enough to really piss them off.

So having already had to change taxi for what is a 15km trip, we then went
through a second checkpoint. Here the soldiers (men) were a lot more
suspicious. I got some good footage over our driver's shoulder of a solider
searching the car in front. I know it's nothing major, but these daily
hassles just to go about their everyday lives really annoy Palestinian
people. It's also sort of embarassing that as internationals we get waved
through checkpoints with professionalism and good humour, whilst in front or
behind, some Palestinian is grovelling to pass so they can visit friends /
family / go to work etc, only to be denied.

Counted in the New Year (10pm British time) in Midan Manara - the central
square in Ramallah - a sort of Trafalgar Square only smaller and with much
more rubbish in the fountains. Met a guy who's lived in Chicago most of his
life, but who is Palestinian. He was telling us of his dilemma, in that he
wants to go back to the US, but is worried he'll be denied re-entry to

Earlier in the evening we bagged an invite to the 37th anniversary
celebrations of Fatah, the Palestinian political organisation of which
Yassir Arafat is leader. We were in a yard in his compound which was
beseiged and largely demolished by the Israeli military last year. There
were musicians, lots of flags, a band with drums and cymbals, and young men
and women dancing, wearing what I presume is traditional Palestinian dress.

Then at an upper window Arafat appeared, before coming down into the yard to
speak to the crowd for about ten minutes. After a lot of hanging around, we
got in to meet with him with about 50 other internationals, one of whom was
an American girl who had suffered a shrapnel wound at the gate demonstration
at Mass'a a few days earlier. Felt like a bit of a propaganda pawn, as the
whole thing was videoed, and a few hours later when we got back to the
hotel, the manager had already seen us on TV.

Arafat's left index finger shakes a lots when he holds his hand up whilst
speaking, which is a little offputting, but his English is very good. I
thought he was a bit rude to some of his assisstants - he needlessly spoke
over and interrupted Mustafa Barghouti several times as if to make a
personal point about power. The only actual international who spoke was not
listened to by Arafat, who interrupted him and started talking about
something else. It was very surreal anyhow - 8.20 New Year's Eve and I'm
shaking Yassir Arafat's hand instead of preparing to celebrate New Year.
But we managed that fine later in the evening anyhow, with the help of a
meal - Fatoosh salad for me - and then a few beers, cigarettes and pretzels
back in the hotel.

So anyway, I saw a copy of the Jerusalem Post in the hostel we just checked
into, and after reading about the deported (Green!!) Swedish MP who we met
in Qalqilya just a few days earlier, it was encouraging to read that the
soldier who shot Tom Hurndall has apparently admitted that he was shooting
at what he knew to be a civilian as a 'deterrent', whereas the previous
story was that he belived he was shooting at someone who was armed. I
didn't realise, but this soldier is in the military 'justice' system, and
his suspension has now been extended. The other big Israel specific media
story seems to be the fall in the number of immigrants this year, which
seems promising, although in the news the other day there was a story about
increasing the settlements in the Golan Heights. Mmmmm. Well that's
exactly what's needed for any chance of peace...?

Re. getting into Gaza, after certain doors being closed, I've just met
someone with whom I might be able to get in, and will have to see about it
tomorrow, with a plan of going on Saturday morning. Apparently the more
senior officers take the Sabbath off and therefore it's easier to get in -
so I guess as an atheist, religion does have some benefits for me after all!

Am shortly off to fraternise and with some Israeli's in West Jerusalem, and
grab a beer or two. I also heard that something was happening in Hebron
today, so if Gaza fails, that'll probably be the plan.

Anyhow, happy 2004, and may it be better than it's predecessors.


03 Jan 2004 - BBQ Israeli Settler style


Lying to Israelis when they ask you why you're here does have the benefit
that they open up more if they think you're not sympathetic to the
Palestinian cause, although I hate the idea that they might think that I
fully support Israel.

Anyway, last night a girl who works behind the bar in Mike's Place in West
Jerusalem told an interesting story to me and Darren - a guy I met yesterday
from a town near Wrexham. Her boyfriend used to live in a settlement where
there were very few people - just a few families on a hilltop site.
Apparently a Palestinian was shot by one of the settlers as he approached
with a gun, which is apparently legal, but then instead of calling the
police or following whatever is the proper procedure, the settler proceeded
to chop up and roast the body parts of the dead Palestinian, and send the
whole lot back to his family on a platter, complete with garnishing.

She said that the Israeli settler was put in jail, as soldiers and settlers
are supposed to respect the burial rites of the culture of whoever they kill
(how nice!) but that it didn't make the media as this sort of thing
obviously looks bad. Not sure if it's a common Israeli urban myth, but she
seemed pretty genuine and appeared to believe it herself.

Many Israelis that I have told about visiting places in the West Bank seem
amazed that I'm so 'brave' and can't really understand why anyone would want
to go there. But walking around in West Bank towns feels incredibly safe in
terms of people not wanting to start a fight with you as in Britain. And I
don't know whether its an inherent trait or if the oppression brings out the
best in Palestinians, but they are so much friendlier than the Israelis.
Last night whilst out drinking with Darren, nobody made any effort to chat
with us or give us the time of day, and even when we approached people, they
were very cold towards us. It's a weird feeling, and makes you feel like a
real outsider. Not everyone is like this, but the vast majority. It's a
huge contrast to Palestinians.


05 Jan 2004 - Bethlehem and the Knesset

Hello all

Am currently in Jerusalem, and have now given up at any attempts at getting
into Gaza. Everyone I speak to in the hostel who's tried has been turned
away, some several times. It's also a lot of money to actually get there,
even though it's not that far (maybe 40ish k) so I don't want to waste a day
and loads of money only to be turned away, and there's no chance of sneaking
in down some back road as you sometimes can with other places, as the whole
place is sealed off apparently, and the only way in or out is at the whim of
the soldiers at checkpoints.

Yesterday I went to Bethlehem and visited the Church of the Nativity,
allegedly the place of Christ's birth. It was very quiet in terms of
tourists, which made it preferable in one way, but seeing shop after shop
full of merchandise with no one to buy it makes you sympathise with the
locals. I don't see how many will survive, and expect many businesses to go
under in the next few years unless tourism picks up again.

Anyhow, I didn't feel a great deal of emotion, because apart from being a
non-believer, I find it difficult to believe that the extact place of JC's
actual birth (and just across the chapel where he was laid in the manger)
could be determined with such a long gap between the event and the founding
of the church. I suppose that as some famous philosopher who I can't
remember said about god, if it didn't exist, it'd be necessary to invent it.
Incidentally, there is a woman called Tina is the hostel who believes the
earth is only 6000 years old, that homosexuality is an abomination, and that
is only everyone in the world accepted Jesus into their hearts, then
everyone would be fine. My friend Ray's arguments about fair trade et al
didn't go down too well. Too many weird people in Jeruslaem to stay for too

Some people I spoke to who went to Bethlehem today said the secuirty was
tight, as tomorrow it's Christmas Day all over again - Orthodox though. I
think there's actually three altogether.

So after a brief tourist sojourn, we (a friend Sara - half Eygptian, half
British) then went to Aida refugee camp (750 families, so maybe nearly 7,500
people), and visited a community centre which holds all sorts of classes for
kids in the camp, and last year toured with a stage production - some sort
of play / musical thing. Many of the walls in the camp had also been
decorated with colourful murals depicting various landscape / street scenes
also painted by kids from the centre, and seeing these made a nice change to
the still ubiquitous posters of marytrs which you see all over Palestine(not
just bombers, but also civilians - many kids and old people who've been shot
by the IDF)

Someone Sara knew showed us around the camp. Most interesting was a patch
of land which used to be filled with Olive Trees and where our guide used to
play with his friends as a boy. But now nearly all the trees have gone, and
there is a tract of land maybe 30 metres wide which is covered in compacted
rubble - the route of the impending wall. Farther along from the camp, we
saw three 2m high fences - the first stage of the barrier. These fences are
dismantled as the wall is errected, but our guide told us that the company
which had been building the wall had withdrawn from the contract because it
felt its staff were endangered by the kids throwing stones whenever they
turned up to work. He said it's due to be completed in about the next 1.5

Walking out towards the checkpoint, I sustained my first injury of this trip
by walking into a lowhanging branch in the dark which resulted in a small
cut to my head. This is actually a serious point, as the camps have no
street lighting, whereas at night, the illegal settlements are brighly lit
up. This fits with my experience a few weeks ago, when looking out from
Deir Balut (which is high up) the contrast between the well lit Israeli
towns of Tel Aviv and Haifa and the whole coastal plain was in stark
contrast to the blackness of the West Bank. Many of the hills around
Bethlehem are now covered in settlements, which are similar in appearance to
the Spanish resort style concrete monstrosities, and apart from politics,
and a real blot on the landscape. Below the walls which surround them, the
vegetation has also been ripped up to provide clear lines of sight should
any Palestinians try anything. MOre Olive trees and therefore Palestinian
economy destoyed.

So today I went to Schindlers Grave, and was accosted by a woman visiting
her mother and brother I think, and who wanted to explain all about them to
me, despite the language barrier. As I came back past her, she was having a
huge argument with them, shouting at the headstones.

Then I walked well into West Jerusalem and visited the Knesset, wondering
how it compared with Yassir Arafat's place of governance. They had airport
style security, which is actually far more than Arafat's. I could have
easily killed him actually, as I wasn't searched, didn't have to go through
a metal detector, was able to shake his hand and look him in the eye and
with people pulling cameras out of their bags constantly, I don't see how
the few guards there could have reacted to save him.

Anyway, the Knesset was a bit weird. I was there for about 30 mins. 3
people spoke, although there was only ever between 1-3 people actually in
the parliament seats listening. In the public gallery, there was myself,
another man and 7 Hassidic Jews, who got very excited every now and again
about what was being said, but unfortunately they didn't speak English when
I asked them about what was going on. The only words I recognised were
Saddam Hussein, Abu Mazen and Gadaffy (sp?)

So, plan to go to Hebron tomorrow, and then back to UK on Wednesday.

Take care and hope you're well, I

I (via takeaction list)
- Homepage: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/takeaction_2002/

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