getting off the armchair

From Armchair Activist to Activist: Taking a stand for Palestine

Month: October, 2011

Ma’a salama

We’re home. I’m sitting in my office – spare bedroom – with a mug of Yorkshire tea and the promise of a bacon sandwich. It was lovely stepping through the front door, finding that my parents had stocked the fridge ready for our return. Home is such a place of comfort for us; I had no concerns that settlers would have taken up residence in our living room. We spent our last night of ISM work shivering under blankets outside the Al-Kurd family home in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.This is a Palestinian home, except a few years ago a group of Zionist settlers occupied their extension. It’s a bafflingly bizarre situation, with much written about it online. In solidarity with the Al-Kurds – and to offer them some protection – international volunteers spend each night camped on the driveway between their part of the house, and its illegally occupied extension.

I say, ‘camped’. A few weeks ago the tent was attacked and burnt down, so now we sit on chairs beneath an awning. It’s not unheard of for the settlers to throw buckets of shit and vomit on volunteers, or on one occasion some bleach. Beth and I spent two nights here during our stay and thankfully the worst we had to contend with was a very creepy, weird guy staring and singing at us. I have some video, which I’ll upload when my camera’s SD card follows us home in the post.

We were advised to send it ahead of us rather than face difficult questions at the airport. At passport control we were singled out for interrogation, anyway. During our time in Hebron we both had our passports taken and the details recorded by soldiers, so perhaps there was a note on their system? Told to go and sit in a waiting area, we played the part of incredulous tourists. Many ISM volunteers face hours of questioning. Again – we got off lightly. After 45 minutes and a handful of suspicious queries, our passports were stamped and we were permitted to the departure lounge. I’m still none the wiser.

I spent much of the flight from Tel Aviv thinking about the things we did that never made it onto this blog. I didn’t write about the fantastic group of young people that Beth and I gave English lessons to at Hebron university (they’re planning to give political tours of Hebron). I never recorded many, many of the small – and not so small – acts of kindness shown to us by our Palestinian hosts and fellow activists that kept our spirits lifted even when events seemed intent on sinking them.

The writer in me wants to wrap this all up neatly with some brilliantly recondite paragraph, encapsulating the entire struggle. But I wouldn’t know where to start. And anyway, this isn’t the end. Now we’re home we have a responsibility to continue raising awareness; we want to talk about what we saw, we want to bore your arses off at dinner parties. The apartheid in Palestine will only be beaten by international pressure, the pressure that we can put on our own MPs. The Israeli government will not self-regulate.

I’m very thankful to those of you who have been following these entries, and for the many emails and comments we’ve received. These too have been a real source of strength. Please do forward this blog (and our contact details) to anyone who might be interested.

Love, Startle10 and Beth.

P.S. Better to go out with a bang, eh?



We’ll be going back. Insha’Allah

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pussy makes everything better

Sorry that last entry was a bit depressing, wasn’t it? Here is a picture of an ickle bickle stray kitten we seem to have adopted:

… and all is well in the world. Name suggestions gratefully received (though they have to top Yasser Aracat!) Night night.

School’s Out – Part 3

All day I have been hoping that I would be able to post  ‘Back to School’. This morning we stood for a sixth day of protest and all afternoon we’ve been waiting for a statement from the Palestinian Authority to see if the Israeli military would reverse their decision. At 5’oclock the statement came. No joy. I feel very sad and teary.

Here is our report:

18 October 2011 | International Solidarity Movement, West Bank

On 18th October 2011 teachers from Qordoba school stood in protest at checkpoint 56 for a sixth day of resistance against the increased ‘security’ measures imposed upon them by the Israeli occupying forces.

In the past week this peaceful protest has been met with an alarmingly intolerant – and at times violent – response from the Israeli soldiers. On the first day nine young children were hospitalized. By the third day of demonstration the international press had taken up the story. On the fourth day soldiers sought to quash the mounting pressure by using tear gas and sound grenades in the streets of Bab a-Zawyia.

The teachers are also facing pressure from the settlers. In an interview with ISM this morning, the head mistress, Ibtesam Aljondy, explained they had received warnings that if the school was left empty, settlers would occupy the buildings. This threat coupled with the need to return to a normal learning schedule for the children, and concerns for their safety, has led to the school being reopened during the last two days. A handful of teachers and volunteers have been holding lessons whilst up to twelve of their colleagues have continued to demonstrate. The absence of children at the demonstration has resulted in a significantly reduced Press presence.

During the protests negotiations have been taking place between the Palestinian Authority and the District Co-ordination Office of the Israeli occupying forces. This reached an unfavourable conclusion at 5pm today, when Ms Aljondy was telephoned by the PA and told that the DCO are not willing to reverse the new measures; under military law the teachers of Qordoba School will have to pass through the metal detectors in the checkpoint or be refused entry.

ISM volunteers spoke with a source from the PA who wishes to remain anonymous. He expressed disappointment at the situation, stating that for the teachers to be treated in this way gives the wrong impression to their students.

The protests will continue. Ms Aljondy has told ISM that each morning half the teachers will take a substantial detour to reach the school, and half will remain outside the checkpoint to highlight the issue. She has asked ISM for our continued support in this action.

Of course we will give them that support. I feel so sad that tomorrow is to be our last day in Hebron. For me, Qordoba school has defined our time here. I would give anything to be around when it’s resolved, if it’s resolved. I’m tired and it can be hard to stay optimistic in this place.

Tonight we will make placards, in the morning we’ll be there again. One good thing: Beth and I have befriended a Reuters photographer based in Hebron who has kindly agreed to come along and cover it – but then I guess a handful of teachers at a checkpoint is hardly going to make headline news. I wonder if it just seems petty, why not pass through the bloody metal detectors? But that’s the narrative Israel wants – to steal people’s liberty in small, incremental steps that we can all conveniently choose to ignore. Until they have none.

School’s Out – Part 2

This morning – before breakfast, I might add – a group of us headed down to Bab a-Zawyia to show solidarity with the children and teachers of Qordoba school, who were planning a fourth day of peaceful protest against increasingly oppressive security measures at checkpoint 56.

I had dared to hope that all the media attention this has been getting might result in the Israeli military softening their stance.

Evidently not, then. There are usually two Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint. Today there were closer to 30; selfless, brave young men and women heroically defending the state of Israel from a baying mob of seven year olds – and with nothing to protect them but their machine guns.

Most of these soldiers were on the Palestinian side, which is where the school was planning to hold its demonstration and have morning lessons. Beth and I were told we would be arrested simply for trying to pass through the checkpoint to join them.

So we passed through the checkpoint to join them. I’m getting well versed at my ‘I know my rights’ lecture. The part of Shuhada street where the school have been demonstrating had been completely cleared by the military, the children and their teachers were pushed back and dispersed. A number of seriously discontented Palestinian adults remained. Then after a while this happened:

(And yes, that’s me you can hear at the end helpfully telling a man he needs to breathe. I’m a qualified nurse, you see. I know about these things.)

It was a completely insane morning, one of many examples of the occupying forces using absurdly disproportionate tactics to stifle legitimate protest. I am absolutely convinced that if they had simply taken a step back and let the protest happen, it would have remained peaceful – as it has done the previous days. Let’s remind ourselves who the enemy were:

Crazy world. I still haven’t had breakfast. We’ll be writing an official report about this, with details of arrests and more images and video. I’ll post it here when it’s done.

School’s Out

I want to talk about the ongoing school protests at checkpoint 56. I touched upon this in my last post, but the situation is developing all the time. Beth and I have been following events closely; we attend the protests and have also been interviewing people and collecting together photo and video evidence. Yesterday Beth collated all this into a brilliant report. It’s up on the International Solidarity Movement website, which again I urge you all to take a look at. Heck, you could even donate.

Here’s what she wrote:

Thursday 13th October 2011.Third day of Qordoba School Protest and interview with 11 year old Palestinian boy assaulted by the Israeli Police.

Today for the third morning running children and teachers from Qordoba Scool gathered on the H1 side of Checkpoint 56 at 7.30am. The children, with the support of their teachers and the Director of Education in Hebron, Nisreen Amro, peacefully protested against heightened ‘security’ measures that were introduced by the Israeli Army on Tuesday 11th October 2011. The protest was covered by local, National and International press.

School children as young as 6 years old had their lessons outside, sitting on the floor by the checkpoint, standing at intervals to passionately chant; “We will not return, we want our right to education”

The Director of Education in Hebron, representatives from the Governor of Hebron’s office and teachers from Qordoba School attempted to reason with the soldiers, however the army continued to refuse anyone entry through the checkpoint gate. The Israeli Army’s response to the children’s peaceful protest was to send approx 10 soldiers and border police through the checkpoint to push the children further away from the checkpoint entrance.

For the past seven years teachers have had an agreement with the Israeli army that they can pass through the checkpoint gate instead of the metal detectors. However two days ago without giving prior notification the Israeli army changed the rules – they are currently insisting that everyone, including teachers, pregnant women and people with heart complaints/ pace makers must pass through the metal detector.

As previously reported by ISM the children’s impromptu protest on Tuesday 11th October resulted in a number of children requiring hospital treatment after being hit (with the butts of rifles) and kicked by both the Israeli army and the Israeli Police. Initially ISM reported that 7 children were taken to hospital, however today the father of one of the injured children informed ISM that 9 children were taken to hospital with injuries (1 boy and 8 girls). Fortunately all 9 children were able to leave hospital after a few hours.

Today ISM volunteers interviewed 11 year old Yazan Sharbati, one of the boys violently dragged into the checkpoint by an Israeli Police Officer on Tuesday 11th October. Yazan stated; “There were no teachers in the school and so we protested to the army that we wanted our teachers. The army told us to go back to school, we told them that without teachers there is no school.”

Yazan was asked how he felt when the Policeman grabbed him and pushed him into the checkpoint, he replied: “I was so afraid that something bad was going to happen. He pushed me very hard.”

When asked if he intends to continue protesting against the closure of the gate at checkpoint 56 Yazan replied, without hesitation, “Of course”.

The Director of Education for Hebron, Nisreen Amro, told ISM volunteers; “If the Israeli Army do not reverse their decision by Sunday chalkboards will be brought to the checkpoint and lessons will be held here”.

At the end of the protest as ISM volunteers left the checkpoint they observed soldiers refusing to allow a heavily pregnant Palestinian lady through the checkpoint gate; she and her toddler were forced to climb the steep hill next to the checkpoint in order to avoid the metal detector. ISM volunteers will continue to observe and report on any future protests.

.

P.S. I think the Guardian might be covering this too. I’ll be really interested to know their take. Though it’s the Guardian, so I’m guessing it won’t be too different from our own – and with as many spelling mistakes. Moor annon.

Shuhada Street

It’s been a busy couple of days with events moving quicker than my mind can properly process. I have lots to write about but for now I want to show some photos of a famous road in Hebron called Shuhada Street.

Or apartheid street as it is known to Palestinians. Hebron is unique in the West Bank in that there are Zionist Jewish settlements actually within the city centre. This has resulted in the city being divided into two areas; H1 which is under Palestinian control (with a Palestinian police force) and H2 which is under Israeli military control.

There are up to 4000 soldiers in H2 to ‘protect’ a population of around 500 illegal settlers. This photo is from Bab a-Zawia (H1) and just a few metres beyond is Checkpoint 56 leading to H2.

Here, in fact. It’s essentially a portacabin with metal detectors. Until a couple of days ago pregnant women and people with pacemakers were allowed to pass round the side due to health concerns re: the detectors. But the security has now been stepped up and everyone must pass through the cabin. This morning there was a demonstration against this, carried out by a group of Palestinian children and their teachers who have their school on the other side. We were present at the demonstration, Beth shed a quiet tear when the children waved their Palestinian flags and proudly sang songs of protest and patriotism – with gusto! As for the two children in this photo, I’m pretty sure they’re just playing with razor wire.

And this is the checkpoint from the other side. Beth and I sit here for an hour or so in the mornings and  again in the afternoon to do ‘checkpoint watch’. The idea is that the soldiers are less likely to give people hassle if there are international observers (it sometimes seems to work). Under military law the soldiers can detain Palestinians at checkpoints for twenty minutes without giving any reason, but if it goes on longer than that we can try to intervene.

Okay, now lets walk down Shuhada Street.

 

Here we are, having walked maybe 50 metres and you’ll notice yet another (smaller) checkpoint on the left. Hebron is a Palestinian city but no Palestinian people are allowed to go beyond this point. When the three guys you can see on the right reach that metal railing they will have to take a sharp right, up some stone steps, and away…

These steps, in fact. It’s up here that the Palestinian school is, and there are a number of Palestinian properties to which they are refused road access. As internationals we are allowed access and it forms an important part of our ‘Street Patrol’ (or ‘Neighbourhood Watch’, as I’m trying to persuade people to call it – more pleasingly parochial, less A-team).

Shuhada Street used to be the centre of Palestinian life in Hebron, a thriving commercial area. But in the incremental evacuation of the Palestinians (since 1994) all the shops were closed down and the area has been left to wither and die. The night before last Beth and I met for coffee with a Palestinian man who we befriended on our journey here from Ramallah. I showed him these pictures on my camera and he told me that the dilapidated petrol station you can see belonged to his uncle. He remembers playing in Shuhada as a child. He went quiet and asked me to switch the camera off.

About half way down is this military base. Not sure why I took this picture. Possibly because we’re not allowed to photograph military bases and I’m pissed off. In the far, far distance you can just make out a Zionist Jewish settler and his son walking away from us…

… and here they are zoomed in. Note daddy bear is packing serious heat. He’s one of a number of settlers we’ve seen who walk around with machine guns. Supposedly this is to protect themselves from the ‘terrorist’ Palestinians who – of course – are not allowed weapons.

Now we’re at the end of the street, heading towards the Ibraham mosque. Palestinians can rejoin the road here, but still it is divided. Israeli Jewish settlers on the right of the concrete division, Palestinians on the left. Nothing says apartheid quite like making people walk on different sides of the road, does it?

So – why has Shuhada been shut to Palestinians, why have they been forced out of what was a thriving commercial district and main street through the city? I can tell you. In 1994 on the Jewish holiday of Purim during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, 29 men and boys were murdered and a further 200 injured. Were these Jewish people who were massacred? No. They were Palestinians praying in the mosque. Their murderer was the radical Jewish Brooklyn-born physician, Baruch Goldstein, to whom the settlers have created a memorial tribute.

That’s the reason Palestinian people are no longer allowed. Un-fucking-believable.

But it isn’t all about racism here. Sometimes people just like to sit back with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. I’m going to bed.

Al Jab’a House Demolition – Part 2

… and here is the video interview with Sheikh Nasri

He was such a wonderful man. I find myself in complete awe of the people we are meeting. I can’t even begin to imagine how I would respond to my home being demolished or to the many other atrocities and indignities that Sheikh Nasri and his family endure on a daily basis. But I’m certain that I wouldn’t be as strong as he is, and it was both humbling and uplifting to spend time in his company.

The guy you can hear asking the questions is our new Swedish friend and fellow ISM volunteer, Anders. He went for a jog last night around Tel Rumeida (which is in the occupied part of Hebron) and got harassed by a couple of soldiers demanding to see his passport.

The apartheid in Palestine has resulted in a complicated three tier legal system. Israelis enjoy the privilege of the Civil System; international visitors – which includes Anders – enjoy the Ministry of Interior System; and it is only Palestinians who are subject to Military Law. What this means on the ground is that the Israeli soldiers wield complete power over the Palestinian population, but they have no authority over internationals. They do have a right to ask for our passports at checkpoints, but not randomly in the street. Of course, they don’t tell us that.

Seizing the opportunity to intimidate a peace activist, they detained Anders on his run, and insisted that he give them his passport . It didn’t work. Again and again they told Anders that if he didn’t hand it over they would arrest him – right up until he pulled out his video camera…

It’s the game, ya’ll.

Al Jab’a House Demolition

This morning we received a call to say that a house was being demolished in a nearby village, and could we go to intervene. We left straight away, but sadly the demolition was complete before we could get there.

We were able to meet with the owner of the house, Sheikh Nasri, who spent the morning with us. He also agreed to do a video interview, which will be uploaded onto the ISM website. I’ll try and post it here too when I have a bit more time (about to head out again).

He was lovely and made Beth and I cry. For now, here is our report:

10th October 2011. International Solidarity Movement, West Bank.

On 10th October 2011 at 5am Israeli forces demolished a family home in the village of Al Jab’a, about 15 km southwest of Bethlehem.

The owner, Sheikh Nasri, was farming his land at the time of the demolition. Nasri, 50, had been constructing the house for his family of ten children whilst living in a nearby rented property. He had applied for a building permit, which was still pending. Villagers reported that a Demolition Order had not been presented.

Al Jab’a has a population of around 800 and is near to the illegal Israeli settlements of Batayim and Nahal Gebaot. In an interview with ISM volunteers, Sheikh Nasri explained that the location of his village results in a daily struggle; they are refused access to much of their farm land by the military, and endure prolonged assaults from the settler community. When Shieikh Nasri’s 15 year old son attempted to farm their land soldiers arrested him and he was detained in an Israeli prison for over 6 months. On another occassion soldiers refused to allow Sheikh Nasri and his pregnant wife to pass through a check point to get to the local hospital – she was forced to have her baby at home with out medical care.

When asked what he plans to do next, Shiekh Nasri remains defiant:

‘I will build it again, and if they take it down again, I will do it again. And I will do it again. If I die, my son will do it. If my son dies, his son will do it. Until we all die. That’s what I’m planning to do… To stay here, plant the land, build houses and die here. We have no other place to live.’

The Israeli wall plan will result in Al Jab’a being besieged by the wall from the north, east and west and bypass road number 367 from the south, effectively isolating it from the rest of the West Bank. Villagers reported that 10 other houses are currently at risk of demolition.

Beit Omar – Part 2

So yes – how did it make us feel? Well – for my part – mostly afraid. You might have noticed that I’m posting these entries under the pseudonym of Startle10. This is a ‘hilarious’ reference to the fact that I startle ridiculously easily. Seriously, I’m like a squirrel. Startle Factor 10 is the startle response I reserve for when truly terrifying things happen. Like if a leaf falls on me. Or when my shadow jumps out of nowhere. So I’ll leave you to imagine your brave protagonist’s response to tear gas shells falling from the skies.

As we wrote in our report, the protest started peacefully. There were five of us international volunteers and before the march we met with the local ISM coordinator from the village who welcomed us into his home and fed us, showing the warmth and hospitality that we are finding everywhere we go.
We chatted and made a few protest placards in English, which we managed to keep hold of for all of 4 seconds when the march began, until a couple of Palestinian children asked if they could have them, disappearing gleefully into the crowd. And yes, there are children at these demonstrations; really young children of maybe 7 or 8 years old.

 

It’s the teenagers – or shebab – who are most involved in clashes with the Israeli troops. The soldiers use their array of sophisticated weaponry, the shebab throw stones.

As ISM volunteers we remain non-violent at all times. This is a tactic rather than an ideology. The Israeli armed forces would be delighted  if we were to show aggression as it could be used as justification for an aggressive response. It’s precisely because ISM doesn’t and won’t use violence that makes the movement effective. So effective in fact that if the authorities at Tel Aviv airport suspect that you are in any way associated with ISM you will be refused entry to Israel. Think about that for a moment: they will refuse entry of activists from a legal and expressly non-violent humanitarian group.

Hmm, quite.

So we don’t throw stones. But we will stand in solidarity with those who do. ISM is Palestinian led and it isn’t for us to prescribe how a people at the arse end of an apartheid should show their resistance.

The most utterly bewildering aspect of the Beit Omar protest was that even during the clashes everyday life was carrying on. Occasionally a car horn would beep impatiently and the protesters would move aside to let a car through so that a family could make their way home. Amidst the kind of civil unrest, that were it to happen in the UK, would have political commentators creaming themselves for a month – people were quietly going about their business. This is a daily resistance to a pervasive and consistent aggressor; life goes on.

For those of you mostly eager to know how Beth held up, like so often in life’s tighter squeezes she was brilliant. Vigilant and calm. And she joined in with a little boy in laughing at me when he stepped out of nowhere on our way back home, and I all but jumped through my skin.

Beit Omar

Today Beth and I took part in our first demonstration. We have also written our first press report, detailing what we saw. These reports are an important part of ISM work to help us raise the profile of what’s happening here. The reports are uploaded onto the ISM website, which I urge you all to take a look at. Anyway, this is what we wrote:

 7 October 2011: International Solidarity Movement, West Bank

 On the tenth day of the hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, a crowd of around a hundred people took to the streets for a planned demonstration in the village of Beit Omar, Hebron.

 This was one of a number of recent demonstrations across the West Bank supporting the 9 demands of Palestinian prisoners, which include the right to family visits, end to the use of isolation as a punishment, and an end to the profiteering of Israeli prisons from financial penalties charged against prisoners.

 The Beit Omar protest began after noon prayers with a peaceful march through the village, but  later there were clashes between demonstrators and the Israeli military. Tear gas cannisters, sound bombs and – for the first in this region – the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) were used against protesters in clashes that continued until 2.30pm.

 A Palestinian man, Abdellah Slibi was detained. Slibi, 22, is reported to suffer from learning difficulties and was observed by an international peace activist being blindfolded during the arrest. He was later released. A British peace activist was struck on the leg by a tear gas cannister, but was not seriously hurt.

 The rights of prisoners is a concern for all Palestinians. The apartheid legal system allows for Palestinian people to be held under Administrative Detention for up to six months without trial, based on confidential materials that are kept from the detainee and their lawyer. This ever-present threat is part of daily life in the Occupied Territories.

So yes – an interesting day. (I can safely say I’ve never had a day like it.) Beth took some really great photos, which I’ll upload onto another post as soon as I can. And I’ll talk a bit more about how the whole experience made us feel. For now, just to say we’re safe and well. And drinking tea, and playing cards. More anon.