Be seeing you!

According to the travel advice issued by the Dutch Foreign Office you might run the risk of becoming the victim of violence if you travel to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Aug. 2010). If you continue reading the advice this image is somewhat more balanced, but it’s been stated like this for years. I didn’t notice any danger or violence during my stay. Palestine is a beautiful country, with the most hospitable, helpful and kind people you can imagine. A country where you can go on a holiday, just as in any other country in the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, in our ignorance, we too often assume that Palestine is still dangerous. We don’t seem to realize that the Intifada is over for years, that the last bomb attack took place years and years ago and that Palestinians have the same aversion to violence as you and I. Actually you’re only reminded of the fact that you’re in Palestine when you see Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint who seem to have fused together with their machine guns. Obviously I’m describing my experiences in the West Bank area; I haven’t been to or near the Gaza strip.

When I made a phone call to the Netherlands Representative Office in Ramallah in 2008 to ask what I should make of their travel advice the representative said: “well, we have no choice but to put it like that on our website, but our staff travels freely all over the area without any trouble. I think the Palestinians would be delighted if you visit their cities.

The Representative Office was right about that last remark…

In this last post I’m not going to try to dwell on the possibilities of peace. Who am I? If parties want to (and America stops financing the occupation) peace is a formality, I think. I can however say something about what seems to stand in the way of peace. What I consider to be the biggest obstacle for peace is that Israel has no interest in peace. Israel has imported a western society with all the conveniences, services and prosperity that go along with it. As soon as you are in Israel you no longer have the feeling that you’re in the Middle East. Palestine seems to be at the other end of the world, even if the Wall is only a few kilometers away from you. If Israel continues its current policy of building the Wall, the settlements and the checkpoints, the Palestinians will leave the West Bank out of misery in a few dozen years. And then the Israeli government will have its way: everything will be for them. So why would Israel make an effort for peace? That conclusion is fearsome. Peace itself is not the problem here, but the fact that one of the parties involved has no interest in peace.

After a dinner party in Beit Sahour (a village east of Bethlehem) with colleagues at the centre, I left for the airport in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night. It’s over…

I’ve been back in the Netherlands for quite some time now and I have resumed my normal life. I go to work every day again. And my thoughts….they don’t wander off as much as you would think! I didn’t go on a holiday, but I was on a mission and I feel I have completed that mission successfully. So why should I wish I was still there?

So no wandering thoughts, but sometimes, when the working day comes to an end and when I think of going home, my mind’s eye sees the express train I always take. It’s normal to “see” what you’re thinking of, but when my mind’s eye looks out of the train window, that eye doesn’t see the green meadows with Dutch cows and churches on the horizon that it used to see in the past. No, it sees the Kalandia checkpoint or the yellow mountains between Ramallah and Bethlehem or the disorderly houses of a refugee camp. With a shock I realize there’s a wrong slide in front of my mind’s eye and reluctantly I hang a slide in front of my eyes showing Dutch cows and churches.

Those who have been in Palestine and who have met the Palestinians and learnt about their cause, never really return home.


1. Kalandia checkpoint
2. graffity at Kalandia checkpoint
3. “yellow” mountains between Ramallah en Bethlehem
4. houses in Dheisheh-camp, Bethlehem
 

Image forming 2: suffering in layers

Continuation of image forming 1: confusion

In Palestine you will be confronted with suffering when you listen to the stories people tell, when you watch the news, etc.  Those stories are mainly about suffering caused by the occupation. You can’t escape from it. But for somebody who is from the West it´s rather difficult to understand what Palestinian suffering exactly is. I was often inclined to connect Palestinian suffering with stereotype images: Palestine is a tense warlike area where people walk around with guns and Israelis and Palestinians give each other a hard time and that’s why they suffer. It’s simple! But if you stay a bit longer, that image turns out to be too simple and therefore incorrect.

So I discovered that I had to adjust my image of Palestine. Palestinians are suffering, but not all day long. Or are they? Sometimes they go into town to do some nice shopping. Whether they have to sell grandmas golden ring to be able to pay for the bare necessities remains unknown, but they try to make the best out of it. Sometimes they get arrested and sometimes they put their efforts into peace projects. Sometimes they drive around in expensive cars. Or sometimes they are questioned at checkpoints by the Israeli army. Like the two Palestinian young men. Israeli soldiers took them out of the service taxi van at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Bethlehem. The van drove on. Everybody was silent. I didn’t dare ask the remaining passengers what would happen to those men. 

If you are a volunteer,  like me, with the purpose of doing something positive in a society where people are suffering, you will attempt to understand that society and the suffering. At the end of my stay I had to consider for a long time as to how to interpret everything I had seen and had gone through. In that thinking, my experience in Hebron became a symbol for the fact that you constantly have to shift between total opposites. That confusion has also been the reason for the delay in writing this post, simply because it took me a long time until the following image – however logical it may seem – of Palestinian suffering remained. 

The burden that all Palestinians share is the feeling of being prisoners in their own country. Imprisoned behind the Apartheid Wall and imprisoned by many checkpoints. The thought of not being able to travel to Israel to visit family or to find a job. That feeling of captivity makes their life hopeless and deprives them of the feeling of being human. That imprisonment is slowly killing a people that are so rich in diversity, culture and tradition. I think this is a first red line in Palestinian suffering. It’s also the first and only thing Palestinians told me about when we were talking about the occupation: “I haven’t seen my brother, aunt, uncle, for years and years” or “Don’t you think it’s ridiculous that they don’t even let us visit the Al Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem?”

The second red line is the traumas that the greater part of the Palestinians sustained during the second Intifada. Lost family members, friends, lost properties and goods, enduring fear. Everybody can tell his or her own story about the Intifada. Often heard are the stories about adults who are still having nightmares and about teenagers who are still bedwetting because of traumas.

Close to these red lines are the situations in which any Palestinian can end up in every day: the arrest of a family member (or yourself) and not knowing what’s going to happen with the arrested person. 

Palestinians in the Old City in Hebron constantly run the risk of being bullied, kicked, evicted or getting stuff thrown at them by Jewish settlers, sometimes before the eyes of Israeli soldiers.

Other Palestinians are shopkeepers and wake up one day to find the Wall right in front of their shops. Their customers stay away, they lose their earnings and they have to struggle to make ends meet.

Some Palestinians have lived their whole life in a peaceful little village and worked on land that was family property for centuries. They never interfered with politics. But then, under supervision of the Israeli army, Israeli bulldozers entered their village to uproot their olive trees (and with the olive trees their hearts and souls) or to pull down their houses. Those who refused to leave started a non-violent battle and in that battle the silent farmer forcibly becomes a peace activist who desperately but heroically stands in front of a bulldozer. And Westerners don’t understand him, because they are still struggling with the image of all Palestinians being terrorists.

Some Palestinians are lucky and stay out of harm’s way. They have a prosperous business and perhaps children that study abroad. Others are refugees in their own country, with a camp as their home, an exceptional status and a desperate hope to return to a village that was razed to the ground 60 years ago.

Beside that constant feeling of being a prisoner and the traumas, these are examples of events that could happen to every Palestinian. Just another day in Palestine…. Steadfastness and dignity has become the motto of many Palestinians. If you have lost everything already or if you could lose everything tomorrow, the only thing to cling to is your dignity, because nobody can take that away from you. They call that steadfastness “Sumud”, a word that’s on the lips of many Palestinians.

So the suffering takes place in different layers. The one Palestinian goes down deeper in those layers than the other, but however deep the troubles are that you’re in, sometimes you have to go to the city to buy clothes. The image of nice shopping streets conceals the fact that, if present developments continue, it will turn out badly for Palestine.

If a Westerner or a volunteer doesn’t take the time to discover the layers, he or she will run the risk of losing track of the relationships. So as a volunteer you constantly need to redefine the world around you in order to realize what you’re here for exactly, for whom you’re doing it and what your place is.

I would like to give one more example of image forming and adapting one’s images. When I was in Jenin, I wrote the blog “Palestinian Solidarity” about Palestinians living in solidarity.  In Bethlehem I told a Palestinian colleague how two young men were taken out of a service taxi and led away. “Do you think they will mislead the soldiers when they are being questioned?”, I asked. That colleague explained to me that a Palestinian had better tell the truth to Israeli soldiers. ”If the army wants to be sure about what you’re saying, they can always turn to a Palestinian informer who will confirm your story in return for money”.

But should these informers be considered as cheap telltales or inevitable products of a sick occupation? A desperate father who has lost everything and needs every cent to feed his family? Or does the exception prove the rule? Just another day in Palestine…

Image forming 1: confusion

After having worked for a while as a volunteer, I tried to understand what I had learned during my stay. This is something that’s hard to ascertain, because I have to puncture preconceived opinions, propaganda and my own image forming. I have to return to 2008 to explain what I mean.

In 2008 I entered the West Bank for the first time with a group of Dutch people during a trip organized by a Dutch Christian organisation for peace and I thought: “so this is the burdened area that I only know from the evening news: the area of Palestinian suicide bombers, terrorists and other violent people.”

But when I entered the house of my Palestinian host family for the first time I was baffled when I saw that they dress the same as we do, that their TV looks like ours, that their kitchen would have fitted in any Dutch house and that their dreams and favourite television programs don’t differ much from ours. The first revolution in my image forming was established: I had discovered that Palestinians are actually very normal people.

The need to adjust one’s convictions is overwhelming, but normal in Palestine. It happens to every person from the West. One surprise is followed by another.

During my trip in 2008 my image of Palestine and the Palestinians would be honed even further. We visited lots of peace projects and we often sat in a room listening to stories about Palestinian suffering, feeling goose-flesh all over, or about the captivating non-violent battle for justice of the Palestinian and Israeli activists. So I discovered that Palestine has a very active peace movement (see blog: The Third Intifada) and that Palestinians can even be peace activists.

In 2008 we also visited the Old City of Hebron, in the south of the West Bank. The Old City, or historic centre, is a strange case. Israeli settlers think they are entitled to this centre and they are in the process of taking it over house by house (sometimes in a violent manner). As soon as a Palestinian house has been taken over, Palestinians are not allowed to come in the vicinity of this house anymore, otherwise the Israelis feel unsafe (!). Palestinian shops underneath the seized house are shut down without mercy and the Palestinian shopkeepers have no income anymore. Some streets are blocked off by barbed wire. And taking photos of this situation while feeling despair, you notice the heavily armed Israeli soldiers on rooftops who watch your every move. The Israeli settlers deliberately drop all sorts of junk from their windows onto the street: stones, bottles, curb stones, feces and bars. This has caused injuries to Palestinians more than once, but the Israeli army does not intervene as long as the settlers stay unharmed. In most of the little shopping streets pedestrians walk underneath steel grills that protect them. The Old City of Hebron: a city where you can feel the suffering of the Palestinians. A city that will leave you with cold shivers running down your spine.

1. Little street in the Old City.
2. A
black and red dot on the door of your shop means: forced closure.
3. O
ne of the Israeli soldiers on top of a roof.
4, 5. S
teel grills over the little shopping streets protect Palestinians.

In 2008 we came as tourists and – outraged by all the injustice we had seen – we left as activists. Charged with new images of Palestinians as peace activists rather than terrorists.

In March 2010, just before my departure, I was confronted again with the images that still dominate the way most Dutch people think. People around me wished me a good trip and made jokes, such as: “Don’t forget your bullet proof vest!” and “Don’t come back with a beard” or “Make sure you duck in time if bullets are flying around!”

Well, I just laughed with them about those jokes. After all I used to “suffer” from those kinds of images too. Palestinians know we think about them this way and they find it awful, but I knew better myself. There was nothing wrong with the images that I had anymore: ever since 2008 I know that Palestinians are peace loving people and that nobody in Palestine leads a normal life and that therefore every Palestinian is involved in peace projects. You can’t do anything else in Palestine, because I hadn’t seen anything else in 2008. No more surprises for me! I knew everything!

Or was disillusionment waiting for me once again? Could it happen that I had to snap out of my convictions again to adjust my image of Palestine once more?

On April 5th 2010 I arrived in Jenin. Jenin’s centre has a colourful range of shops, mainly clothing shops but also hardware and mobile phone stores which are absolutely not inferior to Dutch stores. You can see loads of “happy shopping Palestinians” here. They enjoy the food they buy in the falafel, kebab or pastry stores. No peace activists that tell emotional stories, no goose-flesh. So could it be that it’s good being a Palestinian after all? Could it be that the occupation isn’t that bad? How should I understand Palestinian suffering if they seem to have lots of fun?

It was starting to get complicated. The first cracks in my image forming were appearing again. So Palestine is more than grey tones and suffering, it can be very enjoyable too!

At first I thought that this apparent joy of living was only reality in Jenin, but Nablus and Ramallah were even bigger shopping paradises. In Nablus I saw a new modern cinema, which most of our cinemas cannot match. In Ramallah there’s even a nightlife that is getting more and more known. When a Palestinian in Tulkarm explained to me: “we are trying to live the good life”, I didn’t get it anymore. “But how can you live without having the occupation on your mind?” I asked. “No, the occupation is always part of our life”, he said.

Well……..a good life under the occupation? How confusing…!


Ramallah

DSC00463
Nablus

I didn’t know why I visited Hebron again in 2010, because in 2008 I had learned that you don’t go to Hebron to have a good time. This time the service taxi did not drive straight into the Old City, but entered Hebron through the modern centre. I couldn’t believe my eyes: even more shops than in Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin, even fancier buildings, even classier shop windows. I was walking through the busy animated streets and suddenly I saw a street that was blocked off with barbed wire and an Israeli flag. I knew I had entered the Old City. I looked over my shoulder and in the distance I saw the shops of the modern city centre. Blast……….had they urged us in 2008 to continue walking 50 meters more than we did, we would have left Hebron with an entirely different image. At that moment I decided to leave the Old City because I was just too uncomfortable with my confusion. A bit piqued I started to adjust my image again.


Hebron.

Once I had returned in Bethlehem I told a colleague about my “discovery” in Hebron. “Hebron is simply splendid” I told him, I had a wonderful afternoon”. “But how should I put the Old City and the new centre together”, I asked. My colleague started to smile and said: “You have to get used to the fact that the occupation and a day of shopping go hand in hand here. It’s both part of our life.”

What everyday life means in an occupied country is difficult to understand and to interpret for somebody from the West. In line with this is the difficulty as to how to define Palestinian suffering. “Let’s be reasonable, I thought, “if you can shop all day long then how serious can your suffering be?”

Or was I wrong once again?……..

To be continued in: Image forming 2: suffering in layers


1. Shop window in East-Jerusalem
2. Ramallah (shopping mall)
3. Bethlehem
4. Hebron (shopping mall)

Demonstrating in Bil’in!

Bil’in is the kind of village that no-one should know about. Nobody ever had a reason to go to Bil’in. There wasn’t anything to do.

Until 2005, when the Israeli government decided to construct the Apartheid Wall on the hills of Bil’in. Ever since 2005 after the Friday prayers the villagers march to the Wall (in Bil’in it’s actually a Fence) every single Friday to protest. International and Israeli peace activist have joined the Palestinians in Bil’in. The non-violence of the Friday demonstration is in sharp contrast with the violence that is used by the Israeli army (IDF). The Friday demonstration in Bil’in has thus become the symbol of non-violent resistance against the Wall and the occupation.

One of the leaders of the popular committee of Bil’in is Abdullah Abu Rahma. Because of his non-violent struggle he is also called the “Gandhi of the West Bank”. In December 2009 Abu Rahma was taken from his bed and ever since then he’s been imprisoned in an Israeli cell.

Now that I’m in the Bethlehem area I decide to join the Friday demonstrations in Bil’in. Participation is something you have to give due consideration, because the army can use violence. Hence the reaction of the director of the centre I volunteer with. He said bluntly: ”Please be careful Ruben, we don’t need another martyr.”


The calm before the storm.
 
The village gives the impression of being deserted, but more and more activists pour in. The press is clearly present too. Cameramen and photographers in every corner. Every language in the world can be heard around you. Then, it seems as if you are preparing for “battle”. People exchange information on how to deal with tear gas, because the question is not if the soldiers will shoot tear gas canisters, but when and how often. I see a cameraman with a gasmask hooked on his belt and photographers with army or crash helmets (to prevent head injuries caused by canisters). Meanwhile, the crowd is growing. More and more people and more and more Palestinian flags. Suddenly I see an American activist pass by and he’s handing out packs of impregnated cleaning tissues. Not to clean, but when inhaled, the alcohol in the tissues diminishes the effect of the tear gas. An ambulance drives through the crowd, stops and stands by. The next moment I see a Palestinian doctor dressed in a white coat, walking through the crowd. “Right, this is going to get serious”, I think to myself

At around 1pm the Friday prayers are over. The Palestinians leave the mosque and “march” right through the crowd to take the lead, followed by all the international and Israeli activists. The procession finally starts moving. I estimate there are 150 persons or so. We walk out of the village and Palestinian youngsters sing all kinds of songs and clap along. “It seems as if we are going to war”, I think. I had been advised not to go any further than the last line of houses of the village, but once I arrive at that line it’s kind of hard to stay there, because group of German seniors is passing me by to the left and right..


1. The crowd is growing.
2. The “march” begins.
3. We walk out of the village.

Picture this: outside the village of Bil’in there are vast olive orchards. A path runs right through the middle of those orchards. This path is about 400 meters long and ends at the Fence in the middle of nowhere.


1. The olive orchard and in the background the path that ends at the Fence.
2. The Fence…

Behind that Fence, armed soldiers are waiting for us. The crowd moves down (and up) that path singing and clapping and finally arrives at the Fence. A universal “battle hymn” rises when a voice shouts: “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!”, and the crowd answers: “OCCUPATION NO MORE!”. The voice continues: “FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT!” and the crowd shouts: “ISRAELI FASCIST STATE!”.

This chant is repeated, but in the middle of the third repetition we suddenly hear three fierce cracks: “TACK, TACK, TACK…and consequently a screeching hissing sound. Tracks of smoke in the sky. The first wave of tear gas canisters falls down on us and we weren’t doing anything but standing and singing. One of the Palestinian leaders starts to shout: INTERNATIONALS, INTERNATIONALS, INTERNATIONALS!!! urging the foreigners to get the hell out of there, because they don’t want to have injured foreigners. By that time (a few seconds after the firing of the first canisters) there are white clouds of smoke everywhere and the sound of stamping feet is getting louder and louder as everybody runs for it. Not only from the gas, but also because the Israeli soldiers are entering through the Fence to arrest activists. And an arrest might lead to deportation, so: LEG IT!!


1. Having arrived at the Fence, Israeli soldiers are waiting for us.
2. Protesters are standing and singing near the Fence.
3. Canister

In the chaos that evolves, I run down the path like crazy and I suddenly smell the scent of gunpowder, just like the stuff used in fireworks, but then much more acid. I can deal with that smell, but a second later….it’s incredible. You inhale the gas and it sets your throat and your lungs ablaze. It’s horrible, you don’t get air anymore and you have to fight against panic and puking. Your eyes feel the worst, as if soap is in them, but then a hundred times more painful. You have to run as hard as you can and at the same time you have to avoid rocks and stones and people who are standing still because they can’t breathe anymore, while you don’t get any air yourself and your eyes are completely stuck. And stumbling…… is not a good idea!!!

After a minute of running you’re out of harm’s way (for the time being) and you can recover for a minute. I turn around and as soon as my eyes are open again, I see three Palestinian youngsters with covered faces throwing stones right in front of me. They are throwing the stones into the orchard. A second later I understand why, because suddenly I see an Israeli soldiers coming out of the orchard running towards us. So they are trying to surround us from the flanks. There’s no option but to start running again in the direction of the village.

Throwing stones is new in Bil’in. In the beginning of the Friday demonstrations, throwing stones was strictly forbidden as it was considered a form of violence. The Israeli soldiers are so well protected that the youngsters might as well throw pieces of wadding at them. During the demonstrations that I participated in I saw that the stone throwing didn’t start any earlier than the firing of canisters.


1. Soldiers run down the path and re-group.
2 and 3. Canisters are being fired.

4 and 5. Teargas

Then you see and hear another wave of canisters screeching through the sky to fall down on us. The crowd starts running again in the direction of the village. This continues until everybody is pushed back to the village boundaries.

At a distance I can see that the soldiers are in retreat. At the village boundary protesters are coughing up the last remnants of tear gas. Gasping, puffing and tears everywhere. The village doctor offers everybody who is affected by the gas a bit of cleaning fluid containing alcohol on a tissue. Some sniff an onion. The Palestinian youngsters return from the orchards. And then people joke and laugh and get photographed with each other. In the meantime the first service taxi vans enter the village and the activists leave Bil’in. Silence is restored once again. And it goes on like this every Friday in Bil’in. Every Friday the same images.


1. soldiers in retreat down the path
2. getting photographed together
3. recovering

Bil’in is strange combination of a tourist attraction and a deadly serious event. Sometimes it goes terribly wrong. Like in August 2006 when an Israel activist was hit in the head by a rubber coated steel bullet. He survived but has brain damage. In April 2009 Bassem Abu Rahma, a villager of Bil’in, was shot to death by the Israely army. These (sometimes) fatal events are known to every (international) activist, but a feeling of solidarity urges you to participate. If there are no international and Israeli protesters, the violence used by the army would only get worse.


Bassem Abu Rahma, shot to death during a Friday demonstration in April 2009.

At YouTube you can watch countless films about the demonstrations in Bil’in.

 

The demonstrations in Bil’in often have a theme. The Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Boats (May 31st) was decisive for the theme on the 4th of June (the Friday after the attack). This boat (built around a car) “set sail” towards the Fence. On June 11th the theme was the World Championship. Eleven boys walked to the Fence dressed in the outfit of the “Palestinian National Selection” to throw footballs (instead of stones) to the Israeli soldiers. In the beginning of 2010 the theme was – for obvious reasons – “Avatar”.

Postscript: on Friday 31st of December 2010 Jawaher Abu Rahma (sister of Bassem Abu Rahma) was brought to the hospital after inhaling an excessive amount of teargas. On Saturday 1st of January 2011 she died of gas poisoning.

The Third Intifada

(Intifada: popular uprising. Contrary to what many people think an intifada does not have to be violent)

Of course I’m not only in Palestine to teach, but also to see something of this beautiful country and to get some sights in. One of my daytrips led to Tulkarem, a genuine Palestinian city in de North West of the West Bank close to the Israeli border. One of my students arranged a meeting for me with her friend Mohammed who lives in Tulkarem. Hospitality in Palestine is so great that even the friend of a friend will treat you like a friend of his own. After a trip in a service taxi on a boiling hot day I arrived in Tulkarem. Mohammed collected me at the bus station in the biggest Mercedes I’ve ever seen, but also the oldest because it was about to fall apart. I stepped into the car and Mohammed told me that we were first going to visit Al Khadouri University.

It may sound strange to visit a university on a day trip, but Palestinians are proud of their educational institutions. Palestinian education is of high standard and Palestine has the highest rate of (highly) educated persons in the Arab world. The reason for this is that education is their only weapon against unemployment which is caused by the long lasting occupation of their country. Mohammed took me to the office of the public relations officer. Not having made any appointment I was expecting to be sent away, but much to my surprise we were welcomed very kindly. I was offered a chair and received lots of information about Al Khadouri University. It turned out that this meeting was just introductory, because after a while the public relations officer said to Mohammed and me: “come, I’ll show you around now”. He showed us some of the faculties and he was proudly telling about the history of the university. The institution started as an agricultural college financed by a gift of the Jewish Iraqi philanthropist Sir Ellis Khadouri in 1930. The college became a university in 2007 and nowadays the university has many international contacts. We went outside and he showed us how close the Apartheid Wall was built to the university. He explained to me that they were working and building very hard to establish the biggest and the best university in Palestine. 

It was very interesting, but while walking over the campus I couldn’t refrain from wondering why, just why he was spending so much of his time on me. I understood it as soon as he told me that education as well as the development of the university was such an important weapon against the occupation. “I hope that you tell everybody in your country about the positive way in which we are fighting for a better future by education”, the public relations officer said.

This – almost VIP – approach of a foreigner is not exceptional in Palestine and isn’t limited to universities. Palestine is teaming with cultural organisations and all kinds of other NGOs (an NGO is a Non-Governmental Organisation like Greenpeace and Amnesty International for example). There are Palestinian NGOs for peace, security, reconciliation, education, human rights, cultural heritage, research, etc. etc. If I would have to mention every Palestinian NGO the list would just be too long. And every NGO has an office and every office has a little hall with chairs and an overhead projector where NGO-staff can give presentations about their work to groups of tourists and other visitors from abroad. International volunteers, like me, are always welcome to volunteer with them.

The Palestinian NGOs focus on foreign visitors, because these NGOs know that they can only alter public opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian cause by reaching the international community, and foreign visitors are their arms to the rest of the world.
Unfortunately the (international) press doesn’t focus at all on the enormous effort of the NGOs in support of freedom through nonviolent resistance. Too often it continues to hang Palestinians on a reputation of being a violent people.  This reputation was intensified during the second Intifada when groups of Palestinians responded to the Israeli occupation with armed resistance. This armed resistance didn’t bring Palestine the freedom it hoped for. Now, Palestinians no longer use stones or weapons, but NGOs to teach the international community about their nonviolent struggle for freedom. Non violent resistance already existed in the eighties and most of the NGOs already existed before the second Intifada, but the NGOs couldn’t do much because the number of tourists and other visitors dropped to a minimum during the second Intifada. Now, the appeal of Palestinians to these NGOs to reach the international community seems bigger than ever before.

A colleague of mine in Bethlehem once said: “the first Intifada (second half of the eighties) was the Intifada of throwing stones and the second Intifada (2000 to 2005) was the Intifada of armed resistance”. I said: “and the third Intifada?” “There is no third Intifada”, he replied. “According to me there is”, I said, “it’s the Intifada of the NGOs”.  The instruments of these NGOs are: lectures, theatre, dance and film (about the Palestinian situation, history and cultural heritage), justice tourism and peaceful demonstrations. The concept of a “third Intifada” is not new, but is mainly used to describe the non violent demonstrations in some villages against the construction of  the “Apartheid Wall”. The peaceful work and effort of Palestinian NGOs is so overwhelming to me that – according t0 me – their work is part of the third Intifada as well.

I almost forget to tell that Mohammed took me to “the Gishuri plant” in Tulkarem. This chemical plant produces fertilizer. Mohammed explained to me that the factory was first built near Tel Aviv (Israel), but was later moved to the borderline between Israel and Tulkarem because of complaints of the (Israeli) citizens of Tel Aviv.

I can see a thin layer of white dust covering the leaves of a nearby palm tree. The dust must have been released by the plant. “When the winds blows into the direction of Israel, production stops”, said Mohammed, “the plant only operates when the wind is in our direction”. “Ever since the plant is here, the number of people in Tulkarem with cancer and lung disease rapidly increases”, he explains, “we try to get as much attention for this problem as possible because the plant feels like a time bomb for us, but the world doesn’t seem to care”.

But I do Mohammed, so here’s your story.

Aida camp

I am working in Aida camp. This refugee camp is located to the northwest of Bethlehem and adjacent to the village of Beit Jala. Most refugee camps were created in 1948. In that year the state of Israel was proclaimed. Arab countries reacted to this event with an armed intervention. In the conflict that arose, Israel conquered its present territory. But Israel went further than that. In the conquered area Israel tried to erase the Palestinian society as much as possible. Palestinians call this event “The Catastrophe” or in Arabic the “Nakbah”. Countless Palestinian villages were mercilessly razed to the ground, although the villagers were not hostile at all. The defenseless Palestinian civilians had to flee and eventually ended up in refugee camps in the West Bank, the Gaza strip, Jordan, The Lebanon and Syria.

You shouldn’t picture tents when thinking of a refugee camp. In 1948 the camps actually consisted of tents, but as soon as a return to their home villages seemed impossible, the tents were gradually replaced by concrete accommodations, known as “shelters” (a sort of garage-like building) and later the shelters were replaced with real houses.

 
(Two examples of shelters in Dheisheh camp, Bethlehem.)

According to European standards the camps might best be described as poor neighbourhoods or run-down suburbs, although the reason for the existence of these “neighbourhoods” is more political than economic. Symbol of the desire to return to their original house is “the key”. The refugees took the (large heavy steel) key of the house they had to leave with them. Sometimes this key is hanging above the front door of their house in the camp. In Aida camp, I have seen no keys above doors, but there is one very big key that replaces all the others and it’s located over one of the access roads to the camp.

There are several reasons why refugee camps still exist. I think the principal one is that the camp is a symbol of the temporary stay of the refugees thus underlining their desire to return. Furthermore, the camp offers social structures from which the inhabitants derive support and there are financial reasons to stay in the camp.

And so the “refugee problem” was created. Whereas the Israelis have their settlements as their trump card during peace talks every proposal for peace must contain a solution to the refugee problem; otherwise the proposal is doomed to failure. 

 
(Aida camp)

Aida camp has about 5000 residents and covers an area of approximately half a square kilometer. Although you notice that the community and atmosphere in the camp are different (not necessarily negative) from that in the city, I haven’t encountered any desperate situations in Aida camp. I have been told by camp residents that many of them can make a small income in Palestine and that those who are unemployed  for a long time often only have themselves to blame. But others say that it is indeed too difficult to find employment. Most residents have luxury goods such as TVs and computers.
One problem you cannot see from outside though is overpopulation. Many camps didn’t grow with the population. This has led to overcrowded houses and to structure stacked on structure in order to accommodate expanding families. According to the website of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN organisation that provides humanitarian help to Palestinian refugees), the main problems are unemployment and severe overcrowding. UNRWA provides not only (primary) education, but also handles numerous other issues, such as water supply, waste collection, employment projects, etc.

Three independent cultural centres contribute to the cultural development of the camp residents.  These centres are mainly run by volunteers. One of the centres is called the “Al Rowwad Theatre and Cultural Training Centre”, where I am working. I teach English conversation to three groups of children from age 8 to 14. I also give painting and drawing lessons to two groups of children of the same age. Furthermore I also teach English conversation to several groups of adults.

Teaching the kids especially is quite a challenge. Beforehand other volunteers who work in centres elsewhere warned me that teaching children can be very difficult because of behavioural problems developed during the intifada. It turned out to be better than expected, because each and every one of them is very kind. Alright, they are very energetic, can hardly sit still and have difficulties concentrating, but what else can you expect when they come to the centre after their regular classes? By that time they have very short concentration span and on top of that they are aware of the fact that the centre is not a real school. So what do you then when you’re a pupil? You start monkeying around!!! So they give me a hard time maintaining order, but at times I can’t refrain from laughing heartily myself at their devilment. 

Bethlehem and the occupation

In 2002 Israel started to build the nine meter high “Apartheid Wall”. Unfortunately it’s not only built on Israeli land, but also on Palistinian land. The reason for this is to protect the Israeli settlements that are – illegally – built on occupied Palestinian territory. As a consequence the Wall annexed large parts of the West Bank.  

In Bethlehem (other than in Jenin) the occupation certainly does not go unnoticed for foreigners like me. Two aspects are essential in a profile of the occupation in Bethlehem: the Apartheid Wall and the settlements.

Bethlehem is built on a hill so from many points in the city you can see parts of the Wall. It’s like a long poisonous snake that fell down on the area. At some places it even fell on the city: in the northern part of the city there’s an important historical site, called “Rachel’s tomb”, the burial site of the biblical figure Rachel. It used to be a holy place for Christians, Jews and Muslims. When the Wall was constructed the Israeli’s decided to annex Rachel’s Tomb and in order to do that the Wall had to make a few impossible curves. As a consequence numerous shopkeepers in the area found the Wall right in front of their shops from one day into the other. This forced them to close their shops which led to the loss of their income.  I have uploaded a few photos to give an impression about the Wall in the Tomb-area.

The consequences of the Wall go further than closure of shops. Many houses had to be demolished and playgrounds disappeared to make space for the Wall. The Wall also runs across Palestinian acres and through olive yards depriving the Palestinian owners access to their lands. The Israelis defend the route of the Wall by reasons of safety: the Wall should refrain Palestinian fighters from entering Israeli territory. But keeping unwanted persons out of Israel could also be achieved by building the Wall strictly on Israeli soil. The International Court of Justice in The Hague came to this conclusion in 2004 already. It decided that the construction of the Wall as such is not the problem, the problem is that it’s built on other people’s land.

 On top of the hill an Israeli settlement. On the slope Palestinian olive trees, which can not be reached because of the Wall (in the foreground). Protection and safety would make a Wall directly around the settlement more logical.

The reason for the present route of the Wall can only be to discourage the Palestinians and to disrupt the establishment of a viable Palestinian society. The safety that the Israelis claim to pursue seems to be nothing more than a side effect rather than the main reason to build the Wall.

There are gates in the Wall however, so why don’t Palestinians  just pass through those gates? Because it’s easy for tourists to do so, but Palestinians need special permission to pass through and they have to go through lots of trouble (waiting for days or weeks, being sent back and forth, etc.) to get a permission. The impossibility to go to Israel on a daily basis also led to the loss of jobs.

And as if the effect of the Wall on daily Palestinian life isn’t bad enough, Bethlehem is also facing the threat of expanding settlements around the city. I used to think that the settlements couldn’t be that bad: does it really matter when some Israelis live on top of a hill? But when you are standing in Bethlehem and when you look at the horizon you’ll see the full scope of the Israeli settlement policy. It’s not just one settlement, but many and they form a sort of chain that cuts through Palestinian land. This is not all, because these settlements are all interconnected by “bypass” roads. These bypass roads cover the West bank like a net and they are only accessible to Israelis. And of course, the settlements and bypass-roads need to be protected against Palestinians and this protection is guaranteed by Israeli soldiers and  checkpoints. The effect of the network of settlements, bypass-roads and checkpoints is in fact not any less than the effect of the Wall of Separation.

 (Settlements closing in on Bethlehem.)

It’s all so obvious when one observes these instruments of occupation in Bethlehem and that why it’s so amazing that western media fail to interpret these instruments time and time again.

Many Palestinians had to leave their country because it was impossible to make a living in a society that’s so affected by the occupation. The ones that do stay find themselves in a society that’s hardly viable and in which unemployment is exceedingly high. No wonder many Palestinians come to the conclusion that  the Wall, the checkpoints, the settlements, the bypass roads and the system of permission are instruments of “silent ethnic cleansing”. And I cannot put forward any argument against that conclusion.

 (picture 4: Palestinians also live outside the green areas in the West Bank, but those areas are not under full Palestinian control.)

In Bethlehem

I have run behind with updating my weblog. Today it’s the 5th of June, but I have arrived in Bethlehem on May 8th after having left Jenin the same day. Saying goodbye to Jenin was very very hard after I had met so many motivated students and even friends. But I had to leave for Bethlehem to start the second part of my “mission”.

Bethlehem is certainly not the kind of city Jenin is. Jenin has a business center packed with offices and shops which is very lively and busy during office hours (and completely deserted after closing time). It’s Old City is nothing to write home about and there aren’t many museums or other historical sites within the city center of Jenin.  Tourist and other foreigners are very very rare, so Jenin is a genuine Palestinian city.

How different the situation in Bethlehem is. Busloads of tourists from all over the world pour in 24 hours a day. Most of them are Christian pilgrims and they all go to “Nativity Church” in the city center. This church is built on the spot where Jesus Christ is said to be born.  After visiting this church they can go to one of the many other churches in the city. It seems every denomination from every country is represented.  
To ease the “souvenir hunger” of the tourists Bethlehem has an uncountable number of souvenir shops where all kinds of objects made of olive wood (mainly crosses, camels, cribs or nativity scenes,  etc. etc.) can be purchased. But the city is also attractive for non-believers who can visit the “Old City” of Bethlehem, which, in my view, lives up to East Jerusalem, although smaller in proportion. This overwhelming tourism gives the city an international atmosphere and perhaps that’s the reason why many NGOs for peace and reconciliation are located here.

Bethlehem used to be a Christian stronghold. The city was mainly populated by Christian Palestinians who belong to the oldest Christian families in the world. The family names of these Palestinians are very often Italian, French, or Greek. Their European background adds to the international atmosphere in this city. I have been told that the Christian influence is even beneficial to the freedom of women who are, for example, allowed to smoke the water pipe in public. In Jenin this would be impossible.

Unfortunately, the second Intifada and the occupation have had a very negative effect on the Christian population which was always very successful in Bethlehem economy. Although Christianity and Christians are still clearly present in Bethlehem, the occupation has decimated their numbers and most of them had to leave to find work in other cities or even other countries. Yet another example of the devastating effect the occupation has on the cultural richness of Palestinian society. The Christian Palestinians who stay very often don’t understand why the sympathy of Christians from Europe and America lies with Israeli Jews instead of with them.   The Christian Palestinians seem to have become a group that has to work hard to survive without complaining too much, for who is going to listen?

In this city, completely different from Jenin, I will work in the weeks to come. Well, not in the city, but in one of the three refugee camps of Bethlehem…….Aida camp!

Palestinian solidarity

Palestinians live in solidarity with each other. That’s logical, because they have a common problem, namely the occupation by Israel.

In recent years this solidarity has not been present at all in politics. Fatah and Hamas, the two principal political parties are very divided. But among normal men that solidarity can still be seen, at least, that’s what I experience when I observe the society around me. I shall mention a few examples.

Everybody has heard of the Israeli checkpoints. The situation at these checkpoints is sometimes poignant. Waiting for hours in the burning sun (even when there’s no queue in front of you) is not an exception. Well, as to appointments it doesn’t come up to the minute in Palestine, but you shouldn’t let someone wait for hours, unless………the reason of the few hours delay was that you were held up at a checkpoint. In cases like that, the Israelis are always to blame and your host won’t be annoyed at all. A while ago a colleague from Jerusalem visited the centre. A ride of 1.5 hours took her 4 hours because of stopovers at various checkpoints. After she left, I said: “Gee, why didn’t she take a different route?” My colleagues informed me calmly: “It was not her fault.” With a lack of understanding I continued: “but nevertheless, if she had taken a service taxi (a type of cheap taxi van) instead of her own car, she might not have been noticed.” And again I was told calmly: “Ruben, the Israelis are always to blame for a delay at a checkpoint, however long it may be. We will never be angry with a guest who went through such a delay.”

I stay in a guesthouse. That guesthouse is part of a renovation project and the volunteers who participate in the project stay there for free. I’m a guest so I just have to pay. When I had to take care of the bill the managers conferred briefly and then I suddenly got a considerable discount I didn’t even bargain for. I never asked why, but probably because they know I’m a volunteer too and because they see me leaving every day at nine in the morning to return no sooner than four or five o’clock in the afternoon. And even though I don’t work for their project, we all work in solidarity for Palestine. The appreciation for my effort translates itself into a discount.

If you stay somewhere long enough you get to know the local people and they will share their stories with you. It happened to me when a colleague suddenly began to tell about her experience during the Battle of Jenin (a two-week battle in 2002 during the second Intifada between the Israeli army and Palestinian resistance fighters in the refugee camp “Jenin camp”, in the middle of the city). She lives in a district on a hill overlooking the camp. She said she had to stay inside for two weeks and all that time she had to go on all fours. As soon as she or one of her family members stood up they ran the risk of being hit by a bullet, because Israeli soldiers as well as Palestinian fighters were shooting at everything that moved. Her brother once ducked just in time, because a fraction of a second later a bullet struck the wall behind him. She said she saw how Israeli helicopters and tanks randomly fired rockets and grenades into the camp and how the ramshackle houses were swept away by huge explosions, leaving black smoke behind. She said how horrible the maddening fear was to get struck by a stray rocket or grenade. “You only realize what that fear is like, if you have felt it yourself, Ruben,” she said. Difficult to react to if you’re from a safe country like the Netherlands.

A few days later I had a lesson with young students. One of them was a young man from the refugee camp. The theme was “houses and other buildings”. I avoid politics, intifada, etc. like the plague in my lessons unless students come up with it themselves. And so the young man did. Once arrived at the topic “districts” he began to talk about the camp and later on about the Battle of Jenin.

He told us how with his own eyes he saw Israeli armoured bulldozers crushing houses, in some cases houses with people still in them. He told us that he saw corpses that were laid in rows on the streets. He said: ”I have seen much more, I could tell you much more, but perhaps it’s better if I don’t.” He was smiling but through his smile I could see painful lines in his face. Then he said: “In the camp we only have each other. We cannot trust the people from outside the camp, because they didn’t do anything for us during the battle. They were only watching, just like the rest of the world.”

Another (female) student (from outside the camp) then looked a bit grim. So I thought: “Oh my, obviously she feels addressed.” So I immediately said to the young man: “I find your story very serious, but yesterday I spoke to someone who had to go on all fours in her house for two weeks, otherwise she might have been shot. So it was impossible for her to do anything for you and I think the same thing goes for many people in Jenin.” The female student looked down and nodded her head approvingly, but didn’t make a sound.

I used the moment of silence that followed to say to him: “Only you know how bad it was, I can only try to imagine things.” “I am trying to read something about the battle in order to know some of the facts. That’s all I can do. I appreciate your story and I would like to thank you for telling it, but if you don’t mind I’d like to return to the theme.” He agreed with that and I felt the female student was relieved.

After the lesson I told the whole story to the colleague from the centre. She suddenly said: “And we are angry with the people in villages around Jenin!!!” So I said: “Huh, what do you mean? What had they got to do with it?” “Well”, she said, “everybody was angry with somebody during the battle. The refugees from the camp were angry with Jenin, because Jenin didn’t do anything for the camp. But Jenin was angry with the surrounding villages, because the villages didn’t do anything for Jenin. And the surrounding villages were angry because they couldn’t help it either.”

Well, this story might cast doubts on the solidarity among Palestinians, but what can actually be read between the lines is the enormous powerlessness that the people of Jenin must have felt when they saw how their fellow citizens in the camp were shot, pounded and bulldozed.

The Battle of Jenin has become a sort of collective trauma. Not visible or noticeable, but it’s still alive here. Eight years later, you still can’t live and work in this city without – sooner or later – being faced with this trauma. Perhaps because of the great frustration the citizens feel for not having been able to live in solidarity with each other during the battle.

The Intifada and Jenin-camp

In Jenin, there’s a refugee camp called “Jenin-camp”. During the second Intifada (from 2000 to app. 2005) Jenin camp was the scene of heavy combat, also known as “The Battle of Jenin” (April 2002). I must admit I haven’t thoroughly researched this and I haven’t even seen the film “Jenin, Jenin!”. The film reveals what exactly happened in Jenin camp during the battle.

The name Jenin has a very negative connation for many people, especially Israelis, because in Jenin the vast majority of the “suicide bombers”, that carried out their despicable acts on Israeli soil, were deployed. In response, the Israeli army invaded Jenin camp on the third of April 2002 to deal with these “bombers” forever. The Israeli army called this operation “Defensive Shield”.

Contrary to incursions in other cities, the Israeli army ran up against a lot a resistance from Palestinian fighters (as distinct from suicide bombers). The attack helicopters and tanks that were shooting rockets and grenades into the camp didn’t bring the victory the Israelis were aiming for. A group of Israeli soldiers even walked into an ambush which caused many casualties. So many that the Israeli army eventually decided to deploy armoured bulldozers to crush the camp thus breaking the resistance for ever. A number of refugees could get away, but others had to stay. Among those who stayed there were many that fell victim to a massacre, but until this day the exact numbers are disputed. The Israeli army could have caused the massacre because it’s said that they bulldozed houses with people (men, women and children) still in them. On the internet you will see different numbers of Palestinian civilians and fighters that were killed, but every number is contradicted elsewhere. A UN fact finding mission never started its research. One thing is certain though: too many lives were lost on the Palestinian as well as on the Israeli side.

The remark of a Palestinian colleague was striking. When I explained to her that Rotterdam (second city of the Netherlands) was heavily bombed during the Second World War which flattened the entire city centre, she said: “Ah, just like Jenin camp, that was completely flattened too when the Israelis were done.”

The reason that I dwell on the Intifada and the Battle of Jenin is that the Palestinian combatants that fought during the battle are still being honoured here. Everywhere in the city you can see posters, murals and illuminated signs (!) with portraits of those fighters. In the beginning it took me a while to get used to those pictures. My first thought was: “Gee, what a glorification of violence.” After all in the West we are rather scared of Palestinians carrying weapons. If we see an Israeli soldier with a machine gun we think: “that soldier is defending his country”, but a Palestinian with a gun can only be a terrorist.

All those posters etc. almost force you to hold your thoughts and prejudices about these fighters against the light, in order to determine where you have to place these fighters in your own thinking, for you can hardly walk the streets of Jenin without encountering these images.

When I once made out these fighters as terrorists in a conversation with a friend (and also Palestine activist) she drew my attention to the fact that I had to interpret their actions correctly, because we also honour our Dutch resistance fighters for what they did during the Second World War. She’s got a point there. What adds to it is that the Nazis considered our resistance fighters as terrorists. And the reasons why Palestinians started to resist by the use of armed force weren’t so much different from the reason our resistance fighters had for their armed fight.

When I asked a colleague what the exact significance of those posters, murals and illuminated signs is, she said: “We are simply proud of what those fighters did.” “So those images are there to honour and not to glorify them?”, I asked. “Yes, exactly, we honour them; glorification of violence is out of the question.”


Mural in the Old City of Jenin

Most Palestinians in Jenin don’t make a distinction between resistance fighters and suicide bombers, because both of them made a sacrifice. In their eyes they are both “martyrs”. I have also spoken to Palestinians who say: “Well, those suicide bombers were way out of line.” And there is also a group, mainly women, that says about this subject: “Please, let’s talk about something else.”

In case it’s not clear yet: the (second) Intifada has already been over for a number of years now and Palestinians in the West Bank are no longer involved in violent actions. Armed resistance never brought victory so in all layers of society people have resorted to non-violent resistance. The centre I work for is an example of such non-violent resistance: education as an instrument for development and for strengthening self-consciousness.

And perhaps the last photo is very significant in another sense. These weathered posters prove that the memory of these fighters is slowly fading. People I talked to don’t expect that weathered posters or removed illuminated signs will be replaced by new ones. Perhaps because Palestine knows that it has to be focused on the future in order to have a chance to survive.

AS-SUQ

The market (or as-suq) is well-known in Jenin. You can get every imaginable vegetable and fruit there and they are not displayed on neatly ordered stalls like in the Netherlands, but on a colourful cacophony of carts, crates, shelves and other improvised ramshackle little structures.

The families over here are large and often live together under the same roof. So you don’t go to the market to buy in small quantities but often 5 or 10 kilos at the time. You can imagine their smile when I ask for four potatoes and two peppers. They put the products I have asked for in my hands, they say “You’re welcome” and refuse to take any money as they, more or less, gently push me away from their stall.

But it’s not only the market vendors that are so straightforward. A few days ago I went with a colleague from the centre to a watchmaker, because my watch had stopped. After the usual handshakes we first chatted about Holland, football and volunteering and then my watch was excellently repaired. And again, as I took my wallet, I heard: “No, no, you’re welcome!” Every now and then it’s not easy to pay here. Alright, fair enough, later on that colleague explained to me that Palestinians aren’t that easy with each other, but still I think it’s very special that they treat a stranger like that.

When I walk through the streets of Jenin shopkeepers stare at me curiously with a somewhat grumpy expression on their faces. As soon as I nod my head at them a big smile appears on their face and the familiar “ahlan wasahlan!” (You’re welcome!) sounds again.

Many shopkeepers are curious about who I am, because a foreigner is still a rarity in the city of Jenin which has not been affected by tourism. When I tell them that I’m a volunteer and that I teach English free of charge, they look at me gratefully. Then I hear: “Thank you for being here, we are grateful, we need people like you! Please don’t forget to tell the people back home what you saw here. Please don’t forget to tell them what we are going through.”

And I always promise them that I will tell everything. It reminds me of what many Palestinians in Bethlehem said when I was there in 2008: “We don’t need money, because we’re not hungry, but we don’t want to be forgotten by you.”

Here some photos of the market and other street scenes.

The centre of Jenin

The three hills on the southern edge of the city

The refugee camp (Jenin-camp):

My students 3, 4 en 5

My students 3: students from university

Twice a week I teach a group of female students from the Arab American University of Jenin and the Al Quds Open University. I have no idea where Yousef got these students from: the vastness of his network never ceases to amaze me. The lessons take place in a little classroom on the roof of the office building in which the cultural centre is located.

It’s a nice group of young women actually (with an unexpected male student every now and then). They have to try hard to overcome their shyness in speaking English, but the lessons are interesting and fun anyway. Over the weeks a small group of students remained and it’s striking to see how determined they are to learn English. Unfortunately I’m only here for a short period of time, so I have tried to explain to them that I can only give them some basic tools and inspiration in order to be able to continue improving their English independently. If they don’t have enough time to follow an additional course I have advised them to read simple English books or magazines or to watch an English film with subtitles in Arabic, but always with a dictionary right next to them, because there’s no development of language skills without expansion of vocabulary.

My students 4: local civil servants

After having taught so many female students it’s nice to teach English conversation to a group of men for a change. We started out with ten students, but with every passing week their numbers decrease. The group consists of local civil servants and they are all over 40 or even over 50, so I think they are really participating for fun. Because of their age they are not shy or inhibited anymore and they give much more elaborate answers to my questions so I’m being educated too! For example, about the consequences of the occupation or the refugee status of one of them. The men in this group are having a lot of fun about themselves, each other and me!

My students 5: women of the UNRWA

I didn’t know what to expect when I had to teach the women of the UNRWA for the first time. I was waiting in an empty classroom with all my books in front of me. I was counting on 10 students with basic knowledge of English. However, the classroom remained empty until the secretary came in and requested me to follow her. We went to another floor and we stood still in front of a big door. The sound of what seemed to be a thousand chattering women came through that door. Suddenly the secretary opened the door and she said: “Alright, here are your students, good luck!” I entered the room and I was standing in the middle of 30 to 40 women between the ages of 35 to 55, some of them with little children sitting in their lap. While I was walking towards my desk I was seriously wondering how to handle this group. When I started speaking English they looked at me as if I was talking Russian. It was clear that the lesson I had prepared didn’t match their abilities so I had to improvise very quickly to keep the lesson instructive and captivating. Fortunately the lesson was about food and I had enough simple words on my list to talk about. The ladies found it wonderful to make a guess at the translation of all kinds of food. The secretary that performed as my interpreter suddenly left the room and that posed another problem for me, because “the show must go on!” Fortunately one of the women did speak a little bit of English and she was willing to act as my interpreter. That’s how we got through the lesson. 

The next lesson about clothing unexpectedly raised laughter among the women. They are all dressed in long traditional black gown-like dresses. I started the lesson with a vocabulary exercise based on an image of an English woman indicating the names of her clothing. One of the pieces of clothing the English woman is wearing is a skirt that reaches just over her knees. The more papers I handed out the louder the murmur and uncomfortable giggling became. In the meantime the secretary was hanging over the desk with laughter and she didn’t know how to look me in the eye. When I took my seat next to her again I asked her curiously: “What’s the laughter all about?”. She said: “They think her skirt is too short!” Well, I hadn’t thought about that for a single moment, I must admit!

Let me give some background information as to this group: De UNRWA is a UN organisation that endeavours to help Palestinian refugees (I can’t say it any shorter). One of the ways to improve the situation of the refugees is the employment projects. One of those employment projects is using hay. Women from the camp are being taught how to make products out of hay. The UNRWA employs a group of women for a month and pays them a salary of (I’ve been told) 450 dollars. After one month they have to go home and a new group takes their place. For their gatherings the current group is allowed to use one of the rooms in the office building of the local branch of a political party (see blog: “Searching for students”). This political party passed them on to Yousef and Yousef……to me

The occupation and Jenin

I cannot really see or feel any evidence of the occupation in Jenin. One important reason for this is that Jenin is fully under Palestinian control. The main reason is undoubtedly that I’m a foreigner because, just as any other Palestinian, every citizen of Jenin has its own personal story about life under the occupation. Unlike Jenin, the occupation is evident in Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem and Hebron, especially the latter. This is mainly because of the visible presence of the Wall and various checkpoint and border crossings in and around those cities.

The Wall cannot be seen in Jenin and I didn’t come across any checkpoint between Ramallah and Jenin on my way here (although I was later told that there seem to be two or three, so I was lucky that day). Furthermore, some years ago a number of checkpoints had been removed due to an agreement. Israeli settlements cannot be seen either, although there are some in the surrounding area. You would need binoculars though to be able to see them from the city centre.

I must therefore rely on the stories of locals when it comes to the impact the occupation has on them. I have been told that many Palestinians experience difficulties when they try to visit relatives on the other side of the Wall and sometimes it’s even impossible. I also often hear stories about unemployment, even among highly educated young people. For example one of my students is a qualified psychologist and she had a job for some months but now she’s sitting at home, unemployed. She has no hope whatsoever that her situation will improve in the future. The shop assistant in the grocery where I often shop has a degree in business administration and many women with an academic degree become secretaries because there’s no other suitable work. I haven’t done any research on the question as to what extent the unemployment is caused by the occupation, but it’s generally accepted that there’s a strong relationship between unemployment and the occupation

And then there’s the water shortage. That shortage applies to the entire Middle-East and so for Palestine too. But from the point of view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the problem needs a more differentiated approach. In Palestine you don’t just have to be careful with the amount of water you use, but sometimes the Israelis just shut the water off. Now, even though it’s only April, you can see tractors with water tanks driving through the streets, pumping water up to the reservoirs on the rooftops. In a few months from now, in July and August, I’ve been told that these tractors will be a normal part of the everyday street scene. The Palestinians in Jenin have been cut off from some of the major water wells because of the Wall.  It’s all in great contrast to the presence of swimming pools and lush greenery in the Jewish settlements.

Yesterday, during the vocabulary exercise, the word “fence” was discussed. After I had given the meaning of the word “fence” one of the students spontaneously said: “there’s electricity on the fence near the Wall, if you touch it you’ll die!”. It was the start of a conversation in which my students did all the talking while I listened with bated breath.

I remarked in astonishment: “but are you sure you will die immediately, surely the electricity will only have a deterring effect?” “No”, they all shouted in unison, “touch it and you’ll die!” “That’s horrible”, I said. Then followed one story after the other about night-time arrests by the Israeli army. In the refugee camp “Jenin-camp” these arrests happen very often and always in the night to avoid attention. I asked: “but what’s the reason for the arrests?” The students started to laugh and said: “hahaha, the reason? Well, we’re Palestinian, that’s all the reason they need!”

When I continued asking for the reasons of the arrests they explained to me that if a person is politically active and critical about the Israeli regime, that person will be arrested. This applies to everybody who is negative in any way whatever about the Israeli regime. I said: “so the Palestinian rapper from Jenin who I talked to the other day and who writes critical raps should be careful too?” “Definitely”, they said, “He can appear on their list in no time!”

Not only adults must accept this. Teenagers are being arrested too, for example, if they have been throwing stones. My students were telling endlessly about their experiences: almost every family has had to deal with an arrest at least once. And if a family member is rounded up, you are in the dark as to what will happen to that person. He could be gone for two days, two months or even for years, you just don’t know.

A student was saying that her brother was politically active at the university some years ago and for that reason he got arrested in the middle of the night. “They just dragged him from of our house”, she said indignantly. “In the army truck he was beaten with rifle butts. It was horrible. In total he has been arrested two times and both times he was gone for two years. And sometimes Palestinian teenagers are thrown in a cell with adult criminals.”

Of course I had read more than once about such arrests. They take place all over the West Bank, but now five girls were sitting opposite of me and they were sharing their experiences with me. I found it hard to come up with a reaction to what they were telling. I said: “You must have been scared when that arrest took place that night.” “No way!”, they reacted immediately, “they don’t scare us; our little children are scared of course, but we won’t let them terrify us!”

We never got to the rest of the vocabulary exercise and I skipped the last exercise too! The lesson wasn’t any less interesting though! When they walked out of the classroom I thanked them for entrusting me with their personal stories. “Well Ruben”, they said, “we talk with each other about these happenings all day long. Not a day goes by without us talking about it.”

I fell completely silent.

Alright, alright, in Jenin there’s one thing that enables foreigners like me to – at least – hear the occupier……almost daily…..when the clear blue sky over Jenin is filled with the intimidating roaring and thundering sounds of Israeli jet fighters.

My students 2: Arrabah

Hanaa, the manager of the Women’s Union in Jenin has asked me to teach in her village too. This village is called Arrabah and is located 4 miles outside Jenin. It seemed adventurous to me so I gladly agreed to it.

If Hanaa doesn’t collect me, I take a service taxi to Arrabah. The ride goes through a breathtaking landscape of hills (everybody who has ever visited the Holy Land knows what I’m talking about) and eventually we arrive in Arrabah on top of a hill. Arrabah is special because it has a historic village centre. It remotely resembles the Old City of Jerusalem, but of course without the crowd and the stalls. In the old centre we walk into a courtyard and then into a little building where the classroom, which has a vaulted ceiling, is located.

All the students are female and between 20 and 25 years of age. Most of them are dressed in beautiful long black (over)dresses ornamented with embroidery. Some of them are still studying and others have graduated but are unemployed. Their shyness (partly because I’m a male) had completely disappeared after the first lesson and their English turned out to be rather good. The lessons are attended by a core group of about seven students, but I see new faces every lesson. Sometimes they stay; sometimes I only see them once.

I like going to the group in Arrabah. The students are very motivated and I enjoy their laughter during the lesson.

Hanaa’s husband once took me to a high point in the middle of the village. From there you have a lovely view of the surrounding area. Reason to get my video camera and to take some shots. Hanaa’s husband pointed towards the west and said: “settlement”. I could hardly believe that he was talking about a Jewish settlement, because you don’t expect to see them here. But when I zoomed in at the spot he pointed at I could see he was right.  I could immediately see, from the distinctive monotonous detached houses, that the settlements are moving in the direction of Arrabah. And if you know what the devastating effects of the settlement policy are on the lives of West Bank Palestinians you can only hope that the settlements stay far away from this beautiful village.

Here some photos of the lesson:

My students 1: the Women’s movement

After recovering from a fortunately short bout of flu, I gave my first lesson on Saturday April 10th to a group of women of the Women’s movement in Jenin. The organisation is led by the kind and progressive Hanaa.

My first lesson was attended by about 10 students; all of them were female mostly from 40 to over 50, except for a few women in their twenties. All of them were dressed in long black overdresses and wearing head scarfs except for two Christian Palestinian women. They looked at me searchingly. This made them look a bit serious and inaccessible in my western eyes and I was wondering how I could get them to participate in my lesson. After I was seated behind my little desk (and was provided with a little glass of very sweet mint tea) I was able to start my first lesson.

As soon as the lesson started the serious-looking women changed completely: they turned out to be very friendly and cheerful and it actually was “great fun” immediately. Perhaps because the first lesson was about food, drink and the Palestinian kitchen. To impart some knowledge to them of English conversation we began with a group discussion. By constantly asking questions I was trying to generate a conversation and this approach worked out well with this group. Then we moved on to a vocabulary exercise and finally another group discussion. The topic was “Palestinian women and the labour market”. An interesting conversation developed. They explained to me that women cannot just have any profession. Especially not the jobs that are considered too heavy for a woman, such as taxi driver. Other than that Palestine doesn’t lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to female participation in the labour market. They referred to the large number of female doctors, teachers, accountants and secretaries. But when I asked if a woman could become, for example, “imam” they all shouted in chorus: “No way, that’s out of the question!”

The students answer my questions along similar lines: they discuss in a lively manner with each other in Arabic about the answer to give. As soon as they agree the leading one gives the answer in one or two words. But obviously I won’t let them get away with it that easily, because I always ask them to answer in a full English sentence. This always causes lots of laughter and giggling, but eventually they give it a try.

It’s touching to hear them say at the end of the lesson: “Thank you, thank you very much teacher, see you next time, please see you next time!!” Naturally I promise them from the bottom of my heart that I’ll be there again next time.

Over the weeks a core group of five or six students has remained: they are really putting a full effort into learning English. I really think that’s great! Here are some photos:

Searching for students

On my second day in Jenin (April 6th) Yousef is going to introduce me to several organisations in Jenin. These organisations might have people in their ranks who are interested in English conversation. Yousef didn’t pre-arrange any groups for me. We agreed to set up a few groups once I had arrived in Jenin.

Our first appointment leads us to the local branch of a Palestinian political party. Yousef and I walk through the huge vegetable market of Jenin and then we step into a building. We are being received in the office of the “mudir” (the director) of the party. I get a detailed explanation of what this local branch of Fatah exactly does in Jenin. In short, it tries to establish relations with all kinds of local civic organisations and it tries to cooperate with these organisations to achieve common goals. Yousef translates everything the director says and through the open window (it’s a boiling hot day) we hear the cries of the market vendors and coffee sellers (they walk around with a coffee pot and little cups) and the hooting of taxis and other cars.

Along the walls of the office of the director lots of chairs are lined up. During our conversation men constantly enter the room, they take a seat and listen for a few minutes, they smoke a cigarette and pour themselves a small cup of Arab coffee and then they leave without a word. I wonder who these people are, but this is customary here. Actually you see chairs lined up everywhere, in office rooms, in living rooms and sometimes even in shops. Arabs love to sit down with each other in a circle and then they talk and talk and talk while enjoying a typical glass of very sweet Arab tea with some mint or zaatar leaves or a small cup of Arab coffee.

The director promises to contact his members for us. He thinks he can set up a group of young men and women.

Our next meeting is at the Women’s Union of Jenin. I’m introduced to Hanaa. Again we sit down and a delicious cup of tea is served to us. After exchanging the latest news, Hanaa tells us she will form a group of women who will attend the conversation lessons. On top of that she suggests I could also teach English conversation in Arrabah. This a nearby village in the hills just outside Jenin. To me it’s all great.

Finally we visit the office of the local labour union. Again we drink a glass of very sweet mint tea and I get an elaborate explanation about the activities of the union. Our host is not sure yet if he can set up a group for me, but he promises that he’s going to do his best.

Late in the afternoon Yousef and I visit the bakery of the JCCC. Yousef started this interesting project. Currently it provides employment to a number of young men, but Yousef’s eventual purpose is to employ women. The income this will provide will make them more independent. The scent of sweetness and pastry fills my nostrils and I look with interest at all the activity.

I ask Yousef where these young men learned the job. One of the bakers says something in Arabic and Yousef translates it: the “leading baker” was trained in Israel. Upon hearing that, one of the other bakers smiles uncomfortably and makes a remark in Arabic. I only catch the word “Israelis”, but the expression on his face and his uncomfortable smile say it all….

“It’s nice telling Ruben something about the bakery, but did you really have to say that the Israelis taught us the job?!”

In Jenin

Hi readers,

I have more or less succeeded in getting a blog going. I will try to use this blog to keep you posted, but I’m not sure yet as to how often and when.

A short summary of what has happened so far. Departure was on Friday 2nd of April. In Paris I transferred to a plane to Tel Aviv. On Saturday morning at 0:10, I landed in Tel Aviv and I passed the border control without problems (the custom officer was asking questions, but when she began to yawn at my answers, I just knew that I was going to get my visa stamp quickly). I spent Saturday morning in Tel Aviv and in the afternoon I took a taxi van (sort of van that leaves as soon as all its seats are taken) to Jerusalem. Saturday evening and Sunday I celebrated Easter in Jerusalem and on Monday morning April 5th I left for Jenin. After changing taxi vans in Ramallah (don’t ask me how I found my way there, but it worked out) I arrived at around 15:00 in Jenin.

Problems started immediately after arriving. I tried to make a phone call to Yousef, my contact person and also director of the Jenin Creative Cultural Centre (JCCC) to pick me up from the bus station. It turned out however that my mobile phone had no connection in this area. Prior to my departure from Jerusalem I didn’t have any further contact with Yousef, so there I was, alone. The city centre of Jenin was a pandemonium, so I was desperately wondering how to find my way to the JCCC and Yousef. I felt a bit lost and decided just to walk into one of the busy shopping streets. I walked up to the first shopkeeper I saw to ask if he knew the JCCC and Yousef. I was flabbergasted when he said: “Yes of course I do, let me call Yousef for you!” I was thinking to myself: “Oh my, this is going a bit too easy”. He was talking to someone over the phone and after he had hung up he said to me: “just follow me; I will take you to the JCCC!” I asked myself: “Is it wise to follow a complete stranger?”, but I had little choice. So I followed this unknown shopkeeper who claimed to be Yousef’s friend. We walked through busy shopping streets in between stalls and merchandise and shouting vendors and suddenly the shopkeeper walked into a dark alley-like corridor. He stopped at a door at the end of the corridor while the guests in an adjacent coffee shop were staring at me.

He gesticulated with his arm to me and called: “Come…..come over here……come over here then….it’s right here…….this is where you should be”. I thought: “No way man, don’t think I’m stupid.” The point was that I didn’t see any logo or name plate that indicated the presence of the JCCC in this building. The shopkeeper walked out of the corridor towards me and he asked: “Why don’t you follow me?” I said: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not known around here and I don’t know you. Therefore it’s impossible to just follow you, I ‘m really sorry. So the shopkeeper took out his mobile phone and dialled a number. Suddenly a window opened a few floors above us and a man stuck his head out of the window and shouted: “Hi Ruben, come in!!” The shopkeeper looked up at him and by the expression on his face I knew he shouted back: “No, you have to come down, he doesn’t trust us!!” So the man in the window came down. He introduced himself as Yousef and on my request he gave me his family name. He then mentioned the names of a few persons we both know and after that I finally felt at ease. After having apologised a few times to the shopkeeper, I followed Yousef into the corridor and we took the stairs to his office and only then I saw posters and plates with JCCC’s name on them. What a relief: I had arrived at the right place.

Once at his office I was introduced to his secretary and then it was time for a cup of tea, an extensive introduction and the first discussion about our plans for the coming month. Yousef explained to me that there was a need for lessons in English conversation. As the schools in Jenin weren’t out for summer yet, I was going to teach adults. I agreed with everything. “Just put me where I’m needed”, I said.

After this Yousef and I walked into the city centre to buy some things and then……it turned out that Yousef knows everybody in the centre! We had to stop a hundred times to shake hands with friends and other people he knows.  No wonder the first the best shopkeeper could take me to Yousef immediately.

(Here are some photos of Yousef, Heebah and the centre.)

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