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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
 

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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.)