First letter sent on 4th March, 2006, from Tulkarem, in the north west of the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Hello to all my friends,

I’ve been on my project in Israel and Palestine for two weeks and haven’t written a thing. Apologies to all those who were concerned about me. The truth is that I had a bit of a writer’s block. I didn’t really know how to explain what I felt.

At first I was in Jerusalem for yet more training, so I was going to write all about that fascinating and beautiful city, about the interesting internationals on the EAPPI project, about the chaos the Danish cartoon scandal caused for the Scandinavians on it, etc.. Indeed on the surface, the Old City where we were staying seemed quite harmonious: the Arab, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters nestling side by side, and pilgrims of all faiths milling about. But after we toured East Jerusalem and the Separation Wall with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD) and saw what is actually going on in this “cradle of the three great monotheistic religions” as the guidebooks say, the charm of the city faded quickly and another more sinister tale unfolded. And having seen that side of the city, I found it hard to look back at the historic Jerusalem most pilgrim tourists see.

After my Colombia project, and especially after becoming become a grandmother for the first time in October last year, I had been thinking a lot about how much more important growing up in a safe and secure environment was for children than material standard of living. So it was very painful to see how the new Separation Wall and draconian and unjustly applied Israeli planning regulations have made life so precarious for Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, Muslim and Christian alike. (You’ll remember that Israel annexed Palestinian East Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967 when it also occupied the West Bank and Gaza: and still does in defiance of international law and several UN resolutions.).

ICADH, one of the many ngos we work with run by very brave and dedicated Israelis, began by showing us a private luxury housing called Nof Zion being offered for sale to Jews in the US as “your piece of Jerusalem with a beautiful view of the Old City”. On the opposite hillside the first houses of a similar project, Kidmat Zion, were already in situ. “Do potential US buyers know this ‘piece of Jerusalem’ is illegally built on Palestinian land?” asks ICAHD. It had succeeded in temporarily halting these projects in the Israeli courts but as we passed, work was proceeding. The cruel irony of this is that when Palestinians build without permits on land they own, their houses risk being demolished. There have been 12,000 house demolitions on the West Bank since 1967. Especially in Gaza these are mainly collective punishment for attacks against Israel but in East Jerusalem they are to prevent Palestinian expansion and “control demographics by infrastructure.” Palestinians are forced to build illegally because they are invariably refused planning permission by the Israeli authorities. Not all houses built without permission are demolished but it’s a lottery, and families live with the constant threat of receiving a demolition order and of the bulldozers arriving unannounced at a later date so they haven’t even time to get their furniture out. It happens quickly, and your life is in ruins.

House Demolition

Caterpillar tractor demolishing Palestinian house

Throughout the morning, we stopped at various sites. There was one where a wall round a large block of flats financed by an American billionaire had ploughed through the playground of a Palestinian primary school, reducing it by half. Another where olive trees hundreds of years old had been uprooted with the houses (Roman trees as Palestinians call them.) The rubble of demolished East Jerusalem Palestinian houses lay next to new settler houses sporting Israeli flags (one tall block the authorities “hadn’t noticed it being built” we were told). Apparently there are demolition orders on many more Palestinian houses to extend an area called David’s Garden beneath the walls of the Old City, with a view to cutting the Holy Basin off from Muslims. We were pretty dumbfounded by the cynicism of what we saw. ICADH says it is direct policy: “While every country has planning regulations, zoning and enforcement mechanisms, Israel is the only Western country that systematically denies permits and demolishes houses of a particular national group. Similarly, Jerusalem is the only city that does this systematically.. these actions clearly violate international covenants on human rights.”

The Wall

The Nine Metre Concrete Wall

So, by the time we reached the Wall at midday we were pretty depressed. As you probably know, this Separation Barrier is planned to run down the entire West side of the Occupied Territories. Half of it is complete: in rural areas it is a huge barbed wire fence with a 30-100 metre buffer zone; in the towns it’s a nine-metre high concrete wall, twice the height of the Berlin Wall. It was begun in 2002 ostensibly to protect Israel from Palestinian suicide bombers. The International Court of Justice, however, declared it illegal. A purely defensive barrier would have followed the Green Line, the internationally recognised demarcation line between Israel and the West Bank established by the cease-fire in 1949. It would have been half the length of this projected barrier and hence easier to defend. As it is, the barrier cuts deep into the Occupied Territories, taking a further 10% of the 22% of historic Palestine that Palestinians were left with in 1967. This further 10% includes fertile agricultural land, the major aquifers and the largest Israeli settlements housing 450,000 settlers. The Wall encloses Palestinian towns like Bethlehem on three sides, and encircles and cuts off others like Qalqilya altogether. Hence, Palestinians see it as a further grab of as much land and resources as possible, with the fewest Palestinians.

The Wall cuts through neighbourhoods

In Jerusalem, the Wall severs annexed East Jerusalem from the West Bank, twisting and turning (sometimes at right angles) down the middle of streets, across playgrounds, including this, excluding that, all strategically. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the suburbs – both legal residents of the City and West Bank residents with close economic, cultural and religious ties to East Jerusalem – find themselves on the wrong side of the Wall. The fabric of life on both sides is disrupted, separating families, preventing people getting to school, work and hospital, bringing economic hardship. The whole thing is incredibly complicated because of the ID system. For example, a husband with a West Bank ID can no longer live with his wife who has a Jerusalem ID, and the reasons for having one or the other can often be arbitrary but also unchangeable. She has to move and lose her valuable Jerusalem ID or their child will have no ID at all and won’t be able to go to school. It’s the Kafkaesque situation you used to get in South Africa. Crazy, yes, except it’s another way of getting Palestinians to ‘voluntarily’ transfer out of Jerusalem. Can it possibly be so cynical, we ask? ICADH says yes. So, men lose their jobs, women give birth at checkpoints, hours are wasted, frustration, psychological problems, desperation, humiliation, so many personal stories of heartbreak. Can this possibly make Israel safer? By protecting its own citizens in this way, Israel violates the human rights of the people living in territory under its control. ICADH says a much better way would be to make a just and lasting peace with the Palestinians by giving up the idea of Greater Israel and ending the Occupation, that Israel cannot be secure until it does, and that by oppressing the Palestinians Israel succeeds only in damaging the traditional values of its own society. Amen to that.

Palestinian women finds gaps in the Wall

To end the day we drive into the West Bank, past more demolitions, to the Israeli Settlement of Ma’ale Adumimm. Tens of thousands of people live here, not ideological settlers we are told but ordinary Israelis looking for a nice cheap place to bring up their families, much like anyone else. It is smart, green (no water shortage here), modern, clean, all mod cons and services; it also has an industrial zone. Standing in the leafy squares are Roman olive trees newly plucked from East Jerusalem maybe. Rents are low and residents can get to the centre of Jerusalem on a special settler-only road in half an hour, no IDs, no waiting for hours at check points. The other hills round Jerusalem are dotted with similar settlements. Ma’ale Adumimm seems an ideal place to live except for one thing: under international law this is Palestinian land and the settlement is illegal. So, is it permanent? It would seem so. It’s a fact on the ground par excellence, a real tour de force. Although its land stretches far towards the Jordan valley and practically cuts the West Bank in two at this point, it is included in President Olmert’s 2010 convergence plan and the Wall will go round it. Yet we are told that many residents would give it up tomorrow in exchange for peace, and a similar place to live. So why not? How mad is this? The Wall and bureaucratic racism only make sense to the architects of “The Quiet Transfer” we are told.

So, all in all, Jerusalem didn’t look quite so beautiful on the way back. Much food for thought. First impressions only, of course….

No apparent irony in the Bethlehem entrance sign

I went to Bethlehem on my day off, and things didn’t look much better. It is now surrounded on three sides by the Wall. The only way in from Jerusalem (20 minutes away by bus) is a huge checkpoint like an airport terminal. It bears the sign “Peace be unto you” in Hebrew, Arabic and English with no apparent irony. Part of the Wall runs straight down what used to be the main tourist street in Bethlehem, and the shopkeepers and hotel owners have gone bust. Most have emigrated to the US but one family stays resolutely there, the 9 metre Wall five yards from its front door, a former beautiful garden in its shadow. Flanking the city are the Israeli settlements of Gilo and Har Homa. The latter took the top off a beautiful wooded hill that Bethlehemites had used for recreation for centuries. It looks like a fortress.

Illegal settlement of Har Homa near Bethlehem

Bethlehem is/was a mainly Palestinian Christian town, prosperous in the days of tourism as many formerly posh houses show. Pilgrims still come but not in the same numbers and they come in and out in big buses and probably barely notice the Wall. Christians, who used to make up 29% of Palestinians, succumb to the pressure to emigrate so that now they are a mere1.8%. This is of great concern to groups looking for peaceful solutions to the conflict since the Christians have been traditionally a moderating influence and the conflict is now turning into a Jewish/Muslim one, increasingly more religious fundamentalist than nationalist. I went to a service in the Church of the Nativity. It was strange to follow the well-known formula in Arabic. I believe they do it in English at festival times.

Aida Refugee Camp cut off from the olive grove

Israelis and important religious figures of other faiths going to pray at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem do not pass the terminal check point. There is a sort of superhighway to it, and the back way for Palestinians is now closed off to deny the apparent threat they pose. I walked there with David, the Brit on the Bethlehem team, he is a Quaker. There was an Israeli Army (IDF) post with four soldiers guarding the back of the Tomb. Bulldozers were clearing some ground beside it and we asked a soldier what it was for. He turned out to be from Leeds, having emigrated to Israel with his family when he was 16 and not long afterwards was drafted. He was friendly, said he wasn’t keen on serving in the Occupied Territories but had no choice. He didn’t know what the building work was. But shortly afterwards a camera crew from a Palestinian TV station turned up and said they’d heard a synagogue or religious school was to be built, and that this was pure provocation since it was inside Bethlehem on Palestinian land and right in front of the Aida refugee camp. The Wall runs down the side of the camp and has cut its children off from the olive groves of a Greek Orthodox monastery where they used to play. It is one of the saddest things I’ve even seen. We walked on into the camp and I got my first experience of tear gas. Some youngsters were throwing stones up at the soldiers. They were only kids and the stones weren’t going anywhere, but the soldiers retaliated with tear gas anyway and fired their rifles in the air. It was more of a ritual than anything else, but what a brutalised way to grow up… on the one hand kids breathing tear gas like it was nothing, and on the other hand young recruits firing gas canisters at twelve year olds. I wished that little soldier had stayed in Leeds.

Settlers from Yanoun

It’s easy to get carried away by what’s happening here, the impact is so great, but I suppose I’d better fill you in a bit as to what I will be doing on the EAPPI project. I was originally supposed to go to Yanoun, a tiny West Bank shepherds community that is being threatened by the fundamentalist Jewish settlers of Itamar on the hill above who want to expand their settlement. The villagers got used to having their water pumps broken, olive trees chopped down, etc. but when they were physically attacked, they left. They went back only with international presence. The settlers are armed, the shepherds are not. However, when the Swedes on our project were not allowed back to the placements furthest away from Jerusalem (cartoon panic), I got swapped to Tulkarem, a market town in the north. Coming up from Jerusalem to Tulkarem in a communal taxi gave me the first taste of just how long and disrupted journeys are for Palestinians. A trip that should take an hour takes five at least, if you’re lucky. You have to change taxis at check points because taxis can’t go through. You walk a bit, get checked and get another taxi the other side. This happened two or three times on this particularly journey not counting the ‘flying checkpoints’ which appear anywhere any time. At the last checkpoint before entering Tulkarem the queue was so long that the driver reversed and set off on a scenic route down a bumpy track through olive groves. We twisted and turned for thirty minutes before rejoining the road about a mile on the other side of the checkpoint. Quicker perhaps but more expensive in petrol and many a back axle must have bit the dust. And so much for security…

Tulkarem has three major problems, apart from the general harassment of the Occupation itself. A) Checkpoints on all the major roads out of Tulkarem have made it a “closed” town and residents have great trouble in getting permits to work or study outside, or even visit relatives. B) The Separation Barrier has cut many farmers off from their land and the agricultural access gates manned by the IDF are only open for short times every day and apparently the soldiers sometimes don’t turn up at all. The Wall has also cut the market traders off from many of their former customers – the Israelis who used to come into the West Bank for cheaper produce and services. Unemployment has soared. C) There is a nasty chemical plant brought from Netanya on Israel’s Mediterranean coast and put in Tulkarem because the Netanya folk had complained of pollution. Tulkarem farmers also complain that the waste from it pollutes their land. Hence, people are pretty desperate. Also, to the north are Islamic Jihad villages and there are two big refugee camps in Tulkarem itself with the contingent unrest. Four of the last six suicide bombers came from round here. Not surprisingly, the IDF are very active and make regular incursions. The town is plastered with posters of martyrs. 1,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants are in jail in Israel, mostly young men. And that’s the place I live in now.

Pierre Andre, Jostein and myself

The EAPPI team has a small flat with a patio and a bucolic green field with yellow flowers in front of it. Ah yes, my team…. we are three. Myself, a handsome 31 year-old Norwegian town planner and water expert called Jostein, and a 65 year-old Swiss former vicar turned activist called Pierre Andre. The latter is as troglodyte as I am with technology but luckily Jostein is a whiz. The bad luck is that we have to use two mobile phones (Orange and a local Jawal because… I don’t even know why), so I have to manage that, and a digital camera, and a load of computer stuff. It’s almost more of a headache for me than the “situation”. Luckily Jostein and Pierre Andre both have extremely good sense of humour, of the rather droll kind (Jostein knows Monty Python by heart) and we have had a lot of good laughs so far. There are two other foreigners here. A French woman for the Red Cross. And an Italian bloke with an aid agency. All the Palestinians we have met are extremely friendly. And also desperate; they say it’s like being squeezed like a lemon.

Next time I’ll tell you about the work we will be doing……..

and apologies to my friends who know a lot more about the conflict than I do for telling them what they already know. I thought I knew a fair amount before I came but I swear it is nothing like I expected. How people on both sides of the conflict live under this pressure for so many years and keep sane I do not know. Perhaps they’re not.

Lots of love to all, Ann