18th March, 2006. Jerusalem

Hello again to all my friends, here’s another mega missive…..

Apologies again to those of you who know a lot about the conflict, but perhaps there is a value in the indignation of first reactions. Living with injustice becomes familiar all too soon.

I’m in Jerusalem again for 48 hours until the protests in Tulkarem against the Israeli destruction of the Palestinian Authority jail in Jericho is over (it is muscle flexing electioneering at its most deadly by Olmert). I felt bad about leaving because most people there are very friendly, are happy that we take the trouble to come and see how this latest drastic stage of the Occupation is affecting them, and are concerned for our welfare. Leaving looked as if we didn’t trust them, but the Project insisted. It always seems worse from outside, inflated as it is by the media. It’s also true that people there were pretty pissed off with what they saw as US and UK collusion with the Israeli attack, and I also didn’t really want to run the risk of coming across the one nutter (like in any society) who might not like your face.

Former main road from Tulkarem to Israel stops at the Wall

Besides that I am fine. I had been in Tulkarem for 18 days although it seems much longer: so much to absorb, so much to fathom, so much suffering to witness. It is a market town in north west Palestine, with a population of 60,000 plus two refugee camps of 18,000 (Tulkarem) and 8,000 (Noor Shams – Light of the Sun) The area has suffered the Israeli Occupation much as the rest of the country over the years but food and work were available for most people. Many locals worked in Israel, Israelis came to the market to buy cheaper agricultural produce, get their cars repaired cheaper, and generally shop more cheaply, etc. Contact was fluid. The Al Aqsa Intifada and the Separation Barrier changed all that. People here call it the third Nakba (Catastrophe). The local economy has collapsed, no more jobs or trade with Israel, and there is 60% unemployment. The town had been controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but it is now an Israeli military ‘closed zone’ again. Closure means a complex policy of physical barriers and permit requirements which control Palestinian pedestrian and vehicle movement (concrete road blocks, flying checkpoints, iron gates, ditches, earth mounds, and barbed wire) causing interminable delays.

Market in Tulkarem

All this strangles economic and social life. Distributing goods can be so delayed that agricultural produce rots on the way, or is so expensive to transport that it cannot compete with Israeli produce that comes in unimpeded. Getting to work anywhere but your own town becomes impossible, Tulkarem students at Nablus or Jenin universities have to lodge there now although they’re only 20 odd miles away (increasing costs), contact between families becomes difficult. And psychologically people get gradually worn down and stop doing anything other than the necessary.

Woman from Machsom Watch

Part of the work the EAPPI teams do is monitor the checkpoints and report human rights violations to the appropriate Palestinian and Israeli ngos. We sometimes coincide there with Israeli women of the MachsomWatch (machsom = barrier) organisation who come from Israel to check on their soldiers behaviour. “It is my duty to come, my taxes pay for this abomination,” one woman told me. They are very dedicated and it is inspiring to share experiences and information with them, and get tips on how to talk to the soldiers. The soldiers attitudes to them vary. Most of the women I met weren’t young, and respect for mothers is traditional in Israel. I saw one fiesty elderly lady tell soldiers to take down a huge Israeli flag they’d stuck on the checkpoint. Provocation like this was not what they were there for, she said. But sometimes the soldiers are hostile and then there are fireworks.

Standing long hours at checkpoints means we see how everyday Palestinian life is affected. Here are a few vignettes to give you an idea, not even dramatic just very disruptive.

Ann at Jbarah checkpoint going north

Going South

Jbarah checkpoint is five miles out of the city to the south. No airport terminal-type checkpoint this, just the simplest of road blocks on an unmade country road. As we approach, two young Israeli soldiers are standing on the brow of the hill, machine guns at the ready. A line of about twenty cars spreads out in both directions. It is 3 o’clock, taxis are depositing people on their way home from work. They line up and wait. It is hot, they get covered in white dust. Taxis with the appropriate permits await them on the other side. One soldier deals with the cars. The other calls the pedestrians one by one. Most pass. A few are sent back. A soldier finally saunters over to us and asks if we want to pass. We say no, we’re just watching. He shrugs, saunters back, and continues. The soldiers are in no hurry, but are quite courteous and the two lines move steadily. Cars wait on average an hour.

At 5.00 o’clock the guard changes. A jeep roars up and two soldiers, a man and a girl, pile out. Greetings are exchanged with their colleagues… the greetings last a good twenty minutes. Meanwhile the lines get longer. Finally the new soldiers take up their position, not one on each side like before but both together behind a concrete bunker. Drivers are made to get out, walk 15 yards to present their papers, go back to their cars then bring them for searching. Each car now takes 10 minutes to search. An articulated lorry is turned back; it takes ages to turn round on the narrow road, causing a huge shower of dust. The crowd of pedestrians grows. They also are checked more roughly. The girl soldier spends 5 minutes examining a buggy, gun pointed at the baby’s head. For us watching is painful, why is she so aggressive? She comes over to us and demands our papers. We hand them over, she says we can’t stay here, it’s dangerous. We say we can. She talks on the phone. Finally, she says OK, but no photos.

By the time we leave, the average time for a car to pass has gone up to two hours. As we walk back to get a taxi, we notice that a man who was turned back earlier is still there. We ask him why. He has a Nablus ID and Nablus people can’t come through Tulkarem. He will try again when this second shift gets tired, sometimes they get sloppy then, he says, or can be persuaded. He is desperate to see his father who is ill not far from the checkpoint on the other side.

Anapta Checkpoint

A few days later the weather changes and when we get up early to monitor the Anapta Checkpoint on the main asphalted road going down the West Bank to Ramallah, it is a grey drizzly day. We arrive at 8.00, there is a line of twenty cars. We make a note of the last one, to see how long it takes to pass. We recognise our landlord’s car; it has Gauloises written on the side, he is a cigarette salesman going to the nearest goods checkpoint with Israel to pick up a consignment. Two young soldiers are standing checking, machine guns pointing down. They look wet and miserable, so do the Palestinians waiting. It is the usual pattern. Most pass. Now and again one is turned back. Three ambulances go by unimpeded. One of the soldiers comes over to us and asks why we are there. We say we are watching how they do their job. He says he hates this job, soldiers don’t get enough sleep, but he’s proud to do it because he loves his country. We say that’s OK, but the Occupation is not something to be proud of, look at the misery the checkpoints cause. The line of pedestrians is lengthening. We say he shouldn’t be talking to us but doing his job. He goes away, but is back in ten minutes. He wants to talk.

He is originally from the Ukraine, only twenty but already a commander. He says the other night he took his men into the Refugee Camp to arrest some terrorists and they were shot at, so how can he be nice to Palestinians at checkpoints when all they want to do is kill Israelis. We point out that the IDF are the occupiers making the incursions. He says no, this is Israeli land. We say Palestinian families have lived here for hundreds of years, why should they give it up? We ask if it is right that 1,000 men from Tulkarem, most his age, many with no charges against, are in jail in Israel? His colleague calls him over but he is soon back. He changes his tune, he says he’d be in jail too if he refused to serve, he says its best not to think too much about it or you start to question, its best just to do it and hope you stay alive.

A man drives up to the front of the line. He runs over to the soldier and says something with urgency. The soldier gestures that he bring his car over. He checks inside, then the boot. He comes back to us and says “you see, he didn’t have the right permit but his son has broken his leg and needs to go to hospital, so I’ve let him through.” He seems to want approval. But the point is not to humanise the Occupation but end it, we tell him so. He wants to talk further but thinks better of it. Even if the soldiers are OK, the volume of traffic makes things slow. The car we picked out at 8.00 makes it through in one hour twenty minutes. However as the morning passes and the soldiers relax or get tired (or perhaps because we are still there?), they stop making people get out of communal taxis, women are waved through, and more and more cars don’t get searched. So, why these and not the earlier ones?

The most striking thing about checkpoints is how random and arbitrary they can be. For Palestinians who have to cross many in a day, short journeys like our landlord’s can take hours. Their lives are determined by the type of permit they can get, which again can be arbitrary, and the goodwill and/or mood of soldiers barely out of their teens. As we stand there, people call out to us “Welcome to our jail”, “Look what they do to us.” Over the weeks we see no grave human rights violations but plenty of daily harassment and humiliation. Security? These are not checkpoints into Israel, but between Palestinian towns and villages.

Our taxi stuck on an earth mound

We get another taste of checkpoint tactics when we go to Jerusalem for the inauguration of the World Council of Churches Week of Action. It is the Jewish feast of Purim for three days and on Israeli festivals there is general alert all over the West Bank, especially in closed areas like ours. We have to get there by 4 pm, so we set off at 10 am. The 84 km should take two hours but we are expecting a long journey. When we get to Anapta checkpoint, the line is forty cars long and moving very slowly. Our driver opts for the “scenic route” but after half an hour through the olive groves where we should be rejoining the road, we find a group of cars waiting. Someone says someone has phoned to say there is an Israeli jeep at the junction. Frantic mobile phoning is going on but nobody dares take the plunge and see if they can get through. We turn back and set off over more fields to rejoin the road further on. We are eight people in a minibus on a dirt track littered with earth mounds. On one of them we get stuck, bottom of bus on mound and four wheels in the air. We pile out. It is a desperate situation but so farcical all the passengers laugh. Thirty minutes later after much pushing and shoving we are free and in another fifteen we are back on the main road.

Flying checkpoint can pop up anywhere

Because of Purim, there are flying checkpoints everywhere, solitary jeeps with a couple of bored soldiers, but each one takes time. One that stops us is interested in my Swiss colleague’s passport and wants to practice his French. More delay. Halfway to Ramallah the driver pulls off the main road. Apparently he has not got the correct permit for this part. The omnipresence of the IDF force him onto the back roads.

At that point we still have plenty of time so in tourist mode we’re not bothered about the extra mileage. It gives us the opportunity to see the Palestinian villages in this area in the shadows of Israeli settlements (always on hilltops). Some are huge. We pass Ariel, the settlement sitting on the West Bank’s largest aquifer, it has a large industrial estate, university, and land that extends half way to the Jordan valley. Kadima leader Ehud Olmert in his election platform has promised it will be included inside the Separation Barrier when Israel unilaterally fixes its borders in 2010. The Ariel finger (as the area is known) joined to a strategic military zone in the Jordan Valley cuts the northern West Bank off from the central part at this point. Further south the huge settlement area of Mal’e Adumim near Jerusalem slices the centre from the southern part. It means the West Bank is dissected into three main parts and other subsections round major towns make smaller prisons within them. Travelling like this makes it clear just how dislocated Palestine now is, cut up into cantons crisscrossed by settler only roads and strategic military zones, all precluding a viable state.

Pierre amid the rubble at Qalandia

The approach to Ramallah from the north boasts huge fancy houses, strange in the midst of so much poverty, “built by diaspora Palestinians” the driver tells us. The twists and turns on the back roads have extended the 84 km to 140 km. Another half hour crawling through traffic in Ramallah and we reach Qalandia, the huge checkpoint that separates it from Jerusalem. It will eventually be a checkpoint of the airport terminal variety but at the moment is still surrounded by piles of rubble which kids, old ladies, everybody are clambering over to file through the cattle-pen turn-styles. The loos are unspeakable. What a sorry sight as an entrance to the Holy City. Another half hour and we make the event by the skin of our teeth: 6 hours door to door. And we’re lucky to be able to get to Jerusalem at all. Palestinians cannot, their most important religious shrines are out of bounds to them.

After the church service I meet a young Israeli for dinner. When I was with the Peace Brigades in Colombia on my team was a wonderful Israeli girl called Anat. Doing her military service had made her a pacifist. We became good friends and she has written to me from Liberia where she is now with Medecins Sans Frontières to recommend I meet a friend of hers in Jerusalem, a thirty something film editor with Canal 2 TV. Anat has said that he and I probably won’t agree on things but that he’s friendly, intelligent, and open. And indeed he is. We have a nice time talking about his work, the coming Israeli elections, etc. He is working on a documentary on the phenomena of Kadima, the party Sharon created that will probably win. He says he’s a moderate. He will vote for Kadima. When I ask why, he says because frankly he is sick to death of the Palestinians and wants them behind the Separation Barrier for good where he can forget them. You can’t make peace with them because they hate Israelis so. When I suggest they might have good reason since their land is being gradually stolen, he says OK but this has to stop somewhere and the way to do it is to shut them out and let them get on with their own lives. He doesn’t like the hard line settlers either; he says they have to realise they can’t have the whole of the West Bank. But Greater Jerusalem extended to Mal’e Adumim, and Ariel and the Gush Etzion block must be recognised as Israel proper, as well as all the Palestinian land now taken by the Barrier. “But what about the farmers whose olive trees…?” I begin. “That’s the price they have to pay,” he says. When I tell him of the suffering I have seen round Tulkarem he says the Palestinians have brought it on themselves, they must now make do with what they are given. And this is a moderate view? No acknowledgement of Palestinian rights, that suffering will increase if they don’t get a viable state, nor that they are to be “given” something that is already theirs. He also politely suggests foreigners shouldn’t interfere, they don’t understand the need for security. So different from Anat who wrote “I’m grateful you’re doing something for my country. We need the international community to remind us that what we do is wrong, as we are too angry and hurt to acknowledge it at this stage. We also need you to urge the Palestinians to fight for their rights in ways other than the violent ones they are using.” Like the article I sent you by the father in the Parents’ Circle, I am humbled by her wisdom.

Why am I disturbed by Anat’s friend? Because it seems that this nice young man’s view actually is the moderate Israeli one, supported by the US, and our own pusillanimous spineless self interested government.

And I am disturbed because I can’t see his solution bringing the Israelis the security they long for. At the end of the street I live on in Tulkarem is a large illuminated sign on a lamp-post. On it are the photos of ten young people. My neighbour explains that they are all from our neighbourhood, she knew them all. The top three carry guns and were Fateh fighters. But the other seven are younger, a couple as young as twelve, boys and girls, who died in the street, innocent victims of stray bullets when Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships bombed and strafed Tulkarem in 2002 in reprisal for suicide bombings. The rubble of the bombed Palestinian Authority buildings in the centre of town is a humiliating reminder of that invasion; there is no money to rebuild. But the scars left by the loss of those children are much deeper. The future is frightening.

Puppet show on non violence in Atil

The previous week we had gone to a puppet show in the nearby village of Atil. It was performed by a group trying to teach children how not to keep their feelings shut inside, but to express them in non violent ways. It was a great success, the kids loved it. But it didn’t stop one of them wanting to give me a CD of jihadi martyrs on the way out.

Next time, the plight of farmers with land behind the Barrier……