April 4th, 2006, Tulkarem

Dear everybody,

Some of you say thanks for the letters but you’re too busy to read so much stuff. Sorry about that. This one’s even longer. You can save it for a rainy day but I have to record all I see while it is still vivid

I must say I missed the quiet of run-down Tulkarem while I was “evacuated” to Jerusalem for those few Jericho-scare days. Spring has definitely come now and the sunny mornings in our yard are wonderful. We look out onto a green field dotted with yellow flowers. The idyll, however, doesn’t extend past the front gate. Much of the quiet is enforced. While I was away the closure on Tulkarem tightened in the run up to the Israeli elections.

One passes, two are turned back

On my first checkpoint watch after my return the soldiers are letting no males between 15 and 40 out of the city, even if they have permits. There is a crowd of very angry students who have exams that day in Nablus. The soldier isn’t budging. Orders are orders. The students phone others to say only the girls need bother trying to cross. Some things are farcical. Three university lecturers walk up. One is 40 and passes. The other two are 39 and are turned back. They plead a special case as they are supervising the exams. The soldier wants to help and phones his commander. I speak to him too.. But no. “High alert. No one under 40.” “Looks like I’ll have to come back on my birthday” one of the lecturers says to me wryly. The students are seething, we know some of them, Their impotent fury is hard to witness. Besides, I cannot see how a town full of pent up male anger with no outlet helps security in the long run. This order will last for at least till the polls close.

In the event there is no let up at the checkpoints because two days after the elections a suicide bomber kills four Israeli settlers just south of Nablus, raising the ante on both sides again. Friends ring to ask if it was nearby and I say no, but of course it is near in terms of distance, just not in time. The IDF reaction is swift: although the bomber wasn’t from Tulkarem, the town is raided and flying checkpoints set up between villages to reinforce the permanent ones. At Anapta, the main checkpoint going south, the iron gate is now closed to all but pedestrian traffic. There is a virtual lock in.

You’re probably bored hearing about checkpoints but I write about them because they so epitomise the precariousness of Palestinian life. The omnipresent IDF holds the key to the questions “Will I get to work, to university, to hospital? Will the demolition order on my home be carried out? Will the agricultural gate be open on time? Will anything have happened to my crops?” “Will my son be arrested?” Or much worse. (The checkpoints also represent the futility of tying up thousands of young Israelis; alternately scared, brutalised or bored out of their skulls.)

However, in Tulkarem you see how the precarious nature of Palestinian life is counterbalanced – and mercifully so – by the rock solidity of the family structure. Families are huge – clans really – generally living under the same roof. Houses are characterised by steel rods sticking out of the top, waiting for the next story to be built for the next generation, adding bits as families grow. So that if men-folk have no work, or have to go away to work, or are in jail, or killed, somebody always looks after the extended family. ,

The Palestinians we meet in Tulkarem are most welcoming, solicitious, and generous to a fault. Our work brings us into contact with people across the social spectrum and their extreme hospitality spreads into their homes and families. Far from the monolithic “terrorist” tag parroted by the media, Palestinians are much like people everywhere; there is a wide range of opinion, not about the Occupation that everyone loathes, but about how to oppose it and obtain the peace they all crave.

Here are some vignettes to give you an idea:

Like any town, Tulkarem has rich, middling, and poor people (although predominantly poor). But the recent economic collapse has depressed incomes across the board. When the Wall was first built here a lot of fuss was made about their plight, but three years on it is a fact of life and Tulkarem people think they have been forgotten (a metaphor for Palestine as a whole maybe).

Young men dancing and playing music at Dar Qandeel

This is a sentiment we often hear at Dar Qandeel (House of the Lamp), a young people’s Art and Cultural Centre whose activities we take part in. We also help them with their English and words like “unlucky” “always the losers” “hopeless” “abandoned” “the world is against us” are always cropping up in conversation. It makes me sad because they are lively, fun, inquisitive and affectionate, so keen to study despite the obstacles, and anxious to learn things you don’t get at the mosque. Because education is so highly prized here and many schools are built by the UN and aid agencies, Palestinian kids can be comparatively well educated. They remind me of the Cubans in the darkest days of the Blockade, educated kids with no job prospects, nowhere to use what they’ve learned – except by leaving, that is. They’re both in “the West” and out of step with its current phase. Many of the youngsters at Dar Qandeel have resistance fighters in their extended families, but while their own frustrations can understand this anger, they oppose the methods, partly because they think it leads nowhere and partly because the punishment is so ferocious. Part of EAPPI’s work is to support organisations looking for non violent solutions to the conflict and seeing DQ leaders, Ghassan an actor, and Ala’a a painter, work with them through theatre, music, dance, solidarity etc. is heartening. Another organisation we work with, made up of Israeli ex-soldiers, tries to reduce hostility and build bridges between young people by organising cross border visits. They see this as crucial because contact is rare since the Wall, and having served in the occupying army they know how the given image of “the other” is so hard to break..

Youngsters in the Tulkarem and Noor Shams refugee camps, however, aren’t easy to convince of peaceful resistance. (I know you know the camps aren’t tent cities like in Darfur but consolidated dwellings often only distinguishable from other poor areas by extreme overcrowding, poor services and the fact that the UNWRA sustains them, and clans claim identities with the villages they came from prior to 1948, in what is now Israel.) For this third generation of refugees the vicious circle of violence continues unabated. For some, the hard man image, historical allegiances, and armed groups actively recruiting, makes being a martyr a more attractive option than a life without work or a future. (You get your picture plastered over the town walls, for example). And the camps are where the hand of the Occupation is felt most heavily in terms of extra-judicial killings, house demolitions, reprisals against families, nightly raids and arrests. The IDF called Tulkarem the “terror hub of the West Bank” at the height of the Intifada. But that doesn’t mean many families in the camps wouldn’t give their eye teeth for an end to the conflict too.

Children at a kindergarten in Tulkarem Camp

We often visit a camp kindergarten that the EAPPI team previous to ours painted and refurnished with Dar Qandeel’s help and local donations. Many of the kids are Afro-Palestinians (refugees from villages inhabited by the descendents of slaves brought by Bedouins from the Sudan many years ago/or descendents of a regiment from the Sudan who fought with the Ottoman Empire – I heard both versions). Just like wide eyed kids that inhabit kindergartens everywhere, they love balloons, blowing bubbles, and singing with us. The mums we talk to aren’t at all happy at what lies ahead for their youngsters, many of whom already show signs of trauma. They long for them to grow up without jackboots thudding round their neighbourhoods. But the collective punishment the IDF doles out is a double-edged sword. It may bring fear and despair but it also strengthens resolve, and although the mums say they can’t go on endlessly tightening their belts, they do. What a terrible dilemma. Mums in Israel must also hate risking their sons in the Occupation or fearing for them in street bombings, while all the while insisting that increased security does the trick. If only there was the political vision on both sides to capitalise on this mutual desire to stop this lunacy.

Other Tulkaremites who not keen on the second Intifada are some of the town traders. Many we meet were young in the First Intifada. It was largely peaceful and they participated actively and were often jailed. But they feel the drastic methods of the Second Intifada has damaged the Palestinian cause (let alone their incomes). Although comfortably off by Camp standards, they are reeling from the shock of the Wall and closures. A local man who had studied in Sweden and then made a lot of money in Belgium told us he had (like others) been encouraged by Yasser Arafat to come back and invest in Palestine in the Nineties after the Oslo Accords. A native of Tulkarem, he built three factories here: an olive oil processing plant; a soft drinks bottling plant, and an artificial stone factory. After a good start, the loss of the Israeli market and the restrictions on distribution within the West Bank made his factories uneconomical. He can go back to assets he has in Belgium but his dream of helping his town is shattered, and the employment repercussions of his closed factories are grave. He believes Israel is deliberately destroying the Palestinian economy so Palestinians will eventually be so desperate they’ll take any deal offered. Like many businessmen here, he wishes the Intifada hadn’t happened. But despite what he has lost, he hopes the Hamas government will have the guts to reject offers any new Israeli government makes that will dislocate his country even further. God, my head is reeling. Opinions are cross fertilised with many complexities.

All this, and I haven’t even touched on the plight of farmers in the Tulkarem area yet. They were previously the mainstay of the regional economy.

Agricultural Gate at Deir Al Ghusun

Another of our team’s roles is to monitor the agricultural gates that farmers use to get to their land now lying on the Israeli side of the Separation Barrier. We can see how placement of the gates, their precarious opening times and arbitrary permits system makes working this land extremely difficult. Here are typical scenarios. Let’s say you get to the gate at 6 am but the soldiers are late or don’t come at all. Or they come but although you have a permit, they don’t believe you’re going to your land. Or the wrong family member comes: family permits are sometimes assigned to the very young or very old and not to the able bodied men. Or you get through but miss the last re-entry time and get your permit revoked. Or your tractor is impounded because they say your paper isn’t correct.. Or you get back to the gate and are told you can re-enter but you can’t bring your crops. Or for no good reason at all.

Take yesterday, for example. We go to monitor Deir al Ghusun gate 5 km north of Tulkarem. We meet a group of farmers on the way who get there at 6.50. The gate is closed. Some cars are parked there and furious phoning to other farmers reveals the gate had been open at 6.30. It is supposed to stay open an hour. We phone the District Commander (DCO) who says the gate will be closed all day “for security reasons”. When we insist on an explanation he says there might be a mistake and says to call back. But the farmers can’t afford this “wait and see” game. Those with transport trog off to find another gate. Soon the only person left is a very old man with a very old donkey. We phone the Red Cross for information and learn the gate had only stayed open for ten minutes at 6.30 making it impossible for the 80 farmers waiting all to pass. Some went home, some to find another gate. We later learn that 30 farmers didn’t get to their land that day. However, our phone call has worked because ten minutes later a humvee zooms up and two soldiers get out making a big fuss about opening up again. They are not pleased. The old man with his old donkey pads slowly through the huge iron gates with its massed barbed wire. He is very lucky. But what a waste of time, energy and resources on all sides. We haven’t yet witnessed the really nightmare scenarios of farmers made to stand all day in the sun for petty reasons that we hear about (is it because we’re there?), but have seen plenty to show that behaviour at the gates is punitive rather than facilitating.

Separation Barrier dividing community

As I said before, a barrier that was purely for defence as Israel claims would run on their land along the Green Line, the 1949 cease-fire line internationally accepted as demarcation between Israel and the OPT. A Green Line barrier would be closer to the Israeli security brief, since Palestinian farmers wouldn’t be working land between the barrier and Israel. Hence, farmers are convinced that the aim is to make cultivating their cut-off land as difficult as possible, so they will get worn down and abandon it. Under Israeli law, abandoned land can be confiscated and given to settlers. Some farmers see Olmert’s plan to fix borders unilaterally by 2010 as the writing on the wall and are already transferring their greenhouses to the West Bank. But others say it is treason not to stick it out and splits are appearing in farming communities. Besides, you can’t transfer olive trees. And many villages haven’t enough land left on their own side of the barrier to sustain their populations, so they have no option but go through the gate charade.

Ann with Mayor of Qaffin

One of the worst hit villages in our area is Qaffin, thirty minutes north of Tulkarem. Qaffin had 1,000 hectares before 2002 when the barrier snaked 3 km into its territory and trapped 600 hectares to its west or buried it under the buffer zone. It was good land with water. 6,500 olive trees were uprooted. 400 of the remaining hectares have dwellings on, so that leaves only 200 for growing food. “9,000 people cannot live on that” says Mayor Taisir Harasheh as he shows us round. Three of the four village olive oil presses are closed and they now have to buy olive oil instead of it being their main source of income. In an area that was the bread basket of the West Bank, villagers are becoming dependent on World Food Programme handouts. After four years, the Mayor tells us, he now has no budget for schools, clinics, or street and sewage maintenance. He quotes the UNDP as saying the barrier is the sole cause of Qaffin’s man-made disaster. Their agricultural gate is particularly bad. They appealed to the Israel Supreme Court to move the barrier because it caused so much hardship, and won. But the resulting to-ing and fro-ing of the route of the Wall mean, they have been left with only one gate 8 km from the village. And (as punishment?)it is a now military gate controlled by the army not the civilian DCO. This means it is often “closed for security reasons”.

Nearby Nazlat ‘Isa is also a crisis case, its once thriving market lies in ruins. In 2005, 63 shops were razed by IDF bulldozers, and another 165 still have demolition orders on them. No reason was given for this destruction, and when the villagers went to the Israeli Supreme Court they were told it was a mistake (no military purpose, after all.) Nonetheless, the market cannot be rebuilt and in any case half its customers are now the other side of the Barrier.

House with IDF post on top

Just north of the market where the Wall runs straight through the village of Baka al Ghr’bia, stands a now infamous house. The wealthy shopkeeper owner went to the Israeli Supreme Court to stop his very grand four-story house beside the Wall from being demolished. He was rewarded with a stay of execution but also with an IDF post with a rocket launcher on the top of his house. So he still could not use it. His daughter and sister live beside the Wall on the other side so he has to travel 30 km to the nearest checkpoint into Israel and up again to visit her – if he gets a permit, that is. You would have thought that having made a man’s life a misery, permits would be forthcoming, but no. Even having a photos of his house splattered over European magazines doesn’t help. “I’m tired of having my photo taken”, says Abedalhaleen Ahmed Hassan, “I just want someone to stop this nightmare”.

The hardship stories are endless in the villages round Tulkarem. I’m only telling you the ones I’ve seen but many are even more dreadful:

Fayez with his land between the Wall, the factory, and the plant

Then there is Fayez whose land has ended up squeezed on three sides between an Israeli chemical factory, the Wall, and an Israeli recycling plant – all built illegally on the West Bank. He says he is specially punished for being active in the local Farmers Union. He has had his greenhouses flattened, his crops ruined, he has even been shot at, but he still refuses to leave. Also, Mofeed in Far’un, a village that had 10,000 olive trees destroyed to make way for the Barrier. Not only has Mofeed’s land disappeared behind the barrier but a demolition order has been placed on his beautiful new house because it is too near the barrier. As he is showing us the house, soldiers roar up in a jeep and tell us to get away. “You get away” I want to shout. And then Hashem, a farmer in Shufa, a village cut in half by a settler road that villagers are forbidden to use. It took him fifteen minutes to get to Tulkarem before 2002. Now he has a massive detour past a checkpoint that can take hours. The nearby Israeli settlement and the military base guarding it are gradually extending their land. “Sway, sway” as they say here – bit by bit. We meet Hashem’s frail old neighbour Abdul on whose land the settlement and army base were built. He is tending his goats under his olive trees. He says the settlers intimidate him and have tried to stop him harvesting his olives. A new fence has appeared right up against his orchard and he knows it means further encroachment. And so the stories go on…

I think of these people when I remember what Anat’s friend in Jerusalem asked “what are a few Palestinian farmers compared to the security of millions of Israelis?” But we’re talking about thousands of Palestinians in this area alone suffering endless human rights abuses with complete impunity, as if it is normal.

My initial indignation is turning to amazement. As a Jewish friend wrote to me recently, how have successive Israeli governments got away with it for so long? Israel is the occupying power and the Fourth Geneva Convention says an occupying power is obliged to make life as normal as possible for civilians in the area it occupies. The Convention specifically prohibits Israel from transferring its own citizens into the occupied area. Israel ignores every UN resolution, yet Western leaders never criticise them. Land is stolen both openly and by stealth and half a million Israelis are settled on it. And for forty years our governments, the UN, the International Red Cross, and the aid agencies (all us as taxpayers, that is) have picked up the bill for the consequences. And what’s more, when the victims of the occupation react (especially in this latest particularly nasty, but also very sad, form), they are then dubbed the aggressors. Will Israel now make withdrawing from parts of the West Bank but creating a non-viable Palestinian state look like an act of generosity?

A Swiss EA gets hit by a rock

More next time. Tomorrow I’m going to Hebron. Our team there needs someone to replace a Swiss girl who is in hospital. She was hit on the head by a rock thrown by a sixteen year old settler from the extremist settlement entrenched in the heart of the Hebron’s Old City.

Lots of love to all, Ann