Tulkarem, north east Palestinian Occupied Territories, 17th April, 2006

Dear All my friends,

Today, Easter Monday, is not a good day. We are attending a Peace and Democracy workshop at the university in Tulkarem when the news comes of the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. My heart sinks. But some of the students break into spontaneous cheering. The lecturer is furious. We are astounded. When the gut reaction passes, the students say yes, of course, it’s wrong to target civilians, it fuels the interminable cycle of violence they live in, it gives the IDF the excuse to weigh in with an even heavier hand, it further damages the Palestinian image abroad etc. But for that one first tiny fraction of a moment, it seems like justice for years of collective punishment. I dread the reaction. It isn’t long coming. All roads around the town are sealed within the hour.

A couple of hours later at 5.30, we get a phone call that 1000 people are trying to get to their homes out of town and are stuck at a flying checkpoint. Our Swiss colleague is away. Jostein and I are being visited by Norwegian Dina and Swedish Anders from the Yanoun team. Anders is a very droll sixty something. We go to witness what is going on. Traffic is backed up a mile from the checkpoint. The taxi drops us off and we walk. The situation at the checkpoint is extremely tense. The first four vehicles are buses with kids on a school trip followed by a vast array of minivans, taxis, cars, tractors, lorries. Hundreds of people are edging forward towards four young soldiers. Two stand twenty yards away behind concrete blocks with machine guns pointed at the crowd shouting to it to keep back. The other is pacing nervously about behind them. The fourth won’t leave his humvee. Anders and Jostein walk slowly forward to ask what orders they have. Jostein comes back to say that no one is to pass. I go forward to join Anders. He is calmly suggesting the soldier let the kids in the buses through as a gesture, that such a large crowd can’t be kept back. The soldier said he can’t, it would be a sign of weakness. He is sweating, his hands are shaking, I can see he’s frightened. I ask him and he says he is. He is yelling in Hebrew at the crowd to keep back or they will shoot, all the soldiers keep cocking their guns and aiming. Anders keeps repeating, “don’t shoot, don’t shoot.” Tulkarem youths are kicking aside the spikes in the road. It is a terrible situation, kids are milling around. There are only four soldiers and they can easily be overpowered, guns or no guns. It is really volatile. I keep thinking “I do not want to be here.”

Palestian youths edge towards soldiers

Mercifully IDF reinforcements zoom up. A senior commander jumps out, takes off his helmet and walks to the crowd and speaks to them in Arabic. He has a presence, no doubt about it. This deflates the crowd a bit. He says he is awaiting new orders, it won’t be long, that they are to keep calm till the orders come. The crowd keeps up the barrage of insults, old ladies come forward to harangue him, but the tension has temporarily gone out of the situation. A little boy with a heart problem is let off a bus and through the checkpoint, but has to come back because there is no transportation on the other side. Anders and I take the opportunity to get back to the buses. We do not want to be identified with the soldiers. The Palestinians aren’t backing off but more reinforcements arrive, and twenty soldiers and five armed jeeps swing the odds back to the IDF. Tension starts to build again, another half hour passes, the angry youths are getting bolder again, when suddenly the commander declares the checkpoint will open. What a huge relief for everybody..

This is not the end of the episode. Things take a while to get moving. The road divides here. A few cars and pedestrians go to the right to have papers checked to get on the settlers road into Israel. The rest go left to the permanent checkpoint ten minutes away at Jbarah, it’s the difficult one on the dirt road I told you about. We take a taxi to the head of the line. There is chaos but the traffic is moving. The kids’ buses go through without checking. The volume effectively means that if the crowd is to be cleared without tension rising again, very little checking of IDs can go on. And that is what checkpoints are ostensibly for, to check, and now its not happening. It’s illogical. An hour ago one silly move on either side might have brought bloodshed. We hear later that at Anapta checkpoint soldiers fired over the heads of the crowd which is what we feared. Suicide bombing is wrong from every conceivable angle but this deliberate collective punishment of civilians and desire to prove over and over again who is the boss, surely fuels the frustration that leads to it. It brings us back to ‘what is security’?

I know I bang on alarming about this, but it is what most strikes anyone who wants a peaceful solution to the conflict: the mutual incomprehension. The vast majority (perhaps nearly all) of Israelis never see a scene like the one I just described and from my experience in Netanya, an Israeli resort on the Mediterranean ten miles away, most don’t believe it when you tell them. You can see the lights of Netanya at night from Tulkarem, it’s 30 minutes by taxi (Crouch End to the West End!) but it’s a planet away economically and culturally. I spent a much-needed two days off there recently. It is through the checkpoint I just described but you need the appropriate pass, which means 96% of Tulkaremites can’t go. As a foreigner I swan through onto the settler-only road that appears from a settlement deep in the West Bank. Their cars pass as if the all too solid border for Palestinians doesn’t exist. The Wall looks different from the Israel side too. Whereas in Tulkarem it is 9metres of concrete with a waste-land of demolitions and abandoned workshops in front, on the Israeli side it is banked up with earth to the top and planted with bushes, looking just like a hill.

The Wall in Tulkarem from the Israeli side

Netanya is a flash seaside resort, very neatly kept with a lovely sea front, nice beaches and beautiful sea (and loads of French people). Nobody much in the sea at this time of year but the beachside cafes are full and people are doing European things like getting drunk and stoned and sitting about with not many clothes on. It has a familiar feel. Like Palestinians, Israelis are very friendly and curious, and come up and chat. Most aren’t too impressed when they hear I live on the West Bank. Like the soldiers, they can’t imagine why anyone would want to. They immediately tell me about the appalling suicide bombing that killed 50 people at a Netanya hotel at Passover in 2003. Some, however, are interested in what Tulkarem is like, and some had even been there before the Wall. They stress the need for checkpoints into Israel, that’s what the barrier is for, but are surprised to hear of checkpoints between villages and villages, towns and towns, and the stranglehold the IDF has on people’s lives. Those interested in details of the economic collapse are genuinely shocked at the extent. Like in most countries, the media isn’t telling them what they don’t want to hear. It is the day after the elections but most people I speak to haven’t voted. The local newspaper says the turnout was below 50%, even lower that the countrywide all time low of 63%. Like in Jerusalem I get the feeling ordinary people are so tired of the Palestinians they just want them to disappear behind the Wall so they can forget them and to hell with the consequences for them. Yet leaving the city, I look up at the West Bank hills. It is a beautiful sunny day and the hills look so enticing. I feel sad for Netanya-ites that they can’t go there either. Between plain and highlands the divide is deepening, but the plain looks green and prosperous whereas on the hills things are grim….

As everyone knows, even in times as hard as Tulkarem, life goes on and fun things happen. Births, marriages and deaths are aplenty here. And we’re the recipients of the fabled Palestinian hospitality on many occasions. Births happen with incredible frequency and each one brings immense joy and celebration to which we’re often invited. Weddings are huge and can take a couple of days (especially farmers’). We’ve had problems understanding the exact time and place of events (important because men and women have different ceremonies) so I have twice found myself a lone woman eating with 800 men. It’s not a problem because of the ‘foreign women being honorary men’ thing, but it is best to try and obey the rules.

Some situations are farcical. The IDF doesn’t like the Occupation being referred to as… well, Occupation. A soldier is busy telling me why the West Bank isn’t one when my eyes travel over to the tank, two armoured jeeps, and a huge earth mover parked at the checkpoint. His gaze follows mine. “Hmmm, I know it doesn’t look good…” he says dismally. We have to laugh. At an agricultural gate, a donkey with a mind of its own sets off down the military slip road. The soldiers take ages to catch him. The farmers love it. “He won’t obey orders, he’s braver than we are.” The other thing I find very funny is that EAPPI teams wear these shapeless armless jackets with a logo on the back, referred to for some fathomless reason as vests. Apart from the fact that to me a vest is underwear, none of the many Scandinavians, Germans or Swiss on the project can pronounce the v and constantly call it a “west”. It cracks me up each time. It has lead to endless word games and our dubbing ourselves the “westwearersofthewestwank”. The “west” was also the subject of the funniest episode of the week when I washed mine with all my documents in the pocket and ended up with a passport in a soggy mass at the bottom of the tub (more of this later).

The deserted historic centre of Hebron

Another nice (?) thing that happened was my visit Hebron, the West Bank’s second largest city nine hours south of here. The team needed cover following an incident in which a Swiss EA had had her head cut open by a rock thrown by a teenage settler. 500 settlers live in the heart of ancient Hebron, guarded by 2,000 IDF troops. Their violent behaviour has forced most of the Palestinians living there to flee their homes. The old market is deserted and sad.

Schoolgirls passing the settlement

But some Palestinian families insist on staying and there is a very good girls school that continues to function. Our Hebron team has a specific task: escorting these girls (all under 15) to school past a settlement to protect them from the pelted stones or eggs, or the spitting and insults. Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities have all lived in the Old City over the centuries and revered it as the home of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. As in Jerusalem, whoever is top dog at any one time has been beastly to the others. Currently it is a colony of Orthodox Jews. When I was there, all was quiet and we were able to walk through the derelict Old City undisturbed. However, I saw some home videos of the settlers (many of them children themselves) attacking both the Palestinian schoolgirls and internationals, and it was pretty scary. Christian Peacemaker Teams and Amnesty International researchers have had ribs and limbs broken by settlers in the South Hebron hills. Today an email came saying that two more EAs had been injured by stones. Nothing happened to me, however, and it was interesting to see Hebron and the southern part of the West Bank, which has a different feel from the north.

ICRC prisoners’ families’ bus

Back in Tulkarem, life goes on. We are always very busy. One of the things our particular team has got interested in is the prisoners’ families’ visiting programme run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It organises buses to Israeli jails. Again, it is against the Fourth Geneva Convention to hold prisoners from an Occupied Territory in the occupying country. Nevertheless there are 11,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, 950 of them from Tulkarem. It is a mega operation funded by the Norwegians, not by any of the $3 billion aid a year Israel gets from the US. Seeing off the buses, we notice they are mostly full of kids. It turns out that many of the families have embargos on adult visiting for security reasons: only children under 16 and parents/grandparents over 45 can go. We visit the worst hit families to find out more.

Areen with her nephew

There is one amazing ten year-old called Areen. She has three brothers in different jails (one in the Negev) and she is in charge of taking their children to visit them. That means 5 visits a month for her, shepherding 8 kids between 3 to 10. Buses leave at 6 am, there is a two hour search at the checkpoint into Israel and at the jails they have to wait until all the visits have finished before they can board the buses back, then more checks. She sometimes doesn’t’ get home until midnight. It also happens that in the confusion some kids get on the wrong buses and end up back in the West Bank in the wrong town. She tells me she gets pretty fed up, that the little ones don’t behave very well and sometimes wet themselves, and that they’re often asleep when its time to see their fathers. The interview room is behind glass and there’s no touching. She also doesn’t like missing school. But she is resigned and says she’s proud of her family “in the resistance.” We find it extraordinary that the burden of collective punishment is put on such young children. The ICRC agrees. However, their long hard struggle to get more permits is paying off and 275 extra permits have been issued this month in Tulkarem to include sisters over 16 and more mothers. Areen might finally get back to leading a normal little girl’s life. We, by the way, accompanied the buses to the checkpoint into Israel but were not allowed inside to see the searches. We wanted to do this, because Areen says sometimes the kids get pushed around and Muslim women hate having to remove their long outer coats and scarves in front of soldiers.

Noor’s father holding his photo

Another family from the camp has a daughter who gave birth to a little boy (Noor) in jail. Again, neither her husband or any adults in her family can visit, so her other three children visit her alone. Little Noor has turned two and Israeli law says he must leave the jail. Naturally jail is not good for him, but his mother’s lawyers are fighting for her to keep him since she is all he knows. He has only seen his brothers and sisters behind glass.

People in Tulkarem are fond of saying “every time you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse.” A friend wrote to me the other day “its astonishing how something so irrefutably wrong as the Occupation can be spun into legitimacy”. And that’s exactly what is feared here, that opposition to Hamas in the West will block out mention of the Occupation and the T word will dominate the rhetoric even more. The EU decision to cut off funds to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority only confirms this fear.

Market trader explaining political points to Ann

Ibrahim Rashid Ali, a market trader, explains to me how many Tulkaremites see things. Most were surprised by the Hamas victory. But what surprised them even more was that their choice was unacceptable to the same governments who encouraged their first steps in what they considered a fine example of democracy. Tulkarem depends heavily on PA salaries and cutting funding could tip these victims of a man made economic disaster (the Wall) over the brink into real hunger. The suggested channelling of aid through NGO’s rather than the PA itself may keep some Palestinians from starving, but it is likely to undermine rather than encourage the effective government they so badly need and deserve.

Many see the election of Hamas by the traditionally secular Palestinians as an act of desperation, and fail to see why they should be punished for their vote, or why Hamas should not be given the chance to govern before being condemned. In other parts of the world, organisations who have committed terrorist acts have come to power legitimately and formed respectable governments (they point to the former terrorists among Israeli prime ministers), so why not them? Especially since those who are so quick to condemn Hamas ignore the flagrant violations of international law by its powerful neighbour. I am at a loss to tell Ibrahim what my own government is doing to persuade Israel to act in accordance with UN resolutions and end their illegal occupation – the root of Palestinian problems and the biggest obstacle to peace. And why it does not criticise Israel’s withholding of Palestinian tax and customs revenues in violation of international agreements? And why does it not urge Israel to comply with the International Court of Justice decision to stop building the Separation Barrier and the theft of more land? The Barrier continues apace, as do the building of settlements on the West Bank. Since the settler withdrawal from Gaza, a larger number have been settled on the West Bank than were withdrawn. I have to agree with Ibrahim that all this smacks of double standards. I’m also old enough to remember what happened to the Cubans in 1961 when Western intransigence pushed them into a camp they might not otherwise have sought. The Cubans survived and produced a healthy society, and so no doubt will the Palestinians, but the interim suffering may be tremendous.

Anyway, back to the passport saga. I couldn’t believe I could do something so daft. I was going to Ben Gurion airport to meet my friend Holly who was coming from Italy the next day, so I had to spend hours painstakingly making a patchwork passport, eventually producing something that got me through the checkpoint into Israel. Luckily I got a soldier who smiled benignly at my doddering granny “silly me” routine. And luckily not one I had been all uppity with previously. The consulate in Tel Aviv turned up trumps and produced a new macrobiotic (?) or something one in a couple of hours, agreeing that the Occupied Territories was not a good place to be without a passport. This lead to a first for me: admiration of our foreign office.

So, that’s all for this time. We are going to Israel for a week, to spend time with different ngos and see how things look from there. Holly is recovering from her hour long airport grilling and is staying with me for ten days.

Lots of love to all, Ann