16th May, 2006. Tulkarem, northern West Bank

Dear everybody,

So, it’s my last week in Tulkarem. The three months I’ve been here feel much longer since in that time the situation has gone from dreadful to catastrophic with the US and EU embargo on paying Palestine Authority salaries. The Tulkarem economy is in free fall, and the PA salaries were almost the last remaining money in town. Now its down to remittances from abroad and ngo pay. Offering solidarity and protection seemed good work at first. Now I wish I worked with an aid agency. Still, we can only do what we do. We try to assess our achievements. We haven’t stopped the Occupation that much is clear (sic). Our main task will be to go home, recount what we have seen, and try to influence people in positions of power.

Even so, we are pleased with our day to day work too. Monitoring a checkpoint may not change the overall situation but it is 100% important to the person it helps get through on that particular day. We challenge the soldiers’ sometimes arbitrary decisions and people tell us that petty abuse decreases when we are there.

Al Markaz team from Tulkarem Camp

Having said that, my last checkpoint watch was a great disappointment. I failed to help through the football team from Tulkarem refugee camp on its way to a tournament in Ramallah sponsored by a Swiss aid agency. This team, Al-Markaz, won the West Bank championship in Jericho in April 2005 and are heroes here. But they came up against the four nastiest little soldiers I had the misfortune to meet. When I phoned the DCO to enlist the commander’s help, they told him the players had been offensive. Totally untrue. Technically the soldiers were in the clear under the 16-40 embargo on Tulkarem men, and the commander wasn’t going overrule them. But for sheer petty meanness they took the biscuit. Football is the last real enjoyment for these guys hemmed into the Camp and with no chance of a job, ever. This was collective punishment at its most spiteful. One soldier said “they are all terrorists in the camp”. The whole incident made me really unhappy. Neither Tulkarem, Jenin or Nablus clubs made it to the Ramallah tournament. To add insult to injury for Al-Markaz, it was won by their arch rivals Al-Amaari from Qalandya refugee camp. It made even more despicable the recent decision of my own club (Arsenal in London) to do a sponsorship deal with the Israeli tourist board, a country that does this to grass roots football? Checkpoints prevent Palestinians forming a proper league, since teams are turned back so often or delayed so they arrive too late for kick-off. Players have also been taken off buses and arrested. Worse still, the only stadium in Gaza has been bombed, and the national team has to recruit from the Palestinian diaspora because players have trouble getting out of Gaza!

Tournament in Ramallah

As for our other work, supporting projects in the refugee camps, listening to people’s stories, empowering youth groups, may not change anything politically either but solidarity is important in human terms, even if only providing a sympathetic ear and a spare pair of hands.

But where we are of most practical use, however, is for the farmers trying to get to their land behind the Separation Barrier. We phone the Israeli DCO when the agricultural gates don’t open or soldiers hassle the farmers. We also help them fathom the mechanisms of the Red Cross who are responsible for taking complaints about gate abuses further. The other day, farmers in Far’un, a village south of Tulkarem, told us their gate had been closed. The DCO said its status had been changed to a seasonal gate (only open during olive pruning and harvesting). No explanation was given for the change. They were to use the next gate if they had other crops to tend. But at the next gate the soldiers wouldn’t accept their permits and sent them back to Far’un. Catch 22. No gate, no crops, no money. The DCO had washed its hands. The Red Cross hadn’t responded as yet. They were desperate. The next day, we had a mini-demonstration with the farmers at their gate. We pestered the DCO who sent various jeeps with contradictory orders. We phoned the Red Cross who also phoned the DCO. The gate didn’t open but this publicised refusal (it made the national paper) now meant we got an emergency meeting with the Red Cross who declared it a priority and are now taking it to the highest level in Jerusalem. We await the result (or rather our replacement team of a Brit, a South African and a Swede will).

Suspicious characters

You might wonder why farmers need this type of help after the barrier has been there for three years. But on the ground it is easy to understand how intimidating the Israeli DCO is. Many farmers don’t speak Hebrew. Nor do we, but English works better than Arabic, so the farmers think we are more effective. But the main thing is, we have the time. The bureaucracy of the Occupation wears people down, and that is possibly its purpose. Even the Red Cross can seem unapproachable. Facilitating dialogue is a good role for us here.

Not all farmers feel so powerless. One whose greenhouses ended up either side of the barrier took his fight to keep the Atil gate open all day to the Israeli High Court, and won. It didn’t stop him being harassed, though. He says soldiers often ask him when he’s going to give up the fight, but broken cisterns, damaged water pipes, flattened fields and fires have not beaten him so far. His old mum is pretty feisty too. Once after the gate was shut behind her and in front of her son, she grabbed the key and stuffed it down her dress, refusing to hand it over until he was let through. Even soldiers didn’t dare undress a seventy-year old with a sickle.

Separation Fence dividing Communities

But in a way, our small victories with the farmers make Israel’s overwhelming might even more grotesque. Some families who have had their land for generations now only see it from the roofs of their houses. We hear many tales of the desperation three years ago as the barrier advanced slowly towards this area, cutting olive trees, bulldozing, laying a concrete base, then the buffer zone and slip road, environmental devastation. The worst thing, they say, is never knowing what will happen next. A farmer friend says that as he saw the barrier approaching he thought he might lose 500 sq. metres under the fence. In the event, he lost 3 sq. kilometres. He says he is always trying to second guess Israeli plans but knows he can’t because they plan for years ahead whereas Palestinians are only ever reacting. One thing making him very nervous now is that while genuine farmers still have difficulty getting permits, farmers’ permits are being issued to young men who aren’t farmers. They go through the gates to work in Israel. But why are they issued with farmers’ permits rather than workers’ permits? The fear is that any ’security’ incident will be an excuse to shut the farm gates permanently. Although farmers are hanging on, they know that when Israel unilaterally sets its borders (reportedly in 2010) their land will be stolen. Simple theft of land.

Olive tree uprooted for Separation Barrier

House in the way of Separation Barrier

Land. Land the size of Wales, or the state of New Jersey, the source of this conflict. One land claimed by two peoples. One because they have lived on it for centuries, the other (two views) because it is theirs by conquest or because in Biblical history it was given to them by God.

Ironically, something called the Ghandhi Project is currently trying to get the film ‘Ghandi’ shown in an effort to find the Palestinian Ghandi. I say ‘ironically’ because protests by Tulkarem farmers all followed Ghandi’s non-violent model anyway. Yet the barrier still came. In other places, where it is yet to be completed, the fight goes on. Bili’in near Ramallah will lose much of its land to the barrier and a massive new settlement underway (some of it illegal even under Israeli law). Supported by Israeli and international activists, Bili’in villagers are resisting in a myriad of imaginative non violent way. More useful than showing ‘Ghandi’ here would be to show footage of these protests in the US so people might see the realities of human rights abuses largely financed by their taxes. Protests at Bili’in are met with tear gas, salt-coated plastic bullets, undercover agents throwing stones to turn peaceful demos into violent ones, and the IDF hammer philosophy of “when force doesn’t work, use more force”.

Men detained at Huwarra checkpoint into Nablus

Land. I found the landscape of the northern West Bank breathtaking when I first arrived. But now (like in Jerusalem) it has so many sad undertones. The other day we went from Tulkarem to the Hellenic-Roman ruins of Sebastiya where Herod Antipas is supposed to have served Salome the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Naturally, we didn’t go the straight route because of road blocks but wound over the rolling hills, craggy white rocks, olive groves. It was a sunny day, the countryside was spectacular. But standing on the Roman amphitheatre, if you look closely you can see the checkpoints imprisoning Nablus, the guarded Israeli settlement of Shave Shomeron standing pristine beside, and encroaching on, the dusty village of Sebastiya, and in the distance, the scar of the separation barrier. The lovely views spoilt by the symbols of occupation, chopping, sectioning Palestinian life, creating prisons within prisons, like those Russian dolls. I even dreamed of Russian dolls one night, but unlike Palestinians, I woke up.

Children being questioned at Huwarra

Land. On another day off I went north to Jenin. I visited the refugee camp famously destroyed in 2002 but unlike Tulkarem now largely rebuilt – physically, that is, but plenty of emotional scars to be seen in the huge martyrs cemetery. I had lunch with Douglas Johnson, the only foreigner to be kidnapped in the West Bank during the Jericho jail incident two months ago (for two hours by his own students.) He lectures at the splendid Arab American University campus standing proud on the beautiful plains between Jenin and the Christian town of Az Zababida. This private university was finished in 2000 just before the Al Aqsa intifada. Students were expected from the large Arab Israeli communities of the Galilee region but when the Separation Barrier was built they could no longer come. The day I was there, students were on strike to protest a raise in fees. All the feeder towns are feeling the pinch. One wonders how long before that university becomes a ghost town.

Just the other side of the Separation Barrier in Israel is the beautiful Yizre’el valley. We visited a kibbutz there when we went to Israel for five days to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day. When I was young, I fantasised about living on a kibbutz. It had a romantic appeal, the idea of sharing everything, no personal wealth, etc. I also thought communal living meant lots of sex. The lady who takes us round Mishmar Ha’emek (Guardian of the Valley) says the idea that a kibbutz was a group grope is prevalent to this day, but unfortunately not true. She is Welsh and emigrated to Israel in the Sixties. She recounts the origins of Mishmar Ha’emek – some of its first members were Holocaust survivors – the years of sharing not much, the great spirit of creating something new, the mixing of Jews of many nations. Together with an exhibition to commemorate the Holocaust, it is very moving. Money was always scarce, she says, so much so that the call went out for the kibbutzim to come up with moneymaking schemes. Creative ideas abounded and one invention actually worked: a kind of mesh for binding bales of hay. Mishmar Ha’emek now has factories all over the place and has got embarrassingly rich. The collective ethos is being phased out and equal pay for all will soon be a thing of the past. Anyway, poor or rich, they certainly live in a beautiful place with palm trees, bougainvillea, hibiscus. Since it is quite near the Separation Barrier, naturally we ask if the kibbutzim ever talk of the West Bank now. Our guide is proud that the kibbutz land was not appropriated from Palestinians but paid for at its inception. She says she is a pacifist and has always encouraged contact between Israelis and Palestinians in the past. But suicide bombings have changed all that, “We must protect ourselves,” she says, “the Palestinians hate us, building the Wall is the only answer, they have brought it on themselves.” I’m glad I finally made it to a kibbutz, it still symbolises for me what is best about Israel, but I could not help but be disappointed that even this sector wants the Palestinians out of sight in their prison.

Luckily, there are still Israelis battling for a negotiated settlement and a just peace. We meet many of them that same week in Haifa: organisations intent on building bridges and denouncing human rights violations. In Tulkarem we don’t get as much opportunity to work with Israelis as our teams in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron do, so we are particularly pleased to get to know them. There is New Profile – women who combat the militarism which pervades Israeli society and support the refuseniks; Breaking the Silence – ex-soldiers who speak out against the atrocities committed by the Occupation army; Zochrot – people who try to stop the obliteration of Palestinian history in Israel by restoring villages destroyed in 1948; Physicians for Human Rights – doctors who take mobile clinics into the West Bank; Rabbis for Human Rights who help Palestinians farmers replant olive trees cut down by settlers and protect them while they plough; Tayyous, a joint Israeli Palestinian organisation doing social projects together; and many more. They make up a very dedicated, but unfortunately all too small, band of Israelis who believe that by oppressing Palestinians they damage their own society, and that in order to preserve what is inherently good and just in Judaism they must make a peace that benefits both themselves and their neighbours. They also say that since Israel currently seems to have no vision of peace without exclusive sovereignty and control, it is up to the international community to insist on a just resolution based on international law.

Needless to say, we find much in common with them. Despite what our guide at the kibbutz says, the Wall is not the answer. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak was fond of quoting a line from a Robert Frost poem “Good fences make good neighbours”. But Barak did not read the end of the poem that gave it its true meaning.

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out

And to whom I was like to give offence

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

That wants it down”

Construction of the Separation Barrier started four years ago but only 42% is finished. It is a huge task. Remember that the barrier is twice as long as it would be if it were it a defensive border along the 1949 armistice Green Line, twisting and turning as it does. Twice as much to defend surely cannot be more secure. Sharon swore initially that, “it will come down when the danger ends.” That is what the Supreme Court was told. But in March this year Olmert announced that, “in four years Israel will be disengaged from the vast majority of the Palestinian population, within new borders, with the route of the fence, which until now has been a security fence, adjusted to the new line of the permanent border.” So, it is a political border after all.

Mahatma Gandhi said that walls always fall. He wrote:

“When I despair,

I remember that all through history

The ways of truth and love have always won.

There have been tyrants, and murderers,

And for a time they can seem invincible,

But in the end they always fall

Think of it – always.”

The Wall will fall, why not take it down while its only half built? The Occupation must eventually end, so why not end it now? Suicide bombings will eventually stop, why not now?

Until such time I invite all of you to walk a week in a Palestinian’s shoes.

Ann and Graffiti on the Wall

Lots of love, Ann

p.s. probably you’ll get one more ‘last impressions’ wind up letter when I get home.