We made it through the checkpoint to the Jewish enclave in the old city of Hebron, which now contains some of the West Bank’s most hardline settlers.
The area is usually off-limits to non-Israelis, but we managed to wander through the ghost town that was once home to thousands of Palestinians. Now it is home to 400 settlers that are protected by 2,000 soldiers.
This was once the centre of city life with 300 shops, the central market and government offices. Now the houses are sealed up and the shops closed behind rusty shutters. The old bus station has been turned into an army base.
The few Palestinians that remain can only enter their homes by climbing along their roofs and making holes between the houses. Children do the same to get to school, often having to avoid a barrage of stones and filth being thrown at them by the settlers.
This is Yisra with her son – one of her 10 children. They are Bedouins who live in the beautiful sheep-herding countryside near Mar Saba Monastery (between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea).
Yisra, and 10 other Bedouin families who live close by, have lived in this area for centuries. They would like to build stone houses to replace their tents but are refused permission as the area has been designated Area C (under full Israeli civil and security control) since the 1995 Oslo Accords.
The tents provide a kitchen and two sleeping areas and only got electricity three years ago with a solar panel. Their water supply is a small tank at the top of the hill.
They have 11 sheep, five goats, one donkey and a chicken and make a meagre living by giving rides on the donkey to the rare visitors to the monastery.
Many of their Bedouin neighbours have left to go and live in Bethlehem which is exactly what the authorities want.
For once the area is cleared they will take it over for Israeli settlements and greenhouses.
Yesterday we entered the Aida Refugee Camp, outside of Bethlehem, through a black gate holding a huge key, symbolising the right of return for the residents of the camp.
Many refugees within the West Bank, who were forcibly displaced during 1948 or 1967, still hold the keys to their former homes in the hope that they will one day reclaim them.
We were told a story by young members of the Freedom Theatre, who are travelling with us on the ride, as we stood in an open air theatre within the camp.
About a year ago, the Freedom Theatre actors came to the theatre to perform a play for the children in the camp, about a man and his sheep living under the obstacles of occupation.
During the performance, Israeli troops entered the camp and fired tear gas into the theatre. The actors and children ran choking, eyes streaming, but then decided as a group to return and continue the performance, despite and in defiance of the attack.
The actors told us that for this second leg of the performance, the young audience were the most attentive and engaged that they had experienced.
Some of the freedom bus participants in the theatre beside the wall
Hassan’s story – Sybil, Tim and Ciar visited Battir, near Bethlehem, during some free time.
Battir is a village between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It’s close to Deir Yassin, scene of the most notorious massacre of Palestinians by the Zionist terrorist groups in 1948.
The village and its valley are beautiful – Roman aqueducts, elaborate terracing and an Iron Age site.
The Ottomans built a railway from Jerusalem to Jaffa which loops around the valley close to the village and across its lands. Hassan, our friend in Battir, told us that the railway – you can still see the old Battir station – meant that the village population has always been particularly well educated and well travelled.
In ‘48 the 12 villagers who stayed put whilst others fled from the advancing Zionist army managed with huge ingenuity to make the village look as though it was still inhabited. They put candles in every house and hung out washing everywhere. They even walked around at night with sticks pretending to be Arab army soldiers.
They succeeded in having the armistice line drawn far enough away to include all their land, and they claim to be the only Palestinian village where refugees were able to return from the camps in 1949.
The armistice line was eventually drawn so that Battir people could access their land, including the land which was beyond the railway line – on condition that the railway was not attacked.
It has not been attacked once in the 67 years since the Naqba, despite daily Israeli trains passing through to this day.
In the early 2000s the Israelis planned to run the apartheid wall very close to the village, blocking the land and the landscape. Villagers began a lengthy and expensive legal challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court to stop it, without much hope to begin with.
Meanwhile a group, including Hassan, who is an engineer, began to create a dossier of maps and documents, starting from the British Mandate maps of the 1920s. They recorded the history, the archaeology, land ownership, available water, agriculture and wildlife.
This won them the 2011 Melina Mercouri prize for Cultural Landscape.
In the same year Palestine was admitted to UNESCO and the group of villagers, including the elected mayor and the town council pushed the Palestine Authority (PA) to apply for Endangered World Heritage status for Battir.
They were disgusted that the PA preferred to promote the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – as a major tourist attraction it’s hardly endangered! Battir, with its struggle against the apartheid wall, was a much more significant political cause.
The John Kerry ‘peace process’ farce coincided with this Endangered World Heritage application which meant that the PA was expected to suspend all international negotiations as a precondition. Although, of course, at the same time it did not inhibit Israel with its land grabbing settlements.
Finally in 2014, Battir got its World Heritage status – but the vote, in Doha was nail bitingly close.
This of course had an impact on the Supreme Court case – Israel would not dare to put its wall through a UNESCO site. So eventually they won.
A courageous and clever campaign – Battir is now a major destination option in Palestine’s young tourism industry with well organised walking trails and a guest house.
The Freedom Ride took a day off today, so Mary Brodin took a trip to East Jerusalem and the site of two house demolitions. Here’s her report:
Two houses were built on this site in Ash-Shayyah on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. One was demolished ten years ago, the other two weeks ago.
The land has been owned by the same Palestinian family for centuries but the Israelis have ruled that the current owner requires a permit to build as it is designated Area C (under full Israeli civil and security control since the Oslo Accords signed in 1995).
But only 5% of permit applications are successful and the process costs 200,000 shekels (£40,000).
That makes it extremely difficult for Palestinians to build legally so they have no alternative but to build it ‘illegally’.
If they were to go through the legal channels the house has to be deemed part of a district Masterplan and the Masterplan for Ash-Shayyah is the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes to expand the Jewish cemetery.
So Palestinians have no option but to take the risk of building a house without a permit, not knowing when the demolition order will come.
Once demolition is notified it can take some years before it actually takes place, leaving the owners in a constant state of worry and insecurity. Meanwhile the homeowners are periodically fined 5,000 shekels (£1,000) making it a lucrative business to keep the house owner waiting.
The Palestinian owners then have two options: demolish it themselves or an uncertain wait for the Israelis to do it for them – the latter being the best of a bad choice.
When the time comes no prior notice is given. The demolition crew typically arrive before 5am – backed-up by around 50 police officers despite knowing there will be minimum resistance.
The police surround the house, holding hands in a ring. The owners are given exactly 15 minutes to grab what they can and leave forcing them to leave most of their possessions behind.
To add insult to injury, the house owners are sent the bill for the bulldozer – 5,000 shekels (£1,000).
Israel demolishes about 200 homes in Area C each year.
On Friday the Freedom Ride spent the day at Nabi Saleh where villagers hold a weekly protest against the theft of their land.
Sybil sent this report:
“Today we joined the weekly demonstration against the theft of Palestinian land and the settlement that overlooks Nabi Saleh. We marched down the hill and were met by a jeep load of occupation forces, armed to the teeth. They fired dozens of tear gas canisters at us. Some of us managed to walk around the stolen fields.”
“We were very pleased to be joined by several Israeli activists, who come every week.
“We also heard extraordinary stories from the Popular Resistance Committee, many of whose activists are women, including the world’s youngest journalist – Jenna Jihad (9). She has 23,000 followers on Facebook…Join them!”
The activists were then treated to a fantastic spread by the residents of Nabi Saleh where they shared stories and made new friends.
For more information and pictures on the protest check the official blog that’s updated each day.
For more information on the Freedom Ride you can also follow the official blog, which features more detail of what they’re getting up to along with some beautiful pictures by Bryan MacCormack.
After the day’s activities the Freedom Riders and local Palestinians in Fayasel were treated to some playback theatre where actors reenacted personal stories.
The first show was called Platform that the FT had previously performed in the US about a Palestinian-American visiting Palestine for the first time following his travails through airport security, life in the West Bank and his encounters with the Israeli military.
Platform was followed by a performance by the Indian acting company Jana Natya Manch about violence.
And finally the night was finished off with some Playback Theatre where the FT acted out stories that the villagers had experienced including one about a father being unable to buy his daughter a wedding dress due to Israeli checkpoints and another about a woman who hid Palestinian fighters from Israeli soldiers.
Mary Brodin, one our Tower Hamlets campaigners on the Freedom Ride, sent this report:
Large tracts of the Jordan Valley have been falsely declared military zones. Warning signs are erected forbidding entrance to this land. The original farmers are evicted and any that stray on to the area are shot at.
The stolen land far from being used as a military zone is then taken over by settlers and covered in greenhouses producing grapes, flowers and chilli peppers or is planted with mile upon mile of palm trees producing dates.
An elderly couple whose families have lived in the village of Yarza more than 400 years have been shot at. The man still has the bullet lodged in his body. Yarza now has only 60 people living there and has lost its school and transport links.
Every three days low-flying planes monitor to see if the Palestinians have installed new water tanks. Last month they destroyed a hilltop water tank and pipes servicing a couple of villages.
Villagers have to rely on small rusty underground water tanks. They are not allowed to repair the ageing tanks which hold increasingly low levels of water because the water has been diverted to the settlers’ houses and greenhouses.
* To keep up with the Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity tour with the Freedom Theatre you can follow this blog by entering your email on the right hand side of this post.
First up was brightening up the community centre the Jordan Valley Solidarity (JVS) Campaign had built. The idea was to not only make the building look a little brighter, but to get the kids involved with the creativity too.
Tim Sanders, our very own cartoonist, began getting a few ideas down in his sketch book, which soon got the kids’ attention.
Then it was time to try things out for real. So after painting a white canvas on the side of the hut the kids got started. Usama, from the Freedom Theatre, explained to the excited kids that they should paint stories from their lives: friends, family, the animals…
And with a little help from Tim, things started to take shape. But after a while the kids enthusiasm got the better of them and the paint began to fly.
So Doug, our six-foot hackney-based actor, put his height to good use; and held the paint up out of reach.
Once things had calmed down and the kids went off for tea, Tim and Orajit, one of the Indian actors that has flown over from Delhi, finished their artwork in a more orderly fashion.
Tim described the kids as having an “extraordinary and uncontrollable creative energy”. Sybil told us by phone last night that Tim’s artwork and creativity is going down a storm wherever he goes and had made lots of new friends as he sketches everything in sight.
We look forward to seeing the fruits of his work when he returns. We’ll be publishing the best of his work in a series of postcards, posters, prints and a calendar.
Day Two of the Freedom Ride included a visit to Fasayel, a remote village in the Jordan valley, of which 95% is under occupation.
It used to be a popular tourist destination and described as the bread basket of Palestine due to all-year farming its climate supports. Now it is littered with checkpoints making travel slow and largely farmed by Israelis.
And on a different and unexpected note the Tower Hamlets delegation were delighted to bump into an old friend Marwan Wishahi from the Jenin Refugee Camp.
Marwan amazingly tracked them down after hearing they were on the tour! You can see him third from left in the picture.
Sybil sent back this report after visiting the villages of Yarza and Fasayel:
“We have been the guests of the Jordan Valley Solidarity group – a Palestinian grassroots activist movement covering the vast area in the east of the West Bank along the river Jordan.
“There are 56,000 Palestinians and 6,500 settlers in 37 illegal colonies. Before 1967 there were 320,000 Palestinians living here. But with 95% of the land designated ‘Area C’ – under full Israeli military control – Israel is free to steal the land for itself.
“Thirteen per cent of the population controls 86% of the land. Settlers or colonists have the right to build what they like under full military protection, and with considerable Israeli state subsidy.
“The main aim of the Israeli occupation is to drive Palestinians out of their villages and into the towns, or further afield.
“We met a man whose 12 year old son had been killed by a land mine some years ago – the Israelis take no responsibility for the mess they leave.
“We saw vast fruit plantations – grapes and dates- run by settlers and Israeli agribusiness. However, 70% of these settlers have homes elsewhere in Israel – they are not here to live but to exploit these fertile lands. Forty per cent of Israeli date exports to Europe are grown here.”
“A Jordan Valley Solidarity activist, Abu Sakr, had his home demolished for the 8th time in Dec 2015. Everyone we spoke to had sad and shocking stories to tell. If an area is declared a CMZ, then the Israeli army is free to demolish Palestinian homes and businesses without a permit.
“In Fasayel, a small village controlled by the Palestinians (Area A), but surrounded by Israeli settlements) we spent two nights in a community centre built in 24-hours using local materials! The idea is that the roof goes up first so that a demolition order is not needed. Animal shelters and water cisterns are not so lucky – they are just bulldozed on a whim.
“Jordan Valley Solidarity uses local and international support to build houses and schools – although two of their six schools have been demolished. While Israel can demolish properties without a permit, it is almost impossible for Palestinians to get one to build or extend their homes.”
“Water is the key to all this. It can cost Palestinians US$8 a cubic metre to import the stuff. In Yarza we saw a water tank that had been demolished without warning a few weeks ago, while down the road an extensive pipeline takes water from Palestinian land to feed the tiny – but very aggressive – hilltop settlement of Mashiyyot and the military base nearby.”
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