In October 2018 I had the opportunity to join a group of internationals on a build, harvesting and learning camp in Palestine organised by ICAHD (the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) and Torat Tzedek, an Israeli NGO run by Rabbi Arik Ascherman. The group was made up of people from the UK, Germany, Italy, Finland, Australia and the USA. We spent four days helping to build a community centre in the village of Bardala, in the north of the Jordan Valley; three days in Awarta, near Nablus, helping with the olive harvest and staying with a wonderful and hospitable family. The last very intensive four days were based in Bethlehem, with trips to Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron, the Negev, Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
It was an unforgettable experience, wonderful and upsetting. Wonderful, because the group was brilliant and varied: from young to less young: from 18 to 80, the 20 of us lived and worked well together, led by Jeff Halper, from ICAHD, Rasheed from the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign, Arik Ascherman, Rabbi and activist and Linda Ramsden from ICAHD UK. Upsetting, because you can read extensively about Palestine and Israel, you really need to be there and experience it to understand the gravity of the situation lived by the people we met, their resistance, determination that are summed up in the word “sumud” (steadfastness).
Sunday 21 October
The Matrix of Control
Before we departed for Bardala, we had a tour of East Jerusalem with Jeff Halper from ICAHD showing us how Israel controls the lives of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel took over East Jerusalem in 1967 (along with the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the Sinai).
Monday 22 October
We started on the construction of the community centre which will serve some isolated villages in the north of the Jordan Valley. Hard physical work laying the foundations and carrying bricks and good team work making cement and mud. Our host, Rasheed Khudayri from the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign and his chief builder made us welcome with plenty of mint tea and excellent lunches and dinners. And of course talking to us about the stark reality of the occupation and the daily hardship.
Progress on the building site…
Tuesday 23 October
On a tour of Bardala we were shown the area where IDF soldiers came and destroyed the village water pipes (actually sawing them in short chunks so they could not be reused). In retaliation the villagers went to the Israeli pumping station and destroyed it. The old well is no longer in use; Israel digs wells 400 m deep, whereas the Palestinian wells are only 65 m deep, which means that it depletes the water table.
During a break from construction, we went to the village of Al Adidija to meet Abu Saqr, a farmer whose house was demolished by the IDF 32 times in 16 days leaving the family homeless; the soldiers took away the plastic sheets that protected the children so they got ill. Abu Saqr is a very dignified and proud man and spoke to us is a very authoritative way about the humiliation and abuse his family has suffered as a consequence of the occupation.
Wednesday 24 October
Last day in Bardala and celebrating our achievement: five layers of bricks in three days!
and then later in the afternoon we departed from Bardala for Awarta, a village on the West Bank. We were welcomed by Jamal and his family and soon got settled into our accommodation. The evening was spent convivially over dinner of hummus, olive oil and zaatar, and other Palestinian delicacies, followed by tea and coffee.
Thursday 25 October
First day of olive picking! in the village of Burin, near Awarta, where the family has an orchard of 120 olive trees. The landscape is strikingly beautiful with villages surrounded by hills; the downside is that on top of the hills are the Israeli settlements with their ominous and menacing presence. In fact settlers often come down to harass Palestinians while they are harvesting their olives. Fortunately we didn’t experience any of that. In fact the purpose of having internationals joining Palestinians during the olive harvest acts as a protective and deterrent barrier.
During our break under the shade of olive trees, Ghassan, one of the family’s sons talked to us about the life of the village. He is a community organiser and for that he has been arrested many times and has spent a total of five years in jail on “administrative detention” (the Israeli term for no conviction and no trial). He started a project with children,teaching them the dabka (the national Palestinian dance), which is not approved of by some of the villagers as girls and boys are together and holding hands as they dance. Asked what he thinks the situation will be like in ten years time he replied that he thinks for tomorrow and therefore lives day by day.
Some of us went with Arik early one morning to accompany some Palestinian shepherds and their flock to a grazing ground, but were stopped by IDF soldiers, (who by looking so young must be on their military service) who arrested the shepherds and Arik, who was later released. So the flock returned home hungry.
Friday 26 October
As the night before was windy and rainy olive picking was off, so we had a chance to visit Nablus with Ghassan as our guide. Nablus has one of the biggest refugee camps in the West Bank: Balata.
The old town was lively with lots of grocery stalls; we visited a soap factory, stopped by the mosque. I was struck by the number of posters of people killed, a plaque commemorating the brothers killed in their house when soldiers attacked The parents survived and had to be rescued from the rubble.
Saturday 27 October
Being Saturday we felt more relaxed going to the field picking olives and we had no trouble as the settlers were resting during shabbat.
Back in Awarta we packed and after an emotional farewell to our host family we departed in a minibus full to the brim with our luggage and arrived in Bethlehem where Linda was waiting for us at the Star Hotel.
Bethlehem was originally Christian but after the Nakba when Palestinians fled their villages many came to Bethlehem therefore changing the demographics, so that now Christians make up 1/3 of its population, including the suburbs of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. It is surrounded by the separation wall and by the settlements of Har Homa and Gilo. It is at Checkpoint 300 that hundreds of Palestinian workers go through every morning to go to work in Jerusalem. It is a degrading and humiliating experience to be penned into a cage like animals.
Sunday 28 October
The start of a four-day intensive learning programme! Today we went to Ramallah, north of Jerusalem. Went through Qalandia checkpoint in heavy traffic.
Ramallah is a very cultural city: the East West Divan Orchestra, founded by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim was originally based there, but nowadays is based in Seville, Spain. Like Bethlehem it used to have a significant Christian population which established institutions, especially schools. Nowadays there are far more Muslims in the city, but Christians still live there and play an active role in the community. The Palestinian Authority is based here at the Moqatta – which was destroyed by the Israeli army in 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield. Also consulates have their offices here and many internationals and young people working for NGOs live in the city. The Ramallah “bubble” has developed economically, financed by the Palestinian diaspora, especially after Oslo. Near the city is the prestigious Bir Zeit University and the Palestinian Museum sponsored by the Qattan family.
We met Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American, who took us through the history of the Oslo process and its aftermath, the two Intifadas, the recognition of Palestine at the UN General Assembly in 2011 (the UK abstained), as well as his personal experience of getting permits and residency: life remains limited and constrained.
He was involved in setting up telecommunications in Palestine, and he is an advisor to the Palestinian Authority. He also gave us his critical views on the PA.
On the way back we met the journalist Jonathan Cook at Jeff’s house. Jonathan lives in Nazareth, the only Palestinian city that survived the 1948 Nakba. He explained the difference between citizenship and nationality and the ongoing process of “judeisation” enshrined in the recent Basic Law (Nation State Law). Citizenship right is the base of any other rights i.e. water, healthcare, housing, electricity. There are 80+ Palestinian communities (in the Negev and Galilee) unrecognised by the state, not allowed to have housing, water, etc. and regarded as criminals as they live on “state land”. Kibbutz and moshave communities control 80% of the land as agricultural cooperatives. Palestinians are excluded from that. Israel has nationalised 93% of the land for all Jews in the world.
There are 350.000 foreign workers in Israel: “tied labour” in construction, restaurants, care work, agriculture. Also 60,000 African asylum seekers, some from Eritrea. Very ugly record of treatment of foreign workers and asylum seekers; they represent a security problem and a demographic issue: they are “the wrong race” by not being Jewish.
On our return to Bethlehem we stopped at the Deheisheh Refugee Camp where we were welcomed by Naji Odeh, Director Laylac Center and Murad Oded who led a walking tour of the largest refugee camp in Bethlehem. The original inhabitants were internal refugees displaced when their villages were destroyed in the Nakba, camping under trees or in tents as they thought they would be there temporarily. Then the Red Cross and the UN intervened and slowly buildings went up. Murad is a third generation refugee and was born in the camp.
During the evening we had a talk from George N Rishmawi, Director Palestine Rapprochement Centre who introduced three students from Bethlehem University who spoke about life in Bethlehem and their vision for the future.
Monday 29 October
We spent the morning in Hebron (Al Khalil in Arabic) where we met Ido Even Paz, a former member of the Israeli army and now part of Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by a group of veterans who collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza since the start of the Second Intifada. Breaking the Silence aims to raise awareness about the reality of everyday life in the Occupied territories, and to stimulate public debate about the moral price of military control over a civilian population and of ongoing occupation. (from a BtS publication)
Ido walked us along the apartheid Shuhada Street.
Hebron is an ancient city with a biblical history for Jews, Christians and Muslims. In the 1980s four Jewish settlements were built inside Hebron: Tel Rumeida, Avraham Ainu, Beit Romano, Al Shadada.
In one street there are houses with cages around the windows for protection for the Palestinian families living there, who go in and out of their house through the rooftops (see “Rooftops of Hebron”)
The old city of Hebron is deserted, more than 1,000 people left, 1,800 shops closed and soldiers are everywhere.
We saw some Israeli groups touring the old city; we also saw evidence of Israeli narrative on houses now abandoned. Hebron is very important in the Old Testament and it is that history which Jews use as the reason why the extreme religious settlers are there.
It is in Hebron that in 1994 Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish doctor shot 29 people and injured 120 people in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. After that the Israeli Army introduced two months of curfew and started a separation policy – separate roads to avoid attacks and prevent friction.
From Hebron we drove to Atta and Rudina Jaber‘s house who told their story of land confiscation, home demolitions, settler harassment and more. We had a fantastic and delicious lunch and looked at maps and documents related to his land and property. Atta had an orchard of olive and fruit trees uprooted and destroyed recently. See https://www.facebook.com/atta.jaber.16?ref=br_rs
Then we proceeded to the Negev accompanied by Arik via Yatir Forest. The landscape in the Negev changed dramatically, from the hills covered by pine forests to an arid flat land, apart from a few fields. We learnt about Israel’s ongoing demolitions is displacement of Israeli citizens from unrecognised villages. We stopped in Umm Al Hiran, Hura and at a lookout point for Bedouin communities. We met Attia Al-Asam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages in the Negev as we looked over Abutul as Sahib. Attia explained that out of 48 Bedouin villages only 11 have been recognised.
Just outside Hura we learnt that the displaced Bedouins from Umm Al Hiran have not been connected to any facilities, like electricity and water, and they have now been told that they will have to move. This is a deliberate and sinister attempt by the courts to force them to leave and get rid of them. Orwellian situation…
Tuesday 30 October
We went to Tel Aviv for a briefing provided by Umar al-Ghubari from Zochrot (Remembering in Hebrew) on the history of the Nakba in the area which is now Tel Aviv University. https://zochrot.org/en.
In 2006 the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) passed the Nakba Law which prohibits the commemoration of the Nakba.
Then we were off to Jaffa old town where we had lunch along the coast. I had my first taste of baklava!
The afternoon began at Haaretz where we were hosted by Yishai Halper, English Editor, and his colleague Omer Benjakob, news editor, to learn about Israeli media reporting. Senior columnist Bradley Burston also engaged with our group. https://www.haaretz.com/
Later we met Daniel Tsur, Clinical Psychologist and Group Facilitator from Psychoactive, who spoke about Israelis from the field of mental health who have a socio-political focus.
We returned to Jeff Halper’s home in Jerusalem to hear him provide a political debriefing that included news about the vision of the One Democratic State Campaign.
On our free evening in Bethlehem some of the campers visited the Walled Off Hotel by British graffiti artist Banksy.
Wednesday 31 October
Last day of the camp! Jeff led a walking tour of West Jerusalem that included an original Jewish neighbourhood near Agrippa Street and Mahane Yehuda Market.
We then went to the Educational Bookshop in Saladin Street where Jeff and Linda led a session enabling each participant to speak about what the camp had meant to them. The final session was from Mahmoud Muna on how the Muna family is using literature to educate a new generation of Palestinians and foreigners about the history of a culture that refuses to bow to settler colonialism. I bought a couple of books, including a poetry collection “A River Dies of Thirst” by Mahmoud Darwish, the well known Palestinian poet.
Thursday 1 November
On the day of departure four of us (Doris, Claus, James, Michelle and I) visited Jerusalem’s Old Town and went to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, one of the wonders of the world: magnificent! And we stopped for tea at the Austrian Hospice with a chance to take a photo of the Old City from the rooftop.
My experience of the camp was both wonderful and harrowing and being in Palestine for the second time has changed me: wonderful because I actually contributed something practical, like carrying bricks and picking olives, to help Palestinians who struggle in the face of daily harassment and violence from settlers, house demolitions, child imprisonment, and from the state of Israel’s laws and IDF soldiers. Their strength and determination – sumud (steadfastness) – to resist the occupation is admirable. Harrowing because I saw the effects of the occupation and the inhumanity and disregard of human rights for Palestinians.
And I will be back!
For further information here are some useful sources:
Jeff Halper, Obstacles to Peace. A Re-Framing of the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, Sixth Edition, May 2018 available online at http://www.icahduk.org
Jeff Halper, An Israeli in Palestine. Resisting Dispossession. Redeeming Israel. Pluto Press 2008
Jeff Halper, War Against the People. Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification, Pluto Press 2015
Ben White, Cracks in the Wall. Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel, Pluto Press 2018