Welcome to our Cycle ’48 Blog

Our Cycle ’48 journey took place over 5 days in February 2015. We kept a live blog along the way sharing the stories that we heard, the present-day realities that we witnessed, the conversations that we had.

Read the posts below to lead yourself through our journey:

Setting off to Cycle ’48

Al Malha: a Mosque and a Mall

Al Walaja: walking the ruins, cycling a storm

Dayr Aban: Stories that Live

Sar’a: Brides and Burials

Ajjur: Golden Ruins in British Park

Salah, Ajjur on the right of return, a one state solution and fresh milk everyday

Imwas: Beneath the Park and the Picnic Tables

The JNF trail: sun, cycling and shabbat

Mud and Maklooba: the final stretch

The Nakba continues…

Following the Cycle ’48 journey, we linked up with the Freedom Ride, continuing our project to witness and share the realities of the ongoing Nakba today:

Decolonising the mind: creative resistance in Jenin

Existence is resistance in the Jordan valley

Wiped off the map: South Hebron Hills part 1

It’s apartheid. South Hebron Hills part 2

Right to Move. Right to Exist. Right to Resist.

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Right to Move. Right to Exist. Right to Resist

A metal barrier blocked the way. I squinted at it in the distance through the early morning light, curious and wary of this new addition to a road already obstructed with large boulders. Two young soldiers loitered nearby, hands jolting instinctively towards their guns as I approached and stopped to speak to them – there would be no engagement in any interaction without them hugging this machines to their chests.

I pointed to the barrier and questioned its purpose, some moments of confusion resulting from my lack of Hebrew and their lack of English elapsed before clarity prevailed and they mock jogged lightly on the spot in response, guns bouncing up and down. Ah ha…! Its making the way for a run. From where? Some pointing. Between the settlements.

I continued on my way and true enough, as I was waiting for a shared taxi into Bethlehem, I watched a small stream of runners flow from one illegal Israeli colony to my right to another on my left.

This was the morning of Palestine’s third annual marathon, an event pointedly highlighting the struggle faced every day by Palestinians unable to move freely in their own country. Here were the very people who’s existence in Palestine is key to this outrageous injustice feeling the need – on this day – to express their presence and their ability to move through areas taken from, and out of bounds for, Palestinians.

I sighed a deep sigh ever thick with frustration at the absurdity and inhumanity of the situation. A short taxi ride later I was inhaling some kind of antidote – breathing in the buzz which infected Bethlehem’s winding streets on this morning.

A sea of white shirts emblazoned with “Right to Movement” greeted me as I joined the crowds and prepared (today swapping wheels for running shoes) to run for the right to move. The crowd hushed. Black, green, white, red balloons were released ceremoniously into the sky, a flock of white doves fluttered over our heads and the symbolism was lost on nobody. I glanced around, catching eyes which reflected the glistening in my own.

This was more than just a run. This was a shout of defiance from the thousands of Palestinians gathered that morning – Israel: you block our ways, restrict our movement, cut us off from each other, steal our land and resources and demean our existence, but we are here. We are full of energy, love and life and today, we will run for the rights that we know we are entitled to as human beings. This was a shout of support from thousands of internationals – Israel: we cannot accept your systematic oppression of the people we are running alongside today. The world: hear this call, and make this struggle part of your own struggle to live in a just world.

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The run snaked through Bethlehem’s streets – following the apartheid wall, turning back on itself at checkpoints – passing the ugly realities of occupation juxtaposed with cheering bystanders, grinning faces hanging out of windows, clusters of waving shopkeepers – one of which described to me afterwards the goosebumps he’d felt as he’d watched.

Over 3,000 running and feeling, in an intensely tangible hour or two, what it means to keep on going. In defiance of everything which screams at you to stop – steep hills, heavy legs, the distance you know still lies ahead – an inner strength pushes you on. A deep mental and physical determination which resists all calls to give up. It is no wonder so many Palestinians ran so well; a people all too well practised at this connection to their inner strength and resolve to defy challenges.

Inspired, moved, emotional – I ran on.

It was not only this internal resolve which kept my legs moving – there was intense power in the collective challenge and the support from the sidelines and I soaked in the strength and encouragement of solidarity, where way markers were manned not by soldiers and guns, but by cameras and cheering children.

The stream of legs turned into Aida Refugee Camp, greeted by the huge metal key which remind all who pass beneath it of the right of all those displaced to return to the homes from which their families were expelled. It was beneath this key that we set off, one month earlier, on our exploration of these homelands – the villages depopulated in the Nakba of 1948 (& ’67). And it was back to this key that I would return the following day to join the Freedom Ride‘s exploration of Aida Camp – one of several refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon & Syria which have been established since this mass expulsion.

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Around 6,000 internally displaced Palestinians now reside in Aida Camp; hailing from villages whose remains – under varying levels & strategies of concealment – we visited (such as Al Walaja, Dayr Aban, Ajjur) as well as many others which we were not able to witness on our short ride through present day Israel.

We had sat in the sun looking over green, open views that these families were forced to leave. We traced our hands over the crumbling stone archways of houses clearly beautiful and spacious in their day. We heard the silence of the wells, no one to collect their water. We now witnessed a maze of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) structures, jostling for space. Wafer-thin walls separating 3mx3m units for families of 7 or less (3mx4m for 7 or more); spaces for which to cook, wash, sleep, eat, socialise. One toilet for every 30 families.

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Aida Camp – apartheid wall visible to the right

 

“Our biggest problems in the summer are water and night raids” our guide explains, “in the winter – electricity and night raids.”  Water and electricity are scarce and expensive, controlled by the Israeli authorities. In addition to the regular night time missions of the Israeli military to arrest whichever young men they choose to convict as ‘terrorists’, the camp is bombarded with almost daily gas grenades, often fired directly at the children’s play area, causing injury, on occasion death, and the lasting health effects of which are unknown.

Israeli watchtowers maintain a constant 1984-esq presence and it is not unusual for children to be ordered by disembodied voices through loudspeakers not to play in the street. Drawing the kids away from their ball games into the all too transparent game of provocation – stones are thrown, the military attacks.

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Bullet holes in the door to a UN school located in Aida Camp

 

One Israeli we met on our journey to Jaffa last month offered his perspective; “we can start negotiating peace when they decide to live normal lives”. The comment was referring in particular to those Palestinians living in refugee camps. It left us reeling. The force of it returned to me now, depressing and frightening in its ignorance and lack of will to engage in any kind of context or understanding, sheltered by the ‘normal life’ he has been permitted to create for himself.

Despite being refused security, freedom of movement, access to basic amenities – the factors which give us the possibility of living a ‘normal life’ (or in less assumptive / pejorative / loaded language, the life that one wants to live), people in Aida are living lives enriched by a tight and supportive community. Spaces like the Al Rowwad Centre place emphasis on developing cultural expression and “beautiful resistance” displayed through the dance and music we were treated to that evening.

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In defiance of everything which screams at them to despair, an inner strength pushes them on. A deep mental and physical determination which resists all calls to give up.

Our guide, a resident of the camp, points to a tree which reaches to the sky, growing out through a stone wall. “We are like this tree” he says. It keeps on growing, we keep on going.

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It’s apartheid. South Hebron Hills, part 2.

Having filled the last blog with cycling escapades, there are still many stories to share from the south Hebron hills.

Just one of the astounding people we met there is 24 year old Sausan from the village of Al Mofaqura. Sipping sweet tea in a large tent, we hear her story.

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The whole village was declared a ‘closed military zone’ in 2000; all the residents were forced to seek refuge in nearby At-Twani. After six months, they had proven ownership of their land in the courts and were desperate to return to their homes. However, from that time until today they have suffered constant attacks and harassment from the Israeli military, who are determined to remove them from their land.

‘Thursday 24th November 2011…I will never forget this date’, Sausan tells us. On this day, she was at home by herself when the Israeli military showed up with their bulldozers. Seeing her home was about to be destroyed, Sausan asked the officer for a warrant. She was rewarded for this attempt to follow legal procedures with having tear gas sprayed in her face and being arrested.  On this day, the Israeli military demolished her home, two others, and the village Mosque.

The Occupation authorities would not give Sausan’s family any information about where she had been taken. The officer in question claimed that she had tried to kill him with a stone. The family had to hire an Israeli lawyer, who was eventually able to locate Sausan and secure her release. Although the judge imposed conditions on her freedom, including that she was not allowed to live on her land, Sausan tells us she ‘left whatever he said there with him and carried on her life as before’.

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Sausan talking to us in the cave where she lives with her family

Sausan is now in her fourth year of studying social work; she is the only one from her village in higher education. She travels hours to and back from university each day, and talks about feeling tired and separate from her course-mates, who generally live in Area A and live a very different life to herself. She is looking forward to graduating in order to have more time to dedicate to defending her community, ‘I don’t want my children to have the same life I have’, she tells us.

Leaving the impressive, determined Sausan and her village behind, we next visited Um Elkheir. My stomach flipped as I stared around me. Having been demolished so many times, the village now mostly consists of shacks and tents. Right next door, so close we could see through their shiny windows is an Israeli settlement. A wire fence is all that separates these two communities, but their lives could not be more different.

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As soon as we arrive, we were greeted by the elder of the village. Sleman Al Hadelin is speaking at 100 miles an hour in Arabic, desperate to impart all the details of the injustice that has befallen his community. He speaks of the house demolitions, of sheep being poisoned, of attacks and assaults. The frustration and sadness emanating from his being. ‘Where is the democracy? This can’t be right, this can’t be legal.’

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For fifty years the villagers of Um Elkheir have made bread in a large stone oven. Even this has not escaped the Israeli bulldozers. ‘Where in the world are people not allowed to make bread?’ Sleman asks. ‘They are killing us slowly.’

The communal oven means that families can save time and resources by making their bread together, rather than each build a fire, as they have had to do since the oven has been destroyed. In 2006 – around forty years after the oven was built – the settlers came next door. They complained about the smoke the comes from the oven, although every one knows this is just an excuse. The aim of the game is to force these Palestinians from their land, with vindictiveness and a complete lack of humanity, in order to expand the adjacent illegal settlement.

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The Freedom Ride aims to support these communities by displaying solidarity, helping with practical work, and sharing the reality of the occupation far and wide.

In Um Elkheir we split into two groups, one moving stone rubble from a demolished house to prepare a foundation for a mobile home, and the other rebuilding the communal oven.

In the afternoon we were just settling in a tent in the village for a Playback Theatre performance, when the army arrived. Called to provide support, we followed Sleman and other villagers with our cameras and our chants as he confronted the invading occupation forces.

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The soldiers initially went to the communal oven, clearly planning to destroy it once more; it was unbelievable to see how quickly they reacted. In the face of such a mass of internationals and cameras, they appeared to have a change of heart though.

With the fearless Sleman at the front, as a group – people from Um Elkheir, from all over Palestine, and from all over the world – we moved as one mass, without weapons or threats, and managed to intimidate a dozen M-16 wielding soldiers and border police. For once the village was left unharmed.

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It was exciting and empowering. Watching the soldiers walk away, spirits soared. ‘I am a winner today!’ Sleman smiled.

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It was an intense experience, and as we left Um Elkheir tears started rolling down my face. Tears because of the injustice and unfairness. Tears because wrapped in our white skin, we helped force the invading military out of the village, but tomorrow those villagers would probably pay for it. The army would be pissed off, and the destruction would be worse. Tears because of Sleman’s words, ‘we are people, we are human beings’.

Why aren’t they treated us such?

This is apartheid. Next to Um Elkheir those living in the illegal settlement don’t think twice about how much water they use, never worry about where the next meal will come from, or how they will survive the winter. The illegal settlements in the West Bank have all their material desires met, their racism nourished, and their violent actions met with a blind eye.

In my tent that evening, I continued to reel with anger and dismay at what these Palestinian communities endure. I reflected that one more privilege I can add to the long list is seeing how you can resist in the face of such a brutal occupation.

Wiped off the map: South Hebron Hills part 1

So I’m cycling up from the lowest place on earth, at the hottest time of day. ‘You’re so stupid,’ I tell myself, scouring my surroundings for an inch of shade. There is none. I sit at the roadside with my map on my head for a bit of protection from the burning sun.

It is a horrible, Zionist map. A ‘Super Touring Map of Israel’, the cover proclaims. The map includes the whole of the West Bank, with all the illegal settlements marked, as though it is all Israel. Many Palestinian towns, and most Palestinian villages, are not labeled. Slightly ironic that this is my tool for exploring and learning about Palestine.

I automatically trace the most logical route to my destination: from Fasiyel, down to Jericho, up up up, then into Abu Dis, through Jerusalem, and into Bethlehem to stay the night with a friend before continuing to the South Hebron hills.

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Having climbed up to sea level and beyond, passed the massive sprawling settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim (home to 30,000 settlers), it felt good to get to Abu Dis. Staying focused on the road full of maverick drivers, whilst not ignoring the chorus of ‘welcome, welcome!’ is a necessary skill to cycle through Palestinian towns.

I was just negotiating this balance when I suddenly faced the wall. The 8-metre high concrete separation wall was blocking my route. ‘I forgot’, I thought – again reprimanding myself for stupidity. It felt bizarre to have the luxury of forgetting that I couldn’t just cycle from Abu Dis to Jerusalem. They were so close on the map.

So I cycled around the golden city, winding up and down the hills to Bethlehem. After a restorative evening with a friend from university (and porridge for breakfast!), I was pedalling once more.

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The ride was beautiful and hilly. Dusk was just settling in as I approached Atawna, I had made it! I turned off the main road, down a bumpy track to the village. Water tanks perched on every roof, unpaved roads, it was a total contrast to the towns around. Something felt quite strange though. After a series of weird interactions, where I tried to speak some Arabic, but got mostly Hebrew in return, the whole atmosphere was shouting at me: something is wrong.

It was only after a rang my friend at the Freedom Theatre and asked him to speak to someone in the village, to try and give me directions, that suspicions were confirmed. ‘Next time give me to someone who knows something about Palestine!’ my aggravated friend said down the phone. I was in fact in Israel. (Palestine ’48).

Feeling quite scared now in this less-than friendly village, with darkness descending rapidly. I tried to get out of the maze of walls and houses as fast as possible, being chased by barking dogs helped with the speed, although also accelerated the fear. Back on the main road, I pedalled my heart out and breathed a sigh of relief as I got back through the check point.

By this time, it was too dark to cycle safely to At-Twani – the Palestinian village I had been aiming for (which didn’t appear on the map). It wasn’t far though, I stuck my thumb out, got a lift, and received a wonderful warm welcome.

The next morning I was sitting on a hilltop, reunited with the Freedom Ride group, listening to Nassar from the Popular Struggle Committe for the South Hebron Hills. To the left of us the village of At-Twani (much prettier than Atawna) is nestled neatly among the slopes, sheep roaming, scattered olive trees, and traditional stone walls lining the roads. To our right, is an illegal settlement.

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It’s hard to digest what Nassar describes of the problems the village faces. In addition to the usual struggles in Area C – where people are not allowed to build at all, not even plant a tree, or develop infrastructure in any way, Palestinians living in these hills face consistent and violent attacks from those living in the settlements (in this area mostly radical orthodox Jews).

Just a few days ago, a six year old girl suffered a head injury after being hit with stones by settlers. This is not unusual, children travelling to the school in At-Twani from the neighbouring villages have to pass close to a settlement, often incurring attacks and abuse as they make the daily journey to get an education.

In order to report an assault, Palestinians in the region have to go to the Israeli police station. Despite hundreds of incidents, with incontrovertible evidence presented, not a single settler has ever been charged with anything. The rule of law simply does not apply to them.

Last week, one child had a panic attack faced with their usual route to school, past the settlement. Today, a couple were assaulted; thankfully they were not hurt, but badly shaken by the experience. It is practically a daily occurrence, Nassar tells us, and for most attacks, the psychological impact remains a lot longer than the wounds.

Just as we were all feeling quite depressed and concerned about what Palestinians in this area are having to face, their lack of safety in their own homes, and the pure lack of humanity shown to them by the settlers and occupation authorities, we were reminded once more that it would take more than even this to destroy their spirit!

Celebrating Palestinian heritage day we were treated to wonderful acts of singing, dancing and theatre from children in the school, and people of the community. It was Palestinian culture at its most vibrant, energetic, and fun.

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After speeches, graduations, and lots more dancing, we ate a feast of traditional Palestinian dishes. The food was delicious, with an amazing variety of flavours and textures.

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It was disturbing and incredible to witness these people, with such a wonderful rich culture face such injustice. The occupation and the settlers are trying every tool in the book to make their lives here not worth living, but the resolve of these Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills is strong and powerful. They are not leaving their land so easily.

According to the road map I have been using to cycle across this land, there is no Palestine. If you look on google maps, there is no Palestine.

So what about all of these Palestinians? Of these stunning songs passed through generations? Of this culture, so kind and hospitable that I breathe relief when I pass back through the check point to the West Bank?

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Right now, Israel is ethnically cleansing Palestine. Withstanding over a century of this Zionist project, Palestinians day in day out face the unjust realities of occupation and colonisation with determined spirit, and a call for support.

Time and time again we are asked to share their stories, ‘please, tell people in your countries what is happening’, right now these communities need a life line. They need something to restore faith in democracy, justice, and humanity.

Existence is resistance in the Jordan Valley

“You couldn’t find a better place to go on holiday?” The soldier tried to joke with me as he looked at my passport when I passed through the checkpoint. I ignored him, in my head thinking it would be one of the best places to go on holiday if only him and his army pals would bugger off.

It really would be! Cycling to the Jordan Valley from Jenin was a dream. Friendly faces offering me water and delicious falafel, spectacular scenery and golden sunshine. It was only sights of Israel’s very active colonisation which dampened my soaring spirits.

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I've put my flag here, therefore this land is mine.

I’ve put my flag here, therefore this land is mine.

I arrived in Fasiyel (a Palestinian village in the central Jordan Valley) in good time, but a bit unsure as to what to do next… I didn’t really fancy putting my tent up just anywhere – Area C is now covered with army outposts and settlements. I thought I would just ask in the village if I could pitch up by someone’s house. But first things first – bread and humous took priority.

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As I munched on a late lunch outside the shop, many curious kids and adults approached. Not much English spoken, but I repeated that I loved Palestine (one of the first phrases I learnt in Arabic) – desperate to convey as soon as possible that I wasn’t a settler! Soon I met Abed, who spoke a little more English, ‘where will you stay tonight?’ he asked. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I have a tent, I was wondering if it’s OK to put it up in the village somewhere?’ He looked aghast. ‘No, no, no! You will stay in our home!’

Over the course of the evening I drank around a gallon of sweet bedouin tea, as I visited various members of Abed’s wonderful, gigantic family! It was very special. The evening ended by rolling vine leaves with rice, ready for lunch tomorrow. I felt completely blessed to get this beautiful insight into village life here in the Jordan Valley, and was smiling from ear to ear.

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In the morning, Abed’s sister Fatima took me to her favourite spot in the garden – where she starts each day by smelling the flowers and drinking tea in the morning sun.

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Having fallen in love with the Jordan Valley, received the warmest welcome from its inabitants, and feeling blown away by the hills, it has been particularly difficult to absorb the ugly truth about what’s happening here.

One month ago, we visited villages whose inhabitants were forced to flee by Zionist militias – through violence and fear 78% of Palestine was ethnically cleansed, in the space of around 18 months. Today, here in the Jordan Valley, the process is slower, but no less brutal. Violence and fear are just two tactics amongst dozens which Israel is currently employing to remove the Palestinian population. Unable to use the pretense of a war (as in 1948), families have not been forced out at gunpoint; they have, however, had their water sources stolen, had their livelihoods destroyed, and their homes demolished.

‘The Zionist line is that they “make the desert bloom”, but they are doing completely the opposite. They have made the breadbasket of Palestine into a desert!’ Rasheed, who coordinates the Jordan Valley solidarity campaign, told us.

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Since Israel started occupying this region in 1967, the population has decreased dramatically. Traditionally a heavily cultivated area, when Israel began its policies of stealing water, preventing Palestinians from accessing their springs, and digging deep wells so as to deprive the shallower Palestinian ones of water, the farmers of the Jordan Valley had little choice but to move.

This used to be a flowing river all year round, until Israel started digging the wells.

This used to be a flowing river all year round, until Israel started digging the wells.

There are many families, however, who are determined to withstand anything that is thrown their way. ‘Sumoud’ (steadfastness) is often said to characterise the Palestinian people, and it is certainly the case here.

Abu Saqeer has watched the Israeli army demolish his home, and those of his neighbours, many times. ‘I don’t have the power to prevent them, so I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me sad or annoyed. I sit calmly with a cup of tea and watch them’, he tells us.

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When asked if there is any pattern to when they come to demolish, Abu Saqeer says that during winter it is always right before a spell of particularly cold weather comes in. And during summer it is always the hottest days, when you are desperate for shelter, that they come with their bulldozers.

His message is clear though – ‘no matter how much you demolish, I will never leave this land’.

As he speaks, gunfire from a nearby Israeli army training base mingles with the bleating goats and sheep. A military plane roars above us for good measure.

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Stopped by the Israeli military, as we walk through the beautiful hills.

Groups such as the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign aim to support these steadfast communities, by helping build mud brick houses, schools, and clinics. These environmentally friendly bricks make buildings that stay warm in winter and are cool in summer.

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If not thirst, parched land, or a bulldozed home, I think the injustice of it all would send me over the edge.

Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley have water pipes running through their villages and under their homes, to provide the nearby settlements and army bases with water that has been stolen from them, but from which they are no longer allowed to touch. Instead they are forced to buy water at inflated prices, and fund the occupation that oppresses them. According to Amnesty International research, 9,400 Israeli settlers use 6.6 times more water than the 65,000 Palestinian living in the Jordan Valley.

This is apartheid in action.

Israel’s flagrant abuse of international law and disregard for human rights are dangerous for us all. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are a beautiful example of how to resist, and how to be human – despite living daily with such injustice they are open, kind and generous to fellow humans (particularly if you arrive by bicycle I think!)

Just staying on their land is an amazing feat of courage, determination, and resilience but its time the playing field was leveled. The international community must stop arming Israel; we encourage everyone to join the movement for Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions until Israel starts abiding by international law, and valuing human rights.

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Decolonising the mind: creative resistance in Jenin

In the dormitory of Jenin’s guesthouse, sleep is interrupted by the ringing of gunfire. After a few months in the West Bank, this sound is no longer unfamiliar. Cosy in bed, the bangs feel a long way off. Safe and warm, listening, knowing that others out there are not so secure.

With the break of morning, we learn what happened. The confrontation came about when the Israeli army invaded Jenin refugee camp and abducted Mustafa Sheta. Mustafa is father of three children and secretary of the board of the Freedom Theatre. Nothing is known of his whereabouts, and it could be 40 days – during which he will probably endure psychological and physical torture – before anything will be known.

Thus, the first morning of this year’s Freedom Ride – organised by Jenin’s Freedom Theatre – is a fast induction to the ongoing Nakba. For Palestinians, the catastrophe of 1948 never really ended. To this day, their lives, their homes, their families are always in danger.

Last month Cycle ’48 explored some of Palestine’s hidden histories; we saw the remains of homes and villages, remapping a land which has been dramatically altered since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine between 1947-49. Since that time, Palestinians have suffered a constant process of dispossession, separation, and oppression. Over the coming days, we will be sharing some stories of the present reality in the West Bank: the meanings of occupation, and the many creative responses.

Previously, we wrote about the unfair privilege of being able to visit Palestinians’ homeland when they are not allowed. This time, we have a different sort of privilege – to be joining with some of Palestine’s brightest, most creative and inspiring activists! They can be found in the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp: a hub of creative resistance in Palestine.

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Jenin refugee camp is home to around 17,000 people; living in less than one square kilometre. Generations have grown up in the camp, following the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, and the continued denial of the right of return. As we walk around the camp, the maze of buildings and towering concrete is an obvious contrast to the lush hills and fields we visited last month.

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As the months turned into years with still no hope of return, the tents became shelters, the shelters became buildings. But these solid structures do not belie any acceptance of this situation as permanent. The right of return remains on everyone’s lips, justice for refugees is at the heart of this struggle.

Today, many of the houses look strangely new – the ‘New Camp’ is evidence of Jenin’s traumatic history. In 2002, Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered the camp, crushed houses with their residents inside, shot men, women and children indiscriminately. This twelve day siege left an estimated 4,000 people homeless, and a still disputed death toll. We visit a cemetery, in which martyrs from 2002 are buried, neat rows of stones marked with black, red, and green.

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As we continue our walk, through the narrow streets, we are greeted with friendly smiles, “you should have come last night…got the live show”, one man jokes. A casual reminder that although tanks are not rolling down these streets, as they did thirteen years ago, people are not secure in their homes. The army regularly enters the camp during the night and takes people without explanation.

In this environment, resistance to the occupation is active and desperate, but its not all about throwing stones at the invading soldiers.

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After our visit to the camp, we are treated to a wonderful concert at Al Kamandjati music school. The school works with marginalised children – mostly from the refugee camp, with beautiful results. The Director explained “the occupation does not fight culture directly, but suppresses people so they get to the point where they feel frustrated and defeated…developing artistic and creative talents challenges this sense of hopelessness and allows people to express themselves freely”.

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In the evening, Jonathan one of the co-founders of the Freedom Theatre, expresses a similar attitude. He spoke not of the occupation, but of four occupations: by the Israeli military, by the Palestinian Authority, by foreign aid and NGOs, and finally the occupation of the mind – the internalisation of oppression.

The first three are breaking down the traditional communal nature of Palestinian society, encouraging individualism and distrust. Whether its through the perfected ‘divide and rule’ policies of the Israeli government, the neoliberal agenda of the Palestinian Authority, or the destabilising and disempoweing impact of foreign aid, the tight bonds within Palestinian society are weakening.

However, it is the fourth occupation – that of the mind – which the Freedom Theatre work is directed towards. “When the oppressive system is internalised, it is reproduced through the way we relate to each other”, Jonathan explains. “We need to deconstruct oppression, so that we don’t reproduce it.”

Cultural resistance has such a strong role to play in this conflict because it challenges the limits imposed by the occupation. The nature of creative resistance is imagining a different reality, and therefore confronting structures and barriers which appear solid.

In the cramped conditions of Jenin’s refugee camp, with regular invasions from the well-armed, well-equiped Israeli military, the scope for resistance appears limited. Rather than succumb to feelings of suffocation or futility, the Freedom Theatre offers a safe space for people to develop skills, confidence, and – crucially – trust in each other. “Nothing can be organised or mobilised when there is no trust”.

While basic rights such as freedom of movement and freedom of association are systematically denied to Palestinians through check points and harsh repression of peaceful protests, freedom of expression cannot be stopped in the same way.

Exercising and developing creative expression is a powerful tool in building resistance, strengthening resilience and ultimately playing a different role to that which the Israeli propaganda machine has cast for Palestinian youth.

The Freedom Theatre crew emphasise that they support all forms of resistance against this illegal occupation and apartheid: creative resistance is just one stone in the mosaic. Their amazing work decolonising the mind means that laughter, self-expression, and applause ring out in Jenin (as well as gunfire).

Mud and Maklooba: The final stretch

Dappled sunlight, the beautiful sound of a tent door unzipping, and the last morning of our journey framed by olive trees.

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We are camped in an area now known as Tel Hadid. The village of Al Haditha used to exist nearby. It is likely that it was the people of Al Haditha who planted and tended to these trees, who harvested their fruit every autumn.

On the 12th July 1948, Al Haditha was entirely cleansed of its population in the first stage of Operation Dani.

We quietly pack up the tent, load up our panniers and pedal off, passing two old wells as we pick our way back onto the path. Subtle signs of normal village life in a distorted landscape.

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We soon stumble across this ancient mausoleum. The Israeli signs say it is a Roman ruin that was used for ritual and prayer surrounded by a cemetery. But it did not stand empty for 2000 years. The Palestinians who lived in the area until 1948 also used it as a sacred site. The sign does not mention the recent ethnic cleansing of the people as the reason for its state of ‘ruin’ today.

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Again we notice the shoots of the Iris bulbs that are planted around the dead in the tradition of these parts.

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Back on the trail a few kilometers on, we pass the now familiar sight of tall pines and an explosion of picnic tables. We spot arched, grass coated stone structures. A sign informs us that these beautiful ruins were once ‘Al Mir Flour Mill’, described as an ancient mill “named after a small village which was once located nearby”.

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This was the small village of Al Mirr, also known as Al Mahmudiyya.

Its 170 inhabitants fled for fear of attack in the beginning of February 1948, some returned the following month, only for the village to be attacked and occupied on 13th May.

We spot another cyclist on the track and as he slows we point in the direction of the ruins and asks what he knows about the site. He reads the sign and repeats its information.

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We explain our project, that we have heard that this place was once a Palestinian village called al Mirr, destroyed in 1948.

“Ah”, he says. “I have a map of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948”. And he offers to take us to another ruin nearby. We go but end up missing a turning and there is not enough time to continue.

He says he will help us get on a track to Tel Aviv, as the bicycle trail we planned to take will be covered with mud after the recent rains. We gratefully accept and begin to traverse a dirt road that runs the length of the sprawling route 5 into Tel Aviv.

There were puddles galore and after months of cycling on concrete roads with touring bikes it felt marvellous to feel the mud in our tyres and be able to carry on regardless! This didn’t last for long. The puddles got bigger, the mud got deeper. Sticky clumps gathered around our brakes and our wheels jarred. We waded through muddy water up to our shins and heaved at our heavy bikes, feet slipping and sinking.

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“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry”, our new friend repeats. “No, really, it’s OK” we laugh. It’s an adventure.

After a while, when we can see little of our bikes beneath the mud which now coats them and no end in sight, we concede that we might have a bit of an issue. Darkness will descend in a couple of hours, we are moving slower than snails on the muddy track, and the only alternative is the roaring route 5 motorway.

“I’ll get my car”, our new friend pipes up. “I’ll cycle back to my car, and then I’ll come back for you. I can put all the bikes on my rack and drop you in Tel Aviv.”

“No, it’s OK”, we implore, “we’ll figure something out”. But he insists, and we don’t have so much choice.

He heads off, and we are left at the side of the road, wondering at the kindness which so often comes our way when cycle touring, marveling at how such situations work out, and feeling a little odd not to be cycling the final stretch into Jaffa.

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Although not quite how expected, it felt good to arrive. We unload our bicycles and spray the pristine city roads with sticky mud as we ride through the city centre, and along the sea front. Quite the spectacle!

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We are heartily welcomed into Cafe Yafa – a cafe and bookshop – despite the mud and grime we bring with us. It is a little pocket of Palestine, in a city which was ethnically cleansed in 1948, losing 95% of its Palestinians residents.

Revived by a mountain of Maklooba, and a delicious Taybeh beer, we muse about our journey, giggle at the encounters, excitedly plan, and wistfully dream about the future for Cycle ’48.

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One day, we will cycle again to the sea; and we will be accompanied by Palestinians. We will pedal alongside Ahmed, Salah, Mousa, and all the other refugees, who we left behind in Aida. We will ride through towns and villages and witness the Return, and not the ruins.

It has to happen.

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Ahmed at Aida Refugee Camp, cycling towards the wall.

Once more, we urge everyone reading this to join the movement for Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions. Israel has to be held to account for its war crimes, denial of human rights, and occupation of Palestine. Find out more on our Take Action page.

Everyone should be free to cycle to the sea.

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This post concludes our week-long ride from Bethlehem to Jaffa. Thank you for following our journey over the last days; it has been a very moving process for us to share these stories as we learn them. We have just scratched the surface of the history which calls to be uncovered, the routes which remain to be remapped. The journey is far from over. Please continue to keep an eye on this blog as we update it with more reflections, photos, recordings, interviews and plans for more cycling.