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.

20150327_051451

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.

20150209_134803

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.

IMG_1246

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.

IMG_1236

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.

IMG_1258

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.

IMG_1240

Advertisements

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.

IMG_8189

IMG_8198

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.

IMG_8201

IMG_8191

IMG_8194

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.

IMG_8223

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

IMG_8225

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”.

IMG_8236IMG_8250

IMG_0464

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.

IMG_8251

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.

IMG_0473

“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.

IMG_8257IMG_8261IMG_8301

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!

IMG_8308

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.

IMG_8319 IMG_8318

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.

IMG_7523

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.

IMG_8309

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.  

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

20150201_140829

Salah talks to us from the rooftop of the Lajee Centre in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. Notice the separation wall and Israeli settlement in the background.

Salah was born, grew up and now lives with his wife and children in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem – where we started our journey. His name is Salah Ajarma, but he is known as Salah Ajjur; as is common in many Arabic cultures, he is referred to by the place that he comes from. Salah has only been able to visit the area which gives him this name a handful of times in his life – on the occasions he has been granted permission by the Israeli authorities.

Salah now manages the Lajee Centre; an organisation based in Aida Refugee Camp which works to provide refugee youth with cultural, educational, social and development opportunities. He speaks to us about his work, his roots in Ajjur and his hopes for the future.

The voices you hear in the background of the recordings are the sounds of children playing in the 700sqm playground created by the Lajee Centre.

See below for recording transcripts

“A piece of paradise” (01.45)
(Salah talks about what Ajjur means to him)

“We don’t have any rights if we don’t have the right of return” (01.16)


 “We used to have fresh milk every day” (00.46)

“We want to live in a safe place” (00.36)

“A one state solution for everyone” (01.11)

“We start to know what freedom means” (00.25)
(Salah talks about the visits to Europe which the Lajee Centre arranges for refugee children to gain an understanding of what it is like to live not under occupation)

Recording Transcripts:

1. “A piece of paradise”
You know, I’m not see the paradise once but what people think how paradise it will be. As my grandmother she say most of the time it’s a piece of paradise. When she told that, she told that when she smiling and also you see her face in a minute change – like she smile and she sometimes feel sad when she say that. And its really, I want to say, it’s a part of – or a piece of paradise.

Because, Ajjur, its like, you know, it’s a piece of Palestine, its an open area, it’s a nice mountain, it’s a nice area, also it’s like that’s our roots is there – it’s a lot of old people, their bodies under that mountain or that area, it’s a lot of stories, like what our grandmother or our father told us about his memories there and when he was like working the field, or when he play his games or when he take his breakfast or when he talk about the food or the fresh milk or the fresh meat, it’s a lot of memory. Ajjur it’s mean the life, it’s mean the future, it’s mean the rights, it’s mean a lot of things.

2. “We don’t have any rights if we don’t have the right of return”
The right of return it mean for me – as a Palestinian, we don’t have any right if we don’t have the right of return, so the right of return is the main right for us as refugees. We live in our area, it’s Bethlehem, it’s part of Palestine, and the land of Aida Camp, where we grow up is part of Palestine, but to live as a refugee in your country, it’s more difficult than to live as a refugee in Europe, its more difficult, so you know how much you will be strong when you see your area, your land, your home and you can’t return back so it’s really for me, the right of return, it’s not that I want to go back to take all my grandfather’s land, it’s for me, to go back, to choose, at least, as a refugee, for the right of return – first, like, let me to choose, if I want to return back or not. This is my right – to choose.

3. “We used to have fresh milk every day”
You know my grandmother, she sometimes cry, she told me we used to have like fresh milk every day, she cant remember how many cows she’s own, or how many sheeps, or how many trees and the field. And she told me, how do you think when we start to go as a group of women, just to collect water from the villages after the nakba. And, you know, most of the Palestinian refugees or most of the Palestinians, they used to be farmers, and farmers – they not care about how much money they own, they care how much land, and animals, and fields they own, and that’s when you take one and throw him in a refugee camp and you tell him, ok – start your life.

4. “We want to live in a safe place”
You know we are sitting here now, they are watching us from the towers, there are many walls around us. So when you see walls and towers these kind of colours of Israeli soldiers, so it makes your life difficult. It’s like, when you look to trees… we don’t want to live behind the sea, but we want to live in a safe place. That’s what we need as humans. We don’t want to fight Israel because they are Israel, or they are Jew, no – we fight Israel, and we have the right to fight them because they have occupied us.

5. “A one state solution for everyone”
The best solution, if you ask me about what you think about the best solution in Palestine, I’m with people for a one state solution for everyone. I don’t want to chase the Jew out of Palestine. We host them, when Europeans chase them out of Europe, we host them as a Palestinian. My grandfather or my grandmother, she has told us, we – they used to come poor and we give them homes and we give them land and we give them work, but after five, six years, when they start to be strong in Palestine, in Jaffa or in villages, so they attack us and they do for us what happened for them in Europe. So our conflict, in our area, it’s not a religion conflict, it’s a conflict for people who chased out of their home, and people stay there. So, how you imagine if you are from England and people just chase you out of your area and they told you, ok, live there in a tent and start your life.

6. “We start to know what freedom means”
I remember on our first trip with our children to England, so our children they told us it’s the first time they sleep without nightmare, they sleep without problem, we’re not thinking about soldiers coming in the night to arresting one of our family so we feel how what is mean freedom, now we try to be free.

Setting off to Cycle ’48

“I wish I could come with you”
“It is our dream to do something like this”

We’ve arrived at Aida Refugee Camp and Salah and Mousa of the Lajee Centre discuss the trip we are about to embark on. Mousa tells us of his family’s village – Beit Jibrin – which he has never been able to visit, while a young boy from the camp, with an imploring grin, begs us to watch his pedaling prowess as he cycles up and down in front of the centre.

IMG_7523

Salah, Mousa and others at the Lajee Centre, which works to provide refugee youth with cultural, educational, social and developmental opportunities and focuses particularly on projects linked to the “Right of Return“, have been wonderful. Not only helping us coordinate our send off, but sorting us out with the bikes which will take us on our journey. Three bicycles which can only pass through the checkpoint which lies less than a kilometre away because we, with a wave of our British passports, can take them through.

IMG_0123

20150210_081806[1]

Murals of the villages which hold the roots and dreams of the residents of Aida line the way into the camp, and a huge model of a key greets all who enter. From beneath this key – the symbol of the strength of these roots, the memories passed down the generations, the steadfast belief in return – we begin our journey. To visit the places where the old keys treasured by displaced families belong. Places stripped of their inhabitants and which remain inaccessible to these people and their descendents.

20150210_074618[1]

After an interview with the Palestine News Network, wishes of good luck and less than encouraging comments about the weather forecast for the week to come, we were on our way.

Less than five minutes later we were drinking Arabic coffee outside a hardware store. Coffee…the Palestinian Roadblock! (quite – Mark Thomas)

Only 5kms on, we were whizzing our way into Jerusalem, covering the short distance between the concrete barrier which separates those with whom we’d just shared coffee and the people milling through this city’s streets. Wind on our faces, legs singing with the joy of being back on a bike, we felt elated. A lightness which jarred with the weight of our privilege and the freedom we are granted.

20150210_103440[1]