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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Ajjur: Golden Ruins in British Park

We awake this morning bleary eyed but warm after a surprisingly good sleep in the garden of a friend of the guide who took us around Sar’a and Deir Aban yesterday. We had had a late night, writing up the blog in the tent in frenzied exhaustion, a pot of houmous in the middle of us. Freezing and knackered, we slept well. After a lovely breakfast with the family and some minor bike adjustments we were off.

To Ajjur.

Ajjur, which in 1944/5 had a population (predominantly Muslim) of 3,750 with over 500 houses. Ajjur had two schools and two mosques and would hold a weekly market every Friday. Wheat and olives were Ajjur’s chief crops.

Now the lands of Ajjur sit on land claimed by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) inside British Park, and on the Israeli town of Agur.

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Ajjur is only a few kilometres from where we had stayed and we were given good directions on getting there and finding the ruins. We traversed some beautiful hills, as the sun climbed higher and higher and then, like it always is, we spot the golden ruins on the hillside. We slow down, sigh. We can see cactus – sabra trees everywhere, and one large ruin, with many arched doorways and windows, another building behind it which looks lived in (it is) and another furthur up the hill, stately and roofless. We stop and take some photographs from this vantage point, before making our way down the hill, laying our bikes down and heading into the ruins.

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They are extensive and overgrown. Where once life, chatter and prayer might have found these walls, weeds and pigeon shit find them now. And graffiti. Lots of graffiti.

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We sit amongst these bones of Ajjur. Of all the places we have been, I am hit hardest being here. Maybe because you can really sit inside the rooms here, or maybe because it feels so close to home.

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As we cycle for miles around this area, roads surrounded by JNF parks and forests – we spot the familiar trademark of the JNF/KKL and their blurb of what the park or forest is, no mention of course, of the Palestinian history that lies beneath. The lands  of Ajjur were seized by the JNF and transformed into British Park using funds raised through JNF’S UK branch.

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And so it is me, my family, and my friends who planted the park that would try to make us forget the inconvenient truths of the Palestinian villages that lay beneath it. It was our pounds, in those blue and white tin boxes that helped destroy all this. We thought we were planting trees. But these trees have been used as a weapon of war, a weapon of forgetting and erasure.  Trees planted to hide the memory of another people. And it is devastating to witness.

These buildings, or what remains of them are so beautiful, I imagine the flesh growing back over the rubble, the sounds of laughter and song again filling these fields and doorways – their owners inside them proud and happy to live in such a beautiful place. Beside these hills! Enjoying all these prickly pears in the summer. People lived here.  And now they are gone. They were forced out. This is different to seeing a pile of skulls or a mass of hair or a heap of ash that indicates the mass cleansing of a people. Here, it is quieter and more subtle – it is a pile of rubble.

Between 23rd and 24th July, 1948 there was a military assault on Ajjur by Zionist forces, causing most of the population to flee. In October 1948, Ajjur was occupied fully as part of operation Yo’av, which sought to occupy both southern and central areas, and the remaining residents were expelled.

Now these refugees wait on the other side of the wall, in cramped refugee camps holding the keys to their houses, waiting to return. Knowing these people makes it so hard to see these villages today. When you meet Palestinian refugees you cannot forget them, you cannot forget their stories. You cannot stand at the ruins of their villages without thinking of them. You cannot talk to Israelis, particularly ones who have recently emigrated, from, say, the UK using the law of Jewish return without thinking of the Palestinian refugees who are not allowed to return.

Salah Ajarma from the Lajee Centre at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem talks to us about what the Right of Return means for him.

And life under occupation.


Hear more from Salah

And so in Ajjur, I feel it all; the loss and the absence of the people who were once here and the tragedy of their ethnic cleansing. I feel their history in this golden stone and it is heavy.

We call on the British public to know this history and to demand the British charity commission revoke the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund which has been so instrumental in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and the erasure of their memory.

And we encourage you to join the Stop the JNF campaign which is part of the broader BDS movement, a Palestinian call which aims to put pressure on Israel until it complies with international law and ends the illegal occupation of the Palestinian people.

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Remember, in Hebrew

Al Malha: a Mosque and a Mall

Leaving Aida Camp this morning, we passed painted murals of all the villages which the inhabitants of the camp long to return to.

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From Jerusalem, we speed south west from Abu Tor along a perfectly paved bicycle trail that runs from ‘The First Station‘ all the way to Malha. Malha, once the Palestinian village that stood on the hill between Beit Mazmil and Al Walaja cultivating olives and cereal crops. Malha, once home to 2250 Palestinian residents – until July 15th, 1948.

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As we round the corner catching our first glimpse of the Malha today we see the massive train station below us, the huge stadium and then the shopping mall. Looming over it all at the top of the hill is a lone minaret, surrounded by golden apartment blocks and Israeli flags billowing in the wind.

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This is the sign we were looking for. The little pieces of Palestine that still remain despite the desperate attempts at their erasure. Today the crops are gone, the odd olive tree still stands, but the place is totally transformed. We are sitting in the cosmopolitan mall that replaces them, using the internet to post this blog.

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Although al Malha was one of several villages in the Jerusalem area to sign a non-aggression pact with the Haganah in 1948. It was attacked in the early hours of July 14th 1948 by the Irgun – another Zionist militia. Palestinians launched a counter-attack and regained a stronghold, but as Irgun reinforcements arrived, they were forced to retreat and abandon the village. Most of the village residents fled to Bethlehem, believing that the expulsion would be temporary. 67 years later, their children and grandchildren have grown up in  the same refugee camps. The depopulated homes were occupied by Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries, mainly Iraq.

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Our first big hill – we brace ourselves and pray the gears on the bikes we borrowed from Aida hold out. They do. We arrive at the top, Israeli children escorting passersby over Zebra crossings in high vis jackets, lots of cars, nice shops, golden stone – the scene is suburban, tranquil. This is Malha now. Life goes on here. And there is much of it. But what we are looking for are the stories underneath.

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Where is the mosque? Where are the Palestinian remains that might suggest life here once looked very different? We follow the road and finally see it, as we get nearer we are confused. How do we get closer? It is surrounded on all sides by houses, as if the minaret itself was an elaborate chimney rising out from one of the roofs. An Israeli election poster flaps in the wind beneath it. Stories upon stories.

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We decide to talk to the neighbours. We knock on one door. A woman answers and we speak briefly in Hebrew. She knows immediately what we are after. It is closed now she says but she motions round the corner. We follow her directions, walking through a beautiful quiet street, covered in lemon and palm and olive trees. We knock on another door and another woman answers, we ask her about the mosque. She shrugs. It’s been closed for “years and years and years”, maybe even a lifetime ago.

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We get as close as we can to this beautiful mark of a people whose souls will never leave this place. The giant elephant in the room this time takes its form as a golden minaret in the middle of a Jewish Israeli village with no signposting to suggest what happened here, what was lost to over 2000 people.

We were looking for the stories. We didn’t find them here. Only shrugs from the Israeli residents we met. (This is not to say that there are not many Israelis in Malha and elsewhere who care deeply about the fate of the refugees from Malha, but today we did not meet them).

An unspoken sadness fills the space between us. The refugees from this village live only a few miles away, unable to return. It isn’t fair.

I spy a bicycle, a sure sign of life, we watch people come and go, notice a yard filled with the bric- a- brac of life – the memories of the refugees we met do not fit here. This village has lived on. How to reconcile that? How to return?

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But it is our first day and our first village, for now we remap and we remember, standing and cycling in solidarity with the Palestinian refugees who cannot be here with us, sending our prayers to the mosque that might not have seen any for a while.

As we leave I turn back to the minaret again, which looks so lonely and neglected on the top of that hill and at the same time so defiant. It seems a sort of bastion of memory of the Palestinians who lived there. An icon of what was, and what will never be forgotten.

Malha, we are sorry.

We remember.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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