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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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).