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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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.  

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