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.