This is the third part of an essay written by a skills exchange member travelling through Palestine
Jean-Marie finds himself on the defensive back in France all the time. They reckon he, with his company Produits de Palestine, is just “in it for the money”.
“Eez difficult for us in France. We are a traditional family. People don’t understand what we make. I went to a village outside Nablus during second intifada, to pick olives with the farmers. After the settlers start shooting at us, we had to run away.
“Is a big problem for me, is not good for my…” pointing to his temples.
“That was the beginning. I came home and I spent €1,000 with my wife on olive oil. Before I worked like a builder, putting in windows. But eventually I quit. I work like import, my wife work like accountability, my children help to put labels on the soap from Nablus. But life was easier as a builder.
“I can’t leave my truck in Paris, it says ‘Products from Palestine’. There are Zionists there, they don’t like the word ‘Palestine’. We cannot speak against Israel in France, because we take Jews from Germany during the war. They say ‘you are against the Jews’. But it is not against Jews. It is against Zionism and the state of Israel.”
The Wall of Shame
The first time I noticed her was on the bus from Jerusalem to Ramallah, her refined English distinguishing itself among a chorus of willing advisors as locals spotted the solitary foreigner who couldn’t decide where to dismount.
During the remaining 15 minutes to Ramallah’s main street, Haleemeh was the embodiment of grace, speaking eloquently about her knowledge of Ireland, and an invitation to address a cross-cultural student conference in Belfast that in the end, she had to decline. She was the classical Arabic picture of beauty: perfect skin, tranquillising eyes and deep features made even more endearing by the fact that the rest of her was covered. Wearing a traditional Muslim costume, a hijab wrapped over her head, she detailed her studies in medical scanning equipment at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, East Jerusalem. But what left the most lasting impression was the very fact of this 21-year-old Palestinian girl engaging so openly with a stranger, with no discernible circumspection.
The next time we spoke was over tea at the Jerusalem Hotel three days later, an opportunity I used to probe the Islamic ethos and, because she was such a devoted Muslim, her interpretation of the religion. Central to her conception of Islam was the virtuous notion that one should behave well towards others even when they have done you wrong, because in that way you gain the upper hand over them.
“And what about the Israelis?” I had asked her. “That is different,” she had said. “I would like to drive them to hell.”
That evening I walked through the warm night air with Haleemeh the 10 minutes from Damascus Gate to Jaffa Gate, an exercise that turned into a lesson in sensitivity. It wasn’t until the final stretch leading up to Jaffa Gate – along the green line, as it happens – that her body language became reticent and wary. “Are you sure it is ok for me to walk here?” she had enquired. There were Palestinians who would walk here, she explained, but with a hijab she was exposing herself to possible verbal abuse.
It transpired that Haleemeh had never been through Jaffa Gate – less than two miles from her home in Ras Al Amud – and the steady flow of Jewish people in pedestrian transit towards central Jerusalem was twitching her nerves. She couldn’t use her Palestinian phone to call a cab – there is a bar on Palestinian numbers in the city – so we completed a circle back to Damascus Gate, where she caught an Arab taxi home. En route her mood had softened; after some gentle persuasion she even scrolled through her mobile phone to show a picture of herself without the hijab.
Now today, Haleemeh has come to meet me at Damascus Gate, and take me by taxi – which she insists on paying for – to her home, where her mother is waiting to feed us both. Snaking into East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighbourhoods, Greek orthodox churches pronounce themselves stylishly from the surrounding hills. Otherwise we are flanked by huge Jewish cemeteries for most of the 2km journey.
Haleemeh is the eldest of six children, and two of her younger siblings have joined us for lunch, as has her mother and auntie, Jihad, whose English has been kept competent by the BBC and Al Jazeera. The village of Jihad’s birth, Castl, was the first village in West Jerusalem to be taken by the Israelis during the 1948 war; her mother came from nearby Deir Yassin, scene of the infamous massacre during the same war.
The food is set down in a meticulously kept guest room adjoining the main house. It is a momentous lunch of sorts, because I am only the second foreigner Haleemeh has invited home for lunch. I have been bombarded by a monsoon of story and history; now the family is swarming me with the finest of local food, and an unreasonable dose of hospitality – the only thing, apart from prayer, they indulge in to excess.
I am set straight on the meaning of ‘Jihad’ – which is to fight for God, but not to inflict violence – before one of the more affecting chapters of my education starts to roll. “I hope you become a Muslim, Ronan, because then I will reach paradise,” says Jihad, with clasped hands and eyes raised to the ceiling. “We Muslims believe in all of the prophets. Mohammed was continuing Jesus’ work, do you know that in the West?”
My curiosity has been triggered by the little saucer of olives that has been served with the tastiest of local delicacies, lisenya (vegetable leaves stuffed with rice), a leg of chicken, tomatoes and cucumber, pita bread and the obligatory hummus. The olive tree had been my inspiration for embarking on this trip, after all, but only now I am beginning to grasp its place at the centre of Palestinian life. The two resolute trees at the front of this house provide the Hadad family with all of their olive and olive oil needs for a full year.
Haleemeh translates her mother’s words. “They give us between one and two tonnes per year. One tonne gives about seven tanks of olive oil per year, and we need about four.”
Absent today is Haleemeh’s father, who spends six days a week ferrying the families of Palestinian prisoners to jails all around Israel. He rises at 3am every morning, and on days at the farthest flung prisons, won’t return until almost midnight. Currently, there are over 10,500 Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, for all manner of indiscretions. 1 One thousand of those are juveniles, who typically face incarceration periods of up to four months, usually for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and tanks. Others are held in ‘administrative detention’, locked up without being charged with any crime at all. In occupied territory, all of these are breaches of the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. 2
Jihad is a prison-visit veteran – three of her brothers have done time inside Israeli jails. She presses her hands again, in preparation for the next story of the day, this time a more gruesome one.
It is at Israeli prisons that a particularly vulgar type of humiliation is meted out to Palestinian women visiting their husbands, brothers or sons. Paying no heed to sensitive Muslim clothing customs, prison guards impose an infuriating choice: either strip naked and see your husband, or don’t strip and go home. A policy exacted under the vague pretext of ‘security’, it is an ugly violation of personal dignity, carried out to inflict optimum humiliation, which also raises its head at many of Jerusalem’s checkpoints.
Two of Jihad’s brothers live 1km east of here in the next neighbourhood, Bethany – the biblical home of Mary and Lazarus, and where Jesus parted from his disciples. These days, the separation wall runs right between the two neighbourhoods. So Bethany residents, once an integral part of East Jerusalem’s fabric, are now cut off from the city and prevented from entering it unless there is a medical emergency. Former neighbours and family in Ras Al Amud, like the Hadads, must suffer the checkpoint drill if they want to visit them. Jihad endures it once a month.
“When I come back from Bethany it is quicker to come through the checkpoint for West Bank people,” she explains. “But they ask me to strip and take off the hijab, so I take the bus through the Jerusalem [for Jerusalem residents] checkpoint and they just ask for ID, even though it is very far.”
When soldiers demanded that her teenage daughter strip following a return from one such visit, Jihad refused to yield, kicked up a fuss, and solicited help from a lawyer. After a protracted stand-off, the soldiers retreated, and Jihad’s daughter was spared the humiliation.
Law is another of her pet vocations. Along with 50 neighbours, Jihad has been battling the government in court to try and prevent the construction of a motorway through their land. It is the same patch of land – in the valley just below where we now sit – she wanted to build a new home on, but the Israelis told her a building permit would cost $40,000. The motorway, which would cut through Ras Al Amud on stilts, and enter a tunnel in Bethany, would link the Jewish settlement block of Ma’ale Adumim to the east and Abu Ghneim (or Har Homa) to the south.
Jihad and her neighbours have been told that their land will be confiscated, and any property on it demolished, to make way for the highway.
Of all the Jewish settlements to have sprung up outside and in between Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, the decision by Binyamin Netanyahu to sanction the creation of Har Homa in 1996 – at a particularly sensitive time, politically – proved notoriously controversial. Its significance is alluded to in Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall, as a site “chosen in order to complete the chain of Jewish settlements around Jerusalem and cut off contact between the Arab side of the city and its hinterland in the West Bank. It was a blatant example of the Zionist tactic of creating facts on the ground to pre-empt negotiations”. 3
In Palestine, no meal or conversation is complete without fresh tea to wash through it. Absorbing these tales of woe has been physically draining, so this pot, garnished with the sweet herb, merameia, is a soothing tonic. Merameia is one of a million gifts Haleemeh, her mother, and Jihad want me to take back home. But before my departure, there is one final lesson for the day. A cool evening air has descended, so we throw on jackets, and walk to the wall.
There are various categories of checkpoints along the separation wall, and the one nearest Haleemeh’s house is a military one: nobody can pass through it. On the walk there – overlooking the private land the government covets for its motorway, and passing by her uncle’s new house, the permit for which he paid $30,000 – Haleemeh sketches an outline of her day.
Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, like Bethany, would be a 10-minute walk from home if it were not for the wall in between. So instead, Haleemeh gets a bus into the Old City, hops on a second one to take her past the wall via the Ma’ale Adumim checkpoint, before she heads south to Abu Dis, a triangular journey of one hour.
We arrive at the wall, eight metres high of it, follow its path up the hill, arrive at the checkpoint nobody can pass, and Haleemeh points beyond towards her cousin’s house in Bethany, and her university. Young soldiers stationed 150 metres away at the checkpoint heckle and gesture at us to come forward, in a demeanour that is blatantly aggressive. It makes no sense because we cannot pass through here anyway, but I ponder what reception a foreigner might get in these parts. I am looking at them head on as they wave me forward, hurling insults, machine guns hanging from their side, as if to lay down a challenge, as if to say ‘come on, let’s see what you’ve got’.
With that, Haleemeh turns to leave. “They just want to make trouble, to say rude things, they are silly,” she says. I am torn between prudence and curiosity, and in a way wanting to engage the soldiers. But most impressive is Haleemeh’s indifferent about-turn and shrug, as if to say ‘Ya, there they go again, whatever…’ For her it doesn’t even constitute an incident, just par for the course. And as my anger is fermenting inside, I start to ponder how I might tolerate this as a daily occurrence, as the intelligent and serene girl beside me does.
We descend the hill and Haleemeh, for whom my admiration is growing exponentially, details the second half of her day. The Jabel Mukaber Medical Centre is where she does work experience after university every day; it lies back inside the wall, near Ras Al Amud. To walk there from Abu Dis via the nearest checkpoint should take 10 minutes.
And that is how is used to be, until one month ago, soldiers at the Abu Dis checkpoint decided to make life a little harder for Haleemeh. Having given her blue ID card a thorough second glance, they probed the purpose of her journey. She was on her way to work at the Jabel Mukaber Medical Centre, she told them. They scanned her ID again. But why did she work in Jabel Mukaber if she lived in Ras Al Amud, they asked. It was a typically innocuous inquisition. Look, she said, I need to get to work and it’s just five minutes away, please let me through.
So after several minutes of verbal harassment and pleading on her part, Haleemeh was allowed through the checkpoint. On condition, they told her, that “in future you must go the legal way”. Ever since then, she has taken the bus from university via the Ma’ale Adumim checkpoint into central Jerusalem, and back out to the medical centre, another triangular journey of 45 minutes. Why don’t you go back to try the Abu Dis checkpoint again, I ask? “They say rude things to me and I don’t want to hear that again.”
We land back from our expedition to the wall, and as I struggle to get my head around it all, Haleemeh’s mother is packing two bags full with merameia, a tub of olives, olive oil, some za’tar, one of Jihad’s pillow covers that she embroidered herself, a cardboard cut-out of the Al Aqsa mosque engraved with slogans for Palestinian freedom that Jihad’s brother made in prison, and a wired lantern that is Haleemeh’s special gift to me.
Jihad is animated, having taken a call from her brother, 1km up the hill in Bethany. But if you didn’t know any different, you would think he was calling from Mars. It is then that I think of the words of Amira Hass, the Israeli journalist who, having lived in Gaza for three years, concluded that “for Palestinians, freedom of movement is no longer a right but a privilege, allotted to an entitled few. Israel awards the privilege incrementally, by means of a pass system that has carved up Palestinian society in much the same way as the new geography has carved up the land.” 4
In observing Jihad receive her brother’s voice like that of a long-lost son, I realise that I am witnessing the fracturing of a society, and to that extent, the intimidation and humiliation suffered by Haleemeh in these neighbourhoods every day plays an absolutely pivotal role.
In bidding farewell, I only wish I could reciprocate the warmth of the past few hours. Haleemeh and I make our way on to the street to wait for a taxi. There, she has something to confess. “You know, Ronan, the colour of your eyes, they are beautiful. I wanted to tell you before, but I was shy.”
The nozzle that has been twisting its way around my head is now sealed shut. The stories have been bombarding me for a week, and I am so emotionally drained that I am at a loss to deliver an appropriate reaction. I have no response for Haleemeh. I only know that glimpsing this snap shot of her life has propelled me into an abyss of some kind. That what I have seen is patently wrong. That to think otherwise is to be deluded. And that it cannot fail to change me.
“When do you go home, Ronan?”
Mohammed Sahin’s fists clench as he rummages for appropriate last words.
“You know, you are important for us. You are like our gate to the world, that people know what is happening here.”
In his seminal 1923 essay, ‘On The Iron Wall’, the founder of revisionist Zionism and spiritual leader of the right, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, detailed his vision for how a future Zionist state might arrive at an accommodation with the Arabs of Palestine. “The only way to achieve at a settlement in the future,” he said, “is total avoidance of all attempts to arrive at a settlement in the present.” 5
It is measure of how pivotal a figure Jabotinsky was in the evolution of Zionist thinking that virtually every Israeli leader since the foundation of the state has devotedly regurgitated this approach. It was only after having been hounded into compliance by the government of George H Bush that finally, after almost a half-century of conflict, Israel agreed to meet a Palestinian delegation face to face at the Madrid conference of 1991. Since then it has shown a remarkable efficiency in maintaining a diplomatic deadlock while quietly appropriating further tracts of Palestinian land. Biding its time can only be to Israel’s advantage – if the day ever comes when there is no avoiding a peace settlement, there will be nothing to negotiate; most of the land will already be theirs.
It was this strategy of evasiveness that came to mind when I met the Israeli deputy ambassador to Ireland in Dublin on May 19. Having made it through a half-dozen high-security doors armed with a single sheet of questions for Mr Nadav Cohen, I was given a warm greeting before being sat down for a half-hour ‘history lesson’.
The perception of Israel as cruel was false, he said. I needed to put things into context, he said. The Arabs have a different, less civilised way of doing things, he said. He was not here “to talk about what is correct”, that maybe Israel had made mistakes, but that Palestinian suffering was due to their own mistakes.
When eventually I got a word in, I asked him to justify how Jews who had never set foot in Palestine could be enticed with financial incentives to build a home on stolen land in occupied East Jerusalem, while Palestinians who had lived there for generations were required to buy a licence costing $40,000 to build on land that was theirs. I wondered why Palestinians were denied access to their own water under their own land, while it poured freely into illegal Jewish settlements on the same land.
It was complicated, he said. I needed to put it into context. I needed to remember Palestinian terror, the mistakes they had made. I needed to consider the inefficient Palestinian water systems, and how “backward” they were.
I recoiled, remembering Mahmoud’s inventive rain water collecting system in Faqua, which diligently stores reserves of water in a home-made tank outside his house, to delay the day when he needs to top up by paying an Israeli water company 10 shekels a square metre (Israelis pay three and a half) for water that is stolen from them to start off with.
So hearing this was unbelievable. But I knew that if I stayed with Mr Cohen for a week, he would find way to dodge the bullets. It was a fine demonstration in the art of conjecture and avoidance – the only way to achieve an answer in the future, it seemed, was total avoidance of all attempts to arrive at an answer in the present. Time ticked by, and two and a half hours later, tired and lethargic, I slipped quietly away.
Palestinians, too, are tired of it all. But they won’t forget the land, nor the desire to arrest the slide into indignity, nor the obligation to safeguard their rights.
“In their hearts,” as Amira Hass summed it up, “Palestinians will persist in seeing all the land as theirs; they will not renounce their longing for the fields that now bear Hebrew names; they will not forget the pain of expulsion, the very first link in the chain of loss that goes on. But they have the ability to separate their heartfelt wishes from the need for a peaceful political solution. On condition, of course, that any solution treats the Palestinians with dignity, as a people with elemental rights and a claim equal to that of the others who live in this land and call it home.” 6
Witnessing this oppression and theft in person is a little like losing one’s virginity. No matter how well you imagine what it is like, nothing can really prepare you. There is no substitute for the real thing.
As I made my way west towards Tel-Aviv, away from the edge of the colonial frontier in Jerusalem and into the pruned and polished settler communities that colour the space in behind, I couldn’t help feeling I had just met the boy who cried wolf. Or the worst type of bully in the playground, who also happens to be the headmaster’s pet. When nobody is around he pokes and pests little Tommy, on and on until he is blue in the face. Tommy manages to contain his frustration until one day he finally responds to the provocation. It is in full public view, the headmaster is on yard duty that day, and Tommy is summoned for sanction.
The West Bank ought to be a civilised enclave in a beautiful land. It has always valued the highest standards of culture, education and food. It is only politics that holds it back now. Yes, you can find violence, aggression and terror here, ultra-religious fanatics waving guns, marking their territory as if commissioned by God himself – and these people are to be found in the Jewish settlements that have spread like a cancer throughout the West Bank. Or at the hundreds of checkpoints, which ostensibly exist to guarantee security for Israel, but in reality are just one of the more explicit ways of showing who is boss. The challenge for us, as outsiders, is to call the occupation in the West Bank for what it is – not to regard it as a battle over ‘disputed’ lands, but as a creeping, and blatant, theft of land.
It is very difficult to disconnect completely from Palestine once you’ve seen it, knowing also that these people consider themselves abandoned by the world. So I thought the least I could do, to begin with, was to walk defiantly through security at Ben-Gurion airport with my latest purchase, ‘Palestine and Palestinians’, proudly tucked underneath my arm. This guide book was the first to be written about ‘historic Palestine’, by a French friend of Jean-Marie’s.
Anybody entering Israel through Ben-Gurion airport faces lengthy questioning – as I did – if security suspects you might be headed for the West Bank. They don’t want foreigners to spend their money there, and they don’t want any more witnesses to the occupation. They can deport you, but usually they’ll try to convince you it is the most dangerous place on earth and hope you’ll fall in line.
But if you have been to the West Bank – as I was – and they suspect as much when you are leaving the country, then they will try to elicit information. The names of Palestinians you might have met tops their list of priorities. So the rules are simple: delete all Palestinian names, all West Bank pictures, erase anything Palestinian from your mind. Tell them Israel was blissful.
So I was fully aware of the reaction my manuscript, with its political connotations, would provoke. But for two days I had been striding the streets an angry young man, so instead of shrinking meekly before them like one week earlier, this time, I thought, bring it on.
“Where did you get this book?” the young female soldier asked.
“Did somebody give you this book sir?”
“No, I bought it in Jerusalem.”
“Are you sure sir?”
“Because if someone gave you this it could have a bomb, you know that?”
“No bombs on me, love.”
She was staring right at the cover. ‘Palestine and Palestinians’. I was smiling inside.
“What’s it about?”
“No idea. Haven’t read it yet.” And I was on my way.
Later on, I remembered what I ought to have said. The night before, Jean-Marie had told me a story about how on a return from one trip to the West Bank, he had been a little careless in preparing for security at the airport, and forgotten about the presence of a small but incriminating piece of olive wood he had stashed in his bag. Engraved on it was a map of historic Palestine, with a message above it that read:
‘If my love for Palestine is a crime, then the world should know that I am a criminal.’
1 Palestinian Ministry of Information Press Statement, April 14, 2007, in palestinecampaign.org
2 Palestinecampaign.org. The Convention regards people under occupation as ‘protected persons’, who in international law are afforded special rights, including that of regular trial, and the right not to be detained outside the occupied territory. Israel flouts these, and other, provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
3 Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p581.
4 Hass, Tell Me No Lies, p354.
5 Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p14.
6 Hass, Tell Me No Lies, p356.
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