A Story from the West Bank: One Day in an Accompaniers Life: Palestinian farmers planting near Beit Umar

My colleague and I received a call one morning. Trees planted by Palestinian farmers the previous day on their land had been pulled out.  We were asked to accompany the farmers near Beit Umar as they returned to their land today to finish planting their olive trees.

The peacefulness of the landscape belied events  daily obstructing Palestinian farmers. Terraces of land, dotted with a few shepherds and their flocks, a lone boy on a bicycle, stopping to show us the way, a pastoral scene that could have been filled with all the hopes of spring.

85 year old Palestinian woman helping plant olive trees

We eventually found the farmers. Several men of different ages, and one very old woman of 85. The woman was carrying stakes for the new trees. The men were digging holes, planting and staking the olives. There was a B’Tselem* representative with a video camera ready to record events. Several other internationals were present as helpers and observers.

We greeted the group and began taking photos of the work. They were working quickly, and as a gardener I wanted to help, but sometimes you are the photographer or the one writing notes in order to tell the story.  And as Ecumenical Accompaniers**, we are there to walk with, accompany, the people at their request.

Farmers planting olive trees

We spoke of rain, good years and bad, the talk of people of the land everywhere. Within the hour we heard the approach of a jeep-the Israeli army. We were warned by the farmers who are always on the lookout for them.

Everyone was ready.

Israeli army arriving

The two armed soldiers approached. One young soldier of maybe 21 years was serious: he had his orders. The second soldier, an Ethiopian, probably, was more in the background. They asked for everyones identification. Some farmers gave it. Others walked away. We approached to ask why they needed our ids. The officer informed us this was a closed military zone and that no one was allowed on it. He stated that his job was to keep the Israeli settlers who live nearby and the Palestinian farmers, who have titles to their land, apart and the closed military zone, where no one could go, was the answer.

The 85 year old woman approached him to speak. She may have been saying that this land has been in her family for over 75 years, belonging first to her grandfather. She was kind, seemingly trying to figure him out and why he wanted to keep them from what farmers do. The conversation in Arabic lasted maybe 10 minutes with the old woman following him to continue talking.

EA speaking with Israeli soldiers

At one point he spoke harshly, rudely to her. She continued to press him, kindly. He yelled at her. My anger rose. I thought I might lose my temper with him; I stepped back and allowed my colleague to intervene. Today I needed to remain quiet, hold the anger until later, and allow my colleague to handle things. This is not about ego, or getting even or showing them. And this is hard to do. It’s about advocacy: telling the real story to those who might never hear it.

It is hard to imagine a well-regimented and trained modern army out in the hills of a village near Beit Ummar walking through the terraced fields chasing away farmers, an old woman and a donkey, with internationals taking photos and watching. But that is what was happening.

Our passports were taken and returned within 15 minutes. The farmers got theirs back too. The soldier in charge told us where the closed military zone was and we needed to leave. We left with the farmers who had planted most of the trees they had brought.

Walking back to the family home, I was able to find out more. My colleague and I sat under the flowering almond trees, guests of this Palestinian family, sipping tea with mint. The family spoke about having a lawyer and that their case was heading to the Israeli Supreme Court. This is an expensive but necessary step for many Palestinian farmers in order to keep their land.  When tea was finished Arabic coffee was offered. As we awaited our ride back to town, we enjoyed the hospitality that Palestinians offer to all.  Our ride arrived; we thanked them for the hospitality; they thanked us for being there, for coming to Palestine from our countries for them.

This was one day as an accompanier in the West Bank walking with ordinary people who are trying to live a normal life. It is hard to believe that planting trees on your land can cause so much trouble.  Part of our mission is to ensure that peoples’ rights are maintained and their stories are told.

Mission accomplished.

*B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories www.btselem.org

**Ecumenical Accompanier (EA)  

EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel) www.eappi.org

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Coming home

May 17 th I left Jerusalem en route home to Canada. The EAPPI* program has finished for group 39.

It is hard to leave after 3 months of living in Hebron in the West Bank of Palestine.

Tears, goodbyes, parties, gifts, hugs and many, many good wishes and handshakes. And many memories.

Our taxi driver, Arafat, who lives closeby, waits for us in the morning as we leave the apartment on our way to Cordoba School.  He smiles as we get in. The good mornings, how are you. We use our limited Arabic. Sabah ilher, kief halick, shukran, good morning, how are you, and thank you.

Part of our accompaniment work is to walk with children going to Cordoba School. Their school is right across the street from an Israeli settlement named Beit Hadassah. There have been attacks on the children, their parents and teachers in the past.  Israeli soldiers protect the settlers; international volunteers protect all the children, both Israeli and Palestinian.

As we make our way toward the school, he asks, coffee?  yes, please. He stops at the turnaround, where a man is carrying a large metal pot. Plastic cups are in his pockets. Three coffees, one for my colleague and I,  and one Arafat. We try to pay: no way. This does not happen in Canada, the taxi driver buying us a good morning coffee. Arafat, I will miss you and your hospitality.

Later that morning we patrol the old city.  Abed is opening his shop. He is one of 3 shopkeepers left on Shuhada Street, which used to be the busiest street in Hebron. Today Shuhada Street is a ghost town.  Those shops are located on a street where Palestinians are no longer able to walk. Sounds crazy, but true.

The reasons are complicated. Partly it is due to the 1994 killing of 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Israeli settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, walked into the Mosque, shooting men at prayer. He was subsequently killed, then riots broke out in Hebron. Due to the riots, part of the busy market street was closed. Six years later in 2000 the Palestinian uprising called the second intifada occurs and the remainder of the street is completely closed.

With no Palestinians allowed on the street, there is little commerce. These shopkeepers sell to the occasional Israeli settler, to international or Israeli tours that come through. Sometimes Palestinians call to Abed across the army-manned checkpoint asking him to bring something over for them to look at.  As you can imagine business is down, remarkably, from earlier days.

We stop to say sabah ilher, good morning, and how are things going. How is your family?  Abed asks if we would like tea. Of course. He puts on the kettle, while we take a seat.  Tea, with mint, nana. He knows internationals do not use as much sugar as Palestinians. He agreeably adds the half a spoon of sugar I request. His comment is why bother with so little.

EA's sitting at Abed's shop having tea

One morning several internationals who are volunteering in Hebron are having tea with Abed. As usual it is a time to joke as well as a time to catch up on news. As there are many of us, some of the chairs are on the street right next to the shop. Just then a car pulls up. Close to us, very close. So close that it almost hits the back of my chair.

Settler car parks close to shop

We all look to see what is happening. Out come 2 Israeli settlers who make their way to an Israeli store across the street. As they cross the street, we start to laugh, and laugh and laugh. Abed is laughing the hardest. He tells us that this happens quite often. But today he is able to laugh because he has a group of friends and supporters with him, who know his situation. And he laughs because some days when this  happens, he is crying inside for the cruelty his neighbours express.

Abed, the shopkeeper, on Shuhada Street

But today we are all laughing at the silliness of the 2 men . They cannot accept others, that is, Palestinians, living and working beside them. They cannot accept that Palestinians have any right to be here. Radical settlers, living here illegally as all settlements are illegal, due to the 4th  Geneva Convention, and with the tacit approval of the government of Israel.

We are laughing to help Abed deal with the occupation that causes most Palestinians untold indignities and humiliation in an effort to get them to leave their land and property.

Today I decide to buy something from the shop: some camel wind chimes for my family. And everytime I see them I will see Abed laughing.

I am home in Canada but my memories and cherished moments bring Palestinians with me.

Thank you to all who made this experience so special. Please know that I am home yet my heart is with you all. And one day I hope to return. Inshallah, God willing.

*EAPPI  Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine/Israel   www.eappi.org

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Rebuilding after a home demolition

 

A month ago I was present just hours after homes had been demolished by the Israeli Army.

Family in their new home in Am Nir, near Susiya

Today I visited that site again, to see how the people were doing, and what was happening.

Here are some of the photos from Am Nir near Susiya in the South Hebron Hills.

There are 6 new houses of concrete, 2 completed, 4 still needing doors, windows, a floor, a permanent roof.  The new toilet, the hammam, has been framed.  People are laughing. Halima Jabouri, the lady who took me to see her demolished tent in March, today was making a new stone structure for the animals.

Halima Jabouri 'plastering walls'

Rebuilding following home demolition last month

Halima Jabouri rebuilding after her home was demolished last month. She greeted me with muddy hands and it mattered not one bit.

 

I watched as Halima, this strong woman, gathered mounds of clay to plaster against the rock walls. She laughed as she worked, recognized me and we greeted each other as women do in Palestine: 3 or 4 kisses on alternate cheeks. Her hands were muddy, her smile ebulient. They were rebuilding.  And there was hope.

Hope because Prime Minister Fayyad had come and had promised help and had laid the first concrete blocks 4 weeks ago.

Still there was the everpresent question: what will happen the next time the army comes? and they will come. Just yesterday an army jeep visited. One soldier asked one of the villagers, “How do you like living without water and electricity?”

Without water because the last time the army was here in March the cisterns and wells were destroyed by bulldozers. Without electricity because they are not allowed to install any power lines, solar panels, anything, without a permit. And no permits are given out to Palestinians.

This day members of the Israeli organization Tayyoush were present with Palestinians to rebuild a cistern. One has already been completed and this second one will be finished within a month, Inshallah, God-willing.  Israeli human rights groups and peace organizations often come to assist Palestinians who have been unjustly treated due to the Occupation.

The new hammam, toilet, under construction

The new hammam, toilet, under construction

For those present today, this was a

day of hope and rejoicing.

Our EAPPI team invited into a new home

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Home Demolitions in South Hebron Hills…again

My team, EAPPI* Group 39, had been in Hebron 3 days. The old team received the call. Homes are being demolished, can you come?  We followed them, perplexed and not believing it possible.

We all jumped into a service, a small bus, and headed to Susiya, a town in the South Hebron Hills. From there we ran up the rocky hills, through an orchard to Ab Nir, a community of maybe 6 families, around 50 people.

30 minutes later we were standing on a hill surrounded by rubble. Mattresses, clothing, pots and pans were everywhere. People were upset,crying, wandering around, not knowing what to do or where to start.I felt like an  intruder having come upon someone’s misery and unable to help. But they welcomed us, as Palestinians always welcome the visitor.  One lady found a pot, some water, built a fire and made tea. 

Her house was demolished and she made us tea!

Then we listened to the stories of the repeated demolition of their homes. And always the question Why? Why do they do this to us? Have they no pity?  That was February 20th, 2011.

Today March 29th, it happened again.

Between February and March: The International Red Cross had given them tents and food  to sustain themselves. They rebuilt the pens for their sheep using the rocks on the ground. The toiltet was rebuilt; life was proceeding as usual.

Now those tents were demolished. Two bulldozers and the Israeli army had arrived at 6am March 29th. The destruction began. If you stayed in your home, tent, you were pulled out, like the old man and woman I spoke to. A large white truck had come to take things away. There were children crying, women pleading, the army yelling, “Yella! Yella!” move!

"They took everything, even my food from the Red Cross"

One woman told me, “They have taken the food I just received from the Red Cross.” Each month the most vulnerable in the community receive food hampers from the Red Cross. Now that  was gone too. She pulled me by the arm to take me to what had been her home. She said her money was under all the rubble. She would have to dig through to get it. Everything was a mess. The young soldiers just didn’t care. This is their job.

I wonder if soldiers’ families in Israel have any idea of the kind of work they do. Surely they do not think their sons are pulling old men and women out of their homes at 6 in the morning so they can destroy the homes and contents, then load up a huge truck with anything they can easily throw in.

what the army left in Ab Nir village.

 

The tea, coffee and rice we brought to assist seemed like nothing in the aftermath of the destruction.

What now?

Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad came to visit Ab Nir the following day. He promised the construction of six new homes for the six families who live here. He layed cement blocks and put on mortar to start the procedings. What is to stop the Israeli army from coming again to destroy the new homes. Nothing. This is area C as defined by the Oslo Agreement. No building without permits. Palestinians apply for permits, which cost, and then are denied. No new permits have been approved in this area: not even for a toilet.                                                                                                                                 

And yes, even the toilet was bulldozed.

 And still the Palestinian people go on.New homes started

 A testament to their tenacity,

to their love of this land

to their belief in human rights for them to live in peace with their neighbours,

and their hope that sometime, some way this will be resolved. If not in their lifetime, sometime to live not as an Occupied Territory.

*EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine/Israel)  www.eappi.org

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While it rained…

Farmers around the world wait for rain. When it comes they can relax a little.

In the small town of Qarawat Rani Hassan in the northern West Bank, that’s exactly what happened Wednesday March 24th.

It poured rain. For farmers in the West Bank rain has not been abundant, so this was welcome.

At 6 am, when the farmers usually use the road to get to their land, that day they were not on the road. Instead, the road was visited by the Israeli army and 2 bulldozers. It was unclear how many soldiers.

By 11 am, the road built by the Palestinian Authority, and personally supervised by Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad, was completely destroyed. Here are some photos taken 1 hour after the Israeli army and bulldozers had all left.

Road in shambles

 

“Go home or we’ll shoot you,” a local farmer was told. Rashid Mohammed, wearing the traditional Palestinian black and white kefiyeh, had been walking out to his land. At 9am he met the Israeli soldiers, who gave him the grim warning.

Farmer threatened to be killed if he did not leave

 

Another local man, Tawfik Marie, wearing traditional Arab garb, lamented to Allah the loss and the useless destruction he saw before him. No language skills were needed to understand the agony in his heart over this loss. Patricia and I were in tears as he spoke, this 70 year old himself trying to hold back his tears. He implored Allah to help.

Local farmer pleading for help from Allah

Local farmer pleading for help from Allah

The mayor of the town was angry, not having received one word of notice that this was going to happen or why. Why destroy a $400,000 brand new road, built September 15th, 2010 by the Palestinian Authority (PA). It was labeled Fayyad’s Freedom Road, named after PA Prime Minister Fayyad who personnally supervised the construction.

Mayor Abdul Rayam interviewed by EA Patricia Mercer, Jayyous

It is hard to comprehend if you do not live in the West Bank. You think there must be a logical reason. There isn’t. No reason given by the Israeli authorities, by the civil administration or by the Israeli army itself.

When I asked the mayor what could be the possible reason, the reply I received was,          ” They don’t need a reason”.  Later, he commented,”They (Israelis) need to build peace bridges, not destroy, not build hate against themselves.”

Palestinians live with events such as this on a daily basis all throughout the West Bank: this is occupation. This is why the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program is here in Palestine/Israel (EAPPI): to end the occupation through non-violent means and through United Nations Resolutions and International Humanitarian Law that respects the Geneva Conventions. At present, although Israel is a signatory to all, they are in contravention of all.

How did the army know few farmers would be out on the road going to their land? It was raining and while it rained…

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Hard getting to church Sunday morning?

You think it’s hard to get to church some days?

Read this.

You are Palestinian, living in Hebron and going to the Ibrahimi Mosque Friday at noon for service.

To go into the Mosque all men, women and children go through a metal detector. The men remove their belts, pass cell phones and any metal objects through a window. The women put their purses and bags through a window. Then they walk through the detector. Should it beep, they go back until it no longer beeps. Keys, money, camera, maybe something else.

We are not boarding an airplane or coming into Ben Gurion airport in Israel: we are going to worship.

Turnstiles and gates prior to metal detectors and a soldier pointing a rifle at you.

Often the men and young men are frisked or body searched by Israeli border police or Israeli army. Last Friday, about 40% of the men and young men were body searched. Then their ID permits were checked. It is possible at this point to have your ID permit confiscated and held until after service. Like giving up your passport. It all takes time. More, it is humiliating.

But before all this you must also pass through something like a cattle gate.  A metal detector is at one end and should anyone set off the alarm, the line stops as the turnstiles lock. This is where mens’ belts are removed again. One day there were maybe 50 people trying to get to Mosque on time. The line stopped. People started pushing and yelling for the army to open the gate. Then the 20 year old Israeli army soldier in the booth pushed the green light. Only then can the line move.

Once you are through the gate you are met by an assault rifle pointed at you, straight at you. The first time I experienced it, I was intimidated. I have never had that experience before. Everyone else seems to be used to it: the abnormal becoming the normal.

Once inside the Mosque area there is yet another station, fairly well disguised, where 2 Israeli soldiers sit and monitor what is happening. They cannot be easily seen but I have heard them talking and laughing when I was touring the Mosque to visit the tombs of Abraham and Sarah.

Why all this security?

The Mosque contains the Tombs of the Patriarchs. The building houses and honours the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. Presently the building is shared by Muslims and Jews who both venerate the patriarchs.

In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a New York doctor and settler at Kiryat Arba settlement nearby,  entered the mosque. He had a gun and opened fire on the Muslim crowd at worship from behind, killing 29, wounding 156. He was subdued and killed by the crowd. Following the masacre there were riots which resulted in  increased security on the Palestinian side of the building. The Jewish synogogue side where Goldstein entered also exhibits  increased security.*

This is occupation in the West Bank.

And still the Mosque is full as Palestinians come in defiance of the situation.

It puts ‘going to service’ in a completely different light.

*The earlier version of this post contained an error. Initially it was my understanding that the Synagogue side had no security. I entered it myself to find that indeed there was security.

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Berlin Wall: goodbye // Israel Separation Wall: hello

A poem from the Separation Wall between Israel and Palestine

Peace

Peace is a dream worth fighting for

        It is a dream worth having while awake

 It is a prayer that you can wish on your enemies

        It is a direction worth heading in.

This is a poem that appears continuously on the Separation Wall in Jerusalem on the Palestinian side. The 7 metre wall started in 2002,  divides Palestinian West Bank residents from Israel but it is more. 

It is a continuous concrete wall that is expected to completely isolate the West Bank.

There are checkpoints at every opening, meaning armed Israeli soldiers, often gates that herd as many as 4000 Palestinians through; security checks where children’s school bags are inspected daily, sometimes twice daily even though it is the same 14 children who pass through that particular checkpoint and who are held up over 45 minutes usually.

It is sad to see the view of a 7 metre concrete fence from your patio, sadder still to realize , that your farm land, with olive trees was confiscated, 1000 year old trees destroyed in order to build the concrete slab.

As of 2009 statistics, about 14%  of the Wall has been built on the Green Line or Israeli land; 86% is inside the West Bank, meaning Palestine.*

“The construction of the wall being built by Israel…in the occupied Palestinian Territory…is contrary to international law. Israel is under obligation…to dismantle forthwith the structure…and make reparation for all damage caused”.  International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion, July 9, 2004

*United Nations Office for the Coordination of  Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)

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