Court

The Megiddo plain is where, according to some, the battle of Armageddon will take place. It’s also home to Megiddo prison and Salem Military Court, where Ali’s hearing happened this morning. Later it occurs to me that Salem, sharing it’s name with the Massachusetts  town where the infamous witch-trials of the 17th century happened, is an ironic location for a kangaroo court.

It turns out that military courts are not user friendly. Salem is on the northernmost point in the West Bank, and as we weren’t told what time Karim”s hearing would be, we had to arrive first thing.  I met Ali’s parents, Um and Abu Fadi, at 7am this morning. I had faxed a request for permission to enter the court, along with a copy of my passport, but I hadn’t heard whether authorisation been granted.

Leaving our bags outside, I somehow make it through the first security check, despite not having permission, and take a seat in the waiting room next to Um Fares. The room is full of prisoners’ families and the atmosphere is subdued. Um Fadi is almost entirely silent, murmuring prayers every now and again. She taps her feet, adjusts her headscarf, fiddles with her purse, adjusts her headscarf again. She must have been thinking about this moment all week. She knows that her son is being kept in a prison where his rights are not respected and that he is probably being ill-treated.

Um and Abu Fadi must have had Ali, who is sixteen, later in life, as they seem older, especially his father. Both of them are shorter than me. Abu Fadi is even gentler than his wife. The other week when we visited them at home, we sat outside and Abu Fadi described  how an Israeli road has been built across their land, isolating one of the trees. ‘At night I heard the laurel tree weeping,’ he said. ‘It was lonely.’

Ali is still named on his fathers’ identity card  as he is too young to have one of his own, but his parents  have not been present at any of his interrogations.

A crowd start to gathers at the revolving gate near the reception. Teenage border guards, carrying semiautomatics, bark orders at the crowd, most of whom are old enough to be their parents and grandparents. Sometimes in Arabic, mostly in Hebrew: ‘Get back, all of you! Move! If you don’t all get back into the room, no-one will be allowed in!’ A man asks, ‘Why? We have children in jail and we just want to see them!’ He doesn’t seem old enough to have children in jail – his son must be young.

We continue to stand. The names of prisoners are called out one by one and their families allowed through the gate. We seem to have been standing here for hours, and still Ali’s name hasn’t been called. The rain crashes angrily on the roof outside. Now there are only a few people left, and we are let in, Um and Abu Fadi before me. The soldiers  stop the revolving gate  while I am still inside it, leaving me stuck inside it for a few minutes. Eventually I am let through, and for some reason, the guards give me permission to enter the courtroom.

Now we just have to stand and wait to be frisked. While Um Fadi and I wait, I overhear Ali’s lawyer tell the guards that her son is already in the court. Um Fadi is eventually searched and let through, but the guard makes a phone call and leaves me to wait. Finally I am searched and the lawyer escorts me to the court.

Inside is chaos. I’m aware of a boy sitting in the dock with his head in his hands, but I don’t think it’s Ali. The room is full of people in uniform carrying guns; army, border police, civilian police. Um and Abu Fadi, usually both so mild-mannered, are shouting at them. They are escorted  outside and I follow. The court hearing is over and we have missed it. Only Abu Fadi got to speak to Ali. Um Fadi bursts into tears.

As we leave, two of the women in reception, a soldier and a border guard, ask me in Hebrew why she is crying. I translate, and Um Fadi turns round and shouts angrily in English, ‘Because I have been here all day and you didn’t let me see my son!’ The guard says, in Hebrew, ‘What do you want me to do? There were lots of people!’ but I don’t translate.

Ali’s detention was extended for another five days. Abu Fadi said his son was ‘weeping and weeping,’ and that he told him to be strong. He said Karim told him he had been beaten and that a soldier held a hand to his throat. He told his father he was forced to sign the confession with one hand cuffed to the chair. This sounds sadly believable – it’s well documented that the military court regularly uses coerced confessions as the primary evidence to convict minors.

Um Fadi did not stop crying for the rest of the day.

Qusin

This morning we arrived at Qusin, another village close the settlement of Qedumim, to help the villagers plant olive trees. When we get there Riad, one of the organisers, warns us that as we will be planting trees close to the settlement’s industrial zone, we can ‘expect the worst.’

A team from the International Solidarity Movement join us and we set off. It’s a sunny morning and the way to the fields are lined with colourful wildflowers. Although the land belongs to the villagers, they are required to get permission from the army to work on it. Today they have not.

We unload the baby trees and start work. We plant three in memory of victims of the occupation – Arafat Jaradat, Tom Hurndall and Maysara Abu Hamdeya. The army appears and parks a jeep at the side of the road by the next field. The soldiers get out but for now, just stand and watch.

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Arafat Jaradat, who died in custody in February, probably as a result of torture

Arafat Jaradat, who died in custody in February, probably as a result of torture

After we have planted a few more trees, the group splits and some villagers head to the other field, closer to where the soldiers are standing. Now the soldiers approach, although rather reluctantly. They look young and bored, and are accompanied by a settler security guard in civilian clothing armed with a semiautomatic. The settler is the only one who seems  truly scary and is, I suspect, the only one of this group that actually cares about olives trees or this patch of land.

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A soldier wrenches the tools from one of the villagers and carries them off to the jeep. As the soldiers try to stop people planting trees, a scuffle  follows in which one of the ISM volunteers is arrested and dragged away by the soldiers. A row ensues, in three different languages.

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I try asking some of the soldiers what exactly the problem is with planting trees in this area, but it soon becomes obvious that they neither know or care. I’m starting to see why the settlers have organised their own security; the Israeli army have clearly delegated the task of defending this settlement to it’s doziest unit. These look as if they are the ones who got the lowest scores in the army entrance tests. One of the soldiers is overweight, and even the commander seems barely awake. Are these the ones who tear gassed us on Friday?

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Eventually the villagers agree to return to the other field in exchange for the return of the arrested volunteer, the tools, and a promise from the army to contact the army civil administration to check whether they have permission to use their own land.

One of the ISM volunteers asks the army to return the confiscated tools

One of the ISM volunteers asks the army to return the confiscated tools

The civil administration arrives and the row continues. This is absurd. There are now around 20 or so army and police standing in a field negotiating with the village mayor, it’s hot, this is taking ages, and this is all just about planting a few trees on privately owned land, miles away from anyone’s settlement. The commander points out, to everyone’s amusement, that we can’t leave the trees here as he can’t stop the settlers from stealing them. We take photos of the army, the soldiers take photos of us.

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Eventually the mayor makes the decision to drop it, so we leave. Who knows if the trees we planted are still there?

Funeral

On Thursday we were heading to a demonstration against the closure of a Palestinian road near Tulkarem when we heard it had been cancelled due to the killing of two local youths the night before. As we were already on the way, we decided to attend their funeral.

The youths, aged 17 and 18, died after being shot by Israeli soldiers near a checkpoint. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened, but the Israeli army said the youths had thrown molotov cocktails at the military post. The first boy, Amer, died at the scene and according to witnesses, the army would not allow anyone, including an ambulance, near him for half an hour.

Around this time, his cousin Naji was noted to be missing. Volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement offered to try to find the boy, along with Axle, one of my colleagues from IWPS who was with them at the time. It was felt that the army would be more likely to allow internationals to search for the boy than Palestinians. An ambulance agreed to take them to search for him, but before they left, some local people told them he was safe and well and the search was called off.

The volunteers went to the hospital where they met Amer’s family and photographed his body in the morgue.  He had been shot in the chest.

In the early hours of the following morning, the body of  his cousin Naji was found, behind a factory, shot in the back. This accords with witness accounts which report that he was running away from the soldiers at the time.  He had bled to death.  It looks as if he was left to die, as the soldier who shot him must have realised he had been hit.

As we approached the town of Anabta, where the boys lived, large crowds were congregating. Cars full of young men drove past, flying flags representing various different political affiliations. When we arrived at the village the shops were all closed and the atmosphere was subdued. Reporters were lining the street near the mosque.  On the rooftops among the photographers, men and young boys waved the large yellow flags of Fatah. A few people looked devastated.

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The funeral procession began, with men at the front carrying the bodies of the two boys on their shoulders, and women  at the back. The men waved flags and chanted slogans as the procession headed first towards the boys’ family homes and then towards the mosque,  ending at the cemetery, where women are not allowed. Axle marched with the procession from the start and later wrote:

‘The sound of a woman’s scream when her child has been taken from her is unmistakable. It is of love raging. We walk to their houses in a large crowd hung heavy in mourning……. The mother’s wails from the depths of their souls for the baby she will see every day and never hold again… …..This sound cannot be told objectively, it cannot be reported accurately. It is a movement; it is of love pouring from a sadistically inflicted wound. It is a command for a massive healing.’

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After the funeral we were invited back to the municipality building where food was provided for the (male) mourners and us. The boys’  family homes are female space, where women gather to cry together and pay their respects. After the funeral we waited to see if there would be be any clashes between the army and youths. There wasn’t, so we went home.

Who knows what happened on Wednesday night? The boys may well have thrown molotov cocktails at the military post –  the army clearly to shot to kill, which doesn’t generally happen over more minor offences such as stone-throwing. Although it should be possible to investigate the circumstances –  there are usually CCTV cameras at checkpoints, and if molotov cocktails were thrown, there’d be physical evidence – it will probably never be independently investigated, so we may never know.

More Terror

The day before I arrived here,  a nasty car accident happened not far from the village. An Israeli settler was travelling between settlements when her car crashed into a stationary truck, leaving her small daughter critically injured. The facts of what happened are unclear, but the crash was quickly blamed on local Palestinian youths throwing stones and was soon being reported in the Israeli media as a terror attack. In the week that followed,  Palestinian stone-throwing became a hot topic and politicians began to call for a change of the ‘rules of engagement’ to allow the Israeli army to use live ammunition against Palestinian youths throwing stones.

The army began a series of night raids in the Palestinian villages of Hares and Kifl Hares, next to Deir Istiya where IWPS is based, in which 13 Palestinian teenagers were taken away from their homes and sent for interrogation. One of these was Ali, the youngest son of Um and Abu Fadi, close friends of IWPS.  Shortly after his ‘arrest,’ two members of the team went to visit and found his mother, Um Fadi, unable to stop crying. I met them a week later. They are an older couple, softly spoken, with good English. Ali is the baby of the family, and his absence leaves a big gap.

Hares village

Hares village

The youths were gradually released, after being held without charge for varying lengths of time, until only 5 were left in detention, including Ali. One, who was released after two days, was hospitalised following a beating he received in jail. We interviewed one 16 year old after his release. He told us that around 20 soldiers came to his family house at night and ordered all the family to assemble downstairs. They asked for him by name, blindfolded him and took him away in a jeep. He told us that the soldiers asked him about stone-throwing but didn’t give him a formal reason for his arrest. His family told us that they didn’t know where he had been taken until the army called, two days after he was taken away.

He told us that he was kept in solitary confinement for the first two days of his six-day detention, in a room in which the lights were kept on continuously. He was interrogated  every two days by soldiers who shouted at him and threatened to hit him and to harm his mother and sister. He was eventually released, but told us he was jumpy and afraid to go out of the house.

The story continued to make headlines in the Israeli media, as the child, whose name is Adelle and is aged 2-3, remained in a serious condition. Media reports of the attack have been hugely inconsistent; early reports quoted the truck driver as saying that he pulled over thinking he had a flat tyre, realised the the car had crashed into the back of his truck, then noticed the stones on the ground and decided that the noise must have been due to stone-throwing. Later reports said that both vehicles had come under ‘a barrage’ of stones,  while others reported that the car had crashed after a rock was ‘hurled through it’s windscreen.’

After 10 days or so we read that five Palestinians had ‘confessed,’ and that  Netanyahu himself called Adelle’s parents to tell them that the suspects were under arrest for the attempted murder of their daughter. These five include Karim, as well as three other boys all from the same family. Of course, we were very suspicious about the circumstances under which the ‘confessions’ were made. These boys are being held, by their enemy, in military detention.

We also noticed something else – reading through the media reports, we couldn’t find any eyewitness accounts of anyone actually throwing stones. The two drivers were both interviewed in the press about the incident, but neither of them reported seeing any stones being thrown, and there were no witness descriptions of any  youths. We went to the site of the accident, took photos, and managed to talk to some local people who were at the scene immediately after the accident and said they had not seen any youths there.

Human rights abuses in the West Bank are often ‘justified’ on the grounds that they ensure the security of Israelis; but these events suggest that this isn’t the case. Anyone concerned about protecting Israelis would follow due legal process to ensure that the right person was caught – locking up innocent people doesn’t make anyone any safer.

We felt that, with all the media hype about stone-throwing Arabs,  a counter report was needed to cast doubt on the mainstream narrative. We issued a press release and send it to various news organisations and a number of prominent left-wing Israeli journalists. One of these took an interest in the story, so we sent her all the information we had. She contacted the boy’s lawyer, but he told her he felt that publicity, before the indictment, would harm the boys’ case. She advised us to closely follow the trial instead.

It was a few days after this that a strange twist occurred. The mayor of the village paid a visit to the IWPS house,  accompanied by Abdul, one of IWPS’ contacts in the village. I wasn’t there, but according the  women who were, the men beat around the bush for a while before telling them about a rumour they’d heard. A local man, about  22, was claiming that a 28 year old  American woman calling herself Natalie had visited his house, slept with him, and asked him questions about the car crash. This is potentially problematic for IWPS as this could damage the reputation of the organisation – as this area is highly conservative we have to be extremely boundaried in our behaviour towards men.  We are the only international women around here, although there is no-one here who matches the boy’s description. The story was very odd – for some reason local Palestinian security were involved, and Abdul got the information from a relative who works with the police.

The men made it clear that they didn’t believe the boys’ story – he is from a ‘troubled’ family and has a history of making things up. A few days later, we heard he was in hospital after attempting suicide, the day before he was due to be interrogated again by security.  But Palestinian culture is notorious for rumour, and we were not sure how far this one had spread. We agreed to only leave the house in pairs.

But there were still unanswered questions: why were Palestinian security involved? And why did he mention that the woman had been asking questions about the car crash? The rest of the story, in which he got talking to the woman in a vegetable shop before going back to his place, sounded like fantasy, but this part was close to what we have been doing. And what would be his motivation for inventing the story, which seems to have got him into so much trouble, but so far has not affected us?

We received a call from Musa, one of IWPS’ contacts in the village of Hares, who asked us if we there was a woman here called Natalie. It turns out that Palestinian security had been in touch with him and Becky, one of IWPS’ experienced volunteers, went to meet him. He told her that the boy had apparently approached the police with the story, and the concern was that the woman, who seems to be entirely fictional, was an informer. Musa’s view is that this is the work of the Shabak, the Israeli secret service.

This is very worrying for IWPS. Regardless of the origin of the boys’ story, if a rumour spreads locally that international women are acting as Israeli agents, we will lose the trust of local people and may no longer be able to work in this area. There is already an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust in the village of Hares as there are thought to many collaborators there.

Musa’s suspicion, which he bases on ‘long experience’ with the Shabak, is only speculation, but if it is true then it would explain some of the stranger aspects of the story. We have been in the village asking questions about the car crash, and it’s possible that a local collaborator reported this.  It’s also very likely that the emails of the left-wing journalists we corresponded with are monitored by the Shabak,  in which case they will be aware of our investigations. If this rumour gets around it will certainly be very difficult for us to continue asking questions in the village.

If this rumour is the work of Israeli intelligence, it’s clever – this could do so much more damage, and involves so much less work for the security agencies, than monitoring and arresting members of IWPS. It would also suggest that the work we have been doing is bothering them.

Ali is due in court again on Tuesday and we are waiting to see what the outcome will be.

Israel

It’s the first day of my break this morning and I’m returning to the Western world (northern Israel) for 3 days of coffee, showers and the wanton exposure of my lower arms.

I leave first thing. As I stand on the corner hitching a lift, I’m accompanied by a settler in civilian religious clothing. I notice that he hasn’t come out with a jacket or a bag, but he has felt the need to wear a large semi automatic slung over his shoulder. This isn’t an uncommon sight among (male) illegal settlers, but this must be a cumbersome accessory.

As I stand and wait, I look at him and wonder: Why does he have it? Out of fear? Hatred? And why the need for a semiautomatic? Would a discreet handgun not do? Perhaps he is planning to mow down groups of Palestinians, or perhaps he is compensating for something. Either way, a death machine over the shoulder doesn’t seem to be a hindrance when it comes to hitching a lift round here, as pretty soon a young secular Israeli man pulls over and opens the door for him with a friendly ‘Hi, how are you?’

I get a lift with an Israeli man who used to be a commander of a tank unit in the army. He explains to me, apparently without irony, that this area doesn’t belong to Israel, and that’s the reason why I’ll see so much army here. He gives me some chocolate and a business card, then drops me off at a junction which does indeed have it’s fair share of soldiers and armoured jeeps. There’s a huge menorah in the centre and Israeli flags everywhere.

I get talking to an Israeli woman from a nearby settlement, who is also hitching to Jerusalem on her way to see her father. She is young, attractive and  kind. She says she likes living on a settlement, ‘apart from that,’ she says, as a car with two young Palestinian men drives past, leering at us.

We get a lift together, and in Jerusalem she accompanies me to the central bus station. She says that eventually she would like to raise a family in either a settlement or a moshav, because they are pleasant and safe for children, unlike cities, where parents don’t feel able to let their children play outside. I think of the family we met last week, in the village not far from this girl’s settlement, where the army walked into the family home and took three boys at gunpoint in the middle of the day.

This is what it’s all for, I think, this is why Fatima is awake at night not knowing where her children have been taken, and this is why tramuatized Palestinian children cling to their parents with fear, in order to allow people like this to raise their children in comfort and safety on confiscated land. We arrive at the bus station, she directs me to the nearest coffee outlet, and we say goodbye.

Driving through the West Bank and then later through Israel, I suddenly become aware of what I somehow never noticed before: the absurdity of two distinct nations living together in the same land, as neighbours, yet almost entirely segregated. Speaking different languages, with separate towns,  separate public transport systems, and different names for the same places. In Israel, some Arab towns are barely signposted.

I catch another bus to Tiberias in the Galilee where  I check into a hostel which has hot water and a whole room full of showers. I don’t really like Tiberias that much – it’s a tacky resort where bad music is piped through loudspeakers at every turn, but it’s a good base for exploring some of the nature nearby.

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In the morning I get my coffee at my favourite cafe and sit watching the sun twinkling on the waves of the sea of Galilee, then hitch a lift to the south of the lake with a psychodrama therapist who has just moved here from Tel Aviv in search of nature and peace. The beach  there turns out to be twice the price of the beaches in Tiberias, so I hitch a lift back again with an Israeli man who tells me about his travels around Europe and Asia. He has a child’s car seat in the back. When I ask him what he does for a living, he says he does ‘a security job.’ I know this means I can’t ask any more questions. I wonder if this means he works for Shabak, the Israeli intelligence service that interrogated the boys from Haris. He drops me off at a reasonably priced beach, where I open my book, block out the music, and relax.

The next day I catch a bus to the Golan and go for a hike in some beautiful nature. The colours of the flowers are amazing, and for a while I could hear nothing but the hum of bees, the sounds of birds and the occasional helicopter overhead. I notice that there are way more Israeli army and UN vehicles in this region, and I wonder if this is normal or whether their presence has increased since the civil war in Syria just across the border. I hitch a lift back to the Galilee with an affable reservist army major, whose gun rests at my feet the whole journey. Like many Israelis he is open, friendly and talkative. He is about to begin his reserve duty in the West Bank, where I hope I don’t bump into him.

Terror

On Friday evening, we went to interview a family in the nearby village of Hares where three boys, two brothers and a cousin aged between 13 and 17, were taken away by the army the previous day. The whole family were there when we arrived.

They told us that the army came in through the front door, which was open, and took the boys away blindfolded and without their shoes, in the middle of the day. The soldiers didn’t ask for the boys by name and from what we were told, it seems as if they were selected at random from among the boys who were in the house at the time.

House in Kifl Hares

House in Kifl Hares

When we saw them, no-one had been in touch with their parents to tell them where they were being held. Fatima, an English teacher and mother of two of the boys, was desperate.  She told us, ‘We just want to know where they are, what happened to them, were they hit….. we can’t cook, can’t eat….we are afraid. I can’t sleep. We sit and wait.’ The boys’ grandmother had been crying all day.

Their uncle, who was there at the time they were taken and who was hit by the soldiers, told us that all the children were very afraid and were clinging to him from fear. All the children slept in their parents’ room overnight. ”You must tell the world what is happening here.’ He said. ‘This is terror.’

The next day I sit with Jo, another IWPS volunteer, and call everyone we can think of to try and find out where the boys might be. The army tell us to try the police, the police tell us to try the army. It doesn’t help that this is the sabbath and the start of the passover holiday, so many NGOs who would normally be able to help can’t be contacted.

It’s several days before we find out that the boys have been taken to Megiddo prison inside Israel. This is the prison where 30 year old Palestinian Arafat Jaradat died recently under mysterious circumstances, making international headlines.

Settlement

For  about a week  I haven’t been able to withdraw any cash from the ATM and I’m starting to run out of money. This morning I head for Salfit, the nearest large town, to sort it out in person at the bank.

After some time spent sitting in the manager’s office drinking coffee and even more time on the phone to the UK, it turns out that my bank does not do Palestine. The man in London mutters something about ‘sanctions’ and ‘risk,’ although his geopolitical knowledge seems somewhat hazy. When I tell him I’m in the West Bank and I can’t withdraw cash, he seems to think I’m calling from a financial institution. ‘Why don’t you try somewhere else?’ He suggests. I explain it’s not convenient for me to cross a national border every time I need to get cash,  but after a long time checking with his boss, he comes back to me and apologises. ‘We just can’t do anything, it’s policy.’ he says. This is a real problem.

Then I remember that we are right next to the large Israeli settlement of Ariel, which will surely have plenty of Israeli banks. It’s just a question of getting there. It’s a 10 minute taxi journey where from I am, but a car with Palestinian numberplates will never be able to enter an Israeli settlement and I’m not keen to try to pass through the check point on foot as they will certainly search my bag, which has Arabic literature inside it, and potentially ask me all kinds of awkward questions.

I call Becky, one of the experienced volunteers, who suggests that I head for the junction outside the settlement and catch a bus past the checkpoint. This turns out to be a challenge in itself as she has mistakenly given me the wrong name of the junction and I have to keep my ultimate destination a secret from the taxi driver. Eventually, after lots of misunderstandings, I find myself at the Israeli bus stop near Ariel.

This is all taking ages. It’s early afternoon and I still haven’t managed to get any cash. I comfort myself that at least once inside I will probably be able to buy a cup of  Western style coffee, something I really miss.

At last a bus arrives.  There are a few religious people on  the bus, but most of the passengers seem to be immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Not all Israeli settlers are religious fundamentalists  – many of them are secular people, especially recent immigrants, who have been encouraged to settle there by government financial incentives.

Ariel is in the size of a town. Travelling through it on the bus also gives me an opportunity for me to begin to answer a question I’ve had since arriving – the existence and expansion of these settlements, which are illegal under international law, make the lives of many Palestinians a misery – so what are they actually like?

As I ride past, I notice the civil niceties: the disabled parking spaces, recycling collections, community centres, the neatly-trimmed parks. After the village, it’s a culture shock: everything is so uniform and ordered. In the village,  everyone knows everyone elses’ business without the need for community centres, and children don’t play in parks, but in orchards and family-owned land where they pick and eat food from the earth and the trees. Constructed quickly, Ariel feels artificial and soulless.

As I don’t know my way around, I miss the town centre and end up somewhere on the outskirts. Only then do I realise that it’s the first night of Passover and everything is closing early as everyone heads home for the seder. I pass a cafe which probably sells delicious takeaway coffee, but it’s closed. This could be a problem, as the buses will stop soon.

I withdraw cash at last, then try to find a bus stop. I wait and wait. Nothing comes. This is not good. It’s hot, my water has run out, and nothing is open. Even if I’m happy to pass the checkpoint on foot, I’d still have to find it, and I think it’s probably miles away. The number of cars passing and people in the street is getting less and less, and it’s not as if I can even call anyone to come and pick me up, as  I have no idea where I am and Palestinian vehicles can’t get in here anyway. The sun is starting to set, and I’m going to end up stuck here. This isn’t funny.

Then I see some religious people, who I saw earlier trying to hitch a lift, getting into a car across the road. I run towards it and catch the driver just before he closes the door. I have the same problem as before, which is that I can’t actually tell anyone where I want to go. By now I just want to get out of here. Safely past the checkpoint, I ask to be dropped off. The other passengers are looking at me very strangely.

I make it back to Deir Istiya before dark.