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?

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Kufr Qadum

It’s Friday, the day for prayers and protest, and we are in the village of Kufr Qadum. It’s story is similar to many West Bank villages; the nearby settlement of Qedumim was established around 35 years ago and since then much of the village’s land has been confiscated. Villagers are also banned from using the road that goes directly to the nearest Palestinian city of Nablus, as it cuts through the settlement, and must now take a long detour around the settlement to reach either Nablus or the nearest Palestinian village.

The village has been protesting since 2011. Every Friday demonstrators march towards the forbidden road.  Since then many demonstrators have been injured, and one protester was attacked by military dogs. The army regularly raids the village at night, sometimes breaking in to people’s homes and damaging property,  and many villagers have been imprisoned.

The majority of today’s demonstrators are villagers (all men, as Palestinian women are rarely seen at demonstrations) along with several members of IWPS, ISM and some Israeli activists. The Israelis are from Anarchists Against the Wall, a group who once turned up at the US embassy with a box of spent tear gas grenades (Israeli weapons are paid for by American tax dollars) with a note saying ‘return to sender.’

The ritual begins in late morning when a truck arrives with a load of used tyres which are piled across the main road out of the village towards the settlement. The protesters set fire to the pile, sending huge clouds of black smoke in the direction of the settlement. Today the wind favours the protesters; it’s all blowing away from the village and towards the settlers.

The main road out of Kufr Qadum, with the settlement of Qedumim in the background.

The main road out of Kufr Qadum, with the settlement of Qedumim in the background.

After midday prayers the march begins towards the settlement. An Israeli army jeep is visible through the clouds of smoke. The protesters have anticipated the jeep, and have set up a series of makeshift blockades of rocks at intervals down the road. The army has anticipated the blockades, and are accompanied by a bulldozer.

Army jeep accompanied by bulldozer

Army jeep accompanied by bulldozer

There are soldiers up on the hillside overlooking the village and some of the youth throw stones at them. In a familiar routine, the army responds by shooting tear gas at the protesters. Some of the older villagers stand further down the hillside shouting directions at the youths;  at first they shout at the youth to hit the soldiers, later, when the situation begins to look more risky, to come back.

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One of the Israeli protesters pointed out a mysterious individual at the top of the hill, away from the other soldiers,  dressed in black. He said that the last time he appeared, there were arrests of internationals, and he advises us to take a different route home. I ask him if he thinks the presence of internationals bothers the army. He says that in their worldview, if there are Israelis and internationals present at a demonstration, then they must be telling the Palestinians what to do, so part of their strategy is to get internationals and Israelis out of the picture.

I’m never sure what I feel about this style of protest, which despite the stone-throwing, is part of what is  considered non-violent resistance.  Many people have observed that these weekly demonstrations, which take place in villages every Friday across the West Bank, are like a ritual or a game in which each side participates week in week out, with nothing gained. When I spoke to Ahmed, the coordinator, he told me that the demonstrators have three main objectives: to reopen the main road, now closed for 11 years, prevent the expansion of the settlement, and for the village’s land to be returned. But when I asked him if they would be prepared to march all the way to the settlement, if ever the army decided to take the day off, he gave an emphatic no.

This is a small group of people protesting against a heavily armed occupying force; a very different context than political protest in Western democracies, where the leadership is accountable to the people, or even Cairo, where it’s possible for millions to protest en masse. The difficulty for Palestinians is always that they have so few options – they have no standing army, no real political representation, and no powerful friends. For now, this is how many Palestinians choose to resist the occupation.

Once the organisers declare the protest over, we sit and drink tea. We have been advised to wait a while in case there is a checkpoint set up on the way to catch activists. The Israelis leave ahead of us, then call to say the way ahead is clear. We say goodbye to our hosts and leave.

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.

Protest

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When we met the residents the village of Sebastiya, they were angry. According to Mohammed, a representative of the local resistance movement, the nearby settlement of Shavrei Shomron has recently begun dumping raw sewage into agricultural land owned by the village. As the settlement is also home to an aluminium factory, there is no way of knowing whether this contains harmful chemicals and as a result, villagers are unable to eat or sell the produce grown there.

‘Our message is: get the shit out of here. We just want to farm our land in peace,’ says Mohammed, as we sit drinking tea in the centre of the village, preparing for a demonstration. It’s a Friday, and the plan is to march to the area of farmland where the sewage is being dumped for the villagers to make their Friday prayers.

Palestinians often have a relationship to the land that’s very different to most of us in the West.  Palestinians (at least the ones that live in rural areas) not only depend on agricultural land for their livelihoods,  but are working lands that have been in the family for many generations. Unlike the West, where it’s normal to move house and even cities several times, Palestinians have an emotional connection to the land that they know and care for and that was passed down to them by their parents and grandparents before them. ‘They say they love the land,’ says Mohammed, of the settlers, ‘but they do not love the land. They put shit on the land.’

We arrive at the main road, from where we can see the way to the farmland is blocked by an army jeep in anticipation of the march. The weather today is very strange, gloomy and oppressive. Later we learn that a sandstorm has come from the Sahara, interfering with Obama’s plans to fly to Bethlehem by helicopter, but for now we are more concerned about these crazy winds blowing tear gas in all directions.

Suddenly the jeep moves and disappears up the road. It looks as if this is a trap; the army is planning to wait for the demonstrators to march across the farmland then return and block the exit so that that we will be trapped. Soldiers are visible on the hilltops and there are probably more hiding among the trees. The village leaders make the decision not to proceed onto the farmland, but to stay on the main road to pray, where the army are unlikely to fire tear gas.

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The demonstrators pray and hold speeches in the middle of the road, and the elders begin to head back, the demo officially over. A smaller group of youth, however, are disappointed with this apparent retreat and continue to march onto the farmland, accompanied by the Red Crescent first aiders with their gas masks and stretchers. They disappear into the distance, and a short time later we hear shouting and the sound of tear gas being fired. A few minutes the sting of tear gas reaches us on the breeze. The youth return, red eyed but otherwise unharmed.

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Later we head to Isbet Tabib where villagers have set up a protest tent to oppose the demolition orders on village property, which includes the local community centre which also serves as the school and clinic. There are Palestinian and Israeli activists here from Combatants for Peace, an organisation of ex-Israeli soldiers and ex-Palestinian fighters who have come together to oppose the occupation on strictly non-violent, bi-national principles.

I have a conversation with one of the Israeli activists, who says the decision to work with the organisation was a very emotional one; he has just learnt, for example, that one of the group’s members served time in jail for killing four Israelis. He was released as part of the Oslo accords. Despite this, I sensed a genuine respect and friendship between the members of the group. It may not be that well known, but there are many Israelis engaging with Palestinians and working to influence Israeli public opinion to end the occupation. In fact, although the situation is often presented as an ancient antagonism between Arabs and Jews, Israeli and international Jews seem to be overrepresented in the anti-occupation movement.