One of our local supporters recently returned from Palestine, where she took part in the Peace Cycle for Palestine. This is her first-hand report…
The itinerary of The Peace Cycle sold it to me. It included visiting a lot of the organisations and places that I had an interest in within Palestine. The chance to cycle from the North to the South of the West Bank being so close to the Land was a chance not to be missed. Staying with local families in the refugee camps as well as contributing to the ailing Palestinian economy was the perfect way to see and hear the truth about the current situation.
The Peace Cycle was formed in 2003 by Brian Moran and Laura Abraham. Both had followed the situation in Israel and Palestine for years and were appalled by the injustice the Palestinian people have endured. Prior to meeting, they had both resolved that year to do something positive to raise awareness of this injustice, and by a fateful coincidence had separately decided to organise bike rides for peace. But after hearing about each other’s almost identical plans through the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, they arranged to meet in London in Spring 2003, and agreed to join forces to organise the first ever London to Jerusalem Bike Ride in 2004. Since then there have been 4 rides, each with the aim of raising awareness of the consequences of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
15 of us took part in the 2013 ride and we were led by Laura Abraham – the organiser working jointly with the Siraj Centre based in Beit Sahour. Some of the cyclists were members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, some had been to Palestine before but for the majority it was their first time. We had two Belgian film makers with us who were doing field research for a project they are directing called Connected Walls. Some of the cyclists were fitter than others, I have to admit to being the one at the back most of the time!
Of course a huge part of the trip was awareness raising before, during and after. I held a film screening of Five Broken Cameras in Brighton which attracted a varied crowd to raise funds. Any money raised above and beyond the costs of the trip went to the International Middle East Media Centre (IMEMC) which brings regional news to the world and campaigns for justice and peace.
THE PEACE CYCLE FOR PALESTINE
Wall graffiti, Al-Fara Refugee Camp.
Having just returned from the West Bank and taking part in The Peace Cycle for Palestine 2013, I am grateful to be able to give you what can really only be a brief overview of the whole experience. Whilst I understand that if you are visiting this website then I am probably preaching to the converted, I consider it a duty to the people I met to report back.
The overwhelming message that we received from the Palestinians was that they are desperate for us to tell their story and many feel that the world has forgotten them.
Now to try and condense it into a readable post! I aim to try and keep it to the facts of how the illegal Occupation of Palestine affects the Palestinian people.
After much awareness raising and training in the lead up The Peace Cycle 2013, we finally arrived at Ben Gurion airport in early May.
Predictably our cyclists with Arabic surnames were detained for questioning for a couple of hours on entry.
Nazareth and Haifa
We spent the first day in Nazareth and Haifa. We visited the Arab Association for Human Rights and were given a thorough overview of the situation for Arabs living in the 1948 areas. The Palestinians living in these areas are subjected to institutional racism and discrimination in most areas of life.
We also visited the Baladna Organisation in Haifa, two really dynamic guys Yazid Said and Jowan Safadi do important work with Arab youth on human rights as well as raising political awareness and building leaders within the community. A large focus of the work is on deepening their connection to their national identity and collective memory and is opposition to the “Israelisation” of young Arabs which is fostered by the education system as young people are taught their history from a Zionist perspective.
After finally (and joyfully!) entering the Occupied Territories through Jalemeh checkpoint in the North of the West Bank, we were met by the Siraj centre. In what was a seriously slick operation, they delivered our bikes, attached Palestinian flags to our handlebars and gave us high viz jackets with The Peace Cycle symbol in Palestinian colours on the back.
Our first stop was Jenin where we visited the Freedom Theatre, founded after the massacre of 2002. We heard about the work they are doing with young people at a local level and internationally to encourage them to express themselves and deal with their trauma. We also visited cinema Jenin and the Jenin Women’s Cultural Cooperative which provides work for local women in an area of high male unemployment. We heard from brave Un Emad Abu-Zahra, leader of the Co-op who described to us the tragic death of her son Imad, a photojournalist who was killed in Jenin during the second intifada. The scars of the Jenin massacre are apparent everywhere . Hundreds were killed when more than 150 Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery, backed by F-16 fighter jets, attacked the refugee camp which home to 15,000 Palestinian refugees.
Al-Fara Refugee Camp
Our arrival in Al Fara Refugee Camp was one of the most memorable moments for me. As we cycled in from Jenin, sweaty and overwhelmed, a row of Boy Scouts on bikes with Palestinian flags blowing in the breeze appeared on the horizon. We initially wondered why they were there until the penny dropped and the realisation was that they were waiting for us! We were part of their Nakba day commemoration. All lined up, dressed immaculately in their uniforms they were waiting to cycle into the village with us. As if this wasn’t enough to induce a meltdown, the scouts chaotically got in front of us and led us slowly on the last few yards cycle into the village. The call to prayer was still going off in the background and all of a sudden it made sense why Nedal and Omar our guides, had been nagging us to hurry up/’Yalla’ for the last hour. The streets were lined with more girl and boy scouts, all standing to attention and a band was playing. Each child had made and was holding a giant key which represents their Right to Return home and to live in dignity and equality in their own land, free of military occupation. For more than a century Zionists have sought to construct a “Jewish state” by removing the indigenous Palestinian people. Stronger folks than I would also have wept.
Children in Al Fara Refugee Camp hold their keys. A symbol of their Right to Return
Boy Scout in Al Fara Refugee Camp
7,000 people live in the camp. We were honoured to to meet various Community leaders including Laila Said, head of the Palestinian Women’s Union, Yasser Abu Kishk, Head of the Refugee Affairs Dept, Ahmed Al Assad, Deputy Governor of Tubas and other organisers of Popular Resistance in the West Bank. They spoke to us about their daily struggles in enhancing educational and health facilities in the camp and organising daily activities where they can stand face to face with the Occupation. The importance of passing on the stories of the Nakba to the coming generations was stressed. It is clear that the Occupation wishes to remove the camps and erase the story of the Palestinians. The leaders of the Popular Resistance said solidarity from Europe makes them feel that they are not alone and that through our cameras and writing they look to us to tell their story.
We visited An Najah University and were welcomed by Dr Alawi who gave us a presentation on the university and education in Palestine. The majority of students at the university are female – 56% compared to 44% male. Dr Alawi explained that the restrictions on movement for ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank means that there are very few ways the Palestinian universities can co-operate with each other. Students and teachers coming to An Najah from outside Nablus are regularly harassed and detained at checkpoints, and employment opportunities are limited. Dr Alawi said that many of the youth in Palestine are tempted to leave the country for better opportunities and a higher chance of employment outside. He believes this is a deliberate strategy of the occupation, to make life so difficult for Palestinians to live here that they choose to leave. However, the spirit of resistance is very strong here, and the intense pride of the Palestinians in their land and their achievements is evident everywhere. The university is also keen to encourage overseas students to come and study in Nablus, and from the amazing facilities we saw, it would offer any young person an impressive and rewarding environment in which to learn. The streets of Nablus were alive with colour and the smells of spices. Nablus was a centre of resistance during the Intifada years and the remnants of this in the bullet scars on the walls and the haunted and suspicous looks in the eyes of some of the young men.
The atmosphere changed dramatically on our cycle into the town of Qalqilya. We were leaving Areas A and B – territory and entering Area C – territory under the sole control of the Israeli military. The environment changed and the landscape became littered by the indiscreet red rooves of settlements and Israeli flags blowing in the breeze. A few cars slowed down beside us, wound their windows down and shouted things in Hebrew which I didnt understand and could only imagine as I cycled along bravely sporting my Palestinian flag. This area is fertile land with many water wells, the settlers are determined to stay heere despite being illegal under International Law and are often armed and violent.
Phew- We were glad to get back to Area A!
As usual the Palestinian hospitality shows no bounds and we received an incredible welcome in Qalqilya. The Mayor and the Qalqilya cycling club greeted us and thanked us for our solidarity.
Qalqilya is surrounded by the ‘Separation Wall’ which the Israeli’s like to call the ‘Security barrier’. It has cut deeply into the land annexing more land beyond the Green Line and has turned Qalqilya into a prison within a prison. There are 13,000 Palestinians living on 4.2 sq. km of land while 54 Israeli families live on 10 sq. km of land stolen from the original inhabitants. Unemployment is rife and the residents are subject to travel restrictions, closures and frequent military raids. From some of the youths we met, it was easy to see how their lives are absolutely ruined by life under occupation and how important International solidarity is to them.
The Wall in Qalqilya
Next overnight was with families in Bil’in, a small village north of Ramallah which has become famous worldwide for its creative non-violent resistance to the theft of their land. The Israeli Wall has been built through the farmland of Bil’in and we saw how it has had a catastrophic effect on the environment and community. We were met by Iyad Burnat, who has led the non-violent resistance to an unusual victory – the people of Bil’in took the Israeli government to court and succeeded in getting the route of the wall revised. The villagers have built a playground which already has a demolition order on it. As with other villages, there are constant problems with water and transportation. We visited the wall where the weekly non violent protests take place . The area was littered with heavy tear gas canisters which are regularly fired at the non violent protesters. 2 people have been killed in Bil’in by these cannisters and there have been 40 deaths in surrounding villages.
The back of Iyad Burnat’s house with the Wall and settlement in the background.
In Ramallah we with met with the Negotiations Unit of the PLO. We learned that before the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, Palestine was a thriving country with a population of 600,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews (approx. 89% Muslim, 10% Christian, 1% Jewish) living in 13 cities and 650,000 villages, with flourishing commercial links and efficient transport systems. We heard how the current proposal of a Palestinian state on the 1967 border actually represents an enormous compromise by the Palestinian people. In reality it relinquishes a massive 78% of historic Palestine, and leaves the issue of Palestinian refugees – who have the Right of Return under international law. 7 million refugees live outside of Palestine in Europe, the US, Syria and Jordan and this is one of the biggest issues in terms of negotiations.
The Palestinian negotiating position for a two state solution along those borders is a painful concession from the Palestinian side and is still met with stalling and continuing land theft from the Israeli side. As the representative from the Negotiations Unit outlined the Palestinian negotiating position, it is clear that Palestine has no partner for peace – the Israeli side, despite being offered so many concessions over so many years, appears to want nothing less than all of the land for an exclusive Jewish state. Our speaker at the Negotiations Unit asked us to put more pressure on our own governments to insist that Israel abides by International Law and comes to the negotiating table ready to talk instead of stalling for time whilst continuing to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
We also visited Al Haq, founded in 1979 by 3 Palestinian lawyers and which monitors breaches of International Law and documents human rights violations on both sides of the ‘conflict’. They advocate on behalf of victims as well as document house demolitions/ killings and evacuations for ‘military training purposes’.
Also in Ramallah, we visited Adameer, an organisation that gives free legal aid to Prisoners of conscience as well as providing advocacy and training for youth. A key member of their team had recently been arrested and other campaigners are arrested frequently. Prisoners are often held in administrative detention for indefinate periods, denied lawyers visits for up to 60 days and subjected to interrogation. There is often no charge brought against them. There are currently approximately 4,900 Political prisoners. 230 are children and 40 are under 16. 70 prisoners have died due to medical negligence. The location of the prisons themselves is against International Law as they should be in the Occupied Territories. Families have to get permits to visit which are invariably denied.
Our first stop was Bethlehem University, the first university in the West Bank, founded in 1973 with the help of the Roman Catholic Church which still supports it. The University has over 3,000 students. It is the only Christian University in the West Bank and is one which all Palestinians are comfortable attending. Its students presently comprise of 70% Muslim and 30% Christian, with 75% of them female. The university was one of the main targets of Israeli fire during the 2002 siege of Bethlehem. At that time the whole of Bethlehem was under curfew, and Israeli soldiers conducted daily house-to-house raids, ransacking homes and urinating in water tanks.There is still no such thing as freedom of movement in the Bethlehem area, as in the rest of the West Bank. In the first intifada, during a peaceful protest a student got onto the roof and was immediately shot by an Israeli soldier. During closures and curfews students and teachers would find a way around the restrictions by teaching in homes and churches, but many were harassed and arrested. 30% of the students at the university come from refugee camps, and 20% have to come through the wall and checkpoints to attend classes, meaning frequent and prolonged delays for them and disruption to their education.
Aida refugee camp situated between Bethlehem and Beit Jala has 5,500 residents and isn’t on the itinerary of people taking their trips to the ‘Holy Land’! The original refugees in Aida camp generally came from 17 villages in the western Jerusalem and western Hebron areas, including Walaja, Khirbet El Umur, Qabu, Ajjur, Allar, Deir Aban, Maliha, Ras Abu Ammar and Beit Nattif which were raized by Israel in 1948. The camp receives water every 20 days when it is turned on for 6 hours. They fill their tanks and use it after 10 days. Despite the inspiring work going on in the Camp regarding activities for the young people through arts, drama and other community programmes it is surrounded a particulalry oppressive section of the wall and is effectively a large open air prison. There are no health centres in the camp and the residents have to access health services in Dheisheh camp or Bethlehem.
O little town of Bethlehem: Welcome to the Holy Land!
In Hebron we met with Hebron Rehabilitation Committee who work tirelessly to protect the Old City and preserve its unique Arab heritage as the once commercial centre of the Southern part of the West Bank. We did a heartbreaking and desolate tour of 500 closed shops and 101 closures in a 100km square area. There are 400 settlers in provacative settlements supported by 1,500 soldiers. Since the massacre by settler Baruch Goldstein in the Tomb of the Patriarchs the Israeli army has employed a policy to protect the settlers based on a “principle of separation.” This policy is employed openly and officially and imposes severe restrictions on Palestinian movement in the city centre where most of the settlements have been established. Some of the main streets in this area are off-limits to Palestinians. These restrictions have made life and employment impossible and many Palestinians are leaving the area. We visited the Ibrahimi Mosque, which as a result of the carnage caused by Goldstein is partioned and controlled by checkpoints and searches for the Palestinians while Jewish worshippers can enter freely.
Settler violence against Palestinians is a daily occurence in Hebron. We visited the ancient souk which has netting above it to protect the shop owners against heavy objects thrown from the settlements above. A concrete block which had been thrown was still there, thankfully it was stuck in the netting or it would surely have killed someone. Urine is also thrown from above.
Israeli settlement above the Arab Souk. Netting is required to protect the indigenous population from heavy objects being thrown from above.
Israeli settler students have taken over the school in the City Centre.
Our last cycle was into East Jerusalem. The contrast in the East and West of the city has to be seen to be believed. We spent the morning with our Palestinian guide and were given a tour of the Old City visiting Damascus Gate, some Christian worship sites and the Wailing Wall. It is easy to see why this is the most contested city in the world. In a Utopian moment one can imagine how it could potentially be such a model for humanity, sharing and accepting each others beliefs and values. Sadly this is not to be at the moment.
We witnessed more provactive settlements as ancient Arab homes are stolen and taken over. I saw a settler with a large rifle swinging from his shoulder surrouded by three secruity guards walking through the old city. Apparently they have this protection everytime they go out of the door, taking their kids to school etc. In this country, people with such insane and ideological actions wouldn’t be allowed to have their kids living with them as they would be classed as mentally unstable.
We visited Sheikh Jarrah where settler vilence has stolen Palestinian family homes. In one case a two year old child was thrown from a window.
We drove through the sensitive E1 area and it was clear how the settling up link roads are carving up the West Bank and setting fire to the hope of a future Palestinian state. We drove through Ma’ale Adumim, the third largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank (illegal under International law). It covers an area of 50 square kilometres and has a population of almost 50,000 people living in what appears to be suburban luxury with sprawling palm tree lined streets and water features which are stealing the water supply from Palestinian families.
10 minutes later, it felt unreal to be sitting in Al Khan al Ahmar, a Jahalin Bedouin community in the Jordan Valley. The camp was established in 1952 and houses 160 people who are regularly subjected to attacks by sttlers. There is a water park, swimming pools and green suburbs nearby in the settlement yet they have no water (they still made us tea!). The school in the camp is the only school to provide primary education to children of the Jahalin. The eco-friendly school, provides schooling for 98 students and is scheduled for demolition.
In the evening, I cowardly removed my keffiyeh as I sat next to two 18 year old female soldiers with guns on the train into West Jerusalem. Here I witnessed tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallying against government initiatives to draft yeshiva students into the army.
All in all a surreal day in the life of the Peace Cycle!
Israeli Flags above the Arab Souk
Inside the Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin School
Jahalin Bedouin Camp
When I began to write this I had no idea how I was going to condense such an overwhelming experience into a readable and concise post and I dont know if I have. I have tried to pull out the significant areas in which the Palestinians have been affected by the occupation of their land and I am sure I haven’t done them justice.
I’ve not really touched on the incredible warmth, generosity and hospitality of the people I met, that is a whole other post in itself.
If you have been before, you will know exactly what I mean and if you haven’t yet visited Palestine then do as the Palestinians would say ‘Yalla- Come and See’.