Empire & Decolonisation

A Journey Through Occupation

As a participant of the 2011 Palestine Literature Festival, PalFest, the publisher and writer Ursula Owen recounts her experiences travelling around Jerusalem and the West Bank:

Ursula Owen at PalFest with, left, the festival’s founder, Ahdaf Soueif – Tamara Abdul Haidi, Creative Commons

It’s early morning, and there’s a heat haze hanging over the brown hills. The taxi driver taking us from Amman to the King Hussein checkpoint tells us that before l967, people used to go on day trips to the West Bank.  Unimaginable now. At the checkpoint our group, about eighteen of us, show our passports, again and again. On the third occasion the young Israeli soldier asks me whether I’ve been here before. Not to the West Bank, I reply. This isn’t the West Bank, he answers, quick as a flash, it’s Israel. The Israelis keep three of our group behind for four hours, something which will become familiar over the next week. Our friends have brown skins and Muslim names. ‘It’s the name that counts’, says one. ‘Once you’re on the system you never get off it’. Then we’re on our way to Jerusalem, where the Palestine Literature Festival (PalFest) will begin and end.  In the week between we criss cross the biblical landscape in our bus, stopping at checkpoints, sometimes briefly, usually for hours, young Israelis with their guns and their sniffer dogs giving, sometimes shouting, instructions, asking questions, checking passports and cameras.  ‘They’re just kids’, somebody mutters.  And that’s what most of them are, many not yet 18 years old, doing their compulsory military service, wielding such power over the Palestinian population, appearing cool, no doubt some of the time not really understanding what it is that they are doing. We are visitors: for Palestinians, these checkpoints are a regular feature of life.

We will spend time in Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Hebron and then back to Jerusalem. We’re a group of many nationalities, all ages, involved in writing, publishing, teaching, film making. PalFest’s aim is to put on writing workshops, readings, panel discussions in cultural and community centres, gardens, cafes, refugee camps, university classrooms. We’re also here to learn about life in the West Bank.  This is a place of passions and great intensity, combined with the warmth of a natural hospitality and a strange sort of ease – the ease of people who know their land and understand their situation, and somehow are surviving it. Our audiences are large and responsive, and pretty much equally men and women. The Palestinians we meet, besieged and cut off though they feel, are resilient, determined to use their vitality and their imaginations to resist the occupation.  There are projects and schemes here which, in their creativity and skill, are able to alter a little the relentless flow of injustices imposed by a sophisticated occupation, one which, it becomes clear to us as the week progresses, aims to humiliate as well as subjugate the Palestinian population.

Munther Fahmi – PalFest, Creative Commons

On the first night our event is in the Old City of Jerusalem. We walk through the Damascus Gate, part of it covered for renovation (we are told this is being used as an alibi for moving some of the Palestinian traders out). We walk through noisy crowds past busy market stalls overflowing with fresh vegetables and herbs, through alleyways, up and down steps, heading for the African Community Centre. The Israelis have set up a temporary barricade and checkpoint just at the corner of the street to make it harder for people to come to the PalFest event.  But they come anyway, in large numbers, many nationalities, listening to music played on the oud and then to a lively debate about writing for a globalised audience.  We stay up late for dinner at a local restaurant – great food and a wonderful band, the music loud and intoxicating, and every half hour or so a man from a nearby table stands up and does the most elegant dance. He turns out to be Munther Fahmi, who owns the bookshop at the American Colony Hotel and is under deportation orders from Israel.  Like many moments on this trip, the music and dancing feel like a statement of joy and defiance.

Wikimedia Commons

On the second day we drive from Jerusalem, through rolling hills topped by large settlements, to Nablus  – a  lively city with a crowded, bustling sooq, which sits in a narrow valley between  two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal. Nablus has been ruled by many empires, and has a long history of revolt and resistance. For centuries it was the trade capital of Palestine because of its position at the crossroads of important trade routes and its merchant families. Targeted by Israeli policies, its vibrant centuries-old economy has been devastated, with unemployment estimated to be as high 80 per cent in the old city and the refugee camps. The population is largely Muslim, with small Christian and Samaritan minorities. The young men from Project Hope take some of us round the city and one of the two remaining famous soap factories. Some have grown up in refugee camps and are now teachers or guides. They have aspirations to travel abroad but most of them can’t even go beyond their city. Later I visit the hamam, run by local women who are welcoming and play loud music in the waiting area, their small children dancing. I remember reading an account by an Arab writer of the pleasures of going with his mother to the local hamam, of being part of this women’s world, with its heat and massages and henna and gossip. And how it felt like being expelled from paradise when, at the age of 12, he wasn’t allowed to go any longer. I have the scrub and massage of my life in Nablus, and feel as if I’m floating as I walk back to the hotel.

We are learning in our travels of the difference between internal checkpoints, (between cities in the West Bank) and external checkpoints to go into mainland Israel. That evening we travel from Nablus to Nazareth for our event –  something that the vast majority of Palestinians can’t do. Nazareth is in Israel and off limits to Palestinians with a West Bank or Gaza ID.   Two of our number are held up at the checkpoint  (one soldier is heard to say to another ‘let’s hold them up for two hours’).  Nazareth is an ancient town high in the hills, with cobblestones and pastel-coloured fading facades.   We arrive at the cultural club, warmly greeted by the owners, a wonderful meal and a distinguished audience including writers, poets, journalists. It’s an impassioned evening, with some heated debate and soul searching.  The frustration of their situation is palpable. Have we got things wrong, they ask? Are we keeping our vision and our dreams alive? Why are we not producing work on our situation as the Jews have about the Holocaust? The problems of communicating with the world outside and translation from Arabic loom large: one young woman says ‘ we need to think in English with a Palestinian consciousness’.

Next day, my first workshop, with Bidisha, is in Balata, a refugee camp on the edge of Nablus. The camp has been there for 63 years, with two schools, a mosque and a church inside its walls, and houses 25,000 people. Houses are concrete, one family per room. There is no space to expand, so the only way to build is up. Each new generation builds above the last but the foundations can’t carry more than five storeys, so the next storey will be the last. What then? When we ask the 15-year-olds in our class to write about their lives, they describe the narrow, dark, stifling passageways between the buildings, and the awful constraints on their lives. ‘We are children, we deserve a childhood’. ‘I never want to hear the words “Forbidden” or “This checkpoint is closed” again.’ They are lively and watchful, exchanging comments and jokes between themselves. Some are withdrawn. Many have seen unspeakable things – the deaths and persecution of family members, forced evictions, arrests and detentions.  A boy reads his piece – The Assassination of Childhood.  He saw at first hand the deaths of his cousin and aunt by an Israeli bomb. He feels the deaths were somehow his fault and tries to make sense of it all, to imagine a better future, to overcome the circumstances of their lives. Their teacher and our translator Faisal, who has grown up in the camp, says ‘This occupation has gone on for 63 years. It can’t go on forever, something has to change’.  This sense that the occupation is unsustainable is so strong. Yet there they are, the daily oppressions of the Palestinian population, the restrictions of their movements, the entrenched positions of the Israeli and Arab leaders, the remorseless tit for tat terrorism, the resort to violence as the only answer and the clinging to past grievances. So it is sustained, and it has a brutal effect on its victims, but also on its perpetrators.

That evening, in the garden of the Sheikh Qassem Café, there’s a panel discussion on Orientalism after the revolutions, and then, as night falls, some hip hop poetry in English from Mark Gonzales and a reading by the young Palestinian poet Asmaa Azaizeh. The beauty of her voice and the rhythms of the poetry make it seem unimportant that I can’t understand Arabic.

Bethlehem Wall graffiti – PalFest, Creative Commons

On to Bethlehem the next day, where we spend a morning on the inviting campus of Bethlehem University, clean, bright, modern, the garden full of flowers.  Guardian journalist Gary Younge and I teach two classes of third year students; we talk with them about what it is to be silenced, how people get their voices heard, how advocacy works. They talk articulately and are keen to learn. It’s painful to contemplate the constraints that lie ahead for them when they finish college. Here in Bethlehem, the Wall, eight metres high, grey, oppressive, looms everywhere. Most of it is built on West Bank land. A symbol of non-negotiable power, it  divides families from their land (`the Wall steals the Spring from Bethlehem’ said one local man) and at one point  in the town almost entirely surrounds an apartment block. It’s covered in graffiti. ‘Love and Peace’.’ Tear down this Wall so Tarek and his family can come home’. And, perhaps most appropriately, ‘One wall, two prisons’.

Mitri Raheb – FRowold, Creative Commons

We walk past The Wall Lounge, a café selling sandwiches and hot food and on some nights projecting movies on to the Wall opposite. On to our bus again, and we marvel at the skill of our driver Abu Mustapha as he manoeuvres  his way through the narrow streets of the town and the surrounding countryside. The Reverend Mitri Raheb, a native of Bethlehem, Lutheran Minister and director of the Divar Consortium (an institute of learning, a conference centre and a source of community outreach programmes) travels with us and gives a running commentary on the scene. He points out where the land has been taken for building the Wall, where it will be taken in the future (the signs are clear). Eighteen hundred and thirty five Bethlehem families lost land when the Wall was originally built, and because of it Bethlehem can’t expand, its economy strangled.  In the valley Mitri Raheb shows us a bypass road, wide and smooth. Guarded by surveillance cameras and Israeli police, it is built on Palestinian land, but can only be used by Israelis and settlers.  Palestinians have to use the old, badly lit, potholed roads. There is something about this Wall, its omnipresence and its oppressive nature, that gets inside our heads – and long after my return home it is still there.

We head for Ramallah, a strange mixture of dereliction and prosperity, broken up pavements and half finished buildings with wasteland between them and then the smart hotels and fashionable shops, Yasser Arafat established his West `Bank headquarters, the Mukata’a, in Ramallah, and though this was at the time seen as a temporary solution, Ramallah has become the de facto capital of the Palestinian authority. It attracts journalists, international organizations and ngos and the Palestinian diaspora. It’s played a large part in Palestinian recent history, and nearby Bir Zeit University has, like al-Najah in Nablus, had a significant political role in Palestinian life. Some of our group go off to teach workshops there. John McCarthy reports back that his workshop on  trauma produces some astonishing writing from the students.  In the evening there’s a large turnout for a concert at the Friends’ School for Boys to celebrate Kama Nasir, a poet and national leader assassinated by Israel in 1973 in Beirut.

Downtown Ramallah – Ramalite, Wikimedia Commons

And next morning, early as ever, we set off in our bus for Jerusalem again, this time to see the Old City. We get off the bus to go through Kalandia, once an airport, now a checkpoint from hell. We pass watchtowers and enter a bleak, smelly shed with rubbish everywhere.   A wire netting corridor, one person wide, through which we walk leads to a turnstile where Israeli officials are letting one person through at a time. On the other side is a glass window, bulletproof, against which we all have to slap our passports to show we have the right credentials. The young woman behind the glass is shouting into a microphone. I ask my Arab friends what she is saying. ‘ Oh, “where’s your pass, why don’t you turn the right page”, that sort of thing. Sometimes they shout from the watchtowers – “Dog, why don’t you move on”.’ The sense of intimidation the shouting produces is extraordinary. And, once again I think how we are privileged visitors; the Palestinians who queue with us, who have ID cards that allow them here but not there, have to do this on a daily basis to get to their jobs, to see their families, to live their far from ordinary lives. And very few Palestinians can pass through Kalandia anyway – only those with Jerusalem IDs or foreign passports. It’s a mistake to think that movement through checkpoints in the West Bank is difficult but not impossible for Palestinians. More often than not it’s difficult for the few and impossible for the many.

In Jerusalem, we walk through the crowds to the Wailing Wall, which I last saw in l968. It was once part of a narrow alley 12 feet wide. But in l967, just after the Six Day War, the Israelis levelled the houses of the neighbouring Arab district, so the Wailing Wall is now part of a plaza that can accommodate thousands of people.  Yet curiously there are walls in this space, everywhere – small walls to separate sections of the wide square, ad hoc dividers where queues form – and it’s only when we cross over to  the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, along another narrow corridor with checkpoints and soldiers at the end, and when we’re suddenly in a vast open courtyard, that I realize how much walls define this place, how much claustrophobia they create.

Another early start the next day, to Hebron, a town once well known for its arts and crafts, including the famous Hebron glass. It was the first West Bank town to have Jewish settlers moving in after the Israelis captured it in the 1967 war. In l997 an agreement was made that Palestinians would control 80 per cent of the town, known as H1. The remaining 20 per cent, H2, would be held by Israeli troops to protect the 400 or so Jewish community. About 30,000 Palestinians remained in H2.  During the peak of the second intafada the Israeli military employed draconian measures to protect the settlers (whose right to live in the city is not recognized in international law).  There were endless curfews, checkpoints, house to house searches, seizure of houses, harassment and humiliating treatment imposed on the Palestinians. There is a long, bloody history between the two sides, and tensions have always been especially high here. In the massacre of l929 (before the state of Israel had been established) 69 Jews were killed by Arab rioters. In l994 Baruch Goldstein, a US-born doctor from Kiryat Arba burst into the mosque in Hebron and shot dead 29 Arabs at prayer before being beaten to death.

Hebron is a place of holiness for Muslims and Jews – the source being the Tomb of the Patriarchs, enclosing the burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their three wives. The shrine is on the site of the mosque. There used to be seven entrances to the mosque. Now there is one. On the day we try and visit it was closed to us ‘for reasons of security’. We watch as some Jewish settlers come out of the mosque, heavily protected by armed soldiers. Today is a Jewish holiday, and there are young Israelis with guns, standing about every 20 metres in the old town, fingers on triggers. 1500 Israeli soldiers protect the 400 or so settlers. Once, this was a flourishing Palestinian market, but 512 shops have been closed, 76 per cent of the market shops. The remaining shopkeepers try their best to sell their goods, but there is only a trickle of people through this part of town, The business section nearby, once bustling with activity, is now completely empty, closed too by the Israelis. Palestinians are prevented from driving or even walking along certain roads – a twenty-minute walk to the cemetery has been turned into an obligatory 12 kilometre detour.

This is a grim place. There’s nowhere else in the West Bank where the settlers live right amongst the Palestinians.  Above the main street of the market, along its whole length, is a line of netting. It is filled with rubbish. The settlers, who live in houses on the next level up, throw their rubbish into the Palestinian streets; the netting is put up by the Palestinian residents to catch it. It is an astonishing symbol of contempt and harassment. There are incidents when the settlers shoot at the Palestinian water tanks; they block off exits into gardens with rubbish.  They have a bad reputation even in Israel for their extreme views and their aggression towards their Palestinian neighbours, but  they are supported by the government which pays for their food, they get free transport, and the army often turns a blind eye to their behaviour.

Hebron old city – PalFest, Creative Commons

We walk to the headquarters of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee where its director Walid Abul-Halawa tells in his measured way of school closures and takeovers, the demolition of old buildings to widen streets for settlers’ cars, the throwing of waste and trash on to the streets, the closing of roads. His argument, he says, is not with the original Jewish community that came during the Ottoman period, but with the newcomers, extremists who seem set on making the lives of Palestinians impossible. In l996, he tells us, there were 500 Palestinians left in old Hebron. Some houses were falling down, others had been destroyed. His organization has done extraordinary work, rebuilding homes with great attention to architectural detail, bringing them back to their Palestinian heritage, making them liveable again. Now, he says, there are 5,500 Palestinians living in old Hebron. The mighty force of the occupation sometimes seems immoveable, but such projects are more than symbolic, they offer practical solutions, create homes for people who care passionately about their homeland, they infuse people with hope. And versions of such work and cooperation are happening in many places in Palestine and Israel.

It’s our last night, and under a dark, clear sky we drive out of the city on our way to Silwan, a suburb of Jerusalem. Since the Israeli military occupation of l967, this area has been much targeted by Israel and religious settlers and since l991 more than 40 Palestinian homes have been taken by force. The residents of Silwan have good reason to be unsure about the future status of their land. We’re a mile or so from the Silwan Solidarity Tent, where our last event will be held, when we get a message that there’s trouble.  The Israeli army, knowing we are coming has closed the road. There are reports of stone-throwing between settlers and locals. The army proceeds to fire teargas, attempting to disperse the crowd in and near the tent.  Hearing this news, the British Consul decides to turn back to Jerusalem. We go on, deciding we will walk through the teargas and hold our event regardless. Tear gas makes the eyes water and closes the throat. We’re all holding handkerchiefs to our noses, and sniffing onions, an efficacious antidote, as we walk up the hill. And we eventually get there, triumphant, and the audience staunchly reappears, refusing to give up, and amid a certain amount of noise and chaos people read their poems and their prose and make their statements and finally the Palestinian hip hop group DAM reduces us all to helpless laughter with their puns and their patter in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. It is an immensely moving occasion; and it’s the first time most of our group have encountered an army and teargas. Not so the locals, to whom they are all too familiar.

The next day the taxi arrives at our lovely old Jerusalem hotel at 7.00am and we’re on our way to Amman and the airport. We’re held up at the Allenby Bridge checkpoint again and we miss our plane.

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