Sunday, 25 November 2012

It's not all over after the ceasefire. A salute to the #18 bus driver and a personal epilogue.

Since Wednesday's bomb blast we are still banned by our Office from traveling to Tel Aviv or using any Israeli public transportation. Therefore, my only choice of spending my day off o Thursday was either to go Ramallah or Hebron. Strange as it may sound, to both of them I could get with Palestinian transport. Obviously I could have stayed in Jerusalem, but after all - I always feel a deep urge to do something. After Wednesday experiences, where Mohammed and I got caught up in Tel Aviv during the bomb blast and after we found ourselves stuck on the motorway in Ashdod way too close to rockets from Gaza, I decided to take it 'easy' and just go Ramallah. Ramallah is a stone's throw from Jerusalem. But distances, as we learn here, mean nothing for the Palestinian and Israeli twisted geography.

In Ramallah the atmosphere was of a celebration and the city was in a party mode. Clearly the ceasefire has been seen by many Palestinians as a victory or at least a particular way of 'talking back' to the experience of humiliation that many people face every day under Israeli occupation or blockade. Ramallah is crazy and I never quite get it - it's intense, it's messy and it bursts with energy. But also until you know where you are going it makes you feel like you are in a carousel of similar images of shops, coffee bars and food stalls just blurr so it's difficult to differentiate one street from another.

After 90 minutes of wandering I got a call from Mahmoud, my arabic teacher and decided to head back to Jerusalem for an arabic class.

I fall asleep on the #18 bus to the sounds of Mecca preyers broadcasted live on the bus. I woke up to the sounds of bullets. We were stuck just before Qalandia checkpoint next to the Wall with huge Arafat murals. Just in front of us there was a group of around 20 heavily armed soldiers clearly in the 'middle' of their action - shooting, running, screaming.  As I looked back I saw a bunch of Palestinian youth throwing stones. Ah, so here I was, right in the middle of clashes in Qalandia in a first day of 'effective' ceasefire agreement.

My first thought was of a regret that I do not have a big camera. Than, people started leaving the bus - women would hold bits of their scarfs right next to their lips and noses. A light smell of teargas was up in the air. I decided to stay on the bus along few people. Not because I felt brave, mainly because I did not want to give the satisfaction to the soldiers of allowing them yet again to destroy my 'normal' routine. If they start shooting towards us, I will just hide behind the seat - I thought to myself and than I thought I was sick. Keryn called and just told me to take some good photos and call her back. We were taking later how surreal it was. But in a way, living in the occupied territories, you get used to a constant presence of army, police, guns and violence in our life that after a while you just choose to ignore it.

Because this is exactly what was happening in Qalandia - in front of us and on our right - there was a heavy exchange of hostilities between soldiers and teenage boys. On our left, people were selling duvets, pastries, newspapers and coffee - makers with their pop up coffee stalls were brewing coffee observing carefully what was going on. And we were stuck right in the middle of it, just because soldiers decided to put two big stones on the street to stop all traffic. And the traffic is just insane in this place.

And than, out of the sudden, our bus driver, a 30-something man with a long beard just stepped out of a bus and approached the soldiers as if they were not holding guns, as if they were not in the middle of rather scary action. And than, our bus driver (Palestinian of course!) started explaining to the soldiers in a flawless Hebrew : My job is to drive bus and to get these people home. You cannot stop all traffic just because of bunch of kids throwing stones. You cannot punish everyone, just because of some kids. Now please, let us drive - somebody on a bus was translating for me and we were all frozen in fear, respect and admiration. Suddenly, he was taking to them an equal man. Suddenly a Palestinian men would talk to bunch of Israeli soldiers without a slight element of fear. He completely disarmed them. Without a single bullet. He was no longer a victim of an unjust collective punishment. He was a free man reducing the soldiers to the silly executors of disproportional force.

It took us another 20 minutes to finally enter Qalandia checkpoint. It took us another 20 minutes to drive through Qalandia. Wow, your Hebrew is very good from what I could tell ...  - I told him in admiration, which was also supposed to tell him that I was really impressed the way he talked to them. Do you think I am a bus driver?Well no, I am a microbiologist,  I work with Jews, I work in hospital in West Jerusalem. But every afternoon I also have another job as a bus driver to sustain my family. 

As we finally passed Qalandia checkpoint, we drove to a bus stop, where our driver quietly left the asking another man to replace him. He went on the side of the bus and started praying.

After few minutes he was back on the bus and we finally drove off to the preyers from Mecca on the bus TV. Sorry it took us so long today - he said when I was finally leaving. Your probably will not go to Ramallah ever again.  It took us 2 hours 20 minutes to pass the 18 km distance between the two cities.

I went directly to a bar in West Jerusalem, to a place called Shraga just of New Gate. It took me 5 minutes walk to get to the place in which the whole #17 experiences sounded surreal to my Israeli friends, who run the place. Surreal, to the point where your realize people who you talk to do not imagine, do not realize.  Five minutes which make the experiences of occupation completely unknown, unfamiliar, unrelated ...

Meanwhile, this is exactly how the 'back to normal' looks in the occupied territories. The ceasefire might be in effect, Gaza might have dropped from the international headlines, but the quiet, non - reported violence continues on the daily basis, being an integral part of experience of thousands of Palestinians. Everyday.

In these 'normalized' experience of occupation -  shots at Qalandia are 'normal' in a strange way normal: a ritual exchange of 'love' between the IDF holding guns and Palestinian kids throwing stones. Rubber bullets and gas cisterns. Like loveletters flying between the parties that cannot get away from this hostile embrace.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Postcard from the seam zone. School as small as a matchbox

At Nabi Samwil primary, the everyday school life looks like any other school. The boys fight over a ball, girls giggle in the corner of the room and the head teacher announces the end of the break far too early. One difference is that the school looks exactly like it’s been taken from a Thom Thumb fairy tale. It is as tiny as a nutshell.

Welcome to the educational reality in this ‘seam zone’ village. Originally located in Nabi Samwil mosque which hosts the Tomb of Prophet Samuel the school had to relocate in 970 by the orders of the Israeli civil administration. Subsequently, part of the mosque was converted into a synagogue and became one of the major attractions for the Jewish religious tourists. Meanwhile the school was moved into the little one room structure that was left by a Palestinian woman who fled to Jordan in the 1967 war. Ever since that time the school was restricted to a single room without any hopes for further expansion. Now this single room serves as a classroom, headmaster’s room and a storage place. As part of military controlled Area C Palestinians living in Nabi Samwil faces heavy restrictions when it comes to building and growth of Palestinian livelihoods, the school is no exemption (see the bracket). It is impossible to obtain a building permit. Meanwhile in the direct proximity of the school grew a large villa full of Jewish settlers wanting to live close to Prophet Samuel Tomb.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Broken pieces of Abu Laban’s life. Mount of Olives off a tourist trail

Recent wave of demolitions makes us realize how physically temporary lives of Palestinians are. This temporariness seems be in the weird way ingrained in the Palestinian existence. Being born with ‘a Palestinian condition’ means that nothing can be taken for granted, nothing is for sure. Perhaps this is why Palestinian families we meet are so bloody resilient to the terrible forms of displacement they are experiencing. In some cruel way they are prone to dispossession that continues to happen. They are born with the amazing ability to sustain and re - emerge no matter how demolished and framgemnted their lives can become.

But looking at Abu Laban’s destroyed life it is difficult to imagine how he will be able to put together all these broken pieces of his livelihood. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Our friends Nawal and Eid Barakat lost shelters for their animals and food storages

It’s Wednesday morning and I am leaving the office of Polish Representation in Ramallah. Unexpectedly my mobile is full of text messages about the demolitions carried away in Nabi Samwil. We know Nabi Samwil very well. We visit it regularly. It's a Palestinian village situated 10 minutes away from Jerusalem in a so called 'seam zone' - with Palestinians inhabitants trapped inside the Wall unable to get to Jerusalem or Israel.

Nabi Samwil is a place of amazing beauty and every time we go there I am shocked by juxtaposition of its beauty with the brutality of the occupation reality in this area. It feels almost unreal. Palestinian inhabitants of the village face settler attacks on regular basis and are not allowed to build any permanent structures. Their movement is heavily constrained, so while they can enjoy some of the most stunning views of Jerusalem, they have not been there for years. We visit regularly a small Palestinian school in Nabi Samwil and are friends with school’s headmaster. We also visit few families in a village.

“It is Nawal and Eid property that has been destroyed” - I read another text message. 


Week of cruelty and despair - Palestinian families of East Jerusalem loose their properties at the hands of the Israeli forces.

In less than a week four families lost their homes or livelihoods in demolitions and evictions and dozens of new demolitions have been ordered. Nobody here knows the answer to the reason for this intensity of this new wave of destruction. Some say that before the upcoming Israeli elections Netaniyahu wants to appease his electorate by proving than he can be even tougher on Palestinians than usually. Other say that Jerusalem municipality has released money for new demolitions before the end of the year. No matter what and why, these are not easy nights for Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and around.

The way demolition and evictions have been executed follow certain path of cruelty and disproportionality. While each of the families that lost their houses and properties deserve to tell their stories separately let me first introduce to some basic methods in which the enterprise of depriving people of their house has been carried away.

 How demolitions are carried away

  • Palestinian families are often not aware of the imminent threat of demolition or eviction. That is either because demolition orders have not been delivered properly or because demolition orders are delivered only in Hebrew in a country where Arabic is an official language. And many Palestinians do not read Hebrew. 
  • Demolitions are carried out at night or early in the morning to make sure that the affected will family be unable to resist and in the most vulnerable mode. They are carried out at night also because the only democracy in the Middle East cares about its own PR. It would be a very bad picture to see how the army destroys a house of an elderly lady or young family with seven kids. 
  • There is a complete lack of proportionality - demolitions look like huge military operations with dozens of police, border police and special forces involved as well as the use of heavy military cars and, of course, bulldozers. Often against light animal structures like in Nabi Samwil. 
  • The affected families are given little or no time to evacuate their properties. While the demolitions are completed people are left alone with the rumbles of their house and belongings. They are offered no compensation and no assistance of any kind by Israeli authorities. What they do receive however is a check for bulldozers’ work. 
  • Victim families need to rely on few aid agencies and NGOs like Red Cross or ACTED are able to offer them immediate relief assistance like shelter, water or food, but certainly unable to provide long term help. Even the aid is not immediate. Families need to wait for UN OCHA assessment and after this has been issued other agencies could work. Sometimes it can be days before help reach the victims.

Read stories about four families that lost their properties this week and see the photographs

Salim and Arabiya Story. Beit Arabyia Demolition in Anata - coming soon. 
Fatma Al Huwa Story. A house taken over by settlers in Al Tur - coming soon.