Thursday, October 30, 2008

Normal Service

Well I did warn you.

My thoughts about it all are still very jumbled, but writing about it has helped a little.

My head will continue to spin as I try to work out what to do with everything I brought home with me, but fair reader, you will be spared any further pain...normal service will now be resumed.

New shoes. Curry. Gigs. That kind of nonsense.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An Introduction

Writing a blog is a funny old business; I'm sure there's as many different reasons for the enterprise as there are bloggers.

My reasons have general been centred around a desire to write for my own personal pleasure and purposes (a journal in a format that works for me), with a side order of allowing/acknowledging an audience of friends and associates in the realm of keeping in touch with a friendship circle that spans multiple counties and countries.

Usually the decision of what to and what not to blog is relatively straightforward, but right now I'm struggling. The cause of the struggle? A week spent in Palestine.

A week that leaves me with emotions and thoughts tumbling out one upon another; experiences and reflections I want to capture, deconstruct, consider, challenge and ultimately absorb.

Writing is one of my turn-to tools for getting my head straight about things, but right now I'm not entirely sure it's a process best undertaken in the public glare.

It’s certainly unlikely to not make the most interesting of reading to third parties, so as I get round to posting entries from last week, don’t feel obliged to read.

More than ever, it really is more about me than you ;-)

Or, you know, maybe just look at the pictures...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Tel Aviv - London – Manchester

Security at Tel Aviv airport is much as we’d prepared for, intensive, polite, but invasive and somewhat intimidating.

We’d been warned they’d likely pull out one of the younger, smaller looking members of our group for questioning and check their answers matched our group leader’s.

That’s the trouble with such blunt profiling, they pull B, the actor.

On the plane I wish I could sleep, but as ever it eludes me.

Back in Blighty I seem to flip back to UK mode without missing a beat as Stuart and I find our Oyster cards and catch the bus to my folk’s place.

After a less than restful night on a dodgy camp bed (I kindly let Stuart have my bedroom), I spend a morning chatting to my folks and already I see how it’s hard to relay what we’ve seen in a way that makes sense.

Stuart eventually surfaces (his phone had doubled up on his efficient end of summertime adjustments, leaving him an hour out) and we catch the train and tube across London and settle into our train seats at Euston ready for the last haul home.

Stuart looks at me and says “we’ve been travelling for over 30 hours”.

I’m ready for home.

At the end...

After seven amazing days in this land, it’s time to pack our bags and start our journey home.

En route to Tel Aviv we pass by the ruins of Megiddo, more famously known as Armageddon, supposed site of the final battle.

Besides a motorway junction and a large prison there’s not a great deal to see from the road.

There is however, a drive-thru McDonald’s. I leave readers to make their own jokes about catering at the end times etc.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tiberius - Mount of the Beatitudes, Mensa Christi, Sea of Galilee

First visit of the day is the Mount of Beatitudes, where a local pastor leads our meditation as we perch on rocks in the beautiful grounds of an impressive church, ruled by angry nuns.

Then to the Church of the Apostles where we picnic looking out over the lake. It might have been more fitting to have lunched at Mensa Christi, where Jesus shared the spoils of the disciples catch, however large signs instruct that modern day visitors are forbidden from following suit.

I don’t think I’m the only one suffering ‘church-fatigue’ and when the choice is given of one more visit or the option to return to the Pilgerhaus to spend the rest of the afternoon by (and in) the Sea of Galilee, the group is in unison.

Having spent the week at a pace, packing it all in, running where Christ walked, it’s biss to kick back and relax. Donning swimwear we head to the rocky beach in front of the guesthouse and paddle, swim and float where Christ walked (that whole hovering on water thing wasn’t really working for us).

Galilee is truly beautiful, with amazing views over to the Golan Heights.

It’s actually a lake rather than a sea, but the lack of salt in the water is more than compensated for by its green colour. Such murkiness is easy to forgive however, when you look out over the water to such refreshingly unspoilt scenery.

You just need to watch out for the Hyrax – strange rodent creatures, they reportedly spat at one of our group that attempted to get close. Then again the same party was also crapped on by a bird at Dominus Flevit, so it could just be that he’s at war with the natural world...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Synagogue Church, Church of the Annunciation and Mahroum’s Cake Shop

Before we leave Nazareth a chance for a bit of sight-seeing including, below the Church of the Annunciation, the remains of what is historically regarded to be Mary’s home.

With not one, but two vacuum cleaners in evidence one can only conclude that she was very house proud...

Jericho and Nazereth

After a night of music arranged by A and W, we pack up our bags and leave our base of the last five days, the beautiful Jacir Palace Hotel (I recommend it highly) and head east close to the Dead Sea and then north via Jericho to Nazareth.

Between the sightseeing we meet with the Arab Association for Human Rights and we consider the lives of the Palestinians who within Israeli territory as full Israeli citizens.

Inequity occurs at numerous levels, direct legal double standards are compounded by indirect, systematic discrimination, which removes rights and benefits.

The talk also helps me explore a question that has been steadily growing in my mind; is a democratic nation state defined by ethnicity/religion, inherently problematic?

Its existence relies on a constant consideration of demographics; the majority must be maintained.

From this basic need comes deeply unsettling policy. Deny right to return to refugees from the other people group who were forced from their land in the last 60 years, in favour of conferring the automatic right of immigration to anyone from your people group. Seize and settle land; choose your settlement locations such that they change the demographic balance in an area. Keep an eye on the reproductive rates. Withhold citizenship, deny people the right to start a family in their homeland and so on and so on.

Buzzwords like ‘demographics’ and ‘population transfer’ appear to be moving from the margins of the political extreme to the mainstream and they take on a very foreboding air.

And yet I want to say that I understand the need for a Jewish homeland. How is that possible without the outworkings like the above? How can this circle be squared?

I don’t know what the answer is, but from everything I’m seeing, I’m pretty sure it’s not this.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Back in Bethlehem, more colour is evident as our host Rev.Dr Mi*tri R@heb talks about the work of the Lutheran Church.

He tells us that the last thing that Palestine needs is more politicians, more religion, more tales of the victim; instead he talks of small steps, positive increments a small politics with a little p.

It’s inspirational, it’s people sized, people-centric and it’s the closest to hope I’ve seen all this while.

It’s easy in this land to start feeling very negatively about religion and the role it undoubtedly plays in the problems. But something in what Mi*tri says gives hope even in this, as he talks of a faith that speaks about the giving up of power, of strength in weakness.


One image appears again and again on walls and buildings. A small boy, barefoot and in ragged clothes, stands with his back to the viewer, his hands clasped behind his back.

Drawn by the artist Naji al-Ali, the figure represents a Palestinian refugee child aged ten (the age al-Ali was when his family fled to Lebannon).

Named Handala, the boy became al-Ali’s signature and over time an adopted symbol for Palestinian refugees.

Handala stands excluded from his homeland, a tough kid, age frozen from the time he left his village until the day he might one day return. He turns his back on the Arab states who he perceives have failed to help him in his hour of need and his hands are clasped refusing to accept the external “American Way” solutions thrust at him.

Small, but never turning, Handala will stand resolutely thus, until he one day returns home.

Deheishe Refugee Camp and IBDAA Cultural Centre

Leaving Efr@ta we head on to Deheishe refugee camp.

Entering a refugee camp that has been in existence for 60 years now, is a very sobering experience.

But here within the narrow lanes that weave amongst the makeshift housing that is half temporary, half permanent, there are brief glimpses of colour to be found amongst the concrete and dust.

Children play with a balloon.

Paintings of long left villages and homes adorn building walls; not to be forgotten.

A cultural centre whose name reflects its determination to build something out of nothing.

Efrata - The Other Side

I’m very aware that there is a real danger of only hearing one side of things, so I’m really pleased that this morning we’re off to a settlement to meet a settler and hear his side of the story.

The previous settlement, Ma'ale Adumim, which we had visited en route to Beit Arabia, was something akin to Milton Keynes and our Israeli guide had told us that for most people living there, although the town had been built within the occupied Palestinian Territory, the motivation was financial and aspirational rather than political or ideological. Nice housing, zero percent mortgages, good schools and excellent civic amenities providing inducements of a better life for you and your family.

AG our host explains how for his family and his neighbours in the Orthodox settlement of Efr@ta, the motivation is far more cognitively about a Zionist dream and a clear belief that the Jewish people have a claim to the land.

Born and brought up in the US, AG and his wife moved out to Israel around 26 years ago and took a deliberate decision to live in an Israeli settlement within the Occupied (or as he puts it “Disputed”) Territories. He self-describes as religiously observant and politically centre-right, not an extremist by any stretch, but a definite supporter of the claim of a right to a Jewish state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. He serves as some sort of spokesman, designated to speak to groups like ours.

It was a privilege to be welcomed into the synagogue and to hear him speak of his passion for the Jewish state and his dream. Clearly he felt a deep, deep ‘right’ to the land, stretching back 2000 years and I wish he would have elaborated and expanded on that more, rather than concentrate rather on citing his reasons for rejecting the Palestinian counter-claims (it was a bit like listening to an opposition party politician that can only rubbish the government’s policies, rather than set-out their own policies).

What was clear though was that given his intent to dwell in the land, security was his biggest concern and it is perhaps too easy to underestimate the impact waves of terrorist attacks have had.

He spoke about how in the past he and other settlers had attempted meetings with local Palestinians in an attempt to work on how they could live alongside each other. Apparently these meetings ceased when the Palestinians felt unable to host alternate meetings on their ‘home turf’ as they couldn’t guarantee safety for the settlers. You could see how deep this issue went as AG forceable emphasised this issue “see that’s ultimately the issue, ‘they’ can’t guarantee our security”.

Similarly, he told us that he had in past years had what he considered a Palestinian friend, a car dealer, who he bought his cars from. It transpired that the relationship had floundered as the divisions between the two societies here were formally increased and that now the situation was such that he and other settlers had very, very little interaction with any Palestinians.

It always seems to me that when two camps are in conflict with each other, it is far harder for any individual in one to camp to paint the “others” as “monsters” (either way), if there are personal relationships that challenge that mindset. It’s harder to maintain the cognitive dissonance of “those people” are inherently bad, deviant, dangerous, stupid if you play in the schoolyard, sit alongside in the café, work at the next-door workstation, buy papers at the same newsagents, smoke outside the same doorways, wash clothes in the same launderette etc.

The current reality is that these relationships are now impossible and I can’t help feeling that much hope is lost as a result.

AG asserts that “I accept of course that not all Palestinians are terrorists, but at the same time all terrorists are Palestinians”.

Presumably Baruch Goldstein who opened fire in the Ibrihimi Mosque in Hebron, killing 29 Arab Muslims and wounding 150 more, is what? A freedom fighter?

And this is the fundamental problem, I’ve done enough reading, seen enough, heard enough to be able to pick hole after hole in his arguments.

The logic he does come up with is thin, even petty at times and ultimately I fear it does little to convince any of us of his cause.

I’m frustrated. I want to hear both sides. Is this the best counter-argument there is?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Open the Roads

The evening is spent in the shadow of the wall, at Carmen’s Restaurant, where we share a meal with folk from the Wi’am Conflict Resolution Centre.

At our table are two local school girls who attend the Wi’am Youth Group.

It’s excellent getting to know them, both shine with the brightness of youth and are full of promise. Da tells me she doesn’t know the word for what she wants to be when she grows up…but it’s like on the TV show CSI…so I guess we’re talking forensic scientist or pathologist. It’s kind of mad though, in our broken exchanges divided by language, Hollywood has provided us a common language.

Di knows the general word for what she wants to be, Eng1neer, but doesn’t know the word for the particular discipline…she explains, buildings, dams, roads etc and so I find a kindred spirit!

As the meal ends, the youngsters are called forward to perform some dances, it’s fabulous to see them interacting as teenagers the world over. Change the language and the music and you could be watching the youth group of any British town laughing as they push each other into the limelight and managing a few minutes of co-ordinated performance before it disintegrates into fits of giggles.

In the absence of our ability to return the favour through any form of communal British dancing (the okey-cokey maybe? Or Agadoo? A quick conga? Never has our culture seemed so barren), fortunately we are saved by a couple of musicians in our group doing the honours.

It was so excellent to meet Da and Di; they strike me as excellent young women and you can see their potential. Sadly however they tell me that in order to follow their dreams they would need to leave Palestine to be able to study and work.

It’s a horrible echo of all the years I spent doing youth work a very deprived estate in Manchester: anyone who was able to make it through the system and fulfil their potential, anyone that could, left. The phenomena leaves behind a society bereft of some of its brightest stars and all that they can contribute to the community.

We play the game of “if you were ruler of the world tomorrow what would be the first thing you’d change”. Di (clearly a budding civi1 eng1neer indeed) considers carefully and replies “bring development into Palestine”. Da’s response is more immediate and clearly heartfelt, she simply says “open the roads”.

As we make to leave it seems sad to have met this fine youngsters and then have to cut and run. Suddenly Da enquires “Facebook?”. Scribbled notes are exchanged and new friendships are cemented in the way of the cyber generation.


After lunch, we travel out to the edge of the Judean desert in search of a little of that wilderness experience and sit on the dust and stones for a time of reflection led by a guy called S@mi.

I’d love to tell you more about it all, but frankly I was a little distracted by trying desperately not to react as small local boys attempted to lure the tourist dollar from us via offers of trinkets for sale “my mother took three days to make this”.

Initially they’d respected W’s request that they give us space until we’re finished and then they could attempt to ply their trade, but clearly we’re taking too long and patience is failing and donkeys have been fetched as an added inducement, with whispered suggestions of “you ride? you ride?”.

It’s incredibly hard to ignore a donkey snuffling around your foot as its ears brush your legs, but this is a battle of wills and it’s clear that the merest hint of reaction or eye contact and all will be lost.

Manger Square

In a well needed let up from the pace, we have a bit of time in Bethlehem, to wander around Manger Square (which appears to be hosting a local version of Dance Idol) and get some lunch.

Stuart, G (my most excellent room mate for this trip) and I potter about and start chatting to the owner of a small souvenir shop (we laughingly agree to his proposed deal that we look around his shop in exchange for a recommendation of somewhere quiet to grab some lunch).

As we chat and ask questions, our new acquaintance opens up, sharing a little of his life and how business is being devastated by the wall.

So if you ever happen to be in Bethlehem and in the market for some beautifully carved olive wood items or finest ceramics, cross Manger Square away from the Church of the Nativity, go back one road and suss out St John’s Souvenirs. As well as some of the friendliest service you could hope for, he’s also to be listened to if you want to find a hidden little cave like café serving very yummy and reasonably priced schwarma wraps*.

* Unfortunately G decides to head back to the Casa Nova for lunch, where we catch up with her 45minutes later…still waiting to be served. Partly run by monks, it’s surprising they aren’t better at taking orders...


Having walked back through Hebron, I join a number of folk trying to access funds at various ATMs. Getting cash or even getting credit cards to work has been proving problematic.

Prior to travelling, I had notified my banks and credit card companies of where I will be travelling and had been told all will be fine, but I’m having no luck. In a pattern that continues for the week, it seems our Maestro, Solo, Mastercard and Visa pieces of plastic only work with any regularity in Israeli territory. Again and again, shops, hotels and ATMs in the Palestinian territories that display all the relevant logos and “usually have no problem” can’t get our cards to work.

The local explanation seems to be that our cards clear through American banks and they are now putting the squeeze on any funds getting into Palestine.

I’ll be writing to my bank and credit card companies when I return to try and find out the truth of the situation.

If the explanation is as suggested, this would seem to be a further nail in the coffin of the tourist industry in places like Bethlehem.

Surely this is counter-productive anyway. Destroying what little viable, legitimate economy remains surely only creates hothouses for people taking up the route of violence resistance? Isn’t there a little more sophisticated means of avoiding funding terrorism (which I guess is the reasoning)? And who appointed American banks as the guardians of my tourist shekel?

If I get any answers I will of course share. It is entirely possible that there’s a perfectly innocent’s easy to see how conspiracy theories grow and thrive in this climate alongside the olives.


An earlier start then ever this morning as Hebron is our destination. Specifically we hope to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs – traditionally regarded as the burial site of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah.
Now you might notice something there. This appears to be the burial place of as many matriarchs as patriarchs. Hmmmmm...

Anyway (fittingly, leaving that observation as a side note in this tale)...Hebron is home to around 166,000 Palestinians and around 500 Jewish Settlers. The city currently exists in two parts, H1 and H2. In very simplistic terms, under the Hebron Protocol of 1997, the IDF withdrew from H1 and elements of powers and responsibilities (including policing of internal security and public order) were transferred to Palestinian control. Israeli forces still fully control H2 and continue to carry responsibility for the security of all Israelis in either sector (a situation which on one hand can be seen as continued control, on the other an understandable desire if you feel that security cannot otherwise be suitably guaranteed).

We alight from the coach and continue our journey on foot through the bustling streets of modern H2. As we head further into the older area the crowds thin considerably and by the time we pass into the old market that leads to the H1/H2 boundary and checkpoint, individuals are thin on the ground.

Once a thriving commercial district with the tiny shops each worth immense sums, shopkeepers tells us that now days go by without a sale.

Above the ground floor shops, upper floor properties have been taken (by fair means and foul) by Israeli settlers. Israeli armed guards watch from their first floor emplacement at the mouth to the market a threatening and intimidating presence monitoring the comings and goings below.

As we walk through the narrow market lane we're aware of makeshift wire mesh errected just above head height.

The assorted debris collecting on these depressing fishing nets, confirm what the shopkeepers tell us when we ask about the purpose of the mesh, the settlers above throw all sorts of waste matter onto the heads of the Palestinians below.

The sight of this rubbish encrusted wirework stops me in my emotional tracks. More than anything I have seen so far this appals me and at the time I'm not entirely clear why.

A fellow observer suggests it's because it goes beyond squabbles over land rights or religious differences and speaks of one people group actively treating another people group as vermin.

I think this explains a great deal of why this indignity hits me so forcefully; it's so direct and personal; so devoid of any sense of innate human sanctity. This is not a wall of concrete devised in committee room, designed on structural engineering software, realised by construction firms, secured by kids completing their national service and following orders. This is about individuals choosing to throw their personal waste matter onto the heads of other people below, in an act of unfathomable intimidation and degradation.

If this were not explanation enough for the lack of business these days, the lane finishes in a tunnel like facility with turnstiles, which forms the first element of the checkpoint at the H1/H2 boundary. Even with European passports in hand, the passage is intimidating (although in the final section the constant peep of the metal detector as we walk through the body scanner is systematically ignored).

Out into daylight at the other end, our progress is halted by soldiers. We stand adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriachs building (these days the larger part of which forms the Ibrihimi Mosque and the other part a Jewish synagogue), but we will not be allowed to enter or travel into H2.

With a Jewish holy day in process, the Israelis have placed the whole of H2 under military curfew for 24 hours. Palestinians are confined to their homes, whilst we watch Jewish families wander unimpeded down empty streets. I guess the argument is that the risk of terrorist action is heightened on such a day, but to effectively place so many thousands under house arrest seems a very blunt and indiscriminate security tool.

As we stand in the shadow of the building, our guides quietly tell us something of what it’s like to live in Hebron under these restrictions and something of the history.

Suddenly the patience of the soldiers ends, perhaps they become aware that this strange group of sightsee-ers seem to have a lot to talk about in hushed tones as they look up at the synagogue/mosque and across to the H2 streets. A stern, urgent order is issued and we have to immediately move back into the tunnel and return to H1.

The mood of the group is notably subdued. Hebron has perhaps given us the most sobering of experiences so far. In many ways it all seems so bleak, but even here there are small signs of hope.

We meet local people working for peace and justice; a women's cooperative sells beautiful hand crafted textiles and embroidery, our guides are a South African and European volunteering with a Christian organisation providing international escorting and observatory services on the ground (helping kids get to their schools un-harassed and without in turn harassing others, escorting farmers to their olive groves at harvest time when they are prey to settler violence etc).

I wish I could say that it's the sight of finely embroidered purses that I'll take away with me, but in reality I know it's rubbish on wire mesh that will live on in my head.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Beer and smoke

With so many thoughts circling around our heads, some time out is sorely needed and a tent bar with freely flowing beer and hookah pipes is just the ticket.

The American Colony and the Shepherd's Fields

Back to Jerusalem and a quick drink at the American Colony, before heading through Bethlehem to the Shepherds' Fields. Here can be found the fine spectacle of a water fountain comprised of spitting sheep (admittedly that may not have been the look the artist was intending).

Before heading back to the hotel, we stop off at a children's playground that has been created on the edge of Beit Sahour.

It's small and simple, but it's the only such facility serving the community.

Despite being late, a small group of young kids, watched by their mothers, are playing in the dark and delight at the prospect of mad foreigners willing to spin them on roundabouts, giggle alongside them, pretend to drop dead when shot at with toy pistols and best of all show them the instant results of photograph taking (you've got to love the immediacy of digital).

In the shadows though, a threat lurks. Nearby Israeli settlers are attempting to claim the land and the future of the playground hangs by a thread.

As I wave goodbye, anger wells up inside me.

Maybe it's the fact that the simple layout and the primary colour paint work are so similar to the hard-fought for playground in my local park that is making me identify with the project so clearly. Maybe it's the confirmation that kids (young and old alike) share that universal delight of play that transcends language and background. Maybe it's after a day experiencing such enforced small living. Maybe it's the open, innocent smiles of the little uns. Whatever it is, the anger comes and the thought plays through my head again and again.

"Is it too much to ask to let some kids have a sodding playground".

Beit Arabia

Out into the countryside of the West Bank (long way round thanks to the wall), we come to Beit Arabia and a home that has been demolished four times and built/rebuilt five times.

Now a centre for peace, we hear from the owner who had wanted to build a home for his family. We hear how he tried again and again to make his way through the Kafka-esque process that is obtaining a building permit from the authorities of occupation. Technicality after technicality was found to reject his application, ending eventually on the laughable objection that the land in question has a slight slope.

This is commonplace it seems, from making it impossible to obtain building or renovation permits, to refusing hook up to utility services, practice after practice makes the everyday citizen an unwilling criminal. In turn this is all the justification required for policies of discrimination, intimidation, enforced collaboration and so on.

One such example is the regular practice of home demolition; around 20,000 per annum on a seemingly random basis. Wake up one-morning to find your house surrounded by army troops and bulldozers and the notification that you have 15 minutes to vacate.

Resist or complain and you'll likely be brutally assualted and or arrested.

Survive all this and you'll not only end up homeless, but fined and charged with the legal and financial obligation to clear the rubble. The words salt and wounds spring to mind.

Listening to our host's personal story, whilst we tuck in to the most amazing lunch prepared by his wife, it's impossible not to be impressed by his desire to do things 'right', the futility of the system, and the destruction of the family that occurs alongside that of bricks and mortar.

As he talks of the ongoing impact the home demolition has had on his children, I can see the parents among our group struggling to cope.

As he tells, with the sweat of emotion pouring down his face, how his young daughter faced years later with a helicopter gunship in the distance, refused his words of comfort and reassurance with the reply that Daddy couldn't protect her, she'd seen what the soldiers did, I know what will be going Stuart's head.

We leave to reboard the coach, none of us sure what to do with our emotions.

The Thief

We follow the main road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Well it was. Our progress comes to abrupt halt, interrupted by an 11m metre high concrete monstrosity. Nearest vehicle checkpoint many miles away.

Here the divisive nature of the wall is incredible evident - a neighbourhood suddenly carved in two.

As my eyes continue to take in its reality, I understand what has moved visitors to spray their words of opposition on its imposing face. Stuart and I pose against one such inscription that reads "Mancs against the tanks".

At the same time however, words of English feel like an imposition, this is not our story. It's important that we hear and see and stand alongside, but should the words of protest be in our tongue? Maybe any tongue that can be added should be added, but I wonder what the locals make of it all. As Jarvis so wryly observed - everybody hates a tourist.

A corner shop sits dwarfed by the wall, its customer base excluded by unscaleable barrier. The owner, who also lives on the other side of the wall, tells us the wall is a thief. A thief that has stolen his life and that of his family.

There are so many words for this wall. A security barrier, a separation fence, an anti-terrorism measure, a wall of division, an instrument of land grabbing, a phyisical construction of apartheid...a thief of lives.

I stare at the wall and try to imagine what this area was like before it arrived and how it must feel to live with it in your midst overshadowing your life. I stare at the trademark shape, the wide concrete footing at the base of each panel providing the buried stabilisation, the hole 11m above enabling construction as each pre-formed panel is lifted into place. I look through the eyes of an engineer, I see the design, the thought processes. But I'll not claim this for civil engineering if you'll allow. the civil signifier originates from the concept of non-military and never has the blurring of that boundary been more troublesome. You can call this wall many things, but you can not call it civil.

Changing Geography - Facts on the Ground

Today we're joined by H representative of the Israeli Campagn Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD). H is a Jewish Israeli, veteran of the IDF and dedicated activist against the human rights violations he sees being undertaken in this land.

We start with a history lesson, with maps that I've seen before in my pre-trip studies, territories and lines defining the political positions, outcomes of war, UN determinations and human realities at key points from the Ottoman Empire, through the British Mandate (oh yes our hands are soiled), the declaration of an independant Jewish state, the 1948 war, the Six Day War of 1967 and finally to the Post-Oslo Accord current era.

But a new mapping detail is introduced, the geography of occupation and settlement.

A geography that has already become apparent to us in our travels around just a small section of the West Bank and the Jerusalem area.

From a cluster of caravans 'claiming' hill tops, to Milton Keyne-esque towns of tens of thousands of homes, Israeli settlements within the occupied territories are an undeniable reality. Illegal in many eyes under the Geneva Convention, claims of ceasation of settlement creation and extension, are simply not bourne out by the facts on the ground.

And facts on the ground are what this game is about.

Negotiations and peace talks become inherently influenced by the facts on the ground, with historic claims out-matched by current day realities.

How can you continue to argue Palestinian sovereignty of any given area in the face of inhabitation by a majority Jewish population, or an Israeli military or police base, or a network of settler roads?

Place these areas strategically, grab key bits of land, push people out of here and there, join up the dots, build a wall...and you change the game.

Encircle the land east of Jerusalem and you further your dream of a unified Israeli Jerusalem and destroy that of a workable Palestinian capital city in East Jerusalem.

Form a ribbon through the centre of the West Bank and you make the reality of a unified Palestinian state in the West Bank unviable.

Change the facts on the ground, change the facts.

As we head out, we see this in evidence again and again. The patterns are undeniable, this is no coincidence.

We start our journey through West Jerusalem, filled with suburbs that look like any mediterenean modern city; decent highways, proper pavements, civic soft-landscaping, municple services in full effect. Then we head to the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem.

The contrast is stark and immediate. Highways are in a poor state of repair, pavements almost non-existent, municiple planting nowhere to be seen, refuse collection clearly patchy, utility service rather sporadic and so on and so on.

It's hard to believe that citizens of both areas come under the same municple authority, pay the same municple taxes. The stats quoted (iirc) are that the Palestinian population contribute around 33% of the city's taxes, but receive less than 10% of the tax spend.

Facts very evident on the ground.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Exiting through the Ethiopian monastery, we pass back out into the city and pause to regroup aside a strange building, topped with a room staffed by an armed guard (provided at tax payer expense).

The sight of such buildings is becoming familiar as 'settlers' (a term that is fast becoming unfitting, with it's cosy suggestions of wagons seeking out an uninhabited land) move into properties through a range of laws, policies and practices that actively and aggressively drive out non-Jewish families.

Alongside the reconsideration of terminology, the sight of the Israeli flag is swiftly also changing its meaning in my head. Diminishing are the innocent memories of Eurovision Song Contest entries of yore as the flag takes on a more malevolent meaning in the context of these settlements. Here the flag bearing the star of David, becomes almost sinister, aggressive, bullying.

Never a fan of seeing the St George's cross flown extensively in England (outside of major sporting events), I've always accepted that in other, less post-colonial countries patriotism through the flag is a slightly less problematic issue.

Here though, on these encroachments, a country's flag appears to be adopting all of the unhelpful colonising attributes.

On returning home, numerous people have asked me if I was scared at times. My honest answer has been that among Palestinians I never felt anything other than welcomed, safe and secure. I cannot say the same for our times in Israel and when interacting with Israeli security personnel. There's something about the posturing, that is imposing and intimidating, that speaks of force that goes beyond defence and into offence and domination.

Standing in the shadow of this building, I feel deeply uneasy, unsafe, threatened.

I find all this hard to reconcile with the feelings of the morning re an underlying understanding of the desire for a Jewish homeland.

I was ill-prepared to be so troubled with the pervasive nature of the occupation. I want to be able to say that the problems are primarily limited to the wrong-headed outworking of those in power (military occupation, the wall, discrimination under the law etc) and not the cognitive daily life of the average Israeli. What I'm finding is that the activity of occupation, the oppression of the Palestinian people goes much deeper into society. Sure a large number of citizens are no doubt ignorantly complicit, but a far higher number than I had anticipated, are seemingly actively engaged in the tangible expressions of oppression and occupation.

This morning I saw a people celebrating their freedom of expression, of religion, of ethnicity, of being. This afternoon I'm increasingly asking what cost has this been achieved at.

My head is awash with thought and counter-thought; my heart troubled by feeling and counter-feeling.

Good job we're on our way to St George's Anglican cathedral complex really; as we pass through the welcoming gateway I have to laugh at the orderly parking bays and rose bushes laid out in the courtyard. Outside may be a city of troubles and upheaval, but here is a little corner that will be forever Anglican.

Mind you the promised cuppa fails to appear.

Someone call Rowan and have a word eh?

Holy Sepulchre

After a fine shwarma lunch on a roof terrace, we venture into the Christian quarter and the tourist/pilgrim madness that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

With equal vigour to that displayed at the Western Wall, followers of a faith closer to my own, come and pour out their emotion at sites that purport to be the site of the cruxifiction and less than a hundred yards away, the tomb that Christ was laid in.

The cynics amongst us might observe that the close proximity of these two sites are a convenience that escaped mention by the authors of the gospel writings, but have been truly capitalised upon by subsequent ecclesiastical parties.

As pilgrims queue to undertake their observances, I can see that for them the ritual is one of pilgramage and devotion and is imbued with meaning that I find hard to grasp. I may not personally understand the outworkings of their faith, but I can respect that for them it is authentic and God-centred.

In the Coptic chapel an Ethiopian monk stands propped on his staff, murmuring the prayers of the devote.

It would be nice to think that at least within any given religion, different factors can work together in harmony, but as the ladder of status quo, stationed forever more on the ledge outside an upper window demonstrates, even here discord is rife and negotiation upon negotiation results in a resentful accommodation of stability.

Exploring away from the Greek officiators barking at the lines of the devote, I find a side chapel, set aside for silent prayer. I take a seat, unsure how to formulate into words the thoughts of my head and the desires of my heart.

I sit and open up my broken attempt at observant offering; less structured, less formulated, less intense, it is all I have.


One reason that the wall is so packed is that our visit corresponds with the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The old city is thronged with people in orthodox garb, carrying palm branches (possibly losing a little of the agricultural festival/shelter theme, most of these seem to be encased in a plastic sheath). To see ultra-orthodox and othodox Jews is not unusual in certain areas of Manchester, but here there is a key difference, they are common-place, they form a good part of the norm. The Eastern European fur hats and heavy satin overcoats may still stand out in the sunshine (diaspora over, time to re-engage with more climate-appropriate attire?), but they are so common as to become unremarkable very quickly.

I catch a tiny glimpse here of what Israel as a Jewish state means to so many. A place where after 1900 years of displacement and cycles of extreme persecution, they can call home. A place where they are not the exception, but the norm; a place where, whether religous or secular, their identity can be openly celebrated.

Here to be Jewish, is just to be a person. No need for adjective, no need for explanation.

I can see the freedom in that.

To belong to a dominant grouping in society often makes us blind to how poorly the world fits for those unrepresented in its formulation.

I can understand the desire to no longer be the outsider.

To have suffered centuries of persecution at the hands of other nations, to have the memory of the holocaust so close in the collective memory.

I can appreciate the desire to take one's security into one's own hands and never let go.

To have survived against the odds, through so many battles, battered and abused.

I can see how you face the world with fists ready.

But there's the rub; at what point do you become that which you seek to defeat? At what point does your freedom become someone else's prison sentence? At what point does your creation of shelter, deprive others of their sanctuary?

As we wend our way through the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter (much of which was raised to the ground in the Six Day War and rebuilt in the image of the victors), a postcard stares out at us with beligerence.

Oh Israel, born of the hopes of one people and the fears of another, have you become the monster?

Garden of Gethsemane and the Western Wall

Further down the hill we find the Garden of Gethsemane. Here at least a tiny patch of land remains, uncovered by human construct of stone and mortar. Crouch down, restrict your view to the dozen or so ancient olive trees and you can almost imagine...

Crossing the Kidron Valley we make our way up to the old city of Jerusalem and through to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

Once inside the security checkpoint, the first thing that struck me was the division of the genders and more specifically that the male section is wide and free-flowing and the female area comparatively tiny, with a further bottle-neck in the access path making the journey to the wall, one of the scariest crowd crush experiences I've ever encountered (and I’m a veteran of many a grunge rock mosh-pit). Needless to say my hackles rise. I don't think the men of our group really understand quite how hairy going the passage to the wall was for the women, or how it feels to be told that you deserve less space in the life, pushed over to one side like an afterthought. It took us maybe 20 minutes to move 15 yards through the bottle neck and small old ladies were being pushed over, children crushed etc. Utterly ridiculous.

Once past the bottle neck, there's far more space and a kind woman offers us paper on which to write our prayers.

It takes me a moment to get my head into an appropriate space and I write the hopes of my heart on the tiny white square, fold it carefully and push it into a crack in the wall. To do this alongside such clear religous fervour is moving and I feel suprisingly welcomed and part of the process despite being an outsider. Maybe the crush to gain admittance has bonded us, maybe it's offered a glimpse of what we all so often lose in the midst of our religous observances, that underneath it all we are the same. Our names for God may differ, but we come with common open hearts; we come through the common visceral experience that the world so often provides a little less space for us, but once through we are together, women, the same.