Rammalah and Qalandia

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Rammalah and a poster of Resistance leader, Marwan Barghouti

In relative terms, Ramallah seemed modern and progressive. Busy and vibrant and full of commerce. The Palestinian National Authority is based here, women seem to interact more freely, most, not wearing ha jibs, drinking coffee and smoking shishas in modern restaurants and cafes. Shops and home showrooms here sell expensive items – fitted kitchens, furniture, electronic equipment etc etc. As well as that here’s paintball, bowling, galleries and we visited an arts and crafts fair which featured Murad and his friend Fayez. They were talking about their farms and selling produce. I used this oppurtunity to jump on a bus 15 mins down the road to Qalandia. There, is another refugee camp and one of the biggest checkpoints in the West Bank. Qalandia really needs its own section here. Most people who pass through here are residents or visitors of East Jerusalem. Access isnt granted for anyone though. The only people who get through here are people with permits to work or visit. Both are hard to get. Being caught without either equals jail and a large fine. As with a lot of checkpoints and settlement access points, theres lots of Palestinians trying to sell things. Traffic moves at a snails pace, so theres plenty of time to be offered quilts, balloons, flowers, drinks and windscreen cleaning services. Id seen pictures of this place before but its different up close. Its the picture of distopia. Bleak, grey, imposing and grief stricken. The wall is plastered with art and messages from Palestinians and international activists. People pass through and transfer onto different buses with their heads down. Its the closest thing to what I imagine an old concentration camp looking like. That may be a cliche and even insensitive to say but its impossible to describe without drawing the comparison.

Jerusalem

Tony Blair has a multi million penthouse apartment that he rents for free in East Jerusalem. I saw it – Murads not even allowed to come to Jerusalem. No one who lives in the West Bank is, unless they own one of the hard to get permits I mentioned earlier. Its like me needing permission to visit london.

Jerusalem (East) is as you would expect it to be – tourists, religious places of interest, sight seeing, crap selling blah. The tourism and globalism here makes it more relaxed in its attitudes to drinking and clothing, despite the religious significance of the city. In the old town/holy basin which is a busy Palestinian neighbourhood, Israeli settlers live in homes above the market taken from Palestinians now flagged up and fenced off. Below mesh is in place to stop settlers throwing waste down on the Palestinians. markets there are Israeli homes.

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The Holy Basin. Palestinian Markets sitting below Israeli-confiscated homes.

Christianity s big here: Christian churches, people kissing quote unquote sacred stones and Jesus’s tomb all being photographed and selfied in front of by christian tourists. Other than its just Palestinians (Muslim or Christian?) and the occasional hurrying Orthodox Jew.

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The closest I could get to The Dome on the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque

We tried to get to the Al Aqsa mosque and dome on the rock but it was muslims only after 4pm and being white and non muslim looking we were turned away by Israeli police. They control who goes in and out here. It was interesting and maybe kind of nice to see israelis help enforce the Muslim only after 4pm rule. Was also good to see some soldiers and locals getting on. Saw another soldier help a blind man into the square too which was nice. In the rush to cry dehumanization you can easily find yourself guilty of doing the same thing.

Deir Isstia

Deir Isstia is another village in the Salfit district 10 minutes down the highway from Marda. I’d never heard of it but it is one of the largest producers of olive oil in the world with over 10,0000 dunmas of olive groves. 2 French women from a tourism NGO and another working as a middle East researcher we met the day before at an arts and crafts fair in Rammalah took us there. The ancient iron age town once home to crusaders Mamluks and later Ottomans is now a ghost town with all the villagers living in the more recent village surrounding it. US aid as well as other fund agencies spearheading a restoration project of the historic site which was abandoned after the war in ’67. Theres been lots of false dawns: recently built information centres sit alongside empty buildings with plans to be coffee shops and restaurants. Local interest in exploiting the areas rich history is almost non existent and its understandable when you’ve had your history robbed from you so often. As we explored the old towns corridors and rooftops we came upon a site which as attracted frequent visits from Israeli archaeologist.s Rumour has it treasure was buried on the site.

Restoration in Deir Isstia - Ottoman Palace hotel concept.
Restoration in Deir Isstia – Ottoman Palace hotel concept.

Just outside Deir Isstia is the fertile valley of Wada Qana. The Palestinian owned land was declared a nature reserve by the state of Israel and Palestinians are now forbidden to farm and plant there. The site is surrounded by hilltop settlements with pipes running down the hill draining the agricultural land of water and Olive Trees are frequently burned by the neighbouring settlers. And in the name of natural preservation, Israeli orders were given to uproot 1,400 ancient olive trees.

We came on the Friday when locals meet weekly in a show of defiance, to relax, plant trees, eat and drink tea on their land. Theses events can often be flashpoints for violence between palestinians and settlers but our visit was a peaceful one. It is one of the most beautiful places Ive ever seen.

Boys being boys in Wadi Qana
Boys being boys in Wadi Qana

Jenin

Jenin was the furthest town I visited. We had to time our trip around the weather as it gets hotter here. Its in the agricultural north and took about an hour and a half of mountainous driving from Marda to get there although Jenin itself is mostly flat. Didn’t really get a chance to explore Jenin properly it was more of a meet this guy here meet that guy there day but one thing that was noticeable was the absence of anything Israel. Unlike all the other places Id been to there was no army, no flags, no settlements. This might be because of its unbroken horizontalness as I’m pretty sure most settlements are built strategically on hilltops. Outside the hustling bustling town of markets shops and car-shop after car-shop after car-shop is industrial landscape with factories and fields growing tobacco fruits and vegetables. More mass production than organic production here.

Agriculture in Jenin
Agriculture in Jenin

Environment

Despite a deep connection with the land, it gets treated badly by many Palestinians, Israelis too. In many parts of the West Bank, streets and fields are scattered with rubbish. Theres refuse collection once a week in Marda but thats just to collect landfill waste from peoples houses. Outside though, pedestrians, drivers, kids playing, even farmers, just chuck their empty packets on the ground. Many animals are treated badly: birds caged in small spaces to be sold as meat; donkeys toiling in the insane heat carrying people and heavy loads; dead puppies (clearly not treated well) left next to bins in the street, I could go on. On our way to the farm one day we saw that one donkey had given birth. Murad helped the new donkey to its feet and pushed her closer towards her mother so was tied up to a nearby tree but just out of reach. The next day we saw the same donkey, working, but not the infant. As another mouth to feed and a distraction to his working donkey, the owner, an old guy, chucked the new jenny away. This upset Murad, more out of waste than sentiment, but Murad cares. He understands the imposrtant roles animals have. I learnt this early on when some children visited us at the farm and one of them was trying to squash a bug. Murad stopped him and while I could’nt hear what he actually said, it was clear Murad was telling the by that he needed those bugs.

Donkey and her new born
Donkey and her new born

Then theres Israel, the self titled environmentalists, chucking all kind of restrictions and protection laws onto Palestinians in the name of preservation whilst committing all kinds of environmental rights violations: sucking Palestinian land dry of water and selling it back to them at full price; allowing settlements to dump huge quantities of sewage into neighbouring Palestinian fields and villages, damaging buildings, soil and water supplies; poisoning waterways and soil with toxic chemicals; uprooting 1000s of olive trees, trees that are peoples livelihood, trees that have stood since the Romans were here!; building over ancient springs and vital sources of water, affecting eco systems and land irrigation; and then the walls and border gates affecting the migration patterns of an array of species.

No big deal. Just an Olive tree dating back to around Roman times
No big deal. Just an Olive tree dating back to around Roman times

Culture

I’d never been to a Muslim country before so my head naturally started to fill itself with assumptions and preconceptions of how things were or would be. I knew from the advice the volunteer program gave me, that Marda was a conservative village: No shorts, no singlets (LOL), no drinking, no drugs, and no approaching strange women romantically. I paraphrase but these were all suggested guidelines – Who’s been coming here??

Marda is a conservative village, traditional too – women cover themselves in public and sometimes socialise separately but everyone was friendly and interactive. If my arabic spanned further than the “Hello? How are you? Im fine, thank you.” at its peak, I may have broken down even more social barriers. Word to the wise: Don;t go in for a handshake with women you’ve just met as you’ll be left hanging.

Knees-up for the men
Wedding knees-up for the men

Despite the occupation and the harassment and intimidation that comes with it, everybody seemed upbeat. Theres a real togetherness here and its so much more chill than it looks and sounds from in the west. Theres lots of joking. Murad likes to take the piss out of people especially people that he likes. Theres one old guy we used to see and Murad always tries to tickle him.

Unhinged or piss-taking shop keeper blowing a recorder in our faces.
Unhinged or piss-taking shop keeper blowing a recorder in our faces.

It sounds like a stupid and obvious thing to say but Palestinians really love their children, especially young ones, almost as if preserving their innocence is everything. From about 7-12 boys go through a seen but not heard phase then at 13+ they’re targets for playful clips round the ear and downsizing banter. They have a lot of freedom in Marda. Children as young as 6 walk to and from school through the village, they go to the shops to buy groceries and play outside unsupervised. On paper it sounds like slack parenting but its not. The community polices itself. Everyone knows everyone and when children step out of line or get cheeky the nearest adult will call them up on it. I’d describe it as a golden age if the circumstances didn’t make it sound so ridiculous.

Murad keeping the local kids in check
Murad keeping the local kids in check

Politics

Murads not the type to push agendas. I wanted a Palestinan perspective on Israel, the occupation, and all the other things that go with it, so I was going to have to ask. Judy ,who I met briefly when I arrived in Marda told me “Don’t ask questions unless youre ready to accept the context.” I wasn’t completely sure what this meant but I bided my time and began to write down some questions for Murad which I could ask him when we’d got to know each other better. In my spare time I started to plan a positive article about cooperating through collaborating. This had stemmed from seeing how Murad and his Israeli friend had been working together to sneak volunteers into Marda, but with one question my idea, or at least, my inspiration, was blown out of the water. “Do lots of Israelis come here to help?”

Yes, but I don’t like it. It makes me look bad.” Murad doesn’t pull punches, he tells it as he sees it and when a group of Israeli peace activists came to work on the farm and found this out. He told me how they had asked him what they could do to help the Palestinian cause and in one word, he said, “leave”.. “It sounds harsh, but this is a man who has been fired at, arrested, imprisoned, watched as his family’s land was turned into a lavish city for Israelis and jewish immigrants, which has brought violence right to his door.

These people say they are for peace but if they really were they would leave Israel. Who built your house?” he asked them. “The person who built your house is living in a tent and you talk about peace?”

Talk leads onto the testimonies of soldiers in, ‘Breaking the silence’. “Breaking the Silence are bastards! They kill innocent men women and children and then feel bad and say sorry? Fuck you’re sorry!” None of this is said in a raised or angry tone of voice. Murad is like lots of other Palestinians think that they have been sold out. Sold out by Israel, sold out by America, sold out by Britain, sold out by Arab states and sold out by their own leaders. I try to explain that propaganda can make people do the worst kind of things but it sounds empty as I say it.

The world doesn’t care. If it did, Palestinians would have justice.”