Sheila Kelly from Lancaster visited Jerusalem and the West Bank with Travel2Palestine in January 2018
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In 1967 Israel seized the Gaza strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The 50-year Israeli military rule of the Palestinians contravenes human rights enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention.
In January this year I witnessed the Israeli State’s matrix of control over the Palestinian population during a visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank. I came away disheartened at the harsh, hopeless reality of everyday life for the Palestinians, trying to get on with their lives in their neighbourhoods and villages in the face of incessant ID checks, car checks, permit applications, curfews, weapons being cocked in their faces by nineteen-year-old soldiers. The State of Israel sends its young men and women conscripted to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to the West Bank to maintain an ever-deepening, violent occupation, with no end in sight, against ‘the enemy within’ – all Palestinians, men, women and children. Society is corroded in this climate of fear and all are dehumanised.
The omnipresent young soldiers of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) create an atmosphere of intimidation and apprehension. Their control of the Palestinian population on the other side of the 700 km long, 8 metre high separation qall (built in the West Bank since 2002, 85% of which is on territory illegally occupied in 1967) is threefold: bureaucratic – permits are needed for permission to build or to work; a demolition notice served never expires; permanent residency permits can be revoked ; segregated roads and different licence plates, yellow for Israelis and green for Palestinians. Physical control with checkpoints, often embedded in the route of the wall; detours that take five times as long as the direct route; and violent punitive control – the bulldozing of entire Palestinian villages; curfews; shooting tear gas or spraying skunk water into people’s homes. A sustained occupation where Palestinians are subjugated and persecuted daily.
Late one afternoon we visited Nabi Saleh and met members of the Tamimi family. We were speechless, dumbfounded, as we listened to their story of living in a state of fear and terror. It was easy to see the nearly unbearable burden of repression and loathing they are being subjected to. Every Friday, demonstrations take place in Nabi Saleh – exercising ‘the right to resist’, even though they have already lost everything through the Occupation, they will not accept that ‘resistance is futile’.
The IDF closes the road into Nabi Saleh on Fridays, which denies access to five other villages, so many people are both grounded and intimidated. The village has been declared a ‘closed military zone’ and demolition orders have been issued for twelve of the houses. Members of the Tamimi family have been arrested, including their children. Tear gas has been shot into their homes. For the IDF, Palestinians are the enemy. Racial profiling is used for entry to Area C where there is full Israeli control and in Area A, where the Palestinian Authority is in control, there are red signs that state ‘The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law’. It is a system of apartheid that in the 50-year occupation has become the norm for both oppressor and the oppressed.
The lost soul of Jerusalem
Until 1967 Jerusalem, in the heart of the West Bank, was an Arab city. In 1967 Israel occupied Jerusalem too. Since then Palestinians live in Occupied East Jerusalem and are allowed permanent residency status, which can be revoked if they are unable to prove that Jerusalem is where the centre of their life is. The Israeli authorities, unable to deport them, try to ignore the Palestinian presence to the extent of road and street signs in Hebrew and English only, and by not marking Palestinian neighbourhoods. Only 10% of the City’s budget is spent in East Jerusalem where 38% of the population live and the fabric of life is deteriorating rapidly. In West Jerusalem, where Jewish Israelis live, 90% of the city budget is spent. The city of Jerusalem’s new logo does not include any Arabic. For Israelis and Palestinians life in Jerusalem is a parallel existence patrolled by a militia, the Israeli Defence Force.
Jerusalem does not have a separation wall. And even from the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice in the old city of Jerusalem you cannot even see the separation wall that fragments the rest of the West Bank. It is nevertheless a divided city. After Sabbath devotions at the Western Wall, part of their ancient Judaic temple, Jewish Israelis leave the old city by Jaffa Gate. When Muslims enter the old city they use Damascus Gate, which is heavily patrolled by soldiers in cages (after incidents in the last few years of young Palestinians running at them with knives). The soldiers are also protected by state-of-the-art facial recognition security cameras.
Jerusalem is a holy place for everyone. At the heart of the old city is Temple Mount with the iconic golden roof of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. We visited one morning through Mugrabi Gate, a sort of wooden walkway above the Western Wall, and the only entrance we were allowed to use as non-Muslims. At 10.15am we were told we must leave the site by 10.30am as access is restricted to Muslims for the rest of the day. We first went to the Western Wall on the morning of the Sabbath and were mesmerised by the sight of hundreds of Jewish men and women praying at their separate parts of the wall. To get to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount we had to pass through airport-type security with metal gates.
We were in Jerusalem the day that US Vice President Mike Pence came to address the Knesset. We had already seen ‘God Bless Trump’ on the side of a bus and hoardings with greetings of Welcome Mike Pence you are a true Friend of Zion, messages from DC to DC: David’s City of Jerusalem to Washington DC. Not really a surprising Israeli government message of greeting as the USA gives Israel US$10 billion per annum. There were no Palestinian members present to hear the Vice President’s address and the headline in the Jerusalem Post a few days later quoted Donald Trump, in Davos at the World Economic Forum, telling Benyamin Netanyahu that the Palestinian Authority had ‘disrespected’ his VP and did not want peace, so he would cut off all their funding.
Tensions are running high there now. Ironically while we were in Jerusalem there was an Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Israel Museum. The exhibition title, Maybe, Maybe Not, is the answer to some of the artist’s provocative questions on injustice: Is what we are told true? Is what we see real? One of his amazing exhibits was wallpaper with the twitter bird and security cameras in gold leaf. It seemed a fitting representation of that moment in Jerusalem: the President of the United States constantly disturbing the world with his tweets, and the State of Israel surveying every movement of the oppressed population in the occupied Palestinian territories.
O little town of Bethlehem
It was our last day in Palestine. We were in Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. We had already been to the Walled Off hotel for coffee and to look at Bansky’s and others’ graffiti. The most heavily decorated section of the Separation wall is to be found in Bethlehem. Amazing graffiti that declares ‘make hummus not walls’ ‘resistance is futile’ words from Pink Floyd’s ‘Just another brick in the wall’ painted by Roger Waters. But the wall is not made of brick it is an eight metre high concrete wall separating Israel and its illegal settlements from the shrinking portion of land that the Palestinians are permitted to live on. An apartheid wall. Banksy’s graffiti shows a little girl with a handful of helium balloons rising into the air to float over the wall; he has painted a ladder to scale it. Rather pointless really as this ‘holy’ land between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea is populated by Jews and Palestinians who live almost entirely separately, even in the sacred space of their shared city of Jerusalem.
The Church of the Nativity is entered through a tiny entrance, the Door of Humility, that requires a low bow to enter into a space that the three Christian sects – Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians – tussle over for custodianship. The January day when we visited there were hordes of tourists/religious pilgrims milling around praying and saying devotions and forming long queues to bow again to go through an even humbler entrance, into a grotto to touch the star which they claim marks the spot where Jesus was born. I don’t think I had heard the word manger since leaving school, but here it was across from the star in the tiny grotto with a plastic baby, just like the one in the Nativity scene re-enacted around the world every Christmas.
Bethlehem today is very unlike the ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ Christmas card sentiment that is produced every year on religious cards. It is divided and almost entirely surrounded by the separation wall. In Bethlehem Rachel’s Tomb, a site sacred to the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is on the Israeli side of the fence, although we are in Occupied Palestine! Religious rules for living, with no porous edges for compromise, make co-existence near impossible. The religious war of secular versus religious and Jew versus Muslim is further exacerbated by Jewish immigrants from all over the world, known as ‘settlers’, who believe it is their land, their birthright. That same land is considered ‘home’ to thousands of Palestinian refugees who wish to return there.
Our guide to the Church of the Nativity shocked us into silence as we left him. He said ‘In a week you will be home; back in your own life and you will forget us.’ Of course in one way that is true, we are back in our own lives. We may have been dumbstruck by the bold veracity of his words but once you have seen with your own eyes you cannot forget. You cannot forget how difficult everyday life is for everyone who lives in this disputed territory; how complex and intractable a problem we have created here; how little global resolve there is to solving it.