Since I returned from a nine-day group tour to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the photos of the fantastic trip have been pored over with family and friends, the souvenirs dished out and memories of fascinating historical and cultural artefacts have continued to brighten up my days.
But not all memories of the trip leave me feeling the content of the happy tourist. There were moments on our trip that left me and all others in our group subdued, if not stunned. It is about this that I shall write. But first let me say that I have no axe to grind. I shall merely speak the truth of our experience.
In order to speak of our experience, though, I must first pay tribute to our guide. He joined us upon our arrival at Tel Aviv airport and shepherded us with both caring Arabic hospitality and intellectual force throughout the whole of our time in the Holy Land. Our trip was utterly coloured and immeasurably enhanced by Yacoub’s historical, religious cultural and linguistic expertise. The depth and breadth of his knowledge quickly became apparent and at the end of his explanations we would greet his trademark sing-song phrase, “Any questions?” with dumb-founded silence. He had usually answered everything that we could possibly have thought to ask about and much more besides.
We grew to respect and like him very quickly. But it was a violent incident on day two that drew back the veil on the man behind the guide mask and fast-forwarded our bond and resultant sharing with Yacoub, who told us that he had been raised to have the heart of a Christian, the head of a Jew and the culture of a Palestinian.
The incident in question occurred late afternoon as we headed away from our visit to the Catholic Church of the Annunciation and back to our coach. Many of us, myself included, were ambling gently along, browsing at souvenirs on the pavement stalls when shouting broke out. A man, who turned out to be a shopkeeper, was hollering at Yacoub. All in an instant our gentle guide was being visibly threatened, the large body of the angry man pressed up against him, his mouth spitting words into his face. Then a second’s stand-off before the coffee flask that the main was holding was smashed into Yacoub’s face, destroying his glasses and pushing the rim of one of them into his right eyebrow. Blood and coffee grit dripped from his face. He hurried to collect the remains of his glasses and called for us to follow him quickly as he guided us at scurry pace back to the coach. In amongst his own turmoil of pain and visual impairment, his sense of responsibility to us compelled him to his duties and he asserted himself to be ‘fine’ whilst mopping his blood with the proffered tissues.
Just a week earlier, the violent shopkeeper had verbally accosted Yacoub for what he thought was Yaboub ushering his then Egyptian tourist group away from the man’s shop front. Yaboub had merely been directing the group to proceed to their awaiting coach. The shopkeeper held onto a grudge and decided, perversely, that the best way to make Yaboub direct customers into his shop was to beat him into it.
The attack on Yacoub was not racially or religiously motivated. Nazareth is an overwhelmingly Arab city. Yet Yacoub’s response to the episode was utterly influenced by his ethnicity. When we asked if he would call the police, he replied immediately that he would not. “I am a Palestinian” he reminded us – the unspoken implication being that police justice would not therefore extend to him. But he wasn’t going to take the matter lying down and he did have faith in his Tour Guide union. He phoned them from the coach as we left Nazareth for Tiberius and in less time than it took to return to our hotel, his union had agreed to take the case up and they disclosed that they had received four other complaints about the same shopkeeper. The union liaised immediately with the Minister of Tourism, who asserted that the shopkeeper’s vending licence would be revoked and his shop moved. Dual interests were at work: the union was determined to safeguard the safety of its members at work; the Ministry of Tourism was determined to safeguard the country’s reputation with tourists. This powerful alliance made for swift and effective action.
This incident was a catalyst. Yacoub’s professionalism never faltered but, knowing of our genuine care for him after we had rallied to offer protective moral support, he opened up us much more to us. He further encouraged us to ask any questions that wanted to about the country in which we found ourselves, whether it be politics, religion, culture, art, customs – anything. So we did.
The day after the incident we visited Sumariya. This was our first visit to the West Bank and, beyond the checkpoint, the terrain itself – rockier, covered in scrub – spoke of a harder life. The enduring fence separating the Occupied Palestinian Territories from Israel, plus the intermittent watch towers gave me the feeling of being watched, guarded, locked in. We stopped in Sebastiya. The early spring day was warm. Locals were sitting in the sunshine, but instead of basking in it they looked bored. There was little activity and the town spoke of economic impoverishment. We were there to see the remnants of Herod’s palace, the town’s famous Roman sites and the Church dedicated to Mary’s mother. Our walking tour took us along countryside pathways unusually littered with stones and boulders. It seemed odd for a tourist route to be marred in this way. I asked Yacoub why this was. “The farmers put them there”, he said. “They do this so that when the Israeli army runs after them, the obstacles slow the soldiers down.” This moment gave a tangible sense of the weight of tension between the Palestinians and the Israeli government.
Something of this weight continued to be felt later in the day when we journeyed to the city of Nablus. We visited Jacob’s Well, next to which is a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp housing tens of thousands of refugees who have been separated from their homes since 1948. Only a short distance away from here, on the outskirts of the city, Iies a Jewish settlement. I saw other settlements throughout our first day travelling in the West Bank – they are notable for their high build quality in comparison to neighbouring Palestinian housing and are ring-fenced by multiple layers of wall defence – but the proximity of this one to the refugee camp felt particularly provocative. And it clearly was, for the Jews outside the settlement waiting at the bus stop had to have the protection of the Israeli army, who stood alongside them bearing arms.
The number and scale of the Jewish settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory that we saw came as a shock to me. But it was those in Bethlehem and the surrounding area that are printed most firmly in my memory. The view from Beit Sahour (Shepherd’s Field) is completely dominated by settlements. Everywhere along the eye-line of this famous religious site bears testimony to the speed and scale of Jewish settlement building. There is no attempt to hide it from the world’s tourists. I wondered how that makes the local Arabic population feel. We were about to get an insight.
On our final full day of the trip we set off in the afternoon to visit the Tent of Nations, a decades old family-run farm on the outskirts of Bethlehem which is dedicated to working for peace and reconciliation through farming and education projects. Sated with our Bedouin-style lunch, we only noticed that something was wrong when our coach pulled up next to a pile of rubble and our guide stood in the aisle of the coach looking perplexed. Yacoub explained in mystified tones that the road that leads to the Tent of Nations was blocked. In fact, more than being blocked it was the pile of rubble against which we had stopped. We climbed out of the coach to take a look. As we glanced across the scene, the realisation of what had happened crossed our guide’s face. “It’s the settlers,” he said, pointing to the brand new settlement on the brow of the hill next to us, “they have destroyed the road.” Yacoub gave us the options. With this part of the road to the Tent of Nations now made impassable to normal vehicles, we could either set about walking to the farm or we could abandon the outing. We set about walking.
But we didn’t get far. A short way up the former road, which was now represented by churned up rubble, there was an intersection with a track at which a road block made of bushes and bits of concrete boulder had been erected. “I can’t go any further,” said Yacoub, “the settlers have claimed it.” He pointed to the intersecting track beyond the blockage. It led to the settlement. This made it of the settlement and as such, if he as a Palestinian were to set foot on that settlement ground then he could be arrested. We believed him. Our party was being watched by the guards on the checkpoint into the settlement and they were despatching a vehicle to come over and see what we were doing.
Whilst we as tourists were free to proceed, our journey to the Tent of Nations was impossible without our guide to lead the way. By virtue of his birth alone, our guide was deemed unsuitable to walk across land which, until, just weeks before, had been tended by Palestinian farmers.
Where there had been a road, there was rubble. Where there had been olive trees, there were wrecked remains. Where there had been irrigation pipes to the trees, there were cut up remnants. Where there has been land for farmers’ livelihoods, there were parked diggers carving out the ground to build a school for the settlers. With his voice hoarse from anger and hurt, Yacoub told us, “I was here just three weeks ago at the Tent of Nations. We drove our coach down this road. There were farmers with their sheep. It was theirs.”
Standing on the rubble of the road that led to a place of peace, the reality of the settlement programme hit us all hard. But for our guide and his people, the affront and the hurt is enormous. As my son reflected later that day, “that was a harder smack in the face than a coffee pot could ever have given.”
Former PPC for Staffordshire Moorlands
*The name of the guide has been changed to protect his identity.