There was good and bad in today in this whistlestop tour of the rights and wrongs of the Middle East.
Our congregation had its first contact with the Israeli-built Security Wall or ‘Separation Barrier’ when we attempted to cross from Ramallah to Jerusalem at the Qalandia checkpoint. The wall here is actually a series of fences and enclosures, for us to pass it was necessary to negotiate a procedure similar to airport security but not as polite. Instead of a courteous word we were ordered around by a face behind a screen, the face once ballistically screaming “it’s not funny” when one of us tried to make light of having to walk backward and forward for the umpteenth time.
Progress was tediousy slow but after 20 minutes it appeared we were all through. After a while though it was apparent something was wrong and after 35 minutes we got word Kamal had been turned back. He has lived in Britain 30 years and has a British passport but once the checker realised he was of Palestinian origin he had no real chance. I agree with the voice : it’s not funny at all.
I had assumed we were being ordered around by the Israeli army but found out later in the day security at the wall had been contracted out to our own G4S (you might have heard of their success at the Olympics).
At the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem we heard a talk from Zakaria Odeh the Director of the Civic Coalition for Defending the Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem. According to Mr Odeh the borders of Jerusalem have been gerrymandered to produce a Jewish pro-Israeli majority. However, even after this the Palestinians have 39% of the population and the Israelis, having proclaimed Jerusalem their capital, feel uncomfortable with this small majority.
Mr Odeh told us that in spite of the Palestinians having 39% of Jerusalem’s people the areas in which they reside receive only 8% of Jerusalem’s civic expenditure.
To make things worse while Israelis are citizens the Palestinians are residents. But even the residential qualification can be taken away if someone lives elsewhere for seven years or longer or proves to be disloyal (i.e. criticises Israel).
Since 1993 the Israelis have constructed 12 checkpoints across the city, separating as far as possible the comfortable Jewish areas from the downtrodden Palestinian ones.
Our second speaker, Dr. Xavier Abu Eid, a civil servant with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) gave a perspective which contrasted with that of Dr. Shaath who spoke to us last night. He saw the basic issues as being : a) the demand for Palestine’s recognition as an independent state, b) the necesity of the east of Jerusalem becoming the capital of Palestine and c) the right of return and reparations for Palestinian refugees. He derided the “so-called peace process”, making it absolutely clear he thought the process had been going nowhere from the start and was used to con the world into believing the Israelis and Americans were serious about peace.
Although the messages so far have been overwhelmingly negative it’s only fair to say that both speakers were tremendously vigorous, there were no forelorn looks and no forelorn speeches.
Then we went to see Jerusalem proper, the city as tourists generally see it, the city which is of such tremendous importance for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. The city though has no strategic significance – at least that was what we were told by Jeff Halper from the Israeli Campaign Against House Demolitions (Jeff with group). Although the city has quarters named Christian, Jewish, Armenian and Muslem the population apparently lived in harmony for many hundreds of years and, to be fair, the Jerusalem residents we saw didin’t make an exhibition of their differences. Jeff told us the Muslem quarter is being renamed the new Jewish quarter as Israel encourages the Judaisation of the city.
We saw the sights including the Western Wall and the Holy Sepulchre where Christ is reputed to have been crucified, buried and risen again. I’m not the first to remark that it’s quite a coincidence that so many of Jesus’s haunts are within such a small radius. I’m not Mark Twain so I’m not going to go into debunking the profoundities, I wll only pass on that Jeff Halper informed us that five different denominations contest the Holy Sepulchre and that Russia, France and the UK have used religious lust for the Sepulchre to justify assorted wars.
There’s no begrudging the golden Domb of the Rock and I almost found time to visit the Jewish Cemetery – and spit on Robert Maxwell’s grave. Mount Olive had a peaceful vibe – even at a distance.
In the afternoon Jeff showed us the new Jewish settlement of Mishor-Adummim. Even the highways here are beautiful, the schools and other faciities are of the highest order. The Israeli Government has given every incentive for the settlers to settle because by settling on the land they’re keeping the Palestinians out. Eventually the plan is for the highways to be for Jewish Israeli citizens only while the streets in Palestinian areas will continue to be what they are now – dirt-tracks of a third world standard.
Even more controversially, the Israeli Goverment wants to build in an area known as E1. This is a place which includes an arterial route from Bethlehem to Ramallah and if the settlement goes ahead (a police station has already been built) the highway will be for Israeli settlers only, meaning the direct route will change to a round the world one for Palestinians. Even the United States draws the line at this and so the Israelis are hesitating. William Hague says he’s not happy about the plan although of course he’d never impose sanctions.
The final stop of the day is a depressing yet invigorating one. We pay a visit to Anata, a town of 25,00 people split into 3 zones. While one zone is officially under absolute Israeli control, another is in Jerusalem and the remainder under the limited sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority. The head of the Town Council explained to us that to all intents and purposes Jerusalem is under total Israeli control as well.
In Anata we meet Salim who has had his house demolished six times since 1998 by the Israelis who want to move the Palestinians off the land. Each time its rebuilt with the aid of Israelis Against House Demolitions (Jeff’s group). Jeff explains that the group is not acting out of humanitarian concern, it’s acting for political reasons. Out of 186 homes which have been demolished in Anata since 1998 all have been rebuilt and 170 still stand.
14 families recently got notices letting them know their houses are to be demolished, although they’ve been told the Government has redesignated the land on which the houses stand ‘agricultural” the inhabitants strongly suspect the planned demolitions are linked to the recent growth of a nearby Israeli military base. Our group hears an empowering speech from the head of one of these families, Ziad. Ziad explains that his house is over 50 years old and was under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967. Ziad doesn’t pretend he can stop the demolition but, though he’s speaking through an interpreter, his dignified defiance srikes a chord which can’t be negated.
We have a wander round the village. We don’t actually go inside any of the houses but they look pretty much like shacks. Nevertheless they’re their shacks and the guys here shouldn’t be driven out by the occupying power.
Every Palestinian here has his head held up high. We’ve seen plenty of bad but all the Palestinian speakers have shown the character and spirit which would be lacking in a people truly conquered.
Out on the beer here in Ramalllah tonight. Everyone’s friendly – they think we’re going home to tell the real story.