Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Even the fish were blown out of the water

This isn't a normal piece about the Middle East - it's about Orissa, India.

Before the cyclone hit
A friend of mine, Satyabrata Misra, who runs an organic farm and village school project there, called Native Agriculture with Sustainable Insights (NASI).

He has had his farm destroyed by the cyclone which hit Orissa in 12th-13th October this year. I'm organising a whip-round to send him some financial support to help his team clean up, rebuild, re-stock and re-plant. Before this happened, the project was healthy and doing well.

I've made a web-page with full details and also, if you so feel, it offers a chance for you to connect personally with these people by sending them a message or a donation.

This is his report.


Satyabrata Misra

It was another day of hard work.

As there is no power in the village I came to the town to check my mail. Palden, I am very happy to receive your warm letter. I am glad that you have posted our story in your Facebook page for your many noble friends. Thank you very much for taking our issue of plight with enough seriousness and care.

I am optimistic that we are going to get some positive response from your valued friends. As you have asked, here I am going to furnish you with the elaborated facts of ground reality and about the magnitude of loss that the cyclone ‘Philine’ has caused us.

NASI (Native Agriculture with Sustainable Insights) is situated in a tranquil place about a kilometer away from the village. This patch of slightly elevated land is surrounded by vast rice fields.

In the NASI campus we have four houses with brick walls and straw roof. The first one is the school for the children with classrooms, the second one is the boarding house for the children, the third one is the cow house and the last one is our living house.

The roofs of all these houses are made of bamboo and straw from our own rice field. The violent wind that blew for more that 24 hours took away almost all the straw leaving only the bamboo skeleton, allowing the heavy rain to pour into the rooms. The rain continued round the clock, destroying all the household things including books, dresses, beds and foodstuffs for everybody, including the cows.

Finally, as the cyclone continued, we had to leave NASI, leaving the animals in the cow house, to take shelter in a nearby concrete house of a retired teacher friend.  What we saw after the rain and wind stopped was not the same NASI. It was all devastated. The walls and the roof of our living house and the cow house was broken down by the fallen trees and sad there was only destruction all around.

After the Super Cyclone of 1999, with the help of your generous friends like Mal McClure, Dr. Evans and Dr. Gilbertson we managed to reconstruct the living house, cow house, buy cows and we planted a good number of fruit and other plants.

Unfortunately this situation has been repeated. Nearly one hundred teak, mango, coconut, acacia and other full-
grown trees are uprooted. These coconut and mango trees were giving us a good return every year and we had the expectation to get many thousand rupees from other trees in few more years' time.

In order to construct these above said houses we made our own bricks years ago. In this way we got the bricks at a cheaper rate and by the time the brickmaking was over we got a pond ready to have fish in it. Last year we had put varieties of sweet water fish in this pond. We had the dream to get a good return of at least 20 to 25 thousand rupees this year.

But sadly the pond was flooded and all the fishes have gone. Again the rice, the crop that feeds us for the whole year, and the grass grown for the cows, was completely washed away. We won't get any rice to eat or straw to fix the roofs and feed the cows.

Now we are going through a very difficult time, cleaning NASI bit by bit, by ourselves. There are not enough funds to spend on hired labour, there is not enough food for the animals and above all there are no resources to fix the damage caused. It was in my hour of desperation that I felt your warm presence around and thought of writing to you about this misfortune.

The relief we got from the government was just a mockery. Two packets with few kilograms of rice, biscuits, flattened rice, and a piece of plastic for the roof was what we got. The food is now consumed though the piece of plastic is helping us a lot.

I don’t have a digital camera to take pictures and send it to you. But I will see if I can borrow a camera from a friend and take few pictures. I hope this much of description is more or less enough for your friends at the moment.

We love you Palden. Thank you very much for taking care of us at this real hour of trouble. Hope you are fine and doing well.

With regards, Satyabrata


If you wish to follow this, send them a message or donate, go here on my website. 

This is an independent, short-term, small-scale, personal, P2P disaster relief initiative, solely to help NASI through a difficult time. Otherwise my work in Palestine continues, and I shall write more about that before long.


Thursday, 15 November 2012

Jaabari’s Ghost and the Wildfire in Gaza

The current outbreak of violence in Gaza is just classic, an eruption of the same old stuff in the same old way. Yet amidst the propaganda there’s one fact everyone studiously misses. The sides are not equal. One side, Israel, has military, diplomatic and financial power and sovereignty, plus a powerful ally, USA, supporting its case. Israel is militarily occupying Palestine. 

The other side, the Palestinians, do not have these strengths. Every time an Israeli dies, ten Palestinians die – this has been the case for sixty years. So one side gets its way and the other side is faced with a painful choice of lying down and accepting it or of somehow fighting back.

One of Palestine’s elder politicians, Mustafa Barghouti, said recently: Palestinians "are tired of Oslo, we are tired of occupation... and we are sick and tired of apartheid". Meanwhile, Israelis living within rocket-range of Gaza are tired of constant peppering with missiles. So we are here again, in the same old place.

People say, why don’t the Palestinians just stop firing rockets? Well, I’m a peacemaker and I don’t advocate offensive action. But I do regretfully understand it when it is understandable. The Palestinians had democracy stolen from them by foreign intervention (2006), they did all they could to fight in two uprisings (intifadas), they did all they could to pursue diplomatic options (the last being their application for UN recognition in September 2011) and they now have no options except non-violent resistance (the value of which happens to suffer when violence breaks out). So a militant subgroup of Palestinians fire rockets. However strategically sensible, it’s the only option left to them because yielding to occupation and Israeli might means giving up, accepting an illegal military occupation and living as second-class citizens in a state that gives them no rights and has a stranglehold over their lives. This is tragic.

Israel has more options, and recent events demonstrate the failure of one of those options, the military hammer. The other option is gradual de-escalation and a friendlier, more benign attitude toward anyone who is not Jewish, with a longterm peacebuilding agenda, backed actively by the international community.

To illustrate this failure, look at the life-history of the Hamas military commander, Ahmad al-Jaabari, who has just been assassinated. In 1982, at the age of 22 and the son of refugees, he was involved in a PLO military operation against Israel for which he was imprisoned for 13 years. Then, at age 44, at the end of the second intifada, the Israelis tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him, killing instead his eldest son, his brother and three other relatives. Jabaari was a hurt man, acting it out militarily and, if he were on the winning side, he’d be regarded as a hero, just as two former Israeli prime ministers, Begin and Schamir, both former terrorists, became.

As Hussein Issa, the founder of Hope Flowers, the trauma-healing school in Bethlehem where I work, once said, every act of violence begins with an unhealed wound. And to quote a former British SAS soldier who had seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no such thing as an unwounded soldier – referring to the psychological wounds that anyone involved in violence incurs. 

I should add that peace-workers like me are similar, though we don’t usually express such residual pain in violence – we exercise a depth of choice which sometimes is painful and disadvantageous, and we get no medals for it.
Jabaari was a man who was deeply damaged and fought back. This is what happens. 

What’s the solution? Step down the violence, so that the procession of damaged people is reduced and subsequent acts of violence subside. This is a crucial issue for Israel now. 

Many of its own people are damaged, historically from the pogroms and Holocaust in Europe, and more recently from the violence of the last 60-100 years in Israel itself – and the majority of adults, both men and women, are former Israeli soldiers. They’re damaged. So Israelis tend to feel justified when their forces squash yet another outbreak, real or apparent, of resistance to their occupying armies, government and settlers.

Except everyone has choice to respond differently. And one side, the Israelis, have more choice than Palestinians – they have wealth, power, diplomacy and support. So, in the end, while both sides are responsible for stepping down the rhetoric and reactivity, Israelis carry more responsibility because they are in a stronger position to do so.

Israel always presents its case defensively, as a protective response to Palestinian, Arab and even global opposition. But this is a trick – as much on themselves as on everyone else.  It’s true but not ultimately true. It’s also a tactic for furthering their cause, the complete and final occupation of all of the land between the sea and the Jordan River. 

Back in 1967 in the Six Day War the Israelis presented their occupation of what was left of former Palestine by saying they were defending themselves against Arab aggressors, when in fact the Arabs didn’t have a hope in hell and the first moves were taken by Israel. This is often the case: the violence is frequently started by Israel, justified as a pre-emptive measure, then the Palestinians react, and the Israelis then come in with the hammer. This is the pattern.

But it is self-defeating. Hamas was founded in the early 1980s because the former Palestinian resistance, Arafat’s PLO, was not working. Hamas’ founding was actually secretly funded by the Israelis to create a counterforce to the PLO in Palestine, to weaken the PLO. When Hamas grew strong in the two intifadas in the late 1980s and early 2000s, Israel’s divisive strategy bounced back on it. This is again the case with Jaabari, personally: heavy-handed punishment and assault on him merely strengthened his resolve and he became Hamas’s military commander – arguably Palestine’s version of Britain’s Montgomery in WW2. Except Monty is regarded in history as a good guy.

Every time Israel bombs Gaza or destroys something in the West Bank, it creates new enemies – especially amongst the children and teenagers who are affected. The same is the case amongst Israelis when Palestinians fire back at them, though there is a difference: the Israelis are occupying the Palestinians and not vice versa, and control of all of the former land of Palestine is quietly a consistent official policy of Israel, while the notion of driving the Israelis out of that land is, for Palestinians, a minority, ‘extremist’ view. This minority view is strengthened whenever the Israelis assault the Palestinians. It could even be said that this polarising effect is deliberate on the part of the Israelis since it helps them justify further application of force – encourage extremism, then fight against it.

This cycle needs to end. Israel is capable of stepping down and calming the conflict, and some Israelis advocate this, often very bravely. But psychologically it has proven incapable of doing so. As the American Rabbi Lerner once said, Israel is a nation suffering PTSD, and people suffering PTSD (post-traumatic stress) are not known for objectivity and calm. 

So it rests now with the international community to shift the balances. But it does not do so. The failure of the 2011 Palestinian UN application for recognition is a sign of that, and the refusal of the world, particularly Europe, to overrule the American support for and sheltering of Israel is a cause of it.

This cycle needs to end. I don’t know how it will happen because sanity and objectivity are in short supply. But it will happen. This latest outbreak of violence, though it doesn’t look this way, is another step towards it. How? Because there comes a point where people get fed up, and this apparently local issue becomes an international issue. Because chickens come home to roost, and we’re in one of those times today. Because nothing ever is permanent, as the decline of the British empire, the USSR and nowadays USA, demonstrate.

Meanwhile, most Palestinians relentlessly hang in there. Their weapon is sumud – hanging in there and not budging an inch, outlasting short term pressures. Palestine has been disunited since the foreign-fomented civil war between Fatah and Hamas, dividing the West Bank from Gaza. Palestinians at home, about 5 million of them, are also sundered from the Palestinian exile population, another 5-6 million of them. But actions such as Israel’s current assault on Gaza have a way of uniting Palestinians. 

In the longterm, Israel is yet again shooting itself in the foot. If it genuinely sought calming and peace, it would be well advised not to hammer the Palestinians. It would be better advised to step down polarisation and aggression by its own initiative. The international community would be better advised to support or even force this. 

But longterm wisdom does not prevail in our day: the world is unconsciously seeking to provoke a time of truth, in so many departments of life, by continuing in its folly until it comes up against a very solid wall of truth. Brinkmanship is an unconscious strategy by which the testosterone of male-driven states and people meet their match and their eventual demise – but does it have to be this way?

Would that things were otherwise. Until a change happens in this action-reaction game, the fighting will go on, the world will wring its hands and then sit on them, and both sides will feel justified in their actions. It’s a disgrace, and we all share responsibility.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Picturs of Palestine

Check out my book 
Pictures of Palestine 
- a humanitarian blogging from Bethlehem.

It sheds light on a Palestine you don't often hear about, beyond the stereotypes. It is adapted from my blog of my stay there in 2009. All about the people I meet and work with, situations in the streets, the life of a humanitarian worker and lots of interesting insights into the situation in Palestine, how it arose and what can be done.

For full details and to buy it, go to the book's website:

You'll find lots of photos and features about Palestine there too, as well as sample chapters, illustrations and maps from the book.

and here's the video about the book:

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Looking over the Jordan Valley toward Jordan
from the mountain behind Jericho
I’m always rather relieved to get out of Israel. My departure via the King Hussein Bridge (Allenby Bridge) border control was uneventful, though you never can tell how it’s going to go.

So there’s an underlying tension as one approaches the time of leaving the country which suddenly evaporates as soon as you’re on that bus over no-man’s-land on your way to Jordan. But at least I get a read-out each time showing whether or not I am registering on their computer – thus far, it’s okay.

The Dead Sea
The landscape around the border crossing is barren yet captivating, the old sea bed of a once much larger Dead Sea, carved into valleys and strange mounts by wind and water. I wish I could photograph it for you, but it’s in a military security zone where photography is risky or forbidden, and my objective when I come to this area is to cross the border intact. The flat floor of the Jordan Valley is a little world of its own, Earth’s lowest place. It’s also the place where the next major earthquake in this area is expected – but that’s another matter.

This is actually Har Homa settlement near Bethlehem
but it demonstrates my point about the defensive architecture
On the way here we drove through Jerusalem. It’s an impressive city, perched on high plateaux, with dual carriageways wheeling around the city through valleys and tunnels and a lot of new development, with lots of concrete everywhre. The modern building style here in the Israeli West Bank is fortress-like, with blocks of regimented apartment buildings stacked up in defensible positions – impressive perhaps to some but, to me, a social nightmare in the making and the symbol of an embattled society. Jerusalem is a strident city, filled with determined people and very polarised. I don’t like it.

But as the road curves around the city to join the main Tel Aviv to Jericho road, the landscape widens out, turning into desert mountains – right now comparatively green after the winter rains – and the road soars down, down, down, through the Judaean hills, heading for sea level and then below it, down into the Jordan Valley.

The separation wall in Bethlehem
After going through two checkpoints on the approach to the border crossing, you arrive at the terminal building. There’s one entrance for Jews and foreigners and one for Palestinians. You hand your bag over and head into the passport control hall, where you pay an extortionate departure tax (harmlessly called a ‘passenger fee’) of £35, then you head over to passport control where you show your passport, there’s some tapping on the computer and, if you’re clear, you get stamped. Then you go to another place, where your passport is examined again before you pass through the turnstile. Then you collect your bag and wait for the bus to the other side. Well, that’s what it’s like when it’s not busy and you have a clear run through – I deliberately choose such times to pass through myself.

Eventually the bus leaves, heading through an Israeli checkpoint, then over the rather disappointing Allenby Bridge, which crosses the almost dried-out Jordan River. So much water is being extracted from it that nowadays the river hardly flows. This is one of the world’s more famous and sung-about rivers, and it is now a riverine tragedy. The rape of the Jordan in turn means that the Dead Sea is gradually shrinking and drying up. There is a Jordanian plan to siphon water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea, with desalination plants to crate potable water, but this is going slowly owing to difficulties making agreements with the Israelis. Everything here is subsumed to the conflict – a conflict conveniently kept going by Israel to justify its obsession with security, perpetual emergency rule and military preparedness.

Farewell Bethlehem
Then we come to two Jordanian checkpoints, followed by the Jordanian terminal 2km further on. They take your passport at the first checkpoint and it miraculously appears and is returned to you at the terminal, after a confusing time seeking out your luggage and then thronging for your passport. Eventually you emerge from this process to run the gauntlet of competing taxi-drivers seeking custom. I had rung an old Jordanian taxi-driving friend, Shawki, who couldn’t come, but he had sent a friend. I found a Belgian-Hungarian  couple who needed a ride, and we shared the taxi into Amman.

You don't see this in Jordan
After a few miles crossing the flat floor of the Jordan Valley, the road heads up the side of a valley penetrating the escarpment on the edge of the valley, climbing 1,300m or 3,200ft up toward Amman, passing belching, struggling trucks and weaving along the side of the scarp until eventually the road evens out and the city starts. Here in Jordan there are no watchtowers, separation walls, checkpoints or controls, no surveillance balloons or cameras, and it’s always a little strange, emerging into a freer country. I keep instinctively looking around, expecting a wall or watchtower, and they just aren’t there.

And you get none of these
I had been busy saying goodbye to friends and completing all sorts of small details before leaving. To add spice to the occasion, the internet at the school went wrong, preventing further blogs and other interactions far and wide. But perhaps that was good too – a release from the duties of a cyber-junkie and an opportunity to focus on real-life events and situations. So you have not heard from me.

I must confess too, I am tired, rather deeply tired, and I’ve run out of things to say. I need to rest and replenish my batteries. I need to sit by the fire and stare into the embers, and to sit for long periods on clifftops, staring at the waves. I also return to a list of things to do, demands to fulfil and responsibilities to observe, some of them questionable, typically British, rather bureaucratic and expensive, and to a host of people who will invite me to visit, many of whom would be a little more convincing if they offered to visit me.

Here's someone I was sad to say goodbye to
- my favourite herb seller
The last few days have been both sad and a relief. People didn’t want to say goodbye, and I have some reluctance in leaving them. Especially at this time, when something could burst out in Palestine, changing everything, probably for the worse. There’s a slight feeling of dread around, though everyone is busy getting on with their lives too, as if normality prevails. I don’t want to abandon them. But in another sense I am relieved, because relationships can become rather one-way and people need reminding through my absence that helping doesn’t go only in one direction.

I’m looking forward to going back to Britain. I left Brtiain with mixed feelings about my homeland, wondering where Britain is going and what part I play in it. I return feeling a little better, though still mixed, and glad to live in Cornwall, not Middle Britain. I look forward to stomping the cliffs, meeting old friends, perhaps even to a change of fortunes.

View over the Old Town of Bethlehem
One of my tasks is to get my book Pictures of Palestine –a humanitarian blogging from Bethlehem finally published. It has been a long wait – two years – as it has done the rounds of publishers only to get nowhere. “Pity it’s about Palestine, not Israel”. “Too biased” – which means it speaks up for Palestine. “Interesting approach, but we could sell it more easily if you were more angry with Israel and made them into the badguys.” Well, the book doesn’t fit into any of the customary categories, and that’s actually its strength. It’s honest, it’s not a rant, it defuses stereotypes and it portrays real life. So I’m self-publishing it on paper and in e-book format, and I’ll be hawking copies to you, my dear readers, before very long!

Now I have 24 hours in Amman to think and adjust. Crossing from Palestine to Britain is quite a long jump, geographically and culturally, to a different world. No more will I time my day by the calling to prayers (which conveniently divides the day into segments), and no more will I have my morning cup of tea looking over the separation wall at the Israeli settlement over the valley.

Villages south of Bethlehem
Whither life leads next, I do not know. My roots aren’t strong any more. Increasingly I’m joining the throng of British expats dotted around the world, including those in Britain who are ‘home’ but not quite. I’m becoming an internationalised Brit who loves the endearing, picturesque, friendly and human aspect of Britain and dislikes the materialism, deadening, play-safe conformism and insularity of the place. People often ask me whether it’s dangerous or risky doing what I do, to which the answer is, yes, it’s slightly risky, but living a safe life in Britain is also risky – the main risk being that of wasting one’s life away avoiding risky situations.

I feel positive about the future though. Where it leads is anybody’s guess. My plan is to return to Palestine in October, inshallah. There’s a change coming in our world, and the calm before the storm is deafeningly quiet. So it’s tricky planning. It’s more a matter of setting intents with some firm flexibility thrown in.

Please permit me to thank you, all my readers, for following my blog over the last five months. I have appreciated your company, thoughts and comments, and have enjoyed sharing the life I’ve been leading with you. There will be more. Leaving God’s holy land and returning to the largely secular, fully explained and accounted-for world of Britain, where everything is perfectly normal except when it isn’t, I wish you all the following prayer, however you care to read it.

May God bless you and keep you,
cause light to shine around you
and guide your way home.

I shall be back in Palestine again one day and invite you to join me on the next trip! Ma’assalam – go in peace.

Now please go to to check out my forthcoming book and the extra features on the site – including some wonderful photo-slideshows of Palestine.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Virtues of Giving

An armoured digger was rumbling slowly up through the military construction site toward a new piece of the separation wall that is being built at Al Walaja. The wall is slicing through Palestinian land to surround the growing Israeli settlement of Har Gilo, which is taking over much of the hill on which Al Walaja, an extended farming village, is located. Over 100 Palestinian houses have been demolished for it. Just round the corner is Cremisan monastery, a well-run estate managed by the Salesians, an ancient Christian sect here in Bethlehem – its land is going to be sliced through by the new wall. It’s crazy.

Wall in construction at Al Walaja
Ishmael was getting nervous. There was an armoured police van cruising around watching us, and he knew it would be waiting for us further on, watching what we were doing. I obliged, stopped photographing and hopped back in the car. “If there’s a problem, Ishmael, I’ll handle it – you’re just an innocent taxi-driver, okay?” But I knew he was concerned because his son Tareq had been released from Israeli jail only a few months ago, during the big release Hamas had fixed in return for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and the Israelis are now going around re-arresting some of those who were released. Not because many of them are doing anything suspicious, but they are suspected of possibly doing something – and that, to the Israelis is enough. Enough to give them an excuse to bomb Gaza a week or two ago, killing over 20 people and wounding nearly a hundred.

In the unlikely event that I got arrested, I could talk my way out of it, cite a few names and, at worst, waste 24 hours, but for Ishmael and people like him it’s a very different story. He’s an inmate of Deheisheh refugee camp, which immediately makes him suspect, even though he is the least troublesome man you could imagine – respectable, cautious, law-abiding (though Palestinians have a free-style approach to law, not least because many of the laws applied to them are nonsensical, giving new meaning to the term ‘criminal law’).

Wall and watchtower over a busy Bethlehem street
As part of my rounding-out and finishing-off process in Palestine – I leave in a week – I asked Ishmael to take me round some of the landscape atrocities around Bethlehem, to photograph them. It was a hazy day, even up here in the mountains, but since I’m running out of time I’ve just got to do it anyway. I now have 10,000 photos of Palestine, 2,000 of which are excellent. I use them for my own uses (for example, here) and also to give to Palestine-support groups and organisations for their use (contact me if you’re interested).

Life goes on anyway, in its shadow
Of course, everyone wants me to visit them before I go, but time is running out. Why did they not visit me? One of the issues I’ve had to do battle with while here has been that of being taken for granted. It goes like this: we are the suffering Palestinians and our lives are so hard and we need help, so people should come and help us (and we will make as much use of them as possible). It’s not entirely conscious – just an ingrained attitude of mind. So there’s an unconscious tendency to treat us foreigners like helping machines and walking ATMs.

I’ve had to lay down the law on a few occasions: unless you can help me help you, I will be of less help. And, if you expect people like me to be money-providers, it makes our visits more expensive, which means we cannot come back easily – knowing that you’ll do it again!

This doesn’t work. It’s a psychology of dependency and, unfortunately, we Westerners are as guilty of imposing it and inveigling it on Palestinians as they are of falling into its trap. Takes two to tango. But only some Palestinians are like this: many have retained their dignity and wisdom, irrespective of their poverty, appreciating what comes when it does come, and avoiding changing their lives to attract more of it or rely on it.

I don’t want to be critical though: it’s too easy for a better-off person to get on their high horse and judge those who are poorer. Something is so easily forgotten in this day and age: the richer have a duty to support the poorer people of the world, not only to help the poor but also to save their own souls. The challenge is to do it discerningly, in ways that genuinely help people without creating negative side-effects and the destruction of social unity and vibrancy. Development and military aid can be insidious in their effects.

The Israeli settlement of Har Homa
hangs over Bethlehem, itself fenced in
The challenge is to be helpful without binding people into psychological slavery and the capitalist development treadmill, helping them in strategic ways to strengthen society and solve problems without making them addicted. Tricky. Foreign money in Palestine has been misused to gain power and even as a way of conducting war. I refer here to the threat used against Palestine that funds will be withdrawn unless they comply with foreigners’ wishes, which has been done by Western governments several times in the last decade, most recently last October after Palestine’s UN membership bid.

At Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem.
It's difficult to tell whether the wall protects
Israelis from Palestinians or vice versa
but it's still apartheid, imposed by one side
The trick is to help people help themselves. Sometimes they have a crucial issue they cannot overcome which, if resolved with a cash download, can unblock a logjam and help them move forward from there. So, when Ishmael’s son Tareq emerged from Israeli jail in January, I gave Ishmael some money to help them buy some catch-up tutoring for Tareq, to render him eligible for university and give him something to get his teeth stuck into after emerging from prison. This made a critical difference. But when Adnan asked me to lend him a substantial sum to keep the lawyers at bay, thanks to his unpaid debts, my answer was no, since Adnan demonstrated that he had not learned a lesson I had talked with him about three years ago, and Adnan’s debts were a black hole to pour money into, sad to say.

I’ve had one request which I find tricky. The cause is good – to supply hearing aids to two children in Irtas – but the sum involved, 900 GBP for each child, is beyond my means, and I don’t want to weigh myself down raising money in UK when this is not my forte. So, if anyone wishes to sponsor two pairs or hearing aids, I can vouch for the family (whose head is Sheikh Hajjani, mentioned in an earlier blog) and the genuineness of the case, and I will happily act as (unpaid) middleman and adviser in the interaction.

It comes right into Bethlehem
I must mention one thing. Being in Palestine isn’t just a matter of giving. I have received so much from being here, from these people. Returning to Britain will involve a degree of self-suppression and switch-down which isn’t easy – bizarrely, Palestine and the situation it is in permits a flowering of heart and soul. This arises from both the tragedies and the joys one witnesses and participates in here, as well as the attitude of Palestinians to life. This indeed is a Holy Land, where something is revealed that is not quite present elsewhere (but I wish more people would get it!). The emotional intelligence and relative openness of Palestinians opens me up, as a crusty old Westerner, and this accelerates my growth as a soul and personality.

The acts of generosity and sharing one can witness here are also salutary. I’ve watched many Westerners arrive here to take a look, receiving a positive shock at what happens to them on the very first day. I have never ever met a foreign visitor with a negative response to this place. Some keep coming back as much as they can.

One English chap, Ron from Yorkshire, seems to have grown tired of his life in Britain, and he’s back again and again. He participates in non-violent actions against settlers and Israeli incursions – “I’ve developed an addiction to tear gas and twisted arms”, he once said. But he loves it, and he loves helping Bedouin shepherds reclaim their land, or making his point at Al Walaja just north of Bethlehem, where the Israelis are busy annexing land, building the wall and giving the local Palestinian farmers a very hard time.

It’s all part of the Israeli ‘Greater Jerusalem’ project, in which they are encircling Jerusalem with settlements and walls and pushing over the Green Line into Palestinian territory, seeking to develop Jerusalem as an Israeli city. Yet Jerusalem is geographically the capital and hub of the highland West Bank, from which the city is being separated. It’s a colonisation and occupation crime. Israelis of course do not see it that way – they see it as a return to their historic eternal capital and a legitimate exclusion of Arabic intruders, however long they have been there.

So, despite all this, spending time in Palestine has great rewards. If you want to raise the human-factor stakes in your own life, I highly recommend it. You might bring benefit to others too while you’re at it – probably in ways you never thought possible, often simply through listening and being friendly. But this issue really is the interchange. It’s a fair trade.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Occupational Hazards

All pictures in this blog entry are from Deheisheh refugee camp, Bethlehem, just down the road from me. It's where Ishmael, my friend the taxi-driver, and his family live, and where Ibrahim Issa was born.

For 25 years, following the occupation in 1967
Deheisheh was surrounded by a fence, and
refugees had to enter through this turnstile
I went to a talk about normalisation. It concerned an issue that has troubled me, affecting my own actions, and that’s why I went. Yousef Habash, who gave the talk, is a member of the Executive Committee of PNGO, a Palestinian umbrella organization comprising 132 member organizations working in different developmental fields.

Normalisation concerns establishing relations between Palestinians and Israelis, building connections over the apartheid barrier. This sounds good, and it is commonly the norm in the donor countries to encourage and fund projects that further such relationships.

Deheisheh is densely-packed but
it has a strong community atmosphere
But there’s a problem. We are not talking about Britain and Germany at the end of WW2, or America and the USSR or twenty years ago – countries of a comparable standing and power who were able to make respectful treaties at the end of their conflicts, and who had recourse to reserve options if such treaties went wrong. We’re talking about one nation which is economically and militarily superior, an invader of the other nation and generally supported by the international community. We aren’t talking about equal partners. Thus, relationships tend to unfold on an unequal basis – Palestinians can’t go out to restaurants or pull strings like Israelis can, and if official permissions are sought to meet up, Israelis have far more power than Palestinians – because Israelis are the invaders, with the power to decide. There’s a psychological issue too: people in winner nations have more confidence and clout than people in loser nations, no matter how many self-empowerment workshops one might attend.

It's full of narrow alleyways
But there’s more still. This is one of the reasons I started out working with both sides in a reconciliatory manner, then to discover something was wrong, which caused me to gravitate to the Palestinian side. Not because I turned anti-Israeli, but because I could see that the Palestinians needed more assistance to get to a place where peace would be possible. They had lost too much, and the odds were stacked against them. Israelis, on the other hand, just needed to work to maintain what they had gained from the Palestinians, and they had a tendency to use peacemaking measures as a cover for maintaining these gains and perpetuating the oppression they nowadays continue.

Many walls are decorated by murals
memorialising people killed by the Israelis
Many Israelis are not conscious of this. Thus, international tours with an Israeli and a Palestinian speaker, which originally I was involved with organising, tended to be the Israeli starring with a fascinating Palestinian as a guest, generally raising the Israeli’s kudos since he was a peacemaker with the good grace to bring a Palestinian along, and since an enlightened Israeli is, in some ways, more of a wow-factor for Westerners than a Palestinian.

Many Israelis say to me, “Well, why don’t the Palestinians just accept their losses, forget the past and come to a deal with us? ”. Well, that sounds logical, but it’s shot with holes. It’s simple: Palestinians don’t forget the past for the same reason why the Israelis won’t forget the Holocaust. “But the Holocaust was far bigger a crime.” That might be so, but in no way does it excuse what Israelis have done to Palestinians and continue doing today – ethnic cleansing, stealing of land, demolition of Palestinian houses, bombing Gaza, arrests and the whole matrix of control they exert over Palestinians.

Here's the main street of the camp
“But they want their land back, when it was over sixty years ago they lost it, and this isn’t practical. They ought to drop the past.” The same applies to Jews trying to reclaim their possessions and properties in Germany, Poland and Switzerland, from before WW2. They are permitted to do it, and some have won substantial restitution, so the same right applies to Palestinians, whose losses are more recent, in some cases this year.

These Israeli views represent a sense of entitlement and self-referencing rightness which Israelis hardly notice they have. They just wish Palestinians would stop making such a fuss over what’s past and gone. But the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza are justified on an historical rationale – the West Bank occupation is justified by biblical and historical claims going back 2,000 years and more. There’s a massive hole in this kind of thinking.

In 1950 it started as tents, then huts by the late 1950s,
then, as people moved out, those who remained
built houses like these
Fact is, Palestinians mostly accept the loss of ‘1948 Palestine’ (the area that became ‘Israel proper’), but they do not accept the loss of the West Bank to the 1967 invasion and subsequent colonisation by Israel through settlement-building and the seizing of large and strategic tracts of land. Accepting the loss of ‘1948 Palestine’ involves accepting the loss of 78% of the Palestinians’ original land, nearly four-fifths. Understandably, Palestinians wish to go no further – they have swallowed too many hard facts already.

So the anti-normalisation campaign in Palestine seeks to stop relations between Palestinians and Israelis that fail to acknowledge the Nakba, the Disaster, the losses, deaths, evictions and tragedies of 1948, when the state of Israel was forcibly established. This massacre and ethnic cleansing was deliberate policy on the Israelis’ part. There are relations between Palestinians and Israelis who accept this and set out to oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, but there are plenty that do not accept or acknowledge it.

Everywhere, kids
The problem here is that joint projects can look like nice reconciliatory ventures – two popular examples being Seeds of Peace and One Voice – yet they can cover up the real issues at stake, that the Israelis continue to make inroads into Palestinian land and rights, continuing to kill Palestinians, and that they have no sincere intention of pulling back or bringing any restitution. They want what they’ve got and more, but they deny the Palestinians what they want and need.

The fact that it is the Israelis who are in the position of graciously giving back what they have taken, while it is the Palestinians who are supplicants whose requests can easily be refused or skimped over, makes for an unequal relationship. Palestinians who fight for the rights of their people are terrorists and extremists, while Israelis who do the same serve the forces of law and order – whether it’s propaganda or reality, the relationship is unequal.

I spent a fine 15 minutes breaking the
language barrier with these sweet girls -
you can see the future in their faces
So the question of normalisation is fraught. The problem is that there are subtle distinctions involved. First, not all cross-border organisations and networks adopt a clear political platform. In many of them, the Israelis involved are a mixture of those with well-meaning intent who wish to make friends but do not intend to give anything back, except perhaps to keep the Palestinians quiet and please the international community, and there are those who stand against the occupation and want to do something about it. So banning connections when a mixed bag is the case can actually alienate some Israelis that many Palestinians want to keep on-side and build relationships with.

One person in the audience made a valid point. The projects that might be banned are sometimes a starting-place for many Israelis, many of who have never had anything to do with Palestinians. The first step here is for Israelis to realise that Palestinians are ordinary people with ordinary wishes, aspirations and concerns – not bogeymen, barbarians or cut-throats, as many Israelis have been indoctrinated to believe. Then, arising from this, some of those Israelis might go further to accept what Israel has done to Palestinians. So such projects that gloss over the occupation have their value.

It's quite an artform, this
martyr iconography
This is a fair point. But it is countered with the notion that such reconciliatory ventures can cover over the harder truths and people can build a habit, an institution, of not looking at awkward truths, incanting the above-mentioned statement of “Why don’t they stop fretting about the past?”. Also, why don’t such Israelis do something to meet up with their own Palestinians in Israel (so-called ‘Arab Israelis’, as if they are different from Palestinians)? These people constitute 20% of the population of the state of Israel, but they are in practice heavily discriminated against within that state. The anti-normalisation campaign says that Israelis should befriend Israeli Palestinians first, and correct the inequality in their own nation, before making friends with West Bankers. Another fair point.

This martyr looks like a decent chap.
Life ended prematurely. Only the locals cared.
I was down in Tel Aviv last week. I attended a meeting at The Hub, a meeting and working place for people involved in new start-ups – a major sector in the Israeli economy centred on Tel Aviv. The idea was to propagate the idea of starting a Hub in Palestine. The Palestinians attending the meeting were either Arab Israelis, somehow representing their brothers in the West Bank, or West Bankers who had had to have permits fixed so that they could visit Tel Aviv – a lengthy and insecure procedure where Israelis have to vouch for them (again, making the relationship unequal). It was a good meeting with potentially positive outcomes.

The main entrance to Deheisheh camp
from the main Hebron road
But I realised what was going on here. The Israelis present indeed were well-meaning, but there was a potential glitch – such a move would reactivate the old problem between Israelis and Palestinians, which is more of a problem for Palestinians than for Israelis. So I butted in to offer some help from Britain, from a more objective, detached partner. Such hub-building developments are going on in Britain, and the British foreign office offers grants to help such things. It would also help Palestinians by having expertise and encouragement coming from Britain rather than Israel – especially if conflict or polarisation flares up.

This was welcomed by the Palestinians and generally welcomed by the Israelis, though I think they might have felt I was stealing the show. But it highlights a point here: it’s not good enough for an Israeli simply to be well-meaning toward Palestinians. It’s important for Israelis to do something to undo the damage directly done by their country – damage being continued even today – and to recognise that the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza must end.

I tried to get the car moved but they couldn't
find the driver. Mustn't be an insistent foreigner,
expecting everyone to run around for me.
It’s important also for foreigners to recognise this and our part in it – and I am one of those who does. It’s not good enough to play nicey-nicey peace games and insist that everyone stops being nasty to each other. Fact is, in doing so, we cover Israel’s tracks, allowing it to continue with atrocities this very day, and we pressurise the Palestinians to shut up, swallow hard, accept all their losses and play someone else’s game of cover-up. Building peace isn’t about making peace in the first instance, it’s about the restitution of justice – and peace will follow that. Westerners need to understand this and stop using the peace card as a way of bashing Palestinians for legitimately digging in their heels.

In my own dealings with Israelis I have to be willing to lose some friends by presenting, in the best possible ways, some awkward truths. This is tricky, because in Israel there is an unspoken ethic that goes “We won’t talk about that – that’s just incitement – so let’s just talk peace”. In other words, though it’s never said, I’m being asked to shut up.

I agree with the basics of the anti-normalisation campaign. Though I have some reservations about the precise instances and issues involved. Sometimes, for example, I allow Israelis to get away with ‘not talking about it’ in order to soften them up before coming in with my awkward truths – but this tactic would be considered by some to be normalisation. Sometimes a little trickery is involved too, in order to get some information or fix something – just saying this would certainly make some of my Israeli friends distrust me. But it’s true that, for example, to come here to help the Palestinians, I must at times call on the support of Israeli friends in order to vouch for me, so that I can gain entry to the country.

It’s also true that I support peace-building, and the way to do that is to foster relationships over the (Israeli-built) separation wall. It’s true that the past should be forgotten – but the best way to do this is to perform some genuine restitution of the ills and insecurities that Palestinians still suffer from. For Palestinians to forget their past, Israelis should set an example by consigning the Holocaust to the past (since they still use it to justify their current actions, to maintain the Zionist ‘everyone is against the Jews’ mindset). 

The Holocaust should never be forgotten, neither the Nakba, and the rigid, unforgiving way that both are remembered definitely doesn’t help resolution now. However, nothing can now be done about the Holocaust (except definitely not repeating anything similar), but something can be done about the Nakba – that’s a big difference. Germany is still paying vast sums to Israel in restitution for the Holocaust, but Israel is avoiding restitution to Palestinians by allowing foreign countries and agencies to support and perform the necessary social duties an occupying power should carry out, protecting the welfare of its subjects, according to international law to which Israeli is signed up.

You've probably heard the term shebab, referring to
Somali terrorists. Well, it actually means 'the lads'.
Here they are, busy not sitting in front of computers.
Never do I feel in danger amongst youths here.
Something needs to happen here. This concerns not just the whingeing of Palestinians. It concerns the carrying out of international law and standards, as decided by the international community. Occupation and colonisation of others’ land is illegal – it should be returned. Oppression of an occupied people is illegal. An invading power has a legal responsibility to cater for people under occupation. This is the law. It should be adhered to, otherwise international law is empty.

There’s also something the Palestinians need to learn. They have tended in the past to say No to various ideas and decisions from the international community. Fair enough. But simply blocking something doesn’t necessarily help, because international forums can then get fed up, conclude that the Palestinians are just being reactive and obstreperous, and decide in favour of the other side. It’s too simple just to block things. It’s necessary to make positive statements and do good PR in order to get one’s point understood. So it’s necessary to go on the offensive with this. Instead of saying No, it is necessary to state positively what one will go along with, and to make it loud and clear, louder than the ‘No’. Even the concept of ‘anti-normalisation’ is negative: it’s a movement for justice and a lasting solution.

Thanks for letting us see Deheisheh, Puddy Tat.
So, the Palestinians need to look at their side of the equation too, and to learn from history. Here’s an example: after the Israelis’ thumping victory in the 1967 Six Day War, which started the occupation of the West Bank, the Arabs adopted the policy of ‘the Three Nos’ – no recognition of Israel, no peace and no negotiation. Well, fine. But the consequence was that the Arabs made no progress for twenty years because they posited their position negatively, in terms of ‘no’. They lapsed into the same idea Israel falls into, that of punishing the other side for its perceived wrongdoings. It gets nowhere. The challenge is thus to change the concept from ‘anti-normalisation’ to ‘steps to peace’. If these steps are followed, we will make peace – that’s a positive statement that gives diplomats and the other side something to get to grips with.

So the talk was interesting, and it applies to me personally. I’ll have to think about this. Life goes on. Meanwhile, I have nine days left in Palestine – I leave on 27th March.