Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Tel Aviv


A cat has come up to me, mewing ferociously in cat-Hebrew, but it’s not getting my kosher sandwich. I’m at the train station in Tel Aviv, taking a welcome break in a café, having travelled from Bethlehem via Jerusalem, with the help of a taxi, a bus, a tram and another bus.

I find this a rather difficult country to get around. In some respects it is easier to get around the West Bank because, although things are more chaotic, people are so helpful, even excessively so, and if you go with the flow, things always work out somehow. But here, it’s not just that signs are in Hebrew script, but also there don’t seem to be many of them – you’re somehow supposed to know where to go. Everyone moves around studiously ignoring one another. I find myself asking the way of soldiers, and some have been very friendly.

Back in Jerusalem I took the new tramline from the Arab bus station in Sheikh Jarrah, just by the Damascus Gate. It said it was going to the Central Station – I sought a train to Tel Aviv. But when I got there, it was a bus station. I asked a man where the train station was and he looked at me as if I was crazy. “You want a train? Don’t take a train, take a bus – the trains here are no good”, and he walked off. So I asked a soldier, standing there chatting with his girlfriend, both with sub-machineguns languidly slung over shoulders, and he told me where to get the Tel Aviv bus, the 480.

Earlier today, back at the Gilo checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the soldier who examined my passport took a cursory look at it and said “How’re you doing? Have a good day!”, with a pleasant smile. Something is changing in this country: the lengthy searches, interrogations and security queues seem to have loosened up, and soldiers and security people seem more relaxed and, frankly, bored. It’s perhaps an unwitting response to the fact that the Palestinians have stopped fighting – they want a more normal life, as do Israelis. So even though Israeli conventional wisdom determines that Palestinians are a threat which must be countered at all costs, the Palestinians aren’t like that and, intuitively, many Israelis know it even if their conditioned belief says otherwise.

Nevertheless, the security scanners you have to pass through to get into bus and train stations are tedious, with long queues – the one at the Jerusalem bus station took 25 minutes to get through. Most Israelis were more upset about it than I, and the poor security workers, most of them the ‘guest-workers’ who have moved to Israel to replace Palestinians in the more low-paid and tedious jobs, had to deal with the protestations of Orthodox Jews and old men who, in their eyes, should be exempt from security checks.

Then, when I arrived in Tel Aviv, I sought a café. I asked an old man. “Café? You want a café? This is a bus station, can’t you see?” he said, looking at me as if I were slightly crazy.

“Well, yes, but isn’t there a café here?” Again, he looked at me as if I were from another planet. In this he is not incorrect but, to me, where people are waiting for trains and buses, I’m accustomed to cafes being there.  

“Go to the train station, there. There’s a café there. It’s lousy.”

So then I had to go through the security scanners again. “What’s in your bag?” asked the soldier. “Computer, camera, personal things…” “Got batteries in there?” “Er, yes.” For some reason he accepted my word, nodded and let me go. Ah, today I’m no terrorist – that’s good news. Now for another session of returning the contents of my pockets to their proper places – how many times a day must this go on?

Nevertheless, Tel Aviv is a very different place from Jerusalem. It’s a pleasant, modern and cosmopolitan city, built in a modernistic style based on a grid of five main streets running parallel to the Mediterranean shore, with wide boulevards crossing them at right-angles. People don’t advertise their Jewishness here as much as in Jerusalem – it’s a city of business and culture beside the Mediterranean, and a good deal warmer than Bethlehem this time of year. Also it’s a very different environment, a different planet just 50km from Bethlehem – a good place to reflect on what I’m doing back in the West Bank, and to get ready for the next phase.

But when you walk down these genteel tree-lined streets, in some parts lined with four-storey blocks of apartments built in the German Bauhaus style, or a 1950s-60s modernist style, it’s difficult to remember that, just 25 miles eastward, there is a military occupation going on. Joggers prance along in the park, cars drive hither and thither, and high-rise offices and flats pierce the skyline with a certain elegance. In Jerusalem you get a greater feeling of polarisation and edginess, while here you get a sense of the good life being lived – there’s hardly a sense of the ongoing hardships and atrocities of the occupation in the West Bank, and soldiers in uniform are not such a common sight. Here one can ‘live inside the bubble’, as if all is well on Yahweh’s good earth.

But my hostess Ora feels differently. She certainly doesn’t favour what’s going on in her country, and she comes from a leftist, enlightened family who have never approved of the occupation and Israel’s Zionist tendency. She lives her life intensely aware of the elephant in the room and the mass of gloop under the Israeli national carpet, and she has difficulty finding people to talk to about it. Most people either support the Zionist agenda or they keep their heads down and don’t look at it. I think that’s why she’s enjoying my visit – and I’m not one who pits himself against Israel either, meaning that she can speak her truth without having to deal with the otherwise rather fixed and polarised anti-Zionist mindset that many overseas Palestine activists have. She can speak of the issues she encounters as an anti-Zionist Israeli without feeling she’s treading on glass or feeding the anti-Israeli prejudices some foreigners have – such as the belief that Israelis all must be fascists, negative or severely disturbed.

She’s constrained also by being an Israeli. She cannot travel freely in Palestine. She can break the rules and pass beyond the signs which say ‘Entry to Israelis prohibited’, which stand at the entries to Palestinian Areas A and B, and she does do so, but she cannot easily feel secure there, knowing that, when there, she relies on the goodwill and trust of sympathetic Palestinians to keep her from trouble – and she could get into double trouble from the Israeli authorities too. She doesn’t actually get much trouble, since Palestinians judge others on manifest behaviour more than religion or nationality – but it’s still a nagging insecurity in the back of one’s mind. Palestinians also don’t tell her everything or fully open up since, to them, every Israeli is a potential risk, and Palestinians too can be pressured by their peers if they mix too much with people from the other side.

Also Ora, a computer techie who builds websites, served in the Israeli army in radio monitoring and eavesdropping, back in the 1970s – so she herself has been part of the problem even if she now means not to be so. I first met her at the meeting of the Center for Emerging Futures in Beit Jala, mentioned earlier on in this blog. What connects us is that we’re both aged hippies, with a similarity of viewpoint, and a similarity of experience too, where the respective societies we live in have a serious case of denial over the issues we talk about and hold to be important.

She was born in the 1950s at a time when Israel was a brave young nation struggling to build itself up, to establish its patch, in the shadow of WW2. It was a brave time of nation-building, of bringing Western ways to the Middle East, and of reviving from the horrors of the Holocaust. She told me of older people she had grown up amongst, who had been together during the dark years of WW2 and then migrated to Israel traumatised and huddling together for protection while starting a new life. For example, one neighbouring household when she was a child was composed of a married couple together with the wife’s sister, and everyone wondered what exactly their relations were – but they had survived a nightmare together and become bonded in mutual self-protection as a result. Little did many of the earlier Israelis know of what was taking place or brewing as Israel, in the late 1960s, transited from being a small, struggling nation into a relatively rich and invincible regional power.

For Israel has gone through roughly three phases thus far: the first two decades as it established itself as a largely secular, left-wing refuge for Jews drawn from many countries, particularly Eastern and Central Europe; in the second two decades, the 1970s-80s, after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (and, for a while, the Sinai Peninsula), the country developed further and became more set in its ways as a developed country and an occupier of Palestine; and then in the last two decades the country became more exaggerated in its rather schizoid polarisation between corporate-capitalist materialism (in Tel Aviv) and religious and right-wing nationalism in Jerusalem – the days characterised by the leaderships of Ariel Sharon and Binjamin Netanyahu.

The West Bank settlement project started after the 1967 Six Day War, during the second phase, and grew immensely from 1990ish onwards as the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank was consolidated, even under the nose of the wider world in the 1990s, which naively believed there was a peace process going on.

Ora finds it difficult living in this environment. Her grown-up son moved to London ten years ago – one of the strategies many more free-thinking Israelis resort to. She looks at his virulent Facebook postings about Nazism in Israel, in essence agreeing with them, though also deeply upset that, while put in an extreme way, this description of her country is horribly true. Yet here in Tel Aviv you would not think so. You could live here in this city of cafes, cultural centres, computer-industry start-ups and the modern good life, turning a blind eye to it all, if you so wished.

Events of the occupation are hardly covered on TV, and many Israelis don’t even know about what’s happening in their name. It’s all covered by that ubiquitous term ‘security measures’, as if necessary and justified thereby, though it is largely propaganda. But she cannot turn a blind eye. I reminded her that, in a less acute way, we Brits live with the same self-delusion: we are a military nation too, though our battles and occupations are further away on foreign shores, well out of sight, and our arms industry is conveniently rationalised as a business providing jobs and profits for the British economy. And my beige Marks and Spender chinos are made by faceless low-paid workers in Bangladesh. We are by degrees the same as Israelis.

In the morning we went to a pleasant outdoor café down by the beach to have a late breakfast and meet two other ladies, both of whom were activists against the occupation. I was interested to discover that one of them, though she has been involved in opposing the occupation for some years, knows very little about Palestinians – she asked me questions about Bethlehem and listened with rapt attention when I talked about Palestine, Jordan and some of the history of the conflict. After all, Israelis are the third tranche of foreign occupiers of this land in recent centuries – the first two being the Ottomans and the British. And each occupation has been worse than the previous one.

We wandered around the old port of Tel Aviv – now a harbourside precinct of cafes and service outlets – built by the British in the 1930s when the Arabs of Jaffa stopped permitting Israelis to land there and trade through their ancient port. We’ll visit Jaffa this afternoon – something that interests me because, in my studies of the Crusades and other times of history, Jaffa, with Acre, has been a prominent place. This evening, I shall sit in on Ora’s Arabic conversation class, and then we’re going to a world music concert together with some leftwing anarchist friends of hers.

I find myself a little restless to get back to the fray in Bethlehem though, so I’ll leave tomorrow, go to visit my friend Yitzhaq in Jerusalem and proceed back to Bethlehem. I’m concerned about Hope Flowers and my role in helping them keep going through the crisis that now faces it. I don’t know whether I’m a sucker for punishment or simply dedicated to this work, but hanging out in comfortable Tel Aviv, while interesting, is not what I came to this land for.

Monday, 28 November 2011

What's the Use?

The Western notion of a weekend doesn’t really exist here. We have three separate days that are holy days for each of the three faiths: Friday for Muslims, Friday sundown to Saturday sundown for Jews and Sundays for Christians. So you need to know what to do and what not to try doing on those days. However, Palestinians are a driven lot, and they don’t necessarily stop for holy days – rather like Europeans nowadays with their Sundays, they use the holy day for catching up on all those things that didn’t get done during the week.

On Saturday, chaos ruled and I had to give in to it. This was best because, if you adhere rigidly to plans, you simply get worn out and frustrated, and you achieve nothing anyway. I had been roped into fixing a few things to help in the staging of a carnival in Bethlehem by some Brits, who were bringing some Palestinians up from a village near Hebron to do a children’s parade. Except things didn’t go according to plan. In fact, I never found out what actually happened. I was supposed to fix the loan of a wheelchair for a disabled kid and, luck would have it, I found a way of doing it and was to phone Adnan about it on Saturday morning. After ringing him, followed by a few calls with the carnival group, I found out that a wheelchair had been found. Oh, okay then. So back I had to go to Adnan to cancel the arrangement. Slightly embarrassing, that.

Then I was supposed to help a lady I knew (Sheikh Bukhari’s widow Hala) to come from Jerusalem to join the event, but there was so much toing-and-froing and changing of plans that she withdrew. That took five phone calls. Then I was supposed to meet up with one of the British people in the group but, by the time I had finished work and could do so, she told me on the phone that she and her group were suddenly returning home to Hebron. Oh, alright, okay then. So I went into town anyway and did other things. But later I found out they hadn’t left Bethlehem after all and I could have met them.

Oh well, so much for all that. I did some important work amidst all of this, so all was not lost. Did some shopping too, had some amazing fresh pomegranate juice, took some street-scene photos and got accosted by some PA security guards who thought I might be a spy, and I walked around a part of Bethlehem I hadn’t visited before. I returned home to get on with more work.

The next day, Sunday, I was supposed to accompany Ibrahim and Maram to Tuwani, a village in the far south of the West Bank which I visited last June. This place is rather moving to visit. But it didn’t happen. So I got on with more work – fixing a website for a good friend back home in Cornwall.

Then in the afternoon I went with Ibrahim to the Issa family’s new house. At present it is still being built. Ibrahim tells me that, although he’s not really in a financial position to be buying a house at present, he knows that, if he doesn’t do it now, he probably never will. Their current house is too small for them and it is in Duha, a rather crowded part of Bethlehem. The new house is on top of a hill on the edge of Beit Jala, with views in every direction and a fine feeling of being on top of the world – which it is, being on one of the higher locations in the whole West Bank.

One of the issues here is that it is customary for parents to support their children by providing a home for them when they marry. Now Ibrahim’s kids are just aged six to nine, but in ten years’ time they will be at marriageable age, and now’s the time to get a big, multi-level house, so that when that time comes the family can accommodate everyone. That’s why Ibrahim needs a new house – and to have it paid off by the time the weddings start happening.

It was good to spend some time with Ibrahim – he’s so often busy barrelling around juggling things. We didn’t talk at great length, but I know he appreciates my steady, empathic, intelligent company. In some respects I feel his father stands behind me. Hussein, the founder of Hope Flowers, was just two years older than me – he died at age 50, twelve years ago. Now Hope Flowers is in its third existential crisis – the first two were the first and second intifadas – and I’m aware that Ibrahim, who is only in his later thirties, while being very capable, is somewhat out of his depth. A paternal influence, understanding and unflappable, is valuable in such circumstances. But I don’t take it too far.

2011 has been, for the Issa family, an annus horribilis – a year of problem after problem, with few let-ups. Ibrahim feels quite justifiably disheartened with what has happened, and he’s struggling with that corrosive “What’s the use?” kind of feeling. First there were the allegations of corruption and malpractice against Hope Flowers which, after a few months of hard work, we managed to deal with – though the devastation and complications have continued. Then another event really knocked the stuffing out of the family, and we’re busy trying to deal with that now.

Trouble is, some of the funders of Hope Flowers are making far more of a fuss about it all than is due (in my opinion). They insist on having Ibrahim and others run around doing their bidding, by threatening court cases, the freezing of people’s assets and other sanctions, without realising that they are actually proving to be more part of the problem than the solution. They think they’re right, of course, and in many issues they are, especially from a Western viewpoint, but in other issues they are not, and they fail to see it or to fully own their own responsibilities. They were a small part of the cause of the problem, but they’re not recognising that in their actions. Westerners are, of course, right, and Palestinians need to pull their socks up. But times are also changing, and Westerners are less aware of this than others.

This is one of the problematic aspects of seeking funding from benefactors: they consider that, since they are giving money, the recipients of this charity have no rights and are obliged to do everything the donors wish and require. They forget that carrying out the mission they are funding is a very difficult thing, and that these people here in Palestine have risked their lives for this. Much of the money might be coming from abroad, but the biggest investment is still being made by those who are doing the actual business, here in Palestine, a place where you can get your nose picked by the bayonet of a soldier’s sub-machinegun. But the funders’ position is valid too, and old Muggins here seems to be mediating across a rather yawning gulf, trying to reconcile two conflicting valid positions.

It’s a delicate matter. I hope I’m getting things right, and sometimes wish I had someone to talk to about it or check what I’ve done. I need a line-manager! But I must remain confidential and, besides, few would really understand the issues without being here and knowing about the background details and nuances. Things that make sense and seem logical in the West don’t necessarily add up here, and it’s complex. So I’m persevering.

Today, Monday, we went at last to Tuwani. This is a special place, a small, rather poor village in the hills down south of Hebron. It’s under attack from settlers in a nearby Israeli settlement called Ma’on. Ma’on’s settlers are so extreme that even the Israeli government has disowned them – though it still does nothing about them. These settlers have been attacking the village, pulling up olive trees and damaging land, picking fights and generally giving the villagers a hard time. But help comes to Tuwani in two main forms: the first is the Two Neighbors Project, and the second is Operation Dove, an Italian Christian peacemaking group.


Ibrahim and Maram are officers in the Two Neighbors project, a women’s joint economic development venture involving Palestinians and Israelis. The women produce coffee-cup holders, for use with disposable coffee cups. The holders are made up in Israel, embroidered at Tuwani and sold in USA. It’s a good project involving the women in this very traditional part of Palestine, and Hope Flowers participated by providing a women’s empowerment course for the Tuwani women. Overall, the project is run by the Center for Emerging Futures, who crop up elsewhere on this blog.

Operation Dove is one of several Christian projects in Palestine. They set out to “to suffer with those who suffer” by living with them, carrying out civilian escort and people-protection work, and working with reconciliation and non-violent action. Some of them are Italian conscientious objectors who work with Operation Dove instead of doing military service. I admire them because they put themselves on the line, following their Master Jesus’ words “By their works shall ye know them”. While waiting for Maram to finish with the Tuwani women, Ibrahim and I sat in their wee house drinking sage tea and watching a video one of them had taken about the demolition of some houses and a mosque in a local village over the hills, called Umm Fagarah.

The video was suitably distressing. You can see the Italian Christians arguing the toss with the Israeli soldiers, many of whom are themselves settlers, who form army detachments in areas like this to support their fellows. As soon as the soldiers went away, the activists joined with the villagers in starting to rebuild the mosque.




After visiting Tuwani, we came back and I settled down to writing a firmly diplomatic letter concerning a problem we’re working with. I did my best. Tomorrow it looks like I’m going over the wall to Tel Aviv, to see some friends there. And to raid a wholefood store for some herbal supplements and tofu! Despite all the religion around here, I’m surrounded with animal flesh-eaters who fail to realise that animals are also God’s little children, and the tofu is my answer to what could otherwise become a cumulative protein shortage. Well, this is not the greatest of issues in this world, but it’s still worth slipping through the checkpoints to do something about it!

To complete this assortment of tales, let me show you a photo of something strange. This is a group of Israelis on a coach tour, looking over our area from the watchtower over the valley. They stood there listening to a lecture in Hebrew from a tour-leader with a loud-hailer which resounded around the valley on this still and sunnily-crisp day. It makes you feel a bit like an animal in a zoo. I wonder what he was telling them? They might have been liberal Israelis with an interest in the occupation and its effects. Or they might have been those Israelis who regard Palestinians as an obstacle in their way that should be got rid of and taught a lesson. They might have been American Jews, coming for a razzle in the homeland. Either way, I hope they found it interesting. I wonder if the man told them that this was a peace school, or that Al Khader is one of the most tolerant and peaceful parts of the West Bank?
Al Khader, by the way, means St George – it was here that St George, an Anatolian, lived for quite a long time, and long before the English adopted him as their patron saint. Why the Brits adopted him, I do not know – he never went to Britain, and we have loads of indigenous enlightened beings to choose from. The Crusaders, when they exercised their stallions around here 900 years ago, had something to do with it. We Westerners are good at crusading. But we’re not quite so good at picking up the mess afterwards.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Busyness

In case you needed to know what I have been doing this last 36 hours, here it is.

I have cleaned out one blocked drain and one dysfunctional, smelly toilet, washed dishes and tidied up, entertained two visitors (one Palestinian and one British), fixed up several arrangements for one of them (because her phone wasn’t working right), sorted out one piece of diplomacy with one of our funders, coaxed Ibrahim into thinking about longterm strategy and thinking about dealing with a questionnaire sent by another of our funders, amended three web-pages, corrected an essay for someone’s university course, done my clothes washing and shopping, stood quietly witnessing one argument, dealt with an anxious lady who is in a fix, missed my evening meal, written several e-mails (one of them delicate and awkward), researched a particular issue online, read a chapter on the Mamluk period in Jerusalem’s history, got nine keys cut and then went around the doors trying to figure out which key was for which door, talked with three students at Bethlehem university about their forthcoming essay on order and disjuncture in the development industry, reluctantly lent someone some money, written my last blog entry, took some photographs, did my meditation and had some sleep.

That’s what humanitarian work is all about – at least, the way it unfolds in my own life! This does not include personal thoughts – mainly about the value of what I am doing here, finding a place to live when I return to Britain in February, organising a trip away for a day or two, making sense of my agenda and finding someone to live here with me when the Issa family move out into their new home. Now it is time to do some more web-pages and then get down to Bethlehem for a meeting.

I love it, all the same. It is newmoon today, and something new is starting.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Bearing Witness

When I went to town to check out various friends, many of them were gloomy, beset with problems. It was one of those days. Each person had their own particular issues, but they all add up to a morass of collective difficulty which the customary Palestinian good humour cannot penetrate.

Naturally, our perception of life is made up of an interaction of circumstances and our feelings about them. For Palestinians living under occupation, the circumstances side of the equation bites and scrapes a wee bit harder than for many people across the world. Especially since the occupiers deliberately go about making life difficult, complex and insecure for the occupied, in military, administrative, legal and quite everyday ways. This is what Jeff Halper, a critical Israeli thinker, calls ‘the matrix of control’. The ultimate goal is to make Palestinians submit to Israeli rule, give up, go quiet and preferably leave the country.

But they don’t give up, despite the muddy mire of problems they can be beset with – or perhaps it’s a dust-storm where it’s impossible to see far and sand gets in the engine and all the moving parts. Palestinians have a life-philosophy which is admirable. But some days they go down into the doldrums and they need a good moan.

That’s one of the roles of foreigners who come here: bearing witness. This often means letting Palestinians have a good moan, describing to you with a full spectrum of feeling how difficult everything is. It can be quite challenging if you have something in your own life that’s nagging you too – happily, this wasn’t my case today. So I was able to listen fully and, when a person ground to a halt, I could start up something which might change the context of things, so that they see the same situation in a different way, for the difference between a situation and a problem lies in our state of heart and mind.

There’s a Christian grocer in town who stocks a lot of things I like, so I went to his place. While wandering around looking through the densely and intricately packed shelves, a guy comes in and starts up. I don’t understand much Arabic, but the tone of his voice translated easily – he was on a down day, overwhelmed. He and the grocer were so engaged in this man’s inventory of problems that I stood there patiently waiting to pay, listening too.

Little did he know, but in the process I did a little psychic healing on this man – smoothing out his aura, shifting the movement of his energy and the orientation of his aura from downward to upward and reconnecting him with his ‘guardian angel’. After a while, the grocer turned, noticed me, apologised and started totting up my buys. Suddenly, his friend suddenly said to him (it could have been), “And guess what…?”. The grocer grunted, to say go on, and the guy burst out laughing and said something. The grocer turns to me and said, “He tell me all these problem, and now he say his wife just got pregnant again – fifth. He say only now. Why not before, eh?”. Well, looks like the healing did something to loosen things up.

With goods in hand, I wandered off down Faraheih Street, left through the market, to be how-arre-youed and wherre-you-frommed by stall-keepers as I strolled past – mid-afternoon, they were all sitting around wondering whether to close now. I’m always amazed that being British is regarded positively, despite what we’ve done in the past, but announcing Britanniya to them always seems to elicit a good response. Just as well. A Danish guy I met a few days ago had complained that Denmark is notorious for offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and he often had to prove to people that he didn’t agree with it.

Down the passageway and some steps leading from the market I was accosted by the sweet-seller. He asked how are you, as they do, and I joked back hamdulillah – thank God (I’m okay). It was a joke because, last time I was here, I couldn’t manage responses in Arabic. He has a hand-pushed cart parked at the top of the main steps down toward the Omar Mosque and Manger Square. Palestinian sweets are guey, rich soft cakes of honey, almond and who knows what, often eaten by dropping as a cubic inch of the stuff straight into the mouth and swilling it down with coffee. I got some, to augment my weight-gain programme. Yes, folks, one way I differ from many people is that I’m thin and bony.

I then proceeded down the steps and met up with a shopkeeper I know, who was sorely troubled with the lack of trade. The pilgrim and tourist business is down and the Israelis have creamed off most of the business. Most people come in groups for just a few hours in an Israeli coach from Jerusalem, visiting the Church of the Nativity and an approved souvenir shop from which 30% of the takings are paid to the Israeli tour operators, then they’re shuttled back to Jerusalem. The Israelis have niftily captured the income from them. Independent travellers who arrive here – not exactly in floods – tend to run on a tight budget nowadays. Norwegians seem to be the richest at present. Instead of money, these visitors mainly bring ‘witness’ and interaction, a social currency, worth perhaps more than money if truth be known.

The shopkeeper complained that he had made only 100 shekels today – about £20 or $30. He thrust tea before me and carried on. Usually he has quite positive attitude, but this time he was struggling. I let him run, and it did him good. It does give them some assurance to be able to offload like this and to gain some understanding from another person – it helps them objectivise their lives.

Then I went round the corner to a café run by Adnan’s brother. I had falafel, hummus, pitta, salad and sage tea, as a late lunch. Then in came Adnan, plonking himself straight down and huffing. He starts up. His story is always complex, but he’s in the tourist souvenir trade too and he’s almost bankrupt. I know some of the things he could do to improve things (such as trading on e-Bay), and I have told him about them, but he doesn’t get it. He perpetually hopes things will work well next time, things will get better, but they don’t. Or someone else is making his life difficult and he wishes they would stop. So I usually let him blurt out his complaints, in the hope that some relief of pressure might lead him to form new conclusions.

The souvenirs he sells are lovely – especially if you’re a Christian. Lovely hand-carved olive-wood effigies of Jesus, Mary, the saints and the Nativity. Bedouin carpets, lovely Arabic dresses, inlaid boxes – all made within a few miles of here. But they don’t sell, the overheads are high, the checkpoints scare visitors away and, if your spirits are down, it’s a disaster.

Round and round in loops he goes. Adnan requires perseverance because he’s quite resistant. It’s the world that’s wrong, not him. But he appreciates the listening ear anyway, and soon we were talking about other things – mainly the carpets his grandmother had diligently woven throughout her life, which adorn the floors of many of his vast Bedouin family’s network of homes. Well, that’s that done. Now to see Albert, down in the Christian Quarter.

Albert is not a complainer, but he is in a sorry state. One year ago he had a major accident at work, fracturing his skull, haemorrhaging his brain and breaking some ribs. Then his wife, who had suffered MS, died. He had plummeted. His capacity to work is now much reduced though he carries on all the same. He’s 52 and worn out. He works as a security guard for UNRWA, and he also clears out old wells and builds walls for a living. His spare-time obsession is billiards – his friends come round to play. He’s a real character, altruistic, humorous, a maverick, but nowadays he is much faded. I cannot tell whether this is a low patch of life, or whether he’s on his way to dying. Bless him.

But he doesn’t moan. In fact, we started up a really good conversation, but it was still about his difficulties. He talked about how, at the bottom of some wells – many of them centuries old, some millennia old – there is no air and he has sometimes nearly suffocated. In a few others there are underground toxic flows of petrol or sewage, which he refuses to work with. At his work at UNRWA a few days ago, he was caught sleeping – not a good thing for a security guard – and given a warning. But they seem to like him too.

But then he started up telling his stories of former days. There was one time he took his wife to an Israeli hospital without having a permit. He managed to get her in by a combination of charm, bluster and play-acting and then, having sat with her for hours, made his way home. But in the lift he had a heart attack – he was found lying there by a doctor, who rushed him to a ward and saved him. When Albert came to, the doctor came to visit him and simply said, with a wry smile, “Next time, get a permit if you’re going to have a heart attack, won’t you?” The doctor fixed him a lift to a checkpoint, to get back home. You do indeed get remarkable acts of compassion in this strangely conflicted country.

Albert’s son came in, looking really annoyed – fuming, in fact. I understood he had had an argument with his sister in his grandmother’s house next door. He’s 21 and quite a special young guy – plays Liszt and Chopin on the piano and works with computer hardware – but he had recently flunked his mathematics at college and, for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom, could not re-take the exam. Which meant he couldn’t go to university, and they couldn’t afford it anyway. So he was in a state.

But he sat there listening – his English is good – and then he perked up when he told me about the free trip he had had with the Salesian Brothers (a Catholic order) to see the Pope in Spain, visiting Italy on the way. He was selected from a large crowd of applicants and he was away for three weeks. He’s a Sagittarian, our Shukry, and travelling the world is what he would love to do – but he’s imprisoned behind walls instead, living in a world-famous city that’s strangely isolated. If I could wave a magic wand I’d fix him three years at the Royal College of Music in London. He deserves it, and his frustration at getting nowhere in life was probably the underlying cause of his argument with his sister.

Albert was falling asleep. The drugs the doctor had given him to deal with the after-effects of his brain haemorrhage last year make him drowsy. I told him to get to bed instead of forcing himself to stay awake. “Yes, doctor”, he replied, and we parted company. I made my way out, walking back through the narrow stone streets of the Old Town to Manger Square. Another shopkeeper tried waylaying me but, by this time, I was tired, and didn’t want tea. I wanted a taxi home.

But even then, the taxi-driver, whom I knew from previous years, had a tale to tell. One of his children had died – I think about a month ago. Of what, I don’t know, because the word he gave me was in Arabic. In limited English he said he had not had enough money for the hospital. I could tell be the tone of his voice he was cut up about it, probably feeling like a failed father.

When we got to the school at Al Khader, I asked him how much he wanted for the trip. Thirty, he said – the evening rate (usually it’s twenty shekels). I only had 25 in change, and otherwise only a 200 shekel note (£40), which he couldn’t change. So I dug around in my bag, leafing through my carefully-stashed collection of Euros, Swiss Francs, Pounds, Kronor and Dinars to find him a Jordanian ten dinar note. He smiled. This was worth 50 shekels. “God bless you, Mister Balden. I like you. Thanks God. Ma’assalam.” The only trouble is, I’m not a banker or an oil sheikh, but it was worth it – even a bit of money can raise the spirits sometimes.

Sometimes I wonder what good I bring by being here. It’s as if the mountains of life-obstacles people experience in this place is too large to make a difference. But then, as the Dalai Lama is quoted to have said: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try spending a night in a room with a mosquito”.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Sunshine and shadow

Yesterday the sun came out and the atmosphere changed. In the sunshine it is quite warm, around 20 degrees, but when it disappears the temperature goes down to about 5-8 degrees. Yesterday evening I had a good long chat with my son on Skype – he told me that it’s milder in Britain than in Palestine right now.

It was good to talk with him. He’s 15 and working hard at examinations, day and night, so there had been a silence from him. I miss him. He’s getting to that age where he’s too busy to think about his Dad, busy rising to the challenges of adult life – many of them imposed by people who, of course, know what’s best for him. During his free time from examinations, he’s filling in applications for apprenticeships and colleges. He’s just found out that the intake of apprentices at his first-option company has been reduced from 40 to six, so the competition is getting intense. He’s emerging into manhood at a very uncertain time. My parental fear is that he will become discouraged by circumstances. But he’ll be alright, actually.

For some years I have wanted to bring him to Palestine, not just to see what I am doing and to meet the people I’m involved with, but also to see some of the effects of the conflict here. He has always been interested in military issues, and I have wanted him to see some of the real stuff that goes on in militarised, polarised environments. But of course, in Britain, it’s regarded as dangerous, even irresponsible, to bring a young person to a country such as Palestine, and his education is, of course, far more important. Yet visiting Palestine would probably educate him far more, in what is truly important in life.

One of the biggest learning experiences to be had here concerns how to deal with ‘otherness’, with people on the other side, and how to deal with a collective psychological framework where ‘if you aren’t with us, you’re against us’. In the last few days I’ve fallen into awkwardnesses with a Palestinian and an Israeli, both of whom I like and respect. The first was the lecturer about the Balfour Declaration, with whom I shared my understanding that the British, during the Mandate period of the 1920s-40s, erred by having a confused and duplicitous approach to Arabs and Jews and to nation-building. I don’t believe they were clearly anti-Arab. I outlined this in my previous blog entry, ‘Lord Balfour’s Blooper’.

However, to many Palestinians,  the British were pro-Jewish. Indeed some were, and the 1917 Balfour Declaration reinforced this impression. No, they were confused, implementing a colonialist divide-and-rule policy which indeed, on balance, harmed Arabs more than Jews. There was a conflict between British Arabists and Zionists, acted out in its colonial policy. It was not exactly a pro-Jewish, anti-Arab policy – had it been so, there’s a good chance that the Brits would have ceded Palestine to Jewish rule and then made proper provisions for the Arabs, and this might well have avoided the serious ethnic cleansing the Jews entered into in 1947-50, forcibly clearing enormous numbers of Palestinians from what was to become Israel.

Arguably, this ethnic cleansing and mass-murder was facilitated by the partition of Mandate Palestine by the UN, to whom the British had handed the question because they were unsure what to do about it themselves. The Brits were caught with the results of their own divisive policies and handed over the question – it was actually a reforming Labour government that did this. Yet when the British saw the UN partition plan, they voted against it, knowing it was wrong – but it was already too late, and the Jews, staking out their new state of Israel, were already precipitating events. They didn’t want to wait for others to decide – they had waited long enough for a homeland and wanted self-determination. This tragedy was a manifestation of British confusion.

Then there was a comment about my blog sent to me by an Israeli friend, with whom I share interests and an ‘alternative’ background. It highlighted to me the problems involved with writing about the Israeli-Palestinian situation – you can never please everyone. I write mainly for Westerners, to try to shed light on the realities behind the situation here, and it is difficult to avoid annoying someone – especially some Israelis or Palestinians, who can see things very differently from Westerners. Even if not annoyed, some have to swallow hard when they read my stuff. There is also great variation of attitude within each of these three groupings – Western, Israeli and Arab. The risk of attracting opprobrium can cause one to go silent, but this is no solution.

She didn’t attack me – she shared a perspective, with care for what she said. But it still went in. She got hooked on a point which is valid, and it arose from a slip on my part. I had mentioned that Jews were unpopular in Europe, and she said this was an understatement. Certainly it was, in the light of the Holocaust which arose in the 1930s-40s. But I was referring to 1920, the period of the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine. At that time, few could imagine that the Holocaust was going to happen within fifteen years. So I erred by leaving out a few words, to clarify that I was referring to 1920.

This kind of thing reinforces an Israeli feeling that Europeans seek to underrate the importance of the Holocaust. This understatement indeed does happen, partially from affluent indifference, partially from underlying collective guilt and partially from historical laziness and a modernistic tendency to disconnect the past from the present. Indeed is true that many Europeans conveniently forget the Holocaust – or, in the case of Brits, they are relieved that it was the Germans, not we, who did it. But we Brits inadvertently permitted the Holocaust by a failure of wisdom and principle on our own part in the 1920s. We also had mixed, contrary views about Jews. 

However, there is a quote which I use in instances such as this, from Michael Herr, the scriptwriter of the film Apocalypse Now, about Vietnam. Herr said: “Everyone who remembers Vietnam should forget it, and everyone who has forgotten it should remember it”. He’s saying that an obsessive preoccupation with events of the past, especially when they affect events of the present, needs to be released. But the horrors of the past must never be forgotten or repeated in the present and the future – and here, the people who brush former horrors under the carpet should be reminded of them, so that we learn from history.

The British had a dualistic attitude toward Jews. They had a discriminatory ineptness around Jews which, when Zionists proposed the idea of a Jewish state and refuge, made some Brits support the idea, as a way of getting rid of them. But on the other hand, Jewish businessmen, bankers, scientists and professionals were useful and integral to the Western capitalist system, and British power-mongers didn’t want to lose the advantages they brought. So there was a duplicity here which made the British fail to complain or act credibly when the Nazis started eliminating Jews, and when the Soviets performed pogroms against them too. This was a criminal omission which was conveniently covered up by winning WW2.

Europe has, since the French Revolution and with the rise of democratic thinking, had largely a pluralistic attitude toward minorities, believing tolerance to be a key positive feature in democratic societies. But there is another, shadow side, left over perhaps from the time of the Crusades, which seeks to exclude people they disapprove of. In the last 20 years this has extended to Muslims, and formerly to blacks, whom Muslims replaced as bogey-men. For a long time it has applied to the Roma, and it still does. It has applied to ‘drug-addled, lazy and ungrateful’ hippies and dissenters like me too since the 1960s.

This racist-exclusionist tendency is unacknowledged in Europe – extreme right-wing parties are duly disapproved of, but the overall pattern of discrimination and exclusion still lurks in the British and European psyche. This applied to the Jews a century ago, permitting the Holocaust and pogroms eventually to happen. By the 1940s it led to extreme alienation and desperation amongst European Ashkenazi Jews, who then proceeded to migrate to and found their nation of Israel in ways which now are regrettable. In the Israeli psyche, the matter of ethnic cleansing and military occupation of the native people is an elephant in the room which costs them far more than they are aware of – and the price tag today is rising, with the incremental isolation of Israel.

But I mustn’t be hypocritical. I come from an imperialist nation. We have in recent years been killing innocent people with our ‘smart’ missiles and invading their lands with a self-righteous rationale, instructing them that we are bringing them freedom. In a sense we’re little better than the most assertive of Israelis, who believe their occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza is justified.

We must own this hypocrisy. We must look at the dark side of our European liberal-democratic beliefs and our politely-concealed sense of superiority.  This superiority emerges even in quite ‘enlightened’ modern ways – such as the attitude Europeans have toward Muslim women, who are regarded as oppressed, helpless and suffering at the hands of Muslim men. It’s a stereotype which is only partially true, and it’s very questionable. If you line up a group of Muslim and a group of modern Western women and examine the furrows in their foreheads, you would see little difference between them – except perhaps the Westerners wear more make-up. Sure, women in Saudi Arabia may not drive cars, and many Muslim women must gain permission from their fathers and husbands to do what they want to do. But women in the West are nowadays anchored to busy lives and work routines which give them little time for their children, inadvertently creating a lost generation of young people who lack basic emotional security and a sense of being cared for – is this freedom?

We can argue about the details of this, and it’s easy to call me a male chauvinist for saying so – and this would be misplaced – but the point here is that, if ‘free’ Western women are significantly happier than Muslim women, I’m yet to see it. The ‘oppressed Muslim woman’, a stereotype used amongst other things to justify the NATO invasion of Afghanistan, is not incorrect, but neither is it correct. It is unconsciously used to justify the Western way and obscure its shadow aspect – the sheer, subtle unfreedom which exists in the ‘free’ West, enslaved as we are to materialism, business and the System. This same shadow-denial caused Europeans to permit the Holocaust by omission, and this then played a part in bringing about the disastrous behaviour of the founders of the modern state of Israel, fronted by their equivalent of Winston Churchill, David ben Gurion.

It’s important to harp on about this because many Palestine activists in the West can tend to look on all Israelis as assholes, fascists, oppressive colonisers and self-obsessed Zionist militarists. Another stereotype. Western activists can suffer a divisive attitude that even many Palestinian activists would not subscribe to – I find the understanding that many Palestinian activists have toward Israelis to be at times impressive. This Western-activist stereotype doesn’t necessarily help the cause of Palestinians because it makes Israelis feel misjudged and thus justified in their actions toward Palestinians. Alternatively, like Europeans, many Israelis block out and ignore hard truths about their nation so that they can live more comfortably in their own bubble.

We are all sick, damaged humans. The problem isn’t over there with the ‘others’ – it’s right here with us. Truth and reconciliation needs to happen within all of us. Even Palestinians, especially when getting heated about the wrongs done to them, need to understand that, actually, the majority of us on all sides of the conflict are all oppressed and exploited, together. Gazans, who are bombed by Israelis to punish the actions of rocket-firing militants in their midst, are not consulted by those militants over policy toward Israel – here we have a case of Palestinians oppressing Palestinians. (I’ll address the question of Palestinian resistance versus reconciliation with Israelis another time – another hot potato!)

We are oppressed and exploited by those who foment polarisation to assert control, not only over the ‘enemy’ but also over their own people. Thus, the ‘war on terror’ has oppressed Americans, not just Muslims in the Middle East. Conflict is a way in which the complex considerations of human life can be reduced to simple, black-and-white dimensions – there is ‘them’ and there is ‘us’, and ‘we’ must teach ‘them’ a lesson. War is an evasion of the real questions, a diversion of nations from their own internal power arrangements. When times of reform and enlightenment approach, a war is declared to stop it in its tracks.

Conflict is a failure of society. On the surface it is a failure of our relationship with the ‘other’, but deeper down it is a failure of our relationship with ourselves. All of us. This is tragic. It is bringing the whole world to the brink of disaster. As has so sharply been pointed out recently, the ‘1%’ is oppressing the ‘99%’. Also humanity, over-producing and over-consuming, is conducting a war against its own home planet.

Today I am off out into Bethlehem to see a few people. It’s time to sort out a few things and to do some more digging to uncover the true purpose for my being here. But before I go, I wish to thank my new friend in Tel Aviv for writing to me frankly to share her and her nation’s pain, and for doing it in a way which nevertheless reached over the divide. For I am here with the Palestinians, therefore ‘other’, yet she and I share perspectives, so we are also both part of an ‘us’ where we are naturally friends. A tricky truth-sharing such as this actually brings us closer.

Thanks also to the Palestinian lecturer on Saturday who did not resort to saying that I was a self-justifying Brit who didn’t know what he was talking about. These profound behavioural acts of bridge-building are the means by which true peace comes. We all have to incorporate the ‘other’ within ourselves. We are the ‘other’. This way, we will save humanity from a sorry future. Amen, amen to that.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Lord Balfour's Blooper


Yesterday I went down to the Alternative Information Centre in Beit Sahour for their Saturday lecture and get-together. The AIC is a campaigning organisation and a gathering place for many of the volunteers and activists who come here to Bethlehem area to do their bit. I met a Dane who was teaching computer animation techniques to kids, and an English lady who was here with her regularly-visiting husband, whom she said was a sucker for getting tear-gassed in demonstrations against the Israeli army. Another is a young Basque woman who writes columns for a Basque newspaper, and another was an Irishman who works with disabled kids.

But first, I had a little lesson in the magic of setting an intent and then letting things unfold. During the last week it has been really cold – such things as good heating don’t exist here, because houses are built to deal with the heat of summer. So I needed to buy an extra sweater. On the way to Beit Sahour I asked my taxi-driver friend Ismael where to go to get one. You see, Palestine has real shops in it, run by real shopkeepers – no chains and supermarkets as we have in the West – so this means you need to know where to go to get what you want. So Ismael said that, come Monday, he would accompany me to find one. He’s a good man to know! He also gave me my latest Arabic lesson on the way: he had asked me ‘Keif hala?’, or ‘How are you?’ and I didn’t have a good answer, so he taught me ‘Hamdulillah’, which literally means ‘Thanks be to God’ or, ‘Mercifully, I’m okay’.

He dropped me off in Beit Sahour and I waved him goodbye. Turning round, I noticed a shop called ‘Just 4 You’, with male mannikins in the window wearing woollen sweaters. Problem solved: within ten minutes and the obligatory five friendly conversations with different people in the shop, I emerged with a new sweater! I found what I was seeking without looking for it, and Ismael helped me without knowing it! That’s called ‘magic’.

The lecture concerned the Balfour Declaration, below, written in 1917 during the First World War, on the eve of the British takeover of Palestine. It was given by Dr Adnan Musallam of Bethlehem University, a professor of physics and a senior activist and founder of several Palestinian organisations. He spoke of the general context of the beginning of the Palestine problem a century ago – mainly concerning the geostrategic interest of the British and French in taking over the Middle East on the downfall of the Ottoman empire. The British had two big priorities: safeguarding the Suez Canal (linking Britain with India and other Asian domains) and gaining control of the sizeable oil deposits being discovered in Iraq, the Gulf and Iran – motor cars, tanks and airplanes were the new technologies of the time. Palestine was not of immense interest except inasmuch as its control stopped anyone else getting in.

The Middle East was united under the Ottomans for centuries, divided into provinces. When the British and French sectioned it up (mainly through the Sykes-Picot agreement, France gaining Lebanon and Syria and Britain getting the rest) they decided to split up the region into small nation-states, identifying minorities in each country who would then be favoured and promoted to rule the rest. Thus, in Lebanon it was the Maronite Christians, in Syria it was the Alawite sect (the Assad regime are Alawites today), in Jordan it was the Bedouins and in Palestine… well, the Jews looked convenient, and the decision was made to encourage their immigration from Europe. Zionist interests in Europe, including Lord Rothschild, promoted this idea too – and, as it happened, Rothschild was lending large sums of money to the UK government to help finance WW1, so the Brits needed to keep him and his mates happy.

There was another issue back in Europe too: Jews weren’t popular. Many European politicians knew that, in each country, they should do something to ease this brewing problem. But some Jewish thinkers (Zionists) believed that the Jewish people needed an identity and a nation of their own. Some British agreed, though they thought Uganda, Argentina or Mauritius would do. But the Zionists wanted to go back to their historic home, Palestine.

This was doable, conceivably, but enormous mistakes were made. Look at the proviso in the Balfour Declaration which said “…Nothing will be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”. The British meanwhile worked on a ‘divide and rule’ principle. What was actually needed instead of divide-and-rule was a moderate immigration of Jews, with an integrated approach to building the new nation of Palestine, such that both communities could coexist as happily and productively as possible. This didn’t happen.

Dr Musallam pointed out a problem in Europe. There was the option to resolve the Jewish problem in Europe, or to export it elsewhere. It was exported (as often is the European way of avoiding facing its own problems). Europeans needed to address their own tendency to override minority communities and deny them rights – a problem that continues today with our neuroses over immigration and, nowadays, Muslims in Europe rather than Jews. The problem was exported and dumped on the people of Palestine – and this went out of control when the Russian pogroms and the German ‘final solution’ came along in the 1930s, making Jews desperate to get out and, in the process, insensitive to the feelings of Palestinians. Zionist leaders, promoting the idea of a Jewish national home, spoke of ‘a land without people waiting for a people without a land’ – a serious misconception which still continues today in Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians.

Yet Palestine and the lands around it are multi-ethnic, multicultural places, they have been so for millennia and they always shall be. For this reason, Musallam and many others believe that the much-vaunted ‘two-state solution’ cannot work, because the different peoples of the region simply must live together. He added that, if a ‘one-state solution’ were employed, the Israelis, being richer, more organised and capitalist, would probably economically dominate the Palestinians at first, and the outcome of that is unpredictable. But in time the numerical advantage Palestinians possess would probably win through, and the Israelis need also to integrate economically with the Arab world, meaning that a true balancing of Jewish and Arab interests would unfold over the generations. In addition, an Arab union is becoming likely, which would give Palestine advantage, whether or not it is a member. That is, if Israelis could drop their sense of superiority and control – something which looks unlikely at present, though time and circumstance have a remarkable way of changing things.

In passing, he mentioned the paradox that, genetically, a proportion of the Palestinian population is descended from the Jews – the ones who stayed behind during the Jewish diaspora 2,000 years ago and merged with the surrounding population – and that the dominant Ashkenazi element in the population of Israel, originating from Europe, is not solely descended from the Jews exiled from ancient Israel. But he also underlined that worrying about genetics is futile, since we all are mongrels, and what concerns us is the present and the future, not ancient history and the supposed rights it confers.

One thought passed my mind: why did the British not favour Christians instead of Jews, as the client overclass in Palestine? We shall never know, but here are two clues. The first is Rothschild and his role in the British elite at the time – the British government was beholden to Jewish financiers. The second concerns Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist who, at the time, was a professor of chemistry at Manchester University – and Balfour was MP for the area he lived in. Weizmann invented a chemical for use in munitions and, this being WW1, it was very valuable to the British. So Balfour asked Weizmann what he could do in return for Weizmann’s contribution to the war effort. “Give us Jews a state”, was the answer.

There’s a third factor here too, which I mentioned at the end of the lecture. Palestinians tend to believe that the British were pro-Jewish in their policies for Palestine. This isn’t entirely true. For more than a century, the British foreign office has been plagued, and still is, by an ongoing power-battle between ‘Arabists’, pro-Jewish interests and business interests, none of whom has ever won. People such as Lawrence of Arabia and Glubb Pasha were typical Arabists, who understood the Arab cause and advocated the founding of a united Arab nation, before being overruled by high-ups back home who took a ‘divide and rule’ approach, pressured by the Jewish lobby and fuelled by business interests who wanted control of the oilfields.

This is why Balfour wrote a contradictory declaration, promising a Jewish homeland while also seeking to guarantee the rights of Palestinian Arabs. Later, the Brits made promises to Arabs, and promises to Jews, which were entirely irreconcilable, and when the Arabs started revolting in the 1920s-30s, they decimated the Palestinian leadership, suppressing the ordinary people and making good use of the immigrating Jews to reinforce this. So the British made a big mistake by never resolving their own internal conflicts of interest. This resulted in increasing polarisation of Arabs and Jews. It led to the proposed UN partition of Palestine in 1947 which, to foreign diplomats, seemed fair and sensible, but it was a recipe for disaster – the Palestinians could not accept loss of their land and partition, and the Jews wanted the whole lot, and in 1948 took far more than they were given. The UN in effect gave Jews inadvertent permission to ethnically cleanse the new land of Israel.

My own work here seeks to redress some of this enormous historic mistake my own nation made back then, before I was born. I believe in multi-ethnic, multicultural societies, in true justice between people, in the primacy of the human race as a whole. My work doesn’t make an enormous difference to the political landscape, but it still pushes toward healing, understanding, justice, equity and cooperation for all peoples. I might work with and for Palestinians, but that doesn’t make me anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic.

Many Brits believe the British empire was largely A Good Thing. Well, we were beneficiaries, not victims, so we would believe that. The trouble is, we made enormous errors, costing the lives and lands of millions of people, ruining whole cultures and driving forward the exploitation of our planet, all for British profit. We shouldn’t stand around feeling guilty for that, and we have indeed brought benefits to other peoples too. But we should work to right many of the wrongs we have created – and this includes in our own society, with its inequalities, power-hierarchy, lies, illusions, materialism and, frankly, social and spiritual poverty. It is in our own best ultimate interests to do so.

Musallam mentioned one other thing. Settler societies are resolute (Americans and Australians are good examples), and you can’t just expect settlers to go home or let up. Settlers have made a big choice to leave their homelands and prove themselves in the wilds of other lands. They hang together, work hard, suffer together and never give up, whatever happens. Thus he gave an insight into Israeli settlers, whom many people find to be incomprehensible in their sheer assertiveness, sense of superiority and imposition on Palestinians. They cannot be denied or shoved aside. This presents a big problem, and it isn’t going to go away – Palestinians as much as Israelis are going to need to change, to encompass the ‘others’ in their midst.

Peace negotiations won’t solve the Palestine problem – this is an illusion clung onto by foreign politicians, diplomats and journalists. It’s also good cover for the Israelis, who use a decades-long appearance of a ‘peace process’ as a way of quietly establishing ‘facts on the ground’ which thoroughly undermine any prospects for peace. What will solve the problem is a massive generational shift of values and priorities and a planetarised shift of perspective.

For the big problem we face today is global, and the perceived rights and priorities of individual nations are secondary to the survival of the human race. If sea levels rise, both Gaza and Tel Aviv will be affected. If a massive earthquake happens in Palestine (which is likely), it will affect Israelis and Palestinians alike. If there is a collapse of oil supplies, Palestinians and Israelis will be affected alike – and paradoxically we’re likely to see, in such a scenario, Palestinians rescuing Israelis from their plight.

Peace will come about because the old agenda of conflict and competing national interests will be superseded by much greater issues. It’s tragic that it has to be this way, but this is the gift of the future. Fasten your safety-belts: we’re in for one helluva ride. Military actions to protect the interest of the people on top will become obsolete, with costs vastly overriding benefits. Welcome to the truly New World. 2012 could be the year that we all properly step into it.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Rain falls on saints and sinners alike

The view from the school: in front, Palestinian farms,
behind, an Israeli settlement, both being rained on
It’s rather like Cornwall (where I live in UK). It’s misty, drizzly and rainy, currently rather still. It all started two evenings ago when a dramatic thunderstorm rumbled around, flashing, banging, dimming the lights and throwing down gallons of enormous penetratingly-wet droplets. We were caught out in it and soaked in minutes. It was wonderful. The storm changed the charge of the land from yang to yin and brought in the rain, and it has been raining on and off ever since.

The ground needs it. This region has over half a year without rain, so the water tables sorely need topping up each winter. This is important not only ecologically but socially and politically too. The West Bank is a highland region – most of its towns are around 2,500ft (800m) up, located on limestone plateaux with significant underground water systems. The problem for Palestinians is that they supply 30% of Israel’s water – and with no choice in the matter. Or, put another way, Israel and the settlements take 80% of the West Bank’s water, leaving 20% to be rationed out, resold at extra cost to the Palestinians – and Palestinians’ water charges subsidise the water bills of residents of the Israeli settlements. Financial inducements such as these are one of the big factors that cause Israelis to move to the settlements.

The other person who got caught out in the rain was John, an Englishman from Scotland whom I met on the bus from King Hussein Bridge to Jericho, on the day I arrived. He came to stay for two nights. He has been making a film about Palestine, returning here to fill gaps in the material he had collected. Also, though he was well-versed (by British standards) in the details of the Palestine conflict, he had discovered that there was so much he didn’t understand, so much that didn’t make sense. Discovering me, he realised he could pick my brains for insights, and this he did when he came to visit.

We had long discussions over the two days he stayed. I think he rather liked the relative peace of the school too – staying with Palestinians, he had been overwhelmed by the frenetic intensity of their lives. I had to keep reminding him to stop trying to understand the Israel-Palestinian situation logically. There are so many inconsistencies, paradoxes and frankly insane facets to this multiplex unreality that logic needs to be suspended. This way, you start to understand more.

If you want a seriously boring job, try sitting in an Israeli watchtower
for hours on end in the rain watching for terrorists. Good for the soul?
This is the view over the valley by the school - the security wall is below the tower.
I enjoyed his company – we saw eye-to-eye on many things. I helped him understand the situation here, and he helped me gain some insights into my own situation as a Brit who is getting gradually absorbed into the Palestinian way of life – an ‘honorary Palestinian’, as Ibrahim and others label me. Yet, although I am a dissident and detractor in my own country, and culturally broad-minded, I’m still British. I like my muesli and English tea for breakfast and I’m not becoming a Muslim (or a Christian), neither fully concurring with all of the cultural assumptions that Palestinians subscribe to. But I love this nation and people nevertheless.

Bizarrely, the best way I could stay in this country would be to marry a Jew, not a Palestinian. But these aren’t an option for me – I’m a Brit and, no matter how much I learn Arabic and adopt Palestinian ways, a Brit I shall stay. As John aptly put it when talking about his own life, how would I explain to a Muslim about the number of relationships I’ve had, and the fact that I have kids by more than one woman? Immoral!

John has returned to Scotland. I arranged for him to be taken to Jericho (whence he would cross back to Amman in Jordan) by Ismael, my trusty taxi-man. But first Ismael was going to take John round some key sites in Bethlehem, to catch some video of Deheisheh refugee camp, of the security wall around Aida refugee camp and of the landscape panoramas visible from above Beit Jala.

It’s rather quiet now. I’ve been hanging out at the school, catching up on work, ruminating, wiping my oft-dripping nose and preparing myself for a series of quite engaging experiences, discussions and encounters to come. Besides, today it is Friday, the Muslim day off and day of prayer. The calling to prayers sounds out longer on Fridays, today muffled by the rain. But I have a slight suspicion that the quietness around Al Khader is a symptom of a lot of people sitting at home watching TV.

Life goes on in this occupied land. It’s amazing how it does. People do indeed suffer from the effects of the occupation, but the image many foreigners have can be pretty inaccurate. In most cases, people here don’t hang around worrying about the occupation – like everyone everywhere, they worry far more about their bills, the education of their kids and the fortunes of their families. They live in remarkably well-built and at times quite elegant houses, driving around in their cars (even if some are old wrecks that would certainly fail a test in the West), doing their shopping and getting on with life.

But there is still, in the background, an acute awareness of their situation. As I read on a piece of graffiti a few days ago: “Palestine – some are dead, some are living, and most are not yet born. This land is not for sale.”

Thursday, 17 November 2011

West Bank map


This map shows the West Bank. The black border is the 1948-1967 Green Line, the internationally-recognised boundary. The dotted line shows the Israeli security wall, the de facto boundary. Area A is Palestinian-controlled (main cities), and Area B is Palestinian control with ultimate Israeli control. The rest is either Israeli settlement blocs or Palestine Area C (Palestinian majority, Israeli control). Palestinian towns are darker grey, Israeli settlements are lighter grey.

I live at Al Khader, which is the far south-western end of Bethlehem, looking over the security wall at Efrat. When you're looking over the wall, on one side is a 'developing' country and on the other is a 'developed' country. However, while economically Israel is developed and Palestine developing (if it gets a chance while under occupation), socially it's the other way around - Palestine is developed and Israel developing.

Map from my forthcoming book Pictures of Palestine. Due out March 2012.

Some Palestine pictures


The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
A street in Bethlehem old town
Another streeet in the old town
The Omar Mosque, Bethlehem
Arabic dresses at the souk in Hebron
Hebron - I hope you like olives!
Palestine's future - Hebron
Israeli soldiers chatting with Palestinians - it happens! Hebron.
Souvenir, anyone?
A classic old Arabic hilltop village, outside Hebron (with modern factory below)
Small town between Bethlehem and Hebron (with Israeli watchtower on the right)
Looking over Jenin, in the northern West Bank (those black things are water tanks)
Old gentleman in Jenin
Newly-modernised main artery for the West Bank, Valley of Fire, east of Jerusalem
The Judaean desert, east of Jerusalem
Classic scene in densely-populated Palestine