Sunday, 29 January 2012

Messengers in the Sky

Pathological altruist workaholic that I am, including on Sundays, I was sitting at my desk practising keyboard-slavery when something caused me to look up. There, outside the window, was a mid-sized raptor – perhaps a hawk or falcon – doing that characteristic alternating wing-quivering hover that only raptors do. Now, as every photographer knows, the best shots appear when you don’t have your camera at hand. Yes indeed, by the time I’d dug it out, the bird was gone. Sorry, I can’t show you a photo! But it felt like a visitation.

Eileen in Warrington has asked me about birds in Palestine, and I discuss wildlife a lot with Suzy in Falmouth so, thank you ladies, in response to your promptings I’ve pulled together some pictures of Palestinian animals! I haven’t focused on animal photography while here but, like any self-respecting hunter, a photographer shoots anything interesting that presents itself and I’ve caught a few interesting animals over time.

Photography is in a sense harder than hunting: a hunter just has to kill the poor thing, but a photographer needs to shoot it at exactly the right moment and from exactly the right position to get a good picture. Often it’s luck or a kind of lens and shutter magic. The poor thing survives the experience too – it even perhaps thrives psychically from the positive attention of faraway people like you, dear readers.

People in Palestine sometimes ask me why I’m a vegetarian – as if I’m slightly bonkers, missing something, or another example of the weirdnesses of Westerners. I simply tell them, “Well, humans treat animals like Israelis treat Palestinians”. They get the analogy immediately, and you can see them thinking that one through.

Though to be fair, there are fine Israelis who don’t abuse and even help Palestinians, sometimes accused by Zionists of being self-hating Jews or even traitors, and there are good humans who not only avoid harming animals but also go to great lengths to help them.

Yet there’s one thing Israelis and Palestinians don’t do. They don’t hunt. All the guns around here are for using on humans. Compared with France or Italy, even peaceable Sweden, this country is a haven for animals – at least regarding hunting. There’s tremendous habitat destruction, yes, but the only hunters around here, apart from cats, are oddbods like me with telephoto lenses – also usually aimed at humans – who have this crazy habit of photographing animals. So conflicts do have their positive unintended consequences – in this case, animals are spared the dubious pleasure of being hunted down by voracious killer humanoids.

During this trip, I seem to have been focusing on cats. This might be the good influence of Polly, a Cornish cat who died last July, who clearly tugged at my heart and made me more aware of cats. But it also has something to do with the character of Palestinian cats – they’re not pets, and they have to fend for themselves, so they have some zing and character to them. Some of the town cats are pretty scraggy though – country cats seem to do better than they.

I also like photographing donkeys. Perhaps they remind me of myself, silent load-bearers who occasionally bray plaintively to remind everyone they’re still here. People still ignore them, but at least they try – a bit like fundraising for Hope Flowers school. Or perhaps, having been born next door to Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Aker Wood in the Ashdown Forest, part of me adopted the persona of Eeyore. It matters little, in the grand scheme of things. But donkeys are another subject that has been sucked into my lens and digitally exuded onto your screen.

I get into trouble occasionally with some ‘proper’, politically-correct Palestine activists because I don’t bellyache about all the bad things the Israelis are doing to the poor, suffering Palestinians, and how we must stop this, ban and boycott that, and how we must see Palestine as a terrible field of horror, injustice and genocide with no redeeming graces at all. Sure, there are terrible things here. But cats and donkeys are part of reality here. Donkeys happen also to be a wise reserve mode of transport in case oil supplies break down or the Israelis impose a total shutdown of normal economic activity. They haven’t done this for a few years, but you never know, the Israelis like to keep everyone guessing, including themselves.

Besides, what really engages me is not railing against bad guys but building the foundations of the future and helping Palestinians see where their strengths are. Seeing your strengths and the advantage in your situation is the beginning of a change for the better. Moaning about what’s wrong and what’s gone is simply a recipe for depression, defeat and victimhood. Growing up in 1960s Liverpool, a failing city and home of many a comedian, made me aware that humour, even as wry as mine, can be just as sharply political as righteous tub-thumping.

What are Palestinians’ strengths? Perseverance, resilience, adaptability and spiritedness. This puts them in a strong position to meet the future. We’re going to see some tough, exacting and tumultuous times ahead, worldwide. The astrologer in me says watch out for a wave of precipitous events in June-July – the buildup is surreptitiously beginning now. The people who will best ride out these times are those who are most practised at doing so, who have developed the psychology and values within themselves to enable them to handle whatever comes and turn it to advantage. In this, Palestinians are in a strong position.

As I mention in Pictures of Palestine, they will have a lot to contribute to the aid teams of the future. It won’t be food and building materials they’re dishing out but knowledge and experience – psycho-social input. They’ll show people how to take things by the horns, tough it out and find their own solutions. This is the aid and disaster-relief of the future. It is a strength Palestinians have. Meanwhile, many people in Europe and America, and in the Dubai, Mumbai and Shanghai belt – the people who have been ‘successful’ in recent times – will be lost if the electricity and internet go down, or if it all boils down to making a feast out of a bag of potatoes.

There are lots of positive things about Palestine, many of them arising from the conflict – I mention them in my book. Palestinians have a strong society. If something goes wrong, they improvise and cooperate. If a crisis is afoot, they don’t stand around expecting help. They’ve even learned how to stay calm and restrain themselves if their houses are raided by Israeli soldiers.

Talking of which, as I write, late at night, two helicopters are hovering around, about 5,000ft up and a mile away. They have that deep thumping sound of military helicopters and, guess what, the Palestinians have none, so it’s not them. They’ve been hovering and circling around for twenty minutes over the southern edge of Bethlehem. Doing surveillance, I’d bet. They might be after someone. They plant a device on a car, or connive a collaborator to carry a specially-fixed mobile phone, and they track people. One helicopter has now come over this way, with the other remaining where it was. It’s doing a loop to go round the north edge of Bethlehem, and there’s another one coming in from the west, quite low. Any advance on three?

Well, some people would panic at this, starting to wonder whether their time had come. It prompted me to put the kettle on. Other people round here simply note the intrusion and carry on with life. Which sums up the attitude of resilience Palestinians have: you can eat your heart out, year after year, over all the atrocities big and small that happen here, or you can get on with life. If you get on with life you’ll live longer, achieve more and be happier. Never mind what ought to be, what shouldn’t be, what might have been or what wasn’t – this doesn’t help at all. After all, it’s the Israelis (or American taxpayers) who are paying thousands to keep those helicopters afloat, and it’s the pilots who are sweating more than the people underneath them.

Meanwhile, the kettle having boiled, I made myself some Saudi Arabian cocoa with honey in it, to help generate a few endorphins. I could swallow a mugful of endorphins right now, if I could, but cocoa will do. One of the helicopters is now window-rattlingly close. The pilot’s kids back home are probably experiencing a gap in their lives where their father ought to be standing. It’s all so farcical, so tragi-comic.

Over the wall, just over there, are some smug, hubristic settlers who think they’re winning their war to retake the land that God allegedly gave them. Yet, the social subgroup in this land with the highest incidence of family violence is the settler community. I don’t get the feeling that was part of God’s design. Meanwhile, on this side of the wall, these losers, these Ay-rabs, who’ve lost five wars and a thousand small battles, are sitting at home with their grannies, kids, cousins and in-laws, watching Arabiya TV. They’ve lost, so they’re making the best of it.

We humans are really mad, but at least we have the capacity to explain things to ourselves. We can say, “Ah, that’s a helicopter”, and then go about putting the kettle on. But animals cannot do this – they don’t know what the hell these noisy monsters are. Even the wild dogs over around the separation wall must be cowering under a rock, fearing the worst and hoping these fearsome dragons will fly away.

Little do they know, these dragons each cost 10,000 shekels (£2,000) a minute to keep afloat up there – and, in the end, for what? For sovereignty over someone else’s land? To fulfil a covenant with God? To create happiness and security for the Chosen People? No, it’s human illusion at its worst. It frightens the animals – even ants will feel the thudding resonances of these choppers deep in their anthills. I bet a few of the settler kids over the wall have been woken up by it too. “Dad, is this what God meant the world to be like?”

If my friends and I have anything to do with it, in our future lives we’ll be living in a very different world, where military helicopters are as distantly incredible as medieval Crusaders on their steeds are to us now. Palestinians will be amongst the creators of that world. The people at the butt-end of the ‘progress’ we’ve had in recent times will probably be the people who save the day, even saving those who have so generously given them a hard time.

Yes, Palestinians could one day rescue Israelis from a sorry, partially self-created fate. It happened in a small way just recently, down south of Hebron – an Israeli settler bus caught fire, and guess who rescued them? Just today I saw a bumper sticker on someone’s car: After all, we’re all humans, it said, in English and Arabic.

I’m off down to Egypt in a week’s time. I’m going for a break, to warm up, to hobnob with some Germans and, hopefully, inshallah, to renew my visa until spring equinox. If, that is, they let me back in, alien hazel-eyed goyim that I am. So you might get a week’s break from your blog-reading obligations, bless you. Then again, you might not.

It was that hawk who prompted this particular blog entry. Wisely, the hawk doesn’t care whether it’s Palestinian or Israeli. It’s not worried about apartheid either – it flies where it wants, with no official papers. Today it was either enjoying itself, or doing a much more discreet surveillance job than those helicopters, or it was hunting for its dinner, or all of these combined.

While a raptor has far superior weaponry to its prey, just like Israeli soldiers, it uses far more strategy, skill and subtlety than Israelis employ. It doesn’t demolish its prey’s homes or devastate their habitat. Raptors and their prey are symbiotic, and if one side goes down, the other side suffers too. Same with Israelis and Palestinians: if either gets rid of the other or treats it too harshly, they themselves will suffer. I wish everyone would realise how symbiotic Israelis and Palestinians are. In conflicts of relationship, it always takes two to tango. However, what’s disturbing for many Israelis is that most Palestinians want to change the dance music – hence that Israelis are getting het up about Iranians instead.

“War isn’t about who is right, it’s about who is left”, said Bertrand Russell. And humans treat animals like Israelis treat Palestinians. And in the end, we’re all sentient beings, with an equal right to live on this Earth. Would that we had more equanimity. Equanimity would lead to greater social and global equality, also known as sharing.

The helicopters are now four in number. They’re busy burning money to keep the world safe, to save us from terrible terrorists in places like Bethlehem. Really, we should support them – they’re fighting for God at all hours of the day and night, protecting democracy and freedom. They’re keeping the peace! Protecting civilisation from barbarians! Creating much-needed jobs in the arms trade! Just obeying orders!

Nonetheless, something suddenly happened to drive them away. After a lovely sunny day and a crisp evening, a mighty cloud rolled over the hill from the west and it started hailing! The hail battered at the windows, wanting to get in. Must’ve been quite a squall, up there where the helicopters were. They scarpered. God must have had enough noise for one evening. Or, if the helicopters were tracking someone, perhaps it was their lucky day.

For a complete collection of these animal pictures, click here.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Meet the Grandmothers of Bethlehem

In Bethlehem's Old Town there are old ladies who sell herbs and vegetables. They come in from the outlying villages. Sometimes they're dropped in an old pickup truck, and sometimes they come into town with their husbands leading a donkey, carrying the produce, which is grown in their villages.

Then they wend their weary ways back home again as darkness falls, bless them.

I find these ladies a study in human nature. They are all old enough to have been young people in the time of the Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948, when Palestinians lost 78% of their land, with many massacred or turned into refugees.

Then they were at the butt end of the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza (and Sinai). Then they've been through two four-year intifadas in the late 1980s and early 2000s. 

In other words, they've seen and faced some mighty stuff, in the way of human experience. It's reflected in their faces.

But they have an active role in society, which is more than can be said for many old people in the West. Back home, they are at the centre of their families - which might be 10-12 people in one house and four other house-loads nearby.

That's called social security, in the real meaning of the term.

The problem I get with these ladies is that they don't understand anything about living alone - they've always been in big families and communities, mucking in together. But I only want one bundle of mint, one of thyme and one of salad greens please! They throw in more, so that my family doesn't starve!

But this is excusable. I came away from them this morning with a big bag of herbs and greens which cost me just ten shekels - £2 or nearly $3. I'll give the surplus to some of the staff at Hope Flowers School.

I thought you might like to meet the herb and salad-greens ladies of Beit Lahem!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Walking on Broken Glass

I woke up this morning with mixed feelings about what I’m doing here. It’s really cold here at present, and my usual positive attitude has walked away somewhere! But it’s also a nagging question of whether this visit to Palestine is productive. Over the last year, here at the school, we have spent a lot of time and energy working to comply with Western donors’ escalating standards of accountability – using up time, money and energy we don’t have – and sometimes I’ve found myself wondering whether I’m here to help improve life-conditions for Palestinians or whether actually I am simply working, at personal expense, to satisfy the needs of Westerners.

Perhaps my feelings around this are confused, affected by a number of factors which I haven’t yet sorted out. One is my own perplexity over where my home and allegiances lie – Britain is not very welcoming to me at present and Palestine cannot itself grant me residence (that’s an Israeli decision and I’m not Jewish, so the answer is no). But there’s more.

Okay, now guess what part of this picture
is the Israeli settlement
Here I’m going to get political because the politics affect the way Palestinians perceive a Westerner like me, a local representative of the Western powers that give them a lot of problems. Mercifully, they distinguish between ordinary Westerners and their governments and they know that, although we have democracy, that doesn’t mean we have much influence – so they don’t blame folks like me for what our governments do. But they sometimes wonder what side I’m really on.

My feelings about my visit here are highlighted by the strategies the West is engaging in right now over Iran, Syria and Palestine which, in my view, are sorely counterproductive and will lead to trouble, causing grief and hardship for Arabs and ultimately loss for Westerners too. It’s all about oil and geopolitical power, and the prospects aren’t good.

Another Israeli settlement - picturesque!
The West talks about freedom, human rights and democracy but it doesn’t practise what it preaches. Here’s the list. It scuppered the Palestinians’ democratic choices back in 2006-07, when they voted in a party the West and Israel didn’t want; it has supported regimes around the Middle East that are neither democratic nor rights-oriented nor acting for the common good; it has propped up Israel in its wars, its occupation of Palestine and its Western-financed settlement-building project; it has flooded the region with arms and money to support ruling elites who act as proxies; it has failed to deal with nuclear disarmament over the last 60 years and now contemplates waging war against one country, Iran, over Iranian nuclear ambitions while quietly supporting Israel in its own nuclear arms monopoly in the Middle East; it has wrecked Iraq and Afghanistan and recently intervened, with mixed results, in Libya; and, worst of all, it will not desist from this century-long habit.

Meanwhile, Middle Eastern people want to sort out their problems without foreign intervention – everyone knows Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy are more interested in their election prospects and clubability than the welfare of paltry Arabs. Since the fall of the Ottomans around 1920, this region has been under Western dominance and it’s time for this to end. Actually, it is gradually, painfully ending, and Western world hegemony is declining, but Western countries still retain a grandiose belief in their right to call the shots, even when things are going wrong at home and the West cannot afford such dominance. It has lost the plot. But it has arms, influence and vested interests, and dying dragons, thrashing their tails, are dangerous, desperate and deluded.

The Israeli separation wall and an electronic
surveillance tower above Beit Jala
Here in Palestine there have been many good peace-building projects, and I have been involved with a few and told my readers about them. I am deeply involved with one, the Hope Flowers school and centre. But there is a problem. These worthy efforts have little effect while the people at the top in the West, the now-famous 1%, are blocking change and pursuing self-interest. Dear reader, please do not fall for the belief that Western countries are altruistic, concerned for the welfare of others – except when it is in their narrow interests to do so. The Palestinians are ready for peace and coexistence, they want to get on with life and build their future. But this is stoppered not just by Israel but by Western countries too – advocating peace processes, justice and democracy while actually creating the opposite.

Palestinians make up nearly half of the population of this land but we see no democracy here. Someone once said, “Israel is democratic for Jews and Jewish for Arabs” but even the ‘democratic for Jews’ bit is inaccurate, with 80% of the nation’s resources controlled by sixteen families. In 2006 Palestine had the cleanest and most genuinely democratic election the Middle East has seen for years, as verified by international observers, while in Israel’s last election the party getting the most votes didn’t even get into power.

But in 2006 Israel and the West decided to intervene and scupper the Palestinian elections (more here). Twenty parliamentarians elected then are still in Israeli jails, five years later, together with ‘Palestine’s Mandela’, a man called Marwan Barghouti, who has been ten years in jail. Hamas, the winning party with a thumping 60% majority, whatever its merits, is still deemed a terrorist organisation when, in the experience of the majority of the people of the Middle East, the terror actually comes from the over-armed West. Hamas is a social-reform party and, like any political party, it has its plusses and minuses, but it didn’t deserve this. It is the ‘party of resistance’, yes, which in previous years fought Israel, but if another country were invading yours and killing your citizens in thousands, wouldn’t there be a similar party in your country? Yes. Britain’s great hero Churchill took the same line against Hitler as Hamas has done against Israel.

It’s happening again in Syria. I don’t support the Assad regime in Syria or what it is doing. Any regime that indiscriminately kills its own people is heading for demise and disgrace. However, the fact is, as discovered by a British polling institution (YouGov), a majority of the Syrian people wish to retain the current regime – this has not even been clearly reported in the West. Many Syrians support or accept Assad because they have seen the new governments that have taken power in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, even Egypt, and they don’t see progress there. They don’t support the Assad regime as it stands, but they believe that there is a greater chance of reform under Assad than they would get from a Western puppet regime.

Syrians look at the Arab League, led as it is by undemocratic governments in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Sudan, and they don’t want to submit to its pressures. They watch the two biggest Arabic satellite TV stations, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, baying about human rights, but these stations come from the undemocratic oil sheikdoms of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, hardly the home of human rights.

A street in Bethlehem's Old Town
There’s some wisdom in their perception, and they want to sort out their problems themselves without foreign intervention. It is precisely this which the West and its Arabic proxies do not like. The West doesn’t like independent players: it wants control. This was what lay behind the West’s war against Saddam Hussein who, though a thorough asshole, has not been replaced by significantly better men, leaving Iraq in a mess.

But Syria has a big problem: its people are divided, the regime has lost legitimacy and it is firing on its own people. This issue is not easily solved, and putting a Western-supported regime in its place is a na├»ve solution – as we are now seeing in Libya. Funding and arming the Syrian opposition is a geopolitical strategy which isn’t necessarily best for Syrians. This is business. The West also wants to keep China, Russia and India out of the Middle East. It wants compliant, business-friendly regimes.

For the last twenty years, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the West has been railing against Islamists, calling them terrorists. This has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and to untold hardship. The Western development model feeds rich elites, binding increasing swathes of the world into capitalism, but it doesn’t really benefit ordinary people or bring the justice, democracy and other goodies that are promised.

Yet now, following the Arab Spring, Islamists are gaining power across the Middle East, and generally by democratic consent. They are becoming the new establishment here, and the West is getting into bed with them, to try to stop Arabs acting too independently. Why so, when the Islamists were recently the enemy? It has nothing to do with justice, peace and the needs of the majority. It has everything to do with money, oil and geostrategic considerations.

The Islamists will prove in coming years that they are mere politicians with the usual flaws, and the promises they have made, to bring justice, fairness and prosperity to all, will come up against hard reality. Within ten years, the Islamists, like the socialist parties of Europe in previous decades, will prove to be a mixed bag, and not the Big Solution. However it is the people of the Middle East who must decide on this: this is the core principle of democracy. The West doesn’t know best, the results of its previous interventions have been bad for ordinary people here and it has no inherent right to entrain everyone to its own ways. Imperialism is a thing of the past.

The crucial indicator here is Palestine, which has experienced the effects of forty years of Western-sponsored peace processes. Twenty years of aid and development money in Palestine, since the Oslo Accords, has simply bred a new elite in Ramallah, softening the blow of the Israeli settlement project in the occupied Palestinian territories. Aid has acted like morphine rather than medicine. British JCBs have demolished Palestinian homes, American arms have besieged Gaza, German guilt-money has supported Israel and Israel’s nuclear bombs were developed with the help of France. Thanks, guys.

Palestine has been one of the causes of the Arab Spring: the people of the Middle East have grown tired of living under puppet regimes that fail to deliver the goods because of their fear of stepping out of line in the West’s eyes, and these very regimes have failed to solve the Palestinian question. This is a core issue for Arabs: Palestine symbolises the treatment they all have received over many decades.

Three resistors of Western dominance have been Libya, Syria and Iran. These have not been good regimes, yet they all came into existence as a result of earlier Western interventions in the Middle East. Now, the West doesn’t want them, and it is willing to impose hardship and war on ordinary people to get rid of them. Because of oil, because of money, because of geostrategic control, not because of justice, peace and human rights.

Arabs - disposable
Yes, Westerners do genuinely believe in justice and human rights, and this is good, but Western governments do not practise what they preach – they bomb people and wreck countries, and Western electorates generally do not hold their governments to account over foreign policy issues. Western electorates want cheap oil and steady supplies of it for their cars, so anything goes, and Arabs don’t matter much – they’re only primitive, stupid, dangerous Muslims, after all.

It would be easy right now for someone to say that I support bad regimes in the Middle East – I don’t. But I believe the West should go away and attend to its own problems, leaving the people of the Middle East to sort themselves out. Most of all, the West needs to cut its support for Arabic puppet elites and for Israel, both of which constitute a big problem for ordinary people in the Middle East right now.

If Western support for Israel were cut, then the playing field would be levelled and Israel would have to make some big decisions. Peace would come closer, for simple, realistic reasons. The Israeli economy, propped up by Western money and favour, would weaken and the West Bank occupation and the siege of Gaza would be less viable. Israel would be obliged to trade with its neighbours and make friends with them, for its own survival. Most Arabs don’t want to drive the Jews out – they just want some normality, equality and justice. The separation walls must come down, the five million Palestinian refugees need restitution, Israeli control over Palestinians’ lives must end, and the outrages of the Israeli army and settlers must be curtailed. That’s what needs to happen. Oh, and the return of East Jerusalem.

Even more disposable
But it isn’t happening, and that’s what affects my current mood. Someone like me cannot do much to help Palestinians get a decent life unless something changes at the top, with the regimes and vested interests in Israel and the West. It’s as simple as that. I’m getting futility feelings.

It impacts on this very school. I work here not only because the school helps Palestinian refugee and disadvantaged families. I work here because I have worked for peace for forty years and this school is a world leader in dealing with war trauma and the psycho-social causes of violence, and I think that’s worth working for. Also the Palestinian people are world leaders in dealing with hardship and the effects of conflict, with ninety years of experience as an occupied, stunted country.

This morning, Mahmoud, a child from a neighbouring house and the son of Amal, the school cleaner, called me downstairs and handed me a letter. The letter was written by his fourteen-year old sister, who has quite good English. It asked whether their mother could borrow 100 shekels (£5) until the end of the month. There are two reasons for this. First, their father, imprisoned by the Israelis, was not allowed to change his clothes or clean himself for over a year, meaning that now, as a free man, he has a skin disease preventing him from working and thoroughly undermining his self-esteem – and they cannot afford treatment. He hides away, hurting. So the family is poor. Second, Hope Flowers School has had recent funding problems necessitating serious financial cuts (with staff reductions and a cut of kids at school from 350 to 150). Amal’s hours have been reduced (though she still works as hard as she did before). So she has less money. So they don’t have enough to get them through the cold weather. So they needed to borrow from me.

Useless, lazy, unproductive Arabs
Of course I lent them the money. I expect repayment will be difficult, so this will probably be a gift. I do so wholeheartedly because Amal and her family have been friendly and helped me over the years. Mahmoud returned two hours later with some home-baked bread. Bless these folk. But it presents a dilemma: here am I, a ‘rich’ Westerner, reinforcing the aid-dependency Palestinians experience. They are dependent thanks to the Israeli occupation, which deprives them of the capacity to build their own economy and support themselves. Westerners support Palestinians because they do not want to force Israel to stop what it is doing, and Israel fails to carry out its duties as an occupying power by providing social, health and educational facilities on an equal basis to its own Jewish citizens. Bluntly put, Western aid to Palestine supports the Israeli military regime by keeping the Palestinians quiet.

So today I had 100 shekels-worth of dilemma - what in economics they call 'moral hazard'. I’m happy to help Amal – she’s a fine lady. But in doing so I implicitly absolve others of responsibility for the crimes they are committing. That’s not what I am here for. I am here to work toward the ending of war and military oppression. But I land up implicitly supporting it.

Which is why I wonder what I am doing here. Yes, I know my presence here is bringing benefit, and it’s worth it. But it is compromised. I do not like this.

Bottom of the apartheid pile - the Bedouin!
Meanwhile, I’m trying to decide whether to go back to Britain when my Israeli visa expires on 10th February, or whether to go to Egypt and try to re-enter, grovelling suitably, to stay until late March. Back in Britain, I have no home, no job, no partner to return to, and arriving back to nowhere and nothing much will be quite a challenge. I’m doing my best to resolve this, but no positive answers are as yet forthcoming. So I have a few humanitarian issues to sort out with myself.

Liz, my visitor from Glastonbury, left for Egypt today. Aisha and her English brother are staying two nights with me, and they’re off tomorrow. A friend in Europe skyped me for help with some personal issues and I felt rather clueless to help. I have work to do, but I’m struggling over it. I could do with a hug. Well, life goes on. After all, if one chooses to be a tightrope-walker, it’s to be expected that things will get wobbly!

But I must remember something I got clear about years ago, when I first entered into this Palestine business. Not to expect results. If you hope for results, you inevitably get disappointed. I think I’m being tested on this now.
Oh Palestine, what's coming next?
Photo taken from just under the separation wall in a photo above -
that photo was taken from the bump on the horizon on the right, the Herodeon.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Ancient Sights

Today we went to see some ancient places. Ismael picked us up, with one of his delightful daughters in tow, called Duha. I had invited him to bring a member of his family because we had a spare seat and one of them was sure to enjoy the trip. Ismael had thought, for some reason, Liz needed the company of a woman because she was afraid. This doesn’t fit Liz at all – on a journey alone through five countries, she has hardly batted an eyelid at Palestine’s rougher edges. But the daughter had a fine time with us anyway, and it was the first time she had ever visited the Herodeon and Mar Saba. We went first to Irtas, down the valley from the school.
Irtas is a tranquil Catholic monastery village, though populated mainly by Muslims, and it’s a verdant centre for market gardening. The statue of the Virgin Mary still had Christmas lights draped around it, making her look vulgarly tied up. The best bit was a visit to the spring at Irtas – the springwater was slightly warm and very clear. Ismael told us that, when he was a boy in the Six Day War, his family and many other refugees living in Deheisheh came down to Irtas to shelter from the Israeli bombing. They would collect water from this spring. I think that war deeply traumatised him.
We progressed then to the Herodeon, through Hindaza, Assakira and the countryside south of Bethlehem, populated by a large population of settled Bedouin. The Herodeon (or Herodium) is dramatic. It is a natural, geologically anomalistic, human-shaped hill with the ruins of a dug-out palace in the ‘cone’, dating back mainly to the time of Herod the Great – the final heyday of ancient Israel before its dismemberment by the Romans. It compares with a British hill-fort, except the stone buildings inside the cone are far more developed. Around its base was a town until it was destroyed.

What a location: the 360° view from the hill is outstanding, and the hill is militarily unassailable. You see a wide sweep over the Bethlehem conurbation, the Bedouin countryside southwards, two Israeli settlements (Tekoa and Nokdim) and many Palestinian villages, the Judaean Desert, Dead Sea and Jordanian mountains – a landscape photographer’s paradise. Down inside the hill is a series of tunnels leading down to the internal water system in the hill.

As a student of ancient sites and earth energies, despite the bitingly cold wind, I could sense an ancient power here which must have made this hill important long before Herod’s time. Its Arabic name is Jebel Fereidis or ‘the hill of paradise’. The hill dominates the landscape, drawing the eye toward it from a distance – much like Glastonbury Tor but more so. With internal water springs higher than the surrounding plateau, it has levitational or upward-vortical energy properties which are uncommon.

Traditional descriptions say it is ‘like a woman’s breast’but, frankly, it is far bolder than that, more thrusting and masculine. It was the site of a last stand of the Jews in the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-136, after which many of the remaining Jews in these parts were driven away by the Romans, ending the ancient story of Israel. No wonder two strategically-placed Israeli settlements now lie just below the hill.
The Israeli settlement of Tekoa, just below the Herodeon
Then we progressed to Beit Sahour on the eastern edge of Bethlehem, turning right along the main road through Dar Salah to Ubeidiya, and turning right again along a winding road into the desert hills to Mar Saba.

Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery perching on a cliff overlooking a deep gorge through which a river flows. It’s the Kidron valley, which begins at Jerusalem – the valley that separates the Old City from the Mount of Olives – and it flows down to the Dead Sea. This place has an intense stillness that easily explains why the early Christian hermits came here to live in the caves – some of them have been expanded, and some have walls and doors at the opening. I went down into the gorge and inside one of the caves and it was quite warm, very quiet and a wonderful location for a meditative life.

The caves are similar to those at the Mount of Temptation above Jericho –the kind of places where ease of access to and from the wider world is definitely not the intention. These guys would live on a flat-bread cooked on a stone and a few dates each day. The gorge hosted perhaps some forty hermits by the look of it, about 1,700 years ago at the very beginning of the monastic period.

We were all quite spaced out after an hour or two here. It transports you to another world. The high desert location is somehow purifying, stilling, enclosing yet starkly wide-open. Back along the road at Ubeidiya is the St Theodosius monastery, which must have been related to Mar Saba, overlooking a dramatic valley 2,000ft below – Wadi Nar, the Valley of Fire. On the other side is the Mount of Olives, a seriously high mountain, and Jerusalem, with the desert and the Dead Sea in the other direction. It’s an otherworldly landscape – the kind of stuff that people write things like Bibles about – and it’s now quite densely populated with Palestinians.

We went back to Ismael’s family home in Deheisheh camp for tea and home-made Arabic sweets. The whole family sat with us – a warm family circle. One of them remarked that I’m bringing a stream of English through their home. “Yes, actually it’s a secret invasion. We’ve decided to reoccupy Palestine, to give you a slightly better occupation than the Israeli one.”

Reoccupying Palestine is a war Her Majesty’s armed forces wouldn’t fancy. I’m here to ferkle around in the background quietly pulling the few strings I have available to jiggle. Well, good try. Meanwhile, it has been good having a break with Liz, seeing some sights and filling another few gaps in my advancing collection of pictures of Palestine. Tomorrow I must sit down and write a report. And she's off again in a few days.
And here are Ismael and Duha