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a visit to the West Bank

June 30, 2010


Yesterday I went into the West Bank.  Angela, my host in Jerusalem, had been invited to join an Amnesty Israel ‘day trip’.  The Amnesty offices worldwide work on an area that is not their own, so as to avoid having their work limited by the state they’re working in.  What this means for Israel is that Amnesty Israel, based in Tel Aviv, does not work on any of the human rights issues arising from the Israel/Palestine conflict.  What was surprising was that most of the Israeli full time Amnesty staff knew as little as me about life in the West Bank.  (‘You’ve come here after a week, when it took me 28 years?!’) Based as they are in Tel Aviv and working on abuses outside their country it’s easy to imagine them frantically working on the abuses of distant people, but knowing as little as I did about their own reminded me of something Angela had said the evening before: ma ichpat li (what do I care) is the idiom of choice for many an Israeli confronting a difficult truth.

60% of the West Bank is called Area C which means that it is under total Israeli control (security and administrative). In these places Israel has ordered that there will be no permanent construction. We visited a Bedouin village that had been there for as long as anyone can remember. It is now being squeezed out by the (Israeli) construction of a road - technically this construction is illegal as Israel should not be building anything in occupied territoy (i.e. the West Bank). The construction of the road may require the village to be demolished... This Bedouin wall is constructed with tires and plaster which means that it is not technically a 'permanant' structure - however still a demolition order hangs over it.


From the various conversations I have had on my way here, with Israelis, Jordanians, Syrians, Turks and Europeans, I know that this is an impossible subject to broach.  The emotions provoked are not always reasonable and their ferocity can be shocking.  I’ve been in Israel just over a week.  Before that I was in Turkey where the Flotilla martyrs/terrorists/peace activists where being sent from Israel.  And in between I travelled through Syria, a people who lost their beautiful Golan Heights to Israel, and Jordan – a nation who have brokered an uncomfortable peace.  There has been aggressive rhetoric and military attack from both sides and I have met individuals with wild hatred in their eyes and others who seem only to ask for peace.  So that is my disclaimer. 

Peace activists point to this image to show their point that Israel has fragmented and conquered Palestinian territoy and plans to continue with that policy by settling (illegally - under the Geneva conventions) in the West Bank. It doesn't help Israel's case when Ariel Sharon, the PM of Israel - now in a coma -, says things like: 'We'll make a pastrami sandwich of them. We'll insert a strip of Jewish settlement in between the Palestinians, and then another strip across the West Bank, so that in 25 years time neither the UN, nor the US, nobody will be able to tear it apart.' There are Israeli illegal settlements throughout the West Bank and more are being pushed through the Jerusalem Municipal Planning Committee.

I find that I can’t sympathise with actions that are illegal under international law – the blockade of Gaza, the demolition of people’s homes (and – more emotional – schools), the construction of settlements and infrastructure that carves through the West Bank.  Yet no longer can I fall back on our Western impatience for the two factions to divide their land into two nations.  Things are fucking complicated over here and with each day that passes without a solution, the problems just multiply and a two-state solution becomes more risible.  In the West Bank it was easy to see that there are bad things happening which need to be stopped, now.  It’s far less easy to find anyone who thinks they had The Answer to Israel/Palestine.

a school built with 'temporary' walls in Khan el Ahmar - click on the picture and check out the youtube Al-Jazeera link.

and its classroom


Whilst in Tel Aviv I was invited to stay with two 25 year olds, fresh from the army and fed up with it too.  They were hippies, both wanting to leave Israel and set up a camp where you could take LSD and smoke pot 24/7 in the Ivory Coast.  From the escapist environment of Tel Aviv this seemed like a possibility, a strange but potentially harmless, lifetime ambition.  Shelly said ‘the army ruins your sense and your mind.  I want to get back to my mind but for that I must leave Israel.’  I’m not sure what kind of mindscape she’d have after years of acid and hippy living in the Ivory Coast but for her anything was preferable to Israel.  Both of them wanted to give Palestinians a country but when they were pressed – how much of a country – the whole West Bank? Half of Jerusalem? Even more than that? They would look disgruntled as if I were asking too many questions, and that the only real answer they had was that phrase I’d later learnt from Angela: ma ichpat li.  For them the big difficulty would be to give up such beautiful land to such a ‘miserable people’ (their complaint about the Palestinians).  The only miserable person that I met in the West Bank was a man Alir whose home had been demolished two weeks earlier. The situation is bleak but as ever the Bedouin I met were charming and hospitable (not being a lone girl was, I’m sure, a help). Most were surprised and delighted to see us, a group from the other side of the wall, taking the time to sit, talk and nod with sympathy at their stories.

Stand on a hill: look one way to an Isaeli settlement. Amnesty International (though not their Israeli branch) have condemned the distribution of water in the occupied territories. Palestinians were removed from this hill and the well which provided the area with water was limited for Israeli use. Looking this way there are trees, windows, palmed avenues and (though not in this picture) a water tower which sits upon the old well.

Look the other way to where the Palestinians who had lived on that water rich hill now live. This is a relatively good situation for Palestinians living in the West Bank because the Israeli military, after moving them, gave them permission to build in Area C (the area under complete Israeli control) which is extremely rare. Usually Palestinians would not expect to be allowed to build in this area (as with the school's 'temporary' walls).


In Jerusalem I’m staying somewhere quite different.  Angela is a full time (i.e. 8am til 12 midnight, at least…) peace activist.  When I asked how to describe her, an Israeli woman working in support of a free Palestine, she would not be caught in the linguistic trap of ‘pro-Palestine’ / ‘anti-Israel’ and all that that implies.  She says that those who term themselves pro-Israel can only effect the opposite: that they are assisting Israel in its suicide.  She moved here thirty years ago and has been an active Israeli opposing the land grab of Palestinian territories. 

this road used to be the main road from a Palestinian town to Jerusalem. now the wall (and the status of people without permits) means the Palestinians are cut off from East Jerusalem - their friends, jobs etc. The wall is not sticking to the green line and instead veers off course here so that it can include...

... this mountain. Opposite the Mount of Olives this is the highest point in the area that is still under Palestinian control. Once the construction of the wall is complete it won't be any more. Another difficult quote from Sharon: 'Everyboday has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can... Everything we don't grab will go to them.'


On the evening that I arrived there had been unrest in Silwan (a Palestinian area where between 20 – 80 homes are under threat of demolition).  We watched the news before reading a website’s analysis of the report. A peaceful protest was discussed whilst archive images were shown of prayers at an open air mosque followed by images of Palestinian children throwing stones at the Israeli military.  The archive images were not labelled and instead it was implied that they pertained to the report, that they weren’t archive at all but were somehow relevant to the report.  I don’t know how regularly the media distorts the facts of life within the West Bank and Gaza.  Even so, in a situation where honest reporting is so necessary to ensure that the humanity of both sides can be seen, it was shocking to witness this sleight of hand.  It also went some way to explain why the Tel Aviv folk I stayed with feel so helpless, so sure that their opponents aren’t fully human, that their only solution to the difficulties is escape.  Individuals talk about peace whilst the media focuses on conflict.  Peaceful demonstrations are reported with images that mislead the viewer, fulfilling their fears of violence.  The loudest voices on each side of the wall are violent screechings. But they’re also voices in the minority. Not to end on too twee a note but it seems true that the individual stories are ones of wanting to survive, wanting to protect a homeland and hoping that leaders (internationally and locally) will finally hit on a solution. 

some things I learnt about swear words whilst I was here: 1. the worst cuss you can use on a Palastinian is to attack their family - especially their inability to control or protect their mother. When I asked what was the worst cuss imaginable they answered: 'I f**ked your mum last night, and she's begging to see me tomorrow'. When I've asked Israeli's what's the worst put down they say: 'you're nothing, you're a speck of dust.'

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lou permalink
    June 30, 2010 8:25 pm

    Tamsin, don’t forget Britain’s role in kicking off this mess. Here is Sir Ronald Storrs in 1935 wishing a few hundred years of internecine violence on the Holy Land: “We shall plant a little Jewish Ulster in the midst of hostile Araby”

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