First dispatch from Palestine

By Robin

I’ve been in Palestine for about ten days now, and have no idea where to start with this update.

As you know, I’m here with the International Solidarity Movement – rather than go into detail here about what we’re about, go to our website if you’re interested –

We’re working at the moment mostly in the centre and north of the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem. I guess I could start with East Jerusalem.

In a district there called Sheikh Jerrah, populated by families that were forced from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948, and were allowed to build their homes here on what had been farmland by the UN and the Jordanian government in the 1950s. In 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem (and the West Bank and Gaza) – all settlements that they have subsequently built in these areas are illegal under international law.

Now, it is abundantly clear that the Israeli government is systematically working to replace the Palestinian population of E Jerusalem with Israeli settlers. This is what, in most contexts, is termed ethnic cleansing. A quick look at a map of already existing settlements within East Jerusalem and of planned evictions which link them up and push Palestinians further and further out makes this very obvious.

We’re working with families who were recently evicted, or who are likely to be evicted or have their homes demolished in the near future. Two families in particular have, for the past several months been, with great dignity, been camping out every night on the street outside what were their family homes, refusing to do as the Israelis want and just silently accept their fate. We stay with them in solidarity, and document the behaviour of the settlers and the Israeli military.

I cannot begin to describe the anger and anguish you feel when watching the settlers bullying, taunting, harassing and threatening the people whose homes they have stolen. This can range from threatening the children with M-16 assault rifles (that’s settlers doing that, not soldiers, but they are scarcely reprimanded for it), to throwing rubbish at them, to tearing down their tents etc etc. The Palestinians, in my opinion, show truly remarkable dignity and restraint in their continued presence there, and in dealing with this abuse.

All of us take it in turns to spend nights in Sheikh Jerrah. Most of the rest of the time, I’m up in or around Nablus, in the north of the West Bank. There, we’re working with local community groups and committees to see how we can best help them in their non-violent resistance of the occupation. Often, this is being a visible presence when settlers or soldiers attack them, to try to de-esculate the situation, or to document what is being done. I also think a big part of our role up here is simply showing people that there are people who care about their situation. The generousity and hospitality shown to us in every village and town we go to is truly humbling. A family today, for example, invited us into their home for tea, then showed us around their farm, and then insisted we stay for food and coffee. The youngest member of the family was born on the road below the house because the Israelis had put up a road block, and wouldn’t allow his mother through to go to the hospital, which is about 2 miles away. You hear stories like this every day, and every one makes me want to scream with anger and cry with sadness. It’s that kind of thing that is the real evil of this occupation – the steady drip of nastiness that makes like almost unbearable for people living here.

We are always on call here if something happens. The other night, for example, we spent with the family of a man accused of killing an Israeli soldier. If he did do it, then we are not supporting that, but we went to his family’s home as they were afraid that the Israelis would come to demolish it – a form of collective punishment they have used frequently in the past. Fortunately, that didn’t happen on this occasion. However, while we were there, two of the man’s cousins came back having just been released from police custody (every male member of the family had been arrested and interrogated for many, many hours) – one of the cousins in particular had a badly bruised face and could scarcely walk as the Israeli soldiers had repeatedly beaten his thighs and legs. He had also not been allowed to sleep for more than 40 hours. Torturing family members of a suspected criminal is, again, a form of collective punishment that is utterly inexcusable.

It’s not only Palestinians who the Israelis target, although they get treated infinitely worse than Israelis or foreigners who resist the occupation. It seems that the authorities here are trying really hard now to crack down on groups like the ISM, who work with internationals and who are commited to non-violence. Twice in the past week, Israeli soldiers have invaded our media office (which is also an apartment we stay in in Ramullah) in the middle of the night. The first time, they arrestedf two ISM volunteers, one Spanish, one Australian. The second time, when I was there, they didn’t arrest us but did interrogate us at gun point for 45 minutes. On both occasions, they stole computers, cameras and documents from the office. These raids are totally illegal under the terms of the Oslo accords, agreed in 1994, but I guess we should see it as a sign of our strength that our presence here upsets them enought for them to flaunt the law to try to intimidate us.

Anyway, I could write much more, but I realise this has already become a very long message. I hope it gives a sense of what I’m doing here and why. Those of you who know me best will know that I came here expecting to be outraged by the reality of the occupation. Now I’m here, and seeing it first hand, I find it’s worse than I had ever dared to imagine. I am though very glad that I’m here. I’ve never felt more strongly that I’m using my energies in the right way, in the right place