Monday, May 28, 2007

Killing the Past

May 26, 2007

For Palestinians, their olive trees are not only the mainstay of their economy, they are also an important part of their culture and identity. For Palestinians, the olive tree is the embodiment of their family history and their family's collective memory.

Ask any Palestinian farmer and he can tell you in which year, each and every single one of his trees were planted and by whom – his father, his brother, his son, his grandfather, great grandfather. As a result, when a tree is destroyed, it is as if a well loved member of the family has also been killed and the past has been murdered.

On Friday, our team received a call from a local villager, who requested that we accompany him to the nearby illegal Israeli settlement of Revava to check on newly planted olive trees. As we walked the kilometre or two to the illegal colony, Abu S explained that the land on which it was built been had been owned by his family for more than 200 years. As we entered the land and walk down the side of the illegal colony, he proudly and sadly gave us a tour of his families land.
As we walked into the fields, Abu S pointed to one section of the land. Here were well grown mature olive trees. He pointed to each one and told us his families history – how old each tree was and which member of his family had planted it. As we walked further into the fields, we soon came to another section of the field, where few trees stood. Abu S explained that many of the trees that once stood here for hundreds of years had met their deaths at the hands of the illegal settlers now living in Revava settlement just a few hundred metres away. "The tree that stood here was 120 years" he said. "The one here was 200 years old but now they are gone".

There was little we could say, except murmur our sorrow. What do you say to someone who has lost not one, but many beloved members of their family? What do you say to someone, whose has lost the guardians of their families memories? Their family histography wiped from the face of the earth in a matter of hours?

We soon made our way to visit the newest children of Abu S's family, planted just months before. However, we were soon to discover that many of them were already dead at the hands of the illegal settlers. Their death had come about due to being ripped completely from their fragile root system or from simply being kicked and traumatised. Some of the trees in the more covered areas had survived but many had not. Abu S explained that this was the fourth time in a year that he and members of Rabbis for Human Rights had replanted the trees. Over the past year, more than US $5000 worth of trees had been wantonly and callously destroyed by the illegal settlers.

Throughout the Occupied West Bank and the Gaza the destruction of olive and fruit groves is a regular occurrence. Trees are regularly ripped from the earth that has cradled them for decades or centuries. Sometimes it is because the Israeli state wants to build new bypass road or the illegal apartheid wall or new illegal colonies. Other times they are destroyed as part of illegal collective punishment, razed by bulldozers or burnt to the ground. On other occasions, illegal settlers destroy the groves in an attempt to ensure that both the trees and the Palestinians are cleansed from the land that the settlers want to steal for themselves.

In the five years between the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada and 2005, it is estimated more than 1 million trees in Palestine have been uprooted and destroyed by the Israeli Occupation Forces. Of that number, nearly half were olive trees. Over the past two years, as the Israeli occupation has deepen more thousands upon thousand more trees have been destroyed.

However, Palestinians like Abu S will not give up. For the Palestinians of the occupied territories, their past is their future. And as a result, they will continue to replant their trees and they will continue to resist the attempts by the Israeli state, military and illegal settlers to kill their future and their present, by killing the guardians of their past.

In Palestine to exist is to resist. The dogged refusal to give in, to reaffirm the Palestinian identity and culture by planting and replanting olive trees is a form of resistance. While these newly planted trees will never capable of replacing the guardians of the past, they do reveal the hope that they will become the guardians of a Palestinian future which will be free from occupation and Israeli oppression.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

No Place Like Home

May 17, 2007

For the great majority of us, our homes are our safe place, our sanctuary and haven from the rest of the world. They are the places that we relax, enjoy the company of friends and family. For most of us, our homes are not just a physical structure, they are also the symbolic representation of our intimate and personal lives.

For those of us living in the West, the destruction of our home usually only comes as a result of a natural disaster or an accident – a cyclone, a flood or a fire. Rarely do we experience the destruction of our homes as an act of war or as physical manifestation of oppression or as punitive punishment. However, in Palestine , the destruction of ones home occurs regularly as a result of these three things.

Since 1967, when the Israel state seized and occupied the West Bank and Gaza , it has implemented a systematic policy of house demolition to not only to illegally and collectively punish the civilian Palestinian population, but also as a means of ethnically cleansing and ensuring the Judaisation of Palestinian land.

Although, I had seen the outcome of such Israel 's policy when I was in Palestine in 2004, I was fortunate enough not to have ever to witness such an act of demolition in action or to deal with the anguish of a family about to face such an act.

That, however, all changed this week.

On Wednesday night, one of my team mates received a phone call from a family in El Funduq, a small village a half an hour from our house. The family wanted us to come to see them the next day as the Israel Occupation Forces (IOF) had come to their home during the day, while they were at work, and left demolition orders for their house.

The following day, myself and two team mates made our way to El Funduq to meet with Bashir and Rana, the young couple who called us. Neither Bashir or Rana had been able to go to work that because they were so distressed and worried about what would happen to their family home and to their family.

As I sat listening to Bashir and Rana explain what happened and ask for their help, I also watched their two young children play. As I watched and listened to the family, I wanted to cry at the sad fate they were about to experience. Bashir looked drawn and told us even though he could speak a reasonable amount of English, he was too stressed and tired and ask us to pardon him for speaking in Arabic. Rana, like many Palestinian women, was the hidden strength in the family. She calmly and seriously explained in English the situation, while also nursing and feeding her 8 month old daughter.

Even in the direst of times, Palestinian hospitality is never forgotten and amongst glasses of Shay (tea) and Qarhwa (coffee), Bashir showed us the family deeds to land, land his father had brought in 1964 when Palestine was still under Jordanian administration and three years before the beginning of the current Israeli occupation.

Bashir and Rana's house, while built on family land, was built like the majority of Palestinian homes since 1967 in the Occupied Territories without a permit and this is why it was scheduled for destruction. Bashir and Rana, like most Palestinians are caught in a Catch22 situation, victims of Israel's cruel and brutal planning and development policy specifically designed to ethnically cleanse Palestinian land in order to ensure its systematic Judiasation.

For the past four decades, the Israeli state has used planning and development policy to severely restrict or freeze construction by Palestinians, while at the same time allowing for the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements. Israeli policy has meant that thousands of Palestinians are unable to obtain permits to build on land that has often been in their families for decades or even centuries. As a result, Palestinians are often forced to build without permits because they can not get official Israeli permission to be able to provide shelter for their families. In addition, Israeli policy has seen land registration frozen for more than 30 years, making it easier for Israeli authorities to deny permission because the owners of the land are unable to provide formal documentation of ownership of the land.
According to the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, over the past ten years, Israel has demolished more than 2,200 residences (as a result of planning and development policy), leaving more than 13,000 Palestinians homeless. During this same period, however, at least 155 Israeli settlements with more than 170,000 illegal settlers have been established in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As B'Tselem notes, "thousands of houses were built in these [illegal] settlements without permits", however, " Israel refrained from demolishing these houses, and instead issued retroactive building permits for thousand of houses constructed without permits", revealing the Israeli states blatant discrimination in favour of illegal settlers.

In addition, since 1967, Israel has also used the policy of house demolition as a form of punitive collective punishment supposedly in order to deter attacks on Israeli citizens and soldiers. Between December, 1987 and January 2005 alone, the Israeli state and military demolished, either completely or partially, almost 16,000 Palestinian homes as part of the punitive punishment policy, leaving more than more than tens of thousands of Palestinians homeless.
Bashir and Rana, although distressed, both knew well that there was little that they or us could do should the demolition go ahead. A year earlier, Bashir's brother's house had been destroyed, the evidence of its destruction was still evident a few hundred metres away. To the other side of the house, over on the next ridge, we could see the rubble of a sheep farm which was destroyed just three months earlier, leaving another local family millions of shekels in debt.

Over the next hour and half, Bashir and Rana's family – mothers, sisters, brothers and nephew and nieces – came to the house to express in Arabic and English, their distress and anguish about what was about to happen. The pain on the face of their mothers was etched deep, as Andjelka translated their distress: "This life is difficult", one said. "If they destroy this house, we don't know what we will do. If we built a second house, they will come and destroy it too. We will have no where to go but the streets".

So now, like Bashir and Rana and their collective families, we await news from their lawyer as to whether the house demolition can be stopped. If it can not be stopped, we will do as they ask of us and we will await their call to come to the witness the destruction of their family home, in order to document and photograph its destruction and their plight.

We will bear witness to the destruction of their refuge, their sanctuary, their hard work and intimate dreams in order to try and make the world understand what is happening, not only to Bashir and Rana's family, but to Palestinians all over the West Bank and Gaza .

We will bear witness in order to try and make the world understand that this is what it is to live under Israeli occupation and why now, more than ever, we must demand an immediate end to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian people and the occupied territories and call for a free Palestine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Al Nakba 2007, Ramallah

May 15 - Al Nakba
Between April and May, 1948 more than 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced and dispossessed from their ancestoral homes in Palestine in the lead up to and after the creation of the Israeli state. Today, Palestinian refugees number more then 6 million persons around the world.
While Israel celebrates "independence day" and the creation the Israel state, the Palestinian people refer to the day as "Al Nakba", the "catastrophe".

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Convenience of Occupation

It has been more than two years since I was last in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and I wondered how much had changed. I knew that in many ways not much had changed but in other ways much had change, despite or more precisely because of the continuing Israel occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Arriving in Jerusalem, the first thing I noticed was the growth of Ma’ale Adumim, the main illegal Israel colony surrounding Occupied East Jerusalem. Over the past two years, Ma’ale Addumim had been expanded and new residential housing built, the idea being to expand the settlement so it cut off Occupied East Jerusalem from the rest of the Occupied West Bank.

The following day, I made my way to Ramallah to visit Palestinian friends. My friends in Ramallah had told me the section of the illegal wall between Jerusalem and Ramallah had been completed during my two year absence and that Qalandia checkpoint would be unrecognisable to me.

One friend offered to meet me when I got to Ramallah. In my naivety, I thought this meant he would be meeting me at Qalandia checkpoint (known as Atarot checkpoint to the Israeli Occupation Forces). When I had been here previously, you needed to get a bus to Qalandia, then get off, walk through the checkpoint and then flag down a service (shared taxi) for the last part of the trip into central Ramallah. All up, two years ago, the trip could take anywhere between half an hour and an hour to complete, depending on how the Israeli Occupation Forces were feeling that day at the checkpoint.

However, Mohammed explained to me, no he would meet me at central Ramallah bus station as the bus from Jerusalem will bring me straight to Ramallah.

On Saturday, I walked up to the bus station just outside the Damascus Gate in Occupied East Jerusalem to catch the mini bus to Ramallah. The station looked little different from what I remembered from two years before. Once on the bus, we took the familiar route towards Qalandia, however, when we reached Ar’ram, a suburb of Jerusalem, the bus driver suddenly did a u-turn. At first I thought it was because he didn’t want to go through the checkpoint, but within minutes I realised it was because he could not reach Qalandia by this way anymore, as the 8 meter concrete Apartheid Wall now ran through the middle of Ar’ram ensuring that one side of Jerusalem was cut off from the other.

The Apartheid Wall, which was only half built when I had been here previously, was now complete and ran all the way to Qalandia. When we reached Qalandia, gone was the familiar sight of hundreds of yellow services dotting the road side, the mad traffic chaos that I remembered and the hustle and bustle of haggling over fares to Jenin or Qalqilya or Tul Karem. Instead, in its place was an almost sterile area, that include two massive roundabouts and watch towers perched high on hill embankments towering over the checkpoint. Two years previously, the checkpoint consisted of two long walk ways, one into Ramallah and one out, as well as barrier that vehicles would have to pass through. On the walk way which you had to traverse to leave Ramallah, you need to exist through a turnstile gate and then walk to the soldiers, who were usually leaning on a barrier made from military equipment.

Today, the old checkpoint structure has been replaced by a modern looking structure that reminded me the toll booth structures located on the Hume Highway going out of Sydney. From what I could see no camouflage netting or barb wire or gridding, instead, it was clean, sleek and modern looking with tall columns and small booths with windows.

The bus I was travelling on quickly approached the checkpoint, slowed down but did not stop and was quickly waved through. Eight minutes later, I was in downtown Ramallah, the whole trip taking less than 20 minutes to make. I was stunned by the “convenience” of it all. No longer did I have to change transport several times or walk through a checkpoint or deal with the intimidating military netting or barb wire or turnstiles, instead, I was able to reach Ramallah with the minimum of hassle.

As I passed through the new checkpoint, I noticed that there was also to the right of the checkpoint was a newly built car park that reminded me of any car park you would find in local suburban shopping centre in Australia. My friend later told me that the checkpoint was there for those Palestinians who were able to get work permits in Israel. They could drive to the checkpoint, park their car and then enter a separate area where their permits would be checked and they would be waved through to work.

With the trip to Ramallah seeming much easier to accomplish then it seemed to be two years ago, it would be easy to forget that all of this “convenience” was courtesy of the Israeli occupation.

Yes, there was no longer the chaos and shambolic nature of Qalandia checkpoint, there was no longer the intimidating looking densely enclosed “military” looking checkpoint and it now only took 20 minutes to get from Jerusalem to Ramallah. But all this convenience came at a price.

The price of deepening of the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the strengthening of what Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, called the “Iron Wall” in order to ensure the ongoing colonisation of Palestine.

In 1923, Jabotinsky, wrote that it was necessary to create “an iron wall which the native [Palestinian] population cannot break through”. This “Iron Wall” wrote Jabotinsky, would ensure that Zionist colonisation could and would continue in defiance of the wishes of the indigenous population.

The Iron Wall, he wrote, was necessary because:

“as long as there is a spark of hope they can get rid of us [the Zionists], they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their say, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions. And only then will moderates offers suggestions for compromise on practical questions like a guarantee against explusion, or equality and national autonomy”.

The new checkpoint and new car park are not temporary structures, they were permanent structures which it is clear are built for long term use. They are built with the continuation of the occupation in mind. They are built with the continuation of colonisation in mind. They are built with the continuing caging of the Palestinians in mind and they are build with the hope that the Palestinians will accept the illegal and brutal occupation both mentally, as well as physically.

The pristine new checkpoint and car park now may make it more convenient to travel from one occupied area to another, but what the Aparthied wall reminds us every time we pass along it, is that the occupation continues. The face of the occupation may be less harsh now at Qalandia, but behind the new paint, the new roundabout, new windows and structures, the brutality of the occupation continues. Palestinian land is still being stolen, olive groves are still being destroyed, men and women – both young and old - are still being arrested, Gaza is still under siege, women are still giving birth to children at checkpoints and the movement of 4 million Palestinians is still being controlled by the Israeli state.

And this is where the truth of the matter lies: the only group who is truly being convenience by these new structures and checkpoints, no matter how modern and clean they look, are the Israeli occupiers who hope to colonise the minds of the Palestinians in order to ensure there is no resistance to their ongoing colonisation of Palestinian land.

However, as Jabotinsky recognised, “every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement”. And despite or more correctly, in spite of, 40 years of brutal Israeli occupation and the growing “Iron Wall” around them, this hope has not been lost by the Palestinian people. Instead, they continue to resist and call for a free Palestine, to be free of occupation and to be free of Zionist “convenience”.