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A Month in Palestine

Tom Blanx

By Tom Blanx

This May, I travelled to the West Bank in occupied Palestine.

I had a fairly good idea of the kind of things I would see when I went, but wanted to take a closer look at what I think is an unfair and asymmetrical situation. I don’t stand against Jews or Israelis. I stand against racism, violence, oppression and ignorance, and all of those things, I think, are here.

During my time in the West Bank, I lived and worked with a Palestinian farmer who runs a Permaculture Project in a small village called Marda. I wanted to see for myself what life was like for Palestinians living under occupation and how Permaculture could help.

Knowledge is everything and with that in mind I’m sharing everything I saw, heard, thought and felt in the time I was there.

Below are excerpts from Tom Blanx’s blog. Read the full blog here.

Getting in

For those who haven’t been, Israel’s not the easiest of places to get in and out of. And if you plan on checking out the occupied territories you’ll need to be a bit creative with the truth. Despite my polite passport note from the queen, I decided not to reveal how freely I would be passing while on my travels as it would have most likely landed me straight back on British soil. This had happened to previous volunteers so the NGO I had organised the trip with had suggested that I lie.

With the help of Murad, my Palestinian friend and his friend, an Israeli who will remain anonymous, I pretended I was traveling to help and learn on a farm in the south. I probably could have said I was there for a beach holiday or Christian visit too, but a bag full of work boots and full length clothing might have been a giveaway. Murad told me to just remain calm and answer all questions confidently but it was a nerve racking and intimidating experience. Much more than I remember it being when I was 18 coming here. In the end I think I got in through by inadvertently playing dumb.

Getting into the West Bank was more straight forward. I got on a bus from Tel Aviv bus station all the way to Ari’el (An illegal settlement, next to Marda). There are no stops or checkpoints for settlers (on the way in) so all I had to do was get off before the bus turned into the settlement where Murad was waiting for me and I was in. A better understanding of his instructions, some Hebrew and useful geographical knowledge and I probably wouldn’t have ended up bang in the middle of the Ari’el in the isolating situation of looking for a Palestinian village. I haphazardly navigated my way out of on foot and was an hour late – not the look I was going for, but I guess he was going to find out what I’m about sooner or later.

Marda

Marda is in the Salfit district which is biggest producer of olive oil in Palestine. The village is effectively a ghetto, with reinforced steel gates at each end for when the army want to shut it down and a high metal fence and barbed wire around it, although some of these had been damaged and removed. There used to be resistance here, but like in lots of the rest of Palestine, occupation has become normalized. These days the village is quiet and peaceful. People work and children go to school, cats wonder around the place looking for food and donkeys everywhere sound like they’re dying. The village sits directly under the hilltop Ari’el settlement, the 4th biggest in the West Bank. Murad said he used to play there with his friends when he was young before Zionists confiscated and destroyed 9000 dunams of it, in the late 70s to build luxury homes, streets and a university for Israelis and Jewish immigrants. The juxtaposition of the two towns, is a powerful thing to see and its something that you can’t help but see, every day.

As I arrived in Marda another volunteer was leaving. Her name was Judy, a 60 year old American woman from Australia traveling by herself. I wouldn’t normally mention someones age or circumstances but I think its significant as many people think the West Bank is too dangerous to travel to and that women could be more vulnerable here. Neither are true. It was her 5th visit to Marda so I wanted to get as much information out of her as I could in the 30 minutes she had left. She gave me the dos and donts about living in Marda, how to be with Murad and told me to explore as much as I could of Palestine “You can’t characterise Palestine on what you see in just Marda as much as you can’t characterise the US on what you see in Miami.”

Murad

Straight away I felt at ease with Murad. From our first Skype conversation, to meeting him an hour late getting lost, I felt welcome and at home. Chilled and pragmatic, straight talking and funny are the best words I can think of to describe him. Everywhere we went there was banter. Banter with friends, banter with strangers. Sometimes he sounds like he is angry when he’s talking in arabic but then he laughs and I know he’s not. Judy said his bark is worse than his bite and I now know what she means. “C’mon man!… what you doing man?!”… “Why you sayin sorry all the time man” still echo round my head.

Murads family have lived in Marda for generations spanning centuries. His wider family numbers in the 100s. His immediate family is his his wife, Ghada, daughters Sara, Halla and Tooleen, his youngest – son Khalid, his Mother, Twin brother, older brother, three sisters and their families.. I think I can count the number of people in my family with my fingers!

The old house he grew up in has itself been in the family for 300 years. His Mother and twin, Hazim live there now and on my first night, he took me to meet them. We ate dinner, looked at our phones (Theres no escaping it!!!) and then I helped Murad download a Lionel Richie “hello” ringtone he wanted for when Ghada called him. I asked him what other music he liked and he said “none”. “But you like Lionel Richie though?” No. just that song.” Then I reconfigured his answer and decline buttons so he could, in his words, hang up in peoples face.

When violence broke out in the second intifada (literally translated as uprising), Murad decided to leave Palestine. With his Palestinian passport, he traveled to America and spent time working in Chicago and Tennessee. In 2006, he returned to inherit his Father’s land and with some basic knowledge of permaculture from a previous project, he started Marda Permaculture farm.

The Permaculture farm

The farm is 2 1/4 dunams in size. A duman is about 1 square km. The farm has Bees and produces large quantities of honey each year, 5 kilos of which is exported to customers in Qatar. He has chickens and pigeons (with their own cob-built houses) for eggs and meat and and plans on getting some goats and a cow.

The farm is Murads livelihood, but its more than that. The farm is his way of fighting the occupation. By growing his own food and providing his own income, he doesn’t need to buy expensive food and water or look for work abroad or in Israel. Permaculuture gives him good health, independence and empowerment.

The farm is a centre for students, activists and volunteers and Murad hopes his model will raise awareness of Permaculture in Palestine and begin to change local peoples attitudes towards farming.

Getting around

I did most of my exploring with Murad. I only did my own thing a couple of times. Once when I went to Jerusalem with Gaie (another volunteer who helped at the farm for a few days) and another time when we split up in Rammalah and I went to see qalandia. But we always left Marda together. Murad wasnt into the idea of me travelling by myself in case I got mistaken for a settler or deported for being a friend of Palestine. They’re weren’t any bus stops in Marda so unless you hail a passing taxi or sherut you hitch a ride to somewhere you can get a bus. The nearest place to us was Zattara Junction (Tappuah junction for Israelis). From here you can go in three directions north to nablus, east to jericho and south to Rammalah. It used to be checkpoint but some of these have eased off in recent years. Theres still a large miltary presence here though. Lots of Israelis use the junction so cars are still stopped, ids are still checked and people are still harassed. We saw one guy in his early 20s being checked out by two soldiers wanting to know where he had been, where he was going, and why he needed to go there.

As we make our way to the bus stop to Rammalah we have to go through the rigmarole of crossing the side of the road we need to the central reservation to avoiding Israeli only bus stop which Palestinans are not allowed to be near, to then cross back 50m further along where the anybody else bus stop is. You keep your head down here as you feel the eyes of soldiers and settlers weigh down on you. You’re at the mercy of the army here, they have done and can do anything they want to you here. This a cold violence that all Palestinans have to go through on a daily basis.

Nablus and Tulkarem

This was the first place outside Marda that I explored. It used to be an important junction on the Old Silk Road and was a strong resistance town in the years following the occupation. Nowadays, its very normalised – the occupation. Like the rest of the country, people are just trying to make enough money to survive. Food and drinks, shops and markets are everywhere. Women are covered up, some even more than in Marda wearing full burkhas which you can see also see displayed in shop windows. Lots of women whiten their faces here too. Looks really strange sometimes. On the hilltop behind the city is the largest refugee camp in Palestine – 30,000 refugees packed into ¼ of a sq km. Like the one outside Rammalah they resemble Rio’s hillside favelas. Beautiful backdrop and ugly consequence all at the same time. As we ate a shrawma outside we saw men putting flags up in the main square and cars driving round honking their horns. They were celebrating the release of a young man who had been put in jail by the Israelis. I dont know who he was or what he had been jailed for but Im guessing it was for a while and his release was a small victory.

A little bit further on is Tulkarem This is where we met Murad’s friend Fayez, and where I saw the wall for the first time. Like Murad, Fayez also runs a farm in a village just outside Tulkarem called Irtah. His story is amazing: resilience and steadfastness in effect. In a nutshell… Occupation forces tried to confiscate his land to use as a military post; some of the first sections of the segregation wall were built across 20 dunams of his land; he resisted the land confiscation and repeated attacks on him and his crops and was imprisoned, leaving his wife Muna, to manage the farm; 12 chemical factories considered hazardous to Israeli public health were relocated to the other side of the wall, one right next to his farm*; he thus grew more aware of the health impacts of fertilisers and pesticides and made the switch to organic production. Now his and Muna’s farm, famous for popular resistance attracts solidarity activists and volunteers from all over the world.

*Factory chimneys are turned on when the wind blows east into Palestine, and off when into Israel.

At his home we sat and drank zamzam with his family. Zam zam is holy water welled from the zam zam well in Mecca. They told me the story of zamzam, debating over the specifics but Im struggling to makes sense of my notes so heres a simple kids version of the origin of zamzam I found online:

“This is the story of the ZamZam water. The water well of Zamzam is a well located within the Masjid al Haram in Mecca. It was a miraculously generated source of water from Allah, which began thousands of years ago when prophet Ismael (PBUH) the son of prophet Abraham and Hajar (the wife of prophet Abraham, May Allah be pleased with her) were thirsty and alone in the dessert.In this area there is very little water if any at all in some places. According to our tradition, Hajar (May Allah be pleased with her) was a very devout mother and wife. When she was separated from her Husband prophet Abraham (PBUH), she was left alone in the dessert, by herself with her small son Ishmael (PBUH). Prophet Abraham made a prayer for his young family as he left them behind and Allah provided the means of sustenance for them. Hagar (May Allah be pleased with her) ran seven times back and forth in the scorching heat between the two hills of Safa and Marwah, in desperation because her son cried as it was very hot and they did not have even a drop of water to drink. Allah provided a Miracle and the ZamZam well was born.”

Fayez’s son “carried” 20L of this water back from his hajj pilgrimage so it goes without sayng that I felt really honoured be offered it. Its meant to contain healing powers so you drink it in 3 sips and wish for good health. I drank mine to my Mum.

Jerusalem

Tony Blair has a multi million penthouse apartment that he rents for free in East Jerusalem. I saw it – Murads not even allowed to come to Jerusalem. No one who lives in the West Bank is, unless they own one of the hard to get permits I mentioned earlier. Its like me needing permission to visit london.

Jerusalem (East) is as you would expect it to be – tourists, religious places of interest, sight seeing, crap selling blah. The tourism and globalism here makes it more relaxed in its attitudes to drinking and clothing, despite the religious significance of the city. In the old town/holy basin which is a busy Palestinian neighbourhood, Israeli settlers live in homes above the market taken from Palestinians now flagged up and fenced off. Below mesh is in place to stop settlers throwing waste down on the Palestinians. markets there are Israeli homes.

We tried to get to the Al Aqsa mosque and dome on the rock but it was muslims only after 4pm and being white and non muslim looking we were turned away by Israeli police. They control who goes in and out here. It was interesting and maybe kind of nice to see israelis help enforce the Muslim only after 4pm rule. Was also good to see some soldiers and locals getting on. Saw another soldier help a blind man into the square too which was nice. In the rush to cry dehumanization you can easily find yourself guilty of doing the same thing.

Jenin

Jenin was the furthest town I visited. We had to time our trip around the weather as it gets hotter here. Its in the agricultural north and took about an hour and a half of mountainous driving from Marda to get there although Jenin itself is mostly flat. Didn’t really get a chance to explore Jenin properly it was more of a meet this guy here meet that guy there day but one thing that was noticeable was the absence of anything Israel.

Unlike all the other places Id been to there was no army, no flags, no settlements. This might be because of its unbroken horizontalness as I’m pretty sure most settlements are built strategically on hilltops. Outside the hustling bustling town of markets shops and car-shop after car-shop after car-shop is industrial landscape with factories and fields growing tobacco fruits and vegetables. More mass production than organic production here.

Environment

Despite a deep connection with the land, it gets treated badly by many Palestinians,Israelis too. In many parts of the West Bank, streets and fields are scattered with rubbish. Theres refuse collection once a week in Marda but thats just to collect landfill waste from peoples houses. Outside though, pedestrians, drivers, kids playing, even farmers, just chuck their empty packets on the ground. Many animals are treated badly: birds caged in small spaces to be sold as meat; donkeys toiling in the insane heat carrying people and heavy loads; dead puppies (clearly not treated well) left next to bins in the street, I could go on. On our way to the farm one day we saw that one donkey had given birth. Murad helped the new donkey to its feet and pushed her closer towards her mother so was tied up to a nearby tree but just out of reach. The next day we saw the same donkey, working, but not the infant. As another mouth to feed and a distraction to his working donkey, the owner, an old guy, chucked the new jenny away. This upset Murad, more out of waste than sentiment, but Murad cares. He understands the imposrtant roles animals have. I learnt this early on when some children visited us at the farm and one of them was trying to squash a bug. Murad stopped him and while I could’nt hear what he actually said, it was clear Murad was telling the by that he needed those bugs.

Then theres Israel, the self titled environmentalists, chucking all kind of restrictions and protection laws onto Palestinians in the name of preservation whilst committing all kinds of environmental rights violations: sucking Palestinian land dry of water and selling it back to them at full price; allowing settlements to dump huge quantities of sewage into neighbouring Palestinian fields and villages, damaging buildings, soil and water supplies; poisoning waterways and soil with toxic chemicals; uprooting 1000s of olive trees, trees that are peoples livelihood, trees that have stood since the Romans were here!; building over ancient springs and vital sources of water, affecting eco systems and land irrigation; and then the walls and border gates affecting the migration patterns of an array of species.

Culture

I’d never been to a Muslim country before so my head naturally started to fill itself with assumptions and preconceptions of how things were or would be. I knew from the advice the volunteer program gave me, that Marda was a conservative village: No shorts, no singlets (LOL), no drinking, no drugs, and no approaching strange women romantically. I paraphrase but these were all suggested guidelines – Who’s been coming here??

Marda is a conservative village, traditional too – women cover themselves in public and sometimes socialise separately but everyone was friendly and interactive. If my arabic spanned further than the “Hello? How are you? Im fine, thank you.” at its peak, I may have broken down even more social barriers. Word to the wise: Don;t go in for a handshake with women you’ve just met as you’ll be left hanging.

Despite the occupation and the harassment and intimidation that comes with it, everybody seemed upbeat. There’s a real togetherness here and its so much more chill than it looks and sounds from in the west. There’s lots of joking. Murad likes to take the piss out of people especially people that he likes. There’s one old guy we used to see and Murad always tries to tickle him.

It sounds like a stupid and obvious thing to say but Palestinians really love their children, especially young ones, almost as if preserving their innocence is everything. From about 7-12 boys go through a seen but not heard phase then at 13+ they’re targets for playful clips round the ear and downsizing banter. They have a lot of freedom in Marda. Children as young as 6 walk to and from school through the village, they go to the shops to buy groceries and play outside unsupervised. On paper it sounds like slack parenting but its not. The community polices itself. Everyone knows everyone and when children step out of line or get cheeky the nearest adult will call them up on it. I’d describe it as a golden age if the circumstances didn’t make it sound so ridiculous.

Politics

Murads not the type to push agendas. I wanted a Palestinan perspective on Israel, the occupation, and all the other things that go with it, so I was going to have to ask. Judy ,who I met briefly when I arrived in Marda told me “Don’t ask questions unless youre ready to accept the context.” I wasn’t completely sure what this meant but I bided my time and began to write down some questions for Murad which I could ask him when we’d got to know each other better. In my spare time I started to plan a positive article about cooperating through collaborating. This had stemmed from seeing how Murad and his Israeli friend had been working together to sneak volunteers into Marda, but with one question my idea, or at least, my inspiration, was blown out of the water. “Do lots of Israelis come here to help?”

“Yes, but I don’t like it. It makes me look bad.” Murad doesn’t pull punches, he tells it as he sees it and when a group of Israeli peace activists came to work on the farm and found this out. He told me how they had asked him what they could do to help the Palestinian cause and in one word, he said, “leave”.. “It sounds harsh, but this is a man who has been fired at, arrested, imprisoned, watched as his family’s land was turned into a lavish city for Israelis and jewish immigrants, which has brought violence right to his door.

“These people say they are for peace but if they really were they would leave Israel. Who built your house?” he asked them. “The person who built your house is living in a tent and you talk about peace?”

Talk leads onto the testimonies of soldiers in, ‘Breaking the silence’. “Breaking the Silence are bastards! They kill innocent men women and children and then feel bad and say sorry? Fuck you’re sorry!” None of this is said in a raised or angry tone of voice. Murad is like lots of other Palestinians think that they have been sold out. Sold out by Israel, sold out by America, sold out by Britain, sold out by Arab states and sold out by their own leaders. I try to explain that propaganda can make people do the worst kind of things but it sounds empty as I say it.

“The world doesn’t care. If it did, Palestinians would have justice.”

The Army

In the whole time I was in Palestine and Israel the only times I ever felt threatened, nervous or insecure was near Israeli police and soldiers. 15 years ago I was in Tower Records in Tel Aviv and 2 young soldiers stood next to me looking through cds while on duty. It was strange then and it is strange now. In Israel, everywhere soldiers are on the move. Its like scouts but with guns. It like something out of the Paul Verhoven film, Starship Troopers. Beautiful, fresh faced, young men and women, IDF issue Tavor assault rifle in one hand and smartphones in the other, all “doing their part!, knowing their foe!, guaranteeing citizenship!” because at the end of the day, “its us or them”

The idea that an 18 year old with a gun has the power to harass and disrespect civilians often much older and wiser than them leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

For me military service here is more about protecting a lie than protecting citizens. Imagine a reality where young men and women are indoctrinated with the idea that they are defending their country when all they’re really doing is supporting a decades long colonisation project. It almost doesn’t seem real. Almost.

Pigs

About 5 days in, I was smoking a cigarette on the roof when I heard a gravel moving noise coming from the hill behind my house. The street lights made it dificult to see what it was but I could just about make out a group of large figures making their way down this track. It looked like humans, big humans, on all fours, coming down the hill!! I was scared! The settlement was just up the hill and I’d heard stories of past incursions and still new to this unfamiliar and relatively (to me) troubled place, my imagination and stupidity got the better of me. Reality checked eventually and I concluded they weren’t humans. I still didn’t know what they were though, so I didnt move or make a sound and just watched as these night monsters marched on by.

The next morning I tell murad what happened… And in his most blasé voice tells me, “That’s the pigs man….They come and destroy everything in a few minutes!”

So I looked it up. It’s not just in marda. Apparently all over the West Bank wild pigs have been wrecking crops and trees and sometimes attacking people, all since around 2004. People claim they were introduced after the last intifada. One guy even told me he heard a ruck loads of them had been seen being unloaded in some fields. It’s a wild claim, but in a place where pollution is directed towards specific communities, raw seage is dumped into village’s water supply and Settler children are marched through villages abusing locals, it becomes more believable. I can only speculate as why pigs. Agitation? Disrespect? One guy joked that Islam should introduce a temporary fatwah so that people could eat the pigs and turn the problem in to a solution.

“In 2004 there were no pigs in Palestine! Now there are pigs! They don’t fly in!”

Murad showed me some of the damage they had done to his corn field. To protect his farm he put up a barbed wire fence but it was only when he attached tyres to the fence that they stopped getting in.

I became obsessed by this thing! I really wanted to see the pigs again, I set my alarm to wake me up at all hours, but I never saw them. There were some near encounters. We just missed them on the way to work one day when some builders sent the running down the hill throwing stones at them

A law was passed to protect the pigs so farmers are not allowed to kill them. It would take a bullet to the head to do it apparently which would be pretty hard as you’re not allowed weapons of any description in Palestine.

Getting out

On the way back its the same bus back to Tel aviv. After speaking to other internationals I was prepping myself for a grilling at the airport. I wasn’t expecting to be removed from the bus by armed officers in plain clothes. And I wasn’t prepared to explain why I was in the West Bank on a settler bus and not where I said I would be in Israel proper. People told me to smasher questions confidently, honestly and vaguely. A lot of officials I dealt with had a mediocre knowledge of place names so this helps with the vague answering. You might get through that but you’ve probably been flagged for more security checks. And if you have its a tough run in til the fight home. At check in and security your bags will be emptied, their contents swabbed and analysed, your body searched and scanned and your skill at answering repetitive questions tested.

And when you collect your bag from gatwick airport luggage hall you’ll even find a courtesy note inside explaining that someone’s had another good look through your gear and put everything back as they found it. ‘Come back anytime’ aint the vibe Im getting.

I plan on going back for olive harvest this year but won’t hold my breath on getting in. If one trip is that suspicious, another is probably smoking gun territory.

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