Tag Archives: EAPPI

On Israeli settlers: “They come down from the hills and get us with dogs and guns”

I have just stumbled across this article that the wonderful Kate Hardie-Buckley wrote after visiting me and my former colleague Emmet Sheerin in Yanoun in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

I don’t think I shared the article on Hynd’s Blog at the time.

The title, “They come down from the hills and get us with dogs and guns“, might read to some as being as slightly over the top. The fact that I can promise it isn’t says a lot about life in Yanoun.

Anyway, have a read of the article and let me know what you think.

PS – you can also watch Emmet’s video about life in Yanoun.

 

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Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – a productive path to peace? Part 2

Simply, I don’t know what I think about the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. I believe passionately that the Israeli government must be held to account for its actions (in the same way any government should) but I am not (yet) convinced that boycotting all aspects of Israeli life is the way to bring about change.

As such I have asked two people to put forward different arguments on BDS – one broadly in favour and one broadly opposed.  I hope that this exercise will help me, and possibly others, to think about the impact of the BDS campaign.

This is a second article which follows Sarah AB’s argument that the BDS movement is counterproductive to peace.

This article is by Jane Harries, a Quaker and a human rights activist.

“Many thanks to Steve for asking me to contribute – I do so as a member of Women to Women for Peace, a grassroots women’s peace organisation which has been actively working with Israeli and Palestinian peace women since 2004, as a recently-returned Ecumenical Accompanier, and a Quaker.

Action, partial action or inaction around BDS is fraught with dilemmas. What is the ‘right’ thing to do? What are the likely effects of our action, and could we – by having a negative impact on trade with Israel – actually be hurting those we wish to benefit – the Palestinians? Is BDS efficacious, or could it lead to more hard-line attitudes and ways of evading restrictions? As so often, we would like things to be clear-cut – but they are not. I believe that we all have to work through these dilemmas for ourselves. Here are some suggestions as to how we can do this.

Why?

The first question to ask is ‘Why might individuals and organisations choose to adopt BDS as a strategy?’ The answer, for me, would be that this is the right thing to do. If we believe that the Occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements are illegal under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), if we abhor the violations of human rights which stem from this occupation, then this is one way in which we – consumers and organisations – can show our public and concrete disapproval of the Israeli government’s policies and actions – particularly other actions have proved ineffective.

It is important to state clearly that this has nothing to do with anti-semitism – as is sometimes alleged. For me, BDS is a campaigning tool which aims to put pressure on governments which infringe human rights. As the present Israeli government is doing by continuing to occupy the West Bank and impose a blockade on Gaza, condemning the Palestinian people to a daily reality of control, harassment, restrictions and deprivation. This has nothing to do with Israel’s right to exist within its own borders, or about anti-Jewish prejudice, but everything to do with a willingness to move toward a just solution where two states can live together in equality and peace.

The second answer to the ‘why’ question is because people affected by the Occupation have asked us to do this. There have been several calls for the international community to consider adopting some measure of BDS – for instance from the World Council of Churches, Sabeel and in the Kairos Palestine document. There are also calls for BDS from within Israel, despite the controversial Anti-boycott law, passed in July 2011, which made it a civil offence to call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of people or institutions in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

What do we mean by BDS?

It’s important to be clear what we mean by BDS, what extent of activities we are willing to undertake, and why.

The first question to address is whether we are calling for a boycott of all Israeli products or just those from the illegal settlements on the West Bank.

Although there are arguments in favour of an all-out boycott, it seems to me consistent with a position based on respect for IHL and human rights to support a boycott of products from the illegal settlements only. This position was endorsed by a judgement of the European Court of Justice in February 2010, which established that goods originating from the illegal settlements are not covered by the EU-Israel Association Agreement, and therefore cannot be imported into EU countries without appropriate duties.

We might ask our MEPs to go further by pressing for a complete restriction on the import of such goods into the EU. Uri Avnery of the Israel peace organisation Gush Shalom has also urged boycott campaigners to make the distinction between the legitimate state of Israel and illegitimate settlements, arguing that an all-out boycott can play into the narrative that ‘everyone is against Israel.’

The decision to boycott just products from settlements still leaves me with dilemmas. Faced with a label on a supermarket product that says ‘Israel’ or even ‘West Bank’, how do I know whether it has come from a settlement or not? Nothing is straight forward.

Can we go further with BDS?

There are areas where the moral argument for the divestment from companies is clear: particularly those exporting arms to Israel, and those which support and resource the occupation in various ways – for instance by supplying materials for the Separation Barrier, providing infrastructure which links the settlements, or vehicles involved in house demolitions.

Another category would be companies which support the economic life of the settlements – and this list would be more far-ranging, including banks, retailers and construction companies. Information about such companies is available, but getting involved in such campaigns may depend on energy levels and how likely we think our efforts are to have an impact.

How do we campaign?

The question of how we campaign for an end to the occupation and a just and sustainable peace is directly related to the ‘why’ question – our motives for undertaking actions under the BDS banner.

For me, this is definitely not about Israel-bashing or a black-and-white portrayal of the situation – but springs from a desire to see a just and sustainable peace for everyone in the region – Israelis as well as Palestinians. We need to recognise that aggressive stances are counter-productive, and may widen rifts rather than working towards solutions, forcing people into defensive positions.

When talking to supermarkets, and companies, our aim should therefore be to inform and discuss from an ethical standpoint. At the same time we may sometimes need to ‘speak Truth to power’, as Quakers say. One way of showing disapproval is by withdrawing financial support.

In relation to academic, cultural and social boycotts, we need to consider when and how to act. As far as academic boycotts are concerned, it depends what area of academic life we were addressing. Would we, for instance, wish for academics to be cooperating regarding ‘security’?

In general, however, a more productive approach in these fields is to foster and encourage positive links with Palestinian individuals, groups and institutions. We can do this by encouraging twinning arrangements between schools and universities, and inviting Palestinian musicians and actors to tour the UK. Maybe one of the problems with the BDS campaign is that is seen as being negative – against trade with Israeli settlements, against companies that invest in them.

By undertaking more positive actions under the broad BDS umbrella may help to give the campaign a more human face.

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Watch: Yanoun – by Emmet Sheerin

This is a video by a friend and former colleague Emmet Sheerin. We lived together for a  few months in the village of Yanoun in the West Bank as part of the EAPPI programme. This is his short video which was made while we were there.

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Press Release: Steve Hynd to undertake speaking tour about his experiences monitoring human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories

Human rights activist, Steve Hynd, is soon to embark on a speaking tour where he will be talking about his experiences from his time in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Hynd, 26, has just arrived home after spending 5 months in the West Bank.  He was serving alongside participants from all around the world as part of a scheme coordinated through the World Council of Churches.

Commenting Hynd said,

“The last five months have been both challenging and inspiring for me. I have witnessed some terrible human rights abuses but I have also seen ordinary people from both sides of the conflict showing incredible resilience”

“I am hoping to be able to tell the stories of the people that I have met to as many back home as possible. If anyone would be interested in having me speak I would urge them to contact me by email on stevehynd24@gmail.com”

END

Contact Steve here – https://stevehynd.com/contact/

Notes to editor:

1)       Steve went with The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) which brings internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. When they return home, EAs campaign for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions. For more information please see http://www.eappi.org/index.php?id=4565

2)      Steve has been blogging throughout his time in the oPt, all of the articles can be seen here https://stevehynd.com/category/middle-east/

3) Photo shows Steve with three local boys from the village of Jayyus where he was stationed for three months.

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Israeli surrealism: ‘This is not an occupation’

This article was written by Chris Cox, a friend, a journalist and currently based in Hebron with EAPPI. Chris will be blogging throughout his stay in the West Bank.

Hazem Abu Rajab outside his house in Hebron, July 2012. [Photo: Eero Mäntymaa]

The art of surrealism involves mastering the element of surprise, the jarring juxtaposition, and the perfect non sequitur. This week, a judiciary panel appointed by the Israeli government proved themselves to be gifted surrealists: boldly breaking with decades of legal consensus to the contrary, the panel concluded that Israel is in fact not occupying the West Bank.One of its arguments, in a nutshell, is that occupations only last for short periods. Because Israel has been ‘a presence’ (or, in the language of unanimously-approved UN resolutions, ‘an occupier’) in the West Bank for over four decades, the situation no longer qualifies as occupation.

Try telling that to Hazem Abu Rajab, who shares his Hebron home with the Israeli border police. Since March this year, the Rajab family – nine in total, including Hazem’s parents – have had armed police occupying two-thirds of their house. Two of them sit outside the front door around the clock, while another mans the roof – on which flies an Israeli flag.

That would be enough to make anyone’s life miserable. When I visited Hazem last week – along with my EAPPI colleagues – he told me that the border police routinely pretend they do not know his family members, making them wait up to 20 minutes while they ‘confirm’ their identities before allowing them into the house.

But this is not an occupation, of course. It’s essential to remember that.

The Rajab family are in this situation because Israeli-Jewish settlers broke into their home in March this year, claiming to have purchased it from a Palestinian man – a claim the Rajab family flatly reject. Hazem told the Guardian how his family were woken at 1am by Israeli soldiers, armed and wearing black, who broke down three doors. “Within five minutes, 100 to 150 settlers were inside,” he said.

The settlers have since been evicted, but their claim has led the Israeli authorities to classify the property – which has been in the Rajab family for generations – as ‘disputed’.

“It’s going to take forever,” says Hamed Qawasmeh, a UN human rights officer. “It’s always like this. Once a home is ‘disputed’, no one can move into it.”

Hazem has spent the last seven years converting the basement of the house into an apartment, so that he can get married and live there with his wife. He works as a labourer, on low wages, and had painstakingly laid the foundations for the next phase of his life.

Now, Hazem and his family are trapped in limbo while the case makes its glacial way through the Israeli courts. His basement apartment was welded shut by the settlers when they moved in, and remains so.

Meanwhile, Hazem says, the border police humiliate his family in dozens of ways on an almost daily basis. He tells me the guards urinate in front of his female family members, swear loudly and play music, and make the Rajab family keep their windows closed on hot summer days.

“Each one of them is a government on his own,” says Hazem.

But this is not an occupation. Remember that. This is not an occupation.

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Another Friday, another protest in Kafr Qaddum

This is a guest article by my friend and colleague David Heap who is currently based in Tulkarm. It was originally published on the EAPPI website.

For the Abu Ihab family, Friday wasn’t too bad. Admittedly there were Israeli soldiers on their roof firing tear gas, they couldn’t leave the house, the sons had been chased down the stairs by armed soldiers and the stink of tear gas and burning car tyres drifted through the room. But Isra’a, the youngest daughter, said they weren’t really afraid today.

Kafr Qaddum is a pleasant Palestinian hillside village of some four thousand people. It has a mayor, a mosque, an elementary school. It had a road joining it to the next village one and a half kilometres away – but not anymore.

Between the two villages are two Israeli settlements, legal under Israeli law, but illegal according to UN Resolutions, which expressly forbid the civilian settlement of lands occupied as a result of conflict. The road was closed for security reasons by the Israeli authorities in 2003. The only security problems the townspeople were aware of were some damage to their crops and olive trees in the early days of the settlement, but all had been peaceful for a good while. Israeli authorities had reportedly promised to re-open the road at the same time as the main road beyond it to Nablus re-opened. This happened two years ago, but their road remained closed.

Since the first of July 2011 the people of Kafr Qaddum have held a demonstration every Friday against the closure, which means a 20 kilometre detour to get to families and friends and a six-fold increase in bus fares for students. It can get very angry, as it had on the 15th of June this year, because the Israeli army had raided the village in the middle of the night before and detained 20 young men. They can be held in administrative detention inside Israel, many kilometres away from their families for hours, days, weeks, months or years, often without trial. If they admit to the claims against them (often stone-throwing) they can be released upon payment of a fine that is around 10,000 shekels (€2000.) A Palestinian going to work in Israel as a labourer or farmhand earns 120-180 shekels per day.

That Friday, it was a game of kids advancing and throwing stones, soldiers dashing forward threateningly with the guns, kids running back, soldiers withdrawing, kids advancing again went on till the main adult procession came up the hill. Tyres had been set alight and were now billowing smoke. The same pattern of ebb and flow was repeated, only now tear gas was being lobbed regularly. Mostly into a field to the side of the demo, but some skittering along the road into the crowd. Men were regularly brought back choking and temporarily blinded and a Red Crescent ambulance zoomed up and down giving aid to the worst affected. One man was hurt more seriously as it seemed his shirt had caught fire and he was burned.

Things quietened down after an hour or so and the procession came back chanting slogans. A quiet enough day we were told. Unlike the previous week there had been no chemically-created “Skunk” water shot from water cannons and no sound bombs, which disorientate and nauseate as well as deafen.

Back in the Abu Ihab house, which is at the outer limit of the village and always caught up in the midst of things, things were now quite calm. The soldiers had left the roof and for once had not cut the television cable. The mother was preparing a huge and delicious meal of chicken, rice, vegetables, pickles, pitta bread, tea and coffee.

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Children’s Rights under Occupation

This is a guest post by Jane Harries, a friend and a colleague living in Yanoun where I spent the last few months. An unedited version of this article can be found here.

How do children fare under occupation?  From the children in Yanoun and the surrounding villages we can see there are restrictions here which children in the UK don’t face – lack of facilities such as play areas and swimming pools which we take for granted. Children’s drawings portray guns and tanks, showing the underlying fear and trauma which comes from witnessing armed settlers and army incursions.  One of the testimonies to the success of EAPPI’s protective presence in the village is the fact that the children feel safe to play in front of the International House.

What about the treatment of minors by the occupying power?  We had a glimpse of what this can mean when we visited Bassam Nadar and his son Muhammed in the village of Madama, west of Yanoun, and listened to their story.  Recently, as the villagers’ wheat was getting ready for harvest, settlers came down from the mountain and set fire to the fields.  The villagers went to try to extinguish the flames, including Bassam’s two sons, Mohammed (17 years) and Ahmed (15 years).  They had succeeded in doing so when an army jeep turned up and arrested the two boys, accusing them of starting the fire.  They were taken to Huwara military camp, then to the settlement of Ariel’s police station, then back to Huwara and eventually to Majidu prison in Israel.

Bassam heard of the boys’ arrest through a journalist from Nablus, who had been with them, had photographs to prove their innocence, and intervened on their behalf.  After numerous phone calls, Bassam found out where his sons were and eventually – on the third day – they were released – but on the condition that he went to Ariel police station and paid 2,500 Shekels for each son.  He was advised by a lawyer not to pay, so Bassam went to Ariel police station and told the Israeli police he was unable to do so.  His phone number was taken but – up until the present time, nothing further has happened.

In quiet measured tones Bassam’s eldest son, Mohammed, told us his story in his own words.  He and his brother had been blindfolded and handcuffed whilst being transported between the different sites for interrogation, and nobody informed them – or their family – where they were.  The soldiers had put their feet on his head and joked as he lay on the floor of the jeep.  In Ariel police station his picture and finger prints were taken.  Only on the third day was he able to speak to his father.  When the two brothers were eventually released, this was at the border miles away from their village.  It was with the help of a taxi driver that they were eventually able to make their way home.

This story illustrates a disregard by the Israeli army and police for human rights, even in the case of minors.  Palestinian minors are dealt with under military rather than civilian law. This two-track system of justice which supports discrimination and undermines any rule of law illustrates to the Palestinians that they are second-class citizens and that there is no system of redress.

We can only imagine how children are affected by the fear and violence they experience, either directly or indirectly.  Bassam told us that his younger son is still suffering psychological problems from his experience of being arrested by the Israeli army.  As an occupying power Israel has an obligation to treat civilians humanely and never to discriminate against them. (Article 27, Fourth Geneva Convention). Israel is also a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).  For Palestinian children on the ground these obligations may seem far from the reality.

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Reflections from Israel & Palestine – “this is not what religion is about”

This article was written by my partner Anya Whiteside.

‘Somehow’ I say to Steve with sweat dripping off my nose  ‘I kind of understand the old testament God in this landscape’. We are scaling the spectacularly arid mountains next to the dead sea, unwisely enacting the phrase ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’. We are in the desert and the sun beats down on nothing but dust and rock and below us the dead sea shimmers blue in a landscape of reds, violent ocres and browns.

I have always struggled to understand the old testament God, capable of sending plagues and striking down disbelievers. I have also always wondered how my Christian friends reconcile this with the loving and forgiving  God that they seem to relate to. As we walk I think how it must be easier though to understand a God of judgement and violent retribution when surrounded by such an extreme landscape than it is when walking through the gentle English pastures.

During my week-long visit in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories I found it hard to escape the violent edge of religion.

In Jerusalem Abu Mohammed served us falafel before asking ‘why are you here? People like you should just go home to your own country’. I asked him if he thought that there would be more violence if all the internationals went home? He responded, ‘Of course but this is the only way to sort this out – it will be the biggest war between the Arabs and the Jews  and there will be much killing, but at the end we will know who God wants to be on the land’. I explain to Abu Muhammad that I do not agree that an apocalyptic battle with mass slaughter is the only way to get peace and he smiles, ‘ah but you must study the Quran more and then you will know. Even the Jews know this – it is God’s will’.

Religious intolerance and violence though only made up a small part of my time in Israel/oPT.

I went with the EAPPI accompaniers to monitor the Friday prayers in Silwan, the so-called roughest and most dangerous part of Jerusalem. The men prayed in the street and the sound floated up to us as we watched from the slopes above, keeping one eye on the Israeli Army on the rooftops nearby. Afterwards one of the men approached the EAPPI observers and said, ‘thank you, thank you for always being here for the prayers’.

I met Michael in Hebron. He was an Israeli from near Tel Aviv who was taking months out of his life to travel around Israel and learn about ‘his country’ and his deeply-felt religion. There were many things we disagreed on from politics to theology, but as we stood looking at a street with a foot high wall running down it separating Palestinians on one side and Israelis on the other we agreed that this is not what religion should be about. Something, at the very least, I hope everyone from all religions can agree on.

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Life in the West Bank? It’s amazing

This is a letter sent by my friend and (now former) colleague Sarah Rowe to her friends and family in the UK. Sarah is as passionate as she is articulate and she summarises in this letter the difficulties of answering that dreaded question, “so, how was it?”.

Dear Friends,

Amazing [əˈmeɪzɪŋ] – to overwhelm with surprise or sudden wonder; astonish greatly.

I have just come to the end of my three month stint as an Ecumenical Accompanier and returned home to a fairly grey British spring. I know that over the coming days and weeks I will be asked many variations on a theme of ‘how was it?!’. It would take me three months to do justice to the people that I’ve met and the things that I’ve seen, but I realise that most people are more interested in a three minute response. As I struggle to refine the last three months into a few sentences, I find myself saying ‘It was amazing.’ Which, of course, doesn’t really mean anything to anyone. So, while I try to find a more meaningful sentence, I thought I would use my last newsletter to share some of the things that amazed me whilst living in the West Bank.

There are some things that you quickly get used to whilst living under occupation.  Events, that if they occurred at home would spark outcry, somehow become the norm. Looking back though, I am amazed once more;

–          that in Hebron, a city in the southern West Bank where Jewish settlers have moved into the middle of what was a bustling Palestinian market place, Palestinians are now forbidden to walk down most of the main street through the old town. On the short stretch which they are allowed to use, the road is divided by a concrete barrier and Jews or Israelis are allowed to use one side, Palestinians must use the other.

–          that on Holocaust Memorial Day, when the two minute siren sounded to remember those who had died, my colleague found himself standing in front of graffiti that read ‘Gas the Arabs.’

–          at the strength and bravery of a member of Breaking the Silence as he gave us his testimony. Breaking the Silence encourages ex-Israeli soldiers to talk about the things that they saw and participated in during their military service in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  He explained how Israeli society has become very militarised, with all young people expected to serve three years in the military without question. To criticise other societies is easy, but to speak out against the expectations of your own community takes a great deal of bravery. He gave me much hope about the potential for change from inside Israeli society.

–           at the hospitality and warmth of the Palestinian people in the midst of very difficult situations.  We went once to make a special visit to the village of Kafr Qaddum because there had been a night time raid by the Israeli military. At least 250 soldiers and 50 military jeeps soldiers had entered the village at around 2:30am. In groups they went to different houses, forced their way in and began to quite literally turn the houses upside down. 21 people from the village were arrested; accused of throwing stones at the weekly demonstration. But in the houses I visited where the most damage had been done, nobody had been arrested and one of the soldiers admitted to the residents that they had come to teach the people of Kafr Qaddum a lesson. The soldiers had created mess and damage that was so overwhelming that words failed me. Cupboards emptied onto the floor, furniture turned upside down, windows smashed, doors damaged. It was as if the whole house had been picked up and shaken violently. In the midst of this we were offered tea, coffee, juice, chocolate. In one of the houses the mother had a sewing machine workshop in the back room. She gave me a t-shirt that she had stitched, simply for coming to visit.

–          at the impunity with which violent settlers can treat Palestinians. Settlements are illegal under International Humanitarian Law (The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to the occupied territory The Hague Regulations prohibit an occupying power from undertaking permanent changes in the occupied area unless these are due to military needs in the narrow sense of the term, or unless they are undertaken for the benefit of the local population) and yet in the West Bank,  settlers often have the backing of Israeli state institutions,  especially the military.  I met Palestinian farmers in the village of Far’ata who can now only visit their land twice a year; when they get permission from the Israeli military who will accompany them. Without the accompaniment of the army, the farmers are attacked by violent settlers, which in the past has led to serious injury for the farmers. Even though the settlers attack the farmers, it is the Palestinians who are most likely to be arrested – for accessing their own land. Even though the army has been present, violence documented and caught on camera, no settler from Gilad has ever been prosecuted.

–          that a family’s roof can become a ‘closed military zone’ at the whim of the army and the family can be told they are now forbidden from using their own roof.

–          that at 4am, whilst queuing to cross a checkpoint, men will find a piece of cardboard, line up facing Mecca and take the time to kneel and pray. My colleague described the checkpoint that we monitored as the nearest thing to hell on earth; many days it was hard to disagree. But for me, the sight of Morning Prayer at the checkpoint was the closest I came to seeing the holy in the Holy Land.

On the Separation Barrier outside Bethlehem, somebody has painted ‘Now that I have seen, I am responsible.’ There are many more experiences that I would love to share with you, so if you belong to a church or group that is looking for speakers, please get in touch, I would be delighted to speak.

Thank you for taking the time to read my updates from the West Bank. When we tell Palestinians that we are sharing their stories they are very grateful that people outside are still interested in their struggle.

With hope for an end to the occupation and a just peace for all people in Israel and the Palestinian Territory,

Sarah

P.S. I am still hoping to add more photos to my blog over the coming weeks. http://shadowofthewall.tumblr.com/

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24 hours in Hebron

18:00 I arrived in Hebron repeating the simple instruction over in my head “get out of the bus at Happy Bunny Restaurant”. However many times I said it in my head I just couldn’t quite bring myself to mutter these words out loud. Inevitably the time came when the driver turns and questions, “where”? I respond, “Err…Happy…Bunny…restaurant”. He beams a smile, “of course”. I am whisked to my destination and my nights’ accommodation (a house close to the restaurant, not the restaurant itself).

22:00 Stood in the centre of the closed part of the old city in Hebron I look at some 3,000 year old remains of ‘ancient Hebron’. It looks like rocks to me, but I will concede that they look like slightly more useful rocks than the really old ones by my house in the UK (Stonehenge).

We are stood a few meters from one of the settlements in the middle of Hebron and just down the road from a Israeli family who are due to be evicted in the coming weeks (tensions are high). A soldier approaches us and asks where we are going and before I can answer looks over his shoulder and says, “oh the cave”? (or it could have been “grave”, I wasn’t sure). I, possibly foolishly, replied “yeah the crave” (hedging my bets between a cave and a grave). He then radio’s in to see if it is ok for us to go and look at the cave/grave.

After a few minutes of the soldiers having a ‘boy competition’ (defined universally as making a competition out of something that really shouldn’t be a competition, eg – hitting a balloon to each other becomes “can we hit it to each other 100 times with just our left hand” or in this case “who can shine their lazer on their rifles the furthest”) they decide that it is OK to go look at the cave/grave. We smile and walk to the dead end.

25 meters up the road and we see 6 soldiers waiting outside a military base next to the before mentioned settlement. I tried to casually scan where I was as if I of course know exactly where the cave/grave is. One soldier nods his head towards the far corner. Two options present themselves, the first is the military base and the second is a Palestinian families house. My colleague takes control and walks confidently into the Palestinian house where she knows the family. We stop and say our hellos to the family and ask about this cave/grave…apparently it is where someone from the old testament is buried and it is inside the military base. I leave the house still not sure if it is a cave or a grave but figured I had bigger fish to fry. I didn’t have the nerve or inclination to walk back out onto the street so we slump off down the path at the back of the house.

If nothing else it is nice to see the IDF trust us enough to enter into a military base unaccompanied at ten o’clock at night.

On the way home we see three Palestinians being held up at the checkpoint at the top of Shuhada Street. We stop and monitor the situation. If they are held for over 20 minutes we call the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) for support before calling the ICRC. Inevitably the soldiers releases the men after 18 minutes. As we pass the soldiers there is an awkward acknowledgement that these were the same soldiers who had just given us permission to enter their base to see the cave/grave. I try to keep it nice and ask “is it ok to go into the ‘crave’ anytime”?. The soldier looks at me alarmed, “you want to go into the grave”?

23:00 – I fall asleep under a purple Disney duvet.

08:00 – We are up at the crack of sparrows to meet a German delegation who want to be shown around Hebron. I stay mainly quiet as my colleague waxes lyrical about Hebron in what I felt to be an impressively neutral manner. We show them around the mainly closed and divided parts of Hebron. There is one street divided by concrete bollards less than a meter high where Palestinians walk one side and Israelis the other. I wondered what on earth this form of division had to do with security.

12:30 –  After everything that could be said about Hebron has been said we left the German’s to make their way pass a checkpoint into the old souq. I see at least three of them tut at the soldier on the way past. I make a conscious note that I need to work on my middle class indignation.

13:00 –  I see a character walking towards me down Shuhada Street. He looks Israeli, but doesn’t look like one of the settlers living in Hebron (he’s smiling to start with). My inner suspicions are aroused though when he asks where we have just been. I pull out the leaflet I picked up by Abrahams grave (although interestingly he was also meant to have been buried in a ‘cave’ – all very confusing) and thrust it into his hands. Triumphant in the fact that I had not only been to a tourist hot spot but I had proof that I had been into the “Jewish half” of the mosque/synagogue/holy site (don’t ask…Jews and Muslims go in separate doors and can see the same grave/cave but from different sides and are separated by bullet proof glass). He looks at it and mutters he hasn’t been there yet. I am a little disappointed but crack on with conversation.

He turns out to be called Michael and lives just to the South of Tel Aviv. Apart from being a bloody nice guy he also enjoyed liberally sprinkling in words like ‘Plato’ and ‘Power Dynamics’ into conversation. In other words, he was my sort of chap.  He described himself as “on the left” of Israeli politics before he rubbished the very concept of ‘left and right politics’ in Israel. He was passionately ‘Jewish’ (and trust me when I say we didn’t use this term lightly, about half of our conversation was on how to define ‘being Jewish’) and to say he was well read was an understatement. About three hours of conversation in the heat of the day later we decide to go and grab some food…he chooses the Gutnick Centre (a Jewish cafe and community centre in the centre of Hebron that is known to the International community as being ‘pro-settlers’).

On the way to lunch Michael wants to walk on the ‘Palestinian side’ of the divided street. I am interested to see what happens so don’t stop him. When we get to the soldier at the top, the soldier tells him he is “lucky to escape with his life”. Michael smiles and we go and drink coffee with some ‘dangerous’ Palestinian shop keepers. We take off our EAPPI jackets in the shop and leave them there before going into the Gutnick centre. This was to avoid provocation but we are also not allowed in wearing the vests. Dangerous pacifist peace workers? We sit down on a table opposite some soldiers and have a nice lunch.

Sometimes the word ‘surreal’ just doesn’t quite cover it.

16:30 We walk together after lunch and are about to say our goodbyes to Michael when in the distance we spot two soldiers who were completely covered in white paint. They stride past a ‘normal’ soldier who tries to stop them. The ‘white soldier’ tells him to “check with command, this operation is cleared”. I had no idea what was going on. A soldier stood with the ‘white soldiers’ turns to me and says, “it’s art…it is up to you how you interpret it”. I liked the idea and so walked with a growing crowd of both Palestinians and Israelis. The soldier now turns to me and asks if I have ever been to Jayyus, I say “yes”. He gets his phone out and shows me a picture of myself from one of the day time raids of the village I used to be based in. He smiles and clearly thinks this situation is hilarious. He asks as if reuniting with an old school mate, “how you been keeping dude”? I smile, “yeah good cheers”.

By this point we have walked to the outskirts of one of the settlements. I ask the soldier if it is ok for us to be there and the soldier and Michael respond in unison “of course”. The ‘white soldiers’ are now pretending to search a playground and I watch on in fascination. This was not something I had expected from Hebron but I was enjoying myself.

In a split second however this whole jubilant atmosphere was shattered by the one and only Anat Cohen – a notoriously aggressive settler. She came out of a house and started screaming at me (ignoring the Israelis I was with) and stamping on my ankles. As she screamed at me I felt flecks of her saliva land on my face. I consciously decide not to wipe it off because I don’t want to be accused of ‘raising my hand’. I looked over her tiny angry shoulders to the soldier looking on. He gives me a comic shrug and looks helpless. I say it is OK, and we will go. The four of us (three internationals and Michael) walk off. She (Anat Cohen) follows me pushing me in my back and shouting. The soldier walks on behind and signals to his colleague in the distance to come. The new soldier asks, “did you do anything”? I smiled and said “of course not”. The soldier tuts a knowing tut and we walk for another 200 meters with Anat Cohen following me stamping on my ankles and screaming at me. While the soldier does nothing. When we stop to enter into a ‘Palestinian only’ part of town we finally say goodbye to Michael and Anat Cohen stares at us both and takes our photos.

I feel really sad that someone could feel that much anger and hatred to a stranger that she has never met or spoken to. I feel worse though for anyone that has to put up with her day in day out.

Michael, the soldier, Anat Cohen, the history, the conflict, the division…all just 24 hours in Hebron.

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Pushed to the limits – a story of land and determination

Bazem Dilleh is a sheep farmer and the Mayor of Tawayel, a hamlet to the south east of Nablus in the West Bank. I meet him in at his house at the end of a long dirt road. He lives in Area C of the West Bank and as such he cannot get building permission to tarmac the approach to his house. His house itself has been demolished on a number of occasions and an animal feed shed is also currently awaiting demolition.

He welcomes me with warm smiles and impeccable hospitality. Ushering me out of the strong sun and into the shade he sits me down and offers me sweat tea. He looks around at the small amount of land which he can still call his own before speaking to no one and says, “this is the last point, if I retreat any further I lose it all…my land, my sheep, my dignity”.

Bazem used to own land all the way to the Jordan valley that stretches 15 kilometres to the east. Most of this is now considered a closed military zone – a term that often only applies to Palestinians and not always to the growing number of Israeli settlers who are living in the Jordan Valley and its flanking hills.  Over the years Bazem has been pushed back further and further to the west by settlement expansion and a growing flexibility of what is understood as a ‘closed military zone’. As Bazem cynically commented during the meeting, “there seems to be a link between land which is called a ‘military zone’ and that which is soon ploughed for grapes by settlers”.

I ask Bazem if he has ever had any problems with the Israeli soldiers and he reels off a roll call of events: “In 1967 I had 30 sheep shot, in 1980 they came and arrested my father and I had to pay 700 dinar for his release, in 1982 they arrested 400 sheep and I had to pay 10 dinar for each of them to be released, between 2000 and 2009 I had 3 demolitions on my land and at the moment that hut has a [demolition] order on it” – he points to a small shack with animal feed in it.

Bazem describes his life as “simple, I don’t need too much”. Looking around this is clearly an understatement. His water supply for example is collected in a three cubic metre water tank which is towed behind his tractor. In the winter this will last him for “one month, maybe more” while in the summer, “I would be lucky if it lasts even a few days”. At £20 a tank-ful this is one of his few major expenses – not including paying the bail for his ‘arrested sheep’.

He insists however that he is “not short of money, just short of freedom”. In Area C, building permits for Palestinian buildings are routinely denied. This results in the majority of newly built structures being under constant threat of demolition. Once a demolition order has been issued a structure can be demolished any time 24 hours after this notice is given. A building however can go years or even decades with this threat of demolition hanging over it. Governmental and charity projects are not exempt. An International Red Cross water project was recently demolished in a nearby village.

I ask Bazem if he can access all of his now diminished land and he laughs out loud. “I sometimes think they only give me a permit to access my land to give the settlers a chance to attack me”. Settler violence here is an on-going problem. Just a few weeks ago some farmers from the village of Aqraba were attacked before then being detained themselves by the Israeli military. Farming near the settlements poses a continuous threat of attack or harassment. As EAPPI we try to mitigate this by accompanying farmers to their land but this tactic is far from a long-term sustainable solution. International support in the area remains central for everyday life to function though.

Three weeks ago Bazem finished a hunger strike which he said was “just so people would come and see [his situation]”. Bazem’s life has been a series of restrictions and limitations which has forced him to be both relaxed and accommodating but also to demand attention when it is needed. Slowly he has been pushed back further and further to the west off his land and I wondered how much more he could take before he finally breaks. He reiterates “[I can] go no further or ‘khallas’ – I am finished”.

I ask if he feels positive about the future and he again responds with the past, “we have been suffering since 1967, we have no future when it is like this”. I worry about what his future will hold for him.

He looks at the surrounding hills and starts to talk in metaphors, “at the moment the fire is in Yanoun [a neighbouring village] but I am preparing the water for here because fire spreads”. I wonder if he is referring to the rapid illegal settlement expansion (illegal under international humanitarian law and often under Israeli law). I play along with the fire metaphor and ask him what he thinks can put the fire out and he says “when there are no Palestinians or settlements left”. Suddenly his earlier comment about “having no future” seems even more pertinent.

I stand up and walk out into the warm afternoon sun and thank Bazem for his kind hospitality and for taking the time to see me on a Friday (the Muslim holy day). He smiles a warm smile and says “Ahlan wa-Sahlan” – you are welcome. Not for the first time I leave a Palestinian worrying about what the future holds for him. Equally however, I leave thinking about the incredible hospitality and kindness I have been met with in the face of such extreme human-made hardships. Maybe this determined pursuit of optimism and kindness will help to get him through the coming years.

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From the West Country to the West Bank – an interview with Steve Hynd, in Jayyus, Occupied Palestinian Territory

I was interviewed by Eugene Grant (of Dead Letter Drop fame). Have a read!

“Have I seen awful things? Completely.” Only a few weeks ago, Steve Hynd was observing a protest near Jayyus – a small village in the West Bank, Israel – when the army fired tear gas canisters directly at the crowd as they were running away. One of the three inch-long steel canisters struck a protestor – standing a few feet away from him – in the neck.

For Hynd, the words ‘police tactics’ are a complete misnomer. “Why would you have soldiers stewarding a protest?.” He says such tactics constitute not so much a policing strategy as “an aggressive attack on protest”. Since then, he’s stopped using the term Israeli Defence Force (IDF) – the military wing of the country’s security forces. The phrase, he says, suggests the force is there for defensive purposes, “but I’ve seen it overwhelmingly used for acts of aggression… when you say ‘army’ people understand that armies can be aggressive.”

You can read the full interview here.

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Another crackdown on the protest in Kafr Qaddum

My head started swimming and I couldn’t open my eyes. I could feel broken stones crunch beneath my feet and I knew I was moving away from the protest. For a terrifying 30 seconds I lost track of what was happening. An autopilot sense of self preservation kicked in that my conscious self had little control over. Just as my senses started to return I felt a colleagues hand rest on my lower back and lead me to the side of the street. Here I crouched in the small amount of shade offered by the shop-front from the midday sun. My stomach had tied itself into a knot and my head felt like it had split in two. Only then did I realise that I must have walked away from my colleague who was now stood in front of me with her camera in hand. I glanced up an offered what I hoped was a reassuring smile.

A few minutes earlier I had been stood at the back of a demonstration in Kafr Qaddum, a small village in the West Bank. I was there to monitor the proceedings and reporting on any human rights violations I witnessed. In the minuets preceding I had filmed a number of ‘warning shots’ being fired over the crowd and whiffed the faintest smell of tear gas. I believed I was far enough back though to avoid the worse of what was to inevitably come. I was stood on the side of the street next to a large wall that could also offer me protection, should it have been needed, from any direct fire. My colleague was nearby and I felt in control of situation.

Seconds later the Israeli army fired a volley of tear gas canisters (some directly into the crowd) that filled the streets with a penetrating thick gas. At first I stayed in position as it appeared the soldiers were aiming just for the front of the protest. As the crowd turned to run however, the tear gas landed closer and closer to me. At this point one canister landed a few yards away and filled my lungs with the gas. What happened next is a blur. I remember a man kicking the canister away down the hill but little else.

On the approach to the village earlier that day there were some clear signs that the protest was not going to pass peacefully. The Israeli Army had set up a series of checkpoints cutting off the only main entrance to village. I approached as part of a mini convoy of human rights monitors. I was travelling with others from EAPPI and the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. As we approached the checkpoint it became abundantly clear that international human rights monitors were not being allowed into the village. Later I would find out that the same restrictions were being applied to media outlets.

I already had reasonable suspicion to believe that this week’s protest at Kafr Qaddum was going to witness an escalation of violence on previous weeks. The day before the village had seen 19 of its residents arrested in an IDF raid. “It was a clear illustration of strength aimed to intimidate us and to stop us making protest” one villager suggested. There were reports that a large amounts jewellery had also been stolen during the raid. This combined with the checkpoints only heightened our unease about the protest.

After meeting a series of other journalists, news agencies and human rights monitors who had also been turned away we decided to collectively head across the fields and enter the village “through the back door”. As the representative from B’Tselem put it, “if we do not reach the village today I am sure some very bad things will happen and they will go unreported”.

Sadly, his prediction of violence proved to be true. Both the Israeli Army and boys and young men from the village once again illustrated their willingness to take part in acts of violence against one another. Before being ‘tear gassed’ myself I saw stones the size of my fist being flung through sling shots at the soldiers who then responded with the brutality that I am coming all to use to seeing.

It is important, however distressing these scenes of violence are, that the world hears about them. Today I saw a large number of boys throwing stones before the Israeli Army fired tear gas directly at the crowd as a whole.  The obvious difference in these actions is that one was undertaken by a professional army and the other by young boys in an occupied village.

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Crossing the separation barrier daily – one day honey, one day onions

Stood squinting into the early morning sun a young Israeli soldier leans against the heavy metal gate that is separating the two of us and sighs. The gate is padlocked closed for what he had described to me earlier as ‘security concerns’. The soldier looks tired, worn down and wanting nothing more than a sit down. Instead he is stood talking to me. I ask him (again) why it is taking so long for the workers to pass through the agricultural gate this morning. He answers me in elaborate, almost performed Arabic, “yaum ‘asal, yaum basal” – “One day honey, one day onions”. He stares at me and meets my eye for as long as the strengthening sun will allow before retreating back to the solitude of the shade.

For the two hours preceding this conversation I had been stood watching frustrated agricultural workers waiting to cross the separation barrier to access their own farmland. The separation barrier is built predominantly through the middle of Palestinian farm land and as such was ruled to be illegal by The International Court of Justice at The Hague (in 2004).

The men are grouped in small circles, one circle lit a small fire out of rubbish and wood they have collected. Others are pacing the width of the road promenading up and down discussing the matters of the world. Others however wait with less patience.

All of the men hand in their permits to one Palestinian who has the unofficial job of keeping the peace and trying to organise what order people will pass in. The men pass in groups of 5 past the first turnstile before entering into a cabin where there papers are checked for what seems like an impossibly long time. One man who was waiting (patiently) nodded to the Palestinian holding the pile of permits and said, ‘He plays cards with those permits. You never know if you will wait 10 minutes or 2 hours”. I asked if there was any favouritism and the man responds, “it is good if we are friends”.

The first few groups of Palestinians emerge from the far side of the checkpoint and go their separate ways to their small plots of land. I look up sporadically to see what the soldiers are doing. There are normally four on duty that I can see (one to check vehicles, 2 to ‘control the crowd’ and one to stand their pointing his gun at people – or this is what I have deduced from previous times). Soldier one (who in previous groups has made an effort to look menacing) is stood in a concrete pillar box resting his chin on his semi-automatic weapon making little effort to keep his eyes open. The second (there to check vehicles) is  sitting with feet up on what I have seen in the past used as a second inspection point (which doubles the speed of transit for the workers trying to cross). The final two spend most of their time talking but occasionally tell the men waiting to take a step or two back.

The four soldiers barely look up as a small fist fight breaks out over what I presumed to be a disagreement about who got to pass through the checkpoint next. The soldiers take a couple of steps closer but allow the men waiting to sort themselves out. One of the Palestinians around the fire looks up and sucks air in through his teeth. For the majority of men waiting, they stand patiently looking out at their land to the west. Staring back at them are the soldiers who wait patiently as the minuets left on their shift slip away.

What was notable about this gate monitoring was the lack of anything specific happening. The Palestinians were not tear gassed nor were the soldiers pelted with stones. There was however a low level lack of respect that materialised itself in different forms depending on what side of the locked gate you were stood. There was a understood sub-text that they were not going to make life easy for each other. This is where the power dynamics shine through.

I noticed the Palestinian men would often pretend not to hear the soldiers when they were giving orders or would take a long time to move when they were asked. The response from the soldiers is no less petty but has far more serious repercussions. As I mentioned the power dynamics between the occupied and the occupiers is not equal.

To illustrate, as the workers leave the cabin where there permits are checked the soldiers normally wave on the next group of five men through the turnstile. Today, for no explicable reasons, they waited until the workers were well clear of the gate before allowing others to come forward. This wasted crucial minuets and added to the feeling of frustration.

These small actions (or sometimes lack of actions) meant that at the end of the two hours (the gates opening times) there were over 50 men (and 40 sheep) still waiting to pass when I left the gate at 9:00am. This has serious repercussions on those who do not make it through (loss of income in a desperately poor society). I have monitored this gate many times before and have seen that proactive friendly soldiers can ensure that all men (and animals) pass through without problem and with minimal delay. Today the soldiers did their jobs, but with the minimal possible effort you can imagine.

The tired soldier at the end said that one day is like honey, while another is like onions. He made this  comment with a certain fatalistic edge to his voice. What today has taught me is that if some days are like honey while others are like onions as the soldier suggests, then it is because of his choosing. Soldiers (often young conscripts) have an extraordinary amount of power and control over ordinary people’s lives. For the men who have to wake in the early hours of the morning clutching their permits to pass to their own land, days are rarely like honey.

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The last 24 hours – an extract from my diary.

This is a short extract from my diary (with the naughty bits removed) covering the last 24 hours.

18:25 – I get a text message from one of our local contacts asking if I want to play football in the village with some of the other guys. It sounds like a laugh so I pull on my Arsenal shirt (staying neutral in the Barcelona/Real Madrid turf war) and head out. The two guys I meet are wearing jeans, jackets and leather shoes and I wonder whether my tracksuit trousers and football shirt looks a bit eager. This feeling is confounded when we stop and eat freshly made falafel (it’s hard to say no to Palestinian food). We arrive at the pitch (floodlights and all) and I start to get the feeling that something is not quite right.

18:45 – We spend over an hour warming up (I say we, the two guys who I arrive with are sat on the side – of course they are not playing, they’ve just eaten). This warm up is more exercise than I have done for a very long time. Apparently F.C Jayyus take their warm ups (and football in general) very seriously. I try to cover up my inherent lack of ability and my self-created lack of fitness by making jokes. The guys I came with laugh, everyone else looks on with growing concern at the amount of sweat dripping down this English boy’s face.

The coach barks instructions at players and I occasionally hear my name mentioned (that’s right, this village football team has a coach, and he barks). I try my best not to mess up but get the feeling that I am not the foreign super signing that F.C Jayyus had been looking out for.

21:00 – I survived it, just. One shoulder in the face, and only the occasional noticeable mistake and I think I survived my first (and possibly last) training session with F.C Jayyus. I walk off the pitch knowing full well that my legs will be stiff tomorrow but pretending that this sort of exercise is par for the course for me. It was great to meet some new faces in the village and to have a kick around with them – I wonder if that feeling is mutual? Either way, they are eager for me to come back to the coffee shop with them to watch Champions League football. I excuse myself, miming that I have to get up early tomorrow for checkpoint monitoring (I always thought the Jungle Book was hard but this take charades to a whole new level). I walk away from the group feeling proud that I have turned down the chance to watch football in favour of getting to bed on time – perhaps this whole experience is making me grow up.

23:30 – It’s pathetic and I know it. I have to be up in four and half hours but I could not resist watching Arsenal play (second leg trying to come back from a 4-0 first leg deficit against A.C Milan). Arsenal go 3-0 by half time and I am on cloud nine…and then…nothing. We (because when you support a club you are a part of the collective) crash out of the Champions League and any thought of silverware for the season goes out the window with it. To top it off, my home club, Cheltenham Town drop 3 crucial points in the race for League 2 promotion. I go to bed with my mind swarming with football. How can I love something that consistently causes me so much misery?

But anyway, if you’re looking to support Arsenal or Cheltenham Town I came across these useful coupons for Amazon. Take a look!

1:20 – I am awoken (2 hours after I went to sleep – not that I am bitter) with a phone call to say the IDF are in the village making an arrest (possible arrests – plural). After a quick assessment we decide it is too dangerous to be wandering the streets so we decide to monitor the situation from our rooftop staying in mobile contact with others around the village. It is an eerie feeling to see these silhouettes of men on roof tops in the early hours, all whispering reports to each other. It does however work as an informal information network.

2:30 – An hour later we receive confirmation that a local has been arrested. We can see IDF jeeps buzz around the outskirts of the village but only occasionally see them in the village. These late night visits (often not to make arrests) are happening far too often. I go back to bed, my mind now buzzing not with triviality of football, but of the guy who has just been bundled out of his house in the middle of the night – where will he end up, what will happen to him, what (if anything) will he be charged with?

4:55 – Alarms, I hate alarms. It does its job though and I am up to monitor the agricultural gate to the North of the village which open 5:30 – 6:30 every morning. I arrive and the IDF are parked with their headlights on full beam facing straight at where I monitor the gate from. I stand there, centre stage, performing the worst solo performance they are likely to ever see (essentially a tired Englishman staring blankly at them). After a while a small trickle of farmers flow past and I mutter a few good mornings. The Israelis have made a concerted effort to encourage farmers not to use this gate (as the road on the other side runs straight through a bit of land marked for settlement expansion) but still the locals use it. I wander back to the house feeling cold and tired.

08:45 – A Palestinian with an Israeli ID is coming to pick us up and to drive us to the other side of the separation barrier. We pass through the checkpoint and our bags are x-rayed and a sniffer dog sniffs every nook and cranny of the car. The young girl behind the desk has a staring competition with my passport photo (my photo wins every time) and I am asked why I visited Egypt (A: “I was on holiday”…my mind runs through potential comedy answers and I stop myself from laughing by making a sort of snorting noise). She looks at me and waves me through.

09:30 – We meet a local farmer and he walks us around his land showing the problems that they face (settlement expansion, military activity, water rationing etc). Inside a hut on his land we drink sweet tea and point at maps laid out in front of us. He shows us how the access to his land is being controlled (you need to have a permit to access your own farmland), restricted (they have built a massive separation barrier through the middle of his land – twice) and made unreliable (he had been waiting for months to get a permit). Worst of all, it can be taken away at any minute. We are shown his neighbours land which has been literally blown away – it is now a stone quarry providing material for massive ‘settler only’ road upgrading schemes. Areas all around his land have been claimed by the Israeli government as state property (using British mandate laws I should add – sigh…I love the BBC, tea and cake at 4pm and The Beatles but I sometimes struggle to find anything else to be patriotic about and being in Israel/oPT is not helping this).

We are joined during the day by a Dutch delegation who have decided to spend their free time working as unforced free labour on the land. For some this might seem an odd choice for a holiday but I think I ‘get it’. It is beautiful land they are working on and it is rewarding work. At the very least I ‘get it’ more than those fighting for sun beds in Magaluf.

17:00 – After a long day in the sun in the fields this is exactly what I don’t want. I am sat on a concrete bench in the seam zone (the area in between the separation barrier and the Green Line) waiting for a taxi driver who is over 1 hour late staring at the backend of a checkpoint I am not allowed to enter (it is for workers only). When the taxi does show up (with no explanation for the delay) I need to be driven in a huge loop around and through a car terminal. No one checks any of my nooks and crannies on the way back through.

 

I am currently serving as an Ecumenical Accompanier in the West Bank – follow the hyperlink for more information.

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Why the left needs to keep the faith

An edited version of this blog was first published on Liberal Conspiracy blog.

‘Politics and religion should not mix’. This is the mantra that is lazily wheeled out by self congratulating lefties as they marvel in their own enlightened wisdom. I come across well meaning social progressives who openly shun the role of faith based organisations as either an evangelical force that should be scorned, or, at best, a tool by which individuals can act out their selfish desire to please the big man upstairs. This lingering stereotype of faith based organisations not only alienates billions around the world who see their faith as their primary moral compass but also pragmatically restricts social movement’s ability to bring about the change they are so desperate to see.

Many, at this stage might assume that I am one of those rather smug Christian types who go around asking people to accept Jesus’ warm love into their hearts – I am not. I am, like many in 21st Century Britain, painfully middle class and going through and an existential crisis as I try to work out ‘what it all means’. I am as unsure about the existence of any deity as you can possibly be. So don’t worry, I am not trying to convert you, and neither do I see this article as my one way ticket to heaven. I am fairly sure that God doesn’t read blogs anyway.

I am however, excited about the truly radical potential of Christianity to bring about social change. All around the world, we can see different denominations working progressively on a range of issues. This could be The Salvation Army offering support to the homeless, The Quakers campaigning for peace or the Catholic Church fighting global poverty.

At this point, the sceptics out there will point to Christianity being used to discriminate against entire communities (LGBT for example) or the Catholic Church and their opposition to contraception. If you, dear reader, were felling particularly pernickety, you might start pointing to George Bush claiming that God told him to invade Afghanistan or wars that have been fought in the name of God. Religion, in many peoples mind is a bringer of war, the perpetrator of hatred and an opium for the ill informed masses.

My response would be to point to the fallibility of all human organisations, including organized religion.  There is nothing inherent within any faith to suggest that it will always work for a positive social agenda, neither is there to suggest it will always cause harm. If we on the left are too smug to engage, we will leave ‘doing God’ to those who want to justify oil wars, invasions or subordinating an entire gender. It is time for us then to throw off the shackles of conformity and acknowledge a very simple truth – Christianity can be really radical!

It has taken me a while to get to a position in my life where I can work comfortably and confidently with people of faith knowing full well that they believe in something that I don’t. When working for Amnesty International, I started to spot the myriad of backgrounds and experiences that had drawn people to become human rights activists. It is clear to me now that somebody’s faith is just one of those reasons. Why are many on the left happy to work with those of faith but not faith based organisations? In the past I have had a pleasure of working for The Quakers, who are just one example of a faith based organisation who are putting their faith into practice to work towards social causes.

I am excited to be (once again) putting this theory into practice. In February I will be heading out to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel which is coordinated through the World Council of Churches. This is an organisation bringing different denominations, faiths and backgrounds together to work progressively for a non-violent solution to the conflict. It is an exciting example of a faith based organisation working inclusively with Israelis, Palestinians and the International Community to work towards the end of the occupation and for all in the region to enjoy basic human rights standards.

We on the left need to incorporate faith based groups into all of our work. They unlock the door to millions in the UK and billions around the world. We need to show we are truly inclusive by illustrating that faith can be used positively. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of George Bush and the like becoming the public face of Christianity. There are inspiring people out there from Archbishop Desmond Tutu through to the Archbishop Dr John Sentamu who are working on causes I would be proud to support. All we on the secular left need to do, is show that we can get over these outdated stereotypes of faith based organisations and embrace their progressive potential.

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