Solidarity in tear gas

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Every Friday after prayers the people of Bil’in, near Ramallah, are joined by other Palestinians, internationals, and Israelis in their protest against the Apartheid fence which cuts the villagers off from their lands. The protests have been going on for five years, and have become symbolic of the non-violent struggle of the Palestinian people.

The march sets off.

The march sets off.

The Israelis on the march

The Israelis on the march

The Scottish contingent

The Scottish contingent

Every week, the Israeli army responds with violence. Tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets, sound grenades, and even live ammunition. Although their newest weapon is seen as the worst in many ways. Called the skunk officially, or more commonly ‘stinky water’, it’s a foul-smelling liquid that sticks to clothes and skin for days. We’re told that it’s harmless, and it’s actually organic (though there’s still uncertainty about its fair trade status), but if they begin using it, run!

Fortunately, this week they didn’t. We set off from the village Mosque at about 1.30pm and marched down the hill to the fence. We could see the Israeli soldiers on the other side. The protesters then began to clear the razor wire away from the gate that leads to the area in front of the fence, then climbed over and began to approach the fence itself.

Moving the razor wire

Moving the razor wire

Moving the razor wire

Climbing over the gate to the fence

Climbing over the gate to the fence

John, who was perhaps a little more adventurous than I, suggested joining them as they inched towards the fence. I hesitated. Was this the right thing to do? What were the dangers? Then I saw one of the Palestinian organisers encouraging people to climb over. He looked at me, saw that I was dithering, and just smiled and waved me over. That answered my question. He wanted us, as internationals, to join the others, and that it would be (at least relatively) safe to do so. This was something I have witnessed many times. The Palestinian people are very welcoming, friendly, and caring. Not the image the Israeli government would like to portray — if you believe them, you are in constant danger of being killed or kidnapped by these ‘terrorists’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

So over I went. I didn’t stay for long, though. At that moment the army attacked — coming through a gate in the fence. Everyone who’d climbed over the gate suddenly began scrambling back over. I was the last, and for a moment thought I may have been in danger of arrest if the soldiers got to me before I was back over. Fortunately I escaped.

See what happened next:

Video of the demo:

The demo gets tear gassed

The demo gets tear gassed

Some of the locals were used to it.
Some of the locals were used to it.
But they remain defiant

But they remain defiant

An Israeli protester shouting abuse at the soldiers

An Israeli protester shouting abuse at the soldiers

Soon the organisers announced that the demonstration was over. They thanked everyone for being there, and invited everyone to iftar (breaking of the fast) that evening.

Our group headed back to Ramallah, and John and I then took the service back to al-Quds.

The next two days were spent in Ramallah at the ISM training and briefing.

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Al-Quds

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After a day of catching up on sleep, I’m able to spend a few days as a ‘political tourist’ in Jerusalem, or al-Quds, as it’s known in Arabic.

I met up with a few other people who are, or intend to be, with ISM. It’s a small world. Sitting in the Palm one morning drinking tea, a girl comes in, says hello, then looks at me. She says ‘I know you’. It was Anna, whom I worked with on a PSC stall at a festival a couple of years previously.

I also met John, from Scotland, and through him a group from the Glasgow Palestinian Human Rights campaign (GPHRC) — see them in action. They are quite amazing. I would never get away with what they did. Take an incident by the Damascus Gate, the Old City, al-Quds. It was Ramadan, and Muslims fast during daylight hours. This means no eating, drinking or smoking. Often the Israeli soldiers decide to mock this by doing these things in front of the Palestinians. Not when GPHRC are there! One soldier lit up a cigarette, only to have Veronica begin to shout at him: “it’s Ramadan, what are you doing”. Then she gets out a camera and begins to take photos of him. He’s so embarrassed by this he discreetly puts out the cigarette. The Palestinians watching this are rather impressed. I overhear one guy talking to people around him, in Arabic so I don’t know what he’s saying, but he’s pointing to the soldier and to Veronica. He’s sees me looking at him, and simply says “thank you”.

While in al-Quds, there was another thing I had to do. In the report of my last trip I spoke of the time spent in Sheikh Jarrah defending the home of Um Kamel al-Kurd. A week after I left, the family were evicted in the middle of the night by hundreds of Israeli police and army.

Recently, two more families were evicted in the area — the Hanouns and the Ghawis. Both families then set up protest tents outside their occupied homes. I went to see the Ghawi family.

The protest tent in Sheikh Jarrah.

The protest tent

The Ghawis house — note the damage done during the eviction.

The Ghawis house — note the damage done during the eviction.

The family are determined and resilient, qualities the Palestinian people possess in abundance. They get regular visits from all kinds of people, from their neighbours to heads of state. One person who has been noticeable by his absence, however, is the ‘Middle East Envoy’, Tony Blair. Who lives a few hundred yards away in the American Colony Hotel.

I told them about the work of PSC in Britain, the boycott campaign, and the protest we held outside the Israeli Embassy the day after their eviction, and they seemed quite encouraged.

Arrival

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I took a night flight, Heathrow to Tel Aviv, and arrived at 4.30 in the morning. Not much to say about it, except that before I’d even got off the plane I witnessed an incident that pretty much sums up the nature of the Israeli state.

It was a direct flight, so it was full of mostly Israelis, and one Muslim woman in a niqab, surrounded by a small football team of infants. Of course, she had to wait for everyone else to leave the plane before she could get off. Presumably escorted by meathead security guards.

I was expecting a bit of a grilling when I went through passport control, but it wasn’t too bad in the end.

I then headed towards Jerusalem and the Palm Hostel, where I will stay for a day or two while I make contact with ISM.