A recent article sent to my local press....
Alys is currently working in the West Bank [Occupied Palestinian Territories], with the International Women's Peace Service. IWPS is a solidarity group which witnesses and documents human rights abuses, as well as peacefully intervening to prevent them. They actively support the non-violent resistance to the illegal Israeli Occupation. She is based in Salfit district in central West Bank and sends this report.
"I have been in the West Bank for a month. The perpetual state ofshock I was in is lessening, but the reality is stark. My work here is varied and unpredictable. This week, for example, we were called to a threatened house demolition in the village of Al Walaja, near Bethlehem. The Israeli army has already demolished many houses to make way for the"Separation Wall", blatantly discarding the ruling of theInternational Court of Justice in July '04 regarding its illegality.
However, traveling in the West Bank is unpredictable. The checkpoint at Qalandia, a major "terminal" checkpoint near Jerusalem, was closed and our journey abruptly ended. Freedom of movement is hugely restricted by the Wall, the checkpoints, closures and curfews, affecting all aspects of Palestinian life.
Whilst images of the Israeli army invading the prison in Jericho, were flashed around the world a quieter invasion was happening here in Salfit district. It did not herald the arrival of the international press, or cause storms in governments across the world. An oozing tar is seeping over Palestine, as Israel steadily encroaches on more and more of the West Bank.
We spent several days sitting in solidarity with a shepherd named Sami. The army had declared his land a closed military zone, and issued demolition orders for his shack and animal pens. They had already acted on these orders in the neighbouring valley, demolishing the shacks and animal pens of three families, leaving behind a scene of utter destruction and chaos. For Sami, and the 30 people dependent on the income generated from the sheep, the future is uncertain. The Army has yet to return with the Caterpillar bulldozers, but the question is not "if " but "when".
My visit to Jenin refugee camp was a very powerful experience. Evidence of the severity of the 2002-2004 army invasions are everywhere. At the entrance of the camp is a huge metal horse, sculpted out of the remains of an exploded ambulance, which killed one of Jenin's best doctors. There are countless new houses in the camp, replacing all those which were demolished by the armoured Caterpillar bulldozers during the invasions. The remaining buildings are littered in bullet marks. The newly opened prosthetics department, with rows upon rows of artificial feet and limbs in progress was a stark image of the brutality of this Occupation. On the wall in the clinic were pictures by 11 and 12 year old children, showing the horrors that became reality during the invasions, bodies lying bleeding in the street, tanks, soldiers, fighter planes….
Contrary to what the media fanfare saluting the Gaza disengagement would have us believe, here in the West Bank there is an orchestrated plan for settlement expansion. Whilst 9000 settlers were evacuated last year from Gaza, 12,000 settlers moved into the West Bank.(Haaretz 06.02.06) The settler population now stands at 250,000.
Most of the settlers are not violent, but their presence is directly linked to the intensifying apartheid system which is operating here.One rule for the illegal Settlers. One rule for the Palestinians. The vehicles with the green number plates wait in line, sometimes for hours, show their ID, frequently get searched and risk arbitrary arrest. The vehicles with the yellow number plates sail past the queue unperturbed, back to the settlement. A recent announcement from a senior Israeli security source confirms what is already evident, that a segregated road system is being constructed.
Some of the settlers are extremely violent. In Hebron the sight of armed settlers was deeply disturbing, their weapons wielding huge power. Last week we were called to a neighbouring village to document the account of two shepherds who had been forced off their land by dozens of settlers, some of whom were armed. In the small village ofYanun, armed settlers attacked, intimidated and harassed the villagers for years, resulting in a mass exodus. The villagers returned, along with international and Israeli activists, who have kept a continuous presence since.
The Wall is carving up the West Bank as it weaves around the settlements, cutting through Palestinian villages and land. Access to land, livelihood, families, neighbours, schools, hospitals and water resources is threatened and becomes increasingly problematic. The stranglehold on Palestinian life is tightening. With every meter of Wall constructed an independent Palestinian state becomes increasingly unviable.
Internationals join Palestinians in their weekly demonstrations against the Wall, in their struggle for land. The Wall massively deviates from the Green Line, resulting in the huge loss of Palestinian land and livelihood. The peaceful demonstrations frequently result in acts of aggression from the Israeli army, intended to disperse the crowds, using tear gas, sound bombs, rubber and live ammunition. Many people have been injured and some killed in these demonstrations. To be active in this non-violent resistance to the Wall and the illegal Occupation takes courage.
There has been much suffering on both sides. I condemn all acts of violence, both those perpetrated by the Israeli military and suicide bombers. The western media is heavily biased, so you may be surprised to know that 3 times as many Palestinians as Israelis have died since the start of the 2nd Intifada in September 2000. (www.btselem.org
) Being here in Palestine is shocking and sometimes overwhelming. My understanding is continuously moving from the intellectual to the experiential. Seeing with my own eyes the things I had read about is at times unbelievable. I encourage you to see through the bias of the western media and to consider the on-going and intensifying suffering of the Palestinian people."
A beautiful spring day. The almond trees are blossoming. Wild flowers blooming. The vibrant green of new growth. Olive trees. Shepherds wandering with their flocks. Hens clucking. The road winds up the steep hill to the village of Yanun, half an hour drive outside Nablus. It appears peaceful and idyllic. The reality is starkly different.
Yanun is a small village of 13 families. 1984 marked the beginning of Itamar settlement, just 10 km from Yanun. It is inhabited by Israeli religious fundamentalists, who claim the land is theirs, given to them by God. The settlement expanded into the outposts- caravans, trailers and a watchtower- strategically positioned on the hilltops surrounding Yanun maximizing their vantage point and power.
Enough was enough. In 2002 virtually the whole village left, no longer able to take the constant harassment and violence inflicted on them from the settlers. Since 1996, when the outposts began, the people of Yanun had been subjected to ongoing and increasingly violent attacks, from the armed settlers. They left on mass, mostly to the nearby town of Aqraba, in the hope things would calm down and they would be able to return after a couple of months.
Within days some of the villagers returned along with Israeli and international activists. A continuous international presence has been maintained in Yanun since 2002, and with this the return of the villagers.
The people of Yanun are still prevented from reaching their land, are not free to wander the hills and live constantly in the shadow of the outposts. Armed settlers continue to walk through the village and the people of Yanun are subject to ongoing threats and attack.
All was quiet during my overnight visits, filling in for EAPPI who now maintain the international presence. I felt refreshed by the beautiful countryside and enjoyed the hospitality of our neighbours. Sitting by the woodstove drinking small cups of strong Arabic coffee and sweet mint tea, touched by their quiet radiant strength, their smiles and their kindness.
The Occupation manifests in many ways. I am slowly understanding and seeing more of the spectrum of Occupation and the interconnection and interdependence of the many forms. I am learning more of the many forms of non-violent resistance, in the case of Yanun refusing to be driven from their land and homes.
26th February 2006
I have been here for a week. There is a huge amount to learn. Not just being in a new culture, acclimatizing my ear to the sounds of a new language and learning so many new names. But about the occupation itself, there are so many layers to understand, to become aware of, to see.
As I suspected the things that have so far been most shocking for me are the unexpected, the things I had not read about or seen documented. The Wall, the checkpoints, the lack of freedom of movement, the daily violations of the human rights of Palestinians....all these things are deeply disturbing, but are the things I was expecting to see.
I am only just beginning to comprehend the numerous and not so obvious ways the Israeli government works to erase evidence of Palestinian life in the West Bank. The absence of road signs to Palestinian villages. The prevalence of road signs to the illegal Israeli settlements. One Palestinian village in this district has tried numerous times to put up a sign which is continuously taken down. Speaking of road signs in the face of more obvious and violent manifestations of the Occupation may seem trivial but it is about trying to make a whole people invisible, non-existent, erased from the map.
I am staying in the Salfit district in central West Bank. The area is heavily populated by illegal Israeli settlements. There are about 55,000 Palestinians living in this area, and shockingly 50,000 settlers. The settlers are living on land stolen from Palestinians. From my limited knowledge there are, broadly speaking, 2 types of residential settlements, those motivated by religious ideology and those motivated by economics. The ideological ones are responsible for repeated violence against Palestinians, often when they are trying to access their land or just attempting to go about their daily lives. The ones driven by economics are inhabited by poorer Israelis who can have a higher standard of living in the settlements than in Israel. Ariel, close to where I'm staying, is the biggest settlement in the West Bank. It is motivated by economics and inhabited by approximately 30,000 Israeli settlers. It is huge, consumes a massively disproportionate amount of water and electricity, and is connected by a settler road to Tel Aviv.
In Salfit district the Wall is already complete in places. In some places everything is prepared to start constructing. In other places the route is not yet finalised. Ariel and countless other settlements will be taken in to the Israeli "side" of the Wall. This will mean even more Palestinian land is lost, as well as a further carving up of the region making travel extremely difficult, time consuming and expensive for the Palestinians. In places the "Ariel finger" will cut 22km into the West Bank. That is a huge amount of land being stolen.
I have been in the West Bank for just over three weeks. It has been a steep learning curve. There is still much to learn, much to understand, much to assimilate. I am scratching the surface. The first couple of weeks I was in a perpetual state of shock. The shock of seeing the Occupation with my own eyes. Most of what I was witnessing was not new to intellect, it was things I had read about or heard about. But being here, seeing the daily struggles and the many faces of the Occupation has been a powerful and at times overwhelming experience. Sometimes I feel like I am falling through a bottomless pit....just as I feel I am beginning to understand, I again tumble, hands out trying to grasp something that will help me make sense of the senseless.
I do not want this feeling of shock, although it is lessening, to disappear. I do not want to stop seeing, to stop questioning.
I share some emails from these first few, intense weeks in the hope they convey something both of my personal experience and of the many sides of life under Occupation that I am witnessing.