When I went to Palestine

Twenty years ago this month Caroline and I went to Palestine. We travelled with a group called Olive Tours, whose mission was to give people an opportunity to see directly what was happening there, and the nature of the occupation of Palestine by Israel, by meeting people (both Palestinian and Israeli) working for peace. It was a time of change in the region: the recent deaths of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall had turned international eyes towards the behaviour of the Israeli state, and the separation wall was in the process of being assembled, transforming the nature of security between Israel and Palestine.

The twenty years since have brought little further change. Arafat died, then Hamas was elected in Gaza, and things calcified into an ongoing situation of ratcheting oppression, countered by continuous peaceful protest, studded with acts of violence; until October last year, when everything changed again.

Looking back over this now, what stands out to me is the defensive crouch Israel entered as a result of its role as an eternal occupying power, to the point that we were interrogated in foreign airports and felt the need to dispose of a copy of Private Eye magazine before it was spotted; and the utter ordinariness of the Palestinian people we met everywhere, enacting the shared act of resistance that is holding on to their humanity.

I sent eight emails to my travel mailing list describing this journey. They’ve been unavailable for many years but I’ve pulled them out of archive and added them to this blog on the appropriate dates; also added are the photos from the trip (which had to be smuggled out of the country by sending the memory card separately so our images of Palestine wouldn’t be discovered by soldiers at the airport).

These are direct links to the eight parts:

Part 1: Welcomes

Part 2: Facts on the ground

Part 3: Barriers

Part 4: Painted eggs

Part 5: Pushes

Part 6: Green spaces

Part 7: Tough situation

Part 8: Bumps in the night

Freedom Theatre founder killed

Horrible: one of the founders of Palestine’s Freedom Theatre has been killed in Jenin, in the West Bank.

Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli of Arab and Jewish parentage, was shot dead by masked gunmen in Jenin. (NOTE: before you make an assumption, this almost certainly was nothing to do with Israel, and indeed a member of Hamas has apparently been arrested).

The Freedom Theatre is a great initiative, building peace through creative expression (and, crucially, giving young people something to pour energy into that isn’t the intifada). When Cal and I visited Palestine in 2004 we visited the Al Rowwad Theatre Society in Aida camp, which was affiliated with the Freedom Theatre. It was a very humble environment, but everyone we met was committed to using performance and creativity as building blocks to a greater peace. As a result of that visit I’ve been on the main Freedom Theatre mailing list for years, and in January got their announcement of their new show, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Needless to say, this is a terrible event. From this distance I don’t expect to ever know or understand how it came to happen. It is clear however that the path to peace, difficult enough already, has just been made more challenging.

Mother Jones has a good article, covering Khamis’ acting and filmmaking as well.

Palestine Trip 8: Bumps in the night

Up here. [DEAD LINK – REPRODUCED BELOW] This is the last one. Thanks for reading ’em.


Thursday April 15, 2004

Trouble in the night. Morning, and we drive through houses on the outskirts of Aida refugee camp, Samer leaning out the window to ask directions of kids passing by. Then we park. A Red Cross guy parks behind us. We walk down a driveway and see the house.

Samer was woken in the night by the sound of the detonation, but it still stands. Two storeys. Looks like a nice house.

There are people around, fifty or so. Old men sit smoking and drinking tea on the patio, women cluster talking in the shade of another building nearby, young men stand around frowning. Kids trawl through it all, grinning and playing.

We walk through the house. It still stands but there is nothing inside but rubble. The walls are riddled with cracks and the floor is covered with heavy chunks of wall and furniture. The destruction is complete.

The owner of the house shakes our hands warmly, smiling. Samer translates. His son, it seems, is in prison, suspected or convicted of being an associate of a suicide bomber. That connection was apparently enough for the visit in the night. At 3am the IDF soldiers knocked on the door, gave the family fifteen minutes to get out. Then they went in and set the explosives. Soon after 4am they set them off and the house was ruined. Then the IDF left.

The family had closed their eyes to sleep with a home. By the time dawn came there was nothing left.

The owner smiles at us. ‘You are welcome!’ he says through Samer. ‘I only hate the governments, not the people. The people are welcome. You are welcome.’

He keeps talking as the old men watch and we are given sweet tea to drink. He talks about the destruction of the Twin Towers, how no Jews went to work that day. He uses that obnoxious conspiracy theory to demonstrate what the Palestinians are up against – a ruthless system, willing to sacrifice
innocent lives for political convenience. I can’t challenge him, his home has just been destroyed. And he doesn’t hate Jews. ‘Only the governments.’

The wall and the checkpoints are protective measures, so suicide bombers can’t get into Israel from Palestine. That’s why there’s the searches, and the harrassment, and the detainment, and the intimidation.

Except nearby both there’s a crossing point where the only barrier is a mound of dirt. Dozens of taxis are there, dropping people off, picking people up, waiting for fares. There is constant foot traffic over the
mound, which is only about five feet high and gently sloped. Men and women and children, bearing suitcases and shopping bags.

This isn’t exactly a secret. There’s an IDF watchtower not twenty feet away.

Samer follows us over into Israel to help us load up the van waiting on the other side. I hug him farewell. I really like him, he’s a great guy. I gave him a flag I had in my pack, the Silver Fern, symbol of Kiwi identity.
I like to think there’s a bit of Kiwi culture sitting around Samer’s home or the ATG offices or somewhere. I watch him walk back over the mound to Palestine and disappear out of sight and I feel sad that our time there is over.

But there is still Israel to negotiate. We drop off Sabine and Jean-Guy and Sarah in Jerusalem, and then its just Cal and me on the way to the airport. We have two envelopes stuffed with Palestinian information to send home, and I’ve deleted all the photos on my digital camera. On with the show.

As we approach the airport, the driver – one of the Issa’s army of contacts, who drove us around on Saturday morning with Anjela – tells us that we will be stopped as we approach the airport, and to say we don’t know him, that our hotel in Jerusalem called a driver for us. We get there, five lanes of traffic, each car being checked. When our turn comes the driver waves him over – an Arab face, I guess, being all the justification needed for special treatment. A teenage soldier clambers into the van, his gun swinging, and
he checks our passports and asks us questions: where did we stay? What have we seen in Israel? Where did we go? Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we say, a trip to Bethlehem for the holy sites. We stayed, of course, in a hotel in Jerusalem. Lies, again. He seems happy enough, and eventually waves us on.

We farewell the driver and find a post office, send off our packages. The woman in the post office takes Cal’s passport details as a matter of routine. No idea why and we didn’t ask.

Then we join the boarding queue. We had been warned to come early – this process can take a long time. A pair of young women are working our queue, and when they come to us they take our passports with a smile. The red stickers from our arrival cause their brows to furrow and one of them scoots off to ask a superior some questions. Then she returns. Cal and I do our best to stay relaxed, but we’ve heard some troubling stories of the departure security.

We get the questions again, in more detail this time – where did we go? Did we visit any private houses? Do we know any people in Israel? For some reason I mention an old friend, who last I heard was in Israel, but that was some years back. Her attention instantly sparks – what was his name? What was his profession? She double checks that she got the name right. Maybe it is just small country syndrome, she’s wondering if she might know the person too. Maybe its some weird test of my truthfulness. She doesn’t

And then we get waved through to the baggage checking. Cal’s bag goes through the detector fine, mine gets stopped and I have to open it for the security man. He takes out the guidebook, flips through it attentively. Maybe things can be hidden inside thick books? He nods and gives the book back and we press on.

Now we’re up to check-in and passport control and after another twenty minutes of queueing we make it to the departure lounge. We spend the last of our shekels at a concession stand on chocolate and then board. We’re exhausted by it all. The plane is delayed in the air, oncoming winds or something, and arrives in Zurich almost an hour late, shrinking the time we need to make our connection to about fifty minutes. We sprint through the late-night halls of Zurich airport, just make it in time. And then we’re
aboard an Easyjet flight. Familiar territory. Home ground.

Back to a real-seeming world.

It was an amazing experience. I learned far more than I could have hoped and met some wonderful people. Thanks ATG, thanks Olive Tours, thanks Samer and Jo and Mark and Sarah and Johnny and Manar and Mahmoud, and our fellow tourists Jean-Guy and Sabine.

I understand things better now.

Hopefully this account has helped other people understand things better too.

The group: (back) Jean-Guy, Cal, Sabine, Sarah; (front) me, Samer.

Thus endeth the trip. Salaam, Shalom, Peace.

Palestine Trip 6: Green Spaces

I’m really not sure I did Qalqilya justice with that last email. Its hard to communicate how many-layered the problems are, how they all fold back on and compound each other. I could write and say much, much more.
I won’t. I will say, if you’re interested, there are plenty of resources a google away. The tunnel, in particular, is something to watch – when we visited Qalqilya, very few people knew of it. Word is spreading fast.


Tuesday April 13, 2004

It’s Tuesday. We get out of the cage.

It takes about an hour to get from Qalqilya to the heart of Tel Aviv. We’re here to talk to Windows (http://www.win-peace.org/), an organisation that promotes understanding between Jews and Palestinians across the Green Line. It uses art and education, and a beautiful magazine that is
co-created by children on both sides of the border and produced with Arab and Hebrew text side by side.

We meet the young Windows person and head out to eat breakfast in a park with some of her friends. There are trees everywhere and happy children playing. It suddenly feels a bit like normal life again: sitting in a park talking politics with informed and passionate people. But that is an illusion. Tel Aviv isn’t distant from the politics – it is caught right up in it. The attacks happen here. Israeli society is full of worry. On the inflight magazine coming over, there were six or seven full page advertisements that referred to bombings of civilians. This is absolutely a part of their world.

I talk about New Zealand a lot. They are interested in the Maori situation, how New Zealand has managed and mismanaged its reparations, how politicians make hay out of resentment and fear. There is also respect for the New Zealand history curriculum, which had me at 15 studying Northern Ireland and Palestine side by side.

Back at the little downstairs office, we get the spiel about Windows and its mission. It is an incredibly valuable group doing important work. The hope is refreshing.

Our next stop is Ein Karem, a lush suburb in the hills near Jerusalem. There we meet Peretz Kidron, and talk about the refuseniks (http://www.yesh-gvul.org/, which seems to be down right now). These are
Israeli soldiers who have refused to follow orders. Peretz comes across as fiercely committed to his ideal of a conscious soldier who is informed and able to make moral decisions. This is the best place for human rights to be defended – history has shown that we can’t expect those in power to give account to human rights, so it falls to those who enact the orders to be the moral guardians as well. Its a compelling argument, and while I don’t agree with every aspect of what he says, it is all insightful and worthwhile. One interesting thing we talked through: he advocates a fair conscription into military (not civil) service, because a professional army will never question the orders received from their political masters. He’s an
interesting figure and we take up most of his afternoon.

In the hills near Jerusalem we talk with Peretz Kidron of Yesh Gvul, a refusenik organisation.

Then we head back to Beit Sahour. Samer and the ATG crew have organised for us to spend the night with a local family. Cal and I are staying with Johnny and Manar, a young couple, and their little daughter Nicole. They are good people, welcoming us in, plying us with food, chatting about all sorts of things. Johnny in particular is a born storyteller, full of tales. He’s pleased to see some more Kiwis, having worked with some New Zealanders some years back in a casino in Jericho. He regrets never getting a chance to play the promised rugby game with them. Eventually we sit watching television, Saudi and Lebanese stations by satellite. Johnny apologises that he can’t take us out anywhere – there isn’t anywhere to go.
No movies, no nightclubs. All of their stories end up talking about the situation. It underlies every aspect of their lives.

Their house is beautiful. They’re both lovely and smart, full of life. They are absolutely like any random family here in the UK, or in New Zealand, or, well, anywhere. They’re just good people.

Under their roof that night, we sleep well.

Before we leave Qalqilya, we give Mahmoud’s children the kiwi that’s travelled with me since I left New Zealand in 2002. I make sure they know what it is before we go.


Palestine Trip 5: Pushes

Up here [ DEAD LINK – REPRODUCED BELOW ]. Mistakenly numbered it ‘4’. One of the problems with the email archive is that it doesn’t let me edit anything. Oh well.
Also I forgot to put in the email that new photos are up [DEAD LINK – INCLUDED BELOW], including my favourite from the trip.
Must get this account done before going to Switzerland on Saturday!


Monday, April 12, 2004

There is a wall in Palestine. It is an absolute barrier, 8 metres high, solid and grey. It is dividing everything. It sets apart Israel and Palestine. More precisely, it divides Palestine from Palestine; Palestine land on the wrong side becomes part of Israel.

Qalqilya is in the northwest part of the West Bank, right at the westernmost limit of it. It is as close as the West Bank gets to the warm waters of the med. A large town, 40,000 people or so. In happier times its thriving markets served the whole region. Many of its residents are farmers, who leave their homes each morning to go to their plots and fields. Qalqilya is completely surrounded by the wall. There is one gate giving access. One gate only. It is a prison camp.

Except it isn’t quite that simple. There is another gate, a farmers gate, giving access to fields. The wall is only 8 metres high on the westernmost stretch – elsewhere it is razor wire and trenches. The one gate is
unguarded when Issa drives us in. The truth is harder to grasp than the simple image of giant walls on all sides. And yet, for all that the residents can see the horizon, it is still a prison.

Qalqilya, a Palestinian town of 40,000 people, surrounded on all sides by the wall. This is a view from the outside, showing the southwestern corner of the wall.

We are five – Mark of Olive Tours, Sabine and Jean-Guy, Cal and myself. Our contact is Mahmoud, a Reuters photographer and regular host to visitors such as us. He later shows us photos of New Zealand minister Phil Goff at the wallside. Mahmoud is large and taciturn, but his hospitality is unstinting. We drink sweet tea in his sitting room and look at old photos of his family members, some of them martyrs in old wars. Then we go down to the wall, the western section, eight metres tall.

There is a girl’s school on the way, and as we walk we pass schoolgirls clutching workbooks, whispering to each other as they see us. Some of them fiercely ignore us, while others smile shyly. The school is close to the wall – fifty metres? I forget the distance exactly. Close enough to have been tear gassed in the past. Close enough that the children will see the wall out their classroom windows every single day.

Approaching the wall. The girls’ school is on the left, with the vehicles parked outside. The wall looks very close – but that is because it is far, far larger than you expect. Mahmoud and Mark are in front, Jean-Guy and Sabine arm in arm, and Caroline just in front of me.

The wall itself is remarkable close up. It is taller than I expect it to be. Sniper towers sit at regular intervals. Cameras and motion detectors survey every inch of the wall.

The wall divides farmland. There are a few metres of gravel beside the wall, and then green crops. As we walk along the gravel, a jeep rushes up. A teenage girl with a gun argues with Mahmoud from her seat as her fellows appraise us. The jeep drives off; we walk a few feet further out from the wall, on the gutter between the gravel and the crops.

Alongside the wall, before the soldiers arrive.

On the far side of the wall, we remember, there is a highway. The Israelis driving on that highway don’t have to see Qalqilya. All they see is an 8 metre wall protecting them.

Imagine it as a kneeling giant reaching its arms out, one on each side of Qalqilya. Imagine the giant’s arms casting shadows. Where the shadow falls, that land is claimed. Where it plants its hands, a settlement is built.

At the farmer’s gate we watch the same soldiers from the jeep inspect men and children who are crossing to their fields. A Swiss guy we met on our walk takes photographs incessantly, and the blonde girl who had argued with Mahmoud scowls at him, tells him to stop. He shifts position and keeps going. “Don’t push me!” she yells at him. The gate is surrounded by barbed wire. It is only open for an hour at a time, three times a day.

At the farmer’s gate

From the gate we can see the town of Habla, Qualqilya’s close neighbour. They are separated by the giant’s shadow – the drive there, once ten minutes, now takes ninety. The state of Israel has taken it upon itself to build a tunnel that will connect Qalqilya and Habla. Work has begun; land was confiscated for the project, of course. The residents of Qalqilya found out what was going on through Israeli TV.

They’re building a tunnel to a town you can see from the gate, if you peer over the wire.

As the sun comes down we walk up the main street. It is busy, but not as busy as it once would have been. There isn’t much money left in Qalqilya. People call out to us as we walk: “where are you from?” “you are welcome!”

There’s also a surprising ‘hey dudes’ greeting, which belongs to a New Zealander, a journo named Hayden. He’s in town making a short documentary about the Qalqilya zoo – “cages within cages”, as he says. Cal and I seize on the familiar ground and we have juice together in an outside bar. Hayden
speaks quickly, smiling all the time, and replacing as many words as possible with sound effects. As always with Kiwis on the road, we establish people we know in common a few minutes into the conversation (in this case Cal’s infamous Blenheim Boys).

Then Mahmoud takes us to meet the head of the Palestine Authority in town. I take an instant dislike to him. Everything he says is equivocal, emotive – he is trying to sell us on his own political vision. I have to remind myself that his message is worth evaluating on its own merits. Behind his rhetoric there is a real story of appalling dissolution. Half of the wells into Qalqilya’s water are outside the line of the wall, and now belong to Israel. 6,000 people have left Qalqilya in the last few years.

“They are pushing us!” he says.

If things continue as they are going, this exodus will continue. Perhaps then the giant will finally bring his hands together.

Mahmoud’s lovely children

View from on top of a building in Qalqilya, showing the size of the place.

My favourite photo from the whole trip


Palestine Trip 4: Painted Eggs



Sunday, April 11, 2004

We were in Palestine as part of an organised tour, and this day was scheduled as our own to do with as we pleased. Given it was Easter Sunday, we started off going to church. We were made very welcome – the priest came over and shook our hands at the start – and it was easy to feel at home, as
the atmosphere and congregation were just like those I grew up with. They were dressed the same, had the same friendly warmth, the service was the same, even some of the hymns were familiar. All of it in Arabic, of course, but I knew exactly what was going on the whole time. After the service we
crossed the garden to the church hall where painted eggs were thrust into our hands by insistent smiling teenagers, many people shook our hands and asked us where we were from, and we drank sweet tea. It was great. At the end of the day I still had paint on my hands from the egg. We also found a tree that was either New Zealand’s native Christmas tree, the pohutukawa, or something that gave a very good impression of it. I reckon it was a pohutukawa – I remember from a documentary some years ago
that the trees were growing in odd places here and there throughout Europe.

Easter Sunday in Beit Sahour, and the surprising presence of a New Zealand native tree in Palestine.

Cal and I then wandered up to Bethlehem and checked out the Church of the Nativity in daylight, then set off to wander some more, chatting to a few policemen on the way. We ran into Jean-Guy and Sabine, and joined them and Olive Co-op’s Jo and the newly-arrived Mark for a great lunch in Nativity Square. We wandered further, led – somewhat haphazardly – by Jo. It was a great walk, actually, up and down the sloping built-up roads and occasionally breaking out into an open space with another panoramic view of
the surrounding hills. We passed the hotel where stand-up comedian Jeremy Hardy and the ISM stayed in April ’02, as chronicled in the documentary ‘Jeremy Hardy vs. the Israeli Army’. It was good to be able to connect those images of tanks on streets to this place, since it was at a screening of that film that Cal and I first began to think about coming here.

Bethlehem, and the tiny entrance to the Church of the Nativity.

We finished up the day with a trip down the hill to Shepherd’s Field, where the angel of the lord came near and gave the shepherds a heads-up about what was going on up in Bethlehem. There was a lovely garden, a nice church, and a fascinating archaeological dig revealing the monasteries that had been
built here over the centuries.

Naturally, we couldn’t get far away from the political angle of our trip, even on Easter Sunday. The sad tales of the taxi drivers, bereft of tourist trade even at Easter, were one thing; seeing the newly expanding settlement and bypass road a few hundred metres from Shepherd’s Field was another. The garden and chapel had been designed to create a sanctuary for pilgrims, but there was nowhere to hide from the ongoing incursion.

That night we all talked for some hours, going over everything that we were seeing and hearing. The truth about the situation in Palestine is that it is overwhelming. It is too much to see at once.

Mark’s blog is at http://www.rafahkid.net/blog.html 

Shepherd’s Field, where the Shepherds were told by an angel of Jesus’ birth. There is a growing settlement a short distance away, I think it is part of Har Homa.


Palestine Trip 3: Barriers

Up here. [EDIT: DEAD LINK – REPRODUCED BELOW] There’s photos and all.


Saturday April 10


Checkpoints. In the morning we go through one on foot, the main Bethlehem checkpoint. Sarah points at some women as we approach – they are about to cut off the road and go overland to the far side of the checkpoint, bypassing it so they can get to work at Jerusalem. Sometimes they will meet a patrol on this bypass. Sometimes the patrol will just turn them back. Other times it is worse.

We walk around a building that’s essentially a concrete bunker, along a narrow route. Soldiers just waved us through, we all have white skin I guess. Half way around we pause and look back over the rooftops and see something happening on the balcony of a building. It looks like a gang of young Palestinian men beating a Palestinian woman with sticks, but it’s too far away to tell for sure. We eventually turn our backs and press on.

We are picked up in West Jerusalem and driven to the Container checkpoint. It has an ominous reputation. We’re meeting Anjela from Machsom Watch (http://www.machsomwatch.org/), an organisation of Israeli women who monitor the checkpoints and try to make sure Palestinians are treated fairly by those on duty. The stories she tells make it sound like this is a mammoth task. We stay at the Container while she makes sure a Doctor is allowed across to an ambulance waiting on the far side. We are told that ambulances aren’t allowed across checkpoints; patients have to be lifted across. If there is a delay in securing an ambulance to meet the patient, delays can be serious. The sick and injured die at checkpoints because of this, or because they are simply turned back.

But to me, the worst part of the checkpoints is the psychology. Every day, Palestinian men and women are subjected to the whims of teenagers schooled in a paranoid mythology and given absolute power over their ability to move freely.

Hell, you take the best teenagers you can find in New Zealand high schools and make them prefects, and like as not it all goes wrong. Its no leap to see how staffing the occupation with teenagers is breeding indignity.


Anjela is also part of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (http://www.icahd.org/eng/). She has a very good broad sense of what is going on and going wrong in Israel/Palestine, and she leads us on an improvised tour of the area.

We go through Abu Dis which is being sliced up by the enormous, unforgiving wall. It’s an Arab community and Anjela draws attention to the poverty – the roads are poor, the homes are cramped and small, there is nothing green anywhere. We keep driving, and two minutes later we are in the settlement
of Maale Adumim, on the next hill over. There are enormous, vibrant flowerbeds lining the wide, flat roads. Elegant stepped apartment blocks rise cleanly. There is, incredibly, a swimming pool.

A swimming pool, in the desert.

Anjela talks of the children in the Palestinian communities nearby, who have never seen flowers.

Maale Adumim is not peopled with messianic Greater Israel settlers, according to Anjela. The people there are economic migrants. Settlers get a lot of tax breaks, and very nice digs. (We later learn that one of the
drivers who lives in Beit Sahour keeps an apartment in Maale Adumim as well, so he doesn’t lose his Israel permissions.)

You hear a lot about contrasts. In this case, it is the proximity that is most disturbing. The luxury of the settlement is in sharp contrast to the privation of the established village. The settlement is, of course, built
on seized Palestinian land.

We see the wall-struck town of Abu Dis and its close neighbour, the lush settlement of Maale Adummim.

The landscape nearby Abu Dis and Maale Adumim


In Greek Orthodox tradition, on Holy Saturday, the patriarch goes into a sanctuary in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and God sends him fire. This fire is then shared among the community.

I learned that While this is going on, everyone outside squishes up close and gets ready to start shouting and jumping.

We were crammed into an alley outside the church, with hundreds of other people, waiting for news. A great cry of cheers erupted from within, and then the crowd shifted, somehow making space as a series of men came charging out screaming with excitement waving around fire as they went. The crowd thrust candles into the passing flames as more and more people came out, there was shouting and praising God, and many elbows in ribs and shoves in backs and burnt nose hairs. People forced their way out of the church and into the already crowded alleyway and a fight almost broke out between Sarah and a guy who was using an empty pram as a prod to clear his path of little old ladies.

It was insane. It was another sign of how people do religion in Jerusalem.


We went to the Western Wall as well. The sun smashed down on the enormous wall, fifteen or more metres high and built of mighty sandstone blocks. A direct connection with God, in Judaism. It was impossible not to be moved by the deep respect shown towards this holy site. We couldn’t take photos –
it was the Sabbath, and an old Rabbi was trooping the crowd making sure no-one was breaking custom.
Jean-Guy, being a Jew, invited me down to see things up close, and so off I went. I put on a cardboard kippa and went down. Jean Guy led me into the tunnel at the side of the wall, which was thick with Orthodox Jews in their big hats, praying alone or in groups, reading the Torah, and in one memorable case jumping up and down shaking his hand at the wall. Again, as so many other times, I thought I was in another world. We came out into the sun and Jean-Guy smiled at me and said “What did you think? For me, it was very strange.”

We rejoined the others at the vantage point on the far side. We could see the top of the Dome of the Rock peeking over the Western Wall – the holiest place in one traditions and the second holiest in another, a literal stone-throw apart.


Palestine Trip 2: Facts on the Ground

On a lighter note, some more testimony as to the Godlike power of Leon has been added to the Making Leon a God website.


Friday April 9, 2004

The call to prayer sounds like a cross between an air raid siren and a Leonard Cohen song, and it sounds at the first touch of dawn, which is way to early for us. We sleep uneasily after that, not quite believing where we were.

Breakfast with Sabine and Jean-Guy – pita bread and houmous and cheese and meat. Nothing gets you in a local mood like diving into the local breakfast. Then ATG people Samer and Sarah appeared and we were out.


Samer drove us around Beit Sahour, and we started to see the things we’d only read about before – the settlements, the bypass roads. The closeness of them is shocking. From the street outside our hotel you can see a huge settlement, Gilo I think, which is still being worked on. It’s literally just across the valley. It is built inside the ‘green line’, on Palestinian land, and it is staring the population of Beit Sahour in the face every single day.

Bypass roads, as well, are a revelation. They carve through the west bank sheathed in barbed wire and electric fences, and as they go they chop up communities, cut off farmland and orchards, and necessitate the demolition of Palestinian homes. We see a group of five homes that are hemmed in by bypass roads; all will be demolished eventually. The families just have to move. Nearby, a bypass road loops around an olive orchard, cutting it off completely from the locals.

I have been reading about bypass roads and settlements for years, but until I saw them I didn’t really understand what they were and what they meant. I didn’t understand how powerful they were – the power of, as the saying goes, ‘facts on the ground’.


We visited a refugee camp in Bethlehem, Aida camp. It has evolved from a hilltop covered with tents in ’48 into an alley-network of cramped tenements. Kids called out greetings, ran down for photos. Everyone
greeted us warmly: “you are welcome.”

There were signs of conflict. Bullet holes in the wall of a school. Ruined walls and buildings. A factory’s blue corrugated wall ripped open by a missile, the interior now dormant.

Alongside Aida is a field. Across the field is Gilo settlement. The separation wall enters the field from two directions. Soon, new construction will join the wall together, and cut off this view.

We walked up to the end of the wall nearest Aida and some Israeli troops appeared from the other side. We walked away and they paced after us. Being followed by a force of uniformed men and women carrying weapons is not a nice feeling. They came up to the fringe of Aida proper and then watched
us for a while before going back. “They are not allowed here but they come and go as they please. They do whatever they want.”

It is hard to keep hope alive here. The Al Rowwad centre (http://alrowwad.virtualactivism.net/) keeps children busy with theatre and art projects. They have toured theatre pieces through Europe. The director
of Al Rowwad, AbdelFattah Abu-Srour, earned a PhD in France but turned down the right to stay there: “If I had it, the temptation to leave here when it got difficult would have been too great.”

The Holy City on Good Friday. It was incredible. Jerusalem’s Old City is a network of narrow streets, some of them built over so completely that you’re effectively underground. It twists and turns and is full of colour and culture – ultraorthodox Jews in their enormous hats, orthodox Jews in their traditional garb, Arab women in hejab, Christian priests and nuns and monks in full dress, salesmen and touts of all stripes, tourists, pilgrims, soldiers, us. It was an incredible place, unlike any place I’ve been to or seen. Probably it’s unique.

We sat in on a talk given by Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights (http://www.rhr.israel.net/), which was centred on RHR’s work in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Then we just explored. We ended up walking the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took with the cross to Calvary (as defined, of course, in the middle ages) to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was a confusing dark cave housing a mad melange of different Christian traditions, each pitting prayers and
incense against the others in trying to carve out a space for their individual flavour of the divine. Down below the Church was a deep chamber, the tomb of Jesus in Catholic tradition. (In Protestant tradition, it’s a few hilltops over.)

Its easy to forget that in amongst this best-guess mythplanting, there is truth – Jesus did preach here in Jerusalem, he did die here. The Temple did stand here – one wall, the Western Wall, remains.

Okay, it’s a bit harder to prove that Mohammed and his horse rode up to heaven from the Rock on Temple Mount. But I’m happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.

That evening we went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. On Good Friday, passing from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the spot where Jesus was crucified and rose again to the spot where he was born. Quite an Easter – and not a chocolate egg between us.


Palestine 1: Welcomes

My first account is up here [LINK DEAD – REPRODUCED BELOW].
If you want to subscribe to the morgueatlarge email list, just send a blank message to: morgueatlarge-subscribe@topica.com
More to follow. Photos uploaded; links will be available soon.


Thursday April 8

So we’re zooming down the highway to Jerusalem on Holy Thursday. The speedo hovers around 120k, and the sun is coming down, and Cal and I are in the Middle East.

We’ve come with an outfit called Olive Tours, who work with the Alternative Tourism Group. A week-long tour in Israel and Palestine, meeting peace groups, meeting locals, seeing what its like on the ground. It all came together fast, and it nearly didn’t happen, but we’re here. Only a few people know. We don’t want our mothers to worry.

Getting here was a story in itself. In Zurich, after talking my way around the fact that my passport was expiring in 5 months 3 weeks instead of 6 months, we got the full interrogation by a mild-mannered El Al Air clerk. Where were we from? Where did we live? Why were we going to Israel? Had anyone given us a bomb? Any weapons? What about small weapons, just for personal use? We stuck to our story of going for Easter, good Christian pilgrims. Lying makes me uncomfortable and I didn’t enjoy it. Heart was
bumping good. We went into a side room with him and our bags were swabbed by bomb-detecting gear; then we were ushered out while they went through the contents in detail. We were glad we’d ditched the Private Eye we’d been reading on the way over, the one with an article ripping shreds out of Sharon.

But we made it through, and suddenly we were at Tel Aviv airport waiting for a driver to meet us. And now we were on the road.

Joseph, the Arab driver, slowed down, and we saw lights and concrete blocks in the road up ahead. ‘Is this a checkpoint?’ Cal asked. ‘Yes,’ Joseph said. ‘Say you are going to church.’

And suddenly there were soldiers around us. Fatigues and automatic weapons. We were both still running adrenaline-hot, ready for more questions, wondering what would happen if we were turned back. A soldier came up to Joseph’s window and we squeezed hands in the back seat.

Joseph and the soldier talked in Hebrew briefly, then, incredibly, shook hands warmly and waved goodbye. “My friend!” Joseph said as we drove off. “He is Russian! And a Christian!”

Our first checkpoint experience, the lesson being that the unexpected would always be just around the corner. There were many more checkpoints to come in the week ahead, though, and that was the only one that gave anyone cause to smile.

Now we were in the West Bank, in Bethlehem. The Occupied Territories, seized by Israel in 1967 and still held now. Its a hilly town, and I was suddenly reminded of home – I hadn’t seen a landscape so like Wellington’s hills since I left New Zealand. Joseph was, Cal thought, somewhat amused by our gushing comments, “It’s just like home!” We weren’t blind to the irony ourselves.

We arrived at the Three Kings hotel in Beit Sahour, just outside of Bethlehem, and were set up in a room and given a great, filling meal. Along the way we met Samer, the Palestinian ATG guy who was our organiser, and the other half of the tour group, Jean Guy and Sabine from Paris. After dinner,
we joined the Parisians and wandered down to the local Catholic church to see the tail end of the service. As we went we saw Beit Sahour at night. Shops were open late, and teenagers wandered the streets chatting and texting and flirting. Men sitting on their porches greeted us: “Where are you from?” “You are welcome.”

“You are welcome” was a phrase we heard every day, everywhere we went in Palestine. And it was sincere, and we did feel it, we did feel welcome. A feeling precisely opposed to the way we’d felt at Zurich.

“What is your intention? What are you going to do? Why do you want to go to Israel?”


Cal on the plane