How do you set up a stage in the middle of the desert? The Freedom Bus gets some help from the Bedouin children of Khan Al-Ahmar.
As the sun set on the sixth day of the September Freedom Ride, we drove through the steep hills and deep valleys that lead down to the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. In a desert valley overlooked by hilltop settlements near Jerusalem, we found the tiny village of Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin encampment of ramshackle hand-built shacks of tin, plastic and wood.
Khan al-Ahmar is situated between the Israeli settlements of Ma’ale Adumim, home to 35,000 settlers, and Kfar Adumim, both of which are illegal under international law. Many of the families that live in Khan al-Ahmar are from the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, who were displaced from the Naqab (Negev) desert in 1948 due to the creation of Israel. The Israeli settlements surrounding the village are planning to expand their territories and forcibly transfer the Bedouin communities in this area. This is a part of a larger plan – outlined to the UN by the Israeli authorities – which will give Israel the full control over Area C, 62% of the West Bank. The West Bank will be split into two cantons, wiping out any possibility of a future two-state solution. The plan would involve forcibly transferring around 27,000 people.
The children of the village helped us to clear space for a stage on a rocky outcrop, with the settlements in the distance and the bright desert moon above us. These children are educated in a purpose-built school built in Khan al-Ahmar by a European group. The school is also currently threatened with demolition.
The audience sat on small plastic chairs borrowed from the school buildings, long mattresses and rugs. The rough path up to the stage was lit by lanterns made by the children. In sharp contrast to the raucous crowds in Aida Camp, the Bedouin children watched the actors of the Freedom Bus perform in enraptured silence.
The Bedouin are frequent victims of violence at the hands of settlers. We heard a story from an older man called Ahmed about the death of his brother, who was hit by a settler’s car while on the way to school and killed. There was an investigation into the death but no one was ever brought to justice. “I am afraid of sending my children to a faraway school now,” he said, “We need our own school here.” It is clear that the loss of Khan al-Ahmar’s school would affect the community deeply.
We heard stories of shepherds who have been arrested for grazing sheep too close to the settlements, and whose flocks have been confiscated. We heard from a young Bedouin man about his arrest, imprisonment, and seven day interrogation at the hands of Israeli soldiers.
While settlers can build homes anywhere, these people are prevented from pursuing their traditional way of life, and their homes are constantly under threat. Nonetheless, an older Bedouin man described the Bedouin as “fierce and resilient people” who will resist as long as they can. As one young Bedouin man put it, “The singer may die, but the song will live.”
Images by Al Mayuk, Bryan MacCormack and Natasha Andrews.
On Friday, the sixth day of the September Freedom Ride, we joined the people of Al Walajah on a procession from the village mosque to the house of Omar Hajajlah and his family.
Al Walajah is a village under threat. The proposed route of the Israeli separation wall will circle the village, and the ancient mountainsides are already being reduced to rubble by bulldozers. The land around Al Walajah is lined by ancient terraces and olive trees, as well as the remains of Roman waterholes carved into the yellow rock. Omar Hajajlah’s house lies directly in the path of the wall and has been threatened with demolition. Omar fought through the Israeli courts to save his house, and, in a situation that seems beyond farce, the Israeli high court ruled in favor of allowing engineers encircle his house and effectively imprison his family with an electrified, four-meter-high barrier. They have built an underground tunnel, at a price of 5 million shekels ($1.3 million), that will allow his family access to the rest of the village.
The villagers of Al Walajah having been using creative forms of protest to struggle against the attacks on their land and homes. In preparation for the march, the villagers made giant puppets that waved high above the moving crowd. One, a skeleton with a key for a heart, symbolised the longing of refugees for the right to return to their lost homes. Young people from the village carried drums and chanted slogans, including one in English: “1,2,3,4! Occupation no more!”
The march ended on the rocky outcrop next to Omar’s house, overlooking the valley that will soon be lost to the people of Al Walajah. There are plans to turn this land into a Israeli national park. Sitting in the shade of olive trees, we saw performances from the Freedom Bus actors, and music from Dar Qandeel, Palestine Street and the United Struggle Project. Once again our uninvited guests, the Israeli army, watched from a distance.
After the performance last night in Aida refugee camp, Hanin translates part of a poem she recited during the show:
On the evening of Day 4 we visited Aida refugee camp between Bethlehem and Beit Jala, established after the Nakba in 1950. The camp was severely affected by the violence of both the First and Second Intifada. From 2003, the construction of the Israeli separation wall added to the hardships of Aida residents, resulting in house demolitions to make way for the wall and a huge rise in unemployment as workers from Aida could no longer cross into Israel.
In Aida the actors of the Freedom Bus had the opportunity to perform in a beautiful purpose-built outdoor theatre with raked seating. The stage stands directly next to the separating wall. As we performed in the shadow of the wall the lights of our show lit up the resistance graffiti. It was a truly astonishing setting. The children and youth of Aida crowded onto the seats, singing protest songs while the technical crew began the set-up. The crowd were full of energy, rowdy and unruly, singing political songs and shouting slogans throughout the show.
When a storyteller rose to share his experiences they were applauded and cheered by the crowd, and often called up by name from where they were sitting. The storytellers were clearly well-known figures of the resistance, and it was inspiring to see the way a hush descended on the crowd as they leaned forward to listen and honour the lives of local heros.
It was interesting to see how the stories told seemed to talk and respond to each other, bringing up the same images and themes. The conductor asked one man, “What kind of story are you going to tell?” He replied, “Well, a story about incursions and violence of course, what other stories do we have to tell? These are the only stories we have.” Often the most violent parts of the stories were delivered with a lightheartedness, a kind of black humour that is a way of dealing with the horrors of occupation.
A man called Mahmoud told a story about his experiences during the Second Intifada. Everyday life in Aida camp during that time was held hostage by the constant threat of military strikes. There were frequent Israeli strikes and invasions from both land and air, and severe curfew restrictions. Even when no curfew was in place it was dangerous to move within the camp due to Israeli gunfire.
The Israeli army had set-up their headquarters inside the abandoned Intercontinental Hotel, which was visible from Mahmoud’s roof. One day a Frenchman came to the house with his son, and asked if he could take pictures from the roof. Mahmoud took him up, and he began taking pictures. Suddenly the Frenchman fell to the ground and started crying out in pain. His son was screaming. Mahmoud saw that the Frenchman had been shot in the leg. He was shouting and pointing at Mahmoud, but he could not understand what he was saying. Finally, Mahmoud realised that he had also been shot in the stomach and in the thigh. He had not been able to feel the bullets. They dragged themselves down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs Mahmoud found his brother, who had also been shot, and a friend who was lying dead. Mahmoud felt his head begin to spin and he became unconscious. He woke up twelve days later in a hospital bed. He spoke about what it is like to see everyone around you die, and be the only who survives purely due to luck.
An older man spoke next. He began with a joke, “When people come into your house, usually they choose to enter through the front door. But in the Second Intifada our visitors [the Israelis] came through the walls.” He was referring to the Israeli practice of bombing the walls of neighbouring houses to move through the camp internally. His house was entered in this way and occupied by a group of soldiers for seventeen days. At first, he said, they would ask the Israelis for permission to eat or to use the toilet. But when he saw how the soldiers had destroyed his kitchen, used all his gas and eaten all his food, he decided that he could no longer ask for permission. “We are here,” he said, “whether they like it or not. And we will never leave.” The crowd in the stands roared their approval. After seventeen days, he continued, the Israelis set off a bomb that exploded through the walls of five adjacent houses, killing a woman in the fifth house when the masonry fell on top of her.
Despite the suffering detailed in the stories we heard in Aida, the overwhelming feeling amongst the crowd was one of continuing resistance, of refusing to give in to the threat of violence, or even the looming shadow of the wall.
Images by Al Mayuk.
On Day 4 of the September Freedom Ride the Freedom Bus visited the town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem.
In Beit Sahour we performed in a beautiful stone room, hosted by the Alternative Information Center. The actors of the Freedom Bus listened to stories from the First Intifada, an uprising against the Israeli occupation that lasted from 1987 to 1993, and transformed them into short peices of improvised theatre. Beit Sahour was known as a centre of peaceful popular resistance during this period.
We heard from an older man called Jawal, who was involved in an audacious project to help the inhabitants of Beit Sahour to boycott Israeli goods. At that time there were no dairy farms in the West Bank, and the Palestinians were reliant on milk imported from Israel. Jawal came up with a plan to bring a herd of cows to Beit Sahour. They travelled to an Israeli kibbutz, bought eighteen cows, and herded them onto a piece of land in Beit Sahour. Jawal knew nothing about cows, he had never even seen a cow before in his life, but there was huge enthusiasm for the project amongst the people of the town.
Within a week an Israeli commander came to the farm with many soldiers and an intelligence unit. They took a photograph of each individual cows and the numbers on their backs. They arrested the farm workers and arrested Jawal.
The commander told Jawal that the cows “posed a threat to the national security of the state of Israel”.
The commander told Jawal that if the cows were not removed the army would demolish the farm. That night a group of shabab, or village youth, helped to smuggle the cows out and hide them all over Beit Sahour. Jawal told us that half of the cows escaped and had to be chased! One of the cows gave birth to the first calf of Beit Sahour. The eighteen terrorists had become nineteen…
The army searched for the cows with hundreds of soldiers and two helicopters. The had photographs of the cows that they showed to the townspeople, asking, “Have you see these cows?” They could not find them. At that time, there were long curfews imposed on the inhabitants of Beit Sahour. During the curfews the youth of the town delivered milk clandestinely to families. The milk became known as the “milk of the Intifada”. The cows were hidden for 4 years!
A film has been made about ‘The Wanted 18’. You can watch the trailer here:
Day 3 of the September Freedom Ride found us in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the West Bank, and home of the Palestinian Authority. We were kindly hosted in the Jawwal building by the PalTel Group, who provide cell phone coverage in the West Bank and Gaza. Their facilities allowed us to hold a video conference with a group in Gaza.
In the unlikely setting of a corporate conference room, we heard stories from Gazans, all of whom lived through the incredibly violent Gaza War of December 2008 – January 2009. The actors of the Freedom Bus were filmed by a cameraman and the performance was beamed to the people in Gaza. This was perhaps the most difficult performance of the ride so far because of the enormous amount of technology and manpower needed to connect our group to the group in Gaza. We were nervous that something might go wrong with the sound or the video link, but in the end the performance passed (almost!) without a hitch.
No travel has been allowed between Gaza and the West Bank since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. This has meant that the Palestinian people have been cut in half, fracturing their sense of national unity. The horrors suffered by the people of Gaza are felt keenly by those living in the West Bank, and as the actors introduced themselves they said they dreamed one day of being able to perform in Gaza without the need of wires and cables. A woman from the Gazan group summed up what many were feeling when she shared her emotions about the day; “I am happy to see you, but unhappy about the borders between us.”
The first story we heard came from a man called Mohammed from Gaza. During the attacks of December 2008 he was living in a rural area in Northern Gaza. The area came under heavy attack. One day his neighbour was shot in the chest by a sniper. When Mohammed reached him he saw that he was “bleeding and writhing like a slaughtered sheep”. He had been shot just above the heart but the bullet ricocheted through his body, entering his stomach and exiting through his back. Mohammed held his neighbour in his arms, convinced that he was about die. He put his hand over the wound to try and stop the bleeding. Mohammed wanted to give him First Aid but felt powerless because he did not know how to. An ambulance was called but they said they could not enter the area because it was too dangerous. Despite the risk, Mohammed drove his neighbour to the hospital in a car. As they drove, Mohammed prayed for him. When they reached the hospital, Mohammed’s neighbour was rushed into the operating room. Miraculously, he survived.
We also heard from Gazan fisherman called Amjed. In April 2012, Amjed’s cousin Sadat came to visit him from Egypt. On the last day of his visit Amjed took Sadat to the see the sea shore. They went out on a boat. When they were three miles out, they were attacked by Israeli boats. He explained that in Gaza, the Israelis place limits on Palestinian access to the sea. Amjed told his cousin to stay quiet. The Israeli soldiers wanted to arrest them. They told Amjed and Sadat to take off their clothes and swim to the Israeli boats. Amjed told the officer, “My cousin cannot swim. He is from Egypt.” They were taken on a twelve hour journey, ending in a detention centre in Israel. His 6 day trip turned into a 6 month imprisonment. He is still being held, and is charged with entering Gaza illegally.
The final story was a very powerful one. An older woman, dressed entirely in black came forward to talk about the arrest and imprisonment of her sons. “My whole life has been a tragedy,” she began. Her oldest son was arrested when he was sixteen-years-old. He is now in prison for life. His mother had to wait 6 years and 3 months before she was allowed to visit him in prison. She described that day she saw him, “I forgot all my suffering. I am sixty five but when I saw my son I became fifty. Perhaps when I see him again I will become forty!” She also told the story of her younger son, aged twenty one. He was ambushed by Israeli soldiers at 11.30pm on his way home from work. She did not know he had been arrested until the next morning. She searched everywhere for him. “I was looking on the ground,” she said, “I found his mobile, his shoes. I did not know where he had been taken.” Although both her sons have been on hunger strike they have not been released. She has not yet been allowed to visit her younger son. His name has not appeared on the list of prisoners that can be visited. When asked how she feels about her sons, she said, “A mother is a mother anywhere. Whether she is Muslim, Christian or whatever, she is still a mother. I love my sons.” This story was undoubtedly among the most powerful we have heard on the ride.
The Freedom Bus packed up and headed to Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. The drive took us past the infamous Kalandia checkpoint, a huge military checkpoint that separates Ramallah from Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, and from towns in the southern West Bank. In the shadow of the graffiti-strewn dividing Wall, we saw young boys from the adjacent Kalandia refugee camp throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli soldiers, who shot back tear-gas cannisters. We rolled up the windows of the bus to stop the gas getting in, but the smell hung heavily around us. It was a potent reminder of the constant skirmishes between Palestinian youth and the occupying forces.
The atmosphere changed as we reached the beautiful old town of Beit Sahour and the sun set, turning the hills a dusty orange. In the evening there was a concert and poetry night, held on a stage set up in an alleyway in the Old City of Beit Sahour, between two beautiful old stone buildings. Musicians Awlad Al-Balad Band and Charles Rishmawi performed, and Samer Badami shared his poems about growing up in exile from his homeland.
Images by Al Mayuk and Bryan MacCormack