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