“You know, when I talk to my friends and we speak about us or our future, the conversations always end in silence…just silence.” Palestinian Freedom Bus crew member
In the morning some of us get up at 6.30 to meet a group of Italian activists that accompany school children of all ages past an illegal Israeli settlement and an outpost that is notorious for violent and aggressive inhabitants.
In 2004 three international volunteers were badly beaten when they accompanied the children as they do every day. The volunteers had to be brought to hospital, all three suffered long time damage, one of them is now blind on one eye.
Because one of the volunteers was American, the US stepped in and the Israeli high court was forced to implement a military escort for school children for the stretch right next to the illegal Israeli outpost. Only illegal settlers have the key to the gate that closes the road that Palestinian children from the nearby villages have to pass. Not even the occupation forces can intervene and need to ask for permission to pass.
Two Israeli soldiers are supposed to accompany the group of children by foot. Colonist settlers throw stones at them, verbally abuse them and hit them. Even the stretch past the gate is dangerous as settlers passing in cars push, hit and swear at Palestinian school children.
We listen in disbelief as we are told about stories of settler attacks in this small valley of which half has been annexed to the illegal settlement whilst the other half has been declared a closed military firing zone. Shepherds are attacked along with their livestock, settlers attack with sling shots, sticks, fists…. The occupation forces are not allowed to take action against illegal settlers whilst the police oftentimes refuses to because the culprits are members of their community. The last arrest included three soldiers off duty…
Our volunteer guide receives a text message: there are two further volunteers stationed on a hill from which they can watch the children leave the village and meet the army, there is a two minute period during which the children are out of sight – this is when a message is sent “The children are out of sight now. In 2 minutes you see them.”
We all stare anxiously to the spot in the far distant that the volunteer has pointed out – this is where we will see them shortly.
And what we see yet again defies humanity. The soldiers don’t walk the children. Four soldiers sit in a big military vehicle and children of all ages walk in front of it… herded like cattle they are exposed to any potential attacks.
Watching them walk down the slope we get a sickening feeling, despite the detailed and comprehensive previous explanation of our kind volunteer guide, nothing prepared us for the reality of it.
The children laugh and shout and chatter as they approach us followed by a cloud of dust the huge jeep driving behind them is stirring up.
“Good morning”, “Sabah al kheer”, “Marhaba”, “What’s your name?” “How are you?” Big smiles and lots of little hands greet us – again we are baffled, Palestinian children should all be teaching in schools world-wide because we need it.
We walk them to At-Tuwani, the military jeep keeps driving, the Italian volunteer takes the usual information: how many soldiers, number of the car’s plate…. We watch the jeep disappear around the corner.
We return to our accommodation and continue on to our usual morning exercises, we have our daily check-in circle and those who joined to pick up the children before, share their feelings.
After a brief session on future solidarity co-operation, support, fundraising and ways of keeping connected we start our official program – we visit the local school’s festival.
And boy is it a party! Palestinian flags sore in the air and exude a feeling of victory as they dance with a backdrop of clear blue sky and sunshine to a soundtrack of children singing and laughing. Some kids volunteer as ushers and we recognize some of the kids we picked up this morning.
There are passionate talks interjected by performances of students – from playing instruments to singing and dancing Dabke it again becomes clear how proud and rooted the Palestinian culture is.
Dabke is much more than a dance, it is a powerful expression of resistance, of pride of being rooted to faith and land… it makes your heart burst with passion just watching a performance. Really, it makes you want to learn the steps and join!
Our lunch is a cornucopia like buffet of traditional food and desserts, young girls in traditional clothing serve everyone.
After this buffet – be jealous, be very jealous! – we need a break before today’s community work.
In the afternoon we split into two groups, one is to rebuild a shelter for children whilst they gather to wait for their escort by volunteers and military. The second group accompanies the local shepherds with their flocks so they can have their animals graze in the luscious deep green grass that grows very close to the illegal settlement.
Colonist settlers instantly call security and we see a white car circle the settlement closely to the double row of mesh, barbwire and electric fence. After this morning’s events those who joined are still baffled by the sheer possibility of things happening here.
We sit with the shepherds keeping a watchful eye towards the outpost, but we are so many that nothing further happens aside from suspicious security approaches.
Shepherding the shepherds, rebuilding a shelter that has previously been destroyed by settlers and army over and over again – this is a very different reality to the one we are used to in our “safe” lives we will soon return to, whilst the locals will keep up the fight for their rights.
Lest we forget.
The night we arrived to At-Tuwani, we needed lots of blankets, mattresses, pillows and covers – and we witness something that is just so very typically Palestinian. People are bustling and rushing throughout the entire village – before we know it there is a pile of all we need. “They are all clean!” a woman shouts from a balcony of a nearby house. Only when we tell them that we have enough now, does the rushing stop. Surely they have given us everything they have and are happy to sleep less comfortable to make us welcome and keep us warm through the night.
Back to yesterday – in the evening we are in for a very, very special treat. After dinner we all gather in the by now familiar school yard, all decoration, chairs and sun covers from today’s celebrations have evaporated.
Together with some members of the local community we listen to Munther Al-Raee who performs a repertory of beautiful, sometimes haunting but mostly up beat and rhythmical Palestinian songs.
The performance is the perfect way to end another wonderful day in At-Tuwani, locals and our group deeply enjoy the music and for about an hour we are what we are supposed to be – one global community. The crowd mingles and some families invite member of our group to stay with them in their homes for the night.
Children run around playing catching each other, there is lots of giggling and the soft mumble of many conversations being held once the concert has finished.
Some of the local men dance and sing some more, the sound is addictive and we could just stay like this for the entire night, it is such a magical atmosphere.
We all go to sleep exhausted but happy and we cannot wait for what small and big miracles tomorrow will bring.
This is Palestine.