Our first day on the road with an amazing group of people, spirits are high as we set off to our journey through the Jordan Valley.
We’re taking the scenic route and during one of our stops, on a breath taking backdrop, we are given a crash course in how to deal with the Israeli military, our rights, what they are not allowed to do, how to be direct without saying too much about where we are headed and why. After the previous drive one could be fooled into thinking that this will just be a 2 week drip through heaven – but this is the first moment reality bites.
Shortly after that we stop at Bzeeq where we sit outside to listen to the daily struggles of the local Bedouin family to stay on their land. They tell us how they sometimes have to vacate their homes in order for the Israeli army to conduct military exercises in the area. After enjoying some delicious hot tea the journey continues.
Our agenda is briefly interrupted for an impromptu “Happy Birthday” performance by everyone on the bus to honour Ben Rivers’ birthday.
Upon arrival in Yezra the local host shows us the sites where the Israeli Occupation Forces have demolished homes and structures, such as animal stables – done so with the animals inside. The local mosque was also destroyed.
We sit down on a hill and again, the panoramic views are breath taking – the checkpoint in the distance serves as a reminder of occupation, land and water theft.
Our host tells us how his brother was killed when I touched an explosive device the Israeli Occupation Forces had left behind after one of their infamous military exercises. Everyone in his family was shot or injured in some other way in the course of those repeated military exercises that are nothing more but Israel’s way of driving people off their land to then claim it for more illegal settlements. All the houses demolished had been built before 1967, meaning that the occupation forces had absolutely no right to destroy them.
Another story tells us of a woman who brought lunch for her husband – an Israeli soldier shot her on sight. When asked at court why he had done it, he said “I wanted to see if I can hit her at the distance.” Silence. “Was he punished?” someone asks. Our host stares into the distance and replies in a weary tone “You know, in these regions judge and jury are the same person… of course nothing happened to that soldier…”
After delicious lunch in a great setting we move on to the next exciting point of our agenda – we get to plant olive trees! The local family invites us to watch the baking of bread, taste delicious home-made cheese and see all of their home.
I meet an old lady with her grandson – she is hard of hearing and she tells me “A soldier fired off his gun next to my head, since then I cannot hear well. I have my grandson with me every day, all day. He warns me when there is shouting or shooting.”
We return to the bus to proceed to our next part of the program – a walk through fields past a ditch that the occupation forces have created to restrict movement for Palestinians even further. About 20 minutes away from Al-Hadedeye, which is our next stop, the army stops us. The military vehicle drives up, three soldiers get out holding machine guns. Our tour guides meet them whilst the rest of the group stays back. Some people take pictures and whilst that initially does not seem to be an issue we are soon told put away cameras.
Here we are, sunset, beautiful landscape – really, apart from these young men in uniform flashing high-tech weapons at us these scene had much potential.
We see our bus in the distance, close enough to clearly ready the company logo on its site – but we will not be able to reach it… despite best efforts to explain what we do and pleading to at least let us pass to our bus, we are made to wait. Surreal. This is Palestinian land, we are travellers from all around the world with valid visas for this country and here we are told to stand and wait at gunpoint.
It’s the usual game, a superior needs to be brought in. We wait and wait and finally another army vehicle turns up with what we assume must be the next high ranking officer. This time one of the soldiers had teargas.
Discussions go back and forth, about 45 minutes later we are told we cannot cross, because it is a military firing range…. We look at the illegal Israeli settlement in the distance, a Palestinian shepherd with his herd, our bus on a parking lot, greenhouses… what is left to say? We turn around and start to walk back, many heated discussions take place within the group, whilst some express their disbelief that this is possible, others are battered veterans of the game and share their experiences and expert views.
Ten minutes later our Jordan Valley tour guide receives a call – the military “have changed their mind”, an even higher ranking officer is to take the final decision. And so we wait.
Some still process recent events as the sun sets, eventually we decide to pass the time with a spontaneous Dabke dance lesson, courtesy to our Freedom Theatre tour managers Rock and Faisal, we even have the perfect traditional music on speaker!
Of course we do not get to pass and we are lucky that one member of our group happened to be on the bus meaning we were able to call and get a message to the driver to return to our drop-off point. As we reach the bus it is dark but everyone is in a great mood.
After a rich and delicious dinner in Tubas at the house of our Jordan Valley guide’s parents, we are heading to our final destination for the day – Fassayel.
There is singing, salsa dancing, drumming – the entertainment never stops on The Freedom Bus!
At 21:30 we arrive in Fassayel, accommodations are divided and after some more socializing, laughing and reminiscing on the day’s events everyone agrees that Day 1 of the freedom ride was a full success!