The end and the beginning

Mural II.jpg

Text and photo: Bryan MacCormack, with Left in Focus

The 2016 Freedom Bus has come to an end. Throughout the ride participants were armed with stories of love and resistance, each departing with a new responsibility to spread these truths abroad. The power carried by our experiences is immense, as attested to by Abu Ashraf who said “You all are more frightening to the settlers than an army tank.”

As we learned from those at The Freedom Theatre, regimes of Occupation and Apartheid must also occupy the minds of the people: those under and outside of their rule. By bearing witness and standing in solidarity with those in struggle, we are now better equipped to change the hearts and minds of our friends, families and societies at home. Through articles, film screenings, photo exhibitions, participation in Palestine solidarity committees, and organising in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, we are now more committed than ever to furthering our solidarities with Palestinians.

Day 11 – Not these olive trees, not this land

Written by Tim, Karina and Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus


Today Freedom Riders had a chance to show solidarity through the universal language of sport. At the sound of the school bell, excited students from Afula primary burst out of their classrooms and onto the paved sports court.

Under a hot West Bank sun, a volleyball game started between teachers and older students, showing great skill and enthusiasm. For the younger boys, a competitive game of soccer was greatly enjoyed.

After a quick break, and some acrobatic instructing in somersaulting and handstands from Ibraheem, an obstacle course race was run. The two teams were both eager to win, with much laughter and yelling of encouraging words. It was a close tie!

We were very thankful to be welcomed so warmly by everyone at Afula primary school; high-fives and wide smiles were in abundance. Visiting the students was a beautiful reminder of what we share across cultures—most importantly, a love of sport!


Playback Theatre

In one of the rooms of the school in Atuwani, Ben and Karin held a workshop on Playback Theatre. Eight participants from the Freedom Ride and four young men from the village took part. Warming up exercises and games found a lot of response!

Due to noisy construction work in the school, the second part took place outside in a shady part of the schoolyard. Two stories were told and enacted on the spot: A participant’s story about a surprising view of Mufaqqara’s livestock out of the bathroom window that morning. The second story was told by a young Palestinian from a nearby community, trying to escape from aggressive settlers and ending up fooling them. The 90 minutes of playing together brought joy and connection.

Olive Trees

At around ten in the morning, Freedom riders who’d chosen to stay back in Mufaqqara followed Abu Ashraf down a rock-strewn path into the valley, cutting through tobacco fields and as-yet unplanted furrows of orange soil until we came to a grove of young olive trees.

Armed with half a dozen pick-axes and our own bare hands, we spread out in pairs and small groups over the hillside grove to weed the little plot of soil that circled each tree. Before long, there was singing and laughing. Abu Ashraf demonstrated the technique, then reclined on a wide flat rock to watch us work, pausing to call out playful teasing judgments of those who worked too slowly, or forgot their work for long moments as the conversation with their work-partner became more engrossing than the rocks and nettles.

Later, we learned that this plot of land was cultivated specifically in response to a nearby settlements’ attempts to claim it. Under Israeli martial law, any piece of land that is left “untended” by Palestinians for three years or more is legal to confiscate. In practice, most Palestinians would be happy to work their land, but are pushed off of it by the aggressive intimidation tactics—killing livestock, physical assault—of Israeli settlers.

But not these olive trees, not this land. This land belongs to the people of Mufaqarra, just as the people of Mufaqarra belong to this land.

Day 10 – South Hebron Hills

Written by Mary and Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus

There are two communities that live side-by-side in the South Hebron Hills. One is Carmel, a gated Israeli settlement of 400 residents, with lush gardens and air conditioned homes.  Just beyond its barbed wire fencing is the small Bedouin town of Umm al Khair, populated by roughly 70 people living in tin huts and tents. They have no access to the electricity grid and no running water. All their attempts to build permanent dwellings have resulted in demolition by Israeli forces.

The Bedouins in Umm al Khair came here nearly 70 years ago when Israel expelled them from the Naqab desert. They bought the land bit by bit over 10 years from people who lived in the local town of Yatta. In the end, it cost them 100 camels—a high price for a small band of subsistence farmers.

They attracted little attention from the Israeli authorities until 1980 when the decision was made to build Carmel and the settlers began to look greedily on the Bedouin land. The means of grabbing it was to issue arbitrary military zone orders, under which the Bedouin structures suddenly became illegal—from their homes to their bread oven and, more recently, to the small toilets they built.

Some structures have been demolished two or three times and then rebuilt. Soldiers attack the goats and sheep and the shepherds who tend them. The Bedouins have papers to prove ownership but are forbidden permits to enable them to build new houses or maintain the old ones.

The Bedouins refuse to leave. Meliha Al’hathaleen, a 56 year old woman (pictured with one of her 17 grandchildren), says the Palestine Authority have been no help.

“They came once, took a picture and then left,” she said. “We have to be steadfast. The Palestine Authority build mansions in Ramallah, but we stay here to fight to keep our land.”

South Hebron Hills

A five minute drive from Umm al Khair, tucked in the rolling hills around Yatta, is Mufaqqara. It’s a small farming community—olive trees and tobacco, sheep and goats, donkeys, a few horses. Situated at the crest of hill, the village affords stunning views across the fertile valley farmland to the east, and, on a wooded bluff on the western horizon: another gated Israeli settlement, it’s white boxy buildings sitting in stark contrast to the smooth curves of the land.

Over the years, the people of Mufaqqara have endured a lot of abuse from these settlers.

“In 2007,” said Abu Ashraf, the eldest patriarch of the community, as he reclined on a rock with us looking out across his pastures. “Settlers poisoned the feed of my sheep.”

Abu Ashraf owned around 300 head of sheep at that time. He took a sample of the poisoned feed to be tested at Birzeit University. The result?

“They said the baby sheep can’t drink from their mother for four months,” Ashraf said. Because of the timing of the attack—early spring—many newborn sheep were lost, despite the village’s attempts to keep them alive by bottle-feeding them costly powdered milk.

Despite this, Abu Ashraf maintains a remarkable humor and sense of resolve about the situation. Before long, he has everyone laughing as he relates a story of an arrest that took place on the hillside right before us. According to Ashraf, the Israeli police arrested and detained a shepherd from Mufaqqara, ostensibly because he was grazing his sheep in a “closed military zone.” They told him, in custody, that he owed a 8000-shekel fee for this offense, and that he could either pay the fee or stay with them at the army base indefinitely.

“He began to argue with the police—asking for a lower and lower fee.” At last, when the police had agreed to lower it to 2000 shekels, the shepard looked stunned, hurt. Only two thousand shekels? he said. Surely Im worth more than that!

“They kept him over night,” Ashraf said. The next morning, when Israeli police arrived for their morning briefing and assignment of daily tasks, the arrested shepherd piped up.

Hey, what about me? He began to banter with the police, asking for an assignment. I can drive, why dont you let me be in charge of this or that raid?

In the end, the shepherd was released with no fine.

On its surface, the story’s pure fun, a tale of triumph through wit. What you can’t see, however, is that at the margins of this tale—underpinning and likely facilitating the Israeli army’s decision to release the shepherd—is a vast network of support that Abu Ashraf has intentionally built for himself and the others of Mufaqqara. He partners with a variety of human rights organizations—The Freedom Theatre among them—and is not afraid to call on their support and solidarity when the dignity and rights of his community are infringed upon by Israel.

While we sat on the hill, a silver pickup truck drove past us down a distant road, slowing down to gawk out their open window at the forty or so of us gathered on the hillside. A settler. Immediately, half the group stood, pointed their cameras at the vehicle, walked closer to the road. After a few moments, the truck drove away.

“You all are more frightening to the settlers than an army tank,” Abu Ashraf told us. “Your cameras, your writing. There is a dramatic change in their behavior towards us when you are here.”

I’ve never felt “watching” to be a particularly strong activity. However, in Playback Theatre performances—after a community member has shared a story—the person conducting the show will turn to the audience and say, khaleena enshuf. It means “let’s watch.” In both those moments of performance onstage and moments of witness like the one all the Riders collectively shared on the hillside in Mufaqqara, it has become clear to me that, in certain circumstances, watching is a powerful act.