Walk for Water Justice in the Jordan Valley

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On 22 March 2013, World Water Day, the Freedom Bus joined with Jordan Valley Solidarity, E-Wash and Palestinians from across the West Bank, in a solidarity walk through communities in the Jordan Valley. Our aim was to raise awareness about unequal water allocation and the accompanying social and economic impact upon Palestinian communities living in the Jordan Valley.

Under terms negotiated in the Oslo Interim Agreement, Israelis are allocated four times more water from the shared West Bank mountain aquifer than Palestinians.

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In addition, the Israeli Civil Administration (which governs Area C communities, including the Jordan Valley) refuses to grant permits to Palestinian farmers for the construction of cisterns used for rainwater collection. Cisterns that are built without permits are frequently demolished by the Israeli authorities. The high cost of tankered water has also reduced the ability of communities to pay for essentials such as food, health care, and education for their children. Unequal allocation of water, together with illegal land confiscation and settlement expansion, has allowed the Israeli agricultural industry to develop and dominate in the Jordan Valley whilst driving Palestinian inhabitants to the very edge of a viable existence. For farmers and herders in particular, the pursuit of traditional livelihoods has become increasingly difficult.

The walk set off from the small hamlet of Mak-Hul and ended in Ras Al Akhmar. There was a constant military presence during our walk. Throughout the day we heard people talk about the disparity between the Palestinian communities and the Israeli settlers, who are monopolising all the water resources and agricultural potential of the land in the Jordan Valley.

We held a Playback theatre performance in El Haddidya, gathered on dust plain next to some wheat fields, with rolling hills in the background. But this landscape has another story. It is used by the Israeli Defence Forces as a military training area and it is not unommon to hear gunshots and military planes flying overhead. This community is directly next to Roi settlement, which is fully equppied with water, electricity and sewage facilities, whereas people El Haddidya live in tents and are unable to even build basic dwellings on their own land. Even tent structures here are in danger of being demolished. We heard stories from people in the community about the hardships of their life under military occupation in the valley.

At one point during the performance, a group of people appeared on the horizon and came walking over the hill towards us. It was a group from the communities in the South Hebron Hills, which is also in Area C and faces similar problems, who had travelled to show their solidarity with the people in the Jordan Valley. After the Playback performance, the community served a beautiful lunch for hundreds of people. They brought out armfuls of bread and pots of lentil soup.

Suddenly, in the middle of lunch a huge sandstorm started. It was a fierce storm, which turned the sky dark with clouds of dust. We decided to continue our walk, and descended into the valley, but the storm quickly intensified. We had to wrap our heads up in scarves and battle through strong wind and dust blowing into our faces.

As suddenly as it had begun, the storm stopped. We stopped next to a dry riverbed and in front of a yellow water tanker, Fidaa, a hakawati storyteller, told a traditional story about water, accompanied by Hassan and Rami from Toot ‘Ard. It was a reminder that there is a deeply rooted Palestinian cultural tradition that transcends the daily brutalities of the occupation, and gives strength to resistance here.

An event like this, where people come together to hear stories and see situations first hand, engages all of our senses. This means our understanding of the situation is not purely intellectual – we listen, taste, and feel a piece of the daily reality of life in the Jordan Valley, with all its hardship and struggle. This visceral experience stays with us, mobilising us, and informing our own activism and solidarity when we return to our own countries. When all the statistics, facts and figures are forgotten, we will remember the stories we heard here and the faces of the people we have met. These encounters will sustain us as we take the struggle beyond Palestine.

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March Freedom Ride: Day 2 and 3, Ein Hiluwe and Khirbit Samra

Driving to Ein Hiluwe took us past a large Israeli military base and through hills where we could see soldiers training. We watched as they climbed the slopes in formation, armed with heavy weaponry. Now and again we would hear the loud roar of military planes passing overhead.

Gathering in a tent in the small village Ein Hiluwe, we sat under kerosene lanterns and watched a performance from the Freedom Bus Playback troupe, joined by Zajaal poet, Abu Naji. We heard stories from the local community that highlighted some of the difficulties of living in the Jordan Valley, including unequal access to water and harassment from the Israeli military.

A man called Khadri told a story about trying to get water from a local well. There were settlers waiting for him when he got there. When his tank was half full, the settlers called the Israeli army. The soldiers came and poured away his water. He had to travel over six kilometres to another spring to get his water. He was furious. He said that he remembers a time when water was just a natural resource that anyone could take from the ground.

A shepherd called Nabil volunteered to tell a story. He was grazing sheep with a friend one day when Israeli soldiers approached them and told them they had five minutes to leave. When the soldiers returned five minutes later and Nabil and his friend were still there, one soldier tried to pull a gun. Nabil’s dogs jumped on the soldier. This made the solider so angry that they arrested Nabil and took him to an isolated area, where one of the soldiers pulled out a knife. Nabil was convinced he was going to die. When the Israeli captain came, the soldier threw the knife into the undergrowth to hide it. However, the commanding offer colluded with the other soldiers, saying that he had seen the shepherds throwing stones. The captain told Nabil that if he ever saw him again he would kill him.

In Khirbit Samra, another small village on the other side of the hillside, volunteers from the Freedom Bus helped to build a school for the local children from traditional mud bricks. Currently, the children of Khirbit Samra have to get up at 5.30am in order to travel to a school that is far away. Volunteers shared songs from their different countries while they worked. Hassan and Rami from the band Toot ‘Ard, and Fidaa, a hakwati (traditional storyteller) and other Freedom Bus riders, played music and told stories to the children of Khirbit Samra. There are over 50 children living in the village. That night, sitting under lanterns hung from the large central tree, we heard stories of the struggles their parents face while trying to raise them in such hard conditions. The Playback troupe was joined by musicians from Toot ‘Ard, and traditional Zajaal poet, Abu Naji.

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Mahyoub, a man from Khirbit Samra, shared a story of an event that happened two years ago. One day he was returning from shepherding and found the village full of Israeli military jeeps and bulldozers. He saw that they were in the process of demolishing his house. “I was afraid they were demolishing the house over the heads of my children,” he said, “I felt as though it was the end of the world.” The soldiers told him to shut up, and tried to prevent him from getting near his house. He stood in front of the bulldozer shouting, “Stop! Stop!” He was dragged away by a soldier and hit on the back of the head with the butt of a rifle. They took him to the hillside nearby and pointed a gun at head, telling him not to move. Luckily, his children were not physically hurt in the demolition, but his story emphasised the huge struggle parents in these traditional communities face while trying to give their children safe and happy childhoods.

A man called Abdullah shared a very painful story about his father. His father was very sick and had to be moved from a hospital in Jenin to one in Nablus. As they tried to pass through the nearby checkpoint, the soldier refused to let them through. Abdullah pleaded with him, asking, “What if this was your father and I was refusing to let you through?” But the solider just kept repeating that they could not pass. Abdullah had no choice. He had to carry his father on his back for 1.5km. At one point his father fell and injured his foot. “Perhaps it is better that I die here,” he said to Abdullah. “No,” Abdullah replied, “We must keep struggling. One day things will get better.” Abdullah’s father died, and he was not even allowed to bury him in his own land.

This story highlighted the way in which the occupation controls all parts of Palestinian life; from birth and childhood, to old age and death.

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March Freedom Ride: Day 1, Jenin.

The first day of the March Freedom Ride finds us in Jenin refugee camp, at The Freedom Theatre. In fits and starts small groups of internationals arrive in the shaded court of The Freedom Theatre, drinking Turkish coffee and getting to know each other. They have come the March Freedom Ride, bringing together Palestinian artists, activists and musicians in a ride in solidarity with communities in Area C.

Area C, created under the Oslo Accords, comprises 61% of land in the West Bank, and is under full Israeli civil and military control. The March Freedom Ride will visit two particularly volatile regions located in Area C; the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills. In these areas, local Palestinians suffer from unequal access to water resources, violence from settlers, and frequent – and sometimes violent – harassment from the Israeli army.

On our first night in Jenin, we gathered to watch a performance from the Playback acting troupe, who were joined by the reknowned Zajaal poet Abu Naji. Members of the audience were invited to share personal stories, which were then transformed into improvised theatre pieces by the actors.

We heard a story from a woman called Mariam about an experience she had as a child growing up in El Arub refugee camp. One day, she was going to buy sweets from the shop when she was stopped by Israeli soldiers. At that time it was illegal to display any kind of Palestinian flag. Mariam was wearing a small flag on her shirt. They soldiers began to question her and she was so afraid that she ran through the back of the shop and hid in her uncle’s house. However, the shopkeeper told the soldiers where she would be and they found her. They told her they would take her to prison in Ramle, inside Israel. She said that at first she was very afraid but, as time went on, she decided she would no longer be afraid, and that she would just not give a damn. Her flag was inside her heart. The unit of soldiers kept bothering her whenever they saw her on the street: “Where’s your flag now?” She hid from the soldiers until their unit was changed over and she no longer had to see them.

A young woman called Lianne, who had travelled from New York to join the ride, shared a story about her family and her own life. Her grandparents were Palestinian, born in Jerusalem and Haifa. They left after the Nakbeh of 1948 and went to Lebanon. Her parents were born in Lebanon, but after the war they too were forced to flee. They went to America, where Lianne was born. After 9/11, Lianne’s parents told her that she should never say that she was a Palestinian, and that she would never be able to go back to Palestine. It was not until she went to university, and met other Palestinians, that she was encouraged to visit. She described her joyful tears on arriving in Jerusalem and seeing the Damascus Gate, filled with the sounds and sights of Palestinian life.

It was a fantastic beginning to the March Freedom Ride.

Day Nine: September Freedom Ride ends in Beit Sahour

The final evening of the September Freedom Ride found us all gathered in the Old City of Beit Sahour to watch performances from DAM, Ministry of Dub-Key, Toot Ard, Palestine Street and the United Struggle Project. Against the background of beautiful, old Palestine houses, the sound of hip-hop and reggae echoed down narrow streets. The energy of the crowd was raucous and ecstatic. The subject of resistance was, however, never far form anyone’s mind.

The songs of these Palestinian musicians might detail some of the sufferings of daily life, but they also encourage steadfastness and resistance to the occupation. Indeed, as we have discovered throughout the ride, the very act of creating art in such a situation -whether in the form of music, film, photography, poetry or theatre – is a form of rebellion in itself.

Over and out Freedom Riders, see you next time!

Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Photo by: Anne Paq

Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Day Eight: Stand with At-Tuwani!

On the penultimate day of the September Freedom Ride, the Freedom Bus visited the small village of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. The village has a long history and archaeological investigation has uncovered evidence of Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman buildings in the village.

At-Tuwani is located in Area C, which means that it is subject to Israeli administration in all civilian matters. As a result, the villagers of At-Tuwani have had to defend their houses from demolition, as they are not included in Israel’s master plan for the region. They have also struggled to gain access to water, while the surrounding settlements are supplied by Israeli water system. The settlers themselves also frequently attack and harass villagers, shepherds and children on their way to school. The children and shepherds of At-Tuwani are accompanied by human rights volunteers from Operation Dove who act as observers and record acts of violence committed by settlers. Indeed, shortly before we visited, an Israeli activist accompanying Palestinians near At-Tuwani was blindfolded, mugged, beaten and threatened by three Israeli settlers outside the illegal outpost called “Avigail.”

 

The actors of the Freedom Bus performed outside with a back drop of ancient olive trees. The audience were asked to share their stories, with a focus on experiences with settlers.

A very old woman came forward to tell her story. One day she was in the fields with her sheep when she was attacked by settlers and beaten. She screamed and screamed. People from the village came and started shouting, chanting and protesting. The settlers called the Israeli police. They came and started to arrest her son. At this point she became very angry and started shouting at the police. She took off her slipper and hit a policeman in the face! This story elicited great cheers from the crowd.

A man came forward and told a story of an altercation with some settlers. He called the Israeli police to come and intervene. One policeman came. He stood near to the policeman so that we would be protected from the settlers, who fired shots in their direction. His mother was shot. They called for the ambulance but it did not come. He had to carry his mother to the hospital on the back of a donkey.

 

Finally, an older man, a shepherd, told a story about settlers. He had wheels made for his car that were decorated with the colours of the Palestinian flag. A settler came and stole one of the wheels from his car. The entire village and people from the surrounding areas went to protest outside the settlement to demand the return of the stolen wheel.. The protest was mainly made up of children, because it just so happened that the wheel was stolen at the same time that a summer camp for the local Palestinian children being held. The army sent more soldiers than there were children protesting to police the demonstration.

The soldiers told everyone to go home, promising that they would find the wheel and return it. The man (pictured above) said, “No! We will not go home until we get the wheel. And we will not go home until the settler who took the wheel returns it to us in person.” Eventually, the settler who had stolen the wheel came with his pick-up truck and gave the man a wheel. But it was different wheel, not the one with the Palestinian colours, but a new one that was better quality.

“This story has nothing to do with the wheel,” the man said, “The point is that we made the settlers concede to us. That is the victory.”

 

Images by Al Mayuk.

Day Seven: Stand with Hebron!

On day seven of the September Freedom Ride, we headed to Hebron, one of the biggest cities in the West Bank and historically a trading centre. These days, however, the central market places of Hebron are silent. The shops are closed and Palestinians are constantly threatened with attack by the extremely hard-line settlers that have taken up residence in the top stories of Palestinian homes. Around 90 Jewish families live in Hebron, protected by hundreds of  Israeli soldiers. As Der Spiegel puts it, “For the benefit of 800 Jews living in Hebron, a city of 170,000 people, Palestinian life in the city center has come to a standstill.”

The centre of the city has been divided into sections, some of which can only be used by settlers. Describing the situation, Ulrike Putz writes that, ” along Shuhada Street, once a main arterial through the Hebron market, all Palestinian shops are shuttered. The Israeli military ordered them closed due to security concerns. More than 1,800 Arab families lost their livelihoods as a result.”

The actors of the Freedom Bus performed in the Friendship Garden in the centre of the Old City. From the rooftop of an adjacent building we could see a heavily armed Israeli outpost surveying the city. We could also see the lights of settler houses. Many of the houses in the Old City have been vacated. “Welcome to the ghost town,” one little boy said to us.

A younger man called Akhmed came forward to share a story about his experiences demonstrating in Hebron. “On 25 February,” he began, “we held demonstrations to demand that Shuhada Street be opened. I came with a group from Bethlehem University to Hebron to join the activities  During the protest the soldiers shot tear gas at us. I have asthma and as I breathed in the gas I became sick and eventually became unconscious. In the hospital I needed thirty shots of Cortisone  Later we found out that the kind of gas they used is illegal under international law because it contains ingredients that attack the nerves. We only found this out from international journalists.”

An older woman called shared a story about harassment from the Israeli army.  One day the army raided her house. It was very sudden, with no reason or warning. They searched the house violently, claiming there were looking for weapons. While they were searching they discovered a back door that provided another exit for the house. The soldiers demanded that they seal the door to stop access. They claimed the door was a security threat because it was near the Abraham Mosque. She refused. She said, “Show me the piece of paper that says I have to seal this door!” The soldiers forced the entire family into the street.While they were outside the family made fun of the soldiers, asking them to get them lemonade and popcorn from the nearby cafe.

When they tried to arrest her twenty-year-old son, all the women made a little demonstration. They were shouting and made a circle around him so the soldiers could not reach him. In the end, they made it impossible for the soldiers and they gave up and did not arrest him.

She finished the story with a profound point; “It is important that we tell these stories so that the young people can learn from them. They must know that they do not have to surrender to the soldiers.”

Day Six: Stand with 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.