2015 Freedom Ride, Day #11: Jerusalem and Ramallah

The original plan was to spend the two last days of the Freedom Ride in Jerusalem. A symbolic and actual defiance of the enforced separation between Palestinians in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. However, realities on the ground came in the way.

Despite several attempts, the Palestinian members of the Freedom Bus were denied permits and thus could not cross the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. The international members of the Freedom Ride were put in a dilemma – should they continue or stay? In the end half the group stayed behind to plan a playback performance in central Ramallah and the other continued into East Jerusalem.

A partner of the Freedom Bus, Grassroots Jerusalem, hosted the group who crossed the barrier for a tour of the eastern part of the annexed Jerusalem. During the tour we saw how the wall and the settlements have confiscated Palestinian land, and how Palestinians are being marginalised in East Jerusalem under the Israeli apartheid regime (see UN OCHA or Stop the Wall for more facts on the separation barrier and East Jerusalem).

Later in the afternoon we walked to El Hakawati theatre (The Storytelling Theatre) located close to the old city of Jerusalem. El Hakawati is the home of Palestinian theatre. We heard the early history of Palestinian cultural resistance through theatre told by Amer Khalil, one of the founders of the theatre in the 1970’s and its current Artistic Director.

Inside the Hakawati theatre the reduced (due to some of its members still being in Ramallah) playback troupe was reinforced with a few brave volunteers, and performed a playback event. The audience shared several stories about the difficulties of having to separate from the Freedom Riders who were not granted permission to enter their own capital.

Meanwhile the group in Ramallah had organised a playback event that took place in parallell with the event in Jerusalem. They likewise performed stories of isolation and marginalisation and also solidarity between people from around the world with Palestine and how that inspires and gives hope. 

This day thus ended in two places, at the Hakawati theatre in Jerusalem and at the Al-Manara square in central Ramallah. It was decided that in the morning after, the last day of the Freedom Ride, the group in Jerusalem would travel back to Ramallah to carry out the evaluation with the rest of the group and hope for better luck with a third application for permits in order to join the closing event on Land Day in Jerusalem. 

El Hakawati

Photo: Fredrik Westerholm

El Hakawati

Playback Ramallah II Laura Book

Photo: Laura Book

To exist is to resist

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2015 Freedom Ride, Day #9: South Hebron Hills

Friday’s activities included informative and inspiring visits with representatives of shepherd communities that continue to survive after multiple demolitions, as well as observation and presence support with one of our Palestinian hosts during a confrontation with the Israeli occupation forces.

After our morning circle groups and a hearty breakfast in Atuwani, we walked a few hills over to the 158-person village of Al Mofaqara. Sipping tea in a large tent, we met and heard from Sausan Mahmoud Al Sen Hamade, a young woman who walks 2 hours on the way to and back from the university where she studies. Sausan’s family lives under the tent in a carved-out cave that housed her ancestors, with bare rock walls blackened by the fires they light inside the cave in the winter months. Sausan told us of a day in 2011 when the army came and demolished her house, which sat where the tent is now. She was arrested and imprisoned, but her family was not notified of her whereabouts. Sausan asked all of us to tell our governments, wherever we live, to put pressure on Israel to stop evicting people from their ancestral homes and destroying their way of life.

We returned to Atuwani for lunch, and then headed out on foot again for Um Elkheir, also a sheep herding community of about 130 people that abuts the fence of the colony whose settlers consistently harass children and adults in surrounding communities. The walk to Um Elkheir ends in a barbed wire barrier that has wounded their sheep. The barbed wire was erected to protect the settlement. In Um Elkheir we were greeted by an elder Bedouin shepherd, Sleman Al Hadelin. Sleman was so delighted to see us that he implored us to skip the community work we had promised to do and just sit and have tea with him. He told us of how the army came and demolished buildings here despite the fact that he has papers showing he owns the land. He reiterated with great pain how unfair this is, and pleaded with us to share his story. Freedom Riders eventually persuaded Sleman to let us do some work. It was brief but meaningful. One group moved stone rubble from a demolished house to the ground under what will be the foundation for a new caravan (mobile home), while a second group helped rebuild a stone wall nearby.

We retired for tea with Sleman but were quickly interrupted by the presence of Israeli soldiers nearby. Called to provide support, we marched behind and around Sleman as he led the soldiers on a walk around his land. Surrounded by internationals and hearing the spirited protest of Sleman, the soldiers retreated, and Sleman was lifted in triumph. He had already told us that the community would pay the price for our visit for the next three months. After some playback theatre, many of us reflected on the difficult dynamic we create for locals, although we knew that Sleman wanted us there and appeared to feel that today’s victory was worth tomorrow’s likely outcome, which is that the Army will return in the night and destroy everything.

If there is hope on a longer term basis, part of it comes from the presence of Operation Dove volunteers with whom we met in the evening. These human rights workers are from Italy, and do accompaniment on an everyday basis. The two volunteers who spoke to us are committed to doing this for 2-3 years, while other volunteers come for a month or two. I was in awe of their work, but even more of the courageous villagers whose lives we all want desperately to help protect.

Written by Todd Davies, 2015 Freedom Ride participant
Photos by Bridget Mullins, 2015 Freedom Ride participant

Sausan Atuwani

Samer oud

Playback Um Elkheir

Sleman Al Hadelin

2015 Freedom Ride Day #3: Bil’in

Late in the evening, the Freedom Bus arrived to Bil’in where a group of tired Freedom Riders spent the night. In the morning, the group got up early and enjoyed breakfast with Rani and his wife, volunteers for the Bil’in Friends of Freedom and Justice.

Close to 60% of Bil’in’s land, including some of its best agricultural land, has been annexed for Israeli settlements and the construction of the separation wall. Bil’in, much like Nabi Saleh, has continued to resist the confiscation of their land through weekly demonstrations that have now gone on for many years. And every Friday the Israeli army responds with both physical and psychological violence. Working side-by-side with activists from all over the world, the people of Bil’in managed to achieve the recognition of the Israel High Court, which at the end of a long legal battle ruled that the route of the wall near the village was illegal and must be changed. The struggle for justice is far from over though. As an example, one of the community leaders, Abdullah Abu Rahmah, is currently under indictment for what the prosecution has called the ‘ideological crime’ of organising protests.

Freedom street Bil'in

The first activity of the day was community work and the freedom riders split up in groups; some went painting, others did cleaning next to and the third group played with children. The painting group was lead by Hamza, a professional painter from Ramallah. The result was a colourful wall full of different figures.

After lunch there was a presentation by a representative of the Center for Freedom and Justice who talked about the history of Bil’in. He told about the continuous expansion of the illegal Israeli settlements and the resilience of the Bil’in residents towards the stealing of their lands which has been in their families for generations. The freedom riders walked to the wall to see the situation with their own eyes, not least the vast settlement just behind the wall. The whole area around the wall was full with barb wire and empty teargas canisters. The whole scenery was very surreal and hard to comprehend; the huge settlement with new, modern apartments standing on Bil’in property. The villagers are right there, on the other side, yet it is impossible to go there. Very close, but also very far away.

As an act of solidarity and resistance the freedom riders erected a large pole with the Palestinian flag on it. The pole with the flag on the hill overlooking the area where the settlers live; a nice symbol of resilience.

Freedom Riders 2015

Settlement

Bil'in barb wire

Freedom riders wave flag Bil'in

At the end of the afternoon it was time for the second Playback Theatre performance of this ride, hosted in Bil’in’s cultural centre. The sunt went down and this gave the performance a great background. The story which made the biggest impression was from Ahmed, who told about the daily struggle of living in Bil’in and the death of his brother killed by army soldiers. The performance of the actors moved him emotionally and because of that the audience was moved as well. This was definitely the most inspiring performance on the Freedom Ride so far.

Playback in Jordan Valley

Freedom Bus

Bil’in’s struggle is beautifully documented in the Academy Award nominated film Five Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat from Bil’in together with Guy Davidi, and in Bil’in Habibti by Israeli activist Shai Pollak.