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 #7: Jericho & Jerusalem Gate

Waking up in Jericho, our seventh day was supposed to be a day of rest and relaxation. Some of us planned to spend our time sightseeing in the city; others intended to catch up on e-mail or sleep. During our morning breakfast, however, we learned the urgent news that several Israeli soldiers were currently in the process of clearing a piece of land in Abu Dis near Jerusalem which protesters have renamed “Jerusalem Gate.” As a group, we decided that rather taking the entire day off, we would leave Jericho early to pay a visit to Jerusalem Gate.

We arrived at the site in the late afternoon to the sound of bulldozers. Next to a busy road, several Israeli soldiers were guarding the demolition in a fenced off area. A number of Palestinian demonstrators were also at the site, waving flags, shouting slogans, and spraying protest graffiti against the occupation. One of the activist leaders addressed the group and told us about the history of the area. The Israeli attempt to control this area constitutes an attempt to divide the West Bank in half, from north to south. Several times during his talk, Israeli soldiers interrupted him in Arabic, with demands about where we could and could not stand.

Leaving Jerusalem Gate, we went to Ezariyah, a nearby hilltop inhabited by a group of Palestinian Bedouins. They live in very harsh conditions, in shacks and tents with little or not access to electricity or running water, and the Israeli authorities have issued them multiple demolition orders. Ezariyah thus threatens to become the next Jerusalem Gate. From Ezariyah’s high vantage point, one can see the Israeli settlements that are gradually being constructed to the east and west in defiance of international law.

As it began to get dark, we boarded our bus to head south to Atuwani. On the way, we made a quick detour to the refugee camp of Al Aroub where Freedom Bus coordinator Habeeb invited us into his home for dinner and refreshments. We stayed longer than we had planned, talking to Habeeb’s family and enjoying a wonderful impromptu musical concert. Even though our day of rest turned out to be filled with many stories of ongoing oppression and dispossession, the warmth we experienced in Aroub gave all of us a wonderful moment of generous hospitality.

Written by Greg Burris, 2015 Freedom Ride participant
Photos by Bridget Mullins, 2015 Freedom Ride participant

Ezariyah

Jerusalem Gate

2015 Freedom Ride Day #5: Jordan Valley

This day, the Freedom Riders were joined by staff and students from The Freedom Theatre and it was a happy reunion with both colleagues and new friends made during the first two days of the Freedom Ride in Jenin.

The blog post below is written by Sama, 2015 Freedom Ride participant:

The Freedom Ride was mainly on foot today, and discovering the two layers of the Jordan Valley – what one sees and what one lives. The beauty of the countryside is breathtaking! The rolling hills are covered with fertile soils and give some delicious produce such as citrus and dates, and bloom flowers of all different colours. But this idyllic setting is destroyed by the ongoing military occupation that stops the local Palestinians from living their lives peacefully.

This was experienced throughout the whole day and it started off in Al Jiftlik. Located in the centre of the Jordan Valley, we stopped in a conglomeration of five communities to visit Mash3l from the women’s association. She listed for us the multitude of problems for people living in the area. There is a lack of paved roads, places for child recreation, training centres, communication networks, childcare, internal transportation, jobs, electricity and above all… water. The Israelis have declared the whole area a military zone, which consequently pushes the local inhabitants off of their land. So Mash3l and others started up this women’s centre in order to provide a space for them to learn, make, expose and sell their crafts made out of sheep wool and seeds from their crops.

The Jordan Valley makes up 20% of the West Bank, and it provides for 35% of the total produce distributed to Palestine. This agricultural success is associated with the area’s unique location below sea level, which is likened to a giant greenhouse where crops ripe early in the winter. However, the illegal occupation by Israeli settlers of what should be the breadbasket of the West Bank, means that only 5% of it is still under Palestinian control and the roads are severely controlled, making it difficult to trade or to access clinics, schools and water. The Hamra checkpoint is a good example of this oppression. Here, drivers are continuously checked by security officers as they try to drive through the main road. It 2005, it got nicknamed the Death Checkpoint due to the shooting and killing of five people. But this event wasn’t an exception. Unfortunately, each person we meet seems to have stories to share that are filled with sadness and injustice.

This was the case in Makhoul and Samrah, where locals told us about the third demolition of their house within a month, their stolen water that is diverted to the settlements, the blocked humanitarian assistance, the burning of native plants that feed their livestock or the destruction of schools. Here, “to live is to resist”, and this phrase is not said lightheartedly. By the simple act of waking up in the morning and going to bed at night in their own homes, most of the families in the Jordan Valley who have been living here for generations are resisting the occupation that is trying to push them out of their land. Here, it is clear that the historical process of Palestinian dispossession which the academic Ilan Pappe has called “ethnic cleansing” continues into the present.

The Freedom Bus project was not started as a way of doing touristic and artistic tours of the West Bank. And this is not why we joined either. It is helping us to understand more fully this occupation and to speak to Palestinians first hand. Our role as witnesses is to go home and share the reality on the ground, which is way too often distorted in mainstream media. We are not innocent and have to transform knowledge into action – action that has been called for by the locals themselves. They are asking for political support, which can be demanded and fought for back in our own countries. They are also asking for the support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which should be implemented on a personal level as well as in our schools, supermarkets, offices and nationally. As internationals we have a role and we can work in solidarity with the Palestinians to make a difference.

This was indeed re-iterated by Abu Saqeer, a strong resister of the occupation living in Al Hadedeye, a community 20 minutes further along on our walking route. Here we ate a delicious bulgur based lunch and then it was time for a bit of Playback Theatre. The Freedom Bus ensemble used improvisation to re-enact people’s stories and embodied fear, sadness, injustice, as well as happiness, excitement and hope. The troupe gave life to several stories of oppression told by local audience members. They also performed a reenactment of the murder of Eric Garner, the Black American who was choked to death last year by a white police officer. It was a wonderful performance!

We then went on for the last bit of our journey, where we encountered a bit of interaction with the Israeli army that was questioning our peaceful walk through the meadows and our interest in the stolen water and dividing trenches. Fortunately, they let us continue on our path after a few minutes, and we made our way back to Fasayel.

Amidst the injustices and difficulties imposed on the Palestinians on a daily schedule, there is so much beauty and human warmth that can be said about this region of the world, and that should be protected.

Walk in Jordan Valley

Playback Jordan Valley

Al Hadedeye Jordan Valley

Lunch in Al Hadedeye Walk to Al Hadedeye

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.

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.

‘To Exist is to Resist’: Seminar day in Jiflik


Hosted by Jordan Valley Solidarity, in the beautiful Friends’ Meeting House in Jiflik – the oldest building in the Jordan Valley – The Freedom Bus group heard talks from Mazin Qumsiyeh and Saed Abu-Hijleh about the history of Palestinian resistance, the nature of apartheid and personal experiences of living under occupation.

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Members of the Freedom Bus with Mazin Qumsiyeh

Mazin Qumsiyeh, Professor of Biology, Bethlehem and Birzeit University

Mazin opened his talk by questioning the idea of coming ‘in solidarity’ to Palestine. He argued that instead of thinking of ourselves as standing in ‘solidarity’ with the Palestinians, it would better to see ourselves as part of a global struggle, of which the Palestinian struggle for freedom is only one part. The same kind of people that are the cause of Palestinian suffering are the kind of people who are in positions of unjust power everywhere, he said. The problem in Palestine, Mazin argued, is not religious. It is to dowith money, resources, and greed. The Palestinian people are seen by the Israeli state as an obstacle in the way of resources.

Mazin is the author of Popular Resistance in Palestine, a book detailing Palestinian resistance against colonisation from 1881 to the present day. He talked about the first Palestinian uprising in 1881, which used petitions, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts and lobbying to demand an end to colonization and the creation of a secular, democratic state. Arguing that these demands have been consistently made by Palestinians since this first uprising, Mazin put Palestinian resistance in the historical context of anti-colonial movements across the globe.

There were further Palestinian uprisings in 1917, 1921, 1929 and 1936. The history of these moments of resistance is not well known. For example, the first demonstration to use automobiles was held in Jerusalem in 1929. It was organised by Palestinian women, who arranged to bring 120 cars from across the country into the Old City in Jerusalem, where they drove through the narrow streets, horns blazing.

Mazin’s history of non-violent resistance – known in Palestine as ‘popular resistance’ – was fascinating. There are many forms such resistance can take, from weekly demonstrations to boycotts and strikes. Perhaps the most fundamental form of popular resistance is simply to remain on the land, living and working, and refusing to be moved. This kind of resistance is key to Palestinian life in Area C, where homes and infrastructure are constantly being demolished, and traditional ways of life are becoming increasingly difficult. Mazin argued that in this way, every Palestinian living in Gaza or the West Bank is engaged in resistance every day, hence the famous slogan: ‘To Exist Is To Resist.’

During the question and answer session, Mazin outlined the best ways in which internationals can help the Palestinian struggle. Firstly, he said, self-educate. Read and learn, so that you can make arguments and have discussions about Palestine and its history. Secondly, use the skills that you have. “I don’t want to see someone with excellent media skills planting trees,” Mazin said, “If you have specialist skills, use them.” Thirdly, he emphasized that the most useful work is not necessarily in Palestine itself, but in our own countries. Support in the West is key for Israel, especially in the United States and England. It is here that political work must be done to undermine this support.

Saed Abu-Hijleh, Professor of Political Geography, An Najar University

Saed began his speech by talking about his own history. Born in 1966, his formative years were spent under the occupation. In 1976, when he was 10-years-old, six Palestinians were killed in the ’48 territories during Land Day demonstrations. There were protests in response all over the West Bank. Shortly afterwards, a 15-year-old girl who was in his sister’s class was shot by an Israeli soldier. Along with other school students, he joined the demonstrations in response.

In April 1982, when he was 16, an Israeli soldier entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and shot dead four Palestinians who were praying, injuring seven others. In response, there was a mini-uprising. On 27 April, Saed joined a demonstration in Nablus along with other students. An Israeli soldier machine-gunned him with explosive bullets. Saed was shot many times, and was lucky to survive. A few months later he was sent to Israeli jail. He was sent to Al Farah prison near Tubas, which was in fact a military camp used to hold activists from all over the West Bank. While in prison Saed was tortured, beaten and whipped with electrical wires. However, Al Farah prison brought activists from many different areas together, and they were able to forge links and learn from each other. This enabled them to organise nationally, rather than just locally.

In 2002, during the second intifada, Saed’s mother, Shaden, was helping those in the local community who were being affected. She was a school teacher, and a member of the Popular Committee, involved in supporting those who needed help with shelter, food etc. One day Israeli soldiers came to Saed’s family home and shot his mother dead. She died in his arms. You can watch a video of Saed talking more about his mother and her legacy here:

Saed’s descriptions of his life and experiences were extremely moving. Saed is also a poet and we were lucky enough to hear some of his poetry, which you can read here.