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

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.

General Press Release

Press Release
The Freedom Bus, Jenin Refugee Camp, Occupied Palestine.
For immediate release
For further information contact media@thefreedomtheatre.org or call +972 20 595 871 105

Against all odds, the Freedom Bus will embark on ground-breaking West Bank ride

From 23 Sept-1 Oct 2012, The Freedom Bus, an initiative of the Freedom Theatre, will embark on a historic and ground-breaking solidarity ride through the West Bank. This project comes amidst widespread social unrest in the West Bank.[1]

Inspired by the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights era in the USA, the Freedom Bus promotes cultural resistance, and will use concerts, university seminars, Playback theatre performances, community visits, hip hop, and giant puppet shows to give voice to life under occupation.[2] The Freedom Bus has been endorsed by well-known cultural and political figures like John Berger, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou,  Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky.[3]

The ride will embark despite challenges over the last year; including continual harassment from the Israeli army [4] following the assassination of the Freedom Theatre founder Juliano Mer Khamis in April 2011 [5] and the ongoing imprisonment of co-founder Zakaria Zubeidi,  without charge [6]. However, the Palestinian actors, activists, photographers, musicians and bloggers taking part in the Freedom Ride are determined to spread their unique brand of cultural activism throughout the West Bank.

Judith Butler, author, philosopher and supporter of the ride said, “The Freedom Bus ride represents the aspirations of the Palestinian people to be freed from an illegal occupation, to exercise rights of self-determination, and to demand justice after decades of oppression. The Freedom Bus ride represents as well the freedom of movement and a movement for freedom.”

Details and background info:

  • The Freedom Bus Ride: From 23 Sept-1 Oct  Palestinians and international allies  will take part in a 9-day solidarity ride through the West Bank. The ride will include concerts, community visits, university seminars and theatre performances about daily life under Israeli occupation.
  • The Freedom Bus: uses interactive theatre and cultural activism to bear witness, raise awareness and build alliances throughout occupied Palestine and beyond .
  • The Freedom Bus is coordinated by The Freedom Theatre: a Palestinian theatre and multi-media centre based in Jenin Refugee Camp. A range of other Palestinian community based organizations and associations are involved in  Freedom Bus initiative. [Website: http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/]

Notes to Editors:
[1] For reports on unrest in the West Bank, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18695632

[2] An itinerary of the tour is available at: http://www.freedombus.ps/freedom-bus-itinerary/

[3] A full list of endorsements can be found here: http://www.freedombus.ps/endorsements/

[4] See Human Rights Watch statement: http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/27/israelpalestinian-authority-theater-group-hit-both-sides

[5]News reports of Juliano Mer Khamis’s assassination can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/04/israeli-peace-activist-shot-dead

[6] Press releases about  Zakaria Zubeidi’s death strike and imprisonment can be found here: http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/news.php?id=279

Email: media@thefreedomtheatre.org
Facebook: www.facebook.com/thefreedombus
Website: www.freedombus.ps
Twitter: @FreedomBusPal