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.