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.

Stories by Firelight – An Account from the Jordan Valley

From 26-27 February 2013, the Freedom Bus held a solidarity event in several Jordan Valley communities.  The following account is written by Jo Salas, co-founder of Playback Theatre, and a participant in the Jordan Valley Solidarity Stay.

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We are in the gentle hills of the Jordan Valley, under a starry sky, in a Bedouin village of several families on land that they have owned and grazed for centuries. The air is pungent with sheep dung. There is no electricity in the village—they are not permitted to have electricity, nor to build permanent structures—but along the ridge of the hills just a couple of hundred yards away marches a line of poles and wires carrying electricity to the nearby Jewish settlements and to the massive army base just down the road.

The Freedom Bus performers and their helpers are setting up a stage area. They’re going to do a Playback Theatre show under a spreading Doma tree hung with lanterns whose light is augmented by a blazing campfire on the side. The team is traveling with ten or so internationals on a three-day solidarity trip, visiting Bedouin, farmer, and herder communities, planting olive trees and making mud bricks, eating together, and doing Playback shows so that the villagers can tell their stories.

I’ve joined them just for this evening, driving from Jenin with Abu Naji, a famed Zajaal poet whose traditional form of improvised poetry and song will play a part in the performance. We drove through lush farmland and villages and into an exquisite valley of scattered olive trees and wildflowers. And then we see Israeli soldiers walking down the road, guns at the ready. A little further there is a checkpoint. Cars are stopped, engines off, people waiting in the warm breeze. The word is that they have closed the checkpoint because two boys in the last village threw stones at the soldiers, who are now hunting for them. In the car we are quiet but anxious. If we can’t get through this checkpoint it will take several hours to reach the village. We’ll be late for the performance. After twenty minutes the soldiers start letting cars through. They peer at us, suspicious, but let us go.

Abu Naji and Adnan in the front seat are on their cell phones, trying to find the village where we are heading. The instructions lead us onto a small side road, and then into a field. We follow a long stony track, driving very slowly. Up in the crook of the hills we find the village, and our friends.

A gaggle of excited children surround Fidaa, a storyteller from the Freedom Theatre who has been telling stories and playing with them since the team arrived earlier in the day. They chant together—the children know long verses by heart. They leave for school at 5:30 each morning, walking a long distance to the bus: the village is not permitted to build their own school. I sit on a bench that someone has dragged down to the Doma tree and after a while the children come and join me. One tiny child snuggles close and holds my hand, gazing up at me with solemn eyes. The others are shrieking, apparently convinced that if they raise their voices I’ll understand Arabic. We get as far as exchanging names and the number of siblings we each have. They have many—seven, eight, nine.

I talk with two men who are part of a solidarity organization in a nearby town. One of them, a lawyer, tells me that when he was seventeen, during the first intifada, he was imprisoned for 28 months for throwing a stone. “They counted us many times a day,” he says. “They would wake us up at two o’clock in the morning to count us.”

A few days ago I finished teaching a Playback Theatre workshop in which the Freedom Bus performers took part and we are happy to see each other again. I watch them preparing to perform, in the dark, in the dirt, in this rather chaotic atmosphere, and I marvel at their dedication and good humor. They are fueled by their passion for resistance and justice. As Palestinians they live every day with the humiliations and deprivations of the occupation. They are committed to reaching out to the people of this valley who are victimized perhaps the most of all—the poorest of the poor, invisible even to many other Palestinians, voiceless and powerless, but unshakably determined to stay on their land.

The performance begins. Abu Naji steps out and sings his welcome. I do not understand the words but his expansive gestures and full-throated voice invite us all to listen, to embrace this moment together. The conductor speaks to the audience, this odd assembly of villagers and their children, local Palestinian activists, dreadlocked young Europeans and Americans, the Freedom Bus team, and a few other visitors like myself. A man from the village expresses bemusement when Dabdoub, the conductor, asks everyone how they are doing. “It’s very strange that you’re here, with us who have nothing.” The actors play back his comment, and he laughs—“That was strange!”

Several others speak up, and then Dabdoub invites someone to come to the teller’s chair on the stage area to speak at more length about something from their lives. A middle-aged man accepts the invitation.  The soldiers came to demolish his house. He pleaded with them to let him take out some of his belongings first. They refused, and destroyed his house, and beat him, and arrested him.

The musician plays his oud and the actors enact the story. Hassan, playing the teller, picks up a handful of dirt and lets it sift through his fingers. The man watches, absorbed, and nods when it is over. A woman comes next. She talks about living in a firing zone. The children are in danger but the soldiers don’t care, she says. We hear later that people from other villages are afraid to come to this one, because of the frequent shooting. It has kept them away from the performance.

Abu Naji’s powerful voice interweaves with the action, the ornate contours of his music linking these stories of the present to centuries of music and story in this historic land.

The third story is told by a younger man. One day the soldiers accosted him out in the hills. They said that the land was a natural resource and sheep were not permitted there. He argued that the land belonged to him. His family had always grazed their sheep on it. The soldiers arrested him and took him away. They did not give him a chance to find someone to look after the sheep. Later when he was released he took his case to court. After a long struggle his right to graze sheep on his land was affirmed. But now, he said, the soldiers do not respect this decision. They still threaten and harass him.

The performance ends with Abu Naji’s voice once more. There is no resolution for these stories, no redemptive vision of change or hope. But there is the telling, and the listening. Someone stokes the fire and the conversations continue.

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