Note: for the benefit of readers hazy in the geopolitical department, a short history of the West Bank is included at the end of this post.
I don’t think you have to visit a country in order to have a valid opinion about it, but as a writer-activist, and a vocal advocate of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement since the 2009 Gaza Massacre, this year I felt the time had come to go to Palestine. Creatively, I wanted to experience the conditions of daily life there as research for my second novel, which is set in a colonialist post-apocalyptic, post-oil world. Politically and professionally, I hoped to forge stronger ties with local activists, and make what contribution I could to their political and cultural resistance. In particular, I was going to the West Bank to visit The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, and to take part in a panel discussion in Ramallah on the UK cultural boycott campaign. Both of these were powerful and productive experiences that, as expected, taught me a massive amount about Palestine. What I wasn’t expecting was to quite so hugely enjoy my visit to one of the world’s most troubled conflict zones.
Largely, this was a result of the marvellous hospitality extended by the Palestinians. Hanging out on a hilltop veranda my first night in Jenin, drinking beer with the Freedom Theatre staff and their crew of international guests, I felt a surge of electric connectivity that had nothing to do with the mobile phone towers blinking above us. Rather, I was plugged into the starry night sky, to soaring shared ideals, to the wild and winding creative path artists all follow in their own way – mine snaking from my teenage years of solving the world’s problems from faded brown sofas much like the one I was curled up in now. Whoah, I laughingly confided to an American drama professor, surely I didn’t come to the tormented West Bank to have fun? ‘Hey! Welcome to Occupied Palestine!’ he boomed, as Nabeel, the theatre’s Artistic Director brought out a hearty platter of steak, chicken and sausage bake – no fear of losing strength here! Nabeel’s wife Micaela, a Portuguese Lecoq-trained drama instructor, followed in slow-step, the candle she held beneath her chin casting ghoulish shadows across the deep pools of her face. Their mopsy-headed daughter toddled over to her uncle, who was crooning a romantic melody, the visiting Ukrainian-Palestinian Hip Hop instructor reminisced about Chicken Kiev, and giving thanks in Arabic, English and German we all tucked into the sauce-smothered feast.
Nabeel stepped into the role of Artistic Director after the theatre’s founder, the charismatic Juliano Mer-Khamis, was assassinated in April 2011 by a masked gunman whose motive and possible paymasters remain unknown. Juliano was a lion of a man and his violent death was a trauma felt around the world. The son of a Christian Arab and a Jewish mother, Arna, who had herself run a much-loved children’s Care and Learning centre in the camp, he was an often controversial figure: a vocal critic of both the Occupation and the Palestinian leadership, his commitment to women’s education also threatened conservative elements of Jenin society. But while he had enemies in many quarters, the IDF has only ever interrogated members of The Freedom Theatre about his murder, and has now closed the investigation. If anyone thought Juliano’s death would spell the end of the Freedom Theatre, however, they have lost their bet. The day after the shooting stunned and grieving staff members walked around the camp, holding signs saying the theatre was open, and over the last year it has gradually recovered its vitality and focus. Currently it is sending productions on tour to Europe, restarting the Creative Writing program I had come to teach on, and initiating the grassroots projects The Freedom Bus and Playback Theatre: the former a travelling participatory theatrical action set for September, the latter a form of therapeutic group work in which actors interpret the life stories of audience members including recently released prisoners. Creation Under Occupation is the Freedom Theatre’s motto, and it is buoyant despite the load.
As the days unfolded, I discovered that my hosts’ resilience, humour, and unstinting generosity was as much a part of the West Bank’s genius loci – the spirit of a place – as the patient beauty of its olive groves. Though on my walks I often hobbled through conversations with my phrasebook, despairing of my dream of supporting people I could barely communicate with, virtually everywhere I went in my short stay I was met with enthusiastic and reassuring warmth. In Jenin’s Old City I was invited for tea by a group of neighbours, the conversation led by a religious studies teacher who preached a philosophy of religious harmony between Muslim, Christian and Jew (When I struggled to convey my own spiritual beliefs without offending his devout sensibilities he interrupted me with the resounding but perfect fair comment ‘You don’t speak English very well!’) The family gave me a tour of their rambling concrete house, where the water came from plastic vats, not taps, and invited me to stay the night, but I was due back at the theatre guesthouse for dinner. On the way, I stopped to take photos of some graffiti, and was greeted eagerly in Arabic by two young men. I let them lead me into a small cave-like room, its walls plastered with medals and photos of preening musclemen, a low door to the left leading into an antechamber filled with gym equipment. Here I met a silver-haired strongman who had clearly made a life from giving his young charges something to aspire to. Again in Nablus, where a Palestinian feminist showed me around the old city, plying me with its famous sweets and joking about our lack of resistance, and in Haddad, where I was captivated by a folk museum built by blacksmiths, I was given penetrating glimpses of recreation under occupation: the everyday defiance of lives lived with pleasure and purpose.
I have since come to realise that just being there myself, a snap-happy tourist gaping out the window of a service taxi on the road to Jenin, was a small but significant act of resistance. For my trip has enabled me to challenge first-hand the still widely-held view of the West Bank as a dangerous region for travellers, a place where you might easily get shot or blown up. This, of course, is what Israel wants us to believe: that the Palestinians and their aspirations are a maximum security threat, and their imprisonment behind an Apartheid Wall is both entirely their own fault, and for the greater good of all. But while it is the IDF that murders and maims the rare solidarity activist and countless Palestinians – and I was acutely aware in my time in the refugee camp that soldiers or policemen could enter the Freedom Theatre on the slightest pretext – my experience shows that it is perfectly possible to tour the West Bank in a safe, fascinating and highly educational way. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is essential for internationals to come here and have a good time! For the West Bank is under a cultural siege, and by staying away out of fear, we collude with Israel’s efforts to isolate it from the rest of the world. As much as the Palestinians have a fundamental human right to freedom of movement, so too they have a right to have visitors. Some internationals, of course, will come to position themselves on the frontlines of struggle – to stand with villagers in their peaceful protests against the wall, or with the Bedouin against the demolition of their homes. But others may simply wish to learn more about one of the longest-running conflicts in the modern world, and their curiosity should be encouraged. No visitor to the West Bank could fail to come home both enriched by a close encounter with its warm, vibrant culture, and profoundly aware of the plight of the stateless Palestinians, imprisoned in their shrinking land.
I say all this, of course, being painfully aware that the freedom of movement I relish and prescribe is denied to Palestinians, whose lives are so cruelly restricted by Israel’s discriminatory and punitive bureaucracy. One young writer I met at the Freedom Theatre expressed her extreme frustration at being trapped in the West Bank, unable to pursue her education abroad, or even take a brief holiday. Twenty-three years old, living only fifty miles from the Mediterranean, she had never seen the sea. ‘We have no chance to change our mood,’ she told me, bitterly. I thought of how my previous two weeks in Kurdistan had so uplifted me, and saw in her glittering eyes how physical imprisonment breeds resentment and furious despair. ‘Do you ever get bored?’ she asked me as we waited at the bank for a teller. Yes, I told her, I do; but I try to give myself new challenges. I didn’t say that I also sometimes get clinically depressed, partly because travel has proved such an antidote to that phenomenon I barely reflected on it during my journey. It was impossible to tell her, who was so unjustly deprived of the opportunity to discover herself in the world, how much travel heals me.
But though in that moment I felt tongue-tied by my privilege, I believe that people fortunate enough to enjoy their basic liberties should not feel guilty but, as the Free Burma campaign exhorts, use our freedom to promote that of others. So now, having returned from my trip invigorated, moved and inspired, what I want to say to readers of this blog is: if you haven’t yet visited the West Bank – GO! To entice you I will finish with a taster of the treats and that await you. After only six days in Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah I couldn’t possibly pretend to list THE Seven Wonders of the territory, but here is a personal list.
1) The people
The number one reason to go to Palestine is to meet Palestinians – among the most unjustly maligned yet warmly welcoming people in the world. Many speak English and, as in all Arab countries, place a high value on hospitality and education. The Alternative Tourism Group offers tours and homestays that will help you to gain invaluable insight into Palestinian culture, history and daily life.
2) The Freedom Theatre
The theatre buildings are situated around a gracious courtyard just inside the refugee camp in the city of Jenin, a short walk from the service taxi station, and marked on the city map. Be sure to see the film Arna’s Children before you go, or to buy a DVD at the theatre. This documentary by Juliano Mer Khamis about his mother’s life and work also reports on the aftermath of the ‘Battle of Jenin’, the 2002 IDF invasion of the camp, in which homes were bulldozed with old and disabled people inside them, and several of Arna’s students fought and lost their lives. Their stories include that of a young man driven to become a suicide bomber after trying to rescue a child hit by a sniper’s bullet, only to have her die in his arms. It was the fate of these young men, whom he had known as children, that convinced Mer Khamis to return to the camp and start The Freedom Theatre. This first salvo in the cultural intifada provides the people of the camp, the town and surrounding villages with educational, cultural and therapeutic opportunities, and offers professional training in acting and directing. It is a miracle this place exists, and with your support it can continue to do so.
Check the schedule before you visit – as well as plays, the Freedom Bus and Playback events, the theatre can help arrange tours of the camp, including homestays. Who knows, you may even end up joining a Hip Hop dance workshop – spot the creaky old writer locking, popping and kicking!
Accommodation is provided for volunteers at the theatre (arrange in advance), and is also available at Cinema Jenin, a German-funded venue which has a 30 bed guesthouse (as well as an outdoor screen and beautiful tea garden), and Haddad Tourism Village, a child-friendly luxury hotel with swimming pool and fun fair, located on a hill just outside Jenin.
3) The hills
Go in the spring or autumn and hike amongst the olive trees, or just hang out of the taxi window and watch herons lazily flapping between the slopes. Read Palestinian Walks by Rajah Shehadah to learn more about the landscape of the West Bank, and how Israeli settlements threaten the basic pleasure of walking in its hills and valleys.
The West Bank’s largest city is built on a ring of mountainous hills, its white blocks of flats climbing the vertiginous slopes like steps to the sky. The narrow backstreets of the Old City in the valley are crammed with spice and sweet shops, where I defy you to resist rolls of nutty Turkish Delight, baby pink and blue sugar-coated chickpeas and the famous Nablusi knafeh, a warm pudding made of goats cheese and honey-drenched pastry.
You can also visit an 800 year old soap factory, rebuilt after being destroyed by the Israeli invasion of 2002. Memorial plaques to those killed in the battle are placed around The Square, which now features a conspicuous new house, built to replace one bombed without warning with nine people inside, including a pregnant woman. Supporters of Israel will tell you that the invasions of Jenin and Nablus were necessary to root out suicide bombers; take a moment to respect the memory of all those killed in the struggle against the occupation, and then wonder about what form of resistance you would choose if you were Palestinian and faced with such brutal double standards when it comes to taking human life.
5) The Dead Sea
Palestine’s intense, and you’ll probably want to just chill out on at least one day of your trip. It’s not just me who thinks so – here’s an official natural wonder of the world it would be a salty shame to miss. The West Bank end of the Dead Sea includes the city of Jericho and secluded beaches you will need your own transport to discover. As it was my last day, and my next stop the airport, my Palestinian host took us to a privately-owned beach on the Israeli side, where I could shower before we left. But on the way we passed the HQ of Israeli company Ahava, which illegally sources Dead Sea Salts from Palestinian territory, so I am going to retaliate by claiming my mud bath and float session as a West Bank experience!
6) When will it end?
As you pass the apartheid wall, the checkpoints, and the red roofs of the settlements, you will find it hard not to wonder why the world has permitted this apartheid system of segregation and ethnic cleansing to grow like a cancer in our midst, and how long it will take to dismantle Israel’s racist domination of the Holy Land.
And the reason I have no photos of the wall is explained in Wonder 7…
7) Will the refugees ever return? And will I?
The right of return to homes seized or abandoned in warfare is enshrined in international law, and yet after 64 years, while Israel welcomes Jews from all over the world, Palestinian refugee camps are still growing, and Palestinian homes continue to be demolished. Consider as you leave the West Bank what actions you might take to support the basic rights and freedoms of the Palestinians you have just met. Can you donate to political, social or cultural projects? Have you joined the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement yet?
And as you approach Ben Gurion airport or the Jordanian border, also wonder if you yourself will be ever be back in the West Bank. The border officials will question you closely about your visit, and if they discover you have been to Palestine they will stamp your passport ‘No Re-entry’ – that means to Israel too. So if you want to return, be sure not to pack any evidence of your visit – unwrap your Nablusi soap, upload your photos to Facebook, and post any literature back to yourself. Be warned though – mail can be tampered with as I discovered when my own parcel of incriminating evidence arrived minus the USB stick on which I had stored all my photos. I downloaded a Card Recovery programme, and was able to recover many shots I had deleted from my camera, but it is still a creepy feeling to think that my images and documents are now in hostile hands.
Nevertheless, I am determined to be open about my visit on this blog and wherever I go (apart from Ben Gurion!). I am doing nothing wrong or illegal in visiting Palestine or protesting on its behalf, but if I am ever prevented from returning, the sacrifice will be nothing compared to the on-going suffering of the Palestinians.
In 1948, when the UN carved up British Mandate Palestine to create the state of Israel, the land now called the West Bank (because it lies to the west of the Jordan River) and Gaza (located on the Mediterranean coast) were allocated to the Palestinians. In that colonialist blueprint, drawn up and implemented over the loud and long objections of the Arab world, the borders of the West Bank and Gaza touched corners. But during the Nakba (‘catastrophe’) of 1948, as Zionist forces violently displaced the Palestinians living in the areas so generously and unilaterally bestowed upon Israel, they also seized far more land than the UN had demarcated, and when the fighting subsided the two Palestinian territories were isolated from each other. Israel did not, however, completely win the day. Though the Arab armies who came to the Palestinians defence were largely disorganised and ineffectual, Trans-Jordan (now Jordan) won control of the West Bank. But during the Six Day War of 1967 Israeli forces expelled the Jordanians, and since then both the West Bank and Gaza have been under Israeli military occupation. Israel controls the borders to each territory and in the case of the West Bank, enforces a complicated zoning system that renders 40% of the land – including military areas, settlements, Jewish-only roads and ‘nature reserves’ – off-limits to Palestinians. A total of 78% of the territory is under Israel control and/or administration. The remaining 22% is under the ostensible control and administration of the Palestinian Authority, who in real terms have little to no power to change the basic terms of existence in the region.
Military occupation is not itself illegal, but Israel’s conduct as an occupying force violates the Geneva Conventions, while the length of its presence in Palestine betrays the Zionist state’s intention to seize as much of the land as it can. It is illegal for occupying powers to transfer their own population into an occupied territory; illegal to annex occupied territories; illegal to transfer prisoners from occupied territories to jails within the occupier’s land: yet since 1967 Israel has indulged in all of these activities with impunity. In Gaza, Israel has placed the entire territory under an siege the UN has condemned as the collective punishment of a civilian population. In the West Bank, Israel relentlessly pursues a strategy of land theft and ethnic cleansing: on hilltops and in the Jordan Valley the state builds and subsidises Jewish-only settlements, heavily arming the religious fundamentalist settlers and turning a blind eye as they rip up Palestinian olive groves. Israel has also erected the notorious Apartheid Wall, declared illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Human Justice because it runs deep within the ‘green line’ that still marks the boundaries of a future Palestinian state. Here, as throughout Palestine, Israel cynically uses its ‘security concerns’ to mask its ruthless expansionism and apartheid policies.
Armed resistance to this racist military conquest, though rarely lethal, is routinely presented in the Western media as the cause of Israeli aggression, rather than a response to it; non-violent protest is rarely reported, often condemned as ‘anti-Semitic’, and always brutally repressed. 40% of Palestinian males have been in prison, many of them children arrested for throwing stones, or protestors arrested for participating in village demonstrations. Often prisoners are held in administrative detention – jailed indefinitely without charge or trial by a state that proudly declares itself the only democracy in the Middle East. If released, prisoners face a freedom that bears no resemblance to the ordinary meaning of the term. Checkpoints manned by teenage soldiers make even short trips exercises in humiliation and frustration. Ambulances are frequently delayed, causing the deaths of patients including women in labour and their babies. Travel outside Gaza is nearly impossible, while residents of the West Bank are subject to a complicated and interminable visa process that is never guaranteed to permit entry even to ‘48’ or ‘inside’ as Palestinians refer to Israel. Men under the age of 35 are not allowed to visit Israel, even the holy sites of Jerusalem, while other Palestinians must apply for permits attesting to their ‘clean security’ records. Families are segregated: spouses from the Palestinian territories are not permitted to live in Israel with their partners. And though visiting the West Bank is not illegal for foreign passport holders – and simply a matter of hopping on a bus in East Jerusalem – Israeli border officials will forbid entry to Israel to any international traveller who declares an intention to do so.
And yet the world pays no attention, or actively blames the Palestinians for their own suffering. Israel’s stance of self-righteous victimhood is seldom contested by other governments: even when 1600 Palestinian prisoners went on hunger strike, our politicians remained silent. The situation often seems hopeless, yet everywhere people persevere in the collective spirit of sumud – steadfastness – determined not to accept the injustices meted out to them for decades, or to relinquish their claim on their basic human rights. And in recent years, the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign has grown into a powerful international grassroots movement that is increasingly calling Israel to account for its crimes against humanity.