February 17, 2012
Fifty supporters of justice arrived at the occupied territories of Palestine on 4th February. They were all more or less prepared for ten days of an intense experience; exploring discrimination and separation, hatred and fear. Despite the diversity among the people, a common ground was established even before take-off: a desire to show solidarity with the people of Palestine and contribute to their struggle of existence.
The week's program consisted of four days of tree planting, four political guided tours to different towns in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, lectures and an optional evening program. The participants were optimistic and seemed to be aware of the situation of the Palestinian people. Although they were eager to contribute and gave the guides some tough questions, the situation could be difficult for anyone to comprehend. "The more you know, the more you understand that you don't know anything" one of the participants said. But this would not stop any of us from trying.
Bethlehem and the surrounding areas
The first day of the program included a trip to Bethlehem. We began with a morning walk to the Shepherds Fields in Beit Sahour, just outside the town. This is a historical place where, as the Biblical story goes, shepherds received the message from the angels about the birth of Jesus Christ. The area has the character of a park with underground caves that represent the origin of the people of Beit Sahour and their way of living.
The view from the Shepherds Fields holds a different significance today then it did in Biblical times. From this spot you can see the Settlement Gilo, located on the Palestinian side of the internationally recognised border between Israel and Palestine: Green Line: 1949. The Separation Wall divides the settlement from the Palestinian village, and the local guide explained the irony of Israeli politics: "Israel built a fence close to a Palestinian neighbourhood, and later gave a demolition order to Palestinian buildings which were located too close to the fence."
The group left Beit Sahour to have a closer look at the Separation Wall from Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The guide gave us an historical outline in order to explain the issue of refugees, as well as the intifadas which led to the construction of the wall, claimed to be a security defence initiative by the Israeli government. Facing the wall was a surreal experience for many of the participants despite their previous knowledge. Kathy from the UK said in a depressed way: "are the Palestinians just going to watch them continue to build the wall?" Our coming meetings with Palestinians were about to teach us something different.
Reasons for olive tree planting in occupied West Bank
The theme of the program is taken seriously by the organizers and participants. 1500 olive trees were brought to life in four different fields located south of Bethlehem ľ Al-Khader, Beit Umar, Beit Eskariya, and Jabber.
The main reason for the initiative is to contribute to the Palestinian farmer's struggle for cultivating their own land. Due to Israeli laws, Palestinian land is constantly confiscated by the Israeli government and army in order to expand settlements, continue the construction of the wall, establish military zones, or claim it as state land that belongs to Israel. These illegal processes according to international law, create huge difficulties for the farmers. Despite documents which prove the farmer's ownership, and several cases taken to Israeli courts, the land-grab is still ongoing. The presence of the international olive planters will send a message to the state of Israel, saying: This is not acceptable.
One of the farmers who invited us for planting was Abdul Hakim Salah. He owns the land, Wadi Ash in Al-Khader, surrounded by the Israeli settlement Neve Daniel and two other settlements. Salah grew up here, and the ruins of the house where the family lived for generations illustrate the attachment to this land. The Palestinian land owner pointed out the spot where he once fell as a five year old boy and broke his leg: he will never forget the memories from his childhood in Wadi Ash.
Even though the land requires a lot of work, profit is not what motivates Salah. The income from his cultivation is not enough to support his family, and nowadays Salah works in town as well as on the farm. His continuous and stubborn work in the field is an act of resistance against the Israeli occupation. Salah is steadfast "because there are no other alternatives".
Planting for peace
The Olive Tree Planters were enthusiastic about their work together with the Palestinian farmers, and worked in teams of two or three. After a short while, the obstacles due to the Israeli occupation were made visible by the appearance of Israeli soldiers. The soldiers required the farmer to give his land ownership documentation. The planters did not give the soldiers any attention but kept on with their work. Also Israeli settlers on Palestinian land were observed when the group were planting trees in the area of Beit Eskariya which is surrounded by Gosh Ezyon, an Israeli settlement. Luckily this didn't lead to any problems, and one participant, Martin from Holland was able to stay calm. He was ready with his weapon of defence: "our passports!"..."or the spade for digging if needed", he smiled.
The mood during planting was generally high, and three of the German participants even entertained the hard-working people with music. They had brought instruments from home and created a relaxed atmosphere with trumpets and drums. Martin from Holland came up with an idea for how to benefit from the wasted presence of the Israeli soldiers and suggested that we should charge them for the concert.
Overall, the weather was pretty good during those days on the field. The group survived one day of rain and wind but after a warm shower, Sindy from the US commented: "It was a really hard day, but I'm so glad for that. I like it because I felt tough!" The sunny days were definitely more efficient and Daphna from Holland said: "It was so much fun, and it feels good to do some physical work!" Richard from the UK who is retired added: "I'm not really a fitness freak, but still I'm functioning pretty well". Solidarity planting is certainly more than digging holes.
Visiting Palestine requires at least one full day in Jerusalem. The contested, potential capital of both states is the most visited city with 35 million tourists annually. The group were divided into two and were ready for an alternative tour to the heart of the Holy Land and the conflict.
The political aspect of the tour was an issue even before we set off. The fact that the Palestinian organizers, Baha and Yazan, are forbidden to enter Jerusalem according to Israeli law, illustrates how the occupation affects the everyday lives of the Palestinian people. Despite the short distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, many Palestinians haven't visited their capital for years.
The Israeli army controls the checkpoints that separate Jerusalem from the West Bank. One of the participants had forgotten her passport, but we took the chance and headed for the control anyhow. Despite the strict security system, the soldiers did not ask for our passports, and the bus with all its passengers entered freely. This was not the only paradox of the day: we were about to discover a far longer list of contradictions regarding Israeli regulations.
The group met with Ali Jiddah in the old city of East Jerusalem and he showed us the side of Jerusalem that few tourists see: Jerusalem underground. The settler occupation of flats located in the old city which belong to Palestinians was pointed out. The fact that injustice happens today and will continue to happen tomorrow was hard to deny in East Jerusalem.
The group enjoyed Jiddah's direct style and the Americans made notes: "our government is BULLS**T!" and Morgan, also from the US commented: "yeah, I've been thinking that for a while now, but I didn't expect anyone to say it!"
Frustration came to a head at the Jewish quarter near a stand where former soldiers were asking for donations for soldiers' care packages. Some of the participants confronted the Israelis by stating that we were on Palestinian land and which turned out to be a loud, public discussion. No harm was done but the talk did not really lead to an invitation for a cup of coffee.
Sindy was overloaded with information: "It's ludicrous! The evil strategy of humiliation and discrimination is so much worse than I expected". And this discrimination was about to become clearer when pointed out to us during the lecture with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD).
From farmers to students in Ramallah
For practical reasons, Palestine operates with an administrational capital in addition to the symbolic capital of East Jerusalem. This brought the participants to Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authorities are located.
The group arrived at Birzeit University and met with a student organization, Right-to-Education Campaign. They gave the group a guided tour around the campus where the students were busy with an ongoing demonstration due to the hunger strike of political prisoners. This was followed by a lecture with the prisoner's organization, Ad Dameer, who brought up the topic of democracy in modern history. Roxanne from the US was obviously paying attention: "is Israel distinguishing between democracy and freedom of speech?" she asked, and got an affirmative answer to her question.
To cheer ourselves up before leaving, the group went to Bili'n, a village near Ramallah where the locals arrange weekly demonstrations against the wall. The positive side of this visit relates to the fact that the Separation Wall, an electronic fence, was demolished and moved closer to the Israeli side of Green Line six months ago. "It was really good to see the results of protest" Ron said, he attended the demonstrations one year ago when the fence was still there. Despite this success, the demonstrations are still ongoing. The Palestinians are patient people.
What has been seen cannot be unseen
Discussion related to the return of the participants was a growing topic during the week. Questions were asked regarding "what to do when we go back home?" "How do we mobilize people who only care most of the time about reality TV despite their high level of education?" The participants have seen something that is unjust, and can't leave it unseen. But there is hope. Because injustice never rules forever.