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All Along the Watchtower

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A busy day in Bethlehem




I was walking along the Hebron Road into Bethlehem under the hot sun, taking the occasional picture, mainly of architecture, and I heard hollering behind me. Two guys were chasing me! You can always tell PA men – they have a clean-shaven, tight, smart, short-haired look. They hauled me into the Security Ministry compound, which I had just unwittingly passed, and into what clearly was the head honcho’s office.

Seven men surrounded me, stern but decent, on alert. Another two outside the door pointed sub-machine guns at me, though not too convincingly. Ah, I seem to be in a situation. The usual questions – name, country, where I’m staying, why I’m here – and they examined my passport closely. Then came questions about what I had been doing out there in the street. Actually I had been photographing a lovely arch at the entrance to a mosque.

But before we go further, let me explain the background to their anxiety. The security guys in the PA are important not only because the PA was born out of a fighting organisation, the PLO, but also because, in the peace process of the 1990s, security, law and order were seen as key elements in Palestinian state-building, and there was a lot of money pumped into it from abroad. So they are accountable not just to the PA but also to foreigners.

A key requirement in the 1990s Oslo Accords was that the PA should gain control of wayward terrorist elements, particularly to stop suicide attacks on Israelis. This went slowly because it was difficult. Palestinian fighters were an independent lot, uninterested in being controlled by a single command since this could then be shut down or undermined by the Israelis. The PA also needed to gain the consent and acquiescence of the Palestinian people, who had a tactical aversion to centralising the resistance.

It was a touchy matter. Yasser Arafat, leading the PA at the time, had himself been a dedicated fighter who refused to accept foreign powers leaning on him and spouting catchphrases like ‘the rule of law’, a notion which they applied differently to themselves than to the freedom fighters they frequently called terrorists. In the Middle East one quickly discovers that Israel and the West are far more violent and destructive than Muslims, and that Western harping about peace is thoroughly hypocritical since much of the conflict in the Muslim world has both its roots and its arms sources in the West.

In the late 1990s the Israelis made a big fuss about Palestinian tardiness in dealing with ‘terrorists’, thereby conveniently concealing their failure to fulfil their own side of the Oslo agreements, such as ending settlement building and easing their hypercontrol of Palestinians’ lives. Israel gained international sympathy thanks to the blanket disapproval of terrorism going on at the time. Also, until the 2006 war against Hezbollah, which devastated Lebanon, the Israelis generally hoovered up most of the available international sympathy by having better PR, lobbying and diplomatic leverage than others. The distinction between freedom fighters and terrorists was fuzzied in the late 1990s by a general suspicion of anyone Muslim perceived to be anti-Western.

After the second intifada starting in 2000 and following Arafat’s death in 2004, the PA was pressured into getting a grip on Palestinian fighters. The Americans and British gave training, equipment and arms to support these fighters’ incorporation under a central command and to build the necessary security structures to satisfy the Israelis. But the Israelis are rarely satisfied, often raising the bar to keep the heat off themselves and make the Palestinians look inadequate and uncooperative.

The PA gave respectable, well-paid security jobs to former fighters, to pacify them. Advised by the American General Dayton, they also imported exiled Palestinian security men who would have less emotional connection with people on the West Bank, having been born and raised abroad. As a result, Palestine now crawls with armed men in a variety of smart uniforms, busy taming Palestinians and keeping the peace. These men are forbidden from resisting the Israelis. Their wings are clipped, and they hate people knowing that.

Another big issue for the security men is informers and collaborators working for the Israelis and they clearly suspected that I might be some sort of spy. So I showed them the pictures in my camera and talked with my usual reassuring, relaxed, friendly tone. Most photos were of children and street scenes and the men seemed to decide that I was not only harmless but also rather an interesting chap and a solid Palestine friend. They quickly recognise whether or not you understand and support their people.

Their dilemma is genuine because Palestine is just two notches below a war footing and they do have a genuine problem with informants and spies. The Israelis offer decent rewards to hard-up Palestinians in return for useful information or tasks carried out. If you’re in trouble with them, one way to escape jail or death is to become an informer. This is how the IDF (Israel Defence Force) targets its missiles and assassinations: all they need is a Palestinian in place with a specially-fixed mobile phone, and a missile can be targeted accurately from an Apache helicopter. If twelve people are killed in the process, well, that’s collateral damage, ends justify means and these terrible terrorists must be destroyed at all costs. The Israeli secret service appeals to the despair of Palestinians in trouble, using bribery and reprieves to get very useful results. Palestinians hate the penetration that Mossad, Shin Bet and IDF achieve through informers.

The officer in charge of my questioning clearly didn’t want me getting too friendly with his men and quickly reasserted his authority. His solution was to put me back on the street – and fast. Good. Mission accomplished.

I set off again, eventually reaching Bab al-Zqaq (pronounced Babiskak), a crossroad where the Beit Jala road crosses the Hebron road. I headed uphill to a taxi-clogged junction they call Cinema then wandered down Al-Faraheih Street, which led through the Old Town toward Manger Square, catching shots of people in this busy shopping street.

Palestinian streets are wonderful for photography since people are full of character and expression, with a rich variety of dress, manner and type. There are plenty of conversations and human antics to home in on through a telephoto discreetly aimed from a distance. I placed myself in corners and doorways, waiting for good shots to appear in the street. But inevitably I was spotted by perceptive boys who wanted to examine my camera or get in front of the lens, waving arms and making faces – it’s a photographer’s occupational hazard here.

One thing I couldn’t photograph was smells. There is no rain in summer, so aromas build up in the dry heat – the fine fragrances of Arabic perfume, bundles of herbs sold by old ladies who transport them into town on the back of a donkey, the honking stench of rubbish cooking in metal skips in the afternoon heat, the smell of meat at the busy market halfway down Al-Faraheih Street. They all add an olfactory timbre to the already colourful Old Town environment, where shops spill out their wares onto the street, religiously taken out and back by the shopkeepers every day. Some Israelis see streets like these as the dangerous haunt of terrorists but, unlike Israeli streets, they are free of visible weaponry. Except perhaps for the claws of scraggy street cats.

I ended up sitting and talking with John, a Christian shop-owner, and his friends down near Manger Square. It started as a good conversation but steadily got stuck in a circuit of despond as they talked about conditions in Bethlehem. There’s a mental loop where hardship justifies despair and despair tends not to help facing hardship. I butted in to mention my father, at the time 92 years old, who, around 1940, had lived in a time in Britain when many believed that ‘the only good German is a dead German’. Yet, by the 1980s he happily drove a Volkswagen and drank German wines. My point was that things change.

I mentioned how Europe started becoming a union of nations just seven years after WW2, and how the EU was founded out of a profound resolve to avoid further war in Europe. Someday, something like this will happen in Palestine too. Peace and mutual tolerance between Israelis and Palestinians currently looks like a pipedream but things will change. It’s just a matter of when and how. There was some nodding and brightening up over this. It made me aware that people can be so sunk in the drudgerous facts of their reality that gaining detached perspective becomes very difficult. Holidays and foreign travel, which might give some relief and broaden horizons, are not available options to most Palestinians.

The conversation moved on to the Middle East peace process, such as it was. It was agreed that it was futile – the possibility of success in negotiations had evaporated in the 1990s in these people’s view. The conversation stopped there, since my friends could see nothing positive to replace the peace process. Neither negotiation nor fighting had achieved results – so what next? One problem here is that people get stuck in a feeling that what’s been happening in recent decades is the only reality which can happen. Yet, globally, a bigger agenda and a new reality is dawning, and I raised this.

It concerns the relative fall of the West and the rise of the Rest (Palestine with it). The West has lost much of its purpose and direction, but the Rest have a clear agenda: things just have to get better. That’s a motivator, a driver of change. It’s causing the Rest to overtake the West.

It also concerns the multiple macro-scale crises that are nowadays escalating worldwide. Global issues are increasingly overriding local and national issues and, unless we act globally, we all suffer locally anyway. This will cause Palestine’s scenario to shift, since global challenges threaten Israelis, Palestinians and their neighbours together. There was some nodding at this. My friends knew about the global situation, but they didn’t really connect it with Palestine – global issues happen out there beyond the walls, in the wider world, not here.

Something quickened in the conversation. Selim, thus far silent, suddenly piped up. He had worked on oil rigs in the Gulf and he explained that, while the Gulf States were at the time peaceful and wealthy, he hadn’t been happy there because it was so materialistic and he missed his family and friends in Palestine. Hence he had come back. He said Europeans were lucky because we could move easily from country to country in the EU, but he had also been interested when I had said that the EU arose out of World War Two. Back in the Gulf, they had recently started the Gulf Cooperation Council, a common market of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and he reckoned this could grow to encompass other Arab states.

There was a pensive silence. Then John said, “That means that Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt would be part of it, and we’d be on our own, stuck with the Israelis”.

“Yes”, said Selim. “But if America has no more money to support Israel, Israel will be on its own. And the best thing for Palestine would be to join a union of Arabs. The two-state solution hasn’t worked because Israel and Palestine are not equal, but a union of Arabs would make us equal.” I could see brains whirring. This was interesting.

“That would never happen”, said John.

“But you are of my father’s generation, and you’ve always lived here in Beit Lahem”, said Selim. “I have friends in India, Germany, the Philippines and Iraq, and their numbers are in my mobile phone. It’s different now. Here’s my phone: do you want to speak to my friend in Mumbai? He’s a Christian like you.”

He had a point. Young Palestinians respect their elders but they also see them to be stuck, resigned, regretful and jaded. Meanwhile, the youngsters have global perspectives and social networks. To them, the future will not resemble the past – other possibilities are unfolding. There’s a kind of pragmatic vision behind this youthful perspective. The big variable here is the amount of time and hardship that is needed before a new society can take shape.

An Irish chap rolled up. He’d been here six months working for ICAHD, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. They document Israeli demolitions and land-grabs, pressuring their government to stop them. Unsung heroes, organisations like this are now under threat, regarded by Israeli right-wingers as a traitorous security risk. But ICAHD doesn’t side with the enemy so much as support Israel’s best longterm interests, as they see them – there is, after all, a strong streak of justice and fairness in Jewish tradition. ICAHD believes the occupation is against Israel’s best interests.

The Irishman was nervous because he was due to go to Tel Aviv to seek a visa extension to stay longer. Spending all your time in the West Bank is definitely taboo in the Israeli authorities’ eyes – you could be chucked out and blacklisted, blocked from ever returning. Working for an organisation like ICAHD is even more of a taboo.

The story he was going to spin was pretty good and he had corralled some Israelis into backing it up. His political roots lay in Northern Ireland at the time of its own 1990s peace process. This guy was determined to stay in Palestine and he had that sincere dedication (or uncompromising foolishness, depending on your perspective) that marks a true peace-warrior. We connected immediately and later I advised him that, if indeed he did get chucked out, he should not lose hope but go home, take stock, give it time and start again, never giving up. Peacework is a lifelong work. As a veteran, this dollop of wisdom I could legitimately share. I don’t know whether he remembered what I said: a few weeks later I discovered he had been thrown out.

I went along the road to see Adnan. He was a Bedouin, fortyish, with four children, living in a village outside town. I had decided to make him a website to help sell his goods abroad, and he would give me gifts to take home. A good exchange, I thought. After spending time with him I went to find something to eat – a falafel sandwich, local standard fare for a vegetarian like me. It’s a pitta bread with hummus stuffed inside, four or five falafels dropped in, then fine-chopped salad and a spicy relish, mine for six shekels, washed down with fresh carrot and orange juice for four. Wholesome fast food.

I wandered back to Cinema through the old Christian Quarter, which is quieter than much of Bethlehem since many of its residents have emigrated. After dropping into a supermarket for supplies – the shops here are quite well-stocked – I sat with relief, rather tired, in a service taxi bound for Al Khader. It was waiting for customers.

A woman in the back studiously watched me. People here are always fascinated to find a Westerner among them so you’re either asked questions or observed quietly. There’s no privacy here: you’re public property, attracting eyes, enquiries and generosity of heart. When first you arrive this can be a shock – anonymity and isolation hardly exist.

We headed along the Hebron road through Duha and Deheisheh. These urban areas have filled the gaps between the older towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Al Khader, joined together when Palestinian refugees swelled the local population in 1948 and 1967. I disembarked at The Gate, an archway monument at Al Khader crossroads, and started back to the school. It’s a wearing walk if you’re tired and carrying shopping, but manageable and cheaper than taking a taxi from town to the door. There are two walking routes from Khader Gate to the school and I took the shorter and harder one.

It goes through some tenement housing where kids play out in the street, shouting hello and demanding a personal response, as if a hello from a foreigner validated their existence. Then it goes past the modern, empty Convention Palace built in the 1990s when Europeans, investing in peace, shelled out vast sums for impressive building projects, many of which were later rendered redundant by the second intifada. After the uprising subsided around 2004, the building of the Israeli security wall isolated Bethlehem, shutting off the town as a destination for visitors attending conferences, events and pilgrimages. The Convention Palace, a lovely building, is thus hardly known and hardly used; awaiting better times, it plays host only to geckos and security guards.

Crossing the Irtas road you come to Solomon’s Pools, three enormous water cisterns originally fed by five springs to the north and built from Roman times onwards to provide water to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The name is derived from Suleiman the Magnificent, a great Ottoman sultan of the 1500s who invaded the region and built great works to glorify Allah and the Ottoman regime. The stone-lined open tanks, seven acres in area, can contain vast quantities of water but now they are bone dry. The water has been diverted by the Israelis to newbuilt settlements such as Efrat and Gilo. After a while you get used to outrages like this.

Around the pools are the remains of a park with pine trees, which Bethlehemites resort to for family picnics. Around Bethlehem there are few open spaces left, thanks to loss of land to the Israelis and to population growth in the Bethlehem conurbation. Then there’s a final heave up the hill on a rough, stony track leading up to Waad Rahal Road, which runs along the hilltop ridge on which the school sits. More kids hollering hello. Once at the school, there is a big gate to unlock, then there’s a door, then four flights of stairs up to the volunteers’ apartment. To give it a positive spin, it’s good exercise!

Once home, I had to sit down for a while, but only after I’d made a cup of tea, in sickeningly British fashion. I sank into a sofa with a wonderful view over the now-dusky valley. After I switched on the lights, I could sense binoculars trained on me from the Israeli watchtower. But that’s their problem – after all, an Anglo drinking tea doesn’t constitute a serious security risk.

The next task was to plan my work so the soldiers’ next half hour was spent observing me jotting in my notebook. Earlier that day I had brainstormed with Ibrahim, discussing the Hope Flowers website and other tasks. The site needed a complete change of look and content. I was to take new photos and the material was to become a web-resource in trauma-recovery and special needs education. This excited me. Palestine has a lot of experience in living with adversity, and sharing this globally will one day be important.

Hope Flowers knows its business. No theory, just seat-of-the-pants innovation and experimentation, prompted by sheer need, honed and tested through two dreadful intifadas and the consequences left behind. In Geneva two months earlier, while visiting a Jordanian friend who worked in the UN, I met an exiled Palestinian academic who told me that the school should send teachers to Oxford University, where she had done her doctorate, to learn peace-building. That was good of her, but no, I beg to differ – Oxford might do better sending people to Hope Flowers, to plug into its real-life experience in on-site peace-building.

Darkness pulled in. I was alone at the school, on the top floor in a spacious apartment built in the days when far more volunteers were expected than actually came. The building was one of those put up in the 1990s when things looked promising in Palestine. It was a little lonely here but that allowed me to get on with work undisturbed. The only sounds were the howling of feral dogs in the hills and the yelling of kids playing football outside in the darkness. Kids here don’t get sent to bed at eight o’clock – they disappear off around the neighbourhood and only stagger home when worn out and ready to drop – yet they’re remarkably safe in the streets all the same, and the community as a whole protects them.

I sat looking out of the large windows at the dusky vista. Over the valley on the opposite ridge was the watchtower and to the right of it was an outpost of the expanding Israeli settlement of Efrat. The separation wall had been built 350 metres away along the near side of the ridge – though bizarrely it was incomplete and thus useless as a barrier to terrorists. When first planned it was going to cut right across school property and the school cafeteria was to be demolished. The wall would stand humiliatingly close, right in the faces of the kids but the school activated international supporters who duly pressurised senators, MPs and newspapers who made a fuss and, luckily, the wall was relocated – saving quite a few neighbouring Palestinian houses and farms in the process.

Time for bed; Ibrahim was to come for me at nine the next day. Well, that’s nine o’clock Palestine Time, give or take an hour or so, inshallah. To you Israeli soldiers in the watchtower, watching over your walled-in Palestinian flock by night, do have a pleasantly peaceful night, won’t you? I’m watching you too, remember. Or is the madness of this schizoid country beginning to get to me?


NEXT: Palestine's Situation

© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at  www.palden.co.uk/pop

 
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