25 August 2011

Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more

We left Arlozerov at 9am and waited for half an hour at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem before boarding the bullet-proof settler bus to Hebron. Having weaved its way through a number of settlements en route, the bus arrived, not at Hebron but rather Kiryat Arba (K4, as I like to call it). I used the gents in a convenience store there, then asked for directions to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. We headed off in the assigned direction having been strenuously advised that we needed to take a lift.

Out of the settlement, then left down the hill. Almost without noticing the environment had changed: the men at the garage were Arab, the children were Arab, even the donkey seemed Arab. From speaking Hebrew we switched to English, from our Hebrew names to English pseudonyms: Edi and Ian. I got confused on the way down and took a wrong turn – I’m more familiar with the other route. I asked directions from a young Palestinian man, who insisted on taking us (through the scenic route) all the way to the Tomb. Kids came to ask us for, “shekel, shekel”, and he told them to go away. We were into narrow alleyways now, like the Old City of Jerusalem, but calmer. Round another corner then the scene opened up and we were in front of the Tomb. There the man stopped. He, as a Palestinian, could not continue through the square in front of the Tomb. But we could, and would, to meet Stefan, my friend’s colleague and our host/contact for the day. We thanked our spontaneous guide and ventured towards the Tomb.

First thing was first: we stood with the CPTers at the check point between the suq (market) of the Old City and entrance to the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Muslim part of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Men went in. We introduced ourselves, chatted, met a hand-full of intrepid tourists. Men came out. All went smoothly.

Next part of the plan: we joined CPT for their tour of some of the central check-points, taking us a little to the south, to an area I’d not been to before. At one check-point a group of men stood, waiting in a small patch of shade. They were teachers from a nearby school with which CPT work. I’d visited that school a couple of years ago. They looked timid, one stood in white shirt and large black tie, with glasses – professorial but sheepish. They had been there for half an hour or so. They could only be held for twenty minutes without being arrested. Leyla, The permanent and local CPTer, who had lived for 26 years in Arsenal territory in North London, strode over to the teenaged soldiers who held the teachers’ green IDs (Israeli IDs are blue). She reminded them of the time. A minute later the teachers were released to continue with their day, and we too continued on our way.

All was fine at the other check-points. Back in the suq we were taken to buy a little falafel and drink, and some baqlawa (Arab sweets), a must to bring back for my missus. The narrow market, it was pointed out, is now covered with a netting to catch the detritus thrown from settlers living in the adjacent settlement a few meters up the hill. We sat in the market shop of a friend of the CPT folk, leaning to the side to eat and drink subtly. It’s Ramadan and we didn’t wish to upset anyone, but it’s not our fast and we were hungry and parched. The shop belonged to a women’s collective, the only such in the area. Women in villages in the South Hebron Hills made small bags and cushion covers, which were sold to the few tourists who came by in Hebron. I eventually relented and bought a gorgeous blue, white and back cover, which goes well with a similar red and black cover I got from my grandmother a few years ago.

We sat there and chatted, as much as we could to the shop-keeper, whose English was limited. Also to Canadian girl – Pakistani family, born in Saudi, brought up in Canada, intent on living in the West Bank – who had been with CPT. Time passed. We’d been parked there while CPT had a meeting with EAPPI, another Christian organization active in the Territories. Eventually we broke. I took Ian out of the Suq towards the Tomb. He was a little nervous, clutching his South African passport. I too had my UK passport ready. But we went straight though the check-point. White faces and western clothes/style go a long way. Then up in the tomb.

The inside of the Jewish part of the tomb looks more like a chaotic cathedral (think, Church of the Holy Sepulcher) than any synagogue I’ve ever been in. You enter, first into a room, then a corridor. Then there’s the main area: a few small rooms set around a not very large central space. In each services are condulted, in differing speeds and following different traditions. These rooms are each connected to old Sheikhs’ tombs with classic Arabic script emblazoned on the walls. Soldiers and police stand about. Settlers pray, guns rested against chairs. I wanted to show Ian around and pray a bit. But he wanted to get out of there ASAP.

Back in the Suq we me with the Internationals. Babysitting duties for the two Israelis were passed to the EAPPI and together we started up the hill towards Tel-Rumeida. On the walk we passed the old Jewish part of Hebron, which had existed until the massacre of 1929, now a settlement. A large colourful muriel told the story of Jewish Hebron: from ancient city to destruction, to massacre to return to, it seemed, the Messiah. We were approached by three American girls, wannabe settlers, dressed in the long colourful skirts popular among settler girls. They wanted to tell us not to listen to the CPTers and complained about how hard life was, how the Arabs can walk in their neighbourhoods, but they couldn’t safely walk in theirs. I said that I would chat to them about it if we meet on the beach in Tel-Aviv.

At Tel-Rumeida we went to the house run and lived in by Issa, a local activists. I’d first been there about five years ago when, with Rabbis for Human Rights and Sons of Abraham I’d helped in the massive task of clearing it so that, for once, an abandoned Palestinian house would be occupied (by agreement) by Palestinians, rather than by the settlers who’d driven the residents out. I’d also been there a couple of years ago for an abortive attempt to establish a new Israeli-Palestinian NGO.

Issa, charismatic as ever, spent some time chatting to us. One of his neighbours in the settlement is now Baruch Mazel, one of the leading lights of the settler extreme-right, known in Green Line Israel for organizing provocative marches of Jewish nationalists through Arab-Israeli towns. Issa talked about the slight conflict between his Jewish and Muslim neighbours. The irony was that one of those Muslim families had sheltered Jewish friends during the 1929 massacre, and are still in contact with the family. Issa’s house is now well fortified.

We leant on a wall, looking out on the magnificent view: the whole of the valley of ancient Hebron, with the rectangular block of the Tomb in the middle and K4 rising on the hill behind. Issa said that water was short, a cup here or there, needing to make sure that it lasts till the end of the month and the next delivery. A meter away in the settlers’ garden the new vineyard sucked water from pipes, laid out with holes in the time-honoured Israeli irrigation technique. Three or four meters away, one level above both us and the grapes, a young Ethiopian or Sudanese IDF soldier stood in his post at the corner of the settlers’ garden, keeping an eye on us. We chatted about Syria too. I mentioned how, on the massive protest march in Tel-Aviv I’d thought of them when being watched by police from the roof of a building. In Syria they’d have been snipers. Issa said that they were planning a demonstration that night in Hebron against the Assad regime. We spoke in Hebrew; the atmosphere was the calmest of the day. But time was short: I wanted to get back to Jerusalem to see my Mum before she flew back to England.

We went down the hill and sat at the bus stop, across the road from a small army base. Soldiers stood around. We waited. They waited. An enormous vehicle swept into the road. It drove at the soldiers, making them jump out of the way. It was a troop transport. A few moments later they stood in line, like a firing squad, couple of meters in front of us, facing us, almost eye-balls to eye-balls. An order was shoulder. They raised their guns. In one movement and one shout they checked their weapons: cha-chung! They turned and massed in to the belly of the vehicle. It moved off.

Soon after, we got onto our own bullet-proof transport and started our slow progress away, towards Jerusalem.

09 November 2008


Two Trips to the Masik

Last Friday

Having not yet been out for the masik, the olive harvest, I arranged to head out with the Rabbis last Friday. I took the train to Rosh Ha'ayin where I met up with Abu Rami and his bus, a gaggle of rabbinical students (American), and a smattering of other volunteers (English, American, and one Israeli). I'd been told by Rabbi Yehiel that recently they were alright for numbers what with a volunteer drive, the students of the conservative seminary in Jerusalem and the current upsurge in settler violence publicising the urgency of their work.

We drove more or less north. Our destination was land belonging to the village of Deir Al-Ghusun, near the Green Line, north-west of Tulkarem. The village lies to the east of the Separation Barrier, much of its land though is cut off on its west side, tucked in between the barrier and the Green Line. See this map for illustration. Our hosts had arranged with DCO that during the masik a gate in the barrier would be opened in the morning and closed in the evening, though how long this arrangement would last I know not. The imperative was therefore not fast work for fear of settlers, but fast work because there'd only be a limited period of access. That was one version of the story which I heard. The other was this: we met our hosts at a remarkable village. Every house was a villa, massive, lavish, ostentatious. I was told that these were Israeli Arabs who'd moved there and built a grand village because it was cheaper land. Put otherwise, settlers. Both stories I heard repeated a number of times. This village was between the Green Line and the barrier, with no issues of access.

We split into three groups. No settlers meant little pressure. The trees I worked were well kept, groomed and large. I climbed high into them and raked the branches with my fingers. At least as far as those trees went, this is a very good masik. As we picked I chatted to some of the Rabbinical students, talking about Judaism and Zionism, etc. One wanted to be a US Navy chaplain. I had a brief political conversation with the Palestinians which started with the words, "Barak Obama". We worked for four or five hours. I was given herbs to use in brewing tea, something to give the grandparents.

The time having come, we clambered onto the trolley behind a shiny tractor, the Jews in the trolley, the Arabs on the tractor. We got to where the others had been working and waited for Abu Rami. Finally, some coffee turned up! I got talking to the kids. They spoke no Hebrew and I practically no Arabic, so the conversation consisted of naming footballers or football clubs in England or Spain followed by the other's theatrically exaggerated response, either positive or negative. (One kid supported Real Madrid, another Barcelona, a third Manchester United. I'm Arsenal.) We played some football, first off throwing for headers, then me piggy in the middle between the three of them, charging at whoever had the ball. We played on the flat land of an olive terrace on the side of hill. The terraces might have been two, twenty, two-hundred or two-thousand years old. The point, however, is that whenever the ball went off the edge someone (twice me) had to go leaping after it. Time to go. Hasty goodbye. Quick walk to the bus, the kids shouting names of football clubs at me, me answering with the loud proud chant, "Ars-e-nal! Ars-e-nal! Ars-e-nal!"

On the train home I talked to another yank, this time about teaching.


Sunday (this morning)

I told Rabbi Yehiel last Friday to call me if they needed someone, (I'd felt unneeded given their glut of volunteers). Last night, as the Sabbath went out, I got that call. They were sending some experienced people, four if I would come, to Jit, next to the settlement of Havat Gilad where violence might be expected. The army and police had both been informed and given the go-ahead, but neither would be there to protect us.

7am. Back at
Rosh Ha'ayin train station, waiting for the others. The four of us were Israel, Dalya, another lady and myself. The other three pensioners and me, a student who needs to finish his thesis and get a job. We drove first to Jit where we met with Zakaria, one of the Rabbis' men and arranged to buy some olive oil later on. Then to the family. We walked out of the village and across a flat plateau, surrounded by a full panorama of lower land. The trees, not many of them, were on the far end of the plateau just where the land starts to curve into the slope. On the opposite hillside, far bellow, we could see most of the couple of dozen caravans of Havat Gilad. Israel took to the initial guard duty, keeping an eye to ready us if a car came in our direction. We picked in silence. The trees were mangled. Deadwood was everywhere, twigs all over the place. I raked my fingers through them, removing the olives.

Hours passed. I saw a column of smoke not far off and pointed it out. Only dust I was told – a momentary mini tornado, or some-such-thing. We'd almost finished. The olives were packed into large bags and we set about clearing the branches of deadwood which one of the older (partly toothless) gentlemen had cropped. A white jeep started moving slowly in our direction from Havat Gilad. I mentioned this loudly. There was little to do but wait. Then we saw two policemen striding across a field toward us. One was Guy, whose number we all had on our phones. He was tall, blond, broad. He said we hadn't received permission to be there. We said that we'd been told that we had, but that we were finished and on our way. He told us that we had to move. We said that we were finished and on our way. His sidekick kept quiet. Meanwhile the Palestinians were arranging the tractor to come for the olives. Two soldiers turned up. The officer asked what was going on. Guy told him. The officer said that on the map the area was signified as being permissible for Palestinian access. Guy disagreed. The officer persevered: the presence or absence of a particular star on the map was in question. The olives were loaded. I and the others bade Guy and his sidekick and the officer and his comrade shavu'ah tov (a good a week) and farewell. We were off.

In the centre of Jit Zakaria turned up and got us our oil. We sat with his young brother, with the portly head of the village and with his ninety-something-year-old farther. I chatter with the rotund local leader, who's Hebrew was good. We drank tea and eat brownies and another sweet, both brought by the Israeli ladies. Then off back to Rosh Ha'ayin and a lift to Tel-Aviv University where I had some irritating bureaucracy to deal with.

14 August 2008


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Westbankblogger has returned! For the first time in a while a trip into the West Bank has resulted in a more than mundane experience. And so, here's another instalment…

Another Hebron

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I was in Hebron. I went to visit a Californian history teacher I met a year ago, who comes for a month or so each summer to live and volunteer in the city. But as I came off the bus in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs he was leading a tour around the central trouble spots. So I walked across the green grassy courtyard, through the metal detectors and up the steps to the tomb. Inside I picked up a scull cap, followed the passage way and took a prayer book from a shelf. Then into the central opening of the Jewish part of the structure. I found a seat and opened my book. In front of me sat a large bearded man behind a lectern on which, reverentially, were placed the two volumes of The Jewish Idea by Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of Kach, a party banned in 1984 for racism. I ran through the morning service.

Emerging from the Tomb I went to wait on the grass. On the way out I chatted to some of the police stationed there, one of whom had a degree in "political science" which he said had done nothing for him. I talked on the phone and chatted with some soldiers. Then I got a call from John, the Californian. I was to wait on the steps of a settler shop/café, the 'Gutnik Centre'. This I did. I sat on the steps, watching a young grey tethered horse wrangle with its chains by a checkpoint just to my right. Ten minutes passed. I read some of 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. Another ten minutes. A religious lament started to pipe loudly out from speakers above my perch. Then I recognized the tune: nicked from Leonard Cohen's 'The Partisan'.

John appeared, still with the tour group. I went with them for a few minutes, harassed all the way by a settler in a jeep. The group left us. John and I went through a checkpoint. My passport was momentarily examined and I was allowed through. In the CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) flat I was introduced to those present, including another John, an old British soldier whom I'd also met a year ago.

Time passed. In the flat I found myself bored, almost taking hold of a laptop to read random miscellaneous Guardian pieces lamenting Gordon Brown. John hadn't the time to baby-sit me, and I wouldn’t go anywhere alone. Then the older John (80 years of age) asked if anyone would accompany him walking towards Kiryat Arba, to check on happenings there. I volunteered.

We passed the Tomb and walk up hill, up the wide tarmacked road which cuts straight through a string of abandoned houses. Then out into the open, the no-man's-land between Hebron and Kiryat Arba. In the middle of the wide space which separates the two we saw a tent. Soon we were confronted by about a dozen teenagers, 14-16. John said to keep walking, to ignore them. This I did. Some shouted. The girls read the back of John's shirt in Hebrew, laughed about how scary he was, how he repulsed them. John kept going. He was beyond me now, higher up the hill. My path was blocked. A stocky sixteen-year-old, large scull cap, short blond hair, long blond side-curls, short, wide, squared up to me. We lent on each other. We held one another. I said we just wanted to go over there (a few meters), then off to the right. He ordered me back. John kept going. I asked John whether to cross into Hebrew: an experiment, I wanted to see what'd happen. This he permitted. The experiment bore results. With my first words the kid flew into a rage, pushing me, screaming at me. "Calm yourself", I said to him, "khalas". (Khalas, ie. "enough" in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew). "Khalas?!", he shouted, "Khalas?!". For him, apparently, khalas was a word only in Arabic. He kept screaming, asking me what I was doing with the Christian and the Arabs. I told his friends to calm him. They looked on. I looked around for soldiers, but there were none around. His blue eyes bulged. I said I was from the Tel-Aviv University, that I was interested, that I had friends in Kiryat Arba, that I'd prayed that morning in the Tomb. "Go back to Tel-Aviv!", he screamed, "You hate us! You hate us! You hate us!" He head-butted me square in the mouth. I wiped my gob. Blood covered my hand. I placed it on his shoulder, on his white tzitzit which he wore over a green t-shirt. "A Jew doesn't hit a Jew!", I said, playing on the settlers' slogan from the Disengagement. "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you!", I said, (Hillel the Elder's maxim, three words in Hebrew). We disengaged. "You’ve got blood on your tzitzit" I shouted to him. "Your blood!", He retorted. "Exactly!", I said. By this point John was making his way back down past the mêlée. Finally, we withdrew.

We looped and zigzagged 'round the slopey streets, finally finding our way into the Old City without the need for another checkpoint and a second showing of my passport. Like in Hawara in the north, these checkpoints can be easily circumnavigated given will and time. John, the old soldier, explained this simply: soldiers need to be given something to do.

In the evening I went to the local café, the Freedom Coffee Shop, to sit with local Hebronites and Tariq, a Palestinian-American and Bethlehemite Christian who works for CPT. We were in the Old City, a place quiet but for the odd pair or small group of western tourists. We smoked nargillah and drank coffee. We talked. In the street a teenager, maybe eighteen ran, caught his younger brother by the collar and gave him a caffah (a slap round the head) which was massive. The hand thudded through the back of the boy's head. He cried and whimpered. Tariq gulped. Conversation paused, then continued. We talked about women, about the gorgeous Tel-Aviv women who wear very little in the summer, especially on the beach. I kept my identity well under wraps. Talk turned to politics. They hated Hamas, though it was strong in Hebron. I sat beneath a picture of Yasser Arafat, whom they called Abu Amar. One large, friendly guy I talked with a lot – I think he wanted to practice his English – produced two pendants, one with the Fatah symbol, the other with Arafat's face. He kissed the latter. On the telly Bruce Lee was beating someone up.

I slept under a large poster showing a world map, surrounded by the world's flags. I checked: Israel's wasn't there, though the Palestinian one was. In the middle of the night I was woken by the cold. I was kept awake by what sounded like hundreds of dogs, all barking at each other angrily.

At around 9:30 am I heard kids singing outside. I looked out of the window. On the street above a group of settler children were running by, singing/chanting, "eizeh nudnickim!" again and again. (Roughly translated, "What naggers!")

10am. A cockerel crowed. My girlfriend rang to complain about Avrum Burg's new book, the first hundred pages of which I'm making her read.

I helped John clean the second of their flats, prior to the arrival of a group of internationals down from Bethlehem. Then I got Jamie, a visiting Englishmen, to baby-sit me. He came with me to look for a present for my girlfriend. The self-styled master haggler took control, bartering over any object which I tapped twice. We did this in the shop of a friend of John's, a banterous man whose fluent English was infected with a strong Mancunian accent having spent the first four years of the eighties in Manchester. We wondered into town. The Old City and adjacent settlement used to be the heart of the city, the hub. Now the action's moved on. We emerged from the narrow old streets, dark and cool beneath high-hanging tarpaulin, into a sudden loud bustle. The streets opened up. They widened and filled until we were walking up what felt like Oxford Street, though with little traffic. Jamie led me to what in Britain would be a chippie or a greasy spoon. We got rice and he ate grilled chicken, the bones of which I cleaned. I ate kebab, dark strips of tasty meat. As we left a group of kids surrounded Jamie. Tall with wavy longish blond hair and blond beard he, apparently, looks the spitting image of a popular Turkish TV hero. They had their pictures taken with him. I took the last one so that they could all get in the frame. He was used to it – it's happened to him all over the West Bank. We went to buy Knapfeh (Arab sweets) for me to bring back to my girlfriends. 15 Shekels for half a kilo, a fraction of what it'd cost in Tel-Aviv. Good stuff too.

We went for a wonder, though I kept checking that he knew how to get back. I was feeling less nervous now. As long as I was British I felt fine. We went uphill and into residential streets. On the walls I saw words scrawled in Hebrew, "rimmon", "etrog", "duvdevan". There were arrows, sometimes numbers two. These were names of Israeli army units, seemingly soldiers telling one another where their positions were to avoid firing on each other. Once this was realized, the place felt different. There had been fighting there not so long ago. A kid ran up to me, "shekel!" he demanded, his hand outstretched. I shook my head. But he was more determinned – and cheekier – than other kids had been. He followed us, and kept asking. I checked my pocket: two half shekels and a ten agorot piece. I put these in his hand and he ran off. Within a moment his older brother was there, also ready to plead. I shouted to him to go and ask his brother for half and, with my pointing, he somehow got the message and left us alone.

Back in the Old City, I left my bag with a Jamie at the café and returned to the CPT flat to get the rest of my things. By the time I returned another nargillah/coffee session was well underway. Jamie and I talked a bit, toking in the fruity smoke. A car screeched. A BMW had halted suddenly at the caf's entrance. Smoke bellowed from the exhaust. The windows came down. A round-faced man in a large white Turkish scull-cap and with a big black moustache, its edges long, spiky, pointing to the sky, sat and glared at us. Abu Kamil; I was later told that Abu Kamil was his name. The BMW screeched again and, going backwards, it was gone. The conversation continued. We talked of Ramallah, which I visited a few years ago. I did an impersonation of that city's famous traffic cop who theatrically turns and swerves to control the traffic flow in the central square. The caf owner got out a DVD and put it on: that same policeman appeared on the screen, pirouetting and gesticulating, then being interviewed. Back to politics. Like all Palestinians I've spoken to they discounted or detested almost all politicians, though they still loved Abu Amar. They were sceptical of Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah leader, though placed him higher than the rest. There was a commotion in the street. The tourists and locals jumped out to see. Soldiers were detaining a 14-year-old boy. I sat tight. I talked to the French tourists to my right. Smug Parisians. They disliked Tel-Aviv and didn't intend to return to sovereign Israel on the other side of the Green Line. They hated the way Israelis in Tel-Aviv enjoy themselves while in Hebron there was an occupation. That was the point, I told them: the bubble. People go to live in Tel-Aviv to escape the situation. They'll have given three years of their lives to the army, plus taxes, all to support policies they didn't ask for and didn't vote for. I should have me mentioned Algiers. I didn't.

I gave Jamie the nod. We rose to leave and I bade all farewell, giving one guy my e-mail. We strode through the Ibrahimi Mosque (Tomb of the Patriarchs) checkpoint. We went through like we owned the place, as advised by the Johns of CPT. Then I walked with Jamie past the Tomb and up the hill to Kiryat Arba – he needed to use a cash machine. I showed the guard my Israeli ID and said that Jamie was a British friend. Having gotten the money, we tried to walk across the settlement. Jamie commented that the place resembled a condominium. I asked what condominium was, and was told that it meant a pleasant communal holiday-village, where people could hold second homes. We got a bit lost. I asked some Russian kids how to get to the road down to Hebron (where I 'd been with John the previous day). They said it was dangerous: there were Arabs around there. I said I'd been there, on a Friday/Shabbat. Yes, they said, but during the week there were no soldiers there. I told them that only Jamie would walk down and (being tall and blond) he didn't look Jewish, so it was OK. Neither did they. We got the directions. I left him on that road and made my way to the bus station, bound for Jerusalem. There was a bus at the station, its green frame puckered with a string of bullet-shaped indentations. It wasn't the right bus though. I'd have to wait.

The bus was packed. At the back sat a group of ultra-orthodox men, arguing in Russian. Of the many kids, only one was screaming. Stuck behind the frosted bullet-proof glass I opted for sleep. I awoke as we entered Jerusalem. A settler kid, large scull cap, large eyes and long blond side-curls, the son of a woman who droned at him in French, perched over the back of the seat in front of me. He stared at me. We exchanged silly faces. Then, the bus weaving through the Holy City, I exchanged some words with the man to my right, probably the only other secular person on the bus. He'd been down in Hebron for a few weeks, having gotten building work. Now he was back off home to the Golan Heights. I went straight back home to Tel-Aviv, the Big Bubble.

07 January 2008



Last Friday I went for a Shabbat arranged by a website, anywhereinisrael.com, which enables people to host others for religious Sabbaths. I went to Eli, South East of Ariel, South of Nablus (Shchem).

(Some names may have been changed)

At Jerusalem Central Bus Station on Friday afternoon I bought a slice of pizza. I noticed that all the busses to settlements are located at that far end of the line of bus docks. The guy at the pizza stall confirmed that this was so. I got on the bus for Eli and sat near the back. We snaked through the northern neighborhoods of Jerusalem, slipping imperceptibly past the Green Line. A girl sitting behind me named for me the areas as we passed them, hill by hill.

We drove for about forty minutes and arrived in the driving rain. I ducked beneath my umbrella and called my hosts. I had gotten off at the wrong stop. Within a few minutes Avi, the husband, had arrived in his old people carrier. I bundled my bags onto the back seat and jumped in.

At his home I met his wife, Adina, and eighteen-month-old son, Shlomi. I was parked in front of the box to watch a repeat of the Barcelona vs Real Madrid match - and also play with Shlomi - while preparations for Shabbat were being finished off.

Avi got on the phone and managed to get enough people to come 'round to his to do a service there, thus avoiding going to synagogue in the rain. So we duvenned (prayed) in his living room then, once all had left, had dinner. Out of the window the clouds gathered over the hills. On the opposing hilltop was a newer part of Eli, some houses being built. No Arab homes were visible.

Conversation was pleasant though uninspiring. It turned out that both Avi and Adina were on their second marriages. Normally her two sons and his two daughters would've been there too, but all were at their other parents' places in near-by settlements. He was originally a New Yorker, from Queens; she from New Jersey. But she had moved to Israel (Petakh Tiqwa) as a teenager while he had arrived more recently. We spoke in English. They had moved to Eli because he had had enough of the big city: he wanted the quiet rural life in a friendly religious community. This he had found. He worked in Jerusalem, a forty or fifty minute commute away, as a lens grinder; she (like me in a previous life) a nursery teacher. The belief that Eli and the lands which surround it are an intrinsic part of Israel went without saying as a prior and innate condition for their moving there.

In the morning we went to synagogue with Shlomi in tow. I prayed. Avi stood, prayer shawl on, book in hand, Shlomi held on his arm hovering above the pistol strapped to his waste. A few of the men had these pistols, and a couple also carried massive machine guns slung over their backs. Out of the window the hills stood, large and impressive. On top of some were Jewish homes. Bellow and to the left, on lower slopes there was a Palestinian town.

We had kiddush (snacks, drinks and blessings) at the home of a convivial Mancunian couple: herring, Israeli pickles and drinking-whisky. I asked one of the few Israeli-born Israelis present about the number of Anglophones in Eli. Almost everyone he said; good for his kids' learning English. Many of these inhabitants either don't or else hardy speak Hebrew.

On the walks between locations I chatted with Jay, a bearded, friendly, (American), friend of Avi's, also with pistol strapped reassuringly to waist. He was eager to tell me about Eli's history and politics. In synagogue for minha (the afternoon service) he had pointed out two of it's founders, standing at opposite ends of the room. One had led the council by diktat for years, using the seven-man council as a rubber-stamping committee. Elections dates had continuously been postponed by virtue of unanimity. The other had eventually broken off and formed a new party. Now they stood at impasse; the struggle continues.

Jay had come for ideological reasons, to use his phrase. As we walked he pointed out the hill tops and named them for me. I noted that in the direction we were looking we could only see Jews. In that direction (East), he said, you could draw a line around a piece of continuous land that would give a Jewish majority all the way down to the Jordan Valley. Turning a corner he pointed out the Arab town to the north. There's another to the South.

After lunch I tried to read and fell asleep in a chair. W
hen I awoke, I asked Avi about going for a walk. I wanted to get up the hill we could see out of his window. He had told me that it had been built to make sure that the Arabs didn't build there, on the highest hill around, overlooking Eli. Now he told me that I should be able to get there and back before ma'ariv (evening service). I took the long path spiraling to the right, around the south of the hill. The walk was steep and muddy. On the hilltops in front and behind were rows of red-roofed houses and white rectangular caravans. I kept going. Then, almost at the top the path turned and suddenly I was on a road back in Eli. I hadn't moved, hadn't climbed a hill, hadn't gone anywhere. Same houses, same lights, same people. Some of these now walked in the opposite direction. "Shabbat shalom" we said to one another as we passed by. Beyond the houses there were two rows of caravans. Beyond these there was what seemed to be a plateau. I walked along a road there and saw the metal frame of a watch tower around which the hill fell away on three sides. As I climbed it the wind suddenly hit me: cold and strong. I got to the top and looked a round: finally a full panorama. Looking north, Arab villages lay plastered to the slopes. Looking east and west: a chain of Jewish-settled hilltops as far as the eye could see. It seems that this had been the plan more than two decades ago when the project was begun in earnest: a chain of the tallest hilltops stretching west to east, first on one in every few hills then on those in between.

At some point in the afternoon Avi made the comment that most sticks in my mind: the attacks of 9/11 had been a good thing. Then he caught himself. He was a New Yorker and had always looked up at the Twin Towers as he walked in south Manhattan. Their absence still affected him when he visited. But 9/11 had woken America up to what the Arabs really were. I mentioned that Iraq doesn't seem to have gone so well for the US. This he brushed aside. The importance of that day was that it brought America on side.

After Havdala (ceremony for the end of the Sabbath) Avi tried to burn me a DVD of the first series of '24'. But that went too slowly and I had to leave for the free bus to Jerusalem. He walked me most of the way. I asked a question or two. People lived there, he said, because it was quiet, rural, communal, religious and near enough to Jerusalem or even Tel-Aviv to commute. That the area was Jewish by right went without saying. As did the fact that it ought therefore to be controlled by Israel. Its seems that the motivation of strengthening the Jewish presence there is explicit for some like Jay, implicit for others. No one there would want to abandon sovereignty of the area, even if offered identical homes and communities in the Galilee. Some of the newer bumper stickers and magazine covers there read 'yesha shelanu', 'our Judea and Samaria'.

I ran to get there for the bus, then joined the queue. I sat behind the driver. The bus was subsidized by the army he said, to prevent all these people trying to hitchhike back on a Saturday night. We snaked back to Jerusalem. I got to the German Colony in time to dump by bags at my grandparents' flat, brush my teeth and get out of the door to arrive on time at a friend's bachelor's party on the high street bellow.

22 October 2007

Olives Near Hawara

At half past six last Friday morning I left my flat and crossed Arlozerov Junction. Abu Rami's minibus was already there. I climbed on board and tried to go back to sleep. Forty-something minutes later one team, comprised on Yesh Din / Machsom Watch ladies was dropped off at land adjacent to the Gilad Farm outpost, west of Hawara, where there's been trouble recently. I went with four PHD students from the Weitzman Institute for Science. We continued through Hawara, turned left before the checkpoint and jumped off the bus on a road just by a large almond tree. We were where I'd been only two months ago, picking almonds. We walked up the hillside, the wadi and checkpoint bellow us to the right, then came across the family. We'd come from the Hawara side of checkpoint, they from Kfar Kallil on the Nablus side. The father, Jawal didn't know me, but quickly noticed that his nephews did.

We set to work picking olives. Last year was a good harvest, and so this year is not. I joined the boys up in the trees, balancing on bending braches, trying to get to what olives there were without falling. One of the teenage kids, Hamudi, revived the chant from last time of "yehudi balagan, yehudi sababa." Later he started banterously poking me and accusing me with, "yehudi balagan". Eventually I retorted with "aravi balagan, aravi sababa", which drew a sudden laugh from their grandmother who'd been quietly attacking the olives with a stick.

I stuffed the olives into my pockets before descending from a tree to relinquish them into a container. We stopped for breakfast and sat in a circle eating. One of the Weitzman scientists was Anna, a thin, blond English woman from Cornwall, down here for two weeks from Oxford University. Another was Jasmin, a pretty Italian brunette who'd come from Milan a year ago yet spoke fluent Hebrew. Neither had been to the territories before.

Jawal raised the issue of going to get water from the family's spring. The kids clambered around me, wanting to be picked to come. I asked Jawal to choose, anyone but Walid, who'd been irritating, laughing at me in Arabic. He picked Walid. As we walked down the path he was suddenly nice and suddenly understood Hebrew well too. The lack of an audience made him OK. As the road and the almond tree came into sight we saw first a head and then a car, parked behind the spring. We hung back, and waited. Five or ten minutes, then back. But we'd been seen, more cars turned up, more people came out of them. We headed back.

We had worked for over four hours when Rabbi Arik Asherman turned up with a UN man. He utterly ignored the Israelis and went straight to talk only to the Palestinians.

We looked down at the valley. People streamed out of the checkpoint. "Look," said one of the Palestinians to me, "they've been let out."

Our time was almost up. Jasmin, more religious than the rest of us, was beginning to get nervous that she wouldn't get home with enough time to prepare for the Sabbath. I took Walid and the bottles and headed once more towards the spring. Two of his brothers came too. The settlers were still there. This time with an army jeep alongside. I told the kids to stay there and started down the hill with the bottles. On the path I saw a soldier. He aimed his weapon towards me. "I'm Israeli!" I shouted, (in Hebrew). He lowered his weapon. I continued towards him. He raised his weapon. "Lower your gun, I'm an Israeli!" I shouted, (in Hebrew). He lowered it. I came closer to him. "I was just looking through the lens" he explained. "It's still unnerving," I said, and asked if it was alright to go to the spring. He didn't mind.

I got down to the road and asked the commander of the jeep, a fat man in a scull cap, if I could go to the spring. He tried to ignore me. Behind the jeep were half a dozen settlers, sitting around the spring, a small pool of water. I asked if I could take water. One tried to ignore me. Another asked why I was there. As I filled the bottles he and I got into a conversation about Jewish philosophy: he quoted Rashi, I Maimonedes. My phone rang. I was told to hurry up. Abu Rami's bus was there. As I rose to my feet, the settler who'd been ignoring me told me, "that's the pool, the spring's over there", pointing to another water source, "I tell you this because you're a Jew." I'd already drunk from the water and it'd tasted fine. With no time left I decided to deliver the water I had. I bid the settlers Shabbat Shalom and left them there.

On the road the three Palestinian kids were leaning against the front of the jeep, a soldier checking them one by one. The UN man and Arik were trying to figure out what was going on. The kids had been ordered down to the road by the soldier I'd met on the hillside. Once there they were detained. The army said there'd been shots fired in the area two days previously, and the area was off-limits. This was the first the Palestinian had heard of this; it was the first the UN man had heard of this; it was also the first that Rabbi Asherman had heard of this, even though he's in daily contact with the local DCO.

The upshot: they had come from the Nablus side, Area A, under full Palestinian control. They had passed along the hillside overlooking the checkpoint. They were now on the Hawara side, in Area B, under Israeli security control. In normal circumstances, such as two months ago when I was last there, there would be nothing to challenge them, (nor the donkey I also saw wondering the hillside on Friday). The final upshot: The Hawara Checkpoint has no security value in the prevention of terrorist attacks. On the stretch of road between Tapuach and Hawara Checkpoint I counted three flying checkpoints, each checking the same vehicles. Some checkpoints certainly do have some security value. All these don't.

It was agreed that the kids would be driven in the army jeep to the checkpoint and released on the other side. An experience, something to tell their friends about. Abu Rami's bus was now waiting. I couldn't shake any hands, so I waved goodbye, said Shabbat Shalom to the soldiers and asked the UN guy to make sure that the kids call Jawal to let him know what was going on. We all got onto the bus. There was no time to stop for falafel in Hawara. We had to get Jasmin back to Tel-Aviv with enough time to prepare for the Sabbath.

13 August 2007


Almonds Near Hawara

Last Friday, the 10th of August. We met at Arlozerov where Abu Rami's bus almost filled up. We drove on Route 5, then 505, past Ariel, left at Tapuach and along the valleys to Hawara. We passed through the town then took a sharp left at the check point, climbing up a steep road.

Suddenly Abu Rami stopped and we disembarked. We were three in our 20s, two in their 60s, and two in their 70s. Abu Rami pointed us up the hill towards the almond trees. One of the 70-something-year-olds set the pace, delighting in the brilliance of his walking stick. Then I was sent back to the road to pick up a group from the ISM (International Solidarity Movement). Then back up the hill. The daughter of the Palestinian family remembered me from a year or more ago when I came for their olive harvest. She was still the boss, even more stern than then, though still pleasant. Her many brothers shook our hands one by one, then we were off.

The pickings were poor. But we got what we could. Bit by bit we clambered down the hill, stripping the trees, trying not to loose anyone.

I talked to a Jewish-American woman from the ISM who was incredulous at my being a Zionist. She was aghast at my general support for the army and for its continued presence in the territories. I pointed out that even Abu Mazen, the Palestinian President, has said (in private) that his forces cannot currently take security control of Palestinian towns that Israeli forces might leave.

I talked with Muhammad, one of the brothers. He was called Hamudi by his sister. He was "Muhammad Hamudi", and I was "Udi Hamudi". ("Hamud" means cute). Those are the kinds of things you talk about when you have few words in common. One Hebrew word he kept repeating was balagan, a total mess. "Yehudim Balagan," he said, pointing towards the settlement. "Ana Yehudi", I said ("I'm a Jew"). "Yehudi balagan," I said, pointing at the settlement; then, "yehudi sababa", pointing at myself. (Sababa is Hebrew slang for good/cool). He grinned and repeated the gesture, pointing back to them, then to me, agreeing that they're balagan and I'm sababa.

We finally crossed the road and arrived at a massive tree, full of almonds. I climbed up to join some of the brothers. Up in tree I chatted more with Muhammad, who must be around 16. He hated all the Palestinian factions, and all their politicians. I climbed steadily higher, packing my pockets with almonds as I went.

Finally, pockets firmly packed I and we descended. I was handed some bread with za'atar and sat beneath the tree for the quick meal. One of the kids came to me and asked if we could go to the spring. He was already leading me off before I cottoned on. The freshwater spring is on their land but normally under settler control. I managed to stop him and, through one of the ISM women translating, told him that perhaps later on we could go there, when we had a better idea of the situation.

After a while we started back up the hill towards the road. Muhammad took me by the arm and walk with me. Then suddenly all the kids began to rush forward. Muhammad too broke from me and into a run. I was weary and tried in vain to calm them and find out what had happened. Then I saw that they'd all set upon a pomegranate tree, excitedly stripping it of its fruit. By the time I arrived all that was left for me was half a bitter pomegranate.

We got to the spring and plunged in. We drank from a plastic jug, like those used for Jewish ritual hand-washing. The water was fresh and sweet, cooling on such a hot day. Once each had had his or her fill we walked up to the road. A settler stood on the corner, waiting to hitch a ride. He was tall, dark-skinned, with a large scull-cap and dangling side-curls. One of the older volunteers asked me if he was typical of the kind of settlers they have in that area; he frowned and sighed when I answered yes.

The family were nervous to go back to their village alone. So a few of us went across the hillside with them. Just before we said our goodbyes one of the kids asked if I'd not had a tongue stud. Actually, he asked something in Arabic then pointed to his tongue. I had had one a year ago when I helped with their olives. Rather than going into all the reasons I said that my girlfriend had made me take it out. Actually, I pulled out my Israeli id. card and said something in Hebrew while pointing at a picture of my girlfriend. I got the requisite laughs and jibes for being controlled.

We all shook hand and said goodbye. The younger kids were, as always, surprised when I shook their hands. I was probably wrong to shake the sister's hand. I think that like religious Jews the religious Muslim Palestinians don't shake hands with the opposite sex. But she was the one in charge, and it seemed wrong to shake everyone's hand but hers. She didn't seem offended. She remained stern bet sweet as she said goodbye.

We got back to the road to find Abu Rami's bus waiting. We turned sharp right at the checkpoint and entered Hawara. The better falafel stall was shut, so we bought some at another and headed back to Tel-Aviv.

05 August 2007

Tel Rumeida

At 7am on Friday, the 3rd of August, I walked from the German Colony in Jerusalem to Liberty Bell Park, (a place that had once seemed magical to me). There in the car park was Abu Rami's bus, complete with Rabbi Yachiel, some English and American volunteers, two OAPs and three men from a group called the Sons of Abraham. We drove to Hebron.

After an hour or so we came to pass through the settlement of Kiryat Arba, this being the only direct route. We were stopped at a gate to the town by a security guard, or rather a member of their private militia. He was either Ethiopian of one of the Menasha tribe of Asians who had moved to there. Abu Rami told him we were a group of American going to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. But the suspicion persisted. "Rabbi Yachiel!" shouted Abu Rami, and Rab Yachiel's head duly popped forward, complete with grey beard and large scull-cap. "Oh, Rabbi Yachiel!" said the guard, and promptly let us through.

We wound down round the settlement and into the city. We passed the Tomb of the Patriarchs and continued past the closed market, along the Jewish route deep into the city. The bus climbed a little up hill and then arrived. We were at Tel Rumeida, at the house of Issa with whom I have spoken about a joint Israeli-Palestinian students' project.

We were there to put up a fence against his settler neighbours, and to help clear up. Here the settlers were not on adjoining land, but rather a few meters up the hill, their kids sitting in the garden chatting to two soldier at the house just up and two the right. The owners of Issa's new home have, like many others, left to go to East Jerusalem for a quieter life. Issa is renting the hither-too empty property cheaply, effectively house sitting for an indefinite time. Up until now settlers would have moved in. This is the fist time that Palestinians have moved into an empty house in a Hebron neighbourhood which settlers or trying to take over.

We worked hard, scooping up broken tiles and carrying them in rubber buckets to the edge of Issa's land where the debris was chucked down the hill. The Anglo-American Jews did themselves pound, breathing in the dust, shoveling on in the oppressive heat.

A young film-maker from Finsbury Park in London asked me to speak into his camera. He asked why I was there and I rambled on for a bit. He had been to Nablus the day before and later caught a lift with us to Jerusalem on his way to stay with friends in Nahariah. Only foreigners have the right to roam anywhere between the sea and the river.

Three Americans and an Englishman from the Christian Peace Makers in Hebron turned up. We sat in a circle and spoke about Christianity. The view from the hillside took in most of the city, spread across the valley bellow and up onto opposing hillsides, at its centre the large rectangular cube and minaret of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Gunfire went off, followed by shouting. But it was just a wedding. Then it was back to the rear of the house, clearing the rubbish and putting the fence in place.

The work done, the Sabbath closing in, everyone was gathered round. Three very short speeches were made. The Sons of Abraham men thought it was historic. Issa, more poignantly, told us how much it meant to him and to his neighbours to see Israelis come and help. To me that statement made a difference. It often feels pointless.

We went back to Jerusalem. By 6pm I was back in my flat in Tel Aviv, ready for a quiet Friday night with my girlfriend.

04 June 2007


With the Rabbis in the South Hebron Hills.

Friday morning. 5am. My alarm goes. I reset it. 5:30am. My alarm goes again. I push myself out of bed, get dressed, take something from my grandmother's fridge and emerge, more asleep than awake, onto Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem's German Colony neighbourhood. Within two minutes I was at Liberty Bell Park. Abu Rami's minibus was already there, complete with Rabbi Yechiel, who I'd not met before, and Natanya, a sixty-something year-old volunteer. But there was a fourth member to the outing still absent. So we waited. A police patrol car came by. They policemen approached us and asked whether we were Ta'ayush, (another activist organisation). We replied that we were not. They left. The absent volunteer called again, asking for direction: he was at a petrol station, where were we? Then Natanya shrieked. Yechiel and I jumped from the bus. A man at the entrance to the park had been wrestled to the ground. His assailant seemed to be sitting on him. We approached. But out of a blind-spot on our right came a women, brandishing a police id. The flattened man cuffed, his hand behind his back, then yanked to his feet. He was wearing normal trousers and a t-shirt, but also an ultra-orthodox style black scull cap. He had long black side-curls down to his shoulder. Then we saw an older, larger man, also cuffed, also being led away. Both men glared at us. The police asked if we were Ta'ayush. Again we said we weren't. Then we were told that the two arrested men had come to attack us. Our details we taken and we drove away, towards Hebron.

Initially we thought that Ta'ayush must have been the targets. But then the absent volunteer came to mind. The police's number didn't work. Rabbi Yichiel recalled hearing orthodox music in the background when speaking to him. He called the man, and heard an answering machine in which he used religious language. It now seemed clear. This man had directed the two would-be assailants to us. We had indeed been the target. But his stupidity we extreme: later on he called again, saying that he was in (the settlement of) Kiryat Arba, and whether he could join us. This confirmed all our suspicions. No-one who would volunteer for Rabbis for Human rights would drive alone to Kiryat Arba.

So we arrived late at the village of Tiwani, south of Hebron. Tiawani has the misfortune to neighbour Ma'on, or Chavat Ma'on (Ma'on Farm), one of the most notoriously violent settlements. We went to work, harvesting wheat with bear hands. Clambering up the hillside to use the lavatory I looked down at the rolling desert hills, descending all the way to the Dead Sea. From that direction came there emerged a flock of goats, (do goats come in flocks?) Then, following the herd (that sounds better), came the shepherd, Jihadi, and his sons. The goats swarmed over the hill and down into the wadi to eat the wheat we'd missed. Jihadi in return came to work with the villagers. Later I got to chat with him. None of the family we were with spoke either English or Hebrew, making verbal communication all but impossible as none of the volunteers had good Arabic. But Jihadi had almost perfect Hebrew, polished over two years working in a factory in Holon, south of Tel-Aviv. He was a friendly man, intelligent, dark. His hands, when we shook, were large, his skin tough. His analysis: on both sides there are people who benefit from the conflict. On both sides they claim to be religious. But on both sides their religiosity is false, phoney. Those who are truly religious see all as equal. Those who fear God care about people more than land. His children have a daily escort of three Israeli soldiers on their way to school. These protect theme from the settlers of Ma'on who have, in the past, developed a habit throwing stones at parties of school children. Jihadi told me that when his kids come home and complain about the Jews this and the Jews that, he corrects them: the settlers, not the Jews. But therein lies another problem. Jihadi speaks fluent Hebrew; his children hardly know a word. The older generation of Palestinians often worked in Israel, in some places Israelis came to buy goods from Palestinian shops. But the new generation of Palestinians (about half the population) have seen only soldiers and settlers.

Back in Tel-Aviv I sat in front of my computer screen. I read a report by the Reut Institute, a small independent think tank. They describe what they call the Resistance Network, made up of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and some others. Their strategy, say Reut, is to sit and wait. They will prevent Israel from negotiating, prevent Israel from pulling out. In the long term, they believe, if the conflict continues then Israel will wither and crumble from within, like the USSR and like Apartheid South Africa. The aim of the settlers is similar, to prevent any chance of a Palestinian state in order to maintain dominion over the whole ancient Land of Israel. It is an analysis with which I think Jihadi would agree.

01 May 2007


A valley somewhere near Nablus/Shechem

I must admit I've stopped remembering their names. They're all nice, to me that is. I come, with the Rabbis or Yesh Din, we help them out and they're nice to me. I used to make an effort to remember their names for this diary, but now it's all blurring into one.

Last Thursday was the QBP, the Queen's Birthday Party at the British ambassador's house. Diplomatic dignitaries, political personalities, and people who have friends who work at the embassy, gathered in the ambassador's garden to raise a glass or two to her majesty, until late in the night. At around 11:30 my friend David Bernstein called from Jerusalem to see if I could arrange for us to go on a Rabbis for Human Rights sponsored expedition to the northern West Bank. I awoke a slumbering Rabbi Arik Asherman who, nearing midnight, managed to arrange for David and myself to be brought to the same location.

At around 6am on the morning of Friday, the 27th of April I began to battle a vengeful hangover, cycling to Arlozerov Station through Tel-Aviv's deserted streets. I caught the train to Rosh Ha'a'in where the minibus was waiting for me. They'd come from Jerusalem: David Bernstein, Her Whatshername, and Abu Rami, the Rabbis' permanent driver, who I'd not seen in months.

Abu Rami remembered my normal nagging to stop off at Hawara for their two-shekel-falafel. (His news is that his fourth son, who's my age, is getting married. Seeing as each married son needs a place to live, this means a fourth flour needs to be build onto his sons' house next to his own in East Jerusalem.) We stopped at a place where Abu Rami is treated like family and helped ourselves to falafel, my breakfast. We continued on.

We drove through Hawara, taking a right just before Hawara checkpoint where I had once got stuck for an interminable forty minutes. The destination was a valley in the Hawarta Stream area. We stopped in a green valley and were met by a man on a tractor and his two sons. The valley sloped gently: from a flat, broad basin, up to low-lying hills on either side; the road, and the steam somewhere, running down the middle. I clambered up onto the tractor, just for the ride. But the rest of the team didn't follow. They remained on the road for the time being.

I had been worried as to how I would explain my hangover, and my reluctance to work, to a Muslim Palestinian. Five years ago I worked scrubbing dishes in the kitchen of a Kibbutz on the southern coast of the Sea of Galilee. There I worked with two Muslim Arab chefs, who looked at me with incomprehension and distain when I arrived one morning with what still ranks as one of the worst hangovers of my life. Luckily, on Friday the tractor's job was to plough and mine was to sit beneath a tree, to ward off violent settlers and try to communicate with the ten and thirteen-year-old sons of the tractor driver. The tractor driver spoke almost perfect Hebrew, having lived and worked for twenty years in Tel-Aviv. His sons spoke none. So I played slaps and thumb war and arm wrestling with the younger when the cheeky little sod refused to let me sleep.

Time moved slowly. Across the valley and atop its northern slope we could see the southern reaches of the settlement of Itamar. Just beyond Itamar's eastern edge is the village of (Upper) Yannun, where I once spent a weekend. A few years ago the whole population of that village left due to the settlers' harassment. They only returned when a foreign NGO agreed to station a three-person team permanently in the village. So I knew where I was: SE of Nablus/Shechem, E of Hawara, S of Itamar, SW of Yanun. I slept.

A man and a boy on a donkey approached. The man and I spoke in Hebrew. In fact he was hardly a man, seventeen. He wanted to know if it was safe to work in the valley. I told him that where we were stood it was more or less safe. The army knew we were there and their local base, the Nablus DCO, was close-by. The settlers probably wouldn't try anything. He wanted to work his family's land across the valley. I gave him my number, but then suggested that he go and speak to Abu Rami. While we spoke he probably saw the look in my eye and asked if I wanted a ride on his donkey. He ordered his brother off and I clambered on. And so I got rides on a tractor and a donkey within a couple of hours. Every boy's fantasy. Great fun.

The ploughing work was almost finished at around the time that Abu Rami had had enough and that we had to leave to be back before the Sabbath. (The Rabs for Human Rights is a religious organisation). So I left the ploughman whose name, as I say, I forget, and walked back across the valley. It didn't look like there was going to be any trouble, and it being so close to the Sabbath, it was doubtful that the settlers would start anything now. So the ploughman continued on ploughing.

The valley was an amazing green. Rich and bold even by English standards. It was littered with an array of wild flowers. A scattering of competing colours, spread across the green. Then as I walked I came across a putrid little rubbish dump. It stank, was repugnant. I walked on by. The future Palestinian state might well be reliant on tourism, but they're going to have to teach their people to stop throwing all their crap all over the place.

It turned out that David Bernstein and Her Whatshername had worked with the kids on the donkey. David later told me that the seventeen-year-old hopes to study abroad, then be a doctor in Tel-Aviv. He certainly has the Hebrew to do so.

We got back in the minibus and headed for Hawara. Over the radio we heard that the other Rabbis for Human Rights team, working in the South Hebron Hills, had been attacked. Rabbi Arik Asherman had taken some blows. We didn't know how bad it was. Then it emerged that he was with the police, at least not the hospital. Then we found out that he was there to complain, that he had not been arrested. Not too bad then. He's taken blows before. In the past he's been arrested on a Friday, then not released until after the Sabbath has come in. Perhaps, now that the Sabbath is over, I ought to call him…

Well, Rabbi Asherman's mobile phone was switched off. The woman in the Rabbis' office told me that he's abroad, lecturing. They were with Palestinian shepherds when they were attacked by settlers from Pnei Khever. He sustained a few blows. Exactly what she didn't know. She hadn't seen him. Another volunteer had her wrist injured. Rabbi Asherman was detained by police, at which time he also made his complaint.

We passed again through Hawara. Once more we stopped, this time to buy some tasty knafe, an Arab sweet similar to baklawa. They can cost around £3.50 for one in London. In Hawara each was 1.20 shekels, about 30 pence. I bought ten and packed them at the bottom of my bag beneath my jacket. They were still warm by the time I got them back to my girlfriend in Tel-Aviv.

30 March 2007



An admittedly belated post, but aptly so. For it is a post with a subject, and the subject is banality. It's all so banal. And when it's banal, it' s hard to get yourself to write about it. Hannah Arendt made famous the idea of the banality of evil. 'Evil' is a word I dislike, and I'll leave it to Arendt[i] to define. For my purposes here I'd rather we think of this: 'the concerted ability to treat others as if they were not people of worth.' Perhaps a better way to think of it is to consider it as the opposite of the old Jewish dictum of Hillel the Elder and Rabbi Akiva that you must 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you', (Seeing as some of us are sadomasochists and others are not, this usually means asking the other how they want to be treated, which then leads logically to Emanuel Kant's famous injunction that you must treat people as ends and not merely as means. But I digress.) For brevity, and only for brevity, I will call such action evil.

Ariel Again

About a month ago now, on a Wednesday, I travelled with Yesh Din to the police station in Ariel. On the way we met up with two Palestinian men, who waited for us by the roadside. They were father ad son: the father in his sixties, the son in his thirties. We drove to Ariel, called the police to come and collect us from the checkpoint, and eventually were waved through; the policeman couldn't be bothered to come down.

Their story I will give in brief, for it is not the point of this post. They were on their land when a group of settlers attacked them. They called the (Israeli) army for assistance. The army came and arrested the two Palestinian men, hitting the younger in the back of his head with the butt of a rifle, knocking him unconscious. We sat and waited in the corridor of the Ariel police station, as the story was clarified by the younger man, he himself a policeman. He is a tall man, broad, with a face that looks as though it's been chiselled from granite. He works as an assistant to the Palestinian Authority's police commander in Nablus, not far from Ariel. But he used to hold a post in Ramallah, where he claims to have been in the Mukattah, (Yasser Arafat's headquarters), when it was besieged for three weeks by the Israeli army in 2001. I, for one, believed him. The irony of a proud, large and intelligent policeman begging mercies from a superior police force was lost on no-one. So we sat, waiting, in an airless corridor with no windows.

We waited and waited. We talked about family and land, work in Tel-Aviv and police work, studies and women. The father urged against mirage. The son, who has a young family of his own, quietly disagreed. Eventually, we were informed by a friendly policeman that the national police computer network had collapsed, and that as the id. parade they would be asked to view was computerised, we would have to wait. They said they knew the people who had attacked them, but that was utterly beside the point. All in all, we waited almost four hours. Four hours in a dull and bleak mini-maze of airless corridors. The people were interesting, but the situation utterly banal, and utterly boring too. However important the geopolitical forces struggling in this small stretch of land, however bloody a bomb here in Tel-Aviv or a helicopter missile attack in Gaza, on the ground, in the territories, under the fingernails of the occupation, it is dull and banal.

Think back to previous posts. To Qiryat Arba, to the Ariel police station, better described there, to the DCO, or the court at Salem. The issues may be existential, but the day-to-day practice trudges on, same as the day before, in well lit streets or un-adorned, pre-fabricated offices. People go about doing their jobs and living their lives, being normal. This is how you control another people's land. Yes by convincing yourself that it belongs to you, (the truth of which remains debateable: according to the bible it's undeniable, and I for one think that such truths are subjective). But the settlers in the large settlement blocks and the authorised red-roofed settlements, and the bureaucrats in their offices live normal lives. Normality is their criterion of success, for if it's normal then it cannot be wrong. In cities like Tel-Aviv and London, or Haifa and New York, people go out looking for something different, a break from their existence at home and at work, a break from their same-as-the-day-before lives. They go to cafes, bars and pubs, go clubbing through the night. They go travelling, or to sun themselves on the beach. Their kids often dress up as punks or Goths, hippies, scallies, etc. Anything to escape normally. But not in the territories. There the criterion is normality. This blog has a namesake. It too is the West Bank Blog. It's written by a family of settlers who, in their introduction go a long way to say how normal their lives are. Normality legitimises. But the lady doth protest too much.

[i] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil, (Penguin, London, 1963).

nb. The feeling might be given by these post that the Palestinians are wonderful and innocent, the Israelis evil and belligerent. This is not the case. But this blog is dedicated to adventures and misadventures in the West Bank, in the underbelly of the occupation. Naturally with the Israeli organisations I travel there with, I come across cases where my people's self appointed representatives or my nation's army are seen in not the best of lights. My home in Tel-Aviv is surrounded by places where suicide bombers have murdered civilians. But the latter is not the subject of this blog.

11 February 2007


The Wailing Wall

On Thursday I was in Jerusalem to meet with a Palestinian NGO which works in the field of House Demolitions in co-operation with the Rabbis fro Human Rights. We had been meant to meet on Wednesday but that was postponed and my contact, Tzachri, later apologised for not having gotten back to me. We spoke on Thursday morning and agreed to speak again at 2:30pm, and to meet at 3pm near the Wailing Wall, the western wall of the Temple Mount. In the afternoon he didn't answer. So I made my way to the Old City. When I still had no reply I wondered over to the Wailing Wall. Security was tight. I wanted to go into the enclosure, to find a toilette, but the queues at the entrance were too long.

So I climbed the stairs back up to the Jewish Quarter (where I know where there is a free toilette). I passed an Al Jazeera news crew, an attractive reporter stood with her back to the Wailing Wall and above it the beautiful golden Dome of the Rock, preparing to talk into the camera. I paused and looked down. Two bulldozers moved to the right on the Wall, outside the south-western corner of the enclosure, moving earth around. They're repairing a temporary bridge to the Mugrabe Gate which hovers many feet up in the air, (when seen from the west).

In 1967 Moshe Dayan agreed with the Waqf, that it would continue to hold authority over Al-Haram Asharif (the Temple Mount). The Jews would control the Wailing Wall and the Mugrabe Gate. What is going on now is therefore legitimate; what the bulldozers are actually doing is utterly innocuous. But the storm which it is whipping up across the Muslim World, subjective though it might be, is very real. Ehud Olmert might not understand this, but those bulldozers look very different to Muslim eyes, which include almost one in five Israeli citizens. It is not worth provoking a third intifada over the questionable stability of a ramp which has stood for decades.

I glanced at the slowly moving bulldozers for a few seconds, then went into the Jewish Quarter to find that toilette. The meeting which I came to Jerusalem for never transpired. They still haven't gotten back to me.

(Haaratz has two very good pieces on this today. One by Uzy Benziman,
the other by Danny Rubinstein and Yoav Stern.)

01 February 2007


At a quarter past two last Friday afternoon I was at the ticket office in Jerusalem's central bus station. I was there to meet up with my friend David Bernstein, and his friend Adam. Not long later I was sat on a bus bound for Hebron. The windows of the bus looked dirty and it was hard to see out of them, particularly when the sunlight, still strong here in January, shone. In fact the windows were bullet-proof, not dirty. Most of the way there was little to see anyway as the view was blocked by an anti-sniper wall.

We arrived not quite to Hebron but to Qiryat Arba. A settlement of 10,000, it is effectively a suburb of Hebron to the east of the city and adjacent to it. There we were met by Yosef and Melody, a nice, friendly couple, originally from the US. Two cute American girls who had been on the bus also turned out to be staying at their place. We walked a short way down a new road in the warm winter sun. The sun's rays were warm but the air chilly, crisp and fresh, high in the Judean hills. Then we turned onto a path, walked along a row of identical four-floor buildings of Jerusalemite stone, and into their ground-floor flat. There we ensconced ourselves, putting our bags in the boys' guest bedroom.

Before dinner David, Adam and I wondered down to synagogue for the evening service, ma'ariv. Yosef and Melody's place is on the edge of Qiryat Arba, facing Hebron. Within a few moments we were on the main road walking downhill, past the last rows of Qiryat Arba's identical homes on the right, past the fence and barbed wire on the left, beyond that the crowded box-houses of a east Hebron neighbourhood. We joined the stream of people walking down into the city in the dusk, every now and then saying "Shabbat Shalom" to the soldiers we passed. I doffed my blue trilby hat, as is my wont. We were walking on a Jewish road. After a few steps we were on a stretch where Palestinian homes lie on either side. We turned a slight corner and began to rise up the slope of the next hill when we heard a commotion behind. We looked round and saw a Palestinian man and two kids trying to get a camel across the road. The camel wasn't having it. The man was pulling at its reigns. The camel pulled back. Jewish men rushed to the scene, one shouting at the Arab. The kids started hitting the camel from behind, frantically, angrily. American and Israeli girls screamed, shocked by the cruelty (to the camel). Soldiers rushed to the scene, one by one. The camel brayed loudly. We continued on.

The road wound up through half-demolished houses, through what looked like an ancient archway, then downhill and out into the open courtyard of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. We walked up the steps and into the building. The place is separated off into a number of services, or minyanim (rough translation), which makes it reminiscent of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Some of the minyanim are fast, others slow; one is for the ultra-orthodox, another for Sephardic Jews. We sat and stood and prayed in the biggest one, the middle one, with the other smaller services going on in rooms to its left, right and rear. Beyond the ark there is a tree, out in the open air, marking the place where Adam, the first man, is said to be buried. I prayed the Amidda, the silent standing prayer. Above there flew a white dove. It circled overhead, then perched on a beam.

The service heated up. Ma'ariv was over and we were into the Welcoming of the Sabbath. The normal joyous songs started, and were repeated. Men crowded around the Bima (the reading table in the middle). Young men in white robes and large colourful skullcaps, typical of the Hilltop Settlers, danced. They leaped up and down, their arms and hands by their sides, their long side-curls lolloping up and down. Ultra-orthodox men in their large black hats joined them. They danced around in circles as the choruses were repeated, then as the melody was belted out wordlessly.

We returned to Qiryat Arba for dinner. On the way David pointed out three people sat at a table in the middle of an empty field. It was cold and they were sat there, eating. The place is known as Geborim, a no-man's-land along the road, claimed by the settlers. In order to further the claim they pray there, and on Friday night some eat there.

Dinner was big. And it was good. I was bound by the 1st rule of the house: no guest is allowed to help unless he/she as been at least three times. So I sat and talked to my neighbour, a large man, a bus driver, whose name I utterly forget. I sat with my back to the other table. There a ten-year-old kid, cheeky but sweet, sat right behind me. He had been given a bit of wine and was a touch tipsy. He tried to get me to surreptitiously give him more. The conversation was jovial and calm, and rather banal. A few songs were sung and the sound of the imam's call to prayer wafted in through the open window. Afterwards Bernie, Adam, Myself and the two Americans (now named as Sora and Rachael) went up to the road where some of us smoked and most of us chatted. There we could see across the hillside of the Palestinian neighbourhood, but only the neon of the mosque's minaret was plainly visible in the darkness.

Morning came. We wondered down to synagogue. Now I was more comfortable, and bounced between minyanim. I caught up with the prayers in one room then moved to another to hear the Torah read in the Sephardi style. The small room was colourfully decorated with Arabic scripture. Through a window in front of the reader we could see another room with a Muslim-style tomb, representing the last resting-place of Abraham. I prayed through the morning. Then I met up with Bernstein and we went to walk in Hebron.

We went first to the Avraham Avinu neighbourhood, the Jewish settlement in Hebron. The houses are densely packed, forming in effect one structure. One courtyard is left through a narrow path which leads to another courtyard. The buildings are big, white, of Jerusalemite stone. There was quiet. Boys played football. I found a toilette. Then, calmer than before, we wondered out of the neighbourhood. On the way, in one of the courtyards, we passed a large cuboid structure. It was made of massive concrete slabs erected side by side forming what might have been walls. But there were no gaps. On top were more slabs, forming the roof of the structure. David told me that it had been the home of Palestinians who had not wanted to move. They erected the concrete in defence. Now they were gone. But the concrete remained.

David and I walked along the Palestinian market road, closed for the Jewish Sabbath. On the way we saw Jewish settler graffiti: a colourful mural depicting sheep, hills, a pioneer with a large scull-cap, side-curls and a rifle in hand. There was writing scrawled on the closed shutters of the shop-fronts. And there was a symbol of a Star of David, with its bottom right-hand-corner replaced by a large fist clenched in the star's interior. It was reminiscent of similar graffiti I've seen playing on the map of mandatory Palestine. We followed a prescribed route into Hebron, to two Yeshivot, (Jewish seminaries). We walked past more closed shops. Walking now where Palestinians are allowed to pass. A small group of Palestinian kids passed two Jewish kids. One of the Palestinians fixed his gaze on the Jewish boys. All of them were about nine yeas of age. His stare was hard, sharp, bitter, filled with hatred. Most of the soldiers we passed ignored us, as had their comrades on the walk down from Qiryat Arba. With some there was small-talk about the heat or the boredom. We passed one Yeshiva on our right, an impressive Romanesque building, then turned left towards another. There, walking steeply uphill we encountered a greater number of Palestinians. They were taking a route that overlapped with the Jewish one. Soldiers stood at each corner. They came down, we went up. The men and women tried to avoid eye contact. The children looked straight at us and smiled. One or two waved. Bernstein had had enough. We turned back.

At lunch I asked Yosef why they'd come to Qiryat Arba. The answer surprised both David and me. It was, he said, the normality of the place that had attracted him. Initially he had wanted to rear dairy goats. Indeed there was a book on the subject in their lavatory. But he had backed out of the rural pioneer's life, on the frontier against the Arabs. Instead he still raised funds for Elon Moreh, a (notorious) Hilltop Settlement in Northern Samaria. He himself had opted for the quiet life. Later David told me that on previous visits Yosef and Melody had talked of the holiness of Hebron, of the importance and sanctity of the Jewish presence there. In our conversation he did mention being friendly with the Goldsteins, the family of Baruch Goldstein who was overpowered and killed having openned fire on Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, killing 29 and wounding 150.

After lunch Adam and David had a nap. I went with Sora and Rachael for stroll. We asked and were told that there was no picturesque place to sit and look at the view. Stood there amidst the Hebron Hills we found this a little hard to believe. We kept on walking. We came across what looked like a pile of boulders: big white rocks, one on top of the other. We clambered onto them, then skipped carefully to the top. We sat down and got comfortable and started to talk. We looked down and across the wadi (Arabic and colloquial Hebrew for valley), and at the low-lying hills beyond. On each small mound there was the permanent parking-place of a set of caravans: a Hilltop Settlement. On the right there was a brand-new road. Directly bellow us we saw a small grove of olive trees. They'd been burnt. One of the girls eventually mentioned them and asked why they were burnt. I said that they were probably Palestinian trees, burned down by settlers. This year they've mostly been stealing olives but two years ago, when the last good harvest came, they'd opted for burning. And it seemed like the tactic had worked in the wadi bellow. The whole vista looked to be devoid of Arabs: a success. The girls were shocked at the burning of the trees.

As we walked back I noticed again a large number of Indians, members of the "Tribe of Menasheh". Qiryat Arba, Yosef later told me, is home to six or seven hundred Children of Menasheh, Indians who claim to be descendents of the biblical tribe of Menasheh. They had lived in China until moving south to North-Eastern India. They have dark skin as do darker Indians, but oriental eyes like the Chinese. In Qiryat Arba they have Jewish identity; they can learn Judaism and are equals in the pioneering quest.

Dusk came quickly, and we performed havdalah, the ritual to end Shabbat. I made a call to my Mum in London on Yosef and Melody's phone, (they pay a lump sum and minutes are free), and called my Dad near Tel-Aviv. We signed their guest book, and thanked them for their great hospitality. They really had made us all feel at home. Yosef leant me a copy of 'Fear no evil', the memoir of Natan Sharansky, a Russian-Jewish dissident under communism, which Yosef thought I might like. I had to get back to Tel-Aviv that night, while the others only had to get to Jerusalem. So I made my eagerness to leave felt as politely as I could and we went for the bus. Yosef and Melody accompanied us until we said our goodbyes and boarded. At some point I'll have to go back, to return Yosef's book. I sat across from Sora, and listened to some of her music, Jewish instrumental music, (she nowadays listens only to Jewish music). The bus was full, dark behind the dirty bullet-proof windows.


Pictures: First the Tomb of the Patriarchs, then a Jewish couple on a walk in Hebron

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