Thursday, July 03, 2014

Justice and Peace in ~ Palestine. Lord have Mercy.


Live from Bethlehem – The Morning After

Friday 20th June: Justin Butcher blogs for a second time from the Bet Lahem Live festival
We’re publishing Justin’s second blog (the first is here) a little while after the event.
After the euphoria of the opening night of the Bet Lahem Live Festival, a rude jolt awaits us the next morning. As we climb on to the bus, our guide, Marwan, who works for the Holy Land Trust, tells us that, during the night, the IDF have invaded the Dheish Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. While we slept or partied, Israeli armoured cars were rolling into the camp, where members of Marwan’s family live, firing tear gas, shooting live rounds, smashing their way into people’s dwellings and ransacking their belongings. 100 people were arrested, including many children, one of whom, had Downs Syndrome.
Marwan, normally an incorrigible clown, with a handsome fox face and perennial grin, is more overwrought than I’ve ever seen him. “Before we going, I must tell you about this thing,” he says. “Seven people they shoot with bullets, poor people living in refugee camp, one they shoot in eye, one in leg, letting off bombs, searching all houses, arresting children. 4am this morning they shoot a Palestinian child dead in Hebron.” We are due to go to Hebron tomorrow. Marwan stabs the air with a raised finger. “Fifty-seven days the prisoners on hunger strike, some of them close to coma. 195 children in detention. 700 people in administrative detention. You know what is administrative detention? Anywhere in the world, if they think you are a dangerous person in dangerous situation, they can arrest you and hold you for maximum forty- eight hours. Then they must charge you and let you go. In this Occupation, 700 people they hold without charge, without trial, some for three or four years.
We’re driving out to a village near Bethlehem, a group of British artists performing in the Bet Lahem Live Festival delegates from supporting UK partners the Amos Trust and the Greenbelt Festival. We’re going to visit a Palestinian family whose house was demolished two days ago, on Wednesday morning, by the IDF. We arrive at the remote hilltop farm, close to the village of Al-Khuder (the “Green Man”, the Arabic name for St George). It’s a desperate sight: two ugly heaps of wreckage, shattered sections of plaster walls, smashed lintels with twisted iron rods poking out at weird angles, splintered fragments of timber, all strewn with the flotsam and jetsam of domestic normality – odd bits of furniture, kitchen utensils, floor tiles and children’s toys – and, lined up around the ruins of their home to greet us, a large Palestinian family, a father and four adult sons and many children, teenagers down to toddlers. They’re pulling chairs out of the rubble to seat us in the shade of a large fig tree. The line from the old protest song echoes in my head: Every man ‘neath his vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid.
The father of the family, Ali Salim Mousa, and his eldest son embrace us as we approach, kissing us on both cheeks, thanking us for coming. The farmer is a wiry, slight man in his sixties with a leather-tanned face and grizzled beard. They insist that we sit. They will not allow any of us to stand. One of the sons produces bottles of water and plastic cups, pouring them out and handing them round to everyone. Accepting their hospitality, even against this desperate backdrop, is essential. To do otherwise would be a slight to their dignity. When everyone is seated, Ali Salim stands in front of us, next to another older man, his cousin Ismail Mahmoud, and welcomes us “in my land”.
Marwan translates phrase by phrase: “All my respect to everyone from Europe. We are a Palestinian nation under Israeli occupation. We received from this occupation every kind of suffering in our life. However many occupations there have been in history, never one like this occupation. Every home in Palestine, you will find suffering – someone martyred, someone arrested, someone exiled. Every home, every family is affected. The nations of Europe are like gentle people; you do not have this suffering. We receive all this pain and suffering because we do one big mistake: we stay in our land. This is my message to the people of Europe, to the smart people who support us: you coming from far away, we need to share with you in a very simple way. I use my heart, from heart to heart.” Ali Salim touches his chest with bunched fingers and flings them out to us emphatically. “Thank you for coming and sharing our story. It’s my honour to have you here and I say, thank God we still have kind people, nice people like you in the world.
“We have history here – from long time we are living here. If you ask me what is my name, I have at least ten names – Ali Hassan Salim Mohammed Mousa –” he reels off a string of names – “but the settlers who come here and take our land, under the eyes of the civil administration, they have each just two names, like Itzhak Yakub, for example. For thirty-five years, we have had our land stolen and taken, building military camps, building the Wall. I have a large family, with two wives and four sons. Then they came to demolish my house. I built again. After three years they come again and demolish, and we build again. After three years they come and demolish again. Three times!”
Marwan puts his arm around Ali’s cousin Ismail. “He has no tears,” he says. “They’re stuck in his eyes.”
Ali Salim continues, “We asked the commander, ‘What wrong have we done?’ They said, ‘This is against the security of Israel.’ You can tell how much they hate us. They said, ‘You have ten minutes.’ They threw away my cousin’s fridge, threw it away in the rubble so he couldn’t use it again. They don’t recognise us as human beings. We are like slaves who have to do service for Israel. They say, God gave the life to all people, but they don’t look on us like that. They want us to give up, to lose hope. But this is my land and we stay here forever. I need to build my cemetery here. Even when I die, I will not move from here.”
The land slopes steeply away from where we’re sitting, down from the homestead, across a dried-up stream-bed to where the Wall (or security fence, as the Israelis call it), cuts across the farmland of Al-Khudder, annexing it to the settlement on the nearby hilltop. Here, the Wall is made up of beige concrete rectangles, bisected by a horizontal grey strip. Blending against the arid soil, the Wall here looks as innocuous as a garden fence from B&Q, except for a grey watchtower down to the right, maybe two hundred yards from Ali Salim’s house. Rising grey and stark like a periscope against the sandy warmth of the hillside, the watchtower peers balefully towards Al-Khudder through a dark observation slit like a narrowed eye. We are here. We are watching you.
Ali Salim points towards the settlement. “The leader of this group of settlers is from Russia,” he says. “He has a large pack of dangerous dogs. We don’t let the children go near them. We don’t ride donkeys any more, because they train their dogs to attack them. If an elderly person is riding their donkey down in the village and the settlers come with their dogs, they’ll fall off and injure themselves.” He gestures to his grandchildren, three little girls and two boys. “What kind of mistake these children have made against Israel? Going to school in the morning and coming home to find their house destroyed. These settlers, these Israelis, have children. But they have no feeling, no sensitivity to us, to our children. My grandchildren ask us, ‘Why have they done this? Destroyed our house?’
“I tell my children, ‘This is the Zionist movement, from one hundred years ago.’ I’m not talking about Jewish people!” He shakes his finger emphatically. “I’m talking about Zionists and the Occupation.” He throws out his arms, encompassing our whole group. “We request all the nations of the world to put some kind of pressure on Israel’s government to stop this cruelty, this humiliation against us.”
He points to the road at the bottom of his field, just beyond the Wall. “We can’t walk on this road, where the Wall runs. Look at the tunnel we have to crawl through, like rats.” I follow his finger and see that there indeed is a tunnel, built under the settler-only road to the smaller lane that runs down to the village.
His eldest son, Ahmed Ali, holding his own two-year old lad, says, “What I’m pleased – my children didn’t see the bulldozers. I have six children, my father has eight. We have twenty children in this house. We are the last occupied people in the world! I teach my children to grow up in the world and have respect for everybody, but they are teaching my children to hate. What will my son learn from this? Please, please share our story with the world. We’re not just talking about demolished houses – all the people in the jail …”
His uncle Ismail says, “My son is in jail for eighteen months, for working without a permit in Israel. 2000 shekel fine and one and a half years in jail – because he follow the work. Really, by God, we need peace.”
Ali Salim explodes suddenly, slapping the back of his hand against his palm. “I couldn’t even say, ‘Ay!’” he exclaims. “They put their feet on my neck, and I couldn’t even say, ‘Ow!’ If he needs water, I’ll give him water from my house. But to come … I’ll show you the well I built. They destroyed it.” He leads us over to the edge of the slope and points down to a deep gash in the ground, where the wellhead has been bulldozed and choked with boulders. He is almost spitting with anguish. “Are you here with any kind of international law? They demolish, they put the boot on our heads and say, Shekit, shekit, shekit, shut up, you can’t say anything. Could anyone live under this Occupation? Anyone in the world? They could not. We sleep like sardines, ten in the tent, suffocating.
“They demolish my house four times, but even if they drive over us with tanks, we will not move. We will not be moved.”
Another son, Khaled, shows me a video on his phone of the bulldozers demolishing the house, with IDF soldiers lined up in the foreground, holding back the family. Ali Salim’s second wife is sitting in the shade of a corrugated iron fence, feeding her 40-day old baby. “I agree with my husband, that we should stay here,” she says. “We’re trying to keep hope alive that we can live here in peace. This is our children’s land, and there’s no substitute for their land. For them to have life, they should not go somewhere else.”
Now Khaled has produced a pot of coffee and is filling plastic cups for us all. It’s rich, dark Arabic coffee, sweetened with cardamom. The leader of our delegation, Nive, is thanking Ali Salim. “Our hearts are broken for you,” he says, slowly and deliberately, as Marwan translates. “We have heard you. We know that your voice is silenced, and we promise to use our voices to tell your story.”
“Everything I tell you is the truth,” says Ali Salim. Once again, he spreads his arms to include all of us. “God bless you, give you a nice and relaxed life. We will pray for you. All my respect. Thank you for coming to hear my story.”