Palestine Eyewitness

Palestine eyewitness

I am an Australian working with international human rights group, the International Women’s Peace Service in Palestine. This is a blog on my time here.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Touring Israel and visit to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem

Every two weeks we are due a 3 day break, however, Stacey (another IWPS woman) and myself decided to wait four weeks instead and take 5 days off altogether so we could spend a solid amount of time travelling. We decided to hire a car in Tel Aviv and after making a short stop at the Australian Embassy to vote, we headed for old city in Jaffa to have lunch with one of the Israeli activists we had meet at the Budrus demo.

Old Jaffa is like the Arab quarters of other Israeli cities. It is poor but also very colourful with bustling souqs and markets and great cheap food. After having a wander around the souq and trying out my haggling skills, we had lunch at a wonderful café in a former mosque overlooking Jaffa beach. We had planned to make our way up the coast that afternoon, but were convinced to stay the night. We spent the rest of the afternoon down at the beach watching the most incredible sunset, eating icecr! eam and drinking beer. It was hard to believe sitting there that there people being killed in Gaza, just 40 minutes away.

Sitting on the beach at Jaffa, I felt a sense of beauty and contentment, as well as a sense of relief, as well as feeling of sadness and anger. Beauty and contentment because Israel/Palestine is an extremely beautiful country. Relief because it was nice to be able to sit on a beach and just hang out with people and de-stress. Sadness and anger because just 60 kilometres, 45 minutes or so away from this beautifully serene place, Sharon’s army was murdering and wounding children indiscriminately, destroying countless lives, homes, schools and olive groves. This mixed bag of feelings was something I was to experience a number of times over the next few days as I travelled around.

It is so hard to describe Israel/Palestine as it has a beauty of its very own, one which is very different from Australia and from Europe. Israeli cities are incredibly westernised and as Stacey said to me, "if you ever wondered what a city in America looked like, you just have take a look around here" and while I suppose they have their own kind of attractiveness, it was the old cities, the Arab quarters of the cities which to me were the most beautiful.

Our first stop along the Mediterrean Coast was Ceasara, which was build by Herod the Great in 1 BC in honour of Ceasar Augustus. In Ceasara, as I sat on the carved steps of the hippodrome looking out over the ocean, I had the sudden (if not belated) realisation of this is exactly what Apartheid looks like, at least from the side of the oppressor.

As we had wandered around the ruins of the ancient city, we did not see a single Palestinian or Arabic person, although the site was filled with tourists and Israelis enjoying their holiday long weekend. I also realised that for a great many of the Israelis here, Palestinians or Arabs (as Palestinians are called by most Israelis) did not even figure on their radar except as "terrorists".
During my four weeks here, I have been fortunate enough to meet some great activists from the radical Israeli left (many of them anarchists) who work closely with Palestinians, who travel frequently to the West Bank and are active in the opposition to Zionism and the Israeli state. However, during this time, on my visits to the Israeli cities, I have also met what you could call "ordinary Israelis", whose hatred, ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping of Palestinians and Arabs is astounding. These Israelis, like many of the countrymen and women, have been taught that "Arabs" hate them, that they want to kill them and that "Arabs" are inferior in everyway to Israelis or Jews. Their ignorance of what their country and military does to Palestinians and the connection this has to the militant suicide bombings is not only astonishingly but also frightening.

There is little or no compassion amongst these Israelis for the devastation they are causing or any comprehension that they have become the oppressor. In their minds they are still the victims and while I see the trappings of a police state and oppression everywhere I go, they are completely oblivious to it or the irony that they have become what they had once despised.

As Dorothy, a wonderful 70 year old Israeli activist I have become friends with (and whose husband is a holocaust survivor) recently commented to me, "I use to wonder how the Germans could say that they did not know what the Nazis did to the Jews, but now I understand. Our people don't want to know what we are doing to the Palestinians. They chose to live in ignorance and hatred because if they really acknowledged what we were doing they could not live with themselves".

Dorothy and her husband, Israel are both active in the peace movement. Israel, along with his immediate family, fled Austria and the Nazis (although much of his extended family perished in the concentration camps). Israeli arrive in Palestine in 1936. He was an engineer in the army and fought against the British, as well as in the 1948, 1967 and 1973 Israeli wars. They both had travelled and lived overseas for much of their life and it was only when they moved back to live in Israel permanently that they had their "political awakening" in 2000.

In Haifa later that night, this sense of Apartheid was reinforced, as the Israeli hosts of the hostel we stayed in told us we should be careful about going to and staying in the old city in nearby Akko (Acre) because it was particularly dangerous for women, especially at night. This warning reinforced once again other conversations I had with different "ordinary" Israelis I had meet, which revealed that Israeli Zionist world view of Arabs and Palestinians is dominated by ignorance, stereotypes, racism and western cultural imperialism.

Haifa is one of the biggest Israeli cities on the coast and is a wonderful mix of just about everything, as well as all three of the dominant religions as well as a couple of extra ones. The centre of Haifa is dominated by the Ba’hai gardens – 19 immaculately terraced gardens that extend from the summit of Mt Carmel down to the German Colony and overlook the bay of Haifa. Ba’hai as a religion was founded in Iran and is a 19th century split from Islam and there apparently 5 million followers worldwide. The gardens are stunningly breath! taking; our first glimpse of them was unexpected as we turned up Ben Guiron Street to find our hostel. From the top of the Gardens there is an equally stunning view of Haifa Bay.

Despite the protestations of our Haifa Hostel hosts, we decided we take the "risk" of visiting and staying in the old city of Akko or Acre as it was called during historical times. Of all the places we visited during our break, I have to say Acre was by far my favourite (closely followed by the Galillee).

Old Acre is a testiment to the Crusades. It was the capital of the Crusader Empire during the 10th and 11th century and the old city. It is dominated by the remnants of the Crusader Citadel, which remains in very good shape despite the fact that it is around 1000 years old. In the 18th century, the city withstood a 60-day siege by Napoleon Bonaparte, who had to retreat unable to fully breach the walls. During the British Mandate prison, the Crusader Citadel was also used to house the Jewish Irgun and Haganah prisoners. The old city was abandoned by the zionists living in its walls in the 1930s when Palestinains demonstrated against the increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine,growing zionist influence and disputes of access to holy sites.

We spent the evening in (and returned there the next morning) the Marina area of the old city. We had dinner at a restaurant that was on a terrace, which had a stunning view overlooking water and out into the Bay where you could see Haifa lit up and we later went for a wander along the top of the walls and had a wine/coffee at one of the little bars near by.

Our final day was spent in the Galillee region, where we visited the Nazareth and the Sea of Galillee. The Sea, once again, is just beautiful and I would have loved more time to stay there, but we made the most of what we had. Unfortunately, we missed out visiting the archeological digs at Capernaum (the main town of Jesus’ ministry in the Galillee) but we did get to take a look around St Peter’s Primacy (where Jesus appeared to Peter after the resurrection to tell him to carry on his teachings) and Tabagh which is where the miracle of the multiplication of the Fishes and Loaves is suppose to have taken place.

We then head up to the Mountain of Beatitudes where Jesus apparently gave the Sermon on the Mount. By the time we got there, we were in for a beautiful sunset over the Sea and the surrounding mountains, which was pretty spectacular (I also decided to get up at 5am the next morning to watch the sunrise over the Sea. Our hotel was right on the shore and so from our room we had a bird’s eye view of the sunrise over the mountains surrounding the Sea.

That evening was spent in Tiberius on the shores of the Sea of Galilee which is an overwhelmingly Jewish city and as it was Sabbath nothing was open till 7pm, but then there were people everywhere. On Sabbath here, unlike Sunday in Australia, everything literally closes down. You are lucky if you are able to find anything open and you will find very few Israelis on the streets. Visiting an overwhelmingly Jewish city is lesson in pure contrasts to the West Bank. In a physical sense, it is like night and day. As I mentioned Jewish cities are highly westernised and I often feel like they quite sterile compared to the hustle and chaos of Palestinians cities.

Reluctantly the next morning we left the Galilee and headed back to Tel Aviv and then to Jerusalem to meet up with our Boston team who, were here to help with olive harvest, to go to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity (where Jesus was supposedly born) and Aida refugee camp. In 2002, the Church of the Nativity was under siege for about a month when Palestinian militants sought refuge there. For weeks, the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF)surrounded the Church and fired on one of the holiest sites in Christianity with little regard for life of Clergymen or respect for another people’s religion. In contrast, no a single shot was fired by militants from the church during this time.

After our visit to the Church, we headed for Aida Refugee camp. On the way, we passed Rachel’s Tomb, which Madonna visited in her much touted tour. The Tomb, which has religious importance to all three religions is in Occupied Territory, but has now been annexed behind the Apartheid Wall. The Tomb is now surrounded by concrete and barb wire and no-one except Israelis (and Madonna) can gain access to it, including visiting Christian pilgrims from overseas.

As we got out of the serveeces (taxi) at Aida, we noticed a strange smell in the air. We quickly realised that it was teargas. As we moved up the hill past the International Continental hotel bizarrely built on the doorstep of the camp and which was now abandoned, we saw children running. The boys told us that there were "Jesh" (Army) down the street. As we moved down the street, four or five boys were lined up throwing stones and we could see that other boys were located in another area also doing the same. Amongst the ensuing chaos our contact at the camp, tried to quickly explained the situation and the history of the camp. In the camp there is a mural which was designed by the children and painted with the help of internationals. The mural which runs along a long wall depicts the history of the Palestinian people and their struggle. It includes a depiction of Al Nakba and the dispossession of the Palestinians, as well as the first and second intifada. The mural was very beautiful and quite moving.

We decided to walk pas the army jeep in the hope of internationals would get the army to move on. As we passed the jeep, I was stunned to see that there was quite a ring of stones around it, which meant that it had been there for sometime and that the "shabab" (young boys) had been throwing stones for some time. The standoff between the boys and the army continued for another hour or so, with the army firing intermittently sound bombs and tear gas. Our presence, however, seemed to be completely ignored by the IOF, while the shabab continued to t! hrow stones and as it is IWPS’ not interfere or try to stop any such activity by the Palestinians (while we are a direct, nonviolent organization we have no right to dictate to the Palestinians how to carry out their resistance) we could do little else but record and monitor the situation. The presence of the army for such a long period and in such a standoff served absolutely no military purpose other then as an act by the military to reinforce that they could do this in order to remind the residents of Aida that they were under occupation.

Unfortunately, because the Boston team was also in transit to their next olive picking location, the members of the house team were not able to remain to monitor the situation for longer then an hour. As we left the camp, myself, Stacey and Soha (a regularly vistory to IWPS) had to walk threw the Maschom (checkpoint in Arabic) and once again we were visibly and physically reminded of the occupation and the oppression that ordinary Palestinians must content with every day.

The resistance of the shabab in the camp, however, showed that Palestinians, despite the harassment and intimidation of the soldiers, would never take the occupation lying down and that they would continue resist.


Blogger Evil Sandmich said...

I feel bad for the plight of the Palestinians, but I can help but think they'd brought this plight upon themselves (along with 'help' from their fellow Arabs).

The fence has already cut back on the number of attacks on Israel; does Israel not allowed to defend itself?

BTW, I liked these photos of a crossing point.

November 5, 2004 at 7:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course not, you stupid Zionist.

Carl Kenner

November 6, 2004 at 6:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After having a look at his pictures, I would strongly urge deleting this Zionist's post, along with any other Zionists that stumble across these pages. Zionists already have complete control over our media, there is no reason to give them any extra coverage.

At first I thought this person might be genuinely interested in finding out what Israel was up to. But he clearly is not. Please delete such racist posts or your blog will become unusable.

November 6, 2004 at 6:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The previous, bigoted reader above posted this:
"Zionists already have complete control over our media, there is no reason to give them any extra coverage".

I am sick and tired of this racist drivel. This discriminatory trash, once the backbone of Nazi propaganda during the 30's and 40's, has been recycled for the benefit of divisive haters today.

Who has control? What are their names? Is that why you always see anti-Israel publications in the media? Isn't that how YOU have arrived at your current hateful, vitriolic anti-Israel stance, through what you have seen in the media ??
I guess they don't conrol so much then, after all.

Disgusting to see traditional extreme right-wing conspiracy theories re-hashed for the benefit of neo-marxist racists today. I pity your hate-filled, black hearts.

January 25, 2005 at 11:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


February 7, 2005 at 6:09 PM  
Blogger Leah PettePiece said...

I wish to say that I believe Palestine has a right to exist along with Israel and as a new Olim to Israel I and my husband would love to work in any agency that thinks this is the right path to a secure and lasting Peace!!!
Leah at THe Peace foundation. we are also a blog site!

March 3, 2005 at 2:27 AM  
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January 11, 2006 at 10:03 AM  

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