I knew today would be the hardest of the trip and so it proved.
We left the comfort of our 5 star Movenpick in Ramallah. The reason PalFesters could stay there is that it has just opened and is more or less empty; the festival certainly did not pay 5 star rates but it was nevertheless extremely nice for us.
We boarded the bus on route to Hebron. I still remember talking to Ron Leshem a few years ago and how sad he was to be forbidden going to that beautiful town anymore. It used to be the economic centre of the West Bank, a really bustling and quite wealthy market town. Unfortunately, because it is also the place where Abraham is supposed to be buried, it has become the place for the ugliest contest. Contrary to the rest of the West Bank, the settlers have moved in right into the centre, closing off streets, building watchtowers, cutting off houses from their gardens, seizing on rooftops all the better to destroy Arab water tanks or throw garbage into courtyards or on passers by. People have had to put nets to protect themselves, at least, those who try to stay on. The cutting and slicing defies the imagination. One street is completely cut off, sending Palestinians on a 12km detour, on another one, 12 m wide, they are only allowed to walk up a narrow fenced up corridor. The mosque has also been divided up but on the day we went, we couldn’t even get close to it as it was a Jewish holiday.
1400 soldiers protect the 500 settlers living in Hebron, most originating from Brooklyn and ultra religious. The soldiers were actually everywhere when we arrived because a Jewish group was taking a tour of the city. So the town centre was dead execpt for them, us, a handful of peacekeepers, lots of soldiers and kids trying to sell us bracelets. The few shopkeepers left there were as desperate as the children to get us to buy anything as no one comes anymore.
The guy who gave us the tour works for Hebron Rehabilitation Centre. They buy crumbling houses and restore them to their former beauty. It is a truly ancient town with beautiful Turkish architecture. What’s left of the Hammam (its walls soiled by the settlers throwing foul things down the roof through the broken glass windows) is now a museum. There was a bit of fumbling on the “so called massacre, you know just a revolution, of Jews” in the 20s. I guess the presence of a mosque on Abraham’s tomb does not help but this is the story of this tragic land and I’m sure that poor Abraham, if he ever was buried there, must be spinning in his tomb. What I love about Judaism is its abstraction. How can people take the story so literally that they are happy to ruin others’ and probably their own lives? Do they really behave as Jews are supposed to? What would Hillel say?
This was certainly the most disturbing and worrying part of the trip. I felt sorry for the soldiers who would not meet our eyes. Quite a few of them (as at the checkpoints) were Ethiopians. One of them, a young kid who is someone’s son, tried to smile at the children and looked apologetic. But then, why agree to protect the nutters? Is it that difficult to say no rather than being complicit. The Palestinian kids were posing in front of the gates and barriers. They have to be accompanied to school by peacekeepers protecting them from the settlers. Their parents are out of work having had to close their shops. What future for them? Not a touchy feely one I’m afraid.
To get back to East Jerusalem, we had to go through the Bethlehem checkpoint. We got off the bus. There was no one else than two Palestinians with two young children. That huge place was empty. We did no know which turnstile to go as there was no one to direct us until an amplified voice told us to go to the first one. We felt like a sheep going from one holding pen to the other. The place looks like the set of a bad low budget science fiction film. The three soldiers we had to show our passports to looked bored and uninterested. I did not even have to open mine, although this was not true for everyone in the group. But still, you do come out feeling dirty and a little bit less human. Imagine having to do it everyday.
We went back to Jerusalem for our last night and for the first time, the group was split up between three hotels. I was lucky enough to stay at the famous American Colony. From fractured Hebron to old world luxury, a really schizophrenic experience. Apparently PalFest has always refused to stay there because of the association with Tony Blair but the owner insisted on putting up a few guests at a very preferential rate and on giving a sumptuous reception. It was another chance to talk to the lovely Munther, the bookseller the Israelis are trying to deport. I hope he gets to stay. There is still time to sign the petition if you haven’t already done so. His only fault is that, although born in Jerusalem, he made the mistake of living abroad and lost his right to live there while any Jew in the world can move there any time. Even more absurd, I was told of a young Liberian who escaped his country and was granted refugee status in Israel where, as a Muslim, he doesn’t really feel much loved.
The final event was supposed to take place in the solidarity tent in Silwan, the Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that the Israelis are trying to empty of its inhabitants to make room for archaeological digs that will reveal the City of David in all its glory. Part of the PalFest team had been busy preparing the place for the evening, setting up the sound system for the open mike and printing flyers distributed by the kids. We were told all was going well and there had been an enthusiastic response. Then in the middle of the reception, we were told the road had been closed, trouble was brewing and the event might not happen.
Eventually we got on the minibuses and headed towards Silwan. We stopped on the way as apparently there now was stone throwing and tear gas. The British consul who was leading the way in his car turned around (PalFest is sponsored by the British Council). We decided to try and get closer. We were told settlers had attacked the tent throwing stuff on it, then undercover police had attacked them with stones to provoke the intervention of the army who tear gased everyone. We got off the minibus and walked up to the tent. Everybody wanted to go, although not all with the same level of enthusiasm. We were given onions to protect ourselves from the effect of the tear gas. This shows my lack of political activism but it was my first such experience.
The road was strewn with bits of wood, stones and rocks of all shapes and burnt tyres. No police or military in sight where we were. We arrived at the tent, the PalFest group, a handful of Christian peacemakers, a Swedish journalist and a few Palestinians. We sat down and started the open mike with no mike: one poet read the same poem about Jerusalem that we had already heard, with much lyrical pathos. Adhaf heroically translated. Then Gary Younge read appositely from his book on the American South, the story of a 17 year old black kid who decided to sit with his friends in a white only restaurant and get served. Adhaf went on interpreting. But by that stage, our contingent had been greatly enlarged by a group of journalists who were interviewing people in the background, not paying any attention to our artists. Then we got quite a bit of Jewish bashing from the same historian who contests every archaeological proof of a Jewish presence in Palestine and who went on again about Passover and the massacre of Egyptian babies but Adhaf managed to contain him and shorten his diatribe. I don’t know if it was because of me but I was glad she did as I was really fuming. By the time Bidisha read what her students at Bir Zeit and Balata has written, the mike had started working. Adhaf was still amazingly interpreting. Then a fantastic rap group, DAM, played for us. Only their first song was in English, about a Palestinian who falls in love with an Israeli. They were funny, clever and absolutely great. Pity I could not understand the rest of their songs, a mix of rap and reggae but the energy level was high.
We finally walked back to the buses and went to have a final bonding drink with the crew. There was a lot of hugging and promises to stay in touch. But this time, contrary to so many trips when I knew nothing would happen, I really believe we will.
So what have I learnt from my experience with PalFest?
I am so glad to have been on that trip. I thought I had a fair idea of what was happening in the West Bank but you don’t know until you’ve seen it for yourself. A whole people is being maintained in a state of inferiority. And all they see of the absurd authority they are ruled by, are young kids who barks at them from behind reinforced glass. The dehumanising works both ways. As a graffiti on the Wall said, ” One Fence, Two Jails”.
What struck me is the vitality and dynamism of the educated Palestinians we met, students or intellectuals. And also their quiet certainty that it can’t go on, that they have time and hope on their side. There is no doubt they have won the PR war with the world and why shouldn’t they? We were told time and time again how they only want to live at peace with their Jewish neighbours but I haven’t met a single person who still believed in the two state solution and they of course don’t want to all become Israelis. So?….
What struck me too on that trip is the attachment of Palestinians to the land: sending their kids back from the US to Palestine so they don’t lose the connection, even preferring coming back to a refugee camp. It’s also the total deligitimisation, reducing Israel to a response to the Holocaust and the Jewish claim to that part of the world to a fantasy.
But mostly, what scares me is the psychological and mental world that separated two people supposed to live together one day and making it so easy to brainwash either side. I don’t come back with any answer, just more questions and quite a lot more of sadness and concern.