BUY Palestiniana NOW:
Day one: Spray-painting, killing dogs and Arafat’s tomb
There’s a knock at my door. “We’re going to get breakfast. We will see you down there.”
His English is fairly good. It is Fabrizio, my new Italian travel companion.
I could hear Fabrizio and his wife get up 30 minutes earlier. There is only one bathroom – complete with washing machine – in the apartment. The apartment looks fairly new but is basic compared to the standards I am used to on press trips. I doubt there is an infinity pool on the roof of this place.
Time is tight so I have a very quick shower and a shave, which was not as easy as it should have been. The stem of my razor blade has snapped in transit. After ten minutes I head down to the hotel’s breakfast area.
Entering the large room, I notice the high, vaulted ceiling. There are crude tarpaulin covers on the outside of the dome. It is leaking. Parts of the shiny marble floors are wet, a lethal combination. To my left is the buffet breakfast. I look around and see Fabrizio and his wife Lisa at one of the dozen circular tables. I head over to join them.
Sitting with them is a clean-shaven man called Abdallah and a woman with a part-shaven head and alternative clothing which makes her look like some sort of hardcore activist. The four of them are in deep conversation. The activist girl tells the others that she was sprayed with tear gas last Friday.
I ask Abdallah who he is. He tells me he organises peaceful protests. He gets up and walks off to talk to someone else. He seemed well acquainted with the activist girl. As I look around I see a lot of young faces. I also see a lot of casual dress leaning towards what I would disparagingly call hippy style. It feels like journalists are at a premium on this trip. I’m not sure what is going on here. It’s the same feeling I had last night. Something is not right.
As I eat breakfast I am joined at my table by a young German. He asks me about myself. I tell him I am a journalist from the UK. I ask if he is a journalist. He says no. I ask how he came to be on this trip. He replies that he ‘met Abdallah and was invited to come’. I don’t think he has explained properly how he ended up here. I tell him this and that I still don’t know how he came to be on this trip. He talks about Ramallah but keeps yawning as we have a conversation. This annoys me almost as much as having cigarette smoke blown in my face. I stop listening to what he is saying and find myself watching him yawn. I’m yawning now just thinking about him. Some people are so bloody rude. I start fiddling with my camera until the German stops talking.
It’s now after 9.30am but no-one is making a move to the front entrance to get on the coach.
Half an hour later and still no-one is heading for the front entrance to get on the coach. I could have had an extra hour in bed. I think a lot of people have stayed in bed. I don’t recognise anyone from my flight last night.
Suddenly, Abdallah moves to the front of the room with a microphone. It crackles and he begins a speech about Palestine and the struggles of the Palestinians. He is very grateful to us all for coming to his country. He tells us we are going to see the youth festival – obviously part of Palestine National Youth Week. His speech goes on for quite a while. He mentions a meeting at the youth festival and another, at the same time, in the President’s Office.
He apologises for the problems some of us have faced at the airport. “I am very sorry about the people who suffer a lot at the airport in the morning,” he says. “But this is from the occupation, [a] small part of the occupation that we face every day, every hour, every week in our families in all parts of Palestine from the occupation.”
Abdallah is slightly abrupt when he speaks. A bit scary actually. He also announces to us that some Israelis were killed last night in Gaza. He says: “I’m sorry about the last night the Israelian forces killed five Palestinians in Gaza Strip. More than 50 now injured and suffer alone because they attack them by the fence. We are here in the West Bank but also our brother, our families, our friends also in Gaza Strip are suffering alone. And every day they attack them where we cannot [help], difficult for us to be with them, but you know the feeling and suffering is the same together.”
That’s a bit worrying, a sudden escalation in the conflict.
Abdallah briefly describes the itinerary over the next few days but tells us he will be unable to take us to Jerusalem because, as a Palestinian living in the West Bank, he does not have a permit and can’t get one. Jerusalem is one of the most significant sites on earth for all religions but especially Muslims. There is a massive Muslim population already living in Jerusalem. But not allowing Palestinians from the West Bank to visit the city… is that just a bit mean on the part of the Israelis or is it a security measure?
Abdallah continues tersely: “When we speak about the time, it’s not for me, this is all our effort in Palestine, me and my friends, only to help you to know more about Palestine. For this we want the time, if you want woken up in morning at six, if we want to move around seven or eight we must do this. Because if anyone be late it will force the 50 people [in] two buses to wait for him. For this we want to be moving quickly. And now we want go to the festival. Every group, four or five or ten, when we want you to go to the buses [you must go] to go to the buses and save time for us.”
The thing he said about trouble in Gaza is not good news. With this in mind I approach Abdallah after his speech and delicately ask him about the Moevenpick, the hotel I am supposed to be staying in, and if he can help me to get in touch with Jayyab to organise my move there. Abdallah tells me there is a separate itinerary for the journalists at the Moevenpick, which includes a visit to the President’s Office, but that I should go on the itinerary organised for those staying in this hotel. I feel I should be on the trip to the President’s Office but I don’t have much choice but to do as Abdallah suggests.
I approach Abdallah twice more in the dining hall. I’m becoming less and less convinced that the people around me are journalists. I don’t like the idea of being on activists’ bus tour. I really think I need to be at the Moevenpick. Yes, it’s a five-star hotel without a leaky roof. And, yes, it is luxurious. But I need to be on the journalist’s itinerary, which Abdallah has told me includes a meeting with the President. That’s the kind of opportunity which does not come knocking twice.
It’s not until 11am that we are told to get on our coach. So much for being on time. “Five minutes,” Abdallah shouts. “We must all be on the coach in five minutes.” You should have said that two frigging hours ago, pal.
As I pass reception in the stream of bodies shuffling out of the building I see two of the people who are on my flight last night – the two I knew were delayed at airport immigration. I stop and ask if they are coming on the coach trip. “We have just arrived from the airport,” says one, who I later find out is a Scottish man called Ahmed. He looks very, very tired. So do the two women with him. The three of them were detained at the airport all night.
“Was someone there to meet you?” I ask. They reply nodding. At least these organisers have done something right. I slowly shuffle away and eventually get on the coach.
Palestinian National Youth Week
It is pouring with rain in Ramallah. The coach is cold and damp. The windows are wet, with rain on the outside and condensation inside. As the coach pulls away from the Al Zahra Hotel, our guide, Abdallah, begins to speak on the microphone. He basically doesn’t stop speaking until 3.20pm when we arrive back at the hotel.
His enthusiasm, I admire. He talks about the struggles of the Palestinians, the theft of land by the Israelis and how the Israelis control their everyday lives. Abdallah keeps interrupting himself to tell us when we are passing a significant building. The President’s offices, the President’s palace or the President’s something else. I can’t see any of these buildings as the windows are so steamed up.
Frequently during the day Abdallah tells us it is too wet to get off the bus – then adds that if we look to our left or right we can see newly-built school or illegally constructed Israeli-erected wall. No-one can see anything out of the windows. The sightseeing tour becomes increasingly frustrating. What’s the point of asking us to look out of the windows when we can’t see through them? As a promoter of liberty for Palestinians, Abdallah is passionate and impressive. As a tour guide, he is shit.
After less than half an hour on the roads of Ramallah the bus pulls over on a steep hillside. As we stop I quickly notice through the front windows – the only glass on the coach not misted over – a swarm of young people sprinting towards us. They are running at an alarming pace. Oh god, we’ve driven into an Israeli Defence Force ambush. They are killing the kids. The IDF are hunting down and killing children! My heart is in my mouth. I’m expecting machine-gun fire at any moment. We’re right in the firing line.
Fortunately, these dark thoughts prove not to be true. The children, all wearing luminous yellow bibs, are in a race which is probably something to do with National Youth Week. I say probably because, in a flash, they are gone.
Abdallah tell us to get off the coach. The coach is packed. It takes quite a while for a bus as full as this to empty itself. Only half the passengers have managed to get off the bus – and I am still in my seat – when Abdallah starts shouting, ‘everyone back on the bus, everyone back on the bus’.
People carry out the reverse ferret without question. As they shuffle back to their seats, Abdallah speaks into the microphone once more: “The youth festival has been cancelled. The youth festival has been cancelled.” Er, no it hasn’t, we just saw 200 kids run past the bus.
Abdallah continues: “I am very sorry that the youth festival today has been cancelled. Instead we will go my home-town of Bil’in to see where the Israelis have taken our land and where they have been forced to remove part of their illegal wall.”
Once Abdallah has checked if everyone is back on the bus by shouting ‘is everyone here?’ twice and then bellowing, ‘Are the Spanish here, are the Spanish here?’, the bus performs a painful u-turn manoeuvre before heading back down the hill. The rain is lashing down heavier than before. Half the day gone and I don’t know what Ramallah looks like.
At the front of the coach, Abdallah begins talking on the microphone again. This is becoming painful as the crackly speakers are distorting his voice, making him sound like a preaching fanatic. Still, I think at the time, he can’t talk continuously like this. It is almost noon.
The bugger is still talking. We’re now outside Abdallah’s home in Bil’in for a toilet break. It’s taken us the best part of two hours to get here and we’ve not actually seen anything yet.
The highlight of this barmy bus tour was an hour earlier when we arrived across the road from the Mahmoud Darwish Museum. As the rain lashed down Abdallah told us: “Ten minutes, ten minutes. You have ten minutes to photograph the museum, then we must be back on the bus. Back on the bus in ten minutes.”
Why anyone would want to photograph a museum – yes, just the outside of the unspectacular museum – for ten minutes in the pouring rain is beyond me. Wouldn’t it have been better, given the weather conditions and the ‘cancellation’ of the National Youth Week celebrations, to actually visit the bloody museum?
But we dutifully do as we were told and ten minutes later we were back on the bus, then told to get on to a different bus which had a better sound system so Abdallah would come across less like a crazy, high-pitched cleric. But we eventually get back on to the original bus for reasons I have forgotten. I am losing the will to live at this point.
There are at least two buses which make the journey to Bil’in. On the way to the village I do my best to focus on what Abdallah has to say, rather than the way it is being broadcast on the fanatical public address system inside the coach. It’s what he says about the water supply in Palestine which I remember most.
He tells us that his village and others similar have become like islands in the West Bank as the Israeli’s have confiscated land all around them.
“And this land they want to confiscate is important for Palestinians,” he says. “Why? Because in this land we have the water resources and they confiscate this water to the settlements and give us a little of water.
“Now we can visit my home and check if we have water in the bath. We have only one day in the week in the bath we have water. They have confiscated our water and sell it to us. They sell it to us, they get money for our water. You remember, unbelievable things.
“Another thing we have gas – they found gas in the last years gas in this area – all of our land is important and rich land of agriculture in that area. For this they start to build the wall. If the Israelis want to talk about security reasons, they can [talk about] the 1967 decision from the United Nations form the Security Council. I [do] not agree with this but if they want not to protect my land, not protect the Palestinian land, but to destroy our land. For this they started in 2002 build it from north Jenin, Qalqilya, Salfit and they arrive at us in 2004 after Ramallah, after Jerusalem, Hebron, all of these places.”
Arriving in Bil’in
Bil’in seems like a very small town. It’s difficult to tell as I don’t know if we’re in the centre. The bus has stopped outside a small store selling groceries and sweets. I’m struck how similar it is to the kind of corner shop we have back in the UK. Abdallah’s home is next to the shop. People get off the bus and either gather outside the store to have a cigarette or go to Abdallah’s home to use the toilet. They are a quite humourless bunch, solemn and with little laughter – even taking into account that some of them are German. They are not like journalists I have met on other press trips. I walk in the other direction to explore this part of the village.
There are pools of water all around. Rain is rare in this part of the world and today’s downpour has obviously overwhelmed the drainage system. At the road junction is a small mechanics business. Children playing outside watch me as I take photographs. There is graffiti everywhere. The white walls have been sprayed with some quite stunning pieces of art. It is not at the same level as the murals on The Wall around Bethlehem but the Palestinians have obviously found a satisfying way to express themselves through spray cans and imagination.
After half an hour we are told to get back on the bus. It then begins to make its way along a rubble-strewn hillside road. We stop twice. First, to see the place where a friend of Abdallah’s was killed during a clash with Israeli soldiers over the construction of a section of wall which the Palestinians claimed was illegal. They were subsequently successful in a court ruling. We also stopped briefly to see the area where this piece of wall was removed following the legal ruling. On neither occasion can I see what Abdallah is describing because of the coach’s steamed-up windows.
Eventually we reach the end of the road. This time we get off the bus. The view from the hillside is spectacular. To my left in the west I can see across the valley. The ground is bare soil with a smattering of small trees. Straight ahead, to the north, I can see the Israeli settlement of Matityahu Modi’in Illit, partially hidden by the huge partition – The Wall – a construction in concrete which has become so synonymous with the landscape of Palestine.
Like it or loathe it, The Wall is an impressive piece of engineering. The following facts are taken from a variety of sources, including Reuters and Stopthewall.org:
Israel began building The Wall in 2002 after a series of Palestinian suicide bombings killed dozens of Israelis. It is 491 miles in length, though only 10per cent of this is concrete, ranging in height from eight to 12 feet. The rest of the partition is a high fence with trenches and 200ft exclusion zones.
Over 64per cent of it has been completed (as of 2010). It’s estimated cost is $2million (£1.3m) per kilometre, or $2.1billion (£1.3bn) for the entire 491miles.
Most of it – 85per cent – is in the West Bank.
The Wall has taken Palestinian farmland and water supplies, including the biggest aquifer in the West Bank. If completed, it is estimated that 78 Palestinian villages and communities with an estimated population of 266,442 will be isolated.
In 2006, the original plan was added to, with a new 68-mile segment being built around several Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.
The Wall has continued construction despite a ruling against it by the International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, issued on July 9, 2004.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry have hailed The Wall as a success. The Ministry says that Palestinians carried out 73 attacks in which 293 Israelis were killed between 2000 and mid-2003, when the first parts of the barrier were completed. But since mid-2003 through the end of 2006 there were only 12 attacks, killing 64 Israelis.
The rain has made much of the red earth saturated and soft. It feels good to finally get off the bus. Abdallah has described how The Wall, which swoops down the valley and up the other side, has grabbed local farmland and cut across one of the area’s major roads, making life for Palestinians in this part of the West Bank difficult.
The Wall is a monstrosity dissecting the landscape. But as I look at the Israeli settlements and continued construction beyond it, I find myself wondering why any person – any Israeli – would want to live under such conditions. Why would you choose to live in a town on someone else’s land, where you are hated by the locals and need a huge wall and the security of an army to stay safe? Do these people live there with their families? Do they bring their children to live in such a toxic and dangerous environment? If I do not understand the politics behind the settlements I certainly have no idea why an Israeli would want to come to places like this. These fortified islands are all over the West Bank.
My thoughts are interrupted by the booming, unamplified voice of Abdallah. “I want you to write ‘Free Palestine’ in all you different languages. Italian, German, Portuguese, Slovakian, Polish, Spanish.” A number of people are negotiating their way through the barbed-wire fence which is doing a poor job of protecting the wall itself. Abdallah continues: “The cameras are watching you. There is one, and another over there. Ten minutes, ten minutes. You must be quick. We can’t be here for more than ten minutes, the Israeli army is watching us. They will be here in ten minutes! Ten minutes!”
A number of my fellow tourists reach the wall. One of them pulls out a spray can from their coat and begins a fairly poor Rolf Harris impersonation. I can’t tell what it is yet but I do know this was not mentioned on the email I first received about the trip from the National Union of Journalists.
‘Visit Palestine and spray political slogans on the wall of a controversial Israeli settlement while the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) rushes to ambush you in a hail of rubber bullets.’ Nope, this was definitely not one of the Unique Selling Points of this trip.
Others quickly do the same on seperate parts of the wall. They all have cans of spray paint. How the hell did I end up standing in the middle of an activist’s playground? If the IDF do suddenly swarm over the wall to surround us, are they going to spend any time differentiating me from their political enemies I stand next to? Are they buggery. I’m an accessory, guilty by association while I stand here. This is definitely not the trip I signed up for. Should I have spent a little more time looking into who was funding this trip before I agreed to come on it? I recall in my mind all the news footage I have watched of Israeli soldiers shooting and arresting demonstrators. What if my own mother sees me on the news tonight, handcuffed face down in the mud with tear gas drifting all over me? She’ll go nuts.
I think Abdallah, in his mid-40s with immaculately groomed black hair and turtle-neck sweater, has done this before. He looks calmly satisfied as his disciples carry out his wishes. I’ve never really trusted a man who wears a turtle-neck sweater.
I look on in disbelief. Over a dozen activists continue to spray slogans on The Wall while others video and photograph them.
My first morning in the West Bank has involved getting on and off a leaky coach four times without actually going anywhere and then being shown the sites of Ramallah and nearby Bil’in through steamy windows. We could not see anything. And I have ended up here, at the end of a rubbly road out of Bil’in in front of the security wall which safeguards the Israeli settlement from people like us.
I can see across the valley how one road has been dissected by this huge grey concrete monolith, leaving it redundant while robbing the Palestinians of their own land and the use of their own roads.
The free graffiti show was an unexpected treat. As was being in the company of political activists who are clearly on this trip to demonstrate their anger at Palestinian suffering.
I have already seen graffiti on The Wall. Four years ago, in 2008, I visited Bethlehem and saw the amazing murals and messages. Around Bethlehem the graffiti is stunning, one masterpiece I photographed is by Banksy, the most famous graffiti artist in the world. But the graffiti I am witnessing today at the point of its creation is not Banksy. It’s more Wanksy – hastily scribbled slogans by hit-and-run calligraphers.
Witnessing this gives me an uneasy feeling. I am as good as an accessory in this anarchic episode of Israeli objectionism. As a journalist, I shouldn’t be in this position. It’s okay to witness, to observe and to report. But I am travelling with these guys, I’ve already befriended some of them. I don’t think the IDF will be differentiating between me and the activists when they gather us up and cart us off to the local detention centre in ten minutes, ten minutes!
For the only time on this trip we are back on the buses within Abdallah’s specified time limit. Ten minutes! The threat of detainment by the Israeli Defence Force is the only thing that can motivate 50-odd people to be on time.
The buses have already performed a precarious u-turn manoeuvre. I can see deep tyre tracks where one coach almost got stuck in the soft soil. That would have been a bit of a problem. Heavy storm clouds roll in above us as I get on the coach. The rain starts pelting down. Water runs down the centre of the coach which now carries the smell of 100 sweaty socks. This is what it’s like to be on a rusty bus with a bunch of damp European activists. And just to make sure everyone is on board, Abdallah shouts: “Is everyone here? Are the Spanish here?” It’s much quicker than marking names off a register.
As the coach picks up speed, and with possibly everyone on board, we pass the sites of interest we couldn’t see earlier and still can’t see now. Abdallah talks once more on the microphone. The highlight of his speech was when, in mid conversation, he took a call on his cell phone. After moving the microphone away from his mouth to listen, he placed it back to his mouth as he began to reply to the caller, broadcasting his telephone call to the entire coach. Even the stern-faced activists were laughing. It was almost the moment that brought us together.
And so, after Abdallah had relayed his telephone conversation through the PA system, we headed back into Ramallah for an unexpected treat. “We will visit the tomb of Yasser Arafat,” declared Abdallah into his cell phone.
Yasser Arafat. Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian known throughout the world for decades. You don’t actually get many national leaders who make a massive impact around the world. That Arafat’s face, along with his monochrome head scarf, is so iconic is even more remarkable because he is Palestinian. Let’s not forget Palestine is one of the smallest nations on earth – there are less than four million people in the West Bank and Gaza, though more than double that figure live as refugees in neighbouring countries, including Israel.
Until his death at 75 in 2004, Arafat was an icon of Palestinian struggle for freedom against the Israelis. He still is. I remember watching news reports when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. His non-western clothing coupled with the chanting crowds which always seemed to surround him made Arafat seem like the leader of a rag-tag savage people. Back then, it was easy to label Arafat as the terrorist. He just looked so different from us. The news reports always seemed to suggest that Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation were a dangerous outfit.
But of course the situation is far more complicated than that. Any educated person knows this problem of Israeli conflict with Palestine was not created through one incident by one side. Nor is there any easy solution, such is the entrenchment of feelings and hurt on both sides.
Arafat, though, made an effort to broker peace, most notably in the 1993 Oslo Accord which was ceremoniously sealed alongside Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in front of American President Bill Clinton on the lawns of the White House.
There is something quite thrilling about going to see his tomb.
We arrive back in Ramallah. The little of what I can see of this sprawling, busy city is through the front windows of the bus. It is a filthy place. Litter lies everywhere. I frequently see huge piles of uncontained refuse, piled high on roadsides seemingly with little attempt to clear it up. Bethlehem is not like this.
It’s nearly 3pm when we arrive outside Arafat’s final resting place. The weather is horrendous. Rain is lashing down. The storm is so intense, visibility is reduced to less than 30 metres. The city is covered in thick white fog. This is worse than Manchester. My jeans, which I had travelled in but did not think I would be wearing in the sunny Middle-East, are wet to the knee and caked in red soil.
Across the pavement is the entrance to Arafat’s tomb. It is guarded by just two armed Palestinian soldiers. The tomb itself, a beautiful white marble giant cube, sits at the end of a wide white marble platform. A thick red carpet across the marble leads to the glass-fronted entrance. This is opulence. But the carpet is now a sponge, soaked to every last fibre with rainwater. It is unusable as a walkway. Opulence gone wrong. Unfortunately, the flat pools of water either side of the carpet make the marble pathway lethal. Health and safety is still just a pipedream in Palestine. I see one activist slip on to his knees. Another two end up on their backsides.
We all make our way into the shelter of the bright tomb. Arafat’s final resting place is a triumph in great design. Illuminated naturally through huge windows, the heavy white walls enclose a sloping rectangular centre-stone, beneath which Arafat’s body lies. It is quite an experience to see it. The activists make an arc around the memorial as Abdallah tells us about Palestine’s greatest leader. As he talks, I marvel at the airy, white space. It is a beautiful and fitting memorial.
I remember when Arafat died eight years earlier. There were accusations of assassination through poison. Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, were blamed. But nothing was proven. Strangely, the day after our visit the tomb was closed in preparation of Arafat’s body being exhumed. His body is to be tested for poison after new evidence concerning his unexpected death came to light. The journalists on this trip, due to visit tomorrow, never got to see Arafat’s tomb.
At 3.20pm we arrive back at our hotel. Before getting off the bus Abdallah tells us we have 20 minutes to have our lunch. “We must be back on the bus by 3.40pm so we can reach Jalazone Camp by 4pm,” pleads Abdallah. “We must reach the refugee camp by 4pm so we can experience it before nightfall. There is no other option. We must be back on the coach at 3.40pm. Please, I ask you not to be late.”
Twenty minutes for 50 people, plus dozens more who are already in the dining area, to eat a meal? That’s ambitious.
After waiting for food to be brought from the kitchen, I then queue to be served and finally sit down to eat at 3.45pm. It’s sometime after 4pm before we’re back on our godforsaken bus. We enter Jalazone Camp’s narrow streets 20 minutes after that at 4.20pm. There is light left in the sky – but not much.
The streets of Jalazone Camp are incredibly steep – certainly not suitable for a lumbering coach. The driver manages to get us stuck between a car, which has failed to pass us, and a parked van. It takes some time before we somehow manage to squeeze through. The extra few minutes mean our whistle-stop tour of Jalazone Camp is in total darkness. What turns out to be the most important visit on the trip – and which needed to be in daylight – has been critically compromised. It is a shambles.
The camp, which looks like any run-down Middle-East suburb, is densely constructed with buildings of brick and breezeblock but with poorly maintained roads. I can’t really see what state of repair these buildings are in. After getting off the bus we are whisked around in a hilly loop before arriving back on the stretch of road where the coach is parked. There are dozens of children playing on the streets but we get to see about as much of Jalazone Camp as we saw of Ramallah earlier today.
As the group is slowly directed towards a building near the bus I look into one of the shops which form this part of the street. It is a barber shop. Three young males sit inside. I walk up to the window, wave and ask if I can take a photograph. One of them beckons me inside. I open the door.
Immediately after I enter, the man, smiling, stands up and offers me a Palestinian coffee from the ornate jug on the table in front of the others. It is a gesture of generosity I am unfamiliar with. Aware that the group is slowly shuffling away down the street. I say that I don’t have time. He motions that I should. I say again that I must go. He begins to pour the coffee into a small cup. I feel pressure to catch up with the group but I smile and accept his kind offer.
It’s the kind of encounter that can make a trip abroad so memorable, for the right reasons. With more time I would have interviewed the three men, taken formal portraits and produced a considered piece of documentary work. As it was, I stayed in the shop less than a minute, chatted briefly about not a lot, took three hastily-composed snapshots and left the barber shop no wiser about the life of a Palestinian in Jalazone Camp than when I arrived.
I wish I had stayed in the shop, talked to the men and learned something. But the activists were already disappearing down a side street and I had no idea where they were going.
I rush down the dark street. Eventually, I see Tear Gas Girl standing on some steps. She beckons me to follow the pathway behind her into a dimly-lit building. I enter a cold stairwell. There is nowhere to go but up. The bare concrete walls and floor remind me of a 1960s car park. I keep going up until I reach an open doorway. Inside are several rooms, one is laid out with desks and looks like it used for educational purposes. The corridor turns to the left where a door opens up into a long, thin office.
Inside are the rest of my buddies, crammed onto make-shift benches and plastic seats. Already the room is like a hothouse. Mousa Anbar points to a large piece of white paper hanging on the wall. His slideshow presentation is projected upon it.
What follows is a very impressive and passionate speech about life in Jalazone Camp, the history of Palestine, its occupation and what these Palestinian refugees want for their futures.
Anbar, a financial manager, is asked about the imposing of curfews. He tells the room: “We had the curfews. Jalazone has the longest curfew during the past years. We had forty days in a row we were under curfew. What does that mean? This means no electricity, no water, no food supplies.
“I can tell you from my experience, a lot of people burned their clothes in order for their mothers to make bread for their kids. Others burned their own books in order to make bread because there were no others sources [of energy] for it. They were suffering.
“Also the collective punishment, for any reason. If any person throw a stone to an Israeli jeep or settlers, the whole population will be punished. We were put in a yard for six hours, eight hours a night, for no reason. This is only reason, one of the soldiers, one of the settlers, was hit by a stone. So the whole of the population were suffering from that. This is the collective punishment.”
Being able to have basic sanitation and running water in their own homes does not seem too much to ask, does it? Anbar’s tales of how food, fuel and water sources have been taken from them by the Israelis are difficult to listen to, and even harder to comprehend. Why would Israel want to make life so difficult for these people?
Later, I find out more about Jalazone Camp. Established in 1949 following the Arab-Israeli War, Jalazone Camp is four miles north of Ramallah on land formerly owned by Jordan. After the Oslo Accord, Jalazone’s administration moved to the Palestinian Authorities but its security remains under Israeli control. It has a population of around 15,000 within its 0.15 square miles boundaries, most of the refugees came from villages now in Israel, mainly Lydda ten miles south of Tel Aviv and nearby Bayt Nabala. In basic terms, the camp is very crowded. Most buildings do not have what we would term conventional sewerage systems. Sewerage is often allowed to flood into roads.
I continue to listen to Anbar. The two schools in the camp run a double-shift to accommodate pupils. Anbar told us that boys and girls are split to work the shift system.
The West Bank has 19 official camps housing nearly 200,000 refugees. Gaza, on the other hand, has eight camps, with a combined population of nearly 500,000. Whatever I’m experiencing here in the West Bank, it always seems substantially worse in Gaza.
Anbar’s depiction of life in Jalazone is one of functionality without basic comfort. Frequent water shortages and electricity cut-outs coupled with sanitation problems and the block on building extensions means family life is uncomfortable and cramped.
Clearly well-educated, Anbar’s calm delivery and passion for what he describes as basic human rights are impressive. As the room heats up to boiling point a man starts handing out small plastic cups which he then fills with Palestinian coffee. I don’t usually drink coffee, this is my second cup in the last hour. These people’s lives are not what they should be. The children playing outside suffer because of the place they were born.
I feel privileged to have met Mousa Anbar. The delivery of his speech was the most impressive part of this bizarre day. Before we leave I take his photo in front of his desk. Other activists wait in line to commend him on his presentation.
The bus looks full as it heads away from Jalazone Camp. Within 30 minutes of Abdallah shouting, ‘Are the Spanish here?’ we are back outside the Al Zahra. The Jalazone visit was not quite long enough to leave a lasting impression. My thoughts turn back to issues affecting me. Can I sort out my hotel accommodation problem? Sadly for me, I don’t think I can. I’m resigned to a week with Lisa and Fabrizio and the rest of the activists.
Back at the hotel
Before we get off the coach, Abdallah repeatedly tells us on the coach’s internal squawk system that there will be a one-hour film shown in the dining hall followed by some other presentation. I’ve had two hours sleep since Saturday morning. It is Sunday night now. I’m losing the will to live. My intention is to go straight to bed, rest, and be ready for whatever this mystery holiday has in store tomorrow.
When I reach reception to get my key I bump into an American girl who I sat next to on my flight from London to Zurich. At the time I did not know we were part of the same trip. She has her suitcase with her. I ask where she is going.
“I have booked into the Moevenpick and am going there now,” she replies. It turns out that, having had no support from any of the organisers, she got a taxi to the Moevenpick earlier in the afternoon and successfully secured herself a room. She is waiting for her taxi to arrive outside to go back to the Moevenpick.
“Can you wait five minutes for me?” I ask. “I’m going to get my things and come with you.”
She kindly agrees to wait. I will have to be quick. I can’t believe my luck, someone as preoccupied with luxury as I am.
I approach the reception desk and ask for my key. Room 413. The woman on reception searches through the hotel key-filing system which is a small plastic container. She can’t find the key.
“It must be there,” I say. “413.”
The receptionist shakes her head. Did I get the room number right? “Wait a moment,” I tell her. I rush quickly into the dining area searching for Lisa and Fabrizio.
When I find them I speak directly to Lisa. Fabrizio’s English will slow the conversation down too much and Lisa’s the one who seems like she’s the boss in this relationship. “What’s our room number? Is it 413?” I ask her.
“Yes it is,” she replies. I explain that the receptionist does not have our key. We all go back to the reception.
I tell the receptionist: “413 is the right number.” She looks again. I notice that the American girl has made her way out of the building to her taxi.
“No key,” the receptionist says.
“No good,” I reply. This is taking too long. I’m desperate to get into that taxi. I need the key. Need it, need it, need it now. Fucking hell.
I remain calm on the outside.
“I will give you a spare key.”
She has a spare key! A spare key! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I still don’t know what has happened to the other key. For a split second I wonder if our room has been ransacked but I quickly stop myself speculating darks thoughts. “Thanks,” I say, almost snatching the key out of her hand.
All three of us head up to our apartment. I make small talk to Lisa and Fabrizio but in my head I’m planning the quickest way to cram my belongings into my suitcase and bag – as long as my belongings are still in the room.
Eventually we reach our floor and I put the key into the lock and turn it. The key won’t move. I turn it the other way. The door locks.
“This door is open,” I remark to the other two. “Has the cleaner left it unlocked?” I say out loud while thinking bollocks, my belongings have been stolen.
I push open the door. As I step inside I notice to my right, on a sofa bed, a man is sleeping. He’s the bloke I saw at reception this morning who had been detained at the airport. Well that explains why there was no key at the reception desk. They’ve given us a new room-mate and handed him the key. This is turning into an 18-30s holiday with people you don’t know. And who are not 18-30. I’m glad to be getting out of this shared apartment shite.
Within three minutes I am wheeling my luggage out of the apartment saying bye-bye to Lisa and Fabrizio – “you’ve been like a mum to me these 24 hours but I must dash” – and giving a quick nod to the sleepy Scotsman on the camp bed next to the front door.
As soon as I reach the ground floor I sprint for the front entrance. My heart is racing.
I’m so happy to see the taxi waiting for me outside. I can’t wait to lie on my bed in the five-star Moevenpick. This is how I want my stay in the West Bank to be. I feel euphoric that I am on my way to the Moevenpick. Jalazone Camp is now some distant memory.
It is pitch black as the taxi makes its way across Ramallah. I ask the American her name. Kat, she replies. Or maybe it is Cat. I’m not really bothered, I’m going to be sleeping at the best hotel in Palestine tonight.
The American girl tells me getting her room at the Moevenpick was not exactly straightforward.
“I had printed proof of my reservation which Jayyab emailed me. They took it away but after half an hour of arguments they gave me a room,” she recalls.
She has been in touch with the elusive Jayyab and has a reservation print out. I have no print out of my reservation. This is not going to be as easy as I thought.
I know that a group of males left Hotel Heartbreak at 7.30am this morning and never came back. So they must have got their rooms. But none of these organisers seem to want anybody to get to the Moevenpick. What if they’ve now slapped a check-in ban at the Moevenpick? I can’t face having to get a taxi back to the Al Zahra and find that the only bed spare is the one by the door in my old apartment which is still warm because the Scottish bloke has been sleeping in it all day.
We arrive at the Moevenpick. The taxi drives through the security gate and pulls up in front of the steps to the hotel. This place looks impressive. There won’t be any leaky roofs here. Before I get out the American girl makes it clear she does not want to be seen with me for fear of having her stay at the hotel shortened. I’m on my own for this one.
The reception desks are to the far left as you walk in. The concierge takes my bag. I’m not sure I should let him. Wearing dirty trainers, muddy jeans and without a reservation booking, I trudge over to the desk. This is not going to be the night I had hoped for, is it? The streets of Jalazone Camp flash through my mind. Imagine if I was in Jalazone Camp tonight, experiencing the real conditions of Palestine. Guilt creeps over me as I remember the things Mousa Anbar told me about life in the camp.
I hand over my passport and tell the receptionist I already have a booking. He wanders off. A few moments later he returns.
“Are you with the FIFA delegation?” he asks.
I nod and say yes. He hands me a credit card key and tells me my room number is 114.
I am so happy. So happy. I don’t have to go back to Al Zahra. I’ve secured the luxury option. Then I think about those three young men in the barber shop in Jalazone Camp. And the kids playing in the dark street. That’s where I should be sleeping. That would be the memory to take home with me, a never-to-be forgotten experience of how these Palestinians live. That’s what I really want to experience on this trip. Instead, after a luxurious dinner, I fall asleep in my huge double bed wondering if tomorrow I will see the youths in National Youth Week.
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