The Separation Barrier, more accurately know as: The Apartheid Wall

Palestine

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Since 2002 the Israeli government have been constructing a wall on land within the West Bank. The stated purpose of this wall for the security of Israel; to protect the citizens of Israel from the terrorism of the Palestinians. However, the wall does not follow the internationally recognised border between the state of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, known as the green line. When it is completed 85% of the wall will be on Palestinian land. The wall is serving Israel in annexing large sections of the West Bank and confiscating valuable agricultural land and water sources.The International Court of Justice has stated that the construction of the wall is illegal under international law and is having “an enormously negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by the Palestinian people”*.

View a map of the wall here: http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_west_bank_barrier_route_update_july_2011.pdf

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During my time in Palestine I have visited many different neighbourhoods which have been badly affected by the construction of the wall. I have also met many individuals whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the wall. On a visit to Bethlehem, I walked along the side of the wall taking photographs of the art which covers it. As I followed the path of the wall I turned a corner and found a house surrounded on three sides by the 9 metre high concrete wall. The woman inside, noticing my friends and me, came out to speak to us and asked us to step inside her shop and listen to her story. She introduced herself as Clare Anastas a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem and told us that before the wall was constructed, her house had been located on the main road into Bethlehem just by the holy site of Rachel’s Tomb. Her husband and her ran two successful businesses and were not short of trade. However, when the wall was built it cut off their house from the rest of the town, and she now receives few visitors. To try and survive she has relocated her business online and is working desperately to try and let people know about her business and her plight. Clare and her family cannot escape from the presence of the occupation which has engulfed their family home. They can no longer go onto the roof of there building because, as they can see over the wall to the Israeli military base from there, the military have declared it illegal for them to do so. On all sides their house is watched by Israeli military surveillance cameras.

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The wall surrounding the Anastas’ family home was built by the Israelis in order to annex Rachel’s Tomb, a holy place for both Jews and Muslims, into the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Muslims, without the necessary permit, are now unable to visit this holy site. As I walked passed the wall surrounding it I saw two muslims kneeling to pray towards Rachel’s Tomb (photo below).

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On a different trip to Bethlehem I visited the village of Al Walaja. Once the wall is completed the entire village of Al Walajah will be surrounded on all sides by the wall. We drove through the village and saw the planned route of the wall, which will separate the village from the three  illegal Israeli settlements, which encircle the village. We visited the house of a man whose home lies just outside where the wall will be. This man has refused to leave his home and the Israeli military are unable to demolish it because he has papers to prove he has owned his home since before 1948. To get around this the Israeli military have built him a tunnel through which he alone can access his house. Once the wall around Al Walajah is completed he will have to cross a checkpoint to go to his house and will not be able to have any visitors. His home will be like a prison, as will the whole of the village of Al Walajah, which will be blocked from all sides by the apartheid wall.

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On Sunday, following a tour of Beit Ummar by the Palestinian Solidarity Project our tour guide Mousa took us to the village of Al Jab’a to visit his sister and to learn about the circumstances of this village. Al Jab’a lies in the path of the wall which Israel has scheduled for construction at a later stage. The Israelis appear to be trying to make life as harsh and arduous as possible for the residents of this village so that they will abandon their homes and leave. Since 2002, the road connecting the village to the nearest Palestinian village of Surif has been blocked by large concrete blocks. This means that residents of Al Jab’a must travel to Surif on foot to attend school, visit their nearest medical centre or buy food. We travelled along the bumpy stone track from Surif towards Al Jaba’a in a service until we reached the barrier which blocks this road from the settler only road which runs along one side of Al Jab’a towards the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. We alighted our service and walked towards the settler road. We noticed vans carrying Palestinians, which stopped by the road blocks, to drop them off after a days work on settlements or in Israel. Our group, having become accustomed to Palestinian roads, all remarked at how smooth and black the tarmac on the settler road was as we walked along the side of it towards Al Jab’a. We climbed up the bank by the side of the road and arrived at Al Jab’a, the village is under developed, deeply lacking in basic infrastructure and covered in rubbish. The future for the one thousand residents of Al Jab’a looks bleak; house demolitions are common and once the construction of the wall is completed the village will be blocked off from the rest of the West Bank. The aim of the Israeli military appears to be to connect the three settlements that surround Al Jab’a and annex the village and its land within the state of Israel.

In Jerusalem the construction of the wall has been used by Israel to support the annexation of East Jerusalem into the state of Israel. Palestinian citizens inside the wall have been cut off from the West Bank and become aliens within the state of Israel, ruled by the law of a state which they are not citizens of. On the other side of the wall, Palestinians have been cut off from their capital city, their most holy sites and the economic centre of the region. This has had a devastating impact on the Palestinian economy, preventing thousands of Palestinians from travelling to Jerusalem to trade goods and find work. Inside the wall in East Jerusalem the Palestinian economy within central Jerusalem has also been depressed by the wall, which has cut off the centre of the city from it’s suburbs.

The wall is the most pertinent symbol of the system of Israeli apartheid. However, it is just one part of a bigger system which is designed to permanently oppress the Palestinian people. It is supported by a system of segregation in which two people live side by side but our governed by different laws, drive on separate roads and have different rights. Israeli citizens and internationals move freely throughout Israel and the OPT. But, Palestinians freedom of movement is restricted by checkpoints and roadblocks. According to survey carried out by OCHA, in 2o11, Palestinians encountered 522 restrictions of movement. These restrictions mean that journey times for Palestinians are extended by two to five times. Palestinians are forced to carry ID cards at all times, these demarcate where they are allowed to travel. Palestinians in East Jerusalem have blue IDs; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have green IDs. Settler violence is a growing threat to Palestinians. According to Yesh Din, the number of attacks resulting in casualties and damage to property has increased by 144% from 2009 to 2011. These crimes are carried out with virtual impunity, between 2005 and 2012 91% of investigations carried out by Israeli authorities into settler violence were closed without indictment.* Conversely, Palestinians prosecution rates under Israeli military law are close to 100%.

Across the West Bank there are many extraordinary and tragic stories of livelihoods destroyed and futures blackened by the construction of the wall. The state of Israel justifies the construction of the apartheid wall through the claim that it is necessary to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorism. This argument appears to have convinced most Israelis who attribute the drop in Palestinian suicide bombings with the building of the wall. However, correlation is not causation. The drop in Palestinian violence has more likely resulted from the change in tactics by the Palestinian leadership. Hamas announced a ceasefire in 2005 which resulted in a dramatic drop in suicide bombings. Palestinian’s are increasingly embracing the idea of non-violent resistance as the best way to fight the occupation. But even if it had resulted in a drop in violence against Israeli citizens it would not be justified. The building of the wall for the security of Israel is the collective punishment of the Palestinian population, this is illegal under international law – but, when did that mean anything to Israel?

*Special Rapporteur for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism (2007), statement made in 2007 during his mission to Israel and the OPT

*Yish Din Monitoring Unit (2012), Law Enforcement Upon Israeli Civilians in the West Bank, Data Sheet

To find out more about the Israeli apartheid or to join the campaign against the wall visit: Stop the Wall.

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The Judaisation of Al Quds

Palestine

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A few weeks ago I expressed a desire to visit the village of Silwan near the Old City of Jerusalem (Al Quds) to my team leader Ruhan, as the students working on the R2E campaign had told us about the difficulties children living in Silwan experience in accessing education. Ruhan agreed to arrange a tour of east Jerusalem, which would take us to Silwan, with grassroots Jerusalem. After being cancelled once and rescheduled twice we finally went on this long awaited tour on Friday (18th May), and, although we didn’t get the lunch we had expected, or actually visit Silwan, the insight the tour gave us into the systematic Judaisation of this ancient city by the Israelis made it well worth the wait.

Due to the combined factors of having to drag hungover members of our party out of bed on Friday morning, following a late night at Snowbar – our favourite Thursday night destination, and delays crossing the Qalandia check point between Ramallah and Jerusalem, we arrived at the office of Grassroots Jerusalem later than scheduled. Our Israeli tour guide Micha therefore had to give us a rushed 20th century history of Jerusalem, which we listened to whilst enjoying Arabic coffee and waiting for the tour bus to arrive. I have heard this history many times but am always fascinated by the many different angles with which the same series of events can be told. Micha set the history of the rise of Zionism within the context of the rise of nationalism and self determination which occurred after the Second World War as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires fell apart. It is out of this time that Zionism gathered popularity and became a powerful force which then during the 1930s mobilised european Jews to flee persecution by migrating to Palestine. Following the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Nazi Germany an influx of Jews from Europe to Palestine occurred on a massive scale. The next few years saw the Zionist forces within Palestine become more ruthless in their determination to safeguard the continuation of their race by achieving their own nation state, fighting the British, who held the UN mandate for Palestine, and the Palestinians. Once the British withdrew from Palestine the Jews, between 1947 and 1948, forcefully removed the Palestinian population (approx. 700,000 people) from the territory now recognised by International Law as Israel (Ilan Pappe on the Nakba: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUDh-jTa3Go). This event known as the Nakba (disaster) was commemorated in Palestine on May 15th by protests and demonstrations in the cities of the West Bank. Israel has deliberately tried to hide the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, which led to the creation of their state by, for example, cutting state funding to any educational institution which teach the Nakba, thereby essentially making it illegal to teach it.

The city of Jerusalem has great historical significance for all the monotheistic religions and has been a melting pot of different creeds and cultures for thousands of years. Before 1948 however, the city whilst containing Christians, Jews and Muslims had a demographic majority of Arabs. Following the creation of the state of Israel the city was cut in two, the western half now belonged to the new Jewish state of Isreal and the eastern half to the Palestinians, under the rule of the Kingdom of Jordan. As we set out on our tour of east Jerusalem we drove along the road upon which this border used to sit. Today the border, despite still being recognised under International Law as the separation between the state of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, is not signposted. The line between east and west has been deliberately blurred so that Jerusalemites cross the border without noticing. Following the 6 day war in 1967, in which Israel invaded the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights (Syria) and the Sinai desert (Egypt), the eastern half of the city of Jerusalem was illegally annexed into Israel.

Since 1967, Israel has been pursuing a series of deliberate policies to achieve a demographic majority of Jews within Jerusalem and today the city, within its official municipal borders, has a 65% majority of Jews. This is set to increase as the Israelis continue to force out Palestinians still living in the east of the city. This has been achieved through the redrawing of the municipal boundaries to take up the largest geographical space whilst leaving out the greatest possible number of Palestinians. Micha explained that when the municipal boundaries were redrawn they deliberately excluded nearby Palestinian villages whilst including their surrounding farmland. Construction in the east of the city has also been deliberately stifled. Green zoning laws were introduced in the central part of east Jerusalem limiting construction, where building permits were successfully gained, to below four stories. This led to a rise in construction in the suburbs of the city where permits could more easily be acquired and a population increase in these areas. When the separation barrier was built at the beginning of the 21st century however, the suburbs of east Jerusalem were cut off from the centre of the city, with dire economic consequences.

The Separation Wall

Our tour took us around the eastern section of Jerusalem which lies within the wall. The situation for Palestinians living in this area is extremely difficult. They are effectively living within the state of Israel but do not have citizenship rights. The only rights they have are based on their residency, which in order to maintain they must prove that their ‘centre of life’ is in the city and they must not leave the city for more than three years. The ‘centre of life’ policy means that if they are found to have a job outside of Jerusalem or their children go to school outside of Jerusalem they will lose their right of residency. Palestinians pay tax to the city authorities of the same amount as Jewish residents but they do not receive equal services in return. As we travelled around east Jerusalem we observed that as we passed Jewish settlements the roads were properly tarmacked roads with pavements, there were bus stops and the streets were clean and orderly. Once we passed out of the settlement to where the Palestinians live these things disappeared and instead we saw uncollected rubbish littering the side of the road. Palestinian neighbourhoods to not receive basic infrastructure, such as water or roads, or adequate public services such as health care or education. There is a dire shortage of schools in the area and the schools that are there have a 50% drop out rate. Micha told us that even for the few children from the area who do make it through high school education they face great difficulties in continuing their educational development. They have three options: they could attend the Hebrew University, but all courses are taught in Hebrew. Or they could attend the Al Quds University which is located beyond the separation wall however, any qualifications they gain there will not be recognised by the authorities in Israel and they will therefore continue to receive minimum wage, even if they have qualified as a doctor. Or they have the option of going abroad, but if their course means that they are away for more than three years they would lose their right of residency.

As I have described it so far, the situation for Palestinians in Jerusalem seems bleak however the deliberate policy of Israel to Judaise the city goes much further. The Israeli authorities carry out house demolitions to cleanse the area of Palestinian families. They arrive one day with a notice claiming that the building does not have the correct permits for construction and charge the occupants 1000 shekels (approx. £200) per month until the house is demolished. If the family fail to demolish their own home, as many now do in response to such notices, the Israeli bulldozer turns up one morning and within an hour reduces the family home to rubble. The, newly homeless, tenants then receive a 90,000 shekel (approx. £18,000) charge for the work. In addition to this more and more Jewish settlements have emerged in east Jerusalem. Micha described to us how the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has changed from the setting up of communities on hill tops to the invasion of Palestinian communities from the centre, such as in Hebron. After the tour we visited the neighbourhood of Sheik Jarrah and spoke to Mr Nasser who was evicted from his family home in August 2009. Following their eviction a family of settlers moved into his home. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon experience in Sheikh Jarrah. Micha told us that out of 32 houses in Sheikh Jarrah 14 currently have eviction or demolition orders. The neighbourhood is made up of refugees dating back from the creation of the state of Israel. It is shocking to me that having fled their lands in 1948, today they are still being hassled to leave the land where they sought refuge 65 years ago.

Israeli settlers look on at the protest outside the home they moced into following the eviction of Mr Nasser

In the afternoon we joined the community on one of their weekly peaceful demonstrations. This was a particularly large demonstration in anticipation of an important court ruling which was to be given the following Monday on an appeal by a Palestinian family facing eviction. It was inspiring to march alongside Israelis and Palestinians to demand justice for the residents of Sheikh Jarrah and an end to settlement expansion in Jerusalem. The demonstration was unusually peaceful as the neighbourhood had won a previous court ruling to prevent the IDF entering the area. It was strange to be on a pro Palestinians protest without fearing violence from the Israeli forces and it felt as though we were somewhere where the right to protest is respected, and not in Israel where just a few days before, on Nakba day, Palestinian protests were quashed with tear gas and rubber bullets (or rubber coated steal bullets in some cases).

Protest outside Mr Nasser's house

Our tour guide Micha gave us a powerful insight into the workings of the system of oppression operated by the Israelis in east Jerusalem. It was especially interesting to hear his personal views as an Israeli born and raised in Jerusalem who had served in the army from the age of 18 to 21. He described how he came to understand the reality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine whilst serving in the city of Hebron. He was posted there to protect the settlers from the Palestinians, but quickly realised that it was the Palestinians that needed protecting from the violent settlers (watch Micha discussing this on Breaking the Silence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=DdRBO1jpDws). Through this he came to see the reality of the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank; through providing protection for the settlers they facilitate the expansion of the settlements. After leaving the army he worked alongside his friends, travelling around Israel and collecting testimonies from soldiers about their experiences during their national service. Out of this came Breaking the Silence, an organisation of veteran soldiers which seeks to expose the reality of the role of the Israeli army in the OPT to the Israeli population in order to provoke debate. Micha stopped working with Breaking the Silence a few years ago and became involved in Grassroots Jerusalem where he now works closely with Palestinian communities in east Jerusalem to empower them to find resolutions to the challenges they face. He is deeply sceptical of the role of international NGOs in Palestine as they do not act in the needs of local communities and have served to create a culture of dependency and to normalise the occupation. He has committed himself therefore, to working from the grass-roots, by encouraging local communities to became politically engaged. In teaching us about the situation he hopes that we can increase the international public’s understanding of the situation and encourage support for the BDS movement. He did not hold back in stating the obvious reality of what Israel is today: an apartheid state. The creation of this has been a deliberate policy by the state and until the international community calls Israel out on its crimes nothing will change. Micha also called on us to look beyond the Zionist forces in are efforts to understand the driving force behind the occupation – who else stands to gain? (Visit http://whoprofits.org/ to read more about the capitalist forces driving the continuation of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine)

Find out more about Sheikh Jarrah here: http://www.en.justjlm.org/ and more about the organisation Micka works for here: http://www.grassrootsalquds.net/

The View From Hebron

Palestine

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On Saturday 4th May our group took a trip to Hebron.

With a population of 170,000 Hebron is the largest city in the West bank, it is also one of the places where the occupation can most obviously be seen.

Since the start of the occupation in 1967, small Israeli settlements have been built in the centre of Hebron in the old city, which used to be the commercial hub of the southern West Bank. Following the 1994 massacre in the Ibrahimi mosque, the Israeli law enforcement and security forces have pursued an overt policy of separation in Hebron. The intention of this policy is to segregate the Israeli settlers from the Palestinian majority. Furthermore, under the Oslo Protocols in 1997 Hebron was divided between H1 and H2; the Palestinian authority controls H1, whilst H2 is under Israeli military control. As a consequence of this division the movement of Palestinians is severely restricted within H2. The policy of separation in Hebron has had devastating consequences for the local economy. Whole streets, where once there were shops and businesses, are now empty. The economic impact and the violations of Palestinian’s human rights have compacted the suffering of Palestinians in Hebron and led many to leave the centre of the city. For those that remain living in such close proximity to violent Israeli settlers and soldiers who are there to protect the invaders is a continuous battle. But, to exist is to resist and their continuing presence is one last act of defiance against the occupiers.

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We visited the Ibrahimi Mosque (pictured above), the site of the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshipers by an Israeli settler. Since this incident, which resulted in riots and the killing of 21 more Palestinians by Israeli forces, access to the Mosque by Muslims has been restricted. 60% of the Mosque is now used exclusively as a place for Jewish worship. Muslims must enter the Mosque by a side entrance, passing through a security gate before doing so, furthermore access to the Mosque is restricted by its position in H2 meaning that Palestinians must pass through a checkpoint before visiting the Mosque. This action by the Israeli forces has had the effect of punishing the victims of a crime.

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Whilst removing my shoes outside of the main room of the Mosque I met a Palestinian man named Ahmed who offered to give me a tour of the Mosque. He showed me around the Mosque explaining the history of the building, which has been a place of worship for thousands of years and has been used by Christians and Muslims at different points in history.

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After leaving the Mosque Ahmed and his friend Ruben offered to give us a tour of H2. They led us past the soldiers and down the hill into the Old City of Hebron. They told us that if they were alone they wouldn’t feel safe to walk around H2 but as they are in the company of Internationals the soldiers were unlikely to bother them. Even so there were some streets which we walked up alone leaving our guides to wait with the soldiers as they were not allowed to walk there. It is completely ridiculous that as British citizens, born thousands of miles away, we were able to walk these streets and yet men who were born and raised in Hebron are unable to.

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Al shuhada street, once the main market street of Hebron, is today a ghost town with all the businesses boarded up and only soldiers and a few tourists walking around. The segregation of the city has had a devastating impact on the economy of the old city where today 77% of Palestinians live beneath the poverty line. According to a survey done by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 2007, 1 829 Palestinian shops located in H2 have closed since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. This is mainly due to military orders, curfews and the closure regime imposed by the Israeli authorities hampering economic activity.*

*Source: TIPH: Hebron Today

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There is a heavy military presence in Hebron with approximately 3000 Israeli soldiers. The soldiers are there to protect the 500 settlers from the 30,000 Palestinians who reside within H2. According to B’Tselem (The Israeli Centre for Human Rights in the OPT) soldiers often do nothing to protect Palestinians from settler violence and do not enforce the law for Palestinians or bring assailants to justice. Apart from a soldier shouting at a group of young boys who were trying to sell us sweetcorn we did not witness any incidents between soldiers and Palestinians. In fact, in some cases the soldiers seemed to have good relationships with the Palestinians, there was no obvious animosity between them.

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After walking around the Old City we visited one of the few remaining Palestinian businesses within H2, a pottery shop selling beautiful hand painted bowls, mugs and plates. The man who owned this shop had been successful in taking out a court order against the closure of his shop because his house is attached to the shop.

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Whilst in the shop we were given a demonstration of how they shape the clay on the wheel. The man made it look incredibly easy, quickly and effortlessly molding a candle stick and then a little vase and then a pot with a lid which fitted the pot perfectly. During this display a large group of Israeli school girls entered the shop accompanied by a tour guide. Their tour guide gave them a running narrative about the history of the shop and it’s owner, most of which was extremely biased and carried a racist undertone. He told them that the owner of the shop was a “good Arab” whose Grandfather had sheltered Jews during the 1929 attack on Jews in Hebron and that is why his shop had been allowed to stay open. He also made a comment about how tourists visiting Hebron don’t look for examples such as these where Palestinians are able to make a good living and have good relations with Israelis, instead all they want is a picture of a soldier and not to see the reality that “peace is breaking out in Hebron”.

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This was one of the first time I have come into such close contact with Israelis whilst in the West Bank and found it very uncomfortable particularly when one of the young girls turned to me and asked me, most sweetly, “What are you doing in Israel?” I moved outside so as not to have to listen to the guide and was put to work painting an espresso cup which I was later given as a gift. Once the group had left the men in the shop offered our group tea and we sat outside and talked with a young Palestinian man named Abdallah about the political situation in Palestine. He was keen to make us aware of the reality of the situation for Palestinians living in Hebron and offered to show us the settlements in the Old City. After leaving the shop Abdallah took us onto the roof of a Palestinian house from which we could see the Israeli military base (I was unable to take photographs of this for obvious reasons). Then he showed us the house of a Palestinian family who lived metres away from an Israeli settlement. The family have suffered much abuse from the settlers. Abdullah told us that one settler had poured chemical acid onto one of their children. I can’t be sure that this is true but it is certainly well known that settlers in Hebron are particularly violent towards Palestinians. Their house lies below the settlement, when you look up from outside their house, through the barbed wire, you can see the steps into the settlement.

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We visited another settlement which was established in 1984 when a group of Israelis placed portable caravans on a hill top believed to be within the biblical location of Hebron where the tombs of Ruth and Jesse are said to be. Abdullah was unable to walk with us to these settlements as they are tightly protected. Most of the Palestinian residents near to this settlement have left. However, the neighbours who are an elderly husband and wife refuse to leave. As a consequence of their refusal to leave they live under a very strange situation where they must apply every 6 months for a permit to give them permission to leave their house. Their children are not allowed to visit their house (the second picture below).

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The policy being pursued in Hebron is indefensible. The need to protect the security of the settlers is grossly exaggerated but more importantly the threat to their safety is self imposed by their insistence upon living in occupied territory where they have no right to reside. The only sensible option is to evacuate the 500 settlers to Israel and allow the city to return to normality without the fragmentation of the city through the presence of the security forces of the illegal occupier.

Dinner in Aida Camp

Palestine

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This is Islam. Islam was born in Aida Refugee Camp and continues to live there today with her husband Ahmad and their six children. The eldest of Islam’s children is named Mohammed. Mohammed is mentally disabled, meaning that he requires additional care. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides schools and health centre in Aida Camp. However, the schools do not have the capacity to accommodate disabled children like Mohammed. This means that Mohammed cannot go to school and his full time care and education are Islam’s responsibility.

NOOR Women’s Empowerment Group is a grassroots project created by and for women in Aida Camp with disabled children. With the help of international volunteers they run cooking classes for internationals to learn how to cook traditional Palestinian food. This was an initiative created by the group to generate extra income to help them in meeting the costs of providing care and education to their disabled children. The lessons provide an enriching experience for internationals to learn about life in the camp. International volunteers have been providing the women’s group with English lessons for three years and Islam’s English is now sufficient to enable her to tell her guests about her recipes as well as her experiences in the camp. It is hoped that this skill will enable Islam to continue the classes once the international volunteers have left.

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On Sunday, Islam and her friend Salua showed our group how to make a dish called Mujadara, a humble dish of rice, lentils and pasta covered in caramelised onions, and served with salad and yoghurt. This was followed by a generous slice of Basbussa, a delicious cake made with Semolina and Coconut. The women in Aida Camp are used to catering for their large families and there was plenty of food to go around. Dinner was followed by tea, and then coffee to relieve the food coma induced by the large portions.

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Visiting the camp and being warmly received into the family home of Palestinian refugees was an incredible experience. After dinner Islam’s family began to arrive home – Islam’s six children, her sister and her children, and Ahmad joined us. When the cooking classes began Ahmad had been apprehensive about allowing internationals into his family home however, he seemed relaxed in our presence and engaged us in conversation. Ibtehal, Islam’s ten-year-old daughter, was keen to practice her English and enthusiastically showed me her schoolbooks containing lines of very neat English vocabulary. I was reluctant to leave having enjoyed helping Ibtehal with her English. I hope to visit again if I have chance to return to Bethlehem, as the family were so welcoming.

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The people of Aida Camp are refugees from the 1948 Nakba (disaster) who were displaced during the creation of the state of Israel. Having been forcefully removed from their villages by the Israeli army they have lived in Aida camp ever since, awaiting a time when they will be granted their Right of Return. It is not at all clear when this might be and as time goes by it seems less and less likely. Meanwhile, conditions in the camp continue to get worse as the funds granted to UNWRA decrease. The building of the Separation Wall by Israel in 2002, following the second Intifada, has exacerbated the degradation of conditions. Unemployment is a massive problem in the camp as men, like Ahmad, who used to travel to Jerusalem to find labour can no longer do so due to the presence of the Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

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Visiting NOOR Women’s Empowerment Group and taking part in one of Islam’s cookery lessons is a must do for anyone planning a trip to Palestine. It allows you to meet the victims of the Nakba, who continue to suffer today thanks to the on-going illegal Israeli occupation, but more importantly, it demonstrates the resilience and tenacity of the Palestinian people and provides an opportunity to experience their exceptional hospitality.

Find out more about NOOR Women’s Empowerment Group here: http://noorweg.wordpress.com/

Restiamo Umani

Palestine

Restiamo Umani

” We must remain human, even in the most difficult times …
Because, despite everything, there must always be humanity within us. We have to bring it to others.” Vittorio Arirgoni

Vittorio Arirgoni was an Italian reporter and solidarity activist with the International Solidarity Movement. He entered Gaza in 2008 via the first Free Gaza mission to break Israel’s siege of the area and stayed in Gaza until his death. He was assassinated in Gaza on 15th April 2011.