Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA (Tuesday 7 February)

Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA (Tuesday 7 February)

PREVIOUS: Conscience and power I’m an election analyst, so I love maps and numbers. They are also in my comfort zone, particularly in a situation like this one where emotions run high. I am moved when I meet someone who has suffered injustice, as I was when I saw Omar’s Kafkaesque situation at Al-Walajah yesterday, as it would take a heart of stone (or concrete) not to be. But I am also conscious that these are not the only human tragedies in the conflict, and that the grief of the people who lost friends and family in suicide bombings or rocket attacks is not to be ignored. Human sympathy is, or should be, universal although in Israel/ Palestine it often appears that it is not fully extended to the innocents (still less the combatants) on either side. But maps and numbers can tell me what the overall situation is like; one sometimes needs distance to make out the landscape. This visit, and my trip in January to Moldova, have made me think more highly of the United Nations. There are two principal UN organisations in the Palestinian territories, namely UNRWA (Relief and Works Agency, which deals with refugees) and OCHA-OPT (Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territory). We visited OCHA at its modest offices in an old building in East Jerusalem (none of that UN luxury that the tabloids always complain about!)  for a briefing, based around numbers and maps. The OCHA briefing covered a lot of subjects, and it informs a lot of what I’ve written elsewhere. I strongly advise going and having a look at the OCHA website at http://www.ochaopt.org/ which publishes much of the valuable research and analysis that OCHA does in the occupied territories. Much of what we learned was deeply depressing, and confirmed the evidence of one’s eyes, that normal life in the West Bank was frequently disrupted for its inhabitants, and that the interests of settlers were always placed ahead of the Palestinians. There was, in the background, the horrifying prospect that the West Bank would become like the caged dystopia of Gaza. We didn’t go to Gaza. Hardly anyone does. The OCHA briefing was as close as we got. It is very difficult to get into Gaza unless one is working for an international organisation, but it is even harder to get out. While the West Bank is a complex tangle, the situation in Gaza is brutally simple. It is a tiny fragment of territory, only 360 square kilometres in size (a bit smaller than Rutland), with a million and a half people crammed into it. Since the Israeli army pulled out the few thousand settlers from Gaza in...

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BETHLEHEM: THE BIGGEST KEY IN THE WORLD (Friday 10 February)

BETHLEHEM: THE BIGGEST KEY IN THE WORLD (Friday 10 February)

Jerusalem to Bethlehem is, like most other journeys in the area, short but sometimes a bit fraught. Traffic in Bethlehem was gridlocked on the afternoon we visited, putting our whole schedule out of phase. Not surprisingly, Bethlehem is a Christian centre, dominated by the memory of a time long ago when one particular Palestinian Jewish family were shunted around the country at the behest of the authorities. Manger Square is a large, open expanse, the Church of the Nativity on one side. The Church is from the outside a rather forbidding building, although the atmosphere is gentle indeed compared to Hebron. Worshippers and tourists enter through a small door, not even head height, which was built initially as a defensive measure but now ensures one bows one’s head in reverence when approaching the birthplace of Jesus. There has been a church here for an extremely long time, dating back to the Emperor Constantine’s mother who as a Christian took an interest in the site. There were oral traditions before that, recorded by second century writers, that the cave now under the church was the actual place where the Holy Family rested. There is a fourth-century mosaic floor, rediscovered in 1934, of great beauty and clarity. The current buildings date to the early sixth century. But somehow the place spoke to me of the longevity of the Church rather than the presence of Christ. The administration of the building is, like that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an inter-denominational mess. Bethlehem is probably, because of Christian pilgrims, the most-visited place in the West Bank, and it is a happier, livelier and busier place for that. But it does suffer from the problems inflicted by the occupation of the West Bank. There was a nasty conflict here in 2002. There is a particularly crass section of the Wall near the town, which takes a long, thin detour to put Rachel’s Tomb on the far side of the barrier from the rest of the city. As in Hebron, a thriving tourist and pilgrimage centre was destroyed (see the OCHA OPT report, page 6). Bethlehem also has its share of refugees. One such as is the Aida camp, a mere 7.34km from Jerusalem but separated by the Wall. It dates back to 1951 and is home to about 5,000 people. We arrived at Aida at dusk. The camp is hard by the Wall, and has suffered from conflict – during the second intifada in 2002 the windows of the UNRWA school there were blocked up because of Israeli gunfire. In 2009, during a Papal visit, the intention had been for Pope Benedict to speak to people from a platform in front of...

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YAD VASHEM (Friday 10 February)

YAD VASHEM (Friday 10 February)

Yad Vashem is more than a museum. Physically, it reminded me of a campus university, set on a forested hillside on the edge of Jerusalem, and it is of course a centre of scholarship on the Holocaust as well as a museum, national shrine and place of pilgrimage. I had a brief, damp, wander around the garden of remembrance for the Righteous Among the Nations, paying my respects at the tree commemorating Oskar Schindler and noting one English name among them (Charles Coward, a brave soldier who helped 400 Jews escape Auschwitz and testified at Nuremberg). But the museum is a focal point, housed in a low concrete building the shape of a mutilated half-star of David. Anything one writes about the Holocaust seems trite. Like any European with an ounce of intelligence or empathy, I have stared into this abyss before as a reader, and as a traveller I have been to Auschwitz, Stutthof, Babi Yar and other defiled places, and to Berlin’s museums and memorials. Yad Vashem is different in some ways, in that the ground it is built upon is not complicit in the evil of the Shoah but instead implies a kind of complicated redemption from that valley of death. As a museum it is of course fascinating and thoughtful. One of the first bits of museological design one comes across is a ditch across the main route of the exhibition containing contemporary copies of the forbidden literature burned by the Nazis on Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933. It evokes the German-Jewish writer Heine’s amazingly prescient words of 1821: Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen (Wherever they burn books, they end up burning people) Crossing the ditch of discarded books takes one to a realm of cruelty and degradation. In the museum there were some artefacts of anti-Semitism I had not seen, or perhaps not registered, the like of which before – anti-Semitic board games from Nazi Germany and a nose-measuring tool so-called scientists used in racial classification, for instance. There was also some harrowing testimony from a survivor of the Sonderkommando, who had encountered evil cruelty at its most extreme. The terrifying singularity of the Aktion Reinhard ‘camps’ – although camp is a misnomer for these genocide factories – defies the imagination. How could these small places, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, run by human not demons, kill millions and then fade back into the countryside from which they emerged? Yet it happened, in my father’s lifetime. It’s somehow shocking that the birds still sing, that the stones do not cry out in horror and...

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ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL (PART 3) (Friday 10 February)

ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL (PART 3) (Friday 10 February)

There were a number of alternatives for the Friday, and a number of us decided to go down to Jerusalem in the morning to see museums and other sights. Friday is a bit of a part-day in Israel, because things start closing down in the early afternoon for Shabbat. This affects a surprisingly wide range of sites and activities, not just those with a Jewish religious dimension. So we got up early and took a taxi to Qalandia. The Palestinian-registered driver dropped us off on his side of the checkpoint. Getting through the checkpoint on foot was an interesting experience, and one that few visitors undergo because they will usually either be in an Israeli-registered vehicle and able to drive through, or able to cross through one of the less confrontational checkpoints.  The checkpoint is like a cattle market, with narrow metal ‘runs’ from the Palestinian side towards some turnstiles. It would be impossible to wield luggage or a pram through these channels, and as a broad-shouldered Brit I found it distinctly uncomfortable to shuffle through. My fellow tourist Cherry was slight of build but still thought it was cramped and depressing. After the turnstiles were a row of entry points, with mechanically-controlled doors that would open with a harsh buzzing noise. Then there was a scanning machine for luggage and a desk staffed by an Israeli soldier who inspected one’s papers. Getting through was far from guaranteed –  I saw a family turned back, the father’s humiliation all too plain on his face – but I was a privileged foreign oddity. The Palestinians showed me what I was expected to do at each stage, the Israeli soldier asked me a couple of questions (in perfect English – she also spoke Hebrew and Arabic, of course), took a scan of my passport (which worried me a bit) and let me through. On the Jerusalem side, one emerged through a one-way door into a small bus and taxi station. The process took me about 10-15 minutes, but I had to wait about another 10 minutes for Cherry and the others. For me, it was irksome and a time spent in surroundings that seem to have been deliberately designed, from the too-small ‘runs’ to the turnstile, to the harsh noises all around, to be alienating and uncomfortable. I had a couple of weeks earlier visited the Tränenpalast museum at the old Friedrichstrasse crossing in Berlin, which seemed almost benign in comparison. But to shuffle through this on a regular basis – good grief. It must be a factory of resentment and humiliation. And it is the lucky ones who can come through, as most are not permitted. The reason that there...

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THE LONG WAY HOME (Thursday 9 February)

After a day in Hebron, most of us were tired and probably a bit upset by what we had seen. It certainly left me feeling drained, physically and mentally, and in need of a drink. But we had to get back to Ramallah, and we had a Palestinian on board who did not have an East Jerusalem residence permit. While it might have been possible to chance it and go through Jerusalem on the decent road and out the other side, it would have got him (and the East Jerusalemite driver) into deep trouble. It is quite possible to get stopped and hassled at an Israeli military checkpoint even within the West Bank, and our Palestinian friend had experienced this in the past. Because he has a Gaza-issued set of ID papers, he was threatened with deportation back to Gaza even though he was no friend of the Hamas regime there and would have been in danger from them, and even though his life was based in Ramallah now. Like many others suffering from oppression and arbitrary power, he tried his best to make a joke of it, but it really isn’t funny that an occupying army can threaten his livelihood in such a fashion. The Israeli authorities also arbitrarily deny transit papers between Gaza and the West Bank without making any security case against the individuals concerned, a real problem for ‘mixed’ families, students and anyone hoping for a better life than is possible in the hellhole of Gaza. While the Wall grows taller and longer, however, the number of checkpoints scattered across the West Bank has tended to fall and movement between West Bank towns is now much less restricted than it was a few years ago. But this does not mean that it is an easy matter to get around Palestine. As the crow flies, it is about 41km from Hebron to Ramallah – remember that we are talking about a very small area? But also remember the other thing about the landscape – that it is crinkled and mountainous. Going from one to the other without going through Jerusalem involves a lengthy up and down detour on curving, badly maintained roads well to the east of the city. It took over 2 hours, and I was glad that the bus driver was familiar with the route as the prospect of crashing in the dark was not a pleasant one. Needless to say, the long detour does nothing for safety, economic development and modernity in Palestine. For us, it was temporary but tedious. For others, it is a depressing fact of...

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HEBRON: “THINK OF THE POOR SHOPKEEPERS” (Thursday 9 February)

HEBRON: “THINK OF THE POOR SHOPKEEPERS” (Thursday 9 February)

If one is fortunate enough to be permitted to transit East Jerusalem, it is not too far from Ramallah to Hebron. The main road is used by settlers and it is therefore well-engineered and modern. One uses the Bethlehem by-pass that scoops out a section of Beit Jala before going through a tunnel. The road also features the one part of the Wall that I saw that was not brutalist concrete, but finished with stone cladding and had trees planted alongside it. Civil engineering is ingeniously employed to separate people and even to stop them seeing each other in the Jerusalem area, but further south around Hebron things become more explicit.   Entering Palestinian authority Area A is illegal for Israeli citizens. While there are reasonable grounds for concern about personal security of Israelis, and the authorities might choose to advise against such travel, this is not what this is about. After all, settlers establishing illegal outposts in Palestinian territory gain military protection rather than being picked up and sent home. Israeli peace activists who travel to Palestinian areas to speak to people, or to protest about conditions, have been hauled up in court after their safe return to Israel. As with much else, the travel ban seems to be deliberately intended to keep people apart and prevent them from seeing each other as human beings with interests in common. The Mayor of Hebron, Khaled Osaily, had a benevolent, avuncular manner and spoke with enthusiasm and charisma. What was perhaps most interesting about his remarks was how much he was thinking about normal local government matters, just like any other mayor of a medium-sized city on the planet. He was proud of Hebron’s achievements in e-government and the nearly paperless service at the municipality’s one-stop-shop, and of the sophisticated GIS mapping system and electronic water management scheme for Hebron. A technician showed us how the system works, including how pipes can be shut off; I thought for a moment that somewhere in Hebron, a person’s shower would suddenly run dry and they would never know that the cause was a visiting group of Brits at City Hall, but there is a 90-second failsafe on the mechanism. Hebron attracts large-scale aid funding because of its record at delivering projects within time and budget and making good use of them, and in the increasingly audited world of aid that makes it an attractive project for further aid projects. Osaily has developed two huge prestige projects in Hebron as well – an indoor sports arena and a new (opening March 2012) Korea-Palestine centre. The South Korean government has funded a large modern conference centre with facilities for music, IT training and education,...

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