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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