Blog 10 – East Jerusalem

November 10, 2007


Once through Qalandia Checkpoint the no. 18 bus takes about 15 minutes to Nablus Street, and the Old City in East Jerusalem.  As the bus comes round a corner a few hundred meters from the American Colony Hotel, it is pulled over by a flying checkpoint – soldiers climb aboard and demand to see I.D.s and permits.  Something is not in order and two young Palestinian men are ordered off the bus by the soldiers before it is permitted to proceed. They left without a word but with a look of deep concern on their faces. Who knows what will become of them, but under Israeli military orders governing Palestinians living under occupation, they can receive up to six years imprisonment for travelling in Palestine with incorrect permits.


Jerusalem, or Al-Quds as it is known in Arabic, is important to three monotheist religions. The Dome of the Rock, on Temple Mount, covers a slab of stone that is thought to be the spot where Abraham almost sacrificed his son, and where Mohammed is thought to have ascended into heaven in AD 621. Just below the Dome of the Rock is the Western (Wailing) Wall, which is a retaining wall left from the Jewish Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 after the surpression of the revolt that led to the Jewish people being sent into exile. As if all that wasn’t enough, a 10 minute walk away is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is thought to be Calvary, the spot where Christ was executed in around 30 AD, also during the time of the Roman occupation.


Between 1917 and 1948 the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel (known collectively as Palestine) were occupied by the British under the Mandate. In 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted a partition plan which divided Mandated Palestine into a Jewish State (55%), an Arab State (45%) and with Jerusalem to be administered under a special international regime. The Arab population of Palestine and other Arab States rejected the partition plan, contending that it was unbalanced. On 14 May 1948 the British occupation came to an end and Israel proclaimed its independence based on the partition plan, and almost immediately, war broke out between Arab and Jew. The subsequent armistice signed in November 1948, left Israel occupying all of Palestine except East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. 


In the war of 1967 the remainder of Palestine, namely East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza were occupied by the Israeli army, and remain so to this day. In November of that year the UN Security Council passed resolution 242 which called for the withdrawal of the Israeli army from “all of the territories occupied in the recent conflict”. In 1971 the Security Council passed another resolution (res. 298) affirming that “all  legislative and administrative actions taken by Israel to change the status of the City of Jerusalem, including exporpriation of land and properties, transfer of populations and legislation aimed at the incorporation of the occupied section, are totally invalid and cannot change that status”. [1]


By 1977 there were 24 Israeli settlements in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) with a total population of 5,000 settlers. [2]

On 30 July 1980 the Israeli Knesset passed the Basic Law making Jerusalem the “complete and united” capital of Israel. No nation has thus far accepted this unilateral act of annexation. 

As of January 2007, there are 460,000 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.


The Arab Israeli taxi driver from the American Colony Hotel does not say much until we pass a hotel draped in American and Israeli flags – “Condoleeza Rice is staying there. She’s delivering invitations to the Peace conference. Peace! blah, blah, blah, – Israel doesn’t need peace.” It will be hard to build settlements were a comprehensive agreement signed.


Another day, another Arab Israeli taxi driver. We exchange bland chit chat until Ramallah is mentioned, then we talk of the olive harvest and the fact that the driver now has to buy olives – unthinkable!  Several years ago the Israeli Military Commander, Central Command, Judea and Samaria, issued him with an order stating that the Wall would be running through his land, the land of his father, and his father before him – the olive grove was to be requisitioned, and the trees uprooted. He was to be given 1000 New Israeli Shekels by the Israeli army per tree – “they can keep their money, as if our trees can be bought”.


There is a deep sense of pessimissm here. There is no great confidence that the old leadership is capable of negotiating an acceptable deal with the Israelis and all the time the little bit of Palestine that remains, is vanishing before everybody’s eyes. [3]


Sitting in the no. 18 bus on the way back to Ramallah, I remind myself not to talk of Jerusalem with my Palestinian friends – they can’t visit the city, and such talk will only make them sad.

From time to time one does hear an expression of optimism. At a recent book launch in Ramallah, Raja Shehadeh expressed it this way:- “With all the daily troubles and difficulties imposed on the Palestinians by the Occupation, the fact remains that most Palestinians choose to stay on their land, regardless of the hardship and all the efforts to make us leave.” 


Through a system of roadblocks, checkpoints, settlements, by-pass roads, closed military zones and permits, those Palestinians that do remain in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are being relentlessly squeezed into ever smaller zones around the major population centres and are, by and large, denied access to the beautiful city of Jerusalem.


This was the last Blog in the current series.

More photographs of Jerusalem and West Bank walks can be found at

Some links and resources that may be of interest are included below. [4]


[1] International Court of Justice, Advisory Opinion into the legal consequences of the construction of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (2004).

[2] The Occupation of Justice: The Supreme Court of Israel and the Occupied Territories – David Kretzmer at page 76.

[3] See

[4] Some links and resources:


Blog 9 – Harvesting in the Seam

November 3, 2007


Not far from Bethlehem is the little village of Battir.

The village clings to a steep hillside above the narrow and twisting valley through which the Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv railway runs. Along the opposite side of the valley runs the Green Line which is supposed to mark the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. The boundary in this sector has been turned into a national park and is covered with forest. Deep inside the forest lie the ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed shortly after 1948 and which have been erased from most maps.


The village of Battir is known for its cool clear spring waters that have supplied Jerusalem for centuries via a system of aquaducts. During the First Intifada the Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv train was derailed in the valley below the village. [1] Samia still remembers the screams of the men coming from the school house where they were all taken by the army for questioning. Those responsible for the derailment were not identified but all the village men were punished.

Battir is also known as one of the Palestinian seam villages –  a village that is trapped between the Green Line and the Wall, an area also known as the “closed zone“. Some 237,000 Palestinians live in this closed zone and face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. [2]


Closed zone or not, olives must be picked and so it was to Battir, Samia’s family home, that we travelled for the harvest. The taxi ride from Ramallah was uneventful and passed quickly thanks to an interesting commentary. Once the snarl of traffic trying to enter East Jerusalem through Qalandiawas left behind (see Blog 3), we shadowed the Wall skirting the city for about half an hour. Along the way we passed another checkpoint into Jerusalem used by the Israeli settler population. This checkpoint more resembles a toll booth where cars slow down and are visually inspected by border police who make a snap decision whether or not to stop the vehicle. The contrast with Qalandiais striking. Samia explains that some Palestinians do try to enter East Jerusalem through this entry point, but the penalties if caught without the proper permit are harsh. The driver of the vehicle can expect a stiff fine and the confiscation of the car for a period, whilst any person without the corect permit faces up to six years’ imprisonment. Although this great city is only 15 km from Ramallah, Samia laments that she hasn’t been for six years.


On now past the huge settlement of Maaleh Adumim south of Jerusalem, through the Valley of Fire and onwards south with the Judean Desert on our left. Without the Wall, this one and a half hour journey would take about 25-30 minutes.

As we approach Battir Samia and her sister exchange a few anxious words in Arabic – in the three weeks since they were last home the roads entering the village have either disappeared or are now blocked with concrete and barbed wire. Samia doesn’t know how to get into the village of her birth. The taxi pulls to the side of the road as Israeli settlers speed by and the sisters start telephoning friends and family in the village for directions. Several minutes later we proceed on down the road to the new entrance between the coils of barbed wire – “welcome to Battir”beams Samia.

Drama over, we quickly locate the olive grove where we will spend the day  and are welcomed by Samia’ s brother, father and aunt – “a true peasant” – Samia proudly proclaims. Within the hour there are about 20 of us, locals and internationals, busy up ladders or hauling sacks to the continuous soothing “plopping” sound made by olives landing on tarpaulins spread beneath the trees.


Around midday the smell of a wood fire fills the air and shortly after the call to prayer from a nearby mosque we sit down under the trees to a delicious lunch of Maqloobeh, which literally translates as “upside down chicken” followed by a siesta in a quiet shady spot. [3]


[1] Intifada means “uprising” in Arabic. There have been two Palestinian intifadas against Israeli occupation, the First Intifada (1987-1993) and the second, or al-Aqsa Intifada (2000 – present).

[2] International Court of Justice, Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinain Territory (2004) at paragraph 122.

[3] Maqloobeh:-

  1. Quarter a chicken and place in a large pot with olive oil.

  2. Add several onions, cinnamon sticks and cook until brown.

  3. Half boil some potatoes and carrots and add to the pot with pine nuts and herbs. 

  4. Cover the whole thing in rice and add water so as to cover the rice.
  5. Cook for around 30 minutes and then flip the pot upside down onto a large plate for serving.

     (Serves 4) (Mohammed the Arabic teacher’s recipe)

Blog 8 – The Boy

October 27, 2007

In the silver-shops of Ramallah you can find the familiar figure of the boy – Hanzala. He’s about 10 years old, standing barefoot with his back to you. He is cast in silver and sometimes hangs from a necklace, a bracelet or simply attached to a pin.

Hanzala is the creation of Naji Al-Ali, a Palestinian cartoonist famed for his political criticism of Israel and Arab politics alike. Naji grew up in a village near Nazareth, in the Galilee, in what is now northern Israel. In 1948, whilst still a small boy, Naji fled with his parents to Lebanon as the State of Israel was being carved out of Palestine. It was here, in Southern Lebanon, that the family set up home in a refugee camp, which remains home to Palestinian refugees to this day. These refugees are known simply as the “’48 Palestinians” who remember that time  as “the Naqba” – or in English – “the Catastrophe”.


The ’48 Palestinians and their descendants number around four million, and are scattered about various refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan or living in the general diaspora beyond. One of the many sticking points in previous peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis is the “right of return” for the ’48s. Simply put, they wish to return to their farms and villages in what is now the State of Israel.

But herein lies a tricky problem – today the population of Israel is about 6.9 million, of which about 1.4 million are Arab Israelis, Palestinians who, for one reason or another, didn’t flee from their villages in 1948. This is in addition to about 3.8 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. The fear, from an Israeli perspective, is that if 4 million Palestinians were permitted to return to their villages, coupled with a much higher birth rate, Israel would quickly cease to be a Jewish State. 

The most talked about solution to this problem is the creation of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 boarders which might consist of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Such an outcome is hardly likely to please many of the ’48 Palestinians who would almost certainly have to forever abandon the dream of returning to their original lands under any such deal.

How this difficult issue will be resolved with anything resembling justice or dignity whilst Israel refuses to dismantle its settlements in the West Bank, as required to do so under international law, and continues to build and expand upon existing settlements, is unclear. Such colonising activity in contravention of international law can only suggest an entirely different agenda to the publicly stated vision put forward by the Quartet of “two States living side by side in peace.” It’s a big ask to expect the ’48 Palestinians to abandon the dream of returning to their homes – probably an impossible one whilst Israel continues to carve up the little bit of Palestine that remains of what could concievably form a future state – this though, comes as news to nobody.

Back to the boy – my friend wears Hanzala as a pin on his jacket lapel, whether as a simple act of protest or as an act of remembrance, I don’t know, I don’t ask. When my friend was not much older than Hanzala he and the other village boys were rounded up by the army, held for 55 days and tortured. Somebody, it would seem, had been writing political graffiti on the walls around the local villages. 

Naji Al-Ali was hugely popular during his career as a cartoonist whilst also managing to upset almost everyone in the Middle East, Jew and Arab alike, his motivation simple –

 “When I was younger I thought I would actually be able to help achieve all our aspirations for independence, unity, justice. Many died for those aspirations and things are only getting worse. That, certainly, can make one; despair. But more than ever, I feel a sense of duty to go on doing what I have to and can do.”

Naji Al-Ali was assassinated in London in 1987, whilst working for the Kuwaiti newspaper, al-Qabas. The assassin has never been identified.

Hanzala’s hands are behind his back as a symbol of rejection of all the negative tides in the region, of which there are one or two.

Blog 7 – Autumn Rains and Harvest Time

October 21, 2007

The first rains of autumn fell over Palestine on Wednesday night heralding the start of the olive harvest. Olive harvests alternate between good years and not so good years in Palestine. Last year was a very good year for olives, and so expectations are modest 12 months on down the track. 


There is an official day off work during harvest time so that people can return to their villages to help out in the fields. A sub-group of the Shat-ha walkers will be heading south to harvest in a little village near Bethlehem in a week or so, during the final warm days before the cold sets in.


Mohammed (the Arabic teacher that is) has about fourteen trees in his garden in the village near Bil’in which he will be harvesting next week. Once the olives are picked they will be taken to the man with the press who produces the oil for 5% of what he can squeeze. The picking process itself involves climbing a tree and beating the branches with a large stick causing the olives to fall onto a tarpaulin below, as well as having the obligatory picnic in a shady spot.


Last week the walking group welcomed Raja Shehadeh back from his summer absence and headed off to the valleys and the hills around the village of Taybeh. [1] The village is Christian and famous for being the home of the West Bank’s only brewery, which produces  the “Taybeh Beer” brand, popular throughout Palestine and beyond, checkpoints permitting. Every September Taybeh hosts an Oktoberfest over the course of a weekend which attracts a large crowd and gives journalists the opportunity to write about another side of Palestine. [2]


Led by Saleh, we head out of the village through somebody’s garden, probably on the off chance there are still some tasty figs to be had this late in the season. After three hot hours of scrambling up and down olive terraces a nice shady spot is found under an ancient olive tree and the group gets stuck into the various goodies people have brought along for the trip. Unfortunately Najeh, who usually brings the tea making paraphernalia, is caught up with Eid celebrations, and so he and his equipment are absent. [3] This tealess state prompts an initial discussion about the pressing need for a tea making contingency plan, which once approved by the sub-committee, will swing into effect in time for future walks.


Although there are almost daily reports in some international press outlets about the proposed upcoming peace talks between the Palestinians, Israelis and others, there is little talk or interest here at the local level. Perhaps this is because everybody has seen it all before; or maybe because the elected representatives, Hamas, have not been invited as they are on a terrorist watchlist. People joke that they warned everybody about introducing democracy – “and see, look what happened“. When asked why Hamas won last year’s election the answer is almost always the same – Hamas provided good healthcare and schools, and people were simply tired of the corruption.


There is perhaps another reason why this little group of walkers is not particularly optimistic about the current round of peace talks – from where we sit under this old olive tree, it is possible to see three settlements, one of which consists of mobile homes, indicating that it is a recent addition to this relentless, and seemingly unstoppable process of colonisation. [4]

At around 11 am we shuffle exhausted into the relatively wealthy village of Ramon where many households have family members working in America. Ironically, the nearest settlement is also home to Americans, but the two groups do not mix. We have a drink by the round-about opposite the pizza restaurant which promises “potates, salates and posted chicken” and wait for the Service to take us home.


As we doze in the warm sun by the window on the Service ride back to Ramallah, Samia mentions that the trip back is actually only about 3 km but we shall be taking a 17 km detour because of checkpoints and settler by-pass roads which we are not permitted to use. It is now a common feature in the West Bank that tiny little lanes have become major dusty arterial roads – for Palestinians that is.

[1] Books by Raja Shehadeh include – When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege; Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine; and Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape. He has also written extensively on some of the legal issues concerning the Occupation.


[3] The Shat-ha walking group is a blend of Muslim, Christian and non-believers.

[4] According to the Israeli NGO – Peace Now – Israel spends at least US$556 million on the settlements every year –


Blog 6 – Tea with Mohammed

October 13, 2007

As I sit drinking tea with Mohammed, we discuss how edgy the Service drivers have become during Ramadan – “They’re crazy” he says with a laugh “and don’t go near a smoker after 3.00 pm during the holy month either”. I thank him for the tip and take another sip of his wonderful tea which he mixes with sage and mint picked from his garden – “Great tea Mohammed”. I then count to ten in Arabic – “tamam” says Mohammed. Not so “tamam” really – yesterday I tried to buy five eggs and came home with 12. Mohammed agrees that we should spend more time on my pronunciation.

Mohammed teaches Arabic from his rooms in central Ramallah, very close to Al-Manara. The rooms have a view and there’s a nice vase of flowers from his garden on the desk. “Wearn bitak, Mohammed?” “Kiuus, my house is in a little village not too far from Ramallah, near Bil’in.” I observe that he must live close to the Wall – “Yes, it’s terrible, it was so traumatic when it was built.”


The Service ride to the village of Bil’in takes about 25 minutes from Ramallah. The Wall in this sector consists of a series of electrified fences, ditches and barbed wire which cuts a 70 meter wide swathe through the village olive groves. The path of the Wall here was dictated by the presence of a large settlement nearby. The villagers lost their fields so that this West Bank settlement could be physically, if not legally, incorporated into Israel.


The villagers have not taken the loss lying down. The village committee led by their irrepressible mayor has been organising weekly demonstrations at Bil’in for years. Shortly after Friday prayers the villagers gather and march through their fields and up towards the Wall where the soldiers are waiting.


A typical Friday at Bil’in follows a well worn script – as the villagers approach the Wall soldiers start filing through a gate and the two groups mingle on the village side. It starts off good natured enough, some songs are sung and there is a little bit of pushing and shoving. Some villagers then start pulling at the coils of barbed wire, two stun grenades explode near by sending some of the crowd scattering. There’s more tugging at barbed wire, more soldiers file through the gate and more stun grenades explode, mixed now with tear gas. Further off to one side the young boys are gathering in a field ready with sling shots.


The sound of gunfire now mingles with the sound of exploding stun grenades and the hiss of tear gas canisters. The initial shots are probably rubber coated steel rounds. Last year an Israeli lawyer demonstrating at Bil’in found out the hard way that these “crowd control” rounds are capable of penetrating a human skull. He survived, and is learning to speak again. 

After an hour or so, the demonstrators start filling back to the village spluttering from the tear gas whilst the boys and soldiers continue to exchange stones and bullets. Back in the village every one gathers at the fallafel shop and the ambulances are called – Fridays in Bil’in.


Friday demonstrations are not the only tactic employed by the village in their struggle to recover their fields – they have also taken their cause to the Israeli Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice. The Court, in its discretion, allows petitions from Palestinians challenging the administrative validity of decisions taken by the Military Commander in the West Bank. If ever there was an endeavour where expectations must be kept in check, this was it.


The villagers recently had a legal “victory” – last month the Court granted a petition that sought an order requiring the Military Commander in the West Bank to reconsider the route of the Wall near the village – to put this in perspective this may involve a small stretch of the Wall being relocated a few hundred meters this way or that. Within 24 hours of this decision, the Court handed down a decision in another case deciding not to take action against the nearby settlement of Mattityahu East which has been built on Bil’in village land without having first obtained Israeli government permission.


According to UN figures there are now 460,000 Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank. According to the same source, this number is increasing at a rate of 5.5% per annum. [1] The settlements contravene international law. Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949)  states that an occupying power cannot transfer parts of its own population into occupied territories. Israel ratified the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1951 but since 1967 has argued that the Convention does not apply to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip on unpersuasive technical grounds that nobody else accepts.

It seems that Friday demonstrations in the village of Bil’in are unlikely to end anytime soon


“Shukrun iktir, see you the same time on Tuesday.” –

“Aiwah, see you Tuesday.”

“And thanks for the tea Mohammed.”




[1] Rapport of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, John Dugard – see paragraphs 32-34 – (

Blog 5 – West Bank Walking

October 6, 2007

Rukab Street is one of six streets leading off Al-Manara square in central Ramallah, and is many people’s favourite. It leads you away from the noise and hustle and bustle of the centre, past Star & Bucks Cafe (good luck to anybody wishing to enforce their intellectual property rights); past a number of small shops where you can smoke hubbly-bubbly; on past Zyrabs where you can get a bowl of pasta, glass of wine or a pint of beer; and on down towards old Ramallah. Once in the old town you are surrounded by churches, mosques and shops where you can find, amongst other things, accessories for your donkey.


About two-thirds of the way down Rukab Street, on the right, with  Al-Manara behind you, are the offices of Al-Haq, the West Bank’s oldest and probably best known NGO, which has been documenting and resisting some of the worst aspects of the Occupation since 1979. [1] Al-Haq was founded by lawyer and writer, Raja Shehadeh, whose most recent book, Palestinian Walks – Notes from a Vanishing Landscape, has just been published. The book describes some of the stunning walks of the West Bank, including the glorious Wadi Qelt.[2]


Anybody interested in walking in the West Bank should be aware of the Shat-ha walking group, which leaves from Al-Manara at 5.00 a.m. sharp(ish), every Friday morning to explore Palestine.[3]

The group is centred upon a core of academics from Birzeit University who are organised by Samia, a Palestinian who speaks English with a cockney accent she picked up in London whilst completing her PhD. Everybody is welcome and the numbers fluctuate from between six and 20 or so. Most of the walkers are Palestinians plus the odd blow in from Europe or further afield.


Five a.m. in Ramallah tends to be misty as we mingle around the coffee cart at Manara waiting for the others to turn up. The little cart has recently undergone a renovation to remove all trace of the bullet holes it acquired on 4 January 2007 when the Israeli Defence Force came to town on a “routine arrest operation”. Four died and 35 were injured that day.[3]

It doesn’t take long for everybody to arrive and we jump into a Service and head north.

The soldiers at the checkpoint near Birzeit University ask us where we are going. Our fiesty spokeswoman responds – “Hiking” – “Where?” – “In the mountains” – “Which mountains?” – “Those mountains there” (pointing vaguely in the general direction of northern Palestine). The soldiers laugh, we laugh and are waived on. It seems that even the Occupation is going to take a bit to get started this morning.


Ten more minutes down the road and past a couple of settlements, we are dropped off at the side of the road and the walk begins. We are led, as always, by Saleh who has been walking these hills and valleys since he was a small boy. He knows the land like the back of his hand, the names of all the plants, the valleys, the villages and their histories. Saleh also knows the whereabouts of every fig tree in Palestine and ensures that we visit everyone of them – “Oh try this one, you must, it is easily the best fig you will ever taste”, he says at every fig tree along the way.


Saleh has been imprisoned six times so far, which is not particularly uncommon for a Palestinian man living in the Occupied Territories. According to the UN, over 650,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned since the Occupation began in June 1967, out of a total population of about 4 million. Today, there are still approximately 9,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.[4]


Generally the group walks for three hours or so before stopping in an olive grove for brunch. A fire is quickly lit and tea with sage brewed whilst everybody spreads the food they have brought out on a scarf for all to share. Under the shade of the trees the group talks and laughs for about an hour – sometimes the topics are serious, sometimes not.

Most walks have us back at Manara, exhausted, by about 11.00 am. Walks such as the Wadi Qelt take the whole day and end up with dinner in Jericho followed by a sleep in the Service on the way home.


The walks are planned so as to try and avoid all signs of the Occupation – but this is never totally possible. Whether it’s a checkpoint, a by-pass road or a settlement visible on an adjacent hill top as we climb out of a valley, the Occupation is leaving an ever increasing mark on the landscape and its people. Even the arid wilderness of the Wadi Qelt does not escape – the distant sound of stun grenades exploding at Qalandia following Friday prayers, booms relentlessly down the valley amplified by the rock.                                    

Notes from a Vanishing Landscape is a sadly accurate title for a book recording the many beautiful walks of Palestine.


 (More photographs from these walks can be found at )


[1]Al-Haq –


[3] 6.00 am in winter

[4] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, John Dugard –


Blog 4 – Hebron

September 29, 2007

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