Gill Swain photograph

A letter from Hebron - A strange couple of days

October 31st 2007

I got back to Hebron on Monday after spending another few days packed with new experiences, some of them pretty strange. There are times here when things get so weird that I feel like I'm living in an Alice in Wonderland world where normal reality is mixed up with monstrous distortions in a way that really messes with your head.

Obviously each side in a conflict sees the situation from their own point of view and I don't pretend to know anything like the whole picture but I often realise that information is being manipulated in a way that I find really disturbing.

Last week, for instance, we went to Jerusalem for what was called 'post orientation,' which turned out to be an opportunity to introduce us to more peace activists and load us with yet more information.

First we had a talk from a man from the Palestine Liberation Organisation. His main message was that the people of the world had to start a campaign as vigorous as the anti-apartheid movement to pressurise their governments to end the occupation, but in the course of his talk he mentioned there had been a riot in a prison in the Negev desert in which a Palestinian had died and hundreds were injured.

It was the Ketziot Prison where the Israelis keep 2,000 Palestinians, half of whom are housed in tents. He said that the guards had set fire to the tents and then shot the prisoners as they tried to flee.

There are 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails - according to the UN, one of the highest proportions in the world -840 of whom are in "administrative detention" which means they are held without charge on secret evidence which is not disclosed to the prisoner or his lawyer. This kind of order is issued for six months and can be renewed several times so a lot of men are imprisoned without trial for a year or even two.

All that is shocking enough, but this news was appalling. Back in my hotel room I grabbed the Jerusalem Post which I had bought that morning expecting to see extensive coverage of these terrible scenes. After a bit of a search all I found was four paragraphs on P4 saying only that Hamas had denied they were going to harm the Israeli soldier they kidnapped in Gaza a year ago in revenge for the prisoner's death.

On the internet, Reuters quoted the Israeli prison service saying the Palestinians had torched their own tents and only non-lethal weapons had been fired, ie the prisoner had been killed by a rubber bullet. I still have no idea where the truth of the incident lies.

Click to enlarge all photographs

That evening we went to a candle-lit vigil outside Jerusalem's Damascus Gate in which prisoners' families sat on steps clutching large photos of their loved ones and chanting slogans. It went on for an hour or so, filmed by foreign TV stations, then it was over -another huge problem that had come and gone in a wink of an eye. I couldn't help thinking about the enormous furore such an event would have caused back home, the weeks of blanket newspaper and TV coverage, analysis, comment and criticism (not that it would ever have happened in the first place.)

The candle lit vigil of prisoners' families

We stayed the night in the Bethlehem Inn (in Bethlehem) which has plenty of room because opposite the front door is the horrible, 12 metre high concrete wall. It is such a huge and solid thing right in your face that when you look at it, you can't even imagine there is life on the other side.

The view from the front door of the Bethlehem Inn: the apartheid Wall, adorned with a picture by the famous graffiti artist, Banksy.

Inside the Gilo checkpoint, a massive, airport style hangar which Palestinians have to pass through to get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem

The next morning we got on a bus, went through the massive and infamous Gilo checkpoint where thousands of people queue from 4am every day to pass from Bethlehem into Israel and travelled along Golda Meir boulevard to Lifta, the tumbledown remains of a village abandoned by its Palestinian inhabitants in 1947 during Israel's battle for independence.

The Palestinian village of Lifta where the inhabitants were driven away in 1947 by the Israelis and have never been allowed to return to their homes.

Jewish families enjoying picnics round the pond in the ruined Palestinian village of Lifta.

Roomy stone houses, a good spring leading to the village pond and overgrown fig trees told the story that it was once a pretty and comfortable spot, home to 2-3,000 people.

We were shown round by a woman from Zochrot, an Israeli group which lobbies on behalf of the Palestinian refugees. She told us that 500 such villages were destroyed and/or abandoned when the inhabitants fled in terror, turning 750.000 Palestinians into refugees.

The descendants of those refugees now number over three million and, according to international law, they have the right to return to their homes, which is another huge problem standing in the way of peace.

But it was clear her organisation was a tiny voice crying in the wilderness. "The moment you accept that the people were driven out of their houses, you have to start thinking about their right of return. So the issue is very sensitive in Israeli society and the story of the refugees is not told," she said.

Our guide from Zochrot, inside Lifta's mosque


In the afternoon we joined another Israeli peace group, the Women in Black, for their weekly demonstration. Every Friday for 20 years they have been standing at a busy road junction near the government buildings in Jerusalem holding placards and banners saying "End the Occupation."

I gleefully clutched my placard in the shape of a black hand and pointed it forcefully at passing motorists, feeling like the years had fallen away and I was once more a revolting student. After a while a young man with an American accent came up and asked, not in a friendly tone, "What occupation?"

Suspecting that he really knew the answer, I patiently explained that it was the Israeli occupation of Palestine. There was a bit of argy bargy in which he accused us of supporting terrorists and swore a lot, then he went off, giving us plenty of finger, but came back ten minutes later with three other equally angry young people.

The Woman in Black spokeswoman being
interviewed by the foreign press.

One of them said that they were at war and that the victorious side were allowed to occupy land they had conquered. I started to explain that international laws under the Geneva conventions had been set up after World War 2 to regulate occupations and that Israel was breaking most of them.

He appeared bemused so I started to explain: "You know that Germany occupied France in the war.." He went beetroot in the face and screeched: "Are you calling us Germans?"

Another theme was, why were we poking our nose in? A fair question and one we have been confronted with before. I burbled something about the fact that the injustice over Palestine could result in bombs going off in our streets and injuring my family. But a better answer (which I thought of in bed that night) would be that our tax money goes to feed hundreds of thousands of people that Israel as an occupying force is responsible for.

More than half the population of Gaza and 13,000 people in Hebron, that I know of, are dependant on food aid from the international community, so without our money, they would starve which gives us a stake in the argument, I think. In fact a lot of people think we should stop providing this aid because it actually supports the occupation.

It would not have made any difference if I had thought of this argument at the time, of course, as the young people did not listen to a single thing we said. After a while we went off to continue the demonstration outside the government buildings where Israeli PM Ehud Olmert was meeting Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas for preliminary talks before the November peace talks.

There were several TV cameras there and the Women in Black spokeswoman was interviewed by some of them. Afterwards she told us that, by the standards of their 20 year vigil, this had been a good day. She also said that all the TV cameras had been from foreign news organisations, none from Israeli. Despite everything, I was still surprised at that.

Palestine Liberation Organisation,
Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights,
Women in Black,