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I can still very clearly remember when, in my early twenties, I had a job in a factory making stainless steel and Aluminium cookware. We started work at 6:30am each day and finished at about 3:30pm. The shed that we worked in was freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer. The work was boring, repetitive, dirty and very labor intensive.

At that time I was sharing a two bedroom flat with two other friends and for some reason, that I don’t remember, I had to sleep on the floor every night. I had to get up at 4:00am in the morning to catch two buses across town to get to work on time. It wasn’t fun!

So while I was monitoring the infamous checkpoint at Qalandya, I couldn’t help but think back to those days. That morning we got to the checkpoint at 4:30am and my team mate Peggy, stood on the exit side of the checkpoint to count people as they came out, and I went to the entry side to monitor things as people lined up to enter the checkpoint. Even at 4:30am, the checkpoint was crowded with people trying to get to work in Jerusalem.

The Qalandya checkpoint basically separates the Palestinian town of Ramallah (and hence the whole of the northern West Bank) from Jerusalem. The checkpoint itself consists of a large shed where people line up in what can only be called cattle shutes, which lead to turnstiles at the end of each shute. The opening and closing of these turnstiles are controlled by Israeli soldiers who sit in a main control room. On the other side of these turnstiles are five booths, each with its own turnstile controlled by soldiers in each booth.Once you get past this set of turnstile,s you must show your ID papers to the soldiers on duty, place your belongings on the conveyor belt to be X-rayed and walk through the metal detector. If the soldiers at the window of the booth are satisfied with your ID card and permit and everything else, you may pass through the checkpoint and go into Jerusalem. On a goodish day this can take 20 to 30 minutes.

Qalandya

      Qalandya checkpoint.

On the day that I was monitoring the checkpoint, all 5 booths were open but for some reason the lines were moving slowly. By about 5:10am the lines from all three shutes were so long that they extended way outside the shed into the car park behind the checkpoint. As time passed by, the people in line became agitated with the soldiers and some made gestures to me wanting me to do what I could to get things moving faster. I made a few phone calls to the Humanitarian Hotline and Machsom Watch but nothing seemed to be changing so far as the time to process people was taking.

Many of these Palestinians are day workers in Jerusalem and are desperate to get to their places of work since many of the companies they work for simply take the first lot of workers that arrive on time and forget about the rest. So being first off the ranks is very important for many people even at this early hour. The employers in Jerusalem seem to have no interest in improving conditions at the checkpoint in order to speed things up and get people to work on time. Buses on the exit side of the checkpoint taking the workers to their places of work in Jerusalem don’t wait for stragglers.

By about 6:10am some people, in absolute desperation, started trying to push in at the front of the line near the end of the cattle shutes. This created a “panic” of people in the line and suddenly about 100 workers stampeded the opening of the three shutes! It was chaos as all order broke down. Many people gave up and just sat down inside the shed and waited. Some knelt down and started praying, but for at least 50 or 60 people, they continued to try and push and shove their way into the openings of the cattle shutes in order to go through the checkpoint.

Some Palestinian people next to me blamed the soldiers for causing this chaos, saying that the soldiers were, in their opinion, deliberately holding the lines up so as to incite the workers. Whether the soldiers were in fact doing just that, is debatable, but anyone can see that such a system, in the context of the occupation. will be doomed to failure and cause a huge amount of tension and malice between the two groups.

The situation continued like this for over an hour and I have to admit that I felt quite scared at times. I could not imagine having to face the prospect of this every morning in order to get to work. A number of Palestinian men told me that they had to miss work a number of times because this sort of chaos had ensued at the checkpoint. It only increases their sense of desperation to get to work the next day.

One struggles to find a rational reason for why this checkpoint is the way it is. Israelis will often tell you it is necessary because of the suicide bombers of years gone by. I struggle with that explanation as there are a number of worker checkpoints from the West Bank to Israel that can cope with far more than twice the amount of people getting through the gates of Qalandya.  I have monitored some of those gates myself. So far as security goes, everyone knows that many hundreds of Palestinians get across into Israel from the West Bank “illegally”, every day.

No, to me it seems that it looks like the Israeli government just doesn’t want Palestinians in Jerusalem. This checkpoint is just part of a system that gives a clear message to Arabs in the West Bank. That message is…”Stay Out of Jerusalem!”

International Law states that Palestinians under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank are protected persons. at Qalandya, it doesn’t look like it!

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER

I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

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One of our teams regular tasks has been to monitor the checkpoint that leads into the village of Azzun Atma. This little village is in the rather peculiar position of being totally entrapped by the separation barrier. The only way into the village is via a military checkpoint that is guarded 24 hours a day by soldiers in full battle uniform. The village has two schools; each containing about 300 students. Many of the students live outside the village and hence have to pass through the military checkpoint. International Law states that these protected persons are not allowed to be searched or stopped on their way to school. When we have been present to monitor the checkpoint we have never seen a student stopped and searched, yet the principal of one of the schools told us that this has occurred a number of times when we have not been present at the checkpoint.

As a teacher, I know how easily young students can be intimidated by older students and adults at school, let alone fully armed soldiers! Yet these young children seem undeterred by such naked displays of power. All of our teams have noticed the very high importance placed on education in Palestinian society and Azzun Atma is no exception.

The ridiculous nature of the separation barrier is also highlighted in the example of Azzun Atma. People living or working in Azzun Atma that pass into the village from outside, are searched for weapons 24/7. But why? The people going across the checkpoint are moving from West Bank territory to West Bank territory. Who are the Israeli military trying to protect? Is it the settlement that lies just to the western side of the village? The 5m high concrete wall is meant to do that right? That’s what the Israeli government claims is the purpose of the barrier; to protect Israelis from Palestinians. Apparently the barrier isn’t sufficient to fulfill its purpose in Azzun Atma. There apparently needs to be a further checkpoint to accomplish this. Also, the settlement buildings are extremely close to the larger mixed school and often waste sewage water from the settlement flows into the school yard!

A few weeks ago we decided to visit one the schools in Azzun Atma to do an activity with a class of grade 4 students. We got the kids to simply draw some pictures of their life in Azzun Atma for us. They really got into it with one little girl saying that this was the happiest day in her life! Some of the students drew pictures of the checkpoint with the gun toting soldiers but most drew “happy” pictures of their family, school and the houses they live in. This “normal” type of drawing spoke to us of the resilience of these children who are well aware of the difficulties that the occupation poses to them and their families. It was an incredibly uplifting experience for our team and we plan to do the same activity with a Bedouin school in the Seam Zone near Qalqilya.

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One of the schools is Azzun Atma. Note the separation barrier with the settlement houses in the background.

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Our team in the classroom in Azzun Atma.

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A student from Azzun Atma school feeling pretty happy about her drawing!

Teachers in these schools who live outside of Azzun Atma face constant difficulties in getting to work on time due to being held up by the soldiers at the checkpoint and have more than once been trapped in Azzun Atma overnight when the military have closed the checkpoint for periods of up to 24 hours. For this reason the schools in Azzun Atma have a higher turnover of teachers than usual.

We have been told that the checkpoint will be taken away soon to allow constant access to all who need to go into this little village. But for many the damage has been done in the sense that it has already messed with their lives far more than they have wanted. As you can imagine, this hardly endears these children to the Israeli Military. The Principal of one of the schools told us that they have a lot of issues with violent behavior amongst the young boys of the school. It hardly surprised us.

Many people back in Australia believe that Palestinian children are somehow taught to hate Israelis right from the get go. They claim that Palestinian school text books teach racist attitudes towards Jewish people and the State of Israel. But this simply is not the case. Since 1993, all Palestinian school text books are screened by the Palestinian Authority who in turn are screened by the Israeli Government. No screening of how Israeli text books portray Palestinians occurs in Israeli schools.

You don’t have to teach Palestinian children to hate the occupation any more than you need to teach people to hate being beaten up and humiliated. It just comes naturally.

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER

I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

 As I said in the previous post, the agricultural gate near the village of Qaffin, gave us some problems that are unique to the occupation. The thousands of workers and land owners who have land, or work on the land, in the Seam Zone, cannot just walk up to the gate that leads to their land and cross over and get to work. In order to be allowed to cross, one needs a permit for that particular gate.

Gaining a permit can be extremely difficult , if not impossible, for many who need to go through the gates and into the Seam Zone. The bureaucracy that the Israeli government has created to handle the permit system is completely invisible to the Palestinian people. All in all there are some 110 different types of permits that Palestinians may, or may not need, at some time to live their lives in anything like a normal fashion.

When a Palestinian worker obtains a permit to cross over into Israel via one of the checkpoints that go into the Zionist state, he/she does not actually own that permit. Their employer does. As such, the employer can cancel the permit at any time they feel like, and the worker will suddenly find themselves not being allowed to pass through the checkpoint the next day with no explanation. This happens on a regular basis.

Many Palestinians, (over 300,000 of them) find themselves on the so called “blacklist”. A person can be on this list without the slightest idea why. Sometimes it can be because a relative has been arrested during a demonstration or was caught working illegally in Israel, even if that was many years ago. Sometimes it is simply stated that you have security issues and that is that. Many Palestinians hire lawyers to try to get themselves off the “blacklist” and end up spending large amounts of money for no result. A huge black market in forged permits also exists with people on both sides of the conflict acting illegally and making large profits in the process.

Permits to agricultural gates can be hard to obtain because they require proof of ownership of the land and this can be difficult due to the fact that this part of the world has been occupied by foreign powers many times in the past. Having exactly the right paperwork to prove ownership of the land can be very difficult and can, as we shall see later, cause enormous problems when people want to build houses or extensions to their house to accommodate a growing family unit on what is their own land.

Even if a person is able to get a valid permit for the right gate, the story is not over, as we discovered when we visited the Qaffin gate on the 14th of November. We had heard that a number of people were not being allowed to pass through this gate, with no good reason given, and we went to investigate to see if anything could be done.

When we got to the gate, we did in fact see a number of people not being allowed to pass due to the rather belligerent behavior of one particular female soldier who seemed to be in charge. This is part of the difficulty that Palestinians face at checkpoints and agricultural gates. Being allowed to pass, or not allowed to pass, can depend on the mood of the soldiers manning the gate. In this case, after asking one of the young soldiers, who spoke English, why the people had been sent back, he told me that it was because their clothes had been either too dirty or too clean. One person could not pass through because they had three packs of cigarettes on him and this was deemed enough of a reason to not allow the man through, depriving him of a day’s work and the money he would earn for his family. Another man was not allowed to pass through because he was wearing two pairs of pants! Believe me, it gets cold at these gates at 6:00am during a Palestinian winter, but this was no excuse according to this Israeli soldier.

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Soliders at Qaffin Gate.

A heated argument started between the soldiers and the mayor of the village who came down to the gate to see what could be done. A few of the soldiers started raising their weapons in an aggressive manner, though I doubt whether they had any real intent to shoot. We made phone calls to various people in the Israeli civil administration to see if they could help and we took the details of the men and sent them to an Israeli organization called Machsom Watch (see Machsomwatch.org). This is a group of Israeli women who specialize in dealing with the huge Israeli bureaucracy that handles the permit system. They advocate and fight for the rights of Palestinian farmers and agricultural workers. A courageous group of women, some of whom are married to the very men who administer the permit system itself! Good people to have on your side if you ever need them.

A couple of days later the female soldier was removed from the gate, but within a week we found another soldier giving ordinary Palestinian workers a hard time. Apparently the security needs of Israel mean that every Palestinian is considered  a terrorist. International Law demands that these agricultural workers be treated as protected persons but the only thing that the occupation protects is the real or imagined security needs of settlers and soldiers in the occupied territories. This, I have now witnessed with my own eyes.

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER

I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

As mentioned before, the Seam Zone is that region of Palestine that exists between the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice Line) and the Separation Barrier. Many Palestinians who live on the West Bank side of the barrier either work or have land in the Seam Zone. These people need permits to enter the Seam Zone and many of them also go to work in Israel. To get a permit is not easy and we have met many Palestinians, here in Jayyus, and elsewhere, who need to get across into the Seam Zone but cannot for a variety of seemingly strange reasons. More about this in the next post. A different category of persons altogether are Palestinians that actually live in the Seam Zone. According to a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) report in 2014, over 11,000 Palestinians live in the Seam Zone. This of course does not include the approximately 200,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem that live between the barrier and the Green Line.

Palestinians living in the Seam Zone are extremely vulnerable as they are effectively living in Israel but without Israeli citizenship, and are very often in close proximity to settlements. This also means that building permits, while extremely difficult to obtain in area C, are impossible to get in the Seam Zone. Last Thursday, 30th October, I had the privilege of accompanying the Palestinian Medical Relief Society’s (PMRS) mobile clinic (based in Qalqiliya) on its rounds through some villages in the Seam Zone. The mobile clinic’s van was accompanied by a car with two Dutch activists and a Palestinian driver. Both vehicles had yellow number plates (as opposed to the green number plates that West Bank Palestinians have) and so they had a chance of getting into the Seam Zone.

We had to pass through the Jaljoulia checkpoint to get to the villages we needed to visit, and this took about 30 minutes. Our belongings were X rayed, phones checked for traces of explosives and our passports scrutinized three times. The vehicles were checked using mirrors to look underneath and all compartments were thoroughly searched. The first village we visited was an unauthorized Bedouin village called Arab ar Ramadin al Janubi. Unauthorized means that the village did not exist before 1948. As such, the Israeli military does not allow the village to build any infrastructure such as roads, electricity or water supply. About 300 people live in this little village, the land being purchased from people living in the village of Habla, just on the other side of the barrier. The people of this village are in a better position than many in the Seam Zone as they can prove their ownership of the land. This does not stop the Israeli military from demolishing any new structures even as small as animal enclosures if they find out that any have been newly constructed. The people of this village have managed to get electric power from the village of Habla and have constructed an infant/primary school for their kids despite that their first attempt was demolished by the Israeli military. When looking at the village one would think that the village was very poor but Suhad Hashem, PR officer for the clinic, said that the villagers don’t want donations, they want their freedom and their rights.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                       Mobile Medical Clinic in Arab ar Ramadin al Janubi

The next village we visited was Arab Abu Farda (also Bedouin). This village was in much worse shape than the other village as it had no power and no running water. The French government constructed a large water tank but the Israeli military has prevented it from being filled. The villagers have to buy water from outside the village at an expensive price. The village has a high infant mortality rate and upon even visiting the village for a short time, one feels that the health problems in the village would be significant. Both villages have the shadow of demolitions hanging over them and their future is extremely uncertain. These Bedouins originally lived in the Negev before 1948 but were expelled into the West Bank after 1948 and ultimately they were moved up to the place they now reside. In both of these villages I was continually touched in my heart by the generosity and warmth of these people despite their difficult circumstances.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                       Bedouin Kids and the mobile clinic in Arab Abu Farda

After visiting the villages our driver took us up to see the Israeli settlement called Alfe Menashe which stands on top of the hill overlooking the valley where the Bedouin villages lie. As we stood looking out from a scenic lookout in the settlement, a softly spoken middle aged women from Alfe Menashe came and asked what we were doing. When we told her where we had been she said that she thought that these Bedouin people could live better and that the problem was that they were lazy. When queried about house demolitions she said that it wasn’t true, such things didn’t happen. All the while during this experience I couldn’t help thinking about the idea that the measure of a society is determined by how that society treats its most vulnerable members. That hardly counts in some ways in this case because Israel doesn’t consider such people to be members of their society. International Law says otherwise. As an occupying power, the Israeli Government has a moral and legal responsibility to protect the rights of these people, that is, their rights to education, a healthy life, safe housing, freedom of movement and legal and political rights. How Israel convinces itself that such obligations are not theirs, is another story.

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

My apologies to readers of this blog for my long absence in posting on this blog. I am going to make up for it in the following weeks as I am participating in a program with the World Council of Churches in the West Bank (see disclaimer at the bottom of this blog). I will be here for 3 months, living in the small rural village of Jayyus in a typical house in the village but with 4 other internationals participating in the program.

During our initial orientation and training for the program, we listened to a talk by a young ex soldier named Shay Davidovich.
Shay grew up in the Ariel settlement which is one of the largest settlements in the West Bank and is situated in the Seam Zone in what is known as the Ariel finger. The Seam Zone is that area in Palestine that lies between the Separation Barrier and the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice line) and the term “finger” refers to the Seam Zone region that pokes into the West Bank like a finger, ending with the Ariel settlement at the tip.

Shay grew up in an Israeli family that had no particular interest in the issue of the Palestinians and after high school graduation he joined the Israeli military and was stationed in the West Bank. Fairly quickly into his service in the West Bank, Shay started to question his role and it’s relationship to the narratives that he had been taught as a student about the West Bank and Israel’s role in that region. This led to a gradual process of disillusionment that Shay related to us, and this process culminated in his joining the movement known as Breaking the Silence. This group consists of ex Israeli soldiers who have chosen to speak out openly about the things that they experienced as soldiers in the West Bank.

Amongst a number of other disturbing facts, Shay related a particular story of how Israeli soldiers in the West Bank are instructed as to how to conduct an arrest on Palestinian civilians. One might assume that new soldiers get involved in mock role plays using other soldiers as arrestees and arrestors, but at least in Shays case, you would be wrong.

According to Shay, soldiers are taught how to arrest Palestinians by choosing a Palestinian family that is known by Israeli intelligence to have had absolutely no connection to violence or violent demonstrations. The idea being that this would bring the risk level of new soldiers learning arrest procedures getting hurt, down to a minimum. I guess that sounds sensible to some. The soldiers would then go to the village where the family lives, in the middle of the night, usually between midnight and 5am, and carry out the arrest. The person arrested, usually the father or an older male, would be blind folded and hand cuffed (hands behind the back) and taken away without explanation. A day or two later the person would be restored to their family, once again, without explanation. The family would have no idea that this was a mock arrest. Given that Palestinians are routinely arrested and receive prison sentences of up to two or three years for, what would seem to my mind, fairly minor offences that many Palestinians believe that these arrests are just excuses made up by the Israelis to harass and control them, the upset that these mock arrests cause the families can not be underestimated.

Shay told us that as a soldier, he was instructed that the military’s job was to control the Palestinian population and that the main way to do this was to continually let them “feel your presence”. This meant that Palestinians must continually be let know who is boss and that it is the Israeli military that make the rules to achieve this goal of control.

Shay showed us a short film, that was actually made by the Israeli military, allegedly to teach Israeli soldiers how to achieve this goal of “letting them feel your presence” in the context of checkpoint duty. The video showed disturbing scenes of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinian civilians at crowded checkpoints, even while the Palestinians had their hands tied behind their backs. This video somehow made its way to Israeli television and a public outcry ensued. The soldier who in particular was shown to be handing out the most abusive treatment was court martialed and given a prison sentence. A petition, signed by 60 members of the convicted soldiers unit, said that the soldier accused was being used as a scapegoat and that this type of incident was common place and that all superior officers in charge were aware of the situation and know that it was standard procedure.

The Fourth Geneva convention, of which Israel, as well as all UN member nations are a signatory to, states clearly the responsibilities of an occupying power towards civilians of that occupied people. It states clearly that while security concerns are an issue for an occupying power, that these concerns can not be used as a continual excuse to abuse an occupied population and hence absolve the occupier of their moral and legal duty to protect and provide safety for the occupied population.

CRAIG NIELSEN

DISCLAIMER
I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (eappi.communications@gmail.com) for permission. Thank you.

Israel-Palestine: A Christian Response to the Conflict

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