Being the Tourist

Due to the shooting of a second girl the following day we were sure there would be more clashes. However, because most reports say she is still in a critical condition in hospital, Monday was a quiet day. A day for visiting the sites!

One of the biggest sites in Hebron is of course the Cave of the Patriarchs. Muslims know it 20160215_141144[1]as Ibrahimi Mosque and Jews know it as Cave of Machpelah. The building is split between Muslim mosque and Jewish synagogue with Abraham and his wife’s
grave in between. I have to admit I had never been in either a mosque or a synagogue before. 20160215_145444[1].jpgWe had to go through two check points just to get into the mosque. In the mosque Maya and I were given cloaks to wear and we asked to take off our shoes while in the mosque. It was absolutely beautiful! Plush carpets and delicate paintings along the walls with books kept in pristine condition. It is the oldest building in Hebron and the town was built around it.

Because we’re ‘internationals’ we were allowed to visit the Jewish side. Maya was nervous because settlers would recognise her and they have no issue being violent with anyone. One of the most infamous settlers in all of Palestine is Anat Cohen. All of the activists and Palestinians know her. I even knew about her before I arrived because she’s on that many videos attacking activists. We aren’t allowed defend ourselves from settlers, we can only try to get away. Thankfully there was no one we recognised. The outside of the synagogue is beautiful with pretty trees and flowers. To get into the building you have to go through a metal detector. Inside is vastly different from the mosque. We were met with five armed guards who to20160215_150636[1]ld us we didn’t have to wear the shawls that were in a bucket by the door. We were grateful for that because we weren’t shown how to wear them and were fumbling for ages. The synagogue resembles a community centre more so than a religious building. We could see people praying in different rooms or just reading. Women divided from men. We were underwhelmed leaving. Seeing the fence resembling a cage beside the synagogue made me understand why Palestinians feel as if they’re being treated like animals.

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Irish and Palestinian hospitality is extremely similar! A twenty minute walk took us three hours! Every time we met a shop owner we knew or who supported YAS we had to stop for tea or coffee. Every shop has a kettle, coffee, tea bags and sugar. Milk is nowhere to be found. Both are drank as strong as possible with as much sugar as you can fit in the cup! Be careful not to finish your coffee fully or you’ll be greeted by a layer of mu20160215_135842[1]d at the bottom! They spoke to us about the effects of the occupation on their families and businesses. They pointed to abando
ned houses and told me about the day in which they were forced to leave. One elderly man, after I told him I was Irish could tell me almost everything about Bobby Sands. He was able to compare the Hunger Strikers in Ireland to those in Palestine. However, another shop owner, after hearing I was Irish recited the freedom speech done by William Wallace in the film Braveheart. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t Scottish!

After meeting with a family who had been threatened with eviction by the army that night we went to the old YAS centre to meet other activists. We weren’t allowed in as the army and settlers had still occupied it and were having a party. We had a BBQ outside. It was the first time I had chicken since I had come and it was glorious! Where we sat I could se all of20160215_193618[1].jpg Hebron below. I was sitting among the oldest olive trees in Hebron and possibly the oldest in Palestine. I could see where settlers had burned some of the trees to the ground. Maya described watching the olive trees being burnt by the settlers as the greatest sadness she had ever felt. Our serenity was rudely interrupted by fighter jets flying overhead, on their way to bomb Syria. Goodnight West Bank.

Guns Vs Stones

A Palestinian girl had been shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in Hebron the day I arrived here. Her funeral was the following day. We knew there would be clashes. I was advised by another volunteer to stay indoors and close all the windows to protect me from the noise and the teargas. I was joined by two other volunteers; Mya from Denmark and Maria from Croatia. They had just finished the school run that morning; making sure the children weren’t attacked by settlers or soldiers on their way to kindergarten.

I washed my hair using a pot of hot water and a cup, although we have wifi, electricity and running water, there is no hot water in the building. The Palestinian hospitality shone again when I was greeted by a neighboring shop owner who had come to the centre to welcome me to Hebron with a falafel.

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Checkpoint 56
Checkpoint 56 is right beside our centre. We could see the soldiers begin to ready themselves. I was given a camera, shown how to use it and told to take pictures of any activity from either side. This is how we build cases, by creating photographic evidence. I was nervous… very nervous. We then began to hear footsteps on the roof. Maria said “come with me but dont make a sound.” We cllimbed the stairs and through a little window to our left I saw five soldiers. Now I was really nervous. We went back downstairs, locked the heavy metal door and kept deadly silent. The last YAS centre was raided and we didn’t want the same thing to happen again. More and more teenage boys began to gather at the far end of the square. We thought at first that they were throwing stones at the checkpoint, but either had horrible aim or were too far away. Suddenly there was a massive boom, I screamed! We ran to the windows to start taking photos and videos. The boys weren’t throwing stones at the checkpoint, they were throwing stones at the soldiers on top of our roof! The soldiers had just thrown a noise grenade and I can honestly say it was the loudest, scariest noise I’ve ever heard. The soldiers then began to come out of the checkpoint, guns raised they took their formations. The stone throwing children ran, shouting.20160214_134002[1]

At first it was just noise grenades versus stones. I never got used to the sound.
We began to wonder if we should leave but quickly realised the building was surrounded and we didn’t want to spook a soldier for fear they would shoot us. We did what we were supposed to do as observers and kept taking pictures/ videos and tweeting the event. Then the shooting started; rubber bullets. I was horrified but was informed I was lucky it wasn’t tear gas! There were many war journalists in the streets with cameras and a film crew. Even amongst all the chaos an elderly man or woman would now and again stroll through the square without a care in the world! As if nothing was happening and this was just another day in Hebron. The clashes went on for a couple of hours and we almost started to get bored.

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Over 100 shops sealed shut
Eventually it was safe enough for other volunteers and Issa to come back to our centre. He was filmed by a news channel and then we had a meeting about the day and showed our footage. Later in the evening he asked if I would like a proper tour of the city and I jumped at the chance! Issa was born and bred in Hebron. He explained why the Al Shuhada street was closed, it’s importance as the biggest market in the West Bank, the sealed shops, the effects it has had on the citizens of Hebron, and how the settlers forced their way into many houses, evicting the residents. He introduced me to a team of UN workers we passed in the street who were employed by their individual countries to document events in Hebron. He brought me to the centre of the Christian Peacemakers Teams and up on the roof showed me Al Shuhada street, where Palestinians could no longer go and now had over a hundred gates or walls that restricted their movements.

After speaking with their team leader we left to go through a checkpoint at the Ibrahim Mosque. Issa was stopped and searched. Mya and I weren’t.  We met other teams of activists who informed us that another Palestinian girl had been shot by soldiers there today. They also showed us footage of her lying dying as the soldiers wouldn’t allow anyone to help her. One of the activists we met was Alex Dunne. Alex is from Galway and is an Observer with the ‎Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme. I had contacted Alex months ago to help me with my trip when I read one of his articles online. Never did I actually think I’d meet him as he is based mainly in Bethlehem.

On our way back to the checkpoint we were confronted by soldiers.  They spoke in Hebrew but Issa asked them to speak in English. “Where are you from?” they said.
“I am from Palestine” Issa responded. On realising he was Palestinian they ordered him to stand, give them his bag and to show them his papers. They never spoke to me or to Mya or any of the other activists that walked back with us. We filmed the event in case something might happen. Issa co-operated but it was clear the whole event was to embarrass and intimidate as we had just been through the checkpoint so there was clearly nothing in his bag. He apologised to us and tried to make light of the situation.

We visited a couple who are currently making a film about Hebron. Paul from England, and his wife Esther from Holland have been coming to Palestine for years. Their previous film was with settlers perspectives. They are now telling the Palestinian version. Paul made me a cup of English tea…as close to Barrys as I was going to get! I was never happier to meet an Englishman. They told me about their experiences of filming both sides, that really there was no difference, that the things that matter to Muslims and Jews were extremely similar. They explained that not all settlers were bad, that some of them would mind their Muslim neighbors kids and vice versa. And when attacks happened on either side that they protected each other. After drinking all the tea, laughing, and eating what I can only describe as a yellow baked biscuit type treat that Paul didn’t know the name of, we then returned to our centre.

After the day’s events Mya, Maria and I were exhausted. The only thing that preoccupied our minds now was the wonderful suggestion by Mya that we would go to the market and treat ourselves to brunch of eggs and vegetables. Oh how simple our lives have become!

For videos of the clashes have a look here.

24 Hours in Palestine

My first day of this trip was a day I will never forget. I spent the morning and a20160213_120618[2]fternoon doing what only a good granddaughter would do for her religious grandmothers… I went to all the Christian sites in Jerusalem, I fought through the crowds of people, said thanks but no thanks to the street vendors and ate falafel. I was in heaven. Jerusalem appears to be more religiously diverse than I expected with Jews, Christians and Muslims each having their own quarters of the old city, however, there is a strong Orthodox Jewish presence, possibly because I was visiting on their Sabbath. I went to the Wailing Wall and watched as Jews thronged to it to pray; men on the left side of the barrier, women on the right.

With only the Al Asqa mosque left to do, I consulted my map; automatically labeling myself as a tourist and becoming a magnet for a particularly aggressive, slightly creepy man who insisted on giving me a tour of the city. To my rescue came a middle aged Muslim man who shooed him away in Arabic, my hero! He gentle asked me where I had wanted to go and I told him the mosque. To my dismay he told me I wouldn’t be able to go until morning. “But I can’t go in the morning, I’m going to Hebron this evening!” His face lit up! “Why are you going to Hebron?” he asked.
“I’m volunt20160213_155255[1]eering with Youth Against Settlement (YAS) there.”
Again very gentle he asked me to follow him. He brought me to his shop and said “I am from Hebron. My family fled there when I was young. I want to thank you for helping my people, please, pick any stone and I will make you earrings and a pendant.” One thing I’ve learnt already in my short time here is that Mrs Doyle has nothing on the Palestinians! Generosity has no bounds and it is a massive insult not to accept! We spoke for over an hour about his life, his family, the conflict here and my life back home. We spoke as if we knew each other for years. He was insightful and gave me advice I will probably keep with me forever. He offered for me to stay with his family but I knew I had to be going. I have a friend for life.

On arriving to Hebron and meeting the other YAS volunteers, I got straight to work. Mohaned, a Palastinian has presentations in Denmark and Germany next week on the situation in Hebron. Issa, the founder and leader of YAS was handing over the responsibility to him to give someone younger a chance to represent the organ20160213_204537[1]isation. I am now the proof-reader of any press-statement, Facebook post or presentation.

Settlers in Hebron like to give tours of Palestinian districts to settlers from other areas and to tourists, this happens usually at night when the streets are quiet and with a heavy armed guard. These tours can often come with violence both from settlers and from Palestinians so we split into groups and went to the division gates. Thankfully they didn’t do a tour and I didn’t get to face any settlers or soldiers. What I did get was a small tour of the city, the gates, the checkpoints, the wire mesh overhead to protect us from settlers throwing rubbish or stones on
us, the shops which have been permanently shut by the soldiers, crumbling buildings and the most harrowing image of all; three young Palestinian children, barefoot, playing next to free flowing sewage in the street. I was prep20160213_212825[1]ared for aggression, I was prepared for clashes, I was prepared for stories of brutality and murder…but I was not prepared for poverty, and barefooted children playing in the street while i wore a coat, gloves and a hat.

The 1st Hurdle: Getting The Visa

I don’t know about you…but when I think of Freedom of Speech, or more accurately, the lack of it, I think of places like China where journalists are arrested and imprisoned for criticising the Chinese government. Egypt takes a strong second place.

With my trip to Palestine my main worry wasn’t the danger, my main worry has always been whether I would be able to make it through security at the airport and again at checkpoints into Palestine. As Palestine has walls surrounding it, the only way in is by checkpoint. Again, the image of an open prison floods my mind.

For weeks I’ve known what I was to say to the person in their little cube, who looks as if the world dealt them a massive injustice, and now they’ve to get back at the rest of us. Even the night before I traveled Timmy Hammersley, my ‘guide on the Irish side’ had me practicing what I was to say;
“What is your reason for traveling to Israel?”
“I’m here as a tourist, just to visit religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem”
“Are you going to visit Palestine?”
“No.”

To get into Israel, to get a visa at the airport I have to lie. I have to pretend that everything is hunky-dory and I’m just a wee girl from Ireland out on a little adventure for two weeks. Not only that, but I had to delete my Facebook and Twitter page for fear they’d see videos I’ve shared of Palestine. I was also advised to wear a cross, as to add to the story. All this irks me.

There have been recent cases of volunteers being denied visas into the country. Not even volunteers, but citizens of countries which have taken a stand against Israel have been denied visas into the country. Sweden especially. Israel are making it more and more difficult for internationals to enter Palestine. They are trying to isolate Palestinians from the rest of the world. It’s clear they don’t want the world to see what’s going on.

I flew yesterday from Dublin to Istanbul in Turkey. The flight flew (excuse the pun) as I met two friendly fellow passangers who were enthralled in my reasons for traveling. One was going to Cairo to visit a friend for a few days and the other was traveling onto Iran to perform. We also met King Geoffrey (Jack Gleeson) from Game of Thrones on our flight! I was of course, a nervous mess trying to say hi and ask for a photo!

Strangely I was questioned in Turkey as to why I was going to Israel. I hadn’t expected that and I’m not quite sure what angle they were taking but I had my spiel ready. They weren’t satisfied and studied my passport. I think my Irish surname threw them a little. No one else seemed to get the same treatment.

I arrived in Tel Aviv airport, checked my Facebook was still disabled and nervously began to approach the security. As I had predicted, a sour looking Israeli woman greeted me. Not only did she ask why I was in Israel but for how long, where I was staying and with who. Again I was ready and even had a name and an address prepared. She continued to ask why I was in Israel and how did I expect to see holy sites for two weeks. The last time I was here we got the holy sites done in a day! The question that threw me the most was “and how do you know the person you’re staying with?” I lied through my teeth! Had I said how I really knew this person there would be no hope of me getting through! “We have mutual friends and she visited Ireland two or three years ago. We’ve stayed in touch since.” I got the glare and she threw me my passport and my visa. I was through.

I’m now sitting on the floor of Ben Gurion airport, watching all the ‘normal’ people go by. I’m actually stunned by how ‘normal’ they look. Instead of feeling like I’m in the Middle East, it’s more like Eastern Europe! However, unlike Europe, there isn’t a single Arab in sight. Then I’m jolted back to reality when over the speakers, in Hebrew and in English a friendly voice states that “carrying weapons is prohibited in the airport.”

‘Tis a long way from Ballyea you are girlie!

Why Go At All?

“Why are you going? What has it got to do with you? It’s not even your fight!” are the most negative comments that greet me when I tell someone I’m going to Palestine. My reply? “When good men do nothing, evil triumphs.” Is being a human being not enough of a reason to go?
I visited what is now considered Israel over ten years ago as part of a tour with my family. We were in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and as I look back I realise how restricted we were. Obviously a lot has happened since.
I would have understood there was unrest in Palestine but not understood it fully until 2014 when Operation Protective Edge was launched by Israel after 3 Israeli teenagers were abducted and Hamas was blamed. The objective of that Israeli attack was to ‘stop rocket fire from Hamas into Israel’. This lasted for 7 weeks and thousands of civilians were killed, mainly Palestinians. Hamas’s goal was to bring international pressure to bear to lift Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, end Israel’s offensive, obtain a third party to monitor and guarantee compliance with a ceasefire, release Palestinian prisoners and overcome its political isolation. Israel broke a 2012 ceasefire by beginning the attacks and many believe they deliberately targeted civilians including UN hospitals and schools.
Since then citizens havent been able to rebuild with many parts of Palestine being completely destroyed.
After WW2 there were many Jews left displaced after the Holocaust. To assist, the UN granted them Palestine (including Jerusalem, home of the Jewish religion) which at the time was part of the British colony. Zionism is a national movement in the interest of Jews and to create a Jewish national state.
November 1947 the UN pass a resolution to divide Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. Most Palestinian Arabs refused to recognise this as America had promised they would be consulted with before any decision was made.
Any Jew, no matter where they were born is automatically entitled to Israeli citizenship. With these new Israeli settlements many Palestinians have become displaced. They have been physically removed from their houses and their houses destroyed for Israeli homes to be built. The UN has condemned these settlements and find they are illegal. Crops have been poisoned and destroyed, olive trees burnt, all to establish and broaden these settlements. On the other hand Palestinians are now forced to live within the confines of separation barriers, like the Peace Walls in Belfast. These are 8 metres high, 700 km long and 3 metres wide. Palestine is effectively an open prison as the movements of Palestinians is restricted because they have to travel through check-points. Palestinian passports are under Israeli authority and therefore is a Palestinian leaves Palestine altogether they can never return. There have been reports of wells destroyed and water systems altered to provide water to settlements rather than to Palestinians.
I will be traveling alone to join a non-violent civil rights movement called Youths Against Settlement, in Hebron. Hebron is a city in the West Bank near Jerusalem. Its the 2nd largest Palestinian territory with over 215,000 people living there including Christians, Muslims and Jewish settlers. In 1994 a Jewish settler massacred Muslim worshipers in Hebron. Since then the city is divided into 2 sections H1: under the Palestinian Authority, and H2 under the Israeli Military. Since then Al-Shahuda Street has been closed. This is massive as it was the main market area of Hebron and the shut down affected livelihoods of market vendors and shop owners.
Youth Against Settlements is a non-violent direct action group who’s aim is to stop the illegal building of settlements by non-violent struggle and resistance.  There is a regime of forced evictions, curfews, market and street closures, military checkpoints, and subjection to military law. Palestinians face frequent random searches, detentions without charge, and rampant settler violence. As a result of this, about 13,000 Palestinian civilians have fled their homes in Hebron’s city center. It’s apartheid
My role within the organisation is to highlight these human rights violations by creating web content consisting of written, video and photographic documentation, to speak to children in schools about the effectiveness of peaceful protest to desist them from violence (there is an issue of Palestinian children throwing stones at the Israeli military), then networking and public relations with other international organisations. 
Between the 18th and the 27th of February Youth Against Settlement organise annual ‘Open Shuhada Street’ Demonstrations, marches and sit-ins. On the 25th especially, groups from around the world create their own demonstration. If any school or group want to get involved to highlight the issue all they have to do is set up mock israeli check-points or set up a petition. All the information on the petition and materials you need for your own demonstration are available on the website http://hyas.ps/activities/open-shuhada-st/  And on the date we’ll be running the hashtag #OpenShuhadaStreet so people can retweet and show support.
hyas.ps
Announcing 7th Annual Open Shuhada St Campaign (22-28/02/2016) We are very excited to announce the upcoming. 7th Annual Open Shuhada St. Campaign from 19-28 February …

I’ll also be visiting Ramallah, an Arab Christian city also near Jerusalem in the West Bank to see the UN Jalazone Palestinian Refugee camp. There are nearly 15,000 people in this camp and right beside the Beit El Israeli settlement.

The reason I’m going is to clarify for myself what it is I’m supporting, I want to confirm that what I’m supporting is the right thing because there are many Jews who feel they’re justified… I was sick of sharing videos online and feeling like it wasn’t making a difference or that people were giving a blind eye to it. I wanted to do something a little more hands-on and effective.
My biggest worry is that I wont get granted a Visa by Israeli customs at the airport, and that I might be turned away at the check point between Jerusalem and Hebron. I’m there as an observer so if I see something horrendous I cant do anything but watch and report afterwards. There are many videos of Israeli soldiers using physical force on women and children. That upsets me the most.