Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for April, 2003

A Wall of Silence

Posted by Andy Hockley on 9 April, 2003

A wall is being built around Palestine. An eight-foot high steel barricade encircling the West Bank, with an accompanying patrol road. Of course this wall is not actually on the recognized (pre-1967) border between Israel and Palestine, but within Palestine itself. Even as it walls off the people, Israel cannot resist yet another opportunity to plunder more of this land.

As a passenger driving from Jerusalem north to Afula and my local checkpoint, I looked out at this monstrous wall, encircling the cities of Qalqilya and Tulkarem, a grotesque protrusion on the landscape, hiding Palestine from sensitive Israeli eyes, and from the prying eyes of the world. One only wonders how long it will be before brave Israeli and foreign tourists are led on safari behind this wall, while being warned not to feed the Palestinians.

At Jalame, the checkpoint, I was met with the usual incredulity and reluctance – why did I want to go in there? Didn’t I know it was dangerous? They checked my suitcases and let me pass, shaking their heads at my insanity. It was a hot day, and my taxi home was forced to wait half a mile down the road. I struggled to stay upright, heavily laden and sweat dripping into my eyes. Towards the end of this walk through what is effectively no-mans land (or, synonymously, Palestinian-mans land) I reached the scar in the landscape that marks construction on this section of the wall. Approximately 500 metres from the checkpoint, and right through the middle of a field. Pausing in my throbbing-hot walk I asked the construction worker who was sitting at the roadside taking a cigarette break, what he was doing.

“Building a wall”.
“But why here, exactly,” I enquired, “and not there?” I pointed back up to the checkpoint.
“This is Israel,” he pointed to his feet, “and that is Palestine.” he gestured down the road, baffled at my question.
“This is one field, though. This road and wall is going through the middle of one field.”
“Yes, this is Israel, that Palestine”.
“So the Israeli farmer and the Palestinian farmer share this field, planting the same crop in the same rows?”
He hesitated, uncertain of how to continue this clearly ridiculous charade. Behind him in the field, an armed guard had stirred, and was walking towards us. “This is Israel and that is Palestine”, he stated with finality, making it clear that this conversation, such as it was, was over.

In the town of Jalame, before heading off the few miles to the University where I work, we were first obliged to stop off at a student’s house and drink tea and juice. Ziad, our taxi driver entertained us with the story of repairing his car in Nablus. He had been near Nablus when his car had begun to make some ugly and fatal sounding noises. Thinking that he wouldn’t be able to get back to Jenin before the engine gave up the ghost, he instead headed for Nablus to get it repaired. As with most cities in Occupied Palestine, Nablus is effectively shut off from the countryside around it. Roads are closed, and in some cases dug up. Within the wall, the country has been divided up into increasingly small pieces of territory, travel between each being at the whim of the Israeli army. Unable to drive his ailing car into Nablus, Ziad was forced to stop at the base of a hill. The local population would leave their vehicles here and hike up and over the hill to the other side where they could be picked up and driven into the city. Clearly this was not an option in this case, so instead, he was forced to remove the engine from his car, and strap it to a donkey. The image of the donkey carting this engine up and over a hill to the mechanic had a blackly comic element to it, yet another oddly humorous story of living life through the occupation. A tragic and blackly comic farce.

After drinking our coffee, our tea, our juice and our water, a never ending supply of beverages, each successive drink appearing as we supped from the bottom half of our glasses, we headed back onto the road to Zababdeh, our home. We had heard that the village, a small, predominantly Christian community, had been closed and put under curfew. It seemed beyond bizarre that sleepy Zababdeh would be placed in such a situation, but then the actions of the Israeli army are rarely rational and compassionate. Along rutted farm tracks we drove, avoiding the primary roads which have been reserved for the illegal Israeli settlers. On one corner a car stopped and waved down our taxi. A heavily pregnant woman and her husband emerged and asked if our driver could take them to Jenin, as she needed medical attention and wanted to get to the hospital before her waters broke and urgency became emergency. Ziad agreed, although warned that he couldn’t drive all the way to Jenin as the roads were closed. He took us down another heavily potholed farm track until we reached the impromptu cul-de-sac so familiar in the West Bank. From here the couple needed to walk another half a mile, before they could pick up another vehicle. As we drove off I looked back to see her picking her way over a mud bank, leaning on her husband for support and assistance.

We turned and headed back towards Zababdeh, experiencing no more major problems or incidents on the way. The town was still closed, but the University campus was outside the line of curfew. As yet, soldiers have not been onto the campus, but I can only imagine it remains a matter of time. While the world watches Iraq and the Middle East correspondents remain embedded with the US Military, the Israeli government is stepping up its incursions into the lives of the Palestinians. Symbolically, the wall is supposed to make the Israeli civilian population feel more secure. For the Palestinians the symbolism is equally unmistakable – behind such a barrier, the already grotesque level of brutality can be stepped up, unseen by the eyes of the world.

(Published in The Morning Star)

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Football with the Terrorists

Posted by Andy Hockley on 8 April, 2003

The casual news watcher living in the west might imagine that playing football with 13 young men from a country reputed to be full of terrorists and assassins, would be a little troubling. Particularly when that country is in uproar about the US and UK war on Iraq. As ever though, nothing in Palestine is as it presented from the outside.

The Arab American University of Jenin’s team was involved in one of their thrice-weekly practices, and somehow I had managed to wangle myself an invitation to join them. Like all forms of training and education in Palestine it is difficult to see the value in achievement. Just as our students continue to make the arduous trek through checkpoints and backroads every day to get to University, to study for degrees in Accountancy – in a country which has virtually reverted to a subsistence economy – and Law – in a country with no police force – so the AAUJ football team train regularly, even though internal travel is at such a standstill that they cannot actually play against any other of Palestine’s universities. Occasionally, the local community manages to come up with mini, highly localized, tournaments, but even these are at the mercy of closures and curfews arbitrarily imposed by the Israeli army. In the most recent of these tournaments, an eight-team knockout of local villages, AAUJ’s team were beaten in the final by a team representing the Jenin refugee camp, the scene of last April’s massacre by Israeli troops.

Palestinian hospitality is astonishingly intense. Despite not being here for long I have already lost count of the number of times I have been overfed and practically been offered the shirts off the backs of people who can barely afford to feed themselves. Not for nothing did the parable of the killing the fatted calf to feed the prodigal son, originate in this region. As I discovered yesterday, it also extends to the football pitch. Despite the incontrovertible evidence that I am a slightly overweight, very unfit, not especially talented, 37 year old, I was allowed to join in. At one point, I was even gifted a goal by one of my teammates who had run the length of the field beating practically every member of the opposition, including the goalkeeper, before passing to me. I contrived to miss. Not a single complaint was audible. Not understanding the system especially well (we were 14 people playing 5-a-side), I offered to start the match on the bench. “No, you are our guest. Welcome.”, I was told, forcefully. As it turned out there was a rotation system which enabled everyone to play equal time, so I needn’t have worried.

As my aching muscles and bruised ankles will attest, the hospitality didn’t necessarily extend to easing up on me on the field, unless of course they managed to do it so skillfully that I felt able to hold my own and yet not feel patronized. I wouldn’t put it past them. Aside from both goalkeepers, both of whom were incredibly brave and extremely talented, the level of play was not especially great – even, in case you were wondering, when I wasn’t on the pitch. I have yet to spot a full-sized pitch anywhere in Palestine, which, for those of twice than age of the rest of the players, not blessed with any pace, and with desperately low levels of fitness, is quite a relief. I know that were they to invite me to play on a real pitch that I would be run ragged within the first five minutes. There must be a pitch somewhere, but, sadly, I fear any large flat area of ground with the requisite soil quality and irrigation to support turf would quickly be occupied and “liberated” by Israeli settlers, supported by a phalanx of troops.

Oh, and one other thing: Nobody tried to kill me. Not even when I missed my second open goal of the night.

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Posted by Andy Hockley on 7 April, 2003

The International Solidarity Movement is one of a number of organisations working in the Occupied Territories to provide protection and witness to the civilian population. Delegations work in a number of Palestinian cities – ferrying food and water to people kept inside under Israeli declared curfews, which can go on for months at a time; accompanying the sick and infirm to hospitals and medical assistance; helping farmers harvest their crops while illegal settlers look on with murderous intent. The organisation is staffed by Palestinians and foreign nationals from many nations, working to provide non-violent resistance to the worst facets of the occupation.

As internationals they have, until recently, been spared from the violent actions of the Israeli army directed at the local population. Three weeks ago that fact changed when Rachel Corrie, a young American woman, was crushed and killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza while attempting to prevent house demolitions. The Israelis say that the driver did not see her, an argument disbelieved by independent eyewitnesses. He, the driver, is now back at work after a brief internal investigation. Rachel’s death became a cause-celebre among anti-war groups and others working to end the occupation, but in the general Western media, their eyes firmly focussed on Iraq, it raised barely a murmur. Perhaps the Israeli army have taken heart from this.

Last night we were woken by a phone call at 4am. One member of the local Jenin delegation, and a close friend of Susie’s, Lasse was on the line. He was calling from Haifa, where he was waiting for news of his American colleague, Brian, who had at that point been in surgery for the last four hours.

Yesterday evening, just around dusk, the ISM delegation had been gathering on a street corner to head for the refugee camp, from where shooting had been heard. On one street corner, Brian was waiting with Tobias, the Swedish leader of the delegation, while the remaining four ISM members in Jenin were on their way. As they stood waiting, two tanks bore down on them. Both men stood their ground, safe in the knowledge that their reflective vests identified them as international observers, and therefore no threat to the soldiers. The tanks stopped, and a ten minute standoff developed. Just as the remaining four members of the delegation approached, a soldier sitting atop one of the armoured vehicles behind a mounted machine gun, opened fire on Tobias and Brian. 5 of the 6 delegates scattered. One didn’t. Lying face down and motionless in the road was Brian. Lasse turned and went over to him. Turning him over he saw that half of his face had been shot off by a bullet. Almost paralysed with shock, Lasse somehow managed to remove his own t-shirt and wrap Brian’s head in it.

As the armoured vehicles drove off, not stopping to check on the damage they had done, the ISM team called for an ambulance, the same ambulance that they are more accustomed to travelling around in as protectors, not as patients. Brian was whisked off to the local hospital, at which the doctors did all they could for him, but in the end said that he needed to be treated in a well-equipped hospital. That meant Israel. The closest town in Israel is Afula – less than 20 miles away on the map, but a lifetime away for many here. Before the ambulance could leave, though, permission had to granted by the Israeli forces. As Brian lay in the hospital bed, critically injured, the Israeli authorities delayed for well over an hour before granting the necessary permission.

Eventually allowed to leave, the ambulance took Brian to Israel and Afula. From there he was urgently evacuated to Haifa, where a better equipped hospital awaited. Ironically he was taken in a military helicopter, so often used to bring suffering to the local people, but here used to bring relief. Once again, as on many previous occasions, the treatment from Israelis within Israel proving to be humane and compassionate. One wonders whether any of these people who can be so warm and hospitable have any idea of what is done in their name in the semi-lawless military training ground that is Palestine.

Brian, I am happy to report, is recovering. Unable to speak, he has been able to talk to his parents in New Mexico by listening to their words and writing down what he wants to say so that Lasse can speak the words. The reconstruction of his face has, doctors think, been relatively successful.

It is not known what action, if any will be taken against the soldier who decided to rearrange Brian’s face. Already the Israeli army spin doctors are claiming that there was a gun battle going on and that they don’t know whether it was an Israeli bullet that hit Brian. No doubt they are hoping that by the time they admit that this is all a fabrication, the attention and interest will have moved on.

Arriving at Tel Aviv airport or at checkpoints into the West Bank, foreigners are greeted with suspicion and incredulity. We are told that it is very dangerous and that we shouldn’t go to “the Territories”. They are right. Quite apart from over 1000 Palestinian dead, in the past year 4 foreigners have been killed in Palestine and one, Brian, critically injured. 2 were killed by illegal Israeli settlers in Hebron, the other three were victims of the Israeli army. It is dangerous, but not because of the Palestinians.

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