Jerusalem had been breathtaking and awe-inspiring, and whilst it was sad to leave such a magnificent city, we were keen to see more of Palestine. The next part of the journey was through what is unfortunately commonly referred to as Israel, but what we will refer to as the 48 Areas (1948 was the year the Israelis occupied the first part of Palestine – around 78% – and around 800,000 Palestinians sought refuge mainly in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria). This part of the trip was relatively short, but an information overload, and as such this post is longer than the last, although I have tried to convey only the most prominent details we received.
We headed straight for Jaffa, although the fairly long journey was punctuated by a delay courtesy of the Israeli Highway Patrol who insisted our driver paid 2,600 shekels, apparently for an outstanding traffic fine, although this was hotly contested (the driver had been active in the second intifada, arrested 6 times, imprisoned for 8 years and is now regularly harassed). Along the journey we passed his home village Ain Shams from where all families had been ordered to leave and which now lies empty and waiting.
Jaffa is a household name for most, thanks to the orange groves that used to surround the pretty seaside town, however Tel Aviv has now merged with Jaffa along the coast and the trees have been uprooted inland to make way for the imposing Israeli hilltop settlements that ring the town.
Our guide was a member of the municipality council and showed us many atmospheric old buildings that are going to be converted into boutique hotels. Gentrification is a huge problem in old town Jaffa – the increased prices are putting upward pressure on the local economy which local Palestinians can’t afford, ultimately being forced to leave as there are no other Arab neighbourhoods to move to. Any Palestinians coming into Jaffa cannot buy their own property, they automatically become a ‘defended resident’ rather than full home owners meaning that the Israeli state owns 1/3 and therefore no renovations will be allowed inside or out, even for essential maintenance, at the risk of extortionate fines. As a result, many of the buildings have become run down to the point of being uninhabitable – as we witnessed first hand in some areas.
The focal point of Jaffa is a picturesque artists village – a very attractive tourist haven on the surface with pretty streets and churches, little market stalls and cafes. I think of it as the ‘Great Cover Up’ – as an ignorant visitor I would probably have fallen in love with the place, spending hours in leafy squares soaking up picture-perfect views of the sparkling Mediterranean and would probably not have noticed the Saray (Governors House) in the centre of town which was the site of a 1948 bombing by Zionist terrorists (unfortunately the house was also an orphanage and 26 innocent children died as a result). The masquerade actually made me feel choked the entire time we were there. Seeing the recent news reports on the bombings and child fatalities in Gaza, you have to wonder if anything is changing throughout all the years and all the bloodshed…
In order to see the town with eyes wide open, I would recommend any visitors hire a local Palestinian guide. Ours used to teach history and political sciences in a private school and after being told several time that his classes were too political (clue’s in the name!) the Head was threatened with having the school’s funding cut so he had to quit and was investigated several times by the Shabaak (the Israeli Security Agency). Now working as a tour guide he often gets abuse in the streets from Jewish tour guides, as we witnessed ourselves, who try to discourage tourists from using his services and discredit him. Personally I found him insightful, knowledgeable and very engaging.
I was glad to leave the strangled feelings of suffocation in Jaffa and head to Lydd, one of the final towns to fall as part of the ethnic cleansing in the early 1950’s. The old town was almost completely flattened except for a church, mosque and the ruins of a market. The mosque was the site of a massacre during this bloody period for the town – on top of the countless lives lost, an additional 19 women and children sought refuge inside the mosque and were murdered in cold blood, the doors were then locked by the Israelis meaning that the bodies could not be recovered for a week.
The town is very poor (only 18 months prior another 13 houses had been demolished) but we were greeted by such hospitality from our hosts for the night. We spent the evening in their garden smoking shisha and hearing about the good work they do with children in the area to keep them out of trouble, off the streets and away from drugs. We were also joined by an ex-prisoner who had been freed as part of the Gaza exchange of prisoners. He had spent 28 years in an Israeli jail for being a member of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) resistance and was freed 8 months before we met him (in October 2011). Considering he has spent more than half of his life in prison, he was an incredibly warm, smiley and likeable guy, and gave us a heartfelt human perspective on the plight of the prisoners. We were surprised to learn that he had obtained 2 university degrees whilst in prison, however he explained that this was through sheer force of will alone as he had been continually harassed and hindered by soldiers trying to make him quit, so much so that courses which should have taken 5-6 years to complete actually took 16! This inner strength emanated clearly from him, as it did from a lot of the Palestinians we met, although he also confessed that he did reach breaking point when his niece had faked a reason to visit the prison to get a glimpse of him, and he didn’t recognise her and had only learned afterwards (she had only been 3 years old when he was incarcerated). Despite the sad stories, his smile was contagious and it was heartwarming to hear his plans for the future, planning his 50th birthday celebration and his wedding for next year! A real life inspirational example of positivity and mind over matter. The next morning our kind hostess had made coffee and got out a fresh tin of biscuits for when we got out of the shower. She had spent the entire night on the sofa to give us her bed but was still full of smiles and benevolent nods at us as we tried to tidy up after ourselves.
On arrival to Haifa, we went straight to a meeting with the Director of the Baladna project (www.momken.org), the only independent national Palestinian youth organisation in the 48 Areas. Around 5,500 youths participated in Baladna’s various social and educational activities and programmes last year which strengthen understanding, empowerment and community building within the young people of Palestine and work towards ensuring the Palestinian identity is continued. Here we spent some time discussing the institutional and systematic structural discrimination in terms of freedom of movement, heath, infrastructure, industry and education.
All education systems are under Israeli ministry control, meaning the all students learn the Zionist narrative; Judaism and ‘history’ are not optional, Hebrew is obligatory from the second grade and there is no modern history. Teachers have to obtain security clearance from the secret service and non-conformists are harassed. This creates a very real problem for Arab youths in terms of identity – they are ignorant of their heritage and roots and can’t speak freely, debate or ask questions about sensitive issues at school. This is a sobering thought, combined with the fact that every second child is under the poverty line in the country, and that only 17% of these youths achieve higher education, even then receiving simple manual jobs and lower wages when they leave.
After the meeting we stopped at the scenic Baha’i gardens and shrine – an essential stop in Haifa, if just for the view of the city alone. However it was hard to enjoy what I would have considered a stunning viewpoint anywhere else in the world. The sprawl of bright high rises and sparkling blue sea here seemed suffocating in the same way that Jaffa had. The scenery may have been beautiful but it was all just an immaculate cover up – a smothering blanket of clean white buildings and carefully manicured gardens that had been very deliberately laid to wipe out any traces of the lemon and olive groves and natural beauty of the area.
Our final tour of a long and information filled day was in Akka, here we had a lovely local student showing us around the sleepy seafront town, she had gone overseas to study but had always been adamant about returning to her home and not giving up hope. Gentrification is a similar problem in Akka with beautiful old buildings being turned into boutique hotels and ‘tourist restoration projects’ which sit empty or are used as Israeli student accommodation. I would have loved to spend longer there but we were expected in Nazareth that night and so piled back onto the bus to our beds.
Nazareth was stunning, we could definitely feel the proximity to the West Bank, you could almost taste it – the Arab majority definitely influenced the atmosphere unlike the rest of the 48 Areas . Here we stayed in St Gabriel Hotel, an old monastery perched dramatically on the top of a steep hill overlooking the town, with spectacular views by day or night. We used the town as a base to go and explore the ‘abandoned villages’, though this terminology should be revised as none of these were abandoned by choice – they are more appropriately known as the ‘ethnically cleansed villages‘. These peaceful national parks hid a multitude of sins, the trees planted to hide the poisoned wells and ruins of villages such as Ghabsieh, cemeteries and army bases built over the top of the remains and mosques turned into synagogues, or simply left to crumble after the inhabitants were forcibly removed from their homes and prevented from ever returning.
We were lucky to spend some time with British journalist and author Jonathan Cook and his Palestinian wife Sally who runs a local guesthouse and gift shop and works with various NGO’s for social change. Sally talked about the problem of tourism in Nazareth, whereby tourists who are ignorant of the issues the city faces, visit for a few hours only as part of a day trip, often even bringing their own lunch and therefore offering no support to the local community or economy.
Our final day in the 48 Areas was spent exploring the beautiful old city of Nazareth with its big stone archways and colourful sprawling flowers. We strolled through the souk and past the mosques to explore the old churches, spice mills and Mary’s Well and enjoy fresh juices in the town square before packing up the bus and heading out for the most highly anticipated part of our journey – The West Bank…