We ended another emotionally exhausting day in Ramallah (the ‘capital’ of the West Bank) with a talk from the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanction) campaigners. Here we finally heard success stories of David beating Goliath without any violence. Essentially the campaign focusses on ending the occupation (getting rid of the wall etc), ending the system of racial discrimination (particularly in business), and the right to return (for Palestinian refugees and children of refugees outside of the country – currently there are an estimated 50% outside, 38% in the West Bank and Gaza and 12% in ‘Israel’). For those not familiar with the terms, the Boycott calls for people all over the world to stop supporting Israeli products, businesses, universities, and events (check your bar codes, anything starting 729 is a product of Israel), the Divestment encourages people to sell any Israeli stocks, and Sanctions prevent Israeli companies from bidding for work projects. To date, the area where the campaign has had the most success is in the cultural forum – with mainstream artists, entertainers and bands such as Snoop Dogg, Meg Ryan, Klaxons, Gorrillaz, Cold Play, Roger Waters and Emma Thompson. It was a very encouraging end to such a heavy day, and will definitely be an area I continue to explore and support in the future, as this campaign could pose a serious strategic threat to the Israelis with enough support from the international community.
As a destination itself, I found Ramallah to be one of the least inspiring locations of the trip, essential and central, but more of a big town, lacking the character we had seen elsewhere. A trip out to Birzeit made a nice change though, even though we didn’t get to meet with the Right to Education campaigners. We had actually picked up a lot of information on the subject from various different sources throughout the trip, including issues around the freedom of movement to university (teachers and students are held up at checkpoints for up to two hours daily), the lack of economic support to the education system, the systematic arrests of students about to graduate with 6 months of administrative detention, as well as the lack of skilled jobs for graduates and denial of work permits for teachers. Apparently term times have even had to be shortened to three months as this is the longest that foreign teachers can get visas for.
The change meant we had plenty of time to meet with Right to Entry campaigners who were very engaging. With three diaspora Palestinians in our group this was particularly relevant – they can only get a tourist visa for three months to their country of origin. If they decide they want to move back permanantly, there is no guarantee they will get the visa either – it is another undeniable case of discrimination. We had heard plenty about the restrictions on movement within the country during our travels, through the replacement of a passport with a variety of identity cards and discrimination on roads and at checkpoints. Not only have the restrictions on movement affected the peoples’ spirits, but also the higher education system, the travel/tourism industry, healthcare and the economy. People from different parts of Palestine cannot marry, building restrictions limit where Palestinian homes can be built, and how many, and the Israelis limit the telecoms networks (there is no 3G for Palestinians).
Coincidentally while we were in Ramallah there was a local talk being held by the Ma’an Development Centre about the issues in the Jordan Valley which a few of us went and joined – the issues in this part of the country are different again but all come back to the divide and conquer strategy of the Israelis. We were particularly honoured to be joined by ladies local from the area who had travelled far to share their story, as had one of the Jordan Valley shepherds – and I loved their mantras ‘to exist is to resist’.
The population of Jordan Valley is generally indigenous bedouins, but they have been denied their way of living as they can’t move their animals around the green areas and are therefore forced to buy more feed in order to maintain the value of the animals. Another key issue includes access to healthcare – a Palestinian ambulance can’t cross the checkpoint, so two are needed and people have to leave one to go through the checkpoint and into another Israeli ambulance – the instances of homebirths and ‘midjourneycarbirths’ are very high as a result! Similarly farmers selling crops need to operate a back-to-back system whereby crops need to be unloaded at the checkpoints and reloaded into Israeli vehicles, these checks are drawn out so that crops ruin in the heat.
50% of the Jordan Valley is taken up with illegal Israeli settlements, fences, patrol roads, ‘nature reserves’ and closed Israeli military zones. The Palestinians are not allowed to build schools or clinics so they have to travel long distances every day around the illegal Israeli settlements which they are not allowed through, and the settlers harass and intimidate them and their children, often with guns and illegally confiscating their animals, and there are a lot of road accidents involving pedestrians. Interestingly we learned that there is a lot of ignorance within Israel itself, with 67% of Israelis believing the Jordan Valley is Israeli land! The status divide is clearly shown in this area, with the Israel settlers being encouraged to move here and receiving benefits in the form of unlimited and discounted drinking water, cheap utility rates, free education, buses and healthcare, unlimited irrigation, subsidised housing, grants of up to 95% and facilitated export of produce. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the area face many restrictions, several have no electricity, most of the area has no Palestinian schools or healthcare due to building/reconditioning restrictions, and there are restrictions on agriculture and well/reservoir building, despite the fact that the water table has been reduced and existing water is oversalinated and treated with chemicals. The World Health Organisation recommends a daily intake of 100l per day, Palestinians average 50-70l per day, with a quarter receiving less than 50l due to the restrictions applied. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are forced to depend on unreliable water tankers where they pay 7-15% more. The lack of water leads to neglect of the land, which gives the Israelis an excuse to confiscate it – and so the end result is clear. The shepherd explained that increasingly shepherds are being arrested on suspicion of crimes, and then while they are detained for extended periods of time, their sheep are left to the wolves (literally and figuratively) and the lands are confiscated, or else they have to pay to shelter the animals (the Jordan Valley boasts the only animal prison I’ve heard of!)
In a way I was glad that I didn’t find the city of Ramallah a distraction as it really allowed us to focus and absorb the information that we heard. It provided a grounding to better understand what we had seen and what we would continue to see during the last part of the trip.