war

Checkpoints and clashes: life in the West Bank- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

Here’s my latest for ABC’s The Drum on my recent trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Hebron and Bethlehem.

Little girl at Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.
Little girl at Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.

It’s easy to feel removed from the continuous coverage of instability and violence in the Middle East.

The never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine has a depressing predictability that seems to blur into erupting cycles of deadly violence, acrimonious rhetoric and scenes of weeping mothers on both sides, paying the price in this seemingly intractable dispute.

In the latest escalation, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers found near Hebron in the West Bank last week sparked widespread calls for revenge, with protestors in Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs”. A few days later, a Palestinian teen was burned alive in what is believed to be a revenge attack.

Since the June 12 kidnapping Israel has meted out collective punishment on the occupied territories, raiding hundreds of homes and demolishing those of suspected kidnappers, launching airstrikes on Gaza and road-blocking Hebron, as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to avenge the deaths.

Much of the media coverage focuses on covering bursts of conflict in a vacuum, with little context or historical analysis. Rarely do you get a picture of daily life on the ground in the territories and the impact of Israeli military presence and settlements in the region.

Hebron market vendor speaks about harassment from settlers who live above Hebron market.

Two months ago I was in Jerusalem and from there visited the two largest Palestinian cities in the West Bank – Hebron and Bethlehem. My entry into the most contested piece of real estate in the world was met with a six-hour detention, where I was questioned and interrogated along with dozens of westerners attempting to enter Israel. We watched two young Palestinian-American men, turned back and banned for five years. One of the boys, a medical student intending to volunteer at a Jerusalem hospital was told he didn’t have required embassy permits to volunteer.

Settlement in Hebron.
Settlement in Hebron.

During my stay, I have never seen more machine guns waved in my face or had my passport checked more often in my life. Young IDF soldiers with machine guns casually slung around their shoulders control access to holy sites, including the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site for Muslims.

Soldiers at Al-Aqsa entry gate at Friday prayer, Jerusalem.
Soldiers at Al-Aqsa entry gate at Friday prayer, Jerusalem.

Checkpoints to enter are dotted around the mosque. Along with many Palestinians, I got used to daily questioning as I entered. Sometimes I had to recite Quranic verses to prove I was Muslim, other times I had to show my passport. On Friday, the checkpoints are packed with soldiers and clashes are common as young men are arbitrarily turned away for juma prayer.

In Hebron, where among 160,000 Palestinians, about 700 Jewish settlers live, protected by hundreds of IDF soldiers, a steel mesh dotted with garbage covers an open air Hebron market.

Wire mesh covering Hebron market.
Wire mesh covering Hebron market.

When I asked what it was for, the Arab vendors told me the the mesh protects them from urine, faeces and rubbish thrown down by settlers living above the market.

Rubbish in wire mesh covering Hebron market.
Rubbish in wire mesh covering Hebron market.

The feeling of being contained continues in Bethlehem as we weaved our way through a confusing array of zones and checkpoints to visit the Separation wall. The massive eight-metre high concrete block, covered in protest graffiti snakes its way through huge sections of Palestinian territory, along with Israeli-only roads and checkpoints that bar Palestinians from Jerusalem.

Separation wall, Bethlehem
Separation wall, Bethlehem

In the nearby Deheishe refugee camp, an air of hopelessness pervades the cramped buildings, as aimless children kick soccer balls through the streets in front of walls scrawled with Arabic political graffiti. One mural includes lines from Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish that reads: “The war has taken everything from me. All I have left is my dreams.”

Arabic graffiti at Deheishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem. Lines from Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish which read, “The war has taken everything from me, All I have left is my dreams
Arabic graffiti at Deheishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem. Lines from Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish which read, “The war has taken everything from me, All I have left is my dreams

Water tanks dot the rooftop landscape to deal with fluctuating supply, as Palestinians are forced to buy back water diverted by Israeli pipes at inflated prices.

The collective fear and paralysis, the brutality of continued occupation breeds among a hopeless Palestinian population, and an increasingly militarised Israel is ultimately crushing to both sides. Continuous settlement and dispossession not only hurts Palestinians but must also create scars on those forced to implement it

I saw this in the scared faces of some the very young IDF soldiers conscripted for mandatory service and the aimless children in the refugee camp bound to grow up as angry teens. As the rhetoric of dehumanisation continues, it’s clear no one feels safe as innocents continue to suffer.

Jordan · media · travel

Jordan reflections

Friends of mine have been curious to know what the people are like here and the political issues (besides the amazing food and stunning natural beauty, see video by my very talented friend The Graphical Baker ^).  I’ve been wary because  I don’t want to make generalisations. So disclaimer- here are some observations based on my limited experience and interactions here.

Money /The Government/Wasda

There’s a huge divide here between those who have means (who live in West Amman) and those that don’t (generally East Amman). It came to a head when the Mercedes- driving son of a minister went on a tirade on facebook about his argument with a Kia driver, raging against the ‘backward xxxxs’ in Jordan. A local I met recently, Ali*, told me this was particularly galling because most people in Amman drive cheap Kia cars. Everything is expensive here, due to import taxes. I was flabbergasted to see a toaster with a tag of 25 JD ($AUS37) at the local shopping centre. I’m told the minimum wage with tips will get you around 250 JD a month, which is roughly half the weekly rent for a roomy apartment in central Amman. High employment combined with the rising cost of living and the perception of widespread nepotism and corruption has created a powder keg of discontent.

For young middle-class educated Jordanians, the aspiration seems to be to go abroad. Ali, a languages student who speaks Russian and Spanish, wants to work as a diplomat but says nepotism means plum postings are generally reserved for the connected elite. There’s even a term for it: ‘wasda’.

Rabia*, a young teaching student at Jordan university, says it’s so bad you’ll have guys who will not turn up to class all semester, but will show up at the end to  be ‘passed’. I asked how that works for professions where you could actually kill someone, and she said in med school you have some professors who will tell the class straight up, there’s no ‘wasda’ here, so don’t even try.

While Jordanians I spoke to are not entirely happy with the status quo, they are grateful for stability and safety in a region where Jordan seems to be the only safe harbour. They are wary of the unrest revolution in nearby countries has created. One of my teachers said that whilst we’re not entirely happy, we don’t know what the alternative would be. Ali says Jordanians don’t want a revolution but they want change. Any discussion of the ruling Royal family is done in hushed tones and in private.

Palestine

In a country where most people are of Palestinian background, the conflict with Israel is central. It’s the recurring issue in personal stories and in the news. Pretty much everyone has a story of being denied entry into Israel (especially young men), of a grandparent losing everything and migrating but dreaming of being able to visit again. Many won’t recognize Israel as a country and say Palestine instead. There’s a perception that US is not an unbiased mediator. It’s the cause of a lot of anger and disbelief and there is pessimism there will ever be a real solution to the conflict.

Refugees

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler, Flickr

A lot of NGO workers I’ve met here are working on building camp infrastructure for the thousands of Syrian refugees flooding in over the border. A conversation between two Jordanians I met reminded me of the debate around asylum seekers in Australia.

A: It’s costing us a lot of money.

M: The UN is paying for everything. I’m really worried about the camps. I heard people are dying there.

A: The problem is people coming here without passports and papers. You can’t have open borders.

A: I feel sorry for them. They’re fleeing for their lives, they might not all have papers.

M: Also Syrians are willing to work for less than Jordanians creating problems for locals.

A: They contribute. I feel sorry for them.

M: So do I. I hate the situation not the people.

The difference of course is that M has loads of Syrian friends and a great deal of sympathy for the plight of those fleeing, generally reflected in the public mood towards refugees with numerous fundraisers and events dedicated to Syria (in Australia, the right-wing view features mostly hatred, hysteria and racism). I think the fact that Syrians, like Jordanians, are Arab Muslims, probably makes a big difference.

Gender/Religion

Jordan is generally a conservative country but I think liberal by standards in the region. A local tour I went on (where we were the only foreigners) and a group of artsy liberal Jordanian students I met recently seemed like hanging out with a group of 20-somethings back in Australia, down to justifying my abstention from alcohol (which is freely available). The men love to dance, openly hug and kiss each other and seem really to know how to have a good time (that was just on the tour bus). Most women wear hijabs with fashionable western clothing but many don’t. You can walk around safely pretty much anytime of the day or night, and will not be bothered except for the occasional hooligan, though I have heard of foreign looking women being hassled. Like Pakistan it feels like you have a divide between two groups -those who are liberal and irreligious, mix freely and party and those who are religious and conservative. But I think there is hope for that rare breed- the religious liberal – bucking tradition but staying true to their Islamic roots. One of my teachers is a single hijabi and practicing Muslim who works, lives out of home and travels abroad despite societal and family disapproval.  It will be interesting to see if it is people like this, who can successfully reconcile tradition and modernity within themselves, can pave a navigation of those forces within society.

*Names have been changed.