One thing it is impossible to avoid on the West Bank is Palestinian hospitality. John and I’s first taste of this is in Bethlehem, where we have to pass through to get to Hebron. We have some time to spare, and John would like to see the Church of the Nativity, the reputed birth-place of Jesus. I contact a couple of friends in Bethlehem, just in case they can help us to store our suitcases whilst do this.
My friend Ibrahim responds pretty quickly. Not only are we able to leave our suitcases in the Bethlehem Souvenir Centre where he works, but he offers to drive us in the mini-bus straight to Nativity Square, leaves us there and arranges with his friend in the St George’s restaurant on the square that we will phone him when we are ready, and he’ll come and pick us up.
Before we leave Bethlehem, we visit Ibrahim’s family. As we sip mint tea, Ibrahim’s wife Nisreen turns to us and says: ‘Why didn’t you come for lunch? Next time you must come for longer!’ This is typical of Palestinians. Everywhere we go we are plied with tea and coffee – Arabic coffee in beautiful tiny cups, often with a hint of cardamon or ginger; hot sweet tea flavoured with mint. Whilst we stay with Maryam she cooks Palestinian specialities every evening, even though she has just spent the whole of the day with us facilitating the AVP workshop. As we sit drinking coffee one evening, Ibrahim, Maryam’s husband, suddenly has the idea that we must taste kanafeh, a traditional Palestinian sweet made of soft cheese soaked in a sugar-based syrup. Within half and hour it is with us – presumably fresh from a local bakery.
Before I leave, Maryam appears with a number of packages – gifts for me to carry home. A traditional Palestinian dress for me with accompanying shoes and gifts for the family. I am overwhelmed and embarrassed, and also worried about the weight of my case – but it would be rude to refuse.
Maryam’s last gesture as we leave the house is to pick two roses from the garden – one yellow, one red – which she presents to me as a piece of Hebron. Although the roses will wilt, the memory of people’s kindness remains.
Wednesday 22nd April. After trundling my suitcase over the cobbled stones of the Old City I arrive in the Ecce Homo guest-house for breakfast. From the second floor terrace we have a panorama of the Jerusalem skyline, taking in the gilded dome of the Al Aqsa Mosque, several churches including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Russian Orthodox Church, with it’s cupolas glinting in the sunshine. We are reminded of the importance of this city for the world’s main religions.
I meet John, my fellow Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) facilitator from the US, and we take a stroll together through the Old City. John has never visited Jerusalem before and wants to visit the Dome of the Rock or Temple Mount, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque. Undertaking this operation reveals why this is one of the most sensitive and controversial places in the world. Access to the site of the
mosque is via the Western Wall plaza and controlled by the Israeli military. The Western Wall is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. It is an exposed section of ancient wall, reputed to be the place where the Second Temple stood before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Jews come from all around the world to pray here. It is also, however, the third most sacred place in the world for Muslims, who believe that the prophet Muhammad was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to al-Aqsa during the Night Journey.
Access to the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock has been a bone of contention since at least the 1920s. More recently the 2nd Intifada was sparked off by a controversial visit by Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister of Israel to the site of the Dome of the Rock in September 2000. Presently Israeli archaeologists are undertaking excavations under the al-Aqsa mosque with the aim of uncovering remains of the Second Temple. This causes ongoing tensions, due to the fear that this work could de-stabilise the foundations of the mosque. And so an uneasy truce is maintained in this most religious of places.
We experience some of the tension directly as we at last reach the front of the line, go through the scanner and have our bags checked by the soldiers on duty. John is stopped and informed he cannot proceed. The offending object? His recorder which he is carrying in his bag. No indication of where he can leave this – just an outright refusal to let him pass. In fact there are a couple of shelves where objects can be left, but we are left to discover this for ourselves. The item in my bag that attracts the soldier’s attention is an Arabic learner’s book. ‘What’s this?’ he asks. I am nonplussed. ‘Well, it’s an Arabic text book’, I think to myself. ‘What’s it for?’ (‘To learn Arabic?’ – again unspoken). I am allowed to pass.
Having at last reached the site, we admire the extent of the platform on which
the mosque stands and the beauty and majesty of the building, with it’s intricate blue and turquoise patterns and it’s gold cupola. The peace is only shattered by some women chanting ‘Allah wakbar’ – ‘God is great’. They are followed at a distance by a group of soldiers. Again, tension is never far away.
We return to the ‘suq’ – the underground labyrinth of shops that is the Old City. Here all sorts of spices and food are displayed alongside traditional pottery and jewellery as well as a full range of household and gaudy plastic goods. This is also the route of the Via Dolorosa, where Christian pilgrims can be seen following the Stations of the Cross. We enter a shop in the Armenian Quarter, and are reminded of a forgotten genocide – the deliberate deportation and starvation of the Armenian population under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. It is thought that 1.5 million Armenians perished – a tragedy that is little talked about, although we are presently marking its centenary.
As we finish our browse, we are tempted into a shop selling jewellery, and are soon drawn into a very persuasive sales talk. First we are offered Arabic coffee, then entertained by stories of the store-owner’s family, some of whom live in the UK. Finally, John is tempted by a beautiful piece of jewellery, which he is assured is unique and ‘when he presents it to his wife’ (fait accompli!) she will be delighted. Somehow John manages to remain assertive and extricate himself without having made a purchase.
We return to our guest-house exhausted by the myriad of impressions and emotions that have assaulted us during this the first day of our visit.
We live in a mobile society. Many of us – through circumstances or choice – have ‘settled’ in a different area or even a different country from the place where we were born. Seen from this perspective, the word ‘settlement’ seems innocuous, suggesting benign drifts of individuals and groups, settling on the countryside and melting into the environment, where they coexist peacefully alongside their neighbours.
In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, however, the word ‘settlement’ has a much harder, bitterer edge. One way we can understand this is by referring to International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention states that an occupying power (in this case Israel) shall not transfer its own population (the ‘settlers’) to the areas it occupies (in this case the Palestinian Territories). Yet this is precisely what is happening here. There are now over 500,000 (half a million) Israeli settlers living on land belonging to Palestinians and designated for a future Palestinian state. In other words the settlements are illegal under IHL.
Taking the benign definition of ‘settlement’ outlined in our first paragraph, one might still be tempted to say: ‘So what? People of different ethnicity, faith and background live side by side in many parts of the world.’ True, but to understand the true significance and impact of what is going on here it’s not the lens of ethnicity and religion one needs to look through, but that of occupier and occupied. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories two populations live alongside one another, one (the settlers) with full Israeli citizenship and all the rights and privileges that brings; the other (the indigenous Palestinian population) living under military rule. The one enjoys full security, with both military and police protection, whilst the other is subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, including that of minors. The one is able to move around freely, whilst the other is subject to military checkpoints and roadblocks. The one is able to build and expand more or less as they like, whilst the other has to obtain building permits which are virtually impossible to come by, so that centres of population are concentrated into ever-decreasing and overcrowded areas. In horticultural terms the settlements are like a system of deliberately and strategically placed weeds, spreading their roots and squeezing the life out of the surrounding land, and the communities it supports. One can understand why people describe this situation as apartheid.
Let’s look through another lens for a moment – that of one map superimposed on another. Suppose that you want to visit the tiny Palestinian village of Yanoun near Nablus – or even the nearby town of Aqraba. Don’t expect to see a signpost to either of these from the main road, however. All you will see are signposts to Israeli settlements and some military look-out towers. Palestinians know where to turn for they have a different map in their hearts and minds – that of the original indigenous landscape, which is gradually being eaten – almost spirited away – by new settlements. One reality being superimposed upon another. One could forgive the local Palestinians for feeling that their land is slowly being made to disappear.
Whilst visiting our friend Nasser in Nablus he challenges our use of the word ‘settlement’. ‘They’re not settlers’, he says,‘but colonisers.’ The word in Arabic is not ‘mustawtaneen’ but ‘mustammareen’. This sounds a bit harsh, but we realise that it better reflects the reality we see around us and experience every day.
We recount this conversation to Yasser one of the farmers in Yanoun. He looks perplexed. ‘It’s the same thing’, he says. We realise that whilst we split semantic hairs and worry whether the words ‘colonisers’ and ‘colonies’ may be too harsh for some ears, what he experiences on the ground is undeniable. Because of the progressive appropriation of land by the settlers, he is unable to feed his sheep and is in debt for sheep feed. He struggles to afford a university education for his children. His house leaks in the winter, and he is unable to re-build as this is illegal. He is slowly but surely being squeezed off the land where he was born. ‘Mustawteen’ or ‘mustammareen’ – it’s all the same to him. Whatever we call them they spell a system of occupation and injustice which we in the West choose to condone.
It’s Sunday, the first day of the working week. Having left Yanoun, we stand at a busy Zatara junction, waiting for a bus or a service (yellow shared taxi) to take us on to Ramallah. Impossible. All the buses are jam-packed with people, and pass without stopping.
Eventually an elderly gentleman pulls up and offers us a lift, along with another Palestinian man who is waiting. We accept gratefully. We ask him how much we owe him, but he obviously doesn’t want payment. ‘I’m not a taxi’ he says. During the journey he engages us in conversation, asking what is the purpose of our visit. It turns out that he is a Doctor, having completed his PhD in India. By the end of the journey we have been invited to stay in his house in Jenin, and have exchanged e-mail addresses. He insists on dropping us directly outside the gate of the Meeting House in Ramallah, although we suspect this takes him considerably out of his way. Another example of Palestinian hospitality. From the little they have these people give so freely.
During Meeting for Worship Jean Zaru, the Clerk, stands to minister. She speaks about giving and receiving, and about being taught as a child that it is more blessed to give than to receive. She then recounts her experience, when ill in hospital in Amman, of being lovingly cared for by a Muslim lady – a stranger – which made her feel both grateful and humbled.
We came to Palestine to give – to provide protective presence for the people of Yanoun so that they can continue with their daily lives and feel safer despite the constant encroachment of the surrounding settlements. We came from a place of material abundance, and witnessed the hardship of their lives – their cold and leaking houses, and the precariousness of living hand-to-mouth. From that abundance we were able to alleviate some of their immediate needs.
And yet, we ponder, who is the giver here and who the receiver? From their material poverty, the people of Yanoun have given in abundance of their time, hospitality and graciousness of spirit. Plates of food would appear from nowhere: stuffed vine leaves, musachan ( a kind of Palestinian pizza, topped with onions, nuts and herbs), freshly-baked taboun bread. Over steaming cups of cinnamon tea and coffee, we shared anecdotes. They helped us with our Arabic, and pulled our leg about always bringing snow. There was a lot of laughter. We have experienced fellowship at a deep level, born of an ability to transcend ethnicity, religion and culture, and to connect on both a human and spiritual level, recognising that of God in one another.
And so we prepare to leave our beloved Palestine once again – enriched and humbled.
Despite the encroachment of the surrounding settlements, life in Yanoun is not all doom and gloom. We have experienced moments of deep connection with people and nature. We have laughed as well as cried. To be here is to experience being human on a deeper level.
The taboun (the communal village oven) is a very special place – and a women’s domain. We sit with Najiha watching her skillfully baking bread for her family. Large balls of prepared dough are shaped into a pizza-like pancake, then flattened between clapping hands, before being lowered onto hot coals in the ground. The result is beautifully crispy round unleavened bread. But baking bread and cake isn’t the only activity that goes on in the taboun. Here news, concerns and skills are shared – the bedrock of community.
The centre of family life in winter is the ‘dafaya’ (a metal stove on legs which is continually fed by olive tree prunings and husks). This is situated in the middle of the living room, and families gather around it for warmth and for meals and fellowship. The ‘dafaya’ is also used to boil water, to dry clothes and to cook. An amazing gadget!
Nor do our days lack humour. Huda laughs as she refers to her husband, Najeh, as ‘Yanoun’s Picasso’. We get continually teased about there always being snow when we are in the village, and about being afraid of the settler’s dog. The flip-side of this is a remarkable groundedness which shows itself in resilience and steadfastness, an ability to suffer hardship with equanimity.
There is new life in the village. Rashed and Wafa have a new daughter, Sawzan (10 months), who brings a lot of joy. Najiha’s face lights up as she tells us about her first grand-child, a little girl called Aya.
New life is also emerging in the natural world. Spring is approaching. Already the fields are green. As we do our daily walks we marvel at the red anemones, wild cyclamen and the almond blossom standing out against the blue sky. We stop to observe the hyrax who live in the caves on the hillside. We have also spotted a gazelle, owls and woodpeckers.
Yanoun is indeed a beautiful place. However, this beauty is fragile and panic easily breaks through. The villagers are always watchful, aware of the precariousness of their situation.
Life was always hard in Yanoun. The village is located in a narrow valley away from centres of population. There is no public transport. Subsistence farming – sheep, goats, the olive and almond harvest – is the only source of income.
However, with the expansion of Itamar settlement and outposts, the villagers’ situation becomes progressively worse. A map of the area shows the settlements tightening around Yanoun like a noose. As Najeh said to us: ‘We are living in a prison.’
Since we were last here in December 2013 more land has been appropriated by the settlers, leaving less available for the Yanoun families. Najeh remembered how it used to be – a time when the shepherds roamed freely on the slopes and in the valley with their herds. Now there are invisible but real security boundaries around the settlement, meaning that presence on the slopes is dangerous, and therefore not undertaken. This was illustrated yesterday when some of Yasser’s sheep went astray, followed by the rest of the flock. There was immediate and panicked activity, as shepherds from the village rushed to herd the flock back down to safety.
The reduction in available pasture for grazing has further consequences. Each family in the village now has to pay for extra feed for the sheep to supplement their diet. This costs 1,300 Shekels per month (220 pounds sterling). This may not seem much for us, but it is a considerable outlay for people who live hand to mouth. We heard that all families are now in debt, and that sheep have to be sold in order to pay for fodder. For example, Rashed’s flock has now reduced from 80 to 50 sheep. You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out that this situation isn’t sustainable.
Other potential sources of income for the village include producing honey from bees, selling almonds and olives and olive oil. They also make cheese from the goats’ milk, and produce free-range eggs. The women also do embroidery. The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) teams make a point of buying local produce from different families in turn. However, there is a lack of external outlets, so that the income to the villagers is minimal.
The demographics of the village is another factor. The bond between the older generation and their land is very strong, and they want to remain at all costs. But what about the younger generation? It seems that they are increasingly aware that work and opportunities can only be found outside of the village.
If a more sustainable source of income is not found soon, how can the village remain sustainable?
Today is Sunday, the first school day of the week for Yanoun’s children. As we emerge from the International House to do our morning walk, we see school bags sitting on the steps of the primary school and hear the voices of children chatting as they wait for the teachers to arrive. Older children are transported by bus to the secondary school in nearby Aqraba.
Education is of prime importance to the Palestinians, both in and of itself, but also in that it may provide a route out of poverty and the stranglehold of the Occupation.
Access to primary and secondary education is not an issue. Nor is being able to do so safely here in Yanoun. This is not the case in other schools in the area, for instance in nearby As-sawiya, where the male students and their teachers are regularly harassed and intimidated by the Israeli military, both on their way to school and in the school grounds.
The real problems start on leaving secondary education. University education is costly, and the costs are largely borne by individual families, unless sponsorship is available. University fees are around 1,750 pounds per year per student. Added to that is the expense of transport to and from university. Yanoun is not connected to any public transport network, and the journey to and from Nablus (for instance) costs 10 pounds per day. Being unable to meet these costs means that a choice has to be made as to which children can access higher education.
When we talked to Nadjeh and Huda in the village, they told us that their daughter would like to go to university, but they were unsure that they would be able to afford the fees, after struggling to educate both their sons. This is becoming increasingly difficult, as the land that is available to them due to settlement expansion shrinks, and they have to buy expensive fodder for their sheep, leaving them in debt. Yasser and Wasfiya also have one daughter and one son in university, and were obviously worried where the fees were going to come from. Halla, Yasser’s daughter, who is studying chemistry in Nablus university is unsure where the fees for her next semester are coming from, and therefore whether she will be able to complete her degree.
After graduation, finding work in one’s specialist field is another problem. Having obtained his degree in technical engineering, Jamal, Yasser and Wasfiya’s eldest son still hasn’t found suitable work. Yanoun is extremely isolated, and opportunities are few. Being on the front line has consequences for all generations and for the long-term sustainability of the community. For those young people fortunate enough to find work, this means moving away from their native village. What does the future hold for Yanoun?