Going into Palestine

It is indeed challenging to try to relate the relevant history of the area now known as the Palestinian territories without offending someone. Depending on the point at which you begin the narrative, the balance of things, rights and claims can look very different. Especially after today’s news regarding the status of Jerusalem.

A biblical conflict that still holds the key of the world’s geopolitical landscape. The cradle of religions. The keepers of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Yes, such panorama is hardly easy to address with objectivity. Countless of accounts have been written, but it is unlikely that anyone has address or will do an “objective” and definitive summary that would be accepted by everyone.

Nonetheless, I’m attempting to relate some of the history that had led to the unique state of law and justice in the territory under the present-day Palestinian Territories and what it felt like being there.

I had always wanted to go to Palestine for different reasons and the most important one was: discovering the most biblical and conflicted corner on earth.

I went there as a volunteer for an NGO dedicated to agricultural development along with a Japanese friend of mine and my mother, and it was an experience that truly made me go deep in the history and discover the best expression of human being’s capacity to react against difficulties.

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Working day in Beit Sahour with some local herders passing by us

I chose to travel as a volunteer because only living among locals you can really grasp the reality of a place. Of course, I could have simpy gone back packing but I assure you the experience wouldn’t have been the same.

Before digging into my incredible adventure, let’s take a glance at its history for a second.

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The land variously called Palestine is very small (5,640 sq km the West Bank and 360 sq km the Gaza Strip at present) and has been settled continuously for tens of thousands of years. Archeologists have found evidence of agriculture at Jericho dating from before 10,000 B.C., making it one of the oldest sites in the world (reason why we visited). During its long history, the area, population and ownership of the territory have varied greatly.

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Jericho in the evening, I was coming down from the Mount of Temptation monastery

Of the whole territory, the land within the recognized borders of Israel makes up of about 78% of the total. The remaing portion has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.  Part of this area is under the autonomous control of the Palestinian National Authority.

The territory became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517, and remained so until the end of the World War I in 1918.

This is a crucial moment: here is when it is good to start the chronology of events that has determined the state of law in the areas now considered as Palestinian.

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British soldiers push a crowd of Arab citizens out of Jerusalem during the June 1936 uprising.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, much of the Ottoman Empire was divided into Mandates, all territories that were assigned to the victors of the war.

However, the most determining demands were those of the British and French demands, rather than the views of the land’s inhabitants. The British were anxious to keep Palestine away from the French, so they decided to ask for a mandate that would allow them to establish a Jewish national home out of the Balfour declaration, assuming, of course, that the Jews would support the British claim. The Arabs opposed the idea of a Jewish national home on the territory, considering that all the areas being discussed were theirs, also bearing in mind that the Balfour Declaration expressly declared that the already-settled population should be respected.

By this moment, many had recognized the inevitability of conflict between Jews and Arab Palestinians over possession of the territory, the attempt of Britain to keep its presence in Palestine through self-governing institutions, the Jewish fear of the Arab majority, and the Arabs unwillingness to accept any Jews at all.

Jewish immigration to the region swelled in the 1930s, driven by persecutions in Eastern Europe, even before the rise of Nazism. The rise of Hitler in Germany added to the long tide of immigration. Palestinians resisted Jewish immigration and demanded their independence which led to widespread rioting, later known as the Arab Revolt in 1936, which was characterized by violence on both sides and lasted until after World War II.  In 1947, Great Britain turned the Palestine issue over to the United Nations, which issued an infinite amount of resolutions aiming to solve the difficult situation.

One of these resolutions, nº181 issued in 1947 aimed to divide the land into two approximately equal portions, but since Israel proclaimed its Independence in 1948, it expanded its occupation to 77% of the territory, including East Jerusalem.

Over half of the beduin Palestinian population was expelled. Jordan and Egypt took control the other parts of the territory that would have been assigned by the resolution to the Palestinian Arab State (West Bank and Gaza Strip).

In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel occupied the parts of Palestine that had been under Jordanian and Egyptian control. The war brought about a second exodus of Palestinians, estimated at half a million. Although UN Resolution nº242 (1967) called on Israel to withdraw from territories it occupies, the situation remains the same.

To this date, the Palestinian territory has never been a formal, independent and sovereign state and since 1967 and has been under various levels of military occupation and control by Israel.  The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), created in 1994 as a result of the signing of the Oslo Agreements, is meant to be in charge of governing the West Bank and Gaza strip until a final status agreement is negotiated with Israel.

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Now, back to my adventure.

After landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport my first harsh encounter was at Customs. I was nervous as I had been informed how tough Israeli customs can be to foreigners.
The dialogue went pretty much like this:

“Passport,” the young tough lady said to me in a non-friendly tone.

I handed it to her.

“What is the reason for your visit?”

I smiled and replied, “I came to see the Christian holy sites”

She examined my passport, then she examined my face, ”Will you be visiting the West Bank or Gaza?”

I said, “West Bank yes, Gaza don’t think so…” without thinking.

“You are going to the West Bank and Gaza?” again in a very serious tone

“Well, I can’t come and not see where Jesus was born so yes, I am going to Bethlehem at least” I replied quickly.

She examined my passport again, “Do know any Palestinians?” she asked.

I smirked, “Not yet.”

She looked at me angry. She then blubbered something to her next door colleague and went back to me.

I immediately had the feeling she was about to stamp my passport (huge mistake, here is why) so I said stop!

“Could you please not stamp my passport?”

Very annoyed she replied “Why is that?”

“I will have to travel for work to other countries and the stamp will be inconvenient”
(I meant it, but I had also been told that this is a good way to avoid the stamp)

She snorted, looked at her colleague and eventually gave me my passport back with a stamped piece of paper. I was officially admitted in Israel.

Riding from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the first thing I noticed, besides the breathtaking Palestinian landscape with its palm trees, olive trees and immense hills and valleys, were walls and barbwire. I mean kilometres and kilometres of concrete wall surrounding basically everything my eyes could see.

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Departing from Jerusalem, a taxi drove us along the road to Bethlehem, for about half an hour. The landscape is dry and simple: in the whole territory there are few roads, so getting lost is almost impossible.

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Thanks to our taxi driver Abdullah, I’d later find out that a portion of my 90-minute ride from the airport to Jerusalem gave a brief look at “Area-C.” I’ll explain the partition areas of the West Bank. As I was about to learn, the occupied West Bank is divided into three parts: “Area-A,” “Area-B” and “Area-C.” “Area-C” is controlled by the Israeli government, while “Area-A” is supposedly under the control of the Palestinian Authority. “Area-B” is ambivalent: technically under Palestinian municipal control but the Israeli security controls it. The reason I say “supposedly,” is because after spending two weeks in this country, I began to realise that the areas classifications were and still are simply a broad public relations campaign to convince the world that Palestinians have a degree of military, political, and economic power they do not have. And this is not unlikely. Since 1995, the Israeli government has asserted along with international approval that “Area-A” is under PA control, but on the ground, the PA acts as a subcontracted enforcer to the Israeli occupiers.

I was meant to reach the town of Beit Sahour, suburb of Bethlehem, where I would be working for the next month.

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Along the road to Bethlehem stands the Separation Wall. A highly controversial 8-meters tall concrete wall constellated with massive watchtowers that runs for 670 km along the possible border of a Palestinian state.
Israeli government justifies the wall as essential for security reasons, so that Palestinians are prevented from entering Israel.

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The Separation Wall.

Along the construction you can find many signs of protest against the wall, artists such as Banksy and Roger Waters among others.

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Beit Sahour is little town east of Bethlehem, little piece of Holy Land claimed by Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Franciscans and Muslims. The curiosity about this town is that it is believed is to be close to the place where the New Testament announces the birth of Jesus.

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My volunteer experience starts right here, in Beit Sahour: bottles-preserving project. Our goal was precisely this: plant as many plants and trees as we can, make the best of water usage (very scarce resource in the West Bank), and somehow invent a way to increase the agricultural system.  Its naturally arid soil, combined with a lack of proper irrigation and absence of proper management of natural resources, is facing  serious problems of desertification. Adding to this, serious economic crisis, water scarcity, lack of basic sanitary infrastructures, and centralization of peoples in smaller spots of land, which are likely to escalate as a result of its current situation.

The gang at Bustaan Qaraaqa 🙂 after a day of hard work.

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The guy above was a true hero in the West Bank, Abd A-Rabbeh. He lives in a tiny farm in Al-Walaja, on the verge of a hill facing East Jerusalem.
Very charismatic and dedicated to simple farming life, Abd defended his little farm from the constant warnings of land confiscation imposed by the Israeli government. In several occasion he has found burned trees when he had been away for a few hours.

Inside his cave, he holds so far 5 guests-book with thousands of visitors’ signatures.

Stay tuned, the adventure only just started.

 

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