Once again I’m standing in front of the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. The red evening sky carries a sense of foreboding. I know perfectly well that this is a projection, but still … Before coming here for my third three-month period as an EA (ecumenical accompanier) in the EAPPI program, I have, like most of you, learned from the media that there is growing tension between Palestinians and the Israeli Security Forces. What seems to be more prominent this time is an increase in aggressive and violent actions from the religious/nationalist extreme right wing part of the approx. 600 000 illegal settlers on the West Bank and the restrictions on access for Palestinians to the third most holy site for Muslims, the Al Aqsa mosque. From the rooftop of expat sanctuary the Austrian Hospice in the Old City, next morning provides new signals of unrest, black smoke in the horizon, usually from burning car tires. But Jerusalem is still pulsating with hordes of tourists and pilgrims. The pilgrims seem to be as modern as any other tourist. Queuing up on the Via Dolorosa I see one group with a pilgrim equipped with a selfie stick. Just a few metres ahead another symbol of the industrialisation of holy places and pilgrimages calls for your attention and money: The Holy Rock Cafe. It must be hard keeping one’s concentration on spiritual matters in this environment. Further on, at the plaza in front of the Western/Wailing Wall I bump into some other exemplars of the highly diverse looks of Jerusalem. The Ultra Orthodox usually turn their backs on modern day female attire. As this one does.
A visit to the Old City is for me incomplete without a drink at the juice bar of Rimon Hima, just inside the Damascus Gate. Rimon is very fond of the EAs
(ecumenical accompaniers) and always offers a discount on his delicious juices, of which my favourite is a mix of fresh orange and pomegranate. But there are other water-holes in East Jerusalem. One of the most popular places for expats to meet and have a glass of the high quality Palestinian Taybeh beer or ditto Cremisan wine is the Jerusalem Hotel.
It is a beautiful spot and so were the members of the Jerusalem team 43 from 2012 when they managed to reunite in one of their off-duty favourite surroundings. Simon, Elsa and Lena, I felt privileged to be included, together with Rafik.
Before going to my new home, until the 18 of December, in the city of Yatta, south of Hebron, I will join the other 29 newcomers from 12 countries constituting the 58th EAPPI group to have a week of introduction to our new life here. Two thirds are women. Seven of us are in our sixties, three in their forties, and the rest between 24 and 39. I’m very impressed by the level of competence, experience and personal qualities in the group. Dedicated to the EAPPI aim of Principled Impartiality: We are not pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian and we do not take sides in the conflict. We are pro-human rights and international humanitarian law. We do not discriminate against anyone and stand faithfully with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Not an easy task when being eye witnesses to gross violations of human rights. Luckily we have close contact with several Israeli grassroots organisations dedicated to the same goals, like Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Parents Circle Families Forum. They help us to remember the crucial difference between an overall anti-Israel attitude and outrage over systematic violations of the Geneva Convention as a consequence of current Israeli policies.
EAPPI being an organisation under the World Council of Churches, it is only natural that the three-monthly ‘changing of the guards’ (our stay here is limited to the duration of a tourist visa) is embedded in a liturgical hand-over ritual with representatives of the Palestinian Christian churches present. The leaving teams, from Yanoun in the north, Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, Bethlehem, Hebron, and the South Hebron Hills, one by one face the incoming new teams, lighting their candles with their own.
- For everything there is a time: A time for going out and a time for coming in.
- For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven …
- A time to let go and a time to keep,
- A time to sit and a time to walk,
- A time to listen and a time to talk,
- A time to come and a time to go.
Seeing the tired looks of the leaving accompaniers, containing eye witness experiences of ugly transgressions of human rights, mixed with one’s own apprehension about what the coming three months will bring, the hand-over ceremony carries a deep emotional impact for all of us, regardless of religious or humanistic belief background. It is also a reminder of the importance of having strong rituals, rites of passage, throughout your life. The important rituals connect you to your ‘flock’, as Norwegian professor of social medicine, Per Fugeli, claims. I feel privileged to have the men and women of EAPPI as one of my significant flocks.
On my way to the South Hebron Hills I’m asked to spend two days in the city of Hebron to support the old team which has been reduced to two persons due to a tragic incident to which one of the team members became an eye witness. 18 year old Hadeel Hashlamoun was shot and killed inside the checkpoint at the entrance of Shuhada street. The Hebron team provides protective presence for schoolchildren who have to pass this checkpoint and a secondary military post on their way to and from school every day. The human capacity to adapt to nearly every imaginable circumstance is almost endless, but when I look at the small girls walking down the road past heavily armed soldiers, hand in hand, chatting eagerly like small girls do all over the world, I see small human beings creating a bubble where they try to keep the fear and anxiety at a distance. It’s heartbreaking. The first day after the school holidays and the killing of Hadeel, it’s all very quiet. The quiet makes it all the more overwhelming to stand looking at the spot where one of the soldiers first shot her in the leg, and then killed her with several bullets in her chest after she had fallen. Amnesty International has published a report on the incident. The second day it all changes again. While we stand in Shuhada Street, we see a steady increase of military vehicles and personnel.
Something is brewing. The ill-reputed Border Police arrive and start putting on their riot gear and then climb up to the rooftops overseeing the place outside the checkpoint. I even see a small group of soldiers with a camera-carrying drone on their way to the scene. And it feels like a scene ready for a choreographed play: The Hebron Clashes. We know it is time to get out of Shuhada Street and the trap it has become due to the wind direction and the teargas to come. We exit the checkpoint, get past the line-up of press with huge video cameras on tripods, gas masks and even helmets. 15 minutes later we get a message that the clashes have started.
Finally we arrive in Yatta and the South Hebron Hills. We are introduced to our landlord Abed who is also the driver for the team. We have to drive a lot to get to the small villages spread around in the Hills, almost all lying in Area C, which according to the Oslo Agreement is under full Israeli control. There are three main problem clusters in the Hills: displacement, severe water restrictions, and settler violence.
The term Displacement covers having your home, animal sheds, solar panels and tabouns (village ovens for baking bread) demolished by tractors or bulldozers, refusal of applications to rebuild or build new ‘structures’. The reason given for demolition orders is that people live too close to a military firing range or on a restricted natural reserve. And if there is no firing range close by, all of a sudden a concrete slab appears one morning saying that now there is one.
All water resources on the West Bank are controlled by the Israeli company Mekorot. The rights were given to them by Ariel Sharon in 1982 for the price of 1 shekel (2 NOK). All the settlements in the area are connected to water pipes with nearly unlimited access to water. The Palestinian villagers have to buy water at three times the normal price and bring it home in water tanks.
The third problem cluster is settler violence. Of the 19 settlements and outposts in the Hebron area, only four are secular, meaning people come to live there because they are heavily subsidised by the Israeli state. 15 are ideological/religious settlements. These are also the homes of the aggressive settlers. A few days ago our team visited a family living close to the Yatir settlement close to the border (green line) between the West Bank and Israel. Their son Osama was hit in the head by one of the rocks thrown by the Yatir settlers during the night. Osama was sleeping outdoors and of course quite traumatised by an attack he had no chance to be mentally prepared for. Even Osama’s younger brother seemed quite affected by the attack. I took this photo of him and his friend, the baby donkey and I think it says a lot about the living conditions for a children living under brutal occupation.
By the way, the reason why this blogpost is called Lord of the Fleas, is that I initially thought about describing the horrible flea attack we suffered in our placement apartment, each one of us suffering from a number of itching, red bites. But somehow, while writing the blogpost this awful problem of ours seemed not so important any longer. I do hope that you will follow my blog on bgsaltnes.com during the coming three months. It will be a great support.