The nonviolent intifada: Rawabi

“This is a kind of resistance,” said the real estate agent. How often does someone in his profession get to deliver a line like that?

We handed him back our 3D glasses and filed out of the sales office to see the physical manifestation of the computer-generated promotional video we’d just been shown. A van drove us briefly past the neighbourhoods currently being constructed, taking us to Rawabi’s first completed streets due to be filled with new families.

Rawabi is a new planned city with ultra-modern homes, a cultural centre and the region’s largest amphitheatre. What makes it remarkable, though, is that it is the first and only city to be built in post-1948 Palestine. Its construction was plagued by problems that almost saw millions of dollars spent on a ghost town. In a nation which has lost scores of villages and towns over the past 70 years of strife, Rawabi’s struggle and ultimate breakthrough have made it a symbol of resistance to our realtor guide, and to Palestinians around the territories and in the diaspora.

The developer in charge of this act of resistance is not the Palestinian Authority but a Palestinian-American businessman, Bashar Masri. A childhood in Nablus throwing stones at the IDF, an education in America, and a return to Palestine as a millionaire led Masri to undertake the risky construction. Al-Jazeera quotes him as espousing the view of Rawabi as a form of resistance: “Building a city is, in a way, fighting the occupation.”

The gamble of constructing a Palestinian city

Part of the road from Ramallah to Rawabi draws the border line between Jalazone refugee camp and Beit El settlement. The houses of Jalazone are arranged in a gradient from old, concrete constructions, thrown together to give recent refugees shelter, to newer, elegantly-built homes. The new builds still belong to refugees, but ones who are resigned to the camp being their permanent home. In contrast, Beit El is a suburb of identikit cookie-cutter houses. They are certain of their identity and their right to be on the land. The two colonies are unnervingly close, locked in an endless showdown. Driving past, I wonder what they think looking out their windows at each other every day.

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Rawabi’s amphitheatre. An Israeli settlement can be seen on the hill.

Rawabians will face the same showdown in their new home. The apartments face in the direction of the city’s amphitheatre, and beyond it the open hills. But the city is flanked by settlements, the inhabitants of which deeply oppose the new development. A Haaretz piece accurately notes that “every Palestinian success is an Israeli failure” in the eyes of settlers. The locals vocally protested the construction of Rawabi from its foundations and are unlikely to make for friendly neighbours to its citizens.

Cold shoulders from the locals were the least of Rawabi’s problems. The first inhabitants were due to arrive in May 2015. In February, the city had no water supply. Most Palestinian homes use water tanks on their roofs, filled with water bought at extortionate prices, as they are not connected to Israel’s monopolised water supplies. The day-to-day drought Palestinian families face is well-documented. Rawabi sought to be an exception, to connect to water pipes like Israeli homes. The catch was that it needed Israeli permission to do it.

The official excuse as to why this permission took five years to come was that the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee has not been convened since 2010, for which Israel held the Palestinian Authority responsible. Under the Oslo accords, water permits must be approved by both sides of the committee. However, the lack of a Committee meeting or permit hasn’t stopped water flowing to Israel’s constructions. Building work at Rawabi continued, the cost rising daily along with the likelihood that the city would always be a ghost town. Construction continued in the face of uncertainty for five years before the water was finally allowed to flow.

A city without shawarma

The material of the promo video puts me in mind of central Milton Keynes, with its planned boulevards of shops. The video also features about the same number of hijabi women as I’d expect to see on a Milton Keynes street; the target demographic seems to be women with long, professionally-dyed hair and their families. Rawabi is a closed community where the inhabitants are provided with everything they could need. The extensive planning has seen to everything. Three schools were built in time for the first inhabitants: boys, girls and mixed, to cater to every religious and social outlook.

What it lacks is a falafel stand. The video shows shisha and coffee stalls, but none of Ramallah’s messy neon fast food signs that regularly tempted me to part with 5 shekel pieces. Rawabi is a purely middle class town. The estate agent is open in telling us that the only apartments currently available are affordable to families with dual incomes or one highly-paid worker. There is no place for the owners of newsagents and shawarma shops.

The middle class-ness of Rawabi has made it unpopular with some Palestinians who see it as an elitist hub with capitalist motives. The estate agent told us that more affordable housing will go on the market in time, but I find it hard to imagine what day-to-day life is like in the city now. Presumably those shisha bars needs waiters to top up the coals. Do they bus the low-wage workers in each morning, or are the cafes standing empty until the cheap housing opens up?

Masri has also been accused of normalising the occupation by seeking permission from Israel, using Israeli materials in construction, and accepting a donation of trees from a Zionist organisation. Masri told Al-Jazeera, “As you grow, you understand things better and you learn things. I believe since we have signed a peace agreement, that all our resistance should be a peaceful… We need to become more sophisticated by using smart ways of fighting the occupation.” To critics, his narrative of resistance is a cynical ploy for the market.

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A symbol of resistance, or of collaboration

Rawabi is a case study of a dilemma that many Palestinians have faced: the choice between acting on Israel’s terms and doing nothing on their own. Families facing demolition orders on their houses have to choose between appealing in an Israeli court or waiting for the bulldozers. The first option legitimises a system plagued by unfairness, which almost inevitably sides against them. The second turns homeowners into squatters, forced to occupy their own houses for fear that leaving them for a moment will result in demolition.

Rawabi could not have been built without Israel’s approval.  On principle, cooperating with the unjust systems of the occupation gives them legitimacy and should be avoided. On principle, too, Palestinians should expand to use the land of the West Bank to alleviate the housing crisis and resist the spread of settlements. Profit undoubtedly gave further motivation to the developer to side with the latter principle. It’s only a matter of moral intuition which horn of the dilemma you’ll side with.

As we drove away I was left intrigued by Rawabi and its creator’s move from stone-thrower to tycoon. It was a very different life story to that of the former prisoner I’d met a couple of weeks earlier. When I go back to Palestine, I’ll stop by Rawabi to see if any shawarma shops have opened yet.

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The nonviolent intifada: part 1

IMG_6486Our first month in Ramallah went from bleak midwinter to blazing midsummer. Weather in the UK, by contrast, is pleasantly predictable.

Normal routine centred around working in the basement office and eating in a campus canteen, and I now can’t remember why we decided to change this up on one of the rainiest days of the trip and take a bus into Birzeit village for lunch. After the food, we joined the crowd gathered under the awning. Freezing grey sheets of rain fell off it in curtains. One man had parked his car right on the doorstep, but he didn’t want to get his tailored suit wet walking around to the driver’s side. His passenger, a much less slickly-dressed man, didn’t seem to mind getting wet. Lotty offered the suit her umbrella to make the 5-step journey, and in return he offered a lift to whoever could fit in the back.

On the short drive to the university he asked us what we were doing there. His English was good. He translated our answer – we’re researching how the occupation affects education – to his passenger, who perked up. He mimed handcuffs. He was a student who had been in prison, and the suited driver was his lawyer.

“How long were you in prison, why?”

He held up seven fingers – seven years – enthusiastically. “Ana-“, he mimed firing a gun a few times, “yehudi”.

I got the pronoun and the noun, but wasn’t sure how to translate the mimed verb. I hoped it was past tense. “He says he shot Jews.”

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A car fire at Birzeit – actually a demonstration by the fire service.

Math and unfamiliar conversation topics are two things I’m bad at. I didn’t ask him any more questions. Later I managed to do the subtraction. The seven years in jail made him a likely member of the second intifada. So he was a freedom fighter, not a terrorist – phew.

Back in our office, we joke that we have been radicalised. MI5 will be tapping our calls. The immersion method might not have done much for my Arabic, but it’s done a lot for my mindset. On our short car ride we didn’t bother to ask the passenger what had driven him to try to gun down strangers; we could simply insert into his past one of the dozens of stories we’d heard already about his grandparents’ lost land, or his friend who died in an ambulance held at a checkpoint, or his sister who was beaten at a protest. Killing civilians is never justifiable, I think. But I only think that because my friends and family are unlikely to ever become collateral damage. I have the luxury of never having to rethink my morals.

He was a civilian attempting to kill people he didn’t know a thing about, beyond their nationality and assumed religion. I don’t approve of it, but I spend most of my life tacitly accepting that soldiers kill people in my name as a UK citizen. The passenger may not have been handed down the authority to kill by a government, but what difference does it make? For him, his authority was whatever struggle he, or his family, or his friends, had endured on a daily basis since the occupation began.

Even if I accept that much, coming back to the UK with a story like that is incredibly daunting. I’m not good enough at explaining what it’s like to live in Palestine to convince people that they should accept it too, to understand that these things happen when people feel like they have no way out. It’s a struggle to write about it now. When the only thing I can really do to change the situation is to raise awareness, and to do so in a way that undoes some of the demonisation Palestinians face, it’s so tempting to pretend I never heard an angry word spoken in the West Bank. It would be easier to write only about friendly market stall vendors giving out free oranges and “Welcome to Palestine”s to us stumbling Westerners.

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Bathroom graffiti, Jerusalem

It would be simpler to pretend that all the people I met in Palestine were angels of peace, but it wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s pointless to hide an instance of Palestinian violence towards Israelis when the media parades whichever scraps they can get. Today a Palestinian teenager was killed in Ramallah, outside Qalandia checkpoint, after he threw stones at a patrol vehicle. “The moral of the story is, don’t bring a rock to a gunfight,” says a comment on the Daily Mail. The Guardian has yet to report it.

Luckily, some angels do exist. There is a nonviolent side to the resistance, and it is flourishing. In one day, I met three different groups who had never hit out in anger at Israel, despite being struck first – repeatedly. The next three blogs will look at the scale of these three projects: one house, one village, and one city.

Exploring mazes, asking questions

In Palestine, where national elections have been delayed since the late noughties, universities are the one place where Fatah and Hamas can battle it out at the polls. For this reason, student politics is seen as the key indicator of how Palestine would vote in a general election.

Having volunteered on a student campaign, I also think student politics is a pretty good indicator of the macro bureaucracies that plague the country. At one point, another British volunteer was told that she could put up an event poster in a faculty building, but only on one of the display boards. When she got to the faculty, she searched the whole building and found there were no boards.

Frustrated by the constant delays and red tape and general sense of dystopia, we took a day trip to Nablus. We said we wanted to get vox pops on education; as the English-speakers outnumbered Arabic five-to-one, it was fairly obvious that the trip was mainly to get out of the Ramallah office for a day.

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An-Nasr Mosque, in the centre of Nablus’ old town.

Nablus

Ramallah is an exciting city where you can find a film screening or concert just about every night of the week, but one thing it lacks is an “old town” district. Most of the towns we visited in Palestine and Israel had one of these winding warrens of stone houses packed on top of bright market stalls, and they were always my favourite bit to explore. It’s impossible to get your bearings in them on the first go, or even the second, third, or fourth. I visited Jerusalem’s old town numerous times, but by the end of our trip I still felt like I was stumbling through a labyrinth. New streets full of eager or apathetic market vendors would always emerge just after I thought I’d gotten my bearings.

Nablus’ old town has a particularly labyrinthine feel to it, as wandering through to the centre reveals An-Nasr Mosque. I walked directionlessly through the souk, with its piles of dates organised by sweetness, and tiny sweet shops selling hot syrupy kanafeh, and emerged on the central square where the mosque sits. With its blue-green dome and lines of rainbow bunting, it was well worth getting lost to find.

As charming as the old town market was, the flea market on the edge of the new part of town was just as tempting. It looked so much like the markets selling odds and ends off Brick Lane, where locals buy shampoo as hipsters look for vintage cameras on the main street. I was dying for a look around, but felt too much like an observer; the old town is tourist-friendly, the flea market I’d feel too obvious walking around and staring at people’s daily lives. Luckily, our vox pop quest gave us the excuse to venture in.

Stalls were selling broken dolls and crates full of wires for electronic goods, if you were lucky enough to own the phone or camera that fit the plug. Not somewhere I could have gotten away with browsing, but brilliant and busy. We quickly attracted a crowd of vocal residents, happy and enthusiastic to tell us about their views on education.

Perhaps it’s the occupation that made people so willing to share their views, and for those views to be so strong. I imagine most British people would be baffled having to answer “what does education mean to you?”. The Palestinians we interrupted in the middle of making falafel or buying shirts all answered immediately. One said a single word: “everything”. Others talked for several minutes about how education had shaped their lives and families. One woman invited us to see for ourselves, and gave us her number to visit local schools in her village. We went three days later.

Burin

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Children at Burin’s pre-school.

Burin is south of Nablus city in the rolling hills typical of that area, thick with green olives. It faces ongoing encroachment onto its land by surrounding settlements. In recent years the village has lost 2,000 dunams of land to the Har Brakha settlement, and has been the target of violence from the extremist settlement Yitzhar.

The woman, Emusa immediately shepherded us into the village primary boys’ school. The boys were in their classes. A group of teachers accompanied us to the head teacher’s office.

Businesslike, he spoke with us about the stress settlements place upon the village.

“In short”, he said, settlers approach homes and sometimes attack them. Shots are sometimes fired. It affects the people here, and especially the children. A little boy in the first grade has selective mutism, blamed on frequent settler invasions of his home.

Chillingly, this village is only a short drive from the bustle of Nablus city. At one point villagers on their way back from Nablus were held up at checkpoint for four hours. Explaining that they needed to go home, they were told “there is no Burin”.

“Have many families have left because of the settlements?”, we ask.

The teachers and the head teacher flare up as our translator asks this. After a minute of heated discussion, our translator explains that a little girl’s family left after she was killed by tear gas. Another woman, who lost a baby after inhaling tear gas, moved from her previous home to one further from settlements, but remains in the village. We are surprised that the villagers remain so steadfast, and yet there is no air of optimism here.

“There is no positive for the future”, said the head. “I don’t think there will be a future”.

We went around all four of the village’s schools. Standing in the playground of the girls’ school, Emusa could point out a patch of road where a 19-year-old boy was shot two months ago. Al-Haq reports that he was throwing a molotov cocktail. Emusa says he was unarmed.

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Burin.

Emusa took us to her home. From her roof we could see the whole village, streets scrambling down from the hill into the valley. On the opposite hilltop we could see a settlement. One of her neighbours wanders in, clutching a poster. She seems vacant and drawn. Emusa explains that she’s the mother of the boy who was shot. We don’t know what to say.

We’re sat down to a massive dish of lamb and dolmas, Emusa apologising the whole time for not doing more for us. We drove away touched by her generosity, and saddened by the hardship facing her village. She was one of those rare people you meet travelling that tie you to a place forever.

Thoughts on interviewing

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Digesting in Emusa’s house.

We wouldn’t have met Emusa if it wasn’t for our “vox pop” project. The quotes we got from her and others in Nablus were used in articles and social media for the campaign, but it was invaluable on its own that the simple act of asking questions opened up new places to us.

Even if you’re not working on a project, having a few interview-style questions to ask people can help get beneath the surface of the place you’re travelling in. I think it worked particularly well in Palestine, where the population is keenly aware of the international eye on them and eager to make a good impression; we also had some Arabic-speaking buddies to make things easier.

There’s an ethical importance to being honest about why you’re asking the questions. If you’ll use the info from them for a blog or article, great. If it’s just for your own interest, don’t pretend otherwise. People are quick to open up to journalists and researchers, but I have a feeling that they’d be just as open to an honestly curious traveller. In the right circumstances, I’d definitely try and muddle through the language barrier with a few open questions next time I want to get to know a place. It can open up people and places in unexpected ways.

This blog was partly adapted from a post I wrote for Right2Edu.

I saw Raja Shehadeh

I’ve seen Raja Shehadeh, the author of Palestinian Walks, twice. The first time was a lecture. It was only by fluke that I was able to go. A few days before I flew to Palestine a friend’s comedy debut was cancelled due to a sore throat, and I found out that Raja happened to be speaking at LSE, around the corner from the office I worked at.

His work encompasses the legal, political, and philosophical, but the most characteristic aspect of it is a sense of place. This preserving of Palestine, which has been changed by war and occupation, is a great gift to the people who miss their country. The way language can be used to preserve, or to distort, was integral to Raja’s talk at LSE on his most recent book, Language of War, Language of Peace.

When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was travelling through a vanishing landscape. For centuries the central highland hills of Palestine, which slope on one side towards the sea and on the other towards the desert, had remained relatively unchanged. As I grew up in Ramallah, the land from my city to the northern city of Nablus might, with a small stretch of the imagination, have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ. Those hills were, I believe, one of the natural treasures of the world. (Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks)

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We’d spent our first week together as a whole group, whether we were trying to squeeze through a market or sit through our security training. One week in we were finally brave enough to splinter off, and a trio of us, myself, Ellen and Abdul, decided to spend Easter Sunday hiking out of Ramallah, going west along Al-Teereh Street, into the first century A.D. countryside Raja describes.

When our group travels now, by service or by foot, we find ourselves trying to pick out settlements from the landscape. As we got further from the city I thought about the language of occupation, the innocuousness of the term ‘settlement’, and how the word ‘peace’ is weighted for both Israelis and Palestinians.DSCN0192

At Raja Shehadeh’s talk, one of the last questions from the audience was posed by an Israeli woman. She understood the Palestinian situation but in the end, she said, she just wanted peace. A similar exchange takes place at the end of Joe Sacco’s Palestine, when a bright and relatively liberal Israeli complains to him that she just wants to live her life.

At the same time we were baking in the hills outside Ramallah, another splinter group was in a tour of the tunnels under the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Israeli tour guide warned them that they would have to exit through the Muslim Quarter, and urged them not to spend a shekel there – because Palestine had refused Israeli peace terms.

It’s instinctive to hear “I want peace” as a reasonable, admirable thing to say. But when the person saying it holds the majority of legal power and the physical force to back it up, we have to ask why, if they want it so much, it hasn’t happened yet.

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Right2Education, the group I’ve started volunteering with here in Palestine, make a point of supporting other marginalised groups, including the Ferguson protesters. There’s a common bond between the two; both are seen as troublemakers by a privileged establishment. In Ferguson last year, white locals complained against the protests, saying it disrupted their work and their plans. A common plea was “I just want to live my life”. A similar plea was being made by the protesters, in between the words don’t shoot and am I next on their placards: “I just want to live my life – and not to die like Michael Brown”.

At the first crossroads we came to, 7 kilometres from town, we stopped indecisively. A man and a woman got out of a car, hiking poles in hand. Abdul said to us – isn’t that Raja Shehadeh? We ran after him, asking if he was indeed Mr Shehadeh, the two of us that knew him grinning ear to ear when he and his wife stopped and spoke to us for a while. It was a little like being in a lecture theatre again, as the two of us who recognised him were too starstruck to say anything. I couldn’t even manage to take in directions as he mapped out a route for us. His knowledge of the terrain was equal to his love for it.

Completely giddy, we walked along the path he’d told us about (luckily Ellen had actually listened to his directions), through olive trees and pines, half-rubble houses and yellow sunlight to A’yn Qenya.

So, I saw Raja Shehadeh twice; both times by fluke. The first was in LSE; the second time was on a walk in Area C.

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We arrived at the spring of A‘yn El Lwza (Spring of the Almond Tree), the abandoned qasr a little distance away. Across from us was the beautiful rock that early in the year is studded with cyclamens. The spring itself still provided much-needed water for the flocks of goats and sheep that grazed in these hills. The water had made a small, murky-green pond in which we heard frogs and saw thick growths of spearmint and the common reed. But the meandering path nearby was almost totally obliterated, blocked by the large boulders that had fallen from the terrace above when this illegal road had been built in 1992. A beautiful spot that had remained unchanged for centuries had been destroyed with no one raising a storm. I sat down on the dislocated rocks trying to recall how it used to be, silently lamenting the destruction of our once-beautiful valley. (Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks)