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Letter from Palestine

from Hebden Bridge resident, Ron Taylor

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The usual anxiety about whether I would get through Israeli security at Tel Aviv airport was unfounded.The official barely looked at my passport before stamping it with a 3 month visa. And not one single question — this has never happened before. No need for the usual lies about being a tourist and so on.

On the minibus from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem I found myself sitting amidst a family group from Manchester. They looked puzzled and anxious. One of the group, a teenager, looked particularly frightened but then I realised he had a Jedward-type hairstyle.

It was their first visit to this not-so-holy land and were on their way to stay at a Bible College in Bethlehem. I guided them to the checkpoint and through it. They were very grateful. I was then asked if it was safe to walk around in Bethlehem. When I suggested that it would be safer than walking around in Manchester they looked slightly reassured and toddled off along the Hebron Road.

After a quiet first day I was invited to a meeting of the Beit Sahour Popular Committee on the Wednesday afternoon. It was nice to be invited but something of a waste of time as it was, of course, conducted in Arabic. But I did found out there was to be a tree-planting session at a place called Ush Graib the following day. I volunteered.

(Ush Graib is about 15 minutes walk away from my apartment and is the site of a former Israeli army base evacuated under the Oslo Agreements. The army watchtower still stands. The local council wants to build a children’s hospital on the site but can’t get permission as the Israelis still control the land. Worse, in recent months Israeli settlers have being trying to claim it for a new settlement).

When I arrived for the tree-planting there were none to plant. Instead a fair sized crowd had gathered and within a few minutes a car carrying the Chilean ambassador arrived. She was nice to a group of chilldren, planted a tree in their playgound (next to the military base), made a speech and went into the nearby community centre. I was persuaded by a friend to follow and ended up sitting down to lunch at a long table with the ambassador and a dozen or so local dignitaries. It is strange being in Palestine.

Friday is demonstration day. The nearest for me is at the village of Al-Masara, a few miles south of Bethlehem. Al-Masara along with all the others villages in the area has lost land through the building of settlements and, more recently, to the route of the Wall.

The demo attended by the usual mix of Palestinians, internationals and Israelis passed off peacefully but the Israeli army, every Thursday night, comes into the village to intimidate the organisers.

In the largely Christian areas demos happen on Sundays. So yesterday I was at Al-Walaja, just west of Bethlehem, which is being threatened by the building of the Wall. Recently the Israelis chopped down scores of olive trees and farmers are denied access to much of their land. Again it passed off without incident as the adults prevented the kids from throwing stones at the soldiers.

Speeches were made in Arabic, English and Hebrew as protesters and soldiers faced each other. In one poignant incident a young German woman told the soldiers (perhaps not word for word "I am from Germany. I know my country did terrible things to your people and I am very sorry, but that is no reason why you should treat the Palestinian people in this brutal way." There was loud applause.

Then back home for a quiet Sunday afternoon in Beit Sahour.

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