EILIS HADEN is a Derry Community Relations Worker posted in Hebron (Al-Khalil) in the occupied Palestinian territories as a human rights observer on a World Council of Churches programme. This is the fourth of her reports for the Journal
Do you remember your first family outing to the seaside? The smell of the sea, heady aroma of warm sandwiches and feel of wet sand between your fingertips as you dug out trenches and built castles. I can’t imagine my childhood without these memories. One of the best things about living in the Northwest is the easy access to golden sandy beaches (even if they are often soggy with rain).
This morning I accompanied 40 Palestinian children on their first ever visit to the coast. The bus trip to beautiful Jaffa took just two hours but the build-up to the event was long and laborious. Particularly since the second Intifada in 2000, movement between Israel and Palestine is severely restricted. In addition 74% of the main routes in the West Bank are controlled by the checkpoint and permit system or blocked entirely.
The trip we were going on was organised by an activist group called Machsom Watch. Machsom Watch was set up in 2001 by some Israeli women who were concerned about human rights violations at the Israeli checkpoints on the border of and within the Occupied Palestinian Terrritories (OPT). Every summer the ladies who run Machsom Watch organise permits so that Palestinian women and children can visit the seaside. Their purpose is not to normalise the occupation but to bring some joy to people who live in extremely difficult conditions. As you may already know, there are no beaches in the OPT and water supply in the West Bank is severely restricted.
Our journey begins at 7am in Beit Ummar, a small town 20 Kilometers north of Hebron. Beit Ummar is home to the grave to the apostle Matthew and is described by one of its community leaders Younes as ‘a place of hope’. It is here that the flotilla protest which I described in my first report is held, and it is in the local community centre run by Younes Acaro and Mousa Abu Maria where Muslim women can do workshops on how to become independent and manage their own lives and finances. Mixed marriages between Jew, Christian and Muslim are not uncommon here and many of the restrictions which Younes describes as being ‘normally imposed’ on women from Muslim backgrounds have been relaxed.
Getting back to our journey, when I first step onto the bus I notice that the atmosphere is not what you might expect from a group of kids away on a day trip. No shrieking, pushing or shoving but instead deathly silence. After an hour of this we reach the checkpoint into Israel where a young soldier armed with a M-15 comes on board to check all our permits. The moment he leaves the bus, I feel the mood lift, we are now home-free, all the permits have been passed and we know we will definitely be going to the seaside.
The children stare through the windows in awe at the comparatively lush greenery and fabulous buildings beyond the Israeli borders. I give one group of girls a camera and they run the battery down within an hour with their frantic snapping of every new sight. But this trip is no homage to Israel as Judeh, one of the group leaders, uses his microphone to alert us to places of interest once owned by Palestinians.
The moment we see the sea the bus fills with gasps of happiness, everyone straining their necks to get full view. We are welcomed on the beach in Jaffa (just outside Tel Aviv) by a pretty young Jewish volunteer from Machsom Watch. In the distance, I can see an elderly man, his nose covered in a triangle of sunblock giving us the evils as we make our way down to the shore. (That said, many of the Israelis we meet throughout the day greet us with smiles).
The Machsom Watch volunteers have gone all-out, presenting us with glasses of water and lemonade in a beach hut which they have decorated in our honour. Beside us is a paddling pool filled to the brim with brightly coloured rubber rings and beach balls. The water is tepid and for the next two hours the children, adults and volunteers splash around playing games and swimming.
As I am wading in the water, taking photos one of the organisers, an Israeli woman called Tzvia Shapria says “welcome to our majnon country.” When I ask her to repeat she says “Majnon, the Arabic word for crazy – you must know that our country is completely mad”.
We talk about what drew her to volunteer with this organisation. She talks of the shame she felt when she first witnessed the way Palestinians are humiliated at Israeli checkpoints. I tell her about how I cried when I first worked a checkpoint and she answers that that she also wept. “But it is almost worse for us” she says “These are our soldiers, our taxes pay for this discrimination and so we feel so ashamed and also responsible”.
Trying to be helpful, I remark that at least today will make for a happy story in that her group are doing something positive. “There is nothing positive,” she answers bluntly. “These children are only allowed here for one day. For us to get them permits is a nightmare - it will be nearly impossible for them to come back.” .
As lunchtime draws near we put away the rubber rings and the bus brings up to the nearby Arab-Jewish Community Centre. Here we are met with a new batch of Machsom Watch volunteers who feed us and later deliver an art workshop in which we use the shells collected this morning on the beach. For the rest of the afternoon, we make a variety of pictures and necklaces which we will later take home. Two of the younger volunteers, Ilan and Maya, throw themselves into the activities, joking around with the kids in their limited Arabic and posing for pictures making silly faces.
I do not go back in the bus with the others as I have to get to Jerusalem for a late meeting. Amira, another one of the good ladies from Machsom Watch, gives me a lift to the station.
Riding in the back of the car is another young volunteer, new to Machsom Watch, who tells me that she has never been to the West Bank because she has been told that it is dangerous to go there in an Israeli car. Both women talk of the fear which the Israeli government instils in their people with regard to Palestinians.
Amira, who has been with Machsom Watch from the early days tells me that most Israelis do not understand anything about the occupation and are led ‘by the nose’ by their government who fill them with fear of ‘these Arabs who are trying to take all the land’.
She goes on to explain; “They send their kids off to do their military service in the West Bank when they don’t even know the facts of what’s going on there”.
On a lighter note, she tells us the story of Tzvia’s son Jonathan, an Air Force pilot, who in 2003 refused to fly missions in the West Bank and Gaza which could endanger civilians.
“He is quite famous in Israel,” she tells me. “An Israeli rock star even wrote a song called ‘I wish I had a boyfriend like Jonathan Shapria’. However, many of the kids singing along to it did not really understand its meaning.”
It has been a joy to hang out with these lovely people from Beit Ummar and to learn from the women of Machsom Watch. In the next few weeks, my team aim to spend much more time providing a protective presence in this small town north of Hebron and contributing in whatever small way we can to the achievement of a just and lasting peace.
Until next week, Masalama.