Welcome to Palestine: A First Hand Account of Arbitrary Detention

I saw the green Israeli military jeep speeding down the Israeli road towards us, the roar of its engine had alerted the Palestinian farmers who had taken cover under a tree, but there were two fences between us. They’re probably just coming to see what we are doing, I told myself. The two soldiers got out of their vehicles M16s in hand, helmets on their heads and their bullet proof vests fastened. They opened the gates and entered the buffer zone between the two fences, and then they opened the second gate and entered Palestinian territory.

Some of the British students taking a walk through the farm, looking at the ancient olive trees, ran as soon as they saw the soldiers. One of the soldiers ran towards me and grabbed me, he attempted to twist my arm behind my back, pushing and shoving me, I resisted. “Stop!” he shouted in my face, all the time trying to twist my arm into some sort of lock. Some of the students protested, but the two soldiers had already grabbed the two brown people in the group and were quickly trying to push us into Israeli territory.

As I resisted mildly, the soldier showed me a small white container that he held in his right hand, “I will use it!” he shouted. I assumed it was CS spray and I did not fancy getting sprayed with it so I had no option but to comply with what their demands. In a matter of minutes a midday stroll through a Palestinian farm, looking at the ancient olive trees with their thick intertwining trunks, trunks that generations of Palestinian farmers have rested against, had turned into an Israeli incursion onto Palestinian territory to snatch a British journalist and five students. The Israeli road serves only the settlement, perched high on the hill top, shaped like a medieval fortress, looking down on the Palestinians, serving as a constant reminder of the inequality they face.

Six of us were dragged into Israeli territory as more jeeps arrived, rushing down the road, soldiers dismounted, M16s in hand, fingers on the triggers, steely eyed and intent. We tried to explain that we were British citizens and that they could not do this. “This is Israeli territory,” said the soldier. “Yes it is, but we were just in Palestinian territory until you dragged us here,” I protested, the soldier just looked away. “You damaged the fence,” said sharply a blue eyed soldier, he looked Eastern European but I could not be sure. We had got close to the fence, but damaged it? That was stretching it, nevertheless this was the official reason they were using to hold us. The soldiers captain arrived, an older man in his mid-thirties of large build. He said his name was Munir, an Arab – Israel regularly recruits Bedouin Arabs from the northern Sinai.

Munir began to ask us for our passports, we told him that we did not have our passports on us – we were not going to hand our passports over to the Israelis, especially since the cloning incident and the foreign office advice not to give our passports to the Israelis- the last thing we wanted was for our names to show up as would be assassins in some foreign country.

Munir questioned me again and again as to my nationality, he found it hard to believe that I was British- it must have been my permanent sun tan. He spoke to us in Arabic, but when we said we did not speak Arabic he asked again but louder, “Are you sure?” he said in Arabic repeatedly. Telling them that I spoke Arabic would open up another barrage of questions that I wanted to avoid.

We were taken to a checkpoint as the sun beat down on us. One soldier was kind enough to bring us a bottle of water, two of the women were taken to a toilet when they asked. We waited in the sun, sitting on the floor using the curb as a seat. We realised that the Israelis had a problem. They had just carried out an incursion onto Palestinian territory that under the Oslo agreement the Palestinian authority and snatched six British citizens. The Israelis may have thought that two of us, being of Asian origin, were Palestinian, but they had made a mistake.

Munir, the captain, got in his jeep and drove away. We waited and watched as another army jeep turned up and they began to empty out the content of one jeep to another. We thought they were emptying out for us, to transport us to another location. By this time we had rung the British consulate. The consulate told us that there was not much that they could do and would give us some names of some lawyers but we had to pay and that they would get back to us the next morning! Good old British foreign service.

A soldier wearing a skull cap came over and asked for our names, we gave them, he did not ask us to spell them. Then, just as we had suddenly been snatched, they escorted us to the gate, and the huge gate opened, “Welcome to Bethlehem,” said the soldiers. We were free. Relieved, hot and tired, we had just tasted and had a very small insight to what it must be like to be a Palestinian. Throughout our time at the checkpoint we could hear Palestinians at the gate and now we had seen the wall from both sides. Welcome to Palestine.

The Israeli Occupation: The Bubble Has to Burst

The Israeli occupation of Palestine has forced Palestinians to live in isolated bubbles, cutting off their struggle from those outside of the major cities, where life has become bearable since the Oslo agreement but has resulted in Palestinians being cut off from each other as settlements criss-cross Palestinian land cutting off one village, one town, one city from another. Profound parallels to Bantustans of apartheid South Africa can be seen.

Lavish houses can be seen in the Palestinian administered territories, three stories high, large front gardens, gated entrances, and nice cars to match. The city of Ramallah is a busy bustling city where the Palestinian administration is based. Round the corner from the tomb of Yasser Arafat a shepherd watches over his sheep on a small patch of green area.

Sulaiman is 80-years-old and reminds me that he is still strong and healthy, behind him, in the distance, stands a tall apartment building. Sulaiman is the old face of Palestine – still resisting in whatever way he can in the face of the new wave of money pouring into the West Bank. However, the acceptance of foreign American cash comes at the cost of accepting the occupation in exchange for American money. People here are talking of a third intifada, but there seems to be no appetite for it from the Fatah controlled Palestinian authority.

Settlements are increasing, not only in East Jerusalem but around Palestinian towns, settlements that will prevent the growth of Palestinian towns, settlements that are built on Palestinian land, settlements that are linked by Israeli only roads that Palestinians are not allowed to travel on, settlements that have stolen Palestinian water delivered to them, whilst Palestinians cannot get permission to even dig a well and have to deal with intermittent water supply for five times the cost, settlements whose inhabitants are armed and have, in the past, used their firearms to kill Palestinians.

So as Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, formerly of the World Bank, pro-western and unelected, appointed by Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian National authority president, lavishes in his lush surroundings and is rushing to declare some sort of state within two years, but what kind of state is he going to declare? A state with no control over their borders, air space, a state with Israeli military checkpoints outside their cities, a state whose people are cut off from each other by an illegal wall?

There are refugees who have been living in camps since 1948, camps like Belatta in Nablus. After the Nakba or catastrophe, this camp initially housed 5,000 refugees on 1 square kilometre of land, but now, more than 60 years later the population has grown to 25,000. Yet the population has increased with now second generations of Palestinians living here the land on which they are housed has not grown – they still live on the original square kilometre the camp was established on. The air in the camp is close and the alleyways are claustrophobic. There is no privacy or room to move, the children play in alleys rather than playgrounds. Moving out of the refugee camp is not an option, it would mean an acceptance that the refugees of 1948 do not have a right of return, that they cannot return to their villages, homes, farms that their grandparents once farmed, that they as children once played on and continue to pray that their children will return to.

“The Next Intifada Will take place Between the Villagers and the Settlers”

Salam Fayyad has set his sights on securing foreign investment for Palestine, American and others. The streets have ‘US Aid’ bill boards telling people of the importance of US aid. But outside cities like Ramallah and Nablus talk of the third intifada is rife. Whilst many Palestinians are living in the bubble, sometimes even forgetting about the 400 checkpoints, new settlements are popping up, and expansion in East Jerusalem villagers continues.

“The next intifada will take place between the villagers and the settlers,” a student at Al Najah tells me, who did not want to be named. We are whisked around Al Najah University by the administration, the pro-Fatah administration, showing us their new gym and swimming pool, but students look on in surprise as they have never seen the facilities opened before, they are just for show. Recently the university had elections for its student council, Fatah students won, simply because all other political groups had been banned and then decided to boycott the elections, information the university administration keeps from me, but students are keen to share.

For a university that was at the heart of resistance during the occupation, it has become increasingly repressive to those that are not towing the Fatah line. The university was closed during the first intifada – between 1988-1991 – as tanks occupied its premises, and lecturers were forced to conduct their classes in houses, mosques and even cars. It seems that people have forgotten that at one time the Israeli military arrested people that carried books in the streets, because they had realised that the military order to close the university was not enough to stop Palestinians trying to gain an education.

This is the reality of the past and the present. Villagers are seeing their land taken away, even as Fayyed belly dances around the west asking for handouts so that the Palestinian authority can consolidate its power. A former Israeli prison in Nablus is now a prison run by the Palestinian Authority, where no doubt political opponents are now housed.

Every year droves of tourists visit places like Jerusalem and think that all is fine, you will see soldiers but people will think that is to be expected. But the bubble needs to burst, the bubble that the city Palestinians are living in, the bubble that the Palestinian Authority has created, the bubble the Israeli government is counting on, so that it can further its actions of annexed land, increasing settlements and continuing the occupation of Palestine.