Bethlehem

Yesterday, going through my Facebook feed, a truly distressing story thundered out at me. It was a video posted by Jewish Voice for Peace showing Palestinian families trying to save their homes from being demolished in al-Walaja (west of the Occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem). Palestinians organized sit-ins and stood on roofs and stayed in their homes. They were met with terrible violence and injury by Israeli forces.

The homes are being demolished under the pretext of not having permits which are virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain.

Videos like this underline one’s impotence in changing the pace/direction of history in distant lands but it did remind me to stop procrastinating on my blog about Bethlehem.

Ten ks south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem historically reflects the same crossroads of history as Jerusalem and much of the Middle East. First mention of Bethlehem was by the Canaanites way back. Since the birth of Christ has been has been conquered and ruled by:

  • Romans (132-135),
  • Muslims (c.637);
  • Crusaders (1096-1099);
  • the Sultan of Egypt (1187) and again from 1813-1841
  • the Ottomans (1500′s) who ruled for 400 years.
  • the British who captured the city in the First World War and controlled it until 1948.

Jordan annexed Bethlehem in 1948 after the declaration of the State of Israel  and the Arab -Israeli war  and remained in power  until the Six Day War in 1967. During the Six Day War Israel pushed back the Jordanian border and took control of Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank. My earlier blog Israel 101 talks about the West Bank.

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There are 42 Jewish settlements surrounding Bethlehem. Between the settlements and the town there is a settler ring road; and between that and Bethlehem there’s a wall. It is an open prison with approved access and egress for Palestinian people. There’s no other way to describe it

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Outside the wall that confines Palestinians, a modern Israeli settlement.

We had chosen a tour into the West Bank at Bethlehem with Green Olive Tours and passed through the Israeli built Separation Wall to meet our Palestinian guide inside the Occupied Territories at the edge of Bethlehem, a town of some 30,000 people with a strong (16%) representation of Palestinian Christians.

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The wall surrounds Bethlehem on 3 sides; any Palestinians who wishes to enter Israeli must pass through a checkpoint. We were told that at the beginning of Ramadan when Muslims wanted to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque next to the Dome on the Rock, 40,000 people queued at this checkpoint. Some Palestinians who work in Israel need  to leave home at 4am to get to work by 8am taking account of the procedures at the checkpoint. Such is the Jewish paranoia about “young radicals”, that to obtain a work permit to leave Bethlehem through a checkpoint, a Palestinian man has to be over 35, and married with children.

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A carpark for Palestinians who cross at the checkpoint and Israel on the other side of the wall

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Tourism is the main economic driver in Bethlehem, from major Christian tours to the humble juice seller along the wall

Close to the wall is the famous Banksy Walled Off Hotel, a fine gesture from an artist with a conscience. A few of his works adorn the wall itself.

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The verandah of the Walled Off Hotel faces the wall

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Banksy on the wall 

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Banksy on the wall

After a walk along the wall we visited the less than 0.071 sq. k Aida Refugee Camp, home to some 5000 displaced people with an unemployment rate of 43%. This camp is one of 19 in the West Bank (and of 59 in total). It opened in 1950 after the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel and remains under the control of UNRWA. The unrwa.org  website is a great source of information.

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This painting in an exhibition in the Banksy gallery told the tale of refugees for me.

The Aida camp has no health clinics although UNWRA provides medical assistance in Bethlehem itself.

The following details are from the UNWRA website: After a recent agreement with the Palestinian Water Authority, water is now provided to Aida camp for two days every other week, during which residents replenish their water tanks. However, the existing water network has not been upgraded since 1972 and the camp experiences constant water leakages. During the summer months, when water shortages are more frequent, camp residents are forced to purchase water.

The camp’s electricity supply is weak and overloaded. Power supply expansion and the sharing of connections is often unsupervised. Only a limited area of Aida camp is covered by a storm water drainage

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Aida Refugee camp

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A street in the refugee camp

Close by the camp are Har Homa and Gilo, two large Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law but their smart modern  architecture can be seen from a distance. (See photo above of the settlement outside the wall) . What a contrast.

Aida is the location of an NGO,  the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Centre and a Youth Centre both of which practice cultural and creative arts as ways of maintaining traditional culture and of peaceful resistance. We attended a talk by a splendid young Palestinian woman who works at the centre and who outlined some of the programs. Children are taught aspects of their culture; theatrical and dance performances are held.

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The children’s library in the Aida camp cultural centre

A constant military presence (the camp can be raided up to twice a week) and the camps’ proximity to the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, have made the it vulnerable to a number of protection concerns. Despite all this effort to withstand the poverty and oppression faced by those rendered homeless by Israeli occupation, injury is added to insult  when  clashes involve the Cultural Centre and many residents including children. An increasing number are reportedly being injured as a result of excessive force by the Israeli Security Force. Refugees in Aida Camp have  predominantly practiced non-violent opposition to the Occupation.

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Recently the USA has put the Palestinian Authority on notice that its aid funding to UNWRA will cease. It is difficult to imagine the impact this will have on all the camps. It seems to me that the American President is almost challenging the Palestinians to revolt.

One could not go to Bethlehem without visiting the iconic Basilica of the Nativity built in the first instance by Helena Mother of Constantine in 327 to commemorate the alleged place of birth of Jesus 2000+ years ago a stable (or a cave) . After it was sacked the church was rebuilt by Justinian 1 in the 600s.

This is one of only 2 stops behind the wall for most Christian tourists to Israel since their buses stop only at the Church and at an Israeli souvenir shop. Sad they miss so much.

The 5thcentury church compound is off Manger Square at the end of a street of modern and old buildings, some of which are 500 years old

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Couldn’t resist “Nativity Cocktail and Chicken”

The main Basilica of the Nativity is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is designed like a typical Roman basilica, with five aisles formed by Corinthian columns, with an apse in the eastern end containing the sanctuary.

The basilica is entered through a very low door called the “Door of Humility.”

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The sanctuary of the Basilica of the Nativity

Armenians and Catholics also have chapels inside the church precinct. The adjoining Church of St. Catherine is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St.  Catherine of Alexandria and is built in a more modern Gothic Revival style.

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Church of St Catherine

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Church complex ahead

The grotto where, mythology has it, the birth of Christ occurred, is below the Church of the Nativity and can be reached through a series of caves below the churches. In 2012. the Basilica  became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage site. A silver star marks the spot!!

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The Star marks the Spot

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A view of a corner of the town of Bethlehem from the edge of Manger Square

Our last stop was the Orthodox monastery founded by Sabbas the Sanctified from Anatolia believed to be 483 CE. Today,  about 20 monks live in the complex which spills  down a desert valley side. It is thought to be one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world and still maintains many of its ancient traditions. One in particular is the restriction on women entering the main compound. The only building that women can enter is the Women’s Tower, near the main entrance. Our guide implied some darker depths to the Monastery.

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The multi level monastery has been here more than 1500 years

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The Judean desert

While we were there a sad young boy with a donkey lingered around us hoping someone would pay for a photo or perhaps a desert ride.  Now weeks later, I think of the reminiscent images, Joseph bringing the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey or Jesus riding a donkey triumphantly into Jerusalem on what is now known as Palm Sunday.

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Echoes over time

 

 

 

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Jerusalem and the Old City….June 2018

The first thing that strikes you when you land at Tel Aviv is the modern monumentalism of Ben Gurion airport. This is tiny country with a big sense of its own importance.

Next it’s the laconic attitude of the old Romanian mini bus driver who has no intention of leaving for Jerusalem until he has reached his full compliment. So almost an hour later we are ready to go. The mixed lot of passengers somehow reflects the multiculturalism of the country where 120 nationalities live.

First there is the beautiful young Palestinian woman with her baby who are home from Saudi Arabia for one of their regular visits. We detour and drop her off at a village outside the city limits.

There are 3 smart young Chinese tourists from London, a South African middle-aged man coming for a retreat in an Orthodox monastery. Then there are the two mid 30’s American women who have come from the Greek Islands and belying their hippy look, seem to be short on time since they want to know if they can “do” the Old City and the Dead Sea in one day. Obviously ticking their way through a bucket list!

Finally I arrive through a pedestrianized area at the Arthur hotel named for Arthur Balfour of the famous Declaration.

Jerusalem

The downtown centre and the suburbs are clean, green, sand hued and multicultural. Splashed with the distinctive clothing of the Conservative Jew, Sephardic or Hasidic, there is an easy colourful street life with bars and restaurants lining streets in the centre.

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Palestinian families enjoy the streets of Jerusalem

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Backgammon games can be found all over the Middle East

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Are there any large cities that don’t have buskers?

Young soldiers often attractive and vivacious girls, sometimes smoking, are frequent sights nonchalantly dangling their Uzis. But there is no sense of insecurity on the streets although we are told of frequent universal text messaging to warn citizens of any potential troubles.

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The first shock is realising that most of the urban fabric has been built since the late 1800s; back then various national interests established large institutions, like the German Hospital, in the central core of Jerusalem near the Old City. That practice continues  albeit on an individual/family basis rather than a national level. Many a mega wealthy overseas Jew has endowed the city with a grand building dedicated to a worthy cause.

The outskirts of the city, all the major centres and suburbs are mostly the result of population growth particularly since 1948. The city centre was once 6 sq ks; greater Jerusalem is now 70 sq ks.

From the trams regularly travelling the main street to and from the Old City to the wider freeway infrastructure through out the country, you have to be amazed at all that has been achieved in the past 75 years.

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The Old City

This is the magnet and the contested. Roughly one square kilometre, this walled city is the current manifestation of layers of cultures, kingdoms and religions ruled by different nations since the 11thcentury BC.

Until the mid 19thcentury this Old City constituted most of the city of Jerusalem. It is recorded on the World Heritage List.

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Part of the Old City looking past the Dome on the Rock to the Mount of Olives rising up behind

Here are located key sites of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Were the world a sane place, these religions would live there happily together in the spirit of their teachings.

The Old City was formally designated into 4 uneven quarters in the19th century although traditionally the 4 areas had existed for centuries.

Those quarters are:

  • the Christian quarter (pop around 5.500) where one can find the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre;
  • the Muslim quarter (population over 30,000);
  • the Jewish quarter (population 4000 plus; and
  • the Armenian quarter (pop 500)

The population figures I give are estimates only and given only to show the order of difference.

In some streets in the Palestinian area people are moving out because the shops in the Old City are closing and they have to shop outside the walls.

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But there are still many shops selling fine fruit and vegetables and my favourite, halva.

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Women sell produce near the City gate

 

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In the Palestinian Quarter Muslim and Jew mix on the street

The (Muslim) Dome on the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are found on the (Jewish) Temple Mount; hence an uneasy peace sits over this area that has the Jewish Western Wall as its base. In1967, during the Six Day War there was hand-to-hand fighting on the Temple Mount when Israeli forces captured the Old City. Today, the Israeli government controls the entire area.

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Numbers of Bar Mitzvah were in progress before the Western Wall

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Prayers at the western wall which forms a retaining wall for the Temple Mount

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The Dome on the Rock

When we were there armed police escorted a few Jewish faithful across the open ground in front of the Mosque and the Dome on the Rock to the sealed Golden Gate located slightly below the level of the Temple Mount. According to the Jews when the Messiah comes, he will enter Jerusalem through this gate. To prevent him from coming, the Muslims sealed the gate during the reign of Suleiman.

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The struggle is obviously a Jewish/ Palestinian one. Three Jewish army security towers guard the Damascus Gate, the only gate they guard. This is where where Palestinians enter the city since it is near the terminal for buses from the north, the area where most Palestinians outside the city live.

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Armed guards watch Muslims enter the Old City

Groups of young heavily armed police are also at the intersections of the various religious quarters in the city. When I asked one what he was doing there without hesitation he said that they were on the lookout for young Palestinian troublemakers.

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I was told that young Palestinian men under the age of 35 are not allowed to enter the Old City to go to the Dome on the Rock for Friday prayers unless they can prove they are married with children. All Palestinian men under 50 and women under 40 have to show their identity cards at the gate.

Walking through the Muslim quarter, it is clear that the Jews are trying to establish Settlements within the Muslim areas of the Old City and it is estimated that 1,000 Jews now live there. Mostly these Jew are the ultra conservatives who are determined that all Jerusalem will be theirs.

I saw a Jewish father with an obvious gun showing as he escorted a tiny child hand in hand from school. Schools are being established in the Old City and it is easy to pick where they are as security cameras focus on the narrow cobbled street in both directions. If any Jewish person or child leaving school exits these enclaves they have a private security firm protecting them, one man in front and one behind.

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Guard houses/watch posts on top of a Jewish Settlement in the Old City

And all this dance of dare goes on in a tiny walled city packed with oblivious tourists who are simply signposted through the Christian and Jewish quarters.DSC06719

The Christian quarter where Christ’s Way of the Cross is marked and where the Church, built at the site believed to be where he was crucified and later rose from the dead, is thronged with the faithful.

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A modest Station of the Cross; along the way is the more imposing Church of the Flagellation

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre housing the once rocky, now glorified, sites where it is believed that Jesus was crucified and the where he rose from the dead

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The faithful pray at a replica of the tomb of Jesus

I couldn’t help thinking that these sites, as were others in this country, which are seminal to Christian belief and practice are, in fact, not all that physically imposing. Perhaps emptied of the queuing pilgrims who seemed to be dominated by those from Africa and South America the days I was there, perhaps in silence it might be different; there might be an aura.

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Outside the Old City across a deep ravine, is the hill known as the Mount of Olives mentioned in the New Testament. At the foot of the slope is a church abutting the Garden of Gethsemane, built here in remembrance of the night before his crucifixion when Jesus prayed while his disciples slept.

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A pleasant walk down the Mount of Olives

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Masses of Jewish graves sloping down the Mount of Olives

Down the side of the Mount demonstrating again the entwinement of the religions are Jewish graves.  They are vying to be close to the sealed Golden Gate on the other side of the ravine where the messiah will appear and the Just will enter the Old City on Judgment Day. It seems everyone wants to be close to the Messiah when he gets there as the burial sites are fiercely sought after.

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If only it were all peace and harmony in the Holy City as this busker in a niche portrays

 

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Israel 101….. June 2018

My travel blogs are basically aide memoirs to allow me to relive the experiences in years to come. Sometimes, I need to step back by blogging because overloaded with information, I need to sort out a framework to present facets of the experience.

It’s hard to find a framework to talk about our trip to Israel; there are so many prisms operating here. You don’t go to Israel for fun. There is bad business afoot. This blog is basically my sorting through the information I need to understand Israel on the ground. It is to hammer key facts into my head.

More traditional travel blogs with pics on Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth will follow.

I could background how Israel has come to this sorry pass but history is available in many places, analyses of it are myriad and this blog is about my observations and experiences.

The photos below are a small smorgasbord of the range of facets of Israel.

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A typical scene in a plaza in Jerusalem

 

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New architecture below the King David Hotel

 

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Palestinian women shopping in the Old City

 

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Desert landscape about 10 kilometres outside Jerusalem

 

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A Banksy painting on the Palestinian side of the dividing wall

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The beach and modern high rise Jaffa

However, here are some key facts in a nutshell:

The State of Israel is predicated on the fact that 1100 years BC for a period (variously reported as from 80 to 208 years) there was a Kingdom of Israel ruled by David and then Solomon. Over the next 3 thousand or so years the land was ruled by many nations from the Canaanites to the British.

Zionists, in the late19th century in the face of increasing hostility in Europe, identified the need for a homeland. Long story short, the turning point was the Balfour Declaration, a public statement issued by the British government during World War I announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine then an Ottoman region with a minority Jewish population (3 to 5% of the total).

From that point it was game on. The Jewish State of Israel was declared in 1948 and the Palestinian exodus (known as Nakba or The Catastrophe) followed. More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

There is a litany of words and a parade of characters associated with the Jewish occupation of this tiny, contested area of land, the Haganah, Exodus. the Oslo Accords, the Camp David Accord, Arafat, Ben Gurion, the Six Day War etc. etc. All dramatic, all failing to resolve anything.

Before I went to Israel I attended a series of lectures about the history and current dilemmas. It wasn’t till I got on the ground that I began to understand. To help with that understanding we spoke to the excellent Jonathon Cook, a former BBC journalist who now lives in Nazareth with his Palestinian wife and family. Jonathon has a web site and blogs regularly. I cannot recommend his work too highly. My Facebook feed also gets regular posts from Jewish Voice for Peace. As soon as I arrived home, I joined the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network, such was my horror at this apartheid State.

Israel has many stories starting with the justifiably angry besieged Palestinians, to the Arab Israeli citizens, to the seemingly decent secular Jews who simply shake their heads and say they don’t know what the solution is, right through to the frightening ultra orthodox Jews who believe Israel is their destiny at any cost.

For me the 2 photos below say much about Israel today. The first is the ultra orthodox Jew praying wherever he might be; the second a tired seemingly beaten Palestinian man outside his business in the souq in Nazareth.

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Israel, ruled by the Knesset, consists of 2 lands:

  • the Israeli state and
  • the Occupied Territories, that is the land of the Palestinians increasingly being controlled by Israel.

Israel is:

  • a colonial power
  • a theocracy
  • an apartheid State

Israel is financed through:

  • $5.4billion a year in US aid
  • $2.4billion a year from rich US Jews
  • high tech and arms development and sale
  • agriculture
  • tourism
  • African diamonds
  • the sale of military and security expertise through companies said to be owned by some senior military people
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One of a number of similar posters on the streets of Israel pointing out the special relationship between the current USA and Israeli Governments. 

Jewish Israel seems to be at various levels of conflict on 4 fronts:

  • Gaza– occupied in 1967 where 2+ million people are confined to an area about 20 miles by 10 miles, probably the most densely populated in the world. Gaza is governed by Hamas, the bete noire of the Israeli Government. Although coastal, Israel blocks 85% of the maritime rights of Gaza as agreed by the Oslo Accord,
  • the Old City and East Jerusalem where about 400,000 Palestinian people live.  Although Israel absorbed East Jerusalem in 1980, 7 UNSC Resolutions have declared that Occupation null and void.
  • the West Bank (pop 9 million), also occupied in 1967, but negotiated in the Oslo Accords to consist of 3 Areas A B and C. Israel is slowly cannibalizing those Areas with Israeli settlements so the West Bank, (notably Area C where 62% of the West Bank is under Israeli control), looks like Swiss cheese. The Palestinian Authority governs the remainder of the West Bank.
  • IN 2012 THE UN ACCEPTED THAT THESE AREAS KNOWN AS THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES SHOULD BE KNOWN AS THE STATE OF PALESTINE.
  • the demographic struggle and war of attrition within its own territory  – e.g. a Nazareth story (see following blogs)

 

DSC06749Here is the top of the fence the Israelis have built to keep the Palestinians out of the State of Israeli. It is likely the new white high rise Settlement in the distance is on West Bank  occupied territory.

There is also the war Israel is fighting with much of the world through the Blockade Divertissement and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the ever-bubbling conflict with Iran.

Outside these mostly Jewish/Palestinian Muslim struggles, overlay the Christian Arabs and the significant Christian holy places. Curiously although the Christian myths seem on an international scale to be the most dominant in the region, in reality, on the ground their manifestations are quite modest in impact.

Who are the Israelis?

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A sign outside a shop in Jerusalem

We met many charming Israelis who were quite prepared to talk about the problem but in every instance finished the conversation by repeating the mantra, “It’s complicated”.

One conversation with a delightful leftish young man who had worked with a Jewish NGO helping children with cancer in Gaza, said how the good works had to stop “in case Hamas found out”.

Nothing more than that brought home to me how the Zionist narrative about the evils of the Palestinian leadership in Gaza is totally part of the Israeli Zeitgeist. I couldn’t help comparing it to the way German people absorbed the rhetoric of Hitler when it came to the Jews.

This young man who had Palestinian friends also said: “We know the world condemns us and we don’t like that.” Hopefully because of these sentiments, the BDS and other movements will have some impact on the Knesset.

I also talked to a secular Jew visiting from Atlanta who was going to meet Palestinians and who had tenuous contact with Jews for Peace. Like so many others, all she could say was: ”It’s complicated.”

Another note about the power of rhetoric was the way people spoke of the current defined large area of Israel as if it has always existed. Conceptually they seemed to have dismissed other nations like the Romans and the Ottomans who had ruled for much longer than the 75 years Israel has existed contemporaneously or the 80+ years they ruled 3000 years ago.

Some facts:

  • In 1914 Palestine had a population of  657,000 Muslim Arabs, 81,000 Christian  Arabs, and 59,000 Jews.
  • The population of Israel has grown to 8.8 million in 2018; about 1.1 million are Palestinian and have had some limited form of citizenship. As of July 2018, Palestinians with some form of citizenship now have no recognition as citizens because the Knesset passed legislation recognizing only Jews as full citizens.
  • Resulting from this July 2018 legislation Palestinians can only be second-class citizens. The law says that only Jews will have the right of self-determination; Hebrew will be the only language of the State and that Jewish settlements are a national value and should be promoted.
  • This is outright apartheid and at the time of writing there had been large demonstrations against this law especially by Druze citizens. Many of the top ranking IDF officers are from that community and have resigned from the army since the legislation was passed.
  • Around 40% of Jews are secular, 40% traditional Jews and 20% ultra conservatives.
  • There are 120 nationalities so the State of Israel cannot be defined by nationality.
  • Despite the founding documents that said all peoples were to be treated equally, only Jews were allowed the right of return even before the latest legislation which excludes all others from full citizenship.
  • All Israeli citizens serve in the army for 3 years from the age of 18.
  • One million Russian Jews arrived in 1990 all claiming heritage; some people think their entitlement was tenuous.
  • For 10 years new immigrants pay no taxes and there are grants and other incentives to entice Jews to immigrate.
  • Under the Law of Return only Jews can immigrate which is seen as a key tactic in controlling the demographic.
  • There are now 700 Jewish commercial farming communities receiving benefits such as cheap water
  • In 1948 Palestinians owned 94% of all land; now Jews own 82%
  • In 1968 the city of Jerusalem was 6 sq k now greater Jerusalem is 70 square ks

 

DSC06746Part of the wall (with watchtower) the Israelis have built near Bethlehem, a Palestinian town, to ensure Palestinians do not have free access out of the West Bank. We were told that during Ramadan 40,000 people queued near here to go through the gate to attend Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Who are the Palestinians?

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A T-shirt for sale in the Muslim Quarter.

  • In 2018 the Palestinian population of the State of Palestine is just over 5 million.
  • The Palestinian population in Palestine is growing at about 2.4% per year, which is 33% higher than Israel’s growth rate. The population is also the youngest in the region, with a birth rate of over 4 children to every woman.
  • It is estimated that more than 6 million Palestinians live in a global diaspora. The countries outside the Palestinian territories with significant Palestinian populations are: Jordan 3,240,000. Israel 1,650,000.
  • There are now 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank eating into Palestinian land. There were only 40,000 in 1989
  • 20,000 to 30.000 Palestinians pass through border posts each day to work in Israel.
  • The World Bank 2013 estimates of the annual cost to the Palestinian economy of the Occupation to be $3.4billion
  • The Israelis recognize 124 Palestinian villages in Israel while 80 unrecognised villages get no water or electricity. 1 in 10 Palestinians in Israel live in unrecognized villages.
  • Bedouin villages 4/5miles outside recognized villages get no water or roads.
  • The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) can raid a refugee camp in the West Bank, such as the one near Bethlehem that I will talk about in another blog, up to twice a week.

The Palestinians we spoke to were articulate and knowledgeable about their history. Not far underneath one could sense their frustration at the unfairness of their treatment. It seemed agreed by the few we discussed it with, that any hopes of a Two State Solution had been irreparably damaged by the Israeli settlement strategy and the blockading of Gaza.

They saw the best option now to be equal rights in the One State. Since the Israelis will never grant the Palestinians a Right of Return and are fearful anyway of their demographic vulnerability, even the Palestinians do not know how this could be achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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