Mark Thomas on the trail

by Fred Schlomka -
Mark Thomas is a man with a mission. For several months, together with his sidekick Phil, he has been trekking the route of Israel's Separation Barrier (AKA Apartheid Wall) in order to probe the minds of the people living on either side. In early 2011 he will publish a book and a movie. (now in print - see below)

What brings this man to our part of the world? He began life as an atheist and went downhill from there, becoming a comic in night clubs, and eventually attaining fame as a Channel 4 regular. Mark is famously known for political stunts in England, and unique methods of publicizing his country's ills. He holds the Guinness World Record for the most demonstrations held in 24 hours (20), supplying the public with the mobile phone number of former MI5 agent David Shayler, and placing a bounty on the head of US President George Bush.

In late 2009 he arrived in Israel/Palestine determined to explore, on foot, the rationale of the 703 kilometer (more or less) barrier that the Israeli government is building around and inside the Occupied West Bank. Together with cameraman Phil, Mark has been walking the route with a variety of Israelis and Palestinians, and interviewing public figures and residents of communities on both sides of the barrier.

I've spent a couple of days on the trail with Mark, and also provided guides/translators for part of the route. We've averaged 15-20 kilometers per day, chatted with Palestinian villagers and israeli settlers, been stoned in a refugee camp, and detained by the Israeli military. Mark and I have also poured over maps and agreed to remain confused about any logic or sane purpose to the barrier.

Mark has been trying to keep as close to the fence as possible during the daily walks. However there is technically a 60-meter wide exclusion area within which no-one is allowed without military permission. This limitation has generally been ignored, resulting in various run-ins with the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). One day I sent a guide to accompany the crew near Modi'in, and they decided to crawl through a hole in a secondary fence in order to walk along the security road that parallels the Barrier fence. Before long an IDF Humvee showed up, bundled them in the back seat, and drove to the nearby military outpost.

The resulting arrest was neatly short-circuited by an Israel 'fixer' who explained to the local commander that he was dealing with English idiots who really didn't know any better. So the team was released before an international incident was created. After all, Mark has powerful connections in the English government. Michael Heseltime, the British politician, is a good example. A number of years ago Mark encouraged his audiences to sign Heseltine up for junk mail on a massive scale. This endeared him to the former cabinet member.

Yesterday's stoning in Shuafat Refugee Camp was an odd experience. We were trudging along in ankle-deep sewage sludge right next to the Wall, with the camp rising sharply on one side. A few teenagers appeared on a rooftop at the crest of the hill and spotted Mark immediately as a famous Englishman. Fist-sized rocks were then hurled at our group as a traditional welcome while our Palestinian escort screamed up the hill at the youth. I, of course, remained calm, picked up some rocks and began a juggling routine which attracted local children as the barrage of missiles declined. Together with the escort of children we continued safely. The moral of this story of course, is to keep your juggling skills honed, or at least have some sweets handy when hiking through the land. Local children make the best protection.

In the aftermath of the 3-month hike, Mark wrote this great book:

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1 comment:

  1. Mark Thomas is something of a hero of mine. I think he's does a great job highlighting matters like this and unlike the rest of the castrated British media; he isn't afraid to stand and be counted.

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