Monday, January 30, 2012

Talking Walls


By Miri

Graffiti is not a phenomenon that came up with the emergence of hip hop culture. It is definitely not a Western or a modern appearance, in fact it is a global practice that can be traced back to ancient times. If you think about it, cave paintings can be considered graffiti as well, so its history dates back to no less than 30,000 BC. Both in antique Roman, as well as in Greek culture it was not uncommon to expose one's feelings to the public by carving a love declaration into a wall.  

Back then, just like now, graffiti also constituted a way of marking territory, so its omnipresence in the contested landscapes of the Holy Land is not surprising.

Crusader Graffiti in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Victor Grigas
From inscriptions in the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that are attributed to the Crusaders and that can be seen during a Jerusalem tour, through nationalist and racist messages spray painted by radical settlers on Palestinian stores in Hebron, all the way to hopeful slogans calling for social and political change in Tel Aviv, Palestine's and Israel's walls speak a language of their own and testify to the complexity of the conflict on the ground.

Settler graffiti in Hebron, reading "revenge", Keren Manor/ActiveStills
In the Occupied Palestinian Territories the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, the biggest Palestinian parties, finds its expression on the walls of basically every village, town and city. In fact, the ubiquity of those writings on the walls may only be matched by the more recent emergence of graffiti illustrating the rivalry between the football clubs Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, that many Palestinians appropriated for themselves.

On a Nablus tour you can find names of people, who have died fighting the occupation and who are being memorised through their inscriptions on the buildings and walls close to where they were killed. Also, up until today, political movements would publish their messages on walls in an attempt to stir the masses, a notion that was particularly powerful during the First Intifada.

The most perfect canvas for graffiti, however, is unquestionably the Separation Barrier, which by now is covered in tags, images and stencils. A company, based in the Netherlands and collaborating with local Palestinians even saw a business potential in it and offered people to send them their messages, whether love declarations or messages of solidarity with the Palestinian people, via sms, which would then be spray painted on the Wall.

The most famous acts of graffiti are obviously the nine pieces that renowned
Banksy graffiti at the Wall next to Qalandiya Checkpoint
British street artist Banksy sprayed on and glued to the Wall in 2005. “How illegal is it to vandalize a wall,” he asks in his website introduction to this project, “if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice?“. Quite a few of  Banksy's pieces have by now been partially over painted, others were complemented by other paintings and messages, but a lot of it can still be seen during a Bethlehem tour, or on the way from Jerusalem to Ramallah. Notwithstanding the fact that Banksy's stencils and images on the Separation Barrier are inherently political and are engaging with the nature of the Wall as imprisoning and dehumanising the Palestinian population, he also received some criticism:

Old man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.

Banksy: Thanks

Old man: We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.
     
All of this only attests to the notion that in order to understand the different layers that constitute the Middle East conflict, one has to pay good attention to a diversity of voices, some which find their audiences only through less conventional channels.   

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Obstacles to Peace - Settlement Expansion in Jerusalem

By Miri

It has been widely acknowledged that the building of settlements constitute one of the main obstacles to a solution of the conflict in the Middle East. It has become somewhat of a custom that with each new grand building plan published by the Israeli government, Israel receives a reprehension from the international community, sometimes even from its traditional allies. Since these rebukes remain nothing but mere statements, however, Israel simply keeps on building.
For the year 2011, the Israeli movement Peace Now reported a 20% increase in illegal Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank alone. Including the building activities in and around Jerusalem into these statistics, one ends up with a much higher number.

View at Ma'ale Adumim outside of Jerusalem 2011- Oren Ziv/Active Stills
According to the Palestine Monitor, the year 2011 “witnessed the highest number of approved settler housing plans for Occupied East Jerusalem in the last decade“. This increase does not seem to come to a halt in this new year as already in December 2011 plans for 3,690 new housing units have been accepted and passed on for final validation. As of January 2012, construction tenders for 312 units in East Jerusalem (and 673 in the West Bank) were published by the government.
The most recent number comes from the PLO. According to the Palestinian news agency Wafa quoting the PLO, Israel, by the end of January 2012, approved the building of 734 housing units in East Jerusalem, for which 1367 dunums of land will be seized.

The notion of settlements in Jerusalem is a very controversial one. A lot of Israelis, including many of the more liberal minded ones, consider the Jewish neighbourhoods that were built in East Jerusalem after 1967, such as French Hill or Pisgat Ze'ev, not as settlements, but simply as neighbourhoods. According to international law, however, East Jerusalem clearly constitutes occupied land, consequently, the transfer of Israel's civilian population to any of those areas must be considered a violation of international law.

A visitor to Jerusalem may be easily confounded as well, as by now, some of the settlements are so deeply embedded within the city's structure that it is hard to discern what is what. Mainstream Jerusalem tour guides are very likely not to mention the status of those neighbourhoods or individual buildings, even if some of them, particularly those strategically planted in the Old City or in
Beit Yonatan in Silwan, Anne Paq/Active Stills
predominantly Palestinian neighbourhoods, are often clearly marked with an Israeli flag.

A regular Jerusalem tour will not take you to a Palestinian neighbourhood, such as Silwan, where the neglect through the Jerusalem municipality is clearly marked by the lack of adequate sanitation or street lights, and the presence of the Israeli army, due to an increasing settler population, is striking.
Similarly, on a regular Jerusalem you are not likely to see some of the big settlements adjacent to Jerusalem, such as Ma'ale Adumim. Although already deeply located inside the West Bank, those cities may almost appear like an extension of Jerusalem.

In fact, the complexity of Jerusalem and its settlement structure, can be said to constitute the Occupation in a nutshell. It is therefore well worthwhile to embark on an alternative tour through Jerusalem and its surroundings and be provided with a critical analysis by an experienced Jerusalem tour guide, to be able to fully grasp the extent of the problem that those structures cause.   

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Qalkilya - City of Hope

Fred at the Qalqilya Separation Wall
From Fred Schlomka

Qalqilya is a West Bank town just a couple of kilometers from where I live - but it might as well be on another continent due to the 8-meter high Separation Wall and the ban on Israeli Jews from entering the municipality.

In 1948 Qalkilya, which sits on the Green Line,  lost much of it's agricultural land to Israel in the aftermath of the war of 1948 and the Palestinian Nakbah (catastrophe). In 1967, under cover of the six-day war, the Israeli Government attempted to empty the town and expel the residents east to Jordan. Only due to an international outcry, the plan was not completed. Over the past ten years, due to the Separation Wall, more agricultural land has essentially been confiscated. One tragedy after another . . . .

Below is a truly inspirational film clip about a group of youth who are developing their athletic and creative abilities despite the ever-present Israeli Occupation, restrictions of their movements, and little hope for jobs or freedom on the horizon.

Those of us involved in the peace and justice movement in Israel/Palestine can take the lead from these youngsters. They are the future of the country, and hold a vision in the palms of their hands that few of us can match.

If you are thinking of taking a tour to Nablus or Jenin, do stop off at Qalqilya and visit the boys on the streets.


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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Visit the 'White City'

From Miri

Most recently Tel Aviv has been voted the world's gayest travel destination. This achievement is the result of a campaign launched by the Tel Aviv tourism board and supported by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to promote the White City as an international gay vacation destination. Activists from the LGBTQ scene, including Israeli ones, consider this campaign an attempt to whitewash, or as they term it “pinkwash”, the public image of Israel and to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians' human rights and instead to promote it as the only democratic and eventually gay friendly state of the Middle East.

Also on the ground, the Tel Aviv municipality, together with the Ministry of Tourism put a lot of effort into presenting a rosy and carefree image to the city's visitors. One vehicle for this are organised walking tours. A lot of those tours naturally focus on the beautiful or fun parts of the city, such as night life or architecture, especially the vast amount of unique Bauhaus buildings that gave the city its nickname - the White City. A visit to the White City is however incomplete without a Jaffa tour
Jaffa, the port city adjacent to Tel Aviv, that dates back to ancient times once constituted one of the region's most affluent and culturally and economically most thriving urban societies. In fact, the cosmopolitan Tel Aviv started out as nothing but a Jewish neighbourhood of Jaffa. Today's Jaffa is officially considered to be part of Tel Aviv, and hardly lives up to its former glory. Apart from its architecture, Jaffa's Old City with its art galleries, gift shops and expensive restaurants hardly bears a sign of its Arab past. While taking visitors through the “picturesque Flea Market, archaeological sites, the Crest Garden, and the renovated alleys and buildings of historic Old Jaffa”, the guides of mainstream tours usually gloss over the expulsion of 90% of Jaffa's Palestinian residents during the events of 1947/1948, or attribute it to a voluntary mass flight.
In order to stick to the myth of Tel Aviv being built on sand and dunes, guides from mainstream tour companies commonly dismiss the fact that parts of the White City were built on top of Arab villages.  Whereas Jaffa tours by alternative guides offer a more accurate historical perspective.
The busy neighbourhood of Manshiyye, for example, once constituted Jaffa's northern border. Today's Manshiyye is mainly comprised of a small park, adjoined by parking lots and a bus stop, as well as of the Charles Clore Park whose grass covered dunes conceal the rubble that remained from the demolition of the neighbourhood and which were pushed to the sea sight. The Hassan Beq mosque and one other building which was turned into the Etzel Museum to commemorate those who captured Manshiyye, are the only indicators for the area's Arab past.
There are always at least two sides to every story. The fact that the more dominant one is, by its nature, more easily accessible to a greater audience, does not mean that it lies closer to the truth.


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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nablus Touring and History

From Miri
Nablus Old City
No visit to the West Bank is complete without a tour of Nablus. The history of the City of Nablus, located in the northern part of the West Bank, reaches back almost 2000 years and just like the whole of historic Palestine, has always constituted a site of struggle over sovereignty between rivaling forces.

Taking a walk through the alleys of the Old City, one is not only being enabled to unfold layer upon layer of ancient history, but also to learn about more recent events that shook this once so prosperous city.

Take for instance the Al-Khadra mosque, one of the city's oldest buildings in the southwestern quarter of the Old City. According to the Samaritan narrative, it originally served as a synagogue, that was later to be destroyed by the Crusaders and in the 12th century was turned into a church. In the 13th century, Mamluks eventually transformed the building into a mosque, which however still bears the traces of both its Jewish and its Christian past. Even more visible are the marks that the current power struggle left upon the building. In April 2002, the mosque became one of the main sites of the so called Battle of Nablus, which lasted for three days and mainly took place in the Casbah and the refugee camps adjacent to the city. During what was termed “Operation Defensive Shield”, the Israeli army reportedly tried to access the Old City through the mosque and in the process destroyed 85% of the building. 

A parallel story can be told about the beautiful al-Shifa hammam, which was built in 1624 by the reputable Nabulsi Touquan family. Constituting one of the oldest Turkish baths in the country, it still fulfills its function as a place of relaxation and social gatherings. Like the Al-Khadra mosque, however, it  bears the brand of the 2002 army incursion, during which it was hit by three rockets launched from Apache helicopters.

Nablus Soap Factory
Every tour of Nablus should include a visit to one of the soap factories. The two remaining operating soap factories constitute the remnants of what once constituted one of the most thriving and most famous industries of the country, with Nabulsi soap being exported all over the Arab world and Europe since the 10th century. Due to IDF incursions, which partially or completely destroyed a number of traditional soap factories, and because of difficult transportation stemming from West Bank closures, the industry has been largely isolated.

Fortunately most of the above mentioned buildings could be reconstructed and continue to fulfill their functions, a notion that can be said to be somewhat characteristic about the spirit of the city as a whole. Although being shaken so much throughout its history, Nablus always seemed to be able to preserve its busy charm and a walk along the alleys of the Souk (market) of the Old City with its buzzing atmosphere only attests to that. The traditional Nabulsi industries, such as the production of soap, olive oil and handicrafts continue to operate and maintain their high reputation throughout the whole country. Until today, visitors on a tour of Nablus usually do not leave before tasting or having themselves wrapped up a piece of its famous Kanafeh, a pastry made of several fine shreds of noodles with honey sweetened cheese in the center, the recipe of which was being exported throughout the whole of the Ottoman Empire. 

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Monday, January 2, 2012

Al Jazeera features Green Olive Tours

Green Olive Tours had the pleasure to host an Al Jazeera television crew on a scheduled tour to Bethlehem and Hebron. It was one of the largest tours of 2011 with over 30 participants. An Israeli and a Palestinian, Fred Schlomka and Samer Kokaly guided the tour, which visited Abraham's Tomb, the old city of Hebron, and had lunch with a Palestinian family. In Bethlehem the tour spent time in the Aida Refugee Camp, and walked a stretch of the Separation Wall before going to the Church of Nativity.

One interesting situation happened at the synagogue side of Abraham's Tomb. A Muslim family from the USA was with the group and they were refused admittance due to the ongoing Israeli policies. Jews are also not permitted in the Mosque side of the Tomb. The soldiers were polite but firm that the family could not enter. This has been the situation at Abraham's Tomb since the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 when 29 Muslim worshippers were gunned down and killed, and a further 125 were wounded.

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