Encounters in the Holy Land

2019 Writing Competition 

- by Sue Beardon -

Rutie Atsmon, an Israeli, brings together young Jewish Israelis with Palestinians, to talk peace, produce newsletters, organise workshops. She asked “Have you been to Israel?” I replied that I hadn’t, never wanted to, hadn’t felt it was anything to do with me. “You should come,” she said.

Some years later I sat up half the night filling in an application to become a human rights witness in Palestine.

So this Jewish girl sits on a plane to Tel Aviv, rehearsing what she will say when security staff ask her the reason for her visit.

She sits on the steps of a house in the Jordan Valley, watching gazelles bound across sandy tracks and dark green olive groves. She surveys the watchtowers, army tanks and huge chicken sheds belonging to the Israeli settlement a kilometre away. This Jewish girl listens as the mayor of the tiny hamlet of Yanoun tells how the Israeli army marched him round his land, telling him where villagers could walk; 10 metres only from the last house. His and other families were driven from their homes by settlers in 2002, and only the intervention of Rabbis for Human Rights enabled them to return. Only 50 of the 200 inhabitants did so. He shows us the animal feed they have to buy now they can no longer allow sheep to roam across the valley as they used to.

This Jewish girl loves to roam the Yorkshire hills near where she lives. Here she climbs the only hill not out of bounds, to the tomb of Nabi Nun, father of Joshua, who fit the battle of Jericho. The tranquility is broken when the young shepherds shout “mustautaneen” – “settlers”! They watch terrified as local settlers with M16s lead a hiking group across the hills we are not allowed on.

Many small villages contend daily with settlers burning their olive trees, killing their goats, smashing their water tanks, harassing their children. And the inventiveness of humiliation: the goat bought for Eid al Atha, refused permission to cross the checkpoint without a permit; the Christian women refused permission to visit Nazareth, later granted, but with hardly enough time to arrive and come straight back.

Paul, who runs a ukulele orchestra for Jewish and Arab children in Israel, invites me to their rehearsal. One of the Jewish parents asks me what I am doing here. Of the settlers misdemeanours he asks, “Why don’t you report them to the police?” Israelis have no concept of what living under a military occupation entails, that the only law is the army, whose job is protect the Israeli settlers, not the Palestinians.

Dan from Greenpeace invites me to the 70th birthday party of his sister, in the verdant hills of Galilee. She was married to Israel’s top basketball player in the 1950s. Their mother invites me to her apartment in Haifa, overlooking the Mediterranean. A 1920s building it was owned by Germans, then confiscated by the British, who gave it to Jews after the British left Palestine. She gives piano lessons, at the age of 95. She studied at the conservatoire in Vienna whilst Hitler was consolidating his power. My friend Joaf introduces his father who lost an eye in the war in Lebanon in 1982. Everyone is touched by this tragedy.

My three months up, our driver Ghassan takes us to Qalandia – the checkpoint through which he is not permitted. We present him with a blue woollen sweater from the suq in Ramallah, under the suspicious gaze of Israeli soldiers. Ghassan speaks English, Arabic and Hebrew. He had been offered the chance study law in the Philippines, but his refusal to act as a spy for the Israelis resulted in refusal of an exit visa.

Just before Christmas Rosemarie from Switzerland and I go to Nablus. We want to support the small Christian community there in their Christmas celebrations. We walk up a hill on a road going to a small café. But we get bored walking the dusty road and veer up the hillside through aromatic herbs. Within minutes tanks speed along the road and come to a halt beneath us. Soldiers pour out and shout in Hebrew.

“What are you doing here? This is a prohibited area, military zone.” They take our passports and radio their headquarters. Gradually we fall into more relaxed conversation. We even make them laugh. They are just boys. “We thought you were Palestinians,” they say. “And if we were, what would you have done?” I ask.


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