Where there’s a will, there’s a way

by Toine Van Teeffelen, Arab Educational Institute

A few weeks ago, my colleagues at work and partners came together in a restaurant in the countryside to the west of Bethlehem. The Qassieh family owns a land there of the size of a soccer field, about half an hectare. They exploit a well-known restaurant, the Makhrour restaurant, called after a broader valley to the west of Beit Jala. It is area C – the over 60% of the West Bank lands under complete Israeli control.

It is a bit far located, and so Mary and I had never visited the restaurant. However, the Arab Educational Institute created an opportunity at the occasion of the departure of the German volunteer Fabian, sent out by Pax Christi Stuttgart and Aachen, who was with us for a year. The food during the early evening tasted good and the environment was pleasant, with plenty of green trees and bushes around us, away from the noisiness and the many cars of Bethlehem.

The memories were good, too. Makhrour is an area where Mary and I, family and guests from abroad are used to hike, from Beit Jala to the west of Bethlehem to the beautifully located village of Battir – a few years ago made into a world heritage site partly to prevent the erection of the Wall. It is graced by Roman-time terraces and archeological sites, with spectacular views over agricultural fields and valleys, and an old railroad and small station. Many years ago the Makhrour was an area where the inhabitants of Bethlehem and Beit Jala used to sleep under the trees in the summer and afterwards during harvest time; sometimes even for weeks, as my Arabic teacher used to recall not without nostalgia.

At the end of the dinner we felt rested and promised ourselves to come back, with or without hike.

The Qassieh family is one of those who display sumud or steadfastness by staying on their land. As so many others – the Nasser family of the Tent of Nations immediately comes to mind – they have been absorbed by Kafkaesque Israeli High Court proceedings which last for many years, if not decades. However, they hung on, even though several dwellings on the land have previously been demolished. Many lands in area C are not formally registered though well-known to belong to certain Palestinian family owners. Add to this that almost no Palestinian gets a building permit in area C from the occupier – the Israeli army/Civil Administration.

The Jewish National Fund suddenly came two years ago with proofs of land ownership nobody knew about. Supposedly the family land was sold almost 50 years ago. In a statement about the case, the Israeli organization Peace Now speaks about the Jewish National Fund as the “Fund for the expulsion of Palestinians.” The Israeli High Court did not allow for any further appeal by the family. On Sunday the main house was demolished, live on Facebook for Bethlehemites and anybody else to see.

Don’t forget the context. These years house demolitions have been happening in the West Bank and East-Jerusalem at an exponential pace. A few weeks ago, at least 70 apartments or houses were demolished in the village Sur Bahir to the east of Bethlehem. They were not located in area C, but in area A and B, under Palestinian civil control, and built with permits. The excuse for demolition there was that the houses happened to be in an area of 250 meters on both sides of the illegal Wall which the army has designated as ‘security’ area.

Where there is a will there is a way, especially when all power is in your hands.





Spring days in Bethlehem

by Toine Van Teeffelen, Arab Educational Institute

The taxi driver is obviously nervous and suddenly brakes when a car passes by he doesn’t see. Throughout the journey he keeps talking. “It’s state terrorism,” he says about the killing of Ahmed Manasrah the previous night by the Israeli army. “It is the elections in Israel. They want to show who is the ruler here.” And: “Unbelievable, the racist treatment of taxi drivers near Battir and Wad Foukin.”

Thursday is strike day due to Manasrah’s death as well as of several other Palestinians in the West Bank killed earlier in the week.

All shops and companies are closed. It is the first day of spring, Mother’s Day, a big day here. Good weather day, too.

I realize once again that one unfortunately gets used to the killings – though never completely. However, the driver’s nervousness compels me to closely read the accounts of the killing near Bethlehem in the news agencies and papers.

The Israeli army says there was friction between Palestinians and rocks were thrown at cars. Soldiers intervened, shot Manasrah dead and seriously injured another Palestinian.

Family members of Manasrah have a totally different account. First there was a car accident. Somebody left the car that was hit in the accident to see what had happened to his car. He was shot from a military watchtower. Then Manasrah came out of his car and brought the injured man to a nearby hospital. After this he came back to bring the family members of the injured man home. When reaching the scene he himself was shot and killed. Manasrah’s family members say it was “beyond bizarre” to think he was throwing stones. It all happened near Road 60 between Hebron and Bethlehem, at the entrance of Bethlehem to the south.

Two more were earlier in the week killed after throwing explosives to a group of soldiers in Nablous, according to the army, though again not according to bystanders.

This morning Amira Hass writes in Haaretz that on March 4, some weeks ago, two Palestinians were killed west of Ramallah after they had rammed their car into a group of soliders and seriously injured one. While Israeli media reports afterwards suggested that the killing by soldiers was in self-defense, a video collected by Btselem, the Israeli human rights organization, indicated that 9 of the 10 bullets were shot 4,5 minutes after the crash – proof of a wanton killing.

The incidents were or are undoubtedly ‘investigated’.

On Friday it is Marathon Day. The strike is over, and people are allowed to move again, and move long and well. Music along the roads is on, runners and walkers are cheered or given the high five. Life goes on. There are over 8000 participants – more than in previous years. Mary shows me a video on Facebook how near Rachel’s Tomb some people shout “free, free Palestine” under the military watchtower.

Mary and I tell each other to finally join next year’s marathon.


Photo: Hundreds of Palestinians gathered on Thursday at Ahmed Manasrah’s funeral in the southern occupied West Bank (MEE/Akram al-Waara)


Peace, Peace Spirituality

Ancient time, ordinary time, disrupted time

by Toine Van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute

During a quiet morning a few weeks ago, I waited for a mass by Armenian priests in the Nativity Grotto to end. Together with guests I sat for an hour on the entrance stairs. We experienced the timelessness of Christmas through the slow, rhythmic singing of the priests.

Yesterday, at the occasion of Mary’s birthday, Mary and I visited a mass in the small chapel of the Bridgettines Sisters near Nativity Square. It is beautifully located in the maze of old small streets that is part of overlooked Bethlehem. The silence and sounds of bells and the inaudible footsteps of the sisters too remind of the ancient rhythm of the town.

Afterwards we rushed back into the ordinary sense of time. We have all kinds of sign posts that punctuate the normal days. Does the kaek man come in time so we can buy his bread with sesam before Mary leaves to Bethlehem University? Yes, there we hear his distant cry in the morning silence. Or we hear the shouts of school children going to school and know how late it is, or sense the quick steps of students going to their exams at university, studying from books they sometimes read while walking.

Yet there is always an unwelcome third rhythm: that of occupation. It interferes with the other rhythms. Full of uncertainty and threat, it puts people on their nerves. Last week, after a number of attacks against settlers and oppressive actions by the Israeli army, I noticed through Facebook that people in Bethlehem and Ramallah opened their doors for stranded travellers. They offer accommodation to those who do not dare to go out in the evening on the highways because their cars may be stoned by settlers. This happened for instance on the Wadi Nar road, the circling road to the east of Jerusalem which connects Bethlehem and Ramallah. According to an Israeli human rights organization there were last week within 24 hours after an attack against settlers “dozens if not hundreds” stone throwing attacks against Palestinian cars.

Travelling requires daily planning which is here always under threat of being disrupted by unplanned events. Such event can be a sudden mobile checkpoint but also (in my case) the shock of what you see while traveling normally. Along the Ramallah-Nablous road there are quite a number of posters put up by settlers in which the eyes of Mahmoud Abbas, the PNA’s president, are in the center of concentric circles. It is a call for assassination.

Sometimes there is positive traveling news, or whatever we for the moment regard as positive. Lately Mary got a permit to go and fly through Tel Aviv airport. Happy to get a permit to travel in your own country. And this time the permit did not come the day before or after traveling, so she is able to plan her trip well.

The rhythm of politics also interferes with the ancient rhythms of religion. This is not just about traveling or entrance problems when visiting mosques and churches, but about something as simple as sending a Christmas card. I tell people abroad that Christmas cards sent to Bethlehem arrive standard in February. Security.

But post can also take longer. In October it happened that 10 ton of post packages arrived in Jericho. They were held up for no less than 6 years at the Allenby Bridge after being classified as suspicious. Because of some kind of new arrangement between the occupational authorities and the Palestinian Communication Ministry the packages were now released. A favor.

I actually do believe that some Israeli army officials think it is not a humiliation but a confidence building measure — so all pervasive is the delusion of arbitrary power that keeps the occupation in place. Within days the packages were brought by the Palestinian post service to their real destination. Imagine, to receive a Christmas present after 6 years. What kind of time rhythm is that?


Knife into society

by Toine van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem

This Tuesday the mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, was attacked with a knife. He got a deep wound in his right cheek that had to be stitched. It could have been even worse if the knife had landed higher or lower. The attacker was somebody from the Hebron area apparently motivated by revenge, as he did not receive a permit to sell corncobs on the street. After fleeing he was caught by Palestinian police in Hebron. In the evening a public demonstration was held in front of the Church of Nativity to express solidarity with the mayor and his family and protest against the lack of law and order. “An attack on the mayor is an attack on all of us.” In the aftermath people emphasized that decisions are needed, not rhetoric.

Among the issues coming up in the discussions at home and at work are the following.

First, it seems that the police are sometimes reluctant to enforce – or delay enforcing – the law, and arrest lawbreakers. The police are the representatives of the Palestinian National Authority on the street and have a credibility problem due to among other things the ongoing inter-party struggles in Palestinian politics. Due to the overall situation citizens are emotionally on the edge, and an arrest can easily lead to a quarrel or clash. When the municipality decided to regulate the bastaat (sales on the street), such as in the area in front of the Church, the attack took place.

Don’t forget here the broader context of occupation. In area C, over 60% of the West Bank, but also in area B where the Israeli army is supposed to keep law and order, there is actually no law and order agenda – rather the opposite. It is the “Wild East” where settlers supported by the army can make use of Israeli laws and army regulations to instigate a climate of fear and where properties and livelihood are at continuous risk. Palestinian criminals can take refuge there, crimes ranging from aggressive behaviour to chemicals dumping.

Next, there is the general question of how to control and develop public space. The authorities sometimes face insurmountable difficulties. The issue of traffic is a good example. In Bethlehem, like in other Palestinian places, we see from year to year a significant increase in the number of cars. It seems many households have actually two cars, new or old, bought or on a loan. Most car rides do not go beyond the urban conglomeration of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Car owners do not have permits to go to neighboring Jerusalem. So it is quite common now to stand in a queue in what was formerly a free road. As everywhere in the world, this increases irritation levels.

But it is extremely difficult for governing bodies in the present situation in the West Bank to identify public space solutions in the cities, and this too affects the credibility of public bodies. Besides the need to preserve the ancient buildings and homes, spatial planning requires a local-regional master plan. However, municipalities or other Palestinian authorities are not able to plan and implement public works near, let alone over the traditional boundaries of town. Tunnels and viaducts are not to be decided by the municipality or the PNA when they are in or next to areas B or C. Nor are there structural budgets for the implementation of larger public works beyond patching holes in assfalt roads. Which means that the Palestinian traffic network and public works in general remain hugely underdeveloped. If they can, Palestinian cars make use of the modern highways between the Israeli settlements and the settlements and Jerusalem.

There is a different factor which further affects the authority of the Palestinian public authorities. Given the fact that the Palestinian political system has been stuck now for quite a number of years, we see that other social structures than official governance bodies are becoming stronger, such as tribalism or expressions of religious identity. After the attack on the mayor, tribal leaders from the Hebron area wanted to come over to Bethlehem to arrange a reconciliation. This was refused, because it would only further weaken existing authority structures.

Largely due to occupation and a stagnant economy, there are huge levels of unemployment, especially under youth (not like in Gaza, but I believe youth unemployment levels here in the West Bank reach 40-50%). At the same time people see that some do actually profit from the occupation – or from international subsidies going to local or international NGOs. This is a criticism often heard. The ‘greed is good’ capitalism is certainly here present too. Many teachers or nurses and others working against low salaries are barely able to take care of their (extended) families. It is logical then that the inequality in economic chances eats into the vitals of society.

Is the situation hopeless? Of course not, but given the lack of any perspective on a just peace, Palestinian society is wounded and under considerable stress. Sumud or steadfastness is still there – in the humour against the odds, in the survival tactics, in the history and memories of social resistance, and in the political awareness as you see it during a public meeting as organized in front of the Church spontaneously after the attack. Still people are struggling to develop values of citizenship, to demand an independent judiciary and executive, create a sense of inclusive national identity, and so on. Yet it is a hard struggle.


Trump’s deep bow to Israel

by Toine van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem

The main arguments against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel now used in the media are practical, tactical ones. Trump runs like a bull into the diplomatic china shop. He prejudges the outcome of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and provokes violence in the Middle East and beyond.

All true. But we should not allow ourselves to forget the core issue. The solemn recognition of Jerusalem by the U.S. is a reward for and legitimisation of the existing, decades-old Israeli policy of keeping Jerusalem as the ‘eternal, unified’ capital of Israel.

What is precisely meant by ‘Jerusalem’? From 1948 until the June war in 1967, Jerusalem was divided in an Israeli western part and an Arab eastern part, then under the control of Jordan. During the 1967 war Israel conquered the eastern part, including the holy places in the old city.

It is not so known that immediately after 1967 Israel greatly expanded the municipal boundaries of the eastern part of Jerusalem. While during Jordanian times the land surface of the former (East-)Jerusalem municipality was a mere 6.4 square kilometers, that part of the city was expanded after 1967 to cover 70 square kilometers – more than 10 times as much.

Lands of 28 Palestinian villages on the West Bank were taken over. In contravention of international law, the expanded East-Jerusalem was practically (after 1967) and formally (in 1980) annexed to Israel. Israel’s judicial system was imported, and new Jewish neighborhoods – according to international law, illegal settlements – established in the expanded zones of Jerusalem, with the purpose of altering the demographic ‘balance’ between Jews and Palestinians in the city to the advantage of the Jewish population…

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Peace, Refugee Stories

Fine-grained: Bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem

by Toine van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem

This Sunday I took the Palestinian bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem over the bridge and through the tunnels, along the new road 60. This is a road mainly used by Israelis from the settlements in the southern West Bank who commute to Jerusalem. The Palestinian bus takes passengers from Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Most of them are Jerusalem ID holders, as the checkpoint system is so fine-grained in its restrictions that Palestinians from the southern West Bank in the possession of a permit are only allowed to use the other checkpoint (300) between the Bethlehem area and Jerusalem.

The checkpoint leading to the bridge and tunnels is – how shall we call it – a more ‘flowing’ checkpoint to suit cars from the settlements. They should not be too much hindered in their movements. Note that Israeli cars rarely stop in front of the checkpoint; they usually just keep driving slowly. Israeli drivers do not need their IDs to show, their cars are waved through. Palestinians have to stop and are checked.

Anyway, at the terminal bus station in Bethlehem the driver warned the passengers that those without a valid Jerusalem ID should not join because soldiers were strict these days. When caught, people would have to walk from the checkpoint back to Beit Jala for quite some distance and uphill. I suppose he himself and the bus company also did not want to get into trouble.

When arriving at the checkpoint 6 or 7 passengers, mostly middle-aged or older, did not have a valid Jerusalem ID. They were taken out. The moment the bus left we saw them remain sitting at the checkpoint, humiliated. Passengers in the bus clicked with their tongue. What a way to treat people...

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