One Friday morning recently I woke up in my friend Tomer’s apartment in a town outside Tel Aviv. I had arrived from London the evening before and Tomer, who I had met picking olives the previous autumn in Palestine, had kindly picked me up from the airport. One of the first things he told me over breakfast was that a Palestinian had been shot dead the day before in the West Bank by an Israeli settler when he had felt threatened by some Palestinian protestors.
Deir Istyia and demonstrations
The shooting the day before had happened not too far from the village of Deir Istyia where we’d picked olives a few months before. People from Deir Istyia have been holding regular demonstrations on Fridays: about the Israeli separation wall which is scheduled to be extended, and which would have a devastating impact on the villagers’ ability to get to their olive trees and go about their daily lives; about the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike since 17th April in Israeli prisons (ended after 40 days); about the military occupation of Palestine; about… Tomer asked me if, having heard the news about the shooting, I still wanted to go with him to the demonstration. I said I did.
We set off, via Tomer’s university so he could attend a lecture as part of his MA on conflict resolution. I waited for him in a cafe close by where I checked the news and my emails and pondered the price of the coffee (16 shekels, about £3.45).
Getting to Deir Istyia
We set off for Deir Istyia, in the West Bank, just after 11.30am and were there shortly after 12. In kilometres it’s not very far at all from Tel Aviv and, if you’re Israeli, there are no delays at checkpoints so it didn’t take us long to cover the short distance. For the many Palestinians entering Israel with a permit every day for work it can often be a different story.
As the entrance to the village appeared I felt a big wave of fondness, shaped by all the hospitality, broad smiles and frank and open hearted discussions I’d experienced there during the previous two olive harvests. But the familiar village entrance was clogged up with cars, all with Israeli number plates: other people who had come to support the demonstration.
We parked at the back of the line and got out to see what was going on, although we suspected we knew; and we were right. A handful of Israeli soldiers with the ubiquitous automatic assault rifles slung over their shoulders had forbidden anyone not from the village to enter it. They had declared the village a military controlled zone. To enter without a permit would risk arrest.
To demonstrate or not to demonstrate
We all drove off and met up a few kilometres down the road where we discussed our options. Most of the Israelis decided to try and enter the village by another route. Some had been arrested before and were ok with the possibility of it happening again. For those of us there from abroad, we mainly decided not to risk it and most got ready to drive back to Tel Aviv. I had been due to meet a Scottish friend of mine later on in Nablus. But she’d contacted me that morning to say she was unwell and couldn’t travel so I was planning to make my way further north to where she was volunteering for two weeks in Jenin. I made a quick, although not necessarily simple, calculation that nursing her and also being able to get back into Israel for future olive harvests in Palestine were the overriding factors in this instance.
Getting to Nablus
It was Friday so public transport was beginning to wind down. Tomer was concerned about how I was going to make it to Jenin in the north of Palestine by relying solely on buses. He rang a Palestinian friend who lived nearby to get more information about the buses and within a minute or two had put the phone down again, letting me know that this friend, who I also knew a little, would take me to Nablus from where I could get a share taxi. This spontaneous gesture of generosity wasn’t unusual but felt no less welcome for that.
I waited at the designated spot, by Abu Ali’s supermarket near the village of Hares, and Issa soon appeared. I had last seen him the previous autumn and he looked well. Issa was shot in the back by the Israeli Defence Force 15 years ago and, as I understand it, experiences good periods and sometimes not such good periods with his health. It was lovely to see him. Issa is a tireless activist and works to support Palestinians in all the different ways they can be affected by the military occupation. He is heavily involved with the International Solidarity Movement, an organisation founded on nonviolent principles in its aim of resisting the military occupation. He meditates and has visited Plum Village in France, founded by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. To be in Issa’s company is inspiring.
As we approached Nablus we saw that the IDF had blocked people from leaving the city, an action possibly related to the shooting the day before. Entering was no problem and Issa barely slowed down other than to try and gain any information he could about his chances of leaving again easily once he’d dropped me off. No information was forthcoming but Issa drove on without hesitation. I was concerned he would be heavily delayed getting home but he wouldn’t hear of not taking me all the way in. I later found out that his return journey had, in fact, been very longwinded due to the road block. When I expressed in message to Issa my regret about this, he said he was happy to give me the lift and the kind of inconvenience he experienced on the way back was ‘already part of Palestinians’ daily life’.
Getting to Jenin
At the bus station I headed to the toilet in the company of Bayan, a young Palestinian woman with excellent English who worked in Hebron as a school assistant. Her passion was Palestinian heritage so she was en route to the archaeological site at Sebastia, 20 minutes outside Nablus on the road to Jenin. We had a short but lovely chat during the journey. I went on to visit Sebastia myself on Bayan’s recommendation, with Jane once she was better. It was a wonderful day out in the countryside, amongst late spring flowers and ancient ruins, walking past fields of cucumbers as large, ibis-like birds swooped overhead.
Once at Jenin, I headed directly in to the centre past rows and rows of closed shops. Not much is open on a Friday and it felt like a ghost city. I found the building I was looking for easily enough and started heading up to the fourth floor of the Jenin Cultural Centre where Jane had already been staying for a week. Fitting for the weekly day of rest, no one was about. The staircase was unlit and felt long as I clambered up with my bags. I rattled a couple of doors at the top and called out Jane’s name. Nobody responded so I turned a handle and entered what I thought must be the Centre. I looked around. It was a big space with no lights on and windows hidden around corners; I couldn’t see much. But then Jane emerged through a gloomy doorway. In keeping with her ill status my first impression was of a sickly spectre but she greeted me with verve; I was reassured she was of this world.
We spent the rest of the day taking it easy and catching up as much as Jane’s poorliness allowed. I went out at one point to hunt for some supplies and took a little walk around the Old City. But mainly I stayed inside as the day moved from mid afternoon through to evening. I made cups of tea and got myself settled. A few times I looked at my watch and couldn’t believe the time, that it wasn’t later. I didn’t feel remotely tired yet it seemed like an age since I had woken that morning in Tomer’s place near Tel Aviv. It hardly seemed possible it was the same day. I finally went to bed, not because I felt ready but because laying my head down seemed like the best thing to do. I slept deeply for 9 hours.