Palestiniana is a story of my guided tour of the West Bank. But it was not the trip I was expecting. "Experience Palestine during National Youth Week", the email said.
After less than two hours sleep, after losing several journalists at airport immigration, after being taken to the wrong hotel and put in an apartment with a married Italian and Canadian couple and after killing a dog on the two-hour coach journey to Ramallah, I somehow ended up standing in front of reels of barbed wire watching international activists spray-paint a huge concrete wall which separates this desolate part of Palestine from the Israeli settlement beyond it.
Our Palestinian guide on this magical mystery tour, who had just been shouting at us to spray ‘Free Palestine’ in as many different languages as are present in our entourage, became slightly more alarmist as he bellowed: “Ten minutes, ten minutes! You must be quick. We can’t be here for more than ten minutes, the Israeli army is watching us. They will be here in ten minutes. Ten minutes!”
This was the start of my five days in Palestine, which coincided with the November 2012 conflict between Israel and Gaza.
The email about the trip came via the National Union of Journalists. A trusted source, so I thought. No need to do any research for this, just pack my bag and go.
Had I done any digging I would at least have found out that Jayyab, the poorly-organised trip organiser who had been e-mailing me in the run up to the excursion, was a Gazan who was shot and almost killed during fighting with the Israel Defence Force army when he was 16. That may have set the alarm bells ringing.
One of the few fellow journalists on the trip, a stiff Brit from St Albans, told me about Jayyab’s past history which he had looked into prior to travelling. I don’t know who was the bigger fool – me for not doing my research before I boarded my flight or him for doing the research and still coming.
But having come through the ordeal of Israel airport immigration, returning to Blighty was not an option and I was determined to make the best of the trip… once I sorted out my accommodation problems.
The one thing specifically mentioned on the emails from Jayyab was that I was to be staying at the Moevenpick Hotel, the only five-star establishment in the West Bank. So you can imagine my annoyance when we pitch up at 5am at a hotel which was definitely not five-star and told to share an apartment with activists I had never met.
With Jayyab having been refused entry into the West Bank because of his history with the Israeli army, I spent the majority of the first day of the trip putting all my efforts into hassling our tour guide Abdallah in an attempt to get to the Moevenpick.
To say Abdallah was uninterested would be to overplay his helpfulness. He had a neat trick of saying, yes, he would help me get to the Moevenpick, make a call on his mobile and then slowly shuffle off without actually helping.
Abdallah, it turns out, is a heroic non-violent protestor known around the world as the Palestine Ghandi. He was imprisoned for 16 months for peacefully defending his village from an Israeli land grab. No wonder he looked irritated when I told him that I wasn’t happy that every time I walked in to my apartment there was another bloody activist sleeping in one of the beds. Perhaps he had more pressing issues on his mind.
It quickly became apparent that the ‘press trip’ had been financed by the Palestinian Government. And it became clear that a huge West Bank-wide series of demonstrations was planned for the end of the week and that those activists not arrested were expecting a very rough ride at Tel Aviv airport in Israel when they tried to leave the country.
I was warned several times that I could expect my phone to be confiscated and my camera memory cards to be wiped. I spent the rest of the trip petrified of being detained by Israeli airport security.
But it would be wrong to focus on the negatives. The undoubted highlight of the trip had to be visiting Qalqilya, a town so poor and full of poverty it has been likened to Middlesbrough. Qalqilya has found itself almost totally surrounded by the huge monolithic partition wall, built by Israel to defend land it has taken from Palestine. The wall at Qalqilya has almost strangled the town to death.
The wall’s effect is best seen at Qalqilya Zoo, still defiantly in business despite the fact that it no longer has any animals. A zoo without animals, it was a day trip never to be forgotten. After visiting the empty cages we were introduced to Qalqilya’s mayor who spoke earnestly of the town’s problems before leading 50 activists and a handful of bemused journalists in a conga as local musicians played traditional folk tunes. At this point I was actually beginning to love this nation.
When it came to demonstration day, the activists went to be active and I went to Jerusalem. My confidence in the organisers was so low I was never going to let them lead me into a confrontation with the IDF. I’ve always had an aversion to tear gas and rubber bullets.
That day it all kicked off between Israel and the Palestinians, with the IDF launching a series of air strikes on Gaza, one of which killed a military leader.
So you can imagine my delight when I returned to Ramallah from Jerusalem to be told that dinner was to be served in the West Bank General’s military compound rather than at the hotel. Eating lamb and rice expecting a rocket to hit the compound was not the relaxing end to the evening I had been hoping for.
Still, it was a better end to the day than the activists had. Apparently, they were tear gassed. More worryingly, during another skirmish, Abdallah, on a bus full of activists being chased by Israeli Defence Force soldiers, shouted to the passengers, ‘We are going to stop the bus and you must run. Run across the fields otherwise the Israeli soldiers will arrest you and take away your passports’. I almost wished I was there.
Of course, there were parts of the trip where I did witness some of the strange situations the West Bank has found itself in. Like the historical part of Hebron - H2 - where Israeli settlers have moved in. Sadly, when Israelis move in to an area inhabited with Palestinians they also bring with them fencing to block off streets, security checkpoints and soldiers. Quite frankly, the whole tone of the neighbourhood is ruined. Israeli settlers do nothing for local house prices. While visiting H2, an impromptu rendition of ‘Free Palestine’ in front of several rows of Israeli soldiers resulted in our local tour guide being arrested and imprisoned.
There was a serious side to the trip. For Palestinians, water shortages are frequent, as are power cuts - in Gaza homes go without power for eight hours every day. Restrictions imposed by Israel block the construction of new power sources. The Israeli Government has also taken charge of water sources in the West Bank, limiting supply and forcing Palestinians to pay for water which was once their own. Some believe Israel are taking more land in the West Bank in the hope of drilling for oil in the future.
Most Palestinians will tell you that Israel is constructively trying to force them out of their own country. When you see what’s going on, it’s difficult to disagree.
So, what was supposed to be a press trip to experience the West Bank during Palestine National Youth Week actually turned into an activist’s excursion of antagonising Israeli soldiers and spray-painting walls while ducking rubber bullets. Next time I get offered a free trip, I’ll make sure I pack my bullet-proof vest.
Palestiniana by Garry Cook, complete with photography from the trip, is available on Amazon. A Kindle version is also available.