As our guide notes, en route, Palestinians living in East Jerusalem suffer multiple forms of social and political exclusion. They have no actual citizenship, only 'residency rights'. Although paying the same taxes as Israelis, they receive a fraction of the local budget, with little allocation for basic services like roads and refuse collection. Palestinian access to basic schooling is well below any Israeli standard. And, in an ever-physical statement of their disconnection, a grotesque section of concrete wall now sits across Jericho Road, one of the once main arterial highways in and out of Jerusalem. On the 'other side' sits the remainder of Abu Dis, families and friends now partitioned and isolated.
There's spirited discussion on what kind of solution might begin to address such inhumanity, our guides leaning admirably towards a one state model requiring parity of political rights and citizenship. Yet, here, in front of this lush green settler haven, with its gun-toting police, multiple schools, gleaming clinics, sleek shops, street fountains and tree-lined drives, an apparently difficult question, prompted by them, still hangs in the air: can people in such now 'established' places really be expected to uproot as part of any solution to the conflict?
It's a wider question that sits heavily even with many 'progressive' Israelis, unable to comprehend the idea of further dislocation. On the surface, it seems a reasonable concern. Ultimately, there has to be a just peace for all. And that requires lateral thought, particularly here in Jerusalem, on how to pursue a solution which, whether in one or two state form, removes not Jewish people, but Israel's Jewish-only ethnocracy, replacing it with open, equal rights and citizenship for all. True democratic and civil equivalence rather than religio-ethnic apartheid.
A report by UN special Rapporteur John Dugard has highlighted Ma’ale Adumim as one of "three major settlement blocs [that] will effectively divide Palestinian territory into cantons or Bantustans." It's illegality and strategic intent are clearly evident.
Yet, here at this residential idyll, a thought persists: why, I ask our assembled group, is there often such hesitancy in 'thinking the unthinkable' about displacing this kind of privileged suburb, in contrast to the regular and 'accepted' upheavals reserved for Palestinians?
It's a subtle and often unstated discrimination, which, I suspect, inhabits many sympathetic Israeli minds. Indeed, one may venture, the problem is less to do with the removal of people than the removal of a mindset in which 'the problem' itself is framed. The settlers here in East Jerusalem, the argument goes, are living 'normal' lives, sending their kids to school, going to work, taking evening strolls. Can we really expect them just to move? Wouldn't this just exacerbate the problem?
The concern may be well-meaning: do we resolve the problem through creating more displacement and enmity? Yet, the 'dilemma' is posed ever so 'liberally', that one can easily lose sight of the still-outstanding issue: the expansionist purpose of these settlements and the obstacles they pose to any just solution. Again, the obstruction is part of a mindset which fosters differential assumptions about how settlers and refugees should be regarded.
Settlement and camp
The 'problem' comes to mind again later that day, while we're in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem. We hear from our dear friend Hiba, just graduated as a nurse, how, for no obvious reason, other than sheer intimidation, the soldiers have been coming to her house at three in the morning, battering the door, rattling the windows and terrorising the family. Among many such stories, we learn how one women in this camp lost a hand to an IDF explosive placed on her door handle as she tried to open it to shouting soldiers. They said "sorry", apparently, and left. No one was ever brought to justice.
Breaking Ramadan fast with the enticing food prepared by Hiba's engaging family, we learn of their collective efforts to build and improve their home. Just part of the valiant, dignified desire of Palestinians to live a normal life. Why, I wonder, should their basic wishes and rights to a peaceful, secure existence seem so secondary to that of affluent urban settlers?
Accompanied by Khalid, another kind and caring friend, we visit more struggling families in nearby Al Aza Camp, providing some relief along the way. As in most camps, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) has effectively abandoned many to a life of back-alley poverty and isolation. Rich Arab countries also remain shamefully complicit in their collective abandonment of these bleak ghettoes. Despite the wonderful spirit of the people, conditions are primitive, with appalling housing and lack of services.
We're also making a return visit here to an extended family looking after a number of physically and mentally impaired kids. Their love and fortitude is simply inspiring. We help a little before going on to see and assist another little boy with special mental health needs whom the UN has failed to send to school. Most of these children will never receive the kind of qualitative medical and vocational attention taken for granted in Ma'ale Adumim.
Breaking Ramadan fast with Khalid's wonderful family, we talk of the daily restrictions for people here, the sickening sight of the wall slicing through Bethlehem, the humiliations for those trying to get past the brutal checkpoint. Again, it's a way of life beyond the comprehension of Ma'ale Adumim's residents as they make their way from hilltop safety along sleek Jewish-only highways into downtown Jerusalem, never having to see or contemplate an Arab locale or refugee camp.
Far from the 'chosen' hill
Later that week, I reflect on the staggering gulf between the pastoral air of Ma'ale Adumim and the squalid conditions of Balata refugee Camp, Nablus. We hear more heartbreaking stories of people killed and injured by invading soldiers and snipers. Walking the shoulder-wide alleys, we witness the anonymous degradation of Palestinian kids, the kind of multiple deprivation that children in Ma'ale Adumim will never know, or probably ever know about.
Two small boys lead us up into the broken, pitiful patch of Balata cemetery, taking us from grave to grave of those lost to "the jesh" (Israeli soldiers). They seem disturbingly accepting of the human toll, one indicating the lair and martyr photo of his lost brother, killed by "the jesh". They skip among the plots, pointing to a tiny mound: "Baby. Jesh". And another: "Baby. Jesh."
The fighters from the camp, it appears, are all gone; imprisoned or dead. Everywhere, along the camp's dilapidated streets, evidence of the purges: bullet-holed walls and posters of young martyred men, their serene-like faces superimposed with guns and other militarist memorabilia. It's a graphic statement of how this community takes ongoing strength from its fallen sons and their resistant sacrifices.
Is there a better way? Of course. But it's not easily apparent or open to young men growing up inside this brutalised place. I think of how these young people should be alive and organising passive forms of resistance rather than lying dead and martyred.
Heroically, some are managing to show that more effective way forward. I meet with the remarkable Mohammed Faraj, a fine journalism student, teacher and friend of GPHRC, learning about his inspiring media and film work with the kids here as they use cameras, computers and poetry to record their experiences, heartaches and hopes. Mohammed is co-founder with Matthew Cassel of Picture Balata, a group GPHRC have been proud to assist.
Despite frustrating problems obtaining exit permissions from the Israelis, the project recently took some of the Balata youngsters on a well-received tour of US cities, exhibiting their artworks and articulating what life is like inside Balata. It's a case of resisting the Occupation through photos. Pictures and words as 'weapons' of resistance.
We also speak with the resilient Mark Turner, founder of the Research Journalism Initiative, about his collaborations with Mohammed in linking students on US campuses with the people of Balata.
I'm simply infused by the dedication and compassion of these people. Despite being imprisoned, shot and permanently injured, Mohammed remains an endearingly warm, caring and thinking man, a true role model to the kids and students who seem to casually drop into his poster-adorned flat. Mark, likewise, seems like a person truly at home here in his open familiarities and interactions with Balata residents.
In this spirit, trying to leave the camp is quite an exercise in itself, as our little GPHRC group is hand-shaken and hugged by more smiling friends, with mandatory stops for Arabic coffee and further invites to Balata homes. Another larger-than-life character insists I follow him through one of the thin alleyways where, to my happy amazement, young lads are training on a basic, floodlit football pitch.
It seems another statement of quiet resilience amid the mediocrity of Balata's broken 'infrastructure'. There's no serious public services here. No well-equipped clinics. No grand schools. No fancy shops. Just a ramshackle of stalls and stores on the main street, many broken and scarred by army invasions. Sixty five percent of all Palestinians live beneath the poverty line, and those in the camps are on the lowest possible rung. Compared to Ma'ale Adumim, it's a humanitarian affront. Balata is a containment within a containment, its residents a non-people among a non-people. They are also hospitable and caring to a degree that makes one want to cry.
Again, that question: why is there such gut-wrenching debate on whether settlers should be uprooted from their privileged and illegal locations, while these grossly-neglected camps are invaded, terrorised and forgotten?
At the heart of this issue sits a basic 'home' truth: Israeli and wider Western racism. Israel, with the support of its allies, is a country which simply refuses to recognise or apply the law. It's a belligerent denial of due process, from ignoring the International Criminal Court ruling on the Wall to the ongoing expansion of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. A might-is-right mindset, ruthlessly apparent in the dismissive treatment of an entire people.
It's an accepted apartheid openly endorsed by many Israelis, from the degradations of the West Bank camps and checkpoints to the brooding military intimidations of Arab 'citizens' around Damascus Gate and its environs. During Ramadan, severe restrictions are placed upon Palestinians trying to enter the Old City to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque. Young Arabs are constantly stopped, inspected and harassed. All in stark contrast to non-Muslim movement and life around the Jewish Quarter.
Challenging the mindset
Back home in Glasgow, we listen to Jeff Halper, founder of ICAHD, talk of this seemingly automated Zionist mindset, which believes, irrefutably, that 'we are naturally here to Judaize our land'.
It chimes, disturbingly, with the one-dimensional racism recently vented by a Zionist woman at our stall, who, resistant to all arguments about international law and human justice, told me: "There is no such thing. There is only Jewish law." So, does that mean that Arabs have no recourse to the law, I asked her? The response was alarmingly candid: "Arabs are beneath the law." I asked her to leave.
In the course of resisting house demolitions, Halper offers further insight on this casual negation of Palestinians. As he stood in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood with Shaadi Hamdan watching his house being reduced to dust, an Israeli Border Policeman approached telling them: "I was born to demolish Palestinian homes." Halper struggles to describe Shaadi's feelings as the policeman walked away:
"I can't convey the mixture of anger, anguish, bewilderment and resignation that crossed Shaadi's face at that moment. He simply stood aside as his home was demolished for the second time."Unable to accept this wickedness, Halper rushed into the house trying to prevent the demolition from proceeding, before being handcuffed and forcibly thrown back onto the street on the orders of a furious head of police. While lying there, he witnessed some more typical racist banality:
"Lying on the ground as the bulldozer commenced its evil work, I noted what I often see at demolitions: police and soldiers standing around laughing among themselves, eating sandwiches, swapping the latest sports news." (ICAHD communication, April 2008.)As Halper reminds us, this hateful subjugation fits with what Israel, in conjunction with its militarist friends, is doing all across the Occupied Territories. Some 5 million Palestinians are being contained as a "surplus people", a 'problem' population not only to be "warehoused", but to be used as experimental human fodder. Sound familiar?
For Halper, ICAHD's work is not some humanitarian intervention serving merely to assist Palestinians. It's an overtly "political" response, a direct form of "resistance". That's a brave and admirable statement from a Jewish Israeli - indicating just why the EU have stopped ICAHD's funding.
Such punishment is serving to perpetuate the staggering disparities between prestigious settlements like Ma'ale Adumim and suffering, neglected camps like Aida, Aza and Balata. It also helps maintain the racist inclinations lurking in many Israeli minds.
There will, one hopes, be a just and equitable solution, in Jerusalem and across the rest of Occupied Palestine. But it will only come when Israelis and others feel and show the same true regard for those living in places like Balata, a place, a life, a human existence far beyond not just the leafy streets but the very mindset of Ma'ale Adumim.
Recounted from Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign visit to the West Bank, September 2008.