Olive picking III

Second Saturday 2.4

Today we go to a different place to pick up olives. We are joined in the taxi by a few journalists. Two of them happen to be doctors, and one of these speaks Arabic. When we arrive to a little village, a Palestinian gets on the taxi and gives instructions to the driver. The taxi driver sets off, goes around the village and then stops and asks us to get off.

We all get off and we follow the Palestinian, thinking that he will take us directly to the grove where we have to pick up olives, but we rather seem to be wandering around the mountain without a route. To make things worse, we have to wait for the journalists, who are more interested in taking pictures than in walking. The Palestinian makes a few phone calls on his mobile and receives as many, all in Arabic. I comment to my colleagues how curious it is that there is so good coverage here in the mountains, while in the village is a lot worse, and their answer is that it is not surprising, since there is an illegal Israeli settlement near us. Everything possible is done to ensure that the settlers have a pleasant life – good mobile phone coverage is one of those things.

When the photographer-doctor who can speak Arabic reaches us, we ask him to translate what the Palestinian is saying. He explains that he is talking to an Israeli activist who, from Jerusalem, is trying to get the permission so that our man and his family can go and pick up olives. While he talks, the other journalist, that had stayed behind, arrives saying that there is a family that would like us to help them pick up olives, and that we should all go there quick, because all we are doing with this guy is wasting time. We decide to go and help other families while the Israeli activist gets the permit for the family that in principle we came to help out or they decide to go without a permit.

We divide our group in two and each goes to a nearby grove to help with whatever the families are doing. The group I go with ends up with a big family that seems quite organised. The men climb the trees and the women stand on the ground to pick up the olives that are lower down in the trees. When they finish off with each tree they move the blankets, taking the olives to the centre of the grove. There, there are two women sitting down, sorting out the olives from the branches. They tell us by signs where we can help and after a while they call us to eat with them. We all sit in a circle but the plates, instead of being put in the centre of the circle for every one, are all next to us foreigners, and as the meal goes on, the plates come closer and closer to us, with the whole family encouraging us to eat more. I note that, as a result, the women that are at the opposite end from us are hardly eating anything, but the others tell me that it’s best not to think these things because that is what they are like, this is how their hospitality goes and if we do not accept it they are going to feel offended.

Shortly after finishing the meal the Palestinian we met at the beginning of the day calls us and we meet him again. He tells us that the Israeli has got the permission and he guides us up the mountain, to his land. As we go up we encounter other men of his family that join us; they do not allow their women to come with them because they are risking their lives themselves and they do not want to risk those of their women, although in about an hour three women do join us – it looks like they have called them once they have seen that there are no soldiers or settlers shooting. We climb higher the mountain and we find a foetid river with brownish water, almost black.

Signalling the barracks we had assumed were military, they explain that it is a factory built a few years ago, that is discharging these waters that are damaging the land. Indeed, they prefer not to pick up olives from trees that are too close to the water. Fig 9.

This family’s situation is the most precarious we have seen so far. They do not have any blankets, or ladders, or a donkey. We have to put the olives directly into the sacks, as they are, with branches and all, and they are all obviously very nervous and in a hurry, eager to finish. It is also obvious that they have not come round here for a long time, because it is all covered with bushes and stings that make walking quite difficult, and the olive trees are full of useless branches that make climbing to them impossible. After a good while picking up olives in quite precarious conditions (I put them in my t-shirt as if it was an apron, another puts them into the shirt pockets, the most fortunate have a plastic bag with them…) we see the grandfather, 65, who comes to give us his moral support and even an interview if we ask. He allows us to photograph him and he tells us his story: his own grandfather bought this land in the time of the Ottoman Empire. When he was five he inherited the terrain and now it is his sons who have the responsibility over it, although their task is more and more difficult. No one of the family has been able to enter this land in the last five years. The result is wilderness and weeds every where, even in the trees. They have parasites and dry branches that prevent one from climbing them, some even look more like bushes than like trees. We also notice that some one must have come to steal olives – the only ones that can enter this land freely are the settlers, from the top of the hill – because many trees have hardly any olives in the parts easily accessible from the ground, and yet they are full towards the top. There are also many trees burnt off. Fig 10

The old man tells us that the putrid water has already killed many trees, and is now drying others off. He also tells us that in the year 2000 the settlers stole all they had harvested, their whole harvest, after all that it costs to gather it.

We continue picking up olives and I start to begin to feel like I am the cheap labour for these people, because so far the only thing we are doing is pick up olives for them, and we have not yet seen any settler or soldier. On this occasion, we have even waited for the permit so as to avoid a tense situation – I thought we were here to help deal with tense situations, not accompanying once the situation has been sorted. I get the answer that, had it not been for our presence here today, this permit would have never arrived.

At about two in the afternoon the two photographers begin to say goodbye to every one and the peasants mis-understand that we are all leaving. They all look at each other and they beg us, they supplicate us that we do not leave yet, “please stay just one more hour, ok, just half an hour”.

Desperation shows on their faces. We explain that it is only two people leaving and the rest stay and they calm down, and we go on frantically picking up olives, between bushes, bending branches in order to reach the higher ones, getting stings from the dried branches that no one can get to prune, passing over bushes, stings and uprooted and burnt trees.

Indeed after one hour the task is considered finished and we climb down towards the path quickly. Some one has brought a donkey and they charge it with the olives; they will scarcely be fifty kilograms. The grandfather gets on the donkey too and a boy of 20 walks with us. He speaks English properly because he is studying English literature at University. He tells us that he is the fourth of six children, two of them girls, and one of those also in University, reading Business Studies. When we go past his house he insists that we enter and eat something and chat. We refuse but they all insist again, so there is little choice. We get into this humble but comfortable house. The women bring soap for us to wash our hands, we sit down in the living room with three of the boys and from my sofa I can see the two sisters, who have uncovered their heads now and we can see their beautiful hair. One of them sits with us for a moment, then she leaves and an elder woman, who is the mother, comes in; she brings some bread that she has just now made for us, with brown and white wheat. Then more people bring us tea, then a soft drink, then fruit juice, then food… in the meantime we call the taxi driver who took us here this morning and it turns out that he and one of these brothers are very close friends. When the taxi arrives right in front of the door of this house we say goodbye and leave.

We arrive in our street and we hear some shots in the distance. We don’t hear screams though, so it can be some kind of celebration. We start going home but as we walk away from the main street we hear some music and then the band that plays it. We turn back quickly and we see the whole parade. First goes the music band, then more men and then some kind of soldiers, all with weapons, some with a handkerchief around their foreheads, in a Rambo fashion. But their muscles are not as big; they are all almost children really, almost the same as the Israeli soldiers; who are rarely older than 18 or 19.

A small procession follows the soldiers. Following the sound of the music, we arrive at a square surrounded by a fence. We stay outside the fence as spectators and we try to understand what is going on. The procession has already sat down on white plastic chairs; there must be between six and seven hundred people. Most are men, except for about fifty or sixty women, all together standing on some lateral terraces. The music ends and various men talk, or rather shout, into some microphones, from a podium. The guys with the machine guns shoot to the air from time to time.

We ask a Palestinian what they are saying. He answers that they are saying things like they should go to the settlements and throw them all out, things like that.

I do not quite know what conclusion to draw from what I have just seen and heard. In the one hand it is a very macho man show, with their handkerchiefs around their heads, their machine guns… in the other hand, all these people have grown up in a refugee camp, probably when it was still a camp made of marquees, without water, without food… and they know they are not in this situation by chance, they know there is a very specific reason. For them, there was a “before” and an “afterwards”. Before they had dignified lives in their own land and afterwards they were thrown out of them and into a refugee camp made of marquees which was later made permanent. These guys and their families live in very precarious conditions in houses that are still very provisional, without hot water, without heating, in chilling houses, with water-rainages that leave much to be desired and streets without side walks nor asphalt, only soil that gets muddy with water that comes out of everywhere. At least we will eventually leave, we can even go to Jerusalem to take a rest and a good shower and return again, but these people have nowhere to go. They stay here day after day, some going to school or university, knowing that there will be no job for them when they finish… The guys with the machine guns, and those who follow them, want to finish off this situation and go back to some kind of dignified life but they can not see any other way of achieving that than becoming “fighters”.

Olive picking II

Second Friday

Today we come back to the place where we were yesterday. We learn that this family lives from the produce of their trees alone, they do not have any other source of income. We ask them about the price of the olive oil. Last year the price paid to the peasant per kilo was 10 NIS, (New Israeli Shekels), about US$2.20. Some farmers were better off just saving and using the oil, because with that price they would have lost money on the transaction. I guess that, like all raw materials producers, specially food, they are at the mercy of the fluctuations in the international markets. They can sell very little to Israel, we are told, because the Israeli state is blocking the entry of Palestinian products into Israel; it is also another way to squeeze them further. And, on top, there is the internal political situation.

Some internationals think that Arafat was not carrying a good policy on this matter; for instance olive oil was being imported from Jordan when the Palestinian farmers were already in this bad situation. This year the price is over 20 shekels per kilo; at least it is worth it to produce it.

More people come with the family to help out today and the task is a lot faster. Whatever they do not pick up today, will have to stay unpicked.

The bulk of the conversations are done in English among the internationals. Some men can speak a bit of English. In general women do not speak, I suspect they can speak English but they do not speak with us. Apparently the correct thing to do when you speak to a couple is to speak to the man only. In any case, it is quite frustrating to try to speak to the women or the children and not to be able to.

We spend much of today sitting down putting olives into the bucket. There is no problem with settlers or soldiers in the whole day and at about four we go back to ‘the base’. We all agree that this business of picking up olives is like an oasis of peace in the dessert of war, at least for our eyes, because there on the mountain the feeling is very nice and peaceful, while the reality of the situation is all oppression and war against the oppressed, which, being more silent and low intensity, I think it is more cruel.

We come back to the refugee camp where we are staying. It actually looks like any poor neighbourhood of any city. People can already recognise our faces and we can already recognise some of the kids that shout and follow us, saying “hello!” and “what’s your name!”. Some times they say “shalom”, which is the greeting in Hebrew. We are told the Jew is the only foreigner these children have seen, or recognised, so they assume that every foreigner is a Jew.

In the internet cafe from where I send these tales, the manager asks us what we are doing here and we explain. He then gives us a special price, in solidarity.

Olive picking I

Second Thursday

Today we go to help out with the olive harvest. The whole family, probably the whole city, will bury yesterday’s body, but if we go to the funeral instead of helping out in the fields, some other family will not be able to harvest their olives.

The people we are helping had permission to pick up their olives yesterday but not today, so we are going in case soldiers or settlers turn up on their land; maybe we can reason with them. What is amazing is that we are talking about their own lands. If they do not have an official permission for each day that they want or need to enter their own land, soldiers or settlers can shoot and kill them, and they would not be found guilty because it would be considered that the land owners were “looking for it”, for entering “certain lands” near an Israeli settlement without permission. Many families spend years without going to their own lands to avoid being shot. They only pick up their olives when they have permission, which is not necessarily when the olives are ready to be harvested; they go and pick them as they are, if they are, and if they are not they will just have to put up with the situation and wait until next year, because permissions are not given automatically.

What the Israeli state is using quite a lot is an ancient law according to which if some one does not visit their lands during a specific number of years, it is understood that they are not interested in their own land and therefore anyone else can take possession of them. In other words: you threaten some one that you will kill them if they go to their own lands just because those lands happen to be near a settlement or some other Israeli presence (which always happens that it is illegal, according to the UN) until you manage that they do not go to their lands because of the risk to get killed, and then you take possession of their lands with the excuse that they are not visiting them. This is what is being done in Palestine.

We get up early in the morning and at eight we get a taxi that takes us through roads and roads (which are only roads by name) until there is no road to speak of, at the bottom of a mountain. From there we continue up on foot. On top of the mountain we can see some houses and a bit down the hill, a kind of barracks. The houses on top are the civilian settlement, the thing under it is the army post (Fig 7). These settlements seem to be built always on the top of mountains, so that they can control with their sight (and weapons and night strong lights) the Palestinian villages and lands at both sides of the mountain.

The olive picking is done by hand. They put some blankets on the ground surrounding the tree, and we all pick up the olives one by one, throwing them to the blanket. If the family have got the necessary resources, like this one seems to have, they can put wooden ladders against the branches to pick up those at the top of the tree (Fig 8). Some also climb the trees without ladders, even the mother of this family climbs up, with her huge skirt and her sandals. It is amazing how they can climb trees as they do, or bend on the ground, in clothes and shoes that don’t look too comfortable for the task.

After two or three hours of picking we see the woman burn some small branches; she has put some stones around the tiny little fire and a tea pot on the stones. After a while she calls us to have a break and we find a proper meal there prepared for us: hot bread, tea, humous, oil, yoghurt, zatah, olives… about ten small dishes we all dip into with the bread we are given. This is how they eat here, it seems. No one has an individual plate, we all dip into these small dishes, one at a time.

We finish eating and go back to work. When there are lots of olives on the blanket, what we do is, we sit down on it and separate the olives from the leaves, and put the olives only in white sacks with capacity for about 50 kilograms. Later these sacks will go on the back of the family donkey, which is patiently waiting a few metres from the last olives that we expect to work on. We “do” another ten olive trees and we have another break, again with some food.

On the top of the mountain where we are working we can not see the settlement, but we can hear voices from time to time. In a certain moment, the father, from the top of the tree where he is, sees a few settlers who are coming towards his field. The most important thing is whatever the Palestinians need or want so we ask him. He has a moment of hesitation. He has no permission. He has spent a whole day working on his field, and the fruit of it is still in the sacks, on the ground. If those men are settlers, they can rob him of the whole day’s work, or the donkey, or the ladders, or all of it, and then get away with all of it.

Moreover, some one can get hurt. The priority of the Palestinian people that we help is always the security of the internationals that are helping them. And then their own.

Finally they tells us that he prefers to leave. We help them gather everything quickly, he puts the sacks on the donkey and we all go down the hill to their village. We then go on our way up to a place where a taxi can pick us up, at the beginning of the road.

Luckily, this man has not lost more than ten minutes of work. It is possible that the settlers have not seen us, or that they were just some security guards going a round, and that they didn’t want to rob anything or even harass them, but it is too risky to try to find out in such a vulnerable situation. We will come back here again tomorrow.

We get on our taxi and we pass through the village. Old men sit in front of their houses, some walk. They all have ‘caffias’, on their heads, of the kind that Arafat used to wear. They all wear it white with strips and squares of different colours; I learn that the colours have their political meaning. The black is worn by the supporters of ‘fatah’, which must be a political party. The red is worn by supporters of PLFP (probably Palestinian liberation front party), and the green by the supporters of Hammas.


We get up soon and, after packing quickly, we set off to a city where help is needed to pick up olives. I learn the hard way that packing in a hurry is definitely a very, very bad thing. You forget necessary things.

It is not that they need cheap labour to do the harvesting; it is that those who have pieces of land near Israeli settlements receive serious harassment from the settlers. Some peasants have been beaten up and they have also had their harvest stolen, even the donkeys they use to take the olives home at the end of the labour day are stolen.

During our stay in Nablus we will be staying in the “neighbourhood” of Balata, and, unless there are Israeli army incursions, we will be travelling daily wherever help is most needed with the harvesting. Balata itself is actually a refugee camp inside Palestine, full of people who were forcefully displaced from the places where their families had been living for centuries, to make space for the state of Israel and its now new inhabitants. This happened some years ago now, and Balata is now also inhabited by the first refugees’ children and grandchildren. Before being displaced they mainly lived off the produce of their lands. They were forcibly dispossessed of these and forced to live in tents. Now they are still living in the same refugee camp, only the United Nations have built houses for them and they now live off international charity. The phrase “right to return” is referred to refugees like these. Some Israelis think these refugees’ “right to return” is not even worth talking about; indeed some think that these people should no longer be called refugees because they were displaced so many years – and generations – ago.

We join some more internationals in Balata and we are taken on a “tour” inside the refugee camp. Children stop us saying “hello”, in English, or “what’s your name?” probably not knowing exactly what they are saying, because we answer and repeat the question to them and they suddenly shut up. Old men smile or simply stare and some older kids shout out: “welcome!”. We will see these reactions, specially the kids’, every time we go out to the street.

We are told that there are actually various, maybe ten, refugee camps around Nablus. They house some of the hundreds of displaced refugees from the 40s and 70s, Palestinian people that had been living here since quite a few generations and which were massively displaced from all over Israel to make space for the Jewish returning from the diaspora. They began living here in big marquees and tents and now they live in houses that are too small for the huge families. It is amazing how in these terrible circumstances people have continued to have hope and children. There are a lot of children per family too. The schools and the hospitals are run by some UN agency, but that is as far as the UN intervention will go.

The whole camp, which looks like a poor village, is full of pictures of “martyrs”, men and kids that have been killed by soldiers or died in jails, posted on walls or hanging from ropes fastened to two opposing windows. We’re told that most families in this camp, if not all, have a member either in jail or killed by the Israeli army.

While in the middle of the “tour”, we are invited to one of the houses that stand on our way. The whole family is put to work to bring chairs around a tiny little table that will soon fill with glasses and tea.

There are a few pictures on the walls. The biggest one is a collage of portraits of men against a landscape that I am now beginning to identify with Palestine – arid looking soil yet full of vegetation, even if it is in parts. The second biggest picture is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Men and women, but mainly women, sit on the floor or in smaller chairs than those provided for us foreigners. A small boy with broken front teeth insists in bringing each of us our small glasses of tea. The adults continue their conversation and our guide translates. He says that the men portrayed in the biggest picture are martyrs, men killed by the Israeli army, and one of them was from this family. He says this family has a few martyrs as well as this one.

He continues to explain something else but in the middle of the explanation he receives a phone call: there are some military movements up the northern mountains. There seem to be two injured men and another one missing. They need some internationals to look for these men in the mountain because if Palestinians alone go to the mountains to search, the army will simply shoot them. They know this from experience and the excuse the Israeli army has given in the past is that they thought they were terrorists, because of course only terrorists would go up a mountain after dusk.

The visit, the tour and the story telling thus stop abruptly. We all leave and take taxis to the mountainous place where the movements have been reported. The taxis can not advance too quickly because the roads are pretty busy with people – mostly young men. Some of these look into the taxis, see some foreign faces inside, and those who speak English say “welcome”; others just cheer. It feels like they know what we are here for, and the thankfulness just fills the air, or so it feels.

The taxis can only take us to the end of the road. The road ends where the Israeli army has put enough rocks on the road to cut it to wheel traffic. The army usually blocks roads in this way in order to “make movement more difficult for terrorists”. In reality movement is made more difficult for every one else, from the people going to their jobs (those still lucky enough to keep one) to the emergency services, like ambulances.

We get off the taxis and we learn that the two injured men have been taken to hospital, but there is still one missing man and he could be injured too. Our task is to find him.

We walk up the road past the road block and find only quietness, no movement, no vehicles. No one seems to be around. We continue up the mountain through a short cut, always up, up, and we keep calling the man’s name, and “Internationals!” or “International medics!”

We decide it is not a good idea to use lights that could attract soldiers’ attention, as we are not sure if there are still around or not. It is already dark but the moon is bright enough to need no torches.

We get back to the main road that is now useless thanks to the roadblock and then up to yet another road block made of stones. We then decide to split into groups; one will continue the way up following the path, and the other will go down the hill, where there is some vegetation and he could be hiding.

I go with the group that goes up and after a few minutes, a man joins us from the dark. He is the missing man’s uncle, who tells us that, actually, the “man” we are looking for is a boy of 14. He joins us in the search and after a turn in the path plus another 100 metres or so, one of the group sees some one laying on some stones at the side of the road and says, “there he is”. A few men, including the boy’s uncle, identify him and start shouting and crying. Some one says, “check his pulse” but some one else replies, “he is well dead”.

The boy’s uncle wants to take him but a younger one stops him and lifts him. As he does, the dead boy’s head is hanging and still heavily bleeding. The young man takes him down the road from where we came and another one phones the other group; the ambulances are already waiting there, at the point where they can not advance any more because of the road block.

The body of the boy is handed to the medics and we are told to stay on this side of the roadblock. A western woman who now lives in Palestine tells us that, if we go with the boy’s uncle – now he is with more members of the family – and they see us slightly distressed, they will forget about their own grief, and put themselves at our service until they see us content, with tea and food, so big is their sense of hospitality, and no matter how distressed they are themselves.

We then stay on the other side of the roadblock until the family gets on one of the ambulances and leaves for some hospital.

Some of us then go back to the mountain because we are told that there could be another man hiding in the area, maybe also injured. After about fifteen minutes we learn that yes, he is injured, and he is already in hospital. We then consider the search as finished and go back home.

When we get home, something unique happens. For the first and last time in this trip, I see a bunch of Palestinian men cooking food for us foreigners.

Before starting to eat, one of the Palestinians speaks to us all: “ok, what has happened is terrible, but this is our every day life. He is now well and in peace, we remain here with our struggle. Unfortunately he is not the first one, he is number… hundred something…” and another one corrects him: “a lot more than that”, and the first one continues, “We wish he was the last one but probably he will not be”.

I’m not too sure how many more nights I will go to sleep having these images as the last thoughts of my waking day. The sequence of events repeats itself inside my brain. The images I’ve got are quite clear, considering it was night time. I can even remember people’s faces. But then, from the moment I saw the body, these images become black and white in my brain.

Palestine Apartheid

I get to an information session on the situation of Palestine and this is what I feel is worth highlighting here: the legal system.

There are three legal systems, completely separated; the civil system, the military system and the Ministry of Interior.

The civil system is for Israelis – including Arab – Israelis, but the Palestinians prefer not to use this term, “Arab-Israelis”. Arab Israelis are simply Palestinians with rights under the Israeli state. The rest of the Palestinians, including the Jewish or Samaritans whose ancestry did not leave from here, are simply Palestinians, without rights.

In any case – being an Israeli citizen means having rights. If an Israeli citizen is arrested, they need to be charged within a 24 hours. So in that sense it is similar to a western democratic system. The arrested person has rights, like a phone call, a lawyer… They can only be held for 24 hours without a judge warrant. With a warrant, the maximum is 30 days.

The military system is for the people living in the occupied territories of Palestine – otherwise known as Palestinians, mostly without rights. The accused Palestinian person can be held for up to 8 days without a judge warrant (we are told there is a projected change in the “law” in order to make it 50 days), and with a warrant there is no maximum of days s/he can be held without seeing a judge or a lawyer. We are also told that the norm is that this warrant to hold a Palestinian arrestee for more than 8 days and without a limit is given as a matter of routine.

There are hearings in front of judges in the three legal systems. In the civil system the hearings work similarly to what we know about hearings in Western Europe. In the Ministry of Interior, the hearings are just a bureaucracy for deciding the terms of a deportation. In the military system, the hearings are just to produce the warrant to keep a Palestinian detained, and this is usually quite automatic.

The third legal system is for the internationals. It has been created relatively recently. It was not created thinking of “human rights observers”, but of the illegal workers that came from neighbouring countries. This is another story that is also interesting. When the occupation began, the Palestinians were given permits to allow them to work in Israel, that is, in territories that were legitimately Israeli (according to international agreements). So in the new situation, Palestinians were given this permit to continue working where they had always worked, some of them before the creation of the Israeli state.

In a certain moment, all these permits were cancelled. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were left out of work. So the situation was that, the economy that existed in Palestine before 1967 was completely destroyed by Israel, and Palestinians were then made to work in factories in Israel. And now they were no longer allowed to work in those factories. The same happened in Gaza, and it is expected that by 2008 no Palestinian will have permission to work in Israel. Gaza is the most densely populated territory in the world – which means the whole of the active population in the most densely populated territory in the world will be unemployed in a few years time.

To replace all these Palestinian workers, workers from neighbouring countries were allowed to come and work for very low wages. So low, they were better off working without a contract and becoming illegal workers, but receiving a more dignified salary. So this system with the Ministry of Interior was created to deal with deportations, etc., and it is the system that applies to internationals, although we can appeal to the civil system (supreme tribunal, I think), although in reality what the appeal is about is not the deportation itself, but its terms.

Palestinians tried in the military system can also appeal in the civil system. However, there is not much hope in a system where the only people who can become a judge are Zionist Jews – those who believe that every Jew has the right to return to Israel even if that means to displace any one who was living there previously. The rights of the previously existing population in Israel are not taken into account by Zionism.

In the civil system, for the Israelis, in order to jail someone it has to be proven that s/he is guilty. The accused person can only be detained for 24 hours maximum before being put in front of a judge, although the judge can extend this to up to 30 days. In the military system, the defence has to prove that the accused is innocent so that s/he is not jailed, but does not have the right to know what s/he is accused of. So the “task” if to “demonstrate” that the arrested Palestinian is “innocent” of “anything” that can be thought of.

A Palestinian can be interrogated without a lawyer present, and without charges, for 8 days, and once a warrant is asked for in order to extend this (judges are military as well and it is very rare that the warrant is not conceded), there is no limit as to how long s/he can be interrogated.

Some even get detained for a crime that has not been committed yet but which might be committed. When the Palestinian is accused of the feared crime that has not yet been committed but which might be committed, the information that has led to the accused is kept as secret information, on a secret file. The charge is secret, or is simply that s/he might do something that could compromise the security of the state. S/he can have a lawyer but the lawyer will not know the charge. And, talking about detention – the jail is usually a tent in the dessert.

These three systems have different laws, different tribunals and different police forces. There is the regular Israeli police for the Israelis, the army, and the border police. The regular Israeli police usually keeps to “proper” Israeli territories. The army and the border police are usually seen in Palestinian territories illegally occupied by Israel.

In the occupied territories there is also a Palestinian police, which has no real power. I am told that, on occasions, Palestinian police have been shot by the army – for them they are just armed Palestinians, and therefore terrorists – so you will never see any Palestinian police anywhere near a checkpoints or a military vehicle.

So in these occupied territories, the real policing power lies with the army. The mission of this army is to defend the Israelis that live in occupied Palestine; they are called settlers. This has the following consequences: if a Palestinian throws stones to some settlers, soldiers have the duty to defend the settlers, so they have the power to detain the Palestinian. If it is the settlers that throw stones to, or shoot, a Palestinian, the soldiers’ duty is still to defend the settlers, they have no power to arrest a settler even if they want to (or an international). At the most, they can detain them and call the police or border police so that they are arrested. What usually happens is that the settlers say that the Palestinian (or the international) attacked them before and they acted in self defence. Of course the judge will invariably believe the settlers. It is not rare that settlers attack, and even kill, Palestinians and easily get away with it. Most times they are not even arrested.

Apart from the legal peculiarities, we are briefed about some cultural ones, too. For example, when sitting, we must not show them the sole of our shoes. It is considered a very insulting gesture.

We are asked to respect their culture even if we don’t understand it. We are asked not to challenge the differences between men and women.

We women are asked to wear long trousers (not long skirts – we would look too much like some Israeli women) and long sleeves. Men are asked to do the same in solidarity with us women.

We are also advised to always accept their hospitality, although some times it may seem a bit overwhelming for us. When we are staying with a family, we are never, ever to bring food with us. It would be an offence to do that; it would be like telling them that their food is not worthy of us.

Some other facts that are interesting to highlight, looking at my notes, are…

there are about seven hundred (700) military checkpoints on the roads in Palestine.
Since the Gaza disengagement, flying checkpoints have increased about 300% according to the UN.
For the Palestinians, the settlers are more dangerous than the soldiers. They often carry arms and they always have live ammunition, not rubber bullets or tear gas bullets like the soldiers. The most dangerous settlers are the children, because they enjoy total immunity.

After this documenting session we are asked to go to a city where there is a need for people, Bi’Lin. In this city there is a demonstration every Friday against the wall, which has been declared illegal by the “international community”.

However, demonstrations against it are considered illegal, or at least the army does not consider them to be acceptable. These demonstrations are usually attacked by settlers, so internationals’ presence is usually required so that attacks are not so violent. We are told that settlers have the habit of smashing internationals’ cameras and that if we complain they will say that we attacked first, and the police and the soldiers will no doubt believe the settlers. So the advice is not to even approach them, avoid getting close to them so that they can not get close to our cameras, and be very careful when filming. What the soldiers have been doing has been to arrest demonstrators, usually children, some times very young children, and usually a few nights after the demonstration, when the internationals have left.

But the international presence makes it easier to prove the unfairness of the detentions – specially if we film them – and the system. Now we learn they have sent a letter where they say that the army will allow the demonstration as long as the Palestinians do not throw stones (I can’t remember if there were some more conditions). The response has reportedly been that a permission has never been asked for. The Palestinians think that the Israeli army should not be there in the first place – according to the UN.

What has been lately happening, apparently, is that the army has done incursions during the night, forcing their way into some homes and arresting mainly children, getting them out of their beds. The function of the internationals is then to get out, film and photograph these actions by the army. The internationals’ presence does not avoid the incursions or the arrests, but it usually ensures that the arrests are at least not so violent.

So there we go, two girls and two boys, to spend the night in the company of various Israeli activists who also understand the madness of this occupation as it is. They tell us what is happening, we decide on who does what in case we need to get out, in case some one is arrested, and we go to sleep, hoping not to be necessary after all. And indeed, we are not called during this night. Very probably, we believe, they will have heard the rumour that some internationals will be there tonight too and they will have left it for another day.

Jerusalem to Ramallah

According to international treaties West Jerusalem is Israeli and East Jerusalem is Palestinian. In reality, there is no border for Israeli citizens between West and East Jerusalem. For Palestinians it is altogether different. Most of them have not citizenship whatsoever; they may have a Palestinian passport but if they want to use it to travel to Israel or abroad, they need a special permission from the Israeli authorities, and these may grant it or not, arbitrarily. They also have to ask for a special permission to travel to East Jerusalem, the part of Jerusalem that the international community in their treaties granted to a future state of Palestine. When the Israeli authorities give this permission, it needs to be renewed periodically if the Palestinian person in question wants to travel to Jerusalem again after the permission expires.

So it is a commonly accepted knowledge among Palestinians and Jews that Jerusalem is in Israel, not Palestine. This is contrary to UN resolutions and further agreements, but the rules and the practice imposed by Israel have very much established as much.

To most Palestinian people, permission to go to Jerusalem is simply never granted. Since some of the people who will give us a talk about Palestine fall in this group, international visitors who want to receive this talk need to go out of Jerusalem to receive it.

So we take a bus-taxi that will take us to Ramallah. The trip would normally take less than an hour in one of these taxis, but there is a checkpoint roughly in the middle of the journey and this delays it for as long as the soldiers please.

There is a checkpoint as you enter Bethlehem in the South, and this one, in Qalandia, as you travel to Ramallah in the north. There might be more but I know these two in the immediacies of Jerusalem.

The taxi-bus is like the one it took from the airport, only that one had an Israeli number plate, this one has a Palestinian one. The Palestinian number plates have black characters on a white background or white ones on a green background. Latin numbers occupy most of the plate, and on the right, there is a small space for a Latin “P” and also for an Arabic letter. Israeli number plates are identical to those of the European Union. They can only be told apart looking closely. They have an Israeli flag instead of a EU flag on the left of the number, and in the place for the member state initial there is “IL”. The rest is the same.

As we approach the checkpoint at Qalandia in this taxi I see the Apartheid Wall for the first time. It really is horrible. The wall we can see from this taxi is not as high as I had imagined, probably “only” 5 or 6 meters.

Still, the worse thing I get is the sensation of destruction around it. It looks as if the road is still being built. I later find out that in fact they are ‘destroying’ the road. After about five minutes of seeing rubbish on one side of the road and the wall on the other, the road goes away from the wall. A few yards more as we continue travelling, on our left, on the other direction, I see a kind of police control where each car is stopped for a two or three seconds and then let go. Those cars seem to have been allowed to go through this checkpoint. They seem newer and cleaner than this taxi or any other Palestinian vehicle I have seen so far. Some one points out that all of those cars that are allowed to go through have Israeli number plates. There is no vehicle with a “P” on the number plate allowed through the checkpoint.

I get the explanation that people with an Israeli ‘pass’ can go through the control with no problem, but people without that pass (specially Palestinians, but also including foreigners and any one without that special pass) can not pass through this control by car.

Palestinian cars are not allowed to pass through Qalandia. Which I imagine it means, that if a Palestinian wants to run away from the apartheid that has been imposed in Jerusalem by Israel, taking their car or furniture with them is absolutely out of the question.

There is only one way for a Palestinian to get through the checkpoint: get on a taxi, leave it at one end of the checkpoint, then get another taxi at the other end.

So our taxi stops before the checkpoint for pedestrians and we are told this is the last stop. We gather our belongings and we start walking, first among the other taxis that have had to stop and let go their passengers, then on a muddy path. To my left, while I walk on mud, is the road that no one can use except Israeli cars. To my right, next to me, is a tall fence. At the other side of the fence there is a perfectly paved road with modern buildings and car parks, patrolled by armed soldiers that look at us with indifference, while we struggle with the mud, trying not to get our feet too buried in it while we walk.

There are also soldiers on this side of the fence; they are everywhere and checking out everyone. I look around me and one soldier grabs my attention. He is pushing a Palestinian-looking boy against the fence. He beats him several times and then he leaves him alone. Just like when I spotted the boy with the strange machine gun near Damascus Gate, time seems to have slowed down, my heart paralysed while my legs continue walking without me commanding them, but my eyes fixed on the soldier and the boy. When the soldier stops beating the boy, he just walks away. My eyes continue fixed on the boy. He does not seem wounded, he just looks around and does not say anything, does not complain. I continue walking and finally look around. No one else seems to have noticed the small event.

We arrive at some revolving gates made of iron bars, three sets of them. There is only space for one person at a time. One person and a small ruck sack. Anything else needs to be thrown over the gate and then gathered from the ground on the other site. We’re lucky we are travelling together and can catch each other’s sacks. I wonder what do people do when they need to carry large things, when they need to move houses… Carrying furniture in these conditions is just out of the question.

We arrive at a small esplanade where there are a lot of taxis waiting for people who have gone through the checkpoint. So, we have gone through. We have not been checked, nor has our luggage been searched. I guess whatever goes into Palestinian territory is none of the soldiers’ business, and the sole purpose of the checkpoint exercise has been to delay every single person’s journey by at least half an hour, unless of course a soldier starts to beat you.

All the taxi men call us to attract our attention. I get conscious that what attracts them is not our pretty faces, but our foreigners appearance – which for them means lots of money; as one of my companions puts it, we are “walking money” for them.

Within days I will help with the olive harvest. Every one says that it is very nice, for the activity in itself and because the mere international presence makes it possible for families to harvest their olives, because without this presence the pressure and harassment from the military and the settlers make the task impossible.

Palestine tourist III

First Thursday

I visited the Tower of David today. It has a good reputation because I has a museum of history of the city inside, since its creation until ‘now’.

Inside the museum there are various interesting things. The history of the city is divided into various rooms, each one covering a period of that history, with placards, drawings, videos… going through the various rooms following a route designed to look like a game of clues among the stones and ramparts.

A film is also shown which has left me with the impression Jerusalem was built in this spot just because some one saw a bunch of stones and said, “hey, let’s built something with these stones right here”. The worst of the film is the end – where it states that Jerusalem is nowadays the capital of Israel. Sigh.

Palestine tourist II

First Tuesday

Says A. that the whole of the Old City falls inside what the mass media calls “East Jerusalem”, as opposed to West Jerusalem, which, according to some international treaties, would correspond to Israel, while East Jerusalem would correspond to Palestine. “East Jerusalem” would be the part that the Palestinians would have as their capital if the Israeli State respected the treaties it has signed. It would be a situation of a divided Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine once Palestine is recognised as a Country, or State. So it looks like most tourists are staying in ‘East Jerusalem’, the ‘bad part’ of the city.

A. has left Jerusalem on his own and I stay doing some more tourism. I head for the Mount of Zion, to the South of Jerusalem, looking for David’s Tomb and the Cenacle. I get lost in a park and when I go round an “Institute of Holy Land Studies” I find a stone building in the middle of the forest, with an open door at its base. I wonder what such an open house is doing in the middle of nowhere and it turns out it is the back entrance (or one of them) of the complex of the Tomb of David.

What is supposed to be David’s tomb is divided in two parts by a panel, so that one half is visited by men only and the other half is visited by women only, making sure we do not mix up.

After walking through a few gardens, in a room upstairs, there is the Cenacle or “Room of the Last Supper”, where we are sold that it is also here that Jesus appeared in front of his disciples once resurrected, where Pentecost happened and where the first church was born and lived.

Personally, and given the history of this and other holy places, they seem too many events for just one only place. If only we were told that the room is, or looks like, how it was in that epoch, it would be useful to get an idea of how they were living, and a good enough reason to visit it. But it looks like a medieval reconstruction and is more than empty, naked and cold, all made of stone. I sit down on a stair case in the room in order to rest and read my tourist guide, which also has sections of history and archaeology.

While other tourists walk in, talk, listen to guides and walk out, I learn that, throughout history, there has been an almost continuous fighting between the three monotheist religions for the control of this place. On occasions, one sect would get control of it and would destroy the whole existing building with its relics inside, in order to build their own temple on the previous one’s ruins. I get the impression that in all these fightings they would make extensive use of argument lines like “Jesus appeared here” or “yes but King David’s tomb is here”, when they argued.

Nowadays, all these places, at least the ones I have visited, are not too much about religion but very much about tourism. They are not places where I feel invited to pray. There is too much traffic of tourists who, coming for just a few days, only have time to arrive, queue -depending on the site- taking loudly in social conversation, enter, take the picture, and leave; where is the next tourist attraction please.

Personally I find the park that surrounds this building and where I got lost a lot more inviting for praying, and, well, to find such a park it is not necessary to come this long way…

In any case, and now that I’m here, I continue with my ‘tour’. In the same complex of gardens and yards and buildings there is a memorial for the victims of the holocaust, which is just a little room all made of white stone (like everything else here), with an old man offering candles in exchange of a donation and with a kind of altar at the level of the eyes; just big enough to put candles inside without getting the stone black with the smoke. Just that. I light a candle for all victims of all holocausts and I leave – next attraction please.

I explore all the paths that I haven’t seen yet and I end up in a parking lot with huge coaches in it. So, here is the place, I think, where all those tourists came from. I take some pictures of the impressive view – all the mountains covered with tiny little white houses that look very poor; thousands of them – and I leave. This is East Jerusalem. Fig 4.

I follow the road that those coaches must have used to get here. The road bands down the hill and goes alongside the city wall. In some places the space between the road and the wall is so narrow I end up walking “on” the wall to make space for the cars. I find the name of the street I am following on my map and I realise that was Zion Gate.

At last I come up to the end of this road, into what seems like a kind of police control right before accessing the Esplanade of the Temple and the Wailing Wall.

Almost every one entering have their heads covered. Some are orthodox Jewish, with their black cloaks and hats. I slow down discreetly waiting to see some tourist. I do not want to risk being stopped because I am a woman with an uncovered head and trousers, or because it just shows that I have not come here to pray. When I see that they allow a group with their cameras hanging from their necks, and nothing on their heads, I go after them. Again, men use one entrance and women use another one; our bags are searched and we are scanned.

Once inside, there is a big sign as big as a road traffic sign, with the rules of behaviour for all to read the rules of behaviour. From that moment on and during the rest of the day I see armed people everywhere, some in military clothes with normal machine guns, others in plain clothes with strange weapons. But people disregard them, it seems they are conscious that those weapons are there to protect ‘them’ from any [Arab] potential attack, unlike at Damascus Gate, where the [Arab] crowd is the potential attacker that the weapons are prepared against.

The Temple Esplanade is divided and clearly delimited in areas. Half of it, furthest away from the Wall, is where every one is allowed, and is therefore the busiest with tourists. It has little interest for the Jewish who come here for religious reasons. Then there is the other half, closer to the wall, used for prayer and mourning. This part is itself divided in two; one huge one, on the left hand side facing the wall, is for men. The last bit, the tiniest area of all, is for women . It is just a small corner, on the right hand side, facing the wall. Fig 5.

It is said that this Wailing Wall is the only thing remaining from the “Second Temple”, which was built over the ruins of the one built by Salomon. “Officially” it is called the West Wall of that temple. But, if it is true that the Romans did not leave “stone on stone” the second time they destroyed this temple, then this wall is nothing more than an invention.

On the other site of the wall, where the original Temple stood, is now an esplanade with various buildings, among them the Great Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from where it is believed that the prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven when he died. It is the third holiest site of Islam. Some Jewish think it is an aberration that this dome is here, because it is the site of their Holy Temple, their Holiest of Holiest places for them. So I guess this is one of the reasons they want to get rid of all Muslims, since they object the destruction of their third most holy places to make way to the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple in the place where the Dome stands now.

I get out of the esplanade into the Old City and I try to find and entrance to the mosque, but I end up again in Via Dolorosa, in front of St. Stephen’s Gate (or Lions Gate), which is the one for the Mount of Olives. As that was my next tourist visit in my itinerary today and I begin to be tired, I decide to head there instead of continuing wandering looking for an entrance to the mosque.

On this mountain there are various churches. My map is good enough to tell me that, but not good enough to tell me how to get to them. And there is not a soul in sight that I can ask my way. So I just follow various paths believing that they will take me at least one of those churches, and I end up in a Muslim cemetery first, then in a Jewish one.

I find a small shade and I sit down, rest, and contemplate the Old City of Jerusalem, or rather the wall that I can see from here, and the roofs – and the Dome – that stick out from behind the wall. From here, it does look like a city on the top of a mountain, as majestic as described in the sacred books. Fig 6.

Looking at Jerusalem from this quiet position, it seems that all this ‘Palestinian problem’ is summarised in that mosque built on soil that for the Jewish people is holy soil – it has been invaded by this other religion that has planted its mosque there and that is not right, they should simply dismantle that mosque and allow them to build a temple where there should be the “Holy of Holies”, in the same spot where one day the Covenant Ark was kept. This, in the view of the Jews. But for the Muslims this place is holy too because Mohammed ascended into Heaven from the Rock, which is also the Rock from which the rest of the world was made, therefore the Jews should build their temple elsewhere, if they want, or else continue lamenting at the other side of the invented West Wall.

So the Jewish lamentations are for their lost Temple, and the Wall is the only remains of a ‘Holy of Holies’ of all places, and the place where the Temple stood before is now occupied by buildings of another religion.

So as far as the Jews are concerned, the Muslims have taken, are taking now away from them, the possibility of rebuilding their Temple on the only site where it can be rebuilt.

In other epochs it was frequent to simply expel entire populations from whole territories, forbid their entrance and destroy their holy places. But it is not possible to do that now without some one, somewhere, complains publicly.

Maybe Israel (the Israeli Government, that is) is trying to clean the country of Muslim people to later say that the mosque was left unattended so there was no point in keeping it standing; maybe a hypothetical Muslim government would want to do just that with the Jews.

The fact is it seems that some Jews dream of a free Israel (free of other powers and other religions) and some Muslims dream of a free Palestine (free of other powers and other religions).

I have found a newspaper in English in the hostel living room, and there is an interview with some Moshe Amirav, who has written a book about how to change the administration of Jerusalem. He says that the solution for Palestine/Israel goes through the solution of the Temple Mount, and he puts the current administration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as an example. In that temple, each Christian confession has its own “territory” and processions hours designated, according to a “Statu Quo” imposed some centuries ago by the Ottoman Empire, the empire of the time. There are two keys needed to open the church and each key is kept by a different local family. It looks to this Moshe Amirav like the system is not working too bad. He says both sides will have to admit that they need to be pragmatic, talk and compromise so that every one can live in peace; because at the end of the day what matters is not so much the lawful right acquired four thousand years ago and lost two thousand years ago, as the current needs of the fidels. This guy is one of those people who dream of a free State. He admits there are people on “the other side”, who also want a Free State, and who have been here for hundreds of years, “but we were here first”.

Jerusalem tourist

First Monday
The outside noise and light wake me up at around seven in the morning. When I go out to buy some breakfast, there is only one shop open. The street does not look the same without its shops. On the square next to the wall gate there are more cars than I remember that were yesterday. There is a little man with a trolley, selling bread.

I buy my breakfast and then I try the Christian Information Centre, which is closed today too. Reading the table with masses and services in the different places and languages, I observe that there is only one service in English in the whole of Jerusalem.

The attentive sir who wanted to be my tourist guide yesterday spots me and asks where I am going. I say I am going to Mass and he starts to come with me, asking “You know the way?” I say I do, thank you very much, I turn round and I go on walking. I hear him say, “Ok, when you come back, we’ll do something today”. His English is not perfect so I kind of guess that what he means is that when I come back he will be my tourist guide. I turn to him briefly, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and I unwittingly make a strange face in disgust. I do not have the time to send him to hell politely so I just move my head and I leave. I thought that he had understood that I want to be on my own.

I go back to the hostel for breakfast after Mass and, luckily, the attentive sir is no longer there. The shop keepers who insisted that I must come to their shops yesterday no longer tell me anything; it looks like they have realised I have not come here to spend my dosh.

Once in the hostel I ask around the other guests where they buy their food, as there is a communal kitchen where we can cook, and they mention a fruit and vegetable market outside Damascus Gate. They also recommend me to walk there, using the pedestrian streets in the Old City, inside the wall, as a way of sightseeing the city while getting there.

I then go to the Muslim Quarter through the Old City as a full-time tourist. I buy a cake/bread with spices, which are not spices but a kind of dust that tastes like aromatic herbs, although the powder looks like the dusty stuff that is fed to cows. It was this kind of bread that the attentive sir wanted me to buy yesterday. Of course he wanted to convince me – two normal pieces of pita bread (which look more like normal bread from Spain than like the pita bread you get in London) cost one shekel, and just one of these costs four. But the mix of herbs and fodder-like dust also has some olive oil and they heat it for you, so it fills the stomach and it seems to be healthy.

I eat it as I walk and I end up in Via Dolorosa which has also lots of shops, and from there to a street that, according to my map, in theory goes straight to Damascus Gate. I walk along this street, approaching Damascus Gate. I see more and more men wearing the Palestinian handkerchief on their heads, like Arafat used to wear. And also more and more women wearing dark tunics from head to toe. Some have their faces covered.

As I walk, this kind of crowd becomes more like a multitude with little space between one person and the next, but suddenly a boy in western clothes stands out, at least to my eyes.

He is not wearing anything on his head, does not have a beard, and wears a white western shirt and western trousers. He clearly stands out of the crowd. I am not sure if it is the clothes that have made me look at him for a fraction of a second longer than I have stared at any one else.

He is carrying something hanging form his shoulder, and he is grabbing it with his hand. It may be a machine gun; at least I know it is a weapon, black and very modern – in any case it is a much sophisticated weapon than anything else I have seen in films or news bulletins. Time has stopped between this boy and me as I stare at the weapon as he passes besides me. The guy has his finger on the trigger.

No one has stopped or even noticed; we all continue walking.

I try to follow the map in order to get to Damascus Gate and the market there. However at the end of the street there are a few turnings, I end up in streets that go up and down all the time, all made of stone stairs, all quite solitary, and I realise I am lost.

As I turn round a corner I see four soldiers dressed in green camouflage and carrying machine guns talking to an Arabic-looking boy.

The soldiers have machine guns hanging from their shoulders. The boy is unarmed. Four armed soldiers, one unarmed boy, a deserted street. As I walk away, I wonder if, for a split second, I didn’t see a ray of desperation in the boy’s eyes. I go on walking the unpaved streets and climbing up and down stairs as I go along.

Suddenly at the top of some stairs I need to stop to give way to a row of school girls, with their teacher behind them. I look for the teacher in front of them but there is none; instead there is a man with a weapon hanging from his shoulder too. Then I remember some piece of news talking some time ago about the need to protect Jewish school girls so that they can go to school. We are in the Muslim Quarter.

At last I begin to hear traffic noise – that means I am very near a gate, but I suspect it is not Damascus Gate. I go out through this gate and there is a corridor formed by mobile fruit shops. I do my shopping and I ask what gate this is. This is Herod’s Gate. Damascus Gate is the next one down the street. I walk in the direction that the stall keeper has told me, get to Damascus Gate, walk through it back into the Old City and I realise how I got lost and why: there is no indication, not even the name of the streets to look them up on the map.

In any case, the market consists, as at Herod’s Gate, of two rows of mobile shops, making a kind of corridor that ends up on the gate; only this one is a lot longer than the one at Herod’s Gate and the stalls are also bigger. And of course the crowd is now as dense as when I was approaching Damascus Gate from the other side.

Near the street where I got lost there are some toilets. The gents toilets are at street level, besides some shops. The ladies are next to the wall, on the hight of it, after climbing about 50 steps. Just outside the ladies toilets there is a stone sitting space. The view is very pretty: you can see the roofs of the houses, and the wall of the city from the inside.

There are some loopholes in the stone where I would imagine ancient soldiers would sit with their arches and arrows defending the city.

The one over the gate is bigger than the rest. It is almost as big as a door. There is a soldier with a machine gun looking out to the outside part of the gate; some times he rests.

While I take some pictures of the roofs another soldier must have come to keep the first one company, for there are now two soldiers standing there with machine guns.

I go down to the street and out through Damascus Gate again. Right on top of the gate is the loophole where the soldiers are – from where they are they can see the whole esplanade, where there is a crowd and a festive and very colourful atmosphere.

I enter the gate again and it is a lot more crowded now. Then I continue walking, trying to find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but I can only manage to realise that I am going round in too many circles . A group of Italians are praying the Via Crucis with their priest, stopping at each station and praying and singing. They are almost a tourist attraction themselves. I decide to follow them because I know that the Via Crucis will end up at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where I am going.

Once they reach the church and finish praying, they stop being traditional pilgrims to become very modern tourists. I get ready to take some pictures myself. I look into my bag and I realise that my photo camera has been stolen. I continue “working” with the video camera trying not to think too much of the stolen one.

Once I get out of the church I realise that A. has sent me a text message: he is here in Jerusalem, and he is now at his hostel having a rest. I get out of the small street system in a hurry to go and see him.

A man stops me and I make the mistake of offering him the benefit of the doubt – maybe he wants to tell me something important plus I am not sure he is a shop keeper, as he was not next to any shop in particular. So I stop, turn round and wait for him to speak. He asks me in English where I come from. I tell him I am in a hurry. He says he doesn’t mean business or sales. I stop again waiting for whatever he has to tell me. He says nothing. I tell him again that I am in a hurry, and “what do you need from me”. “Nothing”, he says. “OK”, I respond, and I turn round and leave without saying goodbye. I am getting tired of this game.

I arrive in A.’s hostel. This one is a lot busier than mine. A. is actually on his way out when I arrive, and we are just two of the many people going up and down the stairs to or from the street. He introduces me to a couple of people as his friends and they leave for beers, allowing me to stay inside waiting for them. I grab a book from a shelf about “Jesus the human”, or something like that. It is about the Dead Sea scrolls. I had heard about them in school but all this is quite new to me. When they come back they don’t pay me too much attention because they are busy themselves, so I just continue reading until some Spanish guy comes and talks to me. He is a volunteer working in a village and he is here just having a rest from it all.

All these people are here just having a rest. A. wants to go back to Ramallah tomorrow and suggests I go with him. I ask him questions about the kind of things I would need there and it turns into the group’s conversation. They say it will be very difficult to travel tomorrow due to recent events.

Palestine. Arrival

First Sunday

It was around 5 in the morning when l arrived at Tel Aviv airport. I had a small scary moment thinking that they had lost my suitcase, because it so happens that, although they announce that the suitcases of the flight from London should be found on tape 7, it only applies if that flight is of the Israeli company, but they won’t say this.

There is a shuttle service to Jerusalem from the airport. It consists of a van with seats and a large space for suitcases that functions like a shared taxi; each one pays their fare at the end of their journey at their address, but the service does not leave the airport until all seats are occupied.

The first thing of this country that grabs my attention is the palm trees. Lots of palm trees, lined up alongside the road. What grabs my attention in Jerusalem is the building style, all around Jerusalem, both in the outskirts and in the centre, in old and new houses. They are all built with clean white stone, and all the stones are of the same size, in all the houses. Even the city wall is made of that kind of stone, just like any other building. It has been later explained to me that it is a norm, although it is not too clear where the norm comes from.

In any case, there is not a single bit of cement in sight, not a single brick, only stone. Then,from time to time, there is a kind of plaster uniting the stones, but even this is not too visible.

Perhaps because I was the only foreigner, or perhaps because I was the only one that needed to go to the old city, I am the last one to leave the taxi. We arrive at the hostel at around 9am.

As the taxi stops in front of my hostel, a man approaches us asking what we are after, and when I mention the hostel where I am staying he says he works there and helps me with my cases. After finding a room and paying for it, he offers to show me Jerusalem, but I tell him that all I want now is a shop where I can buy some food. He answers that he can show me all the cheap food stores. I am dying to take off my big shoes and rest, being as it is my 25th hour without sleeping, but figuring that we will be out only for a short time, I just leave my things there and go out to meet him quickly, to avoid wasting his time. Big mistake: time, or its concept, does not exist for certain people here.

He shows me a little shop and then he carries me along the streets of the Old City. In the map they look like normal streets but in reality they are mostly pedestrian, full of stairs, hills and shops that literally get out into the street. None of them have any food to sell, and before I realise, we are in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, which I’m both glad and dismayed to see – I had asked the good man to just show me a food shop! The man is acting as a tourist guide and I am feeling my feet burning after a 12 hour journey.

He takes me for a tour in the church until my need for a rest is big enough to stop him. I make it clear to him that what I really want is to get lost on my own in the city (although he has also made clear that he wants to be my tourist guide during this whole week, but I just hope he understands) but above all, and urgently, I need to have some food, take off my shoes and sleep.

He then takes me to a bakery where there is only a man taking bread in and out of an oven and with lots of bread on the street – no counter, no till. It looks more like a workshop. The “guide” insists that I buy a piece of bread covered with herbs and spices and I almost have to get angry to get just simple bread. I get rid of him at last and I go on my own to a little shop that I have seen before and buy oil and milk. With these goods I go to my room to have breakfast and sleep. But for some reason I can not manage to sleep so I get up, put on my sandals and go out to the street – I should now tell my friends and family that I have arrived well.

There is a computer in the vestibule of the hostel so that guests can use the internet. I ask about the conditions of use and, while I am there, I ask about telephone cards too. The boy at the desk tells me about a particular shop outside the wall, and there I head. I imagine I spend about an hour walking looking for that telephone card shop, but I do not find any.

It is, however, a good exercise to be by myself and also to get to know a bit of the outside part of the wall, and what seems to be the most westernised part of the city, judging from the type of shops.

Back in the Old City I go to the Tourism Office, where a very sweet Argentino man answers my questions in Spanish in exchange of a smile.

From there I go to the Franciscan shop, to ask about possible places to go to Mass. They sell religious things here, specially books. Most books are in Spanish.

From the Franciscan shop I go to the Christian Information Centre, but it is closed. There is a notice on the door with the schedule of all the masses and services available from the different Christian sects all over Jerusalem, and in what language they are. Catholic mass in English is available in the Church of Notre Dame at 9.30am and 6.30pm. I set my alarm clock for 5.30.

From there I head to the touristy shop where one can exchange money and buy mobile phones and electronic things among others.

As it is tiresome custom of the tradesmen, one of them approaches me inviting me to enter his shop. I say I can not, that I am in a hurry to buy a telephone card to call my mother. “Oh I wait until you finish”, he says. It takes me some twenty minutes to buy two phone cards, one for local calls and another for international calls. I had imagined that the good man would have given up the waiting by now, but there he is, standing outside, when I come out, waiting for me.

I say: “I am sorry, I need to find a telephone now”. “You can call from my shop, come I’ll show you”. I follow him to his shop, and once there he sits me down on a chair and offers me some tea. I refuse because what I want to do is make a phone call. He insists that this is just his hospitality and “I have” to drink something. He introduces me to his son, of some 12 years of age, who seems to take care of the shop when his father leaves to look for customers, and he leaves. After ten minutes of forced conversation, I tell the son that, if his father does not appear in five minutes, I am going to leave, because I do have an urgent call to make.

After another ten minutes, the father appears, talks to his son in a language that I believe is Arab, and after a few more minutes, he looks at me and says: “you wanted your tea, isn’t it?”

I tell him that I do not want tea, that I have come to his shop because he told me that I can make a phone call from here, but obviously that is not true, so I need to leave for I’m in a hurry. He says something quickly and with the best of my smiles I tell him, already from outside the shop: “No, it’s all right, thank you”. I sense him saying something behind me and I run (well, I walk quickly) away from there, quite annoyed and with my lesson learnt: the “no thank you” must be told before they have had the time to offer you to visit their shop.

I go back to the hostel to make my phone call and I dutifully tell my friends and family that I am alive and well.

Now I do go to sleep, after setting my alarm clock at 5.30pm, in time, hopefully, to go to this Catholic Mass at 6.30pm. I manage to switch the alarm off a few times without even waking up and when I do wake up I decide to set off for the church even though it is quite probable that the mass will have started by now.

The church is right next to a small esplanade that looks like a car park. So, first I need to go round a barrier that acts as a gate for cars, expecting to be asked to stop by security guards next to this gate. But they just say a mute “hello” and let me into this esplanade, and then into the church. It turns out I arrive just in time.

Once inside the structure with the aspect of a Romanesque church – but with perfectly cut white stone, just as every other building – I find myself in the foyer of a hotel. The mass is celebrated in a chapel in the upper floor, to which the access is through some lateral stairs.

The chapel is all white, and the walls have that characteristic stone. There are no benches, but wickerwork chairs, also white, all stuck to one another and leaving a walkway in the middle, so the sensation is that of any catholic church.

After the mass I approach the priest to talk to him. He explains that the whole estate is property of the Vatican State, so this piece of land is diplomatic territory and police can only enter with permission.

He also tells me other very interesting things. For example that the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 125 was even more brutal and destructive than the one in the year 70; that there are archaeological excavations all over the country, and that the reason why all buildings on the Holy Sites are dated after the year 300 is because the Christians before that didn’t have the economical or political power to build in such places, and also that before that date it was not considered ever so important to mark the exact places where things had happened because it was well known where each event took place through oral tradition. I imagine that it was neither so important to leave things for posterity, since those Christians were expecting to see the end of times themselves.

He tells me this because I have told him about my earlier visit to the Sepulchre, that it has not been very nice, among other reasons, because of the architectural structures around it, which reminded me more about the crusades and the Middle Ages, and about the present divisions between churches, than about any trace of the epoch of Jesus. Besides, there is no time or space to pray, at least at the sepulchre; it is a very small cave and the queues are long, so it is not appropriate to stay for longer than five minutes, and that is no proper condition.