Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Ramallah Lecture - Introduction

In the summer of 2008 I visited Palestine. ArtSchool Palestine had invited me over for the purpose of meeting and working with local artists and other people in the occupied territories. As the theme of my visit was relatively open, my Palestinian host explained that my stay here could be understood as a type of artistic research. That suited me fine as I had worked with activist investigations and artistic research in The Copenhagen Free University for almost six years.

I’ve followed the situation in Palestine for many years and the Palestinian cause has persistently challenged my political sense of justice. Since September 11th 2001 the conflict has been spun more and more into the War against Terror and life for the Palestinians appears to have become even more troublesome. But what do you really know as an outsider and a media consumer in the West? In terms of the struggles over territory that go on in and around this small piece of land some call Palestine, what actually shapes the scenery that is produced in the public sphere? My stay in Palestine was an opportunity to get closer to the everyday conditions in the occupied territories, although I was constantly asking myself about my own role as an artist and a political person in this situation of conflict.

Images and counter-images
The images of the Palestinian people that can be found in the West are an ambiguous representation. There are many more images than the often simplistic image that is created in the public sphere by the media. Alternative images are also created by more independent sources such as visual artists, photographers and filmmakers. In a sense, the conflict is continued through a battle of images. This image war entails a continuous production and preservation of images as representative of the warring parties. The image of the Palestinian people as “primitive” and fanatical Muslims is one that is continuously imprinted upon the minds of people in the West. Other images are representing the Palestinians as silent victims whose lives are totally defined by the Israeli occupation. In response to this lack — or, rather, distortion — of images, many artists and filmmakers have made an immense effort to portray different stories of the Palestinian situation, which has often given an insight into the precarious and complex conditions of the people in the occupied areas. These representations are often made with the rationalisation that “the Palestinians cannot represent themselves, so they have to be represented”. This idea is, of course, not unproblematic. This approach is a type of colonisation, as the post-colonial theorist Edward Said, among others, has pointed out. The independent voice of the Palestinian is often missing in many of those stories. This was therefore a complicated question for me — how could I visit Palestine as an artist with all my good intentions and solidarity without just reducing the Palestinian people and their situation into something simple?

Domination of space
Much of my knowledge about life in the occupied territories comes from critical and cultural sources such as films, visual art and books. What especially has grabbed my attention is the spatial analysis produced by various independent architects of how the occupation is maintained and expanded. They describe the stealth and cunning of the settler movement and the Israeli army and the way they are able to continuously dominate not only space but also behaviour. The strategies deployed are often developed in cooperation with architects and spatial planners who are helping to create a changing and unpredictable geography that shapes the everyday life of the Palestinian people. It’s a disturbing thought that, in this way, my colleagues in the field of spatial planning and architecture are part of a military machinery as an important ally in maintaining and expanding the occupation. I’m equally curious, then, about how the Palestinians develop methods of resistance and counter-strategies to the Israeli spatial domination in their everyday lives.

Witness account
At the very least I’d decided to keep an online blog during my visit where I could regularly recount my thoughts and experiences in the occupied territories. In this way I would take on the role of the witness who sets down his accounts for those at home. I would give a critical and personal picture of the conditions although I would also keep in mind my own potential role as a coloniser because, of course, my own gaze is never entirely free from the dominant images produced in the West.

Although, before I left, I thought I was somewhat well informed about life in the West Bank, I was astonished by how different my experience of the conditions were when I physically stood in the streets of Ramallah. That experience alone made it clear to me how far in reality everyday life in the occupied territories is from what is portrayed in the media. I was very much changed by the experience and the chance to be a part of the rich culture that was alive amongst the group of Palestinians with whom I spent most of my time for the six weeks I was there.

I called the blog ’The Ramallah Lecture’, as I understood my daily blogging to be a process of learning in relation to my observations and experiences during my stay in Palestine. I hope that it also enabled the readers to learn something about the complexity of life in a war zone. Due to security risks I have used pseudonyms for many of the people I describe in this text.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Certain death

When we finally took off from Ben Gurion airport and left Israel and Palestine behind, it was with mixed feelings. I was relieved to have gotten through the airport relatively easily, but I was also unsure of what had actually happened in the six weeks I had been in Ramallah. I had experienced an incredible hospitality and openness and had met people who I am sure are friends and who I will see again. Samar had even invited me to return next year, but I had also experienced something horrible that really affected me. I tried to see the Wall while the plane was ascending through the Israeli airspace (as the Palestinians don’t have any airspace) and I hoped that I would be able to get a last glance at the landscape on the other side but all I could see was a strangely hazy landscape towards the east. I felt like I had been a witness to a natural disaster and was now on my way back to my safe home far from the destruction. My ability to organise and classify feelings and pack them into boxes isn’t very good, and so I wasn’t able to just put my experiences in Palestine behind me and focus on future projects and responsibilities at home even though it would be easier in every way. So this split filled me with uneasiness. We were soon over the sea and Palestine, the Wall, the beers, the dope, SnowBar, the settlements and weapons disappeared behind me at 600-700 km per hour. Everything, though, was also still with me here on the plane and I could feel that it had left deep marks in my consciousness.

Next to me were two young Israelis who apparently were going to Zurich just as I was. I was tired and didn’t feel like talking to anyone. However, I couldn’t help myself from thinking that these two young guys must have been enrolled in the Israeli army and had in some way or another contributed to the occupation. They were young and very trendy with short hair and seemed very confident. So these bodies right next to me were in some way or another connected with the evil that I felt that I had truly experienced. At least this was my immediate feeling, but I shut off my brain with my iPod and a few bottles of wine and snoozed most of the way back to Europe.

When we got close to Zurich, the guy next to me turned to me and said that he wanted to ask me a question. He wanted to know if I knew anything about the countryside in Tuscany. The two guys wanted to get out into nature and apparently figured that I knew something about the possibilities in northern Italy. He said that they were going first to Goetheanum in Dornach to a festival of theosophy for a week. They were Steiner (Waldorf) students. While we were speaking, he was suffering quite a bit from the pressure changes during the landing, but he continued the conversation despite the pressure in his ears. He was very preoccupied by existential questions and seemed to be very inquisitive and we had a quite diffuse but momentarily interesting discussion. He asked me where I had been and I answered that I had been to Ramallah. I’d got used to lying, but thought that I might as well be honest and see where it would lead to as I was out of the conflict area now. He frowned, and asked me what I had been doing there. I told him that I had been invited to teach at ArtSchool Palestine and he seemed quite surprised that there were any art schools at all in the West Bank. We spoke a bit about the conflict and I couldn’t help but ask if they had been in the Israeli army and whether they had been soldiers. He lifted a finger and turned it around a bit next to his temple and said that he had been in the army but couldn’t handle it. He’d had a breakdown after nine months and completed the rest of his service at a desk in an office. He had become crazy, he told me. This was not the story that I’d expected, but then on the other hand I don’t know what I had expected. I asked about what they knew about the West Bank; I tried explaining to them that there are art schools, universities and a vibrant cultural life on the other side, but he looked at me and said: ‘It is widely known that it would be certain death for me, as an Israeli, to go to the West Bank. There are enough examples of that. It would be certain death.’ I didn’t really know how to answer him, but it was clear that he was convinced that he would be killed if he entered the Palestinian areas. However, the only truly barbaric experience I had witnessed in the West Bank was the Israeli occupation.

'Check more'

A very common source of worry and discussions for people in the West Bank is departure from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. All people leaving Israel face a thorough and drawn-out control process. Palestinians with a West Bank ID cannot travel through Israel and instead have to travel over ‘the Bridge’ and through Jordan; and, of course, it’s only those who get permission from the Israeli authorities who can go. If you live in Gaza you cannot leave, not even to visit the West Bank. People like me with an international passport, though, depart via Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. There are many Palestinians who have international passports who also do the same; but leaving is, for some reason, more troublesome than arriving in the country. You risk losing the right to travel to Israel and Palestine indefinitely. There are, apparently, over 100,000 people who have received this unconditional verdict, including, among others, many Palestinians with international passports. For example, Emily’s sister Annemarie Jacir has been forbidden from returning, which is a bit of a disaster as that means that she now cannot visit family and friends and the place where she feels she belongs. Annemarie Jacir had recently shown her film, ‘Salt of the Sea’, at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is about Palestine and was filmed there. Leaving Palestine is thus a widely discussed topic and is a feared aspect of visiting Palestine, for me also.

The usual strategy for international visitors who have been staying in Palestine is to lie and say that they have only visited the holy land, either as a pilgrim or tourist. You should never mention Ramallah or Nablus. If you do, then a two to three hour long interrogation is guaranteed to follow, as well as a thorough search of bags, computers, video films, mobile phones, etc. This is said to not be a very pleasant experience. Many have had their computers destroyed, images deleted and rolls of film exposed during these interrogations. Another minor detail is that you might miss your flight.

The day before my departure, I had met a guy who had had his computer destroyed and all his film exposed at the airport. So I was rather nervous when sitting in the taxi from Ramallah on Sunday morning. I had spent the last three nights at goodbye parties and was comfortably tired, although the hangover was bearable. The taxi driver was once again Youssef, the same driver who had picked me up at the airport six weeks ago. He was very knowledgeable and told me stories throughout the journey about the places we passed by, villages where in 1948 Jewish terrorist groups had driven out and killed entire populations, and other terrible things. I was tired and was trying to be attentive but it was also just sad to acknowledge that the terror that Palestinians live with historically and in the present is becoming normalised, even for me. When I had first arrived here I had been very aware and attentive and noted down everything that Youssef had told me during our drive from the airport to Ramallah. Now I was less attentive. Perhaps my nerves were all directed at Ben Gurion, or simply just numbed by too many horrible stories and experiences over the past six weeks. Of course, the beer and smoke from the previous nights had left their marks too. Perhaps I had also incorporated the Palestinian phlegmatic survival strategy, I don’t know.

When we got close to the airport, Youssef asked me what story I planned to tell them and I said that I’d probably say that I had been looking at culture in Jerusalem, or something like that. He said that it was not very easy to lie, but that I had to tell them when I was going though the first checkpoint outside the airport that I had only been in Jerusalem. ‘Don’t mention Ramallah’, otherwise it would take an hour just to get into the airport. When we got to the checkpoint by the airport, we were taken aside immediately when the security guard noted that I had an Arab driver. First, Youssef told them something about Jerusalem in Hebrew, after which I was asked how long I had been in Israel and where I had stayed. I had stayed at the Jerusalem Hotel and the Ambassador and had been on an amazing cultural pilgrimage over the past six weeks. The security guard took Youssef’s ID and my passport with him in to the security booth but quickly came back out and gave me both IDs and said ‘Have a good journey’. Youssef quickly drove his Mercedes taxi out of the checkpoint, and asked if he could see my passport. I flipped it over so he could see both sides and it turned out that there was a little sticker on the back. Youssef said ‘Quick, take it off — it will dry’ and I peeled the little sticker off easily. Youssef said that it was a note to the security guards in the airport which said, as he expressed it: ‘Check more’. They had tagged my passport because I’d arrived at the airport with an Arab. When I was dropped off outside the terminal, the same thing happened again. Apparently there was security stationed outside the building as well that had seen me arrive with Youssef. I was stopped again before I entered the building and asked where I came from, where I had stayed, etc. I had had to go through a special check already before I had entered the terminal, but it was also a bit lucky as I had not quite yet decided whether I would tell the truth about Ramallah and take the rough ride, or if I should keep up the lie all the way through. However, I was kind of caught in the lie now and I got through the metal detector and the interview without problems. I had spent a long time deleting all traces of the West Bank from my baggage and sent books and presents back home in a separate package from the post office in East Jerusalem. All emails from the past two months were deleted and digital images and video tapes were also in the mail. And I had arrived at the airport four hours before departure.

The next check happened in the line for the check-in where I was waiting to have all my bags x-rayed. A very young girl came up to me and asked me where I had been, where I had stayed, etc. I tried to seem a bit dumb and disinterested and she didn’t delve into any further details. She just put a sticker on my suitcase and bag with all kinds of codes and numbers. The largest number was a 5. I’d already heard that they worked with a security grading from 1-6 and thought that I was pretty fucked. At least a 5 was better than a 6. Most of the people around me had been given a 1 or a 2 but they were either Israelis or Jewish, and I heard that the security personnel were checking whether people could speak Hebrew and knew the Jewish religious holidays. Then they would get a 1 or a 2. There were no 3s or 4s, but I saw a young girl with a 6 who was having her toiletries bag searched. Then it was my turn to have my bags x-rayed, and these got more stickers with big 5s pasted on them. I carried all the bags myself over to a large bench where everyone had their bags searched. When it was my turn, I was asked to open my suitcase and bag and especially my laptop. The girl didn’t really ask me anything while she went through my things with a stick with a little napkin stuck on the end. Every once in a while she would take off the napkin and stick it in a machine that, from what I could tell, was a device for doing a molecular analysis of the traces on the napkin. She was probably searching for explosives. Once again I tried to seem disinterested and didn’t put my things back into my bag until after she had encouraged me to a few times. She was about to put a special sticker on my bag but then looked at me inquisitively and decided not to. I stood there and looked a bit dazed. Then there was the airline check-in although I still didn’t know if I was safe. I could see several normal looking tourists and business travellers around who also had the number 5 on their suitcases which calmed me down. At the same time I saw the young girl with the 6 being taken away by security guards.

It turned out that the first interview and the 5 had been the decisive checks, and I was only superficially questioned when I walked through passport control: ‘Where have you been and where did you stay?’ My hand luggage was once again x-rayed, opened up and swathed with the napkins before I was finally allowed to go to my gate. Approximately three hours had passed with these checks but I was pretty relieved after all the stories I’d heard of people being strip-searched, humiliated and held for an endless amount of interviews. These kinds of interrogations and investigations do not, of course, occur in the open, and for all the tourists the airport just seems like a normal airport. Somewhere deep inside this building, though, there might be people who would have just lost their right to ever come back.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I slowly learned to live with the weapons

After being in the occupied territories for nearly six weeks, I now had to start packing my things. My daily life here had been characterised by a high level of intensity, lots of socialising, parties and endless discussions and I had mixed feelings about leaving Ramallah. On the one hand, I was tired because of all the experiences, impressions and the high level of intensity, but, on the other hand, I was sad to have to leave all the incredible people I have met, many of whom had become my friends. They had welcomed me in to their lives with no reservations and they’d become a part of my everyday life here as a temporary guest.

My life in the limestone house of Al Tireh had stabilised into a kind of daily life, or at least some recognisable daily patterns had emerged. The people in the local supermarket had started to greet me when I came to buy fruit, yoghurt and lots of water and I’d found a favourite chocolate out of the selection on their shelves and had understood that they don’t sell beer and other alcoholic beverages as it’s a ‘Muslim supermarket’. Alcohol had to be bought in the Christian shops.

I had become used to writing in my blog almost every morning and it felt good to filter through my experiences in this way and to take a break to reflect on what had happened over the days. The nightmares of violent searches of my house that I had when I first arrived had slowly dissolved, and all the weapons I constantly faced in the West Bank no longer frightened me. When the Israeli soldier leaned over me in the bus and her automatic rifle nudged me on the shoulder, it was just normal to me now — or at least it had become normal. The armed guards that turn up outside of the house every evening had become people that I greet when I got home late in the evening. Their AK47 machine guns were just part of their gear.

The first nights that I slept in my apartment, I had had some terrible nightmares; a kind of after image from all the documentaries about Israeli attacks and abuses in the occupied territories that I had seen, mixed in with images of the heavily armed guards just outside my door who sat around their fire all night long. Yet another addition to the general atmosphere was my landlord’s guard dog that was chained up right outside my window. It was a large German Shepherd who during the night would regularly start barking and howling in tune with the other chained dogs in the area. The armed guards outside turned out to be stationed there in order to protect the head of intelligence of the Palestinian army who lived in the house below. I never really found out what they were protecting him from because the Israelis usually use advanced remote controlled rockets if they want to kill Palestinians who they want to get out of the way. Perhaps they were posted there to protect him against rival Palestinian factions.

However, it is actually quite frightening to realise to what extent I have accepted living in a war zone and how I’ve got used to the weapons of which there are so many here. This adaptation, though, must nonetheless get stored somehow in the nervous system and the potential violence that, like an evil spirit, is present everywhere spreads across all of the occupied territories, showing its face constantly through daily shootings and killings. So it had slowly become part of my everyday life, actually a horrible thought but which says something about what war does to human beings. I remembered the words of a researcher of evolution: the human is the animal that can adapt to anything.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Palestinian bagpipes

As a strange and distant memory, I remember a news item I had seen once on Danish TV where a Palestinian pipe band was marching in a parade through a town in Palestine. Not that it had always been there in my mind, but the memory surfaced again after I came to Ramallah. A Palestinian bagpipe band! I joked about it with my Palestinian friends on several occasions, but they told me that there actually were Palestinian pipe bands. They play at festive times, at Christmas and Easter, when they march through the streets in the big Palestinian cities. After hearing this, the Palestinian bagpipes gradually became something of an obsession for me. Why do they play this mysterious and fascinating instrument in Palestine, something that when normally placed on the cultural map of the world belongs in Scotland?

In the course of time during my stay, I had been to quite a few concerts and rehearsals with students from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. They played on instruments that were normally associated with classical European music, or traditional Palestinian folklore. I had heard violins playing Mozart and ouds playing classical Palestinian music, but I’d never seen or heard the bagpipes which clearly weren’t part of the classical Palestinian music course for which the Conservatory is responsible. Samar told me that the Easter and Christmas parades were normally arranged by the Palestinian scout movement, and that the bagpipe bands were probably mostly based in the scout movement, or maybe in the Palestinian security forces. So the Palestinian bagpipes were associated with the military culture (of which the scouting movement is also a part). The pipe bands were part of the Palestinian armed forces. Samar promised me she would ask her brother whether there was a band in Ramallah. He had some connection with the scout movement and he could probably help if I wanted to get in touch with a band.

One of the reasons I became so fascinated with the Palestinian bagpipe was that in many ways it short circuits the usual cultural divisions and creates disorder in the categories that have to do with cultural authenticity and ownership of particular forms of cultural expression. This is especially true in Palestine, where war is constantly being waged and land is being claimed precisely on the basis of arguments about indigenous rights and cultural authenticity. “We were here first, it was us who built the first temple”, etc. In this context the bagpipes were such a fantastically concrete indication that cultures are constantly being mixed, absorbing other cultures and splitting into new cultures. Also, I have always, in fact, been greatly attracted to the mysterious and intense sound of this instrument.

After researching the background of the bagpipes a little, I found out that, historically speaking, it isn’t particularly Scottish at all. The Romans brought it with them to the British Isles and the Scots adopted it. Most people immediately associate the bagpipe with the Scots and my initial assumption was that the Palestinian bagpipe was a remnant of the colonial period and the British Mandate that ruled here from after World War One until 1948. This story of its origins is, perhaps, also true for the present day Palestinian bagpipes. But, in fact, the bagpipe can be traced back to the Middle East. The first known depiction of a bagpipe comes from ancient Mesopotamia, with precursors in ancient Egypt existing long before European culture emerged. So, if you see it that way, the bagpipe is not authentically Scottish at all and today the bagpipe is played in many cultures: in the Basque Country and in Serbia, amongst other places.

When I got back to Samar and asked if there was any news from her brother, she smiled and said she’d actually thought I was joking. She didn’t think I was really that interested. However, I insisted that it had truly become something of a project for me. After that things moved quite fast, as they had to, since my stay was very soon coming to an end. It turned out that the only bagpipe band that practices regularly on the West Bank is based at ‘The First Ramallah Group’, which is the meeting place of the scouts in Ramallah. I’ve walked past their activity centre almost every day, since it’s on the way to where I live. Someone is almost always playing basketball, watching films in the outdoor cinema and drinking coffee at the café tables under the pine trees. I hadn’t seen any particular signs of scouting, such as shorts, bivouacs or timber huts as we know them from the scouts in Denmark. The First Ramallah Group mainly had the character of a youth club, but here, it seems, there was also a bagpipe band that practiced regularly.

Samar had been talking to the leader of the band. He had wondered why a foreign artist was interested in the band and wanted to meet them. When we finally met, he was very friendly and actually seemed very proud of his band. I told him I was really fond of bagpipe music. It turned out they were practicing that same evening and I was welcome to come and film them as they played. It was like a dream that came true when they put the pipes to their mouths, and the buzzing monotone sound spread through the area. There were six people in the band. Two beat the drums and four played the bagpipes. They were all very young, perhaps in their early twenties, and they assembled on the basketball field to practice their repertoire. They were wearing jeans and T-shirts like most of the men down here. From the bagpipes hung ribbons and tassels in traditional Scottish clan colours combined with Palestinian flags. They played several traditional Palestinian tunes, for example Wein ala Ramallah and the Palestinian national anthem, as well as some Scottish marches. It was quite a special experience.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Green Laser

Pola asked me if I wanted to come with her to visit Yasser Arafat’s monumental tomb. She’d met Ahmed who wanted to show us the grand construction. He had been hired by the Palestinian Authority to organise a live stream over the net with real-time footage of the monument for the pleasure of all Palestinians in Gaza, Israel and people throughout the rest of the world who don’t have access to Ramallah. So Ahmed knew the monument pretty well. We agreed to meet outside the entrance to the monument, which is part of the PA’s headquarters where Mahmoud Abbas holds office. It was this set of buildings that had shouldered the Israeli attack and siege in 2002, where almost all the buildings had been torn down around Yasser Arafat until there was pretty much just a single room standing for him to shelter in. This was the closest the Israelis dared come to killing the Palestinian leader. Two yeas later he died, supposedly from cancer.

I was coming from the opposite end of the city and so I took a taxi to the Arafat monument. When I told the driver where I was going, he told me in a kind of answer, that he came from the Amari refugee camp and asked me if I knew of it. Yes, I knew it, I said. He then started telling me that the PA was about to sell off his rights as a refugee. Money couldn’t compensate for their lost homes in Ramleh, Lod or Jaffa. No amount could ever compensate for their losses, not millions or even trillions. He was convinced that the PA was selling his rights to the Israelis and said, as so many had here before, that the next Intifada would be aimed at the PA because the Palestinian authorities were no longer concerned with listening to the needs of their people and even less to the population of refugees. The PA was more interested in talking to the USA and the Israelis. I asked him if he really believed that he and his family would ever be able to move back to their towns in Israel. He was sure of it. Nothing could ever replace what had been taken from them. His anger towards the PA couldn’t be mistaken. We had soon arrived at the large Arafat monument, so I shook hands with him and said ‘Good luck’ — and really hoped that he would be right. Some day he might finally be able to move home, even though it seemed very unlikely.

The monument is a comprehensive set of buildings that apart from Arafat’s tomb also includes a mosque. The buildings and tiled ground of white marble reflected the strong sunlight and made the brightness almost unbearable. Pola had already arrived and Ahmed came in his car a little while after. He had to clear us with the security guards before we could get in to the compound. There were hardly any people inside the large metal gate and the wide ramp that led up to the actual monumental grave also reflected the white sunlight and warmed our feet. Ahmed mentioned that Obama had been here the day before but there were no signs of that now, just as there had hardly been any mention of it in the local media. It was an official event that didn’t interest people much. To the left of the ramp there was a large marble relief with a huge inscription. It was a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet. It was a poem praising Palestine and Arafat in the form of a single huge Arabic symbol. At the end of the ramp there was a square building with large glass sections on each side. We could see Arafat’s gravestone as a silhouette through the glass. There were two soldiers stationed as honorary guards behind the stone and when we walked in, the two soldiers stood to attention and stared stiffly into the air. The text on the gravestone was in Arabic with dates, etc. An older Arabic couple were also inside with us and the woman was clearly touched by the significance of the place and cried after having kissed the stone. Ahmed told us that Arafat had a near divine status in Palestine. The monumental tomb gives a similar impression. There were no images of Arafat or any descriptions of his deeds and this iconoclasticism added to the pious atmosphere alongside the mosque and the very tall minaret. The white marble reinforced this impression, especially as all the rest of the buildings in the city are built with yellow Jerusalem stone. The entire set of buildings gave off an atmosphere of reverence. Ahmed said that the minaret was equipped with a green laser that could project a sharp green laser ray all the way to the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem. The idea was that this light should shine continuously in order to maintain a connection between this national Palestinian monument and East Jerusalem, but the laser has only been tested once after which the Israelis had said ‘Thanks, but that’s enough now’, and forbidden it. Ahmed thought that it was sufficient that people knew the laser was here and could reach the Dome of the Rock mosque even if it couldn’t shine continuously. After we’d left the square building with Arafat’s grave, we saw that the soldiers had relaxed and had started talking with each other. Very typical and encouraging to know that they were taking it easy and didn’t have to stand like statues when no one was there. They probably also had coffee hidden behind the stone too.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Funk in West Jerusalem

Jerusalem is divided in many different ways. The most striking division is the Wall through East Jerusalem which prevents many Palestinians in the eastern suburbs and neighbouring towns from getting to Jerusalem. East of the city, the Wall winds its way far into the West Bank. Then there is the Green Line, which divides East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem. Over the course of the years, the Israelis have done everything in their power to erase this ceasefire line from 1948, which is the only border in Jerusalem that is recognised by the international community. Jerusalem’s Old City, with the Dome of the Rock mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall, lies just outside of the Green Line and are, on paper, still part of the occupied territories. West Jerusalem is the heart of the self-proclaimed capital of Israel. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and many other state institutions are located in this area. The foreign embassies are still located in Tel Aviv, as Jerusalem is not internationally acknowledged as the capital of Israel. In 1980, the Israelis single-handedly had claimed Jerusalem as their capital.

Adham, one of the circle of people from the Palestinian creative class that I’d been hanging out with in Ramallah, told me one day that he often went out to West Jerusalem to have a good time and party until late at night. There was much more going on in the West than the East where there isn’t much happening anymore, especially at night. In West Jerusalem there is music and partying, although it’s still no match for Tel Aviv which is the real party city in Israel. Even West Jerusalem is heavily affected by religion, which puts a lid on things at the same time as it creates a tense atmosphere. Adham is a Palestinian born in Israel and so he knows about life ‘inside’. I asked him if he would take me to West Jerusalem one day when he happened to be going there. I’d never been west of the Old City and was curious about what people got up to on the other side. Distances are short here and we’re talking about neighbourhoods perhaps 500m on the other side of the Old City, but which might as well have been on a different planet.

On Thursday evening I got a text message: ‘Meet me at Qualandya checkpoint at 20:00’. Pola came along and we stood in the sunset at the Wall and the checkpoint. We spent the time we waited having a closer look at the area of the checkpoint where all pedestrians and passengers in cars and busses have to walk through on foot in order to get through to Jerusalem. I’d heard that the system here was high-tech and depersonalised, but it turned out to be the same cattle-style arrangement as in Nablus, where Palestinians are led through small fenced-off passageways. The Israeli soldiers sit in their armed small sheds and communicate via loudspeakers, and so you constantly hear amplified voices commanding people to move forward and the metallic clicking sounds of the metal turnstiles. One of the countless small boys selling gum held us hostage for the half hour we waited for Adham. Inside and outside the checkpoint there was a constant stream of people being dropped off and picked up. The ability of Palestinians to work around and adapt to the Israeli obstructions is fascinating to see, and around the Qualandya checkpoint there is an entire little community of vendors and people hanging out and drinking tea while obviously waiting for friends or family to pass through the checkpoint.

Adham arrived in his mother’s car and picked us up. We weren’t going through the Qualandya checkpoint as Adham doesn’t have permission, in fact, to go to the West Bank. We were going to go through the so-called ‘settler checkpoint’ further south. Qualandya lies about 10-15 km on the inside of the West Bank and that’s still quite far to the Green Line. However, that’s a different story entirely. Tonight we were going to rave in the West. Adham didn’t really feel like being a guide when we drove through West Jerusalem and pointed here and there but in the end just said, ‘It doesn’t make sense’, and so we just continued driving while looking out of the windows of the car. There was a McDonald’s here and a Starbucks there and generally the city life reminded me very much of southern European cities. We drove through ‘The German Quarter’ where there were cafés and pizzerias with service and tables on the pavement outside, full of suntanned people in shorts and bare shoulders. We were looking for Safafa which is an Arabic village in the West. Adham told us that the Arabic villages are hidden and that it’s almost impossible to find them by car as there’s often only a single road leading there, often like a side street off a side street. We were going to pick up Adham’s friend Dirar, and Adham had to ask for directions several times before we found the little side street to the side street that would take us to Safafa.

Dirar had lived in Barcelona for eight years and was an educated film director. He now teaches at Birzeit University in Ramallah but still lives in Safafa when he wasn’t staying with Adham in Ramallah. We drove around a bit and finally found a bar where our night out could start. There were security guards at the entrance with metal detectors and Dirar automatically lifted his T-shirt to show that he didn’t have any bombs strapped to him. He probably did it mostly as a provocation, as Arabs in Israel are treated with a lot of prejudice and fear. Just speaking Arabic on the streets in West Jerusalem instantly creates a sense of fear. At least this was what they told me. I asked Adham and Dirar if there was any danger in speaking Arabic here and they laughed a bit and said that, as an Arab, you had a kind of power in the West because the Israelis were so paranoid. The bar they’d chosen was a bar with both Palestinian and Israeli people inside, so they’d clearly chosen a place where Palestinians would also feel welcome. There was a DJ working hard to get people on the dance floor, and there was Carlsberg and Taybeh on tap in the bar. It didn’t take long for our Palestinian friends to start gently rocking out in their chairs. Dirar said that you can always tell the difference between an Israeli and a Palestinian dancing: the Israelis just jumped up and down and couldn’t dance at all. I was probably closer to the Israelis when it came to this.

After a few hours, the bar had filled up, and the volume had risen and so it was time to move on. We walked through a pedestrianised street with cafés and bars on both sides packed with people and loud techno music. There were security forces amongst the kissing couples and drinking teenagers and I couldn’t help thinking that most of the kids here were quite likely to also be soldiers. As with so much else here in Palestine, there is always a void between what one sees and what one knows, and the carefree life here most likely hides a much more disturbed daily life than what we know about from Europe. On the way out of the party area, we met a young couple where the guy had a massive machine gun hanging over the shoulder of his white T-shirt. I asked what that was about, and Adham and Dirar said with a smirk: ‘A Super Jew’ — which probably meant that he was a settler. The night was still young and we carried on to several bars and falafel joints until, in the early morning, we started heading back towards the distant world on the other side of the Wall in Ramallah. When I woke the next day I was pretty groggy and felt that our trip to West Jerusalem had been more like a strange dream-like movie than the usual crazy night out.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Wall and the checkpoint

There are an endless number of pictures of the Wall and there are an endless number of pictures of checkpoints. Many of the local visual artists who live on the West Bank are sick of those images. It’s like the whisky bottle in the gangster movie. They have become the standard ingredient in much visual art as well as in many of the films that are produced about Palestine. This is also the case in locally produced artworks, but to a larger extent in the work of visiting Western artists and filmmakers. Images of the Wall and of the checkpoints keep the Palestinian people in a frozen image of the situation in the West Bank; this is the general opinion here in Ramallah amongst the people I hang out with. The Wall and the checkpoints are built by the Israelis and are their work. By making them a representation of the people confined by these facilities, you turn the Palestinians into silenced victims. The Wall is already in our heads, as the local people say, and so it doesn’t have to be reinforced any further by the continuous repetition of these images. So images of the Wall and checkpoints are contested representations.

For some reason, though, this ban made it somehow attractive and interesting for me to also reproduce these images of the Wall and checkpoints. I’m not sure what it was that drove me but maybe this crime would, for me, create a deeper understanding of these images and how they function. For this reason, I got up early Sunday morning and went to Qualandya to photograph and film the Wall and the checkpoint. I can clearly understand the analysis of how images of the Wall and checkpoints work in reinforcing the persistence of the Wall and Israeli control. So, every time you reproduce an image of the Wall you strengthen it on a symbolic level. The question is then: which representations could then contribute to smashing these facilities. With these considerations in the back of my mind, I recorded images of the Wall and the Qualandya checkpoint. I wanted to penetrate the power of these images. In a kind of way, it’s similar to what Godard had done in his film about Palestine, ‘Here and Elsewhere’ from 1970. He said that there are too many images of revolution but too few actual revolutions. In a similar vein you could say that there are too many images staging a critique of the Wall and too few who actually do anything to make the Wall crackle. For me, this excursion was perhaps the first step in developing a critique of representation with regard to the occupation and to also consider which images not only represent and reproduce, but which ones actually contribute to smashing these constructions, concretely and symbolically.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Qualandya Refugee Camp

Qualandya Refugee Camp is one of Ramallah’s three refugee camps. The camp is close to the Qualandya checkpoint but, of course, on the Palestinian side of the Wall. There are about 13,000 refugees in the camp; people who during the war of 1948 and the years after, had been driven out of Jaffa, Ramleh and other cities in what is now considered Israel. Qualandya was founded in 1953, and after 60 years is still functioning as a UN refugee camp.

The Centre for Jerusalem Studies had organised a visit to the camp, and so this was a good opportunity to get a closer impression of the life and living conditions of Palestinian refugees. I had driven past the camp many times on my way to Jerusalem but had always hesitated to visit the area because I wasn’t comfortable with the thought of being a tourist in a refugee camp. However, Jerusalem Studies organise proper trips there every once in a while and it’s my experience that Palestinians are usually very happy to have visitors so that they can tell about their living conditions, stories that we foreigners can take with us to the rest of the world.

As the trip started in Jerusalem, I took a service taxi-bus from Ramallah to the checkpoint and met the group in the camp, after spending some time looking for them. I found the group on its way to one of the UN-run schools. The refugees that live in the camp try as much as possible to preserve the temporary nature of the place, as it is a refugee camp and not a permanent settlement. The aim for the refugees and their children is to return to the places in Israel from which they fled; an important aspect of Palestinian self-perception is this ‘right to return’. This is why the camp doesn’t have any local council and the refugees consistently try to avoid establishing any structures that might give the impression that the camp is developing into a permanent village or something similar. In this way, we only met representatives of the various centres in the camp, as there are no representatives of the camp as such, apart from the UN who also own the area where the camp is located. The schools here are divided into a girls’ and a boys’ school. Both are run by the UN. Hudda from Jerusalem Studies told us that there were around 35 pupils in each class and that the school ran from 1st to 9th grade. If you wanted to continue education after 9th grade, you have to look for it outside the camp. Summer school was on at the moment and so there was a group of girls looking and smiling at us while one of the employees at the school told us about the education they offer in the camp. After that we went on a tour of the camp through its small winding roads until we reached the wide open landscape on the other side of the camp. The Qualandya camp lies high on a hilltop but on the next hill, which is slightly higher, there was an Israeli settlement. It seems a repetitive pattern that there are settlements close to all refugee camps overlooking the cluster of small, tightly built buildings. This is the pattern in several places in Ramallah and the surrounding area. It’s pretty symbolic, as well as very practical, that the colonising power can in this way continuously keep an eye on the colonised people below.

The area between the refugee camp and the settlement is in Zone C, and so is under Israeli control. Ramallah, though, has growing pains and so the city is expanding and spilling over into the Israeli-controlled areas. Nasser, one of the people who lives in the camp, was showing us around and told us that the Israelis frequently came with bulldozers and tore down people’s homes that didn’t have a building permit. Within recent years, in the space just between the camp and the settlement, 8-9 houses had been torn down without warning. The Israelis simply don’t give building permission in the more than 60% of the West Bank that is Zone C. More than 1,600 Palestinian buildings have been torn down by the Israelis between 2000 and 2007, even buildings which were built before the Zones had been implemented. The Zones were a result of the Oslo Accords.

From this viewpoint over towards the settlement, we walked to one of the first buildings that had been built in the camp by the UN in the 1950s. It stood like an empty shell, and as an example of the living conditions of the refugees in the camp. It was probably 3 x 3 metres, and was to be the temporary home for an entire Palestinian family. Some of the Palestinians on the tour said that this house was pure luxury compared to the conditions in some of the other camps: Jalazone camp, for example, on the other side of Ramallah. As we stood there between the empty concrete walls, it was all a bit abstract and not that easy to understand, but the space definitely wasn’t big. The tour ended in the social centre of the camp where there were toys and sewing equipment on the shelves. This was where we were going to have lunch: falafel and bread. The tour was perhaps a bit too touristy and there were many people who had never before dared enter the occupied territories. Although I am, to some extent, a tourist here as well, the atmosphere was just a bit too voyeuristic despite the effort of our guides who did their best to talk about life in the camp. However, I was happy about the visit but sneaked off and took the service taxi back to Ramallah before the bus with the rest of the group carried on to the Amari camp in the centre of the city.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Cartoons

When I was on my way today through the busy streets towards Al Manara Square in the centre of Ramallah, a man started walking alongside me. He was limping slightly and was struggling to keep up with my pace. I looked at him briefly but continued at my own tempo. Then he spoke to me and asked me to slow down my speed a bit. He pointed to his leg and said that he couldn’t move very fast; it was Israeli bullets that were stuck in his hip and which had crippled him. I looked at him with a quizzical expression and he asked me where I came from. As usual, I said that I came from Copenhagen. When I said this, he immediately reacted by asking me why we wanted to humiliate the Prophet. Why had we published the Muhammad cartoons?

We were still walking side by side when the man grabbed my wrist tightly. I continued to walk and tried at the same time to pull my wrist out of his grip but he held on tightly. I told him that I had nothing to do with the drawings and that I didn’t agree with them being published, but he continued asking why I wanted to degrade the Prophet. He suddenly pulled me through the mass of people right across the pavement and looked at me saying ‘security forces’ — and revealed that he was in some way or another related to the security forces. I went along with him, but said loud and clear that he now had to listen to what I had to say. He held up a finger to his mouth signalling that I should be quiet. I was taken over to a group of men who stood on a corner and he told them that I was from Denmark and that Denmark, apart from the Muhammad cartoons, also had deployed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. I didn’t think that the situation was particularly dangerous and his friends on the corner looked at him and just started smiling. They weren’t interested. He let go of my wrist but he continued to question me about Danish foreign policy in the Middle East. He was clearly well informed. I tried several times to get through to him, ‘now listen!’, but where before he’d put a finger to his mouth, he now covered both his ears with his hands, showing me that he didn’t want to listen. Anyhow, I told him about how I did everything I could to distance myself from the Danish government and that I in no way represented Denmark, but he didn’t want to listen and so I left quickly, disappearing into the crowd of people heading towards the centre of Ramallah.

Before I’d left for the West Bank, I’d heard many stories about Danes who hadn’t dared to talk about where they came from when travelling in the Middle East. On the website of the Danish Foreign Ministry, any travelling in the occupied territories was discouraged but I simply wouldn’t let myself be intimidated by having a Danish passport as I in no way agree with the policies of the Danish Government and its cultural war against Muslims. The Muhammad cartoons were, in my opinion, simply abusive towards a minority in Denmark and directly connected to the racist policies of the government. The case was not about freedom of expression at all — there was never any doubt about whether the drawings could or could not be published. They were simply published without any problems at all.

Although I don’t support the policies of the Danish Government, I nonetheless happen to represent Denmark as a Dane, which I can understand, although the state and the population are two separate things. However, I felt a total reversal of the usual power relations when the slightly mad man simply refused to listen to me. This was pretty much in line with the self-righteous arrogance of the Danish government when the unrest started. To begin with, it refused to even listen to the waves of criticism flowing in from the Arabic societies. Here, then, was the crippled Palestinian who refused to let me speak or to explain that he was treating me unjustly. What I experienced was powerlessness, combined with the frustration of not being recognised as a person. My anger turned mostly to the Danish Government, whose stupidity had just put my life in danger.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The so-called peace process

‘Stop the Wall’ is one of the Palestinian political organisations whose work is very well organised and radical in their critique of the Israeli occupation. They work with mapping the geographical, social and economic consequences that the building of the Wall produces. They conduct their work through a series of local committees that have been established all along the building site of the Wall. They keep close records of the route the Wall takes and of the consequences it has for the Palestinian villages. They collect documentation, for example, of confiscation orders decreed by the Israeli army and they keep precise records of the seizure of Palestinian land and the undermining of local economies that’s taking place along the soon-to-be 800km long Israeli Wall. I’d earlier met Dawood from Stop the Wall at a dinner party in the park next to the Town Hall in Ramallah. He’s responsible for tracking the economic consequences of the Wall and the more long term economic development plans of the societies on both sides. He told me about a report from the World Bank in 2005 that described a future scenario for so-called sustainable economic development around the Wall; a report that was made in collaboration with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities and the international community. Normally the occupation is discussed on a day-to-day basis here without envisioning any future at all, really, apart from even more insecurity and injustice. It was therefore interesting to hear about the economic plans, which of course exist, and a future where the Wall has become an accepted and permanent part of the Israeli and Palestinian landscape. The future scenarios that Dawood told me about weren’t very encouraging either. It sounded mainly like a grim fantasy where the free market protected by the military will get to transform the West Bank and Gaza into one large labour camp. Such a militarised neo-liberalism would become a reality in the guise of a so-called peace agreement. Dawood introduced me to some of these plans when we’d met the first time. I’d agreed with him then that I would come by Stop the Wall’s offices to do a more in depth interview later. Today was the day. I wanted to record the interview with the intention of showing it on tv-tv in Copenhagen. Dawood said that Stop the Wall would also like to use it for their website:

Jakob: Thanks for doing this interview. Could you start with introducing yourself and the ‘Stop the Wall’ Campaign?

Dawood: The ‘Stop the Wall’ Campaign was established in 2002 at the beginning of the construction of the Wall. Actually, it had started even before that as the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network, working with environmental issues. When the Wall came, the construction started with a massive uprooting of trees on the West Bank. So this NGO thought that this coming danger of the Wall would be an environmental threat. They held meetings in all the different villages that had their land uprooted and they advised them to create committees in each village, as a reference for themselves and for any international NGOs, news agencies or journalists that wanted to talk about this issue. And also to archive everything that is happening in these villages: from the uprooting of trees and confiscation orders of land, to photos of before and after, statistics, and any knowledge that this kind of network would need. After a while it became clear that the Wall is more than just an environmental issue, it has different political, economic, and social impacts. So they decided to create the ‘Stop the Wall’ Campaign as a coalition of these 12 local NGOs and around 54 local village committees.

Jakob: I wanted to talk to you about the future plans for the West Bank in terms of economic development, and the kinds of plans that are on the cards at the moment, not only from the Palestinian authorities but also from the Israelis and the international community. Maybe you could introduce some of the plans that have been put forward in recent years that relate to the economic development behind the Wall?

Dawood: Just to give you a background before we start with this: the Israelis have historically — even before the occupation — always made future plans for themselves which is actually very clever. Usually the plans have been for 25 years on average, and for each plan they would gather big think tanks — political and economic, social and psychological think tanks; all kinds of different kinds of think tanks — and these would put forward a framework and a strategy for Israel for the coming 25 years. In 2002, they had a big meeting in the town of Herzliya, where they launched the disengagement plan. The final detailed plans were published in February 2005, giving them three years of research to put a detailed report on the table on how to implement it on the ground. And usually what happens here, with the Israelis as the occupying power that has had the upper hand in the West Bank and in Gaza for 41 years now, the international community and especially the donors were as always... how to say it... I don’t want to say that they follow the Israeli plans, but they accept the Israeli visions for the area. We are talking mainly about donors like the World Bank, IMF, USAid, GTZ, KFW — all these semi-governmental, huge donors. They are also the main funders and strategists for different countries in the Third World. So the Israelis made the plan, laid pressure on the international community and marketed it as a peace building process.

To summarise this plan: now you have ghettos in the West Bank — or they want to build walls on the West Bank to create ghettos — they will confiscate as much land as possible: we are talking about 46%. And they will confiscate as much water as possible: and we are talking about 82% of water resources. They are putting people in different isolated ghettos, and there is no trade between them, no clear connections or continuity between the different so-called Palestinian Authority areas, and there is no real control over the borders regarding trade. The capital — the economic, political and tourist capital, which is Jerusalem — is totally surrounded by walls and annexed to Israel. Bethlehem, the second tourist capital, is also surrounded by walls and turned into a ghetto. So they have destroyed all the different economic systems that used to exist here on the West Bank. To sustain this apartheid system, or these apartheid ghettos, they had to figure out how to manage them for the coming 20 years. This was the Israeli understanding of how this conflict should be solved.

This solution can be summarised by looking at the group of industrial zones: a group of projects that will be funded by a third partner, an international partner or donor, and run under the supervision of the Israelis and using Palestinian labour. These industrial zones are of various kinds, some of them are manufacturing industrial zones, some are agro-industrial zones, some are tourism related industrial zones or service-related like electricity, water, banking, and so on. So, they did not leave out any kind of economic aspect or subject matter without working it out in detail and connecting it directly to the Israeli occupation authority; not only connecting it, but keeping it under the direct control of the Israeli authorities.

Jakob: How is this ghetto system going to be sustained?

Dawood: The Wall is a main issue in this ghettoisation plan, but not the only method. You also have settlers-only roads that will be walled on both sides; and you will have military zones in the east isolated by ditches or trenches. For us, Palestinians on the ground, there is no difference between the Wall and the settlers’ walled road or a trench. The three of them isolate us from our land and from our natural resources. And, as you can see, the whole area is separated into small ghettos and the Palestinians have lost most of their land, lost most of their water resources, lost even the grassing areas in the east, natural grassing areas — so now animal raising industries are based on buying feed from Israeli companies to feed the animals. And, again, that’s why they have to talk about how to sustain such a system. We are talking about almost 2.5 million Palestinians in around 22 isolated ghettos: without land, without resources, without trade, without anything. So they have to talk about how to sustain this ghetto system by providing some kind of work for the two million Palestinians. Here, the international community starts to get more involved. It started actually with a study done by the World Bank in December 2004, which stated that the only viability that can be achieved here — or, a ‘development plan’ that can be achieved here to provide jobs for the Palestinians — is to build ‘border industrial zones’, and again that it should be jointly Palestinian, Israeli and a third international partner. The Palestinian role will be to provide labour, the Israeli role is to build factories and the international role is to fund the infrastructure such as roads, water, electricity, and so on. For each of the three main ghettos on the West Bank there will be a group of these industrial zones ‘along the border’, as the international community defines it (the World Bank mainly). They use the term ‘along’, it is not ‘on’, it is not ‘in’, but it is ‘along’. And ‘along’ could have a very wide meaning here; Israel considers all the West Bank as under its authority and the official border for Israel is the Jordan River, which includes all the West Bank. So, when you say ‘along the border’ that leaves it open to the Israelis to decide where this border is, and what is going to be considered ‘along’ and what is not considered ‘along’. When you look now at the industrial zones proposed by the international community, they are actually talking about three different zones; you have, for example, an industrial zone in Jericho, in the middle of the West Bank. It is not close to any border except for the Jordanian border, which is around 6 kilometres away, and they consider it ‘along’ the border. And you have other ones on the path of the Wall, and they consider it ‘along’ the border; and you have others in C areas, and they consider it ‘along’ the border. So the project is simply about providing jobs in these industrial zones. The expectation for the coming 20 years is that there will be half a million Palestinians working in these industrial zones under special conditions and under a special negotiated labour law, and so on.

Jakob: Under whose authority will these new industrial zones be?

Dawood: Because it is the border, it is not under any authority. The three ‘partners’ are supposed to facilitate the zones. For example, you always have an Israeli side of the industrial zones, controlled by the Israelis; you have a Palestinian side controlled by the Palestinian Authority; then you have a joint coordination office with an international partner involved in this industrial area. And again, because it is ‘along’ the border it is not on Israeli land, and it is not on Palestinian land. On the ground, these industrial zones are in the West Bank and are in the Palestinian Authority areas, but they say — to encourage Israelis and Israeli businessmen to get involved — that it is a border area and no-one will have real authority over it. Both sides, or the three partners, have — in the different feasibility studies that were published — different roles in facilitating these industrial zones, but none are actually controlling the territories.

Jakob: Could you call them free trade areas?

Dawood: It is a little bit different. They are announced as free trade zones, more like the airport, a duty free market; at least, this is how they define it in the media. The industrial zones will not be free, there will be special conditions. The idea was to create a zone that will have special conditions and laws for the factory owners. Production will be with no tax, meaning that if you imported something to this area you will not pay taxes, but if you want to sell the product inside the same country - for example, inside the West Bank or Israel — you need to pay taxes to these authorities. The other option is to export internationally directly. In that situation, you don’t pay taxes. The West Bank and Israel are very close, mainly, to the European market and secondarily to the States. Having this cheap labour, or the cheapest labour possible, in these industrial zones will allow them to compete on a good level with the Chinese and Asian products in the European markets, even with Latin American products. This is the idea of the border industrial zones. Here the only difference from free trade areas in the rest of the world is that we are still under occupation, basically. Our border is controlled by the occupying power, so any import or export will be through this occupation power and all the taxes and incomes will go to this occupation power as well.

Jakob: Could you tell me a little bit about the role of the Wall in relation to these plans. How is the Wall used?

Dawood: When you talk about border industrial zones under occupation, and under a very bad labour law, that means that the conditions of labour will be very poor. In the previous experiences of joint industrial zones in Gaza, and in some areas here in the West Bank, the Palestinian labourers have been treated really badly, with, for example, arrests, closure of the industrial zones, and firing without compensation or any rights. So the Palestinians know what the meaning of these joint industrial zones is, and they know how badly they can affect them socially. Both the Israelis, and the Palestinian Authority and the international community, know that the Palestinians will never accept to just become slave labour in Israeli factories (or Palestinian factories — it doesn’t matter) or to become cheap labour in these areas. So they had to build on poverty in the West Bank and in Gaza. And due to poverty and unemployment, people are driven to accept anything that is enforced on them — politically or economically. This is how you build peace here.

Jakob: And what roles are the occupation forces and the military going to play in terms of access to these zones?

Dawood: Of course, everything will be controlled by the military, but mainly by special security companies. Israel is maybe the only country in the world that still has compulsory army service. When you are 18 years old, boy or girl, you have to serve at least 2 months every year in the Israeli army until the age of 45. That’s why they started a new industry here in Israel based on what they call ‘home security’, which is both technology companies producing items like cameras, sensors, security alarms, monitoring, and so on, and private security companies, which will work directly with the Israeli army on securing, for example, the industrial zones and the checkpoints of these zones. Actually all three of them will work there: ‘the homeland security companies’ will provide the cameras, the metal detectors, the sensors, the alarms, the x-rays, magnetic cards, identification systems, fingerprint systems - you can imagine yourselves what kind of systems... Then there will be an Israeli security company that will run all of this... with guns... and secure it, with a smaller number of Israeli forces that will help this company work as professionally as possible. So these three together will control the industrial zones, and decide who is allowed to enter and who is not allowed to enter. So if you were at any point a ‘bad’ Palestinian, meaning that you were an activist resisting the Wall, whether as a militant or a politician — it doesn’t matter here anymore — you will simply be forbidden to enter this industrial area, or you will never get a permit to enter these industrial zones.

Jakob: The International Community is using the rhetoric of the free market as a lever for what they call peace?

Dawood: The internationals claim that if the Israelis and the Palestinians felt that there will be a kind of profit, joint profit, or a profit if they join the project - that means that the conflict will end. The problem is that they are talking to an élite of Israelis and an élite of Palestinian politicians and businessmen. Both these groups will benefit from any condition, war or not war. They are ignoring totally the normal people on both sides. Let me give you an example: an Israeli salary in an Israeli factory inside Tel Aviv will be something like 7,000 shekels, but this idea of building peace is to move this factory to the border and bring in the Palestinian workers for 1,500 shekels to work in this industrial area. So they fire the Israeli worker and they use the Palestinian labourer as a slave in this factory. So the profit will only go to this élite. But actually, on the ground, both communities will hate each other even more; the Israeli labourer will think, look, the Palestinian labourer took my job, and the Palestinian labourer will think, look, the Israelis are forcing me to be a slave in their factory. So they are actually widening and sustaining the conflict here and not solving it.

Jakob: And finally, how do you view this peace plan in the long term; is it sustainable or what kind of resistance do you see coming?

Dawood: Look, let me tell you something about the Palestinian community: almost every 10 years there has been a revolution. But the biggest revolution, which was actually a social movement and not only a revolution, was the first intifada. Then came the second intifada, which was almost the same in the beginning. These two movements, especially the first one, happened at a time when Palestinians had their highest income in the history of the occupation. 1988 saw the highest income per person for Palestinians in the West Bank. But the revolution happened nevertheless, meaning that we are here as Palestinians; we are not looking for a job, or looking for income, or looking for I don’t know what. We are looking for our human rights, you know, such as freedom: the freedom to choose, to go to elections, to build our social system, to sustain our social system, to end our health and education and social problems. This is what we are fighting for. Now, whether they build industrial zones, or they pump in millions of dollars or throw cash at people, or they find a third thing, the idea here is not what is our relation with the Israelis or the border; the idea is, ‘what are our rights?’. And our resistance is based on this — ‘what are our rights?’. So whatever they, do there will always be a new revolution against what is built unless it satisfies totally the Palestinian demand for independence and freedom. There are, of course, conditions: ending the occupation, accepting that Jerusalem is the capital for the Palestinians, giving the right to move, the right to trade, the right to get married even, and the right to have the chance to give birth to children. Then, I think, after that is implemented, there can be an option to sustain this peace. Unless they accept this, any project that will be implemented will only sustain the conflict.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Nablus is, according to the Israelis, the largest terrorist den in the West Bank. This is why the Israeli army raid the city on almost a daily basis. The main aim of the raids is to shut down various shops and institutions that are in some way or another related to Hamas. At the same time, access to the city has been made very difficult with a series of checkpoints whose main purpose is to ensure that leaving is made almost impossible. This morning, Pola and I took a service taxi-bus from the bus station in Ramallah heading for Nablus. After a wild ride through the landscape on the settler road that leads to the settlements around Nablus we were let off in front of the Hawara checkpoint. I’d been counting on the bus driving through the checkpoint like they do at most other places in the West Bank, but here we had to walk through on foot and then take a taxi on the other side. As usual it wasn’t a problem to ‘get in’, and we just walked through a metal barred turnstile to enter the Nablus side which was full of street vendors and taxis that were parked all over the place. As usual a friendly Palestinian helped us find a taxi. He was quite interested in speaking to us and said that he was married inside Israel. He asked if we knew anyone in Nablus. Nope, not really; although we’d asked in Ramallah but people tend to isolate themselves in their enclaves and there wasn’t really anyone we had talked to who knew someone in Nablus. Together, with our new guide, we drove in to the heart of Nablus which is known for its old city and souk. In the end, he didn’t even allow us to contribute to the taxi fare!

We didn’t have a guidebook or map, so we had to wander around a bit aimlessly. The souk, though, quickly revealed itself and we started exploring the small and chaotic streets. The number of shops and goods were impressive and you wonder who comes and shops here. Nablus is the second largest city on the West Bank (after Hebron), with 135,000 inhabitants, but the amount of stuff on offer was still incredibly overwhelming. The streets went here and there, spreading out like an endless labyrinth. Unemployment is high here especially, because any kind of production is almost impossible due to the occupation, which makes it difficult to export goods and sell them outside the city. There is no tourism whatsoever. We only saw two or three other foreigners during our visit. The souk had small workshops inside the narrow shops: furniture makers, blacksmiths, tailors, etc. It was fascinating to see a city that functions on the basis of pre-industrial principles. However the working conditions didn’t look comfortable at all and it was often children who were working away at the sewing machines. One can only hope that the Palestinians will have the chance to develop their own economy and improve their wealth, because at the moment it is not going in the right direction at all.

Nablus is known mainly for two products: cakes and soap. We called Ismail who I knew had taken photographs for one of the old soap factories in the town. He guided us to the oldest factory that is right in the centre, facing the city’s large main square: Tjukan soap. The gate was open and we walked inside and met a man who was packing down some large cases with cardboard boxes. People could only speak a little English here but we managed to explain that we were interested in the soap factory, after which he took us on a little tour. First we saw the mixers and then we were taken upstairs to see where they make the soap bars. The soap mix is first spread out on the floor, approximately 5 cm thick, where it is left to dry for a while. After this, the bars are cut out, stamped and piled in beautiful, curving piles. Here they sit and dry for five months. Everywhere in the old building you could smell the scent of olive oil, the key ingredient in the famous Tjukan soap. We bought ten bars of soap and thanked them for the tour and the time travel back to the 1900s.

At one point in the small streets of Nablus, a young man came up to us and asked in perfect English if he could show us around a bit. We said ‘yes’, and that was the beginning of a very peculiar tour through Nablus. First, Najir (that was the young man’s name) took us to a Turkish bath where we saw the waiting room and coffee house but for some reason we couldn’t access the actual baths. Then he took us to visit one of his friends who works at the local Jawwal office as a sales and marketing manager. Jawwal is the local mobile phone company, and we had coffee in their slick offices while all the staff stood around and spoke with us. After this, the tour continued to a shopping centre where Najir’s IT teacher worked in the arcade game area. This shopping centre had just been reopened. The Israelis had kept it closed for a while as they suspected that it was related to Hamas in some way ( The arcade game area seemed quite innocent with a bouncy castle and a whole load of arcade games. From here we walked through the only official park in Nablus, which is excellent in comparison to the other cities on the West Bank where, without exception, there are hardly any green public spaces at all. Najir tried to make us stay longer but we insisted that we had seen plenty and had to get back to Ramallah for a wedding. It was now nearing 6pm and Najir helped us find a taxi so that we could get out to the checkpoint. He admitted that he’d like some tips for his services. We gave him 50 shekels, although he didn’t think this was sufficient. After a hot day in Nablus, the taxi whisked us back to the Hawara checkpoint.

The only experience we had had of a different and rougher Nablus was when we entered a little square where a group of men were fiddling with a sound system. They were testing it at the loudest volume with some very agitated speakers talking in Arabic. We took a few pictures after which one of the guys drew his hand over his throat, as if with a knife, while he looked at us. The city is an occupied city and has suffered a lot since the Israeli attack in 2002. Nablus, just as Jenin had been, was the site of violent battles and the city experienced serious destruction by the Israeli military bulldozers. There are still open wounds in the old city where entire blocks of houses are gone. Martyrs’ posters are everywhere. Although people are friendly and welcoming, one shouldn’t ignore the state of permanent war that this city suffers from. We were definitely reminded of this when we got to the checkpoint, an ‘old school’ checkpoint in which people are led like cattle through steel barriers and fences and into the metal turnstile that leads people to the ID check area. The queue of people is controlled by heavily armed Israeli soldiers who bang on the barriers if there is something they aren’t happy with. They push through the row of people, searching people’s bags at random without even asking, mainly just to demonstrate their power. One of the soldiers put his hand into my bag without searching for anything really. If he had been really interested in my bag, he would have probably looked a bit closer at my ten bars of soap. When I reached the front of the line, I had to wait for the light to turn green after which I could enter the turnstile over at the metal detector and ID control point where there were more heavily armed soldiers. The woman at the ID control was, just like all the others, wearing a military helmet but she also had a special security neck brace supposedly to protect against explosions. I was told that I could have just gone around the control as I have an international passport, but I thought it was fair to walk through with the Palestinians.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Slingshot Hip Hop

Thursday evening was a big evening in Ramallah. There was a premiere of the film ‘Slingshot Hiphop’, a film about the hip-hop scene in Palestine ( Rumour had it that several of the artists featured in the film were going to come and play at the premiere. The opening of the film was hosted by the Ramallah Cultural Palace and when I arrived with Suhad and Pola there were already many people and plenty of cameras. These types of events are covered by media from all over the Middle East as well as the many Western documentary filmmakers that flock down here too. There is a lot of culture in Ramallah, but I hadn’t yet witnessed such enthusiasm as I saw tonight. There were many very young boys with caps and large T-shirts with prints on them, but the fashion style wasn’t very baggy indicating that the scene is young and that there’s also not much money for new fashionable clothes from the West.

The Ramallah Cultural Palace is, as I’ve mentioned, a huge building that lies high up on one of Ramallah’s hill tops. The concert hall can probably fit about 1,500 to 2,000 people and this evening it was almost packed. The film had been made by a local Palestinian filmmaker, Jackie Salloum. She had been working on the film for the past five years and many people were saying that it had been very hard for her to finish the film, but now it was here and the expectations were soaring.

It is a historically oriented film and tells the history of Palestinian hip-hop. The main players of the early acts were the 1948 Palestinians, especially DAM who are the godfathers of the scene ( The main focus was on Tamer from DAM who is the film’s starring personality. He is also one of the main personalities of Palestinian hip-hop. To set the scene, the film opens with images of children confronting military vehicles and Israeli bulldozers that destroy houses and dig up olive trees. In this way, it is immediately established that hip-hop here, as in the rest of the world, is the art of the oppressed. “Hip-hop is our CNN”, Tamer comments at one point. DAM come from Lod in Israel, and the three person crew walked through fairly bombed out and destroyed areas of the city talking about their everyday problems as Palestinians in Israel. They had started in 1990 and had actually begun rapping to become rich and famous. That motivation changed when the second Intifada exploded in 2000. From then on, hip-hop became a political instrument for the Palestinian Israelis and they started rapping in Arabic. The most touching and jarring story was the portrait of PR (Palestinian Rapperz) (, who had tried to establish themselves in Gaza. They had no possibility whatsoever of getting out of Gaza and they had had to build everything up from scratch themselves. Their biggest wish was to meet DAM and the other Palestinian hip-hop artists, which simply wasn’t possible due to the occupation. The film crew arranged for them to speak with Tamer over the phone, which was very touching; but their dream was, as they put it, to actually meet DAM and to give them a hug. Even for a big hip-hop event in Ramallah where PR were headlining together with DAM, the boys had been stopped at the border despite having got a permit, and had been sent home with no explanation. So the only way DAM could see and hear PR was through the recordings by the film crew that had been able to visit them in Gaza. Everyone was very impressed by the fearlessness of the three PR rappers: “But they’re also used to standing in front of tanks in the streets”, as one of the 1948 Palestinians said, and teased the other rappers that they’d probably shit themselves if they had to face a tank. So the film talked a lot about the three groups of Palestinians in Palestine: 1948, Gaza and the West Bank, and about how the three groups are almost entirely separated because of the occupation.

The film was rich with good music and a well produced sound, and the audience in the auditorium cheered every time someone came out with a sharp line. Before the last credits had passed, three energetic and gesticulating rappers invaded the stage; it was DAM. Their most popular tune is ‘Who is the Terrorist?’, and they did a medley in which bits of the controversial text was thrown in. The entire audience got out of their seats and it was really moving to see all the hand gestures from the very young girls and boys. Lighters and mobile phones where waving in the air and Palestinian scarves were thrown onto the stage.

The concert, though, got even bigger as almost all of the acts from the film turned out to be there (Arapeyat, Mahmoud Shalabi and WE7). PR hadn’t, of course, got permission to leave Gaza which you could almost cry about after having witnessed their totally fucked-up lives and everyday reality in that place. At the end a very young girl got up on stage. She was from the duo Arapeyat, who were also in the film ( Slightly nervous but smiling in a challenging way, she gave several lectures to the audience (in Arabic). When tracks ran out and she hadn’t any more beats to rap to, she carried on improvising without backing until DAM got on stage and said ‘enough’ and ‘thank you’. Another hip-hop act who were also missing were the local darlings from Ramallah Underground (

Suhad told me afterwards that there were probably a lot of 1948 Palestinians that had sneaked across the Wall tonight. The Israelis don’t allow people with Israeli passports to go to Zone A areas, but people usually find ways of sneaking across. They risk getting a huge fine if they are caught. “Hip-hop is not dead — it lives in Palestine”, as it was said on several t-shirts worn that night.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Demilitarisation of Oush Grab

Oush Grab is an ex-military base on a hill top just outside of Beit Sahour, next to Bethlehem, which had been abandoned by the Israelis in 2006. The base has a history that goes all the way back to the Ottomans who had founded the base in the 19th Century. The Jordanians had made use of it until 1967 when the Israelis had occupied the West Bank. Since 2006, the base has been lying deserted although land does not just sit unused in Palestine. There are always discussions and fights over the smallest bits of land that haven’t as yet been claimed. As it turned out, this was also the case at Oush Grab as well.

I called Alessandro from Decolonizing Architecture to see if we could meet up, and he suggested that we go to Oush Grab as they’ve been involved quite a bit in the future prospects of that area. Lately there had been quite a lot of tension surrounding the base, and recently it had been occupied by a group of settlers. Such occupations take place here under the protection of the Israeli army. The settlers had stayed until this morning, after having been there for four days ( Decolonizing Architecture had previously taken over the base to run film screenings and bars there, their intention being to go in and quite literally decolonise and demilitarise the base. Part of the project had involved decorating and tagging the buildings in order to make them more useful and welcoming for future civil use ( “Sorry, no rooms available” was one of their tags, a weakly disguised message for any future Israeli settlers who might want to have a look around the area.

I took a taxi-bus from Ramallah to Beit Sahour and met Alessandro in his office in the centre of the city. He had two young English interns who were working hard and the place looked very professional. It was more of an architecture firm than an activist den. It was very civilised, but perhaps such a level of professionalism is needed simply in order to speak to local politicians and international NGOs. We also briefly visited his apartment just above the office. This is where he lives with Sandi and their baby. Sandi is also a part of the project, but she wasn’t at home today. We also went a little higher up to a fantastic rooftop terrace where you could see over a large part of the West Bank to the east of Jerusalem. Oush Grab can be seen from here and Alessandro pointed out the hilltop and the small buildings that could barely be seen in the distance. The Israeli army had destroyed the base before they deserted it in 2006 because they wanted to ensure that the base was not taken over by the Palestinian security forces. Most of the base is therefore in ruins. You could see that one of the buildings was crooked from not having collapsed entirely, which seemed a bit strange. We also had an overview of the surrounding landscape that was mainly characterised by Arabic villages. There were no settlements in sight.

We drove out to the site in Alessandro’s car and when we reached the gravel road that leads to the base we could see that there were people on the inside. Alessandro wanted to make sure that they weren’t settlers. We could see that the people were fumbling with a ladder and were climbing up to a blue and white Israeli flag that was waving from one of the antenna in the base. Symbols and flags are important tools for dominating a territory and the Israeli flag wasn’t going to wave over Oush Grab anymore as these were local Palestinian people who were taking down the flag.

The base is located in Zone C, and is therefore under Israeli control which makes it more difficult for the Palestinians to use the area. People are also afraid to move about in Zone C areas as settlers and the military have weapons and you can never feel totally safe. The Mayor in Beit Sahour had made a huge effort to decolonise and demilitarise the base and so the parking lot formerly used by military vehicles had already become a playground and picnic area for the Palestinians. It was his big project and we met him in the café by the playground where he was smoking a shisha. He told us that he’d been deeply involved in developing the new facilities. He’d seen that the children would play football pretty much anywhere, and so here they now had a football pitch to play on. There were a lot of people who liked roller skating, too, and so they had gotten a skating rink, etc. There was also a climbing tower, sandboxes, merry-go-rounds and swings. And there was a big café area where the families could picnic overlooking the playground. All in all, it was a lot of fun for the children and their families. Alessandro said that a delegation from the European Parliament were going to come and have a look at the project, but the Mayor said that he wasn’t short of money. He’d received one million dollars from the United Arab Emirates for the project and he could do what he wanted with the money. The Israeli authorities were also interested in the ongoing demilitarising of the area as they would do anything to avoid a Palestinian military base there. What is more demilitarising than a massive playground, though?

We talked with the Mayor about the settlers who’d just left the base. He said how over the past few days there’d been a town festival for the local Palestinians in the café and on the playground. There had been about 1000 visitors until late at night and even though the settlers had arrived and settled in another part of the base further up towards the top, the people hadn’t been scared. The Israeli army had come with the settlers and there had been about 100 Jewish activists, but the Palestinian party had just carried on. People had obviously felt that it was their place and had therefore felt safe there. Normally, due to previous bad experiences, the Palestinians are nervous of the settlers. It was clearly a victory for the mayor that people hadn’t started to seep away from the party when the settlers and the army had arrived and stayed less than 200 meters from the playground. The Palestinians had had a great party despite the circumstances.

Alessandro told me about how Decolonising Architecture was working with local nature and bird enthusiasts to turn part of the area into a natural resort and bird sanctuary. This was their next project in this civil occupation of the area. It was a temporary project and the Mayor was fully aware that the takeover of the area had to happen in small steps. He was working to have a hospital built on the other side, but that wouldn’t become a reality until sometime far in the future. Alessandro had to get back to the office so I decided to stay in the area and have more of a look around.

I walked all the way up to the central buildings of the base where the settlers had been earlier in the day. Sunk into the ground behind earth ridges there were two low parallel barracks with a huge crooked concrete block in between them. This had been the water tower which had now shifted from its base and stood as a huge unsettled cube in between the two barracks. There were murals and graffiti everywhere and the settlers had done a good job in tagging all over the murals and tags done by Decolonising Architecture: “Stop the Arab Occupation”, “Victory for Israel”, “All of Israel for Jews” and “Israel belongs 2 Jews” were some of the slogans that were written in English. There were many others in Hebrew that I couldn’t read, of course. There weren’t any people around and the sun was now low in the sky and the landscape rested beautifully as if it hadn’t been at all affected by all the different battles that are constantly waged over control for it. After an hour, I made it back to Alessandro’s office where he was in the process of reviewing a presentation about the architecture in one of the Israeli settlements. It was part of the research that the two interns had been working on and they showed slides of small new townhouses with refined front gardens. It looked like any other European suburb. I had to catch the last taxi-bus back to Ramallah and so left quickly.