Returning to Palestine: What's in a year? What's in 60?

Ramallah, Palestine - April 18, 2008

Three years can be a long time, or a little blip in history. It has been
three years since I was first in Palestine, and now I am back. Years are a
funny thing here. Many can go by, and nothing can change. Take, as an
example, one of the large billboards outside of Jerusalem right now, which
proudly announces this year as the 60 year anniversary of the birth of the
state of Israel. And then, of course, the other side of that, the 60th
anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba ("catastrophe"). 60 years of
displacement, 60 years of refugees, 60 years of useless keys and tears
shed, and how much has really changed?

Well, quite a lot has changed actually. And it has hit me sooner than
expected, even after being in Palestine for only a few days. 2008 will no
doubt be a historic and tumultuous year in Israel and Palestine. Beyond
the 60-year observations on both sides, there is pressure from many sides
to make 2008 the year of the Palestinian state, or a "two-state solution".
The slogan "2 states in 2008" has been repeated many times. There is a
strong will to see this happen before the next Palestinian presidential
elections, or perhaps more importantly, before George W. Bush leaves
office later this year.

And as we move closer to those two states, who are somehow miraculously
supposed to live side by side in peace, one can see a deeper entrenchment
of the Israeli apartheid system here. One obvious manifestation of that is
the complex system of illegal Israeli settlements that are still found
throughout the West Bank.

I had a chance to visit a few of those settlements on Wednesday, and it
was a thoroughly disturbing experience. Driving in to Ma'ale Adumim, a
settlement outside of Jerusalem, one is first struck by a huge statue of 2
"peace" doves in the city center, with a beautiful fountain coming out of
them. Driving around the town, one can see the large shopping mall, the
"peace library", and the beautifully landscaped boulevards that are
reminiscent of Southern California. And perhaps the most shocking of all
is the four large swimming pools that exist for the settlers of Ma'ale
Adumim. 4 swimming pools. And if you visit a Palestinian area not 10
minutes away, such as Silwan, you can barely get running water.

One of the 4 swimming pools in Ma'ale Adumim in the foreground.  In the background is the settler road which connects Ma'ale Adumim to JerusalemOne of the 4 swimming pools in Ma'ale Adumim in the foreground. In the background is the settler road which connects Ma'ale Adumim to Jerusalem

As Israel tries to push closer to what many are calling a unilateral
disengagement of the West Bank, and in the long run a two-state solution,
many of the settler roads in the West Bank will soon be complete. And
this of course entails a whole other system of roads which the
Palestinians must use. Outside of Jerusalem, you can find one road which
is split in two by a wall – one side for Israelis, one for Palestinians.

An Israeli flag hangs from an illegal settlement in the Palestinian village of Silwa, east of Jerusalem.An Israeli flag hangs from an illegal settlement in the Palestinian village of Silwa, east of Jerusalem.

Another striking difference since my last visit is the Qalandia
checkpoint, the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and the rest of the West
Bank. However, to call it a checkpoint now is a misnomer, and many people
are referring to it as a border terminal, which is what it is starting to
look like. I could barely recognize Qalandia as we drove through it in
our bus going from Jerusalem to Ramallah the other day.
And soon, this giant concrete terminal, which sits just beside the now
infamous apartheid wall, will soon be the border terminal between Israel
and the new state of Palestine.

In three years, the resistance to this apartheid has changed as well. On
February 20, 2005, I attended the first of what would be many
demonstrations in the village of Bil'in, about 30 minutes outside of
Ramallah. Bil'in has now been put on the world map, famous and revered
for its campaign of non-violent, popular resistance against the apartheid
wall, which cuts the village off from much of their beautiful olive
groves.

 A photo I took in Bil'in on February 20, 2005.  The Israeli army had just started uprooting olive trees to make way for the Apartheid Wall.Before and After: A photo I took in Bil'in on February 20, 2005. The Israeli army had just started uprooting olive trees to make way for the Apartheid Wall.

And for three years, Bil'in, a town of roughly 1400 people, has been
holding demonstrations every Friday, immediately after prayers at the
mosque. Sometimes they have drawn thousands, sometimes they have drawn
less than 100, but the important thing is that they have continued, and
they have brought together locals, Israelis, and international activists
in what is arguably one of the greatest showing of creative resistance
that the world has ever seen.

 Bil'in, April 2008. Residents marching towards to now completed barrier in the background.After: Bil'in, April 2008. Residents marching towards to now completed barrier in the background.

I was in Bil'in again today for their Friday demonstration. As the march
wound its way outside of the city and towards the wall, the settlement of
Modi'in Illit loomed just on the other side, like a cancerous growth on the
horizon. When I photographed these demonstrations three years ago, the
Israeli army had just started tearing up trees in what was once a rich
olive grove. And now the wall is complete and snakes its way vulgarly
through ridges and hills.

Commenting on three years of the Bil'in demos, and 60 years of the state
of Israel, Abdul, the coordinator of the Popular Committee Against the
Wall tells me that the wall around his village is like a second Nakba, a
second catastrophe. And just as he's telling me this, we're forced to
move because the Israeli soldiers are shooting rubber bullets at us, and
tear gas canisters are falling all around.

Three years ago, I think I wrote that the smell of tear gas brings
bittersweet tears to people's eyes here. Tears that are so bound up in
struggle and resistance. Yes, I still stand by that.

Every Friday during the demonstrations, Bil'in residents open the gate in the Apartheid Wall in a symbolic act of resistance.Every Friday during the demonstrations, Bil'in residents open the gate in the Apartheid Wall in a symbolic act of resistance.

Three years went by so fast for me. Perhaps not so for Bilal, a young man
I met at a workshop in Tulkarem the other day. Bilal is 21 years old, and
he has already spent 2 and a half years of his life in an Israeli jail.

Two and a half years in a jail for engaging in resistance against the
occupation. Three years of an entire village in revolt, only to see clouds
and clouds of tear gas come back in its face. 60 years of wondering when
it will all end, and when people can go back to their homes.

Perhaps you have heard on the news that Fadel Shana, a cameraman working
for Reuters, was killed on April 16 after being shot by an Israeli tank shell in the Gaza stip. He was filming at the time. The shell that killed him is
referred to as a fleshette – a tank shell that explodes and sends out 3cm
metal darts. These metal darts filled Shana's chest and left him
lifeless. Not too far from that scene, two Palestinian boys were left
dead in the same attack. They were riding a bike at the time. Certainly
this does not make me feel good about being a journalist in Palestine at
the moment.

I go back in my mind a lot to a conversation I had with my friend Ahmed,
an elderly Palestinian refugee who is now living in Montreal. Riding
together on a bus from Montreal to Ottawa during the war in Lebanon two
years ago, he told me his whole story about how he had to flee his native
Haifa that fateful night that the Zionists came in 1948. He has never
been back to Haifa, but longs to see it again in his lifetime.
Ironically, the street across the way from his apartment in Laval is also
called Haifa street. Ahmed told me that story in his broken French, but
with such a sincerity, and such a longing to go back home – at least just
to visit.

Years may go by in a flash for some, but for others, they mark periods of
time of separation, and of longing.

Now, 60 years after the Nakba, I feel like Ahmed's story, like the stories of Abdul from Bil'in, Bilal from Tulkarem, and so many more, ring with even more urgency.

--Words and photos by Aaron Lakoff. aaron@resist.ca