Saturday, December 17, 2011

Caught in the Middle (East)

I wrote this in 2002 after a trip to Israel and Palestine.

Caught in the Middle (East)
By Paul O’ Connor
June 7 2002

Tick Tick Tick Tick...my mind can’t stop wondering when the next bomb will explode as I walk past the crowded bars of wealthy Tel Aviv. This is a city in fear waiting to sign for its next delivery of death from a Palestinian suicidal courier.

Undercurrents was invited to present our work in the International Student video festival in Israel and I accepted as a way to gain a first hand account of the war being waged here. On first impressions, I find the Middle East to be a melting pot of contradictions. Arab traders sell the black and white scarves made famous by the Palestinian resistance fighters. The invisible walls which segregates the Jews from the Muslims is so total that you feel like you are watching two parallel universes in action. The day I arrived, newspapers reported that arms dealers from Europe were too frightened to come to Israel’s International Security and Defence Exhibition, which is open to the public. The disappointed organiser of the event was quoted as saying “Israel has something to offer, we can battle test some products”.

On the first evening of the video festival, I found myself sitting next to Jewish Hollywood producer, Howard Rosenman. Whether I wanted to hear it or not, he boasted about his latest project with Speilburg- a blockbuster chronicling the bravery of the Israeli air force. Two days later I was being led around the bullet riddled Bethlehem home of Yousef Abdul. Without warning, Israeli supersonic F-16 jets had sent missile after missile into his home. In a burnt out bedroom, his father had died shielding ten screaming children. His family’s misfortune was to have the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat as a neighbour. Looking into the lens of my video camera, Yousef pleaded with the American public to stop funding these lethal weapons.

Apart from the thumping of Apache helicopters gunning over the hot Mediterranean, it was all to easy to forget that outside the expensive bubble of Tel Aviv, the most brutal and violent raids were being inflicted upon innocent civilians. To celebrate the brutality of the raid on Jenin refugee camp last month, the Israeli administration awarded medals to 12 of their soldiers for bulldozing Palestinians to death. Israeli left wing and Jewish activists had planned to protest the ceremony, but a suicide attack that morning forced the proceedings to be abandoned. Anyone familiar with the Bible (or Heavy Metal) will be familiar with the town of Meggido. Thirteen young conscripts that boarded a bus there, died when a survivor from Jenin positioned his car alongside the fuel tank before detonating a bomb. As readers of the Book of Revelations (or viewers of ‘The Omen’ movies) will recall, the final battle between good and evil is predicted to take place in the area of Meggido. That battle has a name, Armageddon.

In a cycle of death following death, the Israeli Defence Forces (or in Palestine, the ‘Israeli Occupation Forces’) inflict colossal damage on the civilian population. For every suicide attack on innocent civilians by a Palestine fighter, the Israeli war machine destroys the area in which the bomber was born, or had lived in. To gain a perspective, imagine the result if the British Army had sent in Tornado fighters and tanks to destroy the Belfast home of every family member of one IRA bomber?

Under the cover and funding of the video festival, I offered to train the video and media activists trying to give a grassroots account of the war. In Tel Aviv, the volunteer run Independent Media Centre (IMC) consists of a video edit suite, a radio channel and a couple of internet connected PCs. Open access is given to anyone willing to publish their own viewpoints on http://www.indymedia.org.il. Lining the shelves are our Undercurrents videos of direct actions from Britain, all translated into Hebrew. I left a few of our latest videos on CD-ROMs for easy and inexpensive copying and distribution. On the table lay the broken remains of a video camera. One young Israeli video activist tells me of the beating he received from Israeli police while recording a demonstration in May. Despite enormous pressure from the Zionist public (read fanatically nationalistic) this hasn’t deterred the founder of the centre, Momo, from screening their videos to encourage Israelis to adopt non-violent action to end the war. One of the most high profile actions is to refuse to join up for the compulsory military service. This week, teenager Jonatan Ben Artzi stuck to his pacifist principles and was thrown into jail for three months. The court of army judges declared it was not pacifism that prompted Ben Artzi to opt out but “an inability to adapt to the system”.

Having dinner that evening with a group of student filmmakers from the festival, I gained an insight into the Israeli mind. The “funky chick”, as she calls herself, with the braided hair to my left, mentioned she was a passionate Zionist before recently discovering a wider perspective on events through her film studies. She, like everyone else at the table, had spent her compulsory two years in the military serving as a sniper. Unless you live in Sandhurst perhaps, you probably can’t relate to the odd feeling of being surrounded by an average looking bunch of students eating Ostrich burgers but who are all trained to kill.

In Jerusalem, 50 year old peace campaigner, Jeff Harper from the Alternative Information Centre took me on one a tour of the ancient walled City. Starting at the impressive Jaffa gate in the Jewish quarter, we strolled past the infamous Wailing Wall of David. Lined up against the remains of the western retaining wall of the old temple, Zionist soldiers, with assault rifles strapped across their backs, were bowed in prayer for its reconstruction. To stop me wondering why everyone was staring at me so suspiciously, Jeff informed that tourists haven’t been seen around here since the war flared up again. The only internationals in Israel now are either Journalists or activists in support of the Palestinians. With a foot in both camps, I was extremely careful to reveal little about my own viewpoints.

We walked on past the streets in which Jesus Christ was reported to drag a wooden cross through on the way to his crucifixion, and on towards the Muslim quarter. The contrast was stunning, only fifty steps behind I had stood in a rich and sterile white Jewish environment, now it was a mirch masala of colourful vegetable displays, fragrant spices, beggars pleading, and Arab traders yelling. Standing out like a bagel in a kebab shop, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon occupied a house smack in the middle and right above the Muslim quarter. His long flag, of a blue and white star, hanging from a window was splattered with red.

This sort of insensitivity prompted me to ask the entry controller at the airport not to stamp my passport. I figured my future travels to Arab countries would be a lot smoother without any inky evidence of a visit to Israel. Security forces took offence and subjected me to a body search, complete with intense questioning by three different people. However the video festival proved to be the perfect cover and an hour later I gained an entry visa, stamped on a separate piece of paper.

One of the reasons I had wanted to come was to find the videotapes that a friend had recorded, inside the Church of the Nativity, during the Israeli invasion of Bethlehem last month. While she had managed to smuggle the digital tapes out of the church before being deported, the tapes were still lying unseen somewhere within the shrinking borders of Palestine. It would be important footage to show the world, so getting them out of Israel would make the entire trip worthwhile.

I had two choices. Hop on an air-conditioned bus ride for fifteen minutes through the leafy Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem to the checkpoint, and then walk in. Or I could travel with the Arabs from the Muslim quarter of the city. I chose to catch a ride with the Palestinians. Since religious tourism ceased in the last two years, their economy is collapsing. Withdrawal of work permits to work in Israel by Sharon’s government has escalated the problem. The result is that one third of the workforce are now living on less that $2 a day. Meanwhile Israel airlifted 6000 farm workers from Thailand this month to do the same labour, which Palestinians had been doing for years.

Even the public transport has now been reduced to a mess of worn out white transit vans, one of which I was sitting in. Leaving a group of men cheering US play Portugal in the World Cup, I set off on a cramped and hot two hour ordeal around narrow back streets and across pot holed tracks and hills. Banned from the Jewish areas, the driver had to find open routes around the military checkpoints. In the distance I could see cars kicking up dust as they were forced off main roads in a bid to deliver food to the cut off and slowly starving population.

Our van was finally halted at a checkpoint near Bethlehem. I was ordered out by M16 toting Israeli soldiers. While one scrutinised my passport. I heard myself calming telling them I was an Irish Catholic on a holy tourist trip. Perhaps I had stood too close to the Blarney stone on a trip to Cork last month, but dragging up knowledge of my lapsed religious upbringing helped get me into the siege town of Bethlehem, without being searched or questioned any further.

To the North, South, East and West of the holy town, Israeli troops lie ready to send in their tanks at any moment. What was once a low-level checkpoint crossing a year ago, has become a military base protected by a deep trench surrounded by coils of razor wire. The largest earthmover I had ever seen sits facing the main street. Everywhere the Palestinians are rebuilding their homes, shops and streets following the Israeli invasion only a few weeks previous. Nudge the clock back another two thousand years and a mother and a Shepherd wandered these streets seeking shelter to give birth to a future activist. Today she would face a similar predicament as many of the inns now lay derelict. Standing 400 yards from the actual spot where believers mark where Christ entered the world, the Star Hotel survived by staying open during the invasion in April, charging an extortionate $500 a night to reporters who risked staying to cover the street battles.

Georgie, a British woman living in the town published daily eyewitness accounts on http://jerusalem.indymedia.org/ as well as helping co-ordinate activists from abroad coming in to support the Palestinians. Showing me around the ruins of Yasser Arafats administration building, she explained how they had set up an Indymedia working space two minutes down the road, in the same building as Bethlehem TV. However when the invasion began, reporters from the local Television channel fled. Today serrated track marks scar every wall and pavement from tanks forcing their way through the narrow streets. Broken doors still lay where the Israeli troops had smashed their way in during dawn raids. Every home they searched was now daubed with a green X.

To aid tank drivers find their bearings in the small town centre; an advance squad had sprayed directions in Hebrew across the main streets. Racist slogans and the blue Star of David are everywhere. I recorded black scorch marks around the windows and doors of a Mosque. Chatting with shopkeepers made it clear that this was a deadly and humiliating attack on mostly unarmed civilians under the guise of searching for terrorists. A schoolteacher cleaning red paint off a computer screen showed me yet another smashed video camera. Israelis troops had ripped the tape out, he told me when he tried to record the invasion. One soldier then poured paint over his office and equipment. However in a display of Arabic humour, one shopkeeper did give praise to the unknown tank driver who had flattened the concrete pillars near his home. No longer would he dent his car on them while parking.

Less than two weeks ago, the Church of the Nativity had caught the attention of the world’s media when 160 Palestinians including policemen, civilians and armed Militia had sought sanctuary in the 1600-year-old building. Blackened with time, flickering candles reflect in a silver shrine under the Alter, marking the very spot in where Christ was supposedly born. I felt I had completed a circle. Only the previous day I had stood on the spot in Jerusalem where the self-proclaimed Son of God had died and reputedly arose again. It is surely the most contentious square mile on the entire planet.

A golden domed Mosque now marks the exact point of their prophets recorded ascension into his Heaven. However hard-liner Jews (or Zionists) view the Dome of the Rock as an obstacle to their salvation. They hold beliefs that the Mosque must be destroyed to make way for the construction of their new temple. Property squabbles aside, Jews are also waiting for their God to choose a man who will end Evil, and bring all the exiles back to Israel.

Respect for other sacred places are low on the list of Zionists. In Bethlehem, Israel succeeded in outraging two world religions by sending snipers into a Mosque to fire round after round into the walls, statues, windows, and roof of the most unique of Christian churches. To the left of the marble pulpit the bodies of the dead had been laid throughout the 38-day siege. The women of the town risked their lives trying to smuggle in food to the resisters. Near a small metal door at the back, two citrus trees are in full bloom while two others have been stripped bare.

A local explained that the church occupants were so hungry, they ate leafs off the trees on the right but because of snipers, they couldn’t reach the trees on the left. At the height of the siege, ten activists from the International Solidarity Movement, out manoeuvred the Israeli blockades and tanks and ran in through the tiny front entrance of the church to offer support to the Palestinians. One of those activists brought her video camera in and spent nearly two weeks recording 23 hours of dramatic footage from inside.
Photo:Jaq and Palestinians. She filmed inside the church during an Israeli siege

The person who is now holding the tapes was found, but due to the many religious and political games going on behind the scenes, he could not be convinced to hand them over. The negotiations are continuing to get the inside story told about one of the most dramatic events of the invasion.

Sixteen hours later and with little sleep, I had to leave for the airport. In Israel, security checks go beyond just searching for bombs. While my bags were X-rayed, emptied, and pulled apart at the seams, questions were fired at me about who I had met, where I had been, and why was I here. A body search, followed by two hours of intense questioning was tiring but I succeeded in avoiding saying anything about my trip into Bethlehem. The video festival once again had played a useful covering role. Thoughtfully I had destroyed all the notes I had made and emailed all the contact details I needed to remember. I remained calm as every scrap of paper was minutely examined and every piece of clothing was checked but when it came to my video equipment I started to become agitated. When my camera was taken and not returned until twenty minutes later, my annoyance increased. Eventually after three hours of intense examining I finally boarded the plane on its way to Heathrow.

Even more loudly than before, I can still hear that Tick Tick Tick Tick in my head.

Undercurrents is an award winning alternative news service producing videos of people taking inspiring actions. http://www.undercurrents.org

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