Understanding the world, one step at the time
Migration, the common theme in Bethlehem

Besides from the many differences in culture, social norms, language, and traditions, I have found an aspect in many people in the area that I can relate with, and helps me to get closer to them. I have come to realize, that in the Bethlehem district, a great number of Palestinians have migrated out of the country due to the many difficulties they face here. But what really surprises me is that most of them, especially Christians, have gone to countries in Latin America, such as Chile, Honduras, Panama, Peru, and some others. Because of this, most of the time when people ask me where I am from, when I say I am from Ecuador, they all have either heard about it, have relatives there, have visited, and some even answer me back in Spanish.

Gathering information from different people in the area, I have come to understand a little better about the waves of migration from the Bethlehem district to different countries in Latin America and elsewhere.  Many of the migration happened at the end of the last century, 1800, under  the Ottoman rule, and it seems that one of the mayor reasons was because many people did not want to be part of the military, which was obligatory at that time.  At this point, many people migrated to South America. However, the biggest wave of migration came later, under the British occupation of the area, when many families tried to reunite their members and so entire families migrated to meet their relatives in different countries. Since then, and due to the difficult situation of living under Israeli control, many more people have used family connections in other countries to migrate looking for a better life.

Because of this, some estimates show that in Latin America there are around 500,000 Christians Palestinians in countries like Chile, Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil, among others.  The city of Beit Jala, close to Bethlehem, with a population of around 12,000 people, the majority Christians, has 78,000 people, originally from Beit Jala, living in Chile along. This has created strong links between Beit Jala and Santiago de Chile.

While attending the Crimesan weekly mass, just outside of Beit Jala, which is a Catholic weekly prayer against the construction of the wall, I was surprised when I found out that one of the priests that attend the mass was from Argentina.  A few weeks later, however, I met a Chilean family that was visiting their remaining relatives in Beit Jala, as they try to do every year in order to maintain the connection strong. As the Easter festivities approached, however, I started to hear more Spanish in the crowd, to see more shorts and sleeveless shirts (not common for Palestinians), more cameras and more Chilean flags. The link reached its highest point when at some point part the mass was given in Spanish!!


As recently as a week ago, I attended a house demolition by the Israeli military, just outside Beit Jala. For my surprise, as I was introducing myself to the owner of the house, he stopped me and switching his voice from broken English into a fluent Spanish, started telling me the whole situation and even his personal story. George, originally from Beit Jala, lived in Colombia for many years, in Barranquilla, and now has 6 children and many grandchildren, all Colombians. He came back some years ago to live in Beit Jala in order to cultivate his family land. While he was telling the story of the farm house that was demolished, he also told me, very frustrated, the difficulties of living under occupation and of being part of the Christian minority in the region. He told me that once his last daughter graduates from high school, he is thinking of going back to Colombia, to get together with the rest of his family and have a somewhat easier life.

This example only made me realize that the migration phenomenon is still very present among the Christian families in the region, and how the Israeli policies against Palestine are actually forcing people, including many Christians, to leave their land and migrate far away looking for a better life.

This scenario of mass migration is well known for Ecuadorians, where most of the families have a migrant relative living abroad or know someone that has migrated. Because of this, I have been able to create this strange connection with people around the area and it has allowed me to understand some of the conflicts and nostalgia that exists around their stories. 

Economic Occupation

I randomly met Issa Smeirat while attending an event in one the Bethlehem’s refugee camps.  As he explained to me what the event meant to people, he told me a little about the research he had recently finished and I became very interested on the conclusions that he reached.

After a couple of days, I set up a meeting with him in order to talk about his research. We met in a café and he started explaining his work. His research “Determinants of Palestinian Direct Investment from the West Bank in Israel and Settlements” became the first study undertaken about this topic and got a lot of attention; it even got published in 2011 due to its importance. The study demonstrated how, through different policies, Israel has managed to benefit from the Palestinian economy in a direct and indirect way. We sat and talked for around an hour and a half about economics, development and political economy of the conflict, together with numbers and percentages of GDP, investments, unemployment, and development strategies.  I was very exited of having this discussion, since it was the first time that someone was giving an overview of the situation in economic terms.

He started with an explanation on how Israel has gain control on the main factors of production in the Palestinian economy, such as land, capital and labor.  About the land, he explained that a lot of Palestinian land has been taken by Israel for defense purposes and for the construction of settlements. Also, he describes that because of this policies, agriculture as a percentage of Palestine’s GDP has gone down from 45% in the 1960s to about 4% today. He sees Israeli policies such as land confiscation, limited access to their land and water wells graving as the causes of this change, since this makes it very difficult for people to work their land, forcing a big part of Palestinian agricultural workers to work in Israelis agricultural farms.

About capital, Issa explained me that when Israel took control of the Palestine territories, it closed the 11 Palestinian banks that existed at the time and simultaneously opened 33 branches of Israeli banks in the area. This move allowed Israel to use Palestinian savings in order to invest it into the Israeli economy. Also, Israel has implemented a policy that forbids any new investment (factories, etc) in the West Bank without the permission from the Israeli Ministry of Defense. This has also made it difficult for factories to reinvest and expand in the West Bank and many of them had closed down, having a direct negative effect on the Palestinian economy.

Talking about labor, Israel has managed to control this factor of production by having restriction of mobility and creating a system of working permits that depend upon the demand for labor in Israel, but does not consider the supply of labor within the West Bank. As can be seen, these policies create very unfavorable conditions in the West Bank. Given the difficulties of investments, land grabbing, and restriction of mobility in order to search for jobs, unemployment in the West Bank has remained high.

Smeirat argues that these policies are damaging Palestinian infrastructure at different levels, such as hospitals, factories, roads, etc, affecting the economy and creating dependence of Palestine towards Israel.  To prove this point, he mentioned that in 1967 Israel GDP was around 3-4 times that of Palestine, but now Palestine GDP is only 2.5 % of Israel. These difficulties, for him, are the main reasons that have pushed many Palestinians to invest in Israel and settlements, therefore benefiting even further the Israeli economy.

By this point I was already impressed by the numbers and economic consequences of the occupation. However, I really wanted to know more about it, and I felt like he knew a lot more on the topic, and so I asked him about a Palestinian development strategy for the country.

He explained to me that the Palestinian Authority has come up with different strategies to develop the economy but usually they are very difficult to implement. The main reason for this, Smeirat said, is the budget constrain that the country has, since for example, 15% of its budget comes from donors, 35% come from Indirect taxes and only 16% comes from local taxes. It is important to understand that indirect taxes are taxes that Palestinians buying in Israel pay to Israel and then this money is returned to Palestine, and vice versa (Paris Protocol, 1993-4). This system makes the Palestinian budget mostly dependent on Israel for money, which at any chance can squeeze the economy by holding that money. As example of this, Smeirat pointed out that during the first intifada, Israel financed its army with taxes collected from the West Bank. Also, in the period of 1967-93 Israel collected $10 Bn from West Bank taxes and used these taxes for their priorities. 

These are some of the facts and information that I was able to get from this conversation with Issa Smeirat.  If you are interested in knowing more about his findings and related topics, please visit http://www.alternativenews.org

'Under total Israeli control'

Anas looked at us, and with a rather calm expression, he said: “We are Palestinians. We have Palestinian IDs. We have a Palestinian Authority. Yet we are under total Israeli Control.”

He was referring to the situation of Palestinians that live in Area C of the West Bank.  Under the Olso Accords in 1993, the West Bank was divided into three administrative divisions, areas A, B, and C. Area A of the West Bank became fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which meant security and administrative control. In area B, the Palestinian Authority kept the administrative control but Israel remained in control of the security of the area.  The remaining of the West Bank, around 63% of the land, became Area C, which meant total Israeli control.

Areas A and B are made up mostly by Palestinian cities and villages, usually populated areas, and area C is mostly rural areas. Despite this, there are many people living in rural areas that are considered area C and also most of the villages’ agricultural lands are placed in this area. This situation creates many problems, since in area C people cannot build any type of infrastructure without construction permits, which are almost impossible to get.  In many small villages around the West Bank, demolitions and demolition orders of infrastructure, such as houses, business, solar panels, or cisterns, are very common.

Before inviting us for a cup of tea and describing to us the village’s situation, Anas, our local contact in the village, took us to see three houses that have demolition orders because the Separation Wall that Israel is building will be too close to these houses, and so they became a security concern. He also showed us a house that was demolished a couple of years ago. 

Looking Palestinian

It was the first time that looking Palestinian gave me a hard time. It happened early in the morning while I was working at the Check Point.  After crossing the ID Booth into the Israeli side of the CP, I stopped before the exit door, and started greeting the Palestinians that were walking towards the bus.  At that point, I heard screaming coming from above, in Hebrew, but I did not pay attention to them since usually soldiers are screaming at people through the loudspeakers. As I looked up to find the loudspeaker closer to me, I saw a soldier looking at me very upset, standing in one of the corridors hanging from the roof. Scared, I tried to understand what he was yelling, and then he made a movement with his hands telling me that I needed to keep walking, to get out of the CP towards the sidewalk.

Frustrated by the fact that I would not be able to see much of the CP from inside, which is what we are suppose to do to make sure that everything is working properly, I got out and stand next to the exit door. For a few minutes I greeted more people that were passing through the door, and I heard it again. The loud yelling coming from inside the CP started again. I looked inside the door and saw the soldier starring at me, telling me with signs to approach him. As I entered the CP, he moved his hands to make me understand that it was OK for me to stay inside. But apparently something else was bothering him, since he kept shouting and pointing at me from the second floor. I looked at him incredulous since I could not understand a word he was saying, my knowledge of Hebrew is zero, and a bit afraid but firmly I told him that I only spoke English and that I could not understand him. I noticed how he was getting impatient with me.  After a few seconds of this, I finally understood one word. It was something that sounded like the word Arab.

At that point I think I understood what was all this about. He was asking me if I was Arab. Very slowly, I said to him in English: “I am from Ecuador. ECUADOR.”  Luckily he understood the name of the country and stopped yelling. For the next 5 minutes though, he kept staring at me as if he could not believe I was not Palestinian, but South American. After that, he left to guard the other side of the CP.

This is my reading of what happened:  At first, he thought I was another Palestinian worker going to Jerusalem and so, of course, I could not stay inside; there was no reason for me to stop before the exit.  Probably after seen the EAPPI logo on the back of my vest when I got out of the door, he realized that I was an international and ‘kindly’ made me come back inside. Skeptical about my origins though, he kept asking me where I was from, I guess just to make sure I was not Palestinian. When hearing something like Ecuador, he calmed down and left me alone. 

Despite the fact that I have seen how bad Palestinians are treated by Israeli soldiers, I have never felt threaten or treated the same way as a Palestinian, since I am seen as an international.  This encounter, however, allowed me to experience for a very short time how a Palestinian must feel when encountering an angry soldier.

Presence Absentee

It’s an explanation I got for a legal status. For example, after the construction of the wall, the village of Al Walaja, near Bethlehem, was split. Half of the village ended up on the “Israeli” side of the wall, and so it got annexed to the Jerusalem District. The houses did, but the people, the owners, did not. Despite living in the Jerusalem District now, the people got Orange Cards, which are for Palestinians living in the West Bank, not Blue Cards, which are for Palestinians residents in the Jerusalem District. This means that all these people, under Israeli law, are living illegally in Israel; they are physically present, but legally absent.  Presence Absentee!

Al Ma’sara, a village in resistance

In front of our house there was a taxi waiting for us, a bit impatient. We were going to Al Ma’sara, a village of around 900 people, dedicated mainly to agriculture, to meet Mahmoud Zwarghra, the town’s ex-major and current activist. We got into the taxi, and the driver took us to the village, about 15 minutes south of Bethlehem.

Once we arrived at Al Ma’sara, we could hear Muslim prayers coming from the loudspeakers of the Mosque nearby. When we got to Mahmoud’s house, there was already a group of people outside, and we understood that it was the place where the protest would start. About five minutes after we arrived, as more people had gathered outside his home, the protest started. There were around 50 people, all men from different ages; the youngest was 5 years old. Many were carrying Palestinian red, white, green, and black flags. The rest of the team and I walked behind the protesters while passing through the narrow roads of the town. More and more people joined in and started walking in the direction of a house, just outside the village, that has become the symbol of resistance for many in the town.

Because of the Israeli policy of building settlements in the West Bank (illegal under international humanitarian law), many villages have lost their land and some people even their houses because of land grabs and fast expansion of settlements around their villages. When settlements are built, they are given private road that connects them to one another and to Jerusalem, which divides and disconnects Palestinian villages from each other, since they are not allowed to use those road, not even to cross them; settlements are also given potable water, regular electricity, garbage collectors, and private security; services that the surrounding villages do not enjoy.  For me, they look like concrete islands in the middle of the countryside, affecting its surroundings, always high in the hills, so they can see who is approaching.

A settlement (right) next to a Palestinian village (left)

A settlement (right) next/above a Palestinian village (left).

Al Ma’sara is one of these villages. Since 2006, the village has been affected, on the one hand, by the construction of the wall on part of the village’s land, destroying the environment and uprooting many olive trees in the area. On the other hand, due to the expansion of one settlement next to the village, one family became affected after their house ended up inside the settlement’s limits.  Because of this, the family was harassed by the military and the settlers in order to push them out of their house. The family finally moved out but the village decided to take control of the house and plan to use it as a cultural center, where international volunteers can stay and help with the olive harvesting in the land next to the house. Because of this, every Friday after the noon prayers, people in the village gather together and walk towards the house, as a sign of support and resistance.

Mahmoud explaining us about the situation, with the house behind him.

But off course, the Israeli military sees this as a security concern, and they usually send soldiers to block the access of the main road, to not allow the protesters to reach the house. This time was no different. As the protesters approached the military blockade, people started chanting and waiving their flags. After a long discussion between the protesters and some soldiers, Mahmouh, our contact, got pulled to the side as if he was going to be arrested. People followed him despite the soldiers’ efforts to stop them, and so the protest moved to the side of the road, to an olive trees’ field. The discussion continued for about 45 minutes, as I stood there, making presence, taking pictures, without been able to join the protest and waive one of their flags, despite how much I wanted to. 

After a while, people started to return to the village and the soldiers waited there until everybody walked away. At first I thought that the protesters did not accomplish much, since they were not able reach the house, but then, after reflecting about it, this are the types of non violent actions that keep people together, sending a message to the soldiers and the authorities, showing that people are not giving up, that occupation won’t be tolerated.


Stories of a Present Past

As we sat on his grandparents’ living room, waiting for the customary cup of tea, Adel looked at us and said “and now I will tell you a real story, my personal secret story.”

After been in Palestine for several weeks, where people have seen foreign armies come and go, I have become used to the fact that most of the people I meet have unusual life stories, experiences out of the ordinary.  These stories, for me, are the most vivid examples of living under occupation. The fact that most of them can tell these stories with the greatest details, with deep and strong feelings, is what really makes me realize and understand what these people are going through living under these conditions.

Adel told us that one night, back in 2003, he and his family were sleeping, when they heard the Israeli military outside their house. They were screaming and throwing stones at the windows. After the family came out, the soldiers went in the house and started searching, disorganizing everything. Once they came out, they started asking questions to everybody and when they heard Adel’s name, they took him and told him he was arrested, and without giving more details, put him in their car and drove away. He was only 21, and he would not come back to his house for the next 4 years, after he was released from prison in 2007.

At that point, his grandfather came to the living room to greet us. He was big person, 89 years old, still very active and cheerful, trying to welcome us with his broken English. He sat in the couch next to his wife, and started to speak to us in Arabic.


We had contacted Adel a couple of days ago, before we met him today in Wadi Fukin, his home village, because the village nowadays was experiencing yet another form of settlers’ violence. The settlement on the hill right next to the village was throwing its sewage water to the villages’ land and crops. We saw him in our contact list, and we decided to pay him a visit, to meet him and learn about the story of his town. Once we arrive at the town, he took us for a little tour around the area, to take a closer look at the settlement, the village land, and finally to meet his grandparents. When we entered the house, the entire family was waiting for us, including Adel’s brother, his wife and baby, one cousin and his grandmother.

Some houses of the village with a settlement on the back

Adel started translating his grandfather’s stories for us. His grandfather was born in the village, back in the twenties, and married his wife when he was only 16. He served in the British army when they were in control of the area and he remembers with great details when the British passed their control of the land to Jordan, which took control of the West Bank after the UN partitioned the land to create the state of Israel.  When the Israelis took control of the West Bank, he remembers how the entire village had to leave the zone after many military incursions and attacks on villagers. All the villagers went to live in one of Bethlehem’s refugee camps. During the next twenty years, until the 70’s, while living in the refugee camp, many of them returned to the village at night in order to work their land, and went back again before sunrise, in order to avoid been shot.  In the 70’s, the villagers that had not migrated to Georgia, were able to return to their homes. He was one of the few that did, and started his life again in Wadi Fukin. Since then, he has seen most of the village’s land taken over by Israel and converted into settlements that by now almost surround the entire village with massive buildings, security roads, gates, etc.

While listening to his stories, I couldn’t help but think how many stories he has experienced in his lifetime, things that for me could only have happened centuries ago and that I could only read them in history books. But this was not the case; this is all so recent, all so present. 

Check Point 300

I arrived at the Check Point at 3:55 am, just before the doors opened at 4 am for Palestinians to go to Israel or the Jerusalem area for work and other activities.  There were around 450 people already waiting in line inside a huge cage, waiting for the military guard to open the turnstile to let them pass.  My two teammates and I reached the line and squeezed in between the men in order to pass through. Luckily, most of them recognized the brown vest that we were wearing, with the EAPPI logo on the back, and let us pass. As we walked through with difficulty we could heard them talk to each other, laugh, ask us questions, all in Arabic off course, so we could not really be sure if they were comfortable with us walking through. Finally, we reached the first obstacle of the Check Point, the first turnstile.   

 

After surrounding the Bethlehem district with an 8 meters wall, the Israeli government left this Check Point as a gate to connect the district with Israel and Jerusalem. This Check Point can only be crossed by Palestinians with special permits, such as working permits, hospital permits, among a few others.  Because of the short distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, many people use the gate in order to get to Jerusalem, which translates to an average of 2000 people crossing the Check Point from 4:00 am to 8:00 am every day, one of the busiest Check Points in the country.

Just as we approached the first turnstile, the guard started to let people in, which make it very hard for us to pass through the people any more. Everybody started to get anxious and started to push towards the turnstile, creating chaos and screaming, making the guards angry at the crowd.  We managed to get to the turnstile, but just as I was crossing it, the guard decided to stop it for a few minutes. I tried to look at him to see if there was any problem, but since he was inside a cabin, I was able to see just part of his face.  He looked very young, probably 19, just out of high school. I could not believe that such a young person could have this much power on people, deciding who passes through the turnstile and at what time. As I waited in the middle of the turnstile, he wasn’t even looking at me, but looking on a screen in front of him. After some time, a green line in front of me turned on and I was able to push the turnstile again. While approaching the cabin, I got my passport out and showed it to him. He moved his head as a sign that it was OK for me to pass.

 

Because of the many irregularities that people experienced inside this place for many years, such as random stops and sent backs, not opening the turnstiles on time, not working at full capacity despite the big number of people waiting in line, or not allowing people to pray inside or around the area, there were always problems and confrontation with the military and the private security guards. Because of this, one of the Bethlehem’s team main priorities has been to go to the Check Point at rush hours, 4:00am-8:00am, in order to serve as a protective presence and to report any irregularities made by the military and private guards.  

As I entered the Check Point, there were a lot of people running, looking desperate, to get fast to the already long line for the metal detector. I got on line and started looking around, surprised, thinking that Palestinians need to do this every day to go to work or attend a medical appointment, which could take between 45 to 90 minutes during rush hours. I also thought how much the infrastructure reminded me of a prison, with corridors everywhere, security cameras, military guards inside cabins and watch towers and private guards with machine guns walking around corridors hanging from the roof, watching everybody. 

After standing and waiting for about 20 minutes, I passed the metal detector just to get to another line, this one to pass the ID booth. It is important to mention that the Check Point was not functioning at full capacity, since only one metal detector and one ID booth were functioning, which made the lines very long and people to be late for work. Apart from showing their permits to the officers inside the cabin and scanning them in a machine, Palestinians needed to demonstrate their identity in a fingerprint machine.

If they manage to pass all this security, they take a bus towards Jerusalem, about 30 minutes, that includes random stops by police officers to control their permits. If they have a restriction or have their permits cancelled, they are not allow to pass. Since usually the guards don’t speak any Arabic, people are sent back without a formal or proper explanation, creating confusion and despair.

After I passed the ID booth with my passport, I stopped at a corner next to the open booth, and got ready to work for the next 4 hours. As I stand there observing and writing, some people greeted me, in English or Arabic, as they walked towards the busses.

The walls are the newspaper of the people!

My first 3 hours in Bethlehem

My first 3 hours in Bethlehem

You know, one thing is to hear the stories when you are very far away, in another continent far away, but another is to see and hear the reality for your own, quite shocking.  This is what happened to me just hours of my arrival to Bethlehem.

Just an hour later of arriving to our new home, just starting to get comfortable and warm, me and the rest of the team were off again, to participate in a protest just outside our house, next to the dividing wall. We walked to the wall, literally a house away from ours, and we saw a group of people walking together, with difficulty due to the strong and cold wind, alongside the wall, passing very close to a car entrance so the soldiers could see them. As we approach them from the back, we heard that they were praying together out loud, parts in English and the last prayer in what I could guess was Latin.  We got closer to the group and started walking behind them. We did this for the next half an hour or so, back and forward alongside the wall.  

This activity was done by the group before us during their three months experience, every Friday afternoon, and off course we are going to continue with this work.  At some point, the group stopped next to a painting of the Virgin Mary on the wall, and prayed in Latin for the last time. The protest was over.  The people at the group started greeting each other and us as well, and they started talking to us and thanking us for been there. The old team knew most of the people there, so we were introduced. I was able to meet two nuns, one professor from the University of Bethlehem, and a few other people. Among the group there was an old women, big, wearing colorful clothe which distinguished her from the others that were wearing mostly black clothe.  She was the reason why this protest took place every Friday.

Since the wall was built, don’t know exactly when it was, there was a house that ended up been  very close to it, and most of its land was left on the other side of the wall, without any doors to crossed it.  The family that lived in the house had a lot of olive trees from which they made olive oil for earning an income, and now they were not able to do it, they couldn’t reach the trees for harvesting.  One of the family members was this woman, who after the wall was built, she approached the wall, passing near the car entrance, and walked and prayed for about 45 minutes as a form of protest, hoping that it will help her get her trees again. Along with her, there were people from the city that wanted to show solidarity to her and so they also came, every week, to accompany her to walk and prayed. We were there to do the same.

As she was telling us her story, it was amazing how she could talk to us about her situation and still have energy to tell jokes, smile and invite us someday for tea at her house.  Despite her distress, she seemed hopeful for the future. After we walked together to her house, we said goodbye and walked home to enjoy dinner.