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Books and bullets


D'Arcy Adrian-Vallance reports on his visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank as part of a team writing textbooks for Palestinian children.

The Oxford Writer, no 35, Summer 2004

IN THE MULTI-CULTURAL city of Jerusalem, where every known variety of Christian, Jew and Muslim jealously guards its own bit of turf, one place is known as a haven of neutrality. It was in room 16 of this Ottoman-palace-turned-religious-colony – now known as the American Colony Hotel – that the first secret meetings of the Oslo accords were held in the early 1990s. Its dimly lit cellar bar is a place where deals are done, and legend has it that the barman sees and knows more than most intelligence agencies. A glance at the guest book suggests that CNN and the BBC believe this legend. Or perhaps journalists just enjoy the sense of history and intrigue.

General Allenby and T E Lawrence stayed here after capturing the city in 1917, their celebrations perhaps marred by their guilty knowledge that Britain planned to betray her Arab allies. For instead of the independence we had promised to those who fought with us, we occupied their land. Then we gave some of it away as a Jewish national home, which expanded into the state of Israel and now holds neighbouring Arab territories (the West Bank and the tiny Gaza Strip) under military occupation.

We were there for four days of meetings with the Palestinian Ministry of Education, which had commissioned textbooks from Macmillan, Oxford for teaching English in schools throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

The project is funded mainly by the EU, as the Palestinian economy has been all but destroyed. It is hugely important to the Palestinians in their attempt to build a national identity and to educate their youth – one of the few resources they have left.

Palestinians cannot move freely, so we had to go to them. The West Bank city of Ramallah, a few miles north of Jerusalem, is where the Palestinian Authority has been allowed to develop an administrative centre in the hope that it will one day be the capital of a free Palestinian state. We set out from the hotel every morning for Ramallah, a journey that involved crossing the infamous checkpoint at Qalandia. Our party of four consisted of three authors, Mike Macfarlane (also a WiO member), Nick Coates and me, and a publisher from Macmillan, Gill McLean.

FROM THE CHECKPOINT we were driven to the Ministry offices, a few blocks from Yasser Arafat’s bombed-out compound. All aspects of daily life are difficult there. A few weeks previously, some Israeli soldiers had taken away all the office computers. One member of the curriculum team had just been released from Israeli military custody. He and all the residents of his apartment block had been taken at night and lined up. Odd numbers had been freed and even numbers held for three days in freezing conditions without toilet facilities, humiliated in various ways and finally released, all without explanation. This kind of treatment is seen by Palestinians as an attempt to persuade people to leave Palestine. But this man, though traumatised, did not even take a day off  work.

The next four days were spent in discussions about the project and in school visits, when we sat at the back of classrooms and watched lessons in progress and then chatted to the children, for whom talking to real live foreigners must have been a rare experience. We were impressed by their English, the commitment of teachers, and the children’s longing for a normal life – being able to visit friends in other towns, see the seaside, and so on. Each evening, we drove back to the checkpoint. One evening, our driver, an elderly man with neat white hair, pointed sadly to some abandoned olive terraces on a hillside. They had belonged to his family for generations but had been confiscated by the Israelis, to build a settlement. In cases like this, compensation is offered but always refused. To accept would make it legal.

At the checkpoint, Israeli soldiers stop everyone. Palestinians who are not residents of Jerusalem can go no further, even if they have families or businesses or fields on the other side. Even ambulances must queue up to an hour in the narrow lane of concrete and barbed wire.

MOST PEOPLE WALK through the checkpoint and pick up new transport on the other side. The soldiers who check the documents vary from young women weighed down by heavy automatic rifles to middle aged men; from the openly racist, to apologetic types who may even be weekend peace protesters. Each side despises the other’s language, so English is commonly heard. The long queues of people forced to walk through the mud and wait seemed almost tolerant, just wanting to get on with their lives.

The only protest we saw was one evening when a few children threw stones at an Israeli armoured car on Palestinian land. Minutes later, when we had passed to the Israeli side, there were shots behind us. Our driver, still on the Palestinian side, saw what happened and told us the next day. They shot one of the boys in the head. Back in the UK, I read a BBC report based on an Israeli army statement. It said the boy had been killed by a rubber bullet while soldiers were dispersing a crowd. There had been no crowd rioting silently in the dusk. The so-called ‘rubber bullets’ used by the IDF are not the same as those used in Northern Ireland; they are steel bullets with a thin rubber coating. Using these bullets allows the Israeli forces to portray killings as regrettable accidents.

On the flight home from Tel Aviv (Palestine’s own airports have been ploughed up), I was aware that I had not experienced life from the Israeli point of view at all. To be sure, Israeli state terrorism is mirrored by Palestinian terrorism, and Israelis have died too. Both sides suffer, and both sides have guilty people among them.

But the politics of the region was not what struck me most. The previous afternoon, we had taken photos of daily life in Ramallah, for use in the books and for artwork reference. Despite walking around with an expensive camera, I had felt safer than in many European cities. Most Palestinians are law-abiding to an extent that puts Europe to shame. What impressed me, in a region associated with violence, was the almost superhuman restraint of most of the people under provocative and humiliating occupation, and the extraordinary ability of human beings to keep working for a better future in the seemingly most hopeless of situations. □