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Ω2

Palestine: Does it exist?

I already analyzed in my previous article how Israel was formed in 1948 on Palestinian land but I hear from many people a basic question: “Is Palestine a country?”. Well, it depends on who you ask but in practice, it’s hardly a country anymore… It’s not absolutely recognized and the Palestinian authorities have little actual power. It is a country held by Israel under military occupation. Of course, Palestine doesn’t exist for most Israelis. All that area is Israel according to them. They are very offended and they become verbally aggressive when they hear words like: “Palestine”, “Gaza” or “West Bank”. What the rest of the world calls “West Bank” is Judea and Samaria for them.

There are only two little pieces of land left that somebody could call Palestine. The smallest of them is the Gaza Strip, a piece of land 45 km (28 miles) long and less than 10 km (6 miles) wide. About 1.4 million Palestinians live in this densely populated land, which is the world’s largest outdoor prison. Nobody can go in or out by land or by sea, except a handful of people who got special permissions by the Israeli authorities.

I could only see Gaza from far away... Israeli hot-air balloons film every moment in the Gaza Stip.

I could only see Gaza from far away… Israeli hot-air balloons film every moment in the Gaza Stip.

We went just next to the Gaza Strip but of course, we were not allowed to enter. We were determined to visit the West Bank, though. Entering the West Bank from Jerusalem, we didn’t even have to stop. We needed no visa and there is no border post, since according to Israelis this is the same country, their country… However, there is a new 712-km (442 miles) wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis and there are military checkpoints where people are controlled when exiting the West Bank. Of course, most of them are Israelis and usually, the control is nothing more than letting the soldiers know that they are Israelis.

The infamous, new 712-km (442 miles) wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis...

The infamous, new 712-km (442 miles) wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis…

After the Oslo Accords in 1993, the West Bank was divided into three areas. Only Area A (18% of the West Bank) is under Palestinian civil and security control. Area B (21% of the West Bank) is under Palestinian civil control but Israeli security control. The majority of the West Bank (61%), Area C, is under full Israeli control over security, planning and construction. In practice, the Israeli army enters even Area A. Area A and B are made out of 166 islands of Palestinian towns in a sea of Israeli-controlled Area C, which is the only continuous area in the West Bank. That means Palestinians are restricted in their movements, even inside the West Bank. Their houses and farms are routinely demolished due to claimed “security reasons”, while building a house is almost impossible since in most areas they need permission from the Israeli authorities. Israel formally controls the West Bank’s largest area and most of its natural resources, including the water which is scarce and an important issue on the conflicts in Middle East.

The only areas left to Palestinians are those small, light brown pieces of land. The rest are considered Israeli despite being in the West Bank.

The only areas left to Palestinians are those small, light brown pieces of land. The rest are considered Israeli despite being in the West Bank.

I and Stella were invited to a Christian Greek Orthodox Palestinian wedding in Bethlehem. We met again Spiro and his family, that we first met in Jordan. It was a cousin of Spiro who was getting married. The wedding took place in a Greek Orthodox church and the party in a modern wedding hall was really vivid with powerful traditional dances. However, what we remember with the sweetest memories was the informal party which took place the previous day in the grandma’s house… Like in Greece, the grandparents’ house is always the family’s meeting point. No appointments or arrangements are necessary. People get in the house whenever they are free, somebody plays music and the party starts in a moment. Blue-eyed Ms. Sophie, 83 years old, got up and started dancing with her children and grandchildren. As they had told us beforehand, we had to forget what is happening in Palestine… Everybody is happy and celebrates in such an occasion!

Me and Stella were invited in a Christian Palestinian wedding in Bethlehem. It was a great chance for us to see how Palestinians put aside their problems for a while and celebrate!

Me and Stella were invited in a Christian Palestinian wedding in Bethlehem. It was a great chance for us to see how Palestinians put aside their problems for a while and celebrate!

Ms. Sophie surprised us when she talked to us fluent English and French! She is a well educated old lady and it was very interesting for us to hear her childhood stories from Jerusalem, before the Israeli occupation. She showed us old, black and white photos. I noticed a little girl with the Star of David, a Jewish symbol, on her necklace. I asked who is she. Ms. Sophie told me this was Judith, her best friend, a Jewish little girl. Before the occupation, Muslims, Jews and Christians were living together for centuries in a mostly peaceful situation. Jews were few and other Palestinians were taking pity on them and helping them, since they were poor.

Old IDs and photos of Ms Sophie. On the upper left corner you can see Judith, the Jewish girl who was Ms Sophie's best friend.

Old IDs and photos of Ms Sophie. On the upper left corner you can see Judith, the Jewish girl who was Ms Sophie’s best friend.

It was in 1948 that the First Arab-Israeli War started… The word was spread to Palestinians: “Go seek a refuge in the West Bank and after a few weeks, when the conflict will be over, come back.”. It was a good plan to get rid of them… Initially, the family of Ms. Sophie rented a simple room in Bethlehem. The time was passing by but the news was not getting any better… When they tried to return to Jerusalem, they realized their houses were confiscated by Israelis and Palestinians were feeling foreigners in their own country… That’s how thousands of Palestinians moved to the West Bank and elsewhere. Ms. Sophie lost track of Judith, her Jewish best friend and now she cannot even set foot in Jerusalem.

Ms Sophie surprised us when she talked to us fluent English and French! It was very interesting to hear her childhood stories from Jerusalem, before the Israeli occupation...

Ms Sophie surprised us when she talked to us fluent English and French! It was very interesting to hear her childhood stories from Jerusalem, before the Israeli occupation…

One of the worst obstacles on the way to peace and the re-establishment of a legitimate Palestinian State are the Israeli settlements. The Israeli government has built hundreds of settlements inside the West Bank, which are illegal according to international law, since a nation’s transfer of civilian population into land it occupies is illegal. Of course, Israel doesn’t accept that, since they don’t even consider the West Bank occupied. Thus, they keep building new settlements and expanding the existing ones.

These settlements are strictly protected either by the Israeli army or by the armed settlers themselves. There are 520,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank! Some of them are secular Zionists who benefit from the subsidized prices, while most of them are religious Jews who think this whole land was promised to them by God and God wants them to take it even in blood.

A major problem in the West Bank are the ever-expanding, illegal, Israeli settlements which steal more and more land from Palestinians. Now there are even highways in Palestine serving exclusively Israelis and foreigners while access to most Palestinians is forbidden.

A major problem in the West Bank are the ever-expanding, illegal, Israeli settlements which steal more and more land from Palestinians. Now there are even highways in Palestine serving exclusively Israelis and foreigners while access to most Palestinians is forbidden.

When I was still in Israel, a friend of mine took me in his car for a drive. Before I even knew, he let me know we’re in the West Bank. Since he was Israeli, it was very easy for him to enter even in a settlement. We stopped at the top of a hill to see the area. An armed settler came immediately on a patrol car to check who we are. These settlements own also vast amounts of farmland. Having access to better technology means they can use most of the area’s water resources while the Palestinians need impossible-to-get permissions just to make a simple well… Without water, they cannot farm and without farming, they cannot live.

Palestinians are left only with small pieces of land to hang on and the roads are ready to be blockaded at any given time by the Israeli army. The white signs direct Israelis to their illegal settlements.

Palestinians are left only with small pieces of land to hang on and the roads are ready to be blockaded at any given time by the Israeli army. The white signs direct Israelis to their illegal settlements.

This situation is what drives Palestinians crazy. Imagine that Israelis benefit from being under civil courts jurisdiction while for the same crimes (e.g. attending a peaceful protest) Palestinians are under military jurisdiction and are detained for months even without any charge! A few hopeless Palestinians end up resisting the occupation in a violent way. A much bigger number of them are fed up and leave this mess for a decent life in the West. After all, that’s one of the Zionists’ goals: to get rid of Palestinians in any possible way…

Celebrating the new millennium in Palestine...

Celebrating the new millennium in Palestine…

We walked around the Old City of Bethlehem which is picturesque with its narrow streets and the houses made out of local stones. Visiting the Church of the Nativity, which is believed to be the place where Jesus Christ was born, we were wondering if all these popular religions born in this area brought peace or war finally… There are many monasteries around and some of them are located in gorgeous, remote places, like Mar Saba Monastery.

Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery built in a gorgeous location in AD 483. It still houses around 20 monks.

Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery built in a gorgeous location in AD 483. It still houses around 20 monks.

We had to be courageous and visit the town where the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis gets at its worst. That’s Hebron in the southern part of the West Bank. There are thousands of Jewish settlers living in several illegal settlements around the town. Things get much worse in Hebron because armed settlers, each one protected by Israeli soldiers, live even inside the Arab town, between the Palestinians! Palestinians, obviously, are arrested, tortured and jailed even for having a knife. That sets the Jewish settlers free to insult and abuse Palestinians, under the protection of the Israeli army which usually turns a blind eye… However, sometimes Israeli settlers get so radical that they clash with the Israeli army which tries to stop them.

Palestinians in Hebron have installed metal netting over the streets to keep the stones and the rubbish that Israeli settlers throw from upstairs. Then the settlers thought of something else to throw... urine!

Palestinians in Hebron have installed metal netting over the streets to keep the stones and the rubbish that Israeli settlers throw from upstairs. Then the settlers thought of something else to throw… urine!

We were walking carefully between the Israeli soldiers with our cameras lowered, of course… Hebron is where the Cave of the Patriarchs is situated. That is believed to be the collective tomb of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives. The patriarchs of the three most well-known monotheistic religions make this place sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians. As you would guess, this brings serious conflicts… The worst of them was the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994. Baruch Goldstein, a prominent Jewish terrorist, opened fire on hundreds of Muslims who were praying in a mosque during their holy month of Ramadan. If you are already shocked, wait for that: Jewish settlers made even a memorial tribute to their hero, Goldstein and they still celebrate that day!

The Cave of the Patriarchs is considered sacred by Muslims, Jews and Christians. As you would guess, this brings serious conflicts in Hebron...

The Cave of the Patriarchs is considered sacred by Muslims, Jews and Christians. As you would guess, this brings serious conflicts in Hebron…

We hit the road to visit Jericho, the oldest fortified city on earth. It happens also to be the lowest one, at 258 m (846 ft) below sea level. Most of the West Bank was cool, since it sits on higher elevation. Jericho was hot but we wanted to visit a farm and witness ourselves how the Israeli settlers and government make the life of Palestinians ridiculously harder. On one hand, illegal Israeli settlements are everywhere in the West Bank and they use most of the area’s water. The Israeli authorities almost never issue permission to Palestinians to pump water out of their own field. Palestinians, however, are persistent and they even drive to carry water from elsewhere in big tanks. Then they meet an Israeli checkpoint and the soldiers force them to empty all the tanks because they say they want to “make sure there is nothing illegal in the tanks”…

If they ever succeed to get a harvest, they have to struggle to sell it. The Israeli army often doesn’t allow them to use the roads and transfer their products for alleged “security reasons”. When this happens for a few days in a row, the produce is not fresh anymore and the farmers cannot sell it at all or they have to sell it much cheaper and forget about any profit. At the same time, for the Israeli farmers in the illegal settlements, the highways are always open and they export their produce all around the world.

Visiting a Palestinian farm in Jericho to witness ourselves how the Israeli settlers and government make the life of Palestinians ridiculously harder...

Visiting a Palestinian farm in Jericho to witness ourselves how the Israeli settlers and government make the life of Palestinians ridiculously harder…

On our way north, we had a walk in the vibrant Old City of Nablus. It was easy to enter the West Bank but we knew it wouldn’t be so easy to exit towards Israel… We were ready for detailed checks of our luggage and extensive questioning about ourselves, our itinerary and our acquaintances in Palestine. However, we didn’t even imagine what would happen…

Shopping in the Old City of Nablus...

Shopping in the Old City of Nablus…

We approached the checkpoint north of Jenin. This is not a real border, so the border post reminds of toll gates. We queued behind the cars but we immediately heard an Israeli soldier from the control tower yelling through the speakers. It was in Hebrew, so we couldn’t understand anything. A fully armed soldier from a distance made clear to us that we should disappear immediately! Obviously, the Israelis were scared of the motorbike and they thought we may be Palestinian terrorists. I had that before… In no time, I turned the bike around and ran away.

The Palestinians saw what happened and they gave us some bits of advice. The worst thing was that we didn’t even have the chance to talk to somebody and let them know we are not Palestinians. Stella removed her helmet and started walking towards the soldiers with her hands raised. She was holding her red passport to make them understand we are Europeans. Fairly enough, Stella was absolutely stressed out but as Palestinians told us, she was the one who had to do it, since I would be much more suspected as a male. She was very brave to do that… The Israeli soldier was still yelling in Hebrew through the speakers. Stella from that distance shouted as loud as she could: “English, please!”. The soldier, pointing his machine gun towards her, was ordering her to go back!

A Jewish boy on the left and a Palestinian one on the right... Did you get it?

A Jewish boy on the left and a Palestinian one on the right… Did you get it?

We had to be extremely careful… A wrong movement of our hands at that point could result to our death! If, for example, I would try to put my hand in my pocket and get my passport out, they would shoot me immediately thinking that I’m a Palestinian terrorist who tries to activate a suicide bomb. They got the power and the order to shoot and they don’t do it just for scaring people. Their shooting has to be exact and effective in putting the enemy down before he can do anything. When they kill somebody that they shouldn’t, it seems they always find an excuse to make him guilty.

Stella stopped walking while she was yelling that we are tourists. The soldier talked to his officers and finally, two other soldiers walked towards Stella. She showed her passport and she explained that we are tourists who just travel around “Israel”. They questioned her a bit and then they gave me the green light to approach by my motorcycle. They asked me the same questions, to cross-check what Stella said and when they were convinced, they finally allowed us to pass through the checkpoint…

I'm wondering if it will be during my lifetime that people will be visiting the remains of this wall, as they do now at the Berlin Wall, shocked about the past...

I’m wondering if it will be during my lifetime that people will be visiting the remains of this wall, as they do now at the Berlin Wall, shocked about the past…

With the adrenaline rushing in our blood, we entered again Israel. We rode a bit further and we stopped at the roadside to think what happened and recover our heartbeat. After all, we had just a small glimpse of what Palestinians regularly face. It turned out to be risky in the end but it was definitely an important lesson to witness ourselves how is life in Palestine…

 

You can check out the map with more photos and reports at: Live Trip Traveller

 

There are a lot of objective resources on internet to learn about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. Some of my favourites are:

5 Broken Cameras – Academy Award Winning Documentary by a Palestinian, co-directed by an Israeli filmmaker.

Gaza, We are coming – An awarded Greek documentary about the first foreign boats since 1967 that broke Gaza’s naval blockade.

The General’s Son – The son of an Israeli general talks honestly about the current situation.

Breaking the Silence – Israeli soldiers talk about the occupied territories of Palestine.

Rabbis for Human Rights – Israeli rabbis fight for human rights in Palestine.

B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

 

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