Palestine’s Freedom Theatre shines spotlight on fighters dismissed as terrorists on first UK tour

freedom theatre art crop

The upcoming UK tour of a Palestinian theatre company has created a stink over its exploration of a group of fighters that took shelter from the Israeli army in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002. Freedom Theatre’s artistic director and writer of The Siege Nabeel Raee explains why the company’s work is important.

Millions witnessed the Israeli army surround one of Christianity’s holiest sites and prepare for an assault on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity as the dramatic scenes played out on our TVs 13-years ago.

Around 200 Palestinians – mostly civilians, but also Palestinian police and armed militants – had taken refuge inside during an Israeli incursion in April, 2002. Over the next five weeks eight Palestinians were killed and 40 injured as snipers picked them off one-by-one. Several Israeli soldiers were injured too.

With Israel facing a PR nightmare if it attacked and the Palestinians refusing to surrender EU sponsored negotiations eventually began and a settlement was reached.

Thirty-nine days after the siege began and in front of the world’s media, 39 Palestinian’s wanted by Israel were escorted from the church one-by-one, put on buses and left the West Bank for a life in exile.

A different perspective

Thirteen years on the Freedom Theatre’s The Siege takes us back to those events, but instead we join the fighters inside the church; a perspective the 24-hour media coverage at the time was unable to cover, and some would prefer it was kept that way.

“I’m not a judge of those involved in the siege,” says Nabeel Raee, FT’s artistic director, who wrote and directed the play, “but it’s very important to see the journey of a human being before looking at them as a fighter. Our picture as Palestinian freedom fighters has been presented badly for years and years. For many people these are a group of terrorists – particularly in the big news headlines.

Freedom Theatre's artistic director Nabil Raee

Freedom Theatre’s artistic director Nabil Raee

“But it’s important to tell their story: who are these people, why did they join the struggle, why are they fighting, and what for? It’s very important for people to look at the side that wasn’t in the news.”

Nabeel said three friends of his were exiled when the standoff ended: one to Gaza, one to Ireland and one to Greece. “I knew these people and I know their choice [to take up arms] was made because they found a reason to fight back. Most of the fighters had several reasons.

“One of them had a hobby to hunt, but when he saw a small kid dying he was ashamed because his weapon was used on animals when he could be defending his people like this child who died.

“Another guy mentioned that his turning point was seeing a guy carrying a dead girl trying to run a kilometre to hospital; he didn’t believe she was dead, so he took her to the hospital, but when he got there they told him she was dead already.”

Such insights are rare, but important for those who have an interest in getting beyond debate-crushing labels: terrorists and terrorism.

The format of the play is akin to a docu-drama: introduced and presented by a Church of the Nativity tour guide reflecting on the historical and spiritual importance of the church, while the dramatised scenes during the siege cut to interviews of the exiled fighters.

The siege continues

But for Nabeel The Siege is about more than humanising the fighters and remembering an historical event. “We’ve been living under siege for almost 66-years of occupation, so when we present the siege of the nativity church, and what happened to the guys inside, we also want people to think about what living under siege means.

“The occupation is not just a physical occupation; it’s a mental one too: the fear inside of people, always living life on the edge, your way of thinking, and if you’re not worried about yourself, what about your children, and if not them, what about others?”

But, he says, it’s not just the Israeli occupation Palestinians – and the Freedom Theatre itself – have to contend with, but societal and personal occupations too whether caused by conservative attitudes or corrupt politics. The Freedom Theatre seeks to challenge all three.

“Theatre is a great way to fight them and to point and criticise, so that’s why I say, when [Palestinian] people see a play and say ‘no, you can’t present that’ then we’re provoking their emotions and minds to think, and that’s not an easy job. Sometimes they like it if it’s about the [Israeli] occupation and sometimes they don’t if it’s a direct criticism or questioning how [Palestinian] society is structured, and we don’t mind both. We’re not here to please all of the people, we’re also here to provoke and question.”

The siege play 3

Cultural resistance – Resisting Culture

As well as challenging political and social attitudes, the Freedom Theatre seeks to offer alternative ways of challenging the occupation and still recruits trainees from its base in the tough Jenin refugee camp where many fighters were born and killed.

“People can choose the way they want to fight back: you can hold a gun, but be dead the next minute, but what about art, what about culture? If you have lived enough you can tell the story.

“We ask how can we best serve the [Palestinian] people, but at the same time we are trying to build a professional company that can perform at a high level, and also to bring back the question: what is the point of theatre? It’s not only a tool. It’s also a very important way of presenting different causes.”

However, the challenges the Freedom Theatre faces in using art and culture to promote, question and resist are stark. Its founder Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered four years ago in Jenin. His killer has never been caught, but it’s suspected Juliano was a victim of the challenging nature of FT’s work in what can be a conservative society. Despite being “angry, afraid and hurt” Nabeel said it was not a difficult decision to continue with the theatre otherwise “Juliano was killed for nothing”.

“I think we have a love-hate relationship with art in our society. Not only the Freedom Theatre, but almost every theatre in Palestine is struggling to bring it back. One of the best theatre scenes was in the early 1920s, so art was lost in between and people lost their connection to it. Now we are trying to say that art is also another way of resisting different types of occupation, so if people can think about it in this way they can see art in a better way.”

But for now the Freedom Theatre is focusing on its first tour of the UK, which begins in Manchester on Wednesday and concludes six weeks later in Glasgow. Nabeel says he hopes it will be a two-way experience; not only informing and performing for a British audience, but also to introduce his company to British society.

“The greatest thing for us is to meet people face-to-face. I want to introduce my team and the Palestinians to British society and speak about and discuss our artistic project; this is the best way if we want to reach people.

“But we are also there to perform theatre and bring back the siege because it was presented in the UK in a very bad way, in my opinion, through the news. And since we are artists involved in a social-political environment, we have the responsibility to present ourselves in a different way from the media.

“That is why it’s important to open the questions in the mind of the people when they ask: who are you? What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” An importance confirmed by those who would prefer minds were kept closed and have the play banned.

  • Correction: the article had referred to Juliano Mer-Khamis’ suspected murderer being Palestinian. Freedom Theatre have stated that in fact that as they have never been caught they do not know their nationality. The reference to the killer being Palestinian has been removed.

Finklestein: a reasonable solution is needed to get people’s backing to force Israel-Palestine Settlement

Prof Norman Finklestein delivers his solution to the conflict

FOR decades people have been calling for a just solution to the Israel-Palestine saga but there has been little consensus on what it should be.

One-state or two, bi-lateral or federal, Jewish or Islamic; these options are the subject of fierce debate between commentators and supporters of both camps, but with little agreement.

“It always comes up. Do you support one state or two? It’s completely irrelevant. The question is what is the public prepared to support.”

And this marks the crux of Professor Norman Finklestein’s latest analysis: if those who follow the issue can’t agree on a solution, how can the wider public be expected to back one, whom without there will never be one.

So the Jewish-American has set-out to provide a solution so reasonable that it appeals to the wider public’s sense of fairness ratcheting up the pressure on Israel, via their governments, to accept an agreement.

With Israel’s international standing in decline, Finklestein believes the time is right to act.

At a two-and-a-half hour lecture at Imperial College last week, Finklestein, who has spent the last 30 years offering new perspectives and analysis on the subject, outlined his plan.

It essentially offers little new, but meets the majority of both sides reasonable demands, but if adopted by campaigners, could prove to be far greater than the sum of its parts.

It calls for a 1.9% land swap that would make the homes of 300,000 Israeli settlers (60%) part of Israel while allowing for a contiguous and viable Palestine – a proposal made by President Abbas in 2009 during more failed talks.

While the land exchange would still leave 200,000 settlers in the West Bank, he believes the majority would voluntarily return to Israel if a compensation package was on offer – as they are economic not ideological settlers – and the rest would soon leave without protection from the army.

The rest of the agreement is based on international law; right-of-return for refugees, an independent state based on 1967 borders and an end to the military occupation.

All highly disputed issues for Israel, but Finklestein trashes any contention citing rulings made by the International Court of Justice.

He said: “All 15 judges, including two Jews, said the settlements are illegal. They are not controversial, they’re illegal.

“The territories are disputed [according to Israel]. No they’re not. All 15 judges at the ICJ said they are occupied.

“Israel said Jerusalem is it’s indivisible capital but the judges say it’s occupied. There’s no dispute.”

And while the ICJ did not rule on the refugees’ right-of-return, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both acknowledged their right, he said.

The deal is so reasonable and simple, he says, the public’s sense of ethics will identify with and support it.

This was how Ghandi led the Indian revolt against the British occupation in the 40s knowing armed struggle would not work, he said.

“Ghandi said politics is not about changing public opinion it’s about getting them [the public] to change what they know is wrong [but] the public have to agree to your methods and your goal.

“It’s not about your personal morality,” he told the audience, “it’s about the public’s sense of right and wrong.”

Finklestein said with the lift from the Arab Spring and growing resentment over Israel’s behaviour now is the time to build a consensus for a final settlement.

Quoting statistics from BBC and Human Rights Watch polls he said Israel’s international image is consistently declining, even amongst American Jews who are finding it harder than ever to defend the tiny state over its human rights abuses highlighting the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous against civilians in Lebanon and Gaza.

He said: “Most Jewish-Americans are liberal. It’s become impossible to call themselves liberal and defend that.

“There’s a broad public ready to listen, but we need to present them with a solution to the conflict or they will get frustrated and move on and it would be a wasted opportunity.”

Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians recognise the country as a Jewish state as part of any negotiations is just a reflection of its inability to defend the indefensible, he says, but has an answer for this too.

Egypt and Jordan, which both signed peace agreements with Israel, have never recognised Israel as a Jewish state and were never asked to, so why should the Palestinians?

“Little Israel doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” he said.

It all sounds so simple, but it’s not the first time someone believes they have come up with the solution to the sixty-five-year-old problem and try telling the to more radical Palestine supporters to give more land away, yet Finklestein is upbeat.

“I think we have every reason to be hopeful. People are ready to listen. We just have to get them to act. Our challenge now is to show the broad public we are the reasonable ones. We just want to enforce the law as everyone recognises it to be, with no exceptions. No-one can call this map unfair.”

A Very Public Spat

Written in June 2010

After his recent healthcare reform victory, Barack Obama has shown he is prepared to tackle difficult issues.

But with Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu refusing to stop the Judaisation of East Jerusalem – the intended capital of a Palestinian state – does the US President still have the energy and support to challenge Israeli Realpolitik?

Netanyahu’s shaky right-wing coalition and electorate sees the Holy City as indivisible and is under pressure to push-on with Israel’s expansionist project, creating new “facts on the ground”.

Not that he needs convincing to do so, but he must balance his domestic plans with a changing US foreign policy that does not offer the unquestioning support once enjoyed under previous US Presidents.

Last week the prime minister told a Washington conference that 250,000 settlers in East Jerusalem “will be part of Israel in any peace settlement”.

That doesn’t leave much room for negotiation.

While recognising Palestinians live there, “we don’t want to govern them. We don’t want to rule them. We want them as neighbours,” he said.

Jordanians and Syrians fit that description and so would the Palestinians in East Jerusalem if they moved to the other side of the separation wall.

The Israeli administration could then ask how a Palestinian-free Jerusalem can realistically be the capital of a Palestinian state.

Palestinians say they will accept nothing less.

After Washington’s call for a freeze on settlements, as outlined in the road-map, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to rejoin peace-talks.

But Israel’s untimely announcement – of plans to build 1600 new homes in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem during US Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent visit – has scuppered the talks and angered Obama leading to the current stand-off.

Even so, Israel appears to be forging ahead with further settlement projects albeit more quietly.

In a gesture to ease tensions, Netanyahu has reportedly offered to remove roadblocks and soldiers from the West Bank, but this does not address the settlement issue in question.

What cards can the President play to force an Israeli volte-face?

Given the US government’s annual billion dollar gift to Israel, favourable voting at the UN and access to its hi-tech military equipment, intelligence and preferential trade agreements, he has a few.

But it would be a bold move for Obama to use these privileges as levers to force Israel to share Jerusalem.

While the exact fallout is difficult to predict, he would almost certainly face another intense campaign led by pro-Israeli lobbyists, the right-wing media and their supporters.

All have powerful voices in America.

Washington continues to assure its ally their bond is unbreakable while maintaining the settlements must stop.

Meanwhile top Israeli officials have rallied round the embattled prime minister who said recently that building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel-Aviv – Israel’s former capital.

The question is, as they face up to each other; who will blink first?

The Fight For Bilin

Written on Sunday, November 13, 2005

Having heard of the difficulties in getting to the West Bank village of Bilin on Friday mornings, I took the offer of a lift on Thursday night from Tel Aviv to avoid the morning roadblocks and checkpoints set up to prevent activists joining the weekly demonstration in protest at the building of the separation wall.

Whilst waiting in my hostel room in Jaffa, a friend calls, she can’t go. She gives me a number to arrange another lift. Several hours and calls later I’m given another number to call before finally getting an address to meet my ride.

There, I am greeted by a retired psychologist come activist. His son is giving us and two others a lift.

The small Palestinian village of Bilin lies about 2.5miles east of the green line (the internationally recognized border between Israel and Palestine) and 7 miles west of the main West Bank town of Ramallah.

As we drive past Modin Illit, the expanding Israeli settlement and the cause of Bilin’s problems, we keep an eye out for soldiers. With none in sight, the car pulls over, we jump out and dart into the cover of darkness amongst the rocks and trees. After a 200m walk across the rough terrain we arrive to the safety of a small Palestinian village. A van has been pre-arranged to pick us up and take us to the international house in Bilin.

This military style romp makes you feel like some subversive criminal which is how the authorities often treat the peace protesters. People entering Gaza used to have to sign a form declaring they were not ‘peace activists’ as if it were a crime.

Arriving at the house, we are met by other internationals from numerous countries, including some familiar faces from previous visits.

The following morning, and every Friday, in defiance of the ‘closed military zone’ order the army tries to enforce, hundreds of Palestinian, international and Israeli peace activists descend on the village. They gather by the mosque with banners and objects of symbolism, before setting off for the route of the fence to voice their anger and opposition to it.

Since February of this year Bilin has turned from a sleepy farming village into a symbol of Palestinian non-violent resistance. The confiscated land is being used to expand the illegal settlement of Modin Illit and the state of Israel. The only country in the world that refuses to specify its borders.

The impact on the community is the loss of over 50% of their land. This land provides the majority of the village’s income, particularly since permission for West Bankers to work in Israel

was rescinded and the crippled economy provides few job opportunities

Bilin demonstrations have become famous for their imaginative ideas that fuel the media interest they seek. It is this media interest that is hoped will inform the world of their plight and the unjust behaviour of the Israeli army and authorities.

During actions, they have chained themselves to olive trees to show their connection to them, built a yoke for twelve people to symbolise the effects of the occupation, dressed up in black and carried a mock-up of the wall to show the effective death of any chance of a Palestinian state, stood in mock cages to symbolise how they will be living in an effectual prison and built a USA controlled ‘scales of justice’, with the world in one pan and Israel outweighing it in the other.

They have also tried to reach out to the soldiers by giving them letters in Hebrew, saying how they are against the wall and occupation, not Israel or its people.

The largest demo was during the Jewish holiday of Passover in April of this year. It attracted hundreds of Israeli peace activists of all ages on the condition that no matter what the provocation, no stones would be thrown. They included the respected Israeli journalist and former MK (Member of Knesset) Uri Avnery, who was celebrating his 80th birthday, alongside several current MKs. The Dylan-esque David Rovics, an American Jew who also played at the G8 in Scotland, and pianist Jacob Allegro Wegloop, a holocaust survivor who played the Palestinian National Anthem before the march, giving the day a carnival feel.

It is this type of non-violent resistance that seems to frustrate the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) as it leaves little excuse to attack and break up the demo.

I have regularly witnessed, after an initial calm, the soldiers pushing the demonstrators, looking for a reaction. The soldiers then increase their provocation, knocking people over or hitting them with batons. Then tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets are used as the crowd is dispersed and the youth respond with stones.

Unsurprisingly, there have been numerous injuries to protesters, journalists and even an MK.

At the Passover demo, the army took to planting Arab speaking and looking undercover soldiers amongst the crowd to agitate. One of the village leaders noticed one of them throwing stones and challenged him, not realizing who he was. The man removed the handkerchief from his face and donned an Israeli police cap before attacking and arresting him – for trying to prevent him throwing stones.

And it seems they have not abandoned this tactic as they were caught again, this time by the Israeli media, encouraging the youth to throw stones at the soldiers. On a previous demo one soldier lost an eye after being hit by a stone. It has not been ruled out that it may have been thrown by one of these agents.

In 2004, in the village of Biddu, similarly affected by the building of the wall, the army tried these tactics to disastrous effect. As a group of Palestinians and undercover agents threw stones the uniformed soldiers responded with volleys of tear-gas. As the crowd dispersed, the agents donned police caps and attempted to arrest some of the Palestinians. Witnessing this, their friends tried to de-arrest them. The uniformed soldiers panicked and opened fire with live bullets killing two and wounding several others. The IDF’s official response was that the Palestinians shot themselves. There was no recourse to these killings.

As the Bilin demonstrations continued week after week undeterred, the army’s frustration and violence has increased and consequently, so has the media coverage.

This has led to the imposition of 24hr curfews, new mobile checkpoints to turn back activists and journalists and night-raids to harass and arrest locals. International activists living in the village are able to circumvent these obstacles and monitor the raids when the media has left.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Lieutenant Colonel Tzachi Segev as saying “the stronger the activity against the fence, the stronger our operations will be. We reserve the right to enter the village at any hour … sometimes there is no escaping collective punishment even if it has a negative impact. Collective punishment is … a lever of pressure if the village does not behave properly”. Collective punishment is a violation of International law.

Of the numerous arrests made during protests, Israelis and internationals are generally let go after two to four hours (occasionally deporting internationals), but Palestinians are treated differently. Often they are beaten, either on the floor, in the jeep or at the police station, before false charges are made against them.

Typically, they are accused of assaulting several armed and body-armoured soldiers and may be held for several days before the charges are dropped or thrown out by the judge. Activists’ film footage has often helped stop these cases continuing. Even the army’s own footage has been used to the same effect. However, one Palestinian was jailed for four and a half months for throwing stones.

Abdullah Abu Rahme, one of the coordinators of the ‘Popular Committee against the Wall’, was arrested whilst giving an interview to Egyptian TV for breaking curfew and held for two days.

Captain Daniel Kfeer, the military judge, cleared Abdullah, saying, the two days of detention were illegal and accused soldiers of breaking the law by denying the villagers of Bilin, and the groups that support them, of their right to legitimate resistance and freedom of speech. He went on to say, “in the case of the accused, it is evident that the security forces and the military were the ones who broke the law with unnecessary violent actions against the demonstrators”.

However this outcome is not typical.

This organized, media attracting, non-violent resistance against the wall is something that has grown and matured since its birth in Mas’ha, a small village to the north of Bilin, in early 2003. The ‘baton’ was then passed onto Budrus later that year, Biddu in 2004 and Bilin in early 2005, with members from each village passing on the tactics they had learnt to the next. By focusing on one village at a time, even though there may be others suffering similarly nearby, it consolidates the much needed activists efforts and gives the media something to latch onto.

And the strategy is clearly working, with even the often indifferent Israeli papers and TV stations reporting on events, particularly stories of agitation and Israeli civilian injuries (Palestinian injuries are rarely news). Impromptu press conferences after the demonstrations, using video footage, often proving the IDF has lied over a story, helps get their message across.

But real changes on the ground largely rely on successes in the courts. And so, a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international lawyers work constantly on trying to get the route of the wall moved to reduce the loss of land.

It should be noted that the route of the wall takes in over 60% of the illegal settlements’ population so they are contiguous with Israel proper. In the case of Ariel, a settlement of over 18000, that means the wall stretches 22km into the West Bank.

In court, the petitioners argue that the wall is being built on their agricultural land and thus confiscates much of it. This affects their livelihoods and wellbeing and therefore their rights. The fact that it is their land and therefore Israel has no right to use it, is not discussed.

The IDF’s lawyers say that the settlers have a human right to be protected. The fact that they reside there illegally is not discussed. If a ruling implied this it would have huge ramifications for the Israeli government. A confrontation the Israeli courts would prefer to avoid.

At best, the IDF are instructed to move the path of the wall closer to the settlement in question, as the original path is usually next to a Palestinian village. But experience has shown the IDF often ignores these verdicts.

However, Budrus and Biddu both won improvements in the route of the wall through the courts, after media attention surrounding the ICJ ruling (at the Hague stating the illegality of the wall whilst on Palestinian lands) and the non-violent protests.

Interestingly, there are Palestinians in the East Jerusalem area, who oppose their compatriots’ petitions, for they wish to remain on the Israeli side of the wall. It seems they would rather be separated from their friends and neighbours, than locked in what is fast becoming the world’s biggest prison.

Al-Muwasi – a forgotten place

Written in January 2005

Al-Muwasi, meaning ‘low-wetlands’, is a strip of land in the southwest of the Gaza strip inhabited by around 12000 people. It stretches from the Egyptian border in Rafah to Khan Yunis, just to the north, and is pinned between the settlement block of Gush Katif and the sea. Any gaps between the sea, settlement and border have been sealed by a combination of a secure wire fence, a concrete wall and military positions. Its like a mini Gaza strip within the Gaza strip or more commonly known as a prison within a prison.
There are two checkpoints, one at each end of the strip, to facilitate exit and entry. The one in Rafah has been permanently closed to all since shortly after the start of the intifada in 2000. The one in Khan Yunis, known as Ta-Fah, opens unpredictably and restricts and delays movement at the best of times. So much so, that when I visited, there was a backlog of people waiting to be ‘processed’ and allowed to return home. I was told the current impasse had been operating for the past 40 days.

On the day of the Palestinian election, I arrived with the British MP Jeremy Corbyn at Ta-Fah checkpoint at 6.45am. Our aim was to access Al-Muwasi in order to monitor the two election centres. Already, around 40 people, mostly huddled around a couple of fires they had made to keep warm, had gathered. They were some 20m away from the checkpoint itself, behind a metal road-gate that was riddled with bullet holes.
The checkpoint itself was heavily fortified and consisted of 5m high concrete barriers, a concrete watchtower built into an earth mound and three camouflaged shooting positions further along the mound. Along from those were three tanks and armoured vehicles fitted with heavy machine guns. More watchtowers could be seen a little further to the north.

Shortly after we arrived, a chauffeur driven car, with ‘EU Observer’ emblazoned all over it, pulled up next to us. The rear window wound down, and the lady in the back condescendingly advised us that we should not approach the checkpoint without prior authorization as the soldiers have been known to shoot at anyone, including diplomats (I presume they missed that time), before winding up the window and driving off.

As we discussed and dismissed her comments, a Palestinian man asked us not to try and gain entry for fear of the consequences to himself and his compatriots. It has been known for Palestinians to suffer reprisals after internationals acting on their behalf have left the area. In this case it could have meant a reduced chance of entry. Although we felt monitoring the elections would not incur this sort of response, we felt had to respect their wishes.
After arguing between themselves for about 15 minutes the man approached us again and said they had discussed the matter and now wanted us to attempt to get in. Feeling like guinea pigs, we approached the checkpoint with a local Palestinian observer, who also wanted to return home, in tow.

Entry was not straight forward, but after one and a half hours and numerous calls between the UN, the IDF liaison officer and ourselves we were granted permission along with the local observer who they mistook for our interpreter – which we found amusing as he didn’t speak a word of English. Leaving behind the 60 plus people now gathered and two lorries laden with supplies, our bodies and bags were scanned before passing through the checkpoint and into another world.

The land in this area sits upon an aquifer making the land very fertile. It is also very close to the Egyptian border and the activities of the Palestinian resistance. This made it an ideal location to build an agriculturally based settlement and military base.
More than 1500 acres of land were razed to provide the space needed, which led to the displacement of 6000 Bedouin living their. Desperate and out of work, some were then employed to build and guard the settlement. However, the indigenous residents of Al Muwasi are banned from bringing in any construction materials to build, either domestically or commercially.

Since Al-Muwasi’s was sealed off many more families have moved out due to the lack of work, travel restrictions and poor standard of life. A UN report stated, population transfer ‘appears to be the objective of military operations, extinguishing all aspects of normal life for Palestinians living near Israeli settlements’.
The main source of work and trade for the residents of Al-Muwasi is farming. Benefiting from the aquifer, the fruits grown there are of a high quality and enjoy a good reputation throughout Israel and Palestine. But the restrictions and delays on movement severely hamper trade causing up to 50% of the produce to be wasted. Alternatively, surplus goods could be sold to Egypt but Israel has control of the border and so the same restrictions apply.
Being on the Mediterranean Sea, fishing could provide another source of food and employment. Unfortunately Al-Muwasi falls just outside the Israeli authorized fishing zone and so fishing is restricted to using small nets from the shore which is of a low yield. Locals said some of their boats have been half buried in sand to ensure they remain unused.

Before the intifada started in 2000, schools were not necessary in this small region, as access to those in Rafah and Khan Yunis was possible on a daily basis. But, since the constant restrictions, children’s education was severely hampered as they were unable to reach their schools or return home. As there was no sign of an imminent improvement in conditions the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) built primary and secondary schools to solve the problem. University students must find accommodation elsewhere to ensure attendance. This can be the difference in whether a students family can afford to support his or her further education.
Similarly there was no hospital, but because of the small population and large expense, it was not feasible to build one. There are two clinics that deal with primary care and routine procedures. In the event of an emergency, whether it be through illness or injury, severe delays are experienced in getting the patient to hospital as the soldiers will not allow immediate passage through the checkpoint. Inevitably this can lead to serious and permanent effects to the patients health. In this place even a dead person needs permission to leave to be buried.

As we departed Al-Muwasi after our mornings monitoring, about 30 people were waiting hopefully to leave. The young men amongst them, potential attackers in the eyes of the soldiers, were made to sit separately on a kerb with guns pointed at them. I asked one man why so many people wanted to leave knowing the difficulty of returning. He pointed out that the restricted flow of goods meant people had to fetch essentials themselves, as well as any other business they had to attend to in person.

When lorries deliver supplies, the goods are checked by the soldiers at the checkpoint before they are transferred by hand to another lorry on the other side for distribution. When they are not allowed to pass, shortages of basics such as flour for bread, medicine for the sick and diesel for the electricity generators increases the suffering. Israel control many of the services in Gaza including electricity, but decided not to supply the residents of Al-Muwasi, hence their reliance on diesel to run generators.

On the other side of the checkpoint we witnessed scenes of chaos. More than 100 people had now gathered in groups, mostly woman and children (reflective of the difficulties and sometimes outright bans faced by young and middle aged men in passing as they are seen as a threat), most of whom had crossed the yellow road-gate that had earlier separated them and the checkpoint.

Three men in their twenties were talking to the soldier in the concrete, turret like, look-out post with their trousers pulled up around their knees and shirts and jumpers around their necks to show they were not strapped with explosives. Meanwhile, the other groups of people waiting were slowly edging closer to the checkpoint. This appeared to be making the soldier nervous and he began to shout and wave them back. We moved away from the close vicinity as an older Palestinian man desperately tried to push them back to ease the tension.

We were told by some of the local men and woman (through an interpreter for two German journalists who had been refused entry) how they had been waiting for up to six days to return home. They would spend 12 hours a day at the checkpoint and on acknowledging defeat would stay at a relative’s house or pay for a hotel before trying again the following day. They said some people are forced to spend the night under a wall-less shelter next to the checkpoint. This would be likely if they had no money to pay for a hotel and there were no relatives to take them in. I thought of the people on the other side waiting patiently to leave and the consequences of their important errands.

Considering the extraordinary lengths the military goes to controlling the people of Al-Muwasi one may wonder what they have done to justify this. Surprisingly I can find no information on any attack being carried out from inside this area. In fact, some of the militants have accused them of being collaborators for this very reason. This leads me to think of the suggestions of population transfer and the annexation of the fertile land and potentially beautiful beach by the settlement.

Remembering the reason I was here, to monitor that the elections were conducted in a fair and free manner, I noted that these Palestinians, entitled to vote at one of the two stations in Al-Muwasi, would be unable to do so without getting through the checkpoint that was closing in three hours. This contravened their rights and the promises made of unhindered movement by the Israeli government. But maybe they had bigger issuers to think of than that of the right to vote.