Posted on May 14, 2007, by & filed under Personal Experiences.

I love the start of a Grand Prix race. The rest of it, once Schumacher’s in front, I can leave.

Just down the road from the Sabeel office, where the Shu’fat Road from Beit Hanina hits a big junction, you get to see a Grand Prix-esque start every 4 minutes or so. Except you’re not dealing with highly tuned Ferraris here, but beat up Arab jalopies and buses shaken to bits in a year by reconnoitring appallingly surfaced roads to avoid the Qalandiya checkpoint – although very soon the one-car-wide gap in the Wall that Palestinians exploit to get in to Ramallah will soon be sealed up, and all traffic will have to funnel thru the huge “border” terminal, lit up by bright lights all night, which the infamous Qalandiya now is.

The reason for the roaring engines revving to fly off with horns blazing every 4 minutes, is because the traffic lights from the direction of Arab Beit Hanina have hardly turned green before they flick back to amber and red. About 5 vehicles in each lane get through, then the drivers in that line are forced to watch a four minute stream of vehicles pour out of Jerusalem towards the big illegal settlements on its outskirts on the Jerusalem side of the Wall, which has normally done a snaking detour to take in these settlements to the Israeli side.

Go back down Shu’fat Road towards Beit Hanina and now one hits the redundant checkpoint at Aram, where the Wall travels down the middle of the road. People who want to cross the road to a friend on the other side, or a favourite coffee shop, must now, I think I’m right, go all the way to Qalandiya and back again to do what a chicken who’s still got its wings can do in a few seconds. This is an ubiquitous problem created by the Wall of communities shorn apart, kids cut off from schools, villagers from their land and olive groves – those that have not been torn up to build the Wall and the 100 metre wide clearances on each side “for security reasons”. Of course, many hundreds years old olive trees are uprooted intact and replanted in settlement gardens or even sold in Israel.

Yesterday I got myself teargassed. Was I just “chalking up” an experience by going to the weekly demo against the Wall at Bei’lin? People have been shot there and killed, Palestinians, that is, and at least one Israeli activist, one of that small group of excellent people – gentle, thoughtful, non-religious anarchists, but full of non-violent fire and courage when they confront the Israeli soldiers, who hate them and pick on them. Us internationals are looked out for with great concern by the Palestinian organisers, hugely courageous men who have everything to lose, unlike us, if they are arrested and have their ID taken (or hurled in prison). But even the internationals can’t avoid the teargas and stun grenades if they get themselves reasonably involved in the demo, and last week a Frenchman did get a bullet in the arm – real, not rubber. Some rubber bullets were fired yesterday, but I got nowhere near them. But I can tell you that, tho I didn’t get badly teargassed, what I went through was briefly horrible – unable to breathe for a minute, like the worst asthma attack I’ve ever had, and stinging face, hands and eyes.

What do these demos achieve? They don’t stop the Israelis building the Wall. But the life and cohesion of Bei’lin village has been helped hugely, and kept their morale and dignity high. And of course everything in the end, even the arguing with the fresh-faced young Israeli soldiers, the goading of them, the propaganda thrown at them that THEY HAVE A CHOICE to be refuseniks of military service, is about connecting, and it was a joy to sit with the villagers after the demo and spend some money in their shops on ridiculously cheap drinks and a lovely kebab for a dollar. And get ripped off by persistent kids for little bags of hot yellow beans and a paper funnel of popcorn.

I’m staying 3 nights in Ramallah at the moment with a wonderfully spunky seventy year old American lady – the Americans out here, many of whom have dedicated chunks of their lives to the place, are marvellous, a really outstandingly special type of person in fact. She goes to the Bei’leen demo most weeks, a sort of honorary Mum/grandmum to all the young activists, and highly respected by them. I was to hold her arm when running from teargas, but in fact with glaucoma eye trouble, she couldn’t see right to walk down the rocky hill we went down to pull away at razor wire (no, I didn’t do that) to get to the fence – it’s not a wall yet there. So I was free to look after myself! When she told me this morning that it was glaucoma that caused her bad vision, I told her how good cannabis is reputed to be for that condition. Not a smoker, never has been, she’s now open to the idea of trying some cannabis tea to see if it helps!

Ramallah is a great town, notwithstanding being behind the Wall, but with no government salaries being paid, life is harsh for so many here, and the many lovely restaurants are largely empty. This town is higher than Jerusalem, cool in the summer, and was a favourite summer holiday destination for Arabs in better times.

I love the ordinary Palestinians. It’s been great to see my old friends from my life in East Jerusalem – various barmen and waiters, Mr Big Man, as I call him, the huge laundry man, the guys in the wonderful Academic bookshop on Salahedin Street going up to the Old City, and all my friends in the hostel where I used to stay. One had died, a middle aged lady, Abu Ala the cook couldn’t get a work permit for Jerusalem, and could no longer get there to work illegally as he used to, because of the Wall. But thank God, Khaled, the ex-teacher other cook, an intelligent man, who gave me a lighter when I left with my name engraved in Arabic – he’s got a Jerusalem work permit, amazingly, and can travel on high days and holy days to his family in a village near Hebron, checkpoint closures notwithstanding. And the traffic lights!