Thursday 8 May
For a month now, one of the crowd of drivers at Al Manara has been calling me Tony Blair. Some mornings we indulge in that useless chat which passes for politics. I enjoy the banter in Hebrew, Arabic and English. But today, he finally accepted that notwithstanding the joke, I would not answer to anything but Tom. They think thats a great joke, because in Arabic, it sounds close to the word for garlic.
Longest walk ever from the edge of Ramallah to the petrol station between Surda and Abu Qash. More than 3 kilometres, and it is too hot. I am guessing, but I think that the army is trying to discourage drivers from taking the risk of passing through when they think the armour has gone back to barracks at Beit El for tea.
The route now covers three large U-bends, a wide deep valley, a long ridge and then a gradual descent on the far side. It is virtually impossible for a driver setting off, to see or to have signalled to him, that the army is returning on the settler road from Beit El.
The campus at Birzeit University was very noisy this morning. Two rival demonstrations were going on, one on the steps of the administration building, the other immediately opposite, in front of the Students Union. Hamas and Fatah: both had megaphone and loudspeakers, the back of one audience intermingling with the back of the second. Students were on the roofs waving flags.
Photos are dangerous in this situation. In spite of the fact that I am known by sight on the campus, in both audiences I was instructed to stop taking pictures. Reason for the demonstration it appears that Abu Mazen has ordered a postponement of the union elections. Perhaps he fears that the Hamas vote will be bigger than ever. His fears may be justified, given that few believe anything good will result from the next round of talks.
Friday 16 May
Incongruously, seven of us had a blow-out barbecue picnic in a wadi near Ain Arik with actual water flowing through the rocks. The only mishap was when some local kids censored us for drinking beer. It was Friday. A bottle landed and burst on the rocks next to me. I am told that since the start of the intifada, religious intolerance has increased.
Saturday 17 May
I heard that John Berger and Jean Mohr were being given a tour of Birzeit University. They had come to Ramallah and had run a two-day workshop for writers and photographers. I caught up with them on their tour and was more than a little surprised when Berger remembered me from the time when I used to hang out in Margaret Frishmans flat.
Al-Tiri is a new middle-class neighbourhood, stretching west out of Ramallah along a mountain ridge. R. with her husband has just moved into a cooperative block of flats there. The army has been searching her building for three nights running. They left on Saturday morning while we were teaching. Some of them slept in one of the flats. R thinks the Israelis are getting ready to do something perhaps take over the building.
I have been stopped and searched twice in two days. International Solidarity Movement (ISM) foreigners are being kicked out. Awkward eyewitnesses. Thus in addition to Palestinian activists, they are now looking for ISM people at the roadblocks.
Sometimes the letter from Architectural Review smooths my way Researching British Mandate architecture. Occupied Palestine, Israel and Jordan are thus legitimate locations to find myself with a notebook and camera.
Details of these stoppings: endlessly amusing as vignettes of stupid questions, but ultimately boring. The young soldiers excel each other in their ignorance, brashness and rudeness. But they are trained to hand back my passport with the words: Have a good day.
To be fair, occupation soldiers anywhere in the world would be much the same, probably. However, not only are they dealing with their inferiors and lower beings, but they are also dealing with a society which, by nature and upbringing, is more polite. And lest any of you think I am prejudiced, I lived and worked in Israel for two years, forty odd years ago. My very occasional encounters in Israeli Jerusalem streets this last year and a half have not altered my view that Israelis are very direct (good) and sometimes rude (not so good).
A Ramallah combo, calling themselves the Sheikh Imam Group, gave a concert in the gardens of the Sakakini. Packed. The music was great. Not understanding a word, I suspect the songs were a mix of folk ballad, protest songs, sad national songs of yearning and loss, and pop.
Sunday 18 May
Yesterday, a bomber killed a settler couple in Hebron in the West Bank. Attracted by low rents (government subsidies), one had emigrated from Tel Aviv and the other from Jerusalem to the settlement of Kiryat Arba. It was reported that the couple was out for a stroll in the Old City. The latter is under permanent 24-hour curfew for Palestinians who, from their windows, have to silently watch the armed settlers owning the streets.
Monday 19 May
Over and over during the last two weeks or so, the BBC refers to the Israeli statements about easing of conditions. For that whole period, it appears to me that conditions are getting tougher by the day.
About a week of long walks through Surda and then a week ago the bulldozers had been back and had excavated two new barriers of rubble across the entire width of the road. An ambulance had unloaded a woman onto a stretcher. This had been manhandled over the earthworks and was being carried the 500 metres to another ambulance on the other side of the second barrier. The soldiers just watch. Over this last week, people of all ages clamber over the mounds of rubble and wear down tracks over the ridge. Today Surda is closed and nobody moves.
The bombing in Jerusalem yesterday: I saw it on BBC TV and recognised the street. The French Hill Junction. It is on the highway to Ramallah. No mention of the fact that Pisgat Zeev East and Pisgat Zeev West are in the West Bank the part annexed in 1967.
In 1967 it was not part of Jerusalem, East or West. Two hills between two wadi a few kilometres north of Jerusalem. Built over and housing some 45,000 people, the two settlements are now called Jerusalem. They are part of a string of settlements just off the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah and, of course, command the high ground. And this string is part of a ring of settlements on the hill tops around Jerusalem, effectively cutting the north and south of the West bank into two.
Adah tried to get to the east part of Ramallah. Her computer had gone down. By phone she found out that that part of the city is under full curfew, with the army shooting at anything that moves. Since then I have heard sickening stories of the soldiers activities at Qalandiya over the last two days.
Sharons answer last night was to seal the borders with Israel. Since they control all the borders, this means no travel in or out of Palestine in any direction. This morning, it became clear that all the checkpoints have been closed across the whole of the territories. They were shooting at Surda and the University is closed. This evening, at the Kasabah, we looked at slides by Jean Mohr and listened to John Berger talking about story telling.
Another bombing. In Afula, inside the Green Line. The last of five; the others being in the Occupied Territories. It is certain that they will not be completely condemned by an occupied population. At best, there is despair and resignation.
Tuesday 20 May
I tried to get to Surda again this morning. Still closed. R. and I are talking by phone about trying to set up a class in Ramallah for the handful of students resident there. Difficult, because the Birzeit village-based students will see it as unfair.
Two weeks ago, the semester for the whole of BZU was extended by a week to try to make up a little of the lost time. If this closure goes on, I am guessing it will be extended another week. We had planned a visit to Jordan in July. I wonder.
On my way down the street just now, I stopped and had a coffee with Muhammad in his hi-fi repair shop. In England, you dump electronic equipment when it goes wrong. Here everything is repairable.
Watching Muhammad, with his mini screw driver and soldering iron, reminds me of northern Italian small towns in the 1950s, when there was virtually nothing on a car which could not be welded together again. The idea of replacement parts was a total last resort.
Of course, we talked about the situation. His sentences were spattered with the words peace and shalom. He wanted this more than anything else. But finally, he told me that there was no longer a political solution.
Some of you may wonder why I mention in this entry the killing of Israelis and not that of the Palestinians. Others will be upset and angry. The explanation is selfish and egocentric. The reason is simple and ordinary. I have been writing about what happens around us.
Dead and wounded Palestinians do not incur a consequence in Ramallah. Israeli casualties do.
Someone will know and want to tell me if there has been another oppressive regime in modern times, where the central feature of the oppressors strategy was national punishment. The Israelis have been using a whole army of political, economic and military weapons for decades, as have other invaders in many parts of the world. But this concept of national punishment has become a central weapon and should perhaps be studied by Israeli psychologists. They will be the first to understand the concept of extreme punishment and the result in later life.
The checkpoint is open. Even worse. As I arrived, the army bulldozers were rebuilding the earthworks at both ends, back to the 2 kilometre distance. But this time there was no route at all for ambulances and other public utility vehicles.
On my way through, I came across a family pushing a wheelchair. Tiny wheels, the kind used inside a hospital. After a few yards, they realised that they could not negotiate the rough part of the road. A wooden rickshaw affair was summoned and the clearly sick man was painfully transferred. I took the photo, but felt bad about it. However, one of the mans family understood and waved a yes to me. I sent two photos earlier this evening, copied to you but actually going to someone who will be meeting the Israeli civil administration tomorrow.
(They call it civil what it means is the military commander who deals with the Palestinian public.)
Early this afternoon in the middle of a design studio period, I was told to get to Surda quickly. The army was shutting us down again. I assumed it would be too late. I was right. When I got to Surda at 4.45, there was chaos, with a team of screaming soldiers and some hundreds of people waiting to go through to Ramallah. After an hour, we were let through one by one, presenting identity cards. They held a number of young men. Palestinians are not good at queuing.
At the other end, trying to leave Ramallah, about 500 people were waiting. The army brought up reinforcements. It became very ugly as clearly sick people were trying to get through with their helpers. Not one was allowed to pass. The army used megaphones continuously. Eventually, in spite of there being an armoured vehicle, three jeeps and a dozen or more heavily armed soldiers, they started to feel that they were losing control. Standing there with the camera, I was too slow to get out of the way of the tear gas canisters fitted to their guns and the blast bombs they lobbed in a manner half way between hard ball (baseball) and cricket bowling.
Perhaps the couple of TV cameramen and myself with my digital camera didnt help matters. They had given us many instructions to stop filming.
At about 7pm, probably on orders, they let the people past. By then there must have been about 800. One of my students, returning to Birzeit village from Ramallah had been standing there since 2 pm.
Partly because of closures, the students are getting much less tutoring than they need or deserve. It will show at the end.
Easing of conditions great.