North Africa, West Asia

Voyeuring occupation

Taking pictures in Palestinian refugee camps feels crude. But what is more clumsy is to go to the West Bank and ignore the occupation.

Sophia Akram
28 May 2015
Bethlehem marathon. Mahmoud Illean/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Bethlehem marathon. Mahmoud Illean/Demotix. All rights reserved.

On Sunday 26 April, around 30,000 runners took to the streets of London to run what its co-founder once called, ‘the world’s most human race’. In 1980, one year prior to its birth, six aims were outlined for the London Marathon.

These included showing mankind that, on occasions, they can be united; to raise money for sporting and recreational facilities; to help boost London’s tourism; and to have fun and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world.

This agenda is fitting for most countries, and most cities. For Palestine—to do any of those things would be useful. But in Palestine, they run to tell a different story.

Just four weeks prior to the big marathon weekend (London, Madrid, Hamburg and Siracusa are all holding races), a lesser-known event took place in Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories. While not achieving international notoriety, it saw thousands of runners flock there to participate in this meaningful event, and I went to witness it.

The aim of the race is to raise awareness of the occupation and the restrictions on movement. It is therefore aptly called the ‘Right to Movement Palestine Marathon’.

Bethlehem is the perfect backdrop for this message, having seen the erection of a large concrete separation barrier—‘the Wall’—to supposedly protect Israelis from Palestinians. Except it doesn’t just separate them along the green line—the border defined in 1949—approximately 85 percent of it encroaches on Palestinian land. 

To find a runnable 10km alone in Bethlehem requires every turn and corner to be explored. This meant that runners took in the real experience of Bethlehem and the key manifestations of occupation, which this race was designed to highlight.

Leading from the Church of Nativity, the route stretched past the Wall, through two refugee camps, Aida and Ad Duheish; and the former village of Al Khader, now a suburb of Bethlehem, which has been separated from several thousand square metres of farmland since the construction of the Wall, its inhabitants only being able to gain access with a permit.

The atmosphere from the run was exhilarating and an exhibition of Palestinian solidarity, internally and internationally. It also gave visitors the opportunity to really see what was happening in the West Bank—what it was and what it was not.

I entered Palestine myself with my own formulated opinions on where my loyalties lay and pre-conceived notions of what to expect. But taking it from the abstract to reality was another matter entirely.

In some cases, you can go to Bethlehem, visit Manger Square, eat falafel and buy an unauthentic keffiya, and head back to the Intercontinental Hotel without really noticing anything untoward. The same applies in Ramallah, a rumbling city, full of life and warmth: have a ‘holy beer’ as one local cheekily urged, view local art and shop for spices.

However, foreign travellers only go to the West Bank for two reasons, to work or to understand the occupation. This is quite voyeuristic in some senses: much like visiting orphanages in Cambodia and taking pictures in refugee camps feels crude. But what is more clumsy is to go to the West Bank and not take note of their subjugation. In fact the tourist information board outside Bethlehem Peace Centre informs:

“There are three refugee camps in Bethlehem…visit them!”

The microcosm, or most extreme example, I saw of this was in Hebron or Al Khalil in Arabic. Located in the southern West Bank, it was a bustling hub of West Bank trade, is one of the three oldest cities in the world and of deep religious significance for Jews and Muslims.

It is also crazy. The centre of a forced settlement project by the Israeli state means that residents of Al Khalil have been subjected to a series of forced evictions, curfews, market closures, street closures, military checkpoints, and military law including frequent random searches and detention without charge.

The concentrated number of Israeli soldiers in Al Khaleel exists to protect less than a thousand settlers, allowing them to pursue aggressive and violent actions towards the Palestinian residents, pressurising approximately 15,000 Palestinian civilians to flee their homes. 

I was shown around by the organisation, Youth Against Settlements, a civil society group seeking to end colonisation activities in Palestine.

Visually, Al Khaleel’s city centre is like a twisted puzzle of ownership. Palestinian houses slotted between settler properties, overlooking Palestinian businesses and stores, divided by mesh and barbwire covered by rubbish thrown out by settlers to torment Palestinians.

The identifier of each piece is an Israeli or Palestinian flag. However, I discovered that an Israeli flag can be placed on a Palestinian property without dispensation, while removal of this flag by a Palestinian will invoke six to eight months imprisonment.

Navigating Hebron city centre is to negotiate a maze of checkpoints. Many of the roads have been closed off and restricted to Palestinians—to safeguard the security of the settlers, which has also led to the closure of around 500 stores.

Walking around with the volunteers of Youth Against Settlements was an exhibition of the apartheid measures that have been imposed on the residents. There was discomfort in being able to enter certain streets like Shuhada street, while Palestinians could not, or watching them walk behind barriers rather than alongside me.

However, it is not only Palestinians that are taunted by aggressive settlers. The morning of the day I visited, a volunteer from the International Solidarity Movement, a civil society effort to monitor human rights violations and take direct action, was arrested and asked to leave Hebron for at least 10 days.

Her crime was standing in front of a Palestinian child to stop an attack by her settler provocateur. Despite video footage to prove the settler made the attack, she was arrested and false claims of ISM instigation made.

These are just fragments of what I heard and saw in just ten days in the West Bank and I left feeling angry but also drawn. The warmth felt in the West Bank cannot be disregarded. One traveller I met commented on how he was backpacking in Tel Aviv and was warned not to go to the West Bank: “you’ll get robbed and stabbed.” But once in Ramallah, “there was nothing that felt easier or safer” than being amongst the Palestinian people, you are welcomed to a new home.

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