Trip to Palestine – 18/03/2019

Amman to Bethlehem

I departed Amman at 7am and eight hours later had arrived in Jerusalem. For those unfamiliar with the journey, you can cross from Jordan to the West Bank – and vice versa – via the King Hussein Bridge. This is the only route in or out of Palestine for most Palestinians and although the crossing is actually based within Palestinian territory (West Bank), it is controlled entirely by Israeli security. Importantly, for anyone ever intending on visiting Palestine (and you should), it’s wise not to tell Israeli security your true intentions and instead have an Israeli-friendly cover story ready.

As you’d expect, the crossing was no plain sailing: most of the time was simply the typical and tedious ‘airport culture’ of being herded to and from like cattle…wait, move, queue, wait, move etc. I suppose where cows get lucky is they won’t be detained for an hour for questioning! Given I’d been to Lebanon in the past then this was expected. 

Generally, I quite enjoy this sort of pressure though – I’m a competitive sort and, perhaps weirdly, often treat difficult situations like a game or challenge of wits. Drawing on experiences of minor brushes with authority and confident with my cover story, I wasn’t overly worried. I was asked multiple questions by the standard passport officer and with him unsatisfied with my passion for the Beirut nightlife it was ‘access denied’. Someone superior would decide my fate.

As I waited with a handful of others – me the token white guy – I completed a fairly basic form: personal details; accommodation in Israel; contacts in Israel; and a list of all the countries I had visited with reasons for doing so. The latter was all Celtic in Europe except for Lebanon, funnily enough. The questioning was strangely relaxed and informal – intentional no doubt. Conducted in the open waiting area only closer to the wall, two security officers in their mid-30’s slouched back against a beam, one asking me questions and noting my answers, and the other simply watching and listening. 

‘Why are you here? What are you planning to do? Who do you know? Where are you staying? Show us the booking confirmations? Are you visiting the mosque? What do you work as? Where do you work? How long have you worked there? Why visit Israel now? Why alone? Why were you in Lebanon? What contacts do you have in Lebanon? Who were you with in Lebanon? Where did you stay? Where did you visit? Did you visit any museums? Have you been to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan?’ 

A sound terror-test.

Breeze. A bit of an anti-climax, in all honesty. I had some Bitton patter at the ready which I didn’t even get to use – even had the big man saved as my screensaver! I did manage to steer the chat towards football in the end however it was obvious that football wasn’t their bag – shooting practice is a different concept in their world.

With a short Service (shared taxi) journey into Jerusalem, I encountered my first checkpoint. The best way to describe it is as being like a heavily armed toll. Two fully equipped soldiers, both looking under 20, had a quick scan of the van, check of our passports and let us pass to Jerusalem. I had been up since 5.30am so was keen to head straight to my final destination, spending little time in Jerusalem. Damascus Gate and the walls of the Old City were impressive but I will be underwhelmed by that experience later. I hopped on an Arab bus, arrived at Bethlehem and walked to Aida Camp.

Aida Camp is situated immediately behind the separation wall so the first thing that you see as you approach the camp is the magnitude of the wall and watch towers. Whilst I have seen this a million times before in pictures and videos nothing prepared me for the real thing. A recurring thought throughout my time in Palestine, actually.

I first had intentions of visiting Palestine around ten years ago but it was only recently that plans fell into place to go over and work on the Aida Celtic project. The Green Brigade have developed relationships in Palestine over several years and we are lucky, honoured and completely humbled to receive invitations from friends that most of us are still to meet. On this occasion we were staying with someone we’ll call Dembers – although we hadn’t met before, we do have mutual friends, including his best friend: a Palestinian who now lives in Glasgow and boasts a mad Glaswegian accent! As well as this link, Dembers also works with the Lajee Center who have strong ties with the Green Brigade.

Nobody was expecting me when I arrived which I liked as I spent an hour just kicking back on a kicked in, dirty old couch on the side of the road, talking to kids (or rather they were teasing me in Arabic as I awkwardly laughed along), taking in the surroundings of a place I’d wanted to visit for so long. Salah – the head of the Lajee Center (some may remember him being in Glasgow) – came to greet me, showed me to Dembers’ family home, introduced me to the family and parked me down at the dining table behind a big plate of food. This was another recurring theme of the trip. Shortly after, Dembers appeared and explained that a child prisoner had been released and we should go greet him. I didn’t need a second invitation.

A 16-year-old, following his second spell in prison – each for throwing stones at soldiers – had been released after over a year inside. Just re-read that sentence to allow it to sink in. As is customary for prisoner releases of any age, they are collected at the prison from family or friends and brought home to a hero’s welcome. We joined a car cortege from the camp which took over the main streets of Bethlehem for a short period. Anarchy reigned as cars blocked roads, drove up the wrong side and generally brought traffic to a halt. I enjoyed this lawless vibe which was present throughout the entire trip. Not lawless in a dangerous or sinister way but more of a general defiance against oppression or – perhaps tragically – life in general.

Most cars on the cortege were stolen. It’s common for gallant Palestinian thieves to venture into Settler land, risk prison or death and return home in a car which will then be sold on to Palestinians at affordable prices. Robin Hoods of the East, if you ask me. The early evening air was filled with resistance music blaring from the boom box hanging from the boot of the car leading the pack, backed up by the sound of persistent car horns and topped off with the deliberate drone of revving engines and squeal of tyres grinding against brakes. The scene was completed with guys of all ages hanging from car windows, or standing through sunroofs, waving the red flag of the PFLP.

The cortege ended at the young boy’s house in Aida Camp, the street decked out with red flags and bunting. Waiting on him were the women and kids and anyone else who hadn’t joined the cortege. He left the front car and was immediately raised on to shoulders to be cheered. He danced, clapping his hands and waving the red flag to the bold, inspiring beat of resistance. Everyone was in unison, it was a joyous occasion and it was easy to get swallowed up in the carnival atmosphere as coffee and cake was dished out to all (different type of party to Glasgow, right enough). Most memorable of all was the embrace between the young man and his mother. No longer a boy – it chilled me when Dembers commented that he didn’t seem the same bright, energetic kid he had known before.

A couple of hours later, we were joined by the next two arrivals: one GB and someone else who plays an important role in the Aida Celtic project. His company, ‘a number of names*’ have not only produced but sponsored the football shirts as well as bringing invaluable guidance and contacts for the project ahead. It was dark by this time and Dembers took us a drive to Old Bethlehem to see the area. I visited several times throughout the week but this was the only time I enjoyed doing so. Manger Square, with the Church of the Nativity lit up in the background, was empty and completely peaceful.

Our first night in Palestine ended with a taste of back home – we rolled up into a field and cracked open a carry out. We had whisky too however the former is more home-like for me. The night came to a close on a serious note as Dembers explained the grim reality of the environment we found ourselves in. The field was Palestinian land however Palestinians were prohibited from building here – it is generally accepted that the ugly, illegal Israeli settlement that we could see across the hill would soon consume this pretty, green field.