Bearing Witness by Ana Barahona

Bearing_Witness “Muhammad tells us that there is a huge respect in Palestine and other countries for “internationals” like us, who, Muhammad says, leave ‘the comforts from your homes, your education, your work, your families, to come here and suffer with us Palestinians’.”

“Abu Ali goes on about our very important mission here in Palestine and back home, telling what we have seen here.”

This book is part of that telling.

Current availability

A few radical bookshops in the UK are stocking it, plus it is available from Active Distribution; you can also get it by emailing abarahona at riseup.net or leave a comment here, to request a .pdf or a printed copy.

There are various extracts below.


Early reviews

“A page turner.”

“…Very engaging.”

“Very good, enjoyable, informative and touching.”

“A very powerful and moving testimony of experiences in Palestine of a human rights observer, as someone who has gone in solidarity to witness and to physically help and protect Palestinian people. The tone and pacing of the book are awesome.”

“It is very clear and does not get bogged down in facts and technicalities. Instead what comes across very clearly is the awfulness of the everyday lives of Palestinians. Reading about their normal activities helps to get a very real idea of the repression and humiliation that they face. Not only does the author not ‘star’ in it, but she is able to report exactly what she did but in a way that brings out the situations of the Palestinians more so. It’s definitely more than just a piece of witnessing.”

“Entirely moving, and with some sort of building tension. By the time the reader gets through Bi’lin and then to Hebron, it’s impossible to not be moved.”

“Wow. It’s really interesting. The simple, present tense narrative helps to get into it and imagine the reality of the situation there and how the author felt.”

“Its well written and well paced, one of those books that is hard to put down. I’d heartily recommend it for anyone wanting to see the human side of the broader situation in Palestine.” Active Distribution

Author’s note

All the names in the text, including the author’s, have been changed, to try to avoid repressive actions by the State of Israel.


Extracts

Guns and soldiers

As I walk, the crowd becomes more like a multitude with little space between one person and the next, but suddenly a young man in western clothes stands out, at least to my eyes. He is not wearing anything on his head; he does not have a beard. He is wearing a white western shirt and black western trousers. He clearly stands out of the crowd. I am not sure if it is his clothes that have made me stare at him for a fraction of a second or if it is the thing hanging from his shoulder that he is grabbing with his hand. Time has stopped between this guy and me for that fraction of a second. I look down to see the black tool he is holding. His finger is out holding a trigger and I realise it is a machine gun. At least I know it is a weapon, black and very modern, much more sophisticated than anything else I have ever seen in films or in the news.

No one has stopped or even noticed. We all continue walking and time recovers its usual pace.

First Saturday – Jerusalem to Ramallah

According to international treaties, West Jerusalem is in Israel and East Jerusalem is in Palestine. In reality, there is no border between West and East Jerusalem for Israeli citizens. For Palestinians it is altogether different. Most of them have no citizenship whatsoever. They may have a Palestinian passport but if they want to use it to travel to Israel or abroad, they need special permission from the Israeli authorities, and these may grant it or not, arbitrarily. They also have to ask for a special permit to travel to East Jerusalem, the part of Jerusalem that the international community in their treaties granted to a future State of Palestine. When the Israeli authorities give this permission, it needs to be renewed periodically if the Palestinian person in question wants to travel to Jerusalem again after the permission expires. So it is a commonly accepted knowledge among Palestinians and Israelis that the whole of Jerusalem is in Israel, not Palestine.

This is contrary to UN resolutions and further agreements, but the rules and the practice imposed by Israel have established as much.

To most Palestinian people, permission to go to Jerusalem is simply never granted. Since some of the people who will give us a talk about Palestine belong to this group, international visitors who want to attend this talk need to leave Jerusalem for it.

I join a group of such internationals and we take a bus-taxi that will take us to Ramallah. The trip would normally take less than an hour in one of these taxis, but there is a checkpoint roughly in the middle of the journey and that will delay it for at least an hour.

The taxi-bus is like the one I took at the airport, only it had an Israeli number plate and this one has a Palestinian one. The Palestinian number plates have black characters on a white background or white ones on a green background. Latin numbers occupy most of the plate, and on the right, there is a small space for a Latin “P” and also for an Arabic letter. Israeli number plates are almost identical to those of the European Union. They can only be told apart by looking closely. They have an Israeli flag instead of an EU flag on the left of the number, and in the place for the member State initial there is “IL”. The rest is the same: black Latin numbers and letters on white background.
As we approach the checkpoint at Qalandia in the taxi, the Apartheid Wall runs parallel to the road. It really is horrible. The wall we can see from this taxi is “only” five or six meters high. In other parts, it can be as high as nine.

Still, the worse thing is the sensation of destruction around it. It looks as if the road we are travelling on is still being built. I am told that in fact they are “destroying” it. After about five minutes of seeing rubbish and rubble on one side of the road and the wall on the other, the road goes away from the wall. As we continue travelling, on our left, in the other direction, I see a kind of police control where each car is stopped for two or three seconds and then let go. Those cars seem to have been allowed to go through this checkpoint. They seem newer and cleaner than this taxi or any other Palestinian vehicle I have seen so far. Someone points out that all of those cars that are allowed to go through have Israeli number plates. There is no vehicle with a “P” on the number plate allowed through the checkpoint.

I get the explanation that people with an Israeli “pass” can go through the control with no problem, but people without that pass – especially Palestinians, but also foreigners and anyone without that special pass – can not pass through this control by car. Palestinian cars are not allowed to pass through Qalandia.

There is only one way for a Palestinian to get through the checkpoint: get in a taxi, leave it at one end of the checkpoint, then walk, and then get another taxi at the other end.

So our taxi driver stops before the checkpoint for pedestrians and announces that this is the last stop. We gather our belongings and start walking, first on the road, among the other taxis that have had to stop and let their passengers go, then on a muddy path. To my left, while I walk on the mud, there is the perfectly paved road that no one can use except Israeli cars. To my right, next to me, there is a high fence. At the other side of the fence there is another perfectly paved road with modern buildings and car parks, patrolled by armed soldiers that look at us with indifference, while we struggle in the mud, trying to step on hard soil and not get our feet too buried in the mud as we walk.
There are also soldiers on this side of the fence. They are actually everywhere.

I look around me and one soldier grabs my attention. He is pushing a Palestinian looking boy against the fence, beating him. Just like when I spotted the boy with the strange machine gun near Damascus Gate, time seems to have stopped and my heart is paralysed, while my legs go on walking without me commanding them. But my eyes are fixed on the soldier and the boy. When the soldier stops beating the boy he just walks away. My eyes are still fixed on the boy. He does not seem wounded, he just looks around and does not say anything, does not complain. I continue walking and finally look around too. No one else seems to have noticed the incident.

We arrive at some revolving gates made of iron bars. There is only space for one person and a rucksack at a time. Anything else needs to be thrown over the gate and then gathered from the ground on the other site. We are lucky we are travelling together and can catch each other’s bags. I wonder what people do when they need to carry large things, when they need to move house… Carrying furniture or fragile stuff in these conditions is just out of the question.
We arrive at a small esplanade where there are a lot of taxis waiting for people who have gone through the checkpoint. So, we have gone through. We have not been checked, nor has our luggage been searched. I guess whatever goes into Palestinian territory is none of the soldiers’ business, and the sole purpose of the whole checkpoint exercise is to delay every single person’s journey by at least an hour, unless of course a soldier starts to beat you.

All the taxi men call us to attract our attention. I get conscious that what attracts them is not our pretty faces, but our foreign looks. A foreigner for them means lots of money. As one of my companions puts it, we are “walking money” for them.

Within days I will help with the olive harvest. Every one says that it is very nice, for the activity in itself and because the mere international presence makes it possible for families to harvest their olives, because without this presence the pressure and harassment from the military and the settlers make the task impossible.

Nablus. The dead boy

The visit, the tour and the storytelling stop abruptly. We all leave and get in taxis to the mountainous area where the movements have been reported. The taxis can not advance too quickly because the roads are pretty crowded, mostly with young men. Some of these look into the taxis, see some foreign faces inside, and those who speak English say “Welcome”; others just cheer. It feels like they know what we are here for, and gratitude just fills the air.

The taxis can only take us to the end of the road. The road ends where the Israeli army has put enough rocks on the road to block motor traffic. The army usually blocks roads in this way in order to “make movement more difficult for terrorists”. In reality movement is made more difficult for all Palestinians, from those who are going to their jobs (those still lucky enough to keep one) to the emergency services, like ambulances.

We get out of the taxis and we learn that the two injured men have been taken to hospital, but there is still one missing man and he could be injured too. Our task is to find him.

We walk up the road past the road block and find only quietness, no movement, no vehicles, and no light other than moonlight. No one seems to be around.

We continue up the mountain through a short cut, always up, up, and we keep calling the man’s name, and shouting: “Internationals!” or “International medics!” to avoid being shot by Israeli soldiers.
We decide it is not a good idea to use torches that could attract soldiers’ attention, as we are not sure if they are still around or not. It is already dark but the moon is bright enough.

We get back to the road and then up to yet another road block made of stones.

We then decide to split in two groups; one will continue the way up following the path, and the other will go down the hill, where there is some vegetation where he could be hiding.

I join the group that goes up the hill and after a few minutes of walking, a Palestinian man joins us from the dark. He is the missing man’s uncle, and tells us that, actually, the “man” we are looking for is a fourteen-year-old boy. He joins us in the search and after a turn in the path plus another hundred metres or so, one of the group sees someone lying on some stones at the side of the road and says:
“There he is.”
A few men, including the boy’s uncle, identify him and start shouting and crying and hugging him. Someone says:
“Check his pulse”, but someone else replies:
“He is well dead”.

The boy’s uncle wants to carry him on his shoulders but a younger man stops him and lifts him. As he does so, the dead boy’s head hangs lifelessly, still bleeding heavily. The young man takes him down the road from where we came and another one phones the other group to tell them to join us; the ambulances are already waiting there, at the point where they can not advance any more because of the road block.

The dead boy is handed to the medics and we are told to stay on this side of the roadblock. A western woman who now lives in Palestine tells us that, if we go with the boy’s uncle, who is now with more members of the family, and they see us slightly distressed, they will forget about their own grief and put themselves at our service with tea and food until they see us calmed down. Their sense of hospitality is so great, they will forget how distressed they are themselves. So we do not cross the roadblock until the family gets in one of the ambulances and leaves.

Some of us then go back to the mountain because we are told that there could be another man hiding in the area, maybe also injured. After about fifteen minutes we learn that yes, he is injured, and he is already in hospital. We then consider the search as finished and go back home.

When we get home, something unique happens. For the first and last time in this trip, I see a bunch of Palestinian men cooking food for us foreigners. This is how they are dealing with their pain.
Before starting to eat, one of the Palestinians speaks to us all:
“OK, what has happened is terrible, but this is our everyday life. He is now well and in peace, we remain here with our struggle. Unfortunately he is not the first one, he is number… a hundred and something…”
“A lot more than that.”
“We wish he was the last one, but probably he will not be”.

I am not too sure how many more nights I will go to sleep having these images as the last thoughts of my day. The sequence of events repeats itself inside my head. The images I have are quite clear, considering it was night time. I can even remember people’s faces. But then, from the moment I saw the body, these images become black and white in my brain.

Epilogue
When I came here, I did not know too well what I was coming for. But that is not the most important thing. I have been with people who know only too well what they need us for. And they have put us, they have put me, in the places where I was needed, telling me, on occasions exactly, what needed to be done. They never complained, but I was always aware that they need more nationals from privileged countries. While this humiliating occupation goes on, international solidarity will always be needed.
On occasions, it has been difficult, although the most difficult situations may have been the most trivial, or the ones no one would have expected to be difficult.

Misunderstandings with colleagues were difficult. Misunderstandings with soldiers were frustrating. Fighting with the enemy is not as painful as fighting with your friends.

The “official” reason for writing this is to denounce the situation in Palestine, and thus try and change it, for the better. A more personal reason is to never forget.

I do not want to forget M., who would not stay still while he was explaining things to us. He seemed to be dancing in front of us while he scribbled on the white board, and never stopped smiling.
I do not want to forget N. and her daughters. And her knowledge. And her support.
I do not want to forget R., who always said hello to us in Arabic, maybe in the hope that we would learn it.
I do not want to forget C., from the EAPPI, whom I met in one place and then I saw again in various other places, and it gave us the sensation, amongst so many unknown faces, that we had known each other all our lives.
I do not want to forget all the women who introduced us to their children, and grandchildren, and offered us the little food they had.
Although I did not meet him, I will never forget R., who was arrested during my travels in Palestine, in prison during my stay in Hebron, and deported after I left Palestine.
I do not want to forget D., who visited R. while he could, and who later sent us reports about R. and about himself, and who was himself arrested and then deported. Never to be allowed back again into Israel or Palestine by the Israeli authorities. But, surely, someone else from the rich world who has not been banned yet will fill his place.

The only way to maintain a continuous international presence that will somehow limit and document human rights abuses is to keep a continuous flow of Western people who are prepared to travel to Palestine and spend some time there.

Spending a few weeks, or months, in Palestine, accompanying Palestinians in their everyday struggle and sharing their difficulties, is an act of solidarity that is necessary and also very much appreciated. It is a humanitarian act of sharing the privilege of being a dignified citizen from a respected country with people who do not have that privilege and who are suffering for it.
I take home many things, but one of them is a clear cry for help from the Palestinians to us citizens of rich countries, since our governments are not honouring their good intention declarations. Concretely, they ask us to do however much we can of the following:
go there and share their everyday lives
document it and talk about it back home
boycott Israeli products

Words do not exist to express the gratitude the Palestinians feel when a citizen of a rich country does any one of these things.

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