Friday, April 13, 2007

A Tale from behind the Wall

The following story has been sent to me from occupied palestine.

"Ibrahim's Pavement Café"

Most cities and town across Europe have a central square, or several, around which the city or town is built. These can include bustling market squares in rural England, lazy plazas in small Spanish villages, and huge piazzas in Italy's great Roman cities

Al-Khalil's (Hebron's) Beit Romano square bares little in common with these other hubs of social activity. Around the square are nineteen shops units, many of their doors are scarred with bullet holes. On top of them sits a small cream coloured unit covered with camouflage netting from which Israeli soldiers watch the area twenty four hours a day. Two Israeli Occupation Force (IOF) watch-posts dominate the small square, between which hangs a huge reinforced metal gate which is permanently locked to Palestinian residents, behind this gate are areas of Al-Khalil that have been totally occupied by Zionists. Opposite the gate another road leading onto Beit Romano is blocked with a four foot high yellow gate wrapped in razor wire preventing Palestinian vehicular access.

From an abandoned Palestinian house next to this gate (abandoned as Palestinian residents have been violently forced out) a blue and white Israeli flag flutters in the wind. Diagonally across the square from the flag a towering new looking building looms ominously over everything, this is the Yeshiva (religious Jewish school) attached to Beit Romano Zionist Settlement. Around fifteen years ago the site of the Yeshiva hosted a Palestinian school. Until very recently every one of the nineteen shop units was closed, some have had their metal doors welded shut, welded shut by the Settlers after they chased Palestinians out of the area. But then, just over two weeks ago, one shop unit directly in the shadow of the Yeshiva, and within a few metres of the IOF watch-posts, opened its doors once more. Welcome to Ibrahim's Pavement Café…

"Ernesto Che Guevara…"

These were the first three words Ibrahim said to me as he brought over two cups of hot, sweet 'shai m'a nana' (mint tea) for us.

"…he is my hero!"

Ibrahim is proud to talk about his Marxist ideology, and he is equally proud to tell his life story. It is a remarkable story which could be reported as a story of endless suffering. But when Ibrahim tells it, he tells it proudly is a story of endless resistance.

Ibrahim was born in 1958 in the village of Darharia, a few kilometers from Al-Khalil. At the tender age of seven he was taught by his uncle how to shoot with a British weapon left over from the Mandate times:

"My uncle trained both me and my cousin how to use a gun. We used to play in an area which the Jordanian military used to train. One day we found an unexploded bomb, we didn't realize it was dangerous. We were playing with it, but then it exploded! My cousin was killed instantly, right there in front of me. He was seven too, and he was my best friend. I am still too sorry about him until now."

By 1973 Ibrahim had joined the Palestinian Liberation Organisation which was a union consisting of Fateh, PFLP (Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine), Democratic movements, the Palestinian Communist Party, and other groups. Three years later he was imprisoned for the first time by the Occupation authorities. Ibrahim was in his last year at High School when
this happened:

"They (the IOF) arrested me for being active in the Resistance. I was distributing leaflets and Palestinian flags for the PLO. I stayed in prison for two years during which I was beaten and tortured regularly, but I never talked! I never told them anything!"

Far from convincing Ibrahim to change his ways his time in prison actually strengthened his resolve. Upon release he went straight to BirZeit University in Ramallah and found a place to study Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies. Less than a year later, in 1979, Ibrahim was again arrested and interrogated for a month. After release he returned to his
studies at BirZeit.

In 1981 there was a minor Intifada in Palestine. The Occupation authorities had been attempting to install their own choices of Palestinians as Town and City Councils and refusing to deal with any elected Mayors or representatives who supported the PLO. There was political discussion about Israel giving around sixty percent of the West Bank back to the control of King Hussein of Jordan, the remainder would be considered as Israel, so they were attempting to install either Palestinian collaborators, or Palestinians loyal to King Hussein, to all representative posts to facilitate this idea.

Zionist Settlers were playing their part by carrying out attacks against elected Palestinian representatives. Basam Al-Shaka, the Mayor of Nablus, lost both his legs when Settlers placed a bomb underneath his car in June 1980. The Mayor of Ramallah, Karim Khalaf, suffered a similar fate losing one leg. Many other elected representatives also faced these kinds of attacks, some were assassinated. So Palestinians responded by staging a mainly student-led Intifada or uprising. (It was from this mini Intifada and other similar uprisings that ideas were formed which eventually led to what is widely termed the 'First Intifada', which began in 1987.)

"I was active in this small Intifada. I was arrested (by the IOF) and that time they kept me for three months. I was put inside a tiny cell, more like a secure cupboard. I was strung up from a wall with my arms stretched far apart handcuffed to the wall. My legs were also spread apart and my feet chained to the wall, with my feet off the ground so I was hanging from my wrists. They used a heavy stick to repeatedly beat me on my head and between my legs. They kept saying 'You have guns and you organize people', they tried to get me to talk, but I still told them nothing."

Small uprisings continued over the next year or two and in 1983 Ibrahim was again arrested and held for three months. By this time he was working as a writer for an underground Marxist newspaper called Al Talia (the Workers). He wrote regular reports about the situation in Al-Khalil and about workers' rights. He continued in this role until 1992.

In 1988, during the First Intifada, Ibrahim was married to the Headmistress of a local girl's school. This was also the year in which his closest friend, a 28 year old father of three children ( the three children were named 'Guevara', 'Thouwri' - meaning Revolutionary, and Maysah – the name of PFLP leader George Habash's daughter) was killed when shot in the heart by Occupation forces whilst leading a demonstration in their home village of

Watching Ibrahim as he talks I can see that he still clearly feels the pain of this event today, much more so than when describing his own experiences in and out of Occupation prisons. Three months later he found himself locked up and getting beaten again. The following year it happened once more and during these three months captivity he had most of his teeth smashed out with rocks and sticks. Ibrahim still refused to speak.

After his release from prison he opened a small office in Al-Khalil from which to write, and he also began to write for another Communist/Marxist newspaper, Al Khatib (The Writer). Within three years Ibrahim had moved to a better equipped office in the Baba Zawia area of Al-Khalil. He had computers and copy machines and worked long hours producing leaflets and literature supporting the Intifada. Although himself a PFLP activist Ibrahim produced literature for all Palestinian factions, he is first and foremost a Palestinian and believes in anything that he sees as for the good of his country.

1993 saw the Oslo Accords established. Initially many Palestinians welcomed the Oslo deal believing it could lead to the end of Occupation. Very few people now believe it was ever constructive or beneficial to Palestine, Ibrahim saw right from the outset it was corrupt and was never afraid to voice these opinions:

"I believe in two states, a Palestinian state must be established in the entire West Bank and Gaza strip which is free from Occupation and all Settlements. The full Right of Return must also be granted to all Palestinian Refugees. Oslo did not offer us these rights, anything less than this is just not acceptable and corrupt."

Ibrahim continued his work producing literature, and writing against the Oslo Accords. This was eventually to also bring him into conflict with the newly established Palestinian Authority. In 1996 he was producing literature for Islamic Jihad who, like Ibrahim's PFLP, had never supported the Oslo deal:

"I found out many of the secrets of Oslo and I knew it was bad for Palestine even then. I was copying and distributing leaflets for Islamic Jihad in which these secrets were revealed. The P.A. found out about this and arrested me. In their prisons I was beaten on my head and stomach, eventually I collapsed and was taken to Dehaishah Hospital in Bethlehem. I stayed in hospital three weeks."

After three weeks in hospital he was released. Ibrahim had friends in high places including Basheer Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian Communist Party, and Jibreen Rujoob, who was a Fateh leader. They worked to have him immediately released knowing that he had always been an active revolutionary and his work was for the good of his country. Although released his family still suffered because of his outspoken work against Oslo, the Palestinian
Authority Ministry of Education pulled strings against Ibrahim to ensure that his wife was demoted from her position as Headmistress to a standard teacher's position. The couple had five children by this time and the reduced salary hit them hard.

Ibrahim was forced to look for paying work which he found laying water pipes for the Al-Khalil Municipality in 1998. Only three months into his new job a one tonne pipe slipped from machinery and crushed his knee, he was hospitalized again and spent the next fifty days in hospital. The doctors were unable to rebuild his knee and this marked the end of Ibrahim's manual work. He had not worked since that accident and his family had to survive on his wife's salary alone, until that is, just over two weeks ago…

"Two friends who I used to write with came to see me. One of them owned this shop unit in Beit Romano and told me their ideas about opening a Coffee Shop here. They told me it was next to the soldiers and the Settlers and that the Settlers want to take all this property."

Ibrahim saw this as his chance to become active and resist once more. When the shop opened it had just one table, they now have four including one outside in Beit Romano Sqaure itself. There is no electricity but they are working to get this changed. So now, everyday at 8am, Ibrahim opens his doors and he stays there until late afternoon. He says business was very slow at first but it is gradually starting to improve. On Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, Beit Romano is filled with Settlers who are surrounded and protected by IOF soldiers, the area is deserted of Palestinians, except for Ibrahim that is, who refuses to close his shop or to be intimidated by any of them.

I enjoy spending time with Ibrahim, he is an incredibly strong man. As he talks his head permanently twitches, he has developed this twitch after all the beatings his head has received during his time in prison. He also suffers almost continuous headaches and is now diabetic. His sight is poor and walking distances is difficult after his work accident, and when he smiles he reveals his almost toothless gums after having his teeth smashed out all those years ago. I know I don't need to ask the question but I do anyway, asking Ibrahim to tell me why he opened his shop here:

"This is our resistance against the Settlers and Soldiers! We have very little business but we struggle to survive through our resistance. They are all angry to see me open here, but they don't scare me!"

As Ibrahim talks, an IOF patrol walks past his shop. They stop just a few metres away from us, watching us with their guns raised. Ibrahim doesn't even pause for breath, infact, if anything, his voice becomes slightly louder:

"There is a good day coming but it is not here yet. It will come one day. I want to see a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip free from all Settlers and Occupation soldiers, and all refugees return back to their lands."

Ibrahim looks past me at the watching and listening soldiers, his mouth opens and his two or three remaining teeth break into a smile, then he continues:

"I am happy now, I am fighting again…"

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