On a bicycle in Palestine

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Arriving in the holy/unholy land. Illegal Israeli settlement outpost left.

On Tuesday I cycled from Tel Aviv to Ramallah. Google warns me my route ‘may cross a country border’. So vague, google, keeper of the world’s knowledge. My bicycle has crossed many borders with me. One more today. Or perhaps not. To Palestine? Or was I in Palestine yesterday in Jaffa? Israel/Palestine, Palestine/Israel. From a straight line east to round in circles and up and down hills in Palestine. That’s how I prefer it anyway.

As I left Tel Aviv the route is boring and flat and I get lost trying to find the right highway. The humidity is getting to me. Why didn’t I leave earlier? Why is leaving a city on a bicycle so irritating? Don’t think about the heat, drink more water. I got myself on the right highway eventually, the 465 heading east. The road starts climbing and winding gently and I’m struggling in the heat. I stop to finish my water and it feels like I could have brewed tea in it. I lie down in the shade to rest. I’m thinking about where I can get some water, and whether the next town will be a settlement. How unethical would it be to buy water from an illegal settlement? I’m slowly drifting off under this tree while these thoughts about how thirsty I’d have to be to buy the settlement water swim around in my head when a car pulls up and the driver asks if I need water. He doesn’t need to ask me twice and he gives me a big bottle of water, fizzy drink and chocolate bar from a cooler. Thanks to human kindness my hypothetical settlement water quandary is resolved. I say thank you in Hebrew which is currently all I know how to say.

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the Halamish settlement

Over the Green Line/perhaps border there are Israeli flags everywhere, as Israelis celebrated ‘independence day’ recently, the date on which they commemorate the founding of a settler colonial state on this land. I pass by the Halamish settlement, founded in the seventies by the right-wing ultra-Zionist group Gush Emunim. The turning from the road is heavily protected with fences, barbed wire and all that ridiculous paraphernalia. Two women who I presume are settlers are stood at the bus stop behind concrete blocks. I stop to take a picture of the fences and look at the barbed wire. Who would want to live like that, behind all these security measures? I wonder so much about the settlers. Do they know what they are doing is wrong if they have to live behind so many layers of fences and spikes and cameras and soldiers? Security measures do not create security, they cause insecurity. As I wrote here in relation to the European border, borders do not protect against threats, they are the threat. One day I hope we tear them all down. The Israelis are not special, but their settlements perhaps represent the most stupid culmination of a particular human arrogance: the desire to dominate and control the land. We find a patch, call it ours, build a fence around it and put up a flag. It’s mine and I will do what I want with it: exploit, control, dominate. We don’t just do it to the land but to each other and this way of thinking is at the root of all forms of colonialism. The petty-minded nationalism clinging desperately to the sinking ship of an empire is part of what I’m cycling away from (how are you doing back there, Brexit island?). And it’s brought me to… this crucible of the most aggressive nationalism – Zionism. Maybe the settlers have covered this place in so many Israeli flags because they know in their hearts that the land does not belong to them. In one of my favourite books, Tracks, Robyn Davidson writes of her walk many thousands of miles across Australia. Part of her journey is guided by an aboriginal elder across spiritual lands where women are not allowed to go alone. She learns a beautiful truth from him. We do not own the land. The land owns us.

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Garden at the Palestinian Museum

The day after I arrive in Ramallah I cycle out to the Palestinian Museum and look around the exhibition then spend time walking around the garden perched in the hillside looking west. The garden has some installations in amongst the olive trees and meadows. One by Inass Yassin, in large light-box letters, reads ‘bless this earth whether it is holy or unholy.’ Love the land, it says to me, despite these names people will load upon it. The heaviest of loaded terms, the holy land: and what does it mean if what you will do to bless it is build walls and cut down olive trees. Do crusaders come here and kill because they think it is holy or despite thinking it is holy? My mind is drifting off to the settlers again.

Somewhere between the Green Line and the Halamish settlement, an Israeli soldier driving the other way spots me and does a U-turn in the road to stop me. He asks me what I’m doing and tells me it’s dangerous. Which kind of dangerous, sir? ‘The villages up ahead, the kids may throw stones at you’. Palestinian dangerous is his kind of dangerous. I thank him and smile and tell him I will risk it. I am not fearless by any means and I have sat with my fear many times on this bicycle trip. His fear is not my kind of fear though, and I in this moment I am happy cycling up and down these hills. Today the land is looking after me.

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Palestinian Museum garden 2

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