Volunteering is Life

The 27th Farkha Festival

From 31 July to 7 August, the 27th annual Farkha Festival took place in the village of Farkha, in the occupied West Bank.

20% of the village’s land is threatened with confiscation.

The festival was held by the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP) and the Albad Cultural Centre, and constitutes a unique type of event: a combination of volunteer work, political events and cultural presentations. 

This style of community-building work goes back to the 1970s. A main figure in the movement was the leftist politician and poet Tawfiq Ziad, who was elected mayor of Nazareth in 1973. 

One of the factors in its growth was that Ziad’s attempts to improve conditions for the local community were stymied by the Israeli authorities, which cut funding and refused to authorise development projects. 

To counteract this, Tawfiq Ziad implemented some of the proposed measures with a volunteer workforce. 

The PPP is a communist party closely allied with the Israeli Communist Party (Maki), and, unlike the more well-known leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), rejects armed struggle in favour of other means of resistance.  Farkha is one of three localities to have a PPP mayor, Mustafa Bakir. 

As Ziad clearly demonstrated, one element in the popular struggle is communal labour. This connection makes it logical to combine it with lectures and workshops on political issues at the festival. 

Rounding the programme off with traditional music and dance performances, and offering a break from more strenuous activities, is also a way of holding on to a heritage that the Israeli government and its supporters seek to erase. 

Before the festival proper began, however, a group of international volunteers from Germany, Italy and Denmark, mostly members of activist groups with different degrees of emphasis on the Palestine issue, was treated to three days of trips to cities in both Israel and the West Bank during which certain political issues were highlighted, often with informal guided tours and conversations with locals describing their respective situations. 

The first stop after the international volunteers had arrived was the Communist Youth Centre in Yafa, near Nazareth, the headquarters of Maki’s youth organisation. 

The evening consisted of introductions, welcome speeches and a joint meal. There was a moment of shock when my statement that I represented an anti-Zionist Jewish organisation was misheard to the effect that it was a Zionist, but this was immediately rectified. 

The next morning began with a presentation by the former Knesset MP (until 2021) Yousef Jabareen, a member of the leftist coalition Hadash, which includes Maki. 

While making it clear that Palestinian citizens of Israel have the most rights of all Palestinians – compared to those in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza – he showed how they are still clearly disadvantaged in comparison to Israeli Jews. 

Jabareen spoke of the numerous laws discriminating in overt or more subtle fashion against Palestinian citizens, their unequal access to property and building permits, inequality of religious freedom as well as the lower status afforded to the Arabic language. 

The last of these is not simply a symbolic matter, as different levels of education mean different levels of proficiency in Hebrew. Many aspects of bureaucratic and public life are simply inaccessible to those citizens who only speak Arabic. 

“Israeli democracy is like Swiss cheese,” Jabareen summed up. “We, the Arab citizens, live in holes and are denied equal rights.”

The next event was a practical history lesson. We walked through the midday heat to the nearby village of Ma’alul – or rather, the ruins of that village, which was destroyed and depopulated in 1948 during the Nakba. 

We were shown the village mosque, which was demolished and then partially rebuilt. It remained unfinished, however, because the authorities revoked the building permit. The church, by contrast, was rebuilt, standing deserted as the one intact building in a forest of stones. 

In an encounter that spoke volumes, a few Israeli cyclists passed through the area and made light conversation with some of the volunteers, expressing their view that the villagers had abandoned the village, that there had not been any violent expulsion. 

The remaining excursions formed a highly compressed lesson in the various forms of unfreedom experienced by Palestinians in different settings. 

Within Israel, a visit to the ancient city of Acre involved a walk through the old town with explanations of how the authorities are making life for shopkeepers increasingly difficult through restrictions and fines for petty alleged violations. 

Behind this is a clear aim to drive more and more Palestinians out of the city, changing the demographic balance.

Acre is also a popular tourist location, and another way of pushing out Palestinians and their history was highlighted with reference to gentrification and the building of hotels in historical spots. 

The disconnect between the stunning seaside location and the increasing narrowing of Palestinian life, juxtaposed in a single place, was quietly jarring. 

Our visit to East Jerusalem was a high-information affair.

First, we were treated to a detailed presentation on urban planning apartheid in East Jerusalem by Rami Saleh of the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre (JLAC). 

Then we were taken on a guided tour led by Daoud al-Ghoul, head of the Jerusalem Arts Network, who went on a speaking tour in Europe last year to talk about forced Judaisation in the East Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. 

Al-Ghoul was arrested upon his return but released soon afterwards, as there were no charges. It was a clear gesture of intimidation that coincided with the banning of six Palestinian human rights organisations by Israel’s Minister of Defence, Benny Gantz. 

The JLAC presentation showed in great demographic detail how Israeli authorities are increasingly limiting the growth of Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem, primarily through expulsions, house demolitions and the denial of building permits. 

House demolitions are usually justified by the owners building without permits, which are rarely granted to Palestinians. But another approach is to call in engineering experts who declare the structures unsafe. 

Either way, the inhabitants can either pay extortionate fees for the authorities to demolish the house or do so themselves, an undoubtedly traumatic experience after building a life there over many years. 

Recalling what Yousef Jabareen had told us the previous day, it was also explained how legal challenges were made difficult by the fact that the relevant documentation was only available in Hebrew, and having such copious material translated would cost a fortune.

While the information about expulsions and demolitions was familiar to those of us closely involved in Palestinian issues, something less known was the so-called Master Plan for Jerusalem, first published in 2004 and regularly updated since then, which involves a precise calculation of how to control the size of the Jewish and Palestinian populations via planning methods in order to ensure that the desired Jewish majority is maintained. 

In addition to keeping building permits below a certain threshold, the strategy also involves designating parts of the city ‘green areas’ in which no construction is possible, as well as redrawing the city’s boundaries to remove certain Palestinian neighbourhoods. The tour of the old town was more historical in focus, and added depth to the web of figures supplied by the presentation. 

The last two trips homed in on more viscerally disturbing phenomena of the occupation. 

In Bethlehem, we walked along the separation barrier — or apartheid wall, as many call it — that is claimed to be a security measure along Israel’s (non-existent) border but actually cuts far into West Bank territory, dividing some communities and cutting Palestinian farmers off from their agricultural lands. 

To highlight its violent character, British street art star Banksy had an unusual hotel — the punningly named Walled-Off Hotel – built right in front of it, providing guests looking out of their room windows with an in-your-face experience of spatial apartheid.

Though it could be criticised for its perverse entertainment character, the hotel also houses a fairly informative exhibition about the history and state of the occupation.

Finally, we were taken to Hebron, known in Arabic as Al-Khalil. Although it is the largest city in the West Bank, its old town is a ghostly place, a surreal demonstration of apartheid in its most suffocating form. 

Unlike elsewhere in the West Bank, the illegal settler population is not based in separate settlements, but in the city itself, sharing the space with the Palestinian residents. 

While there is certainly harassment and violence, there is also a kind of surreal balance in this arrangement. Palestinians are powerless to resist the encroachments by the settlers, who are protected by the army, so they are forced to accept the situation if they are to stay in the city. 

There are roughly 34,000 Palestinians and 7,000 settlers living in Area H2, the smaller part of Hebron that encompasses the old town centre (166,000 Palestinians live in H1). 

Some streets are closed to Palestinians, and our guide demonstrated this by taking us to a checkpoint (there are 21 permanent ones in the city) where, upon showing his Palestinian identity card, he was told by a boy-faced soldier that he could not set foot there. We could have proceeded, but chose not to out of solidarity. 

This is not the place to go into the troubled history of the city, where the restrictions on Palestinian movement and commercial activity have become increasingly stifling, leading many to leave. 

Doors have been welded shut, settlers can roam freely with M-16s. Some of the old town’s narrow streets have metal grates overhead to protect Palestinians from rubbish, stones and excrement thrown at them by settlers. In one street where we stopped, a plastic chair had landed on the grate. 

One sight that made a particularly desolate impression on us was what was once the gold market, a place where precious jewellery used to be sold. This is unimaginable now, as the street in question is filled from one end to the other with rubbish. 

An Israeli flag flies overhead, the bizarre marker of a victory whose value no rational person can comprehend. Even if the settlers enjoy all the privileges here, all the power, how can they want such a life? 

After eyeing us shyly for a while, some Palestinian children from the adjoining house came to offer us a range of hand-made kufiyas at a fraction of the price one would pay in a tourist shop; they did good business that day. 

Shortly afterwards, a Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jew walked past and climbed the stairs to the home that had been placed on their heads. Our eyes followed him in silence.

After leading us out of the dense web of streets onto a main road, our guide pointed to a house barely a hundred metres away and told us that only last week, its Palestinian residents had been ejected and a settler family had moved in. This is a common occurrence in Hebron, and no one prevents it. 

Twice we were passed by settler cars and our guide cautioned us not to stare, seeking to avoid a confrontation. Because settlers enjoy total impunity, they have nothing to fear if they initiate a violent altercation.

We left that disturbing place in the knowledge that we could make such visits without the dangers, restrictions and humiliation that its Palestinian residents face daily, that we could return to our air-conditioned tour bus and go where we liked. 

The Israeli license plates of our bus also meant that the driver could avoid many of the checkpoints that waste so many hours of Palestinians’ lives. Although we had not witnessed any physical violence during our visit to the city, all of us felt the deep existential violence that infuses it. 

Our day trips had come to an end, three days whose density of experience made them feel like a week or more. We headed for Farkha, where we would finally cease to be tourists and — hopefully — become members of a temporary but more wholesome community. 

After leaving our bus, we walked to the school where the festival’s headquarters are located and were welcomed by a parade. We just had enough time to put away our luggage before joining a protest march through the village. An elder chanted Arabic slogans through a megaphone, sometimes accompanied by a marching band. 

Though a few hours had passed since our tour of Hebron, the contrast was arresting. We had left a place where Palestinians are powerless and defeated and come to one in which they could claim their streets defiantly, unmolested by soldiers or settlers. 

One of the many chants was “Falastin Arabiyya, Israel harami” (Palestine is Arab, Israel is a thief). 

Farkha is in Area B of the West Bank, and hence officially under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. However, the Palestinian Authority cannot prevent whatever steps Israeli authorities choose to take. 

20% of Farkha’s land is under threat of confiscation for settlements, as is the village spring, which covers 40% of its water needs, for the benefit of a nearby settlement. There is also a solar power system that provides 45% of the required electricity for the village’s 1800 inhabitants. 

These two elements of partial independence are crucial in a situation where no arrangement is secure.  So, although the occupation was not visible to us during our visit, its threat is ever-present.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.