Middle east ramble is eye-opener for comedian and activist
This is the story of 300,000 settlers, a 750km wall, several arrests, one stoning, too much hummus and a simple question - can you get away from it all with a good walk? Comedian and activist Mark Thomas talks to entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE about rambling along the Israeli Separation Barrier.
YOU’D think a rambling holiday would be the perfect way to unwind from exposing torturers, arms dealers, corporate skulduggery and abuses of civil liberties the world over. But we’re talking about award-winning comedian and influential activist Mark Thomas here.
Instead of a nice wander through the Cotswolds, he spent nine weeks in December 2009 walking the length of the barrier; crossing between the Israeli and Palestinian side – and not always legally.
“It just occurred to me it would be a good idea; there seemed something rather lovely and English about attempting to understand something by rambling. It just grew and, to be fair, I wanted to do it before I knew why and whether it was feasible,” Mark laughs.
“It was brilliant, all sorts of things happened. We walked with the UN, the British Consulate, ex-PLO, ex-Israeli soldiers. I went on border patrol with the police, we got stoned, arrested, nearly deported, there was tear gas; all this kind of stuff.
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“Three days after arriving back,” he laughs, “I was doing the school quiz for my daughter and people came up to me and said ‘you must have had a really intense time’.
“One bloke I know very well went ‘God it must have been really awful for you’ and I said ‘you’re kidding, it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done’. I think it changed my mind on things.”
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The wall around the West Bank was created in 2003 with the hope of controlling Palestinian terrorism, including the suicide bombing attacks which increased significantly during the Second Intifada.
When completed, the military structure - patrolled by the Israeli Army Police and overseen by watchtowers with signs warning of “imminent death” - will be 750km long. Figures say attacks have decreased by 90 per cent since it went up.
“Some people say they’ve decreased by 100pc, it depends where you are. In the north, the Israelis go ‘suicide bomb attacks, there are none here’.
“We talked to the victims and the families of victims of suicide bombers. The Second Intifada was a screaming mess; you can’t ignore the devastation. During one month 156 Israelis were killed in suicide bombs, it’s just barbarism; so the suicide bomb was the motor that got the wall up.”
Mark isn’t convinced it cut attacks or will stop more. Opinion on the subject is as divided as the area.
“People say it stopped them; others say it wasn’t the wall, the intifada just burnt itself out. Israelis will say it was military intervention, then there are other Israelis who say ‘no, that’s not true; you could see the suicide bomb attacks move south as we built the fence’. I suspect it probably was a combination of things.”
The wall encircles 300,000 Palestinians. The Israelis control their electricity, water, etc and it’s not uncommon for Palestinians to have Israeli settlers move into their homes – as Mark saw. Nor is there a trial system for West Bankers, who can be arrested for the smallest things; something else he experienced first-hand.
He met many of the Palestinian workers – the number of which within Israel has risen up to 80pc - who can only get out through checkpoints following security clearance.
They open at 6am and Mark describes it as like cattle moving through them, often leading to fights and checkpoints being shut; leaving people trapped and distressed. Workers queue at 2am just to get a place in the line to cross.
“Sometimes we went during the un-busy time and at one point it took us an hour-and-40 minutes to get across. At other points you were crushed in the pen trying to get through a turn-style that gets switched on and off by the Israeli authorities.
“We were talking to people at a disco and this woman says to ask her husband what time he leaves for work. He says 1.30am and he gets home by about 6pm. She said it’s killing her, destroying her family life.”
If you’re not working in Israel and want to leave the West Bank you need a permit which can take forever.
“We met a woman who hadn’t seen her son in four years, yet she could see his house on the other side of the wall; she just wasn’t able to get a permit.”
What is incredible, he adds, is the number of people who get across the wall illegally.
“We did it, it’s not difficult if you’re determined enough. If you’re a suicide bomber you’ve crossed enough boundaries already to allow a mere physical one to get in the way. We met loads of people who crossed illegally.
“We got in a car,” he laughs.
“All the number plates have different colours. If you’re Israeli you have a yellow number plate, if you’re Palestinian you have a white and green number plate. When you drive through checkpoints the soldiers will ask you to slow down and ask you for your ID and papers.
“They’ll just wave you through a lot of the time if they look at you and you’re in the car with someone dressed a certain way or there’s a Star of David on the rear mirror, you know what I mean?
“We met people who hide in garbage trucks to get through. I don’t think it’s a security fence at all, not an effective one. This is the worst thing about it because there are a lot of Israelis who think they can ignore the West Bank and walk away from the problem now they’ve got the fence up; they don’t have to worry about it. It hasn’t solved the problem.”
Mark’s trip wasn’t without incident. The army detained him six or seven times for several hours.
“I would’ve been really p****d off though if we hadn’t,” he laughs. “If you’re walking by the wall they just stop you. They took us in because we had a camera at one point. We got detained the day after human rights day; we got stopped by the army just because they said we were walking too near the fence.”
The problem, he says, is once you build a protective fence you have to have people protecting the fence. Then you need a buffer zone to protect the people who are protecting the protective fence. It gets slightly nuts.
“I said to the Palestinians when we were walking with them ‘look, I’ll try to deal with this, I’ll go and speak to the army’. They called us over and as I walked towards them this bloke said ’what religion are you?’
“I just lost my temper. I should’ve said ‘I’m an atheist’. I actually said ‘that is the most stupid question I’ve heard outside Northern Ireland’ and we were detained for three hours,” Mark laughs again.
“They just leave you waiting somewhere while they go and check all your details and take your passport, sometimes you’re left out in the rain or something.”
He says a lot of people would be happy if the wall came down. To many Palestinians it’s another example of the Israeli occupation, while to many Israelis it represents security. In places it denies access to water, in others it isolates East Jerusalem and effectively destroys any chance of a Palestinian capital.
“It’s also a land grab, it takes ten pc of the West Bank. Some settlers hate it because they see it as stopping them getting the rest of the West Bank, some settlers say they have to have it.
“It’s more life changing for the Palestinians than the Israelis, but I firmly believe the wall actually doesn’t imprison just one nation. It imprisons the Israelis because, mentally, they think they’ve dealt with it.
“Israel turned its back on the Middle East. You know 70pc of Israel lives on the coast and they’re saying ‘we don’t have to look at the West Bank now’ just at the time when the rest of the world is going ‘we want to look at the West Bank’.
“Israel goes ‘we’re part of the EU, we’ve got all these trading status, we’re in the Eurovision Song Contest’, just at a point when Europe goes ‘we’re thinking of boycotting’. To be fair, I think there’s an element of the Second Intifada just knackering everybody; the grief is tangible at times.”
As well as the beautiful landscape - outside the wall, the area is very fertile; although the farmlands can’t export to anywhere but Israel - Mark was touched by people’s hospitality.
He recalls how they were invited to tea by a man they bumped into after getting lost in the dark while walking. Another time, a pitstop on a barely populated hillside for water and a breather turned into a feast.
“A couple of kids come out and asked what we were doing here and we explained. They go inside and the mum comes out and says ‘would you like breakfast with us’. She comes out with this huge kettle, a pot of tea, bread she’s just baked, home-made sheep’s cheese and butter yoghurt, tomatoes and cucumbers she’s grown herself, their own olives.
“You just sit there and go s**t, I’m never going to experience anything like this again. They’re really the most hospitable people ever in the history of the world. We used to call Palestinian tea and coffee the Palestinian road block, you just wouldn’t get past it,” he laughs.
He was also impressed by the growing movement within the West Bank of non-violent resistance, including a load of theological declarations about what the occupation is and how to oppose it.
“There are grass roots groups up and down the length of the barrier committed to this, some people are very honest about giving non-violence a go because violence hasn’t worked.
“We met ex soldiers from both sides who work as combatants for peace, where they try non-violently to end the occupation and work together. You get groups like Breaking The Silence who are ex-Israeli soldiers who get testimony from other Israeli soldiers about what they did and publish it so people see what Israel is asking its young men and women to do.
“It’s brutal, to be honest. You read and go ‘oh my God’; but if you’re going to have a conscript army and going to have an occupation you need to be aware of what you’re asking your children to do.”
The idea behind the Extreme Rambling (Walking the Wall) tour and accompanying book, released in April, is to get people engaged with the subject.
“I want people to go ‘the Palestinians have asked for this boycott and have asked for non-violent resistance’ - that’s important and we have to support that,” he adds.
Mark’s particular brand of comedy has resulted in his last UK tours selling out and inspiring audiences to voice their own ideals. How he came to educate people through laughter, is the subject of intense debate.
“I grew up with punk rock, so all of the things I loved in terms of music always had a deep political content.
“I also grew up with a love of [German modernist playwright] Bertolt Brecht when I was a kid. I went to see a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, really to laugh and point at my mates and it was brilliant; a life changing moment,” he remembers.
“I went to do drama school and did theatre while I was in Yorkshire, doing shows at miner soup kitchens on picket lines and TUC days; all that kind of stuff.
“Although I’ve always loved stand-up I’ve always had a deep love of theatre, especially political stuff. A lot of comics do observational comedy, but actually it’s always worth trying to observe something you haven’t observed before; something that’s not just about how you arrange a sock drawer but about how different things happen.”
He’s looking forward to his January 25-26 gigs at Colchester Arts Centre and those at the Junction, Cambridge, on February 21-22.
“Cambridge always slightly indulge me. I used to do roofing so I absolutely love heights,” he laughs. “They let me go and walk on their wire mesh, bounce and lie down on it and look through the gaps; it’s just a little thrill and a treat before you go on stage.”