I chose to write about Khalil* because he is 29, the same age as my own son, James. Their experience could not be more different.
Khalil is a Palestinian living in Jayyus, a small town in the northern West Bank, where I served as an Ecumenical Accompanier two years ago. Khalil is tall and skinny and a passionate basket-ball player. He lives with several generations of his family in a complex of flats, all at different stages of completion. Khalil’s English is excellent and he is a computer whizz. He was always willing to come at a moment’s notice to help me out when I got stuck, which in my case, was quite often. He would never take any money.
When Israel began to build the separation barrier between Jayyus and its farmland, Khalil was one of those who joined the protests. He was arrested but not imprisoned. Nevertheless, for two years he was denied a permit to go through the barrier to his family’s land. Khalil’s surname is different from that of his grandfather in whose name his family land is registered. It took two years and a lawyer to prove that he was indeed connected to the land which was now isolated from the village. Even then he was only granted a ‘seasonal permit’ for key times of the agricultural year. For Khalil it was a difficult time. Other members of his family were also denied permits and the family income was seriously compromised by lack of access to their farm. Khalil had to be pulled out of university in nearby Qalqilya.
Khalil’s response to being stuck in Jayyus was to put his talents to use. A family member lent him premises and he bought some computers and a photocopier and set up an internet café. It was a great success, particularly with school children who would come to his café to research or photocopy their homework. There were also computer games. It became a place where children hung out.
Then the Israeli military began to visit the village. This is not unusual in the West Bank. However, one of the results is that children throw stones and soldiers respond with tear gas and arrests. One day, soldiers came into his internet café and accused him of encouraging children to throw stones. Khalil smiled wryly when he was telling me this story. “I looked around at all the equipment in my café and the children using it and said, ‘Do I look like anyone who would encourage children to throw stones.’”
In the following weeks, the soldiers came into the village and parked up outside Khalil’s cafe. That was all it took. Nobody, least of all children, was going to come to his café and risk trouble with the soldiers. His business folded. This was years before I met him. He told me he still has the computers.
When I first met him he was still unemployed. There are few jobs. The occupation permeates everything. Restrictions on movement, on building, on access to land and water, the downward spiral of poverty and lack of access to external markets and have all combined to destroy the Palestinian economy. Jayyus suffered particularly because of the separation barrier and the loss of jobs in Israel. There are lots of unemployed young men who hang about in the square.
When I went back there in October, Khalil was one of the people I visited. He was always skinny but now he looked startlingly thin. He told me his story. He had gone at the invitation of friends to visit them in Sweden. His visa ran out and he was persuaded by two other Palestinian friends to go to Norway via an unofficial border crossing because it was easy to dodge the system and work in Norway without papers. Khalil went. It was a chance to earn some money.
It was a serious mistake. The system was not as easy to dodge as they thought. All three of them were caught and put in detention. In desperation, Khalil tried to claim asylum. That was an even bigger mistake. He plainly did not fit the criteria, particularly the one where you have to claim asylum in the country where you originally landed. Khalil stayed in detention for a month. He hated the food and didn’t eat it. I suspect he was also very depressed. Shortly before I met up with him again in Jayyus he had been deported. Two policemen came with him on the plane back to Jordan and from there back to the border with Palestine. He was not allowed to stay even one night in Jordan. Now it is doubtful that he will be allowed to travel again.
I wondered at his desperation that he was prepared to leave his village, his family, all his friends, his sister to whom he is very close, and her new much-adored baby, his beloved basketball team ‘the best in the West Bank’ to go and take a menial job in Norway.
A bright, personable, thoroughly likeable young man, he could be any 29 year-old you might meet in this country. I wonder what kind of a life he will be able to make for himself, now. He is only one of many. It is a very ordinary story about life under occupation. Nothing dramatic. Nothing unusual.
* Khalil is not his real name.
I am no longer an Ecumenical Accompanier and the views expressed in this article are entirely my own.