HAMAYA ANGEL DESCRIBES HERSELF as Catalan-Basque. She grew up in Girona, Catalonia and has been living in Hove, England for the past eight years. In December of 2011, she journeyed alone to Israel and the Palestinian Territories and returned with a strong desire to talk about what she experienced.
[Matador] Why did you decide to go on this journey, and why alone?
I wanted to go to Palestine to see for myself what is going on. I think that if one travels alone, they are able to experience much more. I also thought that people would be more open than if I had been with a group.
How much did you plan? Where did you stay and travel?
Before I went I read a few books about the conflict, but when I went there I just followed my gut feeling. I went to different places. I stayed five days in Tel Aviv with a group of anarchists who live together. Their house is kind of a social centre where they campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
On my second day in Tel Aviv, I went to Jaffa. Jaffa was the first place Israel took over in 1948, and many Palestinians were killed. Many of the people from Jaffa were moved to Ramallah and there are still refugees over there, the third generation. They killed so many people in Jaffa. I just wanted to see it.
After my five days in Tel Aviv, I went to Jerusalem. I didn’t want to look like an activist, so I decided to stay in a Palestinian hostel, opposite the old city. I stayed there 12 days.
From there I travelled around the West Bank. Every day I visited a different place, including Belhelen, Hebron, Jericho, and Bil’in. I went to Nabi Saleh, the place where Mustafa Tamimi was killed. Hopefully when I go back — I plan to go back in November — I will be able to see much more.
During your trip, Mustafa Tamimi, a 28 year old Palestinian activist from Nabi Saleh, was killed during a protest when an Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister directly at his face from 10 meters away. Were you near this protest?
I didn’t know about it at the time. The Monday after the protest, I went to Bil’in, which is considered the heart of the resistance against the Israeli army. On my way back this Palestinian guy sat down close to me. He told me that there had been this demonstration and Mustafa Tamimi had been killed, and his body was going to be taken that day from Tel Aviv to Ramallah.
So I went to Ramallah. There was a demonstration, very small, and I started speaking to people. I was speaking to Mustafa’s friends and they took me to the hospital, where I met one of the other guys who had been shot with the tear gas grenade. He had just been told that Mustafa had died.
He was there, but you could see that mentally, he wasn’t really there. People around him were very worried. Someone said maybe the grenade had affected his head.
I was thinking, “how am I here?” It was very surreal, like watching a film.
Tell me about the demonstrations you attended.
I was in four, two in Tel Aviv and two in Palestine. One of the ones in Tel Aviv, there were maybe 150 of us just standing outside the government building.
The armed soldiers put barriers around the protesters. The guy who told me about the demonstration was a local photojournalist for Tel Aviv newspapers. He said that the previous demonstration had been quite nasty, but unless protestors were trying to block the building or something, the police would try not to be violent.
I could see the police grabbing people from the crowd, taking them out and arresting them. After a while, it looked like the police just left and it was over.
The second demonstration I attended was for Human Rights Day, and the third was in Ramallah. We were a very small group, no more than sixty, mainly local people. The police did not try to control the demonstration, but later I saw people crying. It’s easy for me to go there and show solidarity, but it’s not the same as it is for them. I don’t live there every day.
In Nabi Saleh there were a huge number of international activists, both Israelis and locals, protesting the death of Mustafa Tamimi. I saw children throwing stones.
The British, Spanish, French, and German Consulates were there, along with soldiers. The guy from the British Consulate witnessed Mustafa getting shot, and the British government was the first to come out against the shooting.
The soldiers started throwing the grenades (tear gas canisters). Those grenades are huge — in some of the houses they hang them about the house, like a monument. The guy from the British consulate said “Be aware about the gas — if it gets into you, you will be very unwell,” and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see.
For a second I lost control completely. I was looking around and I was thinking, “there’s nothing we can do. We can be shot, we can be killed, no one will know, no one will care, really. Nothing will change.”
I was later told the soldiers were nicer to us because they knew diplomats were nearby. When Mustafa was killed I read in a couple of newspapers that the British government called for an investigation, but since then no one has mentioned it. No article spoke about the other five people who had been shot, including the guy I saw. I don’t know if in the end he was okay or not.
How did you find out about demonstrations?
I had a contact in Tel Aviv. When I went to Bil’in, strangers would see me and say, “Come on Friday to the demonstration!”
I was just walking around and a woman called to me from her house. Then she showed me, “Look, look, that is the wall — that is the place we demonstrate every Friday at 10!” That’s how I found out, local people telling me.
Tell me about the wall the Israeli state is erecting.
Imagine you have a table, and in the middle of the table you start putting up random borders. That’s what the wall looks like.
You are going through Jerusalem, and suddenly you hit a wall. You are in the middle of Palestine, in the West Bank, and you see a piece of a wall in one area, and another piece in another area. You can see how they are taking over with that wall, slicing through communities, separating people from land they legally own.
How easy was it to travel around?
I think for me it was very easy to go around Israel — a middle-aged woman with a Spanish passport. A lot of people told me I would have problems. Not many people see me as a very hardcore person. It was very easy, actually — after two seconds I got a stamp and I went in.
One of the things about staying in Jerusalem was I had to go through the checkpoints all the time. You go to the train or coach station and you’re not allowed to go in unless you open your bag and take everything out so the bag could go through a bomb detector.
When I was going to Hebron, our coach was stopped by two Israeli soldiers. They came in and started checking papers. The Palestinians living in Jerusalem must have proof of permission to live there, even if they’ve always lived there. The guards checked it just to annoy them, simple as that.
Tell me more about the checkpoints.
The longest I spent at one was maybe half an hour, but people can be there for days. Many villagers work in Ramallah, but they live in Jerusalem, so I heard many people say, “I’m late again to work, it’s happening every day.” That’s how it is for Palestinians.
I was told off several times by soldiers. They shouted at me because I was helping people. I’d take the trays for people to put valuables to go through the bomb detector, and pass them to the people who were coming through to help them. I did that a couple of times and the soldiers were shouting at me, “Go go go!”
You need to put the jacket, the bag, everything you have, and then you have to show your passport. At the checkpoint going from Ramallah to Jerusalem, a woman told me she had witnessed a shooting at this same checkpoint a few days before.
When I went to Nablus, a soldier asked this Palestinian woman to open her bag. Another soldier behind her was shaking. He looked really anxious, and I was thinking, this woman must be sixty, what do you think she’s going to have in the bag? Both were holding their guns ready to shoot, and that one soldier was so nervous. I thought, “if for any reason something comes bad with the bag, he will shoot her.”
What were the advantages and disadvantages you noticed about being a woman alone in this situation?
I think women are oppressed wherever we go, on different levels. For example, here in the UK I can be unmarried and childless, but I knew in the Middle East that could be considered strange. The role of the woman is more defined there, and my intention was to respect that. I felt I was going to a place where women have been oppressed and I had no right to enforce my way of doing things. So I covered myself up, except my hair and my hands.
For a woman travelling alone, there’s a lot of stereotyping. Some of the men who approached me spoke openly about sex. The caretaker of a Hebrew cemetery invited me into his office. I told him I was married. Suddenly he took out a bottle of olive oil and said, “Massage?”
I said, “I’m married. I don’t think this is appropriate.” So I left.
One incident that was quite shocking happened when I went up to the Mount of Olives. I sat down and four children approached, three boys and a girl, no more than five years old. They didn’t speak much English, but they knew “money.”
One boy gave me his hand. I said, “As-Salam Alaikum.”
“Wa Alaikum Assalam,” he replied, and he gave me two kisses — mwah mwah — right on the lips. The girl started laughing. He started touching himself, saying, “Sex? Sex?” That was quite surreal, being asked for sex by a five year old.
But I think being a woman can be an advantage because sometimes men see other men as competition. When I was in Jerusalem, an old guy stopped the car to talk to me.
“I want to show you what is happening with Israeli settlers,” he said. “Come to my house for a cup of tea and I’ll tell you our story.” I stayed at his house for two hours, listening to him.
In Jericho the same thing happened. I was walking and a man stopped his car and said, “Where are you going? Do you want to see Jericho?”
I told him I didn’t have any money. “No no no, come!” he said, and he showed me Jericho for free.
Palestinian people are so desperate to explain their story. The first time I went to West Bank I was invited to a Palestinian house. They even called someone who could speak Spanish to translate for me.
I think being a woman made it easier. I felt quite safe in Palestine, actually.
Do you have any memories that really stand out from your time over there?
In Shekh Jarah, West Jerusalem, there is a street that is being taken by Israeli settlers. The first house in that street has already been taken. The second belongs to a woman who’s 80 years old. She has been beaten by Israeli settlers. Half of the house has already been taken. Settlers live in the front half of the house and she lives at the back.
So the International Solidarity Movement have activists there every night to stop the settlers from taking over more of the house. I visited on my last night — the activists have put up a big tent where they stay all night on a rota.
When I was in Amari, the Palestinian Refugee camp in Ramallah, I met a boy who had been released from Israeli state prison after a year and half without being charged, for throwing stones at the wall. He was 15 years old when he was arrested. When he arrived back at the camp there were fireworks and people dancing in the street.
I met a woman who had been told her son was supposed to be released that week as well. But he was going to stay one week more in prison, and no one gave her a reason why.
How do you feel after visiting the area?
I came back completely changed. I came back feeling ashamed of being a human being. What I saw, the way Palestinians are treated, is disgusting.
I like speaking about it, because I’m just a normal person that went to Palestine, and many people opened the door to me, to their houses and to their stories.
And I want to go back. I came back feeling confident; I managed on my own and I survived. I did not see anyone shot. I came back thinking that everyone should go to Palestine sometime in their life. Everyone should really be there and see it, to be compassionate about it, to see how nasty human beings can be.
What is sad is that I met so many people and I won’t be in touch.
Do you have any advice for other women wanting to go to Palestine?
Just go there. I don’t think that I’m special. Seeing a woman walking around alone is not common — not just in Palestine, in many places. Just go there and don’t be scared off. Be confident and you will manage.