Day 1,808 since October 10th 2013: 156 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
People are just people – I guarantee it
I try not to be political or to take sides in conflicts. However as hard as I may try, someone will always claim that I do. What you need to understand about this tiny part of our planet is that if you speak up then you have already chosen a side. And if you remain quiet then that is a political statement too. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Let’s start with the most obvious. Is Palestine a country? The planning of Once Upon A saga took place throughout most of 2013 and that is when the country list took form. The list of countries which make up every country in the world within this project counts 203 countries. Palestine was on my list right from the beginning. Countries come in all sorts of forms, size and constellations. To mention a few it would be very hard to compare China, USA, the UK, St. Kitts and Nevis, Ethiopia, Somalia and Germany to each other. And yet they are all considered countries and they are furthermore also member states within the EU. Palestine is another interesting country to behold. Palestine does not have its own currency but neither does Ecuador, El Salvador or Zimbabwe and yet they are still countries. Palestine does not have an army but it has a National Guard. Other countries which do not have an army include Andorra, Costa Rica, Iceland or Liechtenstein. That is of course just to underline that neither currency nor military are precursors for forming a country. How about having well defined borders? Well this one is super interesting! I have been to a lot of countries which dispute territory and especially in desert regions I have noticed that borders are not well defined. However I am surprised to discover that more than 75% of the world’s countries currently have ongoing territorial disputes!! How crazy is that in 2018? Fortunately for the most part they are not violent. As a given example Denmark (on behalf of Greenland) has a dispute with Canada about Hans Island in the Kennedy Channel. That barren little island is relatively close to the North Pole and there is a friendly feud ongoing between the Danish Navy and the Canadian Navy in which alcohol and national flags are the main tools for the “battle”. You should look it up if you haven’t heard about it. It’s a rather good story.
I have taken a photo of someones eyes in each country. These are from Israel and Palestine. Or Palestine and Israel? I don't remember. Can you tell the difference?
Territorial claims between Israel and Palestine lack the cuteness of Danish/Canadian relationships. And if you have ever been told that it is “complicated” then that is not an understatement. Interestingly enough I have for years been saying that life is simple and we make it complicated. Around these parts we have certainly made it complicated. Before we get anywhere near that, I think it is interesting to know that Palestine competed in the 2016 Olympics. However Puerto Rico, which is consider an unincorporated U.S. territory, has also participated in the Olympics. In fact there are multiple ways to address what can be considered a country and what cannot. The United Nations count 193 member states and 2 observer states. FIFA counts 211, the Olympics count 206 and Jehovah Witnesses say 235. Why do we not know exactly how many countries there are in the world? Well for starters we do not have a universally agreed definition of what a country is. And with the above provided information I hope that it appears a little clearer to you. The world’s youngest country is from 2011 and the oldest has existed for more than 2000 years. Israel dates back to 1948 and Palestine was founded in 1988.
This is passport no 000000001 for the Palestinian Authority :)
Palestine is what we call a de jure sovereign state, which in itself is rather special. Most sovereign states are both states de jure and de facto (they exist both in law and in reality). However, a state may be recognized only as a de jure state when it is recognized as being the legitimate government of a territory over which it has no actual control. Now, if I was to say that Israel is occupying Palestine then that would be read as a political statement. Mainly because of the usage of the word “occupied”. There is no way I’m going to write anything for you which is not going to be misinterpreted by someone else. I have done more research on Israel and Palestine than I have done for any other countries throughout the Saga. And for me it is really a case of “the more you know the less you know”. There are so many accusations, “truths”, versions, perceptions, feelings and “facts” between people in this particular part of the world. And the more I dig the more clear it has become to me that I don’t know what the heck is true in many cases? It feels right to quote Socrates here as he said: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing”. However I feel certain that mistakes have been made on both sides of the wall. And there is a wall: When Israel formed in 1948 they immediately found themselves attacked by a coalition of countries. After the dust had settled in 1949 an armistice border (green line) was set up to mark the de facto borders of the State of Israel from 1949 until the Six-Day War later broke out in 1967. During the Six-Day War Israel gained territory beyond the armistice border. Today a 708km (440mi) combined wall and fence runs along the green line. The green line itself is however half as long as the barrier so you can imagine how much it “snakes” back and forth through the landscape.
"All in all you're just another brick in the wall..."
For those who question whether Palestine is a country or not I always take a look to see how much support there is from the international community. It turns out that 137 of 193 UN member states recognize the state of Palestine. And that is more than 70% of the world’s countries. Also, what is the 708km (440mi) barrier surrounding if not a country? Well, we can think and we can think and we can think…and now the scene is set for when I went to Palestine.
Heading into Ramallah...
A taxi picked me up in Modi’in where I have been staying with Trevor and his family. Then we took off in direction of Ramallah. Before crossing the checkpoint my eyes caught a glimpse of a red warning sign stating that Israelis should not enter the area. As the taxi driver took me north on Ramallah Street I began to take in the view of country number 156. Life went on as normal with traffic, open shops, children and people going on about their lives. The infrastructure looked different from in Israeli as roads appeared worn and sand was to be seen on either side. However the same blue sky was still above me and neither rocks nor trees cared about what I would call the land we drove across.
Football! You find it everywhere. And it doesn't take much. And it gives people something else to think about.
In Ramallah the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) has its headquarters which also doubles as a hotel. The Danish Red Cross has a delegate in Palestine who had organized a room for me. And generally I prefer to stay in RC (Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Crystal) accommodation whenever possible as the money might as well go there. The PRCS uses the hotel as an Income Generating Activity (IGA) in order to raise funds for their humanitarian activities. As such they also rent out conference rooms and venues for weddings. The building is in fact very impressive and even holds a cinema/stage for events. On arrival I really wanted to explore the streets of Ramallah but I was overwhelmed with work and made good use of the WIFI connection at the hotel. Then as the sun set over Palestine Alfredo Melgarejo came to meet me at the reception. We had agreed to have dinner together that night. Alfredo is a great guy. He is part Spanish, part Austrian and full human. Alfredo is also the Country Coordinator for the Danish Red Cross and possesses 23 years of humanitarian experience within the movement. We rolled off in his 4WD and found a cozy little restaurant where we could get to know each other over a beer and a solid meal.
First night out. Dinner with Alfredo.
As with most things in life it is hard to paint a simple picture of anything. Palestine is a country with dusty ruins and flashy new restaurants. You will come across poverty, the middle class and the wealthy. That night we sat and enjoyed conversation in a place which could have been anywhere on earth. Nothing suspicious about anything at all. The service was great, the waiters spoke English, the food tasted fantastic, the music was soothing, the lighting was perfect and it was easy to have a good time. Furthermore Alfredo is a really pleasant and knowledgeable guy so I was set for my first night in Ramallah. It was somewhat chilly as Ramallah lies at 880 meters (2,890 ft) above sea level. However cold is relative. I’ve just spent the hot months in the Gulf.
About to watch an intro video about PRCS in their own cinema :)
The next day I met up with the PRCS who are spectacular and gave me one of my most memorable RC experiences! It all began when I was introduced to Dr. Khalid Joudeh who is the Director General of PRCS. Dr. Khalid has eyes and a smile that make you think that he is seconds away from cracking a joke. He is very kind and balances his role within the PRCS with consulting as a pediatrician. After the initial pleasantries we headed out to meet several department directors, staff and volunteers. I was then briefed about PRCS, its services, programs and plans as well as the key challenges they face. Given the history of Palestinian/Israeli relationships over the past seventy years a great deal of Palestinians now live in diaspora. You may remember that in last week’s entry I touched upon Jews living in diaspora. There are about six million Palestinians living across nearly forty countries in the world. Unlike the Israelis the Palestinians do not have right of return and that has resulted in a great deal of refugee camps since 1948. The PRCS is performing outstanding humanitarian support within these refugee camps and do so in collaboration with several participating national societies of the RC.
It is in my opinion that in the hardest environments across our planet, you get to see the best of the movement. PRCS volunteers are pulling off miracles on an everyday basis and they manage to do so in spite of the overhanging obstacles and not because of them. Some of the finest people I have met throughout Once Upon A Saga have been dedicated humanitarian workers doing what I know I never could. They work in the outmost hardest conditions across our planet and because of it they often become the very best within what they do. The regional conflict has generated much mistrust on both sides of the borders and in recent years an increase of violence occurred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The violence included a number of “lone wolf” attacks, riots and politically motivated attacks. In response to the increased violence, Israel deployed more checkpoints and roadblocks limiting Palestinian movement. The problem of course is that limited movement also limits ordinary people and indeed the PRCS. I was resently informed of an episode which is still under investigation. As far as the story goes, in a recent case a PRCS ambulance carrying a critically injured patient could not enter a hospital due to strict security protocols. Fortunately the story reported that the patient eventually entered the hospital and was treated. However in life and death scenarios every second counts and the RC should always be considered neutral and impartial. Whether this story is true or not remains to be investigated. I have been able to find more about it in in this article from The Times of Israel.
Amazing people!! Biking through Ramallah is a memory for a lifetime :)
The Emergency Medical Service (EMS) of the PRCS is comprised of highly motivated, dedicated and very skillful volunteers and staff workers who have seen more with their own eyes than most of us can imagine. They carry the responsibility of the ambulance service for both the West Bank and in Gaza. The geography of Palestine is complicated too. It is actually two areas which are separated with Israel in between. Gaza is a tiny area on the Mediterranean Sea which borders Israel and Egypt. It is often regarded as the most densely populated place on earth. The West Bank is a landmass which got its name from its location west of the Jordan River. It borders Israel and Jordan and the borders are under Israeli control. I visited Ramallah in the West Bank and did not have an opportunity to visit Gaza. And frankly I have done very little research on Gaza. The PRCS EMS team (can you follow the acronyms?) operates across both Gaza and the West Bank. They log every incident and have detailed recordings on who has been injured by bombings, hits, falls, burns, rubber bullets, gas, and live bullets. They also record how often there has been obstruction of the movement of ambulances, the number of injured EMS volunteers/staff, violations against PRCS ambulances and violations against PRCS staff and volunteers. And frankly in my personal opinion there should be zero violations against PRCS staff, volunteers or ambulances. It is sad. And yet these volunteers are not deterred and keep on suiting up. Keep on keeping on.
I would like to mention everything the PRCS does! They are really good at what they do and they deserve all the support in the world. I can however not mention everything and everyone so I will just quickly list some of their many activities: Primary Health Care, Secondary Health Care, Disaster Management, Rehabilitation and Ability Development, Psychosocial Support, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Dissemination and Youth and Volunteer activities. All of this and more falls under the work of the PRCS and on a personal note I was very touched by seeing a young deaf child learning to communicate through official sign language at the school for hearing impaired children. The innocence of children always gets to me. Why some of us grow up to riot while others become respected scholars is beyond me. On that note conflict prevention and resolution is also a vital part of the RC’s engagement.
Then something funny happened. Probably the best outcome of a mistake which anyone could make. I am as you know traveling to every country in the world in an unbroken journey without flying. As such I am traveling predominantly by public transportation but somehow the rumor had spread within the PRCS that I am cycling. Palestine was in fact host to a cyclist a while ago who was on a large scale cycling project. So maybe that is how it all began? In either case the PRCS had arranged for a solidarity cycling tour through Ramallah with me. As I am not cycling to every country in the world I had to borrow a bicycle and I was outfitted with a helmet. Then a mix of staff, volunteers and participants from Cycling Palestine joined in and about thirty happy souls took to the roads! But that wasn’t it!! We had a police escort and the roads had been blocked off for our convenience.
Just brilliant!! Well done PRCS!! You definetely stand out!! :)
Dr. Khalid joined in with his friendly smile and let me understand that he had not been on a bicycle for at least forty years. Ramallah is a brilliant, beautiful and very hilly city. It is a mix of the new and old. We took to the streets as the police sirens filled the air. People on the side of the road often had a clear “what the heck is going on” look on their face. I came side by side with Alfredo, then later on with Dr. Khalid as we moved forward under the clear blue sky. BRILLIANT! Who the heck can say they have cycled through Ramallah with a police escort? :) Our tour took us to Yasser Arafat’s Mausoleum and his museum behind it. Yasser Arafat was a Palestinian political leader who was born in Egypt in 1929. He was the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1969 to 2004 and President of the Palestinian National Authority from 1994 until his death in 2004. His mausoleum “floats” above water symbolizing that it is moving and that it is not his final resting place. Arafat’s wish was to be buried in Jerusalem. In 1988 he proclaimed the State of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. And he did that from Algiers. Among other things he is quoted to have said: “I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter's gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand” and “Peace for us means the destruction of Israel. We are preparing for an all-out war, a war which will last for generations”.
Arafat's floating mausoleum as seen from behind.
Palestine does not represent such strong views in my opinion. I have met all sorts of people with all sorts of views on what the future should hold. There are many Palestinians living in Israel side by side with Israelis. Like within any society you will find your extremists, your pacifists, your left wing, your right wing, your moderates etc. What do most people really want? If your answer to that question is “death and destruction” then I think you are misguided. In my experience people just want to cut out a small part the world in which they can live peaceful lives and know that their loved ones are safe. The majority of the Palestinians are like that and so are the Israelis. And yes, mistakes have been made on the Palestinian side. The horror of suicide bombings between 2000-2005 is a vivid memory today for those who lived though it. And with such horrific acts in the Palestinian luggage it will always be something which is brought up when the issue falls on trust. And yet these horrific actions were carried out by the few. Around the world people love dogs and they are found as pets in millions of homes. Sometimes a dog bites and yet everybody agrees that it has got nothing to do with the other pets. And before anyone gets carried away I am by no means saying that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are dogs. I know how some of you think and that is not my point at all. My point is of course that we are willing to give dogs the benefit of doubt but we find it hard to treat people the same way. You make peace with your enemies – not with your friends. And a compromise is not necessarily a situation where nobody walks away without what they wanted. The Palestinians are not going anywhere and neither are the Israelis. So there you have it. Only by such forgiveness as the world saw from Nelson Mandela in South Africa can the hardliners of this landscape move forward. The rest of us have got to do our part too.
Our tour through Ramallah also brought us to Mahmoud Darwish mausoleum and museum. He was a Palestinian poet and author who was regarded as the national poet. The view from the mausoleum was brilliant and that concluded the end of our tour though Ramallah. I do not know that I have ever heard about Darwish before? However I have looked a little closer and he appears to be quite remarkable. This thing I do, going from country to country, it opens up so many doors which were previously hidden. Something nice I can quote him for is as follows: “Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down”. Darwish also wrote: “History laughs at both the victim and the aggressor” and finally “My country is not a suitcase, I am not a traveler, I am the lover and the land is the beloved”. I have had a least as much online aggression regarding visiting Palestine as when I visited Israel. And frequent claims about Palestine were that it was not a country and that there are no people called Palestinians. Well I think we have addressed the country issue already so let’s have a look at the people. 1500 years ago there was nothing called Islam. And 2100 years ago there was nothing called Christianity. However long before those religions you had people leaving here on these lands. You had various city states, ethnicities and entities. Then history happened! This specific part of the world has seen its fair share of empires and armies.
Olive branches are plentyful in the region. And a symbol for peace.
The region has been controlled by numerous peoples, including Ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites and Judeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Achaemenids, ancient Greeks, the Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom, Romans, Parthians, Sasanians, Byzantines, the Arab Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, the British, and modern Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians. The Palestinians did not call themselves Palestinians any more than Phoenicians called themselves Phoenicians. It was the Greeks that called the “Phoenicians” as such and the name was later on adopted. Much like the people who lived in these lands throughout all of those empires didn’t call themselves Palestinians. There are several ancient references to derivatives of the word “Palestinian” but it wasn’t until the Greeks began referencing the area as Palestine 2,500 years ago and 500 years later when the Romans created Syria Palaestina that the name began to stick. Then obviously a lot happened since. If we fast forward to the British Mandate for Palestine, which followed the end of the Ottoman Empire, then that ran from 1923 to 1948…at which point the Brits left and Israel became a nation. Fair? Fair has got nothing to do with anything anymore. Fairness is a whisper in the wind given everything which has happen on these lands. Just know that there is plenty of blame on all sides and that it is useless to point at it. And a Palestinian is definitely a real thing. In fact my friend Hazem (since 2011) is Palestinian and Haya who interviewed me for MBC is Palestinian. And so are millions of others.
Whether a woman covers her hair depends on her family and/or her free will.
That night my friend Steve set me up with some of his friends though YPO which is a network of young chief executives. I first got in touch with Akram but he was in Jerusalem and about to leave the country for a business meeting. Akram however connected me to Omar who came to pick me up and brought me to a nice restaurant in a modern part of Ramallah. We small talked in the car on the way to the restaurant. I asked Omar about his profession and he humbly replied that he does business within consumer goods. He is actually the CEO of a forty year old business with his name on the wall. But I did not know that yet. We arrived at a smart restaurant called Zest in a completely renovated neighborhood which looked very modern. We then met a few of Omar’s friends who were fellow YPO’s and after a bit of meet and greet we ordered some food. It was clear to me that these friendly and humble men had done quite well for themselves in life. However they were all really down to earth and easy to talk too. As people entered the restaurant various people came to greet them at the table. And you could sense the respect.
This was a GREAT table to be seated at!! :)
We had a great night with many lively conversations and I had an opportunity to share a few of my adventures from the past years abroad. Then a slim man entered the restaurant, greeted some people, headed for our table and sat down with us. His name was Bashar and he was as kind and humble as the rest. After a while of small talk I was told that Bashar was building a city. I do not know how to respond to something like that? Isn’t that the kind of stuff you would hear about Bruce Wayne? I thought about it for a while and said: “that can’t just be millions…that must be billions. How do you fund it?” Bashar was busy eating but smiled and said that he gets by with a little help from his friends. We talked a little about this city which is planned to house 40,000 people and has been named Rawabi. Everyone told me that I should go there and take a look. But unfortunately my time in Palestine was sparse. Apparently Rawabi City is the first city built by Palestinians for Palestinians since 1948. Maybe even before that. This massive project has not been an easy undertaking and is still placing gray hairs on Bashar’s head. I was told that under the occupation everything is made more difficult. Permits are delayed, there are issues with the water supply which is managed by Israel and agreements and permissions have been hard to come by. Yet Rawabi City is already a success and has come far since its beginnings in January 2010. After a lovely evening with goose liver and good company Omar took me back to my hotel and I said goodnight. Then I had to google this city? It turns out that Bashar Masri is a billionaire and among the top ten richest men in Palestine. I can only guess about the other men I met that night. Masri has refused to accept offers of building supplies from Israeli settlements, and has ignored Israels suggestions as to how Rawabi should be modelled. Bashar has gone on record stating: “Settlers are evil people in general that continue to harass our people; they continue to live on our land illegally, and it’s recognized by almost the whole world as being illegal. We do not deal with illegal bodies or illegal issues”. How did my life ever become one as interesting as this? The people I have met, the things I have seen, all which I have heard…
I saw a snake in Jerusalem and took this photo. It's a small one. He was waiting for the bus ;)
The next morning I had breakfast and then met up with Alfredo who drove me to Jerusalem were we met with the ICRC and then he dropped me off before I met with Magen David Adom (MDA), which is the Israeli RC. My meeting with MDA in Tel Aviv the week before had led to this meeting with MDA in Jerusalem. I can write a book about the engagement of the RC around the world and how important the work is to millions of beneficiaries around the world. Suffice to say I had a good time with the volunteers and got to answer a few of their questions. The MDA branch I visited in Jerusalem was an EMS center and I was guided among the many ambulances which were all donated by wealthy donors. As such you could walk past them and read where they came from: USA, Canada, France etc.
Iyad has built himself and his family a great home. This is his driveway. Iyad's oldest son, Khalil, took great care of me when Iyad wasn't around.
I spent that night in a part of Jerusalem which is predominently inhabited by Palestinians. Last week my friend Trevor introduced me to Ivor who guided me around in Jerusalem together with Iyad. Iyad said that I was always welcome to stay at his place so I did. I reached his home which is a small castle that he built himself. Iyad has done well for himself within the security business and has some spectacular stories to tell. I don’t think I should mention here which people he has organized security for…but I can say that there are some very well known personalities among them and a good story he told was about an A-list celebrity who called him on the phone to which he replied: “yeah, and I am Donald Duck” and hung up. Minutes later the phone rang again and it turned out it really was that celebrity. I saw photos and we all know this person, who then had a tour of Jerusalem.
This is a great family!! Unfortunately Sarah is missing in this shot but Tahel (Daniels girlfriend stepped in). From left to right: Susan, Tahel, Daniel, Trevor and Jason :)
Trevor and Susan are walking Milo and Roxy (the White Walker). No traffic - except for kids on bikes.
Oh my, this entry goes on and on. Hang in there…we are getting to the end now. The reason I couldn’t afford more time in Palestine was because of a Jewish holiday which I wanted to observe. It is called Yom Kippur and it is something absolutely unique to behold in Israel. More than a week ago I arrived to Israel just in time for Rosh Hashana which actually ends with Yom Kippur. The period in between is a time when Jews are judged and Yom Kippur presents itself as a 25 hour fast where the country pretty much comes to a complete standstill. I came back to Trevor and Susan’s home in Modi’in just before the roads were blocked and the traffic stopped. And I had only just walked through the door before Susan said: “have you eaten – are you hungry?” Susan is fantastic like that. So, the family (Trevor, Susan, Daniel, Sarah and Jason) were all together and I joined in for the last meal before the fast. I wasn’t actually going to fast because I’m not Jewish but it was interesting nonetheless. After dinner the city went quiet as there were no longer any vehicles on the roads. Trains, airplanes, busses, trucks and cars had all come to a standstill for 25 hours. All shops, schools, offices, factories etc were closed. And the streets filled with bicycles, electric scooters, skateboards and hoverboards. Families were out walking their dogs and children were exited playing on the streets.
The following day there was a blue sky and not a single car on the road anywhere to be seen. There is an abundance of secular Jews in Israel. However the traditions which how sprung out of the religion run really deep. So you find that a great deal of Jews might raise an eyebrow in regards to much of what the Torah (religious text) has to say, but they will still follow through with the traditions. It is actually quite special and for Christians you can compare it with celebrating Christmas but not believing that it has anything to do with the birth of Jesus. Interestingly I have quite recently experienced the Ramadan across Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. And I recently celebrated Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha with Muslim friends as well. Therefore it was just great to experience both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur too. Naturally a lot of people are religious to various degrees and for them these holidays are to be taken seriously. Israel is a relatively easygoing country when it comes to people and opinions. So those who religiously followed through with the rules of ‘not generating any energy’ might have stayed at home all day or found their way to the synagogue. The rest of us headed out to explore a country with its “plug pulled out”.
I borrowed Trevor’s bicycle and made my way around the nearby landscape on the empty roads. Once in a while I could see an ambulance or a single car which swiftly passed by. It felt somewhat like if the world had been robed for all technology. Children rode around on the middle of the road as it posed absolutely no hazard. The silence was abnormal apart from the joyful screams from exited children. Even airplanes from abroad had been directed around Israel in order to keep the airspace clear. And on this special day the air pollution dropped significantly. Where else in the world can you experience an entire nation do that for a day?
Did you get it right? Does it matter? ;)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - and that's all I have to say about that.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
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