By Aaron Lakoff, October 2008,
Interview recorded in Biddu, Palestine
To view original interview posted on Tadamon!, click here
Photo: Aaron Lakoff. Mohammed Mansour, near Biddu, Palestine.
Mohammed Mansour is a resident of Biddu, a village near Ramallah in the West Bank of Palestine. A former organizer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), he now works as a service (taxi) driver to support his family. As someone who makes his living on the roads of the West Bank, Mansour is all too familiar with Israel’s complex settler road system, which Israel has unilaterally separated into roads for Palestinian use, and other roads as Israeli only. We sat down with Mohammed at his home in Biddu, after he took us on a long tour around the apartheid roads circling the village. Mansour spoke to us about Road 443, a new Israeli settler road badly affecting transportation for Palestinians in the area, and his views on the peace process.
Aaron Lakoff: Please start by introducing yourself and your work in Palestine.
Mohammed Mansour: Born in Palestine, from Biddu, was working in [construction], then was a volunteer with the ISM (International Solidarity Movement) for four years, and now I work as a [“service” or taxi] driver to support my family.
Aaron Lakoff: In your work as a service driver, you spend a lot of time on the road. The settler roads, or the apartheid roads, are a very big issue in Palestine. Can you talk about the settler roads around Biddu and the effects they have on the village?
Mohammed Mansour: They make the Palestinian people suffer a lot. Before the Israeli government built these settlements around the villages, not just Biddu, but all of Palestine, they took the main roads from the Palestinians and created other roads for the Palestinians, making us drive a long way.
We were together, and you saw with your own eyes; we were stuck at a checkpoint for fifteen minutes, but sometimes we are stuck for three hours. Imagine if it’s winter, or hot like today, and imagine if there are kids or old people struck in the car – imagine how they would suffer. Israelis say the settler roads are for the safety of the Israeli people, but that is not true. These roads are built to steal our land and build new Israeli settlements. They want to cleanse the Palestinian people from this land.
Aaron Lakoff: Can you talk about how the settler roads work to control movement in the West Bank and how they function to control Palestinian movement?
Mohammed Mansour: For example in this area north of Jerusalem, with nine villages, including Biddu. You witnessed the massive gate while arriving, the Israelis built this gate along with a new road , however if Israel want to close it completely they can and we can’t move. One military gate for over 60 000 Palestinians.
Aaron Lakoff: When was that road, including the gate, finished?
Mohammed Mansour: Just one month ago. It’s a new military gate.
Aaron Lakoff: Before the one military gate, built by Israel to control Palestinian movement, there were more possibilities for Palestinians from the villages to enter Ramallah, also other ways for people in surrounding villages to visit each-other in general. Can you talk about how things have changed?”
Mohammed Mansour: Before the settlements of Giv’at Hadash and Giv’at Ze’ev settlement were built illegally, you could get from my house (in Biddu) to Ramallah in five minutes. Now we can’t do that because of these settlements, and the main road that we used before (connecting Biddu and Ramallah) is now used by the Israeli settlers.
Aaron Lakoff: Does the Israeli army ever close the gate going in to Biddu?
Mohammed Mansour: Yes, sometimes, without any reason. Israel doesn’t need any reason to close the gate. Just to punish us.
Aaron Lakoff: What do the settler roads look like? What are the differences between the Palestinian roads and the settler roads?
Mohammed Mansour: Now remember when were driving and I told you that if my car has problems, I would block the road. Now Israel only allows one lane for us to use. The road that used to be ours, is now an Israeli road, it is more than twenty meters wide while each road has at least three lanes. Israelis have lights on their roads, but we don’t have any lights. Israel’s roads are elevated, so they can smell and breath the air, but we are down (the Palestinian road goes through an underground tunnel below the settler road). These are clear difference between our roads and the Israeli roads.
Roads that Israel has built are constructed on our land. Israel steals our land and build settler only roads on our historical lands.
It is clear that Israel has taken our best land in Palestine and constructed very large settlements which they’re living a very lavish life. Israeli settlers have access to the good roads and all the main roads and can travel wherever they want and live their lives as if the Palestinians didn’t exist.
All of these people living in the settlements, are people from outside countries – they’re people from Europe and the U.S. who become Israelis. How can these religious people come to Palestine, occupy our land and pertend that Palestinians and Palestine doesn’t exist.
All of us are human beings; we must live together and in this light we are not against the Israeli people. Have many Israeli friends, like those involved with Anarchists Against the Wall, who are my brothers. It is not the Israeli people that I have a problem with, it is the Israeli government.
I love peace. I want to open my eyes one day and see a new morning.
Sometimes people in the world ask why Palestinians go on suicide missions. I want you to ask yourself why Palestinians have blown themselves up. If you come to visit me here in Palestine for one month, you will pass through a lot of checkpoints, see the apartheid wall, the intense poverty and you will how all the Palestinian people are suffering. Some people simply don’t have the patience, they lose their minds and go on suicide missions. Some who make this choice have lost their family, their fathers, their mothers, or their sisters or brothers.
Palestinian women have been forced to give birth at checkpoints and some have died.
Photo: Aaron Lakoff. Rich agricultural land surrounding Biddu, Palestine.
Aaron Lakoff: Wanted to talk with you specifically about road 443, because it is now a big issue now in this part of the West Bank. Can you talk about this road which connects Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and how that is impacting you village Biddu?
Mohammed Mansour: Road 443 was the main road for about fifty villages. It was the main road for fifteen of the villages north-east of Jerusalem and thirty-five villages west of Ramallah.
Before there were many villages who could travel from their villages to Ramallah in about fifteen minutes, such as Nil’in, Suqba, Shibteen, Budrus, Beit Sira, Beit Liqya. Now it impossible, Palestinians are forced to go all the way around. In the last three months we’ve held five actions against road 443. We’re hoping to reclaim this road from Israel because it is completely unfair that now students are always late for school, people are late for work and people are dying on their way to receive medical care simply because they are all Palestinian. This road was actually built before the Israeli occupation started, an old road.
Aaron Lakoff: And when was road 443 closed to Palestinians?
Mohammed Mansour: About eight months ago. Even though it’s forbidden, I sometimes find a way and go onto the road, which is a very dangerous risk, however we can never surrender or give-up in the struggle to reclaim this road and our land as Palestinians.
Aaron Lakoff: Can you talk about the economic and social impacts of the settler roads around Biddu? Has it affected Palestinians ability to work or see their families?
Mohammed Mansour: Biddu used to be 6200 dunums. Israel then built a wall around Biddu and inside the wall there are only 1200 remaining dunums. 600 were stolen by Israel to build the wall on, as the width of the wall is sixty meters. 4400 dunums have been occupied by the wall, which we can’t touch. There are 8000 Palestinians living in this area and many people have lost their land. You can find forty people living together in one house, because their land has been stolen and they have become landless people.
4400 dunums of agricultural land are now behind the Israeli apartheid wall. Most of our wells and water resources are now behind the Israeli wall. Also the place to put our garbage used to be far away not a long time ago, but now due to the wall, it is impossible to take our waste to another area. Waste and rubbish stay inside the village and there’s is always a stench.
Another main concerns and problem due to the wall is that there is a checkpoint which control our movement to the rest of the world. Many students who need to arrive at school by 8 o’clock simply can’t arrive due to the wall and also there are Palestinian teachers and others who can’t get to work.
There are about 10 000 Palestinian people who need to use this road, students and workers who need to arrive at 8 o’clock end up getting there by noon, and then their employers just say ‘go home’. This is how life is like.
Peace talks are empty rhetoric. Israelis don’t want peace.
The ones who want real peace will pay a price. Israel continues to build new settlements, even within the 1967 borders. How are we supposed to believe that Israel wants peace when they are building these settlements?
How are we to believe someone like George W. Bush or the U.S. government, when they invade Iraq and lie to the U.S. public about weapons of mass destruction. It’s the same reality in Afghanistan and possibly tomorrow in Iran and Syria. Today, a lot of people have nuclear weapons. Why today are we singling out Iran? I don’t believe in Bush, I don’t believe in the U.S., I don’t believe in Israel and I don’t believe in Mahmoud Abbas.
Aaron Lakoff is a member of Tadamon! and an independent journalist in Montreal, who recently volunteered for six-weeks at the International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC) in Bethlehem, Palestine.