Qalqiliya: A Day at the Zoo

By Stephen Williams

It’s the little things that distinguish the longest military occupation in modern history; the minor inconveniences, the trivial acts of spite, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy, its sheer silliness.

There we were, a Palestinian family and their UK guest on the way from Ramallah to Qalqilya. For the children, it was to be a day at the zoo in the park; for me, it was the opportunity to see the ”bottle” in which Qalqiliya exists , and to pass through its “neck”, surrounded by illegal settlements –  a situation that is manifestly bizarre but tolerated by the rest of the world.

The young IDF soldier, emerging from an unexpected checkpoint not far from Nablus, was to play his part in this Theatre of Absurdities.

My presence intrigued him. 

“Where do you live?” he asked.

He was delighted to learn that I was a Londoner; “I’m from London too,” he said. “Where in London?”

I told him.

“That’s nice,” he said. “I’m from North London. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a tourist,” I lied.

Five minutes later after the soldier had lost interest in us and we were on our way, it struck me; what am I doing here? More to the point, what is he doing in Palestine? Why is a young Briton given a gun and power over a family of indigenous Palestinians?

A little thing; the absurdity of that meeting three thousand miles away from home. Two fellow citizens; at home equals, but in this strange world, one has the power of life and death over the other. But for the family? Why should a harmless outing be subjected to such scrutiny by a foreigner? Why should the car be stopped? Why a little girl frightened?

Qalqilya was busy; many Palestinians living in what is now called Israel do their shopping there and the Israeli number plates outnumbered the Palestinian ones.

And the same was true of the park and the zoo.

The children loved the little museum with its botanical, geological and zoological exhibits. We were shown around by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic young woman who took delight in describing Palestine’s rich natural history.

But I realised that this was not the sort of museum Israeli children enjoy; there were no laser shows, no interactive games, no animatronics. The displays were ingenious but home- made. The museum did a fine job with very limited resources. Had the park charged more than the three Shekels entry to update the displays, there would have been few visitors.

And the same was true of the zoo itself. The animals were well-cared for but their facilities would not be acceptable here in London; nor in Israel. It is being run on a shoestring and, of course, it is now the only one in Palestine after the IDF drove their tanks over the Gaza petting-zoo which the children used to enjoy.

 So, here in Qalqilya, even the antelopes, monkeys and lions are victims of an Occupation which starves Palestine of resources and sells the produce of its land at immense profit.

I pointed this out to the Zoological Director of London Zoo who, coincidentally, was enjoying the hospitality of the Tisch Family Zoo in Jerusalem. He had been asked not to attend this conference, to participate instead in our BDS movement, avoiding the sort of events that encourage Normalisation.

He was indignant; the Israeli director, he wrote to me, actually “mentors” his Palestinian counterpart.  Furthermore, the Tisch Director had persuaded the authorities (like the twenty-year old I’d met on the road, no doubt) to “allow” the Qalqilya Manager to travel to Jerusalem for the conference.

The sheer enormity of this statement eluded him; a Palestinian being given permission to travel in his own country by an Israeli at the behest- no doubt well-meaning- of another Israeli. He should be honoured to be “mentored” by an eminent Israeli.

But I suppose it’s a little thing; there are graver abuses of power every day, every hour.

I couldn’t resist pointing out to my countryman that, while he was enjoying canapés and white wine at his conference, the children of Silwan were being tear-gassed by the Border Police. And while I had been able to return that day to my hotel in Salah al Din to bathe my eyes in safety, they had nowhere to go to escape the brutalities of the Occupation.

Young people like Milad Said Ayyush.

On my return form Qalqilya, I had taken the bus to Qalandia checkpoint so that I could return to my hotel.

It was late; the queue was long. For twenty minutes it didn’t move.  The electronic gates didn’t stir, no lights flashed.

Eventually, it was apparent that this gate was inoperative and so we all moved to another one. The Palestinians were resigned and philosophical. In the catalogue of oppression through which they live, this was a little thing.

None of the young soldiers lounging around in their bullet-proof office had told us. The huge number of cameras must have shown what was happening. Did they find it amusing? Did they care? Or was this merely spiteful teasing, the unkindness of the school bully?

 That was a little thing too, I suppose.

Eventually, an hour later, I presented myself to a young woman soldier with my passport. I had clearly done something wrong because it wasn’t acceptable. Her attempts to tell me in Hebrew what to do were, frankly, a waste of breath.

So my passport was pushed into the office and examined. This same soldier went to a computer and began the laborious task of methodically checking my details with- I assume- immigration files. My entry stamp wasn’t good enough, it seems.

Behind me, the queue grew. I was holding them up; all I wanted to do was to have a shower and go to bed- perhaps they were involved in a family crisis or work. But from her perspective, any excuse to make an already frustrating experience more stressful for the Palestinians cannot be missed.

A little thing. For me, it was one of the experiences of my trips to Palestine which provide a momentary insight into how my comrades live their lives, day by day and, for that reason, not to be missed. For the fifty Palestinians I had delayed, it was yet another manifestation of their status as second-class citizens in their own country, the playthings of callow youths who enjoy the taste of entitlement in someone else’s land.

In the 1960s, the liberation of Afro-Americans in the US was a cause that many of us supported. James Baldwin, a Black American, was one of the movement’s most eloquent writers. In “Go tell it on the Mountain”, a young woman whose boyfriend has died in police custody, asks that God, one day, will speak to white Americans and “make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treat with such  condescension, such disdain and such good humour , had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs. ”

– Stephen Williams is a retired headmaster of a multi-ethnic secondary school in London and a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He contributed this article to

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