Ahead of the National Demonstration for Palestine, Morgan Daniels speaks to Dani Abulhawa about SkatePal
When did you first visit Palestine? When was your most recent visit? What has changed between then and now?
I've been visiting Palestine since I was a baby (since the 1980s). My dad is Palestinian, so we would go for family holidays. When we all got older it became more difficult to do this regularly and by the time I started volunteering for SkatePal I hadn’t been to Palestine for 10 years! Since 2015 I’ve been going every year and trying to maintain that regular connection. What I have noticed across that time span – and this is partly my increasing awareness too – is the way that these kinds of colonial processes happen very slowly, in small ways. The Old City of Jerusalem feels tense, not relaxed. There are lots of soldiers around. The West Bank shows the starkest changes. It feels like every time I visit there is more of a presence of settlements.
Tell us a bit about SkatePal. What are the aims of the project?
SkatePal is a skateboarding charity that was started by Charlie Davis in 2013. Charlie was out in Palestine teaching English in Jenin. He took his skateboard with him and when he wasn’t working he would skate around in the streets. The children were really interested and wanted to try it themselves, so Charlie had the idea of coming back to Palestine to build a few basic obstacles and teach some of the local kids. That developed into him working directly with municipal councils in Palestine to build free, open skateparks for anyone to use. I took part in their second skatepark build in a town called Asira Al-Shamalyia (near Nablus) in 2015 and have been going back to the same village ever since.
SkatePal don’t just build skateparks, they also coordinate international volunteers who come for at least one month to Palestine and teach skateboarding to local children. Palestinians living in the West Bank have very restricted movement. Most of them are not granted visas to enter Jerusalem or other parts of Israel. In this context the skatepark creates an interesting space for international exchange. The volunteers and the children learn new languages, learn about each other’s cultures, and the families of the children come to the skatepark too. They bring drinks and snacks and sit together for hours watching the children play. It’s a beautiful atmosphere.
What have you learnt through working so closely with young Palestinians?
The resilience, energy and kindness of young people is always astonishing to me given the political situation in which they live. All the young people I’ve met are very kind and generous; they will go out of their way to help you. In the skatepark everyone looks out for each other – they offer each other advice, they hold each other’s hands when people are learning to drop in. Being so closely connected to the community in Asira has been really inspiring because the everyday reality is so frustrating and when children get older they start to realise how much the restrictions are impacting on their lives. For example, many people here do well at school and attend university in Palestine, or sometimes overseas, but the job prospects in Palestine are very limited. The ongoing political impasse and people’s desire to succeed makes young people want to leave, but it’s also a beautiful place to live with supportive, tight-knit communities that look after each other.
A blunt question, this: What is it like to be in occupied territory? What is day-to-day life like in Palestine?
Palestine is not what people would imagine of an occupied territory or war zone and it is really lots of smaller conflicts that together form the occupation. For example, the West Bank contains several different areas of conflict, then there is Gaza of course, and Jerusalem, all with their own complexities; in many parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem people are living relatively normal lives, bringing up their children and trying to have a peaceful life. But there is always an underlying feeling of tension, uncertainty and fear – particularly at Border areas, which are punctuated by architectures of restriction and exclusion and the presence of the Israeli military. When I re-visited Qalandia Check Point for the first time as an adult in 2015, I kept thinking they don’t need to build them like this; in a way that makes people feel like cattle, or like criminals. Regular Friday demonstrations are practised in some areas that are directly in conflict with settlers and the military.
In the West Bank the separation wall, check points, administrative practices and area delineation (A, B and C) create confusing and long-winded restrictions and separations between Palestinian villages – it can take hours to travel distances that could take 30 or 45 minutes. Between the Palestinian towns and cities there is an ever-increasing presence of settler communities.
Also, one really frightening thing is that the Israeli military have a practice of making administrative detentions (arrests made without charge); they enter towns and villages during the night and make arrests, usually of young men, who they detain for periods of several months. It can be extremely hard for families not knowing where their sons are and when they will return. Gaza is a very different and more dire situation; I have never visited, but I have read reports about the contamination of water that will make the area completely uninhabitable by 2020.
Why will you be demonstrating on 11 May? Why should we all be demonstrating on 11 May?
The Israel/Palestine conflict is not likely to be solved without international pressure. It’s important to keep reminding our government that we condemn the occupation and the siege on Gaza, and its effects on Palestinians' and Israelis' lives. Demonstrating also helps to raise awareness about what is happening, and it is an act of solidarity.