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Putting the Jericho Equestrian Club on the Map

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 07.11.2011:

TWIP November 2011

By Marian Houk

The Jericho Equestrian Club was established in 1994 by one man driven by a dream and the power of his will. It is now the only place in Palestine offering all types of equestrian activities, including sports training, horse care, entertainment, and therapy for riders with special needs. It hopes, eventually, to develop a Palestinian Olympic equestrian team.

But, its current difficulties offer an excellent case study of the question: can Palestinians live normal lives?

The question is not whether, in the current atmosphere of nervous uncertainty, division, and distrust, is a newly prosperous Palestinian elite enriched by building office towers and malls, or by credit facilities offered to those with official salaries and jobs in government ministries, is willing and able to bring their privileged children to Jericho for a few afternoons of fun?

Instead, the question is, in part, can there be appreciation in Palestine for an operation outside the usual framework, which aims to include all members of its society in a new paradigm of mutual respect without discrimination based on financial worth, social position, education, or type of ID card?

And how much appreciation can there be for a club built upon the belief that Palestinians must not use the persistence of a crushing occupation as an excuse to avoid self-imposed humility for the sake of developing the necessary discipline to demand of themselves the same that would be expected of those in other parts of the world? At the club, for example, students are expected to prepare and care for the horse before and after their ride, and no one is allowed to treat anyone else with disdain.

Another part of the question is: can an organization survive with a business model that is not business, and which also has little in common with the latest paradigms defined by the international donor community, falls outside the interests of the Prime Minister’s report-driven institution-building plans, has no powerful patron, and which is also being undermined by covert campaigns apparently motivated at least in part by avarice?

Despite its current struggle, the Jericho Equestrian Club “remains a shining point for the people,” says Jericho’s Governor Majed Fathiani. “Though horses are somehow related to our history, riding and jumping is a new field in Palestine, and people like it.” He added, “The horse rider must be a good person, a patient person, a person with self-control. And the horse, like a human being, also needs respect and to be looked after. If we treat the horse well, it will understand the needs of man.”

But, the governor noted, “The proper veterinarian and agricultural care is so far not available locally, and we are not able to cope with the needs of the club. So something has had to be done with the help of the Israelis.”

The man who founded and almost single-handedly built the Jericho Equestrian Club is Hassan Bazlamit. He was born in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1960, became a refugee in the 1967 war, lost his mother in Jordan in September 1970, and was then brought with his three younger brothers to a boarding school for orphans run by the PLO in Lebanon where he experienced intense loneliness. This experience was only partly relieved by the physical demands and structure of military training that later earned him the rank of brigadier general for his role in protecting the life of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He was twenty-two in the summer of 1982, when-after weeks of enormous trauma and devastation-he and more than 8,000 other Palestinian fighters were evacuated from Beirut by sea on Greek ferry boats sailing under the United Nations flag. The evacuation was part of an internationally-brokered agreement to spare further civilian lives and infrastructure by removing the excuse for Israel’s then-Defence Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive personal manhunt for Yasser Arafat conducted by an unauthorised rapid thrust up through Lebanon, saturation bombing, and an extended siege. After the grief of the evacuation, Hassan began years of travel, either at Arafat’s side, or, at Arafat’s order, with the Amman-based speaker of the PLO’s Palestine National Council.

Hassan’s face is transformed by a broad smile when he recalls the thrill, elation, even ecstasy he experienced when he returned to the land of his birth in April 1994, riding in a convoy of Palestinian security forces escorting Arafat back home. His return followed years of an extraordinarily traumatic exile that few who had been inside Palestine had any chance to know much about. He decided on the spot to build his life in Jericho around his love for horses and for sports.

He acquired a few horses from a local owner, and built a small stable and riding arena on Sharia Amman (Amman Street) in Jericho. In 1997, he moved his fledgling operation to a flat and almost barren plot of sandy land on the eastern edge of Jericho, leasing long-term from the Waqf in cooperation with the Committee for the Development of Tourism in Jericho. He left his family in the home he built in the Ein Sultan refugee camp in order to sleep at the site for nights in a row to guard what he was constructing.

Hassan planted every tree and bush on the site. Over the years, he built, with his own hands, a full-service training and riding facility with stables, indoor and outdoor arenas, and a racing track. The Jericho Equestrian Club grew and evolved with exposure to international horse people he met along the way. In turn, Hassan himself has been invited to travel outside to represent Palestine in a number of international equestrian events.

The Jericho Equestrian Club is not a privately owned business operating to seek financial profit. Nothing is registered in Hassan Bazlamit’s name-although he paid for about twenty of the club’s twenty-seven horses from his own salary. Nor is it an NGO, although it’s not officially part of the government either. It is a non-profit riding club (with its own board of directors) registered with the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Sports-though, surprisingly, to date, the club has received no financial or in-kind support from the Palestinian Authority (PA). In fact, the club has only been partly reimbursed, in October of this year, for many tens of thousands of NIS it already paid out much earlier, for activities commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism and by the Palestinian Police Academy as part of the Jericho 10,000 celebration in 2009 because these bodies ran out of funds.

In the past, that might not have mattered so much because Hassan had Yasser Arafat’s support, endorsement, and patronage. The club grew well, until the year 2000. But after the outbreak of the second Intifada, when the checkpoints and closures prevented supplies and people from coming into Jericho and there was no food for the horses, the club and its stock of horses was at the edge of catastrophe. In desperation, Hassan walked toward the nearest Israeli Defense Force post and made a desperate appeal to help the animals survive. He was surprised when they responded with a sudden delivery of hay. For stretches of time, Hassan stayed alone at the club with the horses. He says he had only the food he prepared for the dogs of the stable, cooked from discarded bread and unwanted chicken parts. Gradually, the situation eased somewhat, people began trickling back, and the club again picked up activities.

Then, everything changed again following Arafat’s death in November 2004. But, financial contributions from the International Equestrian Federation headed by Princess Haya bint al-Hussein (of Jordan) kept the club going through February 2011.

Now, however, the club’s only funding comes from its own income-generating activities, primarily riding lesson fees with some contributions from competition entry fees and the occasional rental of its facilities. But, with the marked financial slowdown over the past year, like so many other sectors in Palestine, the club is experiencing greater overall financial difficulty due not only to the absence of large donations, but also to drastic fluctuations in currency exchange rates and a marked cutback in both consumer and official spending due to income uncertainty related to the current political anxieties. The situation is now exacerbated as Israel and the United States are threatening cuts in financial support and other as-yet unspecified reprisals to suppress the recently submitted but long-delayed request for United Nations membership for the state of Palestine.

Jericho’s Governor Fathiani confirmed, “The situation is becoming deeply dangerous now for the club. It is one of the most costly sports and involves training, buying good food, and providing medical care for the horses, which all costs a lot. It is newly introduced in Palestine, and government support so far has been limited. The question has been raised. Hassan has a wide circle of friends and is hardworking, and we are thinking together how to find a solution. We want this club to be there. It is giving hope to the people.”

Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association and of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, added, “This club is part of the whole sport system here, and I do also think and recognise the fact that sport has a political dimension in Palestine. There is a strategy and a policy decision that we must have a normal life in Palestine, living like any other people, including exercising and training and playing sports.”

Rajoub added, “I also think there is a humanitarian aspect that is also important for the people. Go to the history. In our culture, it is praise when you compare a man to a horse. We shouldn’t treat a horse like just an animal. Yes, there is a financial problem, which is part of our life, and the crisis affects everybody here. But…we have to continue our life. We have no choice. The Palestinian people are suffering from the Israeli occupation.” Rajoub said that he is personally “ready to check and look into club’s situation and ready to interfere.”

Marian Houk is a journalist who has worked in both print and radio (and now also on the internet), who was accredited at the UN in New York and in Geneva, and is now based in Jerusalem.

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