Moving mountains: Palestinians climb Kilimanjaro for deported activist Salah Hammouri

Palestinian climbers move mountains for deported activists
8 min read
18 May, 2023

A group of Palestinians from different walks of life are set to take on a challenge of a lifetime - climbing one of the world’s tallest mountains.

Tomorrow Khalil Gharra, who founded NGO Palestine on the Summit last year, will lead 18 other Palestinians to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the fourth-tallest mountain in the world.

Should they successfully complete this ultimate feat of endurance, the Palestinian flag will fly atop the mountain.

"The challenge is going to be in how we adapt to the different conditions, the conditions are going to be completely different to the ones we encounter in the mountains of Palestine"

Palestine on the Summit, which describes itself as "a Palestinian-led non-profit initiative to climb mountains around the world, to raise our voices and flag for our cause", has dedicated the climb to Salah Hammouri, a French-Palestinian lawyer stripped of his Jerusalem residency and deported to France at the end of last year for what Israel claimed were ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a left-wing armed group.

"We will raise our voices for Salah Hammouri and against Zionist policies of administrative detention, revocation of residency, forced displacement and deportation systematically deployed by Israel since the Nakba," they said in a statement last month.

"We call for Salah’s return, and for the return of all those forcibly deported and displaced."

Salah Hammouri was born and raised in Jerusalem to a French mother and a Palestinian father. Like other Palestinian Jerusalemites, he did not hold Israeli citizenship – just the residency papers issued by the Israeli interior ministry. Without citizenship, these Palestinians lack access to the range of civil rights that Israelis have.

For some two decades, Salah has been in and out of Israeli detention, including administrative detention. He was finally stripped of his residency papers and whisked from prison to the airport in December 2022 to be deported to France, as he holds French citizenship.

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He is one of thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem who have been stripped of their residency, for reasons human rights lawyer Aya Odeh - also on the climb - described as "arbitrary".

"Palestinians are a far greater number than Jewish Israelis, so the laws are to reinforce the Jewish population and weaken the Palestinian ones. So the laws are to make it easier to strip Palestinians of residency and make more difficult the lives of Palestinians, even though their lives are already difficult," Aya told The New Arab over Zoom.

There were fears that what happened to Salah Hammouri will set a precedent, and it looks like these are being realised.

Since Salah's deportation, Israel elected right-wing politician Benjamin Netanyahu, who appointed ministers that have denied that Palestinians even exist. They have threatened to annex the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which would leave even more Palestinians without a home.

In February of this year, the Knesset approved a new bill that would authorise the Israeli interior ministry to revoke a person’s citizenship or residency if they are convicted of or jailed for committing a "terrorist act", and permits their expulsion to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

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The climbers, with differing levels of ability, have been training for months. They are all very aware of the difficulties the climb will pose – exhaustion, altitude sickness, dietary deficiencies – not least because of Khalil's careful and painstaking advice and preparations for it.

"Climbing day after day is going to be difficult. In general, climbing is fine… the difficulty is in doing hike after hike after hike," said Aya, one of ten women embarking on the climb. "The challenge is going to be in how we adapt to the different conditions, the conditions are going to be completely different to the ones we encounter in the mountains of Palestine."

The climbers say they feel safe under the guidance of Khalil, who climbed Kilimanjaro before, in 2021. "We’ve been training for three, four months," Fatmi Abu Rumi, from the town of Tamra, located within Israel’s 1948 boundaries, told The New Arab. "From the beginning, it has been clear that the demands from us would be really strict… the preparations are so that we are totally prepared to be on a hike that is continuous for six days," she said.

"We’ve had advice on how best to sleep, what to drink, dietary plans… Khalil has been with us on every step of that journey."

Last year, Palestine on the Summit climbed to the top of Mount Ararat, raising the Palestinian flag and a banner with the name and image of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian journalist shot dead by the Israeli army as she covered their raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank last year.

For Khalil and others embarking on the climb, hiking and being able to move at some leisure are inherently political – something he has been involved with for years.

"While we hike, we'll talk about the nature in Palestine we're unable to access. When we talk about the paths we're going to walk, we have to talk about how these paths and routes aren't accessible to us in Palestine, Ahmad Biqawi, another of the climbers and host of the Taqarob podcast told The New Arab.

"Even if we remove the cases of Salah or Shireen and went out like any other climbers who wanted to get some exercise, we'll find ourselves talking about politics or doing activism in one way or the other."

As the climbers prepared for the expedition, there have been real, everyday reminders of the exceptional difficulties of moving around as a Palestinian.

The climbers are from all parts of occupied Palestine, except Gaza, which Israel has besieged since 2007 and whose population they have imposed heavy travel restrictions on, is taking part in the climb. 

Restrictions on Gazans’ freedom of movement would hinder every stage of their preparation for a climb, Khalil said.

To get permission to leave for other parts of Palestine to train somewhere slightly hillier or to join other Palestine on the Summit climbers for team-building is difficult, and a reflection of how the Israeli siege on Gaza isolates its population from other Palestinians.

A journey to a far-flung country for a mountain climb would be ridden with similar difficulties.

"If someone from Gaza were to want to travel to Tanzania for example, they’d have to wait at the border for three days, go to Egypt, then from Egypt go to Abu Dhabi, then from Abu Dhabi go to Tanzania… to go to Africa, they’d have to go in a roundabout way," Khalil told The New Arab.

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Hikes and climbs bring Palestinians relief from the exceptionally brutal levels of everyday violence they encounter, Khalil said. "Everyday life is difficult – people see difficult things just by walking down the street," he added. "When they leave the country, they are able to talk and build connection… being in a completely different environment, it brings relief from the worries and pressure and stress." "They can’t come together in the country, they can only come together outside it."

Some of the joys of climbing are universal, too. "Climbing brings adrenaline, contentment, and beautiful nature and views… it’s a change."

Since his deportation, Salah Hammouri has spent much of the past few months dotting around Europe, speaking at Palestine solidarity events and elsewhere, including at the UN. When we speak via Zoom, he is scooting through Amsterdam.

Though he lacks governmental support -- he says the French government have actively hindered his search for justice - he says he has felt plenty supported by non-governmental groups.

Salah spent much of the time that we spoke expressing his gratitude to the climbers for dedicating such an arduous feat to him, but also said that there were cases that were "more of a priority than his".

"A group of young people took my cause on themselves, with all their strength, with their energy, their experience, they took on this case, to transmit it to the world – for me, this is something symbolic and a huge responsibility," Salah told The New Arab.

The Kilimanjaro expedition is one of a series of ambitious climbs that Khalil and Palestine on the Summit have planned for the next few years. For 2028, he has his sights set on the highest peak of them all – Everest.

With the plight Palestinians face ever-evolving, Khalil says he isn’t sure what cause he will be dedicating his next cause to. For now, he just wants Palestinians to be able to climb ever higher.

"We don't want to compete with people... or break world climbing records," he said.

"We want the issues we are carrying to be the focus and main thing, not the records we might break."

With translation by Rose Chacko

Shahla Omar is a journalist and news editor at The New Arab. She holds a BA in French and an MSc in International History. She worked for two years as a news and features writer and editor in Iraqi Kurdistan, before joining The New Arab in 2021.

Follow her on Twitter: @shahlasomar