The week began with excitement and happiness as fifteen happy travellers set off from the UK for three months of volunteering in the West Bank. Once arrived in Ramallah we quickly settled into our new accommodation, which is fairly basic but sufficient. The first few days were spent soaking up the sights and sounds of the city, enjoying the hustle and bustle of the fruit and veg market, eating plenty of falafel and relaxing in the evening with Shisha, Taybeh (Palestinian beer) and mint tea.
The two day training focused on the political and economic situation in Palestine. This was set within the context of the dramatic 20th Century history of the area as it has gone from British mandate to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expansion of Israeli control into the West Bank and Gaza following the 6 day war in 1967 (now the occupied territories of Palestine). Although I was familiar with the history being here, even for such a brief time, has clarified my understanding and significantly altered some of my perceptions. It is far too easy to sit at home and study the history of this region and focus on facts and figures of wars and peace treaties and border changes without truly considering the impact this has had on the native population, this is not easy to do when you are discussing the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”in front of two Palestinian women. It has brought home the significance of the disaster which occurred here for the native population following the decision of a foreign colonial government, which just so happens to be the government which has sent me here, to give a sizeable chunk of the territory to the people of the Jewish faith. Whilst I have always taken a pro-Palestinian stance on the issue the way the issue is framed has been altered since arriving here. One of the significant changes has been to not consider it a conflict at all; it is an occupation not a conflict. Whilst the western media, through I think misguided commitment to balance and impartiality, tend to present it as a conflict these are not two equal sides at war. This is one powerful state, Israel, versus the native population, without a state or self government, to whom basic human rights are denied. The two days of training were for me a consciousness raising exercise and have heightened by awareness of the problem here.
Following viewing the film ‘Donor Opium‘ (which is highly recommend viewing) I have become aware of the uncomfortable presence of NGOs and foreign aid workers here. These organisations bring with them aid from foreign governments however, this money is usually tied with conditions which limit the ability of beneficiaries to be politically active. The aid workers themselves also receive salaries higher than the private economy can afford to pay creating a market distortion which stifles the growth of the private sector. This realisation has meant that walks into the city and discussions with Palestinians are increasingly accompanied with a feeling of guilt.
On Friday of week one we had an appointment to visit the British consulate in East Jerusalem. To get to Jerusalem we encountered an Israeli check point and laid eyes on the separation barrier for the first time. Going through the check point was a bizarre experience. To cross through you must go through a large metal turnstile which brings you into a single-file walkway surrounded by metal barriers ending in another turnstile. You must wait until there is room to move forward and as a result can be kept in the metal corridor for sometime. It is an unpleasant experience which seems to be designed to be as intimidating as possible. Once through the metal turnstiles you wait behind a metal gate to be called forward. You enter three at a time and put your possessions in a scanner before walking through a body scanner and showing your passport and visa to the Israeli security guard who is behind a window. All of our party moved through this without trouble and although we found it strange it was no real bother. Many Palestinians however cannot get the necessary papers to be permitted entry through this check point and can therefore not visit Jerusalem. Once at the British consulate we were told about the work that the British diplomats do in Palestine. We were then given an opportunity to ask them questions. Having met with previous groups of volunteers they were obviously expecting some difficult questions and seemed defensive from the outset. The position of the British government to continue to support Israel in spite of its ongoing breaches of international law is unsatisfactory to the majority of our party and not surprisingly a heated discussion ensued. The first question got straight to the point asking the diplomats simply: “Whats the point? Why bother continuing to support Palestine whilst also supporting Israel?” This got to the heart of the matter for surely you cannot support both the oppressor and the oppressed? Of course the answers from the diplomats were unsatisfactory and their counter arguments laughable. In defence of the UK’s friendship with Israel they argued that it is better to have a relationship with Israel through which they can exert some influence. For a moment this made sense to me, I agree that if the UK cut off diplomatic ties with Israel this would probably have little effect and might even harden Israel’s position. But I’m not convinced the UK has been doing all it could through this relationship to persuade Israel to soften its position and even if they have surely by now they can see it hasn’t worked. The situation here has been stale for decades and Israel has ignored international law by expanding settlements within the occupied territories and by annexing land by building the separation barrier within the borders of the West Bank. Israel’s actions mean that a two state solution is no longer viable unless Israel dismantles it’s settlements and withdraws from the occupied territories. To my mind it seems that British foreign policy over this matter is governed by a realpolitik consideration of the interests of Britain. The geopoliticial importance of the region means that continuing stability is more important than the human rights of the native population here.
These realisations, which I think have been felt by the whole of our party, has effected our mood. It is difficult to remain positive about working on development here whilst being aware of the difficulty of finding a peaceful solution to the crisis. However, this opportunity gives us the chance to focus on trying to understand the situation so that when we return home we can try to shift opinion on the issue and thereby maybe influence our government to change their stance. There are other things that we can do as well like supporting the BDS movement, which I encourage you all to do too!