Thanks to the team leaders on our programme from the outset we (me and my fellow volunteers) have been encouraged to be critical of the influence of Western governments and companies in Palestine. This includes being critical of the very programme through which we have been brought to Palestine. This has made me conscious of the impact I am having here as a westerner.
In Ramallah, you can have the kind of lifestyle you would get living in any city in the United States or Europe. You can go out for a cocktail after work in a posh bar with a gorgeous sunbathed terrace or, on the top floor of a five-storey building with a view over the city. You can go to yoga or pilates, where not speaking Arabic poses no problems because the classes are taught English. You can go out for dinner and if you’re tired of traditional Palestinian food: falafel, shwarma or kebab, you can have Italian or French cuisine. You can get a taxi anywhere you want to go in the city for less than £3. So living in Palestine can feel very comfortable… in fact one could almost forget that there is an occupation.
As a volunteer living here with my accommodation paid for and a monthly allowance which covers my living costs nicely, if you exclude travel and drinking, it would be easy to not think about the political situation. Fortunately for me, the job I am doing here on the Right to Education campaign forces me to engage with the political situation. Last Tuesday, with work I visited Ofer military court to see the latest hearing in the detention of Hassan Karajah (http://mondoweiss.net/2013/06/karajahs-military-hearing.html). Hassan is the fiancé of Sundos, the Palestinian volunteer coordinator on the campaign. It was humbling to see her at the military hearing of her fiancé because it made me realise how normal the situation is for Palestinians. I expected her to be tense and nervous but instead she was happy and joyful. Looking around the waiting room at the friends and families waiting to see their loved ones for the first time in months for a brief ten minutes during their hearing I was filled with a sense of awe. In the faces of these people I didn’t see foreigners from a distant land so very different from my home country but normal people just like my loved ones in the UK. For them it is normal for them or their loved ones to be held by a foreign government on a charge they didn’t commit on evidence so flawed it would never stand up in a credible court. In a recent report by the Israeli military they revealed that 99.74% of all cases heard in the military court result in a conviction. This reveals what all Palestinians know: all Palestinians are guilty in the eyes of the Israeli military. The onus is on the defence to prove the innocence of the detainee. I can’t understand how they are able to cope with such injustice, and not just cope but smile too.
Two weeks ago, on another work trip, we visited An Nabi Saleh, a small village north of Ramallah located in Area C (within the West Bank but under Israeli control) and went into the home of one of the residents to hear her story. The Israeli settlement of Halamish was established on lands belonging to An Nabi Saleh and the nearby village of Deir Nidham in the 1976. In 2009 An Nabi Saleh began non violent resistance against the ever encroaching settlement and the increased military presence in the village. Since then the village has been terrorised by the Israeli military. Every Friday the residents hold non violent demonstrations in resistance against the occupation. These protests are met with a heavy hand by the Israeli military who fire tear gas, shoot rubber bullets and rubber coated steel bullets and spray skunk water indiscriminately at the protesters. Manal Tamimi brought us into her home and told us about her struggle. She showed us the gas canisters and bullets that they have collected and a video of the protests and the treatment they receive from the soldiers. The residents of An Nabi Saleh live under siege by the Israeli military, the road to the village is closed at ten at night by the soldiers and the military enter the village 3 or 4 times a night. She told of us about two of the recent martyrs of the village: Mustafa and Rushdie. On the video we watched, we saw footage of the act of violence which killed 28 year old Mustafa, who was shot in the face from a distance of three metres by an Israeli soldier. She told us that 31 year old Rushdie was shot from zero distance and died shortly after. She explained that the loss of martyrs makes resistance impossible to give up. She is determined to continue to struggle against the occupation in the hope that she might be able to build a better future for her children, or grandchildren.
In recent years the numbers of international who are drawn to weekly demonstrations held in An Nabi Saleh and Bi’lin has increased as the non violence resistance movement has gained more attention. We asked Manal what she thinks of internationals who come to join the villagers. She told us of an occasion when a group of four internationals attended a protest and sat out of the way on the grass, overlooking as the Israeli military fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at Palestinians. Manal saw them eating sandwiches and drinking beer whilst the villagers ran from the military. To her this showed that these people, whilst wanting to see what happens at a protest, felt that their lives were worth too much to be risked. Protests are certainly dangerous and Manal understands that they may have been scared but if they were unwilling to take a risk they should have stayed at home. Instead they chose to come and enjoy their picnic whilst watching the protest as if it was happening on television and not in front of them. This kind of voyeurism is appalling and greatly offended the villagers. Although I find it despicable, as a westerner in the West Bank it is an offence that although I have not personally committed I feel partially guilty of. For me the occupation is fascinating and I enjoy learning about it and discussing what might lay ahead for Palestinians and Israelis. But for Palestinians it their lives and the outcome of any future peace process will determine their future.
Another Western influence: neoliberal economics and consumer capitalism, also drew criticism from Manal. She was critical of her fellow Palestinians who live in Ramallah, removed from the occupation and do not know about the struggle that goes on in her village. Wealthy residents of Ramallah have become increasingly focused on material things and less engaged in politics. The influx of western companies and goods has turned the affluent residents of Ramallah into consumers who, like their counterpart in the Western world, are more concerned with their next purchase than the freedom of their countrymen. For the residents of An Nabi Saleh, and the families of political activists, like Hassan, it is impossible to ignore the occupation.
In thinking critically of western influence in Palestine I am drawn to also think of my own presence here especially as a volunteer paid for by the British government. The British government who continue to support a two state solution despite the facts on the ground which make it virtually impossible to reach unless Israel withdraws its settler population from the West Bank. The British government who refuse to recognise the reality of the situation: that Palestine/Israel is an apartheid state in which half the population are denied their most basic human rights because they are Palestinian. The British government who choose to continue to support Israel in spite of its violation of International Law and brutal treatment of the Palestinian people. Any yet, it tries to pretend to be on the side of Palestine too. In sending us here to do ‘development work’ they want to send out the message that they care about Palestine and want to help improve their lives by helping them to ‘develop’. Most of the projects that my fellow volunteers are working on are apolitical. In fact as volunteers here we are asked to be apolitical ourselves thus preventing us from doing the one useful thing that we could do for Palestinians: stand in solidarity with them at a protest.
Last month we were invited to see the British Foreign Secretary William Hague speak in Ramallah during a brief visit to Palestine. One of my fellow volunteers Gemma (http://whatgemmathinks.wordpress.com/), to the displeasure of the programme manager, asked him what he is doing to stop Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank. As she confronted the Foreign Secretary the programme manager stood behind her trying to pull her away from him to save his embarrassment. William Hague listened to Gemma briefly before his political aids came to his rescue and quickly shuffled him out of the room. I’m pleased that Gemma was critical of the Foreign Secretary; he shouldn’t be able to come into Ramallah without being met with critical questions. Hearing him speak out loud the British government’s policy: “a commitment to a two state solution within the 1967 borders”, made me laugh out loud. It is completely ridiculous that the British government still support this.
However it is not just ridiculous, it is dangerous. In continuing to support a two state solution they are pushing Palestine into negotiations with Israel without allowing them any preconditions, such as the immediate cessation of settlement building in the West Bank. Meanwhile in continuing to support Israel, under the delusion that peace is just around the corner, Britain is allowing Israel to tighten its control over the Palestinian population whilst building settlement blocks across the West Bank which will alter facts on the ground so that the “Palestinian state” which would emerge from continued negotiations would be broken into three pieces. I can understand now why Palestinians opposed Obama’s visit in early April, the week before I arrived here. The United States and Britain have pursued a two state solution in the name of peace and all this has brought the Palestinians is further weakening of their position.
In the final week of our time here we will be going to the British consulate to give presentations about our work here in Palestine. We have been asked to hold back on our questioning because previous meetings with the consulate (and other representatives of the British government) have led them to raise concerns about our over politicisation, they are therefore suggesting that the programme should include partnerships with Israel. It will be difficult to be able to hold my tongue given such a good opportunity to question those at the forefront of the implementation of Britain’s policy here. It has been to my benefit that the current team leaders have given us such a powerful insight into the occupation and it would be a great shame if future groups are denied this experience. Last week the new team leaders arrived, they know nothing about Palestine are pretty shocked at how critical are current group of volunteers is. In choosing team leaders who know so little about Palestine it seems that the programme directors are trying to depoliticise the programme. It would have been too easy to come here and stay in the Ramallah bubble and not realise the deliberate strategy of the Israeli state to create an system of apartheid to permanently dominate the Palestinian population, and clap oneself on the back for having helped the Palestinians to ‘develop’. I hope that the next group of volunteers won’t be blinkered from the situation and will be just as confrontational to the British government representatives and continue to criticise the programme itself because our presence here is political.