What do you think of when you hear the name Palestine? Do you know anything about Palestine? Palestinians? Just take a moment. What are the first images that come to your mind? Thoughts. Questions. Is it an actual country? Is it safe? Why would I even want to visit there?
I first learnt there was a ‘situation’ in Palestine in my late teens (circa 2000) and spent the last decade trying to piece together what’s going on there and why. I’ve gone to protests, talks, a day conference, watched documentaries, read news articles, but still didn’t quite understand if it was more complex, or simpler than I thought. The reason I say this is that at base level if it’s as straightforward as I thought I genuinely can’t understand how the situation not only still exists, but is largely ignored by the world. I’d probably say it’s a little bit of both.
I originally wanted to spend a few weeks there during the olive harvest in October but with deciding to move to Hong Kong the month before, I could only manage a few days of personal research combining it with seeing a good mate who recently moved back to Tel Aviv.
I tried to go with few expectations and as much of an open mind as possible , but during my time there these non-expectations were totally blown away. Rather than write a step by step account of my trip, I’ve focused below on the main subjects or areas that surprised or moved me both positively and negatively.
I was more nervous than I’d ever been about going through immigration, far exceeding entering North Korea or Cuba. Which, for the record were both very easy and un-intimidating. I’d been told that I would almost certainly be interrogated by the Israeli border officials. Being an honest type with nothing to hide, I was originally intending to tell them of my trip into Palestine. This was a massive DON’T by friends who had been, and on all tour websites, and most importantly Israelis themselves, so I decided against. On two hours sleep (I really can’t resist watching movies on the plane…) and in my summer dress armed with my rollie zebra print suitcase instead of my backpack (much more party holiday than Palestinian sympathiser I thought) I had all my answers prepped and ready to go. The border official asked me what I was doing there. ‘Visiting my friend in Tel Aviv.’ He responded by asking; “What’s your friends name?’ and then told me to have a great time. WHAT?! That’s it?! I felt elated, but a little disgusted that my white girl privilege, again, made everything so easy for me – when Palestinians wanting to visit their homeland would almost certainly be refused entry.
Just to clarify, as far as I know Palestine and it’s government has no say on who enters its land, and it is at the discretion of the neighbouring entry county – most likely Israel, but you can also enter through Jordan or Egypt, with the necessary visa. My Palestinian taxi driver, with no prompt, tried to tell me in broken English that the situation was very bad, but my guide would tell me more. Dropped at the YMCA in West Jerusalem I sat in the sun for a couple of hours nursing a coffee and munching on ryvita and PB brought from home. I was both bewildered and exhilarated to actually be sat in Israel, about to enter the very mysterious territory of Palestine. My tours were all arranged through either Green Olive Tours or Banky’s Walled Off Hotel. Despite the tour pick ups usually being either Tel Aviv or West Jerusalem I managed via email to easily arrange to be dropped off and picked up in Bethlehem as I wanted to spend the evenings in Palestine.
Note: I only visited the West Bank and my comments relate to my experience there only. Gaza (‘the Gaza strip’) I believe, is even more cut off, almost impossible to visit, and the situation more dire for it’s inhabitants.
I wasn’t sure how tourists in Palestine would be received. I tried to prepare myself for being looked at with disdain as some rich Westerner, filled with pity, coming to see how these people live in such war torn conditions. Perhaps may seem a little harsh on myself, but I’ve had my fair share of abusive comments and looks of disgust over the years. It’s nicer for me to have a hard shell broken down, than a flimsy one being spat on!
Most images and footage I’ve seen of Palestine shows a country in constant conflict, a dangerous war zone, and fails to show much of the reality that I saw and experienced. Many normal* towns and villages, where I could walk freely and feel safe, though the 18 year old IDF (Israeli Defence Force) soldiers with their huge guns did make me feel nervous.
*To clarify my use of the word ‘normal’ – they are under occupation and subject to incredibly restrictive conditions to be imposed at any time, curfews, house raids (in many places this happens at least once weekly) tear gas attacks, road blockages by the Israeli army, having to travel through checkpoints regularly within Palestine (NOT just from Palestine to Israel.) The normal I speak of is people trying to go to work, look after their children, make sure they are fed, clothed and educated. Go to the shops, drink coffee with friends, watch sport on the TV together, play football. That kind of normal, that you find everywhere, of people just being people trying to have a life, in refugee camps, living under dictators, living in colonies, living under an occupation.
What I was met with was in a word, warmth. Smiles, welcomes, questions, laughter, sarcasm, conversation openers, stories and free cardamon coffee! It turns out, because I asked and I asked a lot, we are wanted there. Not only for people to see the situation but to show off their home and the wonderful sights, historical places of interest, and their natural landscapes. I was also mesmerized by their bright eyes. Apparently, I was told, this is because they must always be alert, know everything, know all that is going on around them.
Once we were out of Jerusalem, and passed the unnecessarily intimidatingly huge red warning signs that are placed as you cross in to Palestine, I was taken aback by the utterly breathtaking panorama before me. The view in all directions was of vast dusty brown, rolling hills that seemed to go on endlessly. The arid landscape was cut by lines of roads and olive tree allotments as well as being dotted with villages and settlements. Perhaps not typical beauty to most, but the stark contrast between the urban and agrarian as well as the pockets of life in the middle of a terrain that appeared should have been lifeless made it just astonishing to look at.
Each time we stopped on top of a hill I was truly captivated by the remarkable views surrounding and beneath me.
We visited the ancient city of Sebasita, and after exploring the ruins that dated back 10,000 years and spanned six successive cultures (Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine) I spent ten minutes admiring the view below, the mood enhanced by the prayer calls from nearby mosques.
The video does not quite do it justice.
In a land of such beauty and history the Wall has sadly probably become Palestine’s most famous landmark. It is also known as the Israeli West Bank Barrier, Separation Barrier, Security Fence, and the Wall of Apartheid. Construction started in June 2002 with the Israeli government calling it an essential security measure to protect themselves from suicide bombers.
The original plan was 74km long and was expected to follow the 1949 Green Line that was set out in the Armistice Agreements, and potentially might be the border for a two state solution. It has been ruled illegal under International law, with calls for it to be dismantled. However, in 2012 it stood at approx. 440km long and the plans now stretch to over 700km. It has in fact cut into Palestinian land, annexing about 9.5%, restricting access from one Palestinian area to another, in real terms meaning farmers are unable to cultivate their land, families are separated and ghettos have been created.
According to a 2005 UN report, ‘… it is difficult to overstate the humanitarian impact of the Barrier…. (it) severs communities, people’s access to services, livelihoods and religious and cultural amenities.’
The wall pops up everywhere. You sometimes forget it’s there. Walking around Ramallah, eating raw chick peas from the local market, drinking fiery cardamon coffee from a man who refuses to take money for it, chatting with locals and becoming mesmerised by the bustle of people around you, you forget there is a wall.
Spending a night wandering alone in Bethlehem, walking to the Naivety Church, eating freshly baked Pitas on the way, laughing with local shopkeepers and taking photos with other visitors, you forget it’s there. Eating freshly made falafels looking up to a starry sky, you forget, you forget why it’s there. But then BAM you’re up against it again, towering 8 metres above you. You remember that this wall doesn’t stop you from doing anything -you can go in and out as you please, you can enjoy looking at the graffiti, and be inspired by the messages of hope and solidarity. You can leave it behind. The Palestinians cannot.
I felt a little unsure about making my graffiti mark on the wall, wondering if it trivialises the situation, and what did the Palestinians think of these foreigners showing up and enjoying themselves whilst spray painting on the barrier to their freedom anyway? Or, I wondered did it show solidarity, and through social media spread knowledge of the wall and the reality of what it is and what it represents. In the end I decided I was probably overthinking and given the Wall Mart shop was run by Palestinians I thought, why not.
After deciding against trying to write something profound I went for a shark. I could try to explain what the shark represents in all this, but really, I just love sharks. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a lot of fun spraying him on there.
If you look closely at the photo you can see ropes dangling down on the left and barbed wire cut in the middle where people cross illegally, usually to find work or visit family on the other side.
When I first heard of settlements I imagined small communities of incredibly religious, zionist Jews, in makeshift houses with minimal amenities. (These are actually called outposts.) Despite watching The Settlers documentary before my trip I was still shocked by the size, number, wealth and permanence of the communities. Settlements are villages, towns and cities built illegally on Palestinian land. They are deemed so by the Geneva Convention (International Law) and even Israel itself, though the latter actually funds and provides security for them. In the West Bank (excl. East Jerusalem) there are just under 3 million Palestinians as well as approx 400,000 Israeli settlers.
To make it clear, it is illegal for Israelis, under Israeli law, to enter Palestine unless of course they are in the army, etc. But the settlements are IN Palestine, ON Palestinian land. They are gated communities, always on hill tops, in which Palestinians cannot enter, and range from 2,000 – 40,000 inhabitants living in each. With their red roofs, dotted with white water heating tanks, they are easy to spot. In contrast the black water tanks the Palestinians have are to store the water Israel supplies them, though this is often less than the acceptable WHO daily guidelines, and sometimes they are cut off completely.
Settlement roads are new, smooth, clean and free of litter. Settlers use special roads and tunnels, not allowed to be driven on by the Palestinians. They have their own shops, schools, playgrounds and swimming pools. Even the roundabouts are flower-filled, lush green and manicured. In contrast the Palestinian streets are crumbling, full of pot holes and generally there are no pavements. Broken machinery and vehicles are left on the side of the road, but only because there is no where to dump them, or anything else to do with them. To the settlers their land is the dumping ground. Sewage from the settlements is often pumped into the Palestinian villages below explaining the sudden unbearable stench of urine we smelt from time to time.
Many Settlers are not particularly religious either, and are what the state calls ‘Secular’ Israelis. They are simply there for economic reasons as the housing is affordable with good services and on the Israeli roads you can get into Jerusalem within 15 minutes.
After a huge wave of immigration in the 1990s from the Ex-Soviet Countries the Settlement numbers grew massively doubling since 2004. Palestinian homes have also been demolished in order to expand settlements. Throughout the tours it was explained to us how this was often done ‘legally’ by passing the decision making process from Judiciary to the Israeli military (IDF) who can cite security reasons, or that inhabitants are unable to produce the ‘correct’ land owning documents. Of course, all these decisions that are made are about land that is illegally occupied in the first place. Certain Settlements are linked to the mother country of the majority of their inhabitants (i.e. Russian, French, etc.)
Many international, and Israeli companies also operate and produce from the Occupied Territories. Under EU law the goods must be labelled as so, (and therefore do not benefit from the EU-Israeli trade agreement) but in reality they tend to get labelled from Israel. The majority of workers in these factories, and in settlement construction are Palestinians. Many feel they have no choice – where else can they work? Political ideologies don’t feed and clothe your family. Working ‘by choice’ for your oppressors reminds me very much of apartheid South Africa, or ‘post’-Slavery USA.
There are of course, ‘Religious’ settlers as well, who believe the land is theirs and are actively trying to push the Palestinians off it. This is done by physical attacks, burning their homes, setting fire to and cutting down their olives trees. If you think I’m being biased, these types of Settlers are proud of their activities and the fight for their homeland (as they see it.) You can easily find interviews of them saying so online.
I went to Palestine with no clue on how day to day life is for women there. Palestinian photos shown in the media tend to be either of aggressive looking men, or crying mothers, usually after an attack of some sort, I was hoping to be able to get some insight into what their reality actually was. I felt, somewhat embarrassingly now, surprised how much freedom women seemed to have compared to what I must have assumed subconsciously. During both daytime and the evening I saw women of all ages walking alone, with other women, and also with men and in mixed groups, some in hijabs, some not. I saw a lot of women driving alone, again, many in hijabs, many not. It also varied from town to town.
The women looked and acted, in my opinion, not much different than women in the streets of London, thought definitely more conservatively dressed. I heard fits of laughter, exclamations of anger, women walking with faces of calm indifference going about their business. I observed flirting, gossiping over ice cream, people just hanging out, of all ages. I saw women with long flowing hair and I saw women with hair covered, together. Shops sold long traditional arabic dresses, as well as shorter western styles. There was, at least to me, an air of freeness and relative equality. Relative, because it was clear from my conversations, like many places in the world, women aren’t viewed as equal throughout society, with the male head of household having the control.
All of my tour guides were male, and though I did enquire about what life was like for women their answers in reality didn’t quite give me what I was really looking for, what it was like from a woman’s point of view. One guide described how as the occupation continued, over time citizens of a once secular society shifted to become more religious and this in turn often led to more restrictions for some women in their movement, dress and life choices. Somewhat contradictorily, the conflicts over the last 70 years and the present occupation have also changed the dynamics in society for many women as with huge numbers of men losing their lives or freedom (in prison) women have also had to become heads of the households and the main breadwinners. He was keen to point out how educated women in Palestine were, and had jobs spanning across various sectors; caring, professional and of course manual labour and farming.
Most of the people I struck up conversations with were men – the coffee sellers, the guides or curators, the shop keepers or just those walking down the road with me who merely wanted to say hello and maybe have a chat. Women being slightly more guarded and reserved initially is something I come across almost everywhere when travelling outside of Western Europe, (and the other similar countries dotted around the globe), which I can understand for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps that’s for another post. If you smile and say hello, and actively engage this barrier sometimes comes down very easily and quickly, but with a such a short, packed trip my opportunities were very limited.
I managed to ask two women working in the museum to see if they minded telling me a little about how life was for them as females in Palestine. Mid 20’s (I think) they were both wearing modern, smart professional clothes, hair uncovered. One smiled and asked straight off, ‘So, one of us is Christian, one is Muslim. Guess!’ My response was merely a laugh, because of course I couldn’t. Though smiling she understandably sounded frustrated when explaining how she feels the world thinks that all women in hijabs are repressed and have no autonomy in their lives, and this just isn’t true. Firstly, they had the freedom to choose whether to wear one. Both were keen to explain how important higher education for women was in Palestine and to their families, their fathers, this was a priority. They could also choose who to marry, but it was subject to family approval. I was told by one she felt fairly free, but still wouldn’t be able to wear the short skirts Western women wear, or go out alone with a man at 10pm. But she hung out with her friends, studied, partied and had a job that of course involved interacting with all types of people, all types of unknown men, and all that was normal and okay. Another women came up to me admiring my tattoos and said how much she wanted a neck tattoo but her parents wouldn’t approve. She laughed when I said my parents would be just as disapproving. She told me how they were becoming more popular in Palestine and later than night I passed a tattoo parlour walking around Bethlehem. Next time, next time.
The comments regarding the importance of education, but the restriction of dress left me pondering the notion of freedom. There are many women who are allowed to wear the shortest of skirts, the highest of heels, but looking good (in, my opinion an over the top glamorous, and often vulgar style) and marriage to a wealthy man is the priority and higher education isn’t an option. Of course I dream of a world where it is not either or, but when all women can choose which ‘freedoms’ she values most, and what she wants individually.
The high level of education and general knowledge on the world, past and present, that far, far, FAR surpassed my own, was something I encountered constantly. I wasn’t expecting a nation of uneducated or illiterate people at all, but the way the people spoke, and what they spoke of depicted a country full of very bright, curious, knowledgable, witty, and very humorous people. I really wish I’d been able to stay longer and spend more time getting to know the people and places. I was not short of willing tour guides and new friends. I sincerely hope to go back there within the next few years.
Coming Up in Part 2 & 3:
Tear Gas & Protests
Refugees & refugees camps
My Inadvertent Pilgrimage
The Walled Off Hotel (Banky’s hotel)