‘Where did you go on your travels? And who did you meet?’
These two questions formed the thrust of the Israeli border security agent’s interrogation as we attempted to leave Israel. Being at the mercy of the state, I did not respond honestly then but I believe the truth of those answers need sharing. I hope after reading this you agree.
Eight days earlier, on Friday 8th September, I had introduced myself to a group of then-strangers in Dublin airport. We had all signed up for an educational visit to Palestine, to see and hear how the Israeli occupation of the West Bank was experienced by the people living there. I was already broadly convinced that the Palestinians were being treated unjustly but felt (a little like a doubting Thomas) that seeing is believing and jumped at the chance to join this trip. Our group of 35 people was led by Elaine Daly, who had been organising such visits for ten years.
Having her knowledge of the region, as well as her experience in leading large groups, provided reassurance as we began our journey. However, fate has a funny way of upsetting such notions. Our trip quickly became eventful after arriving at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. We had started going through passport control (and some of our party had even exited the airport) when border security pulled most of us back into in a holding room where we were to remain for the next 2-3 hours. Our passports were confiscated, those who had already visited Israel were interrogated and in the end, four members of our party (including group leader Elaine) were deported, mere hours after arriving. The rest of us eventually had our passports returned and were allowed to leave the airport. There were two official reasons provided for the deportations: the risk of illegal immigration and public safety considerations.
It was obvious to us however that the Israeli government had become aware of the true nature of these trips and did not want foreigners to come and discover how Palestinians experience the occupation. I would like to say that the deportations were an aberration, but sadly they set the tone for the rest of our trip. The following day, we were given a tour of Bethlehem and shown the land which had once belonged to local farmers. This was separated from them by the erection of ‘security walls’ and then eventually declared property of the state as a result of inactivity, despite the fact the walls made it impossible for them to access the land! That same day we visited the Lajee Culture Centre in Aida Refugee camp. Aida came into existence in 1948 following the Nakba and its residents have lived there since (so between 3-4 generations of families are waiting to return to homes taken from them almost 70 years ago).
The staff were describing the centre’s role as a space for schooling and cultural activities for young people, when they abruptly stopped talking and turned off the air conditioning. It quickly transpired that a few children from the camp had thrown some stones at the Israeli army base 500m away (unsurprisingly these stones did not reach the base) and that in response, the soldiers had started shelling CS gas. Soon we felt an unpleasant taste in our mouths and our eyes stung. If it was uncomfortable for those of us inside the centre, we then wondered, how bad was it outside? What kind of impact did this have on your health? The staff told us that this happens on a near daily basis. On a visit to Hebron we witnessed another facet of Israeli power. Hebron is a city of great importance in both Islam and Judaism, as Abraham is buried there. As such it has an aggressive settler presence. This aggression manifests itself in a concentrated effort to force Palestinians to leave their homes in the old city and thus we found ourselves in streets where Palestinians live, but on which they are not allowed to walk down.
If it happened anywhere else we would call it segregation but to the soldiers manning the checkpoints it was simply the law. At the end of the day, our Palestinian guide was prevented by two soldiers from walking the last fifty yards back to our bus because we had to go through a street which is for Israelis-only. So, he was forced to leave our group and return on his own, having to take a taxi to meet up with us later. it is bureaucratic control, rather than the use of force, through which the occupation is largely realised And it is that bureaucratic control, rather than the overt use of force, through which the occupation is largely realised. It is the roads in the West Bank which only Israelis are allowed to drive on, to keep them from having to come into contact with Palestinians.
It is the legal status of the residents of East Jerusalem, which was annexed in 1967 and formally incorporated into the Israeli state. At the same time, the Israeli government did not grant those living there Israeli citizenship, only residency rights, a legal status which is much easier to revoke. Residents described how the government uses a variety of methods (such as if they live abroad, not showing ‘allegiance’ to Israel, denying permits to build homes) to strip them of these residency rights and ultimately lower the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem. As the staff of the Badil resource centre said, it is the permit system which perhaps best symbolises this use of bureaucratic control. Palestinians need these permits for a huge range of day-to-day living. If they have to visit a hospital outside of their town, they need a permit.
If they have to work in Israel, they need a permit. If they have to cross an army checkpoint to access their land, they need a permit. If they want to bring a donkey or tools onto their land, they need permits for each item. And so on and so on. I could continue but I imagine my argument is fairly clear. You may be thinking that the Palestinians are not angels, where is the Israeli perspective?
Well, we heard plenty of discontent from Palestinians regarding the corrupt nature of the Palestinian Authority and their illiberal crackdown on any form of dissent. Equally we were told of some of the less-than-democratic methods used to control resources in the refugee camps. We also met with Israeli human rights groups and peace activists, working to support the Palestinian cause, but who described their despair over the general apathy of the Israeli population towards the occupation.
Finally, we met with a settler living in the settlement of Kiryat Arba. He spun us a story of Israeli-Palestinian relations which could have been plucked from the plot of a Disney film, a version of reality which we did not once encounter. It is obvious that this is not a balanced conflict. With one side holding all the military, financial and political power; even the word conflict is inadequate. Relations between the two parties are as one-sided as they get. As we were told by numerous Palestinians, simply living is now their best form of resistance. Then you may say, fine, I know all this but what can we do? It goes without saying that ending the conflict is up to the Israelis and the Palestinians (and is largely in the hands of the former).
However, we can support the liberation of Palestine in our own countries through not engaging with Israeli products or companies, similar to the boycott of Apartheid South Africa. Through working with movements such as BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), who have organised to successfully pressure companies such as Sodastream and G4S to end their work in Israel. Through lobbying our political representatives and governments to ban the importing of Israeli armaments and military technology. At times, witnessing the reality of the occupation made this an incredibly sad trip, especially as there seems to be so little chance of the situation improving.
Yet the Palestinians we met, whilst unhappy, refused to stop living or abandon their belief that one day they would be free. Those of us who support their cause must harness this sense of justice in our own efforts to aid their liberation.
If anyone is interested in going on this trip in 2018, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Stephanie Kirwan