By: Felicity Russell
Journey for Justice is an annual programme that brings together youth from YMCAs and YWCAs from all over the world to experience and share the occupation with Palestinian youth. For ten days they join Palestinian youth and travel around Israel and Palestine to witness the effects of Israeli occupation. Felicity Russell participated in the Journey for Justice programme in July 2010, and shares the experience of her trip with us.
This year’s Journey for Justice was an insightful witness visit into Palestinian life and culture. 15 international participants from YMCA-YWCA branches in Denmark, Sweden, Sri Lanka, Argentina and Switzerland, aged between 19 – 29, spent 10 days discovering different aspects of life under occupation. We were lead by the local youth from the YMCA-YWCA of Palestine and stayed in the Women’s Arab Union hostel in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. This is one of the towns in the West Bank whose population is mostly Christian.
We visited some of the main cities in Palestine – Ramallah, Hebron, East-Jerusalem, Jericho, and Bethlehem.
The main objective of the visit was to show us the injustices and the persecutions the Palestinians have to live through daily – check-points, discrimination, harassment by Israeli soldiers, movement restrictions… We also had the opportunity to visit a few of the more “tourist” attractions in Palestine. We swam in the Dead Sea, visited the church of Nativity, and walked around the old town of Jerusalem.
I will expose here three of the main issues that I felt the most during my stay in the occupied territories: the wall, the checkpoints and the refugees.
Depending on whose point of view one adopts, this wall is named the “apartheid wall”, the “separation wall”, or the “wall of security”. It is the symbol and image that sums up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the separation of two nations. It covers a distance of more than 700km, surrounding a large part of the West bank. The construction began in 2002 by the Israelis, who claimed it was necessary for security reasons. But does it really help? Does it reduce terrorism? Does it discourage Palestinians who had planned to send suicide bombs to the Israeli side?
One of the main issues is that the wall does not follow the official green line borders, but cuts into Palestinian land. The Israelis keep their colonies on their side of the border, even if that means destroying Palestinian houses, or isolating Palestinian villages from the rest of the West Bank.
During the witness trip, we visited farmers whose land had either been confiscated by the Israeli authorities, or is going to be confiscated. One of them has had 88 olive trees uprooted, in preparation for the building of the wall and now has to struggle to earn a living and support his family. The other is under threat of having his land confiscated by the Israeli authorities. Having refused an offer of 15000 NIS a month, this farmer has to live with no certainty of keeping his land, and with reduced means. He receives many visits from internationals, who come to show their support. He has no way of getting running water to irrigate his crops, so has to bring tanks filled with water every few days. He rarely sees his family, as he often stays in the little hut he has at the top of his field. His hut only contains a bed, a mini kitchen, and the walls are covered with photos, articles, printouts of supportive people, and writings.
This wall creates an enormous restraint on the movement for the Palestinians living in the West Bank (and Gaza). They cannot move freely, they are prevented from going to many places, visiting their family and friends, or attending classes in university. A journey that would have taken only an hour before the occupation takes over three hours today. The wall, checkpoints triple the length of the journey. The wall also blocks off roads, some of them once major roads uniting big towns. A good example for this is the Wall and the Bethlehem Check-point separating East-Jerusalem and the West Bank. We took a bus from the hostel to this checkpoint. We drove along the road towards east-Jerusalem, but had to stop. One drives straight into the wall. It has been built right across the road. Dozens of taxis are parked in front of the wall, waiting for people to come from the other side of the checkpoint back to the West Bank. What was once a busy, full of life, main traffic route has now become a car park, a bunch of taxis sitting in front of a wall covered in paintings. It is difficult to describe the feeling of sadness, anger, not being able to understand why, or how. How could someone create this place, this feeling of utter abandon?
In two places I felt the presence of this wall more acutely. The first was at a ceremony we attended: a celebration of the opening of a house that had been destroyed three times by Israelis, their reason being “security”, due to the proximity to the wall. The wall was indeed very close: from the roof of the house one was just 20 metres away from it. The family who lives in this house has suffered three times from house demolition. But each time the Israelis bulldozers came to visit them, they decided to rebuild their home. Why? Why persevere while knowing that the risk that it will be destroyed a fourth time is so great? Maybe to keep their hope alive, continue believing that the situation could get better. Why not decide to move away, further from the wall? They would then need to find a new plot of land and obtain planning permission. The brother of the owner of this house has had the same problem. His home has been destroyed twice and each time he chose to rebuild it. It is a symbol, he told me, a gesture to show the Israelis that they are ready to fight for their land, that they have not yet given up, that their hope is still alive.
The other place the wall’s presence weighed upon me was at the Aida refugee camp. The wall here is like a snake; it slithers through the Aida refugee camp, encircling some houses, isolating others. We met a family whose house was completely shut in by the wall, surrounding it on three sides. On the other side was a small road then another house. One of the owners we met described the building of the wall as though “lego” been put up. She left for work one morning and came back in the evening to find a wall around her house. The wall here measures up to 11 metres high and is made out of lots of tall concrete pillars put up next to each other. The wall is covered in paintings, drawings, done mostly by internationals come to show their support. The local café uses the wall to expose their menu, as the terrace is just a few metres from the wall. A screen has also been put up during the football world cup; the matches were projected on to the wall. Is making the wall “pretty” and colourful acceptable? Is using a symbol of apartheid as a work of art okay? Is using this wall for their entertainment showing the Israelis that it’s okay, that they live well with this wall? Or is it provocative? It is difficult to judge what is right or wrong. The strong emotions I felt while touring this camp did not help my ability to think straight either.
The issue of the wall is closely related to the problems of the checkpoints. Checkpoints are usually by the wall, or where the wall will stand when it will be built. We went through all checkpoints without encountering any problems. As internationals we drove straight through. We occasionally had a couple of soldiers come on to our bus to check our passports, but they often barely looked. While walking through the xxx Checkpoint towards east-Jerusalem I was, frankly, shocked. The journey through a checkpoint is a bit like going through security in an airport. First one has to go up a path. It was empty when we were there, but one could easily imagine it being packed with people queuing up, waiting for hours to get through. Then a passport control is necessary. Once that is done, we had to go into another building, wait in another queue and have our bags put through a metal detector. Once we have passed the security controls, there is another queue before yet another passport control. Our group walked easily through all of these steps; the soldiers barely looked at my passport but just smiled at me and let me through. But for the Palestinians it is a different story. The Palestinian man in the queue in front of me had to have his fingerprints checked and a detailed look at his passport and authorisation letter was apparently necessary. And, unfortunately, none of the Palestinian youth from the YMCA could accompany us that day, as they had no permission to go into East-Jerusalem – although it is, technically, Palestinian land.
The wall and the checkpoints deal mainly with the land and control over the territory. The population brings in another issue, that of the refugees.
The question of refugees and their right of return is one of the main unresolved issues between the Israelis and Palestinians.
After visiting the Dheisheh refugee camp I could not help comparing it to the Jewish settlements – Efrat and others – we saw. The injustice in the distribution of wealth was very apparent when one just looked at the difference between these two places. The Israelis have the money, the pavements, the good roads, the nice big houses and the green parks, while the Palestinians have to live in houses built almost on top of each other. The houses are so close some roads are not large enough for a car to pass through. Electricity and water cuts are frequent; children have no place but the streets to play in. The inhabitants of the two places also have completely different lives. The settler in Efrat was talking about his family, while the young men who took us around the Dheisheh camp showed us the paintings of all the friends he has lost.
One of the things that caught my attention while visiting the camps was the amount of children playing or just hanging around in the street. A lot of children have been born and have grown up in refugee camps with a limited access to health, education and other basic services. They deserve to have access to these basic rights. Today’s young adults witnessed the intifada and lived through curfews or other troubled times while they were just children. What they have seen during their childhood will push them to fear and hate the Israelis – especially the soldiers. Working with these children can be, in my opinion, a good way to try to improve the situation. This young generation are tomorrow’s adults: the ones who could change the way things are now. Helping them to consider “the others” as humans, not as violent enemies they need to fight, could help the future of this country.
The right of return is another big issue concerning the refugees. 7 million Palestinians have been displaced over the last 50 years, and all should have the right to return to their homeland. But how could this be – in practice – possible? During their absence other people have occupied their land, their homes have been destroyed, and new houses have been built. How could it work if they all came back? Where would they go? They have a definite right to go back, but I cannot see how it could be possible.
Is there another solution for the refugees? Can they live integrated in the society of their host country? Some possibly, yes. But it seemed to me that the general feeling was that they could not do so easily. They have a desire – almost a need – to come back to their land, the land of their ancestors.
Even though these issues may cause anger, frustration, misunderstanding, and frankly in some occasions shock, what touched me the most during this visit were the Palestinian people. Their kindness, hospitality, generosity and openness seemed unreal, considering the situation they are obliged to struggle through. The Palestinian question should not be about land – but about people, a population so willing to give that it is almost impossible not to give back to them. Give back in support, help or even just hope.
A full report on the YWCA YMCA Journey for Justice program can be found on the website of the JAI, Joint Advocacy Initiative, East Jerusalem YMCA and YWCA of Palestine website : www.jai-pal.org