I first visited the West Bank in 2008 and although I had read quite a bit about the political situation there, I was shocked by what I saw. Coming from a place of conflict, (NI) I had a preconceived notion of what life might be like there, that I would see similarities to what life was like here in 2008.
We had common themes, we had peace walls, we had territorial conflict, we had separate living, we had religious intolerance etc. But the peace walls we have are there primarily to help promote safety and a degree of peace within our segregated communities and both communities say they are not ready yet for them to be removed. The walls in the West Bank were built unilaterally by one community to control and keep the other community away. Even during the worst of the conflict in NI there was still a degree of cross-community work going on under the radar.
It was a couple of years later that I found out about the EAPPI programme. In spring 2011 I submitted an application to Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) who managed the programme in UK & Ireland for the World Council of Churches (WCC). Following a successful interview, I went for 2 weeks training that autumn. In September 2012 I flew into Tel Aviv airport and spent 3 months volunteering in Hebron. The reason why I choose this organisation is because WCC were approached by Palestinian Christian church leaders in Jerusalem and asked for help with life under the strain of the Occupation. So I felt that this organisation had structured its programme to be of benefit to the people of Palestine & Israel rather than just ‘parachuting in’.
The Hebron team of which I was a volunteer consisted of a Norwegian, a German and an American. We had different perspectives, a wide ranging age profile, different views but we all shared a desire to do the best we could to support people whose human rights were being violated. I loved having breakfast in our sunny balcony every morning (apart from mornings I was on checkpoint duty – I left the apartment at 3.30am!)
The Palestinians I met were wonderful, really resilient in the face of so many obstacles as they tried to live regular, ordinary lives. The obstacles they had to manoeuvre included armed security checks, road blocks, no warning, no reason house searches, arrests, imprisonment without charge, violence, theft of property, land and so on. The vast majority of the people were so pleased that volunteers from around the world have come to see what life is like for them. And more importantly to go back to our own country and tell others what we witnessed.
I also met quite wonderful Israeli people who are working for a peaceful solution to the conflict in this area. Avner, a former soldier in the Israeli army, has set up an organisation called ‘Breaking the Silence’. He collects testimonies from soldiers serving in the West Bank and uses their stories to inform Israeli citizens of the actions their army is involved in the West Bank. A group of now older Israel women protest every Friday by a busy junction in Jerusalem pleading for an end to the Occupation. The group calling themselves Women in Black’ are regularly verbally abused but are not deterred from speaking out. Hannah & her team ‘Matchom Watch’ helped us with queries at checkpoints and again were working from a difficult place, speaking out about injustice.
The most valuable aspect of volunteering was the communal aspect. All of us are stronger/smarter than one of us. When we worked as a team we made good decisions and kept ourselves safe. It’s good to reminder ourselves that if we become part of the problem then we are not part of the solution….
Since I’ve been back and I done around 15 presentations to a variety of groups and organisations throughout NI. I have also been involved in lobbying and have done a radio interview and a video interview on my experiences.
Overall, the biggest surprise/shock was actually seeing how differently human beings are treated depending on where they are born. I know people in the West Bank who would give their right arm for the opportunities in e.g. Belfast’s deprived areas. Free education, in English, free text books, a passport (either one!) which gives the ability to travel and work throughout the world is a great benefit. People in troubled, inner-city Belfast have more advantages and chances than most and yet display signs of being dealt an unresouceful hand. There was something about the people in Hebron’s dignity and non-violent resistance that was quite special…..
Since returning home I have become more interested in global politics and watch Al Jazeera and go on websites to keep up to date with events in other countries. I came back to Belfast in December 2012, when the decision to remove the Union Flag from the top of City Hall was taken. The reaction to this decision got global coverage. On December 12th a local youth was shot dead on his 16th birthday as he came through the turnstile near the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. This loss of human life barely got a mention and certainly not beyond the locality.
Images of the men queuing daily for hours to get through the series of checkpoints, simply to get to work stayed with me along time after I returned….. The weight of living under the Occupation was carried in the men’s body language; weary and a sense of being forgotten by the rest of the world.
For anyone volunteering for the first time, if possible, find out about the area and local situation, talk to people who have been there and really immerse yourself in the culture. Learn a few phrases of the language – locals really appreciate your efforts!