By: Harriet Straughen for MIFTAH
Since leaving Palestine five days ago, I have been asked over and over again, ‘How was it?’ That is rather a vague question and I am yet to have come up with a succinct and adequately descriptive answer.
The questioner looks at me hopefully, waiting to hear exotic tales of my very own ‘Arab spring’. And I guess it was, but not in the way they are thinking - not with guns and protests and sweeping civil movements. My own ‘awakening’ was a smaller and more subtle movement. I was awakened to the injustices heaped on the Palestinian people on a daily basis. But more than that, I was able to see, first hand, the spirit that characterises the people of the West Bank.
While I was based in the West Bank, I was witness to many interesting developments in and around the region. The revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East were still going strong, inspired young Palestinians took to the streets and held hunger strikes to demand an end to political division between the West Bank and Gaza, a bomb was detonated in Jerusalem, two notable peace activists were killed, rockets were launched between Gaza and Israel, Osama Bin Laden was killed and, finally, a reconciliation deal was signed between Hamas and Fatah. Those are only the ones that spring to mind instantly. Even for a tempestuous and unsettled region such as this, a lot happened in a short space of time.
And yet, this is not what springs to my mind when asked ‘How was it?”
For those who are unaware of the situation in Palestine, I have been asked to ‘remind’ them of the history of the conflict. Rather than reeling off failed peace deals and violent clashes my mind jumps to the woman I met in the Al Amary refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah and how her face changed as she told me about the village she had been born in back in 1940 and from which she had been forced to leave in 1948. The nostalgic mix of happiness and sadness in her face reflected the emotional connection that many older (and younger) Palestinians have for their pre-1948 homes and the tragic understanding that many may never be able to see their original houses again. At the most basic level, the history of Palestine is of a people who were forced to flee their homes and still dream, to this day, of returning.
People ask me, ‘What did you see?’ and I can reel off the names of towns and villages that I was fortunate enough to see, one of which is Hebron. As anyone who knows the situation will imagine, much of the talk of Hebron concerns the settlers and their aggressive behaviour towards the Palestinians in the old city. But my strongest memory of Hebron concerns another aspect. My mind jumps to the face of the little boy in the old city who walked calmly by as an Israeli soldier pointed the barrel of his gun towards him. As I looked on in horror, the boy merely continued on his way, seemingly used to such threatening yet cowardly behavior. He is just one of thousands of Palestinian children who have to live with the fear of the occupation and the daily reality of facing guns and hostility. But these children can’t run away from it because it surrounds them.
‘And what about Israel, did you go to Jerusalem much?’ some have asked. Yes, I could tell them about the beauty and history of the old city or the unique mix of cultures that inhabits it. I could tell them about the religious significance and the holiness of the city. But that is not my overriding memory of Jerusalem. My overriding memory is of dread, not for the city, but the checkpoint that had to be crossed to enter. Qalandiya checkpoint stands between Ramallah and Jerusalem and figures largely in the life of those Palestinians who must travel between the two. Many minutes if not hours spent queuing in the metal fenced area before the turnstile are spent by those on their way to work or the shops or maybe to visit a family member. Lining up with everyone else, I would see their faces set with both determination to get through this quickly but also jadedness at having to go through yet the same pointless routine yet again. One day, I was outraged for the woman who had a number of shopping bags and was noticeably struggling yet was still forced off the bus and ordered to walk through the checkpoint on foot. None of the soldiers attempted to help her with her bags and merely looked on impatiently as she tried to juggle them while pulling out her ID card for them to see. Her face showed neither anger nor frustration, but just a quiet determination to carry on with her day. Meanwhile the soldiers stood smoking and messing around with each other.
For that moment, you are reminded that most of them are barely out of their teens. And yet as you are beckoned through the turnstile and asked to put your bag through the scanner, the nameless soldiers behind the screen no longer act like the careless twenty-somethings found elsewhere. Now their faces are set and their voices are harsh as they bark at you to scan your passport. The inhumane and insensitive way in which these soldiers treated people at these checkpoints was enough to make me dread any trip to Jerusalem and yet the Palestinians around me often had to do this everyday and could not afford to avoid it.
‘Was it safe?’ I’m asked, mostly by my family. But I’m not sure what exactly they are asking? Do they mean in the sense that I am a young woman and do I feel safe walking around at night? I would have to tell them that I would feel safer in Ramallah then I do walking the streets of London. Sadly, I think they are pertaining to the supposed ‘extremists’ that are so often discussed in the West. According to Western media, those who are linked to violent and fundamentalist behavior can be found in all corners of the world. I don’t want to disappoint the fear-mongerers out there but I never felt this threat for one moment in Palestine. The demonizing of those in the Middle East and particularly those in Palestine has led to a skewed and hugely distorted view held by those in the West. Palestine has its problems like anywhere else but this does not make every person there a potential threat as some would seem to think. All the people I met wished for a safe and peaceful existence like any other sane person, no matter what their race or religion. While there is assumedly more danger when in Gaza, I felt utterly safe in Palestine. My safety only felt threatened when I was in the company of Israeli soldiers who held their guns, quite menacingly, at chest height which made me physically recoil in their presence.
My favourite question is always ‘What are the people like?’ to which I have several answers. I could tell people about the women of the refugee camp who were adamant that I should stay for lunch having only just met them half an hour earlier (I regret to this day that I declined their kind offer) and despite the fact that they had so little money with which to feed even their own families. Or perhaps about the taxi driver in Jericho who took me and my friend to meet his wife while giving us a tour of the city. He delighted in telling us about his daughter, conceived after much difficulty but who was now the light of his life. Sometimes, I will tell people about the glamorous girls I worked with, women who always look beautiful and who laugh and share each others’ joy that translates as easily as if they were speaking English (sadly my Arabic remains shamefully bad). My favorite kebab house owner kindly attempted to teach me a different word every time I was in his restaurant but all to no avail. Other times, I like to tell people about the woman selling her beautiful homemade jewellery in the village of Birzeit and how she was determined to send her oldest son to university abroad to study medicine and fulfil his potential, despite having 13 mouths to feed at home because of numerous family tragedies and the subsequent orphaned children.
So ‘it’ can’t be summed up in only a few sentences. ‘It’ is a country full of different people with different perspectives and different lifestyles just like everywhere else. What can be summed up is that all of these people, the Palestinians, are suffering from the same military occupation that has been imposed on them for decades. Their land is one of tragedy and hardship but also history and resilience.
It seems impossible to explain to people what my trip was like because so much of my opinion was formed by the small conversations I was privy to or the everyday exchanges between others that I watched. I can’t describe the hundreds of people I met and how they welcomed me. All I can say to those who ask is that they have to see it all for themselves. Those in the West are woefully misinformed about what is going on in Palestine. No one should rely on the media or general opinion for their perspective on a country or a people but experience it for themselves. Then they can tell me how they think ‘it’ was.
Harriet Straughen is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.