Category Archives: Palestine

The font of peace and goodwill

Bethlehem, without reading about it too much, is a city that you would imagine as being the home of peace, and the place where goodwill to all men is said to have originated from. However, today, although it is a wonderful city, there are signs of the Israel-Palestinian conflict everywhere. The separation barrier splits what used to be bustling main streets in two, it circles peoples’ houses, and is a constant reminder to the Palestinians of their occupiers.

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However, while this concrete barrier may affect the economic prosperity of Bethlehem, there is no detracting from its religious significance. Let us not forget that the New Testiment states Bethlehem as being the birth place of Jesus. Our afternoon in Bethlehem saw us visit the Church of the Nativity, a basilica standing upon the place where Jesus was allegedly born.

I am not a particularly religious person. I have been christened, but I would not say that I am a practicing Christian. Having said that, the visit to the Church was a powerful experience. Indeed, a silver star in an underground cave marks the spot where Jesus was born into the world. Despite not being religious, I found that touching the star was a moving experience. This is a spot that holds the beliefs of many millions of people around the world and I was aware of this as I placed my hand onto the silver star.

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Just a few metres away from the star is a grotto commemorating the place where Jesus was placed into the manger shortly after he was born. It was here that I was overwhelmed by the emotion that was present in that cave. There were people in that cave who were deep in prayer, and you could see in their faces what it meant to be there. To them, it was truly a special place and they were glad to be there. It was humbling to be a part of it.

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This powerful visit to the Church of the Nativity certainly showed how a common interest trumps all. Indeed, no matter what the occupiers do to this city, Bethlehem will always maintain its religious significance. A barrier will never stop people making the pilgrimage to Bethlehem, or Jerusalem for that matter, whatever their religion and the place of religion they are visiting.

What is the issue with Israeli settlements?

Originally published online by The Knowledge, Plymouth University’s student newspaper, on the 14th March 2014: http://theknowledgeplymouth.co.uk/what-is-the-issue-with-israeli-settlements/

Recently, I was lucky enough to go on the International Relations fieldtrip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The trip saw us spend ten days predominantly in the West Bank as we learnt about the latest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how these issues were affecting the local population. In my opinion, there was one issue that seems to be particularly salient in the crisis, and that is of Israeli settlements being built in the West Bank.

Israeli settlements, or communities depending on how you view the political situation, have been under construction in the West Bank since it was occupied by Israel in 1967, and are now home to at least 350,000 Israelis. Furthermore, these settlements – linked to each other by roads which may only be used by Israelis, and not Palestinians – are considered to be illegal under international law, as Israel has built them on what is considered to be occupied land. Therefore, we knew of the controversy surrounding the settlements before we had even left for Israel.

As such, we were lucky enough to be given a tour of one Israeli settlement by activist, Angela Godfrey-Goldstein. Indeed, Ma’ale Adumim, a settlement that has city status, is found just 4 miles away from Jerusalem. It has a population of around 40,000 people, and is thus one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank. When driving around, it is clear that Ma’ale Adumim is a nice place to live in. It is modern with a friendly environment, and life seems to be quite laid back.

However, beyond the modern suburban feel is the true story about how these settlements are being built. Indeed, many Palestinians are now being forced off of their land, in order to make way for Israeli settlements. After visiting Ma’ale Adumim, we visited a nearby Palestinian Bedouin, whose home had been demolished by the Israeli Army (pictured). Indeed, his home had been knocked down due to being in the ‘E1 Area’, an area between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem that the Israeli government has earmarked for expansion. Furthermore, there are many other Palestinians whose homes are being knocked down in a similar fashion in order to make way for Israeli settlements.

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One has to ask, is it fair to be knocking down Palestinian homes? One Israeli settler that we had spoken to, in the settlement of Efrat, admitted that it was unfair that Palestinians were being displaced, but then went on to state that it was a necessary evil in order to guarantee Israeli security. Indeed, it is argued that an increased Jewish presence in the West Bank would reduce the chances of terrorist activity that being carried out there. Additionally, there is also the argument that Israel is more than entitled to build on the West Bank, as its claim to the land is biblical.

On the other hand, Palestinians – who are understandably frustrated with the current situation – will also be concerned that Israel is planning further settlement building – for example, at Ma’ale Adumim, in order to link it with Jerusalem – thus dividing the West Bank and making it even more difficult for Palestinians to find self-determination. Indeed, construction within the ‘E1 Area’ would cut the West Bank off almost completely from East Jerusalem, and would make access to Jerusalem even harder for Palestinians to come by.

Indeed, this article has not even scratched the surface and is far too brief to capture the entire situation of settlements in the West Bank. However, whatever your view of Israeli politics, it could be argued that the Palestinian crisis will not be solved without firstly addressing the settlement issue.

Education in the face of adversity.

Having been immersed in the politics of Palestine, it was interesting to visit Bethlehem University. I was interested in seeing what – if any – impact the crisis had on education in Palestine. In all honesty, I found the trip to Bethlehem University to be most inspiring.

The first thing that struck me was the campus. The campus is superb. The architecture – both inside and outside – is fantastic. The buildings are colourful, impressive and very well maintained, and their desert colours also blend well with the greenery that is dotted around here and there. We were shown inside the University chapel, which was also impressive. Indeed, whereas all of the churches that we had seen on the trip were dedicated to Jesus Christ as an adult, this one was dedicated to him as a child. I felt that it was also a small reminder of the children that were also being affected by the crisis.

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As such, talk of the  chapel also links nicely to Bethlehem University’s religious setup. Indeed, it is a Catholic institution, started with support from the Vatican and the De La Salle Christian Brothers. However, what is also fascinating is that 71% of its students are Muslim. This is not to say that a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ exists within the University. In fact, it is very much the opposite. It is an example of a place where different religions can co-exist in harmony, something that seems relevant in a conflict where religions appear to have clashed. Furthermore, 75% of its students are also female.

However, having said that, the conflict has had its toll on the University. There is a small memorial on the grounds of the University, commemorating those who had died while serving the institution. Indeed, we had learnt of a student who had died on campus after being shot by the Israeli army. Furthermore, it has also been closed twelve times since its inception, once for up to three years at a time. However, the University still held classes off-campus, to ensure that students were not disadvantaged.

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One student, Berlanty Azzam, was another example of how the crisis could interfere with the University’s education. During her final-year, she was detained whilst travelling around the West Bank, was blindfolded and handcuffed, and was then forcibly deported back to her home in Gaza in the middle of the night. Despite her continued efforts and other international pressures, the Israeli authorities would not let her go back to Bethlehem to study. However, in spite of all this, she was able to continue her course via correspondence, and as a result, graduated in 2010. It is a story of how perseverance always prevails.

After having learnt about Berlanty’s story, we spoke to a few of Bethlehem’s students. It was an inspiring Q & A session. One student who I spoke to is just about to enter their final year of her business degree. Having already been to South Korea, she plans to continue travelling and to see more of the world. I have nothing but admiration for the way in which she, along with her fellow students, has refused to let the occupation – however fierce it may be – interfere with their hopes and dreams.

It also hit home for some of us just how lucky we are to be able to study and travel without being watched by an occupying power. Indeed, if only the rest of my colleagues at University were just as aware.

http://www.bethlehem.edu/about/mission-history

Ghost-town.

Hebron is a strange city. Situated in the South of the West Bank, parts of it are bustling with market activity, while other parts of it resemble a ghost-town. It is a city scarred by a policy of segregation.

You first notice it when you walk through the market. If you go down one of the side-roads, you will come across old shops – owned by Palestinians – which have had their doors welded shut. Indeed, they were welded shut by the Israeli army, who deemed it necessary to close them as they were too close to Israeli settlements. This side street is also covered by the unavoidable sight of barbed-wire, which keep Palestinians and Israelis separated.

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This feeling of segregation is reinforced by Shuhada Street, a main road in Hebron which Palestinians are not even allowed to use. Palestinians who live in the buildings that line the street are forced climb ladders to the neighbour’s house so that they may leave just to go to work, school, or even to do their weekly shopping. Walking down Shuhada Street, I couldn’t help but think that it resembled a ghost-town; there was no-one walking up or down it, other than the occasional Israeli soldier.

Segregation was even present in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, much to the disgust of our tour guide. Indeed, the Synagogue and the Mosque which links to the tomb of Abraham, is separated by bullet-proof glass. Such measures may be warranted, when considering that 29 were killed in the Hebron massacre of 1994, when Baruch Goldstein opened fire on the Mosque. However, the security searches that are made outside should have meant that no bullet-proof glass was needed today. Therefore, why is it there?

We heard more shocking stories from the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Palestine, an organisation that continues to do great work. Indeed, they told us how the army would fire tear gas upon a group of kindergarteners, and how they detained a Palestinian teenager on suspicion of throwing stones simply because his hands were dusty. They also told how one Palestinian teenager had his arm twisted behind his back so violently by an Israeli soldier, he felt his arm break. Indeed, the stories do not stop there.

Having said that, the CPT does some excellent work there as well. It assists Palestinian children through military checkpoints as they go to school every morning, they rush to help Palestinian families in an emergency, and are generally the most trusted international organisation in Hebron. I was certainly inspired by the work that they do there, and I hope that they will continue to do so for as long as they can (http://www.cpt.org/work/palestine).

Nevertheless, as you can tell even just by this brief description, Hebron is a city dividied.

Beyond the concrete wall…

Just under a couple of weeks ago, I set off to Israel and Palestine on a university fieldtrip with a group of fellow students. Indeed, much of our fieldtrip would be spent in the West Bank, which would mean immersing ourselves in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. It would be my first time in the Middle East and as such, I wasn’t too sure about what to expect from Palestine. Of course, it is separated from Israel by the separation barrier and military checkpoints. The barrier restricts movement both from and within the West Bank, separates farmers from their land, and has also been known to block medical supplies from entering Palestine. Therefore, with this in mind, I was half expecting the West Bank to be a sort of place of despair.

This is reinforced when you enter Palestine as well. When driving around the West Bank, there are big red signs that say ‘This Road leads to Area ‘A’ Under The Palestinian Authority. The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives, And Is Against The Israeli Law’*.  Indeed, as an Israeli citizen told me, this sign has been made for security reasons, as Israelis have previously been killed by terrorist attacks in Zone A. Needless to say, these attacks can not be condoned, and it is impossible to understand how it must feel for the families of the those who were killed. However, this sweeping generalisation, suggesting that the Palestinian people are out to kill Israelis, is an insult to the Palestinian themselves. As you can imagine, they find it very offensive.

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Having visited Palestine and having spoken to some of the people that live there, I now know that the big red sign couldn’t be further from the truth. Without diving into the politics of the region, I can tell you that Palestine is one of the most amazing places that I have ever been to. The people are friendly and welcoming, and are always keen on telling you their stories and on selling you their wares. Furthermore, I do not believe that to enter Zone A would be a danger to the lives of the Israeli people. Of course the Palestinian people are angry, as you can imagine, but mostly at the Israeli government, not the people. They wish to settle the conflict through peaceful means, not by taking to arms. It is also a beautiful place that will amaze you with its scenery.

Nevertheless, in relation to the barrier, it has certainly affected the lives of those that live there. Indeed, while it has aided Israeli security since it was built, some Israelis that we spoke to admitted that the wall was not a good thing. The wall circles houses, splits what were once bustling main roads in half, and makes it very difficult for Palestinian people to go to work on the other side. However, it definitely hasn’t diminished Palestinian hopes of a prosperous future, for there is an air of defiance and determination within the Palestinian people.

 

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Over the coming weeks, I will be posting stories about my ten days in Israel and Palestine. I intend to write about my experiences in a balanced way. Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian Question is full of strong opinions and controversial topics, but I will try to write about them impartially. We all have our opinions, but there are always two sides to a story.

 

 

* Zone A, or Area A, is one of three zones devised under the Oslo II Accords of 1995. These zones of the West Bank are divided according to the different levels of self-governance that the Palestinians would have over it. These zones were meant to be temporary, until a permanent arrangement could be found. The zones function as follows:

Zone A: Full control of the Palestinian Authority

Zone B: Joint Israeli-Palestinian security control; Palestinian civil control

Zone C: Full Israeli control

For more info, visit: http://www.refworld.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/rwmain?docid=3de5ebbc0