Thursday, 28 August 2014

About The Blog

When people are exposed to war, it can come in a variety of forms and is received in a variety of ways. Most people hear about war on the news, along with the high politics of diplomatic interventions and elaborate sounding strategy. It’s often all too easy to retreat into simplifying narratives of which side did what to who and when, with little consideration for the effects of these macro-decisions for real people, the humans who have to endure the statesmen’s posturing.

That’s why over time I’ve become increasingly interested in what it means to be a human in a conflict zone. What makes people hate? How and why can the human condition be twisted and manipulated by violence? How do those involved in war interact with and perceive each other in the distinct atmosphere it creates? These are the questions that often get left out of grand discussions of conflict and the broad aspiration of this blog is, with the admittedly limited experience I’ve had, to provide a platform to project and discuss the ‘human’ in war as I have interpreted it.

I’m conscious that this blog’s title may suggest that finding humanity in conflict zones is quite a task and perhaps patronisingly implies that those who find themselves in them are somehow ‘less’ than human. However, the opposite is intended. Behind some of the most tragic stories of loss and despair, I’ve found inspiring accounts of what it really means to be human- resolve, compassion and the hope for a peaceful future.

Of course, war can so brutally bury that humanity under many layers of hate and fear so that it is often harder to find than elsewhere. Indeed, my own worst ideas about what humans are capable of inflicting on each other have often been stretched by what I’ve heard and seen. But that is exactly the point of this blog- to sift through my recollections and interpretations of these horrendous stories and find the humanity amongst it.

The basis of this idea struck me on my first visit to Belfast, a city divided by history, religion and politics. I was intrigued by the dualities that had been ingrained in people’s minds and how that fed into an overwhelming atmosphere of tension. How did people deal with living on either side of a ‘peace wall’ or being privy to frequent rioting? More specifically, what had made some people lose sight of a common humanity, so much so that they were Protestant or Catholic before simply being human?

This most recent summer gave me the opportunity to experience this dynamic in a different setting, this time in Israel and Palestine. Although a completely different context, my experience there seemed to evoke those same questions of how sentiments of nationality, ethnicity and religion could often be the justification for inhumane practice and devastating conflict. After having lived in Palestine for a month, the stories from that trip will naturally be the main focus of what is to follow. However, the discussions that I hope emanate from them are no doubt analogous to many conflict areas around the world.

Ultimately, I aim to try and share at least just a fraction of the inspiring experiences that I had this summer. Though Palestine was for me sometimes the place of tension, pessimism and even sadness, it was more often the place of laughter, calm and most importantly hope. The people I was blessed to have met motivated me to believe that violence is not the default setting for the human, something the writing here wants to reflect. 

In as much as we can make conflict, we can ‘un-make’ it too. The separation walls in the West Bank didn’t just appear; someone somewhere had the motivation to put them up. In sharing this blog with you, I hope to play my very tiny part in one day bringing them down, in Palestine, around the world and in our minds.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Normality Under Occupation

IDF watchtower at Checkpoint 300, Bethlehem

When I first arrived in Palestine, some of the earliest advice I received on how to make the most of the trip was to engage with the  people I met on a ‘human level’. Of course, the ongoing conflict and tension in the region was something with which we and not least the Palestinians themselves were well acquainted with. The challenge of the trip was therefore to dig beyond the bluster of politics and war to discover the human stories that were often lost behind it.

    While the occupation was a preeminent part of Palestinian life, especially given the ongoing Gaza conflict at the time I was there, we had to remind ourselves that our host families and volunteer colleagues had careers, ambitions and hopes beyond the immediate political problems. 

      Indeed, a consistent request from many of the people we met was to go back home and tell people how ‘normal’ Palestinians actually are; they want to study and work and party just like me. The occupation, the war and the fighting was all just by the by, life goes on.

    However, the more time I spent hearing about daily life in Palestine it dawned on me that it cannot perhaps be so neatly separated from the issues that derive from the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was nowhere more true than in my conversation with my host mum Dana. She was in her late 50s and had lived all her life in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Dana confessed that life there was hard. In a wider conversation about the current atmosphere, she gave a fleeting glimpse into how the conflict has and indeed was affecting her personally. 
Separation wall in East Jerusalem

Dana made the most beautiful embroidery, personally stitching all manner of items from pillowcases to purses. She made her living out of selling these gifts at various exhibitions or markets in the local area. She told me that one such event was due to be held later that month in Nazareth, the biblical town just north of the West Bank in Israel ‘proper’.

However, Dana’s livelihood, like that of so many of her fellow Palestinians, lies squarely at the mercy of the Israeli authorities who in this case had flatly refused her a permit to travel to Nazareth (with no explanation). In such a way, it appeared to me that Dana’s ‘normal’ life cannot be clearly distinguished from the complexities of the conflict. When someone’s very opportunity to earn a living is reduced to a piece of necessary documentation sparingly given out, what chance is there for a ‘normal’ life?

This is a story which even after only 24 hours on Palestinian soil revealed itself as far from unique. The West Bank is peppered with Israeli checkpoints which regulate entry to and exit from various Palestinian towns entangled within them. The only way this tactic of Israeli occupation can be explained is to imagine the Palestinian run towns as islands floating in some kind of archipelago of ethnic tension. In between them lie the ever encroaching Israeli settlements which (illegally) take up previously Palestinian land.

As a result, Palestinians cannot approach certain land without the proper documents. The Palestinian towns are essentially walled off and entry/exit is strictly controlled by Israeli army checkpoints. Meanwhile roads only allowed for the Israeli settlers criss cross the disputed land freely, under protection from the Israeli Army. Should a Palestinian car want to travel to another town in the West Bank however, they must circumnavigate the areas closed off to them, often doubling or tripling the journey time they previously enjoyed. 

Al Shuhada street, Hebron: a net protects Palestinians below from excrement and rubbish thrown by Israeli settlers living above them
This makes for a bizarre juxtaposition of freedom and control, where the opposite life is frustratingly close. To drive under the very roads restricted to only Israeli cars with a Palestinian is an almost inexplicable experience. I got the feeling of such a psychological distance existing between the two communities, living such different lives while also frustratingly close to one another. When Palestinians must endure this testing dichotomy, what hope is there of a ‘normal’ life?

An Israeli settler's lookout watches over a young Palestinian boy's house in Hebron. The two communities are so closely intertwined in this area that tension is consistently high. The boy told us that he had to watch Israeli settlers storm their house and beat their baby brother with a fire extinguisher.

       Aside from the lack of freedom to work or even to move carried by Palestinians, no other restraint was more shocking than the politics of the water supply to West Bank homes. The scarcity of water was a key theme throughout my time in the region but it is particularly important to mention here. Since Israel controls the supply, Bethlehem residents receive water one out of every seventeen days and must therefore carefully conserve it in between these times. This can therefore lead to poor sanitation in West Bank towns but more than this, contributes to the psychological attrition that comes with having to remember how scarce something as basic as water is.

To constantly live in the fear of a shortage of water must be exasperating and unimaginable for the luckier amongst us. This is made worse by the fact that Palestinians experience this reality in full knowledge of how green the grass is on the other side, quite literally. The average Israeli settler receives and consumes 4 times more water than their Palestinian equivalent, enjoyed at a subsidised price.

A controversialist may say that this is a deliberate tactic employed to wear down an already deflated Palestinian population. I’d like to think that the Israeli regime has more humanity than that, but then again, stranger things have happened. So finally, when exposed to this water apartheid, how can a ‘normal’ life ever be possible?

The grouping here of Dana’s story, entry and exit issues and the problem of water supply is not coincidental but presented in such a way because they made me think about basic humanity in such inhumane conditions. All these observations made in the West Bank represent things I take for granted in the UK. Freedom to work, freedom to move around and even just to have a consistent and indeed apolitical water supply. 

To me, these issues are overwhelming evidence to show how, in fact, that ‘human level’ cannot be separated from a conflict that shapes the very social fabric that Palestinians experience. So if you talk about the hope of peace, a cynic could quite justifiably ask how it is possible when human lives are, even at their most fundamental level, moulded by war. What chance is there for a basic humanity in a place where there is so little respect for it?

Five Mothers

A young Palestinian boy poses for my camera beside the occupation wall in East Jerusalem

At the time of writing I am due to fly to Tel Aviv in 15 days. It was always my intention to try to record at least some of my thoughts before my visit so as to aid the reflections and the write ups I plan to do on my return. Though I didn’t expect to be writing as early as this, given that the Israel/Palestine conflict has recently burst back onto our screens, I think now is as good a time as any to explain my thoughts and indeed fears before I go to live in the West Bank.

      The 6’o’clock news has provided some uncomfortable viewing at home in the last couple of days. In light of the apparent abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, and not least the subsequent revenge killing of a young Palestinian in the last week, the Western media has since decided that tear gas tinted bulletins are back on the agenda. 

      For Mum there is no worse sight. Knowing that I’ll be living and working around these areas of tension for four weeks later this month has sent her imagination into overdrive, and of course that maternal nagging asking whether I’ll be safe is now a daily ritual. Ultimately, she asks, why do I have to go there of all places this summer?

      But the latest events in Israel and the occupied territories, and importantly how they have affected other mothers now grieving for their sons have helped in articulating my answer to that same question.

     At the start of this week, a flurry of reports stated how tensions in the West Bank were mounting since the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who had been abducted, shot and then buried in the village of Halhul. Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel were both sixteen years old, Eyal Yifrach was my age, nineteen years old. Their untimely deaths have since stoked a plethora of different reactions amongst Israelis. On the one hand, we’ve seen somber mourning at their joint funeral whilst at the other end of the reaction spectrum, air strikes have rained down on Gaza since Sunday night.

     Amidst the strong but somewhat predictable rhetoric of their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel as a nation has closed ranks in light of what they perceive to have been a merciless attack on their people. Indeed, the killings have provided Netanyahu with an open goal with which to undermine the newly formed unity government between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. 

   In effect, the atrocities committed by those believed to be associated with Hamas act as a vindication of the Israeli government’s rhetoric. The oft quoted assertion that Abbas and the moderate Fatah are cooperating with unpredictable and bloodthirsty terrorists is now presented as immediately more conceivable.

Entangled by his various pressure groups, not least an Israeli public keen to see justice done, Netanyahu has himself tragically contributed to the cyclical surge of violence in the West Bank and Gaza. The air strikes are only one aspect of what seems to be a broader phenomenon of the collective punishment of Palestinians by Israel. Alongside the rioting that is so unfortunately familiar to the region, the IDF has this week continued its infamous tactic of house demolition. Houses disappear, civil liberties are restrained and lives are lost all for little more than simply being Palestinian. Human empathy seems like a distant concept in the West Bank.

Horrible enough in itself, this broader theme of collective punishment culminated in a more personal, tragic crescendo this morning. It has been reported that a Palestinian boy, Mohamed Abu Khadair has been found dead in a suspected revenge killing that has now added another worrying dimension to the fraught situation. Khadair was, like some of the Israeli victims, only 16 years old. What hope can there be for a region in which young boys like these are used as pawns, tragically caught up in a cyclone of nationalist paranoia and retribution?

Behind these harrowing stories, however, there lies a shred of humanity. Responding to the suspected revenge killing, the uncle of Naftali Frenkel, himself this week stricken with unimaginable grief has condemned the murder of Khadair. His words reflect an oasis of calm and tremendous humility in a week where ethnic and religious divisions have explicitly resurfaced:

‘’There is no difference between (Arab) blood and (Jewish) blood. Murder is murder’’

Reading this made me think that for all the bluster on this week’s news, behind the tear gas and the clunking of stone missiles, four mothers are waking up this morning without their sons- an emotional bond so basic to our human condition that no sentiment of nationalism or ethnicity could ever rival it. Grief is universal and all pervading; it does not stop at arbitrary borders or military checkpoints. People are mothers and sons before they are Arab or Jew.

So what do I tell my mum, a fifth mother, who unlike the others still has her son? I tell her that I have travel insurance. I have the support of the organisation I’ll be working with. Most of all, I have a plane ticket home. I can leave the West Bank and the problems it faces. I can come back to my peaceful Lancashire village and forget the burdens which all citizens of the West Bank have to carry every day, not least at this moment of tension. Yet where can fellow teenagers growing up in that region, like those found dead this week, escape to? That is how I explain to my mum why I want to go

Whether I can ever really connect with the experience of people in the West Bank is indeed doubtful, but this won’t stop me trying. If I can begin to understand even just a fragment of what it must be like to live in that most unique of areas, then my trip will be worthwhile.

**This entry was written before travelling to the West Bank. Reading this on my return, I recognize the potential inadequacies and half stories in light of all the insights I gained whilst away. However, it is included here as an example of how my perspective may have changed when compared with later writing.**