Welcome to Jake x The West Bank! This is where I’ll be sharing some thoughts, experiences, and stories from my three-month stay in the West Bank with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). I hope to keep it updated as much as possible (although ‘as much as possible’ might not be all that often given that I am only getting around to posting this first update
three weeks one month a month and a half of being here – but I promise to do better from now on!).
An article entitled ‘9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask’ from the Washington Post (here is the link) was posted on my Facebook timeline a few weeks ago. I really liked it because it explained the situation in Syria very thoroughly but also very simply and concisely. It was really helpful!
Therefore, inspired by ‘9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask,’ I’m going to do something similar. Here is ‘6 Questions About Palestine and What Jake is Doing There’ based on some questions I have already been asked and what I assume you might be also wondering.
6 QUESTIONS ABOUT PALESTINE AND WHAT JAKE IS DOING THERE
1. Israel? Palestine? What is even going on over there!?
Okay! Maybe you’ve heard about Palestine and Israel a lot in the news but don’t really understand the situation? That was certainly the case for me for a very long time and I’m still far from an expert on this complicated situation. In fact, pretty soon after arriving here I realized I knew next to nothing about the conflict (despite taking a couple of courses in CEGEP and university on Middle Eastern politics) and bought a book on the history of the conflict to try and get up to speed! Therefore, I know first hand how hard it can be to understand the situation. Therefore, here is my brief and very oversimplified attempt at explaining the situation:
The Jewish people consider ‘the Land of Israel’, a piece of land to the East of the Mediterranean Sea and to the West of the Jordan River, as their homeland. In ancient times, Jews used to reside in this homeland. However, over the course of time, Jews emigrated from Israel to many other parts of the world. Unfortunately, as minorities in these foreign places, Jews suffered much discrimination and hatred. The culmination of this prejudice was the Holocaust. Following this especially terrible period in history, it was agreed upon that the Jewish people should have their own nation and Israel was, naturally, the preferred place for this nation. However, for many generations ‘Israel’ had been inhabited and owned by Arab populations and had become known as ‘Palestine’. Despite this, the international community proposed a partition of Palestine that gave part of Palestine to the Jewish people for the creation of Israel as a Jewish state.
In 1948, a war ensued between the newly formed Israeli state and the surrounding Arab countries, who came to the defense of their Palestinian brethren. The result of this war was an Arab defeat and further territorial loss. Palestine was now split into two separate territorial entities: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In 1967, another war broke out that resulted in the Palestinian territories becoming occupied by Israel. ‘Occupation’ entails a military presence within the territories and control over basically everything that happens within these territories. Because many Israelis consider what remains of Palestine as a part of the Land of Israel, the Israeli government has used its position as an occupier to expand Israel into the West Bank. Today, there are 500,000 Israelis living in communities in the West Bank known as settlements. These settlements were generally built upon Palestinian land without the consent of the Palestinians who owned this land. Because of this, these settlements are illegal under international law.
This, very generally, is the situation here. The most important thing to remember is that, essentially, this is a conflict between two peoples who consider the same piece of land as their homeland.
2. Isn’t this situation very violent and dangerous?
At times, yes, the conflict has been violent. For the Israelis, their stance stems from strong ideological beliefs and a desire to not have the past repeated. The Palestinians, for their part, see the situation as a direct threat to their livelihood and freedom. Both peoples remain highly committed to their respective causes because each side feels as though it is fighting for its own survival. Sadly, violence has consequently become a very real part of this conflict.
From the beginning, the Palestinian people have, of course, been opposed to their land and freedom being taken from them. Much of the resistance to Israel has been peaceful. However, terrorism has also been a method employed by Palestinians to oppose Israel. Suicide bombings, airplane hijackings, firing rockets, and shootings targeting Israelis have been amongst the tactics used. Israel is, therefore, very concerned with the security of its citizens and has developed powerful and technologically advanced armed forces to protect itself. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have a large presence in Palestinian daily life to ensure ‘security’.
This struggle between Israeli security and attempts to secure the entire ‘Land of Israel’ and the desire of Palestinians to liberate themselves is an undercurrent to much of what happens here. Sometimes this struggle manifests itself in violence and there have been periods where the violence has been particularly intense. Furthermore, even in periods that are relatively peaceful, relations between the two parties can be very tense. However, in the midst of this conflict, there is also a lot of semblance of ‘normal life’ and the West Bank is certainly not a war zone. In fact, given the incredibly beauty of Palestine and the beautiful nature of life here, it can at times be easy to forget about the occupation and the conflict.
3. Who are the good guys and the bad guys here?
The relationship between the Palestinians and the Israelis and their security forces is very much a ‘chicken and the egg’ situation; it is hard to place the blame squarely upon one party. Israelis would argue that their need to protect themselves against the Palestinians is what drives a strong military presence. However, others would argue that terrorism occurs in situations of social and political oppression and that it is in fact because there is such a strong military presence in Palestine that limits the freedom and human rights of Palestinians that they have resorted to acts of terrorism.
Furthermore, there are certainly ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people on both sides of this conflict and this can’t really be considered a ‘black and white’ situation. However, there are some glaring issues here that tend to show that one of the parties is being victimized more so than the other. Specifically, as an occupier of Palestine, Israel exerts control over nearly every aspect of Palestinian life. This position allows them to further their own goals of expanding and strengthening the Israeli state. This expansion and strengthening comes at the expense of Palestinians and they are suffering because of it. This statement is my opinion and there would be many people who disagree with me. However, after a month and a half here, I think that my experiences and what I have seen on the ground give some credence to this statement. Here are some examples of things that I have witnessed that show how the Israeli occupation is causing Palestinian suffering:
· Palestinians are a people who depend heavily upon agriculture and their land. However, Palestinians are losing more and more of the land that they have owned for generations to Israelis. Sometimes this land is taken from them through legal means (that are of course controlled by the Israelis) and sometimes the land is simply stolen. Regardless, the reality is that the West Bank is being systematically taken over by Israel. After having a huge portion of their land gifted away by the international community to the Jewish people in 1947, the Palestinians have continued to lose more and more of their remaining land and today are left with a fraction of what they used to own.
· Security is a grave concern for Israelis. However, this concern has become a pretext for treating all Palestinians like criminals or terrorists despite the fact that the vast majority of them are not. For example, many Palestinian boys are arrested for having thrown stones at soldiers or Israelis. Regardless of whether they are guilty or not, these boys are often sentenced to years in prison where their basic needs are neglected. While throwing stones at people is certainly not an ‘okay’ thing to do, punishing young teenagers with years of mistreatment in jail for such a crime is also unacceptable.
· In the early 2000’s, Israel built a wall along their border and the West Bank. This allowed Israel to control the flow of Palestinians into Israel. Again, the reason for this wall was security. However, while the wall may be a preventative measure against terrorist, it has widespread repercussions for all Palestinians. A Palestinian on his way to work in Israel is now forced to pass through a checkpoint along the wall. This often causes significant delays that add much time to his commute to work. Furthermore, the security wall was not built exactly upon the border between Israel and Palestine. Instead, it was built within Palestine, which effectively cut off many people from their own land. Land owners fortunate enough to get a permit to go to their land on the Israeli side of the wall also often face significant delays at checkpoints. These are examples of the unchecked power the Israelis have that is frequently used to intimidate and make life difficult for Palestinians.
I think that these examples illustrate the relationship between the occupier and the occupied here in Palestine and Israel. Essentially, Israel has a lot of power and is exerting this power to fulfill its own desires.
4. So what exactly are you doing there, Jake?
I am here with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI is a programme that was established by the World Council of Churches and I have been sponsored to participate by the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Specifically, EAPPI is an organization that brings internationals into the occupied Palestinian territory to monitor and report on human rights violations and to witness life under occupation. Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) also attempt to provide a ‘protective presence’ to vulnerable people and communities. ‘Protective presence’ entails having internationals being present in situations where human rights violations tend to occur in hope of deterring them. The fact that internationals can report and spread the word of these violations (as opposed to Palestinians who have a relatively small voice against the opposition), hopefully, acts as a deterrent. This is what I have come here to do.
EAPPI has a total of eight teams of four or five people that are working throughout the West Bank in vulnerable areas. Specifically, I am living in a small town in in the Northwest part of the West Bank called Jayyus as a part of a team with three other internationals (Juliana from Brazil, Maria from Switzerland and Anna-Maria from Finland). Jayyus is a vulnerable community because of its proximity to the security wall and also a number of settlements. The construction of the wall cut off many Jayyus residents from their land and today they need to obtain a permit to in order to go work their land. These permits, which are distributed by the Israelis, are difficult to obtain meaning that many people cannot access their land. In the recent past, the Israeli army has also maintained a strong presence in the village. Many of the other villages around Jayyus also deal with these same issues. My team provides a protective presence to Jayyus as well as these communities.
Fredrik, a Swedish EA, photographing the arrest of a peaceful demonstrator by the Israeli army.
5. What is your day-to-day life like?
Most days involve waking up early to go and monitor checkpoints along the security wall where Palestinians are attempting to get into Israel. Usually, they are attempting to get into Israel for the purpose of working their land or going to their job in Israel. Children who live on the other side of the wall who go to school in Palestine also go through these checkpoints. Palestinians often face difficulties going through these checkpoints and we provide a protective presence to try and limit these difficulties. Furthermore, we collect data on the number of people passing through and whether the checkpoints are open at the appropriate times.
Besides that, we are also available to any other situation that arises that might require protective presence. For example, every two weeks a member of our team travels with a mobile health clinic to visit two Palestinian communities in the area in between Israel and the security wall who have been cut off from basic services. The members of the health team have told us that the passage through the checkpoint to visit these communities is easier when we are present.
The olive harvest, which takes place every fall in Palestine, is an especially important time of year. Olive oil is the biggest source of income for Palestinians and it is essential that they are able to harvest their olives at this point. In the upcoming weeks, ensuring that farmers are able to get access to their land and also not be harassed by the army or settlers while they are doing so will be a focus for us.
Visiting with a Palestinian whose olive trees were uprooted and confiscated by the Israeli army. This branch was essentially what remained on his land.
6. What about fun stuff? This seems very serious!
Yes, of course! There is a lot of fun stuff, too! One of the best parts of being here is getting to know Palestinians. Living in Jayyus, which is a small town, is a great opportunity to do so. The residents of Jayyus are very welcoming to us and we get a lot of invites to people’s homes for tea or a meal. The opportunity to sit and talk with Palestinians who have lived through so much adversity in their lives yet remain strong and defiant is incredible.
Palestinians are also amazing cooks and I’ve been very lucky to get to experience their cuisine first hand. For Montrealers, picture food from Adonis yet much fresher and tastier. Hummus, for example, is on a different level of deliciousness than we know in Canada.
I’ve also been able to attend five weddings already! Weddings here involve everyone in the village and no one seemed to care that I had showed up uninvited to the wedding celebrations for people that I had never even met. Weddings are a great way to experience the culture here and also to just let loose, dance and laugh a bit.
So, yes, I have also been having a lot of fun and I feel extremely fortunate to be here experiencing this amazing culture and people.
Waiting for tea with my new friends Mohee and Noor from Jayyous.
If you were able to make it through all of that, thank you! And I hope that it was at least a little bit helpful at trying to explain the situation and what I am doing here.
My next updates will focus on some of the more specific stories that I have from Palestine, which I hope they will also be a bit more interesting!
Stay tuned; more updates to come!