We’ve managed to set up a nice little international compound here. The thirty volunteers of all ages come from throughout Europe, from Ireland to Latvia, Thailand, Australia, and the US. The school where we’re staying is basic. It’s a two storey building with about fifteen classrooms, a kitchen, and an office. There are three showers and two toilets (one of which is a squat toilet) for thirty of us. But we manage to make it work—and it works quite well, actually.
We sleep on six inch foam pads in classrooms on the second floor. There are about six of us per room. Two other rooms room on the second floor serve as our dining room and “media center,” where the camp has set up a projector and speakers. Every morning, after the church bells and the calls to prayer finish, they play music by the Palestinian singer Firouz. All in all, it’s a nice way to start the day.
Everyday we are accompanied by about ten Palestinians from Aida Refugee Camp. After dinner, we get together for a short lecture or film followed by conversations on different topics. These are informal, and people just sit here or there chatting about whatever comes to mind. We mostly talk about the occupation, as the majority of us are fortunate enough never to have experienced war or internal conflict first hand. And having the Palestinians around gives us an opportunity to understand (just a little) their experience and daily life under occupation.
Some of them have been shot by Israeli troops from nearby watchtowers—one when he was a teenager playing with his sister on a balcony. Some have been arrested and placed in the infamous administrative detention, whereby Israelis can arrest and jail people without charge or trial. People placed under administrative detention are jailed for three or six month periods. But these sentences can be renewed indefinitely, so at the end of the period, many are told that their sentence has been extended. Some of the Palestinians we are with have spent two years in administrative detention, others prisoners have been in jail for twenty years. The sentences are handed down for non-violent action. Even participating in a demonstration—one of the hallmarks of a free society—can land you in administrative detention. But Palestinian society is far from free.
The jail terms are not just jail terms. Prisoners are subject to interrogation, and some, to alleviate their pain, will inform on friends and family members who have also not committed any crimes. I asked a former prisoner what the community thinks of the informers when they are eventually released, and he said there is no ill will. People handle their detentions in different ways, and everyone just wants to survive.
For the Palestinians, resistance comes in all forms. Sharing their stories with us before a game of football is a way that they can get their message out. We all feel as though we’re responsible to help them and to explain that they’re not all keffiyeh clad, kalashnikov toting terrorists. They dress similar to us, even the Muslim women who might just add a simple headscarf on top of their shirts and jeans. They are photographers who have had exhibits in London, Paris, and Washington, DC; they are dancers who have performed in Scotland; they are teachers and engineers. As a proportion of the population, Palestinians have among the highest rates of post-secondary education in the world. They just need a state.
Their stories are difficult to hear, but it’s important to hear them. Despite the conflict, we all have a great time together.
Symbols of the resistance are everywhere here, from flags to graffiti to posters with information about prisoners from the area. After a few years of relative peace, though, the economy of Beit Jala seems to be doing fairly well. There are a few hotels in town, several restaurants and bars, supermarkets, and even an Aldo (one of the few stores I’ve seen that isn’t a knock off). So, while the occupation is always front and center, it’s clear that people just want to live their lives.
And every night at the school, we laugh and talk and for a brief moment we feel as though our presence is helping. But it’s not up to just thirty of us. Everyone needs to be informed and spread the word.
For a good account of what is happening, watch The Iron Wall, a documentary about the wall and how it has affected ordinary people. WARNING: This is a very intense and graphic documentary. The images will probably be with you for days afterward. You’ll be speechless, outraged, depressed, and will probably cry. Everyone should watch it, but watch it when you’re ready and don’t say I didn’t tell you so. You should be able to Google it.
Also: for some good resources, check out the Badil Center.
On another note, yesterday we went to Al-Walajah village. The village was already moved once, and it is about to be completely enclosed by the so-called Security Wall. A single gate will allow residents to leave for work and come home at night, and it will only be open at certain times. Construction has been on going since 2008, and the residents see a bleak future in the making… the wall is quite literally closing in. But our bus was able to drive through it, using a gap in the wall along the same path that the construction vehicles use. There were no soldiers or checkpoints… so if security is the issue, why are they letting people pass through freely? Security is too easy an excuse these days…