What does the future hold for East Jerusalem?

I took this photo last night at sunset at the top of the Mount of Olives, which looks over the whole of East Jerusalem. This Palestinian man was showing his son the Dome of the Rock, if you follow the man’s finger you can see the golden dome in the distance. This is one of the most contested sites in the conflict; Muslims believe that this is the spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven, and the Jews believe that this is the place where the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments was kept. The Israelis are currently building tunnels underneath this beautiful mosque in order to undermine and sabotage this place of worship.

I took the photo below today at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in East Jerusalem, and it shows a group of Eastern European Christian women kissing the tomb of Jesus. The site is said to be Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and contains the place where Jesus was buried. As one of my friends from ICS pointed out today, God could have done a better job at handing out holy sites, did he really have to congregate the Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy of holies within a one mile radius of each other? We constantly hear about the differences and antagonisms between these monotheistic religions but walking around Jerusalem today only served to highlight their similarities to me…

Trade not aid?

International aid to Palestine currently stands at about £1.8 billion, and in addition to providing essential services for nearly half of Palestinian people, it also allows the Palestinian Authority (PA) to operate and pay its employees. However, life on the ground here is becoming increasingly desolate, with a huge gap in resources and high levels of unemployment. America and Israel have threatened to withhold funding to Palestine if they were to be successful with their bid for statehood, and whilst other Middle Eastern countries have vowed to match whatever is withheld by The Ugly Sisters, what is becoming clear to me is that this is really beside the point. I was told today by one of our partners at UNAIS that even if foreign aid to the West Bank and Gaza were tripled, Palestine’s GDP would only grow by 5%.

Furthermore, according to an article in today’s Guardian (Israeli occupation hits Palestinian authority), Israel’s occupation deprives the Palestinian economy of over £4.4billion a year, almost 85% of Palestine’s nominal GDP! A combination of the blockade on Gaza, water restrictions, natural resource restrictions, and import and export limits have served to hinder and isolate Palestine in the global economy. Palestine can never be an autonomous, sovereign state state as long as it relies on foreign aid, and all the caveats and constrictions that international aid brings with it.

Our partners have repeated time and time again that whilst the work undertaken by various organisations is of course beneficial, everything in this country has a political purpose, and applications for aid must fit a certain criteria for foreign budgets. This is one of the predominant reasons that a lot of money is going into so-called “state-building” and advocacy at the moment; multilateral projects like these are currently the “sexy” way to support Palestine. Khalid, who is my director at DFID, said a few years ago apparently it was disability projects..

This is clearly not sustainable if Palestine is to build a viable state. As Hasan Abu Libdeh, the economy minister at the PA said today, “No matter what the Palestinian people achieve by our own efforts, the occupation prevents us acheiving our potential as a free people in our own country.” He went on to suggest that one of the reasons that Israel has refused to respond to international calls for peaceful negotiations is the profit it makes from being an occupying power. For some of the people I work with, the situation has become so desperately unresolvable in recent years that they even suggested they wished the PA would dissolve itself, so that Israel would have full fiscal responsibility for Palestine, something that would inevitably cripple the Israeli economy in a time of global economic austerity. Then perhaps we would see a peace treaty negotiated more quickly.

What the international community, and the UK too must realise, is that being dependent on aid will never resolve anything in the long-term for Palestine. Only ending the occupation can do that.

Drinks reception at the British Consulate

We were invited for drinks at the British Consulate last night by the Consul-General Sir Vincent Fean. Our project is funded by DFID (Department for International Development), the only goverment department which has had its funding increased in the last budget, and so there were representatives there to talk to us about what we were doing on our projects. Also, seemingly, to make sure we said lots of good things about the ICS scheme when we got back. If my training weekend and the last three days are anything to go by, this scheme is an absolutely brilliant opportunity for young people to experience international development in a really constructive way. Although it pains me to think that the positive things I will probably eventually report on the program will make David Cameron think his policies in general are working for young people.

But anyway, we began with lots of awkward silences and painful small talk about how great and successful DFID had been in Palestine. I don’t deny thye’ve done good work, but I think the majority of our group felt pretty uncomfortable in an environment that seemed to be so cut off from the reality of what life is like over here. Beautiful diplomatic house, a phillipino maid and lots of talk about “advocacy” for the Palestinian people, which from what our Palestinian partners from IS have said doesn’t always seem to amount to much when the situation here on the ground is the probably the worst it has been for a long time. Nevertheless, British policy has changed recently from bilateral projects (building housing/sanitation, providing services for young people and women etc) which alleviate the poverty experienced on a day-today basis here, to ones which are focused multilaterally – there was a lot of talk about state-building.

At this point there was only so much British propaganda I was willing to nod along politely to. I asked Sir Vince that if the British government did believe in building a state, then how did he think the British should vote at the UN Security Council on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Considering he is the main point of contact between the UK and here, his opinion would presumably hold some sway. His response was like something out of the diplomatic textbook – he rambled on for about ten minutes about the need for negotiations as the key to resolving the conflict, and quite a lot of other diplomatic drivel that was hard to stomache. But he didn’t anwer my question. So before he could move on I asked him exactly the same question again (bit of a Paxo moment even if I say so myself), and this time he eventually answered. He said that the British should ”abstain’ from the proposal as the bid wasn’t going to be successful so it didn’t matter how they would have voted anyway.

Absolute bullshit! It reminded me of one of my favourite quotes, ”Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” By abstaining, Britain would be intrinsically siding with Israel and America – if this was an equal war, then perhaps that would not be the case, but it clearly is not. How can he talk about state-building but not even be willing to support the Palestinians politically, which seems to be completely necessary to counteract America’s strangehold over the “peace process” so far?! So I asked him that for all the talk about negotiations and peace process, surely the situation here would never change until America turned off the tap to Israel and they were forced to negotiate on a more level playing field. His response? America would never turn off the tap and the Palestinians should be glad to have Obama as a more liberal President. Good God. My eyes scanned around the room and there were a lot of shocked faces, but before I could respond he had moved on.

What is clear is that as much as the British are doing here, and their work does seem to be well respected, everything they do is political and when push comes to shove, do the government really care about radically changing the situation for Palestinians? Or, as Sir Vince quite incitefully suggested, is it a case that any country in the world with a middle class has to be seen as doing something to aid the conflict? It makes me think that whilst what we are doing out here is definitely important, as is the role of international development in general, what needs to change is British policy towards other countries. We need to do the right thing, not the economically and politically beneficial thing.

Arriving in Israel

Before even collecting my luggage after getting off our flight I had already had two experiences which seem to be indicative of things to come during my time here. As we were flying Easyjet and I had pottered around for longer than necessary in the departure lounge we were one of the last on the plane so I ended up sitting separately from the rest of my group. I was sandwiched between a very glam Jewish grandma on the one side, who had tucked into a cream cheese bagel and told me about her grandsons before we’d even taken off (“all lawyers, very good looking boys, need to find them nice Jewish girls… are you Jewish dear?”), and a stunning Israeli boy on the other (most enjoyable).  I had heard The Stunner talking to his friend in Hebrew and recognised the words Hamas and Hezbollah, so thought it would probably be best to steer clear of a heated political discussion so early on into my trip.

All started very nicely – the boys had a bottle of Baileys so me, the Glam Gran and The Stunner had a drink together happily chatting at the front of the plane about the best falafel I would find in Israel, a country they clearly loved. When the boys asked me where I was going I said Jerusalem, and that’s where Glam Gran dropped me in it – I’d told her earlier that I was actually going to Ramallah and whilst initially she seemed to brush over it, she decided to tell the boys about what I was actually doing here.

Well that was the end of the friendly chit chat – I spent the next five hours trapped in cramped easyjet conditions flanked by two virulent Zionists. I am here to try to understand the conflict better and so tried to be as diplomatic as possible and not get frustrated with some of what they were saying, but unfortunately The Stunner in particular was being overtly racist about the Palestinians and Arabs in general (they were “primitive, uneducated thieves”). As usual, a combination of what happened in the Holocaust and the security threat seemed to be the predominant response which for them justified what Israel is doing in the territories. They argued that I was brainwashed and that I could have no idea of the conflict as the British media lies about what is happening, and therefore was basically not allowed to have any opinion on it.

I guess in some ways they had a point; with something as complicated as the situation over here, its impossible to grasp what is going on without experiencing the dynamics of the region first hand, and I’m not sure that solely reading The Guardian and a few articles on Al Jazeera can really be evocative of the two sides of this story. However, what surprised me was the sheer rage of these two well educated, cosmopolitan boys. They had a successful business in Brighton selling Israeli cosmetics (it had been boycotted by the BDS movement, something they were both furious about -“business is separate from politics”…hmm), but they liked good techno and previous to our political wrangling had charmed me delightfully. But there was little room for manoeuvre in the conversation or any compromise on their attitude and when I asked what they thought a solution could be, the response was that there would always be war. Trying to negotiate with an ideology as ingrained as theirs seemed to be almost an impossibility.

Being let off the plane was something of a sweet release. As we approached the passport control, our entire group began to look rather shifty as we stumbled over our well rehearsed lines “visiting Israel to work with women and young people.” Its fair to say that nobody in my group is going to make it as a spy. However, our whole team was let through without too much drama. Except, that is, for the two Muslim girls we were travelling with – one of whom was questioned for four hours, the other “fortunately” for only 30 minutes. The suggestion that Israel is not discriminatory against Muslims began to appear fairly laudable.

Fortunately, the two girls were let go and as we zipped towards Jerusalem we passed through the first check point. It was manned by two very pretty Israeli girls, who except for the massive assault rifles slung casually round their shoulders looked like they could be working in a supermarket checkout – bored. With an uninterested look and a toss of their hair we were let through, there’s no doubt that this is a conflict that sometimes seems to be as pointless as it does devastating…

Five days to go…

This Sunday I will leave behind everything I know to travel to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where I will begin a three month placement working as a volunteer at Birzeit University. I will be working on a project which documents the violations of Palestinian students’ rights to education, which are repeatedly infringed by the Israeli government’s checkpoints and blockades.

I’ve serviced my camera, done a supermarket sweep of Primark to buy some modest clothing for my stay (hot pants and leotards definitely discarded…Burqini considered), and told work that I’m not going to be available to serve any stroppy fashionistas for the next few months. My bags are now packed, plane tickets printed, and the enormity of what I am about to undertake has suddenly begun to dawn upon me.

I’m not sure if I’m scared; I am certainly travelling into the unknown. Unlike many other parts of the world, I haven’t been bombarded with travelling photos from facebook acquiantances – nowhere can I find a trace of neon paint and sand buckets filled with cocktails, white shores and deep european tans, the perspective shots of one friend standing in another friends hand. Not a multicoloured alpaca trouser leg in sight. I cannot grasp what the country looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like – I have no touchstone experience with which I can place myself in Ramallah or the rest of the territories.

This may seem surprising to some seeing as we are constantly bombarded with images of the violence and conflict that has racked the region for sixty years. I know I will see checkpoints, hear the sound of rubber bullets, smell the acrid stench of teargas, feel the agony and frustration when witnessing the terrible rights violations that the Palestinians face on a day-to-day basis. Yet everything inside me is pushing against this clichéd idea of what I will experience.

Instead, bubbling around my head are the questions I’ve had since I was offered a place on the project – Do I have any skills or anything useful to offer the project? How effective can a group of 18-22 year old British people really be? Can I affect change in the short time I’m there? Do I understand the conflict well enough to not be deemed as a fraud – a do-gooding voluntourist?

I had a good chat with a friend who suggested that I put these questions out of my head from the beginning – whatever I think I can achieve, I should half this and realise it will take double the time I thought to do it. Instead, she recommended I focus on what I am going to get out of this experience. Many times in conversation with people about my trip, the most oft repeated phrase is “This is going to be a life-changing experience”, “Ooh you’re going to come back a different person”

At first I was mildly offended – why were my friends so apparently eager for me to change?! However, I think they are probably right. On Sunday I am going to begin a once-in-a-lifetime journey and I have no idea what to expect, all I know is that I have never wanted to do anything more in my whole life (cue X Factor style crescendo of Take That’s Greatest Day “Today this could beee the greatest day of our liiives”…)

I have been given the opportunity to visit a country that has preoccupied all my thinking since being taken on a Pro-Palestine demonstration as an ill-informed Fresher almost four years ago. As a slightly better informed 22 year old, my political convictions and opinions never escape the ears of anybody who will listen, but I know that many of the things I hold true are likely to change in the time I’m away.

I intend to update this blog as regularly as possible – for my family and friends – but also for anyone who is interested in the conflict and would like to read about what life is really like in the Occupied Palestinian Territories… It is definitely an exciting time to be travelling to the region, I am going to be entering the country on a wind of change; it may even be recognised as a state by the time I get there. Unlikely, but we shall see. Whatever happens, no amount of camera servicing and plug adaptor buying can prepare me for my experience, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, and looking forward to taking up the challenges I know I am due to face.