My journey begins in a stuffy, dust-coated taxi-sheerut alongside a young American family scrapping together phrases of Hebrew and a few local Israelis loudly bickering with the driver. As I block them from my mind and stare silently out the window, I am struck by the great white hills of settlements, large ghost towns cascading down the desert slopes. Cranes give birth to more and more ice cold blocks each day and a desperate pain radiates through me as I think of the overcrowded open air prison of Gaza, the refugee camps of Aida and Jenin bursting at the seams. We soon reach the infamous walled highway and my fellow travellers continue their journey as if nothing is abnormal about this scene. Driving through the West Bank on Israeli roads inaccessible to the Palestinian population, Palestine is simply erased from view and mind. Three days later, I stand on a hilltop looking down onto the walled highway concealing Beit Jala from view. I discover the grey towering slabs of rock put in place to annex the valley so that Palestinians can no longer access their land. I see the settlements sprawl onto land deemed vacant under illogical present-absentee land laws. I see how easily you can hide existence with a piece of concrete, and in turn isolate a population forever.
The walled highway blocking Beit Jala from view (Photo: Laura French)
When I arrive in Beit Sahour, the first town in Palestine I visit, there is a tangible thrill of energy and life. On approach, it is condemned by a glaring red sign as a place of fear, a risk to life, a danger zone. Yet all I find are beaming high school students who have just received their results driving around the city whilst honking their horns. They are smiling and shouting, blasting music, greeting everyone as one community. I expected gunshots and receive fireworks. Joy is triumphing over misery. It is existence as a form of resistance, but even more than that, they are thriving against all odds. Over the next week, as I travel to Ramallah, Nabi Saleh, Nazareth, Jenin, Nablus, the Jordan Valley, and Hebron, I encounter life emerging from the oppressive darkness of the occupation.
Life blossoms all around me
My week is spent meeting academics, NGOs, and activists, which more often than not leave me with overwhelming feelings of despair and hopelessness. I emerge from these discussions and get smacked in the face by a thriving city, or by two wrinkled women sitting down in a tiny street in the cool of the day nattering away merrily and beckoning me to join them. It is not my place to feel hopeless, and Palestinian people will certainly not let me feel so. In the home of the Tamimi family and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, cups of rich Arabic coffee fall into my hands. In Nablus, I explore the beautiful city steeped in heritage filled with welcoming and kind people. They play their instruments and welcome me into their knafeh shops and I sit in the sun under a grapevine in a coffee-shisha bar’s garden drinking fresh lemon juice. This place is labelled as the capital of terror in the West Bank, yet life is blossoming all around me, despite the best efforts by the Israeli Government to stomp down the flowers of culture. In East Jerusalem I sit for hours talking to old men about Brexit, the occupation, their families, the children in Gaza. A quote that sticks with me from our conversation is that asking a Palestinian if he had ever been to prison is like asking a Palestinian if he has ever tried bread. This is also the reality.
A reality that is truly difficult to comprehend
I am not trying to sell an idealistic or romanticised image of the occupation. It is brutal and challenging and torturous. It is clear that there is an apartheid happening. In Hebron, there is no way you cannot be struck by the military checkpoints, the fledgling soldiers holding machine guns, the ghostly nature of the streets with bullets lining walls and shutters. The school in Aida is decorated with bullet holes, a finishing touch gifted by the IDF. School children traumatised by their experiences under occupation still run over to me to practice their English. I am shocked by how calmly and nonchalantly people would point to areas where children were shot to death. It is a reality that I cannot, nor the rest of the world, truly comprehend. I see the remains of villages destroyed in 1948 and the smart and manipulative forests leering over them; the trees serving as a reminder of the rubbles’ hidden existence, the inability to return, and complete erasure of a community and a memory. I cannot ignore the pain I feel in my guides’ eyes when he shrugs and turns away from the view of a valley once prospering, now forcibly abandoned. I cannot ignore the frustration and hopelessness expressed when we discuss the failings of the international community. The hour spent with the softly spoken Manal Tamimi in her home talking about the abuse she has witnessed and suffered remains burnt in my brain. Each discussion ends with the same request; to continue to advocate, to push for justice, but to make sure what I would say was the truth.
The power, the strength and the magic of the Palestinian people
A week traveling around Palestine may not be long enough to fully immerse yourself into the life of Palestinians. It wouldn’t be even if I stayed for longer, due to my privilege as a white European. My journey is merely a small glimpse into the occupation. In spite of this, I feel as though I learnt a lifetime’s worth of information. Palestine is beautiful, drenched with rich culture and heritage. Palestinians somehow continue to find hope even when their town becomes a walled off prison, their country fragmented, and their people subjected to the worst forms of violence. There is kindness, generosity and light here that is unique to this country. That is the power, strength and magic of the Palestinian people.