June 5th marked the 40th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.
World Vision UK's Chief Executive, Charles Badenoch, recently visited the area and shares his journal of experiences.
I travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories to find out the truth of what it’s like to live in Israel and Palestine today. A simple truth is that today’s situation harms all children. There is a polarisation and a blame game that does not help. Each side needs to understand the other’s language, the other’s mind map. World Vision works with both Israelis and Palestinians to form connections and encourage reconciliation. We need to move away from the abyss of hatred and the cycle of violence.
Travelling through physical separation barriers, checkpoints and new roads (for use by those with the correct number plates), I visit World Vision projects in Deir Abu Mashal village. There are children in school uniforms on the streets, but not at school, because teachers are on strike having not been paid for several months. This is man-made poverty caused by injustice and politics.
We visit a clinic built with assistance from World Vision. The clinic now provides primary health care to some 3,000 Palestinians per month. Secondary healthcare is a real problem since access to the nearest hospital in Ramallah, via checkpoints, can take more than 12 hours. There is no local ambulance service.
Next we go to visit a women’s group being trained in building and keeping beehives. Talking to the women, I find that, in addition to providing nutrition and income, this project has helped to build a community amongst the women, as well as their self-confidence.
Then perhaps the hardest visit of the whole week – to visit the mother of a 15-year-old boy who was shot by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier less than three weeks ago.
Kareem (meaning ‘kindness’) was found by his mother lying on the ground outside their home. He had a large bullet wound through his chest. She described holding her son with her hand over the wound as blood seeped through her fingers. She put her son in a car to take him to hospital but at the checkpoint the car was delayed. Kareem was attended to by military paramedics on the ground, under the noon sun.
Eventually an army ambulance came, but a two hour journey to hospital took four through the checkpoints and he died on arrival. I sit with Kareem’s mother in her living room and look at photographs of a young smiling teenage boy – all she can ask is, why?
Today I meet Cairo Arafat, a psychologist and official in the Palestinian Planning Ministry. A recent survey showed that 77% of Palestinians are suffering from depression. Cairo describes how there is an emerging “prison mentality” where the aspirations of children are becoming very limited. “I only dream inside my cage” is a quote from a 22-year-old Palestinian woman. When we were growing up our aspirations were about going to the moon, Cairo says, today a Palestinian child living in Bethlehem will not dare to dream about visiting Jerusalem only 10km away.
I meet with the Palestinian Authorities (PA) Minister for Information, Mustafa Barghouti. We discuss the European Union and World Bank's Temporary International Mechanism (TIM), which was designed to provide direct assistance to the Palestinian people. He claims the mechanism is “counter-productive and de-institutionalising the Palestinian structures”. Mustafa’s ultimate hope though is for a solution that will be based on non-violence and democracy.
Finally I meet Father Raed, a Catholic Priest, in the village of Taybeh (the location of Biblical Ephraim). He has built a thriving micro-enterprise business exporting olive oil, peace lamps and couscous. He hopes to export 20,000 peace lamps a year to churches around the world for the next five years. He tells me wonderful stories of inter-faith growth and community.
Today I visit a World Vision long-term development programme in Bethlehem. The key challenges here are lack of income for adults and food security for children. Unemployment is at 30-35%, whilst for most, employment is not full-time and many live on subsistence farming. I talk to a man with seven children – his 23-year-old son has been in jail for five months without being charged. He tells me Israeli soldiers visit the village at least twice a week.
Next is the AIDA refugee camp where Palestinian refugees have been living since 1948. I met with a volunteer youth worker who lives in the camp. He tells me that after the Oslo Agreement, there was a great hope and many acts of reconciliation. Mothers who had lost their children would invite Israeli soldiers for coffee, a very symbolic act of reconciliation in Arabic culture known as ‘Sulha’. Now as hope fades, there is a real concern about what will happen with the next generation. Big mental barriers are growing which are much more difficult to break down than the physical barriers, he says.
Today I eat with the Family Circle, an organisation of 250 Israeli and 250 Palestinian families, all of whom have lost children or loved ones in the conflict. Tonight we are meeting with Rami, an Israeli who has lost his 14-year-old daughter and Aziz, a Palestinian who lost his 18-year-old brother.
Aziz says a ‘normal’ childhood for a Palestinian growing up in the occupied Palestinian territory consists of throwing stones at soldiers, being shot at, having friends injured. When Aziz was 10-years-old, he was sleeping in a room with his three brothers when the IDF arrived in the middle of the night to search his home. The soldiers took his 18-year-old brother on “suspicion of throwing stones at cars”. His brother was beaten for 15 days until he confessed and was sentenced to one year in prison. He was let out early because of injuries he had suffered in interrogation. The family took him straight to hospital but he died after a few days from injuries.
Aziz tells me by the time he left high school his anger had made him very tired. He realised that if he was to achieve anything in his life in East Jerusalem, he would have to learn Hebrew, which he avoided at high school as it was the language of “the enemy”. He enrolled in an adult Hebrew class for new immigrants where he was the only Palestinian. Aziz had no option but to talk with the other Israeli students. He explains how he started meeting the “human beings” and not “the enemy”. Aziz got to know his Israeli colleagues and started drinking coffee with them.
Rami is a 57-year-old Israeli whose daughter was killed ten years ago by a suicide bomber. When she died, he was faced by two options: the path of anger, hatred and revenge, or the more complicated option of exploring “what I can do personally to prevent this happening again to somebody else, to another family”.
At the age of 47, Rami had never shaken the hand of a Palestinian. His family, he says, had lived in a bubble, never wanting to think or learn about life outside. After many months of pain and searching, Rami joined the Parent Circle. From meeting with other bereaved families from both sides, he found a “way of listening to each other’s pain” and discovered “our blood is the same colour, our pain is the same, our tears of grief are as bitter”.
In the past year, The Parent Circle teams have given lectures in 1,000 schools on both sides of the wall. Aziz has a weekly radio programme where he interviews members of the organisation in both Arabic and Hebrew.
As Rami is leaving he tells me to “amplify our voice”. The world must be made aware the reality of the situation in Israel and Palestine, he says, so that it can urge country leaders to urgently facilitate a new paradigm, a real dialogue and a just peace for all children and their families on both sides.
I am driven to Tel Aviv airport by a Palestinian taxi driver at 5.00am. We pass through a checkpoint and there’s a long line of cars that have been pulled over. The taxi driver turns to me and says, it is hard being a Palestinian worker here. I reply, “I know. I have seen and heard many stories”.