PETER McCormick is an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Belfast who lives near Ballynoe near Downpatrick and is working with Down News for the summer holidays on work experience to gain a further insight into the media and local politics. He is considering a career in journalism. This year he visited the troubled West Bank in the Middle East. Below Peter gives a short description of his experience there, one that will remain with him for the rest of his life.
“Last May I travelled to the West Bank in the occupied territories of Israel, and given the history of conflict present in the region, I was interested to see and understand the causes and effects of the ongoing violence for myself. I study politics and international conflict at Queen’s University Belfast and wanted to get to know what it was like to live in a conflict zone.
“For the duration of the trip (18–28th May) I stayed with a Palestinian family in Beit Jala, a village neighbouring Bethlehem, which allowed me a great insight into the life under occupation by the Israeli forces. It quickly became apparent that even the simplicity of free movement we take for granted in our own society is in fact a contentious issue given the complex political and religious situation in Palestine and Israel.
“I stayed with the Mukarker family who lived up to the reputation of Palestinian hospitality that I would grow used to during my stay. When I arrived at their home the realities of life in the West Bank immediately became apparent. Their home had been occupied by the Israeli Defence Force a few months earlier. They said they thought the reasoning behind the occupation of their home was that it was a strategic viewpoint. The house was situated on top a hill overlooking the on-going construction of the separation wall between Israel and Palestine. Marks on the front door of the house revealed how the soldiers had forced their way into the home before occupying it.
“Bethlehem on its own is host to three refugee camps, two of which I was able to visit – the Aida and Dheisheh camps. The residents of these camps spoke strongly of what they referred to as the “right of return” as outlined by the UN resolution 194. This resolution implies that refugees have the right to return to the villages they were either forced from or abandoned during the foundation of Israel in 1948.
“The camps were overpopulated and living standards were dire, with 13,000 refugees residing in the 0.31 square kilometres of land that Dheisheh camp encompasses. Co-ordinators of the local youth and learning centres showed us around the camps. They explained that with over-population, continuing demolition of community buildings by the Israeli army, and a lack of money, that life in the camps is virtually impossible. The right of return seemed a hope retained exclusively by the residents of the camps, given that Palestinians living throughout the rest of Bethlehem suggested that the Palestinian Authority is making plans, according to Christian Palestinian sources, to move the refugees to the Jordan.
“Hebron, a city further north than Bethlehem, was the most visibly tense place I visited during my stay. It was also the most unique of the Israeli settlements we were shown. The Jewish settlers occupied the second floors of market shops owned by Palestinians, forcing daily confrontations between settlers and shop owners.
“The shop owners quickly made us aware of the nets placed above the shops. They said they put them in place to reduce the variety of materials that the settlers could throw down on top of them. Walking through the old city of Hebron, however, it became obvious the nets did little to stop broken glass and eggs being thrown down by settlers.
“Iyad, a tour guide who operated in the area, said Hebron was a visible example of ‘Israeli apartheid and long-term ethnic cleansing.’ He explained how in smaller Palestinian villages outside Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities would surround and fence off the villages, and instigate curfews making life difficult for villagers.
“He said this was done in a way to encourage the villagers, especially the younger generations, to ‘give up and leave’. He also introduced us to two members of EAPPI (The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel). They allowed us to accompany them into one of the Israeli settlements to act as wardens to Palestinian children who must walk home from school through the settlement. They claimed that they are required to be present because in the past, the settlers have thrown stones and verbally abused the Palestinian children as well as their teachers.
“Towards the end of my short stay, I observed a weekly peaceful protest that takes place in a small village called Bil’in. The protest drew together a large group of locals as well as internationals in a display of civil disobedience against the construction of the separation wall, which would inevitably cut the village off from its agricultural lands. The protest made its way towards an Israeli Defence Force blockade just outside the village.
“The crowd had barely made it to the edge of the village when the first rounds of tear gas were fired into the crowd, causing a burning sensation in our chests and stinging our eyes. When the crowd finally made it up to the barricade, the army sprayed ‘skunk’, a chemical with a close similarity to faecal matter, directly into the protesters. The situation slowly turned to chaos with younger protesters hurling stones at the soldiers whilst arrests were being made by the army. Palestinian ambulances also raced through to attend to any protesters injured. One man was hit by an army truck and another was struck across the head.
“After half an hour, in order to finally disperse the crowd, the army began firing live ammunition over the crowd, encouraging a hasty retreat back towards the village by the protesters.
“I followed another weekly protest that occurred in a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah. It was organised in protest against the evictions of Palestinian families in the neighbourhood. We were told these evictions occur in order to accomodate Israeli settlers. Given that the protest was peaceful the march was allowed to culminate in the garden of a home now inhabited by a settler family. The same protest was encouraged by the evicted Palestinian family who were now living in a tent in the same garden outside their former home.
“The tension of the situation rose when two settlers came out into the garden, taking a seat and reading their scripture despite being surrounded by a crowd protesting their occupation of the household in question. It was a stark contrast to the protest in Bil’in. Both protests were peaceful yet were handled entirely differently.
“I ended my trip with an Easter Sunday celebration at the Mukarker family home, enjoying a traditional feast of rice, stewed lamb and arak (a strong liqueur). By this stage of the trip it became apparent that every conversation and topic, even in the light of a day of celebration, is inevitably tied to politics and the situation caused by the occupation of the West Bank.
“The grandmother of the family was visibly upset given that only a few members from an extended family of almost two hundred, were granted permission by the Israeli authorities to cross the checkpoint into Jerusalem in order to pray for Easter. Before I left she said, ‘I should not need permission to pray.--.. I live in a prison. I can’t go anywhere.’
“One point I found interesting was that the public utilities such as water and electricity are owned and controlled by the Israelis and services are very much a stop-go affair. Most people have water tanks on their roofs and they are filled up every 40 days.
“It is a region that has seen much strife and while some get about their daily chores with a quiet acceptance, others are more political, and unless an accommodation is found, it seems this will always be an area of conflict.”