Political Tourist is a short series of blogs written by Jane Harries during her April visit to Gaza. The primary purpose of this visit (detailed in a subsequent blog in the Political Tourist series) was to ‘deliver a basic and advanced Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop to students at Gaza university.’ Political Tourist adopts a first hand account of Jane’s experiences, detailing themes of poverty, injustice and hatred, felt so prominently throughout the region whilst illustrating the framework for tackling these issues.
Walking the Line of Non-Violence
As we descend into the Old City of Jerusalem from the Damascus Gate, all our senses are assaulted. Row upon row of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, plastic toys, scarves and T-shirts; a cacophony of stall-holders’ calls; the smell of fresh herbs and coffee….All humanity is here. We drag our cases down the slippery cobbled streets and make our way to the Ecce Homo guesthouse, a quiet haven amongst the bustle of shoppers and pilgrims.
There is another aspect to this tourist canvass, of course. One doesn’t have to look far to spot Israeli flags draped from upstairs windows. These are houses which have been taken over by settlers in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. A group of Israeli soldiers lounge at the junction to the Ecce Homo guesthouse. True, at least three of them are glued to their mobile phones, and the rest may look bored, but their guns leave us in no doubt that they mean business were they to be confronted with ‘trouble’. The next day a youth is spread-eagled against a wall on the way to the Damascus Gate, being questioned by a group of soldiers. I stop and observe. After a while, the youth is released. Tension is never far from the surface.
We visit a representative from the organisation that has helped to facilitate our entry into Gaza. They are a Christian organisation, performing much-needed humanitarian work in the enclave. However, it is made clear to us how important it is for them to remain neutral in their communication and low profile in what they are doing, for fear of being shut down by the Israeli authorities. Joe explains our overall aim in delivering Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops in Israel and the Occupied Territories: to work at the grassroots level, with no political agenda, but addressing the horizontal violence in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. We hope to empower people, by helping them to gain the necessary skills to deal with conflict non-violently, first and foremost by training organisations so that they can pass on skills to the people whom they serve. In this way we hope to play our part in addressing the violence in the two communities which the unequal political situation and above all the Occupation causes.
We have plans of working with co-existence groups, but understand how sensitive this can be. Moves towards coexistence can be seen as attempts at ‘normalisation’ by the Palestinian authorities, and as empty when they don’t lead to any real change in people’s circumstances. Where communities are divided by walls, checkpoints, guns, uniforms and stereotypes, however, moves to bring people face to face on the human level should surely be welcomed, as long as we recognise that this won’t solve the larger Conflict on its own.
We meet with Jenna and Rachel, two young Israelis who have trained as AVP facilitators, to discuss the possibility of further development in Israel. We find that Jenna is contemplating moving back to the US to be nearer her family, following the birth of her second child. Rachel lives in Gush Etzion, one of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and describes how it feels to have witnessed some of the recent stabbings almost from her window. She acknowledges the need to address the violence in Israeli society, but wonders how to attract the ‘right people’ onto workshops. Part of me feels really uncomfortable during this conversation. I regard the settlements on the West Bank as illegal under International Law and an obstacle to a lasting peace. And yet this young woman is sincere in wanting to live in peace and address the violence in her own society.
In the evening we enjoy a meal in a restaurant in East Jerusalem. As we pay we meet a young man who informs us that pickpockets in the Old City are encouraged by the Israeli police because they give the Palestinians – the ‘Arabs’ – a bad name amongst the tourists. Can this be true, or is this just another myth – another example of the layer upon layer of stereotypes and prejudice which divide people into good and bad, black and white – not individual human beings to be trusted and befriended?
How does one even begin to unpeel the layers of distrust, prejudice and hatred that exist here? There is no easy answer, but AVP could be a drop in the ocean.