Political Tourist: The Final Chapter

Jane Harries

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It is Hanna who first introduces me to the concept of political tourism – a concept she has been looking at in her PhD thesis, an ethnography of the journeys of Machsom Watch members from their homes in Israel to the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank in order to monitor the treatment of Palestinians crossing these checkpoints by IDF soldiers.  Political tourism involves a journey in space and time but also between two different cultures, with an aim to witness and create sociopolitical change.

Towards the end of my visit I experience periods of self-doubt.  Why do I repeatedly come to the area?  To scratch at the wounds of the other?  To confirm a particular political standpoint?  Is what I am doing really voyeurism, and do my visits do any good?  Could I, in fact, do more good by being active at home?  All these questions are valid, and worth looking at in some detail.

One reason for visiting the region on a fairly regular basis is to come as a witness and to stand alongside those who are suffering.  This largely means Palestinian communities because of the effects of the military occupation and harassment by radical settlers. During my visit I receive the latest EAPPI update from the teams in the field.  Their reports show that abuses of human rights have dramatically increased in 2016, including an increase in displacements and house demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Coming to the area and witnessing the effects of these policies on ordinary people is very powerful, especially as this truth is rarely conveyed in the Western media.  Although I haven’t been directly involved with EAPPI this time, I have heard how the Occupation affects the lives of ordinary people in Hebron and Gaza.  It is very important for people affected by violence to feel that they are heard, validated and taken seriously in a world that has largely ignored them.

For political tourism to be authentic, there should also be a desire on the part of the ‘tourist’ to be open to learning and change.  Meeting Rachel and Jenna this time helped me to realise that there are Jewish settlers living on the West Bank who wish to work for peace and understanding with their Arab neighbours.  I may not agree with their decision to live where they are, but I cannot doubt their sincerity in wishing to work towards a more peaceful society.  To address structural injustice, it is government policies that need to change and individuals like Rachel and Jenna may just help to create the social pressure which is necessary to trigger political change.

There are a number of factors which need to be taken into account by those campaigning for a more just and peaceful society.  As a political tourist I am hugely privileged in that I am able to return to a relatively peaceful stable society.   The people I am standing alongside largely don’t have that privilege.  I am also aware that I am relatively empowered, whereas the people we are working with are to a large extent dependent on the rules and whims of military authorities which control their movements.  To be authentic and sincere we need to recognise these inequalities, and to approach the work we are called to do with humility and respect.   For women like Hanna these challenges are to be felt even more keenly as it’s her government that is the oppressor.  She works for political change, knowing that change could mean radical change for her own society.

For our actions to be sincere and authentic, we also need to act on what we have witnessed on our return home – by telling others what we had witnessed and campaigning for change. Nor should the fact that we are active in seeking solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict mean that we are inactive elsewhere.  We should speak out against human rights abuses and social discrimination wherever they occur – at home and abroad.

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On my last morning Hanna and I visit her local park and shopping mall.  Here we seem a million miles away from the noisy, dusty litter-strewn streets of Gaza. Even here, however, there are factors which indicate the nature of Israeli society.  Hanna points out the fact that nearly all those serving in the shopping Mall are Palestinian Israeli.  On observing more closely I see that she is right.  Socio-economic discrimination seems to operate in Israel itself for the Palestinian minority (around 20% of the population).

Just before I leave Hanna is keen to show me a couple of YouTube clips which give her hope.  These are of the singer Ziv Yehezkel, born into a traditional Orthodox Jewish family, but who has learnt about traditional Palestinian oud-playing and singing, and taken the tradition to his heart. He now performs traditional songs and melodies alongside a Palestinian Israeli soprano Nisreen Qadri, backed by the Jerusalem-Andalou orchestra.  As with Violette’s Nasijona project, Hanna dreams of an intergrated society  where Israelis and Palestinians can live, work and be creative alongside one another, respecting one another’s culture and heritage.  Like Violette, Hanna seeks for hope through the creative arts.

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Political Tourist part 6: Discovering and Sharing Heritage for Truth and Peace

Jane Harries

 

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Wednesday, 13th April.  I travel to Nazareth to reconnect with my friend Violette.  We first
met in 2004 when Violette was part of a visit of Israeli and Palestinian peace women to the UK organised by ‘Women to Women for Peace’, and have kept in touch ever since.  A Christian Palestinian Israeli and active within ‘Sabeel’, Violette remembers 1948 and how Galilee was before the formation of the Israeli state – a place where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side and cooperated.  She used to run a pharmacy in the centre of Nazareth, and has degrees from both French and Italian universities.

Over a delicious breakfast of pizza-type bread topped with zata’ar, parmesan cheese and labane, we talk about the work that Violette is involved in at the moment.  She is concerned that Palestinian culture is being lost and wants to find creative ways of keeping her heritage alive.  She shows me a YouTube clip of a drama created by her daughter Faten called ‘Living Stones’ in which the stones of significant buildings come to life and reveal the history and culture of the place.  We also talk about ‘Nasijona’, a project that Violette is creating in Nazareth, which aims to bring women together to revive handicrafts which are in danger of dying out, but also to recreate the harmonious Nazareth community that Violette remembers.  When I visited last year, the project was just an empty building and an idea.  Violette describes how the idea has now taken off and inspired women of different ages, backgrounds and faiths to come together.

We talk about barriers and the actions necessary to remove them.  Violette tells me a story of one of the founder members of Machsom Watch – the Israeli organisation that monitors the checkpoints (Machsom means ‘barrier’ in Hebrew).  Despite the fact that this woman had set up an organisation to monitor the abuse of human rights and the harassment of Palestinians at checkpoints, she had still been wary of visiting Violette in Nazareth, a predominantly Arab city.  This demonstrates that barriers are not only physical, but accumulate in the minds of those who never meet – creating myths and monsters.  She explains that ‘Nasijona’ is a combination of the two words ‘barrier’ and ‘way’ – translating as something like ‘the Way to Remove Barriers’.

We visit the Silesian School, which overlooks the city.  From here it is plain to see how the original Arab city is squeezed into a confined area, whereas Nazareth Ilit, the newer Jewish area of the city, expands across the hilltops.  Violette remembers how, after 1948, Palestinian families fled to the Silesian monastery after their villages were destroyed and they were forbidden to return.  Some were tricked into signing papers which they thought gave them the deeds to a new apartment in Nazareth, but were in fact an agreement to give up any claim to their land.  The current residents of Nazareth are the descendants of these displaced people.

In the afternoon we have lunch in a café in Nazareth.  Violette remarks positively on the fact that the menu is in Arabic.  Although Arabic is an official language in Israel, it is in places disappearing from public places, and is in danger of being supplanted by Russian.  We meet with Jonathan Cook, a British journalist and commentator and share our understanding of the present political reality of what is going on in the region.  I comment on the fact that I have just received the February update from EAPPI (the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel), which documents a dramatic increase in demolitions and displacements in Area C of the West Bankso far in 2016.  We conjecture as to whether the ultimate aim of the Israeli government is to annex Area C – 60% of the West Bank.  Jonathan thinks that this is what is happening, as does Jeff Halper (Director of ICAHD – the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions).  Once this happens we are into an end game – the creation of Bantustans which will be barricaded in and controlled like Gaza.  We talk about how good the Israeli government is at controlling the media, and agree that it’s important to keep on telling the truth about the reality we see.  This has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but is about speaking out for respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, based on values of true democracy and humanity.

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We finish the day by visiting ‘Nasijona’ in action.  Women sit around in groups and there is an air of contented industry.  Older expert needlewomen show younger women how to create traditional articles of beauty.  Under their deft fingers and patient smiles works of art slowly emerge.  Muslim and Christian, old and young, veiled and unveiled are joined in this enterprise – recreating heritage and community.  Violette points to one striking fact: they are all smiling.

This may not change the political map, but it defies a narrative of division, distrust and incompatibility.  Alongside traditional handicrafts, these women are recreating a culture of trust and hope for the future.

 

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Political Tourist part 5: Checkpoint Duty

Jane Harries

Today Hanna and I get up at 5a.m. to go to Hableh Checkpoint, where she will do her regular Machsom Watch shift.  Machsom Watch is a group of Israeli women who visit checkpoints controlled by the Israeli Defence Force to monitor and document the treatment of Palestinians by the military and to report any abuses.  Hanna has recently completed her PhD thesis which is an ethnography of the women’s experiences as they travel from one society to the other, and the effect this has on them mentally, emotionally and socially as they seek to identify with ‘the other’ and bring the injustices of Occupation to the attention of their own society.

How near yet how far away from one another these societies are!  Geographically close, of course – but in terms of awareness and lived reality, light years apart.  We drive along a modern motorway that could belong to any Western society and suddenly turn off onto a potholed dusty side-road.  We were so deep in conversation that Hanna almost misses the turning.  Small wonder, for there are no signs, just as there are no signs to the Palestinian villages which border the road. This is part of the invisible map of Occupation – one civilisation grafted onto another which is practically airbrushed out.

We reach the checkpoint gate by 6a.m. (the designated opening time) – but there is no movement.  By 6.05 the soldiers have arrived and leisurely prepare to open up.  Between that time and 7.30a.m. there is a steady stream of people crossing – mostly workers with permits to access their land or places of work in the Seam zone.  They are allowed through in groups of 5. Some work in garden centres, others in construction.  A variety of vehicles pass through – horses or donkeys and carts, cars, trucks and two school buses. (The primary school is in the Seam zone, whilst the secondary school is in the village itself, necessitating a movement of teachers and pupils.)  We are greeted by ‘Good Mornings’ in Arabic, Hebrew and English – and with smiles.

On the surface all is calm.  This is what Hanna calls ‘the routine of Occupation’.  It is clear, however, who is in control.  From the uniforms and guns, of course, but also from the manner of the soldiers. At one point someone doesn’t quite obey the rules, or maybe doesn’t have the correct permit: ‘Get back, get out of here!’ one of the soldiers shouts.  It can hardly be imagined what it must feel like to be subjected to this humiliation day by day just to get to one’s own land or to one’s place of work or education.  What must go through people’s minds?  And yet those who pass through appear calm and gracious, as if resigned.

Two incidents emerge during the shift – two reasons why it was good we were there.  One man stops and tells Hanna that he has applied for and been given permission to have feed for his sheep delivered to where they are in the Seam zone – but nothing has happened.  The second incident happens right at the end of the shift – at around 7.27a.m.  A man drives up from the Israeli side asking to go through to the village.  But the soldier has already closed the gate on the Hableh side, and refuses to allow him to do so, in spite of the fact that a group of 5 men is still coming through.  We later learn that this is the mayor of Hableh.  What does the soldier care?  He is told that he can go to the next checkpoint and cross there.  People’s status in their own society is as nothing compared to military authority.

And so Hanna returns home and writes up her report.  She too is part of the routine, but an important part –  a presence which stands for humanity and which aims to hold people to account for their behaviour.  The logo of Machsom Watch is an ever-open eye.  The watchful, critical gaze of witnesses is necessary in the invisible zone where most people pass by.

Political Tourist part 4: AVP – Gazan Style

Jane Harries

The main purpose of our visit to Gaza is to deliver a basic and advanced Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop to students at Gaza university.  Our hope is that – through the workshop – the students will gain skills which will help them to build resilience to the stressful and violent siege situation they find themselves in, with the hope of enabling them to respond non-violently and then spread those skills to others.  A further aim is to make the programme sustainable, so that it can run and develop without our direct input.  The programme is part of a wider initiative in Israel, the Occupied Territories  and Gaza to address horizontal violence in the two societies.  AVP isn’t in itself political, but it’s hard to discuss anything in the region without touching on the political situation, as we soon find out.

Quite early on in the workshop we look at the question: ‘What is Violence?’  Some of  participants’ comments are:’Everything in Gaza is suffering from violence – the environment, the houses, the people’; ‘Violence generates violence’; and ‘Anything that the Occupation does is violence.’  At the end of this brainstorm participants are asked to come up and circle anything that they have either committed or been a victim of.  One person commented: ‘Since I live in Gaza, I would just put a big circle round the lot.’

When discussing the opposite of these statements – i.e. ‘What is Non-violence?’ some of the comments were: ‘Islam is not Daesh’; and ‘Being religious means being good to people.’  This reflected a strong feeling in the group that all Muslims are being painted with the same brush as being terrorists, but that this is contrary to their own experiences and beliefs.  One participant then claimed: ‘Gaza’s problem is not the siege; it’s having manners.’  This led to some quite heated discussion as others in the group felt that people in Gaza had ‘good morals’.  Sharif wrapped up the discussion by reminding people that: ‘We have one mouth and two ears, but we talk more than we listen.  If we listened more than  talked, then we would be less violent.’

A key element of AVP is the idea of Transforming Power (TP) – that we can all access a force for good that enables us to solve conflict non-violently.  Certain vital behaviours make up the TP Mandala, enabling us to experience this shift from violence to non-violence in our lives – respect for self, caring for others, thinking before reacting, expecting the best and asking for a non-violent path.  After introducing the concept of TP, Joe asks participants to go and stand by a component of the Mandala that they feel they are doing at the moment, then one that they feel is most challenging for them – and to say why.  By far the largest group goes and stands by ‘Expect the Best’.  How difficult it is in Gaza to have hope for the future!  Many of them are sure that another war will come, and aren’t hopeful that their dreams of travel and self-fulfilment will ever materialise.  For others not expecting the best is a protective mechanism – for if they don’t expect anything then they won’t be disappointed.

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And so we come face to face once again with the reality of the situation in Gaza.  Hemmed in on all sides it so difficult for them to feel hopeful.  We remind them that expecting the best also means expecting the best from yourself.  Joe also introduces the concept of the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern: there are many things that we may be concerned about but which are out of our control, so it’s best to concentrate our energies on the things that we can influence – such as our relationships with family and friends.  I feel uncomfortable as we distribute our Western wisdom to people who live in circumstances we can hardly imagine.  Our words feel dry and brittle, and yet they are accepted graciously and with smiles.

Part of the advanced workshop aims to help participants deal with traumatic experiences in positive ways.  One exercise involves them thinking about and drawing a safe place which they can retreat to in times of stress.  One participant draws a picture of the sea with boats and the slogan ‘Free Gaza’ at the top.  Adel draws a picture of a country landscape with trees: for quite a few participants nature is a source of solace.  Hisham who is studying German and who dreams of being a famous actor tells us that his safe space is his dream of the opening night of a play in which he plays a main part.  The opening is introduced by a Beethoven overture.

As is always the case with the West Bank, we leave Gaza with a bit of ourselves left behind.

Political Tourist part 3: First Impressions of Gaza

Jane Harries 

One of the first things that strikes us as we make our way from Erez crossing on the Gaza side towards Gaza city is the variety of modes of transport that are in use.  Carts driven by horses or donkeys are not uncommon, also small motorised vehicles that are often brightly decorated, motorbikes, scooters, old cars, new cars, battered cars…. in the city cars and animals mingle freely, sometimes frighteningly close to one another.  At a roundabout, some planks of wood fall off a cart: the owner calmly descends in the middle of the traffic and a cacophony of horns follow him – the traffic continues.  The roads too vary in quality. The main road is asphalted, however side roads are often little more than sandy dirt tracks puckered by potholes.

It is also quickly apparent that there is great poverty here.  We pass dwellings that are ramshackle and crumbling.  From the hotel dining room we watch local fishermen venture out in precariously small boats to catch what they can in the designated 10-mile zone set by the Israelis.  Others wade into the sea with hand-held nets.  The scars of war are also plain to see.  What was a smart shopping centre now stands in ruins like a jagged tooth.  The worst scars are, however, in people’s hearts and minds.  People refer to being under siege, to not being able to travel, access education or visit relatives.  Many have stories of suffering and loss.  Responding to an exercise we facilitated where participants talk of their safe place, Hekmet says that he now doesn’t feel comfortable anywhere, because he lost his home in the last war.

We visit Wala, an 8-year old little girl who has brain damage.  She lies limp and unresponsive in her mother’s arms, wriggling from time to time and making baby noises.  Wala was born during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 – 9, and her parents believe that she was affected by the phosphorous bombs used by the Israelis.  They show Joe the medication she takes to try to calm her down, but it is obvious that she needs a brain scan to assess the damage and make a proper diagnosis.  Joe promises to do what he can.

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Despite or perhaps because of their difficult circumstances, Gazans know how to have a good time. On Thursday afternoon a large proportion of the population of the Strip seems to have spilled out onto the beach, including busloads of children.  People enjoy picnics, buy balloons, sit in family groups.  Music is never far away.  Wedding parties are announced by drums, music and the loud honking of car horns.

Above all we are welcomed with warmth and humour.  The workshop participants are genuinely overjoyed to see us and respond to us with smiles and cameras at the ready.  By the end of the four days we feel a bit like celebrities, having been included in scores of photos and selfies.  On the final afternoon we are presented with some gifts from the group – a keffiyeh, a metal map of Palestine, an olive wood pencil – symbolic gifts which express at once gratitude and pride.  On the final evening we are treated to a meal at Murad’s house – mountains of stuffed vine leaves, a beef dish with pumpkin and couscous, platefuls of fruit, then sticky honeyed pastries with coffee – typical Palestinian hospitality.

The Gazans take us to their hearts.  The place embraces us in all its noisy, dusty complexity, heart-rending sadness, and raw joy.  It isn’t easy to get into Gaza.  Nor is it easy to leave.

Political Tourist part 2: Room for Celebration

Jane Harries

The atmosphere in Hebron is tense, following the extrajudicial killing at point-blank range by an Israeli soldier of a Palestinian young man who stabbed a soldier, but who had already been wounded by IDF forces and posed no danger.  The filming of the incident by Tel Rumeida resident ‘Imad Abu Shamsiyeh on a camera donated to him by the Israeli Human Rights Organisation B’tselem and the subsequent trial of the soldier responsible has caused uproar in Israeli society and demonstrated that a good proportion of that society is in favour of such extrajudicial killings.

IMG_0300Despite this tension however, there is room for celebration.  We make our way to the Hebron Governorate building for the awards ceremony where the 80 women who have completed Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) training will receive their certificates.  No half measures here.  Many of the women have donned their Palestinian costumes – bright reds and golds and greens embroidered on black in beautifully crafted cross-stitch.   There is a stage with a podium and pictures of Lasser Arafat and Abu Mazon, music – and then speeches.  Eventually each woman is presented with a certificate in a brightly coloured frame.

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It is a joyous event, but also has a deeper significance.  All of these women come from H2, the area of Hebron where there are around 500 radical Jewish settlers, guarded by some 2,000 IDF soldiers.  The combination of the two makes life unsafe and miserable – involving daily abuse, harassment and inconvenience.  They testify that AVP has helped them to deal with the stress and violence of their situation better, to be more resilient, and to support one another better.  They are more assertive and self-confident, better able to handle conflict in their families and community, and are more hopeful for the future.  Some of them will  become facilitators and will go on to train others.

In the evening we enjoy a special meal of Maqloobah (upside-down chicken) and start to bid farewell to Maryam, the head of the counselling centre in Hebron, and some of her co-facilitators.  We know that the AVP programme will go from strength to strength in Hebron, largely due to Maryam’s drive and vision.  Nevertheless, it is alway difficult to say goodbye and prise ourselves away from their hospitality.  We look forward to returning next year.

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Political Tourist part 1: Walking the line of non-violence

Team - Jane Harries, Cydlynydd Dysgu Learning Coordinator.jpgPolitical 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 

Jane Harries

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.

IMG_0292There 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.