My trip to Palestine as part of my 60 challenges for my 60th year was a moving whirlwind 6-days that changed my outlook of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
I truly had an amazing time; the marathon was certainly a challenge; hard, hot, hilly and fuelled by dates. I crossed the finish line hand-in-hand with one of the other Amos team which was fab. Strangely on refection, the actual Marathon was such a small and minor part of the trip. Never thought I’d think that!!
The many people we met asked us not to be “pro-Palestinian” or “pro- Israeli” — just “pro-justice” and go “tell our story”. However, frustratingly, on my return, I realised it’s a story that sadly, many don’t want to hear. I won’t be silenced and encourage all my friends to visit with an open mind and see for themselves.
Staying at Alrowwad in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, I felt humbled and totally safe. We were treated to the tastiest food prepared daily by different women in the camp. We ate freshly baked flatbreads, cheeses, hummus and olives in the morning, with amazing rice and vegetable dishes in the evening.
After 70 years, the camp is no longer built of tents but tightly built multi-occupied houses. Here, Palestinians live cheek-by-jowl in a small densely populated area; no grass, no trees, no flowers. However, the children who play in the street, amongst the tear gas canisters and used rubber bullets (both of which we saw for ourselves), have smiles on their faces and give you high fives as you pass.
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The houses all have water tanks on their roofs as the mains water supply is often targeted and the whole camp is surrounded by the ever-present and oppressive Wall with its watchtowers and armed Israeli guards looking out. The overwhelming sense is of a stifling lack of freedom of movement in both the camp and whole West Bank.
Staying in our hostel was also a group of beautiful children from Gaza; it was their first holiday ever — and it was to West Bank. They had won a drama competition and their prize, a trip to the camp to act and tell their story through the plays they had written.
As we watched them perform in both Arabic and English, they spoke of hope, joy and a better brighter future. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room and the power of their stories was palpable. The project was funded by a British charity ‘Hands Up’ and the British Council had managed to get the children permits to leave Gaza and to feel safe, if only for a short time.
Crossing the border on foot as Palestine’s do was another sobering experience, especially after the incident earlier in the week. Passing through the cattle-like grids with armed soldiers all around is frightening, imitating and sad.
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On our visit to Wi’am Reconciliation Centre next to the Wall in Bethlehem, we sat in the sunshine and ate our lunch on the terrace. We were shown where the children grow vegetables and how when bored Israeli soldiers throw open plastic bottles of urine and settler’s sewerage, they use it to fertilise their garden. If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. Trauma-informed practice must have a lot to with this behaviour but it’s totally unacceptable.
Apartheid in action
It’s difficult not to rant and be annoying but I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of witnessing Apartheid in action. The biggest surprise of my trip as a practising Christian, was Jerusalem — the most unholy, Holy City. Tense, unreal and quite frankly, cruel. My God does not see Jerusalem as the God-given right of the Israeli’s to subjugate and torment a whole sub-group of society. He professes you “shall not kill”, “you shall not steal” and “love thy neighbour as yourself”. Many appear not to hear these words.
In the morning sunshine, we walked up the Mount of Olives, stopping to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane and wonder in the church where Jesus wept — feeling he must still be weeping. Here our Israeli guide told us about his Zionist family background and his service in the Israeli army; learning to kill was a rite of passage for many but some like him do see the light and choose to disagree with state violence.
I felt curiosity at the Wailing Wall, but little emotion — only fear. There were lots of head shaking and prayers stuffed in the wall — “Oh God forgive me, I know not what I do?” Crossing over the wooden bridge into the beautiful and calm Muslim area was juxtaposed with groups of armed guards sitting beneath the trees — riot-shields ready, as they surrounded Jerusalem’s ancient walls.
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The City’s mix of faiths are all so tightly bound together, with Christianity, Judaism and Muslim roots all sharing a history here. Orthodox Jews, ultra-orthodox Jews, Jewish settlers, Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Muslims & Palestinian Christians; the melting pot of love, land and lies.
It appeared many Israeli’s deal with the situation by treating Palestinians as if they are invisible; they dig beneath their houses and limit their water and electricity. They prevent them from getting work and travel permits, isolating their communities and having no real social contact.
We saw a massive excavation project in Jerusalem funded by the Israeli government to find David’s tomb. Where do they think it might be? Not surprisingly, under the centre of a large Palestinian area. Consequently, the houses have been tunnelled under and some have fallen down. Most scholars don’t believe they’ll find anything.
If King Richard hadn’t been found in a car park in Leicester, would we have tunnelled under people’s houses? The differences between the two peoples is so stark it takes your breath away. But strangely, both are such beautiful people and look exactly the same.
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Another shock was the size of the illegal Israeli settlements built in the Palestinian territories. I had thought these were the odd house here and there, where a few ideological martyrs lived. In reality, they are huge townships, usually built on top of a hill, looking out over Palestinian houses and built to intimidate and obscure. I found them repressive, overbearing and I can’t believe who would choose to live there? I was told Jewish settlers are encouraged and paid by the state to live and pray in these areas.
Surrounded by the settlers is the Tent of Nations — an organic farm on top of a hill enclosed by fruit trees. It has been one families livelihood for many generations. Over the last few years, it has become a site of intimidation by both settlers and the army, with hundreds of olive and fruit trees being destroyed. However, hope survives and the peace farm continues, albeit with the family living partly in a cave. Their determination, courage and will to survive were inspiring.
Hebron was another story of hardship with settlers living on the roofs of the Palestinian residents. Streets that were once a bustling market are now a ghost town and Palestinians can no longer work in their shops. Instead, there are soldiers and settlers pushing babies in buggies with guns on their backs. Utter madness.
During the trip, we discussed the need for international observers to lower the temperature between the Palestinians trying to go about their daily business and the army and settler intimidation — a role often filled by gap-year students and the newly retired and one I quite fancied myself. However, I now realise my retirement wouldn’t last long if I did this. My heart is still racing wildly just writing this!
I ran the marathon in solidarity with the struggle of Palestinian women and children.
I ran for the 22-year old lad that was shot dead at the checkpoint two days before the race, for supposedly jumping the lights
I ran for peace and reconciliation
I ran for HOPE
I ran for an end to the illegal occupation of the West Bank
I ran because I’m so lucky I can run where ever I choose to run.
Quite simply — that’s unfair.
Desert reflections on 6-days in Palestine
Resilience, undefeated, proud Palestinians.
Valuing the importance of things we take for granted, freedom democracy, education, electricity, water, healthcare, crossing the road. You show us the importance of family, love and respect for women, the elderly and children.
This unjust system of Apartheid cannot last forever.
Go home and encourage others to travel here to be a witness.
One final note.
On leaving Israel after pottering around the duty-free, we were all called by security. We were body-searched and every item of our baggage looked through. Why?
All we had done was run.
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Find out more about Amos’ work in Palestine.