Visit Palestine is a popular souvenir poster that you can buy everywhere in the Old City of Jerusalem but it’s not really something considered seriously by most tourists. The Israeli-Palestinian issue has been such an ongoing conflict that a lot of people don’t really take a second to look beyond the images they see on the television.
It’s a conflict that has always captured my interest and I’ve done my fair share of research on it for university essays so I was naturally more inclined to consider travelling there as part of my trip to Israel. I booked three nights in Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank, only 10km from Jerusalem, but found myself extending my stay for a week.
Each day I travelled to another part of the small territory and found a lot of welcoming but deprived and oppressed people that were more than happy to share the reality of their lives. I’ve lost count of the amount of books I’ve read on the Israeli-Palestinian issue but what I learnt in my week in the West Bank taught me much more than I’ll ever read in a book.
Nablus is a major city in the north of the West Bank and is situated quite uniquely in the middle of a valley. I arrived with nothing more than a rough idea of what I wanted to see and I spent a while wandering around the bustling city centre and market. I met a tour guide who lives in Balata refugee camp, the largest camp in the West Bank, and he offered to show me around.
It’s not like the refugee camps you see on television which are full of the temporary emergency blue and white UN tents but instead it had permanent concrete buildings and was situated as if it was a continuation of the city. It originally started as a temporary measure to house the refugees who had fled from their homes during the 1948 Israeli war of independence, or al nakba (the catastrophe) to the Palestinians, but of course it became obvious that they were never going to be allowed to return and it soon became permanent. It is still run by UNRWA who provide education and medical facilities and have helped fund the electricity and water systems.
In the small area of 0.25sq km there are 30, 000 people and with a high rate of population growth people are building upwards with no possibility of expanding outwards. The buildings are extremely close together that you could easily put your arm out the window and pass your neighbour a cup of tea.
On top of the hill immediately above the camp there is an Israeli military tower protecting the Jewish settlement built just over the hill. There have been many raids and battles in the refugee camp and my guide showed me bullet holes on some of the buildings and the cemetery where the martyrs rest.
I met my guides daughter who is the same age as me and studying at university. I asked what she wanted to do after she finished and she said, “I can’t plan for my future because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring”.
I left Hebron angry and depressed. It was a very emotional place, where you could feel the tension and the helplessness of so many people. My hostel in Ramallah gave me a contact of a representative for the Youth Against Settlements NGO based in Hebron who was happy to show me around the city and explain the struggle against the occupation.
After the 1967 war, the Israelis began building Jewish settlements in the middle of the city. There are now a total of five settlements within the city of Hebron itself. In order to ‘protect’ these settlements the army have cordoned off roads, set up checkpoints, built sniper towers and permanently police the area surrounding the settler’s buildings. Walking around with a Palestinian I saw not only the inconvenience but the embarrassment for him as he was unable to walk down certain roads and was subject to searches and scans just to walk around his home city. Even the ambulance now takes about an hour to reach people living in the centre because it needs to get special permission from the Israeli army while also avoiding all Jewish settlement areas.
An area that used to be a bustling market is now all boarded up and closed because Palestinians are unable to get to their shops. Some areas were like a ghost town and with barbed wire keeping people out of some of the streets, I felt like I was walking in a war zone. In fact, there are frequent confrontations between settlers and Palestinians which the Israelis use to justify their presence.
One Palestinian shop keeper said to me, “Please go home and tell people our story, we’re not animals but we are treated like it”.
Banksy is famous around the world for his satirical graffiti artwork and some of his most famous work has been in the Palestinian Territories, one group of work from 2005 and his most recent work being in February 2015 in Gaza. Banksy’s work joins hundreds of others who have used Israel’s security wall as a blank canvas for political slogans and images as a kind of protest to the occupation.
The graffiti on the wall is now world famous and arriving in Bethlehem I had taxi drivers offer me trips not to see where Jesus was born but to “see Banksy”. I took up one offer and he drove me to the security wall which runs through Bethlehem. The wall is covered in people’s art, some are extremely clever and witty but most are the simple call to “stop the wall”. Banksy’s artwork is scattered over the area, one behind a bus stop and one beside a petrol station. There’s even now a Banksy Shop where you can buy souvenirs with Banksy’s graffiti images. It does make the whole thing a bit commercialised and some argue that people’s desire just to “see Banksy” obscures what the messages behind the work really means.
Some locals have even started opposing the graffiti on the wall, saying that it has become a trend rather than a meaningful protest. I can understand what they mean, drawing on the wall is not going to help bring the wall down but there is still some amazing and meaningful graffiti and it’s better to pick up a spray can than a gun to release grievances.
There are still some areas in the West Bank which don’t have these dark and blatant effects of the occupation. Jericho was a really nice town, full of tourists and hassling taxi drivers and beautiful hikes. And Ramallah itself was a very liberal and modern city that had a great atmosphere. But all places had their story and are waiting for peace as much as everyone else.
*post adapted from my trip here in April 2015 and from my other blog site elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com