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Intimidation and checks: My trip to Palestine brought back memories of Crossmaglen during the Troubles

Oisín McConville writes about his recent trip to Gaza and the West Bank with Trócaire.

Oisín McConville

GROWING UP IN Crossmaglen, south Armagh, during the Troubles, intimidation was an everyday reality for us.

The fact that there was a barracks encroaching on our club pitch is well known, but the day-to-day stop, search, questions and general harassment from soldiers was just the ‘norm’ for us.

In my early days with the Armagh senior panel, our team bus was stopped by soldiers six or seven times on the one journey. All our bags were searched; all our gear was thrown on the side of the road. We picked it up each time and carried on.

The journey from ‘Cross’ to where we trained in Lurgan should’ve taken an hour, but instead it took over four hours and by the time we got to Lurgan all we had time for was a cup of tea.

Palestine

maha-al-sheikh-khalil-13-who-was-paralysed-in-2014-when-isra Maha Al-Sheikh Khalil (13), who was paralysed in 2014, when Israeli airstrikes hit her house when she was only eight years old, pictured with Armagh’s All-Ireland winner and professional counsellor Oisín McConville

My recent trip to Gaza and the West Bank with Trócaire reminded me a bit of those experiences. The intimidation and checks are just some of the similarities between life in Palestine and my memories of growing up in Crossmaglen.

Leaving Gaza, going through the Erez checkpoint back into Israel, every item in your bag is removed and examined.

Palestinians – the few who can leave Gaza through the Erez crossing into Israel –aren’t even allowed take everyday items like toothpaste or a phone charger. The approach seems to be part of a psychological tactic to humiliate ordinary Palestinians.

For me growing up, shootings and bombs were the norm. I was 11 before I realised that wasn’t normal. I could see a similar attitude in the kids in Gaza. You see them playing away on the street, despite the fact many of them have grown up during three wars in the space of 10 years, but who knows what they’re really going through?

Bombings, shootings and killings, windows being blown in, all that sort of stuff, was going on every day in Cross and it was only years later, after treatment, that I realised the trauma I experienced growing up in that environment manifested itself in my gambling addiction.

Trauma

hamed-al-sheikh-khalil-whose-wife-and-six-other-family-members Hamed Al-Sheikh Khalil, whose wife and six other family members were killed during Israeli airstrikes on their home in 2014, shares his story with Armagh’s All-Ireland winner and professional counsellor Oisín McConville.

Trauma can manifest itself in many ways – through gambling, drug or alcohol addiction as well as domestic violence.

There’s two million people living in Gaza, crammed into a place the size of County Louth.

A blockade, which was started by the Israelis in 2007, severely limiting access for people and supplies, has devastated the place and it’s led to a humanitarian crisis. Trócaire’s local partner, the Gaza Community Mental Health Project, provides psychological support to people who are suffering from the effects of conflict.

I was shocked to hear that nearly 300,000 kids in Gaza need such support.

Before visiting Gaza, I had an idea of what to expect but the levels of poverty surprised me.

We visited fishermen at the pier and their livelihoods have been completely destroyed by the blockade. But they struggle as best they can to provide for their families. I spoke with one of their 7-year-old sons who was down helping – he knew his family was struggling and he wanted to do what he could.

Another man we met had lost his wife and six relatives in the 2014 war. They were killed when the Israeli army bombed their house. The man acknowledged the chances of the Israeli government holding their army to account seems like fairytale stuff. He clearly wasn’t ready to open up about his grief, but I was struck by the general resilience of him.

People in the sporting world and the corporate world talk about resilience, but you don’t know the meaning of the word until you have met these families.

In the West Bank, near Bethlehem, we travelled to some farmland that a group of Palestinian families, supported by Trócaire, had to battle for 18 years to get back onto because of the presence of an illegal Israeli settlement. Land grabs are a major issue and hundreds of settlements. These are illegal under international law, but they have been established on Palestinian land.

These men were showing us their land when Israeli soldiers arrived. The soldiers got out of their armoured car and were trying to intimidate them, purely on the instructions of the Israeli settlers nearby. It’s one rule for one side and another rule for the other.

That was obvious again when I travelled to Aida refugee camp where 5,000 people live in really tough conditions. The Israeli army regularly go around the camp spraying the walls with ‘skunk’ water, claiming that they want to discourage disturbances. Some of the cramped alleys stank when I was there in early December, so I can only imagine what it’s like in the heat of summer.

Another Trócaire partner supports the Lajee Center in the camp, which has a football pitch out the back. I gave some young lads a quick Gaelic football skills session, but they were a tough bunch to drill.

Their enthusiasm to play was only matched by the obvious pent-up aggression they carry from living in such a confined and intimidating environment where a sniper’s tower keeps watch from the Apartheid Wall just up the road. A 13-year-old boy was shot dead from that tower just a few years ago.

Breaking the silence

On my last day, I met with a former Israeli soldier who formed Breaking The Silence, a group who encourage ex-military to open up about their experience of compulsory service.

One thing I can’t get out of my head was he described how soldiers would fire grenades indiscriminately into civilian neighbourhoods. He said it became like a video game. He’s now telling a story, he’s grown a conscience, and the Israeli government’s response is to try intimidate him just like the army do to ordinary Palestinians.

All I know is that the Palestinian people are having their basic human rights denied. They need and deserve our support and our solidarity.

Oisín McConville travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories with Trócaire to highlight their Christmas Appeal, which will help to support families who are living in conflict zones around the world. 

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Oisín McConville

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