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What I've learned from volunteering in Palestine

A member of Tipperary’s 2010 hurling All-Ireland winning squad writes about volunteering with Palestinian youth as part of the Palestine Summer Encounter Project.

Timmy Hammersley

ARRIVING IN PALESTINE to volunteer on a project with young people, I have got to witness at first hand a situation that I have read about but, until now, little understood. Having witnessed it, I feel compelled to speak out.

Israel and the Palestinian territories are separated by a massive wall and impenetrable fencing. The reason given for this construction is Israel’s security, but it does not take one long to figure out that there are ulterior motives. The separation wall or barrier has enormous impact on the everyday lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories. On one side of the wall is power, privilege and a high standard of living, while on the other side lies poverty and disadvantage with youth unemployment running at just under 40%.

In 2004 the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the wall was illegal. The court ruled that the wall had nothing to do with security, but was instead part of a land grab. It ordered Israel to take it down and compensate the victims whose lands had been taken. The separation wall still stands today.

The tourism divide

When leaving Israeli-controlled Jerusalem and entering the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, the difference in infrastructure is immediately obvious. Bethlehem is one of the most meaningful sites to Christians the world over. The birthplace of Jesus is marked by The Church of the Nativity, a place of pilgrimage, but it is clear that Bethlehem’s economic potential is not being reached under occupation. This is in stark contrast to Israeli-controlled Jerusalem which is a thriving city, thanks to religious tourism.

Tourism in Bethlehem is controlled mainly by Israeli tour companies who allow for little contact between tourists and locals, lessening the economic benefits to local businesses and opportunities to engage with the Palestinian population. Tour buses stop briefly in Bethlehem before bringing the tourists back into Israel where they stay in hotels, eat meals and spend money on souvenirs.

Palestinians are economically disadvantaged by the occupation. While visiting a Palestinian family whose house overlooks a checkpoint and is literally 10 minute drive into Jerusalem, they pointed out that they are currently not allowed cross the checkpoint as they do not possess the required passes. These passes are issued by the Israeli authorities and are very hard to obtain for Palestinians. It is not hard to imagine the impact this has on people who are denied access to what should be one of their main economic and social hubs.

Settlements 

The family’s house also overlooks a large motorway which they are not allowed to drive on. This and other similar roads were built to connect illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories to Jerusalem and are for settler use, along with a small number of Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship or have Jerusalem residency.

The Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995 were meant to pave the way towards a two-state solution, ensuring the creation of a Palestinian state. After spending a short time in Bethlehem, which is near surrounded by settlements, it is clear that a Palestinian state is currently unviable. It is estimated that there are now 600,000 illegal settlers living in Palestinian territory with the full support of the Israelis state and in contravention to international law. Some of these settlements are now suburbs of Jerusalem. Very strong inducements are offered for people to live in them including subsidised utilities.

A trip to the Palestinian Jalazone Refugee camp requires travel to Ramallah first and this journey is a story in itself. Bethlehem and Ramallah are only separated by 13 miles but the main route runs through Jerusalem. As most Palestinians are denied access to Jerusalem, they have to take an alternative route along backroads weaving in and out of Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank. The trip can take anything from an hour-and-a-half to two hours depending on the scenario at checkpoints along the way.

Refugee camps 

The refugees of Jelazone Camp are descendents of people cleared from their land during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Despite their rights under international law to return to the land of their origin, Israel has not permitted this to happen and so they languish in this refugee camp. This has left a bitter taste. The camp’s crowded and poverty-stricken conditions are hard to describe, it is like no place I have ever seen. The community go through a lot and this has bound them together, there is a sense of it being more than just a community but a family.

The day before I arrived at a nearby checkpoint, a 17-year-old boy had been shot dead by Israel military personnel. The massive Beit El settlement lies a mere field’s distance away from Jalazone Camp. A very visible and confrontational military presence – placed there to protect the settlers who at times take pot-shots at people in the camp – invariably leads to tension and, at times, violence.

Second class citizen in your own land

Lessons from all over the world continuously show that when people’s future is uncertain, when they live in nothing short of an open air prison, and when their backs are up against a wall, they will react.

The 17-year-old who was shot and killed had thrown a stone at a military car. People might question why was he hurling stones at soldiers, but it is easy to ask that question when far removed from the situation. For young Palestinians, your chances in life are determined by the ethnic group you are born into. You are a second class citizen in your own land, or worse. And all the while you must witness people living a much higher quality life right beside you on land which may once have belonged to your family, the place your family lived for generations.

Timmy Hammersley is member of Tipperary’s 2010 hurling All-Ireland winning squad. He is currently volunteering with Palestinian youth as part of the Palestine Summer Encounter Project. He is on Twitter @TimmyHammersley

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Timmy Hammersley

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