Spending three months working in Hebron is not for the fainthearted.
But Derry-based peace and reconciliation worker Eilis Haden knew exactly what she was letting herself in for when she agreed to travel to the Middle East this year.
She’s just returned home and is giving a series of talks and presentations of her experiences which began with a talk in Derry’s Central Library.
“It was a pretty harrowing experience although I expected it to be more violent than it turned out to be,” she said.
“Hebron has the worst reputation of all the places in Palestine. I expected that people would have a fighting spirit like they do in Derry but I was surprised to find that people were very broken there, very downtrodden as a result of the occupation. It was very much a place of the broken spirit and didn’t really expect that at all. It was the hardest thing to see.
“They were constantly having their bags and their bodies checked all the time wherever they go. They are constantly being attacked by settlers.
“There was one family just outside Hebron and their tent they were living in was set alight at one in the morning with their children in there.
“But I never really expected to see people being so cruel to one another.”
Last Thursday’s talk in the Central Library was the first of a series Eilis will be giving all around the country and in December she will be joined by a member of the UN who she met in Palestine for a hectic three-day lecture tour.
During her three months based in Hebron Eilis was part of a team monitoring human rights abuses and carrying out research which will be sent on to the United Nations.
But there was also a more hands-on role such as helping to escort children to school.
“We would do that because Palestinian kids would come under attack from the settler kids and adults as well,” she said.
“Also we were monitoring human rights violations. Sometimes that meant getting up at two in the morning and going to checkpoints where the workers had to go through in order to go to work.
“For a lot of people that was part of daily life, getting up at two in the morning and going through a checkpoint that would take two hours get to work at seven somewhere in Israel and then face the same thing in the evening. They were doing horrendous days. If we did get up at two in the morning at least we could go back to bed at lunchtime.”
Eilis does not hold out much hope of life in Hebron improving too much in the near future.
“People have suffered so much in the conflict,” she says.
“There are lots of areas in Hebron where you have settlers living right beside Palestinians.
“The main street is closed off to Palestinian traffic so they can’t drive through. At the old market the settlers actually throw their rubbish, dirty nappies on top of them. So the market now has nets and tarpaulins over the top to stop all the rubbish falling down on top of the traders.
“It was like watching the Troubles in Northern Ireland happening in front of your eyes.
“If Netenyahu’s government stopped filling people full of fear that the Holocaust was going to happen all over again then maybe they would be able to work it out for themselves.”
There are, though, plenty of young Israelis who want to see progress being made.
“We met some amazing Israelis when we were there,” she said.
“ We met a young couple from Ben Gurion University on my first week there. They were saying that the biggest problem is stereotyping. A lot of people know they need to stand up to what Netenhayu is doing and stand up to the occupation but he keeps instilling in them this fear about the Arabs.
“Something like 25 percent of the Israeli budget is spent on the military and a lot of people are not happy about that and the impact it has on the economy as a whole. There are major problems there with the cost of houses and even middle class people can’t afford homes.
“Even if you have peace people are going to be living in a divided society like you have here.
There are a lot of Israeli people that are doing a lot of good work . But they are having their computers confiscated, they are followed around. It’s unbelievable the human rights violations that are going on all the time.”