Eilis Haden is a Derry Community Relations Worker posted in Hebron (al-Khalil) in the occupied Palestinian territories as a human rights observer on a World Council of Churches programme. This is the third of Eilis’ Journal reports from the field.
After devouring french fries in ‘The Happy Bunny’ (our local fast food restaurant), I am picked up by my team and our United Nations Contact Hamed Qawasmeh to go out-country to see some families.
Family visits can be quite a challenge as Craggy Island’s Mrs Doyle would have nothing on these people. Each visit (of which there can be up to 10 in any given day) comprises of cordial-style lemonade, followed by cups containing a thick mass of sugar with a bit of caffeine mixed in for good measure and then mint tea clouded with more of the sweet stuff. There is no choice, no offering of ‘go on, go on, go on’ but just the arrival of tray after insistent tray of beverages.
By the end of the day our team often find that we are waddling rather than walking up the hill home to our apartment.
Despite our concern about sugar/caffeine overload and the vastly more grave matter of the issues faced by the people we meet, it is quite a thrill to travel in this large, diesel guzzling, air-conditioned United Nations 4X4. I try to be cool about this novel mode of transport but cannot help being a little star struck and just have to pose for a photo. Of course our work here is serious and often quite depressing but, as we all know in Northern Ireland, you have to catch a laugh when you can.
Our final visit of the day is a Palestinian-owned farm positioned on the edge of a settlement area. The family who live here cannot work their land because they have had their irrigation pipes removed by the Israeli authorities. Ata, the man of the house, shows us video footage of the settler neighbours attacking the land around their home and screaming abuse at his family. Hamed takes notes and says that he will do his best to help their cause but there is no great hope.
The UN can offer emergency water supplies to the land but only if a long-term solution is first found. This will involve negotiation with the Israeli authorities, whose ultimate goal appears to be to remove all Palestinians from this area and allow for the building of more settlements so, as you can guess, the chances are not so good.
I can’t help feeling emotional as I see these warm and intelligent country people suffering such injustice.
I leave their threadbare living room (after I have finished my third sugary drink) and sit on the front steps, looking out over the luxurious settle apartment blocks that lie just across the road.
Ata had told us of how on the night when his family filmed the settler attack he had locked himself indoors for fear of his own anger and how he might act if he confronted his enemies. His bright eyes and honesty were incredibly disarming. I felt that this is a man I could trust, someone who could look inside himself and face what he saw, a person who felt the instinct for violence but had an inherent understanding of its negative effects.
As I looked across at the settlement, I wondered did its people know how to face their own demons or did they truly believe that by driving these country families from their lands that they were (as they claim) doing the work of God and reclaiming the holy land.
I want to know how it feels to be a settler, what they think about when they are sitting in their comfortable living rooms in the evenings. What does it look like inside the head of their children who are known to regularly attack the homes of Palestinians with rocks and stones? I can’t imagine that there would be any happiness in such hatred. So if there can be no compromise, if the settlers will not give up this land which they feel they have right to, where do we go from here?
On the way back home I question Hamed about his thoughts on the future of Palestine.
Hamed’s major concern is the impending humanitarian crisis which the country faces this coming autumn. He explains that the recent reconciliation pact between Fatah and Hamas will give UN member states cause to end aid, leaving vulnerable civilians to yet again pay the price for political policy measures.
The Palestinian Authority depends on international aid to pay the salaries of its 190,000 public sector workers and it is these workers who help keep the economy buoyant.
Hamed goes on to explain; “There is already a dignity crisis in the West Bank. Many people barely earn enough money to survive. If sanctions are imposed then existing coping mechanisms that are already stretched to the brink will be exhausted. We will return to the days when 70 year-old mothers will have to stand in line at checkpoints, there will be mass unemployment, and teachers and other professionals will have to move into the old city to go through the degrading daily experience of queuing at soup kitchens.
“Palestinians value their dignity – without work, people have to beg. Not only does this erode their self-esteem but it causes the frustration that leads to other social problems, such as domestic abuse and social violence. Even if sanctions are later lifted, we will still be left with the social problems caused by deprivation.”
I ask Hamed what we as Europeans can do to help. He tells me that we need to tell all our politicians to stop staring at their navels and act now to prevent this disaster.
In this world full of vague statements, Hamed’s honesty and frankness are incredibly refreshing.
I think again about how we can recognise people in whom we can place our trust. It seems perhaps that these are the people who can spot their own weaknesses, learn from their mistakes and who never give up.
There is no joy for Ata in holding on to family land which is constantly under threat from the settlers but he knows how to face his demons and resist through his own dignified existence and refusal to leave.
My only hope from here is that our own politicians in Europe prove to be as determined in the struggle for justice as this man and that, one day, I will feel proud to have had leaders who were not afraid to stick their necks out and do what is right.
Over the coming few weeks, I hope to accompany some Palestinian children on their first-ever visit to the seaside in Tel Aviv (West Bank Palestinians are not allowed into Israel and so will have to be smuggled with the help of some Jewish friends).
I will be making a short film of the event which I hope to share with you in venues in Donegal and Derry this coming Autumn.
Until next week, Masalama