Eilis Haden is a Derry Community Relations Worker posted in Hebron (Al-Kahlil) in Israel-Palestine as a human rights observer on a World Council of Churches programme. This is the second of Eilis’ Journal entries from the field.
How would it feel if our friends in the UK government suddenly shut down nearly half the businesses in Derry and followed this up by cancelling welfare payments? How could we survive? Stand in the Foyle Jobs and Benefits office on any given day and you will notice some of the best educated, skilled and talented people in the island of Ireland. In Gaza and much of the West Bank there is a 30% plus unemployment rate and, similar to Derry, this has little to do with laziness.
Today Palestinians face a number of obstacles to employment. Hebron used to be a major commercial centre before the building of the separation barrier restricting people’s movement in and out of the Israeli occupied territories. Nowadays the bustling main street (#Shuhada) is deserted as it has been taken over and manned by Israeli checkpoints at either side. The line of shops are welded shut, many bearing Israeli graffiti saying things like such as ‘Gas The Arabs’ or ‘Free Israel’. Out of the 1610 shops listed by the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem in 2000, only 600 remain open today. The main street of this once bustling commercial town is deathly quiet as Israeli Settlers and soldiers have taken it over and no Palestinian may walk, let alone drive, from one end to the other.
We all know that the UK rate of £60 odd per week plus rent is barely enough to keep the head above water but imagine if our countrymen and women did not even have this? Many Palestinians depend on the Red Cross, the UN and a variety of Christian Aid organisations for their food, household and medical supplies. Paulette, the Co-Coordinator for the Christian Peacemaking Team in Hebron, tells me that only last week she witnessed over four hundred people in the alleyway behind her building queuing up for food parcels.
It is a great relief to know that thanks to the donations given by these aid organisations, unemployed Palestinians will not always go without. Or will they?
Just recently, my team visited a woman called Shair who lives in a cramped, dark apartment in the city centre of Hebron. Sahir is deaf but we communicate through her English-speaking friend and her ad-hoc version of sign language which is surprisingly easy to follow.
Sahir is one of five wives all belonging to the same husband and all living in the same building. Sahir feels nothing but disdain for her husband Abid. She tells us that he beat her after she recently had a miscarriage and cares little for their seven year-old son. I ask how she copes with the poverty if neither she nor her husband have jobs. She tells us that they get regular food aid but that Abid sells most of it on the black market and keeps the money for himself.
“He is obsessed with computers and Facebook” she tells us.
This comes as no surprise as Abid keeps popping his head round the door and asking us to give him our e-mail details so he can befriend us online.
Sahir is one of four siblings all of whom are deaf. She has no independent means and tells us that the only reason she stays in this marriage is for the sake of her child.
Like many Palestinians living in an area illegally occupied by settlers, Sahir’s home is certainly no sanctuary. She brings us into her son’s bedroom and pulls back the curtain to reveal two panels of windows which have been smashed through.
She says; “The incident happened while my son Mohammed was sleeping.”
She shows us the marks on his face where the glass shards hit him.
Languishing on the sofa, Mohammed takes pretend pot shots at us with a black plastic AK47 he tells us of his fear of settlers.
“I used to play on the roof with my brother,” he says “but we can do that no more because it’s not safe...the settlers will see us there and bombard us with stones.”
I believe his story. Only a week ago, my colleague and friend Jane was targeted in the South Hebron hills by a settler who threw a rock straight at her face. Thankfully Jane had the reflexes to defend herself, and so only came away with a nasty cut and bruise on her arm. But when she described to me the hate in this man’s eyes as he attacked her, I began to understand how deep these divisions are.
So what is happening with this cycle of violence within the conflict and why do the Palestinians not just throw stones back?
One of the major frustrations with many of the Palestinians I have met is that they do not have the same legal rights as the Israelis, in the way that they also do not benefit from any form of welfare. Of course, Palestinians do have rights under International law but these are not currently being enforced. One of the main reasons that our group (The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme) monitor human rights violations within the West Bank is that, even though Israel has stolen land beyond what was agreed with the UN (imagine if Cameron suddenly decided to expand the UK all the way to Buncrana?), Palestinians are not even treated as equals.
What this means is that the Israeli army have an obligation to protect settlers who launch attacks on the homes of Palestinians but have no responsibilities towards non-Israelis. What this means is that the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) will arrest any Palestinian who tries to protect themselves through the use of force.
How then do Palestinians vent their frustration at the injustice, the settler attacks and lack of jobs? How do they cope with the seemingly endless and ineffective peace process which has run for over forty years?
From what I have seen, many of them, like us in Northern Ireland never give up hope, whilst others perhaps fit the paradigm of the oppressed who become the oppressors, doing unto others what has been done unto them.
Everywhere in the world we find men and women who hurt others. So too do we find inspirational peace activists such as those I will be working with over the coming months. At the end of the day it is up to us what we choose to believe or who we decide to be. Everywhere I go in Palestine, I meet idealistic young Israelis who work hard to end the occupation. So too do I meet Palestinians who dedicate their lives to non-violent resistance. So there is still hope.
Last night at our handover ceremony I met Ahmed, a young Jewish man and we chatted about the how language can be used to bring about peace rather than emphasise division. I told him about our own Derry idol, the great poet James King, whom I once had the honour of working with on an Ulster-Scots/Irish project with the Fountain and Longtower schools. As our conversation continued, Ahmed reminded me of the biblical phrase “...and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”.
Talking to people like this sustains me in what often seems like an endless and rather hopeless system of social apartheid. At times, it would be so easy to be swept away by the continuous stories of cruelty and injustice but without a belief in our power to change things, to bring an end to unemployment and poverty, we would have no future.
In the next few days I will be spending time in Beit Ummar, the village on the outskirts of Hebron which hosted the recent flotilla demonstration. There I will be meeting with a Muslim women’s group who are developing their skills in money management and job seeking and helping out on a cross-community kids film project. I hope that I can share their stories with you over the coming weeks. Until then, Masalama (Go well).