Palestine is a land under occupation. It consists of two parts, Gaza and the Westbank, which have been occupied by Israel for more than 50 years. While the Palestinians are trying to have a normal life, this has proved to be difficult as the wages are low, unemployment is high, riots and clashes often happen, and a feeling of injustice is shared by many. I travelled to the West Bank to see for myself.
The story of Palestine is very rich and often bloody. After World War I, the British took control over certain areas that were formerly under the Ottoman Empire. They supported a policy of Zionism, enabling huge numbers of Jewish people to settle in the land that is now known as Israel. The aim of the Zionists was to create a Jewish state, in which they succeeded after the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. The only parts left for the Palestinians were Gaza and the West Bank, which after the war of 1967, came under occupation by Israel as well, and the current borders were defined.
Because these borders are controlled by Israel, it is more difficult to enter Palestine. I visited Iran before—an enemy of Israel—and I was stopped at the airport. As I was questioned about my activities there, all of the names and phone numbers of everyone I met in Iran were written down. Luckily, the people at the border control were very friendly. They offered me a sandwich for the long wait and treated me with respect. Being honest proved to be the best approach, and after five hours I was allowed to enter.
In Palestine, I was working in a hotel together with Abed*, who studied Social Services but couldn’t find a job in this field. He told me that the salary he receives is very low, but he is working there to improve his English. He has to work six days a week, with only the Friday off. The hostel is run by Abed’s family (which consists of 2,500 members), and they frequently visit. Unfortunately, the owner has problems with keeping the place afloat. People barely come to the hostel because they feel scared to visit, partly due to the fact that the United States decided to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel and put the embassy there, which has sparked riots. Personally, I haven’t felt unsafe, not even once. Not to mention, all Palestinians I met were very friendly and helpful. Abed told me:
"People have two sides: a positive and a negative. You can choose which side you want to grow yourself.”
When I met with Jamila*, a friend of mine who lives in Palestine, I was impressed with her work ethic. She's a psychologist who works long hours. She told me one specific case about a woman who came to her. The woman didn’t know what to do with her son. "When I had my baby, I didn't feel any love for him," the woman said to Jamila. She screams at her son and she even hits him, while the father is too lazy to help. When you struggle to make ends meet, and you couple this with a difficult situation at home, negative things are bound to happen. The woman and her son will both receive counseling, and will hopefully find a workable solution.
After the war in 1967, the Israelis started building settlements in occupied territories. Orthodox Jews settled here in Palestine illegally but received protection from the army. After the Jews firmly set foot on the ground, they enticed other Jewish people to join by offering certain benefits and low housing prices.
These settlers also started to occupy houses in Hebron, a city deemed holy by both Jews and Muslims. When you walk in the old city you will see checkpoints, which are heavily secured iron gates to protect the settlers from the Palestinians. There were parts where both groups lived in the same building; Palestinians on the first floor, Israeli settlers on the upper floors. Because these settlers throw garbage and other stuff on the streets below them, iron fences have been constructed above the alleyways. We walked around an abandoned part of the city, with blown-up houses, closed shops, and people aimlessly wandering around. These are tragic results of Israel's occupation of Palestine.
The settlements led to an uprising (1st intifada) of the Palestinian people against their oppressor, Israel. Because of the violent way Israel handled the situation, Hamas — classified as a terrorist organisation — became increasingly popular. In 2000, there was another uprising (2nd intifada), which led to the construction of the Apartheid Wall. This wall stretches along the borders of the West Bank.
I visited the wall and a refugee camp in Bethlehem, a touristic city close to Jerusalem. Because the wall was built on Palestinian territory, many families have been cut off from each other and most of the Palestinian inhabitants of East-Jerusalem are unable to go back to the West Bank. In the refugee camp we saw a lot of children on the streets, in a bleak, grey and mostly concrete environment. A couple of kids showed us the way to a center for children, there I received a smiley sticker from a little girl. That little girl showed me that staying positive is important when you live in a refugee camp. At the center, children can go to language classes, practice dubka (Palestina's national dance), play music, and join art classes. The center even hosts their own radio show. Here, the children can find time to be a child.
Palestine has a sizable Christian minority. When I entered a church, a young man started a conversation with me. He talked about his life; that he has to work in a stone factory because there isn't anything else available for him; that he isn't allowed in Jerusalem and hasn't been there since he was a child; and that he has to go all the way to Jordan to catch a flight, which will last several hours because of all the checkpoints. These are just some examples of ordinary people who try to live a normal life, and have to face all these hurdles to accomplish it.
In Jerusalem I met with a girl of Jewish-Arabic descent. She told me that casualties have fallen on both sides, and neither side is without blame. True, the Israelis have committed many atrocities and are still ruling Palestine with iron fists. On the other hand, they have made several offers to the Palestinians in making peace, which have been rejected every time because the Palestinians hold a rhetoric of "all or nothing".
I do not know whether this conflict will end one day, or not. It doesn't matter. The people have to change and stop these crimes against humanity. Power has to be divided over many actors, so not one person can have such consequences for a whole population. We have to stop seeing how we are different from each other, and focus on everything we have in common as human beings. Only then will there be an end to this madness.
*Names are changed to honor the privacy of the people I met.