Life in the West Bank? It’s amazing

This is a letter sent by my friend and (now former) colleague Sarah Rowe to her friends and family in the UK. Sarah is as passionate as she is articulate and she summarises in this letter the difficulties of answering that dreaded question, “so, how was it?”.

Dear Friends,

Amazing [əˈmeɪzɪŋ] – to overwhelm with surprise or sudden wonder; astonish greatly.

I have just come to the end of my three month stint as an Ecumenical Accompanier and returned home to a fairly grey British spring. I know that over the coming days and weeks I will be asked many variations on a theme of ‘how was it?!’. It would take me three months to do justice to the people that I’ve met and the things that I’ve seen, but I realise that most people are more interested in a three minute response. As I struggle to refine the last three months into a few sentences, I find myself saying ‘It was amazing.’ Which, of course, doesn’t really mean anything to anyone. So, while I try to find a more meaningful sentence, I thought I would use my last newsletter to share some of the things that amazed me whilst living in the West Bank.

There are some things that you quickly get used to whilst living under occupation.  Events, that if they occurred at home would spark outcry, somehow become the norm. Looking back though, I am amazed once more;

–          that in Hebron, a city in the southern West Bank where Jewish settlers have moved into the middle of what was a bustling Palestinian market place, Palestinians are now forbidden to walk down most of the main street through the old town. On the short stretch which they are allowed to use, the road is divided by a concrete barrier and Jews or Israelis are allowed to use one side, Palestinians must use the other.

–          that on Holocaust Memorial Day, when the two minute siren sounded to remember those who had died, my colleague found himself standing in front of graffiti that read ‘Gas the Arabs.’

–          at the strength and bravery of a member of Breaking the Silence as he gave us his testimony. Breaking the Silence encourages ex-Israeli soldiers to talk about the things that they saw and participated in during their military service in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  He explained how Israeli society has become very militarised, with all young people expected to serve three years in the military without question. To criticise other societies is easy, but to speak out against the expectations of your own community takes a great deal of bravery. He gave me much hope about the potential for change from inside Israeli society.

–           at the hospitality and warmth of the Palestinian people in the midst of very difficult situations.  We went once to make a special visit to the village of Kafr Qaddum because there had been a night time raid by the Israeli military. At least 250 soldiers and 50 military jeeps soldiers had entered the village at around 2:30am. In groups they went to different houses, forced their way in and began to quite literally turn the houses upside down. 21 people from the village were arrested; accused of throwing stones at the weekly demonstration. But in the houses I visited where the most damage had been done, nobody had been arrested and one of the soldiers admitted to the residents that they had come to teach the people of Kafr Qaddum a lesson. The soldiers had created mess and damage that was so overwhelming that words failed me. Cupboards emptied onto the floor, furniture turned upside down, windows smashed, doors damaged. It was as if the whole house had been picked up and shaken violently. In the midst of this we were offered tea, coffee, juice, chocolate. In one of the houses the mother had a sewing machine workshop in the back room. She gave me a t-shirt that she had stitched, simply for coming to visit.

–          at the impunity with which violent settlers can treat Palestinians. Settlements are illegal under International Humanitarian Law (The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to the occupied territory The Hague Regulations prohibit an occupying power from undertaking permanent changes in the occupied area unless these are due to military needs in the narrow sense of the term, or unless they are undertaken for the benefit of the local population) and yet in the West Bank,  settlers often have the backing of Israeli state institutions,  especially the military.  I met Palestinian farmers in the village of Far’ata who can now only visit their land twice a year; when they get permission from the Israeli military who will accompany them. Without the accompaniment of the army, the farmers are attacked by violent settlers, which in the past has led to serious injury for the farmers. Even though the settlers attack the farmers, it is the Palestinians who are most likely to be arrested – for accessing their own land. Even though the army has been present, violence documented and caught on camera, no settler from Gilad has ever been prosecuted.

–          that a family’s roof can become a ‘closed military zone’ at the whim of the army and the family can be told they are now forbidden from using their own roof.

–          that at 4am, whilst queuing to cross a checkpoint, men will find a piece of cardboard, line up facing Mecca and take the time to kneel and pray. My colleague described the checkpoint that we monitored as the nearest thing to hell on earth; many days it was hard to disagree. But for me, the sight of Morning Prayer at the checkpoint was the closest I came to seeing the holy in the Holy Land.

On the Separation Barrier outside Bethlehem, somebody has painted ‘Now that I have seen, I am responsible.’ There are many more experiences that I would love to share with you, so if you belong to a church or group that is looking for speakers, please get in touch, I would be delighted to speak.

Thank you for taking the time to read my updates from the West Bank. When we tell Palestinians that we are sharing their stories they are very grateful that people outside are still interested in their struggle.

With hope for an end to the occupation and a just peace for all people in Israel and the Palestinian Territory,


P.S. I am still hoping to add more photos to my blog over the coming weeks.

1 Comment

Filed under Human rights, Middle East

One response to “Life in the West Bank? It’s amazing

  1. Jonathan Adams

    Dear Steve, Thanks for passing this on (I guess it will reach me by another route too). It’s good to hear Sarah’s voice in her words. Every day you have been away I have wanted to ask, ‘How is it?’ and want to hear every word and hesitation of your replies. J


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