A week in the West Bank

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Seven days isn’t enough to explore the Palestinian Occupied Territories, let alone get a real sense of what it’s like for people who live there.

I’ve just spent a week in the area with another student journalist from Edinburgh, travelling and talking to as many people as possible. Aside from doing all the touristy stuff in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, we spent a day at Birzeit University speaking with student activists and interviewing one of the institution’s vice-presidents (resulting articles will appear imminently in The Journal).

Sitting in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, mulling over the last few days, a few things stand out.

There are too many bored young men with guns. On both sides. At the checkpoints, yes, but in city centres also. Walking through Tel Aviv, it’s notable just how many young recruits wander about on public transport with M16s slung over their back. Many of them look young, and with national service compulsory at the age of 18, it’s probable they’re not much older.The potential issues of giving young people weapons have been reiterated by hearing that during the time we’ve been here, a Jewish man has been shot dead by an Israeli soldier at the wailing wall (reported here on BBC news).

Many of the policemen in Ramallah don’t carry guns, but there’s still a precedent for very physical expressions of discontent.

The reaction to a young man from Gaza winning the Arab Idol contest (the Middle East’s Eurovision equivalent) on the evening of 23 June is extraordinary. Everyone with a car takes to the streets, hysterically punching their horns as young men hang out of the vehicles and scream “Allahu Akbar!”. Violence breaks out at a local checkpoint as people throw stones at Israeli soldiers.

Aside from every other problem facing this area of the Middle East, the provision of weapons and the arrogance that can accompany military identity seem a fairly lethal combination.

It’s not all about religion. As a visitor from western Europe, it’s worthwhile acknowledging that, as with every society, levels of religious belief in Palestine and Israel fluctuate. Part of me is surprised that we don’t see more people going to pray/ religious observance in Ramallah, and how unimportant a role  –  superficially at least – religion seems to play. Sectarian identities are certainly as significant as religious divides.

Student politics in this part of the world means something different. Because of the unique situation, student activism requires an extraordinary level of commitment. Supporting a cause here means acknowledging that you may end up with a spell in prison, suddenly find yourself under house arrest, and almost certainly have your ability to travel curtailed. Next time I hear a student politician in the UK wingeing about how hard they have it, they’ll get short shrift.