Post Taglit-Birthright: 'We're not stereotypes'

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'A little girl is fascinated by my camera and puts on my hat and sunglasses. She doesn't speak any English, but, as always with kids, it doesn't really matter.' Photo: Rachel Marcuse

In July, activist Rachel Marcuse spent 10 days in Israel as part of the Taglit-Birthright -- a fully sponsored trip for young North American Jews to learn more about the country. She went to bear witness and ask questions about the Israeli state's treatment of Palestinians, and to learn about other complex issues in Israel today. After the program, she spent another 10 days elsewhere in Israel and the West Bank of Palestine talking to Israeli Jews, Arab Israelis, international activists, and Palestinians. This is the sixth of a seven-part series on what she found.

Hannah and I wait for the green-and-white bus in Jerusalem to take us to the checkpoint where we'll cross into the West Bank on our way to Bethlehem. As soon as we're on board, it feels like we're entering a very different place -- Arab music plays on the bus radio and a poster of a horse hangs above the driver. We get out at the heavily-fortified checkpoint and are waved through by a bored-looking guard who glances at our foreign passports, but doesn't inspect them.

We get into a taxi and pass the Separation Wall, covered by some incredible graffiti. The taxi driver offers to take us on a tour of the art of the famous street artist, Banksy, who has done numerous pieces on the wall and around Bethlehem. We decline as we have an appointment at the Alrowwad Centre in the Aida Refugee Camp just outside Bethlehem.

The group sums up its work:

Alrowwad (Pioneers for life) is a cultural and theatre training centre, established in 1998....Alrowwad, initiator of the "Beautiful Non-violent Resistance", is an independent, dynamic, community-based not-for-profit organization which strives to empower children and women by targeting behaviour, knowledge, concepts and practices through beautiful and non-violent means. 

We are greeted by three friendly staff when we arrive. One of the young men, it turns out, started using Alrowwad's services himself 11 years ago. He's now 22 and runs IT for the Centre. There is zero green space in Aida Camp, where the houses are stacked on top of each other, and it becomes clear that the Centre plays a vital role in the camp for kids who don't have much in the way of resources or community services and are often just really bored.

We're shown several videos about the separation wall and the checkpoint, all created by people at the centre, including, of course, the children. We are shown images of the line-ups at the checkpoint: 5,000 Palestinians cross each day into Jerusalem -- many to go to work -- often lining up at 3 a.m. in order to make it through in time.

Two of the staff members, Murad and Ahmed, both in their early 20s, take us on a tour of the UN-administered refugee camp. We see kids filling containers with water at a pump, because, we are told, "you never know when the Israelis are going to turn off the water." We wander through a housing compound and are quickly offered tea by several residents. This is typical. Throughout the West Bank, we are offered tea and coffee constantly -- everyone, it seems, wants to sit us down and tell us their story. The friendliness, the hospitality, is almost overwhelming. We stop at one woman's house and she brings us black tea with mint and a plate of watermelon. Her little girl is fascinated by my camera and puts on my hat and sunglasses. She doesn't speak any English, but, as always with kids, it doesn't really matter.

We hear something from this family that we hear echoed in stories from many Palestinians: "We're not stereotypes," i.e., "We're not terrorists." It's interesting that this thought is articulated so clearly -- and in English at that! It almost feels like many of the folks we talk to have received media training -- but perhaps it's more about practicality. The Palestinians' very livelihood, in many ways, depends on support from the international community and everyone takes the opportunity to talk to a foreigner, especially if she's writing about them.

Later in the day, in Ramallah, we meet other folks who really do get media training. These are the activists with the International Solidarity Movement:

The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli apartheid in Palestine by using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles. Founded by a small group of primarily Palestinian and Israeli activists in August 2001, ISM aims to support and strengthen the Palestinian popular resistance by providing the Palestinian people with two resources, international solidarity and an international voice with which to nonviolently resist an overwhelming military occupation force.

"Fred," our Australian media contact, meets us at a café in central Ramallah. (Fred is not his real name: all of the activists take code names to counter the frequent harassment from the Israel Defense Forces.) The café, named "Stars and Bucks," has no formal connection to Starbucks, although it certainly imitates the aesthetic of the global chain. "Fred" checks us out with some care and eventually brings us back to the ISM apartment so I can interview some of the activists.

I'm interested in why they're here. The response from the half dozen young people we meet, all between 22 and 30, is that the movement connects directly to them. They feel that their home governments are complicit in oppression of the Palestinians and that they had to do something. A sense of justice comes out in the conversations.

"Hassan," a former business consultant from London, explains his decision to come to the West Bank: "First, my government supports and legitimizes the crimes of the Israeli state. Second, the conflict is a key source of geo-political conflict in the world. It's up to citizens of the world to stop it when the solution is so simple."

Hassan shows me a tear gas canister that nearly hit him at a demonstration a couple of weeks back. He tells me that these large metal canisters are frequently shot into crowds -- as opposed to over, which is theoretically the soldiers' obligation -- wounding, and even killing, many in the process. The ISM activists act as human shields. They take the lead from local Palestinians and hope that their presence as internationals will reduce the number of injuries... and deaths. They are not always successful. I think of Rachel Corrie. ISM'ers take photographs, record video and disseminate these records around the world.

"Eli," also from the U.K., was politicized while doing her Master's degree. It's her second time in Palestine. She's still shocked by the situation, especially in Hebron: that's where she saw graffiti that read "Gas the Arabs." I ask her why she thinks more Israelis aren't involved in peace activism. She tells me that the Israel propaganda machine keeps people willfully ignorant. She says, if you're a Jew in Israel, it's "easy to have a nice life." The soldiers, she worries, are "just teenagers who are bored."

We leave the apartment and head to an inexpensive hotel near the central square in Ramallah. We drop our stuff off and go out to get some food. Although we are two of the very few women on the street after dark, no one bothers us. The men strike us as less aggressive than in Israel. We grab some shwarma -- possibly the best I've ever had -- and head back to the hotel. We fall asleep to the sound of the call to prayer.

Tomorrow, Hannah and I will go to Hebron. It turns out to be the most tense place I have ever been.

Rachel Marcuse is a Vancouver-based activist, facilitator and apparatchick. The executive director of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), a municipal political party, she also freelances, focussing on facilitation skills, youth-engagement and strategic planning. Her views do not necessarily represent the positions of any organization whatsoever. She can be found on Twitter @rachelmarcuse.

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