BZU Work Camp in Palestine: Part 1. Background & Arrival

The summer of 2014 was a memorable period for me due to various reasons. I went back to Spain for the first time after 2 years to see my family and friends, I finished my BTEC in college with D*D*D* and an outstanding award, I got A in AS Biology after people thought I wouldn’t be able to cope with the course, I made plans to apply for university, I learnt to follow my instinct, I unveiled issues in my personal life… But without doubt, one of the most significant changes was the beginning of a shift in my politics. Better say: I started to think deeply about political and social issues for the first time. How this came about? The Gaza-Israel conflict.

At the beginning of July 2014, Israel launched a military attack on Gaza (a Palestinian region) after three Israeli teenagers living in settlements in the West Bank (another Palestinian region) were kidnapped and murdered. Israel accused Hamas (the political group that governs Gaza) of the crime and initiated a crackdown of the organisation. Hamas denied the crime and retaliated by firing rockets into Israel. Afterwards, Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza arguing that they were trying to stop rockets from Hamas. Meanwhile, Hamas defended their rockets as a strategy to bring international pressure to make Israel lift the Gaza blockade, release political prisoners, and end the isolation of the region. By the time the conflict theoretically ended in August, more than 2200 people had been killed, majority of them civilians from Gaza. Since then, the UN and human right organisations have accused both parties of possible war crimes.

(This is my understanding of what happened. Feel free to let me know if I’m missing something or I’m wrong.)

Must be said that this conflict wasn’t spontaneous or came from nowhere. If you know nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I recommend you to research before reading my series. I will talk about some aspects of it, but it is broad and requires independent research. I didn’t know anything about it or its existence till I saw images and videos on Twitter of the destruction occurring on Gaza during that deathly summer. In particular, the video-taped murder of four children by the Israeli military in a beach in Gaza shocked me profoundly. It wasn’t the act what astonished me the most, but the lack of condemnation and accountability. I even wrote a poem about it, my first political poem. Back in that summer, I was neutral about the Israeli-Palestinian issue: I recognised that Palestinians were suffering the most, but I didn’t know what was really going on and why the international community wasn’t doing anything substantial about it. The media and their bias didn’t help.

Now, two years later, my position on the topic has changed significantly. I support the Palestinian cause (I won’t tell anyone what to believe in; research independently). And no, this doesn’t mean that I hate Israel or Israelis. I just hate the political and social situation, and although both parties have been negatively affected, Palestinians are the oppressed ones and the biggest sufferers (generally speaking). Over the last few years, I have realised that you can’t always be neutral. As a quote from Desmond Tutu says, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”. I don’t only endorse this perspective as an observer of injustices going on around the world: I endorse it as someone who has suffered from injustices and whose ancestry and historical heritage is tainted by injustices.

Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli question requires a deep look into history, critical thinking about politics and individual morality. It is not a simple matter. I wouldn’t have any problem briefly summarizing what is it about, but as I have stated, I support Palestinians and I can’t promise the objectivity needed to understand the basic facts. The only thing I will say is avoid seeing the issue as a religious one. Religion might play a role, but it is mainly (geo)political. The UN, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch might be the best sources to start looking at, and as biased they might be, media outlets can also be helpful to compare and search for facts. In addition, don’t ignore indie websites and blogs, look at videos online, read interviews and hear from those affected by the issue. Under this last premise, I decided last year I wanted to visit Palestine and see things with my own eyes. In particular, life in the occupied West Bank (it is currently not advised to go to Gaza due to the siege and blockade).

I’m not a fan of common tourism, I don’t like to just visit places, relax and have fun, I like to learn about history, culture and people wherever I go. That’s why I didn’t want to just book a hotel and jump on some tours to see Palestine: I wanted to do something like study, attend a cultural exchange program or adequate volunteering. Fortunately, I found something suitable: the International Summer Work Camp offered by Birzeit University (BZU). Comprised of 10/11 days, the work camp offers international participants a chance to visit some important cities in the West Bank, attend lectures on political issues, learn about Palestinian NGOs and community groups, volunteer with them, live with Palestinians and submerge in Palestinian culture.

I applied to the program months ago and got accepted. Afterwards, I prepared for it. I got the necessary vaccinations, I tried to go through my notes from my Arabic lessons and practice basic phrases/words, I researched about Palestinian customs, I saved money, and I planned my journey to the camp. On Sunday the 31st of July, just two days after coming back from a summer school in Singapore, I was ready to begin my trip. I left my dorm  on the evening, heading to the station and taking two trains to reach London Victoria by midnight. From London Victoria I took a bus to London Luton airport. I arrived at 2 am and my flight didn’t depart till 7 am. Due to a lack of night public transport from Brighton to Luton that was my only way of getting there on time. However, the five hours of wait went by quite quickly. I spent them writing, doing my hair twists and waiting in the security line. I actually didn’t have time for breakfast because my hand luggage got stopped after being screened (I forgot to throw away two yogurts) and I had to wait a long time to be cleared.

By 7 am, I was on a plane that was running late. I was too hungry and sleepy to ask why. Leaving the lateness aside, the flight went alright. It lasted between four and five hours. I ordered food and tea to fill my stomach, I did a small revision of Arabic and I relaxed. I didn’t sleep, but my eyes were closed now and then. It was enough for me to feel energized when we landed in Ben Gurion airport just after 2pm local time. It is the main airport in Israel, located in Tel Aviv. I still remember how scared I was when walking towards immigration check. I had read various stories about how many questions you can get if you look a certain way or come from a certain place, and more if you are heading to Palestine. Fortunately, I didn’t have any problem, just a few invasive questions repeated twice by different security officers.

Following the immigration check, I went to buy a SIM card to have Internet on my phone and then I headed to get a taxi to Jerusalem. I had to wait for a long time before the taxi left the airport: it was a shared van and the driver was waiting for it to be filled up. I was the first one to arrive and had to wait for various others. The subsequent drive to Jerusalem went smoothly. I observed the landscape with curiosity: that was my first time in the Middle East, my second time outside Europe. Everything was new to me. At first, the landscape was mainly green areas, which ended up transforming into pale houses made of rocks when we arrived to the city of Jerusalem. During the last minutes of the drive one of the other passengers asked the driver to get off in a bus depot close to Damascus Gate from where she had to take a bus to Ramallah, a city in the West Bank. That was my exact plan. She looked young, and she was carrying a big backpack. I wondered if she was going to the camp as me, and when we got off, I asked her. She said yes! I was surprised and pleased. I wouldn’t be alone the rest of the journey.

Getting a bus to Ramallah from the depot was a bit of a hassle. There were many people waiting impatiently, probably because it was the afternoon and everyone was tired and wanted to go home. While on the bus, I was too exhausted to realise of the moment in which we left Israel and entered the West Bank. I just noticed a change in the landscape after a while and Hebrew replaced totally by Arabic. The infrastructure in the West Bank seemed old and deteriorated, you could see unfinished flats now and then, and ruins here and there. This might have a lot to do with the lack of economic development in the region.

When we arrived to Ramallah, we took a taxi to the university. The journey was quick and by the time we arrived it was around 7pm (I can’t remember correctly).         I was exhausted, but my nerves took over any other emotion and feeling I had. It was time to meet people, from Palestinians participating in the camp to other international participants. I’m not good socialising, I was a bit scared. In addition, we were supposed to get there around 5pm, hence most people were already in the camp. I decided to follow the girl I had travelled with. After leaving our luggage in a tent, we sat down to speak with a few people in a corner. When walking, I quickly observed my surroundings, sensing the situation while catching no one’s attention (sounds dramatic, but I’m like that). Of course, everything was pretty normal.

Once I was done introducing myself to people, I stopped talking and just listened to others. I was very tired and I’m rarely able to feel comfortable speaking continuously in a group of more than 3-4 people. There were food and drinks available: I got something that looked like pizza and an orange juice. After a while, someone asked all the participants to come together in a circle. We did a fun icebreaker to learn each other’s’ names and get to know each other. Subsequently, I took my luggage to where I would sleep for most days during the camp: a small house on top of a small hill. Girls slept there, on a mattress and with a sleeping bag, while boys slept in the tents outside. I didn’t mind this arrangement: I can sleep anywhere and I’m used to sleeping anywhere. I had an active childhood going to summer camps every summer.

After taking a shower, I went to sleep. The day had been very intense, and I hadn’t slept the night before. I was knackered. And I had nine days ahead of explorations, discoveries, interactions and experiences.

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