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Rhodes Scholar Trip to Palestine 2019: a Feature Length Blog

Wednesday 24 April, 2019

by Eden Fellows of 2019

The second-ever cohort of Rhodes Eden Palestine Fellows arrived in Jerusalem on 17 March 2019 to begin our week-long trip through Israel and Palestine. As part of our effort to translate this Fellowship into meaningful action and understanding on behalf of the people of Palestine, we have documented our experiences with a blog post that outlines each day of our journey, conveying what we have seen, heard, learned and shared to all of you.

Day 0: Jerusalem

We gathered in our hotel that evening for the first time as a full class of Fellows and discussed, among other things, our plans for these posts, our itinerary for the trip, our expectations, our excitement, and our worries. The Fellows expressed a fear of not being able to transform this experience into tangible action, of acting as voyeurs of suffering, of not pushing themselves to learn and experience the uncomfortable, of our own internal discussions turning fractious and causing rifts, about safety, Islamophobia, and ignorance. We expressed our excitement for hearing the voices of Palestinians on their own terms, for learning from activists and people on the ground, for productive conversation, for new friendships, and for bearing witness.

Day 1: Jerusalem

We all piled into a minibus and went to visit the Jerusalem-based non-profit B’Tselem—The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. With a staff of around 40 people, mostly Jewish Israelis, the organisation documents and publicises Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights with the aim of disarming the apparatuses that enable the occupation.

The Center director, Hagai El-Ad, began by problematising the commonly used phrase “it’s complicated” to describe the Israeli occupation. He challenged its use; recognising injustice is actually not that complicated, especially when it's so direct, visible, and glaring. He explained that for him, as an Israeli national, coming to terms with the reality of the injustices around him “there was no aha moment—it was a process. You come to realize that the things you grow up seeing and how things were, were not necessarily how they were supposed to be".

In the afternoon, we were led on a political tour of Jerusalem by a community organiser at Grassroots Jerusalem. We saw several seemingly ordinary parts of the city that all carried vivid anecdotes about the advancement of and struggle against occupation. We also visited what is widely known as the apartheid wall (see photo), where we spotted used IDF tear gas canisters. Our guide preferred to call the wall an annexation wall, given how it cuts through neighbourhoods and villages, often not along internationally-recognized borders, dividing communities and separating Palestinians from their land.

Later in the day we made our way to the home of Nora Sab Laban, a Palestinian woman who is being evicted from her family’s home. Nora spoke about how so many of her Palestinian neighbors have been evicted and forcibly removed from her neighborhood to make room for Jewish settlers, and how this is a near universal experience in occupied East Jerusalem. Her settler neighbors do not talk to her, and she remarked: “What kind of life is it to not greet your neighbors? It is not our culture.” Even as settlers have made unsubstantiated claims to ownership of her home, she has been relentlessly fighting legal battles for decades to prove her right to remain. Her hospitality, willingness to be vulnerable, and personal story provided a moving testament to the everyday impact of occupation.

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Day 2: Jericho and The Dead Sea

Day two saw us hopping from one millennium to another, from the Jordan River, to ancient Islamic mosaics hidden in the oldest city of the world, Jericho, to modern day Palestinian villages that continue to resist occupation of their land.

The rich cultural history and natural beauty of Palestine is often overlooked when thinking about the occupation. Yet its beauty was made apparent when we hiked down through a valley to Battir (see photo), a UNESCO Heritage Site, in the outskirts of Bethlehem. We stepped off an Israeli-controlled highway lined with 8-meter high concrete walls into a beautiful and tranquil valley. We were surrounded by olive trees and five-thousand-year-old terraces that sustain the agricultural core of Palestinian life in this region for centuries.The trails were lined with ancient artifacts and evidence of so many different eras and people, ranging from the Roman to Byzantine times.

A dominant feature of the valley was the olives trees. The olive tree represents peace and prosperity for Palestinians. As old as 800 years, they provide food, the base of crafts, and an important cultural symbol that represents the resilience of its people. By contrast, the pine tree brought over under British colonisation is anathema to the olive tree and is often used by the Israeli state as a means of agricultural oppression , spreading and scarring the landscape, changing the soil composition, and affecting endemic species like the olive tree. The Israeli government often outlaws the removal of the pine trees and claims land where they are situated as state property.

We also learned of attempts by Zionist groups to build ‘caravans’ or temporary homes on a hilltop overlooking Battir at midnight on Christmas Eve in 2018. The Battir community stood their ground peacefully, yet with a clear indication that the community could rapidly rally for the defense of their lands should the situation escalate. Today, Battir stands as an example of strength.

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Day 3: Bethlehem

On Wednesday we met with the Badil Resource Center, an “independent, human rights non-profit organisation committed to protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons.” One of the most striking things we learned was the system of differentiated citizenship under Israeli law wherein Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship enjoy fewer rights than their Jewish counterparts. Differentiated citizenship—with over 60 discriminatory laws that have been identified—is one of the primary justifications for use of the term “apartheid” in descriptions of the state of Israel, invoking the U.N. legal definition of a system of codified discrimination.

We later traveled to the Aida Refugee Camp—also in Bethlehem. There, we met with a representative of the Lajee Center, a grassroots creative cultural center founded by young people from Aida, who shared a film about the camp’s creation. Today, the camp has been the victim of the largest number of tear gas attacks in the world in the midst of being subject to constant IDF violence. To close our visit we walked through the camp, bearing witness to the images of exuberance and struggle that adorn its walls (see photo).

As the sun went down, we headed to the Walled Off Hotel and the Banksy Museum, which sit next to the concrete fence that Israel constructed after the second Intifada. The renowned public artist Banksy placed one of his most prominent pieces of graffiti on the wall in Bethlehem, which has inspired thousands of artists to decorate the wall in solidarity with the Palestinian people. The museum was rich with information about the occupation, providing insight into the weapons trade and the role of the British in designing the foundations of Israel’s violent colonial history.

After a day filled with evidence of the human capacity for atrocity, we were given the opportunity to have dinner with several Palestinian families. There we found the joy, passion, and hospitality that have typified our every engagement with the Palestinian people. Sharing a meal was a necessary reminder of the sheer force of will behind the communities that exist here even in the face of Israel’s constant attempts to smother them.

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Day 4: Hebron

The founder of Youth Against Settlements started his talk by asking what we all studied. Once we had all shared, he revealed that he was a serial university graduate with three graduate degrees. When his university closed down in 2003 due to the Israeli military’s occupation, he immediately Googled ‘how to start a revolution’, so that he could go back to school.

As we chatted, he was extremely alert, darting out of his chair when he heard several thuds (the children of nearby settlers throwing rocks at us) and three distant bangs (sound grenades thrown by Israeli military officials in the town below). Resistance to these attacks, he said as he sat back down, has been rendered effectively illegal. While the UN Geneva Convention proclaims armed resistance permissible, Palestinians are regularly detained, even for peaceful protests.

Hebron is also home to significant religious sites, such as the Ibrahimi Mosque as well as Isaac and Rebecca’s Grave. This popular site is divided into a mosque and synagogue. It was discordant to see the mosque before midday prayer, with the knowledge our guide had shared that the mosque had been subject to a massacre in 1994, when a Jewish man killed 29 Muslims in prayer. We later entered the synagogue, where the remains of Isaac and Rebecca are believed to be buried. To enter, we had to pass several groups of armed Israeli soldiers. Muslims, they said, could not enter. Like the previous site, we walked carefully amidst those in worship, and explored the graves.

While reminiscing, we could not ignore the famed Hebron market that we visited. Unfortunately, the souq (market) has become a ghost town after the closure of Palestinian shops, municipal and government offices, and central bus station, which was taken as an Israeli army base. Still, the souq was enchanting in its vast network of footpaths, lined with stores selling red and black keffiyehs, sacs of fragrant spices, and handmade Middle Eastern sweets. While there is a clear Palestinian majority (~200,000) living in this city, the effects of its interaction with a minority of Israeli settlers (~500 - 800) manifested in protective measures. Above the markets, Palestinians string up nets to prevent settlers, who live on the second floors or higher, from throwing rubbish at them. The day finished on a sobering note as news of a young Palestinian man shot by the Israeli army, triggered protest marches across Bethlehem.

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Day 5: Ramallah

Our last day in Palestine carried the momentum of our previous days, with a packed day of meetings, food, and touring. Arguably the most ‘cosmopolitan-like’ Palestinian city, our day in Ramallah was memorable for two main itinerary points: our meeting with one of the founders of BDS and the farewell/thank you dinner with our hosts and sponsors.

We began the day by meeting with a leader of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement and a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Our meeting with him was exceptional, in both its moral force and timing. It came at the conclusion of a week where we had been hearing a consistent set of stories from activists, community leaders, small business owners, and students that the situation is quite simple, that the term ‘apartheid’ is an accurate description of the Palestinian experience, and that Israel’s continued occupation is a morally indefensible violation of international law and human dignity. As such, hearing about the genesis of BDS was helpful to clarify that, indeed, these perspectives are widely shared with little fundamental deviation. As such, BDS launched in 2005 with the total support of nearly all Palestinian civil society organisations and is viewed favourably as a non-violent tactic among almost 90% of Palestinians (according to the latest polling data that the speaker could cite).

For many of us, this really put into perspective the hysteria and cynicism embedded in anti-BDS movements on American college campuses—largely astro-turf movements funded by wealthy, far-right libertarian and evangelical groups. Moreover, it made clear that BDS is the single best tactic currently available that straddles Palestinian organising and global solidarity in a way that really impacts Israel’s sense of the viability of the occupation. During his talk, he spoke of the efficacy and resiliency of BDS and PACBI in the face of attempts to trivialise and criminalise the movements. Because of this success Israel has deemed BDS a threat “of the first order,” on par with Iran, an antagonist state with nuclear capabilities. Yet this sort of absurdity is typical, baked into the very foundations of the nation state’s governance—whose obsession with security feeds the very insecurity that it claims to abate.

The talk provided light for those of us who felt like we were groping in the dark for some sort of action we could take in the face of what we witnessed. One implicit recommendation resonated in particular. Despite BDS’ success, the movement hasn’t gained more traction because “unless you are established, coming out in support of BDS takes a lot of courage.” This struck as a call to action more than a casual observation. As young people who benefit from the privileges and prestige of a scholarship that is itself an artifact of colonial desire, endorsing BDS offers the chance to take a courageous stand. In taking such an action, not in spite, but because, of its political and professional impudence we have the opportunity to at once stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and disrupt the logics of careerism and expediency that contribute to the quietism on this issue that so frustrates us.

Our day ended with a dinner hosted by our sponsors, and a time for us to express our deep gratitude for the experience and for the leadership of our student organisers. One of the people in attendance was the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh. He mentioned that when he published one of his first books, he was reluctant to put Palestine in the title, fearing that it would alienate a portion of the book’s potential audience. However, after being urged by his publisher to include it, Shehadeh agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to defy the erasure that has been visited upon Palestinians. As the next generation begins to take up this cause, we can all take a lesson from Shehadeh’s courage, and begin by recognizing that it is precisely because Palestine still remains in the realm of the unspoken, that we must speak it.

Day 6: Haifa

We spent the last day of our trip in Haifa—with our first stop at the Bahá’í Gardens, situated rather picturesquely on Mt. Carmel. Being back in a predominantly Israeli city, there was a strange replay of a moment that we had experienced earlier in the week in Jerusalem. As our guide was speaking, an Israeli gentleman wandered into our conversation and stood by wordlessly, seemingly very interested what we were being told. Our guide immediately changed topics until he left, wanting to avoid a confrontation. Having spent the previous four days in the West Bank, it was a reminder of just how difficult these stories were to tell sometimes, especially within that integrated environment.

After a quick lunch and we visited Adalah, an independent human rights organisation and legal centre based out of Haifa. Its mission is to fight for Palestinian rights and is the first Palestinian run legal centre in Israel—they also have the distinction of being the sole Palestinian organisation that works before the Israel courts. While the cases they had to fight for were sometimes frustratingly basic, and often didn’t meet any degree of success, Adalah’s track record is nothing short of impressive, having had numerous cases setting landmark, precedent-setting decisions.

We then returned to the Bahá’í Gardens (see photo). This time, accompanied by three members of the Bahá’í faith, we explored the gardens and were led to the Bahá’í World Heritage Centre. The gardens and the structure themselves elicited a sense of awe, and at the same time, unease. The sprawling gardens seemed rather incommensurate and even insensitive to the struggle and people that surrounded it. One of the fellows on the trip repeatedly attempted to engage them in a discussion about the occupation and their stance on the injustice. While they repeatedly mentioned and maintained that their faith believed in the fundamental unity of all peoples, rejected the idea of nations, and had an international following, they refused to take a stance on the Palestinian struggle.  

It’s very hard to come back from a trip like this unchanged; many of us committed to joining the activism work of the Rhodes Scholars for Palestine. Over the week, through the many interactions that we had, the sights that we saw, and the stories that we heard, there is a lot of courage and resolve we have drawn from the Palestinian people, and each of us, individually and as a collective, look forward to standing beside them in their fight for freedom.

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This blog post was written collaboratively by all the 2019 Eden Fellows.

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