'Living inside the Wall'

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Mary Antoinette Burke from Ireland writes in detail about her experiences at AEI as a volunteer. An “inside insight.”


“Where? Palestine?? Isn’t it dangerous there??? There’s a war going on-right?  Aren’t there suicide bombers and terrorists? What will you be doing? Will you be safe?

These were just some of the questions from family and friends having made the decision to volunteer in Palestine. I would be working with the Arab Educational Institute for a month in June. 

Having never formally studied the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian Territories I began to read up in order to enhance my understanding. I wanted to understand it from Ireland, from outside the wall. I wanted to simplify it, to break it down, to understand the Israeli “Occupation” and its policies of embargo, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. I had so many questions and the the more I read the more complicated it became.

I broke it down to these main points;  Since 1967 Palestine has been occupied by the Israeli army. In 2002 the Israeli government began building a wall separating the Occupied Territories (Gaza and the West Bank) from Israel. Much of this wall is illegal under International Law. It is controlled by a series of checkpoints and observation points. The wall stands three times the height of the Berlin Wall at eight metres tall and when completed it will be seven hundred kilometres long. It is the largest open air prison in the world. And Yes, I wanted to go and see what it was like to live and work there with the imprisoned. I hoped to offer some assistance with the educational projects, particularly one Photo Documentary project proposed by the AEI.

After a number of skypes and emails with Toine van Teeffelen,  Head of Education in the AEI, we began making preparations for the projects. Sive O’Connor, a teacher colleague who was at the time studying anthropology, expressed her interest in being involved. With her background also in Business, she would be able to give advice on the Cultural Entrepreneurship programme being developed by the AEI. For the main part I would be working on the photo-documentary project entitled “Humans of Palestine”.

Furthermore we would both get to work with teenagers on a photography project and a Wall Poster project with some older youths. We would also be required to give an insight into the Educational system in Ireland, in particular we would deal with teaching methodologies used in Irish schools. A really interesting offshoot of this involved conversational English classes to members of the Palestinian police. Finally we would get to meet Muslim and Christian women from the Bethlehem community in the Sumud Story House, AEI’s women’s centre.   

With our time frame we knew that these were ambitious plans but we were undeterred. The creative projects allowed us to work with different groups and we believed we would get an insight into the life of a Palestinian, and more especially what it was like to live inside the Wall, inside the prison.

Humans of Palestine

The “Humans of Palestine” project was my main focus. It is as the title suggests a study of the people going about their everyday lives in Palestine. It attempts to give a voice to their wisdoms, their woes, their joys, anecdotes and thoughts. Importantly it is unrehearsed responses and in THEIR words. Using photography it captures them visually in that moment, going about their daily lives inside the Wall of the West Bank.

We met people from all facets of life, Mothers, fathers, street traders, shopkeepers, teenagers, students, a nun, a radio presenter, taxi drivers, teachers, artists, finalising our study with a chance meeting with the mayor of Bethlehem. Palestinians gave us their time, welcomed us in from the street on occasion into their homes, businesses, into their lives.  Every one of them had a story to tell and we gladly documented it all. The collected images and words will be exhibited via a web blog that will reach social media communities through sites such as Facebook. Work is continuing on this project and is now involving local volunteers, the target being that the blog will go live in the next six months.

A World Vision-supported photo project was a two-week long project involving forty high school students. The focus of this project was to use photography as a method for students to express the values they find in holy places. Religion is a huge part of Palestinian identity and many consider themselves to be the guardians of the holy places. There was an infinite list of holy places in the West Bank, which provided enormous scope for a variety of photos. Among the many places we visited were the Nativity Church, the river Jordan, Jericho, the Zacchaeus tree, the Artas monastery, the St George church. Students were encouraged to make photos of subjects and objects that had religious meaning for them. Later these photos would be captioned and exhibited at the Sumud Festival. 

 Entrepreneurship

The cultural entrepreneurship project is at the early stages of development. It is an Initiative for small groups of visitors that want to get an ‘Inside’ experience of living in Palestine. Participants would stay with host families and be immersed in the different cultural experiences including music, dance, traditional food, embroidery, history, meditation and prayer. Holy sites would also be visited. This initiative shows great potential. It encourages longer stays for tourists inside the West Bank; this carries positive economic effects for Palestine. It facilitates visitor experience rather than observation. For Palestinians it represents a departure from selling souvenirs or offering taxi services and could involve different groups from the community.

The ‘Fantasy Posters’ project aims to be an expansion of the current Wall Museum. It will be located toward a desolate area between Rachel’s Tomb and Aida refugee camp. The theme of freedom underpins this imaginative project. The young adults met in the Youth Media House to express what freedom means to them and come up with sketches and descriptions.

Freedom was a road without blocks, checkpoints or soldiers, a checkpoint was a welcome point, freedom was a dove breaking free from a chain, God appearing to blow down the wall, freedom was a girl riding a bicycle in the sky above the wall, a person sitting by the sea reading a book, a wrecking ball swinging and breaking down the wall, a Palestinian Rapunzel escaping from her tower, Aladdin on a carpet flying atop the wall.  In the second part of this a graphic designer and artist will work with the youths to transfer their ideas to thin metal posters to be pasted to the wall.

Reality

The images of freedom as imagined by the youths are a far cry from the reality of living in the West Bank. During our trip we lived in a building that was enclosed by the West Bank Wall on three sides. The wall was three metres from our back garden, about a metre away from our front door. The whole area overlooked by watch towers and cameras. Every morning for a month we woke to this enormous, imposing grey structure. It is difficult to describe the effect this begins to have on you. You are constantly in its shadow. There is no escape.  

Suffice to say that behind this wall development of every kind is stunted. The reality for most Palestinians is that unlike our month long stay, they have spent a lifetime behind this wall, surrounded by the conflict, questioned at checkpoints, being denied entry to their capital city Jerusalem. Palestinians face a daily struggle to succeed, to function inside the prison walls, they struggle to provide a future for their children, to provide education for them so that they may have a better life. There is a mental conflict too, should they encourage them to emigrate or stay and resist this Occupation? 

From a foreigner’s perspective, the road to peace seems far off. The facts are despairing. Violence continues. Thousands have been killed and many more have been injured, the building of Illegal Israeli settlements is ongoing, night raids on Palestinian homes, demolition of businesses, young people captured by soldiers and children as young as fifteen growing up inside Israeli prisons. One failed peace negotiation after another - none more public than the recent failed UN peace treaty with Gaza.  It would be understandable if there was no hope. And yet it IS there. Just like Martin Luther King said “only in the darkness can you see the stars.” Hope is the driving force behind these people. 

Palestinians bear the scars of the Occupation, the terrible injustices day after day.  They will never accept the terms of this Occupation but they can choose to endure, to see beyond the darkness, to hope that a solution is possible. They know full well what life holds for them and their families inside these walls, yet they choose to stay. They have a deep rooted connection with this land. This is home and they will not leave. THEY WILL NOT LEAVE.  

The projects with the children, youths, the women, the police, the members of the AEI, in every person we met, in their eyes you see a shadow and a sadness cast by the Wall. But behind this lies a sparkle, a flicker of light, an unwavering hope.

Mary Antoinette Burke


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