I have spent most of my adult life engaged in solidarity and justice work with and for Palestine, and alongside the small yet vital Israeli peace movement. I have mostly lived and travelled around the West Bank, but the last time I saw Gaza, I was standing beside the border with hundreds of Israeli and international peace activists protesting a heavy Israeli bombardment of that small place and the people in it.
I don’t have the words to even begin to understand how it must feel to be a Palestinian in this moment, when your very human-ness is so starkly being brought into question; when so many of the most powerful governments in the world are supporting a massacre of your people, and we are all witnessing genocide in real time.
And neither do I have the words to begin to understand how it must feel for so many people in global Jewish communities to witness the largest mass-killing of Jewish people since the Holocaust. There is a rise in anti-semitism, and there is a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism all over the world.
And all of the people experiencing this are just human beings with soft hearts, like us. People who sing lullabies to their children, who dream of becoming scientists and artists, medics and carers. People who argue with their families and who fall in love, drink coffee and eat too many sweets.
I first visited Palestine in my early 20s. I spent two weeks travelling all around the West Bank, not long after the end of the second intifada, in a mixed international group of about 20 young people being hosted by Sabeel, the liberation theology organisation based in Jerusalem.
I met so many different people and learnt so much. I was completely taken aback by the injustice of the whole situation. I couldn’t contain my empathy, my anger, or my amazement at the resilience, creativity and love shown by the people I met on that trip.
One of the experiences that imprinted most deeply on me was watching a young Palestinian man being stopped at a checkpoint in Al Khalil (Hebron) and being arbitrarily humiliated (being made to pull his trousers down) and beaten by Israeli soldiers. I, and others, were (rightly) shocked by this event, that I have since come to learn is just a ‘normal’ part of everyday life for so many Palestinians living there.
And then the settlers arrived. In Al Khalil there is a particularly extreme community of right-wing (armed) Jewish settlers. They harass the indigenous population on a daily basis, they have driven hundreds of Palestinians from their homes and forced the closure of the main shopping street to Palestinians.
Some of our group were Palestinian citizens of Israel. The settlers, with machine guns slung over their shoulders, started trying to harass and separate these members from the rest of us. We instinctively tightened the circle around our friends who were more at risk, but still the situation escalated until the settlers managed to get the Israeli soldier at the nearby checkpoint to arrest one of our group – the same soldier we had just witnessed humiliating and beating a local resident.
Very soon, a member of the international Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) arrived and proceeded to try and secure the release of our friend who had been arrested.
After a fairly drawn-out saga, she was ultimately successful and we all headed back through the checkpoint together, under ongoing intimidation from the armed settlers.
This was the moment I knew I would go back to Palestine and that volunteering as an international observer would be the thing I could offer. However unjust it is that the Palestinian population need people from distant countries to bear witness, to help to safeguard their right to live in their homes while being treated with basic human rights, while that is the reality, at least that was something I could offer.
I thought I would write this diary piece about how full of grief and despair, how incandescent with rage, how dazed and overwhelmed I have found navigating the past month and all of the complexity, the simplicity and the loss of it all.
But I find myself instead reflecting on how utterly amazing it is that for all these years the Palestinian people I have met – in Palestine, in Israel and all around the world – hold themselves with such sumoud (steadfastness), dignity and patience; that the foundational resistance of so many Palestinians is simply to keep trying to grow and harvest olive trees, to keep living in their homes, despite all of the structural and physical violence they experience, and to keep living with as much joy as they can share with their family and friends.
And I also find myself reflecting on the size and entrenchment of the ongoing occupation of Palestine and all that goes with it. The reality is that the current escalation of violence in Palestine (in Gaza and in the West Bank) and Israel didn’t start on 7 October 2023. It is a continuation of a much longer conflict, and the systemised oppression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, whether in Gaza, the West Bank or in Israel, is ultimately the thing that has to change for real justice and real peace to be achieved.