Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Virtues of Giving


An armoured digger was rumbling slowly up through the military construction site toward a new piece of the separation wall that is being built at Al Walaja. The wall is slicing through Palestinian land to surround the growing Israeli settlement of Har Gilo, which is taking over much of the hill on which Al Walaja, an extended farming village, is located. Over 100 Palestinian houses have been demolished for it. Just round the corner is Cremisan monastery, a well-run estate managed by the Salesians, an ancient Christian sect here in Bethlehem – its land is going to be sliced through by the new wall. It’s crazy.

Wall in construction at Al Walaja
Ishmael was getting nervous. There was an armoured police van cruising around watching us, and he knew it would be waiting for us further on, watching what we were doing. I obliged, stopped photographing and hopped back in the car. “If there’s a problem, Ishmael, I’ll handle it – you’re just an innocent taxi-driver, okay?” But I knew he was concerned because his son Tareq had been released from Israeli jail only a few months ago, during the big release Hamas had fixed in return for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and the Israelis are now going around re-arresting some of those who were released. Not because many of them are doing anything suspicious, but they are suspected of possibly doing something – and that, to the Israelis is enough. Enough to give them an excuse to bomb Gaza a week or two ago, killing over 20 people and wounding nearly a hundred.

In the unlikely event that I got arrested, I could talk my way out of it, cite a few names and, at worst, waste 24 hours, but for Ishmael and people like him it’s a very different story. He’s an inmate of Deheisheh refugee camp, which immediately makes him suspect, even though he is the least troublesome man you could imagine – respectable, cautious, law-abiding (though Palestinians have a free-style approach to law, not least because many of the laws applied to them are nonsensical, giving new meaning to the term ‘criminal law’).

Wall and watchtower over a busy Bethlehem street
As part of my rounding-out and finishing-off process in Palestine – I leave in a week – I asked Ishmael to take me round some of the landscape atrocities around Bethlehem, to photograph them. It was a hazy day, even up here in the mountains, but since I’m running out of time I’ve just got to do it anyway. I now have 10,000 photos of Palestine, 2,000 of which are excellent. I use them for my own uses (for example, here) and also to give to Palestine-support groups and organisations for their use (contact me if you’re interested).

Life goes on anyway, in its shadow
Of course, everyone wants me to visit them before I go, but time is running out. Why did they not visit me? One of the issues I’ve had to do battle with while here has been that of being taken for granted. It goes like this: we are the suffering Palestinians and our lives are so hard and we need help, so people should come and help us (and we will make as much use of them as possible). It’s not entirely conscious – just an ingrained attitude of mind. So there’s an unconscious tendency to treat us foreigners like helping machines and walking ATMs.

I’ve had to lay down the law on a few occasions: unless you can help me help you, I will be of less help. And, if you expect people like me to be money-providers, it makes our visits more expensive, which means we cannot come back easily – knowing that you’ll do it again!

This doesn’t work. It’s a psychology of dependency and, unfortunately, we Westerners are as guilty of imposing it and inveigling it on Palestinians as they are of falling into its trap. Takes two to tango. But only some Palestinians are like this: many have retained their dignity and wisdom, irrespective of their poverty, appreciating what comes when it does come, and avoiding changing their lives to attract more of it or rely on it.

I don’t want to be critical though: it’s too easy for a better-off person to get on their high horse and judge those who are poorer. Something is so easily forgotten in this day and age: the richer have a duty to support the poorer people of the world, not only to help the poor but also to save their own souls. The challenge is to do it discerningly, in ways that genuinely help people without creating negative side-effects and the destruction of social unity and vibrancy. Development and military aid can be insidious in their effects.

The Israeli settlement of Har Homa
hangs over Bethlehem, itself fenced in
The challenge is to be helpful without binding people into psychological slavery and the capitalist development treadmill, helping them in strategic ways to strengthen society and solve problems without making them addicted. Tricky. Foreign money in Palestine has been misused to gain power and even as a way of conducting war. I refer here to the threat used against Palestine that funds will be withdrawn unless they comply with foreigners’ wishes, which has been done by Western governments several times in the last decade, most recently last October after Palestine’s UN membership bid.

At Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem.
It's difficult to tell whether the wall protects
Israelis from Palestinians or vice versa
but it's still apartheid, imposed by one side
The trick is to help people help themselves. Sometimes they have a crucial issue they cannot overcome which, if resolved with a cash download, can unblock a logjam and help them move forward from there. So, when Ishmael’s son Tareq emerged from Israeli jail in January, I gave Ishmael some money to help them buy some catch-up tutoring for Tareq, to render him eligible for university and give him something to get his teeth stuck into after emerging from prison. This made a critical difference. But when Adnan asked me to lend him a substantial sum to keep the lawyers at bay, thanks to his unpaid debts, my answer was no, since Adnan demonstrated that he had not learned a lesson I had talked with him about three years ago, and Adnan’s debts were a black hole to pour money into, sad to say.

I’ve had one request which I find tricky. The cause is good – to supply hearing aids to two children in Irtas – but the sum involved, 900 GBP for each child, is beyond my means, and I don’t want to weigh myself down raising money in UK when this is not my forte. So, if anyone wishes to sponsor two pairs or hearing aids, I can vouch for the family (whose head is Sheikh Hajjani, mentioned in an earlier blog) and the genuineness of the case, and I will happily act as (unpaid) middleman and adviser in the interaction.

It comes right into Bethlehem
I must mention one thing. Being in Palestine isn’t just a matter of giving. I have received so much from being here, from these people. Returning to Britain will involve a degree of self-suppression and switch-down which isn’t easy – bizarrely, Palestine and the situation it is in permits a flowering of heart and soul. This arises from both the tragedies and the joys one witnesses and participates in here, as well as the attitude of Palestinians to life. This indeed is a Holy Land, where something is revealed that is not quite present elsewhere (but I wish more people would get it!). The emotional intelligence and relative openness of Palestinians opens me up, as a crusty old Westerner, and this accelerates my growth as a soul and personality.

The acts of generosity and sharing one can witness here are also salutary. I’ve watched many Westerners arrive here to take a look, receiving a positive shock at what happens to them on the very first day. I have never ever met a foreign visitor with a negative response to this place. Some keep coming back as much as they can.

One English chap, Ron from Yorkshire, seems to have grown tired of his life in Britain, and he’s back again and again. He participates in non-violent actions against settlers and Israeli incursions – “I’ve developed an addiction to tear gas and twisted arms”, he once said. But he loves it, and he loves helping Bedouin shepherds reclaim their land, or making his point at Al Walaja just north of Bethlehem, where the Israelis are busy annexing land, building the wall and giving the local Palestinian farmers a very hard time.

It’s all part of the Israeli ‘Greater Jerusalem’ project, in which they are encircling Jerusalem with settlements and walls and pushing over the Green Line into Palestinian territory, seeking to develop Jerusalem as an Israeli city. Yet Jerusalem is geographically the capital and hub of the highland West Bank, from which the city is being separated. It’s a colonisation and occupation crime. Israelis of course do not see it that way – they see it as a return to their historic eternal capital and a legitimate exclusion of Arabic intruders, however long they have been there.

So, despite all this, spending time in Palestine has great rewards. If you want to raise the human-factor stakes in your own life, I highly recommend it. You might bring benefit to others too while you’re at it – probably in ways you never thought possible, often simply through listening and being friendly. But this issue really is the interchange. It’s a fair trade.