|Even rural communities have become accustomed to visits from internationals.|
Why Your Streets Are Full of Foreigners
By Kieron Monks
Ala’adin from Al-Bireh used to greet new foreign arrivals to Palestine with a cheerful, “So you’re here to save my country too?” He was fond of mocking good intentions.
Still it’s fair to say that most international visitors to Palestine, particularly those in relief or activism campaigns, do so at least partly out of conscience. In Britain, and I daresay most of Europe, Palestinian liberation is widely seen as a “good” cause. While many Palestinians feel abandoned by the international community, surely Egypt has taught us not to confuse a nation’s rulers with its population.
In London, where I grew up, this conflict was a “red-line” topic. If you took the wrong position on Palestine-Israel, it was as bad as supporting the death penalty, or liking Margaret Thatcher, and you would be considered the devil incarnate. As I overheard at a Kensington dinner party: “You cannot be a good person if you think the Occupation is okay.”
Coming to Palestine from a relatively carefree background abroad often leads to a kind of awakening. Any preconceived ideas tend to fade at the first checkpoint. For the first time we, with our privileges and passports, become cattle, barked at and processed with disdain. I had never been treated this way before.
There are more terrible crimes being perpetrated in the world today. Massacres in Sudan continue, and the Chinese Muslim population was almost wiped out last year. What makes the human rights abuses here so shocking, apart from their duration, is that they are so flagrant, so routine and there for all the world to see. Such obvious injustice is a provocation to any witness with a conscience. It says, in the best tradition of bar-brawl rhetoric, “What are you going to do about it?”
Fortunately for Israel, President Obama has not dared to address the question or the thugs behind it. Instead answers are coming from the growing community of expatriates living in Palestine. A short walk down Rukab Street in Ramallah tells you all you need to know about the city’s cosmopolitan makeup, and many visitors who come for weeks stay for years. Education, relief efforts, and media are swelling as a result, making obvious injustice more obvious, taking away the fig-leaf excuse of “it’s complicated,” and pressuring international leaders to acknowledge what they already know.
While the vast majority of ex-pats living here genuinely believe in the cause of liberation, it is far from the only reason for our mass invasion. Since the International Solidarity Movement was established in 2001, over 200 NGOs have sprung up in the West Bank and Gaza. Their presence is proof of how favourable Palestinian conditions have become.
“Palestine is the best-kept secret in the aid industry,” I am told by Emily Williams, an American project manager at a medical NGO. “People need field experience and Palestine sounds cool and dangerous because it can be described as a war zone, but in reality it’s quite safe and has all the comforts that internationals want. Quality of life here is so much higher than somewhere like Afghanistan, but we don’t tell anyone so that we are not replaced or reassigned.”
That quality of life is becoming rapidly more apparent in the “A” areas. In cities like Ramallah and Nablus, expensive restaurants and high-powered financial institutions are common now. Nightlife and entertainment is expanding to cater for international tastes.
At times these tastes sit uneasily with local values. More than once I’ve heard the fear voiced that our influence will damage the traditions of Palestinian society. Most internationals at least attempt to be culturally sensitive, but our differences can be striking. I can only imagine how West Bankers feel to see us breezing over to Jerusalem or even Tel Aviv, but these trips have an allure to visitors from the West, who can be somewhere more like home just half an hour away. In my experience, these guilty pleasures are also popular among young Palestinians with the necessary ID.
It is no coincidence that a rise in the number of international visitors here coincides with economic downturn in the West and a shrinking jobs market. With the proliferation of NGOs, the degrees that were just paper back home entitle us to prominent positions in growth industries.
For media professionals, there is a wealth of material to be uncovered here, along with the experience of working on such a major issue. Palestine has been a reliable source of news stories since the conflict began, and it receives forensic, albeit often misguided, analysis across the world. For Western students, Arabic language skills are becoming increasingly desirable and many English universities now arrange placements in exchange for volunteer work. Throw in a warmer climate, Palestine’s natural wonders and holy sites, lower crime rates, and a preposterously welcoming host population, and it’s little wonder that Bi’lin resembles a model United Nations on a Friday morning.
Yes it’s easy to be cynical about Western influence in Palestine, but no one should doubt the strength of feeling that exists around the world for this threatened land. That’s why the last flotilla to Gaza carried representatives of 40 states. It’s why Viva Palestina has bases in Malaysia, Turkey, Italy, Canada, the United States, and Britain. It’s why hundreds of thousands marched for Gaza in Copenhagen, Istanbul, and London, and why the boycott movement has grown powerful enough to shame and discourage collaboration with Israel. All these are grassroots campaigns with no state support.
Campaigners such as Rachel Corrie, Furkan Dogan, Tom Hurndall, and others have died taking action when their governments would not. Many more have taken their place.
Injustice can be inspirational when it appeals to conscience and drives people to prove their belief in liberty, equality, and basic human rights. Outside of parliament buildings, there is a huge, growing, and global coalition of ordinary people who believe in liberation for Palestine, and until it happens, you’ll just have to get used to us.
Kieron Monks is a reporter and content manager for This Week in Palestine.