This section presents six sample chapters from Pictures of Palestine.
Here's the Introduction.
It wasn’t just a question of whether to spend three months in Palestine. It felt like the start of a longterm commitment and an act of faith. Freelance humanitarian work involves getting engaged with people, becoming a part of their world, their experience and their families. A fully-fledged feeling of family is something Palestinians excel in.
I care for people I know in Palestine. On an earlier trip in 2005 I realised that, if I returned, people would expect me to come back regularly. They would look to me for solutions, give me things ordinary visitors wouldn’t receive. I might even die with these people – after all, it’s a conflict-zone.
Humanitarian work sounds a bit romantic but it doesn’t stop if bullets start flying. People back home have at times implored me to besensible. “Palestinians deserve sympathy but charity begins at home, and really they should sort themselves out.” Yet my British forefathers contributed mightily to setting up Palestinians’ problem back in the 1920s to the 1940s, leaving a legacy we now prefer to forget.
I’m a Sixties veteran who never quite gave up. My Palestine work started in the 1990s, a new step on what had already been a long life-journey. It’s no quick-fix thing and you need a mad streak, a dose of righteous despair to do it.
Perhaps it’s in my blood. I was born in a maternity home that had been the WW2 American Generals’ HQ in Britain. At school in Liverpool I grew up sandwiched between Catholics and Protestants, taunted for refusing to take sides, for saying they should work things out by means other than violence. I became a hippy with a rainbow vision, and this deepened my understanding of the human condition and the meaning of life. As a student at the London School of Economics I joined in protesting against what was happening in Vietnam and Ulster – all we were saying was to give peace a chance. My father, uncles and grandfathers had been world war combatants, my aunt had helped Alan Turing break the Enigma Codes at Bletchley Park and my mother had hidden under the kitchen table during the Blitz in London. So my genes echoed with the reverberations of explosions and confrontation.
I still believe in peace and love as pragmatic, fundamental solutions to global problems, though of course I know it’s not quite so simple. I look at people’s furrowed eyebrows and pudgy bellies, at the smog and the chemicalised landscape, at jet fighters screeching overhead, and see that something is not quite right. Whether I have a mental illness or a sound grasp of reality has always been an open question for people who know me.
For the triumph of evil, it is necessary only that good people do nothing. So said the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke. This is a big statement for our day.
I had been asked to spend three months in Bethlehem at Hope Flowers, a peace school and adult education centre specialising in trauma-recovery and post-conflict community reconstruction. To quote the founder, Hussein Issa, every act of violence begins with an unhealed wound. Yes indeed. Humanity is damaged, the damage is still growing and Palestinians and Israelis have a concentrated dose of it. Worldwide, people have come to accept violence as regrettably normal – it’s routinely reported on the daily news. Yet Hope Flowers has developed something which can help embed peace-building across the world.
Genuine peace is a national security issue for all countries. Governments believe in economic development, civil institution-building and upholding law and order, and there’s value in this, but building real peace is about developing a sound social consensus of mutually-assured trust and cooperation at street level, in people’s values, in their feelings. It’s a healing process. My own country, Britain, has for centuries played a major role in ramping up conflict worldwide and its forces fight in foreign lands today, so I feel a strange sense of personal responsibility to do something.
We need to help societies become more liveable, mutually supportive, joined-up, okay with themselves and with each other. Hope Flowers, led by Ibrahim Issa, Hussein’s son, gives damaged people a basis by which to turn resentment into understanding and pain into progress, building a decent life and acting constructively, even when living in a difficult situation.
Palestinians have more experience than virtually anyone in dealing with conflict and disaster. Most conflicts last five years, up to ten, and then, when peace comes, everyone tries to forget. They want to get a job, go shopping, build house extensions and have a new car. They lose the acute and poignant intensity of experience they gained while ‘treading the edge’ in times of war. But the Palestine conflict has gone on for many decades, and Palestinians are noteworthy in their capacity to survive under duress. They have much to teach the world.
When first I went to Bethlehem, I had big ideas about what I would do. Many of these proved thoroughly irrelevant – the things that were most valued were quite different. Also it wasn’t just a matter of my helping them but also of their helping me. In the West we have material wealth and social poverty, with relatively dysfunctional families and communities, whereas Palestinians have material hardship and social wealth, a strength of society which is exemplary. Their insecurity has given them togetherness.
One of my priorities on this trip was photographic: I wanted to catch Palestine as it stands through the camera lens. No stereotypes, just real-life stuff. The media feed us partially-true images of bombed-out buildings, angry youths, masked gunmen, old ladies wailing, grieving fathers carrying dead children, but we have little idea of Palestinians’ real lives, what they do on Tuesdays, where their kids play, how they do their shopping. Hence the name of this book – Pictures of Palestine. It’s a bundle of impressions of real life.
Welcome to Bethlehem. This is what it’s like, as seen through my goggles and via my antennae. At least, it was like this in 2009, when I wrote a blog about my time there. Some things, such as checkpoints, have lightened up since then and some things, such as Israeli land-grabs, have got worse. Nothing really changes with Palestine’s situation, but in another sense it is changing profoundly. I hope this book helps you understand how and why.