‘Who speaks for the Palestinians?’

Almost a year and a half ago I wrote my PhD proposal titled ‘Who speaks for the Palestinians.’ Writing that, it was a reference to the voicelessness of Palestinians in the conflict. Yet after a month here this sentence for me now translates as more than just the Palestinians not having a voice, but that others speak for the Palestinians.

It is something I found myself doing last week in the house of the family I live with in Bethlehem. Often they have numerous guests staying in their house and one morning I found myself describing the hardships facing Palestinian life to a French guest, who seemed to know very little, as the family sat in silence.

How we speak for and represent the inhabitants of a tourist destination – particularly their everyday life – is a problem often faced in tourism literature. Organised tours in particular are considered to be commercialised, devoid of emotion, and rushed, leaving us only time to gaze. Yet in my experience tours can also be filled with emotion, personal accounts, and time to stop and think. Particularly in Palestine, finding tours which engage with everyday life and show a lived Palestine are particularly important so as not to homogenise Palestine as a place where only conflict lives.

This post is about a tour I took last week by an organisation called ‘Breaking the Silence’[1]; who run tours led by ex-Israeli soldiers offering testimonies about their role in the occupation of Palestine. The particular tour I went on was in the southern Palestinian city of Hebron, one of the most contentious Palestinian cities because an Israeli settlement has been constructed in its heart[2]. The result of this is that in order to protect Israelis living in the settlement, the centre of the city has been closed to Palestinians and some reports estimate that 1500 Israeli soldiers guard 500 Israeli settlers.

Having visited Hebron before and seen and heard about cases of brutality towards Palestinians from soldiers stationed in Hebron, I was intrigued to hear the voices of Israeli soldiers. Arriving at the tour, however, it seemed I was not the only one with this sentiment. I arrived not to see a small group of people lingering around but instead 7 buses which could take about 50 people. In the ‘intimate’ setting of a large coach, our guide, Eli, shared with us his upbringing in a settlement with a politically active Zionist family. He shared his experiences of military service (service here is compulsory for all Israelis at the age of 18)[3] and what made him join ‘Breaking the Silence’. It was a few months into his service he said that he began to question his actions, question why he could arrest a Palestinian child with very little reason yet Israeli settler children could verbally and physically abuse Palestinian children with very little consequences. He questioned his actions in his military service, questioning the moral lines that are drawn and frequently crossed in the name of security. And although here his voice was not without fault (I found myself angry at the history portrayed as very Israeli-centric) as my friend summed up well: ‘it’s nice to hear Israelis saying this, to hear them admitting they are not always doing the best thing.’ And this is true.

Yet, reaching Hebron itself, the tour took a different angle. This is meant to be the part of the tour where we see and experience everyday life in Hebron. Yet with a tour of this size and publicised widely on the Internet, our arrival was not a quiet one. The tour only took part in the Israeli controlled areas of Hebron, these are large parts of the city centre, and on most days are like a ghost town. The forced removal of Palestinians (except a small handful granted permission to stay in their homes but with little freedom to move) means that all the shops are boarded up and none of the estimated 175, 000 to 250, 000 Palestinians who live in Hebron are allowed access. Far from experiencing what this closure and separation means for everyday life in Hebron we experienced an overwhelming number of settlers.

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A militarised Hebron
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Crowds descend
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The spectacle of photo taking
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Flag waving

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Their job was to drown out the voices of the tour guides with microphones and make their presence felt with flags and banners. I felt the tour quickly escalating from one of the sharing of narratives and voices to the creation of a spectacle. Keen to stop our presence there, Israeli settlers bombarded us with chanting and songs. The police and military joined the charade and arguments escalated. The spectacle of occupation stole the show. One of the main parts of the tour is visiting a Palestinian home (one of few Palestinian families allowed to remain in their original home­). Yet today the settlers blocked our passage and used their superior power to stop our movement through their part of the city[4]. I witnessed first-hand the ability of settlers to control the Israeli soldiers. Israeli settlers chanted, sang, and shouted while we could do nothing but watch as the police and the soldiers worked out whose right it was to move.

By the time the tour entered the Palestinian house, we were told we only had five minutes. A representative from the organisation ‘Youth against Settlements’[5] talked to us quickly: ‘I want someone to explain to me why I’m not allowed to walk in the streets I was born in. Why am I a terrorist?’ As I leave I hear two women talking and one says to the other: ‘we see all the conflicts come together here.’

As I think back on this day, this quote sticks. What I saw on this tour was conflict, I saw the effect of conflict, I heard it, and experienced it. It brings me back to the start of this blog post and my question: ‘Who Speaks for the Palestinians?’ My worry at the start of this tour was that the soldiers’ voices would drown out those of Palestinians . Yet in this tour even the voices of the ex- Israeli soldiers leading the tour were deemed less important than the spectacle created by the settlers. They ensured we only saw conflict.

Of the 350 or so people on the tour I think only a handful had been to Hebron before. On this tour all we saw was anger, frustration, conflict, soldiers, settlers, and a brief five minutes with Palestinians who described their daily struggle. Yet beyond this tour is a large Palestinian city, filled with life which continues regardless. And this was erased. We did not see a city struggling with occupation but just occupation. And that is what was lost on this tour and what is frequently lost.

When we let conflict become more important than individual voices, the importance of everyday life is forgotten. In Hebron for the 175,000 or so Palestinians living there life continues. They have to live with conflict and it is only when we see this that we see another Palestine, a Palestine not just consumed by anger. As I look back on my photos of the day, soldiers are in almost every one, and I am sure for the other 700 odd tourists it’s the same story. For me, tourism failed here, it failed to show a lived reality, it created a spectacle and it erased Palestinian life.

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Looking out over Hebron from afar

[1] http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/

[2] Settlements are a particularly contentious issue throughout the West Bank, the signing of the Oslo peace agreements in 1993 marked clear boundaries between Israeli and Palestine, however since then Israeli has continued to build within Palestinian territory. The building of these settlements within Palestine, deemed illegal by international law, enables Israel to justify keeping a military presence in Palestine. Through settlements, Israel can justify checkpoints, closing of roads, and constant civilian and military surveillance.

[3] Compulsory military service for Israelis results in the creation of a highly militarised state in which the military becomes normalised for almost all Israelis, and the conscription age of 18 means the Israel Defence League is composed mainly of under 25s.

[4] The main role of the Israel Defence Force in Palestine is to protect Israeli settlers. This defence role has been frequently criticised for promoting defence through fear tactics such as entering Palestinian homes without warning and mock arrests. Particularly they have been criticised for taking the side of Israeli settlers. Soldiers’ testimonies are on the ‘Breaking the Silence’ website. http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/testimonies/database

[5] http://www.youthagainstsettlements.org

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