Making sense of things in Palestine

Standing a few minutes from the entrance to Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, my friend and I were in two minds. Querying whether or not we should enter the refugee camp where the funeral of a 13 year old Palestinian boy shot dead by Israeli soldiers was about to take place[1].  To be this near the spot where something so terrible happened it seemed wrong to do nothing, yet at the same time what is the right way to act. Making sense of things here is a constant struggle, the sudden juxtaposition between reading things that once felt so far away with suddenly being right there.

Palestine is a metaphorical and physical walled fortress. All activities behind it concealed and contained, hidden from the outside world. This wall enables the outside world to treat those differently behind it, to ignore those behind it, and forget about them. In the words of former US defence secretary Chuck Hagel, we must ‘keep Palestinians caged up like animals.’ It is only being behind this wall, we can see the barrier of ignorance it creates, and the ability of Israel and the international media to keep this wall high. The media focus on the numbers of Israelis killed; frequent association between the words Palestinian and terrorist; and inability to show any daily life in Palestine occurring without conflict – feeds Israeli ignorance and ensures no cracks develop.

Palestinians are portrayed as Hagel’s wild animals – they are all terrorists, killers, they all carry knifes, all carry bombs. These are all the pictures and stories the media sells us. Israel especially works every day to keep its citizens ignorant. Signs across the Palestinian West Bank warn Israelis that entering Palestine is dangerous to their lives. Israeli citizens never have the chance to see how  their state’s occupation and control over the West Bank impacts on everyday life; the water shortages, the house demolitions, the restriction on mobility, the fear of attack by the Israeli military to mention a few.

Israeli Sign
One of the numerous signs warning Israelis against travelling to Palestinian areas in the West Bank

Yet if we venture behind the wall, a land full of threats to Israeli security does not await us. Instead lies a land full of Palestinians trying to live a life amidst occupation. Using their fear of Palestinians, Israel justifies a whole series of controls on Palestinian life; checkpoints, road closures, seizure of farm land, control of water. Being behind the wall means I see all this squeezing, pressing, and pushing instigated by Israel. The constant daily torment imposed by the Israeli occupation makes it hard to imagine how that situation cannot one day pop. Yet outside of Palestine we never see the squeezing and pressing – we just see the pop. And when the pop does happen- inevitably so – Israeli lives matter more than Palestinian lives; the implications for Palestinians are far worse than for Israelis in terms of the law. When a Palestinian throws a stone they get twenty years; when a Palestinian attacks an Israeli their family are imprisoned and their home demolished.

This is the main difference between being here and being back there- I no longer just see the pop but I see the squeezing, pressing, pushing, and pinching. Being here makes what is happening seem so incredibly unjust. It is almost impossible to be here and not understand and feel what’s going on – my Mum came to visit last month and solidified this for me. The experiential and emotional understanding she got from being here as opposed to just watching on the news opened my eyes to just how easy it is to distance ourselves from what is happening. Yet once here that distance becomes impossible.

My Mum and I at the separation wall, Summer 2015

This question of distance has made me rethink the role of tourism here. I have worried before that tourism based on conflict can be damaging in Palestine is it reinforces the dominant association between Palestine and conflict. Perhaps tourism based on everyday activities such as cooking or hiking could be more important for creating an imagination of Palestine as lived and perhaps even a fun and happy place.  However, at the same time the role of tourism and the tourist is changing. Particularly in tourist sites which were once considered ‘dark’ – in which death, atrocity, or disaster was present.[2] Ashworth and Isaac argue there is a shift now towards wanting to understand the motivation, subsequent experience and behaviour of the tourists in these sites.[3] They suggest that tourism and emotions are strongly linked and tourists can have emotional associations with sites.

Here in Palestine this can also be seen in the move towards experiential tourism. Tourists do not all just want to come and gaze and see any more – they also want a chance to come and experience – learn and feel. They want to come and olive pick with Palestinian farmers, take part in cooking classes, or to enter everyday spaces such as the refugee camp or the family home. In these every day and experiential places, ordinary people are given voices and they can share their own and personal stories. Tourism can potentially provide an answer as to how we might break down walls and fortresses. Graffiti scrawled around the West Bank contains slogans such as ‘now you have seen you are responsible and it is hard to come here and not feel responsible. Perhaps tourism has one solution, as it is only when both Israelis and the international community really feel what is going on that any changes will ever come about.


We decided to go into Aida Camp that day, partly led by the shared feeling that we wanted to show we care, we hoped very much we would not just be seen as another gazer, another atrocity seeker. It is hard to describe the atmosphere in a place where a young boy has been shot by military forces. It definitely isn’t pleasant, people stand with nothing to do, the Imam chants angrily from the mosque, young boys act like men, crowds amass while women weep.

Photo taken from the funeral of 13 year old Abdel Rahman Abdullah in Aida Refugee Camp – one of 24 Palestinians killed so far this month[4]

[2] Lennon, J. J., & Foley, M. (2000). Dark tourism. Cengage Learning EMEA.

[3] Ashworth, G. J., and Rami K. Isaac. “Have we illuminated the dark? Shifting perspectives on ‘dark’tourism.” Tourism Recreation Research (2015): 1-10.



2 thoughts on “Making sense of things in Palestine

  1. Helen

    Keep blogging Olivia. This is all really interesting and important stuff. Having visited I totally agree that the impact of witnessing the true situation, is more enlightening than any news reporting. The skewed information we are constantly fed by the media is gut-wrenching. Keep feeding us the true experiences of those who live out there.


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