THE WEST BANK–I remember the moment I told my friends I would be leaving Australia to study international reporting in Israel. Many of them stared at me with fear in their eyes and would say, “Don’t tell me you’re also traveling to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.”
I sat there, laughed and simply shook my head and reassured them there would be no way I would visit because of the conflict in those areas.
But just 10 days into my program, I was on my way to Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank to visit Palestinian refugee camps — an interest which surely overcame me as I entered the complicated country as a journalist.
In retrospect, it became apparent how much media has influenced our perspectives of this region.
As we passed through each checkpoint there were numerous Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers with AK-47s strapped to the sides of their waists who stared at us intently. There was no doubt violence existed within the territory, but it is also important for people to remember it does not exist to the extent of which most think.
Before I travelled into the West Bank, it was difficult for me to ignore the many reports emerging about rocket attacks from Palestinian territories. And with the continuing peace negotiations, it was hard to turn a blind eye to the political tension brewing within the region.
It took a little less than an hour to travel from Jerusalem to the “notorious” West Bank city of Ramallah. As I jumped off the bus in excitement for the day ahead, my feet hit the rocky road and created clouds of dust beneath them. I walked through the cloud of dust and before I knew it I was stepping onto another bus with a European Union representative, Shadi Othman. For those unaware, the EU is an economic and political union that is heavily invested in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The EU hopes for a two-state solution with an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state that lives side-by-side with Israel and its other neighbors.
As we drove through the rough terrain to the city of Nablus, Othman provided amazing insights into the West Bank, its divisions and settlements. We were quick to learn how much the different divisions affected the daily lives of Palestinians. He explained that a Palestinian could wake up one day and be told he cannot access his crops because they are planted in Area C — an area under full Israeli civil and security control.
|AREA A||— Palestinian control|
|AREA B||— Joint Israeli-Palestinian control|
|AREA C||— Full Israeli control|
In addition to this, Palestinians face severe overcrowding – a crisis that is only getting worse every single day because just 0.7 per cent of West Bank land has been allocated to Palestinians by the Israeli government. As Israel continues to build settlements and develop areas in the West Bank, Palestinians are worried a time will come in the near future when they will no longer have enough room to build adequate housing for their growing population.
Along the way to Nablus, we also passed an enormous and spacious Israeli settlement, which we were told is one of the richest settlements in the West Bank. Our EU representative admitted that the majority of the houses found in this area are in fact empty, because many of whom had been living there have moved to the United States.
I eventually arrived at the Ein Beit El-Ma Refugee Camp and quickly learned I had many misconceptions about refugee camps. Although they were shelters for persons displaced by war or political oppression, they were far from the canvas tent cities I had seen on television. Here, there were no tents or provisional structures. Instead, Palestinians were living in concrete buildings.
While these buildings are better than tents, the living conditions are far from ideal.
Overcrowding is a huge issue for many living in these camps, where they are left with no choice but to build on top of the already established homes. Building this way is not only seen as illegal by the Israeli government, but it is also extremely dangerous given the poor construction of the homes, which were only meant to be a temporary solution.
I also visited the household of Haim Abu Aleish, a mother of 18 children and grandchildren living in a three-bedroom house in the Kalandia refugee camp. The soft-spoken woman said living in the camp was difficult. She struggles to put food on the table for her children three times a day and washing them is difficult because of the water shortage.
Abu Aleish say she had no choice but to build two additional stories to accommodate her expanding family. As I looked into one of the bedrooms of this family’s home, I saw at least 10 dusty and thin mattresses stacked high, waiting to be moved into their living room and kitchen at nightfall to accommodate the large family.
One major lesson of the day was how much of a need there is to look beyond the portrayal of the West Bank in the media. Unfortunately, in a region like this, the term ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ exists profoundly.
Too often mainstream media only cover the stories about violence and conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli regions. However, the Palestinians whom I met that day were the friendliest and most accommodating people I have ever met, so it was sad to see such pleasant families living in terrible conditions.
Here, they’re removed of any right to become a citizen in a country they have lived their entire lives simply because of the fear of violence made by a minority within their society. For now, these Palestinians get by with the support of their families but continue to hope that one day they’ll be able to return to the land in which they once lived before the Arab-Israeli conflict.