Before and After Thoughts of Volunteers in Palestine: Coming to Hebron and Palestine will inevitably change your perceptions on the region and present a side to the conflict that far exceeds any narrative you will get from the media in the West. Spending time at the Excellence Center will only enhance this sense for you as volunteers here spend their time with Palestinians in Hebron, in the villages, and getting to know the community on a deeper level. Through this interaction, inevitably, pre-travel ideas make way to understandings of this conflict that are far more nuanced, and perhaps most importantly, Palestine and its conflict with Israel becomes one with human faces, personal stories, and not simply something we know about through the TV and newspapers.
For many volunteers, it is Hebron itself that provides the first surprise. Instead of a dusty old run down city Hebron is much larger than originally thought with a bustling atmosphere that comes as a surprise. For Jacob, from Sweden, this was his first impression as he begun to explore the city – he noticed that it just kept on going, was full of restaurants, cafes, and a constant steady stream of taxis.
Stephen, another volunteer with the Center, also found the size surprising. Having visited H2 and the Old City previously, Stephen had thought he had a pretty good grasp on what Hebron was about, but after his time at the Excellence Center, realized the city was so much larger than he originally thought. Owen, from England (London) was surprised at the quality of the football (soccer for everyone else) stadium and has been especially happy checking out the local teams as they practice and play games (the stadium being directly opposite the Center)
For others, Palestinian hospitality has been a major highlight and definitely a perception that has changed simply through experiencing it. While the hospitality of Palestinians is a well-known fact, it is hard to describe to those that have not experienced it. As one volunteer jokingly put it, it is almost aggressive hospitality. It results in many coffee’s, invites to cafes and homes, and for one lucky volunteer, free donuts at a corner shop not too far down the road from the center. And, as this volunteer explained, being able to get quality donuts in Hebron was not something they expected at all.
Perceptions about the occupation also change, again, an inevitability simply through having to experience it while moving around Palestine, and visiting the Old City in Hebron. Of course, an international will never be able to fully understand what it is to be under Occupation, such is our lot in life, but spending time in Hebron and Palestine certainly gives insights. As Tanya, a teacher from the USA at the Center explained, one of her more interesting day trips was to Jerusalem and passing through two checkpoints. As she explained, the atmosphere in the service would change from what you expect on a service to Jerusalem, to a sense of baited breath, a certain tension, that, once passed the checkpoint, was quickly released as everyone immediately relaxed, with a few whispering there thanks to God.
Experiencing this twice on the same trip definitely gave Tanya some insight into the tension Palestinians feel when they simply want to travel around the West Bank. For Stephen, another angle revealed itself, presenting another side to Palestinian experiences of the occupation when he discussed going to visit the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to a young Palestinian who expressed how jealous she was that Stephen could just get on a service and go. As she had no clearance from Israel to go to Jerusalem to the Al Aqsa mosque, and no realistic chance of getting one, praying at Al Aqsa was a dream for her.
There is no other way to experience Palestine, its situation and Palestinians than to travel there. Inevitably, we all have our opinions and persuasions, but travelling to the land will, at the minimum, put a human face on what can be simply abstract ideologies void of any sense of practicality that comes with experiencing the complexities, joys and challenges that is Palestine.