The Hard Truth About Volunteering in Palestine: Many foreigners come to Palestine with grandiose ideas of what their time will be like. Perhaps they are politically minded and want to take on the occupation themselves. Perhaps they think they can fix all of Palestine’s problems themselves. The truth is more international volunteers and visitors are needed in Palestine. But a proper mindset on why you are here and what you can accomplish is necessary.
One of our volunteers from the West reports, “When I first decided to come to Palestine I had friends who worked for human rights organizations. They suggested I join protest groups or take pictures of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and on patrol, of course I listened politely but knew I would do no such thing.” Palestine has been the center of a land dispute for decades and has attracted some of the world’s best diplomats, activists, and military minds from countries around the world and organizations like the United Nations, the Red Cross/Crescent, and Amnesty International. The tough truth is that if they haven’t been able to solve the crisis it is highly unlikely that a young American or Briton fresh out of university is going to change to macro-political situation on the ground.
If you do decide to insert yourself into clashes or become confrontational with either side, you’re likely to do more harm than good. One of our volunteer’s recounts how, “One day I was wandering the city after work and I walked too close to a traffic circle where Palestinians had held a rally and IDF soldiers had arrived to break it up. As I was walking my eyes, nose, and mouth started to sting and I knew tear gas had been fired somewhere nearby. As soon as I turned around the stinging stopped and I walked back to the center. At the center, I waited until the director got word from friends around the city that the clash had ended. Even though I knew I was always a safe distance from the disturbance and was never in any real danger at a primal level I was pretty shook up.”
Palestinians have lived with these kinds of clashes for so long that they hardly faze us. But the vast majority of foreigners will be scared if they encounter events like this. Purposely placing yourself in the forefront of these types of protests therefore will only result in your inability to function calmly and reliance on Palestinians to care for you and guide you until you recover.
As for taking pictures, neither side involved in a clash, Israeli or Palestinian, want their pictures taken. Doing so will only unnecessarily increase tensions and cause problems for you. Moreover, the problem for Palestine if not an absence of information. There are entire websites dedicated to documenting the occupation and there have been multiple libraries worth of books written on the conflict. The problem for Palestinians is a false perception and lack of empathy from the outside. In that way, you can help.
Palestinians, especially the youth, are curious about the outside world and want to learn from foreigners about their culture, language, and lives. Foreigners for their part, can gain insight into the daily lives of Palestinians and make life-long friends. When they go home they can share pictures, not of protests, but of dinner parties, day-trips, and busy classrooms. They can tell their friends and family that the Palestinians they met were curious, smart, hospitable, and kind. In this way, we can begin to change the culture of demonization and have a more honest discussion about the fears, hopes, and dreams of both Israelis and Palestinians.
So, when coming to Palestine leave your chants and picket signs at home, we don’t need them or want them. What we do want is you, your friendship, your perspective, and your voice.