In the fifth episode of the International Solidarity Movement podcast we are joined in the village of At-Tuwani by two ISM volunteers – Herbie and Maria – who both spent several months volunteering as internationalists in Palestine. They tell us from a personal perspective what it’s like to be an international volunteer in Palestine, and especially in the South Hebron Hills. ISM is focusing it’s presence here because of to the ongoing demolitions of Palestinian homes and infrastructure by the Israeli occupation.
We ask Herbie and Maria what brought them to Palestine, what they would say to people who are thinking of joining ISM but aren’t sure yet, and also what it’s been like witnessing some of the violence of the occupation.
Masafer Yatta – communities Israel is trying to drive out – by Btselem
International Solidarity Movement call to action – Masafer Yatta
If you would like an explanation of the terms used in this podcast, youI can find a useful glossary on pages 140-154 of Shoal Collective’s Ebook
Hey, welcome to international solidarity movement podcast [followed by Arabic translation]
azeazeaHello and welcome to the fifth episode of the International Solidarity Movement podcast. Today we are joined in the village of At-Tuwani by two ISM volunteers – Herbie and Maria – who both spent several months volunteering as internationalists in Palestine. they tell us from a personal perspective what it’s like to be an international volunteer in Palestine, and especially in the South Hebron Hills, where ISM is focusing it’s presence, due to the ongoing demolitions of Palestinian homes and infrastructure by the Israeli occupation. We touch on what brought them to Palestine, what they would say to people who are thinking of joining ISM but aren’t sure yet, and also what it’s been like witnessing some of the violence of the occupation. At the end of the interview, Herbie and Maria discuss the culpability of Western states in the ongoing colonisation of Palestine and – in opposition to this – how we can directly take action to stand with and struggle alongside the Palestinian people in their fight for autonomy and freedom.
So we’re really happy to be joined by two volunteers from ISM, the International Solidarity Movement, who have been in Palestine for several months this year at different points. And we’re going to be asking them some questions about their experiences here, some of the challenges, things they’ve learned, and also enjoyed since they’ve been here. But yeah, if you’d like to introduce yourself, that would be amazing.
Hi, everyone. So I’m Maria, and yeah, I’ve been, I’m almost at the end of my visa. So I’ve been here for three months now. And I was here a month over the Summer.
Hi, everyone, I’m Herbie, I’ve been here for nearly two months now. And I’ve got about another month left of my visa.
Can you share a little bit about how your experiences have been here?
Yeah. So I think the situation in general is very challenging on the ground. I was here for the first time this summer. And it was quite mind blowing. I’ve been campaigning for Palestine in the UK. But I think when you see things on the ground, and you live them, and you experience them, and you talk to people, it’s… it’s completely different. I think you get used to like the rhythm quite quickly. But yeah, I think overall it has been amazing. I’ve met lots of very, very interesting people. The Palestinian activists are great. The international activists are all amazing. And we’ve also met lots of Israeli activists, which are really nice. So I think generally, like very recommended experience and very positive, but yeah, it’s, it’s challenging. And ISM is very often on the first line. So you are, yeah, very often like, in [a] conflict situation. And some of them can be very challenging, but I think you develop as a person as well. So yeah, positive in general.
What’s your kind of like day to day, what would like an average day look like here?
I mean, to be honest, like, every day is different. And it’s very dependent on where we are. At the minute, we’re in Masafer Yatta. And we’re kind of based in a couple of different villages. In one of them, we do the like morning and afternoon school run, because some of the children have to walk through a settlement, Havat Ma’on – sorry, [it’s] an illegal outpost – to get to school, and they sometimes get attacked by settlers. So they have a military escort. And then we are also there waiting for them on the other side, to make sure they’ve arrived safely. But things often pop up very unexpectedly – like you, you can never predict what’s going to happen in a day. For example, on Monday, everything was very lrelaxed. I, like, didn’t have a lot to do. And then the next day, I was at three different demolitions in different villages in Masafer Yatta. And there was also a fourth demolition, and then I went to another village to visit some children whose school was recently demolished. So it varies a lot.
We’ve been interviewing in some of the villagers we hear about the demolitions and their experiences, but could you share a little bit about what your – your role is, while that’s happening, and what you’ve observed?
Yeah, so I suppose the most important role for us and and what the locals want is that we’re there to document what’s happening. Because we’re like, in the area, we can, we’re either like, already living in that village, or we can get there very quickly. We can get there like, a lot faster than, you know, the UN can or anyone else. So we’re there to like, document the whole thing so that the world can hear about what’s happening otherwise. You know, most people would just never know that these people’s homes and villages are being destroyed. In an ideal world, if there was enough of us here, then we could take direct action to actively resist the demolitions for example, like going on the diggers, blocking vehicles, surrounding the house. But unfortunately, since lockdown there is like a very low number of volunteers here. And it’s just not safe or effective for us to try to do those things if we don’t have the numbers for it. So yeah, it’s quite, it’s quite difficult just standing there filming instead of trying to resist it happening. Another thing we can do is try to de-arrest Palestinians if they’re being taken by the police.
And I know like some people in the UK that have considered coming – like maybe they’re nervous because they don’t know what to expect or they have health issues. They don’t feel like they can do it. Or like mental health challenges… Like do you feel like it is accessible for everyone here or do you feel like there are different roles people can do, or do you think it has been quite kind of physically demanding, the work here? Like what’s the kind of, yeah, experiences in terms of like your own health and your own well being.
Yeah I think as an organization it is quite wide. And there are roles for everyone. And you can show solidarity in lots of different ways, even only just living in a village and like showing people that, you know, internationals are there, and they’re aware of the situation. And they are filming, if needed, then that gives Palestinians strength and like, is a push for them to continue the fight. If you feel like physically able, then there is of course, like more challenging – physically challenging – work to do. But like, it’s, it’s nothing crazy. And we’ve got media roles, international coordinator roles. So yeah I think the good thing of ISM is that everyone, yeah, so the good thing of ISM is that like everyone can participate in the capacity that they feel they can. So if you want to be more based in the flats, or like in house in a village, you can do that. Again, if you feel like being in the front line, and like, put yourself more at risk, you can also do that. So it’s really up to the person. Mentally it is a challenging situation, but you will always, always have support from people on the ground. So I think it’s, I think it’s generally accessible to most people.amar
Yeah, I would, I would agree that like the ISM will, like, try and accommodate for people’s health needs. But I do think it is important to consider that like, it is a very mentally challenging situation. I’m definitely someone who’s like struggled with my mental health. And I really had to think hard about whether I was like mentally stable enough to deal with this context. And it has been a challenge. And I think it’s also really important to look after yourself whenever you go home as well, because I think also, although being here is difficult, I think also leaving and going back to ‘normality’, and having to process everything is – can be quite difficult for people. And I think it’s also important to consider that like, a lot of the work here is quite physical, like we do a lot of like, walking from village to village, we don’t have – we can’t always get a lift to places. There is like, you know, like, yeah, physical work to do, as well. And at demos you might have to run if there’s like, gunfire and things. So, yeah, it is accessible to different people’s needs. But it is also important to like consider what you’re able to do before coming. And, like, not put yourself in dangerous situations.
A lot of people will see Palestine on the news. And yeah, like, for someone that’s never been here before, like I think, it does feel like extremely intimidating. Of, “oh my god, am I gonna get shot? Am I gonna witness someone else getting shot?” Like, it’s really got this kind of like, I mean, it is a conflict zone, right? But I think it’s been very different being here and seeing the kind of normality in the day to day things, even though everyone is like, relentlessly affected by the occupation. And it kind of defines everyone’s lives. I just wondered like, how it’s been for you in terms of violence and like, you don’t have to disclose what you don’t feel comfortable with but, like, yeah, how has it felt being here and seeing the occupation and how it affects people?
For me, that has been a bit challenging. I think, especially over the summer, I’ve been to a couple of demos where two kids were shot, and they died. So we’ve been to funerals as well. And like, the funerals are, like a whole experience here. Because there are like, thousands of people that attend and, you know, it’s like, sort of a national mourning. So it’s a very intense experience. I don’t know if that’s the right, like- [it’s] very beautiful on one side in the sense that there are all these communities that come together, and you know, like mourning the martyrs. But yeah, I mean, in terms of violence, you might experience some here and witness some and that’s very hard. As I say. So seeing like people getting shot or like seeing settlers’ violence.
We’ve ended up in a couple of situations where we thought that we’re gonna get injured, then that didn’t happen. But yeah, I think, again, ISM tries to cover this situation – there are a lot of different lines. It’s then up to the volunteer if they want to go, if they want to participate, and things like that. Especially like demonstrations this summer, they were very intense. I was here when they – the two or three days that they bombed Gaza. So like they were doing demonstration here in the West Bank and those like, they were quite tough and they were, like, repressed horribly, by the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces]. So that was harsh. And I think in general, like I think as Herbie said, the situation can kick off anytime, so… and soldiers and settlers don’t like to see international[s] filming and being here. So you often are the targets of of soldiers – like not in a physical way, but you know, like them trying to scare you, or like making you leave. So you kind of need to be mentally prepared for that sort of violence as well.
I think I’ve been very – not surprised here, but people have really been like, “oh, we need internationals to talk about this, we need pressure, like… things are getting worse, because there needs to be more pressure from the international community”. And I think maybe I hadn’t come previously in my life because of, I guess, okay, like, you know, there’s a lot of language around like white saviourism, or people traveling abroad when there’s like, oppression in the UK, you know, like the prison system or racism or how like refugees and migrants are treated in the UK and stuff. So I think I’ve never been like a natural internationalist, if that makes sense. But I’m – it’s kind of very interestingly, like, massively made an impression on me that people seem so welcoming, like just buying us coffees on the street, or, you know, like sweetcorn from a stand or just people – everyone’s interested in us and asking questions and people are like, “thank you for coming.” And there seems to be this like amazing, like openness and hospitality. I just wondered if you had any kind of thoughts about that. Maybe someone is listening, and they’re like, “Oh, I feel weird about going”, or, like, has that stuff come up for you?
Yeah, the whole like, white savior thing is definitely something that I was quite worried about. You know, if that if you think that you’re going to come here and save people and free Palestine, like that is very much not the case. You’re, you’re here to learn from the people and be led by them and show solidarity with them. And yeah. So it is important to think about your intentions for coming for sure. But my experience of being here, as you said, like everyone is, like, so welcoming. And I think just grateful that we’re here because you know, there is just such a lack of coverage of what is really happening here. So it’s so important for us to be here and to see the reality on the ground and to go home and share that with people.
Yeah, completely agree. And ISM is 100% Palestinian led. We’re non-violent, of course. But we would never ever take the initiative of doing anything if the Palestinians around us are not – like we’ve not consulted them before. So that’s an important point. And yeah, I think as Herbie was saying, like, we’re not saviours. But I think the Palestinians understand how isolated they are outside this… the situation on the ground, and like in Western countries, and whatever. And because like, Israel has all these ties with like Western countries and countries outside, I think they need this sort of connection with the outside world. So it’s, yeah, it’s not a matter of us coming here and being saviours, but more like documenting in, and then try to like, lobby and do diplomacy when we’re back home.
Amazing. What was the trigger for coming here? Like what inspired you to join? Obviously, there’s lots of places you could have gone or things you could have done, like, what was it that kind of called you here?
So I’ve been campaigning for Palestine in the UK, quite a lot. It’s something that I’ve been knowing about, lately shap[ing] my life, but like, I don’t know, I just feel that this is so much dependent on like behaviors of Western countries, and we can actively do something to stop what’s happening here. So that made me like more and more involved back home. And then I just thought that it would have been good to actually come and see the situation on the ground. And this, for me, is the first time that I find myself in a situation like this or like in a conflict area, and like having to deal with soldiers or this violence. So it’s been an interesting growth. But yeah, I think knowing things from outside… it just fed naturally then to come and see things on the ground. But yeah, um, first time that I’m in like this sort of situation.
Yeah, that’s, like, coming here has been, like, a long time coming for me. So I was like, very much raised as a Zionist. My, like, most of my family are Israeli. And I’ve had to do a lot of like unlearning. And yeah, finding out the truth about the situation here. And yeah, I think, I mean, obviously, I want to be here to show solidarity with Palestinians, but also like to, like, see, for myself, to be able to, like, communicate with my family and like, try and explain to them what’s really happening here because like, although some of them are sympathetic to the cause, they’re very inactive. And it’s, it’s very easy for them to just like, live their lives, sort of ignoring what is happening just like a few miles away from them. And yeah, I want to try and show them what’s really going on and hopefully inspire them to – and empower them to – actually stand in solidarity with Palestinians. And yeah, I think also as a Jewish person, it’s particularly important to, for me to – I guess I have, there’s definitely guilt there. And I feel like I almost need to like show that not all Jewish people are Zionists.
Yeah like a final question, I guess is, what would you say to someone who’s maybe like, on the fence about coming, like thinking about it, maybe they’re saving up for it, but they’re just not quite sure whether to come on up. And you know, there’s only a handful of us here. And I know from friends, they’ve talked about this history of ISM, where there was like hundreds of people here all over the West Bank doing different things. And it’s quite – like you said at the beginning with the pandemic, it’s really affected the amount of people coming. So, obviously, you know, we’re hoping with this podcast that people will listen, and that will inspire them to join ISM here, but yeah, what would you say to anyone that was considering it, but not quite sure yet?
Yeah. I mean, I guess it’s individual cases. But I would generally encourage people to come. It’s, even though it’s a tough experience, but you grow a lot as a person. And there’s so much to learn from people here on the ground. And I think just seeing things with your own eyes is so much different than like reading or listening to stories. And yeah, like Palestinians are absolutely amazing. And there’s lots of support on the ground. And yeah, we’re saying like, there are challenges there, like people should think about so again, depends on individual situation. But yeah, I think just think that you will never be forced to do things or to be in situation where you don’t want to be in. So if you want to start with like a lighter approach and just understanding the situation. There will be room to do that and maybe just go around and talk to families like without necessarily being involved in maybe [a] conflict situation, although that might happen. I mean, it is at risk that you need to consider. But I think in general, it’s been such a like eye opening experience. That yeah, I cannot think of one reason not to come here.
Yeah, coming here for me was like such a daunting challenge. But one that I like… I’m 100% so glad that I made. I think that if you’re like, unsure and you probably have like a lot of questions and uncertainties, like you can get in touch with ISM by email and attend a training and they’ll answer all of the questions that you have. Yeah, as Maria said, like, it’s just I mean, for me, it’s like definitely been like a life changing experience in a good way. And yeah, you’re stronger than you think you are. And you can, like, you know, I think the Palestinian people are incredibly resilient and face these things every day. And I think we are in a very privileged position to be able to like, come here and witness this and then go back home. And I think you won’t regret coming.