Written by Mark Vaughan
Between the 30th June and the 31st of July 2016 I travelled to Palestine to volunteer for SkatePAL, a charity that builds skateparks and teaches children skateboarding in the West Bank. This report will describe my experience volunteering with SkatePAL, followed by a brief history of the conflict, leading onto a discussion of a resolution to the worsening conflict, and finally an outline of my costs. The history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is undoubtedly highly complex and difficult to fully understand, however throughout my trip it became increasingly apparent that a resolution (or at least a mutual easing of tensions) would be easy to achieve and beneficial to both sides. This may seem like an ill-informed and over optimistic interpretation of a conflict that has rumbled on for almost seven decades, and one might reasonably question why this has not already been achieved. The answer is simple and unsavoury- because the Israeli government has not yet fulfilled its objective of expansion. To be absolutely clear, any perceived criticism of the Israeli government that may be construed from this report is solely of the political institution that governs the nation, not of Jewish people.
As a SkatePAL volunteer I was responsible for teaching children (majority aged 6-15, with the occasional adult giving it a try!) every weekday at the village skatepark, which was built by volunteers the previous year. The teaching often entailed demonstrating a particular trick followed by hand holding and copious high fives and shouting of momtaz (Arabic word for excellent). Some of the kids took to skateboarding very quickly, which was incredibly satisfying to know that SkatePAL had revealed this natural talent. For others it was of course less natural, but nevertheless rewarding for me and for them to see progression. Irrespective of ability, the smiles on the children’s faces spoke for itself. One of the highlights of my volunteering was witnessing a girl teaching another child a trick that I had taught her the previous day, which demonstrated to me that SkatePAL was building a skate scene that would perpetuate itself. On the weekends I and other volunteers would travel around Palestine with our skateboards, which often resulted in unofficially teaching skateboarding to the excited and curious children of wherever we were! When walking around the village in the evenings the other volunteers and I were verbally welcomed to Palestine by the majority of people, as well as being invited into people’s homes on numerous occasions for mint tea or dinner. The kindness of the people was truly incredible, despite the international community turning a blind eye to the occupation for 5 decades, I (as an international) have never been in the company of more hospitable people.
Following an escalation of tensions between the native Palestinians and the Jewish population in the area, in 1947 a two state solution was devised to physically divide the parties and consequently ease the conflict. Under this UN doctrine which was agreed on by both parties, the state of Israel would be created and given 55% of the previously Palestinian land, and the Palestinian people would receive the remaining 45% of the contested land. Following the Six Day War in 1968 the Israeli government authorised the building of military outposts in the West Bank. Whilst the military occupation of another country is legal under international law, it soon became apparent that these military outposts were growing into settlements for citizens of Israel to go and live. This is an explicit and overt violation of international law. Unsurprisingly, the increasing military and civilian occupation of Palestinian land, as well as the capture of Palestinian water sources (forcing local people to buy their water, for example in the village of Nabi Saleh) aggravated tensions. The Israeli presence inside what is supposedly Palestine is vast, with regular military checkpoints on all roads, total control of all borders, exclusively Israeli motorways, daily low flying fighter jet disturbances as well as the growing number of heavily guarded Israeli civilians in the West Bank, currently 550,000 settlers according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem. It may seem surprising that so many Israelis wish to live in settlements in Palestine, considering the anti-Israeli sentiment which is evident in the West Bank. The principle reason why this is the case is because the Israeli government financially subsidises housing in settlements. These financial subsidies reveal the expansionist intention of the Israeli government in the West Bank. The other, less prevalent reason is ideological- the belief that because Jewish people lived in this land thousands of years ago it is rightfully theirs to return to. I do not however find this argument to be compelling, because according to this same logic, Italy would have a claim to most of Europe under the Roman Empire.
As stated in my introduction, the conflict continues to deteriorate because the government of Israel does not desire peace until its foreign policy of expansionism to the Jordan River (therefore the eradication of Palestine) is complete. Whilst this is not their stated aim, the continual expansion of illegal settlements and increasing administrative control of the West Bank is sufficient evidence of an attempt to achieve this aim gradually, thereby avoiding intense international scrutiny. I do not believe the clarity of this intention can be fully understood without visiting Palestine, because Israeli border security do everything in their power to prevent the international community from helping Palestine, for example by restricting the flow of information leaving the West Bank to obscure the extent of the illegal occupation (because as stated Israel has control of all Palestinian borders). On my return journey I was encouraged by numerous people to delete all Palestinian contacts and pictures (which I had backed up), because it was not uncommon for airport security to check travellers phones for evidence of aiding Palestinians. If they had found such evidence it would likely be destroyed, and the offender prevented from returning to Israel and therefore Palestine. If informing the world of the extent of the truth is made difficult, it is unlikely that there will be sufficient international pressure to stop the occupation.
I visited both Israel and Palestine as a spectator, an impartial individual with no historic ties or vested interests in either peoples or areas of land. After reading the history, speaking with countless people in both Palestine and Israel, as well as experiencing both nations for myself I have come to the conclusion that the chief aggravator of the conflict is the illegal military and civilian occupation of the West Bank. All of the weekly protests that ensue in the West Bank, as well as the first and second intifada (large scale conflict) are directly attributable to the Israeli occupation, not the existence of the neighbouring state of Israel. Certainly, there would still be a minority that wish to retake all of the pre-1947 state of Palestine (present day Israel). However, the prospect of peace and national sovereignty would likely pacify the huge majority. The Israeli government recognises that their illegal occupation drives a minority of frustrated Palestinian people to terrorism, and so has built a wall to attempt to stop these people from achieving their violent aim. Therefore instead of addressing the root cause of the issue which is their illegal occupation of the West Bank, the Israeli government instead tackles the symptoms of the issue by attempting to keep terrorists out. Physically excluding certain people who may not yet have even exposed themselves as a terrorist suspect, as well as placing more checks and restrictions on the huge majority of peaceful Palestinians is both unlikely to work, and detrimental to the conflict. If the illegal occupation of the West Bank is ended, Palestinian people will not be driven to violence and so there will be a consequent cooling of tensions. Over several decades, the absence of violent attacks caused by a frustration with overt injustice will diminish the requirement for a wall to separate the two states. If such a state of affairs were to be achieved, the quality of life for Palestinian people would be unimaginably improved through national sovereignty, justice and security. Furthermore, the state of Israel would benefit by not having to exist in fear of terrorist attacks, having a lower military budget (currently 6.2% of GDP compared to 3.3% for the US), not having to conscript it’s citizens, as well as making peace with other neighbouring states which also object to the occupation (for example Algeria).
I would like to thank the Zochonis Special Enterprise Fund for giving me this opportunity to first and foremost help Palestinian children, but also to build lasting friendships with other international volunteers and local people. Volunteering for SkatePAL has helped me develop personally at least as much as I know it has helped the children on the ground. As is probably apparent, I found the historical and political dimension of this trip extremely intellectually stimulating, developing my interest in international politics and conflict resolution. In the future I plan to return to Palestine again in the capacity of a SkatePAL volunteer, and possibly through a career in international politics.
Author: Mark Vaughan
Other funding: Work experience bursary £200
-Weekend domestic travel £50
-Travel insurance £100
-Souvenirs and experiences £50
Black and white photos taken by SkatePAL volunteer and photographer Loïc Laforge