Published: June 10th 2009June 10th 2009
“So. What is your name?”
are you doing in Israel?”
There’s a pause. I’m looking at this formidable Israeli policewoman, the fifth of what seems to be a never ending line of interrogators. I’m bleary-eyed, ridiculously exhausted from what is verging on a 20 hour trip from Montreal to here, Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I really don’t know what answer to give her, being forewarned that Israeli security does not take quite a fancy to internationals choosing to work in the West Bank or Gaza, areas that they stubbornly refuse to accept as Palestine.
I had already told a string of half-truths, not quite feeling comfortable to tell any outright lies, but trying to keep the purpose of my stay light. I was to be spending the next six to seven weeks working with the Community Service Center (CSC) in Nablus, two checkpoints deep into the West Bank.
“I do not care whether you are volunteering there or not. But you better be honest with me, because I just sent two American girls crying back to their country. What
are you going to be doing?! Be honest, because I can be merciless.”
Literally, her exact word was merciless. I’m kind of taken aback. Yeah, I knew they had a little ‘security’ situation here in Israel, but the groggy part of me wonders whether I’ve been drugged, doomed to wake up in a tiny, poorly lit back room in hand and foot restraints. A slightly morbid part kind of revels in the idea- it would make a great story back home, at least.
Well, the story really doesn’t end that dramatically, I’m relieved to admit. After three hours of grilling, they send me on my way with the parting words of ‘okay, we will not send you home- not yet
’ and finally, I’m on my way to Nablus.
I still can’t believe the mere mention of the place sent them into that frenzy of official power flexing. The center I am working was founded by the McGill Middle East Program in Montreal, in partnership with An-Najah University, one of the largest in the Palestinian territories.
The work that’s done by the center is classic community development work, focusing primarily on social issues. The Volunteer Action program is a community service initiative that recruits thousands of volunteers from the nearby universities and local communities that work in community training and capacity building. Their Community Mobilization Project specifically works with the Ministry of Health in various hospitals in the Nablus region, collecting thousands of litres in blood drives, doing psychosocial support work with patients and their families, and facilitating and streamlining administrative procedures. The Housing Program has been successful in building and improving over 200 houses within the Nablus region, designed to improve living conditions for the neediest (generally low income, elderly, and disabled populations). Finally, the newly launched Mobile Center has worked with the rural populations around Nablus in training local volunteers to carry out social work, community development and sponsorship in the same educational, psychological, and social support areas as the aforementioned programs. Despite challenges, mainly involving impeded mobility and scope from the Israeli checkpoints and the lack of resources available to meet the need of the large number of volunteers, feedback to these programs has been very positive and supportive.
My job consists of pretty much doing anything that needs done in English, thanks to my deplorable Arabic. I’ve written a proposal for a USAID community mobilization health project; I am updating all their brochures, leaflets, overviews, you name it; I’m creating results summaries from previous projects; and I’m looking into diversifying their donors in the Housing Program. My ever diminishing spare time is spent mostly with the Palestinian youth from An-Najah and their families, and soaking up as much literature on the Israeli-Palestinian culture as this little city can offer (English resources are pretty limited).
As far as I’ve been able to probe, no dangerous activity or terrorist links here.
Clearly I’m joking. One of, if not the worst, plight of the Palestinian people is the rest of the world is laboring under the impression that they are all individual Osama bin Ladens, hiding in their hilly caves. One can imagine how that would be frustrating after a time.
I’m pleased to report that everyone at the center- actually, every Palestinian I’ve met so far- has been almost embarrassingly welcoming and kind. I’ve been invited to everyone’s house, village, whatever, met families, have had multiple offers to stay… I’ve even barely paid a cent of my own money, everyone’s so generous. For example, this big teddy bear of a guy at the office mischievously, but very determinedly, decided to improve my Arabic. To my actual surprise, I find it slowly improving. So far, I can’t believe that I’ve only been here for a week, and it feels like I’ve done a month’s work of activities.
Future entries will detail more of the work and excursions I’ve done so far, and describe some of the more pressing social and economic issues facing the majority of Palestinians. Insha’Allah.
I am very grateful, Israeli police, that you did not send me back to Canada.