The Holy Land’s rich history means many visitors have strong preconceptions about the region. From vague geographical visions gleaned from biblical stories, to poverty and lawlessness purported in modern propaganda. In many cases these are inaccurate and many travelers are shocked by the contrast that awaits them in the West Bank.
In June 1967, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were captured by Israel as a result of the Six-Day War. The territories have been occupied by Israel since then despite numerous UN resolutions proclaiming the illegality of such actions. In 2002 Israel began construction of a security barrier. The controversial project was designed to protect Israel from suicide bombings and other violence. Opponents of the project argue that it is an attempt to effectively annex land from Palestinians and limit their social and economic freedoms. In many cases the barrier does not follow agreed armistice borders, legitimizing illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Undoubtedly, the political situation in the region is extremely complicated. Volunteers in Palestine and Gaza will quickly begin to realize that there are many sides to many arguments.
Palestinian farmers work in some of the most difficult conditions in the world. Limited water supply, scorching summers, barren land and lack of education mean that Palestine is increasingly reliant on foreign food supplies. Permaculture programs help educate farmers about growing sustainably, maximizing yield and quality with minimal inputs.
During school terms long-stay volunteers can teach local Palestinian children English. The Palestinian education system is generally very good children increasingly have a basic understanding of English. Native English speakers can help these children improve these skills.
Depending on the time of year volunteers may be involved in leadership and sports programs (summer) or maintaining the local community centre by gardening and construction (winter). Administrative tasks such as updating websites, assisting with fundraising applications etc are also very helpful to the locals.
Refugees and Human Rights
Palestine and Gaza have numerous NGOs working on improving the conditions of refugees and promoting human rights. As a volunteer, you could either choose to combine this project with studies as part of a service learning project, or work directly with an NGO to assist in their mission.
When traveling around Israel and the Palestinian Territories, you should carry identification at all times, in case the local authorities ask to see it. You should carry photocopies of the date and entry stamp pages of your passport to avoid losing the original.
As a foreigner you are likely to be noticed and many people will call to you as you walk around. This is almost always friendly and well-intentioned although you should be cautious at night, as in any city. Common sense goes a long way.
Women should be aware that they may attract unwanted attention on the street. Generally this is good-natured (if overly hopeful) and being polite but firm is the best solution. It is important to remember that agreeing to meet someone of the opposite sex for coffee or tea may seem rather casual to western sensibilities, but can mean the beginning of a serious relationship in Middle Eastern cultures. If you are unsure invite a friend along to ensure there is no misunderstanding.
Things do not always go to plan. At times organization in developing countries can be lacking. If you find yourself getting frustrated by bureaucracy, disorganization or misunderstandings – sit back and relax! Everything will work out eventually. While Palestinian culture is habitually late they will always expect foreigners to be on time. Also it is a very dressed up culture when it comes to parties, weddings and other events. Packing one set of tidy clothing is a good idea.
Establishing and maintaining good relationships with your colleagues and friends is central to getting things done in Palestine. Difficulties can be improved by good relationships.
Volunteers should be aware that during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan eating, drinking, and smoking between sunrise and sunset are forbidden. Although alcohol will be available in some hotels and restaurants, drinking alcohol elsewhere may cause offense. As a courtesy, you may wish to avoid drinking, eating, and smoking in public places in the Palestinian Territories during Ramadan.
Be sensitive about taking pictures of people in Muslim and Orthodox Jewish areas and take care not to photograph military or police personnel or installations. Show respect at places of worship - take off your shoes. Women should not enter a mosque without covering their heads. The Arab culture is a very modest culture. Women should not wear shorts or tank-tops in public. Public displays of affection are frowned upon by orthodox Jews and Muslims alike.
Because of the on-going occupation and resulting tensions, volunteers should take note of travel advisories issued by various embassies. As the birth place of Jesus Christ, relatively large numbers of international tourists and volunteers visit the West Bank every year without any incident. However, the situation has the potential to deteriorate.
For the most up to date information, the U.S. State Department's travel alerts for Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza is one of the most trusted sources.
Contributed by James Mellor