Though I thought I was going to Palestine with an open mind and ready to learn, my first experiences had to wash away the dead wood before they could create their own impressions. The polarising, essentialising Western media may well be at the root of these misconceptions.
By the most widely-used definitions of poverty – which are also the most superficial – the people of the West Bank are not amongst the poorest in the world. From the lack of homelessness to the reliable provision of water and electricity, the observed Palestine stood at odds with the painted picture (although Gaza, of course, is a different story). But further still, I witnessed a society that held university education in high regard, that saw the pursuit of truth as an end goal in itself and a society more politically and historically aware than that of my home country. These are not things that I had been able to learn through a British media coverage which paints all Palestinians as either menacing terrorists or helpless victims.
When I was talking to Abla, a Palestinian woman who hosted us in the West Bank, she told me a fitting phrase in Arabic, which translates as: ‘You don’t know what is happening on the other side of a wall’. Referring to a better-hidden physical poverty, a more private and acceptable suffering, this was a sharp reminder that my impressions did not necessarily tell the whole story. Indeed, when we smelt the stench of sewage from an Israeli settlement polluting a Palestinian water source, we clearly witnessed just one of the physical hardships of occupation. Despite this, absolute poverty was not the root cause of the passionate desire for change held by all the Palestinians we met. Rather, it was their lack of freedoms and self-determination.
This made the role of charity in the West Bank appear particularly ludicrous. The aid industry is often criticised for its short-sightedness, tokenism and hypocrisy, but nowhere bears this out more than the village of Farkha in the West Bank, where a public square stands built with USAID funding, whilst the village’s inhabitants are held up at IDF checkpoints on their way to work and university, and see new Israeli settlements being built weekly on once-Palestinian land.