THE BLOG

Nothing's Quiet on the West Bank

07/01/2014 14:33 GMT | Updated 08/03/2014 10:59 GMT

Volunteering in the Middle East might be every freshly graduated twenty-something's dream but, for Sophie, her trip to Israeli-occupied territory in Palestine this Spring is about much more than totting up points on her karma card.

As the UN declares 2014 the "Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People", Sophie Black, from South London, is preparing to spend three months in the West Bank - the main part of the Palestinian Territories in West Asia - to document Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in a bid to advocate human rights and present to the UK a true picture of the situation, often misrepresented by the far-removed mass media.

23-year-old Sophie will be the youngest of a team of volunteers from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) working with peace groups from both sides to put an end to the occupation - but she won't find out where exactly she is going until the last minute.

Having already witnessed the impact of the Israel-Palestine conflict during volunteering trips whilst studying for her degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies, Sophie explains how she was struck by its effects on everyday life for citizens; rigorous and humiliating searches at road checkpoints, for example, turning 10 minute into an hour.

"But the worst thing is the effect on children who are too young to process the trauma of having tanks storm through the streets while they are playing, or seeing their big brothers arrested without explanation.

"Authorities in these territories operate on 'administrative detention' which means they can detain teenagers, not because they have committed crimes, but because they might have the potential to commit them. The Geneva Convention states that this must only be used as an absolutely last resort but in these areas it's common practice. This pattern of structural violence, with Israeli military and Palestinian civic control often turning even on their own people, is so bad that the mayor himself said that if our groups left the occupied areas in the morning, his office would leave in the afternoon."

Sophie tells the dismaying story of a woman who was arrested in the West Bank, because she was deemed a 'security risk', then released without justification in Gaza. Her family were not allowed the permits even to travel the 58 miles to visit her.

But while this particular story sounded to me like the familiar trope of female oppression in the Middle East, Sophie actually highlights the positives of being a woman in the West Bank...

"Contrary to what people might think, it has its advantages. A British man would never sit with a group of Palestinian women like I can, and it's fine for me to have conversations with Palestinian men - so I can get access to personal opinions from everyone.

"Of course, it's still a patriarchal society and there are still cases of men asserting their masculinity - perhaps because the occupation situation makes them feel threatened and emasculated. In these cases women do suffer, but there are incredibly strong and feisty Palestinian women as well! Holding pre-conceptions in the Middle East will only lead you to underestimate people.

"... To be honest, I'm more concerned about how people receive my talks and advocacy work back home as, sadly, there are still LOADS of sexists in the UK!"

So to get the ball rolling in advance, Sophie is already urging for active UK support. She explains how a major contributor to Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the illegal building of Israeli settlements - containing roughly 192,000 Israelis, around 20% of the total population - near Palestinian villages, diverting their resources to create products for export.

"We have an ethical responsibility to label imported products properly so that everybody knows where and how they are made. Boycotting companies that steal from surrounding communities is a legitimate form of non-violent protest which is more effective in the long run. It's not about being a hero and sticking your foot into other peoples' disputes, but about being a small cog in the bigger machine of solidarity between all groups."

With such a task ahead of her and her training well under-way, Sophie is lucky to have the unconditional support of her family and boyfriend, Matt, who will soon be flying out to Tel Aviv to visit her.

But her plans for life after the project are not set in stone. Maybe an MA in Human Rights...maybe some more volunteer work...so long as she is being useful.